Bratislava, Slovakia – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 04:02 PM.
The shot from Ace’s gun resonated throughout the movie theater that was swiftly being consumed by darkness. Sarina recoiled and made an attempt to whirl around, trying to dash into the nearest cover. Her feet refused to budge, though, and her legs felt like solid stone.
The shock of realizing that Poser’s appearance had effectively immobilized her left her breathless for a moment, and her pulse was beating in a frantic rhythm in her throat. She could still move her eyes and look around to see the others, who looked rigid and similarly frozen on the spot.
But Ace shot him. The thought drew Sarina’s attention to the man in the polka-dotted suit who was still crouching on the floor with his arms firmly wrapped about his legs. He didn’t look harmed. The shot had torn through the fragile plastic of his grinning clown’s mask, though. Now that the mask had been disloged, Sarina could see the pale, narrow-faced youth stare back at them with cold, stoic eyes.
“Invulnerable when he doesn’t move,” Tess growled, maybe as a reminder for Ace. She didn’t take the time to explain the guy’s powers, didn’t need to. Poser had effectively immobilized himself – and any other chosen target in range – with his chosen pose.
He could alternately blind, deafen, mute or immobilize others in a radius around him, Sarina knew. He was like those three monkeys with the addition of a fourth. She also knew he wasn’t supposed to be here; his name hadn’t been mentioned when the Nameless discussed the opposition they’d be facing.
Either Gentleman hadn’t known, or this was a set-up.
“Snow!” Ace barked. The black mist hadn’t reached him yet, but some tendrils of condensed darkness were now consuming the front line seats less than ten meters from his position.
Sarina didn’t see Snow do anything; she wasn’t able to turn her head and check. But something had to have happened, because a few seconds later, Ace wasn’t immobilized anymore. From her position near the adjoining room where the voices were still coming from, Sarina could see Ace charge at the door, and she definitely heard the loud crack of his impact. Wood splintered. A tingling sensation in her legs encouraged her to make a step forward, and she discovered that she could.
Then she turned, eyes darting towards the light that flowed through the broken remains of the door. The room beyond it was small, brightly illuminated – and empty. A small wooden table dominated the center. There were no chairs, but some kind of device sat on top of the table, connected to a few loudspeakers that had been placed around it. They occupied the spaces where people might have sat.
A female voice came through one of the speakers, bright and full of laughter. “I don’t know if that’s necessary, Raven. I feel quite safe here. It would take a certain kind of insanity to break in, don’t you think?”
They knew we were coming. No one said a word about it, but it was easy to assume; the voices from the loudspeakers were clearly meant to mess with Patrick’s enhanced hearing. Sarina had to admit that somewhere deep down, she wasn’t terribly surprised, though she couldn’t think of a plausible reason for Gentleman to betray them. What the hell was he getting out of it?
Sarina glanced to the side to see Snow step up to Patrick and grasp his arm. Then the darkness swept over her and swallowed her field of vision, leaving her in a sea of blackness.
The room. We could defend it, maybe. Sarina suppressed the flutter of anxiety in her stomach and shuffled a step forward. She called out to the others, still moving. “If we get in there, Ace can guard the door!”
Ace’s voice came from ahead, giving her an idea of his direction. “Snow! The darkness!”
The girl’s response drifted through the darkness to Sarina’s right. “No. Must see where it start.”
Sarina’s muscles stiffened, and her body froze in mid stride just as her hand touched the doorframe. A muttered curse let her know the others had been caught in the effect as well. The anxiety flared again, and her mind drifted back to the car. To Emily and Jasper.
She closed her eyes. If there is a God, please let me get back to them and make sure they’re safe.
“Ace!” Tess’ voice, controlled with a hint of fear. “Got options?”
“Damn you, Gentleman,” Ace responded, spitting out the words. “You’re a dead man.”
