Hawthorne

Memoirs of the Second Age: Hawthorne

So you finally got to me?

From what the other’s said, you’ve heard everything about his death that you could want.

No…you’re right. I suppose there’s a few more things you need to know.

Most people say that that night ended the Second Age. After all, that’s when the biggest monster the world had ever known was finally killed for good. Ten years later, and we’ve never seen anything like him since.

But Ages don’t end when people die. We lost three members of the Council that night, and most of the others retired over the next two years. It was their replacements who started the New Age.

No, I’m not talking about me. I was the last to switch in, and Lux stayed around for years after he stopped serving.

I know a lot of people look on the Second Age like we did the first. I’ve heard them calling it the Gilded Age, as if the Council had just covered up all the shit that had gone wrong, but the rules they set up were solid. The fact is that, at the time, nobody could have fixed the system better than they did.

In the end, there was just too much new blood for the old ways to stick around. Macropolis worked well, but so many other cities were failing under the same rules. The new system works better, it lets people know that they’ll be protected no matter where they live.

But that’s not really what you’re here about is it? You already talked to the others, you know what happened with them.

Fine. I’ll go through it.

After her brother died, Miss Mirror went on a crusade. It took Mach-sorry, I meant Scanner-nearly a year to calm her down. Eventually, she took over Will’s job at the support groups. From what I’ve heard, she does a good job. She makes sure the kids that get to her take it seriously, and she’s been keeping a close eye on them.

Allspades took over the hero gym after Phil died. He has to close up earlier than Phil did to keep up his patrols, but the place is more popular than ever. He lets Miss Mirror use it for meetings when her groups need to let off steam, and I think he’s taken more than a few of the kids under his wing. Better living through punch, I guess.

It was three years before Mach took on her new mantle. Between the physical therapy and learning what her powers could really do…let’s just say that we’re lucky she’s as smart and determined as she is. She mostly consults for the police and other heroes, but she’d solved more cases in the last year than any five precincts combined. I think she works for the government sometimes too, but she doesn’t like talking about it.

Unimportant kept his personal war going until he and Scanner finally tracked Asclepios down five years ago. We thought he was going to retire after that. We even bought a cake. But six months later, he was back on the streets. It’s hard to know just how many people he’s taken down, but every time a new gang’s warehouse has an unexpected fire or a drug shipment ends up spilling onto the road, I’m sure he has something to do with it.

Burnout’s powers keep growing stronger. He works as a hero, but it’s hard to justify sending him after smaller threats. When he goes all out, he looks scarier than most villains do. If we stuck to the old system, then he would have needed to be reclassified by now, but now he’ll always be stuck somewhere in the middle. When you look at him, it’s hard to remember the college kid who was more afraid of his power than anything else.

After Lux took a back seat, I took his place on the Council. I’m in charge of this region, so I didn’t have to leave home, but it still takes me out of the city for a few months every year. Like I said, I came in at the tail end of the changeover, but there were more than a few issues that had to be stamped down to get everything working right. I like to think I helped everything turn out for the better, but it’ll probably be another few years before hindsight kicks in.

…You really want to hear about that?

Okay, it just seems like a bad way to end things.

Red Racer had three funerals. His name was carved into the memorial, just like everyone else who died that day. The whole city was there.

He was buried next to his parents. We wanted to be there, but the only one who had a good reason for showing up at the funeral was Scanner. All of his classmates were there when they lowered him in.

Our funeral couldn’t start until they left. The grave had been filled in, but everyone who was a part of both of his lives was there. We each had something to say-and there’s no way I’m letting you put what that was in your book. After what he did, he deserves the privacy.

Rumor’s name is carved on the memorial with Red’s, but I still can’t think of him and Will as the same person.  Will would have told you that Rumor died years before that, and I think that’s the best way to think of it.

Will’s funeral was massive. I don’t know how many of the people attending were heroes, but line at the graveyard was long enough that I was worried about the city’s safety.

It was almost surreal. Hardly any of them had anything nice to say about Will. All of them thought of him as a hero, and nobody was happy to see him go, but it was almost like they were they out of obligation. But nobody disappeared after they said their piece, and nobody left after the coffin was lowered. They all stayed until the grave was filled in and they were slow leaving after that.

It was like they were waiting for him to be alive again.

Easily a hundred people stood in the rain watching a grave with an empty coffin.

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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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Chapter 118: Thrill of the Hunt

He couldn’t help the toothy grin that stretched his face. There was something special about using one hero as a weapon against another that few things could match. He’d missed the looks of shock, followed by the quick calculating moments where they tried to avoid hurting each other.

The boy stopped dead when he flew into Miss Mirror. There wasn’t even the sound of an impact. He fell from her grasp, dropping the short distance to the ground and climbing to his feet without a hint of discomfort.

Jaeger’s grin vanished. That wasn’t as fun as he’d hoped.

The world blurred by in nearly perfect clarity. The ground and air warped around him as he ran just past the one he’d thrown before coming to a sudden dead stop. The boy tried to keep his ground, but the full force of Jaeger’s wake slammed into him. He tumbled away, not far, but far enough to let Jaeger’s prey come down to the ground.

She didn’t say a word. Her eyes glowed a blue so pale and bright they almost looked silver. They met his and didn’t waver. She wouldn’t be talking yet.

She may as well have been punching through mud. He slid around her fist, but his wake slid off of her like water splitting on a boulder.

