It is the silence that stops me. No screams for help or blaring sirens. Just a sudden silence. If I had been flying with Lady Fabulous I never would have noticed, due her rocket boots roaring away ahead of me. But alone, with only the quiet of a winter night as my companion, that blanket of silence is louder than anything I have ignored all evening.
I pause in midair to get my bearings, focusing on narrowing down the location of the silence until I feel that ping on my internal radar again. Here. Then I’m soaring as silently as a raptor toward a feeling of wrongness. As I fly I review what I know about the part of the city I am entering. It is a suburb of Darclann called Caranty, population 11,512, that was once its own little town, before it was absorbed into the growing city. Relatively calm and pretty low on the crime scale. It is one of those areas that new heroes are given to test their capabilities. I consider contacting this neighborhood’s hero to inform him of my entrance into his territory, but decide to wait until I have ascertained the situation I am entering. Besides, that kind of notice is only a formality for the Alpha, and by extension, her side kick. All territories lie within the Alpha’s territory, after all.
I am within a mile of the silence when a feeling of…discomfort comes over me. I try to ignore it, yet the feeling grows. I must be going in the right direction because something is obviously trying to turn me aside. Not many heroes would sense this disturbance as I do nor would they have noticed the silence. They would have been steered away without any awareness of being influenced. Interesting. Whatever is the cause of this disturbance is unaware of my capabilities, fortunately. All of that effort to remain invisible to the general public and the media has borne some fruit after all.
The destination is a U-shaped, or rather, N-shaped from this perspective, brick building. I follow Hawthorne Rd, according to my GPS readout, which leads right passed the main parking lot of the building. It is soon evident that it is the suburb’s high school I am cautiously approaching. Hawthorne passes right by the surprisingly full parking lot, then a football stadium, some grassy fields with smaller parking lots on the opposite sides of the road and finally meanders back toward residential housing. The main parking area lies between Hawthorne and the looming building while a small access road leads behind the school to faculty parking and a loading/unloading/fire lane that runs directly infront of the school. That little road is jammed with emergency vehicles of every sort, lights flashing silently in the night. It is only when I am nearly upon the scene that the screams can be heard. I am almost knocked out of the sky by the combined odors of blood and fear that clog my olfactory sense. It is almost intoxicating. I must have crossed a hidden barrier, something that was hiding those indicators from me. Finding myself on the ground quite suddenly, I press a homing button on my wrist so Lady Fabulous knows where I am. Whatever is happening at this school, I cannot proceed without her approval. I send a message via the Super Hero Network to the Interrogator that the Alpha is interceding in an incident in his territory and he is requested to be on site. All the formalities complete, I walk the final block to the school.
Snow crunches under my feet as I use my helmet computer to review relavent data on the area. The past three months has seen a moderate decrease in its small homeless population, though not significant enough to draw much attention. Most officials saw the loss of vagrants to be a sign that they were doing something right and have subsequently been scrambling to find out what it was. Hmm. That is interesting. About a month ago, a man was found beheaded just over a block from the school. The Interrogator investigated, found no suspects and concluded that it was gang violence, though the victim reportedly had no connections to any local crime syndicates. Since then, there appear to be no record of attacks of any kind, not even domestic violence. This is not overly unusual. Caranty is known to be one of the safer suburbs of the city mostly because there is nothing to attract any super villians. It is too boring, overall. Still, this sort of pattern is mildly disconcerting. There is something very wrong with it, though to all appearances a lack of vagrants and violence can be nothing but a positive for the little town. I wonder if this is the “gut feeling” Lady Fabulous mentions so frequently. It does not seem to be coming from my gut, though.
I decide to gather any information I can find on the school. My on-board computer scrolls more data down my face mask. The school newspaper and events calendar indicate that it is Homecoming weekend and tonight is the dance. Now that I am looking for it, I can see the remnants of a torn banner near a set of doors on the right side of the nearest building wing labelled “Main Gym Entrance.” I easily memorize the school blue prints and determine that in a school that size, the gymnasium is the most likely location of any large gathering. The biggest indicator of this is that all the police spot lights are trained on those doors. There are several points of insertion we could use, ones that might give us an opportunity to reconnoiter the situation thoroughly before deciding on a route of attack or rescue. With a mental shake, I dismiss these options. Lady Fabulous does not skulk around back doors or peak in windows. She responds to every situation with straight forward action. It is foolish and bound to lead her into situations that are beyond her abilities. However, acting in any other way would be beneath her Alpha status.
