2.2. Scenes 23-25

Scene 23 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

A familiar, indescribable white light began to shine from everything as an unmistakable effect that could only be Anima’s aura swiftly spread through the building. It crackled like fire around the edges of the rubble, which leapt into the air and began reforming back into the walls and ceiling that had been torn up by the battle – even the sword and shield Amethyst had just made from himself tearing themselves free of his grasp, white lightning bouncing between their shards as they split apart and joined the repair effort.

All eyes stopped and stared at the phenomenal display of power, but, I thought, for different reasons. The knights seemed to be shocked and frightened, if I was reading their body language right – I and the other Journeymen, however, were shocked and horrified.

Anima kept a large store of zoetic energy, but there was a limit – and this was surely beyond it.

She was going to kill herself.

“Loki!” I called, abandoning the paused battle and rushing over to him. “What’s happening? Why would Anima – I mean, she -”

“I know,” he said, scanning the screens and models that surrounded him. “She – my god.”

“What?”

“It’s not just the Compound,” Loki said grimly. “It’s the whole fucking city.”

“How the hell is she doing this?” asked Hypos, rubbing at his face – the rest of the Journeymen had gathered as well. “This is…”

“I know.”

“And why is she doing it?” Referee quietly asked, worried.

“I thought you weren’t going to get back for a few hours?” I commented to her, noticing that eyes were forming out of the walls and scanning the area.

She shrugged. “My connecting flight got moved up. I’m just glad Journey had enough distance to pick me up, because this… I mean, mom is…”

“We have to-” Loki began, but was interrupted by a voice coming from the wall behind us.

“Oh, thank god, I found you!”

It was Anima’s voice, coming from a remarkably realistic face that one of the wall tiles had warped and shifted into, the eyes fading back into the metal. This… was new. As far as I know, Anima couldn’t normally see or speak through her golems, and they tended to be somewhat crude.

“…Anima?” Loki asked. “What’s going on?”

“I saw that alert and I was so worried about you all!” she simpered. “I’m glad to see that you’re all safe.”

“It was nothing,” Journey said flippantly. “Literally, nothing – no one was here when we arrived.”

“Wait, that…” I frowned. “…no, that’s right. It must have been… a drill, I guess?”

We all exchanged confused looks, nodding to each other after a moment. Why else would all six of us have shown up ready for battle?

“Even so,” Anima said, “it’s a dangerous world out there.”

“Yeah, well,” Hypnos said, a little bitterly, “we did all volunteer for this, however dangerous it is.”

“Anima,” Loki said again, “what’s happening? Why are you-”

“I can’t risk any of you getting hurt,” the heroine interrupted. “You understand, don’t you? You’re like my children – all of you, not just Molly.” A pair of large, hulking figures muscled their way free of the walls, still covered in a gleaming white aura – each bore Anima’s face as well. “I need you all near me, where I can keep you safe,” all three said in unison.

I took a step back from the golems in alarm, a chill running down my spine. “Seems to me like you’ve got no issues with range right now,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying.

Anima’s golems frowned. “I need you safe.”

“Journey,” Loki whispered, his eyes wide and frightened, “Get us out of here.”

The teleporter scooped Referee up in one arm and wrapped the other around Loki, and a moment later they were gone. The golems began to rush at those of us remaining, but before the cracks in spacetime that were left behind by Journey’s passage could even fade, she was back and taking hold of me and Hypnos.

Scene 24 – December 19th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

Journey deposited us in a side-street not far from the Compound, right next to Referee and Loki, then vanished. She reappeared an instant later and set Sequoia down beside us.

“Thanks for the evac,” the dryad said to her, and she nodded, breathing deeply – I wondered if teleporting so many people so quickly was hard on the young woman.

“Holly, you should make us all invisible,” I said, noticing that he was beginning to hyperventilate. “And quick, before…”

She was nodding and brushing her fingers together before I could finish, putting a bubble of normality around the six of us. Only a moment later, eyes were opening and closing on walls all around us, moving like a wave across the city out from the Compound, just as I had feared.

Fortunately, Loki’s illusion had gone up in time – the searching eyes passed over us without recognition, and Anima’s attention seemed to turn elsewhere. The two of us each let out our own sigh of relief, but Loki still seemed incredibly nervous. I kept an eye on him.

“…hey, Holly?” Hypnos said after a moment.

“…yeah?”

“What the fuck?

“I’d like to know that too,” Journey agreed. “I trust you with my life, Loki, but why are we running away from Anima?”

I tilted my head, confused. “You guys didn’t notice?”

“She was way stronger than usually somehow,” Referee said, “And… I don’t think that was all.”

“It wasn’t,” I said. “She was… off, somehow. She wasn’t behaving normally. I know I haven’t known her as long as most of you, but… I’ve never felt threatened by her before now. Back there? I felt in danger.”

Loki nodded. “Quinn’s right. Anima was acting really weird. I… I think she’s being mind controlled or influenced somehow – maybe by whatever is letting her do this,” he gestured to the aura that still encompassed the entire city.

“Letting her see and talk through the golems, too,” I added. “I don’t think she can usually do that.”

“She can if she’s fueling them directly from her own life force, instead of using built up stores that came from others,” Loki told me. “That means that we can be pretty confident this is some kind of massive boost to her personally, not… I don’t know… the result of stealing a few thousand peoples’ life force. She wouldn’t do that. I don’t think.” Under his illusory form, my presence felt him produce a phone and begin dialing – Loki’s shape, however, remained leaning against the wall where he had planted himself after Journey dropped us off.

“Morbid,” Journey commented.

“But I don’t know what the power-boost could be.”

“Could it have something to do with whatever called her, Zookeeper, and Canaveral away this morning?” I asked.

“Seems likely, and it’s all we have to go on right now.”

“Wait, time out,” Sequoia interjected. “Are we contemplating what I think we are?”

“With how Anima is acting, and the scale of the threat, we can’t not do something,” I pointed out.

“We could call in other MLED heroes,” he suggested. “Link up with some agents and get some extra manpower on our side, maybe – we’ll need it, against her.”

“I’m making that call already,” Loki said, the illusion of his form tapping the earpiece that was part of his costume, even as his real body spoke into the phone – that answered my question of who he was calling. “But Omnipresence isn’t available right now and neither is Aegis-”

“As usual,” Hypnos muttered.

“They’re busy people,” Sequoia scolded him.

“-which means it’ll be a while before anyone can make it here, at least an hour,” Loki continued, and I felt him hang up. “And the only team within a wide radius with a decent chance of winning is us anyway.”

“…really?”

“Yes, really,” he confirmed.

“Why us?” I asked.

“Because I’m here to even the scales,” Referee reminded us with a shy smile, although I was pretty sure she was trying to cover up her worry. “When I’m around, no opponent is out of reach.”

I grinned at her under my mask and offered a fist bump, which she returned after a moment. “You’re right. We’ve got this.” That was the most confident thing I had heard the normally shy girl say, at least around me. We hadn’t spent much time together, between the age gap and how often she was out traveling, so I was glad that she was finally warming up to me.

“Before we go, however, we need more intel,” Loki said, glancing at the walls with obvious distase as another wave of eyes washed over the city – Anima apparently still searching for her ‘children’. “Hypnos, you were on console – what can you tell us?”

He sighed. “The Magnificent Maxwell was stirring up trouble. They called Arthur Peregrine about it, and apparently he’s gotten his hands on Excalibur.”

“…what, really?” I said.

“The real Excalibur?” asked Loki, sounding surprised.

“Apparently, yeah. Peregrine said that the sword was a generic empowerment thing, and the boost it gives applies to everything, including psychological defects. He thought Max had gone full-blown narcissist from taking it. Maybe Anima grabbed the sword and can’t control her helicopter mom?”

We considered this. “It seems as good a theory as any,” Loki decided. “Can you check?”

Hypnos leaned against Sequoia, who wrapped one arm around his shoulders to support his boyfriend, and closed his eyes. “One sec… yeah,” he confirmed. “I’m looking in on the Higgins Museum now.”

“Is that where things went down?” I asked.

“Yup. I see… Zookeeper, Canaveral, and Max are all in what kind of looks like a playpen, being watched over by some golems – would be funny if this situation weren’t so shitty. I think Keeper and Navi are planning something, although I can’t tell what since I left my hearing with you guys – Max seems to be out cold. And Anima is definitely holding a sword, looks like a rapier. Not what I’d have guessed Excalibur to look like, but whatever.”

He paused for a moment, then continued. “We may have a slight problem, though – I just pulled out a little to check for guards outside, and Anima turned the whole damn museum into a giant golem. It’s… pretty tall, and looks mobile enough that Journey won’t be able to teleport into it. You’re still having trouble with teleporting onto or off of moving things, right?”

“Wow,” a voice said, and we all turned in surprise to see that five knights were standing just inside the normalcy bubble. “You guys are doing great with the planning!”

Scene 25 – December 19th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Dominic Könberg

We halted in our flight a few streets away from the compound, ducking into an alley after the eyes that had sprouted from every surface in the city had faded. Viv whipped off her stealth cloak, massively expanded from a hasty spell she had cast on it to allow us all to gain its benefit, and threw it to the ground – it was smoldering already, and as we watched it began rapidly shriveling. A moment later, it had shrunk to nothingness, releasing a burst of blazing white light as it did. Fortunately, the light went unnoticed by passers by, swallowed up by the greater light of a crackling aura that seemed to have consumed the entire city.

“What the hell is going on?” Percy snapped at Viv. “This is Anima’s aura – how is she affecting this much?” He cast a quick suspicious look at the wall, eyeless once more. “Shouldn’t spending this much energy kill her?”

“I don’t know,” Viv admitted, pulling off her helmet and rubbing at her temples. She ran a hand through her hair before taking a deep breath and pulling the helmet back on. “But I have a guess. The thing that Max was after was n artifact that increased his power, right? What if Anima got her hands on it?”

I glanced at the street. “That… would be bad,” I said. “I know Morgan said a city-level threat, but… this is beyond what I was expecting.”

“We can’t let something that powerful stay in the hands of the MLED,” Percy said. “Not when the Ambrosia Company has a death grip on the DMO.”

“But… can we even face up to power on this level?” Tristan asked, sounding worried. “I mean, we’re badass and all, but… I mean, we were trying to steer clear of professional heroes for a reason. None of us anywhere near Dad’s level, even together.”

We found ourselves all looking to Viv for guidance, even mom. She was, after all, the tactical leader of our group – the one who had whispered advice in our ears and helped us turn the tide against the Journeymen, at least until Journey and Referee had shown up.

Viv sighed. “I don’t know what to do, guys. This isn’t a situation we expected – when mother and I were planning, we assumed that the MLED would just toss the artifact over to Peregrine, not use it themselves.” She patted her hips, then butt, then groaned. “Fuck, no pockets in this armor! I don’t have my phone!”

“Where’d you leave it?” Tristan asked.

“It should be on the table next to my bed,” she said, “but don’t -”

“One sec.”

“-go into my – damn it, Alacrity!” Viv swore. She turned to mom as the green mist left in his wake began to fade. “I didn’t give him permission to go into my room!”

“I’ll scold him when this is over,” Mom said, making a calming motion. “Right now I’m afraid we have bigger things to worry about.”

“I guess so, but honestly, if he was going to run home he might as well have -”

“Here you go!” Tristan said, skidding to a halt next to my sister and holding her phone out to her. He wobbled for a moment before Percy put out a hand to stabilize him – the kid was still getting used to super-speed.

Viv glared as she plucked the phone from his hand. “Don’t go into my room without asking, brat.”

“It seemed important!”

“If you were going to rush home and leave a massive pointer right to where we live,” she growled, pointing at the trail of mist he had left behind him, “then why didn’t you grab a bullhorn too, and shout ‘this way to the Round Table’s hideout! Right this way, Champions!’

“Vivian,” Mom said sternly.

“It’s Dame Acumen,” Viv hissed. “We have codenames for a reason!”’

“Dame Acumen,” I said, putting a hand on my twin’s shoulder. “Calm down. Our home is under protective wards, remember? No one is going to be able to follow Alacrity’s trail back.”

I could practically feel the tension draining from Vivian’s posture, and a moment later she turned away from the rest of the family to lead her head against my chest. Then she started gently knocking her head into the breastplate of my armor. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered. “Enhanced senses, super-intelligence, and an eidetic memory, and I can still overlook things. I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot,” I said, hugging her. “You’re the smartest of all of us even without that helmet.”

“Except for mother.”

“Except, maybe, for Morgan. Now, what were you going to do with your phone?”

She dialed a number and stepped away from us to make the call. “Hi mother,” I heard her softly say before I turned back to my mom and brothers.

“She feels a lot of pressure being in charge,” I quietly confided in them. “She was really hoping that Morgan would come in person.”

“Why didn’t she, again?” Percy asked mom.

“Morgan isn’t as anonymous as the rest of us can hopefully be,” Mom explained. “The MLED never learned that the Mountain King was Arthur Könberg, and so they have no reason to look at our family, even though they’ll almost certainly notice that we’re using his armor. But Morgan knows Arthur Peregrine, and he’ll be looking at this whole series of events when he has time. If she isn’t seen to be involved, he won’t connect it to us.”

“Right, right. The whole apprentice thing.”

“Yeah.”

Viv returned to the group, whispering a few words to her phone that caused it to wrap around her wrist like a bracelet. “Okay, so I talked to mother,” she announced. “She didn’t expect this either, and she says it’s bad news. We have to get the item away from Anima, and do whatever it takes to ensure it. Which means…” She sighed. “We’re going to have to work with the Journeymen.”

“We’d better get moving, then,” I said, sighing just as heavily. “Who even knows where they are now? I doubt they stayed where Anima could see them. And with Loki’s powers of stealth…”

“I’m pretty sure my helmet can let me see through those,” Viv said dismissively. “And I have a hunch about where they ended up…”

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2.2. Scenes 19-22

Scene 19 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Noon
Holly Koval

 

The world cracked like glass and fell away, revealing the console room back at the Compound, where Mellas and Forester had apparently been spending time together – now, however, Sequoia was transformed into his wooden form, and an MLED agent had just sat in the console chamber. I snapped my fingers while Quinn was reorienting to give Hypnos a mask, since as far as I knew he had never revealed his identity to Quinn. “What’s the situation?” I asked.

“Heartbeat monitors said that two guards in the first subbasement went unconscious within about a second of each other,” Hypnos reported, “but nothing showed on the security cameras – they even showed the guards still standing. The guards didn’t respond to a check in, so agents went to investigate and found four intruders described as ‘medieval knights who make colored smoke’ by Agent Ramirez. One of them bent the tiles to create walls to protect themselves, leaving a hole through which one of the knights has been attacking. We’re trying to knock through their walls with a portable ram, but they have a good strategy – in the meantime, we’re evacuating tour groups and other civilians.”

“Powers?” I set up my command station, expanding the Compound’s subbasement and quickly finding the four attacking metahumans in their bunker. Quinn and Simone, meanwhile, ducked away to grab their costumes and get earpieces.