Her father had been similar. Gravity had obeyed him more finely than Jaeger could use his weapon; but it had taken him hours to set the trap that robbed Jaeger of his speed. This girl didn’t have his powers, and she didn’t have his skill.

Jaeger ran, circling the girl with ever tightening loops.

The girl’s face twisted, first into confusion, and then into glorious shock. Her eyes narrowed. She tried to take a step towards the circle’s edge, but she couldn’t get any purchase on the ground. She tried to through her weight forward, but ended up cartwheeling in the air. Her skin was starting to flush and she started gasping and clutching at her head.

Jaeger leapt over the branch that grew in his path and came to a dead stop just short of the wall fob lure fire that sprouted in his path. It had happened almost too late for him to react.

The girl collapsed to the ground. Her skin was already returning to normal, but she wouldn’t be getting up until he was ready for her.

More prey had arrived. Three extras; the first boy and a new boy and girl. He had always enjoyed bonus prey, but today he had a goal beyond the hunt, and none of them looked to make good trophies. He couldn’t afford to have fun with these interferences.

The three of them were shouting at each other, but the words were meaningless. None of them were talking about his goal.

The first boy, the strong one, was glowing brightly enough that Jaeger had trouble looking at him.

He leapt for Jaeger. He might as well have walked for all the good it did. Jaeger slammed his elbow into the boy’s sternum, but there was no give in the strike. The boy’s armor blocked his hit and the boy’s weight slammed into Jaeger.

Jaeger’s speed clashed with the glow, and they both stopped dead. Even Jaeger’s wake couldn’t reach the boy.

Blue flames sprouted around the two of them. They started small, but they were soon taller than either of them.

“Now!”

The shout came from outside the dome. The ground rose up around them, cracking as plants grew from the concrete.

The boy leapt backwards; the plants gave him a boost and the flames weakened just enough to let him through.

The plants gripped Jaeger’s legs tightly and the dome of fire closed overhead.

This prey was turning out to be interesting more interesting than he expected. But just because it knew more tricks than he expected, didn’t mean that they were tricks he hadn’t seen already.

Jaeger flexed his power. The cracked street rose around him in a ring and slammed into the ground. The plants around his legs were cut off from their roots and stopped growing. He flexed his power again, and, with a kick, launched himself at the wall of fire.

Jaeger laughed as the fire burst apart at his touch.

The wall vanished behind him. The faint whupping of a helicopter meant that the news had found him again.

“Did you think to trap a hunter? You are just more prey waiting for my fangs. The decision on when they reach you is entirely yours. So which will it be-”

His prey was stunned. He could see the look in their eyes. The inner struggle that all prey went through before the hunt grew fun.

“Fight?”

He blurred forward, stopping just short of the girl in the center.

“Or Flight?”

His wake slammed into her. She skidded back a few feet, before her clothes reached down and buried themselves into the ground to stop her.

She was the plant manipulator, the more dangerous prey.

Her helmet would be made of plants too; she had armored herself well, but he had broken through worse.

Jaeger’s fist struck her in the stomach. There was a loud crack and splinters burst from the new hole in her vest. Her breath was forced form her lungs. He frowned at his lack of control. He hadn’t hit her hard enough to kill. A second layer of armor had kept him from piercing her flesh.

A glowing fist tried to catch him off guard. Jaeger’s head crooked to the side and the fist passed over his shoulder.

The arm came around to try and grab him, but Jaeger ducked beneath it and darted to the side, leaving the girl to collapse onto the ground.

Before she had hit, he was behind the glowing boy and his fist slammed into his head. The glow had been returning from his hand, but there wasn’t enough of it built up to stop his blow completely anymore.

The boy’s head snapped forward, taking the rest of his body with it and slamming into the girl’s helmet. The helmet was crushed from the blow. And there was blood trickling down the back of the boy’s neck.

Fire tore through the air where Jaeger had just been. This one thought he was safe because he wasn’t on the ground.

Jaeger smiled. He grabbed the strong one’s legs and spun him around. It only took one spin before Jaeger let him go and sent him shooting towards the fire boy faster than he’d thrown him at his first Prey.

He moved to catch his friend, but he couldn’t move fast enough. The two of them collided and the fire boy lost his height. His armor flickered for less than a second, but that was all Jaeger needed.

Jaeger’s fingers clawed into the fire boy’s ankles, and he kept running. The boy tried to fight back, but his flames were dragged away before they could reach Jaeger.

Jaeger slammed straight into a building. His powers kicked in, forcing the wall to part before him. He didn’t grant his passenger the same privilege.

There was a disappointing lack of blood on the boy’s face. He must have kept his helmet on long enough to take the blow for him.

Jaeger dragged him to the others. None of them had died outright.

Originally, he hadn’t planned on killing anyone until he had found his son, but these three had interfered with his hunt. He could not let that go unpunished.

A long sturdy knife appeared from his belt. He could collect some trophies before forcing the tricksters’ daughter into leading him to his son.

He froze.

Gravity had just shifted away from him, but not in the way that the trickster had done.

He searched desperately for the source.

Something small and fast was coming straight for him.

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Chapter 115: First Hunt

No matter how fast she ran, she never got any closer. The man in black and silver was always a few dozen steps ahead of her.

Zero reached into her well of power and drew forth even more speed. Her legs moved faster and pushed harder off the ground. She gained a step on him, but as soon as she did, he gained it back.

It had been thirteen years since Jaeger had been locked away. She’d still been in the hospital after Hermes had died, but even if she hadn’t, she would have stayed away from that fight. Thirteen years ago she wasn’t even a tenth as fast as she was now, and Jaeger had been faster than any runner in the world.

