Session 2, Chapter 8 – No Mercy

Content Warning: Death, Violence, Fire, Ashes

I climb the ladder back into the sphere, Dragon is still working on the computer, responding to prompts on the screen every few seconds. Chimera is locked into meditation, completely in her own world. Unicorn is against the far wall, and glances at me curiously, I almost don’t see her at first.

“We have company, let’s go,” I say.

“This is bad. I’m not done, I still have about ten minutes left, and we can’t move Chimera.” Dragon says, glancing over her shoulder at me.

“Then we have to hold them off.”

“I can’t, I need to be by the computer. It needs my input.”

“And with Chimera out of commission… Unicorn?”

“I’ll help however I can.” She says, glancing up at me and forcing a smile.

“Phoenix, I trust you to fight the soldiers. We need to get out of here as quickly as possible, and we still have one more thing to do. Unicorn, I need you to go partially solid, enough to lift things, throw all of the crystals on this shelf into the chasm. Don’t get shot, and when you finish, see if Phoenix needs help.” Dragon orders

“On it.” Unicorn grabs an armful of crystals off the shelf and makes her way out of the hatch. I drop down with her and glare towards the entrance to the cave. This place is about to be swarmed with guards and I need to be ready. I have to take them on by myself, they may have dart guns, and if they dart me I don’t think I’d stand much of a chance. I have to play this smart and assume they all have darts or carbon.

I focus on channeling my power through me as I enter the Cinder State. I disappear just before the first few soldiers enter. There are at least twenty or thirty of them, all with rifles with lights mounted on them. The lights circle around the entire chasm and try desperately to find a target.

I float over to the group in the Cinder State, there are a lot of them and they presumably have itchy trigger fingers. I need to do this quickly and efficiently. One wrong move and I’m practically a sitting duck. I begin to channel fire above them, feeling the warm embrace of flame around my body. These people, these monsters are employees of the Archduke. The monster that destroyed my family and ruined this world. They all deserve to die. I’ve made efforts to spare people, I’ve made efforts to kill only when necessary, even if fire isn’t the easiest thing to do that with, I aim center mass and make some effort to pull the heat back a bit unless I need to save my life, but no more. My enemies don’t have empathy or care for human life, and that’s something I need to cut. No mercy, no compassion, these people deserve only death.

I float down to neck level with most of the soldiers and start to form the invisible and intangible fire into a circle. This is going to be painless, quick, just a flick of my wrist. When the soldiers see Sarah drop another armful of crystals out of the hatch and try to take a few shots at her, I see my opening. I drop out of the Cinder State and let my flame loose in a circle around me. A quick flash of fire is followed by the sound of bodies and weapons hitting the floor. I don’t want to look at them, but it’s hard not too. The majority of the soldiers have been turned to ash from the neck up. A few of the shorter ones just had the top halves of their heads removed, while a few were lucky enough to just get blown back with heavy burn marks on the sides of their necks and parts of their helmets melted to their face. A lot of the bodies fell over the side of the chasm, and regardless none of them are getting up.

Good, they’re dead. They’re all dead. Fuck them.

I feel a small sensation, like a pinprick in my back, immediately followed by a searing pain washing over my brain, almost like I’m being unmade and reconstructed from the inside, but I’m being put back together wrong. Something’s missing, something integral, something necessary. I fall to my hands and knees and lower my head until the pain subsides. When I open my eyes, I see my hands are bare and only the cloth of my cloak and long sleeves are covering my arm.

Fuck! It’s a dart! It has to be! I reach towards my back and pull out a small white dart. I got it quickly, but not quickly enough. Fuck, I’m so stupid. How did I miss someone? Was there a second wave? I should have gone back into the Cinder State. I’m so stupid, and there’s a solid chance that it’s going to cost me my life, or at least my freedom.

I feel along the ground, ideally looking for a sidearm or some type of gun that isn’t just full of darts. I don’t find any, but can’t look too much in all the ash, I don’t have the stomach for it. The ash and the smell of burning flesh are almost overwhelming, this is so fucked, I did this. I just murdered all these people, and I didn’t even think twice about it. I’m not a hero, I can’t justify this. I am a fucking supervillain. I killed them without thinking about it, just like I killed my father. I’m not stronger, I’m not colder, I’m just fucked up and thoughtless.

I glance over my shoulder, it’s not a soldier pointing a rifle at me, it’s a girl my age. She’s dressed in blue jeans and brown boots, a grey tee shirt is covered by a dark green jacket. She has long curly brown hair and glasses. Esther Valentin, Exodus. She’s pointing a dart pistol at me and grinning as she steps closer.

“Hi, Rachel. Something the matter? Don’t have quite the same stomach for brutality when the Cinder isn’t influencing you? I’m not surprised, you’re nothing without your powers, are you?” Esther says, smirking at me.

“I’m not afraid of you,” I mutter.

“Really? You’re powerless and I can kill you with a touch. I thought the dart would take away your anger, not your intelligence.”

“I’m more than just my powers, and I’m going to fight you before I let you hurt my friends.”

“So you are that dumb. Whatever.”

Esther holsters her pistols and cracks her knuckles before calling on her power. Chains begin to cover her body, wrapping around her torso in an x shape, forming a belt on her waist along with a loose necklace on her neck, the chains finally wrap themselves around her wrists and ankles. Her clothes are the next to change as dusty white and brown rags replace her normal outfit. A loose white shirt and tattered brown pants for on her, while a worn long sleeved, brown, hooded, cloak appears over her head, arms, and shoulders. White wrappings, similar to those one would expect of a mummy, form over her hands and feet. The inside of the cloak darkens until none of her facial features are visible anymore. Finally, bright yellow lights, resembling gems, appear in the place of her eyes, the only things visible beneath her hood.

I can’t waste a second, I may not have my powers or my anger, but I’m not going down without a fight. I grab for the nearest gun, if I can dart her, maybe I can create an equal playing field. I have to try something at least. I fire a dart and move as swiftly as I can to avoid retaliation.

She fires a blast of yellow dusty energy out of her left palm, vaporizing the dart and a few of the corpses lying on the landing. I fire again and she easily turns the dart, and the part of the landing I was standing on into dust. She has good reflexes and she’s fucking powerful. It’s all I can do to dodge her. I’m not going to hit her from this far away, but getting close to her can’t be a good idea.

I fire another dart, positioning myself behind her, she turns in an instant and destroys the dart and the part of the wall I was taking cover by, back in the base proper. I hear a low, gruff chuckling from her. She’s toying with me, I’m not even a challenge right now. Fuck. I fiddle with my wrist communicator, glancing towards Exodus who’s advancing slowly towards me.

“Help,” I whisper into it. “No powers, I’ve been darted, I need the stimulant.”

No reply comes immediately, and I need to move again as she gets too close to me. I move back deeper into the fort and roll out of the way of another blast, it just misses my heel. If this hits me, I’m dead. Nobody, not even the most durable spirit-touched, has been able to survive Exodus’ using her power. I know that isolating myself is only going to make this harder, I know that’s exactly what she wants. I can’t call on my powers, but I’m brave and I’m a trained fighter.

I charge her while she has to recharge her power for a few seconds, firing two darts in rapid succession. She dodges both darts with ease and stands her ground as I charge at her.

“Suicide?” she asks in a monotone voice.

I get as close to her as I can safely, firing a dart at chest level, and sliding in desperation to get out of the way of her blast. I swear under my breath as she destroys the dart with one hand and grabs the barrel of my rifle with the other. All spirit-touched have superhuman reflexes, but her reflexes seem to be working faster than most of us. Maybe it’s just the fact that I’m human right now, but she may have enhanced reflexes as well. I hold onto the gun and try to pull the trigger. A dart fires into the ceiling harmlessly. I’m forced to let go as she turns the gun to dart and would have taken my arm with it. Now’s my opening.

I go low, slamming a hand on the ground and whipping my right leg around with as much force as I can muster. I hit her hard, striking cloth and chain. Her knees buckle as she falls to the ground, she starts to get up less than a second later, but I use what time I can to backpedal and speak into my communicator.

“How are we doing? I need help, immediately.” I whisper into the communicator.

“On it, as soon as Unicorn gets back, I’m sending you the stimulant.” Dragon’s voice responds after a few agonizing seconds.

“Will it work?”

“Yes.”

Exodus is advancing towards me pretty quickly and I’m running out of room on the platform. I assume a fighting stance and dodge under a beam of destructive energy. Before I can get back to my feet, I catch a sharp kick to the side of my head and go down hard. Feeling rough wrappings pressing against my neck. Exodus has her foot firmly planted there, keeping me in place as energy flows to her fist.

“Esther, please.” I start.

“Shut up.” She says.

“Why do you follow him? Why do you serve him?”

“This isn’t the part where you beg for your life, this isn’t the part where you buy yourself time, this is the part where you die, and I murder your friends, understand?”

“I…”

“Goodbye Phoenix.”

Everything around me goes dark.

Session 2, Chapter 7 – Fort McCord

Content Warning: Death, Violence, Fire, Cancer.

The four of us finally make our approach to Fort McCord after nearly forty minutes of walking. Chimera leads us, fully transcended. It would ordinarily be a waste of power, but this is one of those “Chimera things” that I’ve gotten used to just accepting. She says that her power doesn’t rely on recharging pools of energy like ours do. The spirit keeps her pretty fueled continuously, and she only needs to rest for short periods. However, her emotion is serenity and peace, if she gets too stressed, her powers have a tendency to go haywire. If her stress were to reach its peak and she truly overexerted, she would detranscend like the rest of us do when we run out of energy.

Dragon, Sarah, and I make our way behind her in cloaks and mask. Dragon has a messenger bag slung around her shoulder. Usually, what she keeps her tech in, the strap is adjustable and stretchy enough that it can take her transformation into Dragon without bursting as long as it doesn’t get caught on a wing. I can’t look at Dragon without feeling my nerves rise again. Tonight is going to be the night, and I still can’t calm down about it.

Sarah brought a backpack and is wearing it over her cloak with both shoulder straps on. I can’t imagine what she brought in there, especially since she’s not a tech person like Dragon, but I haven’t bothered asking.

We finally come to an old, rusty gate in the courtyard. A chain and padlock sit securely on the latch, but that problem is solved fairly quickly as it glows faintly blue. Chimera rips the lock off within seconds, and we make our way to the front door of Fort McCord. I start to look around in the dark for the keypad when I’m suddenly half-blinded by a beam of light from behind me.

“What the fuck!” I whisper, ready to transcend at the drop of a hat.

“Sorry!” Sarah says, holding a flashlight in her left hand. “It was dark out, and I figured they wouldn’t have lights in there, so I thought I would bring flashlights for all of us. I have more in my bag.”

I can see pretty well in the dark when I’m transcended, Chimera’s power can make faint light, and I’m reasonably sure Dragon brought a light source more efficient than a standard flashlight, but it’s a nice thought. Chimera immediately grabs a flashlight and gives a large, and probably fake, smile.

“Well aren’t you the thinker? That is such a good idea! I can’t believe none of us thought of that. We would be in trouble if you hadn’t brought those! Thank you so much.” Chimera says, grabbing lights for Dragon and I as well.

Sarah’s posture shifts and she seems to stand up straighter at Chimera’s words. I roll my eyes and look at Chimera with a cocked head. She shrugs and mouths “Play along.” At least that’s what I think she’s saying in the dark, my flashlight wasn’t on.

Chimeras’ codling of Sarah probably isn’t good for the team, but she has absolutely insisted on it so far. One day, Unicorn is going to have to learn what being a part of this team actually means. She’s going to have to learn to fight by herself, she’s going to have to learn how to survive, or she is going to die.

It doesn’t take long to find the keypad and punch in the combination from the rock Daryl gave me. The bottom of the keypad turns green, and I let out a sigh of relief when the old steel door clicks open. I was worried the regime may have found a way to change the code, that would have been all we needed.

The inside of the old base is dark, and the flashlights actually do make it easier to see. The place gives off the eerie foreboding vibe that only a place that’s abandoned for years can give off. The lights may not work, but something’s powering the turrets at least, as we turn the corner, every turret rotates to point at us, but they don’t fire. Chimera keeps her hands raised, her reaction time is good enough that I trust her to stop the turrets before the hit us, but we’re silent during our entire walk through the corridor.

“Any idea where we need to go?” Chimera asks, her flashlight on and floating at eye-level.

“Yes. There isn’t much of use to us on the top floor. The entrance to the basement should be straight ahead.” Dragon says, stepping up to stand even with Chimera.

“Okay, I’m ready,” Sarah says, reaching into her backpack and pulling a gun, the same one she took from the soldier at Heatstrokes base. What the actual fuck?

“Why do yo-” I start.

“Chimera has a whip, Kitsune has her fans, Dragon has claws, You have fire and know martial arts, but I don’t really have a weapon when I’m transcended. I thought I should have one just in case.”

“You can’t even hold onto it for long without burning your powers out.”

“No, but I know I can use it if I need to, at the very least it gives me a fighting chance against non-touched when I’m not transcended.”

“Okay, just be sure you know how to use that thing.”

“I just point and shoot right?”

I shake my head and sigh as I turn my head away from her. Chimera leads us to a large metal wall at the end of a small incline

“Unicorn you’re up,” Dragon says.

Unicorn obeys as soon as Dragon speaks, transcending quickly and dropping her bag and gun in the process. Within a matter of seconds, she’s in her wispy form, and I can practically see through her. She moves towards the wall and starts to sink into it. This has been easy so far, almost too easy.

Within a few moments, the massive wall slides away to reveal what looks like a natural cave in the basement of this old military base. Natural, except of course, for the large sphere in the middle of the chasm, made of jagged dark metal. There’s no path to the sphere, the path before us only goes a few feet before a drop into total darkness.

“What the fuck? A cave, in the basement of this place?” I question.

“It makes sense, if this information really is so vital, they’d want places to hide behind to defend it, like a dark cave that only they really know the schematics to, and they’d want to make sure only those with powers could get there.” Dragon explains.

“There’s a problem,” Sarah says, floating over to us. “It’s locked, there’s a keypad, and I can’t find a release on the inside like I could for this door.”

“Alright. Let’s get over there.”

I call on my powers and transcend. God, it would be so easy to get addicted to this. I’ve been able to do it since I was born, and I’ve been doing it regularly since I was ten, but the rush of power never gets old. If I were like Chimera, if I didn’t have to come down very often, I’d probably be Phoenix almost all the time. Dragon calls her sister over, and Chimera floats her over to the sphere. There could be sensitive data or electronic work that needs to be done, and that would be a lot more difficult for Dragon if she had claws.

I fly over to the sphere, it doesn’t have an obvious door, it has an old, dust-covered keypad, but it doesn’t even seem to be functioning anymore. I guess this place really hasn’t been used since the resistance abandoned it. I look at Dragon and she sort of shrugs.

“Unicorn? Can you phase through?” Dragon asks, cocking her head slightly.

“Yeah, on it.”

“If she can’t open it, can you melt your way in, Phoenix?”

“I can try, but this metal looks pretty thick,” I answer, running my hand along it.

“Okay, it’s not ideal either, I don’t want you to burn through anything important.”

“Okay, so, I can get in, but it’s too dark to see any sort of door or opening, what should I do?” Unicorn says, phasing back out of the sphere.

“Well, we could always use one of these flashlights you brought. Which, again, are so helpful by the way, thank you so much.” Chimera says.

“I can’t phase objects through with me. I’m sorry. I wish my power could be more useful.” Unicorn trails off.

As if on cue, Unicorn’s midsection begins to glow bright green. She reaches down and grabs a small orb of light from her stomach, as she lets it go it floats to the top of the chasm and cast faint light around the whole cave. What the fuck? Did she just wish for light and get it? Her power can’t be wishes, that’s something no spirit can do.

“I guess you just found something else your power can do.” Dragon starts. “Now go light up this thing and get us in there.”

“Aye aye, Captain!” Unicorn starts, her face twists slightly, and she grimaces “I’m sorry! I don’t know why I called you Captain, I don’t know why I said that at all. We’re not pirates, we’re superheroes. I mean, historically speaking maybe what we do is kind o-”

“Unicorn,” Dragon interrupts, silencing her immediately. “Go.”

“Okay…”

Unicorn phases her way through the sphere again, her light still hangs high in the chasm. Light hasn’t been a problem for us before, but it’s certainly useful. This is it, this is the basement of Fort McCord. Nobody in the resistance has ever been down here, and we did it just like that. It’s almost been too easy, whatever’s in here should be worth the risk we took coming here, but you think they’d have some sort of alarm if the door were opened. Maybe a silent one? Maybe I’m just being paranoid.

A small cylinder descends from the bottom of the sphere, dim green light filtering out of it. I can see a small ladder on the side of the cylinder and climb it, Dragon follows suit, while Chimera just floats up the now open chute. The inside of the sphere is lit by Sarah’s light, the most noticeable thing is a large computer terminal in the far end of the room. The screen and keyboard could still be easily operated by a human, but the hardware of the machine itself is massive and encased in heavy-duty armor. Shelves line the other walls, neat rows of crystals sit on each shelf. One wall has shelves full of crystals with alternating blue and black liquids inside them, while the rest are empty. The sphere is empty and cold, it looks like this room hasn’t had power for years. Dragon heads over to the computer and presses a few dusty keys, which doesn’t generate any response.

“Any idea on how to get that thing working?” I ask, it’s directed at Dragon, but I’d listen to anyone.

“Yeah, it’s powered by some sort of battery,” Dragon says, reaching into the machine itself.

“Well, I could have told you that.”

“No. Let me finish. Not a conventional battery.” Dragon pulls a clear crystal from inside a small compartment on the machine. “This. It’s powered by Crystals. This one is empty, but the residue on the inside would suggest it was the blue one.”

Dragon crosses the room and grabs a blue crystal from the shelf, examining it closely. What is she doing? Powering this thing up could have serious consequences. We could have guards on us within seconds, or the whole system could explode if she’s wrong.

“Are you sure that’s safe?” I ask.

“Mostly. There may be some sort of latent alarm, but I trust my response time to be quicker than theirs. We’ll be in and out, we’ve come way too far to just turn back.” Dragon answers, turning back to the machine. She tilts her head slightly as she sees Chimera turning some sort of metal staff over in her hand.

“Chi, you good?” Dragon asks.

“Yeah, deja vu or something. I feel like I’ve seen it before,” she answers.

“That machine? Trust that instinct Chimera, one of the previous Chimeras might be trying to show you something.”

“Okay, it’s broken for one. It doesn’t have a power source and the chamber where you would put one has been smashed.” Chimera turns it over in her hands and closes her eyes. The small machine, a black ball with a dim sapphire in the center set on some kind of thin black pole, begins to glow blue and float in the air. Chimera nods and starts to let out a stream of consciousness.

“Mund Gottes, Technician’s machine, resistance recovered it briefly, was stolen back by Stalker. It’s a machine built to analyze most data available to humans and answer any questions it’s asked with pinpoint accuracy.”

“So it’s a search engine?” I ask. An uncensored search engine, while a powerful tool, isn’t exactly exciting.

“More than that. Sure, you could ask it when the corner store opens, and it would tell you, but it could also tell us something like the easiest and stealthiest way into the Archduke’s castle, or any reported weaknesses. It was, for a time, the plan to win the war, until the resistance lost it again.” Chimera answers.

“We need to get it working again, this is my territory,” Dragon says, grabbing it out of the air and stowing it in her messenger back.

“Mund Gottes?” Sarah asks, tilting her head slightly.

“German.” Dragon begins. “Admittedly, I don’t really speak it, but if I had to guess it’s something like Mouth of God, or Word of God, something pretentious like that. Pretty standard for Technician.” Dragon doesn’t stop working to look at Sarah, she plugs the crystal into the machine and takes a step back.

The computer sputters for a second before it starts to emit a low hum. The room fills with white light as every panel of the walls, ceiling, and floor are illuminated. The monitor comes to life as we all crowd around it. Dragon wastes no time and plugs a large, modified, flash drive into the USB slot on the computer.

“What’s our first move?” Unicorn asks.

“I download information on Neogen. Can one of you please load a few of each of these crystals into my bag? Black ones, blue ones, and clear ones. Thank you.” Dragon says, not looking at us. I get a suspicion that “one of you” means “one of you with telekinesis” and glance at Chimera. She rolls her eyes and channels her power to pull the bag off Dragons shoulder.

“What are you finding?” I ask, Dragon doesn’t respond immediately, it doesn’t seem to register that I even spoke until a few seconds after.

“Fucking everything. Schematics, detailed accounts of what each lab is for, even passwords, old ones, but some of them may still work.” Dragon answers, entering a few commands when the computer prompts her.

