It took a while for them to stop screaming variations of ‘You’re insane’ at me. I just stood there and took it, knowing that I’d have to be real careful about what I did next. Because I sure as hell couldn’t even find the Hellhound by myself, much less take him down.
When they finally calmed down, I said, “Please, I need your help. I can’t avenge Lind- Twitch without you all.”
They all reacted to the word ‘avenge’, and I knew I had something to work with. Especially with Fletch, he already looked half ready to storm off and go after the asshole himself.
Did he have a crush on Linda? It would explain all the looks he’d been throwing at me. It would also mean that he was the one most likely to support my idea.
“Do you have any idea – any idea – how dangerous messing with the Hellhound is?” Jimmy asked, his voice very quiet and very grave.
I gave him my most somber look and said, “I already lost my sister to him. Yes, I fucking know how dangerous it is.” What should I say next? I’d never paid much attention to how to make people do what I want, Linda had always been the people person. “I… please, I just… I need help. For her. To make him pay for taking her away, from us.” They’d obviously liked Linda (she’d always had an easy charm) and were grieving for her. If I could just make them feel like I felt right now.
“That’s not fair,” Laura whispered, looking down. “She died to save us, and now you want us to risk throwing that away?”
“She didn’t choose to die for you,” I replied, almost shouting at her. Careful, Terry. “She wanted to- to survive as much as you did. But that monster got her and killed her. And he didn’t kill her easy, you know? I got a look at the police report. He shot off her left leg at the knee, shattering the right knee with the same shot when fragments from the left one smashed into and through it.” They went pale, Peter even green. “She kept fighting, or maybe fleeing, because his next shot took off her right hand and then her entire left arm.” I felt the bile rise, my stomach protesting, my brain demanding that I stop imagining this. “She was on the floor, on her belly, and was trying to turn on her back when he shot her chest, sideways. Took off both breasts and a good piece of her r-r-ribcage,” I continued, feeling ready to puke on the spot, “She was already dead by then, or at least so close it didn’t matter anymore, but he used a sidearm to put a bullet into her head, just to be sure!”
I turned away from them, dropping on my knees and puking for the second time in one night, this time into a trashcan next to Linda’s desk. I heard someone’s feet pound the floor and then another puking sound from the next room over.
“My God…” Laura sounded like she was ready to empty her stomach, too. I wiped my mouth and turned to look at them. Fletch and Jimmy looked ready to faint, Cad looked ready to commit murder and Laura had a sick look on her face. Peter was gone and I heard him retch in the next room over. “We didn’t… we just ran, and we heard she’d died later on,” she explained, tears running down her too-perfect cheeks.
“I’m not blaming you,” But I do. You got her into that situation in the first place, “But she’s still dead. And I’m going to go after the asshole who took my sister from me, with or without you!” I stopped holding the tears back and they spilled forth like twin cascades, blurring my vision. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and then saw that Laura was crying openly now, Fletch was wiping his nose, Jimmy looked depressed and Cad ready to boil over with anger. Peter was nowhere to be seen, but I thought I could hear his choking breaths from behind the curtain.
Now or never.
“I beg you, help me. I can’t do this alone, but heaven knows that I’ll try.”
* * *
I can’t believe that actually worked.
I’d expected them to resist more, if they helped at all. Or that at least one would stay out of it. But they all agreed.
A few minutes later, they’d given me a bulletproof vest and some kind of gas-powered gun that fired stun ammo. We’d quickly decided that killing the guy made no sense, since he came back anyway, so we had to knock him out and then… actually, none of us knew what to do with him, but I thought shooting a few pieces off of him off would be a good start.
We didn’t really know jack about the guy or where he could be, so I proposed going after whoever had hired them for that job – even if it wasn’t him who’d sold them out, he should be able to point us at another possible culprit.
So we geared up (Foxfire actually put on a padded red-and-white bodysuit, which she told me was reinforced enough to stop small caliber shots) and Peter (a low-level Gadgeteer, as I found out) doled out earbugs for everyone, plus a barely visible camera we could stick to our collars.
“So, you gonna use a cowl?” Jimmy suddenly said as he stepped out of his partition (they didn’t really qualify as rooms). He was wearing a leather suit not unlike that of a biker, except it was covered in swirls that made my eyes (and brain) hurt if I looked at them for too long.
