Posts Tagged ‘Super Heroes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity laughed and punched him in the side.

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

“Aw, you’re fine.”

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

Then he sighed. “So, are we going?”

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

Eric agreed.

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity nodded in agreement.

“So the Fae…” Mitch began.

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

Mitch breathed a sigh of relief.

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

“And us?” Lindsay asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meryl grinned too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch it, London!” Mitch snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least he hoped he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did what?

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

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

He knew that voice. “Charity?”

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

“You…you’re…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or ever, preferably.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Warning. Interference detected. Sensors compromised.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how? How do I do that?

Let go.

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

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

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

I care!

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

And it unleashed the storm within.

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

No more.

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

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

She must destroy everything.

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

Until now.

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

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

How had she missed an evil so vile?

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

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

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

And you’re still not mimicking her powers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meryl took a step back. Her resolve faltered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would blame me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tears itched under Charity’s mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam, I know.”

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

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

Jayson rolled his eyes.

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

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

Jay hit the pause button on the video, and Eric let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. He had to bite his tongue to keep from losing his shit on poor Jayson, asking why he’d stopped, what earthly reason did he have for keeping this from them any longer. It was there—right there—and he’d just stopped. Meryl let out a gasp. Jay had retrieved her before playing the video, declaring that she deserved to hear this too. At that point, she seemed to be of the same opinion as Eric. Why the hell did he stop?

“Donald might be—might have been an asshole, but his info’s legit. Which means what he says is the God’s honest truth,” Jay said. “Knowing this will risk your lives. I won’t force you into that. Any of you. Walk away now, and there will be no hard feelings.”

Eric held his tongue. Of course Jay stopped the video. These were a bunch of teenagers. Children. And Charity—could she even make that decision for herself right now? Instinct almost made Eric raise his gaze to this twelve-year-old inhabiting the body of the woman he loved. He jerked his head away, because he knew that looking into her eyes would be his undoing. His whole body ached being this close to her but still facing such uncertainty in their future.

“Do it.” Allen spat the words out between clenched teeth. “This ends today. No more waiting, no more wondering. We need to know. And we need to finish it. We need to fight this. Donald he—” Allen stopped and ran his hand over his face. “He saved my life. And this person—no, this monster. They killed him. No more. No one else should die for this.”

Lindsay nodded. “Agreed.”

Mitch rolled his eyes. “Well, fuck. Whoever this is had better got some superpower that makes people agree, cause I’m actually with dumbass on this one.”

Marcus put his hand on Charity’s arm. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here—”

Charity jerked her arm away. “You guys keep telling me I’m an adult, so stop treating me like a kid. Even if I am one, sort of. Look, it doesn’t matter how old I am, I can see this world’s screwed up.” Tears filled her eyes and she wiped at them angrily. Eric’s heart broke. “Everything’s so messed up. Mom and Dad are gone, and…and I’m not even supposed to be sad about that anymore cause it happened a long time ago, but it still hurts.” She took a quick breath and continued. “But that’s not even the part that matters. The important thing is that this is part of the world we can fix. If there’s something I can do to help, then I will. I must do it. Because that guy’s right.” Her jaw clenched. “This needs to stop.”

Eric’s lips parted and tears filled his eyes. This was Charity. It didn’t matter what age or where she was in her life, Charity was a hero. She always would be no matter what. Despite himself, Eric smiled. His eyes grew determined. “Let’s end this.”

Jayson nodded and pressed play.

“If I am right,” the on-screen Donald continued, “the only way the person I am meeting will know that I know that…” He paused, confused. “You know what I mean. They need the ability to read my mind. This is something we haven’t considered. It is a missing piece of the puzzle that has plagued us for months. There is a certain person far more powerful than any of us have ever imagined. In fact, we’ve been deliberately kept from ever having imagined it.

“Years ago, I left Delta because I wasn’t about to be told what to do by a bunch of portentous, self-righteous, pompous pricks. Say that ten times fast. Portentous pompous pricks. Portentous pompous pricks. Porpempus—okay, enough of that.” He waved his hand dismissively.

“Anyway, separating myself from the likes of Delta never prevented me from knowing what was going on with them. I noted with little interest a pet project of the ever-lovable Dr. Derek Danesfield. He knew the little girl was a meta, but had no idea of the extent of her capabilities. However, he was convinced that all would be revealed after his repeated administrations. With such an effort, I was more than a little surprised to find out that this protégé had such limited capabilities. After all, post-cognition is so very limited, especially if you have to actually touch your subject.

“If you haven’t figured out who I’m talking about by now, you must be under a rock. The person behind it all must be powerful enough to impress the Shadow Fae, and clever enough to organize not only them, but several other groups to do his or her bidding—including, by the way, Delta Division. Yes, Drake is all of those things. He’s a perfect candidate for the blame, especially considering his past dealings with the Fae. What he lacks, however, is the motivation. Sure, it’s the ultimate ‘Daddy, look what I can do’ bit—the boy’s got daddy issues, what can I say—but he more or less got that out of his system when he beat the shit out of me. Fair and square, kid. You earned it.

“If we can understand Samantha Clive’s true power, I believe we can understand how she pulled it off. She reads buried memories—is it not too much of a stretch to imagine her planting them? Imagine the power one has when they control the mind.

“By the way, you’re probably right. This is no more proof than the Elves’ magic mojo that buzzes out your brain waves, but consider this. If I’m wrong, then there is no reason to kill me. But if I’m right, and Sam knows that I know, I’m dead. The proof is in the pudding, is it not?

“So, there. I’ve told you all I know. There’s only one thing that remains… what are you going to do about it?”

In the silence that followed, Eric considered dropping a box of pins just to see if he could count them by sound. He didn’t know what to think. His mind’s attempts to grapple with the revelation made him feel lightheaded, and he suddenly noticed he’d stopped breathing. His deep gasp broke the spell.

“Is he—is he telling the truth?” Lindsay whimpered. Eric was right there with her. His mind could not comprehend a betrayal of this magnitude, nor the level of manipulation it would take to engineer such a terrible, unnecessary tragedy.

“Only one way to find out.” There was a darkness to Jayson’s words. Anger seethed off him. Eric was sure that if he put his hand on Jay’s shoulder he would feel a heat that rivaled anything Mitch or Liam could produce. “I’m sure the lab’s got some nullifier. I’ll grab some of that and port it into Sam. Then bring her back here. If she’s truly as powerful as Donald suggests, then Meryl should be able to get the truth out of her with Sam’s own powers.”

Meryl gave a curt nod. She was a gentle soul, and it made Eric sad to see her so broken she would willingly and enthusiastically agree to such a violent and invasive plan. What if they were wrong? What if Sam was innocent, and this was just a matter of one sociopath framing another?

“Are you—are you sure?” Eric stuttered.

“If we’re wrong, then we’re screwing with Sam on the same level as she let happen to Drake. If we’re right…” Jay trailed off and shook his head, leaving the rest unspoken.

“Be careful,” Meryl said as he kissed her on the head. He vanished before Eric could make any more protests.

* * * *

Geoff dashed around his desk without his customary grace, knocking over a stationary holder, scattering pens, pencils, and yellow and pink highlighters all over the floor. Samantha Clive turned to him with an amused smile. “Mr. Davis. Aren’t we excited today? Were you able to set up the meeting with Rio’kir?”

“Yes, yes. A delegation will receive the United Nations at noon.”

“Splendid. I—“

“I know who the mastermind is.”

Sam blinked. “Is that so?”

Geoff hesitated. “Well, I can. I could. That is to say, not entirely, but I’ve been told…”

“Mr. Davis, you’re not making any sense.”

“There’s a video. A file I received. It details who is behind the attacks.”

“I see. Did you watch this video?”

“Not the whole thing. Director, he said if I knew, the information would get me killed.”

“Who said?”

“That old man…Donald Kasuki.”

Something changed on Sam’s face. There was shock that she quickly disguised, and then aggravation. For a woman who let emotions play on her face only as a calculated move, that seemed out of character. Geoff was confused.

Geoff was perhaps not at a level of intellect that would pioneer a new future. He would never think enough outside the box to make a profound discovery, but he did process information faster than nearly anyone else alive. Instead of being happy that the biggest mystery currently plaguing Delta was solved, she was annoyed. The only reason she would feel that, and moreover feel it accidentally, was if it directly affected her. If she was the one behind it all. The poison attempt? A red herring to throw them off, never meant to work. Why? To make allies of the Elves. Geoff’s lips parted.

Sam shook her head. “Oh, Mr. Davis. It’s a pity, really. You were so useful. Utterly loyal and good.”

This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. “Why?”

“Yes, I suppose you’d be wondering that, wouldn’t you? Mr. Davis, we are at war. Japan and China have allied to force Russia to give over the child and his discoveries. It’s unlikely they’ll win, but the resulting confrontation will fragment the communications industry. Russia will expect us to intervene. We’ll win, of course, but the world will be entirely convinced that metahumans are a threat. They’ll react accordingly, and I’m sure even you could imagine the disaster that would be. This world will crumble under a war between human and metahuman.”

