#2: Treachery in Carpathia!

Even though he was hungry, Amar lacked the will and desire to leave his bed. He knew he was delaying the inevitable, much like when he was a child and the mere thought of going through the day’s lessons depressed him. He glanced at the ancient alarm clock. The lateness of the hour finally forced him to confront the day.

Instinctively, as he cleaned up and dressed, he reached out with his mind. Outside his chambers, he lightly touched the thoughts of nearby servants and personnel. Thankfully, nothing was unusual. They were merely concerned with their own work as they bustled about the presidential palace. Only a few thoughts lingered on him and General Vosla. None were at all positive but also none were truly threatening, and that was all that mattered.

Amar muttered curses as he once again put on the costume of the elites of the First World. He had been stranded on the First World for over six years now, but he had never gotten used to the lack of vibrant colors and the useless, ugly strip of fabric that had to be tied firmly around the neck with excruciating difficulty. The look of himself in the mirror in the bland trappings of his place of banishment was enough to make the familiar, old yearning for home flare up.

Almost as soon as he stepped through the doorway, a young servant still in her teens emerged from a side corridor. Amar sensed right away that she was terrified of him. Nonetheless, she asked him if he wanted breakfast with flawless decorum.

“Yes, thank you,” Amar replied in excellent Ruthene, marred only by that accent people always seemed to notice but could never identify with certainty no matter how well-traveled they were. “I do love the coffee in this country,” he said as he followed the servant down the cavernous corridor at an assuring distance. He was tempted to add, though, that no matter where he was, he had never failed to enjoy coffee, one of the few untarnished blessings he ever found in this loathsome world.

After he ate (and the servant got away from him as soon as her duties would allow), Amar left the ornate dining room with a sigh. He should have already checked in on General Vosla and President Makowski by now.

As he made his way to the president’s offices, everyone from cleaning staff to military officers clumsily avoided him. He suppressed a perverse urge to broadcast “I’m not the one you should be worried about” into their minds.

An inhumanly tall and bulky figure blocked the door. Sunlight streaming through the windows glistened off its metallic, crimson skin.

“Good morning, Ruiner,” Amar said. A noise that was half a crackle of static and half a grunt came out of a head that was vaguely reptilian.

Amar had never worked with Ruiner before, but apparently Ruiner got around “the community.” As Amar understood it, Ruiner was once a scientist dying from stage 4 cancer. When the corporation he worked for purchased an extraterrestrial war-robot on the black market, he uploaded his consciousness into the robot’s CPU, at the cost of nearly all his intellect, memories, and sanity.

“Is Vosla and the president inside?” he asked, masking his discomfort over the fact that Ruiner, who was in Vosla’s words supposed to be their “loyal muscle”, was treating him like an outsider. Ruiner made no reply except to step aside, almost petulantly.

“I appreciate the conversation,” Amar muttered, secure in his certainty that the very concept of sarcasm was quite beyond what now passed for Ruiner’s mind.

President Konstantin Makowski sat cheerfully at his desk. Only the fact that he was slightly slumped over and was humming some old song for children gave any impression that something might be wrong with him. Vosla was smoking a cigar nonchalantly, perusing a well-worn copy of The Tempest in Ruthene. His aged but still muscular body and his pockmarked, stony face were both relaxed, but even in repose he still radiated a sense of threat.

“There you are,” Vaslo said, not lifting his head from the pages. “I was beginning to think you had overslept.”

“How’s the president?” Amar asked, eager to get through what had become an almost daily ritual. “It’s been a while since he had any…uh, adjustments.”

“Oh, he’s doing just fine,” Vosla said.

Amar tried to read Vosla’s casual, disinterested tone and his lazy body language. He hated not being able to read Vosla’s mind. In fact, it often terrified him. Vosla’s psychic defenses were extraordinarily thorough for a mindblind. If Amar tried to skim Vosla’s thoughts, he would only find memories of lyrics from some musical called Toomorrow. Theoretically Amar could still break through that and other defenses and dig deeper. After all, even before he learned how to read, Amar was being trained in the art of what his people called truthseeking by the very best. However, to crack Vosla’s mind, Amar would have to be physically close to him and stay in a state of intense concentration. And in that scenario, a bullet would go right into his brain before he could even get too far.

Even the briefest and most casual encounters with Vosla were totally disconcerting. And while he couldn’t read his mind, Amar knew Vosla knew it.

“I still have some work to do before I resign,” the president declared while abruptly sitting up and striking an officious pose. “You’ll help make sure all the details are addressed, I’m sure, General Vosla?”

