#4: Death in Valhalla Tower

“It’s beautiful!” Madeline squealed happily, despite the persona of a serious heroine she was trying to cultivate.

“Bless you, Lady”, Jakinu said while performing a gracious bow that involved most of his scrawny, reptilian body.

As they made their way down a wide, downward spiraling highway, the city of Luraz unfolded neatly below. The houses and shops and streets and bridges were all carved from the rock themselves. Despite being in a massive cavern miles below the earth, the entire city was bathed in orange and blue and yellow and green florescent lights that dangled from high poles like fruits from trees. It was even more impossibly gorgeous than she imagined, which was quite peculiar since she was dreaming.

“I still say we should have taken our chances in the Tranquil Mountains,” Astavis said quietly, his pale, handsome face radiating concern. Madeline could tell that Jakinu was pretending not to hear. “It’s not too late to turn back.”

However, Madeline knew for certain that Jakinu and most of his people, the Jendes, were trustworthy and not on the side of Grand Duke Ovladt despite their sinister gray and reptilian appearance. She read as much in The Secret of Castle Boeja, the second book in the Legend of the Steam Cities series when the Jende saved the Cavalier and Madame Makon from being hunted down by Inquisitor Kenesh.

However, how could she explain that she was dreaming her favorite book series to Astavis? That he and not of this likely really existed? “I believe Jakinu,” she said simply.

She could tell that Jakinu was answering Astavis against his better judgment. “In public the priest-chiefs have sworn fidelity to the Grand Duke. Many in private say not to obey him.”

Astavis scoffed. Madeline was quick to change the subject. “And if the priest-chief of Luraz opens the way to the Crimson Tunnel, the only peril we have left is crossing the Valley of Gales?”

“Yes, the Valley of Gales. Wide-open spaces and no villages, much less proper cities, for miles. All right next to the heart of the Grand Duke’s territory,” Saigh said after staying unusually quiet for many hours. She was gazing not at the city below, but the chaotic network of cliffs and openings on the steep underground wall above. Madeline could tell her small, wiry body was tense even under all the rags and furs she wore. “Don’t like our chances myself.”

Madeline felt a sting of fear and instinctively reached behind to touch the bookbag that still held the plans for the Mystic Engine. She had read everything Legend of the Steam Cities related at least three times; not just the main 11-book series written by R.E. Mann, but all the supplementary books he wrote like The Secret History of the Isles of Tenedam and Its Peoples. Hell, she had even read and reread the “spin-off” books written by G.D. Spalding over the course of the ‘90s and ‘00s (although she reluctantly agreed with the fans who said they weren’t very good) and a lot of the better fan fiction floating around the Internet. Nowhere did Astavis and Saigh and Jakinu ever travel together to Luraz in order to escape Grand Duke Ovladt’s army nor was anything about a Mystic Engine ever mentioned. And a real-life young girl from Cornwall named Madeline Finch certainly never appeared in the books.

These have to be dreams, she thought. But why did they feel so real? And why was she always so exhausted the mornings after she dreamed them?

Her contemplation was interrupted when Saigh shouted, “On guard!” Madeline drew the rapier Saigh had given her, Jakinu his dagger, and Astavis his musket. Saigh was holding her sword in the other and already firing with a pistol in the other, up toward a figure falling from a ledge above.

“A clockwork assassin!” Astavis growled. “It must have followed us from Karta.”

It landed with an anticlimactic thud. Dressed in the bright clothes of an acrobat, the thing’s head jerked from left to right in unnatural spasms, unperturbed by the handful of bullets that were already lodged in its stomach and chest. The mechanical creature’s head and its pink lips and blue eyes were formed with chipped, faded paint. On its right arm, it had a blade at the end of an iron pole where its forearm and hand would be.

Astavis stepped forward to protect Madeline, but it moved too quickly. Seeing the glint of the blade, Madeline dived to the side, but she felt a sting in her arm. She heard Astavis shouting for her as she lost consciousness.

Madeline bolted awake with a shout. It took a few seconds, but she soon realized that she was in her bedroom. To her right on a nightstand, the alarm clock read 5:47. Its authority was what assured her that she was indeed back home and her dream, however vivid, was just a dream. As she caught her breath and relaxed back into her bed, she became aware of a dull pain on her arm.

