Paris, France – Friday, the 22nd of June 2012. 06:13 PM.
The attack plan was simple enough: everyone was going to do what they did best.
Snow’s power negating abilities put her at the forefront of the mission. She was going to keep the villains in line and neutralize any persistent power effects that were active in their base. Patrick would act as an early warning system, and Emily had agreed to help with the interrogation.
Sarina didn’t feel comfortable about bringing Emily into the fight, but she couldn’t risk leaving her behind either. Patrick’s cloaking power obviously hadn’t protected Emily from Vautour. As far as Sarina knew, the whole city was packed with Evolved whose identities were still largely unclear, and the nine year old Empath didn’t have the means to protect herself.
I won’t let anything happen to you, Sarina thought as she looked down at the soaked, shivering girl. Unlike Patrick, Emily hadn’t complained about the bad weather conditions or the lack of relaxation time. Not even once. If she was still concerned for her friend Chris, she didn’t show it. She faced the rain and the villain base with a stoic expression, her auburn hair tucked away beneath the cat-eared cap that was keeping her face dry.
Back in the Café, Sarina had discovered that she could remove excess water from clothes with a simple wish. Unfortunately, she hadn’t had the time to figure out how she’d protect her teammates from getting wet all over again.
“Looks like most of those guys have withdrawn inside,” Patrick observed. He was crouching near the edge of the roof that served as their temporary vantage point, eyes narrowed at the haze of rain that hung between him and the mall on the other side of the road.
“I know,” Sarina said. “I located them through my life sense. Apart from the two guys on the roof, everyone is inside.”
“Can you see the two villains?” Patrick asked.
“Yes,” Sarina said. “They’re in the same room as everyone else. Talking, I guess.”
She abandoned the visual lure of her life sense to focus on the building’s mundane appearance. It a modern five-story building with ornate sandstone columns, tall arching windows and a hemispheric, partially walkable glass and steel roof. Based on the layout she’d studied through her powers, she assumed that the enemy group was gathered in a windowless room in the middle of the first floor.
“I believe they’re in some kind of lounge or rendezvous point on the first floor,” she said. “The place has no windows, but it’s surrounded by other rooms that have them. Department stores, I believe.”
“Should be pretty easy to keep everyone contained,” Patrick replied. “Assuming you can convince the two henchmen to step off the roof.” He drawled the word in a way that implied it was supposed to be funny. No one grinned. Not even Patrick himself.
Keeping the gang contained was the second part of the plan. If anyone escaped, they would most likely alert other locals. And if they escaped after seeing a demonstration of Sarina’s powers, word would spread like a wildfire. The last thing they needed was for the Covenant to show up and turn Paris into a warzone yet again.
Right now, the city’s stillness was eerie. With the exception of a stray dog and a gang of looters, the streets were devoid of life, depopulated by the shadow of fear that hung over everything.
That shadow was real, and it had a name: Incubus. The Darkshaper whose powers refused to stay dead.
“We’re not too far from Incubus’s base,” Sarina said, gazing to the northeast. “It must be somewhere over there.”
Over there the crisscrossing street network turned into narrow lanes and alleys, marking a district where no modern architecture mingled with Passy’s distinctive 19th century buildings. Many of the houses there were sizeable manors with fenced off courtyards. She couldn’t tell which one of them belonged to the Sun King, but she was certain that if she got the opportunity to walk those alleys, she’d recognize it from up close.
“That’s a distance of what, a couple hundred meters?” Patrick asked.
“About that,” Sarina said. “Decently far, but if our targets somehow manage to call for backup, it probably won’t be far enough. We already know that the two groups deal with one another.”
“We can’t let them call for backup, then,” Patrick concluded. “We have to go in fast and furious.”
“Can you listen to Incubus from here?” Emily asked, shooting Patrick a hopeful glance from beneath the bill of her cat-eared cap.
He shook his head. “Maybe if we get closer to his base. I hear a lot of people from up here. Most of it is French gibberish, and I can’t tell who’s who. The guys in there are talking French, too.” He indicated the mall with a jerk of his chin. “I don’t understand a word of what they’re saying.”
Snow stepped up to his side. The impossibly dry layers of her white dress were stirred by the wind as she moved, and she gazed in the same direction he did, saying nothing.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about,” Sarina said. “We’ll deal with them, figure out how to free all those people they kidnapped, then figure out what they know.”
