Stand 23-VII | Anniversary Week #1

Foolish And Forgetful.

Naomi screamed. I screamed.

“We all screamed for ice cream.”

We might die.

“The point still stands.”

The street below us was coming up awfully fast. There was a crowd gathered a bit further down the street, cordoned off by police cars with sirens blaring. A line of officers stood in front of the cars, guns drawn, pointing upwards at the platform. A few of them noticed me, turning the barrels on me as we arced through the air, but I had more pressing concerns.

I’d thrown us as much outwards as down, completely unintentionally. The original ‘plan’ (read: instinct/snap judgement), was to just float down, but I hadn’t really thought about it until then. Naomi meant that it wasn’t going work; at best I’d be able to cushion her landing with my body, but that still had a pretty high chance of injuring one or both of us.

And… I didn’t have any other ideas. I hadn’t been working on logic when I’d jumped; I just wanted to get out. And now I might have gotten us both killed because of it.

The ground was coming up fast, now. It looked very… solid. So incredibly solid. Because of the initial trajectory, though, we were also getting pretty close to the building across the street. In fact, it was looking like we were going to hit it before-

I shifted so I was holding Naomi away from the wall, tucking her closer as she clung to my torso, and raised my other arm.

Please work, please work, please work, please work. As soon as this was over, I swore, I was going to test out every single dumb thing I could possibly do with these powers, just so I wouldn’t have to keep finding out when my life was on the line.

That is, if I made it that far.

My hand hit the wall first, and I immediately dug my hand into the concrete. To my relief, although it didn’t tear through as easily as it had when I hadn’t had a hole in my guts, it still tore through it pretty easily. Still hurt, though, jerking my shoulder up in a spike of pain that years of gymnastics experienced told me it was dislocated. My lower body immediately swung inwards, and I kicked out a foot and stuck it into the wall in the same way.

The wall wasn’t offering much resistance, but that wasn’t the same as no resistance, and we began to slow down. Not quick enough, though; the ground was still coming up at an alarming pace. I gritted my teeth and stuck my other foot in too, trying not to fall backwards. If only I’d had both hands, but Naomi was still occupying one of them.

Just before the bottom, I kicked my legs out to absorb the landing. We hit the ground at what was definitely an uncomfortable speed, but was far better than pancake speed. My injured ankle immediately collapsed out from underneath me, of course, and I fell over, thankfully on the opposite side to Naomi. She’d stopped screaming, but her grip was still iron-tight.

My arm flopped limply to the ground next to me. Yep, I thought, tears welling in my eyes, that’s definitely dislocated. With my non-useless arm, I patted Naomi on the head. “Hey, honey. Are you okay?”

“...yes,” came her tiny voice after a second. She didn’t let go of me, though, and she was still pinning my arm underneath her.

“Great,” I said, staring up at the building, and the long gouges I’d left in the side. “If you could just get up, that would be great? I need that arm. For arm things.”

I felt her shake her head, and clutch tighter.

“Naomi, it’s okay. We’re safe now. We can go find your parents. It’ll all be okay, but first I really need that arm.

I’m… not good with kids.

Slowly, she loosened her arms, and sat up. I shook out the pins-and-needles from the newly-freed limb, and used it to do the same. “Thanks,” I said, getting to my feet, somewhat awkwardly. Now there were two limbs that were effectively useless. I offered Naomi a hand up, and hesitantly, she took it, and kept on holding it after she stood.

We turned to find the line of police officers… well, they weren’t pointing their guns at me, but they also weren’t not doing that. It was sort of… implied.

Which didn’t make it any less scary.

“Identify yourself!” someone boomed out over a megaphone. I squinted, but couldn’t make out any features over the light from the cars backlighting them. I was just glad they hadn’t asked me to raise my hands, because I physically could not do that.

I licked my lips and went to speak, but the words caught in my throat. I coughed, cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m… with the Tower,” I called out, as loud as I could. “It’s complicated.”

“Identify yourself!” they repeated.

“It’s complicated!” I repeated back. Naomi squeezed my hand, surprisingly hard for someone so young. “Look, I have a kid here. Did anyone report missing a Naom-”

I was cut off before I could continue by a loud scream from the crowd. Some of the officers spun around, but the source quickly made itself clear as a young man pushed her way to the front of the crowd.

“Naomi!” he cried out, dashing past the police officers before they could react. He sprinted straight up to us, and as He drew closer I could see that Naomi was his spitting image. Brother and sister, if I had to guess. He looked to young to be her dad, but you never knew.

The man dropped to his knees and swept Naomi up into a hug, squeezing her tightly and sobbing. I sort of just stood there awkwardly. What do you even do in a situation like that?

After what felt like an uncomfortable eternity, he stood up, bringing Naomi with him, and looked at me, tears still in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said croakily. “Thank you.”

Words weren’t working, so I just awkwardly nodded.

Their reunion seemed to have broken the tension; the police had lowered their guns, and I let out a breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding. Now that my hand was free, I clutched my dislocated shoulder with it, trying to massage it gently.

One of the police officers was walking towards us. Judging from the megaphone in her hand, and her fancy hat, she was the person in charge. “Sir,” she said to Naomi’s brother. “You should get back beyond the cordon.”

“Y-yes,” he said hastily, turning to go. “Thank you,” he added again to me.

I managed to speak this time. “N-no problem.”

“No problem? Really?”

“So you’re with the Tower, then?” the officer asked. “I don’t recognize you.”

“It’s… um, a new thing,” I replied tiredly. “Maybe temporary, I dunno.”

“Mm-hmm.” She didn’t seem particularly convinced, but she also didn’t try and arrest me. “And is there anyone from the Tower with you who can confirm this?”

“No, they’re all…” I trailed off as I realised how it sounded. “They all got… incapacitated. By… that.” I pointed up at the train station above.

“And you came out unscathed,” she glanced at the gaping hole in my torso, “well, still standing, when the professional heroes didn’t.”

“L-luck. And I’m pretty tough.” There was a loud boom from above, and both our heads snapped up to look at the station again. “Look, uh, ma’am, t-there isn’t time for this. There’s something up there, and it’s probably going to bring the station down. Y-you need to get everyone out of here.”

“Don’t tell me what-” another boom, this one sending a cloud of dust raining down. She grimaced, and turned and began marching back towards the crowd. “Alright, everyone!” she yelled through her megaphone, “I’m going to need everyone to turn around and go home. Nothing to see-”

With a roar, and a chorus of screams from the crowd, Paladin leaped over the edge of the platform and plummeted towards the ground.

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Stand 23-VI

Care So Much.

I almost thought I'd imagined it. Surely, I'd imagined it. There couldn't actually-

“You understand we absolutely cannot take that risk, right?”

No crap.

“On the plus side, we now have something to distract you yet again from having to face hard reality.”

Shut. Up.

