A Change of Pace – Chapter 39

Having the full weight of a woman pressing down on top of Seth was a turn on. It didn’t matter that he was in a relationship with Liz. Having two full, soft, but firm breasts in his face was bound to induce a certain physiological reaction. <Tits get me horny, so sue me,> it didn’t help that he was basically grabbing her ass as she pressed her boobs into his face.

The fact that he knew what Kimberly Goodman’s world class assets looked like without a black HCP uniform covering them only made the situation that much more embarrassing.

“Are you hard?” she asked the mortifying question.

“Wha…no,” Seth made the fatal mistake of letting his concentration falter.

As he stammered Kimberly twisted, breaking the hold Seth was using to grapple with her. Without the hold, Kimberly was able to sit up to her full height on top of him, and began raining down punches on his face. Seth blocked most of them, but a few got through.

“Fuck!” Seth yelled after a devastating hammer fist hit him in the jaw. He felt something crack.

“Time,” Coach McMillian’s voice carried over the forty-six fighting freshman. “Anyone need a healer?”

Seth was embarrassed as he raised his hand. Kimberly just looked smug. The grey uniformed junior looked sorry for the both of them.

“It doesn’t feel good does it,” Seth was one of the few getting healed, but just about everyone was injured. “Fighting without your powers might seem unfair, but it’s good to have an appreciation for what the average person has to deal with.” Several heads around the room nodded. “Plus, you never know when you might have to fight a nullifier.” No one liked the smile that crossed Coach McMillian’s face.

Seth thought having Coach Meyers absent from physical training would be a blessing, but Coach McMillian was doing his best to make up for the difference. He didn’t even have to work hard to do it. He just put the whole class into the combat rings at the center of the gym, told them no powers, and let them duke it out for two minute rounds.

The day had just been a weird one. <And it started out so good,> thoughts of his and Liz’s carnal activities didn’t do a whole lot to help his current situation. His intention to end the day as he started it didn’t either.

<At least I didn’t have to present,> he counted his blessings.

Seth was fully ready to present his midterm report on his chosen hero, and he was confident his presentation would have kicked ass. Public speaking wasn’t an issue for Seth. He’d been talking with politicians, business tycoons, and other influential people whose actions influenced thousands of people’s daily lives for years. Giving a ten to twenty minute report on a Hero in front of teenagers was child’s play.

The only thing he was worried about was going too soon after Angela. Once again she’d outdone herself at the expense of the rest of the class. The project was to present on a Hero and focus on their contributions to society; not string together a convoluted web of action and reaction that showed a single Hero’s fall from grace. Coach Meyer’s little info dump hadn’t helped.

<What the hell is up with her?> Seth knew enough about the women to know that he didn’t want to know about the shit rattling around in her head.

Coach Meyers always struck him as the “bury your feelings deep down” type. In the span of a few hours they’d seen her cry, go off into daydream land, and then black out. The look in the older Super’s eyes when she finally came to made Seth feel sorry for whoever had pissed her off.

<Don’t know, don’t care. I just don’t want to get my ass kicked again,> the Seth who thought he was invincible because of his powerful abilities had been gone since that first day of the HCP.

Kimberly’s smug expression turned into a frown when she looked back down at his crotch. “Don’t be so flattered,” he snapped at her, still a little pissed that she’d broken his jaw. “This isn’t because of you,” the words were only half true. Her frown became a grimace, and she stalked off to her next fight.

Half the room was moving counterclockwise while the other half stayed in their combat circle. That meant that Seth’s next opponent was…<This is just perfect.>

                Angela Martin stepped across the faint red line that marked the circle’s boundary. She had a bruise on her cheek, and one of her eyes was watery. Seth wanted to give whoever had punched the woman at the top of their class in the face a high five.

Angela watched where he was looking and smiled. It was not the kind of smile Seth liked to see. “You should see the other guy.” If Seth didn’t know any better, he would have thought Angela made a joke.

