A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 50

Daisy wobbled as she suddenly appeared in the middle of a parking lot. What was usually sparsely populated was now bursting with activity. There were enough patrol cars, with blue lights flashing, to patrol a small city. A few ambulances sat idle not far from the entrance, but unlike the majority of the police officers, the paramedics were hard at work on two individuals. Daisy ignored them for the moment. The first thing she needed to do in a clusterfuck like this was find the person in charge.

“Thanks for the lift.” She told the black-suited DVA teleporter, who nodded and vanished with a subtle pop.

She stood where she was for another minute until the vertigo subsided, and then headed toward the most likely source of authority. In a sea of law enforcement, it was a tried and true practice to find the group with the biggest vehicle, the biggest gun, or the most Heroes huddled around it. In this instance, that meant a converted mobile home with DHA painted in big letters on the side, and a few familiar faces idling around the front door.

“Seraphim.” Daisy nodded to the shifter as she approached.

“Reaper.” The other Hero replied stiffly. “Why are you here?”

“The same as you,” Daisy replied. The conversation ended there because another familiar face descended from the mobile command center.

“Everyone listen up and gather around!” Agent Phillips called out over a loud speaker to get everyone’s attention. Her words caused a mass shift as dozens of bodies began to push toward the large vehicle.

Daisy made sure to shoot a glare over her shoulder so no one crowded her. It also gave the local and state PDs the correct impression that she wasn’t the smiling, chipper, morning show visiting Hero. She was here to get shit done.

“Earlier today, at approximately six pm, Sheriff Douglas pulled up on a seemingly abandoned vehicle that turned out to have a single occupant. The sheriff quickly determined that the individual was lying and detained them for failure to identify. The subject made a stink about it, but came back to the station willingly. Attempts to ascertain the identity of the subject were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, and they were placed in lock up until such time as more resources became available. This was the subject.”

A screen unfurled down the side of the command center, and an unseen projector hummed to life to show a picture of the subject.

<Shit.> Daisy recognized the face of Seth Abney immediately. <What the hell are you doing Seth?>

Debora let the assembled lawmen and women take a good look at the picture before continuing. “The subject is Seth Abney, a HCP-trained broad spectrum elemental manipulator. If you locate Mr. Abney, do not approach. Call for backup and let the Heroes handle it. His intentions are unknown, but he recently escaped from a joint DHA police department detention center in Florida.”

Daisy had a hard time believing that Seth would really hurt any cops that found him, but he’d probably rough them up a bit so he could escape.

“At approximately 6:45pm a call came into the local dispatch.” Debora played the recording. The stupidity of it got a couple of cops to laugh, but Daisy knew better. She was ninety-nine percent sure who was on the other end of that line with the sheriff’s deputy. Debora seemed to be thinking the same thing, because next up was video footage from the police station standing on the other side of the parking lot. “At roughly seven, the individual from the call showed up here.” She played the footage and the laughter faded into silence as the car pulled in, a woman got out, hid her face from the camera, talked with the deputy, and teleported.

“Son of a…” Daisy heard a few of the cops inhale as the deputy went down and the chase between the second subject and the sheriff ensued.

It all ended with a spectacular explosion, and the destruction of two police cars. The cameras went out as shrapnel smashed into them. The sheriff survived, but he was definitely one of the two people getting treated by the paramedics right now.

“The woman who entered the station, disabled the deputy, teleported around the place, and released Mr. Abney before destroying public property with military-grade ordinance is this woman.” A mug shot of Wraith appeared on the screen. “The supervillain Wraith, aka Liz Aretino, and from recent intelligence we also believes goes by Lilly, is armed and extremely dangerous. She is a wanted terrorist implicated in the Orlando bombings earlier this year. She was tried and sentenced to life for multiple murders, and attempted murder on law enforcement officials. If you see her, do not approach, and radio in the Heroes.” Debora nodded at Seraphim and Daisy, but Daisy felt she really meant her.

“Lastly, we believe the third individual, the one that remained in the vehicle during the entire exchange, to be this woman.” A third person appeared on the projector. She looked like a half-starved junkie with crazy eyes, disheveled hair, and an unhealthy pallor to her skin. “This is Morina, no last name known, code name Blood Hound. She is a blood manipulator and convicted serial killer. She has a psychological compulsion, believed to be from a combination of her powers and traumatic experiences, to drain victims of their blood and bathe in it. Due to her abilities, this process seems to provide her with either some form of nourishment or refreshment. Make no mistake, despite how fucked up she is, she is an addict, and addicts make mistakes when they start jonesing for their drug of choice. Blood Hound was arrested after the ritual murder of more than two dozen people, sentenced, and locked up in Supermax until the recent breakout. It is believed that she met Wraith while in prison, and they befriended each other as much as there can be friendship between people like this.”

Daisy did a quick scan and saw a lot of disturbed looks on people’s faces. These were rural cops who’d never seen anything like this, and probably never would again. They’d be telling stories of ‘when the supervillain murderers came through town’ at the bar in thirty years, if they weren’t stupid and got themselves killed. Daisy refocused on Debora and saw someone was whispering in her ear. The look on the DHA agents face said it wasn’t good.

“Ok, we’ve got bodies people.” The statement sent a shock through the group. “A family of five was just found exsanguinated in a town not far from here. “Seraphim, I want you to lead a response team and secure the scene. You’re a fast mover and can get places quicker than we can in our vehicles.”

“On it.” Seraphim didn’t argue, which took Daisy by surprise. The Hero just jumped into the air and disappeared off in the direction Dispatch was directing her.

“Captain,” she turned to an older cop with an impressive mustache. You need to make sure you’ve got good communications with the roadblocks you’ve set up. Hunter is going to act as the quick reaction force to get on scene fast if someone encounters the subjects. Reaper, you’ll go with Hunter.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Daisy and the cop answered at the same time. She nodded to Hunter who stood at the top of the stairs to the command center before walking away. While everyone else was planning the ‘what if’ scenarios, she wanted to grab some intel.

She walked across the parking lot to the only people who’d interacted with Wraith in the last few days. “Sheriff Douglas?” She poked her head in the back of an ambulance, where a rugged man in a tattered uniform sat.

“Yes,” he had an oxygen mask on and there was noticeable bruising on his skin.

“Reaper,” she expended her hand. The pressure he exerted in return showed he was a super. “You’re lucky, Sheriff.”

