Grand Marronnier, Canada – Sunday, the 10th of June, 2012. 11:04 AM.
Chris didn’t have time to think about how their target had reached them so quickly. Her teammates were staring at her, waiting for her to explain what was going on. Fact was, she wasn’t sure. The last victim had disappeared less than twenty-four hours ago in Venezuela. There were a few thousand miles of ocean and land between here and there.
“What do you mean, it’s here?” Nora asked anxiously.
Chris stood by the couch, rubbing at her temples. The painful feedback from her danger sense had been unlike anything she’d ever experienced before, but it had only lasted for a second. She could guess what that meant. The bogeyman had passed through, in and out of her range in an instant. On its way to the next victim.
“Well, it was here,” she clarified for the others. “I think it’s gone now.”
“It was here?” Peter squeaked.
Chris’s stomach was a bitter, hard lump that still wanted to float up into her throat. She swallowed hard. “Yeah. I… I think it’s gone after the boss,” she managed, already on her way to the door.
“You can’t go out there alone!” Emily protested.
Chris stopped at the door to project forcefields around all of the Wardens, herself included. “Yes, I can,” she said. “It’s moving fast and I’m the only one who can keep up with it.”
I’m the only one who stands a chance of surviving this, she added silently. The people who had disappeared didn’t have forcefields, and she didn’t want to rely on Saint’s protection to keep her teammates alive.
Chris put her hand on the doorknob before anyone could argue. “You guys stay here and keep Emily safe, alright?” she ordered. “And stay inside. It doesn’t like houses, so you should be safe in here.”
She didn’t take the time to grab her helmet off the table. She pushed the door open and activated her hyperspeed as she stepped outside, forcing the world to slow down around her. The warble of birds became an eerie string of low, popping sounds. Insects hung in the air, their tiny winged bodies brushing against her skin whenever she collided with them.
Her danger sense was deathly silent. Maybe the killer isn’t after any of us, Chris thought, failing to convince herself that their investigation target just so happened to be passing through the area. The Counselor was somewhere out there, and she knew she didn’t have the time to search the area for him.
Not sure if it would work or not, she took a chance and conjured up a mental image of her team leader in his stupid checkered suit and deerstalker hat. Then she reached out with her power, trying to create a forcefield wherever he might be.
The energy didn’t take hold. She couldn’t tell whether she was out of range or if her power required a visible target.
Damn it, she thought, propelling herself forward.
When she reached a familiar looking thicket of spruce trees, Chris could tell she was nearing the bird nesting sanctuary. The sacred stone pillar Emily had mentioned had to be nearby. For expediency she ignored the trail the Wardens had followed earlier, making a beeline straight through the heavy forest cover. The time-slowing effect that accompanied her hyperspeed helped her dodge low branches and protruding roots.
After breaking through twenty or thirty feet of dense bush, each cluster of trees and brambles began to look the same. Her danger sense was triggered before she could regain her bearings, forcing her to stop and fight the urge to
share in the divine experience of pain
double over and lose the contents of her stomach. This time, she was slightly more prepared for the psychic assault. Instead of shutting her mind down, it filled her up with all kinds of awful feelings. In the brief moment it took her to adjust her energy barrier and shut them out, she sensed a muddle of
conflicting emotions. Some still bled through, but they were dulled to the point she could keep herself together. Avoid going insane.
This isn’t just one person, Chris realized in the pit of her stomach. It’s several people, all of whom are batshit crazy.
She gritted her teeth and continued running in the general direction of the bird nesting sanctuary. With part of her concentration invested in her barrier, dodging the forest obstacles became more of a challenge. Twigs whipped against her forcefield, roots threw her off balance, and her legs bumped into more hurdles than she could keep track of. While running, she readjusted the size and shape of her forcefield to make herself as small a target as possible.
Then it stopped. The psychic assault was gone, leaving her as abruptly as it had in the cabin. She must have chosen the wrong direction and run out of range.
