Paris, France – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 06:17 PM.
Incubus knows we’re coming.
Emily’s words caught Sarina off guard and not just because her thoughts had been fixed on the people-mannequins beyond the shop windows. She wasn’t prepared to acknowledge that the villains were one step ahead of her yet again, and she couldn’t imagine how Incubus or Gentleman had already figured her out. Unless…
David. The thought of her brother filled her with a fear that was hot and cold, erasing everything else from her mind. He had been perfectly fine just thirty minutes ago. The villains couldn’t have intercepted him on the way out of Paris, could they?
Give me answers, asshole.
Sarina lashed out with her power to grab the red-clad villain and fling him against the shop window opposite her. The glass quivered, wanting to break. She infused it with her will to resist the breaking point and keep her opponent suspended in an upside down position.
He screamed, and for the first time since she’d invited herself into his base, Sarina saw a flash of panic in his eyes. His men stirred but didn’t move from their positions. In contrast, Vautour just gave his partner a lingering, sidelong glance, his masked face betraying no emotion.
“What are you doing?” Patrick asked in a small, uncertain voice.
“What I’ve been meaning to do all along,” Sarina said. “Ask some questions. It’s just that the questions have changed.”
Before anyone else could interject, she blinked across the room to appear in front of her suspended target, keeping just enough distance to stay out of touching range. The man’s frightened eyes flicked directly at her.
“You know who I am, don’t you?” she asked him.
He made a swallowing noise in his throat. The words that followed were fast-paced, heavily French-accented English. “What is it you want? I’m sure we can…”
“It was a simple question. Answer it,” Sarina hissed.
She considered driving the point home. She was looking at a villain who had put children up in shop windows. If she wanted to, she would gain access to sharp and pointy objects within seconds. But she hadn’t forgotten that Emily was watching. The poor girl was already frightened enough.
“Yes… I heard, maybe,” the Collector croaked.
“From who?” Sarina asked.
The man licked his lips uncertainly. His eyes flicked to meet Vautour’s, but he received no help from that direction. The bird-masked man only watched him with cool silence.
“Don’t play for time,” Sarina said sharply. “I sealed the whole damn building. Your friends won’t be getting in here anytime soon.”
She couldn’t tell whether the Collector believed her, but his attention refocused on her, and he spurted an answer quickly enough. “I heard from friend. Vautour said there is strange power in the park. Incubus called us as we talk, as if he know. Said to watch out for… Dancer.” He eyed her warily before dropping the name on her.
Didn’t have the guts to call me something different, did you?
“And how did he know?” she pressed.
“I tell, but please let me down,” he pleaded.
Sarina lifted him a hand’s breadth off the window, then slammed him back against it, hard enough to rattle his bones. It was the kind of language scum like him understood best.
“You don’t get to make any demands,” she roared at the gasping, groaning man. “Just answer my questions.”
“Sarina, please don’t!” Emily cried from the other end of the room.
“Just trust me for a minute,” Sarina said, not turning her attention from her target.
No answer came. But the Collector took the opportunity to spit out a few words, his reddened face twisting with pain. “He hear from Gentleman.”
“And how did Gentleman know?” Sarina asked.
“I don’t know,” the Collector replied. “Please.”
“Sarina, he really doesn’t know,” Emily called out.
But what about David? The question still gnawed at her, but she decided against asking outright. If the villains weren’t already aware of David, she certainly wasn’t going to tip them off.
“Fair enough,” Sarina said, adjusting reality to bring the man into an upright position that kept his sneakers from touching the floor. “Now you tell me what the point of all this is. Just what were you planning to do with all these people?”
She glanced to Vautour. As far as she could see, he still wasn’t doing anything suspicious. He kept his mouth shut and his eyes forward, unmoving. She could almost believe he was playing by her rules, but not quite.
The Collector wet his lips before speaking. “I protect all beautiful things. Bring them here for safekeeping.”
“There’s a whole family back there,” Sarina snapped. “Explain to me why you took them from their home.”
“They wanted leave Paris, but could not,” the Collector said, avoiding her gaze. “It’s too dangerous where they live. There is a villain from Russia, name Nusku, who wanted them gone.”
“Let me guess, he wanted their house,” Sarina said. “He moved into the city when the new revolution happened, like a lot of other powered scum, and he needed a place to stay.”
The red-faced villain had no response for her.
“Was it a nice house?” she continued, growing angrier with each word. “Big, with canopy beds and a Jacuzzi?”
“Maybe,” the Collector said. “I don’t know.”
Sarina didn’t believe him, but she didn’t have the time to get caught up in details. She glanced over her shoulder to her companions who were watching her with concerned anticipation. The sight of Emily’s frowning face took the steam out of her anger, as it usually did.
