Lilly ran along the flawless beach. Her heart pounded, her legs pumped against the added resistance of the sand, but her breathing was deep and even. After her time cooped up in that small cell she wanted to feel the wind in her hair again. Today, she was getting a little more than she bargained for. A monsoon was forecasted to wash over Armsman’s little island paradise in the next few hours and the rain was already starting to pick up. It was starting to move from a drizzle to a pour, but the rain was refreshing on her sun-tanned skin.
<Another half-mile and I’m done.> She told herself as she picked up the pace.
Despite the comfortable equilibrium her body had reached, her mind had more in common with the approaching monsoon. She was deeply conflicted about one thing in particular, and for her it was the only thing that mattered right now: Seth.
She knew she’d fucked up with the phone call. She felt like she was twelve all over again and couldn’t talk to the boy she liked so she hung up on him. That had never happened to her in real life until now, but she saw it in the movies all the time.
<Why am I so nervous?> She’d already done everything and then some with him.
<You know what it is.> Her mind told her what she didn’t want to hear, so she picked up the pace and started to sprint the last quarter-mile. <You don’t want him to reject you.>
It was an emotion as old as time, and one she hadn’t had to worry about before, but her subconscious was right. She was fucking terrified that Seth would toss her to the curb.
<Could I really blame him?> A spark of depression welled up, and she quickly strangled it with her mental bootheel.
<No.> She shook her head to rid herself of the thought and get her damp hair out of her eyes. <We’re going to be fine. We’re meant to be together. All that soulmate shit is real. I’ve felt it. He just needs to be reminded of me and taken away from that little bitch.>
Determination to get her man back flared into jealous rage as she remembered the picture she’d memorized. <What kind of name is Isla Perko anyway.>
Mika had caved and finally compiled a report on the young freshman Seth had been seen hanging out with. She was probably in the HCP too, which was how Lilly got Armsman to ok the expenditure of resources in the first place. It was always good to know who the enemy was going to be in five years.
<She’s cute,> she’d grudgingly admitted. <But she’s too short for Seth, and she has no ass. He needs something to grip on a woman.> The thought of Seth gripping anyone’s ass but hers brought forth a simmering rage that could only be exorcised through vigorous physical activity; thus the running.
Just as Lilly reached the entrance to the underground bunker, the wind started to pick up to wailing level. She had to struggle to pull the door closed behind her, but once she did the majority of the noise was cut down. She walked through the stark steel-lined corridor to another door. She had her biometric data taken by a few separate security measures before being allowed to enter.
In her uncle’s underground home there was no evidence the monsoon was starting to bear down on them from above. There was a whole other natural disaster forming.
“Could you please listen to something recorded after 1970!” She screamed at the oldies music blaring throughout the place. “Would it kill you to put on the Chainsmokers for one song?!”
She didn’t expect to get a reply so she headed to the shower to clean up. Regular training and good food on the island had gotten her back into shape and she did a quick three-sixty in the mirror to evaluate the run’s effectiveness.
<He needs someone with an ass.> She confirmed as she admired her own before stepping into the shower.
She heard the sound of a phone ringing through the music, and was surprised that she was so surprised at the telltale ring. Any other time she wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but this was the first time she’d heard a phone ring at her uncle’s place. She’d thought he didn’t have one.
It was picked up after the third ring, and the music was shut off. She conditioned her hair wondering what was going on, and was rewarded with a knock on the door.
“Stop playing with yourself and get out here.” Armsman’s voice was tense, and since she hardly ever heard him tense she quickly rinsed and wrapped a towel around herself.
“What?” She cracked the door open enough the steam wafted out into her room.
“You’ve got a meeting scheduled in fifteen minutes, so suit up.” He was already wearing his fatigues – minus the mask and arsenal of weapons.
“Meeting? You agreed to a meeting?” She asked warily, her hand grasping for something on the countertop to bash her uncle’s head in if he tried to turn her back into the Heroes.
It was unlikely, but she was never going back to prison, and she’d kill anyone that tried to take her.
“I didn’t have a choice, and neither do you, so get moving.” His voice was hard now, but he turned and walked away.
