Posts Tagged ‘Villains’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity laughed and punched him in the side.

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

“Aw, you’re fine.”

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

Then he sighed. “So, are we going?”

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

Eric agreed.

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity nodded in agreement.

“So the Fae…” Mitch began.

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

Mitch breathed a sigh of relief.

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

“And us?” Lindsay asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meryl grinned too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Watch it, London!” Mitch snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least he hoped he did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did what?

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

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

He knew that voice. “Charity?”

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

“You…you’re…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or ever, preferably.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Warning. Interference detected. Sensors compromised.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how? How do I do that?

Let go.

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

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

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

I care!

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

And it unleashed the storm within.

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

No more.

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

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

She must destroy everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would blame me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tears itched under Charity’s mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff nodded. “Yes, Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam, I know.”

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

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

Jayson rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish, Miz Clive.”

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

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

“That won’t be necessary.”

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

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

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

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

“So, which is this, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

We never should have been on that mission.

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

They are heroes.

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

Why are we heroes? What made us heroes?

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

People are so stupid.

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

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

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

Why was he coming back to that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goddamn son of a bitch.

He’d figured it out.

The couch broke against Lindsay’s arms as she brought them up to cover her face. With superhuman speed, she grabbed a broken two-by-four left from the shattered pieces and flung it like a small javelin at Allen. He caught it, the friction warming his impervious skin. The force nearly pulled him back, but he steeled himself, then took off so fast it left spider cracks in the marble floor. Lindsay dashed forward in the air at speeds that produced a sonic wave that shattered the glassware at the bar. She went in for a right cross, which cracked Allen’s cheekbone and drew blood that spilled from his nose and mouth. It left her open for his attack, a powerful kick to the side. A crippling pain spread through her lower back, and she doubled over, bile rising in her mouth. Allen followed through with a swift kick to her face, but she glanced up just in time. She caught his leg in a vice grip, gathered her wits out of sheer determination, and launched a counter attack. She spun and flung him bodily at the floor.

Allen picked himself up unsteadily and glanced over his shoulder in time to see Lindsay dash in for a body slam. He jumped to the side, then twisted, taking a boxer’s stance with his hands protecting his face. As she recovered, she was met with Allen’s fist when he jabbed it at her. She dodged once, twice, three times before she blocked it and offered a counter-jab of her own. He twisted, letting her fist skid across his face without doing much damage. He missed her follow-through. Her left fist connected with the bottom of his jaw, and he rocketed into the air, smashed into the ceiling, and regained control before slamming his right food, left knee, and a single fist into the floor amid a hail of tiles and plaster. He left the debris as a trail in his wake as he darted back into close combat. His face throbbed. Lindsay was fast, but Allen was tougher. He wasn’t even close to being out of this fight.

* * * *

“Quite the entertainment you have tonight,” Tom’s guest remarked.

Tom grunted. His opportunistic streak didn’t come built with snappy comebacks. “You got the money?”

The man smirked. “Down to business, then.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. With a few taps on the screen, he set up a money transfer. His thumb hovered over the button that would complete it. “Let’s see it first, hm?”

Tom’s expression didn’t budge as he slid his fist, palm down, across the bar, leaving the small, subtle device behind. “Does it work?” The man asked, “or is that the reason for this impressive display going on here?” His head twitched in the direction of the squabbling teens. “After all, I’d imagine Solstice would like to know what they’re buying. You planning on nullifying one of those kids’ powers? Do that and the victor’s fist will go through the other’s head.” A twisted lust for violence glinted in the man’s eyes.

“Uh. Sure,” Tom grunted. “You gotta get close, though. It has a short range.”

The corner of the man’s mouth twitched. “So, who’s gonna bell that cat?” he drawled, glancing over. “I didn’t even see that flurry of punches, dunno about you.”

Tom shifted in his seat. He had no idea how to answer that.

“This weapon is all about subtlety.” Tom nearly hit the cracking roof at the sound of Lyndria’s voice. His stern face nearly cracked. She slipped delicate fingers across the man’s bony shoulder, trailed them up the turtleneck, then teased at the edge of his ear. “The right tool for the right job.” A smile crossed her full lips. “Right?”

Tom gaped at her. For the first time in years, he felt his heart race with a foreign emotion that felt a lot like fear. Not the combat adrenalin rush, but the nauseating realization that you done fucked up and you were going to die like a coward for a stupid mistake. She smiled at him over top the man’s head. Did he imagine the gears clicking into place that spelled his unceremonious end?

“Thanks for getting this meeting started,” she told him. “I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.” She turned her charm on the Solstice contact. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Lyndria Wilson. I own that device. Tom has my authority to enact this business transaction. Don’t worry your very pretty little head about that.” Her fingers danced across his blond hair beneath his fedora.

