“It was horrible…so much blood,” Liz sobbed as her mind worked furiously for a solution to her problem.
<Cops, heroes, and Seth. This whole thing is going to turn into a shit-show if someone farts at the wrong moment.> Her stomach gurgled from the anxiety, and she used it to improve her performance.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“You’ve gone through a traumatic experience, young lady. Everything is going to be ok. You are safe and no one if going to hurt you.” The cop taking her statement looked like he was a father, and the sympathy on his face was clear.
<Works for me.> Liz buried her face in Seth’s chest and was able to cut back on the waterworks.
His strong chest was strangely comforting even though she wasn’t upset in the slightest about what had happened inside townhouse 117. It just felt good to be this close to him.
Then an army guy showed up out of nowhere. He started talking with the Hero Liz was pretty sure was the blonde bombshell that had been having coffee with the cop back at Sprout, and had foiled her father’s attempt to grab Anika last year.
<Fucking ForceOps is in on this too. They’ve got a real hard-on for this bad guy.> And she wasn’t referring to herself.
“Abney when you get finished get back to the gym. We’re pulling in all the students.” The Hero spun back around midway through leaving with the army officer. “No, your girlfriend can’t come. Have her head over to the dining hall and shelter in place with everyone else.”
<Fine by me.> Despite wanting to stick with Seth, Liz needed to get out of there and back to the action. Her job wasn’t done yet.
Grabbing Anika was the biggest part of her job, but it was just phase one. Her next mission was to harass the enemy and distract them for long enough that Seif al-din could fuck a few people up and get away. Then he’d grab his daughter and go. After that, Liz could get back to her life. A life with Seth in it.
“I don’t want…”
“It’s ok.” Liz cut off Seth’s retort as she rubbed the last tears out of her puffy red eyes. “I know you need to do this. I’ll see you when it’s all over. Stay safe.” She planted a big kiss on his lips that promised much more later.
“You’re the best woman in the world.”
“I love you too.” Liz let a small smile creep onto her face.
The Hero and army guy vanished, Seth took off for the HCP’s hidden entrance in the dining hall, and she was left with the paternal cop who insisted he give her a ride to the student center.
“Thanks so much officer, but you don’t need to.” She politely refused him. “It’s right there. I’m sure there are other things you can be doing with everything that’s happening.”
He gave her an apprehensive look but then nodded. “Go right there and shelter in place,” were his departing words as he hopped back in his cruiser and sped off with his lights and siren blaring.
Liz walked in the direction of the student center until she was sure he was out of sight. Then she detoured into the alleyway and pulled out her phone.
The teenage technopath picked up on the first ring.
“It’s me.” She made sure her voice conveyed the importance of the situation. “Are you ready?”
“Yep, I’m in. I just need the finalized location?” He replied.
“The dining Hall.” She looked down at her watch to see how much time had passed. She didn’t want to be on the phone any longer than was absolutely necessary. The government had to be listening in on everything right about now.
“Gotcha, we’re good. And…” He stopped just short of saying her name. “We’re even now, right?”
He was referring to the loan she’d given him after the diamond heist. A loan she’d agreed to forgive for this business deal.
“We’re square, big guy. I’ll be gone for a bit, but I’ll talk to you when I can.” She didn’t say goodbye, she just hung up.
She’d come up with a plan to give her plausible deniability during the shit-storm that had descend on Orlando. Despite being a teleporter, she couldn’t be two places at once, and right now she had to be out kicking ass. What she needed to make everything work was to have something showing that while Wraith was out being a badass, Liz Aretino was where she was supposed to be.
Having a technopath in her back pocket really helped. Mika would hack into the school’s surveillance systems and create an electronic trail of Liz’s movements through the entirety of the city’s siege. Its brilliance was its simplicity. When all the dust settled, she could look and say, “Yeah, I was in the dining hall like I was supposed to be. Look at the video.”
She doubted they’d dig that far, because there was going to be so much cleaning up to do that one college girl’s whereabouts wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s list. Still, the hacked video would prove she wasn’t Wraith, and then she could run away with Seth for the summer. Hopefully, things would blow over a little in three months and then they could get back to the business of being together without the guillotine that was her mission looming over her head.
