It sounded like someone cracked a whip and banged a gong nearly instantaneously. There was no mistaking the cracking of the whip for anything but a gunshot, and it only took a moment to figure out what had the deep gong reverberating through Daisy’s eardrums.
“SNIPER!” Everyone reacted instantly, but not in the same way.
Matchbox spun in the direction the shot had come from and her fiery shield flashed into existence. Mr. Morningstar sprinted behind her for cover. She enlarged the shield slightly to cover the both of the them. ForceOps soldiers started to either dive behind cover or move toward the sound of the gunshot. Daisy heard distance, direction, and descriptions being called out.
Seraphim sprang into the air like a shoulder-launched missile to gain the high ground. Bullets weren’t a big deal to her, but any element of surprise the Hero strike team had was now gone. Seraphim would get eyes on the sniper and the two villains in the park with her increased elevation.
Daisy and Iron Giant just kind of stood there assessing the situation. There was no need for them to jump behind cover, they were bulletproof, and there was little Iron Giant could do to get to the enemy before ForceOps teleporters like Colonel Ford.
But Daisy could do something.
She opened her sixth sense and extended her reach in the direction the soldiers had identified the shooter. Three lifelines popped into her mind’s eye as she focused in on the school rooftop.
“Colonel, do you have men on that roof!” She pointed toward the school in the background.
The colonel was busy shouting orders, so he didn’t hear her. In the time it took her to run from her position to the colonel’s one of the lifelines was snuffed out. She examined the two remaining lifelines. One was strong and firm, probably a strongman or someone else with enhanced durability. The other was slippery and elusive. It seemed to flicker in and out like a two-year-old flipping a light switch for the first time.
There was something oddly familiar about the slippery thread, but she didn’t have to think about it. The strongman’s thread disappeared from her mind’s eye and reappeared directly in front of her in an inky blast of shadow. The man was struggling with his belt like he had ants in his pants. There was also a big hole in his camouflage blouse. His face looked like he’d been stung by a bunch of bees, but that was nothing compared to the black and blue bruise she could see flowering across his chest.
“Get back! Grenade!” The strongman quickly got his vest off. He wasn’t going for his belt after all. He pulled a blinking canister from the small of his back, and dived away from Daisy and the soldiers; shielding them with his body.
Daisy did some of her own jumping to get out of the blast radius.
The explosion was louder and more forceful that she’d expected. She’d barely put any distance between her and the strongman, so she ended up riding the wave of explosive force as it blasted her back about ten feet. She stopped the shrapnel dead against her skin, but that didn’t do anything to dissipate the heat.
“Son of a bitch!” She roared, flailing her arms and shaking her body to dislodge the flaming bits of metal burning her skin.
“Medic!” someone called through the smoke that always followed an explosion.
“Squad leaders, accountability check.” Colonel Ford’s voice rose above them all.
“First squad sound off!”
“Second squad sound off!”
The two dozen ForceOps soldiers began to call out names and gather the information their commander required, but Daisy turned her attention back to her sixth sense. She reached again for the rooftop where only one life thread remained.
<Gotcha, Wraith.> There was no mistaking the darkness blast for anything but the notorious teleporter.
She reached for the life thread. It flickered as her fingers tried to grab it, so she drew back and tried again. Just as her fingertips brushed the edges of the slick thread it vanished.
<What the fuck!> Daisy spun around like it would help her find it, but it was gone. There was nothing but a void where Wraith used to be.
“Seraphim, report!” Daisy’s agitation leaked into her tone.
“I’m circling. Primary targets appear to be remaining in place within the park. They even are laughing and pointing over at the sound of the explosion.”
Daisy had to suppress a growl.
“Confirmed two secondary targets on the school rooftop.”
<Two?> Daisy reached out and still felt nothing occupying the space.
“One looks to be clad in black. Based on the darkness explosion we can confirm she’s Wraith.”
Daisy knew Seraphim had to be physically holding back to keep herself from diving onto that rooftop and ripping the villain’s head off.
“Second looks to be male, dressed in olive fatigues, equipped with a sniper rifle, and a sword that I can see. He looks like he’s the sniper.”
