B12.13 Born At Sleep

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Flying to the temporary base of the alliance proved to be slightly more problematic than Basil thought was appropriate, mostly because Amazon just plainly refused to leave him alone anywhere near Mindstar.

Not unreasonable, truly, as she lacked some rather critical information, such as the fact that they were siblings.

It was still annoying. And time-consuming. Especially since she also (not unreasonably) refused to drop her armor around her archenemy, which made it impossible for Mindstar to pick her up directly and fly them both. In the end, she just levitated a slab of concrete on which Amazon stood, and flew them back.

Basil expected that he’d have to explain himself to whoever was currently in charge of the efforts (Father Manus? The local UH director? Doc Feral?) before they’d call in three of their people, but to his surprise, he could see them gathered on the platform on which Father Manus and his people had stood earlier. More problematic was the fact that Hecate was there, as well, her arms crossed in front of her chest, clearly staring at Mindstar with murder in her eyes. He had to hope that she’d be sensible enough not to do anything stupid right now.

The priest himself stood there, as well, looking as serene as ever – even though a good quarter of his head, as well as most of his left side were missing.

Basil stared at the broken china doll of a man as they touched down, and the man looked back at him, his good eye – the left one had a crack running through it from above, where a large part of the crown had been broken or blasted off – calm and serene. Even though his body was so broken it should’ve collapsed under the strain of its own weight, he did not seem inconvenienced at all, simply standing there unheeding of the fact that people could look into his hollow form. The insides of his ‘skin’ were formed to resemble the organs that should have been beneath them – Basil could actually see a cracked spine going down his back, like the world’s most delicate artwork on a china vase. It was crafted in such a way that he couldn’t even tell whether it was two-dimensional, or actually shaped out of the material of his body.

Stop staring, Amy told him reprovingly. You’ve got a job to do. She still sounded bitter.

He blinked, then briefly shook his head before he stepped forward. “Sir, thank you for calling them in,” he said to the priest.

Said priest inclined his head, smiling softly. “Words of your exploits have reached us here, young man. And I haven’t survived as long as I have by underestimating what gadgeteers are capable of when working together.” He tilted his head to the side, his voice taking a politely curious tone. “You say you know how you can kill him? How? And how did you find out?”

Tick-Tock (who still looked immaculate), Boom-Boom (whose armor had taken some heavy damage and was covered in scorch marks) and Polymnia (she looked a little pale, and there was dried blood on her ears) stepped forward in curiosity.

Hecate just snorted. “Great, give him a prompt for exposition…” she mumbled so quietly, probably no one but Polymnia and Basil understood.

Amy snorted behind him, biting down on a laugh.

Basil felt a little heat in his cheeks – of indignation, not embarrassment – but he decided to take the high road and ignore the comment.

“I have been watching the fight against it the whole time and taking readings of attack’s effects on it,” he began. “I noticed a few oddities in the way various kinds of attacks affected it, as well as to the way it recovers damage. It… helped me come up with an invention. From there, I deduced its nature, tested it and came to the conclusion that…”


Just five minutes later, Father Manus had agreed to his plan and had left in order to talk to mission control to try to procure the most crucial tool for Basil’s plan.

Mindstar and Amazon had left to join the  battle and buy them time. Hecate stuck around, standing a little off to the side and glaring in the direction Mindstar had flown. The other gadgeteers had gathered around Basil and were discussing his theory.

“I’m still not sure,” Tick-Tock said in a wary voice. “You’re making a pretty big claim there, and it’s mostly based on an invention you came up with while fighting a monster – what if your power just came up with something completely unrelated?” Her tone was polite, not accusing, but Basil thought he saw tension in the way she held herself; her power armor being nearly skin-tight meant that it didn’t conceal her body language nearly as well as his own or Boom-Boom’s did.

The other two watched Basil for his response, though Polymnia didn’t seem to actually doubt him.

He could just shrug. “It is how my power usually operates. It takes what I study and gives me bits and pieces to connect and work into something useful. I have never known it to come up with something completely unrelated to what inspired it.”

That sounds mighty strange,” Boom-Boom threw in. “My power tends to come in bursts, and when it comes up with something, it always puts out something complete. Puts me in the zone, you know?” He shrugged those huge, blocky shoulders.

<If you think that’s strange, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,> Polymnia vocalised through her suit’s speakers, while smiling softly at Basil. <Besides, how we do it is not as important as what we do, especially right now.>

“Yeah, listen to her, powder-head,” Tick-Tock snarled at her brother, slapping the back of his head with a loud clang. “You might actually learn something.”

“Stick it up your ass and twirl!” he snarled back, trying to punch her shoulder, but she danced out of his reach, giving him a smug look that could be seen even through her helmet.

Basil stepped closer to Polymnia while the siblings squabbled. “How are you doing?” he asked, concerned. “Crocell’s screams can not have been good for you,” he continued, guessing as to the most probable reason for her bleeding ears.

She gave him a chagrined smile in response. <Yeah, that first one knocked me out right away. Gloom Glimmer freaked out and teleported->

A huge explosion, which shook the ground they stood on, cut her off, and everyone turned to look in the direction of the battle, where a ring of greenish energy could be seen spreading and fading.

<That’s her, I think. She went to join the frontlines,> Polymnia explained. <Anyway, she teleported me here and healed my ears – though for some reason, her power didn’t let her take away the freaking headache.> She rubbed her temples.

“That is strangely fickle of it,” he replied in sympathy, having quite the experience with splitting headaches, even as he noted that oddity down. He’d have to add it to Gloom Glimmer’s file later on.

Just then, a new figure approached them, another girl looking to be about their age. She was tell, clearly well-trained and wearing a relatively simple costume – a skin-tight blue bodysuit with a yellow half-cloak and a yellow question mark on her sternum, as well as yellow boots and gloves. Adding to that was a blue mask that covered the upper half of her head in the front, her black hair spilling out the back, her mouth and jaw showing dark skin and sharp features.

She approached them, looking slightly apprehensive, like she was nervous to be around them, at least until Tick-Tock stepped up to her and took her hand.

“Vra, what are you doing here? I thought you’re in the think tank?” she greeted the young heroine. Basil had never heard of her before, she had to be a very recent addition, and not one that had drawn a lot of attention from the media or the online message boards.

She looked at him, though, rather than her friend, as she replied, “Father Manus sent me to tell you that your plan isn’t going to work out – the Subjugator just got taken down and we can’t get a line to its operator anyway.” Her voice, though clear and even a little deep for a girl, was hushed and uncertain. She was meeting his gaze, at least, though just about so.

Basil turned away, clutching his hands behind his back. “That is unfortunate,” he said quietly, stewing over it. “We need the Subjugator to pull this off. There is no way we could build the device from scratch in any reasonable time frame.” He looked at the girl, Vra, again. “Do you know how badly damaged it is?”

She blinked, then closed her eyes briefly. He was about to ask her again when she opened them, just seconds later. “There is no detailed damage report, but from eye-witness accounts it appears to have lost a wing and its lower hind jets, along with damage to its main body,” she replied in a much more self-assured manner, either having expected the question or else looked it up without any communication device.

Must be her power, he thought. “Then it might still be of use,” he concluded and turned to the others. “I am going to go and assess its state with my own eyes. Are you with me?”

The siblings and Polymnia looked at each other, then at him, nodding.

“Taking a look can’t hurt. At the very least, seeing Sovereign’s own tech will be reward enough.”

“Eh, why not?”

Basil looked at Hecate. She sighed, finally looking at him. “I’m coming along. You’ll need someone with some common sense around.”

“Much appreciated.”


It didn’t take long for them to make their way to the crash site. Basil may have lost one of his grappling hook systems, but the other one was still functional and he just had to be adjust his rhythm a bit.

Tick-Tock followed by way of an odd flying device she’d literally folded out of her armor’s backpack, resembling a surfboard. It created bursts of blue-ish energy at precise intervals, propelling her forward and up, after which she’d glide downwards slower than she should have, as if surfing over waves.

Polymnia was using her mechanical limbs to leap from building to building, or crawl up and down the facades of buildings – she was definitely the slowest of them, but none of the group had the means to carry her, except perhaps Boom-Boom, but no one sane wanted to travel too close to or with Boom-Boom.

Hecate was flying along in her smoke-shadow form, higher than the others.

Boom-Boom… Basil still had trouble believing it, but Boom-Boom was literally blowing himself up. As in, literally using explosions to launch himself into the air, making giant leaps, only to use more explosions to launch himself into the air again.

Some part of Basil was just loving the thought of explosion-based movement, but most of him was just shocked to realise that most of the damage he could see on Boom-Boom’s armour was almost definitely self-inflicted.

For crying out loud, he was even using explosions to cushion his fall.

Nevertheless, they all arrived at the crash site in good time.

The Subjugator had not gone down easily at all – the entire area around it, for at least a block and a half, was in utter ruins, blasted to pieces and then scorched by massive energy discharges for good measure. There was not a single piece of construction still standing there.

In the centre of the devastation lay the remains of the Subjugator. Much as Vra had said, its left wing was gone, ripped off it seemed. Several of its jets at the back were missing, as well, as well as a big chunk of its head, along with the lower and left ‘eye’. It was also covered in lesser damage, from front to back, mostly it seemed caused by Crocell’s claws. Wires and other parts were spilling out of its greater wounds like a mockery of guts.

To Basil’s great relief, the arc cannon itself seemed to be largely undamaged.

Even though it had taken such horrible damage, the Subjugator was clearly still active. Its uppermost eye had swiveled around and was looking straight at the group standing a good fifty metres away from it. Several small slots were opening and closing along its body, as tiny, spider-like drones – none bigger than Basil’s clenched fist, most even smaller – were spilling out and crawling all over its chassis.

“Oh my God, is that thing actually repairing itself?” Tick-Tock breathed, sounding both shocked and elated.

“Indeed,” was all Basil could say as he marvelled at the huge gadget. “No wonder he rules half a continent.” And with that, Basil walked closer towards the fallen machine.

The big, spherical eye with the glowing red lens tilted down, following him as he approached.

“WHO DARES APPROACH OUR GREAT SOVEREIGN’S WORK SO BRAZENLY!?!” it shouted in its customary chorus.

Damn, I was hoping the speakers would have gotten damaged, at least, Basil thought, as he came to a stop no ten metre away from it.

“I am Brennus,” he introduced himself, standing straight. “I am here because I have figured out how to slay our common foe – but I require your assistance to do so, for I lack the materials and technology to do so on my own, here.”

The Subjugator watched him, for a few moments, while its drones kept doing repairs – though it was unlikely they’d be able to replace its missing wing or propulsion system.

“Explain yourself,” it spoke in a far calmer voice, its eye focused upon Basil.

Basil could hear the others behind him exhale in relief. None of them had been sure that the Subjugator would not respond violently to being approached – Sovereign was rather infamous for how jealously he guarded his creations.

“To be succinct, I have gathered every gadgeteer participating in this battle because I believe that, with some modifications, your arc cannon could actually slay Crocell in one shot,” Basil explained.

Behind him, just out of his hearing, Hecate leaned over to Polymnia. “Wow, he actually can do short.” Polymnia bit down on a giggle.

“Arc cannon? You are referring to the Zeus Caster,” the Subjugator replied. “Your proposal is intriguing, though more information is required before you may be allowed to muddle our glorious Sovereign’s work with your lesser skills.”

Wow, that is not insulting at all, Basil thought. “Alright, my observations and tests have led me to the conclusion that Crocell’s bodily form is being maintained by some kind of extremely powerful, multi-faceted force-field,” he explained. “That is the reason why certain attacks cause disproportionally more damage to it than others, such as your Zeus Caster, while others, such as Mindstar’s telekinesis, are completely ineffectual; furthermore, the force-field does not simply protect its body – if one observes its wounds, one can see that they do not regenerate normally – instead of the flesh growing back from the inside out, it simply grows seemingly out of thin air in the entire area between the undamaged flesh and the outer edge of its force-field. Its body, if it even is really its body, and not just some kind of decoy, is just a huge amount of seawater – I tested it earlier, while I was in contact with it, the clear liquid it ‘bleeds’ is simply more seawater – that is being compressed into a bodily shape by its force-field, with more material being more densily packed towards the centre, which is why we have had an easier time damaging its surface, while its inner parts are more hardy – they are, quite literally, made of more and thus denser material.”

He paused to take a breath, and give it some time to process the information (he wasn’t even sure whether there was a pilot inside, a remote pilot somewhere else, or whether it actually had an AI of its own, really).

“That is an interesting theory, which appears to be corroborated by this masterwork’s own observations. So you propose to modify the Zeus Caster so as to cancel out the specific wavelength of the beast’s force-field and thus slay it instantly?” it replied smoothly.

Basil blinked. That was, actually, precisely what he had planned. “Yes, well, that is the idea.”

“How will you determine the specific wavelength which must be cancelled?” the Subjugator asked.

Basil looked over his shoulder, and Polymnia stepped forth, the machine’s eye turning to focus on her. <My equipment records and analyses audio-wavelengths. I can adapt it to read his,> she replied.

“This unit’s power source has been damaged. It will most likely be unable to power the Zeus Caster to a sufficient degree.”

Tick-Tock and Boom-Boom looked at each other, the eye turning to watch them, then the former spoke. “That won’t be an issue. Boom-Boom can overclock what’s left. It’ll break down afterwards, certainly, but it will be enough to power the weapon.” She tilted her head, tapping her jaw with a finger. “Furthermore, there will be very precise timing required, as well as synchronizing the various pieces of equipment, which both fall under my speciality.”

The eye turned back to Basil. “And I presume you are then the one to do the actual adjustments and calculations for the Zeus Caster itself?”

He nodded, his mouth dry.

The Subjugator fell quiet, looking at each of them in turn again.

“That is acceptable. You may do as needed, so long as you take nothing away nor make any records of this unit’s own parts.”

Basil let out a breath of relief. He’d been dreading the possibility that it might refuse to co-operate, but apparently, whatever intelligence stood behind this machine was sensible enough to work with them.

“Thank you. I promise we will not betray your trust,” he said.

“Enough words. Get to work. Today shall be one of the grandest days of your life, for no other reason than that you are allowed to gaze upon our glorious Sovereign’s masterwork! Nothing shall stop us from claiming victory!”

As if in answer to that, there was a huge crash, nearly throwing them all off their feet.

Crocell rose out of the dust at the edge of the shattered block, its form changed once more.

And then it charged towards the group of gadgeteers, and one contriver.

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B008.5.2 Vra: Acceptance

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The kitchen fell silent. The only sounds were those of Freddy drinking his hot chocolate, oblivious to what my words meant.

I looked away from them, down at my chocolate cup. Waiting.

Someone swallowed dryly. Mom, I thought. I didn’t ask.

“You… are going to register…” Dad said, his voice shaken. “Terry, you… did you ma-“

“No,” Mom whispered. “No, nononono, God, please…” She started to sob.

“Mommy? Whatsa wrong?” Freddy asked, putting his cup down.

I used my power to look at them without raising my head. Mom was sobbing into her arms, whispering one small ‘no’ after the other. Dad looked pale and shocked, Freddy was confused and scared, watching his mother break down.

I shouldn’t have told them.

But I had.

Linda didn’t tell us, and look where it got us.

I wasn’t going to repeat her mistakes. I might make new ones, but I certainly wouldn’t do the same.

“It happened at the cemetery. I’d been… I hit rock bottom, I guess. And then… it happened.” I smiled, feeling a gentle warmth pulse in my belly. I wasn’t sure if it was really there, or just the memory of the way the shards felt like when I swallowed them. “I manifested.”

Mom sobbed harder.

“What’s going on?” Freddy asked, more desperate. “Why’s Mommy crying? Is Terry sick?” He looked straight at me, his eyes wide.

I looked up, shaking my head. “No, Freddy. I manifested. Means I got superpowers.”

“They’re not ‘super’!” Mom shouted all of a sudden. I flinched, looking at her blotchy, wet face. “These… these abnormities already killed one of my children! And now y-y-you… you have them… oh Gooooood…”

If my heart wasn’t already broken, it’d break now, as I watched my mother break down herself, crumbling on her seat.

Every moment that passed, I felt less certain of my decision to tell them about my powers.

Dad stepped forward, putting his hand onto Mom’s shoulder, gently squeezing it to no avail. She just kept sobbing, her face hidden behind her hands.

I wanted so much to walk around the table and hug her, but if she flinched away from me… or screamed, or if Dad tried to stop me… I doubted that I could take that.

Suddenly, I felt a tug on my shirt and turned to see Freddy standing next to my chair. He was looking up at me, his face strangely somber.

“You have superpowers? Like the glowy boy?”

One of his imaginary friends… though I guess they might not be as imaginary as I thought. I just nodded, not sure if I could form a coherent sentence.

