“Get out of here, kid, while we can keep them busy,” Spectral said, glancing back at me while The Eagle took a step forward. It looked like he was getting ready for another attack. “Kid, go!” Spectral hissed, with more urgency. I snapped back to reality and focused on the hero. He had something that was a hybrid of a mask and a bandana that covered everything below his eyes, keeping his hair exposed. I couldn’t look directly at his eyes, they were glowing with the same ethereal energy that coursed through his suit and projected into the wings.
“I… I… can’t. I have to talk to Cypher,” I tried to say. Under his mask, I could see Spectral’s face furrow.
“This isn’t up for debate, now go!” He turned back to face the Gold Diggers just as the Butcher charged. Hellequin fell back to cover the normal-looking girl while Cerf Tueur rushed to help his teammate. The Eagle met the woman before she had gone a few steps, only to have a hand-claw swipe at his stomach. The Eagle managed to catch the arm, but Cerf Tueur skidded to a stop and braced himself before several pointed growths erupted from the side of his body. They slammed into The Eagle’s side, throwing him off balance, before breaking off and freeing the deer-man to attack again.
It didn’t look like they pierced the skin, but the attack still served its purpose. The hero was left wide open, allowing the Butcher to pivot, bringing her arms together. The spin built up momentum, and when she brought down her fists, they had fused together into one large mass of bone. It caught the Eagle at the base of the neck and knocked him to the ground, cracking the asphalt underneath him.
“Go!” Spectral shouted before he flared with energy and rushed to help his ally. “The city is in danger!” I shouted, but it was useless; he was already gone. How stupid was that? Of course, the city was in danger: that was why they were here!
As soon as Spectral moved to help The Eagle, it exposed his back to Hellequin, who wasted no time in seizing the opportunity. The rifle manifested in his grip again, and he fired. Spectral seemed to be expecting it, though. The bullet hit one of the wings, and slowed rapidly as it did so, almost like it was moving through gel.
Hellequin began unloading rounds in rapid succession, forcing Spectral to turn and focus the energy coming from his back into a barrier in front of him. I should run. I should just obey the professional hero’s orders and run, right? But it looked like they weren’t doing so well. They were outnumbered, and I was just standing there. It was terrible, feeling useless. I had powers, maybe I could charge the demon-headed freak and tackle him? It didn’t look like he could do much else besides making the rifle perform like a magician’s rabbit.
Before I could make up my mind to do anything, I felt a thump in my chest that hit like the base from a subwoofer. The blow came from the Eagle delivering a thunderous uppercut to the Butcher’s hellish maw. Her neck stretched and the skin split, but she just moved for another attack. Moving so fast he was just a blur, the Eagle grabbed her arm and threw her clear across the street and through the front of a coffee shop.
Cerf Tueur was still up and kicking, though. Upon seeing his teammate thrown back, the deer planted his feet and shot several of his growths into the ground to anchor himself. He then turned into a mass of thorns, giving himself protection from all angles. The Eagle tried to charge him, but dozens of sharp and serrated antlers exploded out, threatening to turn the Eagle into a bird-kabob.
Luckily, The Eagle was fast enough to keep dodging them, but the sheer volume of growths launching at him kept him from getting close enough to land any kind of attack. I had no idea where the mass for the growths was coming from. There was no way it was coming from his body. Was he consuming mass, or was he drawing it from somewhere else? I had no clue. Spectral seemed to be holding his ground, but if it was because he couldn’t or wouldn’t advance, I wasn’t sure.
Hellequin, meanwhile, didn’t appear to have the need to reload at all. He just kept sending rounds into Spectral’s shield. It felt like the glowing hero was holding back, but I wasn’t sure why. Still, I just couldn’t move away. Cypher wasn’t here, and it was clear neither one of the heroes was going to be able or willing to take me to him. So, I should leave, right? I should go and try to find the leader of the Regents. But, I couldn’t. I was beginning to panic. I willed my foot to move, to pick itself off the ground. Nothing.
