Altair Thermopolis sprinkled the last finger full of spice into the pan and then twisted the stove’s nob to disconnect the gas. The flame underneath the pan flickered and died, leaving the notorious supervillain, turned gourmet cook, with an exquisitely prepared flank steak.
<Mmmmm.> He inhaled deeply, savoring the aroma wafting around the kitchen.
He had a pile of freshly washed greens sitting in a strainer in the sink, so he gave them one last shake before pouring them onto his plate. Next came the steak, which he arranged into an orderly pile, and last but not least was the sauce. The reduction sauce was made from his favorite wine. He poured it lightly onto the steak in a wavy pattern and then stood back to admire his handy work.
<5 stars.> He gave himself a rating. <Let’s just hope it tastes like that.>
Altair was a “clean as he went” cook. While things simmered, baked, or grilled he took the time to wash countertops and start the dishes. So when he finally got to eating there wasn’t much mess to clean up afterwards. Today was no exception.
He filled himself a glass of wine because the reduction sauce just wasn’t going to cut it. He settled down into a large reclining chair, put his feet up, and switched on the TV. The massive set illuminated the whole room, and plunged it into darkness for a heartbeat every time he changed the channel.
<The world is falling apart.> He didn’t need to watch the news to know that. <And we’re in the off season.>
Altair was a big fan of football, both the American and rest of the world’s version. His preferred team was the Atlanta Bruisers. A hard hitting team in the Super league half composed of strongmen. Altair always loved to see someone pulverized.
<The draft is coming up.> He reconsidered and switched over to the sports station.
After twenty minutes of watching he concluded there was nothing interesting going on despite the upcoming draft. Instead, he scanned the local channels he pirated. With Lilly off in Orlando he liked to keep a close eye on things.
The previous night’s raid on her hired help had to have his daughter in a foul mood.
He switched the channel and a pretty Latina was speaking quickly outside of what looked like a destroyed building. <This could be enjoyable.> He turned up the volume.
“Details are still coming in at this point, but we are able to confirm that the Hero Seraphim engaged in a battle with an unknown quantity of Fist members at this location.” The camera zoomed in over the woman’s shoulder to take in the damage. “Conditions of the injured and a count of the dead are unknown, but knowing Seraphim’s reputation it is hard to believe that there is anyone alive under there.” The corner of the woman’s lips twitched as she held back a smile.
<More trouble for my Lilly.> He wondered if he should intervene, and then shook his head.
Lilly wanted to do this on her own. If he stepped in she’d never forgive hm. She was out to prove herself which made his heart swell with pride while his mind cringed in fear. Altair dearly loved his daughter even if he hardly ever showed it. Like any father he wanted her to be successful in whatever she was passionate about. For most girls that might be a particular field of academic study, athletics, or higher dreams like acting, dance, or the written word. Lilly just happened to be good at the family business. If she wanted to cheat, lie, and steal for her own personal gain who was he to deny her.
<She is becoming quite the household name.> He had mixed emotions about that.
A meteoric rise often led to a legendary fall. The names Hellgate and Armsman were mentioned in whispers not only because they had done incredible things but because they had never been caught. Longevity and staying power were the hallmarks of a good villain, and Altair wasn’t sure his daughter had learned that critical lesson yet. She’d made a bang entering the scene and he didn’t want her to do the same on the way out.
<Then there is that boy.> Altair practically spit the wine out at the venom of the thought. <If it wouldn’t hurt her so much I’d roast the boy alive under an open flame and peel the flesh from his bones one piece at a time.> He ranted before taking a few deep breaths to get his temper under control.
He’d lost one woman he loved to another villain. The sight of Lilly’s mother’s gut ripped open and his Lilly barely alive and practically drowning in her mother’s blood was something that still woke him up at night.
He was not going to lose the only thing he still loved in this world to an institution that developed the self-righteous scum that he’d fought his entire adult life. Lilly would have a better future than that, even if he had to kill the boy himself.
Imagining the creative ways Seth Abney would die put the older supervillain at ease, and brought his attention back to the giant flatscreen. The reporter was talking about the building, a mostly abandoned parking garage. Suddenly, she put her finger to her ear and her face lit up.