“Can you make Linda come back home?” he asked, his voice serious, his eyes hopeful.

I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and then the tears burst out before I could even process it all. “Oh Freddy…” I slid off the chair, down onto my knees and hugged him hard against me. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I’m not nearly that powerful.”

“Oh,” he said. That was all, and then he started crying himself, hugging me back.

After God knew how long, I heard Mom’s chair move, then steps, and I braced myself for having her pull Freddy away from me, letting up on my deathgrip on him… but she only fell onto her knees next to us and hugged us both to her chest.

Then Dad joined in, and suddenly we were all crying.



* * *


A minus 2 hours

Again, we changed rooms, moving to the expansive living room. Mom sat down first, looking pale and drawn, her hair and face a mess as she craddled Freddy on her lap, who didn’t look any better.

Dad sat down on an armchair, and I sait down in one opposite of him, with Mom and Freddy to my right.

“So. Powers,” he said, his eyes haunted.

This has to be one of his worst nightmares come true.

I just nodded, not sure what – if anything – I could say right now to make it better. Looking to the side, I caught a look from Mom, and I had no idea what she was feeling right now, except that she seemed incredibly tired.

“What… what are your powers?” Dad finally asked, almost gagging on the words. “Are they like… anything like Linda’s?”

Blinking, I shook my head. “No, not… it’s a Perception power, which her power fell under, too, but different. And really, really weak.”

“Can you explain it to us?” he continued, while Mom remained silent and Freddy looked interested.

“It’s like… I can ask questions. In my head. I can get anything I ever sensed or learned, and I can know anything I could learn at that moment – like, I can ask for what is behind me, and I’ll know as if I turned my head and looked.”

“I’m not sure I completely understood that… but that means it’s something you can keep hidden?”

“Um, sure, I guess. I mean, even if I use it, it doesn’t show,” I replied. Where is he going with th- I cut myself off before I finished that question. That would most likely hurt like hell.

He sighed, relieved. “So there’s no need to reg-“

“No. She’ll register,” Mom suddenly said, cutting Dad off. We both whipped our heads around, looking at her as she gave Dad one of her looks. “We’ve been campaigning in favor of registration for years now. It would be pure hypocrisy to keep it a secret, not to mention illegal,” she continued – when had she pulled herself back together like that?

“Honey, considering where we live and who we work with…”

“What?” she asked. “We don’t have to tell them, only the government.”

Dad sighed. He knew he wasn’t going to convince her otherwise, but I guess he felt that he had to try.

Me, I was just going to be quiet and unassuming and let this play out…

“There’s no way we’ll be allowed to stay here if it becomes known that both of our daughters manifested,” he said, sagging a little in his armchair.

Dad loved the community here.

“Then we won’t tell them. Registration doesn’t mean we have to make it public,” Mom continued. “But we’re not going to break the law or move away from our home.”

Freddy hugged her harder, sniffing. Mom hugged him closer, whispering to sooth him.

“What if she spreads it?” Dad asked, his face going pale. “My God, I didn’t even think about it, but the whole point of this community is to keep the inf-“

“Dad, I’m pretty sure it’s not an infection,” I interrupted him. Mom and Dad both turned to look at me.

I hadn’t even thought before saying that, but… no, I was pretty damn sure. There was no way she was part of some kind of virus or anything.

Still, can’t hurt to check. Is there some kind of virus, bacteria or any other infectious inside me that causes or enables manifestation?


“Pretty sure it’s not. What I saw when I manifested… there’s no way that was done by a sickness.”

Not to mention there’s never been any proof whatsoever that metahumanity was in any way a biological phenomenon.

“I don’t know… I find it hard to believe, that it’s something completely supernatural,” he replied. “After all, Whitaker and Goldschmidt caused Point Zero with mundane technology.”

I shrugged at that. “I don’t know Dad. All I know is that what happened to me… I don’t think it can be explained by way of conventional science, at all. Not to mention all the people out there who utterly and completely break every single law of physics.”

“We’re getting sidetracked,” Mom said in her business voice. “Let’s get back on topic. How do we proceed?”

I think it helps that she can actually do something now.

“I’m going to get registered, and sign up for expanded registration,” I declared, deciding to make my stance as clear as I could. “I want the training. And if I can help somewhere, even with a power this weak, then I want to.”

Mom gave me one of her looks, but I just stared back at her calmly. As much as they’d used to make me freeze up, they just couldn’t hold a candle to the Hellhound’s casual gaze.

“Expanded registration means you might be called upon for combat,” she said. “I will not allow that. Not while I still have any say in it.”

“I need the training, Mom. If only to be able to defend myself,” I tried to convince her. “And they’re not going to deploy a minor into a combat situation, anyway. Not unless I sign up for the junior heroes, and I’m not going to do that.”

Not like my power seems to be any good in combat, anyway.


“Look, Mom, I want it, alright? I want to learn as much as I can about my power, and about how powers work in general. Expanded Registration is the easiest way to get that, apart from simply signing up with the United Heroes as a member.”

“I’d much rather you just let your power rest, dear,” she said in response, and Dad nodded in agreement.

I shook my head. “No way am I gonna be able to do that, and you know it. This power is a part of me now. And I want to use it. I certainly suffered enough to get it, you know?”

“We shouldn’t rush this,” Dad threw in, seeing Mom’s temper flare (she had this vein on the left side of her forehead that pulsed visibly when she was about to get really angry). “Look, you’re not going anywhere today. You need to rest, and you’re excused from school for the rest of the week, anyway. So how about we postpone this?”

“This isn’t exactly something we can delay, Phillip,” she admonished him, but Dad didn’t back down.

“No. We need to think this over. Let it sink in.” He looked straight at me. “And I want you to think this over carefully, too. I don’t think you have, yet.”

I nodded, lowering my eyes. He’s right, I guess. We need a break, and I need some time to think.

“Alright, you’re right. We need a break, and,” I looked at Mom and Freddy, “Freddy has fallen asleep.”

She looked down and saw that Freddy had gone slack, breathing evenly.

We completely forgot how stressful this has to be for him.

Mom rose up, holding Freddy in her arms. “We’ll talk about this again after dinner,” she said, then walked over to me, giving me a kiss on the cheek.

I shivered a little, instantly feeling better. I’d needed that.

“Lunch is in the oven, sweetheart,” she said. “You need to eat a lot. And don’t worry,” she continued, kissing my other cheek. “No matter what happens – we’ll be there for you.”

I sniffed, feeling the tears rise up, and just nodded.



* * *


A minus 1 hour and 30 minutes

Some time later, I ended up back in my room, my belly full, sitting on my bed.

I’d been determined to think things through again, but really, I always came to the same conclusion.

I wasn’t out for revenge anymore. What the Hellhound had done, it was wrong. Evil. But… I couldn’t waste my time hating him for it. Or pursuing vengeance.

Neither was I going to try something like going out and ‘saving’ the StreetBadgers. They’d chosen their way themselves, and even if they’d wanted to be saved, there was no way I could go up against the Dark Five anyway. Not to mention their boss.

But I wanted to train, to get to know my power better.

Maybe, somehow, I felt like I could keep Linda close as long as I did.

Combat’s not the way though. Way too scary. And my power’s not gonna protect me from gunshots or anything.

“So I guess I’ll just train, and live my life as I would have without my power, otherwise,” I said.

“You sure?” asked a chorus of voices.

I jumped off my bed, almost shrieking as I whirled around.

There he was. The man Freddy had described seeing; the ‘Mirrorman’.

Guy was tall. Not freakishly so, but way taller than average. He was wearing this kind of robe that you sometimes saw with metahumans – it was open in the front, allowing for free movement, but heavy, with wide sleeves and a deep cowl. His was of a dark blue colour.

Beneath, he wore… some kind of skintight black jumpsuit, though his was thicker than most – or at least I thought so, it wasn’t like I was any kind of expert on it.

The weird part, though, was his mask. Freddy hadn’t been lying – it was a mirror, and a freaky one at that. Molded to suggest the lines of a face, it flickered from one image to the next, reflecting… God knows what. I could barely keep up with the images, as they changed with every heartbeat.

“Wh-wh-who are you?” I asked, going into a defensive stance. “How did you get in here?”

He chuckled. “You can call me… Journeyman,” he introduced himself, speaking in a chorus of countless, overapping voices. It was eerie as all fuck. “Don’t be afraid, I mean you no harm.”

“Breaking into my house isn’t exactly helping me believe that. Why should I trust you?” I was trying to think of an escape, but I didn’t know if my family was in danger if I left.

“Ah, true. I tend to forget that problem. I’m sure you understand,” he replied, tapping his ‘chin’. His suit extended to cover his hands, too.

No, I totally don’t. But contradicting the possibly-mad metahuman in my room wasn’t a good idea, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Well, how about this – I’m here because a mutual friend of ours brought you to my attention,” he said in a casual manner, moving both hands behind his back.

My mouth dropped open. “Y-you know her, too?”

He tilted his head to the side. “Her?” he asked, sounding a little confused. Then he straightened up again, raising a hand with the index finger pointing up in a ‘Got it!’ gesture, “Ah! You saw him as a woman!”

“So she isn’t one?” I asked, confused. She’d said something in that direction, but…

“Eh, he isn’t really anything like humanoid. But calling him ‘it’ only makes it sound awkward,” he replied with a shrug, taking a few steps to get closer. “He has no voice or form of his own, only what those he converses with provide him.”

I dropped my stance, relaxing. “So… what is she?”

He shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you, my dear. Sorry, but that’s need-to-know only.”

“So you know what she is?” I asked, hoping to get something out of him.

“I do. I won’t tell you… but I’ll say this much: He might be your friend, but he is not human in any way you’d consider human. Be very careful as to how you interpret whatever it is he told you.”

I opened my mouth, but he cut me off, “No, don’t tell me. Whatever you saw during your manifestation, it’s yours and yours alone. Don’t share it with anyone you don’t trust completely.”

I closed my mouth, nodding. “Alright… next subject. Why are you here? And why did you let Freddy see you?” He’d obviously been able to hide himself from both me and my parents.

“I didn’t let your brother see me. But his… condition makes him uniquelly able to see past many a barrier,” he answered. “As to wh-“

“Wait!” I shouted, my eyes wide. My arm was trembling, and my mouth was so dry, I felt like my tongue was going to turn to dust. “Y-you… you know what’s wrong with Freddy?”

He nodded.

Oh God, please… please…

“Do you know how to… to heal him?” I asked the big question. Please… please…

“I do,” he said, and I felt my heart stop in anticipation. “He just has to manifest.”

Oh. I wiped my eyes with my hand, turning away to hide my tears from him. “I… I see.”

“I’m sorry, Terry. But there’s nothing that I, or you, can do for him.” His voice(s) sounded… sympathetic.

“W-why him? Why does he have to suffer so much?”

“Bad luck. Nothing else, my dear. It’s a random… let’s call it a ‘glitch’ in the system. It happens, sometimes, and there’s no way to predict, prevent or reverse it.”

I nodded, turning back to look at him. “So, why are you here?”

“To help you,” he said. “I’m usually quite content to just watch the story unfold but… sometimes, I meddle. Some times more directly than others.” He held out his right hand. “Specifically, I want to help you make an informed choice.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked, curious. He was offering me information. I was all game for that.

“Show you ’round the block, so to speak. Take my hand, I’ll show you a few truths.”

I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed his hand.



* * *


His strong, slender hand gripped mine firmly, and then he turned around, pulling me after him.

The world shifted, and suddenly we stood in the middle of an abandoned factory.

The abandoned factory. I recognized the old, dust-covered machines standing around, the hole in the ceiling, the big front door.

Linda had died here.

Looking around, I saw no trace of it, though. No blood.

“Why are we here?” I asked him, uncomfortable. This was possibly the last place on Earth I wanted to be at.


The door burst open and…

And Linda ran in.

My heart stopped.

She was wearing a skintight jumpsuit. It was black, mostly, save for dark blue patterns on it that were reminiscent of… of a person’s nervous system, really. It covered her body completely, including her hands and feet, leaving only her head free. And that was covered by a leather mask that wrapped around the top half of her face.

“What’s going on?” I asked in a whisper. I felt hot tears run down my cheeks.

“Hush. Just watch.”

Linda looked around, panicked, for a place to hide. Apparently, she found one, because she ran towards the old machines – but a quarter along the way, the doors behind her flew open completely, and the Hellhound came in.

He looked quite different from how I remembered him, decked out in urban camo and carrying a heavy assault rifle.

Linda froze when he levelled the weapon at her, and oh God, he’s going to ki-

Wait a minute, an assault rifle?

I looked closer. Yes, that was not a shotgun. In fact, he had nothing like a shotgun on him.

Using my power, I dredged up every memory I had of the report. It hurt, a lot, to get it all in detail again, but… no, she’d been shot at with a shotgun.

The Hellhound came closer, approaching her.

Linda opened her mouth to say something – and he slapped her so hard she fell onto her butt.

My mouth fell open, and I felt the heat rise to my face. How dare he…

Linda seemed similarly angered, but mostly stunned, looking up at him as she rubbed her tender jaw.

“Why do you waste your time like this?” he asked, his voice very rough. Like he didn’t use it all that often. And even now, he was more whispering than talking out loud. “Don’t waste your life, child. Others won’t be as merciful as I am.” He gave her one of his burning looks, then…

He turned around and left the factory.

Leaving Linda on the floor. Alive.

What the fuck?

“What the fuck?” she whispered, standing up.

She’d gotten halfway up when a shot rang out from behind her.

And everything froze.

I blinked. I could see the shotgun pellets in mid-air, flying towards her leg.

Whirling around, I saw a… a shotgun, floating in the air.

“What… what’s going on?” I asked Journeyman.

“You’ll see. Come, there’s no need for you to go through the rest.”

And before I could protest, he pulled again and the world shifted.



* * *


We stood in a large office room in a skyscraper, with windows on three sides looking down at Esperanza City.

Journeyman stood with me in front of one of the windows, then turned with me.

And I looked at Richard Svenson, behind his gigantic mahagoni desk, reading something on a tablet.

“Why are we here?” I asked.

“Hush,” he said again. “This happened two days ago. Watch. Listen.”

His phone rang – not the one on his desk, but his cellphone.

Sighing, he put his tablet aside and took his cellphone out. When he saw the number, he raised an eyebrow and put it down on his desk, on speakerphone.

“What a surprise,” he said in his usual, smooth tones. Though he sounded far less condescending than usual. “I didn’t expect to hear from you before our next meeting, Dancer,” he said.

Dancer? A codename?

“Richard,” a rich female voice replied, her voice pure pleasure for the ears. “I just wanted to ask if your little pet project turned out well. You were quite looking forward to it, after all.”

He sighed, his face darkening a little. “No. I’m afraid not. Even his sister’s death didn’t cause Frederick’s manifestation. Nor did his other sister running away.”

What, what, WHAT?

“Such a shame. Though I wonder, how did you get the girl to run away, anyway?” the woman asked the same way I’d ask a friend how she prepared such a good presentation for school.

“Oh, she was already on the verge herself. I just had to push a little with a few well-placed words. Whoever needs mind control powers, anyway?” he replied, laughing amicably at the end.

What the hell is going on here? He wanted me to run away? He wants Freddy to manifest?

“Well, that fits you. But it didn’t help? Maybe you should have the other girl killed, too, and his parents along with her – that might push him over the edge,” the woman suggested casually.

My entire body turned cold. Have the other girl killed ‘too’?

“No, her parents are too important to Humanity First. And to be honest, I was hoping she’d manifest. She certainly was in the right mindset, and she even spent days in it, spiraling out of control,” he said to her. “But no such luck – I visited when she was at the hospital, and she hadn’t manifested. Nor are there any signs that she did since.”

“Would her family not keep it a secret?” the woman he called ‘Dancer’ asked.

“Not from me,” he replied.

A sigh came over the line. “Ah well. Maybe next time. Do keep my suggestion in mind.”

“I will, I will. And how’s it going on your end? Any news from the Installation?” he asked, now sounding more curious himself.

“Oh, yes!” she replied happily. “The Geek thinks project Typhon might yield some usable results soon. No progress on projects Daimyo or Ziz, though. And according to Dusu, there has been no progress on Project Wake, either.” The last two sentences were considerably less happy.

“Ah well, you can’t have everything. Who knows, maybe Skyfall’s newest idea will pan out instead. How’s she doing, anyway?”

The woman on the other side laughed in that strange way they often portrayed noblewomen to laugh, only it was intimidating instead of ridiculous. “The same as ever. She’s in China right now, playing her usual game.”

Svenson sighed, looking disappointed. “Ah well, I guess it was futile to hope she’d actually focus on one thing for a while. Anyway, I have to go and talk to the Afolayans again. At the very least, this whole affair should cement their loyalty to Humanity First’s cause completely.”

