Rumor’s Block

Chapter 129: Creation

Mitch was sitting on the couch staring at the camera feeds she’d put on the TV. Tina had been watching him closely at first, but she could feel her lungs start to seize up just looking at him. A normal kid on a sugar rush had trouble sitting still, but Mitch had grown extra limbs. His hands were running through his hair and clenching his pants and tapping out a rhythm on the armrest. His legs were reenacting a stampede in place. His eyes were locked on the view through the screen, but his pupils were dancing.

So she looked away and stared at the screen as a half dozen images gave them a view of battles. She had the monitors rotating through the cameras, but she didn’t want to look at them for too long. Even through the monitors, her powers were at work. Each and every hero’s costume was personal to them, and staring at one for too long would force her to delve into its creation.

Only one image wasn’t cycling, but she didn’t want to look at it too long. She’d gotten one of the cameras to focus right on Eclipse, but he’d barely moved more than a finger since he came out of his shell.

Tina risked another glance. She didn’t think her powers would work on him. There was nothing there to look at, or it was too big to understand what you were seeing. Nobody seemed to agree on which. But even so, she needed an object, something somebody had invested enough effort into to leave a mark. There was nothing of the sort for Eclipse.

One of the cycling cameras caught her eye, so she froze the cycle and blew it up to fill half the screen. Hawthorne was floating over some monster that Eclipse had created. She heard Mitch’s breath hitch behind her. She didn’t blame him; she couldn’t look away from the thing on the screen.

Before she could look away, Tina was drawn into the creature’s minds.

There were six of them, and they weren’t screaming.

Their minds were buried beneath a mass of instinct and fear. Each of them was scrambling, clawing their way to the surface. Tina watched one of them make it most of the way to consciousness, and as it crawled towards the light, she felt bile burning in her throat.

Its core was still there, driving it to wake up and become conscious, but the image before her was featureless. No, it was like a hundred thousand minds had all been shoved into one and they had meshed together so completely that there was no personality left.

It wasn’t possible, not with six minds, not with a thousand and not without destroying the core completely. It was like one mind had been broken into pieces and, after each had grown a complete mind of its own, they were shoved back together and forced to fit into the shape of the original.

She shouldn’t be seeing this. Tina’s power had only ever worked on objects, on the parts of people’s minds that they left behind. She couldn’t’ just dive into a monster’s mind, especially not one as convoluted as this.

The creature was almost at the light now, and a part of Tina knew that giving this uncaring intelligence to the monster outside would let it kill hundreds of more heroes than it had already. She didn’t have any experience on fighting in a mind – she could only vaguely remember meeting Will in her own head – but Tina drew back as har as she could and threw the weight of her mind at the blank monster.

And when she crashed into it, the screaming started.

The blank fell into the pit it had crawled its way up, slamming into the others on its way down. All of them screamed in pain and anger and fear and frustration.

Their screams echoed from the pit, slamming into her and forcing her back, back to the edges of their mind. And as she was being thrown out, Tina saw a single eye, all black save for a white pupil, open and stare at here.

Tina shoved herself away from her desk and felt her wheelchair catch on the ruck. It flipped, throwing her off and onto her back.

Mitch was by her side in a flash. He slowly helped her to her feet.

“Thank you. Can you get my chair?”

Mitch didn’t respond. She glanced over at him and saw his eyes transfixed on the screen.

She hand’t changed the images, but the largest was not focuxing on the mad monster floating In the sky abover the city. He was staring straight at het, through the camera and the network and the screen. Their eyes met, and she understood.

“You have to go.”

“What?” Mitch snapped out of his stupor and tore his eyes from the screen to stare at her, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her eyes were glued to the monster’s.

“You have to warn them. He’s going to make something worse. He’s going to make something storng enough and smart enough that it will never be stopped.”

“But-” Mitch stared at her, sitting on the floor with her wheelchair still on its back next to her.

“Red Racer. Our friends are in trouble. Your sister is in trouble. And you are the only one who can warn them about what’s coming. No matter what he makes. No matter how big it is or how many people he used, they have to kill it before it can wake up.”

Red’s outer layer hadn’t hit the floor yet before he was out the door, leaving the glassware from the coffee table shattered on the ground next to the open door.

Tina turned back to the screen. The cameras had changed again. None of them pointed at Eclipse. Tina watched as the last of the monsters was torn apart, and one by one the heroes on the ground stared up at the figure in the sky, waiting for the sign of the next attack.

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Chapter 128: Monster

As Burnout dove at the figure floating above the city, his armor began to change. The patterns on his armor grew more detailed, the nearly solid flames grew scales, and his wings became so thin they were almost transparent. His helmet grew together, hiding his face completely and forming its own. Its eyes were a cold and glassy solid blue. Its mouth was opened wide, revealing row after row of long curved fangs. There should have been an end to the maw, Burnouts real face was centimeters behind the mask, but the rows of fangs never seemed to end. Fire trailed behind him, leading back to the sky, and reaching down to the point of impact.

Burnout slammed into the unyielding form of Eclipse. Fire erupted from the two of them, like a new sun being born in the empty skies.

The heroes below shook themselves free of Eclipse’s attack. Most had to shield their eyes immediately, but a few were able to watch on as a blue form lanced out of the sun and crashed into the streets below.

The sun faded slowly. One by one, the heroes were able to return their eyes to it and watch it vanish from existence.

Against the blackened sky, it almost looked like the attack had succeeded. But the darkness still pulsed around the figure floating above them. Eclipse had not even moved under the assault.

His finger twitched.

A pillar of white light erupted from the ground a full block away from Eclipse. The sliders had tried to warn everyone they could, but at least half a dozen heroes were caught in the blast, but there were no screams. There wasn’t time. When the light vanished, the thing that emerged couldn’t be called human.

The pale mass of flesh half crawled half rolled down the street. A mecher dove down. He gripped a long barreled gun with both hands and unleashed a beam of fiery plasma at it, but a long segmented appendage whipped out of its back and snapped up to smack to weapon from the mechers hands.

The mecher tried to fly away, but the appendage wrapped around his torso and dragged him into its mass.