“Then let me pose this question to you,” he said, shifting away from her touch. “Does the device work?” Tom wished that distancing himself would be that easy. Should he run? Perhaps he’d underestimated Lyndria’s ability to keep her family under control. Would she kill him for his betrayal?

Fear kept him glued to his seat, though all of his fighter’s instinct told him to run and never look back. No! If you run, you will be running for the rest of your life. With any luck, you can talk your way out of this. If that doesn’t work, you can always make the choice to take off again. He swallowed.

Lyndria smiled. “You want to see a display? I can arrange that. One of those fighters is my bodyguard. I’ve grown quite fond of her, and I do believe the feeling is mutual. I could go over there and tell them to stop fighting. She will listen to me. I can walk over there and shake the hand of her opponent, and his powers will instantly vanish.”

The man smirked, raising his eyebrow. “If you claim to exercise such control over your subordinates, why are you letting them trash this establishment? I hear you’re having cash flow issues. Why risk thousands upon thousands of damage? Not even using this fight to convince me to buy the device would be worth it.”

“Because this fight is amusing. I’m quite in suspense. I want to see if my bodyguard will actually win against an opponent like this. Besides, a trashed establishment doesn’t concern me. I imagine I’m not going to be able to make a lot of money off of this place after tonight. You see, there’s going to be a murder.”

Tom’s heart leaped into his throat. Run! She is going to kill you!

The man chuckled. “I thought you said your man had your authorization.”

“Oh, his isn’t the murder I’m talking about. You see, I just said that to keep the conversation going between you and I. Subtlety really is the best weapon sometimes. I was stalling while the poison I brushed on your skin soaked into your system.”

The man’s eyes went wide. His skin paled, and he clutched at his throat, suddenly unable to breathe. Lyndria smiled. “Like I said…right tool for the right job.”

The man jerked up off his seat, then collapsed, twice gave a full-bodied twitch, then stiffened, eyes glassy with death’s onset.

Lyndria’s gaze turned to Tom. Disappointment clouded her pouty face. “Oh, honey.”

* * * *

Allen held himself in a defensive position as Lindsay sped around him. Few could keep track of her as she moved faster than the eye could see, but the ability to process such movement came hand in hand with Allen’s own super speed. She was slowing down. This fight was starting to wear on her. She was trying to use her speed to randomize the angle of attack, but that was becoming increasingly less likely. The tactic would have worked on just about anyone else, and even Allen had already taken a beating. He couldn’t see out of one eye, each breath pained him, and the match had turned into an aerial battle because he could no longer put weight on either of his legs. However, Allen may have lacked full vision, the superior speed, and the three years of training that Lindsay had, but there was something else Allen didn’t have.

He had no intention of giving up.

Allen could tell she was tiring, and patience was winning him this round. He watched closely. At the right moment, he stepped to the side, twisted, and jabbed his fist. Lindsay ran right into it. She flipped end over end, finally spilling onto a pile of broken tables. “Are you done yet?” Allen called.

She snarled at him. The dust spun into a whirling dervish as she sprung into the air after him, but the attack was lacking in conviction. Allen clamped his fists together and bashed them against her head. Lindsay hit the ground so hard it cratered. She staggered to her feet.

“Just stay down, Lindsay. Please.” Allen touched down beside her, then remembered his fractured ankle and floated just a few inches. “It’s over.”

She snarled at him, but she was too exhausted to argue. She sank to her knees.

“I don’t want to fight, Lindsay. I just want you to see what Stryker was really trying to tell us. There’s gotta be a reason to fight. You’re faster than me, you’ve been trained to fight longer, by all rights you’re the better fighter…but you’ve let go of what you’re fighting for.” He floated down and knelt gingerly. The adrenalin was wearing off, and his whole body ached. He extended his hand. “Will you let me help you find it again?”

“I believe you’ve made your point, Mr. Gray.”

Allen nearly toppled over in his haste to turn around. Samantha Clive stood at the doorway, now three times its size after a counter top had been thrown through it. She was the picture of poise, unsullied by the seedy filth of the destroyed bar. The raunchy music stopped, as if quailed by her arrival. Silence followed. Even the dust didn’t dare stir in her presence.

Allen gaped at her. Lindsay spoke first. “I thought you couldn’t be here! I-I mean, I thought Delta—”

“Until just a few minutes ago, Delta did not have jurisdiction in Quebec, it’s true. However, the authorities felt they were unequipped to deal with conflicts such as two super powered teenagers coming to blows in a downtown bar.” Her mouth tipped in a smile. “My thanks for your service, you two. You have been instrumental in bringing this country into our little family. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Something about that didn’t sit well with Allen. He glanced around for Donald and Liam; both had vanished. Donald seemed like an anarchist, and he didn’t think he’d be affected one way or another by this new development. Liam, on the other hand, had moved a full country away from his family for the sake of freedom. “The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.” The fire controller’s words rang in his ears.