Damn it! Chris cursed silently, angry with herself for letting her target get away. She stopped beside a tree trunk and drove her fist against the bark. Her only consolation was that the Counselor was most likely safe now, since the killer had apparently moved on. Unless it already got what it came for. She pushed that thought away, too frustrated to dwell on it.
“Don’t you fucking run away!” she screamed into the woods. A flock of startled birds took flight, chirruping as they scattered into the air. She balled both of her hands into fists and screamed, “come talk to me, you crazy asshole!”
For a few long moments, nothing happened. Not even a single bird moved in the treetops. Not a single sound came from the forest. Sighing heavily, she started making her way back in the direction she’d come from. The further she went, the more oppressive the surrounding silence felt. It was almost as if every living thing around her was paralyzed with fear, refusing to make a sound.
Then something crashed into her forcefield and ricocheted off her back, knocking her down to the forest floor.
What the fuck…?
She was completely disoriented during the slow-motion millisecond it took her to fall. She couldn’t see more than a blur of movement at the edge of her peripheral vision, but she felt something try to latch on to her legs as she tumbled into a tall patch of thorny shrubbery. Her vision was momentarily reduced to a muddle of light and leaves and thorny twigs.
The pressure on her forcefield continued while she was struggling to free herself. It produced a strange kind of feedback, something completely different from the impact of the gunshots she’d absorbed in the shopping mall construction zone. It was like her attacker was trying to trace her energy barrier rather than damage it. Each slithering shift of pressure gave her goosebumps and a dizzying tingle in her head.
Chris rolled onto her back and pulled her legs up reflexively. As she raised her head through the shrub, she caught a glimpse of dark-colored movement. Whatever it was, it didn’t have the size or shape of a person. It withdrew into the ground with a lightning-quick slither faster than her eyes could follow.
That’s the teenager we’re looking for? She thought, perplexed. Her mind couldn’t form a connection between the shape she’d seen and any creature she knew of. It took her another second to realize that it — whatever it was — hadn’t triggered her danger sense this time. But why?
As the initial shock of the impact wore off, Chris pushed herself up from the ground and stood, scanning the forest floor for any kind of movement. The forest around her was still eerily silent. No birds chirped. No squirrels stirred. Not a single insect buzzed through the air. The absence of a target frustrated her more. How was she supposed to fight something she couldn’t even locate?
“Stop hiding, you fucking coward!” Chris shouted into the silent thicket. “Come on, I’ll even lower my protection!” she lied. She didn’t fully trust Saint’s power to protect her from harm — especially not from being absorbed by this horrific, slithering thing.
Someone responded. Or rather, something.
The shadows in the undergrowth came to life and drifted upwards, melding together to take on a vaguely humanoid shape with overly long and slender limbs that dragged over the forest floor as it moved. Its jaw gaped downwards, overextending to the point of grotesque and revealing a row of jagged, shadowy teeth.
The thought had just barely formed in her mind when the shadow creature lurched forward and plunged into the forest floor. Its elongated limbs trailed behind until they disappeared as well, swallowed up by the ground.
Damn it, Nora. You’re not supposed to be out here. I told you to stay back with the others. Chris did a quick scan of her surroundings, hoping to find her teammate among the trees before that slithering thing emerged again.
She didn’t get the chance. The forest floor was shaken by a series of deep impacts not unlike an earthquake. It didn’t knock her off her feet, but it was powerful enough to shake a cascade of leaves off their branches. A high-pitched chorus of screeches came from below.
Screaming, Chris realized with alarm. The thing is still here. Mr. Black found it.
She pressed her hands to her ears in an attempt to shut out the blood-curdling noise. The screams came in different voices, male and female. Each one expressed its rage in a different pitch. Chris tried not to think of the faces of the disappeared. They were most likely somewhere down there, driven insane by whatever it was that had killed them.
No, not killed. Devoured.
The ground had shaken directly beneath her feet, indicating that the monster was nearby. Or had been. Chris wasn’t sure anymore. The screaming had stopped, and she couldn’t spot Mr. Black anywhere.
Damn it, Nora. Where are you?