“Of course, Your Excellency,” Vosla replied with mocking deference.

“Are you sure?” Amar said, as he gently scanned President Makowski’s mind, which was not at all broken, but simply…derailed. “He won’t be able to engage in anything beyond casual engagements.”

At last, Vosla bothered to turn his full attention to Amar. “I decided it would be preferable if he remained in seclusion until my inauguration. At this stage, having him in public achieves little except the invitation of unnecessary risks.”

“People are going to ask questions.”

Vosla sneered. “I will concern myself with the international press myself. No explanation as to why President Makowski would name a war criminal”—he spat out the phrase with practiced disdain—“as his preferred successor seems to satisfy the scavengers for long. Still, I can manage them myself, I think, but your services may still be needed until I am formally in power, naturally.

“In fact, I’ve been forgetting to mention that I will need you this afternoon. 14:00 precisely. According to reports from the southeast, a young sergeant has finally crushed the insurgent forces in the east and he has already arrived in the capital to be publicly honored. Originally, I was going to have you set up Makowski to award our stalwart champion, but I decided it should be me. After all, I succeeded in putting down the resistance Makowski had failed miserably to crush for years. And how better to legitimize the upcoming transition?”

“What do you need me to do?”

“I have precious few assurances that the military and the security forces are sufficiently loyal, and until the presidency is mine I can’t really do much to, let’s say, encourage such fidelity.”

Amar supposed he should feel relieved that Vosla was finding new uses for him, other than keeping the president in line. He agreed to scan the crowd, while of course hiding from the press and the public behind whatever officials appeared to prevent anyone from recognizing him or, worse, him being filmed or photographed. Of course, there would also be the strain of telepathically ensuring no one in such a large gathering would recognize him as the supercriminal Exile. Still, it was a simple enough request, and Amar agreed readily enough before leaving to do whatever he needed to do to keep away from Vosla until he was needed.

As he returned to his quarters, Amar couldn’t help but reflect on how there was a time not that long ago he would have never bet on someone with Vosla’s reputation. The general was well-known in the community for always being true to his word, but there were also a few stories of him exploiting loopholes and technicalities in his own promises with brutal bureaucratic efficiency. But there was no one else. The authorities had uncovered Amar’s last remaining safehouse and civilian cover identity in Cape Verde, and almost all of his usual allies were currently imprisoned, deep in hiding, or dead. What other hope was left?

And even if he gives you what he promised in exchanged for the presidency, you’ll end up returning home with an invading army. His own thought made him grimace.

Amar laid back down in his bed and tried to read but found he could not focus on the words.

***

The crowd was unexpectedly exuberant. An orderly mass of men, women, and children carpeted the brick and cement ground of Voloshyn Square. Many came waving Ruthenian flags, but only a few carried images of President Makowski or Vosla himself. Amar doubted that detail escaped Vosla’s notice.

“I should have refused,” Amar thought as he positioned himself inconspicuously in the midst of a swarm of military dignitaries and elected officials. Still, he underwent the tedious work of skimming through hundreds of feelings and half-formed thoughts to pick up any telltale signs of dread or anxiety. No doubt Vosla had more than enough reason to fear rebels and assassins, but Amar suspected more and more that Vosla did not at all “forget” to make this request of him until almost the last minute. Instead Vosla had to be trying to subtly renegotiate the terms of their alliance, to position him as his subordinate, subject to his whims at all time, and not his equal partner. Perhaps desperation had made him paranoid. Nonetheless, Amar had been at this sort of business long enough to know that, when dealing with people like Vosla, paranoia was one of your most valuable assets.

On the makeshift stage, Vosla spoke blandly but convincingly of loyalty and stability and transcending the past without forgetting it. At last, the real star of the hour was paraded out like some sort of show dog. He was a bulky man who looked more mountain man than soldier, although he certainly did look like someone who had rebel blood on his hands.

The rugged hero’s speech was, curiously enough, about freedom, but Ruthenia was still just enough of a republic that his words did not come across as an obscenity or a joke. Vosla probably even put him up to it. Leave it to Vosla to appreciate the beautiful irony of having a man who crushed resistance speak about the virtues of liberty.

For the sake of his own curiosity, Amar included Vosla’s pet hero in his scan. He was startled to sense that there was something rather off about his thoughts. He was focusing on reciting his speech, of course, but there was something deeper and hidden.

