A slightly shorter time ago
The safe spaces between beams were shrinking. He’d just barely dodged the last wave… how long had it been?
It only took seconds between waves. Twenty, thirty of them? He wasn’t sure whether they were coming faster, or whether it was just his mind playing tricks on him.
He felt like he’d run for an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than three, four minutes. Wasn’t it?
Kizzy felt as heavy as a stone statue, her arms were clamped around his throat so tightly, she’d be choking the life out of him if she wasn’t a light-weight, the lowest percentile for height and weight in her age group.
She was still trying to sing, but it was a stuttering, breathless singing, the words melding together, creating more of a prolonged wail than an actual song.
He kept running, his eyes wide open; he didn’t dare blink, didn’t dare lose sight of the beams for even a fraction of a second. His eyes burned so badly he could imagine them being on fire, but he forced himself to keep going.
He’d lost his glasses at some point, but he didn’t even remember when or how. Had Kizzy knocked them off by accident?
The edge of the Desolation was within sight. A shimmering, rainbow-hued distortion in the air, twitching back and forth upon the street as its mistress moved about, but she seemed to mostly remain in the same place, currently, keeping it stable.
He could see the beams terminate where they intersected the field. A promise of safety, once they got past it. A chance of survival, mitigated only by the fact that the fastest possible way to the edge was through a thicket of beams.
No time to waste.
Pulling on every single reserve he could muster, every drag of strength, he kicked off the ground, shooting forward.
Kizzy squeaked, clinging all the tighter.
Just five long steps away.
Every time one of his feet came down, it was like a jolt went up his numb, tired body.
There was an explosion, somewhere behind them. A mile away? Two?
Were the beams growing brighter?
A flash of non-light from behind, like light inverted into its opposite, yet it wasn’t darkness. He couldn’t make sense of it.
Just one more step.
The beams were growing brighter, starting to solidify just as he reached the threshold…
Plunging through the twisting colors of the Desolation Field’s boundary was one of the oddest sensations he’d ever felt, a sensation so alien he had no words for it, nothing he could compare it to, even remotely. A strange buzz, a sound that was felt and a feeling that was heard, yet nothing like either.
His feet hit the concrete again, his heart beating in his chest like a jackhammer, driven by elation and relief.
Finally, he dared look over his shoulder, past the dazed-looking Kizzy to the Desolation’s boundary, stopping in place to catch his breath.
The lights shimmered there, innocently, the beams of light within just barely visible in their current, faint state, terminating entirely at the boundary.
He released his breath, and only barely managed to not collapse on the spot. His every muscle was screaming at him, demanding that he give them a break. Cashing in the checks he owed them, as his Dad would say.
Dad. Mom. Are you… I hope you’re…
The Desolation Field shuddered, and moved as its mistress did. Straight towards the two of them, just as the beams within turned solid again, slicing through everything they moved through.
His heart very nearly lept out of his ribcage as he kicked into high gear, turning…
Kizzy’s grip on him tightened, crying out…
I’m too slow.
He raised a foot.
There’s not enough time!
He could feel the buzz as the Desolation approached, bringing death for him and his sister.
A star blossomed into existence, before him, like a geometric glow unfolding from a single point, from nothing to the size of his chest, a shape that seemed to move into and out of itself, like many cubes growing, shrinking, stretching in a weird pattern, visible not in and of themselves but in how the light broke and reflected around them. Where the rest of the world was still fuzzy, due to his lack of glasses or contacts, these strange shapes were sharper than reality ever got to be.
I need more time! he shouted, mentally, desperately trying to take another step, but he was frozen in place, as if the air itself had turned hard.
No. Not hard. Slow.
He couldn’t even feel his heart beat. Every twitch of his eyes took seemingly forever to happen.
The not-star moved closer, though its motion was less… that and more a growth and decay, unfolding towards him and folding, collapsing into itself in the back.
Please… give me… let me get away! Let me take her away!
The star grew into him, and the world around him lost focus even more than it already had, growing blurry, far worse than it was just from him missing his glasses.
Heat bloomed within him, running through his veins like liquid fire, fire that did not burn him; but as soon as it had permeated him completely, and he felt like he ought to be glowing, the liquid flames turned to ice, and that burned abominably.
Let me run away!
Jared tried to scream, but he couldn’t – even that was slowed, in this strange place in time.
