New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 05:31 AM.
According to Radiant, the situation in Singapore was urgent and demanded quick intervention, but it was too dangerous to face unprepared. The two heroes who had received a movement order through their armbands – Noire and Checkmate – gathered in Chris’s room in the University Medical Center, where Radiant was waiting to give pre-combat instructions. Athena was present in the shape of a small, baseball shaped drone that hovered beside Chris’s bed.
It was a matter of two minutes for Noire to walk over to her friend’s room. She preferred to stay at the clinic herself, not because of a need for medical attention but because someone had to keep an eye on the Guardian at all times and because she refused to entrust Chris to Morpheus. That thing wasn’t God’s creation and didn’t have a soul. How can you trust a soulless being and whose interest in mankind is based on curiosity? You can’t. Not as a faithful person, anyway.
When Noire arrived in front of Chris’s room, the door was already open so she knew she didn’t need to knock. “I’m here,” she announced through the crack before stepping inside.
The subdued glow of Radiant’s angelic figure drew her attention to the right side of the room, and she offered him a nod before stepping to the side of Chris’s bed. The Chinese-American heroine sat up straight, her back supported by two extra-large white hospital pillows that made her look even paler and more fragile than she actually was. The clinic staff had dressed her in a flannel pajama whose color matched with the pillows, making it appear as though the girl was being gobbled up by some amorphous milky-white blob. But the smile she offered Noire was confident and strong, and Radiant’s glow reflected in her almond shaped eyes, making it appear as if she had gained a Lightshaper power of her own. The smile was such a rare treat that Noire wanted sit on the edge of the bed and envelop her friend in a fierce hug, bandages and IV drip be damned. She didn’t, though. The hug would only cause poor Chris pain.
“Hey, Smileyface,” Noire said instead. “Looking good today. Are you feeling tough enough to kick some villain butt?”
The other girl’s smile slipped a little. “No one believes me when I tell them I’m okay. I think you’re just going to ask for forcefields and go without me.”
It’s probably for the best, you know. You already got in big trouble once.
Noire didn’t say it, but apparently Athena agreed because the drone interjected with a comment of its own. “We have considered taking you along, Christina, but the risks are too great. You are still far from recovered.”
Naturally, Radiant wasn’t able to speak, but he shook his luminescent head and that was the end of it. Knowing Chris, she understood all too well that they didn’t have time to discuss the subject.
Checkmate, the final and perhaps most important member of their war party, arrived shortly after Noire. He looked to be in a worse state than Chris, but for different reasons. The slender Sri Lankan boy didn’t have any wounds or bandages on him; his mortal enemy was exhaustion. Everyone needed a teleporter all the time. As far as Noire knew, up until a few minutes ago the guy had rescued hundreds of people – and two newbie heroes – from the fiery inferno that ravaged Mexico City. The smell of smoke clung to him and his soot-stained clothes. Deep lines of weariness creased his drooping face and his half-lidded gaze roamed helplessly around the room.
Athena’s drone spoke up the instant the Teleporter materialized in the room. “The information about Singapore came from Prophet, so please consider it trustworthy. As we speak, the Wild Hunt is attacking the city state in an attempt to pinpoint the location of the man who inherited Data’s powers. His capture would have disastrous consequences. We need to retrieve him at all costs.”
The mention of Data came as a surprise to everyone except Radiant and Athena herself. Everyone immediately understood what it meant and why they couldn’t allow Legion to claim the ultimate Technician’s powers. Chris’s face tightened in an instant, the way it always did when she faced a big problem and thought about how to solve it. Checkmate’s eyes went wide, and Noire felt herself tense and shrivel up inside. She hadn’t been afraid a moment ago, but now her fingers flew to the front of her blouse, making the sign of the cross before she realized what she was doing.
Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you. Psalm 50:15 was the first verse that surfaced in her mind. It gave her strength whenever she needed it most, though not in the sense it was commonly understood. Noire didn’t need rescuing. She was the rescuer who assisted the good Lord in protecting the weak.
Back when she took a time-out from her life as a heroine, she had felt unsure as to whether her powers were a blessing or a curse. And Chris’s kidnapping, and the events following it, had unhinged Noire more than she cared to admit. She had wasted a week by wallowing in despair until her power surge happened and changed everything. The change was so extreme and so obvious – hell, more than twenty of her shadows spawned at random points hundreds of feet away from her – that she was left with no other choice but to take responsibility for her city and everyone in it. Noire’s efforts in protecting and preserving New Orleans had finally earned her the hero recognition she had always yearned for.
Now the good Lord was relying on her to lend His strength to the people of Singapore. She was ready for this. She had to be.
Chris’s calm voice broke the silence. “Do we know which villains are on site?”
“As of right now, yes,” Athena’s drone replied in a measured tone. “The Wild Hunt consists of Qin Liangyu, Cipher, and Aerodyne. Keep in mind that they can bring in reinforcements through Cipher’s darkness. Legion himself, if we are unlucky.”
“Remind me who this Qin person is?” Noire asked. Checkmate sent her a look of gratitude; apparently he needed a memory refresher himself.