He deceived us. Me, because I talked the others into doing this. Unlike any of the thoughts that had passed through her mind before, this one stirred something darker at the edges of Sarina’s consciousness. Her anxiety melted away, replaced by furious determination. Gentleman was out of range right now. She couldn’t wait to see Raven’s smug grin, though. She didn’t need powers to kick him where it hurt the most.
This time, the immobilizing effect didn’t go away. It seemed that Snow needed a field of vision in order to use her Revoker powers.
Sarina ground her teeth and invested all of her willpower in an attempt to push herself forward. She felt the pulse of her heartbeat and the strain in her muscles, but not an iota of progress. Her desperate attempt at grasping her power wasn’t any more successful. Not even when she replayed the chorus of Kya’s Mesmerize – the soundtrack to her transition on stage – in her mind.
An idea struck her, and she paused her efforts for a moment. “Ace, let me talk to them,” she said. “Raven has a thing for me. Can your power influence how they’ll react to what I say?”
“Maybe, but I got very limited options. Can’t make them kill themselves, I’m no mindbender.” Ace voice was tight, brimming with frustration. “Girl, if I start talkin’, be quiet. Alright?”
“Ace, don’t,” Tess’ voice said from somewhere, riddled with concern. “Amunet will know. She senses any effect that messes with her bad luck shit. They’ll kill you.”
“You can cheat with your voice?” Sarina asked.
“Only the chances of how they’re gonna react to facts I give them,” Ace replied. “So if I talk, be quiet.”
“Not worth it if you get shot,” Patrick said from somewhere, his voice small. “I can hear them now. They’re coming.”
Knowing she was running out of time to gain any sort of advantage, Sarina made another desperate but futile effort to move. She stopped at the sound of shoes tapping against the smooth stone floor. The footsteps hadn’t gradually moved closer. They appeared out of nowhere, just like Poser had.
Her teammates dropped into silence, maybe to avoid revealing their locations in the darkness.
Sarina focused her attention on the footsteps, trying to do a count of their opposition. After a few seconds of movement, voices joined in, giving her a better estimate. Four or five. One woman. Her thoughts raced back to the briefing in the car. Amunet. Raven. Vortex. Gemini.
That was assuming not everything they’d been told had been a lie.
“Poser!” an unfamiliar male voice called from somewhere behind Sarina. “You alive, bud?”
“Got them all. You’re good to go,” a male voice replied from the direction Sarina remembered seeing Poser.
“So we meet again.” Raven’s voice joined in now, dripping the same self-complacency Sarina remembered from their last encounter in Liverpool. “I’m excited. Are you?”
You’ve no idea.
The sound of his voice sent a shudder of anticipation through her. She nearly said the words aloud, but the realization that the thought hadn’t been hers stopped her before she could open her mouth. As much as part of her wanted to confront Raven, the more rational half of her brain knew that while he might not try to hurt her, the same wasn’t necessarily true for her friends. Any kind of provocation put them at risk.
Go away, she internally commanded herself. Let me handle this. You’d mess it up.
“How did you know?” Sarina asked, trying to put an edge into her voice that would keep her other question from bleeding through and tipping him off. Do you know about Jasper and Emily?
“Ah. Mmh. That’s an excellent question.” The voice sounded from somewhere nearby now. Too close. There was a shift of air and a faint scent of musky aftershave, then a brush of feathers on Sarina’s arm.
She held her breath and ground her teeth. Don’t give him a reaction. Just don’t.
Someone’s chuckle drifted through the darkness. Raven took his time, stretching the silence for several uncomfortable seconds before he offered anything else.
“Did you annoy any allies lately?” he finally asked from somewhere very close to her ear, close enough for the warmth of his breath to tickle her skin and make her even more uncomfortable.
Sarina squeezed her eyes shut despite the surrounding darkness. It’s my fault. I couldn’t answer Gentleman’s questions about my power, and he set us up. Another thought flared, a conclusion of the first. I’ll get everyone out of this.
She was still searching for an answer when a female voice spoke up. “We’re missing two of them.”
