Posts Tagged ‘Super powers’

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.

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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!”

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.”

Chapter 15: Lost

Posted: June 9, 2015 in Book 1
Tags: , , , ,

Charity felt like she was falling. The small motorboat wasn’t supposed to tip that way, but it was. And then she was flying. She lost the fiberglass floor of the boat somewhere in the air, and then she was falling. The water was a shock to her system. It was cold and wet. For a moment, she forgot how to breathe, and then she wished she’d kept forgetting because she couldn’t breathe in the water. She coughed and spluttered, which just made it worse. Panic set in, and her lungs screamed. Her mouth opened to join them, and more water flowed in. Her arms thrashed around and she grabbed for something—anything. Her fingers tingled. Heat burned in her body, and it felt like every cell was vibrating. She’d just learned about cells this year at school. Briefly she imagined them doing what they were supposed to be doing, growing and dividing, making more, except that they were trying to make so much energy. More energy than she could control.

Something in the water lit up and it got really warm in spots. She clawed her way in the direction she desperately hoped was the surface, except that she was positive all she was doing was going farther down. Down so far, that Daddy would never find her. She would die at the bottom of the lake, her body resting on the mud and weeds, and they would never find her.

Then she broke the surface, and gasped the life-giving air. The second breath brought more water into her lungs, and she nearly gave up then. The water wanted her to die. The second she thought of that, she got angry. Well, if that’s what it wanted, it was going to be disappointed. She knew where the surface was now, so she scrambled for it again.

Another wave smashed into her, and she swallowed half of it. She coughed. Her whole body shook. Her stomach rolled, and all of the sudden she wasn’t just coughing up water, but everything else that was in her stomach too.

The water was really fast, and by now, it had taken the boat so far away, she’d never get to it. “Daddy!” she screamed, but there was no answer. She was alone. The terror set in again. “Daddy!”

The current was so strong that it threatened to pull her under. That scared her even more. It whipped her past a small island. She began to claw at the water, fighting and struggling with everything she had to get back to it. She had to get to land. It seemed so far away. After what seemed like hours—though it was probably only minutes—she was almost ready to give up. Exhaustion set in. Her arms ached and her chest burned. She wanted so badly to give up.

By the time she got there, her fingers were so numb she couldn’t feel the rock she clung to. She’d lost a sneaker; funny that she hadn’t noticed that till now. Her feet were heavy, and the other shoe came off as she willed her legs to climb onto the bank. Her head hurt, and everything spun at a crazy angle. The ground hugged her, which was a little insane, but at least it wasn’t going to try to kill her.

She was going to sleep now. She could breathe, that was the important thing. Sleep. Daddy would find her.

Charity’s eyes opened as she woke to a slow, steady beep, beep, beep. She was in the hospital. The flannel sheets of the hospital bed were warm under her fingertips. And not water. That was the important thing. She never wanted to go near water again. But now it was over, and she was safe. She smiled a little. She knew Daddy would find her.

Her head moved a little and she saw someone sleeping awkwardly in the chair beside her bed. She noticed his sneakers first, for some reason. I’m going to need new sneakers. Hers were lying at the bottom of the lake. Even if someone found them, she didn’t want them back. They would be too wet.

The man seemed familiar. He wasn’t very old; Charity guessed maybe twenty. He was kind of cute, too, with dark hair and long eyelashes resting against his cheek. His lips were full. She imagined he might be a good kisser. She wondered who he was—and better question, what was he doing here? Watching her? That was kind of creepy.

He stirred a little and shifted in his seat. His brow furrowed. A second later, he started rubbing his neck, massaging out what must be a super bad cramp. His eyes blinked open. They were a really nice hazel color, just like Marcus’. Come to think of it, he looked an awful lot like Marcus would if he was all grown up. But that couldn’t be him. He was only five.

The man all of the sudden looked at her. He blinked, a little stunned. Then, for some reason, relieved. “Charity,” he gasped, and she wondered how he knew her name. He slid over to the bed and plunked beside her as he hit the intercom button. “Dr. Franks! She’s awake.” Then he grabbed her hand. “Oh, thank God, you’re awake.”

Charity frowned. Was he crying? “Who…” Her throat was so dry. That seemed weird to her, considering she’d nearly drowned, she almost thought her body would never want water again. Maybe she’d drank so much her body needed so much more water to feel normal, like building up a tolerance to drugs. They’d just learned about that in school too. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Who are you?”

The man looked confused. “It’s me, Marcus.”

Charity almost giggled a little, except she felt too tired to go through the motions. “Heh. That’s my brother’s name.”

He gripped her hand. “Charity. It’s me. Marcus.”

Well, he was rather persistent. “Yeah, you said that. Where’s my mom and dad?”

He didn’t answer right away, which made Charity get an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Charity, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“I-I remember falling into the water. The boat turned over and then…” She hesitated. Her sparks had gone a little crazy, she was sure of that. But no one would believe her if she said she could make electricity come out of her hands. “…And then I got to shore, and I guess I blacked out.” Her bottom lip quivered and tears pooled in her eyes. The feeling that something terrible happened grew. “I want my mom and dad….where are my mom and dad?”

The doctor came in and started making notes on her data pad from the machines all around.

“Charity, how old are you?” Marcus asked.

“Twelve. Where’s my mom and dad?” She was feeling a little panicked right now, like she was drowning all over again.

“Charity…” Marcus looked like he didn’t know what to say. He looked to the doctor for some kind of cue. She didn’t say anything. Marcus finally just continued. “Charity, that accident happened twelve years ago.”

Charity’s eyes went wide, and she pulled away from him. “I-if this is some kind of joke, it isn’t funny. That…that can’t be true.” She hugged her arms to herself and sat up. Then she looked down. Her body wasn’t the body of a twelve-year-old. She put her hands to her face and felt her hair. It was stringy, like it hadn’t been washed properly, which tracked with a boating accident, but more to the point, it was short.

“My hair’s short. Why is my hair short?” Suddenly, trying to figure that out seemed very important. Her mind grappled with that question, focused entirely on it. There was so much going on, but if she just asked one question at a time, starting with the simple ones with simple answers she could piece everything together. And because if she asked that question, then she didn’t have to ask about Mom and Dad again. Because if she asked about them, she had a feeling she wouldn’t like the answer. “Why is my hair short?” She nearly screamed it this time, trying to drown out the other questions.

“I-I don’t know!” Marcus didn’t sound any calmer than she felt. “I think you just wanted to be different. Ask Meryl. She’s your best friend. She was there with you when you cut it.”

So much for a simpler question with a simpler answer.

“Besides, I think Eric liked it better that way anyway.”

“Who?”

“Your boyfriend.”

“I have a boyfriend?” Her voice sounded so small and far away, even to her own ears.

“Yeah. Pretty serious too. You almost broke up forever when you couldn’t tell him about your powers, but he ended up figuring out what was going on, so you’ve been doing all right since then.”

“Oh. Wait, you know about my…electricity thing?”

In answer, Marcus held up his hand. Electricity arced between his fingers.

“Oh. So…you’re actually my brother then, aren’t you?“

Marcus nodded.

“Marcus…”

“Yeah?”

“What happened to Mom and Dad?”

Marcus’ eyes filled with tears again, and Charity wanted to cover her ears before he answered the question. She didn’t want to know. He took her hand. “Charity…they didn’t survive that accident.”

She was expecting that answer, but somehow it still didn’t feel real. Her breath escaped in a strangled sob. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding it. Marcus put his arms around her, her little brother, now all grown up. All that was left.

“It’s just been you and me for a while,” he said. “But you’ve been the best big sister ever. I guess it’s my turn now to take care of you. I’m just glad you’re okay. I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Well, that was fine, but she still wanted her Daddy. She was terrified and confused, and she wanted his big strong arms around her so bad it hurt. Yet she clung to this man like it was her last lifeline, because maybe it was. He was all she had left.

A man came in a little bit later and talked to the doctor, then said he was Eric. That was her boyfriend? He was so old. Of course, she reflected, she was old too. That bothered her more than she thought it should.

She learned a lot of things that night. She learned that her best friend was an alien. That was kind of cool. She was a super hero, even if she was really old, and she belonged to a team of super heroes. That team was under attack right now by some kind of fairy. And somehow that had something to do with the fact that she’d lost twelve years of her life. She hated that word, ‘lost’, like they were just misplaced behind the couch somewhere. One of her team mates was suspected for having caused this fairy attack, and even killing another team mate, but no one actually believed he did it. The guy who died was her best friend’s brother, which made her heart ache with empathy. It wasn’t fair. Why did all these people who were family have to die?

* * * *

Eric tried not to stare at her. He could see it made her uncomfortable, a little girl receiving undue attention from a much older guy. It took all his willpower not to wrap his arms around her, to kiss her, hold her like the first time they’d made love. “It’d have to be an inside job,” she told Eric.

