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

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.”

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2. Act 2: Walk With Kings

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings-nor lose the common touch,

Rudyard Kipling, 1895

Scenes 1-3, Scenes 4-5, Scenes 6-8, Scene 9

Scenes 10-11, Scenes 12-13, Scenes 14-15, Scenes 16-18, Scenes 19-22, Scenes 23-25, Scenes 26-29, Scenes 30-33

Scenes 34-36, Scene 37, Scenes 38-39, Scenes 41-42

Intermission (Scenes 1-3)

Please be aware that this page contains links to posts which are queued, but not yet published. The most recently published scene is shown on the sidebar – anything past that will lead to a 404 page.

Dramatis Personae

Principal Characters

Abraham Armstrong, the superhero Canaveral and leader of the New Champions, who commands kinetic energy. (he/him)
Dominic Könberg, the supervillain Sir Amethyst, who commands all the elements of the earth. (he/him)
Holly Koval, the young superhero Loki and Quinn’s best friend, who creates illusions. (she/her and he/him)
Quinn Kaufman, the young superhero Newton, who has telekinetic and extrasensory abilities. (they/them)

A Heroic Hoard

Arthur Peregrine, a healer over two centuries old and the world’s greatest mage. (he/him)
Emilia Alvarez, the superheroine Zookeeper, who transforms into animals. (she/her)
Jack Forester, the young superhero Sequoia and Niccolo’s boyfriend, who transforms into wood. (he/him)
Miriam Wright, the superheroine Anima, who commands the energy of life. (she/her)
Molly Madigan, the young superheroine Referee, who imposes fairness in an aura around her. (she/her)
Niccolo Mellas, the young superhero Hypnos, who can project his senses at a distance. (he/him)
Simone Destrey, the young superheroine Journey, who can teleport. (she/her)

A Villainous Table


Arthur Könberg,
the retired supervillain The Mountain King and Dominic’s father. (he/him)
Jennifer Könberg, the supervillainess Dame Adamant and one of Dominic’s mothers, who is invulnerable to harm. (she/her)
Maxwell Copperfield, the supervillain The Magnificent Maxwell, who can store objects in a pocket dimension. (he/him)
Morgan Könberg, one of Dominic’s mothers and an accomplished artificer. (she/her)
Percival Könberg, the supervillain Sir Ardent and Dominic’s younger brother, who has super strength. (he/him)
Tristan Könberg, the supervillain Sir Alacrity and Dominic’s youngest brother, who has super speed. (he/him)
Vivian Könberg, the supervillainess Dame Acumen and Dominic’s twin sister, who magically manipulates objects. (she/her)

A Collection of Civilians

Charles Wagner, Quinn’s therapist. (he/him)
Lucas Apollon, a strategic and public relations consultant. (he/him)
Michael Vimes, a museum security guard. (he/him)
Susan Shepard, the local director of the Metahuman Law Enforcement Division, or MLED. (she/her)

2.1. Intermission (Scenes 1-4)

Scene 1 – October 20th
Interior MLED Compound, Early Evening
Niccolo Mellas

 

Quinn left the room, visibly dejected that they wouldn’t be allowed to help fight against Legion. I didn’t see why – the woman was stupidly dangerous, and unlike me, they wouldn’t be working from a safe distance.

“Vulcan, call Anima and Sequoia in from patrol, if you haven’t already,” Abe ordered, speaking into a dedicated mic rather than relying on the typical monitoring to communicate with Adam.

“They’re on their way,” he responded. “Do we have a plan, sir?”

“I’m working on one, Adam. Give me some time.”

“You’ll need our help,” Simone put forward – did she really expect the offer to be accepted? Quinn’s offer had been rejected less than five minutes ago. “New Venice isn’t exactly a one-horse town – you need us to help you cover it.”

“I hate to admit it, but you’re right,” Emilia agreed, and I blinked in surprise.

“Hey!” Simone protested.

“It’s dangerous,” Abe said, as though that wasn’t obvious.

Emilia shook her head. “Nic works at a distance,” she began, gesturing at me, “and Legion doesn’t have anything that will hurt him when he’s projecting – we need him to help scout the city. Simone can be transport only, that won’t be too dangerous either.”

“I can work from a distance too,” Holly put in. “I know my hand-to-hand skills aren’t going to be worth much against Legion, but I bet I can use lasers to cut off parts of her body mass.”

“Fine,” Abe conceded. “only from a distance. And only because you’re all over 18 – Sequoia will have to go home too, once he and Miriam get back.”

“Jack can help too!” I protested. “He turns 18 in only a few weeks!” And he enjoyed heroing too much to like being left out of it, no matter how dangerous Legion was.

“He’s still under 18 until then. You’re just going to have to live with your boyfriend staying a safe distance from the dangerous supervillain.”

“Well, when you put it that way…” I had been protesting in favor of his involvement more because I knew he would have wanted me to than because I actually wanted Jack involved, in truth, so I didn’t really mind Abe shutting me down.

“Alright,” Abe said, a moment after Holly shifting into Loki. “I think I have the beginnings of a plan.” It was a pretty simple plan, and it didn’t take long for him to lay it out: I would be scouting, as my projected senses were by far the fastest traveler of all of us, sent to check out any reports that Emilia received from console. Vulcan would go with Simone to face down any Legion that I could confirm the location of.

“Nic?” he said, turning to face me. “She was reported about ten minutes south of the Compound.”

“Give me a moment,” I said, and leaned against the wall so that I wouldn’t fall when I began projecting. “I’m going to try to only send my vision so that I can still talk with you guys…” I performed the mental gymnastics that had proved most successful at this kind of separation as I began.

While I had made a lot of progress in controlling my powers since I joined the Journeymen – I could now choose to start and stop projecting, and control where the projection went as well, even if I still projected accidentally half the times that I slept – separating out my senses remained a puzzle. I knew it was possible from dreams in which I had heard voices or music from a distance, without seeing anything, or vice versa, and had even managed to perform the separation myself a few times. But most of the time…

“…no, sorry, I can’t hear you,” I muttered, a little dejected, as both sight and hearing spun through space to land about ten minutes south of the Compound – as always, it was eerie to speak without hearing it, as the words came from my physical mouth instead of my projected self. At least I had left my sense of touch behind – I could still feel my shoulderblades pressing up against the wall. “But I’ll give you updates as I go.” I glanced up to a set of street signs, and reported, “Right now I’m at the corner of Lander and Evans and continuing south. No sign of her yet.”

 

Scene 2 – October 20th
Interior MLED Compound, Evening
Niccolo Mellas

 

When I reached the limit of my projection, still with no sign of Legion, I had snapped back to my body to find that Abe was gone – I later learned that Quinn had called with a sighting of Legion near to the them, and the boss had gone to escort them the rest of the way home. Meanwhile, Jack and Miriam had arrived back at the Compound, and my boyfriend was leaning against the wall next to me, watching me worriedly.

I met his eyes and smiled. “It’s okay, honey,” I told me. “I’m perfectly fine.”

He gave me a gentle kiss, then led me from the wall over to a couch. “I know, Nic, I just worry. Ever since…”

Ever since I had told him that I used to have trouble returning to my body. “That hasn’t happened in years, Jack,” I reminded him as he sat, then pulled me into his lap. I leaned my forehead against his. “I’m okay.”

“Ew, you two are so sappy,” Simone joked. “Get a room!”

You get a room,” Jack murmured, and she shrugged and vanished.

“Hey!” Loki snapped. “Don’t waste distance in a crisis situation, you brat-” he stormed out of the room, presumably chasing after Simone. Jack and I were left mostly alone – just us and Vulcan.

I sighed. “I feel like shit,” I quietly confessed to my boyfriend. “I couldn’t find Legion, and I wouldn’t be any help even if I did. I feel so useless.”