“And just as our nation has always led the region in prosperity and progress, so we can lead it in forging ways to enjoy freedom responsibly and…” He paused and looked to where Amar was sitting. “…without interference.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Amar saw a woman, some senator, pull out some kind of circular object —a bomb? —and hit a button on it. Suddenly, his own thoughts were scattered before a piercing scream of pain that lashed out from the very core of his mind. Amar could feel his body falling from his seat against the body of the man that was sitting next to him, who was now getting up in a panic, leaving Amar to crumple to the floor. The whole sequence of events felt distant, masked by the sudden migraine that exploded and shattered his consciousness.

If he was more aware, he would have also seen President Makowski fall to the ground in  a seizure, Vosla shouting and calling for Ruiner, and the soldier at the podium rip off the uniform and even the skin around his face to reveal another person entirely. Even in his haze of pain and confusion and in the panic growing around him, Amar recognized the green and white costume, the cape, the shoulder-length hair, the square-jawed and close-cut bearded face of the superhero Sans Pareil

Amar might have passed out if he didn’t feel someone grabbing him by his armpits and hauling him to his shaking feet. Ruiner and Sans Pareil were exchanging blows strong enough to shake windows miles away.

“You worthless inbred royal idiot!” Vosla’s voice hissed right into his ear. “One of the most famous superheroes in the world was practically standing right on our toes and you couldn’t sense him with that freak brain of yours!”

“He…he must have had a cover personality,” Aram mumbled. Then, his mind finally processing Vosla’s insult, Amar’s pride sparked through all his agony and delirium. “You might as well blame yourself for not seeing through his makeup with your eyes.” Vosla was actually taken aback by that, if only for a few seconds.

“Well, I still owe you a debt, and I may yet have need of you,” Vosla said. “Come with me.”

As Vosla spoke, Amar watched in awe as Sans Pareil flew effortlessly through the air, dodging a massive, unwieldly blade Ruiner had produced from his right arm. All the while he fired concussive blasts from his hands that rippled through the air and staggered Ruiner more and more with each strike.

“Ruiner will keep him busy, but not for much longer, I fear. Come on!” Amar felt Vosla practically dragging him back in the direction of the presidential palace. Through the front entrance, Amar had recovered enough that he could keep up with Vosla on his own at a reasonably steady pace. He was even able to move faster when it became clear from the distant shouts that Ruiner was almost subdued and that even in the chaos the soldiers and officials had arrived at a consensus that Vosla and Amar had to be detained as soon as possible. Without a second’s pause, Vosla guided Amar to a wing of the palace he had never been to before. Tucked inside the closet of a guest room that had been regularly cleaned but probably not actually slept in for years was a secret door that opened into an elevator. Hidden inside a floral pattern on the bedroom’s wall was a hi-tech panel. Vosla produced a keycard that made it hum. However, Vosla’s pleased expression quickly evaporated once he realized he had to input a numeric password as well. Vosla muttered some creative curses in his native Bulgarian involving various saints, incest, and fecal matter.

Amar said nothing. I should help him, he thought. If he really has one, I can retrieve his memory of the password. The danger was that someone like Vosla, in Amar’s own bitter experience, was liable to realize that he would have to drop his mental barriers and assume right away that Amar was setting him up for a betrayal. If that happened, in the stress of the moment, Amar’s life could very well be forfeit. At the same time, it was a relatively small risk, and Amar had no desire to be at the mercy of a now restored and sure-to-be-vengeful President Mackowski…

His internal debate was interrupted by a shout. “Stop!” A lone but confident soldier was pointing a rifle right at them.

Vosla was hardly phased and kept fiddling with the panel. “Make yourself useful, finally,” he growled at Amar.

Just a couple of minutes later, the soldier was crouched down on the floor, on the brink of tears. Amar genuinely felt no animosity toward the soldier, whom he now knew was Mehael Dzadik from Terebovi. Mehael was only doing his duty in apprehending two traitors and had bravely if stupidly taken the initiative to search this area of the palace alone while his compatriots searched more likely hiding spots elsewhere. However, there was no time to be gentle or precise about subduing poor Mehael.

“Please…” Mehael choked out. A particularly unpleasant memory of something bad that happened on a sunny afternoon on August 14, 2011 was still flaring brightly in his mind.

“I know, I know, but for what it’s worth, you’ll get to live,” Amar broadcast into Mehael’s mind. As if on cue, Vosla gasped and a whimsical electronic chime sounded. The false wall inside the closet slid to the slide to reveal a cylinder silver elevator.

Amar slid inside first. The sooner he was done with Vosla and this whole country, the better. His anxious thoughts about the future were dispelled by a gunshot, causing Amar to immediately duck. As he looked up, instead of seeing vengeful soldiers, there was only Vosla moving toward the elevator and the fresh corpse of Mehael Dzadik from Terebovi bleeding into the ludicrously expensive lavender carpet.

