Sapphire landed in the street several meters from us, Sympathy in her arms. Dammit, it had to be them first. I would have loved to see what thoughts went through their heads as they approached this mess of a scene. It wasn’t often you found a crime scene with a giant spider-human hybrid, a naked man bleeding on the street, and a dozen cartoon characters standing around.
Several of my archers turned, raised their bows, ready for the attack. For a moment that left me ashamed of myself, I almost let them. “Halt, forest guard! They are… allies.” Even that word left a bitter taste on my tongue. “Remain vigilant for other potential threats.”
The girl screamed out in pain, which reminded me of my power’s connection to my emotions. I forced myself to calm, and the Valkyrie holding her face down into the ground relaxed its grip. Valkyrie didn’t have superhuman strength, but it didn’t take superhuman strength to do serious damage to someone in a submission hold with both arms behind her back.
Zach remained kneeling next to her brother’s unconscious body, hands pressing down on the deadly wound inflicted by Lanza minutes prior.
Far from everyone else, Araña also lay unconscious, but with the Pegasus standing pressing a hoof down on his chest. That monster terrified me; if he awoke and broke free from the pegasus holding him down, the elves would shred him with or without my permission. It bothered me how little I cared.
Sapphire drifted forward, her feet inches off the ground. “What happened here?”
“Talk later! Healer first!” The wounded villain’s body copied next to Zach, who took the now clean strip of cloth that was part of the costume and pressed it into the gushing wound. “You people need to learn how to fucking show up on time!”
Sympathy took a step forward, stopped, looked at me, then started walking again. “I can help.” She knelt on the other side of Zach as shimmering orange light surrounded her, blending with motes of green, blue and red until they came together as a bright white light.
As if her sensory abilities and immunities weren’t incredible enough, she could generate an all but infinite variety of effects, using power borrowed from those around her and her supernatural instincts. With the options provided by myself, Zach, Glen, and the others, I couldn’t begin to guess the combination she’d draw upon. Whatever she selected, the man’s flesh began stitching itself together in a blackened, leathery mess.
“I know it’s not pretty, but it will wear off in an hour or two.” Sympathy rose to her feet with a shimmer of blue light she borrowed from Sapphire. “He’ll be hospitalized before then.”
“Now that the area is secure, an ambulance won’t be long,” Sapphire said. As if it had been timed for it, I could hear sirens in the background. Sapphire looked over at the still pinned Shock, then to the unconscious Araña. “While we wait, would you care to explain what happened here?” Here eyes met mine.
“Well, I ran into this asshole.” He poked the naked guy in the shoulder. I assumed so he could duplicate him in the new, no longer dying, status. As cold as it was, hypothermia was still a risk even with my power keeping the area more comfortable than it otherwise would have been. “And his psycho sister over there.”
I held my ground, keeping my eyes locked on Sapphire’s helmet. “Sorry to interrupt, Respawn, but she’s not asking you. She wants to know why I’m here. Because I’m what they call high priority.” The phrase disgusted me, a reminder that my power was the only thing about me which mattered to her.
Sapphire crossed her arms, acting the role of a stern mother, as if she had any right to the title. “When a Stage Four Imbued gets involved with vigilantism, it’s everyone’s business, as you should know.”
You unbelievable bitch. I felt my power crackling in the back of my mind, the darkest of my energies readying themselves, bleeding out, staining the perfect ivory of my armor with pitch.
“You already knew Anima was White Lady.” Zach stepped up, getting between us. He was tall enough to block our line of sight despite Sapphire floating. For a moment, I wondered if he realized it wasn’t a matter of the police knowing who I was, but the public at large. His next words killed all trains of thought. “Oh! That means I got to see under Anima’s costume! And in my expert opinion: total babe.”
Oh. My. God. For a moment, I think the entire universe was stunned to silence. On top of that, Zach had picked up the lying-without-lying language patterns that Imbued practiced to duck Truthsayers; if he used absolute words, he meant them.
In the next moment, Sapphire had her hand was around Zach’s nech. Sympathy ran up, placing her hand on Sapphire’s shoulder; the irritation I felt at the display was like the sun trying to push through storm clouds. “Let him go, before-”
“Huh, you should talk to my sister,” Zach said. “That tat on your ass needs fixed.”
She has a… dammit. Thanks a lot, Zach, that was something I never knew I didn’t want to know.
Zach fell a moment later, released from Sapphire’s grip, but his body was already half-dissolved into the newest copy. “Yes, I have a touch ranged sensory power. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is you’re perfectly cool with letting Stage Four villains run rampant, but when it comes to Stage Four heroes, then it’s time to be a complete bitch? Are you that scared of us doing your job for you?”
