Above Trubino, Russia – Friday, the 15th of June 2012. 05:26 PM.
There was a fire, but no smoke.
Radiant hung in the air twenty meters from the flame barrier surrounding his hometown, surveying the site from a bird’s view perspective. Even here, far above the ground, he felt the heat of the flames roll over the exposed skin of his hands and jaw like a harbinger of hell. They rose five meters off the scorched ground, causing the air to glow and simmer. Even though Nusku was nowhere to be seen, the flames were perpetually nourished by his powers, maintained long beyond a mundane fire’s life span.
There was no smoke because nothing was burning; the ground had been depleted of fuel long ago. The few dozen houses that were visible beyond the barrier had been left untouched. Their peaked shingle roofs and colorfully painted facades were typical for the region, as were the private gardens and the green spaces surrounding them. The two dachas that made physical contact with the barrier had been reduced to charred husks, but the nearby trees still looked green and fresh.
Ironically, the landscape on the other side of the barrier had suffered more. Meadows and a nearby forest had caught on fire, forcing a small army of firefighter vehicles into a frenzied battle to keep it from spreading further. Radiant estimated the enclosed section of the town had a radius about fifty meters.
He couldn’t help but wonder how long it had taken Nusku to create a flame barrier covering such a large area, or how he had pulled it off without provoking a response from Russian special forces. Last he knew, the Evoker’s range had been limited to twenty meters within his line of sight.
The Russian army had intervened, however. The crushed remains of half a dozen tanks blocked off the access road into the small town. Some had been dented as though they were crushed by a gigantic fist. None looked as if they were still operable. Numerous chains, as thick as Radiant’s arm, were blocking the armored wheels. The top mounted guns had been broken or bent to the point of uselessness.
Nusku is working with a Metalokinetic, Radiant concluded. But what had happened to the soldiers operating these tanks?
As he was searching for clues, his attention shifted to the front tank and the blackened humanoid shape that lay in front of it, reduced to ash and char particles. As he glanced away from the road he discovered more corpses, recognizable only by the human-sized patches of scorched grass which marked their positions.
Damn you, Nusku. Why?
Radiant stared blankly at the ground, flexing his fingers for the couple of seconds it took him to get his mind back on track. Then he beamed himself down, closer to the squat white stone tower of the Orthodox temple which was situated at the outer fringes of the encircled town. From here, three meters above ground and hidden from plain view by the bulk of a wooden two story house, he got a visual of the field that which been mentioned in the news.
And the bodies that had been left on it.
Despite the angry thrum of his pulse in his head, he forced himself to give bodies the attention they deserved. There wasn’t enough of them left for identification. There was no way for him to tell whether he was looking at aunt Agata or his cousin Ruslan, who loved soccer and motorcycles and might have repaired his old Ural Patrol if Radiant stayed in town. The bodies had been burned to the point where their hair and clothing decayed to dust and ashes. Small clusters of four or five clung to one another with charred limbs, forming a single word in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Radiant drew in a deep breath, chest heaving, then beamed himself a hundred meters up. The air was cooler up there, slowing his pulse which helped him focus in turn. He flexed and relaxed his fingers alternately until the red haze cleared from his mind, until he trusted himself to make calm decisions that weren’t going to get him killed.
He couldn’t stay up there, he knew. He had to keep moving, take advantage of his mobility to avoid being an easy target for anyone who spotted him before he spotted them. If the message had been left for him – and he was quite certain that it had – then the villains would expect him to examine the bodies, and anything they expected was likely to become a trap. He couldn’t allow himself to be predictable. More importantly, he had to figure out who they were and where the hell they were hiding.
In order to kick off his quest for clues, Radiant beamed himself down to one of the houses near the flame barrier. He dropped the last meter, landing on his feet next to a firewood shed. Failing to spot any movement, he listened into the eerie stillness of the town that surrounded him. The only sound filling it was the distant crackle of flames.
