Macian stopped in his tracks and turned around, his arm shifting configuration, the fingers turning into stiff rods as the repulsor was replaced by a crystal disk much like the one within Henry’s force-field generator. It lit up just as the fireball closed in on them, creating a hazy field of distorted light in between them. The fireball slammed against the field, some parts of it penetrating deeper into the effect, some dispersing at first contact – but none pierced through.
As the fireball faded, Macian deactivated the field just as he turned around again, grabbing Henry to run further down the alley as Fire Burial gave chase, switching between flight and ranged attacks. Macian stopped to block her any time she fired off a particularly large fireball, but otherwise trusted the force-fields both he and Henry possessed to keep them safe.
“What are we gonna do?! She’s going to keep chasing us until the batteries run out!” he said to the young cyborg running just ahead of him.
“They’ll hold out for a while. If only I knew how she’s tracking us, I’d get us away from here,” replied Macian, far too calm for the situation and not even flinching as another wave of fire washed over them, detonating everything it touched except for them.
Henry briefly stumbled as the ground shook, but thankfully, the force-field prevented the ground under his feet from detonating as well and shielded him from the shrapnel. “How can you be so calm!?” he asked, exasperated.
“Been through worse. And she really doesn’t have much in the way of imagination, so she’s gotten predictable,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Then again, she’s always managed to hide it that she could track people somehow, so maybe I’ve been underestimating her…”
“That’s not reassuring.”
“It isn’t supposed to-” He was cut off by another fireball, swinging around on the spot to block it. “We need to get somewhere wet. There should be a river close by, I saw it on a map!”
Henry nodded and ran on, overtaking Macian as the latter ran while holding his arm backwards, blocking a steady stream of fire from their pursuer. They ran across another alley, crossed a street and finally reached the river bank. Unfortunately, the river was at least five meters beneath the street level, which meant they needed to jump down into the dark waters from higher up than Henry ever had before.
His charge came to a halt at the edge of the street, only for Macian to barel into him and throw the two of them over the railing down into the waters.
The last thing he heard before he hit the water was Fire Burial’s frustrated scream.
* * *
The water was ice cold and dark and Henry gasped as he plunged into it, which unfortunately led to the water entering his mouth.
Choking on the cold, off-tasting water of whatever river they’d jumped into, he swam upwards, desperate to breathe air. Hitting something that was both soft and hard – I hope that wasn’t Macian – he rose above the water, spitting and then taking deep breaths.
Something grabbed his ankle and pulled him down again. Taking a deep breath, he kicked out trying to get away, but couldn’t free himself and was pulled down – only for the stream of fire aimed at him to boil the water above him. Whatever had grabbed him – Macian, please, let it be Macian – pulled him further down as the water above was boiled. At the same time, the water current was dragging him, tearing at his body as he was pulled down to the bottom of the riverbed, at the same time as his chest was feeling tighter and tighter, his air running out. Wait, how can there be a curr- no, later. Questions later.
It was dark at the bottom of the river, darker than he had ever experienced and cold. His ankle was let go off and something hard, something metallic pushed onto his shoulder, holding him down to prevent him from floating up. Just as his breath was almost gone, someone pushed something hard against his lips. Opening them on reflex, the object was inserted and then his jaw forcefully closed, making him bite down before water entered his mouth. Immediately, he could draw a breath through the object. Greedily, he did so, filling his lungs with sweet, sweet air.
A warm hand he recognized as Macian’s took his own, but it wasn’t enough for him – so cold – so he grabbed Macian’s arm and then hugged him close, trembling. The other boy tensed up, but then hugged him back with his good arm.
Suddenly, they started to float up for a moment, the current also catching them to pull them downriver, only for them to suddenly move upstream, pulled by some force – something pulled Macian and since Henry was clinging to him, he was pulled along. They stopped again some distance away and started to float up as he felt Macian move his left arm again, then they were pulled upstream again.
He’s using his arm like a hook. Shooting it off, then reeling us in, Henry realized, shuddering from the cold. So wet, so cold… I hope the food is packaged tightly enough. But it had to be, it was all in plastic bags, so it probably would be alright. Kind of stupid to think of the food, with an insane firegirl after us. And whatever means she had to track them, he doubted that jumping into the water would hide them.