“They weren’t encrypted?”

“Of course they were.”

“And that didn’t slow you down at all?”

“Please, breaking most encryption is pretty trivial; besides, that’s why I built Jericho in the first place.”

Ha, and she calls Technician’s names pretentious?

“Jericho?” I ask, trying to stifle a laugh. She briefly indicates to the modified flash drive plugged into the computer.

“Part storage device, part encryption key. Do I really have to go through this right now?”

“Sorry I asked.”

Chimera returns to us pretty quickly, setting the bag at Dragon’s feet. Chimera stands between Unicorn and me, the three of us just watching helplessly as Dragon does her thing.

“H-How’s your shoulder?” Unicorn mutters softly, looking down.

“Hm?” Chimera starts, before catching on that Unicorn asked her a question. “Oh, it’s good, I barely feel it right now honestly.”

“Good. I’m still sure it must be tough doing a mission after you got shot earlier.”

“Meh. You get used to it. It’s what a hero does.”

Oh my god. Dragon, come on, please find something interesting, so I don’t have to listen to goody-two-shoes and fresh meat talk about the virtues of truth and justice for another five minutes.

“What the fuck?” Dragon whispers.

“What?” I ask.

“When did the resistance take Fort McCord?”

“Oh! Oh! Um, May 12th, 2009.” Unicorn answers like an excited child on her first day of school.

“And they held it until early 2012?” Dragon confirms. “Then why the fuck are there files being uploaded on this computer all through that period and as recently as 2013?”

“Maybe they got in and we just never knew?” Unicorn says.

“No. My family would have known.” I say.

“They weren’t able to disconnect this computer from their network until 2013. They built it well enough that even they had trouble disconnecting it remotely. Which means luckily for us they couldn’t wipe it. A lot of this information is going to be outdated, but some of it will still be of relevance. I’m in the process of downloading all of it, are you girls cool with taking a look at the most recent files?” Dragon says, already clicking on the first one, titled “Project SC4R-T.”

“Sure.”

The file is a simple image of an aged piece of paper. The words are a jumbled mess that doesn’t make any semblance of sense.

Zl urneg npurf, naq n qebjfl ahzoarff cnvaf
Zl frafr, nf gubhtu bs urzybpx V unq qehax,
Be rzcgvrq fbzr qhyy bcvngr gb gur qenvaf
Bar zvahgr cnfg, naq Yrgur-jneqf unq fhax:

“Well isn’t that… special. So somebody in the regime had a stroke?” I ask, raising an eyebrow behind my mask.

“No. It’s a cypher, not the kind that Jericho is going to decrypt either.” Dragon says, pulling a notebook and pen from her messenger bag, jotting a few things down that don’t make much sense and then moving down to a new line.

“Uh, Dra-”

“Shh!”

Dragon doesn’t even look at me as she busily writes nonsense in her notebook, finally, she seems to hit something and starts writing coherent lines. I can’t see the smile behind her mask, but I can almost feel it as her posture shifts.

“Easy. It’s an extremely basic rotation cypher. They just shifted all of the letters thirteen places. Here, this should be how it translates.”

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk;

“So, it makes real words, but unless the Archduke’s weakness is creepy olde thyme poetry, I don’t see how this helps us,” I say, urging Dragon to move onto the next file.

“It’s a poem!” Unicorn chimes in.

“Yeah, I just sai-”

“No, a specific poem. I studied it in English class two years ago. Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats.”

“Okay, but what does it actually mean?”

“It’s the start of a conversation.” Dragon interjects. “A cypher like this is usually some form of communication. We can’t see any additional edits to this because this computer has been cut off from their system, but it’s a hint, even a small one. My first thought is the word ‘Nightingale,’ but I’m not entirely sure what it could mean.”

“I might know! … Maybe?” Unicorn starts. “I’m not sure if it helps, but the only ‘Nightingale’ I know of is a superheroine who disappeared in the 1940s.”

“I know the Archdukes’ old, but he’s not that old. So what do we do?” I ask.

“We keep it in mind, but move on.” Dragon clicks on the next file, and we spend the next twenty minutes skimming old documents. The most interesting of which document a scary, almost stalker-like fascination that regime agents have with Chimera. These documents were all written before our Chimera took the mantle, but they seemed obsessed with the last two before her. Dragon clicks on the next file, entitled “Medical results for Albin Valentin – 02/24/2013”.

“What the fuck?” Dragon takes a step back, breathing heavily. “Non-Hodgkin lymphoma? The fucking Archduke has cancer? He’s had it for five-plus years. Oh my god, if this is true, he’s on seriously borrowed time.”

“If this got out to the public,” I start. “If Kitsune knew this…”

“I’m thinking exactly the same thing. This is huge. This is probably the biggest news we, or anyone, has gotten on the regime, ever.”

“If he dies, Genesis is on the throne. I’m not saying it will be easy, but I like our chances a hell of a lot better against her.”

“You’re not kidding, we need to spread this.”

“No!” Chimera interjects, grabbing Dragon and myself by the shoulders.

“What?”

“No, if this leaks right now, then the regime is gonna force our hand more than they already are. They won’t hold back, they’ll know exactly who leaked it. Even if we win, we’re still the girls who killed the world leader with cancer, and superheroes reputations are probably shot forever. This is something we keep to ourselves, at least for now.”

“You’re probably right,” Dragon says. “But it might give the public some hope.”

“Hope resting on the death of someone else isn’t hope at all.” Chimera says.

“Hope resing on the death of someone else was the only hope I had for six years,” I say, glaring at Chimera. I admit I’m not the most hopeful person, but if she wants to speak in absolutes about hope, she shouldn’t exclude the only thing that kept me going since I was twelve.

“Right, I’m sorry Phoenix, but, you both know what I mean. There’s a time for it, but that time isn’t right now.”

With Chimera’s final word, we go back to scanning files for the next half hour or so. Chimera’s assertion is ridiculous, but this is a tool we can use to our advantage. If he’s sick, his time could run out. Maybe that’s why he’s pressing so hard right now. It’s weird, but it’s certainly possible. As terrifying as Exodus and Genesis are, I’d rather take on both of them than I would fight the Archduke one on one.

The passive scanning of videos, pictures, and documents gets really old after a while. I check the download meter and see that it still has over fifteen minutes to go, which is damn impressive, but still slower than I’d like. Dragon clicks on the next video file, “Crystal demonstration on ST – 001”.

The video shows the Archduke’s throne room. The Archduke is encased in metal, trapped in a prison, surrounded by three people and many charred corpses. To the right of him is my mother, transcended and glowing with flame. To his left is Monolith, and right in front of him is my father.

What the fuck? My father? I check the timestamp in the corner, and it reads “October 11th, 2012, 5:07 PM”. Holy shit, this is the day. This is the exact day my mother died, and my father betrayed my family. Nobody ever knew exactly what happened! This is the chance to learn what my father betrayed his family and country for. What he was willing to give up his life and his daughter for. I tense up and move closer to the screen as Dragon closes the video. I grab her shoulders and shake her a little harder than I mean to.

“Play it!” I beg.

“Maybe this isn’t the best thing to…”

“Play it!”

Dragon pauses for a second. She slumps her shoulders and lets out a soft breath before reopening the video. The video doesn’t have sound, but it looks like my father is taunting the Archduke. He was cocky, that was true as a hero and a villain, as a hero, I found it kind of endearing, but as a villain, it just made fighting him more miserable.

The Archduke makes a sudden motion, jamming a black crystal into my father’s neck. He stumbles back and starts grabbing for it, almost like he’s choking. The veins on the back of his arm and his neck begin to turn black as he shakes as if he’s coughing. My mother and Monolith both move to attack the Archduke, my mom gets a solid shot on his face and monolith starts to crush his body. Then, my father launches a bolt of fire at Monolith, standing tall and defending the Archduke.

He wasn’t coerced, or bribed, or tempted. He was poisoned. Maybe it was mind control, or maybe it distorted his reality somehow. It wasn’t his choice, he was a goddamn puppet! I glare at the screen as I watch my father turn my mom to ash, fuck, I can’t make myself watch any more of this video. He was forced to kill the woman he loved, he was forced to kill my goddamn mother, he didn’t have a say in it. That has to be it, that has to be mind control! My father wasn’t evil, he was being controlled! That’s at least a sliver of hope, or it would be if I hadn’t killed him.

I killed my own father. I never even considered that he could be controlled, why didn’t I? Was my anger really blinding me from that possibility? Do I just always assume that people are monsters? What the fuck is wrong with me? Of course, he was controlled. He was a good man, he wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t evil. I didn’t even think about it for a second, not once in six years. I’m an idiot. I killed him. I could have saved him. I’m a failure of a hero, I’m a failure of a daughter.

I walk to the far end of the room and sit in a corner by the clear crystals, I focus on my breathing, desperately trying to get a handle on myself. Fool. Yeah, I am, I’m a fool. I should have known better. Murderer. I couldn’t have known. It wasn’t my fault! Monster! No, I- Supervillain!

“No!” I shout, standing up and launching a wave of flame from my hands on impulse. I don’t even notice Dragon standing a few feet from me until it’s too late. Dragon starts to glow blue as Chimera pulls her to the floor with her telekinetic powers. I don’t know if Chimera has enhanced awareness, she probably does, but regardless she could have just saved Dragon’s life. She’s still mundane, and my fire would have seriously injured her, it probably would have killed her. Yes. I can deny it all I want, but I am a fool, I am a murderer, I am a monster, and I am a supervillain.

“I’m sorry!” I cry, extending my hand for Dragon as the blue light around her fades.

“No, it’s fine. I know not to get near you when you’re like that. It’s fine. I’m fine.” She says. I don’t believe she’s fine, but I’m not pushing.

“Okay…”

“How are you dealing with all thi-”

“I killed him. He didn’t have to die, and I killed him. Of course, it was mind control, of course it was, how did I not realize.”

“It wasn’t mind control.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me.”

“I’m not. I can’t say what it is, but it’s not mind control.”

“You don’t even have a theory?”

“No.” It feels like Dragon wants to add something else, but she doesn’t.

“We all have a darkest self.” Chimera chimes in, looking down at her boots. “A worst possible version of us. The person we’d be if we instead sought to destroy everything we held dear. Sages used to call this alternate self an ‘eclipse.’ It’s rare that someone could ever see or become this version of themselves, but it happens, and the Archduke has found a way to poison the mind and force someone into their eclipse. That’s what the dark crystal does.”

“That’s plausible,” Dragon says, picking up a black crystal and turning it over in her hand.

“How do you know all this Chimera?” I ask.

“I don’t know! I keep getting fed little bits of information, slowly, usually weeks apart, but something about this fucking room is bringing an endless stream of information, and I can’t make it stop! It’s like every Chimera is trying to whisper their own interesting little fact in my ear. I’m not saying it’s not useful, but there’s not exactly a guide to this. Even with the help of the past Chimeras I’m still basically flying blind here. I know my powers work different, I know they’re weird, and I know they stump even Dragon. I’m honestly as lost and confused as you are. Don’t ask me how Phoenix, I don’t know. I don’t have half a fucking clue what’s going on with me most of the time!”

Where did that come from? I just asked a simple question. I honestly thought being Chimera would be pretty badass, but is this what’s going on in her head most of the time?

“I’m sorry Chi… I…” I start.

“No. I’m sorry. I need to meditate on this. I’ll be back within ten minutes.” Chimera says before anyone can really respond she’s clearly entered a trance.

“So, that’s what we’re saying? He was forced to be an alternate self by this black crystal?” I ask.

“Yeah. That would make sense, it’s a hypothesis, but it’s probably pretty close. That would explain a lot.” Dragons voice is shaky as she walks back to the computer. She won’t look at me, she hasn’t since I almost burned her. Goddammit, don’t tell me I just fucked up the closest relationship I’ve had in six years. Fuck me! I need to clear my head.

“This is a lot to take in.” I start. “I need to step outside.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Dragon says, getting back to the computer.

I drop down the small hatch and back onto the platform below the sphere. I settle on the edge of it and let my feet hang down off the edge slightly. Did I really kill my father? Could he have been saved? What happened to him made him “eclipse,” but was it even him anymore. I can’t help but think that he could have been saved. There could have been an antidote, or that poison could have been removed. If we could have known beforehand, we could have at least tried, but there’s no point in dwelling on it. Not anymore. There was no way anybody could have known. Monolith knew what he saw, sure, but I don’t know if him telling me would help me. Dragon’s smart, but she isn’t psychic. I know I shouldn’t dwell on it, I know I couldn’t have known, but that doesn’t make me blame myself any less.

What a great fucking birthday.

The exterior of the sphere is glowing with blue and white lights. It’s kind of beautiful in a weird sort of way. The chasm is pretty still, and the lights almost put me in mind of a Christmas tree in an odd way. A gentle whirring and a red blinking light catch my eye. I see a drone to my right and slightly below me, a camera mounted to the front of it. Fuck, that can’t be good. It’s been spying on us who knows how long. Powering on that sphere probably activated it. Even if it didn’t come inside, it has to know someone’s here now. I stand up and fire a stream of flame from my right hand towards it. It jerks and tries to move out of the way, but I catch one of its blades. It crashes into the side of the chasm before dropping into the darkness. This is bad, really fucking bad.

Footsteps catch my ear on the floor above me. I knew it. That drone had been watching us since we powered the computer on. Chimera’s in a trance, and Dragon isn’t done downloading the data. I can hold off a few guards, but I get a sinking feeling that isn’t all they sent after us. If they sent another spirit-touched or a few paladins.

We are so fucked.

Session 2, Chapter 6 – Preparations

I hate having to do missions on school days. I’m usually a pretty good student, but when I have a mission to think about, especially one as big as Fort McCord, it’s hard to keep my focus on anything else. Around lunchtime, I figure that being in class isn’t going to be productive, so I may as well get some rest so I’m fresh for tonight.

I go back to my room and change out of my uniform into small black shorts and a thin black tank top. I lay in my bed and try my best to get some rest with the early-afternoon sunlight still creeping in through my blinds. Eventually, I manage to get a few hours of sleep, but they’re often disturbed and far more restless than I’d hoped. At about six in the evening, I decide to get up and prepare. I’m tired of being in my room, I feel like it could be bugged, or like Exodus could come barging in at any minute, now that I’m sure she knows who I am. I’m getting paranoid, I need to get out.

I need a place to think, the library is usually the best place for that. I should be able to get a bit of peace there, maybe even get my thoughts sorted out. I’ve come to a decision, it’s one I’ve been mulling over for days, and it’s one that I don’t make lightly. I’m going to show Dragon who I am. If we’re going down, if this is really how it’s about to end for us, I’m not about to let it end without her knowing who I am. I don’t know how she’ll react, I don’t know if she’ll be disappointed, or if she’ll even like the person I am under the mask, but I have to show her, and I have to show her on my own terms. I’d much rather show her tonight in private than I would have her take the mask off my corpse, or see me stripped of my mask in a prison. I’m going to show her, and I’m going to tell her how I feel. I’m going to do it tonight, as soon as we finish the job.

I’ve been into Dragon for a while. To be honest, I’ve kind of had a thing for her since we started working together. She’s everything I’m not and everything I wish I could be. She’s brilliant, she’s cool-headed, she’s a natural leader. I don’t know what she looks like, I’ve only ever seen glimpses of her frame around her cloak and mask, but whenever we make brief skin contact, it’s electric.

If I’m honest, I’m lonely. Phoenix has more friends than Rachel and I want someone to know me as I am. I want them to know and accept the parts of me that are Phoenix, as well as the parts that are Rachel. I know Dragon and I fight, a lot, I know we’ve both said things we regret, but when it comes down to it, there’s nobody in the world that I trust more than her. When I briefly considered leaving, it had nothing to do with our fight and my mind just kept drifting back to her. She’s our leader, she’s the person in the world that I’m closest to, by a long shot, and she was always going to be the person I was going to show my face to first. It might not be perfect, but I want to be with her so badly. Even if it’s just a close friendship.

I quickly put on jeans, a grey tee shirt, and an old leather jacket. I put my glasses on and brush my hair down over where my stitches were, Dragon took them out this morning. I could set it back to where it was, dead center in my back, but I’ve gotten used to wearing it over to one side. I kind of like it. Before I head out, I check my burner phone and open the group chat.

Me: How’s it going? How’s Chimera? What haul did we get from the truck?

Almost half an hour goes by before I hear a ding in response.

Chimera: Hey Phoenix, I would just have Dragon explain, but she’s out grabbing food right now. I’ll try my best to explain what she told me. First of all, I’m fine. My shoulder still hurts like hell and I’ve got a wicked headache, but I’m fine. Tomorrow I’m going to feel like hot garbage, but when I transcend I should feel almost all better. Secondly, I talked to the other Chimera’s, they informed me that when the Spirit feels their host is at risk, they will take control of the Chimera’s body and use their full arsenal of powers in an attempt to save them. There is no way to trigger it willingly as far as any of them know. It’s all up to the spirit. The spirit and I are bonded, whatever’s in the dart isn’t strong enough to separate us. But, it startled the hell out of the spirit and made them panic. Our relationship is a lot more symbiotic than the ones you have with your spirits. Lastly, the truck, we found more dart guns. That means Dragon can improve the counter to the darts serum and it takes some of these weapons out of their hands. We also found some strange purple crystals. They are almost unbreakable and look similar to what the Archduke can make. It makes sense they would be his, but we’re at a loss as to why they would be transporting the crystal around. Dragon has a theory that they’re being used for either testing the crystal strength or they have some sort of “storage” capability? I don’t know, Dragon didn’t explain that clearly. We’ll keep you updated. See you tonight. 🙂

The message comes as seven individual texts, but Chimera clearly typed it as one long message, as the texts break awkwardly in the middle of sentences. In contrast to her sisters short and choppy messages, Chimera’s are often wordy and always typed out as one text. The poor quality of our burner phones means that parts of the message often arrive out of order and I have to play detective to piece them together. It’s only marginally less annoying having to wait twenty minutes for her to compose her mini-novel than it is trying to play twenty questions with Dragon. Maybe if Dragon and Chimera tried to compose a text together it would be the perfect balance, or maybe they’d kill each other. Probably the latter.

Why would they be transporting crystals? This is weird, but trying to understand the Archduke is a difficult task at the best of times. Kitsune and Dragon are better at figuring out this type of thing, so I’m sure one of them will have a decent idea. Maybe the fort will shed more light on it if nothing else.

I tuck my cloak and mask into my small backpack, the one I only use as Phoenix and leave it under my bed. I grab my school backpack, tuck my burner into the hidden compartment in it, and make my way out of the door. On my way out, I glance down the hallway. This is the senior girls’ dormitory. Could Dragon’s room be in the same building mine is? Could we be on the same floor? My chest fills with a mix of hope and anxiety that I could know by tonight.

I head down the stairs and across the courtyard to the library, as usual, it’s empty. There isn’t even a librarian in here, I guess they trust us to police ourselves after school hours. I walk through the empty library, weaving between bookshelves and glancing at tables. I just want a place I can be as far removed from people as possible, and the second floor of the library seems just the place. I finally decide to settle down in a chair at the end of a line of chairs, a small counter that can be used as a desk sits in front of them. This area of the library overlooks the first floor and has an unobstructed view of the window. I can easily look out over a vast stretch of Oru. Some parts of it are dark, but most of the city has some light on. The massive Crystal Castle is almost never still and dark. Oru is beautiful, even I can’t deny that, but it represents a structure that killed my family, and ended true freedom. Old town, we used to call it Boston but that word has been “removed” from our maps and history, was a beautiful city as well, and at least there we could be free from tyrannical dictators.

I read over the same page in my English textbook for the third time, and I still can’t absorb any of the words. My eyes still feel heavy, I keep finding parts of my body shaking, and I’m still suffering from a concussion, so my focus isn’t exactly on my school work. Tonight’s the night I tell Dragon. It barely even seems real to me. Plus, tonight we’re cracking Fort McCord. Our endgame got moved up so fast, but it may have been exactly the push we needed. Things are going to be different.

There it is again, hope. Hope that five teenage girls are going to do what a whole legion of superheroes couldn’t. Hope that this doesn’t just end with Exodus turning us all to dust. Hope that we aren’t going to be in the Wall by the end of tonight. I don’t know why I still let hope enter my mind. I should have abandoned it years ago. I mean, what kind of fool can still find hope in this world.

“Uh, hi Rachel,” Sarah says, shaking me out of my thoughts. Ah yes, that kind of fool.

I turn my head slightly to look at Sarah, she’s still dressed in her school uniform and has a small brown leather backpack on. I shake my head slightly and go back to futilely looking at my textbook.

