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Lost Haven, Maine


Blacklight stopped over the edge of Lost Haven, peering through the growing storm, trying to find her target location in the dimness. The echoing thump and flares of battle against the damp darkness of evening told her exactly what she needed to know. Hovering in place almost a thousand feet above the suburbs, her “wings” flapping to keep her aloft, she squinted, trying to gauge distance and numbers, but even as she squinted she remembered that that sort of reconnaissance was pointless with metahumans in the mix. Her wings flapped once, echoing thunder back at the rumbling storm, and took off towards the fight, her energy wake barely visible against the growing blackness of the stormy sky above.

She watched, horrorstruck, as the fight clarified in relation to the closing distance. Several fires picked out whre the wreckage of some machines had fallen into the city. She guessed helicopters until she spotted another fireball descending from above the clouds. She streaked over the fight as fast as possible, not caring at the moment about the sonic boom the followed her. At the extreme of her beam ranges, she targeted the falling wreckage and fire with everything the had. The sound of breaking light was like thunder and breaking glass, and the wide beam of black energy would be obvious, but thankfully the battle was already well past the point where stealth was required. The leading edge of the beam caught the falling wreck and obliterated it before it could do any harm. She peered at the area where it had been falling and growled to herself. That's residential. What the hell do these people think they're doing!?

Spinning in place a few hundred feet in the air, Leanna searched for any more of the jets, but failed to spot any. Another bloom of fire and roar of noise announced another helicopter going down near the square, and she rushed over, careful this time to avoid the glass-shattering speed she had moved with previously now that she was closer to the ground. Seeing an attack helicopter going down, spinning rapidly towards a building bordering the square, she generated a field of energy in a simple flat plane, big enough to bounce the thing back towards the street. As it bounced, she rushed forward, killing the field, and grabbed the thing by the wreckage of the tail. Hauling backwards, she halted it's fall, though the tail threatened to rip off at any moment. She guided its descent down to the street, blocking as much of the road as possible with the wreckage. She didn't see anyone getting out, so she landed and ran over to the cockpit. Only dead men sat in the seats.

Cursing, she launched back up into the sky, to hover near a rooftop and watch the battle, seeking a place where she would be most useful. On the roof near her a girl with a bow of all things was firing into hounds, providing cover for a greaser-looking kid who was wielding lightning. Nearby, a man in full body armour was standing over several unconscious combatants, multiple guns being raised at him from a few more of the enemy. She sent a beam to cut through their ranks, at minimum power, sending them into the pavement and skidding into a wall with what was sure to be multiple bone fractures. Scanning further, she glanced Icon and Iron Knight, together with a core group of people. Two of them looked like costumed civilians, and a third, some sort of blue woman. Well, if they were with Arthur and Chris they were fine. A streaking blur gave evidence to a speedster in the mix.

Some sort of mechanised suits were battling, as well. One looked as though it had police insignia on it. The other was nearly double the size of any other, using some sort of chainsaw weapon to cut into the opposing side. How the hell anyone had mechs at this point, Leanna didn't know, and without knowing what the power sources were, she couldn't reliably blast into them willy-nilly. And another flying brick type seemed to be giving them support, albeit in that way that melee types always seemed to. She knew the look on the big man's face all too well from personal experience. As that group tore into the enemy, however, she noted they weren't exactly being careful.

She turned to the girl with the bow, said, ”Keep up the good work! Try not to kill anyone!', and leapt off of the roof. Flying at a good clip, she swung out towards the mechs, batting a flying arm down into the pavement and blasting another chunk of machinery out of the air hard enough to vapourise it. Swooping past the brick as he dropped what she assumed to be a dead combatant, she fixed him with a scowl, but didn't take the time to admonish. Instead, she flew straight to the center of this mess, hovering a few feet from Icon just as the man finished up with a mech. Bullets pinged off of her skin as the enemy infantry decided she was enough of a threat, and she idly threw a low-power beam sweeping behind her near ground level, taking out their legs.

”Long time no see, old friend,” she said with a grin over the visible part of her lower face. She nodded at the rest nearby. ”I see you've gathered quite the party together. Where do you need me?”

A farm outside of Jamesville, NY


The dying light of the late afternoon cast gold shadows through the light green of summer leaves, leaving an imprint of tranquility over the field where Leanna toiled. Birdsong filled the air as she stood up and winced at the pops in her back and hip, but the relief came flooding in after them. She had no idea how long she had been crouched over at this point, hauling weeds out of a patch of soil soon to be planted with autumn vegetables. Long enough, at least, that her muscles, powerful enough to break a vehicle in half in her hey day with little effort, were rebelling at the abuse. Yanking off soil crusted gloves and tossing them over the bag laying a few feet away, she put one hand over her eyebrows to shield against the sun and surveyed her land.

To the north, less than a few hundred yards away, was a thick copse of oak and ash, which thinned into a line going east to west and dividing her farm from her neighbour's. The trees met a stand of cottonwoods and willows to the east that ran south along the jagged edge of riverbank her land backed on to. She knew at least one family of ducks was there now, though the foxes may have chased them out by this late in the summer. To the west lay open fields for several acres, most of which were grass for her animals, before hitting the county road that ran north up to Jamesville and south to Tully. And south of her position now was the remainder of her three hundred and sixty acre farm, generously paid for by the government in return for her services to the country and the world. Situated roughly in the middle was a modest little farmhouse, grey slate roof over a single story of ivy covered walls and massive bay windows. Stretching out from almost every edge of that building was a complex, spiralling maze of vegetable gardens, flower beds, and play areas for the three dogs she was currently fostering. Slightly away from that was the barn for her two horses Applejack and Bourbon, the milk cow Fatty McGee, and the small herd of goats that kept her fallow areas mostly clear of overgrowth. Built into the side of that was the chicken coop, well armoured against the attentions of predators and with an opening that let the birds into their own enclosure inside the main structure.

The southern end of her property was a mass of orchard trees and grape vines, one her neighbours were constantly telling her she should organise into rows. But she always deflected, and noted privately that her fruit trees tended to do better than any others in the area. The drive up to the house from the road was simple dirt, bordered by thick masses of roses and jasmine that fought viciously for dominion over each other. Parked on that dusty path was her motorbike and a beaten down, barely functioning and well loved old Chevy Suburban of indeterminate age and colour. She never cleaned the thing, and did all the repairs herself, which left her with a mostly jury-rigged machine that nevertheless hauled what she wanted it to. Just outside the barn was the old flat bed trailer for supply runs and a horse caravan for vet visits.

All in all, she thought to herself, This ain't such a bad life. No more getting blown up, no more death and destruction to tear through trying to find what's left of little kids. And the world has left me alone to it. Her toes flexed inside the weather worn and muddy boots she wore and she stretched her arms out wide. Fingers splayed out as she breathed deep, inhaling the scents of the land: Soil and grass soaked by yesterday's rain, the cold, clear notes of the river, the blooms from the orchard and driveway drifting up on the sweet, gentle breeze that caressed her bared arms. The warmth of the sun, despite being dampened by the lateness of the hour, provided a nice counter-note to the slight chill of the breeze. She held that pose for several moments before the cell phone in her jeans pocket went off, breaking the spell.

She pulled out the offending device and examined the screen with a frown before hitting the green button and putting it up to her ear, wincing slightly in anticipation of the conversation.

”Tim, what can I do for you?” Her voice was carefully measured. It didn't do to infuriate the already on-edge neighbour across the road.

“Leanna! Thank God I got hold of you, girl!” The voice of Tim's wife, Faye, came as a surprise. They were only in their twenties, but already argued like an old, bitter couple, sometimes loud enough she could hear them from across almost a mile. Well, that could have been her imagination. But the slight panic in Faye's voice caught buried instincts in the retired heroine. ”What's wrong, Faye?”

“Well, Tim got into his drinkin' phase again, sugar, only this time he decided to take up his grievance with the city council about that expansion to the road on the other side of us from you. I don't think he'll make it past the bar, but if you could go stop him from doin' anythin' foolish, I'd sure be appreciative. I don't need him getting' arrested just now, ya know?”

Leanna certainly did. Faye was six months pregnant, and the couple were definitely in the “wife stays home” camp. ”Don't worry, Faye, I'll go get him back for you. How long ago did he leave?”

“Oh, just now, sugar. Not even ten minutes.”

”Alright, sit tight, we'll be back soon.” Leanna left her bag where it was, glancing up to see the sky was clear, and ran for the truck. She might be faster on the bike, but she didn't feel like riding in buggy weather with only a filthy tank-top on. Her boots splashed through a puddle as she ran, reminding her of the driving conditions until she got into Jamesville proper. One quick stop to reach inside the door and grab her keys, and then she was heading for the truck. For not the first time, she wished she could just fly, but none of her neighbours knew about her past and revealing it for a stupid reason like one of them being drunk was not a thing she relished.

An hour later, in Jamesville, NY

Leanna sat in the waiting room of the local cop shop and stared at the ceiling. Thankfully Tim had been pulled over before he had managed to hurt anyone, himself included, but his usual aggressive manner meant that the officer, one Anne Bradbury, had hauled him in instead of escorting him home like they usually did with the farmers around here. After all, the farmers were a long shot better than the students coming down from Syracuse. Leanna knew that personally, having been one of those students once. But to get him out with only a warning meant using some of her credentials as an upstanding citizen and retired government official,. Even if her exact former occupation was obfuscated, it was not a comfortable conversation. She almost wished they had used her time helping the Army to give her veteran status, but that was almost certainly wrong somehow.

Sitting in the hard plastic bench, Leanna let her gaze drop down and scanned the room. Jamesville was a quiet town for the most part, but there were trouble makers everywhere, she knew. At least one other guy looked destined for the drunk tank, and a pair of teenagers sullenly staring at the floor looked like shoplifters. The background hum of a television tuned to local news and the conversation of the desk sergeant and another officer bled into one another somewhat, but everything stopped when the radios in the police area all went off with the same “alert” tone at the same time. The heroine perked up suddenly, glancing towards the door once before standing and walking over to the counter. The sergeant glanced at her, and then over her shoulder at the television. His eyes narrowed slightly, business-like, and she turned to see what it was that had caught his attention.

At the same time she saw the alarm system colors flash onto the screen, and the horrible tone go off from the tinny speakers, a red glow flared once in the window. Several shouts from the back alerted her to the police not knowing anything, and she raced to the window in time to see the fading line to the south. It was too far away to tell where or what, but she knew as her heart fell and stomach churned, trouble the likes of which she hadn't seen for ages was coming.

The reporter's voice came up, choked with emotion, and without images, she was left only describing what little they knew. A laser of some sort had struck in three places. Texas, Pennsylvania, and Massachusets. No word from anyone in the area. The Air Force scrambling. Leanna heard on the police comms behind her that everyone was to remain on high alert, and all off-duty officers were being called in.

It took half an hour, everyone in the station staring at the television, before they found out what the damage truly was. An island and a town wiped off the map, utterly gone. A smoking crater occupying much of Philadelphia, only a few hundred miles south of them. And these so called Hounds of Humanity claiming sole responsibility. Echoes of conversations with government officials rang in her ears as Leanna rushed out of the door, heedless of her surroundings.

She was allowed a generous pension, in secret, due to her service in several matters. They were sad to see her go. Would she like to be on call in case something truly bad happened? Of course she would, she had answered. She was a hero after all. She fumbled her cell phone out of her pocket, dialing Faye and only getting a voicemail. She briefly went over the instructions that Tim would have to be picked up, apologised, and climbed into her truck as she hung up. A decade of protecting her identity came back in a flash. Drive quickly, and with purpose. Can't leave the car here, it would cause questions. Back to the farm, get my gear, call in. Don't act to calm, be sure to be a little panicked, everyone else is.

The drive back was unbearably long, even though it only took half an hour. As soon as her engine was off, she slammed the truck door open, racing for her front door as fast as she would allow herself, which even as much as she was restraining might have looked a little blurred to a normal person. The closet in her room was tossed, clothes flying everywhere, until she uncovered the old military footlocker at the bottom. She didn't bother trying to find the key for the padlock, just ripped it off and flung the lid open. Inside, sitting there just like she left it, was her old costume. She stripped down as quickly as she could, tossing muddy clothes on top of clean, and dressed as fast as her joints would allow. They creaked in complaint, but she ignored them as she tugged her arms through the sleeves. The familiar feeling of the specialised armoured spandex felt oddly comforting. She tried a few punches and kicks to make sure no tears were likely to occur, then strapped the domino mask across her face and arranged her hair so the strap was hidden. An experimental thought and her strange black energy came crackling around her fist just as fast as it used to.

On her way back to the front door, thoughts raced furiously as her black leather knee high boots clacked ominously along the dark hardwood floors. Twice before now, Springheel had come to her, asking for her help against these Hounds of Humanity, but twice she had refused. It had seemed like just another hate group, one that who die off or be arrested in time without her intervention. Her doctor had also vetoed any activity, though he was sympathetic. And now? Now the guilt came welling up. What if she could have stopped these people before they had gotten this far? Or at least helped?

No, those thoughts were unhelpful now. Now was the time to formulate a plan. She thought of old companions, those who might know what the metahuman response was going to be. Springheel was too flighty, and operated outside of normal channels half the time. Denier, her only other frequent visitor, was in Asia and unlikely to be able to answer right now. That left Iron Knight and Icon of the old crew she could call on. Everyone else either wouldn't answer the phone or was dead. She hauled her phone out of her belt and dialled a number she hadn't had occasion too in almost two years, and hoped her old compatriot answered quickly.

