Absent 11-Vignette


The First One Clean.

Two years ago, or thereabouts.

The blow spun Flint to the ground, a spray of blood splattering on the plastic sheeting. He grimaced, blood dripping down from his noise, and pushed himself up off his hands and knees.

“Hold.” The voice caught him as he was about to launch into a spinning blow, and he froze. “Are you okay, Flint?”

He sighed, and relaxed his stance, turning to face his opponent. “Dad, I’m fine. If I wasn’t, I’d still be lying there.”

Marco Perez frowned at his son. “Flint, you’re bleeding.” Taller than his son by at least half a head, he looked like he belonged on the cover of a dollar-store romance novel, with thick, glossy black hair bound back in a ponytail, and an impressive mustache combined with a few days’ worth of stubble. His long face had hard lines etched in, but right now they were softened as concern filled his eyes.

“Yeah, because you hit me on the nose; that’s usually what happens.” He wiped at the blood with the back of his hand, and flicked it down onto the plastic, earning a grimace from his father. “If we stop every time I take a hit, I'm not going to learn anything.”

“For the last time, Flint, it’s self-defense, not Fight Club. If someone can land a hit on you like that, you’re down for the count.”

“If it’s self-defense,” Flint shot back, “then why do I know twenty ways to disable someone by breaking their bones?”

Marco sighed. “First, I only taught you one. Please tell me you haven’t been watching ‘martial arts' videos on the internet again.” Flint coughed awkwardly, and said nothing.  “Of course you have. And second, often the best form of self-defense is making sure the other guy can’t hurt you anymore. If you have to break a few bones to ensure that, then so be it. But your first priority should always be ensuring your own safety: if someone was dangerous enough to land a hit on you, and you couldn’t stop them uninjured, what hope do you have of doing it when you’re hurt?”

“Yeah, and they’ll be thinking that too, so when I spring up and punch them in the balls they won’t be expecting it,” Flint replied with a grin. With the blood staining his teeth, it looked vaguely unnerving.

Marco shook his head. “If you actually end up in this situation, you get up and you run. That, they won’t be expecting.”

Pfeh, whatever,” Flint replied dismissively. He raised his fists and spread his stance into a ready position. “Again?”

“No, that’s enough. Go clean yourself up, and we’ll do weapon drills.”

“Oh come on! I can g-”

“Flint.” His tone brooked no argument. “Go.”

He went, grumbling all the way.

The sink was on the opposite side of the gym, next to the stairs that led up to the main level. A few towels hung from a rack next to it, and a small fridge sat slightly off to the side. Flint was pretty sure there was nothing in it, because there was never anything in it, but he still opened the door and gave it a quick once-over. Yep, nothing. What a surprise.

Flicking on the tap, he leant over the basin and cupped his hands under the stream, gathering a small pool of cool water. He splashed it onto his face, rubbing at the dried blood until it came off and stained the water pink as it spun around the drain, then gathered another handful and poured it over the top of his head. Theoretically, it was for the sweat, but it was really more of an excuse to run his hands over his newly-shaven skull. After… whatever the hell had happened at the café, he hadn’t spoken to Edith once. He’d seen her around, they still did go to the same school, but every time he tried to talk to her, she disappeared. It hadn’t been quite intentional, but he’d found himself in front of a mirror with a razor right there, and it had just sort of happened. He knew his hair had nothing to do with her breaking up with him, of course he did, but there was a tiny, nagging, stupid, part of his brain that wouldn’t stop whispering about it. So the dreads were gone, and maybe now she’d talk to him again. Yeah, and maybe he’d be abducted by aliens from Mars.

When he trudged back over to Marco, he found him holding a wooden knife in one hand, flipping and spinning it casually around. He flicked it up out of his hand, and then swiped it out of the air into a backhanded grip. “You took a while. Alright, let’s get started.” He settled into a loose posture, weapon held at the ready. “What do you do?”

Flint narrowed his eyes, then lunged forward, but his father held a hand up and stopped him. “I know you can do it. Talk me through it.”

He groaned. “Do I have to?”

Marco raised a thin eyebrow. “I think you already know the answer to that.”

Flint blew a raspberry at him, spraying spittle everywhere, but obligingly took a step back to his starting point. “…okay, fine. So the first thing I do is identify the weapon. How are they holding it, how long is it, is it bladed or blunt, all that stuff.”

“No it’s not,” Marco chided.

“Yes it is, what else- ugh, right, fine. First, I look at the person. Is he scared, is he relaxed, does he know how to hold a weapon?”
“Good. What do you do if he or she looks like this?” His posture tensed and he held the knife out like it was more of a danger to Flint than to him.

“You obviously don’t know what you're doing, so I take it off you and disable.”

“Mm-hmm. This?” Now his posture was more relaxed, and the knife pointed threateningly at Flint.

“Same answer. You’re more confident, but that doesn’t make you more skilled.”

“Right. And now?” He shifted again, but this time it was subtle changes that set off alarm bells in Flint’s brain.

“Run,” he said instantly. “There’s no way I win this one?”

“Really? What if-” his free hand flicked over to the rack and tossed another fake knife at him, “you have one too?”

Flint caught the wooden weapon by the blade and flipped the grip into his palm. “Answer doesn’t change. Because-”

“-you don’t win a knife fight, you just get to bleed out second,” they said together, and then grinned at each other.

“Alright, that’s good. You feel the need to prove it?” The question was asked with a smile.

“I think I’m good. Next?”

“Next,” he placed the knives down and pulled a handgun off the rack, “we're doing this.”

At the sight of the gun, Flint flinched; he couldn’t help it. “Could we… maybe not?”

“What? Why? Normally, you… oh, right. The café.”

He shrugged awkwardly. “…yeah. It’s just… all it would have taken was one slipup, and I could have died. Someone else could’ve died, Edith could’ve died, and it would be been my fault and-”
A hand fell on his shoulder, warm and comforting, and he looked up to see his dad standing in front of him, face soft. “Yes,” he said softly, “yes, you could’ve. Yes, they could’ve. And yes, it’d have been partially tour fault. But they didn’t, Flint. And that’s why we do this, so that it doesn’t ever happen. Now that you’ve actually been in a real life scenario, it’s even more important that we keep doing it. Otherwise, you’ll lose the instincts that saved you in the first place. I know it’s scary, and I know it’s stark, but you have to face up to this stuff sooner or later if you want to- do something with your life. Okay, sport?”

Flint took a deep breath. Oddly enough, that did make him feel better about it. “Okay,” he replied.

Marco’s face broke out into a grin, and he took a step back, leveling the gun. “That’s the spirit. Now, I’m a scary person with a scary gun. How are you going to stop me?”

Flint’s eyes swept over him, taking in everything, and he grinned. “Like this,” he said. And then he threw the knife.