No, there was a different sound coming from the house next to him; a muffled murmur of anxious voices which reminded him of a hostage situation involving a now deceased villain about a year ago.
Too concerned about potential hostages to disregard the situation, Radiant crossed the six meters between himself and the small, green framed window as a soundless flash of light. As he materialized, he heard a shout of alarm coming from the house. From the corner of his eye he spotted sudden movement and a gleam of metal beyond the window. He transformed into a beam in reflex, shooting up and away from whoever was taking aim at him. The distant bang of a large caliber shot filled his ears as he regained his senses. Glass shattered. A baby’s thin, pitiful wails drifted from below, coming from the house he’d left behind a moment ago.
As he looked down at the broken window shards on the grass, Radiant couldn’t help but suspect he’d been attacked by a startled local rather than a villain. A villain wouldn’t have exposed themselves by firing a shot at him, not knowing whether that one shot would fully disable Radiant. They were aware of his powerset and the deadly potential of his lasers.
Villains did hire hitmen, however. Criminals without powers, but with ambitions. Some were Godkin fanatics, eager to do the bidding of any Evolved who accepted their pledge of fealty. It also wasn’t uncommon for villains to hide behind human shields.
Keep moving, Radiant reminded himself.
He clenched his jaw and charged his powers to reposition himself yet again. An instant later he found himself above a different house. The baby’s cries still carried on the wind, distant but no less heartbreaking.
The next shot came from a different direction and building. It scraped by his helmet, his head jerked to the side by the kinetic energy of the blast. The bang was more distant than the previous shot, but audible enough for Radiant’s experienced ears to identify the weapon as a sniper rifle.
Now this wasn’t a local. The average Russian didn’t keep military grade sniper stashed in their home.
Knowing the direction the shot came from, Radiant quickly spotted the rifleman on on a roof thirty meters across a meadow and parking lot. He was kneeling as he frantically prepared the next shot, partially concealed by a reddish brown camouflage suit.
Radiant raised a hand and released his energy as a pencil thin red laser, aiming at the shape behind the shimmering rifle barrel. The man’s upper body exploded in a spray of overheated flesh and blood. What remained of him tumbled forward to drop off the edge of the roof, hands still gripping the rifle.
Radiant opted to change position rather than invest a moment in scanning the area, beaming himself back towards the outer rim of the barrier enclosed area. He materialized above a red shingle roof and landed with a dull thud, dislocating one of the shingles and sending it skittering to the ground. A woman’s cry of panic came from somewhere within the house before cutting off.
A thick grey stone chimney beside him offered some cover. The flame barrier surrounding the town wasn’t far behind him, sending a surge of warmth over his exposed skin.
He pressed one hand to the chimney, steadying himself. From up there, he had a fairly good view of the area.
If they don’t have enhanced vision, they’ll want a good vantage point.
A pair of figures on a roof some thirty meters from his position drew Radiant’s attention. From what he could make out in a fraction of a second, they appeared to be people – but naked, with an unnaturally red skin tone and without any weapons or equipment.
He didn’t get the chance for a better look. One of the figures lit up with a fiery glow. Radiant beamed himself back up into the air in reflex, materializing just in time to see a ball of fire fly west, past his previous position and onward into the sky beyond the flame barier.
Looking down, Radiant saw the same two figures in the same position on the same roof. They hadn’t moved or made any sound, and nothing about them hinted at power use. There was no noise, no glow, no shimmer in the air nor any other visible effect.
Clearly, he wasn’t looking at people. Were these illusions or projections of some sort?
He racked his brains in search of an Evolved with a matching powerset, but couldn’t think of anyone specializing in creating naked, immobile parodies of people which gave off blasts of fire. Definitely not Nusku. Only one of the two figures had reacted to Radiant’s presence. It had, however, displayed some disturbingly humanlike awareness of his position.