He shook his head. “You’re not useless, Nic. Just because you couldn’t help in this situation doesn’t mean you can’t ever help.”

“But can I ever help?” I asked him. “I mean, they’ve got me rated at a 0. That’s not even normal human levels of threat.”

“Threat rating’s not everything,” Jack reminded me. “But…” he hummed. “I think I might have an idea. Let’s meet up in the grounds when we can find some time for it.”

“Okay.” I leaned in to kiss him again. And again, and-

“Hey,” Vulcan said, and I pulled back in surprise – I had forgotten that he was still there. “Seriously, guys, get a room if you’re gonna go that far.” He jerked a finger at the hallway that led to the Compound’s guest rooms – mostly used by me, when overuse of my powers left me exhausted, or Loki, for undisclosed reasons. Plus the one that was permanently inhabited by Molly, of course.

I flushed bright red, then found myself yawning. “I probably should,” I told Jack, sadly. “I’m pretty tired.”

“Go sleep, Nic,” he said with an accepting smile, which quickly morphed into a grin. “I can tuck you in if you’d like.”

“Hey!”

 

Scene 3 – October 24th
Exterior Training Grounds, Afternoon
Niccolo Mellas

 

I shivered despite my hoodie as Jack and I walked into the grounds a few days later, after Legion had been caught. It was starting to get cold, but I hadn’t gotten around to digging a coat out of my closet yet.

“So what’s your idea, honey?” I asked him. My boyfriend hadn’t told me yet – something had always interrupted us, or someone was around, and he said he wanted it to be a surprise in the paintball game if it worked.

“I remember you telling me once about when your powers first manifested,” Jack began, leading me to a section of the grounds that was lined with training mats for sparring. “Your senses were bounced to other places, sometimes, but sometimes it was also to other times.”

“Yeah,” I cautiously agreed, “and any amount of precognition would be great, but I’ve never gotten that to work. Like, never. I’ve tried, but the closest I’ve gotten is a jumble of disconnected images and sounds, coming too fast and too different to be able to make anything out. That and a splitting headache.”

He nodded. “Right, but I’ve been thinking… what if you were going about it the wrong way, a bit?”

“How so?”

“An aunt of mine is a seer,” he told me, “and-”

“Your aunt Cecelia or your aunt Cassandra?”

“Cassandra,” he said.

“Of course.”

“Anyway, she told me once that the problem with seeing the future isn’t seeing the future, it’s understanding the future,” he said. “Apparently it comes in, well… a jumble of disconnected images.”

“Thank sounds familiar.”

“Right, exactly! She says she doesn’t see a single thing that will happen, she sees a ton of different things that are possible. She can filter it somewhat by focusing on a particular person or object to see what might happen to it, or try to find a particular outcome and see what can lead to it, but in general, the farther out she looks the less accurate and more painful her visions are.”

“Because the universe isn’t deterministic, and the farther into the future you look the more possibilities there are.” I considered this for a moment. “What are you suggesting, then? My powers don’t focus on specific things like that. Locations, I guess, but…”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about focus – worry about time,” he said. “Shift just a few moments into the future, and you’ll be able to react to what an opponent does before they do it. If you can do that, your rating will instantly jump to a 1, at least. Even a single second into the future is enough to see someone’s next move – if you can push out even farther…”

“Focus on combat precognition, not precog in general,” I realized, and Jack nodded.

“Exactly.” He balled his hands into fists and raised them into a guard. “And I think the best way to do that is to give you reason to need it.”

 

Scene 4 – November 3rd
Exterior Training Grounds, Afternoon
Niccolo Mellas

 

“Why did you want to train with me?” Holly asked as we stepped into the grounds, both wearing warm jackets. “It’s not that I’m not happy to help with whatever it is, it’s just that, well… our powers don’t really match up all that much, and…”

“And you’re worried about Quinn,” I finished.

“…yeah. They haven’t woken up since the funeral. Or they haven’t left their room, at least.”

I bowed my head for a moment. “They’re going through a hard time, and you’re a good friend for supporting them. But you’re also a good leader,” I reminded her. “And I need your help right now too.”

After a moment, she nodded. “You’re right, I can’t focus on them to the exclusion of all else. What do you need?”

“I need your help with a new trick I’m starting to figure out,” I told her, starting to walk over to the sparring area. “It was Jack’s idea – a way to get a handle on my precog. I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble making sense of it, right?”

“Yeah, you said that it was too jumbled to make anything out.”

“Well, as it turns out, it’s because I was looking too far into the future.”

“Oh – because you’re seeing too many possibilities? And the farther you look, the more there are, and the harder to sort through?”

I sighed. “And of course you figure it out instantly, huh,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Why didn’t I ask you for help in the first place?”

She shrugged. “It sounds like you already have that figured out, though – focus on the immediate future and use it for combat precog instead of trying to go too far. If you want to look far away temporally I would suggest looking into the past – you’d be a great detective that way.”

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to that. Or backwards, I guess. But… well, I actually did manage to figure out how to get the temporal drifting working in general, I had to hold onto my real body less tightly and allow myself to drift, it’s just…” I struggled to explain. “Connecting all the near futures that could happen in the next moment – even in the next second – into something that I can use in the present isn’t easy. Does that make sense?”

She tilted her head in thought. “Hm. Do you mean that you’re having trouble interpreting everything fast enough to figure out what to react to?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Also, seeing and hearing everything one second in the future makes it easy to forget what’s actually happening in the present.”

“You just need more practice,” she told me. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any magical solutions – it’s just practice.”

“I’m pretty sure you do have a magical solution, actually,” I insisted. “See, Jack and I were sparring, but the problem is that I’m actually a better fighter than him when he’s not transformed – I’ve spent much more time on martial arts, since I don’t have super strength to rely on.”

“Ah,” Holly said in understanding. “You aren’t challenged enough that you have to rely on the precog?”

“Exactly.”

“But I’m pretty sure you’re a much better fighter than me, too,” she pointed out. “If you wanted a better match you should have asked Referee or Starling.”

“Yeah, but Molly’s out of town again, and who wants to ask Ben for anything?”

“Fair point.” She eyed me. “But you don’t want sparring, do you? You need to be forced to use the precog, not for it just to be an edge. You need something that you can’t dodge without seeing the future.”

“Yes.”

“You want me to shoot you with lasers.”

“I want you to shoot me with lasers.”

Holly smiled, shaking her head. “Alright, I can shoot you with lasers,” she agreed. “But tell me something first – how many people know you’re working on precog?”

“Jack, obviously,” I said immediately. “Abe knows that I’ve tried to get it working in the past, but I haven’t mentioned that I’m making another attempt. Vulcan also knows that I’ve tried it before, and that Jack had an idea for me to work on, but I don’t know if he has any idea what. No one else, I think.”

Holly nodded, her smile now closer to a grin. “Excellent. I don’t know how much progress we’ll make, but… let’s keep it quiet for the next week or so, alright? It would make a great ace in the hole in the paintball game, but it would have to be kept quiet.”

I grinned, then yelped as a low-powered laser zapped me. “Hey, no fair!”

“Gotta see the future, Nic!” she called. “Get dodging!”

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2.1. Scenes 22-24

Scene 22 – November 14th
Interior Television Studio, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

Exactly one month after I first found my mother’s invention. One month after I was granted superpowers. Just 30 days after meeting my first superhero and supervillain in one night. Less than four weeks after visiting the private areas of the MLED’s compound and meeting a whole host of other heroes, including my new best friend, Holly. Four weeks since meeting a cold-blooded killer. Less than three weeks since meeting that same killer again with no costumes between us, and learning that my mother had lived far longer than I had ever expected – and that she was still gone forever. Just two weeks since I had committed to becoming a Journeyman – two weeks since…

 

“Mx. Kaufman,” someone said, drawing my attention back into the present, and I glanced up to see Lucas Apollon sitting next to me. “How are you feeling?”

