B008.2.2 Vra: Bargaining

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It took a while for them to stop screaming variations of ‘You’re insane’ at me. I just stood there and took it, knowing that I’d have to be real careful about what I did next. Because I sure as hell couldn’t even find the Hellhound by myself, much less take him down.

When they finally calmed down, I said, “Please, I need your help. I can’t avenge Lind- Twitch without you all.”

They all reacted to the word ‘avenge’, and I knew I had something to work with. Especially with Fletch, he already looked half ready to storm off and go after the asshole himself.

Did he have a crush on Linda? It would explain all the looks he’d been throwing at me. It would also mean that he was the one most likely to support my idea.

“Do you have any idea – any idea – how dangerous messing with the Hellhound is?” Jimmy asked, his voice very quiet and very grave.

I gave him my most somber look and said, “I already lost my sister to him. Yes, I fucking know how dangerous it is.” What should I say next? I’d never paid much attention to how to make people do what I want, Linda had always been the people person. “I… please, I just… I need help. For her. To make him pay for taking her away, from us.” They’d obviously liked Linda (she’d always had an easy charm) and were grieving for her. If I could just make them feel like I felt right now.

“That’s not fair,” Laura whispered, looking down. “She died to save us, and now you want us to risk throwing that away?”

“She didn’t choose to die for you,” I replied, almost shouting at her. Careful, Terry. “She wanted to- to survive as much as you did. But that monster got her and killed her. And he didn’t kill her easy, you know? I got a look at the police report. He shot off her left leg at the knee, shattering the right knee with the same shot when fragments from the left one smashed into and through it.” They went pale, Peter even green. “She kept fighting, or maybe fleeing, because his next shot took off her right hand and then her entire left arm.” I felt the bile rise, my stomach protesting, my brain demanding that I stop imagining this. “She was on the floor, on her belly, and was trying to turn on her back when he shot her chest, sideways. Took off both breasts and a good piece of her r-r-ribcage,” I continued, feeling ready to puke on the spot, “She was already dead by then, or at least so close it didn’t matter anymore, but he used a sidearm to put a bullet into her head, just to be sure!”

I turned away from them, dropping on my knees and puking for the second time in one night, this time into a trashcan next to Linda’s desk. I heard someone’s feet pound the floor and then another puking sound from the next room over.

“My God…” Laura sounded like she was ready to empty her stomach, too. I wiped my mouth and turned to look at them. Fletch and Jimmy looked ready to faint, Cad looked ready to commit murder and Laura had a sick look on her face. Peter was gone and I heard him retch in the next room over. “We didn’t… we just ran, and we heard she’d died later on,” she explained, tears running down her too-perfect cheeks.

“I’m not blaming you,” But I do. You got her into that situation in the first place, “But she’s still dead. And I’m going to go after the asshole who took my sister from me, with or without you!” I stopped holding the tears back and they spilled forth like twin cascades, blurring my vision. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and then saw that Laura was crying openly now, Fletch was wiping his nose, Jimmy looked depressed and Cad ready to boil over with anger. Peter was nowhere to be seen, but I thought I could hear his choking breaths from behind the curtain.

Now or never.

“I beg you, help me. I can’t do this alone, but heaven knows that I’ll try.”

* * *

I can’t believe that actually worked.

I’d expected them to resist more, if they helped at all. Or that at least one would stay out of it. But they all agreed.

A few minutes later, they’d given me a bulletproof vest and some kind of gas-powered gun that fired stun ammo. We’d quickly decided that killing the guy made no sense, since he came back anyway, so we had to knock him out and then… actually, none of us knew what to do with him, but I thought shooting a few pieces off of him off would be a good start.

We didn’t really know jack about the guy or where he could be, so I proposed going after whoever had hired them for that job – even if it wasn’t him who’d sold them out, he should be able to point us at another possible culprit.

So we geared up (Foxfire actually put on a padded red-and-white bodysuit, which she told me was reinforced enough to stop small caliber shots) and Peter (a low-level Gadgeteer, as I found out) doled out earbugs for everyone, plus a barely visible camera we could stick to our collars.

“So, you gonna use a cowl?” Jimmy suddenly said as he stepped out of his partition (they didn’t really qualify as rooms). He was wearing a leather suit not unlike that of a biker, except it was covered in swirls that made my eyes (and brain) hurt if I looked at them for too long.

Maybe it was because of the headache he caused that I didn’t get his question. “A… what? I don’t think wearing one is going to be practical, to be honest,” I replied, confused. After a few seconds, I simply looked away from him before the headache made me faint. Good God, what a costume.

“Oh, I didn’t mean a cowl as in, a garment!” he replied, surprised. “Thought everyone knew the slang by now.”

“What?” Now I was really confused.

Fortunately, Foxfire joined us just then and clarified, “It’s a technical term, if you can even call it that. A ‘cape’ is the identity of a superhero, costume, powers, style, name and all the other stuff. A ‘cowl’ is the same, just for supervillains. So he asked if you wanted to use a codename and maybe take on a theme or something.”

“Uhm…” I hadn’t really thought about this, but… I was going out to hunt a crazed metahuman. Should I hide my identity behind a codename and a mask? I thought it over for a few moments, but…

“No. I want him to recognize me,” I answered, voice as firm as I could make it right now. “I want him to know his victim’s sister is the one who’ll take him down. Besides, I don’t have any powers and unpowered people don’t use capes or cowls, right?”

“Well, your choice, Terry,” Fletch – Razzle, now, wearing his magician’s mask again (I had to ask him why he’d chosen that name and mask, but later) – said. “But it’s not true that unpowered people never dress up in costumes, take on a codename and go fight or commit crime. It’s just that most don’t last long.”

“Then I’m not going to jinx myself by taking one on.” I held the gun in my hand, trying to get a feel for its weight. I’d never fired a gun before, but… how hard could it be? They were supposed to work even for total idiots. “Not that I’d have any idea what I’d call myself, anyway.”

“You could, you know. Use one of Twitch’ spare masks and her… name…” Razzle’s voice slowly faded as he saw the look on my face. I didn’t even bother to respond any other way.

Instead, I turned to Foxfire again as Cad, who’d added a padded leather jacket to his ensemble and a simple black half-mask that wrapped around the upper half of his head, hiding his hair and any signs of his ethnicity. Considering his size and musculature, I’d have taken him for a white guy, had I not seen his face earlier.

To Foxfire, I said, “Tell me about this guy we’re going to look into? I only know his job, so far.”

“He’s a supervillain agent – as in, an actor’s agent. People with jobs contact him, tell him the price they’re willing to pay and he then looks among the contacts he has for a supervillain or a team that fits the bill. The villains are not told who they work for, protecting the employer’s identity – in fact, most agents don’t even know for whom they commission villains.”

“That sounds very risky. What if someone just prank-calls an agent, or refuses to pay afterwards?” It didn’t sound like it could work.

Wagging a finger like she was talking to a little child, she explained, “Ah-ah, it’s not that easy. If you’re not an established customer, then you have to pay the agent in advance – if the villain or villains he picks out succeed, they get paid – minus the agent’s cut – and if they fail, the customer gets the money back – a gain, minus the agent’s cut, though they usually take less if the job failed – and the agents themselves are usually part of a bigger organization, usually the Syndicate. Means the Syndicate gets a little off of every job villains pull, in exchange for providing the agents with credibility and emergency funds, as well as the means to forcibly collect their money if need be. Not that it becomes necessary very often, because how stupid do you have to be to want to piss off the Syndicate like that?”

That made more sense, and I nodded to her. But… “Is that how all supervillains work? I can’t imagine someone on the level of the Dark Five or the Defilers or Caliban to just take commissions.”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Nah, that’s the system for the small-timers, like us. Street villains, as they call us, if that. Some – like our own group – are little more than gangs that make some money on the side with the least dangerous and difficult jobs. The big guns play their own game, and we lowly mortals don’t meddle.”

