A minus 7 Days
You never know how much four walls and a roof over your head are worth until you have to go a whole day in winter without them.
I’d spent the night in a cheap motel room at the edge of the Shades, paying twenty dollars for a room that was smaller than our tool shed back home and even less comfortable. In retrospect, I’d probably let them rip me off, but I’d never had to deal with money like this before, and so I was down to eighty dollars from the hundred I’d gotten from Laura and the others.
Stupid. So stupid.
I’d eaten a breakfast in a fast-food restaurant that tasted more like paper and sugar than real food (three more dollars) and wandered through the city, aimlessly, until I’d spent five dollars on food from a very cheap, but surprisingly good Greek imbiss (the breakfast had only made me more hungry). How the hell did those fast food chains stay in business with food that bad?
Of course, when the sun began to set, I was forcefully reminded that I was still in the Shades and that the protection afforded to me by the reputation of teenage metas only went so far – desperate people are unlikely to think about the possible consequences of their actions (the irony of that statement was not lost to me).
And so I was mugged for the first time in my life, by two men who couldn’t be more than five years older than me, dressed in rags I hadn’t seen outside of halloween costumes and wielding a switchknife and a stick, respectively. I probably could have fought them off, or at least run away, but… I’d just given them fifty dollars, saying that was all I had. They believed me, or at least they thought that was more than enough money, and fled quickly.
I didn’t know how to feel about that. Sure, I was down to twenty-two dollars, from a hundred, in less than a day by myself, but compared to everything else, it just didn’t seem all that important. I thought I couldn’t possible feel any more miserable than I already did.
Boy was I in for a surprise. There is no situation that can’t be made worse by having to sleep in an abandoned house, the temperature outside below the freezing point and with only two old, moth-eaten blankets for warmth.
And the cold wasn’t the worst part of it.
No, the worst thing was that you only had yourself for company. Only your own thoughts. You couldn’t help but facing yourself.
No wonder so many people on the streets go crazy.
* * *
A minus 6 Days
I woke up with the sound of an explosion and a tremor that shook the building I had slept in. Before I was even fully woken up, there was another explosion, a scream and then… silence.
Standing up, I kept the blankets wrapped around myself as I staggered to the old, broken window of what had once been a bedroom. I pulled the blanket I’d hunger over it to keep the cold out aside and looked out. searching for the source of the disturbance.
Five houses down the road, the Greek imbiss I’d eaten at yesterday was on fire. As I watched, still numb from the restless sleep, a black figure shrouded in scarlet fire stepped out, dragging a charred corpse by its leg. It looked around, its gaze momentarily passing over me, before it simply walked down the road, dragging the corpse behind it.
That was my second day alone.
* * *
A minus 4 Days
I’d never known being hungry could hurt so much. Since I wasn’t going to go home anytime soon, I had to ration my money out. On my strolls through the Shades, I’d found a soup kitchen for homeless people. I didn’t look like their normal customers, but I looked (and smelled) ragged enough by now to pass muster, and I got two bowls of soup with bread and one sandwich a day.
Which was barely enough to keep me going through the Winter weather, and they knew that, but they barely had the resources to keep operating, as I learned from listening to the more talkative (and lucid) guests.
This was a whole new world for me. I’d never even seen a homeless person in real life, only on the television. Now I was sharing my meal with them, even though I didn’t talk to them. And they didn’t talk to me, either.
I’ve never been too good at reading people, but I felt like they knew I was going through something bad and they respected my need to be left alone.
They’ve probably been… no, bullshit. They are at rock bottom.
It felt strangely… comforting, being there.
* * *
A minus 3 Days
When I woke up on my fifth day, my coat, my blankets and the last of my money were gone.
It had rained (instead of snowing) yesterday, and my coat had been drenched before I’d managed to get to shelter, so I’d hung it up in the bedroom, huddling in my blankets.
Then I woke up, an hour before sunrise, freezing because all my blankets were gone. And my coat. And the money I’d kept in the breast pocket of the coat.
After having my sister die, my parents act like jackasses, almost getting my sister’s friends killed and going on the run from my family, from… everything, I didn’t think I could actually feel worse. I thought having to spend the nights, and most of each day, with just myself was bad enough.
Now it was worse. The… knowledge that someone had stolen from me only made me feel worse. The money, I could understand. The coat… worse, but alright.
But the blankets?
* * *
A minus 2 Days
The people at the shelter had given me a spare coat that was left, not having fit anyone else among the people they usually get.
It helped, but only a little. I’d tried to sleep at the abandoned house again, but I just couldn’t. It didn’t feel safe anymore.
