A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 45

There was black everywhere. Tears streamed down faces and tissues were being passed around. Dean Ditmar stepped back from the podium and sniffed back his own tears. This was the absolute worst part of his job, Daisy could see it on his face, but worst of all, it was a part these young students shouldn’t be exposed to yet. That really pissed her off.

Accountability was crucial after events like the attack by Seif al-Din and this bombing. They needed to know that everyone was ok. At the end of last year everything was ok, this time it wasn’t.

Daisy looked stoic in the back of the room with the rest of the professors. She had to go out and buy a black dress for the event. The saleswoman’s cheerfulness had irritated her to the point she just grabbed the first thing in her size and left. It wasn’t that woman’s fault, she didn’t know what the outfit was for, and Daisy knew she was just being bitchy, but she felt she had a right to be.

She’d lost a lot of friends in her long life, a lot of Heroes, but never before had she lost students that she’d helped mold. When everything was over, and everyone accounted for, the HCP had lost three students: one junior and two freshmen. Daisy didn’t know the junior beyond seeing him in the hall, but she’d had the two freshmen in her class, and was still compiling the latest power evaluation on both of them.

The parents had already come and picked up their children’s bodies. One family wanted nothing to do with the HCP at all. They believed the institution had killed their child. Daisy expected a lawsuit because that’s what people did now-a-days when they were hurting, but she also knew it wouldn’t go anywhere. It was an outside activity that the student chose to go to, but that wouldn’t stop the bad press and congressional investigations that would fall on the Dean’s head.

The other family was much more receptive. They met and prayed with the Dean, and thanked him for everything he’d done for their child. They knew what she was getting herself in to when she joined the HCP, and always knew that this was a possibility. They just never thought in their wildest dreams that it would be this soon.

The junior didn’t have any family. They’d all died in a fire when he was young. He’d bounced between foster homes but was now a legal adult, so the HCP staff was taking care of his remains. That was the least they could do.

<There was nothing any of them could have done.> Daisy thought as she watched the students begin to stand and file out of the small sanctuary on the bottom levels of the HCP.

Even a fully-trained Hero would have trouble surviving a dumpster that suddenly exploded next to you, or a building collapsing on their head. You needed the right power set to survive, and sadly, these students didn’t.

Daisy clenched her fist at the thought of the helplessness all of them must have felt in their last moments. Not only for themselves, but for all the people around them that they could do nothing to save. The DVA, FBI, state and local agencies were still hard at work on the bombing case, and so far the death toll was just over one hundred. The worst part of all of it was that they only had one of the three culprits in custody, and Stal wasn’t the type of person you could force to give you answers. It was dangerous for anyone weaker than Iron Giant to be in the same room with her.

“You ok?” Craig’s hand gently came to rest on her shoulder.

“Yeah.” She started a few breathing exercises Dr. Johnson had given her to control her anger. It helped, but didn’t extinguish the slow burn in her gut.

“It sucks a place so beautiful is only used for the saddest occasions.” Craig glanced around the room.

The room was plain but tasteful, like most Heroes turned out to be. It was part chapel, part mausoleum, and a general sanctuary for those who’d lost someone. Carved into the white, marble walls were names and dates, and on the small ledges in front of some were little mementos. Daisy scanned a few.

<Full name…Hero name…dates of birth and death…and few words of remembrance. Is that all we end up with?> It wasn’t often that someone who was virtually immortal contemplated mortality, but it was just as somber for Daisy as when a normal person did.

The only difference between the recently fallen and these Heroes dating back to the beginning of the school’s HCP was that the students didn’t have Hero names. Posthumously, they would be honored as Heroes with all the rights and privileges, but that didn’t bring them back. Not even Hallow could do that. Most of the small spaces behind those names were empty, with the past Heroes being buried elsewhere, but she knew at least one spot held remains.

As part of the remembrance ceremony, the junior’s ashes had been placed in the marble and sealed away. That had been the toughest part for many of the students. They didn’t see the freshmen bodies after their death, so it was abstract to them. This wasn’t. This was something they could see with their own eyes and reach out and touch.

<Doctor Johnson is going to be busy today.> It was a sad truth.

Daisy watched as the students filed past. Some were openly crying, some were helping their friends, others were trying to be strong and failing, and some were trying to be strong and succeeding. At the moment, it didn’t matter what their reaction was. What mattered was how they went forward from here. Daisy expected to see a few people drop out of the freshman class once break started. They just wouldn’t return for spring semester, and she didn’t blame them. It wasn’t until junior and senior year when the professors really started to hammer home that this was really dangerous work that Heroes were doing.

Slowly the space emptied, until only the professors were left. Robin and Marshall Kirk plopped down in the front row of seats. They’d been able to hold it together, but with the students gone Robin finally broke down. The Hero known as Force Field blamed herself for what had happened. Security was her job at Mr. Morningstar’s funeral, and the villains had turned her power against her. Daisy could still visualize the explosive force of the bombs ricocheting off the energy barriers and back down into the people. It was impossible to tell if it had injured or killed more people, but Robin didn’t care. Even though they’d adapted quickly to the villains’ plan, people still died, and Robin blamed herself.

Marshall just sat there consoling his wife. Life was hard enough for them. Both were twenty-plus-year veteran Heroes. Their son was a dangerous Powered locked away in a special facility, and on top of that they now had this on their consciences. Daisy was pretty sure retirement was right around the corner for the both of them.

Grace wasn’t looking too happy either, but her expression was more anger than anything. She was working with the Protectorate, and not being able to find the other perpetrators was frustrating her as much as Daisy.

John and Maria just looked sad, but Miles had a spark in his eye. Daisy knew he was beating his big bush of contacts for any word on Wraith or Nightingale, and that was what his enthusiasm was all about. He was a Subtlety Hero who was in his element. It had nothing to do with where they were or what they were mourning.

“Thank you for coming,” John started once the students had taken the lifts back up to the higher HCP levels.

Most were done with exams for the semester and would be heading home. A few still had some final tests to take before heading out, and just about everyone wanted one last workout in the HCP’s facilities before weeks at home. Good cooking and the holiday season didn’t lend itself well to staying in shape. The first week back in January would be a rude awakening for the freshmen.

“Here are everyone’s assignments for the break. I’ve set up a watch rotation for the campus, and have coordinated with a liaison back at Protectorate HQ.” John passed out a paper version of the schedule, but Daisy knew she’d have an e-mail waiting for her back in her office.

She also noticed that she and Grace were scheduled to patrol infrequently.

“Daisy, Grace, your primary focus is your work with the DVA and Protectorate. The best defense is a good offense. Find Wraith and Nightingale and the school will be safe.”

<Not so sure about that.> Daisy remembered what Seif al-Din had said to her, and knew peace was an illusion until he was out of the picture.

“We’ll be meeting daily to exchange information and keep each other up-to-date on our separate investigations.” John’s eyes lingered on Miles, who rolled his eyes and nodded back at the Dean. The Subtlety Hero had a tendency to vanish and not reappear for days.

“If there are no questions,” John paused and looked around the room, “then your time is your own. I’ll see you all tomorrow.”

The small meeting broke up and everyone headed out. Daisy took the lift to her office and got suited up. She was heading into town to coordinate with the DVA. Grace was coming with her. The rest of the teachers were staying at the HCP to coach students through their last few workouts and finish up any paperwork that the DVA demanded be turned in by the end of the semester.

All of it had an undertone of loss to it. Daisy saw it in everyone’s faces and movements.

<Never again,> she promised herself as she pulled on her black mask. <Never again.>

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 42

Isla was still shaking when she exited the tent where the pushy soldier had asked her questions. Only part of the shaking was due to the explosion that had ripped through the city, and the chaos that followed. A lot of her anxiety had to do with the recent questioning.

No one told her how to handle that situation. She had her SI requirements, but this wasn’t some collegiate administrator or other student bugging her for details about her Super status. This was the Army and the DVA. They weren’t fucking around, and she didn’t know where to draw the line. So, she ended up telling them everything.

The soldier hadn’t even blinked when she whispered she was a member of West Private HCP’s freshman class. He’d probably become even more intrusive. Isla’s eyes had scanned the room for help in those moments; begging and praying that Coach McMillian or Coach Meyers would step in and handle everything.

She noticed some people in the room from around the HCP, one or two members of her own class, and then a bunch of normal looking people who she guessed were members of the Orlando civilian population who just happened to be Supers.

“Isla?” A familiar voice called out her name.

She turned around and saw a small gathering of her classmates. Since Aiden was the tallest, he was the one she saw waving her over. She hurried over to join the group, which had a couple of sophomores present. A terrorist attack kind of threw the “don’t group together and draw attention” instructions out the window. People were more concerned with their own shit, and the group of young Supers was only drawing limited attention.

“Hey.” She huddled with the rest of the group, her body still shaking a bit.

“Do you want my jacket?” Aiden asked with a look of concern.

“I’m good,” Isla shook her head and lifted her chin up. She didn’t want the rest of the class to think she was going into shock from everything. She was training to be a Hero, and Heroes didn’t shy away from the ugly.

“Can you believe that shit?” Scarlett was standing near the center of the group and fuming. “They’re questioning anyone who isn’t one hundred percent human and grilling them about their ‘involvement’.” She put the last word in air quotes.

“They’re just doing their jobs.” Someone else commented, but Scarlett just gave them a dismissive hand wave.

“I’m telling…” Scarlett started but stopped suddenly and just shook her head. “I’m just saying it feels wrong, and I’ve got a better idea about how that shit world works than the rest of you.”

“Not all of us.” Kyoshi Schultz stepped into the conversation and ignored the glare Scarlett shot her way. “But Scarlett has a point. It’ll be better if we head back to school and discuss this stuff there.”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than all their phones got a text message simultaneously. It was a campus alert from the school. It told everyone to return to campus, if possible, so the school could get accountability of their students.

“Let’s go.” Kyoshi took charge and started to lead the group of students toward the nearest bus station.

It was a ten-minute ride back to the edge of campus and then another ten minutes for them all to get back down into the HCP without drawing too much attention. They had to be extra careful to ensure that no one followed them from the bombing site and tried to blow their secret identities. A random person off the street claiming that someone might be a Super from what they looked like back at the bombing sites was one thing, making a claim on campus was another. Everyone hoped that no one’s cover was blown in the next few days. That would just be the icing on the shit cake.

One of the professors that Isla didn’t really know – a Professor Willis – gathered them together in the gym and started to check names of a list.