<That would be fucking awesome.> She thought with a smile as she stowed her phone and disappeared in a flash of shadow.
She reappeared across the country in her underground bunker.
“And the crowd goes wild with that stellar performance.” She made crowd noises and waved to the imaginary crowd who was applauding her Oscar-worthy rendition of the scared and frightened school girl.
“I’d like to thank God, because without him nothing is possible. Then there’s my dad for teaching me to be such a bad ass, Uncle Curtis I haven’t forgotten you, and of course Seth for his endless support and encouragement.” She gave an impromptu acceptance speech as she pulled on all of her Wraith gear. “But most importantly, I’d like to send a message to all the young girls out there. When life’s got you down, or you feel like the man is sticking it to you; just kick him in the balls and tell him to go fuck himself sideways.” She finished as she pulled on her grinning volto mask and gave one last wave to the imaginary crowd. “That’s all the time I’ve got. Now let’s go fuck shit up.”
She grabbed the electromagnetic rifle from the table and vanished in another blast of black.
The stillness of her underground lair was replaced by the shouts of people gathering and an endless wailing of sirens. She kept low as she stalked around looking for a position that provided decent cover and concealment. The place she found was already occupied.
“Shit, Wraith. I almost shot you.” Armsman clutched his heart like he was having a heart attack.
“You’re not that sloppy.” Liz grinned at her Uncle behind her mask and settled in next to him. “What’s the situation?”
“The cops, ForceOps, and Heroes have an assembly area a few hundred yards from here. Hellgate and Seif al-Din are luring them into Wadeview Park. Once they’ve got them where they want them they’ll engage and execute a fighting retreat to the East toward Dixie Bell. Damascus is still out there wreaking havoc, and the hope is that once it’s clear we’re falling back the Heroes will divert some of their strength to finding and stopping him.”
“So we shoot and move.” Liz knew their job was pretty straightforward.
“Yeah, and you’re the secondary teleporter if your father dies. You’ll grab al-Din and get him to safety and his daughter.”
The thought of her father dying today stopped Liz cold. She’d never even considered the possibility…ever. Her father had been a supervillain for decades. He was of the most wanted men in the country, and he’d convinced most of law enforcement he was dead. Those he hadn’t convinced, were in a political fight for resources against the people who did believe he was dead and buried. Him and Uncle Curtis had even gone up against Captain Starlight and got away. They’d nearly killed the President of the United States. He’d taught her everything she knew. There was no way her was going to bite the bullet on a mercenary job in Orlando, Florida. Even if they were getting a seven-figure payday out of it.
“Yeah, no chance in hell that’s happening.”
“Damn straight,” Armsman nodded his agreement. “Anything happens to your Dad we’re getting the hell out of here. We ain’t dying for their cause. They can take a dick for all I care.”
It wasn’t quite what she meant, but she appreciated the old supervillain’s fervent devotion to her and her father over the terrorists. In the days to come she doubted anyone else would make the distinction between them.
She resisted the urge to pop her head up and get a quick look of the assembly area. That would just give away their position. Instead, she accepted the binoculars that Armsman handed her. She pressed them to her eyes and got a pretty good view of the Heroes through the miniature cameras he’d seeded the area with before the Heroes arrived.
It had always been their plan to lure the good guys to this area. It was away from downtown, and away from the HCP, so she could do her part of the job, and the nice middleclass neighborhood in the surrounding areas would give them cover as they fell back to the next prepared position. Nothing was a bigger deterrent to Heroes than innocent civilians, and they’d capitalize on that.
She focused in on the Heroes she recognized from her research. The blonde was there looking at the park with a mix of disdain and trepidation. A giant metal guy, Iron Giant, who’d busted in to Sprout and saved the day, was there too. She also recognized the tuxedo guy as Mr. Morningstar, the leader of the Protectorate. The guy in the armor was Galavant, and the girl with the fire shield was Matchbox.
<Five against two…well four.> She grinned.
There were a number of uniformed ForceOps soldiers present, so the numbers were solidly in the Heroes favor, but this was Seif al-Din. Liz knew they’d be seeing if all the rumors about him were true or not very soon.
“Targets?” She asked. To seniority went the ability to choose who you wanted to shoot first.