The buzz was still behind him, making his hairs stand on edge, and though it, too, was slowed, it was still faster than he – he could feel it get closer with every heartbeat of his that passed.
With his next heartbeat, the cold turned to heat again. Then cold again, yet another heartbeat later.
Around him, the world became as sharp as it ever got for him, but only for a few feet out. Ten feet, maybe. Beyond that bubble of sharpness, the world was as blurry as it ever got for him.
The buzz came closer still.
He had to run. He had to be able to run! It was what he was best at!
Time had slowed to a crawl just as he’d raised his right leg, ready to bring the foot down on the concrete and start running.
At the very least, he wanted to complete that one step.
He focused on his right leg, letting the world around him shrink to just that one limb.
He willed it to move. To lower itself to the ground. To gain traction, so he could propel himself forward.
If he failed at everything else, he at least wanted to complete this one step.
Slowly, so very slowly, the buzz of certain death on his back, with Kizzy’s desperate grip like a noose around his neck, his foot moved… down… and down…
Jared flashed through soothing heat and burning cold more times than he was able to count, as focused as he was on bringing that damn foot down!!
After what felt like an eternity, the passage of time only really marked by the alternating sensations of pure heat and cold in his veins, his foot did come down upon the concrete.
Nothing happened, other than that his body began, ever so slowly, too slowly, to lurch forward.
I took the fucking step! he shouted in the confines of his mind.
It didn’t help, really, other than to give him some momentary satisfaction. He was still all but frozen in place, his sister still unprotected upon his back, and certain Death just moments away from reaching them.
What’d coach always say? ‘A runner doesn’t care about the first step, or the last. Just about the next one’.
He would’ve smiled, if he wasn’t still in the process of screaming from earlier. That he’d think of that old coot now…
Nothing about it. Take the next step!
Slowly, so very slowly, he raised his foot, and brought it down again.
A second step.
In front of him, in the only direction he could really look, the world outside of his bubble seemed to go in and out of focus, and each time it did, it showed him something new, a different scene.
He saw himself mid-run, leaning forward, his form blurring with speed, wearing a silver-and-white outfit, something between a heroic spandex suit and a racing suit. He was running past panicked-looking civilians running from some kind of danger he was intent on running to.
He saw Kizzy in a living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television in pajamas, looking so lost and fearful he just wanted to reach out and hug her, while she watched a news broadcast showing images of heroes fighting some kind of monster, something huge, blue-grey skin shaped like a gigantic teardrop, with overly long, stubby-fingered arms and no face that he could see.
He saw himself sitting on a couch, together with other teens, all in various costumes, laughing together at something on a television which wasn’t in his field of view – all except for one, a drop-dead gorgeous girl with a strangely familiar face, sitting next to a teen girl with huge breasts, while staring straight ahead with a dark expression, her legs pulled up and hugged to her chest.
The visions continued, with every millimeter that he managed to make his leg move, another came and went.
Another showed him a pair of girls in paired costumes, wearing skin-tight, thin bodysuits, as well as capes and hoods – one in dark green, with a jewel-tipped wooden staff and various other knick-knacks carried on her, the other in bright red, with a more mundane-looking metallic staff, the telescoping kind.
Yet another vision, with those two girls, only they were joined by a guy in black armor, with a white robe and hood over it. The girls’ costumes were also different – the red-haired one wore only a skintight suit made of overlapping scales of some kind of weird material that didn’t look like either metal nor rubber; it was black, except for where it was transparent, showing off the body underneath while still providing protection. Her mask covered her head, except in the back, where a mass of bright red hair spilled out in lazy curls. She was holding a huge rifle now, rather than a staff. The girl in green had a similar outfit as the last time, only it was even more elaborate, and there were more knick-knacks about her person.
He mostly saw the same group of teens, sometimes all together, sometimes individually. There were pairs that showed up more often than not together. The blue-eyed, black-haired girl with the familiar face and a girl with long hair of shifting colors and those huge breasts. Two boys, one in a knightly costume with stylized rifles strapped to his back, the other an effeminate guy with an awesome steam-punk monstrosity of a rifle.
There were others, but most passed by so quickly he could not see them, or only barely so. A girl in crystal armor, standing alone. Sometimes standing with the team. Sometimes with another girl, one in golden armor.
His foot came down on the ground. Another step taken.
Now the next one.
The world beyond the little bubble around him kept flowing from one vision to the next, growing less straightforward and more and more weird.