“Everyone needs to stay put until we know the status of all the students. There are refreshments in the corner if you’re hungry. Getting a little sugar in you after what you’ve seen might not be a bad idea. Others might want to be proactive, do something so they don’t feel useless.” The Professor wasn’t pulling any punches. “If that’s the case, then get into your uniforms and I’ll run you through an exciting training exercise.”

Isla wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but the exodus of students to the locker room made the decision for her. She went in and got into her black uniform and hit the track for their five mile warmup.

It wasn’t until a few miles in that she started to feel better. Getting the blood pumping was keeping her from thinking about everything that could go wrong in the next few days, and what had happened in the last few hours. The rhythmic breathing of her running helped to clear her mind and focus it on the simple tasks right in front of her.

The rest of the class was the same way. Soon, their concerns about the bombing fell away as they got further into their workout. That was exactly what Professor Willis wanted. When he was sure no one was looking he glanced back down at his checklist. There were a few names that didn’t have a checkmark next to them, and the DVA was reporting that all Supers had been interviewed and evacuated from the immediate area. The old Subtlety Hero hoped they were in route or else their week was about to get a lot worse.

 

***

 

“Three…two…one…BREECH…BREECH…BREECH!”

Daisy listened for the go order before taking action. She already had the life lines of everyone in that building dialed in. All she had to do was squeeze. Thirty-one people went limp and dropped to the floor. She suspected at least a few would have collateral injuries from the fall, but that wasn’t a big concern.

Loud cracks of gunfire cut through the air as snipers took out windows. The blinds and curtains were drawn so no one could get a bead on Nightingale, but there was always a chance someone would get lucky, and with the civilians unconscious on the floor, the risk to innocent people was minimal.  That was only a secondary goal. The primary reason was for the SWAT members repelling down from the roof to have easy access into the building.

That was only one phase of the complicated operation. Usually, you wanted to keep an assault like this simple, but nothing was simple with a psychopath like Nightingale. They had to go in from as many angles as possible. Daisy dropping the civilians was just a small part in the plan. Right now, Hunter was teleporting SWAT all over the place in the building to cover as many different approaches as possible.

The plan was to contain her as much as possible before she could even move. Daisy might be out on the perimeter, but Hunter was getting in on the action. He still had his big gun and been in more than his share of fire fights.

Gunshots rang out and the radio filled up with chatter. Daisy gripped the side of her chair and squeezed. The groan of warping metal was drowned in the hurried reports and yells of agents and SWAT officers.

More gunshots rang out. “Man down!”

“Shit…she’s…” Static followed.

“Hunter, report.” Agent Phillips was at the center of the chaos trying to hold down the fort.

“We’re pinned, she’s got…” The staccato roll of a rifle on full auto rang out and crashes and curses could be heard over Hunter’s line.

<Fuck it!> Daisy pivoted, broke through the perimeter, and reached the front door in a few kinetically-powered leaps. People were screaming behind her, but she didn’t give a shit. People were dying and she was able to do something about it.

A SWAT member in black tactical gear was slumped over a railing on the first floor landing. Blood dripped from two holes right where his armor ended and his neck began. It was expert shooting, which made Daisy take a few deep breaths.

<I should have grabbed a radio.> She shook her head. Her leg still itched like a bitch and she was beginning to regret her impulsive action.

A three-round burst rang out above her followed by a scream. Daisy grabbed the dead SWAT member’s side arms before bounding up the stairs two at a time. More bodies and blood filled the hallways. They’d all been expertly targeted with shots where their armor didn’t cover them or was weak. A good few were still alive, but they wouldn’t stay that way for long without medical attention.

“Hold on,” she whispered as she continued to move toward the sporadic gun fire.

It sounded like it was getting higher and higher, so she kept up her pursuit. The first bullet fired her way was meant to keep her head down. It smacked into the wood hard a few inches from her head. Splinters shot toward her face, but her absorption made them fall limply to the ground.

The gunfire was no longer sporadic. Shots rang out every few seconds. Daisy didn’t need a radio to hear the SWAT teams talking with each other and converging on Nightingale’s position. The BOOM of Hunter’s rifle felt like it made the whole building shake.

“Push! Push!” someone yelled. Two SWAT officers appeared in the hall in front of her and started moving forward while methodically firing to keep Nightingale behind cover.

It didn’t work.

Daisy didn’t see how the supervillain had gotten her shots off, but both officers went down. One had blood fountaining from his neck, while the other one grabbed his leg and screamed. Daisy rushed up the last few stairs to the landing and reached for the nearest guy. He was only a few yards from the cover of the landing, but that still put her in the open.

The first round hit her in the shoulder just as she got a grip on the back of the guy’s vest. She expected the unbelievable pain of a gunshot wound to radiate through her body, but instead heard the soft ping of the bullet falling uselessly to the ground.

“Fuck!” Nightingale swore from down the hall.

Daisy didn’t waste any time. She gave the guy a mighty pull and he flew back into the cover of the stairwell. His landing wasn’t pretty, but a few bruises were worth not bleeding out. Another round flew in her direction as she dove back behind cover. It barely missed her, and this time she felt the twinge of a bullet dipped in Nightingale’s nullifying goo.

<She’s not always using her special ammo.> Daisy thought as she quickly ripped off the SWAT guy’s belt and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. <It makes sense.>

It would take time and effort to coat the bullets and load them into magazines, and time was something she clearly didn’t have as the combined effort of the SWAT teams drove her back.

“Reaper, what the fuck are you doing here!” Hunter darted out of the hallway to take cover next to her.

“Helping.” She answered simply as she checked the shot officer’s pulse.

She couldn’t see the other Hero’s face behind his mask, but she could tell by the tightness in his neck that he was pissed. “Fine.” He ultimately relented. “You already inadvertently helped us. You kept her away from the stairs, and that stopped her upward progression. We’ve got her contained on this floor for now.”

A BOOM way louder than gun fire made the whole building shake and loose pieces of plaster fell from the ceiling.

“Unless she has an exit strategy.” Daisy and Hunter looked at each other for a moment before sprinting back into action.

“Watch him.” Hunter yelled back to the still-advancing SWAT teams, but the two Heroes took the lead. No shots rang out as they approached. “I’ll go high you go low.” Hunter ordered.

Daisy brought up her gun and waited for Hunter to count them down. When he hit zero they burst into the room to find…nothing.

“What the…” there was a large hole in the floor and nothing else in the room.

The two Heroes approached it carefully. Daisy poked her head in and jerked it back quickly to avoid any fire. Nothing came her way, but she got a good look at what was below.

“Shit.” She lowered her weapon and took a deep breath.

Hunter poked his head down and let out a similar curse. Below them were two more holes that lead all the way into the darkness beneath the building.

“She’s in the sewer!” Hunter passed the information along so the cops could expand the perimeter, but that was asking a lot. There had to be a thousand manhole covers in the city, not to mention other outlets. Nightingale could pop up anywhere.

“How did this fucking happen?!” Hunter finished his radio call and then kicked a chair over in anger.

“My guess is that she had military-grade detcord wrapped around her body,” Daisy guessed, but it had been a rhetorical question.

The DVA and cops would do what they could. They’d deploy everyone. Try and secure everything, but Nightingale was a trained operative, and they couldn’t be everywhere at once. Plus, if Nightingale went one on one with a patrol officer at a man hole she’d win.

<At least we’ve got Stal.> Iron Giant had made sure of that.

Daisy just hoped it was enough to get the ball rolling, reacquire Nightingale, find Wraith, figure out what the hell Abney was thinking, and ultimately put a stop to Seif al-Din’s plans.

With everything hanging over her head like this, the upcoming holidays were starting to lose some of their appeal.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 40

“I hate this.”

“Of course you hate it.” Iron Giant was fully healed and sitting up on a cot in the medical tent the DVA had set up. Dr. Sanderson had outdone himself and stitched the wounded Hero up in record time.

Daisy wished her healer was as good. The hole in her calf was all patched up, but it felt like her bone itself had crabs. It itched like a mother, and this wasn’t an itch she could scratch without ripping open her leg. The healer confidently told her it would feel better in a few hours before walking away. Daisy had to grit her teeth not to drop the man on the spot. Even now she had to bite the inside of her cheek to give her mind something else to think about other than the persistent itch.

“You’ve always been a woman of action, and the woman that could be called upon to take the steps to resolve this type of situation. It frustrated you that you can’t be the one to end this.” Iron Giant stated calmly as he watched the TV screens.

The DVA had set up a tactical operations center in the tent next to theirs, and they had perfect seats to the unfolding operation. As Daisy had so painfully learned today, she was not the best Hero to deal with this situation. Her absorption didn’t work, and she was no better protected than the average cop when it came to a gunfight with the infamous villain. Not even John, as strong as he was, was a good fit.

Surprisingly, this was a less-is-more situation. The Orlando PD and the DVA were taking the lead this time. Nightingale strength was against Supers, not humans. To them, she was just a well-trained and well-armed hostage taker, and they had procedures in place to deal with these situations.

“There goes the power.” Daisy remarked as the lights to building finally flickered off. If it was the summer it would have become unbearably hot in the building within the hour, but this close to winter it wouldn’t do anything. The step would really work to the authority’s advantage in a few hours when the sun started to go down.

“Nightingale, this is the Department of Variant Affairs. We want to talk with you to bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion. We are tossing a cell phone to the front door. Please take it so we can talk.” Agent Phillips announced through a megaphone.

Three officers slowly moved forward toward the door of the building while the DVA agent spoke. Two had shields that they were using to cover them against attack. The third was crouched in the center of the protective shell and was holding the phone. They made it to within five feet of the door, stopped, and tossed the phone lightly so it landed in plain sight of the door. Then, they slowly moved back. Once they’d put enough space between themselves and the door, the door cracked open and a scared looking woman stepped out.

Nightingale wasn’t stupid enough to come into the open and grab the phone herself, so she had one of the hostages doing it. The villain looked like she’d caught the woman relaxing on the local half-day. She was in pajama pants, with bunny slippers, and a tank top with a bath robe thrown over it. She looked terrified, but there was a glint in her eye that Daisy immediately recognized.

“Shit! Don’t…” but it was too late. The woman pushed off and away from the door, making a break for safety.

She got about five feet before a loud POP cut through the air. Her body went instantly limp, and she fell forward hard, hit harder, and didn’t get up. Daisy couldn’t see, but feeds from officers’ helmet cameras showed a big, meaty hole in the back of the woman’s head.

<Fuuuuuck.> Daisy exhaled. <I fucking hate not being able to do anything.>

There was more movement near the door. Another person stepped out, a man this time. He looked at the woman’s lifeless body, Daisy thought he was going to puke for a second, but then he bent down, retrieved the phone, and walked back inside.