He laughed, startling himself. He’d begun to think he’d never laugh again. “You’ve been watching too many political thrillers. It’s always an inside job. Life’s not made of tropes—we’ve had this discussion.” Not that she’d remember it. He resisted the urge to ruffle her hair in a patronizing motion.

“But it makes sense! No one else could get that close to you guys—to us. Nobody else would know how to hurt you as bad as they did.”

He was quiet after that, thinking.

Eric hated to admit it, but twelve-year-old Charity did have a point. These attacks were vicious and personal. It was more than just knowing intimate details of their lives. It was understanding them on a level deeper than they understood themselves. Sure, a Fae could read his mind, but were they capable of grasping the depth of his love for Charity? Did they get that, having lost her once, he would drive straight through hell and back before losing her again? Did they feel his growing insanity as she looked at him with those big, brown eyes and didn’t remember him in the slightest?
He considered Drake again, though he felt a little like he was committing some kind of betrayal by just thinking about it. “I need you to take point on this investigation.” The words replayed themselves in Eric’s mind. I’m too close. When we catch this bastard, I want to nail the son of a bitch to the wall. I don’t want to see him get off scot-free because of some bullshit implication of conflict of interest.”

Those were not the words of a man in control. They were not the words of a man pretending to lose control. If Drake was playing this game, and playing to win, that was not a move he’d make.

Which begged the question, who were the other players?

A few weeks passed, and no one bothered Mitch about his extracurricular activities. He wasn’t assigned Blink and Stryker’s route, but he still visited it every now and then. With Charity down for the count, there was a whole bunch of people who were left twisting in the wind in terms of training. She was the one who was supposed to be taking care of the energy controllers. It made sense. She was the one with the power that was tough to control. She understood what it was like to have something burning inside you, just waiting to be unleashed.

Mitch hated that feeling.

He never again saw the thugs he’d beaten up. That almost disappointed him. He was hoping they’d screw up again. However, they were but an early symptom of the boldness that seemed to overtake criminals in general. He followed a drug dealer home once, only to find the man was a meta too, with some kind of precognition ability. Mitch nearly got himself shot trying to get away from that one. He never reported the incident.

He came home one night after cracking a few skulls to find a car parked in the driveway—a beat-up pick-up truck that had to have been a hundred years old if it was a day. What paint hadn’t been eaten away by rust was covered in a thick layer of mud. The tires weren’t black anymore—they were dirt brown. His mother didn’t drive, but he recognized it as belonging to the guy his mother started dating about a month ago. Oh. Wonderful. The guy was a useless waste of space.

Michaela greeted him at the doorway with arms wide open. “Heyguesswhat!” She bounced with excitement, and flung her spindly arms around Mitch’s neck, only lingering for a second. “Vic’s here!”

“Yeah, I saw his car in the driveway.” Mitch wasn’t nearly as enthused. His sister loved the man, though he could never figure out why.

“Mom’s making spaghetti. I made her set a place for you, even though she wasn’t sure if you were going to be home for supper.”

Well, the spaghetti might make it worth his while to stick around. He just hoped Vic wasn’t going to be an ass tonight. He’d already burned most of his willpower not turning on his heel and walking away the moment he saw the car. If the guy was going to be a dick, he would put his fist through his nose. Or set the car on fire. Yeah, that would be awesome. Mitch let himself dwell on that image for a moment.

He was still imagining the vehicle’s hood buckling under the heat when he walked into the living room, which doubled as a dining room when they had company. Vic sat at the head of the table, chair tipped back and feet on the table. A worn baseball cap sat lopsided on his head, which he constantly adjusted. He’d stretch out his tall, lanky form, whip the cap off, twirl it in his fingers, bend the brim, and shake before finally putting it back in a position that made even less sense.

Mitch wanted to burn that goddamn cap.

“Mitchell! Sonny boy!” Vic waved the tips of his fingers at Mitch. “Glad you could make it.”

Mitch hated it when he called him that. “Whatever.” He plunked down at the table and slammed his elbows on the table and put his chin in his hand.

“Mitchell Robert, get your elbows off the table,” his mother scolded. “Go wash up, and for heaven’s sake, get out of that jacket.”

He was still wearing his Inferno outfit. He never bothered with the whole secret identity thing. If someone really wanted to do him harm, there wasn’t going to be a point in hiding because they could find out easily enough.

He was rather filthy. His hands were covered in soot, and his face was all smudged with the stuff. He complied with his mother’s orders. The jacket went on the hook by the door, and he’d gotten soap up to his elbows when Vic slapped his mother’s ass and she bent down to kiss him. Mitch’s mouth curled in a snarl, and the water on his hands evaporated from heat, leaving the soap as a dried crust.

Stow it, he reminded himself. He ran his hands under the water again, and splashed his face, running the droplets through his short, red hair before wiping the excess water off on a dishtowel. He took a seat again.

“So. Mitchell.” Vic drawled out his name into two distinct syllables in a mocking manner that set Mitch’s teeth on edge. “Your mother tells me you’re a hero.”

“Yup!” Michaela piped up. “He’s all, like ‘Bam!’ ‘Pow!’ And saving the world and stuff, right, Mitch?”

Mitch couldn’t help smiling at that. Michaela was eleven, and more than a little excitable. She pumped her tiny fists into the air at each exclamation, as if she was the one punching away imaginary bad guys. “Something like that, Kala.” That was his nickname for her, left over from when they were much younger, and he couldn’t quite pronounce her name.

“I see,” Vic said. “Saving the world from what, exactly? Disaster, famine, corrupt politicians?” He grinned. Mitch glowered. The man was deliberately trying to bait him.

“We do disaster relief, sure. I’d like to see you run into a burning building.” Literally. He would love to see the man run into a burning building. Coming back out was optional.

Vic took his time shaking parmesan cheese onto his pasta. “So, you provide public service. And do it better than trained professionals, how, exactly?”

Mitch hated that argument. He heard it way too much. “Look, we train. In fact, that’s most of what we do is train. So that’s kind of bullshit to say we don’t know what we’re doing. Delta wouldn’t let us out if we didn’t.”

“Oh, sure, sure.” Vic twirled his spaghetti in his spoon for a moment. “And beating up thugs in an alleyway? Is there training for that?” he glanced up at Mitch.

Shit. He knew. Mitch had no idea how the guy knew, but it didn’t even cross his mind to question if he knew or not. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. Like your little sister said, you beat up the bad guys, but tell me, Mitchell, how can you tell who the villains really are? You’re distracted by the appearance of evil, the obvious depravity of the ones who, say, steal money, or threaten to kill someone. But what of those who sit behind a desk and manipulate people’s lives, are they also evil?”

Mitch blinked. “W-well, sure. But—“

“And who says you’re the ones who get to define that evil? How do you get to say what is good and bad? To save a life, you might have to take another, is that the actions of a hero or a villain? You know who gets to say that? The one who writes the history books. The ones with the power. The ones who win. It seems to me you’re the ones who create villains.”

“There is an ultimate good and evil. We fight—“

“You sure about that? One man’s evil is another man’s truth. Are you sure you know evil when you see it?”

Mitch tried again. “We fight—“

“You fight against what you are told to fight. You trust those around you to know what’s right, but do you trust what they see? The criminal you beat up on the streets, or the one who gives you orders, which of these sentences a person to death? Who is the villain?”

Mitch was entirely confused by now. “I—I…”

“Look at me, Mitchell. Look me in the eye and tell me you can spot a true villain.”

Mitch looked at him. He couldn’t say why he did what he was told, but he did. He looked the man directly in the eye, and as he did, the man’s visage shifted just a little. His eyes went all black, and his skin turned slate gray. His ears extended just a little. Mitch paled. His jaw dropped and he felt nausea tightened in his stomach. Vic was a Fae.

He leaped to his feet so fast his chair hit the ground with a bang. He tightened his fists, and fire flared from his hands. “Get the hell out of my house, you—“

“Mitchell!” Mitch’s head swiveled at the sound of his mother’s voice, then back to Vic. The man looked normal now. Normal, unevenly tanned face, normal gray eyes, normal dirty blond hair that hung nearly to his shoulders. Normal ears poked out from underneath his dirty baseball cap.

Vic chuckled. “You see? If you can’t even sort out what reality you’re seeing, how are you going to see true evil?”

“If you hurt them, you son of a bitch, I swear to God…”

“Mitch, sit down, all right? Just sit down, and let’s eat.” Mitch’s mother was talking in her calm, pacifying voice—the one she always used to use when Dad was about to lose his temper.

“Mom, please, can’t you see he’s…he’s not…” Vic was grinning at him, even as tendrils of black shadow snaked around the table and chairs. They encircled his family’s wrist and neck. They didn’t see. They didn’t know. This…creature was threatening to kill them, and they didn’t even know it.

Mitch never felt so helpless in his life. With nothing left to do, he dismissed the fire and dropped his fists. He calmly picked up the chair and set it right before sitting down on it.