“…nervous, I guess?” I confessed. “I’ve never been on TV before. I’ve never had this much attention on me before.” I glowered at him. “You said that it was Inspiring heroes who had to go on talk shows, not Approachable.”

“In general, yes,” he agreed. “But the options for announcing a new hero are either an appearance on a talk show or a press conference in which you would be expected to give a speech. Believe it or not, this is the better of the two options for you.”

I shuddered at the thought of having give a speech. “Fine. I guess you’re right.”

“I usually am about these things.” He said with a cheerful smile. “You read the briefing packet, right?”

I wiggled my hand in a sort-of motion. “It was a few days ago as a break from schoolwork, so it’s a little fuzzy.” School was ramping up in intensity as my finals for the semester began to approach, and between that, the new classes and events I was now part of as a Journeyman, and everything surrounding my father’s death, I had almost no free time. It was, I thought, for the best – the less time I had to think about… things… the better. It did, however, mean that things blurred together.

“I can give you a quick refresher,” Apollon promised me, and I focused on him as best as I could while he did just that:

Do speak clearly and concisely – don’t take too long to answer a question.

Do stay focused on topics selected by the show – don’t go on tangents.

Do display your personality – don’t overshadow the other guests.

Do…

“Thank you,” I told him as he wrapped up his summary a few minutes later. “But…” I swallowed, my throat dry, “do you have any advice to deal with stage fright?”

“Of course,” he said kindly.

 

Scene 23 – November 14th
Interior Television Studio, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

I watched from offstage as the show began – Jacob Ryder, the show’s host, greeted his audience in his usual bombastic fashion and gave a rundown of the major topics for the show. His last introduction would be for us – when he introduced me, Loki, and Canaveral, we were to walk onstage and take seats in the chairs and couch currently sitting next to his desk.

“…we’ll be conducting a video interview with Secretary of Metahuman Affairs Susan Thornhill – her meteoric rise and new plan to keep the DMO well-funded,” the devil-looking man was saying. “But before all that, we have some special guests. Please give a warm welcome to our visitors from New Venice’s MLED, the heroes Canaveral, Loki, and the newest member of their team, Newton!”

The audience applauded as we entered and sat. Canaveral took the chair, which left the couch for Loki and I. He sat first, one arm stretching across the back of the couch, dropping that hand down onto my shoulders as I sat next to him. I leaned into his body a little bit without really thinking about it – the contact felt nice.

“Thanks, Jake,” Canaveral said to the host. “It’s nice to be here again.”

Ryder smiled at him. “How long has it been since you were last on my show?” he asked.

“I think the last time was just after I moved to New Venice and was given command of the New Champions, about… what, four years ago now?”

“Sounds about right,” he agreed. “And Loki! Always a pleasure.”

“Thanks, Jake,” Loki said, a smile crinkling his eyes despite the mask covering his mouth. “I like being on too. You always make me feel very welcome.”

Ryder gave him a nod before continuing, “Now, you two are here to introduce the newest member of the Journeymen, yes?”

“That’s right, Jake. This is our newest member – and a good friend of mine,” Loki added, squeezing my shoulder subtly, “Newton.”

Newton

“Hey!” I said, waving first at Ryder and then the audience. “It’s great to be here,” I lied.

“Welcome to the Ryder Report, Newton – and to superheroism!” Ryder said with a huge grin, and the audience applauded. After a moment, he made a calming gesture and continued. “How long have you had your powers, if I might ask?”

“A month now,” I told him. “I took a while to decide what to do with them, and ended up skating just under the deadline for registration. I’ll try to be more punctual next time!” I added, making a weak joke. He laughed and so did the audience, so I suppose I must have been doing alright.

“Only a month, and you’re good friends with Loki already – you two look quite cozy there!” he observed. “Did you know each other before your powers manifested?”

Before I could answer, Loki cut in. “I’m afraid that’s skating a bit too close to secret identity stuff, Jake,” he said apologetically. “We can’t answer that.”

“Of course, my apologies,” Ryder said, sounding just as sorry. “I’m afraid that secret identity protocol sometimes slips my mind, as I’ve never had any reason to bother learning it for myself.” He spread his wings in demonstration of why – the man looked like a classic devil, with red skin, horns, and bat-like wings.

“Quite alright,” Loki assured him.

“But still, only one month and you’re already diving headfirst into heroism!” Ryder said to me, sounding impressed.

“Well, it’s not exactly headfirst – the MLED offers a lot of training and guidance,” I point out. “And I won’t be a full hero until Loki and I graduate to the New Champions at the end of May.”

“Graduating together, huh?”

“My 21st birthday is in May, so I will – after seven years – finally become a full fledged hero,” Loki agreed.

“And I’m 21 already, so it’ll just be six months of training before I graduate. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?” I joked, glancing at Loki. He chuckled – his amusement much more restrained than Ryder or the audience.

Canaveral spoke for the first time in a while, noting, “The biggest distinction between experienced trainees like Loki and full heroes, to be honest, is what they’re legally allowed to do, as minors. But the truth is, Loki is every bit as capable as I am.” I wondered if he wanted to reassure Loki that he was valued, or if he had another goal – he had told me before we came on that he intended to leave the interview mainly to me and Loki, and only speak up if Ryder addressed him directly or if there was something he really needed to bring up.

“I’m going to do my best,” I said, this time more out to the audience, “but it’ll be a long time before I can match up to these two.” If he was trying to make the point that experience mattered, I was happy to help.

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Loki protested. “You’re a fast learner and have a great powerset – you’ll be playing with the big boys before long.” He squeezed my shoulder again encouragingly, letting me know I was doing well.

“Speaking of powerset, what can you do, Newton?” Ryder asked.

“I have what I’ve been calling an expanded presence,” I began, naming my abilities in public for the first time. “Basically, my sense of presence, my understanding of how and where I exist in the world, extends beyond my actual body. Just about everything in this entire studio is touched by my presence, and I know where and what they are without even needing to look. And…” I raised a hand, and RYDER’S coffee mug rose with it. “…I can move them, as well.”

“I see! A sort of telekinesis combined with extra sensory perception!” Ryder observed.

“That’s a way of saying it, sure,” I said, a little sourly, and the audience laughed. “There is a little bit more to it than that, though – namely, that when I exert my presence, it affects me as well. If I were to try and pull at your desk, for example -”

“Please don’t!” Ryder joked.

“Just an example!” I promised. “Your desk is pretty heavy – If I was to pull at it, I would probably get pulled out of my seat instead of moving it. That’s why I chose the name Newton – because unlike most telekinetics, I have to obey his laws.”

“How did you learn that?”

“I snuck into an abandoned junkyard the night that I realized I had powers, to try them out. It was pretty clear once I started trying to lift heavier objects,” I explained.

“Newton, that… that junkyard wasn’t abandoned,” Canaveral cut in.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean the reason I swung by and met you that night was that the guard at the junkyard was freaked out and called us about the unknown metahuman,” he told me.

My hands flew to cover my mouth. “You never told me that!” I cried, mortified. “Oh my god, I feel so bad now! God, I need to… I need to find them and apologize, or something!”

“It’s fine, it’s fine!” Canaveral assured me as the audience laughed. “I swung by and let him know what was up on my way back to the Compound at the end of my shift, and he actually wanted to apologize to you for assuming you were a villain!”

I hid my burning-red face in my hands entirely as the audience laughed even harder. Loki rubbed the small of my back comfortingly, but all I could think of was how this was going to be the first impression I had on people all over the world – easily embarrassed, unobservant – because I had missed the guard – and generally not someone to respect. How could this have gone worse?

“Hey, it’s better than what happened the first night I had powers. My priest tried to exorcise me!” Ryder revealed, and the audience laughed even harder. “You laugh, but it wasn’t funny as a 13 year old kid! I was just trying to prepare for confirmation, and suddenly Father Theodore comes rushing at me with a cross and a bible, going ‘exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus’!”