“Ladies and gentlemen we’ve got some breaking news. We have unconfirmed reports, I must stress that they are unconfirmed at this time, that the battle that brought down the parking garage was primarily between Seraphim and the infamous supervillain Wraith. Wraith as you all know is the prime suspect in the motel bombing earlier this month and the murder of Hunter. Hunter has long been suspected of romantic involvement with Seraphim which would make this whole ordeal personal for the Hero some call the Winged Terror. We will keep you up to date on any developments as they occur, I’m Maria…”
Altair was already on the move, his half-eaten dinner forgotten on the end table. He raced through several hallways up two staircases and into the master bedroom. The room was similar in design to Lilly’s room, just bigger, with black and red as the primary colors. He ignored them all as he threw open his desk drawer and started throwing things aside.
<Where are you?> He growled as he pulled the whole drawer out and upended it on the floor.
He spread the mess of supplies around, thinning them into a single layer of crap. That’s when he found it. The old cell phone was a simple flip phone about eight years out of date. He grabbed it, threw it in his pocket, and then grabbed an unopened sim card. He put the little piece of silicone in his other pocket and jogged into his closet. He grabbed the thickest coat he could find.
He double checked the phone and sim card were still in his pocket and then disappeared from his underground mansion. He reappeared in a circle of flames well away from any other human life deep in the Northern Territory of Canada. Despite the thick coat and flames roaring around him, he immediately began to shiver.
<Need to move fast.> He reached into his pockets with trembling hands and extracted the phone and sim card.
With a little difficulty thanks to the extreme cold Altair finally got the card inserted and the phone powered up. He dialed a number from memory and waited for an answer.
“You’ve reached me.” The bubbly, animated voice of his daughter’s automated voicemail answered. “If you know who I am then you know what to do. If you don’t know me then you’ve got the wrong number and you’ll be sorry.”
The soft beep was barely audible as Hellgate’s fire made it to a nearby tree and started to consume it for fuel. The fire stayed away from Altair. It always had, but beyond that it was difficult to control.
Like his daughter, Altair had been training to control his teleportation’s secondary effects. He could limit them, and sometimes teleport himself without the ring of fire; but it came at a cost. Every time he held the flame back it built up like he’d tied a knot in a hose inside of him. Sooner or later everything he’d been holding back was going to come out, and he didn’t want to be around anyone he remotely liked when that happened. But he was more than happy to burn down a few acres of Canadian forest in the dead of winter. No one cared about that.
“Call me.” His message to his daughter was simple and to the point, but the fact that she hadn’t answered was worrisome.
Altair hung up and dialed another number from memory. This time it rang far longer than was normal and was filled with audible clicks. “Hello.” The answering voice’s advanced age was palpable.
“I need a reading.” Altair always had to keep it short and sweet just in case the DVA or NSA was listening in.
“Same as always within twenty-four hours. You know I’m good for it.”
“Yes.” There was a momentary pause. “Her?”
“Yes.” Altair never asked the person on the other end of the line how he knew what Altair was going to ask before he asked it.
All he cared about was the answer.
“She’s injured but alive.”
“Emotional more than physical.” The voice sounded bored, which made Altair want to choke something.
“Where she usually is.”
The answer was cryptic, but he knew he wasn’t going to get any more detail from the person on the other end. But it gave him places to start.
“Thank you.” He hung up the phone, turned it off, removed the sim card, and threw it into the growing flames. The crackling of his fire consuming the trees was growing as the fire spread.
Altair teleported away, releasing a fresh blast of fire into the smoldering wilderness. He reappeared in Orlando without releasing a single iota of flame. He felt the backup almost immediately, but it was controllable. The release when leaving Canada helped a little. He pushed the feeling of his whole body being constipated to the back of his mind and headed toward West Private University.
It was risky, but he needed to make sure Lilly was safe and secure. He’d been told she was in pain. She could deal with pain, but it was better to have someone watching your back when you dealt with that.
His teleportation spot wasn’t too far from the main campus, but far enough not to trigger anything the HCP might have in place. He kept his mind shielded from his true thoughts while manufacturing fake thoughts of a father coming in to surprise his freshman daughter.
<Pride, a dash of fear, and a cup-full of overprotectiveness.> Altair was pretty sure he had the formula down.