“That could have gone better.” Iron giant has a sorrowful look on his big, metal face. Most people would think that a man made of metal couldn’t be emotional, they’d be wrong.

Two DVA agents enter the tent and walk straight to them. “Reaper, Iron Giant, we’re here to escort you back to the HCP.”

Iron Giant just nodded and got up while Daisy gave them a hard stare. “Like hell you are.” She got to her feet and pushed passed the two men and walked the short distance to the command tent. She burst in ready to raise hell but everyone was silent and focused on Agent Phillips.

“Yes…Yes…Yes…We could do that if you let some hostages go as a gesture of good will.” The agent’s tone was calm and collected, but her face quickly wrinkled in fury. She calmly set the phone down and took a deep breath. “That fucking bitch.”

“So, I guess releasing hostages is a no.” Hunter stood off to the side. In another time or place the statement might have been funny, but no one was laughing here.

“She said she’d send them out in pieces if I didn’t do exactly what she wanted.” The DVA agent ran her hand through her hair.

“And those demands are…?” Hunter pressed her.

“She wants us to back up the perimeter two blocks, which gives us no line of sight except the snipers on the rooftops. She wants a teleporter she chooses to come in and take her away. After that, and only after that, will she release the thirty two…now thirty-one hostages,” she corrected herself.

“So, what’s the breech plan?” Daisy stepped fully into the tent.

“Reaper, you’re supposed to be out of here,” Agent Phillips looked passed Daisy at the two suited men who’d followed her in. One reached for Daisy’s elbow, but the look she shot him made him step back reflexively.

“I’m of better use here than anywhere else.” Daisy countered and plopped down next to the big table littered with diagrams of the building. It took every ounce of will power she had to not itch her leg.

“I’m not sure what use you’ll be. Your powers are useless against Nightingale.” Another DVA agent spoke up. He actually sounded like he was happy about that, so Daisy shuffled him onto her shit list.

“Her’s…yes…everyone else’s…no.” She smiled. “When shit finally goes down one thing that’s always a risk is having civilians do stupid shit, step into the line of fire, and just generally be a nuisance when we try to save them. I’m the perfect person to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“She’s got a point.” Hunter stepped forward. “I can get teams into prepositioned places if we can get eyes in there and know where she is. We’ll be able to hit her hard and fast while Daisy drops all the civilians. We might have a few broken noses, but that’s better than SWAT shooting an innocent civilian.”

Daisy looked from Agent Phillips to Hunter, and knew she had them convinced.

“Fine. You can stay, but please stay out of my way.” Agent Phillips shot her a no-nonsense look.

“No problem.” Daisy leaned back casually in the chair and smiled.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 39

<Who knew muscles could be a bad thing.> Morina huffed as she dragged Seth across the ground.

Wraith’s final teleport had dropped them in the middle of nowhere, which was a good thing considering what they’d fled from. The location was a dirt crossroads with some signs pointing toward the nearest civilization. She had to wipe the grime off them to read, and it told her the closest help was ten miles away. That was good and bad.

It was good that people wouldn’t ambush them, and bad because Seth looked like he was going to die. The blood dripping from him was calling to her, but she fought against the temptation. Wraith would teleport her into a volcano if she exsanguinated her man. So, she did the only thing she could think of. She pulled them off the crossroads.

She did Wraith first because that’s what friends were for. After everything that had happened in the last few months, Wraith might be the only person she could call a friend. Morina had liked Nightingale, but she knew a predator when she saw one, and what that type of person was capable of. After all, she was one.

After she dragged Wraith over to the side of the road she went back for Seth. Wraith was fit and athletic, but she didn’t weigh more than a buck thirty. With her armor, maybe one-fifty. Seth was easily over two hundred pounds. He would be good at punching things and dragging other people, but dragging him was a pain in the ass.

<Come on tons of fun.> She heaved, slipped, and landed right on her ass; making the pain he was causing her literal.

She coughed from the cloud of dust thrown into the air by her impromptu sit, and waved her hand rapidly to clear it. It might be nearing the holiday season, and the rest of the country was starting to see chilly temperatures, but wherever they were in Alabama it was still hot and dry.

She gathered herself after the dust cleared, grabbed Seth under the arm pits, and continued her slow trek to the drainage ditch where she’d placed Wraith.

She didn’t hear the person approach over her own grunting and the scrape of Seth’s body against the ground, but she did catch the clink of the weapon being taken off safe and pointed at her.

<Shit.> Her power swelled inside her, but she held it in.

She might be able to stop the blood from leaking out of her from a gunshot, but that wouldn’t fix the hole and whatever internal destruction the bullet wrought. Instead, she dropped Seth and raised her hands.

“We’re looking for a healer.” She figured saying they needed help was better than attacking him.

The fact that she didn’t get shot was a good sign she was headed in the right direction.

“These two.” The voice didn’t have that southern I-screw-my-sister drawl that the movies always portrayed people from this area having. In fact, she thought she heard some New York swagger in the person’s tone.

“Yep. One got shot and the other is purely exhausted.”

“I can fix the girl up for five hundred, but the guy is going to depend on the damage. I only take cash.”

<Shit…shit…shit…> She didn’t have anything on her, but knowing Wraith, she did.

“My friend has the money. It’s in her pockets somewhere,” she explained. “I can get it for you?”

“No sudden movements or I put a hole in you too, and then if you’re telling the truth I’ll charge you double to patch you up.” The person replied. “Keep your back to me.”

They circled each other so that the guy had a clear shot and Morina would have to turn to engage him. She couldn’t attack what she couldn’t see. She had an errant thought that this healer might know who she was, or at least who Wraith was, but the fact that he hadn’t shot them or called the cops was a good sign.

Being a Super and having a medical practice out in bumfuck nowhere told her that this guy might have his own secrets. It was common knowledge that people in this part of the country weren’t as accepting of Supers. There tended to be more Super-related crime, less tolerance from the authorities, and more animosity between Supers, humans, and then both weren’t fond of Powereds.

<Yeah, this guy is definitely sketch.> She knelt slowly and started to rummage through Wraith’s pockets.

Her eyes were rolled into the back of her head and she didn’t budge as Morina practically felt her up to find the cash. There were a lot of pockets with everything from duct tape to spare magazines for her pistols in them. She stayed well clear of the holsters on her thighs, and eventually found what she was looking for.

A wad of cash was rolled up tight and held in place by a rubber band. The outside bill was a hundred, and judging by that there was either a few grand in here or the bills got smaller. She pulled off five bills and slowly extended them behind her. The healer’s boots crunched against the dry ground as he snatched the cash away without touching her hand.

“Take ten steps forward,” he ordered.

She complied and waited for him to do what he said he would do, or shoot her. At the moment, she wasn’t sure which way it would go.

“What the shit!” Wraith’s gasp broke the tense silent. “Awwwwww that hurts like a bitch!”

“Sorry, it’s a side-effect of my healing.” The healer apologized.

“Feeling like I’m about to have diarrhea made of fire is a side-effect. No wonder you don’t get much business.” Wraith snapped back, but the apparent discomfort quickly faded.

“Hello, can I look now?”

“Sure.”

Morina heard the click of the weapon being put back on safe, and she turned to face the man.

<Damn.> He wasn’t wearing blue-jean suspenders with a beer gut and straw hat.

The healer was in a professional looking three-piece suit minus the jacket. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and he had some nice muscles too. The glasses on his face highlighted his hawkish nose, but Morina didn’t mind, and his hair was an unnatural white color. He had a sleek hunting rifle tucked under his armpit, and he was extending a hand out to help Wraith up.

A spike a jealousy ran through Morina’s mind before she stomped it out. She didn’t know this guy from Adam, she shouldn’t be jealous that he was being nice to Wraith and not her. Plus, Wraith had Seth.

Wraith smacked the guy’s hand aside and climbed to her feet. She stumbled a bit, put her hands on her knees to steady herself, and took some deep breaths. “Is the nausea common too?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’ll pass just as fast as your intestinal pain.” The healer took a step back and watched the two women casually. The weapon was pointed harmlessly at the ground, but the way he handled it said he knew how to use it.

“I’m good.” Wraith straightened up and took one final deep breath. “Now help him.”

“He needs more than just an influx of energy.” The healer didn’t move from where he was standing. “I need to evaluate the wound, and probably clean it before patching him up.”

“What type of healer can’t disinfect wounds with his healing power?” Wraith turned to glare at the man.

“The only healer that you’ve got, and one who’s willing to turn a blind eye to your suspicious circumstances.” The guy had a point, and Seth didn’t look like he was going to survive another teleport.

“Fine, where do you need him?” Wraith kneeled next to Seth and with a surprising amount of tenderness started to check his vitals.

“My office is a short walk this way.”

Morina looked where he pointed and saw a dirt road that she’d missed up until now. If she looked at it from the right angle she could make out a small building nestled in the trees.

“Ok, Morina, help me.” Wraith grabbed Seth under the arm pits and she grabbed the legs. Together, they carried Seth down the dust driveway and into a surprisingly modern and clean room.

The outside of the building was clearly disguised to look like a mix between a shack and small house. Inside, it had a small ground floor set up as an office, and a large basement that the healer seemed to live in.

The healer bypassed the small office and took them downstairs and to a big room in the back. He opened the door and they were standing on the edge of an operating room.

“Get him on the table and get those clothes off,” he instructed.

“Whatever you say, Doc.” Wraith led the way on striping down her boyfriend.

“Mazel tov,” was the only thing Morina could think to say when she saw his junk.

“Now out, I need to work.” The healer ushered them both out of the room and shut the door behind him.

“Now what,” Morina crossed her arms across her chest and looked around the living room.

“Now we wait.” Wraith plopped down and turned on the TV.

It didn’t take Morina long to figure out her friend wasn’t even watching the daytime soap opera on the high-definition plasma. Her eyes kept darting to the door, her foot kept tapping against the tile, and she kept having to stop herself from chewing on her cuticles.

Wraith was worried, and Morina really couldn’t do anything to help.

 

***

 

“SNIPER!” Someone yelled as Iron Giant hit the ground as John.

<No shit!> Daisy didn’t waste any time in reacting.

They knew who the sniper was, where she was, what she was armed with, and exactly how many hostages she was holding. Unfortunately, some people were a little trigger happy after everything that had happened today. Law enforcement started taking shots at the building Nightingale was holding up in.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” The police captain and DVA Agent Phillips were screaming over the Dispatch link.

