To Emily, the last three days before the end passed in a dizzying haze, punctuated by moments of hope and despair. With Sarina gone, the Empath was the only one who could solve seemingly impossible problems and overcome any odds. She was a Healer and a near unstoppable offensive weapon all in one. A Guardian and a secondary teleporter whose reach and power far exceeded Checkmate’s limitations. Every minute she spent sleeping, someone died. Sometimes the death toll of a single minute numbered in the thousands. So she tried not to sleep, but then she made mistakes, and the other heroes forced her to rest.
As Kasparov had predicted, Legion absorbed the entirety of the Chinese Evolved army and used their powers to wreak havoc across the Eurasian continent. The villain became nigh unstoppable, limited only by his lack of mobility. But since one of the Chinese heroes had inherited Buddy’s power, Legion now commanded an army of thousands of well-equipped and highly disciplined soldiers. India’s Evolved mounted a counterattack but fell victim to Buddy’s compelling aura. One by one, they returned home to attack the people they had sworn to protect.
Fortunately, Noire and Radiant succeeded in taking out the Wild Hunt, rendering Dollet’s remaining flesh idols useless as teleportation points. The news of Cipher and Aerodyne’s deaths sent a ripple of excitement through the international news stations that were still broadcasting, weakening Legion’s influence over the myriad desperate souls who had begun to worship him as their ultimate judge and only chance of salvation.
The heroes’ numerous attacks against Legion’s allies and assets snapped previously passive Evolved out of their apathy. Each victory won by Rune and Chris’s teams or Athena’s mechanical army diminished the numbers of Legion’s supporters, and gave courage to those who had all but given up. More than twenty previously unknown heroes rose from the ashes of their broken, war-torn communities and took up the fight, defending the remains of human society against the chaos of the apocalypse. Kasparov’s visions often turned the tide of battles that would otherwise have been lost. But since the Visionary couldn’t turn his attention everywhere at once, not every battle could be won, and not every disaster could be prevented.
Saint Petersburg fell first, ravaged by the gigantic firestorm Nusku had unleashed on it. San Francisco was set ablaze by a cult of end of the world fanatics who possessed heaps of homemade explosives and little sense. Like Moscow, many cities fell victim to civil war or mobs of armed, desperate people who sought to ensure their own survival by securing as much food and other resources as possible.
Legion’s gradual downfall also led to the ascension of opportunists who sought to replace the villain as the ultimate authority. As Sanctuary’s surge had shown, the last power surges before the end were a hundredfold stronger than all the others that come before, giving near godlike powers to a handful of Evolved. Only four of them turned out to be villains, but those four – who would later be known as the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – caused a great deal of damage before the heroes managed to put them down.
Nusku’s death triggered a power surge that left large portions of West Africa scorched to ruin, and hundreds of thousands dead due to dehydration and heat stroke. A hundred foot tall shapeshifter ravaged the city of Hong Kong and the nearby countryside. In the Middle East, a self-proclaimed Jihadist marched against Jerusalem with a gigantic army of golems made from dust and stone, ravaging everything in his path. Sanctuary’s aura prevailed, however, saving countless lives and settlements in and near Israel.
Then, there was the Cerulean Death. The villain responsible for the plague was alive for less than a day, but his legacy – a strange, highly contagious sickness which turned the skins of its victims blue before it killed them – lived on. It claimed the lives of thousands upon thousands in Southeast Asia and spread panic across the Asian continent.
The heroes had a few losses to mourn as well. Crashbang was killed in action less than twenty-four hours after Emily had healed him, sacrificing himself to secure an escape for Rune and Checkmate. Even though she had barely known him, Emily cried for him. Bringing the young guy back from the brink of death made her feel more responsible for him than most of the others. After she got the news from Athena, Emily had to carve out fifteen minutes of alone time and rail against her fate – and the fates of her parents, her friends and everyone she ever cared about – until she felt composed enough to return to her duties.