“I know that now,” the man replied humbly. “I just thought it was some stupid kid as first, until the cars blew up. Now that I know who she was, I feel like she was toying with me.”

“What can you tell me about what happened?” Daisy sat down on the bumper.

“Well…” Coughs suddenly wracked the man, and he took a couple of deep pulls from the oxygen tank before he could speak again. “Sorry,” he apologized. “I can walk away from getting shot and a small explosion, but get enough smoke in my lungs and I’m just like everyone else.” His grin was charming, and Daisy smiled back politely. “Well…I came out to check on Emily, my deputy, something seemed off, and I found her down in the office. Then Wraith shot me in the ass with some sort of fancy stun gun. It hurt like hell, but I didn’t go down. I’m not HCP trained or anything, but I had great teachers at the police academy, and I know who to use my strength. I pursued, but it was like trying to catch the wind. Every time I got close she’d tag me once or twice with a real gun, and then vanish. I think I did get her once, but it didn’t slow her down. Now looking back on it, she was looking for the guy I brought in earlier. She got him out and led me away. I followed the bigger threat, and that’s when the cars blew up.” The sheriff shrugged, but Daisy could tell he was still upset about everything.

“You did everything you could.” She did her best to comfort him, but that wasn’t really her strong suit. What was, was identifying that Wraith was going for non-killing blows at first and only escalating when she knew the guy could take it.

<Apparently, Seth might be a good influence after all.> That went both ways though. Wraith had dragged him out of a promising HCP career and into a life of crime, so it wasn’t worth the tradeoff.

Next, Daisy talked to Emily, the deputy. She didn’t have much to add other than a description that matched Wraith. Then, Daisy walked the station to get a feel for what happened. Forensics had already been through, but she saw the yellow placards set where they found evidence like blood and bullet casings. It did seem like the sheriff grazed her, which was closer than Daisy ever got.

<Hell of a way to spend Christmas.> Daisy walked around the outside of the building to the check the burnt husks of police cars before returning to the command vehicle.

The fact with these types of manhunts was that they involved a lot of sitting around and waiting. The DHA had a teleporter and team standing by for when contact was made, but until then, a lot of the leg work needed to be done by local and state law enforcement. They knew what they were looking for, and what direction the three suspects had been heading from the security footage, but in this part of the country there were a lot of backroads to get around things like roadblocks.

Daisy really wanted to help, but there wasn’t much she could do. The DHA might have other resources they could put into play, but Daisy wasn’t read in on those, or aware if they were already in action. All she knew what her job was to stay by Hunter and go when they got word.

That didn’t stop the waiting from sucking, especially since the call might never come. With the person they were chasing being Wraith, Daisy had to place the odds in the fugitive’s favor.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 2

“Come on…pick it up…push it!” Henry Martin, famously known as the resurrected Hero, Hunter, held the bag as his daughter pounded on it.

Angela Martin’s breathing was haggard but controlled. She sucked in as much oxygen as she could as her fists lashed out, made contact, and then retracted. She flew through multiple combinations, ducking and dodging at imaginary counterstrikes, and finished it up with a roundhouse kick that produced an oomph from her much larger father.

There was no mistaking it. Angela Martin had changed, but the freshman year she had at West Private’s HCP would have done that to anyone. She’d gone from a slightly chubby eighteen-year-old to a lean, mean, fighting machine. She battled her way to the top of class, and held it against her peers for most of the year. Then, she’d watched her father die in front of her eyes, and die violently. She’d thought that the man who’d raised her, regardless of his unique style of upbringing, had been blown to pieces by a new and powerful supervillain.

Naturally, that left its scars. She’d nearly beat a kid to death and been put on probation at the HCP she’d worked her entire life to get in. Her mother was only a moderate amount of help. The older Martin was more consumed with finding and dealing with Wraith than dealing with her grieving daughter. It hadn’t been pretty, and then a notorious international terrorist showed up and turned Orlando into the seventh circle of Hell.

Angela was forced to consider if Orlando was cursed for a moment, but then came the good news. Her father wasn’t dead. He’d just been in hiding and working from the shadows to uncover who Wraith was.

He’d survived the bombing, barely. He’d actually been pretty messed up. She could see it in his eyes when he recapped it for Angela and his wife when all the madness had finally settled down. He’d lost a lot of blood, several appendages, and barely been able to teleport away to a still unknown healer. It had taken weeks for him to get patched up and back into fighting shape, and by then everyone was so deep into the grieving process that he decided to wait before coming back.

That was about the time Sophia punched him in the face during the story. Angela rarely saw her mother overreact, but it wouldn’t be the last time she let Henry know how pissed she was.

Instead of coming back, he started researching. He followed the few breadcrumbs that had been left behind and made a couple of leaps in theorizing who Wraith could be. But he got his first real lead after Seraphim had battled Wraith in the parking garage. When no one was looking, he’d snuck in and taken a look around. He’d found the rift in space where Wraith had teleported out and followed it to a townhouse by West Private. He’d only gotten a peak around the room, but that was all he needed to figure out enough.

Then, for months, he’d staked out the residence and followed everyone who came and went. He almost intervened when he found out it was the same house Angela lived in, but he didn’t.

That was the point in the story where Angela had to physically restrain herself from following in her mother’s footsteps. She couldn’t believe her father had been sitting outside her townhouse for months watching a supervillain who slept less than fifty feet from her. The anger and pain she felt was overwhelming.

Hunter had been there watching when everything went down the day of the terrorist attack. He heard the gunshot from inside the townhouse, and investigated. He found the dead ForceOps soldier and the rift that led to Wraith’s prison. After waiting an appropriate amount of time, he jumped in, rescued Anika, and then set an ambush that captured Wraith.

To the outside world he was a Hero, but to Angela and her mother he was still on their shit list. That’s why she had him holding the bag, because she knew if she punched hard enough she might just break through and punch her dad in the face.

“Good set.” Henry had sweat dripping from his forehead, just like Angela. “Squats, let’s go.”

Angela adjusted her sports bra and walked over to the two racks bolted to the floor. They were in the garage of the one house that her parents called their home, or at least they used to. She wasn’t sure what their relationship status would be on Facebook now.

