Fly 21-III

Throw Yourself In Next Time.

Up close, it was even worse. Because of the nature of the… effect, all of the parts were in the same general area, but jumbled. One eyeball hung in the middle of an angular outcropping of golden light off to the side of the ‘face’, while the other was only half submerged, lower and on the other side. A chunk of upturned skin had been speared through the middle, and if I had to guess I’d say it was a nose, but not confidently. The jagged shapes that seemed to be functioning as a mouth were filled with teeth and shattered pieces of jawbone, and they shifted up and down slightly, almost as if panting.

What was interesting, for a certain, horrifying definition of interesting, was the golden light itself. It wasn’t a homogeneous mass, as it appeared from a distance. No, the angular, almost fractal shapes that had come jutting out initially remained distinct from one another, even when they overlapped or were completely contained within a larger one. The edges had a slightly darker glow to them, and it was, I hated to admit it, kind of beautiful. If you ignored the context, that is, which was hard to do when I was standing literally two meters from its face.

The screech it made was unnerving. Not just because of the pain, but because, although it leaned into it and opened its ‘mouth’ wider, like a real animal, there was no breath, or spittle, or wind, or any physical effect. It was more like the idea of noise than actual sound, except for the way it made my ribcage feel like it was going to vibrate out of my chest.

I raised one hand. “Hey,” I said awkwardly. “Um. I’m Wisp. We, uh, never met, but I, er, I’m a fan?”

“Wisp!” yelled Comet incredulously. “What the f*** are you doing?!”

I turned my head to glance at her. “I’m trying to talk to i- her! Calm her down, ma-”

All I saw was a flicker in my peripheral vision, before my vision was filled with uneven gold light. I yelped, flinching defensively, and then I was falling.

I landed awkwardly a moment later, spots filling my vision and an unnatural sense of wrongness permeating through me. Both faded away after a few seconds, and I found myself standing in a two-foot-deep rent that had been torn into the ground, and the beast holding one ‘paw’ in the air, and looking confused. Even knowing I was intangible, that had been darn terrifying.

“Wisp!” Stump yelled, sounding terrified.

“I’m okay!” I responded. “I’m okay. I- she can’t hurt me, I don’t think. You can’t hurt me,” I repeated to it. “So can you calm down? And maybe we can-”

Another flash of gold, another short fall. “Okay,” I snapped at it as I recovered my footing, “you need to stop that.”

It looked downright baffled now, but it growled again.

“Hate to break it to you, but I don’t think treating it like a person is going to work.”

...I had to try.

“Well, you’re already here, doing this incredibly stupid thing, so try something else.”

I stepped forward, up and out of the gash in the ground, holding my hands up in front of me. “You can’t hurt me,” I repeated, “and I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m not gonna hurt you. It’s okay.” I was talking like you would to a frightened animal. “I know you’re scared, you’re hurt, but it’s gonna be okay.”

It growled, trying to back away from the raised hands, but with its rear trapped in ice and goo, it just sort of squashed up on itself. I kept approaching, slowly. “Jane, right?” I asked softly. “That’s what Awestruck said. Jane, I don’t know how much of this is you, or is still in there, but if you just calm down, we can try and fix it, okay?” The words weren’t important, I didn’t think; I was pretty sure that with animals you can just babble nonsense so long as the tone and body language were non-confrontational. “With all the crazy shit people can do, I think one of them can probably fix this, right?” I wasn’t going to risk babbling when there could still be a person in there somewhere, though.

I continued to approach slowly, still talking. It didn’t really have any choice, but it didn’t keep trying to hit me either. Slowly, I reached my outstretched hands towards it.

“Are you sure you want to touch it? What if that effect is contagious?”

The mountain man touched it, and he was fine. Galvanize got hit, too.

“It still seems like a dumb idea.”

This was all a dumb idea. Still, I aimed for a patch of intact skin, just in case. It felt warm, which freaked me out a little. What was keeping it like that? Was it just preserving heat? Was the light keeping things at body temperature? “See?” I said, trying to smile without baring my teeth. “It’s okay.” Based on an instinct I couldn’t quite specify, I began stroking it.

“I’ve got to admit,” said Stump from behind me, “this is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.”

The beast shifted, almost tensing in a way. I managed to control my reaction and not turn around. “Look, it’s working, isn’t it?”

“It’s unnerving,” Comet replied, from further away. She seemed to have regained some of her composure. “Stump, move further away please. You’re not safe from blows like Wisp is.”

It was making an odd keening noise; I could feel it vibrating through my hand. So there was some physical mechanism for its vocalisations after all. “Guys, I think you’re agitating i- her.”

“Jane.” Comet’s voice was growing louder now. I didn’t mean move closer! “Can you hear me?”