“I’m sure you’ll exploit every advantage you can get out of this. Well, have a nice day. Heaven’s Dancer, out.”

“You too, my dear. Until the next council meeting. Cloudlander, out.”

He turned the cellphone off, put it away and walked out of the room.



* * *


A minus 1 hour

Journeyman took me back to my room, and I immediately sat down on my bed, feeling numb.

“Ups, I think I took us a few minutes too long,” he said as he let go of my hand.

“What… why?” I asked him, not sure what exactly I was asking.

He looked down at me, seeming even taller now that I was sitting. I saw myself in his mask, only it was flickering between different versions of myself.

Some of them were very scary.

“I will explain no more. Make of it what you will,” he said. “This is already quite a bit outside my comfort zone – and I’ll have to deal with one hell of a feedback here – so I won’t help you anymore. You have all you need, for now.”

He turned around, half fading out of sight. Then he turned, half his body still visible, blurry at the edges. “For what it’s worth, I wish you the best of luck, Terry.”

Then he was gone.

I put my elbows onto my knees and face into my hands, and stayed there like that.

Using my power, I went through the last few weeks again in detail. It took me almost an hour to do so, but by the end, I’d gone through every. Single. Important. Second.

Richard… Cloudlander had Linda murdered, to get Freddy to manifest. And he’s planning more, and worse.

And I had absolutely no proof to show, only the visions – if you could even call them visions – a complete stranger had shown me.

But our friend had sent him, or at least drawn his attention to me. And it felt right, somehow, what he’d shown me.

I need to fight that.

Whatever Cloudlander and his friends wanted… whatever they were doing, it was evil. Someone had to stop them.

I don’t stand a chance by myself.

I needed training. I needed allies.

Not for vengeance… though I’ll enjoy any chance to get that.

But I needed to put a stop to it. So…

What are my options?

The United Heroes. The Hellhound. The Dark Five.

I thought it through. Then I made my decision, and went down to talk to my parents.

It was time to move forward.


Previous | Next


B008.5.1 Vra: Acceptance

Previous | Next

A minus 3 hours

I lay somewhere warm, and soft.

That, those two sensations, woke me up faster than the cacophony of a tornado alarm ever could have. My eyes flew open, then closed again as a violent glare assaulted them, blinding me.

Where am I?

Home; my bedroom, my bed.

It wasn’t a voice that answered me – no, the information simply appeared within my mind, both the words and images of my room from the perspective of lying on my bed and looking around.

My power?

A sharp, bell-like pain rang through my head the moment I finished forming the question, almost making me cry out. It wasn’t the worst pain I’d ever felt, but it was extremely uncomfortable.

Are you my power?

Again, the pain shot through my head.

I stopped asking questions, thinking for a moment – my earlier questions had been answered immediately, the moment I’d finished forming the question in my mind. But the last two had only hurt me. Did I perhaps have only a limited number of questions I could ask over a certain timespan?


Maybe I should just simplify it.

Did my power provide me with the earlier answers to my questions?


Ah, progress.

Is my power a distinct being I can address?


Well, that put a lid on that. I’d almost been hoping it could talk to me, much like… well my ‘friend’ had.

What happened?

Massive headache. I almost screamed out as an ice pick made of raw pain stabbed my brain.

Too big. Too broad a question. I had to keep them simpler, more focused.

She’d said my power would be stunted. Small. That probably meant I was in the Exemplar tier. Perhaps even at its bottom. My power seemed to belong to the Perception class – at least as far as I understood it. So where did that leave me?

Headache again. Damn it, but I had to be careful about asking questions in my mind. I had to consciously keep them away from my power if they were too complex for it.

But… it should at least be able to analyze itself.

What kind of questions can I ask?

I can ask for any memory I have ever made. I can ask for any aspect of my current physical state. I can ask for any sensory information I could have at the moment I ask the question. I can ask for any information to be processed by any means I have ever aquired. I can only ask a single, distinct question at a time.

That was the longest answer it had given me yet. I should count myself lucky, I guess, that my power at least understood itself.

I’d heard way too many stories about metahumans who had no idea how to use their powers. They were some of Humanity First’s favourite propaganda tools.

What am I wearing?

This time, I got a multi-layered answer. My power connected the sensation of the nightgown I was wearing with sensations in my memory, connecting it to the right item. I also got an image of me looking down my body by lifting my blanket, and saw it that way, too. It also did the same for my panties.

It was my favourite nightgown, a semi-sheer amber-coloured silk piece that fell to my knees. I’d bought it because I’d thought I’d look hot in it, but it was so revealing my mother had forbidden me from wearing it outside my own room, even when there was only family in the house. Linda had a matching gown. We’d fantasized, some times, how our boyfriends would react if they saw us in them (though that could only work if we’d ever get ourselves some boyfriends, which hadn’t happened yet).

The memories of us two sitting together in those nightgowns and talking of our fantasies hit me like a train, and I heard myself sob as tears welled out of my eyes… but it was only grief. None of the all-consuming rage, or the depression, that had been driving me over the last two weeks.

Blinking, I finally opened my eyes and looked around. The light that had blinded me had been the noon sun, shining brightly through our room’s one big window. Once my eyes adjusted, I found our room as it had always been. Someone, probably Mom, had picked up the pieces of the torn dress I’d left on the floor, too.

A dull pain shot through my shoulder as I turned my head, and I winced. I’d mostly been ignoring my left shoulder since I’d run away from the hospital, and I’d felt miserable enough that it’d been easy to ignore the ongoing pain – and when I felt it, I’d thought myself deserving of it.

By carefully unbuttoning the top of gown and pulling it off my left shoulder, I saw that the bandages were clean and fresh.

How does it look beneath the bandages?

I saw an image of the bandages untied, the closing wound revealed. It had an angry, purple colour, but was healing far faster than I’d have expected. I’d probably still get one hell of a scar, though.

Good. I don’t ever want to forget how stupid I was.

There also was a strange, flat pad made of some soft material and covered in blue, slime-like stuff that also covered the wound. My left arm felt numb all over. An anaesthetic? Headache. Ow.

Got to practice not asking every question with my power.

I groaned, pulling the gown back up and buttoning it closed before I stacked some pillows against the headrest of the bed and sat up straighter, leaning against them. Now that I’d woken up properly, I noticed that was really thirsty. Fortunately, they’d thought to give me a glass and a bottle of water, both standing on the small table next to my bed.

Opening the bottle with only one properly functioning hand was a small chore, but the cool, clear water was totally worth it. I put the empty glass back on the table, filled it up for later and set the bottle aside.

Feeling quite better now, I finally turned my thoughts to my current situation.

I was back home. How? Who’d found me? Why wasn’t I at the hospital? How long had I been unconscious?

Thirteen hours, thirty-two minutes, fifteen seconds.

Huh. That had been oddly specific, and how did my power know that anyway?

Biological clock.

Ah. Nifty.

So, sometime after… swallowing the shards (somehow, that just sounded wrong)… I’d been found at the graveyard by someone, someone who’d called my parents… though they might also just have gone there to visit Linda’s grave. They’d taken me home, and I’d also obviously been treated by a professional, as well as washed and clothed, all without waking up.

God, I must have been completely out of it.

Just then, I heard light steps outside and the door opened a bit.

For just a moment, I saw large, brown-gold eyes peek in, then a cheer and Freddy charged into the room, jumping into my chest.

“Uff! Careful!” I gasped, catching him as his thin arms closed around my midsection like a weak vise, his face buried in my nightgown. I hugged him back as gently as I could. The motion brought a fresh jolt of pain to my shoulder, but I’d missed Freddy. It’d been almost two weeks since the last time I’d hugged him, and that was not good. “Hello Freddy,” I whispered, kissing the top of his head. His hair was rough, wiry and had superpowers of its own – there was no sense in trying to comb it, ever, so Mom just cut it really short and hoped for the best.

“I missed you, Terry,” he whispered, without letting go. “I thought you’d gone away, like Linda,” he added miserably.

I felt like the Hellhound shot me all over again. What had I been thinking, doing that to Freddy?

My arms tightened around him. “I wouldn’t just leave you, Freddy. Promise.”

“Linda did. She went away, I don’t know where to find her I’ve looked everywhere!” he replied, half angry and half sad.

He doesn’t get it. I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.

But there were more important things to say. “Linda didn’t want to go, munchkin,” I said pulling him up so his face rested on my shoulder, his arms wrapped around my neck. “Don’t think for a moment that she didn’t want to be with you.”

Freddy sobbed, his grip tightening, just as I heard someone coming up the stairs.

“Freddy! Where are you? I hope you’re not trying to wake Terry up again!” Mom. She sounded way better than the last time I’d seen her.

When Freddy didn’t answer, she sped up, almost running to come inside – and stopped dead when she saw us.

She’d obviously been crying a lot. Mom’s eyes were puffy and red, her hair was not quite perfectly arranged in her usual bun and she’d definitely not coordinated her outfit – wearing a tear-stained blue shirt that belonged to Dad and looked like a tent on her. I couldn’t even tell if she was wearing anything underneath it, because it fell down to her knees.

“Terry!” she shouted and pretty much ran over to all but jump onto my bed and hug Freddy and me both. I didn’t even get a chance to reply before she showered me with so many kisses, my face felt like it’d been drenched in water.

“Mom! It’s alright, calm down!” I protested, weakly. I didn’t really mind.

Being touched again, like that, feeling safe, loved… I’d had no idea how much I’d been taking for granted. It felt good in such a simple way, I’d never even noticed it before.

She didn’t stop kissing me for almost… how long, actually?

Forty-seven seconds.

Then she leaned back, never taking her left hand off my right shoulder, nor the right one off my cheek. “Oh Terry, how could you just… you scared me so!” she said. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, and I belatedly realized that I’d been crying for quite a while now, too.

I threw my arms around her, making Freddy protest when I crushed him between us, burying my face in Mom’s shoulder.

We spent three minutes and twenty-three seconds (I liked my power more and more with every question I asked) like that, until we I heard Dad’s heavy steps, and he entered the room, fully dressed up in his usual sharp three-piece.

Mom’s breath caught, and she tensed up. As did I, and Dad too. Only Freddy didn’t notice the charged atmosphere in the room.

“Hey Dad,” I said by way of greeting. Weak.

“Hello, Terry,” he replied. Not much better.

We looked awkwardly at each other. Mom slid out of our embrace and sat at the end of the bed, kind of in the middle between him and me. Freddy still wouldn’t let go.

I just looked at Dad. What should I say?

Just talk, dummy.

I couldn’t tell if that was my power or just my own thoughts.


We just looked at each other for a while.

He looked away first, whispering something.

What did he say?

He said ‘I’m sorry’.

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever heard dad apologize to me over… anything.

My mouth opened, a little, and I looked at him some more.

“Why’s everyone so quiet!?” Freddy spoke up, making us all flinch as he broke the uncomfortable silence.

I looked down at him, trying to pull him off. “We just need to… talk a little. Will you let go of me?”

“No! No no no!” he shouted, hugging me even harder. “You’ll just go away again!” he cried out.

“Freddy, I promised I’d stay, remember? You don’t have to be afraid,” I tried to calm him down, already feeling a tremble in his limbs. I rubbed his back, kissing his head as Mom slid closer and hugged him, too.

Slowly, we coaxed him into switching from me to Mom, hugging her instead, sniffing.

He deserves better than this.

When I was finally free, I threw the blanket back and rose, while Dad looked aside. This gown really wasn’t appropriate for wearing around anyone but my sister.

Using my power, I easily picked out my favourite clothes for indoors – a pair of grey sweatpants and a yellow shirt with Silvester the Cat on the front – as well as some comfortable underwear and put them on. Then I turned around and walked up to Dad, until my bare toes were almost touching his polished shoes. Does he have a business meeting today?


Huh. How come I could know that?

I could just ask him and he’d tell me right now.

Oh, duh.

“I heard what you just whispered.” Not the strongest opening line, but there. He looked at me, uncomfortable. Neither of us was big on apologizing for things we’d done. “And I… I’m sorry, too.”

He gave a start, then looked straight at me, his eyes – which I’d inherited – sad. “No, Terry,” he said, his voice rough. “You made some pretty stupid mistakes, yes, but… it was me and your Mom who drove you to them.” He threw a glance at Mom, who was just watching us nervously while simultaneously trying to keep Freddy calm.

I nodded, not sure what to say. This all felt so… strange. I’d never talked with him like this.

“I don’t agree with your decisions, and I’d sure like to read the riot act to you, but… I blame myself, mostly. I’m sorry about how I acted at the hospital – I was way out of line, but I was just so… so… scared. That I’d lose you, too.” He raked his fingers over his meticulously shaved head.

“Ohhh, you… you idiot!” I shouted, throwing myself at him. He gasped in surprise as my arms wrapped around his neck and I buried my face in his broad, strong shoulder.

Before I knew it, I was bawling my eyes out against his shoulder, and he hugged me hard, all but crushing me as he lifted me off the floor.

Five minutes and seventeen seconds later, I finally eased up on my grip, and he put me down again.

I smiled up at him, he smiled back, and the world was a little more right again.

Mom joined us with Freddy, and we did one of those corny group hugs, and it got even more right.



* * *


We all ended up in the kitchen. Mom melted down some chocolate, and we were all nursing steaming hot cups of chocolaty goodness. Even Freddy (his latest fit had finally given him his taste for chocolate again).

I’d spent the last few minutes (twelve, and fifteen seconds) summarizing everything that had happened since I’d stormed out of the house, up to when I’d collapsed on the grave (I didn’t tell them about manifesting. That was a bomb I didn’t want to drop just yet).

“So, uh, how did you find me? And why am I here, and not at the hospital?” I finally asked.

“We got a phone call,” Dad replied. “Someone had found you, and he called us. Wasn’t there when we arrived, though.”

Freddy looked up, just as I said, “Huh, strange, I wo-“

“The funny man with the mirror!” Freddy shouted.

We all turned to look at him, while Dad sighed and Mom reached out to stroke his hair. “There was no man with a mirror there, honey. You just saw things again,” she said soothingly.

I looked closely at Freddy. I wasn’t so sure anymore. He sees stars… like I did, when I manifested. “What man with a mirror, Freddy?”

“He was tall! And he was wearing this big blue… that thing like a cape, only it had… these,” He pointed at his sleeves, “And it had a big hood! Like Red Riding Hood, only blue! And he had a mirror as a face, and I saw all these funny things inside!”

“What funny things?” I inquired further.

“Terry, you know it’s not good to reinforce him when he does this,” Mom admonished me, but I continued.

“What did the mirrorman do, Freddy?”

“He waved at me! And he made a ‘hush’ sign!” he said brightly, back to his usual happier self, now that the mood had lightened.

“And then he left?” I asked further.

He shook his head. “No no, he’s come along with us! He was in the car, showing me funny things in his face!”

I stood up, abruptly. “Freddy, where is the mirrorman now?”

Mom and Dad were on edge now, too. Freddy didn’t notice, pointing brightly at a corner of the kitchen. I walked over to it.


He nodded. “Yes, he’s right in front of you, looking at you!”

I reached out, but found nothing there.

Freddy’s face fell. “Awww, he just walked into the wall. I didn’t know he could do that!”

I shook my head, relaxing and going back to my seat. “Alright… we deal with the spooky mirrorface man later, provided he is real,” I said. “Why am I not in the hospital?”

Dad raised an eyebrow. “You think I was going to leave you there, after they just let you walk out last time? I told them to send a doctor here, and he took care of you. Said it was a miracle your wound didn’t get infected.”

I nodded.

“What… what’s next?” Mom asked. She’d barely said anything. “I mean, are you done? Or do you still want to…”

I sighed, looking down. “Revenge? I don’t… I don’t want revenge anymore. But… tomorrow I’ll go to the United Heroes’ headquarters and register myself.”

Previous | Next


B008.4 Depression

Previous | Next

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.

Previous | Next


B008.3 Denial

Previous | Next

“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 suck.

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.


Previous | Next


B008.2.2 Vra: Bargaining

Previous | Next

It took a while for them to stop screaming variations of ‘You’re insane’ at me. I just stood there and took it, knowing that I’d have to be real careful about what I did next. Because I sure as hell couldn’t even find the Hellhound by myself, much less take him down.

When they finally calmed down, I said, “Please, I need your help. I can’t avenge Lind- Twitch without you all.”

They all reacted to the word ‘avenge’, and I knew I had something to work with. Especially with Fletch, he already looked half ready to storm off and go after the asshole himself.

Did he have a crush on Linda? It would explain all the looks he’d been throwing at me. It would also mean that he was the one most likely to support my idea.

“Do you have any idea – any idea – how dangerous messing with the Hellhound is?” Jimmy asked, his voice very quiet and very grave.

