Liverpool, England – Tuesday, the 12th of June, 2012. 04:45 PM.
A pitch black fog flowed through the hole that had been cut into the ceiling, expanding rapidly to plunge the studio into darkness.
“Sarina, get back!” Jasper yelled, backing away from the stage. He only managed to retreat three steps before thick tendrils of blackness engulfed him. Watching him disappear strangled Sarina’s breath from her chest.
She clung to the wall, gripped by paralyzing fear. Everything was happening too quickly for her to process. She squeezed her eyes shut just as the darkness reached her. The loss of visibility seemed less terrifying if she could pretend it was her decision.
A shrill scream of panic came from up ahead. Somewhere to the right, a male voice murmured something that sounded comforting, but his words were too quiet for Sarina to make out. There was noise from above, too. A whisper, a chuckle, and the faint scraping of footwear against stone. Raven’s crew can see in his darkness, she remembered. They’re coming down here.
Ace’s voice came from somewhere to the left. “Hey, kid. I gotta talk to Raven.”
“Okay,” Sunny’s voice sounded through the darkness, small but steady.
At least they sound like they’re unharmed, Sarina thought, allowing herself to relax just a little. She opened her eyes to face the darkness, extending a hand in the direction she’d last seen Jasper. He wasn’t there. The darkness was so absolute that she couldn’t even make out the shape of her own hand.
“Is everyone okay?” Sarina asked, slowly pulling herself to her feet.
“We are,” Ace’s voice said. “Tess, you alright?” he yelled across the studio.
“Yep!” came the answer from the direction of the production studio. “Tape’s still rolling,” she added.
“Don’t worry, Dancing Queen,” came Jasper’s voice. “I don’t think they’re here for us.”
Following the direction of his voice, Sarina shuffled half a step to the side and reached out her arm again. When her fingers finally brushed against the cloth of her friend’s cloak, she exhaled with relief.
The sound of multiple sets of footsteps echoed through the darkness, followed by the jarring scrape of shifting furniture.
“Raven,” Ace said.
“Well, hello there, my friends!” a male voice rang out, so smug and self-contented that Sarina immediately recognized it as Raven’s. He hadn’t sounded any different at the Sun King’s court a few days before.
“Any particular reason you’re crashing our party?” Ace asked, brimming with anger. “No one said shit about you showing up.”
“Seems you’ve been talking to the wrong people,” Raven bit back. “Because let me tell you, shit’s about to go down.”
A woman’s thin whimper drifted through the darkness, sending a shiver down Sarina’s spine. If they’re not here for us, they must be after the TV crew. Or the guests.
She slipped a hand into her cloak until she found the inside pocket, then closed her fingers about the music player.
“We’ve already got the situation in hand, so buzz off, why don’t you?” Ace spat.
As Ace and Raven continued to exchange barbs, Sarina overheard a few hushed words being exchanged off to her right, near where she’d last seen the guards. She couldn’t understand most of the exchange, but she did pick up the words ‘Darkshaper’ and ‘reinforcements.’ They’re relaying the situation on the radio, she realized, not sure whether to be thankful or worried.
Another female wail came from the direction of the couches. Sarina leaned forward, trying to listen into the darkness and assure herself that none of the hostages were being harmed. But Raven and Ace’s two-man show made it difficult to hear anything else.
Keep calm, Ace, she thought desperately. She knew he could shoot a fly from a hundred meters away with his eyes closed, but she hoped he wouldn’t try to kill Raven.
No hostages and no one gets hurt. The words were becoming a mantra to her.
“Hey, Snow?” Ace’s voice called out. “Can you remove the darkness?”
“No,” came her frail answer. “Must see to make go away.”
It was Raven’s voice Sarina heard next. It sounded closer now, only a couple of meters away from her. “Mr. Kovac. Would you come here please? Just follow my voice. And don’t dilly-dally. As you can hear, the women are quite distressed.” His words drew another pitiful sob from one of the women in the darkness ahead.
They’re here for the UNEOA representative, Sarina realized, wondering if anyone had hired him for the job. Raven’s Murder of Crows was a mercenary outfit, after all.