“Uh, Comet?” It was definitely getting more agitated. “I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Jane, it’s me.” She was just straight-up ignoring me. “Say something. Please. I know you’re there, just talk to me. Say something. Say anything!”

I risked glancing over my shoulder at her. She was almost as close as me now. I take back anything I said about her being composed. She was striding forward, posture firm, arm outstretched in front of her. “Comet,” I repeated warningly, “you need to slow down.” What is with her?

She placed her hand on the golden light, right about chest level. “Jane, please.” Her voice cracked a little. “Just sa-”

Two things happened at once.

First, the beast roared again. Being this close, though, made me feel like my body was being vibrated apart. I collapsed to one knee, desperately shielding my ears as my eyeballs threatened to liquify in their sockets. Second, there was an enormous crack, as it tore its way out of the ice and goo holding it in place, bringing chunks of asphalt and concrete with it, and swung a paw at the both of us.

For the third time, golden light filled my vision, and I flinched away, closing my eyes. I would be fine, but my thoughts were filled with horrible visions of Comet’s body splattered like a tomato across the road. She didn’t have any protective powers, she couldn’t avoid it like me. Why the heck couldn’t she have just stayed away?

But, the light didn’t find. Slowly, I reopened my eyes to find the ground below me untouched, and Comet’s prone, but intact, form beside me. The paw hung in the air, about a meter from us, shaking and twitching as it tried to continue with the motion but found itself unable to.

Two arms were wrapped around it, wrapped in grey fabric that was torn at the edges. Slowly, the light grew less intense as the arms began winning out in the battle of strength. With a deep, guttural grunt, the paw was flung away, and the rest of the beast was dragged with it. In its place, hovered Awestruck. His costume was torn and ragged, and, shockingly, there was a large gash across his chest, bleeding profusely. He turned his head to one side, and spat, a thick crimson globule.

“Sir?” asked Comet, sounding lost.

“It’s not her,” he rasped. “She's gone.”

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Fly 21-II

You Cannot Pass.

“I'm going to assume,” I said in between pants, “that you don't know what's going on?”

Considering its size and the awkward misshapen limbs it was forced to rely on, the Paladin-beast was fast. It had gained a significant head-start on us, and we hadn't managed to regain any of it yet. At the very least, we weren't at any risk of losing it; even without the massive trail of rubble it was leaving, the golden glow of its body was clearly visible even from a distance.

“No,” Comet snapped tersely. “This is… I don't know what this is. We need to calm her down, get her somewhere safe and figure out how to fix her.”

I didn't want to say it, but apparently it wasn't much of a stretch to reach the same conclusion. “Hate to break it to you, scary lady,” Kai yelled from the back of the group, “but there were multiple separate chunks of brain in there. I don't think that's fixable.” I wasn't sure why she'd still stuck with us, but I wasn't going to complain.

“People have recovered from worse,” she said. It didn't sound like she believed it either.

“We should probably focus on stopping i- her,” Stump interjected. “We're gonna run out of disposable buildings pretty soon.” In fact, the ones around us were starting to get taller again, slimming out.

Comet made a sound like she was biting down on a curse. “Thrust, Fog, get ahead. Try and slow her down, but stay well out of range. She’s not in her right mind right now, and one hit would probably tear you to pieces.”

The two of them nodded, and shot ahead. Fog merely leaned forward, the glow from under her dress brightening as her speed increased. Thrust, though, dropped forward as translucent red forcefields formed around his lower legs and knees. He landed on them, but continued to slide forward at almost the same speed as he’d been running, and then much faster when he stuck his arms out behind him and high-pressure jets of translucent red liquid shot out of them and propelled him forward. It was probably the strangest method of movement I’d seen, but it worked; he quickly outpaced Fog, and closed nearly half the distance to Paladin in a few seconds.

“Wait, what happened to Awestruck? Didn’t he shoot off ahead?”

“Oh. Huh.” I repeated the thought out-loud.

“I don’t know,” Comet answered grimly. “He’s not responding. It’s possible that-” she cut herself off, looking forward. I followed her gaze, to see that golden glow rapidly increasing in intensity. Not just because we were approaching; it was being reflected off the giant wall of pale, cloudy ice that had sprung up in front of it.

Logically I knew I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, I’d seen Fog fill an entire alleyway with her ice (while I was standing in it). But out in the open, it looked a lot more impressive.

It still wasn’t any easier to look at the beast, as it roared again, and clawed at the ice wall. Giant chunks of it went flying away, but fog quickly flowed in from behind it and solidified, repairing it. It definitely wasn’t too solid to be charged through, the speed the beast had been moving at, and sure enough, it tried doing just that, charging headlong into it with only a short run-up. As it grew close, though, Thrust darted in front of it, launching himself into the air and blasting its ‘head’ with his jets. The impact seemed disproportionate: it was fully stopped in its tracks within a second, and actually started to be driven back a little before Thrust began falling and redirected the jets back towards movement. It was enough time to give Fog a chance to shore up the wall, thickening it and widening the base, and for the rest of us to catch up.

