New York City, USA – Wednesday, the 27th of June 2012. 09:41 PM.
In order to become Chris, Emily first had to locate her target. Kasparov had told her that Wéifēng would be meditating in the yoga room located on the fourteenth floor, so after Emily’s ghostly form passed through the panorama window, she began her search for the Snake Squad’s only female member.
As predicted, the recreational center was remarkably devoid of life. The cafeteria was bathed in shadows, with only the empty mugs surrounding the coffee machine hinting at recent use. Rows upon rows of chairs were neatly lined up against the tables. Emily poked her head through the nearest wall to discover a small gym equipped with treadmills, stationary exercise bikes, and skipping ropes dangling from wall hooks.
Without Spirit’s powers, it would have been hard to make out details in the gloomy room, but the ghost vision she’d borrowed from him highlighted every edge, angle and surface in shades of black, gray and white. Her immaterialness also had the pleasant side effect of erasing the dull, persistent throb of her wounded arm. One of Prophet’s men had expertly dressed it before her short trip to San Francisco, but the painkillers dulled her mind, so she couldn’t take as many of them as she would have liked.
A tracksuit lay in a heap on the floor, abandoned by whoever had visited the gym last. Emily didn’t spot its owner, however. Nothing moved. After a thorough check of the lockers and the adjoining shower room, she decided to take advantage of the situation and prepare for battle before locating her target. The fear and doubts that had plagued her until a short while ago had made her forget all about the gun she was supposed to pick up. Now that she was wrapped in Spirit’s calm, level-headed personality, Emily returned to her physical form and opened the leftmost locker door to retrieve the gun one of the villains had deposited there.
She didn’t know who it belonged to. All she knew was that it was loaded with eight bullets, and that using it would give her an early advantage. If she could overcome the natural inhibitions that kept most people from ever committing a murder, the gun pretty much guaranteed at least one dead villain. Which meant slightly better odds for her friends to make it through the night.
Nothing would be guaranteed after that first shot, however. Guns were noisy things. Hell would break loose, and even if she succeeded in avoiding Legion’s attention for a minute or two, his remaining goons were going to make it difficult for her to escape unharmed.
At least King and the Wild Hunt aren’t here right now, Emily reminded herself as she followed Kasparov’s instructions to remove the gun safety. The Visionary had chosen this time window for her mission because Legion was currently half asleep and had sent most of his minions someplace far away. When she asked where they’d gone, and why, he didn’t respond.
She desperately hoped her friends were okay.
What she did know was that Dollet was somewhere in this building, hiding away in the little world she had created for herself. After a recent power surge, Dollet could now create flesh golems that could, and did, patrol the tower, acting as semi-autonomous agents much like Noire’s shadows did. Emily wasn’t afraid of them or their mistress, though. Not while she had access to Calavera’s powers.
For now, though, her mind was on Wéifēng. Having a good idea of where she would find the yoga room and her target, Emily gripped the gun and switched to Chris’s powerset. She didn’t have the time to hesitate. Every second she wasted increased the chances of drawing Legion’s attention. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t be able to take the gun with her if she changed back to ghost form, so she had to carry it while moving quickly and quietly.
The door to the gym wasn’t locked. Emily pushed it open and crossed the cafeteria with swift strides, immersing herself deeper and deeper in Chris’s world as she went. It took four or five seconds for her friend’s fearless determination to fill her up completely. The fearful, unsure nine year old girl inside her eroded away, banished by Chris’s fearlessness and by the need to do something she didn’t have the heart for. Because the villainess on the other side of that white door was barely eighteen and had no control over her actions. Like most of Legion’s minions, she was a puppet on strings.
Before reaching for the door handle, Chris triggered her hyperspeed, curious to see just how strong an effect King’s law of inertia had on her power. She felt as if the air of the cafeteria was made of molasses. As she moved her hand in front of her face, the flow of time felt… warped, somehow. Like someone was telling the world to speed up while she commanded it to slow down. She still got an impression of speeding up, but the effect was greatly diminished.