For thirteen years, he had been kept nearly immobile in a cell, and she’d been getting faster. A week ago, she knew she was faster than anyone on this side of the world, and a strong contender on the other. But Jaeger was outpacing her at every step, and she knew that he hadn’t pulled everything out just yet.

Jaeger turned a corner. When she followed, he was gone.

The air was forced out of her lungs before she could feel the blow to her back. It lifted her off the ground and sent her plummeting forward.

At some point, she flipped. It was half a block before her shoulder hit the ground, sending her skipping like a stone on a lake.

She tried to catch herself on the second skip, but when her foot hit the ground it forced her knee into her chest. Her kneecap met her ribs and neither survived. If there was any air left in her lungs, it was gone.

Bye the third skip, she couldn’t protect her head any longer. She was barely conscious of closing her eye while left side of her face scraped along the ground before her tumble lifted it into the air again.

She was still at nearly full speed when, mercifully, her back slammed into the side of a reinforced truck. The thick metal was designed to outlast a tank. She dented it nearly to the breaking point before the entire truck tipped onto its side.

She bounced out of the dented metal, but she came to rest only a dozen yards away. She had just enough time to wonder about the pain before it hit her all at once and her mind faded.

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Burnout’s phone clattered to the ground as it finally slid from his listless hand. The camera was zooming out from the accident, revealing the trail of destruction in the wake of Zero’s crash. The billboard quickly replaced the image with the anchor’s sitting at their desk but the damage was done.

He wasn’t the only one who was entrapped by the image. Allspades’ eyes had grown narrow and he was muttering something under his breath. Hawthorne’s costume was writhing and a few tendrils were swaying around her. Unimportant had faded into the background. Even Miss Mirror had stopped floating and her cape had stopped fluttering in the nonexistent wind.

Zero had been defeated, humiliated, by a runner she couldn’t even hope to keep up with.

He could feel the fire at his core shrinking away. How was he supposed to fight somebody like that?

“That’s Red’s father?” The words felt thick on his tongue. He made a vain attempt to swallow but his mouth was arid.

“He’s been in jail for as long as Red’s been alive.” Miss Mirror sounded less firm than she had in the minutes before the broadcast. “I never imagined that he’d still be so fast. If he hadn’t gone to the hospital to visit his newborn son, then he never would have been caught.”

It was the kind of trap that could only work once. The perfect set of powers and information to keep Jaeger still just long enough knock him out and put him in a cell designed to keep runner’s from moving. One hero to grab hold of the local gravity before he could and one to hit him in the exact spot needed hard enough to get him down; her parents.

“I don’t think we can be much help.” Everyone turned to Allspades, but his eyes never left the billboard. “I saw him before coming here. He’s not just fast, he carved a symbol into the Headquarters in a single pass and I didn’t even see him doing it. We don’t have the powerset to catch him; he’d see any trap we could set.”

Burnout agreed, in spite of himself. He’d read a dozen ways to catch runners with fire, and his armor added a few more, but there was nothing he could do to catch someone that fast. Maybe he could set up some kind of updraft corridor that would force him off the ground? He’d never tried to keep a steady fire going that far from himself, but his fingers tingled with heat.

The expression on Miss Mirror’s face widened slightly before Allspades spoke again.

“We should focus on keeping him away from Red. How many people know about them?”

“Not many,” Miss Mirror said. “Our granpdarents, Will, Zero; maybe Janus if she put it together. Zero may have told the Council, but she said she wouldn’t yet. But-”

“That was before Jaeger turned her into a road hazard,” Hawthorne said. “If she wakes up before they catch Jaeger, she’s going to tell them. Until then, Red will be safe. Maybe we could track down wherever he’s staying and pass it on?”

Unimportant faded more into existence. “if i had an idea of where he’s been seen, i might be able to figure something out. even runners have patterns

An idea hit Burnout. “Half the people at the university keep track of that stuff; I might be able to hit up a few of them to figure that out.”

Hawthorne and Allspades started talking at the same time.

Stop,” Miss Mirror’s voice reverberated over the rooftop. They all turned towards her. “I think you misunderstood me. I don’t want any of you to fight Jaeger. For god’s sake, most of you have only been doing this a couple of years at most.”

They all stared at her mutely. Even after what they’d seen, Burnout didn’t think any of them had actually considered not taking on Jaeger in some way.

She kept talking before they could recover. “It’s not a secret who my parents are. Jaeger will come for me, probably soon. I should be able to keep him busy for long enough that the rest of the Council can get there, but if I mess up, somebody needs to watch over…Red.

“I need to go before he starts looking for me. All of you need to stay away from him, and you need to keep Red away too.”

She didn’t wait for an answer before taking off into the sky.

Once she disappeared, they turned back to each other.

how soon can you get me that info?

Burnout shrugged. “I can make some calls. Can’t be too obvious about it.”

“Do it fast,” Hawthorne said. “We’re not waiting for Jaeger to kill her before we do something.”

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Chapter 111: Persist

He had never hated himself more than he did at this moment. He had accepted his fall, but he never expected to resort to such petty thievery. But if he was to recover, he had no choice.

He opened another can of ravioli and downed the contents. It was cold and sloppy and it tasted disgusting, but he forced himself to swallow it nonetheless. Just like the cans before it, the food seemed to vanish almost the instant it hit his stomach, absorbed by his body almost faster than he could eat. He could feel his muscles growing strong again, his skin stretch to accommodate his former girth.