“That’s better.” Vic’s voice somehow sounded even more mocking now. “Let’s all sit down and have a nice meal like a nice, happy family.”

Mitch glared across the table at the Fae. “I know you can read my mind, you sick, demented creature. I will burn you from the inside out, do you hear me? I will fry every piece of you into twisted charcoal until you scream for mercy, except that I have none because you messed with my family.”

Vic smiled back. “Do that, and your little sister will be dribbling nose blood into her pasta sauce before you can spark. You want to be responsible for that? Look at her. Such pretty red curls. She’s going to grow up to be such a lovely young thing. It’ll be a pity if she has no mind. And your mother. I see her thoughts. I see how afraid she is of you. How do you feel about that, flamebrain? Your own mother is afraid of you. Afraid you will burn her and her house to the ground.”

“I will burn you in your sleep.”

“I don’t sleep. Tell me this, if we were to have this out right now, shadow and fire, who would your mother beg to stop?” Mitch could see it. Against his will, against his own mind, he saw his mother on her hands and knees, covered in flame and burning cotton, screaming. Michaela screamed too, her hair flaming, not with the color, but with his fire. Their skin was melting and running together into the carpet.

“Stop. Stop this. Goddamnit, stop!” Mitch couldn’t control the temperature in the room anymore. He could see the sweat beading on his mother’s forehead. At least, he thought he saw it. He didn’t know anymore, couldn’t tell the difference between reality and the illusion that Vic was pressing into his mind.

“Oh, I’ll never stop. I’ll never stop until you go mad, until you slaughter your family, burn them with your own fire, because then at least you’ll know they’re dead for real. And don’t think hounding the Delta Division for a solution will help either. Do that, and I’ll take them away, and you will never know if they’re alive or dead. Your own imagination will decide their fate. Your choice, Mitchell Roberts. Let them live in peace and happiness and ignorance, or tell the truth and watch the world burn.

“Now, tell me, Mitch…who is the villain now?”

* * * *

They trained with the Fae in mind now. Drake taught them to interpret the world around them a little differently, and introduced breathing and mental exercises to resist the Fae. Every day, Mitch would take what he learned and try to break Vic’s hold on his family. It never worked. Every day, he became more and more desperate. It showed.

There was combat training too. Drake paired Allen and Marcus together and pit them against Mitch and Lindsay. The two boys worked together like an oiled team, which pissed Mitch off. It wasn’t fair that they’d had time to practice. It was only when he got the drop on Marcus that he was able to eat into their advantage. He saw Marcus going for a generator and blew it up before he could get there.

Marcus went flying with pieces of shrapnel. Mitch’s boots hit the gravel and he yanked Marcus up by the collar. Marcus wasn’t unconscious yet, so it didn’t trigger the automatic shut-off for the simulation. Mitch didn’t give him a chance to tap out. Rage and fury took over him and he slammed his fist into Marcus’ face. Over and over again until he could feel the blood run over his knuckles until he didn’t know if it was his or the other boy’s. Marcus’ jaw cracked, and his eyes swelled up.

Then Allen dove in with a surprise attack knee to the face. Mitch felt a spike of pain, and the simulation shut down.

Marcus yanked the helmet off and grabbed Mitch. “What the hell, man? What is wrong with you?”

Mitch shoved him back. “Lay off, London.”

Marcus wasn’t going to give up. “Dude, you beat the crap out of me, and you’re telling me to lay off?”

“It’s a goddamn game, Marcus, why are you making such a big deal out of it?”

“I don’t know, you tell me. You’re the one who just caved my virtual face in. What is your problem?”

Instead of responding, Mitch slammed his fist into Marcus’ face—for real, this time. “I said, lay the hell off!

Marcus blinked in surprise, but only for a moment. He body tackled Mitch. They both went to the ground. Marcus got a good punch in, and Mitch a couple kicks, before Allen intervened. Mitch’s collar yanked into his throat, and part of him reflected that it was no joke when a guy with super strength pulled apart a fight. The rest of him was just pissed. “Screw off, Gray, this doesn’t concern you!” He threw in a heat wave with his shove because he was angry, and Allen could take it on the chin. Fire flared around them, hot enough to make the other boy flinch.

But he was persistent. Before Mitch could react, Allen had both his wrists pinned to his sides. “Seriously dude, you’re being a goddamned dick. Is there something going on? Because all we want to do is help.”

Mitch nearly threw up in his mouth from the sickly sweetness of the kid’s sympathy. “Get the hell offa me! I told you, it’s none of your goddamn business!” Allen let him go suddenly, and Mitch flew backward, nearly tripping over one of the chairs they sat in to play the VR simulations. He heard Allen apologize, which somehow made him more mad. He turned and ran from the room, praying that no one was going to follow him, and half hoping they would.

Somehow, he ended up stumbling through the labyrinth of the Delta Division Headquarters and up three flights of stairs before he finally stopped running. The area he was in didn’t get a lot of traffic. He didn’t have the faintest idea where he was, or what the area was used for, but he really didn’t care. He just wanted to be left alone. He could feel the madness creeping in, and all he wanted was for it to stop. A sob escaped his lips against his will. The plastic railing melted under his hands before he realized how hard he was gripping it. Furious at himself, he swiped viciously at the hot tears coming from his eyes.

“You know, they’re right. You are kind of being a dick.”

Mitch nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Lindsay’s voice. He’s forgotten she was there in the VR room. She hadn’t said anything when the fighting broke out. At least, he was pretty sure it was her, standing there now. It could be another illusion from the Fae, just one more thing to drive him mad. In lieu of the melted railing, he gripped onto the brick windowsill and closed his eyes. He forced his breathing to slow and his mind to quit racing. He muttered a nursery rhyme, concentrating on each syllable. It was a trick that Drake taught them to at least dissuade a Fae from getting in their heads. It wouldn’t stop them if they were determined enough, but it was all Mitch had.

Lindsay laughed. “Humpty Dumpty? Really?”

Mitch swallowed. He hadn’t realized he was saying it out loud.

“Well, I guess I can’t judge. Mine’s Little Miss Muffet. Dunno why. I think my dad used to call me that. You know, my real dad.” Oh, that’s right. She’d mentioned she was adopted. “So, why’d you think there was a Fae trying to get in your head?”

Shit.

“That’s what’s been going on, isn’t it? Why you’re always so worked up?”

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on, Mitch. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter. Tell me. What’s going on?”

“A Fae’s got my family.” The words rushed past his lips before he could bury them. Dumbass! He slammed his fist into the brick wall so hard it bled.

“I see. And if you’ll tell anyone, blah, blah, blah, right?”

Mitch grabbed Lindsay by the shoulders. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t tell anyone. Not even Marcus. Please. He said he’ll make my sister disappear. Please.”

He could feel the tears starting to burn in his eyes again. She looked at him, eyes so big and blue. “Okay. I won’t tell anyone.” He let out a sigh of relief. “But you know, so long as you’re afraid of him, he’s going to keep doing this to you.”

“I…I don’t care. So long as Mom and Michaela are safe. I don’t give a damn.”

“Hey.” She hugged him. It wasn’t anything beyond platonic, but it was still somehow comforting. “We’ll figure something out, okay? I promise.”

For some reason, Mitch believed her.

Allen and Marcus found the training room to be deserted. This time of day, most people were either on patrol, missions, or home for the day. There was an expansive gym with equipment most places only dreamed of. Three boxing rings were set up for hand-to-hand sparring. A myriad of martial arts weapons were stacked neatly against the wall. Other exercise equipment was easily accessible, but stored and maintained with great care. Two doors were on one side of the room, one to a small office, and the other to an equally well-maintained virtual reality room.

Allen only sort of paid attention to what Marcus was saying about the place as the energy controller steered him into the VR room. Dark thoughts rolled around in his head, a helpless sort of fury that made him want to break something.

“The previous Director Daniel Jones had the capabilities of making a pocket dimension outside of time and space, and he used that to create a place of infinite space for them to train,” Marcus intoned. “They also had a healer readily available in Dr. Derek Danesfield, so serious accidents like broken limbs were never a real issue.

“Now, powered combat that could potentially break the building is done in a complex virtual reality run by the most sentient artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen. He goes by the name Chip—not terribly original for a computer generated program to be sure, but evidently there’s a story behind that.”

Marcus handed a helmet to Allen and sat in one of the specially designed chairs. “When you put it on, it’ll connect you to the matrix. When you joined and got your powers evaluated, Drake programmed them into the VR, so when you open your eyes in there, your virtual representation will be able to do everything you can do.”

Allen nodded and offered a cursory smile. “That’s really cool.”

“Right? This whole thing’s Drake’s brainchild, though even he won’t take credit for the AI. Apparently, it’s an offshoot of a technopath’s personality.”

He blinked. “Really? That’s a thing?”

Marcus shrugged. “Normally they’re not so developed. Sometimes when a technopath connects to the cloud, parts of their…will, for lack of a better word, will break off and float out in virtual space, sometimes affecting other connected programs.”

