It was cold. The whisper of a breeze snuck up on me from behind, but it was gone just as fast. Skeletal trees stretched out farther than I could see. Their gnarled branches snaked into the swirling mass of hues that made up the sapphire sky. No leaves were left to bring any feeling of life, they were dead, bleached whiter than bone.
Despite knowing the answer, I tried to reach out and lay my palm against the nearest trunk. I knew it felt dusty and uneven, jagged. Almost like concrete or stucco. Nothing moved beneath the sky except for the low-lying mist that clung to the barren ground and moved in stark defiance to the occasional gust of wind.
Nothing was alive here except me. Even the atmosphere of the place seemed silent, crypt-like. It was angry, malevolent. Something possessed this place. It existed with a silent consciousness that pressed against the back of your mind. While I was there, it could see me wherever I went.
This time it felt… odd. I felt dazed, thoughts slipped away before they solidified, and I couldn’t… I couldn’t move. My body was distance, somewhere beyond the edge of the forest.
Suddenly, a light burned to life behind me, and long shadows stretched from the trees. At the mercy of some mysterious force, my vision turned around slowly. As I moved, the trees became thinner and shorter, almost as if they were shrinking.
Once I was completely turned around, I didn’t know what to make of what I was seeing. I was looking down from a cliff at a ruined city. Buildings were arranged in a circle like the petals of a glass and steel flower. In the center of the rings of buildings, there was a statue. It towered over the city like a giant above a daisy, but at the same time, it was miniscule, a man standing in the heart of the city. The perception of scale shifted as soon as I tried to focus on either one.
Trying not to focus on the almost painful mental illusion, I looked on at the statue itself. In its right hand it held a massive sword, and in its left, a dagger. Its right foot was raised like it was about to crush something beneath it. The statue had no head; the neck abruptly ended right before it reached the jaw. The city was broken, crushed, and had fallen at the statue’s feet.
To the left of the city there was an army approaching. I couldn’t make out any details on the soldiers, they were like ants clad in dark armor marching forward in row after row. To the right, another army approached. Their ranks were a swarm. Their bodies were twisted and marred to the point they scarcely resembled people. From the south approached the third army. It stood in ranks like the first, but there were figures flying above the lines of soldiers, and it was directly under the statue’s foot.
A glare caught my eye, and I snapped to the dagger. It was reflecting light from somewhere up high. My gaze moved up and I saw a pair of amber eyes burning in the sky, gazing down on the scene below. Then they snapped to look at me.
I jerked awake and immediately regretted it. Pain stabbed through my body like knives slicing through my veins. The attack ran through my mind, still as fresh as the pain. My heart started racing again. Each beat brought a dull throbbing from my shoulder and my hand. That’s right. My hand…
Breathe. Slowly, I thought to myself. I needed to calm down, I was safe, I was… in a hospital room; judging from the white sheets, the hideous armchair in the corner, and light grey walls.
The lights were dim and judging from the lack of light peeking through the room’s sole window, a rather depressingly small feature, it was dark outside. I was wrapped up in a tangle of wires that really didn’t really seem to have a purpose, but I guess the doctors would know better. I looked around a bit more, absentmindedly scanning the room, but my eyes spotted a shoulder peeking out near the bathroom door.
“Animus?” I guessed hesitantly, after looking at the profile of the man for a bit. He turned and glanced at me, and confirmed I was right. If I had to guess, I’d say he was roughly middle-aged, maybe a bit younger, with reddish brown hair cut short on the sides with a full goatee. The rest of his face had strong features that made him look somewhere between stern and approachable.
“Glad you’re awake. You gave us a bit of a scare,” he said, folding his arms and leaning against the wall.
“Us?” I asked.
“Ghost and I were the ones that brought you here. Cypher had the Regents scattered around places you frequented, just in case.”
“Thanks for that, I guess,” I said, finding what he said odd. “So, Cypher knew this was going to happen, he knew they were going to come after me?”
I was taken aback by his honesty. I didn’t expect him to just admit to it, I thought he would at least try to say it gently.
“I know Cypher can seem harsh and probably callous, but he cares. He does everything for a reason.”
