14.a.2 Out of Time

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A slightly shorter time ago

The safe spaces between beams were shrinking. He’d just barely dodged the last wave… how long had it been?

It only took seconds between waves. Twenty, thirty of them? He wasn’t sure whether they were coming faster, or whether it was just his mind playing tricks on him.

He felt like he’d run for an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than three, four minutes. Wasn’t it?

Kizzy felt as heavy as a stone statue, her arms were clamped around his throat so tightly, she’d be choking the life out of him if she wasn’t a light-weight, the lowest percentile for height and weight in her age group.

She was still trying to sing, but it was a stuttering, breathless singing, the words melding together, creating more of a prolonged wail than an actual song.

He kept running, his eyes wide open; he didn’t dare blink, didn’t dare lose sight of the beams for even a fraction of a second. His eyes burned so badly he could imagine them being on fire, but he forced himself to keep going.

He’d lost his glasses at some point, but he didn’t even remember when or how. Had Kizzy knocked them off by accident?

The edge of the Desolation was within sight. A shimmering, rainbow-hued distortion in the air, twitching back and forth upon the street as its mistress moved about, but she seemed to mostly remain in the same place, currently, keeping it stable.

He could see the beams terminate where they intersected the field. A promise of safety, once they got past it. A chance of survival, mitigated only by the fact that the fastest possible way to the edge was through a thicket of beams.

No time to waste.

Pulling on every single reserve he could muster, every drag of strength, he kicked off the ground, shooting forward.

Kizzy squeaked, clinging all the tighter.

Just five long steps away.

Every time one of his feet came down, it was like a jolt went up his numb, tired body.

Four steps.

There was an explosion, somewhere behind them. A mile away? Two?

Three steps.

Were the beams growing brighter?

Two steps.

A flash of non-light from behind, like light inverted into its opposite, yet it wasn’t darkness. He couldn’t make sense of it.

Just one more step.

The beams were growing brighter, starting to solidify just as he reached the threshold…

Plunging through the twisting colors of the Desolation Field’s boundary was one of the oddest sensations he’d ever felt, a sensation so alien he had no words for it, nothing he could compare it to, even remotely. A strange buzz, a sound that was felt and a feeling that was heard, yet nothing like either.

His feet hit the concrete again, his heart beating in his chest like a jackhammer, driven by elation and relief.

Finally, he dared look over his shoulder, past the dazed-looking Kizzy to the Desolation’s boundary, stopping in place to catch his breath.

The lights shimmered there, innocently, the beams of light within just barely visible in their current, faint state, terminating entirely at the boundary.

He released his breath, and only barely managed to not collapse on the spot. His every muscle was screaming at him, demanding that he give them a break. Cashing in the checks he owed them, as his Dad would say.

Dad. Mom. Are you… I hope you’re…

The Desolation Field shuddered, and moved as its mistress did. Straight towards the two of them, just as the beams within turned solid again, slicing through everything they moved through.

His heart very nearly lept out of his ribcage as he kicked into high gear, turning…

Too slow…

Kizzy’s grip on him tightened, crying out…

I’m too slow.

He raised a foot.

There’s not enough time!

He could feel the buzz as the Desolation approached, bringing death for him and his sister.

A star blossomed into existence, before him, like a geometric glow unfolding from a single point, from nothing to the size of his chest, a shape that seemed to move into and out of itself, like many cubes growing, shrinking, stretching in a weird pattern, visible not in and of themselves but in how the light broke and reflected around them. Where the rest of the world was still fuzzy, due to his lack of glasses or contacts, these strange shapes were sharper than reality ever got to be.

I need more time! he shouted, mentally, desperately trying to take another step, but he was frozen in place, as if the air itself had turned hard.

No. Not hard. Slow.

He couldn’t even feel his heart beat. Every twitch of his eyes took seemingly forever to happen.

The not-star moved closer, though its motion was less… that and more a growth and decay, unfolding towards him and folding, collapsing into itself in the back.

Please… give me… let me get away! Let me take her away!