Hawthorne and Allspades watched from a street over as it began to move again. Most of the nearby heroes were retreating; those that could were launching attacks at it, but nothing seemed to phase it. There were a few who tried to get close, but more of the whips warded them off or pulled them in.

“Nobody can get close. It needs to be contained so that we can get something heavy on it.” Allspades clenched his firsts and allowed the glow to wrap around him.

Hawthorne’s suit rustled as the vines writhed into a new shape as she backed up to the center of the roof. “I need you to throw me over it. The higher the better.”

She didn’t wait for him to respond before she charged at him full speed. Allspades cupped his hands and the moment her foot hit he heaved her will all his might into the sky.

Broad multicolored leaves sprouted from Hawthorne’s back, catching the air and letting her soar over the mass. She spread her arms wide and miniscule seeds fell on and around it. It ignored the assault and continued to march towards the city enter.

Hawthorne landed on the ground in front of the mass. It slurped towards her, and she could feel it picking up more of her seeds as it rolled along. She just needed it to get a little closer.

It didn’t have the eyes to see her, but she could feel it stretching towards her, to strike her or maybe to pull her in.

Hawthorne slammed both palms into the ground and called out to every seed she could reach. Vines and trees grew up and around the mass, but its rolling weight ripped them from their purchases as it plowed forward. Hawthorne dipped deeper into her power and her plants began to grow faster and thicker.

Something in between a scream and an earthquake erupted from the mass. The seeds on the blob had started to dig into its core. Blood began to ooze, but it was mixed with so much pus and oil that it was clear and barely dark enough to be called pink.

The mass started to wriggle, tearing more of the roots from the ground but also ripping open its flesh as the plants buried inside of it were forcibly torn or broken.

Attacks rained down from the roos above the mass. A lance of plasma pierced through its core, crossing paths with ice spears from across the street. A mecher flew overhead, dropping grenades as he went; no two exploded in quite the same way. A wind manipulator stood on the edge of his roof, gathering more and more wind into the palm of his hands until he held a hurricane above his head. He threw it at the blob; at first, its skin just dented under the ripping winds, but as they pierced through, the mass gave another cry and fell silent.

Hawthorne stared at the husk and called to the plants that weren’t buried too deep inside. The plants around the corpse shriveled until they were small enough to slither on the ground and back into her vest.

Her legs were already feeling weak, and she could feel the reserves of her power getting low already. But the day had barely begun. With the blob’s screams gone, she could hear the sounds of fighting from other parts of the city, and most of them weren’t going as well as hers.

Hawthorne Move!”

She jumped up and onto the roof, just in time to avoid another pillar of light. She wasn’t the only one that had heard Unimportant, and this pillar didn’t hit anyone.

Don’t stop!

The pillar started to grow wider. Hawthorne raced to the other end of the roof. A figure faded into existence in front of her and she grabbed Unimportant’s hand and whipped him onto her back before she kicked up the roof and over the center of the block. Another push sent the two of them over the street and halfway through the next block.

It stopped.”

Hawthorne planted both feet in front of her to keep from pitching over and turned around. The pillar had grown just large enough to absorb the blob, but it hadn’t managed to get any of the heroes.

“What’s it doing?”

it feels different; i think its pulling them apart.

The light vanished, and the corpses of 8 heroes had replaced the blob. The trees still grew straight through them, even piercing the armor of the mecher she had seen devoured, leaving them suspended in the air.

Hawthorne risked a glimpse at the figure in the sky. He was surrounded by every flying hero who could get close enough to launch their attacks. A blue streak darted around him; a lance of fire stretched from Burnout’s hands to Eclipse, but she could clearly see the shadow man through his and every other attac; as if they were being absorbed into him.

“How do you fight something like that?”

Eclipse waved a lazy hand and white and black rifts opened in the sky around him.

i don’t know

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Chapter 127: He is Here

The first sign came and went without a word.  A faint breeze rolled out from the sky brushing across the city. Most didn’t even feel it; the few who did welcomed the last of the summer winds in the cooling weather.

The second sign could only be seen from the outside. A dome of glowing shadow grew around the city. Traffic to the city halted in an instant. Planes and trains and cars were diverted within moments. But within the city limits, the world went on unchanged, the sun shined down from the cloudless sky, and people, without a second thought, changed their minds about leaving for a day. Nobody could call in, people who called out remembered conversations that never happened.

Nobody panicked until the third sign. A speck of darkness appeared before the sun, too small to see. It grew slowly, but by the time it covered a quarter of the sun, people were running. Shelters filled one after the other. A few of the less wise tried to go home, believing in the safety that only warm blankets could bring. Only the barest minimum tried to flee the city. They would drive until they ran out of gas, but they would never reach the barrier.

Throughout the city, heroes stared at the black sky. Even the ones who had been warned felt their hears freeze as the darkness grew deeper and larger. Eclipse had never been subtle, but this was on a completely different level from his normal tactics.

The sun would go out in minutes, but the man wouldn’t appear until darkness covered the entire sky.  He appeared as a sphere so black that it stood out even against the empty sky.

If the sky hadn’t been so dark, anyone on the streets would have seen the few flying heroes dot the sky, slowly crowding the area around the sphere, but no one attacked. Eclipse would hide in is shell until he was ready, and nothing would reach him until then.

An hour passed, and then another. The sphere hung motionless through it all. One by one, the less able flyers were forced to land until only a handful of heroes remained in the air.

Burnout hadn’t been forced to land, but he hung only a few feet off the ground, staying close to his friends for as long as he could. His flames glowed as bright as ever, but the darkness seemed to eat it before it traveled more than a foot from him.

Allspades sat on the edge of the roof, with his feet dangling off the edge and his hands resting on the ground behind him. His legs kicked, like a child sitting on a table, but his eyes never left the sphere, and his lips were thin and bloodless.

Hawthorne had stood for the first hour, but she had given up and had pulled a lounger off of a nearby patio. She leaned back idly with her arms crossed behind her head. From a distance, she looked comfortable, even relaxed, but anyone close enough would see the way her fingers dug into her forearms, the way her feet were tensed to spring up the moment something happened.

