I remember the first time it happened. I couldn’t have been much older than four, but it was seared into my mind. I saw people screaming, and running, cars raining down as the ground fell away beneath them; a scene of carnage and destruction. A half mile of bridge falling into the water below, dragging everything with it. I remember being so terrified, I ran to my mother after the fit ended, and she did her best to comfort me, convince me it was just my imagination, but I couldn’t be swayed. A week later we saw it on the news; a bridge in Peoria was destroyed in a fight between a meta and an Argus swat team.
Since then, they haven’t stopped coming. There was nothing I could do to stop this one from coming, as soon as I turned the dampener off, images, thoughts, and sensations flooded my mind. I was standing on a street, looking around, frantically. Everything was bathed in a blueish hue, yet I could still tell what color everything would normally be, like in a dream where you just know things. The buildings that lined the street were damaged. Their windows were broken, some structural damage, while a few were just burning piles of rubble.
Things worked differently in these… visions. I was there, but I wasn’t like a person, exactly. Breathing felt more like inhaling water, and sounds were muffled. Dimensions distorted and shifted at random. And I couldn’t really touch or feel anything: I was just a bystander.
On the street there were several figures in some kind of stand-off. To the right were several heroes: Wrath, Animus, The Eagle, Spectral, and the man himself, Cypher. Wrath and Animus were part of The Regents, Cypher’s team, so it was normal to see them together, but Spectral and The Eagle were from The Shield of Freedom, based out of the D.C. area. Opposite them was a rogues’ gallery of a mixed variety. I picked out faces from The Gold Diggers, a band of metahuman criminals attracted to the smell of cash, and several faces I didn’t recognize.
Before I could make sense of what I was seeing, the scene shifted again. Everything faded into a fog except for one man. He was on his knees clutching his head as the wall of fog closed in on him. I tried to move towards him, but I didn’t have any body to move, so all I could do was watch. The rolling mist stopped just shy of touching him, but a figure stepped out of the mist, a flaming torch in their hand. The scene changed slightly, and I was brought closer to the man on his knees. He glanced in my direction and I recognized his face: Wrath.
The unknown figure threw the torch at Wrath, and when it hit him, he erupted into flames. The fire started charring him, but he didn’t scream. It was unsettling, seeing his skin boil and his flesh turn to ash, but his face wasn’t in pain. It was twisted into raw, unadulterated rage. Again, the vision disoriented me as the fog shot off into the distance and the ground fell away to give me a view of the city. I could see signs of destruction from the fight between the villains and heroes, but then I saw a light. It flared up from the center of the destruction, but it grew at an alarming rate, rushing through the city and tossing the buildings aside like dominoes swept aside by the hand of an angry giant. The mushroom cloud rose higher and higher above the destroyed city and then my vision went dark.
I opened my eyes and looked around wildly. I was back in the stairwell, thank God. My heart was beating so fast I could feel it thumping in my chest. I was covered in sweat; my shirt clung to me and my hair was wet with it. I heard something too, what was that? I felt disoriented, everything was too bright, and the strange acoustics of the stairwell just twisted and distorted my gasps for air. I heard the noise again, but this time I managed realized it was my phone. The caller ID read James, and tried to answer but my fingers felt stiff, like they had been tensed for several minutes. These spells really took it out of me.
“Hey James,” I finally said after managing to hit the damn answer button.
“Nate, are you alright? You sound strange. I’m sorry I missed your call, I’ve been a bit busy.”
“Yeah, I just had another one of my visions-”
“-I thought you were wearing your dampener?”
I sighed. Leave it to James to jump in before you could make a point.
“I am, but the light started to blink, and I started getting a headache-”
“-That’s not good; it means it’s having to up the ante to keep your powers suppressed-”
“-James, listen to me! I had a vision; I don’t know what it showed me, but I think the city is fucked.”
James went quiet for a moment. He knew about my visions, and how they were always right in one way or another. “How do you mean?” he finally replied. His voice had lost its eagerness, replaced by a tone that seemed more suited to serious business. “What did you see?”
“I think I saw the Regents and some others facing off against a group of villains, not just one team, but a bunch of solo acts standing next to each other. Then I saw Wrath,”
“Wrath?” He asked with something new hiding in the bravado. I realized it was fear.
“Yeah, I saw someone set him on fire and then he… blew up, I guess, taking everything with him.”
“Are you sure?” The question just seemed to hang there for a moment. All my life I’d been bombarded by my powers. I couldn’t control them. It made it hard to live in the moment when you were constantly forced to see terrible things that hadn’t happened yet. I tried to ignore them, burry them deep and not think about them. But I knew they would come true. Eventually.
“Y… yes. I’m sure. And it felt urgent.”
