14.a.5 Out of Time

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Jared ran through slowed, sluggy time. Over rubble and around rubble, vaulting over people frozen in place, most still oblivious to what was coming.

Not that he himself really knew what was coming, other than that it was bad.

And so he ran, pushing as many seconds into his time as possible, and it still didn’t feel like it was enough – the calamity, whatever it was, was edging forward, spreading; it had already enveloped Mindstar and was reaching the edge of the crater, towards the Dark and the others whom had gathered there.

I could help them, came a treacherous little thought. Maybe, if I use up all my stored time, I could save one or two.

But doing so meant splitting his time. Taking just one other person along for the ride, it’d halve his remaining time. Two people, he’d be down to a third.

The city was too damaged, even if he found his bike, he could not possibly use it to speed things up. Even now, running away on his own, even with time slowed to such a degree that even the most precariously unstable rubble could not shift beneath his weight, or at least not in time to matter, even now it was wearisome and difficult, to run and climb over it all – and his power actually boosted his endurance a great deal!

No, he couldn’t help anyone, except maybe himself. Not even his team.

As if on cue, he caught sight of the boss and the buttboy, the former standing tall, stalwart as ever, a hand on his boyfriend’s shoulder as the latter knelt over another cape he didn’t recognize. One of the boss’s feet was touching said cape’s shoulder, spreading his power over them as well.

He could tell, because here, in this world, it actually had a visible effect, causing the three of them to look washed-out, colorless. He could no more affect them now than he could outside his power – he couldn’t even give them any of his time, to bring them up to his speed.

At least you two’ll be safe, he thought, with that usual stab of jealousy he got when he saw the two of them together. It was a small one, the kind he often felt when he saw people his age in a relationship, but it was there, nonetheless. Why can’t I have that? was what it said, each damn time.

At least the Kitty and Osore were so weird about their relationship, he didn’t feel jealous of them, too. Most of the time. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if Osore didn’t give a crap about her, and was just so apathetic he didn’t care when she hung off of him or kissed him.

Dude was scary.

And also likely to die, along with his girlfriend, if I don’t help.

He shook his head, and focused as he got to a particularly difficult section – a collapsed building that stood in the way of the straightest line away from the time-explosion, too broad to feasibly run around and be faster than try to scale it.

And scale it he did, leaping and crawling as necessary, using broken bits of concrete and cracked glass that should never have borne his weight as footholds without even shifting them, scaling a good twenty feet of rubble to reach the peak.

From there, he could finally see the area beyond the desolation. The suburbs to the South-West of New Lennston, to be precise. Where he’d taken Kizzy, to keep her out of the fight and as safe as can be.

There was no telling, though, how far this explosion was going to reach. The normal rules clearly didn’t apply here.

So, he was going to run there, grab Kizzy, and take her as far away as he could. Carry her, running, away from the devastation, like he had before, and like he was likely to again, in the future, as long as that monster persisted.

He looked over his shoulder, back the way he’d come. The slow-motion explosion had spread further, crawling forth. He couldn’t say what’d become of the Dark, he’d been on the other side of the explosion from where Jared had started running, but tendrils of it were already reaching for some of the people standing at or near the edge of the crater. They were too far away to tell whether any of them had even started to react to it. If they’d even get a chance at it.

Fuck, they’re all dead, aren’t they?

Not just his team, but everyone else within reach. Well, maybe not the princess. Certainly not the Dark. But the rest of his team, sans the boss and the buttboy. Jugs, Kitty, Osore. Bismuth was probably still somewhere in there. The adults. Hecate and Tyche, though he hadn’t seen Tyche earlier.

Now there was a girl he thought he could have a relationship with. Heroic, gorgeous, fun-loving, easygoing, just the right amount of crazy and flirty.

I hope your luck doesn’t run out here of all times, Red.

He looked down at his feet, feeling shame well up within him. He couldn’t possibly help. Even if he might have, at first, he’d run too far away by now, and every second he dithered up here was another second lost. All he could hope to achieve was to die together with his friends.

He had to think of Kizzy, first.

I’m sorry, everyone. I wish I was stronger.

With tears in his eyes, he turned away from the battlefield…


… and found himself staring at his clock, red digits floating before a pure white background, measuring the minute and a half of time he had left to spend.


He blinked, and when his eyes opened again, the digits were no longer floating freely before the whiteness. Instead, he saw an incredibly long display, like what one would see on an old-fashioned digital clock, stretching to the left and right, circling around him as he turned his head – a perfect ring of a display, filled with bright red numbers separated by blinking colons.

And there weren’t just the seconds and minutes he was used to seeing whenever he closed his eyes. No, the digits continued to the right, and circled nearly entirely around the display, back to the minute digits at the front. He didn’t even know the words for the measurements, and he wasn’t sure there were any. Hundreds of thousands of digits, millions, time defined and measured out to an incredible, impractical degree, measured out far, far past the point of practicality for human action, thought, even conception.

Measured out to an inhuman degree.

Most of the numbers weren’t moving, but for the digits at the very end, that is to say, directly to the left of the minute digits. The smallest measure of time his power knew, ticking down at what felt like a snail’s pace, the display changing so slowly he could see the old digit fade out and the new one brighten up in slow motion.

… : 31

… : 30

He blinked again, and once more the sight was changed. Where before there had been but a white backdrop, there were now shapes, barely visible. Like looking at something move within a bank of mist, except one couldn’t see the thing itself, only the way it affected the mist.

Vast, vast shapes moved in jerky motions behind the display. Gears, spools, levers. Disconnected, seemingly, as if pieces between them were missing, or perhaps simply not visible yet.

As he watched, one of the largest gears shifted a little bit, a fraction of a turn; it set off a lever that seemed to need at least one more gear between them to be set off, snapping up to strike at and bounce off of… nothing?

… : 29

“What the hell is going on!? Hello!?!” he shouted, turning around in place, looking for a clue.

As he did, the scenery changed again, the giant gear shifting one more position ahead and causing the lever to bounce off of something, audibly this time, like a giant clockwork making all a single, vast motion; and by the time he was looking at the ‘front’ again, the gears and levers and other pieces had become visible, made of strange metals that didn’t look right to his eye, with fine strands of something spun between them, being threaded through the titanic clockwork.

Time. It’s threading time, he comprehended, without knowing why or how he did so.

… : 28

He himself stood atop another giant gear, made of some kind of brassy-golden material that was too rough to be metal and too smooth to be stone.

And then something else moved. Something vast, so vast he could barely comprehend its motion, and not just because it was effectively invisible, an outline in the mist, only this was an outline in the light; something that’d been draped around and over some of the gears, levers and the display itself, lazily, like some kind of gargantuan snake.

He thought he saw the outline of a hand, fingers, though he couldn’t make out how many fingers; but certainly more than five.

The… whatever it was, it almost seemed to reach for him, and he took an instinctive step back, raising his arms in defense – not that it would’ve done any good.

But it stopped short of reaching him, and instead, pointed down at the display directly in front of him (yet so far away he wasn’t sure he could ever reach it).

The numbers there, they flickered, as Jared lowered his arms and stared; shifting through numbers, letters, then disappearing, nearly all but a few to form a single message.


YES || >NO

The little triangle pointing at the ‘No’ disappeared, and appeared next to the ‘Yes’, then faded and appeared at the ‘No’ again, flickering back and forth between them.

His jaw worked, wordlessly, for a moment, as he processed it all, intuitions coming into his mind he’d never have thought of on his own. “I…”

“Beware,” a new voice spoke, from the left.

Jared jumped and squeaked in a way that his friends would certainly have had a laugh about, whirling about to look at the intruder in a place he’d never, ever have expected to see one.

The figure before him was… indistinct, though in a different way to the  thing on his clock. It was humanoid, certainly, human-like even, but it was hard to make out more; completely white from head to toe, it seemed to consist of dozens or more people, all overlapping each other, but no two of them quite the same in dimensions, blurring the outline of the gestalt into a flickering, shifting mess. There were no facial features he could make out, nor any other identifying features at all, really.

It turned its head away from the clock, and looked – he presumed – straight at him. “You should think again, whether you want to say yes,” it spoke, its voice an inummerable chorus. “This is not a choice you can walk back.”

“I, I think I know that,” he replied, looking away from it and up at the question on the clock’s display. “This, this is what they call a swan song, right?”

“It’s the option of one,” the figure clarified. “A choice, you have to make, here, beyond the reach of other people. To give your life, in a way, in exchange for power. A great deal of power, if for a limited… time.”

“Enough power to save everyone?” he asked, choked up.

The figure seemed to pause, for a moment. “No. Not everyone, not by yourself. This area’s always been fragile, ever since the Beginning; the incursion she’s set off will spread, unless counter-acted appropriately.”

“Spread, how far?” he asked, dazed. This was all, too damn much.