The door to Lilly’s dorm was keycard access only, but that wasn’t a problem. He’d cloned the card when she started school and always kept it on him in case of an emergency. He pulled it from his dress shirt’s pocket and slid it through the reader. The light blinked green and he opened the door. He stepped back politely and held the door as two young women passed by. Both looked him over. One liked what she saw, and the other looked confused why an older man was entering the dorm late at night.
Neither said or did anything to raise Altair’s suspicions so he let them go. He didn’t want to leave a trail of bodies around campus if he didn’t have to. They were still getting paid to provide a service here, and completing the mission would be extremely difficult if eyes started looking in Lilly’s direction.
Altair boarded the elevator with a young man carrying a full hamper of folded laundry. He could feel the boy’s eyes on him the whole time, but the young man was slightly overweight and breathing more heavily than one should from doing a load of laundry. Altair ruled out the chance that this might be an HCP student, and if the boy was then he would make a hell of a subtlety Hero.
Altair disembarked on his daughter’s floor and walked to her door. The door was locked and there was a sock on it. He’d never been to college, but he’s seen popular movies; and the sock on the door could only mean one thing.
It took every ounce of self-control he possessed to not kick down the door, rip that Abney boy off his daughter, tear his arms off, and beat him to death with them. Instead he took a deep breath, counted to ten, and knocked.
<Maybe he’ll die of embarrassment.>
Altair heard muttered cursing from the other side of the thin walls and then angry stomping.
“What the fuck! Can’t you read the sign?” The door burst open and a tall, bulky man stood in the doorway.
A quick look behind him showed a girl’s head poking out from above a comforter. It was not Lilly.
“Pardon me.” Altair answered politely with a smile. “I’m looking for my daughter. This is her dorm room.”
“This is my girl’s dorm.” The man-boy answered defiantly. “She doesn’t have a roommate.”
“I do, Tom. She’s just never here.” An angry voice called from the bed.
“Whatever.” Tom brushed off the comment. “Whoever you’re looking for ain’t here grandpa.”
“Father.” Altair immediately corrected him. “Not grandfather.”
“I don’t give a shit.” The stench of alcohol was heavy on the young man’s breath.
Altair stopped the surge of frustration short of action. He wouldn’t make the first move against this inebriated teenager, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lesson to be taught here.
“Are you using protection?” Altair adopted his most patronizing tone. “I would want a lovely young man like yourself getting something terrible. Having your penis rot off can’t be fun.”
“What the fuck!” The boy’s cheeks darkened from embarrassment and shame. “You listen here grandpa.” The boy reached out and grabbed a fistful of Altair’s expensive shirt.
The moment the boy touched him Altair reacted. It was a reaction born of decades fighting against well-trained Heroes. A drunk college kid caught mid-coitus was nothing. Altair moved both hands up, one grabbed the crook of the boy’s elbow while the other grabbed his fist. Altair got a good grip on the fist and then simultaneously twisted the boy’s hand one hundred and eighty degrees, breaking the grip on his shirt, while pulling the elbow out with his other hand. Altair put a little pressure on the boy’s locked wrist by pushing it up a quarter of an inch and the move brought the boy to his knees with a holler of pain.
One small upward tug and Altair would snap the boy’s wrist like a twig.
“You need to learn some respect young man.” Altair tried to keep his voice polite but a slight growl entered his tone.
The woman in the bed was practically crying now, so he gave her a polite smile.
“My apologies,” He released the boy, who fell back onto his butt massaging his wrist. “But please let me know if you see my daughter. There has been a family emergency that she should be aware of.” He scribbled a number on a post-it note from the desk next to the door and tossed it into the boy’s lap.
“Pardon my interruption, please continue.” He shut the door behind them and headed for the elevator.
Once inside he teleported away; containing the fire at his disappearance and reappearance.
The pressure of the contained power made him stagger when he arrived. He wouldn’t be able to hold it back during his next teleport, and it would be a big one.
<Thankfully, this should be my last stop.> He knew that Lilly didn’t spend her time in many places.
His first guess had been the dorm that she paid for as part of her tuition, room, and board. Apparently, that assumption was incorrect; which meant she was sleeping somewhere else. <With someone else.> He bit his tongue and started down the street toward the townhouse.