Allen couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d just been used.

Tom Carter was an opportunist. Some months ago, Jacob Wilson, self-styled patriarch of the Montreal metahuman mafia had hired him as muscle in a deal with an ambitious, rapidly growing gang of metas. The bartering collateral in question was a piece of technology that would revolutionize meta warfare. Powers were always an interesting element in a meta mob war, especially since no one really wanted the general population to know who had powers and who didn’t. Tom wasn’t a meta. He had no investment in the meta community’s continued existence, except that some of them happened to pay his exorbitant fees.

Some tinkerer from this new meta gang had invented a small device the size of one’s thumb that would instantly nullify a target’s powers. There was some risk involved–one wrong move, and both parties would find themselves temporarily without their special abilities. Still, a number of these devices in the right hands could change the outcome of the war.

And it was something Solstice would pay dearly for.

The Jacob Wilson had no intention of such a thing falling into Solstice hands, and of course he had no love for his opposition. With metas inexplicably on the rise in the last decade, a few had joined forces with more than one rival mob family. The man didn’t have powers himself, but his boys and his precious little princess had been born with meta abilities. Jacob didn’t want to see his family put in harms way.

Tom, on the other hand, would sell his own grandmother if it would make him a buck.

He appeared to be a nice enough fellow, if not a bit gruff. He was ugly and snarling, but the heart of gold underneath all that was a double bluff. He gave exactly zero fucks about anyone but himself. With the old Jacob dead, Tom  was the only person who knew the technology existed, save for leadership of the splinter group. A bit of money in the right hands, and that gang was eliminated, narrowing even further the list of people aware of the tech.

With the death of Jacob Wilson, it was time to make some real money. Solstice had unbelievable connections, and they were willing to do anything to get them a leg up in what they considered to be a crucial war for the sake of mankind. Metas, as far as they were concerned, were a diseased form of humanity that had to be purged before they plunged the whole world into entropy. It was all a bit high-minded, but as far as he was concerned, they could believe in a goddamned fish Jesus if it meant they’d pay him for bait and tackle.

Lyndria’s club was busy. Tom threaded his way through partiers gyrating to the music under a canopy of smoke and light shows. Lyndria was wasted. A man of greater conscience would be troubled by stealing from her a device that threatened her very existence when the girl was dealing with the death of her whole family, but it was this death that gave Tom the opportunity. He wasn’t about to pass it off.

Once in the old man’s study, he opened the safe with the combination that he’d long since memorized. He might have been surprised that Lyndria hadn’t changed it, but the girl didn’t have two brain cells to rub together. Prototype acquired, he walked downstairs with his small cargo centered in the palm of his hand. He looked across the crowded room and gave a subtle nod to a man dressed in khaki pants and a fitted, long-sleeve black shirt. He had a close-shaved beard, with the rest of his face shrouded by the fedora he wore. A subtle tip of the hat was the non-verbal agreement Tom was looking for.

Lyndria deserved to be stolen from. She was so far gone now, Tom was certain she had no capabilities of noticing this deal going down under her own nose in her own club. Tom allowed himself a small smirk.

Something made him glance over to the door. For a reason he couldn’t adequately explain, his attention was arrested by three people that joined the undulating crowd. One was a kid, barely of age, with brown hair and a leather jacket over a red t-shirt and jeans. Two were older men; one of them Asian, the other with a shock of flaming red hair. Tom shook his head. They were inconsequential. As he glanced away, he vaguely beheld them make their way to Lyndria. Maybe the kid was looking to lose his virginity. He wouldn’t be the first dumb cluck to hit up the easiest chick in the country.

Whatever their reason, it had nothing to do with him. Tom made his way to the man at the bar.

* * * *

Allen’s heart sat in his throat. He was so nervous, he couldn’t rightly tell if his palms were sweaty from the humidity or the fact that even his paragon endurance was put to the test with his excessive heart rate. He wiped them on his jeans. That didn’t help.

He spotted Lindsay the second they walked in. She hadn’t changed a lot, though she’d traded her simple trendy outfit to something that involved more leather and buckles. For some reason he half expected an emo makeup on her, though she didn’t seem given to that cliche. He took a breath and walked forward. The plan was for the older men to engage this Lyndria person with questions about her family, but that wasn’t Allen’s main concern. Their conversation would free him up to talk to Lindsay. Donald was sure that the Wilson’s family’s disappearance was somehow connected to the shit that had been going on with Delta, and Allen couldn’t come up with a reason for why that wasn’t so; still he was singular-minded in his objective. Lindsay was the one person in this situation who mattered to him.