The star grew into him, and the world around him lost focus even more than it already had, growing blurry, far worse than it was just from him missing his glasses.

Heat bloomed within him, running through his veins like liquid fire, fire that did not burn him; but as soon as it had permeated him completely, and he felt like he ought to be glowing, the liquid flames turned to ice, and that burned abominably.

Let me run away!

Jared tried to scream, but he couldn’t – even that was slowed, in this strange place in time.

The buzz was still behind him, making his hairs stand on edge, and though it, too, was slowed, it was still faster than he – he could feel it get closer with every heartbeat of his that passed.

With his next heartbeat, the cold turned to heat again. Then cold again, yet another heartbeat later.

Around him, the world became as sharp as it ever got for him, but only for a few feet out. Ten feet, maybe. Beyond that bubble of sharpness, the world was as blurry as it ever got for him.

The buzz came closer still.

He had to run. He had to be able to run! It was what he was best at!

Time had slowed to a crawl just as he’d raised his right leg, ready to bring the foot down on the concrete and start running.

At the very least, he wanted to complete that one step.

He focused on his right leg, letting the world around him shrink to just that one limb.

He willed it to move. To lower itself to the ground. To gain traction, so he could propel himself forward.

If he failed at everything else, he at least wanted to complete this one step.

Slowly, so very slowly, the buzz of certain death on his back, with Kizzy’s desperate grip like a noose around his neck, his foot moved… down… and down…

Jared flashed through soothing heat and burning cold more times than he was able to count, as focused as he was on bringing that damn foot down!!

After what felt like an eternity, the passage of time only really marked by the alternating sensations of pure heat and cold in his veins, his foot did come down  upon the concrete.

Nothing happened, other than that his body began, ever so slowly, too slowly, to lurch forward.

I took the fucking step! he shouted in the confines of his mind.

It didn’t help, really, other than to give him some momentary satisfaction. He was still all but frozen in place, his sister still unprotected upon his back, and certain Death just moments away from reaching them.

What’d coach always say? ‘A runner doesn’t care about the first step, or the last. Just about the next one’.

He would’ve smiled, if he wasn’t still in the process of screaming from earlier. That he’d think of that old coot now…

Nothing about it. Take the next step!

Slowly, so very slowly, he raised his foot, and brought it down again.

A second step.

In front of him, in the only direction he could really look, the world outside of his bubble seemed to go in and out of focus, and each time it did, it showed him something new, a different scene.

He saw himself mid-run, leaning forward, his form blurring with speed, wearing a silver-and-white outfit, something between a heroic spandex suit and a racing suit. He was running past panicked-looking civilians running from some kind of danger he was intent on running to.

He saw Kizzy in a living room, sitting on the floor in front of the television in pajamas, looking so lost and fearful he just wanted to reach out and hug her, while she watched a news broadcast showing images of heroes fighting some kind of monster, something huge, blue-grey skin shaped like a gigantic teardrop, with overly long, stubby-fingered arms and no face that he could see.

He saw himself sitting on a couch, together with other teens, all in various costumes, laughing together at something on a television which wasn’t in his field of view – all except for one, a drop-dead gorgeous girl with a strangely familiar face, sitting next to a teen girl with huge breasts, while staring straight ahead with a dark expression, her legs pulled up and hugged to her chest.

The visions continued, with every millimeter that he managed to make his leg move, another came and went.

Another showed him a pair of girls in paired costumes, wearing skin-tight, thin bodysuits, as well as capes and hoods – one in dark green, with a jewel-tipped wooden staff and various other knick-knacks carried on her, the other in bright red, with a more mundane-looking metallic staff, the telescoping kind.

Yet another vision, with those two girls, only they were joined by a guy in black armor, with a white robe and hood over it. The girls’ costumes were also different – the red-haired one wore only a skintight suit made of overlapping scales of some kind of weird material that didn’t look like either metal nor rubber; it was black, except for where it was transparent, showing off the body underneath while still providing protection. Her mask covered her head, except in the back, where a mass of bright red hair spilled out in lazy curls. She was holding a huge rifle now, rather than a staff. The girl in green had a similar outfit as the last time, only it was even more elaborate, and there were more knick-knacks about her person.