Calavera vanished without trace. After hearing reports about rioting and looting in Mexico City, he asked to be teleported to Mexico City to help calm the situation. His armband went silent shortly afterward; Athena’s drones retrieved it from a trash bin behind a cocktail bar. There was no blood and nothing hinted at a struggle. After a brief peek into the Mexican hero’s psyche, Emily managed to verify what most everyone had already suspected: Calavera had quit and walked away. He’d been struggling with himself and his identity for some time. Saint’s death had finally pushed him to breaking point.
“Farewell, Calavera,” Emily murmured as she lit a candle for him in the Saint Louis cathedral, where she spent a few quiet moments between missions. “You’re a good man. One of the best I’ve known. If that’s why you had to go, I understand.” Even though she respected Nora’s beliefs, the candle held no religious significance for the young Empath. Still, the feel of its flickering warmth blooming across her skin calmed and comforted her, and she infused it with her best wishes for Calavera, hoping that the radiance of his kind heart would keep on guiding him in the future. If there was such a thing of a future for any of them.
Maybe he left because he figured out what I have to do. The thought sent a chill through her, releasing the fear she had locked away since the last conversation she’d had with Kasparov. She had pushed it away, but it always came creeping back, making her shiver in the cool cathedral air. Maybe he wants to be with the normal people so he can watch over them. See what’s going to happen from their point of view.
Radiant stayed with the other heroes until sometime in the early morning of the 31st of June. His silent departure didn’t come as a surprise; the Lightshaper had stopped showing any interest in hero work or his former teammates the day before. It seemed as if his humanity had finally burned away, consumed by the bright bursts of superheated energy which he had used to intercept nuclear missiles in mid-flight. Now he hung in the night sky like a silent star, distant and unapproachable. Perhaps he would keep watching over the world after the end. Somehow, Emily found the idea comforting.
She would have healed him if she could. Her inability to save Radiant – whose body would die the instant he assumed physical form – was one of her biggest regrets. Would Athena be able to live on without him, forever drifting in space with no one but an AI for company? Emily never found the courage to search the heroine’s mind for the answer. When one had no more tears to spare, not knowing was the better choice.
Data’s successor and Kathy were doing fine at least. As far as Emily knew, the two of them spent the last days before the end inspecting and upgrading the automated factories Data had left behind. Rumors suggested the launch of two more shuttles which were packed with plants and materials; supplies that Athena had requested for reasons of her own.
Jasper, who was well protected by his teammates, kept working tirelessly on the music track which would boost Emily’s powers and tip the fate of the world. Naturally, he asked about Sarina. He asked about her every day, looking sad and miserable and tired. Since the heroes had – for good reason – forged a silent pact not to fill him in, Emily could do little to comfort him. On more than one occasion she passed out in his room, sunken against his office chair with one arm wrapped around his waist for support.
“Hold on, Jasper. Keep going for a little while longer. Everything’s gonna be okay, I promise.” She kept murmuring the words even in her dreams. He held on, and so did she. Together, they were going to save the world or die trying. And if he believed in her, maybe she could believe in herself in turn.
Together, they would end it all and write a new beginning.
New Orleans, USA – Sunday, the 1st of July 2012. 07:03 AM.
Jasper finished the song in the early morning, and after some initial testing of how Emily’s powers responded to it, the remaining heroes gathered outside the lighthouse to send her off to her final confrontation with Legion. Even Jasper, who was more sleep deprived than anyone, made the effort to hold himself upright and stand with the others. Naturally, he wanted to see Sarina now that his work was done. The light of hope was so bright in his eyes that Emily had to avert her gaze and turn away.
His blissful ignorance made her feel like the worst villain ever.
The others radiated a mixture of concern and optimism. Of those present, only Athena was aware of the plan Kasparov had concocted to save the world, and she had good reason to keep it from the others. Rune and Nora would try to stop her, Emily knew. They’d plead and argue and, if she let them, they would make her hesitate long enough for the fear to twist in her brain and selfish ideas to bubble back to the surface.
She couldn’t afford to hesitate. Every minute wasted meant that somewhere out there, more people died in senseless conflicts and violence. Emily had to put an end to it all because no one else could.
Chris, at least, didn’t need an explanation, and she was too smart to try and change the Empath’s mind. She was crying, though, and the fierceness of her hug implied that she knew that this particular goodbye just might be forever.