He weaved his way through the crowd until he stood by her. She didn’t notice until he spoke. “Hey, Lindsay.”

She nearly hit the roof. “Allen! What the hell? What are you doing here?”

Allen shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Looking for you.” It sounded cliche, like wooden dialog from a movie he and Tracy would watch together in a bad movie marathon.

Lindsay wasn’t helping. She crossed her arms and looked away. “Well, you found me. Now you can turn around and just walk away.”

Allen sighed. “Lindsay…don’t be like that. Look, do you know what you left behind?”

She said nothing, refusing to make eye contact.

“Marcus is–”

“Don’t. Okay? I don’t…I don’t want to know.”

“Why not? Lindsay, he loves you!”

“Don’t you think I know that? God, he–” She glanced at Allen, and her eyes glistened with tears in the flashing purple and blue lights. “Just go. Okay? I just…I need some space.”

“A whole country of space? God damn it, Lindsay! This isn’t–”

“This isn’t what? What a hero is supposed to do?”

“No, it’s not. It’s not what a hero would do.”

She looked at him, and her eyes seemed sad. “That’s fine then. Allen…I’m not a hero.”

“Yes, Lindsay, you are. Okay, I know we never really got along that well, but you’re a hero because Stryker said–”

“Don’t you dare speak his name!”

Allen stepped back, startled by the vehemence with which she spat the words at him. For a moment, he was angry. He took a deep breath as the anger welled inside him, choking him like someone had just shoved a fist down his throat. “Linsday, I have had enough of your shit! You have no right to tell me what I should and shouldn’t feel, and right now I am hurting because I lost someone I care about, and you can’t say I’m not allowed to feel broken. Furthermore, I’ve got a best friend who’s in pieces because his girlfriend abandoned him. I can’t fix the first one, but I am not going to stand by and let the second one slide. I will do everything I can to help him because that’s what friends do!”

Lindsay opened her mouth and shut it again, which was just as well, because Allen wasn’t done talking.

“Do you honestly have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into? Stryker trained you to be a hero, but you’re not acting like it. I know you’re in pain. I know that sometimes you just gotta do stupid things, but this? Do you even know?”

He glanced around. The girl Lindsay had been with had now vanished. For the life of him, Allen couldn’t remember what she looked like, and he certainly couldn’t pick her out of a crowd this size. But she wasn’t there, and that was the important thing to drop this bombshell. “Your boss, the girl you’ve been guarding? Do you actually know who she is? She’s Lyndria Wilson. Of the mafia family.”

Lindsay’s eyes went wide. Then it was her turn to get angry. “You know what? Fuck you. You come in here being all high and mighty, fucking mister perfect telling me how to live my life–”

“I’m not–”

“No! You’re not! You’re not perfect so stop fucking acting like it! You tell me that I have no right to tell you how to feel, well how about taking some of your own goddamn advice. You don’t have the right either to tell me how to live my life.”

“So you’re just going to throw away everything you’ve been taught? Lindsay, don’t you see? When you’re with her–maybe you’re right. When you’re with her you’re not a hero, or at least not acting like it. You’re acting like a villain.”

The words leaped from his mouth before he could stop them. Her eyes widened, and he wanted more than anything to stuff them back into his mouth. She looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Well, maybe I am.”

Allen sighed. “No, Lindsay, you’re not, forget I said that. I’m sorry. But that doesn’t change one simple fact. This?” He waved his arm across the floor. “This is not what Stryker would have wanted.”

Nothing prepared him for the fist that flew in his face. With a loud crack, Lindsay’s fist sailed across his face. His neck jerked back, and he stumbled. The copper taste of blood coated his teeth. “Now I’ve had enough,” she snarled. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Allen’s fists clenched at his side. “I’m a hero. I’m Stryker’s protege, and though I always believe that title could be shared by both of us, clearly I was wrong!” He smirked. “I guess if you’re going to throw the first punch, that means there’s only one thing left to do.” He rose into the air. “I’m going to show you how a hero fights. How Stryker showed me to fight!”

He dashed toward her, but she slipped to the side. Allen noticed just in time to correct his course, though his countering punch lost a lot of its force. His fist slammed into her shoulder, and she rolled with it, unharmed. She brought her leg up to knee him in the kidneys, and he jerked his arm downward to block her with his elbow. His funny bone tingled as he slammed into her kneecap, following through with a right cross to her face. It landed with a smack. Color leaped to her cheek.

She pushed him away and picked up a lamp stand. With a feral scream, she broke it against his back as he turned to grab the nearby couch.