I’d heard of people who’d had burglars break into their homes, and they moved out soon thereafter, no longer able to feel safe in their own homes, and I’d thought it hard to believe, but…
So now I was walking around in the streets of the Shades, going from shelter to shelter. Always on the move.
I looked around the street I was walking on. It must have been one of Los Angeles’ main roads, back in the day, very broad with lots of businesses on both sides.
Most were closed, but I passed by a small kiosk. An old black man in winter clothing was sitting out on a chair, drinking steaming hot coffee.
I stopped when I saw some of his wares. Namely, a series of booklets on a rack. They were coloured brightly, all of them, and I’d never seen that design before.
The three leftmost booklets were black-white, white and black respectively, with the words ‘Light & Dark’, ‘The Shining Guardians’ and ‘The Dark Five’ written on them.
“What are those?” I asked, my voice rough. It’d been a few days since I’d used it for more than single-syllable utterances.
The man looked up at me, eyes dark behind large glasses. “You never seen those, doll?”
Yeah, he really said ‘doll’. The last man to call me that had been my grandpa.
As a reply, I shook my head.
“Well, those are information booklets, on the big names in the cape and cowl world,” he explained. He was pronouncing his words funnily. He’d draw out all the A’s and then say the rest faster than he should. But only the A’s. “So like, you can read up on the big heroes, or the villains. The really notorious ones.”
He looked me up and down, his eyes slightly interested. “Tell you what. First one’s free. Pick one, read up.”
I looked back at the rack. Well, it’ll distract me from my misery, at least.
Looking through the booklets, I found one on ‘Independent Villains’, with the name of Hellhound among the lists of villains it covered. Reaching out, I almost picked it, but…
I took the one on the Dark Five instead. “This one, please.”
“Going for the nightmare fuel, eh?” the man said. “Well, have fun with it. I hope you like horror stories… though that one doesn’t cover Dread Roger or Hannibal Storm or any of that ilk. So not the worst kind of nightmares. And only the current line-up, too.”
I nodded. It was the only one of them I was really interested in, and he was a current member, anyway. “Thank you very much.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Plenty of nightmare fuel in this one, anyway. I’d advise you to skip over Kraquok and the Dowager, if I were you.”
“My nightmares can’t get any worse than they are.”
“That’s a tall thing to say, in this day and age, doll,” he continued, snickering. “Wha’d’you have ’em about that’s worse than this kinda monsters?”
I almost snapped at him, but I didn’t have the energy to. So I just answered, “I see my twin sister dying, over and over.”
That shut him up.
I took the booklet and walked away.
* * *
Real Name: –
Debut: May 3rd, 2004 in Hong Kong
Joined: March to September 2006
Ratings: Meta 10
The self-styled ‘High Priest of the Five Gods’ first appeared in Hong Kong, committing a series of high-profile murders of so-called heretics – metahumans who were serving baseline humans, whom he considers walking ‘blasphemies’.
He adheres to a philosophy of metahuman superiority not unlike that of Weisswald and other metahuman supremacists, though unlike them, he has no desire to make people as a whole manifest, claiming that those who are destined for manifestation will manifest anyway, and all others should die.
His power is an example of the extremely rare ability of power mimicry, with so far unknown parameters. His cap appears to be the Apex level, and he has so far demonstrated up to four distinct powers at a time. He is, however, capable of taking lesser powers and enhancing them to Apex level when he uses them.
Since joining the Dark Five, he has reduced the number of murders he and his ‘faithful’ commit, and is focusing more on recruiting new converts to his cause. His favourite recruits are teenaged metahumans, especially supervillains and ga-
* * *
-ngmembers and other people who are easily indoctrinated, such as…
“So that’s why…”
That’s why he’d shown up at their hideout out of nowhere. Offering help.
He was looking for new sources of power. And people he could indoctrinate into his religion.
I had to warn them… right?
Would they even believe me? Or care? A chance to work for one of the Five? I quickly leafed through his profile (it was four pages thick, mostly accounts of his more prolific actions – and he had the shortest section), but there seemed to be no known drawbacks for his faithful. The few times they were caught and questioned, they appeared to be of sound mind (as far as any supervillain or fanatic can be) and acting of their own free will. No mental manipulation could ever be detected.
You don’t need superpowers to brainwash people.
I put the booklet into my pocket and ran.
* * *
It took me nearly four hours to find their headquarters again. I ran into it and up.
“Laura!” I shouted. “Jimmy! Fletch!” I ran up the staircase, shouting their names. “Cad!”
I reached the top of the building – everything was as it’d been when I left.
Except there was no one there.
“Peter!” I ran to his corner, where he had all his equipment.
The equipment was still there, but a quick check revealed wiped harddrives. Nothing there.
Their ‘rooms’ were empty of any really personal stuff. Pictures and all, and there were spots where stuff was missing.