He mostly saw the same group of teens, sometimes all together, sometimes individually. There were pairs that showed up more often than not together. The blue-eyed, black-haired girl with the familiar face and a girl with long hair of shifting colors and those huge breasts. Two boys, one in a knightly costume with stylized rifles strapped to his back, the other an effeminate guy with an awesome steam-punk monstrosity of a rifle.

There were others, but most passed by so quickly he could not see them, or only barely so. A girl in crystal armor, standing alone. Sometimes standing with the team. Sometimes with another girl, one in golden armor.

His foot came down on the ground. Another step taken.

Now the next one.

The world beyond the little bubble around him kept flowing from one vision to the next, growing less straightforward and more and more weird.

He saw a city of crystal spires, like spun glass on the scale of skyscrapers, each spire a single, solid block of shaped glass.

An ocean of faces, billions upon billions of them, so many that their collective whispers caused titanic storms to ravage the few remaining landmasses.

A world without life, barren rock covered in strange machinery which threaded into and through the crust of the planet, down to the very core, serving no purpose but to perpetuate itself.

A world without death, being ravaged and choked by maddened life.

A world without time, an entire civilisation, not unlike their own, frozen in a single, never-ending moment.

His other foot hit the ground. Yet another step.

Something snapped. Like chains stretched to the breaking point, the links shattering under the stress, he felt something release its hold on him.

RUN

His feet hit the concrete, and he ran. He ran.

The world beyond the bubble of clarity around him flew by, showing only a blur – and that wasn’t just because of the general blurriness to everything outside this bubble of his.

He was running far faster than he ever had before.

Kizzy gasped in wonder, as he raced out of Miami, away, away from the Desolation, away from their home, away from their friends, away from their parents…

He ran until his legs gave out, and he collapsed.

***

Getting closer now

Rounds landed near the rim of the crater, his resplendant armor damaged and dirtied, shored up in places by the strange crystals created by Bismuth’s power. Her ghost-copy-thing was still with him, as were like, half a dozen copies of the princess (and what the hell was up with that? He’d always been told Rounds could only make a single copy off of any one person!) and a few others.

One of them had carried Amazon with it, and now deposited her on the cracked ground. Her armor was still up, making her look like some kind of magical greek knight.

Funny, because she was about as Greek as he was Japanese. He wondered how Hecate felt about that – he was certain that she was actually Greek.

The accent, olive skin and the occasional Greek cussing kind of gave it away.

“Her? Really? Her?”

Amazon’s voice cut through his idle musings. Her stunned gaze was focused on the grisly (yet quite satisfying) sight below.

She’s the one to finally put DiL down!?” their temporary leader all but shrieked.

“I suppose good things can come from the strangest of…” Rounds began to reply, only to drift off.

A kind of presence, an aura, settled over them, emanating from…

Jared yelped as he turned around, jumping back closer to the other two heroes.

The Dark stood there, just a few feet away, head lowered slightly, looking down at the carnage.

His form was… odd. Before, it had been wispy, smoke-like. Looking like a stiff breeze could just blow him away.

Now, even as Jared watched, it seemed to slowly become more… solid. The thin, upward-drifting mist slowly bled into a dark, similarly upward-drifting liquid, while the king of supervillains looked at the remains of the monster.

Jared heard someone gulp dryly, behind him, but he couldn’t be sure whether it’d been Rounds, Amazon or both.

There was a palpable sense of sheer threat emanating from the Dark.

“Six copies of Irene,” the supervillain spoke, without looking up. “I assume that each of her comes with a different set of powers?”

“Yes, that, that is correct,” Rounds replied, speaking carefully. “A very… interesting power interaction. Though one that has proven most fortituous.”

The shadowy figure nodded. “Your power treats her as a different person after each change of powers. Yes, fortituous indeed.” He seemed to consider something, tilting his head to the side, though still focused on the blood and his dazed minion below. “Gwen and I would appreciate it if you could make sure Irene was busy elsewhere,” he said, quietly, his voice almost a whisper – if it was an entire choir whispering slightly out of tune with each other. “Don’t let her see this.”