“Hey, munchkin,” Chris whispered in a voice too soft and low for anyone else to hear. “Whatever happens – try not to do that cliché hero thing and sacrifice yourself, okay? It’s not a good ending if the good guys die in the end.”
“I don’t know if I’m gonna die,” Emily whispered back, burying her face against her friend’s neck. “If I go bananas, Sarina can heal me. Morpheus told me where she is, and I promised I’m gonna be there when she wakes up.”
Chris pressed a gentle kiss to the younger girl’s cheek. “We’ll be here when you wake up, too. Try to remember that.”
“Yeah. Um, Chris… can you promise me something, too?”
“What is it?”
Emily couldn’t help but to grin a little. “If there’s a tomorrow… maybe you could fall for Sarina’s brother, okay? He’s actually a really good guy. Or maybe Peter. He’s slowly turning into a good guy too.”
She must have glanced in Peter’s direction because he piped up in protest. “Are you guys talking about me?”
The girls shook their heads in unison. There was nothing left for them to say, but their fingers twined together in silent promise. No matter what was about to happen, their friendship would endure. And if there was a future for both of them, perhaps the power of that friendship would bring them back together.
In the end, Emily cut the farewell short. She hugged everyone in turn, ending with Rune, who towered over her with a frown so deep it had joined his bushy eyebrows together. His short beard brushed against the top of her head as she disentangled herself and turned away abruptly, scrunching up her face in a desperate effort not to cry. She couldn’t let her tears taint the last memory her friends would have of her.
“Take me away now,” she said to Checkmate, grateful for the fact that he didn’t hesitate. Both of them were shielded by one of Chris’s forcefields. That, and music player with the song Jasper had composed for her, were all the support she needed. She had a few seconds to slip the headphones into her ears and press play before she was whisked away.
The music – an upbeat electronic tune which changed its rhythm and tempo frequently – already filled her mind before her feet hit the ground. After a short drop, she landed in a crouch, putting out her arms to help soften the impact. The ground shook violently beneath her, but her hard landing had nothing to do with it. Legion’s gigantic form loomed in the distance.
The villain had assumed the form of a dragon again, though now he was so massive that his winged shape eclipsed the sun even as he lumbered across the ground. The shadow he cast obscured Emily and a large area of cracked, soot-covered earth surrounding her. She couldn’t even tell where in Europe Checkmate had taken her. Neither the barren, scorched landscape nor the city that was burning in the distance offered any clues about her whereabouts.
It didn’t matter. After a quick glance over her shoulder to verify that Checkmate was already gone, Emily flexed her music-empowered Empath abilities and focused her gaze on the villain. Then, not giving herself a moment to remember how scared she was, she imprinted Legion. By doing so she opened herself up to the Many, an amalgamation of semi-aware personalities, allowing them to assault her mind with their pain and insanity. They laughed and screamed and rambled nonsense in four different languages as they coursed through her, testing the limits of her own sanity.
Without the support of the music thundering through her earphones, she would have lost it, but the song allowed her to endure the mental assault. She pushed the foreign presences away and focused her attention on Legion, plunging deeper and deeper into the darkness of his internal world to find the one power she needed to borrow from him.
However, the imprinting process had him made him aware of her presence. His massive, horned head snapped around, though she was barely aware of how his eyes locked onto her. Her own internal struggle made it difficult to keep track of his movements. Still, she felt the earth shake as he launched himself into the air, heard the thunderous clap of his wings and sensed a stirring in the hot air above her. The villain didn’t bother with subtlety; her Empath senses told her that he wanted her to know that he was coming. He didn’t expect the scrawny little girl to be ready for him.
Or for her to strike first.
The instant he lowered his gargantuan body to the ground, she dashed toward him, propelled forward by her own fear of failure. She dove beneath his swiping claws and twisted, one hand flying upward to touch the scale-covered arm that had attacked her. Her fingertips brushed against his skin for the briefest of moments, but that one moment was enough. Emily released the power she had borrowed from the villain, commanding him to be absorbed into herself.