I was too late.
* * *
A minus 1 Day
I’d closed the place down (they’d installed shutters on the doors from their level to the stairway and left the keys behind, too) and left. It was a great place to stay, all things considered, but… it didn’t feel right.
And I needed to think, anyway. I’d always been better at thinking about things while on the move, so I went out and… walked. So I’d left and gone for a walk.
It had been early afternoon when I left their place. It was around midnight now, I was sure, and I hadn’t thought much, at all. I didn’t even know where I was, except that I was still in the Shades.
Is this my fault?
I’d gotten them almost killed. They’d been shaken up about Linda already, and I’d used that to get them to go up against someone completely out of their weight class. He’d almost killed Laura.
Easy prey for Dajisi, even if he only offered healing. They’d probably been all too eager to listen to whatever crazy ideology he fed them, if only he’d save Laura. And if he’d brought some kind of mind control or such along…
That’s not your fault, dummy. They made their choices. And if they went along with a murderous whackjob like that, instead of going to a hospital, then they deserve whatever they get.
I mean, the Dark Five were like, the top villains of the world. What kind of sane person would work for them?
Taking out the booklet, I looked at the other four entries.
* * *
Real Name: –
Debut: March 4th, 2010 in New Lennston
Joined: September 2011
Ratings: Control 9, Manipulation 9, Perception 6, Physique 7
…newest member… serial rapist… enslaved Amazon of the New Lennston United Heroes Division…
Universal Telepath, prefers mind control and mental warfare as opposed to physical confrontations… no known case of assaulting teenagers or any person below sixteen years of age outside of a combat situation…
Nothing much I didn’t know yet about her. She’d had quite the television presence since her debut.
Codename: Lamarr the Purple
Real Name: Markus Birkowich
Debut: October 1st, 1998 in Amsterdam
Joined: December 5th, 1998 to February 3rd, 1999
Ratings: Control 7, Damage 6, Manipulation 10, Movement 13, Morphing 7, Perception 9, Physique 3, Protection 12
Most powerful member in direct combat… bends space for teleportation, protection, hiding weaponry… mind control through hypnosis… can transform into animals or other persons… overall ‘magician’ theme… suspected of several unconfirmed assassinations around the world… debut at age 11…
His section was the longest – his full biography was known, and it was nasty.
This dude sounded like real bad news.
Also, he was hot. There was an artist’s rendition of him, and if he looked even half that good in real life… well, a girl could get ideas, I guess.
Wow, ain’t that shallow, even for me?
Only two left… the two the vendor had warned me against.
I looked at Kraquok first, and almost dropped the booklet when I saw the picture of him. Holy fucking shit! I looked over at his description.
Real Name: –
Debut: August 3rd, 1927
Joined: Founding Member
Ratings: Damage 4-12, Morphing 1-13, Physique 12, Protection 10
Founding member of the Dark Five… true name unknown… known cannibal, leader of a cult of consummate cannibals… does not harm children… violently assaults and eats child abusers… known archenemy of Severance, founding member of the Shining Guardians…
Extremely strong, fast and tough… regenerates… … grows stronger as he fights… becomes larger and more monstrous… energy breath becomes more powerful… maximum known size, about 150 feet…
Well, damn. He basically turned into Godzilla, only bigger. And meaner, it seemed. Also, he was nearly a century active, and they still didn’t know jack about him?
The list of his crimes read like the wet dream of every horror writer. You could write ten horror novels out of each year, I’d bet. No wonder the vendor had warned me about him.
I turned to the last member. The Dowager. All I knew about her was that she was the Dark’s right hand woman, and supposedly his lover, too.
Codename: The Dowager
Real Name: –
Debut: suspected 1970, in Rio de Janeiro
Joined: unknown, pre-1972
Ratings: Control 7, Meta 8, Perception 9, Spawning 13
Unknown identity… mastermind-type, non-combat member… can detect lies… her power enforces contracts, compelling people to stick to their contracts… capable of enhancing or otherwise adjusting the powers of people that have a contract with her… breaking a contract results in immediate death and the creation of a ‘Shade’ in her service, which holds all powers, skills and memories of the original… suspected lover of the Dark… second-in-command of the Syndicate… known to always keep her word… always accompanied by a large white cat…
Of Hispanic heritage, according to eye witnesses… no detailed description available…
This woman was scary. I mean, damn.
And now the StreetBadgers had been picked up by what appeared to be the least dangerous member of the group.
* * *
I put the damn booklet away.
They’re goners, aren’t they? I mean, I won’t ever see them again.
Why did I want to? I barely knew them, and they hated me. Or at least despised me.
Because they are the last real link to Linda.
But Linda was dead. Dead and gone.
