A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 26

The world spun and twisted. When the blackness finally faded Morina was standing in an unfamiliar place being viciously assaulted by a mix of vertigo and UV rays. She’d been blinded for so long that she couldn’t take more than a few seconds before it overwhelmed her.

“Come on.” She groaned as she stumbled forward with her eyes closed and hands outstretched.

Her hands found the hard, cold metal of the cage she’d arrived in, but unlike that cage she’d been in for the last several years, this one was open.

<If anyone but me comes to get you, you turn them inside out. Understood?> she remembered the last words Wraith said to her after an offer to work together.

By nature Morina was a loner. She’d been a loner all her life. Her parents had died early from meth overdoses. She’d grown up in the foster care system. She’d been abused, beaten, and broken until she got her power. The ultimate power as far as she was concerned. She could control the essence of life itself. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t the strongest, fastest, or toughest. All it took was one little scratch and her target was done for, and she had all sorts of tricks up her sleeves.

It hit her sooner than she suspected it would, but it probably had something to do with being locked in a box for so long, and she wasn’t prepared for it. The bloodlust was insatiable. It overwhelmed her, drove her mad, and focused her entire chaotic mind on one simple task.

Kill. Once she accepted that, she could focus again.

Step one was to get out of the prison rags and into something that wasn’t made out of cheap quasi-fabric. A quick search of the apartment revealed a closet full of clothes: Wraith’s clothes. The offer flickered in the back of her mind, but she pushed off making any decisions until she was whole again. Only then would she be able to think clearly.

She was shorter and thinner than Wraith, so none of the clothing really fit, but she’d be able to figure it out. Next was a shower. The smell of prison lingered on a person, especially the type of prison she was in. She kept the lights off and she stood for a solid ten minutes under the steaming hot water, but had the door open a crack. It allowed her vision to adjust.

Her eyes still burned and watered easily, but that would just take time to heal. <Maybe Wraith has a healer. That would speed up the process.> The thought filtered into her mind, but she pushed it back again. Morina had learned long ago that you couldn’t really trust anyone.

She didn’t trust Wraith, but she believed the other woman didn’t want to control her. She was willing to accept that for the time being, but she had other more important things to do.

She tried on a few tops and eventually ended up with a still-too-big shirt that she was forced pull tight around her thin stomach and tie into a knot. It gave her a vaguely Daisy Duke’s look minus the chest. On top of being taller and more athletic, Wraith was also bigger in the boob department, but it didn’t matter. The short skirt made up for that.

As she got dressed and put on some makeup, she gradually raised the brightness of the room. Thankfully, it had dimmers so she could gradually increase her exposure. By the time she was finished the sun was setting and she was ready. She was ready to stalk her prey.

Even though twilight was over by the time she exited the lobby of the apartment building, she still sported a pair of sunglasses. They were fashionable – at least before she went into prison – and it looked like that hadn’t changed. It also helped her. The sun might be down, but neon signs were blinking everywhere. If anything they were even worse on her eyes than sunlight.

She didn’t wander far because she didn’t know the area, but she didn’t have to. The flat seemed to be located in a popular part of town. There were plenty of pubs and clubs within a few blocks, and after hearing what people on the street were saying, she was pretty sure she was in England. It might or might not be London – she’d never been before – but the accented English was a pretty big giveaway. Even better, no one was talking about some prison break in the US.

“Hey, Love, you lost?” A guy no older than thirty walked up to her.

“Oh gosh, I’m sorry.” Morina fell right back into the act like she’d never left it. A guy could never resist a ‘doe in headlights’ look. “I’m on vacation and I’m not really sure where anything is.” A little bit of blood manipulation flushed her cheeks to an embarrassing shade of red.

“You’re an American.” The guy’s smile grew even wider. “I could be your guide if you like. I was going to meet a few blokes at a pub near here, but I’d much rather spend my night in better company.”

“Golly, thanks Mr…?”

“Joseph, please just call me Joseph.”

“Ok, Joseph, lead the way.” She smiled shyly and kept the blush going until the Englishman held out his arm, she took it, and they headed for a bar.

Like a gentleman, he paid for dinner and a pint of beer. Morina savored the pint. She hadn’t had a drink in forever. She was able to enhance or dull the effects of the alcohol on her blood. That had been one of her key mistakes before she got caught. Alcohol and drugs were so much more potent with her than normal people as long as she wanted them to be. After her shit existence, she wanted it. You could only be touched by so many foster fathers until you wanted to just float away on a river of bliss.

“That’s sooooo good.” She savored the sip and let it rush through her. It was so good that she almost let it sweep her away, but there were other things on her mind.

“I don’t know how you Americans drink that liquid piss you call beer.” Joseph was an experienced drinker and was already on his second pint.

She saw the glint in his eye – the primal glint that every man got when he wanted a woman. She smiled back every chance she got, and that glint got bigger and bigger. When she finished the pint, and purposefully stumbled a little, she allowed him to catch her.

“Wow, a bit of a lightweight aren’t you?” He was smiling, and she smiled back. “Let’s get you home.”

Her place wasn’t far, and she made sure to press close to him as he helped her back and upstairs. In her hurry to satiate her lust she forgot about one key factor.

She opened the door, they stumbled in, and… “What the hell is a giant cage doing in your flat?”

“I’m kinky.”

Joseph turned toward her, but she already had a knife out and slashed it across his chest. He screamed in pain, she screamed in delight, and he shoved her hard into the wall.

<Yes!> she was overwhelmed by the sight and smell of the red liquid leaking from his chest. She breathed in deep and savored the tangy, copper scent in the air. She longed for so much more.

Joseph was already bolting. He’d rightly deduced that she was a knife-wielding batshit crazy chick, and like any person with survival instincts he was getting the hell out of there.

He did even make it to the front door.

She activated her power. She felt the blood pumping through his veins like it was her own. She mapped its progress through the body’s spider web of arteries and veins. Before he even reached the door, she had a road map of his body firmly etched into her mind.

She stopped the blood flow to his legs.

He cried and toppled face-first to the floor. Without blood, his legs didn’t work.

“What the fuck…” he didn’t get to finish before she’d jumped onto his back.

The blade slid cleanly under his shirt and parted the fabric to reveal a tan, muscular back. she ran a hand across her new canvas and shuddered. The pleasure was more than a little sexual.

Joseph tried to fight her, but her hold on him was already complete. She didn’t even allow him to roll over as she dug the knife into his flesh. He was like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween. She carved him up good.

She forced blood into his throat to keep him from screaming, and only let him breath right before he passed out. She didn’t linger too long in the room with the cage. This was just foreplay. She crawled off his back, her hands slick with blood, and maneuvered him to his feet. Complete, fluid control of someone while manipulating their blood wasn’t perfect. He looked like a zombie from one of the walking dead shows instead of someone who’d been possessed, but it did the trick. He did a herky-jerky march to the bathroom and fell to his knees in front of the tub.

This was the final part of her ritual, and she felt the anticipation reach a crescendo she just couldn’t refuse. She roughly yanked back his head and slid the knife across his throat. Then she pulled. Blood fountained unnaturally out of his jugular and quickly filled the tub. The human body had an average of over five liters of blood. He’d already lost a little in the fun and games in the living room, but she bled the rest of it out of him in less than thirty seconds.

<The Bloody Bitch is back.> she giggled out loud as Joseph’s lifeless body slid onto the ground.

She ripped off her clothes faster than a prom queen on prom night and slipped into the tub. One victim wasn’t enough to even remotely fill it, but she wasn’t willing to risk drawing too much attention. She scooped up the thick, precious liquid and let it flow over her face and down her chest. She felt it revitalize her and make her whole again. She opened her mouth on the second handful and let some trickle down her throat as she moved it back through her hair. Her taste buds exploded and her eyes rolled back into the back of her head from the sheer ecstasy of the moment.

<People don’t understand.> She rubbed her chest, arms, and legs until a thin layer of red covered everything.

Once that was done she laid back in the tub, closer her eyes, and waited. Last time she’d done this Heroes backed up by a SWAT team busted into her motel room. She waited for it to happen again. She waited for the dream to end…but it didn’t. She didn’t know how long she laid there, but no one came busting through the door.

At some point – an undeterminable amount of time later – there was a knock on the door.

“Morina…?” The door cracked open and Wraith poked her head through. “I’m…holy shit.”

“Hey, Wraith.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “Thanks for letting me crash here. I really needed this.” She smiled, showing red-stained teeth.

“Yeah, sure. No problem.” Wraith bent down, touched Joseph’s cold, pale shoulder, and he disappeared in a flash of darkness. “Just let me know when you want to go.”

“Just a few more minutes.” Morina lay back in the tub and closed her eyes again. “Then I’ll be ready to go.”

Morina wasn’t able to look too far into the future because the lust was already starting to build again. She’d need to do this again soon, very soon. This had been a dribble into a lake that had run dry years ago. She needed to fill it again, and the floodgates were wide open. That was her mindset: feed the lust. She’d help Wraith. She owed the woman that much for getting her out of jail, but if Morina had learned anything during her eventful life, it was to look out for number one.

“Ok,” she stood up to reveal glistening snow-white flesh. There was no trace of the blood she’d rubbed all over herself. “Let’s go.”

 

***

 

Daisy had been dreading this moment for more than one reason. The first reason was that she’d been on this detail more than once, and every time it sucked donkey dick.

Hunter placed his hand on Daisy and KaBoom’s shoulder while making contact with the pine box sitting in front of them. They ceased to exist in the normal universe for a second and then reappeared back in the Protectorate HQ in Orlando.

The room was packed – standing room only – so it was a good thing that Hunter put them down in the roped off space. The Heroes were nearest to the designated area. The remaining members of the Protectorate were the first to walk through the small opening and stop next to the casket. Each had a piece of black fabric tied around their arm just below the shoulder. It was an outward sign of their mourning.

Daisy and KaBoom stood silently on either side of the casket as ceremonial guards. KaBoom was there because he was now the leader of The Protectorate. He’d been training under Mr. Morningstar for years, and was looking forward to taking over.

<Not this way.> Daisy knew the kinetic absorber’s thoughts just from the look on his face.

Daisy was there because she was the first to reach him after he’d been killed, and was the strongest Hero. Unlike when she’d been forced to jump away to the prison break, this time Daisy was dressed in her full Reaper regalia: black fatigues, mask, armor and everything. She was a pillar of strength next to the fallen leader, and that was what everyone needed at the moment, which was why Dispatch hadn’t canceled her temporary Hero authorization.

After the Protectorate said goodbye to their leader – there were more than a few tears involved – the independent Heroes operating in the city were next. Jetwash was there, and she tried not to hate the arrogant little prick. He’d done well at the prison break, and even succeeded in catching more than one prisoner who tried to flee.

<He’s not a total asshat,> she told herself when he passed. She even gave him a respectful head nod.

After the independent Heroes came the entirety of the Orlando PD. That lasted awhile. They weren’t the biggest force in the country, but they were sizable even after the deaths in the Seif al-Din incident. They rotated officers off of their shifts to ensure the public was still protected, and the Heroes covered down on them as well. It was all well-organized – if lengthy – but Daisy stood there respectfully the whole time.

The hardest time was probably when Topher arrived to pay his respects. After the shitstorm of the last day, all she wanted was a hug and a kiss from her man. They couldn’t do that in front of everyone. Topher nodded politely to KaBoom and her like all the other cops, bowed his head over Mr. Morningstar’s body, said a short prayer, and then left.

She’d get that hug and kiss when she got home, but that wasn’t going to be for a while. She had to wrap up stuff here at the station, deal with problem number two, and only after that would she be able to head home. Luckily, she didn’t have to leave the building to complete her tasks.

“Jesus,” KaBoom sighed a few hours later as he plopped into a chair in the conference room.

The blinds were drawn, the windows frosted over to obscure the Heroes’ identities, and electronic countermeasures were activated. KaBoom removed his mask and became Marcus. The rest of the Protectorate and Daisy followed his lead. A lot of sad faces stared back at Daisy.

“The public funeral will be held on Friday.” After a deep breath, Marcus got to work. “We’ll need an honor guard as well as security. Orlando PD is going to be out in force, and they want to make it big.”

“Big?” Galavant, aka Ronnie asked.

“We got shat on by Seif al-din, and before him the Fist was wreaking havoc. All of that is still fresh in people’s minds, and now the leader of the local Hero group is dead. Not just dead…assassinated on national TV by a criminal that we put away less than six months ago. A little bitch that we had in those very cells over there.” Daisy’s hands balled into fists and the bleeded off of kinetic energy made the air shake around them.

“We need to reassure the public that even though our leader is gone, we are still capable of defending them,” KaBoom said confidently. Heads nodded around the table. “Reaper,” those same heads all turned toward the seasoned Hero. “We didn’t get to go through the entire questionnaire, but under the circumstances, and taking Dr. Johnson’s recommendation into consideration, I’m going to request that the DVA reactivate your Hero credentials.”

The first smile in over a day split Daisy’s face.

“I’m also going to request a part-time appointment to the Protectorate. You can’t come on full –time with your HCP duties, but I’m sure we can work something out like Grace is doing. This way we’ll be able to cut through all the red tape.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Daisy controlled her emotions and nodded. It didn’t seem right to be smiling when a dead Hero was lying in the other room.

They spent another half an hour dealing with some of the details for the coming funeral, and promised to reconvene in two days to put the final touches on their parts of the ceremony. Once Marcus declared the meeting adjourned, Daisy moved in to discuss her other bit of information.

“An HCP student assaulted the front desk attendant of his apartment building. Come on, Daisy.” Marcus pinched the bridge of his nose when he heard the story. “You know there isn’t much I can do here.”

“I know.” She completely agreed. “I’m just asking that you talk to the Chief and he talks to the lawyers. If it’s an option, we’d like to handle it in-house. The kid’s had a rough go of it in the last few months, we don’t want to just give him the boot just yet, and he’s more than able to cover any or all of the victim’s medical bills plus some.”

After a moment, and a dramatic sigh, Marcus nodded. “I’ll pass the word along, but I don’t know what good it will do.”

“Don’t underestimate your ability to extend your influence, Marcus.” Daisy gave the new leader a hard look. “You’re the top dog now. Your team can do more good than most of the Chief’s whole department. You hold a lot of power in this town. Morningstar understood that, even if he let it go to his head sometimes. Despite the shitty situation, you probably will hold more goodwill in the next week than the rest of your career. Make your mark, build relationships, and don’t be coy. You could do that as KaBoom number two, but you can’t do that as the boss. Got it?”

“Yes.” Marcus’ back straightened a bit from the steel Daisy had injected into his spine.

“Good.” Daisy nodded in satisfaction. “Now I’m out of here. I’ve got a man waiting for me. Let me know if you need anything else from me concerning all that paperwork.”

“Thanks for everything, Daisy.” The thanks was heartfelt.

“Just doing my job, Boss.” Daisy smiled and left. She made sure to say her own goodbye to Mr. Morningstar on the way out.

 

***

 

The last thing Lilly wanted to walk into was seeing a girl letting it all hang out in her bathroom, covered in blood, and with a bloodless corpse stinking up the small flat.

“Morina?”

“Hey, Wraith.” The blood manipulator replied with a radiant smile that was only slightly disturbing.

Lilly hadn’t heard the woman sound this happy in all the time she’d known her.

“Thanks for letting me crash here. I really needed this.”

“Yeah, sure. No problem. Just let me know when you want to go.”

“Just a few more minutes.” Morina lay back in the tub and closed her eyes again. “Then I’ll be ready to go.”

Lilly nodded and retreated back out of the room. She made sure to banish the dead dude’s body to an active volcano in the Pacific before she left. <Air freshener. I need air freshener.> She went to the small kitchen nook and got the aerosol spray.

In her business, it was always good to have air freshener and bleach handy. Bodies could be messy even for a teleporter. <Not anymore.> She shook her head as she sprayed the room liberally. <No more killing.>

She was determined to keep her promise to Seth. Mr. Morningstar wasn’t even an afterthought. He didn’t count. He’d been the one that revealed her true life, coupled with a few lies, and then broke them up. She was sure her man would understand the Hero’s need to die.

“Ok, let’s go.” Morina emerged for the bathroom clothed and with a new glow around her.

The blood was gone, but her skin was flush with life. Even though she was Snow White pale, there was something different about her now.

“I’ve got some people for you to meet. They want your help. They can pay you well and it’ll give us a chance to work together and put some real assholes…” Lilly stopped abruptly. She was going to say ‘in the ground’, but with her promise she really wasn’t sure. She had to talk with Seth about killing the blonde bimbo. “…out of commission,” she settled on. “It’ll be fun.”

“I’m going to need more fun.” Morina looked back at the empty bathroom.

“Then you’ve come to the right place.” Lilly grabbed her shoulder and the disappeared in a blast of darkness.

They appeared a few seconds later in Orlando where Stal, Nightingale, and Damascus were waiting for them. Stal looked bored, Nightingale was still covered from head to foot in her armor, and Damascus looked unimpressed.

“This is who you were able to rescue?”

As usual, the terrorist just had to speak to get Lilly’s blood boiling. “Fuck off, butt-muncher. She’s a crazy bitch.”

Morina smiled at the clear term of endearment and turned her gaze on Damascus. Sometimes you could just tell when a person was off their rocker, and Damascus saw that in Morina’s eyes. Her next words didn’t help.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 21

“Huh.” Lilly looked at the caller ID on her cell phone.

“Who is that?” Stal sat up a little straighter from where she’d been lounging.

“Just a member of my team. Cool your jets.” Lilly shot back.

“Our employer does not want us to take outside calls.” Nightingale was removing her plastic apron splattered with blood.

“It’s a good thing that I’m a rebel then.” Lilly shot the other woman a smile before hitting the accept button.

“It’s me.” Mika maintained operational security by not saying his name. “I’ve got an interesting bit of information for you.”

“Shoot.” Lilly took a seat and relaxed. The rest of the mercenary team saw her body language and relaxed as well.

“Your old cell is getting pinged left and right.”

“So,” she shrugged, not understanding why this was worthy news. “We knew the DVA would do that after my…mistake.” She didn’t know what to call it, but Armsman had been pretty opinionated about what it was.