We made our way down the staircase – their agent was not very far away, so we’d go their by foot.

“What about the Hellhound? Where does he fit in?”

“Nowhere I know of, really,” answered Fulcrum now. “Far as we know, he’s just a crazy who hunts down street level villains, because the real deal is beyond him. Car bombs, sniper rifles and such are not much use when you can shrug off stinger missiles, regenerate from a pinky finger or possess bodies at will. I looked up as much on him as I could, but far as I can tell, he’s never taken a commission, and certainly doesn’t attack non-powered criminals unless they get in his way.”

“So we got nuthin’ to go on?” Cad – LagForward, and I really had to get used to calling them by their codenames when out and about – asked. I’d realized by now that his nasal, annoyed tone was just normal for him and no indicator about his mood whatsoever.

“Only our agent. I hope to God that it wasn’t him that sold us out, ’cause there’s no way in hell we’re gonna get a new one any time soon.”

“But if it was him…” I said in a low, low voice. Images of… things were appearing and disappearing before my mind’s eye, things I never thought I’d even consider doing before.

“Then he’s done for,” said Foxfire with iron conviction. “We don’t even have to lift a finger, we just need to call it in. The Syndicate has a no-tolerance policy regarding this kind of action.”

“I don’t want the Syndicate to get him, I want to make anyone who’s responsible suffer!” I half-shouted at her, but she just brushed it off.

“Relax,” Fulcrum threw in. “Nothing we could do to the guy would even come close to what the Syndicate would do. The villain responsible for the Americas takes a dim view of this, and she has everyone who breaks the Syndicate’s rules like that delievered to her in person, in order to make an example.”

“So he’d be thrown to Mindstar?” That bitch was a walking (well, flying) nightmare, and she’d been active for little more than a year! “I guess I could live with that.”

“Nah,” he replied. “Mindstar’s a member of the Five, but word on the street is, she’s too unstable and inexperienced to act as an administrator for the Syndicate network. Till she is, the Dowager rules both North and South America.”

Brrrr. We all shivered. The Dowager was one of the older members of the Five, old enough for even me to know stuff about her. Just surviving as long as she had was proof of how dangerous she was; not to mention being considered the second-in-command to the Dark himself. It didn’t help that there were rumors the adults didn’t tell us kids in Oak Leaf (meaning we all knew about them), that she was the Dark’s actual wife, or at least his rebound gal for whenever Lady Light was on the outs with him.

We know so little. We hate them so much, but all we really know are rumors. That thought blindsided me. There was a story there, but I’d never even thought about it beyond gossiping about it at school. I doubt that most of the people in our community really knew much of anything about the metahumans they so fervently opposed.

At least I could be sure he’d be punished. Unless he was innocent and this was just a giant waste of time.

* * *

“So, what can you guys do, anyway? I only know the bare bones,” I asked while we were on our way towards the office of the agent. The shades seemed even darker than before, and it was miserably cold now (thankfully, Linda had stocked some extra warm underwear at their HQ. Wearing her clothes was just wigging me out, but not freezing assorted bits of myself off was just too seductive). Still, I needed something to distract myself.

They looked at each other and all shrugged, apparently deciding that it was alright to tell me. Gee, do I feel trusted. Not that they weren’t already way more trusting than I would ever have been.

“You’ve seen my fireworks,” Razzle began, walking just a little behind and to the right of me. “I can make the cloud grow really big and wide, but it takes time. Haven’t found a limit on the size yet. It doesn’t obscure my vision at all, and I can mitigate the obscuring effect for anyone I want within the cloud. You probably know that already.” I nodded. “But I’m also a mover. I get some low-level super-speed, but only while I’m hidden inside my fireworks.”

“Oh, the police doesn’t know that part. You kept it secret, huh?”

He nods, seemingly flattered. I can’t quite tell, thanks to the mask.

LagForward takes over. “I’ve got level three physique, and I can give myself exemplar-level strength, toughness and super-speed for split-second bursts – like you saw earlier. Not much fine control, though, the super-speed ain’t in my head. But I can punch holes in walls when I need to.”

“Uhu.”

Fulcrum pulled a coin out of his purse and said, “Watch closely.” He threw the coin forward. Suddenly, a kind of… swirl in the air appeared in its path, and when the coin touched it, it’s flight was diverted to the right at a ninety degree angle. “I can speed up my sight, and I can create that fulcrum anywhere within my sight that I focus my gaze on. It allows me to redirect any physical object’s movement by up to ninety degrees in any direction.”

“And you’ve already seen – and felt – my ball,” Foxfire continued, but without creating it – it would have been too conspicious. “It acts like a taser, and I can throw it easily without having even a good grip – it sticks to my body until I don’t want it to anymore. Takes one or two hits to take down a normie, and three or more for a meta, depending on powers and physical fitness. The effect is mental, not physical. What you probably don’t know is that I can recall it – and the return motion is as fast as a ball kicked by a soccer player. But it can only move towards me with that speed.”

Something clicked almost immediately when she got to the last part. “So… you just use Fulcrum’s power to redirect that return shot and turn it into an attack, right?” At least that’s what I’d do.

She grinned, showing off her canines again. “Well, aren’t you a smart one? Linda was the one who figured that out for us.”

So you didn’t even come up with it yourselves?

“Though we do have one more big trick,” Fulcrum commented. “Which we’ll demonstrate to you, presently. Look.” He’d stopped moving and was pointing towards a rather run-down old office building. There were five people in front of it, all dressed in black shirts and pants, holding guns.

“Fuck,” Foxfire cursed as we all hid behind a nearby half-collapsed wall, looking at them across the street.

“Who’re those guys?” I asked, trying to make out any identifying marks. They were all dressed identically, all clean-shaven and alert.

“They belong to the mob,” Fulcrum explained. “Same people we stole that package from.”

Dammit.

“What do we do?” I asked.

Foxfire growled: “We take them down. Time to bust out our big trick.”

Well, now I’m curious.

* * *

Fulcrum and Foxfire stepped back from the rest of us, so that they were completely covered by the remaining wall of the building we had thrown ourselves in.

Foxfire held her hands out, and a spark appeared between them, growing swiftly to melon size, the ball switching colours in random patterns.

Then things got interesting. Fulcrum looked straight at the ball, his eyes turning bright, bright blue – unnaturally blue. The ball flickered, and then, after a few moments, it stopped switching colours – instead, a swirl formed within the ball, countless colours moving within.

“Done,” Fulcrum said. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He turned away from the ball and came back to crouch behind the wall with us, while Foxfire threw the ball out into the alley we came through, just out of sight of the mobsters.

“What are they doing?” I asked Razzle.

“They heterodyned their powers. Just watch,” he said.

Heterodyning? Are they Girl Genius fans?

Fulcrum looked straight at the guy closest to the alley, focusing his gaze.

Moments before something happened, I suddenly realized that they were all looking at the building, not away from it, as if they were guarding it. Why would…

And the ball shot out at pro-soccer speed, slamming into the back of the guy’s neck. It bounced off as the guy collapsed with an explosive sigh and Fulcrum shifted his focus on the next guy’s neck, before anyone could react. It hit him, too. And then the next three. The last guy managed to turn around and raise his gun, opening his mouth to shout – but the ball hit him in the throat and he collapsed.

Sped up vision, combined with an attack that strikes almost as fast as you can focus your sight.

This was what even exemplar-level metahumans could do? Two teenage delinquents with what I assumed were bottom-rung powers had just taken out five armed mobsters before they could even react.

No wonder so many people are afraid of them.

“You see anyone else?”, Foxfire asked.

Fulcrum replied, “Not outside the building. Let’s go in, keep our powers ready. LagForward, you take point, move low so I can aim.”