“Hey,” I say in a monotone voice.

“I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be in here,” Sarah says, her voice trailing off.

“Are you asking me to leave?”

“No! Oh no! Of course not! I’m just saying I’m surprised is all!”

“Couldn’t study in my room, thought a change of scenery would help. So far, it hasn’t.”

“I understand. I was trying to go for a walk to clear my head and I didn’t want to go back to my room yet. I like to come here and read sometimes. I don’t love the book selection here, but it’s better than reading the three books I have in my room for the millionth time.”

Alright, she said she wanted to be a superhero, let’s see how well she holds up to some scrutiny. I’m not gonna interrogate the poor girl, just try to trap her in her own words.

“What’s on your mind?” I ask, not looking up from my book.

“A lot of things. May I sit down?”

“Sure.”

“Is there anything you’ve wanted for a really long time, all your life maybe?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, what would you do if you got that thing you wanted out of nowhere?”

“I’d probably be thrilled.”

“You’d think so. But what if that thing wasn’t everything you wanted it to be?”

“Then I’d say my expectations were probably too high.”

“Yeah, I-I guess. It’s just, ever since I was a little girl, I thought something like this would be magical and fun. But, it’s a lot more depressing and scary than I thought.”

Magical and fun? She thought being a superhero would be magical and fun? Was it magical and fun when I had to recover from my burns for over a year? Was it magical and fun when I had to defend Oru’s people alone for two years? Was it magical and fun when I watched my friends and family die? I clench my fists and take three deep breaths, I’m testing her, the last thing I need is her discovering who Phoenix is.

“You have an innocence to you, Sarah, almost like a child.” I say, still focusing intensely on a random spot in my book.

“Is that a bad thing?” She asks, her voice dropping slightly.

“Yes, and no. Innocence can lead to discovery, usually does, and then that discovery can either lead to death or something beautiful, it depends entirely on what you do with that innocence.”

“I see. It’s just that a few days ago, my life changed forever, and now I feel like everything’s going so fast. This is something I wanted so bad…”

Seriously? You just talked to me last week about how you admired the vigilantes. You can’t be this oblivious.

“It’s not at all like I thought it would be, and I feel so useless half the time. I can’t help but wonder if this is a big mistake.”

Careful dumbass, if I’m not Phoenix, you’re basically admitting to treason.

“But at the same time, I feel like I need to stick it out. I wanted it for a reason. I know it sounds silly, but I wanted it so bad that I even prayed for it.”

What!?

I stand up like a shot and stare at Sarah, my face twisted and my mouth agape. Praying for something like this, praying for powers, is a huge risk. When someone prays, they open their mind to the whole pantheon. A child praying for a pony is something that is largely harmless, but someone praying for powers is inviting the most fucked up and wicked spirits in the pantheon to bond with them. Dragon and Chimera got choices, they could have said no if something truly awful came for them, but I doubt Sarah got one, and anything could have given her powers. Oh, what the fuck Sarah? How could you be that stupid?

“What? Rachel? Is everything okay?” She asks, she’s stammering and sweating a little bit now.

“What did you pray for? What did you get?”

“I’m not allowed to say.”

Fuck this, I’m gonna be blunt.

“Did you get powers? Are you a spirit-touched?”

“Wh-what? You think I’m a spirit-touched? No. I wouldn’t still be here if I was. Look, I just came into some money from my parents. More than what they usually send me, but now I’m worried something bad happened to them, and worse yet, the paperwork to use it legally has been so time-consuming. It’s cutting into my schoolwork and sleep.”

She’s not bad. If she delivered it a bit less shakily I might have believed her for a few seconds.

“Sorry to jump all over you then, I just got concerned for your safety. We need a class president and all that.” I say, sitting back down.

“No problem. On that subject though, can I ask you something?” Sarah gets close to me and speaks in a hushed tone.

“Sure.”

“Rachel, just your temperament, your height, your posture. Are you Phoenix? I wouldn’t tell anybody if you were.”

Fuck me. My pulse quickens for the briefest moment before I force myself to stay composed. Phoenix is roughly my height and build, so are a lot of girls. She’s heard Phoenix talk, a lot, and the mask and transcendence only do so much to distort my voice. She doesn’t know, she’s asking. I can do this.

“No. I’m not Phoenix, I’m not a spirit-touched, if I were, I wouldn’t be here, just like you said.”

“I… I’m sorry to assume things of you, you’re not really angry like she is. I’m looking for things that aren’t there. I don’t know why I… I’m sorry. I guess I’m nervous. I don’t know. It feels like the time of heroes may well and truly be ending. I want to know them, I want to thank them. Honestly, I need them, I need a reason for hope. That reason has been superheroes. If they go, then I think hope goes with them.”

“Don’t put your hope in superheroes, Sarah. Hope, real hope, has to come from within. You need to find your own reason to hope. Your own reason to keep going. Understand? Nobody can give you that.”

“But I’m so weak, and some people think that they, especially Chimera, are supposed to save us and I-”

“The rest of the world’s not waiting on superheroes to save them anymore. Most of us are just trying to survive. If Chimera is as strong as you think, and she and her team can bring down the Archduke, great, but I’m not holding my breath, neither should you.”

Some of the world, very few parts of it, but some, still see Chimera as a savior in their time of need, a chosen one. I don’t really buy into it, but the girl is powerful and if anyone is going to stop the Archduke it’s going to be her. I doubt she can, and if she does, I doubt I’d live to see it, but some people still hold out hope for the “chosen one” and those people see Chimera as exactly that.

“Right. Well, thanks Rachel. You’re an honest person, and I appreciate that, even if I don’t always like your answers. I guess I have a lot to think about. I forgot I made some plans and I really need to eat before then. Have a good night.”

“You too.”

“Oh, I almost forgot! Rachel? Happy birthday!”

Sarah hands me a small red box, I pull it open and find a black cupcake with dark red frosting.

“Thank you, but, how did yo-”

“I got a class roster and put everyone’s birthday on my calendar at the beginning of the school year. I am class president after all.”

“Right. Well, thank you. That’s a very sweet gesture.”

Sarah leaves after a quick goodbye and I’m left alone in the library. She’s innocent, ignorant even, but there’s as much beauty in that as there is danger. Chimera was our happy-go-lucky teammate before Sarah joined, and before Chimera, Dragon and I were both pretty cynical. Maybe people like Chimera and Sarah are what this world needs more of, or maybe that’s just hope trying to set me up for disappointment again. I check my phone and see it’s barely half-past seven. I still have a bit before I have to be at the hideout, but there’s no way I’m getting any studying done tonight. I may as well get there early, but first, I suppose there’s no harm in having a cupcake.

Session 2, Chapter 5 – Secrets

Content warning: Violence, Extreme use of fire, Car accidents 

It takes me all of ten seconds to enter The Cinder State and find my way in through the trailer door. What the fuck did she do? We gave her pretty simple orders, so how did she fuck it up? I scan the trailer as soon as I’m inside, ten soldiers with rifles stand in a tight formation in the middle of the trailer. Behind and to the side of them are crates, they were thrown roughly around the trailer when Chimera tore it off, but most of the stuff still looks to be intact. I glance over at Unicorn, she has her hands in the air, detranscended. She’s wearing a bright green cloak and a cheap white mask with clear lenses. Two darts are sticking out of her shoulder and neck.

The darts, you idiot, remove the darts! The longer they stay in you, the longer they cut your powers off! Pull out the darts! The soldiers have their guns trained on her, and if I dropped out of the Cinder State right now, they’d have a pretty easy shot at me. I stay in my incorporeal form and circle around them, this is pretty standard procedure, so I know just the signal to wait for. I start to channel my rage and call on my power while in The Cinder State.

Chimera should pull these doors open any minute. We’ve done this before a million times and she’ll do it any second now. I’m sure of it.

Okay, maybe she isn’t coming.

Ten soldiers, I could probably take them, but I’m not sure I could do it without getting a dart. That’s why I need some backup. It would be better if Unicorn didn’t get shot like an idiot, but I have to work with the cards I’m dealt. I can’t just sit here thinking about it forever. I position myself behind the furthest right guard on the back line and ready all the flame I’ve gathered.

Come on Chimera, where are you?

I drop out of the Cinder State and launch fire at the backs of the men in the backline, grabbing the one I was standing closest to and putting him between me and the other five. The man screams in pain and drops his gun as darts pepper his burning back. The smell of burning flesh is one I’ll never get used to smelling. I use the human shield to drop back into The Cinder State and disappear again.

“Anchor.” One of the soldiers says to the other four still standing as I gather my fire. I see the bottom of their boots glow blue and seem to magnetize to the floor. The leader of these soldiers sets a small blue and white orb on the ground, which instantly attaches itself to the floor.

Without warning, the soldier presses a button on his wrist and I feel myself being torn apart and entirely disrupted. My vision, all of my senses actually, fail me momentarily and seem to come back to me one at a time. My airy, ethereal form is positioned by a corner near the door in the shipping container. I glance around and see Sarah was blown back against the far door of the container and the five injured guards were blown wildly around.

What the hell was that thing? It felt like it tried to rip me apart. I know that I’m technically some form of air when I’m in the Cinder State, so that thing must have been able to blow the air in the shipping container around wildly. The lead soldier turns towards me, his visor has a red-orange tint that I didn’t notice before. He points to my exact location the second his head turns towards me.

“She’s there!” He says, raising his weapon. The other guards follow suit. I start to move again, his head quickly follows me and with another press of his wrist I feel the same awful, painful sensation ripping at me and find my form huddled at the back of the shipping container a few seconds later.

Chimera, any time now would be fucking awesome.

“Don’t try it Phoenix. Just come out with your hands up and we won’t hurt you.” The man says. I don’t believe him, and I doubt he cares.

That visor has to be able to see heat signatures. When I’m in the Cinder State, I register as slightly warmer air. My cousin, Cori, had a special ability that let her see heat and I was never able to hide from her in The Cinder State. If he wants to see heat, I’ll give him heat.

I call fire to myself, as much as I can muster, the entire time I’m terrified that he’s going to use his device again, but he doesn’t. I drop out of the Cinder State and unleash all the gathered flame in as wide an area as possible. The entire back half of the trailer is engulfed in flame. I would have hit the whole trailer, but I can’t risk accidentally killing Sarah. Even an incompetent ally is better than no ally.

I hear the lead soldier groan as he covers the visor of his mask. The first two soldiers, as well as a few of the injured ones, are completely turned to ash. I don’t like killing, I hate it actually. My aspect may be anger, but I’m still a goddamn human. My power isn’t exactly one that “wounds” or “hurts” all I can do is destroy and kill. I wish I could knock out soldier the way Chimera does, or I could at least kill as ruthlessly as Kitsune does. I breathe and get my composure together, these soldiers stopped being people the second they joined the regime. That’s what I have to remind myself.

The other three guards were burned and knocked off balance. The lead guard lost his gun, while the other two aren’t exactly ready to shoot. I call the fire, pulling it from the burning crates and metal and covering my body in it. The sensation of flame covering me, but not burning me is such an unusual feeling. It almost feels like I’m wearing a glove over my entire body, but it moves in such a strange and almost uncomfortable way. When I see the looks on the faces of the guards, I know I got exactly the effect I was going for.

I hear a click as one of the soldiers panics and pulls the trigger of his gun. I watch the dart hit the flaming armor around me and burn up before making contact with my skin, it got close, way closer than I would have liked, but I stopped it. I don’t let the worry show at all as I walk slowly towards the three soldiers. I look at Sarah, she’s mostly unharmed, just some searing on her cloak, but she looks like she’s been knocked out pretty bad from that device that blew the air in here around.

“Drop your weapons,” I say through crackling flame. The soldiers recoil slightly and the back two drop their weapons when I raise my hands.

“Helmets, wrist pads, phones, boots, gloves, and anything else you have with tech or weaponry, take it off,” I order, the guards hesitate for a moment before finally doing so. It takes two or three minutes, and I have to double and triple check them, sending my fire away from the hands I was using to check them, but they’re clear.

“Go sit in the front corner of the trailer,” I say, indicating to the corner by the door. “If any of you make moves for your weapons, it’s not going to end well for you.”
I’m not nearly as sure of myself as I pretend to be in that moment, but it works. The men relent and go to the corner. I’m beyond relieved that worked and relieved that I finally have a trick that may slow down the darts. Now, I need to find out what the hell happened to my backup.

I use the fire around my body and send it as one large wave towards the door, forcing it open with a loud thud. I ignite my wings and start gathering more fire around me as I look at the scene. It’s not what I was hoping for.

Chimera is the first person I notice, she’s holding her shoulder, blood running down from it. Her body is shaking and her face bears a clear expression of pain. Well, there goes my backup. Dragon is standing directly in front of her, her teeth and claws are bared, her wings and tail are fully extended, she’s guarding her and making sure she doesn’t get hit by whatever got her previously.

Kitsune is covered entirely in white carbon, her fans drawn to protect herself. She’s frozen completely, a look of hatred on her face. The bodies of soldiers with dart guns, four of them, lay sprawled around the road near Kitsune. While two Paladins lay in heaps, their engines torn directly out of their bodies. If I had to guess, Chimera did that. A third Paladin stands a few feet from Dragon, it’s black metal body appears to be mostly unharmed. A jeep is parked next to the Paladin, a man in the driver’s seat holds a handgun, pointed at Chimera in the few moments when she’s not being covered by Dragon. A woman sits in the passenger seat. She’s clad in a blue and white dress, holding a large hunting rifle, trained on Dragon. Her entire face excluding the eyes and mouth, is covered by a white mask, while the rest of her head is covered by a blue hood. She’s short, maybe about 5’2, but she’s clearly in control of the situation. Oracle.

“Phoenix!” Oracle says in a sickeningly sweet voice. “I was wondering when you’d be joining us.”

“Fuck off. You’re outnumbered here, leave.” I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking.

“Don’t try that shit with me Phoenix. Chimera’s not getting up anytime soon, the Fox is a human popsicle, and your new friend is out like a light. Besides, Technician is directly controlling this Paladin. We’ve got you beat.”

Fuck, Chimera doesn’t look to be in any state to fight. She looks like she’s barely aware of where she even is right now. Even worse, I barely have any power left and I can’t image Dragon is exactly fresh. I glance at Dragon and she gives me a very brief look, one that makes me feel like she’s working on a plan.

“Quite right.” A woman’s voice with a thick German accent comes from the Paladin, there’s no doubt that’s Technician. “I’m not especially interested in further harming children, so the smartest thing you can do is turn yourselves over to us.”

“Yeah, that’s gonna be a no.” I mutter, stepping to Dragon’s side.

“Oh, Phoenix, so much of your father in you.” Oracle says with a devilish grin on her face. I growl slightly at the comment and feel the rage inside me start to build. I need to keep calm, Oracle has the power to gather information based on the smallest clue. She has her magic rifle and the boosts that being a spirit touched gives everyone, but her ability isn’t a combat one, she’s just extremely adept at information gathering and knows how to use that information to get to people.

“Tell me Phoenix, do you know? Do you know who you’ve been working alongside? Do you know who’s been in your midsts, who you thought were allies? Can you really trust them?” Technician’s voice says, Oracle seems to grimace slightly, almost like Technician saying that irked her.

Can I trust my team? I trust Dragon completely, and I trust Chimera to never join the Archduke. Kitsune is a wild card, but if there’s one thing I don’t doubt it’s her commitment to the fight. I barely know Sarah, but I doubt she’d be willing to sell us out to the regime. Even if I didn’t trust my team, I know I have to show that I do against these two, especially Oracle.

“Yes, there’s not a thing you could tell me about them that could make me distrust them. They’re my team, I trust them fully.” I answer. Oracle’s eyes light up like she’s struck paydirt.

“That angle’s not gonna work Techy,” she says almost laughing. “She’s gay, and she doesn’t give a shit about her team’s personal lives.”

Oracle pauses and locks her eyes on Dragon.

“However, Dragon, you really are smarter than Techy gives you credit for. You know, don’t you? You’ve known for a while. You probably could have fixed it. And you didn’t tell Phoenix? Don’t you claim to be the good guys? That’s really fucking harsh.” Oracle says.

“I don’t know what you’re ta-” Dragon starts.

“Oh sure, you weren’t one-hundred percent sure, but I just confirmed it. So? You gonna tell her now?”

An awkward silence hangs over the standoff. Dragon exhales slightly and glances at me with one of her reptilian eyes. I glance back. What does Oracle mean? Dragon’s keeping something from me? What? Does she know who I am? I’d be mad at myself, but if Kitsune knows, it doesn’t bother me a ton that Dragon does. Is she straight? As disappointed as I’d be, I wouldn’t be crushed. I could deal with it. No, Oracle said she could have stopped ‘it’, stop what? What else would she possibly hide from me?

“You think you know everything, don’t you Oracle?” Dragon says.

“Unlike you, no I don’t. I know people, Techy knows machines.” Oracle says.

“So then who’s fault was not noticing that you didn’t freeze me in carbon?” Kitsune says, leaping from behind the trailer onto the top of it. Oracle’s eyes go wide as she stares at Kitsune, and points her rifle at her. I glance at the Kitsune frozen in carbon and see it’s still there. How the fuck did she do that?

“Shoot! Dart Dragon! Now!” Oracle orders her soldier. The man’s arm moves roughly, violently jerking to the side. He points his gun at Oracle instead.

“Edward Millner, former army general, cheating on his wife with a young recruit who’s only sleeping with him out of fear of losing her position. Please, I do my homework and I know faces, don’t tell me you’re that much of an amateur Oracle.” Kitsune taunts. Before Kitsune can make the man pull the trigger, Oracle rips the gun from his hand and fires at Dragon.

Dragon wastes no time getting out of the way, pouncing on the Paladin and trying to rip through their shell. The Paladin uses their size advantage to throw Dragon back a bit and turns to face her. It would have hit Chimera, but I burn it to ash before it gets there.

Oracle drops the dart pistol, aims her rifle at Kitsune, and forces her soldier out of the driver’s seat. She takes a shot at Kitsune, who dodges with an athletic flip. She starts her car and takes another shot at Kitsune, who blocks it with her fan this time. Oracle presses a button on the dash and engages some sort of auto-drive function. She takes a few shots at Kitsune and myself before hitting Dragon squarely in the back, the purple energy from the gun doesn’t even break her scales.

Dragon and the Paladin are locked in combat. Dragon has managed to dislodge the stun turret, while the Paladin is keeping a solid hold on Dragon’s claws. I briefly consider helping her, before setting my eyes on Oracle’s jeep.

“Kitsune, watch Chimera and Unicorn.” I say, looking at the shivering, bleeding superhero on the ground and the barely conscious borderline-civilian.

“Yup.” Kitsune says, hopping down to ground level and extending both her fans fully.

I fly forward, landing on the hood of Oracle’s jeep. I start to melt through the hood and into the engine, but she quickly bashes me in the face with the butt of her rifle. Okay, that hurt, maybe I need a different approach. I lock my eyes on Oracle.

“Alright Phoenix, you caught me, come take me.” She says, disengaging the auto-drive and slowing the jeep slightly. I don’t trust this.

“Or we could make a deal.” She says with a devilish grin.

“No. I don’t make deals with people like you.”

“Oh, but you could. Your team would never know, I’d give you a good, non-fatal shot to the gut and drive away. You fake like you’re too hurt to follow.”

“Kitsune’s a human lie detector and Dragon’s a super genius, I’m not an idiot. Besides, you don’t have anything I want.”

“Don’t I? You wanna know what Dragon’s hiding from you? You wanna know what Kitsune’s weakness is? Ooh ooh, do you wanna know why your dad turned on you?”

Why am I even entertaining her? I have fucking Oracle in my sights, I should either burn her to a crisp or restrain her for Dragon to question. At the moment, I’m leaning towards burning her.

“No.” I growl under my mask.

“Oh, yes you do.” She says with a smirk. “But if my offer doesn’t intrigue you, go ahead. Capture me. You’ll just never know why your daddy had such a change of heart.”

Oracle holds her hands out for me. I glare at her. Come on, do it. I beg my hands to grab her, to restrain her and pull her out of the vehicle, but they won’t budge.

“You can’t possibly know that.” I spit.

“Sweetie,” Oracle starts with a laugh. “I was there.”

She could give me answers, closure, she could give me something I never thought I’d have. It would mean letting my team down. It would mean letting Chimera down when she took a bullet for our cause. It would mean letting Dragon down. I can’t do that. I want to know, I want it more than anything, but…

“No…” I force the word out of my throat. Saying no was hard, but saying yes was somehow harder. Before I can change my mind, I reach forward and wrench her hands, putting her in a wrist lock.