“The one with purple smoke seems to be the one controlling the walls,” the agent – his nametag read ‘Murphy’ – said. “Green has super-speed, and is the one coming out to attack. Blue and Red are defending the hole in their wall – Blue has taken attacks without flinching, so maybe some level of invulnerability, and Red looks to be superstrong.”

I frowned. “Controlling metal, super-speed, super-strength, invulnerability… and colored mist?”

“The possible connection to the Mountain King has been noticed,” the agent assured me. “His mist was gold, but it seems like all the same powers.”

I zoomed in even farther on the my map, even as I changed my appearance over to Loki’s, and saw that they were now fighting their way out of the fortified position that the metal controller had built and making their way up the corridor towards the stairs out. “That looks like the same style of armor, too,” I noted. “Obviously I’ve never met the man in person, but I’ve studied him…”

“What’s our strategy?” Hypnos asked me.

“Divide and conquer,” I told him. “If they each have only one of the Mountain King’s powers, they’ll be more limited. We should be able to take out all of them, if we do it carefully.” He nodded.

My phone buzzed in my pocket as Newton and Journey returned, the teleporter simultaneously producing her own to check the message, and I grinned when I glanced down to read it. “We’ve got a pleasant surprise, Journey,” I said to her. “After you drop us off a little closer, you’ve got another pickup to make.”

 

Scene 20 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Noon
Quinn Kaufman

 

Journey ferried us all downstairs – first me, Loki, and Hypnos, then Sequoia in a second trip. A moment later, Journey was gone, and we were on our own.

“Alright, here’s the plan,” Loki quietly told us. “I’m going to use my constructs to split these guys up and have you each take one or two of them on. Newton, you’re going against the purple earthbender – our presence will keep him from putting you on the back foot with his battlefield control, and he doesn’t look to have enough fine control to flank you by himself like Anima could. Hypnos, you’re against green speed – your precognition should let you match him. Sequoia, you’re up with the other two – you’re strong and tough, but if I’m right that these guys each have only one of the Mountain King’s powers, they’ll only be strong or tough. Your toughness should negate strength, and your strength should help you get through their toughness. In the meantime, I’ll be helping out as needed.”

Hypnos frowned. “That sounds like mostly a holding action,” he protested. “Those are all decent match-ups, but how will we tip the scales?”

“It is mostly a holding action,” Loki admitted. “But we benefit from that, they don’t. They need to escape to win – we can win by dragging things out until more heroes show up. Journey will be back in just a few minutes, and if not her then some of the New Champions will be here eventually. Not to mention that there are enough agents here to turn the tide, if we’re negating the advantages of their powers.”

“Alright,” Hypnos said. “Shall we?”

“We shall.”

I rushed ahead of the others, my powers letting me move faster than anyone else other than Journey herself. I tried to pace myself though – while I had gotten a lot of experience with my powers over the last two months, the backlash still made drawn-out battles an exercise in pain. I understood that it was our best strategy, of course – I trusted Loki. I would just try to deal with the wanna-be-knights without bruising myself too badly.

When I emerged into the corridor where the running battle was taking place, the ground was rumbling and splitting apart, walls of fire shooting up along the cracks to split the knights – each of them instinctively stepping away from the nearest flames, even the invulnerable one whose breastplate spilled blue mist. A moment later, she made to walk through the wall towards the smallest knight, in green, but I vaulted over her and pushed her back into the center of her area on my way into Purple’s.

“Hi there!” I said cheerily as I landed in front of them. “I’ll be your designated opponent for today. And may I compliment you on your choice of theme colors? Royal purple, very classy.”

They inclined their helmet towards me in acknowledgment. “Thank you. And I appreciate your choice of plaid – I’m bi as well.”

I plucked at the kevlar-woven overshirt I had pulled over my costume, woven in shades of blue, pink, and purple. “This one is actually one of the ones I wear in support, not to represent myself. Something about identifying as ‘bi’ doesn’t feel right to me, as a nonbinary person attracted to all genders and the lack thereof,” I said, absently anchoring myself to the ground and leaning far to the side to avoid a metal plate that Purple had pulled from the wall and sent spinning at my head from behind, “so I usually just say ‘queer’.”

I stuck a hand out towards them, taking a quick moment to pay attention to my presence and check up on how the others were doing while Purple stared in confusion. Hypnos had just clotheslined Green, and Sequoia had Blue in a headlock. Just fine. “I”m Newton,” I said to Purple. “They/them pronouns. What’s your name?”

They paused, then took my hand. “Sir Amethyst. He/him,” he said.

“What about the others?” I asked, starting to focus in my other hand. The knife’s edge I was placing my mind in was a new one for me, but if I could keep him talking a little longer…

Amethyst hesitated before answering that one. “Sirs Alacrity and Ardent, and Dame Adamant,” he told me.”

“Alacrity in the green and Ardent in red?”

“Yes.” Then he pulled me towards him and grabbed me by the throat, a fresh wave of dark purple mist flowing from his cape as he lifted me into the air.

It came as a surprise – my presence being concentrated in the hand hidden behind my back – and I found myself instinctively scrabbling at his hand, but to no avail.

“Sorry about this, Newton,” he said as I struggled to redouble my focus, sounding genuinely contrite, “but you’re the most dangerous person here to us.”

1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and

“Wrong,” I gasped. “But not entirely.” I thrust towards his helm with my hand and thrust towards it with my magic, directing the flash of light towards him as best as I could.

FUCK!” Amethyst swore, dropping me. He stumbled backward, clapping one steel-gauntleted hand over the eye-slit of his helmet.

I rubbed at my throat, chancing another check-up on the other Journeymen. Hypnos was continuing to dance rings around Alacrity, who seemed to be dodging around what I could only assume were Loki’s illusory constructs, as they didn’t show up in my sense of presence, while Sequoia had grown a pair of wooden handcuffs around Adamant’s wrists and was sparring with Ardent to keep him away from her. We seemed to be winning.

I felt a shift in the metal tile beneath me and leapt up in the air, pulling at the ceiling and remaining there as the ground below me swelled up in an attempt to grab hold of my legs, winding up crouched on the ceiling. “Fun fact – not the first time someone has tried that on me,” I informed him. “It didn’t get Legion anywhere either.” I decided not to mention that Legion had, in fact, trapped me with her own version of the move, and it had only been Canaveral’s intervention that had saved me.

Amethyst hesitated. “Wait… you fought Legion?”

Something seemed odd about his inflection there, but I wasn’t sure what. “What did you expect me to do with the dangerous supervillain? Invite her to a tea party?” Again, I didn’t mention that I had, in fact, ended up talking to Legion – twice.

“No, I…” He shook his head. “Nevermind.”

“No, seriously,” I said, standing upright and feeling grateful for the practice I had done walking on walls and ceilings – it was still a little disconcerting to have everything be upside-down to me, but not as much as it was for my opponents to deal with an upside-down foe. “I’m ‘the most dangerous one here to you’, and you seem surprised that I fought Legion? What are you thinking here?”

“I’m thinking…” He tilted his head down, thoughtfully, then back up. “I’m thinking that we may have made a mistake.”

“Yeah, breaking into the MLED Compound,” I agreed. “Why did you do that, anyway?”

He shook his head. “Not important – we couldn’t get into the storage anyway.”

I frowned, not sure I believed him, but shrugged and launched myself at him. I pulled at the villain’s knees, causing them to buckle and giving myself a little more velocity, and vaulted over his shoulders, pushing him down in the ground. Canaveral and the director could worry about what to do with the hints Amethyst was dropping.

 

Scene 21 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Holly Koval

 

I checked again, almost compulsively, on how Newton was doing against ‘Sir Amethyst’. I tried not to micromanage my team, but… in a real situation like this, it was hard not to worry, especially about the least experienced member of the team. Especially when that was my best friend.

They were doing fine, though. Other than a brief scare when Amethyst had gotten them by the throat, which they had resolved on their own before I could burn the man’s retinas out, they had kept him busy and kept him talking – even gotten some potentially useful intel out of the man, like their names and apparent goal of the secure storage units. I didn’t think anything too important was contained in New Venice’s units right now – all I could recall being in them was some hypertech recovered from Motael’s power armor the last time that the New Champions had clashed with the man, and Starling had already stripped anything useful from it. They could maybe have been hired by Motael to recover the tech, but it had been over a year – surely he would have made an attempt sooner, if he was going to. So my guess is that that had been an attempt to lay a false trail, and I would tell Director Shepard that.

Hypnos was doing pretty well too, I though, glancing at his portion of the battlefield. Sir Alacrity’s super-speed seemed to be less than precise, and Hypnos was able to dodge him without much difficulty – although he hadn’t managed to land a hit of his own yet, either.

Sequoia, on the other hand, had needed a little help. Some judicious illusions had-

“Loki, right?”

I glanced up at the sound of a cheerful voice laced with poison, and saw the fifth member of knightly crew, white smoke rising from her helmet. Dame…

I frowned. Something wasn’t right.

“That’s me,” I agreed, performing a tricky spell to both hide myself and the floating screens and models that showed me the surrounding area and replace them, so I could move from my apparent position without her knowing. “And you are?”

“Dame Acumen, at your service,” she said, sketching a bow – in the direction of the real me, not where she ought to be seeing my image. “I serve the same function to the Round Table as you do for the Journeymen.”

Tactical commander, I noted, dismissing the spell that had apparently not fooled her, and possibly some kind of battlefield control or coordination. How was she seeing through my constructs? What kind of enhanced senses did she have, and could I fool them? “You stand at the back and snipe?” I asked, snapping my fingers and generating a concussive wave in her direction.

She sidestepped it easily, casually, as though she knew it had been coming. Some kind of combat precognitive, like Hypnos? “That’s right,” Acumen agreed. “I snipe. Not in quite the same way as you, mind you, but not all of us get lucky enough to have a combat-relevant superpower. Or combat-relevant magic, in your case. Those without have to get by with just intelligence.” There was a distinct smirk in her voice now. “If only I didn’t need it either.”

I frowned beneath my mask. “You know, Acumen, veiled insults like that won’t make people like you. For that, you’ll need to have an actual personality.”

“Oh, was that a veiled insult?” Acumen asked. “Funny, I wasn’t veiling it at all. Perhaps it just seemed so because you had to think about it-”

I interrupted by sending a lance of fire at her, simultaneously creating lasers on either side so she couldn’t simply sidestep a gain.

…but not preventing her from doing a split in place, apparently. The split dropped her low to the ground beneath the flames, her legs spreading underneath the lasers. “Ah, violence,” she mused as she bounced back up. “The first and last resort of the weak-minded.”

“It is kind of my job, you know. Besides, I’ve got to stop your yammering somehow – you’re not going to shut up on your own.”

“Of course not – why would I?” She stepped closer to me, and I raised a hand, generating illusory flames to crackle around it. “Oh, enough of the fire!” she sighed, dramatically. “Honestly, it’s the first time you’ve used it and it’s already old.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” I said, beginning to swing my hand over my head. The flames trailed behind my hand and formed a loop, a blazing lariat of fire that I made to throw at her.

She watched with apparent curiosity, tilting her head to the side, then spoke a word. I thought she spoke a word, at any rate – my magical senses could feel the sound and even a surge of power, but my brain refused to recognize what she had said. The word was clearly a spell, as the flaming lasso I had created instantly froze over and shattered into a cloud of bluish white mist, which slowly sank to the ground.

“I wasn’t sure if your spells would count as ‘objects’ or not to my magic,” Acumen confessed, a wide grin clear in her voice. “It seems like they do!”

I sighed. “You think the fire is getting old? Trust me, your whole thing is getting old.”

“Then why don’t you stop me?”

“Maybe I will.”

“Violence doesn’t seem to be working, why not-”

I created a remote control and pointed it at her, pressing a button with my thumb, and her voice instantly fell silent.

It seemed to take her a moment to realize that I had literally muted her, but her body language seemed positively offended as she put her hands on her hips, cocking them to one side and shaking her head. Then she raised her hands and began miming something.

I shrugged. “Shouldn’t have shown me how you focus your magic. Who’s weak-minded, again?”

She made some kind of complex hand gesture.

“Sorry, I don’t speak sign. I have no idea what you’re saying.”

The armored woman held up one gauntleted finger, and I laughed. “That I understand.”

Then she pointed over my shoulder, miming laughter. Instead of looking away from her, I chanced a glance at my screens and growled at what I saw.

Sir Ardent and Sequoia were grappling with each other, while Hypnos seemed to have been pinned down and gagged by Dame Adamant, who seemed to have broken away from Sequoia while I had been distracted by Dame Acumen, fearlessly stepping through my walls of fire. Alacrity, meanwhile, was now working with Sir Amethyst against Newton – they were holding their own by using flashes of light to briefly stun their foes, but were clearly struggling, and yet hadn’t called for help.

I glared at Acumen, whose distraction had allowed this to happen. “You,” I began angrily, but was interrupted by the welcome reappearance of Journey.

The amazonian teleporter appeared not far from the edge of the room, with Referee – already in costume – sitting on one shoulder. “Hey guys!” She said cheerfully. “Sorry I’m late, had to pick up a friend who came back home early!”

Referee hunched over a little, nervous around new people even when they were villains, but gave a slight wave. “Where do you want us, Loki?”

 

Scene 22 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Simone Destrey

 

“Close to the knight in blue, with a normal aura,” Holly instructed me, and I thrust my mind in that direction, my body following a moment later with Molly in tow. We appeared standing next to the blue-clad knight, her gauntleted hand over Nic’s mouth as she sat on him.

A moment later, a bright light shone through the face of her helmet, created by the illusionist, and Blue jerked backwards in surprise. “What-” she started to say, but then Molly dove off my shoulder, twisting in midair to hit her with a vicious scissor kick.

Molly’s aura imposed fairness on the world around her, but it had a rather strict interpretation of ‘fair.’ If she was facing off other people in an empty room, with no one outside the aura who could shoot into it, with all combatants on their own side, then it would be perfectly fair. Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses would be magnified and reduced until they all had roughly the same specialties – the physically strong would still be strong, the fast would still be fast – but all had the same chance of winning.

That was not, however, how the world actually worked. One of the tactics that we had used to great effect in the paintball game of the previous year had been to have me teleport Molly around the field, bringing people into and out of her aura at Loki’s direction. Molly was an excellent martial artist, but I was a mediocre fighter at best, and neither of us were particularly strong, fast, or tough as metahuman went – that meant that the two of us tended to weigh down the strengths of anyone else in the aura, allowing Loki to strike at range against weakened foes. Even if our enemies were boosted by the aura, your capabilities shifting was a startling feeling, and one which Molly was far more used to than anyone else. By fluctuating its radius, she could tap into her opponents strengths when she needed them, and leave them reeling from a sudden change at any moment.

Molly’s aura insisted that the world be fair, but she herself didn’t fight fair.

I offered Nic a hand up, and he pulled himself to his feet. “You’ll get her next time, champ,” I teased.

He tilted his head to the side, listening to something. “Loki wants me up against number five – Dame Acumen, in white.” He nodded to where Molly had swiftly wrestled Blue back into cuffs. “Besides, Ref’s got it handled.”

“True.”

Holly spoke in my ear again as Molly finished up. “Hug the red knight with as tight of an aura as you can manage,” she ordered, and I put a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder.