I shook my head and walked on. There were storm clouds in the sky, but I didn’t care. I had to walk, clear my head.
Why do I keep distracting myself?
It wasn’t the StreetBadgers that really bothered me.
This had all started with Linda’s death, and I… I’d been lashing out left and right, trying to make sense of it…
No. That’s a lie.
That wasn’t why I’d been lashing out. I remembered that moment in our room, staring at the mirror. I’d asked myself why I looked so guilty.
I’d known back then, already. What was really hounding me. But I’d denied it.
These last few days had forced me to introspect. To face it. But I’d tried to ignore it, still.
I left the Shades and walked into Esperanza City proper for the first time in days.
The Hellhound murdered her.
I didn’t hate him, not anymore. And I hadn’t even known about him back then.
The StreetBadgers got her into the situation that killed her in the first place.
But I couldn’t blame them that much. They were just as lost as Linda had been, I was sure. And… they cared too much about her for me to hate them.
Father and mother drove her away with their fanatism… she didn’t feel safe at her own home…
I was angry at them, incredibly angry, but… they had not done her harm, not deliberately. They’d always acted in our best interests, as far as they knew.
She got powers… someone or something pushed her over the edge…
Nothing there. I didn’t know nearly enough to have any kind of opinion on it, not really. And I probably never would.
It started to rain. I didn’t care. Not having a goal, I just let my feet carry me as I focused on my own thoughts.
What was I angry about? Why had I been lashing out like that? Almost nothing I’d done since Linda’s death had made any sense, except as a way of distracting myself.
The world took my sister away.
Hating the world would be stupid, though. It is as it is.
Linda didn’t tell me. She kept it secret from me.
But why did I feel guilty about it? That was on her, not me. We were supposed to share everything.
She lied to me. For weeks. She slept in the same room with me, but she didn’t tell me.
I wasn’t angry at her. How could I? I’d never been able to be angry at Linda. I hadn’t suddenly started, now. The anger I’d felt had not been directed at her.
Suddenly, I stopped walking.
I’d walked all the way to the graveyard she’d been buried in. Someone had left the cast iron gate open, too.
I walked inside.
* * *
A minus 17 hours
My feet found their way to Linda’s grave without any input from me. Even though I’d only been here twice, so far. Once for grandpa’s funeral, and then once for Linda’s.
I hate this place.
Her grave was still fresh, covered in flowers and offerings from friends and family. It was all soaked in rainwater now, though. As was I, not that I noticed the temperature. I just felt numb.
Mom and Dad had really shelled out some major money for her gravestone, despite the ‘shame’ she’d brought to the family. A big slab of stone, with intricate carvings of flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Linda had loved them, always collecting and pressing flowers she found particularly beautiful.
There was a picture of her in a golden circle. Smiling brightly, teeth white, her hair tied back. One of the last pictures of her before… before everything happened.
You didn’t tell me. But it wasn’t your fault, was it? I mean, part of it was. You could have told me. Even with mom and dad… I would have stood with you. Always.
I couldn’t hate her for it. I couldn’t even imagine what she’d been going through. Living in a house, in the middle of a whole community of people who’d hate her on principle if she outed herself… her own parents talking about experiments and research and segregation every day…
Why didn’t you tell me?
That was the crux of it, wasn’t it?
Why didn’t you tell me?
Why didn’t she? We’d always been honest to each other. We’d always supported each other.
Why didn’t you tell me?
She’d always supported me more than vice versa, but that was more because I’d been more likely to need support. I’d always been the crybaby, and she’d been the brave one.
I’d gone big into sports in an effort to get more confident. Gymnastics, parkour, aikido (both with and without a sword). She’d only taken part in my parkour training, having preferred to spend time on botanic classes and friends. I’d always had fewer than her, anyway, and those were athletes, too.
Why didn’t you tell me?
I looked up at the dark sky, letting the rain hit me in the face like a thousand slaps, the raindrops thick and heavy. The clouds were black, not just grey. Not that I could see much, with the rain pounding my eyes, making me blink every few seconds.
You didn’t tell me because… because…
My gaze went to her picture, barely visible in the dark of the night. Only the grave candles were illuminating it, barely. But I could see her just fine.
Because I… I…
I sniffed, and that was apparently enough to take the strength from my legs, because suddenly my face was level with the photograph, and I hadn’t even noticed falling down. I barely felt the mud soak through my pants.
Because I… I didn’t… I didn’t ask you.
A tremor went through my body – and before I knew it, I was sobbing, adding my tears to the water running down my face.
“I didn’t… I didn’t ask you.”
I looked at my numb hands, covered in mud.
