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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Dead 22-III

I’m Already Dead.

Tumbling through the air, vision blurry and spinning, unable to even tell which way is up, is not a good state for sensible decision-making. Case in point: I somehow reached the conclusion that going sideways would be better than down, and used my power on myself.

For a second, it was like nothing had changed. Then I hit the ground, shoulder first, tumbling for a few very painful meters before my legs caught on something and jerked me to a violent stop.

The fact that every part of my body hurt isn’t really news at this point, so let’s just brush over all the aching and complaining and crying and skip to me being back on my feet again. I leant against the cause of my abrupt stop, which turned out to be a large concrete pillar, and got my bearings.

The building turned out to be a parking lot, which was a relief. Wonder how well this guy will handle having a car chucked at him. It was mostly empty, only a few vehicles scattered around, sedans and hatchbacks. Based on the view, I was on the top level of the structure. The view, and the hole in the roof in front of me that opened up to the night sky.

Carefully, I stepped up to the edge of the hole. It was a large, uneven circle, cut off at one side by the building’s end. In one or two spots, the bases of pillars were still standing, with obvious markings of being torn apart by the meat man. Looked like he’d taken out the pillars below us, and let gravity do the rest. He’d probably gotten a few when we tossed him through here the first time.

The ground near my feet began to crumble a little, and I took a hasty step backwards. No more falls for me today, thank you. Even the one-story fall it looked like it would be might well kill me. The holes had formed in a sort of inverted pyramid of gaps, growing smaller as they went down. A few cars had been caught in it, and now lay wrecked at the bottom, one sticking straight up in the air as it was propped up by others.

On the different tiers, I could see the other Outliers, in various states of dis- and array. Including mine and the ground, there were five levels, and they were all pretty much evenly distributed between them, with me at the top, and no sign of Void. Or the meat-tornado, actually, which wasn’t good.

“Sound off!” I yelled down at them, voice raspy and hoarse. Slowly, responses began coming back, as they picked themselves up and dusted off. Freefall was the best off, obviously, and it looked like Ricochet and I were tying for worst. “Where’s Void?”

The vertical car shook and groaned, and then slowly lifted into the air. It hung there for a second, then was sent unceremoniously flipping away, where it crashed into a wall and fell to the ground with some unfortunate crunching noises.

Void waved up at me from where the car had been. “Right here,” she yelled.

“Did you just toss a fucking car?!” I demanded incredulously.

“You’ve seen me do much more impressive things,” she tossed back. This had looked… different, though. Normally, when she threw things around, they had that odd, floaty quality to them, because she’d lightened them with her power. That car, on the other hand, had looked anything but light.

“Oh, now you’ve gotten me curious.” Like before, the voice seemed to emanate from thin air, without any concrete source. Unlike before, his actual body/form was nowhere to be seen.

“Can anyone see him?” I barked out, as everyone spun around, trying to identify where the noise was coming from. I checked over both my shoulders, but there was nothing.

“So, do I get to see some of these very impressive things that you’ve done?”

“He’s playing Predator!” Void yelled, ignoring him. “Everyone pair up, watch each other’s backs.”

I looked around again. Slight flaw with that plan.

She remained where she was as everyone else moved, scanning the room. “You know,” she called out, “you’re acting very inconsistently.”

The low chuckle that filled the air made my chest vibrate and my teeth ache. “Only to you. When you can see the patterns, when you have been visited, as I have, then everything is completely clear.”

Over my earpiece, barely louder than a whisper, I could hear Foresight’s voice. “I can’t see him anywhere.”

“Even now,” Meaty Chunks continued, “they continue to harangue me, hound me. Try and turn me from this path. But, ah. How could I?”

“Pretty easily, I’d say,” Void replied, sounding perfectly calm. Dammit, he had to be somewhere. There were significant patches of darkness further down, where the light from the hole in the roof wasn’t reaching. Could he be hiding in one of those? I don’t know how he’d hide from Foresight, but it had been anything goes with this guy already.

Hey, now would be a pretty good time to have that funky weird power-color vision back, if you don’t mind. Predictably, I got no response, and my vision stayed resolutely normal.

“So what’s the ‘pattern’ of this? Running away, until you’re suddenly not.”

“I was never running away.” Ribbon let out a loud shout, and a hammer of fabric smashed down on the pavement in front of her, but if she’d seen something, it was already gone. “Merely restaging the situation to better suit my needs.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Void replied casually. “Looked a lot like running away to me.”

That laugh again, louder. Gah, it was like standing next to subwoofers, but without the actual noise. “Well, then. Perhaps this will convince you.”

There was a flicker of movement behind her, and she spun, fist lashing out. It found nothing but empty air. A distraction. An instant later, the same flicker happened next to Tide and Ribbon, but this time, Tide went staggering forward, crying out as a spray of crimson flecks flew away from her. She was immediately surrounded in a shield of fabric by Ribbon, but he was gone already.

“Shields u-” Void began to say, but then he barrelled in out of nowhere, knocking her backwards and through the rubble. For a second, his real form stood there in his place, staring up at us all.