“Ready for a drop?” I asked, and she nodded. I tore through reality to appear just above Red, vanishing back to the floor as Molly came down on him elbow first.

He managed to grab her before she could land her blow, but the redhead wrapped around him like a limpet and held on tight. A moment later, Jack stunned Red with an uppercut, then took custody of him, Molly clambering off as the tree-like man held Red in a full nelson.

“Purple and Green next,” Loki directed, “wide aura,” and Molly and I were off once more.

We landed a few feet from the purple-cloaked man and were immediately targeted, the one in green zooming towards us at high speed. Molly and I each put out a leg, one on either side, and the speedster went flying into the air.

“Nice,” Quinn said, dropping down from the ceiling to land next to us. I offered them a high five, which they returned without looking. “Amethyst here is a pain to deal with,” they continued, nodding towards Purple. “He makes good use of his metal bending – I think he’s using it to enhance his strength in that armor, too. Likes to talk though.”

I flexed. “Strength I’ve got,” I boasted, “It’s mobility he should be worrying about.”

“Yeah, well-” Quinn leapt into my arms, the ground cracking around their feet to try and nail them in one position. “Again, Amethyst?” They yelled. “That’s three times, and it hasn’t worked once! Come up with a new trick!”

“…yeah, I think we’ve got this covered,” I said. “Besides, the MLED is sending in another wave of agents in a moment.”

“Good,” Quinn sighed. “I’ve been pacing myself, but before long my bruises are gonna have bruises.”

I tilted my head to the side a little. “That’s right, your power has a backlash to it, right?”

They eyed Amethyst. “Yeah, something like that. Honestly, I don’t tend to get bruises these days, but aches and pains? Yeah. Also, six feet that way please.”

I teleported us in the direction they pointed and set us down as Amethyst tore up the ceiling tiles above where we had been, shards of metal flying towards him and reforming themselves into a sword and shield. He leveled them at us.

Then everything began to glow.

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2.2. Scenes 16-18

Scene 16 – December 19th
Exterior “Higgins Museum”, Late Morning
Abraham Armstrong

 

The castle Max had built appeared to have a relatively standard layout, from what I remembered of a special on castles we had watched at some point during the summer – he had probably remembered the same special when building it, in fact. It had a central keep within a wider stone wall, one which would no doubt be quite effective at keeping out mundane police.

The New Champions, however, had no such trouble, and Anima simply landed the roc golem on the outer walls. “Castles don’t work too well against flying enemies,” she commented. “I mean, walls are a good base for protective enchantments, but Max doesn’t seem to have any.”

“They certainly fail without archers,” I agreed, hopping out of my seat. Anima dismounted as well, and the golem shifted slightly as she retracted the white lightning that had let it move. “Now, if I know Max, he’ll be in the main hall. Probably sitting in some kind of throne.”

“A real drama queen,” Emilia croaked, then flew off my shoulder and down into the courtyard. Halfway down she transformed into a large snow leopard.

I hopped down myself, absorbing the weight of my landing with a slight twist of power, the only sound being the crunch of snow beneath my boots. “Broadcast: I’ll catch you,” I told Anima through my earpiece. We were using the magical versions that Holly had created – he had made a large stockpile of them over the last month or so, and while their range had turned out to be more limited than that of the electronic ones, they were more secure. Not to mention that Zookeeper could use them even through transformations. “No sense in wasting more of your energy.”

She leapt out without hesitation, and I held out my arms to catch her. Another twist negated the kinetic energy of me catching her, and we turned to the face the heavy doors that barred us from the interior of the keep. “How did Max expect the city to deliver tribute?” Anima asked. “I mean… the main portcullis is closed, the main door is closed…”

I sighed. “I was thinking about that on the flight, actually, and… however narcissistic Excalibur has made him, I don’t think there’s any way that Max would be dumb enough to think that he’d actually get any tribute from the city.”

Anima frowned. “Then why…?”

“He’s after something else,” I said grimly. “He must have known that this would draw a lot of attention to him and all available heroes would come to respond. That must have been his real goal with this stunt – I just can’t figure out what he intends to get out of it.”

“Do you think it’s a distraction?” she asked. “That he’s not here at all, he’s actually off doing something else entirely?”

I shook my head. “That doesn’t feel right. That’s certainly one of Max’s standard plays, but his usual method is to have one of his actor friends appear in his costume somewhere, like he did when he robbed the Bellini Archives. Something on this scale? What on earth could it be a distraction from?”

Emilia transformed back into a raven and fluttered up to my shoulder to say, “It doesn’t have to be a distraction from something else he’s trying to do, it could just be a distraction from his actual goal. What if he’s intending to capture and ransom us”

“For what?”

“For the magical knowledge Arthur Peregrine keeps,” I guessed. “It… makes sense. More than that he genuinely thinks he should be a king, at any rate.”

“He could have wanted Arthur to come in person, too,” Emilia said. “I mean, he did steal a powerful magical artifact, which would normally bring him running – just our bad luck that he’s busy the next few days.”

I nodded, then shook my head. “No, wait, this doesn’t add up. Originally he was after a book, not the sword…”

“Right…” Anima rubbed her temples. “Still, he’s a smart guy, right? Maybe he came up with this plan after getting the sword?”

“…I think I’ve got it,” Emilia said. “He comes looking for the book, and finds Excalibur instead. He realizes that Arthur must have the actual book, and decides to ransom the sword back to him in return for the book, or for similar books. To get Arthur’s attention, he needed to do something big and public with Excalibur – thus, this whole stunt.”

“I think you’re right,” I agreed. “Hopefully we can talk him down, with that in mind – the sword may have messed with his head, but if he sees that there’s a non-violent way to get what he wants –  instead of, say, kidnapping us and using us as leverage in a second attempt to get at Peregrine – I think he’ll take it.”

“We can give it a shot,” Anima said. “But first, the door?”

“Right. Dear, if you wouldn’t mind?”

“I’m not sure how a deer will help.”

I snorted at Emilia’s joke – her beak hung open in an approximation of a goofy grin as she glanced between me and Anima, who just rolled her eyes. She shrugged her wings and flapped off my shoulder.

A quick transformation, and an elephant shoulder-bashed the door, making the castle shake. A second slam, and there was a cracking sound that I assumed was the deadbolt cracking off the heavy wood of the antique doors – a third, and they were open.

“Honey, I’m home!” I called out as we stepped inside.

 

Scene 17 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

As I had suspected, Max was in the great hall, sitting in a throne and somehow looking more handsome than ever. He was leaning forward, hands propped up on what looked like a long, ornate wand but could only be Excalibur, and said, “Ah, you’ve finally…” Then he frowned, and his voice was angry as he asked, “Where’s Peregrine?”

I exchanged a quick glance with Anima. As we had guessed. “Peregrine couldn’t make it, sorry Max. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”

He stood and vanished in a swirl of flame, reappearing in another burst of fire a few feet in front of us. “I’m never disappointed to see you and Keeper, Navi,” he said, smiling at me and Emilia – suddenly calm again, even pleased. “And you too, Anima,” he added.

“Glad I’m an afterthought,” she said dryly, leaning against the wall. “Max, what exactly are you thinking? This plan is…”

He rolled his eyes and lifted the wand, resting it across his shoulders. “Obviously I’m not really declaring myself king, that’s a ridiculous notion. No one would accept it, no matter how good a ruler I’d be.” I… didn’t think he was being series, but… “I just needed to attract Arthur Peregrine’s attention.”

Emilia shifted into a parrot and landed on my shoulder. “To ransom Excalibur for the book you were looking for?” she asked. “Peregrine said it wasn’t useful anyway.”

“I must say, expected it to look more like a sword,” I commented.

“It changes shape to fit its bearer,” he casually explained. “And no, I have no intention of giving up this beauty. Excalibur, really?” He twirled it around his fingers. “A great many things became clear to me once I drew it from the stone, but that wasn’t one of them. It makes sense, though…”

I narrowed my eyes. “What sort of things became clear, Max?”

He smiled at me – the same loving but slightly-condescending smile he wore whenever he told me about magic. “Nothing you need to worry about – just magical puzzles that had been stumping me for years, now.”

“If you weren’t going to trade Excalibur to Peregrine,” Anima cut in, “why did you want him here?”

“To show him that I’m not as incompetent as he believes,” Max said, his voice going hard. Something seemed very off about him, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it was how fast he was bouncing from one emotion to the next. “He rejected me, did I ever tell you that? I was down on my knees, begging to learn magic from him, and he cast me aside.”

“He didn’t think you were incompetent, Max,” Emilia said, her tone almost pleading – she was seeing the same instability as I was, a mercurial shifting of moods that Max had never shown before, I could tell. “We talked to him, and he said that his style of casting wasn’t compatible with yours, and that’s why he didn’t take you on.”

He laughed, amused once more. “Is that what he said? No, he simply didn’t see my genius.” He leaned Excalibur against his shoulder again. “And you know, perhaps he was even right, then. Certainly I’m far greater now than I was before.”

“Max,” Anima said, her voice filled with pity and concern, “Excalibur is affecting your mind.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Is that what he told you?”

“He said that the blade is dangerous,” she summarized, “and that, yes, it’s probably messing with your head. Please, Max, give us the-”

Max casually flicked the wand, and a massive metal cage suddenly coalesced around Anima, trapping her – I sank into a combat-ready posture, and Anima flapped off my shoulder to become a leopard again. “Don’t,” he said, his voice low and dangerous, “even ask it.”

“Max, please,” I begged. “You don’t have to do this!”

He turned to face me, and flame began to flicker around him – a fiery aura casting a dangerous light on his features and making me squint to keep looking at him. “What would you do,” he demanded, his voice rising and becoming more and more frantic. “Comparing me without this blade to with it… it’s like night and day. I was nothing without it – like a regular person! What would you do, if someone proposed to take your powers from you!?!”

My voice caught – he couldn’t know, could he? How could he possibly know – there was no way! Max… he had worked with the Ambrosia Company at least once, I knew, had received magical tutelage from them – but he couldn’t know that my powers came from the same source, could he? Or that they could be taken away as easily as they had been given to me?

“Max…” Emilia said, and in my brief panic I hadn’t even realized that she had taken bird form and perched on my shoulder yet again. “The night may lack the sun, but there’s still the moon. There’s still the stars. Even if you’re less without this sword, you’re far from nothing. You were an amazing person without it – you can be again.”

Max stared at us, still with a wild, frantic light in his eyes, then down at Excalibur. He… fuck, he seemed to be considering it.

He looked down at the wand in his hand, then back at us. Then at Anima in the cage he had placed her in, then back to the wand, then us…

“…no.” He said, finally.

“…no?” I asked.

“No.” Then something was flying at my head and I was dodging, unsure of what had gone wrong.

 

Scene 18 – December 19th
Interior “Higgins Museum”, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

The ax Max had flung, an ancient-looking thing that had probably been on display somewhere in the museum, slammed into the wooden doors behind us as I skidded to a halt and turned to keep an eye on him.

Or rather, on where he had been a moment ago – Emilia had leapt off my shoulder and flown at him in the shape of a tiger, and ended up passing through a ring of fire instead, Max having teleported elsewhere. I pulled pulled my metal chain out of my belt and began twirling it in one hand as a makeshift shield, hefting some ball bearings in the other.

“Don’t make us do this, Max!” I called.

“You were never able to beat me before, Navi,” he said from behind me, and I spun and launched the ball bearing towards his voice. It simply vanished out of mid-air, then came back at me just as fast – I only barely managed to absorb the kinetic energy in time when it struck my shoulder. “Why would you be able to now?” He flicked Excalibur in a casual motion, and there was a sudden explosion that tossed me backwards.

“Fuck,” I quietly grunted as I landed, my ears ringing – Max was definitely using magic he had never been capable of before. The flames, the explosion, being able to launch that ax and my ball bearing… not to mention, I thought with a wince, how many bruises I would have from the blast.

Max approached me, a vicious grin on his face as he looked down at where I lay on the floor – behind him, I saw Emilia stealthily padding towards him, and Anima quietly infusing his iron cage with zoetic energy. “I wonder if Peregrine would show up if I threatened your lives?” he asked, almost idly but with a wicked gleam in his eyes, and swished Excalibur through the air to point at my throat. “I wouldn’t really hurt you, of course, but I doubt he would spot that, the old fool.”

“Why do you have to prove yourself to him?” I asked, trying to distract Max from the heroines. “You’re better than him and you now it – who cares if he knows?”

“Peregrine holds so much knowledge, so much power,” he hissed, flashing back into anger. “So much that should belong to the world. To me. And yet, he keeps it all hidden away, not trusting me, anyone, to use it properly. If I show him my power he’ll have no choice but to grant me access!”

Emilia reared up behind Max and transformed into a gorilla, quietly reaching towards his head… “And what if he still says no?” I said.

“Then I’ll make him give me access,” Max growled. “I said ‘no choice’ and I meant it.” Then he smiled, that same easy grin as before, and fire flared up around him again, bright enough that I could barely see, bright enough that Emilia flinched away before she could try and grapple him.

When the flames died down, he was sitting on the throne again. “I’m so sorry, Keeper,” he said to Emilia, sounding genuinely regretful, “I’d love to catch up, but I’m afraid I’m talking to Navi right now.” He pointed Excalibur at her, then at the iron cage, and she – and a pair of dazed-looking security guards – joined Anima in the cage.

Or rather, in where the cage had been. Anima had wrapped its bars around herself and turned it into a suit of animated armor, brilliant white energy burning around her as she rushed forward with an indescribable sound – a mix of crackling flame and buzzing electricity and heavy, metallic footfalls until she slammed into the surprised Max like a train.

The aura shrunk a moment later as Max vanished her armor, but Anima was undeterred, still flaring up energy and clearly draining it from the struggling magician as I rose to my feet. “The sword!” I called. “Get the sword away from him!”

His efforts redoubled, flame licking around the two of them, but it seemed to have little effect – a moment later, Anima wrested Excalibur from him, and he collapsed.

She turned to face us, the sword changing shape into a long rapier, and the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. Something wasn’t right.

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2.2. Scenes 14-15

Scene 14 – December 19th
Interior Crazy Coffee, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

 

“To being done with finals!” we chorused, clinking our mugs together cheerfully. “How’d you do, Holly?” I asked my friend.

She shrugged. “I’m sure I did fine. I didn’t struggle with anything, finished my essays a little early. Wowed the magic examiners as usual. How about you?”

I waggled my hand in a so-so gesture. “I had a little more trouble than usual, probably because I was too busy to study as much as I usually do, but since I usually don’t have much of any trouble… I’m sure I still passed, just maybe in the top half of the class instead of the top five.”

“Way to brag, Quinn,” Simone teased.

“Yeah, most people try to downplay their achievements,” Holly said.

“Oh really, miss ‘wowed the magic examiners as usual,’” I teased right back.

“Yeah, well… I don’t get why most people have so much trouble with magic. It’s easy.”

“Ignore the prodigy,” Simone said.

“Dr. Wagner is trying to get me to feel more confident and to accept less than perfection from myself,” I said, trying not to sound too defensive. “Part of that is bragging, at least a little bit!”

“…yeah, that sounds like him. How about you, Simone? First college finals?”