I took a deep breath as I realized that the audience laughter was no longer at me, but at Ryder – he had seamlessly redirected their attention away from my embarrassment to himself. He really was a good host.

“Moving on to less heretical subjects,” Ryder continued as I straightened, “we have a topic that you requested to talk about, Newton?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling on firmer ground now that I was speaking about something I was much more confident in. “I understand that I’m far from the first trans superhero – that road was paved for us by Sister Mercy, and even in New Venice…” I glanced at Loki, suddenly realized that I didn’t know if he was out to he public. He gave me an encouraging nod. “…Loki is genderfluid,” I finished.

“Really?” Ryder asked, seeming surprised. I realized Loki must not have been publicly out until this moment – he seemed pretty unruffled on the outside, but I could feel that his arm was a little tense around my shoulders and my sense of presence told me that he was shaking, just a little.

“Yeah, I’m a girl when I’m out of costume,” he said, voice still smooth and confident.

“And a very pretty girl you are, too,” I told him, patting his leg in hopes of reassuring my friend. I hadn’t meant to out him if he wasn’t ready to come out, or just hadn’t been expecting it – I had told him that I wanted to talk about being nonbinary in the preshow chat, and he had agreed and said he would support me, but maybe he hadn’t been expecting to be cited as one of my inspirations for coming out as a hero?

“Thank you!” he said, seeming a little surprised and very grateful. He squeezed me shoulder a little, then relaxed – I could feel the tension draining out of him. I was glad that I had been able to help – to remind him that I was here for him as he had been for me. “It’s not quite as simple as guy in costume and girl out of it,” he said to Ryder, “but it’s simpler to explain it that way, at least.”

“Anyway, I’m far from the first hero not to match their birth gender,” I said to Ryder, getting back to the subject. “But I asked our strategic consultant, and apparently I am the first hero to use they/them pronouns.”

“Well, the first single hero, at any rate,” Canaveral noted. “Multiplex is a bit of a special case.”

“Multiplex is a special case,” I agreed – the duplicating hero was a hive-mind that included every insect that came too close to their central consciousness. They had once been a woman, but to my knowledge didn’t even identify as human at this point. “My point is that I thought it might be good to make myself and how I should be referred to clear to the public, since a lot of people probably aren’t familiar with what it means to be nonbinary.”

“By all means,” Ryder invited me, giving an encouraging smile. “Please, educate us!”

With Loki beside me, I took a deep breath, then began to teach.

 

Scene 24 – November 14th
Interior Mansion, Late Evening
Dominic Könberg

 

Mom and Morgan had helped Dad go to bed a little while ago – it hadn’t been one of his good days, so he was off earlier than usual – and we were now participating in the family’s usual Friday night ritual of watching the Ryder Report. While his show usually only covered the events of the day it was recorded, on Friday nights he included news from the entire week before, so it was the best way – or at least, our preferred way – to get the news.

Tonight he had introduced a new hero who would be joining the Journeymen in New Venice. As soon as the segment was over, Morgan paused the show, then steepled her fingers, clearly thinking deeply.

“They’re so cool!” Tristan burst, leaping up from the floor where he had been sitting tonight and jumping into the air. My little brother, only sixteen, had a big goofy grin on his face. “They’re my new favorite hero!”

“Oh yeah?” Mom asked, sending a brief, worried glance to Morgan. “Why’s that?”

“They’re trans, like me!” he said happily. “Well, not exactly like me since I’m not nonbinary, but still!”

“I’m glad you’re happy, brat,” Percy – my next youngest brother, at eighteen – began, “but isn’t there already a trans hero? On the Journeymen, even?”

“Referee is trans,” Viv confirmed. My twin sister was the smartest of all of us. Well, of the kids, anyway, I corrected myself. Morgan was brilliant even beyond Viv, even beyond Dad… even beyond how Dad had been, at any rate. “And Loki too, apparently.”

“Yeah, well, Referee is my age,” Tristan explained. “Newton is an adult! That’s the difference! And Loki wasn’t out until just now, so, like, whatever – why be ashamed, right?” He pumped his fist. “But Newton was just out with it, right away! So cool!”

Viv gave me an amused glance, which I deciphered easily. Newton was an adult, yes, because they would be graduating from the Journeymen directly after their six-month training period – that meant they were at least 21, or would be by May. And since they were apparently the best friend of Loki, who was only just reaching 21 himself, they were probably much closer to 21. Our age, in other words – and yet, Tristan never treated us like adults. “What do you think, Viv?” I asked.

“I think it’ll make things a bit more difficult,” she noted, “but they don’t have much experience yet, as they themself pointed out. As long as we still do it while Referee is away, they shouldn’t be a problem for us.”

“I… just meant about Newton in general, not about how they’ll impact the plan.”

“Ah.” She shrugged. “I won’t really have an opinion on them until I know more. They were obviously well-coached for this interview – they even had that little probably-rehearsed bit where Canaveral embarrassed them to make them seem more human – and it was a real softball anyway. Once they start going on patrol I might know more. We know what you think, of course,” she said to Percy, who crossed his arms.

“Not my fault that heroes are all the same,” he said defensively. The revelations that Dad had shared with the family a few years ago had led to Percy forming a thus-far-unshakable conviction that the system of heroes was irreparably corrupt. He was very glad that, under Morgan’s direction, we were planning to finally do something about it.

Viv stroked her chin thoughtfully. “I wonder what Devon… you know, Dad’s doctor?” she quickly added, as if we didn’t know about her crush on them. Well, I suppose the others might not have figured it out, but I was her twin – she couldn’t hide anything from me. “I wonder what they think of Newton – first openly nonbinary hero and all.”

Percy shrugged. “What do you think, Dom?” he asked, turning to me.

“I want to know what our moms think,” I said. I glanced to Morgan and Mom, who had risen while we kids chatted and slipped off to a corner to quietly speak. As I watched, Morgan nodded decisively and received a brief, supportive kiss from Mom.

Until I was sixteen, I had thought that she was just Aunt Morgan – our parents’ best friend, who lived in one wing of the family mansion and and emerged on a weekly – sometimes daily – basis to shower us all with affection, and with the literally magical gifts she created. On my sixteenth birthday, though, Mom, Dad, and Morgan had sat me and Viv down to explain that the three of them were a polyamorous triad – each of them loved the other two just the same. They had decided not to mention it to any of their kids until we turned 16 – and apparently Morgan had given birth to me and Viv, not Mom, which in retrospect should have been obvious since we had inherited her naturally white hair – because they weren’t sure if we would understand when we were younger. Polyamory had apparently not been very accepted when they were our age.

Fortunately, times had changed, and both Viv and I were fine with it – she had figured it out two years before, in fact – and so were Percy and Tristan when they were told. Hell, Tristan had tried to rope the rest of us into a plot to get the three of them together before he had been told, and had thus been brought in on the family secret a year early.

I still found it hard to think of Morgan as “mom”, though, even though she was my birth parent. Jennifer had always taken the motherly role in the family, while Morgan acted more as an aunt, and even six years after learning of the triad I still thought of Jenny as my mom and Morgan as… well, as Morgan.

Morgan turned to face the rest of us, Jenny’s arm around her shoulder in support. “Newton’s existence is a good sign,” she told us. “Their clear similarity to Starling means that they’re obviously another Ambrosia Company plant, but that’s good news for us. It means that Legion was probably in town to empower them, rather than that Ambrosia knows where we are.” She sighed. “It’s another pair of eyes and ears to watch out for until we’re ready to move, but we already had to stay clear of Starling and Canaveral. One more possible spy won’t make that much difference, particularly since we’re going to have to move soon.”

Viv’s eyes narrowed. “Are we moving the schedule up, then?”