Then the carnage began.

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Dead 22-II

To The Brain.

The dust that had been launched into the air by the impact began to drift downwards again. I raised a hand to shield my goggles, but a second later the downwards motion stopped, and the dust started being sucked back upwards. A perfect, empty sphere had appeared in the cloud, and as the dust entered it, it just disappeared.

“Hey, Void,” Ricochet called out, “how much d'ya charge for cleaning?” It got a chuckle from mostly everyone; it certainly wasn’t the first time the joke had been made.

“More than you can afford,” Void replied amusedly, the rote response.

Without the dust blocking the view, we could see that the buildings weren’t handling it well. The first one’s top half had almost entirely collapsed inwards, and the second was teetering pretty precariously. The third building, where he’d ended up, seemed mostly intact, with the hole in the wall being the only exception.

Freefall dropped out of the sky and landed next to us just as we reached the rooftop where Ribbon had landed, both of them falling quickly into step. “Good work, you two,” Void said, grin visible through the scar in her mask. I raised my fist towards Freefall, and after a second, she reciprocated the bump. Her hand was shaking a little, I noticed. Combined with her unwillingness to talk about how her power was doing, it wasn’t hard to guess.

“Save what’s left,” I said quietly to her. She didn’t acknowledge the comment, quickening her pace to pull ahead, and I sighed. Well, I tried.

“...priority is the datapad,” Void was saying.

“So if we get it, we retreat?” Tide asked. “Get it to Freefall, have her teleport out?”

“What? No, of course not. We need to destroy it.”

“Which we didn’t do from the beginning because…?” Foresight had been blessedly quiet up until now, and I missed it already.

We bridged onto the first damaged building, on the half of it that was still intact. “Because I wasn’t there for that discussion, for one. Stonewall, Vortex, how are you doing?”

“Fine,” they both said. “Still plenty left in the tank,” Vortex elaborated.

“Is it a tank?” Stonewall asked. “I just get really tired.”

Void waved it off. “Moot point. And second, Foresight, because we didn’t know whether the potential consequences of destroying it then would be worse than letting it exist or letting someone else have it. Which is obviously no longer true. Ricochet, can you snipe it?”

“I could, if I had my gun, but I don’t.

“That’s what I thought.”

“Though,” she continued, “if ya keep him as a person, I might. Might.

“Better than nothing. Okay, shields and Ribbon, your job is try and contain him. I’ll be busy trying to slow him down, so Skew, you call the shots.”

“Yes sir, ma’am.” Last building now. I wasn’t comfortable with how unstable the rooftop felt.

“Ricochet, datapad. Tide, try and shake him up if you get the opportunity, or move people if he goes for them. Flatline, does your power work on him?”

“No effin’ clue.”

“Then you’re on datapad as well. Shut it down if the opportunity comes up, but be careful and-” Her head snapped around to the hole in the building, now directly in front of us. “Block the hole,” she snapped. “Now!”

A plane of sheer black appeared, filling the gap in the wall. And then an instant later, the meat-cloud came bursting out through the wall next to it.

“Go!” Void yelled, her arms coming up. His movement immediately slowed, but ‘slow’ for him was still a fast run for the rest of us. Inside the swirling mass, for just a second, I could swear I saw the dark grey, oblong shape of the datapad. How he was actually holding it, I didn’t have a clue.

“Skew!” Ricochet snapped at me.

I shook my head a little, focusing. “Right, right.” Head in the game. “Shields!” I barked. “Trap him.”

The rooftop was a bad environment for us, mainly because he could fly and we couldn’t. We needed to pare back that advantage as much as possible; Void slowing him, and the shields (hopefully) making flying as irritating as possible.

Just before he reached us, a sphere of black snapped into being around him. “Good!” I yelled, giving Stonewall a thumbs up as he concentrated. “Is he breaking through?” He nodded. “Vortex, layer a bubble around his! Stonewall, once yours breaks, reform it around Vortex’s!”

“Like a pass-the-parcel,” Vortex said dryly, “but in reverse.” A translucent blue bubble appeared around the black. “And also the prize in the middle is a horrible, gruesome death.”

“Pretty much,” I acknowledged. A second later, the black was torn apart like paper, and Stonewall staggered backwards as the maelstrom emerged. I’d like to think to think there was a brief second of hesitation as it found another shield waiting for it, but it’s hard to read human emotions off of what was essentially a living abattoir. “You okay,” I asked Stonewall, and he took a deep breath, and stood back up with a nod.

“You realize,” Tide said as another black bubble appeared around the shield, “that this isn’t sustainable. Leaving aside power issues, the bubble’s just going to keep getting larger.”

“I know. Just two more, leave some in the tank. But I think it’s a pretty good trade-off to make him expend more energy before he even gets to us.” Vortex hissed, which I guess meant his had broken. “One more, and then leave it,” I said to him. “Ricochet, as soon as he’s out-”

As if on cue, the second black sphere disintegrated. Another translucent one hastily appeared around the meat-storm, but it chewed through it like it was nothing and burst free. “Fire!” I finished.

