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INDOMITABLE a graphic-less novel by W. A. Martin


The golden age of heroes has passed. The death of the city’s greatest champion nearly eighteen years ago left a vacuum to be filled by lesser heroes. The line between “normals” and metahumans widens, and tension is rising in every corner of the city. Sojourn arrives in the city. At seventeen, he has left home to be another hero – in a city of heroes. But, on an early morning visit to the garden memorial, a high-tech theft sets him on a whirlwind path with other metahumans to recover an important relic of the city’s greatest hero... and stop a threat the entire city had hoped was buried in the past. This is a reader review copy of a work in progress. Please visit the website for information on how you can contribute to the project.

Copyright 2011 http://indomitable.nocategories.net

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Contents Prologue ............................................................................................. 1 Issue One: Those Who Wait ............................................................... 11 Issue Two - Emerging Hope ............................................................... 35 Issue Three: Looming Clouds ............................................................ 62 Issue Four: A Special Taskforce .......................................................... 81 Issue Five: Unbroken....................................................................... 106 Issue Six: Messengers ..................................................................... 125 Issue Seven: Guardians ................................................................... 151 Issue Eight: A Flash of Thunder ........................................................ 171 Issue Nine: Closed Doors, Open Windows ........................................ 187 Issue Ten: Deal Breakers ................................................................. 211 Issue Eleven: Fallen Heroes............................................................. 233 Issue Twelve: What Do You Go Home To? ........................................ 260 Epilogue.......................................................................................... 307


Prologue The grass had grown long from neglect; and, under the tromping of armored policemen's boots, its green blades rippled with blue shadow in a cool wall of wind. A storm was approaching. The family's oldest son usually drove in from the city to keep the yard in order, but he hadn't been seen for a couple of weeks. The slender stalks of green waved in the wind like tiny banners heralding his heroic return. But, he never came. The men's constant pacing and positioning wore slick paths in the yard, incessantly beating an already water-sodden yard into brown streaks of smeared mud. The fortifications they installed had made a mess of the woman's flower beds. Canvas sand-bags sank into the dark soil and crushed delicate blooms back from whence they came. The lawn would need fresh sod. The flowers would need replanting. One man dropped another sandbag onto the pile in front of the window – and then, another. The soft earth sagged under the added weight. From behind the dingy, fingerprinted glass of her living room picture window, she paid little attention to her crushed flowers or over-long and trampled grass. Her eyes were fixed – wide and unblinking – on these men outside in her yard. She watched as magazines of ammunition slid out of side arms, were checked and double-checked, tapped against the black pistol grips, and slapped back into place. She watched as bootlaces were untied, cinched tight, and retied and as riot shields were tapped heavily by nightsticks, testing them unnecessarily against impact. She watched and never said a word.

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A silver-haired, uniformed man squinted from under his helmet and checked every strap on every helmet and vest on the younger men under his command. Like an endless loop, they continued their minute inspections until another man perched at the edge of an olive-dyed tent interrupted. He was seated at a table-top radio, batting away a tent flap that twisted toward him in the wind. Though the woman inside could not hear the static-charged squawk from the headset, she watched the men on the other side of the glass stiffen and turn their heads. She watched but did not notice. The woman stood motionless in her pale blue sundress – her hair peppered with grey but still streaked with the raven-black strands of her youth. Her hands were clasped together a few inches from her mouth. A small, trembling boy - her youngest son – tugged at the hem of her apron. His eyes jumped from watching the scene unfold outside and, then, to her face. She didn't flinch, though her knuckles whitened. "Reports are coming in..." said the radioman. He shrugged weakly under his heavy armor and tugged at the helmet strap under his chin. A sharp red line of raw skin peeked out before he dropped both hands back to the radio controls. He winced to screen out the noise from the police helicopter whirling overhead. He picked up an attached headset and strained against the surrounding noise. "It doesn't sound good, sir." "Damn it! What's going on over there?" The silver-haired commander glared at his radioman and marched toward the tent. His fingers continued on with the task he had set them to just a moment before, ratcheting the pitted and scarred slide on his pistol. He glanced down to check the breach before turning his eyes defiantly toward the city skyline in the distance. The men closest to him mimicked the stalwart stance. He was a veteran in the force – a god among men.

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But, cold sweat soaked through this veteran's fingerless gloves, making his pistol trigger slick. He nervously flicked the safety back and forth with his thumb and reminded himself to keep his finger off the trigger until he was certain he needed to pull it. His eyes darted off toward the rest of his men, who had begun to notice these little signs – signs which made their god more human, more frail. His face hardened into a familiar sneer, and he loosed a sharp, guttoral laugh. He followed it with a glaring indignation, not toward his men but the entire world. Their eyes darted away from him and back to the looping inspections and pacing patrols, comforted by the brevity of their commander's apparent humanity. The chinks had always been there; but, in that moment, the younger men had seen the cracks in his armor and the deep lines on his face for the first time with new eyes, fresh and wide. Some could not shake the image and stared to the skyline and the approaching storm. They were met with a flash of blue and thunder. The city proper was in the distance, suspended under a sky darkened by afternoon showers. A faint clap of thunder echoed out from among the lean superstructures. The men turned to the skyline, their muscles tense. Dust plumed from one of the tallest skyscrapers, and within a few seconds a sliver of the building fell from the tallest tower of glass and steel. They heard another faint thud of thunder, signaling the collision of that small slice of a building with the ground far below. Another cloud of dust plumed and rose like a thread of white smoke from the hidden streets. A blue explosion of energy touched down some blocks further into the city and strobed faintly between the narrow corridors between the buildings, followed by another clap of concrete thunder.

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"That.... was... the Gen-Tech building, wasn't it?" one man stuttered. "Ten floors, at least," said another. “How many people do you think were up there?” "That's enough!" the commander shouted. He wiped his brow with the already damp handkerchief he kept in a cargo pocket on his thigh. The entire SWAT team had been called to hold position at this small house twelve miles outside of the city “I just hope they call us back in before the storm hits Mountain View,” one man had said on the ride out, “I don't want to stand out in the rain for nothing.” The rest of the men had laughed, slapped each other on the back. The silver-haired veteran's jaw had tightened. It was just a drill. It had to be. But, drills didn't often have the men stop by the National Guard armory for equipment. The reports of a massive battle downtown began tumbling over one another on all channels just as the team had deployed. They hadn't heard anything for few hours since. The team had been joined by two more truckloads of armored police personnel ten minutes after their had arrive. The need for additional support had resonated and still echoed in them all. An unshakable feeling. A feeling that continued to spread, it seeped into their pores and made their hair stand on end. The SWAT team and their black armored truck was something the residents of the Mountain View community only heard about on the

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radio or saw on the six o'clock news. Today, it seemed as though Mountain View would be a part of the six o'clock news. Nearby neighbors drew their windows shut. Some haphazardly packed their cars with overflowing suitcases and peeled out of their driveways, never glancing to their rear-view mirrors. “They know something we don't, sir?” the radioman asked the commander. Before he could answer, a news station helicopter swooped overhead. "Get that damn thing out of here!" the veteran commander barked. The radioman spun back to the radio and relayed the message with the same conviction. The police helicopter pulled around and chased the media cameras from overhead. “They'll be back, like damn gnats,” the commander grumbled. The radio crackled, and a short tone prompted the radioman to dial up the volume to maximum. "SWAT, prepare for inbound metahuman, large and extremely dangerous," an unfamiliar voice said. The absence of the regular dispatcher’s voice and the lack of further information caused the commander and the radioman to stare blankly at one another. Another human moment. Another crack in his impenetrable armor. On the other side of the window, the boy had dropped the hem of his mother's apron and pressed his fingers against the glass as he often did when he was expecting his older brother to visit from the city. His little face was so nearly touching the windowpane that his hot breath partially fogged the cool glass. He noticed all of his old fingerprints

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and rubbed them clean with the sleeve of his shirt. His thin body shivered at the now-clearer image outside. Beyond the horizon of the hill far down the road – just toward the entrance of their subdivision – he saw red and blue lights flashing brighter and brighter. More police were coming. They were following something to the house. A jagged silhouette broke across horizon and glinted of metal along its peeled edges. It lurched and slowly slithered down the main street of the neighborhood. As it drew closer, they could all hear the staccato squeal of rusty metal percussion scrapping against asphalt. The boy cringed away from the glass, but the sound only grew louder. Outside the house the radioman continued to translate the garbled transmissions from the clarity of his headset. "It's Chimera!” he shouted. “I can see that!” the commander snarled, raising his pistol toward the looming threat. “Let's just hope Sapien gets here soon.” “No sir, I mean... He... He..." the radioman's voice dropped off, and his commander watched as the color drained from the young man's face. The expression there twisted, and his eyes began to well. The commander dropped his belligerent bravado along with the tip of his barrel. "He what, Baker?" Radioman Baker didn't respond. He was shaking his head and crying. "Get a hold of yourself, kid," he said as he snatched the headset away from his subordinate. The headset drowned out a good deal of the chaos around him. A message had been set to loop.

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As he listened, the color drained from his face, and the old cracked and lines reappeared on his old face. But, this time, they did not fade behind his grizzle sneer or guttural snarl. The old man struggled against his own tears. All eyes darted in circuit from their shell-shocked commander, the approaching monstrosity, and Baker. The radioman’s mouth continued to move, but no sound came out. The ringing tone in his ears subsided. The entire police contingent seemed to draw quiet just in time to clearly hear the message over the radio’s small external speaker. "Repeat, Sapien is dead... Sapien is dead.” Their pacing stopped. Hands began to shake. Legs became weak. One man dropped to his knees and hid his face behind his hands. They were all strong men. It began to rain. The storm had finally reached them. Amid another flash of low lightning in skyline, a very young man and woman appeared in front of the SWAT commander, but his old eyes stared through them as though they weren't there. They wore brightly colored stripes along the sleeves of their strange uniforms. The soles of their boots were thick and reinforced. Their eyes surveyed the scene before giving each other knowing glances. The unmistakable signs. Young. Trained. Disciplined. They were metahumans. “We're here to help,” the young man said. “Get your men to the line, commander,” the young woman said. The old man's head snapped back slightly, and his eyes regained focus. She was tiny, barely more than a girl, but they all listened.

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The metahuman girl pointed, and officers obeyed without waiting for their commander to confirm the order. They took defensive positions against the titanic beast. “Your men are to aim and fire. We’ll handle everything else. Aim and fire, understand?” The metahuman boy drilled the message over with each group of armed men. He was as young as his female counterpart, but they listened. “Yes,” they each whispered, barely audible, barely aware, “Aim and fire.” As they sighted down the barrels of their firearms, they fiercely blinked their eyes, eyes still blearied and wandering like shell-shocked children on a desolate killing field. Most only regained their focus just as the monster reached their ranks. Chimera breached the perimeter, and the report of gunfire rang off the surrounding vinyl siding and paned glass. Windows shook. The SWAT team obeyed the order, scowling down the barrels of their rifles and sidearms. Aim and fire. Blurred movements kept the troops fresh and reloaded, gently pushing hands back to the trigger every time their training made hands stray to grab another magazine of ammunition for reload. “Aim and fire,” many began to chant to themselves, “they will handle the rest.” Brows were wiped of sweat. Unsteady feet were nudged back into balance. The two metahumans disappeared in a blur of striped color and rushing wind. Silent and invisible, aiding every man in the infinitus between ticks of the second hand.

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The continuous barrage overwhelmed the dying beast with a cacophony of fire and fury. A continuous rain of bullets chipped away every armored surface, pouring forth from a wall of continuous muzzle flashes and barrels glowing from their own heat. The ablated creature pressed forward. The hail storm fixed every armed and armored man on the deconstruction of the legendary monster – a villain. A devil. Guns roared; men roared. Then, bullets began to bite into the flesh underneath, and the beast before them roared. Thunder shook the ground under their feet, but they could not feel it for the agony and hatred in their hearts. Chimera’s approach slowed to nothing more than a weak clawing of his metallic fingers digging into the concrete driveway. He pulled himself forward in an awkwardly lurking motion by one arm and held himself up with the support of the other. His arms faltered, and his immense weight fell into the mud of the yard. The firestorm from the armored police continued until every last round of ammunition was spent, leaving Chimera a barely distinguishable mass of metal and flesh slumped in the bloodied mud outside. From the tiny blue-siding cottage of 221 Mountain View Drive, a mother and son did the only thing they could. They watched. Through the rain, only one person recognized the man behind the mask of a beast. It was those eyes – those pale blue eyes. He always recognized the eyes, even in the gloomy glow of twilight. From inside the window pane, the young boy Patrick felt a rapid numbness spread

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from a hollow place in his heart and permeate every extremity. The little boy's eyes were wet as he whispered the name he had known since he was old enough to speak. “Thomas.” His eyes were wet, but he didn't cry. He wouldn't. He refused.

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Issue One: Those Who Wait The six a.m. train silently pulled into the west gate carrying the first wave of salaried suburbanites into the city. Docking clamps pinged into place on the regal blue passenger cars and held the mag-lev train steady, The doors hissed open with a puff of air. Leathered footsteps stomped out onto the platform, spilling several dozen passengers out of a train that could comfortably hold hundreds. The first morning crowd was the smallest of the day, just a few upstarts and corporate moguls dressed in charcoal gray business suits, each trying to get a leg up on the competition. Some sped on at a brisk pace, while others dragged themselves slowly toward the exits in search of coffee. The platform was almost empty after a couple of minutes. The next two hours would bring thousands more through the terminal on their various, winding paths to work. For now, a solitary seventeenyear old boy was all that remained of the early morning arrivals – save for one other, a rather severe man with a clipped goatee who busied himself with loading a large, metal trunk onto an aluminum-framed trolley. It was not the boy's first trip into the city, but it had been years since his mother had brought him and his younger brother to visit the tourist bureau's recommended sights. His one keepsake from that trip, a broken-spine copy of "The Guild's Officially Sanctioned Hero's Handbook," rested comfortably in its seated chest pocket inside the boy's coat. He took out the small book and flipped through the tattered pages to a section in the back. With the remaining nub of an

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old pencil, long bereft of an eraser, he scratched a quick note on a dogearred page and replaced both items close to his chest. This was only his second trip to the city and the first on which he had come alone. He had just arrived and already felt completely lost in the dazzling white lights and clean lines of technological convenience. And, he hadn't even left the terminal. The train pulled away. He stood motionless in the terminal for a long moment. His faded but colorful hand-me-down clothes sang against the white, polished floors and walls around him. Even faded, his clothes were the only true dash of color left in a depot of glass and chrome. A well-traveled canvas bag was slung over his shoulder. He searched the transit wall maps and back-lit, grey-scale advertisements for a sign, some hint of direction or purpose to this insane idea of his. Each dimmed display lit with his gaze and dimmed as he turned away. He reached up and put his hand on his head. Lean, spidery fingers sank beneath his curly brown locks, further tousling his thick mop of hair. He told himself, This is the right place.. Just get going. After a long, deep breath he left the west gate's platform. The teenager strode forward through a series of check points – large metal archways blinking green in unison with apathetic security guards staring blankly at a set of adjacent surveillance monitors. His pace slowed considerably as he passed the last archway. His wary steps led toward the east side of the station and the exit. It was a good enough place to start, but first he needed an answer. The boy looked to the security guard behind the last monitoring station with his brow creased

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in a question. He stood there by the desk, stared into the mirrorpolished surface, and waited. And waited. The guard sighed when he made eye contact with the young man standing on the other side of his desk. He took another long sip of coffee. Every morning brought some mundane interruption to what was otherwise a good way to quietly pass the end of his shift. “What can I help you with, young man?” The question started slowly, sluicing through a drawl, as if words started by trudging through a frozen sludge. The guard forced a shiver and continued to drink his coffee. He felt it warmand loosen his voice from the frozen silence of a quiet night. The automated lights had lifted from their pre-set dim with the arrival of the early express. His pupils hadn't adjusted and were still dilated. More coffee started to bring him around, and he blinked furiously for a moment. “Umm…” Sojourn scrolled through several new questions in his head. The guard interrupted the boy's stall. “What’s your name, son?” More silence stretched out gently behind the question before he received a reply. “Sojourn.” It was the first time the boy had said his newly chosen name aloud. With a near-imperceptible wince, he pushed himself into the name and forced his shoulders down with a quick breath. He looked the man in the eye.

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“Sojourn? That’s sort of a funny name,” the guard whispered into his heavy mug, but the sound echoed from its ceramic walls. He looked back to the boy, fumbled through a few incomplete words, and looked down at his computer screen. He took a sip of coffee, hiding his eyes in it. Looking over the rim of his mug back to Sojourn, he reluctantly reestablished eye contact and set his mug down. “Sorry. It’s early. It just popped out. Actually, it’s kind of a cool name now that I think about it.” "It’s just a nickname,” the teenager shrugged, but his eyes darted toward the door, and his cheeks flushed. “How do I get to the Arboretum... in the Epicenter?” The guard took a deep breath and leaned into the worn recess of his chair. He instinctively reached back to his mug to slowly nurse his morning coffee. “Ah, new in town?” "Yeah, I guess.” "What brings you?” the man asked, suspecting the answer. "Um, I think I’m going to join the Guild?” Sojourn raised a hand to his head and roughed his hair. “Yeah, I'm joining the Guild.” "Fancy yourself a hero, do you?” the guard asked with a smirk and raised eyebrow. This was not the first wide-eyed teenager to pass his station on his way to become the next, greatest-hero-ever-known. He tried hard to remember their faces in order to count how many passed back through his checkpoint after a few days. Most did, he knew, but then again, most of them asked for the location of the Elysium, not the city gardens.

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Sojourn briefly glanced away again, first to his feet and then to a distant wall. The “smart system” back-lighting of a wall panel flared to life when his eyes made contact with dormant advertisement. It dimmed as his glanced wandered back to the man behind at the desk. The boy smiled, though the corners of his mouth quivered to hold it. The cue wasn’t missed, “Well, if you are heading to the Arboretum first, you are off to the right start in my book. You want the number ten. It should be here in a few minutes,” the guard pointed to a bus stop with an illuminated yellow banner directly outside of the east terminal – just beyond the glass front of the train station. "Thanks,” Sojourn said. The corners of his mouth turned up more sharply and no longer found trouble holding his smile. For some reason it made an impression, and soon the guard was beaming back at him though he didn't really know why. "No problem, kid. Go make a difference.” After Sojourn began to make his way to the doors, the guard stood up and called out. “Hey!” The man watched as the scrawny teenager spun abruptly on his heels to face him. His sneakers squealed in protest against the floor. Their eyes met for the last time. “Good luck, kid.” Sojourn, who beamed a wide and toothy smile, waved to the man and then looked back to the doors. Dawn was just breaking on the horizon with its frayed pinkish-purple halo rising from the edges.

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One arm hiked up the shoulder strap on his worn bag looking for that familiar and comfortable groove, and his other hand patted at the small book in his chest pocket. He headed out to the waiting bus stop and his first morning in Cardinal City. His chin was a little higher than when he had first disembarked from his levitating, aluminum coach car. He was going to be a hero. *** The guard watched the boy exit one of many double doors before sitting back down into his chair. He sank into the cushioned womb of memory foam and gazed at the light of dawn sneaking through the steets outside. The chair creaked under his weight. For the first time he could recall in years, he inexplicably hoped he did not see this young man pass by him again in a few days with his head slung low and shoulders drooping under the weight of his bag. He'd seen it before – that dull look of disappointment from a sidewise glance – once hopeful youths boarding the trains home. Eyes that beg not to be addressed with kind words or condolences but to be ignored and forgotten. But that one just might make it, he thought to himself. He stopped the nonsensical tangent after a moment of boyish grinning. He chuckled and shook his head. He wasn't sure what had gotten into him. None of them make it anymore, he reminded himself. He took another sip of coffee to sober his mind, but the old guard's smile did not fade. The boy's own had infected him; and, his old bones hurt less, and his day felt a little brighter. He would have to remember to return it to the young man when he saw him pass back through the station.

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He'll need it back in a couple of days... I'll hold onto it until then. *** Sojourn stepped out to the bus stop with the city before him. Gleaming towers of concrete and glass and spires of mirror and chrome towered over the cracked-mortar buildings of brick and stone, forever lost in the giants' shadows. To the north, the silver towers reached higher as the city's sidewalk trees thinned. To the south, the dense clusters of the older brick buildings lay crumbling and forgotten but small parks and playgrounds were marked with flowering weeds and scraggly shrubs in moist black mulch. The dark, organic smell rose from every alleyway and spaces above and below where window-boxes hung out over the sidewalks. A route map sprang to life as his eyes passed over it at the bus stop and drew a complex grid of streets and winding subway tunnels hidden below. The bus numbers floated like tiny jellyfish over the map's colorcoded streets. Street names appeared and disappeared as bus numbers turned from one street to another. He pointed at the number ten on the screen as it meandered slowly toward the spot that marked where he stood. His finger hovered above the screen for a long breath before touching it lightly. A highlighted zig-zag connected his spot to the train and displayed a estimated time of the bus's arrival: five minutes. This is Cardinal City, a city of heroes. Real heroes. He touched the breast pocket of his coat, but his eyes lingered on the towers in the distance. The bus-stop screen dimmed.

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A man bumped past him in a rush. Sojourn recognized the aluminumframed luggage cart and the large trunk from the platform. The man cast a glare at the gangly boy and sneered. “Sorry,” Sojourn offered with his shoulders shrugged. The man cared nothing for the apology. He flinched toward the boy, but as his shoulders rose and nostrils flared, a muffled beep from some digital alarm hidden within the depths of one of his suit pocket alerted him to another thought. The man glanced to his watch just as a car pulled up behind him. The trunk of the car opened before the driver opened his door. The man heaved his large case into the back without the help of the well-dressed driver. The driver walked around to open another door; the man climbed into a back passenger seat. With a slam of the heavy doors that rattled the tinted windows, the car sped off with a peel of tires under the glowing sky. The man's digital alarm woke a sleeping memory in Sojourn, and his hands fumbled through his own pockets. He withdrew a old phone. He looked down at the screen nicked and scuffed by time and weathered from frequent deployment. The boy hastily rubbed the phone's screen against his coat and looked at it again. “No new messages.” Sojourn started to dial a number from memory but was interrupted by the arrival of the number ten bus. The call would have to wait. He switched from dialing to sending out a quick text message which read, “Safe in the city. Call you soon.” *** Jack Kite was once known as Kid Comet, the young sidekick to the greatest hero the world had ever known. Sapien and Kid Comet had

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worked together to solve many mysteries and thwart an untold number of crimes, or so the popular stories would have people believe. They were all fabrications of urban legend and sensational pulp fiction; the truth was that Sapien never would have willingly placed a child, metahuman or not, in danger. However, the truth mattered little to the mainstream of the city's population, and Jack grew up in the shadow and wake of his childhood hero’s life. A toy company had even turned him into an action figure and packaged it with the likeness of his idol. The real Kid Comet had been a young boy who had attended every planned event that had announced his favorite hero’s expected presence – regardless of whether or not such claims had been legitimate. He had done anything he could to see Sapien in person. He had stood in lines winding around several city blocks. He had waited outside in the rain – his clothing drenched in cold sweat and frozen rain – searching the skies for some glimpse of the telltale blue light. It had been beyond mere admiration. His parents had thought it was an unhealthy obsession, but young Jack had always known that there was something more. He never could put it into words. He had felt called. That was how it had started. And, along the way, Sapien had taken notice of little Jack. Maybe it was the undying conviction to support his boyhood hero. Maybe it was since his seventh birthday, Jack’s hands had begun to glow with his own faint, blue light when he was excited. Around Sapien, the boy, later known as Kid Comet, had always been excited. Jack was grown now, weaving his way down the sidewalks toward the Epicenter in the heart of the city. At this time of morning the pedestrian traffic was only now beginning to stir and groggily filter out of their homes; he always chose times like these to move about in

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public. Times between the rotations of public consciousness. Even so, he favored his right arm to keep the armored frame clear of passersby. From his shoulder to the tips of his fingers, his right arm was shielded by a metallic gauntlet. It was marked by valves at every joint and closed vents along every surface. It creaked against the cool air and at every slight movement of the jacket seam pressed against his inner arm. The bare fingers of his other hand twinged at the sound, but he refrained from making a futile gesture to quiet the un-oiled hinging. The media coverage of the Sapien-Chimera battle and its aftermath nearly eighteen years ago made Kid Comet’s grievous injuries and orphaned status public knowledge. Some assumed that the gauntlet was a robotic arm which supplied the former sidekick with superhuman strength. Others claimed that Sapien’s death so traumatized his sidekick that he lost his metahuman abilities. Therefore, the gauntlet fuctioned as his conduit into the heroic realm. Still, others thought the man once known as Kid Comet wore the gauntlet as some memorial to the late hero. There was even a fringe group who believed it was an alien artifact bestowed upon him as a sign of friendship. The man once known as Kid Comet never made an attempt to confirm or deny any of these theories. He had always tried hard to ignore the public and their morbid speculation. After a few years of avoiding the lime light, the media and its fickle audience had grown bored with Jack Kite and the mystery of his metallic arm. He preferred it that way. Though it was not truly extraterrestrial, Jack could never shake how alien the gauntlet truly felt – heavy and perpetually cold to the touch.

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Now, like so many times before, he barely resisted the urge to rip it from his shoulder like a dead and gangrenous limb. Most of the metallic surface was hidden under the sleeve of his battered, knee-length coat. Only knuckles of brushed silver were exposed. Several hapless individuals were startled as they grazed past and quickened their pace after the thought of being so near a metahuman glimmered in their dim brains. Jack tried to keep his agitation down as several more people bumped, slid, and scrapped past him along a sidewalk with more than enough room to accommodate a wide berth. Gnashing his teeth, he exhaled sharply through his nostrils. He knew the Kid Comet glow would only make things worse. Jack worked his way from the north edge of the Southside’s buildings of red brick and cracked mortar to the pale gray concrete towers at the bottom edge of the Epicenter. The aesthetic divide created the appearance of two separate cities colliding – the instant of impact frozen in time. The domed fortress of the Guild of Heroes opened the air over the Epicenter. Jack turned his eyes to the fading purple above. In an area otherwise crowded by skyscrapers, the compound took up four square blocks. The Elysium, as it was known, was the shortest structure on the skyline. It was dwarfed even further by the largest building in the city across a square of landscaped green – the rebuilt Generation Tower, headquarters of GenTech Industries. Jack's skyward eyes fell upon the flags flying on short poles around the perimeter of the Elysium's upper dome. Twelve Champion emblems, one for each of the Guild’s council members, rolled vibrant hues into the wind. Higher up and across the square, Generation Tower was

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broadcasting its own advertisements on two monumentally large screens joined by a right angle at a corner of the building. “A better tomorrow made possible today.” His left hand emanated a dim glow. He snickered, shook his head, and pushed both landmarks from his mind. Deeper in the region of the city known as the Epicenter, the ground sloped downward slightly, marking the shallow bowl of an eighteenyear old crater. At the heart of this fifteen square block depression, Cardinal City’s Arboretum was opening its doors to the public – as both a private garden and public memorial. Several small groups were waiting outside as Jack approached. A few families were towing sleepy children rubbing eyes. A chill wind swirled a few dry, orange and red leaves along the front of the building. It was unusually cool for this time of the year, though the cold never bother him. He was impervious. Holding his right arm slightly behind him, Jack pushed through the front doors of the Arboretum. A metal arm and a glass door never parted company on good terms. With a quick hop and a sideways step, he awkwardly avoided a mother and her young son who entering through the same set of doors. The little boy looked up quizzically, but Jack passed him before the light of recognition was evident in his large eyes. His little hands tugged at his mother's sleeve, but the preoccupied woman shuffled her son in another direction of the garden's attractions. Without so much as a slanted glance, Jack passed the lush green botanical exhibits – spattered with cyan blooms, smeared with magenta florets, and dotted with yellow pinwheels – in the front half of

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the facility. He waved with his left hand as he passed Abigail, the elderly caretaker of the Arboretum. She was ripping up a small spot of weeds beneath a small ornamental tree. The courtyard was domed in with a grid of opaque greenhouse glass. The defused light overhead bounced softly off the surrounding surfaces of uneven bark and chaff. Bent at the waist when she took notice him, the woman took the opportunity to stand up and stretch with one hand pressed hard into the small of her back. She smiled and waved back before quickly returning to her chore, throwing her hands, balled into fists, on her hips. One corner of Jack's mouth turned upward at the spectacle; she appeared from this distance to be scolding the weeds. Better them than me. Jack hurried on. He continued through the courtyard and down a hallway to the Legacy Room. The early morning visitors were still adrift at the front of the building; the memorial room was still empty of life when he entered. His chin dipped to his chest, as he reverently approached Sapien’s mantle on the display pedestal below the Unending Flame. The memorial's blue fire rose high into the air and reached its pinnacle at eye-level of the upper gallery at the back of the room. His mouth moved and formed words that he never spoke. As he left the stone pedestal, Jack hesitated, stopped, and turned back. He brushed the metal chestplate with the sleeve of his jacket, wiping a small, dark deposit of dust from one of the edges of the silver mantle. With his left hand he turned it slightly on the folded cape bedding so that it would directly face all those entering the room. His visual inspection stopped on another dark spot just on the inside collar of the back plating. His thumb hooked inside the sleeve of his coat and started to make another pass to polish the relic but stopped just as

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quickly as it began. His hand fell back to his side, and the coat sleeve slackened against his arm with a grating hiss. Jack walked over to the far corner of the room and leaned heavily against the wall with his arms crossed. His head drooped slightly; his eyes drifted down. And there, he waited, as he always did. *** Elizabeth Clarissa Jones, known as “Liz” to her friends and “Halcyon” to rest of the city, woke to the feeling of being crushed. She sat up in her bed clutching her heaving chest. She blinked rapidly. It was just a dream. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. This... is real. But, this sobering moment didn't feel real. She looked around, taking in the scene of a cold room with grey walls, dark and sparsely furnished. The dormitory wing of the Elysium provided every Guild member with a private room, each as nearly the same as the next. Though, for someone gifted with flight, the room felt so small that she could feel the walls pressing in on her even while she slept. There were no windows. Some nights were worse than others. The same dream plagued her, night after night, as she slept alone. She couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. She was being crushed. The sensation of an irresistible weight lingered in her upper body as she slowly forced herself out of bed. Her palms were slick with sweat. Her sheets were cold and damp to the touch. As a small child, before

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joining the Guild, the dream shocked her mind to the point that she would bolt upright with adrenaline fueling a racing heart. At the sounds of her gasping and screaming, her little brother had always come running to her aid. Now, the product of her imagination took on subtler tones, creeping upon her unconscious mind and choking her instinct to fight before she ever had the chance. She blinked rapidly several more times, taking a dozen more still photos of her real life; but, these new memories of reality did nothing to alleviate her labored breathing or the prickle of her cold sweat. The feeling persisted. Though Liz lived on a floor with twenty of her fellow Guild members with similar floors above and below, the room's sound-proofing ensured that the only sound she heard as she walked into the bathroom was the patter of her own bare feet on the hard floor. She started the shower. As the steam began to rise, Liz thought of Jack's apartment, with its thick carpet and thin walls. His noisy neighbors laughed and yelled and stomped around at all hours with their windows open to the world. It was a place alive with the irrepressible energy of family, of friends. She was so easily swept away by it. She missed it. But, they had made their choices. Her movements were sluggish even after the first enervating step into the shower's scalding water. She spent only a few minutes in the rising steam. She exited in the trance of routine, brushed her teeth, and sat down at the small table near her bed to eat a bowl of cereal. Liz closed her eyes tight; the crunching sound of cereal between her teeth grated on her ears. She tried to chew quietly – slowly – but the gnashing only became more pronounced. After a few bites, she pushed the bowl away and shifted her eyes to wall.

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The panel clicked on and the green, digitally-displayed time on the touch-screen wall panel burned brilliantly in contrast to the purple shadows blanketing her room. Jack will be at the Arboretum by now, she thought, attempting to comfort herself; but, something in the thought snagged in her chest and dug deeply. She pulled her legs up into the chair and wrapped her arms around them. The room was still dark. She had never bothered, with even a careless glance to the remote switch, to turn on the lights. Halcyon had been taken off patrol duty with her recent promotion from Guild Herald to Protector, and there had been no open assignments posted on the Guild intranet last night for her new rank. Liz had nothing to do except wait for something to change. For someone to need her. So, she waited. And she waited. *** The executive office suite at the top of GenTech's Generation Tower was conducting business in the early morning hours, long before the many floors below filled with the rest of the company employees. The receptionist had only just arrived. She dropped her purse into a lower drawer of her desk and glanced over her shoulder as her computer automatically sprang to life. A glowing line under the door to the larger office behind her cautioned her against her boss's quiet presence. Even without the telltale illumination, she knew he was there, staring at his computer screens and flipping through reports. He was always in his office before dawn.

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And, he always worked after dark. Patrick Mason leaned forward from behind his desk scanning through the daily readouts for the Arbiter System – a GenTech proprietary system designed to detect and assess metahuman capabilities. The readouts displayed on one of two monitors set off to the right side of his desk. The system is still imperfect. Mason alternated between leafing through the printed file and reading the numbers on the computer monitor for several minutes. Sunlight crept slowly across the threshold of his panoramic windows. The intelligent-glass automatically dimmed to a subtle and color-neutral tint, adjusting to the corporate giant's pre-set limits for the time of day. The secretary entered. “Mr. Mason, I hope I am not disturbing you –” “You are...” Mason interrupted. His eyes met hers and narrowed. The rose drained from her cheeks, and the secretary started back toward the door. “... but that's your job,” Mason finished. “What do you have?” “The Guild, sir,” she began quietly. “They are complaining of power spikes in the Arbiter system core.” “And they felt it necessary to bother me with this?” The question wasn't asked with any inflection to denote actual curiosity.

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“Yes, sir. Apparently they did,” her voice gained momentum. But, her body backed slightly, positioning for an escape route. “I redirected them to the lead technician on-site, and then to Mr. Gregory, but they are insisting on speaking with you. I know you don't like to be disturbed in the mornings... or, the evenings...” She caught herself amidst her rambling and corrected her course. “How would you like me to handle them, sir?” Her hand felt for the cool relief of the door knob. “What line are they on?” Mason asked. “Line three, sir.” She stuttered and turned the knob as she answered. “I'll take it in here... Thank you, Jan.” His fingers pulled a small headset from a discrete charging station at the corner of his desk. He pinched a single button along its edge three times and waited for it to decipher the encrypted data stream and connect to the call-in-progress. “Sir?” Jan had frozen in her retreat – caught in the torpor between expectation and reality. Mason smiled as he turned his attention back to her. His eyes softened as he spoke. “Jan.” “Yes, sir?” Her voice echoed in the silence of the chamber. “I'm on the phone,” Mason said. She blinked and shivered her her head from side to side. “Yes sir!” Her voiced yelped the words more loudly than she had intended, but she

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was out of the door before she could see the expected flare of his temmper. She closed the door behind her as quietly as possible. I can't figure that man out. *** A man entered Mason's office from an express elevator several meters from the side of his desk. His hair and goatee were both dark and cropped close. A beige file folder tucked underneath his arm stood in stark contrast to the dark palette of his suit. Mason noted again how his assistant's steps were strangely quiet for a man of his size. There was no hesitation as he approached. Mason noticed and smiled to himself behind folded hands. His chair swiveled and opened his body to the immense window view. He glared down at the domed structure across the square below, but his voice remained calm. “I understand your concerns,” Mason continued. “I share them, of course. That is why we will be running a full diagnostic before the system upgrade goes into effect.” After a pause, he continued. The man standing beside his desk waited patiently, sensing the phone call coming to its close. “No, if I remember correctly, you and your fellow champions decided that the Elysium would be the safest place for the Arbiter core. Your words were, 'No one in his right mind would attack the Guild on its own doorstep,' isn't that right?” Another pause.

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“Good. As long as we both understand that. And don't worry, you won't have your concerns much longer. The new upgrades will take care of everything.... alright.... alright... bye.” Mason unclipped the headset from his ear and tossed it down on his desk. The plastic receiver bounced hard against the ebony surface and sailed in a shallow arc, well out of sight, to the floor on the other side. Mason returned to viewing the read-outs on his computer monitors. Without looking up, he finally addressed the waiting man, “Mr. Gregory.” "Sir,” Mr. Gregory said with a nod. There were no chairs other than the one Mason occupied, so he continued to stand rigidly by the side of the desk. "Do you have your report?” Mason continued reading the figures on the screen. "Yes sir.” "I hope it is more current than this.” Mason spun the screen around to display what he was reading to his subordinate. "Of course, sir. The system won’t be updated until the business day officially starts, and the readings will be streaming in real-time with the next server update. It's scheduled for tomorrow.” Mr. Gregory took a quick breath and another look out the window before returning to the conversation. “Then you won’t need these.” Mr. Gregory handed his boss the plain, unmarked folder.

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"I’ll still want them,” Mason flipped open the folder and skimmed the pages inside and, then, sharply looked up to meet Mr. Gregory’s eyes. “Every morning.” His eyes darted back to the report. "Yes sir, of course.” "What’s the status of our special project?” Mason asked, thumbing past another page. "We are making good headway, sir. Access to the archived files has helped us tremendously. Your brother was quite brilliant.” Mason closed the file and slowly placed it in front of him. He looked up and locked his eyes on Mr. Gregory's. Mason thought to himself, If he can't remember the simplest of rules, perhaps his utility is spent. "Yes, Mr. Gregory,” Mason started very slowly and stared hard at his assistant, “He was quite brilliant, well ahead of his time.” Mason’s voice trailed. “But, he lacked a calling to guide that brilliance.” He turned in his chair back toward the windowed wall behind him. “How are our friends at the Guild?” He said, changing the subject. As he spoke, he motioned to the spot on the desk where he had thrown down his headset. It lay bare, but his face never betrayed this reality. Mr. Gregory's face cooled, and his shoulders relaxed. "They are same as always, stubborn and thick-headed. You know better than anyone what we have done for them – incorporating the Arbiter, not only into the security systems within the Elysium building, but also in standard patrols via the new portable headsets.” Mr. Gregory began to pace the length of the desk as he spoke.

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Mason leaned against the desk, propped by his elbows. He folded his hands in front of his mouth, smirked behind them, and listened. “The ability to spontaneously gauge a metahuman's strengths and weaknesses has improved the effectiveness of Guild’s operations by twenty-seven percent,” Mr. Gregory continued. “Twenty-seven percent in just a few short months. This is in addition to the Arbiter surveillance network’s thirty-eight percent enhancement from the initial fixed installation.” He spun on his heels to begin another pass. “But, they claim that we are not dedicating enough of our resources to the advancement of the project. They have filed a petition demanding a greater emphasis on system development.” Mason interrupted, "So, the portable systems are proving as effective as the stationary units. That’s excellent news. We’ll need to increase both our server storage capacity and bandwidth to handle the increased traffic as the portable system proliferates over the next few days.” "It’s scheduled with the server upgrade, sir.” Mr. Gregory stopped midstride, faced his employer, and straightened his tie. "Good, as for further advancements, you can assure the Guild that, given the success of the portable units, the Arbiter project is being made our top priority. If they ask, you may tell them that they have my word – the advancements in the system are my sole concern for the time being.” Mason concluded, “You can inform them their petition has been heard and their request accepted.” Mr. Gregory nodded curtly with a cocked grin.

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Mason finished reviewing the file and slid it into one of his desk drawers. “I am ready to proceed with this.” He tapped a large envelope on his right. "Yes, sir.” Mr. Gregory said. "Is your man ready?” Mason asked. "He arrived via train this morning, sir. I sent a car for him and ordered him dropped in Southside, at his request, just prior to my arrival here. I suspect we will be hearing back within the hour concerning the results.” "Have arrangements been made to guarantee success?” "We were unable to secure the assistance of the man I mentioned several days ago. He seemed... most disinterested in our proposal.” Mason raised an eyebrow. "And his silence is guaranteed?” Mr. Gregory broke eye contact and glanced briefly to the floor. "Oh, we're old friends. He knows when to keep his mouth shut, especially when he is properly motivated." "Then see to it he is,” Mason said. He knew Mr. Gregory already had. “Is your man good enough to handle this assignment on his own?” "Yes, sir,” Mr. Gregory said. “Absolutely.” "Then, is there anything else?” Mr. Gregory raised an eyebrow back in response. Recognition flashed across his face.

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The corner of Mason’s mouth twisted up ever so slightly as Mr. Gregory pivoted on his heels and left without saying another word. He's not yet completely spent. Mason went back to his monitors but found he couldn't focus. They were irrelevant now. He took a deep breath and turned his chair back to again face the domed fortress far below. GenTech had spent the last several years building up and strengthening the Guild and its heroes. But, there was a change coming, and Mason knew the Guild wouldn’t be strong enough without him – nothing was, not even the great Sapien were he still alive, he thought to himself. The corners of his mouth twisted jaggedly as Mason looked out across the string-thin streets, scanning vainly for the hired man making his way to the Epicenter’s Arboretum. He trembled with excitement as he pressed the fingertips of opposing hands together. His body shook as though he were attempting to stifle an irrepressible laugh, though only silence echoed in the chamber of his empty office. He leaned back in his chair and stared at the pale blue sky above. And, he waited for the inevitable storm he had set into motion.

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Issue Two - Emerging Hope The Arboretum was constructed of rust-brown brick, like many of the other buildings within the perimeter of region of the city known as Southside. But, the sidewalks were swept clear of dirt and dust. The gridded lines of hardened mortar were still white and un-marred by spiderweb fissures weaving along its alabaster alleyways. The bricks weren't yet crumbling or sinking into the soft earth. No corner rose higher than another, straining its frame to be the last to collapse from age. The tile roof still held its complete set of ceramic plates. The Arboretum was like so many other buildings within the perimeter of Southside. And yet, it wasn't one. The building stood strangely new amid others with barely the strength to stand at all. The shallow facade of the old botanical garden withstood only the scrutiny of the most unobservant tourist. No one in the city littered its steps with trash. Any scraps of papers and plastic carried to its stoop by the wind were scooped up, tucked in pockets, and carried away, without hesitation, by the first to notice them. Several patrons in the neighborhood kept the windowed doors clean. A quiet man passed by every few days on his way home from work to keep the small brass accoutrement shining. Another applied a weekly film of oil to a sideyard iron gate which only squeaked on the rare occasion of the most bitter cold. The private garden's public upkeep was carried out so quietly that it was nearly done in secret.

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It was the city's solemn secret – and, promise. A small boy had been waiting outside for the Arboretum with his mother. He took in another deep breath of cool air – hoping to catch another whiff of the new plastic smell of his official Guild-sanctioned school backpack. The double-door locks clicked open on a timer. He bent at the waist to pick up an empty candy wrapper and shoved it in his pocket on his way through the front door, just as a man with a metal arm passed him. He froze in place with a bleary stare. He knew that man. From somewhere. But, the man was gone before the light clicked on behind his sleepy eyes. “You have been begging to come to the ‘Center for months now,” his mother said. “I know! But, I just saw him!” His look pleaded with twice the sincerity of his voice. “I swear I did.” “I don't see how, sweetie,” she replied, “No one sees him. I don't think he lives here anymore.” She tugged his hand and stepped away from the front entryway, adding “at least I hope not” under her breath. “I'm not wrong,” he protested, huffing as he spoke. His little fists knotted in his jacket pockets. “I didn't say you were,” she said. Soothing maternal tones wove through her words. She squeezed his hand and smiled down. He smiled back and started looking around the open foyer. Good, he's on to something else now. She sighed in silence and flexed the fingers of her free hand. Her joints ached.