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Absent 11-IV

Absent Friends

Awestruck yelled, spittle flying from his mouth, but whatever he said sounded so far away that it was almost inaudible. Instead, a light breeze started up, rushing down towards the hero and tugging at our capes, hoods and clothing. Awestruck raised one arm and gritted his teeth, which seemed a bit odd; it was barely even strong enough to be considered windy. Then I noticed that his cape was flying straight out behind him, and the cloud of dust in the background was rapidly being blown back down the street. Somehow, what we were experiencing as a mild breeze, they were experiencing as gale force winds. And even my addled brain could make that connection.

Awestruck evidently realized he wasn’t getting anywhere. He dropped Lis and stopped trying to move forward against the wind. He took off into the air, heading straight up instead of forward, quickly clearing the top of the buildings. As soon as he did, the wind's pull on his cape immediately lessened, though it still dragged behind him. He went to throw another shockwave, stopped, and then dived towards us, the air shimmering and warping around him. Between the speed he was moving at, and the shockwaves he was sheathing himself in, it wouldn’t be accurate to say we’d be killed so much as reduced to a fine red mist. We barely had enough time to react, and even if we did, what were we going to do? Hit him with some cloth? I might, might, have been able to do something, at the cost of another brutal headache, but I’d already thrown away that shot. Even though it was at an awkward angle, I twisted my neck to look at him. I’d always said I’d like to look my death in its eyes.

So I was perfectly positioned to see when, just before he was going to hit us, the unreleased shockwaves around him suddenly disappeared. The briefest look of surprise swept across his face, and then a figure in white was standing in his path. She caught his blow on crossed arms, and, although the ground beneath her shattered at the force of the blow, she didn’t budge an inch. More than that, though, it happened completely without sound. Despite the boom it should’ve produced, all we could hear was the quiet rustling of the breeze, and the muttered swearing out that was our reaction. My personal favorite was ‘Jesus H. Fuck!’, courtesy of Nat. Even I can appreciate a good bit of sacrilege every now and then.

Wasting no time, the woman in white took advantage of the brief second of shock after his failed blow by throwing a straight jab, stepping into the blow for maximum power. It caught the hero right on his chest symbol, knocking him back a few feet before he caught himself in mid air, hovering with a grimace in his face. He swept a hand out and across, and only had a second to look surprised when it didn’t work before his opponent was on him again. By that point, he really should’ve been expecting it.

He caught the blow, a wide haymaker, on one arm, moving slightly as it connected, but mostly holding himself in place with his flight. She tried for another jab, but he caught her arm and flung her to the side. She tumbled through the air, then there was a second of roaring wind, and she suddenly slowed, righting herself and drifting towards the ground. She landed, looking oddly light, and adjusted her cape with a casual gesture so it fell straight down her back again. She took a step forward, the crimson-trimmed fabric fluttering behind her, and then a burning projectile screamed past her, tearing off the bottom half and setting the rest on fire.

Further down the street, a plume of steam jetted out from Galvanize's armor as a raised section on the shoulder slotted back into place. Paladin was standing beside her, a stain of indeterminate color and origin spread across her right fist, and behind them Instance was crouched over the still unconscious form of Balthazar. Of Stump, Wisp, or any of the Prowlers, there was no sign.

The woman in white flicked her hand, and the flames licking at her cape disappeared. Turning slightly so she could see all of her opponents, she folded her arms across her chest, and waited.

Galvanize moved first. Raising a hand to expose the green glowing circle on the palm, she fired a pulse that visibly warped the ground as it passed over, travelling in a ring of distorted light. Instead of nullifying it like she had Awestruck's blast, the woman gestured, and was suddenly dragged to the side by a burst of wind that came out of nowhere. As the ring passed her by, slamming into the front of a building and producing a large cloud dust, she pointed one hand at the mechanized hero. Initially, nothing deemed to happen, and the hero fired another pulse that was again dodged with ease. Then, as she adjusted her aim for a third shot, sparks suddenly flew from the joints of her suit, and its arms fell limp to its sides. With another burst of sparks, it dropped out of the air, landing with a heavy clunk as smoke began to leak from the paneling. The green glow on the palms flickered, and died entirely, and the entire hunk of machinery tipped over onto its side, its method of mobility (along with its everything else) disabled.

The woman in white landed gracefully, then immediately spun just in time to catch Awestruck doing a speeding bullet towards her, fists outstretched. There was a flurry of movement, something that looked vaguely like some judo I saw once, and then the hero was shooting past her to smash into a building, sending debris and clouds of dust flying. Then Paladin was there, golden wing slicing through the air towards her. Another sudden burst of wind yanked her out of the way, but the armored hero merely changed course, swooping in towards her with a glowing fist reared back to strike. She swung, wings pushing back to give the blow more power, but her opponent merely caught the blow in one hand, then stepped forward and grabbed her helmet with the other. Yanking on the arm, she pulled her head down and slammed it into the ground, once, twice, three times, then tossed her away like a ragdoll. The hero skidded along the ground for a few feet, then attempted to rise once she’d stopped, but she was swaying slightly, obviously disoriented.

Awestruck stepped out from his pile of rubble, looking pissed as hell. He was covered in dust, his costume was in tatters, and his formerly-perfect hair was matted and clinging flat to his skull. It also seemed that he’d finally caught on to the fact that his attacks weren’t really working, because in each hand, he held a chunk of rubble larger than my torso. He hurled one of them at the woman in white, and she dodged easily, but while she was still in the air, he threw the other, straight at hit. It hit her torso and shattered, but she was thrown back, bouncing a few times before somehow landing on her feet. Her face was hidden, but there was definitely an air of irritation to her as she pointed a finger at him. He smirked, bending down to grab another chunk of rubble, but then he froze, and began desperately clutching at his throat. He dropped to his knees, his motions growing more frantic, and then, boom, he was gone, the vapor trail in the sky and the aftereffect in the dust the only remaining signs of his presence.

She turned towards Paladin and Galvanize, who was extricating herself from the now-useless pile of metal, and swept the pointing finger across them. Evidently, they got the message: Paladin's wings swept downwards, launching her into the air, and Galvanize limped over to Instance and the unconscious Balthazar. With a few hurried words, and worried glances back towards their opponent, Instance nodded. He grabbed both of their arms, and then their figures seemed to stretch into the distance towards the Tower, and they disappeared.

The woman in white surveyed the scene. Massive clouds of dust billowed around, swirling and eddying from the movement. Chunks of rubble lay everywhere, and the ground and buildings were almost all damaged to some extent. She nodded, and turned towards us.

She’d changed her costume since I’d last seen it. The crimson trim had become more prominent, stretching in a swirling pattern around the seams and edges, and she'd abandoned that two-tone red wig. She’d changed the metal mask she wore as well, making the three ‘V’s that formed it sharper and more angular, and her gloves and boots were now entirely crimson, with burnished metal plating that shifted as she moved. She began walking towards us, and as she did she removed her helmet to reveal wide lips, a sharp nose, and clear, keen blue eyes that seemed even brighter in contrast with her dark skin.

 “Geez Louise, you guys,” said Void with a wide, toothy grin. “I can’t leave you alone for minute, can I?”