Gun in hand, Chris quietly pushed the door open to see the slender, Chinese woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, head bowed and eyes closed. Her long black hair was done up in in a small bun on top of her head, with a few stray wisps framing her pale, delicately featured face. Judging by her relaxed expression, she was so deep in meditation that she never saw the intruder coming.
Sorry, was Chris’s only thought as she aligned the gun and pulled the trigger. She knew exactly how to hold it and how to deal with the recoil. Still, the kinetic energy released by the shot sent a surge of pain through her arm and shoulder and threw off her aim. Fortunately, she didn’t need to take another shot. Her target was knocked back by the force of the shot, black hair whipping through the air before it hit the ground within a splash of red. The young woman’s mouth fell open in a silent gasp of surprise.
It was almost too easy. Just like that, with the pull of a trigger, Legion had one less minion at his disposal. And the remaining Snake Squad had lost their ability to swap positions on the fly. Chris stared down at the body with a blank face and mind, her hand that clenched the gun sinking downward to rest beside her thigh. A tiny, frightened voice came from the edge of her consciousness and told her she had to change. Not her clothes, though. Something different and far more important.
Trusting the voice, she allowed the change to happen, fading away to make room for someone else. Calavera emerged in her stead. Unlike Chris, the Mexican hero struggled to contain his emotions, shocked and dismayed by the canvas of violence that had been painted before his eyes. He made the sign of the cross before lowering himself to his knees. But Calavera remembered what he had to do. Under different circumstances, he would have refused the thought of animating a human body with all his heart, but the heart beating inside his chest belonged to someone else.
“No fue mi culpa,” he muttered as he reached within himself and activated his power, fingers trembling against the dead woman’s leg. “No la maté.”
His power was a raging storm, barely contained by a pacifist mindset that failed to withstand the reality he was now facing. It spilled out of him and into the still-warm body he was touching. This feels like an Empath connection, he thought in surprisingly fluent English, puzzled by the realization and his sudden understanding of how to strengthen and manipulate said connection. It’s like convincing someone that I’m right and they’re wrong. She’s my friend now. She remembers how to be someone’s friend and what she can do to protect them.
The dead woman’s eyes rolled back into her head. She sat up slowly, remembering how to move, and looked at her new ally without seeing him. The meticulously styled knot of her hair was now in disarray and splotched with sticky redness. A trickle of blood ran from the ghastly hole within her forehead, and the blood flowing from the exit wound left a body-shaped outline on the floor as she rose to her knees.
“Santísima Madre de Dios,” Calavera had the time to whisper before an athletic Asian man appeared out of nowhere on the other side of the room. The newcomer’s squat form flickered as it manifested in mid-stride, stepping out of a shadowy mirror image of itself, a few steps behind the dead woman who was now struggling to her feet.
Calavera immediately tagged the man as Liàoyà, the Snake Squad’s prime assassin responsible for their shared shadow walk and empowered martial arts abilities. He looked both stronger and older than Wéifēng had been; well-toned, with a faint pattern of crow’s feet surrounding his narrow eyes. Calavera instinctively fell one step back and took position within the doorframe, yanking up the gun in anticipation of an attack.
No attack came, however. Standing at the exact position where he had appeared, Liàoyà sized up his bloodied teammate with a stony expression and barked three sharp words in Chinese.
The young woman didn’t as much as glance in his direction. Her ghastly white eyes were locked onto Calavera, transfixing him with a penetrating stare.
The gun – a small, .25 caliber model – felt strangely heavy and unwieldy in the Mexican hero’s hands. But he knew how to handle it. He had dutifully attended the mandatory shooting lessons that came with being a Latin American hero, though he had never felt comfortable wielding a deadly weapon . Now his hands felt too small and not as strong as they should be. Liàoyà launched into motion in an instant. His fist flew up, too fast to track, prompting Calavera to pull the gun’s trigger in reflex. But the shot went wide and the recoil was stronger than expected, throwing him off balance.