Unimportant was still standing. He wasn’t pacing, but he bounced from foot to foot like a puppet controlled by shaky hands. He was almost entirely there, as present as he’d forced himself to be at the very first meeting.

They’d been silent since the sun had gone out. When the sphere had appeared, it was like the city had stared holding its breath. Every one of them was just waiting for the moment it exhaled, because until it did, they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t going to scream.

All at once, the air grew lighter.

he’s coming” Unimportant was already fading from existence. “i’ll warn you if I can

Burnout rose into the sky. His armor grew brighter and its flames grew so hot that they had begun turning white.

Hawthorne did not jump up from the lounger like she’d been prepared to do. She rose to her feet smoothly and patted the nonexistent dust from her closthes.

Allspades stayed seated. His legs stopped swinging, but his face didn’t change.

The sound of the sphere cracking filled the air. It wasn’t the sound of an eggshell or of breaking glass. It wasn’t the sound of rending metal or splintering wood. It was too much more than any of those could be. It was the screaming of the city, the screaming of the world, as the sky shattered.

The monster stared down at them. Every hero in the city felt him meet his or her eyes. All of them would describe it differently. It was cold, it was hot, it was painful, it was comforting, it was sad, it was joyous. A thousand words, a thousand feelings, in a single glance. Memories that never were broke into their minds and tried to stuff them so full they would burst. No one died from that glance, but it was that glance that killed so many.

It was the next moment, the moment after they met his eyes, that every every hero would remember the same. Horror. True horror born from the deepest pieces of their hearts. A feeling that went so much deeper than fear that fight and flight stopped being options. The only thing to do was stand and die.

There were tears running down Allspades’ face.  Even after Eclipse had turned away, he didn’t move. His eyes stayed locked on the monster floating before them.

Hawthorne’s suit wouldn’t move. The hardened vines and branches, woven so thin but so dense that they could stop a bullet, could not move without her power. She struggled within, tried to force her will on them, but she didn’t have enough will to make them move.

Unimportant had been forced entirely into the world. If anyone had the strength to look, they would see his face, as clearly as a statue’s.

“If you doubt your resolve, you will always fail.” Burnout’s voice broke through the silence. His eyes were shut tightly, and his entire face was scrunched in pain. But his flames never faltered, they remained as bright and as hot and as solid as ever. The light of his fire overcame the darkness and he rose higher into the sky until it could be seen clearly by everyone.

History would remember the day Eclipse nearly destroyed every hero with a look. But it would also remember that Burnout, The Dragon Knight wreathed in blue fire, struck the first blow.

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Chapter 126: Escape

“Of course; come over whenever you want.”

Will shut the door and the warm smile on his face melted away. He’d thought that his neighbors would stop knocking after the first few days. He’d accepted the well wishes and house warming gifts; he’d been polite but soft-spoken the entire time. None of them should have been interested enough to come back for a second visit.

For the most part, it worked. Most of his neighbors would greet him in the hallway and keep walking. But this woman was persistent. When she found out that he didn’t have a job, she started dropping in when they were the only two on the floor. Worst of all, she didn’t seem to want anything. There was nothing he could do to convince her to leave without destroying the face he had built up those first few days.

The lights in his apartment were always kept dim. Even after the sun finally sank below the lower high-rises, his room remained in twilight. Will picked the glasses off his face and tossed them onto the counter.

The world outside turned dark, but when Will looked out the window, he saw faintly glowing lines tracing their way across the city.

“Oh.”

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

WIll stared at the cell door. It had been three days since the guard had spoken to him. He’d be back soon, and even if Will didn’t go home, he needed to get out of this cell. The cracks in the universe had started to cloud his vision until the entire world became a broken mirror.

Will lightly tapped his knuckles on the floor of his cell. With his powers blocked, it would be nearly impossible for him to escape without help.

There was a noise on the other side of the door and Will froze. The walls dampened the noise too much for him to make out what was going on, but this was more noise than he’d ever been able to hear before.

It was time. Will gripped the edge of the bed and pulled himself to his feet.

The door opened, a giant of a man stood there with a guard’s head clutched in each hand. The two guards hung lifelessly a few feet off the floor before he dropped them to the ground without a change in his lifeless face.

“Follow me. Tread softly.” The giant’s voice wasn’t as deep as he’d expected. It weighed on the air like a storm waiting to break and made Will’s skin grow clammy.

The giant turned and ambled down the hallway. Will stayed a few feet behind, hopefully out of reach of the giant’s grasp.

The giant led Will through the sub level, past a dozen unconscious guards.

“Why are you helping me?”

“This universe ended three months ago. It is attempting to vanish and recycle into the nothingness. You are the anchor keeping it here.”

Will wanted to ask more, but they had started going upstairs, and after months in his cell, he couldn’t hold onto his breath long enough to Talk, and the giant wasn’t in a hurry to say more. Each step was a chore, and his legs were already screaming at him to stop. The giant started to pull ahead, and Will forced himself to keep up.

The stairs ended at a blank wall. Will could see the seams of a door, but there was no handle or code panel to open it. The giant didn’t need one; he placed a single massive hand and the wall and pushed.

Will had to cover his ears to block the sound of metal tearing and gears groaning as they broke through their locks and began to turn. The blank door ground open inch by inch.

The moments had let Will regain some breath. “You could just kill me. It has to be easier. Getting me somewhere you can slide me out just gives them a chance to catch us.”

“Do you want me to kill you?”

Will didn’t say anything. He couldn’t see the giant’s face, but his fingers dug into the door.

“We need anchors to live. Only anchors can learn to see the cracks.”

The door finally opened enough for the two of them to get through. Light filtered through the door, but there was no warmth.

“This isn’t sunlight.”

“No.”

The giant stepped through the door and led Will into the night. The cracks should have been harder to see against the black sky, but out here they were surrounded by lines of bright light. The giant started to move quickly into the night.

“We do not have long. He will devour this world if we do not leave.”

“Who?”

The giant just started walking faster. Will had to jog to keep up with his strides, and was quickly out of breath.

“Here.”

The giant snapped his fingers and a third man stood before them in a bright white suit. He met the giant’s eyes and stared at Will.

