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“What in God’s name were you two thinking!?” Dad shouted, towering over us.
I hunched my shoulders, while Linda took a half-step forward and to the side, so she’d stand slightly between us, wearing her self-made Lady Light costume. She’d taken a white summer dress, sewn a Lady Light’s golden emblem onto it, put on a yellow pantyhose and was using a white and a yellow blanket we’d cut to size and sewed together as a cape (white on the outside, yellow on the inside). And she’d cut holes into a white scarf and tied it around her eyes to serve as a mask, though she’d taken it off now and was holding it in her left hand.
My own costume was supposed to look like the Dark, but it was far less elaborate. I’d just taken a black cloth sack and cut a hole for my head into the bottom, and two holes to reach through with my arms into the sides, then taken a smaller cloth and glued six red plastic discs onto it, as well as cut a pair of eye holes. I’d also been wearing black gloves and a black long-sleeved shirt underneath, so my arms would look right when I reached through the holes. I, too, had taken off my mask.
Dad was furious, but not as bad as mom, who’d already been screaming at us for a half-hour about ‘imitating false idols’ and all that strange stuff the adults talked about. She’d finally shouted herself breathless and Dad had taken over chewing us out in a more rational manner.
Not that I got it. Being ten years old, I didn’t see the problem in dressing up like a famous person and sneaking out to go to a friend’s halloween party after a round of trick-or-treating (outside Oak Leaf, of course). I could have understood it if they were angry at us for sneaking out, but certainly not for dressing up as the two most famous people on the planet.
Not to mention we’d made a killer loot. Seriously, Linda and I got more sweets together than all our friends together. There were other kids with Lady Light and the Dark costumes (though, for some reason, most were older than us, couples and the Lady Light costumes were way more airy than the real thing – maybe they didn’t want to sweat?), but ours had been the best. We even won the costume contest at Wyatt’s party!
Seriously, our costumes were awesome. Which was why we were crying like babies when Mom and Dad forced us to take them apart with our scissors and throw the pieces into the fireplace. All the while, Dad was holding one of his speeches about false idols and dangerous rolemodels and other stuff we just didn’t really get.
At least they let us keep our loot.
* * *
A minus 8 Days
The short dream faded away, dissolving into mist right when it got to the part where Linda and I curled up together under our blanket and ate candy while reading the newest Lightning Lass comic, which we’d smuggled in at the bottom of my sack of candy.
There was a warm, throbbing sensation in my left shoulder, spreading down to the fingertips in strangely comfortable threads that wound through my flesh.
Linda? Am I with you now?
No. No, I wasn’t. I couldn’t feel her. I was sure, if I was anywhere close to where she was now, I’d be able to feel it. That’s how it worked, right? I wouldn’t feel so wounded, so incomplete anymore. Like the best part of me was missing.
Linda is dead. I’m not with her. That means I’m… I’m…
I realized that I was breathing and greedily sucked in a breath of air, feeling it burn in my lungs. I felt like a guitar string that had been pulled too tight and twice as sensitive as usual to anything. I felt some kind of shirt that reached to my thighs, and a warm, soft bed underneath me. I felt a heavy blanket on top of me, except for my left arm, which was lying above the blanket.
Said left arm (and shoulder) was throbbing, feeling as warm as a fresh cup of tea. It didn’t really feel good, but it didn’t hurt either.
Groaning, I blinked my eyes open – and shut them closed right away, as the light blinded me.
“Are you awake?” asked a strange woman’s voice, screaming through a megaphone. She made me wince, she talked so loudly.
I tried to speak, but my throat was so dry it only came out as a croak. Moments later, the bed shiftend, gently raising my head and shoulders a little higher and I felt the tip of something made of plastic held to my lips, and a soft whisper said, “Drink. It’s just water.” I sucked on what turned out to be a straw, and delicious cool water came out. It took all the self-control I had not to just gulp down as much as I could, and instead drink slowly, little by little, until there was nothing left.