There was also, I noted, no sign of Awestruck.

“Keep her off-balance!” Comet bellowed. “Try and bind her legs. Instance, do you have any power blockers?”

“Look at her!” he yelled back. “Without her power, she’ll just fall apart!”

I could almost hear the teeth grinding from within her helmet. “Help pin her down, then,” she ground out. “You two,” she said to Kai and I. “What can you do.”

“I’m… strong?” I offered. No, wait, not really. “Well, not strong. Dense.”

“Could you hold her down?”

I thought back to crushing concrete like styrofoam. “I tend to… crush things?”

Without missing a beat, she immediately turned to Kai, dismissing me from consideration. “You.”

“Shields, mirrored,” she responded surprisingly quickly. “But if you think I’m getting anywhere near that thing, you-”

“Shut up.” I did a double-take, glancing at her. That was… uncharacteristic. “Try and shield anyone who gets too close. Stump, Chain-”

“Stay out of the way.” The first words I’d heard him say. Stump just nodded.

Fog had moved away from the wall now, and was trying to use her ice to bind limbs, or weigh them down. It wasn’t working particularly well: the golden limbs kept tearing through it in a manner I found oddly familiar. It took a second before I realized it looked a lot like what happened when I’d done the same thing. A weird thought, and not one I really wanted to dwell on. Thrust’s blasts were still preventing it from breaking through the wall, thankfully, and Instance seemed to be doing something that made the air shimmer around it, causing its movements to slow slightly.

It roared yet again, swiping at Fog and narrowly missing her, and then slammed both of its front limbs into the ground. It was so… animalistic. Was there even anything of the person in there? I wanted to believe like Comet did, but… there hadn’t exactly been any evidence to support her view.

The air quickened, and thin strands began to form from it around the beast’s rear. They quickly solidified into an off-white substance that looked a lot like webbing, and fell over its rear end, sticking both to it and to the ground. It tried charging forward, pushing with its unhindered front limbs, but unlike literally everything else, the webbing didn’t break, just stretching somewhat but still holding it in place.

“Instance is kind of the most useful one of them by like an order of magnitude, isn’t he?”

The beast clawed at the ground, digging ruts into the ground, but making no progress. Some of the flesh parts were… jostling.

Fog immediately began coating it in more ice; it swiped away what it could, but the parts it couldn’t reach quickly became coated over. Within moments, it was firmly held down against the ground, and its attempts to free itself had become ungainly flailing. It began making a high-pitched keening noise, that had the same ear-piercing unnatural quality as the previous noises, but with an added layer of… patheticness.

Comet stared at it, posture stiff, blank. I glanced back at the beast, and then at her again.

“Darn it,” I said out loud, then, before I could stop myself, I strode forward until I was standing directly in front of the beast, well within range of its limbs.


You better be sure about this.

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Fly 21-I

HANNAH
Too Great And Terrible To Imagine.

I threw up.

I don’t think I was the only one, either. I managed to pull my scarf away in time, as my stomach roiled in revulsion at the horror we’d just witnessed.

No, scratch that; that we were still witnessing.

The… thing that used to be Paladin screamed again, stabbing into my brain like a pair of needles. The sound of it was unnatural and raw, filled with tones and shades that a human body couldn’t even come close to producing. My ears rang, my vision swam, and if the sight hadn’t already made me vomit, it probably would have done that too.

The beast, the only word I could think of to describe it, flailed around, not seeming to be fully in control of its own body. Every movement it made tore gouges into the ground, sending sprays of concrete flying out at dangerously high speeds. One large chunk clipped the giant man, gouging a piece out of his arm, but his terrifying grin didn’t falter. “I must admit,” he said, blood dripping down his forearm and onto the datapad, “this wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but on the whole, I must say I’m rather happy with it.”

Faster than I could blink, he was blown backwards, slamming into the side of a building, and Awestruck stood in the space he’d just occupied. The hero’s fists were clenched, trembling, and his face was contorted in a horrifying mask of rage. “FIX HER!” he bellowed, spittle flying from his mouth.

The giant chuckled, as he began extracting himself from his crater. “I can’t think of any reason why-” Another shockwave pummeled him back into it, cutting him off and making the building tremble worryingly. The giant smirked, and dissolved into that same awful storm of meat and bone, shooting out and dodging around a few more shockwaves before reforming. “-I should do that,” he finished. I noticed the injury to his arm had been healed completely, and that somehow, he was still holding the datapad.

