“You killed him…”
Shard rolled his eyes, “Was it that hard to figure out?”
He didn’t care. He’d just ended a young man’s life out of spite, and he didn’t care. It was nothing to him, just as easy as closing a door.
“There it is! There’s that fi-”
Shard never got the chance to finish his sentence. I lunged forward, throwing everything I had into launching my energy towards the smug bastard. My mind could barely keep up, but I acted on impulse and slung my fist forward. My fist connected with something that gave a moment of resistance before crumpling like paper.
When the monster flew back, I saw what my punch had done. Part of the left side of his face was caved in. His jaw hung slack at an awkward angle while blood seemed to pour out of his nose and mouth. Shard’s eyes dark crimson; I mistook them for being black for a second.
If it were anyone else, I’d probably feel terrible about hurting them that badly, but not with him. While he was still reeling, I unleashed a blast from my left hand that caught Shard in the gut. The force launched the villain back, but he came out of his stupor enough to teleport before he hit the ground.
Shard reappeared a few feet away, struggling to stand. He gingerly touched his face, but even that made him flinch. Without even looking up, Shard unleashed what had to be everything he had left. The street, Ray’s car, the gas station, me, everything I could see with the glow of my energy was ripped into the air.
Wasting no time with theatrics this time, Shard threw everything at me from every angle.
You’ve got this.
My vision swam with blue light as I felt my body moving on its own, twisting and striking anything that came close enough. It was an odd feeling to step back from controlling yourself. All the times it happened before it felt…disorienting, like I was being kicked out of the pilot’s seat. This time, though, I was surrendering to my powers, letting them guide me. It was almost like I could see things from a third-person point of view—an itch that told me things that were about to happen. My body reflexively moved to protect me, and I allowed it.
Still, Shard had too much ammunition. Even with my powers working better than had had my entire life, I was only just holding off his attack. I caught a brief glimpse of Shard in the Chaos. He looked dead, slumped over like it was difficult to stand. He wasn’t even looking at me, just staring ahead blindly.
I had to end this; he was going to wear me down eventually—I had to get him before that happened. He was on his own floating platform in the eye of the storm. There wasn’t any easy way to reach him without going through the maelstrom. I tried to use my powers to find a way through, but they didn’t seem very interested. If anything, my precognition slacked off—a smaller rock I could have easily broken gave me a glancing blow to my back.
Okay, I couldn’t rely on my powers to do it for me. I knew roughly where he was—hovering a few feet above and behind me—the issue was getting to him fast enough that he wouldn’t teleport away. Another chunk of debris nailed me in the gut while I was trying to plan everything out. I didn’t have time; this was do or die.
Fuck it! I thought. I waited for another hunk of Shard’s debris storm to get close, then I used my energy to flip me around so I could use the chunk like a springboard. My jump didn’t take me all the way to Shard, but it got me closer. Everything was whipping around almost too quickly to make out, but I had to find something to hold on to, fast. A tree, stripped of anything that even resembled a leaf, flew past me and I managed to scramble just enough to cling on for dear life as it towed me through the chaos.
Jumping of falling objects fast enough to defy gravity always looked cool in the movies, but trying to navigate a deadly jungle gym floating because of a pissed of telekinetic was terrifying. This was it; the tree had moved me just enough. Hoping I could survive the fall, I let go of the tree and steered myself into position by nudging my energy with a mental tug.
I had felt something building with my anger as the fight had dragged on, and it was close to breaking through—I just had to hold it back a little longer.
Shard was motionless as I fired a massive blast of energy, but he managed to teleport away just before it hit him just like I’d hoped. He was going to reappear any second, but in the spit seconds he was gone was when I made my play. I reached deep into the presence, calling out to wherever my powers came from, trying to grab ahold of the building sensation.
Time seemed to slow as I felt more power than I ever remembered channeling surged through me. Like an explosion, the energy surrounding my skin expand outwards, smashing the things shard had picked up. A storm of sapphire flames swirled around me and through the boiling power, I saw Shard reappear. His eyes grew wide in shock and fear, but there was nothing he could do.