A storm of bullets tore into the cloud, an experience that was both visually and sonically awful. Despite the damage being done, I could see a solid core in the center, presumably protecting the datapad.

“I’m out!” Ricochet called out as the bullets stopped. Metal clattered against the ground behind me, magazines being discarded.

“Freefall, go!” I yelled. I didn’t look around to see if she’d listened, though; it didn’t feel safe to take my eyes off him. Even though he was just… hovering there.

Not this shit again. But, if he was going to give us an opportunity...“Hey, you giant, flying frog-in-a-blender!” I yelled at him, while gesturing with one hand at my side. “Do you have a fucking contractual obligation to stand around being menacing all the goddamn time?!”

A low, rumbling chuckle emanated from the cloud. “Amusing, aren’t you. I simply find pleasure in allowing you to realize the futility of your actions?”

“Oh my god,” I moaned, rolling my eyes. Come on, come on. “Could you be any more of a pretentious fuckhead?! And ‘futility’ is pretty rich from the guy who ran away.”

“Oh, I wasn’t running. I simply wanted to be further away from my first experiment when I did this.”

In an instant, he was right up in my face. A meaty fist closed around my throat, and I was hoisted into the air. He bared his teeth, and his other hand came up, holding the datapad.

“Gotcha,” I choked out.

The expression on his face was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. The briefest moment of bafflement, that immediately morphed into shock as the datapad yanked itself out of his hand and went flying away.

Directly towards Flatline.

In the same flickery burst of motion that had brought him straight to me, he disappeared, letting me drop to the ground. An instant later, the datapad was gone too, just before it reached Flatline’s outstretched hand. The cloud reappeared back off the rooftop, protective core in the middle. I swore internally. So close. At the very least, his parts seemed to be moving slower now. He didn’t go that fast all the time; it must have been tiring for him.

“Clever,” his disembodied voice said. “But not clever enough.” And then he dived downwards, disappearing from view.

“After h-” I began to yell, but the words caught in my throat as the ground underneath me began to shake. I looked down at the rooftop, remembered the damaged supports below it, and put two and two together.

I had time to utter a single, solitary “fuck” before the ground below us collapsed entirely.

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Dead 22-I

FLINT
Following The Railroad Tracks.

The gang was back together.

Sure, the circumstances were dire. Sure, almost all of us were injured or exhausted or mentally off-balance. Sure, there was a very real chance that we might die (which I was trying hard not to think about).

But we were back.

“Stop grinnin’” Ricochet snarked. “Ya look like a psychopath.”

“Well, excuse me for me being happy.”

We were all sprinting across the rooftops, following the meat-tornado. He seemed to be moving around the city in an arc, keeping us the same distance from the Tower and the city center. We’d never even have gotten close to keeping up with him if Stonewall and Vortex weren't alternating creating bridges for us, a straight block of darkness, then an arched semi-transparent shield, then back to the darkness. It was proving to be surprisingly efficient: despite the speeds I'd seen him move at before, we were managing to keep pace with the whirling cloud of meat and bone. Part of that, though, was Void’s efforts; she was running with us, instead flying like normal, and both her hands were outstretched, pointing forward. She wasn't stopping him cold like before, but it was pretty clear that it was definitely hampering him.

Problem was, we weren't gaining any ground either. And I somehow doubted he'd get tired before we did. I was already feeling the burn; the healing had gotten me moving, but not much more than that.

“I can't keep this up forever, guys,” Void yelled back at us over her shoulder. She sounded strained, but not puffed at all. Jerk. “We need to bring him down, and soon.”

“Can either of you cage him?” I asked Stonewall and Vortex.

“Too far,” Vortex replied. Stonewall nodded in agreement.

“I can intercept,” Freefall said.

“Yeah?” I glanced at her. “Power levels?”

She grunted. “I’ll manage.” And then she was gone. Well, that boded well.

“Anyone else?” I asked as we came off an upwards-sloped black bridge. “Go wild.”

“I could’a shot him with somethin’,” Ricochet said, “but that fucker broke my gun.” She very clearly had recovered multiple firearms, and repopulated her webbing with ammunition. I knew what she meant, though; that rifle was tricked out, and there was all sorts of weird stuff it could shoot. Combine that with her power working best at longer-ranges for trickshots, and taking it away removed a lot of her utility.

“Yeah, you're basically useless, aren't you?” I did my best to hide the panting in my voice. “Why did we even bring you?”

“Meat shield,” Flatline said. “With the additional bonus of bulletproofing.”

“I'll shoot ya both.”

“You three, stop fucking around,” Void said. “This is serious.”

Foresight gave a satisfied/smug little chuckle at that, but I just ignored him. “Tide, Ribbon?”

“I haven't got much left,” Tide answered. “I could… maybe launch someone at him?”

“Really?” It was a good thirty yards. “That's pretty far.”

“It's relative velocities,” she explained. “I could launch someone that far from-”

Ribbon laid a hand on her shoulder. “Not now?”

“Uh, yeah. Now now. Sorry.”

“Okay, so we have Plan Human Cannonball.” A thought occurred to me. “Freefall,” I said, activating my earpiece, “are you getting all this?”