“Hello! You have reached the voicemail of Christopher Arthur. Please leave a message after the tone and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” For a moment, there was a silent pause and an anticipation of the recording tone. However, one did not sound and instead Chris got back on the line. “Just kidding! Young time no see, Long. What got you to crawl out of whatever hiding place you’ve been lying low in for these past years?”

“H’lo, Chris. You’re just as bad as ever, I see. But now’s not really time for banter. I just saw the news, figured we’d be gearing up for a response. Do you have any idea when or where? This is one of those…” her breath caught for a second as she thought. ”Come out of retirement moments, you know?”

“Doing a Jordan, I see,” Chris gave as his first response, despite Blacklight specifically telling him that the situation was dire. “I’m heading towards Sherman Square, where I’m hoping several other heroes will gather, assuming my message got through. Hopefully a united group of heroes can uproot these damn Hounds.”

”Sherman Square? In Lost Haven still, then? Alright, it’ll be a while before I can get there, but I’ll meet you there as soon as I can. These bastards are not getting away with this.”

“Since they could not even properly sideline me out with an orbital laser, I have no doubt they have no chance against the heroes of this country.”

She shook her head. ”You’ll have to tell me about that one later. See you in a few hours, Chris.”

Stepping out into the cooling night air, she let her powers build up. Rainbow streaks scattered the light around her, casting strange shadows around her in scintillating colours. From her back grew the two wing shapes of energy, each almost ten feet long. She stretched them experimentally, flapped them once and felt sure she could still fly, and then took off in a crackling roar, leaving a black trail behind her as she streaked east, towards Maine.

Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

A house in northern Carver


Sarah Reeves had been through the shit more than once. A retired warrant officer, certified with several US attack helicopters, and five years with the FBI field office in Albuquerque afterwards had shown her plenty of the awful side of life. Those who had served with her in either capacity usually found her to be all business, but that was a facade, something she used to keep the bad stuff out of her mind. None of them had seen the long nights, when the memories became too much to handle, where her only comfort was a big bottle of anything that burned going down and as many happy, banal videos she could find on her laptop. If she survived tonight, she thought, she might need to start drinking Everclear.

It had started fine. Her and Broadway had been called to go meet a local metahuman who, uncomfortable with driving in the city due to the Hounds presence, was interested in helping out. So they had driven the hour out to Carver, Broadway bemoaning Tiamat's condition in the hospital, to meet this "Marionette". It had seemed a nice house, in a quiet suburb, quite close to the edge of the city. Reeves' internal danger sense alerted her to the unusual set up of the place, a single house at the end of a cul-de-sac, backed by a park that looked to run all the way to the woods. Plain looking exterior siding on a two-story home, but no lights on that they could see.

Broadway had knocked on the door, and a voice from inside told them it was unlocked and to see themselves to the kitchen. And as the entered the place, that was when her internal alarms started screaming, along with someone in the house. Her and Broadway glanced at each other and then split up, the metahuman taking the lower floor and beginning to glow while the special agent moved for the stairs. The smell reminded her of the lairs of serial killers, blood and cleaning fluids hanging thick in the air.

Two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs were all charnel houses once she turned her flashlight beam on them. Blood covered almost every available surface, including som arterial spray on the ceilings. Bones that had teeth marks, and not immediately identifiable ones, were scattered around. No skulls, though. Just as she was reaching for her radio, a short, cut-off cry came from down stairs, and she rushed to find the source, belatedly drawing out the Browning from her hip.

She reached the top of the stairs to see the glow fading from a hand that clutched weakly at the banister, before dropping in death. And around the corner came the worst thing Reeves' had ever seen. It stood on two legs, but was clearly not human. The legs and feet looked canines, covered in mangy fur and sores. The abdomen and waist looked more hominid, though also covered in thick belly hair. The chest and arms more resembled a horrifying cross between man and bear, though too-long by half and thin. The head, with glaring yellow cat's eyes focused on her, was some cross between alligator, dog, and human. It was grinning at her, and as it winked, the eye that opened again was obviously human, a clear blue, though crusted with mucus. It held up a chunk of meat and gurgled out the word "cheers", and it took Reeves' a moment to realise that it was a heart.

The Browning went off seven times in rapid succession, and she saw all the rounds on target plunge into flesh, but the .45 ACP rounds didn't even nudge the beast. The wounds closed almost as fast as they opened, and it ignored them as it placed the heart gingerly into it's overlong jaws. And as it bit down oh so slowly, blood spurting out from the ruptured organ, it never broke eye contact.

She had run several blocks before she realised it hadn't followed her. She leapt over a garden wall in front of someone's house, she didn't car, slamming her back into it and ass into the ground. She had dropped the flashlight on her way out of the second story window, probably somewhere in bushes she had landed in. One shoulder was definitely bruised, she noted as she finally reloaded her pistol. Reaching for her radio, she found it gone too, cursed vehemently, and closed her eyes. Apparently God was with her tonight, since she still had her cellphone, she found as she dug her hand into her coat pocket. She dialled the first number she could think of, and was surprised to find the voice on the other line wasn't dispatch.

"Agent Reeves? Hello, this is Tiamat. What can I do for you?"

The girl sounded slightly out of breath, but at this point, Reeves did too. "Tiamat, get everyone together and get out to Carver, right now."

"Agent Reeves? What's wrong?"

Reeves gasped, then sucked in a deep breath and let her mind focus. "There's some sort of fucking monster out here. It got Broadway, it probably ate the whole family of the person we were out here to meet. I have no fucking clue what it is. Dispatch and Faulkner know where I am, get out here with the whole team. We need to burn this thing out."

"I am sorry, Reeves. Faulkner is dead as well. But you say it killed Broadway?" Her voice had cracked. Of course, they're friends. Reeves squinted her eyes shut in regret. And Faulkner too. Could this night get any worse?

"Agent Reeves, we will be there as soon as we can, I have a SWAT unit with me right now anyway. Do you know what it is?"

"Fuck no. It didn't even notice me firing forty-fives into it, I have no clue what the fuck can ignore those that isn't made of metal." What the hell is that smell?

A voice growled from above her head, easily loud enough to be heard over the phone, at the same time a huge, sore-covered paw closed over her face. Her eyes went wide as she heard the word "Skinwalker". And then everything went dark.

Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

Lost Haven General Hospital

Almost as soon as she was done bandaging herself, she made the mistake of looking over the damage she had wrought in the bathroom. The coppery scent of blood hung in the air, as well as the more unpleasant smells of the human body after it shut down. And she saw the leg of the man with his head through the sink twitching. Apparently a piece of the sink had penetrated one of the major blood vessels of the neck. She immediately bent over and vomited. She had never killed before, and panic, adrenaline, and horror hit her hard enough to cause her to lose what little she had in her stomach. She stayed on her hands and knees for a long while, tears flowing openly as she sucked in huge gasps of air, trying desperately to get a grip on her mind. I can't break down now. There are innocent people in this building who need help. Come on, Darya, get moving!

She climbed to her feet and took another moment to steady herself, snatching a paper towel from the broken dispenser on the wall and wiping away the various fluids from her face, more roughly than she normally might have. Even in the midst of such carnage, she made sure the towel went into the proper receptacle as she leaned out of the door, checking for signs of enemies. No one seemed to be moving outside. She pulled out the radio and pressed the button.

"Dispatch, are you there?"

"Yep, still here Tiamat. How are you doing in there?"

"Well...There are fewer attackers, now? Five in the bathroom, I think at least two of them are dead. Six in the recovery area. I don't know if any of them are still alive."

"Damn! Okay, are you wounded?"

"I'm okay. Took a graze, but I'll live. Can you tell me where the civilians might be?" She glanced at the wall plate nearby. "I'm on floor five."

"Reports on the ground from the perimeter say there's a group holding hostages in the lobby. SWAT's still inbound, so for right now we're just watching. One of the staff members who got out says it was pretty skeleton staff right now, maybe a hundred inside, and more than half got out. Judging by the headcount we've gotten, plus the deaths of the staff you told me about, I'm guessing everyone is there in the lobby."

"Then that's where I am going."

"Whoa, Tiamat, hold on! We can't have you go charging in, not without support. That's how hostages die. You said they had other people in the building, right?"

"Yes. I think they took over the security system, too."

"Okay. What you could do is go to the security room, it'll be somewhere on the first floor, and deal with them. Then sit tight until I call you, okay?"

"Okay, I can do that."

"Are you sure you're okay? You sound a little shaky there."

Her voice failed her, and she couldn't voice what she felt. It took her a moment before she managed to weakly say, "I'm fine for now."

"Alright." The dispatcher seemed not ready to press her. "Whatever you do, stay safe. We'll get you and the civilians out as soon as we can."

The young heroine leaned against the wall, thoughts racing. She had killed people today. Yes, they had been trying to kill her, but she knew she could pacify normal people without killing them. But she hadn't. She had shot men dead. She had broken in a man's skull. And worse, it had been so easy, she hadn't even realised she was doing it. Her mind flickered back to the fight in the plaza that had landed her here. The man in the suit that had supported them, he had killed easily and efficiently, barely even an expression on his face. Then, too, had been a kill or be killed situation.

Was this really what hero-ing was? Killing those who tried to kill you while you tried desperately to remember what the right thing even was? Could she do that? It felt more like being a soldier than a hero, and she had never wanted to be a soldier. Her whole goal had been to...What had been her goal? Her powers had come on her suddenly, Allah gifting her with extraordinary powers, but had she ever really thought what she should do with them, consciously? The Hounds were obviously needing to be dealt with, but was violence really the only way it could be done? Could there be another option? After all, she knew that some of her father's friends had been radicalised, and the same had happened here. Was there a hope of redeeming these men and women, those on the fringes, who were scared of change but not necessarily evil?

Well, she thought to herself, kicking off the wall and standing, her fist clenching. Water sluiced to her from the bathroom and ran up her leg, coalescing into a thin film that covered most of her bodysuit. Whatever happens, I cannot stand here while people are in danger. That much I know is part of being a hero.

Darya slid along the corridor wall, barely daring to breathe. Past the door hanging halfway open not five feet to her right, she could hear three people talking in low voices. One of them sounded like they were on the phone. Probably calling in support to pull them out. As silently as she could, the girl slipped up to the door and peeked around the corner.

In front of a bank of monitors ten feet inside the room sat two black armoured people with short hair. A third was facing away from her and the monitors both, hand up to her ear. That one resembled the one who had tried to assassinate Darya at the very beginning of this night, covered in knives and with long hair tied in a bun. Another leaned against the wall, arms crossed, just inside the door, watching the monitors and picking his teeth with a finger. All four had submachineguns on them, what looked like MP5s, though the light was dim and made it hard to tell. Three pairs of shoes were visible in one corner, and she could guess the security guards were not going to be alive, judging by the stains in the carpeting.

She guided the water soaking her clothing out of the fibres and slithering up, along the ceiling through the door. She didn't have much with her, maybe a gallon and a half, but she thought it sufficient for her plan. She divided it evenly across the four people, then dropped it suddenly, steering it into their eyes, noses, and mouths. The woman with the cell phone alos got some along her hands. Then all of it heated quickly up to near boiling temperatures. Not enough to do much damage, she hoped, but enough to make them stop fighting and go down easier.

The panic was easy to see as they thrashed and clawed. As soon as she knew they didn't immediately go for guns, the water flashed down until it froze. She went into the room, then. Her foot lashed out and shattered the man just inside the door's fingers against his gun, and she swung high and hard with a fist, slamming it into the edge of his temple just behind his eye. He went down with a muffled grunt. The other three went down as quickly, and she thawed the ice and drew the water back out of their faces. All four had red marks wherever the water had been, and it looked like she might have gone a bit too hot, because she could see blisters forming already. Still, their fault for being murdering terrorists. They were luckier than the ones upstairs, at any rate. That rationale probably wouldn't hold up to her own scrutiny for long, but at least long enough to get through this night.

She triggered the radio again and let the dispatcher know she had taken care of the security room, and less than fifteen minutes later she watched on the monitors as a well planned SWAT infiltration took down the rest without a single civilian casualty. After that, it would just be answering some questions and heading home.


Character you have created: Leanna Young
Alias: Blacklight
Speech Color: Medium Violet Red c71585
Character Alignment: Hero
Identity: Secret except for a few comrades

Character Personality:
Leanna is a warm, caring person, though she likes to be left to her own devices. She enjoys being out in nature, helping the community, and is generally the sort of neighbour you'd love to have around.

Blacklight is all business. She draws a hard line on crime, though she doesn't seek to punish criminals and villains, as that is the courts job. She will apprehend anyone she can, even modulating her beams as much as she can to avoid doing lethal damage. However, should innocents be in danger, she has no problems putting someone down. When dealing with other heroes, she has anecdotes for almost every occasion about past battles, but stays quiet when a fight is on.

Uniform/costume: She wear a full black bodysuit, crisscrossed with many lines of the same rainbow of colours her energy beams create as they break light, in a pattern reminiscent of a broken mirror. A full size black domino mask covers her cheekbones, bridge of nose, eyebrows, and everything between them, leaving her eyes exposed.