He looked over at the circle next to his. It was Jacqueline Eaton, an aerokinetic who was ranked 20th in the class. Jacki, as everyone called her, was a tall, lean, black girl who looked like she’d run track and played center on her high school basketball team. She didn’t have the kind of curves Seth looked for in a woman, but she was pretty. Her limbs were long, but strong, and along with years of martial arts experience, it made her an excellent fighter. Her six foot frame had several inches in reach compared to Angela, but it still looked like Angela had thoroughly manhandled her. It even looked like the healer was regrown parts of her hair that had been torn out.

Despite the evidence of the beat down, Seth was confident as he turned back to Angela. He was taller, stronger, and had a decent training background. He hadn’t been training since he could stand, like Angela probably had, but he’d spent five years engrossed in mixed martial arts. This might be one of the only times in the near future he’d get to beat her. The thought brought a smile to his face.

Angela didn’t react, she was already coming up with a strategy to deal with his physical advantages. Seth would have put his mind to the same task if he had time.

“Ready…Set…Fight…” the red lights around the circles turned green at Coach McMillian’s command.

Angela rushed forward, dodging Seth’s punch and delivering a quick one-two combo to his body before dancing back out of range. The blows weren’t too painful, but they hadn’t been love taps.

<This is your chance,> Seth psyched himself up as he advanced on her. <Man up!>

                He threw his own combination, his superior power knocking Angela off balance. He followed it with a kick to the head, hoping to end the match by humiliating her, but he missed. Angela ducked low, kicked out, and swept Seth’s leg out from underneath him. He hit the ground with an “umph”, but immediately rolled away. He barely avoided a stomp that would have driven all the air from his lungs, and probably broken a rib or three.

Seth kicked out wildly, driving her away, while spinning on his back to keep his legs facing his circling opponent. Angela would either have to take a chance and try to get past his kicks, let him lay there for the rest of the match, or let him get back to his feet.

“Get up,” Angela walked to the opposite side of the circle to give him plenty of space.

Seth kept his smile to himself, he knew his dorm mate well enough to know she wanted a good workout more than anything else.

He’d barely gotten his feet underneath him before she charged. She threw punches and kicks, driving him back, and then countering his counters. <Damn she’s good.> She was better than good, and she was definitely better than him. <I need to use my size and strength,> they were the only advantages he had at the moment.

He kept her at a distance with jabs and feints until he had a plan. It was reckless and stupid, but hopefully he’d catch her off guard.

He charged her.

It didn’t catch Angela off guard, and his thick skull was the only thing that kept him standing long enough to wrap his arms around her. He was pretty sure he’d had his jaw broken again by a well-placed haymaker, but he was just too stubborn to go down by this point. He got both of his arms around her, pinning her arms to her side. He was about to lift her up and throw her to the ground when she brought the heel of her foot crashing down on his instep.

The sound of Seth’s foot breaking was audible to anyone within a few circles of him. The pain was enough for her to break his hold. Her elbows came down hard on his forearms, and then her palms shot forward to hit him square in the chest. Seth felt air rush out of his lungs as he stumbled backwards. He was only able to get in half a breath before Angela’s foot struck him right in the stomach.

At this point he was stumbling backwards, and doubled over in pain. His foot found the worst time to find a slick part on the mat. He slipped, unable to correct the sudden lack of traction. He came down hard on his ass and lower back, and that didn’t do a lot to help his lack of oxygen problem.

Seth wheezed, trying to fill his burning, punished lungs with air. He got another half-breath in before Angela jumped on top of him. For a second it turned him on, but they she had his arms pinned under her knees, and she was pummeling his face.

The last thought Seth had before Angela beat him unconscious was how pointless it was to think he’d ever be as good as her. Powers or no power, the woman was a force to be reckoned with.

*

“There we go, easy does it.” Seth’s eyes snapped back open. “And we’re back.”

“What…” it took a moment for his short term memory to kick in, and he didn’t like what he remembered.

He liked it even less that there was a small group gathered around the combat circle. “Nothing new to see here, you’ve seen people get their ass kicked before,” the grey uniformed junior was waving people away.