The air shifted again, and feathers rustled faintly in the darkness. “Poser. How the flying fuck did you lose two of them?” Raven’s tone shifted to irritation.
Sarina’s lips moved in a soundless prayer to whichever higher power might care to listen. Don’t let them find the others.
“I didn’t lose anyone. There were five like you said, boss.”
“I got three on camera,” Raven hissed. “Not five.”
Cameras? Crap. They can see us.
“Maybe something’s messing with the infrared?”
“Ace can’t mess with shit he can’t see,” Raven replied. “And the others show up just fine.”
They expected five? Sarina’s stomach contracted to the size of a marble. They know Jasper is somewhere else. She squinted sideways, but the darkness was still as thick as ink, and she couldn’t hear anything beyond Raven’s crew and her own breathing.
“Ace.” Footsteps trudged past Sarina, brisk and angry. “Tell me where the others are.”
“Don’t know,” Ace’s voice replied. “Turn the lights on, maybe we figure it out together?”
“There’s no way they got out,” a male voice said. “They have to be invisible or something, the kid’s effect is still on. Let Gemini’s twin do a sweep, boss.”
Snow. Sarina’s mind’s eye replayed the moment the white-haired girl touched Patrick’s arm, seconds before the darkness engulfed them both. Snow, who had been found sitting on a sidewalk, unseen by anyone but Patrick.
No. Don’t look for them. Sarina hurled the thought at the invisible Crows, hoping against all odds they’d influence them somehow.
“You don’t even care about them, right?” Sarina asked the surrounding darkness. “It’s me you care about. I’m right here.”
Ace cut in before any of the villains got the chance to respond. “Don’t bother lookin’, yer not gonna find those two. And the girl’s useless, I’m the only one who can mess with you.”
“Raven!” a female voice shouted. “Shoot him. NOW.”
A gunshot tore through the air, thunderous at this close proximity. Sarina’s heart skipped a beat, and her muscles ached, denying her a reflexive reaction. Her ears rang too much to hear what happened afterwards, but she sensed movement. A voice said something her mind refused to process, then there was another shot, as thunderous as the first.
Nausea washed over her before her brain pieced together what just happened,
She didn’t know how much time had passed, but eventually she started picking out words again.
“Poser, move. The girl’s useless, she won’t do anything.”
Sarina’s muscles relaxed, and she might have dropped to the floor like a marionette with cut strings, but an arm curled about her waist to keep her upright. She didn’t need to see anything to know who it was. The scent of his aftershave, coupled with a brush of feathers against her neck, made every part of her body want to
lash out and make him scream
recoil and get away.
He was stronger, of course, and obviously amused by her discomfort. He chuckled against her scalp, lips buried in the spill of her hair.
“Do you remember the last time we met? I would have taken you instead of the UN lackey, but I wouldn’t have been paid nearly as much. Too bad.”
Sarina forcibly reminded herself lf her oath to stay calm and do her best to get everyone out of here somehow. She didn’t know for sure whether that shot hit anyone. It might have been a warning shot, intended to demoralize them.
She felt fingers trace the arm and pressed it tight against her body, a shield of defense against places she definitely didn’t want to be touched. If he found a way around it, she might lose control and be compelled to do something that would get someone shot.
The thought stirred that sick feeling in her gut again, and the realization that there had been two shots seeped through the cracks in her resolve.
Oh god. Ace and Tess.
For once, Sarina was glad she couldn’t see anything. She conjured up an image of Jasper instead. The memory of her lips on his cheek steadied her. It allowed her to speak without releasing a litany of words she might regret.
“Can I ask you something?” Sarina asked, struggling to appear calmer and more controlled than she was.
“We’ll have all the time in the world once we get out of here, baby girl,” Raven said. “But I’ll let you ask me one question before we pack up. Anything you like.”
Did you shoot the others? It wasn’t the question she asked. Uncomfortable as she was, she had to keep him distracted from looking for Snow and Patrick. And maybe find a way to make him drop the darkness, even though it obviously didn’t inconvenience him or his gang.