Origin Info/Details: Back in college, Leanna Young was a promising physics student, the kind with a bright future. Going to Syracuse University in New York, she had excellent grades and was in line to be part of the top percentile of her graduating class of 2005. A good home life and middle class upbringing left her well balanced mentally and physically. All of that changed in August 2004.

A villain going by Overlord broke into the physics lab during a late night experiment with a theoretical beam projector, intent on stealing the device. Young, two grad students, and two professors were in the lab at the time. During the raid, Young and one of Overlord's minions toppled into the path of the beam at the same moment one of the professors set it to overload in order to prevent it falling into the villain's hands. The resulting explosion took out half of the building, killing everyone inside except Young, who was found unconscious in the wreckage. There was no sign of Overlord, though many of his minions were also slain.

After two months in a coma, Leanna woke up feeling better than she ever had. Within another week, she had found her powers working at full tilt. Several accidents ensued, but after some wise words from her parents and a helpful trip to the government, “Blacklight” was working with STRIKE by February of 2005.

Over the course of a decade with the organization, Blacklight has dealt with a number of villains, fighting toe-to-toe with several monstrous ones as well as the more normal types, and fended off threats from the street-level on up. However, in 2016, during a pitched battle with a terrorist group, an explosion slammed her against the wall nearby and broke her spine. During her recovery, she decided she had had enough of the fighting, and at thirty four, retired to a farm outside of Syracuse, NY. She finished her degree, finally, and has been living off the land and enjoying the peaceful life since then.

However, those who have worked with her before have her phone number, should anything come up where they might need her assistance. And, of course, she can't really help but fly around when she can. After all, when you can, why wouldn't you? So the residents of Syracuse know that Blacklight is still around.

Hero Type: Flying artillery
Power Level: World
Energy Manipulation: Blacklight creates and controls a unique type of energy not seen anywhere else. While it registers to human eyes, it's not actually light, but a tearing of the visible spectrum in its path that people see. This manifests as a core of utter blackness, edged by a scintillating rainbow effect that scatters beams of visible light in all directions. She can fire this in beams, flat planes, abstract shapes, and more, though the shapes do not take on any properties except the energy itself.
It has fairly strong kinetic properties, though it seems unaffected by gravity or air friction. It also displays slight magnetism and electrical conductivity along it's edges when hit with lightning. Beams fired travel at faster than more than 100,000 meters per second and hit with the force of a jet engine, and also burns with the energy of a 5 exa-watt laser, yet those standing near the beam when it passes report the air feeling “ice cold”. It has shown no radioactive properties that are dangerous to humans, and physicists have yet to come up with a satisfying explanation as to where it comes from, though the prevailing hypothesis is another dimension. The beam power can be modulated, but only so far. Her minimum force of impact is around the equivalent of getting hit with a car moving at fifteen miles an hour, and burns like a ten gigawatt laser beam.

She can fire these beams from her hands or eyes, but she can also cover herself head to toe in the stuff, forming a sort of armor. One of her favourite tricks is to arrest people with “manacles” made of the stuff, since it's impossible to break and burns when you try.

Flight: Blacklight can fly at Mach 2, using "feathered" wings of her energy. These leave a trail in the sky that lasts for several moments after she passes overhead.

Physicality: Blacklight has superhuman strength, endurance, agility, and speed on the ground. She can take hits from some of the strongest and still get up.

Mental Toughness: Extreme iron will, intelligence, and training from psychic types in the past have left Blacklight with extremely tough mental barriers against both mind reading and control.

Attributes (Select one at each category):
Height: 5'11"
Weight: 142
Strength Level: 100+ tons
Speed/Reaction Timing Level: 200 mph/equivalent reaction time
Endurance at MAXIMUM Effort: 3 hours fighting, 48 hours flight only
Agility: 10x normal
Intelligence: Well above average, but not a genius
Fighting Skill: Mastered; Veteran of many metahuman battles
Fairly small, given her length of service and breadth of experience, but she has a good amount in savings, and ready assistance from a number of old compatriots should she need it.

Weaknesses: Exposure to more than 1mSv/h radiation (the equivalent of a high radiation area in a nuclear plant) shuts down all of Leanna's powers, including her enhanced strength and toughness, until she has been outside of it for at least an hour, at which point they come back gradually over the course of three hours.

While she is supernaturally tough, anyone with a comparable strength to hers can knock her around pretty well. Gunshots still hurt her, though not as much as they might a normal human. Inside her skull, her brain is as vulnerable as anyone else's, so concussions are a real danger. Her bones are definitely capable of breaking, burns can happen from anything higher than a few hundred degrees C, and she is still as vulnerable as a normal person to cold, electricity, asphyxiation, pressure, starvation, and poisons.

Some of her previous injuries have left her with weak spots, including her spine, her left hip, both shoulders, her neck, and a worrisome chronic migraine problem. These act up even worse in combat.

Supporting Characters:
Ambrose Smith, MD: A doctor in Syracuse who knows about Blacklight's past, in order to better understand how to treat any issues.

Rebecca and Henry Young: Leanna's parents, both knowing of her powers and very relieved to see her retired. Also extremely proud of her.

She did have contacts at STRIKE, but they have all been killed.

Springheel: A speedster Blacklight has worked with on several occasions, and who stops by to visit regularly.

Denier: A man with incredible gravity and forcefield powers who specialises in area control during fights. Also stops by regularly to visit.

Do you know how to post pictures on RPG boards?:

Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

Rivertown Warehouse district, Detroit

Eight fifteen in the morning, two days after the laser strike

Zoë let out a huff as she threw down yet another stack of files onto an already overburdened desk that looked like it had seen better days. It would be replaced as soon as some of her more lucrative deals came to fruition, but right now, most of her capital was focused on settling her operations here in this city of golden opportunity. The urban decay had been oddly hidden on her ride in from the airport, but looking out over the city from the airplane she had seen quite a lot, and her research before she even bought the property she was currently in had shown quite a bit of promise. All of that was in the future, however. For now, she had a job to do. Which was where the files came in, as well as the massive cork board behind her, occupying half the wall of the office.

The room was one of the old factory style manager's offices, with wide bay windows overlooking the ground floor open space. All of the walls, even up here, were old brick, here and there showing signs of needing repair. The floors down below her was all concrete, wile up here seemed to be old wood and threadbare carpeting in a dull grey. Nevertheless, it was sufficient for her needs. Even now, several hired hands who had been recruited before she came were busy setting up facilities down below, two rows of desks, a set of obstacle course from her old lair, and cameras everywhere, fed into a bank of computers situated on the far end and out of sight already. Those servers would only ever be connected to the internal network, and it was made clear that her own laptop was to have the only outside internet access in the building. Later on there would be a rec room, but not yet. A construction crew was busy installing a set of metal plated walls to fill out the area underneath her office, creating two rooms of around twenty feet square each, with a hallway separating them. Behind those would be another room, similarly armoured, along with a secure hatch going down into a freshly installed basement area.

Unfortunately, some facilities had not been yet brought in, including her coffee machine and tea kettle. The room behind her office would be her own living quarters, but much of her things had yet to be unpacked, and she was too busy to do it herself. She punched in a search term on her laptop and stared at the results for a while before selecting a link. The investigation into either transportation or creation of those rounds she had been shown was trickier than she thought. Hound security was tight-lipped, and while she had likely targets, she didn't want to hit anything early and tip her hand, which meant making absolutely sure the target was actually a Hound facility before striking.

She sat back, drumming her fingers on the table, thinking, but a phone call on one of the three cell phones she had arranged on the desk interrupted her before she got going. She quirked an eyebrow as she noted that it was the Wraith phone. Only two people in the world had that number, but even so, she picked it up with care and hit the accept button.

"Einherjar Globale Entwicklungsgesellschaft,“ she answered, switching into English with a slight German accent, something she had been working on for some time now and was satisfied with enough to use as a cover. “This is Natalie, how may I help you?”

“Uhhh. Hello? I was given this number by my boss, but maybe I wrote it down wrong.”

“Ahhh.” Her accent switched again, and she pitched down back to her normal American voice. “Alex! Good to hear from you. How is LA?”

“Oh, it's fine, boss. Got a burner phone like you said. Everyone's settling in now. These are nice digs you found.” His voice sounded a little echo-y on the other end of the line.

“Have they not gotten everything in yet?” She heard her tone slip a little angry, but didn't bother to correct it. She did have a schedule to keep.

“No, not everything, but it's cool. Hey, we was looking at these files you wanted me to keep an eye on and we think we mighta found something.”

Zoë sat up in her chair. "Oh? Do tell, Alex."

"Well," he paused for a second, talking to someone else in rapid Spanish. "Okay, so Julio has this cousin that lives in Pittsburgh, and just because we thought it was worth a shot, right, we called dude up to see if any shit was fucked up, right, and he says that yeah, that exact building is apparently got a bunch of dudes moved in and they active at night. Bringing trucks in at midnight and shipping shit out. Nothing during the day, just like if they want something hid, you feel?"

She rolled her eyes at how fast he was talking. Still nervous, even with her being more than a thousand miles away. "This is very good info, Alex. Very good. I need to make a few calls. Text me this cousin's address, I'll be needing to speak with him directly. Do not warn him I am coming, I don't want him acting suspicious, but assure Julio that I won't harm his family member."

"Si, boss. I'll get you that as soon as I can."

"Oh, and Alex? Good work. Showing initiative is very important."

She hung up before she could hear his stammering thank yous, set the phone down, and grabbed the file for the location he had indicated. An old steel mill, abandoned in the eighties and never renovated, on the edge of the industrial district of Pittsburgh. Lots of buildings around it, all in a similar state, though a few were now simply vacant lots, testament to the city at least trying to keep the run down structures from becoming dens of iniquity. Or safe havens for the homeless. She flipped through the surveillance photos, rare as they were, and old satellite images. Over the course of the past year, the place had seen sudden bursts of activity, followed by long weeks of nothing happening. She assumed this was deliveries of supplies, and then manufacture, then shipping.

Well, it wouldn't matter too much longer no matter what they were doing. She picked up her Forge phone, dialed in a rapid series of numbers, then placed the device to her ear.

"Hello, and thank you for calling Ares Tactical Solutions secure line," a prerecorded voice chirped at her. "If you would like to order armaments or gear, please press one. If you need personnel for a security job, please press two. If you need to recruit a team for sensitive operations, please press three. To speak to a representative, please stay on the line. If you know your party's extension, please state it now."

"Zero three eight seven six dash four one eight charlie."

"One moment." There was a click, and then two rings on the other end before someone answered. "Forge!"

"James, good to hear your voice. I was guessing you might be out."

"Surprisingly not, my friend." James had a rather upper crust English accent, something that grated on her nerves to no end. "I took a round to the thigh on my last job, grounded for another three weeks, I'm afraid. What can I help you with? I assume this isn't a call just to catch up."

"No, I need a job done. Could you be a dear and hand pick a twelve man team for a covert elimination job?"

"I certainly hope so, or I'm likely to be fired! When do you need them by, and where's the job?"

"Tomorrow, Pittsburgh. Sorry for the short notice, but time tends to be of the essence with me, as you know. If possible, I'd like the team to be either locals or from areas hard hit by Hounds."

"Hitting back hard, eh? Not to worry, I think I've got just the team on stand by, as it were, waiting for a chance to knock the ol' blaggards on their arses. I'll send you the details tonight. Any requests on armaments?"

She couldn't help but smile wickedly as she said, "Dealer's choice, but heavy as it gets."

The boy gestured with his chin down the road, and Zoë nodded before pulling him back around the corner, two blocks away from the target. This whole area stunk, thanks to the paper mill just down wind of the neighbourhood. Trash was piled in drifts in places where city workers either didn't notice or didn't want to bother with, mostly in the shadows of the run down bricks. The whole place felt like a ghost town. A few lights in windows here and there gave evidence that there was humans still alive here, however, as dusk settled in for the night.

She spun on her heel, clapping the young boy on the shoulder, then handing him two hundred-dollar bills and sending him scurrying away with a gesture. She climbed into the driver's seat of a large semi parked in the alley, turned the engine over, and Pulled it out and down the street towards her target. As soon as she had gotten the vehicle within a hundred feet of the entrance, an armed guard strode into view. When she turned the truck into the entryway for the building, he held up his free hand, leaving his dominant near the trigger for the MP5 he had slung over his shoulder. The black fatigues, if nothing else had, would've confirmed to her this was, indeed, her target. She rolled down the window at his hand motion and leaned out.

"You got papers saying you can delivers here?"

She felt the slight tingle as her power took hold, holding up a sheet of blank notebook paper at him. "Right here," she said, adding a slight southern accent for effect.

Either he had been bored enough to not care, or her ready response had him completely fooled, because he waved her through without bothering to take the "papers" and study them thoroughly. Merde, these people are useless, she thought to herself as she inched through the now open security gate. I need to make sure my employees are not this lazy.

Inside, the place was at least orderly. The truck pull in was recessed into the ground three feet at the far end, with a loading dock around where the trailer doors would end up. Beyond that was a temporary wall like they used in corporate "cubicle farms", but with her height advantage from the truck, she could see over a dozen machines, and the old steel mill parts. Several areas glowed with the warm light of fires, more than likely smelting down the metals they needed. At least two men on the other side looked like they were Catholic priests.

