The world shook. No, someone shook me. The shreds of something that seemed meaningful at the time slipped away the moment I opened my eyes to see Sean crouched over me. No, Guardian Angel. He still glowed faintly, though it was harder to tell now that the sun had risen. It’s morning? Beams of orange sunlight were visible in air, but the angle was wrong. I could see the silhouette of the cranes rebuilding Cobalt Tower. No, it’s evening!
“You got him,” he said. His voice was hoarse. He coughed. “He dead?”
I sat up. The world spun around me for a moment, but as my vision cleared, a moment of panic took hold. The Nullifier had fallen out of my hand and lay on the grass nearby. I reached to grab it and make sure it was still on. The dark, roughly cube-shaped device had seen better days, but it was still working, running off the strange power source Dr. Destructo had built into it.
Only then did I see Locus. He lay on his back, as he had before, but now he looked… normal. The twisted, distorted figure I’d seen before seemed like a dream now. Thinking back, it all seemed unreal. Even this, now, seemed impossible. The city, so familiar to me, silent, and filled with thick smog. Where did that come from?
“No,” I said, not looking away. My throat was so dry it hurt to talk. “Denudine. And the Nullifier.”
Guardian Angel’s eyes went wide. “That worked?” He said, voice quiet.
I don’t know, I realized. I couldn’t feel Locus breathing. I crawled to him, too exhausted to stand, and held my hand above his mouth. His breath rattled and wheezed but I could feel it on my skin. He was breathing. I rolled into my side, relieved.
A crackling noise in my ear made me jerk my head to the side on reflex, before I remembered that I still had my earpiece in.
“Shadow, Guardian, come in,” Jamison said through the earpiece.
“We’re here,” Guardian Angel said, still quiet.
“You need to start moving people out of there. Emergency vehicles are incoming.”
“Locus is alive,” I said. “Denudine and the Nullifier stopped,” I paused to cough. “Whatever that was.”
I could hear a helicopter in the distance, and, more distant, sirens.
“He’s alive?” Jamisson exclaimed. “That’s-” he choked off for a moment. “There’s no way to know how long the denudine will last.” He paused. “This is my fault.”
A cry nearby pulled my attention to a child who had been woken up by the return to normalcy, and soon others started stirring. It seemed a good number of people had fallen asleep, or just passed out like I had. A cough punctuated the cry as they choked on the foul air.
“Translocator is on his way,” Jamisson said.
“Good,” Guardian Angel said.
Guardian Angel helped me to my feet. He seemed to have recovered much better than I, but once I was upright, I swayed a bit but stayed on my feet.
“We have to get Locus out of here,” I said.
“Translocator can teleport us out,” Guardian Angel said.
“No,” I said. “The Nullifier. He won’t be able to reach us, and if Locus leaves its range-”
“It’s on?” Guardian Angel exclaimed. “But,” he made a fist and a flickering golden sword materialized in his hand.
Oh no. “It’s on,” I said, at a loss for what else to say. I was acutely aware of the numbness of my skin where I could usually feel the eddies and swirls of the air around me. It didn’t stop Locus either. I thought. Or Temple. That’s why Temple is after Randwulf! I was too tired. My brain was stalling.
“I can fly him out,” Guardian Angel said. “Give me the Nullifier. I’ll fly him out.”
“I won’t be able to help. I’m exhausted, and without my power, but-”
“-yeah. It’s not great, but both of us need to get away from the city.”
“Both of us? I- oh.” I paused, comprehension dawning. “You and Locus.”
He nodded, then looked away from me and said, “Jamisson, I was exposed to the same thing as Locus. I feel fine now, but the Nullifier isn’t working on me. I can fly him out of the city.”
There was a crackle of static before Jamisson responded. “Translocator isn’t responding, but I’ve landed his jet on a building nearby. Get there and it will take you both to a secure location.”
I gave Guardian Angel the Nullifier, which he slipped into a utility pocket. He knelt and lifted Locus in his arms, then leapt into the sky, wings flaring out behind him. The moment he was out of range, the space around me snapped into clarity.
