Posts Tagged ‘Arlethae’

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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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!”

If one more person asked Meryl how she was doing, she was going to bloody well punch them in the face. Her brother was dead, how did they think she was doing? He was the last remaining link she had to their life in Arlethae, the only blood she had left. How could someone just take him away from her?

I’m not going to cry, she told herself. They were, after all, going to come face to face with the creatures that her people revered as celestial beings. Besides, she’d cried enough. In her culture, it was understood that one would mourn a family member for a year; two if it was your twin. And she would. She would honor her brother’s memory. He deserved that much. But after she caught the chrztipaka beltahthtor, the defiled creature who had made the call to end her brother’s life.

Jayson squeezed her hand. Every time she looked at him, she almost forgot her vow not to cry. He was worn out and utterly beaten, and there wasn’t a single thing she could do for him. This hero business had already asked too much of him. Why would the Father ask more?

Instantly, she felt ashamed of her profane thoughts. The Father had a plan. He had to. She remembered when Jayson first came to Arlethae. He had faith, but it was conflicted and confused. He could not understand why God would strand him in a world so far away from home and make him a cripple. Even after he was manufactured a leg to stand on, and even after they fell in love, those were feelings he merely suppressed. He told himself God had a reason and a plan. But it wasn’t until they were standing face to face with Kronos that he’d truly been stripped of everything that gave him doubt. Then, he stood with them to bind the god of time with the power of faith alone. “It’s all I’ve got left,” he’d said, and it was true.

In that moment, the God of gods had won his soul forever. Why, in the name of all the heavens would he need to break it anymore?

She knew she’d probably be better off to will away the anger, but it kept her from bursting into tears and crumbling to the ground. So she let it nest away in her soul for the moment and gripped her husband’s hand so he could take them to Olympus.

When the First Created had broken ties with the Second Created, they found another world to inhabit. There they existed in relative fulfillment. Oh, there was still war among them, and factional disagreement, but they usually kept it confined to their own plane of existence. There were occasional border disputes between Olympus and the neighboring country of Asgard, who were currently in the middle of—rather ineffectual—diplomatic talks with the country of the Aztec gods. It was all very political and complicated, and Meryl didn’t much care so long as somebody could tell her if her brother’s killer was among them.

Mount Olympus was a sprawling city-state with stunning architecture set on a magnificent mountain range. From the peak on which they appeared, Meryl could see out over nearly the entire city. The First Created existed in a natural form that was pure, timeless energy; but it amused them to live out their lives in the manner of mortals. To glory in the fact that they were not bound by it, Meryl often thought. But whatever the reason, the going to and fro made the place feel alive and added only to its splendor. It was beautiful. There was no denying that; and for a second upon their arrival, Meryl was so taken in by its ineffable tranquility, she nearly forgot her inner turmoil. But only for a second.

Regardless, she now had a job to do. She approached one of the guards. She didn’t have complete familiarity with the local tongue, but fortunately her Gifted abilities allowed her to comprehend and mimic a being’s use of language. “Excuse me, my good sir, but I am looking for a woman named Miriam. She is not a First Created, but immortal nonetheless. She serves as a bodyguard for a man name Rai, known to some as Fate, the consort of Aphrodite, or Destiny as she is known to some.”

The guard looked startled. “How did you find your way to this place? You are Second, not First Created, and your companion…” He trailed off confused. “I don’t know what he is.”

“My husband is of Earth. He possesses abilities which allow him to travel between realms. He once knew the woman that I spoke of.”

The man gave a long suffering sigh. “Oh, very well. I know the woman of whom you speak. I will escort you there.” He led the way, muttering something about mortals who didn’t know their place popping in unexpectedly, and there goes the neighborhood. Meryl ignored him. She had no reason to be afraid of him. She wasn’t a fighter, but if push came to shove, she could mimic his abilities and defend herself. Also, the First Created may have existed beyond the boundaries of time and space in their natural forms, but they were bound to their current plane of existence. Jayson was not. He’d get them out fast.

The opulence of the city was astounding. The guard led them to a manse that had a portico the size of her and Jayson’s house, surrounded by twenty-foot marble pillars engraved with gold. The manse itself was three storeys high; small, by Olympus standards.

Meryl thanked the guard for his time. The way he hesitated, she had the feeling he was asking for a small monetary compensation, but seeing as she didn’t have the realm’s currency, she ignored it. Besides, he’d been rude. There was no sense in encouraging that kind of behavior. After a moment, he turned on his heel with a huff and walked away.

Jay looked amused. “Why do I get the feeling we just annoyed the hotel bellhop?”

“Oh, he’s just annoyed we didn’t act the mortal among gods.”

“Ah, so we offended his delicate celestial feelings.”

“Yes. That’s exactly what happened.”

She hesitated on the threshold of the manse, uncertain where to go or what to do. She intended on letting Jayson lead the way, but he was being the gentleman and showing deference by letting her lead. How many years had they been together, and he hadn’t yet got how much she hated when he did that? She was a follower by nature; it was not by accident that her Gifts were mimicry of both powers and appearance, as well as invisibility. Sometimes she felt jealous of strong, confident women like Sam or Charity.

The thought of her best friend in a coma was another punch to her stomach. She was counting on Charity to help her through the loss of her brother. Without her, what was she going to do?

“Well, are you going to stand out there gawking like a couple of adolescent boys, or are you going to come in?” A gravelly, ethereal voice interrupted Meryl’s reverie. She jumped. “What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”

“Well, vampires usually have to wait to be invited into a place of residence, so we figured we’d return you the favor,” Jayson quipped.

“Hilarious. Is that any way to greet a soul-sucking immortal?” Miriam’s voice sounded like it was echoed through a large room, and then distorted into a low, raspy pitch. She wasn’t much more than a spirit herself, held to the mortal plane by the souls she consumed.

“Miriam! Buddy! Pal!” Jay returned, only slightly sarcastic. “It’s good to see you again.” That he meant sincerely.

“I’d say the same about you. Except, you know, I don’t actually care.”

Jay chuckled. “I missed you too.”

“Right. So, as lovely as this not-really-family reunion is, what brings you to the realm of the gods? Not exactly your usual stomping grounds.”

“There’s been a disturbingly active Fae incursion on Earth. If it’s one thing we’ve learned is that Fae like being told what to do. We pretty much castrated Kronos, so there goes their previous beloved leader. Now we’re just trying to find if any other First Created’s gone and taken up the torch.”

Miriam nodded. “I see. So, hey, where’s your other better half? You two were joined at the hip almost more than the actual twin.” She glanced at Meryl.

I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. Meryl felt like she shouldn’t leave the burden of the question to Jay, but if she opened her mouth, that self-promise was going to dissipate so fast.

“John is… He’s gone.”

“As in…”

“Dead. Gone.”

Meryl felt guilty for making Jayson say it. She felt her eyes burning, and she knew tears were starting to show.

“Aw…geez… You’re not going to cry, are you?” Miriam didn’t sound mocking so much as she did sound very uncomfortable. She’s been human once, though Meryl hadn’t had the chance to meet her before she died and was raised to and undead existence by an alien necromancer. That said, to here Charity describe her, she hadn’t possessed much of a soul before her unfortunate demise either.

“It’s been rough on all of us,” Jay continued. “I know the whole ‘team’ concept was never something you were big on, but—”

“Hey. I get it.”

“Charity’s been affected too. She’s alive, more or less, but in a coma. Doc’s not entirely sure when she’s going to wake up.” He didn’t add the ‘if ever.’

“Wow. They really hit you hard didn’t they?”

Jay shrugged. “So if you know anything about any of the First Created who might be behind this, that would be helpful. You know. For old time’s sake.”