Compared to all the money that the successful Hero team of Hunter and Seraphim made, the little two bedrooms, one bathroom place in Daytona Beach was pocket change. It wasn’t on the actual beach. That was full of condominiums and hotels. Their little place sat on the intercostal waterway’s side. You couldn’t even see the beach, and you could barely see the waterway through the mansions that lined the shore. Their house was just a little place where the couple could get away for a few days, and that’s where Angela had spent her summer break.

She’d wake up early to run to the beach, ran most of the beach itself, and then ran home. She’d eat breakfast with the family, a stiff affair considering her parents’ situation, and then she’d get back to work. The small one car garage had been converted into a gym long ago complete with weights and boxing equipment. So, Angela usually spent a good chunk of the day in the garage. Sometimes her mother worked out with her, sometimes her father, but she was sure all their neighbors knew them as that crazy family that was always working out in their garage.

Angela got the bar firmly settled on her shoulder, hefted the weight off the rack, took a few steps back, made sure he feet were spread to where she wanted them, and then she squatted low, almost until her ass touched the floor, and then shot back up. She was doing light weight and working on her explosiveness. The time for heavy stuff would come later.

As far as afternoons went, she had them mostly to herself. She’d take a book to the beach and read. It had taken a few weeks, but she finally got used to all the guys coming up to her and flirting. That was a new experience, but it was good training, just like all the running and lifting she was doing. She needed to be able to interact with people, even boys who could barely hide their arousal at her well-sculpted body.

The farthest she went while at the beach was accepting an invitation and play a pickup game of volleyball. After all she was taken.

“Angela, phone!” Her mother yelled from inside.

Seraphim hadn’t been present all break. She’d get called away every couple of days, but the seasoned Hero was trying to be around as much as possible. She and Henry were working through things, which couldn’t have been going too well since Angela still knew her father was sleeping on the couch. Either way, the Martin’s were working through spousal issues that only a few dozen couples in the US had to worry about.

Angela reracked the weights and walked into the house to take the call.

“This is Angela.” She took the phone from her mother.

“Um…hey…hi.” The voice on the other end was nervous, but Angela had grown to find it adorable.

“Hello, Alec.” She smiled and went to grab herself a bottle of water.

“Alec, your Alec?” Henry had followed her inside, and she shot dagger-eyes at him for the stupid question.

A dynamic of their family had clearly changed in the last year. Angela was no longer the quiet obedient daughter. She was her own force of nature now, especially when it came to her interactions with her father. When you thought someone was dead you tended to learn to live without them.

“Who is that?” Alec asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Angela walked out of the kitchen, into her room, and shut the door behind her. “So what’s going on.”

“I’m just packing up and getting ready to head back for classes on Tuesday. When are you going to get back?”

He was fishing for information. He wanted to set something up, and after a summer of dating long distance she did to.

“I’m moving in on Monday. Where are you living?”

“I scored a two-person dorm with my chemistry lab partner from last year. He’s got a big screen, every gaming console, and just about every game to go with them. But most importantly, he has the proper appreciation for… Wait, you don’t care about any of this, never mind.”

Angela couldn’t stop the giggle from escaping her lips. Alec has a tendency to get passionate about something, usually science or tech related, and he just started rambling. It was cute, but it was even cuter when reality set back in and he realized what he’d been doing.

“Enough about me. Where are you living?” he asked.

“I’ve got an off-campus apartment with two other girls. You’ve met them.”

“The really tall, clearly Super one?”

Angela bit back an instinctually defensive reply. Alec was smart and he didn’t just dismiss people with clearly Super features as just people with Super style or fetishes. Especially when it came to someone like Kyoshi: six-seven, golden eyes, and pale hair was the real deal or someone committed to the culture in an unhealthy way.

“It’s Anika and Becca.”

“Tattoo girl, and hair-dye girl.” Alec could come off as a bit rude if you didn’t know him well enough, but he wasn’t trying to be that way at all. “Aren’t they together?”

“Yeah.” She already knew Alec didn’t care about something as stupid as someone’s sexual orientation. He was just trying to orient himself to the environment this coming school year.

“What about the other four people you roomed with last year. I assumed you’d all stay together again in another townhouse.”

“No, not exactly. Mason and Kyoshi are in the same building so we’ll still see them a lot. I haven’t heard from Seth all summer, and…his girlfriend dropped out.” It was the easiest way for her to put it without getting into details and pissed off.

<Dropped out of school and right into a maximum security Super prison. Serves you right bitch.> Angela took a few deep breaths to get under control.

“Cool. Well call me when you get in on Monday. I’d like to take you out to dinner if that’s ok.”

“I’d love it. I’ll see you soon.” She hung up the phone and went to open the door, but not before she heard some feet scrambling.

She opened the door to see her father meandering what he thought was nonchalantly in the small hallway.

“So you and Alec?” He smiled in the way only a father could when discussing his only daughter’s boyfriend, which was to say very forced and painful to watch.

“None of your business,” she shot back and shouldered past him.

<If you really wanted to know then you would have told me you were alive.>

Angela understood why he’d kept it a secret, but that didn’t fix everything she was feeling. <He’s going to need to work to make things better.> And a summer helping her train was just the beginning.

 

***

 

“Prisoner, on your feet.” The intercom system within her cell crackled to life.

It had been days since anyone had bothered to stop by for a chat with Lilly, other than the people in the cells next to her.

<And its Reggie, mmmhhhmmm.> She appreciated the tall, dark, and handsome guard who was ordering her around. After all, she didn’t get much male interaction in this place.

She didn’t know where the Feds were holding her, the lettering on the outside of her cell stated she was on Subterranean Level 3 of something, but everyone she’d met inside called the place the Doghouse. She did know the air outside was thin, windy, and a bit on the chilly side for summertime.

From the outside, it didn’t seem like much. A large brick and concrete building, with a rec-yard for basketball, weightlifting, and places just to sit outside and enjoy the fresh air. All while being surrounded by a triple layer of fencing and barbed wire. Rumor had it the fences were electrocuted, and the space between them was full of landmines. The first Lilly believed, the second she wasn’t as sure about. Not that it mattered. Only those on their best behavior or low risk got to be jailed on the surface.

For three months, Lilly hadn’t seen the sun or breathed fresh air. She was down in the real holding facility. While the surface level looked like any other large building, the subterranean levels were something else. The walls were all unnecessarily bright white and made of a resistant plastic instead of metal. From what she’d seen, the facility huddled in multiple rings around a central shaft like spokes on a wheel.