If the scream had been real, Paladin didn't seem to have heard it. She charged at me again, throwing herself off the edge of the platform towards where I stood. I moved to throw myself out of the way, but my weight was off, and instead of dodging, I tripped over my own feet and tumbled roughly. I still managed to move mostly out of the way, but the edge of my foot got clipped by the passing rush, and that, uh.

Hurt.

It didn’t go smokey like the other injuries. It felt exactly like something had hit my very real foot, very very hard. Panicked and not thinking properly, I tried to get back onto my feet, to move away, putting my weight on it, which immediately made it spike with pain and collapse out from under me.

Not now, not now. Biting the inside of my cheek to fight back the pain, I stood again, distributing my weight so I actually could support myself.
Paladin was turning around behind me, somewhat awkwardly given the size of the tracks. She seemed to be heavily focused on me, now. Before she'd constantly tried to run off, but now she kept coming for me, again and again and again. I guess I'd pissed her off.

I began hobbling towards the platform, forcing myself not to look back at the thrashing noises from behind me. I could go intangible and not worry about being hit, but I was worried she'd just… lose interest? Like a cat; if you keep dangling the string and pulling it away, they'll keep on going for it, but if you just hold it out of reach they'll lose interest. Also, ghosting right now seemed to be robbing me of some of my mass. I guess the damage meant that when I let the mass go, I couldn’t get it all back. It might’ve just been a one-time thing, but I wasn’t sure I could take that risk.

I reached the edge of the platform, and hauled myself up just as Paladin slammed into the wall below me. The ground shook precariously, and I nearly lost my balance before recovering. The shaking only lasted a second, but it was immediately followed by the painfully loud groan of metal under stress.

Oh, that’s not a good sound. Paladin was bull-in-a-china-shop-ing her way around the place, and although everything had held so far, we were still suspended something like five stories off the ground, and supports could only do so much. I picked up the pace, turning the hobbling into an awkward skip-jump.

The scream had happened while Paladin was around the middle of the platform, where a supporting beam had collapsed, crushing a few vending machines and a ticket booth. I managed to make it halfway across the platform before Paladin clambered up behind me.

I spun around awkwardly, preparing to move again as she charged.

Wait, the rubble! If I dodged, she'd charge straight through the pile that the scream had come from. If someone was trapped in there when Paladin hit it…

I abandoned my preparations, and squared up.

This was going to hurt.

I skidded backwards across the ground as Paladin slammed into me, feet carving trenches out of the ground. My arms burned, the bones flaring with white-hot pain like I’d just tried to punch a solid brick wall, legs feeling like they were going to compact to half their size. I screamed, throat raw, but I didn’t fall, and slowly we ground to a halt, a few feet in front of the rubble.

Panting heavily, vision wavering, I looked up to find Paladin’s head inches from mine. Half of a tooth, attached to a bloody nub of flesh, hung in the golden light in front of me, but I was too tired to recoil in disgust. My hands were both still occupied holding her in place, so I did the only thing I could and smashed my head into hers, as hard as I could.

We both went reeling away, both of us screaming. My head spun, ringing with pain, and I leant against a large piece of rubble to steady myself.

Oh god, I think I’m going to be sick.

“You’d just vomit smoke at this point.”

Honestly, that sounds better. I took a deep breath, and managed to look up with only a minimal amount of nausea. Paladin was still reeling, but if I’d shaken it off that quickly, she probably would too, and I still needed time-

I looked down at where my hand was resting.

Yeah, that’ll do.

Paladin finally managed to get her feet back under her, a second before the chunk of rubble I threw at her smashed into her and sent her flying backwards. That should buy me a little bit of time.

I quickly surveyed the rubble, looking for- there! A sort of alcove had formed, where a few large pieces were propped up against each other. I rushed over, and bent down to look inside.

Curled up at the back was a small girl, in a large puffy jacket, mittens and a beanie. Her eyes were full of tears, and as she saw me, they widened, and a muffled scream forced its way out through the hands covering her mouth.

“Hey, hey,” I said softly, unsure. “It’s gonna be… okay?”

“Don’t make it a question!”

Look, I’m not good at this, okay? The kid just kept on crying, sniffling into her hands. She didn’t seem to be hurt, or trapped, but it wasn’t hard to imagine how terrifying all this would’ve been.

“Hey,” I repeated, a little more confidently. “It’s alright. I’m not gonna hurt you, okay?” On impulse, I pulled up my goggles. “My name’s Wisp. What’s yours?”

“...Naomi,” she whispered at last. She did seem a little less scared now.

“Naomi, huh? That’s a cute name.” I glanced over my shoulder. Paladin was getting back. “Naomi, I know it’s scary, but I’m gonna get you out of here, okay? I just need you to come out.”

She sniffled. “...a-are you… a-are you a hero?”

Sure, why not. “Yep,” I said, trying to sound confident. “It’s okay, Naomi. We’ll get you back to your parents in no time.”

Slowly, hesitantly, she began to crawl out of the space.

“That’s it,” I said encouragingly, “that’s the spirit.” Another glance over my shoulder showed Paladin getting ready to charge us. “If you could go just a little bit faster, though, that’d be-”

Paladin roared and lowered her head, and Naomi gave a start.

“Screw it.” She was close enough now that I could grab her and pull her out, as I slid my goggles back down over my eyes. “Sorry!” I said as I tucked her into the crock of my arm. “But we’re a bit short on-”

The entire station lurched alarmingly, nearly tripping me up. Naomi screamed, and honestly I could empathise.

Didn’t faze Paladin, though. I glanced desperately around, but I couldn’t see any stairs that weren’t blocked off by rubble.

Rock and a hard place.

“Naomi,” I said as I began to back up, “I need you to hold on, okay? Can you do that?”

Slowly, she nodded.

“Great,” I said. I gave what I really hoped was a confident smile, and jumped over the edge of the platform.

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Second Anniversary

I've been so swamped these last few weeks that I almost forgot: next Wednesday, the 30th of May is Outliers' second anniversary.

Two years.

Holy shit.

Considering where we are in the story, I'm not going to bother setting up a poll for it like last year. Instead, the bonus update will just be an additional story update. So there will be an update on Thursday, and then three next week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

See you then!

Stand 23-V

What We Truly Are.

I coughed, deep and painful and wracking. Instead of blood, though, a spurt of smoke shot out of my mouth, curling upwards and dissipating into the air. I was coming apart, I could feel it. Like my skin was disintegrating away. It was kind of secondary, though, to the sensation of being gored through the torso.

The weirdest part was that it didn't hurt. Not exactly. Not in the way regular injuries did, at least. The horn had pretty much gone straight through my abdomen, the section that was already missing. These smoke-bodies had already proven themselves fairly adept at simulating real pain, but being damaged slash half-functioning like that section was seemed to have broken that particular function. So instead of feeling like I had a horn through my gut, it felt like I had a horn through my soul.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

“Well, maybe this will make those idiots run away.”