“It is time to leave.”

He waved his hand and space unfurled. Another earth was easily visible through the other side. The giant placed a hand on Will’s back to scoop him up and toss him through the hole.

The man in the white suit closed the portal behind him as he stepped through. His footsteps clunked across the wooden balcony as he walked to a small table and sat down. He waved a hand at the giant, and the giant disappeared into the building behind them.

“I’m afraid my colleague doesn’t enjoy talking. I’m sure you have questions.”

Will stood up and brushed the dirt out of the remains of his clothes. He half stumbled to the table and had to brace himself against it to sit down. He stared at the man in the white suit through the drapes of his hair. “You rescue anchors to make sure worlds degrade.”

“Yes. If a world degrades enough, Barber will devour it and grow even more powerful.”

“Eclipse is dead. I saw it.”

The man in the white suit shook his head. “He cannot be killed. His existence is too broad. You saw the glowing lines?”

Will nodded.

“That was him; he shines through where the universe grows thin. You saw it through the cracks, but you will see it just as clearly when he returns to your world again.”

The man in the white suit looked into Will’s eyes, but Will wasn’t looking back. His face had lost all expression. “So it was meaningless.”

“Perhaps now you understand why we must do this.”

“I refuse.”

The man in the white suit raised an eyebrow.

“I’m done. I’m not giving up one martyrdom for another.”

The man in the white suit nodded. He did not look surprised, but the neutral lines of his face had turned downwards.

“Very well. I cannot claim to be pleased, but we will not force you. But I will leave you this.” He waved his hand and a small pager dropped into it. “Use this to contact us if you change your mind.”

He waved his hand again and a new portal opened. “This will take you home.”

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Will stared at the glowing lines tracing their way across the city. Then he went to sleep.

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Chapter 125: He is Coming

Allspades leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. Lux and Miss Mirror had managed to get all of them here, but it wasn’t until Red Racer and Hawthorne had told their stories that he understood why. Lux was getting ready to talk, but he took his time getting to the center of the group.

“We’ve gotten a dozen reports like yours. With the two of you tossed in, half of them are from solid sources. There is no doubt about it; Eclipse is going to attack. If any of you aren’t willing to fight, this is the only chance you get.”

None of them moved.

“Red’s not staying,” Miss Mirror said. Nobody looked surprised but Red, and she kept him quiet with a look.

Lux’s shoulders grew less rigid, but only a little. “We’re recalling everyone we can and getting all of the shelters ready. We can’t evacuate the city, but we’ll keep everyone as safe as possible.”

Lux’s words echoed through the room. The six of them barely took any space in the gym, and it felt emptier with every word. His voice didn’t waver, and he met the eyes of everyone in the room.

Red Racer looked away in moments. Miss Mirror rested a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gently squeeze.

Nobody could quite tell what Unimportant did, but a wave of uneasiness washed over them, and they could hear his chair squeaking.

Burnout and Hawthorne met his eyes, neither flinched, but flames danced along the tips of Burnouts fingers and the vines of Hawthorne’s suit were shifting.

Allspades let the words sink in. He hadn’t seen what Hawthorne and Red Racer had, but he believed every word. Time was looping back on itself. “Anyone who stays in the city could die.”

“We have a day at most,” Miss Mirror said from behind her brother. “A few hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people who have bolt bags ready, could make it out in time. Everyone else will be caught in a traffic jam or overloading trains. There are nearly 12 million people in this city. An optimistic estimate says we’d lose a quarter of them. The shelters are spaced so that everyone can get to one within an hour of an attack starting and can block anything short of a direct attack from Eclipse.”

Lux took over. “Which means that we need all of you to avoid talking about this to anyone you don’t trust. The moment we lose control of this information, Eclipse will have the advantage. All of you are going to be stationed in this neighborhood, you have good power coverage and know how to work together. Miss Mirror has gone through this before; she’s going to be organizing you and the three neighborhoods bordering yours, and we need to give this same talk to all of them. For now, figure out a shift schedule, two of you need to be awake at all times. We told Hawthorne enough to get you started.”

Lux didn’t give them time to ask questions before he turned on his heel and strode out the door. Miss Mirror followed close behind him.

“Mitch,” she said. “I’m stopping by the apartment on my way back here, if you’re not there I’m ripping every one of your suits to shreds, including the one you’re wearing. That gives you 15 minutes.”

The door shut behind her.

Burnout grabbed a stool and put it in the center of the room, he put his phone on top of it. “They’re gone, Mach.”

“I know that everyone is in costume, but I’m really not Mach anymore,” Tina’s voice came from the speaker. “Thanks for letting me listen in.”

“Hawthorne’s idea?” Allspades asked. Burnout and Hawthorne nodded. “Are you sure you want to be in on this?”

“I can’t do much from here,” Tina said. “But there’s a few mechers who put a lot of effort into hacking the street level cameras around the city; Burnout and I managed to sneak onto their feeds. I can help keep an eye out over the next day.”

Unimportant faded into existence. “what about the rest of us?”

One by one, the group turned to Hawthorne. She didn’t stand up; her back and shoulders slowly lost their stiffness and she half-slumped into her chair. Her headgear retracted into her suit and Allspades got a good look at her face. Deep, dark circles rimmed the bottom of her eyes, and she looked paler than she had last week.  “It keeps getting worse, doesn’t it?”

this is as big as it gets…aliens could invade next week and it would feel like a vacation

“I could go running off to Confluence again,” Allspades said. “Maybe this time, I can go into a club without getting my ass kicked.”

“I’d rather hide in another cave.” Burnout was staring at his hands and flexing his fingers; a small ball of fire danced along them.

“If you find one, tell me so I can hide my suits there.” Red Racer had wrapped his feet around the forelegs of his chair. His eyes were fixed on his lap, and he didn’t look up when spoke. “I wish I could be here with you guys.”

“Mitch,” Hawthorne said. “Rachel’s right. You’re too young for this. So far, the only major threat you fought head on was Frankenstein, and you passed out after getting one hit in.”