She turned a light on and saw that something had cut through her nightshirt and inflicted a cut on her arm.

***

One of the things that made so-called superheroes so damn tedious, Amar realized, was that they always prided themselves in being more humane than mundane law enforcement. The Final Guard was definitely no exception.

The cell Amar found himself in was well-furnished with a bed, a dining table, and even a couch and private bathroom. If not for the large plastic barrier with a hatch for food trays, it would have passed for a decent studio apartment. They even made sure he had reading material, although no Internet access. Amar imagined they had to learn not to provide that the hard way.

He wondered how long it would be until he was moved from the cushy dungeons the Final Guard had at their main base, Valhalla Tower, to St. Helena Prison. He suspected they were stuck negotiating with his half-sister, trying to pawn him off again. “Well, good luck with all that”, Amar murmured aloud. He no longer worried about his future. At least in that sense, the Final Guard had done him a favor.

He sat in the corner of his cell, closed his eyes, and meditated. Concentrating, he projected forward a memory until it encompassed his senses to such an extent the room he was physically in faded from view and his very consciousness. Instead he was once again having coffee in the student center’s coffee with a view of a busy Chicago street. In a couple of minutes, Yori would show up, and they would have an almost painfully inept conversation since Amar wasn’t even sure that Yori was interested in him romantically since he had already vowed not to read Yori’s mind.

He would replay the full memory of their first date over and over again for hours.

***

Jon was not able to concentrate through this week’s team meeting. He was always a little bit distracted by the discomfort that came from wearing his costume during meetings (a ridiculous rule that was literally older than television). Now, though, he couldn’t stop thinking about how last week he expected to catch the Exile halfway through some kind of cruel, self-serving scheme, but instead he played a role in completely destroying the life of a man who was genuinely trying to reform.

Of course, it didn’t help that the meeting minutes were stuffed full of the usual: a couple of escapees from St. Helena Prison and Oxrun Asylum, the budget for their equipment being cut by the United Nations, details about insurance coverage for property damage caused in the Final Guard’s last scuffle (in this case, it was, embarrassingly, because of a wrecking ball possessed by an alien entity that caused more damage to Toronto’s North York neighborhood than all of last year’s supercriminal fights combined).

Near the end, though, Athena said something that finally drew John’s full attention. “And before we go, we do need to decide what to do about our…guest.”

“We’ve had this conversation before,” Adu Oginyae said. Even in casual conversation, his metallic mask/helmet made his voice sound horrifying.

Sans Pareil nodded. “But Athena and I were told just before the meeting that the authorities at St. Helena are refusing to take him into custody.”

“And it’s not just because he’s not native to this world,” Athena added. “No one scientifically understands how telepathy works very well.”

“I invented a device that Sans Pareil used that can give a telepath a splitting headache, but it’s not really good for anything else unless you want to torture the poor guy,” the Technocrat joined in. “I can throw together something that will have a much milder effect, but it will still be far from foolproof.”

Adu Oginyae grunted with annoyance. “But what’s the problem? They locked him up before.”

“Well, after the Exile managed to circumvent just about every security protocol they threw at him with his powers, they decided to just give up,” Athena explained flatly. “Especially because having a well-trained telepath in the midst of the largest incarcerated supercriminal population on the planet may just be inviting catastrophe. Frankly I agree with their point of view.”

“Well, we can’t just keep him here,” the Technocrat said.

For the first time in the entire meeting, Jon spoke up. “Why not?”

Jon decided to press his advantage before anyone can speak up. “I’m immune to his powers as long as my gem is activated. So is Athena and Sans Pareil. If the Technocrat can make something that can contain his telepathy, even better, but as it is it will be easier to keep him from hurting anyone else here until we can possibly send him home or someplace equipped to deal with his powers.”

That was all it took to get his teammates to vote unanimously to keep Amar in Valhalla Tower, at least until a feasible alternative presented itself.

***

Because of Amar’s powers, only someone completely immune to telepathic influence could deliver his food. Jon found himself volunteering each time he could for the past two days. If he was asked on the spot, he wouldn’t have been able to explain why.

