Dusk had fallen on the city by the time the train car pulled to a stop. Hawthorne stepped out. At Will’s insistence she had pulled her helmet back into its seed form and loosened her outfit so it looked less like the armor it was. She nervously ran a hand through her hair. Even if he had seen her real face once before, it felt unnatural to be unmasked near him.
Will stepped out behind her. He hadn’t tried to disquise his face, but she couldn’t help but notice the way he kept his eyes pointed towards the ground for the entire time they were in the station.
She half expected him to turn into the first motel to wait out the night, but he kept walking, winding his way through the streets. After thirty minutes of seemingly random turns, she started to grow concerned.
“Will, where are we going?”
Will paused. “We need to meet up with somebody. I’m sure he knows we’re here by now, but we shouldn’t make any moved until he gets here, and he’s probably not sure if I’m waiting for him yet.”
“He’s a hero?”
Will chuckled. “Anywhere else, he would’ve been. But real heroes don’t get the title here. He’s antisocial, violent, and probably nuttier than half the villains in other cities, but if he wasn’t then he would’ve been killed years ago.”
“You flatter me.” A deep but smooth voice echoed through the empty street.
Hawthorne whirled towards the voice.
“You have a jumpy one here, Will.”
“Most people on our profession aren’t exactly used to being snuck up on.”
“You could have warned her.”
“But then she would never learn.”
Hawthorne’s eyes danced between the two, but she had finally had enough. “She is also right here. Is this who we were waiting for?”
Will nodded. “Hawthorne, meet Stalker, but you might hear the locals call him The Black Swordsman. I’m afraid you’d have to get used to him sneaking up on you. He does it to everyone.”
“Except you.” Stalker stepped out of the shadows. He was short, barely 5 and a half feet if you counted his hood, and he wore a long black coat with two long straight swords crossing his back. The coat hung open, revealing darkened armor beneath it. His face was completely shadowed by a hood, no matter how the light hit him.
He turned to Hawthorne. “Forgive me if I don’t shake hands, but Will rarely brings good news. Interesting times follow him like a witch’s curse.” He cocked his head towards Will. “So am I going to play 20 questions, or do I get to know the whole story straight out.”
“We need to know about an incident a little less than a year back. Some black suits came in to take out a local. Three of them died, and the last vanished.”
Stalker tilted his head. “That’d be The Meridian. Plask? If you’re going after Plask, I’ll warn you right now to stay the hell away. The man’s a pig, but he’s smart and he’s cruel. You could probably catch him no problem, but nothing you do is gonna stick.”
“No,” Will said. “We’re not after Plask. The fourth black suit, the one who escaped, quit and ended up becoming a hero. I’ve been watching out for him these last few months.”
“Let me guess, his bosses didn’t like that? And now they’ll go after him unless he puts an end to Plask.”
“They didn’t threaten him openly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was their backup plan. We need to stop him.”
It was the first time Hawthorne had seen Will look surprised.
“No?” He growled out.
Stalker turned away. “Plask is a disease. If I thought killing him would help my city, I’d have done it myself years ago, but I’m not going to save him.”
Hawthorne slammed her gloved fist into the wall. The two turned to her. “Are you an idiot? I know you don’t think we’re here to save Plask.”
“No,” Stalker said. “I think you’re here because Will’s sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Again.” He shot a glare at Will. “This kid came here on his own. Will made it clear he wasn’t threatened, and if he survived the Meridian collapse then he’s tough enough to take care of himself. He doesn’t need us to save him from the black suits, and I won’t waste time trying.
Hawthorne’s eyes narrowed. “Bullshit. If you gave half a damn about helping people, you wouldn’t care about that. Don’t pretend you know what he’s going through from a ten second conversation. You’re right, it was his choice, but that doesn’t mean he should have had to make it alone. And we don’t have the right to walk away just because he expects us to.” Her outfit began to sprout vines; they reached out from her, twisting their way towards Stalker. “You don’t want to stop him? That’s fine, but you will tell us what you know about that club, or I’m going to hang you from the nearest flagpole until you do.”
She felt the man’s shadowed eyes lock with hers. He began to smile, his teeth almost glowing white behind the shadow of his hood. Then he began to laugh. It started as a chuckle, but it grew louder and more frantic the longer it went on. Hawthorne took a step back. The vines slowly retracted back into her suit.
Will took a step closer to her, and waited for the laughing to stop.
When he had calmed himself down, Stalker looked towards Will. He managed to speak, but the laughter was still hidden behind every word, and his glowing smile still stood out from the shadow like a crescent moon in a starless sky. “She’s a fun one, Will. She might actually be able to survive here.”
Will took another step to put himself between them. “I’m not interested in putting it to the test. Will you tell us about the club or not? She’s not kidding about the flagpole, and we don’t have the time it would take for you to get bored up there.”