We moved, me following behind with Razzle next to me. Foxfire was sticking close to Fulcrum.

<Yo guys, just so you know, I have no access to that building at all,> came Peter’s nervous voice through the earbug. <Net connection is locked down tight, even if there are cameras, I’m not getting in.>

“Keep an eye on the police scanners then,” Fulcrum commanded as we passed the mobsters. “Warn us if anything is called in.”

<Will do. Good luck, everyone.>

We ran past the mobsters and snuck into the building.

Wasn’t there something suspicious I just noticed?

* * *

We went into the old office building, and the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled of old urine and drugs.

This is where their agent hangs out? Man…

LagForward went ahead towards the end of the hallway, where I could see an old door with a semi-opaque glass window for the top half. The light flickering above was glancing off the remnants of some old letters that had once denoted the owner of the office. I doubt that he’s still working here, whoever he was.

We walked by three more doors, ignoring them, and snuck up to the office. Foxfire was holding her ball in her hands and stayed just behind and to the right of Fulcrum, so he could fire it off at any time. The swirl of colours cast strange lights on the floor, walls and ceiling.

“Razzle, get ready,” Fulcrum ordered and the young boy complied. Just like before they’d knocked me out, silent fireworks began to go off around Razzle’s form, producing a greyish smoke that only served to reflect and further enhance the lights they created. It spread outwards, enveloping us all.

First, I held my breath, but then I realized that was silly – the others weren’t wearing gas masks or anything, so it obviously didn’t restrict breathing. I opened my mouth and breathed in – nothing. No smoke. It wasn’t even really smoke, just an illusion of such.

The cloud filled the hallway, and at first, I had to close my eyes to protect them from the flashes. But then it just… I can’t really describe it, but it adjusted, and suddenly I could partially see through the cloud. Not entirely, but way better than I should.

Again, I had to wonder just how high the power ladder went for ‘normal’ metahumans, if these guys were at the bottom of the power chart.

But then I had to focus again, because LagForward punched the lock of the door out and we went in.

* * *

I will never forget the scene that I saw next.

The office was rather shabby. There was an old oaken cupboard to the left, which had probably once been worth more than half the equipment in the StreetBadger’s hideout, but had not been preserved right at all. The only other furniture was a desk in front of a large window, a desk chair behind it and two smaller chairs in front of it.

Of course, I doubt the short, overweight guy in a cheap grey suit was supposed to have been nailed onto the desk by way of three long knives through the wrists and ankles.

And then there was he. He stood behind the desk, facing us and looking… mildly surprised. He was tall, obviously well-muscled despite wearing thick jeans and a thick military jacket. A very handsome guy, in a very natural way, with the rugged good looks of an old-school movie star. His black hair was cut down to a buzz cut, no longer than his three-day beard. But his eyes…

I froze up when I looked into his eyes. They were red, so red they seemed to sparkle like rubies, but there was no life in them. No emotion, at all. They reminded me more of a reptile’s eyes than a human’s, and they certainly didn’t look like they belonged to someone who’d ever cared about someone.

Or perhaps those were the eyes anyone who lost everything they cared about got, eventually. Windows into hell itself.

I didn’t want to think about it. I only wanted to hurt him, but I couldn’t move. He wasn’t even seeing me, just looking at the fireworks and smoke, and yet his mere half-lidded gaze was enough to beat me. I never stood a chance, and neither did the others.

He vaulted over the desk towards us, drawing a large handgun out of a holster at his hip.

Fulcrum let fly with the ball, but he just vaulted over it and shot in the direction it came from – right at Foxfire.

She went down with a scream, then a gasp and the ball winked out of existence.

“No!” Fulcrum screamed and turned to her – but his shout revealed his position and I saw a red fountain sprout from his shoulder as he was violently thrown around and back, slamming into Foxfire’s collapsing form before she’d even hit the ground.

We have to run away. Yet I couldn’t move.

LagForward, meanwhile, could. He’d moved along with the cloud as it enveloped the front half of the room, and now he burst out of it from the side, his mouth twisted in a furious snarl.

Hellhound didn’t bat an eye. Nor did he react in any way I’d have expected – he stepped towards LagForward, closing the distance. Obviously, LagForward hadn’t expected that, either, and his lightning-fast punch went wide as the Hellhound simply stepped into his range and drew a knee up.

The air left LagForward’s lungs explosively as his enemy drew his knee up and slammed it into his crotch, making him bend over – and expose the back of his neck.

The follow-up strike knocked him out as surely as Foxfire’s ball had laid me out. Then he turned towards the smoke and levelled his gun in my and Razzle’s direction…

Except the fireworks were already clearing, and Razzle was nowhere to be seen.

I was alone, exposed, gun in my right hand but aimed at the ground, as I stared past the muzzle of the biggest revolver I’d ever seen and into those dead red eyes.

And then he hesitated, as he looked at my face. He recognized me, and I was sure he could guess who I was and what I wanted here.

He remembers my face. Linda’s face.

I was staring at Linda’s murderer, he was less than ten feet away and I could not move.

He opened his mouth, breathing out, still not pulling the trigger, when my hate finally overcame my… my fear.

It was stupid. He was aiming a massive handgun at me, and all I had was this stunner that probably wouldn’t work unless I hit his head, and I’d never shot anyone in my life and had no idea how to aim, or anything.

Yet I drew up my gun, as quickly as I could, as I felt my face contort with hatred, I aimed at his head and I pulled the trigger and…

Nothing happened. I hadn’t taken off the safety.

Something slammed into my left shoulder, throwing me back moments before I heard his gun roar.

There was no pain, just a dull throbbing, and my field of vision almost immediately began to turn black.

No. Please, God, no, not like this… I couldn’t even… no…

I saw his face enter my field of vision, then the rest of his body. He knelt over me, using the butt of his gun to turn my face left and right, taking a closer look at me.

He’s right in front of me… Linda… he took Linda away and I can’t kill him…

He opened his mouth and said eight words to me.

And then there was nothing left.

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Every Writer’s Archenemy

Writer’s block. Damn it, I was almost done and now I’m sitting on the last scene and can’t proceed. I’m sorry, everyone, but this one will have to come tomorrow :,-(

Progress Report 3 & Poll

Working on the chapter, it should be done today.

Meanwhile, a donation interlude is coming up (NOT a regular update, it’ll come either within this or the next week without interfering with the normal chapter). I have to choose between two right now (they will both eventually come, but the order is not set).

One is a long interlude that starts back in the early twenties with Wyrm’s origin up to today, the other deals with the Savage Six and the aftermath of Heretic’s fall. The poll will run until I actually start writing, but the sooner you vote, the better.

B008.2.1 Vra: Bargaining

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“Dude, this is creepy”, said a boy’s voice.

My head hurt.

“I mean, she looks just like her!” The speaker didn’t sound like he’d gone through puberty yet.

“Not quite. She’s more buff. And her hair’s different”, drawled a slightly accented girl’s voice. She sounded like honey and cherries, and I must have hit my head pretty hard because I normally did not make that kind of comparison.

My arms were numb, but I could feel that they’d been twisted behind my back and tied. Around some metal pipe or something, which was pressing into my back. Someone had taken my hoodie off, leaving me in my sports bra. The pipe was cold against my back, helping me focus. My shoes were off, too.

“Twitch never talked about a twin sister.” An older voice, a young man with the slightest hint of a lisp. It was unreal how sharp my hearing was right now.

“She never talked about her family, period,” replied the girl.

“What if this is a shapeshifter or something?” asked the boy again.

“She went down with one hit of Fox’ ball. That speaks towards her being a normie. Plus, she didn’t turn back to a real form when we knocked her out and I think a shapeshifter would have changed to look exactly like Twitch to sell a twin or something.” A new, rather nasal voice.