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Absent 11-III

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The Great Escape

There was brief moment of confusion as everyone stopped; the heroes and Outliers looking at the new arrivals, the new arrivals digesting their surroundings. This bit I do actually remember: it was Instance and an eight-foot-tall hulk of twisting branches that had to be the new junior hero, Stump. The girl in white and lavender was that girl, Wisp, but I couldn’t make that connection until later, when my memory was working properly. At the time, recognition tickled in my mind, but by that point I’d accepted my current state and didn’t even bother trying to grasp at it.

After the beat, everything resumed. Stump seemed to remember that there was a girl clinging to his leg and tried kicking her off, but she let go, and his foot passed right through her, dragging a trail of soft lilac smoke behind it. She danced backwards out of the way of another blow with a surprising amount of agility, and then everything went to hell in a turbocharged handcart.

When the telekinetic in the fancy hat had bound Lis, he’d held her arms firmly to her sides, reasoning it was best to keep then away from her weapons. It was a good thought, but he’d forgotten about ammunition. Her arms were bound, but her hands weren’t, and as soon as they weren’t paying attention to her, she’d begun finagling a shock round from the mesh on her left thigh. She’d ideally have gone for something more powerful, but a shock round was the only ammunition that would have an effect at the meagre velocity she could achieve with just her hand. The triggered explosives strapped to her lower back would’ve been better, but she couldn’t reach them or the detonator, which was strapped to her upper arm (Lis didn’t tell me this bit either: she thinks I don’t know about them, probably because she hasn’t told me. She doesn’t think I’d approve, and, to be fair, I wouldn’t, but I also don’t really think it’s my place to judge).

When the lightning began crackling across the ground, she saw it as the chance it was. She’d thought she might not have to do anything after Shauna and Sanjay had done their plan, but being quickly snatched up again within seconds had disabused her of that notion. This one was on her.

Moving slowly so she didn’t drop the bullet, she lined it up with the path she’d set out, solidified its destination, and flicked. It spun through the air, slow enough to be seen if you were looking for it, in a wide arc around the heroes, and zipped straight into the telekinetic’s back. He jerked up, twitching as the arcs of electricity coursed through him, then collapsed to the ground, smoking slightly. As he did, she felt the invisible grip disappear, and gravity reasserting itself. They hit the ground at the same time he did, but she was very much conscious and he was very much not.

There was a heavy thunk next to her, and she snapped her vision to the right to find her rifle lying on the ground. Her rifle still loaded with the Dragonkillers. She snatched it up and grinned. Payback time.

---

Nat had taken a lot of hits, both today and earlier in the week. Pretty much every muscle she had ached and burned and throbbed, and that had been before she was thrown fifty feet by a directed shockwave. But she’d been taking hits since she could stand: this was nothing new.

The tumble had taken her down for a minute or two, but she hadn’t been out of it like the rest of us had thought; she’d just been trying to get her strength back. Surprisingly, getting lifted up by the telekinetic had actually helped, taking the weight off her, even if only briefly. So when the grip disappeared, she may not have been 100%, but she was definitely ready to go.

Strands of fabric unfurled, pushing against the ground and softening her landing. She'd lost most of her long pieces, and had to extend them out of her ‘armor’, the wraps that covered her body and protected it. Pulling strands from it meant she could take less hits, but without them, she was completely limited to hitting things with her fists. She liked hitting things with her fists, a lot, but she’d already tried that and it hadn’t worked very well, so she’d have to risk it.

She landed and retracted the cords, holding them close to her body, but not integrated into her wrappings. She flicked her eyes over the heroes, ignoring the debacle in between her and them. She’d already tried Awestruck, and the telekinetic was already down, so that left the robot and the knight. The knight, she decided: the robot could have tricks up its sleeve, and she didn’t like that idea. The knight looked like a brawler, and that was right up her alley. Even without the armor, the other woman was significantly bigger than her, but she was used to that too. There were gaps in her armor; maybe she could use those, get underneath it and peel it away? And if that didn’t work, she could always just hit her really hard. Really, really ha-

A hand gripped her forearm, stopping her in her tracks. “Na-Ribbon!” It was Shauna, eyes hard behind her mask. “We need to go! This isn’t a fight we can win.”

“I can take her,” she snarled.

“No, you can’t,” she said bluntly, “and she’s not even alone. We’re going, now. Grab Skew.”

(If you’re wondering how they had the time to have that conversation, good on you. Partially, it’s because Lis was making hell with enough weapons to arm a small revolution, and partially it was because of whatever the hell Wisp was doing, which I still have no idea about. Sound interesting? It is, but we’ll get to that in a bit).

Begrudgingly, Nat followed Shauna away from the chaos, and the growing cloud of dust it was producing. “What about Ricochet?” she asked, as they reached me, fabric wrapping around me and hoisting me into the air.

“Ricochet, and Foresight, can handle themselves.” A statement that was proven immediately false when Foresight's body came tumbling out of the chaos and rolled to a stop next to them.

He groaned, and pushed himself onto his feet. “Write it down somewhere: You cannot penetrate Awestruck's skin with a knife.”

“I’ll bet you tried to penetrate him,” I murmured.

“Shut up, Skew.”

“Where’s Ricochet?” Shauna asked.

“I do not fucking care. Let’s scram before this gets-”

“YOU!” roared a voice from behind them. Awestruck emerged from the cloud. His cloak was actually tattered slightly, and he was still bleeding where Lis had gotten him, and a few other places as well. He was also holding her limp form in one hand, a thick hand around her neck. “Do you think you can just saunter away!” He raised his free hand to point at us, and the air rippled as a massive shockwave tore through the air towards us-

And vanished.

“Honestly,” said a new voice, “you should really look into some anger management.”

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Absent 11-II

Before The Killing

In her hiding place behind the shattered remains of the lab, Shauna clenched her fists, waited, and listened (she didn’t tell me this, I’m just embellishing the story for effect). Ribbon- Natalie was out there, possibly injured, possibly dead, and she couldn’t do anything but sit there. For not the first time, she cursed her power. Why couldn’t she have gotten something useful, like healing or teleportation, or even superspeed? But instead, all she could do was make waves to hit people. And against these four? It was like throwing spears at a tank.

“Enough!” a man yelled. She assumed it was Awestruck; it had an air of someone used to being obeyed. Obviously whatever Ricochet had tried had done something, because he sounded pained. Good. “You. Why were you here?”

“To find the magical artefact of ‘fuck you'.” There was real venom in Ricochet's words.

There was a sigh, then a crack, and a grunt of barely-disguised pain. “That was one bone. You have 208. Let’s not drag this out.”

“Awestruck.” The woman in the golden armor, Paladin. Her voice was flat, very clearly a warning.

“Paladin, we do not have the time. One of them could be getting away with it right now.”

“Oh? Then maybe we should be focusing on the teleporter who held up a school looking for it, hm? You know as well as I do that putting this rabble on the list of suspects was just a formality. They're inconsequential; why and how would they have gotten their hands on it?”

“Well, then how did they know how to come here, ‘hm’?”