Amar looked up from his book, a rather macabre-looking history of the Black Death titled The Great Mortality, with almost no interest. “What’s on the menu for today?”

“Grilled chicken, spinach salad with feta cheese, and, uh, to be honest, I don’t know what this is,” Jon said, eyeing something that looked like kidney beans in a red sludge.

His weak attempt at humor seemed to provoke something of a smile, so for the first time, Jon decided to try to press further. “How are you?”

Amar flinched and stretched his neck. “It just feels like my thoughts keep tripping over each other.”

“That’s…uh, I really don’t know. I think the Technocrat is calling it a ‘psionic field’ now.”

Something in Amar’s expression abruptly became colder. “I don’t have to read your thoughts to know why you’re doing this, you know. And I’m not going to make you feel like a damn saint just because you convinced them not to drop me off at some hellhole.”

Jon was taken aback. He was a little surprised that he didn’t feel angry, only a little hurt. “Look, you don’t have to believe me. I mean, I don’t think I would believe me if our positions were reversed. But I really am sorry for what happened.”

Amar was quiet for a few seconds, but then put the book down and looked Jon in the eyes. “I think the fact you’ve had to risk your life to foil more than a few plots I’ve been involved in absolves you of having to feel sorry for me.”

They laughed together. It was the first time Amar had laughed since he was taken prisoner.

“Look, a lot has happened between you, me, and my friends,” Jon said. “But…if I can help it, I won’t let them dump you off just anywhere, okay?”

“The hell, Jon?” A woman’s voice growled. Jon whirled around to see Annie Oakley, standing proudly in clothing that was more than a century out of date, her dark hair flowing out from beneath a cowboy hat.

“Annie?” Jon quietly said, genuinely startled.

“I just wanted to make sure he was here, for Kyle’s sake. Remember him?” Annie Oakley said as she watched Amar, who turned away from the two of them and began investigating his meal. “If it were up to me, he’d be in a real jail. Or, even better, stick his sorry ass in Oxrun Asylum.”

Jon moved to try to prod her out of the cell. “Annie, please. I know what—”

“Excuse me, please,” Amar interrupted, speaking casually as if they were both long-time acquaintances of his. “I don’t think I can cut this chicken with just a fork. Can one of you bring me a knife, too? Plastic, of course.”

“Um, I guess—” Jon started, but Annie interrupted.

“I’ll do it. Don’t want to interrupt your quality time with your new friend.”

Jon exhaled heavily as Annie stormed out.

“For what it’s worth, I am grateful to you,” Amar said quietly. “And I am sorry.”

Thinking that Amar was referring to the drama with Annie, Jon simply shrugged. “It’s okay.”

***

Something about the encounter and Amar’s odd apology weighed on Jon until, finally, he tracked down Athena, who had just gotten off monitor duty. It took very little prompting to get her to agree to walk with Jon down to Amar’s cell. If something was up, two superhumans who could completely resist telepathy were better than one.

“I admit, Annie might have just been pissed at me,” Jon said, trying to assure himself as much as Athena.

“But you did think something was off about her behavior as well as Amar’s,” Athena reminded him. “With someone like the Exile, you can’t be too cautious.”

As they walked briskly down the row of empty cells toward where Amar was being kept, they both heard Annie stammering and crying at the same time. Without waiting for the other’s reaction, they both rushed down the hallway as fast as they could. However, neither were truly prepared for what they saw.

Annie turned to them, her face red and stained with tears. She pleaded with them that she had no idea it was a razor, that it felt every bit like a plastic knife. In the corner Amar was slumped over, barely conscious and bleeding from both wrists.

Mea Culpa

I’m going to have to take an early (belated?) holiday break, but I will give next month’s updates on 12/7 and 12/14. Thank you for hanging in there!

#3: Silver Creek Massacre V

Three years ago

“Oh, God, give me a group of shotgun-wielding terrorists any day,” Jon thought, trying to ignore the pain in his bruised ribs and his own mounting terror. Lonnie, or at least the creature bearing his name, was still moving forward in his black motorcycle helmet and leather bodysuit, holding a fire ax in his left hand. He had the bulk of a competitive weightlifter, but he still moved with the liquidity of a cat.