“That’s fine. My offer was sincere, but you weren’t even the first priority. I was just stalling.” Oracle says calmly, letting out a sharp whistle.

Oracle’s soldier, apparently free of Kitsune’s control and laying on the ground, has the dart pistol. On Oracle’s signal, he points it at Dragon. Dragon is still locked in her fight with the Paladin, neither side making headway. Dragon will probably win a one-on-one fight with a Paladin, even one controlled by Technician, but if she gets darted, this fight is over before it can even start.

“Kitsune!” I shout, pulling Oracle tight against my body and trying to kick her rifle away. “The dart gun!”

Kitsune doesn’t take more than a second to react, making the man throw his hand backwards and fire the gun far away from Dragon. It’s okay. It’s safe. It didn’t work, we’re going to win.

The next thing I hear is an ear-splitting, high pitched noise that shakes the road, the car, and the sand around us. I hit the ground and cover my ears, so do Oracle, Kitsune, Dragon, and the Soldier. The Paladin stalls. It takes me a few seconds to realize what’s happening, Chimera is screaming, a visceral howl of pain that sounds like it’s echoing from the spirit world. Every inch of Chimera is radiating blue light. It’s at this moment that I realize the errant dart hit Chimera. She stands and pulls the dart out of her neck with her telekinetic powers, her eyes glowing bright blue.

She didn’t detranscend. The dart didn’t make her fucking detranscend. I know that Chimeras are usually fucking weird, and work a little differently than normal spirit touched, but the dart didn’t cut off her powers, it just made her mad.

The sand and rocks on the roadside begin to glow blue, Forming swiftly into massive rock golems. The sand starts to twist around Chimera, forming a shield as she begins to float into the air. Chimera is telekinetic, she struggles with “loose” things like sand or water because she has to control every grain or drop. I’ve also never even seen her try to make a golem out of rocks, or anything else, before. Controlling one loose object is standard for her, but controlling a few objects at a time makes her basically a sitting duck. Making all the rocks move in tandem? I can’t imagine how much focus that takes. I know other Chimeras have gotten stronger over time, maybe some of the ones that survived for a long time could do this, but this is an incredible spike in a matter of seconds.

Chimera launches a wave of sand over the roadway at high speeds. The sandstorm hits the jeep hard, sending me off of it and tumbling across the road back to the trailer. When I look back up, I see the Paladin torn apart to nothing but scrap metal and spare parts. Dragon is looking around her wings to try to get a clear look at Chimera through the sand. Her reptilian eyes probably give her a better chance than Kitsune or I.

The jeep is also in pieces. I don’t even see the soldier anymore, he’s probably buried beneath the sand. Oracle is laying a few feet back from the jeep, scrambling backward and grabbing her rifle. She fires it at Chimera, purple energy exploding from the muzzle. The beams hit Chimera’s shield of sand and immediately disperse. Through coughs and panicked breaths, I hear Oracle speak into some sort of wrist communicator.

“Dodger, I need evac. Now.” She says.

Chimera’s stone golems begin to make their way towards Oracle, a few of them walk past me and seem to ignore me. I can’t find Kitsune, but no doubt she was agile enough to slip into or behind the trailer. Chimera slowly begins to advance herself, picking up more sand along the way.

“Oracle!” The voice comes from Chimera’s lips, but it’s not her own. It sounds like a mix of voices, hundreds of them, along with some spectral, celestial force boosting their volume ten times above what they would be. “Your hubris and malice have put this world at grave risk. Your Archduke attempts to make a pantheon here on earth, I fled the spirit world because I saw what a pantheon does to those who are not at the top of it. I will not let this world become the one I left. Your structures will fall, and I will bring them down. Heed my warning Oracle, abandon your leaders’ foolish ploy, or I will not hesitate to end your life along with his.”

Oracle shakes like a leaf and desperately tries to shoot the Rock golems, who don’t even slow down. I’ve never seen someone like Oracle be this genuinely afraid, for fuck’s sake, Chimera’s on my side and I’m terrified of her. How is she doing this? What’s gotten into her? What is she? I know that Chimera said she “bonded” with the spirit, instead of receiving a fraction of their powers as a blessing like most of us did, but does that mean that she could be as powerful as a full-blown spirit?

A short girl in a small white and blue costume appears right next to Oracle, the costume is a one piece body glove with a small blue eye mask, her blonde hair is up in a ponytail. Her name is Dodger, I don’t know much about her except that she’s a teleporter. She grabs Oracle just before the golems get to her and teleports away. Chimera floats still in the air for a few moments before landing on the ground with force. Sand and rocks go flying as her shield and golems disperse.

“Maybe next time you won’t underestimate me.” Chimera says to the spot where Oracle was. She turns and looks in the direction of Dragon and I, the blue glow of her eyes slowly starts to fade as her breathing becomes more labored. She grabs her head and leans against the trailer as her eyes return to normal.

What the fuck was that? How did Chimera do that? Why didn’t the dart work? Did Chimera just declare official war on the Archduke? Did we just get pushed into a full-blown war? I have so many questions, but I can’t even begin to ask them. I just watch Dragon fly to Chimera to check on her as I sit on the ground slack-jawed.

“Well, that was unexpected.” Kitsune says, walking out of the trailer and over to me. I nod in response.

“Yeah, uh, I’m curious how she-”

“No shit. I am too.” Kitsune cuts me off and rolls her eyes.

“How did you not get frozen?” I ask, I shouldn’t care, but it’s been bugging me since I saw her come from behind the trailer.

“A little misdirection with an assist from Dragon. She gave me this thing.” Kitsune indicates to a large metal triangle attached to her forearm. “Some sort of 3D printer that works at high speeds. As soon as the Paladin fired their carbon at me, Dragon told me to hit the button on it and it sent a plastic copy of me to take the carbon. Then I just hid behind my… ‘carbon copy’ until nobody was paying attention to where I was. That’s probably not something that’s going to work twice, at least not as well, but it was extremely satisfying to pull one over on Oracle and Technician that way.”

“I mean, you pulled one over on her, but Chimer-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, Chimera is awesome, she’s probably a legit spirit or something, but can we at least focus on the cool thing I did for like a second.”

“That sounds like it was mostly Dragon.” I say with a shrug.

“You would think that. Whatever, go check on your girlfriend and her sister, I’ve got some collecting to do.” Kitsune says, fishing through the pockets of the soldier corpses that line the street.

I glance at Dragon and sigh. Oracle is a liar, but from the way Dragon reacted, I doubt she was lying here. Dragon is supposed to be our leader, she’s someone I trust, someone I care about a lot, and she’s been hiding something from me, and from the tone Oracle used, it must be something bad. What could she not want me to know that badly? Can I still trust Dragon? I hope so, I need to be able to trust her. Please let this be nothing.

Dragon has detranscended and is carefully applying something from a clear bottle to Chimera’s gunshot wound.

“I need to take you back to my lab to work on this.” Dragon says, her breath heavy.

“I know, thank you for doing what you can here.” Chimera answers in a weak and sheepish voice.

“Hey Chi.” I say, trying my best to look soft and welcoming despite being basically a fire demon.

“Hey, I didn’t hurt you did I?” she asks.

“No, I’m fine. Can I ask you something?”

Dragon starts to open her mouth, but Chimera raises her good arm.

“Sis, it’s fine. What is it Phoenix?” She says.

“What was that?” I ask, alluding to the sand covering the roadway.

“Honestly, you would know better than I do. I don’t even remember anything. I just remember feeling the dart go in, and then I was leaning against this trailer. It was a lot like what happened against Heatstroke. I just blacked out.” She says, not looking me in the eye.

She blacked out? Does Chimera have some sort of failsafe built into her powers? It would make sense if it saved her in life or death situations, but it triggered after she was darted.

“Dragon?” I ask.

“Working on a hypothesis. Been working on one since our fight with Heatstroke. Best case scenario, it’s a well-hidden secret power that Chimera has. It’s possible that it’s an alternate state, or maybe that the spirit itself is taking control of her, that would account for the extreme rise in her power.” Dragon says, still busily working on Chimera’s wound.

“Worst case scenario?” I ask, I almost immediately regret doing so.

“Multiple personality disorder or mind control by something much stronger.”

“I don’t think it’s either of those.” Chimera says, shaking her head.

“I’m just examining all the possibilities.” Dragon adds, raising her hands slightly.

“Um, hi” A voice says to the left of us, it’s Sarah.

“Hey.” Chimera says giving her a warm smile.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’ll be fine. How are you holding up?”

“Alright, I guess. Getting shot at was… was…” Sarah starts to trail off, Chimera places her good hand on her shoulder.

“I know. It gets easier after the first few times.” Chimera says.

“I’m sorry, I fucked up really bad.” Sarah says, not wanting to look at Dragon or I.

“It’s alright. What happened in there?”

“I thought they were out of darts. They baited me. I made myself tangible and they gor me. I fucked up.”

“Yeah, you did.” I answer before Chimera can. I want to leave it there, but the way her eyes look beneath the mask forces me to say “It’s okay, we’ve all fucked up from time to time.” I feel the bullet wound on my arm as a still clear reminder of that.

“I… thank you.”

“If you’ll excuse me.” Chimera starts. “I need to meditate. I want to commune with the other Chimeras, I have questions.”

“Of course, let me know what you find out?” Dragon says.

“I promise.”

“Could I watch?” Sarah asks, picking her head up slightly.

“Sure. Just don’t touch me. It would break my focus.”

“Of course.”

I get up to leave Chimera and indicate for Dragon to follow me. She hesitates, but as soon as Chimera enters her trance she comes to join me off to the side.

“Hey.” I say.

“Hey. Everything good?” She asks.

“Yeah, everything’s fine. Kitsune told me what you did, that was a pretty cool trick.”

“I actually have Technician to think for that, her power lets her produce near impossible tech, mine doesn’t. I took a miniature 3D printer from one of her warehouses a few months back and have been trying to engineer something like that. It’s not ideal, the device needs to be on the body for a while, can only make plastic duplicates of whoever it’s attached to, and only has enough material for one duplicate. It also needs time to grow, the duplicate was a little smaller than Kitsune, we were lucky that they never picked up on that.”

It’s funny to hear her talk about this. Science and her projects, it’s cute in a way. She’s not a person who’s especially good at letting her walls down, I know a thing or two about that. But when she starts to talk about her experiments or projects, it’s almost impossible to stop her. I smile slightly behind my mask.

“Well, I’m glad it worked. I’m glad we escaped. So what’s our next move?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Things are moving fast. The regime sends Exodus, Oracle, and Technician after us all in the span of a few days? I don’t like this.” Dragon says.

“So, the Fort McCord job? I take it you don’t want to push it back?”

“Phoenix, I think we have to move it up.”

“Move it up? But we were going to hit it tomorrow.”

“I know, and with Chimera hurt, and Unicorn shaken up, we should be taking more time off, not less. But if we don’t strike now, we aren’t going to have a chance. They’re making their play. Right now. We need to slow it down, and getting into that base can buy us at least a few days. We don’t have a matter of days anymore, we probably have hours.”

“You’re right. So we do it tonight?”

“Yeah, eight. That gives us a little over twelve hours to rest and prepare. Meet at the hideout. I’m going to patch Chimera up and make sure she’s okay to go. Kit’s not coming with us, she has people she needs to take care of, they’re her first priority. So we need all the rest of us able to go.”

“Yeah. Sounds like a plan.”

Silence hangs over us for a few seconds. I want to ask her, badly, I can feel the words forming in my mouth, but they refuse to come out. “What was Oracle talking about?” that’s all I need to say, I just need to say that one thing and I can put this to bed. I can tell Dragon is thinking about it too. Neither of us wants to bring it up.

So we don’t.

“You’re getting better, your tech is evolving. It’s really cool actually.” I say.

“Thanks. You’re damn good with your powers. I’m amazed by all the clever things you do with them. You’re more than just a flamethrower. You’re really good at this job, better than you give yourself credit for.” She says, her smile audible.

“You’re really good at this. I’m-”

“Shh, no. We’re both really good at being heroes. Agreed?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. We’re a team. We’re partners.”

That word hangs there for what feels like ten minutes, partners. God, I want that so desperately. In one sense of the word we are. I’m not sure how she meant it. Is it a hint that she would want to be with me? Is it just phrasing she didn’t put thought into? But Dragon’s so smart, doesn’t she put thought into eve- Rachel, calm down, she said partners. Just relax.

“Yeah. we’re partners.” I say.

“Good, well, then I’ll see you tonight.”

Dragon walks back to her sister. What Oracle said echoes through my mind again. Dragon is keeping something from me. We both know it, even if neither of us wants to acknowledge it. I don’t care. Whatever she’s keeping for me, I don’t need to know. It’s her business, not mine. If we’re gonna win this, I need to trust her. I don’t need to know, not till this is over.

I trust her.

Session 2, Chapter 4 – Teamwork

Content Warning: Violence

“Approaching your position in one mile. Be ready.” I hear Dragon’s voice crackle through the communicator on my left wrist. I dodge out of the way of a Paladin’s shoulder-mounted turret and launch a wave of flame at their chest in retaliation.

“Ready. How’s the Paladin situation?” Chimera’s voice says through the communicator.

“Working on it.” Dragon replies.

The situation isn’t exactly ideal, two heavily armored enforcer vans and four Paladins, all guarding the large semi truck which holds our cargo. The back two Paladins are trying to hold us off, the front two are no doubt scanning for Chimera or Kitsune. I glance back at Dragon, who’s struggling to grab something from a bag slung between her wings.

“Going for the back right one. Cover my approach.” I say into my communicator before diving directly towards the metal titan. I can’t catch what Dragon says back to me over the sound of the wind. I feel something catch the wind behind me as Dragon circles around to my left, drawing some of the fire from the left Paladin. I use the brief few moments of cover to enter the Cinder State, feeling my body fall away to the surging wind. I continue my dive towards the Paladin at an increased speed and position myself inside their frame.

It’s difficult to keep myself in position at the speeds the Paladins are going. If I try to hang in one spot, I’ll just phase out of them, but if I keep flying with them, I can’t gather much fire. They probably planned for this to some extent after how I killed the last one.

I glance around the frame, it would be a tight squeeze, but I could theoretically fit without getting impaled on something inside of its mess of wires and metal. I’m terrified that something is going to pierce my armor, or that I’m just going to be flattened, but I have to try. I drop out of the Cinder State and feel my body impact the metal casing, hard.

Fuck me, I can barely move in here. This is a massive risk, and not one I can afford to take. I clench my fists and call fire to them as I expel shallow breaths. I need to stay as flat as possible. I channel the fire in my fists and press my head tight against the metal.

Fuck all of this. This whole fucking police state, the fact I have to do this to survive, the fact that almost everyone else died or gave up. Fuck Exodus for making us have to risk our necks this bad. Fuck my father for failing me!

I push on the metal frame and feel fire engulf the robot. As bits and pieces of it melt and burn away, I reignite my wings and take to the air the second I’m clear of the rubble. I can’t waste a second and snap my head to the left. Dragon is fighting a Paladin, trying to get around to their back. She slaps a metal box onto them, just as the thing turns its head all the way around and encases her right arm and the box in heavy carbon.

Fuck these things! They can turn their heads around now too? No! This thing is not taking Dragon! I’m not losing her on a job like this, on a fucking set-up mission for our most important job. We need her.

I need her.

I charge the Paladin when I see Dragon glance at me. She starts to say something, but I don’t hear it as I strike the Paladin in the head with my left foot. Sending a wave of flame out around its shoulder.

Pain. Searing pain is the only sensation that greets me immediately afterward. It’s hard to think, hard to move, and hard to stay airborne. I crash into the sand on the side of the road, pain still gripping my body hard. I hear something crash into the pavement a few feet from me. I try to look or get over to them, but it hurts too much to move even that small amount. I cough and let out a staggered breath.

Getting beaten by another spirit-touched is bad, getting beaten by a dumb machine is unforgivable. I’ve failed. I failed Dragon, I failed Chimera, I failed myself. I’m so fucking stupid. Maybe I should have just left after we killed Heatstroke. Maybe everyone would be better off that way. Goddammit. I shouldn’t call myself a hero.

“Phoenix!” a growling voice greets me as I feel a clawed hand grip me. I force my head to crane around and am greeted by Dragon, holding me tightly against her icy scales. Her hand is free of the carbon and the Paladin is laying in a crater in the concrete.

“H-how?” I ask.

“I had a plan. That device is an EMP, I didn’t plan to have my hand frozen to it, but that didn’t impact me a ton.”

“How did you get your hand free?”

“I finally finished that corrosive acid to counteract the carbon. It took a few seconds longer than I need it to, but it got me free. Sadly the EMP also killed my communicator, so I need yours.”

“By all means.”

Dragon grabs my wrist and I go limp against her chest as she speaks into it.

“Chimera, Kitsune, we lost ground, two Paladins down, but the cars got ahead of us. We’re going to catch up, but you’re going to need to start without us.” Dragon says into my wrist before turning back to me, cradling my head. “Are you okay? The Paladin got you pretty good, I can wait until you’re ready to move.”

This is embarrassing, humiliating actually. I’m supposed to be the experienced one, the one with a mastery of her powers, but I’m still a headstrong kid and Dragon is so much better at this than I am. I let out a staggered breath and touch the part of my back where the laser hit me. It stings like a bitch, but I can get past it.

“I’m fine.” I nearly whisper as I push myself off of Dragon to get up. I stumble slightly before igniting my wings. Before I take off, Dragon grabs my shoulder and I look back at her. We can’t waste time like this, but I want to, badly.

“Phoenix, it’s okay to be hurt. Anybody would be-”

“I’m fine! Let’s go!”

“Phoenix… please. I don’t want you to get hurt worse than you already are. I care about you.”

I stare into Dragon’s reptilian eyes, her intelligence, and humanity still clear beneath the draconic visage. How does she look beneath the scales? Beneath the cloak and mask? What’s her name? Why can’t I get these questions out of my head? I shake my head gently and look at her longingly.

“Come on. We have a job to do.”

Before she can respond I launch myself into the air and down the old sandy road. Dragon follows behind me pretty quickly, but I keep a comfortable distance between us. I would give anything to make this world like the one I grew up in. I want to have a life where I can be a normal teenager, where I can go home to my parents, where I can date a girl I like. This place is so fucked, and it’s going to kill me if I don’t kill it first.

I find the long stretch of road where Chimera and Kitsune are facing off with the two Paladins. Both of the trucks have crashed. One of them is totally overturned while the other has crashed into a small rock formation. The semi-truck sits abandoned in the middle of the road. The enforcers and truck driver lay all around the road, if they aren’t dead, they’re going to be soon.

This wasn’t the plan, Chimera shouldn’t be fighting, she should be trying to disconnect the cargo. Dammit, another thing that we fucked up because of my mistake. I growl under my breath and hit the pavement as fire washes around me. I slide into the back knee of one of the Paladins and send fire with my strike. It doesn’t do as much damage as I hoped, but I got their attention as I slide in front of them.

“Chi, Go.” I say, glancing back at her. She just gives me a nod in response before turning her full attention to the trailer on the back of the semi truck. Dragon lands between me and Kitsune and unleashes her breath at the Paladin Kitsune is fighting.

“How long until the autopilot kicks in?” Dragon asks Kitsune.

“The fuck should I know?” Kitsune says, not taking her eyes off the Paladin.

“When did you remove the driver?”

“I didn’t, your baby sister did. And she did it about thirty seconds ago, maybe 45.”

“Exact time would be better.”

“Yeah, well having our back up actually fucking here on time would be better too.”

“Fair point.” Dragon says “Chime-”

“Yeah, I heard, let me focus.” Chimera says, visibly straining at exerting her power to break the heavy bolts connecting the trailer to the truck.

The Paladins both have their attention fully on Chimera, which means we have to play defense. That’s not exactly an ideal position for me. One of them begins to charge their carbon as the other covers them with their own lasers. This situation is going to get a hell of a lot worse if Chimera gets frozen in carbon. Think Rachel, think.

The Paladin unleashes their Carbon directly at Chimera’s back. Before I can react, Kitsune throws her hand forward and Chimera loses footing, slipping forward and face planting on the asphalt. She glares back at Kitsune, her eyes glowing bright blue, Kitsune gives her a small shrug.

“Oh fuck off, little miss superhero, I saved your ass. Besides, now we’re even.” Kitsune says, blocking more laser fire with her fans.

“Dragon, I’m going to go for my Cinder State trick, be ready to pick up my slack.” I say to Dragon in a low voice, she nods as I let myself fade into the air again. I circle back behind one of the Paladins and begin to phase into it. The second I do I feel myself being repelled by some sort of internal air cannon. It sends me down and out the back of the robot and I struggle to gather myself and it feels like an active strain to come back to my solid form.