“Ah, right, like you tried to do with Kitten.” Despite the threat in her voice, Sapphire drifted back, out of arm’s reach. “How did that work out for you?”
Now it was Sympathy who took a defensive position, putting herself between Zach and Sapphire. “I think this has gone far enough. Or have you forgotten this is not a private conversation?” She gave a pointed glance at the woman pinned under Valkyrie. “Let’s focus on the subject at hand.”
“Fine.” Zach relaxed, no longer puffing himself up to appear threatening. “I think they’re working for Lightbringer, because about halfway through the fight Lanza and whatever that thing is showed up.” Zach pointed at Araña, still pinned in place.
“His name is Araña.” Sympathy said. “Rap sheet includes murder and cannibalism.”
“Cannibalism?” Zach glanced back and forth between Sympathy and Araña. His poker face was almost as good as Laura’s, but not enough to trump cannibalistic spider mutants.
“He’s a vampire,” Sympathy said. Now she had control of the conversation, the way she was accustomed to. “Most with that power drain energy, life force, memories, emotions. Some rare cases do drink actual blood. Araña is one of the extreme cases who eats human flesh. With each new victim he consumes, he gains more strength and inhuman mutations.”
“Oh, good, now I don’t feel bad that I couldn’t save him before that dude cracked his skull open. By the way, let your guys know he has super strength, and I think durability, but Lanza’s power beat his. Woulda killed him, did kill him, but I keep bringing him back.” He turned his attention to the girl. “She’s got some sort of taser power, paralyzes with electricity, minimum range of twenty feet and only works on living things. Seems to be line of sight, but I wouldn’t bet my tattoo on it.”
Sympathy touched her ear, holding still for a moment. “Shock and Awe, mercenaries, outstanding warrants in several states. I suppose it won’t hurt to tell you Awe’s an Infiltrator. His power creates low level hallucinations that make him appear stronger and more powerful than he is.” A smirk started to form on Sympathy’s lips. “You’re not as immune to mind control as you thought you were.”
A soft whisper spoke in my ear. “All her radio told her was their names.” If Glen was telling me, that meant he was also telling Zach.
Zach crossed his arms. “And here I thought Lanza was overcompensating with the glowing phallus weapon.”
Oh shit no! “Tell him to stop!” I whispered, harsher than I’d have liked. “He’s in danger!”
“But you are-” Zach hesitated, catching his words before he went to far. “You are just sad. Pretending to have special knowledge when it’s someone back at the precinct looking shit up on a computer. Is it Com? Tell me it’s Com, I didn’t get my Christmas List out in time.”
As far as saves went, it wasn’t a complete disaster.
“As one glass house to another, you should stop with the stone throwing.” Sympathy knew, she had to, but she chose to let it slide. “We get the power we’re meant for. In your case, that’s the power to run your mouth even after it gets you killed. You said Lanza arrived next?”
The first squad car turned onto the street, brights on; an inconvenience for Sapphire and Sympathy, since they were the ones facing toward the vehicles.
“Yeah, Arachnid got his ass beat by Awe. Lanza shanked Awe. I beat Lanza’s face in. Then someone we didn’t see teleported him away.” Zach seemed to realize it was time to stop poking grizzlies as well. “No idea where or whose side that one’s on, but their power is black, so not weak. Anima circled the wagons in case some other asshole showed up, and we kept these three alive while you took your sweet time getting here.”
“Not all of us have the benefit of getting as lucky as you.” Sympathy took another step back. “Assuming the investigation confirms you weren’t involved as an accomplice, I suppose it’s my duty to thank you on behalf of the city’s law enforcement, and inform you there is a bounty for information leading to Araña’s capture. There may be something on Shock and Awe as well. You’ll be contacted later.” She gave me a look which, even through her mask, spoke of disapproval. “We’ll see what we can do to keep your name out of it.”
I crossed my arms, faced her down. After everything you’ve taken from me, you don’t get to pretend you give the first fuck about my wellbeing. “You can do that, but this isn’t a one time thing. I’ll keep coming out here until the gang war ends.” I looked back at Shock, still held in place by Valkyrie. “You hear that? Spread the word. I’m not stopping until there is no place in this city for people like you.”
Now that cops were arriving, I began stepping down my abilities. “Forest Guard, rest until you’re next needed.” The elves became white mist which vanished into the ground. I felt safe enough; the number of Imbued who would attack now was limited to the insane and the insanely powerful.
Officers approached the fallen villains. One of them stopped to talk to me. “Please, let us take it from here.”
Please. They’re asking permission. I was tempted to go home and access their file on me yet again, to see if they added new information; I’d been resisting that temptation ever since Kitten arrived.
“They’re all yours. Valkyrie, claim your mount and return to me.” Meanwhile, I kept my eyes trained on Sympathy. “We’re done here.”