When I let go and sighed, the straw was moved away and the friendly woman’s voice whispered again, “Can you try and open your eyes again? Take your time.”
Since I had nothing else to do, I complied, slowly blinking my eyes open. I saw the round face of an older woman – older than my mother, but younger than my grandmother – with greying brown hair and small brown eyes. She beamed at me as she reached out with a handkerchief to wipe some water I hadn’t noticed I’d spilled from the corner of my mouth.
“Welcome back, Theresa,” she whispered.
“W-who are y-you?” I asked weakly. “Wh-where am I?”
Smiling, she straightened herself out – she was wearing a white nurse’s uniform – and replied, “My name’s Samantha Browning, I’m a nurse here at the Santa Maria hospital. Which is where you are, obviously.”
Santa Maria… it was the second-biggest hospital of Esperanza City, and generally reserved for the kind of ill people who could shell out some major money. No way had I been brought here by… actually, the only way I could have ended up in this hospital was if my parents were shelling out the money for it.
A quick look left and right revealed that I had a single, which only supported that point. I looked back at the nurse. “How long… was I out?”
She gave me a sympathetic smile. “Three days, my dear. You had such a bad concussion, the doctors were worried you might slip into a coma, but you pulled through.”
“Th-three days? Wh-who-“
“I think I should take over here,” said a voice like a revving Harley, deep enough to make James Earl Jones feel inadequate. I froze (not that I could move much in the first place), recognizing it immediately. “Thank you for your good work, Nurse Browning, but I’m sure there are other patients who need your assistance. May I ask you to give us some private time?”
The nurse turned around, nodded, and left hurriedly. No, don’t go. There were few things I wanted less than to look him in the face again, by myself.
He rose from his seat in the corner, where I’d somehow missed him during my sweep of the room, the chair groaning in release as his massive weight left it. He was still wearing a spotless police uniform, and it looked just like the one he’d been wearing the last time I saw him. Though, if it was true that I’d been asleep for three days, then he must have changed it.
Taking an unused steel chair, one of those that were made for overweight people, he put it next to my bed and sat down. He was so tall, he could still look down on me from that position, and I readjusted my earlier estimation – I’d thought he was somewhere around six foot nine, but he was probably closer to six-eleven, if not a full seven feet. And at least three and a half times my weight.
“So, Terry,” he said, using my short name. That gave me a little hope he wasn’t pissed at me as I’d feared he would be. “This time, I’m wearing a codpiece.” He smirked, and I felt heat fill my face.
“S-sorry. I… I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said, unable to meet his eyes. “I was just so… so angry.”
“But not anymore?” he asked, his voice soft.
The question pierced right through the embarrassment and made me realize that, no, I wasn’t. The anger was gone, and I just felt… empty.
“N-no. I’m not angry, not right now. Maybe not again, either. What happened?”
He chuckled before replying. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
“I mean, how did I get here?”
Again, a chuckle. “I’m the police officer here. I get to ask my questions first,” he said, half amused and half annoyed. “Please be precise when you answer. Tell me what happened after you so… elegantly escaped from me?”
I looked away, still ashamed. “I, uh… I… I got lost in the Shades, and then I… I stumbled onto the StreetBadgers’ hideout,” I said. I wasn’t going to tell him anything critical about them, just in case they were still alive, but I didn’t think I could effectively lie to him, either. He seemed like the type who had experience with interrogating people.
“You just happened to stumble onto it?” He obviously didn’t believe me.
“Well, yeah. Not like I’ve ever been in the Shades before.”
“Uhu. If so, you were pretty damn lucky, my dear. Most people in the Shades would do very nasty things to a girl lost alone in the alleys. So, what happened once you arrived at the badgers’ place?”
“I, uh, we got to talk,” I said, omitting the humiliating ‘battle’ that preceded any talk. “They told me what happened. Who killed Linda.” There was a tremor in my left arm and shoulder, and I couldn’t tell if it was because of the rush of emotion at the memory, or just because of the damage.