He saw a city of crystal spires, like spun glass on the scale of skyscrapers, each spire a single, solid block of shaped glass.
An ocean of faces, billions upon billions of them, so many that their collective whispers caused titanic storms to ravage the few remaining landmasses.
A world without life, barren rock covered in strange machinery which threaded into and through the crust of the planet, down to the very core, serving no purpose but to perpetuate itself.
A world without death, being ravaged and choked by maddened life.
A world without time, an entire civilisation, not unlike their own, frozen in a single, never-ending moment.
His other foot hit the ground. Yet another step.
Something snapped. Like chains stretched to the breaking point, the links shattering under the stress, he felt something release its hold on him.
His feet hit the concrete, and he ran. He ran.
The world beyond the bubble of clarity around him flew by, showing only a blur – and that wasn’t just because of the general blurriness to everything outside this bubble of his.
He was running far faster than he ever had before.
Kizzy gasped in wonder, as he raced out of Miami, away, away from the Desolation, away from their home, away from their friends, away from their parents…
He ran until his legs gave out, and he collapsed.
Getting closer now
Rounds landed near the rim of the crater, his resplendant armor damaged and dirtied, shored up in places by the strange crystals created by Bismuth’s power. Her ghost-copy-thing was still with him, as were like, half a dozen copies of the princess (and what the hell was up with that? He’d always been told Rounds could only make a single copy off of any one person!) and a few others.
One of them had carried Amazon with it, and now deposited her on the cracked ground. Her armor was still up, making her look like some kind of magical greek knight.
Funny, because she was about as Greek as he was Japanese. He wondered how Hecate felt about that – he was certain that she was actually Greek.
The accent, olive skin and the occasional Greek cussing kind of gave it away.
“Her? Really? Her?”
Amazon’s voice cut through his idle musings. Her stunned gaze was focused on the grisly (yet quite satisfying) sight below.
“She’s the one to finally put DiL down!?” their temporary leader all but shrieked.
“I suppose good things can come from the strangest of…” Rounds began to reply, only to drift off.
A kind of presence, an aura, settled over them, emanating from…
Jared yelped as he turned around, jumping back closer to the other two heroes.
The Dark stood there, just a few feet away, head lowered slightly, looking down at the carnage.
His form was… odd. Before, it had been wispy, smoke-like. Looking like a stiff breeze could just blow him away.
Now, even as Jared watched, it seemed to slowly become more… solid. The thin, upward-drifting mist slowly bled into a dark, similarly upward-drifting liquid, while the king of supervillains looked at the remains of the monster.
Jared heard someone gulp dryly, behind him, but he couldn’t be sure whether it’d been Rounds, Amazon or both.
There was a palpable sense of sheer threat emanating from the Dark.
“Six copies of Irene,” the supervillain spoke, without looking up. “I assume that each of her comes with a different set of powers?”
“Yes, that, that is correct,” Rounds replied, speaking carefully. “A very… interesting power interaction. Though one that has proven most fortituous.”
The shadowy figure nodded. “Your power treats her as a different person after each change of powers. Yes, fortituous indeed.” He seemed to consider something, tilting his head to the side, though still focused on the blood and his dazed minion below. “Gwen and I would appreciate it if you could make sure Irene was busy elsewhere,” he said, quietly, his voice almost a whisper – if it was an entire choir whispering slightly out of tune with each other. “Don’t let her see this.”
There was a startled silence for a moment, but then Rounds seemed to recover. Jared couldn’t tell, really, he had trouble averting his eyes from the Dark, but their leader cleared his throat and said, “Yes, of course.”
He went silent, likely contacting Dispatch via his helmet’s radio.
Jared was quite busy just trying not to soil himself. Incredibly, the Dark’s aura only grew more intense, even though the fight was over.
Is it over? Does he think that she’s coming back? No, wait… is he going to attack us? I guess the DiL Truce is well and truly over now. But would he? I mean, he has no reason t- oh crap, is this because I’ve been a jerk to the princess?
He was just about to kick into his power, use the little time he’d stocked up to put some distance between the two of them, when the Dark raised his head.
“Ah.” The sense of dread and danger cut out, so suddenly, Jared very nearly collapsed onto his knees for the sheer physical relief of it. “Apologies. I shouldn’t get lost in thought like that.” All six of those unnerving, glowing red eyes focused on Jared, which was, really, even worse than whatever the fuck he’d been doing earlier.