Thinking back to all those pale, near-extinguished life lights she’d spotted inside the villain base stoked Sarina’s anger. She could easily pinpoint the Collector and Vautour’s distinctive glow among the powerless men who were with them, but the woman and child who had been herded into the base only minutes ago were gone. Or perhaps they were still there, hidden among the other human objects that appeared neither dead nor alive.
I wasn’t too late, was I? She asked herself, blinking back the rain that assaulted her face. Damn it.
She delved deeply into the building’s semitransparent layers with her life sense, giving herself another chance to spot any prisoners or hostages. But all she could see were more of the same faintly glowing object arrangements that were scattered all across the first floor. There were a lot of them. More than fifty, she assumed.
“Looks like we don’t have to worry about startling any innocents,” she grudgingly told the others. “All I can see are the Collector’s victims, and I don’t think they’re aware of anything. Snow will take care of them as soon as it’s safe. Are you guys ready?”
“Ready,” Snow informed her.
“Sure,” Patrick said.
“I’m ready too,” Emily said in a tiny, colorless voice, trying too hard not to sound like an anxious child.
Sarina curled an arm about Emily’s shoulders and pulled her close. The girl was alarmingly cold to the touch, wet and shivering. “Hey. You know we’re badass. We can do this,” Sarina told her. “And afterward, we get dry and warm while we figure out how to help Jasper and your friend. Does that sound good to you?”
Emily nodded, but her attention was on the building that was across the street. The early evening gloom shrouded it in an ominous atmosphere, reinforced by the lack of visible illumination. All of its windows were dark and blind.
“I know,” Emily said quietly. “But that bird-man is really creepy, and I don’t want him to scream at you again.”
That makes two of us, then.
Sarina turned to Patrick without releasing her grip on the girl. “Do you think you could silence Vautour before we go in there?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “But I bet you could.”
Could I alter soundwaves? The idea seemed ridiculous at first, but as Sarina turned it over in her head, it became more and more plausible.
“Just think about it. You messed with gravity when you were just floating in midair,” Patrick pointed out. “Gravity is much more complex than sound is. Trust me, I know.”
“It didn’t feel complex at all,” Sarina replied. “I just had to avoid that drone swarm, and I was sick of following the rules.”
I walked on air because I wanted to, she mused. I did a perfect dance on stage because I wanted to. I turned a city to glass because I wanted Gentleman to understand that he can’t hide from me.
“I’m going to try something,” Sarina said to Emily. She released the girl, then took the three steps to the edge of the roof, where Patrick and Snow were standing.
She thought back to the day she’d defied gravity, to what she’d felt while keeping herself rooted in midair, to the understanding that reality was malleable and submitted to her will. She remembered the overpowering rush of power that had flowed through her when she allowed it to. A tiny, scared voice in the back of her mind insisted that her power was too dangerous to unleash its full potential on a whim, but she squashed it.
Sarina took another step that took her over the edge of the roof, then kept going, permeating the fabric of reality with every step. She accepted the potential of her power and took it all in, sucking herself full until the air itself seemed to hum with a sense of divine superiority that was immensely satisfying. She was the change.
She was the only rule.
Given all of the potential that was around her, silence wasn’t the first adjustment she wanted to make.
No way out, she commanded. A pulse went through the mall’s outer façade, and the material trembled and shifted, sealing the edges of all doors and windows. Glass hardened to unbreakable levels. Door hinges warped, then solidified and became rigid.
Behind her, Emily said something, but Sarina was too caught up in the pull of her power to pay attention. She stopped walking when she was almost directly above the road, settling her eyes on the two men who were up on the roof. Neither one noticed her. One was fussing with his rifle, the other crouched near the edge of the roof to observe the surrounding alleys.
The command set off another ripple of change that yanked the men’s rifles from their hands and hurled them to different locations, several roads away.
One of the men gave a startled yelp and stared down at his hands in disbelief. The other looked up, alarmed by his partner’s voice. Sarina didn’t give him the chance to figure out what was going on.
As Patrick had suspected, the absence of sound was a simple thing. It didn’t even require any adjustments to reality. All it took was to deny the existence of sounds apart from the ones that were already present: the steady pattering of the rain and the distant rumble of thunder. Both men moved their lips with a frantic flurry of words that remained unheard.