“True, but they stopped pulling on that thread days ago. Sure, they could be trying it again to bait you, but it’s not really their playbook.”

“Don’t let the suits get in your head and make you complacent. The Heroes and them might need to play by a set of rules, but they can be pretty creative. I’ll take a look at the call data. It’s probably nothing, but better to be informed and prepared then get caught with our pants down.”

“Ok. Are you coming back or should I send it to you?”

There was really only one option to ensure no one tracked the information back to her or Mika.

“I’ll be right there.”

“The Boss does not want us going anywhere.” Stal informed, but it didn’t sound like she cared much.

“Again,” Lilly pointed at herself, “I don’t give a shit.” With that she exploded in a wave of darkness and disappeared.

She made several jumps all over the world before teleporting back to Armsman’s private island. She never appeared inside the structure, always outside on the beach. In the off chance someone did follow her it was better to have them targeted by the island’s defenses than to be able to emerge right in the heart of their lair.

<His Fortress of debauchery.> Lilly saw a boat pulled up onto the sandy beach.

It was the weekly supply boat that brought food, fresh water, and willing women right to her uncle’s doorstep. <Now that’s what I call service.>

Just to be safe she stayed away from where their guests would be. If they recognized her then Armsman would have to kill them all, stage a boating accident, and it would just be a whole lot of hassle. She took the long way around and entered the cool server room where Mika spent all of his time. Hot pocket wrappers and empty energy drinks littered the floor around his work station where he stared unblinkingly at the screens surrounding him.

“Hey.”

“Shit, Wraith.” He jumped in his chair and knocked over a full can. Thankfully, it fell on the floor and not the computers. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I walked right in the door, Nano. You’d be so dead if anyone ever raided this place.”

That made the teenage technopath blush, but he’d come a long way from where he’d been a year ago. She wasn’t able to make him uncomfortable like that for long.

“Here is what I’ve got?” He pulled up the call data after closing a few windows.

“What’s the number?”

“It’s a burner phone, so I can’t trace whose it is.”

“Footage of the purchase?”

“No. It purchased from some bodega down in Orlando, but they don’t have surveillance cameras.”

“Who doesn’t have surveillance cameras now-a-days?” Lilly sighed with frustration while Mika just shrugged.  “So we’ve got nothing.”

“I’ve got the locations of the calls, but none of the footage I have has good angles. Whoever is making the calls is being pretty clandestine about the whole thing.” It was Mika’s turn to sigh with frustration.

“That’s not exactly the DVA’s style.” Lilly frowned. “Could you put those on a map?”

Mika did his techno-magic and dots appeared around the city. Time and date stamps appeared next to the dots, and a line of the caller’s probable travel connected them all. Lilly stared at the map for a minute and knew she was missing something. There was a tingle at the base of her mind that she just couldn’t put her finger on.

“And we’ve got no footage at all?”

“Nope.” Mika frowned at his screens. “There’s footage of who I think the person is getting in a cab, so you could go ask the driver.”

“It could still be a trap.” Lilly dug for that hidden clue she was missing, but came up with nothing. “We aren’t going to fall for one of Hunter or Seraphim’s little tricks.”

“Definitely not.” Mika agreed. He was a hacker not a fighter. He wouldn’t last two seconds against the Heroes.

Lilly turned to leave, but looked over her shoulder at the dots on the screen one last time. “Can you pull those places up on Google Maps or something?” The tingle in her mind turned into an itch. Whatever it was she was getting closer.

“Yeah, sure.” Mika pulled up another window and quickly pulled up a photo of the location. “This looks like a place a bunch of bums would sleep.” To reinforce that point the view of the location showed several homeless people sitting under an overpass.

It might have meant nothing to Mika, but it meant everything to Lilly.

“Go to the next location.” She practically teleported back to his side.

“Ummm…ok.” He looked up at her with confusion, but he pulled up the next location.

Lilly couldn’t stop her eyes from watering as Mika flipped from location to location. Now she knew why she was getting a familiar twinge from the data. She’d been to all these locations. <With Seth.>

“What was that number that called me?” she already had her phone out and ready to dial.

“Whoa.” Mika waved his hands back and forth in front of him. “Slow your roll, Wraith.”

“Don’t tell me to slow my roll!” She didn’t even realize she was screaming and had a fistful of Mika’s t-shirt. “Sorry,” she let go, “I just need that number.”

“I don’t know…”

“Mika.” Lilly’s voice dropped an octave to low and dangerous levels. “Give me the phone number.”

Something must have perked up in Mika’s hindbrain because he quickly handed over the number.

“Thanks,” she replied as she took a deep breath. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be just fine.” She wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself or Mika, but she quickly headed back outside before vanishing from the island.

She reappeared in an alley that smelled like piss several states away from Orlando. She quickly stripped out of her Wraith garb and became Lilly. She kept the guns and knives because she wasn’t a complete idiot, but she stuffed the rest of the clothing behind a dumpster. She might have to throw it out rather than wash it judging by the smell, but she needed a little unanimity for the call she was going to make.

She stepped out onto Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans. It wasn’t packed full of drunk people throwing beads and flashing cameras. This wasn’t spring break girls gone wild. This was the start of fall, and while it still got crowded at night, during the day it was just like any other street. She kept her head down as she headed away from the alley trying not to draw any attention. The police and several Hero teams patrolled the city, but they would be busy with other things at this time of day.

She walked several blocks until she came to a bar that was more of a café during the day. She found a seat in a corner booth with a good view of the entrance and only a few steps to an exit. She ordered a coffee and sat there watching everyone for twenty minutes. She kept an eye on everything outside and didn’t see anything suspicious. No cops drove by, no more people entered the café other than an elderly couple. If that couple worked for the DVA then she would happily return to jail because they were some of the best undercover agents she’d ever seen. Once she was sure she wasn’t being followed or surveilled she pulled out her phone.

<You can do this. Don’t be a little chicken shit.> She wasn’t going to make the same mistake as last time.

Her fingers still trembled as she hit the buttons, and she took a couple of deep breaths before hitting the green call button.

The phone rang three times before he answered. “Hello?”

It wasn’t like last time when she’d called him out of the blue. This time she felt emotion in his voice, and that emotion resonated in her.  He didn’t mention that other tramp. He wasn’t even thinking about her. She could tell his full attention was on the person he’d clandestinely sent this message to.

“S…Seth,” she whispered holding back tears.

“Liz.”

She felt a tightening in her chest as he said her fake name. Even though she wasn’t Liz, she was. She’d lived an entire life – a fantastic life – as Liz Aretino. It was arguably the best time of her life. Liz was a part of her, but she needed to stop the lying. She couldn’t lie to him anymore. More lies would only drive him further away.

“I guess you should probably call me Lilly now.” Her tone got a small laugh from Seth.

“Ok, Lilly. God that feels weird.”

“Tell me about it.” Lilly could feel them falling back into a comfortable and familiar place, and she knew how dangerous that was.

“Look, Seth…”

“No…Lilly, I need to speak.” His voice was tense and she felt her chest tighten again.

She could understand the position she’d put him in. She could understand how she’d hurt him, but she couldn’t understand or accept a life without him in it in some way. She knew things wouldn’t be the same – no matter how much she would give to have that – she’d already fucked up that chance.

“Lilly, was I just a pawn in your game? Did I ever mean anything to you?”

Lilly had been stabbed by a renowned Hero not that long ago, but these questions from Seth hurt so much more.

“Seth Abney, you have no idea how much you mean to me. I’m not going to lie and say things were always innocent between us, but I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve always been intrigued by you. From the moment I saw you stand up to those jackasses I knew there was something about you. I knew you were hot, and I knew I could use you to get what I want, but it became so much more than that. Please, if nothing else you need to believe that.”

“How?” His response felt like a bullet to the brain. “How can I believe any of this?”

Lilly was speechless. There was no way she could make him believe what she was saying. <Actions speak a shit ton louder than words,> her mind answered for her.

“What do you want me to do to prove it to you?” She asked. There wasn’t anything else she could do.

There was nothing but silence on the other end of the line.

“Seth…?”

“I’m thinking, because I can’t be unreasonable and ask you to turn yourself in, even if that would be the best thing you could do.”

“What can I do for you Seth? This is about us. What do you want?”

“Well…I want you to leave Izzy alone.”

Lilly gripped her phone so tight she thought she was going to break it. Just hearing that whore’s name was enough to get her blood boiling.

“I know you’re watching me,” Seth continued. “I know you’ve got me under a microscope, and I don’t want you to kill some misguided kid. She’s got her own issues in her life, and I think she sees me as some kind of project.”

“How could you be a project? You’re Seth fucking Abney.” She might be stroking his ego a little, but she genuinely thought he was a great man.

<I wouldn’t want to be with anything less.>

“I’m not exactly the man you left.”

<And that’s all my fault.> She knew his comment wasn’t a swipe at her. It was just the truth.

“Just tell me what I can do.” She said again. She could hear the desperation in her own voice.

There were a few more moments of silence. “Just…just don’t kill anyone. Please.”

To anyone else that would be seen as perfectly reasonable – even moral and ethical. For someone like Lilly, and her current situation, it was a bit of an issue.

<That might be the problem.> She thought before answering.

“I won’t kill anyone.” The idea didn’t bring a smile to her face, but the sense that she was making progress with the man she loved did.

“Thank you.” Seth sounded like he meant it.

“Can I see you sometime?” she asked timidly.

This time the silence didn’t feel right. “That might not be a good idea for a while. The DVA is on me like stank on shit. You’d be putting yourself in danger.”

“I can handle myself,” she answered confidently. “I still see what you’re saying, and I’ll be careful.”

“Thanks, Lilly.” The name still sounded strange on his tongue, but she knew she’d come to love it.

“I’ll call you soon from a different phone.” She went to end the call.

“Remember your promise….WAIT!” The sudden exclamation made her pause. “Did you send me a phone?”

“No.” She hadn’t, but now she wanted to know who had.

“Ok. Goodbye, Lilly.” He cut the line before she could ask any follow up questions.

She placed the phone next to her on the table and with minimal effort teleported it across the world to an active volcano. She sat at the table for another ten minutes sipping her coffee and keeping a look out. She paid her bill, left a good tip, and walked back to the alley she’d left her stuff in. She dressed back in her Wraith gear, even if it smelled faintly of stale piss, and teleported back to Orlando.

When the wave of darkness dissipated the rest of the team was moving around chaotically.

“Where the hell have you been?” Damascus stood with his arms crossed and a glare on his face.

“I’ve got other shit to do than just sit her with my thumb up my ass,” Lilly shot back.

“Well we’ve got something for you now, so suit up.” He pointed at a table where gear had appeared.

It wasn’t just any gear. It was gear that was nearly identical to the gear the DVA had seized from her.  The only thing missing was her specialized rifle, but there was no shortage of other firearms available.

“Jesus, are we storming Fort Knox?”

“Something like that.” Damascus’ smile told Lilly she wasn’t going to like whatever was about to happen.

Her promise to Seth flashed through her head and she settled for some tech genius, fancy tasers from the armory on the table.

“Be ready to go in five.” The silver-haired pyrokinetic turned to leave.

“Wait. Where are we going?” Lilly called after him. “I need a destination jackass!”

“Don’t worry. You’ve been there before.” The terrorist jumped in a SUV and exited the warehouse leaving the three-person team to do whatever it was they were supposed to do.

<Don’t kill anyone…don’t kill anyone…> she chanted over and over as she strapped on her new vest and had Nightingale do her super-mojo and cover her with the thin layer of nullifier material.

Being armed and equipped like this, it was tough to think of a target that could stand in their way. Unfortunately, the universe had a cruel sense of humor. That, or Karma was a real bitch about payback.

 

***

 

Daisy kept her eyes peeled as she drove her truck into the underground parking garage of the Orlando Police Department headquarters. She circled twice before heading for the DVA only entrance to the bottom level. If a person looked hard enough they could see where the additional countermeasures had been added.

<All that anti-terrorism money going to good use,> she thought as she saw the slightly discolored patches of concrete.

In time they would fade and mesh a little better with the rest of the structure, but right now it was painfully obvious where the mines had been placed. Anyone trying to break into the DVA motorpool, or assault the station, was literally going to get their asses blown off. Then there were the patches on the walls, and the not-so-hidden grooves. Daisy was pretty sure some automated weaponry would pop out of those spots and engage targets from a centralized control room within the station.

She couldn’t speak for the whole building, but the police and Protectorate HQ was looking like a tougher nut to crack each day.

<That’s new.> She rolled down another ramp and had to stop at a check point. She’d already gone through a police one above, but now it looked like the DVA wanted to do their own.

“ID?” The guard still looked bored as he ran her credentials through a scanner. “What is your reason for visiting?”

“I have an appointment.” Daisy replied as she gave the guard a big smile.

He didn’t buy it. “What is the purpose of the appointment.”

“That’s a whole lot of none of your fucking business.” She kept the smile in place, but fixed the guard with dagger-eyes.

“Wha…um…” He clearly wasn’t expecting that answer.

“Let’s go. Move along. I don’t have all day, and I’d rather not be late.” Daisy made a hurry up motion with her hands.

Her ID came back good and it showed she did have an appointment scheduled, so the guard let her through. He probably called in the rude, six-three blonde but she didn’t care. Mr. Morningstar and the team knew she was coming.

<They even sent down the welcoming committee.>

The single elevator into the Protectorate HQ – which also had some new concrete patches surrounding it – opened up to reveal an armored Hero. He gave Daisy a big shit eating grin that she returned.

“Galavant, how’s the head? You’ve got shit for brains so taking that bullet to the dome couldn’t have hurt that much.”

“HA! It’s amazing Seif al-Din’s beat down didn’t knock that stick out of your ass,” he replied.

Both Daisy and Ronnie Fitzpatrick – aka Galavant – had been badly injured in the attack on the city. Galavant had taken a sniper’s bullet to the head while Daisy had been thoroughly beaten by the big man himself. They were able to bond over that, and the beat down she had given him at the beginning of the previous school year. She kept the information that she made him shit his pants pretty close to the vest.

“But seriously, why are you down here? Don’t get me wrong I appreciate it, but I can find the conference room myself.” Daisy stopped joking.

“New security protocols,” he shrugged and handed her the plain gray mask. “They want a Hero escorting a VIP like you.”

“I’m a VIP now?”

“That’s what they’re telling me.” They entered the elevator. It required a security code and biometric identification before it allowed him to select the button for the top floor.

The shared some more light ball-busting on the short ride before the elevator opened, and that’s when Daisy finally got her first surprise.

“Finally someone read my memo,” she smiled.

Instead of leading right into the bullpen of cubicles there was now an enclosed space with a heavy metal door.

“I thought you’d like that,” he smiled as he underwent a second security scan.

They didn’t get a chance to talk after the door opened because there was a whirlwind of activity in the room. Dozens of DVA analysts moved around with a sense of urgency. A large central screen monitored events all over the city while keeping an eye on the larger picture of country-wide operations.

The biggest surprise was the number of Heroes in the room. It used to just be a few members of the Protectorate wandering around, but now there were half a dozen new Heroes and familiar faces. Daisy didn’t acknowledge any of them since she wasn’t in costume. Hunter was animatedly talking with Jetwash, and probably trying to impart some seasoned wisdom on the young Hero. From the look on Jetwash’s face, he wasn’t having any of it.

Whatever they were talking about would have to wait. A DVA agent called them both into an office for some sort of meeting.

“We’re in here.” Galavant led the way across the room to a large conference room filled with costumed Heroes.

He closed the door behind them and flipped a switch. Whatever newly-installed countermeasures were in the room were activated, but the men and women in the room didn’t relax.

“Please take a seat.” Mr. Morningstar was sitting at the center of a group of Heroes.

Daisy recognized KaBoom: the midrange kinetic absorber and team’s de-facto second in command. Also present was Grace in her Amped outfit, Jackhammer in his baggy red and gray costume, the big strongman Ox, and the nullifier Absence with her yellow starbursts on a royal blue skintight suit.

“Good morning.” She ignored the professional appearance of everyone sitting in front of her as she took her seat. She’d fought beside all of them, and been in the game longer than a couple of them combined.

“We are here today to evaluate the fitness of Daisy Lee Meyers, formerly known as the Hero Reaper, for return to active duty serving this city and nation as a Hero.” Mr. Morningstar stated formally as Galavant took his seat at one end of the table.

“Thank you for your consideration.” She kept her expression neutral.

“We see in your file that there is a one-year hold on any recertification. Why should we lift that restriction?”

“I see we aren’t pulling any punches.” Daisy was a little surprised that Grace had asked the question, but she was willing to roll with it. “I think the attack on the city and my contributions speak for themselves. We’re still under threat, a dangerous villain that was put in jail escaped, we have new threats emerging, and I think I can help.” She paused dramatically, “Then of course I’m the strongest person here and you might need that.”

“Thank you for that honest answer.” Grace didn’t ask any follow up questions, so Daisy took that as a good sign. She also caught the slight smile, which was another positive.

The look on Mr. Morningstar’s face wasn’t as comforting.

“Ms. Meyers…”

<Never a good thing when he doesn’t call you by your Hero name.>

“…please explain the series of events that resulted in your one-year hold on your file.”

“Sure.” Daisy organized the facts of the almost-mugging of her students and the professional kidnapping attempt at Sprout before continuing. “The first incident…”

The white florescent lighting of the conference room vanished and was replaced with a low-light red. At the same time, a shrill alarm sounded from the other room. There was no hesitation from any Hero in the room, including Daisy. They all jumped to their feet and headed to the central monitor.

“Emergency deployment!” Hunter was marching toward them with a grim look on his face.

“What’s the situation?” Mr. Morningstar took charge.

“We’ve got a break in at Florence ADMAX. Someone has smashed their way into the subterranean levels and is freeing the prisoners.”

“How the hell did that happen?” Daisy asked.

“We don’t know. The alarm was delayed going out. Just about everyone not on an active operation is being brought in for this. We’ve got a lot of bad people in there, and we need to make sure they stay there.”

“Sounds like a job for a Hero who can immobilize large groups of people with little risk.” Daisy stated while scratching her chin. “I wish we knew someone like that.”