“I didn’t… I just… I just assumed you’d tell me anything… that we’d just share it all naturally…”
If I’d asked…
“If only I’d asked, you would have told me!” I shouted at the picture before I bent over, pressing my forehead into the mud of her grave. “I should have asked you! Why didn’t I ask that one question?!”
I’d been so used to sharing everything, had always taken it for granted, that I’d never shown any interest. I’d just assumed she’d come to me if she needed me, like I always did when I needed her.
“But you rarely did, didn’t you?” I said to the mud in front of my eyes… to Linda, six feet below me. Six feet I couldn’t reach through. “It was always me coming to you for help.”
Oh God, I’d never noticed. She’d not been any less in need of support than I’d been, growing up. But I’d… I’d always just told her everything, and never noticed that she only told me things when I asked.
“One soul, two bodies, that’s what we said,” I continued, my voice louder. I’d already spoken more words just now than over the last few days combined. “I just thought that meant you’d act like I did, at your core. That you’d just come to me and share.”
“But you always waited for people to ask, and what is wrong with me that I just now noticed!?” I screamed, finally raising my head to look at her grinning face. “Why didn’t I just ask you how you were doing? Everyone does, everyone asks! It would have been so easy and I could have been with you! You wouldn’t have needed the StreetBadgers, you wouldn’t have needed to be a villain! I could have helped you deal with it! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaggghh!”
Screaming, I raised both fists and slammed them down on the mud, making it splash over my face and chest.
“This is my fault. This is all my fault!” I continued, shouting my guilt at the cold, lifeless gravestone. “I’m sorry! Linda, I’m so, so, sorrrrryyyyyyyyyyy…”
My screams dissolved into broken sobs as I hugged myself, rocking back and forth on my knees.
I should have asked.
My fault she’s dead.
Such a simple thing to do.
It’s my fault she’s dead.
I could have helped her. At the very least, I could have walked her path with her.
It’s my fault she’s dead, and I’m not with her.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” I bent over screaming towards the ground again, closing my eyes. Then I threw my whole upper body back, screaming even louder up at the sky, and the bright stars above.
I slumped down again, sobbing…
That isn’t right. Stars?
It was still pouring rain. The clouds were black as the blackest night.
I saw the stars as clearly as if I was out on the sea at midnight. Millions, billions, in all colours, bright and dull, pulsing and static, blinking and steady…
So many stars…
I looked down at the ground, my head moving of its own accord. There were more stars beneath innumerable in their numbers.
And the closest, most precious of them, was less than six feet away from me, pulsing gently as its light faded with each beat of my heart… growing fainter, further away…
“Linda? Is that you?” It felt so… right. So… familiar.
I reached out, but the mud was in the way. It was too deep.
“Linda, please… if you’re still there, please, give me a sign!”
I felt a tremor, a surge of raw, unformed emotion go through my body, from my toes up to my head, making me tingle all over.
A line came into sight, rising from the star beneath, a strong, old link of interwoven green and gold. When I looked up, I saw it connected to a brittle, bright star above.
While I watched, the star fell, drawing a tail of golden sparks behind it as it flew by me and dug into the mud, coming to a rest a foot or so a way from me.
This… this is how you get powers, right?
“Is that what you want, Linda?” I asked, as loudly as I could, so I’d be heard over the raging storm, the pounding rain and howling wind. “Do you want me to become more like you!?”
I can… feel what she felt…
Reaching out, my fingers dug easily into the cold, wet, soft mud, digging into Linda’s grave, opening a hole a foot deep.
The star… my star… it looked somehow brittle, disjointed pulses playing all over its golden surface. Something about it looked and felt wrong, but it was connected to Linda.
I reached out to touch it, and the moment my finger made contact with it, it shot up and into my belly.
* * *
The star burned like a furnace in my stomach, filling me with warmth and light.
When I looked down at my stomach, there was no hole in my clothes, yet light was shining from my entire body, brighter than the sun but not blinding me even as I looked down at myself.
I looked up to keep my eyes on Linda’s photograph – and almost screamed when I realized that the grave, the gravestone, the entire graveyard was gone… and Linda was right in front of me.
“Linda!” I stood up, clumsily, looking at her with wonder.
She stood in front of me, naked as the day we’d been born, her hair a mess, her eyes bright. She smiled sadly at me.
“Linda, I’m so sorry!” I tried to run over to her, to throw my arms around her and hug her and never let her go ag-
I didn’t move. Oh, I was running, but I didn’t move one inch closer to her, as she regarded me with sad eyes.
“Linda! Linda, I’m here! Please, I can’t move, please, come over here!” I held my blazing arms out for her to grab on to, we were less than six feet apart.
But she just smiled sadly, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
“No, don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s my fault, all my fault please don’t cry!“
The light grew dimmer, my arms heavier, the warmth in me colder.
