Shard was quickly becoming a bigger and bigger threat. He seemed to have recovered from Boondock’s throat punch and was hellbent on ripping us apart. Something was different, though. Back in Chicago he was throwing cars and teleporting in way more knives to throw at us. Now he seemed limited to three or for blades, and only teleported when he had to dodge one of our attacks. Was he weaker somehow?
A blue flash snapped me out of my amateur analysis. When my vision cleared, I noticed a knife sticking into the side of the armor truck right next to my head. Right. Focus. That’s important.
The blade flew off, cycling into a loose orbit around Shard. He had gathered several small rocks and bits of metal, periodically launching them at us the moment one of us tried to peek out from the cover of the armored truck.
“Did you get an ETA on that backup by any chance?” Boondock asked Ian.
“All he said was ‘a few minutes’.”
“Well shit,” Boondock muttered.
A swarm of debris flew past the truck before curving to come back at us. I covered Ian and Whitney hoping Boondock and Adam could fend for themselves.
Most of the rubble bounced off, but I could feel the bigger pieces hit me through the energy shell.
“Fuck,” I grunted as a particularly large chunk hit me in the shoulder.
“You good?” Whitney asked, looking concerned.
“Yeah, it just got me good,” I said as I stopped shielding them.
Boondock had somehow managed to avoid getting hit by the shower, and Adam seemed to avoid the worst of it.
“I think I have a plan,” Whitney said.
“Let me guess, more explosions? Tried that; didn’t work,” Ian said.
Whitney looked hurt, “You don’t have to be a dick.”
“Hell. Let’s at least hear it; we need whatever we can get,” Boondock said.
“Prophet, can you lift the truck?” Whitney asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said apologetically. Cypher told me I could lift a car, and an armored truck was definitelyout of that weight class.
Whitney’s face seemed to fall, “Never mind then. I was going to say I could charge the van and you could throw it.”
“You were going to throw away our only cover?” Ian questioned.
“It sounded better in my head!” Whitney snapped back.
“Cool it!” Boondock barked. “In a few seconds we’re going to have to deal with Tar-man and Sparky. Cinder, can you direct those little ember things?”
“Those little glowing things that zip around when you use your powers. Can you control where they go?”
“Kind of,” She replied weakly.
“Hey, focus! You’re our big gun. You are the only one of us that’s managed to stagger them for even a second. We have to hold out until our backup gets here, so we need to catch them off guard and make them think twice about charging.”
Whitney nodded and sat up straighter. “Okay, I can try. What do you want me to do?” She asked.
“From what I can figure, Shard is dead straight behind us. Whenever he teleports, there’s always a short delay before he reappears, and then he doesn’t seem keen on teleporting again for about a second. If you can send your sparklers under the truck to force him to teleport, I can probably guess where he’s about to show up and Prophet can blast him.
“You game?” Boondock asked, looking between Whitney and me.
Whitney forced a grin and I nodded. Time to tap into my new trick again. I pressed against the presence at the back of my mind and I instantly felt power coursing through me. It was strange, easier than it normally was. Not that I was complaining; being able to shoot lasers was useful.
“Ready when you are,” I said, glancing at Whitney.
She took a deep breath and placed her hands on the ground. “Guys, get ready to run. I’m not exactly great as doing this, so it might go sideways.”
“Stick with me,” Adam said to Ian, the two of them tensing up to start sprinting.
“Do it,” Boondock said.
Glowing lines instantly started zipping across the ground, but they weren’t exactly going towards the villains. “Go, I can’t control them.”
“Yes, you can,” Boondock encouraged backing away all the while. “Focus. They are your powers. You control them.”
Whitney closed her eyes and tried to control her breathing. The lines still seemed erratic, but they were steadily moving towards Shard. “Yes! That’s it! Prophet, get ready,” Boondock said, moving back and over to me.
“Fire in the hole!” Whitney shouted as two lines of fire and smoke erupted from the ground, flipping the armored truck and forcing Shard to teleport.
“There!” Boondock yelled, pointing at an empty spot a few feet away from where the villain used to be. I raised my hand to fire, but I never got the chance. Blue drowned out my vision the same instant my body exploded with pain.
I was sliding, tumbling across the ground. The rocks scraped and ripped my skin; my energy was gone, burst from the impact. My whole body was burning from pain; my chest felt like it was in a vice that was crushing the life out of me. Every breath exploded fresh waves of pain. My eyes stung and I felt something hot running down my face, but I didn’t know if it was the tears or blood.
What hit me? It happened so fast. Stupidly, I tried to turn my head to see what happened to my team. My eyes were still blurry with tears and the movement hurt like hell. I couldn’t help but cry out in pain, which only racked my chest with even more torment.
It was difficult to make things out, but Adam was easy enough to pick out. He was pointing his rifle wildly, only firing in a short burst before snapping to another target I couldn’t see. Then a red blur rushed past him. Adam’s rifle disappeared from his hands and his right arm was snapped, bent at an impossible angle below his elbow.