There was a startled silence for a moment, but then Rounds seemed to recover. Jared couldn’t tell, really, he had trouble averting his eyes from the Dark, but their leader cleared his throat and said, “Yes, of course.”

He went silent, likely contacting Dispatch via his helmet’s radio.

Jared was quite busy just trying not to soil himself. Incredibly, the Dark’s aura only grew more intense, even though the fight was over.

Is it over? Does he think that she’s coming back? No, wait… is he going to attack us? I guess the DiL Truce is well and truly over now. But would he? I mean, he has no reason t- oh crap, is this because I’ve been a jerk to the princess?

He was just about to kick into his power, use the little time he’d stocked up to put some distance between the two of them, when the Dark raised his head.

“Ah.” The sense of dread and danger cut out, so suddenly, Jared very nearly collapsed onto his knees for the sheer physical relief of it. “Apologies. I shouldn’t get lost in thought like that.” All six of those unnerving, glowing red eyes focused on Jared, which was, really, even worse than whatever the fuck he’d been doing earlier.

“I-It’s really… really alright. I guess, uh, this must be… uh…” Fuck, just shut the fuck up you idiot! Were you really gonna imply the fucking Dark‘s being emotional?

Fortunately, the guy who could probably kill him with just a thought just looked away again, his weird… dark liquid coating surging with motion, twisting about his form, like muscles trapped underneath the skin, trying to break free off of the skeleton, causing his form to flicker and twist unnaturally, even as he just stood there.

Jared was incredibly curious, but after taking a second look, he saw faces within the shadows, distorted, screaming soundlessly.

Nope. Nopenopenopenope! Noooooope!

He turned away and ran off – without his power, conserving it for now – away from the scary man and the remains of his… whatever the hell DiL had been to him.

***

Yet again, a look at the past

The hero who came to tell them that their parents and grandfather were dead wasn’t from Miami. As it turned out, DiL had appeared right inside the Miami UH headquarters, and pretty much wiped it all out. Including all of the staff.

Even their parents’ handler – they’d shared one, who’d also happened to be their best man, and a honorary uncle to Jared and Kizzy – had died.

So instead, they got a pretty lady in her early thirties, wearing a costume but no mask, her hair black, except for some red highlights, and very short. Her costume was basically a red bodysuit with some reflective patterns of a lighter red color worked in, looking kind of like veins or circuitry that emphasized her curves, and bands of reflective metal, like long, flat strips wrapped around her upper arms, forearms and calves, encircling her tiny waist like a metal corset, then extending off of those to trail after her, occasionally moving and snapping around, as if they had a will of their own.

Her eyes were red, just like her costume, as were her lips, her cape was Bandersnatch, and she’d been merciful enough not to make any jokes or tell him to call her by some stupid pet name.

She didn’t make the offer to Kizzy either, but that was probably because Kizzy barely talked at all anymore, and didn’t look like she was going to talk, either.

It’d only been a week since the attack, and he had hoped she’d recover, but…

He focused on what Bandersnatch was saying instead.

“… know we can’t ever make up for your loss, but we’re the UH and we take care of our own. We’ll get you placed with a good family, and you’ll have a contact inside our group, in case there’s problems in the future. And, I know this isn’t really a consolation, but we’ll continue to pay your parents’ salaries into trust funds for each of you, until you turn eighteen…”

His thoughts began to drift again, though he forced himself to focus, in spite of his usual inclination to get distracted; he had to be the man of the family now, with everyone else gone.

“And we’ll of course make sure you’ll be able to stay in Miami, so you can-“

“No,” he butted in, before he could even think about it. It only took him a moment to realize what his gut already had, though. “We don’t want to stay anywhere near here. There’s, there’s nothing here but painful memories now.”

He’d checked. He’d used the phone and the internet, as soon as he’d gotten access. He’d even used his power, loath as he was to spend too many of the precious few minutes he got each day to race around and check up on people.