Radiant beamed himself back down to just above and behind the roof with the two figures on it. Now that he could see them from up close, he discovered that their ‘skin’ looked suspiciously like raw meat. While the bodies were humanlike, the proportions were just a little off – as if someone had attempted to shape a humanoid body from clay, but gave up before working out the details. The figures were impossibly still. They just perched by the edge of the roof, looking out over the small town from lidless, yellowish eye clumps.
An idea rose like bile in Radiant’s throat. Whatever these were, he really hoped they’d never been alive.
He relocated to a vantage point twenty meters up and scanned the circular, fire enclosed area of the town for anything suspicious. No gunshots pierced the air. Instead, he spotted a few more meat effigies at different positions throughout the area. One seemed to sit on the driver’s seat of a parked car. Another perched among the branches of an ancient oak tree. Two more sat atop the church tower, facing opposite directions.
Having to acknowledge that he’d missed them irritated him. He’d been too hung up on the burned corpses and their message to him to pay as much attention to his surroundings as he should have.
Meat puppets? Is this how you’re planning to kill me?
Radiant shot one of the effigies on the tower with a laser beam from his right hand. It lit up as easily as a scarecrow and fell apart, raining parts of half-melted flesh onto the church courtyard below. The following laser made short work of its twin. Black smoke drifted from the smoldering clumps that were still clinging to the church tower’s tall, arching window apertures.
The absence of targets filled Radiant with unease. The cries and voices he’d heard gave him some hope that most of the townsfolk were still alive, hidden within their homes as they waited for help, but he still didn’t have a plan as to how to remove the actual threat. All he knew was that the villains had to be holed up somewhere, with or without hostages. Waiting for him to make a mistake.
He had never worked without the support of a team before. There was no Athena to release a swarm of drones and feel out the area for him; no Queenie to verify the current whereabouts of known rogues. He was on his own, he was vulnerable, and he’d be damned if the tingling in his spine wasn’t fear.
Radiant beamed himself down and away from the tower to do a search of the area, moving in short bursts of variable length, never stopping for more than a few seconds. He spotted another effigy along the way and destroyed it with a precise laser beam, not giving it the chance to launch another attack. He wasn’t convinced he’d found them all, though. Whenever he materialized at a new position, he half expected to be greeted by gunshots or another hurled fireball.
The hardest part was keeping his distance from his aunt’s house. As much as he wanted to rush inside and check on his family, he understood the villain way of thinking all too well. They were expecting him to come to his aunt’s rescue and expose himself to the trap which had no doubt been prepared for him. Rune hadn’t been wrong to remind him of his mortality; his skin’s cutting resistance didn’t extend to bullet wounds.
If any gunmen remained in the vicinity, they didn’t do him the favor of revealing themselves. Instead of hostile targets, Radiant discovered the body of a child, huddled in a fetal position near one of the dachas. Long braids of blonde hair spilled from beneath her blue knitted cap. A long sleeved blouse and brown trousers covered her arms and legs, making it hard to determine whether she may have suffered any injuries. The house behind her was deathly silent. No movement could be gleaned behind the windows.
Radiant paused. He’d set a limit of five seconds for himself, not enough time to take in all of the details of any given location. The girl was just as immobile as the meat puppets had been, and the fact that she’d been left on the ground a few steps from her home smelled of a trap.
Still, he couldn’t ignore the possibility that this was, in fact, an actual child in need of help.
Radiant beamed himself a dozen meters up to evaluate the situation from a bird’s view perspective. The house was detached, surrounded by green spaces the sparse cluster of trees which separated it from its nearest neighbor. He kept moving between nearby locations, examining the house from different angles and checking for any missed any meat effigies before he beamed himself back down to the house.
He hovered a couple meters above the girl, half of his attention on the windows of the house behind her.
“Can you hear me?” he asked in what he hoped was a gentle, reassuring voice.
No answer came. Instead, he caught a glimpse of one of the sun yellow curtains being stirred by movement. Having expected an attack he transformed himself into a burst of luminescence and shot upward. When he regained his senses a second later, the window had shattered and the gunshot still reverberated through the air.