“Dispatch?” Hunter rolled his eyes.

“Temporary Hero authorization is being given to Reaper for participation in this operation. Details will be dispensed in route.” The disembodied voice spoke through the other Hero’s earbuds loud enough for Daisy to hear.

“Great, let me get suited up and then we can cork this bad boy.”

“No time.” Hunter grabbed her and everyone else grabbed Hunter. “We’ll sort that out when we get there.”

One second the Heroes were standing as an island in the middle of the chaos and the next they were gone.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 101

<Twenty-fours spent doing nothing but sitting on my ass.> Angela silently fumed in her little corner of the gym.

Her negative emotions hovered over her like a black thundercloud. People sensed it and kept away. The teenage shifter was pretty sure she’d aced her finals. She’d been stern and unyielding when needed but also considerate and compassionate. She knew a Hero required both, and she’d delivered.

And then the real deal happened. The city had gone to hell in a hand-basket, and she’d been given a mask in case she needed it. It felt like every fiber of her being tingled when she touched that small piece of comfortable plastic.

<This is what I’m meant to do.> No matter what anyone told her, she knew this was the life for her.

And then she’d sat on her ass while it all happened.

Roads and bridges turned to rubble. The power plant blown up…again. TV and radio stations hijacked or demolished so the enemies’ message of fear and hate could be spread. The airport was a flaming wreck with the smoking skeletons of 737s still lying dead on the tarmac. Lots of people had died too. Civilians caught in the crossfire all over the city, hundreds of them. The Orlando PD had done their best, but they’d taken their own losses. A few dozen cops killed in the line of duty. The department was reeling.

The DVA was on scene and investigating in force for the time being. They were bolstering the PDs ranks and sharing some of the burdens until the next class graduated from the police academy at the end of the summer. But even then, there would be a lot of rookies with fewer veterans to show them the ropes than any time in recent memory.

The DVA was also looking into what was being called Lander’s Crucible and seeing if the two attacks were related. So far, there didn’t seem to be any link between the Sons of Progress and Seif al-Din’s terrorist organization, but they were still digging.

They also had to look into their deployment protocols. Even on different sides of the country, with totally different circumstances, Lander’s attack pulled a disproportionate number of Hero responders compared to Orlando.  Granted, some of it was due to the chaos and breakdown in communication. Lander had just dropped off the grid and that was a clear red flag. Orlando had rapidly descended into chaos, but the city’s leadership had been slow to make the distinction between possible gang violence and a terrorist attack. The Protectorate and DVA having their hands full didn’t help getting information to the right people.

Despite the needs for improvement for the local authorities, there was no denying that the bad guys had planned things perfectly. They’d dispersed the local defenders all across the city. They’d started a natural disaster up north, and all so when they found Seif al-Din they only had a small strike force that wasn’t able to take him down.

They were also looking into that because lethal force had been authorized but not used. A lot of people wanted to know why.

While all of that was important, none of it mattered to Angela because she’d been stuck underground the whole time. And now they weren’t even being allowed to help in the clean-up.

“Everybody turn in your masks.” Coach McMillian was making the rounds to collect the school property.

She saw him watching everything closely. A lot of the students thought he was the good cop to his and Coach Meyers’ good cop bad cop routine. They thought he was the one that would go easy on them, and he might just do that, but there was always something going on behind the speedster’s eyes.

Coach McMillian was sharp, and she could tell he was watching all the students and evaluating how they went about giving up their first piece of almost real Hero action.

“I heard the students at Lander got to help.” Angela held onto her mask when the coach came by.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“People talk.” She left it at that.

“Yeah, they got to help, but it was a different situation.”

Angela bit her tongue and nodded. Arguing with the close combat coach wouldn’t do her any good. But, like always, the man noticed.

“They were directly under attack. They were the targets of the Sons of Progress. We were not. The terrorists specifically left us alone, for the same reason the Sons should have left Lander alone. Most of the terrorists and most of the Sons that participated in the attack are dead now. They might have showed that an HCP could be attacked, but they also showed that an HCP would fight back. With no backup, and no intel, Lander’s professors and their students took down several enhanced Supers. It was a pretty big show of force. Something we didn’t need here.” The coach’s eyes were thoughtful but stern.

“I just wish I could have done something to help. “Angela tried to recover.

“Don’t be so eager to jump right into things, Angela. Lander’s students got a taste of what the Hero life was like, but they got a taste of the good and the bad. They lost someone.”

Angela didn’t know that, and she thought about what she would be feeling right now if they’d run off to help and Becca had been killed.

Dr. Johnson would be proud of how she handled herself. She approached the problem, admitted what she was feeling to herself, came to grips with that, and figured out a way past it. All while taking deep breaths and keeping her emotions in check. If this had been a few months ago, she probably would have just started punching something.

“Ms. Martin.” Dean Ditmar stepped into the gym for the first time since this whole ordeal started.

The HCP leader looked tired, like he’d been fighting bad guys all day, and cleaning up all night. But there was still a smile on the older Super’s face, and she took that to mean everything was ok.

“Please come with me.”

<Anything to get out of sitting here for one more minute.> She jumped to her feet and worked the kinks out of her legs and neck as she crossed the distance to the gym’s double-door entrance.

She followed the Dean through the maze of sci-fi corridors that didn’t look any different than the first day she walked out of the lift and into this life. She followed him all the way to the entrance to the library where an all too familiar woman was standing.

“I’ll give you to a moment.” The Dean smiled and left Angela with her mother.

The both stood eyeing each other for a minute before Angela final spoke. “Jesus, Mom. What happened?”

Sophia Martin was in a worn pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Her eyes were red, she wasn’t wearing any make-up, and she was favoring one side.

“Rough day at the office.” The unshifted Hero Seraphim chuckled before taking a step forward and wrapping her arms around her daughter.

Angela froze for a minute, ready to counter any grapple the Hero tried to pull on her, but none ever came, and she slowly relaxed into the embrace. “What happened?”

“The bad guys weren’t exactly better than us, but they were better prepared. We walked right into their ambush and we lost some people. I made it out, but just barely. The DVA healer patched me up, but he’s not HCP quality, so I’m on medical leave for the next few days.”

Then Sophia did the impossible, she hugged Angela even harder. Angela returned the gesture and felt something in her chest. It wasn’t a heart attack, she was too young for one of those. It could have been from all the stress, or her irritation about this whole situation up until right now. Either way, she’d have to ask Dr. Sanderson about it. But for the moment, she just wanted to be content. She couldn’t remember the last time her mother hugged her like this.

“Well.” Her mother’s voice shook like she was holding something back. “I’ve got one more thing to show you before we go home for summer break.”

“You’re taking me home…” Angela waited for the “but”, but it never came. For some reason her mother was taking the exact opposite approach than what she’d decided to do when dropping her off at the beginning of the year.

<She wasn’t the one that dropped me off.> Angela shut that line of thought down hard before it could fester. Things were going really well with her mother, and she didn’t want to ruin it.

“In here.” Sophia pushed open the door to the school’s library and waved her through, but didn’t follow. “Third aisle on the left. I’ll be here when you’re done.”

Without another word, her mother closed the door behind Angela with a hint of a smile on her face.

<They’ve got to have her on pain meds.> It was the only explanation.

She walked down the few dozen feet to the third aisle and turned left like she’d been instructed. There was somebody else there. A large somebody who was preoccupied with running their hand underneath one of the shelves. Whoever it was didn’t notice her at first, and she wasn’t sure what to do.

<Just asking some random somebody if my mother just set us up isn’t exactly what I thought this was all about.> Really, she had no idea what was going on.

The person sat there for a few more moments, running their fingers underneath the shelf before standing up. They were bigger at their full height, at least half a foot taller than Angela, and it was obviously a guy. Angela’s thought process went from possible set-up to possible ambush in a nanosecond. Her eyes scanned the rest of the library looking for more threats when the man started to laugh.

<Wait…> Angela froze. Despite all her training, everything she’d been taught for eighteen years. She still froze like a deer in headlights when she heard that familiar laugh.

“Don’t worry, Angela, it’s just me.”

Before she even knew what was happening she was sprinting toward the hulking figure and throwing herself into his open arms. She couldn’t speak. She was laughing, she was crying, and she was just trying to wrap her mind around what was happening.

“Daddy!” She buried her face in his chest and never wanted to let go.

“It’s ok, honey. I’m ok. Everything is going to be ok.” He pulled her close, and the feeling was mutual.

 

***

 

“So that was kind of a bust.” Mason handed in his white mask and stood their awkwardly with his hands in his pocket. He’d been dreading this moment since he wrapped up his last final.

“Better a bust than us being called out there.” Kyoshi didn’t look happy, which meant she was hearing things from everyone around them and not liking it.

“You’re right,” Mason chided himself and put a lid on his disappointment.

<Us going out there would mean the brown stuff was well and truly flying everywhere. That’s not what this city needs, and that isn’t what we need. We forget that we’re still kids.> 

Kyoshi turned toward him with a smile as she dropped her own mask in the container that Coach McMillian was passing around. “Let’s not dwell on the bad, but think about the good.” She wrapped her arms around his neck.

To date, she was the only girl he’d ever dated that was able to do it.

“So…summer break?” Mason didn’t look her in the eye, but he was sure she could read his thoughts like an open book.

The title of the book would be “Mason doesn’t want to spend three months away from the woman he loves” in all caps with a hundred exclamation points at the end.

Kyoshi smiled as she read as much off him. She didn’t really need to read his mind as much as his face and body language, because hers was a mirror image of his. She didn’t want to spend time away from him either.

“What are you planning?”

“Honestly, I want to keep training. I know I did well enough on the finals that I think I’ll make it back, but I need to be stronger. Strongmen are a dime a dozen. If I want to make it into junior year I’ve got to be at my best and figure out new uses for my ability.”

“Mason.” She placed a hand on either side of his face to make sure he was looking at her. “If you don’t get to become a Hero then none of us should.” She meant that with all her heart. “You are kind, considerate, compassionate, strong, courageous, and a selfless person. There is no better future Hero out there than you.”

“Except you.” Mason’s reply made Kyoshi blush scarlet.

“Let’s just agree to disagree on that point.” They both smiled at each other.

“But the summer?” Mason brought them back on point.

“Well, you need to see your grandmother,” Kyoshi stated.

“And you need to see your parents,” Mason reminded her of her own commitments.

“You have to drive back home in that beater and I’ve got to fly.” Kyoshi outlined their travel arrangements.

“That’s right.”

“So how about this.” Kyoshi adopted a thinker’s pose. “Let’s road trip up the east coast to Brooklyn. We can take our time, see some sites, and spend quality time together. Once we hit New York, we’ll stay for a few weeks and spend time with your grandmother. You can introduce me to your boxing coach and I can build on my hand-to-hand skills by training with a new opponent. Plus, I’ve got a technique I want us to try out that could be really cool.”

Mason nodded fervently. Any extra time he got to spend with his girlfriend was time well spent in his mind.

“After we do some time in New York. We’ll fly out to see my parents. If you want a strongman to train you and teach you some new tricks there is no one better than my father. Don’t worry.” She saw Mason pale a shade or two at the mention of training with the famous German Hero. Of all the boys I ever brought home he likes you the best.”

“You brought a lot of boys home?” He didn’t get an answer, just a coy smile.

“Well, sound like a plan?” She raised an eyebrow, daring him to come up with something better.

“Nope, you’ve always got the best ideas.” Mason settled for hugging her close and thinking about how the next few months could go.

It could be awesome. They could learn more about each other, their families, and how they were together outside a school environment. Of course, it could also be awful, but he highly doubted it. He’d never met a woman quite like Kyoshi Schultz, and he knew how to hold on to a good thing when he had it.

“Ok, it’s a date then.”

“A three-month date.”

They both smiled and exchanged a brief kiss as the double doors opened and they were released for the summer.

 

***

 

“Becca!”

“Ani!”

The hospital hallway parted like the red sea as the two teenage Supers made a beeline for each other. They collided just beyond the crowded nurses’ station. Arms and lips locked while tears flowed freely.

“I thought I’d never see you again.” Anika held Becca tight and squeezed. If Becca had been human she probably would have broken a rib or two.

“I just woke up and you were gone.” Becca chuckles were mildly hysterical, and she kept stroking Anika’s arms to convince herself she was real.

“I’m never going anywhere ever again.” Anika gripped her even tighter.

“I’m sorry to say, but that isn’t exactly true,” a familiar voice spoke from just behind them.

Despite the relief, both women were on edge, and both rounded on the voice determined to protect the other.

“Easy there,” the woman held up her hands to show she had no bad intentions. “I’m the DVA agent assigned to get Ms. Kemps home safe.”

“Wait, you’re the one who talked to us after Angela…” Becca let the sentence trail off. If this was the woman then she knew why she’d been there.

“Yes, I’m Agent Phillips.” She pulled out her badge for good measure.

“You’re taking me home?” Anika repeated with a raised eyebrow.

“That’s what my plane ticket says.” The agent flashed two plastic slips.

“Why?”

“You’re a smart girl, Ms. Kemps.” The agent pocketed her badge and the tickets. “You were the target of all of this.”

Like someone hit the unmute button on a TV, Anika and Becca suddenly realized what was happening all around them. There was organized pandemonium. A constant stream of victims with everything from minor lacerations to burns covering a large portion of their body were everywhere. Beds with groaning patients were starting to stack up in the hallways. The nurses all looked harried and frantic, and the doctors had noticeable stress lines. This was a hospital after a disaster.

“I didn’t want all of this to happen.” Anika unknowingly grabbed Becca’s hand and squeezed. “I just didn’t want to go back.”

“Don’t let your mind go that way.” The agent took a step closer and placed her hand on Anika’s shoulder. “You were a victim of this just like everyone else.”

“But all these people. And the bad guys?” Anika looked to the DVA agent for some sign that they’d captured her psychotic father.

“We put down most of the terrorists. Captured a few, and a few got away. I’m sorry Anika, but that’s why I’m taking you home.”

“Can’t you pump the ones you got for information. You’ve got all those interrogation techniques. Find out where that butthead is and get him.” Becca’s face was fierce as she thought of any plan to save her girlfriend.

“That’s not how it works. We can’t just…”

“Did you get her?” Anika cut the agent off.

“Ms. Kemps…”

“Did you get her?” Anika asked again forcefully.

The DVA agent looked around like she was making sure no one was eavesdropping. “Yes, we got her.”

“I want to talk to her.”

“Absolutely not.” Agent Phillips put her foot down. “We’re still building a case against her. Lawyers will come by for your testimony, but until then you will not be seeing Wraith.”

“You guys caught Wraith. Awesome!” Becca squeaked in delight. “What did she do in all of this?”

“She’s the one that drugged you and kidnapped me.” Anika stated before Agent Phillips could tell her to zip it.

“Drugged me…But there was no one else there but you, me, and…” Her eyes went wide. “OH MY GOD!”

Agent Phillips gave them both a stern looked that in no uncertain words told them to shut up, but Anika still managed to mouth, “I told you so” to Becca.

<Always trust your gut.> Anika would never make that mistake again.

“We need to get going.” The DVA agent looked at her watch. “It’s a commercial flight out of Daytona since Orlando is pretty much a smoldering wreck now. So we’ve got a drive and then a long set of flights ahead of us.”

“What about our stuff.”

“Your stuff will be shipped to the new address.”

“My stuff?” Anika asked.

“New address?” Becca followed up.

“Ms. Kemps.” The DVA agent lowered he voice. “Like I said before. You were the target. The DVA is taking all necessary measures to protect you going forward, and that means WITSEC is moving your whole family to a new location.”

“And…” Becca wasn’t reading between the lines because she considered herself practically family.

“Ms. Whitfield will not be able to join us.” The older woman finally had to spell it out.

“The hell I ain’t.” Becca looked ready to speedily put her foot up someone’s ass.

“Hey.” Anika touched the blue-haired speedster’s arm and she relaxed a bit. “They just want to get me moved and get me settled. Then I’ll call you and we can meet up.” Anika glared at the DVA agent, daring her to say that even that wasn’t allowed.

Agent Phillips put up her hands again in a clear “I’m not getting in the middle of this” motion.

“But what about our summer of plaid?” Becca deflated, and new tears threatened to leak from the corners of her eyes. “We had it all planned out.”

“It’s going to be the half-summer of something new.” Anika tried to make the situation better. “Maybe it’ll be sun dresses. Maybe it’ll be copious amounts of SPF 50. Maybe we’ll have to get you some stylish parkas.” Anika smiled as Becca giggled at that one. “Whatever it is, wherever I am, I’ll be with you soon. I promise.”

Anika pulled her smaller girlfriend closer and locked lips for an explosive kiss.

“I’m going to hold you to that.” Becca replied breathless some undeterminable amount of time later.

“Count on it, babe.” Anika gave her one last hand squeeze and turned to Agent Phillips.

“Ok, lead the way.”

The still unclassified teenage super wasn’t looking forward to spending half her summer packing and moving out of Montana and into a new identity, but she’d do anything to stay away from her father.

<And anything to keep Becca safe.> There was that too, because what happened between her, Becca, and Liz was never going to happen again.

 

***

 

A black SUV with thick tinted windows had driven up to townhouse 117 and asked for Seth to come with them. It wasn’t as much a question as an order, and Seth had been in the HCP long enough to know when to just say yes and do what he was told. He didn’t know the two guys in suits who accompanied him on the ride back, but they both had pistols in holsters on their hips.

“Any chance you can tell me what the hell is going on?” He just got a shake of the head from the suit in the passenger seat.

The drive from West Private University downtown didn’t show a lot of what had gone down. For the most part, things didn’t look so bad. There was a lot of smoke in the air from the fire that was now under control in the north, so everything had a haze to it.

Occasionally, they’d come across a building or structure that looked like it should be in the middle of a Syrian warzone, not Orlando. They were ridden with bullet holes, had all their windows blown out, and large chunks of masonry missing where something a little stronger than 5.56 rounds had smashed into it. And those were the lucky ones. A few buildings were nothing more than a pile of rubble.