<Olive fatigues, sword, empty void where my powers can usually detect people.> It felt like a stone fell a couple of stories and into the pit of her stomach.
“All units be advised, Wraith and Armsman are on the building roof to our East.”
“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Could you please repeat that?”
It was the closest thing to surprise Daisy had ever heard from the mysterious Hero communicator.
“On the rooftop to our East we can positively confirm Wraith, and based on Seraphim’s observations, and my sense of that area, I’m telling you that Armsman crawled out of whatever hole he’s been hiding in to be here today.”
“And he’s working with Wraith…?” Iron Giant chimed in.
“Which means the guy in the park with Seif al-Din has to be Hellgate. Believe me now, guys!” The last was a blatant “I told you so” that fell somewhere between a triumphant yell and a melancholy comprehension.
“I am advising DVA headquarters of this development.” Dispatch spoke first. “Be advised the situation at Ladner is still not contained. Backup will be delayed.”
“For fuck’s sake. What the hell is so important in California that we’re not going to get Titan or some other heavy hitter out here and help us take down on of the most dangerous terrorists in the world?”
It was a rhetorical question, and Dispatch understood that because she remained silent.
“That’s why we’re here, Reaper.” Colonel Ford answered instead. “I’m two men down, but we’re here to get the job done. We’ve been after this asshole for over a decade. This ends today.”
Daisy liked the enthusiasm, but there were problems to his motivational game plan. Namely, they were still facing off against Seif al-Din and they’d lost the element of surprise. The way the notorious terrorist was just sitting there and waiting for them to make the first move told her that he had a plan to deal with them.
“Wraith and Armsman are gone.” Seraphim reported in abruptly. “They just teleported away.”
“Ok.” Iron Giant stepped back into his role as team leader now that they’d thoroughly lost the first round of the exchange. “Seraphim coordinate with Colonel Ford on locating Wraith and Armsman. Colonel, get another strike team ready to teleport in and engage them.”
The Colonel nodded. If he was upset about not going after Seif al-Din he didn’t show it.
“Your people need to know not to fuck with these two.”
Daisy was surprised to hear that four-letter word come out of John’s mouth, but that just told her how far up shit’s creek this whole thing could go if they weren’t careful.
“Any power-based attack is going to be useless against Armsman. You need to concentrate on secondary effects and weapons. I don’t suggest getting into a hand to hand fight with him. He’s got to be sixty or seventy years old now, but he will gut you like a fish if you get close enough. You’re going to have to move fast. Any sign of trouble and Wraith is going to get them out of there.”
“This isn’t my first day, Iron Giant.” Ford snapped back, his emotions still raw from losing people. “I know how to assess a threat and determine an appropriate battleplan.
“If you can, separate Wraith from Armsman and I’ll take her down.” Daisy added her own two cents.
Ford just nodded, already calling out orders to a few of his soldiers to be ready to move on his word.
“And us?” Matchbox walked over. Her eyes still scanned the rooftops looking for threats.
“We check on Galavant and then we get to work. Same plan.” Iron Giant smashed his fist together. It sounded like some medieval battle-chant of metal against metal.
“Our youngest member is still alive.” Mr. Morningstar entered the conversation. The old Hero looked a little frazzled. He’d done a lot of good work over his career, but today was just out of his league. “He’s got a head injury, but the ForceOps medics are looking him over. I’m afraid he won’t be much use to us now though.”
Daisy was relieved the young hero was ok, but she didn’t let it distract her from what was about to happen.
<Now it’s our turn.> The four Heroes set off at a run for the park and the enemies waiting for them.
“Can you please just toss the meat-sack off the roof. I’m not some psycho bitch. I don’t want my uniform covered in blood.” Lilly prodded the dead wannabe journalist with her toe.
“You’ll have to help. We’re still within a half mile of Reaper. We need to stay together.” Armsman proved his point by pulling plastic flex-cuffs from the belt of his fatigues and zip-tying their hands together.
“What the fuck!” Lilly could count over a dozen reasons off the top of her head why this was a bad tactical decision.