“Hey Dragon?” I say, flying overhead and returning to a defensive position.

“Yeah, I know. It repelled you. Some sort of Faraday cage or an internal shield?”

“Air cannon I think. I felt a ton of pressure driving me out of it. That wasn’t there before.”

“I know. I’ve been working on that. They have some form of mild reactive adaptation. It works slowly, and it’s probably not exactly right, but it’s the closest thing I have right now. I’d love to get my hands on a Paladin to examine it, bu-”

“Hey lovers.” Kitsune says, cutting dragon off. “Less talking, more defending.”

I hear an exasperated groan from Chimera, a laser strikes her in the back as she lifts the entire trailer off of the truck just before it’s autopilot engages and the cab drives away. Chimera turns toward us, her eyes glowing a fabulous bright blue as she throws the trailer at the two Paladins and glares at the three of us. The trailer crushes the Paladins easily, leaving only smashed bits of metal.

“Hey, Chimera, easy. We need what’s i-” Dragon starts.

“Shut up! I just ended this! Fuck! Do I have to do everything!” Chimera says, the light and bubbly tone she usually adopts totally fallen away.

“Chimera… Please…” Dragon says. Chimera drops to her knees, and her eyes drop their blue glow. Dragon goes to her side immediately. I didn’t notice Chimera had been using her power to lift various rocks and trees until I hear them crash down around me. I wonder if she had even been meaning to do that.

“I’m sorry…” Chimera says, getting to her feet with her sister’s help.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I let you get hurt.” Dragon says, keeping her arm around her.

“Kitsune.” I ask, trying to just ignore our awkward fight yesterday. “How did you know Chimera was the younger sister?”

“Please, I don’t need my power for that. I just watch things. Try it sometime, you might actually learn something.”

Dragon walks over to one of the empty armored trucks and sets Chimera down, letting her sit on the rear bumper. She gently touches Chimera’s wrist and removes her communicator, quickly attaching it to her own wrist. Our job isn’t done, we’re just starting phase two.

“Unicorn, you’re up.” Dragon says into the communicator. “Remember my warnings. There are probably guards inside, but they’ll be shaken up. You’re not invisible and those darts are going to hit you the second you become tangible.”

“Okay. I got it.” Unicorn answers back. I see a wispy green figure float towards the trailer and begin to fade into it. I almost can’t see her in the early morning sun. Almost. This is a hell of a way to begin my birthday. I was already up when I got the call at a little past five in the morning that we needed to intercept a truck. We were planning on doing it tonight, but they moved up their shipping schedule.

I’m nineteen, I would be out of school by now if I didn’t need a year off to recover from my injuries. Next year I’m supposed to enter the workforce. I’m going to be assigned a job or further schooling based on where I’m “best suited”. When I get assigned wherever I will be, maintaining this superhero gig is going to get a hell of a lot harder to pull off. I’ll probably have to make a choice between being Phoenix and being Rachel. What a great thought to have on my birthday.

“Hey, Red.” Kitsune says, her Cheshire grin growing incrementally.

“What?’ I grumble back.

“Aww come on. Still pissed at me for yesterday?”

“You mean when you got your ass kicked by Chimera and ran away like a little girl?”

“I was more talking about the part where you thought you could actually beat me and I showed you exactly how realistic that belief was.”

“Don’t push me, Kitsune.”

“Hey, Chimera got me fucking good, the girl’s powerful and she has my respect. I know when I’m beaten. You’d do well to learn the same.”

“That sounds a little defeatist of you.”

“Please, there’s a difference between being beaten and giving up. I will always choose to live to fight another day, but I will never give up on saving my people.”

I sigh and look at Kitsune, she’s leaning against the overturned truck, her foot against the top of the cab. She holds both her fans gently in her hands, waving herself idly with one. I take a brief glance over my shoulder at Dragon and Chimera. Dragon is still tending to her sister, though Chimera seems to have calmed down. Good, I could use the distraction. I need to have a private conversation.

“How long have you known?” I ask.

“Hm?” Kitsune says, perking an ear up slightly.

“My identity” My voice is barely above a mumble.

“Few months. No way the regime wasn’t going to know and I stumbled across a datapad with a list of hero identities and other basic info. Most of them were dead, but your name was the most interesting.”

“Do we know each other?”

“Oh, like I’d actually give you information that vital to me. I could be your best friend, or I could be nobody, and you’d be none the wiser. But, you know we go to the same school. I’ll tell you I’ve seen you one way or another. I can’t say I was expecting you to be Phoenix, but I can’t say I was surprised either.”

“And you were able to figure out Dragon and Chimera too?”

“Dragon yes. She made it far too easy. I figured that out before the regime did. Pretty proud of that actually. I just had to look for the secluded girls with good grades and no friends and eliminate everyone who wasn’t a junior or senior, find out which of them had nearly flawless marks in science and math, then it was just a matter of matching up attendance records to days that y’all have done jobs. Honestly, I’m surprised Dragon would be so clumsy. You do a much better job of hiding it at least. Your teachers all comment on your wonderful demeanor and studious behavior. You also manage to cover your absences pretty well. If I were Dragon I would take a couple random days off school or intentionally get a B+ on a quiz or something, just to throw off anyone who would come looking for me. But, I don’t think she could live with herself if she got anything less than perfect marks.”

I scan my brain for any possibilities that immediately come to mind. A few girls I have class with get near perfect grades and are excellent math and science students, but I can’t see any of them being Dragon. I want to ask Kitsune, I so badly want to ask her, maybe even beg her, to just give me a first name to go on. I just want to see under the mask, maybe even want to let her see under my mask.

I only realize my gaze has shifted over to Dragon when I feel my head snap awkwardly, violently, and involuntarily towards Kitsune. She snaps her fingers to get my attention, her Cheshire grin down in a slight grimace.

“Hey!” she says, rolling her beady eyes as I acknowledge her. “Remember what I said yesterday, it’s better for all of us the fewer people who know our identities. Stop fantasizing about Dragon underneath the scales, I wasn’t done.”

“I’m sorry. Go ahead.”

“As I said, Dragon was easy. Chimera was harder, I didn’t consider something that, in retrospect, was obvious. I honestly didn’t figure it out until I knew she was Dragon’s sister, but fuck does it ever make so much sense. I’m curious, while we’re waiting for Goody-goody, humor me.”

“Fine. Nothing better to do right now.”

“Exactly. So, tell me Phoenix, how would you go about discerning who Chimera is?”

“Honestly, based on the way you did it, I’d figure out who Dragon is first an-”

“No no no. Ignore the sister bit, start fresh. You’re looking for Chimera. No idea who she’s related to. What do you do?”

I look at Chimera, her sleek blue costume is reflecting the sunlight beautifully, showing her gorgeous figure in the skin-tight body glove. Her golden curly hair and blue eyes are the only physical features I can see with absolute certainty. Then again, this is transcendence we’re talking about, she could have red hair and green eyes in real life and I’d be none the wiser. How would I go about figuring out who she is?

“Enhanced aspect.” I blurt out, almost without meaning to.

“Go on.” Kitsune says, giving a small nod of approval.

“Serenity. She’s someone who meditates maybe, or does yoga.”

“Close. Meditation is something she does while transcended to talk to dead superheroes. So it must be pretty lackluster as a mundane.”

I furrow my brow and think for a second.

“Reading?”

“Warmer.”

“Hiking. She likes the woods, she likes being alone. She probably goes out into the wilderness to escape from the pressures of school and being Chimera.”

“You’re on fire.” I groan at the pun. “So, you know she likes the outdoors, tons of students go hiking every weekend, narrow it down.”

Let’s see, Chimera is… Well fuck, I don’t know what else to go on. All I really even know about her is that serenity is her enhanced aspect. Come on! Think! Okay, okay, she’s a hero. She’s way into being a superhero and like a “classic” superhero.

“Military family?” I ask.

“No, but I see how you’d get there. A more abstract sense of duty.”

“Comic fan?”

“Yes, to an extent, but not enough it dominates her mind.”

“Then I don’t know…”

“Self-sacrifice. She doesn’t feel her life matters, so she dedicates it to others. There’s a reason she’s willing to jump in front of a fireball for someone she doesn’t know. She’s more than willing to lay down her life for someone else, because to her their lives matter, hers doesn’t.”

“Fuck” I mumble, not meaning to say it out loud.

“Yup. The girl has issues, but I’m pretty sure we all do. Come on, one more and you should have a pretty good profile of who Chimera is.”

“Can I have a hint?”

“Her transcended form.”

Okay, transcended form. She’s a classic superhero, a hot girl with a cape, a cowl, and a body glove. She has bright red lips, deep blue eyes, and long blonde hair. The classic beauty standard for most white women. Her figure is toned, but slim, her muscle mass doesn’t nearly represent her strength. She’s actually shorter and slimmer than Kitsune or I, despite “superheroes” typically being bigger and more muscular, or bustier in the case of female heroes.

“Body image issues. Like an eating disorder maybe?” I say, Kitsune’s grin nearly doubles in size.

“Damn fucking close,” Kitsune says, standing up straighter. “I’m not getting you all the way there, that’s for you to figure out if you so desire, but you are close Phoenix. Way closer than I thought you’d be.”

“Alright, maybe I’ll take a crack at figuring out who you are later.”

“You’d never figure it out. I have fail-safes built in and a ton of red herrings. The whole point is gaining as many secrets as I can without giving any of mine up. I doubt even Oracle could figure it out. I know she hasn’t yet.”

Kitsune decidedly sends me the message this is the end of our conversation by heading over towards Dragon and Chimera. I follow behind and stand next to Dragon as Kitsune settles opposite the three of us.

“How’s she doing?” I ask.

“Not great. There’s a stalemate. She’s pinned down, so she can’t go solid and open the trailer, but the guards can’t hit her. It’s a waiting game right now.” Dragon says, looking at her communicator, the one she took from Chimera.

“Should I go assist?”

“No.” Chimera answers before Dragon can. “This is her first mission, we don’t want to fuck up her confidence. We only send in calvary if it’s absolutely necessary. If she gets a crucial role in a big job, there’s a solid chance she’ll flourish. It’s what happened for me on my first mission with you girls.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t put training wheels on you. You just knew how to use your powers.”

“Look, I’m just saying it’s important we let her try when it isn’t life or death. That way, when it is life or death, we know we can rely on her.”

“That’s actually pretty smart Chimera.”

“I have my moments.”

“Dragon? You think she can do it.”

“Honestly, no.” she says with a shrug. “But I’m willing to be proven wrong. Why? Sad you didn’t get a crack at it?”

“I’m more bored than anything. Are we just waiting for them to run out of darts?”

“Well, actually ye-”

“Help.” Sarah’s voice comes crackling through our communicators. Her voice is pinched and short, she’s panicking. Fuck.

“Phoenix. Go!” Dragon orders, but by the time she starts telling me I’m already in The Cinder State.

So much for an easy job.

Session 2, Chapter 3 – Scars

Content Warning: Death, Loss of a child, Suicidal thoughts

“He’s dead.” I say, letting the words hang in the cold air. I glance at the dark sky with storm clouds overhead and let out a deep breath.

“You kill him?” Daryl asks, not looking away from his motorcycle.

“Yeah.”

Daryl doesn’t respond right away, the only noise is the sound of his wrench cranking against the bike and a faint gust of wind.

“Excuse me if I don’t throw you a fucking parade.” He says, still not looking at me.

“I’m not asking you to.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I need your help.”

“Go home Rachel, I’ve got nothing for you.”

“You have information. Information I need.”

“The only information I’m willing to give you is a bus schedule. Go away. I don’t know why I should help you.”

“I didn’t choose to be birthed by a monster, I’m just as much a victim as you were, as much as Des-”

“Don’t you dare, Rachel.”

Daryl glares at me, I look down and bow my head slightly. He keeps busily working on his bike, tightening something on the front wheel axle. Desiree, his daughter, was killed by Heatstroke a few months after he killed my family. She was part of a young team of heroes, they never even stood a chance. Daryl stopped appearing as Monolith after that. I’m not sure if he blames me, or if seeing me is just a reminder of what my father did. I glance up at the sky and see rain starting to fall from the dark clouds.

“Look, I just came to ask for one simple thing. I just need the access code to Fort McCord.” I say. Daryl audibly snorts and chuckles slightly.

“Now what the fuck would you want with those?” he says, actually looking at me now.

“We need to go in, my team and I.”

“Yeah, and what do you want there?”

“Information, whatever’s behind that old door.”

“Please, we never got down there, even I couldn’t move it. Neither could any of our teleporters or intangibles, something made the wall resistant. It’s airtight too, so your little Cinder State power isn’t going to work either.”

“We have a way around that, a new member, she’s intangible, without any other input from her power, she just goes through anything. She’ll get us in.”

“Whatever. No, I’m not giving you the code.”

“Why? You don’t even know what I want that information for.”

“You’re planning to face down the Archduke and want all the knowledge you can get, you think whatever is down there is going to make you strong enough to beat the Archduke. You’re wrong.”

“Maybe, but we have to try. We can’t just give up.”

“Yeah… Whatever you have to tell yourself. This plan is stupid, and it’s just going to get you killed.”

“That’s what everyone said about killing my father. They were wrong, besides, weren’t you called stupid for your plan to kill the Archduke?”

“Yes, because I was.”

“We have a plan.”

“So did we.”

“If my father wasn’t weak and tempted b-”

“Quit talking about things you don’t understand.”

I stare at him as the rain and wind start to pick up. He’s abandoned all pretense of working on his bike and is fully committed to staring back at me. I take a few deep breaths as the wind tugs on my hood and the rain turns my grey jacket nearly black. I let out a few deep breaths and look at him. I feel my powers screaming inside of me, begging to be let out.

“This is happening one way or another. If you don’t give me the code, I’ll just melt my way in.” I say, trying to stand firm.

“Try it. If the turrets don’t get you, the Archduke’s lap dogs are gonna be on you within minutes.” He says, dropping his shoulders slightly.

“You’re a coward, Daryl.”

“You’re not listening to me. Don’t look too far into this.”

“Why not?”

“You aren’t gonna like what you find. Some things deserve to stay buried.”

Seriously? Some things deserve to stay buried? Is he working for the Archduke now? I can’t fucking believe him. The Daryl I knew, the Monolith I knew, wouldn’t be talking like this. It doesn’t matter the risk, any risk is worth taking to get a good shot at the Archduke.

“What are you hoping to do here Rachel? Seriously. You think you have any sort of shot at taking down the Archduke? You’re eighteen, you’re a child. Just go home. You did a good job, but we’ve got enough dead kids.” Daryl says, looking me directly in the eyes for the first time. His deep brown eyes lock onto mine. He looks older, almost as if he’s aged decades in the last five years. I sigh and take a few steps towards him.

“We know that we’re going to die, or end up in the Wall, or worse, bu-” I start, he raises a hand.

“What is that ‘worse’ Rachel? Do you know? Do you know the worst possible outcome? Do you want to end up like your dad?”

Fuck him. He’s is seriously going to try and tell me I’m going to be like my father? I’m not a monster, I’m not going to hurt people that I care about, I’m not going to join the fucking Archduke.

“Fuck off” I mumble. “You really think that little of me?”

“I don’t know what to think of you. I don’t know you, not anymore, you’re not the same person you were five years ago.” He says. “And you’re underestimating the Archduke. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.”

“We’re not underestimating hi-”

“You are. However tough you expect him to be, double those expectations, then double them again, then you might be close. He always has an out, he always has a plan, if you can’t match every one of those plans, and cut off every one of those outs, you will die. Do you understand?”

“Believe me, we’re not taking him lightly. He’s an old, pompous, fool, but he’s strong, we know that.”

“No. You aren’t listening. The most cunning thing he ever did was let the resistance believe he wasn’t fully competent. He’s strong yes, he’s skilled with his power, but he’s smarter than anyone gives him credit for.”

“I didn’t come here to listen to you shill for the Archduke, I came here for your code. I’m going to be taking it with me, one way or another.”

I assume a fighting stance. I don’t want to fight Daryl, not at all, but I’m desperate and I’m willing to. This is our final push, win or lose, and I’m not letting something this trivial stand in my way. Daryl raises his hand.

“Fucks sake kid. I’m not going to fight you.” Daryl says. He’s a coward, everyone I used to look up to has disappointed me. My father was an asshole who turned his back on my family, the rest of my family wasn’t strong enough to stop him, Monolith is an old coward, Patriot and the rest of the resistance weren’t strong enough to stop the Archduke. Every single person I was supposed to be able to turn to and rely on has done nothing but disappoint me.

Fuck this! Fuck all of this! I clench my fist and step forward. I feel the fire in my chest begging me to use it. Every inch of me wants to lash out and show this coward exactly who the stronger one is. I look up at Daryl as I feel my eyes turn to fire, he recoils as the rest of my body starts to transcend. Within seconds I’m Phoenix.

“Stop this! I don’t want to fight you!” He says, stepping back and grabbing a wrench, almost instinctively. “Don’t be this stupid. I’m not a shill for the Archduke, I’m still me! I’m not your father!”

“Fuck you!” I scream as I charge him, he transcends as soon as I move and throws a sheet of metal in front of himself. I melt through it and strike him in the face with a kick. I dodge a small chunk of metal that he threw at me, I respond by wrapping flames around myself and diving at him. He takes the hit and falls to the ground of his garage. I feel a metal bar hit my head as he gets to his feet.

“Now you’ll fucking fight.” I spit from behind my mask. “You’ll use your powers against me, but not the fucking Archduke. I see exactly who you are now.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know exactly what I’m talking about. Desiree would be ashamed of you.”

He charges me, launching an edge of sharpened metal at my skull. I duck under it as I feel a wrench impact the back of my knee. He squares up to hit me with another blast, but I’m already gone. I’m in the Cinder State and quickly circling behind him. He swears under his breath as I drop out of it and blast him with flame. He hits the ground hard, heaps of flaming metal fall around both of us as I press my boot against his neck.

“Finish it.” He says, calling off his transcendence. I lower my fists towards him and glare. “Do it. Prove to me that you’re a slave to your anger. Prove to me that you’re just like your father. Finish it and send me to be with Des”

God dammit. I glance at my hands and the molten metal carnage I left in my wake. I’m a destructive, angry, person and I don’t know how to control my anger. The Cinder uses me as a weapon, as a tool, and I just serve my own anger. Maybe this is why my father turned. Maybe that’s how I’ll turn.

I fucking hope not.

I detranscend and let out a deep breath as I take my foot off his throat. We both just look at each other for a long time. I’m the first to break the silence, after what feels like hours.

“He took my father from me.”

“The Archduke?” Daryl asks, looking towards the corner of his garage.

“No.” I shake my head. “Heatstroke. He took my father, the man who raised me, the man who I thought loved me, away from me. Heatstroke and my father aren’t the same person, and Heatstroke took my father away from me. That’s a realization, or I don’t know, maybe a hope, that I’ve been coming to over the past week.

“Rachel. Heatstroke took my daughter from me, way too goddamn young. Your dad was my best friend. When he turned, whatever reason he turned for, he became a monster. He was still the same person, he was still the same man that I called a friend for two and a half decades. You need to realize that, reconcile that. When someone dies, the good and bad parts of them go. The man you knew as your father was gone, but he was still the same person that killed your mom and brother. You can’t separate the two, you need to accept that.”

“Yeah.” I say, my voice trembling slightly as I say it.

“Look, Rachel, I care about you. You may not believe it, but I do, okay? I don’t want you to get hurt. I don’t want you to die this young. Please, lay off and take it slow. Too much young blood has been spilled pointlessly. I just want you to have a real life.”

“There is no real life in this fucking country. I’d rather live a short life where I die for something than a long life where I live for nothing.”

“Then I can’t stop you. I hope you know what you’re doing, and I really really hope you get there. I’m sorry this is all I have for you. I’m done fighting. I don’t think this is going to end well for you, but good luck Flamewake.” Daryl hands me a small rock with a combination of numbers and letters engraved into it. I nod gently and get to my feet.

“Thank you, Daryl.”

“Yeah, and hey, Rachel?”

“Yeah?”

“Happy birthday.”

He remembered. I don’t think I’ve been wished a happy birthday since my twelfth. Tomorrow is my birthday, my nineteenth and quite possibly my last. I sigh and head to his garage door. I glance out at the rain and the dark sky before turning back to look at him.

“Thanks. Daryl? I take back what I said. Desiree would be proud of the man you are.” I say before putting my hood up and making my way out.