“So, you add another enemy?”

“A common enemy. The Fae are a threat to everyone; human, metahuman, Elf. To combat their mortal enemy, the Elves can and will equip the human race with their technology and knowledge. Magic, Mr. Davis, just think about it!”

Geoff thought about it. “But…but what about all those people…Stryker… Oh, God, you had Stryker killed.”

“I had Stryker turned into a martyr. He was the perfect scapegoat—so simple and willing to be molded. I made him into the world’s perfect hero. I made him their cause. The world will fight together against a terrifying unseen force for that cause. I saved the world, Mr. Davis.”

Geoff sat down heavily. “Do you really think it will work?”

“I know it will, so long as the truth remains hidden. I can play the villain for the sake of the world, but this world must still see me as a hero.”

“And…if anyone knows, Stryker and everyone else died for nothing.”

“Yes.”

“I see. All right.”

“All right?”

“Yes. I won’t tell anyone.”

Sam smiled. She pulled a chair up next to him and sat down, covering his hands with hers. “You’ve been a wonderful assistant, Geoffrey. I mean that. We work well together, and I’ve always appreciated your services. I felt I owed you at least an explanation.”

I’m a dead man. The thought perhaps should have shocked him into action, should have made him run away. But he couldn’t move. Pain spiked behind his eyes. Something warm and sticky ran down his lip and over his open mouth. “Before you kill me.”

“Yes. I certainly believe that you believe you won’t tell anyone. But one of the best things about you is your impressionability. Someday someone will convince you to reveal all you know. And then all will be lost.”

The world faded to eerie gray outlined in white, then to pitch black, and he thought, this is it.

He became aware of warm hands that grasped about his shoulder. His life flashed before his eyes, though it was surprisingly short for what he could pack in a day, and looked an awful lot like the training room. Then he was in some kind of living room staring at gray, flower-patterned couches, pink carpet, and an entertainment center. For a wild moment, he wondered if this was heaven. If it was, it was a strange one. He never thought the afterlife would be so…domesticated.

He came to the conclusion that he was not dead at about the same moment his stomach violently protested having suffered through two fast teleports. He heaved, and the world shifted again, this time to the bathroom of the same homey domicile. That didn’t at all help his condition, but he couldn’t actually get any more nauseated. The entirety of his stomach contents ended up in the toilet, and then some.

“Are you all right, Geoff?” Jay Allison looked him in the eye, deep concern playing on his handsome face as he handed him a box of tissues.

Geoff shook his head, which made the world spin, and his stomach along with it. He dry heaved into his new porcelain friend.

Jay put a hand on his shoulder. “Take your time.”

He left, and a few minutes later, Geoff finally managed to pull himself together long enough to walk down the hallway, through the kitchen, and into the welcoming family room where everyone had gathered. Low whispers instantly stopped as he approached.

Geoff blinked. “Mr. Allison, I ah…what happened?”

“He just saved your damn life, that’s what happened,” Mitch said in a rather snarky fashion. “Seriously? You handed the video to Samantha Clive?”

“Well, she is the Director. She…she…” It dawned on him all at once, everything his brain was trying to tell him, everything he was refusing to believe. “She tried to kill me.”

“You’re a loose end,” Jayson said. “It seems she doesn’t like those.”

“You…how did you…”

“We also got the movie,” Meryl said gently. For some reason, Geoff felt a profound relief to know that she was all right. The woman was the most understanding person he’d ever met, and certainly the kindest. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.

“I was going to port a null formula into her so we could confront her like reasonable adults, but…” Jayson shrugged. “It seemed more important to get you out of there.

Geoff nodded dumbly, then looked around to see who was ‘we’. He noted Mitch Roberts with some distaste, as well as Allen Gray, Lindsay White, and Marcus London. Charity London clung to Marcus, while Eric Herrington sulked in a corner, unsure what to do with himself. The older redheaded man was a newcomer, but Geoff had also seen his picture in Delta’s rogue files. His gaze flickered to Mitch, who sullenly refused to look anywhere in the direction of his father.

None of that was important. “It…it was her, wasn’t it.”

Jay nodded. “You didn’t watch the rest of it, did you?”

Geoff shook his head. Jayson handed him a tablet, and despite the protest of every fiber of his being, Geoff played it.

Afterward, he sat down heavily on what appeared to be a bench of some sort. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I—I should have known, but I didn’t.”

Meryl put a hand on his arm. “Geoff, we don’t blame you. Sam had us all fooled. It stands to reason that she would keep close to her someone who could never know the truth.”

“I should have seen it. And I didn’t. I’m so sorry.”

“So now what?” Eric spoke up.

Jayson took a deep breath. “Well, we’ve lost the element of surprise. So the question is, what’s Sam’s next move?”

“Well, if she kills us all, people will start noticing,” Eric said, not uncynically. “It’s more likely she’ll wipe our minds.”

“Knowledge is power,” Charity pipped up. “Can’t we just tell everyone? Make that video go viral.

Jay opened his mouth, then shut it again. “I feel like that’s a double-edge sword. Yes, they’ll know of a woman’s evil manipulations, but at the same time, all they’ll hear is that a meta screwed them over. No, I think we should sit on that until we can spin it our way.” He sighed. “Sadly, Sam’s our best spin doctor. But…you’re not wrong. Knowledge is power. And There’s one people that have been screwed over just as much as we have.” He held up the tablet. “The Elves deserve to know about this.”

Geoff stiffened. “That’s where she’ll go. I’m sure of it.”

A muscle twitched in Jayson’s jaw as it clenched. “Good.” He drew himself up to his full height. “Well, boys and girls, this is where it gets dicey. You wanted to fight your mastermind? Let’s go kick some ass.”

Samantha Clive looked up at her closed office door. The noise outside meant that Mr. Davis had just arrived to work. She glanced out the window behind her. The sun was rising. The dawn of a new day. A smile drifted across her lips. How poetic and utterly appropriate. Just last night, the Prime Minister of Montreal had signed the papers bringing her country under the banner of the Delta Division. It would take some work yet to set up a chapter in Quebec and assign someone to oversee the operations within the country in the Eastern part of America, but that was just details. The bulk of the work was finished.

Still, that was one battle. One more battle won in her war for peace.

She crossed the room to the large bay window and stood to the side that allowed her a view of the shore. The protesters were out in force today, berating her ‘hostile takeover’ of Montreal. Already social media was calling her out on the “gestapo-like force with which she strong-arms the metahuman race into submission.” But they were ignorant fools who missed the point. Metas needed to be heroes, because if the world didn’t see them as heroes, they would treat them as villains. When a race of the most powerful people on the planet become vilified, Sam knew that it was a matter of time before that fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result would be a catastrophic loss of life that could potentially devastate the planet and leave their very existence teetering on the brink of destruction. This wasn’t about a hostile takeover of the planet. It was about protecting her people—those who had power and those who didn’t.

Newscasters, bloggers, and others not so embedded in the media were beginning to ask if she meant to reverse the secession of Montreal from Canada—and by extension the North American Amalgamated States. Truthfully, she had enough political power that she could make that happen, but that move would be shortsighted at best; at worst it would indulge ignorance. Her goal was unity, but it did not matter which flag brought them together unless it had triangles of different colors. Without autonomy granted by their individual countries, Delta’s influence would be nothing more than a dictatorship—and dictatorships always fell. Each country had something that made them unique, but it was their differences that made them strong. It would be unbearably myopic to take that away.

It would not be a flag that would unite Asia. Russia notoriously balked at outside political influence. Montreal, America’s redheaded stepchild, would not be coaxed into family dinners by parliamentary persuasion. But what each country across the world shared—what each person experienced—was being human.

And everyone, young and old, rich or poor, they all had one thing in common. They loved a hero. And they hated a villain.

The real challenge was the Elves. Their new neighbors to the north had so long kept themselves isolated from humanity, even in their own world, that they were inclined to remain secluded in their bottled city. Still, their knowledge and resources would be invaluable to the world peace that Samantha Clive sought. The Elves also hated a villain, but to them, the human race fell into that catagory. Betrayed by them once, the Elves were reluctant to believe that the ‘Earthborn’ were capable of anything but unmitigated ignorance. She and other world leaders had been in talks with the Elves, trying to convince them to trust them again. After all, they had a common enemy. The Shadow Fae threatened them both, and humanity was helpless against an organized onslaught of their reality-bending power. If there was a people the Elves hated more than humans it was Fae. Sam was confident that their mutual hatred would be enough.

Sam had just finished the speech she intended to present to the Elves later that afternoon. Her heart swelled as she read over it, filled with the sensation that she stood at the brink of a watershed moment. These words would win the Elves over. They would fight the threat of the Shadow Fae together, of that she was sure.

