Grand Marronnier, Canada – Saturday, the 9th of June 2012. 09:43 PM.
The youths stood in the diner’s doorway, arms crossed over their chests. The four teenagers that had been sitting at a table got up from their chairs to join the hostile newcomers. The waitress wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Chris suspected that she was hiding away in the back room.
“They’re just trying to look tough. They’re scared,” Kid murmured.
If they’re scared, why are they making a scene? Did someone put them up to this? Chris clenched her teeth in frustration. We should have had pizza delivered to our rooms. She saw Noire and Overdrive exchange glances. Perhaps they were thinking the same thing.
“Keep your head down,” Mascot told Kid before getting up from the padded bench. Then, almost as an afterthought, she projected a protective forcefield over the young Empath. Her power responded without conscious effort. Her danger sense hadn’t flared yet, but she knew all that could change in an instant.
Noire got up from the booth, moving to stand beside Mascot. Some of the locals reacted by stepping backwards, tensing visibly.
“Is there a problem here?” Noire asked the newcomers, narrowing her eyes at them.
Now it was the local group’s turn to exchange glances. Most of their group had the twitchy, nervous look of meerkats just waiting for the signal to dive for cover.
“We don’t want any freaks in our town,” the twenty-something at the front of the group snarled. He was in a plaid jacket and seemed to be their leader. “Go eat somewhere else.” There were some murmurs of agreement from behind him.
“Hey, relax,” Mascot said. “We already ordered, but we’ll get it to go. Alright?”
“We don’t feed demons!” a girl from the back of the group yelled.
“I’m no fucking demon,” Noire snarled in a dangerously low voice.
Mascot was well aware that some of the media outlets referred to Noire using the d-word. She could imagine that the girl had resorted to calling herself Monster Mama out of spite. Having done her own share of stupid, rebellious shit, Chris could relate, though she knew this wasn’t the time or place for it.
She shot Noire a firm look, hoping she would get the hint. Don’t do anything to make things worse. The last thing they needed was for the Darkshaper’s shadow to make an appearance.
“Hey, can we all just calm down?” Overdrive said, flashing his most charming smile at the locals. “We’re here to help track down a serial killer. We want to make sure the guy can’t hurt anyone else.”
So much for not tipping off the media, Mascot thought. But she had bigger things to worry about at the moment.
“There’s no serial killers in this town,” the guy in the plaid jacket said in his thick Quebecois accent. “Just you guys.”
“Yeah,” a lanky youth in jogging pants and a stained sweatshirt agreed. He stood at the very back of the group. “No one’s been killed here in decades, and we like it like that. So go away.”
“Go burn in Hell,” another guy’s voice added. His French accent made it sound like ‘El.’
The next thing Mascot knew, Noire was taking an angry step towards the crowd. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone,” she seethed between clenched teeth. “It’s in the Book of John, you backwooders.”
“You read the bible?” one of the girls asked.
“Probably know it better than you do,” Noire replied. Her eyes narrowed into thin slits.
“That don’t mean you’re not evil, Noire,” the leader in the plaid jacket retorted, the disgust clear in his voice. “Even your name refers to your dark, evil soul.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined,” Noire quoted again. “Isaiah 9:2.”
“That don’t mean it applies to freaks like you!” someone shouted.
“Okay, never mind the takeaway bags,” Mascot muttered. She looked over her shoulder at the other Wardens. “Let’s just get out of here, alright?”
Kid nodded eagerly and clambered out of the booth. Overdrive was right behind her. He put a hand on Noire’s elbow and started leading her towards the exit. Noire glowered at him but started walking all the same. Mascot followed right behind, leading Kid by the hand. It was the only part of the girl that stuck out of the transparent barrier Mascot had created around her.
The youths stepped aside as the four Wardens neared the exit, clearing an exaggerated path for them. Noire strode ahead through the doorway first, too furious to hold the door for anyone else.