Miriam regarded them silently for a moment, her face a blank. Meryl found herself wishing the other woman would take a breath, something to make her more…human, anything to indicate she would be willing to help them.

“I have not heard anything. Most of the gods washed their hands of Kronos and his doings within Myrathelle, pretending he didn’t exist. Only Aphrodite really made much of an effort to stop him, and you saw where that got her. But you know I’ll keep my ears out. If I find anything out, I’ll let you know. And hey, look. About John…I’m sorry.”

Jay gave a half smile. “Thanks. So are we.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway. Wasn’t sure you had your old communication device, and besides we’ve upgraded our system. Because, you know, Drake doesn’t get the ‘if it ain’t broke, why fix it’ principle. So, here.” He fished in his pocket for a phone. “That should reach across the dimensions. So, if you need anything, call, all right?”

Miriam took it. “Sure. Whatever.”

“I mean it. Look…despite what happened, you’re still part of my team. Call any time if you need anything.” He gave a smile, and his warm hand gripped Meryl’s. “See ya around, Miriam. Don’t forget us, eh?”

And then Olympus faded from sight, its ostentatious surroundings replaced by the warm familiar feeling of a home she’d given up on ever seeing again.

They teleported into the realm just outside the city of Arlethae, a place that was generally deserted; a wise choice considering the Old Order would see any display of power as confirmation of one who was Gifted and immediately dispatch a team to capture or kill them. Putting that distance between them and the city also gave Meryl the widest view possible of her childhood home. It brought forth a rush of overwhelming emotions. She couldn’t fight them anymore.

“It’s okay to cry,” Jayson said in a gentle voice. He wrapped his warm, strong arms around her. His fingers scratched her back in a soothing motion. She burst into tears.

“It’s just…I never thought…”

“Never thought you’d be back again?”

“And without… How can… I shouldn’t be…” She wasn’t even making any sense anymore, even to herself.

“I know.”

Of course he did. Jayson always knew her heart. Her tears got the better of her, and she couldn’t even manage her incoherent babble. She lost herself for a moment, overcome with so many feelings, some of them identifiable, others ineffable. A small part of her, the survivor, found a singles solid thought to dwell on. Of all things, it regarded the practicality of their outfits. Before embarking on their transdimensional journey, they’d dressed in clothing designed by Delta’s tailor at Meryl’s guidance so they would fit in here. That single practical thought devoid of the conflicting emotions finally acted as a foundation for Meryl to rebuild herself into the moment. They were here. In a city that she knew and understood. And they had a job to do.

“Well, you’re the one who knows where she’s going, so you’d better lead the way.” Jayson somehow knew exactly when to try to speak to her again, when she was ready to be pulled back to reality.

“Yes. We will have to start by speaking to one of the Gifted. You remember our secret symbol, right?” Jayson nodded. It was much the same as the human’s abstract heart shape. Joleon had gotten it tattooed on the inside of his wrist. He covered it with bracers as Stryker, and even people who knew him outside Delta as just John wouldn’t understand him to be Gifted. To them it was just a heart.

Anyone who did know him as Stryker found the presence of his tattoos to be a bit baffling. After all, his skin couldn’t be broken by an ordinary needle. But Jayson had come up with a plan to get past that.

“Hey, buddy, we need to get tattoos,” Jay told Joleon one day. “It’s like a best friend ritual on Earth.”

Joleon raised an eyebrow with some amusement at Jayson. “The practice of marking one’s body isn’t strange to me, but I’m a little confused about how you plan to make that happen. I’m supposed to be hiding my powers even here, right? So how do we explain to them their needles breaking on my skin?”

“Well, heh…” Jayson gave a nervous laugh. “Actually, I’m the only one who’s going to be putting up with a thousand tiny needles viciously puncturing my tender dermis. But for you, my friend, I will put up with the pain even though you won’t be sharing it.” Joleon still looked confused. “Meryl can imitate my teleportation powers and just warp time and space so the ink appears in your skin. No needle involved. She’s a fantastic artist, after all. Clearly, she absorbed all your creative talent in the womb.” He grinned and punched John in the shoulder.

Meryl shook off the memory. Right now, it would only serve to cloud her judgment, and here, that was the last thing she needed. The two of them were silent on their short walk into the city. As the approached the outlying border of the city, they saw flying overhead one of the Old Order’s suited patrols, which served as a reminder of exactly how dangerous it was here.

Once inside the gates, the familiar smell of many people and animals bustled around her, and made it all feel like a dream. She could hear the hawkers cry their wares, and a group of women gossiping about the latest holographic show. The debate seemed to be gauging the attractiveness of the actors versus their actual talent and off-stage private lives. Meryl couldn’t help but smile. After spending so much time on Earth, she’d come to appreciate how very similar the two different cultures were.

Meryl led the way to a jewelry stall she hoped was still run by one of the Gifted. Sure enough, etched into the wood was the symbol, though she didn’t recognize the young girl at the booth. She approached the booth and traced the carved wood with her finger. She spoke in Arlethaen, “The Changer sends his love to us all, and to each of us.”

The girl smiled. “And from each of us we spread his love to us all, which glorifies the Changer.” It was the standard phrase, the concept behind the symbol. “Greetings, Sister.”

“And to you.” Meryl took another look at her. “Carelos? I did not recognize you. It has been years, and you’ve grown into a beautiful girl! Your mata and fater must be proud.”

Carelos smiled. “I thank you for your kind words. I don’t think I remember…” She stared at Meryl for a moment. “Meralese? By the Father, we all thought you were dead!”

“If not for my husband of a year, we would have been. But our departure from Arlethae was rather…abrupt indeed after the Old Order attacked and burned down our inn.”

“It is so comforting to know you are alive.” Carelos turned her head to the cloth covered doorway behind her. “Mata! Come quick! There is someone you must see!”

A woman quickly walked through the doorway with a swoosh of skirts and door cover. She was of an attractive middle age, vibrant with youthful features. “What is it, child—oh!” A smile broke out on her face as she saw Meryl. “My dear girl, it does my heart good to see you alive!” The woman reined in her excitement. It would not do to have Old Order authorities questioning their reunion too closely. “We must talk in more private quarters. Do come in, the both of you.” She encircled Meryl’s wrist with her thumb and forefinger and guided her around to the opposite side of the booth and in through the doorway. Jayson obediently followed.

“Tell me, my dear, where have you been these past few years? Did any others of your family escape the fire?”

“We were in another world, Felika. It’s utterly fantastic, but true. There are realities, planes of existence beyond ours. This is my husband Jayson.” It felt odd, referring to him in such a mature and grown-up manner. Here, she was a little girl, and far too young to consider such things. She half expected Mata to come and pick her up to take her home to help with dinner preparations.

“He is from a world they call Earth. In their world, people do not share the same connection to the Changer as we do, but some are born with something like Gifts, regardless of their faith. Jayson has the ability to move instantly through space. He can also move through dimensions. It is he that rescued me and my brother from the fire.”

Felika put a hand on Jayson’s. “Then we owe you a debt of gratitude. I remember you from the year before the fire; I admit, I wondered at your unusual coloring.” Arlethaens tended to be blond with fair skin and golden eyes. Jayson’s wildly curly, dark red-blond hair; green eyes; and freckles had confused them. Most Arlethaens didn’t travel out of their country, however. It was a convenient truth to say he was from far away, and let them believe he was simply from another continent.

“The debt is paid in full, good lady,” Jayson replied politely. “Joleon was like a brother to me, and Merelese is the woman of my heart. I would walk a thousand fires to hold her close to me.”

Even after knowing each other for a few years, Jay still made Meryl’s heart flutter when he waxed poetic. He had a talent for songwriting; that was how he’d wooed her in the first place.