After nearly a full week of that, he’d confirmed that pretty much everyone he’d ever known was dead or… worse. Not just his family, but friends and acquaintances, even the families of his friends.

Only one family was still alive, that he’d known from before, and they hadn’t been particularly close.

There was no one left, really. And he just knew that staying in Miami, even after the portions that’d been destroyed had been rebuilt, would only make it harder on Kizzy and him.

Bandersnatch looked surprised, though still in control, at his sudden proclamation, blinking her eyes two times before she replied.

“I understand, really; however, we’ll have to see what social services say to-“

He drew on his power. He’d gotten to know it quite well, over the last week – it wasn’t terribly complicated, unlike his parents’ powers, which had both had some pretty weird intricacies; the first and most obvious aspect was that, while manifesting had fixed his eyes so he no longer needed his glasses, activating his power made the world go out of focus beyond about twenty feet around him, as if he still needed to wear glasses, except for anything close enough.

Its main effect, though, was the way it messed with time. For every ten seconds he spent in real time, he saved up one second that he could then put inbetween other seconds, but only for himself and anyone he took along for the ride, essentially giving him more time to work with anyone else had. The only limit he’d found, other than the limited store of seconds he could save up, was that he couldn’t cram more than two additional seconds into any one, no matter how many he’d saved up.

Still, being able to move and think three times as fast as anyone else was nothing to sneeze at.

Tapping his power, he trippled his time, and zipped across the room, away from Bandersnatch, and then back, arms folded and looking up at her, sternly.

“I think the UH’ll want to pull some strings on our behalf.”

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14.a.1 Out of Time

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Some time ago

The wall crinkled, like a sheet of paper being crushed into a ball in one’s hand, only here, the crinkling led to expansion, with flat petals of plaster, sharper than razors, jutting out in unpredictable patterns.

Jared dove at the last second, his arms around the warm body that’d been clinging to him since she’d appeared above the city, and barely avoided getting sliced into coasters.

Kizzy cried out, but it was weak, her voice hoarse from crying and screaming into his chest, and he didn’t have time to pay attention to it anyway.

The house was crinkling and distorting around them, rapidly turning from the safe haven they’d been holed up in into a death trap – seconds counted, and Jarod made them count.

The door out was nearest, but the door had already started to crinkle, so he went for the open window on the far side of the room instead, leaping onto the couch beneath it, and then through it – since it had been open, the crinkling glass and frame hadn’t blocked it off yet, though even so, he only managed to get out half a second before the window was blocked off by blades so thin they seemed two-dimensional.

His feet hit the soft ground of the empty flower beds outside – his mother had been heartbroken, when she’d lost her prized tulips to an untimely storm – and he ran, looking around wide-eyed.

All around him, buildings, lamp posts, cars, everything that was above ground, was crinkling out, turning into twisted works of modern “art”.

But not the ground itself, nor any of the trees he could see.

Kizzy whimpered, and he paused as he stood just underneath a big tree planted in front of the three story building that’d once been his home, taking his eyes off the distortions around them, off the bright lights above that shifted as she moved, and checked his little sister over, making sure she hadn’t been cut somewhere.

She was fine, the gold-and-white summer dress with Lady Light’s weird symbol on the front still completely pristine, her bare legs and feet unharmed, save for a few scabbed-over nicks and cuts she’d gotten from rough-housing with friends in the park.

”Jared, I-“ she began to say, starting to raise her head, but he put his hand on the back, and pulled her in close.

He didn’t want her to see the people who hadn’t gotten away from the distortions in time.

Even as he did that, he saw the elderly Mister Teeper and his wife, Madison, holding hands for a moment as they stared out over the street, their eyes empty – they’d been impaled by their own house, he horizontally through the gut, and vertically through the back of the head, she diagonally across the chest, between her breasts, and through the right thigh, severing her leg there entirely.

The petals were so sharp, though, they didn’t stay there, their own weight easily enough to cause them to slide and fall over. Mister Teeper feel to the side, she to the back, and they were reduced to the consistency of  minced meat, falling through thicket of crinkle-blades.