“Yep.”

“Good. If you can, hold back, give us a chance to stop him, then you can hit him once he's stationary.” She grunted in acknowledgement. “Right. Plan Human Cannonball. Any volunteers?”

“Ribbon makes the most sense,” Tide said immediately. I looked at her quizzically, as did the cannonball in question, her with a bit more hostility.

“Really?” I said. “I was thinking one of the forcefields, you know, cage him?”

“We need the bridges,” she replied, gesturing below us at the translucent platform. “They can try and seal him when we catch up. We just need to get him out of the air, and Ribbon’s the only one of us who can hit hard up close.”

“Aren't you supposed to want to keep your partner out of trouble?” Flatline asked snidely.

“That's what I thought too,” Ribbon said.

“Look, it makes sense-” she started, a little flustered.

“She's right,” I said. “Sorry, Ribbon. What do you need?”

She craned her neck. “That building, there. Three forward, one to the right. It has enough space.”

“You heard the lady,” I said to Vortex and Stonewall. “Void, you okay?” It's generally not a good sign when she doesn't talk, but I'd been a bit distracted.

“Just dandy,” she replied from in front of me. “I swear this guy is getting stronger. What an absolute bunch of horsefeathers.” The building Tide had selected was two away now, and Stonewall obligingly created the next bridge at a diagonal, crossing us over so it was directly in front. “Ribbon, he still has the datapad. Don't get near him, or look at it, unless you want to end up like Paladin back there.”

The words hung heavy in the air. None of us had mentioned it, but I think we had all been pretty shaken up by that scene. “What even was that?” Ribbon asked.

“Best guess?” Void replied. “It looks like it turns your power against you somehow. Distorts it, or…” she trailed off. “I don't know. Just get him down and back off, okay?”

“Okay,” she acknowledged, a little distracted. Tide grabbed her arm, and the two of them engaged in some meaningful eye contact for a few seconds. “Okay,” she repeated, more serious. “I'll be careful.”

We'd reached the bridge to the rooftop now, and Tide raised a fist and clenched it, then dragged it downward. A divot appeared in the surface, and as she strained, it deepened further. Ribbon picked up speed, pulling ahead of us, her costume beginning to lash at the air around her. Just before reaching the divot, she leaped into the air, fabric coiling underneath her like springs.

Just before she landed, Tide released her hold, and the ground in front of the divot shot upwards, catching Ribbon and sending her flying up and forward. As it did, the coils pushed back on it like springs, giving her even more momentum. She soared through the air, ribbons trailing behind her, and I could see that her arc was going to bring her down just in front of the meat-tornado. “Nice aim,” I commented off-hand.

“Pssh,” Ricochet said. “I could'a done better.”

If he noticed Ribbon coming for him, the meat-tornado didn't show it. He kept on barreling ahead, right up until she fell on him in a whirling storm of super-tough fabric tendrils. For an instant, everything was visual chaos, too much going on to be processed by the human eye. Then, there was a distinct, clear, motion within the blur, and the meat-tornado spun off to the side. Ribbon dropped out behind it, costume now tattered and torn, but whatever she'd done had worked: he was significantly slowed, and almost seemed like he was having trouble orienting himself, listing to one side, barely just skimming the rooftops.

For a second, it looked like he was starting to recover, beginning to rise up again. And then a streak of bright light dropped from the sky at an angle and smashed him through the side of a building.

And then out the other side. And then through another building entirely, and through one side of a third.

I winced, as the first two buildings slowly began to crumble. “God, I hope those were empty.”

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Fly 21-Vignette


Many That Live.

Now.

Everything hurt. She was hurt. Every part of her felt twisted and off and wrong, even if she wasn’t sure what untwisted and on and right was.

Flying felt better, though. Felt less wrong. More together.

Blurry lights and shapes passed below her. She knew, vaguely, that they’d been sharper before. Her eyes didn’t like moving, now. Moving her whole head was easier. Everything still had a blur, though. And a color. Gold. Like looking through gold… something. Something that… flowed. She craned her neck to look behind her, at the large flat plane beyond the shapes and lights. Gold that.

The wind didn’t feel right. She wasn’t sure what right was, but she knew that it wasn’t this. Wind was supposed to be… supposed to be…

Flying. That felt right.

She could feel the golden light. Not the same as her other parts, but there. It didn’t hurt like the soft parts did, but it was wrong. Bad. Didn’t fit. She tried clawing it out, but the motion made her lose her balance and sent her spiralling downwards, towards a stream of light.

She crashed into the ground, tumbling over and over. The lights flashed all around her, some changing color and growing brighter.  She tried getting back up, but her limbs weren’t working properly, and she staggered and fell on top of some of the lights. The impact made her soft parts scream with pain, and she roared, lashing out around her and sending more of the lights spinning away. Hurts, hurts hurts hurts.

Something rammed into one of her legs as she was getting back up. She barely felt it, the affected limb being almost all light. The crunching vibrations it sent rippling through did feel strange though, so she kicked it away.

