“Dom? Damascus? Are you?” Chloe’s voice was barely audible over the car alarms. “God, please be alright. I can’t check you through the metal. I’m afraid I might hurt you if I take it off. You have to wake up.”
Even my metal hurts. “Just tell me they’re the ones that exploded.” I will take the reward money and stay in bed all summer. I took control of my armor, allowing me to see through it again. Chloe was for all intents straddling me, but I couldn’t find the energy to care.
“I… I think it was me, actually. I’ve never had as much power as I do now.” Chloe brought up her arm, tattered remnants of her costume draped off otherwise bare skin. “But, do you think you could give me a layer of armor?”
I forced myself to watch her face while I called up metal to cover her. Where before it had felt like crafting clay, now it was more like a living extension of my mind. It moved without concentration and let me sense every inch of her skin in detail more complete than my natural sense of touch. I had to concentrate to make it shut off and return to normal solid state.
Chloe looked down, then back at me. “Thanks.” Orange lightning danced across her cheek, between the metal and her skin. Her face carried that look I’d come to both love and hate. “Do you think you’ll be able to fight?”
No. “Chloe, we can’t. We drove them off, but the one took control of my metal somehow. She could have killed me. I don’t know why she didn’t. And now you’re injured.” I used what little remained of the super-fluid effect to force myself into a sitting position. I don’t know what I did to keep myself from screaming.
One of these days, I would decide if whether I admired or hated her determination more. “I saw your leg. And the spear. She almost killed you.”
“It’s fine, my power shielded me from the worst of it, and I’ll get the rest healed later. Now we know what their powers are. We can do better-”
“No.” I tried to move, to get in a position where I could really look at her injuries. I made the armor over her leg transparent to my sight. A pattern of black flesh spread from where the one twin had used her ice to attack Chloe. I was no expert on frostbite, let alone bizarre superpower frostbite, but I knew necrosis when I saw it. Nothing short of a healing power would save Chloe’s leg.
“You’re in no condition to fight.” I could tell she wouldn’t accept that answer. “Neither am I. Besides, we’re not Trackers, how would we find them to begin with? The best tactic is fall back, let the others know the psychos have powers they’ve been hiding, and tell them their strategy backfired. We save lives first, and worry about stopping the villains second. That’s what heroes do, right?”
Chloe met my eyes. “You’re right.” She held out her hand to my mouth. “Here, this will help with the pain. It’s a Gadget drug, no side effects except increased sensitivity when it wears off. Best if we find a healer first.”
So that’s how she can move around like losing a limb doesn’t hurt. As much as I wanted to refuse unknown drugs, I was in far too much pain to turn down relief. I’d just have to hope it wasn’t some custom-made Heritage thing that caused melanin to catch fire. Chloe’s fingers touched my lips, and already the pain was clearing enough for me to appreciate the gesture. By the time I swallowed the capsule, I felt wonderful.
The pain was still there, but it no longer mattered. I could feel that my ribs were in bad condition, I knew that explosion added more than a few bonus bruises, and I was lucky my eardrums hadn’t exploded, but somehow the pain didn’t hurt. “Never heard of a pill that works before you swallow it.”
“First rule of Gadgeteers: if it’s logical, they didn’t make it.” Chloe floated back, along the way grabbing my hand to help pull me to my feet.
“Is there a second rule?” As far as stupid questions go, that one sat amongst the smartest.
“Yeah. Never let one escape.” Chloe stepped back. “Gadgeteers will dedicate their lives to remaking their gear to defeat you. Gets into Fatal Attraction territory.” She hesitated, like she wanted to say something else.
Howls reached our ears. A deep, mournful cry that was not quite human, but not quite animal. “I think that’s Loup-Garou. They’re, umm, the werewolves.” I insist the drug had the side effect of making me say stupid shit. My ego refuses any other possibility. “We should go.” I shifted my now-normal metal so she could have her hand holds, and we were off.
Loup-Garou, or two members of the pack, were crouched around the third. The surviving member were horribly scarred from the fight as well, covered in burn and freeze marks. I bit back the shame and frustration that we failed first, and because of that the twins killed another. I had no way of telling which of the three died; two were in their man-wolf state, and the dead one was so mutilated as to barely be recognizable as human.