Instead of letting Lonnie make the first move, Jon mentally pushed the power of the Mantra gem to its limits until the entire world felt like he was in The Matrix (or, at least, a Matrix rip-off). He dodged Lonnie’s feral strikes with the agility and precision of an Olympic athlete until he found the opportunity to strike back with his machete, lopping off the hand holding the axe. Without even pausing for a microsecond, Lonnie reached out for Jon’s neck with his remaining hand. Jon fell back, but Lonnie still caught the part of his costume holding the gem. The fabric ripped and the gem fell to the dirt trail beneath them with an anti-climactic thud.

Before Jon could recover, he felt himself falling back even further than he intended and the ground giving way under his feet. He was falling down a long, steep hillside, toward a dry creek bed behind him. “Please, not like this,” he thought (just before he lost his consciousness, he also realized how sad it was that this was not the first time he had that exact thought).

He did not know how long it was until he felt someone pulling him by his armpits. He managed to get out a shout for help, convinced Lonnie had actually climbed down the crevice to finish him off.

“Stop it!” a voice that was familiar but not his own barked inside his mind. “He’s still out there. Plus I have no idea if the undead have good hearing.”

He opened his eyes, looking up into a beautiful autumn night sky that he would enjoy under very different circumstances. After a while of hearing his own body making its way through dirt and dead leaves, he heard the sound of someone forcing open a decaying wooden door with a kick. By now, he could actually get his bearings. He was in an ancient, cluttered maintenance shed, illuminated by just one naked light bulb swinging in the air and smelling vividly of dust and decay.

“You can talk to me, if you want,” the voice said helpfully.

“Hello? Is this the Exile?”

“Yes. Let me help you up. There’s a chair here.”

Jon’s ribs, which had already been injured before he fell, screamed in protest, but he let the Exile prop him up on a metal folding chair.

“What’s happening? Are people…” His brain conjured up a grim scene of his teammates mangled and dead.

Exile’s voice sounded alarmed and almost embarrassed. “No! No, I swear, I’ve been keeping tabs on everyone telepathically since everything went bad. You’re the worst off, but luckily you wound up near my hiding place.”

“What happened?”

The Exile audibly sighed, exhausted in every sense of the word. As he barricaded the door with a push mower and a tool bench, he said in his mind, “Bill the Undying believed he knew a spell that could keep Lonnie under our control after we resurrected him. It didn’t work out that way, obviously. So, he and the White Witch are working together on something they think can reverse the resurrection ritual, but in the meantime everyone whose powers are of any use against an undead serial killer are guarding them as they figure out the counter-ritual. Everybody else is just hiding out, like us.”

Jon felt a flash of anger targeted against the Exile and the other Vandals. Even though it wasn’t expressed in words, the Exile quickly responded.

“For what its worth, we were just going to weaponize Lonnie and sell him to the Pentagon or, failing that, the Chinese or Russians or something.” A pause. “I voted against it.”

“That’s something, I guess. You do know that Lonnie’s murdered, like, what, 35 people since he originally died in the 1970s?”

“Yeah. And all teenagers and twentysomethings, for some reason.”

Jon realized that he could actually feel the Exile in his mind. He’d been a target of telepathic attacks from the Exile on more than a few occasions before, so he thought he should have felt disturbed by the whole experience. However, despite everything, it was comforting somehow, like a certain kind of familiarity, even intimacy.

“What about your telepathy?” Jon thought. “Isn’t it any good against Lonnie?”

The Exile, who remained positioned next to the door as if he was standing guard, absent-mindedly swept away some cobwebs with his foot.

“I wish. The way Bill the Undying put it, it’s like Lonnie’s been stuck right in the middle between being alive and being dead. So, it’s like there’s just this radio static where his consciousness should be. I can’t really do much with that except let us know he’s here a couple of minutes before he’s about to break the door down and kill us.”