“He let the Gold Diggers just waltz in and bite off part of my hand?” I yelled, lifting my bandaged fingers for emphasis.
Animus shrugged, “Pretty much.”
“What kind of fucking reason could he have for that?” I yelled again, causing my shoulder to protest.
“I don’t know. Ask him yourself, he should be here in a few minutes.”
The hero seemed… tired? Almost apologetic? He gave the impression that he had given this kind of talk before. I’d heard people talk about interactions with Cypher before, TV interviews and that sort of thing, and they’d said he was rude and crass on top of being arrogant to the core, but did he really let them attack me? And why? Was it so I would accept his proposal? Whether that was the case or not, I didn’t really have a choice anymore. In fact, I had even less of a choice than when my only alternative was prison.
I just felt so defeated. Everything had fallen apart, and again, it was all my fault. No matter what I tried or how much I wanted it, I wasn’t normal, and I couldn’t pretend to be. I don’t really think it would have been all that surprising if I had been honest with myself. I moved out as soon as I could to protect my family, and I was doing this to protect them too. Nothing was going to happen to them as long as I was still breathing.
Animus broke me out of my introspection, and I glanced at him, not sure what he was apologizing for.
“For letting them get to you,” he clarified, seeing my confusion. “Its fine,” I said, even though it wasn’t. Animus didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t say anymore. It was probably for the best, I doubted I could hold a civil conversation at the moment.
Quiet took over the room again, more uncomfortable this time. “Cypher’s on his way.” I almost jumped out of my skin as Ghost fell through the ceiling. There wasn’t any noise, only a slight ripple in the roof as he passed through it. He was dressed up in his usual garb, including the several weapons on his person.
“Hey, kid, glad you’re awake,” He said, glancing in my direction. “Does Cypher have Asclepius with him?” Animus asked.
“Asclepius?” I asked, not recognizing the name. They were a meta by the sound of it, but they must have not been one of the combative types. Or at least not a famous one.
“Yeah, he’s a biokinetic, one of the best,” Ghost said, turning to look at me. “Oskar Destin,” he introduced himself, extending his hand. “Uhh,” I started to say, slightly raising my injured hand.
“Oh. My bad, kid,” He said, switching his right hand for his left. Hesitantly, I accepted his handshake. “Nate,” I replied.
“And I assume Clayton introduced himself?” Ghost, or I guess, Oskar asked while glancing at Animus with a slight accusatory tone. Animus sighed, “Clayton Parks.”
“Come on, Clayton, the kid is in the business now.”
“Not exactly. No offense,” Animus said, glancing at me. “None taken,” I muttered.
“Get back to the roof,” Clayton ordered, leaving no room for discussion. “Aye, aye, Captain Parks,” Ghost muttered with a false salute as he faded into thin air. I knew he could turn invisible, but it was still kind of unsettling seeing it for myself.
While Ghost was wearing his usual outfit, Animus was in typical street clothes. Still, it was hard to think of him as ‘Clayton’. It was like when your boss, or someone from a position in authority tells you to call them by their first name. If anything, it should be easier when he wasn’t in his combat attire, but it still felt wrong somehow.
I thought back to what Ghost had said; Cypher was bringing a biokinetic here? I couldn’t help but hope he was going to fix my hand. I’d heard stories of biokinetics bringing people back from the brink of death, and some even crossing the threshold to return individuals from the grave. Growing back a few fingers shouldn’t be an issue. Right? Still, though, would they even bother with something so trivial when there were people dying in the same building?
But then again, why would Cypher be bringing him here specifically? Especially if he wants me to be able to pass sanctioning before Sunday. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure what day it was. “Uh, Animus, what time is it?”
Animus turned to answer but paused when the handle to the door turned. He quickly relaxed when Cypher stepped through, with who must have been Asclepius in tow. “It is three twenty-seven am, April sixth. The same night you were attacked,” the masked hero answered for Animus. “Nate, this is Asclepius, the world’s best biokinetic.”
For the “world’s best biokinetic”, Asclepius wasn’t much to look at. He was gaunt, with a thin face and slight shoulders that made him look like he was only one light push from toppling over. On top of that, he didn’t look like he kept himself up well. His hair was cut short, but not in any kind of style.