The eerily silent forest had no answer for her. But if it was the bogeyman’s presence that had driven the local wildlife into hiding, then Chris had to assume he was still somewhere nearby. Something told her that her forcefield had protected her from more than just a physical assault.
Nora, you dumbass, she thought, her heartbeat speeding with worry. I told you to stay at the cabin.
Chris unzipped the pocket of the costume with a single, desperate pull. She grabbed her new Wardens-sponsored cell phone so hastily that she nearly dropped it. Two bars. It wasn’t the best signal, but hopefully good enough to make a call.
She selected ‘Noire’ from the short list of contacts and pressed the phone to her ear. As the call connected, she could make out the ringtone echoing through the forest. It was too distant to pinpoint the direction, but Nora’s phone was definitely out there.
But she wasn’t picking it up.
“Come on, pick up,” Chris muttered after a dozen rings.
At last there was a click followed by Nora’s voice. “Yeah?” She sounded wary and winded, but very much alive.
“I told you to stay in the fucking cabin,” Chris blurted, surprised at how angry she sounded.
“Yeah, sorry. Figured you needed help.”
Chris let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. As relief settled in, she was able to get her thoughts in order. “Where are Emily and O?” she asked.
“They didn’t come out. I told O to watch the kid.”
“Thank god,” Chris said, scanning the trees as she spoke. “But I want you to get back, now. Couldn’t you hear the screaming? Our target’s here, and it’s close. Who knows how long your shadow can fend it off.” The thought left a wrenching feeling in her stomach. “Do you still have the forcefield I put on you?”
“I’m going to look for the boss, but I need you to be with Emily now. Okay?” Chris knew that Nora wouldn’t appreciate the orders, but they didn’t have the time to argue.
“Okay,” Nora finally echoed, then hung up.
With that out of the way, Chris’s thoughts raced back to the cabin. To Emily and Peter. Sure, their serial psycho didn’t have a history of attacking people inside houses, but that could change.
She scanned her list of contacts again and selected Emily’s.
Please, please, please, she prayed. The call took a small eternity to get connected.
Thankfully, the girl picked up after two rings. Her voice was small and anxious, making her sound even younger than she was. “Chris? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Listen to me, this is important. Is O still inside the cabin?”
“Yeah, he’s right here,” the girl replied in that faraway voice. “But Nora got worried and went after you.”
“Yeah, I know. She should be on her way back now.”
“You should come back, too,” Emily pleaded. “Where are you? With the boss-man?”
“I’m still out looking for him,” Chris replied, trying to sound like she was in control of the situation and of herself. “I need you to get O to call the Counselor’s phone and tell him to go back to the cabin. If nobody picks up, just let it keep ringing, okay?”
She could hear Emily repeating her words to Peter. “Okay, he’s on it,” the girl told her after a few seconds.
“Good. For now, I want you to stay on the line with me. I need to know that you’re alright. And whatever you do, you are both to stay inside the cabin. Okay?”
“Is O calling the Counselor?”
“Yes,” the girl said. “But no answer.”
Chris’s stomach did a small flip. “Tell him to keep it ringing.”
“Righty-o,” the girl replied without a trace of her usual enthusiasm. “What about Miss Leung?”
The question gave Chris pause. Shit. She’s still on a hike somewhere out there. She’d been so concerned about finding her missing teammates that the Canadian woman had slipped her mind.
“You don’t have her cell number, right?” Chris asked.
“No,” Emily said in her small, colorless voice.
“Get Nora to call 9-1-1 when she gets back to the cabin,” Chris said.
“I wish those military guys hadn’t left,” Emily said quietly.
Yeah, me too.
She kept scanning the forest in the meantime. There was still no hint of movement, not even a flicker of shadows in the underbrush. The awful screams hadn’t made a comeback. But Chris didn’t trust the peace just yet.
“Is Nora back yet?” she asked the girl, keeping the phone pressed to her ear as she pushed her way through the thicket.
“Not yet. You’re not gonna hang up, right?” Emily asked anxiously.
“No, I won’t,” Chris promised, hoping she was headed in the right direction.