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“It doesn’t look like the pictures from school,” the boy said absently. He carefully studied the smooth walls and polished glass front of the garden's grand entrance way. “It was rebuilt some years ago, but it’s the same as I remember when I came here as a little girl,” his mother answered. The mother gave another soft tug to the little boy’s hand clasped in her own. “Almost the same,” she added. The gardens had been rebuilt – with one significant addition. “Are you sure this is where Sapien is?” he asked. “This is where his Mantle is, yes,” she answered. “The Arboretum keeps it here for... when Sapien returns.” She regretted her words as soon as she spoke them. Through his small fingers, she could feel his pulse quicken in her hand. The boy’s eyes widened. Behind them, his mind whirled with the thought of the legendary metahuman flying through the city's concrete valleys, his silver mantle and banner cape billowing behind him. This thought coupled with another, the thought of another figure for his rather complete collection of his existing, superhero actionfigures endorsed by the Guild. They passed another corner, and another, slowly delving deeper into the building. He followed his mother through the halls. His attention wavered on everything he saw - small courtyards domed by misty glass, ornamental trees blooming white with five-pointed stars, yellow trumpets hanging from long stalks rising from black earth, flowers and

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leaves of every shade and color. He saw everything; and, yet, he retained nothing but the thought of Sapien’s now-certain return. “Maybe he's coming back today!” the little boy exclaimed, “That's why Kid Comet is here!” He paced just ahead of his mother and tugged again at her sleeve. He wanted to find Kid Comet. He wanted to be there when Sapien returned. She tried to think of something to say, something to correct where his mind was going and, yet, to prevent dashing his hopes against the rocky shore of reality. He's only a child after all. In the end she said nothing. She envied his innocence and feared his interest. She watched in awe of his attempt to discover where the fallen hero might emerge, traveling with a bouncing step from one place to the next. And, he never failed to look up in each new room. Every vacant hero-sized space may have left the hopes of another boy his age crushed, but he always jogged off to the next possibility with an unshaken smile. The emptiness continued to find didn't bother him. He had faith. Sapien was not coming back, she knew. This place shared the same name of the place she had visited as a child. It even looked much the same. But, it was different. The Arboretum was now a memorial – a grave gaping open and empty at the epicenter of a crater. It was now a wreath and garnish of the most exquisite and fragrant flowers of the world – left with care at the place he had died.

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“Maybe in the next room,” he whispered to her. The mother yearned to tell her son the truth, what she knew in her heart, but she knew she possessed no such courage. A meager, “Maybe,” was all she could offer in response. They entered through another set of double glass doors which swung into a round room. The walls were painted in a rich aged ivory and trimmed in a clean white. Across from a set of cases displaying an array of memorabilia, a curved double staircase led to a gallery level above the ground floor. The gallery put the memorial flame above the mantle’s pedestal on eye level with visitors and presented a view of the rest of the room. Track lighting cast a thin veneer of luminous white on the walls for exhibits needing more than the light of blue fire. Walls and counters contained artist renderings in various media of paint, clay, and mosaic. There were few photographs. The gallery above held the only actual photograph of his last battle – and many of the aftermath. A color satellite image captured the massive explosion in the heart of the city. The fallen hero’s silver, v-shaped chestplate – his mantle – rested on a detached cape which was neatly folded underneath it to serve as the battered relic’s final resting place. The fluted stone pedestal on which it stood was a few feet tall and lay at the center of the ground floor. Its placement was so that it offered a clear vantage to anyone in the room, regardless of where they stood. The little boy's eyes were immediately magnetized, as though the icon of power radiated the immensity of his own adventurous future – a future filled with all the "zok's" and "pow's" his four-color vision saw as the summation of a superhero's life. He was going to be a hero... when

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he was older, if his mom would let him. His eyes broke free from their iron bonds and again flitted freely across the walls. Tapestries were secured behind glare-less glass. Statues and busts marked transitions between groups of differently styled paintings in oil and acrylic. The walls were adorned with wind-swept images of the hero, mid-flight, holding a rescued child or saving people from a landslide or flood or fire. Daring rescues all – save for the gallery above. The only scenes of Sapien battling a foe of any kind were of serpentine Chimera. The upstairs gallery held these behind an engraved brass plaque under each set of crescent stairs. The markers cautioned: “Depictions of Violence Ahead.” The mother read the words slowly and barely registered their meaning before her son had taken the first two stairs. She snatched his trailing hand but gently pulled him around and back to the ground floor. Their correction course nearly took them under the fire basin, and the boy's arm brushed the silver mantle, sending a shiver down his spine. He kept his hands close to his sides and choked on his whispered voice as he tried to speak. “Can he hear us?” he asked his mother quietly. “What, sweetie?” She stopped, let go of his hand, and turned to face him. “Can who hear us?” She searched the room and noticed only a few other families and an unnerving, hooded man who was leaning against the far wall. How had she not noticed him? His shadowed eyes fixed on hers and then glanced to her son.

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She pull her son under her arm and looked for the exit. “Eric, sweetie – ” “Him,” Eric said, pointing his small finger, but it didn't light on the hooded man. It zeroed on the memorial flame. The fire rolled a brief flourish of thin, blue heat from its shallow bronze basin toward the domed ceiling. “That’s just a memori-, ah... it's just a fire, honey,” Martha said. She looked past her shoulder to the hooded man. He smiled at her son before tucking his chin to his chest and closing his eyes. His weight slumped noticably against the wall. She turned away, glanced back again, then shook her head to dispel her anxious thoughts. Eric helped with his wild eyes staring at the fire, echoing the child's perception which blurred the distinct between life and art – between life and a life remembered. He walked off to look at a statue in the corner, and she trailed closely behind him. Her son's mistaken thought lingered in her head like a silent but persistent refrain as she shadowed her son through the room, and the thought of standing so near to a proudly metahuman individual – real or imaginary – sent a shiver down her own spine. I shouldn't have made an exception for today. I shouldn't have brought him here. Martha once again enveloped her son's hand into her own, but her eyes involuntarily settled on the blue fire and its wisping spires. Her fingers immediately slackened. As she stared up, her son’s hand slipped from her grip. She closed her eyes. The soothing sound of woodless flames massaged a subtle calm back into her shoulders and warmed the shiver

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at the base of her spine. The warmth slowly crept up her neck and into the back of her mind. Sapien was different. Besides... there aren't any metahumans here, she thought, just normal people. Normal. The feminine voice of a tour guide snapped Martha out of her moment of mesmer, and a flush of panic crushed the mother's lungs. Her eyes darted back and forth through the room in search of Eric, who had been assimilated into the pack of tourists. He was at the back of the group with a fading smile and looked over his shoulder toward his mother every few seconds. The confirmation continually recharged his grin. She exhaled from her mouth, letting those sharp, brittle breaths escape. He was just curious – always curious, especially about the city's heroes. The rough splinter of her persistent anxiety slipped back under her skin. Martha walked over to join her son – her heavy steps hesitant on smooth but sure footing. It is his birthday; I promised, she reminded herself. The small group was in tow behind a woman dressed in a very pale, slate gray uniform – a matching blazer and skirt with a white, starched blouse underneath. Cameras, like weighted pendulums, hung from stiff nylon straps between occasional flashes of use. Feet scuffed to a stop as the woman raised to her hand. “The flame of the memorial fire uses special chemicals to mimic the hue of blue psionic energy,” she spoke softly. Her voice was barely over a whisper, but all in the room heard the practiced words gliding easily through the air. Most people in the morning compliment of

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visitors, even those not in her shepherd's flock, slowly turned to listen. “This brilliant energy enveloped our Hero’s body during those times he needed to summon forth his greatest power.” “Abilities.” Jack’s voice boomed across the room. Several members of the tourist group cringed at the sudden spike in volume. Jack kept his head down and his eyes closed. After sudden vocal shock subsided, heads throughout the room slowly craned around in unison to face the hooded man. He didn't appear to be anyone of importance as far as most could tell – just some vagabond hiding in a warm public place. Sneers joined harsh, hacking throat-clearing and sailed in his direction, but the man was impervious. Jack's paint-stained blue jeans were frayed, and his leather work boots were splitting along their heel seams. His brown knee-length coat was shabby and covered a few under-layers, including an unzipped gray hoodie. If he had not been wearing the hood up, a few of the older patrons might have made the connection between him and the portrait gallery of Sapien and his sidekick Kid Comet, which covered the wall against which he was leaning. Someone short enough to see under the hood did. “I have your action figure!” Eric shouted. The words forced the man's eyes open. Little hands slapped over his mouth after the words came out to prevent another irreverent outburst. He then quietly added, “but the hands don’t light up anymore because the batteries are dead.” Jack winced but forced his face to contort, mid-expression, into a gentle smile. He then turned his gaze back to the tour guide with a single raised brow, waiting for her to respond.

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Quickly recovering control, the young woman in her sharp-lapelled, pale blue blazer said, “Of course, Mr. Kite. You are correct.” Eyes softened throughout the room and turned to face the her as she continued, “Sapien’s true power lay in his ability to inspire others – to give us all hope that today can be better than yesterday, if we are willing to do what is right. He did this by using his abilities wisely and teaching others to do the same.” At this conclusion, she nodded back to Jack with a practiced smile, but her eyes telegraphed her secret wish for the insufferable man to stop loitering here day after day. He read those eyes, smirked, and nodded back. He had no intention of leaving. *** Sojourn entered the Legacy Room just in time to hear a voice boom from the corner, “Abilities.” He slowly walked around the perimeter of the room to avoid the tension bubbling from the tour group in the center of the chamber, but the ire was spreading like an infection to all the visitors on the ground floor. His only escape was to take to the stairs and wind upward to the viewing gallery, mostly to get out of range of the mob. He never noticed the bronze plaque at the bottom. Sojourn was paying too little attention to notice the situation had already been resolved by the time he reached the top of the staircase. The images on the wall, black and white photography of the aftermath of Sapien and Chimera’s last battle, encircled the color photo taken by satellite at the precise moment Sapien unleashed his raw psionic energy at the end of his life. Sojourn knew how devastating the explosion had been; if the history books hadn't been enough, the rest of the photos in the gallery told the tale. Fifteen blocks leveled at the

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epicenter. Fifteen more beyond the crater twisted and mangled to barely salvageable husks. Tens of thousands of people dead in an instant. Just as many more maimed or scarred beyond the help of even GenTech's advanced medical technology. These were the inescapable statistics of history; and yet, as Sojourn stared at the satellite image, he couldn't help but think how beautiful it looked. He peeked over the railing of the upper level and noticed the tension had fallen after the female tour guide spoke. His shoulders settled back under the weight of his bag, and he let out a deep breath. Stepping toward the rail to face the center of the room from his higher vantage, Sojourn looked over the railing again and peered down through the memorial fire to see the crowd below. The blue fire flickered through his vision, and he saw people turn away from the man in the corner. Most returned to viewing the mantle as the tour guide droned on hypnotically. A few wandered off to other exhibits. No one left the room. With eyes unblinking, Sojourn stared down at the fire-veiled scene below. His head started to hurt. The boy pressed a hand to his forehead, pushing against something that felt like it was trying to push its way out. His vision began to blur. His ears lost the sounds of whispering and the shuffling feet to the crescendo of a low, pulsing hum. Silence echoed in Sojourn's mind, but he could still hear the wisp of flames continue to flick back and forth through the air. His eyes locked open and began to burn. The people on the ground floor below him faded to translucence and floated ethereally across the floor to different parts of the room. A

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section of the wall disappeared. Statues crumbled and paintings were torn asunder by debris. All fell without a sound. Another ethereal figure in dark armor silently appeared in the room. The assailant passed through the room, crushing everything in his wake. He swung around the mantle’s pedestal; and, with a downward two-handed blow, the knight-shade smashed the stone pillar into dust. The throngs of patron geist scattered. Some fled in a ghostly panic, leaving others trapped under the piling wreckage. Others froze in place, waiting to be overwhelmed by falling stone. After just a few seconds in the quiet room wreathed in blue fire, the armored assailant crashed through the opposite wall along his path. A large section of concrete from the walls and domed roof hurtled down to the floor, crushing an ethereal woman and child. “No!” The bellowed scream broke from the top of his lungs. Sojourn's face was pale and cold with sweat. The world swirled around him. The ethereal and translucent images vanished along with the low, pulsing hum. Nothing had been destroyed. The corporeal patrons all turned and looked up, wide-eyed with jaw-slack. Jack Kite shifted his weight from the wall to his feet and leaned forward. He intently watched the hysterical teenage boy who was drained of color above the memorial fire. Martha rushed over to her son and grabbed his hand as if to say “don’t be afraid,” but the words never left her lips. Why couldn't he be more interested in something normal, someplace normal, for his birthday? Why here? Why today?

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Sojourn was still entranced. His eyes traced a line from the ethereal assailant’s exit to his point of origin. The boy's eyes stretched open, unblinking, with a steady stream of tears rolling down his cheeks. His thin frame trembled – so fragile that he seemed he would shatter from the vibration. He slowly shook his head but never took his eyes from the first wall. His body stiffened just before he spoke. “He’s coming.” The whisper echoed off the walls and blanketed the room in a suffocating sound. Jack's eyes followed the boy’s line of sight, searching the empty wall for some explanation. No, not empty. A strange, hair-thin crack was hiding between two paintings. He did not permit himself to blink. Another second passed, and the crack widened on the wall with the sudden energy of an ancient dam surrendering to immortal waters. The vents on Jack’s gauntlet fanned open, ripping through his coat, and he kicked off the wall behind him. The kick propelled him to the tearing seam across the room. Another second passed. Jack was in the air as the wall thundered down. The dust plumed up like an explosion of smoke, and Jack’s body disappeared from view. People screamed and ran for the shattered double doors. The safety glass held only for a moment before frosting the floor. Sojourn stood atop the gallery, transfixed by the events unfolding. There were the same events he had just witnessed. The same unfolding destruction. The same impending deaths. The dust cleared, sliding to the floor like a thin veil of weightless, brown fog. Jack was clasped hand-to-hand with a man in black, hightech armor. Muscles and servos strained; both men grimaced – Jack

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from under his hood and the attacker from behind his helmet’s striped visor. Jack twisted his own armored hand and punched his arm down. His opponent came with it. He let go and cocked his metal arm back. Like a rocket, his fist led the way – a comet tail of blue vapor streaming behind it. Contact. The torso of the man’ armor splintered from the blow, and his capsuled body slumped to the floor. Jack stood over him, fists clenched. From under the shade of his tattered hood, he looked up to the teenage boy – a boy whose warning he now undoubtedly knew had saved the lives of at least half a dozen people who had been near the now gaping hole. As Jack's eyes were turned, the battle-dressed man rose suddenly, standing into an rising strike to Jack’s jaw. Jack flew backward into the photo tribute of Sapien and Kid Comet. Wood and glass shattered against his shoulders. Jack's body buckled as the concussive force of the blow caught up to his senses. The armored man swept through the center of the room, smashing the mantle’s pedestal as he passed. As Jack regained his feet, a large piece of the broken pedestal came roaring in and slammed him back into the wall. Before the armored man could hurl another piece at him, a small portion of the roof came down and pinned Jack under a pile of stone. The armored man casually dropped the other piece of stone he had intended to throw at him and vanished from Jack's sight amid a cloud of dust raining from the ceiling.

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A small explosion blasted away a significant amount of the debris holding him down. Jack rose with the right arm of his brown coat annihilated. All the vents on the gauntlet were glowing brightly; electric blue vapor emanated. He pulled himself up as his opponent crashed through another wall and made a scheduled retreat. With his legs still pinned by mountains of concrete, Jack watched helplessly, as a section of the roof slipped loose above a mother and the small boy who owned his action figure. Jack struggled against the debris binding his feet in place, but there was not enough time. He tried to avert his eyes but they caught on the spindly frame of a teenage boy sprinting from the edge of the stairs. The older boy barreled into the mother and child at full-speed. All three bodies tumbled to the floor – the collision hurtling them clear of the collapsing roof. The teenager's body rotated under the mother and child as they fell and skidded hard against the ground. Sojourn's right shoulder took the brunt of the fall. He heard the pop and felt the muscles in his neck and back schism, release the balled joint from its seat, and scream under his skin. His breath was hard and rapid. His eyes were red from a flow of tears which had only just subsided. Sojourn looked at the woman and her young boy who glanced back and stared at each other blankly. Other than a skinned knee on the little boy's right leg, they both seemed fine. Sojourn looked over to Jack, who was now clear of the wrecked display. Their eyes met. His shoulder continued to scream. “Come with me,” Jack said as he ran past them. He exited through the same hole created by the armored assailant's escape.

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Sojourn stood with a groan. He looked down to make sure the mother and her son were truly unharmed and, then, gave chase – cradling his right arm. *** Outside of the Arboretum, Jack scanned up and down the street. He turned his head to meet Sojourn as the young man arrived beside him. “Which way?” Sojourn looked up at the hooded man. “What?”

“Which way did he go?” “How should I know? I’m not psychic.” The young man's eyes narrowed, and his head twisted over his drooped shoulder. He winced again and stared through the hole they had just walked through. “Whoa.” He turned back to the street and towering man he had followed out that open wound. His brown eyes fixed on Jack's. “You’re not?” Jack asked. Jack noticed the teenager’s scrunched brow but missed the sharp wince which had passed only a moment before. “Your abilities. Can’t you use them to track him?” “What are you talking about?” Sojourn asked. His flushed red. His nose twitched. Sojourn had watched this man change the vision he had seen. This man was a real hero. “Great. You’ve pre-cog with no post-cog.”

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“Umm, again, what are you talking about? Are you just making up words to confuse me now?” Sojourn asked. He took a few steps back from Jack. “Precognition, you know, how you saw what was about to happen.” Jack searched the young face in front of him. Sojourn really was trying to concentrate intently on the words, but his expression was bare. His eyes searched Jack's face. “Emergence,” Jack mumbled. “Huh?” “Your abilities. This is the first time it’s happened, isn’t it?” Sojourn glanced down, “Yeah. I mean I’ve had headaches like that before, but…” “But you’ve never had a precognitive experience before today. Great.” Jack let out a long sigh. Sojourn shrank away further. Jack noticed. “Hey, don’t worry about it, kid. You just saved a lot of lives. First experience with your abilities and you are already a hero.” A short silence followed. “I guess.” Jack relaxed. There's no catching him now, we'll have to wait for... but he diverted from the thought before he finished. Jack looked down to the young man. His eyes warmed from the frigid gaze that had possessed them only a moment before. “No doubt about it,” He placed his left hand on Sojourn’s shoulder. The teenager grimaced and

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cringed under its weight. Jack lifted his hand and looked at the fallen shoulder. “We will tend to that; it'll be ok.” Sojourn offered a short, trusting nod. “You have a rare gift. A really rare gift. My name's Jack, by the way.” “Sojourn.” People had slowly filtered out of the Arboretum as the two heroes initially surveyed the street for signs of the assailant’s whereabouts. Several now approached Jack and Sojourn. Jack stepped back and allowed a man pass him to stop in front of his partner.

The man reached behind his back, and Martha and Eric edged out. Sojourn recognized them as the mother and young boy he had pushed to the floor. The man next to them spoke. “I wanted to thank you. Thank you for saving my wife and son. I was suppose to meet them, but I was running late. I – ” He looked at Sojourn and held his breath for a moment, his eyes were wet. He drew in a deep, staccato breath. He let it out slowly. “What’s your name?” Sojourn chewed on his bottom lip for another moment, glanced away, and then back to the man and his family. “Sojourn,” he said weakly.

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“Sojourn,” the man repeated back, “My family is alive because there are heroes like you still left in the city. Thank you.” “Thank you, Sojourn,” Martha said, holding the small boy under her arms. Her words came out cautiously but echoed her husband's genuine gratitude. “Thank you, Sojourn,” came the little boy’s own echo as he peeked from under his mother's forearm. Jack looked on from a few paces back, smiling. He repeated Sojourn’s words in his head, I guess. He glanced back through the hole into the Legacy Room. His eyes lingered on a few broken images of Sapien. He noticed several people inside the room, canvassing. They were dressed in dual-tone, one piece uniforms. An array of different colored patches and emblems ran from their shoulders to their gloved hands. The Guild. An unnaturally large, uniformed man with a shaved head walked passed the opening, filling it completely, and barked orders in a deepchested voice. He wore a thin ear piece that extended a small microphone along his jaw and carried an red lens over his right eye – some sort of communications headset with hallmarks Jack knew only too well. Ox? What’s the strong-arm champion doing here? Jack thoughts raced. Then, he noticed a thin, feminine figure with auburn hair bobbed short and bangs clipped away from her face. She was wearing a similar comm-unit. Celerity too? One Guild Champion on the scene of something like this was amazing. They usually just issued orders to the

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lower ranks from their lofty positions and cushy offices within the Elysium. But two champions, Something is very wrong. Abigail, the elderly gardener of the Arboretum, poked her head out of the hole. Her appearance shook Jack from his questions and the portents created by the presence of two Guild champions at the Arboretum, so far away from their stark fortress. “Jack!” the woman shouted. “What’s the matter, Abby?” Jack called from across the distance. “It’s gone, Jack. He took it.” His head cocked to the side for a moment. Then, his hands burst with bright blue vapor. His eyes narrowed. By now, the emergency response cocktail of police, fire, ambulance, and press had arrived. The word was buzzing through the crowd on the street. “The Mantle is gone.” Jack looked over to Sojourn, anger sweating from his face. But, again, his eyes were drawn to see what had so entranced the young man, and his face softened. The gathered crowd was alive with the murmurs of a hundred whispering voices, all casting fearful glances at the strange teenage boy standing on the other side of the yellow and black caution tape. “They don't recognize you,” Jack said to answer the question he read from Sojourn's expression. “Is that bad?”

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“People tend to be afraid of metahumans they don't recognize,” Jack said. He looked back through the hole in the wall of the Arboretum, seeing Guild members crawling like insects across the wrecked memorial room. “Sometimes afraid of the ones they do, too.” “What do I do?” Sojourn asked quietly. Jack allowed himself a short sigh. “Well, I'm not really the one to ask. I don't handle it well myself... They might relax a little if you gave them something. A gesture. Do something to tell them there's nothing to be afraid of... Give 'em a wave. Everyone likes a neighborhood-friendly hero.” “You think that'll work?” Sojourn asked skeptically but had already lifted his left hand and was waving shyly to the crowd. “Not if they can't see you,” Jack answered. “You have raise your arm so they can see it.” Sojourn's arm shot up in the air. He looked like an over-eager student waiting for the teacher to call on him for a classroom question. Jack tried not to laugh but failed miserably. But, as he looked back to the crowd, he was surprised to see their bubbling fear wholly replaced by the buzz of excitement. With another chuckle, “Well, it's a little stiff, but, hey, whatever works.” Sojourn's arm fell limply to his side, and he peered at the crowd. People were becoming more and more aware of him. He unconsciously took a step back and re-cradled his right arm. Jack spun him away from the crowd to face the Arboretum once again.

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“They have that effect on everyone,” he said to the still shell-shocked youth. The words seems to have no effect. Everything must have caught up to him all at once. “Come with me,” Jack said. His tone caught a little traction. Sojourn raised his head slowly, looked at him, and blinked. Ok, he's coming around. I just need to get him moving... and tend to that shoulder. Jack seized Sojourn by his left bicep and pulled him into motion. He led Sojourn back toward the Legacy Room. “Let’s go, hero.”

***

The walk home was one of swift silence. The wind picked up and blew pages from a discarded newspaper across the empty street. A few blocks away, printer was spinning off a special issue with a glaring headline, “Legacy Stolen.” More immediate media announcements had drawn the whole area toward the Arboretum, and left the rest of the streets empty. Martha led her Eric by the hand down gray sidewalks under a darkening sky. Clouds overhead eddied in thick pools and allowed only thin strands of daylight through in sparse intervals. Eric's fingertips were white under his mother's grip, but the boy was too preoccupied to notice his fingers turning purple. Martha's husband Ben felt her anxiety pulsing out and had his keys ready for the front

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door of their apartment when they arrived – the only door on their hall without a digitally encoded lock. The key scraped into the tumbler pins, and the cylinder squeaked as it rotated in the door. The unlit living room was greeted with a sigh of relief. Eric slumped his school backpack on the dining room table. The new smell was gone, and it was covered in powdery dust. They were suppose to leave from the Arboretum and head to his school so he could get to home-room on time. Plans changed. “What is this, Eric?” his mother asked, inspecting a flier peeking out from an open zipper pocket in her son’s backpack. She pulled it free and shook the dust loose. “You know it’s not allowed.” “Martha,” Ben said, trying to soothe the frustration between his wife and son – frustration borne from fighting over the same issues over and over. He could tell from her tone what had set her off. “This is important, especially after this morning,” she said the words quietly, but the breath of it silenced him. Her husband sank into his chair at the kitchen table, assuming an exhausted pose with his head in his hands. “It’s from school, mom. Please don’t be mad,” Eric said. “I have to get it signed.” “What it is?” his father asked, lifting his head.

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“Permission to go to the all-school assembly I told you about,” the small voice answered back. He threw hands over his mouth, lowering them when he realized it was too late. “Oops.” Martha launched an angry look toward her husband but left the matter alone, for now. “What else?” his she asked. “To hear members of the Guild speak,” Eric said sheepishly and, then, rushed through the rest in time to be heard, “they even say a champion could be coming!” “We broke down and took you to the Arboretum just like you wanted, and look what happened with that. The answer is ‘no,’ and you knew that without ever having to ask,” Martha spoke in even tones, holding tightly to her rising anger. "You can study in the library like you usually do." She blew out a long breath and rubbed her hands. Ben looked up again, watched his wife futilely rub at the aching joints in her fingers, and knew the pain she felt was not something which could be rubbed out. It never had been. Eric looked to his father for support, but his eyes only met a face shaped into a silent apology. His dad looked to his backpack on the table and then back through the apartment hallway toward Eric’s room. With that cue, the boy slid off his knees and out of his chair. He cautiously picked up his backpack off the table. The boy's retreat toward his room was swift. A minute later, he zoomed back into the kitchen and opened a cabinet. He pulled loose a thin strip of aluminum foil from the roll under the sink. “What you need that for, buddy?” his father asked.

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“Project,” Eric said, rushing back behind the closed door of his room. “He’s going to find out,” Ben said turning back to Martha. “We can’t protect him forever.” “Yes, we can,” she whispered. “It’s already changing him – in his sleep,” Ben said cautiously, “I hear him at night. Isn’t that how you said it started when your sister…” “Yes, thank you,” she interrupted. “I remember.” She began to rub her hands again, unconscious of her own nervousness, obstinately unaware of how much her hands bothered her. “And, after what happened today I think that it is more than obvious what we should do.” “Good. I’m going to get started on an early lunch,” Ben said as he stood from his chair, not understanding his wife’s meaning. “Maybe you should talk to him.” Martha looked down the hall toward her son’s room. “Not right now.” “When?” he asked. He was tired from how much static she put up over this issue. “Not right now,” she repeated. She looked at him, paused, and ran into his arms, burying herself in his chest. This was safe. This was home. This was normal. He wrapped his arms around her and looked down the hall behind her. Happy birthday, buddy, Ben thought, staring at his son's closed door. Happy birthday.

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*** In his room, Eric pulled his collection of Guild action figures out from under the bed. He desperately searched for the action figure he had mentioned at the Garden before his perfect morning was ruined by that “mean bad-guy.” There had been a long fight about his figures and the kind of influence they have on children his age; but, in the end, his dad had told him to just keep them picked up so his mom wouldn't have to see them. Obediently, he had, and it was working out so far. Eric did not have any luck with the bin of Guild-sanctioned figures. That guy was not a member of the Guild, but Eric was sure he had his action figure. He pulled another container from under the bed and dumped them out on the floor. His small hands frantically sifted through the myriad of plastic appendages poking out of the clump of figures. “There you are!” he said with relief. He rolled the Kid Comet action figure over in his hands. “I thought so,” he said. The Kid Comet action figure had been a part of the memorial twofigure Sapien collector’s set his dad had bought him for his birthday last year; but, the figure looked small compared to the others, and arm was not right. He spoke to the figure as he hopped on his bed. “I didn't think you had a metal arm, but you will!” He pulled the piece of aluminum foil close to him and began to work. Meticulously, his tiny fingers fitted tiny strips of foil to the plastic arm, careful to keep the metal tissue as wrinkle-free as possible. When he finished, the figure found a place on the shelf reserved for his favorites, squeezing a couple other pieces closer together to make room. He stepped back and looked at the shelf from the middle of the room.

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He stepped forward again, this time pulling a figure from the Guild collection off its privileged perch on the “hero” shelf. He scanned for another place to put him but there simply was not enough room. “Sorry Prism,” he said, “I need this spot for Sojourn’s figure when it comes out.” He dropped the demoted hero into the pile on the floor. Eric faced the newly emptied place reserved for his favorite hero. “I wonder what your powers are,” he spoke to the vacancy as if it were already filled. “I bet they're awesome.” He smiled to himself as he picked up all the toys he had dumped on the floor and shoveled them back in their bins. He looked back to empty space of the shelf and bit his lower lip. “I can't wait to find out.”

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Issue Three: Looming Clouds As Jack and Sojourn re-entered through the hole in the Arboretum's wall, the Guild’s operatives were already assessing the damage. The walls were shattered. The opposing holes in the circular room had left a web of fissures spidering their way into the arc of the dome overhead. A light, sporadic hail of debris rained from above, and most of the available Guild members were involved in shoring up the most precarious sections of the vaulted ceiling with whatever they could find. Practiced feet gingerly stepped over and around debris, careful to avoid disturbing the scene. They shouted and barked orders, quickly establishing safe-zones and restricted areas. Who was giving orders as opposed to receiving them depended entirely on how many stripes of color ran up the sleeves of their uniforms. “You are not authorized to enter the crime scene!” shouted one man with waves of color running from wrist to his elbow, his eyes narrowing on Jack and Sojourn. “I work here,” said Jack plainly. Jack knew that the insignia on the man's sleeve did not grant him enough authority to dispute the claim. Sojourn shrank out of the guard's sight by slipping in behind his calmer companion. He was still shaking from his whole experience early, and the throb in his shoulder was mutating into a spike in his brain. He stepped only in the wake of Jack’s own footsteps. Jack’s foot came up from a clear spot on the floor or a stable mound of wreckage, and Sojourn’s foot quickly replaced it. He followed Jack this way for a few more paces before the shouting guard rushed over to them. The large

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Guildman snarled. A green aura of nebulous energy bubbled around his body. Protectors, the heavy-hitting members of Guild Special Operations, had a complicated reputation. Many protector teams were responsible for the capture and containment of some of the greatest metahuman threats against the city. However, the collateral damage they often caused in the process frequently left the less fortunate without homes or places of business. They were known as “protectors,” protecting the citizens of the city from all metahuman threats, all threats except the threat they themselves posed. At least, that what Jack was thinking as the man barreled toward him. He probably feels right at home in this mess, Jack thought. Jack glanced back to Sojourn and offered a brief smile of reassurance and then issued a soft, audible breath – a strange combination between a fatalistic sigh and defiant snort. His eyes fluttered out of focus for a brief moment, betraying an inner desire to be anywhere else, doing anything else. He turned his head back to face the Guild protector who was now close enough that Jack found it difficult to suppress the urge to comment of personal space or good hygiene. He went another route instead. “Perhaps you don’t recognize me from the comic books, tv, merchandise, history books, and Legacy Room exhibits now in shambles. My name is Jack Kite, formerly Kid Comet and personal Herald to Sapien as appointed by the Council of Champions with special dispensation and detachment from Guild jurisdiction,” Jack said it all as plainly as saying his own name by itself. He thrust a metal thumb over his right shoulder toward Sojourn, adding a casual “and he is with me,” without pausing for a breath.

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His voice maintained a light tone, though Sojourn noticed a couple of vents of the back of Jack's gauntlet open and vent a burning blue glow. “I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but doesn’t Guild protocol mandate investigators ‘power down’ unless an immediate threat is evident?” Either through boldness or honesty, Jack's words caught the greenenergized man off-guard. He grumbled to himself and the aura enveloping him subsided. “Just stay out of the way while we conduct our investigation.” Jack’s eyes closed, and he beamed his largest and most disingenuous smile back at the man. It was filled with ample and equal portions of teeth and contempt. “Yes, sir,” he replied and continued on as though the territorial exchange had never occurred. He looked back over his shoulder to Sojourn, “If you think that was fun, just wait until we get to talk to one of them.” Jack pointed discretely to an odd pair standing together across the room, a petite woman and an immensely large man. In addition to the protectors scouring the room, two Guild champions were present – the same two Jack had just pointed out. They were distinguishable by the reflective silvery ring wrapped around their shoulders, connecting a matching set of decorative pauldrons inscribed with a different, distinct emblems. The look somewhat reminded Sojourn of Sapien's missing mantle. As he studied them a little longer, he recognized the symbols from somewhere. He scrounged through his pocket and retrieved the small book, and flipped through the pages to refresh his memory. Jack looked back again to make sure his new friend was still with him, “What you got there?” “Nothing,” Sojourn replied but was a little too quick to slide the guide back into his pocket.

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“You're going want to hold off writing in your diary,” Jack said, “We've got a long way to go before this day is over.” “Ha, ha,” Sojourn mocked in reply. Recognizing the remark as nothing more than a friendly ploy to reveal details about his little treasure, he quipped back, “Oh, but I don't want to lose a second of detail. The back of your coat is so marvelous.” “Ha! I know. That's why I picked it!" The worn pages of his book had given him the names which had been stubbornly sticking on the edge of his tongue. Ox, the champion strong-arm – the pinnacle of super strength metahumans – and Celerity, the champion speedster, were both visibly commanding different groups of metahumans in their efforts to help with the investigation. Jack looked to both of them and snorted through his nose like colicky bull . Of all the active champions, Ox and Celerity were some of the most outspoken and, in Jack’s opinion, meddlesome. It did not help that Ox wanted Sapien's mantle to be passed to a successor. Jack was convinced the immense man wanted it for himself, to become the 'next Sapien.' Like it would even fit that behemoth, Jack thought with a snicker. Seeing in person two champions from childhood fantasies brought a flood of four-color memory to the teenager's mind. Sojourn had spent countless hours studying the intricacies of Guild structure. It came back to him all at once.

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Twelve champions were chosen from among their peers to form the Guild Council. There were only fifteen champions on record with the Guild, and one was an honorary title bestowed upon Sapien posthumously. Three champions were stationed at small Guild post in New Haven. The rest resided in Cardinal City, though they were rarely together at one time. The champions were beyond the standard rank and file for the Guild of Heroes. They were leaders and diplomats responding to crises around the globe. The only rule they followed was their own. The Guild heralds served the lowest level of functions – running errands, messages, summons, and serving on a patrol detail. The Guild protectors serve the second tier of duties, including emergency response, disaster relief, and special operations. The Guild champions were given a degree of autonomy in their actions, due to overwhelming depth of their abilities and experience. They could choose to intervene during any conflict, or not. Their involvement in the Guild's missions was entirely at their discretion. Their only true duties within the Guild were to serve as the ruling body concerning policy and to monitor the protector and herald teams under their direct supervision. They were the most highly ranked members within the Guild. In addition, each champion had his or her own personal herald at his or her beckoning. These personal heralds could carry the authority of their champions. Able to serve as the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece of a champion, personal heralds were the most common presence of the Guild's highest authority on the city's streets. Why didn't they just send their heralds, Jack wondered. He fixed his eyes on the champions. He thought Ox's physical presence was understandable, he had a personal interest in the mantle – not to

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mention he had chosen a personal herald who never spoke, making the man a poor choice for a spokesman. But, another champion... It would seem that Olympus stirs. Are they actually going to do something for a change? *** Three other individuals in the room had similar markings on the sleeve of their uniforms to champions Sojourn immediately recognized. Two men bore shoulder markings reflecting Ox and Celerity's insignia. Sojourn presumed they were the champions' heralds. The one other individual in the room with the look of a champion's herald was a woman standing in the corner who was haloed by a faint light. Her colors were different. Sojourn noticed she was not trying to help the others. She stood there silently; her eyes followed the movements of everyone in the room. She whispered softly into a headset but paused as her gaze met Sojourn's own. His eyes flashed away, and he remembered. Her name was Aurora, herald to the champion Prism. Ox was barking orders, and his herald Vim was standing next to him appearing stern and silent. The herald Aurora stood in the corner, glowing vaguely in a soft white light, apparently serving as the eyes and ears for her champion, Prism. Finally, the champion Celerity and her herald Pace sifted through the rumble, carefully turning over pieces of debris and inspecting the surroundings. Something's not right, Jack thought to himself. There were hardly more than three champions in the city at the same time. Jack knew Sapien’s mantle was important, but to warrant this level of interest from three separate champions meant that the Council was involved. As far as he was concerned, this was bad news.

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*** Maybe it was the increasing volume of the din outside as media and emergency responders kicked into high gear. The crane-necked spectators were pressing for any morsel of info that either could leak. Maybe it was his peripheral vision catching sight of the civilian garb walking through the room. Whatever the reason, Ox turned just as Sojourn crossed into the widest open section of floor. The humungous champion leaped to close the distance. His jump took him nearly twenty feet with ease, landing toe-to-toe with the teenager. Before this predicted and inevitable confrontation began, Jack stepped around Sojourn and squeezed in between the two. Ox peered down, his nose only inches from Jack’s. “He’s with me, strong-arm,” Jack stated flatly. “And that begs the question, what are you doing here?” the Champion asked. There was the faintest hint of a growl in his voice, but Jack ignored it. “First on the scene, I confronted the assailant.” “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” There was an unspoken accusation in his voice. His eyes narrowed. “Where’s the mantle?” Ox growled. Jack broke eye contact briefly, looking away from the Champion and over to the broken pedestal that once bore Sapien’s Mantle. It was leaning against the gallery wall opposite its usual resting place. Framed photographs lay in ruin around it – shattered images of the hero and Kid Comet shredded by splintered wall and broken glass.

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Ox followed his gaze, and turned back to Jack with a smirk on his battle-scarred face. “You really should be more careful. Some of the things in here are irreplaceable.” The vents on Jack’s right arm glowed hot with blue energy. His face was as tight as his white-knuckled fists. “What are you going to do, cry? Everyone walks around you like you’re some sort of heir to the throne, but I know the truth. You’ll never be a big enough man to fill the Mantle.” “Oh, I think I'm big enough,” Jack said. “For what?” Ox challenged, but that was the wrong question at the wrong time. Jack's metal fist connected with Ox's jaw, and the colossal mountain of muscle tumbled back and fell. A comet tail of blue vapor trailed the punch, just like the one Sojourn had seen crack the armored thief's chestplate. The concussion from the blow shook loose another fragment of the ceiling and Guild agents scattered to avoid being crushed. “To knock you on your ass,” Jack said. The vents on his gauntlet closed with a hiss. Ox roared and jumped back to his feet. His herald Vim lunged across the room with a fist cocked back at the ready. “That’s just about enough of that, I think,” came a stern elderly woman’s voice. Abigail entered the room still wearing her gardening gloves and carrying a basket full of her well-used tools. The Arboretum’s caretaker

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was a small woman in her early sixties with a slight build, but her thin frame was far from frail. She strode over to Ox, hopping over piles of debris with a child-like grace. Her voice had stopped another blow from falling, and perhaps the rest of what was left of the room with it. She grabbed Ox by the arm and pulled to spin him around. Ox obliged the woman, who had no hope of making him move in the slightest, and turned reluctantly to face her. “Ms. Turner, we are doing everything we can in response to the attack, please wait outside the room for someone to question you... where it's safe.” The champion droned the line out with a sense of defeat; he was all too familiar in dealing with this woman. His negotiations with her for release of the mantle on several previous occasions had utterly failed due entirely to what he saw as her obstinacy. “Question me? Now you listen here, young man. Mr. Kite responded to a threat here this morning and undoubtedly saved the lives of many of our guests. You will treat him and me,” she glanced to the thin young man standing behind Jack, “and any other person with the respect that is due,” she said, chastising the highest Guild authority as if he were nothing more than a rude grandson. “Which doesn’t require me to include him in our investigation nor permit him access to the scene,” Ox responded. “‘Permit him access…?’” Abigail's eyes glazed with bewilderment for a moment before returning to the vivid clarity of indignation. “Well, just who here permitted you access to the scene? I don’t remember inviting the Guild to come on a field trip, and your type always has the same excuse for leaving the donation box empty, 'There just aren't any pockets on my uniform.' You just showed up on my doorstep –

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unannounced, uninvited – and now you're acting like you own the place. This is my garden, young man.” Vim stepped away from the group and stood behind his Champion. His back was turned now. Sojourn was not sure if he was bored with the direction the exchange had taken or if he was physically protecting Ox's back. He was smaller and less muscular than Ox, but Vim was still over six feet tall and massive by any normal person's standards. He turned his head back to the conversation as he heard his champion speak, but his shoulders remained squared toward the opposing wall. “A meta-level threat has been identified in this encounter. It is the Guild’s responsibility to investigate this incident and resolve the situation before it develops further,” Ox said. "The city is in agreement with this arrangement. They always have been. I would think with the situation being as it is that you would be sensible about this." Vim said nothing, merely glanced back to Abigail as Ox finished. Abby's eyes flared. “Sensible? Sensible?! Don’t think that I won’t take you over my knee, boy, because if that’s what you are thinking…” The woman dropped her basket and began rolling her sleeves up. Jack stifled a laugh, but the damage was done. She turned on Jack. “And you, your little stunt just now almost caved in the rest of the roof. ” Jack sobered immediately and put up his hands in surrender. Abigail turned her attention back to Ox.

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Sojourn, who had started at the center of the conflict, was now somewhere on the edge looking in at the absurdity of a little old woman rolling up her sleeves to punish a muscular giant as if he were a delinquent child. She stood toe to toe with him without the slightest hint of fear. In his mind, it was nothing short of disturbing. Jack crept back to stand side-by-side with his new friend, apparently wanting nothing to do with whatever was coming. Sojourn found Jack's anxiety equally disturbing. However, he did note that Jack seems thoroughly pleased to stand back and watch. An auburn-haired woman appeared in their midst so suddenly that Sojourn stumbled backward. Before he realized that he was falling, someone else caught him from behind and propped him back onto his feet. “Thank you, Pace. That’ll be all,” the woman said to young man who had caught Sojourn. “Return to your duties. ” “Yes, ma’am,” he said, nodding. He purposely brushed between Jack and Sojourn on his way out when he could have easily disappeared the way he came. As he passed, he whispered to Jack, “She’s on her way.” The words were sharp, quick, and distinct. “Who’s on her way?” Sojourn quietly asked Jack, but he did not respond. He stared ahead at the auburn-haired woman waiting to see where the spectacle led. Sojourn thought Jack now seemed less pleased than before. Celerity waited until she had everyone’s quiet and undivided attention. Abigail’s face softened during the silence. Jack’s face tightened more. Vim broke the moment by pointing to Sojourn and nodding once.

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Celerity shot him a hard glance. A heavy hand from Ox confirmed the woman's look by slamming down onto his shoulder with an oppressing weight which strained the herald's knees. Ox pressed down hard, and the faint sound of cracking concrete could be heard, muffled under Vim’s feet. After another brief moment, Celerity looked away, and Ox released some of the pressure he was placing on his herald – but not all. Sojourn did not understand, why did he point at me? What did I do? “We need to focus on the matter at hand,” she said as she surveyed the group. “Abby, this place is your responsibility, but I would strongly advise your cooperation however uncomfortable it may temporarily be.” “Maybe I’d prefer the police investigate this matter instead,” she replied, still playing her role as the old stubborn woman. Celerity knew the act well enough to know how to quick-step around it. “Abby, you know they have relinquished jurisdiction to us when these sorts of things happen.” The older woman face twisted at the thought, but she nodded respectfully with no real intention toward stressing the situation further. Celerity shifted to her next hurtle. “Jack, you were first on the scene which, given your connection to the place, isn’t surprising. But, this is a crime scene; it’s not an appropriate place for your normal friend.” “He’s not a normal; he’s meta,” Jack responded.