“Far enough you may not be able to get Keziah to safety, without this power,” the strange thing retorted.

It was like a drop of super-freeze dropped into a bucket of water, causing ice to spread all throughout Jared’s body, as he imagined those eldritch bolts and tendrils spreading far enough to reach his little sister and…

His imagination shut down at that point, mercifully.

“There’s no way to stop this?” he asked, hoarsely. There were tears in his eyes, that he wasn’t bothering to wipe away.

“None you could walk on your own, nor one I could tell you of.”

“Who… who are you?” he finally asked, turning his head to look at the stranger, his shoulders slumping. He felt so tired.

“Merely a friend,” it replied, simply and with finality.

The mechanism advanced one more step, and Jared found that the entirety of their surroundings were now taken up by titanic a titanic clockwork engine.

“I never would have thought a swan song would look like this,” he said, when it became obvious it wouldn’t further elaborate.

The stranger shrugged, and turned away to look up at the clock and the still-invisible giant sprawled all around and over it. “It is different for everyone whom this offer is extended to. Everyone’s world is quite different after all.” It looked around at their surroundings. “This clock of yours is quite interesting, really. So many details, hidden beneath the surface. Still, it is hardly the time for idle chatter.” It turned its head to look at him. “What is going to be your choice?”

Jared looked away again, up at the clock. If I’d been asked a few seconds earlier…

He would have said no. It was the only thing he could have said. No matter what else, Kizzy had to take precedence, and he had to be alive to take care of Kizzy.

But now… this stranger, this ‘friend’ had said that he might not be able to get her to safety on his own. Certainly not with his power as it was, and maybe even accepting a swan song wouldn’t be enough? But it would be more likely to be enough.

Then there was the question of whether this… person… was even trustworthy. There were two reasons, mainly why he accepted what he said, though – one, it just fit how shitty the world was too well, and two, if someone untrustworthy had access to him here, at what felt and seemed to be the very center of his power, well… then he was fucked, anyway.

So in the end, it all came down to the whether he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kizzy’s sake.

All I do, I do for you, Keziah.

He reached out with his hand, pointing at the ‘Yes’ option, and the triangle switched over.

The display flickered, as the words were replaced.


The invisible thing rose up – and then came down, smashing through the gears and springs and levers of power.


And again.

As if in a frenzy, it struck and lashed out, like a snake – or arm – possessed, smashing the machinery around them, the cacophony of destruction utterly defeaning, driving Jared to stagger back and nearly fall over.

Time that had before been threaded carefully through the system poured forth like liquid light, rushing towards him, as the display flickered, danced with disjointed lights, and then went black, all black, save for a single red symbol.

The light rushed forth and into Jared, faster and harder than he could react, into his mouth and down before he could even gasp for breath, let alone screaming, filling him to bursting and beyond.


He exploded into motion, leaping off the giant mound of rubble he’d been standing upon. Still in the air, he felt his vision change, sharpening; even with his helmet’s visor set to let him see beyond the boundaries of his power’s sphere, at the cost of being unable to see his immediate surroundings as anything but a blurry mess, the two halves of his vision focused, independently, until an equilibrium was reached, and he could see clearly, both near and far – further than ever before, all the way to the horizon.

Reaching up with one hand, he touched his helmet, to pull it off – but he could not move it, and when he touched it, he felt his hand, like he was touching his face; except he felt the helmet, through his hand.

Even as he touched it, it smoothed out, shifted. Merging with his face, he realized, as he felt the air rush past his body on the approach to the ground, as if naked.

My costume is becoming a part of me?

He’d heard the stories about Swan Songs, how weird things got. That people who underwent one, they changed before dying. It was a poorly understood thing, unsurprisingly. Swan Songs were rare to begin with, they could not be triggered deliberately (and who would want to, really?) and they rarely lasted for long, on top of only really happening during times of crisis.

His thoughts were disrupted as he landed on the broken ground, on all fours. The impact was barely a consideration, even lighter than it would usually be. Less than ten percent effect.

Time was pouring out of him, beyond any reason, extending his seconds beyond what he’d ever been capable of.

His body moved, lightly, as if he was weightless, leaping forth away from the suburbs. Arms and legs moved in strange synchronicity, bending oddly, the forelimbs lengthened to let him run on them properly.

He didn’t have much time, he knew that. And just grabbing Kizzy and running with her, he didn’t think that was going to be enough.

No, if he was doing this, he had to do it smart.

His power was such that, he was quite certain he could have grabbed Kizzy and run halfway across the continental United States, if he’d so wished. Or the other way, across the ocean.

And yet, the stranger had said that may only maybe save her.

Just how big an explosion is this going to be?

There was only one person he could think of, that might be able to tell him, who was also within reach.

And so he ran towards the ‘incursion’.

It looked different, now. Its rate of progress had slowed, almost to a stand-still, but where before it had looked like some kind of negative light, black cracks spreading like slow-motion lightning, it now looked alive to his eyes. Red, like molten rubies, and pulsing, ripples running up and down the stuff at such speeds, he could barely follow them even now, with time slowed to a near-stand-still.

It looks like blood, he realized. Pulsing like there’s a heart, somewhere in there, beating.

He ran towards the tendrils of bloody light, soon entering the area where the glow they gave off tinted everything a deep, shimmering red. Entering it was like suddenly plunging into water, as if the light it gave off had real mass, impeding his motions; but he pressed through regardless, forcing himself to keep going.

And the closer he got to it, the more he felt his body change. Saw his body change, as the arms that were reaching ahead of him, to grab onto the ground and propel him forward, elongated and smoothed out, what had once been his suit becoming his skin, his skin becoming like crystal; and the crystal cracked, cracks spreading through it, through which came forth a stark white glow that seemed unaffected by the red glow of the incursion, pushing it away, even, rather than mixing together.

That wasn’t even the weirdest part. As he passed other people, he found that they, too, looked changed. The metahumans, at least. From a distance, they just looked as he would have expected them to, merely washed out in red, but whenever he passed close enough to one or some for his bubble of light to cover them, if partially, the oddest sight took place. He saw things, beyond them, as if they were lenses that refocused his light, projecting strange visions beyond them.

There, a girl he’d seen on some show before, in a black bodysuit so tight it would have been utterly indecent, if not for the red, brown and orange leafs stuck to it in swirling patterns, some of them covering the most critical areas. As he passed her by, she became a lens that showed him a vast, autumn-colored forest, only it was a forest without a sky, without earth or animals or anything but the trees and their leafs, growing everywhere, above, below, to the sides.

He ran past her, and then past his two teammates and the cape they’d been helping, but yet again, they were dead to his power, washed out grey figures whether they were within or without his bubble.

Boss’s power is really fucking hardcore.

He ran in a loping kind of gait through this silent, red world, the light shining forth from him growing stronger, until it reached as far as his bubble usually did, casting his immediate surroundings in stark clarity, while everything beyond the bubble was frozen redness and shadows. As the red light was pushed away, it became easier for him to move; still underwater, perhaps, but now he was running inside an air bubble that moved with him.

Soon, his path took him around the red stuff, and there he saw what he’d been looking for – the frozen form of the Dark, a tall, jet-black mass of shadow, legless, as if fused to the ground, the tendrils of red stuff curving around him.

Jet black.

Even standing right in front of the glowing red stuff, its light did not seem to touch him at all – not only was the Dark himself as, dark, as usual, but there was an entire area around him, a bubble two times as big as the one around himself, that the red stuff could not penetrate – instead, it had wrapped halfway around it, enveloping the Dark like amber around an air pocket. Where Jared’s bubble was filled with incandecent light, however, the Dark’s was filled with something much bleaker, much harsher, casting everything within the bubble in stark relief.

He immediately found a new obstacle – the bubble was nearly solid, to him. His own bubble deformed around it, rather than overlap, and when he came up against it, it was very nearly solid, denser by far than the Incursion’s own… whatever it was. Aura. Presence.

A problem, whatever he chose to call it. Pressing against it was like trying to push spun glass into old, extra-thick honey – he felt like his spiffy new crystal arms were going to snap, any moment.

He looked at the ground to cover, before he could reach the Dark. His new arms were about ten feet long, and he could cover about as many feet with a single step. There were about sixty feet of harsh, bleak-lit space between him and the Dark.

Five steps and then reaching out. You can do it, Jared.

He leaned into the Dark’s bubble, shoulder first, to spare his fragile-feeling arms the pressure, slowly, laboriously, forcing his body into the oppressive light.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt, not quite. He wasn’t sure he could feel real pain anymore, with his body the way it was. But he felt the pressure, constricting him, pressing against his body from every which way, unevenly – far more heavily on the parts of him closer to the Dark than not. The increase in pressure was so rapid, so intense, he actually could feel the difference, inch by inch, compacting him, crushing, restraining, cracking the crystals of his body, so dense it seemed to actually dim the light shining from within, rather than have more of it spill forth from the fresh cracks.