Our younger friend sagged a little. “I had a lot of trouble,” she admitted. “I don’t think I failed any classes or anything, but… well, I might end up switching majors. It’s only going to get harder from here, after all.”

“Don’t jump ship too soon,” I warned her. “You might have done better than you thought you did. I thought I flubbed my first finals and almost wanted to drop out until my Dad stopped me…”

Holly nudged me a little almost immediately, and I was able to continue with barely a pause. “And it turned out I had done fine. Wait until you get your grades back before making any decisions.”

“On the other hand, don’t be afraid to switch if you have to or want to,” Holly countered. “You’re chemical engineering, right?”

“Just chemistry,” she corrected. “And I don’t want to switch, I just… feel like I didn’t do well.”

“Dr. Wagner says that pessimism can be a self-reinforcing loop,” I told her. “Be optimistic at least until you get your results back.”

She nodded, seeming a little cheered up. “Thanks, Quinn.” Then she brightened further as she looked over my and Holly’s shoulders out the window. “Hey look, its snowing again!”

We turned to look, and I found myself grinning at the light dusting that was coming down to join the inches already on the ground. “I love snow,” I confessed. “Rain I can take or leave, but snow is great. My dad and I had the best snowball fights when I was younger – sometimes my babysitter would join in too. Good memories.”

“Snow‘s always annoyed me,” Holly disagreed. “It’s really tough to get the drifting motion right in an illusion. Took me ages to finally get it right. Rain’s much easier.”

“You did get it eventually though?”

“Well, yes.”

“Then don’t be such a grouch,” Simone said teasingly, standing. “Snowball fights, you said?”

I grinned. “Yeah, come on out!” I stood as well and offered a hand to Holly.

“Noooo,” she complained, leaning over her hot tea. “It’ll be cold!”

“You have a coat, come on!”

“Fine, fine.” She took my hand and let me pull her to her feet, and I tried not to blush too much as she did. “Powers or no powers?”

Simone hummed thoughtfully as we stepped outside. “Well, I should at least take us to a better place than in the middle of the street. Maybe April Park?”

“That’s closed until April,” I joked. Holly elbowed me, but I could see her smirking. Or feel it, rather – we were close enough that the sense of my presence traced out an amused smile on her face, even though the illusory construct of her was glaring at me playfully. I had been able to read her a lot better since I realized that my ESP could do that, and when I had told her, she had assured me that she didn’t mind.

“April Park sounds good,” Holly told Simone.

The teleporter scooped us up, one in each arm, and the world bent around us.

 

Scene 15 – December 19th
Exterior April Park, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

 

We landed in April Park and took a moment to just absorb the beauty of the drifting snow and the whiteness that blanketed the ground. Or I did, at least – Simone and Holly were taking a few steps away and stretching.

“Do you think we should get some of those guys involved?” Simone asked, pointing at a group of other teenagers who were already engaged in a snowball fight of their own.

Holly tilted her head, pursing her lips, then made a disgusted face and shook her head. “Uh, no. I just listened in on them and they’re talking about… well, I’ll spare your young ears, but Quinn and I don’t want to go near them, anyway.”

“Gotcha.”

“Oh hey!” I said brightly, trying not to dwell on how common transphobia was. “I got something cool to share before we get started!”

“Yeah?” Simone asked, turning to face me.

“Holly, do you mind giving us some privacy first?”

She brought her hands together and brushed her fingers against and through each other in one of the impossible gestures she used to cast magic, and a transparent red field took shape around us. From outside the field, no one would see anything other than three friends chatting and snow falling – from within it, the red outline would show us where the edge of the bubble of normality was. “Done. What’s up?”

“So all the practice with the style of magic Holly found for me has helped me get pretty good at focusing on one particular thing with my powers,” I began. “But that got me thinking – one of the things that marks a really powerful telekinetic is how many individual items they can affect, right?”

“Sure,” Simone agreed.

“So I’ve been trying to stretch myself, find my limits in that area too,” I explained. “And as it turns out, it’s kind of the same limit as I have with distance. The force of my personality-”

“I still think that’s a silly name for it,” Holly interjected teasingly.

“-can affect a lot at once,” I continued, poking her in her ribcage playfully. She squirmed away, still with that same smile under her face. “But the more things I’m messing with, the less focus I can put on any individual object, and thus the less force I can apply to them. But…”

“But…?” Simone asked. Unlike my traitorous best friend, some people knew how to keep a story going.

I grinned. “Well. Snowflakes don’t need much force to control, now do they?” I said, and every single flake of drifting snow within the red outline of Holly’s field froze in midair.

Simone stared in awe. “That,” she said, peering at them where they hung, motionless, “is so cool. Isn’t that cool?” she asked Holly.

Holly was staring at me with a look that I couldn’t quite decipher – not without the assistance of my actual eyes, at least. “It’s very cool,” she agreed.

I held up an open palm, and the snow zoomed around my friends and me until it reached a point a few inches above my hand. Only a few seconds later, a perfect snowball fell into my grip, and my smile, always a little crooked, turned positively wicked.

Holly smirked, and pointed a finger gun at the snowball. A lance of fire burst forth and quickly melted it, and cold water splashed over my hands.

I frowned and focused, getting a surge of information about the water before pushing it off of my hands, instantly drying them. “When did you figure out fire?” I asked.

“Just recently,” Holly answered. “One of my classes this year was magical thermodynamics, and parts of the final unit helped it click for me.” She conjured a ball of flame in her hand, then a few more, juggling them for a moment. “Best part? They don’t even have to be dangerous if I don’t want them to be!”

“How does that work?” Simone questioned, sticking a hand through one of the fireballs as it fell. As promised, she barely flinched as it scattered across her skin, harming her not at all.

“Heat spreads in a radius and weakens as it does, right?” Holly explained. “And there’s a point in that radius at which it’s not harmful, but still noticeable. So instead of making a point source of high heat that can spread, I make a sphere of that harmless level of heat, centered on the point. It spreads normally from there, but doesn’t harm you if you get too close.”

“Neat.”

“And you’re controlling heat, not just generating it?” Holly nodded in confirmation, and I continued, “Does that mean that you can do ice, too?”

She waggled a hand. “Sort of. I can certainly make cold, but that doesn’t mean ice forms unless the humidity is crazy high. Whatever effect Vulcan has which lets him form ice regardless isn’t something I can replicate – yet – so it’s not ice yet. His job is safe.

“On the other hand,” she continued, “this does mean that my illusions can be even more realistic. I’m still working on adding heat to my stock constructs, but I’ve already got it for the ones I use most often.”

“Such as?”

A spray bottle appeared in mid-air, pointing at Journey, who instantly teleported to the other side of me, crouching to hide from Holly behind my significantly-shorter frame. “Save me!” she begged.

“Hmm… I don’t know if-” I started. Before I could finish the joke, however, we were interrupted by an unpleasant chirping noise, coming simultaneously from all three of us. We each produced a small pager-esque device that the MLED had given to us – mine, like Holly’s, was attached to my keys, while Simone seemed to have clipped it to her phone. All three were chirping in a pattern and flashing several colored LEDs.

“There’s an attack at the MLED Compound,” Holly told us, interpreting the alarm’s pattern faster than Simone or I could. “The red light blinking like that means that all available heroes are called to come assist, the steady blue light means we’ll get overtime pay.” A white LED was blinking as well, 4 times and then a pause, 4 times and then a pause. “Four hostile metahumans on site,” she added. “Odd. None of the gangs in the New Venice have four metas.”

“…we should probably head over there, shouldn’t we?” Simone asked, sounding a little dejected. She had been looking forward to hanging out with me and Holly – I thought that she probably looked up to Holly, as the oldest and most experienced member of the Journeymen. Plus, there had also been some drama with her girlfriend – ex-girlfriend now, from what little I had heard – and although she hadn’t gone into the details, I knew she wanted to distract herself from it.

Holly had clearly picked up on it as well, as she said, “We’re probably not needed. I mean, Zookeeper is on console today, and Canaveral may be on patrol but he can be back pretty quickly, and between the two of them they should be able to deal with just about anything. And… well, Anima is a fast mover if she’s flaring a strong enough aura, even though Vulcan and Starling won’t show up.”

“…wait, why won’t they show up?”

“Vulcan had a lunch date planned for today – I suppose he might duck out of it and come, but I wouldn’t count on it – and Starling never takes overtime,” Simone told me.

“How do you keep track of all this stuff?”

“The point is,” Holly said, “that the three of them will probably have it covered. This is a general call for everyone who’s able to, not for any of us specifically – I can say that we just weren’t available.”

“…I don’t think you should.” I said, looking up. I had noticed something moving through the sky at the edge of my presence, and my suspicion was confirmed when I laid eyes on it – the giant bird golem that Anima used was moving, and away from the Compound.

Holly and Simone followed my eyes, and Holly cursed. “That…” she made a few quick gestures, and her eyes flickered with strange light for a moment before returning to normal. “Yeah, that’s carrying Anima, Zookeeper, and the boss.”

“Why are they leaving the Compound?” I asked.

“There must be something going on that needs them elsewhere,” she said grimly.

“That means that we can be back faster than they can,” Simone said. “So we should go.”

“Yeah, we should,” I agreed.

Holly frowned. “Four hostile metahumans,” she reminded me. “That doesn’t match the Buff Boys or the Crows – not that the Crows would ever attack the Compound, they’re not that stupid. That means that it’s a probably a new group, metahumans whose capabilities we don’t know – and barring a miracle, we won’t have Referee to even the odds. None of the New Champions beside us – are you sure you two are ready for this?” She, of course, was more than ready, and we all new it.

“I’m ready,” I promised her, and Simone nodded. I took her hand, and so did Holly, and a moment later we were gone.

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2.2. Scenes 12-13

Scene 12 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Morning
Dominic Könberg

“Why do we have to visit the compound?” Tristan complained as we went through the security line. “It’s boring. I’ve seen it before!”

He was playing the part of the moody teenager perfectly – one of the guards was clearly suppressing a smirk as he performed a perfunctory search of Mom’s bag. I, meanwhile, simply stepped through a metal detector, which beeped at me.

“Belt,” the guard said.

I pulled it off and tossed it in a bin, then went through again, this time without issue. Tristan took his belt off before going through the detector, which allowed him through without issue.

Our strategy for infiltrating the building had been devised by Viv and Morgan the previous week, and basically boiled down to look like random civilians with different identifying marks for as long as possible’. To that end, I was wearing a beard to make me look a little older, and my naturally-white hair had been died mostly – but not entirely – brown, to make me appear to be closer to Mom’s age. With Tristan beside us, we looked like a couple and their teenage son arriving a little early for the afternoon’s tour – enough to start with lunch while we waited. Viv and Percy had entered a few minutes earlier, similarly disguised as a couple, to prevent us from being identifiable as a group of the right size and composition – Viv’s own distinctive hair had been temporarily dyed auburn, while Percy was wearing contacts instead of his usual glasses.

For much the same reason, we were making just a little trouble in the security lines. Viv had insisted that the guards would remember a group going through perfectly more than a group that forgot a handful of random things – Mom’s purse held a pocketknife for the same reason, although it looked like the guard had either missed it or not cared as he passed it to her.

Having passed through security without incident, we began making our way to the cafeteria, keeping an eye out for Viv and Percy – they were supposed to be finding a quiet place for us to change into our costumes for the next leg of the infiltration. Shortly before reaching the cafeteria, I spotted Viv leaning out of what looked like a conference room door, gesturing for us to come closer.

“Finally,” Tristan muttered as we joined her.

“Cameras down?” I asked, my eyes flicking up to a security camera in the ceiling.

“Should be,” she confirmed. “The spell Mother gave me went without a hitch, and there haven’t been any alarms, so…”

“Great.”

The door closed behind us and I saw that Percy was already changed, wearing a stylized set of plate armor and a red cloak, the hood down to reveal his helmet. His arms were crossed across his chest as he leaned against one wall, blood-red mist drifting around his gauntlets. “What took you so long?” he asked, and though his helmet covered his mouth I could tell that he was smiling. “Feels like I’ve been waiting for ages.”

“You’re just eager to tweak the nose of the MLED,” Mom said. “It’s been ten minutes at most.”

“That’s still a long time to wait,” he complained. “It’s not like I can use a phone in here.” He waggled his metal-covered fingers.

“Hey, you were the one who wanted the gauntlets,” I pointed out. “The rest of us have leather gloves. Speaking of which…”

“Gotcha covered,” Viv assured us, then spoke a long sentence that made my teeth vibrate. When she was finished, all our clothes – actually our costumes, physically transmuted into regular clothes by Viv and Morgan’s combined efforts the previous night – had been replaced by armor. All of us wore roughly the same thing as Percy, with the only differences being the color of the cloak – picked the match the color of the mist that dad’s armor made for each of us – and which piece of armor was a genuine artifact.

Forest-green mist swirled around the greaves of Tristan’s armor – it would, thankfully, muffle the clinking of metal on tile whenever he took a step. The thick white mist that poured off of Viv’s helmet almost looked like hair, even matching her hair color, except that while she had a spiky pixie cut, the mist curled down to her shoulders before beginning to fade. Mom had a deep blue mist swirling around her breastplate, almost looking like a skirt as it fell to the ground around her legs and faded.

The Round Table

For myself, I wore the cloak of the armor set. It was a purple so dark that it was nearly black, and the mist that poured from it made it appear far longer that it was, pooling around my feet and surrounding me. It was, with all modesty, a pretty impressive sight. But…

“I just wish we could turn the mist off,” Viv said, and I nodded in agreement. “It’s more conspicuous that I’d like.”

“We’re supposed to be conspicuous,” Percy pointed out. “To draw attention away from you. And you’ve got the stealth cloak, so the mist shouldn’t matter.”

“I mean, yeah, but you guys should still stay out of sight as long as possible.” She pulled her hood up experimentally.

I blinked. “Where’d Viv go?”

“What do you mean?” Mom asked. “Isn’t she still…. at home?” She frowned in confusion.

“No, she stepped out to use the… bathroom?” Percy said uncertainly. “…right?”

Viv pulled her hood down. “Well, that seems to work,” she said with a definite smirk in her voice. “I’ll keep it down until we have to split up, though.”

“Right. Now then… we’re going down?”

“Yeah, the servers we’re looking for are in the third subbasement,” Mom agreed.

I planted my feet firmly – in my practice, that had always helped – and my cloak billowed out as I tapped into its magic. The MLED building had an odd construction, as far as buildings went – it was modular, made such that every piece could be taken apart and replaced as necessary. Despite the faux-hardwood, the floor we were standing on was built from metal framing – and metal, as with everything that came from the ground, was within the domain of my armor.

The floor buckled slightly and lifted as I manipulated it, unclipping one of the floor plates and moving it aside. Below it was a plate for the ceiling of the first basement – that, too, I unclipped and gently floated to the ground.

“Good job, bro,” Viv said, leaning over the edge of the neat hole to the first subbasement. “We should be able to hop all the way down to the right level!”

“Anyone down there?” Mom asked.

My sister shook her head. “No, I’m not hearing anyone within a hundred feet in that level. If I remember the floor plan right – and I do – this level is mostly barracks and year-to-year storage. Not a ton of call for these rooms in the middle of the day.”

