It had been six months since Amar had been arrested by the Final Guard, and it was actually a relief that the most evil thing he had done since was forcing his seven students to master the Sumerian language’s sexagesimal numeral system in one class period.
Here he was, about to step inside his townhouse with something called a “pizza Margherita” hot on his arm. He was even able to go by his real name or rather a version of it that fit with his new manufactured life story as a scholar from the Middle East. Luckily, he was never nearly as famous a supercriminal as someone like The Roman or Mr. Punch. Even in an age of everyone carrying around digital cameras on their phones, plausible deniability would be his friend, or at least that’s what Josephine Manners assured him on three separate occasions.
As Amar awkwardly managed his keys and his pizza, he turned his head and called out, “You want any?”
Out in the darkness beyond his porch, a gruff voice replied flatly, “You knew I was there?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, opening the door and leaving it open for his guest. “You’re really good at silencing your thoughts for a mindblind, but you also give off some of the strongest psychic radiation I’ve ever experienced.”
Abu Oginyae silently followed. As much as he tried to convey the sense that he could shut down his entire nervous system in a minute, it did unnerve Amar how Abu Oginyae managed to move without even making the floor creak slightly.
“Would you like any pizza?”
Adu Oginyae was silent for a few seconds. “No, thank you.”
“Well, the offer’s open. I guess you’re here to spy on me, making sure I’m not hanging out with the wrong crowd again?”
“Something like that,” he answered.
Amar set down on the table two plates with a slice of pizza on each.
“Why you, though? Is the c-team off fighting a demonic invasion of Manhattan or something?”
“Let’s just say I’m personally curious,” Abu Oginyae said. “You likely know that I have seen very few people reform in my time, especially not among my own regulars. I do hope you will be different.”
Amar quietly ate, wondering if Jon’s preemptive break-up did make the Final Guard nervous that Amar would revert back to his old career. Just as Amar was starting to wonder if Abu Oginyae would simply stand there and watch him eat, he spoke again.
“You will be receiving an invitation in the mail, but I might as well tell you. You’re invited to the 430th anniversary of the Final Guard’s founding.”
“Oh. Well, thanks.” In spite of himself, Amar asked, “Will Jon be there?”
Amar got up and made his way to the fridge to get some iced tea. “Can I at least get you a drink?” When he next turned around toward the front door, Abu Oginyae was gone along with the second slice of pizza.
The boat pulled up to Citadel Island, an artificially built island lying roughly six miles east of Cobb Island, Virginia. Since the 1970s, it had been the main base for the Final Guard. Once upon a time, the Final Guard had been located in Manhattan. It took a surprisingly long time for people to realize that collecting Earth’s most powerful humans and miscellaneous beings, who were also routinely targeted by deadly superhuman, paranormal, and extraterrestrial forces, in a densely populated urban area was a terrible idea or at the very least outweighed the benefits of having them conveniently at hand.
Liz had been silently watching the water since they departed from the village of Oyster. As they got off on the dock, Jon asked her teasingly, “Thinking back to the time when you were a cape?”
Liz chuckled. “A little, actually. I still can’t believe I thought I was being all feminist by taking the name ‘White Witch.’”
“I thought it was clever.”
They reminisced all the way into the tower and through the multiple body scans (making sure they had no weapons or explosives, ensuring they were not shapeshifters or androids, etc.). They stepped into a ballroom that were a rainbow of superhero costumes, here and there broken by much more mundane tuxedos and dresses. Jon himself was in his Mantra costume, even though he had been working with Dr. Bilatz for weeks now doing random tasks and using the Mantra gem to help him monitor and manage mystical energies. Liz was in a red dress that was at least an unconscious homage to Lydia Deetz.
“What are you doing in that…interdimensional nexus or whatever anyway?” Liz asked.
“He’s calling it The Outside now.”
“Really? Nice and simple. It’s better than the White Witch.”
They separated and mingled, Liz eventually chatting with a rapper who was also rumored in the cape press to have lycanthropy, Jon making the rounds of his various former teammates in the Rooks. Standing alone, apart from the crowd and nursing a Shirley Temple, was Tell in his full classic Robin Hood-esque get-up.