“Who killed her, Terry?” he asked, eyes intent. “What did they tell you?”
I looked away again, whispering my answer.
“Could you say that again? I didn’t quite get that,” he said, leaning in closer.
“The Hellhound,” I said, louder. “The Hellhound killed her. They… they’d been hired to steal something from the mob. He showed up and hunted them, they split, he hunted Linda and ki… and he… he killed her…” My vision got blurry again.
“Terry, are you sure? The Hellhound doesn’t usually go after teenagers,” he said. “Do you have any proof? And what happened afterwards?”
“Th-they had no reason to lie and…” Get it over with, dummy. “I-I convinced them to… to go after him, and…” His gaze hardened, but he didn’t interrupt, letting me continue, “We… we went to find the… their agent, and find out if he sold them out… but he was already there. He recognized me, and he… he took them all down in five seconds, flat, and I tried to shoot him but I forgot to take the safety off the gun and… he shot me…” And talked to me. “Next thing I know, I wake up here.”
A sigh. Not what I expected, so I looked. He was pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. He looked pained, muttering something about ‘teenagers’ and ‘death of me’.
I waited, trying to stop the damn tears. They wouldn’t listen.
“Terry… Most would call you stupid, for doing that. I won’t,” he started, without changing his position. “But… this goes so far beyond mere stupid, I’d call bullshit if I didn’t know how hard her death hit you.” I choked down another squall of tears, looking away gain.
“I’m not going to preach. But I am going to tell your parents,” he continued.
“No, you c-” I whirled around, half-shouting, and flinched as pain shot through my shoulder.
Incredibly, his voice dropped even lower. It sounded like it should make my bones vibrate. “I can and I will, because that’s the right thing to do. The legal thing to do. I certainly will not do anything that would in any way support teenage vigilantism.”
His voice broke no quarter.
After a few moments, I gathered myself again, and asked the question that had burned in my mind since I woke up, but which I’d been ignoring.
“The… the others. What about the others, did they… did they make it?”
“The StreetBadgers? Until you told me, I didn’t know they were involved,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We were given an anonymous tip from an untraceable phone, got to the office. All we found was some blood on the desk, and you, on the floor, unconscious. Someone had given you some pretty damn decent first aid. Only reason you didn’t bleed out.”
He stood up, walking to the door. “The blood on the desk. Who was it?”
“Their agent. I don’t know his name,” I said.
Nodding, he opened the door. “Rest. Your parents should come soon.” He left, barely fitting through the door.
* * *
About half an hour later, the door opened again, and Nurse Browning came back in.
She chatted a little, while she checked me over and put a new bag up for the drip leading into my numb left arm. After an inquiry, she told me that the damage to the shoulder had, fortunately, been benign – a clear shot through, it didn’t even shatter any bones, ‘just’ causing a concussion and severe, but luckily non-lethal blood loss. I got lucky, she said.
No. That made no sense. The Hellhound was a pro. If he’d wanted me dead, I would be. But he shot to disable. Otherwise, I’d have taken a bullet in the head or the heart.
And he’d given me first aid, too. Not to mention the words he’d told me.
He spared me. He wouldn’t spare Linda, but he spared me. Why?
Nurse Browning left, saying that my parents would come soon.
Because I’m no meta? How would he know? Because he felt bad for killing my sister? Why would he still care?
It made no sense. He’d known who I was. His words made no sense, unless he’d understood exactly who I was and what I wanted. Why I was there.
My path can only lead into the badlands.
I blinked, trying to understand. Why did he say that? Why was it right for him, and not for me?
The door opened again, and Freddy stormed in, breaking me out of my train of thought.
“Terry!” he shouted, jumping onto the bed and hugging me.