“I’m not a darned shapeshifter…” I said before coughing hard. I looked up and saw four teenagers stand over me, giving me suspicious looks. One girl, three boys. “And why did you take my hoodie off?”

A guy in his late teens – older than me, but most probably too young to drink – was the first to respond. He was really tall, at least as tall as the officer earlier, but so thin he looked like a stiff wind would break him in half.

“Do you have any idea how many weapons and traps a contriver can hide under or in a garment like this?” he asked with just the barest hint of a lisp, “If we were really professional, we would’ve stripped you naked and done a cavity search, too.”

I shivered, damn it. “Thank you for sparing me that. How long was I out?”

“Just about fifteen mi-“

“Who the fuck’re you?” interrupted the nasal voice, coming from the mouth of LagForward. It really didn’t fit his buff body. His open vest showed off the kind of sixpack and upper arm sculpting normal people had to work a decade for or so. “And why’re you here? Why did you attack us!?”

Now I looked down again, ashamed. Why did I attack? Even disregarding the fact that I could never stand a chance against four metahumans at once, even if they might be at the bottom of the power chart. Even disregarding the fact that I’d never been in a serious fight outside of fight training. I’d never even hit anyone with intent, not outside training, again.

Was I that angry at Linda and my parents? That unbalanced?

Well, duh.

“I’m sorry about that. Really, I just…” I didn’t look up at them, “I’m just so angry. My sister is dead, and no one seems to care.”

They didn’t respond, and I looked up at them, taking a closer look at each for the first time. The only one I hadn’t really gotten a look at yet was the girl, Foxfire. She was a gorgeous half-Asian girl with waist-length black hair in a somehow very naughty style, bright golden, slightly slanted eyes and a rather slim body for a meta-girl, at least going by what I’d seen on TV so far. Her clothes… didn’t really deserve that description, especially in the current winter weather – she was wearing a red bikini top, cut-off jeans and a black hoodie with an open zipper, as well as red training shoes. And she had a Japanese fox mask tied to her belt.

She had heavy black circles around her eyes, and in general looked dead tired. The others looked no better really. The short one – a curly-haired blonde boy who couldn’t be more than thirteen years old – looked like he’d been crying until a short while ago.

“You spoke about Linda. Twitch… that was her name, right? I mean, her supervillain name?” I asked, even though I knew the answer already.

The girl took over talking. “Yup, Twitch. Never told us she had a twin sister, though,” she answered.

I looked down, clenching my hands. There was some feeling returning to them, if only barely. “Yeah well, she didn’t tell me jack. Not that she had powers, not that she was a supervillain, nothing. Last week I wake up, get ready for school and then I find out, joy oh joy, my twin sister was not only a supervillain, she’d also just gotten herself murdered.”

“Man, that sucks,” commented the blonde boy. Razzle, going by the power he’d shown off earlier. Then he scowled at me. “What’d you do to her that she wouldn’t tell you?”

Had I not been tied up at that moment, I would have jumped up and punched him in the face. I tried to, even, despite my chance to even reach him being… low. But the restraints held. So I just ground my teeth and replied, “I don’t know. She just… shut me out. I can get why she wouldn’t tell our parents, but… why not me?” I looked up at them, as if searching for an answer. I doubted they knew. They hadn’t even known that their friend had had a twin sister. Linda had not spoken to them about me… ever.

They all gave me looks full of pity, which only made things worse.

“Twitch was a dear friend of ours, even though we only knew her for a month and a half,” said Foxfire as she nodded towards LagForward. He knelt down next to me and untied my hands. The other two didn’t seem to like it, but Foxfire was apparently their leader. “We met her shortly after she got her powers, though she never told us how she got them,” she continued, offering me a helping hand.

I shook out my hands, getting some feeling back into them, and took it, letting her pull me up. She was stronger than she looked.

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she said.

“A whole lot,” I replied, brightening up. Someone willing to talk and answer my questions? Could I have this much luck?

She smirked. “Well, so do we. How about you answer ours and we answer yours?”

That’s only fair, I guess. I nodded. “My name’s Terry, by the way. How should I call you?”

“Laura. And these are Jimmy, Cad and Fletch,” she answered, pointing out the tall guy with the lisp, the buff Asian boy and the short one. “Nice to meet you, Terry.”

“Likewise, Laura,” I replied, only half-sincere. They were very nice, especially Laura, but I didn’t trust them yet. And there was still the matter of my dead twin sister – if they were responsible…

* * *

They gave me back my hoodie – I’d barely noticed how cold it had been, but now I was thankful for being able to put it back on. I wouldn’t vouch on it, but I think Fletch and Cad were disappointed that Laura gave it back to me.

We went into the staircase and up, until we were on the highest level of the old parking garage, just one level beneath the roof. I stopped and stared from the entry.

The place had been turned into the most awesome hangout a teenager could want, at least in my opinion. There were thick cloth curtains in various colours hanging all around it, covering every opening to the outside – keeping the light in, and the warmth. Keeping the wind out. They obviously had electricity because they had a series of electrical heaters keeping the place not quite toasty warm, but warm enough to justify even Foxfire’s ensemble. Pillows, blankets, love seats – all second hand apparently, and many having been repaired rather haphazardly – covered nearly every inch of the floor that wasn’t taken up by at least two layers of all kinds of rugs. There were several flatscreens spread around the place, with every gaming console ever hooked up.

Holy Shit,” I whispered. “I thought you guys were supposed to be smalltime.” Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I felt the heat rise in my face. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Great move, Terry. Insult the only persons who might know what actually happened to Twitch.

Laura smiled sweetly, showing off a pair of rather long canines. They looked strange, but I guess boys probably liked her smiles a lot. “Don’t worry. It’s a compliment – we’ve managed to keep a low profile so far. And we’re not that big – most of the stuff here is second-hand, if that. And the tech is all self-made from scrap.”

That gave me a start. I looked at the flatscreens, the consoles and the heaters. The lighting, too. It all looked completely functional but… yeah, you could tell there’d been damage. A few pieces of equipment were also quite clearly cobbled together from parts that had originally belonged to several different appliances.

You’re getting distracted again, dummy.

I shook my head. “Anyway. Anyway… let’s get to the important subject, alright?”

The boys walked past us, Cad and Fletch throwing me suspicious glances while Jimmy just seemed to ignore me. They all sat down on the largest couch in the room, which was arranged along with three others in a half-circle in front of a flatscreen the size a house wall. That definitely looked handmade – there was the screen and a frame holding it in place, but no casing, and I could see wires emerge from behind it and up to the ceiling, where they joined a lot of other power lines.

“One question first, though. How do you power this stuff?”

Laura sat down on the couch along with the others, too. “Solar panels on the roof – it gets quite a bit of sunlight, so high up. And we also have a few bikes wired up to a bigass dynamo, for when we don’t get sunlight for a while,” she explained. “Now sit.” She nodded towards the couch next to the one the StreetBadgers were sitting (lounging, in Laura’s case) on, and I sat down, turning to face them.

“Do you want to start, or should I?”

Jimmy spoke up first, “Wait. We got one more member, but he went out to get food right before you arrived here.”

“I thought it was only you four, after… after Linda died.”

“Where did you get your information?” he asked.

I looked down at my feet, rubbing my hands. Hope they won’t overreact. “Well… the police. I asked a police officer what he knew about… about the case.”

“You’re working with the fucking police!?” Fletch screamed, jumping up and into fighting position, fists raised. “If ya think ye can sell us o-“

“Fletch, sit.” Laura barked those two words like a well rehearsed line, and Fletch immediately dropped down onto his seat, though he still gave me the evil eye.

And who the hell names their child ‘Fletch’ anyway?

“I’m not working with the police. I just… got picked up by a police officer. He wanted to take me home, I got him to talk then bailed,” I explained in a single breath.

Their eyebrows shot up in an almost coordinated motion. “Really?” asked Laura in a curious tone. “However did you get away from him?”