We weren’t the first heroes or villains to get to them, either. Several others stood back as the wolf-men wept over their friend. They alternated between hugging the body, which was child-sized in their arms, and howling their grief to the skies. The police and ambulance sirens an accompaniment to their song.
Further back, ordinary bystanders watched. Close enough to gawk, but far enough to run if someone took offense to their presence.
This is why I don’t want to be a hero. I don’t want this to be me and my loved ones some day. How can anyone want their lives to end this way?
Out of nowhere, Jury and Executioner appeared. Him in a wreath of purple flame, and her without announcement at all. Jury stood back, her face awash with worry. Executioner was the one to approach the wolf-men. He knelt in front of them. This close, I could see he had a little more bulk than they did, but all were massive even compared to my steel shell.
“Alpha?” Between Judge’s nightmare-sounds, Jury’s overall weirdness, and his own bulk, I had expect Executioner to sound like a mountain storm. Instead, aside from the northeastern accent and trembling struggle to hold back sobs, there was nothing special about his voice. He could have been any grieving man.
“Abe.” The wolf-man’s voice was barely able to form the sound, and it was possible I heard the name wrong.
“Fuck!” Executioner punched his fist through the pavement.
“Take your time.” Jury was now holding the werewolf that spoke, hugging his arm that was as wide as my torso. “We’ll keep up the hunt.”
“Thay Thoo.” I think the werewolf was saying ‘thank you’.
“Hey, wait a second!” Thank you, mysterious drug, for now I have the ability to shout again. “We should be regrouping and forming a better plan.”
“Sorry, honey, that’s not how we operate.” I turned to face Jury, who now stood next to me. I resolved to keep a better eye on her, just to have some idea how that power of hers worked. “I know what you’re thinking, Mushroom.” Jury was next to Chloe, and I didn’t know when it happened. “He can’t, not now. Don’t you dare ask.”
Jury’s not going to listen. I stepped toward them. “Before you go. Hunter and Killer have powers they didn’t show before. Electricity and cold generation, respectively. It’s touch range, but very potent, and Killer can make and throw ice knives. They’ve both got superhuman speed, too.”
“Thanks, honey.” Jury’s smile was broad, but her eyes were every bit as cold as Hunter’s had been when I fought her. “I’ll give them your regards, too.” She vanished somewhere between ‘honey’ and ‘regards’, and even though I was prepared I couldn’t narrow it down further. A burst of purple light indicated that Executioner was gone as well. At least I’ll see the giant ax man approach. The thought did not inspire confidence.
I looked at the other heroes and villains who were out. Wherever Quash was, he and his big names weren’t in this group. I had no idea what to say; these people had been doing this for years, and hadn’t had my powers for a month. “We still need to form a new plan.” Even if I have no idea what we should do. “At least stay in larger groups so we can’t be picked off as easily.”
They looked at each other. Aside from the Heritage members, there weren’t enough of us to form large groups, and no one seemed inclined to get together with them. The Heritage Imbued just stood there and watched me fail my first attempt at leadership in humiliating fashion. I’m sure they later told Quash and had a good laugh at my expense.
God damn it. “Just. Be careful out there.” I stepped back toward Chloe while the groups broke off into what was no doubt the same teams as they’d arrived. “We should get going.”
Chloe picked me up, and took us toward a rooftop not far away. More or less in the same direction that the twins must have been going when Loup-Garou intercepted them. “It’s a good idea, but Imbued are notorious for not listening to reason.”
I may have noticed that at some point, yes. “I thought they’d want to help more. Or at least be smarter.” It galled me to know that Quash knew how to deal with people and I did not. It didn’t help that I had no actual better plan to offer. I should have focused on that, first.
Chloe landed us on the roof. “If it makes you feel better, most of them will run home.” Contempt dripped from her voice. “They only agreed to help because they thought the bounty hunters were the only ones risking their lives. Now that we know Hunter and Killer are so strong, and that they’ll hunt the decoys, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone backs out.”
