How many of them were there? I wondered to myself as the horde of miniature horrors swelled in number alarmingly fast. Even though they looked vicious, I didn’t think they could get though my barrier, but Corey and Whitney were another story.
“Cor- err- Serath, get Cinder out of here!” I shouted, charging up my fists. My first two blasts didn’t do anything but scorch the floor and piss off the vermin. Damn, my aim deeded work. Corey hurried to help Whitney to her feet, but it was too late. The murder rabbits and killer squirrels had already run past me, forcing Corey to bat them away with his wings.
They needed cover fire, which meant I had to step off my game. Instead of firing discrete bursts, I dug deeper and fired a beam, sweeping it across the mass of fangs and spines. Saint’s monsters started to die, but there were too many of them. Corey and Whitney staggered outside, but I was swarmed with little balls of murderous lint.
I could feel their teeth scrape across the energy and their claws press into it as they tried to climb up my leg. They couldn’t get any grip, but that didn’t stop their frenzy.
“They’re quite determined. I made sure of that,” Saint mused, watching the whole affair with interest.
When they couldn’t climb up me, they started piling on top of each other, their claws cutting their allies to pieces. “Get them off!” I yelled at Saint, who didn’t seem interested in helping in the slightest. Getting free was priority now that Corey and Whitney were safe.
Outside, I still heard the occasional explosion from Wrath and the thunderous impacts from Cypher’s attempt to wrangle the demon-dog. The Gold Diggers weren’t pushovers, even against the Regents. Although, I guess the hero team was missing two members. Because of me, I thought. They were protecting my sister.
A creature that I could only guess had once been a rat jumped off the rapidly growing pile and latched onto my hand, screaming bloody murder. I slung my hand and sent the little fucker flying. It struck the wall and fell to the ground, twitching. “What the hell?” I said out loud as I saw the nearly dead creature rapidly swell in size, bright orange pustules pushed through its skin like dozens of balloons getting ready to pop. I watched, horrified, but just when I didn’t think it could get any more swollen, it blew up.
The contents of the boils burst into flame when it contacted the air. I glanced down at the waste-high pile and noticed that growths were already growing on most of the creatures. Then I realized with shocked horror what the creatures’ true purpose was.
I started firing energy blasts, but there were too many of them, so I tried to jerk my foot free, but even with the added strength of my barrier, they were somehow holding me in place.
“Oh, don’t think you can get free that easily. They’ve started secreting a protein-based resin designed to set stronger than concrete. I think I’ll take my leave before the fireworks start, but you’re a tough one, I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
“No, get back here!” I yelled in vain. Saint quickly made his exit, leaving me covered in explosive vermin. My energy was tough, but I serious doubted it could protect me this time. I had to find a way out, but the only image running through my head was a bright life and poof, no more Prophet.
They were up to my chest and still climbing, burying me more and more in furry, explosive concrete. I couldn’t call the others back and risk them getting caught in the explosion, but I wasn’t strong enough to escape on my own. Come on, Nate, think!
Wait, the portal!
I still hadn’t had a chance to really process what I’d managed to do, but unless it was just a one-time fluke, I had to be able to go back to the forest and away from almost certain death. But how? Last time I did it, I had that strange voice talking to me, and I was pretty desperate to get back, but then again, I was pretty fucking desperate this time too. I reached inward with my powers until I caught a brief feeling that I had when I forced open the portal.
Maybe there was a chance.
Saint’s monsters started to swell rapidly, and I tried to push the power with everything I had, and I felt reality rip around me. The mirror-like shards formed in the air around me as I, and a large portion of the rat-pile were enveloped in a blue glow
The portal’s glow grew stronger until I couldn’t see the room anymore, but I could still tell I had returned to the Forest. It almost felt like taking a deep breath after one side of your nose. The portal quickly faded to reveal the skeletal trees, but I quickly realized I had stowaways. I didn’t expect the creatures to come with me, and suddenly remembered that I didn’t have my energy suit in the Forrest.