Sarina watched them with a flare of satisfaction, but was soon distracted by the flow of potential that surged onward and pulled her along. Despite the immense amount of power she held, she couldn’t alter the flow of time. She only had one chance to do this right, and she had to act now.
Upon realizing that they couldn’t communicate, the two men jumped to their feet. One of them grasped the radio that was on his belt. Before he could snap it off, Sarina activated her life sense and grasped the man through her power, yanking him off the roof. She swiftly relocated him into the building, throwing him at the group that was already gathered on the first floor.
There was something very satisfying about the way he crashed into his scumbag friends. The whole group stirred in alarm as he hit the floor. Some of the men scrambled for the nearest cover, others drew guns at an unseen threat.
Before they could scatter, Sarina plucked the other lookout off the roof and shoved him back into reality directly above the first. When he dropped, Vautour’s purple-red life light flared with a new intensity that hinted at power use.
Every inch of space inside the building was infused with her power, and she commanded the absence of sound throughout the villain base. The sound-bending asshole wasn’t getting the drop on her this time. Sarina couldn’t see his face through her life sense, and she didn’t want to miss the moment he discovered the beauty of absolute silence.
“We’re going in!” she called out to her teammates.
Then, Sarina teleported herself to a section of open space that was behind and slightly above the Collector’s gang. From there, she had a fairly good overview of the area and could take in the details she hadn’t seen through her life sense.
As she’d suspected, the location was a rendezvous point of some sort. The smoothly polished floor was a blend of white and warm-orange stone, illuminated by a few dim, apricot-colored lamps that hung overhead. At the center of the area, a dozen cube shaped seats had been arranged in two parallel lines. A pair of dormant elevators was up ahead, presumably leading to the mall’s other stories.
A brief scan of the room revealed no prisoners. They had to be on the same floor, though Sarina wasn’t sure where exactly. She was going to find them, at any rate.
The Collector’s gang was still in disarray. One of the men who’d been yanked off the roof was just now scrambling to his feet, his broad face twisted with pain. Sarina’s other victim was still sprawled on the floor, squirming but not trying to get up.
Vautour – easily spotted by his ugly costume – had backed himself against a wall. He faced the room with his mouth hanging open, releasing a scream that failed to make any sound. Two of the men who were still on their feet scrambled for cover, running towards the open store entrances that encircled the lounge area.
The absence of sound was so absolute that it was surreal. The flurry of movement painted a picture of confusion and panic, but Sarina couldn’t hear any of it. It was kind of disappointing, really.
It took her a couple of seconds to spot the man she assumed to be the Collector. He wasn’t in costume, but his all red outfit with a buttoned silk shirt, wide silk pants and glossy nylon sneakers marked him as someone of status within the gang. He wasn’t acting the leader though. He cowered behind one of the seats, keeping his head low as if the knee-high cube provided cover from the Antithesis herself.
You think you can hide from me? Don’t be ridiculous.
Sarina grabbed him with her power. At the same time, she extended her reach to every man who’d been running for cover, and stacked them into a human pile at the center of the room. Judging by the way their limbs flailed, they were probably screaming. She detected an assortment of weapons on some of the men – guns, knives, taser and baton – and whisked them all away. Then, she shifted perception to her life vision and grabbed the thugs who’d been guarding the building entrances, adding them to the pile. Their weapons swiftly disappeared as well.
Only Vautour was still on his feet. He’d had the presence of mind to shut his mouth and stood with his back pressed to the wall, anxiously scanning the room through the eye holes of his bird mask. Unlike everyone else, he was completely rigid. Only the rise and fall of his chest indicated that he was still drawing breath.
Sarina considered adding him to the pile but discarded the idea. He was perfectly positioned to witness the helplessness of his companions, and she wanted him to understand just what she was capable of.
I am the only monster here. You guys are just a pathetic bunch of criminals.
Now that they were bruised, disoriented and struggling to stand, Sarina could see them for who they truly were – lowly opportunists who preyed on the weak to give themselves a sense of superiority. They weren’t going to stop until a bigger predator came along and scared them out of their wits.
Did they answer to Incubus? Sarina considered the possibility. If they did, then whatever they knew about her primary target could potentially simplify her primary mission.