She saved the document she was working on and copied it to her personal device, then exited the room. “Good morning, Mr. Davis.”

“Good morning, Ma’am.” He didn’t ask what she’d been doing in the office so early, nor any other useless question, like if she’d slept at all. Of course she hadn’t.

Davis was at the kitchenette, not too far from his desk. Without asking, he fixed her a bag of loose-leaf Earl Grey tea, placed it in a large teacup and filled to a quarter of an inch from the top with water just below boiling, then steamed some milk and filled the rest of the cup, topping it up with just a hint of foam. Most of the time she preferred her tea black, but just on special occasions, she liked the tea latte. This was one of those, and Mr. Davis knew it. That was the way he was: he didn’t ask her needs, he anticipated them.

She savored the foam and the sweet milk. “Thank you, Mr. Davis. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned recently that I quite appreciate your excellence.”

Davis looked surprised. Sam didn’t lavish praise unnecessarily, and so the compliment was unexpected. “Thank you. I must say, I enjoy the job. Director, you seem to be quite in a good mood today.”

“Of course I am, Mr. Davis. Today, I save the world. Please contact Rio’kir of Atlantis. There is a matter of great importance we must speak of. Tell him it concerns the presence of the Shadow Fae and the threat it poses to Elf and Earthborn alike. Impress upon him the necessity that we speak today. I will meet him in Atlantis, or he is welcome to discuss things in my office, wherever he feels most comfortable.”

“As you wish, Miz Clive.”

“Now, I will be leaving for the morning. I have a short meeting with an old colleague, but it shan’t take long. Let me know when you receive word back from Rio’kir.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Will you be needing an escort?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

He nodded and returned to his desk to begin his morning work. He didn’t argue her decision to go alone, didn’t remind her that it had only been a short time ago that someone had tried to kill her under their very noses. Of course he didn’t. He knew quite well that she was too intelligent to let herself be caught in a compromising position.

Teleportation technology wasn’t widespread, but as the Director of the Delta Division, Sam allowed herself the occasional luxury, and instant transportation was one of them. Accessing the app on her personal device, she left the Delta HQ and teleported to Central Park in New York City. There sat an older gentleman of Asian descent behind a checkered stone table with a full set of chess pieces.

She gave the man an amused smile. “Playing chess in Central Park? Really, Mr. Kasuki? Isn’t that a little anachronistic?”

Donald returned the smile. “I felt it was appropriate. Through time and fantasy, past, present, and future, this location has seen the intersection of lives, stories, history.”

“So, which is this, then?”

“Why, Samantha, you are among the foremost thinkers of our generation.” He moved a pawn. “Surely you of all people can see there is no difference. I’m sure you are aware that in a few months, it will be exactly fifty years that the people of our nation sat glued to the television watching the aftershocks of a disaster that struck without warning so close to where your Delta Division headquarters are today. I wasn’t very old then but I do remember my mother telling me, ‘‘Watch, Donald. This is history in the making.’

“She was right you know. That’s when the Amalgamated States truly became one country. Oh, sure, the papers were all drawn and notarized a few years earlier, but that’s when its people stopped thinking of themselves as American or Canadian and just became people. But you already know all that, don’t you?”

“A child learns that lesson in high school, Mr. Kazuki. I hardly think we met to discuss our state public school curriculum. But I see your point. Our past influences the present which creates the future. To define these as different is to embrace the illusion of time.” She moved a knight out in front of the pawns.

“Yes. Well…we must all embrace an illusion for the sake of coexistence. Do you remember what it was like, Samantha? Living within that illusion? Oh, don’t look so surprised. I know you didn’t have your abilities when you were a young child. In fact, it wasn’t until the medical intervention of Dr. Derek Danesfield in your mid-teens that you began to exhibit them, am I correct?”

“I suppose I shouldn’t be entirely shocked to find out you have that information. After all, you are the father of the Legendary Mister X. Allow me to express my condolences on his arrest.”

He glanced up and for a brief moment anger and hatred flickered across his face before his neutral, enigmatic half-smile slid back into place. “Estranged father, but yes. The similarities to my son are not limited to our power. Though I suppose you are familiar with the concept of distant parents, as I understand.”

Sam nodded. “My parents’ marriage was that of societal convenience. They bolstered each other’s proverbial coffers and political influence. My father’s financial support won my mother the state election and so forth. Emotionally, they were strangers living in the same house. Where passion existed, it was brief. I was the only child of that union. I tell you this, of course, not to garner sympathy, because I wish for none. I find it rather nauseating, actually.”

They were several moves into the game now, no pieces lost, and no clear winner. “You needn’t worry on that account, Miz Clive. I have to say, for one who has no capabilities for empathy, you’re quite adept at mimicking it.”

Sam didn’t take offense at that. In fact, she smiled. “That trait is what makes me such a good politician. There is no room for bleeding hearts in the field; though you’ll never get votes without them. Check.”

Donald moved a piece in front of the king. “Emotional vulnerability as a practicality. I can respect that. Which reminds me, I hear congratulations are in order for winning the hearts and minds of the powers that be in Montreal.”

A smile pulled at her thin lips. “It must have been thrilling indeed to witness my moment of triumph. The preceding fight was juvenile, though, wouldn’t you say? Though you can’t have been too offended. You and your fire-breathing dragon did nothing to stop the children.”

Donald’s black eyes were like ice, though he still smiled. “One might overtake a creature’s lair, but a dragon cannot be controlled, m’lady.”

It was a bit disconcerting that, after that night, Liam Roberts had vanished off the face of the earth, no doubt due to Donald Kazuki’s resourcefulness.

He continued his questions. Sam might have found them intolerable, but his interrogation was providing more information than the older man realized. “So, tell me of this medical intervention. Why was it so necessary?”

“I was brilliant, even as a child. By the time I was six years old, my parents were taking me to social functions so I could impress their small-minded colleagues with the precocious tongue of a baby expounding on the philosophies of Plato and John Milton. I always found it a dull affair. These men and women of society’s center stage had experience without wisdom, knowledge without intelligence. It was in my eleventh year that the headaches began. They were debilitating, rendering me incapable of leaving my bed for days at a time. My parents feared for my life, though I do believe that sentiment was born of a fear of losing their trophy child. You see, they were nothing extraordinary without me, and they knew it.

“In my early teens, they were approached by Dr. Danesfield, as you alluded to. He examined me and took several tests before he told my parents he could save my life and stop the headaches. Then he took me aside and told me there was a special power inside me waiting to be let out. It didn’t take him very long to find out he needn’t talk to me like a child, so he proceeded to tell me that I was a metahuman, and that the headaches were a symptom of a limited physiology trying to use an unlimited power. Then he described in detail the procedure that would rectify that.”

“Were you disappointed, my dear, to find your ‘unlimited’ power was only to know the past?”

“On the contrary. As you pointed out, the difference between the past and future is only an illusion. A chess game, for example, has limited moves. It’s been said that there are three hundred eighteen billion, nine hundred seventy-nine million, five hundred sixty-four thousand possible way to play the first four moves of chess. That is a large number to be sure, but not unlimited. That number grows the more moves that are played, but it still remains, ultimately, finite.

“Now imagine one chess game being played by billions of people worldwide throughout history, each move a rippling effect across time. This game ebbs and flows, its complexity staggering in its scope, incomprehensible to the ordinary mind. And yet, mankind’s moves are limited.”

“Even when new players join the board, Miz Clive? Check.”

Sam smiled. “Why, Mr. Kazuki, that’s just another move. But I think you knew that already.” She stood. “I’m sure you realize that I’ll checkmate you within three moves. There is no possible move you can make that will prevent that. Thank you for the game. And the chat.” She nodded politely and teleported back to HQ.

* * * *

Donald smiled. He rubbed his thumb on his upper lip as warm blood began to run from his nose. Only knowing the past, my clever behind. He had suspected—known—she had the power to kill him with her mind when he walked into this confrontation. “You’re wrong, Samantha,” he said to the empty air. Not about the chess game. That he’d lost. He reached out and knocked his king over. His vision blurred and blood oozed from his eyes, and he knew then that he’d won the game he’d truly been playing. “Heh. Checkmate.”

His lifeless body was found a couple of hours later by park officials.

* * * *

Deep within the heart of the prisons of Atlantis, Drake thought. That wouldn’t seem like a big deal to some—after all, billions of people thought every day; though some more than others. They thought about breakfast, whether to have scrambled eggs or a bagel or both; they thought about their daily work, whether to take their usual mail delivery route, or deliver to the pretty girl first; they thought about the cute boy in math class, and whether he would break up with his tramp of a girlfriend.

Drake’s mind didn’t work like everyone else’s. Drake thought about the past. We never should have been on that mission. Jayson’s words still bothered him, though he didn’t know why. Consciously, Drake didn’t see a connection, but he trusted that if his mind wouldn’t give up the thought, there was a reason. But damn it all, he couldn’t suss out what it was.