When they brought her in, Lilly knew she was on level S3. The rumor mill in this place told her there were five levels, and the farther down you got the worse of a human being you were, with level five being reserved for the people who’d lost all their humanity.

<And I only made level three.> Lilly was mildly offended until she’d spent a month in the place.

Her little slice of heaven, an eight-by-eight cell, looked just like all the other ones. A single bed, with a mattress as hard as a rock and springs that jabbed you in the spine. With that you got one scratchy blanket. The blanket wasn’t large enough to cover you unless you curled up into a small ball. That was because the guards didn’t want anyone hanging themselves with it, so they had to keep it tiny.

In the corner of the room was a plastic toilet with no privacy barriers, so Lilly got to drop deuces while anyone who walked by got a money shot of her. Luckily, there weren’t many people just strolling around Level 3.

<Still bet the guards are sitting up there wankin’ it to us.> Lilly knew some of the guards had a darker side, but Reggie wasn’t one of them. She didn’t have to worry about getting felt up as she was patted down by the man.

“Prisoner will the place her hands on the yellow circles.” Reggie’s strong authoritative voice commanded.

“I’m going. Keep it in your pants!” She yelled back, as she got out of bed and walked to the back of the cell where two yellow circles stood about chest height.

She put her hands in the circle and the yellow immediately reacted. It swarmed over her hands and solidified in place so she couldn’t move them even if she wanted. There was a barely discernable hiss as the front wall of her cell slid aside and Reggie walked in.

The guard reminded her a bit of Mason. He was big, at least six-five, well-muscled, shaved bald, but he had a silent strength to him, and above all he was respectful.

“Good morning, prisoner.” Reggie rumbled as he stepped behind her and started to run his hands over her arms and legs.

There wasn’t anything in the place she could have forged into a shank, but they were always thorough when they came to get a person out of their cell.

“You know you can call me Lilly, or Liz, or even Wraith if that floats your boat.” Lilly replied. “It must get old calling everyone prisoner. What do you do if you’ve got more than one person you’re talking to? That has to be really confusing. Me, I’d give them names, maybe based on their power. That guy with the rhino horn growing out of his head, that’s Unicorn Man, and the flame chick a few cells down is Liar Liar Pants on Fire because she told me we’d get pudding and I haven’t seen any yet.” Lilly droned on as Reggie did a competent sweep of her for contraband.

In the three months Lilly had been a prisoner she hadn’t changed much. She was still the five-ten bombshell she’d always been, and if anything, she was a little more in shape than she had been before. She didn’t have any equipment or anything, but when you had nothing to do all day you developed a pretty intense workout regimen to stay sane. The added benefit was your body got tired and you could crash eventually instead of staying up at night and looking at the white ceiling of nothingness. The one thing that had changed, and was pissing her off, was her hair. She’d dyed it blonde for her Liz gig, but her natural hair color was brunette, so roots on her head had a solid bit of brown that then transitioned into blonde. It was a fashion nightmare paired with the orange jumpsuit that totally didn’t go with her complexion.

“You’re clean, let’s go.” Reggie hit some buttons on his utility belt and the yellow started to flow off her hand and back into circular form on the wall.

“Thanks, Reggie. I take personal hygiene very seriously.” Lilly smiled and looked over her shoulder to wink at him.

If she had an escape plan this would be the time to attack, but it wouldn’t do any good. Reggie was a low-level strongman. He’d demonstrated it before, and that was why he’d been tasked to deal with all the criminals like Lilly. Even if she was able to take down Reggie, she wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. Her specially designed cell had anti-teleportation technology that was a constant pain in her well-toned ass.

<If I could get out of the cell…> That was a different question, but they had a counter for that too.

The collar snapped into place around her neck. It was snug enough so she couldn’t get a hand or finger under it to try and pry it off, but it also wasn’t tight enough to choke her. Oddly, it was made of a very comfortable material. Why the manufacturer of this device from hell would take the time to make it comfortable was beyond her, but as it snapped into place around her throat at least she wouldn’t be itching herself like a dog every minute. After that came the regular restraints, a pair of handcuffs and ankle chains.

“You know the drill, prisoner. You don’t follow my orders when I give them I put you down, you resist in any way I put you down, you try and touch your visitor I put you down.”

“I fart without permission I get put down. Honestly, Reggie, your flirting needs a little work.” She heard the big man grumble something under his breath and he walked her out of the cell and around the ring toward the elevator.

“Have fun, Wraith.” The woman in the cell next to her giggled.

<Fucking creepy.>

The woman’s name was Morina, but she was more popularly known as Bloodhound. Although she referred to herself as the Blood Bitch.  On top of being crazy, the woman was a blood manipulator. She drained her victims of their blood and then used it to create armor, weapons, and other tools to attack and defend herself. Rumor had it she was close to being able to control the blood when it was still in a person’s body, but she got caught before she could perfect the technique.

As Lilly and Reggie passed by the cell, she saw Morina, dirty blonde hair down past her waist now, fingernails chewed down to the cuticles, and a solid metal mask fastened to her face. Bloodhound’s abilities required a line of sight to target her victims, so that countermeasure kept her relatively powerless.

“You know me. It’s always a good time.”

Morina giggled at the reply. Lilly always tried to stay on the woman’s good side, because if that mask ever came off a lot of people would die.

“Come on.” Reggie pulled her along past Unicorn Man and Liar Liar Pants on Fire.

Lilly didn’t know their real names, but they must have done some serious shit to get down on Level 3.

The elevator up to the surface looked pretty ordinary, but she knew it had to be decked out with all types of gear. The least of which probably blew the place up and sent its occupants falling to a fiery death. She tried not to think about it as the display counted up to one. With a soft ding, and a refreshing wave of air, Lilly stepped out into the prison’s ground floor.

Low-risk prisoners in the same orange jumpsuits were walking the hallways in groups with guards and doing tasks under their supervision. They all looked toward Lilly and Reggie when the chime announced their arrival, and she could see them involuntarily shrink away from her.

<Good.> she put on her best shit-eating grin and got hauled by Reggie toward the visitor’s center.

“You can release my client now.” The man sitting in the private room set aside for their legal meeting was impeccably dressed. He was also acting the part of the upset lawyer to the T.