“We can find that out at our own leisure, once they’re safely in custody. Without torturing them.”

“Hey!” a voice called out. It sounded slightly slurred and a little thick, but was still recognizable as Skew. “This is behavior not becoming of a hero! I demand to speak to your supervisor at once!” He began giggling, but quickly broke down into a series of hacking coughs, and Shauna sighed. She’d like to be able to chalk it up to the concussion he obviously had, but this was pretty standard for him.

“What the criminy's wrong with him?” Considering it sounded like it belonged coming from a radio in the 1920s, this new member of the conversation had to be Balthazar.

“He has a third-degree concussion, fifteen fractured bones and some mild internal bleeding.” The crackling, distorted nature of the voice meant that this was the hero in the mech suit, Galvanize. “Caused, of course, when you decided that blowing the entire room up was a better option than just neutralizing them, which Balthazar or I could have done easily.”

“All the more reason, then,” Paladin interjected, “to get this over with. He needs medical attention, and so do they.” She assumed that the hero was referencing the unconscious teleporter and her associates.

“For them?” Awestruck spat. “They can all-”

Bright blue flared over Shauna’s vision, and she jerked back, nearly falling over. The light disappeared as quickly as it had come, and was replaced by writing in the same color light. It's Foresight, the writing read. It flickered, then changed. If I can blind them, do you think you can hit them? Just nod or shake your head, I can see you.

Well, that was new. Sanjay had never even hinted he could do something like this. In fact, he’d gone out of his way to obfuscate his powers as much as possible.

Shauna, you are taking forever, and it is physically painful.

“But it's barely been a sec-”

All those times I said I was a quicker thinker than any of you, I was being literal. Now, he’s or no, can you hit them?

Could she? Three of the four could fly, and the fourth would have shields. But if they were blinded…

“Maybe?” She’d barely voiced the thought when the writing changed again.

Good enough, I suppose. Okay, I'll give you a countdown. Be ready.

The writing disappeared, replaced with a number that stayed in the center of her vision. It started at ten, and began ticking downwards, and she hurried around to the edge of her cover. She could just send her wave straight ahead, but then it would throw the rubble everywhere, and Skew along with it. So she’d have to actually leave cover to do it, which meant that timing was going to be important.

As the timer hit one, she spun around the last few pieces, pushing herself up from a crouch. As she did, she tapped into the font of raging flames in her core, and brought her left hand rising up as she clenched it into a fist. Her usual waves, the ones that radiated out in all directions, were easy to do, barely even requiring a touch. For this, though, a little more effort was required.

Following the motion of her fist, a flat, oblong lump rose out of the tarmac, about 6 feet wide and 2 feet long. It almost came up to her waist, and tapered off smoothly at the edges, melting seamlessly back into the road. She could already feel the strain beginning to set into her arm, like lifting a heavy weight, so it was good that she didn’t have to hold it.

Without missing a beat, she raised her other arm above her head and slammed it down, channeling the blazing energy through it in an invisible hammer blow. The tension disappeared as the lump violently depressed, dropping down into an inversion of its original shape so quickly that you could have missed it by blinking. As it did, the surface in front of it shot up in an opposite motion, but this one didn’t stop at waist height, and nor did it stay in place. It shot forward in a wave, rapidly rising until it was easily taller than Shauna and far longer than the one that triggered it had been, distorting the road lines as it passed over them.

In the second before it blocked out her view, she could see the heroes rearing back, surprised. The blue glow covering their faces meant that Foresight's claim had been legitimate, hopefully.

Not bothering to wait and see whether or not it had been successful, she turned and sprinted towards the bundle of multi-colored rags lying limp on the ground. As she did, Ricochet and Foresight dropped out of the air, Ricochet stumbling and clutching at her hand, Foresight’s eyes snapping open just before hitting the ground and landing like he’d been expecting it all along. That meant either she’d actually managed to knock the telekinetic down, which was just spectacularly unlikely, or she had at least hit him hard enough that he'd had to focus on shielding. Same effect either way.

She skidded to a stop next to her prone girlfriend, dropping into a crouch and frantically rolling her over, searching for signs of life. Ordinarily she wouldn’t even be able to move any of the wraps of disparate fabrics, Natalie's power holding them as solid and firm as steel, but now they hung loosely like… well, like fabric. “If you're feckin' dying on me, I'm gonna kill you,” she hissed under her breath. “And then I’m gonna feckin’ kill you for making me use that cheesy-ass line.”

As soon as she reached for her wrist, though, feeling for a pulse, Natalie groaned, coughed weakly. “I think my bruises have bruises,” she whispered, sounding pained.

With a sigh of relief, Shauna went to hug her, then pulled back once she realized what a terrible idea that would be. “That's what you get when you attack a Dragon, you dummy.”

How sweet. You idiots. The light writing reappeared in front of her eyes, and Natalie's too. Move, before they figure o

There was a boom behind them, and Shauna instinctively spun and raised another short wall, but it didn’t make a difference. A shockwave tore through it, and while it took the brunt of the blow, that’s not the same as all of it. The remaining power was more than enough to rock them back, and before they could recover, an invisible grip hoisted them off the ground again.

“I guess that's what I get for not heat-scanning,” said the distorted voice of Galvanize. She sounded rueful through the static. Awestruck hovered above her, looking even more pissed off than before. Balthazar was squinting and wincing slightly, his top hat askew, but he was still holding all four of them up in the-

Three. Not four, Foresight had disappeared. Where had he gotten to? And how?

Apparently, Paladin had noticed that too. “Do it again,” she barked, “because you obviously can’t count-”

A crackling buzz of ozone filled the air, and arcs of electricity began appearing in the space between the suspended Outliers and the heroes, centered around an empty circle. The sparks increased in intensity and frequency, and then, a flash, and three figures appeared. Two heroes, and a figure in white, with a lavender scarf.

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Absent 11-I

FLINT

A Final Smoke

I’ve never been drunk. Tipsy, sure, a little sloshed, maybe, but I don’t make a habit of drinking and I'm not fond of anything that impedes my motor functions, so not drunk. I have, though, had concussions before. My dad took teaching me martial arts seriously- ah, no, that gives a bad impression. He was a good teacher, he didn’t do the whole ‘get it or get hurt’ thing you see in movies all the time. But I was still a kid, and teach a kid to fight, and then get him into old wuxia moves, and he’s inevitably going try something that'll get himself hurt. It’s not the same base as being drunk, but it is apparently in the same ballpark. So at that particular moment, lying in a pile of rubble, I felt something similar to the effect I’d have gotten if I'd done absinthe shots straight into an IV, with a chaser of turpentine and nail polish remover to top it off.

So, recap: four most powerful ‘heroes’ in the city, power gone, concussion from hell, ribs probably fractured, left forearm definitely fractured, teammates injured as well, and to top it off, I'd lost my knife somewhere along the way. That was my favorite knife. I'd carved my little symbol into the flat of blade and the base of the handle and everything. I'm going to miss you, Mr. Knifey. I giggled a little. I’d never called it that before now, and never would if my brain hadn’t been ping-ponged around my skull.