The driver seemed to be taking a round-a-bout way to their destination, because they seemed to pass by every building like that. Finally, they ducked into a garage next to a building identified as police headquarters, and went underground into a full motor pool full of everything from more SUVs to armored vehicles.

The vehicles looked like they could use some TLC. Some were covered in dust or ash depending on where they’d been deployed. Others had bullet holes, and a few looked like they’d had to been towed back here. A big vehicle with SWAT written on the side of it in white looked like its whole front end had exploded.

<Is that blood?> Seth didn’t have time to ask before the two suits walked him over to an elevator and hit the button for the top floor.

They emerged into a madhouse. Phones were ringing off the hooks, people were yelling into those phones, yelling for other people to shut up, running around with paperwork stacked up to their shoulders, or running in full tactical gear to get somewhere. Seth had to flatten himself again a wall as a squad of SWAT officers ran past looking ready for war.

“This him?”

Seth didn’t even see the man appear. He was old, exquisitely dressed, and wearing a mask. But most importantly the suits deferred to him.

“Yes, Sir.”

“I’ll take it from here.”

The man didn’t grab him and haul him away, which Seth got the impression he wanted to do, but he pointed impatiently toward a steel door across the room.

“My name is, Mr. Morningstar. I’m the leader of the Protectorate, the…”

“I know what the Protectorate is.” Seth cut him off. “Galavant came to talk to us earlier this year.”

If the interruption made the man angry he didn’t show it. “Very well. Follow me.” Without any pomp or circumstance, he pushed open the steel door and led the way into a dark room.

“Back for more, Morningwood.” A half-crazed voice laughed. “For a veteran Hero, your attempts have been pretty pathetic so far. How’d they let someone as incompetent as you run this joint?”

“I have my moments.” Mr. Morningstar replied calmly, but Seth saw his posture tighten at the insults. “Like right now. I brought you a guest.”

“I don’t want to see anyone.” The other voice immediately became wary. “Take them away.”

“You don’t make the rules, Wraith.”

<Holy shit they caught Wraith!> Seth’s eyes bulged and he looked at Mr. Morningstar.

The man waved Seth forward. He wanted Seth to see.

Seth couldn’t lie, this had tickled his curiosity. After writing a paper about the villain there was a certain amount of natural intrigue. Seth wanted to know all about this recently famous villain.

He stepped up to the cell, he hadn’t noticed this was a jail until Wraith’s name had been brought up, and the lights of the cell flickered on. The villain was sitting with her back to him. She had tucked herself into a corner and was showing no signs of wanting to interact.

“Hello, Wraith.” He saw his voice made her visibly stiffen.

“Go away!” The villain grunted.

“I’ve got to say I never thought they were going to catch you. I wrote a paper on you.” He left the HCP part out. “I thought you had them all outsmarted. No one knew who you were, or anything more than you were female between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five.”

He got no reply.

“So how’d they catch you? Please, I’m dying to know.” A little bit of haughty swagger had crept into his voice.

“Go away!” she grunted again.

“Now…now…Wraith. Where are your manners? Engage with the boy. He wants to know all about you.”

Somehow, things seemed to have flip-flopped in the last few minutes. For some reason, Mr. Morningstar held the power now, and he literally had the villain cowering in the corner.

“Go away!” This time it was a feminine scream, not a grunt, and something about it tickled his memory.

“No, Wraith. You brought this on yourself. Or should I call you…”

“NO!” The woman whirled around and threw herself against the barrier.

She bounced off it like a rubber ball hitting concrete and sprawled on the floor temporarily dazed. As soon as she got control of herself she rolled back onto her stomach.

But not before Seth caught a glimpse of a familiar cheekbone, an eye he’d looked into most nights over the past six months, and lips that he’d kissed a thousand times before.

“There is it.” Mr. Morningstar sounded cruel as Seth stumbled backwards in shock. “Now you see the truth.”

“No!” Liz threw herself against the barrier again, fully revealing herself, and the metal collar they had locked around her neck.

“L…Liz.” Seth felt like a strongman had sucker punched him in the gut. His legs gave out and he conveniently collapsed right into a waiting chair.

A chair on wheels which was then immediately rolled right up to the barrier and his crying girlfriend.

“No, Seth. No!” She was frantically pounding on the barrier trying to get to him.

“Yes, Seth. Yes.” Mr. Morningstar squatted just to his right. “Ms. Aretino here has been infiltrating the HCP since the day you met. Earlier today, she drugged Rebecca Whitfield and kidnapped Anika Kemps on behalf of the man who attacked this city. She killed two ForceOps soldiers that we know of, fired rocket propelled grenades into a residential neighborhood, and led Heroes into an ambush that resulted in death and serious injuries to members of that team. My team.” The Hero’s voice had dropped to a predatory growl by the time he finished.

“No! Don’t listen to him, Seth. That’s not the whole story. It isn’t all true. Please! PLEASE!”

Seth didn’t know what to think. But he knew he was in shock. All he could do was look into Liz’s wet chocolate eyes. Eyes that looked so different and yet so similar to the eyes he’d gazed into as they made love.

“Why?” He managed to mumble after a minute.

Liz seemed to have an emotional breakdown at the word. She cried, kicked, screamed, and tried to tear the metal collar from her throat. She alternated between threatening Mr. Morningstar and profusely apologizing to Seth. It just made things more confusing.

“I can’t be here.” Seth finally got up and looked around for the door.

“Please, Seth. PLEASE. He’s trying to turn you against me. I love you. I’ve always loved you. Nothing in the world can change that. Please, just please don’t give up on me. Don’t listen to them. I LOVE YOU!”

Seth couldn’t listen anymore. He half walked, half stumbled toward the door. His chest felt tight and his head was swimming. He barely made it out of the room before he puked all over the floor. There were a few startled gaps as people took evasive action to avoid the filth, but everyone was too busy to stop, or even ask if he was ok.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.” Mr. Morningstar emerged behind him. Cutting off Liz’s continued screams as he shut and sealed the door.

“No, you’re not.” Seth straightened up, feeling a hollowness in his stomach and chest.

Mr. Morningstar didn’t reply.

“You wanted me to see that. You wanted to break her. You used me. At least give me the courtesy of being truthful.”

“We need to break her down so we can get all the information she knows about other very bad people. You’re training to be a Hero, Mr. Abney. This is part of the job.”

Seth didn’t know how to answer that. “Can I go now? I’ve got things to pack before I head home for the summer.”

“Yes,” Mr. Morningstar straightened his tie. “Congratulations on completing your first year. The gentlemen who brought you will take you home.”

Whatever townhouse 117 had been, it wasn’t home now. Seth had just had everything he knew and loved turned on its head. He hoped this was all a bad dream and he’d wake up in bed with Liz, preferably on some tropical island midway into their summer break.

He waited for it, but nothing happened.

So he took one step, and then another, and then a third toward the door. He didn’t know what the fuck he was going to do, but he didn’t want to be here, and he didn’t want to be sober.

All he wanted to do was forget the last ten minutes had ever happened.

 

***

 

The smoke from the fires had cleared just the other day, so the sun was able to rise into a cloudless sky. It was going to be hot. Spring had officially become summer, and summer in Orlando led to swamp ass and proliferous BO.

<I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.> Daisy stood at the entrance to the hospital and took a deep breath.

She thought about where she’d been a year ago, and where she was now. She’d been practically a homeless vagabond, drinking herself to death and not able to do what she had been born to do. Now she was back in action. She was teaching the next generation of Heroes, and she was still able to help this city when it needed her.

New York City would always be home, but this place wasn’t too bad. And a big part of that had to do with the man inside this building.

She exhaled the deep breath, and marched into the build. The nurse at the desk waved her through before disappearing to be anywhere else. Doctors scattered at her approach. She had a reputation in this place.

She smiled to herself as she found the room and knocked softly. If he was asleep she didn’t want to wake him. She popped the door open a tad and looked in.

Topher was sitting on his bed, his chest wrapped tight, and watching the boxy TV hanging from the wall. He looked over at her and smiled that smile that made her heart flutter.

“Please tell me you brought a hamburger. This hospital food is going to kill me.”

They both grinned at each other as Daisy pulled a paper bag from behind her back.

“That’s my girl.”

Topher had faced his own difficulties during the terrorist attack. He’d been in a raid against a jihadist strongpoint that had left another cop dead and two more shot. Topher had taken a round to the vest. His vest had stopped it, but the AK’s 7.62 round broke three ribs in the process.

“Wait.” She pulled the bag away from him and put a finger to her lips. “Payment first.”

She leaned down so he didn’t have to strain himself, but the kiss was anything but restrained. Topher even worked his hands around to her butt.

She playfully slapped it away and got a dramatized grimace for her trouble.

“Shut up and eat your hamburger.” She handed over the bag, and he dug into it like a little kid trying to find the hidden toy inside.

<Life could be worse.> She took her customary seat next to the bed, their hands found each other’s, and they spent the afternoon watching the TV and talking.

Despite everything that had happened. The detox, the adaption to a new environment, getting her memories back, being slapped on the wrist by the DVA not once but twice, being given back temporary Hero authority for a bit, and nearly getting killed by Seif al-Din after he stated he wanted to make god-like babies with her.

<It’s been a hell of a year.> But sitting in the hospital room with Topher was worth it. <So much for a change of pace.>

She wondered what would happen next year.

End of Season 1

Previous                               Next

A Change of Pace – Chapter 100

<I’m a bird. I’m a plane. I’m…so fucking stupid.> Daisy dreaded the decision about three seconds after she made it.

Currently, she was soaring through the air like a drunken eagle, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she’d made a rookie mistake. It was a simple rule, and a practical one: flyers deal with flyers. That unwritten rule was important because no matter how great your power was, gravity was a cold-hearted bitch.

<Too late now.> Despite the rash decision, she was barreling through Orlando’s sky toward her target, and it looked like her aim was good. <Now the tricky part.>

She needed to be going fast enough to do damage, but she needed to engage her kinetic absorption enough that she didn’t splatter against the patchwork beast’s impossibly strong hide like a bug on a windshield.

<I just need to get on him.>

She made a few last second adjustments before it was go time. She careened through the air like the world’s weirdest missile and hit her target.

Seif al-Din’s shifted beast form howled in pain as she crashed through the thin membrane of his wing. A six-foot tear wasn’t something easily recoverable from, and his massive body started to tilt as his right wing struggled to maintain altitude.

But that wasn’t her problem. She absorbed enough of the impact so it didn’t knock her out. But she still came out the other side hurting, like she’d just gone through the tumble dry on her dryer.  She succeeded in retaining her momentum, and that momentum took her onto the tilted back of the fleeing terrorist.

<Gotcha you mother…oh…wait…no I don’t.> She scrambled for a handhold as she started to slide off the beast’s smooth hide.

And that was about the time he noticed he had a passenger.

“Aaarrrrrggghhhh!” He roared, shrugging and swatting at his back like a horse trying to get rid of a fly. “Stupid bitch.”

Daisy was too busy to feel offended, she was slipping her way to a few hundred-foot drop, and that wouldn’t end well.

<Fuck!> She drove her fist forward in frustration, hitting the creature hard enough to make him grunt. If she was going down she was going to get a few licks in before she did, and she needed to get rid of any stored energy if she wanted any hope in surviving the fall.

“I’m going to tear you to pieces, Reaper!” Seif al-Din bellowed like an angry bear as he continued to try and reach her.

She was about to slip off of him when she took one last stab at him. A section of his patchwork flesh was more white and pink than gray and scaly near the edge of his back, so she made a knife with her hand and drove it into the section with what remained of her energy.

<I’ll either break a few fingers or I’ll fall and probably die. This is a no-brainer.> She thought as her knife-hand hit flesh.

Despite the white-pinkish texture of the epidermis the section was still as hard as a rock. But it wasn’t harder than steel. She felt her fingers break as they pushed into Seif al-Din’s resisting flesh, but she got her handhold, and she knew she had it when the giant beast cried out in pain again.

So just to be generous, she clamped down on the inside, made a fist, and twisted.

Seif al-Din looked backward and tried to snap at her with teeth the size of a bowie knife, but she was too far back.

<Take that you fucking asshole.> She grinned and had that grin instantly whipped from her face.

She should have seen it coming. If she was a flyer and had any experience in mid-air fights then she would have known this was the obvious next choice, so it was a good thing she’d grabbed on tight to the beast’s innards.

Seif al-Din gave one last mighty flap, curled his wings in, and threw himself into a violent barrel roll. The world spun everywhere. Up was down then down was up, and they were losing altitude quickly.

<He’s going to flatten me like a pancake.> She came to the realization with about a hundred feet left to go.

Of course, impacting the ground at terminal velocity would hurt for the terrorist, but he was a healer. He’d get up, brush off her bursted blood and guts, and then go right on ahead to making his getaway.

<Shit.> She made her decision, and was thankful her kinetic tank was running on empty.

The patchwork creature came out of the barrel roll and oriented itself with her facing down, and that’s when she made her move. She yanked her arm out of the thing’s side, which made it twitch in pain, planted her feet, and launched away.

Daisy hitting the ground was like a pebble dropping into a pond, while Seif al-Din was the fucking boulder. The earth barely felt her impact as she absorbed her fall. She didn’t even skip when she hit the grass at an angle. She just landed and was flooded with kinetic energy.

The terrorist hit like a ton of bricks on meth. The earth shook from the force of the impact. A nearby condemned building collapsed, car alarms went off for a mile, and a few people might have ever shit their pants at the sight of something straight out of a horror movie crash landing in their neighborhood.

She didn’t get to revel in it though. She was up and charging toward the terrorist. She got to him before he got to his knees, and rained down a few punches into his gut before he was able to recover. Nearby glass cracked at the concussive force of the blows traveled through the nearby buildings.

“Reaper, you’re a persistent woman.” The man laughed as he shrugged off her blows, and landed his own.

The backhand caught the left side of her body and she felt micro-cracks fracture just about everything as she was overloaded with kinetic energy.

<I can only take one hit at a time from this asshat.> She tried to stay focused through the pain radiating off half her body.

“I just don’t like douche-nozzles in my city.” She gritted her teeth in reply.

“Fair enough. I’ll let you live another day. I’m impressed by your performance today. I have things in store for you; delightful things.”

She threw up a little in her mouth.

“Just think about it. Together we could sire a race of warrior gods. All would fall before us. We could rule this world the way we want. We can eliminate the sinful and make room for the righteous. No more politicians deciding what is best for everyone else. No more lobbying by the rich and famous to achieve their goals. It would just be you and I. I would even leave you this country after it is gutted to its core. Then you can do as you please.”

For a second she had no idea what to say, so she just laughed. Despite anything she could have said, laughing in Seif al-Din’s face probably did the most to piss him off.

“Think about it, Reaper. Your life depends on it.”

That only made her laugh even harder. “This has got to be the worst pickup line I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot.” She barely got control of herself. “Hey, baby, want to sire a race of warrior gods tonight.” She dropped her voice deeply to imitate the terrorist, and barely made it through it before bursting into more laughter.

“Ahhh, thanks for that, Seif. I needed a good laugh.”

“Time will tell, Reaper. Time will tell.”

They both attacked at the same time. She went in again, this time aiming for his knee, just as he swiped his massive, clawed hand across the space between them.

<Nothing that big should move that fast.>

She was able rotate her uninjured side into his blow, but all that did was break her. Micro-cracks became full breaks as she was swatted fifty feet into the side of an in-progress commercial development. The building already had its golden arches built when she crashed through them and into what would have been the kitchen area.

She didn’t black out, but her fight was done. Just about every bone in her body was broken, her skull was probably cracked. If there wasn’t internal hemorrhaging in at least a half-dozen places she’d give her yearly salary to the hobo on the street corner. Basically, she’d just gotten her ass kicked and the bad guy was going to get away.

“Goodbye, my precious, Reaper. We will meet again.”

All she saw was clawed feet as Seif al-Din unfurled freshly healed wings and launched himself back into the air. She really really wanted to reap the life-force right out of the bastard, but she couldn’t see straight, much less activate her unique ability.

<And it might not even do anything if I did.>

Seif al-Din was going to get away, and as much as that sucked, she had more pressing matters. If she didn’t get to a hospital quick, there was no doubt that she’d die.

Even with a cracked skull, and internal bleeding that was starting to show across her bruised and battered body, she was still a fighter. Slowly and painfully she crawled out of the soon to not be fast food joint and into the street.

<This way someone will be able to rescue my useless ass.> She was being hard on herself but she didn’t care.

The bad guy was getting away, and all she could do about it was lose consciousness in the middle of the street.

<Some Hero I am.>

 

***

 

“Target in sight.”

Debora and the rest of the DVA employees working out of the Protectorate HQ watched the drone’s forward cameras as it streaked through the Florida skies toward the retreating terrorist.

“ETA two minutes. Requesting final authorization.”

Despite what people might see in the movies it was not easy to call in a drone strike, and it was nearly impossible on American soil.

<Exigent circumstance of a serious nature.> Was the wording on the paperwork the DVA gent had filled out.

It was all cover your ass legalese. The military didn’t want to shoot missiles into Joe the Plumber’s living room on accident. Despite how smart ordinance was, there was still a margin of risk involved, and the military wanted that risk squarely on the shoulders of the DVA.

<So much for interagency cooperation.> Debora thought as she cracked open a sealed, plastic device and grabbed the piece of paper stored within.

“Authenticate: Echo November Delta Six Two Niner Zero.” She read the code to the drone pilot operating across the country.

“Authenticating Echo November Delta Six Two Niner Zero. Good copy, proceeding with fire mission.”

“Is that really going to do any good?” Seraphim walked up to stand next to her. “Will it even hurt?”

“Hurt…I’m sure he’ll feel it. But as far as taking that sack of shit off the board, no, it won’t get that job done.”

Seraphim looked a little worse from wear. The details were still a little sketchy about what had happened on the ground during the knock down brawl with Seif al-Din, but that would all get cleared up soon. If the federal government was good for one thing it was getting to the bottom of something. Everyone in the city needed to have their schedule cleared for the next week, because they were going to get debriefed by the army of agents and lawyers who’d descend on them once the fire was out.

That was literally true.