What happened next was… insanity. Pain, so immense and uncontainable it made her scream at the earth and the sky and the immense shape towering over her. A myriad other voices screamed back, both inside her head and out of it. Her flesh twisted and her body convulsed, growing and changing shape with such abrupt force that her bones snapped like twigs. But the most violent struggle took place inside her head. Legion wasn’t gone. He had only changed places, and his iron will fought on, seeking to overpower her with his ferocious hunger for control.
Polloc Island, Philippines – Sunday, the 1st of July 2012. 11:06 PM.
Dancer was dreaming.
Caught in a state between sleep and consciousness since the UN personnel sedated her and locked her away, she drifted in a timeless place, unaware of where she was or how she had gotten there. She remembered the woman with the gold-rimmed glasses and the soft voice who had repeatedly assured her that she wouldn’t be harmed. She also had a vague recollection of uniformed men, armed to the teeth, who were too afraid of her to look her in the eye and of bright lights and empty hallways.
In the end, after the light faded and the voices ebbed away, there was a whole lot of nothing. A cold blackness, occasionally pierced by a single thought or a fragment of a dream bubbling to the surface with intense emotional energy. Jasper’s face, wrapped in a haze of regret. David’s sad smile. Emily’s lips, shaping words Dancer couldn’t hear, but her heart remembered their meaning. A heartfelt promise made by a little girl.
When you’re ready to come back
A dreamlike vision of a burning world, devoid of life and sound, with no one left to return to. Was this what awaited her? Would anyone at all be there for her if she found a way to escape… whatever this cold, dark place was?
I’m gonna be there for you
Dancer struggled with herself, unable to decide whether she wanted to return to that burning world or keep dreaming. But then Emily’s voice pierced the nothingness. She was singing now – a special melody, one that Jasper had created – and her voice gained in strength and timbre. It was bright and clear, so powerful it broke through the silence which had taken Dancer’s world away.
Abruptly, Dancer’s mind cleared. Emily, is that you? I can’t see anything. It’s dark here.
A vision of the little girl, surrounded by flames, blossomed in her mind’s eye. Emily had stopped singing and was gazing into the burning world ahead, her small face bloodied and bruised. Remember yourself. The way you are right now. No matter what happens, you can’t forget.
Don’t worry about me, Dancer replied in her mind. Afraid of being left alone in the dark when the dream faded, she held on to the vision, bringing Emily’s presence into focus. Her bruised and battered body. Those tear filled blue eyes, sad and full of pain. What happened to you?
The Empath flashed a wan smile. I fought Legion, she said. I’m still fighting Legion. I’m coming to you now. I’m almost there. That’s why I can talk to you like this.
Dancer was confused. Since when can you talk to people in their dreams?
There was no response. The vision faded. An alarm sounded instead, faint and distant, but ominously drawing closer. Was this another dream? No. It seemed real somehow, and it was coming from somewhere beyond the dark space that Dancer was floating in. As she focused on it, she was able to hear it even better. It had a nervous, fast paced-rhythm; kind of like a fire alarm, but deeper and far more pervasive.
The fire from my dream, Dancer thought with a start. Is it here? Did it follow Emily?
The bellowing roar of an explosion scattered her thoughts. It washed over her with a force that rattled her bones and startled her awake. Dazzled and disoriented, she found herself bathed in a bright red light which pulsed with the same nervous rhythm as the blaring alarm did. As she tried to move, Dancer discovered that she was trapped inside a white, glass-topped tube reminiscent of a medical MRI scanner. Or a white metal coffin crammed full of strange technology that looked to be medical in nature. Her hands, still numb and strangely cold, made a dull sound as they banged against the glass. There was no way out. The silence and darkness had given way to a cacophony of noise and light that made her want to cry out for help.
But try as she might, she couldn’t make a sound. Her tongue felt like it was made of sandpaper. The words clogged in her throat. She began to hyperventilate. Soon, she was too tired to keep banging on the glass or looking for a way out. She couldn’t feel a connection to her powers; they had been taken away before she was put to sleep.
As Dancer forced herself to lay still and calm her breath, she sensed a source of power that wasn’t her own. It pulsed at the edges of her consciousness and called out to her, without words but with a strange sense of belonging. It pulled her like a magnet. If she were able to move, she would have walked toward it. But she was still locked in.