“Ah, like a virus or something.”

“Exactly. Only this particular technopath had dissociative identity disorder. Along with a laundry list of other mental health issues. So when a bit of him broke off, it was a full-grown personality. And that person runs the games we play here.”

“Hunh. That’s way cool.” Despite himself, Allen found his interest piqued.

“Yeah, he’s kinda a cool guy too.”

They put the helmets on and their minds were instantly transported into a completely black room. Somehow they had no trouble seeing each other, as if the phantom source of light shone only on them. A man stood there. He was dressed in tailored evening wear, somewhat reminiscent of the nineteen twenties. He tipped his fedora. “Greetings, gentlemen.”

“’Sup, Chip. This is Allen. Allen’s new, we’re going to run some combat training.”

“By all means. Where would you like to go?”

“Alliance City, midday. Average established traffic patterns.”

“Done.”

The floor dropped away and turned into a bird’s eye view of the sky scrapers of Alliance City. Instant vertigo hit Allen and he dropped a few feet before he got a hold of himself. He could fly, of course, but seeing the floor disappear was an entirely different matter than taking off into the air.

Marcus smirked. “You okay, there, buddy?” Floating in the air wasn’t an issue for him, as he had the rocket boots he usually wore into combat.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Good to go.” He gave Marcus a lopsided smile. “Hey, that Chip guy always dress like he just stepped out of a costume party?”

“That ‘guy’ can still here you.” Chip’s voice echoed in the air around the concrete jungle.

Allen blushed. “Oops.”

Marcus chuckled. “He switches up the era every now and then, but sometimes, yeah. Usually his outfits are pretty dapper, though. Anyway. That’s not important. So, rules are, we beat each other senseless until one of us taps out or goes unconscious. It will shut off automatically when that happens. The computer can monitor our pain tolerance, as it’s affected by adrenalin, fatigue, and other factors. Everything will feel real—the buildings, the people, the elements. At this altitude, I’m sure you can feel the wind.” At Allen’s nod, he grinned. “But mostly, you’ll be feeling my fist in your face.”

Allen grinned back. “In your dreams, Sparky.”

“Shut it before I make you eat it. We good to go?”

“Unless you want to back down now.”

“Not a chance. Why would I do that when I’m gonna cream your ass? Chip, start the simulation.”

Allen’s witty retort was cut short by a blinding flash as Marcus tossed a bright lightning strike at him. “Ah, you rat bastard.” When his vision cleared, Marcus was gone. “Where did—aha!” He spotted Marcus hidden around a building by a power line. “Shoulda put some more distance between us when you had the chance!” He charged straight for Marcus.

“Now, why would I do that? Then I couldn’t do this.” Marcus put his wrists together and channeled a huge blast of electricity, which slammed into Allen with the stunning force of a thousand volts.

Allen swore. “Holy shit, okay I admit that was a little more than I thought you could do.”

Marcus laughed. “Sometimes we do battles above our weight class, but I don’t usually pick fights I can’t win. I know I can beat you.”

“With that little laser beam? You couldn’t beat a moth to death with that.” Allen did his best to shake off the stun and charged after Marcus again. Marcus took advantage of the pause that Allen was forced to take, and put several blocks between them. Allen was the much faster flier, though, and caught up with him easily. Marcus ducked into a building, and Allen flew after him. He chased the electricity controller through three floors of an office building before they reached the roof where Marcus exited the proper way. Allen took a shortcut through the concrete and steel. He was met with another blinding flash. Marcus disappeared again.

“Son of a bitch, where’d you go this time?”

Marcus laughed. “Hey, if you want to give up now, I will accept your surrender.”

“Never surrender!” Allen crowed triumphantly. It occurred to him that something was happening that he never saw coming. He was having fun.

He spotted Marcus in the distance. “You’re not getting away this time!” He charged toward Marcus, who turned and fired his powered-up blast. Allen was ready for it this time, and ducked. “That trick’s not going to work more than once,” he said. “I figured it out. You gotta charge your blast before it’s big enough to hurt me, hence the keepaway game.”

“Aw, shucks, ya got me,” Marcus said unconvincingly. “While that’s true, I’ve found ways to compensate.”

Allen looked down. Too late, he realized they were nearby a power plant. Well, that was going to give all the energy Marcus needed. The lights went out around the plant for blocks around. Allen looked Marcus in the eye. “Aw, f—”

The electricity slammed him in the face, and the simulation was over.

Marcus grinned at Allen as they took off the helmets. “I’m sorry, I totally took advantage of my experience in the simulation. See, I know I’m pretty much unbeatable in the middle of a city where there’s so much power.”

“Jackass,” Allen said grumpily, but he couldn’t stop grinning. That was so much fun.

“I know.” Marcus grinned back. “Hey, tell you what. Because I’m such a good sport, we can do the next fight in the country. That’ll take away my city advantage.”

“Bring it.” Allen flashed a smile and put on the helmet.

He was amazed at the next setting. It was an expansive farmland, with a large barn and adorable farm house. A few animals populated the acreage. They floated over a large forested area about a half a mile away from the cow pasture. He took a deep breath, and to his surprise, the smell of manure hit his nose. “They can do virtual smells too?”

“Sort of. You can smell things in the same way you feel things. Basically, the simulation tricks your brain into sensing these things. Think about it, people with powers based on your sense of smell would be at a disadvantage in a VR sim that couldn’t replicate their abilities.”

“Got it—hey!” A bright light flashed in Allen’s face. He didn’t think he was going to fall for that again, but Marcus took advantage of his wonder to take the first shot. “Thought you were done with cheap tricks.”

No answer came. By the time Allen’s vision cleared, Marcus was nowhere to be seen. “Well fine, if you want to play it that way.” He glanced around. It was a fairly good tactic, actually. Marcus would have to hide a hell of a lot longer if he was going to draw in enough energy to give him a knock-out blast. In the canopy of trees, he’d have plenty of places to hide.

He didn’t think Marcus had made it any farther than that. He didn’t have Allen’s speed. There was no rustling in the trees to give away his position, so for a moment, Allen was stymied. Then a grin flashed as an idea occurred to him. He grabbed his shoe and flung it with all his might at the ground. It hit the forest with all the force of a meteorite, sending the trees flying back and shaking the ground.

“Shit!” Allen’s ears caught the sound of Marcus’ voice, and he dashed in that direction. He barreled in for a grapple, but Marcus rolled out of the way. Allen ended up with nothing more than a face full of dirt and twigs as his momentum carried him into a summersault. He didn’t bother going right side up, so it was in an upside-down world he saw his quarry dart away.

As Allen rose with a flip into the air, he felt the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun at his back. That gave him another thought. Marcus liked blinding him? Two could play at that game.

“Hey, jackass! Heads up!” He grabbed his other shoe and fired it by Marcus’ head. Marcus turned around and was instantly blinded by the sun directly behind Allen. In that moment’s hesitation, Allen attacked.

His fist slammed against the side of Marcus’ face. Marcus flipped end over end and crashed into an evergreen. The simulation flickered and faded away.

“Round two is mine!” Allen pumped his fists into the air.

“Having fun?”

Allen spun around at the sound of the voice that didn’t come from Marcus. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Tracy standing in the VR room. Happiness flashed over his face and he leaped up to grasp her hands. “Tracy! What are you doing here?”

Her blue eyes were so full of sorrow, it was an instant reminder of the thing he’d actually forgotten. His hero was dead.

“I heard what happened. It’s all over social media. Allen, I—I’m so sorry.” She wrapped her arms around him, and it was her eyes that filled with tears. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

Allen held her close. “I’ll be okay. I’m a little shaken. But I’ll be all right.”

Marcus stood and walked over to the couple. With a great deal of reluctance, Allen pulled away so he could introduce the two. “Uh, Marcus, this is Tracy. My, ah…” And despite the weight that hung in his heart, he actually felt it give a happy leap. “My girlfriend.”

Marcus extended his hand. “Marcus. Good to meet you.”

Tracy shook the offered hand. Allen could see her gaze travel the length of the other boy. The two of them were still in costume, and Tracy was familiar enough with Delta’s heroes to recognize the outfit. There may have been some who would have fangirled over the male half of Delta Division’s star couple—Marcus and Lindsay were frequently featured in fan webzines and blogs—but Tracy had a remarkable gift for accepting a person for their own intrinsic value. Allen’s reclusive nature hadn’t stopped her from making friends with him, and the fame of Marcus’ alter ego wouldn’t either.

She smiled. “Well, I’m glad to see Allen’s hitting it off with someone here.” The thought seemed to genuinely please her. Allen blushed.

“We were just blowing off a little steam,” Marcus said. “Seemed appropriate, given the circumstances. We both kinda felt the need to punch something really hard. I mean, in Allen’s case, he tends to miss if he tries to hit the ground with his feet, so I’m not sure of his actual threat to humanity. I, however, might drain the city’s power supply.”