Finally, after what felt like hours in the cold water, Macian started to pull them upwards.
* * *
They broke the water within a kind of old roofed pier, essentially a better wooden shack over the water with enough room for two middle-sized boots inside, though there were no boats there – and it looked like it hadn’t been in use for quite a while, except perhaps by some teenagers who did some horrendous graffiti work.
Good God, what is that supposed to be?! Whoever did this must never have heard of complementary colours, or consistency, or… anything. Everywhere he looked, he found his artistic sensibilities beaten with a rusty iron pipe, even as Macian pulled the two of them out of the water and onto the wooden pier.
“Oy, mate, I’ve got loads of respect for your artistic mind – but we need to warm up or we’ll catch our death of cold,” the young cyborg said, pulling Henry out of his zone.
“Huh? Oh right. Say, you don’t happen to have a few cans of spray paint on you…”
“No. Seriously, you need to get out of those clothes. Luckily, I got us some spare clothes from the second-hand bin,” replied Macian as he began to strip. Henry almost did the same – then Macian pulled his shirt off, revealing the scars on the entire left side of his body.
Oh God, no…
Tears welled up in his eyes as he saw the ruined mass of scar tissue covering down the entire left half of his torso – it looked like someone had burned him right down the middle, using a ruler or something to burn exactly one half of him. Like his face, the flesh looked like molten and then cooled wax, only a fleshy-brown with some red streaks here and the skin had cracked and split, only for tender red skin to close the wound.
It only got worse when he shrugged out of his pants. If he’d still had anything in his stomach, he would have thrown up again. He barely managed to dry his eyes and quickly scramble out of his clothes before Macian noticed that he’d been crying.
Pulling the red pullover and blue jeans pants that Macian handed on, he rubbed himself to get some of the cold out. “Did we lose her? How?”
Macian stopped to think it over. “Well, this is just a theory, but… powers are usually consistent, self-contained even. Barring basic physical enhancements, a metahuman with, say, stone powers will have all of their abilities tie back to that theme. So, since Fire Burial is a fire manipulator and morpher…”
Henry understood. “Her detection will be based on heat – she tracked our bodyheat!”
“Right-o, you get a cookie!” He actually gave him one.
“But… but wouldn’t jumping into the river make us even easier to track!? We’d be the only warm things in the cold!” Henry realized with horror, looking around as if he was expecting her to burst into the shack right now.
“Calm down. Here’s where things get interesting – y’see, powers are not necessarily logical. They obviously don’t follow the laws of nature – but many don’t follow logic, either. For example, Fire Burial cannot turn into her flame form when she’s wet from head to toe – makes no sense, but it works. That’s why she’s so freakin’ dangerous within the curtain – no rain, little water to work with against her. I bet that, jumping into the water, we kind of dropped out of her awareness. And, since we’re basically at the other end of the city by now, we should be out of her range, as well. Also, I pulled us upstream and she’ll check the river downstream first. By the time she gets closer again, we’ll just be two heat signatures among many.”
Henry nodded, absorbing the information. So much I didn’t know. I need to learn more about metahumans.
“One more question before we go – how come there’s a water current, even if the river should be cut off from its source? Shouldn’t all the water just pool at the lowest point of the riverbed?”
That earned him an appreciating – and really, really creepy smile on the right half of Macian’s face. “You’ve really got attention for detail down tight, haven’t you? Even in that kind of situation.”
Henry blushed a bit, nodding.
“Well, Heretic usually turns the curtain into a kind of teleport-loop thing. You go out one end, you get right back in the opposite side. Probably twisted it around a bit to let the water of the river flow in circles. He’s kind of obsessive about details like those.”
“Well, at least something I can like about these guys,” admitted Henry, slightly ashamed, afraid that Macian might get angry – he was pretty sure by now that he’d been burned by Fire Burial. Probably lost his arm because of her, as well.
“Yeah well, let’s leave it at that. I do admire some of them for their skill and all, but mostly, I just want to strap them into a torture coffin for the next few centuries. Now, let’s go try to find your mom,” Macian replied, unconcerned.
Henry sighed, relieved that he hadn’t pissed him off, and nodded, following him out of the shack.
* * *
They climbed a flight of stairs up to street level and made their way towards where Macian said the center of the city was (not that Henry could really tell where they were going – he was completely lost without the stars to above to tell the way).