He tried to settle his breathing, in and out, making it the only sound in his mind. Except that hum. Good gods almighty, that hum was mind numbing.

That was the point, of course. Within the walls of the prison, there were hidden Darkness and Light Magic runes, their effects combining to dull his mind and make him unable to think, as well as nullifying any effects his powers might have. Chains bolted him to the wall, but that was irrelevant.

This cell was designed to hold people with astounding mental capabilities, to reduce them to nothing. He had been here for…well, he couldn’t tell how long. Days, weeks, months, it had all lost context and meaning. He’d started counting days from the time that the Elves brought food and water, but it soon became clear that they did that at irregular intervals, so he gave that up. With no anchor to hold on to, he knew he was going to go mad.

We never should have been on that mission.

Someone had sent them there. To die? No. If the powers that be wanted the four of them dead, there were much easier ways to do it.

They are heroes.

That was Sam’s words in her address to the public as she revealed the existence of the Delta Division.

Why are we heroes? What made us heroes?

That mission made them heroes. Not to the public, of course. That would come later. Drake played it back in his head. They teleported into a busy mall. A group of kids hung out at the electronic store. A teenage girl talked her best friend into buying an overpriced tee shirt. A child ran excitedly around Drake and his friends to meet his mother. Something wasn’t right. Something about this bothered Drake. It had bothered him even then. He was surprised that they just appeared out of nowhere and no one noticed.

People are so stupid.

Well, that was true. On the edge of madness, Drake let out a laugh. Man, he’d been an angsty kid then. Bitter and angry at the world—no, that wasn’t true, he was angry at his father. The father he’d kicked the crap out of a couple of times now.

For some reason, thinking of his father gave him pause. A bad feeling twisted in his gut, but he dismissed it as irrelevant. He’d analyze it later.

They didn’t notice us appearing out of nowhere. People are so stupid.

Why was he coming back to that?

As the Legendary Mister X, he’d trained himself to see from others’ eyes. To understand and calculate their range of perception, attention span, movements, and memory capacity. People were often actually that stupid, oblivious to a crime going on right under their noses. But sometimes, they surprised you. Those who went unnoticed, the homeless man begging on the street, the children playing hopscotch, the disgruntled businessman out for a smoke between drinks, these people noticed things, often without realizing it.

In a crowded mall, bored children hanging onto their mother’s hand, a teenage boy looking to escape an awkward conversation, a shoplifter keeping an eye out for security…not one person saw them?

Man, I would kill for some strawberries right now. The thought of the cool, red juice distracted him for a moment. He could almost feel the sticky sweetness running down his tongue and out of the corners of his mouth, the tangy taste rippling over his taste buds, the scent catching in his nose and providing a pleasurable feedback between taste and smell.

Focus, dumbass. Remember their faces. Where were their eyes looking?

He brought himself back to the mall. Everyone laughing, talking all at once. He willed them to look in his direction, to see where their eyes were.

We shouldn’t have been on that mission. Jones like screwing with us, but not at the expense of protocol. Shouldn’t have been on that mission. Someone made Jones break protocol. Someone inside Delta made Jones break protocol.

Drake looked the mall walkers in the eyes again. And now, instead of countless faces, he saw one. One who manipulated them all. It was impossible. No, it was improbable. And with all possibilities eliminated, it had to be true.

Every man woman and child in that mall had been manipulated. Every man woman and child in Delta had been manipulated. For years.

Goddamn son of a bitch.

He’d figured it out.

Liam Roberts was tired of hearing his own voice. He could only imagine what his students felt like. He droned his way through the chemistry equations for the millionth time, his brain not even registering the words he said anymore; he heard the squeak of the chalk on the board more than he heard the list of noble gasses.

The door in the back of the classroom clicked open. Jemma Swanson he thought. A chronically late senior who’d belatedly taken his grade eleven class to make up a missing science credit. Liam wasn’t sure he was going to give it to her.

Instead of the peppy redhead, however, he saw an older man with Asian features, whose thick hair had long since given way to the whiter end of salt-and-pepper. A sparse, neatly trimmed goatee framed a knowing smirk—an expression the man had permanently plastered on his face. Donald Kazuki. The hell was he doing here?

Liam finished up the rest of his class in a daze, all too aware of the other man’s piercing gaze on the back of his coppery head. Liam’s hair had long since given up keeping the grays at bay, but he still retained most of his youthful luster. More than one class room girl had described him as a teacher they’d like to fuck. He still wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

When the hour was over, he dismissed the class a little early, and they all ran past the older man. A few gave him weird glances. They weren’t all so ignorant that they’d ignore an interloper. Teenagers were all too aware of their own little world, and unaccepting of anything that tried to invade it.

Liam took a breath and walked the few steps down the aisles created by the desks. He planted his fingers on one. He could feel the anxiety well up in him, and he was mildly surprised that the lacquer didn’t dissolve beneath his touch. More than one desk around here had his fingerprints permanently and inexplicably burned into the wood. He was usually careful, however, to take measures to make sure that didn’t happen. He hadn’t let his powers go to their full potential in years.

“What?” It wasn’t like him to be brusque, but Donald brought back memories better left buried.

“Had a visit from a teen paragon lately?”

“Teens yes, paragons, I hope the fuck not. I don’t do that shit, you know that.”

Donald’s smirk became smirkier than usual. “There’s a whole meta community here in Montreal. I would think you’d want to connect yourself with your own people. Help them out and whatnot.”

“I’m not a hero, and I’m done pretending to be. I just want to be left the hell alone. Figured you of all people would understand that.”

“Yeah, well, old habits die hard. Turns out I’m no good at not meddling.”

“Well, you don’t need to meddle any more in mine.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look, I’m sorry.”

“Someone hasn’t been taking their meds.”

“Your snark isn’t helping,” he snapped. “And yes, in fact, I have. There’s ten to one odds you’d be a scorch mark on the wall, and I’d be out of a job if I wasn’t taking my meds.” Liam was used to the half-dead fuzzy feeling of having his powers buried under a chemical concoction. He was on a medication that didn’t quell his mental imbalance, but at least mitigated the symptoms, and quenched the fire that so often threatened to burn more than just his surroundings.

“You and I both know that wouldn’t happen.” Donald gave him a knowing look that made Liam want to slap him. He sighed. So maybe he wouldn’t get that far. Donald was one of the most powerful gravity controllers that mankind had ever seen. Liam didn’t want to get on his bad side, not if he could help it.

“Whatever. Look, what do you want?”

“I want to know if you’ve seen Lindsay White. I know she headed this way. I directed her to you.”

“Yeah well, teenagers are so good at listening.”

“Never known a single one that did. Just wanted to see if this was par for the course, or if she’d be different.”

“Not even a little. And I say that without knowing a damn thing about her.”

Donald gave him a scowling look that managed still to look smug. “You’re cynical.”

“I’m a high school teacher. And look who’s talking.”

“Fair point. Regardless. This kid’s liable to get herself in a pack of trouble.”

“Still missing why I should care.”

Donald shrugged. “Look, I don’t care if you care or not.” He paused a moment, twitched his fingers as if going over that sentence in his head. “Yeah, sounds about right. I don’t care. That’s about what it boils down to. Who really cares if some kid loses her way and tumbles into a world of hurt that’ll spiral her down into a series of poor choices that leads her to become super powerful and ends the world as we know it?”

Liam made a face. “Now who’s cynical?”

“Am I wrong?”

Liam sighed. He wasn’t.

“Each of these kids has so much potential,” Donald continued. “Sure, right now they’re not much. You’re teaching a bunch of know-nothing, snot-nosed youngsters how to paint the town red.”

“I’m teaching chemistry, not art.”

“Because kids need to know about hydrogen and oxygen and what not. Do you honestly feel like you’re helping them? How many of these kids are going to go on and become great? Five? Ten? One? You’re lucky if that happens. But the one that does become great could take over the world with the knowledge you give them. Now multiply that by super powers.

“You think I’ve been watching over the Delta Division because of some cranked up mothering issues that makes me want to babysit a bunch of freak show kidlets? I watch them because I know if they turn out as half as messed as me, this world is going to have problems. I’ve been stopped on more than one occasion. Those kids that are running Delta now? They stopped me. And that was a good thing because frankly, I was probably going to destroy the world.”

He was serious. The smirk was gone, and there was something so deadly in his tone that it made Liam take a step back.

“I’m not telling you to care because we have to nurture the brats. I’m not telling you to care at all. I’m not even going to say that your kid is with Delta right now, fired up and pissed off because his daddy fucked off and doesn’t care about him.”

Liam’s hands twitched at that.

“I’m telling you to watch and get your shit together because if we don’t, there’ll be hell to pay, and it’ll be one of our own creation.