I wasn’t dead, and I could still move. If I was thinking clearly, I might’ve done something smarter. But, I was still hyperfocused on being stabbed, so I didn’t do that and did something dumb instead.

I planted both my feet on Paladin’s shoulders, her roar cutting off with surprise. I grabbed the spike with both hands, bracing myself, and snap it off.

The good news, was that it worked.

The bad news, was that there was nothing holding me up now.

The worse news was the horn was still speared through me.

Paladin reared back with a scream as I fell. The horn hadn’t come off neat; it had fractured like crystal, leaving a jagged stump on top of her head. I hit the ground almost directly on the spike, sending another spike of pain through my soul, and a much more real one through my chest as the spike shifted into a part of me that hadn’t been damaged yet.

Now I coughed blood, a thin spray shooting upwards and mixing with smoke that was also expelled. Oh god, oh god, oh god, it hurts, it hurts-

“Woman up, Hannah. Push through it. It isn’t real, remember? This isn’t you. You’re fine. If getting your guts clawed off didn’t stop you, this won’t either. It isn’t real.

It isn’t real. It isn’t real. Slowly, clenching my jaw, I grabbed the spike and pulled it out. There was a little bit of resistance at first, it had stuck into the ground below me, but then it was out, with only a little bit of blood smeared across its surface. Which also hurt, needless to say, but it was better than having it in my body.

With that out of the way, I was able to get back onto my feet. I’d landed on the edge of the platform, where I’d made a small crater in the concrete. When I had a quick look around, it seemed like the rest of the people had fled, thank goodness. The train sat on its track, unmoving; apparently, whatever kind of safety systems it had had finally kicked in and shut it down.

Paladin also stood on the tracks, pawing at her head with one limb. It wasn’t bleeding, no flesh had been caught in it, but it was… oozing. I checked the horn, which I was still holding in one hand, and found that it too was dripping slightly, some kind of almost ichor-like golden liquid that evaporated away before it hit the ground.

Gross.

I couldn’t spend the time to try and figure out why a hard-light projection would liquify. Paladin had apparently accepted the loss of her horn, and began charging at me again. The tracks weren’t exactly wide, though, so she didn’t have much room to build up speed. It also meant I didn’t have much time to react.
I desperately threw myself to the side as she crashed into the platform, tearing straight through the concrete. She almost half-buried herself in it, and for a brief, hope-filled second I thought she’d managed to trap herself. Then her awkwardly-sized wings slapped against the ground, leveraging her out. So much for that.

“Okay, stop and think.” I threw myself into the air as she charged me again, arcing over her head and landing behind her. “Well, don’t stop, but, you know. For the first time, we’re not actually trying to prevent her from breaking something, or going somewhere.”

What’s your point?

“Well…” I picked up a piece of rubble and threw it at Paladin. It shattered harmlessly off her side, but it distracted her for long enough that I could get out of the way. “What are we going to do?”

What do you mean? We’re going to… oh.

“Yeah.” Paladin sideswiped a supporting pillar, causing the whole structure to tremble dangerously. “Right now, we’re sort of on a ‘dodge her to death’ plan, which isn’t going to work. Our options are either try and contain her, which has gone poorly so far because she keeps growing bigger. Or…”

...yeah. We can’t… I mean, she’s…

It’s not right.

“Right is kind of not the highest priority right now?” I picked up a vending machine with the intent of throwing it at her again. “Also, that’s not going to do anything.”

It’ll distract her. She was moving faster than I’d thought, though, and even though she turned away to avoid it smashing into her face, her momentum carried her straight towards me anyway. I went light and leaped out of the way, but the very edge of my foot caught on something and sent me into a spin.

I hit the ground and bounced a few times before coming to a stop, groaning. Thankfully, though, Paladin had buried herself in the remains of the wall, so I had a few moments respite.

As I sat up, I noticed that my wound seemed to be producing more smoke than before.

Like, a lot more.

I’d actually left a trail through the air, a few arcs of wispy lavender that were quickly fading away. They were thick, though, and the hole in my torso was still spewing it out like a smoke machine.

Oh, that’s not good. Experimentally, I went solid again, and while I could still do it, it definitely felt… less. Just sort of less.
“Okay, and there’s also that, now. So we’re effectively on the clock. We have to figure out something before we lose this body completely, and unless you’ve come up with any brilliant ideas in the last sixty seconds…”

We’ll delay, I decided. Keep on dodging, keep her here, wait for Thrust and the others to catch up.

“That’s a dodge and you know it! We need to-”

What?! We need to what?!

“...stop her.”

Cut out the euphemisms! Just say it!

“We need to kill her! There, are you happy?! We need to kill her, before she kills someone else!”

With a roar, Paladin extracted herself from the rubble, sending a spray outwards. I turned to face her, raising my fists.

I… don’t think I can.

“Well, too bad. She’s-”

Paladin roared again as she stretched her wings, tearing through a support structure, sending rubble raining down. The noise was cacophonous, but one sound still cut clear through it.

A strained, high-pitched scream.

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Stand 23-IV

Far More Than Our Abilities.

I did something stupid.

“Hey, let’s review. What was the last non-stupid thing we did?”

Paladin had landed almost at the complete end of the tracks, just before the station. The people around me were just beginning to notice, pointing and yelling or screaming. Can I jump out the front, stop the train?

“Are you kidding me? At this speed, we’ll either tear completely through the train, or the tracks.”

At the speed we’re going…

The speed we’re going.

“Oh. Oh, this is a bad idea. A dumb, hard, bad idea.”

I jumped upwards and ghosted, floating up through the the angled front of the train. I lifted my legs up slightly, and went solid, and was instantly slammed against the glass as the wind caught me. I gritted my teeth, and slowly leveraged myself into a crouch. Up ahead, Paladin was reeling around, trying to get her footing on the too-small tracks. It was hard to tell for sure, but I was pretty sure she’d ‘grown’ again; the ratio of flesh to light was really small now, and there was a sharp-looking, horn-like protrusion on her head that I was sure hadn’t been there before. It had probably happened while she was in the air, and her wings couldn’t support the additional weight. Was she just going to keep on growing? Where was all the additional mass even coming from, anyway? And-

“Speeding train. Imminent disaster.”

I took a deep breath, went dense and leaped, pushing myself forward. As soon as my feet left the surface of the train, I immediately returned to normal weight, as the glass shattered behind me. With the momentum produced by the additional strength from being dense acting on a normal-mass body, plus the already-considerable momentum of the train, meant I shot down the section of track between me and Paladin in an instant. The wind was pulling the edges of my mouth, and a second later, it yanked my scarf away entirely. It wasn’t the real one, but I still felt a slight stab of loss.