“I-It’s really… really alright. I guess, uh, this must be… uh…” Fuck, just shut the fuck up you idiot! Were you really gonna imply the fucking Dark‘s being emotional?
Fortunately, the guy who could probably kill him with just a thought just looked away again, his weird… dark liquid coating surging with motion, twisting about his form, like muscles trapped underneath the skin, trying to break free off of the skeleton, causing his form to flicker and twist unnaturally, even as he just stood there.
Jared was incredibly curious, but after taking a second look, he saw faces within the shadows, distorted, screaming soundlessly.
Nope. Nopenopenopenope! Noooooope!
He turned away and ran off – without his power, conserving it for now – away from the scary man and the remains of his… whatever the hell DiL had been to him.
Yet again, a look at the past
The hero who came to tell them that their parents and grandfather were dead wasn’t from Miami. As it turned out, DiL had appeared right inside the Miami UH headquarters, and pretty much wiped it all out. Including all of the staff.
Even their parents’ handler – they’d shared one, who’d also happened to be their best man, and a honorary uncle to Jared and Kizzy – had died.
So instead, they got a pretty lady in her early thirties, wearing a costume but no mask, her hair black, except for some red highlights, and very short. Her costume was basically a red bodysuit with some reflective patterns of a lighter red color worked in, looking kind of like veins or circuitry that emphasized her curves, and bands of reflective metal, like long, flat strips wrapped around her upper arms, forearms and calves, encircling her tiny waist like a metal corset, then extending off of those to trail after her, occasionally moving and snapping around, as if they had a will of their own.
Her eyes were red, just like her costume, as were her lips, her cape was Bandersnatch, and she’d been merciful enough not to make any jokes or tell him to call her by some stupid pet name.
She didn’t make the offer to Kizzy either, but that was probably because Kizzy barely talked at all anymore, and didn’t look like she was going to talk, either.
It’d only been a week since the attack, and he had hoped she’d recover, but…
He focused on what Bandersnatch was saying instead.
“… know we can’t ever make up for your loss, but we’re the UH and we take care of our own. We’ll get you placed with a good family, and you’ll have a contact inside our group, in case there’s problems in the future. And, I know this isn’t really a consolation, but we’ll continue to pay your parents’ salaries into trust funds for each of you, until you turn eighteen…”
His thoughts began to drift again, though he forced himself to focus, in spite of his usual inclination to get distracted; he had to be the man of the family now, with everyone else gone.
“And we’ll of course make sure you’ll be able to stay in Miami, so you can-“
“No,” he butted in, before he could even think about it. It only took him a moment to realize what his gut already had, though. “We don’t want to stay anywhere near here. There’s, there’s nothing here but painful memories now.”
He’d checked. He’d used the phone and the internet, as soon as he’d gotten access. He’d even used his power, loath as he was to spend too many of the precious few minutes he got each day to race around and check up on people.
After nearly a full week of that, he’d confirmed that pretty much everyone he’d ever known was dead or… worse. Not just his family, but friends and acquaintances, even the families of his friends.
Only one family was still alive, that he’d known from before, and they hadn’t been particularly close.
There was no one left, really. And he just knew that staying in Miami, even after the portions that’d been destroyed had been rebuilt, would only make it harder on Kizzy and him.
Bandersnatch looked surprised, though still in control, at his sudden proclamation, blinking her eyes two times before she replied.
“I understand, really; however, we’ll have to see what social services say to-“
He drew on his power. He’d gotten to know it quite well, over the last week – it wasn’t terribly complicated, unlike his parents’ powers, which had both had some pretty weird intricacies; the first and most obvious aspect was that, while manifesting had fixed his eyes so he no longer needed his glasses, activating his power made the world go out of focus beyond about twenty feet around him, as if he still needed to wear glasses, except for anything close enough.
Its main effect, though, was the way it messed with time. For every ten seconds he spent in real time, he saved up one second that he could then put inbetween other seconds, but only for himself and anyone he took along for the ride, essentially giving him more time to work with anyone else had. The only limit he’d found, other than the limited store of seconds he could save up, was that he couldn’t cram more than two additional seconds into any one, no matter how many he’d saved up.
Still, being able to move and think three times as fast as anyone else was nothing to sneeze at.
Tapping his power, he trippled his time, and zipped across the room, away from Bandersnatch, and then back, arms folded and looking up at her, sternly.
“I think the UH’ll want to pull some strings on our behalf.”