Allen couldn’t let that one slide. “I don’t need to hit the ground with my feet. I’ll just use your face.”

Tracy looked at him in surprise. “Well, look at you, with the snappy comebacks and stuff. Way to go, hero boy.”

Allen’s color deepened. That had been Tracy’s name for him since they were kids and he stood up to a playground bully that was picking on a younger kid. Allen had been all of a powerless sixty pounds then, and as mute as a mime, so of course he’d gotten his ass kicked, but it had impressed a young Tracy who insisted on being his best friend.

Marcus chuckled. “Care for another round?” He flicked a switch, and a giant wall-sized screen lit up with an aerial view of Alliance City. “We can play the sim as a broadcast on here so you can show off to your girl.”

“Oh! I’d love to see that!” Tracy’s face lit up.

“Can’t promise I won’t clean up the city with your sorry ass in front of your girlfriend, though.” Marcus flashed a cheeky grin.

Allen hesitated. The screen was showing the cityscape, and he’d lost badly there. He wanted to put on a good show in front of Tracy. But he also didn’t want to protest and complain that the challenge was too hard.

Marcus caught his shifting gaze. “I know, I know, okay, look. I’ll set the controls for a non-collateral damage exercise. It’ll handicap me enough to give you a fighting chance, cause it means I gotta avoid brownouts. On the other hand, you can’t drop a building on me. Fair?”

Allen glanced at Tracy’s smiling face. She really was excited to see this, and those terms did sound reasonable. “You’re on.”

“Wait.” Tracy caught his arm as he sat back down and planted a kiss on his cheek. “For luck.”

Marcus smirked. “Yup, he’s gonna need it.”

This time, Allen was prepared for Marcus’ blinding flair. He turned his face away, and glanced back in time to see Marcus take off for an alleyway. Allen reached out and snatched at his leg. His fingers closed around Marcus’ pant leg, but Marcus put his other boot to Allen’s face. Searing pain spiked into his forehead and cheek as Marcus turned his rocket boot propulsion system into a weapon. Allen let go.

He wasn’t going to give up now, though. Tracy was watching.

What is your reason for fighting? Stryker had asked him once. It wasn’t a difficult question. “To help people,” he’d said. “I don’t have a reason for it. I just want to make the world a better place.” But the truth of the matter was, most of all, he was fighting for her. And now he was fighting to get stronger. Somebody had to show the world what a hero was. Someone had to carry on Stryker’s legacy.

You were my hero. You’re the reason I became a hero. And now you’re one of the reasons I fight. This is my city, my home, my people. You fought to save them, and so will I.

He dashed after Marcus. With his greater speed, he caught up and flew around, cutting off Marcus’ retreat. Without giving him a second to fly the other way, Allen brought his knee up to smash the boy’s jaw. Marcus saw it coming and dodged—barely. The attack caught him in the cheekbone, giving him a hairline fracture. Allen followed through with a bash to his nose. Blood spurted out, covering Allen’s hand, but that was all he had time for before Marcus counterattacked with a powerful lightning blast. It wasn’t strong enough to knock him out, but it did knock him back. He stopped just short of colliding with a brick wall.

Marcus put some distance between the two of them, and Allen was treated to another rain of lightning. He shrugged it off, but not before Marcus took off.

Allen knew where he was going this time. That power plant was the greatest source of electricity. Even if he was avoiding a blackout, Marcus could draw enough energy if he was given enough time. Allen was determined that wouldn’t happen.

Allen made haste to the power plant. Somewhere along the way, he lost track of the energy controller, but he had a feeling he was around here somewhere. He scanned the horizon.

The sound of a slammed door made him look down. Marcus had taken to the pavement and made his way to the plant on foot. Allen caught sight of him just as he ran into the building. Dammit. Marcus’ words came back to him. “You can’t drop a building on me!” Cheeky bastard.

Allen was still faster. He dashed into the building after Marcus and watched him vanish around a corner. His speed was at least a little limited, weaving in and out of workers and factory equipment.

Marcus led him on a merry chase through the building, up the stairs, and through a window. For a second, it appeared Marcus was home free. As Allen exited the building into the air, he was met with the sun’s blinding glare. Marcus was learning from him, even as he was learning from Marcus. But Allen didn’t need to see to kick this kid’s ass. He dashed forward anyway.

The dark silhouette against the sun wasn’t moving. A brighter light shone from within the shadow. That confused Allen, even as he bolted forward, all his power focused behind his fist. He threw his most powerful super strength uppercut yet, and felt bones shatter beneath his fist. At the same time an incredible burning sensation filled his chest.

Aw, crap. Marcus had gathered enough energy.

The simulation shut down. Allen blinked as he opened his eyes to reality. The screen in front of them flashed with the word draw. He grinned.

Marcus laughed as he removed his own helmet. “One win, one loss, and one draw. I think that’s a good place to call it…for now.” He flashed Allen a grin. “Okay, I’m gonna make myself scarce, cause three’s a crowd.” He smiled at Tracy. “It was good to meet you. I’ll leave you to care for him.”

Tracy smiled. “Always do.”

He clapped Allen on the shoulder. “See you around, bro.”

The grin on Tracy’s face couldn’t have gotten any wider without splitting her face. “You made a friend! I’m so happy!” That was not something that came easy to Allen.

“Yeah.” Allen smiled. “I guess so.”

Her face sobered. “Seriously. How are you doing?”

Allen stopped smiling as well. The fun was over, and without reality of a virtual sort flashing in his face, he had no choice but to try come to terms with the thing that had happened. “Honestly? Angry. Scared. Stryker he was just…he was so big. Invincible. If he can go down then…” He shook his head. “But that doesn’t mean I should stop fighting. If anything, it just means I have to fight harder. I mean, I have some pretty big shoes to fill. Or throw.” He couldn’t resist adding that, even though Tracy wouldn’t have the first clue what he was talking about.

He held his girlfriend to his chest and took in a breath of her floral shampoo. “I’m glad you’re here, babe.”

She wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll get through this, I promise. And if anyone can follow in Stryker’s footsteps, it’s my hero boy.”

Lindsay White was bored. They were supposed to be in a mission briefing, but it hadn’t started yet, and everyone was so very hush-hush about what the mission was about. Sam was going to come explain it at some point. That is, Director Samantha Clive, but everyone called her Sam. Which always seemed strange because she referred to everyone with their title and last name. Lindsay still didn’t like being ‘Miss White’ but whatever.

“I’m telling you, it won’t work.” Jayson and Drake were arguing. Again. Jay was being the negative Nelly, though where he got off telling Mister ‘I can fix anything’ Drake if something worked or not, Lindsay had no idea.

Drake was wearing a loud Hawaiian t-shirt over a black shirt with the name of a popular metal band and black cargo pants tucked into his combat boots. The look was so last decade, but Drake could at least wear it ironically. The same couldn’t be said for Jayson, whose long-sleeve v-neck hadn’t been in style for a century.

“I’m not saying the whole area’s going to be sucked into another dimension. It’s just going to be slightly off-kilter from the rest of time.” Drake was being patient.

“Time doesn’t work that way!” Jay was being exasperated.

“So explain it to me!”

“I can’t. Time is just one of those…things, you know? It’d be like you explaining to me how gravity works.”

Drake quirked an eyebrow. “I can explain to you how gravity works. But I see your point, if this comparison hinges on you understanding it.” He grinned. “Not my fault you’re too stupid to understand.”

Jay opened his mouth to say something, then closed it with a lopsided smile. “I…walked into that one, didn’t I?”

Drake responded by holding up his hand with his thumb and forefinger spaced an inch apart. “Little bit. Just a little.” He shrugged. “Come on now. When have I ever been wrong about this kind of thing? Charity, tell this plebeian pedestrian that I’m right.”

Charity was just walking in with her boyfriend Eric. At least they had the ability to dress properly. Charity wore black slacks and a midnight-blue blouse with mother-of-pearl earrings and matching necklace. Eric had a pressed collared shirt that was tailor-made for him and a pair of blue jeans with ironed creases. His watch alone would have kept her father’s business in the black for a year. The two of them were almost cute, for older people. Charity scared Lindsay a little, but not too much. She was just convinced the woman hated her. She just didn’t think she was good enough to be dating her brother. Whatever. She and Marcus were soulmates.

Charity shook her head. “Oh, hell no. I am not getting involved in your arguments. Also, that’s sort of redundant, which really doesn’t make the alliteration work. Both ‘plebeian’ and ‘pedestrian’ indicate mediocrity, though you could use ‘pedestrian’ as a noun, which really… What?”

Drake was grinning at her, which meant he’d fully intended on sending her into a pedantic rant. “Too easy.”

Charity pointedly ignored him, and instead introduced the boy that had come in with her. “Guys, this is Allen. He’ll go by Spirit on the field. He’s also a paragon type, like Lindsay.”