At the same time, the dead woman unfurled her limbs in a blur of motion nearly imperceptible to the human eye. One instant she stood there, placid and seemingly stupefied; the next she swept to the right, intercepting her former teammate with a fluid movement that threw him off to the side. As a martial arts expert, Liàoyà should have been able to evade it if he saw it coming, but the attack seemed to catch him off guard. The look on his face as he scrambled to his feet told Calavera as much. The man clearly didn’t understand what was going on, but he had to realize that he and his female partner no longer fought the same battle. From where he was now standing, Liàoyà got the full view of her head wound and the white of her dead eyes staring back at him.
While the two of them were transfixed, Calavera tightened his grip on the gun and raised it for another shot. But he never got the chance to pull the trigger. Before he could steady his aim, another figure – male, Asian, younger and taller than the first – materialized in the shadows of the yoga room. Like Liàoyà, he stepped out of nowhere, but unlike Liaoya, this villain didn’t hesitate. He launched himself forward with superhuman speed, ignoring the others who were now engaged in a battle of martial arts.
Calavera reacted on instinct and retreated through the door, slamming it shut behind himself. The same instinct told him to reach out with his powers, extend them as far as he could, and call the deadwood to him. The wooden furniture of the tower, bound in place by the Outlaw King’s will, resisted him. But the close-by vegetation of Central Park responded.
For the blink of an eye, time seemed to stand still. The Mexican hero saw events unfold in his mind’s eye with startling clarity before they happened all at once. The door he had closed an instant before broke off at the hinges and came flying toward him. The windows shattered, sending shards of glass careening through the previously still cafeteria air. Wooden branches of different sizes and shapes broke through, shooting through the room as if pulled toward Calavera by invisible strings. Yǔmáo – the Snake Squad’s third member – broke through the doorway, his young face twisted into a hateful scowl.
Calavera assembled the mental command as he staggered back in reflex. The wooden branches he had summoned flew into the space he had occupied an instant before, creaking and twisting as they strained to fulfill their purpose. An annoying little voice from the edge of his consciousness screamed at him to go for the kill while he had the opportunity, but he couldn’t bring himself to betray the pacifist mindset that had guided him for most of his life, especially not while he acted on instinct, without a moment to think his actions through.
The wooden shield was completed in seconds. It hovered inches from the doorway, seven feet wide and twice as tall, and blocked Yǔmáo’s path of attack as well as Calavera’s line of sight. The Mexican hero knew from experience that the barrier was haphazardly constructed and wouldn’t survive more than one to five superpowered attacks. He understood, without remembering the details of why, that he had to change and head elsewhere in the tower. Find a different target. He didn’t have the time for a war of attrition.
Everything will be over if the dragon wakes.
Calavera cowered behind the shield to go deep within himself and pass the torch – and responsibility for the mission – to the heroine best suited for this task. On some subconscious level, he registered how the wooden barrier shook and trembled under the onslaught of Yǔmáo’s attacks. He couldn’t tell how the other two combatants were faring. The instant his personality was replaced by another, the connection between himself and the dead woman broke.
Chris was startled to awareness by the sound of bursting wood filling her ears, and immediately afterward, was hurtled backward hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs. She instinctively rolled in midair and landed on her hands and knees. Something whirled over her with a speed and force that flattened the hairs on her head. She rolled to the side again, blanking out the pain that shot through her right arm, and commanded her body to speed up.
Her power didn’t respond the way she was accustomed to, and it took her a second to remember why. King’s Law. She moved faster than human, but compared to how fast she should have been, Chris felt sluggish and lethargic. She swiveled to locate Yǔmáo. The Chinese villain had landed on his feet only a short distance from her. He fluidly straightened to his full height, splinters and broken twigs falling away from him in half slow motion. Behind him, the huge panorama windows were whole again. The Outlaw King’s law of stability didn’t allow them to remain broken.
His murderous intent hit her like chilly wave. Sounds of battle drifted through the yoga room’s broken doorway, slightly warped by the effects of her power. It sounded as if the two villains in there – the living and the dead – were still going at it relentlessly.