“Ow! Ow, ow, ow, careful, squirt!” I gasped as his thin arms wrapped around my neck. His elbow hit my left shoulder, and only the painkillers kept me from screaming, but I hugged him back with my good arm. He shrieked when I gave him a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
“Yuck!” That got him off of me, and he jumped down just in time for mom and dad to walk in.
They looked utterly horrible. Mom’s eyes were red from crying, her face blotchy. She’d never looked good after crying. Her blue skirt suit was wrinkled, messy, her shirt still wet with tears.
It hurt, seeing her like that, knowing that I was largely responsible for it.
Dad looked composed as he put a bag down on a small table. He always did, it was part of his job. But I could read the little signs. The extra wrinkles around his eyes, the way that vein in his temple twitched visibly…
“Hey…” I said, unable to muster up anything else.
“Terry… the police officer told us everything,” Dad started. He always did that, starting with the facts. “We got a call, three days ago. Told us our daughter had been found shot in the Shades.” Mom choked, while Freddy looked up at them, confused.
Please tell me it wasn’t mom who picked that up.
“Your mother picked it up,” he continued, crushing my hopes. “She thought she’d lost you, the same way as Linda. She fainted before they could tell her you’d survived, and would most likely pull through.”
I sniffed, trying to hold back the tears. “I’m sor-“
He cut me off with a wave of his hand. “So, then we talked with this very nice, very understanding police officer, who told us that he’d picked you up at the place where your sister… where that incident happened.” I’d never heard my father break a sentence like that. “That you ran away.”
He didn’t tell them I assaulted him?
“Now, we hurried over because we were told you’d woken up, and he tells us you met with those degenerate supervillains that got your sister killed, and they almost got you killed, too, on some scheme to go after the Hellhound!? What were you thinking?” He fell silent.
“I… Linda, she…”
He waited, while mom sobbed and Freddy got more and more worked up. I could see his little hands tremble.
“Get him out,” I said, looking at him. “For God’s sake, he’ll have an episode!”
Dad looked down, noticing Freddy’s trembling hands. He nodded, kneeling down.
“Hey, son, how about you and mommy go and get some ice cream?”
You’d think Freddy had superpowers, he left so fast with mom, who didn’t have it in her to resist.
Dad turned back to me once the door fell closed. Waiting.
“Linda… that guy, he killed Linda. How could I not try and find that… that murderer?”
“That’s not your duty. The police will find him, and take care of him,” he replied in a measured voice. “What were you thinking? What would you have done, kill him? He’d just come back. Try and lock him up? How?”
I looked away, breaking eye contact.
“I just… I didn’t want to just… to sit around. I had to do something.”
He finally snapped, shouting, “Yes, well, what you did was so far beyond idiotic, it makes most ‘superheroes’ look sane!”
I started to cry again. Dammit.
“I… I’m still alive…”
He looked ready to scream, but stopped, running his fingers over his shaven head. Even now, he kept himself utterly smooth. “Why do you do this to us?” he asked. “Linda is dead. My daughter, is dead. I learned, just a week and a half ago, that one of my children was not only a metahuman, a supervillain, but also dead. Murdered so brutally, they wouldn’t show us any photographs.” He stopped, sobbing while I choked back the memory of that report I’d caught a glance at. It had only been words, no pictures, but…
“You didn’t manifest, did you?” he asked, suddenly calm. Fear in his voice.
I looked back at him.
There was fear in his eyes, all of a sudden.
He looked closer. “Your sister manifested. Two months ago, as far as we know? Most of those, she was still sleeping in the same room as you did, at least a few nights a week. Did you…”
It suddenly clicked. My brain had refused to process what he’d said, but now it did, and I felt a whole different rage than before well up in me.
“That’s what you care about… how dare you even bring that up…” I whispered, feeling my body grow hot. My brain was burning. “How dare you!” I screamed, grabbing a water cup from the little table next to my bed, throwing it at him.
I missed, wide, and it shattered against the wall. He looked at me, startled.