People screamed and scattered, which was just as well. They were going to have it out, that much was certain. The only question was, how much collateral damage was there going to be?

Allen didn’t care. So long as there were no people inside, he would level the whole goddamn club if it meant he could convince Lindsay to come home. To come to terms with the loss they shared. Donald and Liam cleared the area, though a few stayed to watch. This was the most exciting thing to happen in their lives, and they weren’t going to miss it.

It occurred to Allen that he was giving them a show. Every person that stayed behind had their phones out, and this was going to go up on the Internet right beside the video of his table throw in his high school cafeteria. That should have made him uncomfortable, but he was so far past caring. He flung the couch. “I will win this fight, Lindsay. Then we’ll see who’s really ready to carry on Stryker’s legacy!”

Bel’kethel was having the time of his life. Up until now, Earth had rarely been spoken of above hushed tones, a mere step away from Forbidden knowledge. It had not been written out of the annals of Elven history only because it would have been ignorance indeed to ignore the Earthborn population of about three million on Myrathelle. Ignorance was the only thing more uncomfortable than the knowledge that they had once had contact with the ancient people of Earth many centuries ago.

The existence of Earth, of course, was empirical. As a child, it had fascinated the young Elf; he’d even imagined a version of his name that the average Earthborn tongue would be able to pronounce. It had caused his father great consternation when he’d gone through a brief period of only answering to ‘Keth’. It had been a disappointing time indeed after Keth was told repeatedly under no uncertain terms that Elves did not concern themselves with Earthborn. Atlantis held itself aloof from the affairs of the rest of Myrathelle.

But now at last his fixation on Earth would bear fruit. Sadly, his knowledge of the Common language of Myrathelle’s Earthborn was useless. It was a dialect of a dead language that few on Earth actually spoke. He’d have been better off learning English, but those that spoke it on Myrathelle numbered in the hundreds. Nonetheless, Keth expended great effort making up for lost time. He was a savant, even by Elven standards, having mastered four out of the six schools of elemental magic, where most struggled to master two. A charmingly idiosyncratic language like English was a refreshing change from the rigid specificity of spellcasting.

The Elven leaders were reluctant to work with the Earthborn. It was a hotly debated issue discussed at great length within the senate; a conclusion had yet to be reached. Even with all the knowledge of the Elves, few had yet found the courage to state the obvious: the Elves must find peace with the Earthborn because Earth would be their home for the foreseeable future. Not one of them could state with certainty that they would ever again be home.

Keth was one of three Elves sent to explore the chilly tundra that was the new resting place of their fair city. They weren’t all spellcasters. Magic was not the only form of knowledge the pursuit of which brought glory to the All. Ken’hir was a warrior. His knowledge of combat was surpassed only by his mentor, the woman in charge of the Elven army. Myran had not mastered any forms of magic, but observed and recorded its effects and the functions of the natural world. Keth frequently felt the woman’s increased frustration with him. Myran believed in the practical over the theoretical, and delighted in pointing out the importance of her work, implying that it was greater than Keth’s academics. For his part, Keth found their discussions stimulating.

The group skimmed over the snow and ice in an air bubble, insulated against the biting cold with a combination of Air and Fire spells. Myran wasn’t speaking to him, and Ken’hir maintained his stoic affect, so that left Keth to carry the conversation all by himself. It was dreadfully one-sided and only exacerbated Myran’s aggravation. “Will you cease your endless prattle, Bel’kethel!” she commanded about halfway through a lengthy description of a particular television show the Earthborn called a “sit-com” that he’d been watching in his effort to learn English.

But something had already caused Keth’s monologue to come to a screeching halt. “What is that?” He pointed at half a dozen prone figures frozen so fast they were nearly part of the landscape. Snow had blown up around the bumps in the ice, but Keth could still make out four limbs and a face for each. “They look like humans!”

“Dead,” commented the taciturn Ken’hir.

“The best kind,” Myran muttered.

Keth cast her a dark look. With a word, he directed the air bubble over to the frigid corpses. “The Earthborn send expeditions to explore this area,” he supplied, though the others didn’t ask. “Though they tend to be better prepared than this. These men are scarcely dressed for temperate weather, let alone an environment such as this.”

“It is not our concern,” Myran said, but Keth ignored her.

“There’s a mystery here,” he stated. “Six men dead in the middle of the Antarctic for no apparent reason.”

“The only mystery is why you care, Bel’kethel.”

“We must go back! Inform the Earthborn that men of their kind have perished here.” He touched his thumb and forefinger to his forehead in a gesture of mourning. Myran rolled her eyes.

Let her be disinterested. An Earthborn mystery! What could be better?

Sadly, it was resolved too quickly for Keth’s taste. The thrill of discovery came to an end when the appropriate authorities arrived to remove the bodies. Keth never did find out who they were.