“I’m keeping you alive. Your father and I had to do this all the time back when she was active.” His tone left no room for argument. “Reaper was a ruthless hero, Wraith.” He looked Lilly right in the eyes. There was a hint of concern from the old supervillain. “She will rip you apart from the inside out if you give her the chance.”
“Ok…ok,” Lilly held up her hand, the attached one, in surrender. “Let’s get this corpse out of here so we have a decent firing position.
Together they rolled the dead man off the roof of the one-story suburban house. The house was on the opposite side of the park from the high school, which put the maximum distance between their old and new position, while still giving them a line of sight to her father and the man paying them. They were standing under a wooden pavilion calmly talking and waiting for the Heroes to make their move.
Armsman got down into a prone firing position, which yanked Lilly down with him. They both quickly realized the flex-cuff wasn’t going to work with their hands strapped together, so they switched to their ankles.
With Armsman in the prone, staring down the barrel of his fifty-caliber sniper rifle, and Lilly up on one knee they were ready. All they had to do was wait.
They didn’t have to wait long.
Within a few minutes four Heroes came charging into the far side of the park.
<I guess Uncle Curtis put down the human can-opener.> She thought when she didn’t see the armored Hero with them. <One less person to worry about.>
As Armsman lined up his first shot, focusing on the fire girl, Lilly thought about her secret bunker and what she’d set aside on her ready table. With a thought, and a small puff of shadow, the RPG appeared in her waiting hands. She was locked, cocked, and ready to rock.
“On your mark,” she told Armsman.
The man didn’t say anything. He just concentrated on the group of Heroes and fired.
Lilly felt the shot just as much as she heard it, and she unleashed her own hell on the Heroes. There were a few hundred yards between her and them, so she fired where she thought they would be. Then she thought about ammunition. More RPG rounds appeared in a rolling wave of darkness, and she fired as many of them as possible. By the time her first round reached the vicinity of the Heroes three more were on the way.
They exploded in blinding, fascinating fireball, and she couldn’t stop from giggling at the sight.
Their job wasn’t to kill the Heroes, although that was always encouraged. Their primary mission was to distract them so they didn’t notice the true danger until it was too late.
“Fucking trees.” Armsman cursed from beside her. “I’m barely getting any shots, and even these heavy slugs won’t penetrate the fire woman’s shield.
“Oh well,” Lilly shrugged. “Worth a try.” That was about the time she noticed the shadow descending on them.
“Hold on.” She teleported herself and Armsman off the roof a few seconds before Seraphim’s armored bulk smashed into their position and through the roof.
They appeared on the lawn just beside the house whose roof Seraphim had just caved in.
<Wow she really likes to make an entrance and crush shit.> Lilly thought as she unslung her rifle and got ready to either shoot or run.
Adrenaline raged in her body as the fight or flight instinct kicked in. She mentally overrode the flight instinct she felt at the sight of the demon-woman.
“WRAAAAAAAITH!” Seraphim popped back up through the hole in the roof, and Lilly shot her right in the chest.
The electromagnetic round swatted Seraphim from the sky and into the neighboring house.
<Damn!> Lilly had dialed up the power settings on the rifle after it didn’t take down the first strongman. She’d just drained half the battery, but it was worth it to see the flying bitch literally get knocked off her high horse. <I don’t know why I was ever scared of her.> She smirked behind her mask, before grabbing Armsman by the shoulder and teleporting to another location.
<What the fuck was that?> Seraphim grunted as she flopped out of the ruins of suburban home that the DVA was going to have to pay to fix.
She flexed her arms and legs. Everything seemed to be moving just fine. She also patted herself down for blood…nothing. The problem came when she tried to take a deep breath. Pain lanced through her stomach and chest so powerful she had the bite down on her tongue to stop from screaming.
She’d felt this injury before, but that didn’t mean she was used to it. People were very rarely able to hit the renowned Seraphim hard enough to break one of her ribs.
“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the part. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patchup on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.”
Just as she cut the comm line the ForceOps colonel popped into existence in the neighbor’s front lawn with two other Super soldiers. The three soldiers hurried over to her and made a small perimeter.
“Wraith did this?” The Colonel raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the damage to the two houses.
“Our brief fight did.” Seraphim winced as another soldier started to look at her ribs.