“Out! Out, out, out! Get the fuck out of here, you fucking asshole!”
The door burst open, Nurse Browning and another, younger nurse rushing in. They tried to calm me down, but I kept screaming until they ushered dad out.
Only then did I stop screaming for him to get out and let them help me sit down again. My shoulder was throbbing in pain, and they gave me a few pills to help with that, then told me to calm down and rest. No more visitors, no matter what.
I almost asked them to let my mom and Freddy in, but… she’d always been even more extreme than dad in her views, and I didn’t want to blow up at her, too. Much less in front of Freddy.
So I let them go, and leaned back, closing my eyes.
* * *
I opened them again, minutes later.
I wasn’t in the hospital room anymore. Or, I was, but it wasn’t the same. The bed was still there, I was lying on it, but everything else was gone. Instead, an endless expanse of darkness opened up, with countless stars, blazing bright in all colours and then some.
And there were those suns.
One of them was pure, stark white, blazing so brightly it hurt to look at it. Standing apart from all other stars, or perhaps it just eclipsed all other stars around itself.
Another was somehow… sleeping. Its glow was greater than that of any star, but it was somehow muted, throbbing somehow in a rhythm that suggested sleep, rest.
The third one was as bright as the first one, but gentle. A warmer light, not just white, but somehow showing all colours in gentle, rhythmic patterns. The Pr- No, Ember. Somehow, I knew it was him. Even though I’d never met him, it glowed like his robe had always glowed, a harmonious patchwork of colours.
And there… just beyond them was… anoth-
My attention was drawn away by a flicker of light in my peripheral vision.
There it was, a small, pulsing star, small, but… close? No, familiar. The word was familiar.
It was power. Power for me.
Power like Linda’s.
The same power that had gotten her killed.
The power that struck fear into my parents’ hearts.
Power like Laura and the others had. Still have, maybe.
A bunch of teenagers, taking down mobsters in seconds, without any real effort.
Then, I saw someone stare at me, over the star.
Red eyes, like gates to hell.
Power like the Hellhound’s.
I remembered his eyes, looking down at me.
My path can only lead into the badlands.
He’d known, what I wanted. Who I was, why I was there.
That’s all he’d told me, before saving my life. I couldn’t even blame him for shooting me, not anymore.
And I didn’t have it in me to hate him anymore, for what he’d done to Linda.
I didn’t want to go into the badlands.
* * *
I opened them again, minutes later.
The room was empty, and it was dark outside the window.
I thought about what had happened earlier. Dad…
I can’t go home.
He’d never asked how I felt. No, he’d asked if I’d gotten powers.
As if that was important.
I turned around on the bed, groaning as the motion caused some discomfort in my arm. The painkillers still worked, but they couldn’t block all the pain.
My legs were numb, and pins shot up from my toes all the why to my thighs. I waited, sitting on the edge of the bed, moving my toes until they worked properly again, using the time to pull the drip out of my hand. A quick search through the drawer beneath my night table revealed a band aid I could use. Then I slid from the bed, shivering when my bare feet touched the floor.
I need to get away. Fuck ’em.
The only thing between me and the cold weather outside was my hospital gown, right now. I’d never make it anywhere in the current weather.
The bag, dummy. The bag he brought.
I walked over to it, looking inside, and lo and behold, there were clothes in there. Underwear (not my favourite sports underwear, but normal stuff), a black pantyhose, a pair of jeans, a black shirt, black pullover, red scarf, winter socks and my winter boots.
Dad had thought of everything. He’d even packed my spare coat, rolled up and stuffed down below the rest, and a knit cap. Even my wallet. He did stuff like that. Prepare.
Of course, when it comes to getting his priorities straight, he utterly failed.
I took the hospital gown off, careful not to move my left arm any more than necessary.
Dressing was a whole new experience, with only one working arm. Especially getting the bra right.
