Scene 16 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
I eventually stopped pacing, after realizing there was no way around it.
Vulcan couldn’t leave the flag until Jack was taken out. While it was possible that Anima had knocked him out of the game in the last moments before she herself was disqualified, I couldn’t assume that – it was more likely that he was still in the game, as was Holly, as was Nic.
I felt bad even thinking it, but Nic was a nonentity in this activity. His ability to push his senses outside of his body was a useful one, but it had no combat applications, and while it had a better range than Holly’s magic, in an area only a few blocks across it was flat-out inferior to what she could do. He had been trying since he joined the Journeymen to replicate what sometimes happened in his dreams – when his senses sometimes drifted forward or backward in time, not just in space – but had never had any waking success. Until and unless he managed to unlock that precognition, he was unlikely to ever pose much of a threat, and could therefore be discounted.
His boyfriend Jack, however, was a threat. In this game, he was the only one of the Journeymen who had a chance of getting the flag, and he was the only one left with a heavy bat to take on Vulcan. Not to mention that he was smarter than his role as a tank might suggest. Hopefully Anima had softened him up for me, but he was a high priority in this game – above even Holly.
Jack was a threat, but Holly was dangerous. He was a good kid – all the Journeymen were – but as a leader, he was cunning and ruthless. His control over light and sound was powerful and versatile, and constantly expanding in both scope and magnitude. I remembered him being able to do little more than brief pops of light and sound when he first approached the Journeymen, and now…
The world vanished.
Everything I could see, gone in an instant and replaced by darkness. Everything I could hear, gone. I could still feel a faint breeze on my skin, I could flex my feet in the thin soles of my boots and feel the rooftop beneath me, but…
Holly had made his move.
I get the picture, Loki, I called out – it, too, vanished into the darkness, and it was disconcerting to hear nothing despite knowing that I was speaking. You’re here to distract me from finding Sequoia, aren’t you? You know that he’s the only way you’re going to win this.
“How sure of that are you?” he asked – his voice bursting forth from every direction at once, surrounding me on all sides and giving me no clues to his location. “Perhaps we’ll win by taking you out, and Vulcan too. We’ve already knocked out Anima and Starling, after all.”
A phantom of Starling appeared, falling through the air and landing headfirst on a surface that was suddenly there with an unnerving crack and squelch. Anima’s body followed a moment later. Then Vulcan stumbled around me, battling with Sequoia and distinctly on the defensive. He collapsed a moment later as a gunshot rang out, revealing Loki standing behind him with a gun in his hand.
I swallowed. You’re getting pretty good at the psychological warfare thing, I quietly admitted. What I thought was quietly, at least. It was hard to judge without any auditory feedback. But it won’t be that easy. Vulcan and I are each better fighters than you and Sequoia put together. I stepped forward and waved a hand through the illusion of himself Loki had projected, and it curled around my hand like smoke, vanishing in moments.
“Mhm.” The world began to appear again, piecemeal – lines of light shaping the outlines of buildings and color filling them in afterwards, sound following in similar piecemeal fashion. The fallen bodies of my team remained – as the edge of the roof I was standing on appeared, Starling’s body shifted and fell off the edge, landing on the street level with a thud. “It’s not the only thing I’m getting better at.”
I narrowed my eyes. Holly wouldn’t be showing me the real shape of the world – he wanted me to stay away from wherever Jack was, I was certain. Whatever direction he was presenting as the obvious path – and one of the buildings looked a lot more inviting that the others, its rooftop slightly below the one I stood on rather than well above or below – was surely the wrong way.
But he knew better than to think I would just accept what an illusionist showed me, and mindlessly charge off the edge to my doom. If this was a double-bluff, it could be the right direction after all.
On the other hand… he knew that I knew that he knew better than that. It could be a triple bluff and be wrong again…
That way lay madness, I decided. Instead of trying to figure out how many layers of bluff there were to this, I sent a shockwave through the air. Air wasn’t the most precise medium for this trick, but it would give me an idea of how different the landscape Holly was showing me was from reality.
…nothing came back.
“What did you expect that to do?” Holly asked me. “…you do realize that a shockwave traveling through the air is just sound, right?” He laughed. “You can’t trust that, now can you?”
I narrowed my eyes. He was right – I wouldn’t have been able to trust it anyway, not with the illusionist controlling every sound around me. There was only one way to see through his lies – a leap of faith.
I dashed for the edge of the building, bounding across to the next as I had a thousand times. I came down for a landing, ready to absorb the force of touching down, and…
The rooftop shattered like glass as I struck it, illusion falling away. The real surface was perhaps a foot below it, just enough to throw me off without giving me enough time to absorb the force.
I wasn’t all that surprised, honestly. I managed to shrug off most of the force of the landing, although I had to tuck into a roll rather than continue running as I usually did.