Paladin was on her side, flailing one leg in the air, trying to get some purchase on the smooth surface of the tracks. Up close, she was definitely larger than she’d been before. I could barely even tell where her head was any more.

I didn’t get a better look at her, though, because the next second, I slammed into her, going approximately 150 kilometers an hour.

41 meters a second.

Bonkers fast.

I was glad no-one was around, because I was screaming my lungs out.

I went dense just before I hit, because I didn’t want to die. Considering that, and the speed, I was sort of expecting one of two things to happen. One, I hit her and she goes flying away, like one pool ball hitting another. Two, I just… tear straight through her. I’d been hoping for the former, obviously; not just because I’d rather go with the non-potentially-lethal option, but also because tearing through didn’t actually move her off the tracks. Which, you’ll recall, was the main reason I was doing this insane thing.

Instead of either of those, though, it was more like… well, it was more like one person tackling another. It wasn’t so much me hitting her as it was me taking her along for the ride. Based on the way she’d responded to hits from Awestruck before, it was possible that she had something like impact redistribution. I wasn’t thinking that at the time, of course. Mostly it was just screaming.

After a couple of rotations, the two of us separated, still in the air. Paladin crashed back into the tracks, skidding along them, while I was flung into the air, spinning head over heels. I was completely disoriented, and somewhat nauseated, but I managed to realise that I didn’t want to be dense when I hit the ground. Going light immediately slowed the spin, and after a couple more seconds of frantically waving my arms around, I leveled out, slowly floating to the apex of my arc.

We’d actually gone straight through the station while we tumbled. It was an open air one, with platforms on either side, which was why I hadn’t smashed through a roof on my way up. I could see crowds gathered at the far end of the platform, and beyond them, Paladin getting to her… feet (?), on the stretch of spare track that stretched a short ways beyond the platforms. I could also see the train pulling in, unharmed apart from the crumpled-in front section. I winced. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so… dramatic. Well, I hadn’t really expected anything, per say. I wasn’t really thinking about damages at the time. I think it’d be hard to say it was worse than what would’ve happened if I’d done nothing, though.

Paladin steadied herself, facing back towards the station, and roared, rearing her head back. I could see the people on the platform wince at the sound. The sensible ones, at least. Most of them were pointing phones or cameras at it. I’d be more annoyed, but I’d probably do the same thing. Still, all of Paladin’s behaviour so far had leaned more towards flight than fight, so-

She lowered her head, and charged down the track towards the station.

“Unless that actually hurt her, and now she’s aggravated.”

You are spectacularly unhelpful. I went dense, and dropped like a stone. I’d been directly above the middle of the station, and I angled myself forwards as I fell, trying to land as far past the platform as I could without overshooting Paladin. Blowing off maths class was suddenly seeming like more and more of a mistake.

I landed light, a little closer to the platform than I’d have liked. Amazingly, some people were still standing there, still filming. And as I landed, the cameras, and the attention, turned to me. I’d have been terrified, if I wasn’t already much more afraid of the giant monster bearing down on me.

“Run away!” I yelled at them. “What the heck is wrong with you?!”

“Who the h*ll are you?!” one of them yelled back.

My head jerked back and forth between the crowd and Paladin. She was getting very close now. “Why does that matter?! Who I am won’t change-” Too close. I spun my head back around, gritted my teeth, held up my arms for impact.

Paladin slammed into me, driving me backwards, and actually digging me into the ground slightly. She roared, continuing to push me backwards as I braced, arms either side of her head on what might generously be considered shoulders. I was digging a long trench in the tracks, but she was definitely slowing do-

Something hit me in the gut, and suddenly I was lifted into the air. The impact knocked the wind out of me, and I was disoriented enough that it took me a few seconds to look down and find Paladin’s horn stabbed straight through my torso.

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Stand 23-III

It Is The Unknown We Fear.

I couldn't let myself stop and think about what I was doing. If I did, I'd probably have a panic attack right there and mess it all up. So instead, I focused intently on the oncoming train, watching its rapid approach as I fell.

Within seconds, though, I realised that my initial plan wasn’t going to work. I’d planned to grab onto the top of the train, and hitch a ride that way, but the surface was smooth and unbroken. And at the speeds it was moving, I didn’t trust my ability to grab the edge of one of the carriages without a.) tearing straight through it (if dense), b.) tearing straight through my own arm (if normal), or c.) losing my grip immediately thanks to the wind (if light). I was left hurtling towards the tracks, with the train racing to get there first.

“If one train leaves Baltimore at 8:35 going 60 mph, and another leaves D.C. at 9:00 going 90 mph…”

I could just ghost through the tracks and the train and be fine, but that didn’t solve anything. So I had to come up with something new, and desperately hoped it worked.

And that it doesn’t destroy the train.

Maybe twenty meters above the track, I went intangible- No, I need air resistance -and immediately corrected to just very, very light. I slowed within seconds, until I was drifting just above the tracks. I’d beaten the train down, but not by much, and the sight of a sleek hunk of metal bearing down on me as I looked up nearly stopped my heart. Thankfully, the fight-or-flight leant towards fight, and I managed not to deer-in-the-headlights myself.

It was a near thing, though.

I jumped just as the train arrived, bringing myself up to about where the floor of the interior would be, and went intangible. The sleek, slanted front passed through me harmlessly, and then I was inside. Instantly, I went solid, but still light, and then I was flying down the center of the car. Well, technically, I was standing still as it sped around me, but from my perspective, the difference was pretty academic. I caught the barest glimpses of some very shocked faces from the passengers, before I hit the wall at the other end of the carriage.

Being the approximate density of styrofoam meant that I didn’t splatter like an overripe tomato, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. After a second, I fell off the wall, collapsing to my knees, groaning loudly. My bones hurt. I was pretty sure my bones weren’t supposed to hurt.

Do I even have bones right now?

After a few seconds, the ringing in my ears faded away, quickly being replaced with soft murmuring. I lifted my head to find the train’s passengers crowded around me, staring and whispering.

What they saw was a tall, gangly teenager wearing ski goggles, a scarf and a hood, her clothing torn, tattered and covered in dust, who had just hurtled down the entire length of a train cabin and apparently survived. Oh, and half her torso was missing, and the gaps were leaking lavender smoke. I couldn’t really begrudge them the stares.

It was still an entire train car’s worth of people looking directly at me, though. Thank goodness for my face being covered, otherwise I was pretty sure I’d have frozen up. Even with that, I could still feel every single one of the eyes on me, boring into me like lasers.

“When it doubt, whip it out. ‘It’ being self-confidence, in this case. Act like you belong…”

I stood up fully, trying to ignore the burning protest from my body. Affecting a casual air, I brushed some dust off my shoulders, then stepped forward. “Excuse me,” I managed to say, and the crowd actually parted, letting me through. It was like a little bubble of space around me, no-one willing to get too close. I glanced around, and wherever I looked, people looked away. It was… uncomfortable, actually. I didn’t like the idea of people being afraid of me.