“Linda, please, I’m right here, just come a little closer and I’ll pull you back and we can go home and I’m sure we can talk with mom and dad!”
Her eyes grew even sadder, and her smile became even more false, as if she was saying that she couldn’t come back but that didn’t make sense and then she turned away from me!
I was screaming, louder than I knew I could, so loud my throat would probably tear: “No! Linda, don’t go, don’t leave me al-“
* * *
All the light vanished as the burning star in my belly turned colder than ice and heavier than the world.
There was no thud, no feeling of impact or changed position, and yet I knew that my body had fallen, that I’d hit the ground.
My stomach, my chest, my head, my arms and legs… they went from blazing like suns to being grey, the colour sucked out of them, and heavy.
I tried to look up, but I could only move my eyes. Linda was just barely in my field of vision, her back to me, slowly… so slowly… walking away.
Don’t go, please… don’t go…
She moved further away. I was so cold.
Please, please, don’t, please, don’t leave me alone, please, I feel so cold…
Darkness began to creep in around her form, her contours blurring.
Linda… please… sister…
My body became even heavier, gravity crushing me against a ground that wasn’t even there.
She was almost gone entirely.
She was gone. I couldn’t even feel her anymore.
I was alone.
Linda was gone.
My limbs were crushed against the floor, my chest under so much strain I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t care.
Beneath me, a bottomless darkness opened up, eclipsing all the stars.
The very weight of my body, doubling with each heartbeat, pushed me into the ground…
My heartbeat grew louder, or perhaps there was nothing else left to hear, drumming into my ears, every beat a new wave of cold, another redoubling of my body’s weight.
There were no stars left beneath, only the darkness, waiting.
I broke through the ground and began to sink into the darkness.
If I could still take a breath, I would have screamed, because it was colder than anything I could ever have imagined, so cold it burned for just a second before everything went numb.
H-help… please, someone… I’m so heavy, so cold, so… alone.
I was sinking into the darkness, my body numb with cold.
There was no one there.
So… so alone.
You’re not alone!
* * *
The voice was like the morning’s first bell, clear and bright, its sound cutting through the darkness.
It flew through me, banishing the cold and the weight and the darkness. A hand, so insubstantial as to be nearly impossible to feel, took me by the hand, and pulled.
I rose out of the Abyss I’d been sucked into, back to the star-studded world.
I wrapped my arms around myself and realized that I was naked all of a sudden… and that I didn’t care. Even though there was someone there, with me.
He… she… I couldn’t tell their gender. She. I’d just use she, because it’s easier to describe her than using ‘it’.
She stood tall, taller than me though not freakishly so. Her body was made of light, and nothing else. The light pulsed, creating a strange effect, blurring her contours, making it impossible to truly determine her body’s form. Behind her, the light expanded into two wings, each as large as the rest of her.
Her face was a blur of bright, warm light.
“W-who are you? Are you an angel?” I asked, feeling strangely calm. Soothed. The memory of that dreadful cold had become distant, as if the warmth she emitted created a wall between me and it.
An angel? she asked, sounding surprised. Her voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Because I didn’t hear it. It just… appeared in my head, conveying impressions of warmth and closeness and safety along with the words. Why would you think… She looked down at herself. Ah. So that’s how you see me.
“What do you mean? Who… what are you?” Despite the soothing effect she had on me, I was starting to feel bewildered. Angels weren’t supposed to react like that!
I’m not an angel, Terry, she said, somehow conveying amusement. Nor do I look anything like this – this is all just you.
“What are you then? A demon? A god? The God?”
More amusement, followed by an answer: I’m just a friend.
Yours, of course.
“I’ve never met you before.”
That doesn’t change who I am. I’m a friend, she repeated with such a deep, bottomless conviction, I could not contradict her any more.
“Why are you here? What… what happened?”
I’m here because of you. You called out to me. And what happened… well, what do you think happened?
I stopped to think it over. What had happened?
“I think I… I manifested,” I said, slowly, never taking my eyes off her face. Every now and then, I felt like I almost saw a face beneath the blur. Though if she was telling the truth, that she only looked that way because I made her, then it didn’t mean anything. Maybe. “But… something went wrong.”
She nodded. Go on.
“You… you saved me. You pulled me out of… of the darkness.”
This time, she shook her head, turning away. She took a few steps before she stopped, her back to me. I didn’t. That was all you.
“But… you called me!” I was sure.
She turned left, then right, looking around before she turned back to me. I don’t know what you think I am, but I assure you, I am not nearly powerful enough to do… much of anything, except talk to people. And honestly, even that is sketchy. Almost no one hears me, and those that do, mostly ignore me.