“Then down we go!” Mom casually slipped through the hole and landed easily, her knees flexing slightly as she hit the ground. The invulnerability her armor granted her absorbed nearly all the force of her landing, and she didn’t even make much sound. “Drop down to me, I’ll help catch you,” she said up to us.

Viv nodded, then hopped down herself. Percy and Tristan followed, and I brought up the rear. Mom caught each of us gently, the magic of her armor absorbing the force and sound of each landing and producing more blue smoke instead.

“Alright, Viv,” Percy said as I replaced the tiles I had pulled out, filling in the hole behind us. “Where to next?”

“One more floor down,” she told me.

I focused again, and a tile from the floor below us rose and moved to the side. But rather than revealing the ceiling tile below, it revealed a dense lattice of crystalline material that didn’t register to the magic of my cape.

I knelt to knock on it, a gentle chime ringing out as the crystal vibrated. “What is this stuff?” I asked.

Viv frowned at the protective lattice. “It must be some kind of extra layer of protection for the lowest levels – tougher than the usual stuff, but too expensive to use everywhere. Can you deal with it?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Whatever it is, it’s not considered ‘of the earth’.” I made air quotes as I quoted the category that the cape was supposed to have dominion over.

“It must be some magical bullshit,” Tristan complained, and Mom nodded. “Can you do anything about it, sis?”

“Maybe…” Viv said uncertainly. “Mother hasn’t taught me much destructive magic yet, and if this is high-end magic, well…”

“You can do it,” I encouraged her.

She took a deep breath, then began muttering under her breath, a faint static beginning to build up in my ears as she did. After a minute or so, the crystal began to vibrate and produce an extended hum, and only a few seconds later Viv stopped and coughed up smoke, clutching at her throat.

“Are you alright?” Mom asked, her voice full of concern.

Viv nodded, waving her off, and hoarsely said, “this stuff shrugs off most magics, and reflects the rest. Nearly burnt out my voicebox.”

“Honey-”

“I’m fine,” she raspily promised. “Or I will be, rather. I just need a few minutes.”

“Okay, so we’re not going to be able to go through this,” I summed up.

“Hey, let me take a turn,” Percy insisted, cracking his fingers. “Maybe brute force will work where magic failed.”

“‘Brute’ is right,” Viv commented, then coughed again, a little more smoke coming out.

“Kids,” Mom warned as Percy crouched and took hold of the crystal bars. He flexed and heaved and struggled, but it was obvious that he wasn’t making any progress.

“…okay, so we’re not going to be able to go through this,” I said again, replacing the floor tile. “What next? We still have to go one more level down, right?”

“Two,” Viv said, frowning. “And there are checkpoints at each of the stairwells down, and no elevators into the secure levels.”

“Hm… let’s start moving towards the nearest stairwell,” Mom decided. “Once we’re there, we can think about how to get past it.”

We traveled in silence, for the most part. Other than the faint clinking of our armor – fortunately muffled somewhat by the multicolored fog that surrounded us – there was little noise and no conversation until my sister called for us to halt.

“The guards are right around this corner,” she whispered. “Any ideas? Remember, we need to be very careful here, because they have-”

There was a sudden expansion of the green mist as Tristan rushed forward at high speed, swinging around the corner and attacking the guards. We heard two swift thumps and then he was back, leaning against the wall and obviously grinning. “All done!” My little brother chirped happily.

Viv gaped at him, open-mouthed, then growled, smoke curling out of her nostrils. “Tristan, you… you! They have heartbeat monitors, you dingus!

“Ah.” He glanced over his shoulder towards where the guards were no doubt slumped, unconscious. “Whoops?”

Scene 13 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

Viv took a deep breath, and a fresh wave of white smoke rolled off of her helmet as she, presumably, took advantage of the superintelligence it gave. “Okay, you guys start fighting your way out,” she said after an instant. “Take at least ten minutes – that should be long enough for me to get a sizable data dump from the secure servers. We already knew that it was unlikely we’d be able to do this completely undetected – our best strategy now is to do it without the purpose being known. Just remember the cover reason you’re here.”

“Remind me what that was?” Tristan asked.

Percy sighed. “You’re too hyper, bro. We’re pretending that we came to steal items from secure storage, rather than data, so they’ll look in the wrong place. We accidentally set off an alarm, so we’re running.”

“…there’s no alarm though,” he said.

“It’s silent,” Viv told him, pulling her hood up.

“…wait, what’s silent?”

“Time to go,” Mom declared. “There will be more guards coming…”

“Soon?” I asked, pointing down the hallway to where MLED agents were already appearing.

“Unidentified intruders, you are surrounded!” one of them shouted to us. “Sit down and place your hands on the ground! Do not use any metahuman -”

I cut her off by stomping on the ground, causing the tiles of the floor and walls to curve into a wall that blocked us from the guards.

“What about from the other directions?” Percy asked. “If we’re surrounded…”

I leaned around the corner and saw that yes, guards were appearing from the lower level – the two that Tristan had knocked out were being pulled to safety. I had to jerk back as an agent fire a high-tech pistol that shot some kind of electrical charge through the air, close enough that I could smell ozone.

“Yup, definitely surrounded,” I said generating more purple mist as I closed off that path.

“Wait, where’s Vivian?” Mom asked, sounding a little panicked. “She’s hurt!”

“No, she’s…” my mind skittered away from whatever I had been about to say, and I frowned. “Uh, she’s not here, so how could she have been hurt?”

“…right.” Mom sighed. “I forgot.”

“It’s that stealth cloak,” Percy chuckled. “Works a little too well, it seems like. How could you forget that Viv is… at home with Morgan?”

“No names, Sir Ardent,I reminded him. “Now, we can’t just bunker down under these walls -” there was a loud thud and the sound of tearing metal from down the corridor, and I almost absentmindedly reinforced that barrier. “They’ll tear them down at some point, after all. They’ll call in heroes, if nothing else.”

“Who could get past them, though?” Tristan asked. “I mean, if you keep rebuilding the walls…”

“Journey could teleport through. Vulcan could melt through. Anima turning them into a golem might trump my control – she never went up against dad, so who knows how that would turn out. Canaveral could probably tear through them faster than I could rebuild. Loki might be able to-”

“Okay, you’ve made your point,” Mom said. “No need to go overboard. What’s your plan?”

I nodded to Tristan. “I’ll open up a hole for Sir Alacrity. He zooms out for a few moments and then back to start knocking some of them out so we can make a path. You and Sir Ardent guard the hole to make sure the guards don’t get through to me.”

Percy nodded. “It’s a good plan, Sir Amethyst,” he said, probably trying to remind himself to use the codenames we had chosen – I knew that I was. “Dame Adamant’s invulnerability can block and shots they make, and I can throw back anyone who gets close.”

“Exactly. Let’s get to it.”

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2.2. Scenes 10-11

Scene 10 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

“Short version?” I said to Anima, “our ex-boyfriend is being possessed by a magic sword that’s making him think he should be a king, and is giving him enough power to let him pull it off.”

She nodded. “Sounds about right. It’s been what, six months since anything big went down? We’re due for something of the sort. Odd that it’s Max, though – he’s always stuck to small scale stuff, until now.”

“He tries to keep his threat level low,” I explained, “to avoid a level of response that he couldn’t escape from. Looks like the sword has made him forget that – Director Shepard called me on my way back to let me know that he had been ungraded to a mid-level threat.” That meant that a hero shouldn’t go in against him without backup unless absolutely necessary, as it had been with Legion last month. I was just glad that he hadn’t been put all the way at high – that would call in heroes from out-of-town who were considered best able to deal with the situation, if they were available in time. But out-of-towners were unlikely to try and talk Max down, as I hoped Emilia and I could do. “With the sword affecting him, though…”

“I hope he’s alright, then,” Anima said. “He’s… well, maybe a little less with Max, to be honest, but you know I think of all of you like my kids. I don’t want anything to happen to him.”

“You really are everyone’s mom, aren’t you?” I asked, trying to summon up a teasing tone despite my worry.

She shrugged. “I’ve accepted it, at this point.”

“I called Vulcan and Starling too,” my girlfriend said to Anima, “but they turned the overtime down. It’s just us until their shift starts tonight.”

“How urgent is the situation?” Anima asked. “Can we afford to wait that long?”

“He hasn’t made any violent moves yet,” I said, “but the optics of letting the castle he’s turned the Higgins Museum into stand for even a whole day would be a nightmare. We have to move soon.”

“Are we calling in the Journeymen, too?”

I shook my head. “No way. Like I said, he’s at mid-level now, not low – and his power is probably boosted enough that he could get a high threat level if he’s fighting seriously, not that it wasn’t close to that already. I’m not bringing any of the kids into that.”

“Agreed.”

“It’s just Max,” Nic said over the intercom. “Grab Holly – I think they were hanging out with Simone and Quinn today, so they ought to be able to get here quick – and you can shut him down easy. He needs to see to use his powers, right?”

“No, he doesn’t,” I corrected him. “It makes it easier, and he can only teleport where he can see, but he can use his powers in general just by knowing something is there. I wouldn’t really be against Holly coming, to be honest, but I’m not risking Quinn getting involved.”

“Then tell them ‘no’.”

I laughed. “Last time I told them no, they stumbled onto the villain on the way home. I’m just not going to tell them – that should keep them out of trouble.”

“Quinn does tend to get into trouble,” Emilia admitted. “Remember how they just happened to be passing by the bar that Essa and Maria were celebrating their anniversary at? Thank god we were all there too, or Maria would have gone full Borda on the unknown superhero passing by – you know how touchy she is about Essa’s safety.”

“Yeah, that could have been bad,” Anima agreed.

“Point is that we’re not taking any of the Journeymen. Nic,” I said in the vague direction of the room’s microphone, “I’d be shocked if other villains in the city had no reaction to this. Keep us updated.”

“Sure.”

“As for us,” I said to Emilia and Anima, “let’s get moving.”

Emilia shifted into a raven and perched on my shoulder – her costume wasn’t practical for winter temperatures, especially since it was snowing lightly, but she had a wide variety of forms that could handle the cold better – a raven was one of the those winter forms that could also speak. She rubbed her beak against my cheek and let out a happy croak, and I rubbed the back of her head.

Anima and I, on the other hand, had to settle for the cold-weather versions of our costumes. Hers replaced the cropped blue jacket she usual wore with a full coat with her heart emblem emblazoned on the labels – mine, on the other hand, was woven of a heavier fabric as well as replacing the long flowing cape I usually wore with a heavy wool cloak in the same brilliant red shade.

After zipping up her coat, she had selected one of the premade golems that Starling had built for her and animated it, white lightning crackling across its hulking form so that it could carry us. While Anima was capable of creating golems from any material and shaping it into any form she wanted, they were limited by the strength of the material – not to mention that it took more out of her to animate heavier objects. Starling regularly built her new golems for her to take into battle which were crafted of exotic materials, stronger, tougher, and lighter than the concrete, asphalt, or wood she normally worked with if she had to create a new golem in the city.

The one she had chosen was a great bird – a roc, I think Starling had called it, although I wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable about mythology as he was. It was large enough to carry two people on its back at once – plus a raven tagging along for the ride – with only a 25-foot wingspan. That made it perfect for travel in the city.

I clambered into the golem’s saddle right behind Anima, and the roc lurched through the staging area’s open window. It flapped its wings once, twice, and we were off.

 

Scene 11 – December 19th
Exterior City, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

 

“Abe…” Emilia croaked from my shoulder.

“Yes, dear?”

“I’m worried about Max,” she told me. “If Excalibur is affecting his mind… what will happen if we take it away? Might it have some kind of addictive affect?”

“That would make sense, I suppose,” I said. “If you’re already going to affect a victim’s mind, making it addictive prevents them from even wanting to break it. But from what Peregrine said, the parts of it that affect the mind weren’t intentional – they’re a side effect of its enhancement.”

“Well, I’m also thinking about those narcissistic tendencies Arthur mentioned,” she admitted. “I didn’t notice anything at the time, but in retrospect… Max always had a way of making everything not his fault, didn’t he?”

I nodded. “He did, yeah. I didn’t notice any major red flags either, but Peregrine probably isn’t wrong that he has tendencies.”

“And I’m afraid… well, if he’s teetering on the edge of narcissism at the best of times, this might tip him the wrong way. The power boost…” She let out a concerned-sounding croak and buried her beak into the crook of my neck.

I gently stroked her feathers. “I see the worry. I hope we can talk him down, but… in the end, I think he’s probably going to need some therapy.”

“I don’t know whether to hope his trial has him declared non compos mentis or not,” she admitted. “I don’t want Max to go to jail.”

“I know. I still care for him too.”

Emilia strove to add a touch of amusement to her voice despite the limitations of a raven’s voice as she said, “just ‘care for’, huh?”

“Okay, okay, I still love him a little. Can you blame me?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I still love him a little too. He was a good boyfriend, when he was actually paying attention.”

“When he was paying attention,” I agreed, a little sourly. Max’s tendency to get so wrapped up in magical research had been the single biggest reason we had broken up with him, much more so than the relatively-harmless crimes he committed. Had committed, until now. “He’s great at everything, when he’s paying attention.”

Emilia rubbed her beak on my cheek in a little bird kiss, and said, “You’re pretty great too, Abe.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that, and turned my head to press a kiss of my own to her head. “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“Done being sappy?” Anima teased from her seat ahead of us. “We should talk about our approach to Max, you know.”

“Right, sorry.” I straightened up, Emilia shifting her grip on my shoulder slightly as I did. “I want to try talking him down first. If we can just get him to give up the sword, I’m certain that he’ll stop on his own.”

“A pretty big if,” Anima noted.

“It is,” I admitted, “but Emilia and I know him pretty well. I think there’s a chance.”

“And if not? What can we expect from him, combat-wise?”

I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. “Hard to say. Last I heard, he had picked up a kind of line-of-sight teleportation, but otherwise was still just bringing things in and out of pocket dimensions at a limited range. I know he was trying to figure out kinetic manipulation, at least enough to launch stuff as he released it, but I don’t think he had figured it out yet.

“On the other hand… his abilities will have been boosted by Excalibur, and it’s not clear exactly what form that will take. It might just let him use the abilities he already has at a higher level – pocket more mass and from a longer ranger – or it might leapfrog him to a higher understanding of magic and give him access to new abilities that he’s been working on.”

“It let him reshape the musuem,” Emilia pointed out. “How do we think he’s doing that?”

“Could be a power of Excalibur itself,” I suggested. “After all, as Peregrine described it, it makes the holder into a king, according to its own requirements. A castle could easily be one of those – maybe it reshapes the world around you into one, and just used the museum as material?”

“Or it could be an expanded magic thing,” she said. “If he can pocket parts of objects now, and his storage is large enough, he could just pocket the building piece by piece and put it together differently. That’s what it looked like on the news broadcast I saw, anyway.”

“So, worst-case scenario,” Anima began, “he’ll have all his usual powers, at a higher level than usual, and has kinetic manipulation enough to launch objects, and is working with objects much larger than ever before.”

“Best to assume that,” I said grimly. “The sword is going to be trouble, I can just tell.”