I gave him my most somber look and said, “I already lost my sister to him. Yes, I fucking know how dangerous it is.” What should I say next? I’d never paid much attention to how to make people do what I want, Linda had always been the people person. “I… please, I just… I need help. For her. To make him pay for taking her away, from us.” They’d obviously liked Linda (she’d always had an easy charm) and were grieving for her. If I could just make them feel like I felt right now.

“That’s not fair,” Laura whispered, looking down. “She died to save us, and now you want us to risk throwing that away?”

“She didn’t choose to die for you,” I replied, almost shouting at her. Careful, Terry. “She wanted to- to survive as much as you did. But that monster got her and killed her. And he didn’t kill her easy, you know? I got a look at the police report. He shot off her left leg at the knee, shattering the right knee with the same shot when fragments from the left one smashed into and through it.” They went pale, Peter even green. “She kept fighting, or maybe fleeing, because his next shot took off her right hand and then her entire left arm.” I felt the bile rise, my stomach protesting, my brain demanding that I stop imagining this. “She was on the floor, on her belly, and was trying to turn on her back when he shot her chest, sideways. Took off both breasts and a good piece of her r-r-ribcage,” I continued, feeling ready to puke on the spot, “She was already dead by then, or at least so close it didn’t matter anymore, but he used a sidearm to put a bullet into her head, just to be sure!”

I turned away from them, dropping on my knees and puking for the second time in one night, this time into a trashcan next to Linda’s desk. I heard someone’s feet pound the floor and then another puking sound from the next room over.

“My God…” Laura sounded like she was ready to empty her stomach, too. I wiped my mouth and turned to look at them. Fletch and Jimmy looked ready to faint, Cad looked ready to commit murder and Laura had a sick look on her face. Peter was gone and I heard him retch in the next room over. “We didn’t… we just ran, and we heard she’d died later on,” she explained, tears running down her too-perfect cheeks.

“I’m not blaming you,” But I do. You got her into that situation in the first place, “But she’s still dead. And I’m going to go after the asshole who took my sister from me, with or without you!” I stopped holding the tears back and they spilled forth like twin cascades, blurring my vision. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and then saw that Laura was crying openly now, Fletch was wiping his nose, Jimmy looked depressed and Cad ready to boil over with anger. Peter was nowhere to be seen, but I thought I could hear his choking breaths from behind the curtain.

Now or never.

“I beg you, help me. I can’t do this alone, but heaven knows that I’ll try.”

* * *

I can’t believe that actually worked.

I’d expected them to resist more, if they helped at all. Or that at least one would stay out of it. But they all agreed.

A few minutes later, they’d given me a bulletproof vest and some kind of gas-powered gun that fired stun ammo. We’d quickly decided that killing the guy made no sense, since he came back anyway, so we had to knock him out and then… actually, none of us knew what to do with him, but I thought shooting a few pieces off of him off would be a good start.

We didn’t really know jack about the guy or where he could be, so I proposed going after whoever had hired them for that job – even if it wasn’t him who’d sold them out, he should be able to point us at another possible culprit.

So we geared up (Foxfire actually put on a padded red-and-white bodysuit, which she told me was reinforced enough to stop small caliber shots) and Peter (a low-level Gadgeteer, as I found out) doled out earbugs for everyone, plus a barely visible camera we could stick to our collars.

“So, you gonna use a cowl?” Jimmy suddenly said as he stepped out of his partition (they didn’t really qualify as rooms). He was wearing a leather suit not unlike that of a biker, except it was covered in swirls that made my eyes (and brain) hurt if I looked at them for too long.

Maybe it was because of the headache he caused that I didn’t get his question. “A… what? I don’t think wearing one is going to be practical, to be honest,” I replied, confused. After a few seconds, I simply looked away from him before the headache made me faint. Good God, what a costume.

“Oh, I didn’t mean a cowl as in, a garment!” he replied, surprised. “Thought everyone knew the slang by now.”

“What?” Now I was really confused.

Fortunately, Foxfire joined us just then and clarified, “It’s a technical term, if you can even call it that. A ‘cape’ is the identity of a superhero, costume, powers, style, name and all the other stuff. A ‘cowl’ is the same, just for supervillains. So he asked if you wanted to use a codename and maybe take on a theme or something.”

“Uhm…” I hadn’t really thought about this, but… I was going out to hunt a crazed metahuman. Should I hide my identity behind a codename and a mask? I thought it over for a few moments, but…

“No. I want him to recognize me,” I answered, voice as firm as I could make it right now. “I want him to know his victim’s sister is the one who’ll take him down. Besides, I don’t have any powers and unpowered people don’t use capes or cowls, right?”

“Well, your choice, Terry,” Fletch – Razzle, now, wearing his magician’s mask again (I had to ask him why he’d chosen that name and mask, but later) – said. “But it’s not true that unpowered people never dress up in costumes, take on a codename and go fight or commit crime. It’s just that most don’t last long.”

“Then I’m not going to jinx myself by taking one on.” I held the gun in my hand, trying to get a feel for its weight. I’d never fired a gun before, but… how hard could it be? They were supposed to work even for total idiots. “Not that I’d have any idea what I’d call myself, anyway.”

“You could, you know. Use one of Twitch’ spare masks and her… name…” Razzle’s voice slowly faded as he saw the look on my face. I didn’t even bother to respond any other way.

Instead, I turned to Foxfire again as Cad, who’d added a padded leather jacket to his ensemble and a simple black half-mask that wrapped around the upper half of his head, hiding his hair and any signs of his ethnicity. Considering his size and musculature, I’d have taken him for a white guy, had I not seen his face earlier.

To Foxfire, I said, “Tell me about this guy we’re going to look into? I only know his job, so far.”

“He’s a supervillain agent – as in, an actor’s agent. People with jobs contact him, tell him the price they’re willing to pay and he then looks among the contacts he has for a supervillain or a team that fits the bill. The villains are not told who they work for, protecting the employer’s identity – in fact, most agents don’t even know for whom they commission villains.”

“That sounds very risky. What if someone just prank-calls an agent, or refuses to pay afterwards?” It didn’t sound like it could work.

Wagging a finger like she was talking to a little child, she explained, “Ah-ah, it’s not that easy. If you’re not an established customer, then you have to pay the agent in advance – if the villain or villains he picks out succeed, they get paid – minus the agent’s cut – and if they fail, the customer gets the money back – a gain, minus the agent’s cut, though they usually take less if the job failed – and the agents themselves are usually part of a bigger organization, usually the Syndicate. Means the Syndicate gets a little off of every job villains pull, in exchange for providing the agents with credibility and emergency funds, as well as the means to forcibly collect their money if need be. Not that it becomes necessary very often, because how stupid do you have to be to want to piss off the Syndicate like that?”

That made more sense, and I nodded to her. But… “Is that how all supervillains work? I can’t imagine someone on the level of the Dark Five or the Defilers or Caliban to just take commissions.”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Nah, that’s the system for the small-timers, like us. Street villains, as they call us, if that. Some – like our own group – are little more than gangs that make some money on the side with the least dangerous and difficult jobs. The big guns play their own game, and we lowly mortals don’t meddle.”

We made our way down the staircase – their agent was not very far away, so we’d go their by foot.

“What about the Hellhound? Where does he fit in?”

“Nowhere I know of, really,” answered Fulcrum now. “Far as we know, he’s just a crazy who hunts down street level villains, because the real deal is beyond him. Car bombs, sniper rifles and such are not much use when you can shrug off stinger missiles, regenerate from a pinky finger or possess bodies at will. I looked up as much on him as I could, but far as I can tell, he’s never taken a commission, and certainly doesn’t attack non-powered criminals unless they get in his way.”

“So we got nuthin’ to go on?” Cad – LagForward, and I really had to get used to calling them by their codenames when out and about – asked. I’d realized by now that his nasal, annoyed tone was just normal for him and no indicator about his mood whatsoever.

“Only our agent. I hope to God that it wasn’t him that sold us out, ’cause there’s no way in hell we’re gonna get a new one any time soon.”

“But if it was him…” I said in a low, low voice. Images of… things were appearing and disappearing before my mind’s eye, things I never thought I’d even consider doing before.

“Then he’s done for,” said Foxfire with iron conviction. “We don’t even have to lift a finger, we just need to call it in. The Syndicate has a no-tolerance policy regarding this kind of action.”

“I don’t want the Syndicate to get him, I want to make anyone who’s responsible suffer!” I half-shouted at her, but she just brushed it off.

“Relax,” Fulcrum threw in. “Nothing we could do to the guy would even come close to what the Syndicate would do. The villain responsible for the Americas takes a dim view of this, and she has everyone who breaks the Syndicate’s rules like that delievered to her in person, in order to make an example.”

“So he’d be thrown to Mindstar?” That bitch was a walking (well, flying) nightmare, and she’d been active for little more than a year! “I guess I could live with that.”

“Nah,” he replied. “Mindstar’s a member of the Five, but word on the street is, she’s too unstable and inexperienced to act as an administrator for the Syndicate network. Till she is, the Dowager rules both North and South America.”

Brrrr. We all shivered. The Dowager was one of the older members of the Five, old enough for even me to know stuff about her. Just surviving as long as she had was proof of how dangerous she was; not to mention being considered the second-in-command to the Dark himself. It didn’t help that there were rumors the adults didn’t tell us kids in Oak Leaf (meaning we all knew about them), that she was the Dark’s actual wife, or at least his rebound gal for whenever Lady Light was on the outs with him.

We know so little. We hate them so much, but all we really know are rumors. That thought blindsided me. There was a story there, but I’d never even thought about it beyond gossiping about it at school. I doubt that most of the people in our community really knew much of anything about the metahumans they so fervently opposed.

At least I could be sure he’d be punished. Unless he was innocent and this was just a giant waste of time.

* * *

“So, what can you guys do, anyway? I only know the bare bones,” I asked while we were on our way towards the office of the agent. The shades seemed even darker than before, and it was miserably cold now (thankfully, Linda had stocked some extra warm underwear at their HQ. Wearing her clothes was just wigging me out, but not freezing assorted bits of myself off was just too seductive). Still, I needed something to distract myself.

They looked at each other and all shrugged, apparently deciding that it was alright to tell me. Gee, do I feel trusted. Not that they weren’t already way more trusting than I would ever have been.

“You’ve seen my fireworks,” Razzle began, walking just a little behind and to the right of me. “I can make the cloud grow really big and wide, but it takes time. Haven’t found a limit on the size yet. It doesn’t obscure my vision at all, and I can mitigate the obscuring effect for anyone I want within the cloud. You probably know that already.” I nodded. “But I’m also a mover. I get some low-level super-speed, but only while I’m hidden inside my fireworks.”

“Oh, the police doesn’t know that part. You kept it secret, huh?”

He nods, seemingly flattered. I can’t quite tell, thanks to the mask.

LagForward takes over. “I’ve got level three physique, and I can give myself exemplar-level strength, toughness and super-speed for split-second bursts – like you saw earlier. Not much fine control, though, the super-speed ain’t in my head. But I can punch holes in walls when I need to.”


Fulcrum pulled a coin out of his purse and said, “Watch closely.” He threw the coin forward. Suddenly, a kind of… swirl in the air appeared in its path, and when the coin touched it, it’s flight was diverted to the right at a ninety degree angle. “I can speed up my sight, and I can create that fulcrum anywhere within my sight that I focus my gaze on. It allows me to redirect any physical object’s movement by up to ninety degrees in any direction.”

“And you’ve already seen – and felt – my ball,” Foxfire continued, but without creating it – it would have been too conspicious. “It acts like a taser, and I can throw it easily without having even a good grip – it sticks to my body until I don’t want it to anymore. Takes one or two hits to take down a normie, and three or more for a meta, depending on powers and physical fitness. The effect is mental, not physical. What you probably don’t know is that I can recall it – and the return motion is as fast as a ball kicked by a soccer player. But it can only move towards me with that speed.”

Something clicked almost immediately when she got to the last part. “So… you just use Fulcrum’s power to redirect that return shot and turn it into an attack, right?” At least that’s what I’d do.

She grinned, showing off her canines again. “Well, aren’t you a smart one? Linda was the one who figured that out for us.”

So you didn’t even come up with it yourselves?

“Though we do have one more big trick,” Fulcrum commented. “Which we’ll demonstrate to you, presently. Look.” He’d stopped moving and was pointing towards a rather run-down old office building. There were five people in front of it, all dressed in black shirts and pants, holding guns.

“Fuck,” Foxfire cursed as we all hid behind a nearby half-collapsed wall, looking at them across the street.

“Who’re those guys?” I asked, trying to make out any identifying marks. They were all dressed identically, all clean-shaven and alert.

“They belong to the mob,” Fulcrum explained. “Same people we stole that package from.”


“What do we do?” I asked.

Foxfire growled: “We take them down. Time to bust out our big trick.”

Well, now I’m curious.

* * *

Fulcrum and Foxfire stepped back from the rest of us, so that they were completely covered by the remaining wall of the building we had thrown ourselves in.

Foxfire held her hands out, and a spark appeared between them, growing swiftly to melon size, the ball switching colours in random patterns.

Then things got interesting. Fulcrum looked straight at the ball, his eyes turning bright, bright blue – unnaturally blue. The ball flickered, and then, after a few moments, it stopped switching colours – instead, a swirl formed within the ball, countless colours moving within.

“Done,” Fulcrum said. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He turned away from the ball and came back to crouch behind the wall with us, while Foxfire threw the ball out into the alley we came through, just out of sight of the mobsters.

“What are they doing?” I asked Razzle.

“They heterodyned their powers. Just watch,” he said.

Heterodyning? Are they Girl Genius fans?

Fulcrum looked straight at the guy closest to the alley, focusing his gaze.

Moments before something happened, I suddenly realized that they were all looking at the building, not away from it, as if they were guarding it. Why would…

And the ball shot out at pro-soccer speed, slamming into the back of the guy’s neck. It bounced off as the guy collapsed with an explosive sigh and Fulcrum shifted his focus on the next guy’s neck, before anyone could react. It hit him, too. And then the next three. The last guy managed to turn around and raise his gun, opening his mouth to shout – but the ball hit him in the throat and he collapsed.

Sped up vision, combined with an attack that strikes almost as fast as you can focus your sight.

This was what even exemplar-level metahumans could do? Two teenage delinquents with what I assumed were bottom-rung powers had just taken out five armed mobsters before they could even react.

No wonder so many people are afraid of them.

“You see anyone else?”, Foxfire asked.

Fulcrum replied, “Not outside the building. Let’s go in, keep our powers ready. LagForward, you take point, move low so I can aim.”

We moved, me following behind with Razzle next to me. Foxfire was sticking close to Fulcrum.

<Yo guys, just so you know, I have no access to that building at all,> came Peter’s nervous voice through the earbug. <Net connection is locked down tight, even if there are cameras, I’m not getting in.>

“Keep an eye on the police scanners then,” Fulcrum commanded as we passed the mobsters. “Warn us if anything is called in.”

<Will do. Good luck, everyone.>

We ran past the mobsters and snuck into the building.

Wasn’t there something suspicious I just noticed?

* * *

We went into the old office building, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled of old urine and drugs.

This is where their agent hangs out? Man…

LagForward went ahead towards the end of the hallway, where I could see an old door with a semi-opaque glass window for the top half. The light flickering above was glancing off the remnants of some old letters that had once denoted the owner of the office. I doubt that he’s still working here, whoever he was.

We walked by three more doors, ignoring them, and snuck up to the office. Foxfire was holding her ball in her hands and stayed just behind and to the right of Fulcrum, so he could fire it off at any time. The swirl of colours cast strange lights on the floor, walls and ceiling.

“Razzle, get ready,” Fulcrum ordered and the young boy complied. Just like before they’d knocked me out, silent fireworks began to go off around Razzle’s form, producing a greyish smoke that only served to reflect and further enhance the lights they created. It spread outwards, enveloping us all.

First, I held my breath, but then I realized that was silly – the others weren’t wearing gas masks or anything, so it obviously didn’t restrict breathing. I opened my mouth and breathed in – nothing. No smoke. It wasn’t even really smoke, just an illusion of such.

The cloud filled the hallway, and at first, I had to close my eyes to protect them from the flashes. But then it just… I can’t really describe it, but it adjusted, and suddenly I could partially see through the cloud. Not entirely, but way better than I should.

Again, I had to wonder just how high the power ladder went for ‘normal’ metahumans, if these guys were at the bottom of the power chart.

But then I had to focus again, because LagForward punched the lock of the door out and we went in.

* * *

I will never forget the scene that I saw next.

The office was rather shabby. There was an old oaken cupboard to the left, which had probably once been worth more than half the equipment in the StreetBadger’s hideout, but had not been preserved right at all. The only other furniture was a desk in front of a large window, a desk chair behind it and two smaller chairs in front of it.