He screamed in pain and dropped to the ground, clutching his arm. A blue blur rushed to his side before turning green. Erin? I knew she could run fast, but still. Suddenly, the red blur returned, and Erin was launched away from Adam insanely fast. A plume of dust kicked up as she slid to a stop, but she popped up unharmed. I would have sighed with relief, but that would hurt too much. Erin took a second to dust herself off before rushing off in a blue blur.
My vision started to clear, and despite the visceral protest from my body I squirmed to see more of the fight. When I looked at Boondock, a fresh wave of goosebumps washed over me. It was strange every time. Both blurs, the red and blue, were rushing around him, but neither was getting too close.
Shard was down on a knee, looking exhausted. Something was weakening him here, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be. The Goo seemed to have the same thoughts as me. It lowered itself to the ground and enveloped the telekinetic before lifting back into the sky.
The goosebumps got worse and I noticed the red blur stop for a fraction of a second. It was the Speedster from before, no surprise there, but he was decked out in red armor. He looked like a tank; a living cannonball. I’d seen a few speedsters before; they usually had obvious runner builds, but this guy was more like a body builder.
Boondock didn’t seem to have any defenses, but the Speedster didn’t attack. Erin might have been keeping him back, but I knew she was vulnerable in her blue state. One good hit from the villain would put her out of commission. Near the edge of the crater, Whitney was bombarding what I assume was Cooke and Morales. I couldn’t see inside the pit, but the waves of electricity jumping up was pretty good indication.
Still, we weren’t going to win. Even with Boondock’s help, I didn’t see how we could. His powers might work well if we were fighting humans, but against metas like these…he wasn’t much more than an occasional fluke it seemed like. Erin could stall the Speedster, but she would tire eventually, and I didn’t know if that would be before her opponent or not. Whitney was somehow managing to hold back Sparky and the Lizard, but she didn’t have unlimited ammo in her belt pouches. Adam was down and out, writhing in pain, and Ian was hiding behind a chunk of concrete that managed to stay in one piece. The only reason we weren’t beaten already was Shard’s strange weakness, and the Goo not opening fire on us.
We needed that backup.
Oh God, everything hurt. It only seemed to be getting worse. Every breath hurt more than the last and I could swear I saw stars. Was this what dying felt like? No, it couldn’t be. Could it?
Like an answered prayer, a shadow passed overhead. Something heavy hit the ground behind with what felt like enough force to shake me apart. Heavy footfalls came closer like giant mallets landing on my chest. Something blocked out the sky, and as I strained to focus, a base voice boomed out, “Looks like you took a nasty hit. Let’s see if we can keep you with us a little while longer.”
A golden light wrapped itself around me and I felt relief and peace in places I felt pain just moments before. Sadly, the light faded, and the pain crept back almost as bad as it was before, though not quite. It was more manageable, bearable.
I managed to focus on the figure standing over me and couldn’t help but gawk. Paladin was standing over me, smiling. I might not have been a big fan of heroes in general, but Paladin was the boldest exception to that rule. He had been a hero for almost sixty years, manifested his powers while serving in Vietnam and going on to save thousands of people. He fought CADMUS, sparing villains that most people would kill without second thought. A real hero in my book.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t heal you much more. Stick in there, champ.”
He smiled before turning to walk towards the villains. Whitney gave one last pitch before scrambling away in time to avoid a massive blast of energy that decimated the chunk of ground she had been standing on. She stumbled, but once she caught herself, she realized who was walking towards her.
Cooke climbed out of the crater with Morales right on his heels, seemingly healed from his surprised stabbing. Both crooks froze and stared at Paladin in amazed horror. The Goo landed and deformed momentarily as a freshly rested Shard stepped out. He looked puzzled at Paladin’s presence but didn’t seem afraid like his two associates.
Paladin stopped and stared at the four villains staring at him. He was a literal giant, over seven and a half feet tall and more ripped at over eighty years old than even The Eagle was. And then he used his powers. It was like a small sun glowed to life, covering everything in a golden glow. The light faded slightly, revealing Paladin enveloped in astral armor. It looked like fantastic plate mail that covered his entire body from head to toe. In his right hand he held a massive sword made from the same golden energy as his armor, and a shallow-dome of energy levitated just above his left arm: The Paladin Shield.
“These Kids are under my protection. So, who’s first?” Paladin asked, moving his sword with a flourish before aiming it at the group of Villains.
“Redline!” A voice from the Goo shouted. The red blur broke away from its stalemate with Erin and rushed towards Paladin. The golden shield vanished from the Hero’s arm, reappearing around the Speedster like as a bubble. The villain seemed to levitate in the center of sphere and lost all traction with the ground.
Paladin slammed his fist into the bubble, driving the shielded villain into the ground. The force from the punch was explosive, creating a crater. The shield returned to its place on Paladin’s arm and the Speedster remained dazed in the crater, but apparently unharmed.
It was a classic Paladin move. His shield was reportedly nigh-indestructible when he used it on other people, and he would regularly use it on his enemies so he could hit them without fear of killing them. Still, that tactic had its shortcomings.