“Everything’s going to be alright, Kizzy,” he soothed her, holding on tight. He was never going to forget that sight, but he was going to do his best to avoid her seeing anything like that. “Just, keep your eyes closed, and I’ll get us out of here.”

“B-but what… what about mom and d-dad?” she pressed, her voice barely audible even to him. “They’re still at th-th-the office, downtown…”

Whatever confidence Jared might have had, it died, and its corpse dropped to the bottom of his stomach like a leaden weight.

Kizzy didn’t know, she was too young to be told yet, but their parents weren’t office workers – they were superheroes, the both of them. Jared had found out about it years ago, when he’d snuck down the stairs in the middle of the night, only to see his tired mother use her power to pick up the tv remote from the kitchen table… while lying on the couch, a room away.

They’d told him who they were in costume, then, and he’d been sworn to secrecy. Kizzy, meanwhile, was to be kept ignorant until she was at least fourteen years old, they’d said.

They’re not that strong. If they fight that monster, they’ll…

He shook his head. No, he couldn’t afford to go down that road. If he had no confidence they’d be alright, then he at least had to pretend that he did, for Kizzy’s sake.

“They’re going to be alright, you’ll see,” he said, though the words rang hollow to him. “We’ll just, uh, I mean, they’ll find us, you’ll see. Just need to, to keep moving…”

His sister whimpered again, clinging to him as hard as she could, which wasn’t that hard, considering she’d just recently turned ten.

Still, while she was a lightweight, in the lowest percentile of height and weight for her age, he wouldn’t be able to carry her like this…

“Kizzy, I’m going to put you down, and then you have to climb onto my back and hold on tight, ok? But, uh, don’t open your eyes, k?” he spoke to her, his own eyes wide open, watching the crinkle-petals shifting around in waves.

“Ok…” She did as she was told, climbing onto his back, nearly knocking her and his glasses off when she smashed her head into the side of his, once she was on his back. He didn’t comment on it, grabbing her legs and getting up.

They said on tv that she changes her powers, now and then. As soon as the crinkling stops, I’ll, I’ll start running. Running towards…

Looking up and around, he could see the light above shift, a light show unlike any he’d ever seen, as if the northern lights had decided to form a dome over the city. It was supposed to move around with her, but the riot of colors was so confusing to look at, he honestly couldn’t tell whether it was moving at all.

Still, there were explosions and other power effects, in the distance, that told him the fight was most likely taking place at or near the beach front.

So the best way to go would be straight away from that. Just run, run, and keep running, until he was out of her desolation field – how big was it, again, a mile? Two? Three at most, he was sure.

He could run two or three miles, he was sure, even with Kizzy’s weight on his back. All that running he did for the track team had to be useful for something, for once!

***

It took minutes, which felt like hours, before something changed. Time spent holding Kizzy, speaking to her, keeping her as calm as he could.

Then, the petals stopped shifting around – they’d been moving into and through each other, like bad graphics in a video game or something – and went still.

In the distance, light seemed to be drawn in towards a single point, the entire area starting to grow more and more dim, save for the coruscant lights above.

She’s changed her powers.

He took one last deep breath, half crouched, shifting his shoulders and hips a bit to make sure Kizzy was properly balanced on his back.

She whimpered, clinging tighter, so tightly she started to choke him. She wasn’t very strong, but he couldn’t run for long like this.

“Kizzy… ease up a little, please,” he begged her, only to have her break into tears again, sobbing into the nape of his neck.

“I-I… I’m sorry, I… I’m so, so scared! I’m a stupid scaredy-cat, I-” she began to ramble, but he shook his head, his heart twisting into itself at hearing the sheer horror in her voice.

He had to distract her, somehow.

“How about you sing something?” he asked, out of the blue. She loved singing, even took classes, and anything would be helpful right now.

“S-sing? What, could I sing?” she asked, easing up on her grip, if only to use one wrist to wipe her runny nose.