She didn’t relax though, the brief relief the run had given her had evaporated. She couldn’t fully suit up for this meeting, which made her even more nervous. Her tech genius designed vest had been confiscated by the DVA along with her electromagnetic rifle, so she had to make do with a specialized – but not as special – vest, and an assortment of conventional firearms. Armsman had no shortage of weapons in his home. She wore a long-sleeved compression shirt under the vest, black cargo pants with plenty of pockets for various goodies, and black boots. Her uncle had a small collection of shemaghs, so she took a black one of those. He also had some cheaper copies of her grinning black volto mask.
She made do with five pistols: two in shoulder straps, one on her thigh, one in the small of her back, and a final dainty one in her boot. A few knives went up her sleeves, onto her vest along with ammo, and she teleported a few grenades from her ready table in her underground armory across the world. The darkness that blasted with their arrival was like a gust of fresh air that lingered before dissolving back into the universe.
She looked like Wraith, talked like Wraith, and walked like Wraith, but there was something missing. She couldn’t quite figure out what it was as she joined her uncle. Armsman looked as deadly as ever.
“You break any of my stuff and I break you,” were his parting words to Mika before an explosion of darkness teleported the two villains away.
The location Armsman had been given was cryptic for anyone aside from Lilly. It was a reference to a luxury hotel in downtown Orlando, which gave her a small hint as to who they were meeting. Her suspicions were confirmed as she deposited them in a corner of the room she’d been in before. Only last time guys had been wiring IEDs in here.
The darkness spread out and identified the room to her before dissipating. There were four other men there. Two had weapons on their hips and were definitely human. The other two had no weapons and were definitely not.
“Ah, Wraith. I’m so pleased to see prison was so kind to you. You look as radiant as ever.” Seif al-Din smiled and Lilly felt her skin crawl.
“Yeah sitting in a box and eating soggy oatmeal three times a day was a blast.” She tried to appear nonchalant, but she was waiting for the ambush to start. “I see you brought a friend. How’s it going Damas-douche.”
The silver-haired pyrokinetic looked at her like she was complete garbage, and she returned the sentiment one hundred percent.
“We can skip the pleasantries.” al-Din looked at Damascus and the other terrorist went to the bed to grab a stack of folders.
“Things are a little hot right now.” Lilly stated when Damascus walked over and deposited the stack of files on the desk in front of her. “I’m not really taking new contracts.”
“This is not a new contract.” Seif al-Din stated matter-of-factly. “This is a continuation of your existing one.”
“I smell bullshit.” Armsman finally spoke up. The statement earned him a hard glare from the terrorist leader, but that was it. Armsman was one of the few people in the world that could reliably kill Seif al-Din. The terrorist knew that, and wasn’t about to get on the nullifier’s bad side.
“There is no such bullshit.” The terrorist took a more diplomatic approach and smiled. “Wraith and Hellgate were hired to help me retrieve my dear Fadeelah and they failed.”
“We didn’t fail. I successfully grabbed her and Hellgate…” she didn’t know how to describe her father at first, but the situation quickly made it clear how she needed to define Hellgate. “Well, Hellgate died in the attack, so we don’t owe you shit.”
“On the contrary.” Self al-Din didn’t bat an eye at the news of Hellgate’s death. “You might have grabbed my daughter, but you also led the Heroes right to her. That’s like saying you won a million dollars gambling, but then lost it all in a single roll of the dice. You still ended up with nothing. The same is true here. You still owe me what is due.”
The tension in the room ratcheted up with each word. Lilly’s fingers were itching to get around the trigger and put a couple of holes in Damascus. Her uncle would deal with al-Din. The terrorists felt it too because there was a tense twenty seconds where they all looked at each other like they were in a Mexican standoff.
“However,” al-Din finally broke the tension. “I understand the circumstances you are faced with at such a young age. I myself have lived in your position for decades, and at times it can be unpleasant.”
Lilly didn’t relax but she kept on listening.
“You do still owe me a job.” He made that point abundantly clear. “But I think we can come to an arrangement that is beneficial to both of us.”