So much noise. The shrill, warbling sounds that the blurry shapes were making, the screeching, tearing sounds as she moved, the blaring artificial blasts of sound. She tried drowning it out by roaring, but that just made them even worse.  She just wanted to get away, but every direction she turned, there was just-

There!

A spire of lights in the distance, rising up above the others. That was safe. She knew it. She just had to get there.

Wings. She had wings. It was hard to remember things, or focus on them. An experimental flap lifted her off the ground, but one caught on something and sent her careening to the side. Another hasty flap stabilized her, and she was flying again, to… to…

Home. The… tall thing. She knew the name, knew she knew it, but she didn’t know it.

The lights were glowing brighter now. She was getting close. She’d be safe and calm and she’d be able to remember things, focus on things-

Something inside her buzzed. Somewhere in her head. It was muted and faint, but she could still feel it. Clawing at her head yielded no results; even if it wasn’t deep in there, her claws didn’t hurt her at all. She thrashed in the air, somehow remaining aloft, and after a few more moments it ceased, leaving her in silence.

“Ḩ̸̙̪̽̃͊̀̄̈́͝a̷̧̗̰̫̲̝̜̗̼̎̀̈́̀̒̓̕͜͝l̸̨̿̈́̐̋̇͋̎̏̈́̿͝ṭ̶̦̞͇̪͍̼̹̼̿̔̔͂̈́̐!̷̡̢͈̺͚̲͇͓͖̮̖̭͆̄̈́̄̌ ̷̛̝̺̙̭̩̗̒̉͂͌̊͐͌̔͐̒͛͘͝”

The sound came from behind her, an incomprehensible mess that she knew she should be able to understand.

“W̴̧̛̯̣̗̥̗̄̀̂́́̓̈́̉͊̾̀̚̚̕a̴̢̢̭̩̭̤̘̜̓͒̔̀̈͑̇͘͜i̶͇͓̟̬̍̽̎̀͗͌̇͆͆̃̍̆͠͝͠ẗ̶̨͙̺͔̩͇̜̞͎͚̯́͌̀̓,̶̛͔̫̳̪̻͂̌̑͜ͅ ̸̧̢̛̦͖̭̹̼̗̖̝̝̫̪̤̌P̵̪̜̤̰̠͇͎͔̾̓̉ấ̸̧̜̘̭̹̎̇̄̽̈́͐̑̋̽̉̚͠͠l̴̢͉̗͉̜̦̖͚͓̱͐͆̿̐͂͋̇̍͒̀̐̃͘͜͝ͅa̷̖̩̹̞̪̎͑̇͠ͅd̷̬͉̭̩͎̗̀̇̉͘ī̶̡̠̪͚͉̙̂͊͋̐̿̃̎̚ͅň̴̟̉͝?̷̡͎̯̘̓͊̈̈́̑̐̂̚̚̚ ̶̲̹͙̫̜̥̱͚͈̮̮̝̉̋̍̓̍͌̀͋̈́̿͑͂̕͜͝͝Ẁ̸̜̂̈͋͋͋̀̓̀̇̂͝͝ḩ̵̡̥̙͇͇̳̩͇̤̜̣̳̼̽̓̒̍̑a̸̱̜̞̻̾̿̚t̸͚̭̜́̌̌͋̐́͂̿̐̔̔̊̓͝.̷͖͇̽͛̅͊͂.̴̧̖̳̭͖̳̝̹̱̐̽̎̆͑̆̓̋̀͜͝ͅ.̴̝̪͉̖͇͖͔̻̜̞̬̼̗͓̓̋͆̂̃͋̄̇͋̓͆̿̕͝͠ͅ ̵̢̝̼̜̫͖̝͕̙͓͚̅̔̈́̈́̓h̶̗͍̩̩͔̩͉͖̘̣̲́̂̔̎̀́̽̆̈́͌̑̆̒̕͜a̸̧̼͕̝̞̤͚̮̪̮͉͕͋́͆͋p̵̡̯̜̠̠̫̻̱̰̼̘͕͒̍͊̌̓̌̋̎͆̒̽̈̋̍͝p̵̞̲͈̟̄ͅe̸̢̢̦̙̱͑͊̋̈̇͆̏̉͌͘͠͝ṇ̸̹͉̹̾́͊ȩ̵͔̩̘̝͚͙̤̟͔̯͚̣̮̙̄͂̂̇̑̍̆̌̐͌͝ḑ̵̹͇̹̬̤͍̦̞̯͚̥̯̜͇̈́̆̈́̃͊͆͑͑ ̶̝͙̗̭̦̬̘̣̲̌̋̑̔̇̃̇̎̔̇͛͆̉̒̚͜͜t̷̛̟̝͙͖̜͍̺͖͑͋̇̀͂͊̐̀̊́̈̚͠͠ǫ̴̢̬̹͔̝̰͚͛̀̇̀̑̚ ̸̡͕͚̩̪̣̮͙͔̯̖͚̻̳̾̂̓͒̈́̉ý̸̛̥̬̤͛̏̏̓̕ơ̷̟̥̤̤̹͖̟̖̈́ụ̶̺̬̪̭͇̻͇̻̪̈́́́̀̔͌͐̈̀͘?̸̥͖̦̫͔̟̫̲̪̟͛̿̌̽͠
̴̠̝͍̝͈̻̃̋̈́͗́̕
A blob appeared in front of her, silver and blue. Surrounding it, though, was a glaringly bright corona of light, that burned her eyes and felt like it was chewing through her skin. She screamed, and shot towards it.