After half an hour – half an hour – I was finally ready. Tying my boots one-handed… fortunately, I’d had practice in that, from when I’d broken my right arm after doing a backflip off a tree and onto a trampoline, back when I’d been nine.
Hadn’t had to worry about a bra back then, though.
Then, I just walked out, keeping my back straight and my eyes looking forward, trying to look as confident as I could. My left arm throbbed as I let it whip naturally. I didn’t want to make anyone suspicious.
No one tried to stop me as I left the hospital and went out.
* * *
Somehow, I ended up back in the Shades, lost.
This is familiar.
I had no idea how long I’d been walking, or where exactly I was. The Shades were big, almost as big as the rest of the city. I passed by a lot of homeless people, squatting in the alleys and streets, and some other people walking around.
But I was ignored, mostly, save for a few looks I’d rather not think about.
People in the Shades might mostly be the less savoury kind, but they weren’t so stupid as make a pass on a lone teenage girl walking around at night.
History had taught them better, at least most of them. The others had been crushed through walls or burned alive or… well, there were very few metahumans in the world, all things considered. But it only took one to mess up your day.
So I walked, unmolested, through the second most dangerous neighborhood in the city, until I was utterly lost, again.
I’d hoped to find the StreetBadgers’ hideout, hoped to get some clarity on their fate, but I’d gotten lost, again.
I walked through an alley, and turned into another, my arm throbbing warmly.
I suck so hard. What was I even thinking?
I couldn’t go back home again. Not like that. Not with dad and mom and those posters, and Svenson just around the corner…
Suddenly, something jumped at me from the shadows, slamming into my belly.
I fell back, landing on my butt. Ouch. Almost panicking, I looked at my attacker… and found that same tomcat.
A glimmer of hope rose in my chest.
“C-can you take me to them, again?”
Once is a coincidence, but…
The cat jumped out of my arms and walked into the shadows of another alley.
I scrambled up, using my right arm to hold the left one steady. Then I followed it.
So now I follow strange cats. I’m such an idiot.
What else was new?
* * *
It did end up finding their headquarters.
This cat can not be normal.
But that was something to worry about another time. I entered the parking garage, and walked up the stairs. Slowly. I was getting tired.
When I reached the entrance to their living area, I found Cad standing there, in the same clothes as last time, scowling at me. He didn’t look any worse than I remembered him, and I felt a weight drop from my heart.
“You,” he said. “You’re not welcome here, anymore.”
I looked down, ashamed. “I know. I don’t deserve to, but please. I just… I just want to talk.” At the very least, I needed to warm up. It was freaking cold outside, even with the layers of cloth I had on me.
“Let her in.” Laura! That was her voice!
It was weak, but it was there. Another weight dropped from my heart.
Cad scowled even more, but he stepped aside, and I walked in. Only to stop and gasp.
Jimmy, Peter and Fletch where there. Jimmy had some really thick bandaging around his right shoulder and arm, and his face was pale, drawn. Peter looked green, and Fletch had been crying again. Or maybe he’d never stopped.
Laura was lying on a bed that had been moved into the center of the place, hooked up to machines, with tubes running in and out of her body. She was stark naked, with only a blanket up to her waist for modesty. Bandages were wrapped around her torso, just beneath her ample chest. Blood had seeped out from beneath, and if their size was anything to go by, then she had a big wound in it. Her face was pale, her eyes surrounding by black rings, her hair without its usual luster.
She looked like she was dying.
The shot must have gone through her protection like a knife through butter. She’d probably only survived this long because of her physique.
“Oh my god, Laura!” I ran over to her, but stopped when she raised a trembling hand.
“Save it,” she whispered weakly. Then she coughed, flinching in pain as that upset her wound in turn.
“Here, you need to drink,” Peter threw in, and held a cup with a straw to her lips, not unlike the one I’d been given in the hospital.
I stood there, watching helplessly, my eyes burning hotter even than my cheeks.
This is my fault.
“Y-you need to see a doctor… you need to get to a hospital!” I choked out.