Maybe this was it. The monsters were still swelling, and I had no way to escape, much less run away. I was going to die alone in a creepy-ass forest. I screwed my eyes shut and waited for the boom.
It never came.
Slowly, I opened my eyes and felt the pile noticeably loosen. It looked like most of them had died, and the few that hadn’t weren’t far behind them. It was like they were rotting right in front of me. Their hair was being stripped of color and falling out in chunks as their skin turned black and necrotic.
“What the hell?”
Out of curiosity, I tried to move, and the small corpses crumbled to dust as stark white as the trees.
“Ugh, leave me alone!” I shouted at the invasive voice. “I’m leaving,” I said, looking back at the pile of white dust on the ground. What was this place? I asked myself. Was it my own dimension? Cypher had said that I could be a warper-class; maybe this was where I got my energy from.
Either way, I had to get back, and not just because the creepy voice was going to yell at me again if I didn’t. Focusing on the strange feeling that opened the portal before, I felt reality shift around me as the shards grew in number. They began swirling around me faster, and the forest was cut off by the spinning mass. Suddenly, I heard the sounds of the fighting come rushing back. I hurried out of the fading portal and found myself on the street in front of the house where we were attacked by Saint’s monsters.
Just as soon as I got my bearings, an explosion tore through the house. “Oh my God! Nate!” Corey yelled. He and Whitney were rushing towards the nearly leveled building, and apparently didn’t notice my portal.
“Guys, I’m fine!” I called out, summoning my energy.
They whirled around and stared at me like I was something from another world. “Nate?” Whitney asked.
“How the hell did you get…?” Corey trailed off as I jogged over to them.
“I opened another portal,” I explained.
“Portal?” Whitney asked. I guess I missed some major details. “You can teleport?”
“Sort-of. It’s more like-”
“-Argonauts, focus!” Cypher yelled from the back of the demon dog. The beast looked bloodied, but just as angry as it was before. It lurched to a stop, and when that didn’t throw the masked hero off, it dropped to the ground and tried to roll onto it’s back. Cypher didn’t even metaphorically blink. Like a champion logroller he ran across the dog’s stomach, remaining perfectly stable.
The dog jumped back to it’s feet, but Cypher apparently had enough fun playing with his new friend. He tossed one of his explosive disks into the air followed by a combat knife pulled from his boot. Everything happened in a split second, but the disk exploded and the next thing I knew, the knife was embedded past in the monster’s eye.
It let out an unearthly screech before collapsing to the ground, unmoving. “Holy shit,” Whitney deadpanned. “They’re stalling, we need to wrap this up,” Cypher said, ripping his knife free from the beast’s socket and shaking off the drops of gore.
“Wrath and Vindicator have Butcher and Cerf Tueur occupied, but if we don’t end this soon, Wrath will obliterate them.”
“Is that really a bad thing?” Corey asked as we fell in step behind Cypher.
“I think they are being coerced into attacking us. It isn’t their modus operandi to go after hero teams, much less ones like the Regents. They don’t deserve to die because of it.”
“Humble much?” Whitney muttered.
“No,” Cypher replied, apparently hearing Whitney’s snide comment. “We’ve seen all of the Team’s members at work with the exception of Queen.”
“What’s her deal?” I asked.
“Class B2 Cognition. She has increased mechanical aptitude and has been known to increase the efficacy of stolen technology.”
“Always so clinical.”
We whirled around to see The Anarchist standing behind us in the space between two of the houses. She looked…nervous? It was difficult to pin down her facial expressions, but what as more pressing was the gun in her hand.
“Distraction,” Cypher said, quickly drawing one of his guns and firing three shots in rapid succession in the direction we had been walking. Each bullet collided with something in the air, stopping a sneak attack from Hellequin.
“Who is making you do this?” The masked hero asked, keeping his featureless face trained on the demon-headed villain.