“Woohoo,” Lindsay said excitedly. She pumped a fist in the air. “Go team smash.”

“Right,” Charity drawled, and Lindsay could almost hear the roll of her eyes. “Anyway. Allen, you already know Eric, Jay, and of course John.” Lindsay could never quite get the hang of calling her mentor anything but Stryker, and if the adoration in the kid’s eyes was any indication, he wouldn’t either. “The others are Lindsay, Marcus, and Mitch. Spryte, Spark Plug, and Inferno, respectively.

Lindsay waved at him with a grin. Allen gave her a timid smile. He looked a little like he’d rather be hiding under the table. Awww, he’s shy. That’s adorable.

“Excellent. Fresh meat.” Mitch grinned. He leaned his chair on its back two legs and propped his booted feet on the table. He was dressed in his Delta hero costume, a black, worn leather bombers jacket with flame decals that danced around the wrists and from the bottom hem. Other than that, he wore blue jeans and a plain black t-shirt. He waved one hand indifferently to Allen. “Newbie goes for the coffee run. I take mine with no cream, plenty of sugar. Black as the devil, sweet as a stolen kiss.” He gave Lindsay a wink.

Mitch was a flirt. Marcus didn’t like him for that reason alone, no matter how many times Lindsay assured him that there was nothing he needed to worry about. He was that way with every girl. Of course, he was super cute. And he had a whole ‘bad boy’ air about him, plus there was just something so adorably angsty about him.

Marcus rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to him, he’s an asshat,” he said to Allen. He stuck out his hand. “Welcome.” Allen returned the handshake.

“…Be sure to reschedule my brunch with Senator Cole.” Samantha Clive’s voice floated down the hallway in time to the clip-clop of her stilettos. At the door, she turned neatly on her heel. “And light a fire under the accounting department. I want those financial reports on my desk by morning.” Now there was a woman who knew how to dress. A knee-length lavender skirt encased long legs that somehow seemed comfortable in her choice of sensible-but-stylish footwear. She wore a cream-colored blouse and gold minimalist jewelry. Her black hair was twisted into a French knot at the base of her neck.

“Yes, Ma’am,” her poor bedraggled assistant told her. Poor man. He was a speedster, but even he had a hard time keeping up with the demands of the high-powered woman. He scuttled off to do what he was told, and Sam stepped into the room.

“Ah, good, you are all here.” She walked to the front of the room and passed her hand over the commanding end of the table. A display woke up beneath the clear Plexiglas, and she used it to turn on the holographic display in the center of the table. It showed a three-dimensional image of a young, blond boy. “This young gentleman has made a name for himself by drawing out a mathematical proof of a working perpetual motion machine—one that could theoretically supply the planet with an unlimited source of energy. Mathematicians from all over the world have studied it. The fact that it’s written in crayon doesn’t seem to detract at all from its validity.

“Obviously, knowledge of this caliber is going to attract a lot of attention. This could solve the global energy crisis. Of course, that’s going to put power firmly in the hands of whoever controls him. The boy needs to get to a safe place before other governments try to make a war out of him.

“I’ve been in diplomatic talks with the Russians. Since we’ve gone public, several other countries wish to join in the world-wide Delta Division. As you know, the United Kingdom, Australia, and others are already part of us. As a global initiative, this makes us a neutral party that will be able to protect young Trevor here. Furthermore, it demonstrates our skills to the Russians, which will go a long way in our political ties.

“Your primary task, however, is to see to it that Trevor is escorted safely from his home on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg to the safe house we have prepared. Much of your path will be through the city streets in a public demonstration of our guardianship of the boy. Keep in mind that this is much a diplomatic mission as a military one. Mr. Allison will be your mission leader. His tactical skills will be invaluable.”

Then Jay took over the briefing, and mostly went into detail about who was going to be where and such things. Lindsay was only sort of paying attention. Her mind wandered to last night with Marcus. They’d gone to a bar together. She couldn’t get drunk, of course. But he could.

Not that it went anywhere. That was the problem with being Delta’s star couple, every bartender and bouncer in the city knew who they were—and more importantly that they were underage.

They finally got done with the briefing, and everyone loaded into the Maverick, a high-tech airplane that Drake had built. It was super sleek and shiny, which she supposed lent an extra level of stealth. It was cool, that was the important thing. They got to Russia—oh em gee, I’m in freakin’ Russia! –and met the kid. He was super cute, of course, though he didn’t talk much. At all, really. They piled together in the caravan of vehicles that was supposed to take them through Saint Petersburg to the other location. They were all set for their first Real Mission.

* * * *

Eric was keenly aware that he was the only ‘new guy’ that wasn’t under eighteen. No one else said anything, but it was obvious in the way anyone else in his age category just comfortably took command. Jayson was point man, so his commanding presence was necessary, but it was Charity in her gentle manner that corralled the kids into position.

Stryker, Sprite, and Spirit took a tri-corner position around the kid’s vehicle. They did make a magnificent sight, Eric had to admit, in full costume. For his part, he floated some distance in the air to give him the best vantage point of the entire area. Drake, along with Jayson, was even higher, in the Maverick in full stealth mode. If he adjusted the suit’s vision, he could see the plane, but it was beyond human sight, and even most technologies.

This suit was a marvel that he was just beginning to explore.

“Threat avenues noted. Contingencies in place,” intoned the female voice of the suit’s AI. The heads-up display marked circles around rooftops and building windows. At a thought, the suit would give a recommended battle plan on how to deal with each possibility of attack.

He dismissed the notifications on the display. “Thanks, Vorg,” he sub-vocalized.

“No problem, Eric.”

Not for the first time, Eric felt a twinge of amusement at being on a first-name basis with the AI of an alien suit of armor. Once, half jokingly, half apologetically, Eric made the comment to Charity about being inside his female suit. Charity didn’t get the joke at first, and then later said it was because she’d seen stranger things. Eric believed it.

It didn’t even occur to Charity to consider the suit a rival; and besides, she wasn’t the one that was uncomfortable with him wearing it. John was another matter entirely. The suit’s origins began in John’s home dimension. Its original purpose was to be worn by soldiers of the Old Order. It’s purpose: to kill Gifted. Suits designed by the Old Order emitted a variety of sound frequencies, one of which disrupted the connection that Gifted had with their powers. Drake had reprogrammed the shit out of that when Eric started using the suit.

The Paragon of Alliance City was the quiet sort. A man of few words, he had a genuine intensity and an air of unironic heroism that made Eric feel kind of bad for making the man uncomfortable by his very presence. The two had never sparred, something which Eric felt was unfortunate. He was curious how the suit would hold up under that kind of strength. Perhaps this mission would break the ice between the two of them.

Thundra, Inferno, and Spark Plug—that poor kid, what an awful name—were inside the car, taking positions close to the kid. If anything happened inside the vehicle, they’d be the first to know.

The crowd was immense. It was festive, though, which was a pleasant surprise to Eric. He was half expecting somber faces, staring morosely at the parade as it passed by. But most of the crowd was children, talking excitedly, pushing and shoving each other, and getting a little too close to the edge of the sidewalk. A few started spilling over into the roadway. The vehicles were going slow, but it was still dangerous, and Eric debated if he should fly down and help the police corral the kids.

Something flashed in his display. “Unidentified target.” What the hell? He focused on the area. The ‘kid’ didn’t look like a kid. Oh, it was about the right height and weight, but a closer look revealed pointed ears, a dark tinge to the kid’s skin, and eyes that were all black. He blinked. There had to be something wrong with the display. The kid almost seemed part of the shadow, but that couldn’t be right.

He hesitated. “Um, I…I think there’s something wrong with my display. It’s showing something a little strange.” It sounded silly. “I—I think…it looks like there’s some kid in the crowd with a…The color must be really off on this thing. Their skin tone looks gray.”

Drake swore.

* * * *

Drake’s boots hit the floor of the plane so hard it would have made Jayson jump if he wasn’t made of sterner stuff. There didn’t seem to exist enough profanity in any language known on Earth—and Drake went through every one he knew before he switched to otherworldly languages. Jay’s heart stopped for a moment before it began to race again. “How many of them do you see?”

“What?” Eric sounded confused. “A bit of an overreaction for faulty alien tech, doncha think?”

“He asked how many, Harrison!” Drake snapped. Jay grimaced.

“Thirty, forty maybe. They’re…not kids, are they?”

“No, Eric, they’re not.” Jay’s voice held a calm he didn’t feel. “They’re Fae. They can manipulate and teleport through shadows. And they mess with your mind. That’s why none of us are seeing this. Drake, I’m going to get the kid out of here.”

“No,” Drake said flatly. “I’ll do it. They can get into your head. Find the safehouse. I can keep ‘em out long enough.”

Jay looked at him a moment. “Fine. But take Charity as backup.”

Drake cast him a hard look. “Fine.”

He disappeared from the plane. Jayson hit autopilot and teleported to the ground. “Vorg, I’m going to need your eyes, since you’re the only one who can see the buggers. Where are they now?”

