An instant later, the projections reappeared, though fewer than before. The volley of fire launched by Pyroclasm splashed harmlessly against them.
I whipped out the stun baton to dispatch one nearby, only for it to vanish, reappearing just behind my swing, already in motion. I could move instantly, but I still had a normal reaction time, so when the projection suddenly appeared behind me and crushed my good ankle with a kick, I couldn’t react fast enough and collapsed gracelessly to the ground. I attempted to stand, but could not, both ankles screaming with pain. He’d figured out exactly how to take me down in less than a second.
“I’m down,” I said.
What? I didn’t… Oh shit.” Kismet said. “He took you down in my blind spot. How does he know about that?”
“You have a blind spot?” Exclaimed Guardian Angel angrily. “Why didn’t you tell us this?”
“I didn’t know! I’ve never gone against another precog before. Whenever he changes the future, the future I see changes, but I miss a bit because I’m ahead of what’s currently happening. Only a couple seconds, though. On it.”
“Dammit. Every time he does that, we’re going to be vulnerable. Kismet, try to disrupt whatever path he’s set on now.”
“Shadow, spot for Pyroclasm. A- Legion get out of there NOW!”
Legion didn’t react immediately -violating causality can be difficult- but when he processed what Kismet had said, he started to backpedal, gaining speed as he made it off the bridge, back into the office.
The Upright Man, in the meantime, was rising off the ground, lifted by his projections as they swarmed beneath him. Plateau tried to knock him out of the air with a pillar of concrete, but the Upright Man swerved out of the way, dodging it and then using it to pull himself up onto the bridge.
“Pyroclasm, get- shit he doesn’t have one of these. Adam, get Pyroclasm off the bridge.”
Adam reacted immediately, grabbing Pyroclasm through the rippling aura of heat and lifting him bodily to carry him back into the office. Adam seemed unaffected by the heat, but his makeshift costume started smoldering. Pyroclasm struggled for a moment, thinking Adam was one of the Upright Man’s projections, but Adam said something to him I couldn’t make out and he nodded, slipped out of Adam’s grasp and went with him of his own accord.
As soon as the Upright Man was on the bridge, the projections vanished again. He had realized his mistake, and was using his precognition more often now.
“Drop the bridge!” commanded Kismet.
-The Upright Man’s projections will reappear as he advances across the bridge, closing on the retreating heroes. Plateau will drop the bridge, but too late to stop him-
The bridge retracted suddenly into the building -yanking out from under the Upright Man like a tablecloth pulled by a magician. He will tumble in the air and fall-
-but the Upright man will leap off back down on to the roof, but Plateau raised a thin spike of roof using the newly available mass from the bridge, catching him on the crown if his head with a sharp crack-
-but the Upright Man will kneel and grab onto the bridge tightly, pulling in his projections to secure him more firmly. His precognition will falter-
-but recover as he dismisses a few unnecessary projections. The rapidly retracting bridge will pull him towards the building with massive speed. The heroes will still have their backs to him as they retreated into the office, so he will catch them completely off guard-
The Upright Man knelt to grab onto the bridge just before it retracted, securing himself in place with a few projections. He rocketed towards the building,
-but the heroes will be ready for him, having been warned by Kismet moments before. He will pull out his projections to defend from the torrent of fire, but his precognition will fail-
“Yes, Do, and call a containment van. Plateau, block the window. Legion, Adam, get Cryoclasm and yourself out of there.” Kismet said.
“I’m calling in Pompier. Sounds like you’ll need her,” came Jamisson’s voice.
“How do you know? Oh, record it for us, will you?”
“You’re on the news.”
“No, I don’t think so. He wouldn’t do that. I’m sure he has a plan.”
The Upright Man flew through the wall of fire that Pyroclasm sprayed liberally in his direction, encased in a shell of projections. He rolled on the floor of the office, summoning more projections to attempt to stop Pyroclasm, but as Legion and Adam left the room, Pyroclasm turned up the heat to the point that they couldn’t survive long enough to do anything. Instead, he reinforced his shell of projections, but he couldn’t hold off the heat forever.
“Pyroclasm’s going to kill him,” I said.
Kismet was silent.
“Adam, stop Pyroclasm before he kills him!” I said, more urgently.
And suddenly the fire went out.
Dr. Mind burst into the room with what looked like a leaf blower, though the end pulsed with purple light as it was ionized. It was, apparently, a high-tech fire-extinguisher, but there was no fire to extinguish. The floor around the door caught fire again as fresh air flowed in and I realized what had happened. Pyroclasm had consumed all of the oxygen in the room and he and the supervillian on the floor with him had passed out from oxygen deprivation.
Dr. Mind skipped out of the room as the heat reached him through his costume. A moment later, Adam entered, tossed the unconscious villain into the cryogenic chamber, and threw Pyroclasm over his shoulder.
After Plateau had removed the wall blocking the window, Adam rode the cryogenic unit down to ground level with Cryoclasm, Pyroclasm, and the Upright Man. Legion took the stairs down, and Dr. Mind stayed behind to stop the room from catching fire again.
“Did- did we win?” Asked Kismet. “Is it over?”