After a few minutes that felt like hours, Jon heard Exile’s voice. “Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

“I know what you think of me, especially everything that happened…after what I did to Tell.  But I really don’t try to violate people’s privacy unless…unless I have to. Still, for me, it’s the same as how you see or hear stuff without meaning to. Well, once in a while, I can sense feelings and subconscious thoughts without actually looking for them, even if I’m just lightly touching a mind, sometimes if I’m not even inside a mind at all.”

“Okay.”

“Why are you so surprised that I helped you?”

Jon, who was already struggling to get in a position in the metal chair that didn’t accentuate his pain, felt even more uncomfortable. He knew the Exile was right, even though he didn’t even actually form the thought in his own mind. But the absurdity of having this conversation with someone he violently fought with on numerous occasions was not lost on him.

“I think that’s pretty obvious.”

There was another, much deeper pause. For a second, Jon thought the Exile had withdrawn from his mind. Then his voice came, carrying a clear sense of irritation. “For starters, the Vandals and I have had plenty of opportunities to seriously injure or even kill one of you Rooks, but we never took it.

That’s something you people never seem to realize about so-called ‘super-criminals’. Would you want to piss off a whole community of hundreds of vengeful people who can stop tanks by punching them or cause the ground to literally swallow you up just by concentrating a little?”

Jon was embarrassed that he never really thought about it that way. “I guess you’re right.”

“Honestly, at least where I’m from, practically everyone is on a level playing field, as far as powers go, anyway. Here, though…” The Exile paused awkwardly as if he was having to censor himself. Then he chuckled softly. “It doesn’t really matter, sorry.”

“No, you have a point,” Jon said, without meaning to at all. That was the problem with telepathic conversations, Jon realized. There’s no filter.

“Well, there kind of can be, if you get used to it,” the Exile said, truthfully but teasingly.

“I’ll remember that for next time,” Jon replied.

“One more thing,” the Exile whispered aloud. “For Ishtar’s sake, please stop thinking of me as the Exile. We’ve been mortal enemies long enough you should think of me as Amar.”

Jon caught himself laughing aloud, and within seconds, Amar joined in.

***

Amar felt his rage simmer as he stared at the car that was conspiring with a concrete barrier to trap him in the drive-thru. The driver, a middle-aged man dressed in defiantly unfashionable flannel, had stopped to take trash out of the backseat of his car and throw it into a curbside trash can. What was especially galling was that he didn’t even bother with a pretense of hurrying. There wasn’t even an apology wave!

Amar blared the horn. The man promptly slowed his pace even more and gave him the finger.

“Don’t do it”, Amar mumbled under his breath. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Please don’t do it.”

As the man triumphantly got back into the car, Amar, with a resigned sigh, reached out with his mind. Within just a couple of minutes, the man slammed his foot to the accelerator and rammed right into a light pole. Amar gave a friendly wave in his direction as he drove past the scene of a dazed, confused man staring at his damaged car as his wife got out of the passenger side to yell at him.

Amar tried to let the sickly enticing smell of the greasy food in the two bags sitting next to him put him in a Zen state. “Old habits”, he said aloud, as a way of apologizing to himself.

***

“I got the food!”, Amar bellowed as he stepped through the front door and slipped his shoes off. Even though it had been over six months since he moved in with Yori, he still felt a little sad when he saw how much white space was on their walls. True, there was only so much they could afford to do since they were both in grad school and living on the emaciated salaries of a teaching assistant and a research assistant. Hell, they were lucky to be able to afford a townhouse at all, especially in the suburbs of Chicago.

At least they were able to afford a full-on replica of a statue and inscription portraying the Sumerian god Enki. It had become a weird little emblem of the fact that they met and fell in love working for and studying at the University of Chicago’s Cuneiform Studies department. Amar also interpreted it as an emblem of his greatest triumph—leaving behind forever his desperate, unhappy life as the Exile and embarking on a new life as Farhad Zand, scholar of ancient literature and professional translator of Sumerian and Akkadian tablets.

