“I’m truly sorry, Madam, but there is nothing we can do,” the elderly doctor said with a grief-stricken face. “The damage is too extensive, and we have no idea what kind of toxin was used during the attack.”
“What do you mean, you have no idea? Can’t you, can’t you, can’t you,” her voice broke and she sobbed into a purple silken handkerchief, “Can’t you take a blood sample? From her or… from one of the others?”
He shook his head, looking down at the younger woman, who was sitting in the waiting room. On any other day, she would have looked regal, beautiful and full of life – he had seen her quite a few times before, as she was one of the main benefactors of the Petal Memorial Hospital. “Whatever it is, it breaks down once removed from its living host – including breaking down immediately once a victim dies. We’re not even sure if its a real toxin, or a bacteria, or a virus or maybe something contrived. I’m truly sorry, but there’s nothing we can do at this p-“
“What about the United Heroes!?” she spoke up, half shouting and half begging. “They have, they have healers, gadgeteers, contrivers! Or a private one, I have money, I can pay any price, will pay any price!” She broke down into sobs again.
He squatted down in front of her, despite his protesting knees, looking up into her reddened eyes. “We will, of course, make inquiries. The United Heroes have already offered their support, and they have their best minds working on this. I don’t know about the private sector, but you are of course welcome to try and find someone – though I would suggest you be careful about some of the people who’ll offer to ‘help’ your little girl. And please keep in mind that powerful healing powers are very, very rare – there might not be anyone who can help her, considering the severity of her ailment.”
She nodded, though he could tell she wasn’t really listening. Instead, she stood up and walked towards the large window that looked into the room her daughter lay in. She’d been put under anaesthesia while they tried to save her life, but it didn’t seem to work – she was half-awake and in pain. Crying and screaming. Fortunately, her mother couldn’t hear her, because he didn’t know how she’d react if she could.
Long, expertly manicured nails scraped over the glass. “Can’t you do anything? Give her anything, so she won’t hurt?”
“We’ve tried every anaesthetic in our store – whatever ails her, or the other victims, it seems to break down whatever we give her.” It was maddening. They couldn’t treat these poor people – that, they’d had practice in. Medicine so often failed them in this world, especially when metahumans were involved. But not even being able to relieve the pain? When nearly three fourth of the surviving victims were children?
No one prepared you for that at med school.
“Can I go in? Maybe I can calm her down,” she said desperately.
Oh boy. “I’m sorry, but no, madam. Quarantine protocols, until we know whether or not the… ailment is not contagious.”
“I need to be there for her,” the young mother whispered. Then her whole posture dissolved, and she slid down onto her knees, crying.
I’m so sorry.
* * *
Her chest felt like it was on fire, her heart felt like it had exploded and kept exploding. She felt bile rise in her throat and other things, too, as she choked and spit and tried to calm herself.
Too late, too late, all too late…
Dimly, she heard screams and sounds of fighting outside.
Right, if Hastur came here and showed her face…
She couldn’t bring herself to care as her body trashed around. How long had this attack lasted already? Three, four seconds? It felt like years.
Wait, if there are monsters outside the door, maybe they’ll put an end to this…
Had Hastur left the door open? She couldn’t remember hearing it fall closed, but then again, she was quite distracted…
Basil wouldn’t want me to think like that.
More pain, and then a novel feeling – the muscles in her calves snapped her bones, adding a novel new sensation to the mix. She would have screamed if her throat was not already torn from doing so, and filled with bile and blood.
She’d thought he would save her. She was sure he would have. But now time was running out faster than they’d expected.
She wouldn’t take her death well. She’d changed, after dad and Tom had died. Prisca couldn’t remember seeing her smile, at least not honestly.
Her stupid older sister, always busy, always up and away. She’d tried to be there for her after Hawaii, but she’d had to live her own life, too. She was studying at the Silicon Valley Institute for Technology, one of the youngest baselines to ever attend.
Basil’s smarter, though.
Someone broke through the door. But of course, she couldn’t see. Monsters? Maybe. Though this was also the perfect time for a knight in shining armor to show up.
Basil’s armor doesn’t shine, though.
And who else would ever come for her? Apart from her mother, if she was even in the same state. She was always somewhere, on her way. Doing stuff.
Voices, two of them. Then, warmth on her chest. The pain lessened.
Other hands, familiar ones. Basil. She’d gotten really good at learning how to recognize people by any means available – she had so little to do, so she studied every and any small thing she could think off, just to kill time.
