“How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” I said, glancing at Corey.
“You don’t seem fine. You’ve been staring at this thing since we got here,” he countered, putting a hand on the white behemoth in question. He had his wings pulled loosely against his back, making it look like he had a feathery white outline.
“It- this- this was exactly what I was afraid of when…”
“…When you decided to put on tights and a cape and fight bad guys?” Corey offered, leaning against Cypher’s mystery box.
Despite feeling like I would snap in half, I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yeah, something like that,” I said, leaning against the cube myself and sliding down to sit on the ground.
“It’s just…I thought maybe my powers could help someone for a change but…I guess not!” I said, gesturing vaguely at our situation.
“Your powers aren’t the hero, you are,” Corey said, deepening his voice like he was trying to sound philosophical.
“Get that from a fortune cookie?”
Corey laughed, “No, it was one of my teachers at the academy: Mr. Elliott. He had a sort of one-way telekinesis; he could pull things toward himself. Doesn’t really sound super useful, does it?”
“I guess not.”
“Right, but I’m sure you’ve heard of Orbit?”
“Yeah, I think so. He was a pretty big hero in the eighties, right? Near San Francisco?”
Corey nodded, smiling, “That’s him. He taught lots of classes about finding uses for our powers that might not be immediately obvious, or ways we could incorporate our powers into our own fighting style.”
“That’s nice and all, but it doesn’t exactly help me here.”
Corey rolled his eyes. “You aren’t getting the point, Nate. You’ve only been at this for a week; you need time to learn how to use your powers well, so you can help people. And look, Whitney and I are here to help you, not to mention the freaking Regents are here!”
“Why did you guys help me?” I asked, still trying to process everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. “I mean…we barely know each other, and you double crossed Argus of all things.”
“Well, to be honest I was supposed to be keeping an eye on you when we were hanging out together at headquarters. Ian ratted you out to James and Hollands-”
“-James knows?” I asked.
“Well, yeah-” Corey said like it was obvious, which I guess it should have been. “-But it took lots of convincing to get him to believe you would do something like that. But anyway, while you were passed out after the fight in Kansas, Ian explained everything to Hollands and James. The team came up with the idea to send you back and tell you they were going to Orleans.”
“While you kept an eye on me?”
“Yeah,” Corey said, sounding guilty about it.
“That still doesn’t explain why you decided to help me; I mean…I betrayed you guys.”
“Everyone had bad days, and sometimes they do things they aren’t proud of. You just seemed so guilt-ridden and…I don’t know…depressed? The Academy gave us some classes in recognizing duress, and you fit the bill pretty well. I talked it over with Whitney and we wanted to talk to you ourselves.”
I didn’t know what to say, how to respond to something like that. I wanted to tell them thanks, that I appreciated it, but that didn’t feel like it would seem genuine.
“Hey,” Corey said, nudging me in the shoulder, “You aren’t a bad person, Nate. You just made a mistake. Everyone deserves a second chance; metahumans should know that more than anyone.”
“Thank you. I-”
“-Prophet, what are you doing with your foot?” Cypher’s urgency cut me off. I realized my foot was bouncing up and down on its own.
“It’s Morse code,” Cypher said, instinctually drawing his pistol.
Corey jumped up and flared his wings, getting ready to take off, as the rest of the Regents readied themselves to fight.
“What’s it saying?” I asked, not wanting to move.
“Our ‘friends’ are on their way,” Cypher said cryptically, turning to look towards the front of the warehouse.
“How many?” Animus asked, racking his shotgun.
“Don’t know,” Cypher said, motioning for his team to follow as he walked towards the exit.
I hadn’t even noticed the twitching until Cypher pointed it out, but now I could feel a mental itch of some kind. The Anarchist. It had to be.
You are not going to hurt my family! I yelled mentally as loud as I could imagine. In response, my right arm swung out violently and slammed my knuckles against the face of the cube.
“Fuck!” I hissed, gripping my hand in a futile attempt to sooth the pain.
“What’d you do that for?’ Corey asked, looking at me like I was crazy.
“It wasn’t me,” I barked out, the stinging in my hand sluggishly easing up. “The Anarchist is in my head.”
“Well, get her out!” Whitney shouted.
“Thanks, I didn’t think of that,” I said sarcastically as Cypher motioned for Animus to hang back and Peregrine to take a side door. The man disappeared in a blur that reminded me of Redline. I tried to think back to the times I’d manage to kick The Anarchist out before, but before I had time to focus my whole body shook like I had been tased.
Stop it, I said mentally. The Anarchist didn’t seem to like that answer; my body twitched again, more urgently this time. She was trying to tell me something, but I don’t know what it is!
Then I had the beginning of an idea. When she first used her powers on me, I jerked my powers to break free. When they broke into my house, the same thing didn’t work. She adapted to my trick, but I’d picked up a few more since then.