At this point, I arrive at the school drop off/pick up lane, though I do not approach any of the police officers I see milling about. I flip through several settings on my helmet trying to gather more information on the situation inside the gym. Night vision is worse than useless with all the emergency lighting. Infrared is not telling me anything, either. I may have broken through the initial barrier, whatever it was, but something is still blocking my scans. Which means I have no way of finding out what is going on inside that building. She will not be happy about this. I scan the crowd for the Interrogator, who should be present for this kind of gathering. He, at least, should be able to enlighten us as to who the villian is, since this is his territory. Yet he remains conspicuously absent. I don’t have much time to ponder this before the thunder of rocket boots announces the arrival of Lady Fabulous.
“What is so important that you have to drag me all the way out here?” she asks by way of a greeting.
I bite my tongue against a rude response and try for deference instead. “Someone put up a barrier of some sort that hid the sounds and scents coming from that building, obviously an attempt to avoid hero intervention. I am unaware of any technology that could make that possible.”
“Yes, I felt the barrier. Get on with it,” she says coolly.
I doubt she felt anything of the kind, but I continue without contradiction. “There is an unusual amount of fear coming from in there. And there is a significant amount of screaming,” I pause, listening, “Correction. The screams have ceased.” It isn’t a good enough reason even with the hefty presence of emergency personnel to indicate a serious situation, but she might be intrigued enough to proceed. “I have contacted the local hero about this and informed him that you were coming here.”
“Well? Where is he, then?”
And now I strike at her vanity. He should be here. He should consider it an honor to watch her work. Yet there is no sign of him. “I don’t know. He appears to be ignoring the summons.”
Her eyes narrow in the flashing lights and I see the telltale tightening of her lips to indicate her annoyance. She does not say anything, just stalks across the parking lot to the nearest policeman leaving me to scurry after her. Her boots leave little patches of melted snow from the residual heat, though whether that is from the engines or her irritation is debateable. After verbally accosting an officer, the man in charge, Lt. Goodman-Brown, is brought to her.
“So what is going on here?” she asks sharply, arms crossed severely across her chest.
The lieutenant is a slight man with a pale complexion and the beginnings of a magnificently bald pate. Despite the frigid air he is sweating profusely and the heated glare from the really tall, angry super heroine isn’t helping. “W-well, I’m not really sure w-what to do because the c-captain couldn’t be here ’cause his daughter is in the s-school right now and it w-would be a-a conflict of, um, interest and we can’t get ahold of the Interrogator and w-we can’t seem t-to get a, uh, uh, visual on the inside from the security cameras and none of the guys will go n-near the door after w-what happened to the last guy and…and…” he trails off as he notices that Lady Fabulous does not seem to be appreciating his ramblings. His arm, which was vaguely indicating the door on the left arm of the building labelled “Main Gym Entrance,” drops limply to his side and he suddenly becomes very interested in the pavement beneath his feet. I wonder what happened to the men who approached the door, but I know better than to ask. She prefers to lead interrogations, hates interruptions and does not care in the least about insignificant little details like the unfortunate fates of “glorified babysitters,” as she calls police officers.
“Young man,” she begins in her most condescending tone, “have you ever done this before?” He opens his mouth to reply, changes his mind and shakes his head rather childishly. “All you need to tell me is a brief overview of whatever information you have on the situation. Starting with why your lot was called in.” Lady Fabulous is not an especially big fan of the local law enforcement. If it wasn’t for the need for someone to deal with unruly drunks and jay walkers, she would just as happily do without them. Her repugnance for these uniformed civilians is written all over her masked face.
“Well, ma’am, our operators got jammed all of a sudden by a bunch of panicked teenagers. We thought it might be a, uh, stunt or something. Then they stopped just as suddenly so we thought it was definitely a prank until we got a bunch of calls from concerned parents who had got some disturbing texts and pictures from their kids. I won’t tell you what they sent ’cause I almost lost my lunch over it.” I take a few steps away to use some sophisticated technology to access the call records from the 9-1-1 dispatch and then using that information to download all the texts sent in the last hour to the corresponding cell phones. Most of the pictures are low quality and blurry but I get a general idea of severe violence. One text is actually a grainy video of a girl hiding in a bathroom stall before a brief scream and a sudden end to the video indicates that she did not remain hidden. I nod my head at Lady Fabulous and she strolls over.