Awestruck roared incoherently, but the giant had already disappeared by the time the next shockwaves reached him. Balthazar and Galvanize had been slowly trying to approach the golden beast, but the fighting seemed to be agitating it, and it screamed again, and lashed out with one… limb. The scream actually affected Awestruck, making him clutch his hands to his ears, and the very tip of the misshapen limb grazed Galvanize. Or, it looked like a graze. If I hadn’t seen the contact, I would have thought it had fully backhanded the mech, because it went flying, sparks shooting from the gash along the front. It hit the ground and tumbled, rolling to a stop as its lights dimmed and flickered.

Balthazar hastily backed away again.

The giant appeared beside it, staring up at the closest thing it had to a head. “Hm. Strong. Much stronger than she was.” As tall as he was, it was still larger than him by a large margin.

“Step away from her.” To my surprise, the voice came from beside me. Comet had stepped up, helmet covering her face, but her posture was resolute.

“Her?” He laughed. “You seem to be making some optimistic assumptions.”

“Step,” she repeated, “away.”

“Oh, believe me,” he replied. “I’d love nothing more than to stand back and watch it tear you all to pieces. But as I’ve been recently reminded, that would be thinking small.”

He disappeared, and a large gash scored its way along the beast’s side. It roared in pain, and lashed out with enough speed that I barely saw the motion, but it didn’t connect. Another gash, on the other side, and again it swung and missed. What is he trying to…

A few more, and its screams grew more and more pained and frantic, until he sliced across its chest one more time, and in an instant, it turned and bolted away, smashing through the side of a building, still screeching.

“Jane!” Awestruck yelled, and flew after it.

“Excellent,” said giant said as he watched it flee. “Now, I would love to see where that ends up, but I think,” he waggled the datapad at us, “I’d rather go spread the word.”

His whirling form shot off into the air. “After him!” Comet yelled, as fire began to whirl around her. The other jolted into action, but as they did, the meat storm began to slow. Not in its swirling, which only grew more intense, but in actual lateral motion, until it came to a complete stop.

The giant reformed, and fell to the ground, landing with a heavy crunch. He stood, and turned to look at us. “Surprising. I wasn’t expecting actual competency from the children.”

“Wrong direction, f***nozzle!” yelled a familiar voice. Standing on top of a nearby building, almost looking like they were posing, were the four other Outliers; Ricochet, Skew, Void, and the one whose name I didn’t know who looked like a Hot Topic mummy.

“Remember me, ***hole?” Skew yelled. What happened to being completely incapacitated.

The giant smirked, but it didn’t have as much humor in it as before. He shot off again, and Void raised a hand. He began to slow like before, but it didn’t seem to take, and he rocketed off again. She swore. “Outliers, follow him!” she yelled down towards us as she lifted off into the air. “Don’t let him get away!”

“Stay where you are!” Comet commanded, turning to face the vigilantes in question. “You do not have the-”

“Do you want to argue about this now?!” Void yelled at her. “We’ll handle this, and you deal with whatever the **** that golden thing was!”

Comet stared at her, but made no motion to stop the Outliers as they rushed off. Instinctively, I moved to follow them, but Stump’s arm grabbed mine from behind. “With us,” he said grimly. “I think we might be needing you.”

As a group, we took off in a run, following the path of wreckage the beast had left behind. “Where is it going?” Thrust pondered out-loud.

Silently, Comet point a finger at the path it was making, then moved her finger straight up onto the skyline.

The Tower.

“She’s going to safety,” I finished out loud.

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Prepared 20-Vignette | 2


Be Prepared.

A year and seven months ago, or thereabouts.

“I still don’t see why I have to come with you,” Flint grumbled, leaning against the wall of the elevator. He was dressed sloppily, a dark, baggy hoodie, and faded and torn jeans. His hair was the awkward length of a shaven head left to grow on its own for too long, and deep, heavy bags sat underneath his eyes.

“It’ll be a learning experience,” Marco replied with a small smile. In contrast to his son, he stood tall, relaxed but formal, and was dressed in a suit, charcoal grey with a dull red shirt and no tie. The briefcase he held at his side was large, black, and had at least four different locks on it. “Seeing as you kept sleeping through the summer classes.”

“It’s not like that’s my fault,” Flint protested. “Who the hell even needs to know about angular momentum anyway?”

“You’d be amazed at the things from school you end up remembering years later,” Marco said mildly. “But more importantly, you need to know about angular momentum, so you can pass your tests and graduate, and go to college. What happened to that art degree you were all excited about?”

Flint stared at the floor and said nothing, hands in pockets.

Marco sighed, and checked his watch.