Maybe it was because of the headache he caused that I didn’t get his question. “A… what? I don’t think wearing one is going to be practical, to be honest,” I replied, confused. After a few seconds, I simply looked away from him before the headache made me faint. Good God, what a costume.
“Oh, I didn’t mean a cowl as in, a garment!” he replied, surprised. “Thought everyone knew the slang by now.”
“What?” Now I was really confused.
Fortunately, Foxfire joined us just then and clarified, “It’s a technical term, if you can even call it that. A ‘cape’ is the identity of a superhero, costume, powers, style, name and all the other stuff. A ‘cowl’ is the same, just for supervillains. So he asked if you wanted to use a codename and maybe take on a theme or something.”
“Uhm…” I hadn’t really thought about this, but… I was going out to hunt a crazed metahuman. Should I hide my identity behind a codename and a mask? I thought it over for a few moments, but…
“No. I want him to recognize me,” I answered, voice as firm as I could make it right now. “I want him to know his victim’s sister is the one who’ll take him down. Besides, I don’t have any powers and unpowered people don’t use capes or cowls, right?”
“Well, your choice, Terry,” Fletch – Razzle, now, wearing his magician’s mask again (I had to ask him why he’d chosen that name and mask, but later) – said. “But it’s not true that unpowered people never dress up in costumes, take on a codename and go fight or commit crime. It’s just that most don’t last long.”
“Then I’m not going to jinx myself by taking one on.” I held the gun in my hand, trying to get a feel for its weight. I’d never fired a gun before, but… how hard could it be? They were supposed to work even for total idiots. “Not that I’d have any idea what I’d call myself, anyway.”
“You could, you know. Use one of Twitch’ spare masks and her… name…” Razzle’s voice slowly faded as he saw the look on my face. I didn’t even bother to respond any other way.
Instead, I turned to Foxfire again as Cad, who’d added a padded leather jacket to his ensemble and a simple black half-mask that wrapped around the upper half of his head, hiding his hair and any signs of his ethnicity. Considering his size and musculature, I’d have taken him for a white guy, had I not seen his face earlier.
To Foxfire, I said, “Tell me about this guy we’re going to look into? I only know his job, so far.”
“He’s a supervillain agent – as in, an actor’s agent. People with jobs contact him, tell him the price they’re willing to pay and he then looks among the contacts he has for a supervillain or a team that fits the bill. The villains are not told who they work for, protecting the employer’s identity – in fact, most agents don’t even know for whom they commission villains.”
“That sounds very risky. What if someone just prank-calls an agent, or refuses to pay afterwards?” It didn’t sound like it could work.
Wagging a finger like she was talking to a little child, she explained, “Ah-ah, it’s not that easy. If you’re not an established customer, then you have to pay the agent in advance – if the villain or villains he picks out succeed, they get paid – minus the agent’s cut – and if they fail, the customer gets the money back – a gain, minus the agent’s cut, though they usually take less if the job failed – and the agents themselves are usually part of a bigger organization, usually the Syndicate. Means the Syndicate gets a little off of every job villains pull, in exchange for providing the agents with credibility and emergency funds, as well as the means to forcibly collect their money if need be. Not that it becomes necessary very often, because how stupid do you have to be to want to piss off the Syndicate like that?”
That made more sense, and I nodded to her. But… “Is that how all supervillains work? I can’t imagine someone on the level of the Dark Five or the Defilers or Caliban to just take commissions.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “Nah, that’s the system for the small-timers, like us. Street villains, as they call us, if that. Some – like our own group – are little more than gangs that make some money on the side with the least dangerous and difficult jobs. The big guns play their own game, and we lowly mortals don’t meddle.”
We made our way down the staircase – their agent was not very far away, so we’d go their by foot.
“What about the Hellhound? Where does he fit in?”
“Nowhere I know of, really,” answered Fulcrum now. “Far as we know, he’s just a crazy who hunts down street level villains, because the real deal is beyond him. Car bombs, sniper rifles and such are not much use when you can shrug off stinger missiles, regenerate from a pinky finger or possess bodies at will. I looked up as much on him as I could, but far as I can tell, he’s never taken a commission, and certainly doesn’t attack non-powered criminals unless they get in his way.”
“So we got nuthin’ to go on?” Cad – LagForward, and I really had to get used to calling them by their codenames when out and about – asked. I’d realized by now that his nasal, annoyed tone was just normal for him and no indicator about his mood whatsoever.