“Then how could I save myself, when I couldn’t even breathe anymore!?” I asked, almost shouting. “It had to have been you!”
Terry, I already told you. I’m just a friend. Nothing more. Nothing less. Everything that happens here, is the work of you… and her. She inclined her head to the side.
Following the motion, I saw the star that had almost drowned me again. Only it wasn’t. Not anymore. It had collapsed, its light compressed into a single, tiny dot, less than the point of a pin, glowing golden amidst a sphere of perfect darkness, with slow, ponderous tendrils waving around it.
Just looking at it made me remember the cold and shiver.
Her. That’s you, too. The gender. Don’t put too much weight into that word, it doesn’t really apply.
“What… what is going on? Please, tell me.”
Nothing about her position changed, and she made no sound, but I got the impression that she was sighing. I can’t tell you any more than you know… but then again, helping people realize what they already know is pretty much the only thing I can do, so… you manifested. Something went wrong. Your… star… broke, and it almost dragged you down into what you call ‘the darkness’. I called out to you, so you realized that you weren’t alone and could fight back… though I guess it didn’t quite reach your brain. She stepped closer to… her. Reaching out with one hand, she held it palm-up beneath it and came closer to me again, the black star in her hand, moving with her. Now you get to do something almost no one who comes this far does.
“W-what is that?”
You choose. She was holding the black star to her right, my left, and reached out with the other hand to the other side, in a mirroring position. You know what brought you to this? She inclined her head towards the black star.
“Rage,” I said, before realizing that that was… just a part of the answer. “Grief. Despair. Guilt. Loneliness. Linda died, and I blamed everyone but myself. I went after her murderer, but failed. I almost got her friends killed, and I ran away from my parents. I went to her grave… I am at her grave, unless I was physically moved…” She shook her head. “…and I saw a star where she should lie, connected to… to this one.”
Yes, that is the path that led you here. That made this. Look at her, she said gently, and I felt my eyes drawn to the black star, despite my fear.
It pulsed, cold and cruel, but it pulsed with so much power.
This is your first choice, the one you almost thought was your only one, she explained. The Path to Catastrophe, a force few can comprehend and fewer still surpass. You already walked this path, in the time between your sister’s passing and now. And you may now take it for good, and go down that road to the bitter end.
“It doesn’t sound like a good path. It doesn’t even sound like one that will do me any good.”
It is power. A greater power than the Hellhound or any of the Five possesses. Power enough to bring down any of them, and Humanity First and very nearly everyone else you might choose to oppose. With it, your foes will fall, and you will find a way to your every goal.
“But it wouldn’t be good, would it? I mean, it would cause… catastrophe, right?”
“What is my other choice?”
She looked the other way, to her empty hand. Your sister is dead. Gone. Her star has faded, so young, and she has passed into the Great Beyond. She left you with questions unanswered. She left you broken, and your family broke, too.
I nodded, choked up again.
She kept secrets from you, and it wasn’t entirely your fault that she didn’t share them. It wasn’t even mostly your fault, even if you don’t want to hear that right now.
No, I didn’t.
You could let that break you. Drag you down. Drain you of all warmth and freedom and hope. She inclined her head the other way, towards the black star. Or, you could accept it.
A glimmer of light appeared above her empty hand.
Accept the bad. Accept the good. You lost Linda, and you will never truly be free of that pain, that loss.
The glimmer grew, tendrils reaching out, bending, weaving a larger structure around it.
But you can accept it, and grow stronger for it.
The small glimmer had formed a star, small and bright as the sun.
You’re not lost, yet. You might yet repair your family, maybe even save them from the path they chose to travel down.
It was not as strong, as heavy as the black star, but it pulsed gently and steadily.
Vengeance is not the only way to right a wrong. Justice is another. You could pursue that, or you could keep pursuing vengeance, but it need not end in catastrophe. You could learn to ask the question, the next time, and the time after that, and who knows, you might even find an answer.
“So it’s the same, but… in two different ways?” The stars looked identical, except one was bright, and the other was… not.
No. They are not equal. Things so rarely are. They are different, one greater than the other, in exchange for less freedom, less joy. This second choice, the Power to Inquire, it is not as great as the power of the Five, and it certainly won’t allow you to oppose them so openly as the Path to Catastrophe would.
I looked in between the two stars. “Power to smite my enemies, or power to remain myself? Was that it?”
You will change either way… into a different you. But still you.
“So it’s a question between me being good or evil?”
She actually laughed when I asked that question. Good and evil do not concern me, Terry.
“W-what!?” I asked, flabbergasted.
Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, you each decide your own. Such concepts have nothing to do with what I am or what I desire.
“What do you want, then?”
We’re talking about you, not me.