Looking down, I felt the heat rise to my face again. The officer had been really nice and understanding, and I’d… but it might help me break the ice here. “I uh… I pretended I felt sick, and when he stopped and got out with me, I… kicked him in the balls and ran.”

They looked at me, stunned for a moment… then they broke out into laughter, which only led to my face feeling even hotter than before.

It took a while for them to calm down again. “Man, do you know how to treat’em,” Laura gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. “How did you find us, after you bailed from the cop? I’m pretty sure they don’t know where we hide, on account of them not storming our place to lock us up.”

“Uhh, honestly, just by chance. I got lost in the Shades, and then I followed this big cat over here,” I replied, glad she wasn’t focusing on the officer.

“What cat?” Jimmy asked, suddenly serious again. “Where is it? I saw no cat!”

“Whoa, dude, calm down!” I said, inching a little away from him. “It’s just some cat!”

Laura gave me a hard stare. “In our world, there’s no such thing as just some cat that just happens to lead the twin sister of our just deceased team member to our secret hideout! Where is it?”

“Um, it was searching through your trash cans last time I saw it…”

Laura threw Jimmy and Cad a look and they both left immediately.

“Can I ask a quick question?” I asked her.

“You already did,” she replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

She nodded and waved her hand in an approving motion.

“When I woke up, you said that me being taken down with one hit from your ball is an indicator for me not being a metahuman. How come?”

“Well, that’s the Coltenhagen effect, duh!” She looked at me like it was obvious.

“The… Coltenhagen effect? I think I heard that somewhere…” I raked my brain, but all I came up with was the word being used, once, regarding ‘Humanity First!’ demanding more non-powered superheroes. But nothing else.

“Well, it’s kinda the reason why there are no non-metahuman superheroes or villains. Or why the military is so damn paranoid about even low-level enemy metas. Simply put…” She thought about it for a moment. “It’s kinda like this – every metahuman has a kind of real low-level power resistance. Not enough to really block powers, but enough to make it possible for them to resist, so to speak. Or at least resist to a meaningful degree.”

“So a metahuman could take more than one hit from your ball?”

She nodded, “Yeah. Or like… take that freak Mindstar, or the fortunately departed Mindfuck. A newly manifested, untrained teenager could resist their powers just as easily as an adult professional soldier with mental training. Doesn’t make us tougher or anything, it just… gives us a better chance to resist the really bad powers. Transformations, mind control, possession, that kinda stuff. The things that really give you nightmares.”

“And how does that apply to your taser ball? I mean, are you guys like, more resistant to electric powers?”

“No no, my ball doesn’t use electricity at all!” she said. “That would be way more dangerous. No, it’s a mental move. It just works LIKE a taser, but it’s not a physical effect, really. Otherwise, you’d be having cramps and burns where it hit you.”

I checked. True, my stomach was completely unharmed. I let my hoodie fall down again and looked up just in time to see Fletch look away from me. I ignored him, again.

“So that’s why there’s no non-powered heroes?”

She nodded. “For example, the Drakainas – they could easily shore up their numbers with non-powered pilots in suits, but they’d be highly susceptible to those kinds of powers I just described, and many others. Like emotion projection. People who make others feel fear, or lust, or apathy. Quite common, all things considered, and really lethal against normies.”

“I see. That certainly explains a lot.”

Just then, the boys came back up, Jimmy holding the big tomcat in his arms.

“Looks like a normal cat, if really big, Fox,” he said as he handed the purring tomcat to Fox. She took him into her arms and scratched him behind his ears, sniffing him while he purred contently.

“Smells normal, too,” she said. “D’awww, he’s just a big cutie!” She lifted him up over her head. “A really big cutie. Can’t smell anything strange about him, though he’s strangely clean for a cat that apparently belongs to no one.”

“Can we keep him?” Fletch threw in. “I mean, it’d be nice to have a pet here!”

We all looked at him and he blushed a little. But Laura nodded and handed the tomcat over to him. “But you have to make sure to feed him. And train him not to do his business all over the place.”

He nodded, eagerly, and took the tomcat onto his lap. It was really quite cute.

And then, there was the sound of a ringtone, and Laura checked her cellphone. “Oh, food’s here! Go and help Peter haul it up, boys!”

And just like that, Jimmy and Cad left again for the staircase.

Whoa, she really got them whipped right. I felt jealous. I never could get boys to do what I tell them so easily. Maybe she can give me lessons?

Soon, the boys returned along with this Peter. He turned out to be… a normal boy around my age. The kind I usually didn’t notice at school. Not fat, but definitely overweight, with his brown hair in a bad haircut, sloppy clothes under a thick coat and oversized glasses.

He came in looking quite serious, and immediately looked at me, apparently having been briefed by the other two. “So, Twitch had a twin sister,” he said in a rather soft, weak-sounding voice. “Hello, I’m Peter. I’m kinda the tech guy for this team.”

He put down the stack of pizza boxes he’d been carrying (five boxes, five more in Jimmy’s arms and ten in Cad’s. How much did these people eat?) and offered me his hand. I took it and we shook hands. His was sweaty. He let go quickly and sat down on another couch, keeping his teammates between himself and me.

Strange.

They quickly spread the pizza boxes around… and my stomach growled the moment their smell hit me. I blushed as I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten since… well, apart from the donut earlier, I hadn’t eaten since morning.

Laura gave me a look and handed me one of her boxes (she three stacked in front of her. Fletch had two, Jimmy and Peter three, Cad four). “Here, eat.” I was way too hungry to protest.

The pizza turned out to look even better than it smelled. It was obviously from a real Italian restaurant. And it was loaded with yummy stuff. Well, except for the broccoli. Yuck.

While the others dug in, I carefully removed the green abominations from my pizza, then started to eat. Mmmmmm…

We ate in silence. Cad pretty much breathed his pizzas in, while the others took more time. Fletch fed the cat, too.

Then we relaxed and leaned back. They’d all been jumbo pizzas, and I usually didn’t eat this much, so I was quite… floored.

After about ten minutes though, I started to… recover my earlier impatiance. Maybe I’d just been too hungry and groggy to feel it, though. “Um, now, about Linda… I mean Twitch.”

That got their attention. “Can you tell us some about your background? I mean, Twitch always refused to,” Laura asked, and I nodded. It might not have been smart, but… this was my chance to learn something. So I’d play nice.

“Well, we’re twins, obviously. We have a little brother, and live with our parents in the Oak Leaf community,” I began.

“Shit! Oak Leaf! That’s one of the richest places in the entire Esperanza area!” shouted Peter. The others seemed similarly surprised.

“Why, in the name of God’s green earth, did she become a supervillain and hang out here with us?” asked Cad. “I mean, she even ran away from there two weeks ago – why?”

I looked down at my feet, but thankfully, Laura took over explaining the obvious.

“Cad, think about it. What is Oak Leaf known for?” she said.

I heard Jimmy gasp as he got it. The others didn’t, I think. Not that I looked to check.

“It’s the biggest ”Humanity First!” community in the entire world,” Peter explained. “Among other things, Richard Svenson lives there. Current leader of ‘Humanity First!’…”

“And a regular dinner guest at our place,” I added without looking up. “My parents are deep into it. That’s why Linda never told them, I think. Not that it explains why she wouldn’t tell me. But… my parents seem to be more shaken up about her being a metahuman than her being dead,” I continued, spitting the last word like poison. I didn’t look up at their faces. I didn’t want pity.

“She started acting strange about two months ago, and wouldn’t talk to us. Two weeks ago, we kind of made an intervention, but she just… blew a gasket and stormed out of the house…” I still remembered the feeling of betrayal, when she just left instead of talking to me. I could have understood if she wouldn’t talk to my parents, but why not to me.

“That was when she moved in with us. Do you want to see her place?” asked Laura, her voice full of… sympathy.