Sarina assumed a gentler tone for her friends. “Snow, can you look around and help any captives you can find? Be careful that you don’t trigger any of the Collector’s traps. If you can’t sense where they are, ask Emily for help.”
“Are you sure we have the time right now?” Patrick asked. “I mean, Incubus knows we’re here. Maybe we should deal with him first.”
Sarina didn’t respond right away. Instead, she slipped back into her life sense to look for suspicious new life signatures. There were none within her current range. Considering everything she knew about Gentleman’s methods, she wasn’t too surprised.
“Incubus isn’t coming here,” she said. “Think about it. The new Raven is in Paris, and in the Sun King’s home of all places. What are the odds? Gentleman set this up. And that means he probably knows why I’m in Paris. It’s not exactly hard to guess.”
“I really want to help those people,” Emily said. “Can we get them all out of here before, um, bad stuff happens?”
“Yes,” Sarina said. “Just help Snow first. Oh, but before you do, is there a Visionary working with Incubus?”
“The Collector doesn’t know anything about a Visionary, and he’s done most of the talking with Incubus,” Emily said. “But he knows about a Revoker and some weird shadowboxing fighter girl who used to be in Raven’s crew. Her name’s Nyx. I don’t think she’s dangerous for us, though. She has no special vision or anything like that.”
But she can fly and see in Incubus’s darkness, Sarina thought. Raven shared those powers with everyone in his crew.
“Good to know,” she said. “Who’s the Revoker?”
“Colosso,” Emily replied. “That really short Italian guy who used to be with the Sun King.”
“Really, that guy? The Sun King’s butler?” Patrick said. “Damn. He seemed too well-mannered to be a villain.”
“I remember him,” Sarina said. She could have said more, but there was no point. Everyone with powers knew that Revokers posed problems to the rest of them. It was nice to have Snow on her side, but fighting Revokers in general was a nightmare.
Good thing I still have Ace’s gun. Sarina touched the holster that was hidden beneath her oversize shirt, then let her hand drop away.
As she turned her attention back to the two villains and the sprawled men on the floor, she couldn’t help but notice that Vautour had shuffled a short distance away from her. She was quite certain that just a moment ago, he had been backed against the wall that was now to his left.
I don’t have time for this.
Sarina grabbed Vautour through her powers and shoved him into a corner of the room, a good distance away from his companions. He stiffened but didn’t resist. Once he was in the position she wanted, she commanded the stone floor to rise up and encase him in a man-sized cube without windows or exits. Once it was sealed, she filled it with silence.
Simultaneously, the nearby walls and floor became wavy and uneven, as if they were made from wet paper that had been pushed forward and pressed into a new form. The men on the floor recoiled. The Collector watched in silence, his face turning a deeper shade of pink.
“Get me Incubus on the phone,” Sarina told him. “Now.”
“Okay,” he said quickly, almost eagerly. “You release me, I can get my phone.”
Sarina had no intention of releasing him, but she gently lowered him to the ground, then encased his feet in thick blocks of solid stone. A scowl formed on his face, but he had the presence of mind to keep his mouth shut.
“Not going to paralyze anyone now, are you?” Sarina challenged him.
Behind her, Snow and Emily moved to examine the doorframe that was leading into the furniture store. Patrick turned away from them and stepped up to Sarina’s side, a look of determination on his freckled face.
“I’m sticking with you,” he said. “You need someone to help you keep an eye on these guys. I don’t know what you’re planning, but I trust you.”
She turned her head to flash a brief smile. “Thanks,” she said.
The Collector had produced a phone from his pocket and was dialing a number. Sarina watched intently as he brought it to his ear and said a few words in his heavily accented English. “She is here… yes. She wants to talk to you.”
Incubus isn’t French, Sarina deduced. Gentleman brought him here. For me.
“Give me the phone,” she demanded, and he did.
The voice on the other end of the line was a rich baritone, colored by an accent Sarina couldn’t place. It was distinct from Raven’s perpetually complacent tone, but it contained plenty of confidence.
“Hello, Dancer,” he said. “I’m going to make this short, so here’s the deal. If you come see me right away – say, within the next five minutes – then your boyfriend is going to live. If you take too long, then we’ll leave you the body as a present, and you’ll be able to explain to the Covenant why you’re keeping a corpse company in an otherwise empty house.”
Somewhere between the mention of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘corpse’, a fuse blew in Sarina’s head, throwing her carefully crafted calm into turmoil. She didn’t yell, didn’t scream, and she didn’t lash out at the physical reality of the city that was around her. Not this time. She just lowered the phone and slipped her hand over the microphone to block off any sound.
“I’ll be right back,” she told her teammates in the calmest, most neutral voice she could muster. Then she extended her life sense and wished herself up to the mall’s hemispheric glass roof.