They exchanged awkward and token greetings, but it wasn’t long before Will got to the chase.
“Amar is supposedly coming tonight,” he said, clearly scanning Jon’s face for a reaction.
“Really? That was nice of them to include him.”
Tell didn’t even try to suppress a groan. “Hm. I bet it was Sans Pareil’s idea.”
Jon couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “Probably, but you never know.”
“Look, I didn’t – I’m glad you’re not dating Amar. Seriously.”
Jon was surprised at the slight chill in his own voice. “I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know. Liz told me. Well, she didn’t tell me everything, but she implied you had other reasons. Still, though, I should…” Whatever Tell was about to say, he trailed off.
“It’s nothing. I really need to go find my plus one. She’s some journalist I met on a mission and I better make sure she’s not trying to score an interview off somebody. See you.”
Before Jon could engage another of his colleagues, the band that had been alternating between soft rock and something not unlike jazz surrendered to Athena, who took to the stage to give the requisite speech in her full breastplate and tunic.
After speaking eloquently but briefly on all the triumphs and the tragedies that had been experienced in the past year, Athena turned to the organization’s history. “Contrary to popular belief, I actually wasn’t on this plane of reality at the time, but I have heard this story told to me so many times in so many ways I may as well have been. 430 years ago, frustrated at the failure of his grand armada to conquer England, King Philip II of Spain, in a grotesque act of hypocrisy, had one of the kings of Hell, Viné, summoned and sent him against the English people. In response, Queen Elizabeth I gathered together the strongest but also the most unusual champions in her dominions – the Boggart, Sir Bedwyr, the Brass Head, Madam Pigot, and Jack-in-Irons. Only by using their gifts in tandem were they able to prevent tremendous loss of life and completely defeat what we would today call a class-A1 paranormal threat. It was a grateful Elizabeth herself who gave this menagerie of misfits the name the ‘Final Guard’, deeming them the last protection of her country when all other defenses failed.
This group continued to ultimately through tumultuous shifts in membership and even periods of total disbandment such as when Oliver Cromwell furiously condemned them as demonic and drove them all underground or out of England, but the Final Guard would always return in one form or another whenever the need was great. We have evidence that such gatherings of – let’s say – unique and exceptional individuals existed even as far back as ancient Rome and Nara Japan, but – and Liz, feel free to correct even the goddess of wisdom on this one [sincere laughter came from the audience] – but none lasted for longer than a generation. The Final Guard did, however, even after all of its original members had passed on or faded into legend.
However, its service still strictly belonged to the English monarchy until the horrors of the Seven Years War provoked the Masked Dragoon and Jill Holland to reach out to France’s premier champion, the Vicomte de Calbec, and set out to establish a new Final Guard that would no longer serve as the arm of any one government and would instead fight for the entire human race against exceptional threats. This mission has rarely been a simple one and many times the Final Guard has had to take sides in spite of our own ideals, most famously when we agreed to work in conjunction with the United States Army during the Second World War. But even in these tumultuous times we have kept true—“
Jon was listening with rapt attention until he thought he heard heavy footsteps coming in his general direction followed by a familiar laughter. He casually looked behind him and for reasons that were a mystery to him his heart stopped at the sight: a tall, very muscular, shirtless man, dressed only in leather boots and what could only be described as some kind of ancient man-skirt, along with perfectly combed and trimmed facial hair, long hair crowning his shoulders, and a forest of curly chest hair. It was Athena’s half-brother, Heracles, and walking with him with a hand against the chest that was far broader than Jon’s own was Amar.
Amar waved at Jon in such a way that it was almost theatrical. Jon fired back with about half a nod.
He was shocked out of his reverie by the room’s applause. Jon half-heartedly joined in and tried to go back to mingling, but his eyes kept turning back to the site of Amar fawning over the giant trash heap of hair and muscle.
Unable to do anything else, Jon walked casually up to Heracles and Amar. “Hi, Amar. I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Jon! I’m glad to see you again. It’s been a while.”
“Well, well, Mantra,” Heracles said with a grin. “I haven’t seen you since…”
“The Nero Imperative. Particularly that escape from the New Millennium Faction’s base.”