Daisy took the moment of cover the return fire provided and dashed into action. Her legs pumped kinetic energy into the street as she pushed herself toward John’s prone body. She stopped on a dime next to him, ignoring the whiplash it exerted on her body, and picked him up in a bridal carry. She’d never be able to do this with Iron Giant, but little old John Ditmar was a different story.

“D…D…” blood leaked out of John’s mouth, and Daisy’s uniform was already slick with his blood.

“Hold on!” She turned around, and nearly took a bullet to the head. The turn was the only thing that saved her, but she felt the air parting against the bullet right next to her face.

“Cover me!” She yelled.

A force field appeared between her and the building Nightingale was using as a sniper’s nest. Daisy pushed off at the same time the second round hit the energy barrier. The barrier shattered as the bullet dipped in Nightingale’s nullifying goo and cracked into the pavement just to Daisy’s right.

<Fuck!> this wasn’t the first time Daisy had been under fire, but it might be the first time the bullets could actually kill her.

She was tempted to jump to safety, but that was an amateur mistake. You didn’t have any maneuverability in the air, especially while you were carrying someone as fragile as the currently very vulnerable Dean of West Private’s HCP. The jump up might be quick, but once she reached the apex, and started to come back down, Nightingale would be able to pick her off easy.

She needed to make herself a hard target to hit, and to do that she need some help. “Jetwash, you pompous ass, create a distraction. Blind her with wind, kick up enough shit so she can’t see, or draw her attention!” Daisy screamed the order.

Unlike her, the wind manipulator could easily maneuver in the air.

“Force Field, keep throwing up barriers. I don’t know if they’re deflecting shots a little, but even an inch helps.” Daisy knew Nightingale was a top-notch shot, so the last miss probably had something to do with the barrier’s temporary interference. “Get a healer ready.”

Daisy was running in a serpentine as she said all of this. She tried to keep out of the buildings line of sight as much as possible, but with the way the street was designed there just wasn’t anywhere to hide.

The wind started whipping and dust was kicked up enough that it made it hard to see.

<Not me you idiot!> It looked like something out of those old dust bowl films rolling onto the street, but instead of focusing on Nightingale it affected everyone.

Daisy ran right into it, and her visibility was cut to nothing immediately. Even worse, the dust stung at her eyes and made it difficult to see at all.

“Someone talk me through this. I can’t see shit!” Daisy had slowed to a straightforward walk as the dust swirled all around her.

<God, I hope she doesn’t have some type of heat vision.>

That got answered soon enough. A round tore through Force Fields barrier at a different angle. Nightingale had compensated, but her aim still wasn’t perfect. Instead of punching into Daisy’s center of mass, or John, it went into and through her calf.

Daisy dropped John who went rolling away into the dust storm while she cursed up her own storm. <Don’t stop!> She knew a lack of movement meant death, so she started to crawl.

Opposite leg and arm went up and she pulled herself forward, and then the other two. Every other crawl pain lanced through her as her open wound scraped against the ground. She searched out in front of her with her hands until they finally made contact. It wasn’t John. It was someone’s boot.

“Reaper, Ma’am.” A man in a SWAT tactical uniform stepped in-between her and Nightingale’s position with a large riot shield. “This should give us some cover.”

More police officers rushed forward and made a shield wall to protect the two injured Heroes.

“Iron Giant first.” Daisy grimaced as two more officers helped her to her feet. “He’s hit a lot worse than I am.”

“We’re on it, Ma’am.” The first officer to arrive nodded to another team of barely discernable black blobs moving in the dust cloud only a few feet away. “On my command we move!” He yelled to the rest of his team.

On three, the team started to shift. More fire rained down on them from Nightingale’s position, but their riot shields did what Daisy’s power couldn’t. Rounds pinged off the shield but didn’t penetrate. The team moved slowly and cautiously. They were respectful of Nightingale’s skill as a marksman. The fact the villain was hitting anything in this storm was amazing. Force Field threw up barriers more as a way to light the way to safety than protect them. Finally, after a few tense minutes, the team rounded a corner, the dust died down, and they were out of the villain’s line of sight.

“Healer!” The SWAT commander yelled as a pair of costumed Heroes approached Daisy and John. Dr. Sanderson was one of them.

“I’ve got him.” Golden mist stared to pour off the good Doctor as he crouched protectively over John.

Daisy didn’t recognize the other Hero, but his method of healing made her itch like a motherfucker. While she was waiting for the sensation to claw her own leg off to pass, Agent Phillips found her.

“Reaper.” The woman’s tone and voice made it clear she was pissed. “How about we don’t run out into the middle of an open street during an active shooter incident, where your powers are useless, and then we have to put more lives at risk coming out to save you.” She took a step closer. “Plus, do you know how much shit I would catch from my brother if you didn’t get out of this alive.”

“I’m sure a ton.” Daisy just shrugged. “I couldn’t leave Iron Giant.”

The DVA agent didn’t try to lecture her there because she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

“So what now?”

“Now we wait for the hostage negotiator to arrive, we set up a perimeter, cut the power to the building, and try to get the hostages to safety. Anything you can give us there?” Agent Phillips looked in the direction of the building.

“Thirty-two people not including Nightingale.” Daisy relayed what she was seeing with her sixth sight. “Do you think she’ll come quietly?”

“With her record…not a chance in hell. If she gets caught she’s going back to Avalon, and I don’t want to think what the government there has in store for the old regime’s chief torturer.”

“Good point.” Daisy suppressed a shiver.

<Things are about to get interesting.> She looked over at where John was transforming back into Iron Giant. <Or at least more interesting than a few minutes ago. It’s been a while since I’ve been in on a hostage negotiation.>

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 38

“Becca!” Mason pushed his way through the panicked crowd.

He hadn’t gone far. He’d met EMS personnel moving toward the bomb site less than a quarter of a mile away. He’d handed the injured woman over to them, and then brought a few others back to the site. Right now, he was acting as a bouncer. He pushed people aside, told them to get out of the way, and even took a few punches from frantic men trying to get out.

<Why isn’t anyone moving?> It was weird that everyone seemed to be bottlenecked. The crowd was starting to expand outward and get deeper, which was making things that much harder for emergency responders.

Once Mason finally pushed his way back to the front he saw why. There were two reasons. First, a building had collapsed and blocked the alley where the dumpster had exploded. Second, a barrier of light stood just beyond that. It flared as people pounded their fists futilely on it. Several people were even standing on top of the rubble and trying to bash their way to freedom.

<Good luck.> Mason had seen those barriers before. He knew an HCP professor’s power when he saw one.

He didn’t have long to shake his head at the humans before panicked calls started flying through his head. <Mason, hurry! It’s Becca and Anika.> An image of the building collapsing right on his two friends played right in front of his eyes.

He went from trying to find a less physical way through the throng of people to bodily pushing them aside. None of them could stand up to his strength, and he tried to leverage that while not making it too obvious he was a Super.

<Some things are more important than others.> He reached out a massive hand, palmed the side of a guy’s face, and pushed him aside. He crashed into the people next to him, and they only kept standing because the people were so closely packed.

“Make a hole! EMS coming through!” Mason tried to make it sound official, but that didn’t stop people from cussing up a storm at the giant black guy who was flinging people around.

Once they finally got to the rubble, he realized there were two types of people present. The first group was the one he’d seen while approaching. They’d climbed to the top of the pile of brick and mortar and were banging their fists against the barrier. Other people like them tried to climb up after them, and the people at the top pushed them back. In more than one case, a person went falling back down to the bottom of the pile and was scuffed up pretty bad. Mason fought the urge to go up there and throw everyone off. He understood they were in full survival mode, but there was no chance they were getting through Force Field’s barrier.

The second group of people were the one’s following Kyoshi’s lead. They were combing through the debris trying to find anyone who’d been injured in the attack. If what she had relayed to him was correct, then more than one person had been caught in that urban avalanche.

Kyoshi was discretely leading them to the survivors. She’d say she thought she heard something over there, or brick shifted over here to cover up her telepathy. He wouldn’t be surprised if she was pretending to be an angel and saying comforting words to those trapped beneath the rubble.

Despite all Kyoshi had shown him, Mason couldn’t stop from playing favorites. He’d watched Anika jump in front of Becca and both be pulled under. He wanted to help them first.

<Where are they?> He asked when he’d nearly reached the pile. People were starting to get the message and moving out of the way as he approached.

<Left side of the pile nearly halfway up.> Kyoshi couldn’t pinpoint the location more than that until he saw what he was working with.

<Guide me.> He broke through the small perimeter around the debris and went straight to work.

The pile was big. Mason wasn’t the best at math, but there had to be hundred if not thousands of tons of materials blocking the former alley. Lifting that wasn’t going to be a problem. He was a mid-level strongman, and for a sophomore in the HCP that was still getting stronger, that was pretty damn good. The problem was getting it off without crushing the people beneath it. Becca and Anika might be tough, Anika more so, but enough weight would crush the petite speedster, and she couldn’t run away from this one.

<There.> Kyoshi told him when he was right on top of the spot where their two classmates were buried. <Slow and steady, Mason. They’re conscious, and they’ll tell me if anything shifts while you dig, but please be careful.>

<Always.> He started slow, one brick at a time until he’d gone down a foot.

He tossed the bricks behind him toward the group of onlookers. They yelled at him at first, but a glare over his shoulder shut them up. <Nut up or shut up as Coach Meyers would say.> He went back to work, and a few people actually started to help by clearing the bricks away that he’d already cleared. Every extra body helped.

He dug and he dug. Because of where Becca had been helping the injured she was in the deepest part of the rubble. Becca and Anika relayed instructions through Kyoshi, and it was a big help. Becca could dial up her perception and see how his efforts shifted everything around them. The insight was invaluable, but it was still slow going, and that was their biggest problem.

<Mason, I don’t want you to freak out, but you need to move faster.>

He was in the middle of shifting a partially-intact piece of wall that weighted at least five hundred pounds, and he was doing it with the added difficulty of looking like he wasn’t doing anything.

<What do you mean?> Despite the warning, he was starting to freak out a bit.

Then it hit him. It didn’t matter how strong Anika was, or how fast Becca was. They both needed one thing to survive: air.

<They’re running low, and trying to conserve as much as they can.> Kyoshi heard him come to the correct conclusion and did her best to calm him. It didn’t help much.

He finished shifting the giant piece and got back to work. He was a little more reckless now. He took chances. He moved bigger amounts and didn’t always wait for feedback from Becca. If he didn’t move faster the feedback was pointless anyway.

Several hurried and fairly tense minutes later he finally broke through the outer pocket of the space created during the collapse.