From there, she could easily see just how aware Incubus was of her presence. A large section of northern Passy was now coated in a mist of absolute darkness. The roads and smaller homes had been swallowed up by it completely. Only the buildings of more than three stories still peeked out from the darkness, looking lost and lonely in the vast black ocean.
The Sun King’s manor wasn’t one of them. It was entirely covered in darkness.
Sarina considered this for a moment, then brought the phone back to her ear. “Fine. I’ll play Gentleman’s game,” she said flatly. “But I’m playing by my own rules.” And you’re not going to like them, she added.
“He wants to see you get creative, so that’s quite alright,” Incubus replied, sounding amused. “But the time limit is non-negotiable. You have four minutes and… thirty-five seconds left to save your boyfriend.”
Of course Incubus was just a middle-man meant to ruffle her feathers. Gentleman obviously meant to trick history into repeating itself. Sarina had learned a thing or two over the past weeks, though, and she wasn’t going to let him get away with it.
“Incubus. Listen,” she said. “Gentleman did this exact same thing with Raven’s crew a few days ago. He rallied them for no reason other than to test me. And guess what happened? I killed them all.” She invested a second in a meaningful pause before making her point. “I don’t know what he promised you, but it’s not worth it.”
“Are you suggesting I work with you instead?” he asked.
“Not necessarily,” she said. “Just help me find Jasper and Gentleman. I’ll handle the rest.”
He didn’t respond immediately. The silence dragged on long enough for Sarina to believe that maybe, just maybe, he was considering her proposal. But when his voice came through the phone again, it was cold and unyielding. “Sorry, I don’t intend to end up on the losing side. You have four minutes and five seconds.”
The conversation ended with a click. Sarina squeezed the phone hard in her fingers. I should have asked to talk to Jasper for just a moment, she thought. Made sure he’s actually okay. But her diplomacy had failed, and she knew she didn’t have the time to try again. Her only option was to do what Gentleman wanted from her: get creative.
She teleported herself back down into the lounge, where Patrick and the others were anxiously awaiting her. Snow and Emily had entered the furniture store and were now on the other side of the shop window, where the still image of the tea table family stirred back to life. They were hunched over their seats, gasping and coughing helplessly.
Sarina was relieved to see Snow dispel the Collector’s effect on those people, but she knew they couldn’t spare the time to free them all. Not right now, when Jasper’s life was in more immediate danger.
A quick check through her life sense revealed that Vautour was still safely tucked away inside his stone chamber. The Collector hadn’t managed to budge from his spot, either; his solid stone shoes kept him firmly attached to the floor.
“I’m taking us somewhere else for a bit,” Sarina announced, struggling to keep her voice from shaking.
“What? You leave me here, like this?” the Collector protested.
“What about all those people?” Patrick blurted nearly at the same time.
“We’ll be back. I promise,” Sarina said. Then, she relocated herself and her companions back down onto the road that ran past the building.
They only stayed there for a second. The next leap through reality took them to the courtyard of a single family home that Sarina had identified as uninhabited. From there, she was able to look through a large window and take her team to the kitchen that was beyond.
How much time left? She’d lost track of time by now. But there was a gnawing unease in her gut that told her to hurry the fuck up.
Once she’d assured herself that everyone had safely made the trip, she turned to Patrick and addressed him with quick, concise words. “Incubus gave me an ultimatum. I can handle this, but I can’t take you guys with me, and I can’t leave you with those assholes in the mall. It’s too dangerous. Patrick, you’re in charge while I’m gone. Make sure everyone stays safe and hidden. Keep me hidden for as long as you can.”
“But how…” Emily said anxiously.
Sarina cut her off as gently as possible. “I still have the phone Tess gave me, and Patrick has one, too. If I don’t come back, you guys call the heroes. Okay?” Then, she turned to Snow. “I might need you to back me up in a bit. Just stay put for now, okay?”
There were some reluctant nods. Emily looked as if she wanted to say something, but her mouth pulled into a tight, disapproving line, and no words came out.
Sarina’s heart clenched at the sight of her. Before any doubts could set in, she whisked herself out of the house and back onto the street, then onward to the rim of swirling darkness. From there, she slipped back into her life vision and reached out into the darkness with her power. Walls and other structures took shape, and colorful life lights flared in her vision. There were many of them, and they were scattered across a wide area. She didn’t detect anyone with powers.
They got a Revoker, she reminded herself. If I find his power nullification sphere, I’ll find him.
After a few seconds of frantically scanning the area where she had last seen the rich people’s mansions, she discovered something. A circular void of nothingness that her life sense couldn’t penetrate. A blind spot. It was inside a two story mansion that could have belonged to the Sun King, and it was surrounded by a higher concentration of unpowered people than she’d spotted anywhere else in the city. Most had an anxious flicker to them. There were a couple of children, too, and they appeared more than just a little anxious.