“I think we did,” I told her, and she fainted next to me.
“The city was shaken today as cape fights broke out all across Collswell. In the south, Blackwell started advancing into former CCS territory, but were stopped by the renowned hero, ‘Charity,’ who is still fighting with Blackwell in one of the longest running battles this season.”
The news played in the infirmary as I laid in one of Dr. Mind’s many experimental medical devices.
“And in the west, something really strange happened. We’ll give a recap for those who missed it live. It started when one of our news ‘copters spotted Shadow and a new hero going into an abandoned apartment building. A few minutes later, Dr. Mind, returned to action, entered along with a previously unknown hero and this woman ran out of the building from the other side. We have reason to believe she is a new villain, possibly a tinker, who they were flushing out, and already there is rampant speculation among cape-watchers about her identity.”
The screen showed aerial footage of Chastity running from the building.
“When the heroes left the building, with a strange hovering device in tow, they were met by a previously unknown villain now identified by Underhand as ‘the Upright Man.’ He was accompanied by, of all people, Pyroclasm, who reports now say was being mind-controlled. After a brief fight, the Upright Man escaped with the hovering device.”
Footage of the first fight with the Upright Man played. It looked very strange, all of us struggling with some unseen forces. I myself looked very strange in combat, moving rapidly and jerkily, appearing to move faster than the eye could follow.
“The heroes were defeated,” the anchor paused dramatically. “But not for long. The Wardens of Tomorrow tracked the two villains to the ninth floor of an office building across the district, and after a stunning initial attack by Guardian Angel, it escalated into a dramatic, high-stakes battle between the Wardens and this powerful telekinetic villain.”
Footage played from the second battle, first a dramatic shot of Guardian Angel diving into the room, then clips of the combat played dramatically out-of context, movie-trailer style, with dramatic orchestral music: a shot of Plateau advancing with his makeshift concrete armor, a shot of me teleporting rapidly around Plateau, a shot of Pyroclasm blasting fire down at us.
“Eventually, the Upright Man was captured in the hovering device, but Pyroclasm, Cryoclasm, Shadow, and Kismet were all injured in the combat, along with with other minor injuries to the others.”
Minor injuries? Plateau broke a rib falling off the bridge. Dr. Mind was almost blinded.
“Hmph. They didn’t even mention me until the end,” said Kismet from where she was laying in a cot. I hadn’t realized she’d woken.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. Really hungry, though, and I’m down to maybe half a second at the moment.”
“Overloaded your power a bit, huh? That sucks.”
“Yeah,” she tried to sit up, and collapsed back onto the cot. “That was pretty awesome, though. I think I had almost thirty seconds by the end of the fight.”
We watched the news for a bit longer. The anchor was discussing the events with an “expert,” someone who claimed to know a lot about metahumans.
“The most interesting thing about today’s events is how little we really know. These are two villains, two public threats who were totally unknown until today. Now, I’ve been speaking with someone in the know and they said that the Wardens have known about this ‘Upright Man’ for weeks. He told me he knew the whole story but couldn’t tell yet. What I want to know is why are they so quiet about this? If they knew about these villains, they should have informed the public of the danger.”
“That is an excellent question, but one that will have to wait. We have breaking news-”
“Jamisson! I know you can hear me!” Called Kismet into the air suddenly.
“What?” His voice asked irritably over the speakers in the walls. “I’m trying to deal with the paperwork with one hand and the media with the other.”
“Get me a sandwich.”
I couldn’t not laugh, and a moment later, Kismet joined me. The relief of having the Upright Man in custody -we had, in a burst of karmic justice, frozen him in the cryogenic stasis chamber, once Dr. Mind had reinstalled the door- made me almost giddy. Jamisson just grumbled and sent a message to Dr. Mind to deal with us.
The medical scanner beeped and displayed its diagnosis, and I immediately understood why this one was still a prototype. A composite X-ray image of my lower legs appeared, with my ankles circled in red. The left had a small box labeled “diagnosis,” which said, very helpfully, “Damn, son,” and the right had a similar box which said, “Shit’s fucked.” To the right of the screen was a comments box, which began by saying, “The hell’d you do kid, jump off a building? You be-” and was cut off by another, obviously different box superimposed over the first one, which contained an actual medical diagnosis. My right ankle was broken, the left seriously sprained.
Dr. Mind rushed back in and groaned aloud at the machine.
“I thought I’d worked out this problem. I’m really starting to regret building that AI.”
“You got me a sandwich?” asked Kismet.
“Not now, please. I need to deal with Cryoclasm as soon as possible. I don’t know what Chastity did to her, but it’s not looking good. Shadow, I can fix you up later once I’m done with Cryoclasm, or we can get someone to take you to the healers at Collswell University. We have connections now, with Marrow working there.”
“I think the University is probably a better option- I don’t know how long fixing Cryoclasm will take, and I want to be ready in case one of the other virtues decides to make an appearance,” I said.
“Tempting fate,” commented Kismet, but I ignored her.
“Just let me mark someone and I can teleport over once they get there, no need for wheelchairs.”
“You hear that?”