Seth tried to prop himself up on his elbow but it slipped, and he fell backwards, smacking his head against the rubber mat. “Ugh?” he groaned, moving his hand over the wet spot he was lying in. It came away sticky and red.

“That girl beat the piss out of you,” the healer pointed at Angela, who was across the gym talking with Coach McMillian. “Do I need to just stand by your combat circle for the rest of class, because you’re making a habit of getting your ass kicked by girls?” Seth glared at the older Super, who proceeded to laugh at him. “Don’t get your boxers in a twist,” the guy put up his hands defensively. “I’ve had my ass handed to me dozens of times by girls, just not back to back like that.” The junior was really starting to get on Seth’s nerves.

“Show’s over people, rotate and get ready to start again,” Coach McMillian gestured for Angela to head back over.

She passed by Seth as she walked to her next fight, and he noticed that her knuckles were split open and bleeding. “I apologize,” Angela looked at the ground, clearly uncomfortable. “I lost control and was too rough. I have no excuse.”

Seth had a witty comeback about being too rough, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. After all this woman had just beaten him senseless.

“No worries,” Seth smiled, pretty sure that the healer had to regrow some of his teeth. “It happens.”

“It doesn’t happen to me,” Angela replied defensive, leaving them in an uncomfortable silence.

“Still, don’t worry about it,” Seth reiterated that he wasn’t holding anything against her. She was about to say something else, but then Coach McMillian yelled at them for talking like little school girls.

Angela moved on to the next cell, to face an understandably scared Danny Mason, while Seth’s next opponent entered the circle.

“That looked harsh, bro,” Seth recognized the man as the technopath who sat next to Mason in Ethics. Seth knew he was ranked 4 spots higher than him, but he couldn’t remember the guy’s name.

<Probably from all the recent head trauma.>

“Ready…set…fight,” Coach McMillian ordered.

Whatever the technopaths name was, he didn’t last more than a minute against Seth. Seth would never admit it out loud, because it sounded a little sociopathic, but he was glad to have someone he could kick the crap out of and not receive a broken face for his troubles.

That was how the rest of gym class went. After two stellar defeats, Seth thoroughly mopped the floor with the rest of his opponents. The only excitement came from the surprising ferocity of Stephanie Jackson, the lowest ranked freshman; but once he adjusted his tactics he defeated her too.

“Everyone hit the showers,” Coach McMillian called an end to the physical training session after three hours of brawling. Coach Meyers was still unaccounted for.

After kicking ass, or having your ass kicked, for several hours, the locker room was pretty quiet. A lot of people had undergone multiple rounds of healing. Even though the junior healer brought everyone back to one hundred percent, there were still side effects. A human, or Super’s, body wasn’t meant to be continually healed like that. Hormones became unbalanced, and nerve endings were sending confused signals to the brain. Going from pain one second to calm the next was just as tough on the nervous system as it was on the mind, and all the fighting had left everyone mentally exhausted.

Seth showered and changed without a word to anyone else. He beaten every guy he’d come up against, and that didn’t make people want to talk to him. Overall, he was being allowed back into the HCP social circle. Becca and Kyoshi must have been spreading word of his monogamous relationship, and his mellowing when it came to all things female. Truthfully, he hadn’t really mellowed at all. He’d just found a woman who appreciated who he truly was, and focused all his efforts on her.

<And it has taken everything I have to keep up with her,> he wasn’t just talking about the bedroom. Liz was an honest to God remarkable person. The fact that she screwed him like a howler monkey in heat was a well appreciated bonus.

“Yo, Seth,” someone called out from the far side of the locker room.

Seth made sure to compose his face before turning towards the voice. Carson Long was the number ten ranked freshman, and the guy thought he was hot shit because he was in the top three in terms of guys. Carson also was one of the first guys to treat Seth like a pariah. Seth knew Carson was pissed at him for getting with Kimberly before he could, but that was only one half of the equation. The other half was that he was currently dating the number nine ranked female. It was not a healthy relationship, and if Seth was saying that, then that meant it was true.

“What’s up, Carson?” Seth kept his expression polite.