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Celerity looked surprised while Ox merely rolled his eyes in disbelief. Strangely, Vim looked Sojourn in the eye and nodded at him again. Or, was it to him? Sojourn shrugged back, unable to discern the man's meaning. Celerity noticed the exchange, but focused on the hurtle. “Not according to the Arbiter,” she tapped her earpiece with the attached visor lens. Jack let out a hard breath and began to shake his head. “Jack, I know how you feel about the Arbiter System, but it’s effective. And, it’s not getting a reading on this kid,” Celerity said. With a quick turn of her head toward Sojourn, “No offense.” “Um, none taken?” Sojourn managed to get the words out before Jack's own voice ran him over. “Then once again you are proving my point for me. It’s not reliable.” It was Celerity’s turn to shake her head, but she knew she had to indulge him to get through this, “What makes you think this kid’s a meta?” She looked to Sojourn who was slowly shrinking into a little ball behind Jack. “Would you like to answer that, Sojourn?” Jack asked as he grabbed Sojourn and spun him around into the middle of the group. Not guilty! He screamed the words in his head to combat the feeling that he was on trial for crimes against humanity. All eyes in the room – even those of the other Guild members not a part of this particular exchange – were homing in on him. Ten, red Arbiter lenses mounted to communications headsets flashed his direction, maybe even all twenty.

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He could feel them all scanning him – assessing, criticizing – regardless of the headsets. His hands went clammy under their silent inquisition. “Well, I – uh – saw something, uh, just before – the wall…” he stammered. Jack remembered Sojourn's trouble with the crowd outside and jumped in to bail him out of his youthful and uncertain verbal fumbling. “The kid had a precognitive experience. A vision. That’s how I was able to confront the assailant as he breached the room.” A murmur broke out in the room. Aurora, who had been leaning against a far wall, shifted all of her weight to her feet and slowly began to circle the group to study the conservation more closely. “How is it possible that the Arbiter can’t assess this ability in the boy?” Ox asked. “You can't really be as dumb as a brick, can you?" Jack asked. Ox bared his pearly teeth in a silent snarl. "From what I’ve heard, your little toy has a lot of trouble with psionic energy. Two of your Protector-ranked members have the same issue when they're scanned, am I right?” Jack knew he was right. Celerity knew he was right, but he needs to rub this in a little more to be satisfied, she thought. So, she played her part willingly. She just hated how long this was taking. She shot a calming look to Ox. “So what?” she said, indulging Jack further. “I believe precognition falls under the category of psionics, if I’m not mistaken.” Jack’s tone was rife with the same accusatory tone Ox had

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given him earlier. He was even wearing the same smirk on his face to complete the imitation – and the insult. He stared at Ox. He knew Celerity's game but could not pass on the chance to twist the moment against the biggest thorn in his side. “Enough, Jack,” Abigail said softly. Jack’s puffed-up chest deflated slightly, and he stood back with a bit more reverence than before. “Can we all agree to take a moment from this obviously impressive display of manhood to discuss the situation at hand?” Celerity asked them, looking at Ox and, then, at Jack. She motioned, and all of the high-ranking members of the Guild retreated to the other side of the room, leaving Jack, Sojourn, and Abigail alone to only guess at the message beneath the nearly unintelligible whispering. Several looks were cast back to Sojourn. Unexpectedly, even more were cast back to Jack. “That was smart, Jackie,” Abigail said. She was standing next to him now but did not turn to look at him. All three of them just stared at the Guild's impromptu meeting. “Your sarcasm surprises me, Abby,” Jack replied. “Really?” “No.” Smiling, she rammed her shoulder into his. He responded in kind. Sojourn worried about what the Guild meeting meant for him. He thought of Vim's obfuscated meaning behind his earlier nod.

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Jack had said something about, What was it, psionics? And precognitive experience? He waited for a moment before interrupting Jack and Abby's fun, “Am I in trouble?” Jack and Abby immediately stopped their playful exchange and turned away from the Guild discussion across the room to face the boy beside them. “No, son, you're not in trouble,” Abby said. She place her hand on his shoulder. “I heard what you did here earlier, what both of you did together,” she glanced to Jack, but her gaze rested on the boy in need of comfort, “Heroes don't trouble me at all, son.” “Yeah, only thieves and bureaucrats seem to trouble you,” Jack piped in. “You're ruining our moment, boy,” Abigail snapped. “Yeah, he does that,” Sojourn said. And with that, they all let loose some much needed laughter. *** After several minutes, Celerity formally dispatched Pace, and he whooshed from the room with breath-taking blur of movement. The pressure change in the room from the sudden displacement of air caused Sojourn’s ears to pop. He tried to force his ears to adjust by blowing out through a pinched nose. He noticed that Abigail was opening and closing her mouth, working her jaw to adjust her own ears to vacuum.

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Abigail and Sojourn’s eyes met, which caused them both to start giggling at how ridiculous each of them must look to the other. Jack regarded them both curiously. “What’s so funny?” He began looking himself over, trying to find something stuck to himself that might be cause for their humor – lifting up his feet to look at the bottom of his shoes, twisting around trying to see the back of his pants. His fight had left him in rags, and now he danced around like a dog chasing its own tail. Sojourn and Abigail laughed harder. The crowd outside went silent. Jack knew of only two people who could cause such a reaction. One was the man who had given his life to save the city. The other was Halcyon. She was here, just as Pace had whispered she would be, and her presence had already blanketed the crowd in a sense of awe. They trusted her. Jack felt it too. Unfortunately, he observed the same confidence welling up within Celerity and Ox as they took notice via an announcement over their Arbiter headsets. If it came down to it, Halcyon was a protector in the Guild and the Celerity and Ox could simply pull rank. Jack silently promised himself he would not let the discussion go in that direction. He had promised her that he would never put her in that position. But then, he had promised her a lot of things. *** In the circles of extraordinary men and women, flight was the pinnacle of metahuman abilities. It was also known as the mark of a true Psion.

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According to the Arbiter system there were several members of the Guild who might possess the potential for flight, though the device's psionic detection was spotty at best. Despite the data collected regarding such potential, over the past hundred years only two people in history were known to have mastered the ability. Sapien was the first. The awe-inspiring ability to soar upward and stretch out into the sky was a trademark of the legendary hero - solidly hovering a few feet off the ground, gliding over the streets, striking the sky like lightning. There was no image of Sapien on record that did not document or portray the hero in flight. It was part of how he moved, part of who he was. The only other hero to have mastered the ability of flight was a young woman with a great aptitude for harnessing psionic energy - an ability she most commonly used to throw psionic lightning; and, on occasion, manipulate the weather for a few hours to create a milder and more temperate day. She was called a Psion. She was Halcyon. This is how the whole world outside her dark room at the Elysium dormitory saw her – the inheritor of a great legacy. This is who they wanted her to be. She thought of Jack somewhere below as she floated down to street level and reminded herself, We all have our own gardens to tend. The crowd below had spotted her approach. All eyes were on her. They always were. Always watching. Halcyon relaxed her will, and the wind pushed at her now drifting body. She descended just inside of the newly taped, yellow police line around the perimeter of the building. Her eyes were ice blue; her dark, walnut-

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colored hair swirled gently behind her in the wind. The toe of her boot was the first touchdown, and it dragged slightly as she continued a sidelong drift before her heel finally made contact with the ground. She relaxed her mind completely, and – though both her feet had been on the ground for a few seconds now – it was at this moment that she ceased to fly. Her weight fell gently into the soles of her feet, and she strode to the front doors the Arboretum despite the closer entrance available through the destroyed wall toward the back. She looked up into the grey sky and felt a storm brewing within the thick, waterheavy clouds. She only let herself play with the weather on a good days, when she could enjoy it. Today was not one of them.

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Issue Four: A Special Taskforce “And he’s still here?” she asked into her headset. The first two fingers of her hand pushed the earpiece firmly against her head to drown out the noise of the whispering crowd gathered outside the Arboretum. She had just walked through the front doors, but the garbled din from the other side made the quiet voice on the other end of the line difficult to discern. After a brief pause, “Ok, thanks for the heads up, I’m going dark for a while.” Halcyon pulled off her Arbiter headset and folded it into a pouch which she worn at her hip. She walked through the courtyard, stopping to enjoy the smell of a particularly radiant rose. Abby, you have a gift. She thought of caretaker's countless hours gardening – felt how alive everything around her was. But, she could not take any more time to revel in the sensation than she already had; she could heard the antagonistic voices coming from the Legacy Room. Jack, don’t make trouble for yourself. In the seven years they had known each other, she had learned that avoiding trouble was asking impossible of Jack Kite. He always made trouble for himself, but at least he did it for the right reasons – mostly. She hurried along the arched corridor leading to the memorial. She entered the room and froze at the sight. Halcyon realized that the reports of the attack had been greatly understated, but the evidence of Jack’s involvement was, unfortunately, now blatantly obvious to her.

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If he had joined the Guild when they had extended the offer several years ago, when she and her younger brother had joined, this never would have been an issue. But, the destruction she saw was unforgivable. There was no way the Guild would not let it go easily. Save for a few, quiet voices consumed in the logistics of maintaining structural stability, the room was quiet when Sojourn glanced to see the woman entering. Some had their eyes on the breach in the wall, and a few were watching the champions and their heralds across the room. But, Sojourn's eyes following Jack’s gaze to what was left of the proper entrance to the Legacy Room. His eyes led to her, and hers lead to the invisible line drawn between that small group of three and the twenty uniformed metahumans standing on the other side of the room. Nice stand-off you have going for yourself, she thought loudly. Her steps floated across the broken ground, moving as though there were no obstructions in her path – never a misstep or so much as a test of unsure footing. She appeared to glide over the rumble as though it wasn't there. Her hair was long and worn down with two thin braids framing her face. She looked into everyone’s eyes one at a time as she passed, acknowledging them with a subtle nod. Finally, her eyes fell to Jack. Sojourn thought he sensed a nearly imperceptible smile cross her lips, but the feeling vanished after turning back to regard Jack’s stoic expression. He wasn't looking at her so much as he was looking through her to the way she had entered.

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Celerity crossed over to her with the rest of her group in tow. She waited patiently through Halcyon’s silent greeting ritual. When young woman had finished, Celerity spoke, “Have you been briefed?” The words came out fast – too sharp to prevent undermining the patience she forced her body to display. “Yes ma’am, on route,” Halcyon answered. “Good,” Celerity said, “Now that all concerned parties are here…” “I still don’t see how any of this concerns Kite or his new sidekick,” Ox snapped. “Enough,” Celerity reprimanded. “We've just been over this.” Ox shifted his mass from one foot to the other. “Sure.” Sojourn thought is was odd for the giant, another champion, to cave to the small woman's direction. There is something about them, he thought, but the thought perish as Ox's gaze fell on him like a heavy shadow. The boy shrank under its weight. “Mr. Kite engaged the assailant, and therefore has firsthand knowledge that will be important to the capture of this criminal,” Celerity said. As simple as that, the matter was closed. Ox offered no protest. Jack began to speak, but a quick look from Halcyon dragged him back into a silent stupor. “Also, considering the nature of this detestable crime and the prominence of the item stolen, no one should be more involved than the Sapien's Herald,” Halcyon said for good measure.

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Jack looked to Halcyon. Their eyes met. Sojourn soon realized that there was some sort of silent exchange going on, and so did the others. Abigail broke the group’s indecision to confront them with it. “If the two of you have something you’d like to share, please, by all means.” The eye contact between Jack and Halcyon lingered a moment longer before Jack turned to address the rest of the group. “The Mantle has been stolen. Now, I’m sure there are all sorts of questions people are asking. Who would want to take it? Why? Honestly, I don’t care about any of that. I just want to get it back. That is my job... as Sapien’s Herald." Jack squirmed. He felt some indistinct pressure pushing on him under those last words. He shook it off and continued, "To hold the line until the mantle is rightfully reclaimed,” Jack glanced to Ox and then glanced back to Halcyon as he finished speaking. “Protector Halcyon, perhaps if you had simply shared your thoughts with more than Mr. Kite, he wouldn't have to puppet your ideas,” Celerity said with a wry smile. Jack's face flushed red. “Sorry, ma'am,” her chin dropped, and she averted her eyes. Her gaze rested at her feet until Celerity spoke again. “What are you proposing, Liz?” Celerity asked. It's not professional, but she needs the boost for some reason, she thought as she spoke Halcyon's given name. Liz could hear the thoughts echo among her friends. They were all thinking the same thing. What is the matter with her today? Something's... off.

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“A taskforce,” Halcyon said, looking up and shutting off the external thoughts. “The Guild is stretched thin patrolling and protecting the city. We don’t have the resources for a special taskfoce,” Ox said bitterly. “Then I’ll use non-Guild volunteers,” Jack said, though this intrusion received a disapproving look from even Halcyon. “Unauthorized, unsupervised metahumans roaming the city en masse to track down an obviously experienced criminal – one who is wearing a powerful and destructive suit of armor,” Celerity gave the idea voice. It didn't sound as good to anyone once said aloud. “Jack, it's like your trying to give me an ulcer.” Ox flinched to hear Celerity use the man's given name, Her professionalism is slipping. I wonder if this has anything to do with – he tried not to finish the thought, but his eyes traced the edges of the jagged opening in the wall, the opening through which Celerity's herald had departed. “Well, when you make it sound like that –” Jack started. Liz interrupted. “Then why don’t we authorize it through a Guild presence. We minimize the resource drain by assigning just a few Guild members to accompany the volunteers.” She looked to Ox and Celerity for approval. Then, she scanned the room; her gaze purposefully not resting on anyone currently she saw. At a thought, she rocked forward on the tip of her toes to catch Aurora’s attention, who was still slowly pacing in the back of the room surrounded by her own perpetual glow.

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The faint halo around Aurora’s body diminished as she spoke, “I have kept my Champion apprised of the situation. Based on the evidence thus far, Champion Prism believes that such a taskforce, as recommended by Protector Halcyon, is a sufficient response on the Guild's part. It is his opinion that several select Guild members should be designated to chaperone the volunteer force in order to ensure the safety of the city’s population.” Aurora’s voice was light and ethereal, almost removed from the realm of sound altogether – simultaneously soft and clearly crystalline. After a pause, she added, “And, I-I agree.” With this, she stepped back from the group further and again began speaking softly into her headset. Halcyon nodded to Aurora, and the gesture of thanks was reciprocated. Halcyon then turned her attention back to the two Champions present, again seeking their approval. Finally, after realizing that Celerity was waiting for him to weigh in, Ox spoke. “It seems to be acceptable,” he said grudgingly. “We could even... deputize them,” he was choking his words. Hastily, he added, “temporarily!... if we need to.” “It's decided then,” Celerity said quickly, “Halcyon, as the only true Psion in the Guild, this is a matter of legacy that directly concerns you.” Halcyon glanced to Jack and started to speak. Celerity raised her hand and cut her short. “Therefore, you will be in charge of forming and leading this taskforce.” Halcyon had to shoot Jack another quieting glance, and he began pacing a small lane on his side of the invisible line to bleed off his agitation. The vents on his gauntlets creaked open and hissed closed a few times.

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“You will also be responsible for the actions of your team,” Celerity continued as if to respond to Jack’s childish, albeit silent, tantrum. “Yes ma’am,” she replied. Jack’s pacing slowed with Halcyon's calm acceptance of assumed responsibility for his actions. He attempted a bit more self-control. “You’ll take Vim,” Ox added with a snap, “after he finishes his patrol rotation this afternoon.” Vim nodded appreciatively. “I’ll personally see that he reports to you this evening,” Ox added. “I’ll want my brother for this one too,” said Halcyon with Jack nodding in agreement. “If it’s not too much trouble, could you have Charlie come by here to help out with this mess?” Abigail asked. “Sure, Abby. That’s what first made me think of him. Is your vending machine full?” she said, only half-jokingly. “Oh! I better hide the good cookies,” and Abigail took off to secure herself a secret stash before Charlie arrived and cleaned her out. “And, in case there are anymore incidents involving collateral damage, he would eliminate the need for a full reparations team,” Halcyon continued, justifying her decisions to her superiors. “Very well. For now, that only leaves the question of this young man,” Celerity said turning her attention to Sojourn. Until now, Sojourn had thought they all had forgotten he was there. As all their heavy stares came to rest on him once again, he secretly wished that they had. He had long since become lost watching these

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heroes plan their response to a metahuman threat. He had grown up watching the evening news report on Guild’s operations here in the city and around the world – operations responding to metahuman criminals and metahuman-designated threats. He had stood among them and listened as they formulated what, in his mind, would inevitably lead to a heroic resolution. His thoughts were stilling swimming in ocean of boyhood dreams when they cast the spotlight on him. A long moment paused before he found his voice. “Me?” he asked. Jack came to his rescue, “If this kid here is truly an emergent precog, he will be invaluable to us. He has already proven himself a hero.” “Having precognitive powers doesn’t make him a hero,” Ox retorted, though it lacked the luster of their previous exchanges. “You know, you’re exactly right, Ox. But, diving under a falling half-ton slab of concrete to save a mother a child from being crushed does qualify... in my opinion at least.” “He’s approved,” Halcyon quickly said. He new role as the team leader made it official. “They are your responsibility then,” Ox stated. “This issue is settled,” Celerity said. Her foot tapped against the floor drumming out a rapid beat. Her eyes were on the door. “But –” Sojourn tried to interject. “The issue is settled, little one,” Ox repeated. Sojourn could tell the man was trying to indicate approval, relunctant as it may have been;

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but, his tone was gruff, and his shoulders had stiffened. Sojourn felt reprimanded instead. Before he could form a decent protest or the courage to speak it, Ox turned and hastily pushed his way out of the room. Celerity had long since left in a flash. Again, Sojourn's ears popped. *** Mr. Gregory walked swiftly through the lowest corridors of the GenTech building. He passed several slick-haired scientists in a heated debate about the morning theft of Sapien's mantle. They disagreed on the motive, but both men sounded appalled by the action itself. Secretly, Mr. Gregory smiled. His key-card buried in his front breast-pocket reached its personal proximity threshold to a wall panel next to the last set of doors on the hall, and an audible latched clicked somewhere inside the mechanism. The access light flashed green, and Mr. Gregory snatched the door open. The Advanced Research and Development department of the GenTech building was cluttered with equipment, but the workstations were manned by a skeleton staff. At the most complex and sophisticated workstation Patrick Mason poured over several computer screens streaming data from a performance test being run by more than half of the room's technicians. Mr. Gregory approached the primary workstation but knew not to interrupt his employer during the test. Servos hummed. A high voltage electrical charge crackled. Most of the room was clean and brightly lit. However, the large alcove of the primary workstation appeared dim, even dingy, from constant use without a sufficient break for cleaning.

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Mr. Gregory knew the reason, because he had set up the round-theclock rotation at Mr. Mason’s request. “Well?” Mason’s voice slid over the top of the workstation. “Sir,” Gregory hesitated to continue. “Mr. Gregory, everyone in here is aware of what we are trying to accomplish. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have access to this laboratory.” “Yes sir. He has made contact and reports to be in possession of the item. He will be expecting us at the predetermined rendezvous.” “Have you confirmed the report?” “Of course, open broadcast confirms the theft. The official detailed report is still restricted from public access.” “And what does that report say?” Mason asked. He smiled but still looked at the fan of computer screens scrolling through countless lines of code. He knew Mr. Gregory had found a way to dislodge the official details from the behind the red tape which marked something “restricted.” That particular skill had led Mason to consider hiring this "walk-in" assistant in the first place. Mr. Gregory returned the smile. “The Guild has no leads and lacks sufficient resources to effect a full investigation.” “Then we should extend them some of our resources,” Mason said. He stood up and looked at his subordinate for the first time since he had entered the room. “Sir?”

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“We are their partners, are we not? It would seem peculiar if we did not offer our assistance during their great hour of need.” Mason noticed the concerned expression, “You worry too much, Mr. Gregory.” “Yes sir.” “And there is nothing about this course of action which should worry you,” Mason added. “Yes sir.” "By the way, you'll need to re-initialize your keycard after every entry into this laboratory. New security measures have been put into place." Mr. Gregory reached into his breast-pocket and swiped his thumb across the card without removing it. The scanner chip inside hummed with a faint double buzz of vibration, verifying that the re-initialization had be properly catalyzed by his bio-electrics. "Ah, brave new world..." he uttered to himself quietly. "Yes, thank you, Miranda," Mason snarked. "Sir?" Mr. Gregory failed to understand Mason's comment. "Nevermind, Mr. Gregory," Mason said, waving the explanation off. "I thought you meant something else." A technician who had been working with Mason looked over to them. His eyes were wide with excitement. Slowly, ever so slowly, the corners of his mouth creased upwards. Mr. Gregory nodded toward the technician to draw his employer's attention.

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Mason whipped around and lunged toward the printout in the tech’s hands. He snatched it away; his eyes darted back and forth over the information. After only a few seconds he looked back to Mr. Gregory, smiling, “and then there's this – this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine!” *** After saying their goodbyes to Abigail at the Arboretum, the threeperson special taskforce exited through a side door, escaping public notice by traveling down an forgotten alleyway between the garden and the building next door. The crowd outside had grown, but all of their attention was focused on the Guild Champion Ox and his herald Vim as they left through the front. The press could be heard shouting questions. Sojourn noticed a blur of motion streaking away down the street. He thought it must have been Celerity escaping the relentless combination of public and media attention. They were doing the same, of course, only much more slowly and down a path spotted with stagnant pools of street water covered with a gritty film of green algae. The alley dumped the trio along a small side street. Due to the large crowd outside the Arboretum, the rest of the area was completely deserted. The buildings on this street were a mixture of the older brick buildings, which had survived the catastrophic blast years ago, and the newer structures caked in grey stucco on three sides with a faux brick facade. Some were office buildings. Others were small store fronts with apartments above, rising into the sky. The wind pushed a few scraps of paper trash across the street. Sojourn noticed that there were no information terminals nearby as

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there had been at the train station and bus stop. The city's true age wore through the creases in places like this, not far from the beaten path, but far enough. Jack and Halcyon walk together with Sojourn close on their heels. Jack looked over his shoulder several times as they paced briskly along to make sure his young friend was keeping up. As they walked, Halcyon flipped open the pouch on her hip and pulled out her Arbiter comm unit. She secured it over her ear and activated the uplink. There was a muted glow from the red lens which the headset extended over her eye. “Liz,” Jack said in an admonishing tone. She shrugged back in response, “What? It’s just a comm-unit.” “I thought we talked about the Arbiter.” “No, you talked about the Arbiter. And talked. And talked. I just sat there and listen. Besides, the portable units are Guild standard equipment now. They are required. It’s the only way to have remote access to communications and support services,” she said. “Since when?” Jack's voice betrayed his genuine shock. “Since the contract renewal between the Guild and GenTech about a month ago. Not everyone has one yet. I think a few of the lowerranking support personnel don't have them. They are still using the old ear-buds.” “I don't like them.” “No kidding,” she replied, adding, “Don't worry. We still have a deal.”

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Sojourn watched as Jack nod to himself, What deal? I wonder. Another thought donned on him. He dropped back another step from Jack and Halcyon as they continued to talk about the headsets. He pulled his book from his jacket along with the pencil and flipped to the back. He scribbled something down and put it away again. He winced as shifted his shoulder to allow the book back into its resting place. Halcyon noticed. "Oh, I'm sorry!" She spun around and took hold of Sojourn's shoulder before he could protest. "I should have noticed sooner." "No, it's..." Sojourn flinched as she grabbed him, expecting a rush of stabbing pain to again pierce through his arm and into his head. It didn't. He only a warm tingling sensation following by an odd displacement of bone and muscle. Then, the sensation subsided, and the pain was gone. "You jerk," she slapped Jack in the stomach with the back of her hand. "How long were you going to let him walk around with a dislocated shoulder?" "I –" She turned back to Sojourn. "Forgive him; he's an idiot. I'm Liz, by the way." "Hi, Liz. I'm Sojourn." He rolled his mended shoulder. "Thanks." "You're quite welcome."

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"Yes, he's Sojourn. You're Liz. I'm an idiot. Now, would you put that thing away?" Jack motioned to the Arbiter headset still in Liz's hand. She had already forgotten she still had it out. Halcyon knew this conversation had been coming. She had managed to keep the Arbiter tucked away and out of Jack’s sight until now, but necessity dictated that secrecy's end. She needed the uplink to get a hold of her brother Charlie. Rather than answer his last question, she ignored him and activated the unit. “Trinity. This is Halcyon. Verify and response.” She continued, “I need to open a channel with Chymick. Is he available?” Halcyon continued through the proper channels to connect to her brother. Jack slowed his pace, giving her some room for Guild business. He slid in beside Sojourn. “What is an Arbiter exactly?” Sojourn asked. “Agh. It’s a new system the Guild started using a few years back, made by that bastard Patrick Mason and his company, GenTech,” Jack shook his head. “Oh? Tell me how you really feel,” Sojourn said. Jack ignored the smarmy comment and continued. “It connects the user with a very powerful and complex computer matrix that's supposedly able to determine a metahuman’s abilities and gauge the extent of those abilities.” “What’s wrong with that? Wouldn’t that help the heroes fight… well, you know, the bad guys?”

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Seeing the faint signs of insecurity in the scrawny youth made Jack wince. This kid needs some serious courage, he thought. However, he also remembered the first time he had met a metahuman hero. No, we are all that way the first time. He'll get used to it. A crooked smile was the best he could offer at the moment. He had never had a way with words. “Well, the Arbiter isn’t fool-proof. It makes a lot of mistakes. The designers of the system don’t seem to have a clear understanding of the distinction between power and abilities. To them it’s the same thing." He notice Liz shoot him a warning stare. "Buuut, it seems like that is a philosophical discussion for another time. "The real problem is that the members of the Guild who use the Arbiter rely on it. They perceive the information it provides as an infallible assessment of an individual’s potential.” Jack looked to Sojourn as he chewed the words over. “So, it limits what people think they can do... or think others can do,” the youth concluded. Jack’s face betrayed his pleasant surprise, “Exactly. When people take something like that as a solid truth, they begin to lose the power to control their own destiny... or the power to believe that those who stand up for what is right will be able to overcome the odds. To them, it all becomes a complicated numbers game.” They walked to the end of another block and rounded a corner. Sojourn was trying to get his bearings and learn his way around, but he was already hopelessly lost. Jack continued, “Of course, the system is flawed beyond its social effect. It has trouble with psionic-based abilities. It’s can’t read them.”

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“Huh?” “Liz, for example,” Jack pointed to Halycon, who was still on her comm-unit, “is a psionic. It’s a rare type of energy that enables an incredible array of abilities. Sapien was a psionic. In fact, he was so completely infused with psionic energy that he was called a 'Psion' – a being of energy housed in a corporeal body.” “That's what Celerity called – ” Sojourn pointed the Halcyon walking ahead of them. “Liz, just call her 'Liz.' I hate those stupid code-names they use.” Sojourn stared ahead. “And they're full of it,” Jack said, quickly jumping back to what Sojourn had said. “They have no idea what they are talking about.” “Oh.” “Anyway, the same goes for you too. Precognition is a very rare psionic ability. Even Liz doesn't have that. Sapien's the only one I know of, and he's before the Arbiter's time. So, the system has no point of reference... unless they get a blood sample from you.” “Why a blood sample?” “I'll be honest. I don't get that part myself. It would take a biochemist to understand how that works, and... well, I was sociology major in college." "Oh," Sojourn silently mouthed the reply.

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"What's that supposed to mean?" Jack asked. "Oh, nothing," Sojourn mocked. "Can you believe this wise guy?" Jack said, looking toward Liz. Halcyon glanced over her shoulder, still holding her headset against her ear. She rolled her eyes. She was on hold. Jack shook his head, and threw his right shoulder up as if shrugging off a nuisance. Sojourn could hear the sound of creaking metal. “Anyway, the point is that the Arbiter is virtually blind to psionics. Liz barely registers on the Arbiter system, if at all. And trust me, she should. Which means…” Jack trailed off, hoping for Sojourn to pick up his train of thought. “So, someone with a mixture of psionic-based abilities and other abilities would be measured wrong. And if that person was a threat…” “Yep, you got it. A lot of innocent people could get hurt while the Guild keeps trying the same Arbiter-suggested method over and over to neutralize the threat – a method that doesn’t work because of abilities that are invisible to Arbiter. You're a smart kid.”

"Smart enough to do better than sociology." "Hey now," Jack said. Sojourn smirked and jumped back into the discussion. “And that's worse than the trial-and-error method they'd have to use without it?”

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“Um,” Jack stumbled a bit. “Well, yeah.” “Are there a lot of people with psionic powers?” Sojourn asked. “Well... no. Not really,” Jack admitted. Sojourn looked around. “Where are we going?” “Well,” Jack said, delicately lifting up some tattered strips of his mostly shredded shirt and jacket, “I need a change of clothes.” Sojourn failed to stifle a chuckle, “Yeah, but hey, at least your hoodie is mostly ok.” He peered around to Jack’s right arm where everything had completely disintegrated. The brushed metallic surfaces of the shoulder-high gauntlet were exposed. He also noticed the hood itself was dangling by a few threads. Sojourn brushed it with his hand, and it fell freely into his palm. “Nevermind,” he said, wincing sympathetically as he handed the hood back to Jack. Jack laughed. “It happens.” “It does?” “If you two are finished,” Liz interrupted with a roguish grin, “I’ve made contact with Charlie.” “Oh shove it, boss lady, we're talking here,” Jack said straight-faced before breaking down into laughter and throwing his natural left arm over Sojourn’s shoulder. “Yeah, shove it,” Sojourn repeated jovially and joined in with Jack’s laugh.

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“You and I are going to get along just fine,” Jack said to Sojourn. “That’s not necessarily something to be proud of,” Halcyon cautioned. “He seems ok to me,” Sojourn replied. She shook her head, signally her defeat. “Yeah, he is. Changing topics, We’ll meet up with Charlie in a little while. He's fixing something uptown. First, there are some other people I've been meaning to see before we are too busy to make time,” Liz said. Jack sobered immediately and lowered his eyes thoughtfully. He nodded. Sojourn's stared at them. His eyes held a vacant but searching expression. “It's nearly the anniversary," Jack whispered. Sojourn still did not understand, until they arrived at their destination. They arrived at a small cemetery six blocks away from the Arboretum. A few people were scattered around at various grave markers. Two men in particular stood out. Both wore expensive suits, though Sojourn noticed that the closer of the two seemed more comfortable in the wear. The other man stood back a polite distance from the comfortably suited man who gazed down at a headstone. *** Patrick Mason was not a sentimental man, so Mr. Gregory questioned the value of time they spent here. It had become a weekly tradition for months now, and nothing seemed to come of it so far as he could tell.

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“You must have loved her very much,” Mr. Gregory offered in an effort of common condolence. Mason never took his eyes from the headstone, “She was a cold, hateful woman.” Mr. Gregory did not reveal a hint a shock on his face, so Mason could not tell if he was surprised by the comment. Not that he cared. “I don’t come here for her. She had her chance a long time ago. I come for my brother. I remember our mother would never condescend to bring us into the city. So, Thomas would secretly purchase two tickets, and we would take the train. Thomas was…” Mason’s voice trailed off into thought. “A man with a warning,” Mr. Gregory said as if as a response to a call. Mason ignored his assistant’s vie for approval, “You don’t have to pretend that you're in this for the cause, Mr. Gregory. You’re paid for your loyalty, and that’s enough. I don't need anything else from you.” GenTech’s CEO turned and touched the man on the shoulder. “We have business elsewhere, do we not?” Mason asked. “Yes sir.” “There is much to do,” Mason said, and they headed toward the waiting car. *** “Excuse me, Mr. Mason,” Liz said courteously as they squeezed past the pair of men on the stone walkway.

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Mason paid her a passing glance and dismissed her. Mr. Gregory was less kind; his face was gnarled by agitation. He smoothed his tie and finished escorting Patrick Mason to his driver and car. “Friendly fellow as always,” Jack said. “It’s not a friendly place,” Liz replied. “Yeah,” Jack said looking around. “Ill be right back. You two go on.” Jack turned to follow Mason; but, as Sojourn watched him leave, he noticed the urgency in Jack's steps. He was running away. “There’s been a lot of loss for everyone,” Sojourn echoed into the silence. There were too many headstones to count. “Come on. I want to see my parents,” Liz said reverently and continued down the path. Sojourn looked back to Jack, who had now nearly caught up with the two other men. He took a deep breath and followed Liz through the curving rows of the dead. “Everything changed then. Sapien was gone and with him…something else. There are just some people who can’t survive a change like that… the change or the world after it,” Liz spoke. Sojourn did not get the impression she was speaking to him. Sojourn nodded solemnly. Her eyes stayed on the headstones of “Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” but he knew she had not spoken of the dead. They turned to face each other. “Thanks for coming with me, kiddo. It's hard to be here alone.” ***

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Mason was about to climb into his car, when he noticed Jack approaching. I should just ignore this little parasite, he thought. He looked around and saw a few other people scattered about, visiting the graves of loved ones. If it had been any other time of year, the cemetery might have been empty at this time of day. But, with the anniversary only a two days away, there were enough people around to make it public. Business and politics, he mused and donned his composed, public persona. Mr. Gregory stood back, waiting for Mason to give him a sign of what to do. Nothing came. “Patrick,” Jack said as he arrived. “Jack, what a pleasure to see you again.” The words were floated on an easy smile. It was the same smile Jack recognized from the GenTech ad campaign. It was the same one he recognized from the elitist snob he had met at the university years ago. It was a sickening sight that rotted the teeth of those unfortunate enough to receive it directly. “Let's cut the crap, Patrick. We both know we hate each other.” Mason smoothed his silk tie with an absent-minded brush of his hand. “As always, I find your candor immensely refreshing.” His voice remained pleasantly unperturbed by Jack's comment. Then, his smile faded. His voice seemed to drop an octave. It was a tone he rarely used in a public arena; but for this man, he would make an exception. “What do you want, Kite?”

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“I want you to explain why you are pushing this Arbiter system so hard,” Jack answered. “I know you have no love for the way the Guild operates.” “That's why I am changing the way they operate,” Mason replied. Once again, his words were bouncing along in that compelling quality he used so often in public. “When are you going to learn, Jack? You can't change the rules of the game by sitting on the sidelines. You're fed up; and, in a childish tantrum, you gathered your toys and went home. I've decided to take a different approach. I prefer to share my things.” “What is your game, Patrick?” Jack's eyes narrowed. “Why, poker, of course.” “So, you like to gamble?” Jack's voice to boil with anger, but he kept it under control. Mason noticed Jack's reaction but also noticed the vents on his gauntlet remained closed. Such a obvious tell, he thought. “No, I like to win,” he corrected. “Win what?” “Listen, Jack, I'd love to stay and chat with you in this lovely place. But you see, I really don't like you. However, I promise, when I am ready to play my hand, you will be the first to know. Until then, forgive me if I play my cards close to the vest.” "I'm not finished," Jack growled.

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"Yes, you are," and with that, Mason climbed into the car and rode away.

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Issue Five: Unbroken Sojourn walked behind Halcyon and Jack, his own feet much less sure of their place on the city streets than theirs. They had traveled a dozen blocks, taking a winding path through cramped alleyways and narrow avenues. Jack and Halcyon traded the lead, each giving way to the other at every block. Sojourn was not really sure why. He did notice that whoever followed never stopping watching the leader and following their gaze. They walked past the entrance to the underground transit. The crooked sign hanging over its archway swayed loosely in the wind. An interactive city-guide scene flickered on its pole. They ducked down another back alley filled with aluminum trashes cans and a dozen empty cardboard boxes. A few of the larger boxes were turned over. Sojourn noticed a dirty, brown blanket had been left in one along with someone's personal effects, but there was no one around. The alleyway turned into a side street another block over. A few stores with caged windows spotted the street. A hand-written “open� sign was taped to the door of a 24-hour laundromat. A rusted but serviceable single-speed bicycle with gangly handlebars lay at the front steps on an unnamed apartment building. Sojourn surveyed the street and compared it to the vision he had held in his head since childhood. Where is Cardinal City? An older, barefooted man clad only in a stained undershirt and a pair of boxer shorts was reading the newspaper on the porch of another

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building. On the other end of the same porch, a woman in a flannel nightgown was watering a few potted plants. The plants were withered but still green. She looked up to watch the group pass. “Oh look, hun, it's Jack and Liz!” she exclaimed, speaking to the man with the newspaper. “Hey you two!” she called out. The man lifted his head so that his nose just stuck over the top edge of the newsprint. “Good morning,” he called to them with a smile. “Good morning,” Jack and Liz answered, not quite in synch. “It's so good to see you two together again,” the woman called back. Neither Jack nor Liz answered. The couple on the porch exchanged a concerned look with one another, not missing the significance of the pair's silence. “Whose that fella you got there with you?” the man called quickly. “Who? Him?” Jack answered with a grin, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder to Sojourn. “He's the new hero in town.” The woman put down her rusted watering can, approached the porch railing, and cooed with delight. The man raised an eyebrow and lowered his newspaper to get a better look. “Does he got a name?” the man asked, looking at Sojourn. He waited a moment, “Well, speak up, son.” “Sojourn, sir,” the young man replied. "How old are you, Sojourn?" the man asked.

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"Seventeen, sir." He nodded slowly. “Well, you follow those two, and you'll do alright,” he concluded. Satisfied with the exchange, he raised his newspaper and went back to reading. “What kinda –” the woman started to ask. Her husband interrupted, “Hun?” “Yes, dear.” The man shook his head slowly, and then said, “ Them three's got hero work to do.” “Oh, you're right,” she said. “You be safe out there,” she called out to them, waving goodbye. The small group waved back, and the woman went back to watering her plants. A few seconds later, they rounded another corner, and the couple on the porch was out of sight, but Sojourn heard the woman exclaim, “Did you hear that? A new hero!” The city looks tired, Sojourn thought to himself, but he noted a subtle charm still buried in these forgotten shadows. He thought of the couple on the porch and what the woman had said about Jack and Liz, together? He suddenly saw their awkwardness and their anxiousness toward each other as they walked side-by-side. When they were not conscious of it, they seemed quite natural and comfortable together. But, that only lasted for a few seconds at a time. Old, crumbling, red-brick buildings gave way to some of the new grey buildings of the downtown district with brick facades. They were back

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on the same street as the Arboretum, albeit a few blocks away from where they had started. City-guides flared to life with every passing glance. The streets and sidewalks were clean. “Did we just walk a circle?” Sojourn asked, stopping dead in his step. Jack, who had been walking in front at that moment, craned his head around as far as it would turn without having to twist at the waist. “Nah, technically it was an oval.” “He's hilarious, isn't he?” Halcyon said. “Sure is,” Sojourn replied. Halcyon turned her head back to Jack, letting her eyes glance back toward their new friend who had stopped on the sidewalk. He was looking at them both. Her simple smile was touched by a slight blush in her cheeks. Sojourn realized that neither of them had stopped walking and quickly jogged a few steps to close the gap, “Why did we go all the way around?” “You mean why did we dodge the press that was swarming in on the garden from nearly every possible angle?” Jack didn’t turn his head this time, but his voice was still light and conversational. “Oh.” Sojourn stepped up to walk beside Halcyon, giving himself a buffer from Jack's inevitable sarcasm. “‘Oh,’ he says.” Jack shot him a lopsided smile, but Halcyon stepped between them. The barrier she created defeated his effort. Halcyon

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turned her head down toward the shrinking youth. She was taller than both her male companions. Sojourn felt unnaturally comfortable with her strange gaze, but that very thought sent a shiver through him. “We aren’t just avoiding the press.” Her words calm. She placed a warm hand on his shoulder and traced a circle in the air with a pointed finger from the other hand, “We are walking the perimeter to see how the theft of the Mantle is effecting the city,” she said. “And?” Sojourn looked around and tried to see what they apparently saw. “It’s almost noon,” Jack waved his natural hand in front of them, and then stepped ahead and turned his whole body in a circle with both arms out wide. They had stopped walking. Halcyon slipped behind Sojourn dissolving the barrier between him and Jack. The seconds ticked by while Jack looked at him, Sojourn could almost hear time scraping by. He heard the warble of a pigeon call. His eyes widened. They had been walking for a long time, but the only other people he could only remember seeing was the couple on the porch. “It’s quiet.” “Exactly, we are still in the ‘Center. This is a city with nearly ten million people. The ‘Center is never quiet,” Jack offered another smile, but it faded quickly.

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Sojourn looked around again. A few parked cars dotted the edge of the street, but no traffic could be seen or heard. Except for the three of them, the sidewalks were empty. “Is everyone really that scared?” “Scared? Nah, I don’t think so. Not yet anyway.” Jack answered. “What we do know is that everyone already knows. The news has spread like wildfire. The city knows the mantle is missing,” Halcyon walked between them as she spoke. She made eye contact with both of them, but it did not linger long. “Given what Sapien means to the people in this city, it’s understandable that they would exercise a bit of caution right now.” She headed off down the sidewalk again but away from the Arboretum. Jack turned to follow her, and Sojourn trailed after. “I don’t really understand. I thought this sort of thing happened all the time in Cardinal City; what makes this any different?” Sojourn asked. “It’s different because of what seemed to be a universal understanding even in the criminal underworld. ‘The Sapien Mantle is off-limits.’ It’s a respect thing,” Jack said. “Doesn’t that seem odd? Criminals not… criming things, especially valuable things, out of respect?” Ugh, that was so lame, Sojourn thought, kicking himself for sounding stupid. “Not the mantle. Never,” Jack’s eyes darted away to survey the empty street. Sojourn could not tell what he was trying to find. “Why not?”

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“It’s about who he was, for everyone. It didn't matter if you were a criminal. The Mantle is the heart of the city. By stealing the Mantle, someone has issued a threat against the city itself... and everyone in it,” Jack left it at that. They walked on in silence. *** The taskforce met with its fourth member after another twentyminute hike uptown. They entered an area with towering spires of commerce and finance. The streets were wider here than in the areas Sojourn had seen earlier. Many of the alleyways were fenced with posted signs announcing them as “private property.” The sun reflecting off the buildings' glass facades added a white wash of light on clean sidewalks. But even here, in the business district, there were very few people in sight. A few of the high-end boutiques had dimmed their signs and interior lights, apparently closed for the rest of the day. Charlie, Liz’s younger brother, was known to most in the city as Chymick. The group found him where he was often found, near a sidewalk food vendor. He was carrying an armful of hotdogs that he had just bought. Sojourn, who had not eaten since he had arrived early that morning, stared at the franks. His eyes were fueled by an eager and growling stomach. Chymick must be a nice guy to buy lunch for everybody was the first thought to pass through his mind. Unfortunately, the assumption led to a supreme disappointment as Sojourn watched the young man scarf down every dog but one before even offering a greeting.

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“So, this is the precog?” Chymick asked with a mouth half-full of another bite of the last hotdog. He pointed to Sojourn with the partially devoured hotdog like it was a baton. It was the last of the armful, and it led Sojourn’s eyes all over with every small gesture. “Yeah, this is him,” Jack said. “Charlie, your manners,” Liz had been frowning at her brother as he spoke. “Oh right. Sorry there,” he extended a greasy hand to Sojourn which was warily accepted. “Name’s Chymick. Well, Charlie, but you can call me Chymick…just like Liz is Halcyon… except mine is much cooler.” Charlie grinned widely. “Is that what you think?” Liz asked rhetorically. Chymick nodded enthusiastically and popped the last bite of hotdog into his mouth. “In your dreams,” she said in return. Sojourn, feeling taunted just a moment before with a hotdog, stared back. Chymick – Charlie – was only a few years older than he was. Chymick's hair was the same color of walnut as his sister’s but cropped short. He was shorter than his sister, even a little shorter than Sojourn, but with wide-set shoulders. “So, where we going?” Chymick asked. “Back to the Arboretum,” Jack said. My feet are killing me, Sojourn thought.