The wall of energy washed over the fucker and he screamed in pain. A wave of satisfaction swept over me, but at the same time…hearing that scream…
Suddenly, images began flashing through my head—a house—a family—an explosion—a memory that haunted me since I was a kid. I saw the home being ripped apart by blue flames, and two people being consumed in the carnage, their screams echoing through my mind…
Without any warning, the azure storm faded into nothingness and I was falling…
I didn’t know how long I was out, but when I finally came-to, the sky was just starting to turn pink. How far did I fall? During the fight I was too focused on Shard to notice, but it had to be a dozen feet or more. I rolled onto my back and, miraculously, nothing felt broken. Everything was sore and covered in bruises, but not broken.
While I was falling, I must have managed to summon enough energy to shield me from the impact. Really, I didn’t know; I was just guessing.
A faint headache made itself known as I tried to sit up— ‘tried’ being the operative word seeing as how a wave of nausea washed over me and I quickly emptied the contents of my stomach on the ruined asphalt.
I turned—almost vomiting again with the sudden movement—to see Cypher surveying the destruction around me. Peregrine was standing a few feet behind him doing pretty much the same thing.
“What took you so long?” I asked, smiling through the discomfort. Shard didn’t kill me while I was out, and he was nowhere to be seen; that meant I won, right?
“Sorry, Shard flung me to Ohio, and Cypher needed my help chasing down Redline,” Peregrine said, sounding guilty. Well, he did leave me alone with a superpowered psychopath.
I glanced at Cypher, half-expecting him to be doing the strange mind-guessing-thing and make some smart comment about how it was “all part of his plan”, but the hero was quiet. Honestly, it was kind of disconcerting. His face was hidden like it always was, but he seemed stiff, on-edge. Then a terrible thought flashed through my mind.
“Is Ana alright?”
Cypher’s mask turned to face me, still cracked from where Hellequin headbutted him, “Your sister is fine. So is the station clerk; she grabbed him as she ran.”
A massive weight lifted off my shoulders and I let out a sigh of relief.
“So, it’s all over, then?” I asked.
“What do you mean ‘maybe’?”
“The Gold Diggers probably won’t bother your family anymore, but I can’t be sure about Shard.”
I looked around at the destruction and remembered the giant blast of energy I unleashed.
“Maybe I killed him.” I said, wondering if he turned to dust like Saint’s rats in the Forest.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Cypher cautioned.
“What do we do now?”
“You face Argus.”
“What?” I asked, not sure what he meant. They thought I was a traitor; if I went back to them… Not to mention, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a hero. The only reason I became sanctioned in the first place was because I was blackmailed into it.
“If you explain everything, they may be lenient.”
“You mean you aren’t going to help me?” I asked in a panic.
Peregrine was staring daggers at the back of Cypher’s head, but he didn’t speak up.
“I wouldn’t be much help to you right now.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You need to decide what you want to do, and I’m not on the best of terms with Argus at the moment. They’ll probably try to convince your parents to relocate and change names. If they stay in Chicago, Shard will be able to find them. Even if they do enter protective services it won’t ensure their safety, but the more steps between them and Shard, the better.”
Thoughts started swimming through my mind, and my concussion didn’t make it any easier to sort through them.
“This was your idea, all of it! You’re the one who got me sanctioned, and I bet you planned everything out with the Gold Diggers and Chess. Am I right? Did you use me as bait?”
“A bit paranoid, don’t you think?” Cypher asked, going back to investigating the rubble on the ground. When I didn’t answer, he sighed. “Yes; I used you as bait.”
“So, you knew what the Gold Diggers did from the start?
Cypher nodded. “I just didn’t know who hired them.”
My spirits sank. I was just a pawn in a bigger game, nothing special.
“But…” Cypher said, pulling me out of my pity party, “Hollands was in on it too.”
“What?” I asked, genuinely shocked. “Then, why did he have guns pointed at my head before interrogating me?”
“Selling the act. Did you not think it was convenient The Anarchist managed to reach in the heart of Argus’ operations? Or that you with just the help of two inexperienced heroes managed to escape with or without my help? Do you think Argus would leave doors securing a fugitive unlocked and unguarded?”
When he put it like that, it did seem kind of obvious. Still, it didn’t add up perfectly. “Then why did Hollands still send Erin and Adam after me?”
Cypher hung his head slightly, “I couldn’t get word to him in time, and he kept up the rouse.”
“Because of the fight with Chess’ team?”