She slowly made her way through the thicket, stopping every few dozen steps to listen to her surroundings and reorient herself. The forest sounds slowly returned, starting with a single bird trilling somewhere in the distance. Over the course of the next few minutes, the full forest symphony had joined back in. Even the insects crawled out of wherever they’d been hiding. As she covered more ground towards the bird sanctuary, she registered a new sound. It was the ringtone version of a popular rock song, playing over and over again in the distance. Chris adjusted her direction and headed straight for it.
“O’s still trying to call the boss, right?” she asked into the phone, breathless.
“Yeah, but he’s not picking up,” Kid answered, sounding miserable.
“Just tell him to keep trying,” Chris instructed. Then she had a thought. “Can you hear any birds outside?”
There was a sound of footsteps, then the faint squeak of a window being opened. “Yeah, I can hear birds,” Emily said. “Why?”
“I think that means it’s gone,” Chris said. “It has some kind of psychic aura, but you don’t have to be afraid. Mr. Black scared it away. Just keep listening, okay? If everything goes quiet outside, let me know right away.”
“Um, okay,” Emily said, sounding miserable again.
As Chris made her way through some bushes, the ringing sound drew closer. After a brief search, she found the place where the phone had been dropped. It was a trail through the forest, so faint and overgrown that it most likely hadn’t been used in years.
Chris looked around. There was no sign of a sacred stone pillar or anything else of note. Whatever the Counselor had been searching for, it didn’t look like he’d found it.
Please don’t be dead. Chris swallowed, momentarily transfixed by the sight of the discarded phone. She pushed herself onward and took a few steps down the trail before stopping. Her hand that was clutching the cell phone fell to her side, Emily forgotten on the other end. She took another step and looked down.
A black and white checkered suit sleeve was sticking out of the ground, like an arm reaching from below. Nothing else was in sight.
I didn’t make it, Chris realized.
The Counselor was gone. Devoured by the very thing they’d been hunting.
Chris stared down at the sleeve with a dazed calm. I’m sorry, she thought. I should never have let you come out here alone.
Some detached part of her recognized Emily’s voice coming through her own phone, but her hand didn’t move to bring it to her ear. For a few long moments, she just stood there feeling nothing at all, her consciousness overtaken by the half-buried checkered sleeve. Eventually, the frantic shouting that came from her phone snapped her out of her daze. She brought the phone up to her ear slowly, her eyes still glued to the ground.
“For fuck’s sake! Talk to us!” Peter’s voice shouted into her ear.
“I’m here,” she replied, flatly.
“What the fuck is going on? Where’s the boss? I can hear his phone ringing.” His voice was quivering.
“He’s . . . he’s right here,” she said after a few seconds of dazed silence. “In the ground.”
“That’s not funny,” Peter said.
She heard him suck in a breath, but nothing more was said for a few long seconds.
“Is Emily okay?” she finally asked, breaking the silence.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. She was sure she would have been sorry if she could feel anything.
“What are we going to do now?” he asked, his voice rising a pitch.
He’s just a kid, Chris thought. All of us are.
“Thanks for staying inside with Emily,” she said, hoping the praise would comfort him a little. “That was really smart. Is Nora back yet?”
“No, but she’s on her way. I can see her coming up the trail.”
Chris realized that she could finally feel something: relief. One disappearance was all she could handle today.
“Good. I’m heading back now, too.” Then she added, “I guess we’ll have to call Mr. Turner.”
There was another pause. “Yeah, I guess we will.”
“And O? You can still hear the birds, right?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “They’re way too freaking cheerful.”
Chris managed to backtrack to the cabin thanks to the narrow path the Counselor had been following. She had picked up his phone, but nothing else. She didn’t want to dig up his stuff. She assumed their Army escort would take care of that as soon as someone alerted them. Seeing as the Wardens were way overdue for meeting them back at the jeep, they might even be on their way back to the cabin now.
Chris didn’t want to make that dreaded phone call. But the Counselor’s phone defied her by ringing as she stepped out of the dense thicket, just as the cabin came into view a hundred feet ahead of her.
They’ll ask why I didn’t protect him. Why I let him go alone.