“I have about a dozen or so assailants and at least a thousand students based on school ticket sales for the event and the pictures sent to parents. Whatever is happening in there, we cannot wait for the local to show up.” His absence from a gathering this size is starting to bother me and I can see that Lady Fabulous is concerned as well and not just for vanity’s sake. I wait patiently for her to decide if this is worthy of her attention. The Alpha cannot be seen cleaning up after small altercations. It isn’t her job. She is the protector of the entire city and the enforcer of the hero laws, the fist of the Council. She is not a local hero doomed to save kittens from trees and retrieve the stolen purses of little old ladies.
There is a muffled scream from inside the building, quickly cut off, and a media van is seen pulling into the parking lot. That decides it. Something unusual is going on and that falls exactly into the Alpha’s purview. “We go in over the gym door. They won’t be expecting that,” she says. “You handle the minions and I will take out the boss.” There is no question as to how she will recognize the boss. It will be the person standing on the stage and watching everyone else do the work.
As this is the normal order of events, I see no reason to contradict her strategy. Lt. Goodman-Brown, however, is not so clever as I am. “E-excuse me, Ms. Fabulous?” he ventures and has the audacity to tap her on the shoulder. She spins around to face the little man with a purposely dramatic swirl of her black, silk cape. “I don’t think you two should go in there alone. I-I mean, it’s not safe and we have plenty of officers who could help you…” Once again, the poor man finds himself mumbling his way into nothingness under her withering gaze.
She lets him smolder a few seconds and then asks, “How long is my cape?” His eyes bulge a little as he tries to estimate a length while under her intimidating observation. “Is it a half cape?” He hesitates and then shakes his head in the negative. “Are you sure?” He nods so vigorously I become concerned for the welfare of his vertebrae. “Do you suppose that the reason it isn’t a half cape is because I am not merely a side kick to some greater hero? That perhaps I am not just a super hero but I am THE Super Hero? That of all the people here, I am the ONLY one who can decide what I SHOULD do? That I don’t need some snivelling, pathetic little ingrate to tell me whether or not it is SAFE TO DO MY JOB? WELL?” She does not bother raising her voice. She just adds more venom to each syllable. The poor man is nearly in tears and completely unable to respond so she whips around to scan our audience. “Would anyone else like to tell me how to do my job?” The quietness of her voice belies her fury. The ‘zens quickly avert their eyes and find other things to do in the hopes that she doesn’t decide one of them might be a good target.
She gives the lieutenant one last furious glare, sparks seeming to fly from those dark eyes, and then she activates her boots and rockets straight at the school. I follow close behind, quickly turning off my heads-up display. The computer readout will only be a distraction once the fighting starts.
If we had burst through the door itself, we might have been killed instantly. Well, Lady Fabulous might have been, anyway. We still haven’t ascertained whether or not death is a possibility for me. The polished, wooden floor is coated in blood and gore, meaning we would have slipped and been immediately overpowered by the quartet of minions waiting for just such an entrance. Since we fly through the newly created hole above the door, courtesy of Lady Fabulous’ fists, we do manage a moment of surprise, which is enough time to assess the situation.
The gym is about 60 meters long and 35 meters wide. All four walls bear retractable risers with the bottom three rows pulled out to act as seating for the students, though the risers furthest from the door have remained closed to allow for a small platform, possibly a stage. Someone had the misapprehension that a disco ball, roving spotlights and a few hundred feet of crepe paper streamers could turn a regular gymnasium into a poshe dance club. My eyes adjust quickly to the irregular lighting, but details are still difficult to make out. Along the far left wall, I can make out a few dozen brightly dressed students being corraled by at least ten shabby adults, clearly minions. More minions, at least twelve, are scattered throughout the expansive room, inspecting and sorting bodies into piles near the right-hand and parking lot-side risers. The look up simultaneously when we crash through. Directly below me, there are four minions, positioned as guards by the doors, and the remains of the investigative officer.
As predicted, there is a lone figure standing on the temporary stage at the far side of the gym. From what I can see in the dim lighting, she is unusually tall with platinum blonde hair and a shapely figure draped in a slinky red dress. All other details have to wait as Lady Fabulous propels over the minions to confront the boss and I land to face my opponents. Their attack method will tell me a lot about who I’m facing. If they attack one at a time, I will know that they are registered minions. As most of them act on a mercenary-type basis, they are trained to attack singly since they rarely get the opportunity to train extensively with the other minions with which they will be working . The singular attack method ensures that they won’t hinder each other and they will have a decent chance of wearing out the hero sufficiently to make him or her an easy target for the boss. If they attack all at once, that usually indicates amateurs.