“Asclepius, this is Nate, the patient I told you about.”
“What happened?” he asked, his voice surprisingly deep and mellow for someone of his frame. “He was-” Asclepius held up a hand, cutting Cypher off.
“I want to hear it from him. You don’t know everything.”
Having someone stand up to Cypher like that was a bit surprising, if not more than a little satisfying. “I was attacked by the Gold Diggers,” I said. “Cerf Tueur- “
“-The deer one?”
I nodded, “The deer one. He stabbed me in the shoulders with one of his growths, and then the Butcher… bit off my fingers.”
“Did the deer use any of his toxins?”
“I… don’t know…” I admitted. Asclepius looked over his shoulder at Cypher who shook his head.
“Alright. I can fix your hand, and your shoulder, if that’s what you want.”
What kind of question was that? “Uh… yeah… err, yes Sir.”
“Are you sure?” His tone was almost accusatory, rhetorical, like I had picked the wrong answer.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because It’s not going to be pleasant. I have to pull tissue and bio mass from the rest of your body, as well as regrow nerve endings, and I have to test the pain response. You’ll need rest and lots of calories afterward, understand?”
“That won’t cut it,” Cypher interjected. “He needs to be able to move immediatly afterwards.”
“Then give him some of Animus’s Rasputin blood. My powers aren’t magic.”
I didn’t really have a choice. I had to become sanctioned before Cypher filed his report. There was no way I’d be able to do that with my shoulder in the state that it was. “Do it.”
Asclepius unwrapped the bandages on my hand, making no attempt to be gentle. I saw the work the doctors had done to stop the bleeding, but it still looked like I’d stuck my hand down a blender, at least on the right side of it. Almost a full third of my hand was missing, my ring and fifth finger completely gone. I wasn’t normally squeamish, but the sight of it almost made me vomit.
“This is what you dragged me here for?” Asclepius snapped at Cypher, who remained stoic behind his mask. “What about Suture, or Wu Ben, or Ta-Bitjet, Tourniquet, or Menrva? Hell, even Pinga or Cauter, could deal with this.”
“You were the closest. Not to mention most of those are out of the country, and Tourniquet is a villain.”
“Really? She sucks at it, then.”
“I’m not here to debate the virtues of other healers, Asclepius.”
“Fine,” he said, turning back to me. Without any warning, he gripped my arm just above the wrist of my damaged hand, and I felt his powers immediately. It was like ants were crawling under my skin. I tried to pull away out of reflex, but Asclepius’ grip was too strong. “Hold still,” he barked.
I clenched my good fist, but it was like trying to plug a hole in a dam with your finger. Then the pain started. My Shoulder felt like it was on fire, but it wasn’t a random burning sensation. With every second, I could feel the burning rise through the wound, like it was a fuse burning towards the surface of my skin. The muscle around the would was squirming like it had a mind of its own. It was strange and unnatural, but between the burning and the involuntary motion, I didn’t know what was more uncomfortable.
Before my shoulder was finished, my hand split open. I could feel the bones sliding past each other, and their jagged edges cutting through muscle to get where they needed to be. Two white spurs pushed through the bleeding wound, with fat and muscle flowing after them.
“Alright, we’re done,” Asclepius said after what seemed like forever. Tentatively, I flexed my fingers. There wasn’t any pain, which I was thankful for, but they felt kind of numb, and stiff. “Thank you,” I said, and really meant it. Living a few fingers short of a full deck wouldn’t be the worst fate in the world, but thanks to Asclepius and Cypher, I wouldn’t have to deal with it.
“Its not my best work. If I had been allowed to work on it over the course of a few hours I could make them better. The color will be a bit off until they get some sun to kickstart the melanin production, not that you would need a lot with your skin tone, and the muscle mass needs to be built back up. You may have some phantom pain still, but that’ll be your problem. Your shoulder should be ready to go, but don’t push it too hard for a day or two.”
“Alright,” I replied, rolling my shoulder. Lo and behold it felt like it always did. “It feels great.”
Asclepius nodded and stood up, turning to leave, but stopped himself before he’d gone a few steps. “I assume I’m free to go?”
“Why wouldn’t you be?” Cypher retorted.