They were both silent as they rode the elevator down, until Amar said, despite himself, “I told him he’d live.”

Vosla shrugged. “Never leave behind a loose end.”

***

The plan was now to ride the president’s hidden emergency train to its destination, an abandoned and gutted factory very close to the Polish border, and there go their separate ways. It was left unspoken that Vosla would leave Amar to fend for himself once he was sure they had reached safety, but Amar supposed it was better than Vosla seeing him as another loose end.

Vosla stood at attention, as if he was at a military parade, staring through the window even though there was nothing to see except the cement and tile walls of the underground tunnel. Amar stretched out on one of the seats. It was ridiculous, almost obscene, but this getaway train of a quasi-dictator had seats cushioned with silk and even small chandeliers. Amar idly thought that once they got away he would have to “convince” someone to pay his way at a nice high-end hotel. After this entire fiasco, he really could use a day to himself before he went about the hard work of figuring out a secure place to hide out for the long term, much less a new plan to get his kingdom back.

Suddenly there was a distant crashing noise. Amar ignored it. Vosla’s reverie was broken and, for the very first time since they met, he looked nervous.

“I think he found us,” Vosla muttered to himself and not to Amar.

Amar could understand Vosla’s fear but was still annoyed by it. He closed his eyes and leaned back more into the seat until he was practically sprawled over it. He could only think about how he deserved a break. Yes, for a while there should be no more schemes, no more danger, no more having to deal with self-glorified thugs like Vosla. He would rebuild.  After all, wasn’t there still that bank account with all that money he got that useless billionaire to sign over to him? Maybe things weren’t as hopeless as…

Suddenly the train bucked, throwing Vosla down to the ground and almost knocking Amar off his seat. The lights inside the train went out for a frightful second but came back on. The train itself, however, had come to a dead halt.

Amar looked to Vosla. His terror almost made him look human, which was in of itself unnerving. “We just crashed,” Amar said. “That’s it. We need to find the emergency exit.”

Vosla did not turn and said nothing. Amar got up and started looking for a way out. Like anyone else, he knew Sans Pareil was powerful, even by superhuman standards, but he was not ready to believe that he somehow figured out where they were so quickly.

Amar was about to step into the next car when he was startled by the shrieking sound of metal and plastic being torn like paper. He did not need to look to know it was Sans Pareil making his way from the outside to where Amar and Vosla now stood.

Vosla cocked his gun and pointed it as Sans Pareil. A gesture of violent, futile defiance was all he had left, and he would not surrender it.

“You…” Vosla growled. “You had to interfere yet again, didn’t you?”

Sans Pareil stood expressionless. Amar knew he should run, but helplessness and awe kept him rooted. He had been involved with fights against Sans Pareil before, but never to a point where they were almost alone against each other. After a moment that seemed to go on forever, Sans Pareil simply asked, “You know where you went wrong, General Vosla?”

Vosla did not reply. It was another bit of defiance, Amar thought.

“It’s how you always go wrong. You expect people to just surrender themselves to authority, to whoever happens to be in charge. But the people of Ruthenia from the military leaders to the average citizens of the capital were working against you and helping me for weeks now. It was just a matter of figuring out how you were doing it.” What Sans Pareil said next did not at all come across as a boast, but as a statement of absolute fact. “You never had a chance.”

Vosla shrieked with rage and fired his gun stupidly, madly at Sans Pareil. Amar dove to the ground to avoid any possible ricochets. He glanced up just in time to see the caped man almost gently push the charging Vosla aside, nonetheless causing him to collapse like an abandoned doll against the train wall. As soon as Amar realized that Sans Pareil’s attention was now squarely on him, he half-stumbled, half-ran into the next car.

His mind raced. There had to be an exit. He could escape into the tunnel and into some kind of repair shaft or something would lead to freedom. He simply could not wind up in one of their prisons again.

Sans Pareil was walking up to him. There wasn’t enough time to try the other car. Amar turned and lashed out, although he already knew it would probably be useless. The onslaught he unleashed would have been enough to turn an unprepared, normal human mind into a paperweight for at least a couple of minutes. But even Sans Pareil’s mind was anything but normal. He gave no impression of even getting a slight headache. Instead he just spoke calmly. “It’s enough, Ensi Amar Paragisi Kadingir.”

Amar did not see in his eyes the anger or exhilaration he was accustomed to seeing in his enemies. Instead he only saw what had to be described as disappointment. That look turned Amar’s fear into anger.