“I saw how my girl whooped your ass,” Carson and his three man entourage laughed. Seth found it pretty hypocritical since he’d embarrassingly defeated two of those three guys.

“Kimberly is a skilled fighter,” Seth answered diplomatically, not wanting to start anything. “It was a good match.”

“And that’s why she’s top ten.” Carson always made a big deal out of the top ten. It didn’t matter that he’d initially been ranked number ten, and hadn’t been able to move up.

“How did you fare today?” Seth couldn’t help the edge that crept into his tone. “I saw you had a little trouble against Stephanie.”

Seth hoped Carson was smart enough to make the connection. The last ranked freshman had been able to fight him to a draw. Seth had been surprised by her as well, but he’d compensated and won. The bottom line was Seth had been able to beat someone who Carson couldn’t, and the red in the other Super’s cheeks showed Seth he’d hit a nerve.

“That bitch wouldn’t last a second against me if I had my powers,” Carson retorted, his fists clenched and shaking.

You didn’t make it to number ten without having a good power, and knowing how to use it. In Carson’s case, that was the ability to deliver explosive blows. It was actually funny to watch him fight. Every time a punch, kick, or even head-butt made contact with Carson’s opponent there was a release of kinetic and thermal energy. It literally looked like a bomb was going off when he hit someone, and the end result was usually the opponent flying across the room and possibly on fire. As a result Carson was also more durable than an average human, so he didn’t break his own bones when he hit someone.

The downside was that he had trouble controlling his power. It wasn’t in a Powered sense, but so far he only had minimal control of the amount of thermal and kinetic energy he released with his attacks. Seth had seen some progress since the start of the school year, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he’d come dangerously close to using lethal force in the initial combat rankings.

<And his temper doesn’t help,> Seth thought, knowing full well that his own emotions were getting the best of him at the moment. <But I really don’t like this guy.>

“The entire point of the exercise was to evaluate how you’d fight if you didn’t have your power,” Seth kept his voice calm as he pulled on a clean pair of shorts and a t-shirt. “What today really showed us is that without your power you’d be at the bottom of the rankings.”

The fact that it was common knowledge that Carson wasn’t the most skilled fighter, and relied more on his power, only strengthened Seth’s argument.

“Fuck you, Seth. I could take you any day, any time,” Carson took the bait.

“Excellent,” Seth smiled back at his red faced classmate. “How about this Friday? I’ll make all the arrangements with Coach McMillian.”

“You’re on,” Carson didn’t hesitate, or think about what he was agreeing to.

Carson’s power made him deadly when it came to close combat, but he had nothing to counter ranged attacks. His enhanced durability had helped get him into the top ten, but it wasn’t strongman level. Still, it would allow Seth to let loose a little bit. In terms of flexibility, Seth’s power was far superior.

“Let’s keep any fightin’ to the combat cells,” Mason’s voice cut through the tension like a big ass knife. “You hear me?” Carson spared Seth a final glare before turning back to his entourage.

“What’re you up to tonight,” Mason walked over to stand by Seth, his massive frame completely blocking Carson from view.

“Just hanging with Liz,” Seth replied, pulling on his shoes, and grabbing his bag full of dirty clothes.

“Could you ‘hang with Liz’ earlier in the evening? Some of us would like to get a good night sleep,” it was tough to see Mason blush, but Seth caught it.

“Sure thing,” Seth didn’t have enough shame to blush. “Sorry about that, but Liz isn’t one to keep it down.” Mason didn’t respond to that. He just shook his head and headed toward the lifts.

Seth followed his larger roommate, but detoured to Coach McMillian’s office to schedule the challenge. The close combat instructor even looked eager to see the outcome. By the time Seth was finished with him, most of the class was already back up on campus. Seth rode the lift up alone, and emerged in the student’s center. He was careful about how he made his exit, because the center was filled with students. There were a lot of club meetings going on in the evenings, so it took him a while to find an opening. After he did, he was back at the townhouse within five minutes.

“Honey, I’m home,” Seth did his best Ricky Ricardo impression.