“How about… that song you were practicing with mom yesterday? You know, that really old song about a bottle and stuff.” He’d barely listened to them, having preferred to focus on his video games – he really wasn’t into that old kind of music, at all, particularly when it was in a language he didn’t care for, but this wasn’t about him.

“Ok…” she replied, sounding dubious about what sense it made right now. Yet, she cleared her throat, and began to sing – it never took much to get her to sing.

At the same time, he took off, barely restraining himself from going all-in all at once – instead, he remembered his track teacher’s words, to work up to his top speed when he needed to run for a while.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium,” Kizzy began to sing, her voice far steadier than it had been since this nightmare had started, soft and sweet right beside his ear; she was almost whispering, a performance just for him to hear.

He ran straight onto the center of the street, where there were the fewest petals visible, and turned right, putting where he thought that monster was right behind him.

“Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!” Her voice picked up, as she got into the song, seemingly forgetting the now.

She usually did that, once she started to sing.

His feet pounded the concrete, his eyes held wide open, looking out for the slightest hint of a petal in his way, even as his surroundings kept growing darker. With how sharp these things were, if he so much as brushed one, he was going to slice himself and Kizzy to pieces before he even noticed something was wrong.

“Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt; alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.”

Mom, if we all make it out of this, I swear I’ll try to learn a little more about Germany, he thought, tears in his eyes, though those might have been due to him not daring to blink while running through this forest of razor-sharp death. I’ll even make an effort to talk to Gramps.

He’d never even been to Germany, but his mother had been born there, grown up until her father had packed up what little they owned and all but fled the German States, first to Britain, then across the pond. She’d always encouraged him and Kizzy to connect with that part of their heritage, but he hadn’t wanted anything to do with it since he’d been eight.

“Wem der große Wurf gelungen, eines Freundes Freund zu sein; wer ein holdes Weib errungen, mische seinen Jubel ein!”

His mother loved this song, even though it’d been Weisswald’s favourite, and his anthem besides. You couldn’t sing it, or even play the lyrics, anywhere in Europe, and not get lynched.

Whenever he’d brought that up, his mother would just say that Weisswald had liked to breathe, too, and no one was condemning that.

“Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele, sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!”

The encroaching darkness suddenly shifted, spots of light appearing, radiating out from a single point far behind him, and slightly to the left. Like flashlight beams, only much more focused, creating spots of yellow-white light on the surroundings.

Some of the beams of light shone right through his and Kizzy’s bodies, as if they weren’t even there, illuminating the ground ahead of them as he ran.

The hell! This can’t be good!

He jumped to the side, into beam-free area, just as the beams suddenly became so bright they seemed solid, yet without blinding, as if the light had hardened rather than intensified.

Then they turned back to just light, and started to shift around, like the lights from a disco ball being turned.

Wherever the lights had hardened, they’d cut right through whatever had been in the way between them and the ground, though without damaging the ground itself.

Kizzy’s singing was briefly drowned out, as several buildings around them collapsed.

He ran faster. The drills they did at school every few months said that her attacks often came in waves, starting out… not weak, because there was nothing truly weak about her, but less powerful, and built up over time, becoming more powerful with each successive wave.

If the heroes and villains… no, right now, they were all heroes, if the heroes didn’t force her to change her powers, the next attack would cover even more ground, or penetrate deeper, or set fires in the aftermath, or be better in some other way he couldn’t even think of.

Keep running.

His feet hit the concrete, getting into a steady rhythm again. He wanted nothing more than to just go all out, to run as fast and as hard as he could, but he had no idea how long he’d have to run, so he had to pace himself.

“Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle, weinend, sich aus diesem Bund!” Kizzy picked her song back up, though she was off-key, choking back tears.

“Keep your eyes closed!” he told her, hoping to God she hadn’t caught a glimpse of the carnage they were rushing past.

He was doing what he could not to notice it, either – the people who’d survived the petals, most of them had been cut down by the solid beams. There were bodies littering the street and the front yards.