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened to reveal a bustling corridor, with glass walls looking down onto the city center below. People in business clothing hurried back and forth, juggling papers and folders and mugs of caffeinated drinks. Marco stepped out, seamlessly folding himself into the flow of the crowd, and Flint hurried out after him, not nearly as graceful. His attire stood out, and he found himself on the receiving end of a few suspicious looks before he managed to catch up to Marco hide in his wake.

“I could actually be doing things now,” he complained, again.

“What things?”

“You know…” he gestured incoherently. “Things.”

“Things like sulking in your room? The only thing you’ve done for the past month?”

Flint’s eyes darkened, and he opened his mouth to snap at his father, but someone bumped into him from the side, nearly knocking him over. “Watch it!” he hissed at the culprit, but they ignored him, rushing over to the floor-to-ceiling window. A second later, he saw why.

A streak of flame shot past the building, bright red and giving off copious amounts of black smoke. A ripple of gasps shot through the crowd, and most of them began crowding around the windows to watch. The flame slowed and came to a stop in mid-air, revealing a vaguely humanoid figure in their centre, which raised a hand and pointed, causing a large gout of fire to shoot out from it. The crowd ooh-ed on cue, but Marco just snorted and rolled his eyes, and kept on walking. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before,” he muttered under his breath.

“Or they have a sense of joy and wonder?” Flint said sarcastically, head still turned to watch the spectacle as he followed. The gout of flame roared towards something out of sight, but was dispersed in an instant as a ripple in the air tore through it. Awestruck descended into view, wind fluttering his cape behind him. He seemed to be saying something, smiling, but it wouldn’t have been audible even if there wasn’t a thick pane of glass in the way.

“Wonder,” Marco said flatly. “Sure.”

With the crowd distracted, they had a much easier time, and after a few turns they arrived at the door to a corner office. Small rumbles passed through the building every few seconds as the figures outside clashed, but although Flint jumped slightly with every one, Marco seemed unperturbed. He raised a hand to knock on the door, but then paused, and turned to his son instead. “Now, you’re here to listen and observe, okay? You can talk if you feel you have something valid to say, and can do it without being rude, but you have something sarcastic to say, you keep it internal.”

“What do you even expect me to learn anyway?”

Marco grinned. “Pay attention and see if you can figure it out.” He turned back to the door, rapped his knuckles against it, and the room exploded.

When Flint came to, he was drenched in sweat. Smoke burned in his throat, making him gag and sending him into a coughing fit. He was laying awkwardly against something angular, prodding into his back uncomfortably, and there was the feeling of something pressing down on one of his legs. His eyes burnt and watered, but a few blinks and they began to clear.

He immediately wished they hadn’t. He was lying in a pile of rubble, the air clogged with as much dust as smoke, and all around him was fire. He was sitting in a small uneven circle of safety, but outside it flames raged and burned, consuming and charring, adding to the swirling black smog that obstructed his view.

He coughed weakly, dizzy, and tried to move, but found that his lower half refused to obey. Looking down, he realized that a support beam was lying on top of his legs, holding them in place no matter how he tried to wriggle out. They didn’t feel broken, but they were effectively out of commission.

“Flint?” came a faint, panicked voice. “Flint, are you here?” He opened his mouth to reply, but doing so sent him into another wracking fit of coughs. “Oh thank god.” Marco stumbled into view. What looked like part of his suit jacket was wrapped around his mouth, and his shirt was hastily rolled up and singed in places. “Thank god,” he repeated again, kneeling down by Flint and squeezing him in a painfully tight hug. When he pulled back, there were tears in his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Can’t move my legs,” he rasped. “Not broken, just pinned.” With a hand, he patted the support beam. “Can’t lift it.”

Marco frowned, glancing up and down the length of the beam, then rocked back and grabbed it. “Try and shuffle out,” he instructed Flint, then braced himself and lifted.

With the few inches he managed to get, a height that seemed miraculous considering the size and weight of the beam, Flint managed to curl his legs up so they were out from underneath it, and Marco dropped it with a heavy grunt, leaning back and panting.

“What’s happening?” Flint asked him, sounding scared and confused.

“That fight, it got out of control. Awestruck must have launched the hero into the building. Come on, get up, the fire escape is this way.” He offered Flint his arm, and hauled him onto his feet.

The sound of flames roaring grew louder as they reached the fire escape, and Marco wrenched the door open, gesturing for Flint to go first. He didn’t follow him in, though, and Flint turned around, confused. “Get downstairs,” his father instructed him, still holding the door open. “Get out of the building. There are still some people trapped up here, and-”

Something smashed through a wall behind Marco. A whirling mass of flame and flesh, it quickly resolved itself into Awestruck and his opponent. The hero was grappling the human fireball, not being burned despite the intense heat being put off, and he managed to raise him above his head and throw him, hard. The fireball flew through the air, clipped off of a still-standing support beam, and spun straight towards the fire escape.