He devoured can after can or food, growing stronger with each bite. His hair grew out and fell away, only for new, fuller hair to take its place. His heart sped up until it felt like it was going to rip itself free. And then it froze. Despite that, he kept eating, until it started again. He died over and over again, each life lasting just a few minutes longer.

Finally, his heart steadied out. He tossed the last can over his shoulder and ripped open a pack of towels to wipe his mouth. He made a fist and all the cans surrounding him lifted into the air before slamming down. Many of them were instantly crushed, but most remained at least mostly whole.

“Still weak.” Even his voice hadn’t fully returned. It had lost its presence and it rubbed his throat raw. He was going to need all three days after all.

A siren sounded outside the door and he scoffed. He didn’t need to run. He could destroy every man this backwater town threw at him without opening his eyes. But he still needed time to recover before the heroes found him. He could let the fools live.

The cops ran into the store, but all they saw were empty shelves and a piles of discarded scraps.

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Three days after the attack, Rose went back to work.

When she’d shown up in crutches, no one had looked twice, except for Barry. He’d been calling her constantly since the attack but she’d left her phone in the office and hadn’t been able to retrieve it. The entire first day, she saw him glancing at her through the office window, and as the day dragged on, he kept shifting around in his seat.

She’d made him drive her home before she told him the story.

As always, he was the best audience she could hope for. He knew when to gasp and when to stay quiet. She never had to repeat herself.

And then the story was over, and she collapsed back into her chair. It was as if she had had to relive the entire fight.

Barry had helped her to her bed, and she got the best rest that she’d had in days.

A week later, and she was finally free of the crutches. Will had been missing for two days. Today, they were supposed to meet up and decide what to do about it.

But first, she had to go to the hospital. Tina had called her there two days ago, and introduced her to Red Racer…Mitch’s sister.

Rachel looked up from her makeshift cot on the chair next to the hospital bed. It was obvious that she hadn’t left since Rose had seen her there two days ago. Her hair was frizzed and clumped in strange places from the awkward bed and there were dark circles under her eyes.

“Are you sure this is okay?” Rachel asked. “I don’t want you to get in trouble at work.”

“Half the city’s in the hospital. Most of my office can only work half the week because of it. Now go home before I call Tina.”

She nodded and shut the door behind her when she left.

Mitch lay on the bed in the same position he always seemed to be in. He stomach twisted a little when she saw him.

There was a spare chair near the door that she dragged over. Rachel had had the TV on the news. It was another report of the damage, and Rose quickly changed the channel.

She thought she saw movement from the corner of her eye, but when she turned to look, Mitch was as still as ever.

She waited for a commercial and muted the TV.

For a short time, she let the silence fill the room.  But she couldn’t look at him.

“I’m sorry.” He didn’t react to her voice, but she kept going. “We never should have left you in that store. One of us should have stayed with you.”

Tears rolled down her face, leaving wet trails that felt frozen in the cold room.

“We never should have made you fight with us. You’re not supposed to be worrying about villains and heroes. You’re not supposed to have to see the kinds of things that happened. We should have sent you home during Asclepios’ attack. We shouldn’t have taken you to the cave to find Burnout. We should have sent you home.”

Finally, she looked at him. He was as still as ever, eyes glued to the TV.

“Please. I know it’s a lot to ask, but please get better. This isn’t how it’s supposed to end.”

There was a restroom connected to his room. She ducked in to clean her face off, but it took her a few minutes to stop crying.

Voices filtered through the door and she froze. She opened the door a crack, but didn’t see anyone.

The TV was unmuted. She had left the remote sitting on Mitch’s bed.

He looked the same as ever.

“Mitch?”

She sat back in the chair, keeping one eye on Mitchell, but he didn’t move again.

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She watched Allspades leap over from the next roof. He was the last one to arrive. His arm was still in a sling, but he’d managed to get his costume on despite it.

She looked around, Red Racer and Mach were still missing, but despite that, this was the first time their group had met since the attack.

Everyone moved a little slower than they had beforehand, and a twitch in her leg reminded her why.

Allspades joined them, and one by one she watched them turn towards her.

“I went to see Red today,” she said. She felt test building behind her eyes again, but this time she held them back. “He’s still not responding. I don’t know how to help him, and I don’t know if he’ll ever get better. What I do know, is that we lost one member of the group already, and I don’t want to lose another. I don’t want to lost Red, and I don’t want to lose Will.

“There are others looking for him. They have more experience than us, and they’ve known Will longer. But I don’t want to sit around and do nothing, and I know none of you do either. So we’re going to look to, we’re not going to lose anyone else.”

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Chapter 110: Break

At his touch the wall bowed towards him and then he let it go and it blasted outwards, sending debris shooting into the open air. The scent of grass filled his nose for the first time in 14 years. His stretched his arms towards the sun until his joints gave a satisfying pop.

The red lights flashed behind him and the sirens rang in his ear, but it was already too late. It was too late the moment they lost power. They only gave him a second, but that was more than enough time.

By the time the guards arrived he was already gone. The field around him blurred and melded into an abstract splotch of colors as he fled the prison.

Part of him wanted to go home right away, to take down everyone who had stolen his life all those years ago, but he felt his strength leaving him more with every league he crossed. He could be home in hours, but he would be too weak to face his persecutors.

He could afford patience. He had waited for 14 years; he could wait a little longer.

In three days, he would be strong enough to go home, and then he would have his revenge.

Bloodshed could wait. The hunt had already begun.