It wasn’t just the surface of the building that had shattered when I landed – the entire landscape Loki had constructed was collapsing and reforming. Perhaps my leap of faith had been the right tack, and this was the right way to go after all.
My hope was confirmed a moment later when a bright flash of light shone right in my eyes, along with a deafening whine that forced me to cover my ears and shrink away. Blinking spots away and still clutching my head as both faded, I realized that the world Loki presented had spun in circles. I had completely lost my sense of direction in that moment – which meant that I had been going the right way.
Not that the knowledge helped, I had to admit, as I no longer knew which way I had been going. On the other hand, freed of the possibility of chasing Jack, I was free to focus all my attention on Holly.
“You’ve made a mistake,” I called.
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“It’s clear that I’m not getting away from you. That means that the only way out is through.”
“That might be intimidating if you had any idea where I was,” Holly pointed out.
“You’re close by,” I said confidently. “You can’t be maintaining a manual illusion this intricate from any great distance. In fact…” I ran to the edge of the building where it faced the street and hopped over.
And slammed into the wall of the next building, which had seemed to be the empty space of the street, then fell to the ground – once again, it wasn’t at the height it appeared to be, this time the real surface being too far up, and the impact was later than expected in an incredibly unnerving fashion.
“I don’t know why you would trust anything you see and hear right now,” Holly said with a chuckle. “You’re in the power of the god of lies, remember.”
“You’re no god,” I said, rising back to my feet. “You’re a very talented mage, yes, but you’re still just a kid. I’ve got a lot of experience on you.”
“I’ve been doing this nearly as long as you,” he pointed out. “Six years, seven… how much of a difference does that last year make, after all?”
“It’s not the years, it’s what you do with them,” I said, and sent a kinetic pulse through the ground.
This one came back to me, as I had hoped. The range wasn’t great, not in a solid object, but it told me how the city around me was actually laid out. And, as I had half-suspected, it was closer to what Holly was showing me than he was implying.
He really was getting better – he could maybe have put together an illusion as elaborate as this last year, but last year he wouldn’t have had the manipulative chops to pass if off as more than it actually was. With a few well-placed deceptions and regular reminders that everything I saw and heard was in his power, he was trying to get me to doubt my senses – even the kinetic pulse that I would have to rely on. He had been able to blot it out when I sent it through the air, but…
…but he had also been surprised by it, I realized. He had been able to figure out its purpose immediately, which just drove home how clever he was. But if he had been able to fake it, not just block it out, he would have done that instead of claiming the possibility. All that added up to me being able to trust what I got back from my echlocation pulse – if I got anything back at all, at least.
I began making my way through the artificial city, sending occasional pulses to check up on my surroundings and on whether or not Holly was within my range. He seemed to be starting to get desperate as I began to ignore the illusions – his taunting got sloppier, and the illusions more intrusive. He didn’t flashbang me again, though – I was guessing one of the agents refereeing had scolded him for it, as it could potentially harm me.
I was approaching a part of the city that I thought I recognized when I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and dodged forward. There was the sound of a shot, and a splatter of paint appeared on the wall next to me.
“Finally pulling out that gun, huh?” I asked. “Too bad your aim isn’t great.”
“Maybe I’ve been practicing.”
I had to dodge more shots, herding me along the wall and across the street, and narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “I doubt it,” I murmured. He had never shown any interest in guns before, and certainly hadn’t logged any time in the Compound’s shooting range. It was much more likely that… I ignored the next shot, and it splattered against the wall behind me even though I ought to have been in the line of fire, judging from the others.
“You’re as poor a shot as you’ve ever been,” I said with a grin. “And these are no more real than anything else you’ve shown me.” But not without purpose, no more than anything else he’d shown me. I sent another pulse out, putting a trifle more power into it, hoping that…
Yes! He was hiding in an alleyway on the other side of the street from me, not far from where I had been when the paintball shots started. Holly was clever, yes, but real-world experience counted for a lot – and while she had been a Journeyman for years, there was a big difference between what they were allowed to do and what full heroes did.
“Perhaps I’m closer than you think,” Holly’s voice boomed out once more. “Aim doesn’t matter if I can get close enough to press the barrel into your back.” Having already primed me to ignore whatever he said, this was no doubt to make me think he was farther away. And if I hadn’t already located him, I might have bought it.
I walked back into the street and continued walking down it for a moment as though I didn’t think he was nearby, sending another pulse to check on his exact location as I did. Then…
I whirled and twisted, launching myself at Holly bat-first. I slammed into him heavily, knocking him from his feet, and the illusory world dissolved around me one more time – this time revealing reality rather than another layer of deception.
“I win,” I teased, standing and offering him a hand up.
Holly took it and pulled himself to his feet, eyes still alight with competitiveness. “Game’s not over yet.”
Scene 17 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
“Vulcan: what’s your status?” I asked as I began heading towards the flag again.