She pulled the music player from her cloak, recalling what Sunny had said about the unwelcome visitors: there were six or seven of them. Come on Ace, do something, she urged silently. Don’t leave this to me. If I use my power, this is going to be a disaster.
The next voice she heard was Mr. Kovac’s. “What do you want of me?” he asked. “My family isn’t wealthy.”
“Ah, but this isn’t about money,” Raven’s voice said.
“For chrissake,” Ace’s voice interjected. “The Covenant’s gonna show up any minute. Do you want the heroes cracking down on you and your crew?”
But Radiant isn’t going to show up. Sarina frowned. Ace had obviously been right about that – if he hadn’t, then the Covenant hero speed of light travel would already have brought him here. But how on earth had Ace known?
Raven gave an irritating chuckle. “Ace. Why do you sound so pleased by the idea? You came here to tell the world what happens when people like us get killed. Oh yes, I’ve already heard about it. Don’t worry. We’re about to leave.”
“They’re going to track you down,” Ace said. “You won’t survive this.”
“And just how would the Covenant track us? Queenie’s dead, mate.”
Sarina felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. No way, she thought, clenching and unclenching the Mp3 player.
“You’re full of shit,” Ace said. “The Covenant has Saint’s protection. And like he said in Paris, he’s got no intention of dropping. Not so long as the heroes don’t go on a crusade against us all.”
“Oh, so you haven’t heard?” Raven crowed, clearly savoring the moment. “Saint went batshit crazy yesterday. The Covenant’s not protected for shit anymore. The tyranny is over, man. We can finally go out there and have fun.”
Saint went crazy? Sarina was incredulous. It seemed much more likely that Raven was lying.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Ace asked.
“Ah. Details for another day, my friend,” Raven warbled. “For now, I’ve got business with Mr. Kovac here.”
Sarina heard a slight scuffle a few meters away, followed by a series of muffled, gagged sounds. She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling with herself. She didn’t want to use her power. But maybe she had to.
“I suggest you hold still, Mr. Kovac,” Raven was saying, his voice strained. “There’s no guarantee my power will keep you afloat if you don’t.”
Then hurried footsteps were thudding all around them, accompanied by a flurry of coded language and radio static. There was a loud thud that sent something crashing to the floor. Someone muttered a curse.
“Ace, the guards are on the move,” Sarina heard Jasper say. “And the Crows are about to bail with Kovac.”
“Shit,” Ace muttered. Then, louder and into the darkness, he called, “Hang on, Raven. Let’s talk this through.”
The only response was a derisive laugh, followed by some muffled grunting.
Everyone’s going to think we took part in the kidnapping, Sarina realized desperately. This isn’t what I agreed to help with.
She thumbed the music player in her hand, frantically searching for the on switch. A rustle came from somewhere ahead. A second later, a draught of cooler, fresher air swept through the darkness, stirring the small hairs on her hands.
“Suspect at large with high-priority hostage Kovac,” a guard’s voice reported into his radio.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down, Sarina thought with heated determination as she slipped an earbud into her right ear and pushed the skip forward button, changing tracks from memory. One, two, three, four, five, six…
“Better get out too, mate,” Raven’s voice rang out from above. “The Euro heroes are already outside.”
“He’s shitting us,” Tess’s voice sounded from the right. “They were in Brussels half an hour ago. Not even Crashbang’s that fast.”
Ace groaned in frustration. “How much longer for the transmission?”
“Four minutes. Five tops,” Tess told him.
But Mr. Kovac will be long gone by then, Sarina thought, feeling guilty.
At that point, the first electronic beat of Jasper’s power-boosting track kicked in. The birdsong and flute notes joined in a few seconds later, sending a tremor through Sarina’s body. She gasped as Dancer emerged from the dark recesses of her mind, surfacing with a burst of furious determination.
However, Dancer didn’t give two shits about Mr. Kovac. As far as she was aware, the UNEOA had given the Covenant an execution order on her for no fucking reason, and she wasn’t nearly as indulgent about it as Crybaby had been. The man could be turned into crow food for all she cared.
Instead, she took a quick tally of everyone else who was likely still in the studio. The other Nameless. The host, the blogger, and the stage manager. Three or four cameramen. Some guards who had moved and could turn up anywhere once the darkness faded.