As she brought the semi to a stop, another man stepped out. He had a clean military haircut, no face stubble at all, and the lines on his fatigues were perfect. He carried himself with an air of authority that marked him clearly as an officer if the two men flanking him hadn't already. She leaned out of the window again and stared at him.

"We're not due another load for at least a week, nor do we have any shipments ready to go out. What are you doing here?" His tone was annoyed, not threatening.

"Sorry, mon ami," she said, using her own, normal voice and accent. It wouldn't matter momentarily whether they had heard her or not. "Special shipment out of Paris, oui? Sent over with orders to be as quick and quiet as possible."

"From Paris? What the hell are they ordering from France?"

"Well, as to that, I am not sure, but I know what I loaded into the truck this morning."

"Spit it out, woman. I need to know where to put this shit so I can get you out of here."

Her voice went low. "I never said France, fuckface. And I loaded vengeance."

On the last word, she thumbed the radio on her belt twice. The slightly noisy interior of the plant suddenly erupted into noise as rounds ripped through the trailer sides in all directions, heavy enough to leave gaping holes that quickly shredded the metal. Inside were the twelve men James had selected. Five were from Philadelphia, the rest from Texas. All of them had high calibre assault rifles, and two of them were blasting into the main building with a Browning M2 on a tripod. Zoë did her part leaning a pistol out of the window and emptying the clip into the three men in front of her before they had a chance to react.

She had a vulpine grin as she did it, and it didn't leave her face for more than an hour after they were done.


Time: Evening before Satellite Attack
Location: Forge’s Lair, Los Angeles

The quiet outside was interrupted by the far away sounds of sirens, the odd car passing by. The wind picked up in a light breeze, skittering dust motes across the concrete floor of Forge’s home before quieting again.

Unnaturally the wind immediately began to quicken once more, strongly blowing against the front door, rattling against the steel hinges. Dust went up in a cloud, bright blue light followed the wind lighting up the frame of the door. Casting a cold glow, briefly gaining intensity before filtering away with an audible close of a door. The wind died away then the sounds of heels clacked, approaching the warehouse.

The Ambassador knocked on the door stepping away to give some space.

Zoë looked up from her phone at the sound of a knock. Slowly, she got up out of her chair, stretched luxuriously, then pocketed the phone and strolled over to the door. She paused for a beat to allow her face time to reset, as she had been letting her power go for a minute. For once, she figured it might actually be good to have someone know what she herself looked like, instead of hiding it. Letting out a sigh of nerves, she hauled the door open and gestured for her guest to enter with a grandiose sweep of her arm.

”Please, make yourself at home. I am afraid I could only find so much in the way of creature comforts before you arrived, but hopefully it’s not too disappointing.” Saying that, she glanced at the client’s face and felt a slight blush start. Mon dieu, I think I might be in trouble. She is not villainous looking at all. She gulped and stepped out of the way.

Any effort toward hospitality is appreciated.” The Ambassador replied sweetly stepping inside, invisibly Bach followed behind her in full size, peering about as he did. “Allow me to introduce myself, you may refer to me as The Ambassador. My associate Jacque had referred you to me. I have some work for you, if you are interested.

Her heels clacked across the concrete heading for the table set up with refreshments and... it was made entirely of iron. Bach froze at the sight of the furniture, hissing into Odette’s ear, “She knows! Surely this is a trap!

Odette idly swiped at some hair, pushing Bach away from her personal space. Odette traced a hand over the back of the chair, “An interesting choice in decor.” Her parisian accent sharp, without need to filter.

”Oh! Je suis désolé, it’s the only thing the store had on short notice, I’m afraid. You’ve caught me just as my operations have hit a high note, and unfortunately all of my more favourable furniture is indisposed at the moment. I don’t even have a cushion to offer.” She sat down hurriedly, using just the tiniest bit of her power to heat the top of one bottle of wine enough for the cork to pop out - one of her favourite party tricks, since she didn’t even need to touch a corkscrew or the bottle itself.

”<As to business, I am always interested>,” she said, slipping into the more comfortable mother tongue. ”<Jacque said you were looking to handle something with these terrorists who have been so bothersome as of late? What in particular were you looking for?>”

Odette noticed the wine, feeling the tiniest bit relieved. After the day she had, a glass would do wonders.

<If I may.>” She said, easily slipping into French as well. She poured the flame flute just over three quarters full. “<You are correct. The Hounds of Humanity have been a wrench in my own personal work while disrupting projects for The Shroud Syndicate in America. I work as an independant arm of the Syndicate, smuggling over borders is… my speciality. The Hounds have been moving significant product from coast to coast.>

Bach paced away, huffing angrily at the sight of iron. He circled the pair with generous distance.

<It is forcing my hand to hire outside my contact list for more specialized personnel. Such as yourself, Forge.>” She smiled a pinkliped smile. “<Your particular talents caught my eye. Tell me, have you any experience in supply disruption?>” Odette leaned forward on her elbows, cradling her chin in the heel of her hands, ankles crossed. Gazing at Forge, whom didn’t meet her eyes.

Zoë felt her face starting to flush, and worked to school herself. Calm down, this is a business meeting, damn you. She managed to look the Ambassador in the eye for a split second and then turned her attention to very purposefully selecting a piece of cheese to eat and pouring out a glass of wine for herself as she spoke. ”<I have been known to cause some disruption, yes. I was in the middle of organising the results of such a raid when Jacque called, in fact. Would you prefer a seizure of their goods? Or perhaps a systematic destruction of their supply chain? I can manage either quite handily, in fact.>”

Bach finally slowed his angry pacing, deciding to scout around the warehouse on Odette’s behalf. Snooping into her kitchen.

<Excellent, yes that is precisely what I want to do. It has been no secret the Hounds of Humanity have been targeting metahumans and other groups. Their edge stems from manpower and technology. I want to destroy their ammunition chain, one that carries a very special bullet and from what my sources have told me, parts to build weapons effective against all varieties of metahuman. Sound based.>

Siddling to the edge of her seat, from inside her purse she slowly pulled a small vial containing the bullet Bach pulled from her shoulder earlier. Pausing, she shook the bullet around in the vial. “<There is more to the Hounds hunting metahumans. I must ask, Forge. Do you believe in things unseen? Unexplainable phenomenon, people imbuing power from spirit or the supernatural?>” Odette held the vial in front of her.

<Do you believe there is more lurking in the shadows than in the light of day?>” Her icy blue eyes filled with intense curiosity.

Zoë stared at the bullet in the vial. Far shinier than any she had seen before, and she recognised the metal by the sheen. She whistled low in wonder. ”Someone would have to have a lot of that to make rounds out of it. That in itself might make it easier to find them.>” Her eyes flicked up at the question, meting blue with her own brown-flecked green. She swept a lock of blonde hair back behind her ear and leaned back, regarding her guest with a little more caution, though not a lot of suspicion. Her face heated up a bit, as well.

”<If you are talking about magic? I don’t know. I can burn half as hot as the sun, amongst other talents. Even so, I haven’t ever seen anything like evidence for what you’re talking about.>” Her fingers tapped out a delicate little ditty as she frowned slightly in thought. ”<That’s not to say I want to not believe in things. My grandfather, he always left out the milk and bread and wine, every night, and his vineyard has always grown exceptionally well, even in bad years. He always talked about it being a blessing from the ‘little folk’, but mother and father always said it was just good fertiliser.>”

She sighed, blowing a small breath out and sipping her wine. ”<We live in a strange world, mademoiselle. I could probably be convinced to believe in just about anything at this point.>”

Odette grinned, pleased. “<Your grandfather is a very smart man.>

Bach waited behind the countertop of the kitchen he nodded, exasperated but still in agreement with their original plan.

<I have money to spend and work to be done. If money is not all you aspire to have in this life, I have great deal of other rewards to give in good faith.>” Placing her wine on the table she stood, gracefully tugging the chair away. In her full height she snapped her fingers signalling the various elemental spirits that had travelled with her to come flowing into the warehouse.

Earth sprites appeared at the doorways, squeezing in under frames and weatherstripping green following their every step, plant life sprouting across the concrete. Air sprites came flowing through the vents and window seals burst open with vigor. Water sprites came freely of the kitchen tap, the faucets opening completely. Finally the fire sprites danced on light following the scorch marks in the concrete, immediately interested in the likes of Forge. All were visible, small and singing the strangest of songs in a language of their own. Some danced with their own elements while others intermingled, adeptly avoiding the iron furniture. They came by the hundreds, colours filling the space with life and magic.

The Ambassador stood away from the iron, allowing the sprites to find perches on her arms and shoulders. “<The Good Neighbours, Fair Folk, Little Ones. They certainly do appreciate your hospitality and manner. And I, whom they answer to. My full title is The Ambassador of the Fair Folk.>

Zoë nearly choked on her wine as the spirits came, and for a split second, the air around her heated very quickly, her hair rising on the now swirling air. But she immediately cooled off as thoughts clicked into place, and at the non-threatening nature of the little ones. She scooted her own chair back, getting out of it to crouch down and watch the little firey ones. She was drawn to them as much as they were to her. She looked up at the Ambassador from her position, eyes wide.

”<They are real? This is no trick or illusion? My grandfather is right?>” She held out a hand, index finger out, gently reaching for one of them to hop onto, though none did. But the dancing and singing was more full of life than anything she had seen in years, and even though she couldn’t understand the words, the song made her feel more at peace than she had in some time.

”<I will not say I don’t like money. That would be a lie, I do like some comfort in my life. But this,>” she gestured around her, ”<this is far beyond money, eh? Are you some sort of creature like them?>” She made no attempt at all to hide her stares, now, though they could easily be taken for awe.

Odette watched Forge’s reaction, pleased. This was always the easiest step, showing a little slice. Building the illusion from the ground up, lifting the veil as it were. “<No trick, no illusion. The Hounds have laid their crosshairs upon the Fair Folk directly among others apart of the magic community. The bullets they use are blessed silver. I am unsure if they ship the bullets plain or blessed.>” She affectionately ran the tips of her fingers over the sprites heads, leaving the final question up to Forge’s imagination. A little mystery is always afforded.

<I am happy to pay you your rates for this first job but - pending this job is a success, I have far more to offer in the way of artifacts, magical convenience, healing, all you really need is a little fantaisie.>” The Ambassador explained, a number she could easily part with. Forge struck Odette as playing a part of an independant, starting up and building on a nest egg. Comfort couldn’t really be what she was working toward, she wanted to know what she really needed. “<I have a few tips on their routes and a facility where they produce the silver bullets. The job is yours if you want it.>

Zoë stood up, reaching onto the table and retrieving her glass, draining the contents in one swift motion, then looked at the little vial with the bullet in it. Without asking, she snatched it up, opening it and dumping the thing into her open hand. She held it up, examining the markings from where it had been fired, then a little further out from her face, she made a gesture with her eyes at her fellow Frenchwoman and said, “Regarde ici, s’il te plaît.” Within a few blinks of an eye, the metal was glowing, and then liquefying into her palm. It kept going, the heat coming off of it becoming nearly unbearable to stand less than a few feet from. Finally, it began boiling, until it was gone, not a trace left on her pale skin.

”<The silver, I think, shouldn’t be a problem, though I have no idea what to do about magic. Thankfully, I am very good at improvisation. For killing dogs, for ‘hounds’ sounds too noble, I charge a discount rate. The work you are proposing? I would think perhaps one hundred thousand would be reasonable, so let’s cut it down to seventy-five. And as for further work,>” she glanced up and down at the Ambassador, looking like she was judging something. ”<I think we could probably work something out, though I must insist that the dogs must be put down before I am willing to move on to other assignments. My own jobs have been drying up, either from clients dying in attacks or not willing to expose themselves, bunkering down. It is wonderful to see that someone else is looking to take the fight to them and burn out their dens.>”

She stared around herself at the little sprites, and shook her head, giggling a little and placing her hands on her hips. ”I owe my grandfather quite a few apologies already, I suppose one more is in order now,” she muttered to herself in English.

Odette smiled, templing her fingertips. She switched to English, following suit. “Bien. Kill indiscriminately, destroy all they have built. I will have the cheque cut upfront through your agency.

She extended her hand to shake, “<It has been a pleasure, Forge.>

The villainess took the proffered hand and cut a proper curtsy instead of the modern shake. ”<Indeed it has, Ambassador! I look forward to reporting a successful completion. Please feel free to stop by for lunch some time, once I get my new estate satisfactorily set up, of course.>”

<It’ll be a date. I’ll send you the tips I have.>” She replied, Bach had wondered back to her side sneering at the metahuman, unable to find anything really worthwhile. He was the only fey present still maintaining invisibility.

Until your report, Au Revoir.” The sprites all around her kicked back into energetic gear joining together in a cloud swirling through the rafters in the warehouse, finally swooping around Forge before departing out a window.

Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

Lost Haven General Hospital

Darya was uncomfortable. No, it was more than that, her throat hurt. It was raw and dry, so she coughed, but almost immediately, there was a sudden pressure on her neck, squeezing the airway tight and cutting off precious oxygen from her lungs. Her eyes snapped open to see the snarling face of a woman with her hands wrapped tight around the girl's neck.