“Did you get paid for this?”
He chuckled again. “What do you think?”
“No. I think Gentleman told you we were coming, and you’re just getting a kick out of it.”
Someone snickered, but it wasn’t Raven. The woman. Amunet.
“You got that right,” he said, lips wandering down to her ear. “Let me guide your hand, and you’ll feel just how much of a kick you’re giving me.”
Sarina didn’t know how, but she somehow managed to avoid kicking him or throwing up. She kept her hands pressed to her sides, arms wrapped tightly about her chest. If she was going to attack him – and her darker half was screaming at her to stop being such a pussy about it – she had to first make sure the others weren’t going to be pursued.
“Boss, we gotta give the girl an E-0 shot,” a male voice suggested. “She’s the fucking Antithesis. You wanna keep her, make sure she doesn’t blow up in our faces.”
“Not right now. I don’t want her shitfaced just yet, you’ve seen the side effects.”
“Whatever you say, boss.” The voice didn’t sound convinced or enthusiastic.
“She’s useless,” Raven assured his crew. “I know everything about her powers. No one’s going to blow up. Let’s get moving.”
Sarina’s phone defied them by ringing, filling the darkness with bouncy trance beats.
NO. Ace made them forget about the others. The ringtone startled her more than the previous threats had. She winced, shoulders scraping against Raven’s feathery coat. She sensed his flaring interest by the way his hands dropped away from her body to explore her pant pocket instead.
Emily, no. Sarina massed her fear and guilt into a big red stop sign she pictured in her head, hopefully noticeable enough for the girl to hang up if she could sense Sarina’s emotions. That didn’t happen. The phone kept on blaring while it was pulled from Sarina’s pocket, and the way the sound drifted upwards let her know Raven was bringing it up to his ear.
“Hello? Who’s there?” he asked, not even trying to hide his cheerfulness. There was a pause, then a low, appeasing murmur. “Aw. How sweet. How could I say no?”
No. You were supposed to get away with Jasper. Tears welled up in Sarina’s eyes, but she did close her fingers about the phone that was pressed into her hand.
“Can I have some light?” she asked, hoping Emily would hang up and get the hell away. “I can’t see the buttons.”
“You ask so sweetly, how could I say no?” Raven’s fingers curled around her shoulder, and the darkness faded away.
The aquatic zoo’s movie theatre wasn’t much brighter without the effect of Raven’s power, but Sarina could make out the silhouettes of those who were still standing. Five. They had gathered in a semicircle with Raven at the center, a few steps away from her.
She refused to look at the sprawled figures on the ground where Ace and Tess had been, desperately wanting to assume they were just hurt.
“Don’t let the sweet girl wait,” Raven said. The grip of his fingers tightened about her shoulder, intent on pushing her onward. “Unless you want me to talk to her?”
“No.” Sarina raised the phone to her ear, and Raven’s fingers dropped away. “Emily?”
“I’m sorry,” a thin child’s voice mewled, barely understandable between sobs. Sarina hadn’t ever heard her cry before; the fact that she’d been so calm and strangely controlled until now made the change all the more startling. “So sorry,” Emily repeated.
“About what?” Sarina turned away from the villains and lowered her voice. “Emily, you shouldn’t talk to me. What are you sorry about?”
“I’m sorry, Sarina. I have to make her come out.”
Sarina opened her mouth for another question, but Emily cut her off by releasing a barrage of words through the phone. Her voice was thin and wavering at first, but grew firmer with increasing urgency.
“Someone took Jasper and now he’s really hurt! And everyone knows Legion ate your family because he’s looking for you, but they didn’t tell you because you’d be sad, and…”
“Give me that phone!” Raven commanded, the cheerfulness gone from his voice. He couldn’t have understood Emily’s words. Something must have shown on Sarina’s face.
Sarina felt the phone being grabbed and pulled away from her ear, and Emily’s voice dwindled away to a frantic stream of disconnected, high-pitched sounds that might have been words or more sobs. Sarina’s heart froze in her chest, and her mind slowed to a stop, thoughts scattering and dissolving like shards of splintering ice.