“Just never can tell with you,” Asclepius muttered as he brushed past Animus.
“So, what now?” I asked Cypher once the door shut behind the healer.
“Now, we get you sanctioned.”
I had run out of excuses, and the exhaustion Asclepius warned about was really setting in, so I didn’t try to fight it. I just nodded and Cypher tossed me a set of clothes as he and Animus headed towards the exit. “Get dressed.”
They weren’t the same clothes I was wearing when the Gold Diggers attacked, but they were mine. Cypher must have broken into my house again to get them while I was out. I couldn’t say I was really surprised this time.
Once my hospital gown was swapped for actual clothing, I shambled out into the hallway, and the Regents fell into a sort of bodyguard formation around me. It would have been any young boy’s dream: being surrounded by literal superheroes. But even though I was feeling like shit, it was still pretty cool.
No one tried to stop us as we walked out of the hospital, which seemed kind of strange. There wasn’t any paperwork, and I hadn’t seen anything resembling a bill of any kind. Would it come in the mail? Had Cypher taken care of that too? Argus had a payment program with most of the medical systems around the globe, just like they had with national governments. They dealt with any medical charges and had special rules about revealing identities of registered heroes. Maybe Cypher did something with that.
Instead of going down to the ground floor, Cypher led us up to the roof where I saw the Regent’s main mode of transportation waiting. Waiting on a helicopter landing pad was their VTOL ship, the Torus. It was a strange looking aircraft without anything resembling wings or a tail section. Instead, it was shaped sort of like a knight’s shield, but it was still clearly aerodynamic.
There were four circular holes near the edges of the craft with the front two being slightly larger than the rear. They were some kind of advanced propulsion system that forced air down and the Torus up, though I doubt you could find it in any advanced research labs. I guess when you were as smart as Cypher, those things didn’t matter so much. The rear of the aircraft had a cargo ramp that was lowered to the ground, and the Regents quickly ushered me up and into the belly of the plane.
“We’re good to go,” Cypher called up to the cockpit. Animus helped me into a seat as the engines whirred to life. Ghost and Cypher disappeared into the front portion of the Torus, leaving me and Animus in the rear cargo area that was empty and lined with seats that could fold up against the wall to save space. “Just relax, kid,” Animus said, strapping himself into a seat across from me. I just managed a halfhearted nod as I felt sleep starting to take over.
A prick of pain jerked me out of a dreamless sleep, and I looked around, panicked, trying to find the source of the sudden sensation. “Calm down, Nate. Everything’s fine.” Animus was gripping my arm as he pulled a contraption away from my shoulder. It looked like a syringe. “Wha-” I tried to mutter, still in the process of waking up.
“What was that?”
Animus hesitated, but again, it was Cypher who answered as he walked past. “It was his blood, the same thing you saw him give Spectral after the incident the other day.”
“Blood? And how did you know I saw what he gave Spectral?” I asked. Feeling a wave of revolt and disgust, I looked at Animus for answers. He scowled at Cypher, then sighed and turned back to me.
“I’m classified as enhanced, not a mutant. My blood has… things in it that give me my powers. Transfusions of my blood can heal other people somewhat.”
“Is that what Asclepius was talking about at the hospital? ‘Rasputin Blood’, or something like that?”
Animus nodded. “But it’s nothing toxic, and it will break down in a few hours. I can explain more later, but we need to get going.”
Nodding, I released the buckles strapping me in and hurried down the ramp. Once I was clear of the Torus, I found myself in a hangar that was largely empty except for the group of Regents heading towards a door at the end of the cavernous room.
Opposite the door the heroes were walking towards, the hangar just kept going in a massive tunnel, slightly tilting upwards until it was cut off from view. The floor seemed to be made of a similar material as Cypher’s mask, except it was white, almost like it was enameled. Instead of there being a corner where the floor met the walls, the ground gently sloped upward and around, so that the entire room was like an elongate oval with a flat portion on the floor.
The enameled material covered everything from the floor to the curved walls and ceiling, but it wasn’t solid. It looked like it was made of panels fitted closely together with a visible seam between them.
Realizing I was falling behind my hosts, I hurried to catch up. Animus’ blood must be doing something; I barely felt tired at all.