Chris let the phone ring a dozen times before she accepted the call.
“Mr. Whitfield!” came an unfamiliar, thickly accented male voice with audible relief. “Bless the Virgin Mary, we were worried. I am sorry to call you sudden like this, but Mr. Turner says we need contact you directly.”
“This isn’t Mr. Whitfield,” Chris replied quietly.
“Who this then? I need talk to Mr. Whitfield.”
Chris stopped walking and clenched her fingers around the phone. She still didn’t want to, but someone had to do this. And perhaps it was better to do this out here, where Emily couldn’t listen in.
“Who’s calling?” she asked.
“Francisco Juarez, overseer of Latin America team. Now please, you pass me Mr. Whitfield? Is important.” He talked too quickly, anxiety bleeding through with every word.
I hope nothing happened to Saint, Chris thought, eyes drifting shut for a moment. He used his martyr power to protect us all from harm and take our pain upon himself. She hoped the hero hadn’t suffered too much from the psycho monster’s attack on the Counselor. Hell, she hoped the Counselor hadn’t suffered too much pain, either. But who was she kidding? The inhuman screams of all those disembodied voices had burned themselves into her brain.
She cleared her throat. “Mr. Whitfield is gone,” she said simply. “I’m a Warden. I just found his things in the forest.”
“Hostia puta! Was it El Coco? The creature you seek?”
“Yeah,” Chris replied. “I think so.”
“Mr. Turner not know this. You call now, explain.” And with that, the man hung up. Chris listened to the beeping busy tone for a moment, then lowered the phone, keeping her eyes on the small display.
Right. Someone has to do it. She settled down in the grass, taking few deep breaths before she called up Mr. Turner’s name from the list of contacts.
A few minutes later, Chris pushed the cabin door open and stepped inside to see the others perched on the couch. Peter jumped to his feet the instant the door opened, but didn’t say anything. None of them did. They just stared at her with fearful expressions that were hard to endure.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” Emily echoed blandly.
Nora didn’t even look at her. She was perched, lopsided, on the couch’s armrest, her eyes fixed on the bear skin rug.
“I talked to Mr. Turner,” Chris began. “Want to hear the slightly good news first?”
“Please,” Peter said.
“Nora’s in the clear until the Covenant makes a decision. They’ll want to see us after we return to San Francisco. Nora, I told Mr. Turner you scared the thing off, so that’s going to count in your favor.”
The girl only nodded, eyes remaining glued to the floor.
Chris elaborated. “They think when it comes right down to it, Nora might be better at killing this fucked-up mutant than anyone else.” Let’s just hope she learns to control her shadow better, she wanted to add, but didn’t. This was not the time or place.
“Was that it?” Peter asked, pacing the floor between the table and the door.
“Just after we left on Friday, there was a seriously fucked up transition in Europe,” Chris added. “Might have been a surge gone wrong, actually. Whatever is going on with powers lately, it’s getting worse.”
“Yeah,” Emily agreed dully. “Bad like what happened to the Counselor.”
No one said anything.
“I think everything will be better once we figure things out,” Chris offered, trying to stay positive for Emily’s sake.
“Yeah,” Peter replied listlessly. “Maybe.” He resumed his pacing.
“But it’s travelling so fast,” Emily said. “It was all the way in South America yesterday, and now . . . it’s right here.” Her lower lip was trembling. Nora reached an arm around the girl to comfort her.
“Don’t worry,” Chris said, kneeling down in front of the couch. “I’ve got you all under a protective bubble. It can’t get pass my forcefield, even if it wanted to. It tried, but it couldn’t get through.”
“Wait a minute,” Peter said, stopping mid-stride. “It actually attacked you?”
Chris nodded. “It couldn’t get through my forcefield. I think my power kept it from messing with my head, too.” She didn’t add that the ‘it’ had a name now, according to Mr. Turner:
Another stretch of silence followed.
“Well, what the fuck do we do now?” Nora finally asked, tracing her horned mask with her fingers before she tossed it to the floor without a word.