A silver wildfire had torn across hundreds of acres before half of Florida’s Hero population was able to get in contained. The fire took away their ability to respond to the terrorist’s main battle except for the highly skilled strike team that had been put together. So far, there was still no word from some of them.

Iron Giant was still trying to get a hold of the situation there, but there were already a few confirmed casualties. The ForceOps squad that went along with them had reported a couple of casualties, there was a YouTube video making its way around the web of a guy who’d gotten too close to the action, and a few of the Heroes were unaccounted for. Reaper was missing, but presumed alive for now. She was a tough old bitch who wouldn’t go down easy. Galavant had a cerebral hemorrhage from taking a heavy duty round to the head. It was a miracle he hadn’t been killed. But the HCP healer was on scene now, and she was still waiting to hear back on updated statuses.

They had one Hero KIA, Matchbox. The sword-wielding fire manipulator hadn’t been fast enough and had been flattened by the jihadist. Seraphim had been WIA, but she looked good to go now, but that was just the start of the casualty list.

Terrorists all over the city, buildings blown up, masked gunman causing chaos, no power, no communication, and with the roads in and out of the city destroyed by IEDs. It was going to be days, maybe weeks, before the full damage assessment was done.

<And Lander was just the icing on the cake.> She shook her head as she watched the drone acquire the large, flying form of Seif al-Din over the Atlantic just off shore from Daytona.

“Make sure the Coast Guard is alerted and have any naval assets in the area start sweeping for  a rendezvous ship. I doubt he’s going to fly his fat ass all the way back to Morocco.”

“Weapons hot. Missile away.” The camera footage was devoid of any sound, but a contrail of superheated air spat across the screen as the drone launched its payload.

Not one or two, but four missiles shrieked away from the drone on a collision course with the thing that had successfully brought Orlando to its knees in an afternoon.

“If only you’d just fucking die.” She whispered to herself as all four missiles hit the beast at roughly the same time.

Without sound, it was tough to get complete satisfaction out of the moment, but the way the creature’s head was thrown back was obviously driven by pain. One missile hit the thing’s wing, which crumbled under the blow, and sent him careering into the water below.

“See if we have any subs in the area. Maybe the asshole will drown.” That got a few morose laughs from the stern-faced analysts sitting round her.

She didn’t blame them. Today was probably going to be the worse day of their career, and there hadn’t been a lot of good news today.

“Dispatch, Iron Giant. I’ve found Reaper. She’s in bad shape. I need a healer to my location immediately.” The hulking metal man’s voice sounded strained.

“Agent Reynolds in on the way, Iron Giant.” Debora cut in, making a hurry-up motion with her hand to one of the coordinating analysts.

<If I let my brother’s girlfriend die, Christmas is going to be super awkward this year.>

“Agent Reynolds on scene.” A boyishly sarcastic voice replied through the comms channel. “Um…this is going to take a minute. Request permission to take her somewhere more secure so I can get back to work.”

She wasn’t at the scene, but it must be pretty messed up, or Reaper was pretty messed up, to want to teleport them out instead of just doing it then and there.

“Authorized.” She didn’t have time to think about it anymore. “Get her on her feet again, and soon. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. She isn’t sitting it out because she got her ass kicked.”

“Roger that.” The DVA teleporter cut the link and went to work.

Debora returned her eyes to the board and prioritized what needed to be done next. More Heroes were flooding into the city. The attack on Lander was over. She still didn’t know how some JV nutjobs were able to pull that off, but they were getting some heavy hitters on scene now.

It was too late for them to do much more that recovery operations. The Protectorate and Orlando’s finest had dealt with the terrorists themselves.

<I need to go down to the morgue and identify as many as I can.> She added it to her mile-long to-do list.

Even with the added assistance, there was still a lot of red on the board and not enough Heroes to cover it all. They were doing their best, as was the Orlando Police Department, but they were straining to keep a city of a quarter million people calm after all the shit that had happened.

<Some good news would be nice about now.>

Maybe the universe just felt like throwing her a bone. Because the moment she thought it alarms starting ringing as a man appeared not far from her with something slung over his shoulder. He was a big guy, in a khaki outfit, with what looked like an African tribal mask over his face.

She already had her gun halfway out of her holster when Seraphim screamed like a teenage girl and threw herself at the man. The female Hero’s hysterical laughter only made the situation more confusing, and then just plain akward when she reared her arm back and cold-cocked the new arrival in the jaw.

“Mind bringing us up to date.” Debora coughed after a few moments. She had her weapon fully drawn and pointed at the ground. Just about every armed agent in the room was following her lead.

Seraphim took a step back from the man, and then slapped him hard in the face before nodding satisfactorily.

“Jesus Christ, So…Seraphim,” the man grunted, as he rubbed his jaw and readjusted the mask and the thing on his shoulder.

“Any day now.” Debora was aiming at the man now. People who Seraphim tended to put the beat down on weren’t friendly to the DVA.

“Stand down, Agent Phillips. I don’t believe the two of you have met.” Seraphim’s expression was hidden by her mask and her voice was emotionless. “This is the up-until-now deceased Hero, Hunter. Hunter, this is the DVA agent in charge, Agent Phillips.”

“Sorry about the sudden resurrection, Agent Phillips. But I’ve got something I know you’ll want to see.”

He gave a small heave and the thing slid off his shoulder an onto the floor. The thing turned out to be a young woman in black and armed with just about every illegal ordinance known to man. She was pretty, blond, and would have gone relatively unnoticed on any college campus in the city. But something about the girl’s face tugged at the back of the DVA agent’s memory. Whatever it was, Seraphim got there first.

“You’ve got to be shitting me.” Her voice might have been emotionless when she introducing Hunter, but there was barely contained rage in it now.

“Agent Phillips, as my resurrection present I present you with Wraith. I know you’ve been looking for her for months.”

The sudden jolt to her brain slid the last piece of information into place.

“Holy shit! I know this girl.”

 

***

 

Daisy slowly regained consciousness, and it felt like someone was slowly backing an eighteen-wheeler off her body one millimeter at a time. The burning aches and pains were magnified, nearly to the point of being unbearable, and then they started to ease and cool. She opened her eyes, which was an accomplishment in itself, and took in her surroundings.

All she wanted to do was sleep for the next fifteen hours, but she still had work to do.

People were bustling all around her. There was a dark green canvas tent overhead and there were sounds of children crying and the anxious whispers of parents. Daisy tried to lift her head, but the world started to spin and she set it back down with a groan.

“Take it easy, Ma’am.” Dr. Sanderson approached in his usual medical garb with the edition of a full golden facemask. “I’ve just healed you, but it’s going to take time before your body finds its equilibrium. You were nearly crushed by a building. So please take it easy.

“What?” She knew exactly how she’d been injured. Seif al-Din tried to body slam her from a few hundred feet up, and then bitch slapped her like a no-nonsense pimp. “Bl…”

“Ma’am.” The healer’s voice was stern and his grip tightened around her shoulder. “I’ll come check back on you in a minute, but please relax.”

Daisy might still be foggy from her latest bout with unconsciousness, but there were only a few reasons why a Hero would be so secretive. Slowly, she reached up toward her face and winced when her hand hit skin. At some point, she’d had her mask knocked off.

<Well a minefield exploded around you, and you fought the genocidal offspring of the swamp thing and the creature from the black lagoon. It was bound to happen.> At least she felt the comforting pressure of her Dispatch earpiece. <Wait…>

She knew for a fact that she’d lost the old one. Being blind and deaf to what was happening in the fight for Orlando was going to haunt her for a long time.

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Status?”

“I’m ok.” She subvocalized to avoid drawing any attention.

“Are you ambulatory?”

She tried to get up, but the head rush and pins-and-needles pain she felt in her muscles was too much. “Give me ten minutes.”

Dispatch obeyed her request, and probably got back to her right at the ten-minute mark down to the second.

“Are you ambulatory?”

Daisy slowly sat up and took a deep breath. It still felt like someone had dropped a bowling ball on her head, but as long as she moved slowly she’d be fine. “Where am I going?”

“Exit through the rear of the tent and a teleporter will be waiting for you.” The line went dead, and she started to shuffle toward the exit.

Either no one cared about a patient trying to leave or people were too busy to notice. Either way, she made it out the back and came face to face with the last person she expected to see.

“Reaper.”

“Hunter,” she replied with a shrug to hide her surprise. “Figured you weren’t dead.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” She thought back to that day a few months ago. “They only found a few small body parts and not the body. I knew Wraith wouldn’t be able to take you down.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Now hold on tight.”

She could sense the smile in his voice as he grabbed her lightly by the shoulder and the both disappeared from the army field aid station. They reappeared in a dark, familiar room. She’d been here a few times before. One time she was on the other side of the barriers, and the other she was interrogating a prisoner. Either way, she knew the Protectorate’s holding cells intimately.

<Security in and out of here is still a joke.> She hoped someone eventually read her memo.

But that was beside the point. Hunter took her by the elbow and led her toward the only occupied cell.

“Here.” He handed her a full facemask. “I thought you’d want to see this.” His tone held hints of pride, and he clearly wanted to know what she thought.

The cells single occupant was a woman in all black. She had her knees pulled up to her chest and she was resting her forehead on them. A curtain of blonde hair hid everything else about the woman as Daisy and Hunter drew nearer.

“Reaper, Wraith. Wraith, Reaper.”

<Fuck me sideways and call my Uncle Billy.> She couldn’t stop the grin from splitting her face.

An enormous sense of satisfaction descended over her. It was how she always felt after every big bust. Getting sociopathic Supers like Wraith off the street was one of the highlights of being a Hero.

“The infamous, Wraith.” She walked right up to the barrier and tried to get a better look at the woman. “You had to have known we’d catch you eventually.”

“Really?” Wraith cackled back, lifting her head enough so that Daisy could see her face. “Did you really think you’d catch me eventually? I’ve stood closer to you on multiple occasions. How is Becca and your cop friend? Topher I believe his name was. ” She turned to regard Hunter. “You certainly didn’t know who I was when we met on Parent’s Weekend, Mr. Martin. I assume Angela made it through all of this without a scratch. So I’d say you should hop off your high horse and get down here in the mud like the rest of us.”

There was a half-crazed look on the face of the girl who Daisy had spoken to not too long ago on the very steps of the home where Kemps had been kidnapped.

“Liz?” For once, Daisy was at a loss for words.

“In the flesh.” The teenage villain lowered her head so her blonde locks obscured her face. “And to quote a personal Hero of mine. I would have gotten away with if not for that pesky asshole right there.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Hunter’s monotone cut through the mental freak out Daisy was having.

Wraith had been right under her nose all year long and she’d missed it. She’d missed it bigtime.

“There it is.” Wraith peaked up when Daisy didn’t say anything. “Let the guilt set in. If you had been more vigilant maybe things wouldn’t have gone down the way they did.” She shrugged at the what-if. “But I’ll guess you’ll have to live with soldier boy’s blood on your hands, and a few others.”

Daisy didn’t even realize she was shaking until Hunter placed his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t let her get to you. She’s pouting because she got caught.”

Wraith just shrugged in the cell. “Whatever. I’m sure we’ll talk more later. If you could have room service bring in my meal, I’d appreciate it. After all, humane treatment of prisoners is what you Heroes are all about, right?”

Daisy almost reached out and snapped the girl’s lifeline right then and there. Hunter must have sensed it too because he grabbed her tightly and started to half walk, half drag her out of the room.

“Talk to you soon, Teach. Keep your dog on a leash, Henry. We wouldn’t want her going over to the dark side.”

Now Hunter had to really drag Daisy from the room. Despite his size, that wasn’t an easy task against a kinetic energy absorber.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 97

It sounded like someone cracked a whip and banged a gong nearly instantaneously. There was no mistaking the cracking of the whip for anything but a gunshot, and it only took a moment to figure out what had the deep gong reverberating through Daisy’s eardrums.

“SNIPER!” Everyone reacted instantly, but not in the same way.

Matchbox spun in the direction the shot had come from and her fiery shield flashed into existence. Mr. Morningstar sprinted behind her for cover. She enlarged the shield slightly to cover the both of the them. ForceOps soldiers started to either dive behind cover or move toward the sound of the gunshot. Daisy heard distance, direction, and descriptions being called out.

Seraphim sprang into the air like a shoulder-launched missile to gain the high ground. Bullets weren’t a big deal to her, but any element of surprise the Hero strike team had was now gone. Seraphim would get eyes on the sniper and the two villains in the park with her increased elevation.

Daisy and Iron Giant just kind of stood there assessing the situation. There was no need for them to jump behind cover, they were bulletproof, and there was little Iron Giant could do to get to the enemy before ForceOps teleporters like Colonel Ford.

But Daisy could do something.

She opened her sixth sense and extended her reach in the direction the soldiers had identified the shooter. Three lifelines popped into her mind’s eye as she focused in on the school rooftop.

“Colonel, do you have men on that roof!” She pointed toward the school in the background.

The colonel was busy shouting orders, so he didn’t hear her. In the time it took her to run from her position to the colonel’s one of the lifelines was snuffed out. She examined the two remaining lifelines. One was strong and firm, probably a strongman or someone else with enhanced durability. The other was slippery and elusive. It seemed to flicker in and out like a two-year-old flipping a light switch for the first time.

There was something oddly familiar about the slippery thread, but she didn’t have to think about it. The strongman’s thread disappeared from her mind’s eye and reappeared directly in front of her in an inky blast of shadow. The man was struggling with his belt like he had ants in his pants. There was also a big hole in his camouflage blouse. His face looked like he’d been stung by a bunch of bees, but that was nothing compared to the black and blue bruise she could see flowering across his chest.

“Get back! Grenade!” The strongman quickly got his vest off. He wasn’t going for his belt after all. He pulled a blinking canister from the small of his back, and dived away from Daisy and the soldiers; shielding them with his body.

Daisy did some of her own jumping to get out of the blast radius.

The explosion was louder and more forceful that she’d expected. She’d barely put any distance between her and the strongman, so she ended up riding the wave of explosive force as it blasted her back about ten feet. She stopped the shrapnel dead against her skin, but that didn’t do anything to dissipate the heat.

“Son of a bitch!” She roared, flailing her arms and shaking her body to dislodge the flaming bits of metal burning her skin.

“Medic!” someone called through the smoke that always followed an explosion.

“Squad leaders, accountability check.” Colonel Ford’s voice rose above them all.

“First squad sound off!”

“Second squad sound off!”

The two dozen ForceOps soldiers began to call out names and gather the information their commander required, but Daisy turned her attention back to her sixth sense. She reached again for the rooftop where only one life thread remained.

<Gotcha, Wraith.> There was no mistaking the darkness blast for anything but the notorious teleporter.

She reached for the life thread. It flickered as her fingers tried to grab it, so she drew back and tried again. Just as her fingertips brushed the edges of the slick thread it vanished.

<What the fuck!> Daisy spun around like it would help her find it, but it was gone. There was nothing but a void where Wraith used to be.

“Seraphim, report!” Daisy’s agitation leaked into her tone.

“I’m circling. Primary targets appear to be remaining in place within the park. They even are laughing and pointing over at the sound of the explosion.”

Daisy had to suppress a growl.

“Confirmed two secondary targets on the school rooftop.”

<Two?> Daisy reached out and still felt nothing occupying the space.

“One looks to be clad in black. Based on the darkness explosion we can confirm she’s Wraith.”

Daisy knew Seraphim had to be physically holding back to keep herself from diving onto that rooftop and ripping the villain’s head off.

“Second looks to be male, dressed in olive fatigues, equipped with a sniper rifle, and a sword that I can see. He looks like he’s the sniper.”

<Olive fatigues, sword, empty void where my powers can usually detect people.> It felt like a stone fell a couple of stories and into the pit of her stomach.

“All units be advised, Wraith and Armsman are on the building roof to our East.”

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Could you please repeat that?”

It was the closest thing to surprise Daisy had ever heard from the mysterious Hero communicator.

“On the rooftop to our East we can positively confirm Wraith, and based on Seraphim’s observations, and my sense of that area, I’m telling you that Armsman crawled out of whatever hole he’s been hiding in to be here today.”

“And he’s working with Wraith…?” Iron Giant chimed in.

“Which means the guy in the park with Seif al-Din has to be Hellgate. Believe me now, guys!” The last was a blatant “I told you so” that fell somewhere between a triumphant yell and a melancholy comprehension.

“I am advising DVA headquarters of this development.” Dispatch spoke first. “Be advised the situation at Lander is still not contained. Backup will be delayed.”

“For fuck’s sake. What the hell is so important in California that we’re not going to get Titan or some other heavy hitter out here and help us take down on of the most dangerous terrorists in the world?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Dispatch understood that because she remained silent.

“That’s why we’re here, Reaper.” Colonel Ford answered instead. “I’m two men down, but we’re here to get the job done. We’ve been after this asshole for over a decade. This ends today.”

Daisy liked the enthusiasm, but there were problems to his motivational game plan. Namely, they were still facing off against Seif al-Din and they’d lost the element of surprise. The way the notorious terrorist was just sitting there and waiting for them to make the first move told her that he had a plan to deal with them.

“Wraith and Armsman are gone.” Seraphim reported in abruptly. “They just teleported away.”

“Ok.” Iron Giant stepped back into his role as team leader now that they’d thoroughly lost the first round of the exchange. “Seraphim coordinate with Colonel Ford on locating Wraith and Armsman. Colonel, get another strike team ready to teleport in and engage them.”

The Colonel nodded. If he was upset about not going after Seif al-Din he didn’t show it.

“Your people need to know not to fuck with these two.”

Daisy was surprised to hear that four-letter word come out of John’s mouth, but that just told her how far up shit’s creek this whole thing could go if they weren’t careful.

“Any power-based attack is going to be useless against Armsman. You need to concentrate on secondary effects and weapons. I don’t suggest getting into a hand to hand fight with him. He’s got to be sixty or seventy years old now, but he will gut you like a fish if you get close enough. You’re going to have to move fast. Any sign of trouble and Wraith is going to get them out of there.”

“This isn’t my first day, Iron Giant.” Ford snapped back, his emotions still raw from losing people. “I know how to assess a threat and determine an appropriate battleplan.