He was less than a foot in yet!

Thank God I don’t need to breathe anymore, he thought, as he took his first, laborious step into this oppressive bubble. Cracks spread further over his red-and-white skin, shining with dim, almost condensed light.

It felt like he was dying. Even without the need to breathe – he hadn’t even realized he wasn’t breathing anymore, until he wasn’t able to and found he didn’t need to –  the pressure was too much. One step, but he’d ended up taking less than five feet with it, for he just couldn’t force it in that far. Three feet crossed, at best. He’d need nearly double the steps… more, if the pressure increased even further.

Nevertheless, he took the next step. He was dying anyway – what was there left to lose?

The only thing that could still scare him now was the thought of failing to save Kizzy, and that was certainly a reason to move forward, and not retreat.

Step by step, he wandered deeper into the oppressive bleakness, feeling his body break down, pieces of crystalline costume-flesh flaking off to reveal more of the glowing innards, and yet, he somehow kept finding the strength to move on, step by laborious step.

It took him ages – in a second – to finally reach the Dark’s towering, time-frozen form. By that point, his body had broken down nearly entirely, leaving him as a dim, solid silhouette of white light, framed by an irregular lattice of silvery crystal strands.

Even now, grown to more than twice his height, he was smaller than the Dark, stooped over as he was, pushed down by the oppressive weight.

As he approached him, strange strands became visible, tendrils of… something, that extended out from his form in every direction, frozen in place – they did not seem solid, but rather made of some kind of black mist, frozen mid-swirl in some places, solidified into strands in others, until they trailed off into nothingness…

He could not guess as to their meaning or purpose, but there had to be thousands of them, if not tens of thousands, though curiously, there were none in the direction he was approaching from.

Those barely visible faces were still all over the Dark’s form, as well, frozen in place, rather than constantly shifting, which made it easier to make them out.

He tried really hard not to make them out.

Instead, he reached out, laborious inch by inch, until he could put his hand onto the Dark’s left arm, at the elbow.

His form flickered, the light within pulsing, from his core to his arm, from his arm into the Dark. The entire form twitched, shuddering from head to… bottom, the faces animating only to disappear into the greater darkness, as the strands came alive, extending every which way, twisting, twitching, dissolving and reforming, still trailing off into nothing.

The tall, shadow-wreathed figure turned his head, looking down at him, while pulses of white light kept flowing into him, providing him with a share of Jared’s time.

Six glowing red eyes focused on him, as the pressure mercifully disappeared.

Jared shuddered, nearly losing his grip on the man, as his entire form unwound, no longer restricted – like a spring that’d been compressed, only to suddenly be released, he nearly doubled in size, all parts of him swelling as his inner light blazed forth.

He would have lost his grip on the Dark, by his own sudden growth, but his arm split, from the elbow up to between middle and ring finger, only for light to pour forth and form two whole forearms and hands, one still holding onto the Dark with unnaturally long fingers.

Crystal began to grow atop his glowing flesh, like ice forming on a surface when the temperature fell sharply, and soon he was – mostly – whole again, covered in crystal with pulsing vein-like cracks running through it.

“One would think I would get used to this, but even after nigh-on a century, I still can’t quite stomach a child dying in front of me,” the Dark spoke, pensively.

“It was either me, or everyone else. I think,” Jared replied.

The Dark seemed to hear it, though. “Ah. Did a Friend tell you that?”

Of course he knows…

He just nodded.

The Dark sighed, and looked over his shoulder. “An Incursion… of course,” he spoke, and even through the distorted chorus of his many voices, he sounded incredibly, unbelievably tired.

“What’s going to happen?” Jared asked, while he kept sharing his time with the Dark.

“The Incursion will reach out for every metahuman within a radius of… four and a half miles, just about,” the Dark said, hand raised to stroke his shadowy chin. “Each metahuman it connects to will then become an amplifier, extending the effect – exponentially so. Every other metahuman whom falls within the extended range will extend it in turn, and every baseline within that range will also become connected, though they won’t boost the effect further.”

“That… what… and then what?” That sounded horrific, considering how this thing already looked.

“Something worse than mere death, young man,” the Dark replied, simply. “Fortunately, thanks to the choice you made, we have a chance to avert the worst of it, by moving every metahuman here beyond its initial reach.”

Jared shuddered, his new form creaking with the motion, still growing, though not as explosively as before.

“What about, Mindstar?” he asked, looking towards where the woman still ought to be – if there was anything left of her.

The Dark looked in the same direction. “We cannot reach her, I’m afraid. Perhaps her shields will be enough to prevent a connection… she is clearly far more powerful than even I suspected, which is frankly rather disconcerting when- ah, no matter.”

He made a dismissive hand motion, as if he was tossing the thought aside.

“Let us focus. You could share your time with other people, in the past, to pull them into your pocketed timestream. Your capacity to do so ought to have increased considerably now.” It was a statement, not a question. “We need to extend your power to everyone else here, so they can move out of the Incursion’s range.”

“I’m not sure I have enough time left to do that,” Jared replied, looking down at the Dark – he’d grown a few feet, since they’d started talking. “This thing is spreading, even now, even though we’re progressing at one hundredth of a second!”

He looked at the tendrils of redness extending from the central mass that filled out the crater. They’d crept closer already.

“Even if I had time enough to spare, I don’t think I could get to everyone in time, I’d still need to run to everyone, pull them into my time, get them to safety, run back, over and over and the way you described it, if it connects to just one person…”

He trailed off, unable to put it into words.

“Fear not,” the Dark said, calmly, moving away from the Incursion, his bottom half sliding over the rubble without disturbing it. Jared followed, keeping his hand on the Dark’s shoulder, as those strange tendrils flowed out behind him, trailing his path. No matter which way the Dark turned or moved, it seemed like the tendrils always extended every which way around him, but towards Jared. “You were wise to come to me, first. Together, we can save everyone.”

There was not a doubt in his voice that Jared could detect, and he felt oddly reassured by it, which was just freaky because the Dark was being reassuring. His parents used to sing poems about how horrible a monster he was, to get him to behave, telling him that the Dark would come for him if he stole cookies from the cookie jar or didn’t pick up after himself.

“Cool. Great, I mean… yeah,” he stammered, unsure of what to say, while they put distance between themselves and the Incursion. “Speaking of saving everyone…”

The Dark looked over his shoulder at him, and there was something strangely sad about the expressionless shadow one could see, crushing Jared’s faintest hope before he could even speak.

“I’m sorry, but no, young man. Saving you, is beyond me at this point, beyond any means I am aware or even suspecting of,” he replied, his choir-like voice tender, like many greaving people layered on top of one another. “You have tipped over the edge… like an object which has crossed a singularity’s event horizon, there is now only one way to go for you, and that is not the way back.”

Jared lowered his head, briefly. It had been a faint hope, barely hope really, but still, it hurt to have it squashed.

“Focus, now. We have a great task to perform.” As he spoke, the Dark raised a long-fingered hand and put it onto Jared’s side – he had grown so tall, even the Dark could no longer reach any higher, as toll and long-armed as he may have been. “Do you have any last words you wish me to know or convey? Any last wishes?”

Jared looked at him, and if he’d still had eyes, they would have been staring. If he’d still had a mouth, it would have been slack-jawed. Entrust his last words to the Dark? Yet another thing he’d never ever have dreamed.

There were some things, though, that he would want to say, some things that… that mattered…

“Tell, the boss and… I mean, tell Tartsche and Spellgun… and the others, on my team, tell them goodbye. Tell them not to miss me too much, but not too little, either. Tell Polymnia I’m sorry I was such a jerk to her, and… tell the princess the same. I should’ve been nicer to her. And… that she’s not stupid, for the things she hopes for. Honestly, I think it’s rather awesome that she can hold on to that kind of hope.”

The words were spilling out of him, faster than he could think about them. “Tell Amazon she was a rockin’ boss, and tell Bismuth thank you, for everything she did for Kizzy. She’s awesome, and I’m sorry about what happened to her sister. And… tell Kizzy, that… that I’m sorry.”

He hesitated, because entrusting the Dark with words was one thing, but asking for something more… I hope to God you’re right about your dad, princess.

Jared raised his head – slightly, for he was too tall to see eye-to-eye with the Dark anymore, but enough to look him in the eyes. “And, my sister, Kizzy… she doesn’t really have anyone, won’t have anyone, once I’m gone…” A foster family is not the same as having a family. There won’t be anyone to watch out for her once she’s older. The UH will make sure she won’t lack money, but…

“I shall provide what protection and resources I can. You have my word,” the Dark spoke, and it was with the same casual conviction with which he’d said they could save everyone.