Liam fixed him with a steady look. He turned on his heel and walked back to his desk.

“Fine. Ignore me.”

“Donald, for all your talk, you spend very little time paying attention. I’ve got duties here.” He sighed. “I need to lay out materials for a substitute. If I’m going to lay off my meds and let my powers emerge, I shouldn’t be around my students daily when I do it. Give me a while.”

He fixed him with an annoyed look. “You’ll have your enforcer. Or whatever the fuck it is that you want.”

* * * *

Allen had spent weeks going back and forth across the streets of Montreal, showing Lindsay’s smiling picture to anyone who would give him the time of day. That didn’t include many people. Those that actually spoke English turned away at his pleas, and few bothered too look at the picture, let alone be helpful.

Still, he refused to give up, no matter how many people turned him away. A promise was a promise. Though he’d rather be doing literally anything else, he wasn’t going to back out now, even though he wished mightily that he wasn’t a tongue-tied idiot. He hated going up to people he didn’t know, hated initiating conversation with people that made him so uncomfortable. He’d rather face Marcus a hundred times without the simulator between them than talk to people on the streets.

But he couldn’t face Marcus at all until he did his damnedest to find Lindsay. Marcus was stressed out beyond what anyone should have to endure. Charity had woken, that much was true, but Marcus’ sister wasn’t the same. The doctor was puzzled as to why; evidently the thing inside her head suppressed her mental functions and memory to the point that Charity felt and functioned like a twelve-year-old girl, with the memories to match. Charity was reliving her life as a pre-teen, just shortly after the death of her parents. Allen could only imagine that gut-wrenching sorrow.

Marcus needed support. No one should have to go through that kind of thing alone. His girlfriend should be beside him. For a moment, Allen imagined his life without Tracy, and gave up quickly because it made him sad beyond words. Any more of that, and he was going to curl in a ball in the dark, damp alleyway behind the nearby dumpster and cry.

This whole mission was making him upset. Lindsay had run off. Who would do that to the guy she professed to love? Who would abandon someone when they most needed you? Allen had to stop thinking about that too, because it just made him angry. Any more, and he would kick that dumpster into orbit.

Something caught his attention—or rather, he imagined it did. He stopped for a second and turned around. The alley was empty.

Nothing then. He shrugged and continued down the street, making his way to a nearby convenience store. It was a long shot checking out all these small shops, but he’d combed the malls and the big box store, and everywhere else he assumed an attention-seeking teenage girl would hang out.

He’d been unsuccessful, which puzzled him. He’d assumed that someone like Lindsay would be easy to find. It was no secret that she liked to be the center of attention, so it stood to reason that someone somewhere would have seen something. About the only clue that he got was a few witnesses to a quick skirmish that involved a girl with flight and super strength that was unfazed by assault rifles. That sounded like Lindsay, but that devolved into a dead end because no one could figure out where she’d gone after that.

Something wasn’t right. The alleyway was empty. Why was it empty? It hadn’t been ten minutes ago. There was a smoldering cigarette butt on the ground, and lived-in boxes were left with the battery operated plate warmer still sending heat waves into a can of baked beans. The alley was empty because people had cleared out. Why had they done that?

Allen turned around again. There was nothing there. What am I missing?

Then his brain turned inside out.

Wordless pain jabbed through his head like someone was scratching the inside of his skull with jagged fingernails. He let out a guttural cry and clutched his head. The ground rose up to meet him in what could only be a gentle embrace when compared to the agony he experienced. He wanted it to stop, but he had no idea how to make it so. He reached out his hand and flailed around for the unlikely chance it would grasp onto a solution.

No such luck. An animalistic roar sounded in his ears and clawed hands grasped his wrist, pinning it behind his back. An equally gnarled match to the hand grabbed him about the throat. Something hit the back of his knees. Under any other circumstances, it wouldn’t have been enough to bring him down, but he fell anyway because the nails in his head made him want to.

Through blurry vision, he saw shoes approach. They were white, with edges melted away at the bottom, and laces halfway eaten through. “That’s enough, Freakazoid. I want to talk, and he’s not going to be able to do that with a melted brain.”

The pain lessened. The speaker yanked his head up by the hair. He was late twenties, with a thick mohawk dyed like a green skunk. “I want to know why you’re after the paragon hero.”

Some instinct made Allen do what he did best and shut his mouth.

The mohawk man grinned. “Oh good. We get to do this the hard way.”

He clapped his hand on Allen’s jaw. Allen felt nothing but his touch at first, but then an itching, burning sensation bit into his skin. He bit back a groan. Fuck this. You’re stronger than this. He reached back and grabbed at his captor, his hand grasping some part of anatomy he couldn’t quite identify. With a twist and a flick of his powerful arms, he broke the grapple and threw his opponent over his shoulder.

What he saw surprised him. The creature wasn’t human, or at least didn’t look like it. He was some bizarre combination of a dinosaur-like demon with obscured humanoid features. It crashed into the pavement, leaving spidered cracks as he skidded right into the dumpster.

“Get your ass up, Raptor. Don’t be giving me that bullshit.”

Raptor struggled to his feet with a snarl. “Fuck you, Corrosion. You never said he was this strong.”

“Oh, is the baby hatchling having problems? Grow the fuck up.”

Allen was pissed off and scared as hell. “Look, I don’t know who you guys are, but—”

“Fuck it,” Corrosion said. “Freakazoid…kill him.”

The pain lanced his head again. It was stronger this time, and Allen felt something warm trickle from his nose. He tried to move, but that was impossible. He took a staggering step forward and collapsed. No, Tracy…I can’t give up…I can’t go…not like this…

His body felt cold. He’d heard death described as an icy touch, and it crawled into him now, stealing his breath and making him long for the warmth of his best friend—his girlfriend’s—embrace.

Then everything got really, really hot.

Lindsay was starving. She had the constitution of a paragon, but she wasn’t immune to hunger. In fact, with an exceedingly high metabolism, she burned through calories faster than most. Right now, she regretted that.

She was currently halfway through her third truck stop breakfast special at a greasy diner between Alliance City and Montreal. After speeding across the border faster than most equipment could record, she’d stopped at a bus station. Swallowing the intense guilt, she’d pilfered a heavy gray sweatshirt with a deep hood, large sunglasses, and a watch to keep time. Pickpocketing was easy, though she made sure only to steal from people who looked like they could afford it. Then she bought a bus ticket. It would be faster if she flew—her speed topped out somewhere beyond the sound barrier, after all—but if she did that, Delta would be on her ass so fast.

She felt bad for what she’d done. Marcus was hurting, and she knew it, but she had to get out of there. She just couldn’t be around other heroes right now. Tears in her eyes blurred the eggs and bacon in front of her. What was she going to do now? She had no direction, no reason to keep being the hero. I’m not a hero. Not anymore.

What was she thinking? When she joined Delta, it was all she wanted to be. She wanted to be loved, she wanted people to pay attention to her. Where had that gotten her? For that matter, what difference did it make? Stryker always taught her to fight for something, to have a reason for every battle.

One time before Stryker’s assassination, she’d gotten bored and donned a disguise similar to what she wore now so she could wander through the group of anti-metahuman protesters that gathered around the lake on the mainland shore overlooking the Delta HQ. It was a memory that was hard to forget. The air was thick with cannabis and body odor as a throng of people pressed together singing tunelessly to a street rat with a guitar playing along with a group that gave a decent rendition of songs that were decades old. Some raised their hands, passionate in their passivity, taken in by the rush of euphoria provided either by being part of a crowd or heavy substance abuse. Probably both. After that, it became a common place for her to go when she wanted to get her hate on. They pissed her off so much. But the last time she was there, she’d realized that these people had something she didn’t.

A reason.

It was a stupid thing to envy them for. They were small, impotent people, screaming obscenities at anyone who was different. It was distilled stupidity, like reading the comments on an Internet forum.

And yet.

They had passion, a cause, a purpose for their voice. Granted, it was without credibility or anything that made them actually worth listening to, but in the end, did that matter? Stryker would have fought for them. He would have died for them, if someone hadn’t gotten the jump on him.

Delta was spinning its tires trying to find someone to blame, someone to hurt. Lindsay didn’t care anymore.

“Anything else, hon?” the waitress’ voice startled her. She didn’t look up at the woman, shielding her face behind the voluminous hood.

“No. No, that’s fine. Just the check, please.” It was kind of silly asking for it because she had no intention of paying. She could zip out faster than the security cameras could see, and certainly faster than anyone could catch.

What are you doing? From hero to common thief in a matter of days.

She shook away the voice. She’d saved the world a time or two, right? Taking a little food wouldn’t hurt.

“You know, sweetcheeks, you’d do a lot better job of being invisible if you hung out at fast food places where tiny teenage girls actually hung out, instead of a restaurant mostly populated by trucker caps and flannel.”

Lindsay nearly hit the roof at the sudden presence of a strange man. Ignoring her discomfort, he slid into the booth across from her. “Oh, hi, by the way.”