I got the same reactions all the way up the carriage, but I just did my best to ignore it. I’d never seen these people before, and I’d hopefully never see them again. There was one girl who looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her, and just dismissed it.

The front of the train was hardened one-way glass, which was why I hadn’t been able to see through it from the outside. The people up this end had actually seen me pass through the front, so their reaction was more polarised. Some still skittered away, but others looked at me with curiosity, or suspicion.

Looking out the window, I could see the city center rapidly approaching, silver spires shooting skyward, with the Tower rising above them all. The train didn’t actually go all the way to the Tower, but it got pretty close, stopping at the ring of stations around it. Hopefully I'd be able to spot Paladin from-

“Oi!” I jumped, spinning to find a portly, middle-aged man jabbing a finger at me. “Who do you think you are, jumping around like that?”

“Ooh, you should pick him up with one hand. That'd be hilarious!”

I'm not going to intimidate a civilian! What's wrong with you?!

“Well, let's see your way of handling this, then.”

Uhhhh…

“Hey! Can you hear me?” He clicked his fingers in my face.  Without any better ideas, and panicking slightly, I just turned back to the window and ignored him. “Hey!”

We were coming in to the first of the skyscrapers now, and light entering the train began flickering and strobing. I could see the ring station and the end of the tracks in the distance, growing larger. Still no sign of Paladin, though. Maybe I'd made it ahead of her? I doubted it, but anything was possible.

The man was still talking to me, louder and more forceful now. I turned back to face him, mouth opening to snap a rebuke, but the words kind of caught in my throat, and I just ended up staring at him.

And to my infinite surprise, it actually worked. He seemed to deflate as I continued staring at him, and he slunk away. I guess that with my face covered, it looked a lot more intimidating than the worried, panicked face that was underne-

There was a loud boom from above, and everyone's heads swivelled around to look. Above us, a large golden mass clipped the edge of a building, sending debris and dust flying.

“Found her.”

Her wings were beating desperately, awkwardly, but they didn't seem like they were up to the task of keeping her aloft any more. With an earsplitting roar, she spiralled out of the air and came crashing down on the tracks.

Directly in front of the oncoming train.


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Stand 23-II

Caution With Our Curiosity.

“So,” I said warily, “how exactly are-” The wind smacked me in the face as we shot off, snatching the words from my mouth, and replacing them with “ahhhhhh!”

I was clinging to Thrust’s back, arms wrapped around his torso, kneeling on top of the back of his calves. I'd gone as light as I could without being completely intangible, but now the air resistance was threatening to drag me off. I clung tighter as we rocketed forward, and increased my weight slightly, but the sheer speed we were going still threatening to pull me loose.

We rocketed forward across the ground, picking up speed quickly. Thrust knelt low, the segmented forcefields around his knees and lower legs supporting his weight, and leant forward with his arms stretched out backwards. It would’ve looked like an anime character if he was running, but as he was, the position’s purpose was obvious: the jets of red liquid shooting out of his hands provided the force that was his namesake, and was currently trying to drag my skin entirely off of my face.

“Stop screaming!” Thrust yelled at me, his words almost snatched away completely by the wind. I didn’t even realize I still was, and I snapped my mouth shut, embarrassed. Doing so made me realize that although I’d subconsciously expected the ride to be rough, there was actually almost no vibration or jostling at all. What I’d felt initially had been my own screaming. I looked down at the forcefields, and watched the tarmac slide smoothly along underneath them. They must have been nearly frictionless, for this method to work. Can he only generate them around his legs? I definitely haven’t seen them used in any other way, but that’s such a ridiculously specific power, and frictionless forcefields would be incredibly useful…

“Hold on!” The words jolted me out of my thoughts, and I realized we were rapidly shooting towards a T-junction.

““Hold on”? Because, what, right now we’re just giving him a hug?”

Not help-ful. As we grew closer, he twisted his body 90 degrees, and stuck one arm out directly towards the wall. The stream immediately began slowing us, and a second later, he adjusted the other arm so it pointed behind us. Even with the first stream counteracting our momentum, we still came very close to hitting the wall before recovering and shooting off again.

“I said to stop screaming,” Thrust said irritatedly. Oh. Whoops. In my defense, it had looked like we were going to pancake ourselves against a brick wall.

We took another corner in the same manner, putting us back on track towards the Tower. The buildings around us were growing taller now, and I was pretty sure we’d reached the edge of… Shelter, that was it. In a way, it was better that Paladin had grown wings. If she hadn’t, she might’ve rampaged straight through all of-

“F***!” Thrust yelled, and suddenly we were spinning through the air. I lost track of our surroundings for a moment, and then we thumped back down onto the ground, no momentum lost. A loud horn blared behind us, and I glanced over my shoulder to see the a car growing smaller. I’d seen so many empty streets tonight that it almost seemed wrong. There aren’t supposed to be cars on streets. There are supposed to be superheroes and supervillains, and giant golden abominations. “A**hole didn’t have his lights on,” Thrust complained.

We turned, perpendicular to the Tower again, and found more cars, speeding in both directions. Thrust seemed to be prepared now, though, and wove through them with what seemed like effortlessness, but was probably just lots of practice and experience. More horns blared, but no-one swerved or crashed; stuff happens sometimes, and driving in New Chicago seemed to involve getting used to that fact.

I jerked my head around as we passed a corner that would’ve taken us back on track again, watching it disappear behind us. “Where are we going?” I yelled. “The Tower’s that way!”He jerked his head forward as we slid between a sedan and an SUV, gesturing towards… something? “What?” He shook his head for a second, then repeated the gesture, but more upwards. I looked again, and…

Ohhh.

One of the spoke-like, high speed train lines that ran straight out from the city center was up ahead. Lifted above the buildings below it by supports that were ingeniously integrated into the structures below, it was a gleaming line of metal that sat just above the horizon like the frame of a painting.

A second after realising what Thrust was talking about, I also realised what he meant by it. “Ohh no,” I said, probably too quiet for him to hear. “Oh, no, no, no. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Brace yourself,” he yelled to me as we hit a relatively empty stretch of road. The line was still a few blocks away, and I didn’t see any way for us to get up there; there wasn’t a station nearby in either direction.

Abruptly, his streams cut out, leaving us sliding across the road on built-up momentum. The red lighting hadn’t disappeared, though; now, it gathered rapidly around Thrust’s hands, condensing and darkening, like it was building up pressure.

That turned out to be a very accurate simile.

Just before we got run over by a semi truck, the gathered energy released all at once with an almost-blinding flash of red. It felt almost like the beginning of a theme park ride, one of those ones where the ball is strapped with thick elastic cable to a slingshot and flung into the air, a rapid acceleration that sent my stomach plunging downwards. We soared through the air, the truck that nearly flattened us shrinking away, wind ripping at my hood and my hair. Thrust abandoned his kneeling pose, stretching out like Iron Man, and the streams resumed, carrying us further upwards like one of those water jetpacks I’d seen on YouTube.