"This is what you get for killing the Captain, you mutie bitch," the woman growled, low enough to not be heard. Darya could only gurgle in response. "After I put you down, I'm going after that fucking archer, and then all your other disgusting freak friends!" To punctuate that statement, the woman spat in her face.

With what little time she had, Darya's brain kicked into overdrive. She swiftly realised she must be in the hospital, because this wasn't her bed or her room at the hotel. The woman above her, wearing a black bodysuit and her blonde hair tied back or cut short, she didn't know which, had to be one of the terrorists. Which meant the police officer outside her room that would have been assigned to her as a guard due to her status as a temporary government official was either dead, disabled, or in league with the Hounds. So no help was coming. And she couldn't possibly use her power in a hospital to enough effect to save her life without killing or putting at risk dozens of civilians, if she could even use it at all right now. Which meant she had to fight.

Her hands came up swiftly, monitoring probes and an IV ripping out as she did it. Instead of going for the hands around her neck, she went directly for the eyes, slapping her palms against the woman's face. She got too close, it's too personal, she thought. But I can't go easy on her. She dug her thumbs into the woman's eyes, eliciting a scream and an immediate relief on her her throat as the assassin tried to remove Darya's grip on her face. The hero sat up as the woman leaned back, but her legs were still pinned. Two quick jabs lashed out into the woman's throat, and then another hard swing into her sternum caused the blonde to buckle around the middle, gasping for breath. Darya took her by the shoulders and bodily shoved her off of the bed, surprised to note that she did so almost too easily.

Coming off the bed onto the same side, she landed her feet as hard as she could on the woman's stomach, but before the could get down and render her unconscious, another two figures stepped into the room. Both had silenced pistols. Behind them, she could see the blood splatter on the wall from her guard. Anger clouded her mind alongside fear of the gun, and she rushed the two new opponents. Her training had never covered what to do about two gunmen, but she was well taught enough to improvise. Their surprise cost them the initiative, and she got underneath one's raised gun, grabbed the weapon, and used her momentum to haul it back the wrong direction, snapping his trigger finger in two. She moved past, in between the two of them, as the other swung his pistol to try and track her, keeping it low and to his side. Darya spun past her first target onto the opposite side, keeping her hold on his gun.

The man whose gun she held drew a knife with his free hand, as she would not let his hand leave the gun. She ignored it for a moment, speeding up in her move around him and then dropped off of her feet, using him as a lever to swing both her legs up in a double kick to his partner's gun arm. The pistol swung up towards the ceiling as it went off, and all three crashed to the ground. With her trapped enemy face down, she continued her grip, wrapping one arm along the backside of his elbow, and rolled across his back, dislocating the shoulder. He wheezed and lay still as she rolled off of him into a crouch. The other was scrambling for either of the dropped guns. Darya launched herself into a flying tackle, taking him back to the ground and sitting on his chest. There, she grabbed the sides of his head by the ears and slammed the back of his skull twice in quick succession on the tiles of the room. The second hit had a sickening crackle sound to it, so she halted, staring.

A slowly expanding puddle of blood rolled out from the man's head, and she got up in horror, turning to the other two. Another pool of blood was oozing out of the second gun man, who was feebly struggling, now on his back, to extract his own knife from his sternum, where he had fallen on it. The woman's face was turning steadily darker shades of of purple, and her throat was a mess. Aghast at the damage she had wrought, Darya hurried out of the room, only to find even more horror outside.

Three bodies lay dead outside of her room. One was Faulkner, a bullet through his throat. A police officer and nurse lay next to him, a large throwing knife in the officers temple and two bullet holes in the nurses heart. She ran past them, barefoot and hospital gown flapping, to the nurses station, which was also full of corpses. The assassins clearly hadn't bothered with subtlety. At least twelve dead now, three at her hands, and she didn't have the heart to check in the other patient's rooms. She raced around the desk and snatched up a phone, swiftly punching in the emergency code. Dispatch was delayed picking up.

"Nine one one, what's your emergency?"

"I am at the hospital, there are many dead people!"

"Ma'am, I need you to slow down. Are you safe?"

"Yes, I think so." She glanced around the area, crouching as the man on the line reminded her that there could be more.

"Okay, I need you to tell me which hospital and which floor."

"I'm sorry, I don't know. I just woke up."

"Okay, tell me what's happening since you woke up."

"I woke up to a woman trying to strangle me. I fought her off and the two men with guns, and....oh Allah, I think I killed all of them."

"You killed all three assailants?"

"If they are not dead or dying, they will not be attacking any more, no." Now that her panic was settling down, Darya wondered at the strange echo she was getting from the dispatch operator. It was subtle, but there.

"Okay, ma'am, I need you to tell me how many people are still alive? Are there any other victims nearby?"

"No. There is a dead FBI agent and a police officer down. It seems they killed all of the staff. I haven't checked on the patients."

There was a slight pause before the response. "Ma'am, I need you to stay right where you are. Help is on the way. Just stay down and wait for someone to come find you, okay?"

Darya startled in horror as two things clicked in her mind. The first was that help couldn't be arranged that fast without a location. She had not given them any indication as to where she was except the hospital. It would take what, twenty minutes for them to check for a non-responsive officer. The second was that she had not dialled the outside connection first, so she was not actually talking to the dispatch, she was talking to someone inside the building.

"You bastards," she whispered, before realising she shouldn't have given up that she had caught onto their plan.

"Shit!" came the response, and the phone clicked with the hang up. And now Darya was alone, on a hospital floor that more resembled a slaughter house, with blood on her hands as well as all over the floor, with enemies of unknown number coming for her. And no way to call for-

She snapped her head around to the whiteboard behind the nursing station. "Trauma Recovery Ward – LHGH" it read across the top. After slight pause for new horror to notice that her own civilian name was on that board, she vaulted over the counter and raced back to the deceased policeman. With a grimace, she reached down to his shoulder and clicked the radio transmitter on. "Dispatch?" she asked quietly.

She was rewarded with a different voice, female and sounding over-worked and exhausted. "This is dispatch, who is this?"

"Oh thank the Prophet. I am at Lost Haven General Hospital. There are multiple dead, including this officer. Hounds have infiltrated security and are on their way to kill me. I don't know how many civilians are still in the building."

"Holy shit!" The radio crackled, and was not addressing her when she heard, "All units, I repeat, all units, this is Dispatch issuing a 10-34. All available units report to LHGH, we have an active emergency, multiple HoH on site with unknown civilian casualties. Code Two, I repeat, Code Two."

The radio crackled again, then addressed Darya, "I don't know who you are, but it'd be real nice if we could get numbers on those HoH. Don't put yourself in danger though. If you have to get out, do it. Over."

"I'm afraid my first priority has to be the civilians, dispatch. But I think they're after me, to be honest." She glanced up, thinking she had heard something moving.

"Oh hell, are you a metahuman? That's right, one got transferred. You the water one?"

"Tiamat, yes, that is me."

"Alright, Tiamat. You've got about fifteen minutes before SWAT arrives, and about a dozen cruisers are on their way. Is that he dead?"

Darya's voice was thick. "Yes."

"Take his radio with you and clear out of there. Try to get to the ground floor or the roof if you can, collect civilians as you go. We can extract them once we get there. I've just gotten two choppers en route. And good luck. Over and out."

Darya grimaced again, and pulled the radio off of the dead man's belt, then realised she had nowhere to put it and was quickly running out of time. She bolted across the hall, into her room, and then had to duck as two rounds cracked into the door frame. The man with the knife in his chest apparently had gotten the strength to try and kill her again, but it faded from his eyes before he could pull the trigger a third time, and his head lolled to the side. Darya cursed, then went to the blonde. She had suffocated already, and as much as she hated it, Darya needed clothes. She fumbled for a bit, found the fasteners, and by stages managed to yank the body suit off of the woman's corpse. Struggling into it, she found that they were nearly the same size, though it was tight around the hips and thighs, as well as her chest and upper arms. She couldn't get the front zipper up all the way and still have full mobility. Shit, now I'm going to look like some white Hollywood action girl. How embarrassing.

She checked the belt on the suit, found a third silenced pistol tucked into a holster. Her uncle's training paid off again as she noted it was an Sig 226. A spare magazine from each of the assassins and the two out of the other guns gave her probably more than enough ammo, but she snatched the .45 off of the officer's body and tucked it into the back of her belt. One more pause to take Faulkner's cell phone and then she moved for the stairs, only to find herself having to duck into a side hallway and slide into an open room door. The stairwell door had just opened, and she heard boots tramping up the halls and a large amount of calls between troopers.

"Room 4, move!"

"I've got bodies here!"

"Hall clear, checking rooms!"

"She's gone, these are ours!"

"Holy fuck, she took out Freeman!"

"She's still here, find her!"

Darya exhaled slowly as she eased the door closed. Looking behind her, she was relieved to see that the bed had been empty when everything started, so she didn't have to feel even more guilty than she already did. She listened closely. At least four distinct voices, and probably two or three additional that hadn't said anything yet. She didn't know enough about tactics to understand what they were going to do, and she certainly didn't fancy her chances against more than two armed opponents at once. Even then, it was risky.

A sudden shot rang out, and Darya winced. The nurses and her allies were already dead, which left only one target that could have been. She didn't want to kill these men, monstrous as they were, but if it was between them and the patients on this floor, she knew what call she had to make. And she couldn't wait in ambush, that would just end with more people dead. As silently as she could, she slid the door open again, and peeked around the corner. Two men were standing about ten yards away, conversing in low tones. These had what looked to be full body armour, unlike the thin tactical suit she had stolen off of the assassin. They thankfully held handguns and not assault rifles or something equally unpleasant, except that one also had a shotgun slung across his back, one of the short pistol grip variety.

One quick inhalation for nerves, and then Darya stepped out of the hallway. With the drop on the men, even out in the open and in full lights, she had time to place both shots were she wanted, and she was very well trained by her ex-military uncles. Both men dropped like puppets with their strings cut as nine millimeter rounds entered their spines at the base of the skull, and she moved across the hall and peered around the corner.

"Hey, where's Adams?"

"Shit! She's here!"

Several cracks rang out, but nothing near her. Still, she ducked back and slid down the wall a few feet, until she was near a door. She knew going into any given room might be trapping her and possibly a civilian with no exit, but between that and the open hall, she'd prefer the former. Two men turned down the hall as she thought of that, and her pistol went off again, twice at each of them. One dropped, the other she only got in the arm before he ducked back around the corner and called out her position. Shitshitshitshitshiiiiit ran through her mind as she made the split second decision to charge instead of retreat. At worst she would die, but maybe they'd leave the patients alone if they got her.

She stuck her pistol around the corner at head level and squeezed off two more shots along the wall blindly, rewarded by a gurgling shout. She ran out across the open space in the middle of the floor and leapt across the counter, slamming into the wall with a thump as bullets impacted above her, destroying the white board and causing it to fall over her. She scrambled out from underneath it and put her back to the bottom of the desk, then listened. Multiple shots tore through the desk, probably more nine millimetres, but none close to her. She judged one angle based on the hit on the desk versus the wall, poked her head up, and fired two into the center mass of the man who had shot it. He dropped and she did the same, more rounds hitting where she had been. She scooted away from that spot.

"You fucking freak! I'll fucking kill you!"

If they were carrying the same as the assassins, she figured they'd have probably two spare clips on them, at anywhere between ten and fifteen in a magazine. If she could run them dry, she'd be in a much better position, but then again, any one of those bullets could end her run very quickly. She popped up and fired three more times, missing everything, and scooted again. This time she almost didn't make it away, and there was a loud boom. Someone else had found the shotgun, both the noise and the large smoking hole in the desk bearing the evidence. She ejected her magazine, slotted a fresh one in, the stuck her arm through the holes and emptied it in blind fire. At least one person screamed, and they all sounded like they had moved to cover. "At least they're not treating me like an easy target anymore," she muttered to herself as she reloaded again.

Thinking quickly, Darya glanced up at the wall to her left, looking for the emergency exit map. It wasn't there, nor on her right. As movement sounded on the tiles, she counted three enemies still active, and at least one of them had a radio. "We need more up here, she's too good with a fucking gun." The response wasn't clear to her, but she knew this would be problematic. And her adrenaline was starting to run her brain, conscious decisions giving way to panicky fight-or-flight. She cycled a few breaths through her nose and out her mouth, listening for clues.

One man fired a few shots through the desk again, and Darya stood up to return fire, only to see the butt end of the shotgun come swinging from below the lip of the desk, taking the Sig out of her hands and nearly breaking her finger the same way she had to one of the assassins. She ducked back down as the Hound laughed. "Not so tough now, huh, bitch?" She heard the man stand up as she yanked the .45 from behind her back, aimed through the desk, and fired twice into the man's torso. The sudden change in kick from her previous weapon gave her arms a shock, but the bark of the big gun going off stung her ears more, unprotected as they were. The thump of the man hitting the floor was still audible was, though. With the breathing space she had, she set her feet under her in a crouch and ran for the edge of the desk, making for the outer hall outside of the ward. Several rounds chased her, but nothing hitting it's mark.

Breathing hard, she checked both sides as the went through the swinging door. Several hallways extended off to either side, but the elevators right in front of her were off, so she had to choose quickly. She could hear men running after her. Three more emerging from a hallway on her left made her decision. She caught a look at the submachinguns they lifted as she ducked through the the door next to the elevators. Bullets ripped through the open air behind her, several striking the door frame.