The older woman was sharp. Jayson spoke the language well, so the past tense with regard to Joleon did not go unnoticed. She smiled at Jayson’s words, but that faded to a look of concern. “What do you mean, ‘was’?”

Tears threatened to flood Meryl’s eyes again. “On Earth they are far more accepting of different beliefs, tongues, and people. We can freely use our Gifts to benefit the people; and yet it still is not as safe as we believed. He is dead, shot by a projectile built on Earth in a design inspired by the technology of the Old Order. As of yet, we know not why or who.”

Felika eyes softened with sympathy and understanding. “That is a pain I know all too well.” She pulled up the hem of her sleeve so Meryl could see the band of intertwined pink and green threads around her forearm. “The Old Order captured my husband. I have little hope I will see him again.” She replaced her sleeve. “Carelos has not given up that hope, and so I hide my mourning from her. I do not see your colors of morning, though.”

“I have work I need to do. I will find the one who killed my brother, or put forth a valiant effort. Then will I begin my two years of mourning.”

Felika nodded. “I see. And so you have returned to see if your enemy lies within the Old Order.”

“Yes. To commit this murder, it is possible that one would have to travel or at least communicate across the dimensional boundaries. Is this something that people of the Old Order has developed?”

“Not to my knowledge. If the evidence was not so clear, I would not believe these other realms exist. This is something you were wise to keep secret. I am glad you trusted me with it.”

“For your kindness you deserve the truth. I would go further and invite you to come back to Earth with us, but given recent circumstances, I cannot see it to be any safer than here, even under the watchful eye of the Old Order.”

“Your concern is touching, my young friend, but I would wish to stay here. If there is ever confirmation of the death of my beloved, I want to be here to receive it.”

Meryl nodded. “I understand.”

“I will make your request for information known, however. I have contacts whose Gifts allow them to hear through the walls of the Old Order. Will you stay for a few days? We have a bed you are welcome to use. And given your recent tragedy, it will do you good to remember your childhood days.”

Meryl took a quick glance at Jayson, who nodded. She looked back at Felika. “We are not needed back on Earth for a few days. It would be gratifying to accept your offer. You are right, the chance to relive past memories will be most welcome. I wish only that the circumstances of my return were different.”

Felika squeezed Meryl’s hand with her own left hand, and Jaysons with her right. “We question not the path that the Father has built for us; only the way to walk it. There is a reason for our pain. Simply trust.”

Meryl nodded and forced a smile. Trusting was the last thing she wanted to do.

Warning: Explicit sexual content

 

The house looked different to Jayson when he and Meryl arrived home. He couldn’t figure out why. Breakfast dishes still sat in the sink where they’d left them in a rush this morning, Meryl to her clients, and Jay to his patrol. The smell of bacon still lingered hours later. Everything was exactly the same. It wasn’t fair.

It was late. Jayson didn’t bother turning on the lights. He didn’t want to look at more of this house that was the same both before and after the death of his friend. He unlaced his combat boots, which reminded him he was still in his costume. Sans mask. Where the hell had he left it? He didn’t know, and he couldn’t summon the energy to care.

Meryl didn’t turn on the lights either. Without a word, she crossed the five feet to the carpeted stairway that lead to the upper level. It was a good-sized house. To the left was the sitting room that looked out onto their front porch and cobblestone pathway leading to the sidewalk. Opposite the room’s bay windows were a set of French doors that were closed between the sitting room and the dining room. Beside that, and just ahead of the foyer, was the kitchen. In the back of the house sat the family room where they did most of their living. Between the foyer and the kitchen, a closed door hid a stairway to the unfinished basement. He and John were supposed to be putting the drywall up together next weekend.

The two of them had bought the place in a developing residential area, watched it get built from the ground up. It was built of gray brick, with slate-gray shingles and gray-blue siding. They’d planted the garden together—the three of them. It was supposed to be a house built to raise a family.

Jay followed his wife up the stairs. His left leg screamed with every step like it did when it was about to rain. There was no rain forecasted for the next forty-eight hours. He could have teleported, saved himself the twinge that ran through his hip and into his lower back, but he didn’t. He couldn’t really say why. He just felt like he had to feel every footstep.

The master bedroom was the first door on the left when Jayson got to the top of the stairs. The door was open, and he could hear Meryl sobbing. She sat on the edge of the bed, arms curled around herself like she was trying to keep from falling apart. The mattress creaked as Jay sat down beside her and took her into his arms.

He could feel the tears burning in his eyes, and like a summer’s rain, it seemed to heighten his sense of smell. Her shampoo carried the scent of flowers. At that moment, he needed her more than ever. For his own sake, and to remind her that she still had him. Unable to help himself, he brushed back her long blonde hair and kissed her neck. His right hand traveled down the smooth silk of her blouse, then trailed on the skin of her lower back. His left fought with the buttons on the front.

“Stop.” The word was a sob. “I-I’m sorry. I just can’t.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t like her to refuse him. But they’d never faced sorrow like this before, not in this way. He backed off.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. I just want you to know that I’m here.”

“I know. I just can’t. Not tonight.”

“That’s okay.”

She stood. With gentle, almost painful motions, she took her pajamas out of the drawer and stared at them a moment. Her hair fell in front of her eyes, but not before Jay saw the tears fall down her face. “I don’t want to get ready for bed.”

He understood. “Because if you do, that means the day’s over.”

“And if it’s over, that means we just have to move on.”

He nodded. Her small fingers worked at her buttons. Jayson’s eyes fixed on the floor. He didn’t have to look to see her small, round breasts rising and falling with each sob. Her blouse fell to the floor.

Jayson’s jaw quivered. He hated seeing her like this. “What can I do?” His voice was thick.

“Make love to me, Jayson.”

He looked up. Even standing, she was only a head taller than him sitting down on the bed. Her hair hung past her waist, brushing the edges of her black dress pants, now half undone showing lacy green underwear. She undid her bra, and Jay’s breath caught. Two years of marriage, and Jayson was surer by the day that he would never get tired of seeing that. “I-I thought—”

“I changed my mind.”

He didn’t have to be told twice.

* * * *

Meryl gasped as Jayson’s hand cupped the base of her head while the other shook her bra the rest of the way to the floor. His mouth pressed against hers for a moment, and she responded until his lips moved away and over her cheeks and around her eyes. He kissed away her tears.

She occupied her hands by undoing his belt buckle, a metal plate in the shape of the Delta Division symbol. His pants were next. She opened them enough that she could get her hands in. He wanted her already, and she could feel him grow larger still.

His lips returned to her mouth and stayed there while he shrugged out of his leather jacket. They were only apart for the moment it took to remove his shirt.

Once the upper half of his Blink costume was on the ground, he continued his kisses along her jawline and down her neck. He bent down to take one of her nipples into his mouth, and she let out a moan. Encouraged, his strong, large hands slid down her waist until they tugged at her pants. Her hips had a womanly roundness, but not so much that they resisted his attempts to release her from the cloth.

As his hands moved down her hips, they grasped her ass for a moment before continuing to her thighs, his gentle touch exciting her. His mouth was no longer at her breast; it continued to her taut belly, planting a deliberate, teasing line of kisses to her nether regions. He kissed her womanhood. Then she could feel his tongue tasting her, pleasuring her. She cried out and willed herself to remain standing.

Then she was in his arms, and he lowered her onto the bed. She watched with anticipation as he removed the rest of his clothing. The artist in her might have fixated on the metal prosthetic that replaced his left leg with its abrupt line mid-thigh and contrasting colors—but the woman in her was far too distracted by Jayson’s manhood in all its glory.

He started kissing her on the inside of her left thigh as his hand ran from her bare foot, up her calf, and lingered with a gentle squeeze on her right thigh. His tongue returned to its place between her legs and worked at it. She cried out as the world spun.