There is something wrong here, though, something I cannot pinpoint. It is something so obvious that I am instinctively ignoring it. The four door guards surround me. The others return to their tasks of sorting remains. I set my feet and focus on my opponents rather than all the disturbing scenery. I must concentrate on the task at hand, though four seems a paltry task. Until they attack in unison. They do not, however, seem to be amateurs. Their fighting style is crude, but they appear to be very familiar with each other so they work in perfect harmony. Very quickly I decide that the Queensbury Rules of Fighting are out. I have to take them down quickly and efficiently so that I can get the children out of here.
I break collar bones, wrists, ankles and a tibia with sharp strikes at precise pressure points. Broken bones will take them out of the fight, but will also heal. That way they can spend plenty of time paying for their crimes in prison. In no time, the original four are disabled and they drop seemingly lifeless to the polished floor boards. Immediately, however, eight more arise from what I had assumed were the bodies of injured students. I must not have seen the back-up minions, I tell myself. They probably hid amongst the bodies for just that purpose. It is not a mistake I would normally allow, but I am in a hurry to get the children to safety.
Once again, I use every trick I know to disable my opponents all of whom still appear to be working in perfect sync with each other. When the last man falls, again seeming lifeless from a mere broken wrist, I find myself surrounded by a wall of sixteen minions and I am suddenly struck by what has been bothering me this whole fight. Their heartbeats are in sync as well. Sixty beats a minute, every single one, all in perfect time. Not one with the rapid pace of adrenaline that comes with a fight. All the same. A feeling of mortal dread trips lightly up my spine, a highly unusual sensation for me.
Sixteen is a not an easy fight, but I have endurance for days and I plan to test that as I set my feet for the next attack. With less finesse, I defend myself and strike out at any opportunity. I have never seen such a coordinated attack before. They even manage a few hits which jar me far more than I would like to admit. Okay, they are very strong, highly organized and doubling in number against all reason. Not good. Sixteen down and now there are thirty-two. Then there is a sound a butcher would be well acquainted with and one of the thirty-two is missing a head. The body collapses and in his place is revealed a short man clad in black with a rather impressive battle-ax clasped in both hands. “Detach the head from the body or destroy the heart,” he says calmly. Four minions charge after him and he retreats to ensure he has room to maneuver his weapon.
The remaining twenty-seven close in on me and a nudge in instinct has me phase from my body (astral project). My mind floats above the fight, feeling distant and calm. I watch as my body performs a complicated series of kicks that are specially designed to decapitate an enemy. My white uniform darkens with blood spatter. Then my staff is drawn and several more minions get their hearts pierced. I am not happy about this. Super heroes do not kill bad guys, especially minions because they are usually just in it for a pay check. However, this view, unhindered by time and the confines of humanity, shows many strange things. With each death, this defense mechanism, generally regarded by the hero community is useless, reveals something very important about my enemies.
Across the room, while my body works its way through more minions, I can see the healthy glows of life that indicate normal human children. Their auras tell me only this and none of the other mystical things that auras are supposed to indicate. Surrounding the children is a row of creatures without auras. They are human in shape, but not human and they all have something in common. Over their hearts is a bright little sun, like a concentrated aura. As I’m observing this abnormality, one of the minions snatches a young girl from the crowd and starts gnawing on her neck. Now it makes sense. The aura around the girl decreases and the bright sun of the beast increases. I turn my sight back to where my body is and watch just to be sure. When the assailant is decapitated immediately or the heart is pierced, the little sun is snuffed out like a candle. If not, it splits and hops to two separate inert bodies. I’ve never seen anything like this. Considering how rare astral projection is, I would say that I am probably the first to see something like this.
Since time seems to work differently in this form, I have time for a small experiment. I float over to one of the nearby minions, though float is completely the wrong word for this form. I do not move through space. I simply think of where I want to be and I am there. The creature cannot see me and up close he does look perfectly human except for that bright little sun. He doesn’t sense my presence until I reach into his chest and grasp his sun. The look of surprise and pain is brief, yet seems to last hours, before I snatch the light from his heart and he collapses, dead. Aha. With this new strategy, I make quick work of the minions surrounding the children, snatching suns and watching them dissolve like fog on a winter morning. I notice that each sun seems to burn hotter, though my astral form doesn’t normally feel anything at all. This just gets curiouser and curiouser. I am vaguely aware of my corporeal self dispatching the rest of the combatants with similar ease. At some point I hear something that sounds like a cymbal crash and soon after a loud pop, and then two more. My auditory senses are severely limited in my incorporeal form so I ignore the periphery and focus on finishing the job at hand.
