The world was falling apart around him.
The pain of being torn apart had vanished.
The tear in the sky had collapsed, falling into itself at the same time as it was shredded and blown in every direction.
He watched the edges of the gate slowly recede back into their centers. Piece by piece, he felt himself return to this world. A hundred thousand pins were digging into every inch of him. The pain was loud and grating and it filled him with more joy than he had ever experienced before.
He was whole again.
Unimportant found his feet and slowly raised himself up from the ground. The stabbing pins grew worse, but the pain wasn’t anything like what he’d experienced when nearing the gateway.
There were voices around him, but they were muddled, unintelligible. There were people running, but none of them were coming close to him.
“So, I guess I’m not back then.”
His voice echoed through the emptiness.
The light of the gateway returned but it didn’t’ call for him. He watched a dozen costumed figures fall through their portals, collapsing into a heap of bodies that writhed until they could pull themselves from its grasp.
They were shouting, but he couldn’t hear their words. One by one, new heroes landed or ran onto the scene. There was more shouting and more muffled voices. Slipstream was one of the loudest; he was pointing away from the group, gesturing at the sounds of alarms echoing across the city.
One of the other group finally managed to get to her feet. Janus.
She didn’t join the fray as quickly as the others had. She was scanning the ground, looking for something.
Her eyes locked onto him.
She could see him, or at least sense him. And the way she was moving did not suggest a happy visit.
There was a muffled shout from behind him, but he couldn’t turn his head to find it. Janus was the only one who paid attention to it.
She hesitated in her march towards him. He couldn’t see her face through the solid blue faceplate, but he couldn’t feel her eyes on him anymore. The shouting continued behind him. It was still muffled, but he knew the voice.
What would he even be doing here? This wasn’t the kind of thing they called novices out on. He’d seen the kid a few days ago, running through the roads like the devil was after him. He shouldn’t be here.
Janus looked back at the group arguing behind her, and he took that as the only chance he’d ever get.
Unimportant didn’t run so much as stumble into a back alley. He didn’t understand why the sliders had been pulling him towards that gate; he didn’t know why they were trying to pull him apart, or even if that’s what they were really doing; all he knew is that he didn’t want to be anywhere near them if they decided to try again.
He heard Red Racer’s voice echoing behind him, calling for someone, but he ignored it. There were half a dozen other heroes who could actually help him. As far as he could tell, he was the only one who that portal was targeting; the kid would be safe.
Janus started calling out too. He glanced back and saw her standing where he’d been earlier; her entire head was darting in every direction; her eyes drifted over him, but they didn’t stop.
Unimportant started running again. This time he didn’t stop. The alleys in this district weren’t a path so much as a maze. If he’d been more together, he would have been able to find his way out easily, but as he was now, he was lost in minutes.
And still he kept moving.
He moved until his battered legs couldn’t support him anymore and he finally collapsed against the brick wall. The air clawed at his throat as he forced it down into his lungs and he could feel a tear sliding its way down from his eye into his mouth. It tasted like rusted metal.
He searched for the wound, but the blood had come straight from his eye. And not just there; he felt the warm fluid running down his chest and arms and legs. He really hoped it was all blood.
Blackness creeped at the edge of his vision.
“Can’t sleep. Need to get…away,” he tried to encourage himself. It couldn’t be too long until they managed to set the gateway back up again. He was still much closer than he’d been that morning, and he didn’t know if he could have resisted it then.
He pulled his feet beneath him again and pushed off from the wall.
The alley was narrow, if he’d thought about it, he would have been able to catch himself on the far wall before his head slammed into it.
The red bricks filled his vision and then it went black.
He opened his eyes seconds later and it was night time.
Unimportant clawed at the wall and dragged himself onto his feet.
The alley was blackened; any light they put up would have been broken in days. He wasn’t sure how to get out of here; he wasn’t even sure where he had come from, but he didn’t have much of a choice any more.
Unimportant stumbled his way through the alley.