“Thank you.” he starts, I take one last second and just listen to the rain hitting the metal roof of his house. His voice comes out as a gruff, low whisper.

“Prove me wrong.”

Session 2, Chapter 2 – Plans

Content warning: Violence, Implied gore, Loss of freedom

“Fuck.” Dragon says, slamming her fist down on the table. “Of course they would know, it was dumb of us to think they wouldn’t find out.”

I glance around the living room of our hideout, most of the windows are boarded up, just a couple letting the early evening light in. I sit on one side of the old, dusty coach, Dragon, in her mask and cloak, like myself, sits next to me, and Chimera, fully transcended, sits on the far end. Across from us, in an old leather armchair, sits Sarah, not transcended or masked. Kitsune stands against the far wall of the room, transcended, watching the rest of us.

“God no.” Chimera mutters. “How did we let this happen?”

“It’s okay Chi, It’s okay.” Dragon says, taking a deep breath and clasping her hands around Chimera’s.

“If they know I… You know. Fuck! What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing! Chimera, look at me, nothing! We wouldn’t let them. I promise, nothing is going to happen to you.”

“I just… Just…” Chimera says, zoning out and breathing heavily.

“Now do you understand why I keep some professional distance?” Kitsune asks, her beady eyes narrowing.

“Now isn’t the time for a lecture, Kit.” Dragon says, glancing towards a shaking Chimera.

“Really? Cause I think now is a perfect time.” Kitsune says, her voice carrying a haunting resonance in the old house. “Red has an excuse, her dad joined the Archduke. It sucks, but of course, they were gonna know her identity. You two, on the other hand, have some explaining to do. I’m waiting. Give me an excuse, something good. Something that gives me a reason to think my identity is still safe when I associate with you.”

“Kitsune, we can talk about this lat-” Dragon starts, attempting to give Kitsune an order, Dragon cuts herself off, her voice trailing to sputtering coughs as she grips her throat. Kitsune stares her down, her fingers making a small flicking motion in time with Dragons coughs.

“No, we talk about this now. If anyone tries to say anything unrelated, they’re going to have the same coughing fit. Understand?” Kitsune says, glaring at Dragon and taking a seat in an old wooden chair.

Silence hangs over the room, Kitsune’s eyes darting between Dragon and Chimera. Dragon is glaring back at Kitsune wordlessly challenging her. Chimera is shaking and hugging her knees, staring off into the corner, in her own little world. I glance out of the corner of my eye at Kitsune, almost begging her to end this stand-off. Sarah is the first to open her mouth. Before she can even get a syllable out she starts shaking and coughing, Kitsune glares at her, flicking her fingers.

“You don’t have anything to say here. Stay quiet.” Kitsune says in a monotone voice. Sarah just makes a small whimpering noise and sits back in her chair. Kitsune watches Dragon closely, her Cheshire grin reduced to a small smirk. Dragon glares back, her eyes obscured by the dark blue lenses of her mask. Chimera hasn’t moved, staring off into the corner, it’s almost unnerving.

“Kitsune, I’m sorry, we fucked up. Chimera and I were talking in civilian form an-” Dragon says, only to be cut off again by coughs.

“Wrong answer. You’ve seen each other unmasked? Do you have any idea how fucking risky that is? How can you be so fucking stupid?” Kitsune says, shifting from a sitting position into a crouching position on her chair and drawing her tessen fans.

“We didn’t have a choice, it was an accident.”

“There’s always a choice. You two put our whole operation at risk. Do you not understand how important anonymity is?”

“Of course we do. It was an accident.”

“How do I know it won’t happen again? How do I know it won’t happen with me?”

“Extenuating circumstances. It wouldn’t happen with you. It couldn’t.”

“Why? Extenuating circumstances? Okay, so something that you know for sure can’t happen with me? You two ar-”

“Kitsu-” I say, glaring at her. Before the word even gets out of my mouth I feel something in my throat tighten and my chest constrict, followed by violent bursts of air being expelled from my mouth in a loud coughing noise. I cough three times before losing my desire to talk.

“Quiet.” Kitsune mutters, keeping her eyes locked on Dragon.

I grumble to myself, glaring daggers at Kitsune. I feel heat welling up inside me and my anger bubbling over. The Cinder starts calling to me, begging me to transcend and end this stalemate. I can take her, I know I can. She’s being ridiculous and unfair. Yeah, it sucks that Chimera and Dragon had their identities compromised, but this isn’t all about her. It isn’t their fault.

“Now, let’s see, what could happen that makes it so you’re sure this couldn’t happen with me?” Kitsune says.

“Seriously, you’re going to interrogate me? We’re supposed to be friends.” Dragon says, her voice sounding a little hurt.

“I don’t have friends. I have to know, I’m sorry. If you just tell me, it would be a lot easier.”

“Fine. Don’t use your powers on me, Chimera and I ar-”

Dragon stops talking when I strike Kitsune hard in the face with a high kick, transcending at the same time. She falls backwards out of her chair and rolls to a crouching position on the floor, extending both her fans. By the time she looks for me, I’m already gone. I’m in The Cinder State, floating behind her and readying flame.

“Shit.” Kitsune mumbles, her eyes darting around the room frantically. I hear Dragon let out a small gasp.

“Your power doesn’t work if you can’t-” Dragon starts, her sentence trailing off into coughs and gasps.

“Finish that sentence and I will end you.” Kitsune warns, one fan pointed at Dragon while she keeps frantically looking around the room.

See them? Is that what Dragon was going to say? Her power doesn’t work if she can’t see the target? That would make sense, and that means I have a huge advantage. I’m not going to waste it.

I drop out of The Cinder State and hit Kitsune in the face with a quick strike, letting fire graze her face. I quickly jump back into The Cinder state and fly into the corner of the room. Waiting for her to leave another opening.

“Seriously Red? Why do you give a fuck about this? Is your lady boner for Dragon throbbing that hard?” Kitsune taunts, I oblige and strike her in the face again. She reacts before I can drop back into The Cinder State, my knee buckles when it hits the ground and I feel a fan strike my chest hard, sending me sliding back. I enter The Cinder State again and repeat the process. She got me pretty good, but I got her worse.

“Stop. Both of you.” Dragon says, her voice shaking a little.

“She made her choice. I’m not backing down.” Kitsune says, still glancing around the room.

“If you stop, I’ll tell you why this won’t affect you!”

“But I’m just starting to have fun.”

I go for Kitsune, coming from behind this time. I throw a flame-infused fist at the back of her head, striking true and sending her stumbling forward. Before I can re-enter The Cinder State, I feel my knees go limp and my hands go numb. Kitsune is glaring at me with a gigantic Cheshire smile. I struggle to stand, to use my power, to do anything to retaliate, but I can’t. Every attempt I make is easily countered by her power.

“Seriously dumbass? You don’t think I know everything the regime knows about you? I’m the one who’s been scanning and digging through regime records since before I got my powers. I know enough about you that you’re basically my puppet. I know exactly who you are…” Kitsune starts, walking over to me and places a hand on my shoulder before getting right next to my ear and whispering. “…Rachel.”

Panic grips me as I look up at her, a victorious grin plastered on her vulpine face. She’s beaten me soundly, again. I look at her helpless when I feel something grab me, like an extremely tight cord wrapped around my whole body. I try to move my head and can’t, but I can see Kitsune’s entire body is frozen and glowing bright blue.

I feel the same force pull me back at speed and pin me against the far wall, Kitsune’s body hits the same wall on the opposite side of the window. Chimera is floating towards us, her eyes glowing bright blue and her hands extended. I try to enter the Cinder State, to get any part of myself free of her hold, but I can’t. Even the minuscule amount of movement I need to enter The Cinder State is completely impossible like this.

“Stop.” Chimera orders both of us. Dragon stands up immediately and wraps her right arm around Chimera’s left, giving her a pleading look. Chimera barely acknowledges her. “Kitsune. You want to know how they found out so badly that you’d violate Dragon’s privacy with your powers like that? You really want to know that badly?”

Kitsune doesn’t respond, I doubt she can when Chimera is holding her like that.

“We’re sisters. Dragon and I found out each other’s civilian identities and found out that we’re sisters. We found out because I was in the hospital after Heatstroke nearly killed me. If we hadn’t been sisters, if she hadn’t found me, I probably would have died. Dragon made the connection in the hospital. We shouldn’t have talked about it there, it wasn’t smart, but we were both in shock. Are you fucking happy?” Chimera says in a heavy, monotone voice. She lets us go and we both drop to the floor. A small pause and silence hangs over the room.

“Was that so hard?” Kitsune says with a small wheeze as she feels her face and ribs. She glows blue again as she’s pushed back into the wall. Chimera walks towards her with purpose.

“You have to know everything, don’t you Kit?” Chimera says, letting Kitsune move her head slightly.

“Kinda the point of my powers.”

“We know each other’s identities because I had to jump in front of Sarah to save her. I wouldn’t have had to do that if you would fucking help us on personal missions. But no, you only care about a job if it benefits you, you can’t possibly let yourself get close to someone because that would make you ‘weak’ and ‘dependant.’ Well, you wanna know something Kitsune? You are weak. You are alone. You’re a slave to your solitude, more so than I am to peace, or Phoenix is to rage. If someone exposed you, if they knew all your secrets, you’d be nothing. You’d have nothing. You’d just be a scared little girl who made a choice to isolate herself.”

“Do not fucking blame m-” Kitsune says, stopping short when her tongue glows blue.

“You’re not the only one who can shut someone up.” Chimera says, not moving an inch, but letting Kitsune have her tongue back.

“Fine. If you think that, I’m gone. We’ll see how I do on my own.” Kitsune says. “Unlike you, I know I can survive alone, some jobs are just easier with help. You want me to go? Then I’m out.”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“You agreed to do a job with us tomorrow, you’re going to honor that.”

“You still want me on your side? You still trust me?”

“Not really, but we need you. You need us. You aren’t part of our team, but our arrangement has been beneficial, and it’s going to stay that way.”

“What if I say no?”

“Then you’d be fucking yourself over because you got embarrassed.”

Kitsune glares at Chimera for a few seconds before sighing and climbing to her feet. She starts to head for the door, tucking her fans behind her backplate and very pointedly avoiding the gazes of Dragon and myself, she opens the door and places a hand on the door frame, letting out a heavy sigh and mumbling something to herself.

“Fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Kitsune says.

“Good. One more thing.” Chimera says, folding her arms.

“What?”

Chimera raises a hand and makes a grabbing motion. Kitsune stiffens and her eyes go wide, her smile fading, her breath coming out in a shallow stuttering motion.

“You feel that? That’s your heart? People think my power is all about moving big things, like boulders or battleships, but my power is much more precise, it can grab something as small and specific as the heart or the brain, and all it would take to kill you would be a wave of my hand. If you ever feel like using your powers to fuck with my sister or my friend again, just remember that I can do this, okay?”

Chimera drops her hand and Kitsune takes a deep breath, she quickly closes the door and runs off, launching a zip line from her wrist not far from the hideout. Chimera offers me her hand and I take it, detranscending.

“I’m not going to give you the same lecture, just please, no fighting amongst our few allies? Okay?” Chimera says as if she’s scolding a misbehaving child.

“Fine.” I grumble, returning to my seat next to Dragon.

“I’m sorry about that.” Chimera says, looking at Sarah and exhaling deeply. “We aren’t usually like this, I promise.”

“Uh, no, it’s fine.” Sarah says, glancing around awkwardly. I had almost forgotten she was here, she had gotten out of the way when Kitsune and I started fighting.

“So, Esther Valentin.” Dragon says, almost musing, but trying to call us back to the original topic. “Exodus comes after you, but to warn you instead of attack you. Why?”

“Yeah. It’s weird. Maybe she just sees me as that little of a threat? I’ll prove her wrong if that’s the case.” I say with a shrug.

“No, it’s not… let me bounce something off you for a second.” Dragon says, leaning towards me.

“It’s the opposite, she fears you or fears us? It’s the best I’ve got, I don’t see why else she would just warn you instead of taking you out.” Dragon questions, shrugging for a second.

“Maybe she didn’t want this situation to turn violent?” Sarah suggests, Dragon and I stare at her for a second.

“That’s a very good suggestion!” Chimera says, humoring her. “But Exodus is sort of renown for being a murderer, she’s killed other spirit-touched and whole mundane armies without much of a second thought.”

“Oh. I see.” Sarah says, dropping her head. Dragon perks up, turning towards me.

“She wants to drive a wedge, put doubt in us. She’s sending a message.” Dragon says.

“So, she thought I would leave? Or at least think about it?” I ask.

“No. The opposite, she knew she was gonna reaffirm your desire to be a hero, she mostly just wanted an excuse to kick your ass. Which tells me she was under some sort of order to not kill you, which is strange, to say the least. She calculated this and played it fucking perfectly. She knew I’d overanalyze, she knew Kitsune would turn to isolation and hostility, she knew you’d become determined to get revenge, and she knew Chimera would panic. She wants us to be distrustful and doubting each other when we face her down. She knows we can all move fast, probably faster than she can react with her power, but if we doubt or don’t trust each other completely… that’s when she stands a chance in a four on one fight. She’s good.” Dragon says leaning back. “But I’m better.” Her smile is nearly audible, despite the fact she’s wearing her mask. “She took a gamble that I’d guess her motives wrong, I didn’t.”

“You’re sure?” I ask her.

“Positive. And if I am wrong, what exactly do we lose by reaffirming our faith in each other.”

“Fair point.”

“Five on one.” Sarah says, looking at Dragon.

“Right.” Chimera says. “Five on one now.”

“You have a point actually.” Dragon says.

She does? I think to myself.

“I do?” Sarah asks.

“Yeah. They probably know your identity, and if not, they’ll probably figure it out, but they don’t know your powers, you’re sort of a wildcard.” Dragon explains.

“But, I don’t even know my own powers.”

“Well, we can figure it out before they do. What do we know so far?”

“I can fly, and phase through walls I guess?”

“Okay, good start, have you tried to do anything else?”

“Not really, I don’t know what to do I guess. How did you find out about all your special powers?”

“I’m kind of a one trick pony.” Chimera says, making a chair float across the room. “My power is essentially an extension of my arms with about one-hundred times the strength. As far as contacting the former Chimeras’, I learned that I could do that from researching past Chimeras. I just have to meditate.”

“My intelligence is always active, but when I’m transcended, all of my powers are obvious. I figured wings would let me fly, my body could handle lifting more weight, my claws and teeth could be used as weapons, and the ice breath was sort of an educated guess. Sorry.” Dragon says.

“The fire was also pretty much second nature to me, making it anyway, controlling it took practice. The Cinder State though, my brother taught me how to do that. Every Flamewake had a special power, and my brother told me that I had to focus, and sort of surrender myself to the influence of The Cinder. You don’t even know who your spirit is, do you?” I ask.

“I… No.” Sarah says, looking down.

“Transcend.” Dragon says “Chimera will help you test them.”

“Okay…” Sarah says as her body is surrounded by green light, her limbs and face quickly become more and more translucent, her clothes seem to transform into a dress made of vines and weeds. A green aura flares to life around her and she appears to float in mid-air. Her body, face, and hair seem to flow and move freely as if she were mist.

Chimera floats to her feet and calls her three-headed whip out of its sheath on her hip. Chimera seldom needs the whip, none of the previous Chimeras have ever used it as their main weapon. It’s only really needed for close combat, but it has a magical property that allows her to briefly paralyze anyone she strikes with it. Chimera reaches out her hand, parts of Sarah start to glow blue, but the mist quickly evaporates or drifts away. Chimera grimaces slightly but then perks up.

“Well, your unique form means it’s incredibly hard for me to grab you or move you with my power. So you have that at least. May I?” Chimera says, extending her right hand with the whip gripped tightly in it.

“Yo-You’re going to whip me?” Sarah says, backing up slightly.

“No, just gonna touch you. I promise.”

“O-okay. Is it gonna hurt?”

“No. It shouldn’t do more than just sting if it will even touch you.”

“Okay.”

Chimera passes the heads of her whip gently through Sarah’s body. She doesn’t react, and the whip just hangs limply inside what should be her stomach. Chimera gives the slightest motion of her eyes and the whip heads glow blue, quickly snapping in different directions through Sarah’s body. She screams and floats backwards.

“Are you hurt?” Chimera asks, reaching a hand out towards Sarah.

“No… it just surprised me.” Sarah answers.

Chimera and Dragon exchange a quick glance, Chimera floats over to Sarah and stands in front of her.

“Hit me.” Chimera says, setting her feet gently on the ground.

“What? No, I co-” Sarah starts.

“The third Chimera survived having a small moon thrown at him, the seventh survived the volcanic eruption that destroyed her village, and it took The Archduke, Technician, Oracle, and Exodus to kill the last Chimera. I can take a hit from you, just try.”

“O-okay.” Sarah says, swinging her fist at Chimera, her fist swings straight through Chimera’s chin and dissipates into mist, reforming only when her hand has room to do so.

“Interesting.” Dragon says, walking over to the two and running her own hand along Sarah’s body as it harmlessly passes through her. “Try to make yourself solid.”

“Um… how?”

“Just will it, tell your body to do it. When I want to lift something, I just will it to move.” Chimera says, moving her whip around herself with her telekinetic powers.

“Okay.” Sarah’s body shimmers slightly and she seems less translucent. She’s still shifting and gaseous, but she seems mildly more solid. Dragon touches her arm and seems to feel resistance, something solid.

“Fascinating. Phoenix, Chimera, you two remember when we fought Voyager?” Dragon asks.

“Yeah…” I grumble out, still feeling bitter over having my ass handed to me by a brand new spirit-touched. Chimera just nods.

“His abilities let him make a shield of electricity that absorbed energy and turned it into fuel for his own power. He had to concentrate and spend power to make that shield. It’s almost the opposite here, Sarah is intangible in her base form and has to spend power to interact with the world around her. So she can’t act upon anything, nor can she be acted upon.” Dragon says while walking around Sarah and inspecting her. “This is just a guess, but, can you turn invisible?”

Sarah concentrates for a few seconds, but nothing happens. She shrugs and looks at Dragon, almost apologetically. Dragon shakes her head and keeps walking around Sarah. Sarah’s powers are strange, to say the least, and the fact that nothing is coming to her naturally is almost making me suspect as to what spirit gave her powers in the first place, especially without any aid.

“We should find out who her benefactor is.” I say.

“Yeah, working on that.” Dragon says, not taking her eyes off Sarah.

“Any ideas?”

“Not yet. I’d need to learn her enhanced aspect, then I can narrow it down. Which leads me to my next question. Sarah, you should feel a little different since getting your powers, do you feel different in any, even the smallest, way?”

Sarah closes her eyes and scrunches her mouth up slightly. So far, Sarah’s been fairly non-offensive. She’s quiet, she stays out of the way, she does as she’s told, and only speaks when spoken to. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s in awe of three superheroes, maybe Kitsune terrified her, maybe she’s just not that type of person when she doesn’t have to live up to a roll like class president. Sarah eventually looks at Dragon with her brow furrowed slightly.

“I’m sorry. I really can’t think of anything.” Sarah says, her voice trailing off.

“Totally okay.” Dragon says, returning to her seat next to me. “Before we get back into our next move, what do we call you?”

“Right, I’ve been thinking. Um… I think I’d like to be called Unicorn.” Sarah says, detranscending and returning to her own seat.

“Unicorn?” I raise my eyebrow.

“Yes, Unicorn.”

“If you haven’t noticed, our names kind of have a theme. Dragon is an actual dragon, my powers are fire-based, Chimera has her three-headed whip.”

“Chimera is hardly an actual mythical Chimera, she just has the whip and the legacy to carry on. Why can’t I have the name Unicorn? It fits the mythical creature theme.”

“But it doesn’t fit your powers. Why not Will-o-wisp, or Pixie, or even Ghost?”

“I like unicorns. I rode horses as a kid.”

“Of course you did.”

“And unicorns always seemed really cool. I only get to be a hero once, I only get one name, this is what I want it to be.”

“I think it works.” Chimera says, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Unicorn, it’s very… ‘you’. Besides, I don’t exactly look like a ‘Chimera’, so it’s fine. Your name, your choice.”

“Yeah…” I say, this argument honestly just isn’t worth it.

“Excellent. Unicorn it is. Now, we have a bigger matter to attend to, what do we do now?” Dragon asks, leaning forward to look at all of us.

“What do you mean?” Chimera asks.

“Exodus, the Archduke taking us more seriously, our clock has just been forcibly moved up. We need to strike fast or we’re not going to be able to strike at all.”

“So, what do we do? Attack Exodus head on?”

“Mayb-”

“No, that’s how we get ourselves killed. We’ve got to strike bigger targets. I’m talking Neogen.” I cut Dragon off.