What was going on? Could it be the girl? She seemed like she was focusing on something intently. Her eyes were shut, and her head slightly tilted to the side like she was listening to something. I tried to wiggle my toes, and at least they responded. I felt a bit of relief that I wasn’t paralyzed, at least not completely. Nothing was responding, my arms were in full-mutiny with my legs. If it was someone’s powers in play, why were they affecting just me? Then I glanced at Spectral. Maybe they weren’t.
I had to do something to move. My actual body didn’t seem to want to listen, but what about my energy shell? I had managed to move it with my mind before, what if I moved the whole thing now? After that I had no idea what to do. One step at a time, I guess. After taking a second to calm myself as best I could, I focused on the energy. Here goes nothing. I thought to myself.
With a sudden mental jerk, I felt myself rush backwards, away from the fight. Instantly, I felt in control of my body again. It must have been some sort of lulling effect. Really, I was just grasping at straws. But it didn’t take long for the effects to begin creeping in again. If I kept moving, it seemed, the effect couldn’t take hold again.
Spectral had to be caught in the same thing. Before I could talk myself out of it, I rushed forward. “À droite!” I heard the girl shout. Hellequin immediately flicked the barrel of the rifle towards me, but just like I hoped, it snapped Spectral out of it. A wall of his energy appeared in front of me, easily stopping the bullets the villain managed to get off. I glanced over at Spectral and realized he had stretched out one of his wings to make the wall. He manipulated the other wing towards Hellequin and the girl, making it rush at them like a tidal wave of energy.
It never reached them, though. The asphalt split as a tower of the brown antlers erupted from the ground, blocking the flow. “Switch!” Spectral yelled, launching himself airborne. The Eagle obliged the decision, using his speed to rush along the ground. When Spectral was high enough, he stopped ascending and aimed his arms down over Cerf Tueur’s cocoon. His wings flowed down the length of his arms, and swirled together, bathing the mass of thorns in Spectral’s ethereal energy.
Right as The Eagle was about to slam into Hellequin, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. The girl seemed to be focusing with all her might. She must have had a way to override people’s decisions, or at least affect them in some way. “Maintenant, Bouchère!” Hellequin shouted in what I assumed had to be French. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out what it meant. The Butcher launched herself from the broken coffee shop, but she was drastically different. Her maw had grown more horrific, if that were even possible. And her limbs had elongated, with her left arm split into two separate appendages below the elbow.
The Eagle could do nothing as she whipped past him and leapt at Spectral. It was messy when they met, and almost happened too fast to make out. Spectral had reacted at the last second, but it was too late. White fangs sunk into his arm, dragging down the Butcher’s quarry. Spectral howled in pain and tried to beat his fist against the monster latched onto him, but to little avail.
Meanwhile, Hellequin had dispatched the rifle, but held something new in his hands. It was rectangular, about the size of a brick with a metal casing. He attached it to The Eagle’s chest with some kind of adhesive and pressed a button, arming the device. “Cerf Tueur!” Hellequin shouted. More growths of bone emerged from the asphalt, quickly encasing the hero inside more and more layers of antlers.
“Imagine that,” Hellequin said with amusement dripping from his voice. “Exactly how he said it would go down. Except for you,” He said, looking directly at me. I turned and tried to run, but my foot caught on something and I dropped like a rock. I tried to get up, but more antlers quickly grew over me, pinning me to the ground. “You’re an unknown variable, Firefly. Fortunately for you, a little extra insurance is always appreciated.”
I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear the mixture of venom and mirth pouring from him. I struggled against the antlers, but I felt more grow over top of me, blocking out the light. “Now, I wouldn’t struggle to much. Cerf Tueur is quite good at making toxins. One little prick of the wrong thorn and you’ll be added to the list of the fallen.”