“I can numb the pain and get you back in the fight, but healing the bone will take me at least a half-hour.” The medic shook his head.
Seraphim couldn’t keep the look of irritation off her face. Part of it was struggling to breath without stabbing pain, but the rest was not working with the top caliber healers she was used to as a Hero.
<You do the best with what you can?> Henry had always said.
The thought opened up a different kind of wound and she shut down that line of thought before she did any more damage.
“Get me back in this.” She urged the medic to get to work.
The other soldier stood guard while the Colonel walked slowly around the two houses. He stopped at a spot on the opposite lawn. “Wraith was here.” He stomped his foot on a spot. “I can feel the tingle I get near another teleporter’s nexus.”
Seraphim knew all about the tear in reality teleports made when they moved from one place to another nearly instantaneously. Her former husband had been able to tap into those nexuses and follow his prey. Thus, the name Hunter.
Judging by the Colonel’s continued presence he didn’t seem to have the same gift or level of training.
“You’re good to go. That’s the best I can do.” The medic pulled away from Seraphim and she tested her body.
Deep breaths no longer hurt, but she still didn’t have full range of motion, and there was a persistent numbness around her injury that threw everything off.
<I’ve got to deal with it.> She thought as she bent her legs and shot into the air.
Her powerful leap took her a dozen feet high and her wings did the rest. When this was all over her shift back to human form would reset the injury like starting over in a video game. She’d be as good as new, but she didn’t dare take the chance doing that now. Too many people were getting shot at to risk it.
“Come out come out wherever you are.” She whispered to herself as she circled the battlefield when a sudden explosion shattered the momentary peace after the barrage of RPGs.
<I’m going to kill you, you stupid bitch.> It was the last time Seraphim was going to let Wraith make a fool out of her.
<What is this, fucking Apocalypse Now?!> Daisy ran through the trees as fire erupted all around her.
Her perception was dialed up to the max, so the RPGs seemed to be bearing down on Heroes in slow motion. All they needed was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the imagery would be complete.
Matchbox jerked as a rifle round smacked into her shield just as they heard the boom of the sniper. The younger Hero stumbled, and Mr. Morningstar fell back with her looking completely out of place and useless in his tuxedo.
Daisy strained to find the source of the RPG barrage, but all she felt was void in the direction they were coming from. <Come on, Tom. Do your fucking job!> She growled as she was showered with dirt, splinters, and flaming shrapnel, but she kept on going.
She didn’t have a mirror, but her clothes had to be in tatters, and she knew she was sporting several burns like some teenager with a bad case of acne. But none of that mattered. She could see the targets lounging under in a wooden pavilion acting like someone wasn’t lighting up the park with explosives. Their nonchalant expressions made her want to hurt them even more.
Then the explosions suddenly stopped. There was a muffled scream from far away and then silence. Daisy almost stopped to see what was happening, but that would only give their targets more time to react.
“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the park. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patch on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.” Seraphim’s strained voice came over the communications net. Whatever happened didn’t go the airborne Super’s way.
<Let them concentrate on Wraith and Armsman. You need to deal with the real bad guy.> If she’d told herself forty years ago, that she was going to refer to Armsman as “not the real bad guy” she would have kicked her own ass. But time and perspective changed everything.
“Matchbox, Mr. Morningstar, fall back. Let me and Iron Giant take the first crack at them. You step in if you’ve got a shot,” she ordered.
The order saved both of those Heroes’ lives.
Daisy and Iron Giant charged Seif al-Din and Hellgate’s position alone. Their feet thundered across the tree-filled park with Iron Giant’s massive metallic frame about twenty yards ahead of her. She was going to peel off and hit them on the flank while Iron Giant hit them head first, but they never got that far.
<It was all a diversion.> It was her last thought concerning the RPG attack before the world exploded around her.
Before they’d arrived the terrorist with his supervillain ally had planted a field of landmines around their position. Iron Giant must have stepped on one of them because she saw the big guy get blasted into the air. But it didn’t stop there.
The mines were daisy-chained together. If one went off they all went off. Daisy put all her effort into manipulating her kinetic absorption, channeling decades of skill, into surviving the earth itself giving a mighty heave.