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

It had taken nine days for the city to start functioning again. Even then, entire blocks were roped off and scheduled to be imploded. It would take months to get those buildings up and running again.

Burnout floated above the city. A few people noticed him, and more than one had stopped to point him out to their friends. Apparently someone had caught the four of them on camera after the fight. Ever since, none of them had been able to go out in costume without somebody trying to snap a picture.

They might not recognize him without the armor, but that one day had put him further along in using it than the months he’d been practicing with it since the cave. He needed to keep it up. Pretty soon, he might be able to use it all the time. So he left it up, and the crowds noticed him.

Two weeks ago, he would have loved the attention, but now he just wished he could patrol without people announcing his presence to the world.

And in two weeks, he’d be back in school. Last year, he’d barely been able to juggle his patrols with his classes without driving himself into an early grave. He was better now; he had a grasp of the person he needed to be, but this year the classes were supposed to be twice as hard.

His fiery wings unfurled behind him and he leaned back in the sky. Thoughts of school could wait. Sooner or later, he’d find a way to balance it out. Burnout and George Sadler could coexist, and he would find a way to make sure they did.

Something bright and red creeped into his vision. He turned over in the sky. A tree had grown on a nearby rooftop. Red leaves crowned its top, but they weren’t waving. It was important then, but not urgent. Burnout gave a completely unnecessary flap of his winds and glided towards the tree.

As he landed Hawthorne rested her hand on the tree and it collapsed back into a seed. He’d tried watching a documentary on rewind to see if it was anything like what she could do. Her way was much more disturbing. It looked similar enough, but the way the tree cracked and popped as the branches forced themselves back into the trunk sounded more…alive than a tree ever should.

“What’s up?” Burnout let his armor fade into wisps of blue and stepped out of it. It vanished completely behind him.

“If you’re asking then they haven’t found you yet. Will’s disappeared.”

Burnout’s stomach clenched.

“They don’t think he’s in trouble, but apparently no one the Council has talked to has seen him since a couple days after the attack. They wanted to know if any of us had. I’m guessing you haven’t either.”

“No,” Burnout said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start looking.”

“That sounds like what everyone else said.” Hawthorne sighed. “I was hoping that someone would know if he was all right.”

“So what’s the next move?

“Huh?” Hawthorne’s eyes jumped to meet his.

“We’re not just gonna let him disappear right? Are we all gonna meet up or just let each other know if we find something?”

Hawthorne blinked a few times before answering. “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do. Apparently, it looks like he was getting ready for a trip.”

“But…”

“But, we should at least take a look. I’ll get in touch with the others, let’s meet up tomorrow; at the place we had our first field trip.”

Burnout nodded. Hawthorne ran a few steps and launched herself onto the next roof, leaves fluttered in her wake.

Burnout didn’t take off right away. He walked to the edge of the roof and sat down. Will’s disappearance was concerning, but he wasn’t sure why. It was hard, impossible even, to imagine Will in real danger. The man never seemed surprised or worried. Even during the attack, he’d never seemed like he had lost control.

He’d watched Will walk up to a man twice his size and take him down in seconds. What kind of power made someone so sure of themselves that they never even flinched at the thought of going had to head with a tank?

And yet, he hadn’t been surprised by a moment of it. Ever since the first meeting, Will had always been there. A constant presence that helped them through every hardship on the way. Even when they’d separated during Asclepios’ attack, he’d turned up at the end, like he’d been waiting around the corner the whole time, like he’d been making sure that none of them were in enough danger to need his help.

And now, he was gone. The one person the six of them could guarantee would be there to help. Burnout looked off the edge of the roof. It was the same city he’d been flying over a few minutes ago; the same city he’d fought to protect last week. And right now, it felt less safe than ever.

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Chapter 107: Four of a Kind

Allspades’s scream echoed in the distorted space. Even as loud as it must have been, when it reached Unimportant’s ears it was hollow and lifeless, as if it had echoed one more time than he should have been able to hear before it reached his ears. He didn’t know if that made it better or worse than if he heard it in the real world.

He’d tried to get close to Trump more than once, but he couldn’t reach him. The barrier that had kept him from the Ambrosia was back. At first, he’d was forced to stay a few dozen steps from Trump. He’d gotten closer since, but he still hadn’t been able to get close enough to hit him with the stun baton.

He’d had time before. For all the damage Trump could do, he’d mostly been stuck on the defensive. As far and as hard as he could throw the others, none of them had been hurt too badly. Now, he’d figured out how to hurt them for real with his new powers.

As if he could read Unimportant’s mind, Trump started to laugh. It was quiet, but even with the muted sound of the Between, his laughter seemed to overtake all other sounds.

The barrier fell back a few feet, and Unimportant got a little closer. Trump paused. He didn’t turn to look at Unimportant, but his head cocked to the side like he’d heard something in the distance. Unimportant froze, but Trump started walking towards Allspades. He was saying something, but Unimportant tuned him out.

Six feet. That was the limit of how close he could get, and if he got any closer Trump would probably figure out he was there.

“perfect…just perfect”

It was still too far to hit him with the baton. Unimportant pulled his backpack off and dug inside. He gently moved the chloroform to the side. His bolt cutters weren’t any help either. Rag, water, zip ties, alarm clock, duct tape, flashlight, cell phone-

Duct tape. He could work with duct tape.

Unimportant pulled out his stun-baton and flipped it open. The switch to turn it on wasn’t supposed to stay on if he let go of it.  Copious amounts of duct tape fixed that.