“Fuck it,” Ace spat. “Tess, pack up. We ain’t got ten minutes, or even eight. We’re leaving now.” His voice softened somewhat before he spoke again. “What’s the situation outside, Sunny Boy?”
“The … heroes. They’re-” Sunny’s voice was even more strained than it had been a few minutes before. “…they’re outside. One’s moving … Around the building … the others are talking … about us. They know … we’re here.”
“Damn you, Raven,” Ace muttered. “Couldn’t dispel your darkness when you left, could you?”
“It go away,” Snow said. “But is slow.”
“How slow? More than a minute?”
“No,” Snow said. “It go away soon.”
The little Revoker can sense the duration of active power effects? Dancer noted. How interesting and useful.
“You okay, Sarina?” Jasper’s voice was thick with concern.
Dancer was almost a little moved. Unfortunately, the guy was a hopeless softie who inspired pity more than anything else.
“Why wouldn’t I be fine? I feel fantastic,” she said, shoving the music player back into her cloak pocket. It was still connected to her by the one earbud she wore. The music that pulsed through the connection filled her with second heartbeat, a tremor of pure power. This was the real deal, none of that fairytale magic the other guys dabbled with.
Dancer didn’t need to see through the darkness to extend her range. All she needed was space. She rolled one shoulder, then the other with an undulating flow of movement, finally dropping down to one knee to slap a hand on the floor.
Her life sense exploded outward, filling her with a profound awareness of every living being that was within a fifty-meter radius of the building. She focused her attention on the people: the five guards within the studio, scattered all over the place. Some stragglers beyond the glass door panel, maybe civilians who just happened to pass by. Several armed security teams. Raven, his five Crows, and their captive, who were quickly flying out of her range.
So many life lights. All of them had different colors and were shimmering with varying degrees of intensity. The sheer amount of power Dancer was holding on to was intoxicating; reaching this far out felt like elevating herself to a different level of existence. It was a glimpse of Divinity and of overwhelming potential.
The potential to reshape the world on a scale that had never been experienced in human history. She had no interest in change, though. What she wanted right that moment was to find those damn heroes before they found her and her team.
The life lights of five people in particular drew her attention. They were far brighter than the others, a sure indicator of powers. Four of them were already standing in front of the building’s main entrance. The fifth was jogging towards the others, having just finished a circle around the building. His movements left a suspicious trail of luminescence in his wake.
She immediately knew who she was looking at: Rune, leader of the European hero team. He had the ability to apply all kinds of unpleasant effects to any area he managed to encircle with his powers. Temporary paralysis was one of them.
Be gone, Dancer commanded.
She sensed how the pavement around the building shifted in response to her will, rolling and churning to reshape itself without the mark of Rune’s effect.
She couldn’t see his reaction. The sound of agitated voices reeled her back into the studio, prompting her to let go of the life sense to focus on her human perception. The fog of darkness was gone. Dancer saw that most of the guards, still unarmed, had moved onto the stage and were now forming a protective circle around the host and the blogger. The two women were still crouching beside the wayward furniture arrangement, still scared out of their wits.
The bald senior guard stood apart from the others. He was right beside Snow, oblivious to her presence thanks to Sunny’s powers.
The boy’s not half bad, Dancer had to admit. But not as good as me.
“Sarina! Talk to me!” Jasper was yelling, grabbing Dancer’s shoulders to give them a firm shake. His expression was hidden by the mask, but his voice rose with panic.
“I’m fine,” Dancer said irritably. She reached up to knock his hands away. Couldn’t he see she was busy trying to address this situation? She had to get these people out of here. No hostages and no one gets hurt. Crybaby’s stupid mantra was stuck in her mind like shrapnel.
Studio 2 – the one on the other side of the wall – would be safer, she knew. Away from everyone with powers and targets painted on their backs.
“Sarina, pay attention. We have to make a break for it when Tess is ready,” Ace said.
Crybaby isn’t here.
Not feeling addressed, Dancer fixed her eyes on the blonde host, who had assumed a fetal position on the floor by the couch.