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“Abby has asked for your help setting the place back in order,” Jack continued. He turned to look at Sojourn. Sojourn stared back and thought loudly, You can't hear my thoughts, can you? “No, but I can, so stop shouting,” Liz answered. Jack and Chymick froze and slowly turned to Liz and, then, to Sojourn. There was an awkward moment filled with incredulous stares and unformed questions. Sojourn's face was bright red. He was looking at everything except the rest of the group. Jack waited another moment with a single raised eyebrow. He turned back to Chymick. “And, to meet up with... Vim.” Jack almost choked on the words as they came out. “Oh! Vim!” Chymick laughed. “Ox really does hate you, doesn’t he? Well, at least we won't have to listen to the two of you argue,” he said smiling, meeting Jack’s eyes. Jack shrugged and offered a very unsure smile. “If you’d just join the Guild, Ox would cut you some slack.” “Shut it, Charlie,” Liz said, saving Jack the effort. Chymick, not phased in the slightest, turned to Sojourn. “So, what else can you do?” “Huh?” “Other than precognition, what sort of psionic powers have you manifested so far?”

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“Abilities, not powers,” Jack corrected. “Abilities, not powers” Chymick mocked using a droll slur. “I don’t know what sort of pow-, um, abilities I have,” Sojourn answered, glancing to Jack as he tripped over the right word. “Emergent, huh? That would sorta make you a late bloomer, wouldn’t it?” Chymick asked. He continued without waiting for a response, “That’s cool. It’s just awesome knowing that psionics are still emerging from the population. I mean, Liz and I have been getting lonely carrying the banner by ourselves... so to speak.” Liz rolled her eyes. “So you’re a Psion too?” Sojourn asked. “Whoa! No, no. Sorry, I didn’t mean that. Liz is close, I guess. At least, the closest anyone has been since the ‘big man.’ I’m just a psionic.” Chymick noticed the confused expression on Sojourn’s face. “In other words, my abilities,” he said, accentuating the word again with a mocking tone, “are psionically fueled.” “I have no idea what you are talking about,” Sojourn admitted. “Huh?” Chymick was immediately confused. Listening to the exchange, Jack thought, Charlie is spending too much time with the Guild and not enough time with normal people. “So, what can you do?” Sojourn asked, changing the subject. “It’s easier to show you rather than try to explain it.” The group had started to walk back the way they had come. Chymick had slid in next

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to Sojourn. He turned his head to Jack. “Just how much did you break this time?” “The usual.” Chymick whirled around and shouted back to the hotdog vendor, “Hey Micky! You’re gonna want to follow me up to the gardens!” The vendor’s big, toothy smile spread uncontrollably across his face. He hastily secured everything on his cart, closed his orange and yellow umbrella, and chased after the group, huffing and puffing, with his cart in tow. *** “The miserable little prick cracked my armor,” the man announced with a snarl. Anger dripped from every word. Surely, he doesn't think I care, Mason thought. He looked to Mr. Gregory who seemed equally disinterested. “Do you have it?” Mason asked. He stood within the shadows cast by the crates stacked in tall columns around the vast storage space. His face was hidden from view, but it was merely the formality of anonymity. A man must know his employer in order to take him seriously, he knew. That is why he did not bother to mask his voice. His voice, the voice of GenTech, was commanding and unmistakable. “Of course, I am the best,” the man replied. “Good. Then you can buy yourself a hundred suits of armor. Where is it?” voice asked again.

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“Safe. I have it stowed at one of my caches,” the man noticed the anxiety on Mr. Gregory's face, who was standing directly under the overhead lamp lights of warehouse. “It’s secured and ready for delivery.” “Mr. Gregory.” Upon hearing his employer flatly designate him, Mr. Gregory produced a small black suitcase and, stepping forward, offered it to the man. Within half a pace of one another, Mr. Gregory could not hide his disdain. The man merely smiled and said, “And the other half?” “Will be delivered upon the successful completion of your contract,” Mason answered. His voice remained calm and professional. The man paused to allow himself time to think. His eyes searched aimlessly through the air, and he continued his line of thinking aloud, “I’ve got some serious heat on me because of this stunt. How do you figure I’m going to fulfill my contract without getting caught?” Mr. Gregory did not hesitate, “I thought you were the best.” A venom reserved until now filled every word. To the man’s credit, he continued his pleasant smile, “Of course I am, but this isn’t some diamond district robbery. This is a legendary job.” “If you weren’t up for it…” “Oh, Mr. Gregory, you are just playing with me now. I wouldn’t have let anyone else outbid me on a job like this, which is why you got me at steal,” the man winked at the last word. He could never resist an

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inappropriate pun. He had thought of that one on the way to the warehouse meeting and had hoped he would be given the chance to use it. The effort went unappreciated. He quickly recovered his cool, pleasant demeanor. “Anyway, the Guild is involved now. They’ve even formed a special taskforce to hunt me down. Though I must admit it’s flattering, it wasn’t part of the contract. I’m going to have to up my fee. This,” the man lifted the suitcase in his hand, “doesn’t even cover a quarter of my new price.” “What?! This is outrageous! You conniving…” “It is to be expected,” Mason’s voice cut his subordinate short and widened the smile on the opposing man’s face, “Return here with the item when we call you. You will be paid in full.” “Good, that gives me time for round two with that arrogant freak of nature,” the man said. “No, your vendetta can wait until after we have completed our transaction,” Mason corrected. “Fine, whatever. Just have my money ready.” “Of course,” Mason replied. “In fact, here, take this,” Mason tossed a small metallic disc to the man. He caught it with ease. “You may find it most advantageous in your upcoming confrontation.” “Excellent. It has been and continues to be a pleasure doing business with you,” he said, brandishing the disc. With that, the man turned

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with the moneyed suitcase in hand and made his retreat through a side door. “What would you have me do about him?' Mr. Gregory asked. “You will pay that insufferable oaf whatever ludicrous price he demands.” “But sir –” Mr. Gregory started to protest but a wave of Mason's hand cut him short. The topic was closed for discussion. After a few moments, Mason spoke again. “Now, Mr. Gregory, tell me more about this taskforce.” *** By the time that the motley taskforce arrived back at the Arboretum, the area had calmed down. The press mongers were gone and so were most of the gawkers. A few people passing by on the sidewalk would stop for a moment with mouths ajar before rushing off toward their intended designations. The holes through the back, exterior walls were now cordoned off with yellow and black security tape criss-crossed over the openings. Even so, the group used one of the holes, rather than the front doors, to enter the Arboretum's ruined shrine. Sojourn entered the shattered memorial behind the others. The room looked worse than he remembered, provoking the thought that maybe the Guild had exacerbated the situation during their initial inspection. Abigail, the elderly caretaker, sat on a broken piece of the Mantle’s pedestal. In one hand, a delicate saucer hovered beneath a matching, steaming cup of tea held by the other.

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Her eyes were closed. She breathed in the steam floating off the top of the cup. As Sojourn and the others approached, she opened her eyes and smiled warmly. “I suppose I'll have to get used to having a door there,” she said as they entered. “Hey Abby,” Jack said, “We brought a friend.” Chymick stepped out from behind his sister. He was grinning ear to ear. After a long moment to survey the room, he let out a low whistle. “Or, maybe not,” Abigail added under her breath “I did prefer things how they were.” “You sure know how to throw a party, Abby,” Chymick said. He wore a carefree, lopsided grin and was unphased by the surrounding destruction. “Oh no, Jackie deserves all the credit,” she said with a wink. Chymick craned his head around back to Jack. “You know, the trick to not getting caught is to clean up after… Jackie.”

Jack grumbled. Abigail continued on anyway. “I’ve tried to tell him so, but he just doesn’t have your knack for it. Would you be a dear?”

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Chymick’s grin shifted to mirror Abby’s warm smile. “Of course. Pay attention, Jackie. This is how it's done.” He stretched out his arms. “Everyone, stand still.” Abby stood up from her perch on the broken piece of the pedestal and froze in place. Sojourn noticed that everyone else did the same. He tried his best to copy them, but his muscles shook, and sweat began to bead on his forehead as the seconds dragged on. Chymick stood in the center of the room with his arms out at his sides, his palms facing the far walls. His eyes were closed. All of the debris in the room – every shard of glass, every splinter of wood, every grain of stone – started to vibrate. The debris began to change form, slowly at first but as the seconds past the process hastened. Soon, all of the debris had transformed into pools of the same mirror-surfaced liquid. The viscous, mercury-like material thinned to cover the entire floor. Chymick’s fingers were wide apart. Every muscle drew taut under his skin. He threw his arms up, clapping his hands together. As he did, the “mercury” rose up the walls and over what remained of the ceiling. The moment the substance enveloped the room, a bright flash from the reflective surface pulsed once with a blinding, white light. When Sojourn’s eyes had readjusted, the room was completely restored. To his amazement, it appeared to him to be just as it had been earlier in the morning when he had first arrived. Every picture hung perfectly in place, every artifact on its stand. Only now, with everything as it had been, did Sojourn realize how incomplete the room seemed without Sapien’s Mantle as its centerpiece. The center pedestal stood painfully vacant. The sight created a empty feeling in his chest. It just looked wrong.

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“Thank you, Charlie. You are such a dear.” Abigail said. Her words startled Sojourn. He realized his mouth was hanging open. His eyes scanned the room again. Chymick’s skin seemed pale, his face gaunt. “Your welcome,” he whispered. His breath was heavy, and he was covered in a cold sweat. “Chymick, are you alright?” Sojourn asked, stepping in close and taking hold of Chymick’s arm as the young man's balance failed him. “Hungry,” he whispered faintly. “Sure. Hope that hot dog guy followed us all the way here. Come on.” Sojourn helped Chymick out the mended formal doorway to track down Micky, the toothy hotdog vendor. “Oh don’t worry, he did,” Chymick answered feebly. After eight hotdogs with more toppings than Sojourn thought they could possible hold and two buckets worth of iced soda, Chymick’s face seemed a little fuller. His previous pallor had dissipated. And this time, he had offered one to Sojourn who eagerly accepted. His normal demeanor had returned when they re-entered the room. Chymick was just finishing telling Sojourn a story that he said would further explain his abilities to the new hero. “… And that’s why I’m not allowed in the girl’s locker room anymore when Celerity is exercising,” he concluded, again waving his last hotdog like a baton to emphasize his words. Sojourn nodded but still did not understand Chymick's abilities. It was obvious that Chymick's

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story was not really meant to be an explanation. Not of his abilities anyway. “No, you aren’t allowed in the girl’s locker room because you aren’t a girl,” Liz said. Chymick finished his last hotdog in a single, nearly unchewed gulp and belched as if to underscore her point. Chymick stuck his tongue out at his sister who did the same in return. “Anyway, you should stay outta people’s heads. That was a private story between me and my new buddy. You shouldn't have been listening.” “It's hard not to when you are broadcasting your thoughts on a psychic loudspeaker,” Liz responded. “Could you try to be a little less proud of yourself?” “No.” He cast her a twisted expression. He stared at her intently. “I heard that,” she said in response to an unspoken thought. “Showoff.” “Slacker,” she fired back. Sojourn walked toward the mantle's pedestal, tracing his fingers along the edge. The stone was cold. The surface was smooth. The flames of the blue memorial fire flickered dimly overhead. “I’ll leave you all to it then,” Abigail said as she turned to leave, “I’ve set aside one of the conference rooms for you to meet privately when you need it.”

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“Thank you, Abby,” Jack said as she left to tend to the business of running the Arboretum. “So, now what?” Chymick asked. “You get to work, you meatheads.” Ox's voice barged in from beyond the room. He had obviously been standing out of sight, watching, until now. He pushed a silent Vim forward. His herald tromped through the formal arches of the room's entrance with heavy, echoing footsteps. “Unless you just want to stand there and continue sassing each other,” Ox said from the other side. Ox peered inside the room and glared at Jack. Vim approached the group and stood near Liz. As Ox disappeared out the way he had come in, Liz shot Jack a reprimanding look. “What? I didn't say anything,” Jack said defensively. “No, but you were thinking it,” she retorted. “It's his mind,” Chymick said, coming to Jack's defensive. “He can think what he wants.” Sojourn had the impression this was the old and superficial battle of a friendly but heated sibling rivalry, but he also noticed Jack did not speak again. “Alright everyone, conference,” she said, ignoring the challenge. Her words were definitive. Everyone, except Chymick, complied and quietly filed out of the immaculate memorial room, heading off down a dark hallway. “Well, it is,” Chymick said in a grumbled protest, unaware that he was now standing by himself. When he realized he was alone, he grunted in defeat and shuffled out of the room to find the others.

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Issue Six: Messengers After approximately four hours of arguing the proper course of action for the newly formed taskforce, Sojourn slipped out of the conference room for a reprieve. He shut the door softly behind him just as voices were raised – again. He blew out a long breath. A conference call from Ox had delayed the group from taking action for more than an hour now. As he walked away, he could hear Jack yelling at the little speaker phone on the table. The speakers on the device cackled in response. At the end of the long hall, he could still hear their muffled voices going over the same concerns. Sojourn rounded the corner, and the sound trailed off to a barely audible muffle. He wandered aimlessly through the botanical exhibits. The Arboretum had been deserted for some time. Abigail had closed early as many proprietors in the 'Center had. At some point Sojourn had lost track of time. He gave an absentminded look out a window which framed the crepuscular shadows on the street outside. Like a silent chime of a clock, a streetlamp popped on. Sojourn's head rocked back in a primal denial of the scene. His brain caught up to his senses. The realization was startling. He thought of heading back to the conference room but thought, They don't really need me in there. So instead, he continued on and found himself, once again, in the Legacy Room. The silent memorial was cast in flickering light. The overhead lights had been shut off since closing. Only the memorial fire was left to

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dimly illuminate the shrine. Long shadows draped themselves against the walls and along the floor. They wavered in the thin air, appearing and disappearing at the whim of shifting flames. A few strips of black seemed to rebel against the blue glow and fixed themselves at the edges of the room. They were of such an oily, staining pitch that Sojourn – for a moment – imagined they were deep chasms into dark and hidden world. His imagination and fear collided when, out of such a shadow, a slender man emerged. The youth nearly jumped from his skin. The room had seemed empty when he had entered. And yet, here this man was, standing, plainly in view, at the edge of those oily shadows. The man had long, raven hair hanging neatly to his shoulders with only a few strands drifting in front of a tired face. His eyes were rimmed with sleeplessness. He wore a black turtleneck with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, exposing the pale skin of his forearms. His pants and shoes were the same pitch color of the shadows surrounding him. His own shadow stretched back into one of those chasms of the unknown, though he did not seem particularly aware of his own shadow as Sojourn now was. He took a step toward Sojourn with one hand out. The other hand ran through his hair, pushing away the wayward strands from his face. Sojourn recoiled. “Whoa, I’m not going to hurt you, kid. My name’s Sam. Or, Vapor… whichever you prefer.” “Why... are you here?” Sojourn looked around the room, futilely hoping that someone would be passing by to notice them.

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When Sojourn’s expression did not softened as he spoke, Vapor added, “Um, Liz called me, asked me to come.” Sojourn’s face softened at Liz's name, but he warily extended his own hand to the one Vapor had left hanging in the air, waiting. “Been here long?” “About an hour,” Vapor said. “Why haven’t you gone in yet?” Sojourn's eyes glanced to the far wall, on the other side of which was the conference. At least I think it's that way. He turned his head to the other wall, now unsure. “Why’d you leave?” Vapor asked with a knowing smile. “Good point,” Sojourn answered with a smile of his own. His mind tracked back to Ox leaping toward him earlier in the day. He shook the disturbing memory from his mind, but it came back. They began slowly pacing the room with Sojourn just in front on the other man. His hand ran again the wall Chymick had repaired, the a place where the armored man had first broken through. “I was here earlier when Jack and Ox –” Vapor's laugh interrupted. “I heard about that!” “It was a little frightening.” “Only 'a little'?” Vapor asked, tugging at the threads of Sojourn's weak bravado.

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“Ok, really frightening,” the teenager admitted. “So, Ox isn't here, is he?” Vapor asked. He glanced around the room nervously. “No. They were on the phone with each other when I left,” Sojourn explained. “Oh.” Vapor replied. “Even so... Well, it's a little frightening when someone like that loses control, you know?” Sojourn said. “Yeah, Jack's self-control is questionable, but he's gotten better.” Vapor paused. “Or, so I have heard.” “Better? Really?” Vapor shrugged. “Although, you were probably referring to Ox.” Sojourn smiled and relaxed in the companion of his new companion. “Either one, really.” Their conversation led them up the stairs at the back of the room to the gallery level. They stopped in front of the memorial fire. Their eyes surveyed the room as they leaned like casual kings against the railing. Sojourn stood within only a few feet of fire. His eyes look through it to the floor below. A minute or two passed without a word exchanged between Vapor and Sojourn. Vapor broke their silence. “What’re you looking at exactly?”

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“Huh? Oh, nothing. I guess I was just expecting something to happen.” Sojourn explain, purposefully attempting to be as vague as possible. “Like what?” Vapor asked. “I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to figure out a way to help.” “Well, it’s like Jack and Liz are constantly reminding me – and don’t let them know I’m passing on their advice ‘cause it damage my rep beyond repair – ‘If you have to force yourself to help, you probably aren’t actually helping anyone but yourself.’” Vapor added a prestigious accent to the quote that resembled neither Jack’s nor Liz’s voice. Nevertheless, Vapor managed to provoke a chuckle from his companion. “Come on, kid. Let’s go weather the storm.” “Sojourn. You can call me Sojourn... and, thanks, Sam.” “Ok then, Sojourn. You ready?” “I guess.” They made their way back down the stairs they had come up. Vapor walked a few feet in front. The shadows seemed to move with him and deepen wherever he walked. Sojourn's imagination began to work again, He has two names – Sam and Vapor – he has to be a hero. Just as they were about to exit, Sojourn turned back toward the memorial fire and whispered, “I just want to help somehow… you know, like he did.” “I feel the same w…” Vapor was speaking, but Sojourn couldn't hear the words. The entire room rotated and faded into black. People appeared from nowhere, floating like translucent apparitions. Voices faded in and out

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– hundreds of voices overlapping one another indecipherably. From the multitude, a single voice emerged along with a single featureless apparition below a bright light. I don’t trust him. He wants it too badly. Another voice emerged but without its own apparition. It hovered just in front of the other man. Worry not. My eyes are upon him. And, his minor transgressions are far outweighed by what he can offer in return. The light above the apparition pulsed, revealing the features of the man and his suit of armor. Even so. I’m moving the item to my cache in the Bay City. I would suggest you maintain your current profile. The light pulsed again, revealing a large crack along the front chest piece of the man's armor. Cast unceremonious on a table behind him, Sapien's mantle lay next to an assortment of tools and a single metallic disc. Agreed. You are doing well. Continue to keep me informed. The light above the apparition vanished and, with it, the detailed features of the room and all it contained. Sojourn’s vision diminished into a black nothingness, where a powerful and commanding voice whispered the words, Release them. The sound of thousands of crashing footsteps echoed in his mind. A wave of terror washed over him.

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When the real world came back into view, Sojourn's eyes awoke to something in the Legacy Room which he had not seen before. A battered and scarred helmet lay in a small case off to the side of the mantle's pedestal. Its hollow eyes bore into him. The bottom edge was ripped into a menacing grin. A plaque beneath read, “Chimeran Helm.” As his knees buckled and he slowly fell into unconsciousness, he fleetingly saw the entire taskforce gathered around him. They wore a myriad of expressions, but mostly they were of supreme concern. Sojourn tried to reassure them, but his body was presently out of his control. He continued to fall. By the grace of Halcyon’s abilities he floated gently during his last few inches to the floor. It would take several minutes for the taskforce to revive him, during which time not single word of animosity, even in jest, passed among them. *** Aurora entered her Champion’s private chamber late in the day after her solitary reconnaissance patrol of the city. Prism hovered a few feet off the floor in his traditional, levitating meditation. He could not yet fly, but his obsession with unlocking the secret was bringing him closer every day. As she approached, her own iridescent aura melded into her Champion’s to create a chromatic halo around them. There was no light but their own; the surrounding walls and bordered ceiling were encased in black. Aurora waited for permission to speak. “Have you found him?” Prism asked without opening his eyes.

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“No sir.” “Then why have you disturbed me yet again?” “The taskforce has formed. They are meeting currently. I request to be temporarily assigned to their detachment to offer whatever aid I may.” Aurora stood only a few feet away from her Champion. His contemplative posture did not change. His breathing remained even and steady, but she knew his answer before he spoke. “Denied. I have your assignment.” “Sir, with respect, our search for Wraith has proven fruitless. Month after month, there is no sign. I believe it time to consider that his criminal activities have been neutralized.” “He is not dead.” “Perhaps not, but is possible that he has retired? Or at least moved beyond our jurisdiction?” Aurora stepped forward. She was now only a little more than a foot away. She studied his face closely. Prism’s eyes remained closed but his brow narrowed and nostrils flared. His voice was louder, more aggressive, “Does he not still harness the pitch? Is his heart not filled with his own black nature? He is darkness. And,” Prism’s eyes flashed open, “he must be destroyed!” His body pulsed softly with white light. His eyes closed again, and he gently added, “if we are ever to be a people free of his great evil.”

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Aurora had subdued her own aura, pulling her own halo of light out of Prism’s. Prism’s aura had flared with his emotion and now illuminated a larger potion of the shadowed room. Two facets of light pressing against one another, the sources of which standing only a foot apart, it was a contest of will. The strange nature of the duel created a buffer of black between them. Their own luminescence rolled behind each of them like angelic wings. Aurora turned her head to the side, closed her eyes, and stepped back. Her Champion’s aura overtook her own. The light from his body pulsed again, filling the room with temporary photic flash. Newspaper clippings and surveillance photos covered ever inch of the walls. The light slowly faded, once again covering his Wraith obsession in shadow. Aurora turned toward the door and began to leave. “Hold,” Prism said, again speaking in his even, pensive tone. She stopped but did not turn again to face him. “It is conceivable that this thief is of his design,” he said. “You are permitted to monitor this taskforce and conduct your own investigation to determine the level of his involvement. You are to otherwise avoid contact with Protector Halcyon’s team. For no reason are you to offer them aid.” “Yes sir,” she said. She stepped through the chamber door, glancing back at her Champion as she left. “And remember, dear Aurora, no matter where he is, no matter what he has become, Wraith is never beyond my jurisdiction.”

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She left him as she had found him. Floating a few feet off the ground, eyes closed, Prism sat alone, silently holding back the darkness of his room with an unperceiving halo of light. *** “So Ox was really pissed, huh?” The sandy haired young man stretched back in bed. He watched Celerity step out of the shower and speed herself ready in a matter of seconds, everything except her boots. As fast as Pace was, his eyes could barely follow her movements. Eighteen years ago, as mere teenagers, they had been equals. As practically children, they had stood side-by-side and faced the great metal beast, Chimera. At that time, Pace was perhaps even a little faster. Over the years, Celerity had grown faster and faster. Pace had not. They had joined the Guild as partners, and now she was his Champion. “Oh yeah, but you know how he is. That’s his thing,” she said. Celerity squeezed her still-wet hair with a towel. “And why don't you just call him Doug? You do know he has a real name, right?” “I'm not calling him Doug!” Pace sat up. “That's all I need. To slip up and call him Doug. Your brother already hates me. If he hears me call him that, he will kill me.” “He will not. You're exaggerating.” Her body moved in a flash. She was sitting next to him now, pulling on her new boots. “Are you on?” Pace asked, wondering what her hurry was. “Yeesss, and so are you,” she said.

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“No, I’m off today,” Pace corrected. He gave her a smug smile, laid back again a wall of pillows, and closed his eyes. “Not anymore. As long as Vim is with Halcyon’s team, you are pulling double for me and Ox,” she could not contain her own amusement. She tried to suppress her laugh, it found an escape as she snorted it out her little nose. A huge grin crossed her tiny face. “What?!” Pace bolted upright from his previously relaxed position. “You heard me. You are off today with me, but Vim is on with Ox. Well, he's supposed to be, but Vim's not here, so you're Vim... Have fun with the strong-arms.” Celerity loomed over him now, pressing him back to his pillow. Her arms were holding her up, caging him beneath. “You are enjoying this, aren’t you?” he asked, his eyes as wide as saucers. “Maybe.” “You're sick.” Pace squirmed. Celerity leaned in. “And you're slow,” she replied. With two people who can stretch the time between two seconds into a dozen thoughts and actions, an awkward silence gave them both too much time to think, and regret. Celerity took charge of the moment and leaned back in. “You’re going to be late,” she said with a wink. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and vanished from the room in a blur.

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Taking one last moment to breathe easy before facing an unexpected shift, Pace stood up and headed into the shower. A few minutes later, he arrived downstairs reporting for duty. “You’re late,” Ox said. His face was hard; his eyes were narrowed. “I’m pulling double for you and Celerity. She had me on an errand,” Pace replied. “Word is your were in your room,” Ox said. “You’re keeping tabs on me?!” Pace’s cheeks flushed red. “Explain, herald,” Ox emphasized Pace’s title, reminding him of his rank. “Like I said, Celerity had me on an errand. When I got back, I went up to take a shower and put on a fresh uniform, so I wouldn’t look and smell like... well, like speedsters smell after a long shift, when reporting to you… sir.” Pace made a mental note of the lie, reminding himself to tell Celerity so that the story would stick. Ox leaned in and sniffed, “Ok. Good call.” The Champion’s face softened. Pace mentally sighed in relief. He took care not to let in show on his face. “What’s our first order of business, sir?” Pace asked. “No more ‘sir’ stuff for now. Maybe later if I get mad at you,” Ox gave a toothy grin, “Just Ox for now.”

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Pace stared blankly at his superior. He knew that strong-arms and speedsters were worlds apart. The two groups were always butting heads and pranking each other in the dormitories and gyms. But, attending Ox as his temporary herald was going to be something else entirely. “Do you know how long Vim will be on the taskforce?” he asked cautiously. “As long as it takes,” Ox answered flippantly. “Come on, work to do.” And she wants me to call him Doug, the speedster thought as he followed the giant Ox, walking more slowly through the halls of the Elysium than he ever had before. *** “Sojourn.” “Sojourn.” He felt a warmth pass through his body. Somewhere in the distance, Liz’s voice said, “He’s alright. Give him a minute.” Sojourn opened his eyes slowly. The overhead light of the conference room had been dimmed. He was lying comfortably on a sofa off to one corner of the room. Vim sat quietly on one side of the table; Vapor sat opposite him with his eyes closed. A vague look of concern was evident on both their faces, but otherwise they sat motionless. Sojourn noticed that Vapor seemed removed from the room. He's obviously worried about something, Sojourn thought, but he couldn't think of what that might be. Vapor looked over and saw that

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the boy was finally awake. The concern on his face changed to an expression of relief. Yet, Sojourn remained confused. Liz was kneeling by the sofa with a hand on Sojourn’s chest. Charlie and Jack were hovering just behind her. “What happened, buddy?” Jack asked. It came as a whisper – one used for a sick friend, as though a normally-spoken word might make the person turn for the worst. “I already told you –” Vapor said quietly, but Jack waved the words off. He had used his metal hand. Vapor stopped and sank further into his chair. “We’ve already heard your side of the story,” Jack said. Why is he mad at Vapor? Sojourn wondered. He saw little wrinkles formed on the bridge of Liz’s nose as Jack spoke. Her eyes narrowed as they glanced to the side where Jack was standing. She did not turn her head to look at him directly, but Jack must have sensed her thoughts. “I just want to hear if Sojourn can shed some more light on the incident,” Jack offered, throwing his hands up between himself and Liz. “I understand,” Vapor said softly and again closed his eyes, not truly caring whether that was what Jack meant or not. “You still don't trust me.” “Well?” Charlie asked eagerly. His question to Sojourn changed the momentum of the conversation. Jack and Vapor both turned away

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from each other to listen. Charlie was bouncing with excitement. Somehow, he seemed to know. “What did you see?” “Um... ” Sojourn sat up with Liz’s help. He searched his mind for a place to start. He took a few deep breaths and then told them what he had seen just before he had passed out. “And you didn’t see any of this?” Liz asked Vapor. “No… except the black room part. The lights were off in memorial as I previously mentioned,” Vapor said. “Not the same room,” Sojourn clarified. “Is there anything else you can tell us, Sojourn?” She turned her attention back to the youth sitting on the couch. “Well, it all felt so,” he struggled for a moment, “it felt immediate.” “Ok then. Everyone, let’s get to work,” Liz stood up from kneeling and walked over to the head of the conference table. She looked at Jack as she placed her hands on the chair. He shook his head. Her shoulders fell slightly, and she pulled the chair out and sat down. Charlie took his seat next to Vim. Jack helped Sojourn, who seemed a little unsteady on his feet. The metal gauntlet was cold to the touch, even through several layers of clothing. Sojourn tried not to wince as some of the hard edges dug into and pinched at his softer, fleshed arm. He could tell Jack was tried to be gentle, but the gauntlet was of an unforgiving construct. As they moved to the table, Sojourn noticed a dent in the wall. On the floor beneath it, the conference phone was smashed to bits.

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“Our call was... disconnected,” Jack said, making light of what Sojourn saw. “Ha, I'll say.” Jack seated Sojourn next to Liz then took his own seat at the round table in between Sojourn and Vapor. “So where do we start?” Vim lifted his head as though to speak. Liz looked to him and nodded. “We start with what we know,” Liz said. “The Sapien's mantle has been stolen. The perpetrator of the theft has advanced armor tech. According to Sojourn’s vision, he has at least one accomplice. Also, it seems that the perpetrator is concerned as to whether or not he can maintain possession, at least for the time being. Another party is interested in procuring the Mantle.” Liz surveyed the room, meeting each team member’s eyes with her own. “This is what we know,” she said, having taken Sojourn's vision, without question, as fact. “Now, speculations?” “This was a third-party job. The thief wasn’t taking the Mantle for himself.” Jack leaned forward over the table as he spoke. “Why not?” Sojourn asked. “Metalheads are predictable. They steal tech. Or, they steal money so they can buy tech,” Jack answered. “Nothing matters to a man wearing a tin-can except a better tin-can.” Charlie added. “The Mantle isn’t exactly high tech, nor is it worth much to fence. It’s a hot item. Everyone in the world recognizes it. It’s an icon. No one is

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going to bring that kind of trouble on themselves for the sake of their private collection,” Vapor added. “So, it’s reasonable to assume that the perpetrator was contracted to steal the Mantle. What else?” Liz asked. “He doesn’t trust somebody, and I’m betting it’s his employer,” Jack said. “Sounds about right. Why the pay the man when you can just steal it from the thief? What’s he gonna do? Report it to the cops?” Charlie’s face broke into grin. “These are all the predictable patterns. But the theft itself wasn’t predictable. What are we missing?” Liz asked. Sojourn squirmed at the thought of that voice enveloped in the black, “What if it’s not about the Mantle?” “What do you mean?” Jack asked. Sojourn answered, “Well, if no one would steal it for their personal collection, why would someone hire someone else to steal it for them? It would still be going to a personal collection. Same heat as the other way except one more person knows about it. Increases the chances of getting caught, right?” “Yeah, basically,” Vapor answered. “Go on...” “What about the voice saying ‘release them’? That sounds a little strange, doesn’t it?” Sojourn looked around the table.

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“Wraith,” Aurora voice floated in ahead of her. She entered the room dressed in street clothes. A small boy clutched her hand. The room turned to face her as she approached. “Prism seems to believe that Wraith may be behind this or at least has some level of involvement.” She let go of the little boy’s hand and whispered for him to go play quietly at the sofa. The boy waved enthusiastically to Vapor, who gave a subtle but happy wave back. Aurora pulled out the chair on the opposite end from Liz and dropped heavily into the seat. “Prism thinks Wraith is behind everything wrong in this city. That doesn’t mean he did it,” Vapor said. “Besides, I thought the Guild was undermanned. Now there are four Guild members on this taskforce. Two of them are Champion's Heralds.” Liz raised her hand and lowered it down toward Vapor, diminishing his ire. “What’s your assignment?” she asked Aurora. “Monitor the taskforce’s progress and conduct an independent investigation to determine the degree of Wraith’s involvement,” she replied. “So you haven’t been assigned to us,” Liz stated. “Nor am I authorized to offer any assistance if you get in over your head,” Aurora finished. “Uh, no offense, but… then why are you here?” Charlie asked.

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“Because we’re friends,” she answered. “All I know is that if this has peaked Prism’s interest enough to have me break my standing orders, it must be bigger than any of us realize.” “What are your standing orders?” Vapor asked. “To hunt Wraith,” Aurora said in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. Vapor felt a small jab against his leg. He looked down to see the small boy retract his poking finger. “Hi Michael,” he said as the boy looked up at him. The young boy’s face was round and bore an inquisitive expression. He smiled up at Vapor, “Hi.” “Michael,” Aurora called. She walked over and gently grabbed her son’s arm. “I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t have a ‘sitter tonight.” Her face was tired yet beautiful. She smiled apologetically. “Um, it’s ok. We get along fine, don't we?” Vapor said, looking down at the boy. Michael nodded back. “Michael, go back over there and wait for me, ok?” She said pointing back to sofa. “Ok,” Michael said and obediently walked back to the sofa, hopping up to his seat. Aurora sat down again at the table. “I’m sorry,” she said again, this time to everyone. A small trace of embarrassment crossed her face, but it was quickly replaced by her usual steady gaze.

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Her apology was unnecessary. No one seemed to be bothered by Michael's presence in the room. Liz was the first to speak again, “I don’t know how you do it, Jill. Champion’s Herald and mother, you’re a saint.” Aurora laughed, “Not quite. But thank you. Actually, I should probably be going anyway. It’s getting late.” She looked over to Michael who was still quietly sitting on the sofa. “He’s been so patient today,” she said to herself. “Anyway, I just wanted to give you a head’s up outside of official channels.” Aurora stood up and pushed her chair under the table. She motioned for her son, and Michael hopped off the sofa enthusiastically and hurried over. They turned to leave. “Today was a big day,” Michael said to his mother. “Yes it was,” she answered, not quite sure what he meant. “Tomorrow is going to be bigger,” the little boy said. Michael turned quickly and waved goodbye to Vapor. The man in black offered another rare smile to the boy and waved back. “Aurora has given us some insight,” Liz stated. “Yeah, Prism’s still obsessed. Big insight,” Vapor said. “I hate to agree so completely with my shifty friend here, but Aurora is still doing what she always does. Prism just dressed it up in prettier words this time. She spying on everyone and hunting for Wraith,” Charlie looked a little disgusted. “It’s pathetic. Wraith hasn’t been seen or heard of in years. It’s time he let it go.”

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“She wants to help, and on some level Prism wants her to be involved. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have her conducting her own investigation.” “You think ‘Glowstick’ is actually going to get involved in this?” Jack asked. “Maybe, but it’s enough that Jill is. She’ll do what she can for us. The whole reason she stopped by tonight was to tell us that,” Liz said. “That’s not what she said,” Charlie replied. Liz looked at her younger brother. He responded with an idiot stare. “I really don’t know how men manage to survive in the world.” Vim nodded to Liz. “Really?” she asked. He gave her an intense look. “Ok, but it's going to get ugly,” she answered the thought he had directed to her. “Vim wants to say something, and... I can't believe I am doing this.” Vim stood up violently, and Liz spoke: “Enough! I’m tired of this knitting circle crap. What is our course of action? I wanna go bust some heads.” Vim was to his feet, emphasizing his silent tone with his imposing stature. Everyone turned to Liz with a stunned look. She just shrugged.

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“Settle down, Vim,” Jack said. He rose to his own feet and leaning forward aggressively. He was the first one to get what was going on. The two locked glares. “You wanna throw, little man?” Liz asked. She shook her head in disgust. “Oh for crying out, this is ridiculous!” Jack and Vim were beyond words now. They were just staring and growling like two wild dogs meeting in a alley. “Settle down. Both of you.” Liz lifted her right hand wreathed in a crackling blue energy. Her fingers flexed outward, and both Jack and Vim slammed into their chairs. Sojourn startled backward, and his chair tipped. An invisible force caught his chair and righted it. Liz turned her head to him, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Charlie yawned. He had already seen four consecutive hours of bickering earlier in the evening. Vim was struggling in vain to get to his feet again as Liz spoke, “It’s been a long day. I think our best course of action would be to get some sleep. We’ll relieve the regular patrol for the Bay City area tomorrow. They could use the break, and we can take the time to canvas the area for some sign of the Mantle. We have a few contacts down there. If that’s where it has been moved or will be moved, someone down there probably knows something.” When she finished speaking, she released her hold on Jack and Vim. Vim popped to his feet unexpectedly but looked as though he did not know what to do from there. Jack, who had not bothered to struggle in the first place, remained seated.

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“We’re leaving town?” Sojourn asked. “Huh? Oh! You really aren't from around here,” Charlie said. “No, Bay City is the east side of the city. The docks, the port authority, and a bunch of warehouses,” Charlie answered. “Cardinal City is so big these days that the city is divided into quadrants. There’s Bay City, Mountain View, Northern Heights, and the Southside.” “Why is everything here so confusing?” Sojourn asked under his breath. “Oh yeah! And the Epicenter joins everything together in the middle. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” Charlie added. The rest of the group stood from the table. Liz set a time for everyone to regroup in the morning. Vim left immediately after. Vapor approached Liz. Jack and Charlie took a wave of her hand as cue to wander off for a few minutes. Sojourn was a little slower to leave. As he exited the room, he overheard some of their conversation. “I don’t think I should be a part of this,” Vapor said softly. “Why not?” “Come on, Liz. You heard Aurora. They suspect Wraith. This is too big for me.” “It’s not a problem.” “I don’t want to be a part of any investigation into Wraith,” Vapor said. “I know, and you won’t be. Why are you so afraid of him anyway?” Liz asked.

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“Why are you not?” “He’s gone,” she said. “You don’t know that. No one knows that. I still hear whispers from the shadows.” Sojourn found himself dragging his heels to hear more when Jack and Charlie called out for him from down the hall. He took a moment to debate his decision. He hastened his steps to catch up with the others. They were standing outside now at the front entrance of the Arboretum. Sojourn and Charlie shivered in a unnaturally cold autumn breeze. Jack did not seem to notice. The moon was full but mostly hidden behind a tall skyscraper to the north. A few minutes later, Liz met up with the boys outside. Abigail appeared on the other side and locked the door. She waved goodnight through the glass. They waved back. “Where’s Vapor?” Sojourn asked Liz. “He left out the back,” she said, “And, don’t worry. Despite what you may have heard, he isn’t backing out of this.” Sojourn blushed. “You shouldn’t be eavesdropping,” Jack said. “Yeah, you shouldn’t be eavesdropping. So, what’d he say?” Charlie asked. Jack winked to Charlie. They both leaned in to hear what Sojourn might say. Sojourn shrank back a little.

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“Just what I’ve been thinking. This sounds too big for me. I always wanted to be a hero, work for the Guild, you know? But, I don’t know how I’m really going to be able to help you guys.” Sojourn shrugged but did not turn away as he spoke. “Eh, don’t worry about that. You’ll have your moment before you know it. Until then, just be ready for anything,” Jack said. Liz smirked. “You could take a lesson from yourself,” she said to Jack. “And, what was that macho display with Vim all about? You know better than that!” Her voice was raised. “Lizzy,” Jack pleaded. “Don’t ‘Lizzy’ me!” “Yeah, don’t ‘Lizzy’ her!” Charlie said smiling, just to exacerbate the problem. “Shut it, Charlie!” they both roared. Liz breathed out a low, long silent sigh. “You coming by tonight?” Jack asked. She was shocked by his invitation. It hadn't been extended in a very long time. “Whoa, I don't want to know stuff like that about my sister,” Charlie said waving both hands in front of him to ward away the thought. Liz turned her head very slowly toward her brother. Little wrinkles creased the bridge of her nose. The frustration boiled behind her eyes.

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Her gaze began to bend with a crazy gleam. Her face flushed with pink. “Ok, not appropriate, Charlie,” Jack said. “Sorry,” Charlie said sheepishly. Liz glared at her brother, drilling him with her stare. She gasped in a deep breath, as if to prepare to loose a banshee’s wail, and energy crackled around her hands. Charlie flinched, but the angry scream for which he cowered so expectantly never came. Halfway through her breath, her body rose from the ground. The air swirled around her, sweeping a braid of her long hair across her face. Soon she was off in the distant night sky, leaving the others gazing upward in her wake. “I’ll come by tonight,” Charlie said to Jack while gazing up as his departing sister. “You know, as a consolation prize.” Jack let out a sigh. “Right. Alright, come on then. You need a place to stay, kid?” he asked Sojourn. He tossed the words lightly to make it an easy catch. “Yeah,” Sojourn answered softly. “Ok, you too then. Let’s get going.”

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Issue Seven: Guardians The next morning when the boys roused themselves from sleep, Liz was already moving through Jack’s kitchen. The coffee maker was gurgling. The warm aroma drifted like a heavy fog through the tiny apartment and steeped into the pores of his weather-cracked hardwood floors. His loft was in one of the old Southside buildings with drafty windows. This time of year, the draft continuously and invisibly snaked its way along the floor, blanketing it with a few inches of frigid air. The exterior wall, which opened onto a neighborhood intersection, was the same red brick inside and out. The whole district was constructed in a red brick facade with accents of heavy copper, aged to a thick and musty green. The materials from the golden era of the early city had once been used in the best of the downtown highrise apartments. Then, the copper had been polished. The windows, rimmed by stained glass, were cleaned regularly by crews of window-washers. Now, cracks and crusted mortar covered these signs of sophistication like so many varicose veins showing the signs of neglected age. The colored glass was dulled with dust and dirt from the outside. Charlie and Sojourn had fallen asleep in the living room, which was furnished in the mis-matched colors of furniture slowly acquired over a decade.

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Charlie had taken the over-sized plaid reclining chair. He had used the frayed right arm rest as a pillow. Sojourn had won a game of rockpaper-scissors for the broken down, lime green couch. His canvas bag had served as his own make-shift, albeit lumpy, pillow. The warm smell of coffee enticed Charlie enough to rouse him from his curled position in the chair. The ratty blanket Jack had given him the night before was cast absently to the floor. Sojourn rose and neatly folded his own blanket and left it in a small square on the arm of the couch. Remembering that he had bolted the door, Charlie asked her sister, “How’d you get in here?” “Uh... you left the window unlocked,” Liz answered. She poured a cup of coffee. “No, I didn’t,” Charlie retaliated, not really sure that he had even check the windows. “Nevermind, I don't want to know the truth. I left the window unlocked, like you said.” The door to the bedroom door opened. Jack emerged, bare-chested and wearing a baggy pair of sweat pants. He yawned and walked by Liz. His outstretched hand took the steaming cup of coffee out of her hand as he passed. “You're awesome,” he mumbled and took a sip. She smiled and poured another cup for herself. Sojourn studied the gauntlet of Jack's right arm. Until now, he had only imagined Jack wore it like a large glove, but four heavy bolts pinned the artifact to his chest. There were matching bolts in his back.

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The flesh around the bolts was red, cracked, and leathery. Sojourn sympathetically touched his own shoulder and winced. Jack took another sip along with a deep breath. Sojourn thought the contraption looked to be incredibly painful; Jack didn't seem to notice. As he looked up from his mug, he said, “How’d you get in here?” He was staring past Charlie and Sojourn. Both of them turned their heads. To their surprise, Vapor was standing behind them. “The window was unlocked,” he said. Charlie looked to his sister in disbelief. She smiled, then stuck her tongue out at her little brother. “Oh,” Jack said and shrugged. “Well, good morning, I guess. Make yourself at home.” Unperturbed by the apparent breaking-andentering, Jack walked back into the bedroom and shut the door. After a moment, the pipes in the wall squealed to life. Hot water pumped through a shower head in a bathroom somewhere beyond the bedroom door. Sojourn and Charlie stood staring at Vapor. Neither blinked. “Did you sleep well?” His voice sounded thin but smoky. His hands were folded in front of him; and, as far as Sojourn could tell, he was wearing the same clothing as the evening before – still neatly pressed. “He did,” Charlie said, pointing his finger to Sojourn. Charlie craned his stiffened neck to work out the kinks. “He won the couch, and I got the lousy armchair.” Smiling, he patted Sojourn on the back and walked over to the kitchen. Liz rustled his hair as he passed. He went straight to the refrigerator and snatched open the door.