"̷͚̬̀͂͝P̵̛̺͚̯̾̇̒̇́̊͘͜͝͝͠a̵̢̹̖̲̼͇͔̓̂̎̀̐̅̍͆̆̐ĺ̴̢̡͓̈́̈́͆͘͝ͅa̸̡̨̰̝̩̞̙͔͚̱͌͐̌ḑ̷̢̘̱̗̯̠̆̈́͊͂͌̅̋̚͘̕͘ͅi̴̡̹̬͔̘͙̹͖̩̝̲̓͋̓̾̓͜͝ņ̴͔͇̱͎̹͇̲̞̯̝̠͎͆͆́̾̏̈̾̀̋̔͐͜ͅ!̸̦̝̣̣̠̻̲͎̗̏̐͆͐͝"̷̡̢͖̘̗͙̭̈͜͝ the blob yelled, shooting away from her. “̵̢̻̹̩͙̜̭̘̺̯͇̬̎̃̈́̈́̉̓̌̒̐̋D̶̢̯̩̯̺̦͔̦͒͒̊̌̏̈ī̸̡̞̼̲̰̼͕͙͖͕̦̠̲̑͗͒̚s̸̛̖̯͒̂͒̎p̸̩͍̖̂̏͋̎̂͆͌͑a̶̡̡̻̺̭̻̺̤͚̩̿̃͛͆͌͗̋͗̂̄͗̒͜͝͠t̷͎̹̭͖̱̬͂ć̸͍̹̤̽̑̽̿̐̾͘h̴͚̺̰̘̫͇̟̽̂̇̓̚,̵̢̡̝̳̪͕͍̜̪̩͖̒̉̒̑͆̍͐͊̓̾ ̴̫̉Ǐ̶̧̟̲̣͇̰̺͔̝͍͓̜͔̫ͅ ̵̛̯̜̫̰͕̿͌̿́͌̏̓̿͐͆̎̚͝n̵̡̛̳̹͚̗̗̠͉͈͈͖̫͛̋̿̊̓̀̄͗͋͂͂̄͘͜ͅe̴̝̐̓̾e̷̺̩͆͊̾̈́̂͋̊̒͗̈́͛ḑ̷̙̬̞̤͈̳̲͉̱́ ̶̠͍̻̅̌h̷̨̛͈͔̗̗͇͖̋̇̋̓̕͝e̵̩̮̬̼͖̣͇͖͖̩̹̊͑͐̓͗͋̂̏̈̅̿ͅl̵̡͓̝̬͎̲̠̠̫̻̘̘̥̘̍͑̏͋̅̂͗̒p̷̡̧̲͉̯͓̜̮̮̺̯̺̬̂̑̇̌̇͐͐̚͘͠͝ͅ ̴̧̖̠̳̱͓̹͉̝̞͈͗͐́̌̋̊͒̇͝o̵͇̪͒̏̂̏̄̈u̵̦͙̬͛̓̃̓̒́̄͑̏͂̾͘t̴̞̽̍͋̒̃̐̔͊̈̑̓͆͘̕̕ ̶̠̞̯͊h̵̖̪̱̖̲̰̙͓̬͍͍̑̆̔̈ͅe̵͙̪̿̆͊̈͂͛͜ͅṙ̷̡̧̛̭̼̝͉͇̣̘͚̘̲̠̾̀̐̒͂̏͜͠e̷̬̥̜̍͆͛̐̅̆̃̊̚͝.̵̞̯͉͈̞̔̋̀͗́ ̷̛̘̘̼͈̦̤͇̩͔̤̯͎͌͊̇̓̐́́͗̂̿͛̕͜S̷̨̡̲̭̜̯͎̖̟̼̦͐̊̂͋͝ͅȍ̸͉̠͕̀͝m̵̡̧̡̤̹͌̇̏̿͋̋̾̍͊̈́͌͝ȩ̶͖̰̳̣̱̦͈͔̺͚̥̱̠͒̏̉͌͜͝t̶̨̯̞̲̠͈͖̏̾͋̎́́̈́͐̀̽͆͘͝͠͝ḫ̶̢̧̛̠̙͎̹̮̤̫̳̣͇͒͗͗̋̕͘͜͠͝͝ĩ̵̢̖̦̫͎̼̭͙̼̼̭̤̱̀́̈́̽͝n̴̨̹̖̺͇͇̱͔͕̙̟̞̞̜͋̎͛͂̾̒̆̎̋̉̃̕̕͘͝g̴̠͙̙̮̙̝͂͊̆͂̆͑͜’̸͓̉̐͐̊̃̅̿̎̾ş̷̤͎̦͉͓̘͈͚͍͉̠̣̻͛͂͆͗̐̽͜͠ ̴̢̘̘̺̈́̽̈́͋͗͋̊͐̆͐̀̂͌̒h̵̛̘̹̩̖̞͎̯̭̱̑͐̒͛͒̔̂́͐̎͑͜ȃ̵̬͖͋p̴̺̤͈̝͇̤̬̤̼̣̱̐̀̿̿͌͂̕͜͠͠͠͝͠͠ͅp̸̢͇̜̲̻̬̳͙̯̱͕̊̇̀̔͛̈̈́̒̕̚̕͝e̶̳̦̠̖̫̽̆̄̄̃̎͘n̶̦̙̱̦̭̬̈́̋̽̇ḛ̷͈͚̮̽̌̕d̷̡̰̤̭͓̻͒̔͒͘ ̸̨̨̛̛̮͓̖̟̳͖͉̩̺̉̊͊̅̑̀͋̌̃͝t̸͎̖̭̝͎̠̣̺̞͕͎̘̟̀̾͋̎̂̽̔̀͋͗͐ͅo̶͎͚͓͍͔̺̥̻͙̠̙̙̲̬͋̓ ̷̧̱̹̳͎̱̺͉̙̪̤̬̙̦͋̅̑͌͛̋̿͐̕͜P̴̰̯̠̑͆͜ā̷̛̹̳̳̎̒͂͂l̵̟̦̯͓̝̠̗̞̠̦̘̇̊̌̀͗͛͛a̷̮͗͒́ḓ̸͉̣̩̭̎̀̈̃̓̍̑͝i̸̧̐͋͛̂n̶͎͈̣͚̼͐̌̑́̇̾̈́̋̔̄̕͘͜͝͝͝,̵̨͖̮̝̳̦̎̔̂͗́͋ ̵̢̪͍̬͔̼̺̗̳̣̞̠́͒̅͒̃̿̋͊̽̐͊͘͜͠â̴̛̲̠̠̜̠͗̆̈́̿̇͂͂͗̓̈́̑ͅn̸͓̫̞̜̓̄̃̓̐̄͋̆̈́̇͘͜d̸̛̫̞̻͇̙̀͐̌̏̏̊̆̍̉ ̵̳͔͈̬̰̭̮̱̱͚̻̻̬̠̋͘s̵̢̱̪̩̭̙̤̹̎͑̒̽̋͘ͅḩ̷̙̼͚̙̼̠͔̝̰͎̫͗̋͗͛̓͋̋̄̕ẹ̴͕̺̻̼͓̩̜̇̀͑͊͌̽̃͝’̸̡̤͙͔͎̙̼̹͖̪̻̬̞̉̈́̈́̌̈́͊͑̒͜͝s̵̡̰̺̳̺͔͓̖͈̳̩͈͓̩̘̅͂̋̂̋͗͐͒̚͠-̷̛̗̙̫̮̤̙̃̉̍̐̃̏̅͊̐̿͝͠ͅ”̷̨̱̾̒̀̊͐̓