Go over there.
Dancer’s command injected her will into the fabric of reality surrounding the woman. The host flickered out of existence to reappear on the other side of the wall that was separating the two studios. A second later, the short-haired blogger made the same trip: out of reality here and back into it next door. Not into into any furniture or equipment, hopefully.
The cameramen were the first to notice. One of them cried out, pointing towards the stage.
Ace whirled around to see what the commotion was all about. Seconds later, he turned to Dancer, a furious look on his face. “What the hell is going on?” he demanded.
“We said no hostages,” Dancer said over the sound of electronic beats in her ear. She didn’t have the time to argue. She still had things to do.
One of the guards disappeared next, causing everyone to stare at the empty space where he’d just stood. Dancer didn’t particularly care where he ended up, just as long as he was far away. She got a fleeting impression of him dropping a short distance to the ground before his position in reality stabilized.
Did I just drop you? Oops.
She was too busy to dwell on the thought. Yes, yanking people off to places she’d only seen as a blur of overlapping objects was probably a little dangerous. No, she couldn’t hop around the building in search of the perfect location for the hostages. The heroes out there were about to become a bigger problem than the guards were.
The other guards scurried into motion. One of them rushed at empty space, still unable to pinpoint his targets. The other two chose directions that brought them into melee with Nameless targets. One tripped on the sitting Sunny’s outstretched legs. Jasper grabbed Snow’s arm to pull her out of the way, preventing her from being toppled by the other guard. Snow’s cloak was dislodged and ripped from her shoulder.
The bald guard captain rammed straight into Ace. The momentum of the impact was strong enough to send them both crashing to the floor. Moments later, the guard was on top of Ace. And even though he couldn’t possibly see his target, he drew his fist back for a punch.
Emboldened by the music that pulsed through her, Dancer fixed her eyes on the man before his fist connected. One floor below, she commanded.
The head guard disappeared before his fist had a chance to make contact with Ace. Two seconds later, the guard that had nearly crashed into Snow vanished the same way, out of the studio and into the room that was one level below.
The guard who had tripped on Sunny struggled to his feet, but slipped and fell once more. Another guard took a step back, choosing the exact direction that sent him tumbling off the stage with a surprised yelp. It looked like Ace was back in action.
Now that the others were finally joining the fight and any immediate threats had been removed from the studio, Dancer called upon her life sense to check on the heroes outside the building. It flared, transforming her surroundings into blurry, distorted shades of grey interspersed with the beacons of living beings. She soon realized that most of the people within and near the building were on the move.
One of the life lights in particular drew her attention because she recognized it as a powered individual. He or she darted around, relocating from one side of the building to the other in the blink of an eye, as if moved by psychokinesis. The movement wasn’t just rapid, it was immediate. It didn’t make any sense.
Dancer’s mind raced to interpret what she was seeing. A teleporter? Impossible. The only teleporter she knew about had been shot a few days before.
The EU hero team included Rune, Aura, Skyfire, and Crashbang. None of them were teleporters. Their leader, Rune, would only pose a problem to the Nameless if he got one of his area effects to stick or if he came into melee range with his enchanted axe. Aura was an Empath and would most likely be kept out of combat. Skyfire’s homing missiles could incinerate a person in seconds – she needed a visible target to lock on to, however. And Crashbang was best described as a mobile flashbang grenade. He moved with the top speed of a motorbike, and any solid surface he punched gave off a blinding shockwave that would knock out anyone who was caught in its radius.
Dancer watched as Rune’s life light rejoined the other EU heroes, who were all still waiting in the same place about twenty meters from NBE Britain’s front entrance. All except for the mystery Teleporter, who continued to flash in and out of existence all around the building.
I could kill them all, and that would be the end of it. The thought sent a shiver through her. I could lift them up above the road and drop them. She wasn’t in love with the idea, but knowing that she had the option, and holding on to it, was intoxicating. The power rush flooded her mind with countless possibilities. She didn’t want to choose any one of them. For as long as she held on to them all, she was at the center of a torrent of potential. She’d be damned if it didn’t feel amazing.