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“Oh man!” Charlie cried out in disappointment. Still holding the refrigerator door open, he turned back to his sister. He looked as though he were about to cry. Liz struggled to contain her smile. She failed, and the feeling tumbled out through a snort. The moment that the smile broke across her face, she pulled out the bag she had purposefully hidden behind her. Charlie's eyes widened at the sight of the logo of his favorite breakfast burrito stand. He rushed over and slowly reached out for the bag. He tried to keep his hand steady, as if its trembling might dispel the sight as a mere mirage. Charlie took hold of the large bag and buried his face in the opening. He took and deep breath and looked up. “Who's the best sister in the world?” Liz asked. “You are,” Charlie said in an awe-stuck whisper. His eyes were misty. He thrust his hand into the bag. “Ah-ah!” Liz reprimanded. Charlie froze with his hand still in the bag. He wore the frightened expression of a small animal about to be crushed. “Give one of those to Sojourn first,” Liz said. With a sigh of relief, Charlie pulled his hand from the bag and tossed the paper-wrapped meal to Sojourn. The teenager fumbled but caught it. It was still warm. “Thanks, Liz,” Sojourn said.

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“Of course, no problem.” The sound of paper tearing behind her prompted her to add, “You may want to look away from this monster while he eats.” To avoid watching Charlie devastate enough food for ten men, Sojourn returned to staring at Vapor while his hands unwrapped his breakfast. “You’re wondering how I got through an open window on the sixth floor of a building,” Vapor said, speaking Sojourn’s mind. Charlie’s interest piqued. He looked over his shoulder toward Vapor while absentmindedly discarding his third paper wrapper. “He can float,” Liz said, ruining the suspense. “Float?” Sojourn questioned. “Yeah,” Vapor answered. “Shower’s free,” Jack said, emerging once again from the bedroom. He was fully dressed but still drying his hair with a towel. Charlie bolted through the door, uncharacteristically abandoning a bag with food still inside. Liz reached in and handed one to Jack. Sojourn searched for his canvas bag. Upon locating it, he gingerly pulled out a fresh set of clothes and laid them out neatly. He then discreetly pulled his little book from his jacket and scratched another quick note in the back. “I like that,” Liz said, watching Sojourn. He looked up. He realized she knew what he had and what he had written. He blushed.

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“Don't be embarrassed. I think it's perfect,” Liz said. Her eyebrows pressed together in concern as she studied the teenager's expression. She tried to stay out of his thoughts. Sojourn's fingers unconsciously tapped against the unused phone hidden in his pants pocket, and one thought in particular slipped through. The thought behind gesture and flood of feelings accompanying them made Liz regret saying anything at all. I should have known better. She looked to Charlie. He's just like us. *** Thirty minutes later, everyone who needed a shower had showered. By eight o’clock, everyone left Jack's place dressed and with breakfast on their stomachs. At the mag-lev station Vapor took his leave, and boarded a train that would drop him close to the Arboretum. He said that he intended to look in on Abigail and see if there was anything she needed in the aftermath of the previous day's events. When the train arrived for the rest of the taskforce, Vim was already on board in the Guild-reserved passenger car. Jack grimaced as he stepped in. He rolled his shoulders as if he were trying to shake off an unwanted pat on the back. He preferred to travel with everyone else – like a normal person. The ride to the Bay City area was uncomfortably silent. Sojourn avoided making eye contact with Liz. Jack avoided eye contact with everyone, choosing to stare intently out the window. Charlie busied himself with trying to get Vim to speak by being as irritating as possible. When the doors finally slid open at their destination, the

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taskforce broke into a stampede, trampling one another to get out of the car. Liz handed ear-bud communicators to Jack and Sojourn. Vim had requisitioned them late the night before at her request. Sojourn finally shook off his embarrassment and looked Liz in the eye. He thanked her and popped it in his ear. Jack hesitated and looked at the remaining ear-bud warily. “It's not an Arbiter. It's not remotely related to an Arbiter,” she assured him. That was all he needed to hear. He took it and placed it in his ear. “Two teams of two. Jack and Sojourn. Chymick and Vim. I’ll be your eyes in the sky. We’re in the field now, so let’s play it by the book,” Halcyon said. With this, Charlie and Vim took on airs of solemn professionalism, nodding their acceptance of Liz's orders. “Your comm is patched into our frequency,” she continued. “The signal is active,” she added. She tapped the side of the Arbiter she had just hooked over her own ear. Chymick and Vim followed suit. “Ok, let's canvas the area,” she concluded. Shortly after, the taskforce split off in different directions – Jack and Sojourn to the left, Chymick and Vim to the right, and Halcyon skyward. *** Vapor arrived at the Arboretum a few minutes before nine o’clock. The gardens were especially quiet this morning. Only a few people strolled through the outdoor walkways. Vapor found Abigail in the rose garden speaking with Aurora. Michael was closely inspecting a colorful bloom on a nearby bush. As Vapor approached, the young boy’s attention

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shifted from the bush to the man in black. A smile crossed Michael’s face. His little hand came up in a wave, and his feet started to propel him toward Vapor, until the defensive cry of his mother's voice cut him short. “Michael! Come over here,” Aurora said firmly. Without complaint or dismay, the little boy spun on his heels and sped off toward his mother. Vapor let out a sigh. He breathed deeply and came over to stand before Abigail, Aurora, and Michael. Abigail nodded to him, “What brings you here this morning, my boy?” “The Guardians are on patrol in the Bay City area. I thought I’d come by here to check on you and the Arboretum. Stand vigil, as it were.” Vapor said after clearing his throat. “The Guardians?” Aurora asked. “Halcyon felt it best that we had an actually name for the taskforce. To help promote camaraderie between the members.” “Is it working?” Abigail asked. Her tone was suspicious. Vapor shrugged. He thought of Jack and Vim as comrades. “It might. She had just named us when I split off to head this direction.” “Anyway, it’s like I was saying, Abby. If you could watch him today,” Aurora said squeezing her son’s hand affectionately, “that would be great. And I can pay you for your trouble…” “No, no. That’s not necessary. It’s no trouble,” Abigail said, waving off any further attempt to compensate her for her time.

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“Well, ok, but I owe you,” Aurora passed Michael’s hand to Abigail, “Do what Miss Abby asks you to, ok sweetie?” “Yes ma’am,” Michael answered. “We’ll be fine. You better head off or you’ll be late,” Abigail said. A few minutes later, after a departing hug to both her son and her friend, Aurora left the Arboretum for her Guild duties. I guess if Abby's ok with him hanging around, Aurora thought, thinking of Vapor. And Michael seems to really like him. She head off down the sidewalk in the cool morning air. Sam is a good guy, I suppose. “Michael, why don’t you go back to exploring the garden like you were before,” Abigail suggested gently. “Ok,” he said and happily tromped off. Once it was obvious that Michael was completely absorbed in his new adventure, she turned back to Vapor, “So why are you really here?” “I told you…” he started. “I know what you told me in front of a Prism’s Herald, but what do you have to say now that she is gone?” Abigail asked. “Bay City was Wraith’s territory. As long as it is suspected that Wraith is an active part of this little misadventure, Liz decided it would be best it if I steered clear of the area,” Vapor said. He was unable to prevent his eyes from anxiously darting toward the shadows creeping from the surrounding foliage. “Your relationship with him is over then?”

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“Yes.” The answer was absolute. His face had drawn into a grimace, but his expression softened as he continued. “I don't want anything to do with him. Or any other member of the Pride.” Abigail thought of the stories she had heard of the the criminal syndicate based out of New Haven, a seedy metropolis up the coast approximately two hundred miles from Cardinal City. “But you suspect that your presence may endanger the efforts of the Guardians?” she asked. “Mm,” he winced at the thought, “Yes.” “And yourself?” Abigail was prying, she knew, but there wasn't any harm in it. If he had really cut all ties. Vapor did not answer. “Well, you can’t just loaf around here,” she snapped, taking on her cranky, old lady persona. “If you’re here, I’m going to put you to work,” Abigail stated sternly. Vapor nodded his approval. She smiled back. “Good,” she said, “first, I don’t think that young one has had any breakfast. And, by the looks of those bags under your eyes neither have you.” Vapor stared blankly back at her in response. He did not follow her. “Well, the kitchen is in the back. Get to it.” The light went on in his head. Vapor nodded again and turned to get Michael’s attention. The sight of the child made him falter. Michael had always approached him before. He did not seem to know what to say.

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Abigail stepped up beside him and placed a hand on the man's shoulder, “Michael dear, Sam here is going to cook you some breakfast. Why don’t you walk with him to the kitchen and see if he needs any help?” Michael’s attention snapped up to the two adults. He was standing a few feet away, buried up to his shoulders in the bushes. He smiled eagerly at the word ‘breakfast.’ “See?” she whispered to Vapor, “it’s that easy.” “Most people don’t actually call me Sam,” he whispered back. “Michael and I aren’t most people, though. Now are we?” she replied. “You should remember that. Especially not him,” she nodded toward the boy. He was standing in front of them now. “Make sure to make enough for me,” Abigail said. She pushed Vapor, who stumbling forward. “Well, um, ok then. Let’s, uh, go find that kitchen,” he stammered out. “I know where it is! I know where it is! I’ll show you,” Michael said. He grabbed Vapor’s hand. The boy tugged and pulled, dragging Vapor off toward the back of the building. The pale young man looked back helplessly toward the elderly caretaker. The sight of her chuckling quietly made him painfully aware that his silent plea was made in vain. She smiled with bright eyes, twinkling her fingers in a coy, little wave. She watched as the pair went off to find the kitchen. Remember that, my shadowy friend, especially not him. ***

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He was not just any hired goon. He was Monolith – the most advanced armor tech thief in the business. His name was always whispered when a big job had to be done, but he didn't come cheap. Armor tech is, after all, expensive to procure and even more expensive to maintain. And now, his armor was cracked. A long, crooked gash down the front of his chestplate glared back at him. Over the years, Monolith had come face to face with a variety of metahuman heroes. Strong-arms, speedsters, elementals, it did not matter. He and his armor had overcome them all. He made sure his tech was always one step ahead… except this time. Jack Kite, the former Kid Comet, was practically a joke in the metahuman community – a sidekick who never decided whether to step up and become a hero or step aside to live a simpler life. He was neither a hero nor a civilian. And, up until yesterday, he had no true enemies other than himself. Then, he loosed enough power to crack Monolith’s armor. The man sat backwards in a chair and stared at his armor. The plates hung neatly on a vertical harness almost giving the appearance of another man in the room, hunched in servitude. The mark of defeat screamed out loud enough to make his eyes bleed with rage. He had successfully completed his mission to steal Sapien's mantle. He was now a legend, if for nothing more than sheer audacity. But to have his armor damaged so severely from a single blow – by a second-rate, hasbeen sidekick – it diminished the effect. It was insufferable. His frustration boiled to the surface, and he lurched to his feet. From an array of tools, he snatched an unlabeled spray can from his work bench. He then attached a thin extender to the spray can nozzle. Inserting the extender tip into the crack of his armor, he filled the damaged area with black foam. After removing the excess foam with a

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flat-edged scrapper, the man smoothed the surface. When he finished, the patching material was flush with the rest of the armor. He set the spray can back down in its original place of the table. Though it did not look it, there was an strange organization to the pile of tools. It all had to do with how quickly each item could get his armor working again. Until now, he had never used this can. Again, the blood boiled red in his face. He snatched the only another spray can from the table and applied a clear aerosol coat to the foam. The black foam hardened. It was the best he could manage for the time being. He set the unmarked can in the case along with all the tools on the workbench. Monolith packed the rest of his things, knowing it was not safe to stay in one place too long. He removed a semi-automatic pistol from the same case where he had placed his tools. Ratcheting the slide back, the man took aim on the newly repaired chestplate and fired at point blank range. The bullet was easily stopped by the newly hardened foam. The flattened slug slid off the front of armor and pinged harmlessly against the floor. Satisfied with the result of his work, he returned the pistol to the case and sealed it shut. The man took several minutes to slowly don his armor. He reveled in the ecstasy of assuming his role as the world's greatest armored criminal since Chimera. Monolith was his birthright, and he loved every moment of it. The technophile activated the controls in his armor and brought the system to full power. Then, he hooked the tool/repair case to the latching harness on his back. A few diagnostic programs were running to accommodate for some adjustments made during the repair and the added weight of the case. Meanwhile, Monolith secured the mantle in a large, reinforced metal case with a heavy handle.

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Monolith’s associate had given him some warning concerning the new taskforce. He knew they were close. Somehow, they had discovered that he was in the Bay City area. His initial reaction was to immediately relocate to another safe house in the city. However, upon learning that Jack Kite was on the taskforce he had changed his plans. He would still make his delivery on time as planned, after a slight detour to restore the natural order. Mason be damned. He had nearly left when he remembered the small, metal disc on the table. He smiled. His employer's gift would certainly come in handy. *** Chymick and Vim traced through the streets in unison. Their choreographed movements were smooth and efficient. The pair singled out the area informants for questioning but had managed to uncover very little information. They had corroborated several rumors that the mantle was in Bay City, but no one seemed to know where it might be hidden. Their patrol route led them down the docks where they had been led to believe another informant might offer the information they were seeking. “Ok, fine,” Chymick relented. “If you don't really know anything... I guess it won't matter then if we see how far into the bay my silent friend here can throw you” Chymick looked down at his fingers nails as if he were thoroughly bored by the exchange. Out of the corner of his eye, he was closely gauging the man's reactions. With the man dangling from his grip, Vim reared back and looked out to the horizon on the water.

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I wonder if he would really throw him, Chymick thought. “Monolith!” the man screamed. “That's all I know! I swear! Now just leave me alone you damned freaks!” the man squirmed under Vim's grip. His feet were kicking wildly. “Ok,” Chymick said, looking up with interest, “Now I believe you.” Vim turned his head toward Chymick, with a forlorn look. “Sorry, Vim. I guess we'll have to find someone else for you to throw into the bay.” Vim winked and set the man back on his feet. Good. At least he knew it was a bluff, Chymick thought. The informant ran down the dock, yelling back at them, “You Guild bastards! You aren't heroes! You're nothing but a bunch of bullies! The whole city hates you freaks!” He disappeared around a stack of orange and yellow shipping containers. “You'll get what's coming to you!” After the man was gone, Chymick spoke to Vim, “I suppose we could’ve been a little more polite.” Vim shrugged. “Maybe he's right,” Chymick mumbled, thinking of the informant's angry screams. He pressed a switch on his Arbiter headset, “Halcyon. Chymick reporting. We have a confirmation on the identity of the assailant. He goes by the name Monolith.” “Good work you two,” her voice said over the air waves.

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“Does anyone know that name?” Chymick added less formerly. “Yeah, I do,” Vapor voice crackled through the comm, “He’s a highcaliber contract thief from New Haven, a member of the Pride… very expensive… thank you, you can just put the butter over there for the moment.” “Butter?” Jack asked through the comm. “Um, no... we don't need the milk anymore... sorry, I'm cooking breakfast with Michael,” Vapor answered. “Thanks for the info, Vapor,” Halcyon responded. “Vapor out.” “Breakfast?” Chymick's voice chimed in, only a moment too late. “You've already eaten, Charlie,” Liz answered. Her voice seemed close but buried beneath a heavy film of digital compression. “I could eat again,” he answered. Jack was quick to divert the conversation back to it's original intent. “So how do we find this Monolith?” he asked. A loud garble of static fizzed in their ears. Their ear-bud comm units and Arbiter head-sets were scrambled through a series of low pitch frequencies. After a moment, the static cleared, and a male voice answered Jack’s question, “Just follow the blinking light.” “That’s him!” Sojourn said.

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“What blinking light?” Chymick asked, spinning around trying to find some sign of the trail. “There,” Sojourn said through the comm. He pointed to the top of a nearby building, and he and Jack took off toward what he had seen. “That's not real specific,” Chymick replied, “Since we aren't actually standing next to you.” “Oh, right,” Sojourn answered. He was breathing hard. “It's a large communications antenna... on the roof of a building. Vim pointed and Chymick's eyes followed. The antenna rose from the roof of a nearly warehouse. The top of it blinked on and off with a red warning light. From the distance, they could see an man in armor standing at the edge of the roof. Vim took off in a sprint. “We’re engaging,” Chymick managed to say, before sprinting off to catch up with his partner. *** “Hold position and wait for the rest of the team,” Halcyon said, knowing full well that no one listening to her orders anymore. She turned slowly in the air. She switched her Arbiter’s visual sensors to actively search for the metahuman signals, hoping to pick up Vim and her little brother. “Found you,” she whispered. She focused her mind on the spot where the Arbiter indicated they were and sped forward just beneath the cloud cover overhead. “Jack, I’m a few minutes away. I need you to keep things under control until I get there,” she said into the comm.

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“Understood. Sojourn and I are on route. We’re only a block away from their position. Meet you there,” Jack replied. Halcyon’s mind focused more intently on her destination, and her flight speed increased. She was the furthest away from the rendezvous. A nagging feeling in her gut made her think that was not by accident. This was a trap. Her eyes flared with blue energy. She summoned the winds to her back in her best effort to speed her flight across Bay City. She knew it would not be enough to get her there when the rest of her team arrived. Just keep him busy for a few minutes, Jack. She sent the thought ahead of her. It met him as he climbed the stairs to the roof of the building. There was no response. Halcyon urged the wind to push a little harder. *** Monolith stood atop the warehouse with the metal reinforced case to the left of his feet. The entire taskforce, except Halcyon, burst through the door to the roof at once, and they slowly encircled the thief and his prize. The armored man sized up his opponents. The four young men looked like a motley crew of superhero wannabes. His associate had sent him profiles on each of them. This is going to be too easy, he thought. Vim stood a foot taller than the rest. His muscles stretched his Guild uniform to its limits. He watched the armored man closely. Rather than the frenzied bloodlust of other strong-arms, a cold lifelessness

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echoed in the recesses of his eyes. It was genuine hatred. He hated this man. But, Monolith had dealt with strong-arms before. Chymick barely filled his own uniform. It was obvious he took little time or concern to make sure it fit properly. Even his belt hung loosely, sagging under the weight of the buckle. At first, he stepped forward to stand with Jack and Vim, and then he stepped back to stand with Sojourn. He could not decide where he belonged. He's not a fighter, the armored thought, pegging the young man as support personnel. Sojourn wore the same style of faded but colorful clothing as he had the day before, and his eyes beamed with fear like an all-points bulletin. Monolith knew nothing about him, but the look in the boy's eyes said he did not belong. He'll rabbit at the first sign of trouble, no doubt. Jack seemed just as pathetic as Monolith had been imagining him since their initial encounter. “I don’t know you, boy, so I will permit you to leave while you still are able,” Monolith said, motioning to Sojourn. “He’s with us,” Jack fired back. The vents on his gauntlet had opened and were spitting vaporous, blue light. “A poor choice of company, I assure you.” Monolith waited a moment, “Well then, you missed your chance. The offer is rescinded. You are one of them now,” Monolith stated. He noticed the shiver that ran through Sojourn as he spoke, but his responding grin was hidden beneath his helmet. He turned to face Jack directly, “But all I really want is you, Mr. Kite.”

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“Return the mantle,” Jack demanded. “It’s right here,” came Monolith’s response. He motioned to the case near his feet. “It’s yours for the taking. Of course, that's only if –” “Enough talking!” Jack shouted. Vim snarled; and, together, they charged.

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Issue Eight: A Flash of Thunder Vim’s charge came to an abrupt halt. He slammed hard against a kinetic barrier three feet in front of Monolith. The force of the impact pulsed through the energy dome like a shallow wave through a pool of water. A small disc at Monolith's feet shimmered. A green light in the center of disc blinked wildly. The strong-arm was hit with as much force as he had thrown into his charge. The dome sent him sailing back toward the rest of his team. His body gouged a stripe of broken concrete in the surface of the roof. Had Sojourn jumped out to break his fall as was his first thought, he would have been knocked off the ledge of the roof. Instead, they were tangled together as Vim skidded to a halt. Sojourn was knocked flat with Vim on top. He felt like he was be crushed to death by the sheer weight of the man. Chymick knelt down and laid his hands on the ground. A mirror flash strobed out along the path left in the wake of Vim’s uncontrolled skid. The gouged concrete melted into a returning wave, splashing against a flash. The shockwave hit the energy barrier during the flash, sending more little ripples through the nearly transparent dome. “Pathetic. Truly pathetic,” Monolith said. His voice streamed out through a digitizing filter. Jack’s anger visibly flared to life through the blue comet tails swirling around both his real and metallic hands. His hairs stood on end. The vents on his gauntlet hissed. Vaporous light streamed out revealing an

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inner glow beneath the metal surface. The sight reminded Sojourn of the memorial fire at the Arboretum. “I brought it with me, you know. It’s right here.” Monolith motioned again to the box by his feet. “Why don’t you come and take it from me?” The challenge had been made. Monolith stood motionless and watched the confounded group prepare to answer. “Charlie! Vim!” Jack shouted. Chymick stepped forward to be shoulderto-shoulder with Jack. Vim soon untangled himself from Sojourn and came to stand to Jack's other side. Monolith did not miss that he was standing a little further back than the other two. Oh, don't be shy, Monolith thought with a smile. Jack bolted forward with Chymick and Vim arcing out to flank the armored man. They quickly surrounded him. Jack unleashed a groundshaking punch against the barrier with his fleshed arm. The barrier absorbed the blow and punched back, sending Jack sliding along the ground. He slid to a stop on the balls of his feet, lurching forward again. Stupid man, Monolith thought as he watched Jack repeat the same mistake Vim had just made – twice. Jack's metal arm sprang forward to punch but stopped just short of the barrier. He yelled to Chymick, “Inside out.” Chymick’s hands again pressed against the rooftop. From inside the barrier, little mirrored pools formed. Four consecutive flashes brought with them four small, stalagmites crudely fashioned from the rooftop's surface – asphalt, concrete, and dried tar. Monolith stumbled on his

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feet, before realizing the constructs were no threat. One of the formations rattled the disc at his feet. It settled back to the ground like a spun coin losing its gyroscopic momentum. The barrier rippled. Jack used the inertia of his punch to pull him to the tips of his toes, and pressed his armored shoulder into the barrier. He forced his body to relax. With no force other than his weight leaning against his shoulder, Jack sank through the jelly-like barrier to the other side. Gotcha. Monolith figured Jack would be the first one through. Before Jack had the time to loose a sarcastic remark about Monolith’s tech, expensive servos whirled, and an armored fist smashed into his face. The full force of Monolith's armor delivered a blow which sent Jack flying back the way he had come. Jack sailed into the inside wall of the barrier and soon realized that it was designed to fulfill its function in both directions. As soon as Jack’s body made contact, the force of his impact was redelivered, and he was hurled back toward Monolith’s open grip. The technophile’s open hand caught Jack by the head. Metal fingers crushed into his face. In one fluid motion, Monolith knelt and punched his arm down – driving Jack’s head into the ground with a titanic force. Ceramic tiles shattered. Blood pooled. Within two seconds of entering the barrier, Jack was barely conscious. Vim was desperately attempting to get through, but he hadn't figured out how the bubble worked. His approach was too fast. Rather than sinking through as Jack had done, the barrier rebuffed him. He repeated the action several times, but he never seemed to slow himself enough to pass through. He resorted to pounding futilely against the wall of energy and looking on helplessly. The blows created hundreds

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of intersecting ripples like rain across the surface of a pond. Chymick went to the comm switch on his Arbiter. He shouted into the open channel. “Jack’s down!” A frigid wind howled across the roof. Three bolts of blue energy pounded into the barrier, scorching holes through it rather than creating waves along its surface. Halcyon streaked to halt, hovering a foot above the roof’s surface. Her eyes were alight with cerulean rage. “Let him go,” she demanded. The edge of the holes in the barrier continued to widen like flame melting through thin plastic. Halcyon’s initial barrage was slowly eating away the entire dome. “Those were a warning. The next one will burn through you,” she threatened. “It doesn’t matter. I’m done here. I just wanted to set things straight between us,” Monolith said. He stood, still holding Jack by the head. A moment passed. Halcyon's hand began to glow as she summoned energy to her fingertips. Before she could unleash another volley, the armored man tossed Jack out through one of the largest holes in his barrier. “I’ll be going now,” he said and started toward the reinforced box off to the side. “I don’t think so,” Halcyon said. “Guardians! To the line!”

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Vim and Chymick closed ranks on either side of Halcyon; Sojourn timidly came up behind. He was shaking so hard that he could barely stand. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Monolith said coyly. He produced a tiny, black orb the size of a grape. From it emanated a blinding strobe of light and piercing pulsation of noise. His helmet filtered both, but he watched as the metahumans recoiled. By the time the effects of the light and sound had diminished enough for the group to recover, Monolith was gone. And, so was the mantle. Halcyon landed lightly on the demolished roof and rushed over to Jack. His face was caked in blood. His breath was shallow. “No.” Her eyes welled with tears. She flipped the switch on her Arbiter comm, “This is Halcyon, I need a ‘rez’ team in Bay City. Tracking the locator signal from Halcyon's Arbiter, Celerity arrived thirty seconds later with a medical kit. She administered several stabilizing medications. His bleeding all but stopped. Within two minutes more, three more speedsters arrived with more advanced equipment. They immobilized Jack’s limbs, placed him on a long spine board, and sped off toward the Elysium’s medical facilities. Halcyon immediately took off to meet them there, leaving everyone and everything else behind. *** Monolith fired the stabilizers in his boots as he came in for a landing on the roof of warehouse on the other side of Bay City. Flying a suit of armor was much like piloting the trajectory of a bullet. Under most

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circumstances, he avoided it all together, but occasionally a flashy exit was warranted. Halcyon had been patrolling the exact area he had needed to be when he had interrupting the metahumans' comm traffic. With a few minutes of his time and a few disposable pieces of tech, he had managed to clear his path for safe delivery of the Mantle. He had also satisfy a personal vendetta. Now, it was time to get paid for all the fun he was having. Today is a good day, he thought to himself. Monolith activated the armor’s passive defense systems and initiated an uplink with his online bank account balance. He did not care who these people were in the city’s social strata, he was performing the transaction by the book. His last communication with the humorless Mr. Gregory had established his new fee. He was not sure his armor could care that much cash, so they had switched to an anonymous, electronic transfer. He hated the idea of any kind of paper trail in his line of work, but it was a necessary evil. Besides, even proof of a loose connection to his prestigious employer might be leveraged for a bit of hush-money. A little rainy day fund, he decided. With that thought and a nod, he forced himself to accept the unsavory arrangement as something potentially profitable. From the roof of the warehouse Monolith reached down to open an access hatch. Using a short flight of metal stairs, he stepped onto the scaffolding. The metal-on-metal sounds from his boots colliding with the platform reverberated through the voluminous chamber of the interior storage space. He had long ago overcome the initial reflex for his muscles to tighten nervously at the sound. There was no such thing as a stealthy entrance in the world of armor tech.

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His helm’s visor lit up with information. The warehouse contained only two other living beings – his employers no doubt – as indicated by infrared. Magnetic frequency scans indicated a stockpile of advanced technology in the facility. None of was currently operating, so he couldn't yet discern its design or function. He descended the stairs attached to the catwalk scaffolding. The men in dark suits on the ground floor watched his slow approach. Monolith reveled in the dramatic suspense to the point that he nearly broke into a maniacal laugh. That would break the mood, he reminded himself. On the ground floor, the armored man set down the large case he carried, unlocked the closures, and kicked it across to the men. The box slid to a stop a few inches from the toes of their polished shoes. Neither man flinched as Monolith had hoped they would. Cold men, these two. Good choice, Alexi. Father would be proud. Mr. Gregory stooped over the case and lifted the lid for Mason to peer inside. A smile crossed Mason’s face. He stepped forward and ventured to trace the lines of the Mantle with the tips of his fingers. “Everything as promised. Now, if you would be so kind…” Monolith's digital voice trailed off, leaving them to complete their end of the sentence. Mason waved his hand as if swatting away a mosquito, “Pay the man and let us be done with him.” “Yes sir,” Mr. Gregory answered. He pulled his phone from his inside chest pocket and hit speed dial. Without any greetings or pleasantries, he barked “Execute the transaction” to an unknown individual on the other end of the line. Mr. Gregory hung up his phone immediately afterward.

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Within a few seconds, the uplink to his banking account refreshed and the money appeared as a completed transfer. “Thank you, gentlemen. It has been a pleasure doing business with you both.” Monolith turned to leave through a side door. “Oh just a moment,” Mr. Gregory said, stopping the armored man in his tracks. His muscles tensed under his armor, and he quietly cursed himself for turning his back to them. Monolith had made a mistake. He turned slowly to face them both again, to face the obvious backstab, but was met with only the sour-faced and unarmed Mr. Gregory. “For your efforts in this matter you will be awarded one degree further than the payment you have just received. Your Northern Heights cache has been supplemented with some additional components that you may find useful,” said Mr. Gregory. Monolith cringed at the thought of someone infiltrated one of his hidden safe houses within the city. The insult was obviously intentional, he knew, but new equipment never hurt. “And finally, Mr. Mason would like to give you this, a word of advice from one human being to another. Now is the time to safely and discreetly leave the city. Go somewhere warm, where they put little, paper umbrellas in your drink. Go anywhere a normal, rich man would go to spend his money. Go anywhere that isn’t here.” Monolith initially thought to protest. He would not being threatened out of the most lucrative city in the world after having just arrived and set of shop. But, after his momentary outrage, he realized that it was not a threat. It was a warning. He looked to Mason’s face who nodded

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quietly as his lieutenant spoke. There was nothing but a look of concern of his face – concern for a fellow human being. Mr. Gregory leaned a little closer and whispered, “Go, Dimitri.” Monolith's eyes widened behind his tinted visor. His voice whispered back from somewhere deep inside the helmet. “Of course, Alexi. At once. See you soon.” He wagered one final look at their mark. Quite proud, he thought to himself. Monolith carried that final image with him all the way to Northern Heights cache. It stayed with him on the public transit as he gathered all his equipment from around the city. He made his last stop to at an old apartment building where tenants pay by the week. When he arrived to collect the last of his belongings before leaving town, he found a luminous visitor hovering patiently a few feet above the floor. *** By the time that rest of the taskforce rejoined Halcyon, she was already seated at Jack’s bedside in the Elysium’s medical wing. Out of danger for now, the medical staff had placed Jack in a private room out of the critical care hallway. The breathing tube had been removed, but he bore signs of its use with slight bruising and swelling just under his jaw. The pale blue of his gown cast a deathly pallor on his skin. His face was battered and bandaged. His eyes were dark, recessed, and sealed shut from swelling. A nurse shuffled into the room from behind the three young men who were trapped by a non-existent barrier at the door to the room. The nurse jotted down some information from the monitors still hooked up to the patient before replacing the medical chart in a pocket at the foot

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of the bed. She then pulled a small device from its pocket on the wall. Halcyon flinched. She closed her eyes. Sojourn could see a thin rim of blue light seep from the edges of her eyelids. Halcyon’s back was to the nurse as the nurse waved the device like a wand over Jack's body. The cylindrical scanner had a red-lensed eye like the Arbiter headset, but the lens was much larger. Sojourn noticed other differences as well. It was a handheld unit rather than an eye/ear piece. It was decidedly bulkier, requiring both hands to operate. But, when she finished her work, Sojourn’s suspicions concerning the device were confirmed by the nurse's comments. It was an Arbiter of some sort. “His regeneration rate is slower than expected. It could be a while before he wakes up.” The nurse had spoken gently. She gave the boys at the door an apologetic look before leaving the room for the rest of her rounds. The three young men shuffled in and waited at the foot of the bed. A soft rap on the door preceded the timid entrance from Aurora, who was still in her Guild uniform. She must have just finished her own patrol, Sojourn thought. Her eyes were full of worry. They fell first on Jack and then on Liz. “How is he?” she asked. “Out of danger,” Liz whispered back. Aurora first thought to ask what happened then thought better of it. “Do you need anything?” Her eyes met with everyone in the room. “Can you reserve the sub-level gym for us?” Liz asked.

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“Sure, I’ll go pull some strings. Be back in a few.” Aurora left the room. Liz's assurance gave her some comfort. Jack was going to be ok. Yet, she was confused by Liz’s request to reserve the Guild’s basement gym. As a Champion’s herald, she had a few perks. If that helped Jack or Liz at all, she would commandeer anything they needed. Prism be damned. She was in the lift to lower floors when she uplinked her Arbiter comm system to the reservations office in the Elysium. The gym was booked. Aurora chewed her lip as she wrestled with the technician on the other end of the line to “unbook” the room. She decided to pull rank, dissolving any lingering illusion that she would not have to do so. The doors to the lift hissed open as she was in the middle of reprimanding the technician who had given her grief over her request. Abigail and Michael were standing hand-in-hand, waiting for a ride up to visit Jack. Vapor was standing behind them. Aurora noticed that the guards on the floor were incredibly uncomfortable with the presence of the darkly-clad man standing so closely to the elderly woman and child. Despite their uneasiness, none of them did much more than dart their eyes around the hall, exchange looks of fearful concern, and sweat profusely. “That’s enough, Sam,” Abigail said. Vapor turned to face the guards and waved jovially with a big, goofy grin across his face. The guards relaxed instantly. None of them could remember why they had been so anxious just moments before. He was a rather plain, albeit odd-looking, guy.

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“You heard?” Aurora was already reverting to role as “Jill the mother” despite her uniform and duty status. She spoke to Abigail but was watching her son. “It’s all over the news,” Abigail affirmed. “How’s Liz?” Sam asked. “Worried,” Jill said. She felt compelled to add, “at Jack’s bedside,” just for Vapor’s benefit. She had never liked how Vapor seemed to cling to her friend like a stray puppy. “Can I go see Jack?” Michael asked. Jill bent down to eye level with her son. “I don’t know, sweetie. He’s pretty hurt. Maybe we should come back when he starts to feel a little better.” “But I can make him feel better. You always say that I have a way of making you feel better when you're not feeling good. Why can’t I help?” “Sweetie, you make me feel better when I'm feeling sad, but Jack’s not sad right now. He’s just hurt.” Jill wrestled with the decision to let her son see a family friend in such a wounded state, but she ultimately relented. He lived in a world of heroes and the inherent dangers they faced. The three stepped onto the lift with Jill. She had finished what she had need to do without having to go up to gym reservation office in person. Maybe with her with him, Michael could see their injured friend and

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understand. She just hoped it did not scare him too badly. They rode lift back up to the medical wing. *** Twenty minutes later, a herd of doctors and nurses were pleading with a groggy and gowned Jack to go back to bed. He waved them off as if they were nothing more than a headfog. He continued down the hall. The rest of the Guardians followed behind the crowd of medical workers, except Liz who held on to Jack’s arm. Not that he needed the support, in fact he was in remarkably good spirits. Little Michael was perched on his shoulders as proof. Liz already knew that Jack was obviously headed to the nursing station where he would invariably ask to sign himself out. The nurse from earlier had obviously made a mistake estimating his recovery. She had thought to stop him, but the warm smile he had given her as he left the room thwarted her initial intent. “Mr. Kite, I must take this opportunity to protest your decision to leave our care. You cannot have possibly recovered yet from the injuries you sustained.” The nurse on Jack's left weaved through the entourage following Jack down the hall. She ducked around Sojourn and popped back around on Jack's right. “This must be an abnormal spike in your adrenaline levels... or an adverse reaction to the medications we administered.... You could be doing more harm to yourself even now.” The group arrived at the nursing station, and the nurse stepped around to the other side. With the counter between them, she lifted her chin higher and looked Jack in the eyes. She was confident now. “You need to go back to bed right now.” “That’s strange, ‘cause I feel fine,” Jack replied. “Just a little sore.”

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“The Arbiter scan did not reveal any potentially aggressive regeneration power in your make-up. There is no way that you are ‘just a little sore.’” “What else did your Arbiter say?” Jack had suddenly become very serious and inquisitive. “Uh, well, nothing really. But that’s not surprising really, is it? What with the psionics involved,” she said, again referencing her early scans. “Oh really! And, could there possibly be any psionically induced ‘aggressive regeneration’ ability that could account for my recovery?” Jack asked. “Well, psionic abilities,” the nurse said, using the corrected term offered by her patient. “They are incredibly difficult to detect and even more difficult to... gauge properly.” “So there is no way of knowing?” Jack asked. His question was rhetorical, but the nurse answered anyway “No. There is no way of knowing,” the nurse said. Her shoulders dropped with a long sigh. “Good. Well, I’d like to check myself out now. Thank you.” Jack said. As the nurse left to get the appropriate forms signed by a doctor, the rest of the medical staff in the hall cleared. Everyone else milled around in the hallway, waiting. Jack leaned his head back to get a sideways glance to Michael, “You see, this why you can’t trust a machine to tell you what a person’s made of. You have to use your heart, right?”

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“Right!” Michael said excitedly. Sojourn ducked into a corner and jotted down another note in the back of his little hero's handbook. Heart was something they had a lot of at the moment. Liz was worried that was all they had. Despite his bravado, she sensed that Jack was worried about the same thing. They were young and bold, but that was not going to take them much farther. Jack and Liz's pace slowly. The rest of the group enveloped them and pulled them along the hallway. As they reached the lift, they discreetly exchanged knowing looks of concern. “Where to?” Sojourn asked. No one spoke. The whole group turned to Jack and Liz. They waited. Liz spoke first, leaving Jack with an open yet silent mouth, “I’ve made arrangements. It’s just nice that Jack will be able to join us.” Sojourn saw that she was using her smile to bury something else underneath. I wonder if any one else sees it. He looked at the faces around him. Only two others seemed to notice – Abigail and, oddly, little Michael. Within a few more seconds the doors to the lift opened. Abigail, Aurora, and Michael said their good-byes on the ground floor. The rest of the group stayed on the lift. After another brief ride downward, the sub-level gymnasium unfolded before them. Sojourn's eyes surveyed the room. It was a veritable garden of trials and challenges. He noticed a man wearing thick-soled boots wipe the

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sweat from his face with a small towel. The teenager recognized him from the day before in the aftermath of the mantle's thief. It was Pace. The speedster approached. His face was flush. “What are you in for?” Liz teased. “Something fast,” Pace answered. “I have been following Ox all day, and he's so... slow.” He hesitated and changed topics. “How are you feeling?” he asked Jack. “Good,” he said. The word came out carrying the same surprise that Pace openly wore on his face. “Glad to hear it.” One corner of Pace's mouth turned up weakly. “Well, Ox is probably wondering where I am about now. It's all yours.” He grabbed a duffle bag resting on a bench near the exit. As Pace entered the lift to leave the gym floor, he turned back to the group. He was squinting at Sojourn when the door hissed shut, separating him from the bruised taskforce. He remembered seeing Sojourn from the day before, but still wondered, Who is that kid?

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Issue Nine: Closed Doors, Open Windows Ox sat alone in his room. Though, as a champion, he had a larger room than many other members of the Guild, his mammoth body dwarfed the surrounding accommodations – even as spartan as they were. He had squeezed his expansive shoulders into the narrow space between two bookcases. A small side table carried his only companion in the otherwise lonely room – a dim reading lamp. From the table he picked up the thick, paper-back book. A note from his herald was taped to the front, “I thought you might enjoy this. Vim.” There were few people who knew of Ox's passion for reading. Like the lonely bookworm in a family of jocks, he secreted new volumes into his room when none of the other strong-arms were around. He knew it was unlikely that any of them would criticize his unusual hobby, but he enjoyed the nerdy thrill of his clandestine activity and the privacy it offered. Opportunities to be one's self were rare for Guild champions. In words expressed by the authors he read, he could feel as sensitive to the world as anyone else. It was a priceless gift for someone like Ox. His thick skin was nearly impenetrable. His dulled nervous response made a car crashing into him barely perceptible. Both of these attributes, which made him the champion he was, refused to let him feel even something as simple as the book in his hands.

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He delicately adjusted his new reading glasses on the tip of his nose. Celerity had picked them out. The thick lenses were carried by thin wire frames; their fragile construction made him nervous. She always picked out things that looked nice, he knew. Sisters do that. Ox would have been just as happy with a pair of welder's goggles as long as they let him keep reading. With a satisfied breath, he opened his new treasure to the first page and began reading. Occasionally, he glanced up to the clock. It was not a particular distraction, but he did not like to loose track of time. A dozen or so pages had sucked him wholly into the author's world. He stopped glancing to the clock. Vim's pick had been right on target. The words were driving him forward. Ox eagerly grasped the edge of the next page between two heavy fingers, turned the page, and lost his usually strong sense of self-awareness. The page ripped. He sucked a sharp, staccato breath. His massive hands began to tremble. The more he tried to calm himself, the worse his shaking became. The book's binding gave way and unraveled the rest of the pages. The volume disintegrated to a pile of loose paper in his open hands. A few seconds ago, Ox was lost in another world. Now, the real one had come crashing back through. He closed his eyes, and gently placed the pile of paper back on the side table. He took a deep breath. From his seated position, he reached out to pull a different book from the shelf to his left. A few inches from his intended selection, his massive hand recoiled as if something had just stung him.

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Both hands came back to rest on his thighs. They clenched into fists and relaxed. Ox repeated this action several times and finished with a sigh. A display panel on the opposing wall lit up. “Sir, Champion Celerity wanted me to inform you that your appointment at the school assembly downtown is in thirty minutes.” “Noted. Thank you,” he said. His words boomed without a trace of enthusiasm. The wall panel dimmed. Ox took another deep breath and stood. His hand rose to remove his delicate framed glasses. With a practiced movement, they gently lifted from his face. He turned them around and stared into the lenses. Little victories, I suppose. He set them down on the pile of paper and heard a crack. He closed his eyes again and sat back down in his chair. He thought of turning to extinguishing the reading lamp, but the two recent calamities with his hobby chewed at the back of his mind. The narrow stem below the bulb dangled the power switch off in his peripheral vision. He reached out and pushed it off the table. The lamp fell to the floor and broke, leaving the giant man sitting alone, in the dark. *** Halcyon spun on her heels. The rest of her team, who had been shuffling along behind her, came to a stop. Her jaw was set. Her expression cast a sharp relief against the numb, open-mouthed

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expressions echoing in front of her. Silence filled the vast dome behind her. Halcyon motioned to a recess in the wall which housed a set lockers and benches. An array of gear was spread out for the team, notably white gym towels and heather grey athletic clothing. All of it was imprinted with the Guild emblem. The code-names of each member of the taskforce were individually branded above the lockers. The name plates are a nice touch. She would have to thank Jill again for pulling strings the next time she saw her. “What’s the plan here, Liz?” Jack asked. She ignored him. “Guardians, there are men’s and women’s changing rooms behind you. You will find a locker with your name on it for your personal effects. There is gym clothing and equipment on the benches. Suit up.” Jack snorted a laugh through his nose as Liz concluded. She was definitely taking charge. Sojourn looked over to him. He smiled and shrugged back. Sojourn did not find those casual expressions very comforting. Jack raised his arm stiffly over his head like he were attempting to hail a cab. The teenager's brow, which had been creased downward, rose high enough on his forehead to be hidden by his moppy hair. He had no idea what Jack was doing. “Don't you remember, kid?” Jack said in a low voice. Sojourn's mind searched and lit upon the first moments he and Jack had met. “Ha ha,” he said, “you're so terribly funny.”