I can pick locks like nobody’s business, you know? I’m great at ventriloquism, too.
Who was she talking to? The pain further subsided, but she could still feel her heart tearing itself apart. It just didn’t hurt anymore.
Who are you? Why are you helping me?
It wasn’t Basil who’d taken the pain away. No, he was… he was doing something. Cutting. Trying to save her. Someone else had taken the pain away, was calming her heart down.
It wasn’t working.
I’m so sorry, I’m trying my best!, came a strange voice. A girl, and a young one, it seemed. She didn’t sound quite human – and she talked right into her head.
I appreciate it, though. Don’t feel bad, no one can help me, anyway. Not even Basil.
Basil? Your boyfriend?
There wasn’t any pain now, at all. She could still feel herself choking, her heart killing itself. The broken bones in her leg, the pinched nerves…
Yes. He’s great. But I don’t think he can save me now, either. He’ll try, but he won’t.
Ah. Him. Who knows, he might just do it. And I’m here to help you.
She felt like laughing.
Thank you, but it’s alright. I knew I wouldn’t live long, anyw-
Stop talking like that. How about you tell me more about Basil? How did you meet?
That… was something nice to think about. She was going to die, she might as well think about something pleasant.
We met online. Don’t have any friends left, I’ve been in here for too long. Just some people I chat with, every now and then.
Don’t really have any friends, either. Made my first one just a short while ago.
Then you know how it is. But anyway, we met online, and we got talking. And I guess… he wasn’t funny, but he was… funny in the way he was just so clueless. Innocent, like a little child, really.
Yes, so I got to know him better. And then I let it slip that I lived in New Lennston, too. And somehow, don’t ask me how, he convinced me to let him visit.
You don’t like visitors?
I don’t like people seeing me. At all. I’m ugly.
Debatable. But pray continue!
He came here, and I was so nervous, so afraid he’d just… go away. And then he came in, and… and…
What? Love at first sight?
No… no, not really. I don’t know. I don’t remember when exactly we went from friends to… you know. The other kind of friends. I just know that… I don’t know. I don’t know how we got together, really, it’s just that…
We… it felt like… we were falling. We were both falling, and we kind of… fell together, you know? Does that make any sense?
A new sensation, as if someone was reaching into her chest, somehow.
I don’t know. I’m really not an expert with these things, you know? I can’t even tell the difference between wanting to hug someone and wanting to have sex with them.
It is. Unbelievably so… you promise to keep this a secret?
What I’m going to tell you. A secret.
Oh. Sure. Dead people are really good at that.
You’re not going to die. Will you keep it even while alive?
You’re delusional. But ‘kay. Okay. I’ll keep it.
One time, I kind of spied in on my parents… you know. And I… tried to… you know… join in.
Oh. My. God. That bad?
That bad. Dad only made it worse.
Well, he knew it freaked my mom out, so he acted like he liked the idea – for the record, he didn’t, at all – just to drive her crazy. Tried to ‘convince’ her to try it out.
What did she do?
She punched him so hard he made a crater down in the basement – after breaking through four floors. Ever since then, they’ve always been using their powers to make sure I couldn’t even look in.
Hehe. Serves him right. He sounds like a jerk.
Probably. But mostly, he just likes to drive people crazy.
Sounds like a jerk.
More of a troll, really.
True, I guess.
Hey, can I ask you something?
Want to be my friend? I’d like to have at least one more friend before I die.
You’re going to have lots of friends before you die, you’ll see. And I’ll be happy to be the first of many – not counting Basil, who is really doing his best right now to make sure you’ll have more.
Great. I’m Prisca. Nice to meet you.
My name’s Irene. Glad to make a friend – I’m up to a glorious two, now.
* * *
She was falling again, just like… just like back then. When she’d met Basil.
Is this dying? I hear some people saying that love can feel like dying, but is it really this close?
Darkness. No sensations.
A light in the sky. Then more. And more.
Billions of lights.
No. Let me sleep. Let me rest, please. I just want the pain to end.
She hadn’t wanted Hastur to do to her… whatever she did to people. But she’d also hoped – she was only now realizing it – that she’d end the pain for her.
That way, she wouldn’t have to feel guilty, right? If someone like that killed her?
The stars were growing brighter by the second.
Two were really close.
There was only void around them. Except… there were some stars close, but out of sight. Behind her?