Unimportant gripped the handle and turned towards Trump. Six feet. Missing this would be the worst way to fail to save the city.

Unimportant drew back and tossed the baton at Trump’s back. It spun in the air. He could hear the way its echo changed the moment it switched from in the Between to the real world; it was the same time that Trump stopped talking.

Trump whipped around with his hand already raising. But it was too late.

The baton slammed into him. The scream that filled the Between this time was much more pleasant.

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

Trump was hit.

Allspades couldn’t move his arm, and he’d resorted to chewing his cheek to keep from screaming. There was blood flowing into his mouth but he barley noticed.

This might be the only chance he gets.

What little of the glow he could still muster gathered at his feet and launched him forward. He wouldn’t be able to get his feet under him for a second leap, but he didn’t have the strength for a second lunge.

The glow shifted to his good shoulder. For a moment, he looked at Trump through the light of the glow and he saw something dark and shining crawling over him. Then he slammed into Trump.

Both of them hit the ground. Allsapdes rolled over and off of Trump. His second bounce landed on his bad shoulder and his vision went white.

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

Trump was down, but not out.

Burnout dropped from the sky and planted a knee in his back. It was a heavy blow, but damage wasn’t the point.

Burnout’s armor melted off of him and molded to Trump’s prone form, forming bands around his limbs. The bindings bolted Trump to the floor, but they’d only be able to last as long as Burnout could stay near Trump.

Trump had recovered enough to struggle.

Burnout dug his knee into Trump’s spine and gripped the bands closest tho Turmp’s shoulders.

“Get. Off!”

Trump couldn’t focus the blast enough to do damage, but Burnout still felt himself being lifted off of his back. His grip on the bands held firm, but his legs lifted off the ground until they were pointing straight into the sky.

Trump gave another cry and Burnout’s grip wore out. He was launched into the sky and the bands disappeared.

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

Burnout was out of the way.

All of the roots Hawthorne had grown throughout the battle burst from the ground beneath Trump.  Trump had managed to break her connection to them when he hit them earlier, but she’d found what was left beneath the ground. They wrapped around him, twisting and knotting themselves until he was completely immobilized.

The buildings around the cocoon started to shake.

One of the roots began to rapidly sprout flowers. A thick musky overly sweet scent filled the air, but it would be a hundred times stronger in the cocoon.

The buildings grew quieter and the ground stopped vibrating.

Hawthorne limped to the cocoon. What little reserve of power she’d built up after the zeppelin was gone and her outfit stopped helping her walk. Her leg collapsed beneath her.

Unimportant caught her. He wrapper her arm around his shoulder and helped her keep walking.

Burnout slowly approached from above. He couldn’t fly any more, but he’d gotten enough lift to keep from crashing into the ground. He had to land on all fours, but he was able to get to his feet and join them on her other side.

Allspades came around the far side of the cocoon. His right arm hung limply at his side, and there was a long strip torn from the bottom of his shirt. He’d stuffed it in the hole in his shoulder to stop the bleeding.

The four of them stared at the cocoon.

People began wandering out of the buildings. A few stared at the cocoon, but most looked up and down the street.

There was a small figure in red and white at the far end of the street, but the crowd passed between him and Hawthorne and he was gone by the time they were gone.

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Chapter 105: Taking Action

They hadn’t screamed the second time. They thought that if they stayed quiet, they could avoid the end of the world.

He ground his teeth. The silence in between the shockwaves was almost as bad as the shockwaves were. At first, it had lasted long enough that the guns would go away before the next one hit, but now they stayed, a constant reminder.

People were dying outside. Even if he they weren’t screaming, even if he couldn’t see their bodies, he knew that they were dead. There was too much noise, too much destruction.

If something as quiet as a bullet could kill somebody, something as loud as this must be killing thousands.

His legs tingled and itched with a need to move, but he ignored it. If he was too slow to save one person, there was no way he could save anyone.

He wasn’t fast enough.

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

He wasn’t fast enough.

After dropping the others off, Will had taken the copter back to the Council’s HQ. He’d come in too fast and half crashed it on the front lawn, but it had been for nothing; none of the walkers there could fight something like this, and none of them would be any help evacuating the battlefield.

They needed a runner. Actually, they needed four or five runners, and that probably wouldn’t be enough.

There were too many civilians in the buildings around the fight. A lot of innocents had probably already died when the first two buildings collapsed.

For the second time in a few months, Will broke down a list of walkers in a class and tried to figure out who might be able to help.

It didn’t look good. A lot of them were dead, he couldn’t get in touch with the ones out of town, even if they could make it in time, and he’d confirmed a lot of the rest were asleep. Anyone he might have missed would have been out doing something already if they could.

There was only one runner Will knew was awake, and he couldn’t help either.

There was a tingling in his fingers, it was familiar in a way he couldn’t quite grasp. He pushed the feeling away. He had to focus on the problem at hand, and that meant finding someone who could get enough people out of that building. Which meant he needed to wake them up.

The mercenaries had pulled away from the HQ, taking their unconscious allies with them. Given an hour, he could track a jeep down and force them to tell him who had cast the spell.

But there was one lead he hadn’t had time to follow up.

On the scale of walkers, Will wasn’t very fast. Most walkers who put some thought into how to move fast could figure out a way to outrun him. But today he pulled out everything he could.

The warehouse where they’d left the jeep wasn’t far, but he wasted precious minutes getting there. He just hoped that the kids could last long enough for it to matter.

There was a muffled banging from the trunk.