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“Do you have something you would like to say?” Liz asked, looking at Jack. She knew very well he did not, but she needed to single him out for a moment. Sojourn was craning his neck to overhear the couple when Chymick reached out and tapped Sojourn on the back. Sojourn jumped, startled by the sudden rap for his attention. He turned to face the young man. “Over here,” Charlie whispered. Sojourn relunctantly followed him over to the lockers and the benches. He really wanted to know what Jack and Liz were discussing. They were standing close, only a hand's width apart. Charlie continued to speak but kept his voice low and breathy, “You must not have heard her. Sorry about that.” “Heard what?” Sojourn asked. “Telepathic broadcast. Liz is prone to use them when she’s in a mood,” Charlie whispered. “What’d she say?” “Hard to translate exactly. There were words jumbled together along with images and sounds. When she’s very off she’ll broadcast smells, tastes, all sorts of stuff. I remember this one time, when we were kids…” Charlie stopped himself from the rambling story bubbling into his mind. “The point is that she makes herself clear. By the way, we are changing into those clothes,” he pointed to the benches in the alcove, “in those rooms.” He pointed the rooms behind them. “She was very... insistent.”

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“Guardians. Three minutes. To the line!” Halcyon shouted, standing just over the other side of a line on the floor at the edge of the open area. “And we should hurry,” Charlie added. He swiped the pile of clothing in front of his locker and dashed into the men's changing room. Sojourn noticed that Vim had already disappeared, presumably into the same room. Liz now was helping Jack find a shirt that would accommodate his cumbersome gauntlet. By the time Sojourn turned back to the pile of clothes in front of his locker, both Chymick and Vim had already changed. Vapor stood rigidly in place. He made no move toward his designated locker or bench full of gym clothes. Halcyon turned her eyes to Sojourn’s, locking him in a moment of supreme concentration. The message that everyone else received early hit him in like blast of cold water. The smell of ozone curdled in his nose. The youth turned and dashed to the changing room with a pile of clothes tucked tightly under his arm. “Sam,” she said. Her eyes narrow on Vapor. “I'm ready,” he said plainly. “Change clothes,” she ordered. “It's not necessary.” He continued to watch her passively. “That wasn't a suggestion,” Halcyon barked. Vapor did not move.

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“That was an order, in case you were wondering,” Halcyon said. “Thanks for the clarification,” Vapor said, “but I don't work for you.” Before the protector had the chance to lash out, Jack interrupted. “Liz.” Jack nodded to a red lens embedded in the wall. There were others strategically positioned along the walls and the domed ceiling. “I imagine they offer complete coverage of the room.” His voice was tinged with a low rumble. He was uneasy. “Yes, when they are actively scanning. But, I’m burning a ton psionic energy right now.” Her voice was assuring. Jack relaxed even before she finished. “It's more than enough to nullify any readings from a passive scan.” Sojourn had emerged from the changing room and heard Jack's concern. “There has to be an off-switch,” he mumbled. He walked over to a console near the door to quickly end situation. His lack of familiarity with the system left him straining for some way to power down the red-eyed sensors. Several lights on the console flashed. Something he touched had powered on all of the units in the room. They started an active scan. “Oops,” he said. Halcyon rushed over and, with a just a few keystrokes, powered down the unit. The screen went dark just as the system starting cycling through everyone in the room. Sojourn saw Jack’s sensor reading popped up for just a second, along with the word “Alpha.” “Nothing important there, ok?” Liz said gently.

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“Ok,” Sojourn answered, strangely unabashed. Liz patted him on the shoulder and turned back to rest of the taskforce. They had all changed. Even, Vapor had quietly relented. They were now ambling. “Guardians. To the Line!” Halcyon said. She flew over to a line painted on the floor out in the primary gym space. She landed and walked up and down a line. “This is your line. You are to report to this line. You are to defend this line. You are to hold this line.” The glow in her eyes flared as she spoke. “Understand that this line, is what connections you. It’s what binds you to one another. In the heat of battle, all you have is each other and the line you have sworn to uphold.” She continued to pace back and forth. “For the next several hours, we are going to explore what each of us can offer one another to accomplish our objective.” Halcyon made Jack sit out most of the first hour, which entailed mostly physical cooperation and teamwork activities. She included him as she felt he was able. Sojourn noticed his friend was not bothered by Liz's mothering. She had forbidden the active use of metahuman abilities for the first hour in the gym, insisting that the team know each other more than they know what each other can do. At the completion of each drill and exercise, Halcyon would shout, “to the line!” As a team, the entire group rushed to the line on the floor. It took more than a few attempts to achieve her desired response, but Halcyon was quickly rewarded. They learned to help each other intuitively with only a few minor psionic incentives or disincentives throughout the day. A pile of singed, sweaty t-shirts lay off to the

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corner. Smirking, she noticed the shirt on top of the pile with a hole clearly burned through. That's teach him, she thought of her brother's last smarmy comment. With a very light and harmless bolt of psionic energy of encouragement, he had shaped up shortly after. Normally, she would have abstained from such a gross abuse of her abilities, but she knew the situation was becoming dire too quickly. They needed to come together as a team. And, I think they are, she added quietly to herself. *** Eric crept down the hall of his school. He felt terrible for lying to the teacher. With the bathroom pass clunched firmly in his hand, he passed his reported destination and proceeded to the school auditorium. The little boy could not miss the chance to see a champion up close; it did not matter what his mother said. He was nearly at the door when he heard a roar of applause from the crowd inside. His heart was racing. A teacher stepped out of the double doors, and she did not look like she had been cheering. Another roar as she gently closed the door made her eyes roll. Eric had frozen in place. Unfortunately, it was of little help. The teacher saw him and immediately recognized him. Every teacher knew Eric. He was the only one who never had permission for school assemblies involving metahumans.

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“Eric,” the teacher said. The boy heard the reprimand in the teacher's voice. His head dropped. “I know you want to go in there,” the woman said. “But, trust me when I say, you aren't missing anything.” As if to immediately counter her claim, the crowd inside roared again with delight. The sound was thunderous. Eric tried to peek around the teacher, but she stepped in front of him. “Let me walk you back to the library,” she said. “There's nothing worth seeing in there.” Eric kept his eyes on the floor, but he heard the anger scraping its way out through the woman's voice. The woman trailed behind the boy a few feet as they walked down the hall. She turned her head back toward the doors of the auditorium, and whispered “Freaks” so softhly that she thought Eric wouldn't hear. But he did. *** Three hours into their training, Halcyon joined the rest of the team in their exercises. She was careful to only relax her leadership role enough to maintain a degree of camaraderie. She continued their teamwork and speed drills with the inevitable call “to the line!” every few minutes. The group consistently pulled back to same spot on of the floor and readied themselves to face a new challenge together.

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Halcyon was now allowing metahuman abilities. The decision to permit the manifestation of these awesome talents made Sojourn feel as though the team had abandoned him to the sidelines. After one drill which left the teenager adrift for several awkward minutes, he wandered off to the side of the room. Halcyon gave the team a brief reprieve. “Take five, everyone. Get some water.” During the brief respite, Sojourn slunk off to one of the benches. He slumped on the hard surface, losing his desire to keep up with the others. He was tired and knew he was spending more time being helped than helping. “Sojourn,” Halcyon called. He heard her footfalls growing louder as she approached. He searched for an excuse, but nothing came to mind. Liz turned her head back around to the group and saw that everyone else was coming back to the line. They were ready for more drills. But, she knew, Sojourn was not. “Everybody, take another five and stretch it out. You've earned it.” She sat on the bench beside the youth, picked up a towel, and dropped it gently over his shoulders. She felt him flinch. “I’m not helping,” Sojourn said, cutting directly to the heart of his disillusionment. “Sure you are,” Liz answered, “you just don’t realize how much yet.” “Come on. You can fly for crying out loud,” Sojourn said. He eyed the rest of the group, now milling about. He lowered his voice so they

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would not hear. “I can’t do anything like that. I can’t even imagine what that could possibly be like.” He exhaled loudly. His shoulders sank, and they did not rise again with his next breath. “Sure you can,” she said as she placed a hand against his chest. Under the press of her palm against his shirt, Liz felt the boy shiver. Sojourn blinked, and in that split second the world he saw ceased to be the domed, sub-level gymnasium. It became the rooftop of an old brick office building. The building was approximately twelve stories tall. Taller, concrete and steel skyscrapers near the building cast shadows where he now stood with Liz. “Where are we?” Sojourn asked. Liz raised her head to the clouds floating lazily overhead. The sky above them was a dense mask of ethereal blue. She smiled at him, “We are still in the gym. This is a psionically induced … experience. From what I can tell, you seem very receptive to psionic channeling, so here we are.” “What are we doing here?” “You are going to fly,” she said. Her face lit up with the excitement reserved for a child on her birthday. She motioned to the edge of the building. “Take few minutes and have some fun.” When Liz finished speaking, she faded from the world like an evaporating mirage in the glaring sun. Sojourn stood motionless for a few seconds. Slowly, he walked to the edge of the building and looked down.

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“That’s not the direction you want to be looking. Oh, and zip up your jacket. It's always cold up there.” Liz’s voice came from the sky above him, floating down along the breeze. Sojourn looked upward and wished he could fly the way she did. With that very thought in his head, he felt his body lift forward onto his toes. Then, they left the tiled ground of the rooftop altogether. He was above the city skyline before he could blink. He was staring down at the clouds a moment later when he became aware of himself enough to slow his ascent. Feeling weightless, finally free of the earth below, he surveyed the cityscape and stopped. The wind streams were causing him to drift. He could feel his body moving, spinning with the current, but he couldn’t tell from which direction it was blowing. The cloud cover below him closed off his view of the landmarks farther down. He looked up. The rich blue stared back, offering no points of reference. The wind increased and rushed over him like a riptide. He felt his body being blown and spun along a stream of thermal currents, but what his eyes saw never seemed to change. Where am I? Which way is ‘down’? he wondered. He desired to stop moving with the currents of wind, and he did. He held himself still in the air and grew comfortable in the serenity of spacious skies above. A fierce wind howled around him and ripped through the clouds. It pulling back the curtain over land below. Sojourn's eyes stretched wide. He was a long way off from the building where he started.

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Sojourn let out a small, boyish giggle and streaked toward the distant skyline. He rolled and turned turned his body through the air. He felt more naturally tuned to moving in the element than any featheredwing beast. Flying like this was his homecoming. The teenager enjoyed several more minutes of aerial reverie. He particularly enjoyed diving between buildings to the streets below before again spiraling skyward. At last, the experience faded. Once again, he sat on the bench in the gym. Liz was still seated next to him. She noticed his shoulders had straightened. “That... was awesome,” he said. His voice was breathless. “You are a natural flier. I’m amazed. I’m not that good, and I’ve been practicing for years.” “Well, you made me that good. It was your vision,” Sojourn added. “I only gave you access and an ideal opportunity. You did the rest,” she patted him on the back and stood up to leave. “To the line!” Halcyon's shout echoed through the dome. Sojourn was the first to report back. He was still grinning ear-to-ear. *** After they had finished for the day, Sojourn approached Liz. “Is flying really like that?” “Most of the time.”

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“Do you think…” the youth’s voice trailed off. Liz picked right up where her young friend had left off. “As receptive as you are to psionic energy, and as natural as you are in the air... ” She paused, playfully letting the suspense build. Sojourn sucked in a short breath and held it. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you start flying around here any day now,” she concluded. He smiling face beamed. “But, if for some reason that doesn’t happen, there should be enough residual energy from this afternoon's jaunt to provoke at least one more experience later on.” “Really?” Sojourn hopped toward Liz with excitement. “When?” “Can’t be sure. When you are calm – for one,” she answered. In her mind she heard Sojourn start to start to count his breaths, slowing them to a steady rhythm. She continued, “Psionic energy is unpredictable at times. There is no real way to gauge the ebb and flow of its intensity. Even the Arbiter can't do it. But, don't worry, it'll still be there if you need it.” She slung a towel over her shoulder and headed off to address the rest of the team. They were all still dripping with sweat. “Ok, that's it for today, everyone. Good work, Guardians,” she said. Genuine pleasure rippled through her voice. “Everyone should stay here tonight, so we can get an early start in the morning.” Liz looked to Jack. He did not offer a protest. He did not even think of one. Strange.

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Since Vim and Chymick currently lived upstairs in the dormitory, they said their goodbyes and left for a hot meal and a hotter shower. “Meet you guys in the rec room after,” Charlie called out to Sojourn. Vim nodded with vigor. “Ok,” Sojourn said. His response was met with a high-five between Charlie and Vim. After which, Charlie shook his now-reddened hand furiously. Jack and Sojourn lingered ,waiting for Halcyon to offer them further details concerning their accommodations. “Rooms are being prepared. You are both technically considered unclassified metahumans, so it’s being set up as under the pretense of candidate accommodations. No offense,” she said, looking to Jack. “None taken,” Jack said. “He’ll show you to your room, Sojourn,” Halcyon said motioned to man who had just arrived via the lift. “My name’s Pace, pleasure to finally meet you officially, follow me,” the speedster spoke with a quick energy. “I'm Sojourn,” the teenager replied. “See you guys later then,” Sojourn said to Jack and Liz, and he left for his own hot meal and shower. *** Jack and Liz disappeared after the evening meal. Sojourn met with Vim and Chymick later in the recreational room. The three, remaining Guardians spent most of night defending each other's honor in a

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friendly boasting competition with Guild patrol teams who coming off duty to unwind. The evening ended with a broken table and Chymick and Sojourn sitting on top Vim’s shoulders to form a domineering entity known as “Tricloptor.” Though the Arbiter was not on hand to confirm, the entity’s metahuman abilities encompassed laughing with complete abandon and knocking over seemingly stable pieces of furniture. As the wearied patrol teams soon discovered, the abilities were also contagious. *** “You’ve heard all these stories before!” he shouted playfully. “I hadn’t heard that part of the story,” Liz shot back. “I think you are making it up.” “No, it’s true,” Jack said. “Oh shut up,” she said, throwing her eyes to the ceiling of his temporary room. Her eyes rolled back down to his metal arm, “You are so totally hoarding one of those bad-boy scars…” Jack raised up in protest, “But…” “... cause I wanna see,” she said with a sheepish glee. Her eyes hovered like dragonflies darting away and, then, cautiously searching the air all around him. She kept Jack in her peripheral vision. She was hoping for his response. Jack would have thought Liz was being timid except for the wide grin on her face. She leaned into his ear and said, “We both know your arm is still in there. You are just afraid of what it will mean it you take this thing off.”

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She rapped her fingers against the cold surface of his right arm. The metal rang hollow. Jack rolled his shoulder under her touch. The whole area ached. The metal scraped across his back, and the archoring pins dug into his chest. The vents had rubbed calluses onto his ribs. The padded harness offered him no real cushion against the weight, and the armored plating was heavy. Jack stretched again and stripped off his belt as if he were unfurling a whip. He lashed one end to his wrist. He threw the other end over a pull-up bar in the corner. With his left hand, he grabbed the dangling end of the belt and hoisted the weight of the arm and harness off his shoulder. An animal growl rumbled in his throat. As he continued the improvised stretch, the growl turned into a warm purr. This stretch was part of his nightly routine to make his life with the gauntlet a bit more bearable. He had not given it much thought until now, but the repetition every day since the end of Kid Comet had become a sort of spiritual practice. He felt his skin constrict. It was thick and felt like it was choking him. Jack took a deep breath and twisted the belt. As he pulled harder, the lip of the gauntlet rose from the groove it had craved in his shoulder. A warm wave washed the ache away. “I could have done that for you,� Liz said with a smirk. A benign streak of psionic energy raced across the room in as a corkscrew twirl of light. It lifted Jack a couple of inches from the ground. The energy coursed through him and held him weightless. The energy pulsed. His muscles relaxed in the soothing glow. The relief she imparted was making Jack keenly aware of the metal aggravation on his body. It was an alien

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thing. One of the bolts in his shoulder started to lose its grip. His flesh crawled. “Stop!” Jack yelled. Liz’s smile fell, and all signs of energy in her eyes fell dark. Jack dropped to the floor. Liz receded to the far end of the couch. After a still moment, she asked, "What happened to us?" "I loved you more than I should have," Jack said. He twisted a valve on the forearm of his gauntlet, and the vents hissed. Was this still the boy who lived with his windows open? Jack rolled his shoulders forward, and turned to hide his arm. He seems so shut in. "What does that even mean?" She asked. Liz curled onto the blanketmuffled couch now, drawing her legs up beneath her. "It means I am dangerous," Jack sighed. His voice steadied, "and people should stay keep away from me." "What about Abigail?" Liz asked. Her brow furrowed. The corner of Jack's lip curled up, "She's tougher than she looks. She can take it." "And this new kid, Sojourn?" Jack shook his head, "I don't know." He shrugged his shoulders. "There is something about him. I can't put my finger on it." Liz nodded and drew in a deep breath before whispering, "and me?"

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Jack walked to the outer wall and opened one of several large windows facing the outer plaza. "You know why, Lizzie." Jack said casually out the window. His head turned over his shoulder, and his voice carried more directly to her, "Things haven't been the same since, but I can't let you get hurt - not because of me." Liz stared at the floor and nodded to herself. She knew it. The dreams were getting worse, and she had been feeling weak for what seemed like a lifetime. And I know he's right. He is very dangerous. She rose slowly and passed to the open window. Jack moved away toward the interior wall. She spoke softly as she climbed out, preparing to fly. "It'll have to wait until we recover the Mantle." With those quiet words, she vanished slowly into the evening sky. Halcyon looked back over her shoulder at the dimming glow of the open window. As a child, an open window used to invite her home. I know home is safe. *** Later in the evening when she returned, the opening of the window was dimly visible due to the small light of a table lamp. “Thank you,” Jack said. It was a peace offering. His face was flushed red. There's no excuse for shouting at her, he knew. She must have heard the thought, because she was smiling again as she sat down. Jack walked over and sat next to her. Liz let her head fall to his metal shoulder. “Tell me another one of your tall-tales.”

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Jack laughed. She heard it bellow and echo in the hollow of his chest. “Well, did I ever tell you about the time...” He had, but she listened anyway. *** Sojourn had just started to bed down for the night, when there was a knock on his door. He opened the door to Charlie. His grin was wide enough and sharp enough to pierce his own ears. As the young Guild protector sauntered in sporting a video game t-shirt and matted hair, Sojourn realized how close they really were in age. He could have been staring at an older brother. The thought sent Sojourn over to a chair. His jacket hung neatly from the back. He reached into his jacket pocket for his old phone, intent on dialing. One look at the time displayed on outer screen made him cringe. “What's wrong?” Charlie asked. “I was suppose to call someone,” Sojourn said. Even the usually oblivious, young man recognized the disappointment in his friend's voice. “If you need me to leave –” Charlie started, but Sojourn waved off the idea. “No, no. It's not that.” There was a pause. “It's too late.” “Well, there's always tomorrow.” Charlie shrugged. He plopped down on bed.

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“Yeah, I guess.” Sojourn put the phone back in his jacket and spun the chair around to face Charlie. They hung out for a while making small talk and getting to know each other. During a discussion of a recent video game Charlie had played, Sojourn interrupted. He shifted forward in the chair. “What’s an Alpha?” “Huh? Where did your see that?” Charlie asked. His own interest piqued. He moved from leaning back on his elbows with his feet hanging casually off the edge of the bed. The young man shifted his weight and placed both feet firmly on the floor. “On that control panel in the gym... before Liz turned it off.” “Oh wow, on the Arbiter. Who was it? Was it you? This is so awesome!” Charlie’s excitement bubbled out. He nearly rose to his feet. “No no. Not me. It was…” Sojourn hesitated. He was not sure he should say anymore, but Charlie's eyes begged him to continued. “It was Jack. What’s that mean?” “Jack’s an Alpha! Holy crap!” Charlie jumped up and started pacing. “That’s crazy. I mean… I had no idea. No wonder he’s so bad-ass when he wants to be.” “What does that mean though?” Sojourn asked again. “Oh right... well, the Arbiter gauges a metahuman’s abilities for type and intensity.” Charlie stopped pacing and eyed Sojourn. There was no hint of a smile at his emphasis on Jack's favorite word. He continued,

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“It then extrapolates a total potential value from the target. Alpha is the highest reading.” “But what is an Alpha?” Sojourn asked. Charlie's excitement had infected him. “Well, it'd be easier to give you an example.” Charlie concluded. “The only Alphas known are Prism, Wraith, and Sapien. Well, Sapien isn’t officially an alpha.” “Why not?” “He was around before the Arbiter, and even if he weren't... well, the Arbiter doesn’t work so well on psionics. It can't really gauge psionic abilities yet.” Sojourn froze. Charlie waited, uncomfortable with the youth's sudden silence. After a few miserable moments of silence, Sojourn spoke. “But if the Arbiter can't read psionics…” Sojourn noticed Charlie was not following his train of thought. “I thought Jack was supposed to have the same powers as Sapien. That's what I always heard anyway.” Charlie threw a hand up to his forehead. “Whoa. You just blew my mind!” His voice exclaimed his surprise. “You're right, he’s always been suspected to be a Psion like the big guy, but if the Arbiter revealed him to be an Alpha, he would be something else entirely. Whatever it is though, I bet it’s intense.” Charlie reeled at the revelation. A microwave buzzer went off, declaring a bag of popcorn ready. Charlie was easily distracted.

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Sojourn was not. He started to think about Jack's reactions to the Arbiter in a new light. He's hiding. The late hours rolled in. The conservation, which had switched back to boyish concerns, lulled. The two parted ways for the night, but the silence left Sojourn with too many questions to sleep. The mantle. Sapien. The truth behind Jack Kite. Too many questions, and again he forgot about the phone in his pocket and the call he intended to make.

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Issue Ten: Deal Breakers Sojourn rose early the next morning and showered. After neatly laying out the outfit on the bed, the teenager dressed in the last set of clothes from his canvas bag. He snatched his jacket from the back of the chair in his room and removed his “Hero's Handbook,” the snub of a pencil, and his beat-up phone. He placed the book and pencil in his pants pocket and placed his phone on a side table near the door. His vestments for this morning were far more subdued than his colorful but faded hand-me-downs. Wanting it to all be perfect, the youth ran his hands over his legs to smooth the wrinkles from his light khaki cargo pants. He adjusted his belt. His plain, white shirt came untucked. “Aagh!” Frustration dripped heavily from the groan. Rather than fuss over it anymore, he threw on a grey, zip hoodie to cover it all up. He looked in the mirror. “I look like Jack,” he said to himself. Without a face full of stubble and gruff demeanor, he didn't think he looked nearly as impressive. After moment of staring in the mirror, Sojourn wished he had packed more clothes. The wall panel displaying the time beeped. It was the alarm he had set for himself the night before. He took a quick look of his things in the room and decided to leave them there for the time being. No sense in carrying it around all the time, looking like a hobo.

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He backed out of the door to his room and slowly closed the door. His labored movements strained to keep his departure as silent as possible. When he turned around, Charlie was standing in front of him. “Morning, Sojourn!” The young man's boisterous bellow made the teenager's teeth grind. He felt like someone had just kicked over his sand castle. Charlie misinterpreted Sojourn's clenched jaw as a smile, “So, where you are sneaking off to?” Sojourn dodged the question, “So, Charlie, you're up early.” He let the edge of his words dangle a tempting distraction in front of his new friend. “Oh yeah, well,” Charlie rubbed the back of his neck. “The Guild is having a recruitment meeting for potential candidates this morning. I was tapped as a sponsor.” It was unavoidable now. “Yeah, that's where I am heading,” Sojourn said. Charlie did not notice his friend's reluctance in divulging the information. “Oh, awesome! Good choice, good choice.” He hoisted an arm over Sojourn's shoulder and forced him to begin walking down the hall. “Glad to see Jack didn't totally mess you up with his anti-Guild talks.” “Joining the Guild is what I came here to do,” Sojourn grumbled – not a morning person. He liked Charlie a lot, but the young man made it impossible to be discreet. He had noticed Jack had lost his caustic edge after leaving the hospital yesterday, but Sojourn did not want to take any chances. His eyes fixed on the door to Jack's room as they passed. Thankfully, Charlie had taken that moment to belch rather than speak.

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The young man placed a fist on his sternum, “Oh, excuse me.” He glanced to Sojourn. “I don't really mean to be so rude, you know?” Sojourn nodded. No, he didn't know. “I just can't figure out how I am the only one whose always belching,” Charlie brow furrowed. “Considering how we all have to eat the way we do.” “We?” Sojourn asked. Charlie's smile was infectious. They rounded a corner and entered an empty lift. Charlie punched the button for the ground floor. “Yeah, we're all stuffing our faces all the time. Anything we can get our hands on. Everyone else just seems to hide it better than I do.” Sojourn's stomach growled at the thought of food. He had not eaten any breakfast. “I'm surprised you didn't notice during our training session in the gym yesterday.” Sojourn tried to think back, but all he could remember was soaring through the sky during his psionically induced hallucination. He looked back to Charlie and shrugged. “Well, we were. All of us,” Charlie said. “Why, exactly?” “Well, it all has to do with metabolism,” Charlie said. “Of course, it depends a lot on who we are talking about and how much they are using their abilities.”

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The lack of an interruption from Sojourn gave Charlie permission to continue. “The more energy required, the more fuel we burn.” Charlie's company had finally warmed Sojourn's sour mood. “So I guess we don't have to worry about a Guild army rising up and going on a rampage through the city,” he said with a wry smile. “Well, I wouldn't say that exactly.” Charlie laughed nervously. Jack's frequent warnings through the years insidiously wormed to the surface of his thoughts. “But they definitely wouldn't last very long. We'd make for really poor soldiers.” The lift door opened. They stepped out together into the vast common area of the ground floor. Against the far windowed wall, several sets of glass doors opened to the sidewalk outside. Off to one side, a welcome desk bustled with visitors. The majority of the space had been filled with rows upon rows of chairs, all facing a central podium. A few people were already seated. “I thought this meeting started at eight,” Sojourn said. When the alarm went off in his room earlier, there had only been a few minutes to spare. “It does,” Charlie confirmed. “Let's grab a seat over there.” He pointed to a corner in the back row. Sojourn had wanted to sit in the front, and Charlie noticed his hesitation. “Actually, how about you choose? You're the candidate.” He gave Sojourn a friendly slug against his arm. Sojourn returned the light brotherly punch with one of his own. He had played this game before.

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Sojourn decided to compromise and chose a pair of empty seats in the middle of the room. He looked around. The rows of chairs were dotted sparingly with other people. Attendance was low. Sojourn blinked, and Celerity was now standing at the podium. A slight motion-blur of color lingered to her left. “It's starting,” Charlie whispered. “No duh,” Sojourn whispered back. Celerity addressed the thin crowd. “Some of you are stronger, or perhaps, faster than others you know. Some of you may have powers many would consider altogether unnatural. These powers make you special. Any vigilante can fight crime, but it takes the Guild to mold you into a hero...” “Be right back.” Charlie stood up and disappeared toward to back of the room. Celerity went through a standard introduction and began giving a history of the Guild. Charlie returned to his seat with a handful of muffins. “All that talk of food earlier made me hungry,” Charlie whispered, surprising Sojourn when he passed two of the muffins over. “Thanks.” Charlie kept his eyes front. Crumbs bounced from his mouth. “No problem.”

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Celerity continued the orientation lecture for twenty minutes. Charlie had left two more times to scavenge for food, always sharing the spoils of his search when he returned. “Ok, that about covers everything for this part of the orientation,” Celerity announced. “If you would all follow me to the Arbiter, we can determine your potential power levels. Oh! And don't forget to take your book with you.” Sojourn leaned over to Charlie. “What book?” Charlie bent over in his chair and groped around underneath it. When he lifted back up, he had two shiny copies of the “Hero's Handbook” in his hand and a look of disgust on his face. He groaned. “I can't believe they still pass these out!” Charlie tossed one into Sojourn's lap. Sojourn looked down at the small book. He picked it up and flipped through the pages. The photos inside were vibrant. The paper was smooth. Neither the cover nor the binding had any cracks or creases. “What's wrong with it?” Sojourn asked. “It's kitschy, tourist crap,” Charlie answered. “There's nothing written in one of these that has anything to do with being an actual hero.” Sojourn reflexively place his hand over the pant pocket in which his own, wore-out book was tucked away with the nub of a pencil. “It's not even the nice one,” Charlie said. He was completely oblivious to his friend's reaction. Sojourn shrank down farther into his chair. “They sell a bigger, hardback version in the gift shop.”

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Charlie stood, looked around, and noticed everyone in the candidate group had left the room. “Oh crap, sorry,” he said without looking down. From all of their team training the day before, he instinctively offered his hand to Sojourn, who immediately grabbed it. With a yank, Sojourn was out of his chair, and both men were moving. “We need to get you scanned.” Charlie's eyes searched up and down the halls as they walked. “Don't you know where you're going?” Sojourn asked. “No.” They turned another corner. “Um, why not? I thought you lived here.” “This is a really big building,” Charlie explained. “And, the Arbiter station is something they only use for new recruits. Once the initial scan is done, the headset can cross reference.” “I thought the headset scanned,” Sojourn said, confused. They turned sharply around another corner. “Aha!” Charlie shouted in triumph. They were at the end of a long hall. Charlie pushed open the door as his spoke. “It does, but the big Arbiter does a better job, seeing as it's directly connected to the brain of the system.” “Well, that's definitely a big Arbiter,” Sojourn said. The room was relatively small, and most of the space was occupied by an enormous computerized tower. A large, red lens stared at them. They stared back.

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“I don't think we are in the right place,” Charlie said. “Why not? That's a big Arbiter, isn't it?” “Yeah, I think so,” Charlie said. He was visibly spooked. “What do you mean, you think so?” Sojourn asked. “Well, I've never seen this thing before, so it's not the big scanner.” Before either of them could say anything else, Celerity zipped around them. She was standing between them and the towering machine. She cleared her throat and glared. When they both just stared blankly back at her, she jerked her head toward the door. All three of them left the room together. Celerity walked behind the boys, glowering. They looked at each other. In unison they turned their head back toward Celerity and, then, quickly back to each other. “I don't see why I'm in trouble,” Charlie said to Sojourn. Celerity was the one to answer. “Because that room is for authorized personnel only.” “But I am authorized!” he said, but he knew better than to look back. “But your friend is not authorized. He only managed to get back there undetected, because you were with him. That makes you his accomplice.” “Accomplice?!” Charlie shouted. He stopped to face the champion, but she prodded him forward with a sharp finger. He kept walking. “Accomplice to what?”

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“Sabotage,” Celerity said, trying not to laugh. “I know Jack hates the Arbiter, but to send you two to destroy it. It's just shameful.” She barely kept a straight face when both boys turned their heads back with wide-eyed expressions. Using a toothy snarl Ox had taught her managed to get them facing forward again. She could not control her smile, but she kept her voice composed. “Chymick working as a double agent. And Jack's new sidekick. I think I am going to hand you over to Ox. Let him deal with you.” The color drained from the boys' faces. “But Sojourn's joining the Guild!” Charlie shouted. He was sweating. Celerity sighed and let the joke fall. Both boys were taking her teasing far too seriously. “Listen, I'm sure... Sojourn, was it?” She received a quick nod. “I'm sure Sojourn is a good guy. And, when he's a member of the Guild, he can spend all the time he wants staring in awe of the Arbiter mainframe. Until then, face your punishment.” With a push, Celerity forced both boys through a different doorway. It was the room in which they were supposed to be. “Wait here for the technician to get to you,” she said. A chime sounded from her belt indicated she was being paged. She turned and left the boys standing in line with the other candidates and sponsors. They were both still trembling when they heard her break into a gush of girlish laughter. They looked at each again, only now realizing that they had been had. *** Jill looked out the window of the train on her way home with Michael. She made out the faint shimmering of a low moving star. Prism was

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out over the Bay City area. She tried not to let herself think about it. Michael was sleeping on the seat next to her. She thought of her son and his friend, Vapor. Michael had taken fondly to the man and had spent a great deal of free time playing with him recently at the Arboretum. She chewed absently at the side of her fingernail. Jill attempted to suppress her motherly instincts to protect her little one from the world. Vapor seemed odd but genuinely sweet and patient with Michael, and all of Michael's idiosyncrasies. She glanced back out the window to the candle light flicker floating over the city’s skyline. She found herself distracted once again. Prism had not informed her that he was leaving the Elysium. The indication he had given was he would be there until she had concluded her investigation. Why is he out in Bay City? Is he looking for Wraith? Is there even a connection? More questions flooded her mind, but her attention shifted back to Michael, who had begun to stir from his mid-morning nap on the train. He raised his sleepy head from the seat and looked out the window. He sat up and stretched his arms over his head. “Is he really protecting the city?” Michael asked. Jill stared off into the distant sky and thought aloud, “I don’t know anymore.”

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Michael's question echoed in her ears. He yawned, slumped back down in his seat, and immediately fell back to sleep. “I just don't know.” *** Mason was buried nose-deep in a temporary workstation established at the warehouse. After reading the latest print-out, he bolted upright. After a sleepless night hunched over the mantle taking numerous sensor readings, he shouted, “I have it!” “Success?” Mr. Gregory asked. His enthusiasm was tempered by the memory of several similar cries throughout the night. Each had ended with a rampage through the lab, scrapping the test sample, and starting over. “Indeed. I did not think it truly possible, but, out of reverence or fear, those soulless freaks never properly cleaned this… thing,” Mason said. “There was enough dried blood here to provide a template for the Arbiter. Psionic energy is now completely mapped and surprisingly predictable.” “And defensible,” Mr. Gregory added tentatively.. “Quite right, Mr. Gregory. Now, let us upload this new protocol into the system and password it. Something safe... Chimera,” Mason concluded. By “us” he meant Mr. Gregory. The man followed Mason's instruction. Soon, they were both testing the system using headset units decrypted via the new password. According to their red “eye in the

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sky” mounted atop Generation Tower downtown, the city’s metahuman population wasn’t much larger than their initial estimates. The improved Arbiter covered a wider area but also probed the depths of those already known to possess abilities. No names or faces could be attached to any given reading from here, but that was not Mason's concern. The Arbiter was designed to be a constantly evolving database of metahuman abilities and activities. With the inclusion of psionics, the system was now perfected. The tow-headed man now knew the exact size of the threat and where he was likely to face the greatest opposition. Light pierced the dingy windows as if the headlights of a car were turning around in the parking lot outside. “He’s here, sir.” Mr. Gregory stated. His tone was flat and unperturbed by the pending intrusion. “Perfect timing. Do you have a clear reading on him for a change?” Mason asked. “Yes sir.” Mr. Gregory's tone remained unchanged. “So do I,” Mason said with a drop of maniacal glee tainting his words. Prism entered through the same roof hatch which Monolith had used the day before, but floated gently to the ground under his own power. He bypassed use of the catwalk and stairs and made no sound as he approached. Halfway through his descent, the light radiating from him pulsed, and he began to speak. “I assume that your summons indicates your proximity to the end of all this.” He touched his feet to the

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ground as his sentence finished. The Guild champion eyed them both with disinterest. “We are done at long last. The end is upon us,” Mason replied. “How will you find him for me?” Prism asked. “Simple, really. It is presumed that he is an ‘alpha,’ yes?” “Yes, he and I are the only ones.” “Well, we already know that to be untrue.” Mason tapped the lens over his eye. “There are six ‘alphas’ in the city, but if he is one of them, he’ll be easy enough to locate … and, subsequently, eliminate.” Prism raised an eyebrow, finally showing a sign of interest. “No amount of psionic shielding or dormant abilities will be able to limit our vision now.” Mason approached Prism and handed him the headset. The champion hooked it over his ear and began to read the displayed information. The Arbiter was streaming data from the blanket census being performed. “When?” Prism asked quietly. “Soon. Don’t worry, we have a deal. He’ll die before you do,” Mason said calmly with a hint of dispassionate friendship. Prism knew the plan from the first day that he agreed to secretly help Mason begin the Arbiter program. He had led the initiative for all Guild members to have blood drawn and later be fed into the Arbiter's mainframe database.

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He was determined to eradicate that manifestation of pure evil, even if that meant a few sacrifices needed to be made. In order for the whole world to be brought back into balance, Wraith must be destroyed. Prism knew this was true, even if that means that every other metahuman went with him. It was a matter of principle. Light, the embodiment of all that is good, cannot be allowed to give way to the darkness which surrounds it. It must persevere and eventually conquer every dark corner capable of hiding that which is evil. Prism removed the Arbiter and turned back to face Mason and his unnerving associate. There is something familiar about this Mr. Gregory, Prism thought. “Thank you,” the champion responded. His tone was genuine, as if the proposed genocide was all for which he could have ever hoped. The light surrounding his body faded to a dim glow. “This is thanks to you, so part of me has some feeling for whatever part of you is actually human... but, the abomination of your existence must be purged. No offense,” Mason said to his secret ally. His voice had once again adopted that deep, cold quality he hid from the public. “I care little for what you think of me,” Prism answered flippantly. “So long as you fulfill your part in our arrangement.” “That I will,” Mason said. “Is this all that you have worked toward over the years? Your education? Your brief term as mayor? All of the technological innovations your company has made? Does is all amount to nothing more than mere vendetta?” Prism's questions echoed through the

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cavernous space. Yet, the light exuding from his body was his tell. It did not increase as he spoke. He cared little for how Mason answered. Every step I have made has brought me closer to this moment,” Mason answered. “My advanced degrees in robotics and metahuman biomechanics have allowed the Arbiter to be born. My brief yet productive term as mayor codified the relationship between the city, the Guild, and my company. And, no, dear Prism. This is so much more than a mere vendetta. Unlike your own motives.” Prism snickered. He was motivated by a much higher purpose than some personal grudge. He turned his head away from the men to show them his contempt. Hidden in the shadows of every corner of the warehouse, red-lensed eyes stared back at him. Arbiters, he thought. Then, they moved. “What are those?” he asked. Mason thoroughly enjoyed the surprise he detected in the turncoat's voice. “They are the eyes of Chimera. And claws that catch.” Mason watched the champion's reaction. Prism was frozen where he stood. Very good. You should be afraid. “I call them ARC units.” He paused. “Arbiter-assisted Robotic Combat units. Do you like them?” Mason waved a hand, and hundreds of other, unseen red lenses lit up. The light illuminated the faces of cyclops-armored android. “That depends on whether or not they can actually do anything,” Prism said. He was not yet impressed.

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Mason snapped his fingers. Several of the ARC units sprang from the rafters like bolts of lightning. Before hitting the ground, a dozen static pops and a cacophony of low-humming bass announced energy fields thudding to life around their cylindrical lower legs. The ARC units held their legs together and hovered in the air. They looked as if they were floating on point, like a knife upon its tip. In an instant, they had surrounded the champion. “This is far more efficient and sustainable than personal jet propulsion. It means they are far slower in flight than they might otherwise be, but… at least they are faster than you are.” Mason threw the startled champion a malicious smile. Mr. Gregory raised a eyebrow. He found the exchange between these men to be more than a little curious. He glanced to his watch. “Are we done here?” Prism asked. He struggled to regain his composure. “Quite,” Mason replied. “Then, I’ll be going. Do not disturb me again until it's time,” Prism said. The authority of the command wavered. Irritation lingered on his face. “Of course,” Mason said, turning to walk off into the interior depths of the warehouse. He disappeared from sight. His ARC units followed behind him. Mr. Gregory still stood in front of the champion. He held his chin high as he spoke. “Mr. Mason and I assure you that we will fulfill our end of the... arrangement,” he stated professionally.

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Prism did not answer. He simply nodded and pulsed into motion. He shined like a small, torpid star, levitating toward the exit in the ceiling. Such a fool, Mr. Gregory thought, watching the champion leave. “Mr. Gregory!” Mason's shout was dampened by the distance between them. The man turned to attend to his employer. Both of you. *** Ox sat alone in a small conference space. He had reluctantly reserved this room in the Elysium's administration wing earlier in the morning. Then, he had sat down and waited. Pace was late, again. Ox still could not fathom how a speedster could ever be late. He continued to wonder. Several more minutes passed. Finally, there was a knock on the door. “Enter,” the champion said in a gruff voice. Pace bumbled into the room. He fidgeted with the wrist straps of his gloves. His weight shifted back and forth between his feet. Ox sat silently and watched him through all his anxious ticks. “Sir,” Pace said, breaking the awkward silence. The silence may have been broken, but the awkwardness remained. Ox continued to wait. “Sir, I –” “Enough, herald,” Ox barked.

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Ox continued to sit silently. Only now did Pace see Celerity sitting off to the far end of the oval table. She was wearing civilian clothes. He could not remember the last time he had seen her dressed that way. The dim, soft light of the room made it hard for him to determine her exact expression. She was unusually still. Finally, Ox began to speak. “We’ve been waiting for you.” Pace took a step toward the table but remained standing. The only open chair was positioned very close to Celerity, facing Ox. He looked for a visual cue from her on whether he should sit or stand behind her as her herald. Or do I stand behind Ox? he wondered. Serving as a herald for both proved far more confusing than he had ever initially thought. “Sit down please,” Ox said. It was phrased politely but delivered like an ultimatum. “Yes sir,” Pace replied and took a seat next to his Champion. He attempted to make eye contact but she did not turn. Or even glance out of the corner of her eye. “Do you know why you are here?” Ox asked. Pace searched Celerity’s face and then the rest of the room. “Don't look to her! She can't help you here. Now, answer me.” Ox's face flushed red. Pace went numb. The words came out on their own, compelled by Ox's tone. “No, sir.”

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“How long have you known Celerity?” Ox asked. The giant had regained his calm. “Since we joined the Guild. We were on the same training team,” Pace answered. His mind was racing for some clue as to what was going on. “Have you ever in that time had a relationship with your fellow Guild member?” the man asked. His eyes were stern. His jaw was clenched. “I don’t see what that has to do with –” Pace started. “Just answer the question,” Ox interrupted. “Yes,” the herald answered. He knows that, doesn't he? “And, did you continue that relationship with her after she became your champion?” Pace's eyes widened. Ox had not known. He looked over to Celerity. She was wearing a baggy sweatshirt with her knees now pulled up to her chest. The toes of her thin-mesh sneakers hung off the edge of her chair. She looked small sitting there. It stood in sharp contrast to the larger-than-life presence that her small stature normally conveyed. Pace studied her eyes. They were cast to the floor and full of a childlike fear. Her skin was pale and splotched with the signs of dried tears. Pace had not seen her today until this moment. The revelation struck him. “I understand now,” Pace said quietly. “Good. Now, let me explain the situation for both of you,” Ox said.

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The large man sighed, but Pace could not see the dread building on his face. His eyes were fixed on Celerity. Ox gave him a moment before he began to speak again. “The Guild frowns upon members forming relationships with one another, but it is also not without a certain degree of leniency. However, a Champion and her herald, that is something else entirely. This is a breach of trust. It is also a legitimate liability to our institutional integrity. Therefore, it cannot be overlooked,” Ox said. The unusual eloquence with which Ox spoke was lost on them. He knew they were not listening anymore. He stood up and paced the room. His eyes squeezed shut, and he continued his rehearsed script. “However, both parties have outstanding records that put them in excellent standing with the Guild until now.” Ox’s face softened for a direct address to the Pace and Celerity. “We are right in the middle of a delicate public relations situation with the missing mantle.” The consolation was hard to swallow but the accused either did not hear it or shook it off. He could not blame them. He silently cursed Prism for having left him here to address this matter alone. That's technically a violation of policy, too. Considering the relationships involved, he thought. Ox paused, watched, and listened. He looked to the door. For the first time in his life, he wished he could run the way these two did. He wondered why they had not already bolted through the door. “It is the opinion of this council to suspend Champion Celerity and Champion’s Herald Pace from Guild activities,” he forced himself to

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say. “Further, should you use your abilities in any form of public exhibition; you will be stripped of title and permanently expelled from the Guild. Is this clear?” Ox said with a distance in his eyes. Both nodded. It was a small indication that they had been listening. How could they not? They hear sounds which don't even exist for slower people. With that thought, Ox became aware of how this must all be happening in slow-motion for them. The realization weighed heavy in his chest. He could feel it. “The Guild will establish separate, temporary housing for you both. I have also personally assigned a member of the Guild to stay with and chaperone each of you during your probation away from the Elysium. You are dismissed,” Ox said, wearied from the experience. Celerity reached over and squeezed Pace’s hand under the table. She stood and walked slowly to the door. She looked back and saw that Pace was still fixed in his seat. A female protector was standing outside in the hallway, waiting for the meeting to conclude. Celerity left under escort. Another moment passed. Ox came over to Pace. “You’ll come with me.” Pace looked up. A wild, desperate look gleamed from his eyes. Ox nodded to the door. Pace did not question. He was dazed. There was a shrill ringing in his ears.