“Cuffs stay on.” Reggie replied sternly, as he plopped her down in the seat and snapped her cuffs into waiting brackets. Now she was secured to the sturdy, bolted table and the floor.

“This is quite unnecessary.”

“No,” Reggie cut the lawyer off with a glare. “It really is.”

“It’s cool, guys.” Lilly did her best to smile and lean back in her chair. “Don’t fight over little old me.”

She couldn’t see behind her, but she was sure Reggie was rolling his eyes, and the lawyer just looked confused.

“I’ll be right outside the door watching you two.” Reggie stated before stepping out.

“Uuuhummm.” The lawyer coughed. “Very well, let’s begin.” He took a seat across from Lilly and started pulling out stacks of paperwork.

“The Justice Department took their time in filing charges, along with a couple of states and individuals.” The man began.

“What are the charges?” Lilly was interested to see what they thought they could convict her on.

“Well right at the top of the list is terrorism, and being a national security threat to the United States of America.”

“Exaggerations.” Lilly waved away what she knew they were going to try and get her with. “What else?”

“Well we’ve got a couple of murder charges.”

“How many?”

The number the lawyer listed was low, only accounting for the Mafioso whose ticket she’d punched in Chicago, and the ForceOps guys she’d put down. <They don’t have them all, but one is enough.>

“I’ve also got grand theft, extortion, prostitution…”

“No that one is bullshit,” She replied with agitation. “I didn’t actually sleep with him.”

“Ok.” The guy scribbled a note about the charge. “I’ve also got an espionage charge.”

“Why the fuck are they targeting me for espionage?” That one was a surprise.

“There was an alleged armored car robbery that they are saying you participated in, and an item in said armored car was of sufficient importance to warrant the charge.”

“That’s more bullshit.” Lilly remembered the silver briefcase she’d purposefully left behind.

“These are just the charges, and we’ll fight them one by one.” The lawyer reassured her. “I’ve also got a kidnapping charge, dozens of assaults with a deadly weapon.”

“You mean these?” Lilly raised her fists and couldn’t help but chuckle at her own joke. Three months underground with a crazy chick in the cell next to you tended to have an adverse effect on your psyche.

“Among other things. In the state of Colorado, a Super’s powers are considered a deadly weapon.”

For the life of her, Lilly couldn’t remember who’d she kicked the shit out of in Colorado.

“So what’s the damage?” Lilly cut through the rest of the red tape.

“Excuse me?”

“What do they want to do?” Lilly clarified.

“Ma’am.” The lawyer clearly didn’t know how to address her. “They want to kill you. The terrorism charge alone is enough to get you the needle.”

“Huh,” Lilly knew it was coming, but it felt different to hear someone else say it. “Well, that fucking sucks.”

 

***

 

“That’s it.” Daisy put down the last file with a triumphant sigh. “That’s our new freshman class.”

She saw potential and felt an excitement that she hadn’t felt the first time around. When she was in this position last year, she thought the HCP’s professors were just on the good side of washed up. She thought they couldn’t cut it as Heroes anymore so they taught instead.

She couldn’t have been more wrong, and now with a year under her belt she felt like she was finally a part of their family.

<And Craig won’t be able to pull any shit over on me again.> That part was probably the most important point of all.

“Yep.” The speedster looked exhausted, but that was business as usual for a Hero, and a Hero teacher. “So it’s the same as last year. We’ll go in kick some ass, and give them a look at what it’s like to go up against a real Hero.”

“Knock them down a peg or two, gottcha.” Daisy grinned back. She just needed to keep an eye on the three speedsters and hope most of them got on Craig’s side when they split the room. “I remember.”

“Good. Don’t get tagged because I really don’t want to have to whoop your ass in front of the freshmen.”

That made her laugh, and she exaggerated it to rub in her point. “We’ll just have to see about that.” The two professors grinned at each other, each with a competitive glint in their eye.

“Well, I think that’s good enough for today.” Craig finally broke off the stare down. “Don’t you have to get to the airport?”

“Shit!” Daisy glanced at her phone.

She had ten minutes until her boyfriend’s parents landed at the newly reconstructed Orlando Airport, and she was at least twenty minutes away.

<I hope they haven’t fixed the glitches in baggage claim yet.> She grabbed her purse and hauled ass out the door, but not before she glanced at the list hanging from it.

The sophomores might not be trained directly by her anymore, but her first class would always have a special place in her heart, and she wanted to stay up-to-date on their rankings. That way she could step in and give some people a motivational ass kicking if she thought they were slacking.

She’d already committed it to memory, but she went over it again in her head as she raced down the HCP’s sci-fi corridors towards the lift that would dump her out closest to her car.

 

  1. Angela Martin
  2. Jason Cook
  3. Kimberly Goodman
  4. Erin Fisher
  5. Mason Jackson
  6. Anna Fletcher
  7. Teresa Shaw
  8. Anika Kemps
  9. Alexander Webb
  10. Seth Abney
  11. Casey Williams
  12. Lorelei Gilford
  13. Kyoshi Schultz
  14. Liam Garrison
  15. Simon Skylar
  16. Emilia Scarborough
  17. Fiona Richardson
  18. Rebecca Whitfield
  19. Natalia Romanoff
  20. Carson Long
  21. Oliver Carpenter
  22. Jacqueline Eaton
  23. Ashley Bates
  24. Richard Gibson
  25. Danny Mason
  26. Janet Ibsen
  27. Blake Rhodes
  28. Rowan Michaelson

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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

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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 98

Walking alone down the sci-fi-esque corridors didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right that this was an emergency and he was hiding below ground. It didn’t feel right that the only thing different between today and any other day was that the lights were dimmer.

If this was a movie then the earth would be shaking, and he’d be stumbling down the hallway grasping at anything to remain upright. The lighting would be a dim red and flashing, and people would be running everywhere trying to fix what was obviously going wrong.

Seth didn’t see any of that as he worked his way through the HCP. He hardly saw anyone except a white-uniformed senior who told him to head to the gym.

Seth barely had to think as he worked his way toward the giant space, which wasn’t exactly a good thing. <That guy had half his fucking head blown off.>

It wasn’t every day that you walked into your living room and found a dude lying on the floor with shattered bone, blood spray, and fragments of brain-matter spewing from a giant open head wound. It was even more unlikely to find one of your barely conscious roommates only a few feet away, and it bordered on impossibility that his girlfriend would then arrive crying about how they’d been attacked.