“Still fighting Hypnos,” he grunted. “He’s doing a lot better than he was last time we sparred, too. I already told you that, didn’t I?”
“Why are you fighting Hypnos?” I demanded. “He didn’t come up to the flag, did he? And you haven’t told me anything, I thought things were uneventful over there!”
“No, I came out to hunt him like you told me to,” he told me. “I called you when I found him and you said to pursue!
“I never – Loki. It must have been him.”
“Then… shit, is Sequoia still in the game?”
“As far as I know, yes.”
“Fuck indeed.” I redoubled my speed towards the flag. I caught a brief glimpse of Vulcan below me as I passed over one street – Hypnos was, as he said, doing remarkably well dodging his blows, almost as if… had he gotten his precog working? I would have to congratulate him, if so. Even so, as I landed on the next roof I heard Agent Delilah announce that Hypnos was out.
I didn’t stop or even slow. The flag was unguarded now, and the one player remaining on the Journeymen’s side was the one player who could-
“The game is over,” boomed Agent John. “The Journeymen have won, by taking the New Champions’ flag.”
Scene 18 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Late Afternoon
“Good job, everyone,” Canaveral said, all of us circled up once more now that the match was over. “A lot of congratulations to go around.
“Loki, Anima tells me you created a new spell?”
He nodded proudly, wearing a goofy and distractingly-adorable grin. “A magical version of the normal earpieces! That way Starling couldn’t listen in on us and I could lead the team and contribute myself.”
“Very well done. You’ve also gotten much better at misleading people since last year!”
He deflated a little. “Didn’t work, though.”
“Don’t feel bad – I’ve worked against a fair few illusionists in my day. You’ve got a ways to go before you can trick me, but you’re well on your way.” Canaveral offered him a fist bump, which after a moment Loki accepted.
“Next, Hypnos. Are Vulcan and I right to think that you’ve cracked the case on precognition?”
He nodded, seeming just as proud. “It’s like thinking at right angles compared to using my power normally, and I’ve only got it out to about two seconds right now, but once I figured out the trick it was almost easy. It’s given me a new idea on how to approach my regular power, too.”
“Well done indeed,” Canaveral said again, and they exchanged high fives.
“Newton,” he said, turning to me.
“I know,” I said, glancing down. “I screwed up.”
He nodded. “You screwed up. Can you tell me where?”
“I shouldn’t have attacked, I should have kept the chase going,” I explained.
“Tell me, why did you turn back to attack?”
“…I guess… you looked like you were about to turn back. It seemed like the best way to get your attention back on me.”
He nodded. “It was, and I was. Anima had just called for assistance. If not for you slowing me down by another 30 seconds, I probably would have gotten back in time to help her.”
“That wasn’t wrong?”
“You have good instincts,” Canaveral told me. “You need to develop them a little more, you need to do some physical conditioning – you’re in good shape for a civilian, but as a hero you’ll need more endurance than you showed today – and you’ll need to brush up on your fighting skills. But for what was…” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Your third time using your powers in combat, I think? Unless you’ve been going out without telling us…”
I shook my head. “I’m pretty busy with classes. It’s amazing I’ve managed to get enough free time to spend with you all, I would never be able to go out on my own, too.”
“Anyway, for your third time in combat, you did great.” He clapped me on the shoulder, then added. “You second-guess yourself a lot, Quinn. Have a little more confidence, okay?”
I nodded uncertainly. “So… if fighting you in the first place wasn’t the problem, where did I go wrong?”
“You left me in a blind spot,” Canaveral explained. “You ducked below the edge, where you couldn’t see me, even with your ESP, and that let me surprise you – because I could see you.”
“I can do a sort of echolocation thing. It’s relatively short-ranged, and it works best through solid objects – that’s how I knew where you were. It’s how I knew the buyers of that drug deal I took you to bust had arrived, too.”
“It’s also how he saw through my attempts to mislead him,” Loki added.
“Having extra senses is one of the most useful things for any hero,” Canaveral said, his eyes flicking to Hypnos for a moment. “Anything that can give you information your enemies don’t think you have. Let that be the lesson for today – never leave yourself somewhere you can’t see the enemy if you can help it.”
Loki cleared his throat. “That’s not the only thing we get, I hope?”
Canaveral nodded. “Indeed it isn’t. Vulcan, would you grab the trophy?”
The huge man, still made of metal, went to a large box and produced a large golden trophy cup, emblazoned with an MLED logo. At its base, it said ‘Paintball Champions 2020’. Vulcan hefted the massive trophy as if it weighed nothing at all and passed it to Sequoia, who similarly had no difficulty holding it.
“Winners gather round your trophy,” Canaveral said, taking his phone from one of the lockers we had left our stuff in before changing into paintball uniforms and pointing it our way. “Say ‘we kicked superhero butt!”
I let out a brief laugh before joining in with my friends as we all chorused “WE KICKED SUPERHERO BUTT!”