A silence hangs over the room. Neogen is the largest technological development lab in Oru. It’s Technician’s personal pet project, basically her baby, and the Archduke is extremely protective of its secrets. Nobody’s managed to pull off a heist of Neogen and live. It’s speculated that there is always a spirit-touched on staff for security, not always an a-list spirit-touched, but powers are powers.

“How the fuck are we going to take down Neogen? Even with Kitsune, that’s a hell of a task. If we could even get in, who knows what could be waiting for us in there.” Dragon says.

“Yeah, I know, but it’s THE target. Everyone said we couldn’t take out Heatstroke.” I rebut. Dragon shakes her head.

“This is a different animal entirely. I’m in, but we need proper setup, we can’t go in all guns blazing. We need passwords and schematics at a minimum.”

“Where are we going to ge-”

“I have a suggestion.” Sarah says, her eyes locked on her shoes.

“What?” I ask.

“When I was looking for possible bases for Heatstroke, I found this old base that the resistance overtook during the war with the Archduke. It was Fort McCord, there was some sort of basement room that the resistance was never able to get into, but it’s speculated there was something down there that held a wealth of regime info. It might be a start.”

“Yeah, we know about Fort McCord. Phoenix and I checked it out a few years ago. It still has a pretty active defense system and we don’t really have a way in without triggering the alarm. That much noise is almost guaranteed to draw unwanted attention.” Dragon says.

“I could phase in!” Sarah says.

“No. The turrets would still scan you and the alarm triggers if the door is opened from either end without the code.”

“Well…” I start. “I can call in a favor. Someone I’m pretty sure would know the password, but… he and I don’t really talk anymore. If I’m gonna do this, I need to be sure the base has the info we need.”

“Fort McCord almost certainly will. If we can get into the basement and find what’s down there. I can’t guarantee it will get us into Neogen, but I can guarantee it will give us information that the Archduke doesn’t want us having.” Dragon says.

“So it makes us a bigger target?”

“And it brings us closer to actually winning.”

“Well, guess I’m calling in my favor then…”

“Thank you, Phoenix.”

“Yeah, I’ll talk to you all later.”

With that I grab my small bag and make my way towards the door, the others say their goodbyes and I give a nod as I leave. I’m not looking forward to what I have to do next. I haven’t seen Monolith since I was thirteen. He blames my father, and by extension, my family for the fall of the resistance. Now I have to go crawling to him and beg him to give me the password to a base he used to operate out of as part of that resistance. It might almost be easier to just convince the Archduke to kill himself. I sigh and grumble curses to myself as I get on the bus and make my way to the closest bus stop to the heavily wooded part of old town.

The bus ride takes forty-five minutes and the walk takes another twenty. It’s nearly dark by the time I arrive. Before the bus ride, I change out of my cloak and mask and into a grey hoodie. I push open the gate to his old, abandoned-looking house and see the only light coming from the garage. I approach slowly with my hands in the air, trying to show as much as possible that I’m not a threat.

I find monolith sitting on a bench in his garage, working away busily on an old motorcycle. He’s dressed in a long-sleeved leather jacket, dark blue jeans, and heavy combat boots. His head is bare, shaved. With a small, slightly greying, goatee on his face. He has dark brown eyes and light brown skin. As I approach he looks at me and scoffs, almost like this a joke.

“Rachel fucking Lefue. Didn’t think I’d be seeing you again” He says. I take a deep breath.

“Daryl, please, I need your help.” I say in a half whisper.

“Yeah? This should be good.”

Session 2, Chapter 1 – Exodus

Content Warning: Violence, Mental Illness

The weekend is uneventful. I spend most of it indoors, working on some homework and catching up on some reading. I have a stash of old books I salvaged from before the Archduke took power. They are technically illegal now, but nobody is going to search where I hid them. I have a small compartment under my bed frame, much like the one in my dresser where I keep my cloak, mask, and burner phone, it’s an easy place to store a few books and anything else small that I need to keep hidden.

The snow of last week turned to rain, Oru isn’t exactly the coldest place in the world and snow never sticks around for too long. The sky has been grey all weekend and even when it isn’t raining, the ground is soaked. I thought a lot about my father over the weekend, I’m at peace with what I did, and I think I’m ready to let go. I feel more peaceful, I feel a steady presence of cool relief. Getting revenge has been my goal since I was twelve, now I feel free. I actually did it.

And I have no idea what to do now. When you achieve the only goal you’ve had for years, you’re elated, for a few minutes, then you just feel sort of lost. I haven’t decided if I still want to be a superhero, if I want to hide in plain sight, or if I want to just disappear and try to live on my own in the wilderness.
Now Monday is here, and I feel a knot of an anxiety in my stomach. I’ve missed the past two days of school, both of the absences were unexcused. I have a few pangs of anxiety at the realization that someone could connect my absences with the Oru Vigilantes taking out Heatstroke, but that happened on Friday, and I missed Thursday too. More than likely, they would just think I was sick. To be honest, I do look a little sick.

I was shot just four days ago and got a nasty concussion on the same day. I’ve felt weak and tired, my whole body aches, and It’s been all I can do to just stay awake, eat, and do my homework. I’ve barely left my room all weekend, and I’m honestly not sure I should go back to school today, but I have to try.

I get out of bed, shower, change my bandages, and get dressed in my uniform. I don’t usually wear my hair over my shoulder, but I need to today to hide the stitches in my neck. Dragon told me that she can take them out in about a week, and hiding them until then is going to be difficult. Explaining them would be more difficult though, so I guess I should count my blessings.

I go to my classes for the day and am relieved that, with the exception of Mr. Knot, my math teacher, nobody even asks me about my absence. I’m generally a good student, and I turn in the work that was due today, so I guess they just trust me. Seeing Sarah in class was strange. It’s astounding, and a little horrifying to think that she has powers now. I don’t know what they are, aside from flight obviously, but it’s strange to think that a Spirit would decide to bless her with powers. I can’t tell what her enhanced aspect is, so either she’s good at hiding it or it meshes so well with her personality that it barely affects her. She keeps stealing glances at me, I wonder if she knows.

I really hope she doesn’t.

Today was draining on me, at least physically, but if I spend another large chunk of time in my room, I’m going to go crazy. I go back to my dorm to grab a few things and put my backpack down. I decide it would be wise to check my burner phone and see a text from Dragon.

Dragon: hey i don’t know if u want to talk to me right now
Dragon: i hate how we left things
Dragon: can we please meet up and talk

It’s heartfelt, despite the lack of care she put into the text. I don’t think she would even consider texting any other way. I honestly don’t know what I want to do. I didn’t know this weekend, I didn’t know this morning, and I don’t know now. I tuck the burner phone back into the hidden compartment and grab a jacket and a small bag. I need coffee, and I need a walk to clear my head.

One good thing about Oru is that it’s efficient. The buses run on time, the streets are always clean, and the coffee is always hot. If you ignore the bombed out and broken sections of Old Town, which Oru was basically built over, it looks like a utopian city. As much as I want to burn Oru to the ground, I’m grateful for the high-quality coffee shop a few blocks from campus.

The walk to the coffee shop is peaceful, serene almost. It’s cold out, the sun is getting lower, and the winter air isn’t exactly warm to begin with. I was always alright with the cold. Having fire superpowers, most people would probably assume the opposite is true, but winter is my favorite season. My core temperature runs a little bit higher than an average person, and the cold air, while not exactly comfortable, is a hell of a lot more manageable than a one-hundred plus degree day. It also helps that my birthday is in December. With Christmas and my birthday happening in the same month, and my family being as rich as they were, I’m bound to have positive nostalgia around Winter.

I get to the coffee shop, it’s mostly quiet, just a few people around. An older man in a suit with a little girl, his daughter presumably, is sitting at a corner table. A few boys from my school are crowded around a table by the window, they’ve pulled chairs from other tables so all seven of them can sit at the same table for four. A mousy, fair-skinned, teenage girl with glasses and long, curly, chestnut brown hair sits in the opposite corner from the man and his daughter. She’s sipping on a coffee and looking at her phone. She’s dressed nicely and her phone looks expensive. She’s probably quite well-off, meaning her family aligns themselves pretty closely with the Archduke. I can’t shake the feeling that I recognize her as I put a few credits into the ordering kiosk and place the order for my plain black coffee. I stand by the kiosk, grabbing a few packets of sugar and a small pod of cream, as I watch the one human worker in the shop make sure the machinery is working correctly. After a few minutes, my coffee is up and the order number displays on the screen.

I grab my coffee and make my way towards the exit, the teenage girl stands up as I pass by her and extends a hand, gripping my lower arm, the one that took a bullet, hard. I try my best not to react, and I do a passable job, but my hands start to shake and I let out a small groan of pain. She seems to smirk, almost like I confirmed something for her. She lets go of my arm, grabs her purse and follows me outside.

I look back at the girl, raising an eyebrow at her. She follows closely, but not close enough to look suspicious to an onlooker. That’s when I realize why I recognize her. She’s Esther fucking Valentin. Esther is the youngest daughter of the Archduke, she’s spirit-touched and calls her alternate form Exodus. Her older sister, Ruth, is known as Genesis and the two of them are sort of seen as a package deal.

Genesis has the power to raise the dead, she can use the risen corpses as warriors or servants. She’s not much for hand to hand combat, although she is spirit-touched, so she has physical prowess far exceeding a human, but she’s nearly unstoppable with a horde. The most terrifying part is that when she reanimates a spirit-touched, they retain their powers. If she even has one, fighting her alone is suicide.

Where her sister operates from the background and shadows, relying on others to attack for her, Exodus can fight from almost anywhere, and only needs to rely on herself. Exodus has the power to destroy anything. It doesn’t matter what, she can flatten buildings, vaporize city blocks, and turn people to dust. Her power works on spirit-touched the same way it does on mundane, turning them to nothing but dust within seconds. She can fire this power as a focused beam, a wide spray, or just a strike with her hand or foot, the result is always the same, total annihilation. She usually fights from a range, because nobody is dumb enough to get close to her, but she’s also an expert in Krav Maga. Trying to survive against her, with her power, along with her expertise, is nearly impossible. Getting close to her isn’t any easier than fighting her from afar.

She’s also, in a word, unhinged. She has a kill count higher than some countries militaries. She kills people and destroys important buildings with reckless abandon, I don’t even think she’s capable of seeing people as anything but tools or obstacles at this point. She’s been known to enjoy, even relish in destroying people and lives. It’s almost like she lives for it, and she’s right behind me, smirking to herself.

Esther gets closer to me, as I turn a corner, she picks up speed and is nearly directly behind me. I groan, this isn’t going to end well, and I need a way out of this fast. Otherwise, I’m going to be cornered by a psychopath who would be all to happy to turn me to dust within an instant.

I throw a quick strike with my good arm, dropping my coffee a fluid motion, in time with the turn I make. She puts both her arms up to block it. She strikes me in the face twice with her left and follows up with the right. Before I can get more offense in, she slaps a hand on the back of my head and forces it lower, throwing a few quick punches at the base of my neck. She knees me in the temple and I stumble backward as she holds me right where she wants me. Her other leg strikes the back of my right leg, knocking me off balance as she drives another knee into my temple. She gives me a few quick strikes to the head, which I move to block, she switches to body blows almost instantly. She hooks her left leg behind my right, kicking hard and forcing me to fall to the ground while she stands firm. I hit my head on the pavement, aggravating my already bad concussion. I feel a boot press against my throat and look up at Esther.

“You give?” She asks, with dead eyes and a monotone voice. I just nod in reply.

“Good. Then we talk.” She says with a smug smile, extending a hand to help me up. I don’t take it, standing up on my own power.

“Please. I don’t know you…” I stammer out.

“Oh please, everyone knows exactly who I am.”

“Fine. You’re Esther Valentin, what about it? What do you want with me.”

“You’re Rachel LeFue. What don’t I want with you, Phoenix?” She lets the word Phoenix hang in the air, drawing it out for effect. I stammer back, it was a joke. Of course, it was all a joke. The Archduke knew exactly who I was the whole fucking time. He could have taken me out any time he wanted, but he let me get my small revenge, and then sends daddy’s little psycho after me.

“Yeah, we know exactly who you are.” Esther says with a devilish grin. “Dragon and Chimera too. That’s much more interesting actually. Would you believe they’re actually related? What are the odds? And we’re working on figuring out Kitsune’s identity, but she’s not really part of your team, is she?”

“I don’t know what you’r-” I say.

“Shut up.” She orders me, pressing me hard against a nearby stone wall. “If I wanted to, if I really, really, wanted to, I could turn you to dust in a matter of seconds.”

“Fine. You know I’m Phoenix. Congratu-fucking-lations, what’s the point of stalking me? I guess I must be getting quite the fanbase.”

“Hardly. We haven’t come after you yet, because you’ve been that little of a problem. However, you just killed one of my father’s generals. That little thorn in our side, it’s becoming a lot bigger. If it becomes too big, we’ll have to remove it. You understand? Walk away, Rachel LeFeu.”

“I don’t take orders. Least of all from some privileged little princess wh-”

She cuts me off, punching me in the nose, hard. I feel blood trickle down and into my mouth as she shakes her fist gently. She could have hit me harder, made me suffer worse, and we both know it. She elected not to out of a sheer desire to send a message. She controls this situation, and I’m at her mercy.

“Don’t call me a princess.” She says, her voice practically dripping with malice. “You think you’re the only one who was born spirit-touched? I’m stronger, I’m smarter, and I’m more adept with my powers than you. You will quit if you know what’s good for you. Your friends are going to die. Chimera has a hero complex, and Dragon’s too proud to know when she’s beaten. But, you’re a smart girl. You could just walk away. I assure you, being turned to dust is a quick death, but it’s a lot more painful than it sounds.”

“Fuck you…” I mutter. “You wanna go, the three of us against you, just name the time and place, princess.”

Her brow furrows as her smug smile turns into a frown. I assume a fighting stance. She raises her hands and starts on the offensive, jabbing at me, then kicking low with her right leg, and high with her left. I manage to block and get out of the way, for all the good that’s doing. I strike at her, she blocks easily and almost locks me into a loose armbar before I slip away, not taking my eyes off her. I kick with my right, the same time she does with her left and we cross legs. She gets closer to me, faking a few jabs before trying the real ones, I block them. She tries another hold and I slip away. She kicks high and grazes me, forcing me to back up farther. She strikes high, I block it, but she kicks me in the shin at the same time she drops to the ground. I try to strike her while she’s low and she grabs my arm hard. I try to slip away, but she pulls me down to a sitting position by the leg and quickly wraps her arms around me.

I try, desperately, to clasp my arm around her head, to take advantage of whatever opening I can and take control of her. She is able to anticipate me going for the hold and brings both her hands up to open-hand strike me in the back of the head, I gasp in pain and let go. She brings one arm around my neck, then the other. She uses her superior strength to pull me from the sitting position into a choke hold. Totally prone and at her mercy. I tap weakly on the concrete, she keeps the hold locked in for a few moments afterward for emphasis. She stands up quickly, and I just lay there, struggling to stand.

I hear her laughing as I try to stagger to my feet. As I’m supporting myself on my knees and forearms, she comes over and kicks me in the gut like a punter would a dropkick. I howl in pain as I collapse to the ground again, still and unmoving. I glance up at her, tears in my eyes from the pain. My vision is blurry from a mix of tears and the fact that my glasses are lying a few feet away on the pavement. She’s laughing even harder, watching my body tremble in pain.

“Hahaha, oh my God, you stupid fucking…” She starts, taking a break to laugh. “Seriously, you try to fight? Against me? After one of our agents shot you? Are you fucking dense? Even if I hadn’t studied your fighting style extensively, this is a fight I win ten times out of ten.”

“Don’t ever be that goddamn stupid again.” She says, adopting a more serious tone. “The next time, I won’t hesitate to kill you. I’m better than you Rachel, never fucking forget that. Quit. Stop being Phoenix, stop whatever it is you hope to accomplish, just leave this all behind. Or I’ll make you regret it. Fucking listen to me, Rachel. You don’t need to die like your friends. My father and I are not to be fucked with.”

With that, she leaves me. I lay on the ground for a while, just shaking and feeling the pain wash over me. By the time I get up, it’s already dark. Laying on the ground in pain was a terrible experience, but it reassured me of something. I know what I have to do. I walk, more accurately limp, back to my dorm room and grab the phone from its hiding spot. I quickly open up the messaging app and send a text to Dragon and Chimera.

Me: Okay, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m recommitting. If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do this together. We’re a team, and I’m with you both until the end. Let’s meet up tomorrow and talk. Some things went down today.
Chimera: 🙂 Love you Phe
Dragon: im glad see u tomorrow.

I put the phone back in it’s hiding place and look up at the ceiling. If she wants a fight, she’s going to fucking get it. Exodus is strong, she’s going to be difficult to beat, but I’m strong too. With Chimera and Dragon, we’re stronger than she is. I’m not watching this from the sidelines, and if I’m going down, I’m going down fighting.

I’m not done yet, not even close.

Session 1, Interlude 2 – Monolith

Content Warning: Violence, Death, Corpses

Monolith stood to the right of Heatstroke, his best friend since high school. To the left of Heatstroke, stood his wife, Nova. The three heroes stood in the throne room of the Archduke, seated on his crystal throne in the Crystal Castle. The Archduke was detrascended, sipping wine from a crystal glass, and looking at the heroes, bored.

The Archduke was a very normal looking man. He had short blonde hair, fair skin, bright blue eyes, and an average, unremarkable, frame. He wore a crystal crown on his head and a dark blue three-piece suit with a purple tie. He was on the handsome side of average looking, but not the imposing or remarkable figure one would expect to be a world-conquering villain.

“Good afternoon.” The Archduke said, sipping on his wine and take a few steps towards the heroes.

“Bastard.” Heatstroke muttered under his breath, readying flame in his dark gauntlet-clad hands. Monolith and Nova both moved to opposite sides of the room. They had to expend a lot of power to get in here in the first place, so they had to stick to their plan and be smart about taking him on.

Monolith was a large man, he stood about six foot two and weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds, mostly muscle. He had dark skin and shaved his head bald. Monolith’s costume was sleek and pretty simple, dressed from head to toe in metal armor, the same tone of grey covering all of it. The costumes gloves stopped short of his fingers, leaving them exposed. A large helmet covered his head, a bit square, putting one in mind of a viking. It left his mouth, nose and brown eyes exposed, a small dark goatee around his mouth. Bits of metal and rock coated his costume, he needed them in a place made entirely of crystal.

When spirit-touched transcend, some of them look totally inhuman, some of them have a strange mix between human and inhuman qualities, and some looked like humans in costumes. Monolith was firmly in the third category, and Nova was clearly in the second.

Nova was a little taller than average, about five foot eight, and skinny. Her slender frame was not an indicator of her strength. Nova was a master with both Běishàolín and her fire manipulating abilities, and could probably easily best Monolith if she wanted. Her long hair, made of curling flame, was in a braid over her right shoulder. Most of her body was clad in black leather armor, the insignia of the Flamewakes over her heart. Her hands and feet were covered by black metal armor. Finally, her face was covered by a black mask, almost like a leather balaclava, except it left more room for her mouth, revealing soft lips and light skin. Her eyes were small balls of fire, sitting in otherwise empty sockets.

“Care for a drink? Any of you? There’s no reason we have to fight right away.” The Archduke said, walking towards the bar on the far side of his throne room.

“Not in a drinking mood.” Heatstroke said, taking a few steps towards the would-be dictator and making a jet of flame behind his feet. He slid across the throne room, nearly to the side of the Archduke.

“Very well. Straight to business then.”

The Archduke finished his wine and called on the energy of his spirit benefactor, crystal quickly erupted from his body, encasing it, or maybe replacing it, with dark, purple, crystalline, armor. It encased nearly all of him, leaving just his face exposed. His eyes seemed to vanish into darkness, being replaced by bright purple gems that let off a purple aura. A large crystal sword appeared in his right hand.

Heatstroke lunged forward on a jet of flame and called a whip of fire to his own hand, deflecting the sword as it attempted to catch him. Nova ignited her wings and rose to the top of one of the crystal pillars that covered the room, clinging to it. Monolith crept along the far side of the room, readying bars of metal and rock.

Heatstroke and the Archduke traded whip strikes and blade slashes, neither making a serious impact. Heatstroke took a step back and launched a volley of fireballs towards the Archduke, who was quick to generate a shield of his own. Heatstroke ran up to the Archduke, striking his chest with a fire-infused fist, the Archduke tried to bring his sword down, but Heatstroke reacted a half second faster, grabbing his arm with the sword in it and wrenching it forward, flipping the Archduke over his outstretched knee and onto the floor hard.