“I wish Referee was back,” Emilia said wistfully. “She’d completely cancel its effects out. Would get us boosted to match, at the very least.”

“Yeah, well… her flight doesn’t land until this afternoon, and we can’t wait that long,” I said. “If we have to, we can retreat and come back later with her.”

“If he lets us,” Anima said darkly.

“He’s never killed before – he’s always avoided even  seriously injuring people,” I protested.

“That’s not what I meant. He can pocket living beings, right?”

“Sure, he’s done it to doves before,” Emilia confirmed. “Apparently time doesn’t pass in his pocket dimension, so it doesn’t even feel like anything.”

“So he could just drop us into his dimension, then,” said Anima, “and there’s not really anything we could do about it.”

I considered this. “That… is possible. Again, it’s something he’s never done before – he always tries to keep his threat level low, like I said before, and that would certainly raise it. But…”

“…but he doesn’t seem to care about that anymore,” Emilia finished.

“…we should have waited for Referee and Vulcan,” Anima said.

“…maybe.”

We fell silent for the next few minutes, until the roc approached the great marble castle that had once been the Higgins Museum.

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2.2. Scene 9

Scene 9 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Morning
Emilia Alvarez

 

It took longer than I’d have liked for Abe to get back to the Compound – he was a fast mover, but Nic had gone out on patrol for the first time today, and he was limited to normal human speed.

After fifteen minutes or so, however, my boyfriend arrived with the Journeyman in tow. His usual relaxed smile was gone, replaced by stern frown – I felt much the same.

“Have you been able to get in contact with him?” Abe asked me as soon as he walked into the room.

I rose from the console chair and nodded at it. “Take over for me?” I asked Nic, who nodded and slid into place. Abe and I stepped out, heading towards the staging area that led directly out of the Compound. “I called three times,” I told him, “but he didn’t pick up.”

“He didn’t pick up for me, either,” Abe said. “Something’s up with him.”

“This is completely out of character for Max,” I agreed. “He’s never pulled anything like this before. I mean, I guess the demand for tribute is something he might want, since he called out Arthur Peregrine in particular, but…”

“But he usually stuck to theft,” Abe finished. “This is just… megalomaniacal.” I nodded. “Did you get in contact with the other Champions?”

“Miriam is on her way, but Adam is busy. And Ben…”

“…never takes overtime, yeah. That…” He let out a sigh, clearly thinking that he was an ass but not saying it. “I think we should call Peregrine, too.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah,” Abe nodded, “I have a feeling there’s some magic bullshit going on here – not only is this kind of thing out of character for Max, it’s also well beyond his capabilities – or what I thought were his capabilities, anyway. I just hope that Peregrine answers.” He strode to the staging area’s video call screen, a large tv and camera combo that hung on the wall, and quickly navigated through a contacts list to call Peregrine.

We waited, both feeling tense, as the screen rang once… twice… three times… then sprang into life.

Arthur Peregrine was a man who could be best described as ‘tired’. He always looked as though he hadn’t slept the night before, heavy bags under his half-lidded eyes and the general demeanor of an overworked professor. He wore no costume, instead wearing a warm sweater beneath a dark blazer. The only concession to his status as a registered hero, not just a powerful magician, was the pin on one side of the blazer’s collar – a golden bird, wings spread, which I identified as a peregrine falcon. He seemed to be answering the call from a phone, as the viewpoint shifted slightly until it stabilized, presumably set down and propped against something.

“Canaveral. Zookeeper. What is it,” he said, and it didn’t sound like a question.

I had never spoken with the man before – he tended to discourage unnecessary calls – so it startled me a little that he was able to identify me on site, and his directness put me off balance as well. My boyfriend, thankfully, had no such issue.

“A local mage and super criminal, the Magnificent Maxwell, is attempting to assert control over the city,” he began.

“Really? How odd,” Arthur noted.

“We thought so as well. It’s out of character for the man, a very different means and apparent motive than he’s ever had before. It’s also a threat well above the abilities he’s ever shown to date.”

“It does indeed seem to be a level of narcissism well beyond the tendencies spotted with him when we met,” Arthur agreed. “And he’s certainly not able to threaten an entire city at once – only a few people in world can boast that, and I keep track of all of them.”

“Wait, you’ve met Max?” I cut in.

He nodded. “I interviewed him in hopes of gaining a new apprentice, some… four years ago, I believe. It was shortly after he began studying magic, and he showed a certain amount of promise, but his style of casting wasn’t very compatible with mine. Between that and the narcissistic leanings I mentioned, he didn’t make it through the interview.”

“I didn’t know he had interviewed with you,” I said. “In fact, from the way he talked about you, I got the impression you didn’t take apprentices at all. And… narcissistic leanings?”

Arthur shrugged. “Very rarely, I’m afraid. My style of casting is quite uncommon, and my standards are quite high. It’s been 20 years since I had an apprentice, and another 30 before that. And yes, narcissistic leanings – the man was very self-centered and seemed to view the world as revolving around himself. But that’s beside the point.”

“Is it?” Abe asked. “Max is demanding tribute from you in particular. I think he wants knowledge he believes that you’re keeping from the world – maybe because of the narcissism you’re accusing him of.”

“Possible, I suppose. But you seem to know Mr. Copperfield quite well already – why are you calling me?”

“Because this is out of character and beyond his abilities,” Abe reminded him, “and I have sources that tell me Max has been looking for a magical artifact. If he’s found it, could the artifact be the reason?”

I glanced at him curiously. It had been a while since I had seen Max – not since we had broken up, in fact – so I was curious how Abe had learned what he was after. As far as I knew, they had met only briefly, on Quinn’s first night heroing.

“Possibly,” Arthur said. “It depends on the artifact. Do you know what it was?”

“It was described to me as an instructional book written by Merlin,” Abe told him. “If he found it, could that explain the jump in his power?”

The magician shook his head. “Quite impossible.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Three reasons.” He lifted three fingers to count them down. “First, the book is a basic primer to a variety of subjects – it doesn’t cover them in the depth necessary to, say, threaten a city. Learning basic information about pyromancy, yes – deepening his manipulation of extradimensional spaces to the point that he could affect an entire city, no.

“Second, the book is written in Old English, and not very well written at that. It’s almost useless as a primer even if you can decipher the language, which I doubt that Mr. Copperfield could do.

“And thirdly…” Arthur reached off the edge of what the video call showed, and there was a crackle like lightning on his end, along with a flash of light from off screen. He retracted his hand holding a thick, obviously primitive book. “…the book has been in my library for nearly 20 years. There’s no possibility that he could stolen it once, let alone returned it without my notice.” He set it down.

“Then… what was Max looking for?” I asked. “If your source was mistaken…”

“More likely, he’s unaware that I have it. The book had fallen into a pocket dimension in 1999, along with a number of other artifacts from the time, and I didn’t publicize it when I recovered them…” His eyes widened. “Fuck,” he suddenly whispered.

“What’s wrong?” Abe asked.

“If he tracked the book to that pocket dimension, he might have taken what I left behind,” Arthur said, not really looking at us. “If he did…” The wizard vanished in another loud crackle and a flash of light, an effect which seemed to cause the video to be overcome by static for a few moments, slowly fading from the inside out.

Abe and I exchanged glances. “If Arthur Peregrine is worried about whatever Max found…” he began.

“…we probably should be too,” I finished, and he nodded.

There was another crackle, and when the static faded from the screen, Arthur was visible again – this time, he didn’t seem tired at all, and was instead fuming. “It’s as I feared,” he informed us. “Copperfield has drawn Excalibur back into the world.”

“The… the sword in the stone?” I asked.

“Not exactly. They both belonged to King Arthur, but the sword in the stone was broken in battle, and Excalibur a gift from -” he began, then stopped. “Not important, I suppose. The point is that Excalibur is a very powerful artifact – one of the ones I habitually check on every week – and I left it in that pocket dimension for a reason.”

“What does it do?” Abe asked. “I think I remember something about it making the wielder invincible, but…”

“Keep in mind,” Arthur warned, “that this blade has not been used in more than a millennium – it’s been locked in those stones ever since Charlemagne lost it. The information I have may not be reliable.”

“Anything you can tell us will be helpful,” I assured him.

He sighed. “In principal, Excalibur is not dissimilar to the wide variety of magical items that can only be used by those considered worthy. However, it takes a different stance on this than Mjolnir, which cannot even be lifted except by the worthy, or Corquestor, which will lead the unworthy to ruin. Instead, Excalibur declares that those who touch it without being worthy of kingship should become worthy.”

“…and what, exactly, does that mean?” Abe asked. “That’s not incredibly clear.”

“It acts as a general enhancement to whoever wields it,” Arthur explained. “My belief is that it enhances all  aspects of a person, including the power of any metahuman abilities and their skill in magic, until whatever quality the blade measures to determine worthiness is fulfilled.”

“So Max wouldn’t have been worthy, but the sword enhanced him until he was,” I summed up. “And in the process, it made him powerful enough to threaten the city.”

He nodded. “And most likely enhanced his narcissistic tendencies into full-fledged megalomania, which is why he seems to think it’s a good idea to do so.”

“Can you come help us, then?” I asked. “If Excalibur is so dangerous…”

He sighed. “I wish I could, but this is the worst possible time for it. I won’t be available at all until the 23rd, at the earliest. Possible the 22nd, if things go badly for this week’s interviews, but… well, I have confidence that you’ll have dealt with the situation by then regardless of my availability.”

“What keeps you so busy?” I couldn’t help but wonder.

“Today I’m familiarizing myself with every patient in Peregrine Hospital, so that I can heal them as efficiently as possible when I make my weekly visit tomorrow. The Monday following will be spent on those administrative duties that I can’t push off to my deputy. Then Tuesday is my weekly search for an apprentice – I have a young man from California in the morning, although I don’t have much hope for him, and a more promising young lady from India in the afternoon.”

“But if she falls flat and the interview ends quickly, you’ll be able to come?”

He nodded. “But as I said, she shows a lot of promise. I hope I’ll be able to accept her – it has, as I said, been far too long since I took an apprentice. It this had happened in the last three days…”

“More free those days?”

“I’m not exactly less busy, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but they’re solitary days rather than filled with appointments. I’m more able to shuffle those projects around – Wednesday I check on the status of various magical dangers, including Excalibur, and Thursday is my day for research.”

“And Friday?” I asked, curious.

“Friday is my one day off,” Arthur told me. “I’ll come for situations like this, but I need at least some rest.” He sighed. “Honestly, I barely have time for this phone call.”

“Sorry to distract you, then,” Abe said. “We’ll leave you be, and… I suppose we’ll send you a message when the situation is over, so you don’t have to worry about it during your interviews.”

“I’d appreciate it.” The call ended with no further preamble. I suppose I understood why the man had been so curt at the beginning, now that I knew how busy he was.

“What have I missed?” Anima asked, entering.

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2.2. Scenes 6-8

Scene 6 – December 19th
Interior Higgins Museum, Early Morning
Maxwell Copperfield

 

It was easy enough to slip into the Higgins Museum – while its main doors were opaque and it had no windows on the ground floor, the second level of the old building had windows. I simply stepped into a dimensional pocket and out of it within the museum.

There was no need for stage haze today – my careful expeditions into the museum over the last week to determine its security system told me that there were no laser wires – at least, not in the areas I was going to. Instead, I had to take slow, careful steps – the museum was protected mainly by sound detectors. They were mostly meant to pick up the shattering of glass cases, but if they were sensitive enough… I wasn’t sure how sensitive they were – probably not very, since there would be a night guard around somewhere and another in the security office, and whoever was on duty tonight was unlikely to have a light step. Just in case, however, I had vanished my shoes for the moment and replaced the thin socks which usually went with my suit with thick woolen ones to further muffle the soft sound of my footsteps.

I had remembered about the security cameras, this time, and had bought a device from Motael which the gadgeteer had assured me would leave me invisible to the cameras, but I hadn’t been able to afford the extra for it to work on the noise sensors. I had no idea how it worked, but I trusted him not to backstab me – he was smart enough not to ruin his reputation as the city’s best provider of tech to villains. Not over something so apparently small, anyway.

It was ridiculous how long it had taken me to find this damn book, I mused as I began moving towards the Camelot exhibit, which was the current centerpiece of the museum. After the discovery that Merlin’s book had fallen into a dimensional pocket bound to one of 14 foundational stones of Camelot, I had spent three months steadily tracking where each of the stones had ended up. I had only found 11 of them when I had figured out the key, just a week or two ago – the storage enchantment that Merlin had laid down, and that his book had fallen afoul of, was on all of Camelot’s stones – as a collection, not each stone individually. As such, any of the stones should be able to act as my key into the dimension that contained the manual.

The manual and a number of other magical relics, which I would also be taking. But those were just bonuses.

I had to pause on my way through the dinosaur exhibit, hearing the night guard approach. As I had guessed, he was a heavyset man, although he was younger than I would have thought. He wouldn’t be any trouble to slip into a pocket until the end of the night, but instead I hid – I wanted this theft to go unnoticed. No one should have any reason to know or care that the stone doubled as magical storage, so I was confident it was possible – all I had to do was continue dodge the security as I had been.

Despite my attempts at stealth, however, the guard seemed to have picked up on something. Even though his rounds shouldn’t take him actually through the dinosaur exhibit until closer to sunrise, he had paused to shine his flashlight into the darkness. I huddled behind the podium that held the T. Rex and hoped he would move on his own.

No such luck. “Who’s there?” the guard called. How to make him think that he had imagined whatever had drawn his attention…

Well, it had begun storming an hour or two ago. Perhaps I could…

I released a large sheet of aluminum into my arms – not big enough to be seen around the edge of the podium, but still sizable. I shook it once or twice, and the wobbling metal made a sound like thunder – a classic foley trick that I had used in a show a few years ago.

The sound of the thunder, as I had hoped, triggered the alarm system. The guard cursed and spoke. “Hey, shut off that alarm,” he said, and I heard him turn and begin to walk away. “No, it was the thunder. Loud as shit, you hear that?”

I leaned around the edge of the podium and saw that the guard was speaking into a walkie talkie, presumably to his partner in the security office. His voice began to fade as he continued his rounds, saying, “you really didn’t hear that? I thought I was gonna go deaf for a moment, damn thing nearly…”

The alarms faded and shut off, and I breathed out. I was glad I hadn’t had to resort to my next idea – starting a fire behind him. I had finally cracked adding kinetic energy to what I released from my dimensional pockets a month or so ago – at a very basic level, at least. I still couldn’t add in much more than the equivalent of a gentle shove. I still remembered the lesson I had learned along the way, though – the twisting of my mind that would ignite whatever I pulled out. My extradimensional storage now held a box of matches to be dropped anywhere that might need to catch fire, as well as a few bags of flour in case I needed explosions and a huge stack of flash paper, for more harmless flames. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, after all.

But I digress.

I didn’t run into any other trouble as I headed towards the Camelot exhibit, thankfully, so the museum remained unburnt. Its centerpiece was the stone itself, which was the only genuine artifact in the exhibit – everything else was a reproduction of something that actually lived in a different museum, or at least in storage.