“Only our agent. I hope to God that it wasn’t him that sold us out, ’cause there’s no way in hell we’re gonna get a new one any time soon.”
“But if it was him…” I said in a low, low voice. Images of… things were appearing and disappearing before my mind’s eye, things I never thought I’d even consider doing before.
“Then he’s done for,” said Foxfire with iron conviction. “We don’t even have to lift a finger, we just need to call it in. The Syndicate has a no-tolerance policy regarding this kind of action.”
“I don’t want the Syndicate to get him, I want to make anyone who’s responsible suffer!” I half-shouted at her, but she just brushed it off.
“Relax,” Fulcrum threw in. “Nothing we could do to the guy would even come close to what the Syndicate would do. The villain responsible for the Americas takes a dim view of this, and she has everyone who breaks the Syndicate’s rules like that delievered to her in person, in order to make an example.”
“So he’d be thrown to Mindstar?” That bitch was a walking (well, flying) nightmare, and she’d been active for little more than a year! “I guess I could live with that.”
“Nah,” he replied. “Mindstar’s a member of the Five, but word on the street is, she’s too unstable and inexperienced to act as an administrator for the Syndicate network. Till she is, the Dowager rules both North and South America.”
Brrrr. We all shivered. The Dowager was one of the older members of the Five, old enough for even me to know stuff about her. Just surviving as long as she had was proof of how dangerous she was; not to mention being considered the second-in-command to the Dark himself. It didn’t help that there were rumors the adults didn’t tell us kids in Oak Leaf (meaning we all knew about them), that she was the Dark’s actual wife, or at least his rebound gal for whenever Lady Light was on the outs with him.
We know so little. We hate them so much, but all we really know are rumors. That thought blindsided me. There was a story there, but I’d never even thought about it beyond gossiping about it at school. I doubt that most of the people in our community really knew much of anything about the metahumans they so fervently opposed.
At least I could be sure he’d be punished. Unless he was innocent and this was just a giant waste of time.
* * *
“So, what can you guys do, anyway? I only know the bare bones,” I asked while we were on our way towards the office of the agent. The shades seemed even darker than before, and it was miserably cold now (thankfully, Linda had stocked some extra warm underwear at their HQ. Wearing her clothes was just wigging me out, but not freezing assorted bits of myself off was just too seductive). Still, I needed something to distract myself.
They looked at each other and all shrugged, apparently deciding that it was alright to tell me. Gee, do I feel trusted. Not that they weren’t already way more trusting than I would ever have been.
“You’ve seen my fireworks,” Razzle began, walking just a little behind and to the right of me. “I can make the cloud grow really big and wide, but it takes time. Haven’t found a limit on the size yet. It doesn’t obscure my vision at all, and I can mitigate the obscuring effect for anyone I want within the cloud. You probably know that already.” I nodded. “But I’m also a mover. I get some low-level super-speed, but only while I’m hidden inside my fireworks.”
“Oh, the police doesn’t know that part. You kept it secret, huh?”
He nods, seemingly flattered. I can’t quite tell, thanks to the mask.
LagForward takes over. “I’ve got level three physique, and I can give myself exemplar-level strength, toughness and super-speed for split-second bursts – like you saw earlier. Not much fine control, though, the super-speed ain’t in my head. But I can punch holes in walls when I need to.”
Fulcrum pulled a coin out of his purse and said, “Watch closely.” He threw the coin forward. Suddenly, a kind of… swirl in the air appeared in its path, and when the coin touched it, it’s flight was diverted to the right at a ninety degree angle. “I can speed up my sight, and I can create that fulcrum anywhere within my sight that I focus my gaze on. It allows me to redirect any physical object’s movement by up to ninety degrees in any direction.”
“And you’ve already seen – and felt – my ball,” Foxfire continued, but without creating it – it would have been too conspicious. “It acts like a taser, and I can throw it easily without having even a good grip – it sticks to my body until I don’t want it to anymore. Takes one or two hits to take down a normie, and three or more for a meta, depending on powers and physical fitness. The effect is mental, not physical. What you probably don’t know is that I can recall it – and the return motion is as fast as a ball kicked by a soccer player. But it can only move towards me with that speed.”
Something clicked almost immediately when she got to the last part. “So… you just use Fulcrum’s power to redirect that return shot and turn it into an attack, right?” At least that’s what I’d do.