The last image Flint saw of his father was his face, desperate but determined, as he shoved him backwards and slammed the door behind him.

There wasn’t any screaming. It almost made it worse.

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Prepared 20-Vignette


Content Warning: Graphic descriptions of gore.

A Marvelous Surprise.

Now.

So much violence. He could see it in his head, all the possibilities of carnage spread out before him. Here, a disemboweled corpse; there, a decapitation. Sprays of blood, arcing in the air, glistening in the light. The crunch of bone snapping, echoing off the buildings, the violent threshing of consumption as he tore down flesh into viscera and absorbed it into himself.

Ah, but now was not the time to be losing himself in his fantasies. Not when they would so soon become realized.

The angel was speaking to him. It had been for quite some time now, since he’d arrived.

It’s right there, it was saying. Take it. Take it and go, and watch them destroy themselves. The golden figure hovered to his side, wreathing the area around them in light.

“But if I do,” he rumbled, “then I won’t get to witness what happens if she does open it. Didn’t you want me to “spread the light?””

Not like this. Not here, not now. Retrieve it and we can allow it to spread, controlled and measured, and far farther than we could here.

“Well, I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake there,” he chuckled. “You’ve offered carnage later instead of carnage now, but I’m a man of simple pleasures, and a bird in the hand and whatnot.”

“What the fuck are you talking about!” Miranda Callas screamed at him, her head whipping back and forth between him and the man with the white tie. “Who the fuck are you talking to?”

We’ve come so far, the angel said. Don’t throw this away now.

“Hm,” said the man in the white tie. “Interesting. So you’ve resorted to insane people now.” He didn’t address the man, though. He talked to the angel.

It spun around to look at him, and froze there for a solid second. Then, it faded away into nothing. “Interesting,” he echoed the other man. “I’d assumed it was a figment of my imagination.”

“You have no idea, do you.” The smaller man reached up and adjusted his glasses, dispassionate.

“Oh, I know enough.” He bared his teeth in something passably resembling a grin. “Enough to be excited for the possibilities.”

“Both of you,” boomed the voice of one of the heroes. Man, tall, grey suit, “step away from her right now.”

“You,” the white tie said flatly, “are nearly as bad as him. If you had even the slightest inkling of what could happen here, you would hand the datapad over to me with a smile and a pat on the back.”

“Then why don’t you tell us and save us the hassle?”

“I can do better,” the man interrupted. “Let’s all find out together.”

Shockwaves tore through the space where he’d been standing a moment ago, but he was already gone, disintegrating into his other form. In an instant, he was on top of Callas, but shadows melted up from the ground and surrounded her, whisking her a few feet away. They swallowed him too, and he could feel their power pressing down against his, attempting to smother him. Then they withdrew, taking a few chunks of him with them. The white tie was standing exactly where he had been, now only inches away, looking unruffled. He flicked a hand, and shadow rose to protect him, a half shell that deflected the oncoming rush. The onslaught continued for a moment, before more shockwaves forced them to separate. He shifted back just before landing, to give another almost-grin.

“Enough.” The voice was robotic, and he glanced to the side to see the large robot glowing green.

Weight slammed into him from above, crushing him to the ground, unlike anything he’d ever felt. And then it increased even further, driving him into the concrete hard enough to begin making a crater. Next to him, he could see the white tie, wreathed in darkness and apparently not under anywhere near the same amount of pressure as him, but still unable to move.

“You both obviously have a high opinion of yourself,” the robotic voice said, “but you’re outnumbered and overpowered, and no amount of pretentious bluster and trying to sound like a robot can change that.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he managed to grind out, his bones creaking against the pressure. “I’ve always considered myself rather humble.”

In a blink, he was standing next to Callas, a few meters away. She screamed and tried to teleport, but he followed her and encircled her handless arm in a meaty fist. A squeeze, and it shattered and pulped, causing her scream to leap upwards in pitch and intensity. With his other hand, he plucked the datapad out of her now-loose grasp. Turning on the screen greeted him with a wall of scrolling text, but the angel had been overzealous, and shown him the key. “Now,” he said, facing the screen away from himself, “shall we have a demonstration?”

And before she could avert her gaze, he shoved the open datapad right in front of her eyes.

She froze, locked in place, and let her arm go, watching with baited breath. Her eyes shook in their sockets, as if they were desperately trying to look away, but physically couldn’t. Slowly, painfully, her mouth forced itself open, and another scream wrenched its way out. This one, though, wasn’t like the previous ones. It was glorious: an inhumane cacophony of pain that simply could not be produced by the human body alone. He basked in the sound, letting it wash over him as everyone else recoiled and covered their ears.