“You’re possessed, you freaking black demon,” the guy in the plaid jacket said just as the door closed behind her. “Go see a priest or something.”
Mascot peered ahead at Noire through the glass door, hoping that her teammate hadn’t heard that last insult.
Noire’s face took on an otherworldly look of pure hatred. All of a sudden, Mascot’s danger sense kicked in. She’d felt uneasy before, but what she got now
swelling darkness, cutting deeper than knives
was way worse. Her danger sense instantly recognized the source of the threat: Noire. If the Darkshaper lost control of her shadow, it would cut the people in there to pieces in an instant.
Somewhere beyond the mental assault of mutilated figures writhing in agony, Mascot heard a young girl’s voice calling her name. Emily, she realized after a moment. The voice pulled her mind back in the right direction.
She started to systematically process all of the overwhelming sensory feedback according to priorities, the way she’d practiced in her prison cell. Her eyes and ears took precedence over her mind’s eye, and the vision fragments faded enough to let her get an idea of what was really happening.
Noire was standing motionless on the other side of the diner door, but her appearance had changed. Small tentacles of twitching darkness had emerged from her limbs, and they were growing. A lump of concentrated darkness stretched itself into existence above her mask, gaping like an elongated mouth. A multitude of blurred, shadowy teeth lined the twisting edges of it. Somewhere underneath, Noire was still the same. But Mr. Black’s shadowy body was shrouding her own.
Just inside the diner entranceway, the other Wardens watched the transformation with tight, fearful faces. The locals were already cowering at the sight. Mascot could hear swears, screams and sobs reverberating off the wood-paneled walls.
Mascot tried to throw a forcefield around Noire to contain the writhing, shadowy strands that were thrashing and growing all around her. But the dark tentacles, now huge and lashing above Noire’s head, punctured the forcefield in a dozen places, keeping it from sealing the Darkshaper in. Mascot fell to her knees, overwhelmed with the effort of commanding her power through the wave of pain that was washing over her.
This isn’t working, she realized. If she didn’t get the situation under control, the locals
puddles of blood, seething agony
were going to die.
Mascot turned to Overdrive. “O,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “The lights.”
Overdrive turned towards her, panic written all over his face.
“Get the lights,” she repeated. “Quick.”
This time he understood. Every single light bulb flared, both inside the diner and outside in the parking lot. All of the hanging lamps, the damaged diner billboard, the headlights of parked cars and motorbikes. All came alight in an instant, shining with the intensity of stadium lights. Even the dusty string of ancient Christmas lights, disconnected from any power source, flickered on and exploded in a shower of colored glass. Their surroundings were illuminated as if by daylight.
Noire’s shadow shrank back from the illumination, recoiling until it was reduced to little more than a faint silhouette outlining her shape.
Mascot made another attempt to project a forcefield over her teammate. This time the retreating darkness became trapped inside the bubble she’d created. She could feel its presence as a cold tingle whenever one of its twitching movements collided with her energy. Mr. Black was still furious, and it wanted out.
Regardless, the threat level was contained enough that Mascot’s danger sense faded. After a few seconds, she could think more or less clearly again.
Mascot surveyed the scene to see that Mr. Black’s appearance had sent the local youths scattering to the farthest reaches of the diner, cowering in the corners and hiding beneath tables. Two of the girls were hugging each other and sobbing, their shoulders shaking. A few smartphones were being held up in the air. They suspiciously looked to be recording the whole scene.
That was a fucking disaster. Chris rubbed her face in dismay, wishing that her team stayed at the hotel to chill in their rooms. She was certain that no one had gotten hurt, but it didn’t help her feel a whole lot better. This wasn’t over yet.
Every couple of seconds another light bulb exploded, leaving the scene a little darker than before. Each shower of sparks resulted in more and more panic amongst the locals. Kid inched closer to Overdrive and buried her face in his chest.
Mascot glanced out through the front door at Noire. The girl was barely recognizable beneath the squirming appendages of darkness that thrashed within the confines of the forcefield.