“If you can, separate Wraith from Armsman and I’ll take her down.” Daisy added her own two cents.

Ford just nodded, already calling out orders to a few of his soldiers to be ready to move on his word.

“And us?” Matchbox walked over. Her eyes still scanned the rooftops looking for threats.

“We check on Galavant and then we get to work. Same plan.” Iron Giant smashed his fist together. It sounded like some medieval battle-chant of metal against metal.

“Our youngest member is still alive.” Mr. Morningstar entered the conversation. The old Hero looked a little frazzled. He’d done a lot of good work over his career, but today was just out of his league. “He’s got a head injury, but the ForceOps medics are looking him over. I’m afraid he won’t be much use to us now though.”

Daisy was relieved the young hero was ok, but she didn’t let it distract her from what was about to happen.

<Now it’s our turn.> The four Heroes set off at a run for the park and the enemies waiting for them.

 

***

 

“Can you please just toss the meat-sack off the roof. I’m not some psycho bitch. I don’t want my uniform covered in blood.” Lilly prodded the dead wannabe journalist with her toe.

“You’ll have to help. We’re still within a half mile of Reaper. We need to stay together.” Armsman proved his point by pulling plastic flex-cuffs from the belt of his fatigues and zip-tying their hands together.

“What the fuck!” Lilly could count over a dozen reasons off the top of her head why this was a bad tactical decision.

“I’m keeping you alive. Your father and I had to do this all the time back when she was active.” His tone left no room for argument. “Reaper was a ruthless hero, Wraith.” He looked Lilly right in the eyes. There was a hint of concern from the old supervillain. “She will rip you apart from the inside out if you give her the chance.”

“Ok…ok,” Lilly held up her hand, the attached one, in surrender. “Let’s get this corpse out of here so we have a decent firing position.

Together they rolled the dead man off the roof of the one-story suburban house. The house was on the opposite side of the park from the high school, which put the maximum distance between their old and new position, while still giving them a line of sight to her father and the man paying them. They were standing under a wooden pavilion calmly talking and waiting for the Heroes to make their move.

Armsman got down into a prone firing position, which yanked Lilly down with him. They both quickly realized the flex-cuff wasn’t going to work with their hands strapped together, so they switched to their ankles.

With Armsman in the prone, staring down the barrel of his fifty-caliber sniper rifle, and Lilly up on one knee they were ready. All they had to do was wait.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Within a few minutes four Heroes came charging into the far side of the park.

<I guess Uncle Curtis put down the human can-opener.> She thought when she didn’t see the armored Hero with them. <One less person to worry about.>

As Armsman lined up his first shot, focusing on the fire girl, Lilly thought about her secret bunker and what she’d set aside on her ready table. With a thought, and a small puff of shadow, the RPG appeared in her waiting hands. She was locked, cocked, and ready to rock.

“On your mark,” she told Armsman.

The man didn’t say anything. He just concentrated on the group of Heroes and fired.

Lilly felt the shot just as much as she heard it, and she unleashed her own hell on the Heroes. There were a few hundred yards between her and them, so she fired where she thought they would be. Then she thought about ammunition. More RPG rounds appeared in a rolling wave of darkness, and she fired as many of them as possible. By the time her first round reached the vicinity of the Heroes three more were on the way.

They exploded in blinding, fascinating fireball, and she couldn’t stop from giggling at the sight.

Their job wasn’t to kill the Heroes, although that was always encouraged. Their primary mission was to distract them so they didn’t notice the true danger until it was too late.

“Fucking trees.” Armsman cursed from beside her. “I’m barely getting any shots, and even these heavy slugs won’t penetrate the fire woman’s shield.

“Oh well,” Lilly shrugged. “Worth a try.” That was about the time she noticed the shadow descending on them.

“Hold on.” She teleported herself and Armsman off the roof a few seconds before Seraphim’s armored bulk smashed into their position and through the roof.

They appeared on the lawn just beside the house whose roof Seraphim had just caved in.

<Wow she really likes to make an entrance and crush shit.> Lilly thought as she unslung her rifle and got ready to either shoot or run.

Adrenaline raged in her body as the fight or flight instinct kicked in. She mentally overrode the flight instinct she felt at the sight of the demon-woman.

“WRAAAAAAAITH!” Seraphim popped back up through the hole in the roof, and Lilly shot her right in the chest.

The electromagnetic round swatted Seraphim from the sky and into the neighboring house.

<Damn!> Lilly had dialed up the power settings on the rifle after it didn’t take down the first strongman. She’d just drained half the battery, but it was worth it to see the flying bitch literally get knocked off her high horse. <I don’t know why I was ever scared of her.> She smirked behind her mask, before grabbing Armsman by the shoulder and teleporting to another location.

 

***

 

<What the fuck was that?> Seraphim grunted as she flopped out of the ruins of suburban home that the DVA was going to have to pay to fix.

She flexed her arms and legs. Everything seemed to be moving just fine. She also patted herself down for blood…nothing. The problem came when she tried to take a deep breath. Pain lanced through her stomach and chest so powerful she had the bite down on her tongue to stop from screaming.

She’d felt this injury before, but that didn’t mean she was used to it. People were very rarely able to hit the renowned Seraphim hard enough to break one of her ribs.

“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the part. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patchup on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.”

Just as she cut the comm line the ForceOps colonel popped into existence in the neighbor’s front lawn with two other Super soldiers. The three soldiers hurried over to her and made a small perimeter.

“Wraith did this?” The Colonel raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the damage to the two houses.

“Our brief fight did.” Seraphim winced as another soldier started to look at her ribs.

“I can numb the pain and get you back in the fight, but healing the bone will take me at least a half-hour.” The medic shook his head.

Seraphim couldn’t keep the look of irritation off her face. Part of it was struggling to breath without stabbing pain, but the rest was not working with the top caliber healers she was used to as a Hero.

<You do the best with what you can?> Henry had always said.

The thought opened up a different kind of wound and she shut down that line of thought before she did any more damage.

“Get me back in this.” She urged the medic to get to work.

The other soldier stood guard while the Colonel walked slowly around the two houses. He stopped at a spot on the opposite lawn. “Wraith was here.” He stomped his foot on a spot. “I can feel the tingle I get near another teleporter’s nexus.”

Seraphim knew all about the tear in reality teleports made when they moved from one place to another nearly instantaneously. Her former husband had been able to tap into those nexuses and follow his prey. Thus, the name Hunter.

Judging by the Colonel’s continued presence he didn’t seem to have the same gift or level of training.

“You’re good to go. That’s the best I can do.” The medic pulled away from Seraphim and she tested her body.

Deep breaths no longer hurt, but she still didn’t have full range of motion, and there was a persistent numbness around her injury that threw everything off.

<I’ve got to deal with it.> She thought as she bent her legs and shot into the air.

Her powerful leap took her a dozen feet high and her wings did the rest. When this was all over her shift back to human form would reset the injury like starting over in a video game. She’d be as good as new, but she didn’t dare take the chance doing that now. Too many people were getting shot at to risk it.

“Come out come out wherever you are.” She whispered to herself as she circled the battlefield when a sudden explosion shattered the momentary peace after the barrage of RPGs.

<I’m going to kill you, you stupid bitch.> It was the last time Seraphim was going to let Wraith make a fool out of her.

 

***

 

<What is this, fucking Apocalypse Now?!> Daisy ran through the trees as fire erupted all around her.

Her perception was dialed up to the max, so the RPGs seemed to be bearing down on Heroes in slow motion. All they needed was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the imagery would be complete.

Matchbox jerked as a rifle round smacked into her shield just as they heard the boom of the sniper. The younger Hero stumbled, and Mr. Morningstar fell back with her looking completely out of place and useless in his tuxedo.

Daisy strained to find the source of the RPG barrage, but all she felt was void in the direction they were coming from. <Come on, Tom. Do your fucking job!> She growled as she was showered with dirt, splinters, and flaming shrapnel, but she kept on going.

She didn’t have a mirror, but her clothes had to be in tatters, and she knew she was sporting several burns like some teenager with a bad case of acne. But none of that mattered. She could see the targets lounging under in a wooden pavilion acting like someone wasn’t lighting up the park with explosives. Their nonchalant expressions made her want to hurt them even more.

Then the explosions suddenly stopped. There was a muffled scream from far away and then silence. Daisy almost stopped to see what was happening, but that would only give their targets more time to react.

“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the park. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patch on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.” Seraphim’s strained voice came over the communications net. Whatever happened didn’t go the airborne Super’s way.

<Let them concentrate on Wraith and Armsman. You need to deal with the real bad guy.> If she’d told herself forty years ago, that she was going to refer to Armsman as “not the real bad guy” she would have kicked her own ass. But time and perspective changed everything.

“Matchbox, Mr. Morningstar, fall back. Let me and Iron Giant take the first crack at them. You step in if you’ve got a shot,” she ordered.

The order saved both of those Heroes’ lives.

Daisy and Iron Giant charged Seif al-Din and Hellgate’s position alone. Their feet thundered across the tree-filled park with Iron Giant’s massive metallic frame about twenty yards ahead of her. She was going to peel off and hit them on the flank while Iron Giant hit them head first, but they never got that far.

<It was all a diversion.> It was her last thought concerning the RPG attack before the world exploded around her.

Before they’d arrived the terrorist with his supervillain ally had planted a field of landmines around their position. Iron Giant must have stepped on one of them because she saw the big guy get blasted into the air. But it didn’t stop there.

The mines were daisy-chained together. If one went off they all went off. Daisy put all her effort into manipulating her kinetic absorption, channeling decades of skill, into surviving the earth itself giving a mighty heave.

Fire, pain, dirt, smoke, shrapnel; she was assaulted by them all as she was picked up and thrown into the air by the surprise attack.

For a split second, she wondered what would have happened on that Memorial Day back in seventy-two. If the parade had never been attacked, then her father never would have used the technique for surfing a shockwave that he’d been perfecting. If he’d never perfected it, he never would have taught it to his daughter. If Daisy had never learned it, and instead tried to absorb the full force of an explosion, she probably would have died a long time ago.

<It’s funny how shit seems to happen for a reason.> The idle thought passed through her mind as she soared through the air with her limbs flailing like one of those annoying inflatable balloon men car dealerships and tax centers seemed to have a hard-on for.

The technique wasn’t flawless though, and she couldn’t do anything about the fire. Next thing Daisy knew, she was waking up on the ground. She’d blacked out for a second. Everything hurt, and her kinetic absorption ability had a weird sensation to it that she’d only felt a few times in her life. She felt like a water balloon filled to the brim, and straining to hold together.

She was full, and likely hadn’t been able to absorb the full force of falling from whatever height she’d been at; which explained the aches and pains.

She looked around frantically, but Iron Giant was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, she saw two of the worst men in the world walking in her direction.

“Dispatch?” There was no reply.

Daisy moved her hand to her ear and felt the slickness of blood, but no earpiece. The men continued to get closer, so she struggled to get to her feet. Vertigo hit her immediately and she reached to the nearest tree for support.

<Fuck!> Her hand came down hard on giant splinters. The top seventy percent of the tree had been sheared off by the explosion, leaving nothing left but a jagged corpse to stab her with.

Her vision wavered like she was looking at a mirage despite her best efforts to focus.

The men stopped about thirty feet away from her, but she could still feel their smug smiles.

“You look like shit, Reaper.” Hellgate spoke with the same confidence he had decades ago. “But you’re still a lot prettier than I expected.”

Instinctually, Daisy reached up to touch her face. Pain traveled across her features as she felt burned skin and a decent amount of blood. She didn’t panic though, head wounds tended to bleed a lot even if they were minor. What did send her into full on panic mode was that the left half of her mask had been burned off. It had saved her eye from being a burned crisp, but it was giving the two evil men a decent side profile of her real face.

“Go stick your dick in a blender, Hellgate.” She spat back, literally spitting out a glob of blood in the process.

The laugh that came out of Seif al-Din’s throat was charming to the point Daisy would have sat down and had a drink with the man if she didn’t know he was one of the worst Super’s living on the planet Earth today.

“Our banter was short-lived, Reaper, but I’ve always heard you had an interesting sense of humor.” The terrorists voice was intriguing and cultured, nothing like the evil that was in his heart and soul.

“Hellgate, better yet, why don’t you just shove your dick down his throat. You’d get a kick out of it and it would shut him the hell up.” Daisy tried to stand without the assistance of the murdered tree, but it wasn’t happening.

“Ah, hahaha. Playing on the homophobia of my people. Clever, Reaper. Very clever.” Seif al-Din continued like she hadn’t even spoken. “However clever you seem to think you are it will not save you from certain death.” The sophistication of his slightly accented voice dropped an octave into the truly sinister. “I told you we would meet again. You decided to skip our fun in New York, and your team payed the penalty for it. Now it is just you and I. The famous, Reaper and infamous Seif al-Din. The only regret I have is that the world will not see you fall.” He sighed a bit dramatically.

“Today, the last obstacle to my power will be removed. My last true challenger will be vanquished.”

His smile made her want to puke.

“Any last words?” He started to advance toward her.

“Yeah,” she saw the glint of metal behind him. “Blow me, asshole.”

Iron Giant hit Seif al-Din with a flying tackle that careened both of them into the graveyard of fallen tree limbs. Hellgate’s head snapped toward the terrorist, who’d turned into a human bullet, with Iron Giant acting as the propellant, and Daisy took advantage of his lapse in focus.

She reached out with her power, fighting the wave of nausea and pain threatening to overwhelm her, and grabbed Hellgate’s life-thread.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 96

“It was horrible…so much blood,” Liz sobbed as her mind worked furiously for a solution to her problem.

<Cops, heroes, and Seth. This whole thing is going to turn into a shit-show if someone farts at the wrong moment.> Her stomach gurgled from the anxiety, and she used it to improve her performance.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You’ve gone through a traumatic experience, young lady. Everything is going to be ok. You are safe and no one if going to hurt you.” The cop taking her statement looked like he was a father, and the sympathy on his face was clear.

<Works for me.> Liz buried her face in Seth’s chest and was able to cut back on the waterworks.

His strong chest was strangely comforting even though she wasn’t upset in the slightest about what had happened inside townhouse 117. It just felt good to be this close to him.

Then an army guy showed up out of nowhere. He started talking with the Hero Liz was pretty sure was the blonde bombshell that had been having coffee with the cop back at Sprout, and had foiled her father’s attempt to grab Anika last year.

<Fucking ForceOps is in on this too. They’ve got a real hard-on for this bad guy.> And she wasn’t referring to herself.

“Abney when you get finished get back to the gym. We’re pulling in all the students.” The Hero spun back around midway through leaving with the army officer. “No, your girlfriend can’t come. Have her head over to the dining hall and shelter in place with everyone else.”

<Fine by me.> Despite wanting to stick with Seth, Liz needed to get out of there and back to the action. Her job wasn’t done yet.

Grabbing Anika was the biggest part of her job, but it was just phase one. Her next mission was to harass the enemy and distract them for long enough that Seif al-din could fuck a few people up and get away. Then he’d grab his daughter and go. After that, Liz could get back to her life. A life with Seth in it.

“I don’t want…”

“It’s ok.” Liz cut off Seth’s retort as she rubbed the last tears out of her puffy red eyes. “I know you need to do this. I’ll see you when it’s all over. Stay safe.” She planted a big kiss on his lips that promised much more later.

“You’re the best woman in the world.”

“I love you too.” Liz let a small smile creep onto her face.

The Hero and army guy vanished, Seth took off for the HCP’s hidden entrance in the dining hall, and she was left with the paternal cop who insisted he give her a ride to the student center.

“Thanks so much officer, but you don’t need to.” She politely refused him. “It’s right there. I’m sure there are other things you can be doing with everything that’s happening.”

He gave her an apprehensive look but then nodded. “Go right there and shelter in place,” were his departing words as he hopped back in his cruiser and sped off with his lights and siren blaring.

Liz walked in the direction of the student center until she was sure he was out of sight. Then she detoured into the alleyway and pulled out her phone.

“Nano.”

The teenage technopath picked up on the first ring.

“It’s me.” She made sure her voice conveyed the importance of the situation. “Are you ready?”

“Yep, I’m in. I just need the finalized location?” He replied.

“The dining hall.” She looked down at her watch to see how much time had passed. She didn’t want to be on the phone any longer than was absolutely necessary. The government had to be listening in on everything right about now.

“Gotcha, we’re good. And…” He stopped just short of saying her name. “We’re even now, right?”

He was referring to the loan she’d given him after the diamond heist. A loan she’d agreed to forgive for this business deal.

“We’re square, big guy. I’ll be gone for a bit, but I’ll talk to you when I can.” She didn’t say goodbye, she just hung up.

She’d come up with a plan to give her plausible deniability during the shit-storm that had descend on Orlando. Despite being a teleporter, she couldn’t be two places at once, and right now she had to be out kicking ass. What she needed to make everything work was to have something showing that while Wraith was out being a badass, Liz Aretino was where she was supposed to be.

Having a technopath in her back pocket really helped. Mika would hack into the school’s surveillance systems and create an electronic trail of Liz’s movements through the entirety of the city’s siege. Its brilliance was its simplicity. When all the dust settled, she could look and say, “Yeah, I was in the dining hall like I was supposed to be. Look at the video.”

She doubted they’d dig that far, because there was going to be so much cleaning up to do that one college girl’s whereabouts wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s list. Still, the hacked video would prove she wasn’t Wraith, and then she could run away with Seth for the summer. Hopefully, things would blow over a little in three months and then they could get back to the business of being together without the guillotine that was her mission looming over her head.

<That would be fucking awesome.> She thought with a smile as she stowed her phone and disappeared in a flash of shadow.

She reappeared across the country in her underground bunker.

“And the crowd goes wild with that stellar performance.” She made crowd noises and waved to the imaginary crowd who was applauding her Oscar-worthy rendition of the scared and frightened school girl.