The argument I knew they wanted was not one they could have in public. “We’ll make contact,” Sapphire said.
“Good luck with that. Respawn? You coming?”
Zach looked away from the officer he was talking to. “Yeah, just give me a second.” He knelt down, and a copy of the still quite naked Awe appeared at his fingertips. Now that I knew Awe’s power, I wondered if the villain’s rather impressive physique was just one more illusion put forth by his power. Not that it mattered in the slightest. “Okay, he’s in your hands. Seriously, though, if he dies? Lanza did it.”
“Wyvern, you are required. Walk Unseen.” Now that I was dropping all my controls, I had enough spare energy to make the lizard monster invisible, rather than risk spooking an officer.” I gripped one of the thick, leathery spines. As irritated as I was by this encounter, Wyvern was even more surly than usual. It even growled at me. “Respawn, you’re riding with Valkyrie.”
“Uh, sure,” Zach said. He didn’t sound happy, but he also didn’t argue as he climbed on the back of the pegasus and signaled he was ready with an unenthusiastic “Hi-ho, Silver.”
I made the still invisible Wyvern take off, and the Valkyrie followed behind as I made our way back to our waypoint. Valkyrie was the faster flier, so they made landfall on the roof we took off from first.
Zach hopped off, then grabbed his hand to begin the world’s worst sign language. I cringed at each of the five times he broke his own fingers to send code back to Muwth. He inflicts that on himself every time he goes out, every crime he stops. I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t be do that to myself even if I did have his powers.
Now that I was approaching the landing spot, I could hear Zach arguing with Glen. “Okay, fine! I’m sorry! I’ll say hi-yo, from now on. I didn’t know it’d offend you that much. You’d think I was dry-humping the Lincoln Memorial or something!”
My ride set down next to Valkyrie. “Wyvern, you are dismissed.” Prepared for the drop, I landed on my feet. “So, about what happened back there.”
“Uh, right,” Zach glanced at the mess we’d left behind. “Sorry, you know the mouth running is part of the act.” He forced a smile. “I was trying to keep my promise. So, uh, what’s the story with Sympathy’s power?”
“I’m not allowed to tell you, but let’s say there’s a reason she lives within miles of the Pentagon, FBI headquarters, the White House, and a bunch of embassies.” I reached up, caught my fingers into the mask of my costume and pulled it down. “I’d rather talk about something else.”
Zach froze like a deer in headlights, uncertain of what was about to happen, but worried that it was bad. It was cute, in a dorky sort of way. I stepped forward, my eyes level with his only because my armor had platforms in the shoes. Before I could talk myself out of it, because I would have talked myself out of it, I leaned in and pressed my lips against his for a moment. After I broke our kiss was when my skin started to burn with the realization of what I’d just done.
“Wow.” Zach seemed almost as shocked as I was. “What was that about?”
“I don’t know.” Congratulations, Beth, you found the dumbest of all possible answers. “It’s a thank you. For having my back.”
“Then you’re more than welcome.” His smile was genuine, if awkward. “Any time you want to thank me again, let me know.”
Is that an invite for more? A request? If it is, do I want to do more? I have no idea. “I will.” I tried to smile, I’m sure it looked terrible. I felt bad, leaving Zach hanging like that, but until I understood what happened myself, anything I did would have been unfair and wrong, so I let that be the end of the conversation.
Painful seconds that felt like hours later, Zach spoke. “So, I hate to do this, but I have to get home. I mean, I’m getting murdered no matter what happens, but I’d like it to be quick. You’ll be alright on your own, right?”
Is that another offer? Is he asking me to invite him back with me? God damn it, now I’m going to second guess everything. I’m an idiot. “Yeah, I’m safe. I mean, we’d be getting a warning call otherwise, right?”
“Right.” Zach moved to the building’s edge, then looked back. “See you at work?”
Oh, right, we work together. I’m a moron. “Yeah, see you there.”
Zach hopped over the edge again.
The rumble of Genius Loci’s voice reminded me there was a witness to my actions. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ve seen worse.”
“Strangely enough, it doesn’t.” I wish my power made others forget I existed. Myself, for example. I would love to forget I exist for a while. “Please don’t tell anyone.” If Laura finds out, I’ll have to change my name and move to Canada.
“Mum’s the word, for now,” Glen said. “It’s not our business. But, listen, Zach’s a good guy, and he knows how to roll with the punches. That’s who he is. So whatever it is you’re doing, figure it out soon or do him the kindness of cutting him loose. Because he doesn’t deserve to be strung along, and it won’t take Laura long to figure out something’s up. That sound fair?”
Translation: I fucked up. Now I have to unfuck it. “You’re right.”