She only threw me an annoyed look, but didn’t respond as she kept drinking.
Instead, Jimmy answered: “There’d be no way to protect her secret identity that way. We got an illegal doc, he set this all up for hard cash. It’ll have to do.”
“She’s an Adonis, fortunately. I mean, she has the power,” Peter added. “She should make it through this… we hope…” I don’t think he believed it himself.
“Her secret identity won’t mean anything if she’s dead!” I said, feeling the tears threaten to leave my eyes. “Please, we need to call an ambula-“
“Shut up!” Cad shouted at me. “Shut the fuck up, you bitch! You got her into this mess, you and that fucking guilt trip you pulled on us!”
I rocked back, away from their group.
“I… I, I didn’t… didn’t mean to…”
But I had, hadn’t I? I’d been playing the guilt card, to get them to help me.
They’d been grieving, just as much as I had, and I’d used that to get them to do something utterly stupid. And now Laura was dying.
“I’m… I’m sorry…” The tears finally spilled forth, running down my cheeks. “I just… I don’t… I don’t know what I was thinking…”
“You used us. Used our feelings for Twitch,” Fletch whispered, his voice heavy with grief. “I can understand why you did it… but now I’m going to lose my other big sister, too.”
His other big sister? So that’s what his relationship with Linda was?
Of course, she’d always had a soft spot for younger boys. Always mothering them… it started with Freddy, but unlike me, she hadn’t stopped there.
“I’m s-s-sorry…” What else could I say?
Jimmy and Cad spoke up at the same time, broke off, and looked at each other, unable to decide who’d go first in ripping me a new one.
“E… enough,” Laura whispered, and we all turned to look at her. Peter was using a wet towel to clean her face and chest, gently. “N-no fighting… please. Our own fault. W-we chose to f-f-follow… because we… we want revenge, too. And b-b-because we got… used to listening to… Twitch… and you are… so much like her.” She stopped, catching her breath, while the others (save for Peter) all looked down at their feet.
I just focused on her face. “Laura… please, you need help, or you might not make it…”
“N-no… my… my family… can’t know,” she whispered. “D-don’t… want to hurt them… better take my chances… to survive…”
So stupid. All of us, so stupid.
“Laura, I… please, can I do something? Something to help?”
Cad snorted, and Jimmy looked ready to rebuke me, but Laura whispered again and they kept silent.
“Y-you… could tell me… what happened… why did the Hellhound… spare you?”
I shook my head. “I don’t… I don’t know. I blacked out… how did you all get away?”
Fletch looked up, his reddened eyes focusing on mine. “I… after I bolted, I came back again. Hoping that… that someone had survived. The Hellhound was still there, and he’d even done first aid on Jimmy and Laura and you.”
“Yeah, that was my reaction, too,” he said, smirking weakly. My confusion must have shown on my face. “He gave me this look, and I was too scared to move again. He finished working on Laura, stood up, took Fricken’s corpse and just left, without a word. I pissed myself, I was so scared.” He paused, breathing. “Then, Cad came back to his senses, and we took everyone but… but you…”
I looked at Cad. He’d probably insisted they leave me. Can’t blame him.
“-and we called an ambulance for you,” Fletch finished, once more lowering his gaze.
“Th-thank you for that,” I told him.
“Why’re you here? Why’re you not at the hospital?” Jimmy asked bluntly. “How did you even find your way back here?”
“Um… I wanted… wanted to know if you guys all made it. So I ran away… again. And I, uh, well, I ran into that cat again,” I explained.
“You mean Charlemagne?! Where is he, I’ve been looking all over for him!” Fletch cried out, jumping up from the couch.
“He should be here somewhere,” I said, looking around. No luck. “I mean, he brought me here.”
“That cat is strange. I don’t like that,” Jimmy whispered. Then he focused his tired gaze back on me. “Anyway, you got the information you wanted. Now go.”