Time seemed to vanish with each painful step. The pins and needles that had bothered him before had turned into knives, stabbing into every pore deeper and deeper with every movement. But he kept going, he couldn’t stop.
“You seem to be in quite a conundrum, my boy.”
He hadn’t sensed him. How could he have not sensed him until now? The mousy haired man was clearly visible even in the darkness of the alley. He glowed with the golden light of a gateway, and the edges of his form slide away from Unimportant’s gaze like oil sliding over water. Almost instantly, Unimportant felt a pain start to grow behind his eyes.
“Did you really think I walked around all day leaking power like that? My boy, if I want to be able to have a night on the town I can’t afford such luxuries as allowing my power to run rampant in such a way.”
Unimportant didn’t speak. Between the fear and the pain, he wasn’t sure if he could.
“But of course, you wouldn’t know. They told you I’m a monster, did they not?” He paused for Unimportant’s answer, but didn’t wait for long. “Of course they did. Such a pity. If only people knew the truth, then they might seize this opportunity as I have.”
Unimportant wanted to run again, but his legs wouldn’t let him. If Eclipse noticed his panic, then he didn’t pay any heed. He finally had Unimportant where he couldn’t run away.
“It pains me, you see. I must watch my creations, my children, wander through life, squandering their gifts on meaningless trifles, when true power lies just beyond their reach. They are all three steps two far away to really see what they can do.”
He grabbed Unimportant’s head with one hand and forced their eyes to lock.
“But you, you are one step closer than any of them, and you don’t even know it. You don’t even realize how grand your power is, how close it has brought you to standing among the gods!” His eyes glowed golden and red and the lights of madness danced behind them. “And you push. It. Away. You don’t even try to use it to its potential! Do you have any idea how disappointing you are?!” He tossed Unimportant down the alley away from him, and slowly stalked towards his prone form.
“You made me so angry, just by watching you. I wanted nothing more than to squash your head into pulp and hope the next one works better.” His shadow loomed over Unimportant’s broken form.
He turned away and began gliding back and forth through the alley.
“But then I thought about it. You’re young, you have no training. You haven’t even had a real chance to try your powers. The next one might not even have half of your potential. I have forgiven my children for slights much worse than ignorance; perhaps showing mercy will give you a chance to become something wonderful.”
He spun around like a record on a turntable and the world around him seemed to fight against the motion with sparks and scratches drifting through the air.
“But lately, you have been able to do much of anything have you? Here you are, stuck in between. It’s rather uncomfortable, isn’t it? You may be more used to it than I was, but I’m sure you’ve been having the same problems. Sleeping on benches in the cold night, stealing food, walking miles a day just because you weren’t able to sneak aboard a bus or a taxi. It’s rather close to hell isn’t it?”
The world around Eclipse had begun altering with his words. The air around him seemed to freeze and burn and vanish and harden all at the same time. The pain in Unimportant’s eyes grew even larger, as if they were trying to force their way out of his hear.
“It took me two years to discover an exit from this place. It was a good learning experience, but you would appear to be in a fair bit more danger than I was at the time. I suppose I can show you the exit.”
Eclipse appeared inches away from Unimportant. The injured hero didn’t have time to flea before the villain shoved his hand through Unimportant’s head.
He should have been dead, but there was too much pain for him to be dead.
It took him over a minute to figure out that the screaming he heard was coming from him.
“What I’m doing now is giving you access to a universe where you already figured out how to get out of this particular trick. It is an… unfortunate experience, but you’ll get used to it by the time you figure out how to do it on your own.”
And then he was gone.
Unimportant was still screaming; Eclipse was gone but he could still feel his brain churning inside his skull, rearranging itself to force knowledge into his head that he’d never learned or earned.
And then it stopped.
Unimportant stayed perfectly still. If he moved, then the pain might start again. The new knowledge burned into his head felt wrong, like he’d been walking with only one of his feet on carpeting. But the knowledge was there, and he knew without even thinking about it that it would work.
Over an hour later, Unimportant stumbled into the street along with the sunrise.
Somebody was running to him, shouting his name.
And then he blacked out.