She grinned, showing off her canines again. “Well, aren’t you a smart one? Linda was the one who figured that out for us.”
So you didn’t even come up with it yourselves?
“Though we do have one more big trick,” Fulcrum commented. “Which we’ll demonstrate to you, presently. Look.” He’d stopped moving and was pointing towards a rather run-down old office building. There were five people in front of it, all dressed in black shirts and pants, holding guns.
“Fuck,” Foxfire cursed as we all hid behind a nearby half-collapsed wall, looking at them across the street.
“Who’re those guys?” I asked, trying to make out any identifying marks. They were all dressed identically, all clean-shaven and alert.
“They belong to the mob,” Fulcrum explained. “Same people we stole that package from.”
“What do we do?” I asked.
Foxfire growled: “We take them down. Time to bust out our big trick.”
Well, now I’m curious.
* * *
Fulcrum and Foxfire stepped back from the rest of us, so that they were completely covered by the remaining wall of the building we had thrown ourselves in.
Foxfire held her hands out, and a spark appeared between them, growing swiftly to melon size, the ball switching colours in random patterns.
Then things got interesting. Fulcrum looked straight at the ball, his eyes turning bright, bright blue – unnaturally blue. The ball flickered, and then, after a few moments, it stopped switching colours – instead, a swirl formed within the ball, countless colours moving within.
“Done,” Fulcrum said. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He turned away from the ball and came back to crouch behind the wall with us, while Foxfire threw the ball out into the alley we came through, just out of sight of the mobsters.
“What are they doing?” I asked Razzle.
“They heterodyned their powers. Just watch,” he said.
Heterodyning? Are they Girl Genius fans?
Fulcrum looked straight at the guy closest to the alley, focusing his gaze.
Moments before something happened, I suddenly realized that they were all looking at the building, not away from it, as if they were guarding it. Why would…
And the ball shot out at pro-soccer speed, slamming into the back of the guy’s neck. It bounced off as the guy collapsed with an explosive sigh and Fulcrum shifted his focus on the next guy’s neck, before anyone could react. It hit him, too. And then the next three. The last guy managed to turn around and raise his gun, opening his mouth to shout – but the ball hit him in the throat and he collapsed.
Sped up vision, combined with an attack that strikes almost as fast as you can focus your sight.
This was what even exemplar-level metahumans could do? Two teenage delinquents with what I assumed were bottom-rung powers had just taken out five armed mobsters before they could even react.
No wonder so many people are afraid of them.
“You see anyone else?”, Foxfire asked.
Fulcrum replied, “Not outside the building. Let’s go in, keep our powers ready. LagForward, you take point, move low so I can aim.”
We moved, me following behind with Razzle next to me. Foxfire was sticking close to Fulcrum.
<Yo guys, just so you know, I have no access to that building at all,> came Peter’s nervous voice through the earbug. <Net connection is locked down tight, even if there are cameras, I’m not getting in.>
“Keep an eye on the police scanners then,” Fulcrum commanded as we passed the mobsters. “Warn us if anything is called in.”
<Will do. Good luck, everyone.>
We ran past the mobsters and snuck into the building.
Wasn’t there something suspicious I just noticed?
* * *
We went into the old office building, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled of old urine and drugs.
This is where their agent hangs out? Man…
LagForward went ahead towards the end of the hallway, where I could see an old door with a semi-opaque glass window for the top half. The light flickering above was glancing off the remnants of some old letters that had once denoted the owner of the office. I doubt that he’s still working here, whoever he was.
We walked by three more doors, ignoring them, and snuck up to the office. Foxfire was holding her ball in her hands and stayed just behind and to the right of Fulcrum, so he could fire it off at any time. The swirl of colours cast strange lights on the floor, walls and ceiling.
“Razzle, get ready,” Fulcrum ordered and the young boy complied. Just like before they’d knocked me out, silent fireworks began to go off around Razzle’s form, producing a greyish smoke that only served to reflect and further enhance the lights they created. It spread outwards, enveloping us all.
First, I held my breath, but then I realized that was silly – the others weren’t wearing gas masks or anything, so it obviously didn’t restrict breathing. I opened my mouth and breathed in – nothing. No smoke. It wasn’t even really smoke, just an illusion of such.