“It was a hell of a hit,” Allspades said. “You knocked down a monster that a lot of full grown heroes can’t even hit, but if you tried something like that against Eclipse, you’d be dead before you left the ground. When you’re stronger, you’ll be a force in any fight, but right now, every one of us would be too worried about you to fight.”

Red’s eyes never left his knees. “I know.” His voice was quiet, but everyone heard him.

“I can probably talk your sister into letting you come here,” Tina said. “It’ll get you further from the city, and we’ll both have some company.”

Red managed a half-hearted smile. “Okay.”

“Okay, we’ve wasted too much time already,” Hawthorne’s voice grew sterner, but it grew more tired with every word. “We have three mobile heroes, and two support. Sliders have always been able to tell when Eclipse was emerging into the world for an attack; Unimportant will need to have a line to the rest of us constantly so he can tell us if he feels something. Someone has to be on patrol, and at least one person needs to be awake. We don’t know how long we’ll be here, and there are bunks set up backstage, so we’re going to do six hour shifts. I can-”

“I’ll take the first shift,” Allspades said. “You need to get some sleep.”

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Chapter 124: Shatters

A figure in silver darted between him and the guns just before they fired. His sister walked slowly towards them; the bullets hit her and ricocheted into the ground two feet in front of her. The Elephant’s henchmen ran out of bullets before she’d walked halfway to them.

One by one, they dropped the guns, and feeling slowly returned to Red Racer’s legs. The henchmen dropped to their knees and put their hands behind their heads before she said a word. She placed a hand on each of their heads in turn, and they fell down unconscious one after the other. In less than 4 minutes, all 10 of the henchmen were laying on the floor.

Red jogged over to his sister’s side. She glanced down at him, a frown creasing her face.

“If they surrendered this easily, it’s because The Elephant is long gone already. I need to stay here and wait for the cops to come and pick them up. You should go home.”

“But-”

“Doing as I say is part of the deal. You need to go home and rest.” She glanced sideways at Red and sighed before letting a light smile to form on her face. “I’m sorry, but you froze again. You know you can’t stay out here after that.”

Red Racer wanted to argue, but the last time he tried, his sister had hidden his suit for a week.

“I’ll see you at home.” He hadn’t meant it to sound as abrupt as it did.

“I’ll pick up something to eat on my way, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”

Sirens echoed down the street as Red sped off. His fingers dug into the palms of his hands. Normally, it would only take him a few seconds to get home, but he ran up to the roof of the first tall building he could find and stopped.

The roof was mostly loose gravel with a single concrete footpath leading from the stairwell to various air ducts. There was no one up there, and there wasn’t going to be anytime soon.

Red Racer took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The air was crisper up here; cleaner than down in the streets where the filtering zeppelins couldn’t get to it so easily. The Air conditioners hummed all around the rooftop, but there was no other noise. Even the cars on the streets below couldn’t break the silence.

He didn’t want to be angry at Sara for sending him home. But he couldn’t help the tightening in his chest when she gave him an order. Her being right only made it worse.

Red took another breath. He felt the air rattling down to his lungs and shivered. The guns were back, floating beneath his eyelids. He shut his eyes tighter, so tightly that he began to see spots, but he couldn’t make them go away.

He opened his eyes and forced himself to look past the phantoms. He should get home.

“Doing as I say is part of the deal. You need to go home and rest.” Miss Mirror glanced sideways at Red and sighed before letting a light smile to form on her face. “I’m sorry, but you froze again. You know you can’t stay out here after that.”

Red Racer stared blankly at his sister. His face grew cold as the blood slowly drained from it. The henchmen were all lying unconscious on the ground, in the exact same positions he remembered.

“Red?” She turned fully towards him. “Are you okay?”

He barely managed to nod. This couldn’t be real.

“Are you sure? You look like you’re seeing a ghost. Look, wait over by the alley and I’ll go home with you. I’m not sure if you should be running right now.”

Red managed to stumble over to the sidewalk and lean against the building. Sirens echoed down the street.

Something was wrong, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Had he done something? Had he run in some kind of time loop? No…he’d been standing still when it had happened. Or had he? He tried to focus on the memory, but the details had faded away, he knew that time had fun back on itself, but he couldn’t remember where he was when it happened.

He needed to tell his sister. She would know what had happened. Or she would be able to talk to someone.

“Red!”

The shout shook him out of his stupor. HE turned to face his sister. She was hunched over and examining his face.

“I think you might be coming down with something.” She grasped his arm and squeezed it gently. “Come on, you’re not running like that, so I’m gonna have to carry you home. You need to get to bed.”

He didn’t have time to talk before she scooped him up and launched them both into the sky.

“Sis-“ The wind drowned out his voice.

Red glanced below them. He stared at the tallest building on the way home, but could only barely understand why.

Miss Mirror held him close and flew high into the air above the clouds. He felt one of her arms flick below him and her outfit changed colors, easily blending in with the sky.

The dropped quickly, faster then gravity should have pulled them, but they landed on the roof with the grace of ten cats.

Red followed his sister down to their apartment.

“Change into something warm, I’ll grab the thermometer.”

“Rachel, wait.”

She didn’t stop rummaging through the drawers. “Yeah?”

“I’m not sick. I…I saw something weird-eird.”

She stopped rummaging and turned towards him. Her mask had been peeled away and he looked straight into her eyes.  He hadn’t echoed like that in weeks.

“I’m not sure how to explain it, but, things started happening twice.”

“You mean like déjà vu?”

“No. I was already on my way home, and then I was back with you and you said the same thing you just had.”

Rachel stared into his eyes without blinking until he looked away. His gaze landed on her hand, gripping the counter so tightly that it had turned paper-white.

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Chapter 123: Beginning of the End

2 months 29 days after Jaeger’s attack

The robber ran around the corner; he was already taking to the sky, but Hawthorne didn’t make much effort to follow. She clasped her hands together and the sleeves of her suit sprouted vines that grew and wound together.

A flash of blue filled the intersection and the thief arced over the bank he’d been robbing. Hawthorne tossed the vines into the air. The ball of plants smacked the robber as he fell and cocooned him in their grasp.

