((Author’s note: This used to be a 4.5K word chapter, but I wasn’t happy with it and ended up rewriting all of it. This is why it’s a bit shorter than usual. Because of all the changes in this one I had to rewrite parts of the next chapter as well, but after that, chapter length will swing back to around 4K words again.))
San Francisco, USA – Monday, the 18th of June 2012. 11:32 AM.
The screams came from everywhere.
The crowd by the bridge erupted into a chorus of tens of thousands crying out in anguish. Even though he couldn’t see or feel the cause, the sound of the crowd chilled Radiant to the bone.
He stood at the edge of the dark brown roof, momentarily stunned by the sheer dreadfulness of the scene that unfolded before his eyes. None of his previous hero experience had prepared him for something like this, and the sensory impressions were too much to absorb.
He did understand without a shred of doubt that the Covenant’s definitions of power-induced disasters didn’t apply here. Threat level ten didn’t even begin to describe the magnitude of the effect he was seeing.
This is the end. Armageddon.
Radiant absently brought a hand to his chest, where it would have touched a small silver cross had he chosen to wear it today. But he hadn’t, so his fingers only brushed the smooth spandex of his costume.
Down below, a driver lost control of his sedan and crashed head-on into the wall of a fast food restaurant. The loud bang snapped Radiant out of his daze. As if someone had shaken him, thoughts fell into place.
Legion, he remembered. He’s here. I have to take him out.
Radiant sucked in a breath of air to clear his head. Part of him expected it to carry the scent of sulfur and damnation. Instead, he smelled the city, and the exhaust fumes and decomposing trash reminded him of where he was: on the flat roof of a closed middle school building, surrounded by insanity. He was one of two people who could maybe put an end to it.
“Mascot,” he said. “We have to find…”
He glanced to where she’d stood moments ago, and the sight of her knocked the words out of him. She had curled up in a fetal position, seemingly unhurt, but fighting a battle of her own. Her face was scrunched up in a grimace of pain. Her eyes were closed, and her breath came in short, ragged puffs.
He realized that the two of them were the only people in this part of the city who weren’t screaming.
She’s protecting me.
Radiant reached out to touch her shoulder, but the near invisible barrier of her forcefield blocked him off.
“Mascot,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the screams. “Christina. Are you hurt? Can you hear me?”
For a couple of seconds, it seemed as if he was on his own. Then one of her eyes cracked open. “Don’t move… until… I… say,” she rasped, the words barely intelligible. “Don’t… lose… the…” she broke off, convulsing in pain.
“The forcefield?” he asked gently, wishing he could offer some kind of comfort to ease her pain.
This time, Radiant got no response. The sight of her, all curled up and hugging herself, made him clench his own teeth. He gave her a few seconds to deal with what he assumed was a mental assault by Legion. When she seemed to relax, he tried a different question that seemed even more important.
“If we bring the others in, would you be able to protect them?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she gasped. “Wait.”
Her other eye opened, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes focused on something above and beyond him, and this time, he didn’t need to ask. The flash of fear on her face was answer enough.
As he turned to face the source of the terror, the screams stopped as abruptly as they had begun. The silence that followed was absolute; not even the distant choppers made any sound. When Radiant spotted the source of the terror, his gasp of surprise seemed as loud as his thundering heartbeat.
After Mascot’s report on her encounter with Legion up in Canada, Radiant had expected some kind of monster. Instead he saw a little boy, no older than four or five and dressed in a dirty white shirt and dark green pants that seemed slightly too large for his size. If it wasn’t for the fact that he kept himself suspended in midair like Gravity Girl had, Radiant might have mistaken him for a victim.
A child? It can’t be.
The boy was looking down at him with a face that betrayed no emotion. He was a cute child, with large brown eyes and black hair that tumbled to his chin in soft waves. Radiant found himself staring at the boy. There was something strangely compelling about him, though Radiant suspected the effect would have been much stronger without the forcefield’s protection. The energy he had stored up in his right hand began to ebb away.
Monster or not, he couldn’t kill a child. Especially not without proof of identity.
“Legion?” he asked, unable to come up with a more coherent question.
The child didn’t respond. His eyes drifted shut, and his nostrils flared as air was sucked through them. He was, as far as Radiant could tell, sniffing the wind.
Or maybe he was sniffing him.
Radiant charged up his power again, but just as the tingle of energy reached critical levels, the boy spoke up. Except he didn’t speak alone – he had a few dozen voices with a variety of accents, both male and female.
“Some say you are God’s angel,” the voices said in discordant union. “But I know who you are.”
The sound of movement drew Radiant’s attention to Mascot. She was pushing to her feet, visibly revitalized now that the screaming had stopped. “Let him talk,” she said with a blank expression. “It’s not like he can hurt us.” She blinked once at Radiant and he could see that she was unfurling the fingers of a closed fist behind her back, one by one.
A countdown? Radiant glanced back to the eerily childlike monster who was hovering a few meters ahead of him. The boy watched him with curious, unblinking eyes, waiting for a response. Nothing about his demeanor suggested an impending attack, but the echo of ten thousand screams still echoed in Radiant’s skull. This was no child.