I summoned my energy and it was like it sprung to attention, like it shared my anger. Without a moment’s hesitation, I mentally slammed into the barrier at the back of my mind. The beam-energy poured through me, turning the blue surrounding my hands white. The itch in my brain vanished like a blindfold being ripped off.
“Nate…” Corey ventured hesitantly, “You’re glowing brighter than normal.”
“She’s gone, I think,” I said, relaxing the mental strain of keeping the extra energy flowing.
“Then go catch up with Cypher,” Animus said, giving the three of us a reaffirming nod.
“After you, glowstick,” Whitney said with a brave smile.
I looked over to Corey who had the same look on his face. “Alright,” I breathed, trying to ready myself. I led them through the layers of reinforced metal doors before stepping out into the cool night air behind the three Regents.
A soft glow shown from Whitney’s hands as she prepared things to throw. There was a not-so-subtle cracking sound from Vindicator as the asphalt broke under his weight. Wrath, meanwhile, was playing with his watch.
“How far?” He asked, looking at Cypher.
“Twelve milligrams,” The masked hero replied, his eyes still scanning our surroundings.
“If you say so,” Wrath said, seeming hesitant.
“Twelve milligrams of what?” Corey asked as Wrath turned a dial built into bezel. Waves of red energy began rolling off the meta’s skin as his breath quickened.
“Carfentanil,” Wrath growled. “Elephant tranquilizer.”
“Oh,” the winged boy said. “You take a tranquilizer to use your powers?”
“No, he lowers the dose to turn it on,” Vindicator said, keeping a watchful eye on his teammate that looked like he was on the verge of losing it.
“You ready?” Cypher asked?
“What do you want me to do?” The glowing meta snarled.
“Level those houses,” Cypher ordered, pointing to a group of abandoned buildings down to our right.
Wrath waste time asking questions, he ran forward a few steps while Cypher took cover behind Vindicator. “Corey, shield them,” Cypher ordered as he crouched behind his teammate who merely crossed his arms.
Corey quickly turned his back to the nuclear powerhouse an I was nearly certain I saw his wings grow larger than they normally were. Still, they weren’t as big as I would have liked. Whitney and I huddled close to our teammate seconds before the world shook.
Even with my eyes shut, the flash was still bright. Corey’s wings protected us from the worst of it, but the sudden heat was still painful. “Shit!” Corey yelled in pain, stepping away and rapidly fanning his wings.
“You can still feel them when they’re like that?” I asked, realizing the backside of Core’s wings were red-hot and practically sizzling in the air.
“No shit! They’re a part of me!”
“Guys!” Whitney snapped. She looked…frightened…awestruck? Either way, she had a white-knuckle grip on the charged explosives in her hands.
Then I saw what she was looking at. Around us, the street was smoldering, but that was nothing compared to the path of destruction stretching out from Wrath. The asphalt was molten, and three houses were leveled down beyond the foundation and into the dirt beneath. It was like…well, like a small nuke went off in one direction.
“Is that all?” Wrath snarled at his team leader.
“Not quite,” Cypher said, staring intently at the rising smoke.
There was a wall of scorched antlers rising several feet into the air, some of them broken and chipped, but otherwise the fortification was solid.
“Hold,” Cypher said to Wrath before turning to Vindicator, “Care to do the honors?”
“Sure,” Vindicator said, bending his knees before launching himself into the air. He soared towards the dome of antlers looking like he was going to overshoot, but when he passed overhead, he suddenly fell like a stone. More growths shot up from the dark dome in a branching spire in what seemed like an attempt to skewer the hero.
When the rising spire met the falling hero, it did nothing to stop him. With what sounded like dozens of massive trees all falling at once, the mass of antlers buckled and shattered as Vindicator slammed down. I felt the ground shake even more than from Wrath’s attack as the main wall of antlers fell away.
In the flurry of chaos, I saw The Anarchist, Hellequin, and someone I didn’t recognize hurrying to get out of Vindicator’s reach while The Butcher and Cerf Tueur tried to keep Vindicator busy. The deer man tried launching another round of sharp projectiles at the hero, but they either glanced off or shattered before harming Vindicator in the slightest. The Gold Digger tried increasing the volume of mass he was spitting out, but only succeeded in pushing himself back.
The Butcher was already a mass of bone spurs and extra limbs that was scarcely human as she launched herself at the Regent. Vindicator spun around and timed his outstretched fist to connect with the flying villainess. Even compared to The Eagle, Vindicator was probably one of the strongest individuals on the planet, and his strike only served to demonstrate that. The Gold Digger flew off in a shower of gore and entrails before her newly imparted momentum carried her cleanly through the wall of a house that Wrath’s blast left standing and out of sight.
“You three with me, Wrath, help Vindicator!” Cypher shouted, as he ran to intercept Hellequin. Corey launched himself into the air with strong downbeat of his wings as Whitney and I took off to keep up with Cypher. The demon-helmeted villain suddenly produced his decorative rifle out of thin air and took rough aim at Corey, not bothering to slow down.