* * * *

Lyndria was pleasantly buzzed. The night had barely begun, and she was looking forward to the wildly intoxicated stage. She grinned in anticipation. Good thing she had a bodyguard capable of lifting her bodily into bed. Idly the thought wandered across her mind to bring Lindsay into the bed with her. The petite paragon was well on the path to corruption, and that would make a most pleasant point in progression. Lyndria had a preference for cock, and the bigger the better, but that was a bit like picking a favorite food. One might say they preferred pizza, but tacos were equally as satisfying. She would quite enjoy eating out Lindsay.

Through somewhat foggy vision she saw two men in business suits approaching, bearing the exact definition of dull and uninteresting. Her lovely brow furrowed for a brief moment before her face cleared. She didn’t want her skin getting any ridiculous ideas about frown lines. Where have I seen them before?

Lindsay started turning them away before they could get to Lyndria and destroy her buzz, but that exact second Lyndria remembered where she’d seen them. “Hey,” she slurred and waved them forward. “You’re Daddy’s lawyers, right? You find a way I can get my money?”

They exchanged a look that she was sure meant something, but she was far too inebriated to interpret. “Miss Wilson, we have a private business matter to discuss. Is there a place we can talk?”

“Here’s fine. Anything you can tell me you can tell Lindsay too.” She was just drunk enough that her suggestion seemed like a good idea.  Besides, she wasn’t positive she’d make it across the room right this second.

She nodded through the series of “Are you sure” until they got to the point. “Miss Wilson…your father and brothers have been found. I’m afraid…I’m afraid all six of them are dead.”

Lyndria had never sobered so quickly in her life. She sat up so quickly the room spun. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lindsay move closer, heard her soft, sympathetic gasp. It annoyed Lyndria. “I see.”

“An Elf uncovered their bodies in Antarctica. As you can imagine, authorities are looking into the unusual set of circumstances.”

She nodded as if that made sense. Elves were always finding things, right?

“There’s a number of legal hoops you’ll have to jump through in order to take control of the estate,” the one man continued. Lyndria couldn’t remember his name, and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out of her memory at this moment.

“Of course,” she said with curious calm. She was calmly curious about how serene she was being. “I believe that can be taken care of in the morning.”

“Of course, Miss Wilson. Uh—on behalf of—”

“Sir. This is a business transaction. Sympathy is misplaced, and false empathy is distasteful. I’d appreciate a display of neither.”

“Of course, miss.”

“Tomorrow, then.”

They nodded and scuttled off.

Lyndria must have been more intoxicated than she estimated, because she was across the threshold of her bedroom before she realized how she got there.

Lindsay followed her. “Lyndria, I…look, if there’s anything I can—”

“There’s an object behind you called a door, Lindsay. I’m sure you understand its function. See to it you’re on the other side.”

Lindsay opened her mouth and closed it several times like a gaping fish. “All right,” she said finally with a nod. “Call if you need anything.”

The door clicked shut.

It’s customary to cry right now, Lyndria told herself. She evidently didn’t listen. Her eyes remained dry.

It’s all mine now. The words meant nothing. Her brain tried and failed to attach some sort of reason to care about them.

All his money, all his business. Hey! I’m in charge! Something about that made her laugh out loud. The idea that she was in charge of anything was amusing. She could barely keep gerbils alive.

The thought was exciting, though. The most exciting thing that had ever happened to her. She had actual real live responsibility. People actually thought she was responsible. It was hilarious. She laughed again. “Oh my god,” she told the empty room. “That’s a laugh. I’ve gotta tell—”

Alex. The youngest of her six older brothers, they were closest in age and almost passed for actual friends. He’s dead.

“Oh my god,” she whispered. Her voice echoed loudly, like it bounced off the walls of the empty house.

That was when she began to cry.

Allen’s vision cleared in time to see the whole alleyway bathed in fire. Two men emerged. One was untouched like a messianic figure in an ancient story. The other was wreathed in the flames as if he was born of them. In his hand was a charred lump, and he tossed it against the pavement. It shattered. A piece of the object looked up at him with half an eye socket, empty and starring, and Allen jumped, scrambling onto his ass. The world tilted and he threw up.

Raptor charged. He took two long steps before his animalistic body was thrown back by an unseen force much like a child would toss a cheap plastic action figure. He dug his claws in and came skidding to a stop just before his thick tail came in contact with the wall of fire that surrounded them.

“You son of a bitch!” Corrosion looked beyond terrified. The words were probably supposed to sound threatening and angry, but his voice shook. “Freakazoid! Waste these guys! Freak!”

There was no answer, and it dawned on Allen with increasing horror that the shattered, burnt skull on the ground belonged to the guy who’d been trying to turn his brain inside out. His mind refused to connect that knowledge with any form of reality.