“I’ll try to reach Cypher, but I don’t have that kind of pull to have them act based off a hunch.”
A hunch? It wasn’t a hunch, it was going to happen, I could… feel it. “James, its not just a hunch, you have to trust me,” I said, trying to convince him.
“I trust you, Nate, but they don’t. There isn’t any way for me to verify that your vision is true. Just stay safe.”
“Wait-” I tried to interrupt, but James ended the call before I could say anything else. Damn it, I thought to myself. This was bad. My headache was gone, but now there was a pit of absolute dread polluting my stomach. Cypher was the best hero there was, but I doubted even he could stop a nuclear explosion. Someone… I… had to find the person with the torch and… and…
And then what?
It was a stupid idea; what could I do? I wasn’t some hero with a cape and years of experience. I was a fucking janitor. My heart was threatening to beat out of my chest, so I tried to take some deep breaths and collect my thoughts. Then it hit me: what did I have to lose? If I didn’t do anything, I was going to die to an explosion that would make a nuke look like a firecracker. Then I thought about my family.
I had to do something. Maybe, if I could get out of the building, I could somehow make it to Cypher and warn him? Nothing else was coming to mind, so I got shakily to my feet and started down the stairs. Plans on how to get out of the building. The security team wouldn’t let me just walk out the front door, but maybe there was a way near one of the service entrances.
The doors would be locked, but maybe I could force them open with my powers. Walking out of the doors of the stairwell, I glanced around to see if anyone was paying me any attention. Fortunately, they weren’t. More anxiety built up in my stomach as I tried to act normal on my way to the south side of the building. There was a good-sized bay that allowed trucks to deliver materials and supplies, and for prototypes and the like to be shipped directly from the building. The large doors meant for the trucks were reinforced, but there were other doors that lead outside meant for people. They were locked, but I think I could fix that.
Before I reached the entrance to the shipping bay, I ducked into a bathroom. Breath in. Breath out. I looked at myself in the mirror and closed my eyes, trying to purposefully summon my power for once. The feeling was difficult to describe. It wasn’t like flexing a muscle or moving a limb, it was more like… turning on a sink: opening an internal valve and just letting it flow. Part of me wondered if it was like this for everyone, but I didn’t have time to think about that now.
I felt it starting to creep along my skin. It felt like I was slowly being lowered into icy water, making my hair stand on-end. When I opened my eyes, I saw the cyan form about to swallow my face. Memories I’d try to bury for so long came flooding back, and I blanched. As my resolve fled, creeping color seemed to evaporate, and I tried to collect myself. My heart was beating like a warning, a reminder of why I didn’t use my powers. This was too much, I shouldn’t have tried. My chest felt tight, and I realized I had broken out in a sweat. When wiped my brow, my hand was trembling, slightly.
Why was this so hard? It had happened before, but I wasn’t in control then. Now, when I want to use it, I couldn’t. The mirror faithfully reflected what I felt inside: I was just a scared little boy terrified of what my powers could do.
No, they were my powers and they would obey me. I jammed my eyes closed and braced against the counter. Pouring all my fear and anger into the effort, I felt my powers creeping back. This time I waited until it felt like I was completely covered. This time, when I opened my eyes, I saw a shifting barrier of energy covered me from head to toe. Water was about the closest description of how it moved; it flowed and swirled, never staying still. Hues of blue ranging from near-white to deep sapphire mixed and danced around each other, making it very interesting to look at, but most importantly, it covered everything. My face, hair, and even my clothes were all under the barrier: exactly what I hoped for.
Even though it looked strange, it felt even more alien. It didn’t obstruct my vision, even though it covered my face completely, but I could still tell it was there. It felt like a bodysuit that hovered a hair’s breadth away from my skin, only making the briefest of contacts as I moved around. And oddly, it was cold, very cold, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. If anything, it was tranquil.
But I didn’t have time to waste. I hurried out of the bathroom and towards the shipping area. The doors were locked with a card reader, but luckily for me, janitors had cards that let them through. After all, you never knew where you would need a mess cleaned up. Looking around, it wasn’t a very interesting place. There were a pair of large garage doors that opened outside and pair of empty bays for trucks to be loaded and emptied. Along the raised area around the bay, there were multiple boxes stacked haphazardly with the odd hand truck laying nearby.
Fortunately, the small crew that was usually staffed were nowhere to be seen. They were probably in a breakroom or something, waiting to get back to work. That was fine with me as I finally spied what I was looking for. I moved my way between the stacks of boxes to door that led to the outside. It was one of those grey fireproof ones with the small window at eye level. A test push confirmed it was locked, so I dug in and pushed hard near the locking mechanism.