Morgan nodded. “We’ll have to. I’ll slip Copperfield a hint, and we’ll keep an eye out for his distraction when he finally figures it out.”

My sister bit her lip. “I’m… not sure if I’m ready.”

Morgan put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “We have to. For Arthur.”

Viv chuckled and waved her hand off. “It’s not that, I know it’s necessary, it’s what we have to do to save Dad. I’m just not sure if I’m ready for combat. I’m still learning magic…”

“You’ll do fine,” Morgan promised her. “The helmet will help. And with luck you won’t have to fight at all.”

Percy laughed.  “Do you really think we’re going to have that much luck?”

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2.1. Scenes 19-21

Scene 19 – November 8th
Exterior Townhouse, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

A few days after the paintball game, it was time to officially move in to the Compound. While I had been living there since Holly and Simone had brought me there from the hospital, I hadn’t actually been back home in that time. My stuff was still there – my books, my clothes, all the little knick-knacks that build up over the course of a life. I had been avoiding going back – I knew myself well enough to be certain that seeing the place empty and lifeless wouldn’t be good for me – but the time off that UNV had given me expired tomorrow. I had to venture back there to get my notes for school, at least.

Simone apparently had a lunch date today – her and her girlfriend had been on a break for reasons she didn’t want to go into, but were now ready to give it another shot – so she wasn’t here to help. Holly was available just as she had promised, though, and she held one hand in mine to help me stay grounded as I climbed out of her car and approached the home I had lived in for 21 years.

I paused at the doorstep of the house, staring up at it. “It feels so empty already,” I said. She squeezed me hand, and I squeezed back. “Let’s… let’s get started, I guess.”

Scene 20 – November 8th
Interior Townhouse, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

I had been doing better over the last week, but I found myself drifting in and out again as Holly helped me pack things into suitcases and cardboard boxes. I would be doing fine one moment, and the next I would remember wearing this shirt while out to dinner with dad, or telling him about what I had learned from this book, or how proud he had been when I drew this piece of artwork, and I wouldn’t be able to…

Each time, Holly patiently waited for me to come back to myself, sometimes nudging me gently or tapping me on the shoulder to bring me back. She seemed to have an almost uncanny ability to spot when I was drifting, and would resume speaking in the middle of sentences as though nothing had happened.

“How do you do that?” I asked her after one such occasion where I had spent who-knows-how-long just standing in my closet and staring at the first suit my dad had ever bought me.

“Do what?” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, busy taping a box of clothes shut.

“Spot it when I’m… drifting away from myself.”

She rested an elbow on the box and propped her head up on that hand, looking up at me where she knelt on the floor next to the box. “It’s hard to describe, really. But, well… I’m a pretty observant person, as a rule, and there’s a bit of a difference, although I’m not sure quite how to explain.”

“You explained magic pretty decently, give it a shot,” I said. “You might surprise yourself.”

“Alright. You have kind of a… I dunno… a presence to you,” Holly told me. “Like, you’re very there, at every moment.”

“Really?” I said, curiously. “I think I get pretty in my head, sometimes. You think I’m in-the-moment?”

She shrugged. “Maybe it’s just around me, I don’t know. But when you’re… drifting, you said? When that happens, something changes. Maybe it’s your eyes – they unfocus a little, I think.” Then she chuckled a little. “Plus you drift off in the middle of a thought sometimes. That’s pretty clear as well.

I shrugged. “Maybe it is just around you. I mean, I don’t want to be wrapped up in my own head when I could be spending time with you, after all.”

Was that too far? Did I make them uncomfortable? Was this a bad time? This was definitely a bad time. I shouldn’t have said that. My eyes met Holly’s, searching for some sign that she approved or disapproved.

Her eyes weren’t on mine, oddly. They were a little downcast, and… was that a blush and a small smile? No, it couldn’t be, I decided as she looked up. The smile was there, yes, but the blush must have been a trick of the light.

“I like spending time with you too, Quinn,” she promised, and leaned forward to affectionately bump her head into my leg where I stood. “I know we haven’t known each other all that long, but I honestly feel like you’re one of my best friends already.” She stood, hefted the box in her arms, and carried it out of my room to join a pile in the hallway.

“I feel the same way,” I called, turning back to my closet and reaching for a few flannels. The MLED was going to be providing the ones I would wear as part of my costume, but those would have a kevlar mesh and I didn’t expect them to be very comfortable for normal wear. Besides, some of these had sentimental value, like the one that dad had…

Holly put a hand on the small of my band, and I turned to smile up at her. “Where was I?”

“I’m one of your best friends.”

“Right.” I began folding up the shirt that dad had passed down to me. “I don’t want to get too into it, but… I haven’t had any close friends since high school, just casual friends. But you’re becoming very important to me very quickly. I hope that’s not too much to say.”

“Of course not,” she promised me. “Didn’t I just say that you’re becoming one of my best friends, too?” She took the old shirt from me, then pointed to a suit bag in the back of the closet. “You should grab that suit. Most events the MLED holds will have you just in costume, or a formal version of it, but there are a few where heroes are supposed to go incognito, and you’ll want nice clothes for them,” she recommended.

“Like what?”

“There’s this art show that’s coming up in January, I think that’s the next one. And there’s a regional gala thing every summer that heroes can choose to go to either in costume or civvies.”

“I’ll take the suit, then.” I grabbed it and passed it to her. “That should lie across the luggage, not get folded up, right?”

“Right.” She set it atop the boxes. “Back to the friendship thing… on my end, it’s similar, I guess. My parents never sent me to school when I was growing up – I had private tutors until university – so I never really had close friends until now. Some in the Journeymen, but just because you’re both heroes doesn’t mean that you’ll get along, especially since there’s a wide age range. I mean, I’ve been part of it since I was 14, but as recently as last year we counted Blue Phoenix in our ranks.”

I thought back. Blue Phoenix… “The guy whose powers came in when he was about to die of old age?” He had made the papers.

“Yup! 83 years old and suddenly his body is made of burning blue energy that can take on any shape he can imagine. He definitely needed the training.” Her expression soured a bit. “And the crash course on the modern era, too.”

“…he didn’t understand you being genderfluid?” I asked sympathetically.

“Not in the slightest. Never respected Molly’s pronouns, either.”

“What a dick.”

She sighed. “It’s not that complicated, is it?”

“I mean, I don’t think so,” I promised her. “Cis people have just never had to think about gender before, so it comes as a complete shock to them. Even 1+1 is tricky when you don’t understand the concept of numbers yet.”

Holly shook her head violently as though trying to dislodge the thought. Her hair fanned out for a moment before settling back in a perfect spread over her shoulders, as she said, “Lets talk about something more cheerful. Friendship! That’s a happier topic, right?” She grinned.

“Right, friendship!” I decided that I had pulled everything out of my closet that needed to come, and stepped out of it to head to the bookshelf instead. “Friendship is…”

I blinked. It had, I figured, probably been a few minutes – I was sitting between two piles of books, one that seemed to be schoolbooks and the other my own personal books that I wanted to bring. I glanced over at Holly, who had just closed the last box of stuff from the closet and was now looking at me with concern. I managed a smile and gave her a thumbs up.

“…you don’t have to pretend to be okay, Quinn,” she said after a moment. “I know you’re not. It’s fine.”

I sighed. “I’m… not okay,” I agreed. “It’s just… dad was such a big part of my life. There’s so many things that make me think of him, and…” I actually felt myself tearing up this time. That was an improvement of a sort, I supposed.

Holly knelt next to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Would you like to talk about it?”

I wiped the tears away. “No, I… I need to distract myself, that’s all. It’s just… really hard, right now.”

Holly bit her lip thoughtfully, and I restrained the sudden surge of attraction I felt. I wouldn’t be a good partner right now, no matter how wonderful Holly was – I couldn’t be nearly what she deserved. Besides, she had turned me down when we had had dinner a few weeks ago.