Something within Jared relaxed, like a knot, slightly unwound. He still wouldn’t be there for her himself, but at least, this way, he’d done all he could.

Almost done, all he could. He still had to stop this ‘Incursion’.

“How are we going to do this?” he asked, once he’d regained his composure.

“Behold.” The villain gestured dramatically with his free hand, and a shadowy form burst forth from the mass of shadows that ringed the pillar of his lower body.

A spindly, emaciated humanoid figure, made of an oily black substance, wreathed in shadows, burst forth – a Darkwraith, but a small one, it was basically just a torso, arms and an eyeless head, using its arms to drag itself forward at an impressive speed.

As it separated from the Dark, a strand of darkness remained, like the countless others that extended from his form, except this one seemed more – it was solid, rather occasionally dissolving into dust-like darkness before reforming, and it extended, at first, from where the Dark’s feet ought to be, to beneath the wraith’s form… to its stomach?

An umbilical cord? As if this couldn’t get any more disturbing.

Light pulsed down the cord, from the Dark to the wraith… from Jared to the Dark.

He’s sharing my time with the wraith. Holy-

The wraith rushed forth, trailing the umbilical, which moved up the Dark’s body as it extended, as if pulled out, until it connected to the pinky of his free left hand.

Jared could feel the drain of time, as he was now sharing it between three.

Four, as another wraith burst forth, fed pulses of time through its umbilical.

Six, as two more appeared.

Ten. Eighteen. More.

His growth accelerated, as he found his thoughts drifting into a strange state, the sensations his body was feeding back to him changing in ways he had no words to describe.

The Dark moved, pulling himself up to stand atop Jared’s left shoulder, right hand on his head, hundreds of cords extending from his left hand, like a puppeteer’s strings, with pulses of time-light trailing down their length.

Those cords… if each is a wraith…

Even with his thoughts becoming strangely dream-like, he could still draw the implication.

There were thousands of currently inert cords extending from the Dark’s form, and more joined them every passing moment as Jared grew in stature, and his awareness expanded in breadth and depth.

“Just how many wraiths do you have out there?” he asked, and his voice was huge, booming forth in strange ways, as if it produced its own echo; his body was as large now as Crocell had been at its biggest.

The more of my power I draw, the more I change, he realized. The less human I become.

“Never enough,” the Dark answered his question, even though Jared had already half-forgotten he’d asked it. He sounded resigned. “There’s never enough of me to go around. Never enough of anyone.”

Hundreds of wraiths were running to the people around the area, and merging with them.

The people came to life, as the wraiths became a part of them, connecting them to the Dark’s hand, fingertips to their navels.

The first few looked confused at first, then horrified at what they saw, as they looked either at the cords of oily darkness connecting to them, or up at the titanic figure that was Jared, or at the Dark, whom stood upon his shoulder like some kind of twisted pet.

Then they moved, and the motion was strange, starting suddenly – after a moment’s confusion, Jared’s new senses allowed him to see what was happening, the Dark’s intent moving down the cords, along with the time they were meant to convey, pushing everyone to flee.

“What about them?” Jared asked, pointing with one of the dozen arms he now sported at the little group under the aegis of Tartsche’s power. No wraith had connected to either of them.

No, his name was… what was his name, I don’t…

“We cannot connect to them,” the Dark replied, calmly, his attention focused on managing his many, many wraiths. “Neither can the Incursion – they will be safe.”

Jared tilted his head, only he didn’t tilt it spatially, but in a different way, like tilting it in time, and he looked ahead.

The Dark was right. He couldn’t see any future in which they were harmed by these events.

Since when can I look into the future? he asked himself.

“Don’t focus too hard on that,” the Dark told him, firmly, his voice somehow able to penetrate the dream-like haze that the boy’s thoughts were descending into. “We are already using up your time too quickly – don’t waste it on looking ahead.”

Did I say that out loud?

“There is no longer a distinction between what you think and what you express. Be very careful,” the Dark explained, patiently, as heroes, villains and bystanders were moved out of reach of the Incursion.

The awareness of the thing that had once been a boy extended in twists and turns that would have made no sense to the human it once was; and it could perceive, though not see, everyone within a great distance. People were moving to safety. Some faster than others, but all were moving, either under their own power, or being helped by others whom could move quickly and carry loads.

It wanted to help, to reach out with its many arms and help those whom were wounded, those whom were weak or just naturally slow, to get them to safety, but it knew the truth of the Dark’s words – it was spending time in colossal amounts, and anything it did threatened to spend even more, to make it even less human; and deep down inside it knew, once the process was far enough along, it would slip away and be drawn in to… to whatever was to come.

“Focus on what matters,” the Dark commanded, his alien voice cutting through the daze and straight to the mind of the boy within the thing. “Cast out your anchors. As long as you have at least one, you can prolong your existence, and save so many more people.”

The thing did so, seeking the boy’s memory’s for what mattered.

What did matter…

All that we do, we do for her.

Yes… a promise made, at the start and at the end of it all. A promise the boy made to himself, for the sake of his sister.

His sister… Keziah. Kizzy.

Kizzy had once had a brother… had a brother… and that brother’s name had been…

Jared. My name is Jared. I am Kizzy’s big brother, the boy thought as he awakened from the daze of power.

His titanic form shuddered, and shrank down by nearly half – and instead, time slowed even more, as he squeezed nearly twenty more seconds into each real second.

The Incursion’s progress was slowed even further.

“Impressive. What a tragedy, that one with such fortitude of mind is to die.” The Dark actually sounded genuinely aggrieved by it.

“It’s alright,” Jared said, slowly, his voice rumbling along, echoing off of nothing… or at least, nothing in this reality, at least. “I’ll last long enough to finish this.”

“As you say, young hero,” he said, and then turned away again, focusing on his wraiths and the people they connected to.

Meanwhile, Jared held onto his memories, his self, for as long as he could… piece by piece, losing them, as they moved on ahead to await him on the other side.

Finally, the Dark managed to move the last person out of reach of the Incursion. By that time, Jared had long since forgotten speech entirely, and so the shadow man merely bowed, deeply, and shot away.

With there no longer being a need to conserve time, he couldn’t resist the temptation to spend what he had left to look ahead, to see what would become of Kizzy.

Pain and heartbreak, grief and sorrow, horror and despair. But also… pushing past that… he got a glimpse, of a girl, a young woman, in costume, standing tall among a line of heroes.

She was going to shine brighter than he ever could.

Jared closed eyes he no longer had. His final thoughts were of his parents and his sister.

And then he was no more.

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B008.4 Depression

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A minus 7 Days

You never know how much four walls and a roof over your head are worth until you have to go a whole day in winter without them.

I’d spent the night in a cheap motel room at the edge of the Shades, paying twenty dollars for a room that was smaller than our tool shed back home and even less comfortable. In retrospect, I’d probably let them rip me off, but I’d never had to deal with money like this before, and so I was down to eighty dollars from the hundred I’d gotten from Laura and the others.

Stupid. So stupid.

I’d eaten a breakfast in a fast-food restaurant that tasted more like paper and sugar than real food (three more dollars) and wandered through the city, aimlessly, until I’d spent five dollars on food from a very cheap, but surprisingly good Greek imbiss (the breakfast had only made me more hungry). How the hell did those fast food chains stay in business with food that bad?

Of course, when the sun began to set, I was forcefully reminded that I was still in the Shades and that the protection afforded to me by the reputation of teenage metas only went so far – desperate people are unlikely to think about the possible consequences of their actions (the irony of that statement was not lost to me).

And so I was mugged for the first time in my life, by two men who couldn’t be more than five years older than me, dressed in rags I hadn’t seen outside of halloween costumes and wielding a switchknife and a stick, respectively. I probably could have fought them off, or at least run away, but… I’d just given them fifty dollars, saying that was all I had. They believed me, or at least they thought that was more than enough money, and fled quickly.

I didn’t know how to feel about that. Sure, I was down to twenty-two dollars, from a hundred, in less than a day by myself, but compared to everything else, it just didn’t seem all that important. I thought I couldn’t possible feel any more miserable than I already did.

Boy was I in for a surprise. There is no situation that can’t be made worse by having to sleep in an abandoned house, the temperature outside below the freezing point and with only two old, moth-eaten blankets for warmth.

And the cold wasn’t the worst part of it.

No, the worst thing was that you only had yourself for company. Only your own thoughts. You couldn’t help but facing yourself.

No wonder so many people on the streets go crazy.

* * *

A minus 6 Days

I woke up with the sound of an explosion and a tremor that shook the building I had slept in. Before I was even fully woken up, there was another explosion, a scream and then… silence.

Standing up, I kept the blankets wrapped around myself as I staggered to the old, broken window of what had once been a bedroom. I pulled the blanket I’d hunger over it to keep the cold out aside and looked out. searching for the source of the disturbance.