He landed with a soft thud. Hawthorne lightly tapped the bundle with her foot. She could feel the vines constricting against the thief’s struggles, but they were in no danger of breaking. She set a time limit before they’d fade away; the cops knew how to get through anything she could make, but she never felt right leaving someone tied up if she didn’t know they could get out eventually.A gentle blue light descended behind her. “Cops are almost here. You wanna stick around?”

“I snagged his mask while the bank’s cameras were still on him. Let’s go before-”

Applause and cheers filtered out from the bank.

“Too late,” Burnout said. “Just wave. It’s all it takes and you have to get used to it.”

Hawthorne joined Burnout and waved at the crowd. “I think liked it better when they didn’t know who we were. At least back then it felt like the thank-yous actually meant something. At this rate, we’re going to wind up on the news every time we go on patrol.”

“It’s not nearly that bad. Plus, we did take out Trump and Jaeger; it’s not like we don’t’ deserve some recognition.”

Hawthorne looked to the bank’s roof. There wasn’t anything there, but she nudged Burnout and pointed anyway. He glanced up, and took a second to follow her when she launched herself to the roof.

The sun was setting in the distance. Hawthorne’s arms and legs felt like lead after yet another day of patrol after a full day of work. She took her time walking to the other side of the roof, Burnout hovered just behind her.

“I need to get home,” she said. “Let the others know I may not be coming tomorrow. Work’s not going to be letting up for a while.”

“I’ll tell them. I don’t think anyone will have a problem with it. It’s not like we have a real reason for meeting up anymore.”

Hawthorne shook her head. “We have the only reason we need.”

She leapt away before Burnout could ask her what she meant.

The air was cooling quickly, and the rushing wind soaked into her aching muscles. There was a cat circling on the ledge of the building below her. Its tail was held high in the air and twitching slightly, but it vanished from beneath her before she could get a closer look.

Even with the roots absorbing most of the bow, the pain in her legs grew worse as she landed. She only had another block before she could sneak back to her car, but at this rate she would barely be able to walk in the morning.

Of course they still met up for a reason. She believed that, even if she didn’t understand it. No matter how ready all of them were to commit to being heroes, there was still something missing before they could go out on their own. The others felt it too, even if Burnout had his doubts. They still needed each other’s support, especially after Will vanished.

She jumped again, the anticipation of the cold air was enough to keep her moving. There was a cat circling on the ledge of the building below her. Its tail was held high in the air and twitching slightly, but it vanished from beneath her before she could get a closer look.

Maybe they just needed closure. Will had brought them together to decide whether or not they were going to be heroes, and even if they had all decided they were, they had never been able to announce it. They had all just…naturally reached the point where they didn’t have any doubts. It could be, that all they would have needed was for Will to get them together and tell them that they were heroes after all. But they hadn’t even gotten that much from him.

Hawthorne froze.

She had moved in a straight line. It couldn’t have been the same cat. Seeing a few cats and dogs wasn’t that strange, especially with rooftop parks on half the apartments. But the way it moved; the way it’s tail bounced as it walked. It all seemed too strange.

The pain in her legs doubled. She had been on patrol all day, and she was only a block from her car. She would never forgive herself in the morning if she spent another half hour on the streets just because she saw a couple of weird cats.

Hawthorne pulled a seed from her vest. It wasn’t a particularly special seed, but it was one of her own creations. Hawthorne dropped it into a crack on the roof and let it sprout just enough to keep it in place. It would be easy enough to find when she needed it.

She trudged to the other side of the roof. Her car was in the lot just below her.

Her mask unwove from her face around the corner from the lot, where there were no cameras and no people.

She climbed into her car carefully and, not for the first time, wished she’d picked up the version with the massager build into the seat. It would have helped with the soreness; it might have even been worth the fact that she’d probably end up falling asleep with it running instead of going home.

Even the five minute drive home was enough to turn her legs to jelly for the walk up to her apartment. It took her two tries to unlock her apartment door before she was finally able to collapse onto bed.

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MEMOIRS OF THE SECOND AGE 4: Burnout

Unimportant said you’d be coming.  I’d say sorry for the mess, but I don’t exactly clean up the cave for the one week I use it.

I’d really rather stay back here. I don’t look pretty when I’m like this, and I’ve scared people before. Let’s just get the interview going.

You wanted to know about Will, right? The man at both sides of the Second Age.

I think Unimportant got you to the most important part. There isn’t much to tell until Eclipse attacked, and I think you know more than enough about that.

He disappeared for three months after Jaeger attacked. No, wait, he didn’t’ quite disappear. We all saw him once. He’s walk behind us and we’d see him in a reflection, or lock eyes with use from across the street, but he was always gone if by the time we reached him. If it hadn’t happened to all of us, I would have thought I was seeing things.

We couldn’t have meetings without Will, but by then I don’t think there was any way we were going to stop being heroes. I think Will knew that too, or maybe I just feel less abandoned that way.

We’d still meet up every few weeks, and we’d patrol together when we could. It had become a habit at that point, and it’s always better to have someone watching your back.

If I had to be honest, it was the quietest three months of our careers. After Jaeger and Trump, a lot of new heroes showed up. Nobody you’d know, most of them didn’t last long, but a few dozen new heroes looking to prove themselves make for a pretty good fishing net for everyday villains.

I didn’t mind the help. I’d only been able to harden my flames for a few weeks, and I needed the time to practice.

By the end of those three months, I could keep the armor up constantly, and the wings had started looking less and less like they were made of fire. They had started to become the most recognizable part of my outfit.

The others were just as busy. Hawthorne still had her job, Allspades had started teaching classes at the gym, and Unimportant’s crusade had never even stopped. Red had started patrolling with his sister. I don’t think she wanted anyone to get any ideas now that they knew he was Jaeger’s son.

We did have some time to look for Will, but nowhere to start. He’d cleaned out his apartment, he wasn’t going to any of his usual bars, and none of the heroes he used to talk to weekly had heard or seen anything. We even spent a week taking turns camping out on top of the Kalliope hall. He never showed up.