Like her strings had been cut, she suddenly staggered backwards, still screaming. Blood began to stream from her eyes, running down her face and dripping onto the ground. With a horrific, wrenching crunch, something inside her snapped, a splurt of crimson shooting out as parts of her assumed new angles that said parts should never be at. The snapping continued, choking the scream and growing faster and more violent as her form grew increasingly contorted. And then, as quickly as it had begun, she collapsed to the ground, absolutely still as blood began to pool around her.

It had taken maybe five seconds.

“Well,” he said, as everyone around him stared in horror, “that was disappointing.” He glanced around, and found that the nearest hero to him was a woman in golden armor. “Let’s try that-” and he was beside her now “-again.”

His free hand dissolved into a whirling storm and chewed through the armor around her throat and face, before reforming and grasping her by the neck and lifting her into the air. Her wings came around and speared through him, but, undeterred, he lifted the datapad into her face.

“-what?” she whispered, sounding confused. “I don’t-”

Her entire form rippled once, smoothly. Her armor flickered and disappeared, then her wings a moment later. He dropped her and stepped back.

“Paladin?!” the grey hero cried.

“I’m-” she managed to choke out. “I think I’m-”

A shard of golden light, identical to her armor, speared out of her face, bisecting it in uneven halves. More shards began emerging, bursting or slicing out of her, some appearing like warped and distorted pieces of her armor or her wings. She jerked and convulsed, but no blood came out this time. Her flesh didn’t fall away, either, but it did start to seem more… spread-out. The golden light was holding it together, creating bridges and pathways between chunks of muscles and bone, and within moments, her form had doubled or tripled in size, now more parts light than flesh.

It didn’t look like a human anymore. It was misshapen, limbs all different sizes and proportions, torso twisted and mangled, hunched over on all fours. The part that contained chunks of skull and brain matter barely even resembled a head, the only indicator being the two eyeballs suspending in light at uneven heights.

The monster, because there was no better word for it, staggered to its feet and let out its own unnatural scream, far, far louder than the last one, enough to make the buildings around them rattle and shake.

“Beautiful,” he whispered.

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Prepared 20-XI

HANNAH
There Will Be A King.

I hadn’t ever been to the abandoned dock area before that night. There had never been any reason to, and, well, a decent chunk of it was gang territory. But I did still know that, know about it and not to go there. More than never having seen this part of town before, though, I’d never even heard of it. The buildings quickly grew shorter and squatter until they were barely even two stories, looking tougher, more resilient. The corners were rounder, the walls thicker, and after a certain point, windows stopped appearing at all. It was almost like a bizarro, twisted version of a normal city.

“What is this place?” I wondered softly aloud. A couple of heads turned in front of me, but the answer came from behind.

“This,” said Comet, alarmingly close behind me, “is Shelter.” I could hear the capital S on the word, subtly emphasised. “How much do you know about the city’s history.”

“I’ve, uh, gotten rundowns.”

“Then you know it was occupied prematurely, leaving many half-finished projects incomplete and swept under the rug. Shelter was one such project.”

Things started to click into place, and I looked around again, re-evaluating the surroundings. “Fallout shelters?”

Comet nodded. “Correct. These buildings were a test for the concept, or part of one. The idea behind the initial project was that this structure would form a base level, and regular buildings would be constructed on top of and around them. All the buildings contain entrances to a network of underground bunkers, which would have been kept stocked with supplies, and designed to support a certain segment of the populace. If the plans had been successful, there would have been multiple Shelters, each designated to a certain area of the city.”

I really should have paid attention in history, huh. “That seems…” I frowned, and did some mental math. “Remarkably prescient, actually. Wouldn’t they have started work on it before… you know?”

“Plans and proposals similar to it had existed far before that. Superhumans are not the only source of deadly radiation, remember. It was simple irony that the type of disaster it was being designed for was also what caused it to be shut down.”

“Um, yeah. Ironic. So Green Cloak is hiding in those bunkers, then?”

“Most likely. Hopefully, their insulated nature means we will have some chance at surprising her.”

Furtively, I glanced at Valiant up ahead, and the turned to her. “Do you know,” I asked quietly, “what this datapad is? Why Galvanize is so scared?”

“No. But she is higher ranked than me, so I defer to her knowledge. If she thinks it is this dangerous, then it almost certainly is.”

I glanced forward again, to see Awestruck looking back at us, grimacing. He held a single finger up to his mouth, and then pointed it at us.

I got the message, and shut up.

After a few more minutes, we stopped in front of a building, seemingly no different than the rest. Galvanize swiveled towards it, and the instruments extending from her mech pointed towards it. They focused and adjusted for a moment, then retracted, and the mech seemed to nod slightly. She turned back towards us, and pointed at the building, and then down; not hard to understand. She gestured at herself and the rest of Valiant, then for the rest of us to move backwards as they approached the door.