“You know how to read the stars?” asked Macian when he made a remark to that effect.
“Sure, I learned how to navigate by the stars a few months ago. I was bored,” Henry explained.
“Cool. Maybe you can teach me sometime, could come in handy,” replied the other boy.
Henry blushed. “Wait, so you don’t know how to do that?” He would have assumed that Macian just knew stuff like that.
But he just shook his head. “No, I never had a chance. Nor do I much need it right now, what with my built in navigation software. Still would be nice to know.”
“Well, if we get out of here, I’ll be glad to teach you,” replied Henry with a smile. He thought he saw a brief look of sadness flash over Macian’s half-face, but it was gone so quickly he couldn’t really tell.
They continued on their way, staying out of sight as well as they could.
* * *
They were thrown out of their silence when a massive explosion shook the city, followed by a skyward fireball, just as they had entered an alleyway.
Henry fell down on his butt as the ground shook underneath, though Macian easily held his balance. Jumping up, he looked towards the fireball that was visible even above the four and five storey buildings around them. “What was that?!” he asked.
“Fire Burial. Someone must be fighting her well for her to use one of her big fireballs,” explained Macian rather matter-of-factly. “At least she’ll be distracted. Let’s get going, if we run, we should-“
“What are you talking about? We have to help! If she’s fighting, that means there’s a hero there, and probably other innocents!” Henry shouted in outrage.
Macian looked at him, dumbfounded. “And what are we supposed to do about it? You only have the stunner I gave you and a force-field generator that is only good for one more shot. And my own means are quite limited as well.”
Henry answered his stare with his own. “What are we supposed to- We’re supposed to help! What else would we do?”
“Run the hell away! You might not have noticed, but if she didn’t prefer playing with her food, she’d have killed us both already!” Macian almost shouted back.
Henry made an angry gesture with his hand, as if trying to push away those words. “That’s not what heroes do!”
“I’m no hero! I never said I was! I just want to piss off these assholes, maybe even find a way to kill them! I don’t care about saving everyone I come acro-“
Henry punched him in the face (subconsciously aiming for the unburned, right half), throwing the surprised gadgeteer back onto his butt, more from the surprise than from the force of the (rather weak, even for his size) blow. “So you saved me just to make someone angry? I don’t matter at all!?”
Macian rubbed his cheek in surprise, then retorted: “I told you that I saved you to spite Mindfuck. But no, you matter. Really, I like you. Which is why I’m going to get you to safety, which means away from any member of the Six.”
“We’re inside their own dimension! There is no ‘away*! Instead of worrying about that, let’s help these people!” By now, he was screaming.
“There’s nothing we can do! Instead of wasting our time, let’s try and find your mom and get you both somewhere safe, until this blows over!”
“And what about all the other moms who’ll die meanwhile!? What about the other sons and daughters!?” he screamed back, his face flushing in a hot anger unlike anything he’d ever felt before. “Wouldn’t you do the same for your sister!?”
Macian recoiled at the accusation in the last part, then rose up in anger, his face twisting into a monstrous mockery of an angry child’s face. But Henry was quite a bit past being scared, his hands clenched into trembling fists, feeling a passion inside him he had never known before.
“Of course I would! How can you even question that!?” shouted Macian back, abandoning all restraint.
“Then wouldn’t you want others to do the same for her!? And if so, shouldn’t you do the same for others, as well?”
Again, his questions made Macian recoil for a moment. Henry didn’t stop continuing his rant.
“I can tell that you love her. Wouldn’t it hurt to lose her?” When Macian nodded, he continued: “How could you not want to save others from that same pain!?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to – I can’t! I’m too weak! I need more time. Sometimes, you need to retreat, to pull back and prepare for ano-“
“THERE IS NO GOING BACK! YOU DON’T RUN, EVER!” screamed Henry at the top of his lungs. “If you look back, you’ll just get lost! You need to look forward!”
“That’s so stupid I can’t even count all the ways it’s stupid in!” screamed Macian. “We need to run away, to move somewhere where we’re safe!”
“There is only one way to move! Only one direction to run! FORWARD! Now, are you coming with me, or not?!” He stopped, taking deep breaths, his face red with anger.