Having no desire to set the house and its potentially innocent occupants on fire, Radiant didn’t retaliate. Instead, he positioned himself above the edge of the roof to waiting for the sound of the front door opening.
He gave the child another look. Judging from the body proportions, she looked to be about the same age as Denis. She had drawn her knees up against her stomach, one arm thrown across her face. A single eye peeked out from beneath the crook of her elbow.
It’s too warm to be wearing long sleeves and a knit cap.
Radiant had just finished the thought when a sharp clang of unleashed metal cut through the air. Something cold and hard bit into his skin, piercing his flesh through the leather jacket. He released his power without thinking and beamed himself up, away from the threat.
When he found himself up in the air an instant later, the coldness of something hard and foreign was still there. A sharp pain pulsed from his shoulder throughout his body, drawing a gasp from his lips. He looked down to see the butt end of a foot long harpoon stick out of the pierced leather of his jacket.
The attached chain reached all the way down to the house and the small body he’d left there, fifteen meters below. Not nearly as far as intended.
Metalokinetic. His dazed mind registered that maybe the meaty red effigies hadn’t been finished, that they had been half-formed in a hurry to observe and trap him. The ‘girl’ had been more humanlike than the others. Someone had channeled their powers through ‘her’.
The next pulse of pain was more intense than the first, accompanied by a feeling of disorientation that left a twinge of sickness in his gut.
Radiant’s mind struggled to process the jumble of possibilities and observations, but the idea of escape prevailed. Further. Have to get rid of this chain.
Another beam and a few seconds later, Radiant found himself nearly in the same position as before. The harpoon was still lodged within his flesh, and the attached chain still extended all the way down to the small speck in front of the house. The third attempt at getting a few hundred meters away barely moved him an inch.
Apparently, his power didn’t differentiate between equipment worn on his body and the foot long harpoon that was sticking out of it.
Radiant closed his fingers around the butt end of the harpoon and clenched his teeth, bracing himself before he pulled, hard. The pain that seared through was unlike any he ever felt before. Up until now, all injuries he had ever suffered as a hero had been absorbed by Saint’s power, leaving Radiant’s body intact. He wasn’t prepared for the pain of being branded from the inside. He heard himself make a choked-back sound that almost wasn’t a scream.
Dizziness washed over him with the force of a tsunami. He steeled himself to push it from his mind, willed himself to focus and realized that he was dropping. The luminescent energy surrounding him flickered feebly, and then stabilized, keeping him suspended barely ten meters above ground.
The harpoon sticking out from his shoulder hadn’t even budged an inch. The startling realization that he was losing control over his powers turned his blood cold. Too shocked to identify the reason, a single thought formed in his mind: he had to get back down before he dropped to his death.
Radiant beamed himself directly down, his feet landing on a meadow a short distance from the house where he’d found the not-girl. The chain extending from the harpoon was now stretched tight in a horizontal direction, still connected to the small figure with the knit cap.
Dog on a leash. Struck by a touch of gallows humor he nearly chuckled at the thought, but the sound that came from his lips was a racking wheeze.
He lowered himself to the meadow and had a second to inhale the scent of the grass, of home, before his luminescent energy died. The following tide of nausea brought him to his knees. His vision turned black. He picked up a murmur of voices from somewhere far away, drawing closer. He thought one of them was singing, but his head swam too much to be certain of anything anymore.
He tried moving a hand and felt it sweep through the grass. The flow of his energy was gone, though, and he couldn’t even channel enough of it to create a spark on the tip of his finger. The pain in his shoulder ebbed, replaced by a cold numbness that spread from the harpoon to his limbs.
There is no poison like this. This is…
The thought pierced the haze that blanketed his mind, prompting him to search his rapidly decaying memories for something to link it to. Something to help him keep his focus. Experimental drug to suppress powers. Athena mentioned it. Never good results. Never used.
The voices drifted close enough to be understood. Some were male, some female. Radiant couldn’t tell how many there were of each. The words were English, heavily accented at times, flawless at others.