“We wait for Miss Leung to get back and then we tell her what happened. The Army should be here any minute to escort us back to the jeep.”
Peter snorted. “As if they can protect anyone from that thing.”
Chris held up her hands. “I agree, but I don’t think now’s the best time to rock the boat. It surprised us, but it’s gone now. We can’t track it without…” our missing Visionary, she almost finished. The thought of that one checkered sleeve stirred the pit of her stomach again.
“So we just wait and do nothing?” Nora asked.
“We can try to figure out how it got here so fast,” Chris suggested. She was up for anything that would keep poor Emily distracted.
“You got an idea?” Peter asked.
“Maybe,” she said vaguely. “Give me a minute.” She stepped over to the table to pick up the stack of notes their team leader had left on it. She quickly leafed through the papers until she found his list of disappeared victims and their powers.
The first name on the list had been belatedly added in the Counselor’s clean handwriting.
Roy Wilson (the Historian), exact date unknown. Extremely vivid flashback visions of historic events that occurred at his current location.
Chris quickly scanned the other entries while the Wardens watched.
Chayton Wallace (Burrower), April 17, 2012. Underground movement through anything but solid rock at running speed.
Sarah Atkins (Morpher). April 29, 2012. Odd and seemingly uncontrolled mutations to body shape and mass, including the development of matter not normally associated with the human body.
Timothy Valentine (Newal). May 16, 2012. Rapid healing and disease recovery, but with severe mutations and overall growth in body mass.
Paul Bobeck (Dreamcatcher). May 23, 2012. Projects visions and causes vivid hallucinations in others.
Ana Sofía Torres (Technomage). May 29, 2012. Immense knowledge and understanding of any kind of technology. Not a builder herself, but worked as an advisor for the NASA. Possible other aspects to her power that were never revealed.
She slowed down to read the next entry carefully, looking for something would confirm her suspicions.
Steven Navarro (Duende). June 5, 2012. Limited teleportation to a number of locations near his home town. May not choose target locations freely. Due to his recent transition, only limited information is available on his power. See appendix 8c for some notes by his assigned therapist.
Right. We already knew that. Chris remembered hearing about the limits to Duende’s teleportation. Those limits were the reason no one had expected to see the killer so far up north, even assuming that he could absorb powers. But how were they defined, exactly?
Chris leafed through the appendix until she found a mishmash of notes that Counselor had most likely never studied in detail. Or maybe he’d drawn the wrong conclusions.
Without exception, target locations for Steven’s teleportation hold significant sentimental value to him.
Sentimental value, huh? She had a hard time believing that some South American guy had any sentimental attachment to the forest outside of Grand Marronnier, Quebec. The self-healing teenager whom the Historian had encountered in the woods, on the other hand…
“I think I figured out how it got here,” Chris told the others, setting the stack of notes aside. “Our killer does absorb people and take their powers. One of the last guys to disappear was a teleporter who could jump between places that were important to him.”
“But why would this place be important to anyone but the Historian?” Peter asked.
“Nearly two years ago, our target absorbed the Historian,” Chris said.
A heavy pause filled the room as the words sank in.
Nora was the first to speak again. “So if the killer can take on all the powers of the people it’s absorbed . . .”
“Then we’re dealing with something infinitely more dangerous than a single villain,” Chris finished for her.
Peter sat down in a wooden chair and put his head in his hands.
The last victim was able to cross oceans as if they were puddles, Chris recalled. And the Sleepwalker’s wandering around in Europe, contained there only because he hates water…
Before she’d even finished the thought, she grabbed the Counselor’s phone from the table and selected the Warden HQ’s emergency line, which would hopefully get routed to someone – anyone – who could warn the rest of the world. They had to assume that Legion now had the ability to appear anywhere, not just the Americas. And if he absorbed the Sleepwalker…
Emily started to cry. “Do you think it was horrible, what the boss-man went through?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“I’m sure it wasn’t that bad,” Chris lied.
According to Mr. Turner, Saint had started screaming his lungs out right after the Counselor’s disappearance, never stopping until they put him into an artificial coma.