“Sarina!” Jasper’s voice called from somewhere far away. She wanted to ignore him, but he was persistent enough to interrupt her power rush and pull her mind back to the studio. His hand pulled the cord of her earbud. The device was dislodged from her ear and the music was cut off.
Dancer’s life sense faded in an instant, shrinking her reality to fit within four walls once more. The loss of the music didn’t bother her; the lost potential did. She might have found a way to deal with those damn heroes if the petulant wuss hadn’t snapped her out of it.
“Stop distracting me,” she hissed at him.
Jasper winced and staggered backward as if she’d hit him.
Dancer ignored the guilt that welled up inside her. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with his puppy dog complex right now. Don’t you fucking guilt trip me, Crybaby, she snapped at her other Self. I’m trying to save our asses here.
Seeing as her perception was already there, Dancer scanned the studio. The cameramen were cowering in a corner, and the three remaining guards had collapsed. There was a metal orb on the floor between them that was emitting a faint blue glow. Dancer looked up and saw Tess standing near the door to the production studio. So you did something to help, after all.
“What the fuck was that?” Ace snapped at her, clasping Sunny’s hand to pull the boy to his feet. “Removing those two women put the guards into kamikaze mode. A little warning would’ve been helpful, don’t you think?” It wasn’t a question.
“I was trying to deal with those heroes,” Dancer snapped back. “Don’t yell at me. You should be getting out of here.” She shoved the dangling cord and earbud into her pocket. She didn’t need the player anymore.
I am already here, and I’m staying until this situation is dealt with.
“I’ll be ready to go in a minute,” Tess said from behind her mask, bending down to retrieve the electric orb. “I’ve just got to pack up my stuff first.” Dancer watched her run back into the side room, where she yanked cords from sockets and stuffed her duffel bag in a hurry.
“You better get a move on,” Dancer said. “The heroes out there have a Teleporter.”
“Sunny, is that true?” Ace asked, eyes narrowing behind the eye holes of his mask.
The boy managed a strained nod.
“Sarina, how did you know?” Jasper asked
“I can sense people in my range,” Dancer replied curtly. “There’s someone outside who changes location every few seconds.”
Ace’s shoulders tensed. He turned his masked face toward the closed glass door that led out of the studio. More guards had taken up position in the corridor beyond, shouting directions at one another and relaying information through shoulder radios.
“You still got this, Sunny boy?” Ace gently asked the boy, who seemed to be weakening by the minute. “We just need to stay out of sight for a few more minutes, that’s all. We’re gonna be out of here before you know it.”
Sunny leaned into Ace for support, his breathing ragged. When the boy pushed up his mask, Dancer could see that his eyes were out of focus and his skin was glistening with sweat. “Maybe … the EU … shot … the Traveler … to get … his power,” he rasped.
“Maybe,” Ace muttered. Then, louder, he called, “Time’s ticking, Tess.”
“Fifteen seconds!” Tess called from the other room.
“Do you think that’s possible? That the EU team shot the traveler?” Jasper asked. He seemed steady enough, though he was pointedly avoiding Dancer’s gaze. Still sulking, she assumed.
“Whoever shot him couldn’t have known where his powers would show up,” Ace said. He was about to say something else when Sunny slumped against him. The boy quickly collected himself, but it was clear that he couldn’t keep this up much longer.
“Can you get us all down to the car?” Ace asked Dancer.
“Only if you want to risk broken bones,” she said. “You’d be better off getting out of here another way. I could keep the heroes busy for a bit, but I’ll have to stay here to do it.”
Jasper finally spared her a glance, shoulders slumping a bit. No one objected. Dancer couldn’t tell whether they agreed with her suggestion or if they failed to hear it.
Then Tess strode out of the control room, her duffel bag bulging. “Done!”
“Okay, gang, now’s the time to move,” Ace barked. He turned to Dancer. “You say you sense people’s life lights, huh? Which way down has the fewest of them?”
“The corridors are full of guards,” she said, remembering what she’d seen moments before. “Some of them are heading outside. Escorting staff members out of here, maybe. Most of the other rooms should be deserted by now.”