“Afraid they wouldn’t like me to say,” Hellequin quipped, taking a few steps to stand in the middle of our path, keeping his rifle trained on Cypher who returned the favor with his pistol.
“I’ve been counting your rounds; running a bit low, aren’t we?”
“Still enough to shoot you both,” Cypher replied, drawing his second gun and leveling it at The Anarchist.
“That’s not your style though, is it? Do you know that people talk about you, Cypher? Ever since what you did with Ouroboros, you’ve been what villains everywhere check the closet for before they turn off the lights at night. You’ve killed more people than most criminals, but it’s all fine because you do it for ‘justice’, isn’t that right? We’re all scared of you, plan everything we do around you, but now? There is someone new.”
Hellequin nodded. “As much as I don’t want to do this, he didn’t give us much choice.”
“So, it is a he.” Cypher didn’t ask so much as stated. “All of this is because he wants to pick a fight?”
“Something like that,” The Anarchist said, her eyes glowing pink.
“Trying to read my mind, or are you using your powers to induce paralysis in my associates?” Cypher asked. “Either way, I can’t allow that. Sterling, if you would.”
Cypher must have been using comms of some kind to talk to the AI, because The Anarchist’s face contorted with some unseen pain and the gun dropped as she let out a cry of pain. “Make it stop!” She screamed, dropping to her knees and clutching her head.
“What are you doing to her? Hellequin asked, his tone suddenly harsh.
“Stand down,” Cypher ordered, with absolutely no empathy in his voice.
“Queen upgraded my gun; I’ll blow you away right now if you won’t stop.”
“No, you won’t. How long do you think Cerf Tueur and The Butcher can last against Wrath? If I’m not able to call him off, he’ll tear your entire team-” Cypher cut himself off mid-sentence by firing the gun he had aimed at the well-adorned villain, hitting the fancy rifle.
The sudden noise seemed to take everyone by surprise, most of all Hellequin. Corey used one wing to shield himself while he readied the other be used as a giant knife. Whitney pulled some ammunition from her belt and quickly charged it while I summoned more energy to my fists.
The Gold Digger almost seemed to wave his hands and the gun vanished into thin air. Hellequin started back peddling as Cypher brought his other gun around. With another wave of his hand, Hellequin summoned a rifle nearly identical to the first one, but The Regent had brought his gun to bear first and easily disarmed his opponent for the second time.
“Fuck you,” Hellequin sneered, flinging his hands skyward. In the dim light, I couldn’t see anything, but it felt like sand rained down on us. Cypher broke into a sprint to chase down the fleeing villain, but the whole alley suddenly lit up as blue sparks arced across every surface.
Everyone except me let out a scream of pain as they were tased. “They’re ants!” Cypher yelled, as he struggled to stand despite his muscles seizing.
“What?” I asked, not understanding what he was saying. Were these more of Saint’s creations? Electric ants? “How can I help?” I asked, not feeling the insect’s effects for some reason.
“Go after them! We’ll-b-be fine” Cypher croaked. I didn’t want to leave my team like that, but there was a job to do. The electric arcs were jumping across the surface of my suit too, but I guess it was enough to protect me.
I tried to look for Hellequin, but he had already disappeared. That left the Anarchist. I spun around and caught a glimpse of her as she disappeared around the corner of a building. With the energy giving me a hand, there was no way she could out pace me. Still, she managed to stumble up the steps of one of the houses and disappear inside.
She slammed the door shut and I heard a click as the lock engage. Was she really trying to lock me out? I gave the door a kick, and the wood splintered, flying in off it’s hinges. “Nate, stop!” She ordered, pointing her gun at me. “Stay back!”
“That won’t hurt me.”
“Really? You don’t sound very sure of yourself,” She said. I noticed the pink I saw in her eyes earlier was gone, but her hands were trembling.
“What were you doing to me earlier in the warehouse? Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“I was trying to warn you, Idiot!”