My breath caught in my throat. I couldn’t move at all, but honestly, I was too terrified to. The thought of being inches away from a lethal dose of poison was nerve-wracking. Butterflies didn’t even come close to describing the metaphorical blade twisting in my stomach. Help was coming, though. Right? I mean, I had seen several of the Regents in my vision. If anyone could fix something like this, it was Cypher, right? I at least hoped so.
Being trapped and cut off from the outside made it hard to tell how long I was trapped. Minutes felt like hours, and the only thing that gave sense of time passing was the muffled voices of the Gold Diggers and the occasional cry of pain from Spectral as the Butcher re-adjusted her vice-grip on his arm. I tried to make out their conversation, but most of it was in French. Despite me trying to block it out, I couldn’t help but think of the mass of antlers as a coffin. My coffin.
Finally, I felt the antlers around me loosen. Any relief was stripped when an arm wrapped around my neck, yanking me up. I had managed to keep the suit energy up the entire time I was in the makeshift prison. It was somewhat comforting in the darkness. But now I was glad for it again. Looking around, I saw a welcome sight. Three men were standing a few dozen feet away. They were easy to recognize: Animus, Wrath, and Cypher.
Animus was wearing what looked like advanced combat fatigues and had a large shotgun in his hands. It was far from the only weapon on him, though. I saw at least two handguns in holsters on his sides, and an assault riffle strapped on his back. Wrath looked the same as he did on the news earlier that day: just jeans, a t-shirt with some old rock band logo and a leather jacket. He was already charged up though; red energy swirled around him. And in between them stood Cypher. Unlike his teammates, Cypher wore a mask made from polished, tinted glass. It covered his entire face, held on with straps like a hockey mask.
No one, except for the other Regents, knew Cypher’s real identity. Argus hated that, but he was unyielding in that portion of information. Apart from the mask, he was sporting body armor, and a duster-style coat. It wasn’t the most fashionable, but I had no doubt it served a more practical purpose. In fact, the only exposed skin I could tell the outfit had was his neck and the back of his head. “That was a nice stunt you pulled with Vindicator back there,” he said. It took a minute to figure out who was taking. I couldn’t see his mouth, but it wasn’t either Animus or Wrath, so it had to be him.
“Thanks. I just made him realize how much he wanted to go home and crack open a cold one,” the voice sounded like the girl’s from what I could tell. And that made me curious as to who was holding me. I glanced down and spotted an arm that didn’t belong to Hellequin or the Butcher, so that left Cerf Tueur. I glanced to my left and swallowed hard. It was difficult to see from the corner of my eye, but the deer-man was holding his palm near the side of my head sporting a wicked-looking thorn aimed for my temple. It wasn’t hard to imagine it dripping with deadly toxins.
Luckily, I could tell Cerf Tueur’s grip on me wasn’t as tight as it could be because of the energy barrier. If push came to shove, I thought, it would be enough to slip free. “I’m curious, Hellequin: what was the point of all this?” Cypher said, holding his hands out and gesturing around vaguely.
“What do you mean? We have the most popular hero at our mercy. Not to mention his well-beloved sidekick and this little meta,” Even though I couldn’t see him, I could still feel it aimed at me. I suspected it was all Spectral could do to mind his tongue; from what I heard, he hated being thought of as The Eagle’s sidekick. Though I suppose having the Butcher biting into your arm would stay at the forefront of your mind.
“We have some very nice bargaining chips. The real question is: what do you have to offer?” What was Hellequin doing? There was no way he was dumb enough to threaten Cypher like that, was he? The Eagle was the most popular, but everyone knew Cypher was the best. As far as powers went, he didn’t have anything like super strength or speed. He was smart. Inhumanly so.
In one of the very sparse interviews he had allowed (it was later revealed that it was all part of a convoluted scheme to catch a high-profile criminal) he claimed that his brain had a higher computational power that all the supercomputers on earth combined. He was always a step ahead. Right now, though, I had to admit I had no idea how he was going to find a way out of this one.