I nodded, quietly, and she took my hand (hers was unnaturally warm – suddenly it made sense that she’d run around in light clothing) and all but dragged me around the staircase. There were several “rooms” partitioned off from the rest of the space by way of heavy curtains and wooden screens acting as walls. She took me into one of them. It turned out to be a small bedroom, with a bookshelf loaded with books, a laptop on a desk and a small dresser drawer.

The curtains were all blue, and there was a pressed tulip in a frame, hanging over her bed. And a picture of me, from five years ago (we’d still looked identical back then, but I remembered that photo being shot, and besides, I was wearing a yellow dress in it. She’d always worn blue). I just stared at the picture.

“What… what can you tell me about her?” I said, not taking my eyes off of it. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you have a picture of me here, but you never told me?

“She was what we call a ‘Brain’ in the business. Mental powers. Perception. She had a kind of danger sense, except she could spread it to cover others. Give her a warning when others were in danger. She also got a boost in her reaction speed and all. Mental only. And only when her Danger Sense was set off.”

“Who killed her? Why?” I turned to look at her. I might have been crying.

She looked uncomfortable. “We… we’d gotten a commission, to steal a package that was being transported by a bunch of mobsters,” she said. “Job went well, we stopped their car, took them out, got the package… but then everything went to shit when the Hellhound appeared.”

Oh no… Everyone in Oak Leaf knew the Hellhound. He was a kind of hero to ”Humanity First!”. Unofficially, of course. I’d never paid much attention to it, beyond the basics.

“I heard that he’s a metahuman hater. I mean, real hate. Hunts and kills any he finds,” I said, my voice strangely monotone. “Something about his family being killed.”

“Yeah, his wife and daughters were eaten by a cannibalistic villain team,” Laurel explained. “Guy’s major badass crazy. Goes after metahumans with heavy weaponry, sniper rifles, you name it.”

“How come he’s still around? I mean, the Coltenhagen effect…”

She shook her head. “He’s a metahuman, too, though most don’t realize it. Some kind of resurrection ability – no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back.”

“So he killed Twitch because…”

“He was after the package. Someone sold us out, maybe, or sold the same information twice. We dropped the package and ran – guy’s too dangerous for us – but he pursued. Twitch…” She choked, wiping her eyes. The others, who’d followed us, looked utterly miserable. “She… she convinced us that someone needed to distract him. That we needed to split up. We did that, and he pursued her, and…”

I looked down at my feet.

The Hellhound.

My sister had died just because some guy had a hate-on for metahumans. Oh, the irony.

The fucking Hellhound.

My sister had died to save her friends. Because that guy couldn’t swallow his hate.

The Hellhound murdered my sister.

I felt the rage rise up inside me. When I raised my head, the StreetBadgers all took a step back.

“I want to go after him. Are you guys in?”

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Slightly Adjusted Release Schedule

Well, it had to happen, and it’s not really a shocker. I’m officially adjusting the release schedule to Sunday/Monday. It has been the standard for quite a while now, and it seems my sundays are always too busy for one reason or the other to really finish the chapter on time.

As for the current chapter, well, Easter happened and so I didn’t finish yet. It’ll be done tomorrow (I’ll be taking the train several times, and I always write well while on the train).

Until then, I wish you all (who celebrate such, whether or not you believe in it) a belated Happy Easter!

More Worldbuilding

I reorganized the worldbuilding page of “A Dream of Dragons”, splitting Magic and the Gods apart. I also added a short section on Dragons, which will be expanded later on.

Be reminded that the Gods section includes massive spoilers for any future work

B008.1.2 Vra: Anger

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A minus 11 Days

I reached the industrial district almost an hour later, completely out of breath and drenched in sweat.

While I was very – even exceptionally – fit and trained regularly in a variety of sports, long distance running among them, I’d managed to spend myself running without pacing myself. I just couldn’t focus enough to do that. Usually, when I ran, once my body got used to the motions I’d just relax and go into my zone, just… running.

Not this time. I felt like there was a maelstrom of emotions inside me, held back by a knot in my belly that it pressed against and tore at. Most of it was rage, I was sure.

Nonetheless, I arrived. Our gated community was pretty much on the opposite side of the city, or at least it felt like it. It had been built in its spot deliberately, far away from the districts frequented by metahumans. And let’s face it, it was pretty much a law that low-level heroes and villains would throw down in abandoned factories and warehouses.

There were plenty of those in Esperanza, and nowhere more than in the old industrial district. Heavy industry had almost entirely fled the cities due to the Environmental Protection Act (also known as the GreenGreen Act, named after the superhero group that had been its most fervent supporter) of nineteen-eighty-two and now tended to cluster in isolated so-called industrial conclaves, far apart from cities and other protected sites.

Which left more than enough abandoned warehouses and factories behind in the cities, since it wasn’t worth the money to disassemble them or knock them down and build new things in their place. Esperanza had been rebuild almost entirely from the grounds up, after Desolation-in-Light wiped out Los Angeles, but there were a few parts of the old city left, surrounded by the new one. Most people called them ‘the Shades’ (as a contrast to the Brights in New Lennston) and they were the places the scum of the city gathered in.

The old factory I had run to – I’d remembered the address from when a policewoman had told us what had happened – didn’t stand out from the surrounding buildings at all. It was big, it was run-down, it was made of brownish-red bricks with tall, stained black chimneys. I had no idea what had once been produced within, as there was no identifying sign left, save for the street name and number written on a small, rusted metal signpost.

The idea that my sister had died in such a stereotypical place almost made me cry, but I was angry enough to let any tears evaporate before they even left my tear ducts. Taking a deep breath and drawing my wholly inadequate hoodie closer around my body – West Coast or no, November was not the best time to run around in only your underwear, a hoodie and sweatpants. Especially if you were drenched in sweat from stupidly running like a madwoman – I walked through the open gate. It looked like someone had broken it down – probably the police when they’d stormed in to see what was going on.

Despite the late hour, the factory was, well, not well-lit but it was bright enough to see. The back half of the ceiling had collapsed at some point – I couldn’t tell if it was recent or not – and moonlight was flooding in, thanks to the cloudless sky and the current full moon.

There was still some police tape left at the scene, bright yellow that stood out sharply against the black, brown and grey of the factory. No police in sight, though, and why should there be – sure, they hadn’t caught the murderer, but it’d just been a supervillain girl who died. No one important.

I shook my head. No, that wasn’t fair. It probably had nothing to do with the police not wanting to help. She’d died almost a week ago, and whatever clues had been left here were most probably already filed away.

Past the police tape, the front half of the factory still stood, covered in dust and old grime, but apart from that, it looked like it could still light up and start working… though I still had no idea what it was meant to produce.

Gee, talk about avoiding the issue. Get your ass in gear, idiot!

Kicking myself in the ass, I looked through the place… and then I froze.

The chalk outline was still there. As were a lot of dark stains on the floor, many small ones and one really big ones…

Mesmerized, I stepped closer, until I was just a hair’s breadth away from having my shoes on the big stain.

Whoever had died here had bled. A lot.

What a way to go.

Then, I suddenly heard heavy steps behind me, and a gruff voice said: “Hey, miss, you’re not supposed to be here!”

Spinning around, my hand went for my baton – but then I stopped when I recognized the uniform the man was wearing.

In the movies, there’s usually only two kinds of fat cops. The dirty (in more ways than one), donut-and-burger eating asshole or the jolly good-natured veteran who takes it easy and likes all kinds of good food in large quantities (and donuts). You can usually tell them apart by how clean their uniform is, and by just how grossly overweight they are.

This guy… looked like a little bit of both. He was quite a bit taller than me, had at least three hundred pounds more on his body than I did and his uniform was straining quite a bit around his body – his fat was spread relatively evenly across his body, except for his impressive belly. He had very short black hair, barely visible beneath his policeman’s cap, rather attractive black eyes and heavy jowls.