The mattress caved in on one side as he put a knee beside her. One arm wrapped around her waist, and the other around her neck. His lips caressed hers, and she tasted of herself. In one smooth motion, he lifted her up further onto the bed. Then he lay down beside her.

Naked and nothing between them, Meryl took a moment to gaze into her husband’s eyes. Her people’s eyes were gold; this green color that she stared at wasn’t just unusual, it was unheard of. It was arresting. She ran her fingers down his arm and back up again, then over his chest. Jayson was fit and athletic, and not just because of his job. He’s thrown himself into physical therapy after his surgery. Since childhood, he’d played sports; and even now, his gym time was his way of relaxing.

His skin was dotted with freckles. They danced over his nose and down his neck. Meryl shifted and drew closer, planting a kiss on every one. She heard him sigh, and she knew that he needed this as much as she did. He’d watched his best friend die tonight. She felt her eyes well up, and as she squeezed them shut, hot tears fell from her face onto Jayson’s back. “I love you,” she whispered, because she couldn’t say anything else.

“And I love you.” His hands found her hips again and gently nudged her on to her back. His body followed hers.

He towered over her, and she loved it, his lips worshiping every inch of her skin on her neck and down to her breasts. He toyed with her nipple again as he positioned himself. Meryl moaned and shifted, her warm wetness inviting him.

He entered slowly, thicker and harder than she’d ever felt before. Meryl let out a cry. It was a moment that she wanted to last forever, though she knew it was but a preamble to something much greater.

He stopped once his full thickness was nestled inside. Their eyes lingered on one another, their breathing heavy, though they had barely just begun. His arm was circled around her waist, while the other hand held her head. He cradled her like he would something precious. And despite everything, Meryl smiled because she knew that, to him, she was.

She opened her mouth to tell him again that she loved him, but all that came out was a loud scream, because at that moment he pulled out almost to the tip before thrusting back in. Her hands clamped around his back and her fingers dug in as pleasure ricocheted through her body. He thrust again and again with desire and a desperate need only she could understand.

She cried out for more, and Jayson responded with an intensity that surprised her with every stroke. Her whole body began to shake. She knew what this was—Jayson was the kind of lover most women only dream of—but nothing they’d ever done had felt as good as this. “Don’t stop, don’t stop!”

Jay hesitated just a fraction of a second. His own cries had gone from mere grunts of pleasure to sounds that told her that he was enjoying this just as much as she was. He was close, and so was she.

“I need you, Jayson. I need you inside me. Don’t stop!”

He didn’t stop. He moved inside her with short, swift thrusts timed with her scream of exaltation. Then Meryl forgot how to breathe. Her body arced into the orgasm. She felt the hot rush of Jayson’s climax within her, and then she found her voice again. Her cries filled the house, cries of love and loss, of ineffable sorrow and unspeakable joy.

The world around her didn’t exist for a moment. Nothing existed except her and the man she loved. Yet, at her fingertips and in every inch of her skin, she felt the smallest detail as her whole body became a being of pure sensation. Her fingers clawed at the bedspread as if anchoring her to that plane of existence. In that moment, she understood. It didn’t make things better, and it didn’t make the pain go away, but she understood its reason, though afterward she could never recapture that feeling or articulate why.

She lost all concept of time. She had no idea how long she remained body and soul in that place of pure bliss. In another reality, it might have been forever. Eventually, however, she became aware of Jayson staring down at her. He was breathing as hard as she was.

Most nights, after that release, he’d smile and ask if she felt better. Tonight he didn’t. The chill of the night touched their naked bodies. Without a word, they burrowed beneath the covers and curled back in each other’s arms. At least, she reflected, I’m not crying myself to sleep. There would be tears enough in the morning.

Eric didn’t know what to do. Charity was busy grief counseling her friends, and he wished with all his heart he could help; but he was about as useful as an umbrella on a buffalo. He spent several minutes in the infirmary, determined to outlast the uncomfortable feeling of being useless. He wanted at least to be there for Charity. She was going through grief of her own. When she’d lost her business in the hallway, he’d wished with all his might he could ease her pain, but that was impossible. And now it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was just in the way.

He never felt more like an outsider. This was a crazy world he’d been thrust into, and he didn’t belong here. These weren’t his people, and he couldn’t understand their pain. Sure, he could intellectualize it, and God knew he’d felt the pain of losing a brother, but he could sense that this was different. This was so much more.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said lamely. Brilliant, Eric. Just friggin’ brilliant. “I’ll go to the crime scene, see what I can find out. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as I do.”

Charity cast him a grateful look, and he smiled. He wasn’t going to tell her that he offered just to get the hell out of here.

A little while later, he landed at the scene, clad in his suit. Drake was there in his vigilante uniform. The ‘Mister X’ disguise always seemed so absurd to him. A dark figure who stalked the streets and brought the pain to anyone who didn’t meet his code of justice? How original. Yet he couldn’t deny its effectiveness, and how damn good the man was.

“Shot came from hotel, two blocks that way.” In this disguise, X spoke with a voice modulator, and used short, curt sentences. “Checked the place. Clean. Professional hit.”

Eric absorbed the information and nodded. That was hardly a surprise. If you were going to send someone to kill the Paragon of Alliance City, you weren’t going to send a tripped-out street kid. His attention was far more focused on the sidewalk in front of him. It was roped off with crime scene tape, surrounded by a small crowd of civilian gawkers and reporters. Local police milled around, making sure the bystanders kept to their place.

The sidewalk was covered in blood. It spread in a puddle that seemed to go on forever, stained indelibly on the concrete. Like an eerie reflection, the puddle seemed mirrored against the shattered pane of glass in the coffee shop window. Dried blood drooled from a frothy spray down the little glass that was still intact. A splash pattern danced around the gray-bricked edges of the wall.

Eric pushed down a wave of nausea. “Find the bullet yet?”

To answer him, shattered pieces of metal floated in front of his eyes. “Broke up on impact. Possible forensic countermeasure. Or to do maximum damage possible.”

Eric couldn’t keep the image of the exploding bullet out of his head. The metal shattering into thousands of pieces, splattering blood, bone, and brain matter against the brick and mortar. The nausea hit him again.

“Vorg. Microscopic scan.”

Eric nodded. He maybe should have been annoyed that Drake was ordering him around, but he was far too stunned. With a few mental commands, his heads-up display focused on the floating metal and zoomed in. “Identifying,” the A.I.’s voice said. “Scan complete. Eric…it looks like me.”

Eric wasn’t entirely in the mood for his suit’s existential crisis. “Just because it’s small bits of metal—“

Eric, listen. It’s more than a bullet. It’s a bullet-sized machine. The composition of metals is different, but the machine’s purpose and programming is the same.”

The nausea returned, but for a different reason this time. “To kill the Gifted.”

Eric,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Eric shook his head. It wasn’t her fault. Her purpose for existence was a burden she bore all the time. With a perfect memory it wasn’t something she could forget. “Drake, I know how they did it. The bullet was more than a projectile; it was a programmed missile, with the capabilities of emitting the same frequencies as my suit used to be able to do. This bullet was meant for him.”

Drake’s cowled head nodded. “I thought as much.” He paced away, and Eric felt that useless feeling again. What could he do to help them? They were his friends, after a fashion. He needed to do something. But how could he? He wasn’t part of their group, not really. No matter how much Charity tried to pretend he was.

Suddenly, Drake spun on his heel and gripped Eric on the shoulder. He leaned in and dropped the voice modulator. “I need you to take point on this investigation. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the sun of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest. I’ll be around if you need my expertise, but it must be you that puts the cretin behind bars.”

Eric’s jaw dropped so hard it banged against the inside of his suit. “I—but…this is your focus, you’re the one who’s the most capable, I can’t—I’m not trained in this…”

“You nearly uncovered the existence of the Delta Division. While drunk. You are capable of this. I need you to do this.”