Curiosity got the best of her. “What do you have in mind?” She also didn’t want to be on the run from al-Din’s network and the DVA at once.
“I’ve got a new target in mind. You will assist me in finding her, capturing her, and killing everyone she is close to.” al-Din said it all like this was a real-estate transaction.
“Who do you want me to grab?” Lilly wondered what the two of them could have in common.
“I want you to get me Reaper.”
<Hot damn. Spank me and call me auntie luck.> Lilly couldn’t help the smile that dominated her masked face.
“You mean Ms. Meyers.”
She didn’t think she could surprise the legendary terrorist, but his eyebrows nearly shot up into his hair.
“You know who she is?” The calm, almost uninterested tone was back, but it was too late. Lilly knew she had him hooked.
“I know her name, who she is, where she works, and even what type of coffee she likes.” It was a bit of an exaggeration, but she needed to have the upper hand here.
“Then we are in agreement.” al-Din smiled brightly. “You grab me Reaper… Ms. Meyers…and we’ll call it even.”
“Not quite.” Lilly crossed her arms so her hands were only inches away from her pistols. “You want her captured. I want the bitch dead.”
“Ah.” Seif al-Din scratched her trimmed, well-maintained beard. “How about this then. I only need her for a year, maybe two. After that she is all yours to do with as you will.”
Lilly considered it and almost turned it down, but then thought about it. She still had a lot of shit to sort out in her life, knowing Reaper was getting tortured by al-Din for a few years wasn’t that much of a price to pay. She could get things straight and then pop the old Hero in the head when the terrorist was done with her.
“Deal.” She conceded. “But the price is going to go up.”
Damascus looked like he wanted to set her on fire, but she ignored him. If he tried anything Armsman would cut off his hands.
“Picking up Anika was one thing. Picking up a Hero of her status, with her power, from where she is, is not going to be cheap. I’m going to need resources, intel, a whole fucking team working for me.”
How quick al-Din agreed made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
“The team is already assembled and has made a probing move against Reaper and the local authorities. They will try again soon if you want to be a part of it.” He held out his hand toward her. “I can make the necessary introductions.”
She looked at the hand for a moment before taking it. Not taking it would be a sign of weakness. Armsman gripped her shoulder, but before Damascus could come closer she teleported away in a wave of black.
They went to a nondescript cave in a barren island in the Mediterranean before hopping back to the location al-Din gave her. It was a dilapidated warehouse in section of the city formerly held by the Fist. The Super gang had long since been demolished by the Heroes, but a few of their properties had been passed on to other less-than-legitimate enterprises.
Seif al-Din didn’t looked surprised or concerned that Damascus hadn’t come along for the ride. Instead, he walked forward like he owned the place. Which he probably did.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” He approached a man and two women.
The man had on a stained, formerly white wife beater. One well-muscled woman had a jumpsuit stripped down to her waist and wasn’t wearing anything other than a sports bra while she worked over a punching bag. The second woman was sitting at a table cleaning a collection of knives. All she did was raise her eyes at the approaching newcomers.
“May I introduce the newest addition to your team. Wraith, this is the team” Stal, Nightingale, and Vortex.”
“The muscles, the brains, and transportation?” Lilly guessed correctly.
The moment al-Din nodded Lilly moved. In a fluid motioned honed by over a decade of training, she drew one of her shoulder-holstered pistols, pointed it at the man, and shot him between the eyes. The only person who seemed surprised by the action was the man, and he was dead before he hit the ground.
“Hello,” she put the smoking barrel back in the holster. “I’m Wraith, your new transportation.”
Seth sat alone at a lunch table shunning any other forms of social contact. He even gave people the stink eye when they tried to sit down at the tables on either side of him. After a few attempts by people to make contact word spread to not sit by the weird guy in the corner.
Seth didn’t give two shits if people thought he was weird or not. His thoughts were too chaotic. A whirlwind of emotions raged inside of him, and what he wanted to do most was go home, get drunk, take a nap, and then figure out his next move.