He didn’t get an answer. Liz wasn’t downstairs. Seth walked up to his room, and pushed open the door. “Hey,” he found Liz covered in a mound of blankets. It was pretty simiar to how he’d left her, except she was wearing clothes this time.

“You ok?” something didn’t feel right. It just felt off.

“Yeah I’m fine,” Liz sounded worn down, as she turned over to face him.

“Are you ok?” Seth’s heart dropped when he saw her face. “You looked like you just got hit by a bus.”

Liz’s eyes narrowed as she scowled at him. Seth gulped, and thought about what he’d just said. It was the first time he’d referred to his girlfriends as anything other than mind-blowingly hot.

“I’m not feeling great,” Liz replied, her face softening when she recognized the guilt on his face. “Must be one of those 24 hour bugs.” She didn’t look happy about it. “Just give me a minute and I’ll head back to my place.”

“Like hell you will,” Seth placed his hand on her shoulder and prevented her from getting up. “You are going to stay right here, in bed. What can I get you? Do you like soup? My mom always gives me soup when I’m sick; how about eggs and toast?” Seth asked when she didn’t answer right away. “Is this a head, stomach, or lady issue?” the last question coaxed a laugh out of Liz.

“It’s a stomach thing, and soup sounds great,” she smiled, and looked at Seth for what felt like a long time.

“What?” he asked, unsure what he’d done wrong?

“Nothing,” Liz smiled again, and snuggled inside the covers. “Now fetch my soup man-slave.”

Seth grinned as the Liz he knew and loved resurface. “Yes, Mistress.”

They’d have a lot of fun with roleplaying, but not tonight; and that didn’t bother Seth one bit.

 

***

 

The hotel room wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t fancy either. The door had a solid deadbolt, the reviews online only had limited references to bed bugs, and so far the cleaning staff hadn’t stolen anything. Perhaps it was his intimidating presence that stopped them. Henry Martin, a.k.a. the Hero Hunter, liked to think that might be the case. Even if people didn’t know he was a Hero, he looked like the type of person you didn’t mess around with.

Henry and Sophia Martin had stayed in much worse places when they first graduated from West Private’s HCP. They met early in their HCP careers, fell in love, and knew they wanted to be together after they graduated. The Dean at the time had sat them down before graduation and had a candid conversation with them.

<It will be healthy to have some time apart,> Henry could remember Sophia stubbornly fighting back tears.

Despite their high graduation rankings, the Heroes they were interning with operated on opposite ends of the eastern seaboard. Henry had been fortunate enough to get an internship with Stealth, but the seasoned subtlety Hero bounced around New England. Sophia had been handpicked by War Hammer, but the man operated exclusively out of Miami. That meant two years of them having to see each other whenever they could get time off, and interns didn’t get a lot of that.

<You two have only been together in this environment. The next two years will be an opportunity to test yourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally. These are they type of life problems that you can’t punch or manipulate your way out of. It will be for the best.>

Henry remembered how infuriated he was that the old Dean was making sense. Sophia had cried then, one of the few times in their twenty plus years together that he had seen her do that. Over the next two years they’d seen each other only six times, and two of those had been at large scale threats where Heroes from all over were called in to help.

Those two years had been filled with temptation for both of them. As fit, good looking people in their early twenties, they’d been propositioned by others. Henry had been forced to turn down Stealth herself when she made a play at the end of his internship. Apparently, it was a final test she did to every male she took on as an intern. He obviously passed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. There were certain aspects of biology that even those with the best intentions couldn’t fight.

Henry never asked Sophia about what she had to face. She was beautiful, gorgeous, and powerful enough that she attracted masculine attention everywhere she went. At the time, he didn’t care if she’d been with anyone else. He was just happy they got back together. He learned later in life, when it mattered more to him, that she hadn’t strayed.

After the successful internship they’d been able to get on a small team together. Three years later she was pregnant with Angela, and after Angela was born they spent a few years working as independent Heroes. Henry’s mother had helped with the baby while they were out traveling, because there was no way in hell he was going to have his infant daughter in the flea and rat infested shitholes that they could afford; which was why his current accommodations were perfectly fine.