“The Kreigspiel, yes.”
“Did you at least win?” I asked, anger flaring in my voice.
“Not by any meaningful metric.”
“Then what was the fucking point? Did you get some sick kick out of ruining my life?”
“If I recall,” Cypher snapped back, “You were the one who moronically stumbled into a metahuman fight and got themselves caught up with a sect of villains.”
“That’s your excuse for dragging me through all this? You’re blaming me? The Anarchist said Chess singled me out because of you!”
Cypher muttered something under his breath I couldn’t make out. “Maybe she’s right. You reminded me of the first time my powers manifested. I didn’t have a distinct vision like you, but I saw all the numbers line up; a metahuman attack that no one believed was coming.”
I’d never heard about Cypher’s early exploits before; he just burst onto the scene one day and started dropping villains left and right. It was surprising to have him open up.
“You wanted me to be like you?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Are you ready to head back?” Peregrine asked, interrupting to fill the silence.
“Are you?” Cypher asked, looking at me.
The conversation had nearly pulled a 180 and left my head spinning. I swallowed my urges to keep arguing and probe deeper into Cypher’s past and tried to decide what I wanted to do. Even if Cypher was telling the truth and Hollands would let me back on the team, would they trust me again?
And what about my family? My life?
My life…of scrubbing toilets…
Maybe my head was still spinning from the concussion, but what if I could make a difference being a hero? Not to mention, I owed Corey and Whitney big time. I wasn’t sure yet, but I still felt drawn to the team. For some reason.
“Yeah, I’m ready.”
Flying with Peregrine wasn’t exactly pleasant the first time, but with a concussion it was a hundred times worse. I lost count of how many times I nearly emptied my stomach. His speed did make the trip go by faster, so that was one redeeming quality.
The battlefield looked completely different than it did last night. Nearly all the houses were destroyed or damaged beyond habitability. Argus was swarming the scene like ants with dozens of agents running around doing one thing or another.
Peregrine angled us towards a cluster of people who stood out next to the uniformed agents. The flier’s sudden burst of deceleration made me stumble as he let me go, but I manage to stay on my feet. Our entrance drew attention from the mixed group of Regents and Argonauts, and I felt anxiety grip me.
I glanced back at Cypher, but he was busy covering the crack in his mask with a roll of duct tape. Great. Thanks for the support. Taking a deep breath, I took a step forward. It felt like their stares were repelling me, pushing me back and making it hard to get closer.
Corey and Whitney were standing next to Ghost and Animus to one side while Erin, Adam, and Ian stood next to Hollands and James to the other side. Erin was the first to break rank. She wasn’t glowing, so I hoped that was a sign she didn’t want to fight. Still, I couldn’t help but tense up slightly when she kept walking forward.
“Uh, Erin…?” I asked uneasily. She didn’t answer, sweeping me up in a hug instead. “Erin?”
“I’m sorry,” She said, her voice choked up. “I was following orders; I didn’t know what was going on.”
“I-it’s okay…” I said, not sure what else to do. Finally, she released me, and I managed to take in a full breath. Damn, she was strong without her powers. “Hollands told you he was in on it?”
“Yeah,” She said, looking torn. “I didn’t want anything to happen to your family, but…”
“You thought I was a villain?” I suggested, trying to understand how it looked from her point of view.
“Something like that, yeah.”
“What happened to Shard?” Hollands asked, walking over with the others.
“I don’t know, but I kicked his ass pretty good,” I answered, feeling somewhat proud of myself.
“Hell yeah!” Whitney cheered, grinning from ear to ear. “I hope you gave that bastard what he deserved.”
Hollands, though, didn’t look as thrilled. “Damn it,” he muttered under his breath. “All of them managed to slip away.”
“Are we going after them?” Adam asked.
“We need to step back and reassess the situation before we do anything involving ‘The Kreigspiel’ or the Gold Diggers.”
“At least there were no casualties; we can use this to give the team some recognition,” James cut in, trying to sound positive.
“That’s not exactly true…” I said, Ray’s death flashing through my mind.
“What do you mean?” Hollands asked, looking at me intently.
“Shard killed Ray, Ana’s boyfriend,” I said. Remembering that took any pride or satisfaction I had in beating the villain.