At any rate, she appeared to have the situation under control. It was safe enough to bring her teammates in.
Sarina reached out with her senses to find her friends where she’d left them. First, she summoned Snow to a position to her left, then Patrick to her right. The both appeared with a look of alarm on their faces, but the sight of the helpless clutter of men relaxed them visibly.
Sarina brought in Emily last and positioned her slightly behind herself. Emily grasped Sarina’s wrist and held on to it while she surveyed the room.
Patrick’s lips moved silently, then his eyes grew wide, and he stopped. Sarina gave him a look and held up her index finger. He nodded. She put a finger to her lips, then pointed at the sprawled gang members. He nodded again.
Sarina had never felt the effect of Patrick’s power before, but now that her superhuman senses were so closely tuned in to the physical reality around her, she did. His power shifted and brushed against hers and made adjustments of its own. It connected to every person that was in the room, and many more that weren’t, muddling their perception.
The change only took a fraction of a second. When he was done, Sarina made an adjustment to the zone of silence she’d created, allowing her voice to be heard. “Don’t move if you want to live,” she hissed, assuming the most menacing tone she was capable of.
It was more convincing than she’d expected. There was a cold, hard edge to it that even surprised herself. It compelled Emily’s hand to tighten its grip about her wrist.
She couldn’t make the words echo from every corner of the room the way Patrick could, but they left an impression. The Collector froze, fear rippling across his face. He tried to speak, realized that he couldn’t, and pressed his mouth into a tight line. His men made not so subtle attempts to reach for weapons that were no longer there. They quickly realized that they had been disarmed and grew still.
Vautour glanced at Sarina. Not in her direction, but directly at her. His ability to pinpoint her exact position from a few words was more than just a little unnerving.
Without taking her eyes off him, Sarina turned to Snow and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’m going to end the silence and ask them some questions. You remember what we said about the guy with the bird mask?” she asked.
“Yes,” Snow whispered back. “I make him quiet. He have no power then.”
Vautour’s eyes flicked away from Sarina to settle on Snow instead. Even though most of his face was concealed by the plastic strip of his mask, Sarina detected a brief flash of something in his eyes. She couldn’t tell what it was, but it bothered her.
Did he understand what we said? According to Patrick, these guys had been speaking French. It wasn’t unthinkable that Vautour understood English, though.
I’ll have to keep a close eye on this one, Sarina decided.
She removed the zone of silence and was about to ask about the disappeared captives when Emily tugged on her wrist, drawing her attention.
“What is it?” Sarina asked quietly. All of the disarmed men were glancing in her general direction now – some with grim and hateful expressions – but she was pleased to note that they were following her instructions. No one dared to budge from their positions.
“They’re all here,” Emily said with a sad voice.
Sarina wasn’t following. “You mean the Collector’s gang? Yes, I brought all of them here so we can keep an eye on them. They can’t hurt us while we’re watching them,” she said.
“Not them,” Emily said. “The people they took. Look, they’re all here.” She pointed at one of the shop display windows that were all around them, her small face all scrunched up as if she was about to cry.
For the first time since she’d entered the building, Sarina gave the display windows more than a fleeting glance. She saw what Emily was seeing and faltered. The mannequins weren’t mannequins at all. They were real people, mostly young and female, only partly dressed and arranged into suggestive poses. Two half-dressed women had their arms around one another, brushing each other cheeks with rigid, lifeless lips. Another woman appeared to be doing a strip tease and was frozen in mid movement, eternally pulling her shirt over her head. A preteen girl with long braids was holding a basket of silk flowers, smiling a happy smile that was frozen onto her face. Her eyes weren’t happy, though. There was a haunted, utterly terrified look about them.
Sarina thought she had known what to expect, but the sight of those people still caught her off guard. She had expected paralyzed captives, not half-naked mannequins who were being flaunted for the amusement of men.
“What the fuck is going on here?” Sarina snapped. She made two steps towards the nearest shop window – a furniture department where a family of four was gathered to sip tea at a nice art nouveau table – then whirled around to face Patrick.
“Let them see me,” she told him.
“Uh, okay,” Patrick replied, eyeing her warily.
“Sarina!” Emily called out. “Incubus knows we’re in the city, and maybe Gentleman knows, too. I wanted to tell you before you went in, but you went so fast that I couldn’t.”