Now that they were successful and famous Heroes, Sophia wouldn’t be caught dead in a mediocre place like this. She preferred the Ritz, but Henry’s standards were less stringent. As a subtlety Hero, it was never a good idea to feel you were too good for some things. Getting down in the grime was part of his profession.

Henry pulled on the last pieces of his costume. He’d been on autopilot while he got dressed, and he’d put on this outfit enough that he didn’t really need to pay attention. When he started to become a big name, his agent had wanted him to try something flashier. The suggestion was something that showed off muscles; which would then sell merchandise. Henry quickly shot down the idea. He was, after all, a subtlety Hero. He didn’t want to be a teen heartthrob with his picture on bedroom walls. He hadn’t been able to avoid it entirely. There was one picture that still haunted him to this day, but overall he was happy with the level of anonymity that came with his fame.

Sophia got most of the attention anyway, and she deserved it.

Henry looked himself over in the mirror to make sure everything was in place. His outfit was less a costume and more something you’d see a big game hunter wearing on safari. Everything was tans and whites. He had long khaki pants, with multiple cargo pockets for storage. Next was a long sleeved, white button down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. On top of the shirt was a tan vest. The vest wasn’t a tactical vest, although there were several weapons on it. Mostly it was knives and ammunition. He had one pistol strapped to his leg, and another on his opposite hip. They were both tech genius inventions, and cost more than an average car; but they were worth every penny. Their ability to fire a range of ammunition gave him the flexibility a Super with human level strength and durability needed in a fight.

He wore a tan, canvas safari hat in the British style, and a bronze mask he’d picked up in Africa. The mask had a pondering expression on it, like it was searching for something. Henry felt it fit with his chosen Hero name. The final piece of his costume, and the one that always got the most attention was the large rifle he had slung across his back. It was a modified J. Hill Percussion Elephant Gun. Henry had bought it at an antique gun dealer’s auction, and then had a tech genius modernize it, while retaining the exterior look. Is made both his pistols look cheap. While the weapon still conjured up images of elephant hunting in the 19th century, it was really meant for more modern big game. Henry’s rifle had a reputation, and it tended to make strongmen think twice. The subtlety Hero’s skill with the rifle was something people in dark places talked about in whispers.

The familiar weight, which was a lot less than people would suspect, fell into place across his shoulder and back. Henry took a deep breath and felt himself become the Hero, Hunter. His mind became singularly focused on the mission. He left all thoughts of his family behind as he teleported.

The first thing that came to mind when Hunter arrived at his destination was “HOT”. The layers of his costume were thin for bulletproof material. Still, he could feel sweat sliding down his back within a minute of arriving. The fact that there wasn’t any shade in the middle of the Nevada road didn’t help.

The desert road was packed full of emergency vehicles with flashing red, blue, and yellow lights. From a cursory glance Hunter saw the state troopers, county Sherriff, FBI, the state gaming commission, US Marshals, the DVA, and of course the media.

<Someone could try and assassinate a sitting Senator and get less attention than this,> Hunter made the mental statement from firsthand knowledge.

“Hunter, glad you could join us,” a bald, haggard man with sweat stains all over his shirt waved Hunter over. Despite the man’s sour facial expression, Hunter knew Agent Jansen was a good man. He’d been his and Sophia’s DVA liaison for the past decade.

“Robbery,” it was a statement, not a question.

Hunter didn’t have to look far to see an armored truck on its side down on the shoulder of the road, and the blackened remains of a Cadillac Escalade. He noticed the lack of tire tracks on the road, which meant the expensive SUV had been hit while still moving, and the truck hadn’t braked, but still came to a stop somewhere in the road.

<And judging by the glass and metal shards, it was hit while stationary,> Hunter took in the scene. His two plus decades of experience giving him a good idea of what happened before Agent Jansen replied.

