In a world where deities once thought to be fictional walk the Earth and where godlike beings with the power to twist the very fabric of reality are well-documented, what place is left for the capital-‘G’ God? Of course, the existence of what we variously term ‘paranormals’, ‘superhumans’, ‘Jenseitsemenschen’1 has been documented in the West throughout recorded history, all the way back to the shadowy Hyborian Era
“Got to watch those long sentences,” Liz Kildare muttered for the benefit of no one but herself and her laptop. She let her thoughts stray over to the prospect of getting a cat. At least then she would have an audience as she muttered her way through writing. With a bit of effort, though, she pulled her mind back to her paper.
Considering this deep-rooted history and the longevity of world religions, faith and theology have never been deterred (word choice?) by the existence of the superhuman. The Catholic Church and prominent Islamic and Jewish scholars, among other monotheistic authorities, have attempted to rationalize the public emergence of purported Greek, Celtic, Hindu, and Shinto divine personas in the modern era. However, this subject has already been thoroughly mined.2 Less discussed is what happens when superhumans of faith, those drawn into the often frankly bizarre life of the superhero3, confront beings of seemingly omnipotent power, ranging from the alleged goddess Unktehlia to the so-called Living Void, which, according to several accounts of what the cape media termed “the Galactic Eclipse”, nearly consumed our solar system. Still, even though he was said to have confronted the Living Void himself, the famous superhero Sans Pareil remarked that the existence and capabilities of the entity did not undermine his Islamic faith: “It is not that the power of this being made me doubt, but rather that we were able to stop a being of such power that helps me believe.” [DAMMIT DO I HAVE A DIRECT SOURCE FOR THIS?]
Liz groaned, cranking up the Stone Temple Pilots in a vain attempt to drown out her own temptation to abandon her work for an hour skimming YouTube or Wikipedia, possibly for the sake of researching cat ownership. Instead, the hoped-for interruption came in the form of a piercing ring that sounded from the front porch. Half-leaping and half-falling from her office chair, Liz rushed for the door. What waited for her was the sight of one of her oldest friends, suspended two feet in the air, and slowly being strangled by thick tendrils made of shimmering blue light.
“Jon!” she shouted.
Jon himself could only croak out a plea. In the same instant, she was also answered by a sterile voice that echoed with a sterile pleasantness inside her own skull.
“USER ELIZABETH KILDARE, UNAUTHORIZED AND UNRECOGNIZED TRESPASSER CAUGHT. SHALL I MERELY CONTINUE TO DETAIN, TEMPORARILY DISABLE, PERMANENTLY DISABLE, OR TERMINATE ALL BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONS? PLEASE ADVISE WITH SPECIFICITIES AS SOON AS CONVENIENT.”
None of the above! Liz thought. In two microseconds, the tendrils dispersed into shimmering nanotech clouds. Jon fell with a thud to Liz’s lawn.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Liz muttered as she helped Jon up. Through the moonless night, she eventually made out that he was wearing his superhero uniform, a close-fitting light green ensemble with blue markings around the chest and shoulders. The blue radiated out from a circle containing a green gem sewn into his costume. She would never forget being simultaneously offended and flattered when he first asked her to help him design the costume their freshman year of college.
Damn, I wish someone could snap a picture of this, Liz thought, as she envisioned herself in wrinkled khaki shorts and a Rob Zombie t-shirt helping up a superhero in her lawn.
“What the hell, Liz?” Jon croaked out as Liz helped him inside and to her couch.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize it was programmed to do that to anyone with a superhuman or paranormal energy signature.”
“No, I mean…what was it?”
“It’s alien tech,” Liz said, unable to stop herself from interjecting a bit of pride. “The Grel or something, I think. The Final Guard hooked me up. Took, like, twenty phone calls. Oops, um, do you want some water or a soda or something to eat?”
“Just water, thanks,” Jon replied. He had expected to put his life on the line tonight, but not at the front door of his best friend’s house.
“And please don’t tell them about this!” Liz called from the kitchen.
“Of course I won’t,” Jon called back.
Liz handed him a cup, which Jon suspected was hastily rinsed out in the sink. After a couple of minutes of pleasantries, Jon glanced instinctively back at the front door.