“Ugh,” said Dark Archon through my earpiece as I watched Guardian Angel go. “It’s over?”
“It’s over,” confirmed Jamisson.
I could feel people moving around. A few bolted for nearby buildings, one group had clustered together and was shuffling collectively towards the edge of the park. A few were going person-to-person to see if anyone needed help. Someone was moving inside the tent where the projector was set up. The projection tent– that’s where Randwulf must be!
I teleported to the tent in a few jumps and threw open the door flap.
Inside, a man in a tan suit coat with singed sleeves was hurriedly packing equipment into a briefcase. Another man lay sprawled on the floor- presumably the original projectionist. I could feel him breathing, but slowly. The projector guttered and smoked, a burned-out husk.
I didn’t bother announcing myself. I teleported in and wrapped the parachute cord around him, then pulled it tight with my hands, tying his legs together and his hands to his sides. He fell as I pulled his legs out from under him.
He cried out in pain as he was unable to catch himself before he hit the ground. He twisted to look up at me. “Wait! You can still save them. Go now!” His face was haggard, with hollow, sagging cheeks and drooping eyelids.
“Please,” he begged. “It’s not too late.”
Through the open front of the projection tent I could see Translocator’s jet lifting off of the roof of one of the shorter buildings. Not too late…
“Shield, now!” I all but shouted into my comm. I was almost expecting it when I saw the rocket trail flying towards the jet. A golden shield shimmered into existence a moment before the rocket hit. It exploded ineffectually against the shield and I turned back to Randwulf. Where the fuck did that come from? Randwulf signed in apparent relief.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.” To my surprise, I saw he was crying. “You have to help me.” What.
“Jamisson, I have Randwulf. I said into my comms. “So you’ll come quietly?” I asked Randwulf, not quite believing it.
“Yes. I’m just-” he gasped. “So tired of running. That lunatic, he was hired to kill me, to destroy my research. I used the sigil to escape, but it only made him stronger. He told me my research would be used to create monsters, and now I-” he shuddered. “I can’t stop!” he cried. “I never wanted this.”
A moment of sympathy tugged at my heart. He’s as much of a victim as Locus in Temple’s crusade, I thought, exhausted brain unable to muster an ounce of skepticism. I knelt and started to pat him down, leaving black handprints on his body. Once he was mostly covered, I did the same to his briefcase, then stood.
“Jamisson, I’m bringing him to the metamax.” I said, then teleported to the warden I’d tagged the previous day.
The warden hunched over a table, a cup of coffee clutched between his hands.
He looked up at me when I appeared.
“Think you can take one more?” I asked, tossing the spent denudine injector onto the table.
He eyed me through the steam rising from his mug. “You are a god-damned saint,” he said. He eyed Randwulf, who was still mostly covered in darkness. “Who’s this?”
“Dr. Randolph Ermen,” I said. I thought back to what Adrian Banks had said. “Power enhancing precog, maybe. Keep him away from the other inmates.”
The warden gave an impressed whistle. “Double whammy.” He stood and lead us out of the break room. “We’re short handed, since some of the guards passed out and most of the off-duty staff isn’t responding. We have some private security on their way to fill out the ranks. Fortunately the event affected the inmates too, so it’s been quiet.” We entered the prison proper and passed rows of small cells containing of inmates asleep in their bunks.
“And the escape attempt?” I asked.
“Surrendered as soon as the event ended.”
“Hm.” The Upright Man knew about the event ahead of time. Did they?
“Your friend has been keeping the more durable inmates in check,” the warden continued.
Oh yeah, Kevin! “Dark Archon, come in,” I said into my comm.
“Yeah I’m here,” he replied. “I’m about ready to pass out but I’m here. This trip did not go as expected.”
“They rarely do.”
A few minutes later, Dark Archon, the warden, and I showed a mute Randwulf into a cell, to be dealt with later, and soon Kevin and I were back in the dorm. We sat down in the common room, in civilian clothes, exhausted.
“I think I need to sleep for about a day,” I said.
“That sounds beautiful,” Kevin sighed.
“You know what I just realized?” I said. “I still have homework to do.”
Kevin laughed. “Fuck, I do too.”