Lindsay blinked. What the hell was she supposed to say to that? Who was this guy? If he was going to hurt her, he’d find his man parts crushed so fast he’d never come down from the girlish scream. “Who are you?”

“Your worst nightmare?” He voiced the statement as a question and winked, which made his words either a joke or the truest thing ever. “I’m Donald Kazuki. You might know me as ‘that rat bastard’ or ‘the old man’ or more likely by just plain nothing because my kid doesn’t ever talk to anyone about me. Unless he likes you, then he probably won’t ever shut up about the angst in his life. Have you heard the story about how he was a Fae host for a year?”

Well, that was something at least. “You’re Drake’s dad.”

“The one and only. At least I would presume so. Last I checked, he wasn’t conceived in a bizarre mating ritual that involved multiple men donating their genetic material.”

Lindsay made a face. “That’s…really gross.”

Donald grinned again. “Sweetie, flattery will get you everywhere.”

Lindsay didn’t say anything for a moment. “I’m not going back with you.”

Donald shook his head. “Lindsay, Lindsay, Lindsay, didn’t your mother every teach you not to make assumptions?”

“Well, I never knew my real mother, so I’m gonna go with no.”

“Condolences.” He didn’t sound very sympathetic. “Well, did your mother ever reach through time, space, and reality and teach you not to make assumptions?” Lindsay made a face and confused noises. “Don’t be surprised, that happens more than you might think.”

“You…don’t plan on taking me back, do you?”

“That depends.” His voice softened, and Lindsay could swear he lost the crazy eye. “Why did you run away?”

Lindsay gaped at him for a moment, then glanced away. “I…I don’t know. I just…there wasn’t anything left for me. I mean, when I started with Delta, I just wanted to be a hero, I wanted people to notice me. And they did, and they loved me, but he still died, and the only thing that’s left is this stupid little girl who—“ She started crying. Tears spilled over onto her cheeks. Then she glared at Donald. “And why am I telling you this anyway, it’s none of your damn business.”

He was playing the quiet old man now, so he didn’t say anything to that. He seemed entirely unperturbed by her tears. She continued babbling in spite of herself. “Stryker always had a reason to fight, something that always kept him going. He said that’s what made him strong. But I don’t think he ever knew that he was mine. I wanted to prove myself to him, wanted to show him I could be worthy of all the attention I got. But it doesn’t matter anymore. He’s dead.”

She sniffed and wiped her runny nose against her sleeve. “Maybe that’s why I ran away. To find something to fight for.”

“And finding the mastermind behind the assassination? That’s not it?”

“You know, I thought about it? I spent a whole night dreaming of tearing whoever it was apart. But the thing is, even if I could figure it out, even if I tracked down the evil son of a bitch and murdered him, it won’t bring him back. And in that hunt, more people are going to die, and more and more, and I’m just tired of it. I don’t want to kill people. I just want it all to stop.” She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to be fighting for. To make the fighting stop.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I don’t know, I don’t even know if that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Donald gave her an exasperated sigh. “Listen, dumpling, do you think your boy saved the world because of some freaky alien powers?” He put on a thinking face for a moment. “Actually, that’s exactly how he did it. But let me tell you something. You know that fight with Kronos that everyone’s so impressed about? I was there. You know what he did in that fight? Not a damn thing. Now don’t look so outraged,” he said, because that’s exactly what she looked like. “He didn’t need to do anything. He and his sister, and I daresay puppy dog Jayson willed Kronos to be beaten. Now, I don’t know if it was God, or metaphysical connection that the wonder twins had to mister high-and-mighty titan of time, but I do know this. Kronos is buried because they believed it to be so.

“You want the fighting to stop? Believe it. Will it. Because that will is all you’ll have left when your world starts crumbling before your eyes. It’s that will that your enemy is trying to break, to manipulate, to bend. So if you have to walk away for now, then so be it. Find your center, or Zen, or whatever you hippy kids are calling it these days.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, you seem like a nice kid and all. A little, you know, teenage girl, but aren’t we all. When you’re in Montreal, look up a pal of mine. Name’s Liam. He got a little tired of Delta’s whole ‘work for us or else’ shtick. Think you can handle that?”

Lindsay nodded. She really wasn’t sure about this guy, but it wouldn’t hurt to look the man up, right?

The old man insisted on paying the bill, though the credit card he used had an obvious alias, so Lindsay wasn’t quite sure how that was different from outright stealing the food, but whatever.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. She took Donald’s advice and started getting her stolen food in places where no one would look at her twice. She never did look up Liam once her bus stopped in Montreal, determined to fend for herself. She didn’t need another adult telling her what to do.

Malls were her comfort zone anyway. She got good at finding cameras so she could avoid any direct visual contact, occasionally super-speed stealing a different set of clothing so she’d never be identified by her hoodie. Always from big corporations though, and she’d donate her discarded clothing to some charity for homeless people. She rotated food courts on a non-regular basis, moving all over the city. No one ever bothered her, and she got really good at people-watching.

She had her favorites, though. The one she stopped in an afternoon weeks after her arrival was one she frequented. It was huge, with three food courts, hundreds of clothing and novelty stores, and a shoe selection enough to make her dreams come true. She was sitting in the middle of the crowd at a lone table when the machine gun fire started. Glass shattered overhead and people screamed.

Her training kicked in. Identify the villain, disarm him. She darted toward the first gunman and grabbed his gun, making sure it was smashed. She felt bullets pelt her back, but ignored them in the split second it took to take that gun away too. Then engage to discover the nature of the threat.

“Boys, boys, boys, can’t we all just get along?”

They were the strong, silent type, and didn’t respond. But one of them glanced quickly up to the roof. What would he be looking there for? Lindsay followed his gaze. Positioned by the skylight was another armed gunman. He pulled the trigger, but not before Lindsay shot into the sky, leaving crumbled tile in her wake, and then got her hand on the end of the barrel. The gun backfired, exploding in his face.

Lindsay sighed. “Here, I thought I was doing so well staying under the radar.”

The boys below took advantage of Lindsay’s divided attention and made a running dash for a young redheaded girl. Lindsay wasn’t as distracted as she seemed to be, though. Before the man could reach his target, Lindsay dashed in front of him and grabbed his weapon from his hand, a long combat knife.

Security was starting to crowd the place. It was time to book. Lindsay took off into the sky. Damn, and I really liked that mall. She couldn’t go back, that was for sure.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. So much for laying low, and not fighting until she found something to fight for. What were you going to do? Let people die?

She landed on the roof of the abandoned building she was using as a shelter for the moment. In a fit of anger, she wound up and gave a soccer kick to an archaic stovepipe. It sailed into the sky, probably to startle some poor, unsuspecting sunbather in the next county. Lindsay didn’t care. How could she be so stupid?

Well, she was just going to have to really lay low now. No more of this hanging around people, not if she was going to get into the nasty habit of saving them. She’d have to work on grabbing food and running before she ate.

Calm down, she told herself. You’re overreacting. She took a breath. Her inner voice was probably right. She needed to relax. She ran through a few calisthenics to mend her shattered nerves. She was sitting in a calm, meditative position, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Hell of a view, huh? Nice rooftop, if you’re into the whole brooding thing.”

Well, there went her relaxed feeling.

Lindsay jumped to her feet to see someone standing behind her. She was a blonde girl, perhaps a few years older than Lindsay. She was petite and well-proportioned, and drop dead sexy. Lindsay had no interest in girls, but she suddenly understood why some chicks went through a collage experimental phase. She took a defensive posture. “Who the hell are you?”

She spoke with a thick accent which somehow made her hotter and didn’t impede understanding at all. “My name’s Lyndria. And I think I owe you a thank you.”

Lindsay blinked. “At the mall. Those people were after you. Wait, didn’t you have red hair?”

Lyndria shrugged. “There’s people that want me dead. And my bodyguards are clearly doing a stellar job of making sure that doesn’t happen.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway. It would be kinda nice to have someone on the payroll who can take a bullet without flinching.”

It took a second for that to sink in. “Wait. You want to hire me? You don’t even know who I am, and you want to give me a position where I have to protect you?”

Lyndria looked at her. “Your name is Lindsay White. You’re one of three adopted children in your family, along with three other natural born to your parents. Of all your siblings, you’re the only one with powers. Three years ago, you signed up with the Delta Division under the name Spryte, and you’ve been making waves as a hero ever since.” She smiled. “I think it would be rather cool to have a hero at my back, actually.”

Lindsay was stunned. “H-how did you—“

“I have my sources. Why don’t you come down to my daddy’s place of business, and we’ll talk? I’m sure you’re going to want to know a thing or two about me if you’re going to be working for me, right?”