By the time we reached the apex of the jump, we were well above the height of the train line, and still moving rapidly towards it. Too rapidly, actually. At this rate, we were going to overshoot it.

Thrust noticed it too. He swore aloud, and began moving the streams to compensate, but something went wrong, throwing him off balance. We flailed around for a second before he recovered, but our speed hadn’t decreased at all, and we were almost at the raised line now. We were going to miss it entirely, and with it, our chance to-

I saw the train to my right, shooting towards us, and a plan formed in my mind in the same instant. “Catch up with me!” I yelled into Thrust’s ear. We were just passing over the train line, and so before he could react, I let go of him, letting the wind pull me backwards.

In a second, I was floating almost perfectly still directly above the tracks. Thrust rapidly grew smaller in front of me, yelling things I couldn’t make out, and the train was growing closer. I was drifting slowly down, but at that rate I’d probably miss the next train, let alone the current one.

I took a deep breath, went solid and let myself drop.

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Stand 23-I

HANNAH
The Darkest Of Times.

“Come on, come on, come on.” The muttering was barely even a conscious action, as I dug through the pile of rubble. “Come on, come on…”

I hefted a large piece and tossed it to one side, where it shattered in two. Removing it revealed yet more featureless chunks of concrete and rebar, and underneath, the slightest patch of gnarled brown. Oh thank goodness. “Stump?” I yelled as I began digging faster. “Can you hear me?”

A muffled groan echoed out from underneath the pile, then I word I couldn’t quite make out. Sounded kind of like “hand”, presumably as in “give us a”.

“I’m working on it,” I called back. It wasn’t complicated, just hard. Lots of bits to toss aside, and if I moved too fast, they just shattered into smaller bits. Finally, after a few minutes, I managed to uncover his head and most of his torso and arms. The wooden armor was heavily chipped, and one of the hands had been torn off entirely. I gasped involuntarily when I saw it. “Your hand!”

He groaned again, and slowly sat up, showering rubble behind him. He looked down at the… stump, at the end of his wrist. “Oh. I’ll regrow that later.”

“You can just do that?”

He sighed heavily. “I could do it now if I wasn’t-” the chips in the wood slowly began to patch themselves up, “-tired.” It was fascinating to watch, almost like a timelapse.

“You and me both,” I replied tiredly, offering him an arm up. He grabbed it with his one remaining hand, and pulled himself onto his feet, dislodging the rubble on top of his legs.

“What happened?” he asked immediately, shaking his head like he was clearing it. “Where is every-” he caught sight if my midsection. “Holy… Wisp, your…” he stammered for a second. “How are you not dead? Where are all your organs?”

“I'm fine,” I waved him off.

“You're obviously not.”

“I'm walking, aren't I?” I turned and began moving away, to demonstrate.

“You're a walking smoke machine.” He followed me, his gait slightly awkward. “I'm guessing Paladin’s…” the word “dead” hung unspoken in the air.

“Gone,” I finished instead, pointing tiredly at the Tower in the distance. “Grew wings and flew away.”

“...what.”

“I wish I was joking.” I was pretty sure Awestruck had been tossed over here; having him would make getting others out easier.

He spluttered incoherently for a few seconds. “We need to- we should- why are you so calm?”

“Calm. Heh.”

Shut up. “I’m not.” I eyed the pile of rubble; it was mostly a few larger pieces. It would take being contorted into some improbably angles for a person to be completely hidden underneath it. “So what should we do, then.” I began walking on. Based on where I’d been thrown, the other Guardians should be… over there, somewhere.

“Go after her!” he almost-yelled. “H-Wisp, what’s wrong with you?”

“Did I mention the part about the wings?” I snapped back. “There was no way I could keep up. And you were all-”

I was interrupted by the sound of rubble crumbling behind me. I spun around to find the pile I’d dismissed falling apart on its own, revealing a small mirrored oblong within. It blinked out of existence a second later, leaving Kai standing there, cradling one arm. She’d lost her sunglasses, too, and was squinting slightly. “Ow,” she said loudly.

“Are you okay?” I asked, striding back towards her.

She waved me down. “Fine. Well, apart from the broken arm. Fine apart from the broken arm.” I winced as I got a better look at it. That wasn’t a healthy angle.

“Do you know where the others ended up?”

She shook her head. “Flash of light, we all went flying, I put up a shield, and we’re here now.”

“Wisp!” Stump had continued on instead of turning back, and was now standing in front of a collapsed building, gesturing me over.

“Can you walk?” I asked Kai.

She stared at me flatly. “No, I can’t, because I walk on all four limbs like a gorilla.”

I couldn’t be bothered, so I just turned and began jogging over.

As I grew closer, Thrust clambered out of the hole in the front of the building. He seemed virtually unhurt, but uncharacteristically grim. “Can’t move anything,” he said to Stump. A second later, the interior of the building came into view, and I realized why.

The second level of the building had collapsed downwards as well as the front, flooding the bottom level with debris. Lying half-buried inside it was Comet, her bottom half and part of her torso covered. Her helmet had been knocked off, revealing thin, severe features, with a heavy cut just below one eye. Surprisingly, she was conscious, but from the look on her face, not by much.

“What happened?” she asked immediately, her voice weak but firm. “Is Paladin-”

I gave the same explanation again. Thrust’s face dropped, but Comet just seemed… tired.

“What now, boss?” Stump asked. “Are you...?”

“I am not going to die, if that is what you’re asking,” she replied. “But I think I have lost a lot of blood. Wisp,” she said, switching her attention back to me, “how fast was Paladin flying?”

“Compared to what?” I asked. “Not Awestruck-fast, but faster than running.”

She nodded, frowning. “Thrust. How quickly can you get to the Tower?”

“From here? A few minutes, if I…” he trailed off as he realised where she was going. “Oh no.”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Wisp, go with him. You have the most offensive capability of anyone remaining.”

“What?” I protested. “No. Can’t the other heroes at the Tower handle it?”

“What other heroes?” she replied. “There were only a few who weren’t with us, and none particularly powerful. We might still have another chance at stopping her. Thrust can carry you there; the rest of us will follow.”

“Not the way you are, you won’t.”

“I can not carry her,” Thrust protested.

“I can become very light,” I answered without thinking. Darnit, don’t help her case!

“You can and you will.” Comet’s tone brooked no argument. “You need to restrain her. If you can get to the Tower before her, Graves might have something.”

“Comet,” Stump protested. “This is-”

“The only option we have,” she cut him off, and then coughed roughly, little flecks of blood spraying out. “You need to go, now,” she continued hoarsely. “We’ve wasted enough time already.”