Fire, pain, dirt, smoke, shrapnel; she was assaulted by them all as she was picked up and thrown into the air by the surprise attack.
For a split second, she wondered what would have happened on that Memorial Day back in seventy-two. If the parade had never been attacked, then her father never would have used the technique for surfing a shockwave that he’d been perfecting. If he’d never perfected it, he never would have taught it to his daughter. If Daisy had never learned it, and instead tried to absorb the full force of an explosion, she probably would have died a long time ago.
<It’s funny how shit seems to happen for a reason.> The idle thought passed through her mind as she soared through the air with her limbs flailing like one of those annoying inflatable balloon men car dealerships and tax centers seemed to have a hard-on for.
The technique wasn’t flawless though, and she couldn’t do anything about the fire. Next thing Daisy knew, she was waking up on the ground. She’d blacked out for a second. Everything hurt, and her kinetic absorption ability had a weird sensation to it that she’d only felt a few times in her life. She felt like a water balloon filled to the brim, and straining to hold together.
She was full, and likely hadn’t been able to absorb the full force of falling from whatever height she’d been at; which explained the aches and pains.
She looked around frantically, but Iron Giant was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, she saw two of the worst men in the world walking in her direction.
“Dispatch?” There was no reply.
Daisy moved her hand to her ear and felt the slickness of blood, but no earpiece. The men continued to get closer, so she struggled to get to her feet. Vertigo hit her immediately and she reached to the nearest tree for support.
<Fuck!> Her hand came down hard on giant splinters. The top seventy percent of the tree had been sheared off by the explosion, leaving nothing left but a jagged corpse to stab her with.
Her vision wavered like she was looking at a mirage despite her best efforts to focus.
The men stopped about thirty feet away from her, but she could still feel their smug smiles.
“You look like shit, Reaper.” Hellgate spoke with the same confidence he had decades ago. “But you’re still a lot prettier than I expected.”
Instinctually, Daisy reached up to touch her face. Pain traveled across her features as she felt burned skin and a decent amount of blood. She didn’t panic though, head wounds tended to bleed a lot even if they were minor. What did send her into full on panic mode was that the left half of her mask had been burned off. It had saved her eye from being a burned crisp, but it was giving the two evil men a decent side profile of her real face.
“Go stick your dick in a blender, Hellgate.” She spat back, literally spitting out a glob of blood in the process.
The laugh that came out of Seif al-Din’s throat was charming to the point Daisy would have sat down and had a drink with the man if she didn’t know he was one of the worst Super’s living on the planet Earth today.
“Our banter was short-lived, Reaper, but I’ve always heard you had an interesting sense of humor.” The terrorists voice was intriguing and cultured, nothing like the evil that was in his heart and soul.
“Hellgate, better yet, why don’t you just shove your dick down his throat. You’d get a kick out of it and it would shut him the hell up.” Daisy tried to stand without the assistance of the murdered tree, but it wasn’t happening.
“Ah, hahaha. Playing on the homophobia of my people. Clever, Reaper. Very clever.” Seif al-Din continued like she hadn’t even spoken. “However clever you seem to think you are it will not save you from certain death.” The sophistication of his slightly accented voice dropped an octave into the truly sinister. “I told you we would meet again. You decided to skip our fun in New York, and your team payed the penalty for it. Now it is just you and I. The famous, Reaper and infamous Seif al-Din. The only regret I have is that the world will not see you fall.” He sighed a bit dramatically.
“Today, the last obstacle to my power will be removed. My last true challenger will be vanquished.”
His smile made her want to puke.
“Any last words?” He started to advance toward her.
“Yeah,” she saw the glint of metal behind him. “Blow me, asshole.”
Iron Giant hit Seif al-Din with a flying tackle that careened both of them into the graveyard of fallen tree limbs. Hellgate’s head snapped toward the terrorist, who’d turned into a human bullet, with Iron Giant acting as the propellant, and Daisy took advantage of his lapse in focus.
She reached out with her power, fighting the wave of nausea and pain threatening to overwhelm her, and grabbed Hellgate’s life-thread.