“Hold on, let me rewind a bit.” He paused for a moment. “Okay, plan approved. Guardian Angel is about to head back that way to assist with some search party. I’ll tell him to stop by so you can mark him.”
A minute or so later, after Dr. Mind had vanished back into the surgery ward, Guardian Angel stopped by the infirmary let me leave a shadowmark on his palm.
“That feels so weird,” he commented as he left.
Once he had left, I returned to watching the news with Kismet. They had switched over to reporting on the ongoing fight between Charity and Blackwell. I understood now why she was considered one of the more powerful metahumans, excepting nightmare-class metahumans, of course. She was currently facing off with Seep, one of the few members of Blackwell who could actually get through to her, but he was totally defenseless against her, so Felsic and Mafic were working together to keep him hidden and protected from Charity while he worked his influence on the battlefield. Charity was flagging noticeably under the effects of Seep’s power, but she was still blasting through the crystalline and metallic protrusions blocking her way.
The battlefield was looking more surreal by the minute, as metal structures tore themselves apart and reformed into thorny vines and twisted imitations of various predators, and razor-sharp crystals grew from every available surface, all covered in a foul black ooze that flowed out of the ground and the ruined buildings, dripping up into the sky. Seep was one of those metahumans like Labyrinth whose power could be really scary if you leave them alone long enough, but takes a long time to build up to full strength. Backed up by Felsic and Mafic, he could be nigh unstoppable.
“I really, really hope we never have to go against them,” said Kismet, shuddering.
“Don’t count on it,” I replied, but internally I couldn’t have agreed more. Their leader was a joker power, second only to trump powers in how dangerous they are in a fight. It didn’t look like she was in the fight at the moment; given her reputation, she’d probably gone in first and was now recovering, probably along with their more vulnerable powered members.
Around the edges of the battlefield, the police had cordoned off the area, surrounding it with heavily armored officers, which explained the distinct lack of activity downstairs when we had entered. Here and there, however, some of Blackwell’s unpowered members were visible, some sporting firearms of dubious legality in alleyways to keep people away, some blending into the small crowd trying to get a glimpse of the fight.
“It appears Blackwell is fielding their newest member, who they call ‘Dark Archon,’” said the news anchor.
I couldn’t make it out at first, but after the camera zoomed in on the figure advancing on Charity, I spotted it immediately. A dark figure, made of black crystals that segmented bizarrely at the joints as it moved, stalked through the ooze, which parted around it. From its back sprouted a pair of angular wings, which retracted gracefully into the core of its crystalline torso as it stalked towards Charity.
“That’s new,” commented Kismet.
“Dark Archon appears to be some sort of shapeshifter from what we’ve seen so far, and he must be pretty durable if he thinks he can take on Charity.”
“Duh. That’s kind of a prerequisite.”
I never got to see the full extent of Dark Archon’s power, because I noticed Guardian Angel talking into the shadowmark I’d left on him. Not wanting to keep him waiting, I pulled myself through it, flowing into the Collswell University infirmary as a black fog that poured out of the mark and onto a cot.
Claire and Marrow were standing opposite Guardian Angel around the cot which I suddenly occupied.
“Broken right ankle, badly sprained left,” I said curtly through the pain, reawakened by my fall into the cot.
“I’m going to leave you girls to this,” said Guardian Angel, turning to go.
“Okay, Shadow, I’ll go first,” said Marrow. “This is going to hurt.”
“I’m starting to get used to that.”
She pulled a small bottle of painkillers out of a cabinet and deftly pulled off the top. Seeing my look, she said,
“Oh, no, these are for me.”
She popped a few pills then laid a hand on my ankle where I’d parted my shroud of darkness and pulled up my armor. I jerked involuntarily as a spike of bone jabbed through the flesh of her hand, driving into my leg and scraping against the bone. A moment later, it felt like my bones were filled with hot lead, starting all over my body and gradually concentrating on my broken ankle. This hurt far more than being healed by Claire had, my vision going red as my bones writhed inside me, moving back to the correct position and sealing back together.
“Jesus Christ ‘Becca, just because you’re used to it doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt to them,” said Claire.
I gasped with relief as Marrow, who I now knew was named Rebecca, slowed down the process to a reasonable rate, the pain dying down to a furious itching as my bones knitted.
“Okay, now it’s my turn.” Claire stepped forward once Rebecca had finished. “I swear we’re not sadists. Painkillers mess with my powers. Not that she has any problem with them.”
I came to about five minutes later, completely healed, though I felt like I’d just run a marathon (without my powers). I stood under my own power, not wanting to transpose to standing and risk collapsing again. My worries were unfounded, though; I was exhausted, but stable.
“Jamisson, permission to assist with the search?”
“Granted. I’ll let you know if we need you back here.”
I decided that I wanted to do this out-of-costume. Assisting with the search as Shadow could be a bit suspicious. I left campus and changed in the alley I’d been using, then returned to campus. When I returned, I realized this was no normal search. Almost the whole dorm was scouring campus and the surrounding area, to no avail. One member of the Hero program with superhuman tracking ability said his trail went into his room and then stopped. Wren had, apparently, vanished completely without a trace.