It was late now, but the weekend college parties were in full swing, and there appeared to be one every couple of houses. But townhouse 117 didn’t have one, in fact it was mostly dark and quiet.
He ascended the few stairs to the concrete porch and softly knocked on the door. He heard the hustling of feet toward the door. The door was practically thrown open and he came face to face with his daughter’s hopeful-eyed boyfriend.
“Mr. Aretino?” The joy vanished from Seth Abney’s eyes and was replaced with confusion.
“Surprised to see me?” Altair smiled, but the smile never reached his eyes.
“Yes, Sir. I was actually hoping you’d be Liz.”
“Same here, Seth.” Altair faked a tired sigh. “I’m just in town for the night and wanted to stop by and say hello to Liz. Have you seen her?”
“No, Sir.” He was obviously just as disappointed as Altair. “We were supposed to have dinner, but she never returned from the study session she went to.”
“That’s not like her.” Altair scratched his head.
“No, Sir.” Seth opened his mouth again but hesitated for a moment. “Do you want to come in?” Seth inquired after that moment. “I’ve got a lot of food and without Liz it’ll go to waste.”
“I don’t want to impose.” Altair put his hands up defensively.
It was all a ploy. He really wanted to get inside and search the house.
“Please, I insist.” Seth redoubled his effort.
“Ok.” Altair relented and stepped into the home full of wannabe Heroes.
<Maybe it’s time I have another talk with him.> Altair considered other courses of action for the visit. <Figure out what his future intentions with my daughter are.> He continued to smile as he sat down at the table and Seth got the food.
Either way he was going to get a good look at this townhouse. This was the only other place where she “usually was”, and Altair’s source had never been wrong before.
So he settled in for an uncomfortable meal with a boy who was sticking it to his daughter. Altair didn’t mind Seth as a person, but no one was ever going to be good enough for Lilly. That was an undeniable fact that was not going to change no matter how charming the boy attempted to be.
<At least the food’s good.>
There were worse places Altair could be, but he could only think of a few off the top of his head.
Lilly dreamed of fire and catastrophe.
The whole world was engulfed in flame. Everything she knew and loved was burning before her eyes. Orlando was a bonfire shining in the blackness of the night.
Two armies stood at the center of the blaze. She couldn’t make out any features of the individuals, they were indistinguishable despite the light washing over them. Leaders strode before the front-ranks like Centurions marshaling their men. But all she heard was silence.
From the flames on either side of the battle-lines rose two figures. Both were dressed in rippling shadows that seemed to beat back the hungry flames. Beyond the shadow Lilly could only tell that one was a man and the other a woman.
They towered over their armies like stern generals, but only regarded each other. The little men running around their feet were no more important than ants to these two.
Suddenly Lilly found herself standing directly in-between the two forces. She turned her head to the right and saw the giant woman. She turned her head to the left and saw the hulking man. She looked forward and she saw…
Unlike everyone else who’s features seemed to be washed away in the sea of fire, Seth stood like a beacon of normalcy. His easy-going smile, his gorgeous emerald eyes, and his black hair waving in the slight breeze were perfect. His expression was pensive, but like the two hulking generals he only had eyes for her.
She tried to walk towards him. She wanted to feel his embrace. She just knew if she could get to him that everything would be ok.
She couldn’t even pick her feet off the ground. It was like fighting quicksand. The harder she tried the more difficult it became.
Then the heat of the flames started to grow.
The heat was an overwhelming, choking thing. It sucked all of the oxygen out of the air around her. She tried to fight it. She tried to break free of whatever grip was holding her in place, but she couldn’t. The invisible hand holding her down was too strong and the fire was too hot.
Slowly she sank to her knees, then was forced flat on her belly. She reached out to Seth, who still stood motionless on the other side of the battlefield, and tried to cry out his name. The moment she opened her mouth shadow poured out of her like sludge. She choked and heaved but there was a never-ending stream of black flowing from inside her.
Her vision wavered as what was left of her oxygen was depleted. She gave one last longing look at Seth, and saw him crushed as the two armies smashed into each other.
She looked up with her last ounce of energy and saw the two giant generals rear back to deliver their first blows.