He came to a stop near me, squinting to see me despite the twilight. The way I was standing, the full moon was falling on me from behind, hiding my face in the shade. Not that he’d recognize me, anyway.

“Miss, this is a dangerous part of town, especially for a young lady!” he said, his voice in stark contrast to his appearance. This guy made Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry sound like Micky Mouse on helium. Not to mention that the words did not fit the stereotype. “Miss?” he asked again, when I stayed silent.

I relaxed, letting my arms hang down by my sides loosely. “I’m sorry, officer. I just… wanted to see.”

He relaxed almost imperceptibly once he could see both of my hands. “See what, Miss? This ain’t a place for sight seeing. Nothing good happened here.”

“I know I…” I looked down. I’d taken a step back and was now standing on top of the biggest stain. “I… she died here…”

I looked around my feet. I was standing right where Linda had died. I was standing right where Linda died.

“My… my sister,” I chocked, suddenly unable to breath. “My sister died here… oh God, my sister died here.” I felt tears leak from my eyes as his expression turned from concerned to horrified and pitying.

Not that I cared. “Linda died here.” I tried to breath, but it came in too short. Not enough, I was feeling so dizzy. So I took another. And another, quicker one. Again. And again.

The factory began to spin, the policeman merging with the surroundings in my vision as I stumbled around, unable to keep my footing on the wobbling ground. She died here. She died here and I wasn’t with her!

* * *

I have no recollection of the five or ten minutes that followed my breakdown. I don’t know if I passed out or just repressed them, or whatever. All I know is that, some time later, I was leaning against the hood of a police car, eating an expensive donut with extra thick chocolate frosting, and drinking a cup of steaming hot chocolate.

The donut I get, but where the hell did he get hot chocolate from?

The policeman had the doors of the car open and the cabin light turned on. He was on the other side of the car, keeping it between us. Giving me some sense of privacy, after the utterly humiliating way I’d lost it in front of him. He was on his second donut, with a cup of steaming hot coffee on the side.

After a few more minutes of chewing and drinking, I said, “Thank you for the meal. And… thank you,” without turning around to face him.

“Not much of a meal, Miss Afolayan,” he said in that badass movie-cop voice. I was sure that people who heard him before they saw him imagined some kind of Dirty Harry slash Arnold Schwarzenegger guy.

Of course, what was more interesting was that he knew my name, and even pronounced it right. “H-how do you know who I am?” I asked, still not turning around.

He chuckled sadly. “You said your sister died here. One Linda Afolayan, alias Twitch, member and supposed leader of the StreetBadgers, a superpowered teenage villain team. More of a youth gang, really. Until a week ago, that is.”

I tensed up – I’d never actually heard of Linda’s supervillain name. I didn’t even know what kind of powers she’d had, or who her team had been.

“Do you… do you know more?” I asked, finally turning around to look at him across the hood of his car. I could see his nametag from here. Officer Widard.

I thought I’d heard that name before, somewhere. Maybe he has famous relatives?

He gave me an unbearably sad and compassionate look. “Miss, there’s other problems here. Namely the fact that a minor is out at night, in one of the worst parts of the town. And visiting the scene of a crime, no less.”

“I’m sixteen,” I replied, weakly. As if that meant anything. He ignored it.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to take you home, now. Please get into the car, Miss,” he said. He was saying ‘Please’ but there was no doubt he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I was pretty sure that, if I ran away, he wouldn’t be able to keep up. There was no way he’d shoot me, and by the time he got into the car, I could have run down the street so he’d have to turn it first, or into an alley too narrow to drive into.

But… if I stayed with him, I might just get some information out of him. I really had no idea where to start. I didn’t even know who the StreetBadgers were, or who their members were, or where they could be found.

“Alright,” I said and got into the car. “My name’s Theresa Afolayan, by the way. Please call me Terry.”

He got in once I’d closed the door. His seat had been pushed back as far as possible for him to fit – even disregarding his girth, the guy was about six foot nine tall. “Name’s Tom Widard. A pleasure to meet you, Terry. Now, let’s get you home.”

* * *

He drove away from the old factory my other half had died in. I stayed quiet, for a minute or so, before speaking up.

“Sir, you seem to know a little about… about my sister’s case. No one’s told me anything, so I wanted to ask…”

Without taking his eyes off the street, the officer replied, “Normally, I’d say it’s up to your parents, Terry. But… I guess you deserve to know some. On one condition.”

Please don’t say… “What condition, Sir?”

“You’ll promise you won’t go off do something stupid like what you just did again. This part of the city really ain’t safe, at all.”

I thought it over, looking for loopholes in that promise. “Alright. I promise I won’t repeat those actions, no matter what you tell me,” I replied.

He didn’t seem to pick up on the loophole I’d built into it, or maybe he knew he wouldn’t get anything better out of me.

“Your sister was a member of a rather notorious youth gang. Call themselves the StreetBadgers. Mostly vandalism, graffiti, petty theft and some low-grade fights with other low-powered youth gangs. They all avoid the heroes cause they don’t stand a chance – maybe one in ten of them has anything more than a single Exemplar power, and almost none have any meaningful training,” he explained calmly, stating the facts the same way he’d probably do it if he was briefing a new partner. He sounded positively intimidating.

“Why have I never heard of them?” I asked. “I mean… any of them?”

He shrugged. “They’re really no more a problem than any other youth gang, Miss. Sure, their powers can be one hell of a headache, but even the most outlandish among them can be dealt with by us street cops, if we don’t go in blind – and most of them are low-level bricks, those are not hard to handle for even normal police officers – and they really pale to the real supervillains, so they don’t get much coverage.”

“What about the Badgers’ members? And could one of them have killed Linda?” If they’re that little of a problem, I should be able to pick them off one by one.

He sighed, as if he could read my thoughts. “Don’t even think it, Terry. The StreetBadgers are one of the more competent gangs out there.” But he still continued, laying them out for me: “Four members are left, now that your poor sister is gone. Fulcrum, a low-grade manipulator who can redirect the movement of any single object within his sight; LagForward – name’s supposedly written as one word, with the ‘F’ capitalized, an above-average brick for an Exemplar Tier meta, with the downside that he can assess his strength and speed only in momentary bursts,” he paused, drinking from a cup of coffee. “Foxfire, kind of their mascot. Low-level physique, and she creates this really annoying melon-sized ball of stroboscoping light, throwing it around and tasering anyone she hits. Finally, Razzle, he can create a cloud of sparkling fireworks and all, concealing and misdirecting. Can make it so it doesn’t block her or her friend’s vision.”

He stopped talking to let me digest that, finally driving out of the Shades and into Esperanza proper. The streets finally turned brighter.

So, there were four subjects. But… “You didn’t answer my question. Do you think any one of them is the murderer?” I clenched my fists.

“Nah,” he shook his head, not even thinking about it. “They’re brats, but these gangs are tight, and the StreetBadgers are known for loyalty. Besides, your sister… she was killed with a military-grade rapid-fire shotgun, using modified shells meant for fighting metahumans. No way those kids could have gotten their hands on it, half of them are younger than you are.”

I nodded. “My sister… what do you know about… about her? As a supervillain?” I asked, half afraid of the answer.

It took him some time to answer as we got closer to my home. Then he said, “Her name was Twitch. She was the second most recent recruit of the group, after Razzle. Suspected low-grade physique, but judging from you, that was misapplied. Some kind of danger sense and/or limited precognition. They really started rising up once she joined them, winning fight after fight, always evading us poor cops.”

“Could she fly?” I blurted out. We’d always dreamed of flying.

He threw me a curious glance as he waited for the next green light. “No. Pure Brainpowers, far as we can tell. Of course, it’s not like we know everything…”

I leaned back in my seat, pulling my arms close around myself. Couldn’t she at least get that one thing?