Five houses down the road, the Greek imbiss I’d eaten at yesterday was on fire. As I watched, still numb from the restless sleep, a black figure shrouded in scarlet fire stepped out, dragging a charred corpse by its leg. It looked around, its gaze momentarily passing over me, before it simply walked down the road, dragging the corpse behind it.

That was my second day alone.

* * *

A minus 4 Days

I’d never known being hungry could hurt so much. Since I wasn’t going to go home anytime soon, I had to ration my money out. On my strolls through the Shades, I’d found a soup kitchen for homeless people. I didn’t look like their normal customers, but I looked (and smelled) ragged enough by now to pass muster, and I got two bowls of soup with bread and one sandwich a day.

Which was barely enough to keep me going through the Winter weather, and they knew that, but they barely had the resources to keep operating, as I learned from listening to the more talkative (and lucid) guests.

This was a whole new world for me. I’d never even seen a homeless person in real life, only on the television. Now I was sharing my meal with them, even though I didn’t talk to them. And they didn’t talk to me, either.

I’ve never been too good at reading people, but I felt like they knew I was going through something bad and they respected my need to be left alone.

They’ve probably been… no, bullshit. They are at rock bottom.

It felt strangely… comforting, being there.

* * *

A minus 3 Days

When I woke up on my fifth day, my coat, my blankets and the last of my money were gone.

It had rained (instead of snowing) yesterday, and my coat had been drenched before I’d managed to get to shelter, so I’d hung it up in the bedroom, huddling in my blankets.

Then I woke up, an hour before sunrise, freezing because all my blankets were gone. And my coat. And the money I’d kept in the breast pocket of the coat.

After having my sister die, my parents act like jackasses, almost getting my sister’s friends killed and going on the run from my family, from… everything, I didn’t think I could actually feel worse. I thought having to spend the nights, and most of each day, with just myself was bad enough.

Now it was worse. The… knowledge that someone had stolen from me only made me feel worse. The money, I could understand. The coat… worse, but alright.

But the blankets?

* * *

A minus 2 Days

The people at the shelter had given me a spare coat that was left, not having fit anyone else among the people they usually get.

It helped, but only a little. I’d tried to sleep at the abandoned house again, but I just couldn’t. It didn’t feel safe anymore.

I’d heard of people who’d had burglars break into their homes, and they moved out soon thereafter, no longer able to feel safe in their own homes, and I’d thought it hard to believe, but…

So now I was walking around in the streets of the Shades, going from shelter to shelter. Always on the move.

Always hungry.

I looked around the street I was walking on. It must have been one of Los Angeles’ main roads, back in the day, very broad with lots of businesses on both sides.

Most were closed, but I passed by a small kiosk. An old black man in winter clothing was sitting out on a chair, drinking steaming hot coffee.

I stopped when I saw some of his wares. Namely, a series of booklets on a rack. They were coloured brightly, all of them, and I’d never seen that design before.

The three leftmost booklets were black-white, white and black respectively, with the words ‘Light & Dark’, ‘The Shining Guardians’ and ‘The Dark Five’ written on them.

“What are those?” I asked, my voice rough. It’d been a few days since I’d used it for more than single-syllable utterances.

The man looked up at me, eyes dark behind large glasses. “You never seen those, doll?”

Yeah, he really said ‘doll’. The last man to call me that had been my grandpa.

As a reply, I shook my head.

“Well, those are information booklets, on the big names in the cape and cowl world,” he explained. He was pronouncing his words funnily. He’d draw out all the A’s and then say the rest faster than he should. But only the A’s. “So like, you can read up on the big heroes, or the villains. The really notorious ones.”

He looked me up and down, his eyes slightly interested. “Tell you what. First one’s free. Pick one, read up.”

I looked back at the rack. Well, it’ll distract me from my misery, at least.

Looking through the booklets, I found one on ‘Independent Villains’, with the name of Hellhound among the lists of villains it covered. Reaching out, I almost picked it, but…

I took the one on the Dark Five instead. “This one, please.”

“Going for the nightmare fuel, eh?” the man said. “Well, have fun with it. I hope you like horror stories… though that one doesn’t cover Dread Roger or Hannibal Storm or any of that ilk. So not the worst kind of nightmares. And only the current line-up, too.”

I nodded. It was the only one of them I was really interested in, and he was a current member, anyway. “Thank you very much.”

“Don’t thank me yet. Plenty of nightmare fuel in this one, anyway. I’d advise you to skip over Kraquok and the Dowager, if I were you.”

“My nightmares can’t get any worse than they are.”

“That’s a tall thing to say, in this day and age, doll,” he continued, snickering. “Wha’d’you have ’em about that’s worse than this kinda monsters?”

I almost snapped at him, but I didn’t have the energy to. So I just answered, “I see my twin sister dying, over and over.”

That shut him up.

I took the booklet and walked away.

* * *

Codename: Dajisi

Real Name: –

Debut: May 3rd, 2004 in Hong Kong

Joined: March to September 2006

Ratings: Meta 10

Rank: S

The self-styled ‘High Priest of the Five Gods’ first appeared in Hong Kong, committing a series of high-profile murders of so-called heretics – metahumans who were serving baseline humans, whom he considers walking ‘blasphemies’.

He adheres to a philosophy of metahuman superiority not unlike that of Weisswald and other metahuman supremacists, though unlike them, he has no desire to make people as a whole manifest, claiming that those who are destined for manifestation will manifest anyway, and all others should die.

His power is an example of the extremely rare ability of power mimicry, with so far unknown parameters. His cap appears to be the Apex level, and he has so far demonstrated up to four distinct powers at a time. He is, however, capable of taking lesser powers and enhancing them to Apex level when he uses them.

Since joining the Dark Five, he has reduced the number of murders he and his ‘faithful’ commit, and is focusing more on recruiting new converts to his cause. His favourite recruits are teenaged metahumans, especially supervillains and ga-

* * *

-ngmembers and other people who are easily indoctrinated, such as…

“So that’s why…”

That’s why he’d shown up at their hideout out of nowhere. Offering help.

He was looking for new sources of power. And people he could indoctrinate into his religion.

I had to warn them… right?

Would they even believe me? Or care? A chance to work for one of the Five? I quickly leafed through his profile (it was four pages thick, mostly accounts of his more prolific actions – and he had the shortest section), but there seemed to be no known drawbacks for his faithful. The few times they were caught and questioned, they appeared to be of sound mind (as far as any supervillain or fanatic can be) and acting of their own free will. No mental manipulation could ever be detected.

You don’t need superpowers to brainwash people.

I put the booklet into my pocket and ran.

* * *

It took me nearly four hours to find their headquarters again. I ran into it and up.

“Laura!” I shouted. “Jimmy! Fletch!” I ran up the staircase, shouting their names. “Cad!”

I reached the top of the building – everything was as it’d been when I left.

Except there was no one there.

“Peter!” I ran to his corner, where he had all his equipment.

The equipment was still there, but a quick check revealed wiped harddrives. Nothing there.

Their ‘rooms’ were empty of any really personal stuff. Pictures and all, and there were spots where stuff was missing.

I was too late.

* * *

A minus 1 Day

I’d closed the place down (they’d installed shutters on the doors from their level to the stairway and left the keys behind, too) and left. It was a great place to stay, all things considered, but… it didn’t feel right.

And I needed to think, anyway. I’d always been better at thinking about things while on the move, so I went out and… walked. So I’d left and gone for a walk.

It had been early afternoon when I left their place. It was around midnight now, I was sure, and I hadn’t thought much, at all. I didn’t even know where I was, except that I was still in the Shades.

Is this my fault?

I’d gotten them almost killed. They’d been shaken up about Linda already, and I’d used that to get them to go up against someone completely out of their weight class. He’d almost killed Laura.

Easy prey for Dajisi, even if he only offered healing. They’d probably been all too eager to listen to whatever crazy ideology he fed them, if only he’d save Laura. And if he’d brought some kind of mind control or such along…

That’s not your fault, dummy. They made their choices. And if they went along with a murderous whackjob like that, instead of going to a hospital, then they deserve whatever they get.

I mean, the Dark Five were like, the top villains of the world. What kind of sane person would work for them?

Taking out the booklet, I looked at the other four entries.

* * *

Codename: Mindstar

Real Name: –

Debut: March 4th, 2010 in New Lennston

Joined: September 2011

Ratings: Control 9, Manipulation 9, Perception 6, Physique 7

Rank: S

…newest member… serial rapist… enslaved Amazon of the New Lennston United Heroes Division…

Universal Telepath, prefers mind control and mental warfare as opposed to physical confrontations… no known case of assaulting teenagers or any person below sixteen years of age outside of a combat situation…

Nothing much I didn’t know yet about her. She’d had quite the television presence since her debut.