“Warn me?” I asked, takin a step forward.
“Stop!” She threatened, tightening her grip on her weapon.
“What the hell were you warning me about? That you and your fucking murder buddies were coming to kill my parents?” I was shouting, but I couldn’t help it. After everything she had done, was she trying to say she was on my side?
“No,” She said, sounding frustrated. “No, we-”
“I’m tired of you fucking lying to me-” I yelled as I took another step forward. The Anarchist’s eyes went wide, and she pulled the trigger. I felt the bullet slam into my shoulder, but my energy didn’t break. It would probably bruise, but other than that…
“-manipulating me-” The Anarchist fired another round, and this one caught me in stomach. It knocked a bit of the wind out of me, but didn’t do any real damage, just like before.
“-making me betray my friends and my family-” I was closing the distance now, forcing her to back up into a wall.
“Nate, please…” She said, trying to aim again. I knocked the gun out of her grasp, and she hissed in pain, grabber her hand.
With her options dwindling, the Anarchist tried to bolt to the side, but when it came to her speed, she was just human. I threw my energy forward and slammed my fist into the wall next to her head.
“-They are all I have left!”
“I know,” She whispered, the wall not letting her shrink away any further.
“Don’t pretend like you’ve been the good guy all along. Or don’t you remember breaking into my house and fucking torturing me?”
“I’m sorry, we-”
“You’re sorry? I was fucking stabbed and had my fingers ripped off!”
“Come one, Nate…we- we both know you aren’t a bad person…”
“Really? Why don’t you read my mind and see what I’m feeling right now?”
“I can’t!” She said. “Whatever Cypher did, I keep getting…feedback, static whenever I try. Look, we didn’t want to hurt you. He forced us to. We aren’t…”
“Aren’t what? Bad guys?”
“Okay, maybe we’re bad people, but we don’t want to kill you, or your parents. He-”
“Right, ‘He forced you to’. Who’s ‘He’?” I asked.
“We don’t know his name, alright! But he’s crazy smart, and rich, and- and…he managed to scare Hellequin.”
“Why me?” I asked. “Of all people, why me?”
“He said it was because Cypher likes you, like a son or a protégé or something.”
“So, all of this was just to get to Cypher?” I questioned, trying to make sense of everything.
“Yeah,” She whispered. “Look, if you let me go, we won’t ever fuck with you again, I swear. I know we threatened your family, but it was all fake. We have our own family too. The Gold Diggers? They’re my family, as dysfunctional as they may be. We did what we had to so we could stay safe. Your life may have been shit, but it is so much worse for a lot of people.”
Another explosion shook the ground, reminding me of the fight going on outside. “We’ll leave, I promise.”
I didn’t know what to do. On one hand, I honestly wanted to punch something; to do anything to get my feelings out so they would stop tearing me up inside, but on the other, I actually believed her. Somewhat.
“Fuck!” I yelled, turning away from the Anarchist and punching another wall.
“Look, Nate, they’re coming. We were meant to soften you up.”
“Go,” I finally said, scarcely believing the word came out of my mouth.
“Don’t call me that! You don’t get to call me that!”
“Sorry. Look, maybe in another life we could have been friends. You’re a nice guy, Nate and we did some fucked up things to you…”
“Go,” I yelled with more force than I meant to. The energy around me rippled like it could tell I was angry.
The Anarchist just gave a brief nod and hurried around a corner and out of sight.
“Nate! Nate, where are you?”
“In here!” I called back to Whitney. She and Corey came in through the broken front door, black smoke trailing behind them.
“Are you guys okay?” I asked, remembering the ants.
“Yeah. Apparently, ants are like bees; smoke messes them up,” Whitney said, a moment of pride flashing across her face before she settled back into business mode.
“Where’s the bitch?” She asked.
“She got away,” I halfway lied.
“Come on, you had one job, man,” Corey said.
“Just leave it,” I said. “We have more problems coming.”