Sorry, Noire. We’ll figure out how to calm that thing down.
Mascot exchanged a look with Overdrive over Kid’s head. If they couldn’t get this situation under control, and fast, all hell would break loose.
“Everyone, just calm down,” Mascot told the locals as she climbed to her feet. “No one’s going to get hurt, I promise.”
Well, I hope.
No one seemed to be listening, but that was okay. She couldn’t blame them.
“Come on, let’s go,” Overdrive said. Kid nodded, her eyes wide behind the holes of her adorable werekitten mask.
Mascot followed them out the door without a backwards glance. Noire had backed away from the diner and now was standing near the edge of the parking lot, but she was still teeming with angry, shadowy tendrils.
The car headlights were now blowing out one by one, just as the light bulbs had. Chris could feel the shadow creature’s struggles against the forcefield barrier intensify as the light receded. Each impact sent a shiver down her spine.
“Mr. Black won’t go away until she stops being so upset,” Kid said to her.
Psychology, Chris thought. What would Mrs. Clarence do?
“So, um . . .” she began, racking her brain to find something reassuring to say. “The good thing is, no one got hurt, so . . . all you have to do is calm down so we can go home.”
“Righty-o! All’s well that ends well!” Kid added with forced cheer.
As if on cue, the lights on the damaged diner billboard surged and popped with a loud cracking sound. Despite the protection of her forcefield, Kid covered her head with her arms as the sparks rained down.
Mascot shot a pointed look at Overdrive.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, they’re right,” he told Noire. “We’ll just explain what happened to the boss and then get back to chasing the bad guy.”
“It’s not your fault people keep being mean,” Kid added.
The faint sound of police sirens sounded in the distance.
“They don’t even know me,” Noire said. She sounded more sad than angry.
“They’re just afraid of what they don’t understand, and people say stupid things when they’re scared,” Mascot said. “But let’s not scare each other, okay? You’re freaking Emily out.”
That did the trick. The shadowy projection dissipated and within moments Mascot’s danger sense stopped tingling. She exhaled a puff of breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. The sirens in the distance grew nearer.
“Can I come give you a hug?” Kid asked Noire. “I really wanna.” She flashed a weak little girl’s smile in the fading light.
Mascot dismissed Noire’s forcefield so Kid could approach and wrap her arms around Noire.
“Come on,” Overdrive said as Kid let go. “Let’s get the hell out of here and order some pizza.”
Mascot found herself actually smiling a bit. “Sounds good to me,” she said.
The Counselor was waiting for them in front of the hotel, wearing an expression that didn’t bode well. His lips were pulled tight and thin, matching the furrow that had appeared above his furiously focused eyes. He held a cellphone to his ear, though he wasn’t the one who did most of the talking. His lips barely moved.
“Looks like someone’s already told him,” Overdrive muttered.
At least the police hadn’t stopped them on the way home. Mascot figured the officers had opted to stop at the diner to take care of those panicked kids instead. Or maybe the cops were scared of the ‘freaks’ in their town, too.
“We can explain,” Overdrive said.
The Counselor held up a palm to beckon for silence. “They’re here now,” he said into his cellphone. “Yes, all five of them.” There was a pause as the person on the other end of the line responded. “Okay. Bye,” the Counselor said, then flipped his phone shut with a snap. He jerked on the hotel’s front door and held it open for them. “Inside,” he commanded.
Mascot followed Overdrive, Kid, and Noire through the doorway. Noire’s head was ducked as she shuffled forward, making her appear smaller and meeker than usual.
The five of them trouped up the stairs towards the private rooms. “Everybody in here,” the Counselor commanded, unlocking the door to the room at the top of the stairs.
Noire and Kid obediently entered the room, with Mascot and Overdrive reluctantly following behind. All four of them perched along one edge of the feather bed, elbow to elbow.