Seth picked his head up and scanned the room. Sitting about fifty feet away were a man and a woman. They looked young, but they couldn’t quite pull off the late teenage look. It was the way their eyes kept scanning the room that gave them away. Normal teenagers were too self-absorbed to know what was going on around them most of the time. These two were constantly focused outward.
<More like constantly focused on me.> When they looked his way Seth gave the two undercover DVA agents a wave. They might be twenty-one jump streeting this thing, but he wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
He turned back to his barely-touched meal and opened the chocolate milk. He took a long sip before pulling a small flask from his pocket. Both the milk and the flask disappeared beneath the table, and in an expert show of skill he mixed the two beverages by touch alone. When he was finished the milk had a nice tingle of Kahlua to it.
Seth didn’t even turn as Izzy approached, ignored the invisible boundaries he’d set up, and took a seat. “Freshman.” Was his only response.
“That’s how this is gonna be.” She raised an eyebrow as she raised a burger to her mouth.
Seth had a joke about girls and meat in their mouth ready to go, but he stomped on it. He wasn’t in the mood to encourage her today.
“I guess so.” He turned away from her and moved his food around a little with his fork.
“Brooding isn’t nearly as cute as you guys think it is. I blame all of those vampire books. A whole generation of girls are into dark, older, brooding guys with a fetish for biting.”
Seth couldn’t stop the smile that pulled at his lips, but he could stop her from seeing it. “What do you want freshman?”
“I have a name you know.” A hint of irritation leaked into Izzy’s voice.
He thought it better not to answer, and it succeeded in making her even more pissed.
“Cut out this mopey shit, Seth.” She scorned him. “We’re way past the freshman hazing. When you put down plastic to pay for bras that kind of took away you playing your upperclassman card.”
“Don’t feel so special. I’ve bought clothing for lots of women, and I’ve taken plenty of it off too.” He succeeded in silencing her judgment for a few minutes.
He speared a slice of the school’s meatloaf with his fork and tasted it. He had to force himself to swallow the hard, dry piece of quasi-meat, and resigned to pick something more edible up after HCP training.
“Why are those two watching you?” Izzy spoke up again.
“Good eye.” The compliment slipped out. “Those are the two DVA agents they have on me twenty-four-seven in case I turn to the dark side on a whim.”
“Aren’t they supposed to be protecting you?”
That got a harsh laugh from Seth. “They couldn’t protect me from an angry chihuahua. If Wraith comes for me there’s nothing that Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus looking suits could do about it.”
“If you need some protection I could…”
“No.” Seth cut her off, finally looking up into her black eyes. “I’ve got enough dead people on my conscious. I don’t need to add you to the list.”
Izzy’s face went from happy Seth was finally looking at her to irritated in a flash. “Are you saying I can’t look after myself?”
“That’s what I’m saying, Freshman.” Seth returned his attention to his food.
“I am third in my class with a top notch defensive power. Coach Meyers says I might even be capable of more.”
“Coach Meyers is a cold-hearted bitch, but even I know she’d laugh in your face if you thought you could stand up to Wraith.” Set pushed on as Izzy blushed with embarrassment. “Don’t start thinking of yourself as hot shit because you’re top five in an HCP class. Wraith has taken on Heroes with decades of experience. She was accused of killing one. She didn’t, but she blew him up pretty good. She also injured Seraphim enough to take her out of a fight. SERAPHIM!” he exclaimed. “The same Hero that took out an entire Mexican drug cartel solo.” His hard, green eyes looked back up at her. “Do you think she doesn’t already know who you are?”
He saw the first glimpses of fear on Izzy’s face. He didn’t want to see her afraid, but she needed to know the shitstorm she was blindly walking into.
“I got a call from her on my new phone. That means that she had people look up my new number. If she’s having people looking into me then she knows about the DVA security, she knows about my friends, and now she knows about you.”
Now the freshman hero-in-training’s eye were wide.
“From there it isn’t a big leap to figure out you’re in the HCP. All it would take was one anonymous phone call and you’d be kicked to the curb for an SI infraction that you aren’t even guilty of. She probably wouldn’t even stop there. I’d stay away from dark places and walk with a buddy for a while.”