<All of that on top of a terrorist attack.> Seth stopped to take a breath.

He wasn’t tired, but he still felt like an elephant had taken a dump on his chest. <And Liz is still out there.> He knew why Coach Meyers wouldn’t allow her down into the HCP, but the logic was overridden by the fear of someone busting into that cafeteria and shooting everyone up like swiss cheese.

Honestly, Seth didn’t know what he would do if he lost her.

“Seth!” People immediately started to call his name as he rushed through the double doors and into the gym.

The giant space still dwarfed the amount of people present, but it looked like most of the HCP was present. Or at least the portion that was still at school.

The seniors were helping to corral the students into their classes, and were getting a headcount. The three remaining class sizes varied, but everyone was wearing their uniforms.

“Abney, get your uniform on.” Coach McMillian seemed to be orchestrating the chaos, while Professor Livingston stalked through the students probably reading their minds.

<Stop dawdling and get suited up.> As if to prove a point, the professor’s voice resonated in his head. <We need to be ready at a moment’s notice.>

<Ready for what?> He didn’t get an answer to that until after he was changed and back with his class.

“As you all might know by now, shit has hit the fan out there.” Coach McMillian’s joking attitude had vanished like someone snuffed it out with a fire extinguisher. “Right now, our job is to sit tight and await further instructions. If need be, we’ll be acting as first responders or search and rescue. I’m going to break you all up into teams. Each team will be led by one of the seniors. I want you to get together, familiarize yourselves with each other’s abilities, and make plans to deal with typical emergency situations. Hopefully, we won’t be needed, but we’ll be ready if we are.”

“Hey, where were you?” Mason and Kyoshi pushed through the gathered freshman. “You’re the last one here.”

“You won’t believe this.” Seth told them about what had happened, that Liz was freaking out, Becca was getting treated by medics, and Anika was gone.

Kyoshi nearly broke down when she heard Anika had been grabbed, but she held it together. Mason, the gentle-giant, looked like he wanted to rip someone’s head off. With him, that wasn’t an exaggeration.

“Hey, where’s Angela?” Seth looked around and spotted the angelic shifter pouting in a corner.

“Her mom is out there fighting these assholes, her dad was killed by one of those assholes, and she’s stuck in here with the faint possibility that we might be able to go out when this is all over and pick through rubble looking for survivors.” Kyoshi paraphrased.

“Yeah, I guess I’d be pretty pissed too.” Seth looked at it from the other girl’s perspective.

“Abney, you’re with me.” A stocky boy in a white uniform walked over toward him. “I need the members of my team to pay attention or someone could get hurt.”

“Sorry.” Seth’s apology didn’t come off very apologetic. “I’ll be right there.” He turned back to his friends, roommates, and people he’d sweated out the freshman year of the HCP with. “Be careful, please.”

Mason just nodded. The motion conveying all the emotions the big man was feeling. Kyoshi was a bit different. She could feel Seth’s fear, trepidation, excitement, and worry. Her eyes watered, and she opened her mouth to say something, but then snapped it shut after nothing came out. After a second she mirrored Mason’s nod.

That was good enough for Seth. He walked over to the senior, who was tapping his foot like an impatient grade-school teacher.

“Ok, let’s do this.”

 

***

 

Things were getting hot and heavy quick, and not in a good way. Wraith and Armsman had escaped from their short fight with Seraphim, but that didn’t mean they were out of the woods yet. Technically, they were adjacent to the woods right now. Their third fallback position was behind where her father and Seif al-Din were about to take on the Heroes, and they arrived just in time to see the whole fucking world explode.

Dirt, trees, and even a metal man when flying in every direction. Windows shattered as fire raced to engulf everything. The concussive blast felt like someone took a hammer to her, but Lilly shook it off.

<Boom goes the dynamite motherfuckers.> Her laugh got overridden by a cough as the dust and debris started to settle back down.

The third position didn’t have the vantage point of the second, or at least it didn’t a few seconds ago. Now, Lilly had a pretty clear shot at her father and the Heroes from the side yard of the house she was standing next to.

“Get ready.” Armsman dropped the large rifle he’d been using and pulled his katana out of its scabbard.

Lilly was about to ask what he meant when the enemy arrived, and she got her answer.

<If we can see them, then they sure as shit can see us.>

Four men in fatigues appeared out of nowhere in front of them and immediately went on the attack. One immediately disappeared, leaving just three, but that still left them outnumbered. Also, being flexcuffed at the ankle limited their tactical options.

One man’s hands crackled with electricity and he lunged at Armsman. The aged villain took it like a man. He rolled with the punch as it grazed his face. The soldier obviously thought it was going to put the old man on his ass. He didn’t expect for the electricity surging through him to zap out of existence the moment he punched him.

And he sure as shit didn’t expect Armsman to step into him and impale him with the sword.

“They never fucking learn.” Armsman unsheathed the sword from the surprised looking soldier’s chest with a loud sucking sound.

The soldier stood upright for a second before toppling over. That gave Lilly enough time to reach for her guns.

She brought them up, but couldn’t get a shot off before a blur of camouflage slapped the gun from her hand.

<Ugh…I fucking hate speedsters.>

The soldier in question skidded to a stop, his boots grinding up perfectly manicured grass.

<Well, at least he’s got limits.> The cool skidding move wasn’t for show. The guy literally couldn’t turn as his super speed, so he had to run quickly in straight lines, stop, reorient, and then attack again. Lilly could work with that.

But not attached to Armsman like they were a two-person chain gang.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Armsman hissed as Lilly whipped out a knife, kneeled, and cut through the flexcuff in one smooth motion.

“Sure, Reaper might suck the life out of me, but if I can’t move Speedy McSpeederton over there is going to whoop my ass anyway.” Lilly straightened just as the speedster looked ready to strike again.

The third soldier looked content to keep his distance and force the two villains to split their attention.

“Your funeral, kid.” Armsman kept his eyes on the threat. He might love Lilly like blood, but if it was his ass or hers, his won every time.

“Ready…move.” The speedster vanished, and so did Lilly, plunging the whole area into darkness.

She appeared behind the third soldier. Nobody could see, feel, or hear anything but her. The speedster had stopped when the lights had gone out. The third soldier remained rooted in place, and Armsman was running through a precise set of forms to ensure no one caught him off-guard.