For a second, the door held, then with a metallic screech, it flew open and slammed against the outside wall, a dent near the lock. Before I could be somewhat pleased with myself, an alarm blared to life. “Fuck,” I swore under my breath as I took off running. I couldn’t believe I forgot about the alarms. I felt like an idiot, but I didn’t have time to think about it.
Public transportation would be shut down with the Warning in effect, along with taxis and ride-sharing services. That left me slightly limited in my modes of transportation. Looked like running was the only thing left. Once I was clear of any likely pursuit from DT, I slowed my pace to a jog, trying to keep my stamina up. Block after block rolled past, but I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right way or not.
The longer I ran with the energy swirling around me, the more I noticed I wasn’t getting tired, at least not nearly as much I would without them. I mean, I was decently fit, but running still usually sucked. And something else was odd: the energy wasn’t static. It shifted with my movements. There was a moment of drag, but once the energy caught up with the change in my leg’s direction, it had an elastic effect, propelling me faster.
In the distance, the explosions and tremors were growing stronger and more frequent. I had to remind myself I was pressed for time. Then I had an idea. If the energy was reacting to me, maybe I could try and push it and move it proactively? I had managed to summon it at will. Falling into a steady rhythm, I focused on the part of the suit swirling around my legs, on dragging them forward ahead of my leg. I felt the effect immediately. Left, right, left, right…
I was moving faster, but I wondered how far I could push it. Any strain I was feeling in my legs melted away; the energy was doing all the work for me. The streets were flying past now. I had to admit it felt awesome to be moving so fast. It was more a mental workout at this point to keep the pattern going than it was to move my legs. However, my excitement was tainted by a pang of guilt in enjoying my powers. I had worked so hard to ignore them, to try and act normal. Doing this just felt like throwing all that away. But I reminded myself why I was doing it: just this once, to save the city.
Then I tripped.
My vision was a whirl of shapes and colors as I tumbled head over heels. Luckily, my energy shell kept me from getting scraped up as I skidded along the asphalt. “Damn it,” I muttered as I staggered to my feet. I guess I got distracted. It looked like I had been going the right way at least. Rubble littered the streets along with the husks of burnt-out cars and smashed store fronts. Fortunately, there weren’t any bodies, yet.
I looked around to get my bearings. The Daedalus Tech building was a several blocks behind me, towards Lake Michigan. From the relative volume of the explosions, the villain activity was focused around the eastern area of the Near West Side and the southern tip of River North. They seemed to be ignoring the Magnificent Mile where most of the upscale shops and stores were, so it was safe to assume they weren’t after a payday.
That made some sense: for there to be an official Warning issued, it had to be a serious threat to civilian lives. Criminals going after cash weren’t usually that dangerous. But at the same time, who would be stupid or bold enough to cause such a scene in the Regents’ home city? I mean, the presence of the Regents had promoted economic growth in the city due to the sense of security, but was that enough to promote an attack on this scale only to ignore where the money was?
Another explosion rocked the street, and I looked up, trying to see where it came from. My eyes skimmed the rooftops, but something caught my eye. Two metas were flying overhead, and It was easy to guess who they were. Spectral, and the Eagle: just like I had seen in the vision. While I was messing around with my powers, I had forgotten about the knot in my gut, but seeing the Members of the Shield of Freedom made it decide to remind me of its presence.
As I was looking in the direction the heroes had went, something hit me square in the chest, throwing me back. I tumbled to the ground, the wind knocked right out of me. “Well, well, well. What a unique little catch we have here. Butcher, darling, give me an opinion: is this little firefly a green horned novice, or a wayward vigilante?” I jerked my head up, still trying to catch my breath. My energy shell managed to hold, but I happened to see what’d hit me. A crumbled bullet lay on the ground not far away.
Then I realized who had spoken, Hellequin: the leader of the Gold Diggers. He was one of the types to wear what I guess you could call a costume. It resembled some kind of Chinese royal guard uniform with sashes of fabric embroidered with gold thread. They formed an ‘X’ shape over what I suppose was body armor, but even that looked more like it belonged on a fashion runway than on a known criminal. His right shoulder had a pauldron-like covering made from fur that wrapped around to his back while his right arm was covered in armor that looked like dragon hide. Then there was his helmet. It covered his face completely with lines accenting his nose and brow, while making his jaw look like the closed mouth of a demon. He even had two short horns sprouting from the helmet’s golden forehead. Hellequin was tall, overly dignified for someone styling themselves as a demon. The villain was staring down towards me with his hands clasped, as though I were just an interesting insect.