“Liz, if you’re not feeling safe…”
Liz looked uncertain for a second, but the uncertainty gave way to a smile. “No, it’s not really like that. It’s just, you know…” She shrugged.
“Yeah, but…” Jon paused to drink, using the water as an excuse to take time in choosing his words. “He’s not coming back.”
Liz chuckled, quick and bitter and tinged with grief.
“How many times have either of us said something like that before?
At that, Jon felt a chill and sunk into silence.
“So, you put on the old Halloween costume,” Liz said, cutting through the thick silence. “I thought you were on one of your semi-retirements…”
“Yeah, that’s why I popped in,” Jon said. The concern he felt for Liz lingered, but selfishly a part of him, too, was grateful for the change in subject. “I need your research skills like always.”
Liz sighed theatrically. “So, you want my unpaid labor.”
“Oh, shut up. I know you enjoy showing off.”
With a confessional nod, Liz took her place in front of her desk and laptop, as Jon watched the screen from over her shoulder. “What’s the story?” she asked, as she clicked her way to the usual research databases.
“Well, the city police PSCD actually reached out to me. You heard about a female thief going by the alias ‘Stiletto’? Well, she’s…”
“She really calls herself Stiletto?”
“Yeah. Called herself that in an anonymous note to some newspaper and everything.”
Liz grunted. “Okay.”
“As best as the cops can tell, she has powers, they’re mystical in nature, and they derive from some Korean occult knife that augments her physical senses.”
“That’s a lot like your gem, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is,” Jon said. “I’m worried that she knows that and so her showing up here isn’t a coincidence.”
“And since Tarot and Rune retired, you’re the only super with any kind of mystic abilities in the whole metro area.”
“Yeah, I was apparently the first guy the PSCD reached out to. I really won the lottery there.”
“Oh, it’s okay, I know you enjoy showing off. What’s…Stiletto’s MO?”
“Um, she’s only committed a few crimes, but each time she’s been after other artifacts that have at least an alleged occult value. The police say so far she hasn’t demonstrated any mystic aptitude apart from just using the dagger, so she’s probably just in it to steal and sell. Anyway, they think she’ll hit up Duquesne University next, since they have a rare English copy of The Cult of Ghouls. I just need an idea of what I might be up against.”
“Lucky for you, I have access to a university database dedicated entirely to documented occult artifacts.” A few clicks later, Liz cracked her knuckles theatrically. “And there we have it.”
“Oh, you have way too much faith in me,” Liz said while giving Jon a light punch on his rib. “Daggers are way too obvious a thing to endow with magic power, you know.”
They spent the next forty minutes scanning through every mystic dagger that was or resembled a stiletto. There was more than Jon expected, but only one was currently missing.
Jon looked at the screen. A picture of a simple gleaming blade with a faded spiral-handled silver handle sat above a wall of thick text. “So, it seems to date from the Three Kingdoms era, but it’s been theorized the metal might have been come from another artifact of much older, maybe even Hyborian origin. It gives its wielder superhuman agility and reflexes with no known negative side effects. Well, at least she won’t be possessed or insane, probably.”
Jon chuckled. “Emphasis on probably, but knowing my luck…”
Even though he was so very much not the time, Jon could not help but peruse the occult library at Duqesnue as he guarded the glass display case holding The Cult of Ghouls. The “Mantra gem” that gave Jon his powers had been passed down four generations of his family, yet he knew so very little about it. He was not even sure if anyone in his family ever used it to its full potential.
When he first got into the “caping” business, Jon considered studying Paranormal and Occult Studies in college, even majoring in it like Liz did. However, actually diving into the books was very rarely as much fun as most people outside the field thought it was, as with most odd and esoteric subjects, Jon supposed. Still, it might be worth taking up that job offer from Dr. Bilatz, if only to get him out of having to keep doing things like this just to keep his service pension as an on-call super…
Jon’s thoughts about the future were interrupted by the light sound of glass shattering. He had been afraid that activating his powers might alert Stiletto to his presence, but there was no sense in putting it off any longer. “Ul dinea,” he whispered. As always, he could feel the gem “turn on” instantaneously. His senses were heightened to a point he could hear a pen drop from twenty feet away and two stories up, he could now sense the presence of other living beings, and his reflexes were much faster than a normal human. However, if her dagger gave her similar gifts, the best he could hope for was a fair fight and he was definitely out of practice.