“That was the Canadian Police on the phone. They’ll want to hear back from Mr. Turner within the hour,” the Counselor told them pointedly.
“Sorry . . .” Kid began. “It’s just that there were these really mean kids—”
The Counselor held up a palm again, cutting her off. “All of you, stay put,” he ordered, taking a few steps backwards towards the door. “I’ve got a few phone calls to make before this situation gets any worse.” And with that, the Wardens leader stepped into the hallway and closed the door on them. They could hear the sound of the deadbolt locking behind him.
None of the Wardens said anything for a long moment. Emily was the first to take off her helmet and put it on the ground near her feet. Chris and Peter followed suit, resuming their own personas. Noire stood up with a jolt. She crossed her arms across her chest and took up position beside the door, staring at nothing in particular.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she defended herself with newfound fervor. “I never asked those backwooders to pay me any attention.”
Chris was all too familiar with the shitty feeling that accompanied getting in trouble. Watching Noire chew on her lip and dig her nails into her costumed forearms brought back all kinds of unpleasant memories.
“Don’t worry,” Emily reassured her, beaming a thousand-watt smile.
“Right,“ Chris said, not smiling. “We’re in this together. They can’t take all of us off the team.“
Peter nodded. “Mr. Turner and the Counselor will get over it. They always do.”
Noire’s gaze fell to the wood-planked floor and her shoulders slumped along with it. “It’s just that my mama’s already brought me to a priest and everything,” she confided. “Nothing worked. I’m still a freak. But I ain’t no demon.”
“Of course you’re not!” Emily exclaimed. “You’re nice under that crusty shell of yours. You help me with my homework and everything, unlike O here.” She stuck out her tongue at Peter.
The girl’s words didn’t seem to make Noire feel any better. “I want to live a good Christian life. I want to walk in God’s light. I was even part of a gospel group back home, before . . .” she trailed off.
Before everything was taken away from you, Chris finished for her.
Her heart went out to the other girl. She stood up and walked over to where the Darkshaper was pacing the floor. Noire looked up, her dark eyes flicking to Chris’s face.
“You just want to help people, right?” Chris asked.
“Yeah, of course,” Noire admitted. “They’re just not gonna let me.” She looked away, her eyes hidden . “I mean, why’d I have to get such a messed up power?” She gave a sad laugh.
If she didn’t know better, Chris wouldn’t have believed this was the same girl she’d met the day before. Noire’s confidence and attitude had melted into thin air.
“You know what’s ironic?” Noire asked, looking back at the others. “Before all of this, I actually wanted powers. I thought they would make me better. But guess what? I couldn’t do shit right before, and I’m still a screw-up now.”
“Seriously?” Peter broke in. “You’ve got more discipline than any of us. I can’t believe how hard you worked out when you joined up.”
“Yeah,” Emily gushed. “You lost so much weight. You can even bench press more than O now.”
Peter gave the little Empath a sour look. “You just need to stop letting people get to you, that’s all,” he said, turning his attention back to Noire.
“And maybe be nicer to people,” Emily suggested. “Mr. Black is angry because you are.”
Noire’s lips twisted wryly beneath her horned silver and purple mask. “What’s it matter now? I broke my probation. I’m gonna be a goner.”
“Not necessarily,” Chris interrupted, trying her best to be supportive. She wasn’t used to being the sensitive one, but she could try. “No one got hurt, right? So you didn’t technically break your probation.”
Peter nodded eagerly. “And we haven’t finished the case yet.”
Emily furrowed her auburn brows. “Trust me, they’re more worried about the bogeyman than they are about you. The boss-man has secrets that give him the creeps. I don’t know what, but there’s some things he isn’t telling us.”
Note to self: secrets aren’t safe near the kid, Chris thought ruefully.
“There you go,” Peter said, slapping his hands on his knees and standing up from the bed. “All we need to do is figure this out and Noire will usurp Kid as America’s new favorite Warden. After me, of course,” he joked.