She caught up to it, the light searing through her form, and swatted it out of the sky. It screamed, but the sound quickly faded away as it fell below her. There. That was be-

Her form contorted, the light shifting and expanding, new protrusions tearing through and out of her. The pain swallowed her, until she could focus on nothing else, and her vision quickly became indistinct, filled with spinning lights and blobs that came closer and closer-

Then everything was grey for a while. As the pain lessened, but didn’t disappear, she found herself surrounded by screaming blobs, and bigger, squarer blobs rising up all around her. The safe lights were close now, directly ahead, but when she tried to lift off again, she tipped to one side and crashed back down. One of the wings was larger now, unbalanced.

Just needed to get there.

She started moving forward, every movement sending jabs of agony through her. When she looked up at the spire again, more of the burning lights were descending on her. She growled as they grew brighter, and once they grew close enough she launched herself into the air, through their group. They went flying, scattering, some of the lights immediately snuffing out, the others flickering. She landed on a straight row of lights, making more of the crunching noises and blaring alarms, but she did her best and ignored them, trudging forward.

Just needed to get there.

Just needed to get there.

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Fly 21-IV

Fly, You Fools.

Within a second, the beast was back on its feet, and charging for us. Awestruck interposed himself between it and us, arms outstretched. Comet was still on the ground, so I ran over and grabbed her, pulling her onto her feet as the two collided behind us. The force of the impact staggered us both, but she seemed slower to recover. “Hello?” I snapped at her. “Anyone home?”

She shook her head, composing herself. “We should regroup,” she said, beginning to run towards where the others had accumulated. I followed.

“Are you...okay with this?” I asked hesitantly.

She ignored me.

The Guardians (plus Kai) were all watching the spectacle with what looked like a mix of horror and awe. A deafening crunch as Awestruck tossed the beast through the front of a building heralded our arrival. “Okay,” said Thrust, not looking at us, “I don’t want to reduce the severity of the situation, but this is actually f***in’ awesome.”