<I can work with that.> Lilly planted her foot into the third soldier’s lower back.

The man, caught totally by surprise, stumbled forward into Armsman’s powerful swing. The darkness dissipating replaced the eerie calm with the screams of the man. The old supervillain’s sword was buried deep in the man’s thigh. He yanked it out, and with a simple flourish decapitated the soldier.

“I need back up, I’ve got two men down.” The speedster had sped away to get some distance while still keeping an eye on the two villains.

Lilly didn’t hear the reply, but she felt it. The round punched her in the back like the hand of fucking God. Her tech genius designed body armor saved her life, but that didn’t stop it from hurting like a motherfucker.

Her scream snapped Armsman’s head in her direction at about the same time Seraphim landed back in their midst. This time the demon woman didn’t wait, she whipped her tail around and launched her barbs. The target was Armsman as the perceived greater threat. Lilly would have taken more offense to being considered the less dangerous one, but she was too busy rolling on the ground in pain.

“Nice try.” The barbs turned to dust the moment they touched Armsman. They didn’t even pierce his clothing.

“Worth a shot.” Seraphim produced her own blade and started to circle Armsman. “I’ve always wanted to take you down. People talk about you like you’re the boogeyman. All I see is an old man trying to stay in the game long past his prime.”

Lilly chuckled painfully at Seraphim’s attempt to get into Armsman’s head. That place was already fucked up beyond anything the Hero could imagine, which explained why Armsman laughed off her goading like it was a polite joke at a dinner party.

“Hush, little girl. If you run off and let the big boys play, then I won’t chop you up into sushi.”

Seraphim bristled at the comment. She probably hadn’t been called a little girl in thirty years.

Lilly slowly started to regain her breath, but she stayed down. Either a sniper had taken a shot at her, or there was a ranged combat Super with the ForceOps crew. Either way she didn’t want to give the guy a second shot.

<Ok, so we need to kill Seraphim, then get Dad and Seif al-Din, and then get the fuck out of here.> That had been the plan. Draw in a lot of Heroes, ambush them, fuck’em up a little, do a fighting retreat, and then get out.

Lilly had already captured the objective, so there wasn’t much else to do other than rampage, rape, and pillage a little. And the other terrorist teams were likely taking care of those parts if they weren’t dead already.

“This is fun and all, but I’ve got better places to be.” Lilly rolled, pulled one of her Glock’s from it holster, and unloaded on Seraphim.

Since it wasn’t the electromagnetic rifle the shots barely budged the woman.

“What’s wrong, Wraith. You blow your whole load on that last shot.”

The shots might not have hurt, but they took the demon’s attention off Armsman for a split second. He sprung at her. Their swords met in a clash of steel, but that wasn’t the most impressive part. Seraphim was able to bat the old villain’s blade away with her superior strength, but it left her vulnerable. Armsman abandoned the blade in favor of a grapple, trapping the Hero’s extended arm between them so she couldn’t reverse her attack and bisect him. With a different opponent, she would have been able to do just that, but the second Armsman got a hold of her a ripple went through her body. One moment the old nullifier was grappling with a tall, strong, winged demon creature and the next a woman stood in her place.

Her face was still masked, but Lilly spotted vulnerability in her eyes as Armsman overpowered her and they both went crashing to the ground.

<Gotta kill that bitch.> Lilly tried to get a clean shot with her gun, but Seraphim and Armsman were too busy rolling around on the ground and fighting for position.

<Almost…>

The ground shuddered like another explosion had torn into the park, but this time there was no fire and debris. A second shudder a few seconds later, and a shadow passed over the three Supers.

Lilly couldn’t help herself. She peeked behind her to take a look just as the world exploded in an ear-splitting roar.

 

***

 

Daisy had him. She had Hellgate by the balls and they both knew it. It was a surreal experience that she’d been waiting decades to feel. She’d fought this asshole dozens of times. Sometimes it was small scuffles like the disaster at the Sprout coffee shop. Other times it was a presidential assassination attempt like the first Memorial Day parade. Until now, the man had always been too slippery, or had been hiding behind Armsman.

<Not this time, fucker.>

As sweet and savory as the emotions flooding through her were, she uncharacteristically hesitated. The old Reaper would have torn the experienced supervillain’s life thread to shreds and watched him die with no remorse. But that wasn’t Daisy anymore. That wasn’t what she had become, and she didn’t want to go back.

<Things are…better now.> She hesitantly described her life.

She thought of Topher, her fellow HCP professors, her friends, and even some of her more tolerable students. She didn’t want to throw all that away.

<Where the hell is Dispatch when you need her.> Daisy didn’t have a clue where her earpiece had been blasted to during the explosion, and she knew she couldn’t take her eyes off the villain to find it.

<Leeching it is.> She finally decided, and squeezed.

Hellgate immediately doubled over and made retching noises.

<Gross.> She’d puked in her mask before when a criminal messed with her inner ear.

The man reached up with trembling hands to lift his mask just enough for the chunks of food and bile to spill out. Whatever frightening effect his devil mask had on Daisy at one time vanished with that image. <I wish I had a camera.> She could have shattered the illusion of the legendary villain in one thirty second YouTube video.

Daisy was so busy thinking about what she should be doing with Hellgate that she forgot her own rule that she’d drilled into the freshman all year long.

Constant Vigilance.

Iron Giant had smashed into Seif al-Din like a humanoid missile, but then she’d lost track of them. Now that was going to come back and take a chunk out of her well-toned ass.

The sudden shudder or the ground made her move for cover at first. She thought someone was still launching RPG’s into the park. But then a second shudder made several nearby tree corpses shudder. And then an ear-splitting roar nearly knocked her off her feet.

She turned around as a shadow fell over her and almost pissed herself.

Seif al-Din had arrived. Not the handsome, charismatic middle aged terrorist leader with his expensive suits and talk of killing the Zionist imperialists. No, this was the Seif al-Din that nations feared. This was the creature that destroyed part of New York and took nearly an entire Hero team with him. This was the creature that Daisy was supposed to kill if given the go ahead.

Seif al-Din was a healer with adaptive shifting, which meant his shifted form healed into something stronger when it was injured. What resulted after a decade or two of fighting everything from Mosad assassins to the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams tank was a nightmare.