Then her pulse kicked into high gear, and everything began to make sense. The awkward glances. The looks of sympathy. The abruptly changed radio program, the overtones of Patrick’s hastily dropped remarks about the dead Technician who’d supposedly combed the internet for information about her.
They let me send my family a message just yesterday.
Suddenly, Sarina was hot. More than that, she was furious. She, not Dancer, though that other part of her had suspected she was being manipulated by Gentleman all along. She’d been able to push that aside with the conviction that no matter the reason, she was doing good. But Jasper and her family being brought into the picture was too much.
It pushed her over the edge.
Sarina let herself tumble into oblivion. The instant she withdrew, Dancer was ready to fill her up to the brim with power. The fabric of reality responded to the pulse that boiled inside of her, and her aura exploded outward with the force of a shockwave.
“Oh shit. Give her a shot, NOW!” Amunet screamed.
No one gives me any kind of shit.
Dancer lashed out. Reality rippled and shifted all around, and every weapon held by every Crow in sight deformed to useless clumps of metal. The noisy woman reached for her power, but the effect was extinguished along with her life when she was yanked off the floor and halfway into the nearest wall. The other crows followed suit simultaneously. Two of them were lucky enough to only have their non-vital parts buried half a meter of stone; they were still capable of gasping and screaming.
“Shut up,” Dancer hissed, irritated by the noise. “You killed my friends.”
She might have asked them where Jasper was, but their yapping wasn’t coherent enough to hope for anything useful from them.
Jasper. Dancer didn’t like him quite as much as Crybaby did, but she liked him enough to make a statement.
Dancer looked up, and immeasurable amounts of stone, concrete, glass and metal heeded her command to stop obscuring her view. They shifted and vanished, draining away to exist someplace they weren’t in her way.
With the upper sections of the aquatic zoo gone and her field of vision cleared, Dancer teleported herself to the edge of the deep pit she had created. There she pranced forward and dropped to a knee, extending her range. The sheer number of life light that plopped into her awareness threatened to overwhelm her mind with useless information, but once she shifted her focus to powered signatures, they were manageable.
Four flickered in the pit below, two of them half absorbed by dead material and dimming. Negligible. One of the others shone with exceptional brightness, though, powerful enough to nearly mask the presence of the one that clung to it.
Patrick. Snow. You never left.
Dancer didn’t mind those two, they weren’t responsible. Jasper trusted them, and Jasper was among the handful of people who’d never tried to take advantage of Crybaby in any way.
The connection was clear as day and seared through her mind with the fury of a thousand suns. Her thoughts raced back to the gathering at the mansion, the ‘favors’ that had been asked. He’s wanted him this whole time. More than Emily, maybe more than me.
Dancer whirled around, and the movement fed into her aura to expand its range. She could feel it wash over the city like a tidal wave, fierce and brimming with potential. When she reached the limit of her maximum range, she scanned thousands, tens of thousands of life lights for the one that would match Jasper’s. She’d seen it before and would have recognized it among millions. It pulsed with its own distinctive rhythm.
She realized she wasn’t going to find him here. The range of Gentleman’s pet teleporter was far superior to hers, and she couldn’t assume he’d be stupid enough to try and hide his captive within the city when his pet teleporter far exceeded that range.
I’m the fucking Antithesis. I’m going to find him.
Dancer screamed her rage at the city, and she she’d be damned if she wasn’t going to be heard. If any of the villain’s goons were still nearby, she wanted their teeth to clatter and their bones to rattle, leaving no doubt as to how much she hated being taken advantage of.
The force she infused into her scream burst windows in a radius of a few hundred meters, rattling those that were further away. Somewhere in the distance, a shrill police siren whined in response.
To prove her point and let Gentleman know she was coming, Dancer sent a shockwave of change throughout the surrounding city. Concrete, metal and other building materials turned to semitransparent metallic glass, still strong enough to keep supporting even the taller buildings. Nothing collapsed, but if the shattered windows hadn’t been enough to throw the locals into a state of collective panic, this did. People started screaming.