“It’s raining men!” someone young and female warbled with childlike cheer. “Hallelujah! Can I keep him? Maybe for a little while?”
A male someone gave a gruff chuckle. “No. No playing on contract, not for you.”
Nusku? The man’s accent had a familiar pattern to it. Russian. Andrey pressed a fist into the grassy soil, trying to get to his feet. He felt himself shift and sway, but in a different direction than he’d intended. When the new surge of nausea ebbed, he was flat on the ground, blades of grass tickling his neck and jaw. Something pulled at his head. A familiar kind of pressure around his head and eyes ebbed away, and he was left with a vague feeling of something important missing. He couldn’t for the life of him remember what it was.
“But I won!” the female cried. “I said he wasn’t going plummet to his death, and I knew he’d go for the kid trap. Oh look, he’s trying to get up! How cute.”
“The fish’s on my hook, Dollet. We are going to give Raven a call, his payroll’s bigger than yours. Sorry, chica. Size matters.”
Dollet? That name didn’t sound familiar. Andrey’s thoughts drifted on, latching on to something different that was more deeply rooted in his memory. Raven. Self-declared nemesis. Crew leader of something. Criminals?
“Nusku?” Andrey asked in the direction of the voices. His vision had been obscured by darkness, but there was a thin sliver of brighter grey underneath.
Someone sighed. “Sorry, man. Have to pay the bills. If it’s any consolation, I’ll make it quick.” The rhythm and lilt of the words was different, more familiar. Not English. Russian.
“Get him out of the open first,” the male without accent said. “You never know if he called for help or if more choppers are about to show up. Those Russians are some stubborn assholes, and I am calling Raven when we get inside.” There was a pause, then he added, “No offense, Nuk.”
Did I call for help? Andrey wasn’t sure and didn’t make the effort to ask. He heard a clatter of metal. A long length of something hard and cold coiled about his arms and torso. Snake, he thought, but discarded the idea because it felt inaccurate. He wasn’t sure why.
“Which doll did you link him to?” The man without accent asked.
“The one I showed you before,” the female replied. “With the blindfold, that’s staring at a wall? Why would I pick a different one?”
“Okay. Just making sure.”
The searing pain in Andrey’s shoulder intensified. He felt the pressure of something long and hard being pushed underneath him, then movement. Not flying. No more flying. A brief moment later, the metal snakes clattered again, and he was jerked back over the ground, sliding along on the hard surface beneath him.
“How much we get for the helmet?” the man with the accent asked over the noise and the slithering, no longer using that familiar language. “Athena gear is hard to sell. Tried with the black box we found in his place. No one wanted the damn thing.”
“Depends on who you ask,” the other man said. “The Conglomerate might be interested, and they pay a shit ton. Trust me, I know.”
Conglomerate. Villains. Gallowsman? The name rattled within Andrey’s numb mind, his body rocked by the impact of some kind of obstacle. Something about the mention of the helmet bothered him on a deep, profound level, but he couldn’t piece together what it was. Athena was the only connection he could make, but in the haze of his mind, it was leading nowhere.
“Can I search him?” the female voice asked, brimming with excitement. “Maybe he has other techie toys on him, something that’s easier to sell.”
Someone barked a gruff laugh. “You’d just make out with him. No rush, let’s finish up first. I want to be out of here in half an hour.”
“Is that what you dream about while jerking off? Me and my hands all over some hero you impaled and chained up?”
“Shut up,” the other man growled. Russian man. Have to remember. “You two don’t want to be like professionals, get out.”
There was a quiet murmur off to the side, then the voices fell silent. Andrey’s lost track of time while the slithering movement continued to rattle his body and chains clattered around him. Eventually, it stopped. There was a loud creak, then a sound of footsteps. More clatter. Voices, but further away, the words a muffled mystery.