Athena was happy to oblige. “A Chinese runaway who was not associated with Legion until today. Her arrow shots are charged with the five Wu Xin elements – fire, water, earth, wood and metal – and she fires them with incredible accuracy, predicting her target’s movement. Expect her to be extremely perceptive if she has a clear field of vision. She may also release shots of pure energy that will heavily damage Mascot’s forcefields.”
While the drone was filling them in, Radiant did his part by drawing luminescent words into the air: wood shots create plants. It took Noire a second to remember the ‘wood’ element which had been mentioned as an aspect of Qin Liangyu’s powers. Did this mean that the villainess spawned forests and flower fields with a single wood-charged shot? If so, her power was remarkable. Not even Dancer had ever succeeded in creating life from nothing.
“I would tell you more,” Athena’s drone went on, “but Prophet warned me that time is running out. I will proceed with a quick run-down of the plan before we send you in. Radiant goes now.”
As if to confirm his readiness for action, the luminescent hero’s figure shone brighter at her announcement. He floated away from his side of the room, but instead of beaming himself out through the window, he paused in front of Noire, drawing a glowing symbol onto her blouse with his finger. The numerous small lights which made up his face shifted and flickered, and she could have sworn she saw a smile somewhere in there. Then, the room was filled with an intense flash of brightness, and the hero was gone, leaving a golden afterglow in his wake.
Looking down at the front of her blouse, Noire spotted a cross of light there, bright and warm and beautiful even as it faded before her eyes. She wished she could have held on to it somehow. Now that Radiant was dead, she felt much closer to him than she had back when he was still alive. It was sad and kind of ironic.
“He believes in you, Nora,” Chris was saying from the bed.
Noire shook her head but said nothing. She knew better than anyone that Radiant had rediscovered his faith in God; to believe in her meant to believe in Him. Chris wouldn’t understand, though. She seemed to be stubbornly convinced that she had to take on all of the universe’s evils on her own.
Athena’s drone continued to brief them in its unemotional, matter-of-fact manner. “Radiant is now taking his position for our initial attack on the Wild Hunt. He will dispel Cipher’s darkness, providing a visual for Noire to launch her shadows. Go all out. Set your shadows on any Wild Hunt villains in sight and destroy their vehicle if possible.”
“Okay, got it.” Noire liked the plan so far; not even Legion’s terror squad would be able to shake off her minions unless they happened to have a Revoker aboard. Or the villains teleported far, far away from Singapore. As persistent as her shadows were, even they lost track of their target after a distance of several miles.
“We expect Cipher to evacuate the lot of them once he knows his attacker’s identity. Once the Wild Hunt retreats, we turn our attention to Mark Yeo. Checkmate will deliver him to New Orleans as soon as it is reasonably safe to do so.”
“So, we know where the guy is right now?” Checkmate asked.
“In his home basement,” the drone replied. “Christina, please put forcefields on Noire and Checkmate.”
Since she was well accustomed to forcefields, Noire could tell right away when Chris did her thing. The energy barrier was soundless and almost perfectly transparent, but gave off a faint vibration that whispered against her skin. The sensation wasn’t uncomfortable. It felt almost like a spiritual hug, an extension of Chris’s friendship and protectiveness designed to keep Noire safe no matter how far they were apart.
“Thanks, Chris,” Noire and Checkmate said in unison, cracking a grin as their words collided.
“Go, then,” the drone urged. “Take Noire to her position. Good luck.”
The Teleporter promptly stepped up to his assigned passenger. Just before he reached out to touch Noire’s shoulder, Chris extended her hand, delivering a gentle fist bump to her friend’s wrist.
“No deaths on my watch,” the Guardian said.
“Nor on mine.” The white hospital room dissolved in time with the last word tumbling from the Darkshaper’s mouth. She experienced a brief moment of weightlessness and disorientation before Singapore’s moonlit skyline formed around her. Beneath her feet was a patch of tiny pink flowers which continued to her left and right, a small section of the roof garden she had been teleported to. Checkmate still stood in front of her, one hand on her shoulder, but quickly vanished from view. He wasn’t a fighter and not supposed to stick around any longer than necessary.
Noire spotted her target easily enough. The Wild Hunt, far ahead of her, wafted and billowed like a pitch black pestilence cloud, spread across hundreds feet of city airspace.
Please lend your strength to Radiant, Lord, she prayed as she searched the night sky for a hint of the hero’s shining figure. An unusually bright star drew her attention. As she watched, it began to move, trailing across the firmament like a shooting star that drew closer and soon developed into a blindingly bright, human shaped comet. The villains hidden within the cloud of darkness made no move and didn’t seem to notice. The two opposing powers collided in a burst of golden light that was reflected in every window and mirrored surface, producing a momentary illusion of daylight in a small part of the city.
It was an impressive sight, even for Noire who had witnessed her share of crazy superpower effects over the past weeks. Radiant’s luminescent energy lingered after the initial burst, eating away at the darkness from within and around it. She could make out the shape of his enormous, multipartite wings as he shifted them in an attempt to dispel as much of Cipher’s aura as possible.