“Tell me, then. Who am I?” Radiant asked, hoping to keep the creature distracted from his built-up energy and Mascot’s obscure attempts at sign language.
The monstrous little boy’s face lit up with a knowing smile. “You are the lost guide,” the chorus of voices said. “No one remembers, but I do.”
He’s insane. Radiant’s fingers twitched with barely contained energy, eager to release the strongest laser he was capable of, but something held him back. Mascot was trying to tell him something important that she had kept hidden from Legion. He had to figure out what it was.
She was watching him sidelong, repeating the same gesture behind her back: two fingers, then three, then four.
Not a countdown, he concluded. As he was looking at her, it dawned on him that the two fingers referred to the two of them. A couple of minutes before, she’d told him not to bring the others in yet. He couldn’t tell which of the other heroes she was referring to, but if it was now safe to bring them in, it couldn’t hurt to send the signal to all of them.
“Why are you here?” Radiant asked as his eyes swiveled back to Legion. “You were gone. Keeping out of the cities.”
“I’m not weak anymore,” the chorus of voices chimed with childlike enthusiasm. “I joined with the False King and his court. Now I can look for Eden everywhere, just like you are.”
He’s searching for some kind of Paradise? What the hell?
“Eden is here? In San Francisco?” Radiant replied, feigning interest to distract the creature while he fiddled with the armband’s controls. He couldn’t unmute the other heroes without the risk of tipping Legion off, but he could send a simple position signal as a rally request.
Mascot flicked him a thumbs up behind her back, then let her hands drop to her sides. Her eyes weren’t set on Legion. She balanced on the edge of the roof with an athlete’s confidence, scanning the road below.
Legion didn’t seem to notice. The small boy drifted through the air towards Radiant, his hair ruffled by a soundless gust of wind. It was the only proof that the world hadn’t come to a complete standstill around him.
Radiant swallowed the unease that was clogging his throat. He stood his ground as the creature stopped at eye level in front of him, nearly within touching distance.
“You know she isn’t here,” the voices said in unison. “You’re hoping she will come to you, but I’ll find her first. We’re going to be united. It’s our destiny.”
She? Radiant was puzzled for a second, then everything fell into place, and his insides clenched into a tight knot. Gentleman had told him what Legion was after.
“You understand now,” the voices enthused. The boy’s face lit up in response to something he’d seen in Radiant’s expression. “Join me. We’ll find her together.”
The boy extended his small hand in an inviting gesture, smiling an eerily innocent smile. Radiant saw that there was a large, oddly shaped birthmark at the center of his palm. The forcefield emitted an angry hum in response to the gesture, and the boy’s smile gradually slipped until only a slight frown remained. His small head snapped around to face Mascot.
“It shouldn’t be this strong,” the voices complained. “Why do you like him?”
“I guess I have a thing for underdogs,” she said without a flicker of emotion on her face.
The compliment, if it was meant as such, wasn’t exactly flattering. Radiant suppressed his heroic ego and used the momentary distraction to locate his backup. He could see Checkmate wink into existence on the road below, less than ten meters from his own position. He was alone. After a glance up at the roof, his eyes went wide, and he disappeared again.
Bring the others, Radiant silently urged him. Hurry up.
Legion’s nostrils flared, and his little boy eyes narrowed with an adult’s suspicion. He couldn’t have spotted the Teleporter’s brief appearance, but if he really did smell the presence of others, Radiant couldn’t risk losing the advantage of surprise.
“Legion,” he said, his voice loud and clear. “If you’re after her, what about the people in the city? Why did they have to suffer?”
After one final sniff in the direction of the road, Legion’s head turned back around to face Radiant. He had narrowed his eyes to thin slits, and his small face was screwed up in a grimace of fury. The shift in composure made it easier to see him as what he truly was: a monster in a child’s body.
“That isn’t my name,” the voices hissed. “It’s Penance. And Union. The First. I’m all of them.”
The real Antithesis? Radiant filed the thought away for later consideration.
“Alright,” he replied with his best attempt at an apologetic tone. “Penance then. Why do you cause pain to others?”
“I introduced myself,” the boy replied sullenly.” I just let them know who I was, so they would understand.”
“Everything,” the voices hissed. “I’m the only one who knows. Join me. Learn the truth.”
“Radiant,” Mascot said sharply. “Now.”
Legion’s head snapped down to the road, where Checkmate had just appeared with Noire. The teleporter vanished a scant second before a sudden shift in gravity hurled a parked Dodge van against her.
On cue, Radiant discharged the energy he’d been holding on to. The red laser beam that shot from his hand was hot as hellfire and nearly as thick as his arm. It vaporized Legion’s head and torso instantly. What remained of the small body crashed onto the road a couple of meters from Noire as a burning, sizzling mass of flesh.