“We won’t use the corridors,” Ace said. He glanced to Snow, who was sitting on the edge of the stage with her arms wrapped about her cloaked knees. “Snow. We need you to get us out of here.” He pointed to the wall on the left side of the stage. It was partially concealed by a folding panel, hidden from the guards who were lurking beyond the glass door.
Snow followed his finger and straightened to stand. But before she could get to work on the wall, the studio’s intercom system crackled to life.
“Jasper Davis and Sarina Baumann,” a male voice boomed over the loudspeakers. “Step away from the villains.”
“What the bloody hell?” Ace muttered.
Dancer froze. She felt Jasper’s puppy dog eyes on her, but made no move to meet his gaze.
“You will both be offered safe passage and fair treatment if you comply,” the intruding voice boomed. “The heroes are on site and authorized to use lethal force if you fail to comply. You have one minute to make up your minds.”
And by lethal force, you mean grenades? As far as Dancer knew, Crashbang’s explosive aura effect stunned and disabled anyone caught within its blast radius, but it wasn’t lethal. She wondered whether the authorities knew who the other Nameless were, or if the higher-ups even cared that they were threatening to obliterate a fourteen-year-old boy.
Before she could give it too much thought, Ace stepped right in front of her, making it impossible to ignore him. “You know anything about this?” he demanded.
Crybaby insisted on sending that stupid goodbye text, not me.
“No,” Dancer lied, matching his tone and refusing to meet his glare. Instead, she focused on the escape route that Snow was creating in the wall. “Time to go. That Teleporter could drop Crashbang on us any moment. If we get caught in his radius, then goodnight.”
“Fine. We’ll be talking about this later, though.” Ace visibly swallowed his anger. “C’mon gang, we’re outta here.” He grabbed Dancer’s arm, pulling her towards the now-gaping hole in the wall.
She yanked her arm away. “I’ll meet you at the car. Someone has to stall the heroes.”
“Let’s go, Ace,” Tess said, her voice betraying her concern for the boy. “The girl’s in crazy mode again, she won’t listen. We’ve got to look after Sun.”
By then, Snow had erased a man-sized section of the wall to reveal one of the empty rooms they’d passed on the way to the studio. Tess put her free arm around Sunny and half walked, half dragged him to the opening in the wall.
Ace was smart enough to realize that they didn’t have the time to argue. “We’ll wait by the car. Be careful, Wondergirl,“ was all he said.
Jasper wasn’t ready to give in. “You have to come with us,” he pleaded.
“No, I don’t, as long as you get the hell out of here,” she said harshly. “You’re dead weight. I don’t need you here.”
For the second time since shit had hit the fan, Jasper looked as if she’d slapped him.
You’re not going to cry, are you? Pull yourself together already.
When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave her, Dancer used her power to wish him into the room beyond the wall gap. Now that her view wasn’t obstructed, that was easy enough to do. She witnessed his safe landing.
“Sunny won’t be able to hide you for long, Wondergirl. You better hurry up,” Ace called over his shoulder as he followed Snow, Tess, and Sunny through the gap.
“Whatever,” Dancer murmured.
“This is the last warning for Sarina Baumann and Jasper Davis to reveal themselves,” the voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
“Sarina!” Jasper called through the gap.
Dancer rolled her eyes as she caught sight of him rushing back towards the hole, presumably to come and retrieve her. He was beginning to grate on her nerves. Close the gap, she willed the reality around her.
With that thought, the studio wall began to flicker and ripple, reshaping itself more or less according to her will. Soon she was staring at a newly refashioned length of wall consisting of a multitude of colors and materials. Though her creation was bumpy and uneven, there were no gaps.
Her room makeover didn’t go unnoticed by the guards. “They’re using powers again!” came a shout from the other side of the glass studio door.
No shit, Sherlock, she thought, then set all thoughts of the guards aside. She had bigger fish to fry.
Just as she was considering whether or not she should shift her focus to ensure that Rune wasn’t circling the building again, two people appeared in the center of the studio, teleported there by whomever she’d sensed before.
Dancer immediately recognized Crashbang’s skintight yellow costume with its red sunburst on the chest. She didn’t have a chance to look at the other new arrival. All she saw was a flash of his black and white costume before the Teleporter disappeared and Crashbang charged.