“Well, I thought you were my friend! Friends are supposed to know each other!” I replied, heatedly.
She seemed to ponder this. True enough. What I want is to see all the bright ones, all the children, united as one, to spread out into the darkness.
I opened my mouth, then shut it. Thinking it over, I just couldn’t make sense of it. But something told me she would not say any more.
“What should I choose, then?”
She shrugged. That is solely up to you. All of this is. I can just make you aware of the choice, and nothing else at all.
“I… I’m not sure.”
Take your time. This decision will forever change your life.
“I know, I…”
Why was I even hesitating? Wasn’t it obvious, that I should choose the brighter star?
It was. Why then was I hesitating?
“The Path to Catastrophe, you called it,” I began. “Does that mean I could bring catastrophe to my enemies?”
Among many other things. Nothing’s ever so simple.
“And you won’t say that it’s evil? Wrong?”
As I said, such things do not concern me. Frankly, I find them confusing. No, all I see are two different ways to power for you, with different results.
She moved her arms, holding them both out next to each other, the stars just a foot apart from each other. They flickered violently at the proximity of each other.
“Can I ask some other questions?”
Of course. Though I might not be able to answer them.
“I… I understand. Alright, first question – what happens to the other star? The one I reject?”
There is no ‘other’ star. They are both one and the same, just two different forms. Whichever you choose becomes true, while the other becomes… less. A memory of a possibility.
“And this choice… you offer it to everyone?”
Only those precious few who hear me and do not ignore my voice.
“Who was the last one you offered it to?”
I can’t tell you his name. But he was broken, just like you, and lost. And he felt so very, very alone.
“His choice was different?”
He was – is – a different person, so his choices are naturally completely different, too.
“Different topic. Can I somehow bring Linda back with either of these powers?”
No. That is beyond any power, but one.
“So she’s gone, for good? Unless I get her to Ember, somehow?”
Nothing’s ever truly gone, Terry. Your connection to your sister still exists, beyond life and death. So long as you still feel for her, it will remain, and a piece of her will always be in this world – through you, and all others who still feel for her.
I blinked, tears rising. I couldn’t tell if they were tears of joy or disappointment.
“I don’t… I don’t know what else to ask. I don’t know what else to think.”
I reached out with both hands, palms pointing towards each other, one next to each star.
Just the width of a finger separated them from each star.
“One, or the other…”
One was the power to surpass every enemy I set myself. Or almost any. The other was the power to achieve things other than catastrophes.
I cupped my hands as they trembled. Somehow, I had the impression that she was holding her breath, or doing whatever her equivalent of such was.
“I will take… both!”
I moved both hands, grabbing the stars and slamming them together with all my strength.
There was a sound like a bell shattering, and a flash of light so bright it blinded me – and then, without much drama at all, I was standing in the graveyard again, the stars still bright above me and two handfuls of golden and black shards in my cupped hands.
She was standing in front of me, her arms to her sides, inscrutable.
“They broke. I thought they’d fuse.”
And what? You’d get the best of both? She almost seemed to laugh again.
“That was the idea, yes.” I looked down at the pathetic shards in my hands. There was less than a third of each star left, I thought. “It usually works in the movies. And in Linda’s anime shows.”
Well, obviously, it doesn’t work that neatly in this world.
“But I can still get powers?”
Of course. But it’ll be… different.
“What will it be?
I can’t tell.
Because you can’t. I told you, I’m not… I’m just a friend. I don’t know any more about either of you than you do yourselves. Whatever it turns out to be, it’ll be something new… and it will be small, stunted.
“But it will be something wholly my own, won’t it?”
She nodded, the motion barely perceptible.
“I’ll take that.”
Suddenly, she threw her head back, and raw concept of joyous laughter slammed into my head, making me dizzy. Ah, so precious! You always manage to surprise me, even after all this time!
I tilted my head to the side, curious. “You don’t mean ‘you’ as in me, but rather ‘you’ as… all people who manifest?”
Among others, yes.
“So, you’re not just… a part of my imagination, or my power? You exist for others, too?”
I’m a friend to all.
“But your shape is not your own?”
I have no shape as you understand the concept. Please don’t inquire any further, I won’t answer, I’m afraid. Oh, and you should hurry. There’s little enough left as it is.
I looked down at my hands. More shards had dissolved, vanished into nothingness. I was left with less than a fourth. “Alright.”
Raising my hands, I stopped moments before I tiled them up. “Two more questions.”
“Will we meet again? And what does this all lead to?”
She chuckled warmly. Meet again? Terry, I won’t ever leave you. And as for what it leads to – all I can promise you is that the best is yet to come.
I tilted my head back and my hands up, letting the shards trickle into my mouth.