“Sweet Jesus,” Becca coughed as fresh air replaced the stale carbon dioxide in the small space.

“Is she ok?” The sense of relief was short lived when Anika didn’t move.

She was lying on top of Becca. Her body had taken the brunt of the wall’s weight when it collapsed on them.

<Anika is unconscious but otherwise unharmed.> Kyoshi relayed as she checked the other woman. <I would get her medical attention though. Any loss of consciousness should be taken seriously.>

“You push and I’ll pull,” Mason directed Becca, and together they wrestled Anika out of the rubble. “Hold tight.” He walked Anika back down to the waiting EMS teams that had set up a makeshift triage unit at the edge of the rubble.

He dropped Anika off with them and went back to grab Becca. She was already climbing out of the hole when he arrived. She was covered in grime from head to foot, she had some cuts and bruises that would need some serious disinfecting, but other than that she looked fine.

“Did she make it?” Becca’s eyes scanned the area and immediately widened at the sight of the energy barrier behind them.

“They didn’t say, but it looks like Anika will be fine.”

“Not her,” Becca shook her head. “Anika’s tough. She’ll be fine. I’m talking about the woman who lost her leg. Is she going to make it?”

After the chaos of the last twenty minutes, Mason had forgotten about the woman they’d helped form the original explosion. “I left her with the EMS personnel back there,” he waved in the direction of the stage. “They didn’t tell me anything, but she looked like she was going to make it.”

Truthfully, he had no idea what the woman’s status was, but he sensed Becca needed a win. The perpetual positivity always present in the speedster was absent at the moment. She just didn’t look like Becca, and it had nothing to do with her whole body being dyed gray by the debris.

Whatever was on the speedster’s mind, she pushed it aside and started helping despite her own injuries. Mason followed in her wake with Kyoshi helping from the rear. It didn’t hit them until they were nearly done that this was what a Hero team up would look like in real life. The strongman and speedster in the field coordinating with local law enforcement to get the job done, while the advanced mind was in reserve helping piece together the puzzle or think of solutions to the problem.

Suddenly, capture the flag seemed kind of stupid in comparison.

 

***

 

“Keep the pressure on them!” Daisy yelled as another forked bolt of lightning shot from her fingertips. It crackled and died all around the two fleeing villains, but she could see it was starting to take its toll.

The smooth blackness of Nightingale’s compression armor on Stal was beginning to crack and dull. I had more of an ashen hue to it now, and that meant they were getting somewhere. Now that things were getting under control with the search for more dumpster bombs, more Heroes were pouring in to join in the action.

Stal and Nightingale dodged between buildings to avoid her lightening, but Jetwash caught them in an alley. The wave of hurricane-force winds broke around them, but all the crap it kicked up still slammed into them. Nightingale stumbled and fell as a crunched up beer can hit her in the ass at over one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Stal grabbed her by the belt without breaking stride and carried her away from the Hero. She didn’t leave without a parting gesture. She grabbed a pizza box from a passing dumpster and tried to make it into the Frisbee of Death. She chucked it at the flying Hero, and he barely got out of the way.

The Heroes hurried to reposition, and met the two villains with ranged attacks when they emerged on the other end. Stal stumbled under the brunt of the force, but Nightingale caught some flak. She got spun around by a beam of energy that exploded next to her. The sudden hole blocking her path forced her to go through a doorway to an upscale apartment building. Stal didn’t see her change course and she took that energy beam in the chest but kept on pushing.

“Separate them, keep them separated. Iron Giant, go…go…go…”

It was the moment the Heroes had been waiting for. Together, the two villains were strong, but apart their weaknesses could be taken advantage of. Stal was physically strong, but her nullifying armor was beginning to fray. Once it was gone she was vulnerable to Reaper’s particular talents. Nightingale was always protected from those same talents, and her nullifying bullets posed a problem to any Super, but anything non-powered she was as vulnerable to as any normal human.

Iron Giant pumped his powerful legs and spirited forward. The sheer strength of his bounds turned him into a silver blur as he tackled Stal just as the energy attack was letting up. Meanwhile, Daisy poured a ton of electric energy into the doorway of the apartment building. The building’s super was going to be pissed, but that’s why they had insurance. Keeping Nightingale’s head down while Iron Giant removed Stal from the battlefield was more than worth a melted entryway.

Iron Giant and Stal grappled. The big shifter got a leg behind Stal feet and tripped her. She went down to the ground, but used the shift to yank the hero off his feet. They both went down on their sides and started slugging for an advantage. Daisy watched out of the corner of her eyes as she poured volts into the building.

“Someone tell me about this building. I need a count of civilians, exits, and preferably someone up to cover the roof.” While the move the Heroes had just pulled isolated the villains away from each other, it also put a psychopath in a confined space with innocent civilians. Right now, Daisy had to assume they were all hostages.

Daisy knew what they needed. “Dispatch, where the hell is Hunter?”

“Hunter is…” the report got interrupted by a stone-crunching BOOM. Stal had somehow gotten her feet underneath Iron Giant and thrown him back and through the wall of a nearby building.

Stal was scrambling to her feet, and looked like she was about to jump away.

<No you don’t.> Daisy heightened her perception gauged the jump and fired herself off toward the fleeing strongwoman just before she jumped.

Her aim was a bit off. She hit Stal in the knees, but the kinetic energy transfer was more one way. Technically, Stal kneed her in the face, but she turned Stal’s vertical leapt into a head-over-ass tumble where she just ended up landing back on the street. That was mission accomplished as far as Daisy was concerned. Stal was still shaking her head and getting back to her feet when Iron Giant landed on her like a man-shaped cannonball. The street cracked under the impact and a big fissure spread for about fifty feet before stopping.

<She’s got to be down.> Daisy thought before the concussive waves of Super punched started to shake the area.

“Dispatch, say again. Where’s Hunter?”

“I’m hunting Wraith.” The teleporters frustrated voice replied. “With all the chaos going on, OPD and the DVA have been spread thin and someone hit HQ. Preliminary reports say it was Blood Hound.”

“Why would Blood Hound…?” Daisy stopped mid-sentence.

<No.> She hoped for once that she was wrong.

“Seth Abney is gone.” Hunter confirmed her worst fear. “He burned down half the Protectorate’s office and aided Blood Hound in the escape, but when he saw him it looked like he’d taken a bullet in the process.”

“We need to get him back.” Daisy’s professor mind overrode her Hero intuition.

“I’ve got a lead, but Wraith is up to her usual tricks. I’ve got about a hundred teleportation points to check here and then I’ll go after her.”

“Negative.” KaBoom’s broke into the conversation. “We need you on scene to help contain Stal and Nightingale.”

“Fuck that!” It slipped out before Daisy could stop herself.

“Think about it, Reaper.” KaBoom didn’t back down. “Wraith is a bad apple, sure, and I want her just as much as the next guy for what she did to Mr. Morningstar.”

Daisy didn’t think about it until this moment, but Wraith had fucked the old Protectorate leader again. First, she’d killed him, and now she’d literally blown up his funeral.

“But this is Stal and Nightingale,” KaBoom continued. “Stal is wanted in the US, EU, and a dozen other countries for everything from B&E to murder. Nightingale is a convicted war criminal.”

Once the Republic of Krezic fell, the new rulers of the Super-ruled Island had trails for all the government Supers who’d been the iron thumb of the regime. The US reviewed the facts of the case separately and agreed with most of the convictions. An extradition treaty had been signed to return those criminal supers if they were ever captured. Nightingale was right at the top of that list, and it would do wonders for the US’s relationship with the fledgling Super nation.

“We have to prioritize,” KaBoom’s voice was confident and unyielding, like a leader’s should be. “Hunter, how long until you have a fix on where Wraith went?”

“If I have to shift through all the portals…twenty minutes. Less if I find it early.” Hunter’s tone already said what the outcome of this conversation would be. There was no fighting it.

Daisy wasn’t willing to let is go that easy. A confident voice over Dispatch wasn’t enough to convince someone of her experience. “Do we have another teleporter that can review the portals while Hunter helps us subdue the threats? This way he can return to the scene and pursue the other murderers and fugitive as soon as possible.”

“I’ll relay the request to the DVA. They’re hanging back and letting Heroes handle the two takedowns. I’m sure Agent Phillips wants to do more than stand around and wait.”

<I’m sure too.> That was good enough for Daisy. Right after they took down Stal and Nightingale they’d turn their attention on Wraith.

Daisy turned her attention back on the fight. Iron Giant had Stal by the ankle and was swinging her over his head and repeatedly bashing her into the ground. Daisy stumbled slightly from each blow.

“Iron Giant, aim for the armor. Once that breaks I can take her down.”

The giant shifter didn’t give any indication that he heard, but the bashing shifted a bit so that the majority of the force was hitting Stal’s armor.

Daisy concentrated on her sixth sense. Life-threads popped into existence all around her. While Iron Giant continued the beat down, she checked Dispatch’s data on the apartment building. It was five stories with half a dozen apartments on each floor. Dispatch was still pulling the rental records, but there could be anywhere from thirty to over a hundred people in the building.

<That’s not going to be pretty.> Daisy didn’t look forward to that, but she focused on Stal for the moment. Cops, DVA agents, and Heroes were already securing the building. Nightingale had nowhere to go.

Daisy felt the moment Stal’s armor cracked and she got a glimpse of the life-thread. Daisy immediately squeezed through the metaphysical space in the armor and grabbed the thread. It was like grabbing searing hit steel, but she’d had practice bringing down Supers stronger than Stal.

Stal cried out, which she hadn’t done even as Iron Giant beat her down. She fought back, lashing out at Iron Giant with her feet, but his arms were too long and he was too tough. Stal didn’t have the leverage to bring all of her strength to bear. She might be a world class mercenary, but Iron Giant was a world-class Hero. It was only a matter of time.

Stal’s blows grew weaker and weaker as Daisy leeched the strength out of her. After several minutes, Stal went limp and Iron Giant let her go.

“Target down,” his deep voice rumbled. “Send…”

A single gunshot rang out and Iron Giant went down in a spray of blood. Iron Giant became John by the time he hit the ground, and Daisy didn’t even wait for cover fire before she sprinted into the open to help her fallen friend.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 37

There was truth to the statement when someone “rung your bell”. Daisy could attest to that fact. She was lying on her back, stars were dancing in front of her eyes, the world was spinning, her chest was on fire, and it sounded like someone had stuck her head inside the Liberty Bell before repeatedly banging it with a very large hammer. She also had some cold sandwich meat sticking to her face.

<There’s a joke there,> she groaned. She should be dead.