She couldn’t turn, so she looked at the stars in front of her. They were here, now.
One looked… twisted. A twilight world, half-formed and wretched, but still beautiful.
Irene. That’s you, right? Are you hurt?
The other one… it looked more like strands of light and mist, drawn together in a haphazard star shape. Many little pieces, held together by… by nothing, really. Just kind of holding together, glowing bright and white as something black and fast raced across them.
Basil, that you? I knew you were falling, too, but are you really this hurt?
She had always felt like there was something wrong. Like, somehow, somewhere deep inside, he hurt just as much as she did.
And I hated it. Then I learned to love it. Made feel good, to try and help you feel better.
It was over now. The stars were fading.
Only darkness remained.
* * *
Only darkness, and three strands of light. Like thin hairs, glowing, leading… up? Away?
No. It was over.
She was dead.
Basil had failed. Irene had failed, whoever she was in the end.
He’d feel bad. Blame himself.
Yes, he will.
He already felt bad enough as it was. Even if she had no idea why.
Did she have to die?
Did she have to die now?
No. Call back the Light.
She touched the three strands of light, pulling.
Come to me, she thought.
Come. Come. I call you, come here. To me.
She pulled and pulled.
And through the darkness, a star fell down, drawn by the strands of light.
It fell… in front of her.
And suddenly, in its light, there was a her. She looked down herself. Thin, wasted. Broken and ugly.
The star had fallen a few feet away, burning like childrens firework, singing.
She couldn’t hear the melody, or any kind of sound, but she knew it was singing.
Do I want that?
She knew if she took up the star, there would be no going back. She would change.
Maybe not for the better.
I have a choice. I could turn away, right?
What do you want me to do?
Whatever you do.
Who are you?
Someone stepped into the circle of light, on the opposite side of the star.
She was gorgeous. Tall, almost as tall as Basil. Her skin perfect, lily white. Her form full, luscious but slender, dancer and a lover all in one. Long red hair, soft waves coloured like aged wine that fell down to her butt. Lips, full and pouty, of the same colour.
Brilliant green eyes, almost glowing.
No, she spoke. Just you.
Who she always wanted to be and more.
That body was so strong. Stronger than she would ever be.
I can be you?
You already are.
She bent down, slowly, and lifted the star with both hands, holding them out to her palms up.
Chose. You can go back. Or you can fall. One is peace. One is pain.
I don’t want any more pain. But I have to, don’t I?
The choice is yours. Afterall, you’re saying this to yourself.
She stepped closer, reaching out.
Please, let me fly.
She touched the star.
* * *
She was walking along a dark, long road, lined with old, large trees and absolutely covered in snow. It wasn’t cold, even though she was naked.
Next to her, another girl. Young, younger than her. Preteen, she’d guess.
A cute girl, with straight black hair and warm brown eyes. But she was so thin. Dressed in layers upon layers of cast-off clothing, none of it fitting.
They were walking towards a big mansion that stood apart from any other building. A tall wall was built around it, but she knew that the girl knew a way in. A breach in the wall no one had cared to patch up.
They snuck in together and made their way for the side entrance of the mansion.
Large dumpsters stood there, old and heavy.
The whole place looked old. Nothing like any building Prisca knew.
The little girl opened one of the dumpsters, climbing up to look inside.
Why are you doing this? It’s filthy! she tried to say, but couldn’t speak.
Then, a door nearby opened. The girl jumped off the dumpster and ran to a nearby bush, hiding behind.
An old man stepped outside, dressed in warm, but simple clothing. A thick jacket and a wool cap that looked handmade. And expertly so.
He was really old. Thin. White hair and beard, clean and neat, but somehow dishevelled. Like he had people who took care of it, but didn’t care himself.
“Look, sweetheart, I know you don’t trust us, but you need to get out of the cold!” he said, looking at the bush.
The girl tensed up, shivering. He’d seen her! What if he knew how often she stole from their trash?
“C’mon, sweetie, I know you’re there. You’ve been coming here all this time, and you ran away every time one of us tried to talk to you!”
He knew. Where were the others? The thin blonde girl, the tall scary man with the hooknose?
Were they sneaking up on her? She looked around frantically, mortified.
What if they gave her back to the orphanage? She didn’t want to go back, never!
“Look, little girl, we won’t hurt you. Fact, the sir and the miss are off for their work. C’mon, you know we’ve been trying to help you.”