“I wish I could help,” she said after a moment, “but I don’t think I can. I mean, I could make everything look super generic so it wouldn’t trigger memories, but… you do need to see them, so you can decide what’s important and what can stay.”

“Everything is important, in some ways,” I said. “It’s all… it’s all him. That’s why I can’t live here anymore.” I closed my eyes, but the sense of my presence still filled the room. I could still feel the mattress that he had helped me pick out with the money from my first summer job and the computer we had struggled through building together and the desk that he had once written poems on before it he had gotten a new one and passed it on to me and-

Scene 21 – November 8th
Interior Townhouse, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“…Quinn. Quinn! Holly said urgently. “You need to breath! You’re having a panic attack!”

I took a deep, gasping breath, my body suddenly covered in sweat. “It’s too much,” I whispered. “I can’t, it’s all so much, I can’t…”

She bit her lip again, seeming to know exactly what I meant. “I can’t block out your ESP. Is there something else that I can…”

“Something… something that dad and I didn’t…” I took another heavy, shuddering breath. “Magic!” I gasp in realization. “I had never known anything about magic, tell me about magic! Teach me something!”

She nodded decisively. “That I can do. Magic… Okay. I’m gonna try and teach you a spell. A really simple one – it’s one of the first that I ever learned, back when my parents were first teaching me magic,” she told me.

“You learned… from your parents?” I asked.

“Fuck, that… that won’t help you to know, that…”

“No… it’s fine,” I promised. “Your parents… not mine. Still not my dad. Keep going.”

“Okay. Okay.” She took a deep breath herself, then continued, “I’ve told you that everyone has their own style of casting magic, right? But there tend to be some similarities. Just about everyone uses some kind of physical motion associated with casting – I have hand gestures, Canaveral and Anima both use touch and physical motion in general. My father uses a flute, my mother uses hand signs just like me.”

“Is it like…” I took another deep breath, realizing I hadn’t in a while. “A focusing thing? I had to use hand motions when I first got my powers. I don’t need to anymore, but it’s still easier to use them. More theatrical, too.”

“The drama of it might be why some mages do it as well,” Holly agreed. “But it’s mostly for focusing, yeah. The important thing is that it’s something that you can put attention on, something you can focus your entire mind and soul on doing, because if your mind wanders the spell will go wrong. The more you practice the less focus you need, but especially at first, it needs to be something strong.

“And it needs to be something that works for you – everyone has their own style, remember. That’s why teaching magic is so difficult – what worked for the teacher may not work for the student, not unless their styles are similar enough.” Holly hesitated. “Whatever you come to may not be close enough to mine for my advice to help,” she warned me. “You probably won’t figure it out immediately, either. For some people it comes to them right away, but others have to try tons of different things before they find a focusing method that works for them. There’s a whole semester-long class on it as part of Magical Studies at UNV.”

I thought about it. Something that could occupy my entire mind, something that could get easier with practice… art was my first thought, but I discarded it after a moment. I was already pretty good at art, it was easy to autopilot. I needed something I still had to think about… something like…

“What about people with powers?” I asked. “Do powers ever fit into magical foci?”

“Sometimes,” she said. “A lot of mages start off with a trick of some sort – some minor magical thing that they can do that they expand into everything else. Canaveral’s thing with kinetic energy started as that, I think. The Magnificent Maxwell got his start that way too. Anyway, those tricks could be thought of as a power – especially Canaveral’s, he told me once he started with being able to sense kinetic energy and then began messing with it.”

“My presence, then,” I decided. “My ESP, that is – Dr. Anomnachi suggested a new name for it.”

“I like it. How would your presence be a focus, though?”

“I can mess with how I sensed things using it. Plug it in to my sight or hearing or whatever, or even narrow the scope to get more detail on a smaller area.” I hadn’t tried that yet, actually, but it seemed more than possible.

“Okay, that seems… yeah, I think I have a path to you casting from that,” Holly decided. “Just don’t hate me if it doesn’t work, okay?”

“I could never hate you.”

There was another one of those moments where I thought she was blushing, but an instant later it was gone. Was she…? No, she wouldn’t hide that from me, would she?

“Anyway,” she quickly said, “I want you to put a hand out, relaxed and a little open. Yeah, like that. Now just… focus in on the area in your hand. Cut out everything else, as much as you can.”

I did my best. My sense of presence began to shrink, the world around me changing from an extension of my own body to something separate from me entirely – a mildly disconcerting feeling, I hadn’t realized how used to it I had grown – until it was gone, just the dust in the air in my hand and my regular human senses.

I hadn’t realized how dusty the house was until now – my presence didn’t usually pick up particles that small. I suppose that without dad or I to…

“It’s okay, we can try again,” Holly said when I came back to myself. “Do you still want to?”

I nodded. “Yes, I do. It’s… it’s helping, I think. Making a new memory that has nothing to do with… well.”

“Alright. Focus back in on your hand, then.”

I did so with a little effort, the world sinking back into normalcy again. “I’m focused,” I whispered, worried that I would lose balance in the mental tightrope that focusing my presence like this seemed to require.

“If you have the mental capacity to speak, you’re not focused enough,” Holly gently scolded me. “Go deeper, if you can. Focus only on your hand and my voice.”

I did my best. I shut out the feeling of my clothes on my skin, the slight pressure of sitting on the floor. I closed my eyes and tried to set aside even the light that filtered through my eyelids. I tried to blot out everything there was, and… was doing so, with some success!

“When you have a perfect focus, your mind is like the tip of a arrow.”

I could still hear Holly’s voice encouraging me, but it wasn’t coming through my ears, now.

“The full power of your thoughts and will and soul all brought to bear on a single point.”

There were no ears, there was no body to bear them, there was no Quinn to use them.

“An arrow can pierce plate armor, with sufficient force.”

All there was was a small patch of space containing 0.01 pounds of air vibrating in patterns corresponding to the voice of my best friend

“When the force of your whole self is arrayed such, how could the universe not break as well?”

and that air was made of 1.19 moles of nitrogen and 0.28 moles of oxygen and and trace amount of argon and carbon dioxide and

“So thrust your mind forward, pierce through all that says reality must be static…”

and Holly’s voice was layered over lesser patterns of shockwaves that matched up to the sounds of two people breathing and a radiator humming and a dog barking in the distance and

“…and let there be light.”

and there was light.

2.1.21 Quinn doing magic

The sudden burst of light was blindingly bright and completely knocked me off the razor’s edge of my focus. Even through my closed eyes, it was incredibly bright – enough that I could feel an instant of warmth on my skin, enough that I was blinking and trying to regain my sight. Holly swore in pain, diving back and rubbing at her own eyes.

“Well, I think we can call that a success,” she declared when our sights had returned. “That definitely works for you. Maybe even a bit too well,” she joked, offering me a hand up.

“I think I might have gone too deep,” I agreed. “I may need to learn restraint.”

“Hey, it’s an effective flashbang,” she pointed out. “Well, the flash part, anyway. All you have to do is practice enough to pull it off without spending fifteen minutes build up to it.”

I paused. “Fifteen minutes?”

“Yeah. Lost track of time?”

“Completely,” I admitted.

“Pretty common when you’re putting together a new spell,” she promised me. “But you’ve clearly got a knack for this. Most people take way longer to find their method of casting.”

I shrugged. “I guess. How long does it usually take to get a spell to be quicker and easier?”

She shrugged. “Depends on how complex the spell is, depends how much you practice it, depends how much practice you have in general. I can usually put together a new construct in a day or two if it’s something simple, like… I dunno, a baseball… but the more complex it is, the longer it takes. The earpieces took two and a half years to get down to a usable 30 seconds, and I could probably cut the casting time further.”

“How long for me?” I clarified.