Noire jumped back with a startled yelp. The flying van crashed into her with such force that the impact sheared it in half. The front end was hurled into a shop window, showering Noire with a flurry of broken glass. For a fraction of a second, the small forcefield sphere was visible around her, flickering beneath the strain of numerous impacts.
But it held. The young heroine stood within the layer of debris that now covered the road, visibly shaken but unharmed. Her wide dark eyes flicked up to Mascot on the roof.
“Chris? Is that you?” she called out, her voice quivering. “What…”
“Nora, GET BACK!” Mascot yelled.
Noire heeded the warning and scrambled away from the broken car before the burning mass of flesh exploded outward, growing both in size and sheer mass. Not even a remotely humanoid shape was recognizable where the boy’s body had been. Instead, Radiant found himself looking down at a shapeless, pulsing growth of greyish flesh that couldn’t seem to settle on a single identity. He watched in stunned horror as faces appeared and vanished. Limb-like extensions grew only to be reabsorbed, and dozens of mouths screamed their wordless rage at the surrounding city. It was the most horrifying sound he had ever heard.
I didn’t kill him.
As he was looking at the greyish mass, Radiant found a twisted kind of logic in his memory of Legion’s earliest victims. Morpher and Newal, he thought. Rapid healing, numerous mutations. Overall growth in body mass. He couldn’t muster any sympathy for the monster, but he could see what the acquisition of their powers had done to the self-proclaimed Union. He could change shapes, obviously, but now he didn’t seem to care about making a good impression anymore.
A glimpse of movement drew his attention to Checkmate, who delivered another teenager – Overdrive – onto the flat roof before vanishing.
“Stay back!” Radiant shouted as he aimed another laser at the twisting mass of flesh. The surgically thin beam that shot from each of his fingers severed a long, limb-like tendril from Legion’s main body. It was immediately replaced by another twitching length of greyish tissue. A change in the pitch of screams was the only indication that any damage had been done.
Down below, Noire whirled around to face Legion. A long-limbed humanoid shadow detached itself from her, surging forward with incredible speed. Faster than the eye could follow, it sliced through the hunk of scrap metal that was blocking the road.
Legion launched himself off the ground with his newly acquired gravity powers. The shadow was faster. When it reached the bulk of Legion’s body, a good third of the greyish mass exploded in a cloud of blood and fleshy bits that sprayed across the walls of nearby buildings.
Legion’s many-voiced screech was deafening. The air reverberated with the echo, and several glass windows were shattered by the sonic assault. As he lifted himself upward with a gravitational surge, two of the tentacle-like limbs whipped through the air in blind rage and slammed against the nearest building, tearing down a section of roof. Another slammed into Overdrive. The teenage hero’s forcefield absorbed the impact with a low buzz of strained energy.
A surge of movement stirred the air. A man-sized projectile launched off the roof and crashed into Legion. The shapeless mass of flesh was pushed a short distance down by the impact, and a fresh haze of blood sprayed across the road and Legion himself. The bloody spray continued for a couple of seconds before another flash of movement carried the projectile down to the road, where it collapsed. Except wasn’t a projectile; it was a person.
It took Radiant a couple of seconds to realize who he was looking at: Mascot, coated in Legion’s blood from head to toe. Radiant stared at her in startled disbelief while his mind made sense of the blur he’d seen. She must have punched the villain with forcefield-coated fists, over and over again, until strength left her.
Still, it hadn’t done much to slow Legion. His massive body continued to rise upward, faster than before.
Radiant could feel his thoughts beginning to fray in the chaos. He closed his eyes for a second, then reopened them to take in the facts, one by one.
Next to him, Overdrive said something that was lost in the deafening cacophony of noise. Down below, Rune and Checkmate winked into existence and quickly approached the sprawled form of Mascot. They were too late to make a difference in this fight. Radiant doubted that even Rune’s supply of Power Zero would have an impact on someone of Legion’s size and regenerative powers. Not even Noire’s shadow could reach Legion now.
Legion rose to a height of five meters. Then ten. Despite enduring the barrage of lasers Radiant shot from both hands, it didn’t take Legion more than a few seconds to stop bleeding. The wounds closed with frightening speed. The fresh tissue that replaced what had been lost added considerably to Legion’s overall body mass. By the time Legion hung twenty meters above them, his body had grown so large that it cast a shadow over the entire middle school building.
“I AM THE FIRST, A GOD AMONG YOU!” Legion’s voices boomed with a thunder that carried across the water. Radiant didn’t doubt they could be heard in most of San Francisco.
Then Alameda Island began screaming again, and Radiant realized with startling clarity that here and today, the most bodily damage he’d ever seen done in a powered conflict wasn’t enough. Two of the choppers who had been hovering by the edge of the water flew closer, and Radiant could see them swerve as they entered Legion’s aura. One crashed into the top of a tall building and exploded in a bright red fireball, the other managed to land a few shots on Legion’s exuberantly growing body before it spun out of control.
If there is a god, give me strength, Radiant prayed as he charged up one more time.
He looked up just in time to see two humanoid shapes drop from the sky.