Raptor let out a low whimper of fear, cowering where his great body had landed. Corrosion was equally frozen in place. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he said, as if declaring it would bend reality to his will. “You’re not supposed to be here!” The frantic tone in his voice increased with every word. “Y-you’re retired. Everyone said Inferno was retired!”

Inferno? It nagged in the back of his head, trying to make him remember where he’d heard it before, but Allen’s entire world had become focused on the blackened skull fragment. Why is it so familiar?

An appropriate name for a fire controller, to be sure. It sufficiently described the intense heat that licked at Allen’s hands and danced across the side of his face. He moved instinctively away. The fire wouldn’t burn him—Corrosion’s touch was the first time he’d felt anything of the sort since he was thirteen—but he didn’t want his jacket to burn. For some reason his custom-made leather jacket became of the utmost importance. It defined him as a hero. With the Delta Division symbol emblazoned in its full-colored glory across his back, it broadcasted him as one of the good guys. One of those people that believed in justice and the good of all mankind. This encounter—he didn’t even know what that was. This was not how heroes were supposed to act.

“Why are you here?” Corrosion’s tone had become pitiful now. He was so paralyzed his knees wouldn’t even bend to drop him to the ground in fear.

“I have a better question.” Inferno stepped forward and grasped Corrosion about the wrist. Corrosion screamed and his flesh began to blush around a prominent tattoo of a red dragon with black eyes. “Why’s the Scarlet Dragon gang beating up on a kid? A meta, too. Not your style.”

Now Corroision’s knees buckled. He screamed. “He-he was asking around after the Wilson bitch’s new bodyguard!” His eyes went wide. “Fuck! I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t have said that!”

Bodyguard?

“Maybe not. But keep talking anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up in prison for the rest of your life. If not…well, how do you feel about cremation?”

Another scream came out of Corrosion’s mouth. “S-stop!” Allen heard himself say. “Y-you can’t do this!” This is so wrong! “Please just stop!”

Inferno glanced his way. Was it his imagination, or did the fire controller’s eyes grow soft? He released the thug. “Let’s make one thing clear. You and your gang are going to stop terrorizing this neighborhood. Retired life is boring. Never know when I’m going to show up again, and if I see your face again, I will turn it into a flesh mask of pustulating blisters. Got it?”

Corrosion nodded. The fire vanished. “Go.” Inferno pointed a single finger down the alley and away from them. Both Corrosion and Raptor took off like a shot.

“The skull was a nice touch,” the other man commented. Allen regarded him with a stunned expression. What kind psychopaths were they?

“I thought so. Though I’m going to have a terrible time explaining to the rest of the science department where the hell their prop went.”

What? “W-wait, th-that wasn’t—”

“Really the mind freak gangbanger that was about to explode your brain?” The other man smirked. “Naw, Liam only burns people to a crisp on accident. Your friendly neighborhood mind murderer is quite unconscious at the moment.”

“Oh.”

“Allen Gray, if I’m not mistaken,” the man said. “I’m Donald Kazuki. This is Liam Roberts.”

“Oh!” Relief, reason, and realization struck Allen all at once. Inferno was the name Mitch used. This man was Mitch’s father. He was a scary son of a bitch with a wicked temper, but he wasn’t a murderer. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree, apparently. “Oh.”

Liam chuckled. “I think we need to work on your vocabulary, kid.”

Allen shot him an unimpressed look. Like he hadn’t heard that one his entire life.

“So, you were looking for Lindsay White?” Donald asked.

Allen nodded.

Liam frowned. “Who is apparently working as a bodyguard for a mafia princess. Fantastic.”

Allen blinked at him. “Wait, what?”

Liam smirked. “Well, there’s a couple more words.” Allen’s nonplussed look returned. “The Wilson family is the unofficially and intrinsically involved in a disturbing amount of crime in this city. They’re in a bit of an upheaval right now. The patriarch of the family and every single one of his older boys has inexplicably vanished, leaving Lyndria as heir apparent. Makes sense that she’d want somebody like Spryte working for her.”

Allen shook his head. “Lindsay’s a hero. She might be a little…” He trailed off. ‘Unstable’ was the word that immediately came to mind. “She’s a hero,” he repeated. “She was trained by Stryker, just like I was.”

Donald raised his eyebrow. “Right. Because two people training side by side under the same mentor never end up at odds or anything.”

Allen had nothing to say to that.

Liam frowned. “I’m concerned that Delta would send a kid to look for one of their lost sheep. Especially someone who’s not exactly trained in the art of a manhunt. Not very surprised, mind you. The way Delta forces kids into fighting their battles makes me throw up in my mouth a little.”