It had certainly not been easy. Even though the documents on which Farhad Zand based his entire life were impeccable (and were received by calling in favors from not only members of the supercriminal community but one less than scrupulous official in the United States Department of State), there were many close calls, big and small, from the tense days spent waiting on an e-mail because some bureaucrat had “concerns” regarding his application for a passport to the time a visiting professor from the University of Tehran casually remarked in front of his boss and several other faculty members that “Farhad”’s accent sounded like no accent, Iranian or otherwise, he had ever heard before. But the years spent being a “criminal” in hiding were not wasted on Amar. He had navigated around such perils masterfully, if he could say so himself, taking very few steps he would come to regret. He was even cautious every single day at work, obfuscating the fact that he did not learn Sumerian and Akkadian in an Iranian university by making mistakes in his translations (clumsy to him, understandable to his colleagues) and always taking longer than he actually needed to. Still, though, he could not help but write and publish a paper resolving once and for all a decades-old controversy about Sumerian grammar. Even in hiding, he had a hard time resisting an opportunity to show off.

Nor could he resist Yori, even though he had resolved to avoid romantic entanglements, at least until his new civilian identity had been established for many years. He was slim and tall and handsome, with glasses that mismatched his face in a rather adorable way, a well-trimmed, slight moustache and goatee, and an awkward yet somehow confident manner. Their courtship had unfolded in fits and starts, so much so that Yori seemed as surprised by his asking Amar to come live with him as Amar was. It was risky, but it was more than worth it. For the first time ever because of Yori, Amar felt as if the First World could be a true home to him. Now, when Yori talked of what they would do after he finished his PhD in a semester, Amar felt none of the old fears of being found out. The Exile was dead. So was Amar Paragisi Kadingir. Long live Farhad Zand.

“Thanks, hon”, Yori smiled and said while Amar meticulously placed the food from one of the bags on a plate. As usual, even though Yori had a plate in front of him, he was already greedily pillaging fries from his bag.

“So, did you see Professor Wheen today?” Amar said.

“Almost forgot!” Yori said with a mouthful of fries and ketchup (forgetting that Amar hated his habit of speaking with his mouth full, but Amar was in a cheerful enough mood to let it pass…for now). “They unearthed some uncategorized tablets from an archive somewhere and they want you to look at them.”

Amar hoped it would be something juicy and not just an inventory of goats and beer like last time. “Whatever it is, believe it or not, it’s easier than having to edit his articles.”

Yori rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe you, and anyway…”

The doorbell rang. Yori and Amar glared at each other over their food.

“I’ve been running errands all day,” Amar growled.

“I’ve been teaching and grading all day,” Yori solemnly said.

Amar shrugged in surrender. “Alright, you eat. I’ll get rid of whoever it is.”

Standing on their front porch was a face Amar thought—actually, hoped—he would never see again. It was Cynthia Reed, a short, red-haired woman whose friendly, generous demeanor and meticulously prepared casual-professional attire belied the fact that she was on the wanted list of every law enforcement and paranormal and superhuman affairs agency in the world.

Thinking right away of Yori, Amar shouted back to the kitchen, “It’s just a friend of mine. Don’t worry. She can’t stay”, and closed the door.

Prodigal smiled wryly. “That’s rude for someone of your upbringing and rank, Exile.”

“Look, Cynthia…”

“You know our rules, even now.”

“Fine. Prodigy. Look, if you’re getting the Vandals back together again for another heist or something, I’m seriously done for good, and please let everybody in the community know I mean it.”

Amar couldn’t help but pick up that Prodigy, while seemingly glad to see him, was also extremely nervous. But he still cared for her enough he repressed the urge to dig deep into her thoughts. “Don’t be obscene,” she hissed under her breath. “You should know me well enough that when I said I would let you go until you tell me yourself you decided otherwise, I meant it. This is…a professional courtesy, I guess.”

Amar gently but firmly led Prodigy away from the house to the parking lot. “What the hell do you mean? Professional courtesy?”

Amar noticed a flash of anger in Prodigy’s usual poker face. “You know you not only screwed yourself over with that whole Ruthenia stunt, but all of us. Getting involved with General Vosla of all people—what the hell were you thinking?!!”

“I was thinking of how I’d been there for the Vandals every single time you reached out to me, no matter how deranged the latest scheme was, but when I was hiding out in drug dens and sleeping in alleys in Cape Verde, you and the others were nowhere in sight! But here you are, talking to me about ‘professional courtesies’!”