Lindsay nodded mutely. Then it occurred to her what she was agreeing to. “I, uh…I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Oh, come now. Is there anything we could do that could seriously hurt you? Tell you what, I’ll answer your other question that you seem to have forgotten you had.” Before Lindsay’s eyes, the other girl shifted. Her hair went from blond to the red color she’d seen earlier. Her body changed too, went from buxom and sexy to a hot, girl-next-door appeal.

“See, I’m a meta too. There are a few of us in Quebec. It’s where we can go to make sure Delta can’t tell us what to do. No one in America can tell us what to do.”

“Yeah, Delta’s got partners in a few different countries around the world, but Quebec wasn’t one of them. I figured I wouldn’t have been the only one smart enough to figure that I had a certain amount of autonomy here.”

“Yeah, my mom left there a long time ago. My brothers have some shapeshifting abilities too.”

Lindsay nodded. She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “Fine. I’ll come. But that’s not a yes, you still have to convince me.”

Lyndria smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The drive was beautiful. The long, black limousine went to parts of Montreal that Lindsay never knew existed. She tended to avoid the places with big corporate offices anyway. They were of no use to her. Finally, they pulled up to a large office building. Huge buildings didn’t normally impress Lindsay, considering the Delta Division HQ was bigger and more impressive than most other buildings. Still, this was something else.

Lyndria got out of the car and Lindsay slid out after her. She watched the other girl stride into the building as if she owned it. Which, in a way, she did.

“My father’s in the import and export business,” Lyndria said as she nodded to the security guards. She stopped short by one of them and slipped a card in his pocket before caressing his forearm. She gave him a smile. “Call me, hm? It’ll be a night you won’t forget.”

The guard looked flustered. “Is…is that an order, miss?”

“I can make it one if that’s your thing. I just want to see that ass of yours put to good use.” She winked. “Barring that, you can do me a favor and let Santoro and Braden know I’m here.” They continued into the elevator and up to the top floor.

“I’ve been slipping my guards since I could walk,” she told Lindsay, “so you’ll have to watch for that. Though, you I like. You seem like you might actually be some fun.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Lindsay said. “You have people that want to kill you, but you give you bodyguards the slip? That makes no sense.”

“Well, if I can get past them, then a killer’s going to be able to as well, right?”

Lindsay couldn’t argue with that logic. “You never said why people want to kill you.”

“Well, see, it’s like this. A few weeks ago, I woke up and my father and brothers were gone. Dunno why, and police and private investigators are absolutely useless in finding anything out. Now, in the event of my father’s death, everything was supposed to fall into my big brother’s lap, so I was cool being the one that never took responsibility for nothin’. Except that my brothers disappeared too, and so everything’s gonna go to me—if they’re found dead. Until then everything’s basically in some sort of limbo. I can’t make my claim, and there’s people who want to keep it that way.”

She made her statement as if family suddenly disappearing was the most natural thing in the world. Lindsay gaped at her, overcome with sympathy.

“If you say you’re sorry for my loss, you’re fired.”

Lindsay shut her mouth.

“I’ll pay you plenty. Room and board, plus a good salary. You in?”

There was something she should be asking, Lindsay was pretty sure. There was something going on here that she didn’t see, but this actually sounded like something decent. Maybe she just shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Against her better judgment, she nodded.

The memorial service was well attended. The courtyard in front of the Delta Division headquarters was set up with hundreds of white wicker chairs in front of a large podium which sat against a backdrop of shifting holographic images of Stryker. In some he seemed to turn and smile. Others made it look like he still flew the skies if you looked up at them at the right angle. The chairs were quickly filled, and more kept coming. All day, the ferries worked, running back and forth between the island and the mainland, carrying in civilians from all over the city. People took seats on the grass around Delta’s massive skyscraper. If Stryker was still alive, he’d be able to look down on the island headquarters and see the people covering the small acreage and walkways like ants on a hill.

Marcus kept casting concerned glances at Lindsay. He put his hand on hers, but she stiffened. After a moment, she pulled away. She’d said maybe about five words to him since Stryker’s death. She’d been really affected by it, hardly leaving her room in the Delta Headquarters unless she had to. He wanted to be sure she was okay, but he felt a little pissed too. What made her think he was so unaffected? Stryker wasn’t just her hero; she wasn’t the only one who looked up to him. The entire city did too.

His anger flared, but he quickly stuffed it inside. It’s not about you.

Granted, it wasn’t about her either, but now wasn’t the time to point that out.

He barely heard the speeches. Sam turned hers into a subtle recruitment drive. That’s not exploitative at all, he thought sarcastically. He would have been annoyed at her, except even Sam the Robot couldn’t hide how angry she was at this. Someone had attacked her people. She was pissed.

Jayson got up on the platform. He looked so worn out. His limp was so pronounced, he could barely make it up the steps. Marcus had heard the story of how he’d lost his leg. The stress he was under must be making the pain of the injury flair up. He could have teleported up to the platform, but he walked anyway. Guess no phantom pain could hurt as bad as he’s hurting inside right now.

The audience quieted. Everyone knew Blink and Stryker were best friends. So out of respect of the dead and the living, they fell silent. Someone coughed. The silence stretched.

Jay started speaking, talking about how he and Stryker had met—at least as much as wasn’t classified. He talked about what kind of man he was, how he needed something to fight for. About how the people of the city were his inspiration, as much as he was theirs.

Partway through he broke down. In front of the whole city, he started crying. Unable to hold back the tears any longer, unable to be strong, he buckled under the weight of his sorrow. His arms curled up on the podium on top of his written speech, and he sobbed.

Charity got up and walked up the steps. She put an arm about Jayson and gently tugged at the piece of paper he was hiding. In a soft voice, she continued the speech.

“Being a hero isn’t about being strong. It’s not about fighting for justice, it’s not even about protecting the weak. It’s about fighting for something. Stryker taught us that. And so, in his memory, I will find something to fight for, something that keeps me strong. I call each of you to do the same. Because so long as each of us fight for what we believe in, Stryker will be fighting within us.”

Jayson turned around and buried his face in Charity’s shoulder. She held him there for a moment and let him cry. Then gently, she turned him around and gave him a small shove in the direction of his seat. He returned there and sat down.

Charity pulled out her own speech. She smiled a little. “How do I follow that?” She chuckled a little. No one laughed. Tears sparkled in her eyes.

“Here at Delta I’m one of the school teachers. I get to watch young minds being shaped by the world around us, and I sometimes wonder if we’re doing right by them. I look at you all today. Some of you are here out of curiosity, wondering how we deal with the loss of one of our own. Some of you are hurting as badly as we are. Some of you are here because you’ve been inspired. And at the end of the day, that’s all any of us can ask.

“Ultimately, Stryker was a soldier. Like Blink said, he fought for something, like our soldiers fought throughout history, for freedom, for justice, peace. Stryker fought to show that there was something worth fighting for. Those of you who are here to honor his memory, that’s what I want you to take away from this day. Find that something and fight for it.”

Marcus’ thoughts drifted. What was he fighting for? What was his purpose? Why was he here? He’d joined for one reason, and that was more or less to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else. But if he was going to be a fully realized hero, there would have to be something more.

That went on for a bit before Charity wrapped up and started back down the stairs. Marcus watched her descend. What was she fighting for? He’d seen her fight. Moreover, he’d heard of everything she’d gone through. The memory of the look on her face when they were in the PSO lab was burned into his brain. It could have crippled her; perhaps not physically, but certainly mentally. And yet, she was a hero. Like Stryker, the city looked up to her. She was driven. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he admired that.

He couldn’t shake the image of her battling the people who had threatened to kill him, couldn’t escape the thought that she’d nearly died for him. Her eyes met his, and in that moment, he understood. She’s fighting for you, idiot.

In that moment, she collapsed to the ground.

* * * *

A bullet fired from a gun couldn’t have gotten out of his seat faster than Eric. This is what he was terrified of, what he was positive was going to happen, what he never allowed himself to admit he feared. The head of Delta attacked, the Division’s inspiration assassinated, of course Charity would be a target. The people of the city loved her, almost as much as he did.

He couldn’t blame them. She was beautiful. Even now, lying prone on the steps, he found himself taken aback by her perfect form. Her chin-length hair framed her masked face. She smiled all the time, but there was always something behind that smile, something sad. He was only just beginning to understand why, and someone was trying to take her from him.

He knelt on the red carpeted steps. His suit shifted away from his hand so he could touch her face, feel her breath, know that she was okay. Her face was at rest, the most peaceful he’d seen her…well, ever. He felt something warm and wet on his face, and he realized he was crying. “You’re okay, Charity, please tell me you’re okay, you have to be okay.”

She was breathing. Maybe she was just exhausted, tired from playing the supportive friend, tired of being strong. The rise and fall of her chest was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

“Move.” Dr. Franks was there now, demanding he let her do her job. He complied, too stunned to do anything else.

“Wait, she’s okay, right? She’ll be okay?” Marcus stood there now, pale faced and just as baffled as Eric was.