The figures of the four heroes swum in my vision, wavering and blurring around the edges. The dust cloud didn’t help; it hid detail to the point it was more like looking at stylized silhouettes than real people. The other Outliers were a little clearer, only partly obscured: I couldn’t see Lis or Shauna, but Foresight was still crouched low in front and to the left of me, and Nat was sprawled behind him. Her cloth wrapping was torn and tattered, and that was probably important, but every time I tried to concentrate on it, it slipped away.

“Hold.” It was a woman's voice, ringing out clear and powerful. It looked like one of the figures, the one that looked kinda yellow-y, had held up their hand and stopped moving towards. The other figures did the same, after a slight pause. “Outliers. There’s nowhere to go. Surrender, and submit yourself to arrest. This only has to be as painful as you make it.”

I squinted at her. There was an angry part of my brain yelling incoherent noises and swinging its fists around, but another part was acknowledging the reality of the situation. It was saying, rightly so, that I couldn’t see any way out of this situation. If my head had been in the right place, I probably would have sided with the former. But the way it was right now? Incoherent angry noises sounded like far more my style.
And someone else apparently agreed. Before I could say anything (or try to) there was a whirring, then a pfft sound I knew I should recognize. Something shot through the air towards the heroes. I couldn’t actually see it, but it left a rapidly-expanding cylinder of disturbed air behind it that my eyes followed, watching the dust swirl.

Okay, you know what? From my perspective, this whole encounter was a series of back-and-forths with bits missing where my brain zoned out or tried to go off on a tangent and a complete lack of fine details because my vision was completely gone. It's not very interesting, is what I’m saying. So enough of me being confused and muggy; it’s time for a perspective switch.

-----

Nat was out of it. She’d been the one who’d tried to take a swing at Awestruck, and she’d taken the brunt of the shockwave that had blown them out onto the street. She’d thrown herself at him, using strands of her costume to propel herself upwards and then to swing with all her force. It was about as effective as Skew's attempt; although slightly less pathetic-looking. Lis knew what he’d been trying to do, of course, but if you didn’t it looked like he just flung his arm out and then collapsed. She’d definitely rib the hell out of her friend over that if they got out of this one- when they got out of this one.

Shauna was crouched next to her behind the pile of rubble, the one with Flint on the other side. She seemed mostly unharmed, and kept trying to peer out and see if her girlfriend was okay. Lis placed one hand on her hand, barely paying attention, and pushed her back down. She’d found a decent viewport in the concrete pile, but the shorter girl poking her head up would give away their position.

“Is she okay?” Shauna hissed at her. Her voice sounded slightly strange, different enunciations, but Lis didn’t care enough to ask or, in fact, think about it at all.

“Yeah, she's fine,” she hissed back, “now keep yer head down, or they'll see us.”

“They already know we're here.”

“No, they already know we're,” she twirled one finger around, “here, not,” she pointed the finger down, “here. Now shaddup, I gotta shot.”

Lis watched the heroes grow closer as she leveled one of her pistols up to the hole. She liked using her sniper for precise shots, but it wasn’t actually necessary, and she was a little pressed for time. She took a breath, and concentrated. Okay. Four heroes, one shot before they realize. Who gets a bullet? The Big Guy was out; even if she was packing live rounds, they wouldn’t do a thing. Same went for Mr. Roboto. Harry Houdini almost certainly had telekinetic shields, so that just left the Golden Glowstick. Her armor was large, but it wasn’t completely covering, with small gaps in between plates and sections. No ordinary shooter could manage to slot a bullet in between them.

She focused on the cold power in her core, sending it out into the world, forming a loose cylinder. One end sat just beyond the muzzle of her pistol, and she moved the other until it lined up with the gap next to the hero's neck. It pushed against her control, trying to snap into being, but she held it back. She couldn’t move the tunnels once they were properly created, and she needed the hero to stop moving before she could do that, otherwise she’d miss.

“Hold!” the golden woman shouted, and stopped. Perfect. She said something about surrendering or something, but Lis stopped listening. She let the tunnel form, snapping into a path of distorted light, and in the same moment, squeezed the trigger.

The satisfying pfft was like music to her ears, and that little chunk of metal zipped off along its designated path - and stopped. It hovered in mid-air, about a meter from the hero. The Prestige had stuck out a hand, and caught the shock round before it could hit with his powers.

Shittitties. Element of surprise, gone. Only shot at taking at least one of those motherfuckers, gone. Well… maybe not ‘only' shot. She’d almost forgotten about it, but Caster had given her those rounds, hadn’t she? She'd called them… Dragonkillers? Yeah, that was it. That seemed about right right about now. She tucked the pistol back into its holster and unslung her baby from her back, then grabbed the rounds from the webbing on her left leg and loaded them in.

“What are you doing?” Shauna asked. “Did it work?”

“Nope,” she said curtly. “But this will.” Then she prepared another unformed path in her mind, pushed herself up and vaulted over the top of the pile in one smooth motion. As the heroes came into view, she dropped the path onto Awestruck, and pulled the trigger.

She got one shot off, not even hitting the ground, before a thousand invisible hands grabbed her, wresting her gun from her hand and pinning her into place in midair. The stage magician was glaring at her under his top hat, arm outstretched. She tried lashing, struggling against her bonds, but it didn’t seem to do a thing. To her left, she could see Foresight, held in the same way, hanging limp. So, this was it. At least she did get to take some satisfaction in the fact that, although Awestruck was still flying, there was a jagged gash on the side of his chest. Ya did good, Caster.

“So, that’s a no on the surrender, then,” the woman in the golden armor said. 

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Greys 10-Vignette


Never Claimed To Be Nice

One day ago, or thereabouts.

A loud gasp spread through the crowd pressed up against the windows, as the woman with the mechanical arms sent a blast of flame roaring down the street. From where he was sitting, a higher platform at the back of the restaurant, the man with the white tie could easily see over their heads and down at the spectacle unfolding on the street below. Thankfully, he wasn’t the only person not crowding to the windows: a few other patrons had remained at their tables, some shooting irritated glances at the ooh-ing crowd. That was good; if everyone had moved, he would’ve had to too to avoid suspicion, and he despised crowds.

He wasn’t particularly noticeable, brown eyes behind thin glasses over brown skin under close-shaven brown hair. His tie was slightly unusual, but the plain blue shirt and brown slacks made up for it. Too many people, when trying to avoid attention, went for ‘boring' over ‘average’, not realizing that it had a certain distinctiveness all of its own. This man knew better, and he doubted he had ever received a second glance in his entire career.  

The woman, the hero, he reminded himself, dodged a flying car with a flare of flame from her shoulders. He took a sip of his tea, and made a small note in shorthand in his notebook. He'd pushed the remnants of his frankly average meal to one side, along with the teapot and his phone, to make space for taking notes, the real reason he was here. Now, if they could just-

On the other end of the street, another woman came into view. Unlike the hero, who was merely wearing jeans and a black turtleneck with the arms torn off, the second member of this little brawl had an actual costume. A long coat done in jagged black and white slashes hung over reflective plated armor, but, unusually, her face was left uncovered. The man in the white tie didn’t particularly care about any of those details: all that mattered was that he could see both combatants now, and observe properly.