The figure chuckled again. “I’ll help, I’ll even help you track the kid down. But not here. Come back to my place, this town has too many ears for even you to keep track of.”
Stalker began to walk away, but Hawthorne grabbed Will’s arm before he could follow. She spoke in a whisper. “He’s actually insane, isn’t he?”
Will sighed. He spoke normally, but Stalker didn’t seem to care. “Stalker would be classified as a gymnast. He has enhanced reflexes and flexibility, along with the muscles and bones to handle the stresses that puts on his body. But whatever happened that made him take up the mask changed the way his head thinks. Standing up to him the way you did impressed him, more than it would almost anyone else, and threatening him impressed him even more. He is not sane, but he’s kept up this life in this city longer than any unofficial hero has in half a century. In this city, being insane is the best defense anyone can have.”
“But he’ll help us?”
“He said he would, and so he will. He might even be professional about it. He’s insane, but he has his honor, twisted as it is.”
Will followed Stalker down the street, and Hawthorne followed a step behind.
Stalker led them across town, ducking down side alleys and avoiding any street too brightly lit. It took them another 45 minutes, but eventually he stopped in front of a plain brick wall. Hawthorne watched as he reached for a brick at his eye level and pressed it.
The brick sunk deep into the wall. The spot of blackness quickly spread, flowing between the bricks until the rough outline of a door had been carved into the side of the building. The section of wall swung inwards and upwards, revealing a shaft and a ladder into the ground below.
“Welcome to my home.”
Stalker dropped into the shaft, ignoring the ladder, and Will followed suit. Hawthorne considered it briefly, but quickly grabbed the ladder instead. She didn’t know about Will, but she didn’t have the bones to handle a drop too large and he told her to avoid using her powers if she could help it. She heard the door swing closed behind her as she climbed down.
When she reached the bottom, she was surprised. Stalker’s hideout was small, maybe the size of two dorm rooms if that. He had crammed a couch against one wall, and wall opposite if was covered in monitors. Each one switching between a dozen cameras each. He could probably watch the whole city from his couch.
Along the far wall from the entrance was a computer, hooked up to three monitors of its own, and that’s where he sat.
Will stood behind him while he pulled up the footage of the Meridian. Hawthorne’s eyes kept darting between them and the wall of monitors. The light in the shaft clicked off behind her and she turned to look. A second door was next to the entrance.
“Escape routes,” Stalker called from his computer. “One way in, dozens out. Including a few decoys and a couple I never use, just in case someone sees me using them.”
“If we were anywhere else, he’d be paranoid,” Will said. “Around here, he’s just cautious.”
Hawthorne nodded and returned her attention to the screen.
“Found it. I don’t have access to the cameras on the inside, but we can see all the entrances and we can see in a couple of the windows.”
They all stared at the screen intently.
“You’re boy should be the one walking in here. Not sure if you’ve seen his real face, but his hair’s dyed here. Unless it’s normally bright blue.”
“So that’s Page next to him,” Hawthorne said.
“He told you then?” Stalker asked, but it really wasn’t a question. “She doesn’t make it out of this. Neither does that one.”
He pointed at the screen. A lanky man with dark black hair walked into the club.
“King,” Hawthorne said.
Stalker skipped ahead. “Nothing we can see for the next few minutes.”
The video played again. There was no sound, but they could see through the windows. Everyone had stopped dancing; they had pulled to the side of the room and most had pulled out guns. Every once in a while they saw somebody or something thrown into view.
After a moment, Will spoke. “Their firing pattern changed. They’ve been knocked down.”
“She’s going to die soon, isn’t she?”
This time she saw it. A few of them stopped firing and shifted their aim.
“This is what he can’t remember,” Hawthorne said.
The front doors were blasted open and a body came flying through. He was the lucky one, they saw large dents appearing throughout the building’s walls. The saw the orange glow of a fire through the open door.
They saw A few people run out the back and climb into a car in the alley.
“That was Plask,” Stalker said.
The building began to shake, and the wall on the west side began to buckle. One more body came flying through that wall and they watched as the whole building started to come down.
Hawthorne expected to see Allspades come running out the front. But there was no sign of him as the building collapsed.
“This is where I stopped watching,” Stalker said. “But if what you said is true, then he must have survived this somehow.”
“He’s a tank,” Hawthorne said. “Is it really that surprising?”
“Surviving the collapse makes sense,” Will said. “But there’s a fire burning too; with the building collapsing he should have suffocated before he got out.”
The wreckage finally settled, and they waited.
It only took a few minutes, but it was long enough that they would have looked away if they didn’t know what to look for.
The center of the rubble began to shift.
A bright white light spread from the center, pushing the wreckage away in every direction. Just as quick as it appeared, it was gone, and they saw him standing, covered in the same white as the glow.
Stalker shut off the feed and turned towards them.
“I thought he was a tank?”
About Powers (Potential spoilers/hints in second half)