Of course, I doubt the short, overweight guy in a cheap grey suit was supposed to have been nailed onto the desk by way of three long knives through the wrists and ankles.

And then there was he. He stood behind the desk, facing us and looking… mildly surprised. He was tall, obviously well-muscled despite wearing thick jeans and a thick military jacket. A very handsome guy, in a very natural way, with the rugged good looks of an old-school movie star. His black hair was cut down to a buzz cut, no longer than his three-day beard. But his eyes…

I froze up when I looked into his eyes. They were red, so red they seemed to sparkle like rubies, but there was no life in them. No emotion, at all. They reminded me more of a reptile’s eyes than a human’s, and they certainly didn’t look like they belonged to someone who’d ever cared about someone.

Or perhaps those were the eyes anyone who lost everything they cared about got, eventually. Windows into hell itself.

I didn’t want to think about it. I only wanted to hurt him, but I couldn’t move. He wasn’t even seeing me, just looking at the fireworks and smoke, and yet his mere half-lidded gaze was enough to beat me. I never stood a chance, and neither did the others.

He vaulted over the desk towards us, drawing a large handgun out of a holster at his hip.

Fulcrum let fly with the ball, but he just vaulted over it and shot in the direction it came from – right at Foxfire.

She went down with a scream, then a gasp and the ball winked out of existence.

“No!” Fulcrum screamed and turned to her – but his shout revealed his position and I saw a red fountain sprout from his shoulder as he was violently thrown around and back, slamming into Foxfire’s collapsing form before she’d even hit the ground.

We have to run away. Yet I couldn’t move.

LagForward, meanwhile, could. He’d moved along with the cloud as it enveloped the front half of the room, and now he burst out of it from the side, his mouth twisted in a furious snarl.

Hellhound didn’t bat an eye. Nor did he react in any way I’d have expected – he stepped towards LagForward, closing the distance. Obviously, LagForward hadn’t expected that, either, and his lightning-fast punch went wide as the Hellhound simply stepped into his range and drew a knee up.

The air left LagForward’s lungs explosively as his enemy drew his knee up and slammed it into his crotch, making him bend over – and expose the back of his neck.

The follow-up strike knocked him out as surely as Foxfire’s ball had laid me out. Then he turned towards the smoke and levelled his gun in my and Razzle’s direction…

Except the fireworks were already clearing, and Razzle was nowhere to be seen.

I was alone, exposed, gun in my right hand but aimed at the ground, as I stared past the muzzle of the biggest revolver I’d ever seen and into those dead red eyes.

And then he hesitated, as he looked at my face. He recognized me, and I was sure he could guess who I was and what I wanted here.

He remembers my face. Linda’s face.

I was staring at Linda’s murderer, he was less than ten feet away and I could not move.

He opened his mouth, breathing out, still not pulling the trigger, when my hate finally overcame my… my fear.

It was stupid. He was aiming a massive handgun at me, and all I had was this stunner that probably wouldn’t work unless I hit his head, and I’d never shot anyone in my life and had no idea how to aim, or anything.

Yet I drew up my gun, as quickly as I could, as I felt my face contort with hatred, I aimed at his head and I pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened. I hadn’t taken off the safety.

Something slammed into my left shoulder, throwing me back moments before I heard his gun roar.

There was no pain, just a dull throbbing, and my field of vision almost immediately began to turn black.

No. Please, God, no, not like this… I couldn’t even… no…

I saw his face enter my field of vision, then the rest of his body. He knelt over me, using the butt of his gun to turn my face left and right, taking a closer look at me.

He’s right in front of me… Linda… he took Linda away and I can’t kill him…

He opened his mouth and said eight words to me.

And then there was nothing left.

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B008.2.1 Vra: Bargaining

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“Dude, this is creepy”, said a boy’s voice.

My head hurt.

“I mean, she looks just like her!” The speaker didn’t sound like he’d gone through puberty yet.

“Not quite. She’s more buff. And her hair’s different”, drawled a slightly accented girl’s voice. She sounded like honey and cherries, and I must have hit my head pretty hard because I normally did not make that kind of comparison.

My arms were numb, but I could feel that they’d been twisted behind my back and tied. Around some metal pipe or something, which was pressing into my back. Someone had taken my hoodie off, leaving me in my sports bra. The pipe was cold against my back, helping me focus. My shoes were off, too.

“Twitch never talked about a twin sister.” An older voice, a young man with the slightest hint of a lisp. It was unreal how sharp my hearing was right now.

“She never talked about her family, period,” replied the girl.

“What if this is a shapeshifter or something?” asked the boy again.

“She went down with one hit of Fox’ ball. That speaks towards her being a normie. Plus, she didn’t turn back to a real form when we knocked her out and I think a shapeshifter would have changed to look exactly like Twitch to sell a twin or something.” A new, rather nasal voice.

“I’m not a darned shapeshifter…” I said before coughing hard. I looked up and saw four teenagers stand over me, giving me suspicious looks. One girl, three boys. “And why did you take my hoodie off?”

A guy in his late teens – older than me, but most probably too young to drink – was the first to respond. He was really tall, at least as tall as the officer earlier, but so thin he looked like a stiff wind would break him in half.

“Do you have any idea how many weapons and traps a contriver can hide under or in a garment like this?” he asked with just the barest hint of a lisp, “If we were really professional, we would’ve stripped you naked and done a cavity search, too.”

I shivered, damn it. “Thank you for sparing me that. How long was I out?”

“Just about fifteen mi-“

“Who the fuck’re you?” interrupted the nasal voice, coming from the mouth of LagForward. It really didn’t fit his buff body. His open vest showed off the kind of sixpack and upper arm sculpting normal people had to work a decade for or so. “And why’re you here? Why did you attack us!?”

Now I looked down again, ashamed. Why did I attack? Even disregarding the fact that I could never stand a chance against four metahumans at once, even if they might be at the bottom of the power chart. Even disregarding the fact that I’d never been in a serious fight outside of fight training. I’d never even hit anyone with intent, not outside training, again.

Was I that angry at Linda and my parents? That unbalanced?

Well, duh.

“I’m sorry about that. Really, I just…” I didn’t look up at them, “I’m just so angry. My sister is dead, and no one seems to care.”

They didn’t respond, and I looked up at them, taking a closer look at each for the first time. The only one I hadn’t really gotten a look at yet was the girl, Foxfire. She was a gorgeous half-Asian girl with waist-length black hair in a somehow very naughty style, bright golden, slightly slanted eyes and a rather slim body for a meta-girl, at least going by what I’d seen on TV so far. Her clothes… didn’t really deserve that description, especially in the current winter weather – she was wearing a red bikini top, cut-off jeans and a black hoodie with an open zipper, as well as red training shoes. And she had a Japanese fox mask tied to her belt.

She had heavy black circles around her eyes, and in general looked dead tired. The others looked no better really. The short one – a curly-haired blonde boy who couldn’t be more than thirteen years old – looked like he’d been crying until a short while ago.

“You spoke about Linda. Twitch… that was her name, right? I mean, her supervillain name?” I asked, even though I knew the answer already.

The girl took over talking. “Yup, Twitch. Never told us she had a twin sister, though,” she answered.

I looked down, clenching my hands. There was some feeling returning to them, if only barely. “Yeah well, she didn’t tell me jack. Not that she had powers, not that she was a supervillain, nothing. Last week I wake up, get ready for school and then I find out, joy oh joy, my twin sister was not only a supervillain, she’d also just gotten herself murdered.”

“Man, that sucks,” commented the blonde boy. Razzle, going by the power he’d shown off earlier. Then he scowled at me. “What’d you do to her that she wouldn’t tell you?”

Had I not been tied up at that moment, I would have jumped up and punched him in the face. I tried to, even, despite my chance to even reach him being… low. But the restraints held. So I just ground my teeth and replied, “I don’t know. She just… shut me out. I can get why she wouldn’t tell our parents, but… why not me?” I looked up at them, as if searching for an answer. I doubted they knew. They hadn’t even known that their friend had had a twin sister. Linda had not spoken to them about me… ever.

They all gave me looks full of pity, which only made things worse.

“Twitch was a dear friend of ours, even though we only knew her for a month and a half,” said Foxfire as she nodded towards LagForward. He knelt down next to me and untied my hands. The other two didn’t seem to like it, but Foxfire was apparently their leader. “We met her shortly after she got her powers, though she never told us how she got them,” she continued, offering me a helping hand.

I shook out my hands, getting some feeling back into them, and took it, letting her pull me up. She was stronger than she looked.

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she said.

“A whole lot,” I replied, brightening up. Someone willing to talk and answer my questions? Could I have this much luck?

She smirked. “Well, so do we. How about you answer ours and we answer yours?”

That’s only fair, I guess. I nodded. “My name’s Terry, by the way. How should I call you?”

“Laura. And these are Jimmy, Cad and Fletch,” she answered, pointing out the tall guy with the lisp, the buff Asian boy and the short one. “Nice to meet you, Terry.”

“Likewise, Laura,” I replied, only half-sincere. They were very nice, especially Laura, but I didn’t trust them yet. And there was still the matter of my dead twin sister – if they were responsible…

* * *

They gave me back my hoodie – I’d barely noticed how cold it had been, but now I was thankful for being able to put it back on. I wouldn’t vouch on it, but I think Fletch and Cad were disappointed that Laura gave it back to me.

We went into the staircase and up, until we were on the highest level of the old parking garage, just one level beneath the roof. I stopped and stared from the entry.

The place had been turned into the most awesome hangout a teenager could want, at least in my opinion. There were thick cloth curtains in various colours hanging all around it, covering every opening to the outside – keeping the light in, and the warmth. Keeping the wind out. They obviously had electricity because they had a series of electrical heaters keeping the place not quite toasty warm, but warm enough to justify even Foxfire’s ensemble. Pillows, blankets, love seats – all second hand apparently, and many having been repaired rather haphazardly – covered nearly every inch of the floor that wasn’t taken up by at least two layers of all kinds of rugs. There were several flatscreens spread around the place, with every gaming console ever hooked up.

Holy Shit,” I whispered. “I thought you guys were supposed to be smalltime.” Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I felt the heat rise in my face. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Great move, Terry. Insult the only persons who might know what actually happened to Twitch.

Laura smiled sweetly, showing off a pair of rather long canines. They looked strange, but I guess boys probably liked her smiles a lot. “Don’t worry. It’s a compliment – we’ve managed to keep a low profile so far. And we’re not that big – most of the stuff here is second-hand, if that. And the tech is all self-made from scrap.”

That gave me a start. I looked at the flatscreens, the consoles and the heaters. The lighting, too. It all looked completely functional but… yeah, you could tell there’d been damage. A few pieces of equipment were also quite clearly cobbled together from parts that had originally belonged to several different appliances.

You’re getting distracted again, dummy.

I shook my head. “Anyway. Anyway… let’s get to the important subject, alright?”

The boys walked past us, Cad and Fletch throwing me suspicious glances while Jimmy just seemed to ignore me. They all sat down on the largest couch in the room, which was arranged along with three others in a half-circle in front of a flatscreen the size a house wall. That definitely looked handmade – there was the screen and a frame holding it in place, but no casing, and I could see wires emerge from behind it and up to the ceiling, where they joined a lot of other power lines.

“One question first, though. How do you power this stuff?”

Laura sat down on the couch along with the others, too. “Solar panels on the roof – it gets quite a bit of sunlight, so high up. And we also have a few bikes wired up to a bigass dynamo, for when we don’t get sunlight for a while,” she explained. “Now sit.” She nodded towards the couch next to the one the StreetBadgers were sitting (lounging, in Laura’s case) on, and I sat down, turning to face them.

“Do you want to start, or should I?”

Jimmy spoke up first, “Wait. We got one more member, but he went out to get food right before you arrived here.”

“I thought it was only you four, after… after Linda died.”

“Where did you get your information?” he asked.

I looked down at my feet, rubbing my hands. Hope they won’t overreact. “Well… the police. I asked a police officer what he knew about… about the case.”

“You’re working with the fucking police!?” Fletch screamed, jumping up and into fighting position, fists raised. “If ya think ye can sell us o-“

“Fletch, sit.” Laura barked those two words like a well rehearsed line, and Fletch immediately dropped down onto his seat, though he still gave me the evil eye.

And who the hell names their child ‘Fletch’ anyway?

“I’m not working with the police. I just… got picked up by a police officer. He wanted to take me home, I got him to talk then bailed,” I explained in a single breath.

Their eyebrows shot up in an almost coordinated motion. “Really?” asked Laura in a curious tone. “However did you get away from him?”

Looking down, I felt the heat rise to my face again. The officer had been really nice and understanding, and I’d… but it might help me break the ice here. “I uh… I pretended I felt sick, and when he stopped and got out with me, I… kicked him in the balls and ran.”

They looked at me, stunned for a moment… then they broke out into laughter, which only led to my face feeling even hotter than before.

It took a while for them to calm down again. “Man, do you know how to treat’em,” Laura gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. “How did you find us, after you bailed from the cop? I’m pretty sure they don’t know where we hide, on account of them not storming our place to lock us up.”

“Uhh, honestly, just by chance. I got lost in the Shades, and then I followed this big cat over here,” I replied, glad she wasn’t focusing on the officer.

“What cat?” Jimmy asked, suddenly serious again. “Where is it? I saw no cat!”

“Whoa, dude, calm down!” I said, inching a little away from him. “It’s just some cat!”

Laura gave me a hard stare. “In our world, there’s no such thing as just some cat that just happens to lead the twin sister of our just deceased team member to our secret hideout! Where is it?”

“Um, it was searching through your trash cans last time I saw it…”

Laura threw Jimmy and Cad a look and they both left immediately.

“Can I ask a quick question?” I asked her.

“You already did,” she replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

She nodded and waved her hand in an approving motion.

“When I woke up, you said that me being taken down with one hit from your ball is an indicator for me not being a metahuman. How come?”

“Well, that’s the Coltenhagen effect, duh!” She looked at me like it was obvious.

“The… Coltenhagen effect? I think I heard that somewhere…” I raked my brain, but all I came up with was the word being used, once, regarding ‘Humanity First!’ demanding more non-powered superheroes. But nothing else.

“Well, it’s kinda the reason why there are no non-metahuman superheroes or villains. Or why the military is so damn paranoid about even low-level enemy metas. Simply put…” She thought about it for a moment. “It’s kinda like this – every metahuman has a kind of real low-level power resistance. Not enough to really block powers, but enough to make it possible for them to resist, so to speak. Or at least resist to a meaningful degree.”

“So a metahuman could take more than one hit from your ball?”

She nodded, “Yeah. Or like… take that freak Mindstar, or the fortunately departed Mindfuck. A newly manifested, untrained teenager could resist their powers just as easily as an adult professional soldier with mental training. Doesn’t make us tougher or anything, it just… gives us a better chance to resist the really bad powers. Transformations, mind control, possession, that kinda stuff. The things that really give you nightmares.”

“And how does that apply to your taser ball? I mean, are you guys like, more resistant to electric powers?”

“No no, my ball doesn’t use electricity at all!” she said. “That would be way more dangerous. No, it’s a mental move. It just works LIKE a taser, but it’s not a physical effect, really. Otherwise, you’d be having cramps and burns where it hit you.”

I checked. True, my stomach was completely unharmed. I let my hoodie fall down again and looked up just in time to see Fletch look away from me. I ignored him, again.

“So that’s why there’s no non-powered heroes?”

She nodded. “For example, the Drakainas – they could easily shore up their numbers with non-powered pilots in suits, but they’d be highly susceptible to those kinds of powers I just described, and many others. Like emotion projection. People who make others feel fear, or lust, or apathy. Quite common, all things considered, and really lethal against normies.”

“I see. That certainly explains a lot.”

Just then, the boys came back up, Jimmy holding the big tomcat in his arms.

“Looks like a normal cat, if really big, Fox,” he said as he handed the purring tomcat to Fox. She took him into her arms and scratched him behind his ears, sniffing him while he purred contently.

“Smells normal, too,” she said. “D’awww, he’s just a big cutie!” She lifted him up over her head. “A really big cutie. Can’t smell anything strange about him, though he’s strangely clean for a cat that apparently belongs to no one.”

“Can we keep him?” Fletch threw in. “I mean, it’d be nice to have a pet here!”

We all looked at him and he blushed a little. But Laura nodded and handed the tomcat over to him. “But you have to make sure to feed him. And train him not to do his business all over the place.”

He nodded, eagerly, and took the tomcat onto his lap. It was really quite cute.

And then, there was the sound of a ringtone, and Laura checked her cellphone. “Oh, food’s here! Go and help Peter haul it up, boys!”

And just like that, Jimmy and Cad left again for the staircase.

Whoa, she really got them whipped right. I felt jealous. I never could get boys to do what I tell them so easily. Maybe she can give me lessons?