Gathering up his courage, he now stepped toward Sans Pareil and looked directly in his eyes. “Is this the part where you hurl or blast me through one of those windows?”
Sans Pareil sighed. “Unlike you, I don’t believe in hurting people who don’t pose a threat to me.”

“I didn’t kill that soldier.”

“I can recognize General Vosla’s handiwork,” Sans Pareil said, casually taking a seat. He gestured, indicating that Amar should sit down as well. Despite himself, Amar obeyed. He was too exhausted to indulge in any little gestures of resistance like Vosla. “I meant President Makowski. You stole more than two months from his life. You wreaked havoc on his relationships with his loved ones. You did damage to his mind that will likely take years to completely repair, if ever. And, worse than any of that, you very nearly forced him to hand his people and their futures over to a madman. All that just because you were promised an army.”

“Please, Makowski’s almost what you people call a dictator already.”

“True, but that’s not really a point in your favor, is it? Especially because you knew General Vosla was someone much worse.”

Amar felt the rage course through him like bile. “I wouldn’t have to take such measures, you know, if ‘heroes’ like you just minded their own business once in a while! But you  – you think you can just meddle wherever you damn well please, as if your powers give you some kind of license to force your morality on every person and even every society you come across, to decide on a whim who’s the villain and who’s the victim! And you wonder where your so-called supercriminals come from?!”

Sans Pareil looked thoughtful for a minute, as if he was actually weighing Amar’s words. Then he spoke again, but this time it was almost as if he was just thinking aloud. “I’ve been at this for almost a decade, you know. Well, since I was thirteen years old, but professionally it hasn’t been that long yet.

So, I guess I haven’t been dealing with what you call the community for that long, but still I’ve seen a lot, for better and for worse. I’ve seen outcasts from the scientific realm slowly turn into megalomaniacs who threaten the survival of the entire human species for no reason except some irrational grudge, petty thieves and con-artists who overnight become ruthless masterminds who hold entire cities hostage, and people with powers and more than justified grievances who just suddenly become mass murderers worse than any ‘normal’ serial killer.”

“I don’t –“

“You did do your homework on General Vosla, didn’t you? I mean, the cape press likes to only talk about the sillier stuff Vosla has done, like when he and Lady Revanche hijacked that experimental submarine or when he got most of the street gangs of Los Angeles to organize and act like a professional army, but there’s also the things he did that made him wanted by the Hague. Have you ever heard the name Kalnubirz?

Amar only shook his head. He was starting to feel numb.

“It was on a beautiful spot, right on top of a few hills just outside a deep Old World forest, but you can’t visit it nowadays. As Vosla was marching through there in his uniform, a nine-year-old boy spat on him. So Vosla and his troops gathered up every single person in that tiny village and had them all shot. It’s been many years since then but one lives there today, as if the whole place is under a curse.”

Amar said nothing.

“You’ve been wronged. I know that. And maybe things could and should have played out very differently when we first came into conflict with you. But you really don’t have to let your past and other people’s mistakes weigh on you so much you just keep sinking deeper. At least, you shouldn’t let it decide the company you keep today.”

For a moment, Amar felt stung. Then he remembered that this self-anointed hero knew nothing about him or the struggles he had since the miserable day he first encountered his compatriots. How dare he take it upon himself to judge him, just because he could fly through the air and bend steel with his bare hands? Did his powers also make him an expert on his life and

his father the liar and traitor

his people and what was needed to keep them safe from this vile, poisoned world ruled by greed?

“What are you going to do with me now?”

“Well, now that I spoke my piece, I’m going to escort you and Vosla to the nearest military regiment. But I don’t plan on leaving you alone, especially since your antics drove the entire government and military into a frenzy now. For his sake, I hope Vosla will wind up in a proper international court and not a prison around here. As for you, well, with your…ah, ambiguous legal status I don’t think even Makowski can hold you for long. Whatever happens, I’ll do what I can to get you back to St. Helena Prison.”

Amar realized he truly didn’t care whether he ended up in some tyrant’s rat hole or that relatively cushy prison for supercriminals in the middle of nowhere he already knew too well. With this latest failure, he only wished for the ground to swallow him home.

As he silently walked beside Sans Pareil (who carried an unconscious Vosla unceremoniously over his shoulder) down the dimly lit tunnel, he could only wonder if he had any real chance at a future, no matter what Sans Pareil said. Whether he stayed on the path he was forced to take long ago or instead escaped on some path toward a quieter life, he could only see an even deeper darkness in either direction.

#1: Enter Stiletto

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’, ‘Jenseitsemenschen1 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.”

“Already?”

“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.

“I’m gay.”

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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