The stone was pretty large as such things went, according to the placard left by the museum. It had been set up as something like a table – only six inches or so thick, but five feet long and three feet wide. It was sitting atop four supports, just like table legs. Apparently, it and other stones like it had been used to make a flat, sturdy foundation for the castle to be built on.

But I digress. Its exact history didn’t matter – what mattered was what lay inside it.

Looking at the slab of rock, I could easily see the magical energies that oozed out of it like sap from a tree. It was a slow but steady emission of a power that was invisible to the naked eye, but stood out to a magician looking for it like a sore thumb. I used that leaking energy as a guide, reaching out a hand and my mind to follow the flow of the power back to the dimension it was leaking from.

It wasn’t meant to leak, I could tell, but the extradimensional space was damaged – if it ought to have had a massive vault door, impossible to breach but opening easily to those with the proper key, that door had been bent and broken by the magical battle that had resulted in the book falling into it. The metaphorical vault door was wedged firmly into its frame and wouldn’t come out even to someone with a key – it was sealed shut to the point that I couldn’t really blame the hero who had accidentally done it for failing to retrieve the lost artifacts.

But I wasn’t Murphy Fox, and the seal of the vault was less perfect than it ought to have been, even if it could no longer open properly – the leaking energy was proof of that. I could get in, I was certain of it.

It was something like picking a lock and something like crawling through a tunnel and something like navigating a rope maze, but mostly it wasn’t like any of those. Working magic on the world could be understood with a metaphor, perhaps, but there was no metaphor up to the task of explaining what it was like to work magic on another piece of magic. Trying wasn’t like trying to explain sight to a blind man – it was like a blind man trying to explain sight.

Despite the incomprehensibility of the task, however, I was making progress.

 

Scene 7 – December 19th
Interior Higgins Museum, Continuous
Michael Vimes

 

“Look, Terry,” I said to my partner, “that security office is underground and clear on the other side of the building to boot! It’s not that weird that you didn’t hear the thunder!”

“I’m telling you, it’s weird,” she insisted. “I have good hearing, I would have heard something if it was really as loud as you said. Besides, it’s not storming – just raining. I mean, have you even heard any other thunder?”

“No,” I had to admit. “But even so -”

“And it’s not like the sensors go off for thunder normally. This shit is high tech, Mike, it can tell the difference between thunder outside and a sound from inside. I’m telling you, something’s up.”

“You think someone snuck in here to set off the alarms with a fake thunder noise?” I skeptically asked.

“I think someone used a fake thunder noise to cover up a more suspicious sound,” she said. “And they did it right in front of you so that you would have me mark it as a false alarm.”

I sighed. “Alright, alright. I’ll go back and double check the dinosaur exhibit. Lemme just look in on the Camelot thing first, aright? It’s right here, I might as well.”

“Fine. Just make it quick.”

I stepped into the central room of the museum to see the current rotating exhibit – a bunch of shit from the early middle ages, plus a rock that was supposed to be from Camelot. I didn’t know the details, just what it was supposed to look like under the light of my flashlight.

It didn’t look like it should.

The hunk of rock that was the exhibit’s centerpiece was glowing,the upper face of it rippling like water and emitting an eerie light that illuminated the figure of a man in red leaning over it, his hands extended in the air above the freaky thing.

“Hey!” I shouted, grabbing for my walkie talkie to tell Terry. I missed in my surprise – in all the years I had worked as night guard, I had never bumped into anyone stealing on my watch. Or… doing whatever the hell this guy was going. “Hey, step away from the… the thing!”

He glanced up at me and sighed. A click of his fingers and my walkie talkie was in his hand, not on my belt. “I don’t suppose,” he asked in a remarkably smooth voice, “that I could convince you to forget you saw this?”

“Um…” I stared at him, confused.

“I can give you money,” he added, apparently trying to clarify the bribery attempt. “I promise, I’m not stealing anything the museum knows about.”

“…what the hell does that mean?”

He gestured to the stone, and its surface wavered. “This stone is a magical container of a sort. It contains a number of artifacts thought lost forever.”

“The hell you mean by artifacts?” I demanded.

“Allow me to demonstrate,” he said, flashing me a grin. He plunged his arm – not the one holding my walkie talkie – into the surface of the stone like it was a pool of water, and began rooting around within it. The smile on his face quickly faded into a frown. “…the hell?”

“Is it empty, or some shit?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“No,” the red-suited man said, sounding irritated, “but the book I was expecting to find isn’t here. Neither is anything else I thought was in there. All there is, is…”

He pulled, and a gleaming sword came out of the stone.

It was a ornate longsword, a golden crossguard protecting the hand from a long silver blade. It didn’t stay that way long, though – the shape of the blade began to morph and shift, shrinking to only two feet long or so and the crossguard changing shape as well, until it was something almost like a long wand.

The intruder’s eyes flashed as he stared at the sword, and the hairs on the back of my neck rose. A moment later flame began to lick around him, sprouting from nothingness in a ghostly aura that didn’t seem to harm him at all, only give him an eerie, backlit aura.

A smile spread across his face, and while he was undeniably handsome, that smile in that light made him ugly. The man had done barely anything, and I was more terrified of him than I had ever been in my life.

I was almost grateful when he flicked the wand towards me, and everything went dark.

 

Scene 8 – December 19th
Interior MLED Compound, Morning
Emilia Alvarez

 

I shifted in the large seat, trying to settle into the console chair better, and once again cursed the rule that those manning the console had to be in costume,  and wished that my powers were a little different. I understood why, yes – the hero on console was also on call, ready to pass it to an unpowered agent or to a Journeyman if their presence was necessary, but my costume just wasn’t comfortable to sit in.

It didn’t usually bother me that my costume left me naked beneath the covering coat – it was a simple necessity, given that my shapeshifting power didn’t change my clothes with me. I could either wear something that was easy to slip into and out of as I shifted, or I could destroy clothes every time I had to change. The choice was easy – it’s not as though I had ever been body-shy – despite the slut-shaming it drew from the conservative segments of the media and, just as bad if not worse, the lustful comments from many men. And some women.

But whenever I had console duty and found myself sitting my bare ass on a leather coat on a leather-covered seat, I went through this same train of thought.

A name caught my eye in one of the scrolling newsfeeds that the console displayed on one of its many screens, ‘…to be local supervillain the Magnificent Maxwell…” and I switched a screen over to the relevant channel. What had Max done this time?

I found myself watching in horror as a pair of all-too-nonchalant newscasters discussed what my ex-boyfriend was doing, and whether or not he could actually match up to his demands. Apparently, he had declared himself to be the new king of New Venice, and as his first act had demanded tribute from all those who wished to continue operating within the city.

Even now, one of the news anchors said, and the channel switched to a video demonstrating, Max appeared to be constructing a castle from which to rule. The Higgins Museum was being reshaped, pieces of it vanishing and reappearing in different places, and just as they claimed it was bearing an increasing resemblance to a castle.

“Oh, Max,” I whispered, leaning forward to call Abe in from patrol so he could make a plan, “what in god’s name are you thinking?”

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2.2. Scenes 4-5

Scene 4 – December 18th
Interior Mansion, Late Evening
Dominic Könberg

 

“How were your finals?” I asked Viv as she sprawled onto the couch, someone not spilling the coffee she was gripping tightly. I had barely seen my twin over the last week, busy with my own finals.

“A nightmare,” she groaned. “The tests themselves wouldn’t have been all that bad, except that mother,” she inclined her head towards Morgan’s wing of the mansion, “didn’t let up on the magic training.”

I winced. “Ouch. I barely had free time and I didn’t have magic tutoring. When did you find time to sleep?”

“I didn’t,” she muttered darkly, then drained half of the coffee in one long draft. “On the plus side, I learned to do this.” She spoke a phrase which my mind completely failed to comprehend or register, and as my hearing returned I saw the coffee refilling itself. Viv sighed happily and took a slower sip of it. “Object manipulation isn’t all bad, however difficult it is.”

“Why was Morgan being so hard on you?” I asked. “I mean, she knows that we didn’t have much time this last week…”

“Because my information says Copperfield will be making his move soon, the woman in question said, striding into the room. “He is, apparently, more cautious than I thought – or perhaps less willing to believe any information that he didn’t figure out himself -” Morgan made a face, obviously disgusted with someone being so irrationally narcissistic – “but he’s been scouting out the Higgins Museum. From what I can see through my scrying, I believe he’ll be making the theft tomorrow morning, early.”

Percy paused the video game he had been playing while we waited for the rest of the family to arrive and glanced up at her. “A whole month though to get from receiving the information to using it, though? Really?”

She nodded, then shook her head. “Only two weeks, really – I spent a week forging a stealth cloak with the Kovals for Viv to use in our own operation,” Morgan nodded to my twin, “but it took nearly a week to make the arrangements for that with them. You know how reclusive they are.”

“Mages get like that, I hear,” Mom said, entering behind Morgan and propping her head up on the woman’s shoulder. She pressed a brief kiss to her cheek, and a smile spread across Morgan’s face despite the grim context.

It was true, at least to my knowledge – the Kovals, a couple that Dad had been good friends with back in the day, had become more and more reclusive as their magical research became more and more esoteric. I didn’t think I had actually seen either of them in over a decade – I hadn’t seen their kid, either, who had been a good friend of mine and Viv’s when we were kids. Morgan, too, would sometimes not emerge from her wing for weeks at a time, but Mom and Dad had always dragged her out before she could get too deep into any particular project and forget about the outside world completely. The Kovals, on the other hand, were both mages – it wasn’t surprising that they got wrapped up so completely in their research.

“I’m surprised it only took a week to get through to them,” I commented, then turned back to Viv. “You would never get as bad as the Kovals, would you sis?”

“Only if it was a project based around coffee,” she joked, then refilled her cup again. “But no, I don’t think you’d ever let me get like that.”

“Why didn’t you just make the cloak yourself?” Percy asked Morgan. “You’re a great artificer without them, you don’t need their help.

“It would have taken at least three times longer and not been as high quality,” she told him. “Enchanting items on your own is slow – the more mages you have the faster it goes, even for me. And the Kovals are the best at any sort of illusions, stealth, or trickery in the world – that’s why we asked them to protect our home.

“I guess that makes sense.”

Viv yawned. “So Magnificent Max is going to do his thing tomorrow, right? And we’re using that as a distraction?”

“Yeah, can we go over the plan?” I asked.

“We would,” Morgan said, “if Tristan were around. Where is he?”

“I think he was calling his girlfriend,” Percy said.

“Ooh” Viv and I said in unison. “He’s got a girlfriend?” she continued.

“First I’m heard of this,” I commented.

“And me,” Mom agreed. “What’s this about a girlfriend?”

Percy shrugged. “Maybe not a girlfriend, but a girl he likes. Some redhead from his school who travels a lot – she’s coming back to town tomorrow and he’s been really excited about it.”

Mom shrugged. “Not something to get too excited about, then. Let me know if he actually asks her out so I can embarrass him, though.”

“Will do,” he said, giving her a thumbs up.

At that moment Tristan zoomed into the room, moving so fast he was nothing more than a green-glowing blur. He skidded to a stop, exiting the magically-fast ran, but not fast enough – he nearly collided with the wall, and was only caught by a word from Viv which levitated him into the air by the armor strapped to his legs.

“Tristan,” Morgan said to him disapprovingly. “You know you’re not supposed to wear your father’s armor without cause.”

He flipped her off, and she rolled her eyes. “Superspeed is way too useful not to use it,” he pointed out. “Besides, it took almost two decades for the magic to mess with dad, and even then it only came up because… well… and I’m only wearing one piece of the set anyway!”

Viv spoke another one of those incomprehensible words, and our little brother flipped upside down in the air, now dangling nearly out of the greaves. “You know that Alzheimer’s runs in families, right Tristan?” she said. “We’re all at risk. And the fact that the effects of the armor didn’t become apparent until he needed magical healing means that we have no idea how long it took for it to affect dad. Mother is right – we don’t wear the armor unless we have to.”

He sighed. “Fine, I get it. Can you put me down though? I’m getting a headache.”

“You deserve it,” she said. “Little brat.” But the next word she spoke did lower him gently to the ground, rather than dropping him unceremoniously.

When he landed, Tristan began to unbuckle the magical armor from his legs. As each piece was removed, they stopped emitting the faint green mist that showed they were in use and went inert instead.

“We let you each hold onto your piece of Art’s armor so you could practice, not so you could use it frivolously,” Mom told him.

He rolled his eyes. “Viv just gave me the chewing out, I don’t need it from you and mother too.”

“None of the rest of you have been using your pieces without supervision, right kids?” Mom asked, glancing around the room. We all shook our heads. “See?”

Tristan crossed his arms and pouted.

“Can we please get to the briefing?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” Morgan said.

 

Scene 5 – December 18th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

 

Morgan tapped the TV – one of the many enchanted items that she had created for the family – and quietly murmured the phrase that activated it, allowing her to project sounds and images to it directly from her mind. It popped on and began displaying a split screen image of the MLED Compound on one side and the Higgins Museum on the other.

“Tomorrow morning,” she began, “Canaveral will be on duty, with Zookeeper on call in the Compound. We know that Starling does not generally take overtime, but Vulcan is known to do so on occasion, and Anima does so regularly – as such, we should assume that Canaveral, Zookeeper, Vulcan, and Anima are all potentially in play.” As she spoke each name, their logos appeared on the screen over the MLED Compound. “Also potentially appearing are any of the Journeymen – Loki, Journey, Hypnos, Sequoia, and Newton – with the exception of Referee, who is still out of town.”

“And thank god for that,” I muttered, Viv nodding in agreement.

“My scrying has told me that only Hypnos is actually scheduled tomorrow,” Morgan continued, “but all of the Journeymen regularly spend time at the Compound outside of the time they work, so assume that they’re present.

“Fortunately…” A logo for the Magnificent Maxwell appeared on the side of the Higgins museum. “We’re going to have an unwitting patsy to draw off the heroes. Max is looking for an instructional book written by Merlin, but what he’ll actually find when he searches the museum will be a power-magnifying artifact that should induce him to provide a rather effective distraction.”

“What’s he going to find?” Viv asked. “All you’ve said is ‘power-magnifying artifact’, which could be just about anything.”

Morgan hesitated. “I’m… not completely certain,” she admitted. “Peregrine always played his cards close to the chest, when it came to powerful artifacts like this. I know that it can make just about anyone into a city-level threat, even Max. It should be enough to draw off the adult heroes.”

“Will it be enough to draw in Peregrine?” Percy asked. “If it’s one of the things he keeps an eye on…”

“Max picked a good time for it,” she said. “Peregrine won’t be available until the 23rd at the absolute earliest, probably not until the 24th or 25th. We’ll be done before the day is out.”

“Okay, so Max finds this thing and becomes enough of a threat to draw in the heroes to deal with him,” I summed.  “While they’re busy dealing with him…”

Morgan nodded, and the logos of the adult heroes moved to the Higgins Museum side of the screen. “While they’re busy dealing with him, you all sneak Vivian into the Compound.” She smiled at Viv, who preened. “She’s the one who’ll be wearing the Kovals’ stealth cloak and will be taking the information from the servers – when and if you’re detected, the rest of you need to draw any attention away from her.”