“Vigilante. Smells like one.” another voice said. Next to him stood a woman with a much simpler attire. It looked to be mostly leather, probably to offer some measure of protection from light blows. Dark hair came down to her shoulders, framing her most terrifying trait. Her lips seemed normal, but her mouth didn’t end there, it stretched up to her cheek bones and down along her bottom jaw and disappeared behind her hair. There was no flesh, simply large, wickedly sharp teeth locking together perfectly. This had to be the ‘Butcher’ that Hellequin had addressed. She stood in the way a predator would, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. The carnivore imagery was helped by the fact that both of her hands were warped into wicked, blade-like claws still wet with blood.
“Smells like piss and sweat. No vigilante would be scared, he’s green.” The voice bore a notable French accent, coming from the man that stood on the side of Hellequin opposite the Butcher. His clothes were basically normal, but his face was hidden behind a growth of what looked like bone, or antlers. They were made to resemble a deer skull while other protrusions dotted his body. Cerf Tueur. The Killer Deer. Much more competent than his name would imply, from what I could dimly recall.
I felt frozen. Every part of my body was so tensed it hurt. I just wanted to run back to the normal life I’d work so hard to make. I had survived the shot, but what if it was one of those internal injuries I couldn’t feel because of adrenaline? I had no idea.
“Hmm, it’s neither.” This voice was definitely female. I managed to get on my feet, backing away from the advancing villains. I finally picked her out from the crowd. She looked entirely normal, like any other person you might pass on the street; short blonde hair, blue eyes, thick-rimmed hipster glasses. I wasn’t sure who she was, but she was walking right along with the rest of the team, so it was safe to say she wasn’t just a random bystander. “He’s just a scared little meta, out of his depth.” she said, a grinning like she’d just heard something funny. She looked about nineteen or twenty, about my age, but she had the kind of feeling about her that a much older person would have.
“Poor sap must have been overlooked in the evac sweeps. Perhaps his powers have only just awoken,” Hellequin said. He made a motion like he was taking aim with a gun, and a highly decorative rifle appeared in his hands from thin air. That must have been what he’d used to shoot me. “Shameful. In another life, you could’ve lived to use it.” The rifle fired, an explosion of red flame and smoke from its barrel. The sound was like a sledgehammer made of dynamite hitting a brick wall also made of dynamite, pure explosive force.
My vision flashed blue again. When it cleared, I realized I had moved. I didn’t feel like I’d been hit; I must have dodge it just like how I caught the bullet yesterday in the gas station. I should have probably felt relief, but if he fired again, I had no clue if I could dodge it a second time. Hellequin looked slightly confused? Impressed? His body language said as much. I could hear the normal-looking girl yelp, like she’d been slapped. “Shit. The glowstick-fucker stopped me reading him!”
Read me? Was she some kind of telepath? I thought to myself. “…Impressive, firefly.” Hellequin said in that tone of voice where you can hear the sneer. He lowered his hands, and the gun he’d been holding flickered out of existence. Definitely some powers at work there. “But annoying, and inconvenient, nonetheless. Butcher, Cerf, turn him into a bloody paste, if you’d be so kind.”
“Wait, hold on, maybe we can talk…” I started to ramble as I backed up rapidly, my mouth running faster than my mind. But before I could mutter anything else, I saw a white blur flash past my face with a rush of air. The Butcher was struck with an audible crunch of bone. She flew back like a ragdoll, limbs bent at sickening angles. She tumbled along the ground when she hit, but immediately began to pick herself up, body parts snapping back into place.
I became aware of the presence to my right, the one who’d knocked the villain back. I looked, and my jaw dropped. The Eagle stood next to me, all square jaw and rippling muscle. His costume was as patriotic as his name, mostly white with highlights of red and blue. His arm was still outstretched from the massive punch he’d delivered. The other Gold Diggers looked almost as shocked as me, though they lacked the kind of awestruck look I had plastered on my face. Again, I was glad I had the swirling blue energy hiding my appearance.
They took a moment to gather themselves before moving to attack the most famous hero in the world, but they didn’t get the chance. A blast of wind bowled the remaining criminals over, and I could see wisps of white, luminescent energy trailing in the wake of the gust, swirling about in the air. A glance over my shoulder revealed the source. Spectral, another one of the celebrity heroes from the Shield of Freedom. His costume was simple, dark blue with a glowing white emblem of a bird covering most of his upper torso, and a mask that concealed his face. Two ghostly wings sprouted from his back, with the same white glow as his emblem. Ethereal energy flowed through the wings before surging forward, kicking up the gale. Once the Gold Diggers were buffeted back far enough, he dropped the onslaught to join The Eagle in barricading me from the villains.
I grinned for a moment, like a child at Christmas, watching two of the most famous heroes in the world touch down right in front of me. But a shiver ran down my back as the scene became uncomfortably familiar. I’d seen this in my vision, right before Wrath had exploded and wiped the city off the map; meaning I would have mere minutes to try and prevent all that. No pressure. Right?