The villain summoned a dagger of crackling black energy into her left hand, and flicked it outwards. The hero went to block, crossing shiny black arms across her face, but it wasn’t aimed at her; it sunk into a parked car, and flickered slightly. If the cyborg was surprised by this, she didn’t show it, and she immediately charged down the street, thrusters in her shoulders rotating and flaring. The flames they produced were tightly focused and white-hot, leaving a trail of haze behind her as she rocketed down the street.

The woman in the coat stretched out her other hand and another dagger, identical save for being white instead of black, appeared. She hurled it forward, at the hero this time, and flew fast and unerringly straight right for her. The cyborg barely even missed a step as she dipped and let it fly over her, but an impact had not been the aim of the throw. The car, with the black dagger still embedded in it, began to slide across the ground, following the path the white dagger had taken and rapidly picking up speed. It began tumbling, as if free-falling, a hulking mass of metal bearing straight down on the half-human hero.

Interesting, the man thought idly. There wasn’t much emotion behind it, merely mild fascination, as if he had just seen, perhaps, a slightly unconventional fashion choice. Was it primarily a projection power, with the alteration being its Distinct, or was it a hobbled alteration power, with a… he tapped his pen on the page for a second as he thought. Most likely an animation effect for the visuals, he decided. He was leaning towards primarily projection, but one had to be thorough.

With too much speed to successfully dodge something as large as the sedan, it looked for a second as if the woman in the coat would be victorious. But the hero wasn’t going down that easily. Not even bothering to slow down, she leapt forward into the air, twisting and spinning into a ferocious downwards kick. As she did so, a curved arc of hazy heat appeared around her foot, and sliced through the thick metal of the car's chassis like it was butter. Both halves crashed to the ground behind her as she landed, her feet now hot enough to begin melting the tarmac and set her pants on fire. Unfazed by this, she barely took a second after landing before charging forward again. Some of the crowd started applauding, the idiots.

That was truly interesting. He'd assumed that the woman was a Forge and had constructed her arms, and apparently legs, and had thus dismissed her as unimportant. But if she could generate that amount of heat, there was no way that she was the product of only one power. The power source and the limbs themselves couldn’t have been made by the same Forge: an A-Class couldn’t make a power source strong enough to support the limbs as well as that level of heat, and a B-Class couldn’t build artificial limbs of that quality. Or, he supposed, the A-Class could have built the limbs and had a B-Class build the flamethrowers, or the woman herself might be a heat animator, and the limbs merely provided a channel for that power. Regardless, there was no putting it off.

As the two metahumans continued to duke it out on street level, the man in the white tie sighed, removed his glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket, and closed his eyes. He disliked doing this, as it always gave him a splitting headache and he’d generally gotten good enough to go without it, but sometimes, one has to take the plunge. When he opened them, the world was overlaid with glowing colors. They covered everything, bright and dim, shiny and dull, often overlapping in multiple layers. The layers didn’t mesh together; he could focus on different ones and leave the others to fade into the background. In the crowd in front of him, he could see the heat they emanated, the pulses of bioelectricity in their brains and nervous systems, the kinetic energy as they fidgeted and moved to get better looks. He could see their potential energy, the sounds vibrating out from their mouths and noises and even their hearts and blood, the blankets of the fundamental forces that permeated everything, and, most importantly, he could see the traces of UM radiation that showed who had come into contact with metahumans and their powers. It was like looking at a painting- no, like multiple paintings, all somehow occupying the same point in space without touching one another. He allowed himself a moment to appreciate it, before turning to the matter at hand.

If the crowd was a fine painting to his enhanced vision, then the scene on the street was a kindergartener's tantrum in the arts & crafts room. Smears and blotches of intense heat were scattered liberally around the impromptu battlefield, and as he looked, the hero created another one, a crescent arc that narrowly missed the rapidly-retreating villain. For her part, streaks of altered gravity lay across the street like a stick pulled through treacle, all going the same direction. The cerulean glow around her hands matched the tint of the gravity alterations, and also the golden well of UM that sat in her core. The radiation denoted her as a metahuman, as if that wasn’t already obvious, but the cerulean indicated that her power was primarily a projection one, with hints of alteration’s green discoloring the blue. She created another black dagger, and he saw the link form between it and its white counterpart at the opposite end of the street, albeit still hazy and disparate. It launched forward, and actually managed to pin the hero on the arm, and as soon as it did, that connection immediately snapped into focus, and gravity began pulling her backwards towards the office building that was now ‘below’ her. She flared her thrusters again, holding herself in place, and pulled the dagger out, ending the effect. She tried to throw it back at its creator, but she waved a hand, and it disappeared before even getting close.

So his initial hypothesis had been correct; she was a fairly standard projection-type, nothing worth further investigation. The satisfaction of being right clashed against the disappointment of not finding a new case to study, so he instead chose to ignore both and focus on the other woman. She too had a glowing well of UM sitting within her, but hers was untainted by any other colors. Instead, her head glowed a subdued silver, the sign of an A-Class Forge. Her mechanical parts, which his vision revealed also included a significant section of her torso, bore the same glow, albeit far less pronounced, and slight strands hung between them and her brain. High in her chest, just below the heart, a third glow sat, bearing a mix of green for alteration, yellow for animation, and a dull gray string that led off into the distance. The latter of these would be the link to the second Forge who had constructed it, and judging by the faintness of the link, they were far away indeed. Sadly, that meant that the least interesting of his theories was true. Yes, there were interesting and unexpected interactions between the two types of Forges, but those were fairly well-documented already. He sighed in disappointment. Another wasted lead.

The hero had stopped going for direct attacks, and instead was now superheating the tarmac around her opponent, trying to box her in. For her part, the villain had given up on targeted strikes, and was instead flinging black daggers around wildly, creating a veritable waterfall of debris to contend with. Shutting off his vision, and wincing as the beginnings of the headache immediately began to appear, he decided that he might as well stick around for the conclusion.

At that moment, though, his phone buzzed. He frowned at the device on the table in front of him. He wasn’t fond of the device, and his colleagues knew it, so if something had come through, it was probably worth his time. He picked it up and quickly scanned the message. “NC was a bust,” it read, “but they did make it out of the school. Hornet’s nest has been kicked, and the Tower is buzzing. Advise?”

If this aspect of his job was his favorite, then managing patsies was its direct opposite. But one didn’t get to choose in this line of work, so he stood and left a few nearly folded bills on the table, before concentrating and fading away into nothing.

It was time to pay that irritating teleporter and her colleagues another visit. 