For a normal girl, being in the bathroom would be problematic in this situation, and Darya admitted to herself that she had been hoping for a room that cut through to another door. Thankfully, though, this was a good spot for her. She closed all the stall doors, plugged the sink drains with paper towels from the open box on the wall, slammed the faucets on, and then ducked behind the entry door frame just as the three kicked in the door, which swung in and hit her. Two of them stood with guns raised, the last one slowly stalking along the stall doors in what Darya could only think of as a classic blunder straight out of Hollywood movies.

"Come here, little freak," the man said. "I've got a bullet that needs planting in your brai- SHIT!" Darya didn't need a lot of water to coat their guns, fill the barrels and trigger guards, and freeze them solid, nor did she need a lot of time. Eschewing killing as they panicked, she lashed out with the butt of her .45, taking the first man near the door directly behind the ear and dropping him like a rock. The next tried desperately to fire his gun, but his finger frozen to a stuck trigger gave him nothing. She smashed him across the nose with another pistol whip, feeling sick as she watched his face collapse. But she had no time for regrets. The third man, having had his hand off of the trigger, was free to swing it like a club at her head. She ducked low and punched with her free hand, weak and off balance, though she managed to hit the sweet spot just underneath the sternum. He fell back winded, and she dropped her weapon in order to seize him by the gun arm. With one hand in the middle of his shoulders, she hauled him upright and smashed his face through one of the sinks, then stepped back. She felt the air of a bullet rip past her head at the same time she heard the shot, and twisted around to look as she dropped to the ground.

The last two from the ward had followed her, and both were firing one handed now that they had missed the surprise shot. Darya launched herself through the stall door near her, then used it as a springboard to leap across the tops of the stalls as the pair fired into them. She could feel her power surging through her own body, fluids shifting in response to both her muscles and her control. She had no time to wonder at the sensation, though, as she hurtled over the last stall and shot her hands out to grab one of the men. She actually went over his head, but managed to snag his elbow as she did. She rolled over him, carrying the elbow with her and the man with it. The joint snapped under pressure at unnatural angles, but she kept rolling until just before she landed on her feet, releasing him as he flew across her back, straight into the wall across the hall. He cracked the paint as he rebounded onto the tiles, but she didn't watch him, instead turning to his partner, who had nearly got his gun in position to put a round in her.

She skirted around his arm as he fired, feeling the graze on her thigh as she grabbed his forearm and bicep. She planned to lift herself up and the well-built man's frame and knee his elbow, but her new-found strength instead hauled him down, shoulder ripping out of socket, to smash his elbow down onto her knee, snapping it backwards. As he stilled in shock and screamed, whole body tensing, she let go of his arm and threw a series of rapid blows. Sternum, ribs three times, foot to the crotch, and then twice across the jaw. He went down like a sack of potatoes, and she finally stilled, listening. Their were groans from the first man she had pistol-whipped, the man in the hall, and the one buried in the rubble of the sink. Nothing else except the running water.

She looked down and hissed at the gouge in her thigh, running nearly from hip to knee, then paused as she moved to find bandages. She remembered her arm being hurt very badly. Rolling the sleeve of her stolen outfit up, she saw a wide scar across her forearm. Apparently either Doc Holliday had tended to her, or she had been in here much longer than she thought.

Banner credit to Nitemare Shape. Thanks Boss!

Alex would be waiting in his dojo, the red mats were out and the crowd was gone. There was a decent group of about 10 people who were practicing their movements on wooden dummies that looked like large wooden boxing bags with pegs sticking out of them. Alex sat there observing his students, they were all going full speed with sounds of grunts and hands against wood echoing throughout the area. His eyes would keep watch over every student it seemed.

The place was still a cement building besides the red mats that had been placed down all over the place, so there was not much change to how it looked. There was a door to the backroom as well off to the far right of Alex. Indented into the wall would be what almost looked like a shrine, but wasn’t it was simply wooden stairs up to a chair, which was where Alex had been sitting when Nicky had entered into the tournament. He sat in the back close to the spot where his chair was but still in front of the steps he seemed completely at peace and calm with everything that was going on. To his left there was a janitor who was cleaning the cement floors with a pressure washer which was hopefully going to make the place smell better.

Nicky’s bare feet slapped down the hallway. She stopped momentarily right at the door and tapped her left foot, listening, then bent down and plucked a piece of glass from between the toes. She examined it for a second, then shrugged, tossed the offending debris over her shoulder, and kicked the door open. Entering the dojo, her nose crinkled at the stench of effort and sweat, and she glanced about until she spotted Alex across a pair of students.

“What’s shakin’, old man? Ready to teach me how to kick ass better, or are all these kids gonna have to make me prove myself or something?” She glared around her as she almost stampeded through the practising customers. There were several grumbles, but no one seemed ready to attack her, which she expected after the display she had made at the tournament.

“Or, even worse!” She cupped her hands in front of her mouth in mock horror. “Are you too injured from the druggie to stand up? Did he break a foot or something?”

Alex’s eyes would watch this little girl walk into his dojo, barefooted and with a loud mouth. It made him laugh almost. He wouldn’t even hesitate but to stand up from his sitting position. “No, I’m not hurt, thanks for your concern.” Crossing his arms as he looked around at the student before saying to them. “Take a 10 minute break. Come back and continue where you left off, remember, as hard and as fast as you can.” he would start stepping towards Nicky with a grin on his face, “You have seen way too many movies little girl. I am not going to test you, as I already have come to the conclusion that you can become the best Martial Artist this world has ever seen.” Chuckling at himself and shaking his head he thought about why he would ever give such praise to a girl who already had a hard time shutting her mouth.

”Who do you belong to Nicky? Who is in charge of you? I would like to talk with them.“ Alex would say this as he got a medicine ball out of a chest close by the medicine ball weighed about 15 pounds; but he would give it to Nicky anyway. “Hold this, and do this. he would show her that both of his hands were on opposite sides of the ball as he began to move his hands where one would guid that side of the ball to the top and the other would guid it to the bottom, his hands would then switch roles, where the one that went to the bottom would go to the top. After he showed her he would hold the ball out, if her hands went out to grab it he would simply drop it in her hands.

”Uh, first off, fuck you no one owns me, old man. But as to who’s in charge of me, that’s...up for debate? I mean, first it was the cops, then it was the lady at the halfway house, then that place got shot up and I was back with the cops, and now it’s the weird-ass pair of doctors who wanna try and figure out my ‘gift’ or whatever. You can talk with ‘em, I ain’t gonna stop you, but they’re kooky as fuck with all their feel good messages and shit.”

She glanced down at the ball being offered. ”What, you wanna play basketball or something? I don’t see any hoops, Mister Miyagi.”

“Just do what I showed you Nicky.” Alex would say in reference to the ball, it was odd he had really no care for her insults or her childlike behavior, but the way he was acting made it seem like he could care less. Walking over to the janitor he would whisper something into the man’s ear. The man nodded as he walked away and passed the red mats and into the back.

Alex would walk back over to Nicky and correct her form with his own hands, if she was actually doing the exercise. “Listen. I need you to tell whoever is supposed to take care of you, that you are going to china for a few weeks.” he would pause as he chuckled and looked at Nicky, “Oh yeah, surprise you are coming with me to china for a few weeks, I could train you here. But nothing against the talent and abnormal things here, but in China, there is a plethora of harder people to fight.” he would say it as it was almost a matter-of-fact. A grin across his face as he stood in front of her and waited for her response.

”Wait wait wait. First you tell me I have some hidden potential or some shit like out of a cartoon, and now you want to go to China? Like, Chinese China?” She took the ball and started doing the motions he had demonstrated. ”You want to take me, a fifteen year old girl, with you, an adult stranger, to China. You don’t think that’s...a little fucking weird, old man? Like, the cops are gonna think you’re a slaver or something.” Her eyes narrowed slightly and she stopped moving the ball. ”You’re not, like, a kiddie diddler, are you? Cause I could wreck your shit if you try some bullshit. Ain’t no rings in justice.”

“Listen Nicky, if that’s what you think, feel free to not come along. But that’s where I am going regardless if you join me or not. I am simply offering you to join, if you’d like we can invite one of your...” he would pause as he thought of the word before raising a finger in the air, “Over positive doctors.” He would say as he watched her roll the ball in her hands and nodded. “Quit going so fast, it needs to be a fluid motion. Don’t let your arms raise up and down, you are controlling the ball.” he would say a few of the trainees would start to talk about when they had to first do that but would shut up the second Alex looked at them. “Here’s the deal. You don’t think you are learning anything or you think I’m going to try something, feel free to yell and scream and walk away, I won’t go after you, but if you think for even one moment, that what you are learning will be useful, I would ask of you to stick with it until the end, and if you do. I promise you, very few people will be able to beat you.”

The teenager continued to scowl at the man for a beat more, then shrugged. ”Whatever. It’s not like you could do much to me anyway. And I am not the scream and runaway type. And I really don’t give a crap what the cops think of anything. You should probably talk to the docs, though. As annoying as they are, I don’t think they need to be worrying about me.”

The ball’s motion smoothed out, but quickly went to jerking motions again. ”So, in the interests of what you just said, oh Wise and Powerful Oz, what the fuck is the point of this thing?” Her tongue stuck out just a bit as she tried to keep her motions smooth, and it was obviously having no effect in tiring out her arms even slightly. If anything, she was moving it faster now that she was getting used to the motion, even if it was still sloppy. ”And how long do I have to keep doing this? This isn’t some wax on bullshit, is it? I’m not looking for some deep, philosophical knowledge in the surface of the ball, am I? Because I am not equipped do deal with hippy shit.”

“Yes, let me take care of the doctors. Okay? I will call them and take full responsibility, I am sure that they would be happy to have you out of their care.” He would walk back over to her and sigh, “Keep the ball in a fluid motion. No, this isn’t a wax on wax off thing. This is how you know what your opponent will do before you do it.” He would say this as he sighed with a grin as he watched her get sloppier than before.

He would walk up to her and take the ball and put his hands underneath her wrists and forearms, he would begin to do a circular motion which basically forced her arms to go with it. “Go ahead try and hit me with one of your arms.” he would say nodding, whatever arm she would try to use, his goal was that he would shoot his arm forward and flick her nose, blocking whatever arm was suppose to punch him by using his arm as well as showing that he could go on the offensive at the same time.

She paused for a moment. If she tried to hit him, he’d know she was going to punch because his hands were on his arms. And he was tricky, she remember that. Well, two can play at this game, she thought. Instead of using either arm to punch, she thrust the ball forward with both hands as hard as she could.

He would feel both of her arms tensing up he instantly shot both of his arms at her face. Those arms would push Nicky’s arms upwards which would in turn push the medicine ball to skid off the top of his head since he ducked just barely. His hands going towards her face would stop before flicking her nose with both of his hands. “Do you see what I mean?” he would say before standing up and taking a breath as he walked over and nudged the ball in her direction. “It’s not about speed, it’s about learning the movement, when you control your opponent’s movements, you have won the fight even if you are only 5 seconds into it.”

”This is like in that Art of War stuff, right? The coach made us read it, but I didn’t get through the first chapter before everything...went to shit.” She stopped the ball with her foot, then passed her foot around it twice, keeping one edge of the appendage on the surface of the ball at all times. She then slipped her toes underneath it and tried to flick it up, but sent it flying off into a wall instead.

”That thing’s pretty heavy, huh? Got a soccer ball in here somewhere? I am way better with my legs than I ever was with my hands. Maybe I should be kicking. I’ve seen some of those movies where dudes keep kicking the other guys legs to keep him from moving around. Looks pretty fuckin’ cool, and I bet I could do that easier than with punches and shit.”

Alex chuckled at the idea of it being from the ‘Art of War’. “Not quite from that but it has a similar message, you are right.” he would say as he watched her play with the ball. He would watch the ball fly into the wall. Alex still smiled at her, even at her incessant talking, berating, and language, he never faltered to give her a smile. “No, we don’t have a soccer ball here, we will get to kicks when we get there; for now this is to help you with two things..” He would walk over to the ball pick it up and walk back over to Nicky dropping it in front of her. “It works on, patience, and proper form. You could have seen every martial art movie in the world and know how each move works. But if you don’t have proper form; it will all fall apart..”

Alex would walk over to a stone pillar where he would stand in front of it that grin still plastered on his face as he looked at Nicky. “The patience, is one of the keys to your chi. There are many people who fight, but few who can fight with their whole being. If you don’t have patience, you will give up before you are done. You will give up before you can do this.” He would look back to the pillar and take a deep breath, throwing a single punch the entire cement pillar would crack from where his fist was, but the back of the pillar seemed to explode into shrapnel of cement flying against the wall while the front remained intact. “What I want to teach you will not be what I teach my ordinary students. I believe you can perfect your form and everything. As you see, the front remains only cracked. The back however, is shattered, we do not fight for real to look cool, or because we feel we want to fight; when we fight, we fight to protect ourselves and the ones we care about. When we fight for real...” Alex walked back over and knelt down to look at Nicky in the eye. “We fight to deal massive internal damage, because if I have to fight to protect myself or the ones I care about. I won’t hold back.”