“Robbery turned Super brawl,” Jansen clarified. “Four of ours were in the SUV when it got hit; two heroes, two suits.” He pointed at the ruined vehicle. “They say it was a teleporter who ‘ported a grenade right onto the hood of the car. Shocked them more than anything, and took them a little time to safely extract themselves from the vehicle, assess the injuries to the two agents who were driving, and then engage the villain.”

“So it’s a verified villain, not some punk with powers, or a street gang trying to make a little extra cash,” they moved around the SUV enough to see the large hole that had been ripped through the side. There was also some blood on the sandy ground next to it.

“I’ll let the Heroes answer that question,” Jansen stopped at the opening of a tent, and opened it for Hunter to enter.

The tent might have offered a refuge from the sunlight, but it was probably fifteen degrees hotter inside. Hunter bit back his grumble, and advanced across the crowded area. The tent had been commandeered by the big wigs; the special agents in charge, police captains, the Sherriff himself, whatever title the gaming commissioner’s representative had, and the two costumed Heroes in the center.

The Heroes were standing over the mobile computer station, and an analysist was playing back footage from someone’s body camera. Everyone turned as he approached.

“Holy shit,” Hunter grinned behind his mask as the guy built like a tank showed just how new he was to the Hero game.

“Hunter, this is Absence and Ox, the two heroes on scene during the incident,” Jensen made the introductions.

Hunter didn’t recognize either of the Heroes. Absence was dressed in a skintight royal blue costume with the occasional yellow starburst. She was an athletic 5’8”, the type of lean muscle you’d find on a track star. Her mask completely covered her face, so he couldn’t get a read on her age, but the way she held herself said she was competent. Ox was the exact opposite. The name was fitting for the sheer size of the man; he was a few inches taller than Hunter, but half again as wide. Muscles strained against the confines of his grey costume. His arms were bare, probably because the fabric wouldn’t contain them. Unlike Absence, Ox was shuffling nervously from foot to foot, and he was the one who was slightly star struck by Hunter’s appearance.

“Hello,” Hunter reached out to shake Ox’s hand. Ox’s hand totally engulfed Hunter’s, and a smile split the uncovered bottom half of the man’s face.

Hunter refined his estimation of Ox. <Intern, maybe first year on his first team.> The wide smile revealed a lot to a well-trained eye.

Absence didn’t extend her hand. “Nullifier,” she explained, instead giving a small bow. “Switching my power on and off takes a bit of time and effort. Considering our circumstances, I’d rather be ready for anything.” Hunter didn’t blame her.

“Thanks for the heads up,” he returned the bow. “What can you tell me about this villain?”

“We’ve run her through the database based on her outfit, estimated age, and power set,” Absence took the lead. “We think she’s young, mid-twenties maybe even younger, and she’s kept under the radar until now. Her equipment is all top of the line,” she had the analyst forward the footage to a scene for her body camera.

Hunter watched with surprise as the villain fired explosive ammunition from standard looking Glock 40s. “She also very wealthy,” Hunter threw in his two cents. “That exploding ammunition costs a few hundred bucks a round,” he patted the pistol on his hip. “And it’s really hard to come by. Only a dozen dealers in the US sell it.”

“Then we’ve got a lead,” Ox was just eager to get into the conversation.

“On top of her equipment being the best, she knows how to fight,” Absence pointed down at the ice pack she was holding to her knee. “We only faced off for a few seconds, but she got me good, and I only got her once.”

“Believe me, that’s a pretty big accomplishment,” Ox lent credence to her statement.

“If I didn’t know any better I’d say she had HCP training,” Hunter could tell she hated saying it, and he hated hearing it.

Subtlety heroes had a reputation of having the most Heroes go rogue after graduation, but not a lot of statistics were out there to see how many of the people who failed out of the HCP turned to crime. Hunter assumed the percentages got lower the further in the program Supers made it, but if Heroes could go dark, then so could almost Heroes.

“It’s worth looking into,” it would take an hour of DVA server time to do a search and filter, but it was worth it.

“If she isn’t HCP then she had fantastic training,” Hunter sensed the female Hero was a little bitter about the fight. “ForceOps, or someone who has been in the game long enough to make sure that she knew what she was doing; possibly a legacy.” Either was a viable option.