Eric could scarcely believe it. He knew damn well what the request cost Drake. The man was a control freak, perpetually convinced that he was the only one capable of the things he was good at. That he would ask him…well, Eric was flattered.

And terrified. What if he couldn’t do it? He was a businessman, not a detective. There was a huge difference between following a money trial and solving a crime.

We can do it.

Well, if my suit thinks I can, then what am I worried about? he thought sarcastically. Yet, the truth of the matter was, Drake thought he could do it. Drake wouldn’t ask him if he didn’t trust his capabilities. He trusted him.

He stuck out his hand. “Count on it.” He said it with a confidence he didn’t feel. “We’ll get your guy. You have my word.”

* * * *

Mitch took the ferry from Delta Headquarters to the mainland and melted into the city streets. A few people called after him—mostly obscene names that came from the anti-metahuman protesters lining the shores overlooking HQ. That would bother him, usually. Here his people were, trying to save their sorry asses, and they had the balls to denounce them as ‘dangerous’, ‘morally irresponsible’, and his personal favorite, ‘genetically deviant’.

They weren’t a loud minority, not really. No one took them seriously. They had about two or three hundred people that were dedicated enough to sit along the shores, and most of them were there for the excuse to smoke weed for a common cause. On days with bad weather, that number dwindled to about fifty people that actually hated metas enough to sit through driving rain and blustery winds. No one was there during the winter.

The websites were always active, however. Every now and then, some hack who thought he was the next revolutionary would get a hold of some bandwidth; like moths to a flame, unintelligent twits would gather with their thoughts and opinions, as if they really mattered. Mitch had read one of their scathing commentaries once. “This is not a popular opinion,” it began, “but a necessary one. In light of human history, those painted wrong by their own time are often the most wise.” It just got worse from there, saying something about how the presence of metas took away their right to free speech. The Internet exacerbated stupidity.

Mitch had showed it to Charity, and she’d gotten annoyed all right—at the use of ‘most wise’ instead of ‘wisest’.

It should bother him more tonight, he reflected, as he aimlessly put one foot ahead of the other along a filthy alleyway. One of the people they so adamantly protested was dead for no discernible reason. Was this a victory for them? Were they happy a man’s life was extinguished, just because he dared to call himself a hero? But tonight, he just didn’t care. If they were going to spiral into self-destruction, he wasn’t going to stop them.

And so he walked. He didn’t have a particular destination in mind. He just wanted to be alone for a moment, to let his brain sort out this knot of confusion. Why? His mind grappled with the question. Stryker was a good, kind man. He made Mitch believe good men existed, that maybe, he could be one someday. He was an icon to the people, a beacon of hope. What purpose could there possibly be in snuffing out that light?

Without noticing, Mitch arrived at the scene of the assassination. Vorg was already here, as well as Mister X. If either of them noticed him, they didn’t give a sign. He was fairly certain X knew, though. Nothing happened without that man knowing about it.

Mitch didn’t need to be here. His view wasn’t great. He was some distance away, on the other side of rubberneckers and curious onlookers. Stryker’s body was gone. There was no reason to stand around on ceremony, but Mitch stayed anyway, part of the crowd of people who didn’t want to look away, that stared as the CSIs combed the scene. He understood in a way. Leaving meant they had to figure out how they were going to get on with their lives.

“Hey, you’re from Delta,” someone said, a businessman in a long tan trench coat. “Inferno, right?”

“What was he like?” This was from a twenty-something poser with pretentious thick-rimmed glasses, a pretentious goatee, and pretentiously wavy hair. “Linus Macklby. I’ll be running this story on my blog tonight. How is the Delta Division handling the loss of the Paragon of Alliance City?” He stood ready to record Mitch’s comment on his phone.

For a moment, Mitch considered setting fire to the man’s phone and telling him to mind his own goddamn business, but he changed his mind. Blogs were often a more reliable source of news anyway. Professional newspapers and news channels were sponsored and slanted to one view or another. Independent bloggers were free of that—though that often meant free to be utterly and viciously wrong.

“I don’t think anyone’s free to make a statement to that yet,” Mitch responded. “Individually, I don’t think anyone knows how they’re handling it yet. Stryker was a good man. We will all be hurting from this loss for a very long time.”

He declined to answer anything else, and took his leave. There was nothing else for him here.

He wandered along Blink and Stryker’s usual patrol route. There was someone walking the beat, Mitch was sure of it, because Sam wouldn’t let the streets be abandoned just because a hero was shot to death. Who she found to replace the duo, he had no idea, and didn’t care. If he ran into them, he’d stay out of the way. He didn’t know why he felt the need to finish the route. Symbolic, maybe. A compulsive need to finish what the fallen hero had started, even if it was something as simple as a patrol route.

When one went looking for trouble, it wasn’t very far away. Mitch heard a man scream in the distance, and he jogged quickly toward the sound. By the time he got there, three thugs had the man pinned against a brick wall with a switchblade to his throat. One of them was going through the poor man’s wallet. “P-please! Just let me go! Th-that’s all I’ve got, please, I won’t tell anyone, just don’t kill me!”

The thugs didn’t notice Mitch’s approach. He snuck through the shadows until he was almost on top of them, and then whistled through his teeth to get their attention. They turned and stared, and Mitch grinned as flames spread from the tips of his fingers along the edges of his coat and encircled him like an aura.

“Shit! Capes!” They scattered, but not before the alley was surrounded by a wall of flame. Trapped, the three thugs huddled back together. One of them pointed a gun. “Back off, you freak, or I’ll fill you full of holes!”

Mitch just laughed. “You’ll try.” He flicked his fingers, and the gun exploded, covering the man’s hands and arms with shrapnel.

That got their attention. Another one tried the reasoning approach. “Look, man, we’ll cut you in, all right? We can make a deal.”

Mitch ignored the speaker and walked up to the one who held the wallet. He snatched it from the terrified thug’s grip, minding his fire so it didn’t touch the faux leather. “Money.” He waved his fingers expectantly until the thug handed it over. Neatly, and ever so slowly, he tucked the money back into the wallet and handed it to the victim. “Anything missing?”

“N-no, Sir.” Mitch’s lips twisted in a smile at that. The man was several years his senior, and no one ever called him ‘sir’ like that.

“Good. Tonight might be one of those nights where you follow your gut and take a cab. The streets aren’t safe.”

The man nodded and took off like a shot through the opening in the flame that Mitch provided for him.

Mitch turned to the three would-be assailants. “I knew we should have stuck to our regular turf.” The thought wasn’t his. It came from one of the muggers.

“You shitstains are a bit off your beaten path, aren’t you?”

The three exchanged a look at Mitch’s words. “H-he said we could—that we’d be safe!”

Mitch chuckled. “’Safe,’ huh? Ironic choice of words.”

“We were told whatshisface…Stryker was dead. That—”

The man screamed as Mitch grabbed his collar. Flames licked at the thug’s face. “So now that he’s no longer with us, you figure you can just start terrorizing the people he protected? You couldn’t take one night off, one miserable night out of respect for the dead? No, of course not. A king is dead, long live the king.” He tossed the man to the concrete. The guy didn’t get up, but writhed in pain from the second degree burns on his face and neck.

“D-don’t kill me, please…” Begging seemed to be this guy’s style, permanently stuck in bargaining mode. The deal he’d tried to make left a bad taste in Mitch’s mouth.

Mitch laughed. “Funny. I think that’s exactly what your pal with the money said.” He took a step toward the man, who tripped and landed inches away from the fire wall. With a gasp, he rolled away onto his hands and knees. Mitch slammed his boot into the man’s nose and grinned at the soft crack. His target went flying into the fire. Mitch scooped him up by the belt and dragged him out. Flames licked at the hapless man’s clothing until Mitch put them out. He’d survive.