Nicky stopped in her motions with the ball when the punch landed into the concrete. Her eyes went wide. ”Holy crap, dude! Oh! You should try that on me! I wanna see what happens!” She was almost hopping up and down in excitement, bouncing on the balls of her bare feet. ”I bet you I can take it! Some dude tried to stab me in the eye and it didn’t do anything!”

Alex chuckled and nodded, he figured that she wanted to see ‘cool’ things and of course, without fail she wanted him to try on her. “Sure. I’ll try it on you.” he’d still have that same grin on his face as he walked up to her. He took a breath as he got into a stance. His punch was fast, faster than when she had been fighting him in the tournament. If it hit, it would hit her in the solar plexus. Any normal person would have either been dead, winded, or on the ground from the pain.

Nicky felt the wind go out of her lungs, but without the spasms that would normally effect the diaphragm, she easily refilled them. Otherwise, except for having to take two steps back for balance, she felt completely fine. ”See? Told ya I’d be fine. So when do I get to crack concrete? Also, aren’t you gonna need to get that fixed?” She glanced past him at the still settling dust from his blow to the pillar.

Alex would look at Nicky who seemed to be just fine a chuckle came from him. “This is why I said you’ll become the best martial artist. But you have a lot to learn before you can.”
He would look back at the pillar his eyebrows raising before he shrugged. “It will get fixed, don’t worry. As for when you get to break concrete. That depends on how well you do in your training, and if we can get you to connect to your chi.” He would kneel down as he handed the ball back to her. “Like I said, first comes patience though. Without it, there’s no way you will survive this training before quitting, no matter how much your body can take. If your will and your mind are weak you are as well.”

The girl rolled her eyes with a groan, but, surprisingly, actually followed the instruction, ignoring the stares from the other students and focusing on trying to get her movements correct. Within a few minutes, however, she growled in impatience and looked back up at him. ”How long do I have to do this? It’s been hours already.”

Alex smiled at that, “It has only been a few minutes.” he’d say as he walked over to a chest and got out an hourglass. He would sit it down in front of her as the sands would begin to fall. “Go until the time here runs out, I will be still watching you. But I am going to call the people you placed as a contact on your registration form, get the process of you going to China ready. Oh… and don’t worry about a passport. That will be taken care of. Now focus on keeping the ball in the same location. Don’t let it move up or down!” He would almost sound like he was enjoying the fact that she was hating it. In fact, he was, he loved to hear the complaints of new students. It reminded him of when he had to do the exercise for 24 hours as a punishment by one of the monks when he stopped doing it only 10 minutes in.

Ugh. Fiiiine. She stopped for a second, fishing something out of her tanktop, and held out a card to Alex. ”Here. That should patch you directly to Crawford, he’s the psych guy. Say something like I seem to be doing really well with physical exercise or something, he’ll probably be fuckin’ overjoyed that I’m-” here she held out her hands and changed her voice to a mocking imitation, ”making progress in my adaptation and treatment of my issues.” She rolled her eyes again and went back to rolling the ball around.

Alex would take the card and nod to her, walking away with it in his hand as he pulled out a cellphone to call Doctor Crawford he would dial the number as he walked into the back room while Nicky worked on the ball.

(The next day)
Alex would park the car outside of a completely different airport than the one that is usually used, Nicky would hear him on the phone. “Yes, Aunty, it is important. I promise you I’m not just taking a trip to sight see, I have business there…….. Yes…...Yes… Don’t worry I will advertise your brand for you when I win a tournament. Yes I know that they are going to be a pain in the ass. I’ll take your pilot out to eat sometime in return, sound good?” he would nod to the phone, “Okay. Love you, bye. he’d roll his eyes as he looked to Nicky, “Ever been on a plane before? Or even better, a private one?”. he’d grin at her as he grabbed his suitcase from the trunk.

Nicky could barely contain her laughter during the phone call, pressing her hands over her mouth. She finally exploded as he hung up. ”Pfffft hahahahhaaaa! You call her ‘Auntie’? What are you, five? And no, I have never been on a plane before. We drove when we moved to Philly, before that fuckwad gave a buncha stupid morons superpowers.” She clambered out of the car and stared around. ”You must be loaded, huh? Flying around in private jets, wrecking your own place with punches an’ shit. What are you, some sorta billionaire? You just fight for kicks?”

Nicky would see it was a small airport and waiting for them was a plane already started with a man in front of the stairs.All around them was a forested area, the very runway looked decent, not as well kept as an international airport but it didn’t matter much it was still very smooth. “Yes of course I call her Aunty, that’s what she is afterall. Whether I’m 5 or 29, I need to respect the people who helped me get to where I am, even if that means swallowing my pride for the sake of what they enjoy hearing.”

As they reached the pilot, the pilot would bow and take his bags as he walked away and Alex started up the steps of the plane he began to speak. “I am not rich, I am well off, indeed. But my Aunt is the rich one. I simply have money from my job and the countless tournaments I win. She is the actual owner of all of this.” he’d throw his hands out towards the plane as he entered there would be leather seats and a leather sofa. A TV, a bar and a fridge in the back. It’s going to be a long flight.” Said the copilot as he looked back into the plane. “Get comfortable, it might take us awhile to get cleared to go off the ground.”

Nicky found a seat she deemed comfortable and flopped into it, kicking her feet up onto the one in front of her. She was wearing a buttoned white blouse over her grey tanktop, and a basic pair of jeans. For once, she was actually wearing shoes, although they were just basic black sneakers and looked fairly new. She stared out the window for a few moments, then looked over to Alex. ”So do you go to China often, old man? Speak the language and shit?”

Alex would sit across from her on the sofa as he grinned, “是的,我经常去中国。” he would nod to her after he got done speaking before saying, “That means, yes, I do go to China often. I know Chinese, Japanese, and of course English.” He seemed rather relaxed as they would be able to hear constant arguing from the cockpit, something about air clearance and needing to have proper identification outside of their plane number. Alex seemed to shrug it off before looking back to Nicky, “Are you hungry? Thirsty? We have food and drink here, and of course, you might also want to take a nap it might be a bit to get us off the ground, and then even longer to get to China.”

The teenager squinted at him for a moment. ”I’m surprised the docs at Happy Skippy Shithole didn’t tell you. I don’t eat, drink, or sleep. I mean, I can eat and drink, but it doesn’t taste like anything and it does nothin’ for me. And I can’t sleep. At all. Ever, apparently. I think I’m halfway through month four, now.” She stared out of the window for a few moments, muttering something to herself, then seemed to remember her manners and said, ”Thanks, though.” Her mood had shifted, suddenly. Where before she was cheerfully antagonistic, now she seemed to sink into herself, not reacting to any outside stimulus at all, just staring out of the window.

A hum of thought would come from Alex. “Interesting.” would be the word he chose as he listened to her before shrugging. He reached behind the bar grabbing some gum. He would grab a piece for himself and then throw the pack towards Nicky. “Well, if you can’t eat, drink or sleep. Let’s just keep your ears from popping from the altitude adjustment, also this gum is trash anyway, so it’s only really good for chewing to keep your mind off of things. So go ahead, take a piece.” Alex would point to the packet of gum next to Nicky, if she looked at him, she would see that same grin on his face, except this time it was way more warming and kind, despite everything she had called him he didn’t seem to care at all. Was it empathy? Maybe, Alex felt it was best at the time for him to just give her a smile. “And fuck those doctors by the way, you are going to get very far away from them, at any moment.” They would hear the pilot yelling getting louder now as the plane engines seemed to start to rev while they started to move.

She reached out and grabbed the gum, popping it in her mouth and chewing thoughtfully for a moment before making a face. ”What, do rich people not know what good gum is? Jesus. Despite her protest, she kept chewing, huffing out a sigh around the piece. ”Nah, I mean, they’re annoying, but they seem alright. They’re good people, just...not what I need. The other people in that support group seem to be doing good with ‘em, so I guess it’s fine.” She sat quietly for a bit, flexing her hands from clenched fists into flat open palms, then back again. She knew she should feel the strain, as she flexed her fingers as far open as they would go, but like always, there was nothing.

”I dunno, man. They said it’s a super power, but I don’t feel super. I feel like I’ve been cursed. I can’t feel anything any more. No pain, but no tickling sensations. Can’t feel the breeze. I used to love running, it’s why I got into soccer. But all the great feelings in my legs, feeling the wind in my hair, the exhaustion after a long game? All of that’s gone, and it fucking sucks. Add on no taste, and this weird thing where I can’t tell how long something’s going on, and it feels like I’m being punished or something.” She again stared out the window, chewing like she was trying to kill the piece of rubbery sugar in her mouth.

”Anyway, how come you go to China all the time? Just for fights and shit?”

He would listen to her his hands on his chin as he nodded to show he was following along. “Well, I don’t stock this plane, so I couldn’t tell you why they choose the gum that they choose.” He would continue to listen to her before speaking again with a soft and yet firm tone. “Yes, I imagine that it doesn’t feel like something that is a good thing for you.I understand that your doctors are good people, but maybe their techniques are just wrong.” he would simply shrug at that. “Have they ever tried to just sit and listen to you? I can understand the want to feel something, if I couldn’t feel I’m not sure how i’d react. But you see the thing we are going to find out for you, is if it’s just physical. Because chi…” he would pause and point at his heart. “As corny as it sounds, it comes from your spirit, from within… This does all explain why you were complaining about the ball rotation exercise so much as well.” Alex would rub at his chin in thought for a moment.

“Well regardless of all of that, you obviously can still feel emotions. So we are going to have fun while in China. I do not always go there to fight, sometimes to do archaeological digs, sometimes to study. Other times to train and fight. But there is plenty to do there. But I need you to promise me one thing, if I am going to train you.” his voice would get serious almost stern as they would feel the plane beginning to leave the ground and hear the pilots yelling, “Finally!” “I will teach you how to fight, I have 10 different martial arts at my disposal, I will teach you all of them. But you do not ever fight for real unless people are at risk, or you are. But I don’t think you will have much of a problem with the latter. I have gotten into plenty of bar fights, broken noses, broken arms, all of that. But I would never unleash myself upon someone who is not threatening mine, or someone else’s life; because, it is when we unleash ourselves, that we will kill. The last thing you want, is to have the thought of you accidentally punching someone because you got angry and you end up killing an innocent. That is why I also must ask you to refrain from fighting anyone that is not me until you have mastered complete control of your chi.”

Nicky had glanced over at him as he said the word ‘promise’, and had had all intentions of at least listening. But then the plane shook, and the engines whined up to speed, and suddenly she was back in the apartment, people shouting outside, the green glow everywhere. But she hadn’t been in the apartment when it happened! She ran up the hall, shouting for her sister, her father, anyone she could find. Turning, she found herself in the kitchen, and there they all were, sitting at the table, stiff and awkward. And then she realised they were already dead. As one, they turned towards her, staring accusingly at her. “Why didn’t you save us, Nicole?” All of their voices echoed and reverberated in her skull, endlessly repeating, with a high pitch screaming tone behind it, except it was her screaming. The explosion ripped through the apartment, flinging her through the air alongside the pieces of her family. She landed with a thud, and the rubble and faces piled into her, with a maniacal laughter from someone else and she was back in the plane, curled into a ball, screaming endlessly and kicking at the back of the seat legs from her position on the floor.

Alex shot to the ground after her watching her fall and scream, he wouldn’t be sure if it was the healthiest thing to hold her, but in a plane it was better than her accidentally breaking something that might cause a problem. He would try to wrap his arms around her, he wouldn’t seem to care if she started to hit him he would hold his ground. “Nicky, Nicky, listen to me. You are here in the plane. You are with me, I am not going to hurt you, I am not going to do anything. Feel the ground if you can, feel the texture, fuck the temperature, just feel the texture, you are here in the plane; on the way to China.” he would say, he was trying to use grounding techniques he had learned from a book once, he recognized what was having as a sort of PTSD flashback. He had one goal, get her back to the present and away from wherever her mind went.

At first, with arms around her, she kicked and bit, but as the voice caught in her ears, she settled. It took almost twenty minutes for her breathing to steady, during which time she could only sob and curse sporadically. Finally, she slapped at his arms and dug her elbow into his ribs, growling out, ”I’m fine, I’m back, fucking let me go!” After securing her freedom, without a word, she fled into the onboard lavatory, unsteady on her feet both from her flashback and the motion of the plane. The door slammed behind her and locked with a loud click. Shortly thereafter, Alex would be able to hear water running.

He would grunt at the pain from being elbowed and slapped but would hold tight until she was finally back to herself. Alex would easily let her go, he wasn’t about to force her to do anything that she wasn’t wanting at that point. Her running into the bathroom, he figured it was just her way of trying to escape. He would simply sit back onto the couch and pull out a cigarette. Lighting it he would take a deep inhale and look at the ceiling of the plane. Thinking about what he had gotten himself into this time.

Nicole leaned over the sink and dry heaved, hacking and coughing even though she had no stomach contents. Her brain was trying to get something out that wasn’t there, panic still gripping her mind. She steadied herself slowly, breathing in deep and shakily through her nose and holding it for as long as she could. When she realised she could just hold it forever, she let it out as slowly as she could, then did the next breath for a thirty count. After her body stopped shaking, she finally looked herself in the mirror. Her eyes weren’t red like they should be, but her face was tear-streaked and her skin sagged slightly, and her eyes were still wide and alert. She was thankful there was a bright light in the room. She wasn’t sure at all she would deal well with shadows for a while. Still, after she got used to it and her world stopped spinning, the rocking of the plane was almost soothing, in a way. She knew it had been that initial jerk of motion that had thrown her, and made a note to avoid or prepare for that in the future.