Then her head fell to the ground and fire consumed her as shadow drowned her.
Lilly opened her eyes and saw nothing but black, and she freaked the fuck out. The dream was still so fresh in her mind she literally thought she was drowning.
If it weren’t for Seraphim’s poison she would have thrashed and kicked, revealed her hiding spot, and that would have been the end of her life. But she couldn’t, all she could do was lift her head slightly.
But that was enough to snap her back to the present.
<I’m moving.> The excitement that coursed through her overrode the momentary fear she’d experienced. <I’m ok. I’m hiding under the bed in our room. No one has found me, but I’m safe for now.> The “for now” being the important part of the last statement.
Lilly attempted to wiggle her fingers and toes, but only succeeded to get them to twitch a little. But that was still better than nothing. All she had to do was wait a little longer.
It was difficult to tell time while she cowered in the darkness under the bed. The only way she could determine its passage was by counting in her head. But after she’d counted to sixty ten times in a row she vowed to let the Heroes take her before doing that again.
So she was left alone with her thoughts. Thoughts that unfolded in a predictable pattern. First she thought about her situation, then the dream, then Seth, then where their relationship was going, and lastly she got to the divergent point. The point where she had to make a critical decision and have Seth learn who she really was. In one version he accepted her and they lived happily ever after like a storybook prince and princess.
She gave this about a one percent change of being turned into a reality.
The much more likely reaction was pain, distrust, and betrayal. In one scenario, that only took a few minutes to concoct, Seth actually handed her over to Angela who slowly and painfully killed her for revenge.
Maybe it was wishful thinking but Lilly hoped that the actuality of the still undecided future event would fall somewhere between those two extremes. She expected there to be hurt and pain, but she truly hoped Seth didn’t betray her and throw her to the wolves. Her intellectual mind told her that was too much to ask for, but her heart held out hope anyway.
<Ok let’s try again.> Lilly concentrated on her hand and making a fist.
Slowly and with a surprising amount of pain her fingers curled inward and into a fist. She allowed her hand to open back up, concentrated, and then did it again. Pins and needles seemed to be poking every inch of her muscles, but Lilly knew that was the poison breaking down.
That didn’t stop the next half an hour from hurting like a bitch.
She started at her extremities. She moved her feet then worked her way up. Excruciating pain nearly caused her to black out as she tried to engage her injured thigh where the barb had cut her. But she pushed through it. Slowly but surely, she regained the movement of her body. And just as light was beginning to beam through a break in the curtains she felt her mind regain complete control.
She smiled and without hesitation activated her power and teleported away.
She reappeared in her flat across the Atlantic, immediately fell to her knees, and vomited everything that was in her stomach. Her throat burned as the acid was forced up her esophagus. Her vision blurred and she had to brace her arms out on either side of her.
<Fuck me.> She grumbled, struggling to bring her arm up to wipe the bile off her chin.
It wasn’t lingering paralysis that made movement difficult, it was the weakness.
She shook her head, refocused her vision, and opened her eyes.
The small puddle of vomit in front of her was almost entirely black.
<Healer.> Her mind fought back the panic of her dream-self drowning in black sludge.
She tore off most of her Wraith outfit and tossed it into the closet. She didn’t even bother putting it in its hidden compartment. She just shoved it across the floor into the back corner. It would have to be good enough.
<So hot.> She thought as she saw the sweat forming on her arms.
She rubbed her hand against her forehead and it came away damp. Her brief contact with her own skin told her she was burning up.
<Infection? A secondary effect of the poison?> Her mind started to go through the possibilities, but she cut herself short.
Whatever it was she needed a healer and she needed one now.
With the last of her rapidly evaporating energy she focused on her home and teleported away. She reappeared in the middle of the family room. Right in front of the large flat screen TV. It was on, playing the morning news, but her father wasn’t there.
“D…Da…Dad.” She croaked, her voice cracking from the dehydration. “Dad!”
She called out and promptly collapsed.
If by planning, luck, or the grace of some cosmic deity, Lilly felt the soft thud of feet approaching as her vision started to waver again. Strong hands grabbed her and a familiar voice started to say something before the darkness enveloped her.
<I’ll be safe.> Was her final thought. She knew, if nothing else, that she could trust her father to take care of her.