In the instant before Yǔmáo corrected his stance and came charging at her, Chris determined she still had a good chance to take another villain down. Even though she didn’t remember dropping it, the gun that killed Wéifēng now lay on the floor inches from the yoga room. She propelled herself forward, taking advantage of her speed to grab the gun and dive beneath the kick that was coming from behind. Her danger sense alerted her of her attacker’s next move. Gun in hand, Chris sidestepped and came around the villain in a half circle, putting her finger on the trigger at the same time as Yǔmáo accelerated to catch up with her. She beat him by a split second. But her aim was off, and the shot tore through his shoulder instead of his heart, throwing him backward. He crashed into a coffee table and fell to the floor. She didn’t come away unscathed, however. The recoil set every nerve ending in her arm afire and nearly caused her to lose control of the gun.
Teeth clenched against the pain, she was about to take another shot when her danger sense sparked at full alarm, filling her with an overpowering urge to run. Something stirred overhead, not a physical movement but a quickening of Legion’s malicious awareness. It wasn’t looking her way just yet. But it was about to cast its senses wide, and she inherently understood that the only way to evade it was to put distance between herself and the villain trio.
So instead of firing another shot, she listened to her instincts and ran, gun clenched in her clammy right hand. A groan came from behind, followed by loud, clipped words in Mandarin. Proficient in Chinese since her childhood days, Chris could tell that Liàoyà was asking for backup. These guys weren’t accustomed to drawn-out battles in close quarters and actually getting hurt. They had no experience fighting animated corpses that didn’t feel pain or fatigue. Under normal circumstances, the Snake Squad would have struck first and ended the fight in seconds, which was exactly what they had been doing up until now.
As she reached the door leading from the cafeteria and yanked it open, Chris mentally zeroed in on her next and final target: Dollet. The Russian villainess was too dangerous to be left alive. Her meat puppets, hidden in unknown locations all over the world, allowed Cipher to project his darkness through them, effectively granting him the ability to teleport Legion and the Wild Hunt to any location with a puppet in it. Possibly even the vicinity of New Orleans.
On the other side of the cafeteria door was an empty, elevator lobby with polished walls, dimmed glass ceiling lights and a fitted carpet whose color reminded Chris of dried blood. She could tell at a glance that the elevators were powered on, but she couldn’t use them. Someone she trusted – his name had slipped her mind somehow – had instructed her to use the fire exit stairs and run as fast as she could. Her danger sense kept tingling, but the threat vibes she received through it came from the entirety of this damn tower. They didn’t suggest any significant danger in the fire escape stairwell.
Not bothering to close the cafeteria door behind her, Chris rushed onward through the lobby, past the pair of brass elevator doors and to a small, unobtrusive door marked “fire exit and emergency only.” It wasn’t locked. She half pushed, half kicked it open and ran up the flight of stairs, taking them two at a time.
There was something wrong with her body. During her brief battle with Yǔmáo, her attention had been consumed by the struggle to stay alive, but now that she was alone, the feeling of wrongness assaulted her with every step and every gasping breath. Chris wasn’t as physically fit as she should have been. Her hand on the metal railing looked far too diminutive to belong to an athletic girl in her late teens, and her sneakers were very small and very pink, a color she despised. Something told her she shouldn’t go up against any more villains in hand to hand combat.
Fortunately, she still had the gun. Chris wasn’t sure how many bullets were left in it, but with any luck, she only needed one. Dollet had no combat abilities and didn’t pose much of a threat at close range.
As Chris ascended, the look of the tower began to change. The differences were subtle at first – brighter lights and an almost monochrome whiteness of the walls and floors – but became startlingly apparent at the twentieth story. From that point onward, the stairway was so twisted and convoluted that climbing it took twice as long. The twenty-third floor, the entirety of which had been claimed by Dollet, broke the pattern of pristine whiteness with its fleshy pinkish tint. Bits and pieces of raw, bloodied flesh stuck to the walls and the fire exit leading to the twenty-fourth floor. From the door itself, three pairs of disembodied yellow eyes watched Chris as she ran up the last set of stairs, panting for breath.
She estimated that a half minute had passed since she left the cafeteria. Her danger sense was on full alert now, the danger from above imminent enough to raise the hairs on the back of her neck. But no visions of her demise flashed through her mind’s eye; she still had time to finish the job.
Or so she hoped.