Codename: Lamarr the Purple

Real Name: Markus Birkowich

Debut: October 1st, 1998 in Amsterdam

Joined: December 5th, 1998 to February 3rd, 1999

Ratings: Control 7, Damage 6, Manipulation 10, Movement 13, Morphing 7, Perception 9, Physique 3, Protection 12

Rank: S

Most powerful member in direct combat… bends space for teleportation, protection, hiding weaponry… mind control through hypnosis… can transform into animals or other persons… overall ‘magician’ theme… suspected of several unconfirmed assassinations around the world… debut at age 11…

His section was the longest – his full biography was known, and it was nasty.

This dude sounded like real bad news.

Also, he was hot. There was an artist’s rendition of him, and if he looked even half that good in real life… well, a girl could get ideas, I guess.

Wow, ain’t that shallow, even for me?

Only two left… the two the vendor had warned me against.

I looked at Kraquok first, and almost dropped the booklet when I saw the picture of him. Holy fucking shit! I looked over at his description.

Codename: Kraquok

Real Name: –

Debut: August 3rd, 1927

Joined: Founding Member

Ratings: Damage 4-12, Morphing 1-13, Physique 12, Protection 10

Rank: S

Founding member of the Dark Five… true name unknown… known cannibal, leader of a cult of consummate cannibals… does not harm children… violently assaults and eats child abusers… known archenemy of Severance, founding member of the Shining Guardians…

Extremely strong, fast and tough… regenerates… … grows stronger as he fights… becomes larger and more monstrous… energy breath becomes more powerful… maximum known size, about 150 feet…

Well, damn. He basically turned into Godzilla, only bigger. And meaner, it seemed. Also, he was nearly a century active, and they still didn’t know jack about him?

The list of his crimes read like the wet dream of every horror writer. You could write ten horror novels out of each year, I’d bet. No wonder the vendor had warned me about him.

I turned to the last member. The Dowager. All I knew about her was that she was the Dark’s right hand woman, and supposedly his lover, too.

Codename: The Dowager

Real Name: –

Debut: suspected 1970, in Rio de Janeiro

Joined: unknown, pre-1972

Ratings: Control 7, Meta 8, Perception 9, Spawning 13

Rank: S

Unknown identity… mastermind-type, non-combat member… can detect lies… her power enforces contracts, compelling people to stick to their contracts… capable of enhancing or otherwise adjusting the powers of people that have a contract with her… breaking a contract results in immediate death and the creation of a ‘Shade’ in her service, which holds all powers, skills and memories of the original… suspected lover of the Dark… second-in-command of the Syndicate… known to always keep her word… always accompanied by a large white cat…

Of Hispanic heritage, according to eye witnesses… no detailed description available…

This woman was scary. I mean, damn.

And now the StreetBadgers had been picked up by what appeared to be the least dangerous member of the group.

* * *

I put the damn booklet away.

They’re goners, aren’t they? I mean, I won’t ever see them again.

Why did I want to? I barely knew them, and they hated me. Or at least despised me.

Because they are the last real link to Linda.

But Linda was dead. Dead and gone.

And… and…

I shook my head and walked on. There were storm clouds in the sky, but I didn’t care. I had to walk, clear my head.

Why do I keep distracting myself?

It wasn’t the StreetBadgers that really bothered me.

This had all started with Linda’s death, and I… I’d been lashing out left and right, trying to make sense of it…

No. That’s a lie.

That wasn’t why I’d been lashing out. I remembered that moment in our room, staring at the mirror. I’d asked myself why I looked so guilty.

I’d known back then, already. What was really hounding me. But I’d denied it.

These last few days had forced me to introspect. To face it. But I’d tried to ignore it, still.

I left the Shades and walked into Esperanza City proper for the first time in days.

The Hellhound murdered her.

I didn’t hate him, not anymore. And I hadn’t even known about him back then.

The StreetBadgers got her into the situation that killed her in the first place.

But I couldn’t blame them that much. They were just as lost as Linda had been, I was sure. And… they cared too much about her for me to hate them.

Father and mother drove her away with their fanatism… she didn’t feel safe at her own home…

I was angry at them, incredibly angry, but… they had not done her harm, not deliberately. They’d always acted in our best interests, as far as they knew.

She got powers… someone or something pushed her over the edge…

Nothing there. I didn’t know nearly enough to have any kind of opinion on it, not really. And I probably never would.

It started to rain. I didn’t care. Not having a goal, I just let my feet carry me as I focused on my own thoughts.

What was I angry about? Why had I been lashing out like that? Almost nothing I’d done since Linda’s death had made any sense, except as a way of distracting myself.

The world took my sister away.

Hating the world would be stupid, though. It is as it is.

Linda didn’t tell me. She kept it secret from me.

But why did I feel guilty about it? That was on her, not me. We were supposed to share everything.

She lied to me. For weeks. She slept in the same room with me, but she didn’t tell me.


I wasn’t angry at her. How could I? I’d never been able to be angry at Linda. I hadn’t suddenly started, now. The anger I’d felt had not been directed at her.

Suddenly, I stopped walking.

I’d walked all the way to the graveyard she’d been buried in. Someone had left the cast iron gate open, too.

I walked inside.

* * *

A minus 17 hours

My feet found their way to Linda’s grave without any input from me. Even though I’d only been here twice, so far. Once for grandpa’s funeral, and then once for Linda’s.

I hate this place.

Her grave was still fresh, covered in flowers and offerings from friends and family. It was all soaked in rainwater now, though. As was I, not that I noticed the temperature. I just felt numb.

Mom and Dad had really shelled out some major money for her gravestone, despite the ‘shame’ she’d brought to the family. A big slab of stone, with intricate carvings of flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Linda had loved them, always collecting and pressing flowers she found particularly beautiful.

There was a picture of her in a golden circle. Smiling brightly, teeth white, her hair tied back. One of the last pictures of her before… before everything happened.

You didn’t tell me. But it wasn’t your fault, was it? I mean, part of it was. You could have told me. Even with mom and dad… I would have stood with you. Always.

I couldn’t hate her for it. I couldn’t even imagine what she’d been going through. Living in a house, in the middle of a whole community of people who’d hate her on principle if she outed herself… her own parents talking about experiments and research and segregation every day…

Why didn’t you tell me?

That was the crux of it, wasn’t it?

Why didn’t you tell me?

Why didn’t she? We’d always been honest to each other. We’d always supported each other.

Why didn’t you tell me?

She’d always supported me more than vice versa, but that was more because I’d been more likely to need support. I’d always been the crybaby, and she’d been the brave one.

I’d gone big into sports in an effort to get more confident. Gymnastics, parkour, aikido (both with and without a sword). She’d only taken part in my parkour training, having preferred to spend time on botanic classes and friends. I’d always had fewer than her, anyway, and those were athletes, too.

Why didn’t you tell me?


I looked up at the dark sky, letting the rain hit me in the face like a thousand slaps, the raindrops thick and heavy. The clouds were black, not just grey. Not that I could see much, with the rain pounding my eyes, making me blink every few seconds.

You didn’t tell me because… because…

My gaze went to her picture, barely visible in the dark of the night. Only the grave candles were illuminating it, barely. But I could see her just fine.

Because I… I…

I sniffed, and that was apparently enough to take the strength from my legs, because suddenly my face was level with the photograph, and I hadn’t even noticed falling down. I barely felt the mud soak through my pants.

Because I… I didn’t… I didn’t ask you.

A tremor went through my body – and before I knew it, I was sobbing, adding my tears to the water running down my face.

“I didn’t… I didn’t ask you.”

I looked at my numb hands, covered in mud.

“I didn’t… I just… I just assumed you’d tell me anything… that we’d just share it all naturally…”

If I’d asked…

“If only I’d asked, you would have told me!” I shouted at the picture before I bent over, pressing my forehead into the mud of her grave. “I should have asked you! Why didn’t I ask that one question?!”

I’d been so used to sharing everything, had always taken it for granted, that I’d never shown any interest. I’d just assumed she’d come to me if she needed me, like I always did when I needed her.

“But you rarely did, didn’t you?” I said to the mud in front of my eyes… to Linda, six feet below me. Six feet I couldn’t reach through. “It was always me coming to you for help.”

Oh God, I’d never noticed. She’d not been any less in need of support than I’d been, growing up. But I’d… I’d always just told her everything, and never noticed that she only told me things when I asked.

“One soul, two bodies, that’s what we said,” I continued, my voice louder. I’d already spoken more words just now than over the last few days combined. “I just thought that meant you’d act like I did, at your core. That you’d just come to me and share.”

“But you always waited for people to ask, and what is wrong with me that I just now noticed!?” I screamed, finally raising my head to look at her grinning face. “Why didn’t I just ask you how you were doing? Everyone does, everyone asks! It would have been so easy and I could have been with you! You wouldn’t have needed the StreetBadgers, you wouldn’t have needed to be a villain! I could have helped you deal with it! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaggghh!”