Fear, anger, and determination spread across Izzy’s face. It was enough that Seth had to pinch the bridge of his nose in frustration.
“My aura will protect me. She can come at me in a dark parking garage if she wants. She’s just a teleporter.”
“Then you’re already on the way to being dead if you think she’d just going to come after you in a parking garage. She’ll drop the whole structure on your fucking head, Izzy, and she won’t bat an eye.”
Izzy’s expression told him she thought he was pulling her leg, until he told her she’d already done that before. “I can take care of myself.” She remined defiant.
“Whatever you say. I’m just saying you need to stay away from me and your life will be easier. Keep talking with me and butting into my shit and you might get something dropped on your head when you least expect it.”
“How is my life going to be easier if I abandon the people I’m trying to protect. I’m training to be a Hero. That means more than punching things.”
“True.” Seth acknowledged the point. “But you’re still a freshman. The next nine months are all about punching things. If you can’t punch things then they aren’t going to let you get to the point to see what you’re really made of. That brings me back to my original point. Stay away from me Iz, and you might get what you want out of life.”
It was only then that he realized how close Iz was to Liz. He looked down at the food as the empty feeling in his chest spread to his face.
“I learned long ago that life can take a dump on you whenever. You’ve got to make the best of it, roll with the punches, and do what you want. If you let other people dictate how you live you aren’t really living.” She got up and grabbed her tray. “I’ll see you around, Seth.”
“Motivational words, freshman.” He returned to the generic name. “A lot harder to live by than you think.”
She didn’t reply to that. She just walked away and left Seth all alone with his shitty meatloaf. Her words did strike a chord with him though. They were basically a less harsh version of what a lot of people had been saying to him for months.
<And if everyone was saying the same thing then they probably have a point.> He took a deep breath, let it out, and made a call.
Five minutes later he had an appointment with Dr. Johnson, the HCP’s psychologist. Maybe just maybe, if Seth got to lay down on a couch and vent a little he would feel better.
He went to put his phone back in his pocket and felt it clink against something. <What the hell?> He reached in past his phone and pulled out the unknown object.
It was an old flip phone, like the kind they used ten years ago. It was small and boxy, and for a second Seth thought the DVA was pulling some weird shit on him. <Did they just record my whole conversation.> His irritation made the air in the cafeteria stir, but he quickly regained control with a few deep breaths. <Might need to talk about my anger issues too.>
A small screen on the front of the phone glowed light blue with a message, so he flipped it opened and hit the message box. There, in blocky letters were here words that shattered Seth’s composure.
I MISS YOU
It was like Seth had gripped the tale of a King Cobra. He jumped up from the table and was ready to bash to phone against the table until there was nothing left but broken plastic and circuitry. He even brought his fist up to smash it down – but his arm didn’t move.
Memories raced through his mind. Watching her punch out the drug dealer in yoga pants, their blissful Christmas break, basically every night over the last semester, and finally the last time they spoke. The pain and fear in her eyes when Mr. Morningstar revealed to him who she really was. She’d professed her love over and over again. She told him not to listen to them, that they were trying to manipulate him, but he didn’t say anything. He was too shocked to even open his mouth. Before he knew it, he was being escorted from the building, and he didn’t hear her voice again until recently.
So, he didn’t smash the phone. A few people were looking at him awkwardly because he’d jumped out of his seat, but he knew they’d write it off to the weird guy being weird. He grabbed his tray – making sure to keep the burner phone hidden beneath it – and returned his uneaten food to the window. Once he had enough people between him and the DVA goons he slipped the phone in his pocket and tried to forget about it.
It was the equivalent of walking around with a nuke in your pocket. It was hard to ignore, but he did his best. The first team trial was today and he needed to get his head out of his ass. They were about to go up against teams that had been training and strategizing for weeks. All Erin had them doing was working out while she stared off into nothingness.
When he reached the HCP and the DVA lackeys abandoned their constant shadowing, Seth had two things weighing fifty-fifty on his mind: what was he going to say to Liz, and how bad was he going to get his ass kicked?