Only her training and instinct had kept her alive. When normal people got shot, even in a vest, they tended to go down and stay down for a bit. Their life might flash in front of their eyes, and they’ll have a big “oh shit” moment. Some might even go into shock. If you actually took a bullet, shock was a given at some point.

This was not the first time she’d been shot, with or without a vest. She had her guts strewn all over the place before and still crawled away from that fight. What hadn’t happened before was getting shot while she was kinetically absorbing everything, her absorption not working, and then getting hit by the human equivalent of a freight train.

Instinct and training were the only reason she wasn’t a streak of red on the pavement. For over fifty years she’d trained her body to absorb…absorb…absorb in case of an emergency, so when she got hit by Stal, everything automatically activated. That didn’t stop some force from leaking through as she filled up her internal battery.

The whole scenario had caught her by surprise, but now that she knew what was coming, she could be prepared for it.

<Come on, Daisy. Get off your ass.> She growled at herself as she rolled onto her stomach and pulled her knees toward her chest. Things still hurt, but she had ten fingers, ten toes, and everything seemed to move the way it should.

She staggered to her feet just as she heard running footsteps approaching. <Move!> She funneled power into her feet and blasted down the street away from the destroyed sandwich shop and what she assumed was Stal coming to finish the job. The blast of energy allowed her to land without injury.

She found herself in a unique position, and one she’d had to deal with a few times when fighting strongmen types. She’d last dealt with it when battling Sief al-Din. Taking and exchanging hits became a science. She couldn’t take more than she could hold or she’d get turned to mush. That was the downside. The upside was that she could give as good as she got, and depending on the Super she was fighting, she might end up the harder-hitting of the two fighters.

<Let’s find out.> She was still a little wobbly on her feet, but she turned to face Stal…and immediately was forced to dive out of the way when Nightingale opened up on her.

Blobs of nullifying goo and bullets dipped in it flew her way. Her dive took her through the wall of another shop. People screamed and cowered as she came crashing into their midst.

“Everyone stay down and find cover!” It was hard to look like the good guy when you came crashing into a place, but yelling non-threatening, common sense information tended to help. “If there is a back room, get there now.”

As the civilians moved, Daisy applied force to some metal table legs. They bent, warped, and then snapped off of the faux wood plastic. It wasn’t much, but another layer of defense between her and Nightingale was going to make all the difference.

She crouched to the side of the entrance she’d made and waited. She was going to let the villains come to her. Heroes should be mobilizing and in route. With her injuries it was better to wait for backup.

A fist plunged through the brick wall. Stal knew what was happening and she wasn’t waiting around. The strongwoman was several feet to Daisy’s right, so she sprung, grabbed the woman by the arm, and did a judo throw. Stal demolished the wall on the way through, went up and over Daisy’s shoulder, and cratered the ground with a thundering boom that knocked over half the stuff in the place.

Daisy followed up her throw with a heel stomp to the face. She put a decent chunk of power into it, she didn’t care if she burst Stal’s head like a balloon, but the veteran strongwoman was fast. She got her arms up and crossed in front of her. The force of Daisy’s stomp still did a number on Stal, and blood flowed freely from where her arms had smacked back into her nose.

Daisy wound back up for a second stomp, but Stal grabbed her opposite foot and yanked. Daisy was swept off the ground and tossed away. The stuff that Stal hadn’t knocked over from Daisy’s throw was demolished as Daisy plowed through it and another wall. She ended up flying back out into the street as the front of the building collapsed behind her.

Stal had inadvertently buried herself, which bought Daisy a second to breathe…until she saw Nightingale pop back out with her gun trained on her.

Lightening rocketed out of Daisy toward the nullifier. The woman laughed as the energy died pitifully against her armor, but it didn’t last long. Daisy didn’t intend to hurt her, she intended to blind her momentarily. While light blocked Nightingale’s vision, Daisy pushed off and tumbled into an adjacent alley.

“Dispath, where the fuck is everyone?” She had five maybe ten seconds before Nightingale reacquired her, Stal dug out of the rubble, and Daisy was going to use that to bitch at the people that should be here helping.

She put her back to the wall and pushed herself back to her feet. She could see parts of the crumbled building shifting as Stal pulled herself out, and Nightingale was probably working her way in a wide arc to put as much distance between her and Daisy while still having a clear shot.

She had multiple options, none of them good. She could go through more walls, but the DVA and the citizens of Orlando usually frowned upon Supers busting up the place. She could go up, but you couldn’t maneuver well in the air, and if Nightingale was a decent shot, Daisy could get a whole lot of dead.

“Back up is on the way, Reaper.” Dispatch replied calmly.

“About time.” Daisy growled back, but she wasn’t sure if the other Hero was listening.

Her brain continued to cycle through options when Stal stepped back into view. She looked pissed. Her compression armor was covered in dust, and blood dripped off her top lip from the busted nose.

If Daisy had her pick, she’d rather face the strongwoman.

“Well come on then.” It was hard to be cocky with a busted rip, but she gave Stal the old ‘come here’ gesture with her fingers.

Stal was predictable. She charged toward the alley…and got hit by a flying car right at the mouth of it. It sandwiched her against the wall, she started pushing it away, but then a large metal man hammered into her.

“Cover Iron Giant!” Daisy rushed toward the two struggling Supers. One round from Nightingale was all it would take to kill the legendary strongman.

Nightingale had the same idea. Iron Giant and Stal hadn’t been struggling more than a few seconds before multiple shots rang out. Daisy’s heart skipped a beat mid-run, until she saw Iron Giant shift position to allow the car’s frame to cover him.

“Nightingale is falling back.” Iron Giant’s voice was strained. Stal was strong.

“Damn right she is.” Daisy’s grimace turned into a grin. Things were starting to look up. She moved to help him.

There was a loud crunch as something in the car gave between the two strongmans’ jockeying, Iron Giant jerked to the side, and Stal leveraged that to throw him away. Daisy jumped to restrain her, but Stal used the car as a bat and clubbed her in the side. She smacked hard into the wall, but thankfully didn’t go through.

Stal took the opportunity to retreat. She jumped away and landed close to Nightingale, who was unloading on an advancing SWAT team with riot shields. The team scattered for cover when they saw who they were up against. The team went for cover, but Stal didn’t advance. She used her body to cover Nightingale as they retreated.

“Get a perimeter up! Don’t let them get away!” Daisy grimaced. Yelling wasn’t doing her ribs any favors. “Where the hell is Hunter!” She did it anyway.

“He’s in pursuit.”

It was the best news she’d heard all day. If Hunter was already on Wraith’s trail then it was going to be difficult for the teleporter to get the other two villains to safety. All the Heroes needed to do was tighten the noose.

 

***

 

Lilly came out of the teleport at a run. She felt pressure build in her head like a sinus headache as she held in the blast of black. Having a sudden eruption of darkness on a rooftop, in the middle of the day, would be like sending up a flair signaling “come get the villain”. Since she wasn’t a tactical moron, and was trying to keep a low profile while she could, she dealt with the discomfort.

She pushed down all other concerns as she rushed across the rooftop. She practically slid into a kneeling firing position. She stuck the barrel on the concrete block for stability and scanned the street in front of her. After multiple explosions and Super fights, the residents of Orlando were sheltering in place. Anyone out on the street was law enforcement, criminals taking advantage of the chaos, or someone dumb enough that their death might be for the benefit of society. Lilly didn’t see anyone, and she panicked for a moment that she was in the wrong spot.

<Shit…shit…shit…> she took her eye off the scope and rechecked the message. <No this is where…> The screeching sound was all the proof she needed.

She reacquired the end of the street with the rifle’s scope and watched as a SUV made a lumbering turn around the corner. At first, she thought it was a junker that Morina had stolen, but a closer inspection showed it was a top of the line model…it had just been beaten to shit.

The sides were riddled with dents, scratches, and a few discernable bullet holes, all of the windows were shattered, and the tiers had been shot out. A trail of sparks followed the SUV down the street as it drove at its top speed: no more than thirty.

That was a bad sign when two police patrol cars and another black SUV whipped around the corner behind them. Their tires squealed, their exteriors were perfect, and it was pretty obvious that the SUV was armored.

<Fuck!> She didn’t like the odds, and she only had so much time before Hunter caught her scent again. <Cops first.>

The rifle’s scope had an automatic range finder, and it said they were eight hundred meters away. At her best, she couldn’t hit much over six hundred, so she had to bite the inside of her lip and wait the precious seconds as Morina’s busted ride crawled forward. By the time the cars came into range the two cop cars were pulling alongside Morina to get in front of her and cut her off.

BOOM

A decent-sized hole appeared in the hood of the cop car on the right and smoke began to pour out of the engine. The driver immediately hit the brakes and threw it in reverse to get out of the line of fire. The momentary confusion helped Lilly sight and take a second shot at the other patrol car. Her second shot still hit the engine, but it was much closer to the driver than on the other car. No smoke came out this time, but the cop still slammed on the breaks and threw it in reverse to get the hell out of there.

<Time to change position.> A trained spotter would be able to find her after those two shots, and the DVA SUV still had a clear line of sight to what was in front of them. <It doesn’t matter if I go left or right, just make a decision Lilly,> she urged herself on, scanned the area, and vanished.

She reappeared only about a hundred meters from Morina’s car and in a decent overwatch position. The busted SUV was still limping down the street, and the DVA’s SUV was hanging back cautiously after what happened to the cops.

This time Lilly stood up to get a better shooting foundation. She laid the rifle across a wooden beam, sighted, breathed deep, and squeezed the trigger. The first shot sparked off the asphalt, and she swore up a mental storm before calming down and taking her second shot.

<Bingo.> The bullet smashed through the rubber of the DVA SUV’s front right tire.

The vehicle lurched from the sudden loss of pressure, and then hit the brakes. There were undoubtedly calling for backup, and with Hunter on scene it could be seconds away. <It’s now or never.> Morina’s SUV had finally stopped moving, so Lilly made her move.

<Oh…that’s the good stuff.> She teleported in front of Morina’s SUV and unleashed the pent-up blast of darkness, and then she held it.

It felt easier than it had earlier, and she filed that little tidbit of information away for later use. She sensed all of the car’s damage, Morina in the passenger seat leaned over to Seth. A spike of jealously went through her before she really looked at Seth. Morina’s call said he’d been injured, but her awareness in the darkness finally showed Lilly how much.

<No…no…no…> She practically threw open the door. Seth’s eye lids were droopy and his eyes looked like they were on the verge of rolling into the back of his head. There was blood, a lot of it, and she’d killed enough people to know this much blood loss was bad.