“I’m not going to kill you; in fact I want you alive. I want you to tell everyone that you deal with that these streets will never be ‘safe’ for your kind to terrorize. When one hero falls, another will rise to take his place. And you had better hope to whatever god you still believe in that that hero isn’t me.”

He dismissed the flames and left them there.

Blood trailed down the shattered windowpane, around bits of unidentified matter and coagulated on the sharp tip of a piece of glass. Jayson’s eyes followed it to the end, where the blood dripped into nothing. What must it feel like? He wondered. To reach the end of the glass and fall into an abyss?

The end.

This was the end.

His mind couldn’t comprehend the motion of the crowd around him, people running scared, the throng pressing against themselves away from the dead body that lay on the ground. He couldn’t understand so many lives that would just keep on going when the one before him had just been shattered.

Instinct kicked in, the only thing that could possibly carry him through this. His phone was by his ear before he knew why. He didn’t remember taking it out of his pocket or dialing the number to Sam’s office.

“John’s dead.” He could scarcely believe the word’s came so easily. With them came a horrifying reality. “Oh, dear god, John’s dead.”

“What happened, Mr. Allison?”

Her question was calming. The tone the words came in make him believe even for just a second that things were going to be okay.

They weren’t.

“Gun shot. How it happened, I have no idea. It just…oh, God…I j—I just—he’s…John, he’s…” He was blithering now, incapable of finishing a sentence.

“It’s okay, Mr Allison. We’ll talk about this later. Get to a safe place. I’m sending people over.”

She might have said more, but Jay dropped the phone. It clattered into a pool of blood. For a second, he imagined the communication device giving voice to the dead, a voice that was lost to the concrete as the blood soaked into the sidewalk.

Jayson tore the mask from his head, understanding in some vague sense that some low-life, bottom feeding paparazzi was going to take a picture of this moment of vulnerability, and his identity would likely be on some blog tomorrow.

He couldn’t give less of a shit right now. He wanted the damn thing off his face. It was covered in blood.

His hands were slick with it, the red sticky liquid from John’s body. Oh, dear god. He’s dead.

He couldn’t deny it. John lay half supported by the shattered glass window where he’d fallen. His arm looked incredibly uncomfortable, twisted underneath him like a rag doll. Jay resisted the urge to move it.

You should be used to this by now, a voice in his head taunted him.

No shit. This was not the first person he’d seen dead. Ceil, their Arlethaen friend, dead at the hands of the Old Order. The man he’d called Dad, killed by a purposeful strike from an angry god.

His mother had never recovered. To make matters worse, shortly after that Jay found out that the tactical call he’d made cost the lives of three people they were ill equipped to lose. He’d failed the team.

He’d failed John. They were partners. They were friends. He was supposed to protect him.

He couldn’t protect anything after it had half a head shattered all over the sidewalk.

The world shifted as his knees hit the ground, then kissed the palms of his hands. Jayson threw up.

Uniformed Delta Division officers showed up and spread out, pushing back the crowd and ascertaining any immediate danger. One began roping off the area while another snapped pictures.

“Sir?” A hand rested on his shoulder, and he turned to see the face of one of Delta’s investigators. Jayson couldn’t remember the man’s name, or anything about him, which was unfortunate because he was sure he’d interviewed the detective himself. He hoped to hell the guy was competent. If he was on the scene to do a preliminary investigation now, his notes had better be thorough and comprehensible for when Drake took over, or there would be hell to pay. And Drake would take over. He’d be by after the PSO mission to be sure. He wasn’t going to let something like this go to just anybody.

“I…I’m going to take him to the infirmary.” He shouldn’t be making that call, not yet, and not when his judgement was compromised. No one stopped him. Half a second later, they were in the infirmary.

Dr. Elizabeth Franks was there. She wasn’t supposed to be on duty tonight, but in a case like this, Sam had pulled in the best. Liz didn’t often work as a mortician, but she was more than capable. And she was personally invested. Tears pooled in her eyes, and her pale skin was nearly translucent. She was shaken. Jay hadn’t been kidding when he’s said the good doctor had more than a little bit of a crush on the paragon.

Of course, all that mattered exactly nothing now.

“He…hm…He—I think the cause of death is a gunshot wound to the head.”

It was an incredibly poor attempt at humor that wasn’t all that funny anyway.

Dr. Franks nodded and didn’t look at him.

Jay gripped his mask and ran his hands through his hair. “I…this isn’t supposed to happen. He’s supposed to be invincible. Invulnerable to anything people could throw at him.”

That was the story they told anyway. There was one thing John was vulnerable to. The machines in his world that stole powers. Maybe that had something to do with it.

It wasn’t doing any good to try to figure it out. Jay felt nauseous again.

“I’m sorry.” he didn’t even know why he was apologizing.

“Yeah. Um. I’ll be a bit, okay?”

“Okay. Hey, doc?”

“Yeah?”

“Where’s my wife?”

He didn’t really need to ask. He knew where she usually was—in her office, more often than not—and seeing that he’d given Sam sufficient time to do something, she probably knew something was up now, and was heading down here.

With that thought in mind, he ran outside of the morgue and caught her.

“Where is he?” Her voice was panicked. “Sam said something was wrong. What happened? You’re okay, thank God you’re okay. Joleon, is he…”

How in every hell that existed was he going to tell her?

“Merelise…” The use of her Alethaen given name interrupted her small rant.

“Oh, God, no…”

“Meryl…Joleon is dead.”

She caught her breath. Everything in her body just sank, and she collapsed to the floor with a sob. “No, no, no, God no, please, no!”

Jay caught her around the arms and held her to him. He just let her cry, because that’s all he wanted to do himself. The aching, sickening feeling in his stomach tightened, and he was pretty sure he’d never eat again.

He didn’t want to. He didn’t care anymore. There was nothing left.

Once, he’d stood toe to toe with Kronos and told the angry god that he had nothing left to lose, so bring it on. Idiot, idiot, idiot! Did he honestly think he was going to sneak around the god of time? Just because he was imprisoned, that didn’t mean the world was out of his reach.

Oh, dear God, please tell me John isn’t dead because of me.

Stop jumping to conclusions, another voice said, this one of reason. You don’t yet know the how our why or what happened. Blaming yourself will just blind you with guilt, and then you’ll never see the truth.

The suits from Arlethae was the only thing Jay could think of that would nullify a Gifted’s abilities, but he hadn’t seen one in the alleyway. What the hell was happening? Who would do something like this, and why? He just didn’t understand.

For a moment, he was angry. Not that this unspeakable thing happened, but that right now, he would have to be the strong one. Why me? Why is it my responsibility all the time to make sure everyone else is okay? When is it my turn to fall apart?

That lasted hardly for a moment. This was his wife. He would hold her up, and he would support her as much as she needed.

Even though right now, he didn’t have a dammed clue how.

* * * *

“Delta HQ to Thundra, abort mission.”

Charity exchanged a confused look with Drake. “Say again, HQ?”

“Abort mission. Return to base. Immediately.”

Drake shrugged. He’s gotten the data he needed, and besides, the computers were now destroyed. He’d go through the information later in his own lab.

“Okay, kids, back to the van, we’re taking off.” In the Maverick, she did a headcount. “Drake, let’s port back.” She’d saved the teleportation for an emergency, and there was an urgency in Sam’s voice that make her think this was the time for that.

They appeared back at HQ and piled into the hanger. Sam stood waiting for them, a dark, angry look on her face. Instantly Charity’s mind jumped to the conclusion that Sam was angry with them. Why, she had no idea, and it didn’t matter at all. It didn’t occur to her to ask. Her mind just raced to find a justification for every action she’d directed that night.