The cloud filled the hallway, and at first, I had to close my eyes to protect them from the flashes. But then it just… I can’t really describe it, but it adjusted, and suddenly I could partially see through the cloud. Not entirely, but way better than I should.
Again, I had to wonder just how high the power ladder went for ‘normal’ metahumans, if these guys were at the bottom of the power chart.
But then I had to focus again, because LagForward punched the lock of the door out and we went in.
* * *
I will never forget the scene that I saw next.
The office was rather shabby. There was an old oaken cupboard to the left, which had probably once been worth more than half the equipment in the StreetBadger’s hideout, but had not been preserved right at all. The only other furniture was a desk in front of a large window, a desk chair behind it and two smaller chairs in front of it.
Of course, I doubt the short, overweight guy in a cheap grey suit was supposed to have been nailed onto the desk by way of three long knives through the wrists and ankles.
And then there was he. He stood behind the desk, facing us and looking… mildly surprised. He was tall, obviously well-muscled despite wearing thick jeans and a thick military jacket. A very handsome guy, in a very natural way, with the rugged good looks of an old-school movie star. His black hair was cut down to a buzz cut, no longer than his three-day beard. But his eyes…
I froze up when I looked into his eyes. They were red, so red they seemed to sparkle like rubies, but there was no life in them. No emotion, at all. They reminded me more of a reptile’s eyes than a human’s, and they certainly didn’t look like they belonged to someone who’d ever cared about someone.
Or perhaps those were the eyes anyone who lost everything they cared about got, eventually. Windows into hell itself.
I didn’t want to think about it. I only wanted to hurt him, but I couldn’t move. He wasn’t even seeing me, just looking at the fireworks and smoke, and yet his mere half-lidded gaze was enough to beat me. I never stood a chance, and neither did the others.
He vaulted over the desk towards us, drawing a large handgun out of a holster at his hip.
Fulcrum let fly with the ball, but he just vaulted over it and shot in the direction it came from – right at Foxfire.
She went down with a scream, then a gasp and the ball winked out of existence.
“No!” Fulcrum screamed and turned to her – but his shout revealed his position and I saw a red fountain sprout from his shoulder as he was violently thrown around and back, slamming into Foxfire’s collapsing form before she’d even hit the ground.
We have to run away. Yet I couldn’t move.
LagForward, meanwhile, could. He’d moved along with the cloud as it enveloped the front half of the room, and now he burst out of it from the side, his mouth twisted in a furious snarl.
Hellhound didn’t bat an eye. Nor did he react in any way I’d have expected – he stepped towards LagForward, closing the distance. Obviously, LagForward hadn’t expected that, either, and his lightning-fast punch went wide as the Hellhound simply stepped into his range and drew a knee up.
The air left LagForward’s lungs explosively as his enemy drew his knee up and slammed it into his crotch, making him bend over – and expose the back of his neck.
The follow-up strike knocked him out as surely as Foxfire’s ball had laid me out. Then he turned towards the smoke and levelled his gun in my and Razzle’s direction…
Except the fireworks were already clearing, and Razzle was nowhere to be seen.
I was alone, exposed, gun in my right hand but aimed at the ground, as I stared past the muzzle of the biggest revolver I’d ever seen and into those dead red eyes.
And then he hesitated, as he looked at my face. He recognized me, and I was sure he could guess who I was and what I wanted here.
He remembers my face. Linda’s face.
I was staring at Linda’s murderer, he was less than ten feet away and I could not move.
He opened his mouth, breathing out, still not pulling the trigger, when my hate finally overcame my… my fear.
It was stupid. He was aiming a massive handgun at me, and all I had was this stunner that probably wouldn’t work unless I hit his head, and I’d never shot anyone in my life and had no idea how to aim, or anything.
Yet I drew up my gun, as quickly as I could, as I felt my face contort with hatred, I aimed at his head and I pulled the trigger and…
Nothing happened. I hadn’t taken off the safety.
Something slammed into my left shoulder, throwing me back moments before I heard his gun roar.
There was no pain, just a dull throbbing, and my field of vision almost immediately began to turn black.
No. Please, God, no, not like this… I couldn’t even… no…
I saw his face enter my field of vision, then the rest of his body. He knelt over me, using the butt of his gun to turn my face left and right, taking a closer look at me.
He’s right in front of me… Linda… he took Linda away and I can’t kill him…
He opened his mouth and said eight words to me.
And then there was nothing left.