“Mostly on the sidewalk among the crowd. Wait! In the car! Marcus! Beside you!”

Drake was in the car not a moment too soon. A flick of his wrist on his hand device, and he was gone with the kid, the boy’s caretaker, and Charity.

Marcus reacted quickly. He flung his hands out and took a guess. He got lucky. A shadow swirled beside him and was gone. “I-I got it?”

“You got it,” Eric assured him. “Wait, it looks like…yes, they’re gone.”

Jay looked around. The crowd had thinned considerably. Those who were left were more than a little confused. He ran his hands through his hair. Sam was going to have a helluva time trying to explain this one to the press. And that wasn’t even the worse of it.

What the hell was the Fae doing here?

* * * *

Eric watched Drake pace the floor. He’d never seen the man this tense. Frankly, he didn’t think he was capable of this level of anxiety. Drake prided himself on being in control. Even when something went wrong, he had a backup plan. This was not the walk of a man with a backup plan.

“You know, eventually someone’s going to have to calm down and explain things to us uninitiated,” Eric finally said.

Drake glared at him. “I swear to Hades, if you’re telling me to calm down…”

“Hey, didn’t say it had to be you.” Man, the guy was really tense if he was walking into that one.

“The Shadow Fae.” Jay made the statement, efficiently getting the explanation underway before Drake could fly off the handle. “They’re creatures made of shadow, or the Darkness Element from the plane of existence called Myrathelle. Basically, think every whacked out fairy creature from ancient lore, and you’ve more or less got it.”

Lindsay raised her hand like she was in school. “So, we talking, like, Elves and the Shoemaker fairies, or scary fairies?”

“Scary fairies. The Darkness Element deals with the mind. They can twist and contort reality and your perception of it.”

“They’ve existed on this world for…oh, millennia,” Charity chimed in. “Lore tends to be vague on purpose. They can really be anything they want. Now, fortunately they’re incredibly disorganized. They rarely attack in large numbers. You might find one nuisance Fae every now and then when they get bored. But never this organized.”

“They respect power,” Jay continued. “They will follow the commands of someone they deem worthy. It’s this mastermind who will be responsible for their actions. Last time we saw them in this kind of number, they were with Kronos.”

Mitch blinked at them. “Wait…Kronos. As in…”

“As in the god of time, yes,” Charity said. “We beat him a few years ago, locked him in a sub-dimension of a parallel universe.”

“Oh, well, that’s okay then.” Mitch still looked entirely uncomfortable.

“The important thing is Kronos is out of their reach. He can’t give orders.”

“Right. Well, let’s hope some other god doesn’t get that idea,” Eric said casually. He saw the look pass between the others. “Wait, I was kidding.”

Sam had been listening quietly, but she chose this time to speak. “Ptah-Setker-Osiris had been quite silent for some time. Perhaps we should look into that.”

Charity paled and sat down. Concerned, Eric put a hand on hers. “You okay?” he mouthed. She nodded.

“We have intel on a base of theirs in the Sahara,” Sam continued. “Perhaps we should look into that. Tomorrow. You’ve had a long day. Rest tonight.”

Jay gave a nod to John. “We’re on patrol tomorrow night.”

Sam nodded. “Yes. Miss London, you’ll take mission lead.”

Charity blinked. “I—what?”

Eric looked back and forth between Sam and Charity. He didn’t like this idea at all. Charity had history with PSO, it was true—bad history. One tends to develop strong feelings after being kidnapped and tortured by a group like that.

“You are the most qualified. Meet back here at eight o’clock tomorrow for a briefing. Dismissed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet something made him stay. God only knew what.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Roberts shut the door behind him, exerting whatever willpower he had left not to slam it. If he could not wake his mother up, that would be wonderful. It was two in the morning; her shift at the diner started in four hours.

She sat in the living room chair. Their house was small, so the chair saw nearly every corner of the house, and most importantly, the front door. The television played in the background. It seemed she had been up and attempting to keep herself awake. “Where were you?”

“Out.”

“Don’t give me that, Mitchell.” When she used his given name, he was in trouble. “Where were—”

“I said I was out!” He snapped at her without even meaning to. His voice softened. “You should be in bed.”

“Gee, ya think?” She gave him that look. “I was waiting for my son to get home.” She paused. “Mostly to find out why he just got expelled.”

God-effing-dammitalltohell. He set his bag down with a clunk, and noticed an acrid smell that by now was all too familiar. He made a visible effort to calm down. “Look, it’s no big deal, all right?”

“No big deal? Mitch, this isn’t suspension this time! This is a ‘go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.’ You’ve been expelled. Do you not understand the gravity of what just happened?”

“No, you don’t understand!” he yelled.

“So, explain it to me!”

For a second, Mitch almost thought he could. He almost told her how he could control fire with his mind, how he could feel it burning with the anger that festered daily in his soul. That every time he beat the crap out of some bully, it was a minor victory that he controlled his temper long enough not to kill him. That every now and then he could hear what they thought.

Then she continued. “Explain to me how a kid as brilliant as you can make such a colossal wreck of his life.”

That was it. What every damn teacher ever would always think of him. “Brilliant but doesn’t apply himself.” “Excels at understanding the material, but needs to put in the work to make the grade.” Well, screw them all and their stupid rules. If his own damn mother wasn’t going to support him…

His fist shot out and went through the wall. He pulled it back, knuckles covered in blood and plaster. “Maybe because it’s my own damn life. Maybe because I’m sick of playing by someone else’s rules. I don’t give a shit what everyone thinks, and especially not you!”

She took a step backward, fear sparking in her eyes. Mitch instantly regretted losing his temper. His mind flashed back to a time where he watched his father lash out at his mother. “Shut up, woman, I don’t have to listen to you!” The memory and emotions were full of fear, terror, and love, and he knew he wasn’t just living it through his eyes.

Mitch made fists of his hands and held them to his temples, willing away the vision and memories, both his and his mother’s. He took deep, even breaths. Slowly, his temper began to subside. His mom was crying. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He put his arms around her. She flinched. “I’m so sorry. I’m not Dad, okay? I’m not. I’ll never be like him. I promise.”

He finally got her into the kitchen and sat her down on the stool facing the counter that separated the kitchen from the living room. The screen’s glow cast strange colors on the cupboards. “You’re not going to sleep, are you?”

“Probably not.” She hadn’t really stopped crying.

“Call in sick tomorrow, then. Seriously. I’ll make some coffee.”

She wasn’t really paying attention. Her elbows rested on the counter and she stared at the television with her chin cradled in her hands. She was still terrified of him. He couldn’t blame her.

The television was replaying a broadcast from earlier that day. It seemed to be some major story. His mom was fixated on it. Some woman who’d been introduced as Samantha Clive stood at the podium.

“…Today marks a monumental occasion in history. Today we recognize a legacy of heroes who have worked tirelessly, unnamed and unsung for the people of this city and this world. This legacy reaches as far back as the nineteen eighties; their efforts were invaluable throughout the cold war, the war on terror, and countless disasters in the past few decades.

“Those heroes were part of something—a clandestine military organization, designated as the highly classified Delta Division. This organization was founded with one purpose: to train and deploy certain individuals with particular skills. Skills so particular in fact, that publicly they’ve been known only in fringe science and speculative fiction.

“To use the common vernacular, these people of Delta are…super heroes.”

Mitch stared at the screen, slack-jawed. He wasn’t particularly given to conspiracy theories, though in the light of his burgeoning powers, he’d begun to wonder if he shouldn’t shift his paradigm a little in that respect. If he was able to do something like this, it fell to reason that there was others who could do things like that too.

“We refer to people with these particular abilities as ‘metahumans’. Like everything else in human history, this is but one difference among many that will make us stronger as a people. Ultimately, I can tell each of you one thing: there is nothing to fear.” She said it convincingly; with sincerity and conviction.

“And to each of you young people out there, those of you who are struggling with the pressures of growing into adulthood—so hard and so basic to the human condition—and with the added bonus of suddenly discovering you’ve got abilities you’d never imagined. I leave you with a simple message.

“You are not alone.”

The scene shifted to a display of contact information. Mitch shook himself. His mother stared at the screen, stunned. She took a deep, shaky breath, and he noticed the tears that ran down her face. He watched her with growing unease.

“Mom…mom, are you…?”

“One of them?” She laughed a little, slightly hysterical. “No. but I…I think your father might have been.”

Mitch’s breath caught. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…I’d find his clothes like this.” She grabbed Mitch’s wrist and turned it up to the dim lighting. The cuff of his sweatshirt was charred and blackened. He jerked his hand away.

“I don’t suppose that has anything to do with why he left.”

She was silent for a moment. “I…I kicked him out.”

Learning that super heroes existed should have been the most worldview-altering thing that night. But this…this made him feel like he was punched in the stomach.