But that was unnecessary.

“Stryker is dead.”

For some reason Charity had the bizarre impression that Sam was talking about her favorite reality show character, which made no sense because that wasn’t the character’s name, and Sam didn’t watch television anyway, and even if she did, why would she be this upset about it?

Stryker is dead. This time it hit her like a slap to the face. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God.”

“What happened?” she heard Eric ask.

“Details are still under investigation. What we do know at this time is that he was assassinated, shot at long range. Mr. Hachirobei, I assume you will be—”

Drake was gone. He didn’t even stick around to ask where it happened, but this was Drake. He’d find out. The streets were Mister X’s domain. Not a damn thing happened out there without him knowing about it. Except this.

“Miss London.” Charity’s head jerked up at Sam, pulling her out of her stunned stillness. “Mr. and Mrs. Allison are just outside the infirmary. I expect you’ll want to be there for them.”

“Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.”

She didn’t even remember covering the distance between the hanger and the door, but she was suddenly a few hallways down, on the floor sobbing. John was dead. He was gone. The one they all looked up to, the dependable one, the one they counted on to be there. He was gone.

Her senses dulled with grief, she hadn’t even realized that Eric was beside her, but then he wrapped his arms around her. She really lost it then, a small, internal voice expressing gratitude that she’d managed to put it off long enough not to cry in front of the younger kids.

“Gotta…gotta pull it together, she muttered finally. “Meryl and Jayson…they need me.”

Eric didn’t stop her, didn’t try to talk her out of it. Without a word, he helped her up, his arm around her waist. Her legs nearly gave out from underneath her, but he held her steadily. “I’m here,” he said, his voice gentle.

She nodded, and somehow the two of them made it to the infirmary doors. With a deep breath, she pulled away from Eric, and the two of them walked in.

The look on her friends’ faces was nearly her outdoing. Meryl was nearly prone, her whole body convulsing with uncontrollable sobs. This was her brother, her twin. Charity knew how terrified and angry she was when Marcus was threatened; she couldn’t possibly imagine how she’d feel to lose him. And that was only a fraction of the closeness that Arlathaen siblings felt. It was a trait of their race that every birth produced twins, a boy and a girl. They were meant to be together in everything, two halves of a whole.

Jayson held her. Thank God for him. The two of them were soulmates, and if anyone could pull Meryl through this, it would be Jay. But he was hurting too. He’d gone through too much. Charity could well remember the fear in his eyes when his mother nearly died a few years ago. She survived, but had never been the same. And then, just when Jayson was coming to terms with his adoption and deciding which of the two men in his life was his ‘real’ father, he’d lost them both.

If it wasn’t for that, he’d be running Delta, Charity was sure of it. She wished he was. Maybe then John wouldn’t have died. She never hated Sam more than she had at that moment. That makes no sense, she told herself. It’s not like Sam actually made this happen.

She pulled them both into her embrace. There were no words. The three of them just cried together. They would get through this, they had to.

If only she knew how.

* * * *

Allen followed Charity’s exit with his gaze until she made it through the doors; then his look of disbelief returned to Sam. “The four of you are dismissed. Please have your reports on the mission on my desk by morning. Thank you.”

Then she was gone.

Mitch spun on his heel and backed out through the hanger doors. “And, that’s my cue. Catch you jokers later, hm?”

Allen didn’t respond. He just stood there, his fingers clenched into a fist so hard that his knuckles were white and his fingernails dug into his skin. The sharp pain focused him. “What coward…what goddamn coward would do this? I’ll kill him. I swear to any god listening, I will kill him!”

Lindsay stared at him. “H-how dare you?” Allen glanced up at her in surprise. “How dare you?” She fairly screamed it now. “You have no right to be upset by this! You’ve been here for, what, three months? He was my mentor for three years! What the hell is Stryker to you? What could he possibly mean to you?”

“Lindsay, that’s enough,” Marcus said in a low voice, and tried to pull her away. He might as well have been tugging on a marble statue.

Allen could feel hot tears burning in his eyes. “He was my hero. That’s what he meant to me. And yeah, maybe you’re right. I should have joined Delta earlier, and maybe known him a little longer, but you know what? It doesn’t change a damn thing. We lost someone, and come hell or high water, we are going to make sure that he is avenged. So, are you going to stand there bitching at me about it, or are we going to work together to find out who is responsible? Because I can guarantee you I will find out. And God help him when I do.”

Lindsay had no response for that. She leaped into the air so fast, it left shatter marks on the concrete floor, and then took off into the night sky through the open roof.

Marcus shrugged. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Lindsay gets a little…worked up over things. “

“I don’t really blame her.” Allen unclenched his fists. There was blood on them, collected under his fingernails. He laughed a little. “For all my big talk, there’s not a damn thing we can do right now, is there?”

Marcus sighed. “Come on. The training room’s open. Maybe there’s nothing we can really do, but I think we both need to blow off a little steam. How’s about we go dick around in there a bit.” He grinned. “Betcha I’ll kick your ass.”

Allen found himself with a half smile to return. The idea sounded like a good one. God only knew how much he needed something to hit right now. “Okay.” There. That was something he could do. He’d fight and he’d train, and when people a lot smarter than he was figured out what was going on, he’d kick this villain’s ass.

John Smith lived alone in a smallish room nestled inside the Delta Division headquarters overlooking Lake Ontario. It was a nice enough room, filled with comic books and music. None of it reminded him of home.

He missed home often. When he closed his eyes, he could still see his mother’s smile. She’d been exceptionally kind. He saw her every day in his sister. Mata could see into a person’s mind; Meraliese could see into a person’s heart.

He often hoped he was like his father. The man had quiet, observant; always ready with a smile and a piece of wisdom when asked, but forthcoming with neither. He always felt the need to show his knowledge instead of telling it.

He missed the man more every day. He’d gained a good friend from the tragic events that had taken his parents, but sometimes he wondered if that was enough…

He could still see it. The warm day—unseasonably so for the time of year. It was getting on to a warmer season, but for the time of year, one could not expect the air to be as beautiful as it was that day. Mata was preparing dinner in the kitchen—one of her favorite fowl recipes, if he remembered correctly. If he closed his eyes, he could still see droplets of scarlet blood splattered across the browned, spiced breast meat.

She always made the seasoning herself. She was singing. He could still hear the song in his head, a song he often strummed on the guitar, or hummed when he was feeling lonely. He did that right now, remembering.

Fater was in the stable. He loved the animals. Mata often teased him that he ran an inn, not for the people, but for the animals they traveled in on. He never denied it.

That evening, Jay had been out for a run, and John was in the family room with his kittle, a stringed instrument he’d loved playing since he was four years old. Meryl’s fingers danced over her own musical instrument, and together they pieced together a melody to a song Jay had written. His sister was smitten with the strange boy that had so suddenly come into their lives.

That’s when a metallic figure walked into the room. It didn’t even glance at the twins. John had been too stunned by the absurdity to do anything about it, so the machine walked right by into the kitchen as they stared, stupefied.

Mata could never hurt a fly, but she knew what this was. It was something horrible, and it was going to hurt her kids. She focused on it and did the one thing with her Gift she’d sworn never to do. She searched out his mind, the mind of the man inside, and made it turn in on itself. John still remembered the auto-tuned agonizing scream of the man as he collapsed, the thousands of tiny robots that made the suit collapsing with him. Then Mata started running to her children to make sure they were all right.

She never saw the other one behind her. Never saw her death coming. The machine raised its hand and the air vibrated with a beam of terrifying sound that dissolved everything in its path…including Mata’s insides.

Too little, too late, John sprang into action. He dashed toward the machine and punched inside it. Even now, years later, he could still clench his fist and feel the warm flesh of the man inside the suit. He felt the sticky blood and he felt his fingers close around the man’s spine.