“I’d like to thank God, because without him nothing is possible. Then there’s my dad for teaching me to be such a bad ass, Uncle Curtis I haven’t forgotten you, and of course Seth for his endless support and encouragement.” She gave an impromptu acceptance speech as she pulled on all of her Wraith gear. “But most importantly, I’d like to send a message to all the young girls out there. When life’s got you down, or you feel like the man is sticking it to you; just kick him in the balls and tell him to go fuck himself sideways.” She finished as she pulled on her grinning volto mask and gave one last wave to the imaginary crowd. “That’s all the time I’ve got. Now let’s go fuck shit up.”

She grabbed the electromagnetic rifle from the table and vanished in another blast of black.

The stillness of her underground lair was replaced by the shouts of people gathering and an endless wailing of sirens. She kept low as she stalked around looking for a position that provided decent cover and concealment. The place she found was already occupied.

“Shit, Wraith. I almost shot you.” Armsman clutched his heart like he was having a heart attack.

“You’re not that sloppy.” Liz grinned at her Uncle behind her mask and settled in next to him. “What’s the situation?”

“The cops, ForceOps, and Heroes have an assembly area a few hundred yards from here. Hellgate and Seif al-Din are luring them into Wadeview Park. Once they’ve got them where they want them they’ll engage and execute a fighting retreat to the East toward Dixie Bell. Damascus is still out there wreaking havoc, and the hope is that once it’s clear we’re falling back the Heroes will divert some of their strength to finding and stopping him.”

“So we shoot and move.” Liz knew their job was pretty straightforward.

“Yeah, and you’re the secondary teleporter if your father dies. You’ll grab al-Din and get him to safety and his daughter.”

The thought of her father dying today stopped Liz cold. She’d never even considered the possibility…ever. Her father had been a supervillain for decades. He was of the most wanted men in the country, and he’d convinced most of law enforcement he was dead. Those he hadn’t convinced, were in a political fight for resources against the people who did believe he was dead and buried. Him and Uncle Curtis had even gone up against Captain Starlight and got away. They’d nearly killed the President of the United States. He’d taught her everything she knew. There was no way her was going to bite the bullet on a mercenary job in Orlando, Florida. Even if they were getting a seven-figure payday out of it.

“Yeah, no chance in hell that’s happening.”

“Damn straight,” Armsman nodded his agreement. “Anything happens to your Dad we’re getting the hell out of here. We ain’t dying for their cause. They can take a dick for all I care.”

It wasn’t quite what she meant, but she appreciated the old supervillain’s fervent devotion to her and her father over the terrorists. In the days to come she doubted anyone else would make the distinction between them.

She resisted the urge to pop her head up and get a quick look of the assembly area. That would just give away their position. Instead, she accepted the binoculars that Armsman handed her. She pressed them to her eyes and got a pretty good view of the Heroes through the miniature cameras he’d seeded the area with before the Heroes arrived.

It had always been their plan to lure the good guys to this area. It was away from downtown, and away from the HCP, so she could do her part of the job, and the nice middleclass neighborhood in the surrounding areas would give them cover as they fell back to the next prepared position. Nothing was a bigger deterrent to Heroes than innocent civilians, and they’d capitalize on that.

She focused in on the Heroes she recognized from her research. The blonde was there looking at the park with a mix of disdain and trepidation. A giant metal guy, Iron Giant, who’d busted in to Sprout and saved the day, was there too. She also recognized the tuxedo guy as Mr. Morningstar, the leader of the Protectorate. The guy in the armor was Galavant, and the girl with the fire shield was Matchbox.

<Five against two…well four.> She grinned.

There were a number of uniformed ForceOps soldiers present, so the numbers were solidly in the Heroes favor, but this was Seif al-Din. Liz knew they’d be seeing if all the rumors about him were true or not very soon.

“Targets?” She asked. To seniority went the ability to choose who you wanted to shoot first.

“Don’t bother with Iron Giant. Nothing we have will even tickle him. It might just be my old mind playing tricks on me, but the blonde might be Reaper.”

<Reaper!> Liz had heard the name mentioned in whispers. People were a lot more afraid of her than Seraphim. <And she put her hand on my shoulder and still didn’t figure me out.> Liz was never in need of an ego boost, but that thought sure as hell gave her one.

“Don’t bother with her either, but stay close to me.” Armsman moved over and touched his shoe to hers. “This way she won’t be able to kill you.”

“What about Dad?”

Armsman just shrugged, either not knowing the answer or not wanting to say anything.

“I’ll take fire girl and tuxedo man. That thing you’re packing looks like it’ll deliver more punch than mine, so you take the armored guys and…”

As if on cue, Seraphim dropped from the sky and landed heavily next to the other five Heroes. Their location kept them hidden from her overhead approach, but Liz still held her breath for a solid fifteen seconds to see if the flying demon would start charging in their direction.

“That bitch is mine.” There was no room for argument in her statement.

Armsman just shrugged before chuckling slightly to himself.

“What?”

“Did I ever tell you about the time me and your father did that currency transfer job back in the 90s.”

Liz settled in to wait for the action to start while getting juicy details of what her dad was like before she was born. It was a win-win.

 

***

 

“What’s the plan?” Seraphim didn’t waste any time in getting straight to the point.

That seriously annoyed Daisy, even if she was the same way.

There were a lot of chiefs and not a lot of Indians in the small strike team that had been assembled to take on the most wanted terrorist in the world. So just figuring out who would be in-charge took a minute. Supers might have superpowers, but they were still human…sort of, and they all had egos.

Daisy wanted to be in-charge. She’d faced Seif al-Din before, although no one but John and Colonel Ford knew it. She also had the best chance of taking him down for good, but even trying that was risky.

Seif al-Din was an adaptive healer not that dissimilar in most ways from Titan. But al-Din’s ability manifested in a shifted form. So when someone punched him and broke his bones, the terrorist healed those bones stronger than before. The same was true of his skin when he was cut, his muscles when they tore from overuse, and his brain when the Saudi government tried to kill him with an aneurism. An idea they got from the DVA. Everything that hurt the evil man just made him stronger.

So there was no capturing the man. There was only killing him, which was where Daisy came in. And there began the dilemma.

Healers had a natural resistance to her reaping ability. They could hold out longer and fight back more than anyone else. They’d eventually succumb, just like everyone else, but it wouldn’t happen quickly, and that was just with a normal healer. Seif al-Din, and his particular ability, put him in the top tier of the top tier of healers. As far as Daisy knew she was the only Super in the US, maybe even the world, who had a chance of taking down the terrorist.

<What if he gets away before I finish him off? What if my power doesn’t work? What if it does, but he gets away and adapts against it?> Those were the questions running through her head.

Ultimately, it wasn’t her call.

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Are you prepared to receive your briefing on force usage?”

“As ready as I am every time you tell me the same information.” The tension in the air was hitting Daisy’s bitch-reflex.

Dispatch didn’t respond to her jab, the emotionless voice just started in on the very technical language of what the temporary Hero could and couldn’t do. The gist of it was simple, everything up to Daisy’s reaping was on the table, but she needed special authorization to kill. That was how it had always been, and she didn’t see any problem with that.

<So if this doesn’t work it’s not my fault.> The thought didn’t help, and it wouldn’t ease any guilt if innocent people died and she could have done something about it.

“The plan is to form a perimeter and keep Seif al-Din contained.” Iron giant started to explain.

As the strongest person present and the one least likely to get taken out, the big metal man made a good choice to be the tactical leader. His decades of experience, and current position as the HCP dean also gave him superiority in the minds of their DVA handlers, and they signed off on it. Mr. Morningstar wasn’t too happy since he was the local team leader, but everyone knew he would be largely useless in the fight to come.

“Galavant and Mr. Morningstar will hold the perimeter. I will go in for close combat against him along with Reaper.” John gestured at Daisy as she walked back into the group. “Seraphim attack from the air, but be careful. He’s far stronger than you. Matchbox, same goes for you. Hold the middle ground between Reaper, me, and the perimeter. If you see an opening, take it. Use your speed, but don’t take any risks. Even a glancing blow from him will kill you.”

“And the guy he’s with? It looks an awful lot like Hellgate if you ask me,” Daisy stated in an “I told you so” tone.

The DVA had put her report of Hellgate at Sprout on the backburner when everything went to shit in Orlando, and now it was coming back to bite them in the ass.

“That’s still unconfirmed,” John replied diplomatically. “But if the second subject does reveal themselves to be a teleporter with fire powers then Matchbox will shift her concentration to him with Galavant as assistance. Your gear is fireproof, right?”

“Fire resistant, but I’ll be fine.” Galavant replied, practically vibrating with rookie excitement.

“Don’t get barbequed, Galavant.” Daisy stepped in as the veteran. “Take it slow and easy. Back up Matchbox. Her speed and fire resistance are the best counter to Hellgate we have.”

The junior Hero nodded her appreciation, but she was in the zone and focused on the park.

“Any questions?” John sounded uncharacteristically nervous, and that didn’t sit well with Daisy.

<We’ve got ForceOps backup, but none of them are in the same weight class as any of us. Ford will move people around, but that still leaves us vulnerable. We’re not bringing enough people to this fight.> Daisy concluded, but it didn’t matter.

They had to do the job with what they had available, and whatever was happening at Lander meant they didn’t have much. What reinforcements they were able to get were hunting the RPG teams and other terrorist Supers rampaging around Orlando.

But this was all part of being a Hero. You did your best with what you had, you did the job, or you died trying. She’d seen a lot of people go out with a bang, and if today was her day then she’d go supernova on the jihadist’s ass.

“Ok, let’s go.”

The group didn’t put their hands in and do a last-minute cheer. They weren’t a high school football team. But they did give each other nods as they broke up and moved away.

And that’s when Galavant got shot in the head.

 

 

***

 

“Wait for them to make the first move,” Armsman whispered.

Liz rolled her eyes, taking her attention off the binoculars for a second. “This isn’t my first time.”

“And this is about my five-hundredth time.” Armsman snapped back, pulling his attention away from his scope. “So listen to me, kid.”

Liz didn’t like being called a kid, but she conceded the point. Armsman was a pro at this.

Seraphim had shown up a few minutes ago, and was talking with the other Heroes. Iron Giant was making tactical gestures with his hand, which gave her and Armsman an idea of what they were doing.

“Hellgate, this is Wraith.” All she heard was sizzling static.

“ForceOps is jamming all frequencies.” Armsman had settled back into his prone shooting stance. “We’ve only got line of sight to work with now.”

<That sucks.> Liz sighed, and went back to watching the binoculars.

Unlike her Uncle, she would have to pop up over the edge of the roof to fire at the Heroes. He’d secured the only firing position with a line of sight to the assembly area while still remaining concealed.

“Why don’t they have their own snipers in position? This is a pretty sweet spot,” she wondered out loud.

“They’re getting there.” Armsman replied. “But they’re focusing on fields of fire into the park, not their assembly area.” He directed her attention to some trees and other nearby buildings where she could make out barrels pointed toward the park.

<I can’t believe I missed that.>

“Still,” she felt far less secure on the school’s roof then before. “This is still a great spot.”

“I’m sure they’ll be here any minute.” He replied as his breathing slowed and he focused on his target.

“Then what the fuck are we still doing here?” She hissed back, reorienting her rifle toward the roof access door across about thirty feet from them.

“We’re here to initiate the ambush. If anyone comes through that door deal with them. Then we relocate to our secondary position.” He slid a picture across the gravel for her to look at.

She looked back through the binoculars and saw the Hero group begin to break up.

“Almost there.” Armsman spoke to no one in particular. “Almost there.”

Then, at the worst possible moment, Liz heard the click of the roof door being unlocked. <You’ve got to be shitting me!>

She dropped the binoculars and brought the rifle up to her shoulder just as the two ForceOps soldiers walked out onto the roof. Armsman’s rifle went off with a thundering BOOM. Fifty caliber rifles weren’t exactly quiet, and that caused the two soldiers’ heads to snap in their direction.

But it was already too late for them.

Liz fired a quick shot into the nearest one’s center of mass. The first soldier stumbled back as the electromagnetically propelled round hammered into his gut.

<A fucking strongman!> Liz screamed internally, as she fired a round into the second target.

That result was much more satisfying.

The soldier’s chest exploded in a jamboree of blood, bone, muscle, and pulverized internal organs. A cloud of pink mist wafted away from the man as he fell to the ground already dead.

But there wasn’t any time to celebrate. The strongman was recovering and he was pissed.

<I would be too if I just watched my buddy get turned into a donut.> she was already on her feet and charging the bent over man.

She dropped the rifle and drew her Glock. She fired rapidly, pulling the trigger, and tracking shots up his legs, all over his chest, and finally into his face. The smaller rounds didn’t pack half the punch of her rifle, but it was enough to annoy the shit out of the guy. He swatted at the cascade of bullets smacking into his face like an angry hive of bees.

While he was distracted, Liz grabbed a grenade with her other hand, and thanked god it had an electronic detonator and wasn’t one you had to pull the pin on. Any movie that showed a person pulling the pin out with their teeth was a load of horseshit. Those things were rammed in them like a motherfucker, and pulling them was a two-handed job. Two hands were something Liz didn’t have the luxury of at the moment.

She flipped up the protective barrier, so she didn’t blow herself up by accident, and hit the ominous red button. The grenade beeped its destructive acknowledgement, and she knew she had three seconds before things went boom boom.

<Sixteen.> She counted as the last bullet exited the barrel.

The soldier was still on his feet, and the look he gave her was pure murder, so it was a good thing the explosion of sense-depriving blackness robbed him of his sight. Liz appeared behind him before he even knew what was happening, shoved the grenade in the small of his back between him and the tactical vest he was wearing, and then she teleported him back down into the assembly area. Lastly, she teleported back over to Armsman, who hastily grabbed her hand.

“Don’t leave my side again, understand!” He had to yell over the ensuing explosion the rumbled through the building’s foundation.

The grenade she’d chosen was some military-grade shit that was designed to take down strongmen. So if the soldier wasn’t dead, he was going to need some intense healing if he ever wanted to take an unassisted piss again.

“Geez,” she shot back. Peeking over the roof a second before bullets started to chew away at the concrete.

They’d figured out their position and were doing their best to turn it to rubble. They’d start using more than guns in a second, but that wasn’t the worst thing.

“You missed!” She half-screamed, half-laughed in Armsman’s face as she remembered the quick peek she’d gotten of the assembly area.

“Hey!”

She couldn’t tell but she was sure the veteran was blushing.

“The flame girl stopped and turned just as I pulled the trigger. There was no way to compensate.”

“HAHA. You still missed.” She didn’t bother keeping it down as louder booms started to echo up from below and larger chunks of the roof began to fall away.

It sounded like ForceOps was bringing their own fifty-cal to the party. <Took them long enough.>

“I hit the armored guy in the head.” Armsman defended his marksmanship. “And if you haven’t noticed he hasn’t gotten back up yet.”

Galavant was still lying face down in the dirt, but that wasn’t the point. “A miss is still a miss.” She tightened her grip on the older man. “If you miss again you’re buying me beer for a year.”

This wasn’t the time for banter, but she just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bust the legendary villain’s balls.

“Fine, deal.” Armsman relented.

She couldn’t hear him exhale over the roar of returned fire, but that all died away as they teleported to their next sniper’s nest.

The unlucky cameraman who thought he was recording the fight from a safe distance became the leading actor in a live-streamed murder when Armsman shoved his Katana through the guy’s heart.

Liz picked up his camera, which was still streaming, and filmed herself gazing silently into it for several seconds.

Her grinning mask did all the talking.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 93

Hellgate and a five-man assault team lay prone in the tall grass outside the power plant’s perimeter. It had not been an enjoyable last few hours. Winter was becoming spring so things were starting to bloom back to life, and that included the mosquito population. Even in his full-body costume, complete with his notorious devil mask the retched little insects still got through to bite him.

<It’s a good thing they’re paying me a small fortune. Son of a…!> He slapped the side of his neck forcefully. It caused more pain than the bite had, but he took a small amount of pleasure in pulling his hand away and seeing the smear of blood.

“How much longer?” The team leader asked.

Technically, the jihadist was leading the team, but Hellgate was in charge. He was the only Super in the mix, with the others being assigned to different teams hitting different targets throughout the city. Seif al-Din was confident Hellgate and five battle-hardened men could take a power plant that was still being rebuilt and re-staffed after its last attack.

“We wait for the signal,” Hellgate replied.

It was the correct answer, even if he felt like strangling his daughter for having him sit out here for hours.

The assault team and all the other men Seif al-Din and Damascus had brought with them were already angry that a woman was the initiator of their holy mission. All the waiting wasn’t helping.

The five jihadists were clad from head to toe in black jumpsuits. Over those were tan body armor stolen from American troops in the Middle East. They all carried AK47s with several more banana-looking magazines of ammunition, and a handful of grenades apiece. They looked ready to bring war to the infidels, but it was the satchels Hellgate was armed with that were the real weapon.

To pass the time, Hellgate pulled the pictures out of his pocket again. There was one picture for each location. Three in total. His mission was simple. He needed to teleport in, drop the charges in their assigned location, and get out. All the satchels were on a timed charge, so he only had a minute to get it all done; which was all the time in the world to someone of his skill level.

All of the bombs were being positioned at strategic locations. Their detonation would destroy the power plant…again. And it would fulfill his first task on his way to a seven digit payday.

“How’s it hangin’ down there?” A new voice whispered in his ear.

Hellgate kept his body language neutral as annoyance crept through him. “Everything is going as planned.” He subvocalized into the throat mike he was wearing underneath his costume.

“What?” asked the jihadist next to him.

“Nothing,” Hellgate whispered back, just clearing my throat.

Armsman laughed in his ear. The legendary supervillain was parked several hundred yards behind them in a nice, comfy building. The window was open so he had a clean line of sight, but sitting way back in the room he didn’t have to worry as much about the budding mosquito population in the area.

His job was simple. Make sure that no one stabbed Hellgate in the back. From his vantage point he had the whole team in his sights.

Hellgate felt something vibrate against his side. He reached into the hidden pocket and pulled out the burner cell. It had a new message. He opened it with a press of the button.

GO was written in bold letters.

“Time to cause trouble.” Hellgate stated for everyone’s benefit.

The jihadists gave a loud battle cry, got to their feet, and charged. The front gate, guarded by two armed men was their target. Sustained gunfire cracked through the air as the five-man assault team pumped a hundred rounds into the guard booth and the two men inside it. Immediately, alarms started to wail throughout the power plant, but Hellgate was already inside.