“He was a good man when I married him, he really was. I know that a lot of women say that about their men after they…well, you know what he was like. But I really mean it. He was the sweetest, kindest person I knew. He was a performer and a scientist. You know he used to put together the fireworks display for Alliance City every year?

“He’d have this area near the escarpment that he worked out of. He and I would work together to outdo his display from last year. But one time…” She paused and let out a laugh. “We had a little dog then. A little terrier he named Sport. Real original, I know. Well, there was this uncontrolled explosion, and the entire cavern threatened to cave in on us. The dog’s fault, you know. Well, we got out okay, but Sport ran back in, so of course Liam had to run after him.”

It was telling that she used his name. She never referred to his dad by his first name.

She shrugged. Tears pooled in her eyes. “The man I married never came back from there. He was buried under all that rock for three days. He shouldn’t have survived. But something did. Something that was just so…angry all the time. He left for a bit after that. Never said were he went, just that he got help. And everything was fine and fantastic…for a while. Then he started…”

She didn’t finish the sentence. “Well, you know. I put up with it for so much longer than I should have. But when you were born…I wasn’t going to let him hurt my baby.” She put a hand on his.

Mitch could see it. The backhand across his mother’s face as she held onto him as a tiny baby in her arms. Her body went flying. She sprained an elbow to make sure it took the impact of the floor instead of his head. “Get out,” she told him. She stood tall against the monster the man had become. “Get out of my house and never come back.”

“But he came back, didn’t he?”

“A few years later, yes. Said he’d gotten things worked out. And yeah…it was really good, and I thought maybe you’d have a father again, but…”

“But it wasn’t so good after Michaela was born.”

She shook her head. “To be fair, I really do think he had sincere intents to change. He just…”

“I know.” He held her there for a moment. “Hey, look. I don’t know if these people can help, but…well, it’s worth a shot, right?”

She shrugged, crying too hard now to really respond.

“Look, I don’t know if I can be a hero. I certainly don’t think I’m cut out to be one. But at least I can try not to be…like him. I can at least do that much. I’ll protect you from him.”

I’ll protect you from me.

* * * *

“You’re going to make me a star.” Lindsay White had certainly dressed the part for her interview with Miz Samantha Clive, Director of the Delta Division. She was dressed in a short faux silk and black leggings with thigh-high boots. She wore a blouse from that cute new store in the mall, topped with a black vest. They were in this season again.

She had potential, and she knew it. Her speed was already twice as fast as anyone else’s—although, all that meant to her father was that she could clear tables faster. She’d told him once, that something strange was happening to her. His exact words were “That’s wonderful, luvie, now be a dear and clear Tania’s section. She has to go for a dress fitting.”

It wasn’t fair that her oldest sister’s wedding was entirely taking everyone’s attention. The groom wasn’t even cute.

“Well, that’s certainly possible, Miss White. Just be certain you realize the impact a public identity will have on you and your family.”

“You kidding me? My family won’t even notice. Except maybe that’ll bring more business to the diner.”

“All right, if you’re sure. That’s a whole lot of consequences that can’t be undone.”

That’s all grown-ups ever talk about, is consequences. “Hey, you have a public identity.”

“I’m Delta’s public representative. People wouldn’t trust me if I hid behind a mask.”

“See, there. I want people to trust me and stuff.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Of course.” Lindsay could tell she didn’t buy it, but whatever. “I see you’ve listed flight and super speed as your powers.”

“Yup. And I could swear I’m getting, like, super strong too. And I picked up a hot pan the other day, and it totally didn’t even hurt.”

“Hm. That’s certainly something. Have you given some thought to a name?”

“Sprite. Like the fairy.”

“All right.” Sam made a note. “So, are you thinking something a little ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for a costume?”

“Oh, nothing so on the nose. I’m thinking sexy thigh-high boots, not fishnets though, that’s so 2040. Full body suit, black with a purple gradient, and a cape. Definitely a cape, the same purple color, with gold trim. Oh, and long enough to make me look tall. I’m short enough as it is. The boots should be high heels too.”

Sam’s lips twitched with some amusement. Lindsay didn’t know why people should be so amused that she knew what she wanted. She was going to be a hero, a purposeful spectacle, so she might as well make it good.

“All right. I’ll send those specs to the costume department and register your name. You’ll be meeting with a designer later to solidify your concept.”

“I heard that you have Felina McKinley working for you in costuming. Omygod, she’s fantastic. Like, one of my idols, you know?”

“She’s most certainly talented. I’m glad this is something you’re pleased with. Now, you will have to go for a psyche evaluation with Mrs. Meryl Allison. Don’t be concerned, this is entirely routine. She will also place you with a mentor. Based on your power set, I’m going to assume it’ll be Stryker. He’s our best at training those with super strength.”

“’Kay. He’s super cute, so that works.”

Sam didn’t even flinch at that. Lindsay was half-expecting a comment about how the man was way too old, but she said nothing. She dismissed that with a mental shrug. “So, how do I get to the shrink’s office?”

Sam handed her a map that was surprisingly comprehensive. “That should be helpful.”

“Yep, got it, thanks!” Lindsay stood with a grin. “Thanks so much, see ya ‘round!”

Well, that was so much easier than she was expecting. She thought for sure the Big Boss was going to be a huge stick-in-the-mud that was going to make her tone down her concept. Instead, the woman embraced her, happy that she could help make Lindsay a hero. She skipped a little on the way out. This was going to be so much fun!

* * * *

“Because I said so, that’s why!” Charity stood with her arms crossed, a scowl on her face.

Marcus glowered at her. “I’m not going. You can’t make me.”

“Damn straight I can. Look, what’s wrong with the school here? You’ll like it. God, I would have killed to go to a school with other super powered kids when I was your age.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not you.”

“Tell me about it,” she muttered under her breath, so low, Marcus barely caught it. “Since when do you care about school anyway? I could never get you to go before.”

“And so now you want me to go to a school where you can keep an eye on me, of course,” Marcus said sarcastically. He didn’t even want to think about learning Shakespeare from his sister.

“That’s not the reason, and you know it.”

“Do I? Face it, Charity, you don’t trust me.”

“Well, give me one reason I should.”

Marcus jerked back as if slapped. “Really? Is that what you honestly think of me? Damn, and you wonder why I don’t want to be in your English class. Why I don’t want to be your sidekick.” He put as much venom into the word as possible.

Charity at least had the grace to look ashamed. “Look, Marcus I didn’t mean it like that. I think you’re perfectly capable—“

“If only I would apply myself, right?” He shook his head. Well, if she was going to bandy about words like weapons, two could play at that game. He fixed his hazel eyes on her. “You don’t have the right to give me that speech. Mom.”

It was Charity’s turn to look hurt and stunned. “That’s not funny, Marcus,” she said in a cold voice. Marcus did feel guilty. He didn’t really remember their parents. She did. To her credit, he had to admit Charity had been the best mother a girl could be to him.

“Look, I just don’t want to go, okay? I know people at the other school.”

Charity frowned. “Who could you possibly know?” Marcus rolled his eyes at her. “Oh, come on, don’t give me that look. I wasn’t exactly Miss Popular at my school either. Let’s face it, neither of us is any good at getting out of our shells. I’m asking honestly, do you actually have any friends there?”

Well, there’s this girl… He wanted to say, but didn’t. How freakin’ embarrassing. Unfortunately, his sister was too damn intuitive.

“Maybe there’s a girl,” she guessed. Marcus’ cheek colored, and Charity’s jaw dropped. “Oh my god, there is a girl.” Marcus just gave her a dirty look. “Or a guy, she amended. Hey, that’d be cool too. This isn’t exactly an area we’ve explored yet, so—“

“Just drop it, all right? Can’t it just be enough that I don’t want to go to your stupid school?”

“Marcus? Oh-em-gee, Marcus?”

He knew that voice. His blush deepened as he turned. A small part of him was appreciating the humor of the situation and the priceless look he was sure was on his face. Lindsay. Probably the cutest thing that had been placed on this planet. “Um, hey,” he muttered, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“I’m so happy to see you! Omygod, someone I actually know, this is going to be great!” Lindsay threw her arms around him, and Marcus suddenly regretted that his hands were now intertwined in his slacks. By the time he gathered his coordination enough to pull them out, Lindsay had broken the hug. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know.” He gave a casual shrug. “The family business.”

Lindsay looked from him to Charity and back again. “Omygod you’re Thundra! That’s freakin’ cool!”

Charity laughed. “Well, we’re glad to have you. You signed up for classes yet?” Her gaze slid over to Marcus for a moment with a great deal of mirth in her eyes. Marcus suppressed a grimace. He was going to hear about this in a minute.

“Oh yeah, for sure. I’m so done with Central High. Boring! Besides, the smaller classes here are a good thing, right?” She gave Marcus’ arm a squeeze before she started walking backward down the hall. “So glad you’re here though. Catch you later!”

And with that, she was gone.

Charity smirked at him. “So…about those classes.”

“Shaddup.”