“That wasn’t—” Prodigy started, only to trail off. Amar didn’t need to be a telepath to see that she realized any excuse she came up with, no matter how valid, would sound weak. She resumed through clenched teeth. “Just because I founded the Vandals when I was just a bored supergenius teenager doesn’t mean that none of you matter to me.”

Amar suppressed an urge to smirk. Perhaps she even meant it. “Look, just tell me what this is about before…” Amar looked back in the direction of his front door. Thankfully, Prodigy was always as good at picking up hints as she was in designing killer robots.

“The Vandals haven’t been together in two years, three months, and two weeks,” Prodigy said, speaking as if she was reciting a speech. “But the Final Guard is going through one of their rare but annoying pro-active phases and have been tracking down and detaining supercriminals with outstanding warrants, even if they haven’t done anything lately.”

Amar’s stomach sank. “That’s what you meant. Ruthenia put me and every other member of the Vandals on their radar.”

“Kid Zero has been MIA for months, but we know they got Viper Girl and Bill the Undying.

I think I’m going to go surrender at the nearest military base.  They’re always in the market for a brain like mine.  But you…” Suddenly, she was interrupted by an insistent beeping. From her pocket, she pulled out something that looked like a smartphone, but no doubt it was something miles ahead of anything on the market. Amar saw her mouth the words “Oh, no” before a sudden burst of energy erupted behind her and knocked her over.

Behind her, standing like gods manifesting on Earth in the parking lot of a suburban townhouse complex, four members of the Final Guard were standing. There was Athena, wearing a shining bronze helmet and a blue garment that covered her body except for her arms and holding a shield and a spear; Sans Pareil, standing in his costume, long hair bending with the wind and in a suit in the green, white, and red colors of the Algerian flag; the Technocrat, a man in a fashionable business suit with the plastic skin of his face glistening in the sun; Adu Oginyae, masked head to toe in a black and silver catsuit; and, standing behind them, was Mantra. It was the first time they saw each other since that night at Silver Creek.

“Prodigy has been secured,” the Technocrat said in his usual flat approximation of a human voice.

Sans Pareil turned to Mantra. “When you were with the Rooks, the Exile was one of your team’s regulars, right? Given your experience against him and your defenses against telepathy, you should go first.”

Mantra nodded, but still seemed oddly reluctant to move forward.

A small crowd of people armed with cell phones were already out, keeping a reasonably safe distance, but Amar’s attention was fixed elsewhere, to the door of the house he shared with Yori which had been flung open.

“Oh, my God, Farhad. What the hell is going on out there?!”

“Get back inside! It…it will be okay!” Amar shouted, without thinking. No, in this situation, he was the threat, not them. Never them.

“Who’s Farhad?” he heard Mantra say from what felt like a thousand miles away.

“He is, apparently,” Athena replied. At least the Final Guard had the decency to either stand back awkwardly or tend to the arrest of the still unconscious Prodigy.

“I can’t say how sorry I am. All of this is my fault,” Amar said in a panic, his words tripping over each other. “But I swear, all I wanted to do was leave my past behind. I used to be a supercriminal, and I have these telepathic senses.  My name isn’t even Farhan. It’s Amar Paragisi Kadingir.”

Yori muttered, as if in a drunken daze. “Telepathy?”

“But I never did…” Farhad began, but Yori pushed him aside like he was nothing but a rude bystander and walked right up to Sans Pareil.

“Hey,” Yori said, looking right in Sans Pareil’s eyes. “To be honest, I don’t know much about how your group operates, but…I think I was the victim of this…this brainwasher for over a year now.”

Sans Pareil gently put an arm around Yori and led him away. “Monsieur, I’ll take you someplace safe. We do have a telepath on-call who will investigate to make sure no one was the victim of a psychic crime.”

As he watched Yori walk away without even a glance back, he kept talking, as if Yori was still never thought. “I did peek at your thoughts a few times, but that’s all. I would never…”

Yori didn’t even turn around. Amar took a deep breath, and walked over to Adu Oginvae, who was holding the Exile in place with hi-tech handcuffs.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Amar said.

#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 SPECIFICS 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 fabric 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 dagger 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 he or anyone in his family truly knew how to use 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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