Macian stopped and stared, swaying on his feet as if he suddenly felt dizzy. “You… you’re…,” he began, then stopped. Opening his mouth again, he started talking, but cut off after the first sound. It took him another try to start speaking. “No. No, there are bigger things than this. I need to think of Amy, I need to think of getting rid of them for good. I can’t risk it. There’s a whole world to save.”
“So you’d sacrifice even Amy for the sake of saving the world from them?” asked Henry, now more subdued, incredulous.
Macian nodded with a look of pure anguish on his face. It broke Henry’s heart to see his fast friend look like this, but the nod was enough to inflame his anger, his passion again.
“How could you save the world, if you can’t save a single girl? How could you save it, if a single person – your sister, the hero fighting there, whoever else is in danger – is an acceptable sacrifice? We’re all part of this world,” he explained. “I see it every day, everyone thinks that things are not connected, but they are. You can’t save two if you sacrifice one, you can’t be a hero if you try to make compromises. You have to save everyone, or no one is worth saving.”
And with that, he turned around and ran off towards the battlefield, leaving a stunned Macian behind. He didn’t look back to see him turn away and run towards the center of the city again.
* * *
Henry ran through the dark, silent city, idly wondering again where all the people had gone, how they had left no trace outside. But that wasn’t important, not really.
No, he was furious. Furious at Macian, for refusing to help, for refusing to risk his own plans, whatever they might be, for the sake of innocents. Even more furious, however, at himself, for being so vicious, for pushing the first real friend he’d ever made away.
Yes, now that he thought about it, he’d felt an odd kinship with Macian. Everyone else his age was just so… simple. They didn’t think, didn’t feel, didn’t sense the world the way he did. But Macian did. He thought different, but he was on the same level, he knew it. And now he probably hated him.
Shaking his head, he focused on the task at hand, grabbing the gun he’d put into his pants’ pocket. Macian had implied that it would still work, even after their bath. I hope it is enough. The force-field is down to one shot, he said, so I’ll need to be careful.
Taking a left turn, he ran around several corners to get back on track towards the ongoing battle. Whoever was fighting Fire Burial was using some kind of lightning to do so. I hope I can help. No I KNOW I can help, I just need to figure out how.
Looking up, he took in the stars, trying to steel himself for what was to follow. Then he sped up even more, his small, tired feet pounding the pavement as he ran towards the danger, against all of his instincts. I’m sorry mama, but I have to do this.
Turning another corner, then another one in the other direction, he reached a larger plaza, ringed by coffee bars, beyond which lay a larger green park in which the battle raged. He looked around, once, twice, then sped right across the plaze towards the battle.
But then, he suddenly stopped. Wait, stars? He looked up again. True there were stars. There hadn’t been any before. There shouldn’t be any, now. The sky was still dark, an unnatural jet-black. But now, it was dotted by hundreds, thousands, millions and billions of stars, stars he had never seen before, in constellations that didn’t exist. Dumbfounded, he looked at them, trying to remember when he had first seen them. He couldn’t remember seeing any stars before his fight with Macian.
What’s happening? I feel so… so hot, he thought, swaying on his feet as he was entranced by the gorgeous scenery in the sky, a vision of such intricate beauty he could never hope to replicate, even if he worked for a million years on the same picture. That star there… is it coming closer?
And truly, one of the stars was growing brighter, approaching him from above, dotting out more and more of the surrounding stars as its own brilliance outshone them. Until it landed, just a few feet in front of him, a sphere the size of a small house, floating a hair’s breath above the pavement, glowing in a brilliant white.
Suddenly, a strange, all-consuming fear grasped his heart, pushing him to turn away, to run from this thing, no matter where. Just away from the fallen star, away from what it was. It was so large, so overpowering, Henry almost, almost considered the idea – but there was something else, a part of him that longed for that sphere, longed to touch it, to become one with it.
With a start, he recognized that part of his self to be the source of his art, his dreams and ideas. That which he had come to call his muse, after something his mother had told him once.
And he understood another thing. That star, it was great, it was alien, but it was also a piece of him. And it offered, no, it represented power. Power he could use to save people.
I want this.
Pushing the fear away, he took a step towards the sphere – then he broke into an all-out run, charging at it, jumping, his whole body plunging into the light.