Will quickly popped it open and caught the flailing fist of the man within.

“We need to talk.”

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

They weren’t going to last much longer.

Hawthorne wasn’t sure if the others had noticed, but she was far enough back that it was impossible not to.

They hadn’t gotten a single good hit in the entire fight. Every time one of the others got close enough to score a hit, Trump managed to push them away. Her plants were being shredded as soon as they grew. She’d tried growing them directly beneath him, and he’d shattered the entire street around them before they got close.

Worse than that was the buildings. Trump’s attacks were reckless, shot-gunning bits of metal fast enough that she could spot perfect holes bored into the buildings closest to them.

She was running out of seeds too. Other than a few altered ones, she only had her staff left. She had barely used her staff since Asclepius’ attack. It hit hard, but she’d figured out how to incapacitate her opponents without bashing them over the head.

She pulled the seed out anyway. The staff might actually be tough enough to avoid being shredded by Trump’s attack.

Burnout was charging again. Apparently he couldn’t use any range attacks and keep his armor up at the same time, and he couldn’t survive Trump’s attacks without it.

Now might be her best chance. The roots around her legs moved for her. It still hurt but less than running on her own would.

Burnout couldn’t hold out against the push any longer. He was sent flying backwards and had to scramble to avoid running into a building.

Allspades was still nowhere to be seen, so Trump’s focus switched to her. There was brief pause before she felt the push.

She took the chance and swung her staff, willing it to grow as she did.

Trump’s off hand emerged and shot a few scraps of metal at the staff. The impact travelled up the staff and weakened her grip.

Then she felt the push. It felt like her internals were being shoved to the back of her skin and it only barely held together enough to carry the rest of her along with it.

She slammed into the ground and rolled along the street. Allspades must have come back, because Trump’s push disappeared.

Her staff was on the ground, halfway between her and Trump. She got up to one knee before having to rely on her plants to stand the rest of the way.

“He can only hit one of us at a time,” she said.  “But he knew I was coming when he was concentrating on Burnout. We can’t guarantee he won’t be able to sense you if you get too close, but I’ll need my staff if we want a distraction long enough for you to get to him.”

She got the rest of the way up and found her staff close at hand.

“Thanks. Do you know what you’ll do if you get close?”

I have an idea” Unimportant’s voice echoed.

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Chapter 102: Leap

It’s the kind of sound most people never realize they’re afraid of, the sound of a building realizing that something important is broken and, one by one, every piece of concrete and steel that is only held up by the piece next to it realizes that there’s nothing to support it any more. It isn’t the sound of some artificial thing being broken. It’s the sound of a living creature, a mythical behemoth, giving one last cry before it stops moving entirely.

The entire zeppelin was falling apart. It was being bulged outwards, pushed from a single unrelenting source. If this was a death wail, it was a more painful death than anything natural had ever experienced.

Allspades’ hands slammed into his ears, but his entire skull was vibrating. He was vaguely aware of Hawthorne sliding off of his back as she tried to cover her own ears. He stared into the undulating blob of reddish black light that hovered in the center of the room. He tried to focus on the blob, focus on getting closer to it, closer to King. He managed a step before the zeppelins wailing grew even louder and forced him to a knee. The mercenaries were all pinned to the wall by their weapons and ammo; they were screaming, but it was lost.

Allspades collapsed, his eyes finally dragged away from the blob. There was someone running down the hallway towards him. His mind slipped away, and finally, he couldn’t hear the sound anymore.

Allspades opened his eyes. He was being dragged, and he could see Hawthorne being dragged beside him, though he couldn’t see who was dragging her. He tried to call out; he knew he spoke, he felt the words echoing out of his throat, but the sound never reached his ears. A dull ringing echoed in his head.

The dragging stopped, and he saw Will looking down at him.

“-ou—lk?”

The half formed sounds echoed past the ringing. Slowly, the ringing was replaced by whistling wind.

“Allspades, focus. Can you walk?”

“I think so.” Allspades slowly worked his way to his feet. After a moment, he nodded.

“Good. We need to move. I don’t know how long this thing will hold itself together.”

The whistling grew louder, Allspades slowly turned. The hallway behind him led straight to the lab. The far wall was gone, torn away completely.

“King-“

“Went outside,” Will said. “If we’re lucky, he won’t survive the fall.”

His gut twisted in his stomach. He either felt guilty for letting King die, or for not killing him. He didn’t know which one he’d prefer.

“can you carry hawthorne? i’d rather not have to keep dragging her.”

Unimportant’s presence slammed into Allspades; he flinched, and the ringing gained a little of its old strength. Will and Unimportant stared at him strangely, but he shook it off.

“Yeah…right, we’ll move faster that way.” Allspades easily lifted Hawthorne and cradled her in his arms. He glanced around. “Where’s Burnout?”

“I heard him fighting earlier. We’re going now.”

Allspades almost asked another question, but Will and Unimportant started moving, and he realized how stupid it was to stay still and talk. The thought started the ringing again and spots swam before his eyes and faded almost instantly. That wasn’t good, but it would have to wait.

Will led the way, which was good because Allspades had to focus too much on not falling to think about where he was going.

A blue light filtered through a door ahead. Will headed straight for it, and led them into a massive room.

Burnout hung in the air, armored in flames that moved unnaturally slow. Dozens of mercenaries littered the ground. A few were still fighting, aiming their guns at Burnout with a defeated look in their eyes. Will swept his hand and they dropped their guns as if they were scalding hot or as if they had come alive and tried to bite them.