“Why would anyone want to kill her?” I whispered, only half to him. “Do you have any suspects?” I asked, louder.

“I’m sorry, but no,” he said, looking honestly so. “This whole thing… it makes no sense. Whoever killed your sister had professional gear. But what reason would a professional have to kill a teenage gang member?” He ran the fingers of one hand through his messy dark hair (he’d taken his cap off earlier).

“Maybe she found something out she shouldn’t know?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine any real reason, either.

“Maybe.” He fell silent.

“Where do they usually h-” I started asking, hoping I’d get some more information, but he threw me a glance that shut me up.

“No. I won’t tell you where you can find them. I’ll get you home, and hand you over to your parents. You know, the legal, right thing to do. I’m sure they’re worried sick.”

I didn’t answer. I barely knew him, but I could tell he was the kind of guy who wouldn’t budge. The fact that he was more than three times my weight didn’t make it better.

* * *

A minute or so later, the officer was cursing under his breath. There’d been a traffic accident, a truck had apparently spun out of control and was now lying across the street, blocking it entirely. He had to take a way around, but Esperanza, though far better planned than most cities, had a lot of construction and reconstruction, as well as maintenance going on right now, despite the winter weather.

We drove for a few minutes, constantly re-diverted by construction sites and, in one case, a battle between the Six Sentries and some villains I didn’t recognize.

He took a shortcut through the nearby Shades, and that’s when I saw a large piece of graffiti writing, saying ‘StreetBadgers’ in white-black-white lettering.

Take this chance, dummy.

I decided on a course of action. It was a dickmove, especially considering how nice Officer Widard had been, but well… family comes first.

“S-sir?” I asked, trying to sound as unsteady as I could. I’d been silent for a while, just looking out the window, and it wasn’t a stretch to play the role I had in mind.

“Yes, Terry?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the street. Good, he might have noticed something.

“I… ugh, I think that… that donut isn’t agreeing with me… I think I’m gonna throw up,” I said, speaking like I was ill, putting a hand over my mouth. Making a suspicious break in the sentence, to make it look like I was blaming my state on the donut and meaning something else.

Like my sister’s death.

“Wait, I’ll pull to the side. Can you hold it in for a moment?”

“I’ll try…” Gotta love nice people. I held my stomach, curling up on the seat.

He pulled over to the side of the street and got out, circling the car to unlock the door on my side and help me out (he was smart enough not to unlock it first and give me an easy escape).

I let him help me out of the car and stumbled with him in toe away from the car to a trash can, bending over.

“I’m really sorry, Sir,” I apologized, meaning it. Before he could react, I lashed out with my foot, kicking him in the balls.

As he keeled over – and I felt like vomiting for real now, what in God’s name am I thinking? – I bolted, running into an alley that would take me roughly towards the street I saw the graffiti art.

I doubt he’ll be that nice to random teenagers in trouble again.

* * *

I found the graffity again. It had been expertly painted on the front of an old restaurant building. Striped like a badger. How imaginative. Did Linda really hang out with people who do art like this?

It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t look like something really original.

You’re stalling again.

Not that I had any idea how to proceed.

Get off the main street, dummy. The officer might remember this and come to look for you.

I walked around the corner of the building – and finally realized why they called these parts of the city the Shades. I’d read about them, seen reports, but…

Esperanza had been built atop the ruins of Los Angeles. Literally in some cases – a lot of the city was standing on gigantic concrete pillars, or raised parts of the earth that had been moved by Desolation-in-Light. Many of the old parts were constantly in the shadow because of that.

Right now, I was in an alley that would have been jet-black if not for a single, flickering lightbulb over a side entrance.

That graffiti was territorial marking. So their hideout should be close.

I pulled my hood over my head, and went down the alley, looking around for further signs of the StreetBadgers.

* * *

After about half an hour, I knew one thing for sure. I should have brought a torch.

And a map. And a compass. Because I was utterly, completely lost. I could barely see the sky from where I was standing, and it was really miserably cold here.

Shivering, I walked pretty much blindly through the place, until a nearby trashcan tipped over and something flew at me.

I’ll deny it if anyone ever asks, but I shrieked like a little girl when a dark, red-eyed shade bounced at me – and then a pretty big cat with reddish-brown eyes and a jet-black coat of fur smacked into my chest, making me fall back onto my butt.

I looked down at it, feeling slightly silly. But only slightly, because beeing jumped by red-eyed black things in dark alleys was a common element of horror stories nowadays, even more than ever before.

“Hello kittie. Whatever is a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

It really was a pretty cat. He – I just assumed it was a tomcat – was big, weighted about twelve pounds by my estimation and had a long tail and a fluffy, long coat. His eyes were really more brown than red, but still. Damn.

I stroked his fur – it was quite clean and fluffy, and he purred like a starting jet, only softer. “Do you belong to someone, you big cutie?” Checking him over, I found no markings whatsoever.

The tomcat (I checked) flicked his tail and jumped off my lap, turning around then looking back at me. Expectantly.

Wait, is that cat telling me to follow it?

Well, my life was weird enough as it was, anyway. And I had no idea where to go, anyway.

And maybe he belonged to the StreetBadgers. Coincidences happen, right?

I followed him, trying to stick close so as not to lose him in the darkness.

* * *

The cat took me to an old, abandoned parking garage. The large building had seen way better days, and looked rather uninteresting, not to mention uninviting.

But when I followed the tomcat, we passed by a pillar that a stylized badger had been sprayed on. Ohhh. Good kittie.

I followed him, now more carefully. One hand beneath my hoodie, at the baton I’d tucked into the back of my pants.

The tomcat led me to some stairs… and a few trash cans beside them. He jumped onto one and starting looking for food.

Oh. That’s what you wanted.

Still, way useful. I snuck past the cat up the stairs. They were at the center of the parking garage and obviously very old… but there was barely any dust around.

I snuck up the stairs to the next level. Nothing to be seen. Nor on the next one.

Then I heard voices on the third level.

Holding my breath, I snuck to the doorless opening, hiding on one side to glance inside.

There was actually some moonlight here, if barely. There were a lot of crates and other shapes lying around, or piled up. I couldn’t make them all out in the current lighting.

There were also four figures standing in a circle, arguing about something in some Asian language. I had no idea which one it was, though it might have been Japanese (Linda had been way into anime).

I waited as they argued. And somehow, somewhere, my rage from earlier came up again.

These people had taken Linda away. She’d hung out with them, instead of me. Told them of her problems, instead of me. Fought with them, instead of me.

Linda died, and they didn’t save her.

I pulled my baton out and snapped it open. It clicked.

Dammit. The conversation stopped, and the figures – I could just barely make out two boys, a girl and a third, shorter one – turned to look at me. They didn’t call out. They didn’t wait. They started moving immediately. Flickering lights began to form around the shortest one, showing me a boy in his early teens, wearing skater clothes and a magician’s mask. Then the cloud expanded, obscuring my vision of the group. Except for one really buff, tall chinese boy, wearing jeans and a thick vest, as well as army boots. He stomped in my direction.

I could also make out a melon-sized sphere in the cloud of fireworks that was rapidly switching colours.

I don’t know why exactly I did it, later. Was I really that angry? That unstable? I should have put my baton away and talked to them. They ought to recognize me. And even if Linda had never told them about me, I did look a lot like her. I should have talked.

Instead I pulled my hood down and attacked them.

Not my smartest move.

The Chinese boy – probably LagForward – gave a start when I charged him, but he blocked my strike with a lazy motion.

I pulled my knee up to hit him in the balls, but he just blurred to the side, going super-fast for just a split-second.

The sphere that had been thrown out of the cloud of fireworks missed him by a split-second before hitting me in the gut. Last thing I saw was yellow, then all black.

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