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Greys 10-V

What It Isn’t For

The concrete around their feet was twisted somehow, a distorted ring of material that didn’t quite track with that around it. With the way the air swirled in a similar pattern, I'd guess at it being some kind of space-warping effect; teleportation, essentially, but not nearly as clean or easy as someone like Green Cloak's. Given that it seemed to take a few seconds to work, it was probably more for long-distance transport of multiple people than for combat or rapid transversal. Sabi would probably know where Instance had copied that from, but that didn’t seem very relevant right now.

The two heroes obviously weren’t surprised to have company; in fact, they seemed to be expecting it. There was no surprise in Stump's posture as he looked at me and Kai, and Instance's face stayed calm and relaxed as he casually stepped back into a position where he could see the both of us. He seemed content to let his partner handle this situation, as he crossed his arms and leant back against another ventilation block.

Stump's face was an unmoving mask with empty pits instead of eyes, but I could still see the gears turning in his head. He glanced at the damaged building across the street, then back at me, then at Kai, who was frozen rigid, hands clenched tightly by her sides. “Was this you?” he asked in his hollow voice. Unlike back in the cafeteria, I was close enough, and the background noise was quiet enough, that I could actually hear hints of a second, normal voice underneath it. Far from reassuring me that Stump was still a person, it just made him sound even creepier.

Okay, Hannah, play it cool.  “I-in my defense, he started it.” Okay, so the stammer isn’t great, but otherwise that was a pretty cool line.

“Who are you even trying to impress?” I asked myself.

Ah- …hmmm.

“Yeah. Maybe focus on getting out of here, not sounding cool for the pretty girl.”

Thankfully, I was having a real conversation that I could engage in rather than having to continue with that line of thought. “‘He’ being Carnage?” Instance asked. His voice, by contrast, was almost suspiciously nondescript. He sounded like… like unflavored porridge, like bottled water, like daytime television.

“If that's the name of the Disciple with the stretchy arms, then yes, Carnage.” What a silly name. Then again, given his evident level of mental stability, I doubt he picked it himself. It might be more of a descriptor than anything, in which case I could see the appropriateness.

“Impressive,” he said, and it actually sounded genuine. “How’d you do that?”

“Oh, well, we were up a few floors, so I just grabbed him, went really heavy and dropped us to ground level.”

“Oh, so you’re a density manipulator?”

“Uh, sort of? I guess? It’s a bit hard to explain.”

“Well, that’s good,” Stump interrupted, “because we don’t actually want you to. Who even are you, anyway?”

Instance tilted his head at the other hero, expression imperceptible. I opened my mouth, paused, practiced it in my head a few times, discarded that idea, tried another one, discarded that one too, then settled on something. “No-one important.”

“Ugh,” Stump groaned, resting one hand on his forehead. “You think you sound cool, don’t you? You think this is all a big game? You're having fun?

“Um, excuse me?” Kai had raised her hand tentatively, like she was in a class. “Um, I don’t know exactly what's going on, or who you people are, so, uh, can I go?” That's odd; she seemed to know who the heroes were earlier in the conversation.

Stump spun on her. He seemed… a lot more jerk-y than back in the cafeteria. He had been showboating pretty hard then, though. “Same question: who are you?”

She laughed awkwardly, rubbing the back of her neck. “Same answer, but not… was that sarcastic?” That last part was directed at me.

I waggled my hand noncommittally in response. “More… slightly self-effacing and wry? I think?”

“Oh my god, shut up,” Stump muttered.

“…right: but not what she said,” Kai continued. “I was just walking by, when out of nowhere comes this guy, foaming at the mouth and screaming. Carnage, you said?” Instance nodded. “Yeah, Carnage. He was, you know, f***ing crazy, and just throwing out some of the foulest language I’ve ever heard. He came after me, but… she saved me.”

The two heroes turned back to look at me, Instance appearing more thoughtful, Stump… disappointed, almost? Maybe I was reading that wrong. “Of course she did,” he practically hissed.

“Yeah,” Instance said at Kai, “you can go. Have a nice day.” He really did seem to mean it, too. He honestly seemed pretty nice.

She quickly scuttled away, disappearing through the doorway. She’d lied her way out of that pretty effectively, which I would not have called. Hopefully, she was being honest when she said she’d keep an ear to the ground for me, but right now, more pressing concerns were at hand.

“So you’re on the side of the angels, then?” Instance asked wryly. “That doesn’t quite gel with the report that Fog filed. According to the rant she subjected us all to last night, you’re a villain who was assaulting a civilian.”

I spluttered in indignation. “I-what? No, no, no, that nis ot- argh, is not what happened! That man was a Disciple, and I stopped him from assaulting a woman! That teammate of yours is a horrid witch, and she attacked me first. I didn’t even try and hit her, that was-” I caught myself just too late.

“Oh yeah, the Outliers. Associating with a known vigilante group doesn’t help your side of the story much either,” he chuckled. “I am inclined to believe you, though; I doubt that girl was an actor paid to put on a show for our benefit, although stranger things have happened. Plus, I very much doubt you knew we were coming, considering Stump dragged me out here with about five minute's warning.” The hero in question made a noncommittal noise. “And yes, Fog can be… somewhat irritating. But if you genuinely are trying to be a hero, why are you doing it like this?”

I shifted on my ledge a little awkwardly. “Don’t take this the wrong way, because you seem pretty nice, but the more I see about the Tower, the more it rubs me the wrong way. Just… lots of little things, I guess. Plus, if you want something done right…” I gave a weak grin.

He laughed. “I guess I can understand that much. For what it's worth, I think I can say you haven’t seen our better side.”

“Perhaps,” I admitted.

“But enough about us,” he said with a wink. “Can I ask why you came here?”

“K- Instance. Enough.” Stump was apparently taking the role of bad cop in this situation. “Let's just take her in, and get on with this.”

Instance sighed, turning slightly to look at him. “You haven’t even told me what ‘this' is. You just want me for my body.” He said that part in the manner of an old joke, and unsurprisingly, Stump ignored it. “You're being oddly insistent about this.”

“Because she is committing a crime! Why aren’t you being insistent about it?”

“Am I, though?” I said as a thought struck me. “What have I actually done? Wear a costume? Perform a citizen’s arrest?”

“Not registering yourself with the DoM,” he shot back. “And there have been addendum to the citizen’s arrest laws for decades to prevent this exact situation.”

“So I get arrested for saving a girl's life? What kind of-” Something occurred to me, and I cut myself off. “Hold on. If Fog filed a report about me, and ranted at all of you about me, how come you,” I pointed at Stump, “didn’t know who I was?”

He froze. “W-well-”

Before he could continue, there was a high-pitched beep, and the muffled sound of a voice, the words imperceptible. Stump tilted his head to the side for a moment, then spun on the other hero, our argument apparently forgotten. “Instance, we need to go, now. Please tell me you have another teleport.”

“I do,” he confirmed. “What’s happening?”

The wooden hero rattled off an address as he grabbed Instance’s arm. “Outliers and those assholes from the school, in the same place.” My head snapped up at that, but they didn’t seem to notice. “Come on, I’m not missing this.”