The thing stood roughly fifty feet tall, but it was hard to tell with all the trees in the area cut down to size by the initial explosion. His legs were thicker than the three remaining tree trunks put together, but still looked humanoid, with the exception that his skin looked like a bad patchwork quilt. The majority of his flesh looked like a mix between gray stone and scales, but Daisy got the impression that it was strong. Other parts were the tan of his normal flesh, while others were charred black. She didn’t know what the difference was, and she didn’t have time to think.

One of his feet was descending toward her with the intent of squashing her like a bug. The foot was normal for a human, despite the size, except for the big toe. That toe curled into a giant claw that dug into the dirt where Daisy had been standing before jumping away.

The jump saved her life, and it also helped against the strain that her full kinetic battery was taking on her. She went from feeling like her soul was being stretched to the breaking point to extreme discomfort.

“Reaper.” Despite the grotesqueness of the creature trying to curb stomp her, it’s voice retained the culture, accented voice of the terrorist leader. “It has been quite a few years since I’ve looked down on you like this.”

Unlike last time, this time Daisy actually got to see his face. And she almost puked.

His head looked more insectoid than human or reptilian. A dozen eyes dotted a round, vaguely human shaded head. The adaptation gave him a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of his surroundings, so if he was paying attention there was no way to sneak up on him. It was a great tactical advantage, but she had to believe it must give him a headache.

“I made you a promise last time, and I’m here to make good on it.”

The creature’s maw opened and spoke, revealing razor sharp teeth perfect for tearing flesh from bone. His nostrils weren’t more than tiny slits above that, and it left Daisy wondering how the creature got enough oxygen to stay alive.

“Are you just going to sit there and blabber or are you going to fight you giant fucking Jurassic Park reject!” Daisy couldn’t help but taunt the beast.

“Very well.” The thing smiled and she could see its giant, bulging muscles coil and prepare to spring its death trap for her.

And that left her in another conundrum. Did she let Hellgate go to focus on the more dangerous threat, or did she eliminate him so he couldn’t stab her or the other Heroes in the back once he got his shit together?

She had to move before she made the decision because she didn’t want to be a pancake. Seif al-Din sprang at her and it felt like a mountain suddenly grew legs to stomp on the nearby villagers. Thankfully, Daisy wasn’t alone in this.

Seif al-Din saw it coming, but there wasn’t much he could do in midair. Iron Giant smacked into the creature’s ribs. The impact rocked the world like a thunderclap. The unstoppable thing meeting the unmovable object, but Seif al-Din didn’t scream out in pain. He gave a grunt and snapped at the metal man who’d practically imbedded himself the terrorist’s torso. Thunderclap after thunderclap rocked the clear sky of Orlando as the Hero unloaded his powerful punches on the beast.

John could have been screaming his defiance or years of built up rage as he hammered Seif al-Din back into the ground. Buildings shook and collapsed from the impact. Then he started to drive the creature back away from Daisy and the rest of the Heroes.

That gave her a second to think, but there wasn’t much she had to think about. The threat was clear and the danger was present. She couldn’t allow Hellgate to just walk away from this, or let him bring his teleportation back into the fight. It was too dangerous, and one misstep from Daisy or John could leave any number of Heroes, soldiers, or innocent civilians dead.

She knew what she had to do.

Hellgate was about a hundred yards away and struggling back to his feet. She’d been forced to stop leeching from him to concentrate on Seif al-Din, but John had bought her the time she needed.

She turned back toward Hellgate, found his life line standing lonely and alone in her mind’s eye, and grabbed it for a second time. But this time it would be the last.

 

***

 

<Fuck me.> Lilly couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer size of the beast rising up from the shattered remains of the park. <I do not one be on that thing’s bad side.> She made a mental note to apologize to the monster for some of the comments she’d made, but not all of them. Some of them, especially toward the misogynistic fucktard Damascus were warranted.

“Son of a bitch!” Armsman hollered from behind her.

The hand-to-hand combat expert had succeeded in getting Seraphim into a headlock, but the women had buried her teeth into his forearm and was busy trying to chew his arm off.

“Let me get a shot!” Lilly felt adrenaline pump into her as she aimed her Glock at the struggling pair. “Come on, Armsman, I got the husband, let me have the wife too.”

The old man looked a little annoyed at her childish exuberance, but he released the woman and dove to the side. Immediately, it looked like the woman started to melt.

“Gross!” Lilly yelled as she pulled the trigger and emptied the entire clip into a real-life example of the wicked witch of the west’s demise.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Armsman roared as the melting finished and a winged Seraphim launched herself back into the air.

It wasn’t a flawless leap. One wing looked like it was struggling to hold up her weight, she wasn’t flying straight, and quite a few large drops of blood fell back down to the ground as she struggled to gain altitude and escape.

“Yeah, you better run.” Lilly reloaded and fired off a few more rounds at the Hero’s retreating back, but it was beyond her pistol’s range and she didn’t hit shit.

Still, it felt good to kick Seraphim’s ass this time.

Armsman didn’t look so happy. “You let the bitch get away!”

“I fucking shot her full of holes!” Lilly held up the empty magazine. “It’s not my fault she can fucking melt like that. That’s creepy as fuck, but I bet she’s going to be out of the fight for a bit.”

Lilly looked around for more threats just as the sky seemed to crack open around them. She looked up, thinking some military jet was breaking the sound barrier on an attack run, but all she saw was the giant creature stumbling back as a gleaming metal figure a fraction of its size pounded away at its chest.

<That can’t be good.> They were heading in their direction.

“We need to go.” Lilly grabbed her uncle’s hand and they vanished out of the duo’s destructive path.

They reappeared close to their second fallback position, which had a much better view of the park now that most of the trees where shattered husks.

What she saw made her heart stop.

Her father was a few hundred yards from her, struggling to get to his feet. Less than a football field away from him was Reaper. The Hero’s head was moving back and forth between the beast being beaten backward by her ally and Lilly’s father. She couldn’t see the conflict on the Hero’s face, but her focus on Hellgate instead of Seif al-Din sent flashed crimson warning signs in Lilly’s mind.

Then, her father who was standing with his hands on his knees collapsed.

<NO!>

She didn’t even think. She teleported to her father’s side in a blast of expanding darkness. Before the darkness had dissipated, she had him in her arms, and a second blast took them back to where Armsman was waiting to put his protective hands on both of them.

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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.

Previous                               Next

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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