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The two men left the room under a curtain of silence. They entered a lift at the end of the hall, which opened to the Elysium's basement garage. “This wasn’t personal. Despite what you may think,” Ox said. “It’s hard to tell the difference,” Pace replied. A bitter taste hung from his palette. “Yeah,” Ox said vaguely. He passed custody of Pace over a driver waiting to take him to his temporary apartment in the city. He watched the car pull away. “Just as long as there is one.”

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Issue Eleven: Fallen Heroes The driver decelerated to a quick stop in front of an old apartment building in the Southside. He popped the truck and unceremoniously dropped Pace's bag to the sidewalk. Entering the vehicle again without a word, he sped off. The herald stood transfixed, watching the car vanquish in the distance. He turned toward the front door of the apartment building. I guess it's time to meet my new roomate, Pace thought, wondering what sort of Guild member Ox had personally assigned to watch him. A short flight of spongy wooden stairs ended in a narrow hall. The wallpaper was peeling at the corners. The bronzed numbers on the door were tarnished to a dull brown. Pace turned the key in the lock and opened the door to his new temporary apartment. After being in the Guild for most of his life, he did not have many personal possessions. Everything he owned was crammed tightly in a duffel bag hanging from his shoulder. He had called the Elysium home since he was fourteen – since the very beginning of the Guild. This place was not entirely unfamiliar; he had spent the first years of his life in a place just like it. Unlike Guild housing, the room was furnished with normal accoutrements. There were no digital displays integrated into the walls. The faucets lacked motion-sensors. It was all perfectly normal. Normal people live here.

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As soon as he closed the door, an intense gust of air blasted through the living room from one shadow to another. Pace’s wounded smile coaxed her from the dark. Celerity, small and unassuming, stepped forward into his arms. She sobbed quietly as she said, “I’m sorry.” “For what?” Pace asked. “We got caught doing nothing wrong. At least for the time being, we don’t have to hide it.” “I know. I’m sorry we didn’t get caught a lot sooner,” she whispered. He leaned back to see her face. She looked up and met his gaze. They smiled. “Hi Sarah. I'm Alex.” “Hi Alex. I'm Sarah.” Normal people live here. *** “Finally,” Charlie breathed. After a long wait in line, Sojourn was next to have his abilities probed and assessed by the central Arbiter scanner. A phlebotomist drew a large vial of blood and plugged it into a centrifuge. Sojourn watched his blood whirl around through the little window in the top. A few minutes later, another technician carefully removed the separated blood. A thin-nosed pipette sank to the bottom of the vial and sipped from the dense red blood cells. He emptied the crimson

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liquid into another vial and plugged it into the large Arbiter scanner along the back wall of the room. “I thought I was going to be scanned,” Sojourn said to Charlie. “This is the old-school way,” Charlie replied. “It gives us a baseline for your particular abilities,” the technician interrupted. “Without this test, the headsets can only assess general information about an individual. This detailed information will be fed into the mainframe, so the headsets can cross-reference.” “Oh... cool,” Charlie said. “Yeah it is,” the technician said. “It will take just a moment for the Arbiter to finish its scan.” Sojourn ran his hand through his hair. His fingers pulled at the sleeves of his shirt. When he realized the extent of his nervous fidgeting, he forced himself to calm a little by place a hand on his pocket. Through the layer of fabric, his fingers could feel the broken spine of his little book. He took a deep breath, but it caught in his chest at the sound of the machine beeping. This is it, Sojourn thought. The technician stood over the display on the side of the machine. He turned back to Sojourn with a confused look, then, back to the screen. “What's wrong?” Charlie asked.

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“Well, I'm not sure,” the technician answered. “It's saying that it has just finished running a self-diagnostic. It's treating your friend's blood like a control sample.” The machine beeped again. Sojourn was still holding his breath. “Oh! That explains it.” The technician's voice sounded relieved. Sojourn exhaled, though his hand was still fixed over the book in his pocket. “Mind sharing with the class?” Charlie asked. “The Arbiter just started an automatic update.” “And that means?” Sojourn asked. The technician shook his head. “Sorry, it invalidated your test.” Sojourn's frustration rose to a silent scream. It came out through his eyes. Charlie was equally unamused. “Well, can you run it again?” “Not until the update finishes and the system restarts. An hour, maybe? Or Two?” The technician smiled an apology. Charlie turned to his friend. “Come on, buddy. We'll just have to come back later.” Reluctantly, Sojourn followed his friend to the door. “It's weird though,” the technician said as the two left. “What is?” Sojourn asked. He and Charlie were at the door.

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“The update.” The technician said it more like a question of his own than an answer. Sojourn shook his head, not understanding. “We weren't schedule for one,” the technician said. The words came out like the answer to his previous statement. “It happens,” Charlie said. He was well past the point where he was ready to leave. “No, that's just the thing. It doesn't.” Sojourn and Charlie left the man to ponder over his machine's unscheduled maintenance. Maybe it's better not knowing for now, Sojourn thought to himself. They found Vim at the end of the hall. His eyes smiled when he caught sight of them, indicating he had been searching for them. He jerked his head to the side, asking them to follow him. They took to the streets and heading for the Arboretum. *** “What do you want to do after we get the mantle back?” Liz asked. They had arrived in the Arboretum conference room before the rest of the team. Jack was rearranging chairs around the table. He slid the last chair into place and counted to make sure there were enough for everyone.

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“What do you mean?” he asked without looking. “Let's leave. As soon as the mantle is back. Let's just pack up and head out. What do you think?” Jack's head twisted toward her hard enough to make the popping in his neck audible. “What? Why would you want to leave?” “It's this city,” Liz said. “I can't breathe here.” Her voice was pleading. “Let's just go. Find a place where we can really make a difference.” “We make a difference here,” he said. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Cardinal City has the Guild,” Liz said. “We could find somewhere else.” “That's why we're needed,” Jack said. He could see her eyes pleading with him. “Where would you want to go?” She started to speak. Her mouth opened but her mind did not catch up. He eyes shifted away. “We can make a difference here,” Jack continued. “How?” Liz asked. It was Jack's turn to stand open-mouthed without a ready response. “There is a storm coming, Jack,” she said quietly. He watched him start to interrupt and heard the words start to form in his head. “And, it's not that kind of storm. Whatever is coming, it's not something we can

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stop.” She was in his head now, giving him the sensation she felt. He shuddered. “There are too many of us here, and it's tearing the city apart. Have you seen the way most people look at us when we show up somewhere?” Jack shook his head. He didn't know. Spending most days in his selfimposed exile at the Arboretum left him out of the public eye. “Our kind is growing too large for this city,” Liz continued. “We need to spread out. I've spoken with some of the others. Somebody just needs to take the first step. I think it should be us.” “Our kind?” Jack asked. His eyes narrowed. “Don't change the subject,” she warned. “I'm not,” Jack responded. “That's the problem, though, isn't it? Our kind, their kind.” “You can't keep pretending you're no different from normal people on the street. How many normal people can punch through a brick wall?” “I'm just being who I am,” Jack answered. “No frills, no flashy name. I'm just Jack.” “You're not fooling anyone, Jack.” She tapped the side of her head. “I know. If you are just Jack, why don't you take off that monstrosity?” Her finger pointed to his right arm.

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Jack put his other hand on the forearm of the gauntlet and turned slightly to put it behind him. “Because...” he stumbled over the right words. “You know why.” “Yeah, I do. Because you need it to seem normal,” she said, finishing the thought in his head. “But, wake up, Jack. That gauntlet itself isn't normal. So, why don't you just take it off and be who you are?” His eyes dropped, avoiding hers. He searched for something to say. His foot kicked at a place on the carpet as if he were trying to dislodge a stain from the spot. He didn't have an answer. At last the silence was broken by the rest of the taskforce filing into the room. Vim entered first and walked over to a couch in the corner. His massive body compressed the cushions into wafers, and the wooden frame creaked. Vapor entered entered second, and Sojourn and Charlie followed close behind. “So, what'd we miss?” Charlie asked. Neither Jack nor Liz answered. Charlie had known both of them long enough to have a sense of what was going on between them. He turned to Sojourn and not-so-quietly said, “Awkward.” Sojourn looked at them both, standing together as uncomfortably as he had seen them on his first day in the city. It's a shame. It seemed like things were starting to work out for them. “Don't worry,” Liz said, now looking directly at him. “They still might.” “It's really creepy when you do that,” Sojourn said.

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“Then why are you smiling?” Liz asked. Sojourn shrugged and sat at the table. Jack came over next to him and ruffled his hair. As he sat down at the table, he asked, “So, are you a full-fledged member of the Guild now?” Vim popped up from his relaxed position on the couch. He, Vapor, and Liz were now staring directly at Sojourn. Charlie and the teenager stared wide-eyed back at Jack. “No,” Sojourn said. “How did you know about that, anyway?” “I saw you and Charlie sitting in the audience when I left this morning,” Jack answered. “It's not exactly a secret meeting, you know.” He saw Sojourn slink down in his chair. “Don't worry about it. I have a few good friends in the Guild already.” The guild members in the room smiled, including Vim. “You don't mind?” Sojourn asked. “Nah. Besides, I can tell where your allegiances lie.” Jack tugged at his zipper on his hoodie, and Sojourn once again became keenly aware that he was dressed exactly alike. “My protege could never let me down... I know your heart's in the right place.” “Protege?” Sojourn asked. “Ha! If anything, we're partners.” Jack chuckled. “By the time your abilities develop, I'm likely to be down-graded to sidekick.” “Probably,” Sojourn said with feigned arrogance. “Look out, Jack,” Charlie said. “You've created a monster.”

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“Tricloptor?” Sojourn asked, looking to Charlie and Vim. Vim waved his arms out at his sides imitating their inside joke. Both younger man laughed. Liz settled her Guardians down and officially commenced their meeting. The only agenda items were to debrief from their encounter with Monolith and to plan their next course of action. “People on the street have been talking,” Vapor said. “Monolith shouldn't be our focus at this point. He’s long gone by now.” “With the mantle,” Jack added. “Not necessarily. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be get the mantle out of the city without detection,” Vapor continued. “Monolith is quick and efficient. His buyer is either from the city or came to the city for the deal.” “Sounds reasonable,” Liz said, “How do you know so much about this stuff?” Sojourn asked. “Monolith is from New Haven, where I grew up,” Vapor said. “He's predictable.” “Has he ever been caught?” Jack asked. “No, but that doesn't matter right now. We're just suppose to get the mantle back, right?” Vapor asked. He didn't seem comfortable talking this much about something from his hometown. A delicate beeping emanated from Charlie's belt pouch. His fingers slid under the flap of the pouch and produced one of the ear-bud comm

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units Jack and Sojourn had once the day before. He popped the unit in his ear and listened. A minute passed. Everyone waited. Charlie stood and addressed the team using official Guild names. “Halcyon, Vim. Recall.” Immediately the two other Guild members sprang from the table. So accustomed now to moving and acting in unison, Vapor, Jack, and Sojourn were on their feet just seconds afterward – though they had no idea what was going on. “Oh, right,” Charlie remembered. He fished a handful of ear-buds out of the pouch and tossed them on the table. “Arbiter is down for some reason. We have to use the old comm system until it reboots.” He pointed to the ear-buds on the table, “You have no idea what I had to do to get these.” He eyed the team severely to emphasize his point. “Yeah, he went down the the supply office and asked for them,” Sojourn said. He had been with Charlie all day. “Dude!” Charlie cried. “You ruined my moment.” “There’s a press conference being held,” Halcyon clarified for the rest of the team. She had already picked up one of the tiny comm units and was listening to the broadcast. “All guild members in good standing are to be present.” “Press conference concerning what exactly?” Vapor asked. “The immediate and indefinite suspension of Champion Celerity and Champion's Herald Pace,” Halcyon answered.

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They each pocketed an ear-bud on their way out the door. Halcyon led the way as they sped down the hall. As she breached the threshold of the front foyer, her body seized and spasmed. Sojourn reached forward to catch her fall, but as he grabbed her arm, he also seized and fell. Jack and Vapor lunged and caught Liz just before she hit the floor. Vim and Chymick caught Sojourn as he slumped unceremoniously under his own weight. “What just happened?” Charlie asked. “I don’t know,” Jack said helplessly. *** The world swirled into a void around them. Sojourn and Liz fell together through the cold, shadowed veil between the real world and another. Liz’s eyes were alight with psionic energy. She reached out and took Sojourn’s hand. They continued to fall. Like ghosts, they passed through an ethereal ceiling and descended in a slow floating spin. Dust covered the warehouse floor. They landed lighty, hand-in-hand, like a pair of doves lighting a perch. A blast of air shot up at them, forcing them to crouch and brace themselves with their hands on the floor. Sojourn felt the floor only as a the surface of an impenetrable liquid. The torrent of air stopped a moment later.

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They stood in a spot of eerie, pink-orange light which failed to illuminate more than a few feet in any direction. Liz’s mouth moved as though she were speaking, but Sojourn could not hear what she was saying. Dozens of electric hums burst to life. The room drowned in the crescendo of sound. Liz whirled around into a defensive stance. As they had practiced for hours the day before, Sojourn dropped back in a supportive position behind her. Faint red orbs grew more brightly around them, encircling them. Once they were surrounded, the cyclopic eyes steadily drew closer. Their advanced stopped just beyond the unnatural light enveloping the two Guardians. Sojourn strained to discern their source. They look like Arbiters. Servos screamed and metal limbs shot forward, reaching into the light. They were fast, too fast for either of them to react. The hands of the constructs closed around them. The moment they touched, the shaft of cold air burst back into life around their feet. It propelled Liz and Sojourn's incorporeal bodies upward, through the ceiling and into the dark sky. Their bodies were spinning out of control in the black. Remembering the feel of flying, Sojourn pulled Liz closer and steadied them both within the current of air. The sky above grew darker until it was a viscous pitch. They both looked up, expecting to see a blanket of thick cloud cover rolling over them. Instead, the two were gripped by the sight of thousands of those metal monsters floating above them on energized knife-points. They blotted out the sky.

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A swell of light began in the army overhead. At the climax, a torrent of blinding light flashed across the skyline. The world went dark. From somewhere within the void, a voice spoke, “Chimera lives.” *** Sojourn and Liz woke on a hard floor with the rest of the team crowding over them. Sojourn propped himself on his elbows and took a deep breath. He was quickly on his feet. Liz sat up. She shook the grogginess from her face and ran a hand through her hair. The teenager extended his hand and hoisted her to her feet. “How long were we out?” she asked. “A few, terrifying seconds,” Jack answered. “You have no idea,” Liz added. She turned her eyes to Sojourn, “Good flying.” “Thanks.” He wiped the grogginess from his eyes with the back of his hand. Jack turned to look at Sojourn, who wobbled onto his feet. Vim and Chymick took hold of his shoulders, bracing him gently. “Another vision?” Vapor asked. Sojourn nodded. “Have your visions all been like this one?” she asked him.

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“Yeah, they’ve all felt about like that,” he said, still shivering from the experience. “What did you see?” Jack asked. He saw her start to totter on her feet as well. He reached out and took Liz by the arm. “Thanks,” she whispered. She turned back to Sojourn, “And these visions have all been accurate, right? Literal events, not symbolic interpretation, right?” “I guess so.” “What did you see?” Jack asked again. The increasingly worried expression burned wrinkles into his forehead. She turned to Jack, and their eyes met. “We have a problem – a very serious problem.” She stepped out in front of the group where everyone could see her. “Guardians, to the line. We are moving out.” *** The Guardians arrived in front of the Elysium in the late afternoon. Other than a few patrol teams, the entire Guild had turned out to listen to the press conference. The Guardians fanned out to look for a champion, any champion. Someone needed to know about what Liz and Sojourn had seen. Only Ox was visible from at first glance, but he was standing before a mob of press and on-lookers. He looked haggard. Sojourn pushed past another wall of people and ran into a tall man whose body was glowing dimly. “Prism! You're the champion Prism, right?”

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“Yes, and you are Guild candidate Sojourn,” the man said. “Um, yeah, I guess.” He thought back to the complications of the morning but decided they were not important. “We've been looking for you,” Sojourn said. “Oh?” A single eyebrow raised at the boy's statement. Sojourn launched into a rapid recount of the vision he and Liz had seen. He described every detail he could remember. The champion listened patiently. “Breathe, candidate Sojourn,” Prism said. “It is good you have brought this to my attention. My own investigation has brought to my attention a certain warehouse matching your description.” Prism sighed loudly. “Unfortunately, I must remain here for the time being.” “But –” “However, if you and your Guardians went on ahead...” Prism continued, as if the idea were still forming in his mind, “I will join you with a full Guild contingent as soon as I am able.” Prism gave Sojourn the address of the warehouse he had mentioned. “Thank you. A full Guild contingent!” Sojourn said as he ran off to find the rest of the team. He turned back to see Prism leaning into a phone which he had produced from a pouch on his belt. The champion nodded. The boy waved, turned, and disappeared from view. Prism relayed what Sojourn had told him. “That's correct. They are on their way.”

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*** The television was on. While Martha wouldn't normally allow Eric to watch a Guild broadcast, the news of a Champion's suspension would serve as a much-needed reality check. Her son sat cross-legged only a few feet from the screen. The apartment door opened. Her husband Ben was home from work. “What's going on?” he asked. He sat his briefcase down on the kitchen table. “The Guild has suspended two of its members.” She could not hide her self-satisfied tone. As Ox went into the vague description of the circumstances of the suspension, Eric looked away from the screen. His eyes searched for an answer from his mother. “See what I mean?” Martha said. He didn't. “No. Why's this happening?” Ben came over and knelt down next to his son. He shot a warning look to his wife before he started to speak. He did not want her to interject her own opinion. “The Guild has rules,” Ben said. “To protect us and to protect each other.” “I don't understand,” Eric replied. “Did they do something wrong?”

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Ben listened to television and searched for an answer to his son's question. “Well, I'm sure whatever has happened will work itself out soon.” “And then things will go back to normal?” Eric asked. “Eventually.” “But when?” the boy asked. It was Martha's turn to answer. “After metahumans learn to live like normal people rather than the way things are now. They aren't better than anyone else. They will have to learn that. And soon, before something bad happens.” Ben looked at his wife. A moment passed, and Eric did the same. “Martha, it's time,” Ben said. “Ok,” Martha sighed. “Eric, your dad and I need to talk to you about something.” *** The Guardians arrived in Bay City and canvassed the block to get an idea of the building's general layout. This was the address Prism had given Sojourn, though the teenager could not tell if it was the same warehouse from his vision. “What do you think?” Jack asked him. “It could be,” Sojourn answered.

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The team began its cautious approach toward a side entrance. Liz pulled Sojourn and Vapor aside, out of earshot of the others. “Sam, if something goes wrong in there, I want you to do whatever you have to do in order to get everyone out safely.” “I don’t know if I can –” “You are ready,” she said. Her look told Vapor not to argue. “And, it’s time you started to realize that people are counting on you.” Vapor thought it over and nodded. “It's a promise then,” Liz said. She had made the decision for him. It was all he needed. For the first time, Sojourn watched as the man used his abilities in the open. He let himself evanesce and floated like a dark fog back to the others. He coalesced behind Vim. “Sojourn.” Liz spoke softly. “I thought about leaving you with Abby where it would be safer.” She carefully gauged his reaction. A quick glance told her that what she said had not bothered him. He was definitely changing. She continued. “But, I realize how important this is to you. I’m sure you abilities will eventually develop and your power will come to you... but until then –” “Stay behind you and the others and be careful,” he finished the sentence for her. She gave him a curious smile. With a raised eyebrow, asked, “Are you becoming telepathic or have you heard this before?” Liz tousled his hair.

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Sojourn's eyes darted to Jack, “I think I might have heard it somewhere.” His words made Liz giggle. “Well, trust me, you are definitely changing. But, just in case it doesn't happen in the next few minutes...” She placed a hand to his chest. “I don’t think now is a good time to go flying,” Sojourn said, remembering the last time she had pressed her hand against his chest. “This is different,” she said. A psionic energy tendril rode the connection between them. “This will keep you safe. Just be careful. There’s no real way of knowing how long it’ll last.” “Ok,” Sojourn said, “and thanks.” They regrouped with the rest of the team and decided on which set of bay doors for their point of entry. The side of the building faced an open lot, and the entrance was large enough to accommodate a fullteam blitz into the structure. The blitz was performed flawlessly. Chymick used his abilities to disintegrate the bay door, and Halcyon flew point with an energy barrier rolling in front of her. Jack and Vim rushed in directly behind her, flanking Vapor and Sojourn at the rear of the formation. The team penetrated deep into the warehouse's interior. Halycon stopped just short of a spotlight cast on the center floor from a solitary light overhead. She trembled from the memory of the scene. They were greeted by applause from a single pair of hands. The sound echoed sharply off the rafters overhead.

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“Well done. What an amazing achievement to progress so far in your investigation so quickly. Your kind truly is impressive.” Mason’s voice boomed in from above. “But do any of you know why you are here?” “Mr. Mason, what is going on here?” Halcyon asked. “I’ll take that as a definitive ‘no’ then,” Mason concluded. “What did you mean by 'Chimera lives'?” Sojourn asked. The question was a wager. The voice he remembered from the vision was a slightly different. “Ah, very good. You must be the unknown element. But I now see that you are of no consequence,” Mason said. “To answer your question – it means that it's time for this city to be purged. It's time for us to be free of your kind.” Mason stepped forward to allow more light to be cast upon his frame. The light revealed the CEO of GenTech wrapped in a spiral of aggressive, serpentine armor. He held a helmet under his arm. Unmistakably, it was the same visage Sojourn had seen in torn helmet in the Arboretum. Red lenses flared to life around armored man. The catwalk was crawling with robotic limbs. Sojourn remembered them from the vision. A shiver descended his spine. Sojourn was not the only one to recognize the mask. Jack stood frozen. His arms hung limply at his sides. His whole body was shaking. “You're defiling a legacy,” he announced. A false threat was present in his voice, but it rang hollow in the vastness of the space in which he stood.

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“Only the legacy of an abomination,” Mason retorted. “But, I am redeeming the legacy of a man.” Mason secured the armor’s helmet into place. As the two eyes lit up, they ignited the memory of a boy who had lost both his parents and his hero in a flash of brilliant blue light. Jack recoiled instinctively. The hesitation was all that Mason needed. ARC units descended like lightning. They burned craters into the floor of the warehouse with enough force to blow out the glass from the surrounding windows. Vapor reached forward and grabbed Chymick and Sojourn and evanesced with both of them. An ARC unit smashed through their semi-incorporeal bodies. The blow spread out the vapor of their substance enough that they each reconstituted on different sides of the monstrous construct. The vents on Jack’s gauntlet cycled open and bled blue comet light. He smashed through the chest of the ARC unit which loomed over his three friends. The android raised one of its arms and let loose a blast from its palm. Jack’s clothes were on fire and left a smoldering trail as he sailed away. Then, with a gaping hole in its chest, the ARC unit turned to fire on Chymick. Sojourn dove into the back of the drone, hitting just hard enough to rock it slightly as the arm unleashed two more bolts. One of the bolts hit Chymick in the leg. It ripped as much as seared its way through his flesh. The other bolt raked across the outside of his rib cage. Charlie howled. Liz had started toward Jack when he was hit. Upon hearing her brother scream, she spun around and flung a barrage of blue lightning at the

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drone in their midst. The psionic energy coursed over the body of the ARC unit. Internal components caught fire; smoke emanated from its joints; and, the single red lens embedded in its head exploded. Tiny shards of tinted glass pelted the team and dug into any areas of exposed skin. Remarkably, Jack was unburned by the blast he sustained from the initial drone. He stood up swinging. The first blow he landed was directly through the head of another unit which had advanced toward him. The drone collapsed into a heap of sparking limbs. Jack’s second swing intended to repeat the first successful punch, but the next ARC unit dodged the blow. Without making contact, Jack overextended his reach. An opening widened in Jack’s defense, and the drone took the advantage. It released a blast from his palm as it punched. Jack attempted to dodge, but the blow connected with his ribs. He heard a crack and realized he was no longer standing on the ground. He then collided with a stack of crates which crumbled around him. He didn't stand up. Vim rushed over to save him from a mechanized execution as several more red-eyed monsters descended from the catwalks above. Vapor attempted to reach Chimera, who still stood motionless on the catwalk stairs. In the form of a sentient mist, he swirled up the stairs, but ARC units belted him with a firestorm of weapons' discharge. The fire prevented him from reconstituting near Chimera with any physical advantage. “To the line!” Halcyon yelled. The Guardians pulled back to the spot of light on the floor. Vim shoved his opponent out of the way and helped Jack to his feet. Vapor swirled

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back to a solid state behind them with Sojourn on his left. Once together, they were swarmed by Chimera’s assault drones. At least a hundred visible drones dropped to the warehouse floor. Mason stood over them in his armor. He had not moved. He only watched. Halcyon tried to blast their way back out, but she was met by a battery of ARC units. The assault pushed her back, bruised and bleeding. The androids had started out challenging but manageable. Now, they seem to have adapted to the Guardian's abilities. She took a gamble. “How did the mantle unlock the key to psionics?” she shouted over the oppressive, robotic hum. It worked. Chimera hand went up. The robotic horde halted their advance. “Now you are beginning to figure it out,” a digitized voice said. The voice now sounded like what Sojourn had heard in the visions. Chimera raised his arms and his body rose. He hovered over the railing of the catwalk. His body moved but not in the same way his robotic army did. Chimera moved like he were balanced on a coiled spring. He started abruptly, moved quickly, and stopped with a slow cushioned step. Landing gently amongst them, facing the taskforce, he spoke. “It’s simply really. Methuselah’s blood.” A clawed finger pointed off casually, indicating a corner twenty feet away. The Mantle lay discarded there, like a piece of scrap metal waiting for enough rust to warrant some salvage company melting it down.

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Halcyon’s stepped forward with one foot and pushed her arms out. One arm came up defensively, crackling with psionic light. The other pushed her team back slowly with an open palm. “Why are you doing this, Mr. Mason?” she asked. She took another half-step forward and pushed the team a little further back. The beast standing before her answered. “Because your existence makes human life cheap. It isn’t special or miraculous; it’s marginal and dismissible. Normal children are taught to love and admire the spectacular things you freaks can do. Their parents teach them that they are insignificant by comparison. But you can’t understand, and I’m sick of wasting time,” Chimera said. Halcyon summoned a wall of wind between herself and the rest of her team. It spontaneously sprang from the smooth floor and ended abruptly at the ceiling. It was impenetrable from both sides. The ARC units standing by Chimera loosed a volley toward Halcyon. All blasts connected with a psionic disc of light which absorbed them. Fight your way out! She screamed the telepathic message. With a gunpowder agility, Halcyon exploded forward into an onslaught of mechanized arms. Jack tried to reach her; the wind rebuffed him. Psionic energy crawled like electricity over Chimera armor. Blue tendrils carried explosive pulses over his army. Razor-thin columns of air twisted up, spinning ARC units in the turbulence.

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Chimera stepped forward, accepting the punishment. Halcyon increased the intensity to slow his advance. She closed the distance. Small fires sprang from sporadic areas of the structure. Chimera lunged forward and caught Halcyon’s on-coming fist. It was over before it began. Sojourn turned from the Guardian's retreat, expecting to see Liz close behind them. He froze. From where she lay slumped at his feet, Chimera lifted Liz's whole body by a fistful of her hair. Her face was bloodied, and her eyes rolled trying to come into focus. They met the eyes of her team staring back at her. She saw their horror and their rage. Jack felt a message in his mind. He lurched forward and shouted. “No!” Liz's lips parted slightly. With the tremendous effort, she whispered, “Now, Sam. Shadowstep.” Her head drifted forward at the end of the breath and her eyelids fluttered shut. Jack shouted again. Chimera cast Liz back to the floor and stepped on her chest. Her ribs cracked. She couldn't breath. She was being crushed. All of the color faded from Vapor’s eyes, leaving oily black orbs in their place. The shadows of the warehouse flexed, crawled, and expanded to cover everything. Black blades shredded through the concrete floor and wrapped over the Guardians like a death shroud.

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Sojourn felt his body slip into the cold blackness surrounding him. The darkness penetrated his skin. A light opened in the shadows. He heard screaming. As Sojourn's eyes refocused, he saw flowers divided into neat rows along stone walkways. He saw Vapor’s silhouette covered in wispy shadows burning off his body like a morning fog. Sam stood with his palms up and toward Aurora. He also saw Jack on his knees holding Liz in his arms. It would take a moment before he would realize where he was or that the screaming he heard was his own. And, he wasn't the only one.

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Issue Twelve: What Do You Go Home To? Aurora brought focused light to bear on Sam. How long has he spent masquerading as this peculiar, shy man with insignificant metahuman talents? This creature had infiltrated and desecrated her world. These thoughts clouded her vision. She did not see everything else going on around her. She only saw Wraith. The man's body rippled with decaying shadow. The penumbra robes deepened and climaxed in a dark shockwave which buzzed the room. An unnatural and supreme terror washed through the bodies of every living presence within fifty feet. A man walking down the alleyway beyond the wall screamed in horror. Charlie fell to the floor in a spasm. Abigail, who had just walked into the room, dropped her watering can and began to shake uncontrollably. Sojourn’s eyes rolled back in his head and his knees buckled. With incredible effort, he managed to stay on his feet. The feeling was not as quite bad as the one which had accompanied the shadowstep. Jack showed no sign of change. He was balled up, holding Liz gently and sobbing quietly. Aurora instinctively recoiled and threw her arms around Michael, who just stared up at Sam as if nothing had happened.

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“Hi Sam!” Michael said. Aurora flexed her halo outward, and Sam let it burn the shadows off of him. A thin white mist cascaded along an upward channel of air as he stepped forward with his palms up passively. “It was just a shadowstep. I’m not trying to do anything here except help.” “Can you help me make dinner?” Michael asked. “But let's not have pancakes again.” The room unwound from the wave of fear which had passed over it. Adrenaline had kicked in; the moment had passed. “Yeah, why don’t you and Sam go make dinner?” Abigail said. “That thing is not taking my son anywhere!” Jill growled. “That young man would not hurt the first hair on Michael's head,” Abigail said. Jill held Michael a little tighter, but Abigail’s trust was unquestionable. It was her gift. Hesitantly, she let him slip from her arms. Sam’s eyes darted away, and his legs were weak. He shuffled off with Michael tugging on his sleeve. Jill surveyed the rest of the battered taskforce. Now, she understood. “Oh no,” she whispered. The Guardians were broken. None of them were standing. They were all bleeding. She looked at Liz in Jack's arms; she wasn't moving.

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Jill descended on Chymick with a triage kit she snatched from the wall near the fire extinguisher. She bandaged the physical wounds while Sojourn and Charlie traded off telling the story. Charlie words with choked with tears. Sojourn mirrored the same emotions. They both stopped after describing the wall of wind. The long silence at the end was abbreviated by the sounds of distant, muted thunder. The cadence was undeniably. The battle had been joined. “We need a plan,” Aurora said. Jack stood up, lifting Liz in his arms. “Come with me.” The rest of the team stood solemnly and followed Jack through to the conference room. He placed Liz gently on the couch, kissed her forehead, and came over to the head of the table. A gasped breath came from the couch before he could start to speak. “Liz!” Jack shouted. He rushed over and knelt down beside her. Her eyes were still closed. A faint line of blue emanated from beneath her eyelids. Jack's eyes widened. He knew why she had not woken. “Do you have your Arbiter?” he asked Charlie. His eyes remained on Liz. “Yeah, but –” “Scan me,” Jack said. “Jack –”

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“Scan me!” Charlie fingers fumbled through his belt pouches. He lifted it, activated it, and put it on. “Access to the mainframe is... restricted.” “I don't want the details. I want to know what the headset says,” Jack growled. Startled, Charlie answered without thinking, “Nothing. It doesn't say anything, Jack.” “No, no, no...” Jack chanted. “You need that energy now, sweetie. Listen to me, Liz. You have to stop protecting me.” He squeezed her hand and urged, “Protect yourself.” The light under her eyelids flickered. “Scan me again,” Jack demanded. Charlie obeyed. He scanned Jack and gave him the same answer. “Nothing, Jack.” “Then do it again!” Rage seeped into his voice. Charlie started back. Sojourn placed a hand on Charlie's shoulder briefly as he passed toward Jack. “Jack,” Sojourn whispered. “She's still here,” Jack said, but his voice betrayed his uncertainty. Abigail came over and placed a hand on Jack's shoulder. “I'll look after her,” Abigail said. “You and your team have to get out there and look after the rest of the city.”

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“I'm not leaving her,” Jack sobbed. “Jack –” “I'm not leaving her!” Abigail turned to other Guardians in the room, “You had better go.” *** When Sam had transported the team to the Arboretum, he had brought the mantle back with them. Vim carried it in one hand as the team entered the memorial. The blue fire rose silently in the background of the empty pedestal. Vim approached and placed the mantle back in its rightful place. Sojourn shook his head. “What is it?” Charlie asked quietly. “I forgot my phone at the Elysium. I was supposed to call someone,” Sojourn answered. “Abby probably has a phone,” he replied blankly. Charlie's face looked strange to Sojourn. Thin lines around his mouth stretched into his cheeks. The skin was drawn tight. Sojourn realized he had never seen Charlie without a smile until now. “The phones are down,” Jack said as he entered. “Is she –” Charlie jumped toward Jack. “Still the same. I'm sorry, Charlie.”

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Charlie sank back. “Abby's right, though.” Jack struggled to assume the role of leader. He looked to Aurora, but she only stared back. “We have to get out there and help.” “Aurora, would you stay here set up a base of operations?” Jack asked. He knew as long as Michael was here, she would not leave anyway. No matter how much the rest of the city needed her. She nodded. “We will send anyone we find your way,” Jack continued. “They are bound to be a lot of scared, wounded people out there looking for some place safe.” “They'll find it here, then.” Jill turned and left the room to prepare for the inevitable wave of refugees. Jack addressed the rest of the group. “I've spoken with Sam. He'll stay here and help Jill and Abby. Charlie, Vim... let's get going.” Jack turned with both of them in tow. “Jack, what about me?” Sojourn asked. His hand was pressed hard against his pocket. The book hidden there bent against his leg. Jack stopped and walked back to the teenager. “You are going to stay here. You aren't going to leave this room.” “But Jack –” “Do not leave this room.” Jack joined the others. Charlie and Vim looked back. They did not say a word, but they did not have to.

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Sojourn read it his their eyes. They left, and tears rolled from the boy's eyes. His hand fell from the small book in his pocket. He wasn't really a hero. His friends knew it, and deep down, so did he. *** Patrick Mason detached his helmet from his armor after sending several swarms of ARC units toward the Elysium. He would join them shortly. Mr. Gregory walked into view on the ground floor. He had not been in the building during the battle. The man surveyed the damage, noting with some concern three destroyed ARC units. He looked up, found his employer, and quickly made his way up the stairs to the catwalk. “Is everything all right, sir?” Mr. Gregory asked. “A minor incident preceded the operation. It is nothing with which you should concern yourself.” “Of course, sir,” Mr. Gregory said. He offered a respectful head bow. “I have the information you requested. The protocols and passwords are included; you should already have control, which…” Mr. Gregory stretched to pull something out of the attaché cache hanging against his back, “you can patch into your armor and control remotely with this.” He produced the data disk and handed it to Mason. Mason took the disk and pressed it into a slot along the sleeve of his armor. A small red light flashed seconds later and the disk popped back out. “It’s integrated. I’ve loaded the final results into the disk.

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Make sure it gets back to the tower. That is our insurance policy,” Mason said. He handed the disk back. “Sir?” “It is the schematic for the integration of the Arbiter and Chimera projects,” Mason clarified. “I trust you understand how important that information is.” “Yes sir,” Mr. Gregory said. The man turned to fulfill his new assignment with the disk in hand. He was half way down the stairs when he heard Mason begin to speak. “It has to be done,” Mason said softly. Mr. Gregory did not know if his employer was addressing him. He slowed his pace, in the event he was, and looked back over his shoulder. Mason was leaning forward with his hands on the back of a chair. His business suit was folded neatly in the seat. The Chimera helmet was resting on an armor harness set up on the catwalk, presumably where Mason had donned his brother’s former mantle. Even without power, the red eyes glowed with a menacing light. “Their power is a false hope,” Mason continued. Do I detect a hint of sadness, Mr. Mason? Mr. Gregory wondered to himself. “They make the rest of us want to give up. That is why we cannot suffer even one of those abominations to live.” Mason’s head was

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down with his eyes upon the floor. His hands gripped the back of the chair hard enough for it to show the first signs of splintering. Mason took a few uneven breaths and finished his justification. “We are not powerless.” The words echoed with a strange innocence. If you believed that, Mr. Mason, we wouldn't be here. Mr. Gregory now realized the man above him was speaking for his own benefit and not his. This was a private moment. Mr. Gregory pocketed the disk Mason had given him and left the man alone with his thoughts. The two men would never meet again. *** Sojourn sat alone in the light of the blue flames. He stared at the floor. The room was empty and dimly lit. Shadows danced along the walls. He looked up at the mantle which he had seen stolen and returned. It shouldn't be hiding in here. A muted boom echoed through the walls. The battle outside was raging. Not with everything that's going on right now. *** Jack stopped in the darkened street. Explosions echoed between the buildings. Charlie and Vim looked back. “We got to get the others, Jack,” Charlie said. Jack's fingers tugged at a vent on his gauntlet. Debris from the previous battle was lodged in the seams. “The vents are jammed,” he

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explained. “Go on ahead. I'll catch up.” Jack turned away from them, still pulling at the vent. Vim moved toward him. “Just go!” Jack yelled. The two remaining Guardians left. Chymick and Vim arrived in the square downtown. The Elysium stood in the distance. The same robotic drones they had met early swarmed the conference stage outside its front doors. The Guild had scattered. Ox and a handful of remaining Guild members were fighting their way back up the square toward their home. Ox cast cars, chucks of concrete, and sections of asphalt at the ARC units pressing down upon them. His bruised fists obliterated robotic joints, sending gaskets and bearings flying. He and his team worked in concert with one another as so many hours of training had taught them, but they were still slowly being driven back. “Ox, we have to get these people out of here!” Chymick shouted. “Where?” Ox shouted back. “The gardens!” Ox nodded and steered his team toward Chymick and his herald. Ox and Vim worked together to provide the perfect cover fire for the retreat, chucking hunks of debris into the air as a defensive wall. They moved down a side street toward the Arboretum, defending the wounded.

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Chymick slapped his hands on the walls of buildings and strips of road. ARC units touching the same surface flashed into a quicksilver shine and became repaired store fronts and unsplintered sidewalk benches. Very little destruction lay in their wake, but their efforts did little to slow the ARC hive. After another block, Chymick could no longer sustain his efforts to repair the devastation. His face was pale. Even Ox and Vim were running on empty after a few minutes. The androids pursued every person with latent or unused abilities, regardless of whether they were Guild or civilian. They ignored everyone else. Even with their discrimination, no one was safe. The destruction caused by their march on the metahumans of the city was total. Metal and concrete rained down on the population just as heavily as weapon's fire. The metal men were targeting metahumans, but they still seemed to be killing everyone. Ox flung another chuck of concrete at an inbound ARC unit, but they had adapted to his strategy. The unit adjusted its flight path, and the crack of static surrounding its legs increased. The machine braced its arms forward. It caught the boulder, slowed slightly from its inertia, and threw the hulking piece of debris back the way it had come. It skipped past Chymick, only inches away. Ox crouched down and leaned forward into the impact. He caught the wreck of stone on the outside of his forearms. He dipped down and drove his elbows up over his head, deflecting the stone debris off into the distance. Several Guild members down the street had to dive for

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cover as the boulder crashed into the side the building under which they were fighting. Within a few more minutes, they were joined by a handful of other Guild members and a few civilian volunteers. Everyone else was running away in a mass exodus. Neverthless, the small group did everything they could to protect them. The fighting increased, but the group kept finding a new person to join the fight at every intersection. The group worked its way down the street, metahumans found their growing band of survivors. Ox already knew why. There was only one answer. Streaks of motion-blurred color zig-zagged around every corner. Whispered words of encouragement came from empty alleyways. Supplies and bandages were at every corner. Ox knew that they wouldn't make contact, but he did not care. His sister was alive, and Pace would protect her. They would run. They would fight. And, no one would ever see them. Ox knew. They would run their hearts into a thunder. They would save as many people as they could – all in the time between the sight of a muzzle flash and its echoing report. *** The Arboretum had been transformed into a refugee camp, a field base of operations, and a triage center. Even with all the traffic, they were surprisingly few metahumans to fill the vast rooms of the garden.

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Many known metahumans, both Guild and civilian, were missing. As the hours progressed, these people quietly became known as “the Lost.” Abigail took down the names in an empty guest book previously ear-marked for visitor sign-in. Sojourn found Chymick and Vim resting in a corner of the conference room. Ox filled the other corner. The two battle-wearied Guardians looked up to see their friend enter but did not speak. Sojourn left them to their silence and approached Ox. “Have you seen Jack?” Sojourn asked. “No,” Ox answered. “Why don't you ask them?” He pointed a finger to Chymick and Vim. “Because I also wanted to know what the deal is between you two,” Sojourn answered. “This isn't the time,” Ox said. “You have something better to do?” Sojourn asked. “Yeah, I do,” Ox said, rising to his feet. “I have to get my home back. Come on, you two.” He waved Chymick and Vim to their feet. They left the room ahead of Ox. The hulking man stared at Sojourn, “You want to know what bothers me about Jack? Here it is. Jack isn't a hero. He's a sidekick. A sidekick without a hero. Heroes have to make choices.” Ox's eyes bore into Sojourn's. “Sidekicks aren't heroes. They are the just people who follow heroes.” Ox let his shoulders fall. “Do you know what it means to be a hero, son?”