I reform with my body at the left side of the stage and hiss in pain. I rip off my thick right glove and stare at my palm, which is blistered and black as if I had stuck it in a fire. The injury soon fades as my body heals itself along with the other knicks and bruises I have accumulated. The glove, completely undamaged, though thoroughly saturated with blood, slides back on without a twinge. All I have to do now is let Lady Fabulous know that the minions are taken care of and take the children out to the emergency personnel. But she isn’t waiting for me, standing triumphantly over the fallen form of her adversary. The only one standing on the stage is the blonde in her red dress and knee-high black boots. Brianne would have called them hooker boots, I believe. There is a dark-skinned girl lying in a pool of blood between me and the woman and I can just make out a bright pink boot belonging to my boss behind a collapsed drum set. That explains the cymbal crash. I ascend a short flight of stairs, trying to ignore the ache in my muscles from the prolonged fight and my mental fatigue from the phase.
Yes, Lady Fabulous is unconscious, but alive, behind the band equipment. I try to ignore the little voice in my head that is panicking because nobody beats Lady Fabulous in hand-to-hand combat. It is unheard of. The fallen girl, who looks about my age and bearing the scars of many battles, has been shot twice in the chest and once dead between her large brown eyes with a small caliber gun. I am curious about her since she does not seem to belong here at all. No, that is wrong. She does belong here, with her old, worn clothes and battle-calloused body. The one’s that do not belong here still huddle like frightened mice on the risers behind me. They are dressed in sparkly dresses and nice suits and this night should have held no more danger than a late curfew or an STD. Instead, they are all that remain after a meaningless slaughter. I turn my gaze from the dead to the boss, who appears to be waiting for me. Already, I can feel tendrils of her power brushing against me, trying to lure me in.
Her ruby smile is warm and seductive but her eyes are an icy blue. However much lust she invokes with her power I can see that she is calculating and vicious. She isn’t even sweating from her fight with Lady Fabulous and her heartbeat is, yes, sixty beats a minute. Like clockwork. Like she has control over it. She does have control over it, I realize. She is the source of everything. The barrier, the minions, the wrongness. What is she? The only sound besides her heartbeat is the muffled crying of the surviving students. The recollection that mere dozens remain out of a thousand galvanizes me into action. I charge at her with the foolishly obvious intent of stabbing her through the heart with my staff. Damn, she’s fast! My staff clatters harmlessly across the blood-polished floor boards. I charge again, drawing my shield out of the sling on my back in the hopes that I can decapitate her with the sharp edge. A few swift thrusts that she easily defends and then my shoulder pops out of the socket as my shield is wrenched off my arm and flung away. The pain is minor and I easily relocate the joint, thanking my genetic engineers for giving me that ability. I attack again and again, only to be struck down by her unusual strength. I hear a fearful squeak from one of the onlookers as a mighty hand smacks across my face mask and knocks me to the floor.
From the stage floor, I listen to the cracked bones in my jaw reset with an agonizing grinding. I marvel distantly at the strength needed to produce the spiderweb-thin cracks spread over my face mask. On the floor directly beneath me is the torn body of a young girl. Her dress is gone and I see with growing distaste that so are several of her limbs. I can see bite marks on protruding bones and the frozen expression of agony on her dark face makes it clear that she had been alive for much of the, the feast. Perched atop an intricate knot of black braids is a cheap tiara. I turn my eyes to the woman standing over me, still with that smirk to indicate that this is just foreplay to her. That feeling of wrongness gets stronger, making me feel ill and unbalanced. It is her power and judging by her triumphant look, she thinks to overpower me with this parlour trick.
Fascinating. I decide it is time to stop holding back. The limits I put on myself to ensure no one finds out just how extraordinary I am fall by the wayside. In a blur I am on my feet and on the attack again, striking and whirling so fast that she can barely follow my movements. In the next breath, it is over. She stares down at me with that same lustful look and then it occurs to her that my right fist is imbedded in her chest and her heart can no longer beat under the pressure I’m inflicting. Still, she does not seem overly concerned.
She gazes deeply into my eyes and says, “Got my heart, lover?” Her voice is liquid heat throbbing through my veins and down every nerve until my fingers and toes are tingling. My mind goes fuzzy and all I can focus on are her ruby lips and the sharp teeth just behind them. It feels right to be close to her, to desire her, to want her to take my life so that I can be a part of her. I want her to… I phase unexpectantly and it all becomes clear again. Her sun is brightest of all. I wrap a gossamer hand around the great sun and hiss as it burns my transparent hand black. There is a brief expression of surprise on her pale face. Then I rip out her heart and her sun simultaneously and watch Death take her.