“Any leads on other crimes she might have committed?” Hunter switched topics to something other than the fight.

“Well, she’s a teleporter with the addition of some type of shadow explosion when she does it.” If being a teleporter taught Hunter anything, it was how much of a pain in the ass his own kind could be.

“Show me,” Hunter watched the failed teleportation where the villain turned into some specter looking creature leaking darkness. He fast forwarded to her escape, and the wave of blackness that exploded from where she’d been standing. Then he watched the whole thing from start to finish.

<Interesting,> there might be a lot of teleporters out there, but the number with a secondary addition to the ability were few. <That should narrow things down.>

“The only other footage the DVA has of someone matching the power set is from a jewelry store robbery in Atlanta a few months ago,” Absence pulled up the video. The costume was different, and so was the attitude, but it looked like the same woman. “The diamonds were recovered during a raid in New York, and the responding Hero claimed that a teleporter vanished in a black cloud when she stormed the pawn shop.” The report was pulled up for Hunter to read.

The description was off. This person wasn’t in the same costume. The person the New York based Hero claimed to have seen was dressed in a sexy grunge look that was unarmored and vulnerable. Still, Hunter had a hunch that it was probably the same woman. He made a mental note to visit New York soon to interview the Hero.

“What did she try to steal?”

“Now that’s the magic question,” Agent Jansen stepped back into the conversation. He pulled out an official looking piece of paper. “This transport was carrying cash from a casino, thus the gaming commission’s presence. She also got diamonds, half of which were part of an FBI smuggling case. So they’re pissed they lost all that evidence. But most importantly was that,” Jansen pointed across the room to where the US Marshals were sitting. Two big men, not as big as Ox, but still big, were standing on either side of a smaller man. The small man had a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, and he never took his eyes off it. “That is a hard copy list of everyone in the Marshal’s witness protection program.”

<Oh shit,> it was Hunter’s turn to be shocked.

In an age with technopaths who could command computers with their minds, highly classified document protection protocols had reverted to removable storage devices or old fashioned paper copies. It was a pain in the ass to get the information, but having no digital footprint meant the information was more secure.

“Ox and Absence were tasked with guarding the briefcase, even though they didn’t know what it was,” the two Heroes looked just as surprised as Hunter.

“Was anything compromised,” Hunter was here to track down the responsible party. He’d continue to do his job, but he wanted to know how much of a bureaucratic nightmare he was getting into first.

“No,” Absence answered. “The case was magnetized to the truck, and she never got it open.”

That was the good news. The bad news was that it opened up a lot more possibilities. Was it organized crime related? Was the woman an assassin of some sort? Was she searching for someone? Who out there was in danger? Or was this all just a giant coincidence? The possibilities, and the heat, were giving Hunter a headache.

“Good. Now take me to the last teleportation site,” Ox, Absence, and Jansen didn’t say anything about the sudden change of topic.

The site was nearly half a mile away, and Ox spent the time telling Hunter about the chase out there. The talk told Hunter a few things about the situation. One, Ox was Absence’s intern. Two, Ox was a fan. And three, that the unknown teleporter was smart. She stayed just out of reach until the effects of Absence’s nullification wore off.

“I think this is it,” Ox gestured at the arid area around him.

The big strongman was close; he was only off by about fifty feet. Hunter approached the spot of the teleporter’s final teleportation and reached out with his senses. There was a reason that a simple teleporter like him was so famous. No one really knew him as a teleporter; they knew him as a tracker, a hunter.

Hunter ran his hand through the air and felt the ripple in the fabric of reality; a ripple that was created by teleportation. This ripple was weak, too weak to follow. <Damn,> it had been too long.

If he got here quicker he would have been able to connect through the ripple to wherever the mystery teleporter had traveled to; essentially piggybacking on her teleportation. It was his best method for tracking teleporters, and now he’d either have to find her using other evidence, or wait for her to strike again.

<Who are you Wraith, and what are you up to?> Hunter admitted the name was fitting, and the media was going to a have a field day with it.

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