Screaming, I raised both fists and slammed them down on the mud, making it splash over my face and chest.

“This is my fault. This is all my fault!” I continued, shouting my guilt at the cold, lifeless gravestone. “I’m sorry! Linda, I’m so, so, sorrrrryyyyyyyyyyy…”

My screams dissolved into broken sobs as I hugged myself, rocking back and forth on my knees.

My fault.

I should have asked.

My fault she’s dead.

Such a simple thing to do.

It’s my fault she’s dead.

I could have helped her. At the very least, I could have walked her path with her.

It’s my fault she’s dead, and I’m not with her.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” I bent over screaming towards the ground again, closing my eyes. Then I threw my whole upper body back, screaming even louder up at the sky, and the bright stars above.

I slumped down again, sobbing…

That isn’t right. Stars?

It was still pouring rain. The clouds were black as the blackest night.

I saw the stars as clearly as if I was out on the sea at midnight. Millions, billions, in all colours, bright and dull, pulsing and static, blinking and steady…

So many stars…

I looked down at the ground, my head moving of its own accord. There were more stars beneath innumerable in their numbers.

And the closest, most precious of them, was less than six feet away from me, pulsing gently as its light faded with each beat of my heart… growing fainter, further away…

“Linda? Is that you?” It felt so… right. So… familiar.

I reached out, but the mud was in the way. It was too deep.

“Linda, please… if you’re still there, please, give me a sign!”

I felt a tremor, a surge of raw, unformed emotion go through my body, from my toes up to my head, making me tingle all over.

A line came into sight, rising from the star beneath, a strong, old link of interwoven green and gold. When I looked up, I saw it connected to a brittle, bright star above.

While I watched, the star fell, drawing a tail of golden sparks behind it as it flew by me and dug into the mud, coming to a rest a foot or so a way from me.

This… this is how you get powers, right?

“Is that what you want, Linda?” I asked, as loudly as I could, so I’d be heard over the raging storm, the pounding rain and howling wind. “Do you want me to become more like you!?”

I can… feel what she felt…

Reaching out, my fingers dug easily into the cold, wet, soft mud, digging into Linda’s grave, opening a hole a foot deep.

The star… my star… it looked somehow brittle, disjointed pulses playing all over its golden surface. Something about it looked and felt wrong, but it was connected to Linda.

I reached out to touch it, and the moment my finger made contact with it, it shot up and into my belly.

* * *

The star burned like a furnace in my stomach, filling me with warmth and light.

When I looked down at my stomach, there was no hole in my clothes, yet light was shining from my entire body, brighter than the sun but not blinding me even as I looked down at myself.

So beautiful.

I looked up to keep my eyes on Linda’s photograph – and almost screamed when I realized that the grave, the gravestone, the entire graveyard was gone… and Linda was right in front of me.

“Linda!” I stood up, clumsily, looking at her with wonder.

She stood in front of me, naked as the day we’d been born, her hair a mess, her eyes bright. She smiled sadly at me.

“Linda, I’m so sorry!” I tried to run over to her, to throw my arms around her and hug her and never let her go ag-

I didn’t move. Oh, I was running, but I didn’t move one inch closer to her, as she regarded me with sad eyes.

“Linda! Linda, I’m here! Please, I can’t move, please, come over here!” I held my blazing arms out for her to grab on to, we were less than six feet apart.

But she just smiled sadly, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

“No, don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s my fault, all my fault please don’t cry!

The light grew dimmer, my arms heavier, the warmth in me colder.

“Linda, please, I’m right here, just come a little closer and I’ll pull you back and we can go home and I’m sure we can talk with mom and dad!”

Her eyes grew even sadder, and her smile became even more false, as if she was saying that she couldn’t come back but that didn’t make sense and then she turned away from me!

I was screaming, louder than I knew I could, so loud my throat would probably tear: “No! Linda, don’t go, don’t leave me al-

Something broke.

* * *

All the light vanished as the burning star in my belly turned colder than ice and heavier than the world.

There was no thud, no feeling of impact or changed position, and yet I knew that my body had fallen, that I’d hit the ground.

My stomach, my chest, my head, my arms and legs… they went from blazing like suns to being grey, the colour sucked out of them, and heavy.

So heavy…

I tried to look up, but I could only move my eyes. Linda was just barely in my field of vision, her back to me, slowly… so slowly… walking away.

Don’t go, please… don’t go…

She moved further away. I was so cold.

Please, please, don’t, please, don’t leave me alone, please, I feel so cold…

Darkness began to creep in around her form, her contours blurring.

Linda… please… sister…

My body became even heavier, gravity crushing me against a ground that wasn’t even there.

She was almost gone entirely.


She was gone. I couldn’t even feel her anymore.

N-no… Linda…

I was alone.

So cold.

Linda was gone.

So heavy.

My limbs were crushed against the floor, my chest under so much strain I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t care.

So alone.

Beneath me, a bottomless darkness opened up, eclipsing all the stars.

The very weight of my body, doubling with each heartbeat, pushed me into the ground…

Linda’s gone.

My heartbeat grew louder, or perhaps there was nothing else left to hear, drumming into my ears, every beat a new wave of cold, another redoubling of my body’s weight.


There were no stars left beneath, only the darkness, waiting.

So alone.

I broke through the ground and began to sink into the darkness.

If I could still take a breath, I would have screamed, because it was colder than anything I could ever have imagined, so cold it burned for just a second before everything went numb.

H-help… please, someone… I’m so heavy, so cold, so… alone.

I was sinking into the darkness, my body numb with cold.

There was no one there.

So… so alone.

You’re not alone!


* * *

The voice was like the morning’s first bell, clear and bright, its sound cutting through the darkness.

It flew through me, banishing the cold and the weight and the darkness. A hand, so insubstantial as to be nearly impossible to feel, took me by the hand, and pulled.

I rose out of the Abyss I’d been sucked into, back to the star-studded world.


I wrapped my arms around myself and realized that I was naked all of a sudden… and that I didn’t care. Even though there was someone there, with me.

He… she… I couldn’t tell their gender. She. I’d just use she, because it’s easier to describe her than using ‘it’.

She stood tall, taller than me though not freakishly so. Her body was made of light, and nothing else. The light pulsed, creating a strange effect, blurring her contours, making it impossible to truly determine her body’s form. Behind her, the light expanded into two wings, each as large as the rest of her.

Her face was a blur of bright, warm light.

“W-who are you? Are you an angel?” I asked, feeling strangely calm. Soothed. The memory of that dreadful cold had become distant, as if the warmth she emitted created a wall between me and it.

An angel? she asked, sounding surprised. Her voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Because I didn’t hear it. It just… appeared in my head, conveying impressions of warmth and closeness and safety along with the words. Why would you think… She looked down at herself. Ah. So that’s how you see me.

“What do you mean? Who… what are you?” Despite the soothing effect she had on me, I was starting to feel bewildered. Angels weren’t supposed to react like that!

I’m not an angel, Terry, she said, somehow conveying amusement. Nor do I look anything like this – this is all just you.

“What are you then? A demon? A god? The God?”

More amusement, followed by an answer: I’m just a friend.

“Whose friend?”

Yours, of course.

“I’ve never met you before.”

That doesn’t change who I am. I’m a friend, she repeated with such a deep, bottomless conviction, I could not contradict her any more.

“Why are you here? What… what happened?”

I’m here because of you. You called out to me. And what happened… well, what do you think happened?

I stopped to think it over. What had happened?

“I think I… I manifested,” I said, slowly, never taking my eyes off her face. Every now and then, I felt like I almost saw a face beneath the blur. Though if she was telling the truth, that she only looked that way because I made her, then it didn’t mean anything. Maybe. “But… something went wrong.”

She nodded. Go on.

“You… you saved me. You pulled me out of… of the darkness.”

This time, she shook her head, turning away. She took a few steps before she stopped, her back to me. I didn’t. That was all you.

“But… you called me!” I was sure.

She turned left, then right, looking around before she turned back to me. I don’t know what you think I am, but I assure you, I am not nearly powerful enough to do… much of anything, except talk to people. And honestly, even that is sketchy. Almost no one hears me, and those that do, mostly ignore me.

“Then how could I save myself, when I couldn’t even breathe anymore!?” I asked, almost shouting. “It had to have been you!”

Terry, I already told you. I’m just a friend. Nothing more. Nothing less. Everything that happens here, is the work of you… and her. She inclined her head to the side.

Following the motion, I saw the star that had almost drowned me again. Only it wasn’t. Not anymore. It had collapsed, its light compressed into a single, tiny dot, less than the point of a pin, glowing golden amidst a sphere of perfect darkness, with slow, ponderous tendrils waving around it.