The first room he appeared in looked like some type of control room. There were three men in white collared shirts and ties sitting at control boards when a burst of flame announced the supervillain’s arrival. They all screamed and tried to outrun the growing flames, but none of them made it.

The fourth man, a security guard, ran toward the new threat. Hellgate grabbed his wrist and forced it upward as the guard tried to level his gun. Then the villain’s fist shot forward three times. A three inch knife extended between his middle and ring finger. The small knife plunged into the guard’s neck three times; each time retracting with a spurt of blood. The last stab hit an artery and the gushing didn’t stop. The guard reached for his throat to stop the bleeding, but he was already as good as dead.

Hellgate planted his foot into the guard’s sternum and kicked him away. Then he disappeared in another flash of fire, leaving the guard and technicians to burn.

The second location was empty, either because people were gone because they were following evacuation protocols, or because no one worked there. Hellgate didn’t even know what the large machinery was, but it looked brand new, so he leaned a satchel up against the biggest thing he could find and teleported to the third and final target.

The last target was outside, and easily recognizable. It was the section of the plant that people always thought about when they thought “power plant”. The transformers were connected to tons of wires that branched outward and away from the plant. Hellgate dropped the last and largest satchel next to a big metal box in the center of the space.

<Ten seconds.> He checked his watch and took a deep breath before teleporting away for this final time.

Ten seconds later the mostly reconstructed power plant exploded; plunging the city of Orlando into darkness yet again.

 

***

 

Seif al-Din sat in the back of a heavily tinted van in a parking lot just outside the local airport. It wasn’t a large airport, and the glory of destroying it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as hitting O’Hare outside Chicago or Jackson-Hartfield in Atlanta. But the longtime freedom fighter knew when he needed to manage his expectations. The security and the Hero teams in those cities were formidable and would mitigate any damage.

Orlando was a different story. It was a smaller town with a single team, a school run by retired fighters, and a target rich environment. This was the type of location he should have thought about hitting long ago. He still wished he could get a team or a bomb into Disney World, but the corporate security force would be on high alert once things started.

<My beautiful Fadeelah. I am coming for you.> The man took a deep breath to control himself.

He was nearly overcome by rage every time he thought of his oldest daughter growing up in the west. He wanted to tear, shred, and kill when he thought of the blasphemies they placed in her head. How they taught her to forsake Allah, to forsake her family, and now to be in a school and training to serve within Great Satan itself. It made him sick to his stomach.

<But today that all changes.> He prayed fervently for this day, and now it was here.

His phone chimed softly, a single text with two letters telling him that it was time for his prayers to be answered.

“Allahu Akbar.” He breathed deep and clasped hands with all of the men in the van with him.

They had undergone the proper ceremonies before departing on their mission. They were all prepared to die today.

Seif al-Din kept his eyes on the airport as he stepped out of the van and around to the back. He helped pull several large crates out. He flipped the clasps and pulled the top off to reveal several RPGs and a handful of Stinger missiles. Then he stood back and watched as his men went to work.

Each man from the van grabbed one of the shoulder launched weapons, lined up, and spaced themselves out to give them the best shot at their targets while avoiding any back-blast from the weapons. People in the parking lot were running and screaming away from the righteous men carrying out the divine will. They kept yelling about calling the cops like it would do any good.

They only had to wait for a few seconds before the lights in the airport flickered and died. Planes on the runways ground to a halt as they lost communication with air-traffic control, and the holy warriors took advantage of that. The man on the far right fired first. The Stinger missile shot out and traveled quickly across the airport. One plane had been in the middle of takeoff when the power went out, but it was already in the air, so it kept going…right up until the missile hit it dead center and shattered it like an egg.

The plane broke apart as its momentum pushed it higher into the air for a few more seconds, and then it came tumbling back down in a dozen different large sections. It hit the ground in a residential neighborhood not far from the airport, and the remaining jet fuel exploded leveling several houses.

Seif didn’t watch any of the following violence. He was more concerned with his other soldiers. An RPG round rocketed across the airfield to strike the first plane in the lineup near the cockpit. This plane didn’t explode and break apart like the last one, but its landing gear did fail and it tipped forward to scrape and twist across the runway until it came to a stop blocking anyone from taking off.

Seif turned his attention to the third man who was aiming at the terminal while the second one reloaded. The second one would work his way through the planes on the runways and at the gates until he was out of ammunition. The third and fourth man would do the same to the terminal, with the express intent of kill as many people as possible. They targeted the areas containing the check-in counters first and then worked out toward the busiest gates. They’d done their research, and figured out the gates with flights that departed soon, which would be filled right before boarding.

The fifth man kept an eye on their surroundings. It was his job to give them as much time as possible to complete their mission. So when the first police cruiser came tearing around the corner with lights and sirens blazing it ate a RPG right in its grill. It exploded, killing the officers instantly, and ended up on its side in a burning pile of steel, rubber, and fuel until the gas tank caught fire and it rocked the area with a second explosion.

Seif al-Din barely noticed the second smaller explosion of fire that announced his ride throughout the chaos.

“Boss.” Hellgate walked up next to him and surveyed the damage.

With the devil mask on the terrorist leader couldn’t see the mercenary’s expression, but his body language revealed the man couldn’t care less.

“We need to move to the staging area.” Seif al-Din stated, but turned away from the Super to look at his men.

They stopped their firing for a second to acknowledge their leader. He gave them all a deep bow and clasped his hands in front of him in the universal sign of prayer.

<You will all feast with virgins tonight my brothers.> He felt the mercenary’s hand on his shoulder and they both vanished in a flash of fire. <Now for stage two.>

 

***

 

Damascus stood in the middle of an open field. A major highway was a hundred yards to his right. The minivan he’d rented was sitting on the shoulder as cars blurred by it at seventy miles an hour. But he didn’t pay attention to any of it.

<It’s so hot.> Unlike the rest of his brothers in arms, he was wearing a golf shirt and silver slacks that matched his hair. <It feels like I’m drowning in hot soup.>

Damascus and his men were used to dry desert heat. Humidity was something entirely new and hated by them. <It is always smoldering in the belly of the beast.> He thought as a Florida Highway Patrol car pulled up behind his van and two officers got out.

One went to look at the van while the other headed over towards Damascus. He noticed how the officer rested his hand on the holster of his pistol. A police officer in his homeland would have already had his weapon out and ready to use.

“Good afternoon, Sir. Can I help you?”

Damascus smiled and adopted an American accent. “Just havin’ some car trouble, Officer. Your help would be much appreciated.”

The officer smiled back and took his hand off his weapon.

“I do need to let you know that I’m going to have to give you a ticket for the windows though.”

Damascus face fell in a well-rehearsed manner.

“Sorry.” The officer shrugged. “We allow tinted windows, but those are blacked out. You can’t see inside at all.”

“Ok,” Damascus sighed theatrically. “You’ve got to do your job, I understand that.”

In his pocket his phone chimed loudly. The officer looked at him, and Damascus held up his hands. “Can I grab that?” He asked.

“Sure.” The officer kept a close eye on the silver-haired super as he pulled the slim phone from his pocket.

GO

“Do you have someone you can call to come and pick you up?” The officer asked as he pulled out his ticket pad. “I’m also going to need to see your license, registration, and proof of insurance.”

“No need officer.” Damascus smiled.

The officer looked confused as Damascus hit the send button on a preprogramed number.

The sound of an explosion and cracking concrete sent the officer spinning toward the highway. The highway for about a few hundred yards in front and behind the van looked like someone had popped a giant bubble. The ground had ballooned out as the buried artillery shells exploded: throwing cars, shrapnel, and concrete into the air.

Brakes shrieked as cars came to a halt up and down the highway.

“What the fuck!” The cop yelled already moving back toward the explosions. “Central, I need everything you’ve got to the eastbound rest area north of State Road 434 now. I need EMS, Fire, more units, we need the fucking National Guard. Fucking bombs just blew up the road!”

Damascus saw the differences between American first responders and American soldiers in the first thirty seconds after the bombs went off. First responders zeroed in on the destruction and went to help in any way they could. American soldiers would have focused on eliminating the threat first. It didn’t even cross the police officer’s mind that Damascus was the one who detonated the bombs.

“Sir, stay here!” The cop yelled over his shoulder at Damascus as he sprinted back towards his patrol car.

“Sure thing, Officer.” He hit a second pre-programed number and his minivan exploded.

The cops never stood a chance, and neither did the cars that had been stopped by the earlier explosions. The first explosions had been to destroy infrastructure. The second had been meant to take lives and create a barrier of dead that would have to be crossed by whoever came down the road. It was a psychological warfare strategy as much as a tactical one.

<And there we go.> He heard more explosions in the distance.

He turned to the south and saw a flaming ball of fire falling out of the air. He couldn’t see it but he knew the power was out across the city, but that wouldn’t be noticeable until dark.

<Now for phase two.> He took a deep breath and pulled.

The fire within him was already there so he drew on it while keeping it bottled up. He was like a rocket ready to explode and lift off. He pulled and pulled and pulled until he felt like he was going to burst. Then he exhaled and exploded.

Silver fire washed over everything. It rolled over the highway, burning cars and cooking off the gas in their tanks. It stampeded over the rest area on the opposite side of the road, causing more chain reactions of explosions. People caught in the open were turned to ash, and those in vehicles were roasted alive. The silver flames kept going beyond that and into the residential neighborhoods to the east and west.  It’s initial explosion tapered off after about half a mile, but by then the fire had taken on a life of its own. It continued its rampage through the neighborhoods.

The goal was for it eat away at the area all the way east until it hit Lake Jesup. But it would eat the Spring Hammock Preserve before then and burn down hundreds of homes. To the west, it would get to rampage free after eating homes and breaking into the Wekiva River Buffer Conservation Area. It would grow in intensity and would take a powerful hydrokinetic or a combined interstate force of firefighters to stop it. All of that would drain resources away from the real target.

As Damascus watched it all burn another flare of flame erupted not far away. Seif al-Din and Hellgate appeared. Hellgate’s fire reared up like an angry snake and attacked the silver flames around it. The silver flames replied in-kind and Damascus got to watch a real-life example of fighting fire with fire.

“Good work.” His leader surveyed the destruction with a serene expression. “The other teams report similar success. The city is descending into chaos. And now we must prepare for the counterattack.” He beckoned Damascus closer so Hellgate could grab them both and teleport them to their next location.

 

***

 

All hell was breaking loose back at the Protectorate HQ. Not just in the section occupied by the Hero team and the DVA, but the cops as well.

“We’ve got another call coming in.” An analyst stated. His middle-aged face seemed to have aged five years in the last five minutes.

“Answer it, categorize it, and throw it on the board.” Mr. Morningstar stood like an unflappable pillar in the middle of the storm.

The people in the room drew inspiration from the calm and collected team leader, and that was far more important than any super power right now.

A giant holographic map of Orlando was projected into the center of the room and then color-coded to identify emergency areas. As always, the majority of the map was green, which meant nothing was wrong. A few spots along highways leading in and out of town were amber and red. Amber meaning these were places that needed help, and red meaning everyone’s ass needed to be at that location now.

The problem anyone with a brain was seeing was that there were far too many red zones than there were people to cover them. The small Hero team and the police were trying their best.

“The reports are saying that a group of armed men just stormed the local NBC affiliate and took them over.” The analysts threw another red zone up on the board.

“Get SWAT over there.” Mr. Morningstar was starting to feel the stress even if he didn’t want to admit it and would never show it.

“Sir, they’re fully engaged at the airport. SWAT is pinned down in the parking lot and the gunmen are using human shields. It’s a tactical nightmare. We already have casualties.”

Mr. Morningstar bit down his retort and rethought the plan. “Try and retask a few people when they get freed up. Until then, redirect Galavant some of these interstate hotspots. He can deal with those. Seraphim can take the guys at the airport.”

Currently, the density manipulator was helping move damaged vehicles off the highways, and that seemed to be the best use of him for the moment. It was the first step in getting those roads back open. Step two was getting someone in to fix the huge holes and put out the fires. Seraphim was gathering aerial intelligence, and could be at the airport in minutes.

“Galavant acknowledges. Seraphim’s ETA is three minutes.”

The rookie Hero was literally pulling his weight today.

“Broadcasting was just interrupted at 101.1.” Another analyst said from across the room. Her face scrunched in confusion as she listened to the radio.

“Let me guess,” Special Agent Debora Phillips strode into the office. “The usual death to America bullshit.”

The other woman nodded as Debora walked up to the Hero leader.

“Looks like it’s time to call it in.” The DVA agent took a classic hands on hips pose. “This isn’t some gang retaliation or big bank robbery, this is now officially a terrorist attack.” Her eyes bored into the Heroes. “And if our intel over the last six months is true, then we have a good idea who it is and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Mr. Morningstar took a deep breath and nodded. From the look on the parts of his face not covered by a mask it seemed like the old Hero had been trying to convince himself that Orlando wasn’t up shit’s creek already. That all slipped away now that Agent Phillips had confronted him, and the man seemed to deflate as a result.

“Make your calls, Agent, and I’ll make mine.”

“You heard him people!” Debora yelled into the room. “We are now at threat condition alpha. This is not a drill. Follow your procedures and get ready for a long day. We’re about to get a lot of visitors and they’re going to be eager to help. You get them where they need to go and we’ll all get through this.” She turned back to the room and saw Mr. Morningstar was on the phone getting all the help he could directed to the city immediately.

Now she turned her attention to the board. While she’d been talking two more roads had gone from green to red. It was like Orlando had an angry red ringworm around it. There was no way in and out of the city.

“Local TV is playing the same message as the radio now.” The analyst covering the media announced.

Debora switched on the TV to find a man dressed in black, armed for war, and holding a giant sword speaking in accented English about America’s crimes. She didn’t pay it more than a few seconds of attention. Nothing longer than what it took to confirm that the man fit the profile of Seif al-Din, and that meant he was likely in the city.

“Make sure you call the HCP.” She turned to Mr. Morningstar and pointed at the TV screen.

“Dean.” Mr. Morningstar nodded at her comment and raised his voice to let her know he was on with the HCP right now.

Debora refocused on the board and saw a blue flashing light arrive at one of the red areas. “That KaBoom?” She asked an analyst.

She was familiar with the color-coded identifiers the Protectorate used, but couldn’t remember who was who at the moment.

“Yes, Ma’am. We’ve got audio and video if you want me throw in on the screen.”

“Please.” Debora leaned forward as the scene came to life.

“KaBoom entering the premises.” The Hero’s voice was steady despite the front door being shot up and the unarmed security guards lying in growing pools of their own blood.

“Dispatch, have him move to the control room and stop the propaganda show. They’ll probably be there guarding it to stop us doing exactly that.” Debora asked the mysterious mistress of the Heroes communications network

KaBoom cocked his head slightly as the orders were relayed and directions given. “Acknowledged.” He started to run toward the room, but was careful to check his corners. His kinetic abosobtion would protect him, but he wasn’t invulnerable.

That was quickly put to the test. He stuck his head around a corner and nearly got it shot off with machine gun fire.

“Shit.” He pulled back as tracer rounds lit up the wall bright enough for them to see back at the headquarters. “They’ve set up a strong point at the end of the hall before the control room. I need to find another way.”

The other way turned out to be him getting to a parallel location and going through two walls to ambush them from their supposedly secure side. Terrorists crumbled as he hit them with fists packing the punch of a car going twenty miles per hour. But they got a few shots in. The Hero absorbed the energy and kept moving.

Until he fought his way into the control room. Then the screen went white and they lost all audio.

“Get it back.” Debora ordered futilely.

“We’ve lost all connectivity.”

“The broadcast has ceased and we’re receiving the technical difficulties statement with that annoying whining sound.”

“Dispatch has also lost communications.” That wasn’t good.

“Get EMS there now. And let’s hope the building is still there.” The last sentence was a whisper that only Debora was meant to hear.

They couldn’t lose one of their Heroes so early in the fight. This was just the opening act.

“Ok, shrug it off people. We’ve got bad reception everywhere so don’t let it get to you. Let’s find the next fire and put it out.”

But the truth was they needed more firemen.

 

***

 

John was sitting in his office and enjoying a turkey club with extra crispy bacon when the lights flickered, died for a second, and then emergency lights came on.

<That can’t be good.> The old Hero was on his feet before he consciously knew what he was doing.

“Dispatch?”

“The power plant was just attacked.” The emotionless voice in his ear replied. “Damage is city wide.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“DVA, police, and Protectorate assets are moving to ascertain information. I will keep you posted.”

“Thank you.” John went back to eating his turkey club, while checking the integrity of the HCP systems and watching the news.

The moment the local broadcast cut out he knew something was wrong, and that was quickly confirmed when a familiar voice started speaking.

“You have sinned, America. You have sinned against Allah, you have sinned against your fellow man, and worst of all you have sinned against me.”

John unconsciously shifted into his Iron Giant form. His chair groaned under the increased weight, and the table protested as his fingertips dug into it instinctively.

The last time John had heard that voice he’d been half dead in New York City after losing his entire team and thousands of civilian lives. The phone on his desk started to ring and he hit the speakerphone button.

“Dean.” It was Mr. Morningstar. “We’ve got a problem.”

“I know,” John took a few deep breaths to get himself under control. “I’ll get my people ready, secure the students, and get our VIP to safety.”

“Thank you, John.” Mr. Morningstar’s voice was clipped with stress.

“You’re welcome.” The line was cut and John opened up a new line. “All HCP professors please report to the Dean’s office immediately.”

Robin and Marshall had taken the participating seniors to Intermurals at Lander, so it was only him, Daisy, Craig, Maria, Grace, and Miles. Blake was probably already out there as the city’s on-call healer and Dr. Johnson wouldn’t be much help until after the bloodshed.

He knew his remaining staff would all hear the tone of his voice and know it was go time.

<Now we just need to get a message to Anika.> They needed the ForceOps teleporter to pick her up now and get her to safety.

Removing Seif al-Din’s objective from the playing field was the best way to get him to leave quickly. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to be quiet about it.

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