Soon, the boys returned along with this Peter. He turned out to be… a normal boy around my age. The kind I usually didn’t notice at school. Not fat, but definitely overweight, with his brown hair in a bad haircut, sloppy clothes under a thick coat and oversized glasses.

He came in looking quite serious, and immediately looked at me, apparently having been briefed by the other two. “So, Twitch had a twin sister,” he said in a rather soft, weak-sounding voice. “Hello, I’m Peter. I’m kinda the tech guy for this team.”

He put down the stack of pizza boxes he’d been carrying (five boxes, five more in Jimmy’s arms and ten in Cad’s. How much did these people eat?) and offered me his hand. I took it and we shook hands. His was sweaty. He let go quickly and sat down on another couch, keeping his teammates between himself and me.


They quickly spread the pizza boxes around… and my stomach growled the moment their smell hit me. I blushed as I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten since… well, apart from the donut earlier, I hadn’t eaten since morning.

Laura gave me a look and handed me one of her boxes (she three stacked in front of her. Fletch had two, Jimmy and Peter three, Cad four). “Here, eat.” I was way too hungry to protest.

The pizza turned out to look even better than it smelled. It was obviously from a real Italian restaurant. And it was loaded with yummy stuff. Well, except for the broccoli. Yuck.

While the others dug in, I carefully removed the green abominations from my pizza, then started to eat. Mmmmmm…

We ate in silence. Cad pretty much breathed his pizzas in, while the others took more time. Fletch fed the cat, too.

Then we relaxed and leaned back. They’d all been jumbo pizzas, and I usually didn’t eat this much, so I was quite… floored.

After about ten minutes though, I started to… recover my earlier impatiance. Maybe I’d just been too hungry and groggy to feel it, though. “Um, now, about Linda… I mean Twitch.”

That got their attention. “Can you tell us some about your background? I mean, Twitch always refused to,” Laura asked, and I nodded. It might not have been smart, but… this was my chance to learn something. So I’d play nice.

“Well, we’re twins, obviously. We have a little brother, and live with our parents in the Oak Leaf community,” I began.

“Shit! Oak Leaf! That’s one of the richest places in the entire Esperanza area!” shouted Peter. The others seemed similarly surprised.

“Why, in the name of God’s green earth, did she become a supervillain and hang out here with us?” asked Cad. “I mean, she even ran away from there two weeks ago – why?”

I looked down at my feet, but thankfully, Laura took over explaining the obvious.

“Cad, think about it. What is Oak Leaf known for?” she said.

I heard Jimmy gasp as he got it. The others didn’t, I think. Not that I looked to check.

“It’s the biggest ”Humanity First!” community in the entire world,” Peter explained. “Among other things, Richard Svenson lives there. Current leader of ‘Humanity First!’…”

“And a regular dinner guest at our place,” I added without looking up. “My parents are deep into it. That’s why Linda never told them, I think. Not that it explains why she wouldn’t tell me. But… my parents seem to be more shaken up about her being a metahuman than her being dead,” I continued, spitting the last word like poison. I didn’t look up at their faces. I didn’t want pity.

“She started acting strange about two months ago, and wouldn’t talk to us. Two weeks ago, we kind of made an intervention, but she just… blew a gasket and stormed out of the house…” I still remembered the feeling of betrayal, when she just left instead of talking to me. I could have understood if she wouldn’t talk to my parents, but why not to me.

“That was when she moved in with us. Do you want to see her place?” asked Laura, her voice full of… sympathy.

I nodded, quietly, and she took my hand (hers was unnaturally warm – suddenly it made sense that she’d run around in light clothing) and all but dragged me around the staircase. There were several “rooms” partitioned off from the rest of the space by way of heavy curtains and wooden screens acting as walls. She took me into one of them. It turned out to be a small bedroom, with a bookshelf loaded with books, a laptop on a desk and a small dresser drawer.

The curtains were all blue, and there was a pressed tulip in a frame, hanging over her bed. And a picture of me, from five years ago (we’d still looked identical back then, but I remembered that photo being shot, and besides, I was wearing a yellow dress in it. She’d always worn blue). I just stared at the picture.

“What… what can you tell me about her?” I said, not taking my eyes off of it. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you have a picture of me here, but you never told me?

“She was what we call a ‘Brain’ in the business. Mental powers. Perception. She had a kind of danger sense, except she could spread it to cover others. Give her a warning when others were in danger. She also got a boost in her reaction speed and all. Mental only. And only when her Danger Sense was set off.”

“Who killed her? Why?” I turned to look at her. I might have been crying.

She looked uncomfortable. “We… we’d gotten a commission, to steal a package that was being transported by a bunch of mobsters,” she said. “Job went well, we stopped their car, took them out, got the package… but then everything went to shit when the Hellhound appeared.”

Oh no… Everyone in Oak Leaf knew the Hellhound. He was a kind of hero to ”Humanity First!”. Unofficially, of course. I’d never paid much attention to it, beyond the basics.

“I heard that he’s a metahuman hater. I mean, real hate. Hunts and kills any he finds,” I said, my voice strangely monotone. “Something about his family being killed.”

“Yeah, his wife and daughters were eaten by a cannibalistic villain team,” Laurel explained. “Guy’s major badass crazy. Goes after metahumans with heavy weaponry, sniper rifles, you name it.”

“How come he’s still around? I mean, the Coltenhagen effect…”

She shook her head. “He’s a metahuman, too, though most don’t realize it. Some kind of resurrection ability – no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back.”

“So he killed Twitch because…”

“He was after the package. Someone sold us out, maybe, or sold the same information twice. We dropped the package and ran – guy’s too dangerous for us – but he pursued. Twitch…” She choked, wiping her eyes. The others, who’d followed us, looked utterly miserable. “She… she convinced us that someone needed to distract him. That we needed to split up. We did that, and he pursued her, and…”

I looked down at my feet.

The Hellhound.

My sister had died just because some guy had a hate-on for metahumans. Oh, the irony.

The fucking Hellhound.

My sister had died to save her friends. Because that guy couldn’t swallow his hate.

The Hellhound murdered my sister.

I felt the rage rise up inside me. When I raised my head, the StreetBadgers all took a step back.

“I want to go after him. Are you guys in?”

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B008.1.2 Vra: Anger

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A minus 11 Days

I reached the industrial district almost an hour later, completely out of breath and drenched in sweat.

While I was very – even exceptionally – fit and trained regularly in a variety of sports, long distance running among them, I’d managed to spend myself running without pacing myself. I just couldn’t focus enough to do that. Usually, when I ran, once my body got used to the motions I’d just relax and go into my zone, just… running.

Not this time. I felt like there was a maelstrom of emotions inside me, held back by a knot in my belly that it pressed against and tore at. Most of it was rage, I was sure.

Nonetheless, I arrived. Our gated community was pretty much on the opposite side of the city, or at least it felt like it. It had been built in its spot deliberately, far away from the districts frequented by metahumans. And let’s face it, it was pretty much a law that low-level heroes and villains would throw down in abandoned factories and warehouses.

There were plenty of those in Esperanza, and nowhere more than in the old industrial district. Heavy industry had almost entirely fled the cities due to the Environmental Protection Act (also known as the GreenGreen Act, named after the superhero group that had been its most fervent supporter) of nineteen-eighty-two and now tended to cluster in isolated so-called industrial conclaves, far apart from cities and other protected sites.

Which left more than enough abandoned warehouses and factories behind in the cities, since it wasn’t worth the money to disassemble them or knock them down and build new things in their place. Esperanza had been rebuild almost entirely from the grounds up, after Desolation-in-Light wiped out Los Angeles, but there were a few parts of the old city left, surrounded by the new one. Most people called them ‘the Shades’ (as a contrast to the Brights in New Lennston) and they were the places the scum of the city gathered in.

The old factory I had run to – I’d remembered the address from when a policewoman had told us what had happened – didn’t stand out from the surrounding buildings at all. It was big, it was run-down, it was made of brownish-red bricks with tall, stained black chimneys. I had no idea what had once been produced within, as there was no identifying sign left, save for the street name and number written on a small, rusted metal signpost.

The idea that my sister had died in such a stereotypical place almost made me cry, but I was angry enough to let any tears evaporate before they even left my tear ducts. Taking a deep breath and drawing my wholly inadequate hoodie closer around my body – West Coast or no, November was not the best time to run around in only your underwear, a hoodie and sweatpants. Especially if you were drenched in sweat from stupidly running like a madwoman – I walked through the open gate. It looked like someone had broken it down – probably the police when they’d stormed in to see what was going on.

Despite the late hour, the factory was, well, not well-lit but it was bright enough to see. The back half of the ceiling had collapsed at some point – I couldn’t tell if it was recent or not – and moonlight was flooding in, thanks to the cloudless sky and the current full moon.

There was still some police tape left at the scene, bright yellow that stood out sharply against the black, brown and grey of the factory. No police in sight, though, and why should there be – sure, they hadn’t caught the murderer, but it’d just been a supervillain girl who died. No one important.

I shook my head. No, that wasn’t fair. It probably had nothing to do with the police not wanting to help. She’d died almost a week ago, and whatever clues had been left here were most probably already filed away.

Past the police tape, the front half of the factory still stood, covered in dust and old grime, but apart from that, it looked like it could still light up and start working… though I still had no idea what it was meant to produce.

Gee, talk about avoiding the issue. Get your ass in gear, idiot!

Kicking myself in the ass, I looked through the place… and then I froze.

The chalk outline was still there. As were a lot of dark stains on the floor, many small ones and one really big ones…

Mesmerized, I stepped closer, until I was just a hair’s breadth away from having my shoes on the big stain.

Whoever had died here had bled. A lot.

What a way to go.

Then, I suddenly heard heavy steps behind me, and a gruff voice said: “Hey, miss, you’re not supposed to be here!”

Spinning around, my hand went for my baton – but then I stopped when I recognized the uniform the man was wearing.

In the movies, there’s usually only two kinds of fat cops. The dirty (in more ways than one), donut-and-burger eating asshole or the jolly good-natured veteran who takes it easy and likes all kinds of good food in large quantities (and donuts). You can usually tell them apart by how clean their uniform is, and by just how grossly overweight they are.

This guy… looked like a little bit of both. He was quite a bit taller than me, had at least three hundred pounds more on his body than I did and his uniform was straining quite a bit around his body – his fat was spread relatively evenly across his body, except for his impressive belly. He had very short black hair, barely visible beneath his policeman’s cap, rather attractive black eyes and heavy jowls.

He came to a stop near me, squinting to see me despite the twilight. The way I was standing, the full moon was falling on me from behind, hiding my face in the shade. Not that he’d recognize me, anyway.

“Miss, this is a dangerous part of town, especially for a young lady!” he said, his voice in stark contrast to his appearance. This guy made Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry sound like Micky Mouse on helium. Not to mention that the words did not fit the stereotype. “Miss?” he asked again, when I stayed silent.

I relaxed, letting my arms hang down by my sides loosely. “I’m sorry, officer. I just… wanted to see.”

He relaxed almost imperceptibly once he could see both of my hands. “See what, Miss? This ain’t a place for sight seeing. Nothing good happened here.”

“I know I…” I looked down. I’d taken a step back and was now standing on top of the biggest stain. “I… she died here…”

I looked around my feet. I was standing right where Linda had died. I was standing right where Linda died.

“My… my sister,” I chocked, suddenly unable to breath. “My sister died here… oh God, my sister died here.” I felt tears leak from my eyes as his expression turned from concerned to horrified and pitying.

Not that I cared. “Linda died here.” I tried to breath, but it came in too short. Not enough, I was feeling so dizzy. So I took another. And another, quicker one. Again. And again.

The factory began to spin, the policeman merging with the surroundings in my vision as I stumbled around, unable to keep my footing on the wobbling ground. She died here. She died here and I wasn’t with her!

* * *

I have no recollection of the five or ten minutes that followed my breakdown. I don’t know if I passed out or just repressed them, or whatever. All I know is that, some time later, I was leaning against the hood of a police car, eating an expensive donut with extra thick chocolate frosting, and drinking a cup of steaming hot chocolate.

The donut I get, but where the hell did he get hot chocolate from?

The policeman had the doors of the car open and the cabin light turned on. He was on the other side of the car, keeping it between us. Giving me some sense of privacy, after the utterly humiliating way I’d lost it in front of him. He was on his second donut, with a cup of steaming hot coffee on the side.

After a few more minutes of chewing and drinking, I said, “Thank you for the meal. And… thank you,” without turning around to face him.

“Not much of a meal, Miss Afolayan,” he said in that badass movie-cop voice. I was sure that people who heard him before they saw him imagined some kind of Dirty Harry slash Arnold Schwarzenegger guy.

Of course, what was more interesting was that he knew my name, and even pronounced it right. “H-how do you know who I am?” I asked, still not turning around.

He chuckled sadly. “You said your sister died here. One Linda Afolayan, alias Twitch, member and supposed leader of the StreetBadgers, a superpowered teenage villain team. More of a youth gang, really. Until a week ago, that is.”

I tensed up – I’d never actually heard of Linda’s supervillain name. I didn’t even know what kind of powers she’d had, or who her team had been.

“Do you… do you know more?” I asked, finally turning around to look at him across the hood of his car. I could see his nametag from here. Officer Widard.

I thought I’d heard that name before, somewhere. Maybe he has famous relatives?

He gave me an unbearably sad and compassionate look. “Miss, there’s other problems here. Namely the fact that a minor is out at night, in one of the worst parts of the town. And visiting the scene of a crime, no less.”

“I’m sixteen,” I replied, weakly. As if that meant anything. He ignored it.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to take you home, now. Please get into the car, Miss,” he said. He was saying ‘Please’ but there was no doubt he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I was pretty sure that, if I ran away, he wouldn’t be able to keep up. There was no way he’d shoot me, and by the time he got into the car, I could have run down the street so he’d have to turn it first, or into an alley too narrow to drive into.

But… if I stayed with him, I might just get some information out of him. I really had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know who the StreetBadgers were, or who their members were, or where they could be found.

“Alright,” I said and got into the car. “My name’s Theresa Afolayan, by the way. Please call me Terry.”

He got in once I’d closed the door. His seat had been pushed back as far as possible for him to fit – even disregarding his girth, the guy was about six foot nine tall. “Name’s Tom Widard. A pleasure to meet you, Terry. Now, let’s get you home.”

* * *

He drove away from the old factory my other half had died in. I stayed quiet, for a minute or so, before speaking up.

“Sir, you seem to know a little about… about my sister’s case. No one’s told me anything, so I wanted to ask…”

Without taking his eyes off the street, the officer replied, “Normally, I’d say it’s up to your parents, Terry. But… I guess you deserve to know some. On one condition.”

Please don’t say… “What condition, Sir?”

“You’ll promise you won’t go off do something stupid like what you just did again. This part of the city really ain’t safe, at all.”

I thought it over, looking for loopholes in that promise. “Alright. I promise I won’t repeat those actions, no matter what you tell me,” I replied.

He didn’t seem to pick up on the loophole I’d built into it, or maybe he knew he wouldn’t get anything better out of me.

“Your sister was a member of a rather notorious youth gang. Call themselves the StreetBadgers. Mostly vandalism, graffiti, petty theft and some low-grade fights with other low-powered youth gangs. They all avoid the heroes cause they don’t stand a chance – maybe one in ten of them has anything more than a single Exemplar power, and almost none have any meaningful training,” he explained calmly, stating the facts the same way he’d probably do it if he was briefing a new partner. He sounded positively intimidating.

“Why have I never heard of them?” I asked. “I mean… any of them?”

He shrugged. “They’re really no more a problem than any other youth gang, Miss. Sure, their powers can be one hell of a headache, but even the most outlandish among them can be dealt with by us street cops, if we don’t go in blind – and most of them are low-level bricks, those are not hard to handle for even normal police officers – and they really pale to the real supervillains, so they don’t get much coverage.”

“What about the Badgers’ members? And could one of them have killed Linda?” If they’re that little of a problem, I should be able to pick them off one by one.

He sighed, as if he could read my thoughts. “Don’t even think it, Terry. The StreetBadgers are one of the more competent gangs out there.” But he still continued, laying them out for me: “Four members are left, now that your poor sister is gone. Fulcrum, a low-grade manipulator who can redirect the movement of any single object within his sight; LagForward – name’s supposedly written as one word, with the ‘F’ capitalized, an above-average brick for an Exemplar Tier meta, with the downside that he can assess his strength and speed only in momentary bursts,” he paused, drinking from a cup of coffee. “Foxfire, kind of their mascot. Low-level physique, and she creates this really annoying melon-sized ball of stroboscoping light, throwing it around and tasering anyone she hits. Finally, Razzle, he can create a cloud of sparkling fireworks and all, concealing and misdirecting. Can make it so it doesn’t block her or her friend’s vision.”