“What about Heritage?” As much as I hated to admit it, which was a great deal, we needed them. They and the police represented almost all the muscle in Raleigh. “Quash seemed serious.” I couldn’t be sure no one was eavesdropping, and Jury’s power in particular seemed excellent for it.
“Quash may not have a choice.” Chloe kept in the air. “If he’s serious about revenge, he could bring in more mercenaries. But if he tries to get his people to fight knowing what Hunter and Killer are capable of, they might revolt.”
When they said ‘careful what you wish for’, I didn’t think eliminating a white power organization was what they meant. “Speaking of which, Hunter did something to my armor. I could feel her when she took control of my armor. It wasn’t like reading her mind, but…”
“I could feel something, too.” Chloe floated closer. “You.” Oh. I hoped it was just me who noticed. I decided I wanted to study my feet for a while. “Why didn’t you tell me you felt… that way…”
She expects me to narrow it down to just one reason? “Would it have changed anything? Made you feel anything other than sorry for me?”
We stayed there in silence for a while. “I… no. I’m sorry, I tried, but no. I wish I could.”
It turned out whatever that Gadget drug did, it didn’t work on heartbreak. Some part of me wondered how much money someone who could cure heartbreak would make. “It’s fine, I’m a teen boy. We fall in love with every cute girl who smiles at us. It’s not you or me, it’s hormones.”
Damn it, drop the subject! “I’m more concerned about what happened in that garage. It was obviously some sort of power interaction, but. Maybe I can find some stuff out from Wiki la-”
“No!” Chloe shouted. “Uh, I mean… wait, when did you get Wiki’s number?”
“I may have posted something on one of those ‘missed connections’ sites. Guy really does see everything. Did you know he’s in college?”
“And you’re not bothered that he was hitting on you?”
“It’s weird, but it’s hard to hold it against him, given my own circumstances.” I studied Chloe’s face as best I could with the steel mask covering most of it. “Beside, he says he’s only into cartoons now. I didn’t ask him to elaborate.”
“Oh. Well, that’s… uh… a thing.”
“So, why don’t you want me asking Wiki about what happened?”
Chloe froze like deer in headlights. “Interactions are weird, and there’s all kinds of misinformation about them online. Wiki won’t know what’s true or false.” There is something more she’s not telling me. “And if we go asking anyone else, they’re going to start asking why we want to know. We don’t even know how the interaction works, but if it’s what let Hunter kill one of the werewolves, they may blame us.”
She’s scared. Of what, I couldn’t be certain. “So we can’t go to the heroes, because they have to report it, and the villains will report straight to Heritage.”
Chloe tensed at the mention of Heritage, and thus her father. “That would be bad. And if Wiki starts taking to people or gives us bad info, then it gets even worse. We’re better off just waiting for the next time we fight her, now that we know what to look for. I could have taken them if I had the power increase at the beginning of the fight instead of the end.”
She may have been right; she did well enough, and the ice could be countered with careful planning. I didn’t trust her logic, however. “Alright, and if there’s someone we know won’t tell others, and doesn’t have Wiki’s issues, we could ask them?”
“Who is there that fits that description?”
She’s still scared. What isn’t she telling me? “Have you ever heard of the Greenwitch?
“No!” She was rejecting the idea, not responding to the question. “Dom! She’s fucking insane! Even if she’s still alive and not just an urban legend, and even did know something, and isn’t just some myth! No!”
“She’s real.” I took a slow breath. “Nanna met her, back in the civil rights era. She’s very real, and very powerful.”
“But that doesn’t mean she knows about power interactions! I’d be surprised if she knows about indoor plumbing!”
“Well, even if she doesn’t know about interactions, I think it’s a good idea.” Chloe went to object again. “Listen. We’ve thrown everything we had at them, and we couldn’t can’t beat Hunter and Killer. The Greenwitch is one of the most powerful Imbued in historical record, and she’s been known to help people who need it. Right now, we need all the help we can get. Or would you prefer we wait and hope Judge, Jury and Executioner can do the job?” It was a low blow; I knew how much she didn’t like Jury.
Chloe hesitated. “You’re going through with this no matter what I say, aren’t you?”
“Sorry. We tried the direct approach and it almost got us killed. It’s time to call for reinforcements.”