“Shit. James, take a team and recover the body. We’ll leave your names out of the report we give the press.” Hollands looked concerned. Then he sighed, “Regardless, you have a decision to make. Will you let Nate back on the team?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t we?” Corey asked, making the answer seem obvious.
“Not so fast—there are things we need to discuss,” Ian said.
“Oh my God, Ian, seriously?” Whitney asked, a faint halo of smoke forming around her hair.
“He has a point; personal feelings aside,” Adam said. He managed not to sound like a complete asshole, but it still hurt a bit.
“Nate, I think we’re going to need some time to talk this over,” Erin said, sounding apologetic, but firm.
I nodded, “I…understand. I need to see my family anyway.”
“I’ll get someone to drive you there,” Hollands said, waving an agent over.
“What do you mean?” I asked, wondering where they would have gone.
“Cypher didn’t tell you? They weren’t ever here—they’ve been safe at home this whole time.”
That son of a bitch.
The Argus agent gave me a wordless nod as I practically jumped out of the armored truck and sprinted for the front door of my parent’s house. A pair of guards sporting Argus’ gray uniform gave me a nod of recognition as I brushed past them and jogged up the front steps.
Peregrine found Ana and the gas station clerk and got them to safety with Argus before grabbing Cypher and whisking him back to make sure I was okay. After Argus checked her over for injuries and took her statement, they escorted her home.
She was safe, she wasn’t injured, but that didn’t mean she was alright.
I flung the door open and ran inside, “Ana-! Mom—Dad-!”
“Nate? We’re in here,” Paul called out.
Paul’s voice came from the living room, so I veered left and then a right. Ana seemed to ever so slightly shrink away from me when I walked in.
“Are you alright?” Paul asked, getting up and sweeping me into a protective bearhug.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, not mentioning my concussion.
Ana’s voice was a mix of fear and worry all urgently wanting an answer.
“He—he’s…” I struggled to find the words and I saw anguish spread across her face as she read the tone of my voice. “I’m sorry…”
Just one word, that’s all she could manage before breaking down into tears.
We sat in uneasy silence while Janet tried to console Ana. With everything that had happened in the last few hours, I couldn’t blame her.
“Fuck off! You promised you’d keep him safe!”
“Ana!” Janet exclaimed.
“No, you wanted to play hero? W-well, Ray’s dead and it’s all your fault!”
I didn’t know what to say; I just stood and walked away to give her some space.
“Nate, wait.” Paul called out, following me into the next room.
“Nate-” Paul said more forcefully, catching my arm. “Calm down, buddy. What happened? Start from the beginning.” His voice was softer this time, but still annoyingly fatherly.
So, I told him everything that happened since I left to join the Argonauts, about the Gold Digger’s fake threats, about the fight against Shard. His face changed as I talked, growing more concerned and outraged the more I revealed.
“I can’t believe you’ve carried all that on your own, Soot. But it’s all over now, right? No more of this hero business?”
“Maybe,” I said, to Paul’s visible displeasure.
“What do you mean? You said it yourself: you were forced into this.”
“Ana was right, it was my fault, I couldn’t save Ray, but maybe…maybe I can save other people. Either way, Ana hates me. She saw me using my powers, and the look on her face…”
“Nate…why now? Why do you suddenly want to use your powers?”
“I don’t know, I just…Maybe…” I sighed, finally setting the words straight in my mind. “I’m tired of pretending. I have these powers whether I like it or not, and maybe I can use them to do some good. If I had training Ray might still be alive right now.”
“You don’t know that for sure, and like we said before you left, this is dangerous! “
“Dad, I have to do this,” I said, looking him in the eye. “But I can’t face Ana right now, not yet. I’m gong to find Shard and really make him pay for what he did.”
“That won’t bring him back or fix Ana’s grieving. She needs time to process everything and you running away won’t help that.”
“I’m not running away; I’m stepping up to the plate. I love you, and tell Mom and Ana I love them, but this is something I have to do.”
If they take me back, I thought to myself.
But I couldn’t think about that. I turned and headed for the door. Surprisingly, Paul didn’t try and stop me.
I pulled the door open and was shocked to see Whitney and Corey standing on the front steps, Corey’s hand ready to knock. They looked a bit startled to see me marching out, but then they both broke into ecstatic grins.
Prophet was here to stay.