“For you? No clue, sorry,” she said apologetically. “But… probably a while. You’re not going to have a ton of time to mess with magic now that you’re doing school and heroing. And while you picked it up really quickly, you are a complete novice.”

“That’s true,” I said, deflating.

“It’s a pretty simple spell, though… maybe a month, if you find time to practice for fifteen minutes or half an hour every day? Whatever you pick next will probably come faster,” she promised.

“Great!” I grinned at her, feeling better. After a moment, I tried to school my face into something more serious. “I really do appreciate… everything,” I told her. “I know that… I probably seem like a bit of a shitty friend, putting all this on you so soon after we met-”

“Stop it,” Holly told me sternly. “Don’t worry about ‘putting this on me’ or whatever bullcrap. You didn’t ask for this to happen. You need support and I’m giving it to you, that’s all there is to it.” She smiled. “You’d do the same for me, right?”

I smiled back. “Yeah, of course,” I promised.

“Then don’t beat yourself up about it.” She leaned towards me a little then, as though changing her mind about something, pulled back and took my hand in hers instead. “Now let’s get this stuff back to the Compound.”

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2.1. Scenes 16-18

Scene 16 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

I eventually stopped pacing, after realizing there was no way around it.

Vulcan couldn’t leave the flag until Jack was taken out. While it was possible that Anima had knocked him out of the game in the last moments before she herself was disqualified, I couldn’t assume that – it was more likely that he was still in the game, as was Holly, as was Nic.

I felt bad even thinking it, but Nic was a nonentity in this activity. His ability to push his senses outside of his body was a useful one, but it had no combat applications, and while it had a better range than Holly’s magic, in an area only a few blocks across it was flat-out inferior to what she could do. He had been trying since he joined the Journeymen to replicate what sometimes happened in his dreams – when his senses sometimes drifted forward or backward in time, not just in space – but had never had any waking success. Until and unless he managed to unlock that precognition, he was unlikely to ever pose much of a threat, and could therefore be discounted.

His boyfriend Jack, however, was a threat. In this game, he was the only one of the Journeymen who had a chance of getting the flag, and he was the only one left with a heavy bat to take on Vulcan. Not to mention that he was smarter than his role as a tank might suggest. Hopefully Anima had softened him up for me, but he was a high priority in this game – above even Holly.

Jack was a threat, but Holly was dangerous. He was a good kid – all the Journeymen were – but as a leader, he was cunning and ruthless. His control over light and sound was powerful and versatile, and constantly expanding in both scope and magnitude. I remembered him being able to do little more than brief pops of light and sound when he first approached the Journeymen, and now…

The world vanished.

Everything I could see, gone in an instant and replaced by darkness. Everything I could hear, gone. I could still feel a faint breeze on my skin, I could flex my feet in the thin soles of my boots and feel the rooftop beneath me, but…

Holly had made his move.

I get the picture, Loki, I called out – it, too, vanished into the darkness, and it was disconcerting to hear nothing despite knowing that I was speaking. You’re here to distract me from finding Sequoia, aren’t you? You know that he’s the only way you’re going to win this.

“How sure of that are you?” he asked – his voice bursting forth from every direction at once, surrounding me on all sides and giving me no clues to his location. “Perhaps we’ll win by taking you out, and Vulcan too. We’ve already knocked out Anima and Starling, after all.”

A phantom of Starling appeared, falling through the air and landing headfirst on a surface that was suddenly there with an unnerving crack and squelch. Anima’s body followed a moment later. Then Vulcan stumbled around me, battling with Sequoia and distinctly on the defensive. He collapsed a moment later as a gunshot rang out, revealing Loki standing behind him with a gun in his hand.

I swallowed. You’re getting pretty good at the psychological warfare thing, I quietly admitted. What I thought was quietly, at least. It was hard to judge without any auditory feedback. But it won’t be that easy. Vulcan and I are each better fighters than you and Sequoia put together. I stepped forward and waved a hand through the illusion of himself Loki had projected, and it curled around my hand like smoke, vanishing in moments.

“Mhm.” The world began to appear again, piecemeal – lines of light shaping the outlines of buildings and color filling them in afterwards, sound following in similar piecemeal fashion. The fallen bodies of my team remained – as the edge of the roof I was standing on appeared, Starling’s body shifted and fell off the edge, landing on the street level with a thud. “It’s not the only thing I’m getting better at.”

I narrowed my eyes. Holly wouldn’t be showing me the real shape of the world – he wanted me to stay away from wherever Jack was, I was certain. Whatever direction he was presenting as the obvious path – and one of the buildings looked a lot more inviting that the others, its rooftop slightly below the one I stood on rather than well above or below – was surely the wrong way.

But he knew better than to think I would just accept what an illusionist showed me, and mindlessly charge off the edge to my doom. If this was a double-bluff, it could be the right direction after all.

On the other hand… he knew that I knew that he knew better than that. It could be a triple bluff and be wrong again…

That way lay madness, I decided. Instead of trying to figure out how many layers of bluff there were to this, I sent a shockwave through the air. Air wasn’t the most precise medium for this trick, but it would give me an idea of how different the landscape Holly was showing me was from reality.

…nothing came back.

“What did you expect that to do?” Holly asked me. “…you do realize that a shockwave traveling through the air is just sound, right?” He laughed. “You can’t trust that, now can you?”

I narrowed my eyes. He was right – I wouldn’t have been able to trust it anyway, not with the illusionist controlling every sound around me. There was only one way to see through his lies – a leap of faith.

I dashed for the edge of the building, bounding across to the next as I had a thousand times. I came down for a landing, ready to absorb the force of touching down, and…

The rooftop shattered like glass as I struck it, illusion falling away. The real surface was perhaps a foot below it, just enough to throw me off without giving me enough time to absorb the force.

I wasn’t all that surprised, honestly. I managed to shrug off most of the force of the landing, although I had to tuck into a roll rather than continue running as I usually did.

It wasn’t just the surface of the building that had shattered when I landed – the entire landscape Loki had constructed was collapsing and reforming. Perhaps my leap of faith had been the right tack, and this was the right way to go after all.

My hope was confirmed a moment later when a bright flash of light shone right in my eyes, along with a deafening whine that forced me to cover my ears and shrink away. Blinking spots away and still clutching my head as both faded, I realized that the world Loki presented had spun in circles. I had completely lost my sense of direction in that moment – which meant that I had been going the right way.

Not that the knowledge helped, I had to admit, as I no longer knew which way I had been going. On the other hand, freed of the possibility of chasing Jack, I was free to focus all my attention on Holly.

“You’ve made a mistake,” I called.

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“It’s clear that I’m not getting away from you. That means that the only way out is through.”

“That might be intimidating if you had any idea where I was,” Holly pointed out.

“You’re close by,” I said confidently. “You can’t be maintaining a manual illusion this intricate from any great distance. In fact…” I ran to the edge of the building where it faced the street and hopped over.

And slammed into the wall of the next building, which had seemed to be the empty space of the street, then fell to the ground – once again, it wasn’t at the height it appeared to be, this time the real surface being too far up, and the impact was later than expected in an incredibly unnerving fashion.

“I don’t know why you would trust anything you see and hear right now, Holly said with a chuckle. “You’re in the power of the god of lies, remember.

“You’re no god,” I said, rising back to my feet. “You’re a very talented mage, yes, but you’re still just a kid. I’ve got a lot of experience on you.”

“I’ve been doing this nearly as long as you,” he pointed out. “Six years, seven… how much of a difference does that last year make, after all?”

“It’s not the years, it’s what you do with them,” I said, and sent a kinetic pulse through the ground.

This one came back to me, as I had hoped. The range wasn’t great, not in a solid object, but it told me how the city around me was actually laid out. And, as I had half-suspected, it was closer to what Holly was showing me than he was implying.