He gripped the boy on the shoulder. “Let the doctor do her job.”

Marcus might have nodded, but he wasn’t sure, and he didn’t particularly care. Dr. Franks waved Jay over and instructed him to get Charity to the infirmary now. The three of them disappeared, leaving Marcus and Eric to find their own way into the building and up the stairs.

Not that it took very long, and the length of time it did take gave Eric the chance to process.

“I’m going to kill the bastard. Why is he doing this? Stryker, now Charity? Why? How is she still alive?” Marcus mused out loud.

“We don’t know that this is an attack,” Eric said reasonably.

“What else could it be?” Marcus nearly screamed at him. He looked nearly ready to faint himself. “How the hell can you be so calm?”

“I’m not,” Eric said honestly. “I’m going insane. God, Charity, she…” he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “But we’re not going to fall apart, do you hear me?” He turned and faced Marcus. The rest of his suit melted away to a chest piece underneath his buttoned shirt. He gripped the boy’s shoulders. “We are not going to fall apart. We are going to work together and we are going to figure this out, and that is a promise.”

God, the kid was seventeen. He was hardly yet a man, and yet he was dealing with a loss no one should. Seeing the boy’s tears nearly brought back his own. “We’re going to be okay, I promise.” It felt emptier the more he said it.

It felt like forever before the doctor came out of the examination room. She was pale as death. Eric was on his feet before he noticed it. Marcus sat perfectly still, elbows resting on his knees. He barely breathed. Allen sat beside him, wordlessly.

“It…it’s my fault,” the doctor said quietly. Eric shook his head, confused. “There’s a…a black tar-like substance coating her—her brain. I-I can’t touch it with my abilities, and it’s far too intertwined within her cells for me to even think of attempting surgery.”

“What?” Marcus’ abject confusion radiated from the boy. “How? How would something like that—it couldn’t have come from nowhere.”

Something clicked in Eric’s head. “A bug. One of those bugs in PSO bit her.”

The doctor nodded. “I wondered as much. There’s a mark on her neck, it looked like it might have been some sort of delivery system.”

“But what do you mean it’s your fault, I hardly think—”

“Delta protocol suggests a full examination after missions, especially ones to Ptah-Setker-Osiris. I should have known. I should have checked. If I’d checked, I would have found the bug bite and maybe done something about it. But John—” She cut off and covered her mouth. That was the night of the assassination. Everyone had something on their mind other than a damned protocol.

“When will she wake up?” Marcus’ voice was surprisingly steady.

Dr. Franks hesitated. “I…I don’t know. I don’t know if she will.”

“Can I see her?”

The doctor nodded. “She is still unconscious.” A redundant bit of information.

Marcus just nodded and walked past them into the room. Eric followed. Doctor Franks didn’t stop them.

It was quiet in the room. Too quiet. Charity was in a hospital gown now, mask gone, sparkles still dancing on her cheeks. She dusted them on any time she used the Thundra costume. She was supposed to represent the use of energy, so being flashy was important. Eric had never really understood till now what it meant to her to be in the spotlight. She didn’t like the attention so much, so why did she go out of the way to draw others’ eyes to her? It was being a hero. It was meaning something. Eric just hoped she knew how much she meant to him.

Marcus was crying again. He shed silent tears as he sat by her beside. He gripped his sister’s hand. “She’ll wake up. She will wake up.” He slipped off his goggles and laid them on the bed. “Please wake up.” He was just saying what Eric felt.

Eric couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t do the bedside vigil thing, staring uselessly at the monitors, waiting like a soap opera lover for his lady love’s eyes to open. He couldn’t wait for the long, agonizing beep that said the wait was over and the worst had come to pass.

He stalked out of the room and slammed the door behind him. Drake was there and he gripped Eric on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, but Eric wasn’t listening. He shoved away Drake’s hand and made his way to the common room. He needed a goddamned drink.

* * * *

Jayson watched the utterly defeated look on Drake’s face as he tried to do the gentlemanly thing and give Eric the encouragement he needed. Unsurprisingly, Eric was having none of it. The two of them stood silently just outside the room, watching through the reinforced glass window as Marcus tried unsuccessfully to keep it together. The air was heavy. Jay felt the change in his pocket tear a hole through the thin fabric and fall to the floor with a shallow clatter. He picked up the coins. Almost no one used cash anymore, but Jayson liked keeping a bit of change in his pocket, just for the sake of fiddling with it as a nervous habit.

“Nickel for your thoughts?” It was a terrible joke, and Drake let him know with a dirty scowl. Jay didn’t regret the pun, though. They’d have to get through this somehow.

Drake continued to brood, his dark look nearly boring a hole in the glass in front of them. Three guesses what he’s thinking, and the first twenty don’t count. “That train of thought isn’t helping anyone, you know.”

Drake looked at him with a raised eyebrow, annoyed. He made no comment.

“The thought that you should have been able to protect her. Look, man, I get it. You think I haven’t been telling myself the same thing? I was right there when John was killed. I keep playing it over and over in my head, but every time it ends up the same. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You…you can’t change the past. All we can do it try to make things a little better going forward, you know?”

His little pep talk didn’t seem to have any effect. Drake just went back to staring through the window. “Hey, listen to me. Do I have to drag you to the gym myself and beat some sense into you, cause I will. I did it before, and I can do it again…ya scrawny punkass kid.”

This time when Drake looked at him, it was with just a hint of a ‘challenge accepted’ face. “You haven’t been able to beat me since Saskatchewan. I’d like to see you try.”

“Well, to be fair, you really were just a ninety pound tech dweeb then. But hey. We beat…what did you call him?”

“The Master of Mechanics, and I think that was your idea.”

“What? No… I’d never think of something that lame.” Drake rolled his eyes at him. “Okay, yeah I would. But I’m still pretty sure it was you.”

“Not a chance.”

“Yeah? Whatever.” Jayson fell silent, lost in thought for a moment. He remembered that mission well. You never forgot your first. That was when they’d really started bonding as a team, though God knew they certainly weren’t well-oiled for a while after that. But then again, they were just kids.

“Ya know,” Jayson said, “we shouldn’t have even been on that mission. Technically we were recon only. As soon as we found Clint Raison’s location and radioed it in, we should have been pulled. I studied some of Delta’s protocols when I was seriously considering taking position as Director. Delta never sends in an inexperienced team for capture and retrieval. We shouldn’t have been there, especially since the guy we were after was brother to Miriam, one of our team members. Conflict of interest, much?”

Drake shrugged. “I kind of assumed it was Jones just dicking with us. Um, no offence.”

“Hey, the dude pretty much refused to acknowledge me as his son for fifteen years. Granted it was to quote unquote ‘keep me safe,’ and yes, I’ve dealt with it, but I know damn well how he liked to make sure we learned a hard lesson or two. But not at the expense of protocol.”

Drake turned to him with a puzzled look. “Huh.”

Jayson shrugged and chuckled a little. “Maybe it was a Fae jerking him around.” Drake actually stopped a moment to think about it. “I’m kidding, dude, it was a joke. We know damn well the Fae were all in Myrathelle serving Kronos at the time. Unless Kronos had us pegged even then. He is the god of time, remember. Maybe he saw us coming and sent his Fae army to toy with us.”

Drake shook his head. “No, Kronos has been down the road enough times to know that he has to kill any threat to him, instead of making them grow up and be heroic enough to stand up to him.”

“Then who? You’d have to practically mind control Jones to get him to break protocol.”

“I don’t know,” Drake said in that voice that said he didn’t like knowing.

Jayson didn’t blame him. The thought of being screwed with didn’t sit well with him, and he didn’t take it nearly as personally as Drake did. He mentally shrugged. That was years ago. It didn’t matter now. There was no way it could.

Are you sure about that?

“Oh, hey, speaking of Miriam, Sam’s got me and Meryl heading to Olympus to see if she’s caught anything living among the gods that would be of any help.”

“Really? Well, I suppose if anyone could find that out, she’s as good as any.”

Jay laughed. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate your confidence.”

“Yeah, whatever. She was hardly the brains of our operation.”

“Well, now she has to survive among gods. I’d imagine having to exist among people so much powerful than you are, you’d have to find some way to keep up and stay alive.”

Drake just looked at him. “Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

“Right. And then we’re heading to Arlethae to see if we can dig up any Old Order activity that would suggest they put the hit out on Stryker.”

“The bullet tech may have been programmed in Arlethaen style, but was still made with Earth materials, and likely here on Earth, you know.”

“Oh, I know. My money’s still on it being connected to the Fae and everything else that’s happening, but leave no stone unturned, right? Besides, knowledge of that tech had to have come from somewhere.”

Drake grunted in agreement. “Hey, Jayson?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Be careful.”

Jay nodded. “Whoever’s behind this…they’re not done are they?”

Drake shook his head. “And until I figure out their end-game…not one of us is safe.”