Just looking at it made me remember the cold and shiver.


Her. That’s you, too. The gender. Don’t put too much weight into that word, it doesn’t really apply.

“What… what is going on? Please, tell me.”

Nothing about her position changed, and she made no sound, but I got the impression that she was sighing. I can’t tell you any more than you know… but then again, helping people realize what they already know is pretty much the only thing I can do, so… you manifested. Something went wrong. Your… star… broke, and it almost dragged you down into what you call ‘the darkness’. I called out to you, so you realized that you weren’t alone and could fight back… though I guess it didn’t quite reach your brain. She stepped closer to… her. Reaching out with one hand, she held it palm-up beneath it and came closer to me again, the black star in her hand, moving with her. Now you get to do something almost no one who comes this far does.

“W-what is that?”

You choose. She was holding the black star to her right, my left, and reached out with the other hand to the other side, in a mirroring position. You know what brought you to this? She inclined her head towards the black star.

“Rage,” I said, before realizing that that was… just a part of the answer. “Grief. Despair. Guilt. Loneliness. Linda died, and I blamed everyone but myself. I went after her murderer, but failed. I almost got her friends killed, and I ran away from my parents. I went to her grave… I am at her grave, unless I was physically moved…” She shook her head. “…and I saw a star where she should lie, connected to… to this one.”

Yes, that is the path that led you here. That made this. Look at her, she said gently, and I felt my eyes drawn to the black star, despite my fear.

It pulsed, cold and cruel, but it pulsed with so much power.

This is your first choice, the one you almost thought was your only one, she explained. The Path to Catastrophe, a force few can comprehend and fewer still surpass. You already walked this path, in the time between your sister’s passing and now. And you may now take it for good, and go down that road to the bitter end.

“It doesn’t sound like a good path. It doesn’t even sound like one that will do me any good.”

It is power. A greater power than the Hellhound or any of the Five possesses. Power enough to bring down any of them, and Humanity First and very nearly everyone else you might choose to oppose. With it, your foes will fall, and you will find a way to your every goal.

“But it wouldn’t be good, would it? I mean, it would cause… catastrophe, right?”


“What is my other choice?”

She looked the other way, to her empty hand. Your sister is dead. Gone. Her star has faded, so young, and she has passed into the Great Beyond. She left you with questions unanswered. She left you broken, and your family broke, too.

I nodded, choked up again.

She kept secrets from you, and it wasn’t entirely your fault that she didn’t share them. It wasn’t even mostly your fault, even if you don’t want to hear that right now.

No, I didn’t.

You could let that break you. Drag you down. Drain you of all warmth and freedom and hope. She inclined her head the other way, towards the black star. Or, you could accept it.

A glimmer of light appeared above her empty hand.

Accept the bad. Accept the good. You lost Linda, and you will never truly be free of that pain, that loss.

The glimmer grew, tendrils reaching out, bending, weaving a larger structure around it.

But you can accept it, and grow stronger for it.

The small glimmer had formed a star, small and bright as the sun.

You’re not lost, yet. You might yet repair your family, maybe even save them from the path they chose to travel down.

It was not as strong, as heavy as the black star, but it pulsed gently and steadily.

Vengeance is not the only way to right a wrong. Justice is another. You could pursue that, or you could keep pursuing vengeance, but it need not end in catastrophe. You could learn to ask the question, the next time, and the time after that, and who knows, you might even find an answer.

“So it’s the same, but… in two different ways?” The stars looked identical, except one was bright, and the other was… not.

No. They are not equal. Things so rarely are. They are different, one greater than the other, in exchange for less freedom, less joy. This second choice, the Power to Inquire, it is not as great as the power of the Five, and it certainly won’t allow you to oppose them so openly as the Path to Catastrophe would.

I looked in between the two stars. “Power to smite my enemies, or power to remain myself? Was that it?”

You will change either way… into a different you. But still you.

“So it’s a question between me being good or evil?”

She actually laughed when I asked that question. Good and evil do not concern me, Terry.

“W-what!?” I asked, flabbergasted.

Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, you each decide your own. Such concepts have nothing to do with what I am or what I desire.

“What do you want, then?”

We’re talking about you, not me.

“Well, I thought you were my friend! Friends are supposed to know each other!” I replied, heatedly.

She seemed to ponder this. True enough. What I want is to see all the bright ones, all the children, united as one, to spread out into the darkness.

I opened my mouth, then shut it. Thinking it over, I just couldn’t make sense of it. But something told me she would not say any more.

“What should I choose, then?”

She shrugged. That is solely up to you. All of this is. I can just make you aware of the choice, and nothing else at all.

“I… I’m not sure.”

Take your time. This decision will forever change your life.

“I know, I…”

Why was I even hesitating? Wasn’t it obvious, that I should choose the brighter star?

It was. Why then was I hesitating?

“The Path to Catastrophe, you called it,” I began. “Does that mean I could bring catastrophe to my enemies?”

Among many other things. Nothing’s ever so simple.

“And you won’t say that it’s evil? Wrong?”

As I said, such things do not concern me. Frankly, I find them confusing. No, all I see are two different ways to power for you, with different results.

She moved her arms, holding them both out next to each other, the stars just a foot apart from each other. They flickered violently at the proximity of each other.

“Can I ask some other questions?”

Of course. Though I might not be able to answer them.

“I… I understand. Alright, first question – what happens to the other star? The one I reject?”

There is no ‘other’ star. They are both one and the same, just two different forms. Whichever you choose becomes true, while the other becomes… less. A memory of a possibility.

“And this choice… you offer it to everyone?”

Only those precious few who hear me and do not ignore my voice.

“Who was the last one you offered it to?”

I can’t tell you his name. But he was broken, just like you, and lost. And he felt so very, very alone.

“His choice was different?”

He was – is – a different person, so his choices are naturally completely different, too.

“Different topic. Can I somehow bring Linda back with either of these powers?”

No. That is beyond any power, but one.

“So she’s gone, for good? Unless I get her to Ember, somehow?”

Nothing’s ever truly gone, Terry. Your connection to your sister still exists, beyond life and death. So long as you still feel for her, it will remain, and a piece of her will always be in this world – through you, and all others who still feel for her.

I blinked, tears rising. I couldn’t tell if they were tears of joy or disappointment.

“I don’t… I don’t know what else to ask. I don’t know what else to think.”

Then choose.

I reached out with both hands, palms pointing towards each other, one next to each star.

Just the width of a finger separated them from each star.

“One, or the other…”

One was the power to surpass every enemy I set myself. Or almost any. The other was the power to achieve things other than catastrophes.

“I choose…”

I cupped my hands as they trembled. Somehow, I had the impression that she was holding her breath, or doing whatever her equivalent of such was.

“I will take… both!”

I moved both hands, grabbing the stars and slamming them together with all my strength.

There was a sound like a bell shattering, and a flash of light so bright it blinded me – and then, without much drama at all, I was standing in the graveyard again, the stars still bright above me and two handfuls of golden and black shards in my cupped hands.

She was standing in front of me, her arms to her sides, inscrutable.

“They broke. I thought they’d fuse.”

And what? You’d get the best of both? She almost seemed to laugh again.

“That was the idea, yes.” I looked down at the pathetic shards in my hands. There was less than a third of each star left, I thought. “It usually works in the movies. And in Linda’s anime shows.”

Well, obviously, it doesn’t work that neatly in this world.

“But I can still get powers?”

Of course. But it’ll be… different.

“What will it be?

I can’t tell.

“Why not?”

Because you can’t. I told you, I’m not… I’m just a friend. I don’t know any more about either of you than you do yourselves. Whatever it turns out to be, it’ll be something new… and it will be small, stunted.

“But it will be something wholly my own, won’t it?”

She nodded, the motion barely perceptible.

“I’ll take that.”

Suddenly, she threw her head back, and raw concept of joyous laughter slammed into my head, making me dizzy. Ah, so precious! You always manage to surprise me, even after all this time!

I tilted my head to the side, curious. “You don’t mean ‘you’ as in me, but rather ‘you’ as… all people who manifest?”

Among others, yes.

“So, you’re not just… a part of my imagination, or my power? You exist for others, too?”

I’m a friend to all.

“But your shape is not your own?”

I have no shape as you understand the concept. Please don’t inquire any further, I won’t answer, I’m afraid. Oh, and you should hurry. There’s little enough left as it is.

I looked down at my hands. More shards had dissolved, vanished into nothingness. I was left with less than a fourth. “Alright.”

Raising my hands, I stopped moments before I tiled them up. “Two more questions.”


“Will we meet again? And what does this all lead to?”

She chuckled warmly. Meet again? Terry, I won’t ever leave you. And as for what it leads to – all I can promise you is that the best is yet to come.

I tilted my head back and my hands up, letting the shards trickle into my mouth.

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