Emily turned to Chris. “I think you could figure it out, if you wanted to,” she said in a surprisingly serious tone.
Chris was incredulous. “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“You’re not trying hard enough because you hate when bossy people tell you what to do,” the girl called her out gently.
The accusation bothered Chris more than she cared to admit, but she knew better than to try and pretend it wasn’t true. She’d been a half-hearted hero ever since Athena let her know that she wouldn’t be given any real choice in the matter. And the sneaking suspicion that the authorities were turning this whole mission into a PR stunt was still gnawing at her.
“Geeze, tell us how you really feel,” Chris muttered jokingly.
“But it’s true! Will you actually start trying?” Emily pressed.
Chris looked around at the three pairs of eyes watching her expectantly. When her gaze met Noire’s, she held it. We really need a win here, she decided. It might be the only way to keep her teammate safe from the government’s brand of punishment for Evolved parolees.
“Fine. Tomorrow, if none of our leads pan out, we’ll sit down together and figure it out,” she said.
“Yay!” Emily cheered.
“Sounds good,” Peter added with some genuine enthusiasm. “Now who wants pizza?”
While Peter and Emily argued over toppings, Noire looked over at Chris. “Thanks,” she said, so quietly it was almost inaudible.
“No problem,” Chris replied.
The moment of team bonding was interrupted by the sound of the key turning in the lock. When Counselor pushed the door open, he was looking even more frustrated and annoyed than before. The four Wardens took their places along the edge of the bed and looked up at their team leader with collective silence.
“We’ll head up to the Historian’s cabin tomorrow morning,” the Counselor announced, tucking his phone away.
“All of us?” Peter asked anxiously.
“Yes, by the skin of our teeth. But that decision can be reversed at any moment,” the Counselor added, his glare landing on Noire.
“Understood,” Noire murmured. She had her arms wrapped around herself, eyes locked on the floor.
Being a hero shouldn’t be like this, Chris thought with a glance at her teammate.
“The Department of Evolved Affairs and the Covenant will be doing a thorough review once we get back to San Francisco,” the Counselor added. “Now go gather your stuff.”
“What do you mean?” Peter objected. “We were just about to call in for pizza—”
“No, you’re not,” the Counselor said firmly. “We’ve been ordered to leave Grand Marronnier within the hour. We’ve worn out our welcome here.”
“But where will we sleep?” Peter asked.
“The Canadian authorities will be providing us with a trailer in the woods outside of town.”
Peter’s jaw dropped. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
The Counselor shook his head curtly. “Nope. So let’s get moving. Now.”
Chris refused to budge. “Before we go anywhere, what’s this creepy secret you’ve been holding back from us?” she challenged. “I think we ought to know.”
The Counselor’s eyes darted to Emily.
“Sorry, boss, I had to tell them,” the Empath said, shrugging her shoulders. “We’re a team, right? And you’re the one who’s always saying that teams shouldn’t keep secrets.”
The Counselor’s tight expression relaxed. “A young woman transitioned in a village in Venezuela about twelve hours ago,” he revealed. “Some sort of water-themed power.”
“Cool,” Peter said. “Is she hot?”
Noire rolled her eyes behind the eye-slits of her mask. “Water and heat don’t mix, idiot.”
Peter wriggled his eyebrows, obviously glad to have Noire back to her old self.
The Counselor didn’t look impressed, however. “May I continue?” he asked pointedly.
All four Wardens nodded.
“As soon as her transition was reported, the Army went to pick her up to move her somewhere safe,” the Counselor said. “But when they got there . . . she was missing. Disappeared. Queenie can’t locate her.”
A sickening feeling churned in Chris’s stomach as the words sank in.
“Venezuela? Where’s that?” Peter asked. “Must be south from the last disappeared person, right?”
The Counselor shook his head grimly. “No. It’s on the way back up north.”
“I’ll go grab my stuff,” Chris said, already on the way to the door.