The door’s handle was entirely covered by a bulbous growth of blood-streaked, stringy meat, making her wish she could coat herself in a forcefield to avoid touching it. But when she tried to create a forcefield, her power didn’t respond. Left with no other option, she grabbed the cold, squishy mass and ripped it off the handle, shuddering with disgust.
She turned the handle while kicking the door. It swung open in half slow motion, revealing a hallway so covered with blood, amorphous flesh, and mucus it might as well have been a passage to another world. In a sense, it was. Legion’s waking dream of a new world, coupled with Dollet’s efforts to disperse her work materials across a large area, had warped what was once a workspace for hundreds of business employees.
After taking a deep breath, Chris rushed through the doorway, into what had once been this floor’s elevator lobby. The carpet of flesh clung to her shoes and her running steps were accompanied by wet, squishy sounds. On the walls, the overgrowth was dense enough to turn any attempt at locating the doors into a challenge.
She instinctively remembered the directions she’d received, though she couldn’t remember when she received them or who had given them to her. Turn left. Run twelve steps, turn left again. Push. She’ll be on the other side if you get there fast enough. Failing to recall a reason why she shouldn’t trust the memory of the unknown man’s voice, Chris scanned the wall of flesh for another doorknob and found it to her right. The door was locked. It refused to budge even as she kicked it, which hurt more than it should have. Her eerily small foot, now covered in blood from wading through the flesh carpet, barely made a dent in the tumor-like growth of flesh that was in front of her.
It shouldn’t be locked. The thought flared defiantly, fueled by frustration at her own ineptness. No one said it would be locked.
It’s okay, a girl that wasn’t Chris thought back at her. I know a way. You can give me my body back now.
And with that, Chris’s personality faded away. It barely took a second for Dancer to take over. The Healer filled the guest space inside of Emily’s mind willingly and easily, knowing exactly what she had to do: her usual solution to situations like this one. Dancer allowed herself a brief moment to create a mental map of the floor through her life sense, pinpointed the target, and teleported straight to the villainess’ location.
Dancer popped into existence inside a room as ghastly and blood-red as the elevator lobby had been, but larger, round, and over twenty-five feet in diameter. It must once have been an open plan office; the outlines of various cubicles were still visible beneath the thick, amorphous masses of flesh. At the center of the room was a reception desk, and behind it, a small blond woman was cowering. She crouched on the side of the desk that faced away from the door leading to the elevator lobby. Two reddish-grey flesh golems, shaped like humanoids but bigger than the tallest man Dancer had ever seen, flanked the villainess.
Realizing that her target was already aware of an intruder, Dancer tested her reality warping power to see if she couldn’t remove the flesh golems from the room. She extended her will as she always did, and immediately sensed how it bounced off the two towering, meaty figures. The attempted power use alerted Dollet somehow. The villainess’ head swiveled to face Dancer, her blue eyes wide as they fixed on the intruder.
The woman’s apparent fear incited Dancer’s desire to fight. The urge to kill her opponent and permanently remove that piece from Legion’s side of the game board, no matter the cost to herself, threatened to overwhelm her reasoning. The frenzied need to win washed away the words of warning
Mascot’s powers. Keep a hold on them at all times, and after you’re done with the first target, don’t switch except to escape.
Only she knows exactly how much time you have.
she’d been given not too long ago, by someone she trusted. The gun was still clutched in her hand. Dancer wasn’t very good at aiming it, but why would she even need it? She could just grab the scared little villainess and drop her from the top of…
She never finished the thought. The room seemed to shudder, and then Jasper’s face emerged in her mind’s eye, pale and frozen with fear. RUN, he told her in a wordless scream that only her heart understood.
Jasper broke through to her as no one else could. Not wasting another moment, Dancer grabbed the villainess with her power, wishing the two of them as far away as her current range allowed. The flesh-coated office vanished in the blink of an eye, replaced by a velvety expanse of night sky. Her retreat was so sudden that she couldn’t even tell where she was, or what direction the tower might be.
She teleported again. And again. And again. Eventually, the sky was all there was. The skyline of New York had shrunken away to a distant, moonlit silhouette. Dancer couldn’t tell where Dollet was and something told her not to waste any time looking.