I flinched. “Um… actually, I wanted to ask… ask if I could… um, stay here for a while? I kind of… ran away from home…”
All but Peter (who was tending to Laura) and Laura herself threw me incredulous looks.
“Are you fucking insane?” Fletch asked, disbelief on his face.
“You almost got us all killed,” Jimmy said, his voice calm. “Laura might still die. You played on our emotions to get us to join your revenge trip – and yes, it was our own fault, too. But part of the fault lies with you, and that’s enough.”
“Short version, we don’t want you here, bitch,” Cad threw in. “Even disregarding all this shit, you are worthless to us. You got no resources, and no powers. What use could you possibly be, to earn your place here?”
It hurt, hearing them talk to me like that. They meant so much to Linda… she died for them, and I…
Laura opened her mouth, looking like she wanted to protest, but then, suddenly, a new voice, soft but with an undercurrent of utter, perfect conviction, interrupted her.
“Well said, blessed one.”
* * *
Everyone but Laura whirled around, looking at the couch that stood the farthest from the others in the big main group.
“What the f-” Cad started to shout, before he saw the speaker and froze.
As did we all.
He was small. I mean, he was just a little taller than Fletch. His head was completely bald, which didn’t help him look any taller. His Asian features were sharp, strong, the features of an ascetic who worked out a lot. Nothing about him suggested that he had the Physique power, instead his slender, muscled body spoke of dedicated training. He was wearing the robes of a buddhist monk, made of a smooth, orange silk, cut so as to bare his left side, and with a red sash tied around his waist. His feet were folded in a lotus position, heels resting on his thighs, and it looked very natural on him. His hands were lying on his knees, and his dark red eyes regarded us coolly. Where the Hellhound’s eyes had been burning gates to hell, these eyes suggested that they led into an even… darker place.
Oh, oh God, no.
I knew this man. Everyone in the world with half a brain did.
“Truly, what worth could an unblessed child have to us, my children?” Dajisi, the self-styled high priest of the Dark, and a member of the Dark Five, said softly. He focused on them, ignoring me. “You, on the other hand, all walk the blessing way.” It was a statement with barely any sense to it, but he spoke it like dogma.
“W-what… to what,” Laura whispered, looking at him. I just realized that he was sitting in her line of sight, but she hadn’t noticed him before. “T-to what… do we owe… this honour?”
He nodded at her. “You will know, presently. But first, the unclean one must go.” He looked at me, and his cool, dispassionate look made the Hellhound’s infernal gaze seem like rainbow and sunshine.
I almost wet myself on the spot.
“I… please, I… I don’t have anywhere to go…”
“That is none of my concern, unblessed child,” he said. “Now leave, before I remove you.”
I looked at the others, desperate. Please…
Laura spoke up first. “S-she… is… sister of… one of… us…”
He looked back at her. “That means little, for this child has not stepped onto the blessing way. And her sister was weak, unlikely to have left a mark on her.”
“Still… died… for us…” she continued, unfazed. “By G-g-god, we… we won’t betray… that.”
She was so brave. I don’t think I could have so talked back to this… this person.
“No, child,” he cut in. “Not ‘God’. There are five gods, and one of them is very dark… but, this is your home,” he continued. Hope rose in my chest. “So, I will concede – but if she stays, I leave. And I came to offer you… healing.”
Everyone froze, and looked at him in surprise and sudden hope, while my own hope died… and another grew.
He can save Laura…
“I…” She began, but broke off. I could see the fear, and the pain in her eyes.
“It’s alright,” I said. Without looking at the others, I turned around. “My own fault. Goodbye.”
I walked towards the door.
“W-w-wait… Terry…” Laurel said in a raised voice. She looked at Peter. “Give her… some… money…”
“Laurel, I can’t-“
She cut me off with a glance, and I waited until Peter handed me a rolled up bundle of money.
“G-good… bye,” she said.
I sobbed, putting the money away.
I left without another glance. Out into the night.
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