Will was gone. He had grown up under the head of the largest organization of government paid walkers in the world. He knew how to disappear. Nobody who knew his name saw or heard any hint of him for those three months. If things had happened a little differently, then he might have disappeared forever. Maybe it would have been better that way.

We managed to piece some things together later. After that first week where he showed himself to all of us, he dyed his hair. He cut it too, but it was already short enough that he couldn’t do much about that. He started smiling more, not because he was happy, but because it stretched his face in a way we wouldn’t recognize.

At some point he broke his nose. I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but he let it heal crooked anyway.

We found his new apartment after he died. He must have had a lot more money saved away than we thought, because it was three times as large as his old one and in the part of town with so much money you’d swear it was paved with it. It was, of course, the last place we’d think to look.

There were other touches too, I’m sure, but those were the ones he couldn’t change by the time we saw him.

He had decided to start over. And he was doing a good job of it. His neighbors all seemed to like him, he’d quit drinking, he even got a pet. Or at least he was planning on getting one. He had the food and a litter box, but we never found a cat.

The end of the second age started two weeks before Will died. That’s when the weirdness started, but I’m guessing you have enough reports on that.

-Burnout
Memoirs of the Second Age

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Chapter 122: Unwilling

They were laughing. They were all together for the first time since Frankenstein’s attack, and they were taking the chance to celebrate. It was the kind of thing that most heroes never took the time to do.

Will watched them from a roof across from the hospital. Two of them were in hospital beds, and a third would probably be confined as soon as the nurses realized he’d left his room again. But they were alive; they were safe. They’d taken out a villain who should have killed them all.

And he’d been gone. For nearly two weeks.

It had taken days for the news of Jaeger’s escape to reach the people who needed to know the most. Rachel and Mitchell should have been moved out of the city where Jaeger couldn’t find them. There were at least three heroes near the city with powers that could neutralize Jaeger in the right circumstances. But the information had died before it reached who it needed to.

He hadn’t made his rounds. He’d spent years making sure news made it through the city, but he never realized that he made himself essential. He was supposed to disappear, and instead he’d become just as important as Will Writer as he’d been as Rumor.

Those kids were his responsibility. They never should have been fighting somebody like Jaeger, not when there was another option. He should have been there to stop them, to keep them safe.

“And how far would you have gone?” The voice was loud and clear, but it never touched his ears.

“Stay out of my head, Meister.”

A figure appeared on the roof next to him. Today, he was a walking shadow wearing a green hood held on by a red brooch, but when you weren’t really there, you could look like anything you wanted to.

“Trust me, I’m more than happy to stay out of the mosh-pit you call a brain, but when you think that loudly, you can’t blame people for listening in.”

Will shoved his thoughts beneath a layer of noise, and Meister flickered for a moment.

“That…was rude. And you’re trying to change the subject. When Jaeger came after his son, what would you have done?”

“It wouldn’t have gotten that far.”

Meister snorted. “Even you aren’t that conceited. Jaeger wouldn’t have fallen for any trap you set. He had already taken out the only Council member still in the city, the only runner we thought had a chance with keeping up with him. He couldn’t be tracked. He couldn’t be trapped. He would have found his son. What would you have done?”

Will stared into the hospital room. The nurses had shown up and were trying to get Mitchell to go back to his room. The others were starting to wrap up too. Soon, Burnout and Allspades would be the only ones left in the room.

“It’s my job to keep them safe. I would have done whatever I needed to.”

“Even if it meant revealing yourself to them? To anyone watching? You couldn’t fight subtly against Jaeger. You’d have destroyed everything between you two just to have a chance. And suddenly, Rumor’s back in town. Your name would be on every news reel and headline in the country. So tell me, what would Will Writer do if Rumor couldn’t hide anymore.”

The nurses had finally corralled Mitchell, and the rest of the team was following them out the door.

“Do you see them? Every one of them is still alive. Not because of anything I did, but in spite of what I did. Every choice I’ve made for them has turned out worse than the one before it. And they’ve been hurt, one of them will probably never be further than a few feet form a wheelchair. It’s only a matter of time before one of them dies. And you know what? None of them are even thinking about quitting; not seriously. The trials they’ve faced in the last few months, have made them strong enough to take on Jaeger and come out on top. If I had been there, I would have used my powers, because they will do more good in their lives than I ever will again.

“And then, I would do what Rumor does best. I would disappear. I would go somewhere I could vanish and never look back. Because I couldn’t do anything worse for those kids than staying close to them.”

“You tried that once. You couldn’t stay away.”

The light in the hospital room turned off, and Will finally looked away.

“I didn’t have a good enough reason to.”

Meister’s projection never moved, but it stayed next to Will as he walked for the edge of the roof.

“And what will you do now? Those kids are waiting for you. They spent the days before Jaeger’s attack trying to track you down. They’ll find out you came back, and they’ll be waiting for you.”

Will flooded his mind with noise and Meister vanished. Will didn’t have long; he’d probably be sending Lux over soon.

Will took the stairs anyway. Lux was good at finding him, but Will was better at knowing when he’d be coming.

Meister’s question still lingered in the air. He could go back to his old life. This group didn’t need him anymore; they were heroes, and all of them had realized it by now. But there was always another group; there were kids out there who really did need to quit the job to keep themselves alive. He could wipe the slate; go back to being the person he was before that first meeting.

But those kids had gotten to him. There were heroes out there who needed to quit, and he didn’t think he could convince them anymore.

He couldn’t be that guy again. He couldn’t be Rumor again. He didn’t know who he was going to be tomorrow.

Will Writer walked out of the empty building and climbed into the fist cab.

He never called another meeting.

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Chapter 121: Running Down

Red stumbled, and Jaeger’s next hit forced his feet off the ground. The debris trailing him fell to the ground and didn’t rise again.

Red hit the ground and bounced until he slammed into the far wall. Dust blocked the world from his views.

He let the dust settle on him, but he didn’t move.

Jaeger was faster. Every time they got close to each other, Jaeger go that much faster than him. He had been playing with him the whole time, and it seemed like he was finally done playing. Even if Red got up and ran as fast as he could, he would never catch up.

His eyes were closed, but Red didn’t see darkness. His hands were covered with blood, and he was shaking so much that he couldn’t focus on anything else. Something clicked in his ear.