With their guns gone, Burnout was able to sweep them to the side with his sword.

Will pointed at a helicopter, and Burnout flew straight for it.

“can you fly that?” Unimportanted asked.

“I’ve done it before. We didn’t die.”

“that’s not as comforting as you would hope.”

Will hopped in the cockpit and started flipping switches. Unimportnat seemed to stare at him for  a moment before clambering in back and turning to help Allspades get Hawthorne into a seat.

Burnout’s hand appeared before him with a pair of headphones. Allspades slipped them on and felt better almost immediately. The ringing still echoed in his ears, but there were no other sounds for it to bounce off of. He managed enough coordination to buckle his seat belt, and then he felt the helicopter lift up and out of the hangar. He watched the zeppelin out the window, slowly sinking beneath the clouds. The ringing faded a little more, and he slowly remembered the last few hours.

His eyes widened.

“There were people-“

“They’re fine,” Will said. “Beck employees will be teleported off immediately.”

“The mercenaries?” Burnout asked.

“The computer will do what it can. And there were enough of them conscious to get to some of the other copters.”

Some of them wouldn’t make it. Allspades knew it, and he could tell the others had figured it out too. They sat in silence.

“Uh-“ Hawthorne had shifted in her seat, she had woken up with her head against the window looking down at the city below them. “Is that building sliding away from the street?”

Allspades looked down. It wasn’t just the one. Four buildings were moving, bulging outwards or actually ripping from their foundations. Houses built to withstand earthquakes were starting to fall apart. At the center of the destruction, Allspades could barely make out a single figure walking down the street.

“King’s alive.” Someone said something. Allspades didn’t listen. But he got the message. He unbuckled his seat belt and moved to the door.  “I can get to him the fastest. Get there as soon as you can.”

Allspades opened the door and jumped.

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Chapter 99: Pain

Hawthorne flexed the roots wrapping around her feet and launched herself forward. The movement was familiar, normally it would almost be comforting. Right now, every step mad her heart beat a little faster and the sweat soak a bit further into her palms. And despite that, she could barely keep up with Allspades.

He had taken off the moment Will was out of sight. Normally she could match him, even at his full speed, but the twisting corridors of the zeppelin gave her no chance to build up speed. He barely glanced at the doors they passed, and she could hear him muttering under his breath at each one.

He turned a corner, and she had to thrust her foot forward to kick the wall before she slammed into it. Allspades drew further away. She had to forcibly rearrange the roots at her feet to send her down the next corridor. It wasted precious seconds and she had forgotten to breathe until she was already moving again.

She tried to call out to him, but didn’t have enough breath to make the sound leave her throat.

He pulled further ahead, and each step of hers was throwing her a little less farther than the last. He was already five doors away from her.

The root along her left leg stiffened too soon. She managed to get her right leg beneath her before she fell, but she felt the muscles in her hip stretch and roll as she pulled herself forward. There was a sharp pain that vanished almost as soon as it started.

Allspades turned a corner ahead.

She tried to kick the wall, like she had before, but when she twisted to kick with her left leg, something in her hip moved the wrong way. She flipped over her side and her back slammed into the wall. A heavy thud echoed through the metal, but the sound didn’t reach Allspades.

The roots retreated back into Hawthorne’s clothes. The pain in her hip had faded, but a dull ache still throbbed deep in her muscles.

Allspades turned another corner and was out of sight. She tried to call out to him again, but her throat was dried and the cracked sound that came out was too quiet to echo down the halls. She gently pressed two fingers into her leg and had to grit her teeth against the pain.

She would probably need to make a crutch. If she was really lucky, she might be able to limp without one, but she wasn’t going to be catching up with Allspades.

Hawthorne leaned back against the wall and gasped for air. She tried to pull an apple from her vest, but the seed refused to grow in her hand.

How long had it been since she’d woken up in her office? She’d lost track of time, but it had been almost dawn when they teleported onto the ship. She’d never used her powers for this long before, and she felt drained in a way that she couldn’t describe. Whatever energy fueled her powers had dried up, and she didn’t know how long it would take to get them back.

She needed to rest, possible even sleep, and she really needed something to drink. But first, she had to get somewhere she wouldn’t be found.

Hawhtorne managed to claw her way up to wall and rest her weight on her good leg. She kept most of her weight on the wall as she stumbled down the hallway.  The first door she came to held a small conference room; there hadn’t been anyone in there when the spell hit, but a tray of water bottles was off to one side.

She grabbed one and hobbled to the closest chair. Even the half a steps worth of weight she put onto her leg was enough to send stars flying across her vision.

She took a drink and stared at the door.

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

Allspades ran. Paige’s voice had grown quiet, leaving only a vague pulling in one direction.

Trump. King. Thomas. The names burned in his head.

King was there. He was in the middle of some scheme or plot that would almost definitely end with him on top, just like it always did. But for the first time, he didn’t want King to win. But more than that, he needed to be the one to stop him. Because he might be the only one who could talk him out of it.

Or maybe he was just kidding himself. Paige could have talked him out of it, Queen could have convinced him, but he had never been the kind of person to talk his way out of a fight. He wasn’t going to avoid a fight, no matter how much he wanted to.

With that thought burning in his mind, Allspades ran. The sound of his footsteps echoed in the empty halls. There was no one who could stand between him and King.

He stopped.

Hawthorne wasn’t behind him, and he had no idea when she disappeared.

He felt the pull toward King grow stronger; he could be getting the Ambrosia already.

Allspades turned around and ran back the way he came.

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