He sneaked around the stacks, toward where he heard the glass and where he could sense her presence. The image of her aura in his mind was dim, probably because her own weapon was masking her presence.
Without conscious thought, Jon dodged to the side as a glint of silver was thrust toward where his abdomen had been.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Mantra”, a female voice said.
Great, a banterer, Jon thought. Now it was definitely going to be a long evening.
Jon threw a punch to where the voice came, but Stiletto was already on the defense and had backflipped to about a couple of feet away. She was a tall blond in a white leather outfit, her features badly disguised by a small mask, smaller than Jon’s own. Jon suspected from what he could make out from her build that she was a gymnast or something on top of having her powers, which all added up to an even longer evening.
“Look, Stiletto, I’m sure you’re new at this,” he said in his well-practiced “good cop” voice. “Why don’t we skip the fight and just talk about whatever you want?”
She grinned. “You know, it’s wrong to discourage a girl from a brand-new career.” With that, she was at him again with punches and stabs. Jon could keep up with deflecting and dodging the blows—but just barely. He had gotten enough of a mental map of the environment to know that she was backing him up to one of the stacks. He tried to stop her barrage with a sweep kick, but in an instant she was on his back. He felt the sting of the stiletto between his shoulder blades. She could have injured him much worse than she did, but she only sought to topple him over.
In seconds, Jon felt her grab his hair and pull his head back, bringing the metal of the stiletto to his exposed neck. “There,” she said, barely managing to get her words past her own labored breathing. “I like this negotiating position much better, don’t you?”
Jon was now sure this wasn’t about some rare grimoire. The sooner he brought it out in the open, the sooner he could go home, water his plants, and get to bed. “I’m gay,” Jon blurted out.
“What?” Stiletto’s wavering voice made it clear this was not going as she rehearsed.
Jon felt her weight off his body. Cautiously, he got up.
“Look, everybody has their own story. But when you have been in this business, it doesn’t take long before you notice or hear about certain patterns, like women and occasionally men who either have had really crappy lives or were born with silver spoons but always wanted the thrill of risk and adventure. I don’t know why, but it’s usually one extreme or another. They genuinely want to get back at somebody or somebodies or add spice to their life, but sometimes they also want to go for the whole ‘Crimson Flame and Chameleon Woman’ thing where she becomes a supercriminal and some superhero’s regular, they fight for years, and then fall in love and start a life together in retirement. I guess you came here and were hoping to fight me because you read somewhere that my powers are similar to yours.”
“Yeah. I…I even have a trust fund,” Stiletto blurted out. “But the cape media said you dated that Kildare woman. Like, it was this whole star-crossed thing because she was the sister of—”
“The cape media doesn’t even know my civilian name. How would they know the actual details of my dating life?”
“…Yeah,” Stiletto said, the sultry persona she had rehearsed breaking down. “What are you going to do now?”
“Me? Nothing. I trust you can slip past the police without too much difficulty. Then you can go quietly back to your old life or maybe even start to use your powers for good. Just please don’t keep being a super-criminal, because I can tell that’s not you at all. But, more importantly, if I do hear about Stiletto committing another crime here or anywhere, I will call in a favor and have someone bring the hammer down, okay?”
Stiletto paused for an awkward moment, but eventually nodded with sincerity. “Got it.”
“I trust you. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.”
She made her way to the window that was her original entry way. It seemed like she would leave without the final word, but she turned to Jon and said, “For what it’s worth, I do hope you get your own super-criminal love story.”
Jon laughed despite himself. “I think I’d prefer meeting a future husband another way.”
Once he was satisfied that Stiletto had indeed left and hadn’t been apprehended by the police, Jon started making his way out of the library. He should have been thinking about how he could explain Stiletto’s “escape” to the Paranormal and Superhuman Crime Department, but instead, his mind wandered to the Exile, that handsome telepathic super-criminal he fought quite a few times when he was a member of the Rooks.
He always got a vibe from that guy. Whatever happened to him?