“Not bad.” The Archduke said, smirking to himself, with a wave of his hand, the pillar of crystal that Nova clung to violently exploded, sending her to the ground hard. The shards of crystal from the destroyed pillar went flying towards Heatstroke, pinning him to the far wall and sealing him in place with layer after layer of crystal.

Monolith was quick to check on Nova, she looked out cold, barely moving. He approached her, dropping what he was doing with his metal and rock. Nova was convincing, if it weren’t for the subtle thumbs up she gave Monolith, he would have believed she was seriously hurt. Monolith slowly crept back to his original location forming more bars of rock and metal.

Surprisingly, everything was going exactly to plan. The Flamewakes, and most of the other resistance heroes had called the trio crazy for attempting to take down the Archduke on his own turf, and yet, here they were, closer than anyone had ever gotten. The Archduke approached Heatstroke, tightening his crystalline prison and smirking.

“You have so much potential, so much raw power, but… God, you could be so much more.” The Archduke said, shaking his head.

“Yeah. I’m good. Thanks all the same, but I prefer to be on the winning side.” Heatstroke replied.

“And which side do you believe that to be?”

“The one I’m on.”

“Arrogant, your power is wasted on you. What I could do with… God, it’s such a waste. I’m going to unmake you, tear you apart, and make you something better.”

“Like I said, I’m good.”

“Even facing death, you’re still the arrogant one. I don’t understand how you do it.”

“Simple. I’m distracting you.” Heatstroke answered. As soon as the words left his lips, a small, warm smile crossed it. Nova struck the Archduke from behind with a jet of flame, sending him stumbling forward, scrambling to avoid serious injury. Before he could respond, layers of rock and metal crashed down on him, locking him into a makeshift prison, with only his head and left hand visible. The Archduke tried to put crystal between his skin and the prison but was unable to get enough momentum to break through his bonds. Nova was quick to generate fire in her hands, which Heatstroke quickly teleported into and back out of, freeing him from his prison. Heatstroke walked up to the Archduke, smirking, with a lit flame in his left hand.

“Fuck your potential. I’ve got a damn good reason to be cocky.” Heatstroke said, bending down to the Archduke and waving the fire in front of his face. Before he was able to deliver the killing blow, a dozen half-rotten corpses tackled him, trying to claw and grab at him. He was quick to call fire to himself and burn the corpses off. Another wave charged Monolith, Nova, and himself, they were easy to take out, but their numbers were nearly overwhelming.

Monolith glanced towards the door, spying the cause behind these zombies. A short blonde girl, dressed in a black body glove with white gloves and boots, a black bandit mask tied around her eyes, stood by the door, crying slightly and calling more and more zombies towards the heroes. The Archduke swore under his breath and looked at the ground.

“Heat, the door.” Monolith informed his friend. Heatstroke nodded in response and ignited his wings to fly towards the girl, she threw a few more zombies at him, having them jump and claw, but he easily took them out with jets of flame. Heatstroke landed next to the girl, grabbing her by the shoulders, she shook slightly in his hands, freezing like a deer in the headlights.

It wasn’t a mystery who she was, Ruth Valentin, the Archduke’s eldest daughter and the heir to the throne. Her power was the ability to raise the dead as her own personal army, and she was desperately trying to save her father.

“Let her go.” The Archduke said, staring at Heatstroke with hatred in his eyes.

“Why? I could just find your other daughter and end the bloodline right here and now.” He said. He meant it. As difficult of a reality as it was to face, both of his daughters would have to be dealt with sooner or later.

“Fucks sake, she’s just a girl. You claim to be a hero, don’t sink that low.”

“How old are you now, Ruth?” Heatstroke questioned the terrified girl.

“I’m sixteen, and it’s Genesis, not Ruth.” The girl answered.

“Sixteen is more than old enough, you’ve already poisoned her mind.” Heatstroke responded.

“Please, she’s my daughter.” The Archduke begged.

“I could end this all, right now…” Heatstroke said, snapping his fingers and calling fire to his palm.

“Stop!” The Archduke ordered. Heatstroke pulled Ruth closer, starting to burn her arms and shoulders.

“Stop! Stop! I yield!” The Archduke said, desperation in his voice as he called off his powers and detranscended. “Please, what if it was your daughter?”

Heatstroke looked at the terrified girl, called off his flame and let her go. Monolith knew why and didn’t blame him, Rachel, his daughter, was one of the few weak spots that Heatstroke had. She was his light, and his world. He couldn’t take away someone else’s daughter, not even from a monster. The terrified girl ran off, sobbing. Heatstroke quickly walked towards the powerless Archduke and grabbed him by the hair, throwing his crown to the ground and shattering it.

“This ends right here. You’ve lost. Men like you, monsters like you, will always lose. You understand? Love is stronger than hate, and that’s what fuels you, hate is all a monster like you has. Villains and tyrants will always rise, and as long as there is breath in the lungs of people willing to fight for what they love, they will always fail.” Heatstroke crouched down to be at eye level with the pinned Archduke. “How does it feel? Knowing that this is all over? Knowing that you’re about to lose, about to fail?”

The Archduke said nothing in reply, just gave a small smirk before throwing his exposed left hand at Heatstroke, striking him in the neck with some sort of crystal. A dark black fluid started to drain from the crystal and into him, turning his veins a sickly black color as he stumbled back and coughed.

Nova was the first to react, launching a beam of searing hot flame at the Archduke, striking the left side of his face and burning it, searing his eye shut and burning his face from hairline to chin. Nova screamed and readied another blast as Monolith pulled on the rock and metal of the prison he made, pulling it tighter, trying to crush the Archduke. Monolith didn’t know what kind of poison the Archduke had just injected into his friend, but he needed to deal with the Archduke before he helped him.

Monolith felt searing pain wash over his body, flame. He had to drop control of his prison and fall to the ground, desperately trying to extinguish the flame on himself. Monolith looked up at his assailant, only to see his best friend, Heatstroke, pointing his blazing fist at him. Heatstroke, almost mechanical in his movements, launched a blast of flame at Nova, sending her reeling to deflect the fire. Nova looked at him, tilting her head and grabbing her side as she extended a hand towards him.

Nova destanscended, dropping out of her superhuman form and back into her regular body. She was dressed in jeans, a basic black tee shirt, and black boots, she was still thin and tall, her hair was in a braid over her shoulder, but it was a dark blonde color, rather than the bright flaming curls it has been a few seconds ago. Her brown eyes portrayed the shock and grief she felt clearly as she stepped towards her husband.

“Donte, stop.” She begged Heatstroke, who stepped towards her mechanically.

“Alicia, what are y-” Monolith started, before being shushed by Nova. Nova placed her hand gently inside Heatstroke’s hand and guided it up to her cheek, looking him in the eyes and shaking slightly.

“Donte, it’s me, it’s your wife, Alicia. You need to snap out of this, this is not the man you are. Please, stop this.” She begged, using her hand to keep Heatstroke’s hand pressed to her cheek.

“Will you join me? Join him?” Heatstroke asked in a Monotone voice, glaring at his wife. Alicia shook her head in response.

“No, I won’t. He’s not your master, that’s not the person you are Don-” Her words were cut off in an instant by Heatstroke grabbing her tightly, pulling fire around her and letting it wash over her. Her mundane body stood no chance, she was reduced to a pile of ash within seconds. Heatstroke turned to Monolith, glaring at his friend, uncaring about what he had just done.

“No!” Monolith screamed, charging at his best friend with a blade of rock and metal. Heatstroke deflected it, calling fire to his fists and sending blasts cascading at his former friend. Monolith blocked them with quick shields of rock, sending them flying back towards Heatstroke. Heatstroke launched two waves of flame at Monolith, who was just able to dodge and send his own, dull spear of rock at Heatstroke, it made contact and drove him back.

“Heatstroke! Donte! This isn’t you man. You just killed your wife…” Monolith started, Heatstroke was quick to follow up with blasts of fire and rapid punches and kicks. Monolith created a wall of rock and metal at about shin height and threw it into Heatstroke, the same metal and rock wrapped around Heatstroke’s wrists and ankles.

“Dammit! Let me talk! This isn’t who you are! This isn’t Heatstroke! This isn’t Donte LeFue! This is not the man that Zion can be proud of! This is not the man that Rachel can be proud of!”

At the mention of his daughter, Heatstroke found the inner resolve to charge fire within him and lunge towards Monolith, covering his body in flame and burning most of his body from the chest down. Monolith laid in a circle of flame, struggling to get to his feet, to fight, to survive. Heatstroke quickly freed the Archduke, ripping apart the stone and metal prison and helping his newly burned ally to his feet. The Archduke spit on Nova’s ashes and walked slowly towards the injured Monolith.

Monolith was the type of man who played to his outs. For the first time in his life, he genuinely didn’t see any. This was going to be where Monolith died, killed by his best friend and the monstrous tyrant who sought to control this country and world. Two minutes, it had been two minutes since Heatstroke had been stabbed with the crystal. That was all it took for their plan, their friendship, and their hope to fall apart.

“I always win.” The Archduke started. “I am more prepared, more skilled, and more powerful than the best that your rebellion has to offer. Despite how you would villainize me, I’m not a bad man, I’m not a monster, I just know what must be done.”

“What did you do to him you bastard?” Monolith choked out.

“This is how I always win, I always have a backup plan. I don’t rely on luck, I make it myself. It’s not mind control, though I’m sure you must think it is. I’ve simply made him reexamine his priorities. I’ve turned his heart to my side, I’ve helped to open his mind to the truth.”

“You fucking monster.”

“If you must call me that, then monster I shall be, but at least I’m the victor. Tell me, what is it you do again? Rocks? Is it even worth it to have you on my side.”

The Archduke dragged Monolith towards him, pulling him to his feet and examining him. Monolith’s eyes scanned the Archduke for something, anything he could use to stop what was about to happen.

“Rocks, yeah. Rocks and..” Monolith mumbled, he pulled his hand slightly to the side, so subtly that the Archduke barely noticed. The pin on the Archduke’s tie quickly shot up, impacting him in the face and sending him stumbling back.

“Metal.” Monolith whispered grimly. He wasted no time, calling the rocks on the surface to aid him. Within seconds, a large rock pillar burst through the far wall, Monolith raced towards it, pushing through the pain and burns. Heatstroke took a shot, sending a jet of flame, now dark black in color, at his former friend. Monolith pulled a large slab of rock down from the pillar and threw it in front of himself. He used the pillar to block the fire, before using it for a boost, launching himself onto the pillar and letting him slide down and away from the Archduke’s castle.

He rested at the bottom, taking a second to himself, before finally detranscending, his power spent. He glared up at the tower, watching through the hole he had made. Heatstroke looked down at him, fire in his fists. Monolith glared back, ready to die if he had to. Heatstroke just shook his head and went back into the tower, probably to tend to his new master. Monolith got to his feet, breathing heavily, and feeling the burns and pain all over his body. He began to slowly walk back home.

Session 1, Interlude 1 – Samantha

Content Warning: Hospitals, Transphobia.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Samantha muttered to herself, pacing back and forth in the hospital hallway.

“How the fuck could he… Ugh!” She said, kicking the wall and taking a seat against it. She has been under a lot of stress over the past forty-eight hours. All this did was add to it. She slept well on Friday, all things considered. It had been a busy few days, but she finally felt like she could take a day to herself. Of course, that would never become a reality.

When she went to visit her brother on Saturday morning, she found him passed out on his floor, burn marks covering his arms and chest. She had immediately called the paramedics and hadn’t left the hospital since. She found him at ten in the morning on Saturday, now it was nearly midnight.

“What stupid fucking thing did he do to himself.” She muttered, wiping a few stray tears from her eyes. “Goddammit, please be okay, Max.”

She hated this. If she could operate on him herself, at least she would have a hand in the outcome, but… relying on doctors, regime doctors, while she had to sit around and trust them. It was excruciating.

Ever since her parents had been taken, it was just her and Max. On the really bad days, he was the only reason she kept going. It had been more than three years since she got her powers, and on that day she made an oath to keep her brother safe above all else. Today, for the first time, she had failed.

Her brother was her best friend, the only person she ever felt entirely comfortable around. She was three years Max’s senior, and yet they had always been inseparable. Max had trouble making friends at school. He was nice, gentle, but he didn’t fit in with other people, especially other boys. She knew he wanted to make friends, but he genuinely struggled to fit in. Sometimes that got him in trouble, but on the bright side he wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t a reckless kid, not like most fourteen-year-old boys could be. So she had no clue how this happened.

Samantha glanced around the hallway, seeing it entirely barren, that was the only cue she needed as she started to weep. She didn’t want anyone, least of all regime staff, to see her cry, but she had to let it out. She hugged her knees tightly and cried, her sky blue eyes going blurry with tears. If something were to happen to Max, she didn’t know what she would do. As much as she hated to admit it, she cared for her brother far more than any of the other lives she had saved.

Samantha was an attractive girl, about five and a half feet tall with bluish-black hair that went to her chin. She had a delicate, pretty face, with fair skin, and an average figure. Today she wore a blue and white tank top with blue skinny jeans and silver high tops. Samantha was only seventeen, but her eyes showed the stress and exhaustion of someone twice her age.

Samantha felt like a failure. She hated that feeling, and she wasn’t used it. She usually had an answer, a way to come out on top. If her brother was going to die because she wasn’t there to protect him because she was so caught up on other things… She’d never fucking forgive herself.

“Ms. Langer?” A mousy women in a white nurses uniform asked. Samantha immediately stopped her tears and looked up at the nurse.

“Yes.” She said, trying her best to recover from her sob session.

“Your brother is awake and responding. You can see him now if you’d like.”

Samantha didn’t waste a second, she sprung up and followed the woman back into the hospital room. Max laid in a reclined hospital bed, he had bandages wrapped around his arm and chest. Burns were visible all along his body with aloe and cream on them. Samantha grimaced and grumbled to herself, she counted at least fifty little things the doctors and nurses had done wrong. The bandages were too tight in one place, too loose in another. They hadn’t used the optimal treatment for the type of burns Max had, things like that.

“Amateurs…” she mumbled.

Max was an average looking guy, he had short, dark brown hair that hung in front of his face just slightly. He was thin, scrawny almost. He didn’t work out and didn’t have the genetics a lot of bigger guys did. He was slightly above average height, just under a half foot taller than his sister. His face was soft, but had a more masculine edge than Samantha’s, with no real facial hair, just stubble. Anyone could tell by a glance they were related.

“Max, thank god you’re okay!” she said, grabbing one of his hands gently. Even at the small touch, he grimaced. Samantha immediately recoiled and quietly apologized.

“Thank you, Sam…” Max said, just above a whisper.

“Don’t. You’re my little brother. Taking care of you is second nature to me.”

Max looked at his sister, trying to smile. Samantha smiled back at him weakly.

“Do you want to talk abou-?” she started.

“No.” Max cut her off.

“I just… I don’t understand Max. You’re so cautious. You’re so careful. You would be the last person I would ever expect to get hurt in an accident like that. I keep going over it in my head, how did that even happen with you?”

“Just a stupid accident, After school, I was down by the warehouses, I wanted to see the wreckage. Some of the barrels were hotter than I thought. One of them exploded. I thought I was fine, but I was burned worse than I thought.” He said.

He was lying, Samantha knew it. None of the explosive barrels would have survived Phoenix taking the building down. Max isn’t the lying type, so whatever he did must have been really bad.

“You can’t lie to me, Max. That isn’t what happened. Please, talk to me. Whatever it is, I won’t laugh or be mad.”

“Sis, I…” Max sighed. “I was cutting class. I was just down by the warehouses, I wanted some time to myself. I got caught up in the blast during that spirit-touched fight. I got burned, but I’ll live. It wasn’t that bad. I could walk it off.”
Alarm bells went off in Samantha’s head. He’s lying, she fucking knew it. First of all, she knew for a fact that everyone got out. They sent Sarah to do it, and she wasn’t the type to miss a person. She was a perfectionist, the type to double and triple check a task, especially one given to her by a fucking superhero. Secondly, he was casually hanging out by that warehouse on that particular day at that particular time? And he was cutting class to do it? No fucking way. What had he done that was so bad that he had to li-

Samantha gasped audibly as her thoughts converged on the answer. No, no, no, no, no! Not him! Not him! He couldn’t be… No. Samantha shot her chair back and looked at her brother in shock, she felt like she was hyperventilating. Max raised an eyebrow and cocked his head to the side. Samantha shook her head in disbelief.

Her brother was Chimera.

“No.” Samantha said gently.

“Pardon?” Max said.

“No, you weren’t.”

“Yes, I w-”

“We got everyone out. I’m sure of it.”

“What?”

“At the warehouses, this girl made sure everyone evacuated. She isn’t the type t-”

“Well, I guess she didn’t get everyone.”

Samantha got close to Max and whispered in his ear.

“Don’t lie to me, Chimera.”

All the color started to drain from Max’s face, and he let out a staggered breath, staring at his sister wide-eyed.

“I’m not C-” He started.

“Don’t lie to me!” Samantha shot back, nearly yelling.

“How could you possibl-”
“I’m Dragon.” She whispered under her breath.

“What?”

“I’m Dragon. I’ve worked side by side with you for months, I never had the slightest clue.”

“Oh…” Max said. A few facts hung in the air, realizations neither of them wanted to acknowledge. Samantha looked out the window as tears came back to her eyes. All Samantha had wanted to do, all she ever wanted to do since she became Dragon, was to keep her brother safe. No matter how hard she tried, she could only keep her brother so safe if he was out there being a superhero. She could fight alongside her brother, work to protect him, but she couldn’t keep him safe like a civilian.

Is this possible? Could she really have fought alongside her own brother for four months and had no idea? Was he able to keep that a secret? Keep it secret from his own sister? It had to be true, but… she couldn’t believe it.

“Fuck. I just want you to be safe.” Samantha said.

“I am safe. My power is… I’m strong enough.” Max said. “You saw what I did to you know who, I’m strong. I don’t need to be protected.”

“I… I’m your big sister, I just want to keep you safe. Ever since mom and dad left, you’re all I have… You’re, goddammit Max, why did it have to be you?”

“But I’m proud of you.” Samantha said, smiling at him.

“Really?” Max asked, a look of relief in his eyes.

“Yes. You’re a hero, much more of a hero than I am. You give people hope, and you do whatever you can to save every person you can.”

“It’s the right thing to do. I want to bring heroes back, I know I have to lead by example.”

“How do you do it? You’re fourteen, how are you not afraid?”

“I’m terrified. I thought I was going to die yesterday. Every second I’m Chimera is like walking a tightrope on the line between life and death, but the Spirit picked me for a reason, and I’m doing what feels right. What I know I should.”

“Phoenix and I were basically just vigilantes before you came along. Chimera is heroism personified. She…” Samantha trailed off after realizing the pronoun she just used. The silence hung over the room for a few minutes, neither of them acknowledging the elephant in the room.

“So… our transcended forms, they’re supposed to be a reflection of who we are. I… um…” Samantha said, touching Max’s hand.

“Yeah…” Max said under his breath.

“So… you’re… um…”

“Trans? Yeah…”

Samantha didn’t need to hear the answer, she knew. She had suspected that secret for a little while. She didn’t want to admit it, didn’t want it to be true. Transition, under the Archduke, wasn’t a thing. A “man” dressing in women’s clothing was a misdemeanor, public indecency. As far as medical transition, there was no fucking chance.

“I’m so sorry…” Samantha said.

“Don’t.” Max said bluntly. “The spirit is the greatest gift I could ever receive. It lets me be myself, as close as I can get to that anyway. Max Langer is fucking useless. Chimera is a hero.”

“Max Langer doesn’t exist. But…”

“Madeline.” Max, or rather, Madeline answered under her breath. Samantha smiled brightly.

“Madeline Langer is pretty fucking awesome. You’re my sister, and I love you more than anything.”

Madeline didn’t respond, she just started to cry, pressing her burned body against her sister in as close to a hug as she could feel comfortable. Sister. The word was ecstasy. It made her feel fucking alive. In her fourteen years of life, she had never felt such a relief, such a feeling of things being right, as she did when she heard the words “You’re my sister.”

The two girls hugged each other. Nothing else mattered. Not the Archduke, not their new member, not Phoenix’s tantrum, not the burn wounds that covered most of Madeline’s body. Nothing else in this whole world mattered. Things were wrong in this world, awful, but this felt so fucking right. They had each other, that’s all they needed. The rest of the world faded away. Leaving just Chimera and Dragon, leaving just Madeline and Samantha, leaving just sisters.