He stopped talking to let me digest that, finally driving out of the Shades and into Esperanza proper. The streets finally turned brighter.

So, there were four subjects. But… “You didn’t answer my question. Do you think any one of them is the murderer?” I clenched my fists.

“Nah,” he shook his head, not even thinking about it. “They’re brats, but these gangs are tight, and the StreetBadgers are known for loyalty. Besides, your sister… she was killed with a military-grade rapid-fire shotgun, using modified shells meant for fighting metahumans. No way those kids could have gotten their hands on it, half of them are younger than you are.”

I nodded. “My sister… what do you know about… about her? As a supervillain?” I asked, half afraid of the answer.

It took him some time to answer as we got closer to my home. Then he said, “Her name was Twitch. She was the second most recent recruit of the group, after Razzle. Suspected low-grade physique, but judging from you, that was misapplied. Some kind of danger sense and/or limited precognition. They really started rising up once she joined them, winning fight after fight, always evading us poor cops.”

“Could she fly?” I blurted out. We’d always dreamed of flying.

He threw me a curious glance as he waited for the next green light. “No. Pure Brainpowers, far as we can tell. Of course, it’s not like we know everything…”

I leaned back in my seat, pulling my arms close around myself. Couldn’t she at least get that one thing?

“Why would anyone want to kill her?” I whispered, only half to him. “Do you have any suspects?” I asked, louder.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, looking honestly so. “This whole thing… it makes no sense. Whoever killed your sister had professional gear. But what reason would a professional have to kill a teenage gang member?” He ran the fingers of one hand through his messy dark hair (he’d taken his cap off earlier).

“Maybe she found something out she shouldn’t know?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine any real reason, either.

“Maybe.” He fell silent.

“Where do they usually h-” I started asking, hoping I’d get some more information, but he threw me a glance that shut me up.

“No. I won’t tell you where you can find them. I’ll get you home, and hand you over to your parents. You know, the legal, right thing to do. I’m sure they’re worried sick.”

I didn’t answer. I barely knew him, but I could tell he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t budge. The fact that he was more than three times my weight didn’t make it better.

* * *

A minute or so later, the officer was cursing under his breath. There’d been a traffic accident, a truck had apparently spun out of control and was now lying across the street, blocking it entirely. He had to take a way around, but Esperanza, though far better planned than most cities, had a lot of construction and reconstruction, as well as maintenance going on right now, despite the winter weather.

We drove for a few minutes, constantly re-diverted by construction sites and, in one case, a battle between the Six Sentries and some villains I didn’t recognize.

He took a shortcut through the nearby Shades, and that’s when I saw a large piece of graffiti writing, saying ‘StreetBadgers’ in white-black-white lettering.

Take this chance, dummy.

I decided on a course of action. It was a dickmove, especially considering how nice Officer Widard had been, but well… family comes first.

“S-sir?” I asked, trying to sound as unsteady as I could. I’d been silent for a while, just looking out the window, and it wasn’t a stretch to play the role I had in mind.

“Yes, Terry?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the street. Good, he might have noticed something.

“I… ugh, I think that… that donut isn’t agreeing with me… I think I’m gonna throw up,” I said, speaking like I was ill, putting a hand over my mouth. Making a suspicious break in the sentence, to make it look like I was blaming my state on the donut and meaning something else.

Like my sister’s death.

“Wait, I’ll pull to the side. Can you hold it in for a moment?”

“I’ll try…” Gotta love nice people. I held my stomach, curling up on the seat.

He pulled over to the side of the street and got out, circling the car to unlock the door on my side and help me out (he was smart enough not to unlock it first and give me an easy escape).

I let him help me out of the car and stumbled with him in toe away from the car to a trash can, bending over.

“I’m really sorry, Sir,” I apologized, meaning it. Before he could react, I lashed out with my foot, kicking him in the balls.

As he keeled over – and I felt like vomiting for real now, what in God’s name am I thinking? – I bolted, running into an alley that would take me roughly towards the street I saw the graffiti art.

I doubt he’ll be that nice to random teenagers in trouble again.

* * *

I found the graffity again. It had been expertly painted on the front of an old restaurant building. Striped like a badger. How imaginative. Did Linda really hang out with people who do art like this?

It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t look like something really original.

You’re stalling again.

Not that I had any idea how to proceed.

Get off the main street, dummy. The officer might remember this and come to look for you.

I walked around the corner of the building – and finally realized why they called these parts of the city the Shades. I’d read about them, seen reports, but…

Esperanza had been built atop the ruins of Los Angeles. Literally in some cases – a lot of the city was standing on gigantic concrete pillars, or raised parts of the earth that had been moved by Desolation-in-Light. Many of the old parts were constantly in the shadow because of that.

Right now, I was in an alley that would have been jet-black if not for a single, flickering lightbulb over a side entrance.

That graffiti was territorial marking. So their hideout should be close.

I pulled my hood over my head, and went down the alley, looking around for further signs of the StreetBadgers.

* * *

After about half an hour, I knew one thing for sure. I should have brought a torch.

And a map. And a compass. Because I was utterly, completely lost. I could barely see the sky from where I was standing, and it was really miserably cold here.

Shivering, I walked pretty much blindly through the place, until a nearby trashcan tipped over and something flew at me.

I’ll deny it if anyone ever asks, but I shrieked like a little girl when a dark, red-eyed shade bounced at me – and then a pretty big cat with reddish-brown eyes and a jet-black coat of fur smacked into my chest, making me fall back onto my butt.

I looked down at it, feeling slightly silly. But only slightly, because beeing jumped by red-eyed black things in dark alleys was a common element of horror stories nowadays, even more than ever before.

“Hello kittie. Whatever is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

It really was a pretty cat. He – I just assumed it was a tomcat – was big, weighted about twelve pounds by my estimation and had a long tail and a fluffy, long coat. His eyes were really more brown than red, but still. Damn.

I stroked his fur – it was quite clean and fluffy, and he purred like a starting jet, only softer. “Do you belong to someone, you big cutie?” Checking him over, I found no markings whatsoever.

The tomcat (I checked) flicked his tail and jumped off my lap, turning around then looking back at me. Expectantly.

Wait, is that cat telling me to follow it?

Well, my life was weird enough as it was, anyway. And I had no idea where to go, anyway.

And maybe he belonged to the StreetBadgers. Coincidences happen, right?

I followed him, trying to stick close so as not to lose him in the darkness.

* * *

The cat took me to an old, abandoned parking garage. The large building had seen way better days, and looked rather uninteresting, not to mention uninviting.

But when I followed the tomcat, we passed by a pillar that a stylized badger had been sprayed on. Ohhh. Good kittie.

I followed him, now more carefully. One hand beneath my hoodie, at the baton I’d tucked into the back of my pants.

The tomcat led me to some stairs… and a few trash cans beside them. He jumped onto one and starting looking for food.

Oh. That’s what you wanted.

Still, way useful. I snuck past the cat up the stairs. They were at the center of the parking garage and obviously very old… but there was barely any dust around.

I snuck up the stairs to the next level. Nothing to be seen. Nor on the next one.

Then I heard voices on the third level.

Holding my breath, I snuck to the doorless opening, hiding on one side to glance inside.

There was actually some moonlight here, if barely. There were a lot of crates and other shapes lying around, or piled up. I couldn’t make them all out in the current lighting.

There were also four figures standing in a circle, arguing about something in some Asian language. I had no idea which one it was, though it might have been Japanese (Linda had been way into anime).

I waited as they argued. And somehow, somewhere, my rage from earlier came up again.

These people had taken Linda away. She’d hung out with them, instead of me. Told them of her problems, instead of me. Fought with them, instead of me.

Linda died, and they didn’t save her.

I pulled my baton out and snapped it open. It clicked.

Dammit. The conversation stopped, and the figures – I could just barely make out two boys, a girl and a third, shorter one – turned to look at me. They didn’t call out. They didn’t wait. They started moving immediately. Flickering lights began to form around the shortest one, showing me a boy in his early teens, wearing skater clothes and a magician’s mask. Then the cloud expanded, obscuring my vision of the group. Except for one really buff, tall chinese boy, wearing jeans and a thick vest, as well as army boots. He stomped in my direction.

I could also make out a melon-sized sphere in the cloud of fireworks that was rapidly switching colours.

I don’t know why exactly I did it, later. Was I really that angry? That unstable? I should have put my baton away and talked to them. They ought to recognize me. And even if Linda had never told them about me, I did look a lot like her. I should have talked.

Instead I pulled my hood down and attacked them.

Not my smartest move.

The Chinese boy – probably LagForward – gave a start when I charged him, but he blocked my strike with a lazy motion.

I pulled my knee up to hit him in the balls, but he just blurred to the side, going super-fast for just a split-second.

The sphere that had been thrown out of the cloud of fireworks missed him by a split-second before hitting me in the gut. Last thing I saw was yellow, then all black.

Previous I Next


B008.1.1 Vra: Anger

Previous I Next

A minus 12 Days

Esperanza City; Four Days after the Hastur Incident

Birds sang, bees buzzed (when they weren’t being eaten by something), cars drove up and down the streets. There was a class of elementary school children passing by the graveyard, loud enough to be heard even over the wall that circled it, and someone somewhere was playing music so loudly that I could hear the words clearly even over here. Slow, slow me down…

The sun shone brightly down on the casket that contained Linda’s body. Or what was left of it. Her blood, on my bones…

I was wearing my funeral dress, the one my parents had bought for me a year ago for Grandpa’s funeral. I’d hated it back then, and I hated it more now. It didn’t help that it was way too tight around my chest for comfort.

Linda was wearing her own version of it inside that damned casket. Luckily for her, it was not too tight around her bust, mostly because her breasts were among the things that had been missing from her body. Shotgun blast from the side, they said. Point-blank range.

I felt the corners of my mouth twitch with the beginnings of a smile, before I ordered the summary execution of all facial muscles involved in that.

Let go, lay to rest.

And this is what’s called being in denial. Was I in denial?

Mostly, I just felt angry. No. I was totally angry. My hands were shaking where I’d clenched them into fists. Fortunately, I’d grown out of the phase where I always kept my fingernails long, so I didn’t tear into my own flesh…

I bit my lip, trying to calm down. Or at least keep up the appearance of being calm. Grieving.

Truth was, I wasn’t sad. I mean, I knew I should. And I felt like being sad, but I wasn’t. My sister hadn’t even managed to get to her seventeenth birthday before she died, and I didn’t even feel sad.

Just angry. Furious.

Bitch. You’re such a bitch, I thought, looking at the casket as the fat priest from our church droned on and on about heavenly grace and God’s plan and forgiveness and shit.

Why forgive her? That was a question that kept pounding my mind. She’d lied to me. She lied to me.

We fall, we fall, we fall to the ground.

My parents were standing to my left, with my brother in between them and holding their hands. I sneaked a glance at them, even though I knew what I’d see: Shame, sadness, disappointment, confusion. Freddy looked lost, his young mind not really able to grasp the situation yet. At least I hoped so.

They looked so small, standing there. The other guests didn’t help – they were watching us, their stares heavy and judgemental. They were all from my parents’ usual circles, and really only attending to express their disapproval, as well as, probably, keep an eye on me.

I hadn’t invited any of my friends, but they’d still come, since their parents were here, too. None of Linda’s friends were here, obviously. At least none of her real friends, as we’d so recently found out. She’d cut ties with her old crowd right around the time when she distanced herself from our family, from me.

No one around here was going to invite her new ‘friends’. And the fact that we didn’t know who they were was only a small part of that. Mostly, it was because they’d gotten her killed.

The priest finished his stupid rant, and they began lowering the casket. Mom broke down, falling onto her knees, sobbing, as dad knelt down to hug her and Freddy.

I just stood there, watching as my twin sister, the supervillain, was lowered into the earth.

And I couldn’t follow her.

Sleep, sleep all night.

* * *

Suddenly, I wasn’t in the graveyard anymore. Or at least, not in the same one. Or perhaps in the same one, only it was different.

The people around me had faded to mere shades, unrecognizable, unimportant but for the glimmer of light each held within themselves.

I looked around myself. The whole graveyard had become little more than a shade of itself, translucent, wispy.


There were stars everywhere. Above and below and around and inside and just plain everywhere.


My thoughts felt like they were moving through some kind of syrup. Utterly useless.

Then, something moved. One of the stars above – or was it below? I couldn’t tell. Weren’t those gravestones upside down before? – it sank down, until it hovered in front of me… flickering, blinking, shining, waxing, waning…


Was this what gave people power?

Linda saw a star like this, too.

Did I want this power? It pulsed so gently…

Linda accepted it.

So warm… so… warm…

Linda died.

“No,” I said, turning aw-

* * *

I blinked, looking around. The grave had been closed already.

What…? What happened?

I’d seen something… hadn’t I?

Just… you’re just not all there, silly.

What had I seen?

I shook my head, trying to recall the memory, but it simply wasn’t there. And then it was time to follow my parents to our car and get home.

* * *

Dad parked our car in the driveway to our home in the Oak Leaf community. The house was as sparkly clean as ever (cleaning services are good for that), but that only made looking at it worse.

No home should look this sparkling clean after someone who used to live in it died.

I was sitting in the back with Freddy, who’d all but collapsed against me, hugging me. I didn’t think he really understood what was happening. He was just five, after all.

We left the car and I all but carried him out and towards the door, as my father unlocked it and stepped in. I could already hear the other cars of friends and family approaching. Soon, our house would be swarming with them. Giving condolences that weren’t about Linda dying, but about her being a meta. A supervillain.

My parents got in and I followed with Freddy. Mom could barely stand on her own, her crisp black dress dirty at the knees from when she’d gone down in front of the grave, and Dad took her up to their room, leaving me with the small one.

While the young, they wait alone.

Fucking song. Stuck in my head now.

“Terry? Why’s everyone so strange?” Freddy asked. He looked up at me with muddy brown-gold eyes.

So tired. He looks so tired.

“Because… because Linda w-” I sniffled not knowing what to say. How to say it. How do you explain to a five-year-old that his older sister is dead, and that she was a supervillain to boot?

“Because your sister went away, son,” Dad suddenly said as he came back down the stairs, still in his expensive black suit. It was the same one he’d worn to grandpa’s funeral, and unlike my dress, it still fit him perfectly. He picked Freddy up as if he weighted less than a feather. Considering that my dad was tall and broad enough to just so fit through our door, and it was all muscle, that wasn’t a surprise. “C’mon, mommy needs you to hug her a lot. You gonna do that for me, big man?” he asked in his baby talk voice. Freddy nodded, still confused, and I relaxed. Now I wouldn’t have to be the one to try and explain it to him.

I looked up to find Dad looking at me with worried eyes. They were more amber-coloured than Freddy’s, who took after mom. Me and Linda, we’d shared his bright eyes. Now only me. “Do you want to join us, sweetheart?”

“No!” I replied immediately. There were few things right now that I wanted less than to listen to them explaining to Freddy that Linda was dead. “No,” I repeated, more subdued. “I… I need some time alone. If that’s alright.” I looked down again, at my feet.

These shoes look horrible on me.

“Alright. But if you need anything, anything, just say so, alright?”

I nodded, just to get him to leave me alone. Then I went up to my own room, stopping to look at the three large-size posters on the wall next to the stairs. The first one depicted a white rose on a golden background, with the words We must stand together! underneath. Pretty bland and innocuous. The second one depicted a blue cross on white ground, with the words Say NO to the False Idols!. But the last one was the kicker, being another white rose on gold background, but with the words Humans MUST come first! I tried to imagine how Linda must have felt, walking by these posters every day until she ran away. How long had she had her powers, anyway? Did she start to act weird after getting them, or did she get them after things changed?

It was no great mystery why Linda hadn’t told our parents about her powers. They spouted anti-metahuman propaganda every day, and all their friends – who had also been keeping an eye on me during the burial – were the same.

What baffled me – enraged me – hurt me was that she hadn’t told me.

We were supposed to be one soul in two bodies, weren’t we?

I continued up to our – no, my – room, closing and locking the door behind me. I deliberately did not look at Linda’s half to the left, but instead focused on my own. The yellow paint on the wall. The posters of my favourite tv shows (Sherlock, the Mentalist and Elementary) and my favourite music act (Owl City). The big mirror on the wall between my bed and my wardrobe.

Taking a few steps in, I started taking off the dress… but then I heard a tearing sound and looked down to see a long, ugly tear on the sleeve, near my shoulder.

“Damn it!” I cursed. It was old, but it had been really expensive! “Goddamnit!”

My vision got blurry, and before I knew it, I’d simply torn the sleeve off. “Fuck!” I tore off the other, then I grabbed it by the collar.