Comet fixed him with a withering stare that I even felt from behind her. He muttered an apology, looking away. “We need to figure out how disable her,” she said to the assembled group. “Properly this time.”

“She got stronger,” Fog protested. “It was holdin’ her just fine.”

“Besides, isn’t Awestruck handling it?” Stump asked. He sounded… well, awed.

“He thinks he needs to kill her,” Comet snapped. “We need to prove otherwise. Suggestions.”

“Whoa,” I protested. “He didn’t say that.”

“His actions are. Suggestions.”

“I have a time distortion,” Instance said, “but I’d suggest we save that as a last resort? We don’t know how it will affect her. Aside from that, the webs were the best thing I had.”

“I could make a mirror box?” Kai suggested. I looked at her, surprised. I didn’t think of her as someone who would willingly offer ideas in this situation. “It reflects force, but the power interaction might mess it up.”

“Try,” Comet barked at her. “Now-”

A flash of light in my peripheral vision was all the warning I got. Instinctively, I went dense, but it didn’t make much difference; I was sent flying, hurtling through the air, and then very suddenly not hurtling any more. Neither state was particularly onerous on its own, but the transition between them was… not good.

I could feel my consciousness slipping away, being pulled out of my body like it was attached to a tether. No no no no no! I can’t, I need to be here, I need to help! Shockingly enough, pleading didn’t help. My vision started to shrink, growing cloudy around the edges as it tunneled in. I started feeling cold, and kind of uncomfortable, and for a moment I wasn’t sure how my body was aligned.

No. I gritted my teeth and focused, on the body I was currently in. It felt like swimming against the current in river rapids, except with my brain. Slowly, though, my vision stopped retreating, the sensations stopped growing stronger. I growled, threw everything I had into it, and, painstakingly slowly, I clawed my way back in.

It felt like I’d fallen off a cliff and landed in my own skin. I jerked forward, gasping, as all my senses returned in a rush. I was lying on the ground, sprawled awkwardly. I levered myself upright, and found myself staring through a hole in a building. It went through multiple rooms, in one side and out the other, and given the size and general shape, it wasn’t hard to figure out what had caused it. Through the gaps and the cloud of dust, I could see flashes of gold and grey, flickering back and forth.

Shoot. The others. If that had tossed me this far while dense, what would it have done to them? I was in between them and the paw, so hopefully it would’ve taken some of the edge off, but-

I went to stand, but something in me gave way, and I staggered while halfway up. I felt… hollow. Looking down at my core revealed three large gashes through it, with frayed, ragged edges, each about two inches at the widest point. Spilling slowly out of them was thick, lavender smoke, dissipating away into the air once it got about half a foot away from me. It made me look like a punctured balloon, a hollow shell filled with smoke. Which, I guess, is what I was, but injuries before now had always looked real, not… this.

I didn’t have time to speculate on it. I felt lighter, and not in a good way, but after I’d adjusted I could still move. Judging by the way the concrete crunched under me, I could still affect my density too, so I took a breath, and barreled on ahead, back through the building.

I emerged in a shower of concrete and drywall, skidding to a stop. Directly in front of me, Awestruck was holding the beast up into the air with one hand, while the other pointed downwards, blasting shockwaves at the ground and pulverizing it. The beast roared, slashing awkwardly at him, and he took a blow to the side without flinching, even as it sent a spray of blood spurting off to one side. Once the destroyed area was around the size of a swimming pool, he ceased the shockwaves, and dove downwards, slamming the beast into the pool of dust and rubble. The plume it sent upwards obscured them both for a moment, and when it cleared, Awestruck was hovering out of reach as the beast roared and struggled below him. It couldn’t get its footing, I realized as it thrashed around. That was… clever.

“Well, you didn’t think he got to being top dog by being handsome, did you?”

More being handsome and also very strong.

I couldn’t read the expression on his face as he hovered there. After a second, he slowly raised one hand and pointed it down at the beast. Then, he paused, and lowered it again. “What is he…” I muttered, trailing off. The air around him began to shimmer, like his shockwaves, and he began rising, until he was just above the tops of the surrounding buildings. He hung there for a moment, looking down. The beast had gone silent, and now looked more like it was writhing than thrashing. Then he dived, the shimmer rippling around him like a corona.

Just before he hit, the pit exploded with golden light.

Like the fractal growths that had accompanied the initial… transformation, spikes and angles and jagged shapes burst outwards from its form. One looked like it speared Awestruck straight through the chest, and he went flying off course, digging a trench in the ground with his impact. The growth stopped a moment later, the light now filling almost the entire pit.

And then it unfurled.

It took me a second to comprehend, as two uneven, flat constructs stretched out to either side. They didn’t look much like Paladin’s had, yeah, but it wasn’t hard to recognize the shape of large, golden wings.

With a flap that sent clouds of dust billowing outwards, the beast lifted itself out of the pit, hanging awkwardly beneath its new appendages. It was larger now, even without the wings, and I braced myself. It didn’t attack, though. With one last ear-shattering roar, it spun around in the air, and, with a speed that belied its size (and physics), shot away.

Heading straight for the Tower.

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If you support double-meaning titles,  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.