The guns were back. He couldn’t hold the image back any more, and they swam to the font of his mind like they’d never left. A single gunman was standing in front of him. Red could look straight down the gun’s barrel.

Shadows crept out of the barrel. Long tendrils of blackness slithered through the air, reaching towards him. He wanted to run away, but he couldn’t move. Through the thickening darkness, he could see the gunman preparing to pull the trigger. Red only had one option left.

He opened his eyes, but the image didn’t vanish. Jaeger stood in the middle of the clearing; the faceless man with the gun stood next to him.

Debris orbited Jaeger; even the dust that had settled onto Red was drifting away into his field.

Jaeger stared at Red until the last of the dust drifted away, and then he turned to the heroes he had piled to the side. The gunman turned with him.

Red’s eyes were still trying to move at super speed.  Jaeger strolled over to Red’s friends, but to Red, it looked like he was underwater.

Red’s eyes grew big, and he tried to get to his feet. His heart was racing, but the blood in his veins was crawling. He forgot the fire in his legs as ice started to grow in his chest and his insides grew hollow.

If Jaeger was underwater, then Red was stuck in syrup. Every inch of movement seemed to cost him minutes, and Jaeger grew that much closer to his friends, to his sister.

He finally got his feet beneath him and reached for his power. There was nothing there. His breaths grew shallow and he reached further and further, but the power slid away from him.

Jaeger was close now, he was only steps away from them now. The gunman had stopped moving; he turned and stared at Red. Even though he didn’t have a face, Red knew he was smirking. He turned back away and raised his gun.

Red’s heart stopped. His nails bit into the palms of his hands. The gunman took his time, trailing his weapon across each of the figures lying on the floor. Finally, it rested on his sister.

Red started running. Even without his power, even though he would never make it in time, Red ran straight for Jaeger.

His shoes scuffed the ground. The sound echoed through the battlefield.

Jaeger’s head whipped towards him. For the briefest moment, his eyebrows arched, and his mouth started to form a word.

There was a trickle of power, barely within reach, and Red snatched it up. He ran through the gunman, and the figure slinked into the back of his mind again.

Jaeger finished turning. His shock had turned into a smile. He started to run.

To Jaeger, Red might as well be standing still, but Red’s eyes could still see Jaeger circling to his left. Before their powers clashed, Red grabbed everything he had and shoved it at Jaeger.

Both of them went flying, but this time, Red was ready for it. There was more power there now and Red grabbed everything he could before it vanished again. He landed on his feet and took off.

They had the same power. Every time they hit, whatever power they let go of was up for grabs. That was why, even now that Red had managed to push Jaeger back just a little, he still wasn’t moving as fast as he should have been able to.

Red felt a smile grow on his face. Jaeger was still faster than him, but that could change.

Jaeger was moving again, but Red stayed still. His eyes followed Jaeger as the villain circled towards him.

It had worked once.

The ground was shaking beneath them, but neither paid any attention. Neither could afford to focus on anything else.

Jaeger was smiling as he reached Red, but Red flexed his power at the last second. He launched himself at full speed, shoulder first into Jaeger, shoving everything he had into the attack. It wouldn’t have worked on most runners, they would see it coming and be able to adjust, but Jaeger had let Red get the drop on him once before, and he didn’t think it could happen twice.

Red barely slid back, but Jaeger flew across the battlefield before he was able to stop himself.

There was even more power up for grabs now, and Red got over half of it.

He couldn’t stay still and keep all the power he had grabbed. Red Ran straight for Jaeger.

The two of them circled each other, spiraling towards the center of the battlefield.  As they got closer, the pieces of debris following them started to crash into each other. A low grinding began to fill the air as the twin spirals of dust started to grind against each other.

They were almost going the same speed now. When they finally clashed, they froze in place. They were both desperately grabbing at the other’s power, and neither of them was winning.

Jaeger’s fingers curled into a fist and slammed into Red’s face.

The power slipped between the gaps in his grasp and he slammed into the ground. He felt something snap in his arm, and he had to freeze to keep form screaming. The shaking ground reverberated through his arm. He couldn’t focus through the pain.

“You are strong.”

Red looked at Jaeger. The villain’s voice was smooth and oddly comforting. Despite that, Every word sent a shiver down Red’s spine.

“But you do not know your strength. I-“

Red launched himself forward. His feet didn’t even get a chance to hit the ground before he slammed into Jaeger and desperately grabbed all the power he could.

It wasn’t enough; Red hit the ground again, and Jaeger barely moved.

“It seems that you still need to learn patience.”

Red scrambled to his feet. He was good arm was still on the gorund when he sped up and had to fight the rest of his way up while he was running.

They started spiraling again, but this time, Jaeger was faster. The grinding filled the air again. It masked the sound of the shaking ground, but only barely.

There was a shout from somewhere, and plants burst from the ground.

Red jumped; he sailed over the growing plants.

Jaeger was moving too fast. One of the roots sprung up right in front of his foot and he tipped forward.

A glowing figure slammed onto Jaeger’s back, and Red saw his eyes bulging. More importantly, he felt Jaeger’s grip on the power loosening.

Red desperately clawed all of the loose power towards him.

Red landed gently outside the ring of plants. He turned back. Allspades was glowing; and the light was digging into the ground around him.

Jaeger was trying to force Allspades off, but he couldn’t lift him up.

Two more figures floated towards the two.

Burnout was using the armor he’d seen on the news, but it started to fade as chains of fire wrapped around Jaeger’s form.

His sister kept floating towards Jaeger. She landed next to him and collapsed to her knees. She raised her fist and slammed into Jaeger’s head, breaking straight through his power and knocking him out.

The glow vanished from around Allspades, and he collapsed to the side. Burnout was sitting on the ground, but he managed to keep the chains on Jaeger.

A hand rested on his shoulder.

Red met Hawthorne’s eyes, and he knew she was smiling under her helmet.

The two of them walked to his sister’s side, and she immediately pulled him into a hug.

The others were looking at them.

Red felt blood rush to his cheeks, but he smiled and hugged his sister back.

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