Fear swept over her as she grabbed Seth around the neck and tried to ease him out of the car. Rage replaced the fear when she felt his slick blood on her hands, and she instinctually pushed. The darkness obeyed. The interior of her darkness cleared rapidly so it resembled the eye of a hurricane, while the darkness continued to hide them from view on the perimeter.

“Wraith!” Morina finally saw her. “So much blood.” The other woman was licking her lips impulsively.

“Get your shit together, Morina.” Lilly snapped, which seemed to shock the blood manipulator back into the moment. “We need to get out of here.”

Seth wasn’t able to stand, so she braced him against the car. “It’s going to be ok, baby. I’ve got you. Everything is going to be fine.” She whipped out her cell phone.

Mika picked up on the first ring. “Wraith, what the fuck is going on out there?”

“No time. I need you to get me the location for the nearest healer NOW!” If it wasn’t for the darkness around her, Lilly’s voice would have echoed throughout the town.

“Yeah…um…on it. The nearest freelance one isn’t even in Florida…”

“I DON’T CARE! Just give me the address and a picture.” She screamed back.

Despite the emotional fuel the situation was giving her, the darkness was starting to fail. Gunshots began to cut through the space around them, so she pulled her pistols and fired back. She wasn’t hampered by the blinding darkness, but the cops and agents were still taking cover behind their vehicles. One cop went down when he gripped the metal door at the same time one of her next-gen taser rounds smacked into it. The guy went rigid and toppled like a tree. The other guys were quick on the draw and made sure to not be touching metal as Lilly returned fire. The doors were more than enough cover to stop her shots.

“Morina!” she tossed the other women her rifle, and holstered her weapons. The darkness was more of a weak fog now, and any second they were going to have clear shots. “Cover us!” Lilly wrapped one of Seth’s arms around her shoulder and half carried, half dragged his ass to the front.

They were still totally fucked if someone came at them from the other direction, but this was the best they could do.

Morina had no idea how to shoot the rifle. All of her shots went wide, and barely kept the cops’ heads down.  Lilly snatched it back when she had Seth behind the bulk of the SUV, aimed, waited for a target to present itself, and fired.

She caught the cop in the shoulder. He’d live, but his arm was going to be pretty fucked up for a while. Seeing another one of their number go down made the law enforcement guys pause, and it gave Lilly a second to think.

Thinking was hard though. They were closer to the rest of the fighting than she realized. Lightening seemed to crackle every few seconds and it sounded like two tanks were smacking into each other like rams fighting over a mate. That was on top of all the gun fire.

“Ok, we need to…”

BOOM

The SUV lurched as something powerful hit it.

<What the fuck?!>

A second BOOM and the front windshield shattered. Lilly dared to look up. What she saw was a hole clear through the armored SUV, and at the end of that round’s path was Hunter holding his big-ass rifle.

“We need to get you of here now!” She hadn’t checked for Mika’s message yet. She didn’t have time.

She pulled two grenades from her vest. The first was plain old smoke, and she lobbed it in Hunter’s direction. The throw sent him scrambling for cover, but the hiss and rapidly spreading gray cloud wasn’t exactly intimidating. That was what the second grenade was for. Lilly grabbed Seth under the arm and pulled the pin. She slid it under the SUV, grabbed Morina, and was gone in a blast of darkness.

She didn’t even get to see the frag grenade rip into the underbelly of the SUV, or the resulting cascade of explosions that sent the vehicle flying a few feet into the air and rolling on its side right over their teleportation point. All she knew was that they had a few minutes.

They reappeared on another rooftop, but she held in the darkness. She didn’t want them to know where she was just yet. Even so, she held her hand up above her head and gave any watching satellite the finger.

Despite everything that had happened, the objective was still the same. She needed to beat Hunter at their mutual game, and she needed to get Seth to the healer. She spent valuable seconds checking the phone and getting the picture of their next destination, but that still left throwing Hunter off their scent.

Another few seconds and she knew what to do. It was going to suck monkey dick, but it was the only short-term solution to getting out of there with the chance Hunter wouldn’t find them. Hunter’s tracking gift was pretty incredible. His ability to follow the tears in space created by teleporters like bread crumbs was unmatched, but there was a weakness. Lilly could overload his ability. She could confuse him so he couldn’t decipher anything without a lot of time and effort.

The plan had its drawbacks. It was going to whoop her ass good, so the only thing standing between them and prison was Morina.

<I can do it.> Lack of confidence had never been an issue with Lilly, and today wasn’t any exception.

“Morina, take Seth over to the edge.” The blood manipulator did as instructed while Lilly advanced to the center of the rooftop.

She cracked her knuckles and neck, rolled her shoulders, and took several deep breaths. It was going to get hard to breath in a second. Then she started teleporting, over and over again with minute differences. She disappeared and reappeared…disappeared and reappeared… over and over again in nearly the same place. It was like machine guns blasts of darkness. She did it until she felt light-headed, then she walked over to another section of the rooftop and did it again, and then went to another spot and did it again, and again, and again.

She covered the rooftop in teleportation rifts. When Hunter got here it would be like looking into the most jacked up kaleidoscope ever and trying to find the needle in the haystack of needles.

The trick was taking its toll. Lily felt her consciousness slipping from her grasp as everything seemed to whirl. Darkness crept in at the corners of her vision. Exhaustion seeped deep into her bones. Teleporting took energy, and her body was literally eating itself now to get power.

She’d lost count, but she’d done at least a hundred teleportations in a few minutes when she finally called it quits. She stumbled toward Seth and Morina like a drunken sorority girl.

“Ok,” she grabbed for Seth’s shoulder, completely missed, and ended up toppling into them. Since Morina was already supporting Seth’s two-hundred-plus pounds it didn’t end well.

The small blood manipulator was quickly overpowered and pushed back. With nothing behind her but a half wall and a ledge, she was easily pushed over by Seth and Lilly’s superior weight. She screamed like the she-devil she was, but her fingers dug into Seth.

Lilly was still practically lying on Seth as they plummeted toward the ground, and it was the minor surge of her body’s last drop of adrenaline that saved their lives. She remembered Mika’s picture with the sudden burst of clarity, locked on, and teleported away.

Her last conscious thought was how hot and muggy rural Alabama was before she passed out.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 30

It felt good to be back in the suit. This wasn’t some emergency situation thing while the latest shitstorm was passing through town. Daisy was legit back in the show now, even though her Hero certification hadn’t been technically restored yet. There were more tests for her to take at the D.C. office when she got the free time, but the Protectorate was able to get around that right now by having her temporary status extended indefinitely until her certification reactivated. She was in team’s rotation part-time for the time being, and right now that meant she was the Hero on call.

She’d had customized fatigues ordered and delivered within twenty-four hours. They were a hell of a lot better than the crap they’d issued her for Mr. Morningstar’s detail. The fabric was lightweight and breathable while still being made of a ballistic material that would stop most small caliber ammunition. It was nothing like her old uniform that could hold together under artillery fire, but things were different here in Florida. She’d die of dehydration in that material down here, and it didn’t matter much for a kinetic absorber what caliber round it could handle. What did matter was them being top-grade fire-retardant material. She’d nearly been burned alive once in the last year and she wasn’t planning on going for two.

She’d dug her old domino mask out of her things, strapped it on, and immediately discarded it. It didn’t fit the circumstances. Shit was sliding sideways fast, and she didn’t need something to convey that. Her full-face shield came in with the rest of the uniform. The designer, a go-to for any serious Hero, had styled some red accents onto the metallic-black material that gave it a little devilish flair. On top of it went her black patrol cap. She’d had to slap it against her leg half a dozen times to get all the dust off of it, but it fit just right, and she wasn’t willing to get a new one. Her short hair went into a ponytail and through the open space at the back, and she was Reaper again.

Despite that, it had been a long time since she’d been on a call like this. <At least ten years.> She thought as she lifted the thin, yellow caution tape that made a horizontal barrier across the door of the apartment complex.

Even when she’d still been an active Hero, Daisy had usually been brought in for scorched-earth missions or things deemed serious by Iron Giant or the DVA. John was well aware of her short temper back then, so he didn’t waste her time with minor league shit. She was a different person now, and KaBoom was a different leader, so she got the same assignments as everyone else.

The neighbors were out in the hallway and their eyes went wide as she strode confidently down the hall to the gaggle of whispering detectives. She didn’t know if they remembered her from a decade ago, or if they just thought she looked bad ass. She didn’t pay them any attention other than a quick scan to classify them as non-threatening. What she was trying to figure out was the lead detective’s name. She’d seen him around the precinct before, and Topher had even introduced them once.

“Detective Martinez,” she gave herself a mental high-five when the man turned to regard her.

The next few interactions were crucial. Even though she wasn’t a new Hero in Orlando’s scene, she was new to the routine calls, and that meant she needed to carefully cultivate a relationship with the rank and file of the OPD. How she acted here with Detective Martinez was going to be spread around through the force. She was pretty sure the SWAT guys and a few uniforms that worked on the raids might have some stories, but Martinez was going to be the first to interact with her like this.

“Reaper.” He acknowledged her with a head nod and a look that said ‘I don’t really need you here, but I’ll take the help I can get’. It was a hell of a lot better than ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, and why do you think you can walk right into my crime scene and run the show?’.

“What have we got?” She decided to play it business-like for now.

“Nothing.”

She did a double take and got confirmation when Martinez shrugged.

“I’m not even sure why we’re here.”

“You’re here because I asked,” Daisy turned to see Debora striding down the hallway. She had her pant-suit jacket pulled to the side to show her DVA badge to the officer who looked like he was going to move to block her.

“Agent Phillips.” Reaper gave her the same tone and nod she did Martinez. Local vs. Federal beef was something she did not want to get in the middle of.

“Reaper.” The DVA agent returned the nod and strode past her and the detectives to the room where a man with CSI in big letters on his back was taking pictures of a perfectly clean apartment.

Too clean.

<Badge and gun on the table…no sign of forced entry…nothing looks like it’s been taken…> Daisy might not have done this in a while, but she remembered the basics.

“Do you mind telling us what the hell is going on?” Martinez asked as he followed Debora into the living room. Daisy brought up the rear.

“This is the apartment of DVA Agent Simmons. She didn’t report to work this morning, she didn’t call in sick, and no one has been able to get a hold of her since she left the office last night. This is atypical behavior from an agent with stellar reviews and perfect attendance.”

“So…she went on a bender and hasn’t crawled back out of the bottle yet.” Martinez suggested as he accepted a pair of gloves that Debora was handing to everyone. Daisy’s outfit came with gloves, so she walked into the kitchen to take a look around while everyone pulled on the latex.