I groaned, running a hand back through my hair. “Comet-”

Go,” she snapped.

We went.

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Dead 22-Vignette


Mother She Said.

One year and eight months ago, or thereabouts.

Where is she?!” Edith screamed, her voice hollow and raw. “Where?!”

“Boy,” Lisette said wryly, leaning over to him with ease despite their bonds, “you really dove straight into the crazy, huh.”

Standing directly opposite each other like they were, Edith and her mother looked like a funhouse mirror. Add some age lines to Edith, give her mom the skunk stripe, and they’d be almost identical. That was just physical features, though. Edith’s white, shimmery jumpsuit was torn, and stained and spattered with blood, while Sacrament’s strange, robe-like garment was unspoiled. Their expressions, too, couldn’t have been more different, Edith’s contorted, pained rage versus Sacrament’s placid, cold stare.

“Such a waste,” Sacrament said quietly. Even now, it was hard for Flint to think of her like that. In his head, she was still Mrs. Ellis, the strict and distant mother of his girlfriend. It was like finding out that that one super-strict teacher actually was a Nazi.

“A waste?!” Edith demanded, stepping forward. As soon as she did, the two figures behind Sacrament mirrored the motion, stepping in front of her and staring down with blank, empty gazes. They both wore simplified versions of Sacrament’s robes, colored entirely in blood red.

“Do not push me, young lady.” The parental term felt wrong in this environment, out-of-place. “Yes, you’re a waste. You’ve been blessed, blessed with the Lord’s gift, and yet you’re too cowardly to use it properly.”

“Oh, I’ll show you using it properly,” Edith snarled. She raised a hand, but the twins beat her to it. She was blown across the room by an invisible blast of force, hitting the wall and falling into a crumpled heap.

“Edith!” Flint cried out without thinking, jerking forward. The heavy chains he was bound with caught the motion, and sent him tumbling forward onto his face. Lisette made a dry tsk-ing sound.

“But,” Sacrament continued, like nothing had even happened, “wasted potential is still potential. The same could not be said for your sister.” The corner of her lip curled up slightly in distaste.

“Don’t,” Edith hissed from her position on the floor. She held her side with one hand, obviously injured, but the only expression on her face was hatred. “Don’t you dare talk about her like that.”

“Useless,” Sacrament snapped back. “Useless, timid and weak.”

“She’s your daughter!” Flint cried out, awkwardly lifting himself back onto his knees. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

Sacrament turned to stare at him, her gaze flat. She gestured at Crusade, standing behind his shoulder, and the man nodded and swiftly punched Flint in the back of the head, sending him sprawling again. “She is my daughter,” she confirmed coldly. “She should have done better.”

Lisette whistled. “And I thought my family was fucked up.” She seemed oddly unconcerned about… anything that was happening. Then again, Flint thought, she seemed to be experienced with this sort of thing, whatever the hell that meant.

“As should you,” Sacrament continued as Edith struggled to her feet. “Consorting with…” she turned up her nose at Flint, “this, and a godless mercenary. Pathetic.”

“Hey, lady,” Lisette said casually, “I’m a faithful Unitarian, thanks very much. Don’ go throwin’ generalizations around.” Crusade punched her, but she seemed to be expecting it, and leant with the blow.

“Hopefully, once they’ve been dealt with, you’ll begin to be more reasonable.”

“I’m only going to ask one more time,” Edith hissed. “Where. Is. Eve.”

“She proved to be useless as a tool. So I found another way for her to prove useful. Resources, connections. Establishing relationships.”

It took a second for Flint to parse the words. “You…” he trailed off, not believing what he’d come up with.

Edith apparently had a better measure of her mother than him. “You sold her?!” she screamed, voice cracking.

“Certain parties required warm bodies. In return, the promise of future mutual cooperation.” She gestured at the room around them, the six other members of her Cabal standing around. “We are moving up in the world, and it will be important to have allies very soon.” She smiled slightly, a cold mockery of the actual expression. “The threat of her safety also worked wonders as an incentive. The first real progress you’ve ever made came from that. I’d almost be proud.”

As Flint watched, something inside Edith seemed to shift. All the emotion seemed to drain from her face, and she stood up straight, injury seemingly forgotten. “Real progress?” she asked, voice soft, almost tired. “If that’s what you want, then fine. Let’s make progress.”

“No.” Sacrament shook her head. “First, a lesson.” Without any obvious indicator from her, Schism began moving over from the other side of the room, until she was standing directly in front of Flint. “One about the company you keep.” Her hand reached forward for Flint’s face. He tried to lean away, desperately, as images of what her power had done to concrete flashed through his head. Crusade grabbed him from behind, though, and held him steady as-

“Okay, girly, I gave ya yer chance.”

The words were spoken casually, but in the moment, they were enough to catch everyone’s attention.

“What?” Sacrament asked Lisette.

“Not you,” she replied easily. “Yer way ain’t shit.” And then, as if to demonstrate the point, she stood straight up and punched Schism in the throat.

The chains that had been holding her clattered to the ground, with no obvious sign of damage. Schism staggered backwards, clutching at her neck, and Flint took advantage of the brief moment of confusion to do the only thing he could think of, and throw himself backwards into Crusade. With the added weight of the chains, both of them went toppling to the ground, Flint on top. They hit the ground roughly, Crusade expelling a rough whoof as they landed, and before he could recover, Flint whipped his head backwards, slamming his skull into the other man’s nose. There was a gruesome crack, and the Cabalist cried out in pain. Flint rolled off of him and onto his feet, doing his best to stay balanced with the chains, then kicked Crusade a few times in soft places before he could recover. Based on his reactions, he wouldn’t be getting up any time-

A loud crack shocked him, and he spun around to find Lisette standing with a hand outstretched, and Schism slumping to the floor a few feet later. A moment later, he noticed the small pistol in her hand, which she must’ve hidden somewhere on her person before they were captured. Schism hit the ground and lay there, utterly still, as blood began to pool around the perfectly round hole in her forehead. “Ten k in the bag,” Lisette said happily to herself.

“What the fuck!” Flint shouted at her. “What- You just killed her!”

“No shit, Sherlock. I said I had a bounty. Also, pretty hypocritical to get mad about that when your beau is doing that.” She pointed, and Flint followed the finger, just in time to see a whirring cloud of salt cut one of the twins in half.

The two halves collapsed to the ground, leaking blood and organs, as the salt cloud swept over another Cabalist, quickly shredding their skin and muscle as they screamed, seemingly helpless to defend themself. Sacrament backed away, the remaining twin standing in front of her, as Edith tore apart the remaining Cabalist, before rematerialising with a fist through their chest.