His feet splashed as he passed a section of road positively flooded with blood flowing from a school bus that’d somehow escaped crinkling out into petals, but had not escaped being turned into swiss cheese by the solid beams.

Some of the bodies within were visible. Some hung out a window, or were pressed against the glass.

None of them was older than Kizzy.

Jared wanted to stop, he wanted, more than anything, to go in there, as much as he didn’t want to get close to that carnage, see if there were survivors, wounded or not… the thought of leaving a boy or girl of Kizzy’s age behind to die, it twisted him up inside like nothing else.

He’d want someone else to do so for Kizzy, too, if he wasn’t there.

But there was no time. If he stopped, if he went into as tight a confinement as that bus, there would be no dodging the next wave of solid light.

No time to dodge, no time to help.

How many big brothers had lost their little sisters, just in that bus?

His feet hit dry concrete again, leaving bloody footprints the shape of his sneaker’s soles behind.

He left the bus behind, and in that moment, Jared had never hated anything or anyone near as much as he now hated that monster.

***

Now

Jared stepped up to the rim of the crater, crunching gravel under his white boots. He was exhausted, in body and mind, so much so his legs were trembling to hold up his body, but he could not bring himself to care.

He had to see this.

Below, Mindstar was staggering around, arms and shoulders slack, her head lolling around as her eyes refused to focus on anything, shedding streams of tears to accompany her incessant babbling, completely oblivious to the blood she was stepping around in, the bits of flesh and other parts she occasionally stepped on, or the blood-soaked, golden hair that filled more of the crater than the blood and the flesh combined did.

His eyes moved past her, seeking for something of the monster to focus on. Her lower body was mostly intact, and nude as ever, but that was not what he wanted to look at.

Instead, he found an eye, with a bit of messy, torn nerve and blood vessels attached to the back, having fallen so that it seemed to stare almost directly at him.

With its powers gone, the iris was purple, the only similarity to the princess being how deep, almost gem-like, the color was. Like looking straight at a circular…

What was the word? Something fancy, with an A… Amethyst. That’s the word.

Looking straight at an amethyst, where the princess’ eyes were more akin to sapphires. Beautiful, objectively, he, his very core, it refused to ascribe anything of true beauty to this monster.

Not even now, not in death.

The princess is going to be heartbroken.

The thought came unbidden, unwanted. He shouldn’t care about that, and yet…

He had a sibling, too. Though comparing Kizzy to the monster was ridiculous, or his relationship to her to the princess’ and the monster’s, he couldn’t hate the princess for feeling that way, not really.

He did hate everyone else who’d tried to defend the monster. And there were many. Imbeciles and ingrates who said it was just a victim of its own powers. Innocent, for its ignorance. That they’d regret the necessity of its death, if it could not be saved.

Jared would have spat out on its remains, if his mouth wasn’t dry as sandpaper. He’d run out of water six hours ago, as he’d been running himself ragged getting others into safety. Spending nearly all of the time he’d accumulated, leaving him with only seconds, which were now recharging, second by second, like grains of sand trickling into an empty hour glass.

This is good. As good as I could have hoped for.

To Hell with the people feeling sympathetic for it.

He had held Kizzy as she’d fallen apart at the news that their parents hadn’t made it.

He had held her hand when they’d buried the empty caskets of their parents, and what little had been found of their cantankerous, snarky, cuddly old fool of a grandfather.

No family left. No friends. No home. The entire southern side of Miami was gone, the people who’d lived there almost all dead.

Only Jared, Kizzy, and the powers he’d manifested, gathering up seconds to spend. Powers that he’d leveraged into building a new life for the two of them, with the right kind of foster family, with money and prestige.

None of it was enough to fill the holes left in their hearts, but it was a start.

He stared at that eye, feeling the black, tar-like weight of his hatred in his chest, his stomach, his head, coursing through his veins.

Fuck it. Fuck you, DiL. May you fucking rot in Hell, you fucking monster. I hope this hurt even worse than it looked, and I hope someone made a recording of it, so I can watch it every night before bed.

Maybe if he did that, he’d finally be able to sleep without having nightmares of her.

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