You can’t hide him from me for long.
Satisfied with her message for now, Dancer blinked back down into the pit of the former villain hideout. She felt calmer, and she had a plan.
Snow stood in a corner with her arms wrapped about herself, staring at her feet. Patrick kneeled over Tess’ body with a tear-streaked face, desperately tugging at her arm as if he could force her to sit up and hug him.
He was closer to his make believe aunt than Crybaby ever was to her useless junkie Mom.
Dancer glanced away from the drama, picking up her phone instead. The cracked screen showed that the last call was still active. She stared at it for a second, then willed Jasper to appear beside her. Nothing happened.
When she extended her wish to Emily, the girl plopped into view with a small yelp of surprise. Dancer caught her arm before she could lose her balance and drop onto her bottom.
“Hello, Dancer,” the girl said, her voice small and anxious.
Dancer tilted her head to the side and smiled down at Emily. “Don’t be scared. You’re safer here than in the car.” She gave the girl a moment to nod, then proceeded with the question that was still smoldering inside of her, feeding her rage. “Just how did someone take Jasper?”
“He just disappeared and was replaced by some guy who got out of the car real quick,” Emily said, staring at the dusty floor that had been unexpectedly exposed to the sunlight.
Dancer’s eyes narrowed in consideration. She hadn’t sensed another Evolved in her range, which meant Jasper had been swapped with one of Gentleman’s powerless goons. Seeing as he’d already left the car, Dancer had next to no chance of identifying him now. If she had, she would have made him wish he was dead.
“Just how bad did they hurt him?” Dancer asked with a dangerously monotone voice that belied her roiling emotions.
Emily frowned. “He’s not hurt at all, just scared. He has a thing over his eyes so he can’t see anything. He doesn’t know where he is.” She made a small pause there, the frown deepening. “I’ll try and keep checking on him, but if he gets real hurt, I can’t.”
Dancer raised a hand to Emily’s cheek, gently stroking it with her thumb. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. But why did you lie to me about him being hurt?”
“I had to make you come out! Without Jasper’s power stuff, you only do that when you think people are mean to Other-You and try to push her around. Or make her do things she shouldn’t do. Um, I lied about your family too. Your brother is okay. But I think Legion got your parents.” Emily lowered her gaze, shuffling a foot on the ground before adding a barely audible “sorry.”
“Why is Legion after me?” Dancer asked.
“I don’t know. Honest!”
Dancer lowered her hand from Emily’s cheek and changed position in the blink of an eye, moving herself over to the body in the small adjoining room with its chair-less table and the now silent loudspeakers. She tried not to look at the pool of blood or the shattered half of Ace’s skull, but she stroked her fingers over the still warm skin of his face and gently closed his eyes.
I’m sorry I talked you into this. If I find your boy, I’ll keep him safe.
She removed his belt with the attached gun holsters and strapped it about her own waist. He’d taught her how to shoot, and she was going to respect his legacy. Right now, though, there wasn’t much time.
Dancer knew she couldn’t linger. The sound of sirens and people were drawing closer, and she wasn’t in the mood to kill anyone else.
Dancer blinked over to Tess’ sprawled body and gave her the same attention, taking a moment to look down at the Irish woman’s face before gently closing her eyes. Patrick kneeled at her side, sobbing quietly, but didn’t try to stop her.
“I’ll take care of Patrick as well,” Dancer said to the dead woman. Then she assembled her will and moved both of the dead bodies deep into the concrete that made up the basement below.
And I swear I’ll never play the heroine anymore. All it does is get people killed.
“Um, Dancer. I think we should go now,” Emily said from behind. “The government people are going to send fighter jets and stuff. They think you…”
“I know what they think,” Dancer said. “I don’t care anymore.” She passed a glance over her remaining team. An autist and two kids. They were her responsibility now.