The corpse slowly slid off her arm and thumped to the floor. “Is that enough progress for you?” Edith asked her mother, stalking forward. Sacrament didn’t answer, instead quickly reaching forward to touch the remaining twin on the shoulder. They both glowed for a second, and then flames began to coalesce above the twin’s head. A gout shot forward, quickly creating a wall of fire that obscured Edith completely. Sacrament started to smile in satisfaction, until a thin blade of salt shot through the flames and speared the twin through the head.

The flames disappeared as they too dropped to the ground, and Edith reformed in front of her mother, grabbing her by the throat. “Who did you sell her to?” she asked flatly.

Her mother laughed, a weak attempt at sounding in-control. “Do you really-”

“WHO?!” Like a switch had been flipped, all the rage from before flooded back, and then some. Edith’s free hand dissolved into salt, and a whirring blade of it chopped through Sacrament’s arm at the elbow. She screamed, but was abruptly cut off as Edith squeezed tighter. “TELL ME!”

Sacrament laughed again, but now it really was smug. “...they don’t have a name,” she choked. “...i didn’t find them, they found me… ...and now you never will.”

Edith stared into her eyes for a second. “Maybe,” she said at last, and then raised a hand and cut her mother’s head off.

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Dead 22-IV


Maybe We Can Die There.

Picture a group of people, huddled together fearfully in a clearing in a forest. It’s night, and they’re brandishing torches futilely against the darkness. Growling comes from the trees all around them, growing louder, and every few moments, something rushes right by them. They’re surrounded, nowhere to run and no options left. They’re already dead.

It’s us, in case the metaphor was a bit abstract. It’s supposed to be us.

Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

Before, the meat tornado had been content to use the short bursts of freakish speed to close the distance between him and a target. He seemed more interested in trying to get that datapad in our faces than actually killing us. Maybe it had been us getting so close to destroying it, or maybe he had just gotten bored, but, for whatever reason, that wasn’t true any more.

The way we’d been split up wasn’t good. Tide and Ribbon were still enclosed in a sphere of strengthened fabric on the lowest floor above the ground, which wasn’t too bad, but Freefall standing on her own on the other side definitely was. Stonewall and Vortex were on their own on the next level up, isolating the two most capable of defending, but worst of all was that Flatline, Foresight and Ricochet were all grouped together above them. They had pretty much zero defense against an attack, and no real ways to attack, either.

Of course, I was in an even worse position, being on my own, but I was trying not to think about that.

Another flash of movement, and a blur ripped through Ricochet’s leg, sending her tumbling to the ground with a cry of pain. “Lis!” I cried out, without thinking. She glared up at me from below, as Flatline rushed to her side. I couldn’t see it that well, but her knee looked real messed up.

I started scanning the room, trying desperately to see where he’d disappeared to. It was like he was teleporting, in and out, a one-man hit-and-run tactic. But we couldn’t even treat it like fighting a teleporter. Standard tactic against one of them was to spread out, give them less room to teleport away to, and try to predict their actions, but even if we did that here, there was nothing we could do to actually hurt him. The question remained, though, as to how he was actually doing it in the first place. He couldn’t teleport, he couldn’t turn invisible…

Again, a flash, and again, another spray of blood. This time, it was Freefall. She flickered out an instant later, appearing on the level above, but she’d been too slow; I could see the gash in her arm. She cursed, and doubled over.

He was toying with us. Not exactly hard to figure out, every wound so far had been on limbs or comparative grazes, not the killing blows he very easily could deliver. I had a sudden, involuntary flashbacks to him mincing an entire room full of people in five seconds flat. And he was going for those without the ability to stop or slow him now; Tide, Ricochet, Freefall, and now probably-

I threw myself to the side, just as the blur shot through the space I’d been standing in a second ago. Predictable, in a way. The fact that he didn’t immediately circle back around to go for me again helped confirm a few things. Like I’d thought, he couldn’t maintain the speed for very long, so the quick passes were a way of compensating. And then in between, he hid to… recover? Maybe? Or it could be more toying.

“Foresight!” I hollered as I hauled myself back upright. “You’re next.”

He ignored me, but shifted his stance slightly. Of course, if he had heard that, then he might switch up the pattern, but I didn’t want to take that risk.

My worry quickly turned out to be unfounded, though, as Foresight smoothly slipped by the attack aimed at him. I looked at the angle it had been on, where it had come from and direction it was going on, and something caught in my mind. I wasn’t sure, exactly, but there was something there. Just one more, and I thought I’d have it.

I was expecting him to go for Flatline. He’d kept to the pattern even when I’d pointed it out, methodically working his way through. So it came as a little bit of a shock when something hit me in the side.

I staggered back, the impact site beginning to burn with pain. He’d faked me out, pretended to continue before doubling back to catch me by surprise. And now I had… I glanced down to check. Yep, a inch-deep gouge out of the side of my ribs that was already beginning to seep blood. It wasn’t wide, but it fucking hurt.

Dammit, focus. The gouge was on angle, starting slightly above my waist at the front and ending just below the armpit on the back. So he’d come upwards, which made sense. I looked forward, ignoring the slight dizziness, and did some mental calculations. The angle was consistent with him having come from…

“The rubble!” I yelled, my voice strained. “He’s hiding in the rubble!” I almost couldn’t believe I’d missed it. With his form broken down into so many pieces, he could easily fit into spaces way too small for an actual person. “Start destroying as much of it as you can!” The wound was really starting to bleed now, so I slapped one gloved hand over it. The blood would come out in the wash.

Slight problem with my plan: there was rubble everywhere. Ribbon and Tide could remove it or smash, Vortex and Stonewall could push it away, but the others, and myself, didn’t have any options. Still, he had less options now.

We all waited for the next attack, but nothing came. Instead, he spoke, again. Still sourceless, still unnerving. “You insist upon making this difficult, don’t you.”


I didn’t bother to respond, and apparently, no-one else felt the need either.

There was a heavy sigh. “Well, I suppose my fun can be delayed.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the noises that came next. A quick series of crunches and gristly snaps, so close together it was almost like one sound. In an instant, everyone but me was sent flying backwards, sprays of blood following them in volumes that made the previous ones look paltry. And then he was standing directly in front of me, datapad in hand.

I was in shock, I think. Some part of me, a disconnected part, noticed he looked a lot less beefy than before. It seemed like the speed came at a cost. Not that it mattered now, of course.

The man bared his teeth in a sick parody of a smile, and began to raise one hand.

Then Void hit him with a car.

I hadn’t even seen her. She’d jumped up straight behind him, no fanfare at all, and swung the two-ton hunk of metal at him like a baseball bat. It smashed into him with enough force to pulverize a normal person, and he went flying into a wall, sending cracks through it.

She dropped the distorted car, panting heavily. “How do you like that, you son-”

He was slamming her into the opposite wall, one hand on her neck. I blinked as her helmet went clattering away. But he-

“On the other hand,” he said as he raised the datapad to her face, “maybe the fun can happen now after all.”

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