He stared at him for a second, then shrugged nonchalantly. “Sure, okay.” He began to glow slightly, and arcs of electricity snapped between them and the ground around them, quickly growing in size and regularity.

“You,” Stump pointed at me. “We’re not done.”

I couldn’t say what exactly inspired such a stupid decision. I think it was that I had just been given a shortcut exactly to the people I was looking for, and I didn’t fancy going the long way round. “No, we’re not,” I agreed. Then, as the arcs approached a peak, and the air began crackling, I launched myself forward across the ground towards them in an awkward roll. I grabbed onto Stump's leg just as the taste of ozone appeared in the back of my mouth. There was a loud snap, and all three of us disappeared.

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Greys 10-Vignette


You Didn’t Even Have Fun

Two and a half years ago, or thereabouts

In an alley somewhere between Chinatown and Gastown, night painted the brick and concrete walls purple and black and turned dumpsters into hunks of looming darkness. Lissette DuPont knew already that she wouldn't find any escape route out of there--every window and doorway would be barred or gated, locked tight. Vancouver was for the most part a safe city, but even a safe city has its darker corners.

"And this entire neighborhood has turned into one, eh?"

Talking to herself was probably a not-so-bright idea. Lis hurriedly pressed herself and the weapons duffle she carried against the side of a dumpster. The overwhelming stink of garbage underscored with urine tried to convince her to move along, but she made herself sit tight and listen.

Lis heard nothing. That was good. This particular dark corner could turn out to be a safe haven, then. She poked her head out and looked side to side to check the length of the alley. Her new sniper helm featured a drop-down visor that was not only highly damage resistant but also sported built-in night vision. It was also sleek and black and shiny and oh so pretty. The rest of her armor might still be a work in progress, but the helm made up for it. When people heard the name Ricochet, they were going to think of that helm. It was perfect.

In the meantime, the night vision visor was as good for making sure she was in the clear as it was for helping her get a bead on the bad guys to begin with. The alley was empty. She hoped it would stay that way, at least long enough for her to regroup.

Lis dropped the weapons duffle by her feet, flipped up the night vision visor, and took a second to give the Barrett a quick once-over. She could make excellent use of any weapon anyone handed to her, but the sniper rifle was far and away her favorite--a beautiful weapon and one she intended to keep that way.

When Lis looked up again, two figures blocked her way. Lis's hand flew to the pistol on her hip, and in less than a heartbeat she had it trained on them. Where the heck had they come from? They hadn't made a sound.

With the night vision visor flipped up she couldn't make out any details, but neither of them looked quite… right. They were man-shaped, but with bulges and bristles in wrong places. Their faces gave the impression of too much of… something. Hair? Possibly teeth? Also weird--judging by their silhouettes, both were wearing big, fancy hats. Lis wished desperately for her visor so she could get a better look at the two, but with the rifle still in one hand and the pistol in the other, she'd need a third hand if she wanted the visor down.

The figures raised their hands, and Lis's sense of something not quite right increased. Gloves with blades on the fingertips, maybe? If the malformed hands were part of paranormal powers, then they both had them, and that just didn't seem right.

"Hy tink dere misunderstanding." The voice was like a handful of gravel flung against a cement wall. It did not come from the two figures in front of Lis, though. It came from the shadows to Lis's left. "Hyu don't really vant to hurt de teammates. Dey best vun's me got."

So, three of them. Brutal odds. Lis risked a quick glance to her left. The third man no more clearly visible than the others, but he seemed to be of similar height and weird build. This one was also wearing a hat--a ratty-looking beanie, judging by its shape.

"Ve only vuns hyu got." The responder spoke in the same rough voice and guttural accent.

"Shtill! De important point iz, ve de good guyz."

Lis shifted her stance so she could keep a better eye on all three of them at once. She took a few seconds to sift through their heavy accents--definitely not Canadian--and translate what they were saying.

"Good guys. Really. Why should I believe hyu--I mean, you?"

"Becuz ve iz totally trustvorthy?" One of the original two answered.

As Lis tried to decide if he was smarting off or just stupid, she caught a movement at the periphery of her vision. She edged to her right and swung the pistol toward the third figure. The third figure froze where he stood. Lis was pretty sure she'd just busted him in the act of reaching for the weapons duffle at her feet.

"I think hyu need to go stand vit your friends," Lis said. "You. Stand WITH your friends."

"Ve eez just lookin' for de fight!" Again, one of the first two spoke. The third shuffled his feet, but didn't actually move any closer to the other two.

"Not de reassurance I was… THE reassurance I was looking for. I said move over vit de other two!"

"Not fightin' hyu! Ve hearink all de lovely fight zounds. Come to help hyu kick dey azzez!"

Lis found she had little trouble understanding, despite the accent. The words and cadence were almost mesmerizing.

Was that what they were up to? Their powers had something to do with mesmerism?

"Dat kerfuffle was--Dem it! I mean, damn it! That kerfuffle was too big for me to handle. You tink you can do better, den you… I said back off!" Lis waved her pistol at the third figure as it again edged toward her. "Go und schtand over dere! Argh! Go and stand over there!"

"Zounds like our kind ov fight. Hyu show us?"

"I ain't going nowhere vit the lot of you." Lis's voice rose, wavering, as she struggled to regain control of the runaway accent.

The weight of the duffle against her leg shifted. Lis swung the pistol toward the third figure, finger tightening on the trigger.

The duffle's fabric flew up into her face. The clatter of a dozen weapons hitting pavement rang in her ears. Lis fired the pistol, taking a blind shot, but heard no cry of pain.

"Ho, yez! Letz go, boyz!"

To the soundtrack of cackling laughter and running feet, Lis clawed at the fabric covering her face. By the time she got it off, the alley was once again as empty as it was dark.

"Dem it. I mean, damn it!"

On the bright side, when she scowled at the mess of weaponry at her feet and did a quick inventory, she discovered nothing was missing. Not a single knife, not even an arrow. Lis scratched at her head.

"What de heck? What THE heck." Augh, she didn't even sound Canadian anymore. Stupid empathetic accent. Or mesmerism. Or whatever that had been. She reached up to lower her visor, so she could recount weaponry as she reloaded the duffle.

The visor wasn't there. Lis slapped her hands onto the top of her head, but her fingers found rough fabric instead of sleek helm. She dragged the fabric off her head and looked at the ratty beanie in her hands.

The helm. That's what they'd been after all along. Lis sighed.

“At least de accent vill fade.”

-----

April Fools! 

The sadly non-canon interlude you’ve just read is part of the Serial Fiction April Fool’s Day Swap, 2016 Edition. This particular gag post you’ve just read was written by L.E.Erickson, who normally writes the story Graves, found here.

knifleman, who normally writes this story, today has created their own piece of tomfoolery for Emma Mohr’s Sin Eater, found here.

For a full list of all April Fool’s Swappers and their stories, as well as dozens of other serial novels that will tickle your fancy, check out WebFictionGuide.

Thanks for reading and remember, the best way to support your favorite serial novelist is to tell all your friends about them.