Hostages? But why? Sarina wondered, momentarily bewildered by her discovery. Incubus hadn’t threatened to hurt any civilians if she didn’t comply. But perhaps they were part his plan B, an ace in his sleeve meant to ‘convince’ her in case Jasper wasn’t enough of a lure.
He mentioned the Covenant. Is that his plan C? She couldn’t imagine that the local villains would want a bunch of trigger happy heroes on site. Not while they thought they were winning, anyway.
Sarina concentrated deeply on the hall – most likely the foyer – that had the largest amount of people in it. It was directly adjacent to the blind spot. Some of those people seemed to be holding weapons, though it was hard to make out details in the hazy, multilayered blur that surrounded them.
You make the rules, but I set up the board.
Sarina tested her range and discovered that her aura reached far enough.
No weapons. No explosives, she commanded, discovering that she didn’t need to see the offending items to wish them away.
Her power surged and exploded outward, sending a ripple of change throughout the darkness-coated streets and buildings. Guns, knives and other weapons vanished from the mansion and the area around it. Sarina pushed them as far away as she could. They came back into existence at the outer limits of her range, raining down on the city there.
How do you like that? She challenged, intoxicated by the enormity of the power potential that flowed through and around her.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t see Incubus’s face. Some of the ‘hostages’ stirred in response to the change she’d made, pulling her attention to the next problem that needed fixing, preferably within the next few seconds. She couldn’t just leave those people in there. Especially not the kids. She didn’t know why Incubus kept them close at hand, but she was sure that if she knew the reason, she wouldn’t like it.
She reached out to touch every individual in that house through her powers, then faltered. What if some of them weren’t hostages, but killers trained in martial combat? What if the villains assumed she would try to rescue these people by summoning them?
Just the kids, she decided. Come to me.
She made them appear right in front of her. A dark-haired boy and a girl, snot-nosed and shivering. Their clothes clung to their skinny bodies, and she could tell that they’d been crying recently. Both of them clutched wallet-sized objects that Sarina couldn’t identify at a glance. They couldn’t be bombs or weapons, at any rate. There weren’t any of those left.
“Don’t be afraid,” Sarina said, hoping the two of them understood English. “You’re safe now.”
They just stared at her with wide, shocked eyes, saying nothing.
Not losing any more time, Sarina quickly shifted back to her life sense and yanked the other hostages from the physical reality of the mansion they’d been in. She positioned them individually on walkways and in courtyards that she deemed reasonably safe, a short distance from the swirling zone of darkness. She hoped that was far enough. Not just to remove them from the influence of Incubus’s gang, but also to separate thugs from real hostages.
I could send them to Emily and the others, she pondered. They’ll be okay until…
A sharp sting pierced her arm and interrupted her thoughts. It didn’t hurt much, but it caught her off guard and broke her concentration. Her life vision dwindled away in an instant. She looked down at her arm to see a small plastic syringe stick out from it. It looked almost like a toy – small enough to be concealed by a child’s hand – but the needle was very real. It now sent a burning sensation through her arm that was much more painful than the sting had been.
“Sorry,” the boy said. He was standing right next to her, looking at her through the lens of a small toy camera. As their eyes met, he dropped it and grabbed the hand of the girl. Before Sarina could fully register what had happened, the two of them ran past her and further down the street, away from her and the darkness.
Sarina yanked the syringe from her arm and tossed it to the ground. Still hearing the running footsteps behind her, she lashed out with her power and grasped the boy. Then, she wished the child back to her side and took his skinny arm into a firm grasp.
The boy squirmed and struggled, crying something incomprehensible in French. Meanwhile, the burning sensation in Sarina’s veins began to expand throughout her body. She could feel herself weakening already. She could tell that she wouldn’t be able to maintain her grip on the struggling boy much longer.
A sedative? Is this part of your game, Gentleman? Sarina clenched her teeth. Even strong sedatives took some time to kick in, she knew. And she’d be damned if she was defeated or even delayed by a snot-nosed kid with a toy syringe.
“Go,” Sarina told the boy, releasing him. . She didn’t have time to deal with these kids. Instead, she reactivated her life sense and threw herself at the darkness, blinking past the hundred meters of city that still separated her from the mansion.
She appeared right behind it. Her life sense showed her the blurry outlines of several windows that lined the back wall of the mansion. Even in her dazed, befuddled state, Sarina remembered enough of her first visit to Paris to know that the windows belonged to the Sun King’s parlor. That was where she’d located the blind spot.
A wave of dizziness hit her as she stood there. She reached out with her power in reflex, grasping someone from the direction she’d come from. Someone she needed right now.
The connection formed and her power delivered her wish across the distance, but it did so more sluggishly than she was used to. Snow appeared, but not where she’d wanted her. The Revoker’s position was off by a few meters.
And then it dawned on her.