All Daisy could think of was butt inspections when she heard the snap of the plastic and the weird squeaking sound of them being adjusted. She quickly pushed the thoughts aside and looked around the kitchen. She opened the fridge and found a dedicated agent’s contents: half a carton of eggs, milk that was about to go bad, and take-out that was either fresh or had been in there way too long judging by the noxious fumes wafting into the air. It didn’t tell her much about the agent other than she was a workaholic.

“Agent Simmons is a young, talented agent. She did not go on a bender. She is missing.”

“Unless things have changed, someone usually has to be gone at least forty-eight hours to officially be classified as missing,” Daisy said her piece and didn’t bother looking at Debora. She could feel the heat of the DVA agent’s glare on her back.

“Normally, yes, but there are exigent circumstances in this case.”

“Which are…?” Martinez asked as the group made its way into the bedroom.

Daisy scanned the living room before following. The bed room looked just as clean, but the bed’s comforter was missing. <Weird,> she wondered if anyone had checked the washer.

“Agent Simmons was part of a two-person team that captured an individual assisting the supervillain known as Wraith yesterday.” No one needed any further explanation.

They all split up and started to do their detective thing, and Daisy went over to the CSI guy. He was a little star struck and stumbled over his answers. It was what she’d already surmised. They’d dusted for prints and everything, but so far they’d come up with diddly. The evidence was pointing more and more in the direction of the bender theory.

“Do you mind?” she asked as she grabbed the UV light from the CSI guy’s kit of tools.

He didn’t, but he said he already took a look at everything and didn’t find anything. It didn’t matter. She had a hunch. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but she couldn’t buy that the breakout from the supermax prison and anything Wraith did from now on was coincidental. There had to be a reason, and so far every prisoner except one was accounted for. She’d read the file and knew what to look for.

While everyone else poked around the bedroom, she shut herself in the bathroom and closed the door. She flipped on the UV lamp and watched as the blueish glow washed over everything. The tile was clean, too clean, and the CSI guy probably noted that in his report. She also bet that aside from the food in her fridge, Agent Simmons was a classic neat freak. The orderly apartment suggested it, so that cleanliness would be written off.

Daisy wasn’t willing to assume that. She waved the light and looked into all the nooks and crannies. There was nothing behind the toilet, anywhere in the back of the closet, or under the lip of the sink where someone’s foot might accidentally leave residue. She waved it over the tub and it was just as immaculate. She was about to move on when a momentary shine caught her eye.

“Someone get me a screw driver!” she called out. Less than ten seconds later Debora had one, and had squeezed into the dark space with Martinez.

Daisy unscrewed counterclockwise and the drain cover popped off. The top of it didn’t show any residue, but the underside was shining like a beacon. The drain itself wasn’t too bad, but there were still some flecks of brightness. Normally, they would be swabbed and sent to the lab with the lowest priority since there still wasn’t any real indication that Agent Simmons was missing, but the bottom of the drain cover was the smoking gun.

“I’d bet you a month’s pay that if you swab and test this blood you’ll get a positive DNA test for Agent Simmons.” Daisy wasn’t happy she’d made the discovery.

“Shit,” Debora cursed and seemed to deflate in front of her.

“How the hell did you know to look there, and how do you know it’s blood?” Martinez was squinting at the bright underside of the cover.

“Bloodhound.” Daisy replied.

“What?”

“The only prisoner missing from the prison break in Colorado was a woman named Bloodhound. Her MO is to kill people, drain their bodies of blood, and bathe in it. My guess is that some of it leaked out while she was bathing, or she tried to drain some of it, or maybe she even forgot to put the stopper in when she cut her victim’s throats. I don’t know, but I do know that blood is thicker than water and doesn’t drain like it. She cleaned up after she was done, but she missed this bit.”

“Victims?”

“It’s just a gut feeling, but judging by the level of cleaning that went into this, and the amount of blood the human body has in it, I’m guessing two or more people were drained into the tub. I suggest we canvas the neighbors and see if anyone else didn’t show up for work this morning unexpectedly.” Daisy felt the weight of guilt settle onto her shoulders.

This was the part of the job she didn’t miss: the feeling that she could have prevented this if she was here or had done something different in the past.

<You didn’t do this. Wraith and Bloodhound did. Concentrate on that.> She took a deep breath, composed herself, and got to her feet.

“Get CSI in here and get the evidence. Then you can make this an official homicide case and get the resources that you need.” She looked at Debora. The DVA agent couldn’t see behind the mask, but Daisy’s face was pained. “Sorry for your loss, Agent Phillips.”

Debora didn’t say anything. She threw open the door and started yelling orders to everyone.

 

***

 

The last few freshman of West Private’s HCP shuffled into the auditorium just before the scheduled start time. The rest of the classes watched them without judging. They knew everything those first semester freshman were going through, and the last thing anyone wanted after a workout session with Coach McMillian was to sit in the auditorium for an announcement from the Dean.

Mason, Kyoshi, Becca, Anika, and Angela were sitting together and all hoping this would be quick. The grumbling of stomachs in the room was nearly as loud as the side conversations.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming on such short notice.” Dean Ditmar stepped out onto the stage with a hurried look on his face. The stress was something his students were not used to seeing. “I just wanted to gather everyone together this evening to discuss what has occurred and will be occurring.”

Several people in the crowd – mostly freshman – shifted uncomfortably. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where this conversation was going.

“Not long ago, the Hero community and this city lost an icon.” The Dean’s tone was somber. “I have personally known Mr. Morningstar for more than half a decade, and his reputation preceded him long before that. He was a good man, a great Hero, and an asset to this city. As all of you know, he lost his life fighting against people who have attacked our city and our nation. Due to the media coverage, it was a very public death. Most Heroes who die in the line of duty do not get the moment captured on national television, but how his death was broadcasted does not affect his relevance as a Hero and guardian of this city. If anything, it shows everyone: Hero, civilian, and HCP student just how important the daily battle for peace and justice really is.” The Dean stopped to take a sip of water from the bottle on the podium.

“Most of you also know that his murderer is still at large, and once masqueraded as a student at this college.”

All of the eyes in the room pivoted in Mason, Kyoshi, Becca, and Anika’s direction. A few then moved down toward Isla in the front row, but none of them found what they were looking for.

“The public funeral and private ceremony for Mr. Morningstar are being held tomorrow starting exactly at noon. The city is pulling out all the stops. A funeral procession of Heroes and local law enforcement will escort Mr. Morningstar’s body through the city to the church. Once there, only close friends and families, transported by teleporter, will be present for the actual service. Members of the public may be inclined to stay and follow the procession to the cemetery where Mr. Morningstar will be laid to rest.”

Becca’s hand shot up the moment the Dean finished and he pointed for her to ask the question everyone was thinking.

“Can we attend?”

“That’s why I called this assembly.” The Dean smiled back with a hint of sadness. “Members of the West Private HCP are more than welcome to attend as civilians. The secret identity clause of your contracts still applies. You may not reveal what you are or what you are doing at West Private, and that is important because the threat level for tomorrow is high.” The Dean’s face grew serious. “As I mentioned, Wraith and the others who attacked the prison are still at large. If their goal is to continue to hurt this city then attacking the funeral will be at the top of their agenda. The DVA and over a dozen Heroes are tasked specifically with security, but no defense is perfect. That is a good lesson to take away from this meeting today. Several very powerful people will be there tomorrow, and there is still a chance for things to go very wrong. I can’t stop you from attending, but you all need to keep that in mind if you do go.”

“Are you on the security detail?” An overzealous freshman asked.

“No, but I will be attending the funeral and will do my duty if called upon. I’m an asset in reserve for the authorities to utilize.” The Dean looked around for any more eager question askers. “As the Dean of the HCP, your safety is my top priority and we will be ensuring accountability of all students throughout the day tomorrow. The whole city, including the school, has established tomorrow as a half-day in honor of Mr. Morningstar. It is as much a security concern as anything else, but I encourage all of you to take advantage of this time to train and learn.” The Dean looked around again for any raised hands. “If you are planning to attend tomorrow, please see Professor Livingston and she will give you the relevant information.”

The Dean stepped away from the podium and the classes took that as a sign of dismissal. Everyone gathered their things and started to either stream out of the auditorium or to the Focus professor. Surprisingly, despite the danger, more students headed to the teacher than to the door, but a few made a beeline straight to the Dean.

“Dean Ditmar,” naturally Becca got to him first, “have you seen Seth? He wasn’t in any of our classes today and we’re worried about him. He’s been a bit off lately, and with his probation we just wanted to check in.” Anyone who didn’t know the petite speedster would have thought she was giving the Dean puppy-dog-eyes, but it was just her natural expression.

“Mr. Abney has been temporarily removed from the program until the criminal charges against him get sorted out. How the issue is resolved will determine if he returns to this program or not.” The Dean didn’t elaborate before leaving the stunned sophomores.

“He’s gone?” was all Becca was able to say.

“Oh man,” Mason sighed as his face fell.

Anika kept her mouth shut and Angela just shrugged. Their eyes met briefly and they could both tell the other Super thought Seth was better off somewhere else. Neither thought he had the current mindset to be a Hero.

“Hey, have you guys seen Seth?” Isla walked up to the small group with the same concerned look on her face. The look only deepened when she heard the news. “I don’t understand?”

“It’s not difficult.” Angela started off, but softened her tone when Becca shot her a withering look. “Seth is obviously going through something, and with his legal problems the staff is probably correct in assuming he’s not ready to be a Hero now, so why would they waste resources training him?”

“It’s just…” Isla stopped and struggled over what to say. “Nevermind,” she sighed and walked away back toward the rest of the freshman who were gathered around Professor Livingston.

“What should we do?” Mason asked once they were alone again.

“Nothing,” Anika replied. “If he’s out then the HCP is going to wipe his memory so he can’t expose the rest of us. The Dean gave us the whole spiel last year. For all we know, Seth doesn’t even remember who we are right now.”

That sent Becca over the edge. She sniffled and headed for the door with Anika following after her apologizing. Angela agreed with the sentiment with a simple nod and followed the two other Supers out. That just left Mason and Kyoshi.

“I can’t sense him in the building, but we can drive by his place if you want?” She could tell Mason was taking it hard. It was always difficult to see someone you’d fought beside gone like that without even a goodbye.

“Sure.”

Kyoshi intertwined her hand in Mason’s and the two large Supers carved a path toward the exit. They’d both get with Professor Livingston tomorrow morning to confirm they’d go to the funeral.

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