Not for long, however. Another loud boom shook the tube, accompanied by a dying man’s scream from somewhere nearby. The tinted, opaque glass panel above Dancer’s face cracked and the tube slid open, revealing a low white ceiling illuminated by a blindingly bright light. Suddenly, she was too afraid to climb out. The haunting scream still rang in her ears, and her heart pounded in her chest, propelling a roundabout of frenzied thoughts.
This can’t be Emily. The realization came over her in a flash of terror. Emily doesn’t kill people. She sat up and blinked furiously, trying to make out shapes in the blinding light. Legion must have followed her here.
As if to confirm her suspicion, a chorus of voices – male and female, old and young – rose at once and sent a shiver down her spine. “Hello, Sarina,” they said. Nothing else. Only the blaring alarm filled the silence that followed.
Now that she knew where to look, Dancer twisted inside the open tube and turned her gaze in the direction the voices had come from. There was movement, a slithering of sorts in three or four places at once, but nothing that looked like a person. Despite an almost maniacal urge to look away, to lie down and go back to sleep until this nightmare was over, she blinked. Blinked again and again until the light dimmed and she could see what was in front of her.
It wasn’t Emily. It didn’t even bear any likeness to Legion’s recent evolutions. It was a chaotic, pulsing mass of greyish flesh, dotted with shapeless, twisting clumps and appendages that might have been failed attempts at forming heads and limbs. The carpet of flesh now covered all but one of the wall-mounted lamps, along with the entirety of what appeared to be a windowless chamber, dome-shaped and about eighteen feet in diameter. Dancer’s tube-shaped coffin was situated in a wall niche of about five square meters, and was still sitting inside of it, looking out into the main room. Closed doors branched off into what Dancer assumed to be other sections of the complex. Pale moonlight fell through a gaping hole in the ceiling. There was little doubt in her mind as to how the thing – which she stubbornly refused to acknowledge as Legion or Emily – had made its way in.
“What do you want?” she croaked, making another desperate attempt to grasp her powers. This time, they came to her easily. Whatever effect had suppressed them was no longer present. She didn’t immediately use them, however. Something held her back.
“Heal me,” the chorus pleaded. Dancer now recognized Emily’s voice among them. It sounded thin, and scared, and desperate, and she didn’t have the heart to ignore it. Not after the dreams in the dark and the little girl’s heartfelt promise.
When you’re ready to come back, I’m gonna be there for you, waiting.
“How?” Dancer asked shakily, still fighting the urge to teleport away.
One of the thing’s long appendages rose from the floor and extended toward Dancer’s hand. “Join me,” the Many implored, with Emily’s voice rising above the others as the dominant one. “I’m in control right now. Together, we can overpower Legion. But you have to come willingly.”
Dancer bit her lip and glanced away. She wasn’t ready for this. But what choice did she have? If one more sacrifice was the key to saving the world, then refusing it would have been the ultimate act of selfishness. She had sworn to herself, and to others, that she had grown to be a better person. This was the ultimate chance to prove it.
More importantly, it was what Shanti would have done.
I’m sorry, Jasper, she thought as she reached out to touch the arm of rubbery grey flesh in front of her, allowing herself to be absorbed into the shapeless mass.
Paris, France – Sunday, the 1st of July 2012. 07:17 PM.
In the beginning, there was light. In the end, there was a song, a composition of dulcet harmonies accompanied by Jasper Davis’ voice. A track to empower Eden and remake the world. But the song had been too powerful for a single human mind to process and use. Now, though, Eden had the Many to make this final journey with her. Those among them who had not been too far gone to be healed whispered and sang along, quivering in anticipation of what was to come.
A dance to end it all and start anew. A new genesis, invoked by the hopes and dreams of those who had endured the hell of Legion’s mind long enough to lend their minds and souls to Eden. Among them was Aiden Locklear, a young man from the Alaskan town of Tanacross who had come to learn everything there was to know about Evil.
Unity. Penance. The former Legion.