Luckily, Corey managed to steel his wings and wrap them around himself before the first shot glanced off in a burst of sparks. Unfortunately, the barrage prevented Corey from flapping his wings, forcing him to the ground. Creatively, he oriented his wings in a rough ring and used them to role and keep himself from faceplanting.
More bullets came down range, aimed randomly, but still threatening. Cypher exchanged rounds but he was shooting just as crazily until I noticed sparks in the air in front of us. Then I realized he was shooting Hellequin’s bullets before they could hit us.
“You’re covered, get airborne,” Cypher called back to Corey. The Argonaut didn’t waste any time jumping into the air again and putting some distance between himself and the ground. The Gold Diggers ran behind one of the houses, cutting off our line of sight.
In the distance, I heard- and felt- another explosion as Wrath unleashed his power again. We had problems of our own, though. Cypher pointed to me and then to the roof while motioning for Whitney to circle around the house with him.
Alright, I could get on the roof. It’s a simple jump, right? I flexed my legs and willed my energy to move up with me. Normally, I didn’t have a problem with heights, but it was unsettling how quickly the ground disappeared beneath me. And then I didn’t come down. It was like the energy shell was dragging behind me like a parachute, slowing my fall considerably.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t really control my decent and landed on the roof hard. The energy’s low friction made me slide toward the edge. My hart skipped a beat as I scrambled to find something to hold on to. Before I managed to slide all the way off, I grabbed the edge and easily hauled myself up.
“Prophet, look out!” Corey shouted. My head snapped up to look for what he was warning me about, but I didn’t have time to react to the ball of fire screaming towards me.
Even through the energy shell, it felt like a bowling ball slammed into my chest. I fell backwards off the roof, but a rapid self-assessment spurred on by panicked memories of Redline breaking my ribs revealed I wasn’t burned, and my powers saved me from any injury from the fall.
“It’s coming back!” Corey warned.
Shit! The burning fireball curved around and made a beeline towards me. Thinking fast, I pushed through to my extra energy and fired a quick blast. The fireball deftly dodged and kept on it’s burning trajectory. This was going to hurt…I thought as I braced for impact.
Suddenly, a silver blur swooped down from the sky and the fireball became two slightly smaller fireballs. I covered my face, but I didn’t feel anything hit me. Two soft thuds came from above my head, and I rolled over to see a…bird? Corey landed next to me to investigate the still smoking corpse.
“Shit, I got blood on my wing,” Corey said, looking at the red spot on his white feathers.
“Thanks for the save,” I said, piecing together what happened. “Don’t mention it,” Corey replied.
The bird wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. It was like a pigeon, but three, maybe four times the size and covered in red feathers.
“What the-?” Corey started to ask before the side of the house exploded. A massive creature burst out, covered in horns and armor plates like some kind of demon-dog-thing. To make things stranger, Cypher was standing on it’s back, riding it like an unruly surfboard. He unloaded multiple rounds into the beast’s skull to no effect. “Help Cinder!” Cypher called out, pulling a disk from his pocket and throwing it at the monster’s feet. The throwing disk exploded, knocking Cypher and the beast to the ground.
“He has it handled, go!” Corey said, urgency creeping into his voice. “Alright,” I called out, scrambling to my feet and rushing through the hole the demon-dog made slightly behind Corey. Inside, Whitney was on her hands and knees in obvious pain a few feet from a…goat?
It was large with horns curved to wickedly sharp points. What made it odd was its fur. Instead of the usual colors like black or brown, it was a faint purple. It moved its head to look at us, and I suddenly felt like my head was being split in half.
Apparently, it was affecting Corey too. He cried out in pain, clutching his head. “Kill it!” Whitney screamed out. I couldn’t think straight, and my body didn’t want to move. My vision swam as colors blurs and sifted.
I reached out to my power and lifted my hand to fire a blast of energy. The goat bleated in what I could only assume was a warning as it felt like my brain twisted itself into a knot. Desperate for relief, I fired a blast of energy anyway. Suddenly, the pain stopped, and I felt control return to my limbs.
“Did you get it?” Corey moaned.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking up to see the barnyard bastard limping away. “No, it got away.”
“What the hell was that? A fucking psychic goat?” Whitney groaned as she slowly tried to get up. Blood was dripping form her nose, but otherwise, she seemed…alive at least.
“Indeed. One of many possibilities hidden away inside every living creature.”
We all tensed and looked at the newcomer. He was the third person I saw with Hellequin and The Anarchist, the only one I didn’t recognize. He was wearing blue robes and standing with his hands clasped behind his back. What scared me though, were the numerous animals crawling towards us. What had once been squirrels and rabbits were now twisted abominations of spines and teeth.
“Allow me to introduce myself; I am Saint.”