He really was getting better – he could maybe have put together an illusion as elaborate as this last year, but last year he wouldn’t have had the manipulative chops to pass if off as more than it actually was. With a few well-placed deceptions and regular reminders that everything I saw and heard was in his power, he was trying to get me to doubt my senses – even the kinetic pulse that I would have to rely on. He had been able to blot it out when I sent it through the air, but…

…but he had also been surprised by it, I realized. He had been able to figure out its purpose immediately, which just drove home how clever he was. But if he had been able to fake it, not just block it out, he would have done that instead of claiming the possibility. All that added up to me being able to trust what I got back from my echlocation pulse – if I got anything back at all, at least.

I began making my way through the artificial city, sending occasional pulses to check up on my surroundings and on whether or not Holly was within my range. He seemed to be starting to get desperate as I began to ignore the illusions – his taunting got sloppier, and the illusions more intrusive. He didn’t flashbang me again, though – I was guessing one of the agents refereeing had scolded him for it, as it could potentially harm me.

I was approaching a part of the city that I thought I recognized when I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise, and dodged forward. There was the sound of a shot, and a splatter of paint appeared on the wall next to me.

“Finally pulling out that gun, huh?” I asked. “Too bad your aim isn’t great.”

“Maybe I’ve been practicing.”

I had to dodge more shots, herding me along the wall and across the street, and narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “I doubt it,” I murmured. He had never shown any interest in guns before, and certainly hadn’t logged any time in the Compound’s shooting range. It was much more likely that… I ignored the next shot, and it splattered against the wall behind me even though I ought to have been in the line of fire, judging from the others.

“You’re as poor a shot as you’ve ever been,” I said with a grin. “And these are no more real than anything else you’ve shown me.” But not without purpose, no more than anything else he’d shown me. I sent another pulse out, putting a trifle more power into it, hoping that…

Yes! He was hiding in an alleyway on the other side of the street from me, not far from where I had been when the paintball shots started. Holly was clever, yes, but real-world experience counted for a lot – and while she had been a Journeyman for years, there was a big difference between what they were allowed to do and what full heroes did.

“Perhaps I’m closer than you think,” Holly’s voice boomed out once more. “Aim doesn’t matter if I can get close enough to press the barrel into your back.” Having already primed me to ignore whatever he said, this was no doubt to make me think he was farther away. And if I hadn’t already located him, I might have bought it.

I walked back into the street and continued walking down it for a moment as though I didn’t think he was nearby, sending another pulse to check on his exact location as I did. Then…

I whirled and twisted, launching myself at Holly bat-first. I slammed into him heavily, knocking him from his feet, and the illusory world dissolved around me one more time – this time revealing reality rather than another layer of deception.

“I win,” I teased, standing and offering him a hand up.

Holly took it and pulled himself to his feet, eyes still alight with competitiveness. “Game’s not over yet.”

Scene 17 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Continuous
Abraham Armstrong

“Vulcan: what’s your status?” I asked as I began heading towards the flag again.

“Still fighting Hypnos,” he grunted. “He’s doing a lot better than he was last time we sparred, too. I already told you that, didn’t I?”

“Why are you fighting Hypnos?” I demanded. “He didn’t come up to the flag, did he? And you haven’t told me anything, I thought things were uneventful over there!”

“No, I came out to hunt him like you told me to,” he told me. “I called you when I found him and you said to pursue!

“I never – Loki. It must have been him.”

“Then… shit, is Sequoia still in the game?”

“As far as I know, yes.”

“Fuck.”

“Fuck indeed.” I redoubled my speed towards the flag. I caught a brief glimpse of Vulcan below me as I passed over one street – Hypnos was, as he said, doing remarkably well dodging his blows, almost as if… had he gotten his precog working? I would have to congratulate him, if so. Even so, as I landed on the next roof I heard Agent Delilah announce that Hypnos was out.

I didn’t stop or even slow. The flag was unguarded now, and the one player remaining on the Journeymen’s side was the one player who could-

“The game is over,” boomed Agent John. “The Journeymen have won, by taking the New Champions’ flag.”

Scene 18 – November 6th
Exterior Training Grounds, Late Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

“Good job, everyone,” Canaveral said, all of us circled up once more now that the match was over. “A lot of congratulations to go around.

“Loki, Anima tells me you created a new spell?”

He nodded proudly, wearing a goofy and distractingly-adorable grin. “A magical version of the normal earpieces! That way Starling couldn’t listen in on us and I could lead the team and contribute myself.”

“Very well done. You’ve also gotten much better at misleading people since last year!”

He deflated a little. “Didn’t work, though.”

“Don’t feel bad – I’ve worked against a fair few illusionists in my day. You’ve got a ways to go before you can trick me, but you’re well on your way.” Canaveral offered him a fist bump, which after a moment Loki accepted.

“Next, Hypnos. Are Vulcan and I right to think that you’ve cracked the case on precognition?”

He nodded, seeming just as proud. “It’s like thinking at right angles compared to using my power normally, and I’ve only got it out to about two seconds right now, but once I figured out the trick it was almost easy. It’s given me a new idea on how to approach my regular power, too.”

“Well done indeed,” Canaveral said again, and they exchanged high fives.

“Newton,” he said, turning to me.

“I know,” I said, glancing down. “I screwed up.”

He nodded. “You screwed up. Can you tell me where?”

“I shouldn’t have attacked, I should have kept the chase going,” I explained.

“Tell me, why did you turn back to attack?”

“…I guess… you looked like you were about to turn back. It seemed like the best way to get your attention back on me.”

He nodded. “It was, and I was. Anima had just called for assistance. If not for you slowing me down by another 30 seconds, I probably would have gotten back in time to help her.”

“That wasn’t wrong?”

“You have good instincts,” Canaveral told me. “You need to develop them a little more, you need to do some physical conditioning – you’re in good shape for a civilian, but as a hero you’ll need more endurance than you showed today – and you’ll need to brush up on your fighting skills. But for what was…” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Your third time using your powers in combat, I think? Unless you’ve been going out without telling us…”

I shook my head. “I’m pretty busy with classes. It’s amazing I’ve managed to get enough free time to spend with you all, I would never be able to go out on my own, too.”

“Anyway, for your third time in combat, you did great.” He clapped me on the shoulder, then added. “You second-guess yourself a lot, Quinn. Have a little more confidence, okay?”

I nodded uncertainly. “So… if fighting you in the first place wasn’t the problem, where did I go wrong?”

“You left me in a blind spot,” Canaveral explained. “You ducked below the edge, where you couldn’t see me, even with your ESP, and that let me surprise you – because I could see you.”

“How?”

“I can do a sort of echolocation thing. It’s relatively short-ranged, and it works best through solid objects – that’s how I knew where you were. It’s how I knew the buyers of that drug deal I took you to bust had arrived, too.”

“It’s also how he saw through my attempts to mislead him,” Loki added.

“Having extra senses is one of the most useful things for any hero,” Canaveral said, his eyes flicking to Hypnos for a moment. “Anything that can give you information your enemies don’t think you have. Let that be the lesson for today – never leave yourself somewhere you can’t see the enemy if you can help it.”

Loki cleared his throat. “That’s not the only thing we get, I hope?”

Canaveral nodded. “Indeed it isn’t. Vulcan, would you grab the trophy?”

The huge man, still made of metal, went to a large box and produced a large golden trophy cup, emblazoned with an MLED logo. At its base, it said ‘Paintball Champions 2020’. Vulcan hefted the massive trophy as if it weighed nothing at all and passed it to Sequoia, who similarly had no difficulty holding it.

“Winners gather round your trophy,” Canaveral said, taking his phone from one of the lockers we had left our stuff in before changing into paintball uniforms and pointing it our way. “Say ‘we kicked superhero butt!”

I let out a brief laugh before joining in with my friends as we all chorused “WE KICKED SUPERHERO BUTT!”

2.1.18 paintball selfie

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