He wasn’t in charge of the Many anymore. His memories and knowledge lived on as part of the collective conscience; Eden and Soulseeker – the former Kid – frequently consulted them as they discussed their plans for a better world. By knowing how Evil manifested, maybe they could banish it forever. Prevent it from ever taking root again.
“Wars start because people don’t have enough of what they have to survive,” Soulseeker pointed out as they strode through midair, crossing the sky above the ruins of Paris as one. Eden’s body, now restored to its human form, served as their vessel.
“In many cases, the cause of conflict is not resources, but mad leaders,” Zhang Yong objected. He was one of the Chinese Evolved Legion had absorbed shortly before the end. A recent victim whose sanity had not eroded away.
Eden halted her stride in midair, so close to the Eiffel Tower’s uppermost spire that she could have stretched out her arm to touch it with the tips of her fingers. But Paris’ famous landmark didn’t interest her nearly as much as what lay around it: acres upon acres of destroyed city blocks, burned out cars and crumbling, rubble-filled roads. Death and desperation. A blood-red evening sky glowed above it all, dark clouds driven across it by a strong wind that smelled of smoke and ash. It brought the sounds of wailing and distant gunshots.
Against all odds, people still lived here. Trapped in what had become a battlefield, the scene of a war initially sparked by fear, political tension… and powers. Her personal insight into Paris’ development over the past month had prompted Eden to choose this city as the starting point. The Many didn’t have the time or opportunity to visit every corner of the world, so the picture of chaos and despair down below was representative for everything that had gone wrong everywhere.
“I want powers to go away. Everyone’s powers.” The wind took the whispered words from Eden’s lips, and the Many stirred in response. They had opinions of their own.
“Why?” Zhang Yong was the first to ask.
Soulseeker piped up. “I know why. We can’t trust anyone with powers, we don’t know if they’re gonna be responsible or not.”
Eden said nothing. She gazed down at the ruined city with a heavy heart, wishing more than anything that she could undo all of the damage that had been done, to restore lost lives and mend broken souls. Her adoptive parents, taken by Legion weeks before, were among the people she missed the most. Their warm, engaging personalities had been trapped inside Legion so long they were ground to dust by his mind.
But the lessons she had learned from them would stay with her forever. She would always remember her mother’s gentle encouragement. Her father’s way of seeing everything in a positive light, and David’s guidance whenever she encountered a problem she couldn’t solve on her own. David, her adoptive brother, was still alive. He was somewhere out there and awaiting her return.
Now that her journey of growth and understanding was coming to an end, the hardest part was still ahead of her: letting go.
“Do you understand that if we remove powers from the world, we will most likely perish?” one of the Many asked. “We are now one. Our powers keep us alive and sane.”
Eden’s thoughts had already wandered elsewhere. She was no longer human and would never be able to return to Jasper, or David, or any of the other people she held close to her heart. Once the world was remade, what did it matter if she lived or died? She had no desire to be a goddess in the tomorrow she created.
“I want all technology gone, too,” she told the others. “The cars, factories, television, the Internet, everything. People don’t need technology if we don’t give them reason to need it.”
Zhang Yong joined into her train of thought. “If we assume that technology is another source of power and an instigator for conflict, I agree. No electricity. No weapons of mass destruction.”
The Many murmured their agreement with few abstentions.
“There are still five and a half billion humans left,” the Chinese sage went on. “Large cities rely on technology to function. However, Earth’s total land surface area is over fifty-seven million square miles. There is enough space for everyone to live in small communities.”
“We can change deserts and mountains so people can live in them, too,” Soulseeker suggested.
In the end, the Many – drawing on the collective wealth of their personal experiences and knowledge – made a decision on how the world would be remade, and Eden retrieved a small music player from her pocket. She let go of everything and everyone she treasured, slipped the earphones into her ears, and let Jasper’s final music track run through her like a surge of lightning. It supercharged her, filled her with the power of a thousand storms and caused her awareness to explode outward. Had she still been human, the sheer immensity of her newfound potential would have knocked her unconscious. But the Many joined
When she danced, her range increased exponentially. There were no more limits to how far she could reach or much she could bend the fabric of reality.
This was how it ended, and how it began. A song, a dance, and the hopes and dreams of a dozen conjoined souls who danced along.