“Yes!” Heracles playfully slapped Jon on the shoulder, very nearly knocking him down. “I remember that well! Your friend here has quite the knack for running away from explosions,” he told Amar.
“Oh, I’ve seen him in danger, too,” Amar replied.
“Oh? We should arrange some kind of deadly, absurd adventure so you can say the same about me.”
“Well, you have taken every possible chance to show off,” Amar said before turning to Jon, almost as if he had forgotten he was there. “Did you know he’s so strong he can bench press a ten-wheeler? He did it as part of a workout routine while I was visiting him. Barely broke a sweat.”
“That is impressive, although I can name four or five people off the top of my head who can do the exact same thing,” Jon replied, trying to make it sound like just friendly teasing and failing.
As the war of barbs continued, Athena stood back in the crowd of talking people. She was making a beeline for her brother to confront him about yet again coming to an event uninvited when he hadn’t been a regular member of the Final Guard since the 1950s, but instead she stopped to observe Jon’s interactions with Amar and Heracles.
Sans Pareil saddled up next to her. “It’s a shame that Amar ended up with Heracles. I really was rooting for him and Jon.”
Athena was about to explain to Sans Pareil what was going on in the same tone one would talk to a too-old child about the non-existence of Santa Claus, but thankfully Adu Oginyae, who appeared out of nowhere as was his custom, did it for her. “You’re joking, right? You do realize that he’s trying to make Jon jealous, don’t you?”
Sans Pareil twisted his face in disgust. “You’d think someone who can read minds would just communicate his feelings honestly.”
“He’s still a human being,” Athena countered.
“And it’s still wrong,” Adu Oginyae added.
“So says the man who dates gorgeous yet love-starved celebrities and the saintly heads of affluent non-profits just to keep up his secret identity.”
Suddenly Heracles grabbed Amar, lifted him four feet in the air, and kissed him briefly yet deeply. Laughing, Amar then made his way to a door leading to an outdoor balcony. Jon said his farewells to Heracles – his words were terse, Heracles’ boisterously sincere. Seeing her moment, Athena walked up to her brother.
Forgoing the greeting, she simply said, “I trust you actually know what this is about, right?”
“You mean make some boy jealous?” Heracles said, chuckling. “I haven’t spent as much time with the mortals as you have in the recent centuries, sister, but I’ve never been that naïve. We’ve just been having a good time the past few months. And besides, I haven’t been with either a woman or a man of royal blood since that one glorious night in Edinburgh.”
“Please consider breaking it off gently,” Athena said, even though she suspected Heracles would ignore her advice as he always did in matters that did not involve storming enemy strongholds. “You shouldn’t even be involved.”
Heracles shrugged his massive shoulders. “He seems fine to me.”
“You’re worse than Father,” Athena growled. “At least he has the decency to delude himself that he’s in love.”
Amar pretended to be making the rounds, but only ran into former adversaries who had either played a role in foiling some plan he at least was involved in or knew him by reputation. The most Amar could be grateful for was that the shallow greetings outnumbered the icy glares. The only one who struck up a conversation with him was the Sentinel, who stood out even from the blindingly colorful crowd in his costume and its red, white, and blue motif.
At first, they chatted and joked about a little incident where Amar tricked the Sentinel and some British superhero, the Ebony Knight, into gathering together the scattered pieces of some superweapon or another. It soon turned into an argument about the merits of monarchy versus American democracy.
“I respect your people and their long history, but after living in this world for so many years, how can you still defend a system where power passes from one person to another just because of what family they were born into?” the Sentinel asked, gesturing so passionately that he nearly spilled his drink.
Amar rolled his eyes. “Yes, exactly. Why do you think I still believe in my people’s government, even after getting overthrown and exiled? I absolutely think that some societies could use at least a nominal leader who’s trained from birth for the role and isn’t some corrupt, unqualified lunatic who managed to game the system…”
Neither man was aware that their argument was being observed at a distance by Tell. Retreating further back, Tell whispered into his cell phone, “No, of course, you shouldn’t even think about taking him. He’s dating a veteran cape apparently, Heracles. So you’ll have to be more careful. Sure, we’ll keep watching until we finally get the opening we need.”