They had, hadn’t they? There had always been a lot to eat here, in the dumpsters. Wrapped in oily paper, clean and uneaten.
At first she’d thought they just threw it all away, but…
She’d eaten better in the month she’d been stealing food from here than in her entire life beforehand.
There’d even been sweets in the trash, carefully packaged. And one time, someone had put a cup of a hot brown drink next to the dumpster, shielded from the snow. She drunk it without thinking, it smelled so delicious.
“Little girl, please. Ol’ Jake is freezing here. Means you got to be freezing even worse. The miss and the mister made food for us all, there’s more than enough to get your little tummy full. And then you can have a bath, and something nice to sleep in, and a bed. We got lot’s’a empty beds, nowadays.”
It sounded so nice. But what if they wanted to hurt her? People were mean.
“Little one, please, come in. You’ll freeze to death out there! C’mon in, everything’s golden!”
He looked like he was suffering, Prisca noted. He really wanted to help this girl he didn’t even know.
It took nearly ten more minutes for the little girl to finally get out of the bushes and walk up to the tall, old man. She looked suspicious, but also hopeful. Or maybe just tired.
‘Jake’ smiled and led her in. Prisca followed, and saw a feast inside. Whoever this Miss was, she was an awesome cook.
The little girl looked at Jake, who smiled and nodded, and then she pretty much jumped onto the table.
Tears came to Prisca’s eyes as she watched the little girl break down sobbing while stuffing herself against all common sense. Jake tried to make her slow down, but she wouldn’t listen.
She hadn’t eaten anything warm for so long. Never anything so tasty.
Prisca watched her almost fall asleep after eating, but Jake took care of her. He bathed her (it broke her heart to see such a thin girl), dressed her, put her to bed.
The girl was crying now, but the old man just held her hand and sang her a lullaby.
And then the world went white.
* * *
The world exploded into light, catapulting Prisca away from the scene. Out of the mansion, which was swallowed up by the light.
She couldn’t tell for how long the pillar of light remained, but it burned away all the clouds in the sky, blasted them away.
There was only a crater left where the mansion stood just moments ago.
For just a second, she saw Jake, old and thin, then young and strong, then older and stronger, then a baby, then a child, then a corpse, then a teen and then… he vanished, flickering away.
She saw the little girl, her thin body curled up as an invisible force carried her to snow pile beyond the crater, shaping it into a kind of half-cave that it left her in.
And she saw a bright star rising, as a beast of darkness screamed and howled and cried.
* * *
Prisca opened her eyes.
She was back in the hospital room, standing at the foot of the bed. Looking at Basil and Irene – Gloom Glimmer – bent over a thin, ugly scarecrow, trying to save her.
Heard the weak, calming heart of the scarecrow. She was alive again. Basil hadn’t failed.
Strange. I’m here, aren’t I? Why bother with that?
She looked down her own body. It was… beautiful. Perfect. Everything she ever dreamed of, and then some.
And it felt good. Strong, fast, tough. Healthy. She was horny as all hell, but now she knew it wouldn’t kill her to act on it.
And her senses. Gone was the dull mist that lay over everything. She could see and hear and smell. She tasted her own mouth and it was glorious. She felt the cold floor beneath her bare feet, and it was glorious.
No pain there. Her body didn’t hurt at all.
Suddenly, a shout bubbled out of her throat. She threw her head back and screamed her joy out to the world, startling Irene.
The young metahuman turned around, looking at her in bewilderment. Then at her old, useless body.
Basil was too focused on saving that worthless piece of meat.
That worthless, broken, tainted, changed hull…
A hull that was still alive. Breathing. Feeling.
She could feel some of her old pain, as if through a kind of misty lens.
I’m asleep. And this… this is a dream.
She looked down at her perfect body.
Ah. Aha. Ha. Hahaha.
She’d gotten her wish. Her feet had risen a few inches off the floor.
Glimmers of golden and silver light formed around them, merging into… into boots. Greaves.
Golden and silver glimmers formed gathered around her, forming into gilded armor. Even a helmet that closed around her head, but did not obscur her vision nor her hearing.
She held a spear, taller even than her new body, and a big round shield, both golden in her hands.
Hehehe. Everything’s golden, for sure.
She looked at the body on the bed. it was asleep, still. Basil was looking at her, his face hidden behind his mask.
Haha. I got it. I got it.
She was whole, and strong, and free, and healthy.
Her laughter shook the room.