And then I got to see the pros in action.

Awestruck held out his hands, and the air rippled almost invisibly. The building began to shake, as did the ground around it, and below our feet. Caught off balance, I stumbled back a few steps, nearly bumping into Comet, who stepped adroitly out of the way. The rumbling increased in intensity, growing more and more violent, until sudden grinding and crunching sounds heralded the ground beginning to split open. Small cracks spread everywhere, but the majority of it was concentrated in a neat rectangle that surrounded the building.

Awestruck clenched his fists, and the rumbling ceased. Immediately, Balthazar stepped forward, twirling his cane, and flicked it upwards in a sharp, but understated, snapping motion.

And the entire building tore itself out of the ground and began rising into the air.

Awestruck’s work had ensured that it was a fairly clean break, severing any connections it had to the surroundings. As it rose, the clear lines that had been cut in it became evident, as neatly-sheared rooms and tunnels rose up past us, dark concrete suspended underneath like exposed entrails. Within seconds, the entire structure was floating above-ground, the telekinetic hero holding it there with seemingly-minimal effort.

Paladin’s golden wings flapped, and brought her aloft and level with the building. She hovered there for a moment, hanging in the air in front of it, and then the light of her armor flared, and burst into motion. With great sweeping motions, she spun her wings into contact with the building. As she did, their light also flared, and for just a moment they seemed to extend, or occupy more space. They began slicing through the concrete like it was styrofoam, starting from the bottom and working her way up, slowly and methodically dicing thick, presumably lead-lined, walls into tiny chunks that fell back into the pit below.

There was a flash of green within the tubing, so fast that I almost thought I imagined it. But then I saw it again, and again, and realized she must have been teleporting through the building, trying to stay ahead the destruction. Presumably, it wouldn’t take long before-

Yep, there. The flash disappeared again, but this time Green Cloak reappeared in full, just outside the building, barely visible in the darkness and already falling. She flickered away a moment later, but when she reappeared it didn’t seem to be very far from where she’d been. I thought that maybe she was tired and couldn’t go as far, but she teleported again and it was an even shorter distance. Once more, and she barely moved at all, and the next time she actually moved back towards us. It definitely didn’t look like she was doing it intentionally: she began teleporting faster and faster until she was basically flickering, and yet each time she began growing closer and closer to us.

I was so engrossed in watching this that I almost didn’t notice my body tipping forward until it was almost too late. For what felt like the thousandth time that evening, I somehow managed to stay on my feet. In doing so, I realized that Galvanize had begun to glow, bright, almost virulent green, and the light almost seemed to warp around the mech’s form. I checked, and yep, I’d been falling towards her.

“She’s warping gravity, right? That’s her thing. I don’t see how that’s affecting Green Cloak though.”

Doesn’t gravity warp space, or something?

“Should’ve paid attention in physics too.”

Green Cloak was almost directly in front of Galvanize now, flickering like a failing lightbulb and not moving in the slightest. She stopped suddenly, panting heavily, and dashed off away from the hero, who made no move to stop her. She made it about three steps before the rest of Valiant descended around her and boxed her in.

“Hand it over,” Awestruck boomed, arm outstretched. Green Cloak cowered, and her hands- hand tightened around the datapad clutched to her chest. “This doesn’t have to end badly.”

Her face tightened into a grimace, and she held up the datapad. “Stay back,” she snarled. “Do it, or I’ll open this.” All the heroes took a half-step back, but remained focused on her.

“Believe me,” Galvanize said, “you don’t want to do that.”

“Indeed, Ms. Callas.” It took me a second to place the voice. “That ends distinctly badly for you,” said the man with the white tie, melting out of a pool of shadows.

“Stay back!” Paladin yelled, pointing at him. “Whoever you are, this is a sensitive Tower operation, and it is not safe!”

The man scoffed. “Sensitive. Please. You people don’t even have the slightest grasp of the concept of sensitivity. Ms. Callas,” he said to Green Cloak, ignoring them, “do not open that. You’ve managed to complete the job, and for that I congratulate you. Just hand it over, and I can get you out of here.”

Green Cloak spat at him. “F*** you.”

He sighed, and adjusted his glasses, but before he could respond, something came whirling out of the darkness towards him. It covered him in an instant, a violently swirling storm of debris, then condensed into the hulking shape of a man. Eight feet tall, unshaven and rough, he was grinning a broad, bloodthirsty grin.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree, Ms. Callas,” he said. “Please, open it. I haven’t been able to enjoy any carnage in days.”

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If you support this giant goddamn clusterfuck,  vote for Outliers on Topwebfiction, or rate or leave a review on Webfictionguide. Every bit of support helps keep the story going, and, more importantly, stroke my ego.