Less than a minute later, I was down to my underwear and my vision was clear again. At some point, I’d fallen down onto my knees, and turning right, I could see Linda kneel in the same position on her half of the room (blue paint, lots of anime posters and a framed pressed rose), mostly naked and with a blotchy, tear-stained face.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked her. “I know mom and dad would have reacted badly, but why didn’t you trust me?”

Someone knocked on the door. “Sweetheart?” It was Dad. “Are you alright? We heard a thump.”

What a stupid question. “It’s… it’s alright, daddy. Just need some time for myself!”

“Alright… we’re all in the living room now. You can join us whenever you want.” ‘We’ meaning that your pals from Humanity First! are here.

There wasn’t really anyone I wanted to see less right now, I thought.

I heard him walk down the stairs.

Then I got up myself and looked at myself in the mirror. My hair was messy – I’d torn the knot I had it in open, and now it fell down to my shoulder blades in black waves. I really didn’t look much like my sister right now – I had more muscle tone than she’d ever had, and unlike her, I didn’t always make sure to straighten my hair out. Plus, I think my skin was actually a few shades darker than hers had been, mostly due to all the stuff I did outside. Though I guess most would simply describe us both as ‘black’ and be done with it.

And yet I couldn’t shake the impression that it was my sister who was looking out at me from the mirror.

Because why should I look so guilty?

* * *

An hour later, dad called me down to dinner. I put on a pair of black sweatpants and a grey-blue hoodie and went down to the dining room.

When I saw our guests, I almost turned around and left again.

Richard Svenson was sitting at the table in all his blond-haired and blue-eyed glory. He was wearing a dark blue three-piece suit and was wearing it well, despite being in his mid-forties. For the man who was the head chairman of Humanity First!, he looked way too much like one of the metahumans he was campaigning against.

He looked up just as I entered, though, and rose with a perfect, white-toothed smile. Though he also displayed the perfect percentage of sadness and sympathy, as well. “Theresa, my dear, I am so sorry for your loss!” he said with that annoyingly pleasant voice of his, grabbing my right hand with both of his, holding it gently. “I wanted to talk to you at the burial, but I thought it best not to disturb you then – but if you need anything, any help, just say so. We’re there for you.”

Meaning, you’d like me to join H-One? Thanks, but no thanks.

“That’s very kind of you, Sir. But right now, I just want to be left alone,” I replied, trying to suppress the creepy feeling he always caused. Especially right now, when he was touching me. “It’s… a lot to get through.”

He nodded, somehow managing to look honestly understanding, and finally let go of my hand, sitting back down at the table. I looked around to find my dad at the table opposite of Svenson. Mom was arranging some snacks on a platter, though her hands were shaking. I couldn’t see her face, but I was sure she was crying.

Svenson had brought his usual gorillas along (I never could remember their names), as well as his secretary, a trim, if short hispanic woman in a business dress (whose name I couldn’t remember, either). I knew that, if he was here, the house was probably under heavy surveillance both by his organization’s personal security force and local police – there’d been more than one attack on him by supervillains, as well as by fanatic metahuman worshippers (mostly the True Believers – ever since his speech against the Protegé a few years ago, he’d topped their shit list and was still up there, uncontested).

I sat down next to dad and turned to him: “Where’s Freddy?”

“He’s… asleep. We tried to explain to him what happened – well, to explain that Linda isn’t coming back – but I don’t think he really got it. He just got agitated and had one of his fits, then he fell asleep,” he replied, not looking up from his fingers, which he had folded and laid down on the table to stare at.

“Oh.” I looked away. As if we didn’t have enough to be sad about.

* * *

Dinner itself was a pain. Mom was on the verge of another meltdown, but was trying to keep it together. Dad seemed more ashamed than sad, at least in front of Svenson. And Svenson… Svenson was trying to comfort them (and me) and it probably would’ve worked well (he really had a silver tongue) if it wasn’t for me feeling so… angry. All I could think about was that this man had probably been a big reason why my sister had turned away from us. If not the main reason.

You’re still a bitch, though. You could at least have come to me. One soul, two bodies.

I noticed that everyone was staring at me. Then I realized that I’d stood up pretty abruptly. I looked around, for just a moment, then I said: “Excuse me, I need a moment.”

Without waiting for anyone to respond, I stormed out of the kitchen… but where was I going? I went up to my room out of sheer reflex, opening the door before I had even made a conscious decision.

Why didn’t you tell me?

Why didn’t you tell me!?” I screamed at the mirror. My vision got blurry for a moment, but I wiped my eyes dry and forced the tears down before I really started crying. Honestly.

Suddenly, my eyes fell on an item visible in the mirror. It was unthinkable… it had been our deal… but… she was dead…

I turned around and walked to her desk, picking the small book up with a shaking hand. Her diary. We each had one, and it was the only thing we hadn’t shared… before she stopped sharing at all.

Opening it, I had to blink another squall of tears away as I saw her cramped, tight writing. She’d always been good at putting as much text on one page as others put on two or three (I was no better. Our teachers hate us).


I skipped ahead to the last few pages, to see if there was any…

No. The last entry I could find had been written exactly one day before I’d noticed her acting strange. She’d been looking forward to going out with her friends to watch the newest Major Lightning movie.

Anna had said they’d split after the movie, Linda had told her she was going straight back home… But I could remember that she’d been late that night, I’d woken up when she’d snuck back in at three in the morning… and the next morning, she wouldn’t tell my parents where she’d been so late…

And she hadn’t told me, either.

Suddenly, I felt energy return to my thoughts. It was like I was waking up… I knew what to do. Linda hadn’t told me anything. She’d kept it all a secret.

So get up, shake the rust.

So I would have to find out myself.

* * *

Once I’d made my decision, I got myself ready. I put on a pair of black cycling shorts, one of my newest sports bras (I’d had a growth spurt since hitting sixteen and most of my clothes were all new now – I’d grown three whole inches and two bust sizes) under my current attire. I hung my wallet on a string around my neck, put the collapsible baton dad had bought me when I turned sixteen into the inside pocket of my blue coat and put that one on, too.

I left my room and turned to the stairs… but I really should check up on Freddy, first. So I went to his room. It wasn’t very dark inside, because Freddy had pretty much covered every available inch of his walls and ceiling with stars of all colours drawn in glow-in-the-dark paint. He’d once told me that he tried to make them look like what he saw every time he had a fit.

Sneaking on tip-toes to his bed, I knelt down, brushing my hand over his sleeping face. He looked so small, even for a boy of five years. Curse those fits of his. He didn’t eat right, because his tastes changed with every fit he had, among other things.

Since he was asleep, and I didn’t want to wake him (he slept rarely enough), I just bent over him and kissed him on his cheek. He stirred, but didn’t wake up, and I left the room again.

Outside, I had to stop and take a deep breath again. Then another. And another. Until I’d calmed down – a little. Then I went down to get my shoes and leave.

* * *

“Terry, are you alright!?”


I turned just as I came down the stairs to see dad standing there, looking worried.

“I’m… better,” I said, hoping to get away quickly.

“Then you can join us at the table again.” Dratz. “Come, your mother is worried enough as it is.” Double dratz. Now I can’t just walk away.

I followed him back into the dining room and sat down.

Mom was looking even worse than before, her eyes blotchy from crying, her dark cheeks glistening with tears, while Svenson was talking to her in an almost-whisper.

Dad wasn’t looking much better, if in a different way. He looked composed, but I knew that he hadn’t had any grey hairs a week ago, and now he had grey streaks in his close-cropped hair, contrasting starkly with his black skin and hair. He also had more wrinkles around his eyes than ever.

Once I’d sat down, I tried to ignore the conversation that started up, but that wasn’t really possible.

“You couldn’t have known, Fiena, we still haven’t found a way to detect this deviancy,” said Svenson. “If there are no uncontrolled aspects to the symptoms, or physical mutations, detecting these poor souls is all but impossible, unless they openly use their powers.”

Why is that important?

“But don’t worry about your other children – whatever ailment causes this madness, it doesn’t seem to be contagious, unless someone spends a lot of time around a carrier – and neither Terry nor Freddy did, since poor Linda was infected!”

“B-b-but how did Linda… how… she never had anything to do with…” Mother choked, sobbing as Dad held one of her hands and Svenson another.

“We don’t know. It happens, sometimes, and there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. Our scientists are labouring tirelessly for a cure, or at least an inoculation against it, but until we have some kind of breakthrough in even detecting the vectors, all we can do is try and avoid the usual triggers, as well as contact to anyone who’s already expressing symptoms. Which this beautiful little community we live in already does, as well as it is pos-“

“Oh, this is just ridiculous!” I shouted, slamming both fists onto the table. Every but Svenson flinched as the dishes jumped into the air for a moment. “My sister was murdered and all you care about is making sure no one else manifests!?” I glared at my father, my mother and then at Svenson, who had remained calm, unlike his gorillas, who’d almost gone for their weapons. I guess I’m a threat factor now. “Why doesn’t anyone seem to care about who murdered her?

“Terry, please, calm yourself. It’s not a good thing to grow so uncontrolled in your current situati-” he began, but I cut him off the moment he started talking about me triggering again.

“I don’t fucking care about that! Why is it so important that Linda got powers? Why isn’t it important that she DIED!?”

He sighed, as if he was talking to a small child, and replied: “Finding her murderer is out of our hands, my dear. All we can do is do our best to prevent anyone else – especially you or your poor brother – from going down the same doomed road.”

“Why would getting superpowers change anything!? You’re talking like they’re the end-all be-all evil that caused all of this!”

Again, that maddening sigh. “My dear, ever since metahumans appeared, history has taken a turn for the worst – just look at the world war that is brewing, all over a broken boy with a god complex!”

I wasn’t exactly a fan of the Protegé, or rather his followers (I’d never met the guy himself), but even I could tell that this was stupid. It had always been the people around the Protegé that had screwed things up. But he wasn’t going to accept an argument like that.

“Just because someone gets powers doesn’t mean that they’re gonna be more evil than others! Linda didn’t die because of her powers, she died because someone took a shotgun and blew her full of holes!”

Mom choked, wailed and buried her face in her hands, all but collapsing on the table. Dad sank to his knees next to her, to calm her, while Svenson kept looking at me with those damned sympathetic eyes.

“Terry, I’m not saying that metahumans are automatically evil… but they have far more potential for evil, and that’s why we need to be careful that there are no new ones, and somehow seperate the existing from the normal, healthy, sane population. Just look at-“

“I know about DiL and the Six – who are apparently quite finished now – but-“

“You know about them, but they are hardly the worst examples,” he said.

Now that gave me pause. “What the fuck?”

“Language, young lady,” he rebuked me. “And really, people like the Six or Desolation-in-Light or the Caliphate were probably going to be monsters anyway – Atrocity was a serial killer long before she got her powers, and let’s not even get started on the Caliphate and their so-called ‘prophets’ – and Weisswald, as monstrous as he was, would never have been half as bad without being enabled by the Nazis and other supporters – but what we are really concerned about are people like Caliban, people who turn to evil out of nowhere due to random negative experiences, if even that.”

“What… what do you mean?” I asked. It might have been because of how tiring the day had been already, but I felt so slow.

“You’re too young to remember, but there have been far greater monsters than the Six, far more horrific evils than Desolation-in-Light. The Godking of Mars, who staged a global invasion and war by himself. You’re too young to remember most of these, but to us a little or a lot older, names like Nightmare Sun, Dread Roger, the Queen Bee or Hannibal Storm still cause shivers just by being mentioned.” He paused for effect, taking a deep breath. I knew what was coming next, it was his biggest argument, his personal story, but I still listened with bated breath. “You weren’t here, fortunately, but I still remember the terror that ruled, when the Living Trinity took over the entire San Francisco area. Three girls, all just two years younger than you, all daughters of our so-called protectors, the superheroes of our land, all manifested due to the most trivial reasons, and it took nearly two years until they were finally taken down.”

He stopped again, letting that sink in. We’d all heard the stories, and there were still some reminders left to see, especially when one visited San Francisco. I’d only ever seen pictures of the Living Trinity, but… brrr.

“The problem is that, normally, even the most evil person needs an enormous support structure, cunning and luck to perpetrate evil on a large scale. Throw in metahumans, and suddenly you get newborn babies who wipe out Los Angeles, or three teenagers that can break reality, or a careless little boy who can make it seem like he’s bringing back the dead. And then, which is maybe worse, you have the superheroes-” He spat the word out like a curse. “-who encourage children to put on costumes and go out to fight in the streets, until they get killed, like your poor, lost sister.”

I didn’t really know how to refute that.

“All we can do is make sure that you and your brother don’t manifest too, and if you do, we’ll do our best to heal you, of course.”

“It’s not curable,” I replied. “And besides, what if powers could heal Freddy, make it so he wasn’t having those fits an-“

Svenson snorted derisively. “Honestly, my dear, after what you went through, I’d think you’d know that he’s better off with fits than superp-“

I took my cup and threw the coffee in his face. “Fuck you!” I screamed, as he squinted his eyes while my parents looked aghast. He took a handkerchief and began wiping his face, still calm.

My sister is dead and you try to tell my parents that they couldn’t have known? Linda didn’t tell them precisely because people like you hang around with them! She could still be alive, if she’d felt safe enough to confide in her own family! And now you tell me that my little brother is better off sick than having powers!?” I glared at my parents. “And you don’t throw him out of the house at that!? Well, I’m not staying if he is, and God knows I have better things to do anyway!”

“Terry, wait, what a-” Dad began, but I just jumped up and ran to put on my shoes, then left out the door as he stormed after me, calling my name. But all those hours on the track and in the gym paid off and I was already halfway down the street by the time he reached the front porch.

I just ran to the gates that led to Esperanza City, fuming with anger.

Fuck them all.

I was going to find out who killed my sister. And I was going to find out who had been helping my sister, too. I was going to get them all for taking her away from me.

So first, I needed to go to where my sister had died.

I ran through the cold night towards the industrial district.

Previous I Next


Preview of B008.1 Vra: Anger

Progress Report

A minus 12 Days

Esperanza City; Four Days after the Hastur Incident in New Lennston

Birds sang, bees buzzed (when they weren’t being eaten by something), cars drove up and down the streets. There was a class of elementary school children passing by the graveyard, loud enough to be heard even over the wall that circled it, and someone somewhere was playing music so loudly that I could hear the words clearly even over here. Slow, slow me down…

The sun shone brightly down on the casket that contained Linda’s body. Or what was left of it. Her blood, on my bones…

I was wearing my funeral dress, the one my parents had bought for me a year ago for Grandpa’s funeral. I’d hated it back then, and I hated it more now. It didn’t help that it was way too tight around my chest for comfort.

Linda was wearing her own version of it inside that damned casket. Luckily for her, it was not too tight around her bust, mostly because her breasts were among the things that had been missing from her body. Shotgun blast from the side, they said. Point-blank range.

I felt the corners of my mouth twitch with the beginnings of a smile, before I ordered the summary execution of all facial muscles involved in that. Let go, lay to rest.

And this is what’s called being in denial. Was I in denial?

Mostly, I just felt angry. No. I was totally angry. My hands were shaking where I’d clenched them into fists. Fortunately, I’d grown out of the phase where I always kept my fingernails long, so I didn’t tear into my own flesh…

I bit my lip, trying to calm down. Or at least keep up the appearance of being calm. Grieving.

Truth was, I wasn’t sad. I mean, I knew I should. And I felt like being sad, but I wasn’t.

Just angry. Furious.

Bitch. You’re such a bitch, I thought, looking at the casket as the fat priest from our church droned on and on about heavenly grace and God’s plan and forgiveness and shit.

Why forgive her? That was a question that kept pounding my mind. She’d lied to me. She lied to me.

We fall, we fall, we fall to the ground.

My parents were standing to my left, with my brother in between them and holding their hands. I sneaked a glance at them, even though I knew what I’d see: Shame, sadness, disappointment, confusion. Freddy looked lost, his young mind not really able to grasp the situation yet. At least I hoped so.

They looked so small, standing there. The other guests didn’t help – they were watching us, their stares heavy and judgemental. They were all from my parents’ usual circles, and really only attending to express their disapproval, as well as, probably, keep an eye on me.

I hadn’t invited any of my friends, but they’d still come, since their parents were here, too. None of Linda’s friends were here, obviously. At least none of her real friends, as we’d so recently found out. She’d cut ties with her old crowd right around the time when she distanced herself from our family, from me.

No one around here was going to invite her new ‘friends’. And the fact that we didn’t know who they were was only a small part of that. Mostly, it was because they’d gotten her killed.

The priest finished his stupid rant, and they began lowering the casket. Mom broke down, falling onto her knees, sobbing, as dad knelt down to hug her and Freddy.

I just stood there, watching as my twin sister, the supervillain, was lowered into the earth.

And I couldn’t follow her.

Sleep, sleep all night.