Footsteps again, very close this time. Then a whisper of words right beside his ear. Andrey recognized the voice as the female from before, someone he associated with meat. Butcher? He felt his fingers clench about the metal that dug into his skin.
“Hey. I don’t know if you can understand me at all, but I’m really sorry about this.” The whispering paused, then continued. The words were more fluid now, speaking the language of home. “Those guys are assholes. Especially Hook. I can’t help you, but I’m going to let you listen in. If it helps, we didn’t actually burn any townspeople. Just my dolls and the soldiers. I know there’s really sick bastards out there, but I don’t work with them. Nusku and Hook are reasonable. Mostly reasonable, anyway.”
Dolls. Not townspeople. The words seeped into Andrey’s consciousness. He didn’t grasp the meaning, but something about them gave him some sense of relief. His fingers relaxed, then tensed again as he felt a touch on his forehead. A light, stroking movement that drifted away as the footsteps did.
The darkness fell from his eyes, the distant murmur of words drawing closer. It came from a heavily pierced, goateed man with spiky black hair who held a small device to his ear. He paced about a small windowless room with grainy grey stone walls, each step marked by familiar noise. Metal snakes. A few foot long sections dangled from the belt of his baggy black jeans, clinking about his legs as he moved. Another length hung over the front of his black shirt like a necklace.
He spoke into the device. “Sorry, man. They got him first. We could maybe talk about this if you got a better offer, but good fucking luck with that. It’s true. Russians shit bricks, piss vodka and do their parlay with Kalashnikovs.”
There was a pause, then a mirthless chuckle. Snake-man made another couple of steps to the left, removing himself from Andrey’s field of vision. No. Andrey jerked his head to the side. The movement felt slow and sluggish, and his vision didn’t return. It remained fixed on a blotchy grey wall and the two plastic crates that lined it.
He could still hear the voice. It came from the left now, gruff and agitated. “Do you fucking know what Raja’s paying? He raised to three million the moment your name was mentioned. Yeah. You heard that right. Four million if the body’s in one piece.”
Raja. The name struck a chord at the back of Andrey’s mind. India.
“You don’t have three million, man,” the gruff voice continued. “How I know? You ask me how I fucking know? I’ve flown with you for more than a year. There’s no way the Liverpool hit earned you that much.”
Another pause, longer now. “You’re shitting me.” The next one was brief, just a rough chuckle and splutter. “They won’t believe it if I can’t give ‘em details, man. We’re not sucking each other’s cocks over here, calling this ragtag bunch ‘allies0 is already a stretch. Why you care this much, anyway? Got an angel fetish or something?”
Angel. She died. Andrey closed his eyes, but he wasn’t graced with the gift of darkness this time. He could still see the same windowless wall with the two crates, burned into his mind’s eye with perfect clarity.
“Fine. I’ll ask them, but I know the answer already,” the gruff voice said. “You know how quick Raja can do the bank transfer? Minutes, and everyone knows he’s got the cash. Wait a minute.”
The clinking noise drifted away. Andrey picked up voices in the distance again, as heated as Snake-man’s had been. One word was clearer and more audible than the others, repeated many times in two languages: NO.
When Snake-clatter-man stepped back into Andrey’s field of vision, his face was as stony as the wall behind him. “Told you so,” he growled into the device. “But remember that I did fucking call you. I still expect my bonus.”
The device disappeared into the goateed man’s pants. Then he raised a hand, and something hurled through the air to be caught by his fingers in midair. Andrey didn’t identify the item right away, but some part of his mind was still alert enough to recognize the sound of a slide being racked back.
Andrey’s fingers grasped one of the tight, hard bonds that encased him and pulled. The pressure around his body didn’t change, and his muscles felt too weak for the effort. The luminescent energy that should have tingled beneath his skin was still gone. Instead, a new wave of nausea washed over him as he tried to grasp it.
He remembered a familiar voice from not too long ago. Male, not quite a friend but almost.
If you go there, you’ll die.
He closed his eyes. Wait for me, Angel. I’m coming.