“Where are Saint and Queen?” Cypher asked, not letting Hellequin guide the conversation. “They’re around,” The girl said in a playful voice. “But unless you play along, you’ll get to see Queen’s handywork first hand,” Hellequin added, sounding smug.
“The device on The Eagle’s chest.” Cypher stated. I could feel Cerf Tueur stiffen. “How could you…?” The deer-man trailed off before he could finish, but it wasn’t hard to guess what he was about to say. I guess he wasn’t supposed to know about the thing Hellequin stuck to the hero’s chest before they encased him in antlers.
“I guess four out of six isn’t bad,” Cypher mused before raising his thumb into the air. Two shots rang out in rapid succession, almost too close to tell them apart. Cerf Tueur cried out in pain, and his grip disappeared. I scrambled forward, not wanting to waste the opportunity. I had barely made it two steps before I was thrown forward by a blast of light and heat. It sounded like a freight train crashed into thundering lighting. I scrambled onto my back to see where the explosion had come from. The mass of antlers that had held The Eagle was nothing but splinters, or at least, half of it was.
Though his uniform had a large portion of the chest area missing and burned, The Eagle stepped out of the prison with barely a scratch. Hellequin was holding something in his hand, but quickly dropped it to summon his rifle. In the chaos, Spectral had gotten away from the temporarily paralyzed Butcher, courtesy of the unseen sniper.
Hellequin snapped his rifle to shoot Cypher, but the hero already had his own pistol drawn. The demon-masked villain fired, but there was no bloody mess, only a bright spark where the bullets from the two weapons collided midair. Before Hellequin could fire another round, the Eagle ripped the gun from his grip, and rammed it into the villain’s gut. Hellequin doubled-over while the Eagle strolled to stand with the other heroes.
I had managed to get clear of the action, but then I recognized what I was looking at. The Regents, Eagle, and Spectral standing off against the Gold Diggers. Further down the road, I saw two more figures approaching, sniper rifles in their hands. In my vision I had mistaken them for more villains, but they were the reason I was saved. Quatermain and Ghost; two more members of the Regents. They must have flanked behind and lined up the shots on Cerf Tueur and the Butcher.
“Honestly, I’m disappointed, Hellequin. I thought you would be smarter than this,” Cypher taunted. “We were given bad information,” Hellequin spat back, getting to his feet. “From who?” Cypher questioned, taking a step forward.
“Cypher!” I shouted; I had to warn him about Wrath. “They’re going to make Wrath go nuclear!” He snapped to look at me, but so did Hellequin and the girl. She raised her eyebrows in epiphany, and Hellequin shouted, “Fais le!”
Wrath looked confused at the sudden mention of his name, but as soon as the girl clamped her eyes shut, his powers flared. I could feel the mixture of heat and force from where I was. He wasn’t exploding yet, but I had to shield my eyes and look away.
The Gold Diggers seemed to have an extraction planned, though. They all touched something on their wrists, and a black ooze with yellow markings quickly expanded, encasing them entirely. Once they were consumed by the goo, it collapsed into an inert pile on the ground. Their bodies were nowhere to be seen. I hadn’t heard of anyone owning teleportation tech or seen what it was they were wearing to contain that much of the slime. Hellequin would be the only one I would peg as being able to summon it from nowhere, but what about the others?
There were more important things to worry about, though. Wrath was getting worse, and fast. “Now!” Cypher shouted. Without any hesitation, The Eagle shot towards Wrath. I didn’t know how he was withstanding it, but he grabbed the other hero and rocketed into the sky, flying them higher and higher. Then I heard a sonic boom, but it wasn’t the Eagle. Another flyer shot up from the ground and met with the two in the air before carrying them so far up I couldn’t see them any more in the blink of an eye.
I waited for an explosion, but it never came.