Finally feeling some semblance of her usual self, she washed her face in the still running water, swished some in her mouth out of habit, then shut the faucet off and left the bathroom. She resumed her seat, but staunchly refused to look Alex in the eye. Instead, she folded her arms tight against her stomach and stared out of the window at the passing countryside.

Alex would continue to smoke the cigarette as Nicky came out of the bathroom, not looking at him. His eyebrows raising at her while she turned to look at the countryside, he would’ve let a chuckle out but he decided it was not the best choice. He would stand up and start to head to the bathroom, but without a word he would drop something in the seat next to Nicky. It would be a ball that would squish easily, it had multiple grooves on it. It looked like it was slightly old, but it was still in good condition. He’d simply walk into the bathroom and let her do whatever she wanted with that.

She waited until after he had gone into the bathroom before even looking at what he had dropped. She recognised the general purpose of the item, having seen many in the facility and at the police station. Snarling, she snatched it up, twisted in her seat, and hurled it after him uselessly. ”I don’t need your fucking stress ball, you condescending fuckface!” she screamed at him, then twisted back to normal posture and began drumming her feet against the back of the seat in irritation.

He would simply continue to walk, the ball would bounce off the wall and would seem to bounce back towards her slightly before it would fall flat on the floor. It felt like a stress ball but when thrown it obviously seemed to harden slightly. He would be in the bathroom for a bit before coming out his hands wet. “Did you know that everyone can use chi?” he would say this as if he had not even heard what she said to him. He picked up the ball as he balanced it in his hand. “Technically we all use it every day, but if you aren’t trained to use it then you are stuck at your set base:we all have a set base that we use, when we get emotional; when we train, work out, all of that. This ball isn’t for your stress, it is for your training. This ball reacts to Chi, if you can fill it with chi when you throw it, it will become harder until it is bouncing around. Or, if you are really good at it, it will become as hard as a rock. Now all you have to do is focus on the ball, focus your energy, imagine yourself pushing a mist onto the ball when you throw it.” he’d say this without his voice changing from earlier but there was a grin on his face, almost as if he knew something he wasn’t telling her but he was going to let her try and figure it out.

”Okay, hold on old man.” The teen’s head snapped around to stare at him. ”You said the movies were a buncha bullshit and whatever, but now you’re talking about magic? Like? First I’m the chosen one and now there’s chi? I know I signed on to train, and I will, but that is….Sure, you can punch that pillar. It exploded, I saw it. But that’s just physics, right? There’s no fuckin’ actual, real life Chinese magic.” Despite herself, she looked back along the aisle to where the ball had landed, staring at it for a few beats before looking back at Alex. Almost all of the fear and anger was gone from her face, now. In its place, there was a hint of what she might have been: Childlike wonderment and hope, but tempered with a healthy skepticism from having to grow up too fast.

Alex grinned taking another inhale of his cigarette. “There is no magic in what I do. Chi comes from the soul, it comes from within you. Magic would be only a select few people could use it. Chi, anyone can.” He would give her a grin as he walked over and grabbed the ball. He would throw it at the back of the plane. Unlike hers she would see it bounced off the back and went and bounced on the ceiling and back to the ground and would start to bounce almost as if it was actually a bouncy ball. Alex would walk over to it pick it up and squeeze it to show Nicky that it indeed was squishy. “Your chi, is literally your will, your soul, everything in you. Channeling into action. When it is balanced, you can do amazing things… like punching through cement. It wasn’t just my form that I did that. It was my chi that allowed me to do that. I never said you were the chosen one by the way Nicky, that is up for you to decide. Because if you don’t put in the effort, then you will not change.” he put the last part in there with an almost as-matter-of-fact, type of voice that seemed slightly harsh, but was obviously nurturing at the same time.

She waved her hand dismissively at him. ”You said the ‘Best martial artist in the world’ or something. Sounds like chosen one bullshit to me, old man. But,” she leaned forward, ”If China is as interesting and challenging as you say, Miyagi, I’ll work harder than you’ve ever seen. Cause I don’t gotta sleep, I can only spend more time training, right?”

Alex would nod at that and hand her the ball as he sat down at the couch to sleep as they were already well on their way.

They would land in Beijing capital international airport. It seemed Alex was prepared with everything, even with somehow having gotten Nicky a passport. Everything seemed to run smoothly as they got through security without a hitch. Nicky would be able to walk past all of the stores in the airport as they walked past it. Alex would seem to have a one track mind, get to the planned area as fast as he could. He would call a cab and Nicky would be able to see the absolute shock on the cab driver’s face as Alex spoke to him in fluent and unfaltering Mandarin. The cab driver would begin to drive, eventually out of the city, and towards the mountains.

Nicole was fascinated by her surroundings as they left the airport. The main highway out was lined in thick foliage, that gave way suddenly to the urban sprawl as they entered the city. She pressed her nose to the window as, on the left, she could see the downtown capital of another country. Depressingly, it looked quite a bit like any other city she had seen, but she supposed that was because she had grown up in two of the greatest cities in the world. Still, she hadn’t seen the glitz in a while, and she loved it. Soon enough, though, they started the steady climb up into the mountains. The glass fogged up, and her view faded into darkness as night descended. They had chased daylight almost the whole way, but they seemed to drive forever. Finally, she gave up trying to secretly see a panda and looked at Alex again. ”So, old man, am I gonna be learning the language while I am here, or am I forever gonna be thinking people are insulting me?”

Alex would seem to not move when he was sitting in the cab, he would talk for a moment here or there with the cab driver in chinese but never anything too long. His eyes would continue to look outside as if he was remembering something, or remembering someone. His eyes shot to the girl as she spoke. “Well Nicky, if you want to learn the language I sure can teach you. But you are going to have to study hard, it is not an easy language to learn at all. And you are going to have to practice your martial arts. Even with staying up 24 hours a day. Do you think you can handle all that work and balance it? “ he would ask his head tilting slightly as he spoke, his brown hair just barely getting in the way of his eyes.

”Can’t know until I try, right? I’ve never tried to learn another language. But I bet I can practise words while working on my form at the same time. Make it harder, and I dunno, ingrain the words into my muscle movement or something?” She shrugged, then looked at the driver. ”Hey, would you say your language is any harder than English?”

The driver seemed to look back with a confused look as he turned to Alex. Alex spoke to him in Chinese as a short exchange between the two would happen in the language as Alex turned to Nicky and said, “He says he’s never had to learn English, so he wouldn’t know.. Now as far as you doing them while you are practising, that could work. But it also might completely distract you from your form.” As he would speak they’d see a massive temple come into view while they rounded the top of a hill as Alex nodded with a grin on his face. “We are here.”

”Holy shit, old man. I didn’t know this was gonna be like the actual fuckin’ movies.” She climbed out of the vehicle and stared up the mountainside at the ancient stones. ”These places are actually fucking real?”

They would step out of the car and Alex would grab his bag. As they looked up they would see stone stairs with what looked like they went up into the heavens. Those were off to the right, but in front of them was probably about 100 steps of stairs as Alex would nod. “Welcome to your home for the next few days, and no. It’s not quite like the movies.. But it’s close. “ he would give her a wink as they looked up at the massive temple, it was red with the traditional roof that hung bright gold banners with what looked like golden pillars. The cement all the way up to it was covered in cracks that had bits of moss coming out of it, and the doors were two massive dark brown wooden doors. Next to the doors was a massive gong with a picture of a monk on it meditating. Around the front they would see multiple different monks training and sparring with each other. If Nicky could see, out on the right hand side, she would see these monks punching a massive boulder. One of them obviously an instructor would punch it and the entire boulder crumbled in one hit.

Nicky stared around her in wonderment. It had taken all night to get here, but now she realised that this was a completely foreign land. Nothing like this would’ve ever existed in Philly or New York. She had never seen mountains like this, nor buildings so old. She watched the monks training for a moment, and showed the first sign of trepidation she had had in a very long time, stepping back slightly to stand just behind and to the side of Alex. ”So, am I gonna have to, like, sweep the yard or clean the toilets or something? And how the f-” She actually choked back the curse, the atmosphere of the place getting to her. ”How am I gonna know what they’re telling me? And aren’t you supposed to spend, like, ten years at one of these places to learn all the cool stuff?” She stopped babbling finally and clamped her mouth shut as one monk threw another what looked like ten meters, only for the thrown man to land lightly on his feet and laugh.

Alex would smile at Nicky and pat her on the head if she allowed him to., “Normally, yes it would take you years to learn. But the great thing is you don’t have to sleep, and you don’t have to take breaks for your body to recover.” He would say as he waved to a monk who bowed to him. “You shouldn’t worry about what you are going to have to do. I will be the one personally training you, if one of the other masters do, they know english well enough to tell you what you are doing wrong or not. Also, no. You won’t be scrubbing toilets or mopping floors. You really are influenced by TV aren’t you? We don’t have time to make you do that when you are needing training.” He would walk up to the doors as he opened them they would see hundreds of people all meditating, or practicing on a wooden man. Each monk’s movements were smooth and quick, if Nicky looked around she would see that there were still monks sparring in here, some with swords, some with poles, some with Kendo Sticks. A man would be front and center he looked ancient almost with his long beard as he was walking around and speaking in chinese to everyone and correcting their form and such. Alex would bow to him and say something in Chinese to the man, the title he gave him would sound like see-fu.

The teen stayed unusually quiet. If she had thought the atmosphere outside was impressive, in here she could almost feel centuries of warriors pressing down on her with their attention. It gave her the creeps, but also a sense of...Was it unease? Impression? She couldn’t tell, really. But the clacking of wood and thudding of fist to flesh kept her grounded here. She vaguely remembered something about politeness and began taking off her shoes awkwardly, before noticing other were wearing slippers inside, and sheepishly stood back up to watch Alex talking to this See Foo man, who she gathered was the grandmaster or general or whatever these guys called the one in charge.

Alex and the man would talk constantly back and forth before the man would simply hug Alex and then kiss his cheek. “And so then this is the little girl?” The older man would say in an almost normal english accent. The only difference was that he still had a lingering sound of a chinese man behind his syllables as if they were foreign to him. “I see, well welcome to the temple. Please, make yourself at home. Just try not to upset anyone. If what Alexander says is true you won’t get hurt. But better to not have to crawl back up a mountain from getting tossed. Though I’m sure Alexander will keep you plenty busy.” he would stop his attention drawn to the clanking of swords as he shook his head, “I have to take care of some students. Please excuse me.” He would bow to the two and walk off.

Alex would motion for her to follow him down a stone corridor, she would see hundreds of doors all over the place and Alex would eventually come up to one at the very end of the long hall. Opening it she would see she had her own stove oven, a mattress, a small dresser fan, heater, and a small window that let her see over the cliff and see the jungle of China. Alex opened his hand towards it as if to motion for her to go ahead and go in.

She peeked around the room cautiously, then nodded. ”Okay, so this is way too much space for me. I don’t even have spare clothes, man. I guess I can leave my shoes in here or something. What’s below the window?” Not bothering to wait for an answer she moved over to it, pushing her head out so she could see down the side. After a moment she pulled back in and grinned at her teacher. ”Betcha I could jump out of this pretty easy. I’ve never fallen that far before, looks like fun.”

She pulled her shoes and socks off, setting them in the corner, then bouncing on the balls of her feet as if she was stretching them. After a moment she caught herself and stopped. Even after four months, exercise habits were proving difficult to break. She guess it was probably fine, but at the same time, it did nothing for her and just wasted time. She clapped her hands to shake herself out of the spiral she could feel coming on and forced a cheery face. ”Alright, Mister Miyagi, what are we waxing first?”

Alex would smile at her eagerness he motioned for her to follow him. As they walked down a few more halls and down some stairs they would find themselves in a small room with massive stone lions around it. “This… is where you will find your burst… this is where you will learn to let your Chi go… these walls have withstood thousands, if not millions of years of chi and damage. And you… are going to be their next victim.” he would say with a grin. “In here you are free to go wild, for as long as you want. In here, you will release your chi. Once you realize how to let it come out of you, you can start to learn how to harness it and control it inside and outside of your body. How has the progress with the ball been?”

Nicky fumbled the little ball out of her pocket, held it up and stared at it. ”I might have gotten it slightly less squishy? I could’ve been imagining that, too.” She held it between her two palms, finger interlaced above it, and positioned in next to her solar plexus. Her face screwed up with effort, and like when she had been concentrating on her movements with the medicine ball, her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth. Slowly, inexorably, her hands began to press inwards, until she noticed it and relaxed them. This process repeated a few times before she looked up at him. ”Yeah, I don’t get it, old man. You said imagine pushing a mist into it, but you can’t push mist, right? Your hand just passes through it.”

“You must let your energy flow into it. You must stop focusing on the ball, focus on your mind, your spirit. We use chi daily, find that chi and push it. Mist can be pushed, but not by our hands. It is pushed by the wind, just how you must let your body naturally push your chi into that ball.”

Nicky rolled her eyes, but bent to to the task, thinking to herself that this was going to be a long couple of days.
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