It worked. But the darkness diminished him in return. If she’d had the time to be concerned, Noire might have wondered if the man who taught her to be a heroine was going to be extinguished beyond the point of recovery. But her role in this battle was as important as his, and she couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by emotions.
With the veil of darkness lifted, the Wild Hunt’s floating convertible – and the three villains in it – had been exposed. They were too far away to determine who was who. It didn’t matter, though. Noire had a visual of all of them.
She called on the power of darkness within herself and pulled shadows from it, commanding them to take form in the physical world. Three, ten, two dozen… more and more of the incorporeal creatures appeared in the air around her, filling her mind with their whisperings of readiness. In the distance, the Wild Hunt’s convertible car lurched into motion, leaving a fresh trail of darkness in its wake. This was Noire’s cue to unleash all of the minions she had created so far.
Not knowing exactly how many of them there were, she set a bunch of them on the car itself and divided the rest more or less evenly among the villains. The shadows shot away from her eagerly, moving so fast that they appeared as a dark mass of vapor trails running in parallel. The enemy vehicle picked up speed, but the shadows were faster.
Noire didn’t get the chance to witness the end of the Wild Hunt. Something bright flashed near the front of the convertible, and by the time she realized it wasn’t Radiant, the brightness came flying at her with such velocity that she was unable to dodge it. Noire felt herself fall backward an instant before the brightness exploded in her face. There was a loud crack like a thunderclap, then a powerful impact knocked her down to the ground. The exploding light – was it lightning? – blinded her eyes, eclipsing the world around her in all-consuming whiteness.
She felt no pain. For an instant, Noire felt nothing at all. The first sensation she experienced was a tingle running across her body, followed by the numbness of shock. She blinked, and some of the whiteness in her eyes faded, but she still couldn’t make out any shapes or colors. She tried to move and discovered that she could, if only a little. Her attempt at speaking produced grunting gibberish. Even her tongue felt numb.
An artificial sounding female voice came from somewhere nearby. It took her a moment to pinpoint the source as the plastic armband she wore on her wrist. “Noire, are you all right? Noire, come in!”
Somehow, she managed to croak a response. “I’m alive. Something hit me.” As she blinked again, the blotted out garden gained a semblance of colors. Pink. A shade of green. Not much in the way of shapes yet, but colors were a start.
“Qin fired back at you.” The next words coming from the armband contained a sense of urgency. “Is your forcefield still active? Please confirm.”
Right that moment, Noire’s dazed mind didn’t care about the forcefield; what she wanted to know was whether her shadows had taken care of the bad guy problem. She sensed that they returned and congregated near her, awaiting new orders, but their readiness didn’t tell her if the Wild Hunt had been driven off the scene. All she got from her minions was a collective mental apology for having failed to complete their kill order.
“Are they gone?” Noire asked through the armband, desperately hoping that she’d be able to get back on her feet without any more lightning shots exploding in her face. Most of all, she wanted to confirm that the mission was over and the target secured.
I made a promise to Chris. No one is going to die today.
Athena didn’t answer the question, however. Her response consisted of a sharp command. “Checkmate! Evacuate Noire immediately. They brought Legion.”
“Incoming,” the Teleporter confirmed through the armband.
He arrived a second too late. Noire had barely registered what was going on when a foreign presence assaulted her mind, piercing her consciousness with the brute force of a battering ram and throwing her thoughts into disarray. The little pieces that made up the colorful mosaic of Nora Landry’s personality came apart in an instant. Her most treasured and intimate memories were unearthed, rifled through, and discarded again. There was nothing she could do to defend herself. Her mind only registered an overpowering sense of dread and helplessness, and she felt herself being drawn into the hellish scenario which unfolded in her mind’s eye.
An alternate version of Singapore. A city swathed in red and orange flames and populated by the souls of the damned. A gigantic black and gold dragon perched atop the tallest skyscraper, obscuring the sky with its wings. Everything about this city was twisted and painful and wrong, but before the hellish reality could solidify within Noire’s mind and poison her sanity, it stopped. Someone pulled her away from there.
Noire hadn’t realized she’d started screaming, but when a gentle, familiar voice asked her to stop, telling her that everything was okay, she stopped. Someone was hugging her. She couldn’t tell who it was. It took her a moment to register that the burning city was gone, and the person speaking to her wasn’t a damned, tortured soul, but an actual person. A friend.
“You’re safe, Nora. Nothing happened, right? You did your job, you drove the bad guys away. Now you can rest. Can you see me? Look at me. How many fingers?”
The blind white spots in Noire’s eyes were beginning to fade, replaced by blurry shapes and colors. But the tangle of thoughts and emotions in her head remained. She didn’t feel safe, no matter what the girl in front of her was saying, so she just shook her head, unable to respond. The dragon’s hateful eyes had burned themselves into her soul. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he was still staring at her, waiting for an opportunity to devour her whole.
“She was only exposed for a brief moment,” an artificial sounding voice was saying. “She will most likely recover. This fight is up to myself and Radiant now.”