I’m not sure how long it took us to chip through the crystal, but by the time we were almost through, I was starting to get thirsty. I’m probably better off than some, I reminded myself. The shards of quartz I pried away with the makeshift pick made from a segment of Mafic’s vines disappeared as soon as they were free. Once I had made it through to where the nullifier was on Ransom’s hip, I carefully extracted the black box from the crystal.
This is it. The original nullifier. I let go of Ransom and was alone again. My ears had started ringing at some point and weren’t getting better. In the emptiness, it seemed thunderous, deafeningly loud. I hope this works. The box had one switch, a silver on/off toggle, and no other external ports or controls.
I moved to test it, but stopped myself. I can’t risk losing my marks. From my experience, I didn’t always lose them when my powers were down, but sometimes I did. A headache started forming just behind my eyes and I let out a frustrated hiss of breath. I resumed searching through my marks, and soon enough I came across Dr. Mind. He sat on the ground, inspecting it with a careful eye.
“Shadow! It’s good to see you,” he said. “It’s good to see anyone.”
“Dr. Mind,” I greeted him. It felt odd seeing him in this context, for whatever reason.
He stood. “Well, there is some good news I suppose– it looks like don’t have a range limit. Have you spoke with any of the others?”
“It’s difficult, because I’ve lost track of which mark is who. I found Ransom though,” I said. “It wasn’t Temple at Locus’ apartment. He sent Ransom as a sort of… peace offering, I think. With this-“ I held up the nullifier with the hand that wasn’t in contact with Dr. Mind.
“Oh!” He said, eyes widening. “That is good news. Did you find Locus?”
“I marked him, but I haven’t found him yet.”
Dr. Mind nodded. “He’ll be at the center of this. I don’t know if that will work-“ he gestured to the nullifier, “-but you have to try.”
I nodded. Dr. Mind seemed lost in thought for a moment. The headache hadn’t receded in the intervening time, but stayed a dull ache in the front of my brain. I turned my head to look into the distance for a moment and my hands clenched involuntarily as the pain redoubled into a sharp stab of ice. I closed my eyes for a moment and it dulled, leaving the world spinning.
The air around me felt strange. Not like air, more like vacuum. I’d never felt a vacuum before, because I couldn’t feel air that wasn’t contiguous but there was simply nothing to feel. I knew that Dr. Mind was nearby, but I couldn’t feel his breathing or the disturbances from his movement.
“Shadow.” Dr. Mind’s voice brought me back to myself. I opened my eyes again and looked at him. “Go. Try to save him, but if you can’t…” Dr. Mind looked down, then back at me. “We all knew what we signed up for,” he muttered.
I let go of Dr. Mind and he was gone. I spoke with Lumen briefly, but realized that there was no need to tell her anything beyond Temple’s trick with Ransom. The next person I recognized caught me by surprise. The warden from the prison. He turned to me, startled, and caught my arm with his. I almost teleported away on reflex, but something struck me.
“What in holy hell is going on?” he demanded. He shifted his grip on my arm, and I used the parachute cord to make sure we stayed in contact.
“Nightmare event,” I said. Any other time, I would have found it found the irony of the situation amusing, but I found myself unable to muster a witty response. My voice sounded strange in my ears. Too dry, not natural.
“Shit. Sorry. I tend to be careful with precogs. They don’t stay locked away very long otherwise.” Oh right, the breakout. “We dosed him with Denudine as soon as we went into lockdown, but if this lasts too much longer, it’s going to wear off. If he has any time to plan, we won’t be able to stop him.”
He was right, I knew, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that now. As much harm as he’d done, he had just been a tool for Temple. The thought took me aback. Temple was trying to propose that we had a common enemy, that we could work together against Randwulf, yet his initial approach had been to conscript some budding supervillains and start tearing the city apart to find Randwulf. Between Masquerade and the Upright Man, he’d caused just as many casualties as Randwulf, though perhaps less structural damage.
I teleported myself away from the Warden, deep in thought, and soon found Dark Archon, in his human form. “Kevin,” I said.
He turned to face me, his skin splitting to reveal the black crystal beneath.
I wonder if he’s related to Felsic. An unexpected thought. Not likely. He’s from out of town.
“Will! Get me the fuck out of here!” he said. A small shiver ran through him as he pulled himself back together, the cracks in his skin disappearing. He looked different than when I’d last seen him. Hollow and gaunt, like he’d lost a lot of weight very quickly.
He can split apart into smaller forms, I remembered. If some of him wasn’t connected to the main part when Locus… went off, they would get separated.
“I’m working on it,” I said. My voice sounded rough and tired, despite my efforts to be reassuring. “Don’t worry.” Empty platitudes, I thought. Despite, that he relaxed, or at least seemed to. “Just,” I didn’t say anything more. He looked at me, exhausted.
“Will,” he said. “I think I get it, but,” he hesitated. “I don’t think I can do this. Not right now. Not yet. I think-”
He looked away into the distance. “I think Wren was right.”
“Right about what?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what else to say. My mouth was dry.
“I tried to… lead a normal life, you know? Ignore… This. But I can’t. I fell out of a tree in fourth grade and my leg snapped off. He was the only one who knew.”
Fourth grade? That’s early. I didn’t find out until a year and a half ago. His words hurt my ears.
“Everyone hated metas back home. Hell, so did I.” He shifted a bit and glanced down, before looking back up at me. “I got blackmailed into fighting a superheroine. Myriad kidnapped my- she kidnapped Wren to get to me. And then we started working with her against Temple.” I could hear the disgust in his voice. ”We got mind-controlled by Temple and now we’re working with him against a guy who makes nightmares?” He shook his head. “How do you do it? Why? You could do anything else.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just… What I do.” There has to be a better answer than that. I have a reason, don’t I? “I never really stop to think about it.” I wanted to… What? Prove that I could be good? That I didn’t have to follow my dad’s -and grandfather’s- footsteps? “I didn’t know there were other options,” I realized. “Not… really, anyway.”
The conversation died off. “I should go,” I said without conviction. He nodded.
I released my grip. He disappeared into the distance.
For a moment, I just stood there in limbo. My head was splitting. Pounding blood in my ears. High-pitched whine coming from inside my head. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” I muttered. I wasn’t sure what I meant.
I looked down at myself and saw stars. My eyes swam, unable to focus on my own body, stygian black against uniform grey. Sparks of light appeared in my vision.
I looked up, and the sparks exploded into dull spots, like warped film.
I pulled out some shadow, covering my eyes and ears. Sound and light vanished. Even the ever-present sounds of my biology faded away. I was transported from limbo to the void, but it was a familiar void.
I relaxed. The pain faded, replaced by a pleasant numbness. All sensation slipped away, even the pressure of my feet against the ground which I could no longer see. I floated blissfully in the void, recovering from the existential pressure of Locus’ limbo.
All at once, the feeling of ease vanished. I could feel something behind me. It had been there the whole time, and I hadn’t noticed. I turned in an instant, not trusting myself to turn slowly, and I could see it. An area of the darkness, indistinguishable from the rest, but which was somehow closer.
It moved, and I could see the stars behind it.
Adrenaline clutched at me and I pulled myself out, back to the empty grey desert. Sound returned with the thundering of my racing heart.
“What,” I gasped. “What the fuck?”
Was that always there? I shuddered with horror. I rested my hand on the nullifier where I’d clipped it onto my body armor. Was it even real? I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that I had started seeing things. I could tell Locus’ power was having some kind of effect on me.
I need to end this.