Allen shook his head. “No! It’s not like that. And they don’t. I’m not.”

“Those shit disturbers came close to killing you, kid.” Liam’s eyes darkened. “Delta’s like every other branch of the government. They strip the people they should be protecting of basic human rights, using fear-mongering tactics to justify it.”

A million arguments against that welled in Allen’s mind, but they refused to congeal into words. He stammered for a moment until he shut his mouth and forced himself to calm down. “Lindsay’s important, okay? Or at least she is to my friend. I don’t know what she’s doing here, or why she’s gotten involved with the mob, but I know that my friend is hurting and he needs her. I promised I’d bring her back. I’m not going to give that up.”

“And what if she doesn’t want to come back?”

“Well, I won’t know until I try.”

“No, no, by all means,” Donald interjected. “Let’s keep arguing about whether or not Allen should pack Lindsay in his bags on the way back to America. I mean, it’ll be hell in customs, sure.”

Allen blinked at him. “I-I…what? We can both fly, I don’t—”

“That’s the joke, kid. Try to keep up.”

Liam flashed him an annoyed look. “You have a point buried under there, I can tell. Why don’t you just get to it instead of telling jokes that only make sense inside your own head?”

“Two points, actually. Much like two prongs on a fork. Actually, that would be a terrible fork. Unless it’s for pickles, then it’s fine.”

Liam slapped his large palm against his forehead. “For the love of crap, will you just—”

“Isn’t anyone going to ask the obvious? What the bloody hell happened to the don and his family? And why are both students of a martyred hero here in Montreal, getting involved one way or another with crime syndicate drama?” His face took on a distant look as his mind appeared to wander off once again. “Ooh, that’d be a hell of a show. Your typical family drama, but they’re the mafia in a big city. But you still end up loving the characters, because even if they’re all criminals, they’re still human.”

Allen was beginning to consider that this man has long since lost his marbles. “Well, I don’t really know why Lindsay left. She just told Marcus…” He trailed off and frowned. She’d told him she couldn’t be a hero anymore. But would she really go against everything that Stryker had taught her and start working for the mob? “But I’m here looking for her. So it kinda makes sense that we’re both in the same place. I doubt it’s some kind of big conspiracy.”

Donald leaned over and hissed in his ear. “That’s what they want you to think.”

Liam cast him a scathing look. “Well, that was about as helpful as an Internet forum. You gonna start spouting out cat GIFs as well, or are you just gonna stick to nonsensical and overworked arguments?”

Allen thought that was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but he said nothing.

“See, the thing about nonsensical and overworked arguments is that they’re used so many times that just by sheer probability they’re going to be right at some point. Only problem is that, by the time they get around to being right, nobody believes them anymore. But someday the sky will fall and Chicken Little will be vindicated.”

Liam pressed his lips together. “Okay, you know what? While you’re getting around to making sense, let’s actually do something productive. Lyndria’s been making headlines since she was born, so she’s going to be dead easy to track. I’ve still got some contacts left over from my vigilante days. I’ll see if I can get some eyes around the city to find out which club she’s hitting up tonight. We’ll be able to find Lindsay by proxy. C’mon. Let’s head over to my place in the mean time.” He turned and began walking away.

Finally. A plan. A smile spread over Allen’s face. It felt good to be making progress after endless days of asking random people and getting nowhere except in deep shit. “Oh!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself from using the same interjection that Liam had teased him about. “I wanted to say. I think I know your son. Mitch. Mitch Roberts. He controls fire too.”

Liam stopped, but he didn’t turn around. There was something about the set of his shoulders that made Allen regret saying anything.

“Yeah, we don’t say anything about his kid,” Donald said.

“Oh.”

Donald continued as if the uncomfortable incident hadn’t happened. “Let’s not forget ask Lyndria where she put her family,” Donald interjected. “I remember the last time I couldn’t find something, I’d accidentally put it in the cupboard.”

By Liam’s face, Allen could tell that he was so done. “We’re not going to find them in the cupboard. They’re not a set of dishes, Donald, will you please shut the fuck up.”

“The freezer, then. People accidentally put things in the freezer all the time. Though that raises the question, would they hypothetically be dead before or after?”

“Well, that got dark quickly.”

“Says the guy who chucked a severed head that looked like a giant lump of charcoal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Had a visit from a teen paragon lately?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone hasn’t been taking their meds.”

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

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

“Whatever. Look, what do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still missing why I should care.”

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

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

“Am I wrong?”

Liam sighed. He wasn’t.

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

“I’m teaching chemistry, not art.”

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

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

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

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

Liam’s hands twitched at that.

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

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

“Fine. Ignore me.”

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then his brain turned inside out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then everything got really, really hot.