“Shouldn’t the stealth cloak be enough on it’s own?” Percy asked. “The Kovals are the best mages for deception in the world, so…”

“We don’t know if Loki would be able to see through it,” Morgan said. “His power over light might be able to trump theirs, since he’s more specialized. Probably not, but it isn’t worth risking, so you’ll be ready to distract him if necessary.” We nodded. “Once Viv gets the info, you just need to escape and break contact with any pursuers long enough to get back under the Kovals’ wards, and then…” She sighed. “Well, I won’t know what then until we have the info. But I’ll be able to start working out the next step.”

“Are you sure I can’t convince you to join us?” Mom asked her. “It would be nice to have a full fledged mage along with us. No offense, honey,” she said to Viv.

“None taken,” Viv responded, flapping an arm dismissively. “I know I’m barely more than an apprentice – just enough to defend myself if I get caught along the way, and even that’s a maybe.”

“You don’t even get a superpower from your piece,” Tristan teased.

Viv frowned at him. “Intelligence is a superpower, Tristan. Just because you don’t have any yourself-”

“Kids, come on,” Mom said soothingly. “We all love each other, right?”

“…yeah,” Tristan muttered, and Viv nodded.

“So apologize.”

“She didn’t apologize for using magic on me earlier,” he protested.

“That was to stop you from slamming into the wall,” Viv defended herself.

“Viv is right,” Mom said sternly. “That was for your own good – this was just cruel sniping from both of you, and I won’t have that. Not among family. So apologize, alright?”

“…sorry,” they chorused.

“Right.”

“Still, it doesn’t seem as obviously useful as, say… earthbending,” Tristan said, gesturing at me, then at Percy. “Or superstrength. Or…” he grinned. “Superspeed.”

I raised my eyebrows at mom,  who considered this and then shrugged, apparently deciding that it fell on the right side of teasing.

“It may not seem as useful, but it is,” Viv insisted. “It’s part of the set for a reason – the increased speed in thinking matches the superspeed, the enhanced focus and enhanced senses in general help guide the earthbending. Not to mention how much of a boost it’s been for learning and using magic.”

“Kids,” Morgan said, drawing our attention back to the TV. “Let’s keep going with the briefing, okay? Can we go over the floor plan, maybe?”

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2.2. Scenes 1-3

Scene 1 – December 9th
Interior MLED Compound, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

I growled at the flashcard Holly held up to me, which read ‘infrapterospinatus muscle”. “Is it… fuck…” I groaned, and allowed my head to flop down into my arms. “Why did I take Abnormal Anatomy and Organic Chemistry in the same semester?”

“I assume because it fit your schedule,” Holly said. “And you didn’t plan to become a superhero and eat up all your free time and then some.”

I let out another plaintive moan.

“Do you want to make a guess?”

“Something to do with shoulders,” I mumbled into the table. “That’s all I’ve got.”

“‘A rotator cuff muscle which externally rotates the pterohumerus of a metahuman’s wing’,” she read from the other side of the card.

“That’s the part that’s the shoulder,” I declared, lifting myself from the table. “I’m counting that as a win.”

“I’m going to put it in the ‘come back later’ pile,” Holly informed me.

“That’s fair.”

She shook her head with an amused smile. “Alright, next up…” She took the next card from the pile and showed it to me.

I stared at the chemical compound illustrated in neat sharpie on the card. “That’s a monophosphate,” I said. “Uh… adenosine monophosphate.”

“Are you sure?”

I hesitated. “…yes?”

She flipped it over. “Well done! Next up is Anatomy again.”

“Okay, but I get my reward first. That was the fifth that I got right.”

“No more than…” Holly glanced at the clock sitting on the table. “30 seconds, this time.”

“Alright.”

“And… start.”

I narrowed my eyes and focused on the area cupped by my hands, narrowing my sense of presence, and…

patch of space and 1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and

…and white light began to fill my palm – slowly, carefully, so it didn’t blind us like the first time I had cast this spell.

“Fifteen seconds,” Holly said, softly.

“Not good enough,” I muttered.

“You’re doing really well, Quinn,” she promised me. “It’s only been a month and you’ve already got it down to less than 30 seconds!”

“I want to be able to just snap my fingers and make light, like you can,” I insisted. “I want it fast enough that it can be useful if I make it as bright as I know I can.” I wanted it to be usable as a flashbang, not just a flashlight.

She sighed. “Okay, one more try. But just one!”

space and nitrogen and oxygen and

That time it only took 12 seconds, then Holly stopped me. “Back to studying?” I asked as my presence registered Abe entering the common room, wearing workout clothes.

She nodded, taking the next flash card and raised it to me. “Back to studying.”

“Actually,” Abe said, coming up behind me and clapping me on the shoulder in a way that would have startled me before I got my powers, “it’s time for some sparring practice.”

“Come on, Abe,” I whined. “I’ve got finals starting in just five days!”

“You’re a smart cookie, you’ll do fine,” he told me. “Besides, you’ve been studying that crap for a week already – not to mention the entire semester. Sparring you’ve only been doing for a month.”

I sighed. “Fine. Sorry Holly,” I said to her. “Apparently I’ve got to go.”

Scene 2 – December 9th
Interior Gym, Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

My breath was driven from my body as I fell to the ground, gently pushing at it and rolling to soften the blow in a way that was finally, after weeks of training, starting to become instinctive. Abe reached down to give me a hand up and I grasped it, pulling myself to my feet.

“You’re getting better,” he complimented me. “It took almost five minutes to knock you on your ass that time.”

“It’s still pretty discouraging to be beaten so easily,” I said, breathing deeply to catch my breath. Abe bent to touch his toes, keeping himself limber, and I did the same.

He shook his head after straightening. “Easily? I think you’re forgetting that when we first started it took me barely a minute.” He put a comforting hand on your shoulder. “You really do have a natural talent, kid, and you’re getting better fast.”

“I’ve always been a quick learner, I guess,” I muttered. “I’m still nowhere close to winning against you, though.”

He chuckled. “Quinn, I think your perspective is a bit skewed. I’m a professional hero who’s fought in real situations on a weekly, if not daily, basis for seven years. I have a lot of experience on you – and I cheat like hell with my power. If you were sparring with a non-powered civilian, you’d do much better – probably even against one who’s been doing martial arts for much longer than you.”

“Great!” I said, putting on a cheerfully sarcastic tone. “I’ll just go challenge Molly, then, that’s sure to go well!”

Abe let out a full laugh that time. “Well, let’s not get too crazy yet. But remember when we bumped into Over and Under last week?”

We had been on patrol together and had gotten a call about Overshadow and Underlight, a pair of small-time supervillains who controlled darkness and light respectively, attempting to rob a bank. They had gone down relatively easily, as my presence had been able to see through both the decoys that Underlight created and the unnatural darkness that Overshadow relied on, and my talent for dodging had helped me avoid their surprisingly slow-moving lasers. We had taken them both in, but Overshadow had managed to escape by teleporting through a shadow before she had made it to a fully-lit cell. Underlight was now under careful watch in hope of blocking her inevitable break-out attempt, although it was probably impossible to stop her without giving him a way out using his own powers.

“That was just luck that my presence trumped their deception-based strategy,” I said.

Abe shook his head. “You also trumped their physical skills pretty easily. The thing is, Quinn, that most villains don’t bother to train in anything other than their powers, which makes you a cut above them already. Similarly, most regular criminals don’t have powers.”

“Yeah yeah, you’ve told me before,” I flapped a hand dismissively. “I realize I’m doing better than random street thugs, but I can’t help feeling kind of insecure compared to you and the rest of the pro heroes.”

“That’s-”

“Yes, I’m aware that it’s a dumb anxiety, but I can’t help it,” I snapped. “There’s a reason I’m taking advantage of the MLED’s in-house therapist.” I glanced up at the clock on the wall and sighed. “Who I need to see in half an hour.”

“One more sparring match,” Abe offered. “I’ll hold off on my powers so you can better see how you’ve actually progressed.”

I calculated how long it would probably take me to be thrown to the floor and then shower clean before getting to my appointment. “…fine,” I said after a moment, falling into a combat-ready stance. “Let’s just try to make it quick.”

Scene 3 – December 9th
Interior Therapist’s Office, Late Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

I had had to cut that last sparring match short to take an extremely abbreviated shower – just barely avoiding being trounced again in doing so – and was still two minutes late when I rushed into the therapist’s office, my hair still wet. “Sorry I’m late, Doctor Wagner,” I gasped, pushing against a wall to slow myself to a halt, then falling into a waiting chair. “Sparring practice ran a little over.”

“Quite alright, Quinn,” he absently said, looking up from a clipboard that I assumed held his notes from our last session. “And haven’t I told you you can call me Charles?”

“And I’ve told you, if we bump into each other in the cafeteria, sure,” I replied. “In here, you’re my therapist. Doctor Wagner.”

He shrugged. “Whatever makes you comfortable.” The rotund man glanced down at his notes once more. “Would you like to pick up where we left off last week, or do you have something you’d specifically like to talk about?”

I tilted my head, thinking back. “Where did we leave off last week?”

“We were discussing your history of anxiety,” he said, “and I was just about to bring up how it had contributed to your low self-worth.”

“…I was thinking of asking if you had any suggestions to help manage the anxious thoughts – other than pointing out to myself that they are just unfounded anxieties and trying to ignore them – but that sounds more interesting, lets go with that. You think I have a low self-worth?”

“That’s not a bad strategy, actually,” Wagner told me, “so I’m glad you’re making an effort to do so already. But yes, from what you’ve said and what I’ve observed, you don’t place a very high value on yourself.”

“..what do you mean?” I asked. “I know I have trouble thinking of myself as someone other people will value, but…”

“Yes, stemming from being rejected by your friends in high school after you came out, as we discussed. The thing is, that kind of trauma can have a lasting effect on how you think about yourself from your own perspective, not just what you think about other people.”

“That wasn’t trauma,” I told him. “Everyone deals with rejection sometimes.”

“On that level? No, not really,” he insisted. “And it would be traumatic even if it was common. Quinn, you lost your whole social circle, people who had been your friends for most of your life. Your only support was your father – it’s no wonder you’ve been feeling like you’re falling apart without him.”

“…I shouldn’t have told you that,” I muttered, crossing my arms. It had been the subject of our first session – the overwhelming sense of grief that had overcome me and the grayness that helped me power through it. Wagner had called it an unhealthy coping mechanism, shutting off my emotions so that I could still function, and had given me some strategies to actually work through and lessen the grief other than just avoiding thinking about it – as a result, I was slipping into that state a lot less than I had in those first days, although it still happened on occasion. It was embarrassing to be reminded how stupid I had been about it.

It occurred to me that that was the kind of thing that I might want to talk about with a therapist, and so I said it out loud.

“I’m your therapist, Quinn,” Wagner reminded me. “That means you don’t have to worry about sounding stupid – and no, you weren’t being stupid, even if you think it sounded dumb. You were working through things the only way you knew how to, at the time.”

I sighed. “I know, I know, it’s just…” I trailed off.

“…you have anxious thoughts about being rejected,” he continued for me, “and are afraid of being seen as anything less than perfect.”

“…yeah. I know, it’s a stupid anxiety…”

“This goes back to what I was saying about your self-worth,” Wagner told me. “You fear rejection if you’re anything less than perfect, which means you have anxious thoughts about appearing less than perfect, which means that you – knowing that you aren’t perfect, as no-one is – feel like you’re failing, all the time. And that makes you feel as though the rejection you fear is justified, because you think that you’re a failure. The whole thing is a self-reinforcing loop that makes you feel as though you’re worth less than other people.”

He sighed, then continued, “This is a particularly dangerous thought process for a hero to have. If you don’t value your own life, you’ll be all too willing to risk it, or to sacrifice it for any purpose.”

“…shouldn’t a hero be willing to sacrifice themself, though?” I asked. “To risk it for the greater good?”

“Yes, but not too willing. Sacrifice should be the absolute last resort. Risking your life should be something you do only when you must – after all, if you die, you won’t be able to help people in the future, not to mention that you will be dead, which no one wants. It should not be, as I fear it will be for you, something you do as the first option.”

“…why do you think it’s my first option?”

“Perhaps it’s just extrapolation guided by my estimation of you,” Wagner admitted. “But take a look at what you did with Legion came to town. Without any training at all, you tried to insist on helping, decided that you had to follow her after coincidentally spotting her, engaged in battle despite Canaveral telling you to leave, then spoke to Legion and attempted to pull information from her despite the danger.”

“There was a bit of freaking out in the middle there,” I pointed out.

“True, but your first instinct each time was to dive further into danger,” he said. “I don’t mean that you feel you have no value at all – it seems that outside of situations like that, you’re willing to view yourself as important. But whenever it’s a choice between you and something else – between you and what Legion might have done, between you and the chance you could help Canaveral instead, between you and the possibility of getting some important information from Legion – you always choose against yourself. Hell, even with that costume contest, you chose what people might expect from you over the fact that you didn’t really want to do it this year.”

I leaned back in the chair, considering. “…you might be right,” I admitted after a few minutes. “How do I stop that loop, though? You said it was self-reinforcing…”

“You have to break it by thinking of yourself as someone who has value and worth. My recommendation is positive affirmation. I know it sounds trite,” he said, holding up a hand to forestall complaints, “but it really does work. Look in a mirror in the morning or before you go to bed and tell yourself that you are important, and two other good things about yourself – it can be as simple as ‘my hair looks good today,’ or ‘I picked out an outfit I like.’ The important thing is that it’s something about you, not something that you have to offer to other people or something you did for someone else, but something that you’re proud of about yourself or that you did for you.”

I nodded. “Okay. I’ll give it a try.”

“Another thing that can help is doing things for yourself in general, rather than for other people,” Wagner continued. “Watch a self-indulgent movie. Buy a new video game or a book. Hell, go on a date! Do something for you, and don’t let yourself feel bad about it not being for anyone else.”

I immediately thought of Holly, then to ‘I’m not good enough for her,’ then to ‘she’ll stop being my friend,’ then to ‘’I don’t deserve her friendship anyway.’

“I’m beginning to see what you mean about thought loops,” I commented, then relayed that particular train of thought to Wagner – although I didn’t tell him that it was Holly I had considered asking out. Some things I wanted to keep private even from my therapist, particularly since he was also her therapist.

He nodded. “It’s insidious, but you need to break the loop,” he reminded me, then paused. “….actually, strike the dating idea off the table for now,” he recommended. “It’s probably not a great idea until you’ve built up a support system that you feel confident in.”

“How so?”

“It’s easy to get very wrapped up in a relationship, but it’s not healthy,” he said. “A strong relationship isn’t two people who look to each other for everything – they may look to each other first, but they have support systems of friends and family outside each other as well. You, however, have spent more than five years with only one person as your support system. While I’ve seen you getting better at trusting people and reaching out to them, I think you’re still at a point where it would be very easy for you to forget everyone other than your partner.”

“…and getting all your support from one person isn’t healthy,” I finished.

“Exactly.” He gave me a worried smile. “It’s wonderful that you had such a supportive father, but he shouldn’t have been alone.”

I sighed. “I know you’re right,” I said, “it’s just hard.”

“Everything that’s worth it is.”

Intermission | Act 2 | Next Chapter

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