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Sojourn's hand drifted over the book in his pocket. Without any other hesitation, he stared back into the champion's eyes. “Yes, sir. I do.” *** Celerity and Pace had unsuccessfully sneaked into a room to speak with Ox and a few other high-ranking members of the Guild. Over two hundred people were scattered around the grounds when the rumor circulated. “They are going back to the Elysium. They are going to fight.” Soon after the rumor had made its way around, Guild members began asking for volunteers for the assault. Sojourn volunteered, but a whisper between Chymick and Celerity passed into the recruiter's ear. “Sorry,” the recruiter said. “You've been designated as a noncombatant.” Sojourn's eyes narrowed, and he stared at Chymick as the rest of the volunteers left the room. Chymick didn't look back. Only a handful of people remained when the rest marched off to reclaim the Guild's headquarters. Sojourn remembered all that he had seen and heard during his visions. He thought of Liz, who had never recovered consciousness. Two hundred and twelve was the final count for the metahuman army advancing through the streets. It won't be enough. *** Chimera stood in the lobby of the Elysium, preparing for his grand entrance on the battlefiend outside. He knew the metahumans were

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coming long before the Guild had assigned teams at the Arboretum. He had doubted himself when he had give them a reprieve to rest and regroup. It had been the right decision. Most of the Guild was still using Arbiter headsets for communication, and Chimera had a scanning feed of all of their activities – communications, tactics, and metahuman capabilities. Most of the remaining metahumans in the city were marching directly to him. He had dispatched several groups of ARC units to deal with the rest who were not. It was all part of the plan. The streets forced them to approach in a column. Mason remotely dispatched several teams of his constructs to flank them. Cut them to pieces, he ordered silently. Another set of units were sent to secure the Arboretum. They would have no refuge on which they could fall back. As for what was left of the metahumans when they arrived, Chimera knew he only needed to repel the first charge. After that, the survivors would scatter and could be hunted down with ease. Chimera exited the front doors and stood behind the buzzing hive of his own army. He charged his armor and punched a hole through the sidewalk, revealing the impacted dirt beneath. There had been a park here before the Elysium – before the cataclysm. He remembered visiting once with Thomas and one of Thomas's friends. He couldn't remember the other man's name. Chimera dragged his armored hand through the ground, breaking through concrete and dirt with equal ease. He could see and hear the

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dirt and rock roll out of his hand, but he was numb to its trickling down the palm of his hand and out through his fingers. He watched through his filtered helmet visor and asked soberly, “Is this what power feels like?” *** Clouds rolled in and set a dark fog on the early evening. The Arboretum had been all but abandoned. Up the street, there were sounds of the earth shaking and buildings twisting apart. Sojourn’s frustration reached its zenith. He burst into the Legacy Room where Michael and Abigail stood speaking quietly in the fire light. “Hi Sojourn,” Michael said. He seemed to have no idea what was going on outside the room in which he now stood. “Abby was telling me a story.” Sojourn started to turn away when Abigail spoke. “Why don't you stay? The story might interest you as well.” Sojourn doubted that. How can they be so calm? Abigail continued the story where she had left off. “So James asked his friend to help. His friend was quite brilliant after all. James was sure that he would be able to help him find a solution.” “A solution to what?” Sojourn asked, unaware of the story's beginning. “To the energy flux,” Michael answered. Sojourn vacant expression echoed back.

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“Anyway, James' abilities were out of control. He tried to control them, but they were too much for him to handle alone. They were tearing him apart. So, his friend built a special suit of armor. That way, he and James could fight without his friend getting hurt. “And then what happened”” Michael asked. “Well, it worked. Every time James' abilities went out of control, his friend would show up in his armor, and they would fight. Since the armor was so strong, James had to use more energy than he ever had before. That was the point, you see.” Michael nodded. “By using up all the extra energy stored in his body, James abilities would settle down, and he could go back to normal.” “That's great!” Michael said. “It was, but it didn't last. You see, James abilities were always growing. His friend tried to change his armor to keep up; but, in the end, James was too strong for him.” Michael gasped. Sojourn struggled to keep up with the story. Abigail waited, and Michael asked quietly, “What happened next?” Abigail took a deep breath. “One day, James' abilities went out of control again. He tried to hide it from his friend, but his friend found out. James warned him to stay away. He knew the armor could not help him this time.” “But it did, didn't it?” Michael asked.

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“His friend knew it couldn't either,” Abigail answered. “But his friend put on the armor anyway and left to meet James. You see, he loved James. ” Abigail's eyes welled. “You did too,” Michael said. Abigail nodded and continued, “They were best friends. I sometimes wonder if I could have been that brave. When James saw his friend in his suit of armor, he knew.” “What did he know?” Michael asked. “He knew... he knew his friend loved him. He knew his friend would never let him suffer alone. And... well, you know the rest.” Michael nodded. “And that's why I keep them here. To remind me. To remind me what a hero really is,” Abigail finished. “Keep what here?” Sojourn asked. Abigail and Michael turned to face to him. Sojourn stared back. A sad smile crossed the old woman's face just before she spoke. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “The mantle of one... and the helmet of the other.” ***

Sojourn stood speechless. His mind reeled.

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“Well?” the elderly gardener asked, snapping him from his trance. Her words did not sounded like a question, despite her infliction. “Hurry up and get what you came for, young man,” she said. “Or do you need some help?” “I...” he looked up and nodded rapidly to himself, trying to calm down. “I think I need some help.” Michael beamed a smile at Sojourn as he approached the pedestal in the center of the room. The boy looked up at the psionic memorial flame and touched the mantle. He then turned his eyes back to Sojourn. “You’re not one of us, you know,” Michael said. “I know,” Sojourn said. The admission created a cold, hollow place in his chest. “That is why you belong in here,” Michael finished. Abigail was already lifting the Mantle onto Sojourn’s shoulders as she spoke, “It’ll afford you a bit of protection, but don’t be careless. Remember, Chimera isn’t after you. Use that to your advantage.” “And the visions?” Sojourn asked. The mantle was heavy on his shoulders. “Meant for someone else, dear,” Abigail answered. She saw him nod that he understood. “How does it fit?” she asked. She tightened down the last, side buckle. He face was flushed pink, and his nose started to run. He sniffed. “It’s a little big,” the teenager admitted.

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“Well, James was a big man.” Abigail took a step back. “Anyway, it looks good. I wouldn’t worry about it slipping too much on you,” she said. “James.” He echoed the name softly. Sojourn pointed to the cape still resting on the pedestal. Her laugh infected Michael who giggled quietly, “You are important. Capes are a nuisance, but if you instant...” Sojourn shrank a little with embarrassment, making him look even more awkward in the chest plate. “It could be helpful...” “Look at you wasting time by blushing. Get out there and down what you can, young man,” Abigail said. She fastened the cape to the mantle. “I'm just taking this to someone who can do some good with it,” Sojourn said. Michael gave Sojourn a warm hug around his legs, and they pair walked him to the side door which emptied into the alley. Sojourn was off running on an oval path toward the Elysium and the raging battle which echo in the distance. “What'll happen now?” Michael asked after Sojourn had left. “What do you mean?” she asked back. “Since he doesn't have any powers,” Michael explained. “He'll save the day,” Abigail answered. “That's what heroes do.”

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*** Within a few minutes of Sojourn's departure, Michael and Abigail found themselves flung through the air by an immense explosion. The shockwave crushed everything in its wake. Vapor had stayed behind to help with the wounded. He quickly found Abigail and hurried her to safety. Then, he turned back for Michael. Three ARC units hovered into the Arboretum, blasting through half the building and opening it to the night sky. Their static-rimmed repulsors kept them a foot from the floor, creating spider cracks as they passed over it. Supporting walls crumbled and dropped a cascade of bricks from above. Red bricks and broken mortar kicked up a dust which swirled through the air under the ARC units. The static on which they rode kicked the dust back into the air and created a choking cloud. Michael huddled in the far corner of the courtyard clutching a relic from the memorial. It looked like a metal helmet, but the dust cloud obscured Sam's vision. He evanesced and rode a current of shadows toward the frightened boy. Energy weapons charged and fired. Vapor fell over the boy, shielding Michael with his body. The explosion coursed through his body. It shattered the bones in his legs along with several ribs. For the first time in his life, Vapor found himself fighting against the darkness. I have to stay conscious. Can't let the Wraith take hold.

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“Don’t be afraid,” the small voice said. Michael stood up defiantly and climbed over the broken body of his friend. His face was stern and streaked with tears. He was trembling. “Abby told me a story about friends. Don't worry, I know what to do.” Vapor’s eyes widened. The little boy was not afraid of ARC units. He was only afraid for his friend. “Thank you, Michael. My friend. I’ll take it from here.” The shadows through the structure began to deepen and swell. “But you’re hurt.” Michael didn’t turn. His eyes were fixed on the metal soldiers slowly closing in. The helmet was still clutched firmly in his hands. “I can't move, so I need you to get behind me.” Michael turned and beheld an image he had only seen in pictures his mother had shown him. Living shadows. His eyes widened, and a smile crossed his face. “You have powers like Wraith!” “Don’t be afraid.” his friend said. “I’m not,” Michael said calmly and moved behind Vapor’s right shoulder. He placed the helmet behind him. Sam hoped Michael would not regret those words. His eyes dipped into darkness and, then, rose again. The black orbs brought with them living shadows from the ground and the walls – anywhere and everywhere darkness crept. It flooded the remains of

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the complex. It braced collapsing ceilings, forming passages for survivors to use in their escape. Sam's eyes were oily black. His arms and legs were broken and bleeding shadow. The ARC units targeted Sam and the boy. Energy weapons charged again. Sam grimaced. Michael’s eyes did not waver. His little hands tightly gripped Sam's shoulders. He's the best friend anyone could ever have, Sam thought. The ARC units fired. Three bolts of energy came down on them, and three shadows shot up from the ground to absorb them. Another shadow stabbed out from the side of a building. The blade of back rent one of the ARC units in two. And from behind it, a fourth bolt shot out and burned a hole into Vapor’s chest. A dying moment, gasping for air. A man once reviled and feared gave every last ounce of his life to protect a small boy who clutched onto his shoulders. He was just Sam now, not Vapor or Wraith; it did not matter what everyone else thought of him. He knew what Michael thought of him. He would not let him down. Several more shadows shot up to absorb another barrage. Several more lashed out to strike at the units, but they deftly dodged and continued their attack. His lungs spasmed for air.

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It won't be long now. Sam knew he just needed to hang on for a little while longer. It began to rain. *** The flanking, robotic destroyers had caught the advancing column of metahumans off-guard. Several teams chased the last group of the monstrous vanguard down the street and away from the wounded. Celerity was sitting on the ground with her back against a piece of busted concrete. Ox stared down at her leg. It was broken. The bone was visibly pushing against her clothing. Pace hovered over. He found a pair of scissors in a medical kit and stripped her pant leg open to the knee. The bone had not broken the skin. “It looks like a clean break,” Pace said. Celerity nodded. She looked up to Ox. “I need you to set it before it starts to heal like this,” she said. Her lungs labored between breaths. “Have him do it,” Ox said, nodding to Pace. Both speedsters looked up at him. “He's not strong enough,” she answered, wincing through the pain. “And I'm too strong!” Ox roared. His face twisted. “You remember the last time we... What if I –” his voice cracked and choked on the pieces. “You can do this,” she assured him.

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Pace nodded in agreement. “You've been trained.” Ox shook his head. “Herald Pace, I order you to –” “Alex, don't you dare!” Celerity said to Pace. Hearing her call him by his given name settled it. This was not a Guild matter. He was siding with her. Ox heard it too. “I can get someone else...” his voice trailed. He looked around. There was no one else. “Celerity –” She interrupted him again. “I'm not talking to Ox. To hell with Ox! I'm talking to Doug.” She winced again. “I am asking my big brother to help me... please, Doug. I need you.” Ox heard the pleading in her voice. He knew his reluctance was hurting her almost as much as her leg was. Maybe more. He bent down and, as gently as possible, grasped her booted foot. He could not feel it there, only see it. He remembered his book. And his glasses. And everything delicate he ever touched. His baby sister was more delicate, more precious. The thought nearly made him pull away. He remembered the look she had just given him, and his heart broke. “It's going to be ok, Sarah.” It was Alex who spoke. There was no Guild for them anymore. He squeezed her hand tighter. Ox heard Pace reassuring his little sister. A pang of guilt reverberated through his deep chest. He knew that is what he should have been doing.

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“Alex is right, Sarah,” Ox said. He used Pace's given name for the very first time. He had never known it until today. “Everything is going to be fine.” It was not a Guild champion who nodded back but, rather, his brave little sister. Her big brother had said it, and she believed him. “Are you ready?” he asked. Terror braced him, but he tried not to let it show. “Yeah,” Sarah answered. Ox looked to the other man – what should he call him now? he wondered. He knew the answer before the question ever formed. “Are you ready, Alex?” Alex looked into Sarah's eyes and placed his free hand on a medical kit lying beside them. “Yeah.” “Ok,” Ox said. “On three. Deep breath. One –” Gripping her boot, his fingers twitched downward in a controlled jerk. Sarah wailed with a bloodcurdling scream. “Sarah? Sarah!” The only thing running through Ox's mind was that his worst nightmare had come true. He did not notice the blurring motion of hands around his sister's leg. Alex's hand fell lightly on Ox's shoulder. He was standing now. “It's ok. As far as I can tell, it was a perfect set. Good job, Doug.” With those words, Doug looked down at his little sister. Alex had already bandaged, wrapped, and splinted her leg. Her chest was

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heaving under labored breaths, but she looked up at him and forced a smile. Her hand stretched out toward her brother. And for the first time since they were children, Doug found the courage to hold his sister's hand. *** Sojourn met Charlie's favorite hotdog vendor Micky several blocks away from the Arboretum. The man's eyes were transfixed on the mantle Sojourn wore. He didn't seem to notice the boy underneath. Explosions shook the ground beneath their feet. An enormous piece of asphalt crashed into an apartment building and set it afire. Seeing a family huddled away from the gaping hole in the side of the building, Sojourn climbed an rickety metal fire escape which led to the roof. He waved for Micky to follow. Micky followed. They reached the roof together. Something smashed into the tile, and the explosion of brick and concrete threw them both from their feet. Sojourn quickly scrambled up and lurched toward the remnants of a access door. It was jammed shut. “Micky, help me with this,� Sojourn said. He pulled a fire hose loose from its spindle in the red-framed emergency case mounted to a broken wall near the door. The vendor was slow to move. He pushed small chucks of concrete with the toe of his shoe, making a safe place to gingerly place his foot with each step.

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“Micky?” Sojourn repeated. He turned to see the condition of his comrade. Micky’s face was ashen and smudged with dust and sooth. The proximity of the battle and the earthshaking ‘booms’ a few blocks away were steadily unraveling the man’s nerve. “It’ll be ok, Micky. We just need to help those people get down.” He slipped from under the armored chestplate and set it down by his feet. It looked oddly out of place on the shattered roof. Sojourn began tying the loose end of the hose around his waist. “You gonna leave that here?” Micky asked, nodded to the mantle resting peacefully on a bed made by the navy cape attached to the back. He picked up the length of hose and began to strip more slack out from the spindle. Sojourn stopped tying the hose and stepped out of the loop he had created. “Um...” He looked around, seeing the chaos below through the shroud of the buildings. “No, that would be a bad idea.” The teenager let out a long breath and steadied his hands. He attempted to pick of the mantle, but failed. Dropping to his hands and knees, he crawled back into it and stood. It was heavy. The back edge of the mantle caught on Sojourn's hood. Micky took a quick step and helped settle the chest plate on the young man’s shoulders. Micky then stooped and wrapped the line of hose around a bent flag pole, creating something close to a pulley.

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“That looks like it's going get in your way,” Micky said pointing to the cape. Sojourn turned to see. After a few twists like a dog chasing its own tail, he said, “Yeah, I see your point.” They stuffed the cape into the back of the mantle's open collar. It filled out much of the space between the boy standing on the roof and a much larger man from long ago. “You sure you want to be doing this?” the man asked. He checked the knot and offered the loop to Sojourn’s feet. The boy stepped down into the loop. “No,” was all the reply he received, and Mickey dutifully lowered the gangly hero to the family trapped below. As Sojourn’s body was lowered down the side of the building, his feet met the air where walls once stood. The remainder crumbled upon his passing touch. The realization of his precarious situation compelled Sojourn to squeeze the loop of hose between his feet. Both hands clasped tightly to the makeshift rope which extended far above his head. The tension on the hose tried to shift and relax. His body began to twist. He reached out to redirect his spin but could not find any sure hand-holds in broken face of the building. A corner of the clumped cape protruded from under the collar and snagged on exposed re-bar. It pulled loose from the back of the Mantle. His weight began to transfer to the sheet of navy blue extending from his back. The hose continued to descend.

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“Oh god, what a hassle,” he said under his breath, reaching up with one hand and giving the whole thing a firm yank. The rip of cloth sounded like a rusty nail dragging its way across a blackboard mounted in his brain. He winced at the sound. Abby's never going to forgive me. The last few feet to the family’s apartment were just below the soles of his sneakers. Another loud explosion knocked the street lights out. The entire block went dark. The only remain light emanated from spot fires burning timidly against the blowing wind. It continued to rain. He gave a short tug on the hose and his descent slowed to a stop. Sojourn stared into the gaping hole. It tunneled into what was once the living room of a small family apartment. A family huddled upon the edge of darkness. *** Their home had crumbled around them during the initial impact. The hallway outside their door had caved in. They were trapped inside their home far from any elevator or emergency staircase. The second impact tore an opening in the wall. The crater left in its wake exposed them to the night air and a ten floor drop. The third impact struck the roof. The shockwave dropped them all to their knees.

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Martha was on the floor staring blankly into the night. One arm was wrapped tightly around her son’s shoulders. Her other hand squeezed her husband’s hand white. He squeezed back. The cover for the smoke detector was on the floor; the batteries were cradled inside. The building was on fire, and acrid smoke condensed along the ceiling and poured from the building's gaping wound. There was no way out. No one was coming for them. With all the debris barricading them inside, no one could help them if they did come. They were going to die here. Martha began to shake. Tears erupted from her eyes and flowed heavily amid her quiet sobs. The smoldering back wall gave in to the heat. Flames ignited and licked their way toward the ceiling. Martha turned her eyes back to the darkness outside and glimpsed a silhouette hanged in the air. A dark, blue cape rolled like deep waves on the wind. A thin hand stretched out, reaching toward the family. “It’s time to go,” the silhouette said. Silver gleamed from his chest. “It’s him!” Eric yelled. “It’s… him,” Martha whispered, not yet willing to believe her eyes. Firelight reflected in silhouette's eyes. Ben stood quickly and yanked Eric to his feet. “How many can you carry?” the man asked, looking back to his wife as the man hovering in the air took hold of the boy. “No one is being left behind,” The man replied.

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There were some shouts from above, and the flying man shouted back. The family didn't notice the exchange. The man, the mantle, the cape completely filled their minds as they slowly floated to the street below. A few minutes later, one of the local street vendors the family had seen dozens of times before slid down a fire hose lying against the side of the building. “Thanks Micky,” they heard the hero say. “No problem,” Micky said between heavy, sucking breaths. “Everyone ok?” “Yeah, thanks to you,” the hero answered. The man blushed, “As long as you don’t ask me to go jump off the side of a building. I’ll leave the hero stuff to you.” “Thank you, Sojourn,” Eric said, staring up at his favorite hero. Only upon hearing their son's words did Ben and Martha make out the shape of a boy under the disguise of the mantle and cape. “Uh, boss!” Micky shouted. Sojourn turned to see the vendor pointing down the street. An ARC soldier approached and unleashed a volley of weapon's fire. Sojourn pushed the boy away from the spot and narrowly dodged the blast. He skidded hard against the ground. The static hum grew louder. Sojourn jumped to his feet. Knowing of nothing else to do, he stepped between the tiny band of survivors and the advancing armored

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construct. His outstretched arms came up to his sides, and his eyes shut. “Run.” It was all he could say before a deafening static pop rang in his ears. He waited a moment. I'm not dead? He opened his eyes and saw the robot reduced to a pile of sparking scrap. He turned with a confused look and saw Martha holding one hand out in front of her. The other clutched her son's hand tightly. Static popped from her fingertips and tendrils of electricity ran up the length of her raised hand. “You zapped him good, mom!” Eric shouted. Martha smiled. “Thank you,” Sojourn said. “As much as we appreciate having our own, personal champion,” she said, “I think you problem have more people to save.” Sojourn nodded. “Get them somewhere safe, Micky.” “You got it, boss.” After Sojourn had run off down the street and out of sight, Eric looked up at his mother and asked, “When can I do that?” She chuckled, “When your grades are better.”

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*** Sojourn came out on the other end of the square from the entrenched metahumans. The ground between them was a killing field. With their ranged weaponry, ARC units pounded against the make-shift barricades which the metahumans had set in place. Sojourn worked his way from one point of cover to another – first, to an abandoned, burned-out car and, then, to green dumpster torn asunder and, then, to a stone pillar lodged at an odd angle in the ground. He worked halfway across the field before he realized that he was too far center, and there was a scarce supply of cover and shadow to duck behind. He was not going to make it to the other side. His heart was in his throat. He felt nauseated. I have to try. Sojourn made a break for the far end of the field to join the others. His legs pumped furiously. ARC units turned their fire on him, pinging the ground under his feet. They could not seem to target him directly, but close was starting to count. One blast cuffed his mantled shoulder and sent him sailing to the ground. Sojourn quickly scrambled to another pillar of debris in the field. He was in between the group and the Elysium. ARC units surrounded him. The android soldiers were defending the fortress from every angle. Sojourn's chest heaved for air. His heart desperately pounded against the inside of chest. The mantle weighed on his shoulders.

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He was not Chimera's target, but he was pinned down all the same. *** The battle raged on around them, but it all sounded like a distant dream in Sam's head. He couldn’t see Michael anymore. His vision had dimmed into a darkness which his eyes could not penetrate. A piercing light from far above burned the darkness within him, and he opened his mouth to release a scream full of blood and agony. Only the blood emerged; the agony remained buried within. The man once known as Wraith strained to stay conscious, strained to form shadow walls to protect the boy. Another light above flared in prismatic distress. His pain from the burning light diminished, and his body went numb. A deep, bellowing sound came from behind him. He didn’t hear it, but he felt it through the crushed concrete under his body. It vibrated its way up his spine and into the base of his skull like a great citadel horn calling him home. His hairs would have stood on end if they hadn’t been slicked down with the viscosity of his own blood. A shadow leaped over him toward the fray. It did not whisper to him the way other shadows did. An odd thought entered his mind in a voice not quite his own. With a final labored breath he heard, Light creates shadows. Then, all was dark. ***

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At the end of a far street, a dark silhouette struck the edge of the battlefield. Glittering street lamps reflected off his metallic arm. The plating around the shoulder was brutally battered and torn, most of it self-inflicted. The vents along the forearm and bicep were ripped off. Blue wisps of comet tails spiraled out of a split in the elbow. And beneath the blue-tipped luminescence, all of the holes in the gauntlet revealed a deep, rolling orange light. Jack Kite stood alone. He told himself that he was ready, but his body trembled as dug his bleeding fingers into the tear on the gauntlet’s shoulder. The moment his fingers touched the gash, they were alight with orange flame. Fire traced thin lines up his arm and along the metal seams of the gauntlet. His eyes were rimmed with fire. He took a deep breath. The air was cold, but the cold had never bothered him. He exhaled and, for the first time, spoke aloud a different sort of name. He had known for many years. It was one a friend had given him. “Nova.” Jack Kite tore off the prosthetic he had worn since he had lost his normal arm at ground zero eighteen years ago. An explosion of primal fire sheared off the building to his right and left it half-slagged. His true right arm burned like the sun. The flames pulled in on his body. The compressed fire shot out along the ground. Rimmed in orange flame and blue heat, solar flares of light sliced through the ARC units which had started to open fire. The blasts of their weapons absorbed dully into Nova, the living star. A fire wall erupted above the entrenchment, offering further protection to the fighters. Drones closed in on his position and

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launched another volley in vain. Nova surged forward and ripped through their ranks. He dropped the first wave, and he summoned fire consumed the second. The third wave closed into to brawl. A fiery fist thrashed through an oncoming android head, leaving molten metal cooling in its wake. Nova dropped three more the same way. Through the swarm, a dark, hammering fist descended. Chimera’s punch slammed the burning man below ground. The edges of the hole smoldered from the passing heat. Nova scrambled out and leaped at Chimera. He deflected the first punch and moved to grapple the armored juggernaut. His face met the shattering force of the reinforced plating on Chimera’s elbow. He fell on his back and rolled onto his side. Chimera’s crushing heel swept in toward his skull. A balloon of solar flames detonated before the killing blow arrived. The desperate attempt sent Nova into the air. He landed less than gracefully a few feet away from the trenches along the outskirts of the field – far from Chimera’s reach or immediate interest. The fire around him dimmed, and his body cooled. His breathing was heavy. As his vision blurred, Jack realized how much energy he must have used. His right arm vanished. Blood tickled from the holes left by the gauntlet's anchoring bolts. As colossal arm reached over barricade and dragged Jack into the defended area, he caught a glimpse of a man in a silver mantle and blue cape still out on the field. ***

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Sojourn witnessed Jack’s transformation from afar and saw the fight cut short. Half the plaza was melted or on fire, but Chimera still in control of the field. His dark armor and menacing visage were illuminated by the scattered fires. He stood over a legion at his command. The beast surveyed the battlefield and noted every detail of the destruction. He showed no signs of remorse through his armor. He showed no signs of life. The survey continued to turn slowly. It came to bear on Sojourn’s position. From his vantage point, Chimera would have Sojourn and the Mantle in full sight, It would finally him as a target. As the red eyes lit on his hidden place, Sojourn's fists clenched. It's an Arbiter! Sojourn pulled himself into a crouch and prepared for a sprint. His only chance was to get inside the Elysium and disconnect the beast from his feed to detailed database. He knew he had to shut down the Arbiter. It was the only way those monstrous machines could be targeting metahumans so easily. Once the arbiter was down, Sojourn thought, the heroes of Cardinal City could overcome the animal and his horde. It's the best I can do. Sojourn tightened his shoe laces and patted the dust from his pant leg. He felt the small book still tucked in its place. It's all I can do.

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Sojourn wagered another look to the edge of the street near the entrenchment, where Jack had descended like a falling star. There might be one final moment between them to express… something. His eyes found Jack standing there, just beyond the barrier. His friend’s eyes peered back, traversing the space. Jack stood shell-shocked. He saw the boy under the mantle. He saw his friend. Sojourn nodded and raised his arm stiffly in the air, high above his head. *** Jack's right arm re-ignited. He stood in a wreath of fire and swung around to the battered metahuman survivors cowering in the trenches. Every hero has his moment, and ours has come. The starlight radiance stretching from him was enough to garner most able-bodies’ attention. The rest were drawn in by his plea. “I have not been who I was supposed to be, and people have suffered for it. And, I’m afraid some will continue to suffer. But, right now in this moment, there is hope. Not just for me, it’s for all of us. All of us standing on this field today are the same, because Sapien stands on the field with us.” Jack’s shoulders straightened. He glanced back over toward the distant spot where his friend hid. The group whispered. They believed Jack was speaking in metaphors, but desperate eyes strained the field anyway. What was revealed – to a few with the right vantage – was a man in Sapien’s crest. He held his

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body tight against cover and studied his enemy. The undeniable navy cape twirled in the storm winds. The sight pumped the crowd with wild excitement. Chymick and Vim both looked out over the barricade and saw something different. They saw a normal boy, shaking in terror. They saw a fool about to make a mistake which could cost him his life. And, they saw their friend. Pulling off their Guild insignias, Charlie and Roger tossed them to the ground and nodded to Jack. Though not knowing why, others followed their lead and did the same. “That man out there proves it. We are one people. We cannot be divided,” Jack’s voice boiled in their ears. Everyone was unconsciously moving to their feet. A champion named Doug stepped forward, tossed his Guild insignia down, and nodded. All eyes were on Jack. In turn, he made eye contact with everyone left, one at a time. The connection formed. They had their leader. Jack looked to his friend in the distance. "You each have a choice to make, pain and fear or hope and will, " Jack said. "It's only human to feel them all as powerfully as the next, so there's no wrong choice. But, I've already made. And now, it's time you made yours." He raised his arm stiffly in the air, high over his head. An army of heroes behind him did the same. Jack turned back to them and roared. “Guardians!” He foot stepped onto the barricade, and they swelled forward with him.

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“To the line!” They poured over the barricades like an immense cascade of water, full of sound and fury. They barreled forward ignoring pain, ignoring death. They waged war on a battlefield of urban earth hammered flat by these metal monsters who could never know the power of a person's final act. The ARC units slammed against them. The ground quaked. Machines gave way, and heroes gave their lives. A champion was born. *** When the metahumans breached the top of their barricades, Chimera’s attention zoomed into focus on them. Sojourn made his break. He ran as hard as his legs could pump, stumbling over city fragments that his bleary eyes could not make out. His heart raced more out of fear than from the physical strain. Halfway across the field Chimera, who was in throes with a flameengulfed man called Nova, caught sight of the would-be hero. He loosed a volley of energy blasts, blanketing Sojourn’s path, before being drawn back into the fray. *** Doug had scooped Sarah up into the cradle of his left arm as the heroes poured onto the field. He and Alex had outfitted her with salvaged

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weaponry from destroyed ARC units. Somehow, her nimble fingers managed to make them work. Doug, a hulking behemoth, smashed through everything in his path. The lightning fast gunner in his arms manned a pair of energy cannons, the barrels of which were melting due to her ferocious speed. They plowed through the opposition and created an anchor-hold for everyone else on their final push. Alex coursed the field with blinding precision. He helped others before they knew they needed it and without them ever knowing. It was the role that he had always played. It was all for which he was fast enough. The scene played in his mind like a still life. Sapien stood unaware of and undefended against a bolt-swarm of Chimera's roiling plasma. Sarah's voice entered his mind, run. The scene had been a still life until he starting running. He pushed as hard as he could to catch up to those bolts of fiery death streaming across the field of battle. They seemed just beyond his reach. There were, without a doubt, beyond Pace's reach, but Alex dug deep and pushed past the limitations he had known as a herald. All sound stopped. The bolts no longer matter. He was in front of them with a thought. As he passed them he realized he had nothing with which he could shield Sapien from the barrage. And then, it was clear. As Chimera’s killing strike against Sapien bit into his shoulder, Alex spun off course. The benefit of moving at such a speed was that the pain from the deflected molten charge would take a while to reach his brain. The downside is that the road slide he was about to endure from being thrown from his feet was going to feel like an eternity.

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As he flew through the air on his way to the ground, Alex noticed dozens of hand-sized pieces of concrete. Those would've probably worked too, he thought. Oh well, next time, I guess. By the time he saw asphalt move beneath him, he had planned in detail what he was going to do to pass the time during the days he spent recuperating in the hospital. His view of the ground crawled slightly closer. Oh, hurry up already. *** Sojourn was inside the Elysium and running down the main hallway. From there, he heard the raging protest burst through the front doors. The building shook. Jack’s voice barreled in, and fire exploded through a door at other end of the hall. Sojourn rounded a corner but felt the wave of heat pulse through the walls. Sojourn frantically searched for signs of the mainframe he had seen with Charlie earlier. Everything looked different when he was running. Chimera exploded through a wall and lunged toward him from the other end of the hall, covering forty feet in a blink. Metal claws reached out to grab Sojourn by the throat, but the beast was struck from behind by the force of a comet. Jack and the armored man spiralled over Sojourn's head and struck another far wall. The impact caved in part of a door. A 'restricted' sign fell from overhead.

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Chimera and Jack flew back down the hall and crunched into another section of the wall. Sojourn entered the room. The system was massive. There were conduits running almost every space of the floor. He tried pulling some them loose. They refused to give in no matter how hard he pulled. The glowing red lens mocked him from the central tower. He ran back to the broken door frame at the entrance of the room, picked up a broken piece of wall, and smashed it into the lens. The lens was unscratched. Sojourn hit it again. The silence from down the hall hastened his frantic pace. He could no longer hear Jack's roar. He struck the unblinking, penetrating eye again and again. Finally, it cracked. With another blow, it shattered and the system unleashed a flashflood of red light. An EMP strobed through the building from the damaged mainframe. Somewhere above, a cell phone was shorted out, destroying one unread text message: “When are you coming home?” The release of energy ripped through Sojourn body as well, but he held his ground. Until, someone struck him. “Wicked child!” Chimera shouted in rage. Bones shattered, flesh ruptured. The impact from the blow lifted Sojourn from his feet and sent him into the air like a rag doll. His body careened into the wall and slumped to the ground.

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Jack stumbled to the door, saw his friend motionless, and entered the room like a shooting star. He slammed into Chimera again. He pressed the villain into the wall as hard as his muscles would allow. The force cracked armor plating. The impact from the last strike had broken Chimera’s visor and revealed his human eyes. “Burn,” Jack commanded, staring into Mason’s eyes. Chimera’s armor evaporated from the heat of controlled, sentient fusion. Fire traced across his naked body, but it left him unscarred. Mason, overwhelmed and beyond his limits, collapsed into unconsciousness. Jack rushed over to Sojourn. The youth’s body was awkwardly motionless under the weight of the Mantle. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. His eyes fluttered open to Jack, “Is it over?” Jack looked back at Mason's unconscious body and then struggled to look into his friend’s eyes, “Yeah, you did it.” Sojourn forced a fragile smile, “So did you.” “Tell me what I can do for you,” Jack said. Helplessness crawled into his pours and held him frozen in place. There was no denying what this moment was. His eyes begged, but the tears did not well in his eyes, “How do you feel?” “A little cold,” Sojourn whispered back. Jack sent a warm wave over his friend.

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“Liz said it's always cold up here though,” Sojourn said. A remnant pulse of Liz’s psionic energy flickered in his eyes. “I’ll see you there,” Jack said, unsure that the words he chose were what his friend needed to hear. His heart ached. “Sounds good... we'll be waiting,” Sojourn said; and, in that moment, another young hero’s life slipped away. *** Within a few minutes, the battle outside was over. Jack waited in the burned-out Arbiter room. Someone he did not recognize appeared in the doorway and then disappeared. He lost track of time. He waited. He didn't know who would come or what they could do, so he waited. Charlie and Roger entered the room first. Roger had found Jack's gauntlet on the battlefield and laid it down beside him. Together, they came over, knelt, and touched their teammate's mantled chest with eyes closed. They stepped back from Sojourn's body as Doug entered the room, followed by Sarah and Alex. A minute later, Abigail entered with a bag under her arm. “I just heard.” “I suppose you’ll want to be taking that back to your garden?” Doug asked quietly, referring to the Mantle. Roger walked over to his champion and his friend. He placed a hand on Doug's shoulder and spoke for the first time any of them had ever heard. “Let him wear a little while longer. No one deserves it more.”

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Doug nodded, but Abigail walked over and knelt by Sojourn’s body. She placed a hand on the Mantle and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she loosened several buckles and removed the tattered remains of the cape affixed to the mantle. Everyone in the room searched for words to stop her. Before they could speak, she pulled another rich, blue cape from the bag under her arm. She fastened it to the mantle, pulled a corner over Sojourn’s narrow shoulders, and smoothed away non-existent wrinkles. Her hand came to rest against his cheek. “You are important,” she said reverently. She stood and stepped back. No one spoke. Jack lifted his fragile friend in his arms and carried him out into the night. The fallen hero was small in Jack's arms. He had never noticed.

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Epilogue Within a few minutes of the final blow, pigeons began to alight again in the trees on the Arboretum grounds. Their warble could be heard beneath the hum of the quiet city. The rain had stopped. The cool evening air mixed into a thick concoction of fog. The permeating mist hung low and clung to the streets. Aurora’s halo echoed through the moisture, creating a new false morning on Cardinal City. Breathless from her first flight, she touched down near where she had seen Sam and Michael from above, passing an unconscious and incapacitated Prism along the way. She once more kicked her former champion in the ribs as she passed – for good measure. The response teams were already out in wake of the battle. The Arboretum was overrun with support personnel when she finally found her son and his selfless protector. “I don’t know, he just won’t let go of him,” one responder said. “What’s the boy’s name?” “Says his name is Michael, and he’s got his arms wrapped so tight around the other one that we are afraid we might hurt him if we pull him loose.”

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A metahuman wearing the Guild markings of a Protector walked over to where Vapor lay prone. Michael was latched on tightly. His eyes were wide and tearful; his knuckles were white. “Michael, is it?” Michael nodded. “We appreciate everything you’ve done here, but I think it’s time to let go. We will take it from here.” “That’s what Sam said.” Michael paused, thinking over the right words to say. “And I still had to save him.” The two uniformed men looked at one another. Their eyes locked, and the corners of their lips angled down. Then, they smiled at one another. The Protector’s smile matched Michael’s as he looked back down. Everyone was grinning ear-to-ear. “Is that why you won’t let go?” the younger of the two men asked. “Yep. Fight’s over, and I’m still having to save him. He got beat up pretty good.” Sam groaned, not in pain, but at the nature of the conversation that he was hearing. In fact, he did not feel any pain at all. He tried to move, and only managed another groan. “Whoa there! The kid’s right. From the assessment of your injuries you are more than ‘beat up pretty good,’ fella. You should be dead. This kid here seems to have saved your life,” the Protector explained. “Wanna run that by me again?” Sam was a little confused.

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“It seems Michael here is a metahuman with healing abilities, and a mighty powerful at that. That’s the only way to explain why you’re still breathing.” “Michael?” Sam questioned. Michael just shrugged. The young boy did not exactly understand what had just been said. He just knew he had a way of making people feel better. Sam understood. It all makes sense. He's a Psion. Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw Jill winding toward them. As he drifted out of consciousness, he just smiled and mumbled aloud, “You're going to have your hands full one day.” Jill smiled. Her boy was growing up faster than she would have liked, but it was in the right way. Michael sat on the floor of the once-again devastated Legacy Room still clutching his friend. His body was glowing like a light through a dark tunnel, outshining the flickering blue flame above. *** On the other side of the city from a posthumous champion induction ceremony, a familiar man looked at his watch. A train would be boarding to New Haven soon, bringing a crowd he would just as soon avoid. Mr. Gregory sat impatiently on the bus stop bench out the station, wearing a polished pair of designer sunglasses. His fine suit sported the signs of high craftsmanship and was custom tailored. He glanced at his watch again.

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A sleek sports car pulled up to him along the road. The license plates read, “MASON.” A cleanly shaven man with short, dark hair sat behind the steering wheel. He tought of the large metal case in the trunk. Monolith always felt less at ease when not wearing his armor, but he rarely showed it. He tipped the edge of his shades down to look over the top of them, “So, are we in business, Dimitri?” Mr. Gregory smiled, “Of course, Alexi.” He brandished a disk cradled safely in an unmarked case. “Was there ever any doubt?” “Not really. You are part of the Pride after all. You’re a good man, Mr. Gregory.” The man known as Monolith motioned for his accomplice to get in the car. A smooth, fresh leather smell took hold as soon as he slid into the passenger-side seat. “You like it? It’s courtesy of one Patrick Mason.” Mr. Gregory gave a wry smile, “Get anything for me while you were there?” “No doubt. It’s in the trunk with the armor.” “Good. Where to?” Gregory asked surveying the road ahead. “The old man wants us back up north. Coincidentally, little Sammy seems to be heading there himself. He's going with Aurora as Guild rep to set up good will relations with the New Haven PD.” “That sounds too good to be true. Was this the old man's plan all along for that ungrateful punk?” Mr. Gregory asked.

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“Who know, Dimitri. One thing's for sure. It is to be a veritable family reunion,” Monolith answered. Their faced mirrored each others' smiles. “Good times,” the fraternal twins said in unison. The car sped off into the distance, tracing fast miles to a dark city. *** Jack sat quietly in Liz's hospital room between the bed and the sunshine streaming in through a window. A metal ring looped around his chest connected two pauldrons, bearing the new Adventus emblem. An Order of Sapien, called the Adventus, was established as an honor guard for the past bearers of Sapien's mantle and those who herald them. All of the Guardians were seated in its formation. Nova was the Guild's sixteenth of seventeen champions. Jack held a small, battered book in his hands. Charlie entered. “How's she doing?” Jack looked up and smiled. “She's still not awake, but the doctors say she's improving.” Charlie nodded and sighed with relief. It had been three uncertain days since the warehouse. At least now, there was hope. “What do you have there?” Charlie asked, turning his attention to the little book in Jack's hands. “It's a Hero's Handbook,” Jack said quietly.

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“It looks a more than a little beat up,” Charlie said. “You want me to get you a new one?” “No. This one's special,” Jack said. “It was... Gabriel's.” Jack choked on his breath and clutched the book tightly. “Who's Gabriel?” Charlie asked. He saw the worn red look in Jack's eyes and approached softly. Jack held the book out for Charlie. When it exchanged hands, Charlie flipped open the front cover and read the handwritten message inside. “To Gabriel – Big brothers make the best heroes.” Perplexed, Charlie began to flip slowly through the pages which had been worn thin with use. Penciled remarks filled the margins of nearly every page. “Turn to the back,” Jack said. Charlie skipped the rest of the book and opened to the last section in the volume of touristy kitsch. A section marked, “For the New Hero” layout out a kind of worksheet for children to fill in the blanks. Numbers ran down the page. Next to each number the same beginning of a sentence was printed. “Being a hero means_______________.” Every blank space except the last one had been filled. Charlie skimmed down the page part of the way and began to read aloud, “Being a hero means... setting a good example for your little brother... taking that first step off the train.... going to the right place at the worst time... helping new friends... not running from monsters...

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deciding with your heart... letting friends help you... doing your best when your best is need most.” Charlie stopped. He knew who Gabriel was. He forced himself to finish the last, filled entry, “Being a hero means... crying alone... so the real heroes can stay strong.” Charlie's eyes flooded. “He should have never had to write that last one,” Jack said. “No one should.” Charlie nodded. He couldn't speak anymore. There was nothing else to say. *** Within a few days, the missing persons’ reports began flooding into every possible agency. In the midst of recovery efforts, nine-year old Lucas arrived on a morning train. He stepped out onto the platform of polished walls and clean yellow light. Every bulletin board in every public place was marked with the fliers he had printed off in hope of finding his older brother. Lucas knew his brother had arrived in the city, but the trail went cold. He grew frantic. A hidden fear crept upon him with everyone he met. No one knew him. No one had seen a boy matching his description. It was like his brother had ceased to exist when he arrived in the city. His spread his fliers more and more aggressively among the people he met. His fliers littered the ruined streets. The wind tossed them into the gutters and alleyways where no one would see.

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In his last, desperate attempt Lucas arrived at the doors to the Elysium which had just reopened. He stopped just outside of the door and checked his cell phone. “No new messages.” His phone had not rung for over a week. His brother always called. If he didn't, something had to be wrong. “I’m looking for my brother,” he said pushing a flier across the desk counter to a attendant in the lobby. “Missing persons need to be passed through the police department for the time being,” she said. Her voice monotoned the official response.

“But I’ve already been there and they sent me here!” “With the city in the state it is, missing persons cases are being deferred for higher priority issues. There is nothing we can do about it.” The Guild attendant had been through this countless times over the past few days, and it was hard to remind herself to show the boy some sympathy. “But my brother is out there!” Lucas’ face was flushed pink. His desperation formed a stream of tears that burned against his cheeks. “Listen kid, I’ll see what we can do, but things are hard right now,” the attendant said. She took the flier and looked at it. She didn't recognize the brother's photo and didn't suspect any of the response teams would either. “What am I supposed to do now?” Lucas asked.

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“Go home. Your phone number is on here,” the representative said, looking at the information on the flier. “If we find your brother…” She glanced down again at the flier. “Gabriel, we will contact you.” Lucas looked down at his phone and pressed a button. The screen still read, “No new messages.” It was the phone that never rang. He looked up into the eyes of the attendant and the Guild member who had just walked over. “I’m going to be back for him,” Lucas spat. His frustration and fear boiled over. He spun on his heels and stormed toward the door. His small hand launched in front of him to punch the door open. On contact, the door and the entire wall to which it was attached disintegrated into a thin suspension of particles, like weightless sand floating in space. Lucas pushed through the particles as if they had ceased to exist. He vanished, teary eyed, into the summer-lit street beyond. When he crossed out of the threshold, the particles hovering in place reformed into the original door and wall, completely intact. The sheer magnitude of the display brought every Guild operative within line of sight to a shocking halt. Several champions, recently returned to the city for recovery efforts, had just emerged from a closed wing. They witnessed the event and rushed over the attendant who had spoken with him. “What just happened?” one of them asked. The attendant stared ahead with his jaw still ajar. He had not heard anything since the door had de-molecularized.

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A champion noticed the flier settled loosely in the man’s grasp and snatched it away guessing its relevance. The man spoke, “He just said he was looking for his brother.” His eyes were still fixed on the solid door. The champions passed the flier around. Each looked at the photo, and none recognized the boy. One champion stared down at the picture and muttered the name below it aloud, “Gabriel.” He rushed out to the open street and searched for the powerful child. But, he was nowhere to be found.

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Indomitable: a graphic-less novel