The Speedster zipped out of the hole before Paladin could follow up with any more hits. The Hero tried swinging his sword, but he might as well have been standing still. The Speedster dashed around him, landing supersonic blows to his knees and back. Paladin shrugged off the hits, but the villain was determined.
“Sorry, but I have more to deal with than you,” Paladin said. His shield appeard around villain again, but the sword in his hand changed itself into a massive hammer. Using the oversized weapon like a golf club, the golden hero batted the villain hundreds of feet into the air.
With the Speedster momentarily out of commission, Paladin was free to focus on the rest of the Villains. Cooke unleashed a torrent of lightning, forcing the hero on the backfoot. Paladin raised his shield and started pushing forward after a momentary pause.
“Deal with him, Shard!” The Goo shouted before rising into the air. It morphed out of its human form into something that looked more like a starfish. It aimed the tips of its leg-things towards the hero before firing a beam of energy from each tip.
More and more arms began to form as The Goo continued to add firepower to the mix. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our armored truck rise into the air at the same time Paladin started…laughing?
“Finally, you’re putting up a fight!” The hero bellowed joyfully. He took off at a full sprint showing none of his previous hesitation. His shield scattered the combined might of sparky and the Goo harmlessly to the side and created a dazzling show of light.
When he was still a few giant strides away, Paladin launched himself into the air with a massive leap that carried him squarely into the heart of the villain formation. A broad stroke of his sword severed The Goo cleanly in two, if only momentarily. The Hero didn’t seem to care as the blob reformed, he had already turned his attention to Morales who lashed out with his scales just like he did with us in Chicago.
The sharp fragments bounced off the glowing giant who caught the lizard man with the broadside of his sword. Morales flew off like a ragdoll and made no move to get up when he landed in a comical puff of dust. I’d hit him harder with the car and he’d been back up in seconds. Was he playing dead? No way. I let out a short laugh that quickly turned into a grunt as my chest made its injured state known again.
Paladin set his sights on Cooke but didn’t get the chance to attack. Shard seemed to find his opportunity to strike and chose that moment to blindside the hero with the armored truck. The vehicle seemed to wrap itself around the hero as they went flying. The mound of metal and man bounced slightly before Paladin landed feet-first on the ground. He had managed to tear the truck in half like it was made of paper and held the severed halves easily in either hand like they were weightless.
“Stepping up your game? Let me return the favor!” Paladin beamed.
The giant hurled the multi-ton chunks of truck like deadly fastballs. Shard held up his hands but was forced to teleport out of the way of the first half. On the second one, he redoubled his efforts, and managed to bleed away the momentum and force the wrecked ball of metal to come to a stop. It was impressive, but he was already looking tired again.
Cooke seemed to realize he was the only villain left in any real fighting condition until the Goo finished pulling itself together, and he seemed to be panicking. Brilliant flashes of violet energy arced through the air to strike the hero. Cooke’s attacks didn’t behave like regular lightning; they seemed to wrap themselves around Paladin’s arms or legs before fading. It was almost like Cooke was trying to wrap Paladin up and keep him from advancing.
Not that it was doing much.
Paladin’s golden armor had protected him from worse. The hero continued to advance, forcing Cooke to backpedal to maintain the distance. Paladin broke into a sprint, and Cooke played his trump card. A massive dome of energy erupted from the villain and washed over Paladin.
The force of the expanding dome pushed Paladin back before swarming him with the bee-like sparks. Suddenly, the bubble vanished, and the Goo rapidly expanded, shooting tendrils towards its allies. The Speedster made his return only to promptly disappear into the mass of Goo along with Cooke and Morales.
The Goo shrunk into a shape roughly the size of a basket ball that Shard reached for with an outstretched hand before both disappeared in the telltale sign of Shard’s teleportation.
“Nate, are you alright?” Erin called out. She hurried over with Boondock going to speak with Paladin.
“Not really. I think my ribs are broken,” I said, realizing that talking was about as enjoyable as breathing.
“Shit,” She was visibly upset as she did a quick head count, making sure the rest of the team was in one piece. At least more or less. “I’m so sorry, I tried to get back, but Redline wouldn’t let me. It was all I could do to avoid him.”
“Redline was the speedster?” I asked, remembering the Goo used the name.
“Yeah, he was very keen on announcing himself,” Erin sneered.
“Well, it wasn’t your fault.”
Erin shook her head, “It’s my job to keep you all safe.”
She pulled her phone out and walked off, distracted by her thoughts. The rest of the team swarmed Paladin, asking him questions and just being thrilled to meet him in general. I wish I could go talk to him too, but there was no way I was moving unless it was to go to a hospital.
Then I noticed Adam’s arm was fine, not bent at all. I was going to ask him about that next time I got the chance. It was like one second, he was injured, next thing I knew, he was fine.
Still, getting to actually meet Paladin and see him fight was incredible. He wasn’t arrogant or conceited like some of the heroes that hogged the media. He was kind of like an old grandfather happy to entertain his grandkids. He was larger than life, and one of the most beloved heroes of all time.
And then there was me: a traitor.