And then he tore it out. He tore the man apart the way his machine had torn apart his mother. He might have screamed, he still wasn’t sure. Screamed with the agony that can only be felt when watching the woman who gave you life die at your feet.

Then the sound came from the barn. “Joleon!” His sister screamed his name, and they ran. Together they ran to the barn as fast as his Gift could take them. Even with his incredible speed, he was too late. The machine had gotten the jump on Fater. His blood was scattered all over the wooden doors. This time it was Meryl who screamed.

Ceil had been with Fater. The boy was a little bit older than the twins, and much like a brother. Fater and Mata considered him a son. Ceil could regenerate, and in this, John took some comfort. It didn’t matter what they did to him, they wouldn’t kill him. They couldn’t.

The machine grabbed Ceil by the neck and together they flew into the air. John and Meryl joined them in the skies. The suit let out a strange sonic vibration, which made John feel nauseated, even at this distance. At such a close range, Ciel had it much worse. He let out a strangled cry, and looking back, John wondered if he saw death itself coming for him. For somehow his Gift was gone.

With a crunch of his hand, the machine broke Ceil’s neck. He tossed him to the ground. John couldn’t even scream. Then the machine turned his face to John and Meryl and positioned its hand to point at them. Every instinct John had screamed for him to run, but he could not. He couldn’t move. He willed himself to move, and nothing happened. The wail of the machine echoed in his ears, and all of the sudden, he felt himself falling. The ground rushed to meet him, and he knew he was going to die. That meant he’d be with Mata and Fater, but somehow he still fought against it. He needed to protect his sister, who was falling with him. At least they would be together in death.

But their God had other plans. John felt an arm around his waist and his sister’s sobbing breath against his ear, even as he knew it was Jayson who was with them. And then everything in their world changed. Everything.

That was how they came to be here. That was the day that killed the two people who had given him life and taught him how to live it. From that day, he’d had to figure out how to live it on his own.

Now, they were all super heroes. Samantha Clive had taken the unprecedented step of declassifying the clandestine organization. Now, the public knew that beings of extraordinary power watched over them, for better or for worse. Men and women of all ages looked to the sky to see him streak across the horizon on his way to save the world.

To John, this felt especially strange. In his world, they could not use their abilities for fear of persecution. The attack on his family was not an isolated incident. The Old Order feared the Gifted, and used whatever measures they could possibly find to make sure they were wiped out. Sometimes John feared they would succeed. He spent a great deal of time wondering if he should go back to Arlethae. How many more Gifted had died to the relentless oppression by the Old Order since they had left?

Yet something made him stay. God only knew what.

This world was strange to John. Never mind its fast cars, young sun, and baffling language; the people of this world were so unpredictable. Especially now that they knew of the existence of the ‘super heroes’. The humans viewed him as almost god like, and he suddenly understood what it was like for the First Created.

Legend had it that Creator had first formed the Ereakthc and granted them great power and immortality. But they lacked structure, ideas, mortality. Then the Creator formed the Ereurtc, the Second Created. To them he gave a short life, and from that sprang ambition and creativity. It was said that, as the Ereurtc told stories of the First Created, those stories became true. And so the gods and legends were born.

Over time, the wickedness of some of the gods could not be reconciled. They were cast out, some of them coming to rest on Earth for a time. There, they were worshiped, and they came to view life differently because they had people who looked up to them with such adoration. It was mesmerizing. And that’s how the people of Earth looked at the Delta heroes today.

John didn’t like it. He wanted to blend into the background and be left alone, but his heart ached with desire to help people. When he was granted his powers—his Gifts—he asked to be given the power to protect. More than anything, he wanted to keep others from harm.

“It’s not just your powers that protect people, Mr. Smith,” Samantha had said once. “The very name of Stryker will bring hope to this city, and it is that hope that will inspire people to look inside themselves for their own inner hero. An inspired people is a stronger people. Your name will help them protect themselves.”

At the end of the day, maybe that’s what kept him on Earth. He couldn’t protect his own world, not when his people viewed him and those of his faith with fear and superstition. But maybe he could protect this one.

His phone beeped with an appointment reminder. He set down his guitar and strolled at a leisurely pace to his sister’s office. Meryl had done well for herself here. His gentle sister had tried field work once, years ago, and it had gone badly enough that she wanted only to work from behind the scenes. Over the past few years, she’d blown through the schooling to acquire degrees in psychology and sociology, and she now worked as Delta’s resident therapist. She screened each hero, building a profile of both their personality and powers. It was her job to assign each new recruit a mentor.

When John walked through the door, he was greeted with Meryl’s patient smile and a teenager’s squeal of excitement from a girl perched on the edge of Meryl’s desk. The girl had short hair and a petite frame, and a grin that was nearly bigger than her face was. It made John smile. He loved to see the enthusiasm of the new recruits. Sam was right. These days, everyone wanted to be a hero, to save the City. Your strength inspired that enthusiasm. It was humbling.

“Hi!” The girl giggled, and somehow smiled even wider. “I’m Lindsay.”

John held out his hand. “John. It is nice to see, meet you.” He grinned, hoping the girl didn’t notice his slip of the tongue. He knew that wasn’t the right way to phrase that.

It was difficult sometimes for him to grasp English. He remembered making fun of Jayson for not learning Arlethaen right away. Now, he got it. English was such an idiomatic language, full of colorful imagery and references to the past, the future, popular culture, and all kinds of things John felt he would never understand.

Jayson said once that Arletheaen was really wordy. In his effort to translate, John often used multiple words to say the same thing, all jammed into one sentence. He never quite knew which one was the right one to use, so he used them all. It sounded right to his ear, after all.

But the girl didn’t seem to mind. She hopped off the desk and shook his hand. “So I guess you’re training me and stuff.”

He nodded. “Yes. You are done with your interview?” He glanced at his sister.

Meryl nodded. “Yes. I think you’ll find her quite entertaining.” The corner of his mouth tipped. John wondered what in the world she was getting him in to. He smiled back. This was his sister, after all, and he would do anything for her.

He nodded to Lindsay and gestured her toward the door. “We should start by measuring your abilities. If you will come with me to the training room we can get begin started.”

“Kay.” She nodded excitedly, and they walked over to the gym.

Later, Drake would program Lindsay’s abilities into the virtual reality training room, but they began in a real-life environment that provided weights and adjustable gravity to see how fast she could fly under what conditions. They went at it for a few hours. He tested her strength, flight, and speed under normal, less, and increased gravity.

The girl threw herself into her training. “You want to be a hero badly,” he said, teasing her a little.

“Yeah. Cause I’m awesome, and everybody should know that.” She flashed a smile.

He said nothing to that, then corrected her stance. “Feet apart, about the width of your shoulder. You are strong, but that does not mean you should strike without purpose. Let every blow you make be one that will mean something. When you overwhelm your opponent with strength, he will find a way to fight strength. When you fight with purpose, he must match your purpose or be struck down.” He set a dummy for target practice. “Strike.”

She did so in a pattern he’d previously instructed. Her blows landed weakly. He caught the dummy as it swung back before it could hit her in the face and then put a hand on hers. “Lindsay.” His voice was gentle. “What is your purpose?”

For the first time since they met, her cheery demeanor slipped. “I-I don’t know. Honestly? I just don’t know.”

John smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. “Admitting you lack something is the first step to finding it.”

He stepped away and gestured again at the dummy. “Again.”

No great city was built overnight, and the girl would need training before she could be a true fighter, but the more he drilled her, the more his confidence grew: this was what was meant to be. Everything he’d been through, everything he’d seen and done, this was the reason. He’d protect this city, this world, this girl that had been entrusted to his care. This was his purpose. His strength.