“Don’t bother with Iron Giant. Nothing we have will even tickle him. It might just be my old mind playing tricks on me, but the blonde might be Reaper.”
<Reaper!> Liz had heard the name mentioned in whispers. People were a lot more afraid of her than Seraphim. <And she put her hand on my shoulder and still didn’t figure me out.> Liz was never in need of an ego boost, but that thought sure as hell gave her one.
“Don’t bother with her either, but stay close to me.” Armsman moved over and touched his shoe to hers. “This way she won’t be able to kill you.”
“What about Dad?”
Armsman just shrugged, either not knowing the answer or not wanting to say anything.
“I’ll take fire girl and tuxedo man. That thing you’re packing looks like it’ll deliver more punch than mine, so you take the armored guys and…”
As if on cue, Seraphim dropped from the sky and landed heavily next to the other five Heroes. Their location kept them hidden from her overhead approach, but Liz still held her breath for a solid fifteen seconds to see if the flying demon would start charging in their direction.
“That bitch is mine.” There was no room for argument in her statement.
Armsman just shrugged before chuckling slightly to himself.
“Did I ever tell you about the time me and your father did that currency transfer job back in the 90s.”
Liz settled in to wait for the action to start while getting juicy details of what her dad was like before she was born. It was a win-win.
“What’s the plan?” Seraphim didn’t waste any time in getting straight to the point.
That seriously annoyed Daisy, even if she was the same way.
There were a lot of chiefs and not a lot of Indians in the small strike team that had been assembled to take on the most wanted terrorist in the world. So just figuring out who would be in-charge took a minute. Supers might have superpowers, but they were still human…sort of, and they all had egos.
Daisy wanted to be in-charge. She’d faced Seif al-Din before, although no one but John and Colonel Ford knew it. She also had the best chance of taking him down for good, but even trying that was risky.
Seif al-Din was an adaptive healer not that dissimilar in most ways from Titan. But al-Din’s ability manifested in a shifted form. So when someone punched him and broke his bones, the terrorist healed those bones stronger than before. The same was true of his skin when he was cut, his muscles when they tore from overuse, and his brain when the Saudi government tried to kill him with an aneurism. An idea they got from the DVA. Everything that hurt the evil man just made him stronger.
So there was no capturing the man. There was only killing him, which was where Daisy came in. And there began the dilemma.
Healers had a natural resistance to her reaping ability. They could hold out longer and fight back more than anyone else. They’d eventually succumb, just like everyone else, but it wouldn’t happen quickly, and that was just with a normal healer. Seif al-Din, and his particular ability, put him in the top tier of the top tier of healers. As far as Daisy knew she was the only Super in the US, maybe even the world, who had a chance of taking down the terrorist.
<What if he gets away before I finish him off? What if my power doesn’t work? What if it does, but he gets away and adapts against it?> Those were the questions running through her head.
Ultimately, it wasn’t her call.
“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Are you prepared to receive your briefing on force usage?”
“As ready as I am every time you tell me the same information.” The tension in the air was hitting Daisy’s bitch-reflex.
Dispatch didn’t respond to her jab, the emotionless voice just started in on the very technical language of what the temporary Hero could and couldn’t do. The gist of it was simple, everything up to Daisy’s reaping was on the table, but she needed special authorization to kill. That was how it had always been, and she didn’t see any problem with that.
<So if this doesn’t work it’s not my fault.> The thought didn’t help, and it wouldn’t ease any guilt if innocent people died and she could have done something about it.
“The plan is to form a perimeter and keep Seif al-Din contained.” Iron giant started to explain.
As the strongest person present and the one least likely to get taken out, the big metal man made a good choice to be the tactical leader. His decades of experience, and current position as the HCP dean also gave him superiority in the minds of their DVA handlers, and they signed off on it. Mr. Morningstar wasn’t too happy since he was the local team leader, but everyone knew he would be largely useless in the fight to come.
“Galavant and Mr. Morningstar will hold the perimeter. I will go in for close combat against him along with Reaper.” John gestured at Daisy as she walked back into the group. “Seraphim attack from the air, but be careful. He’s far stronger than you. Matchbox, same goes for you. Hold the middle ground between Reaper, me, and the perimeter. If you see an opening, take it. Use your speed, but don’t take any risks. Even a glancing blow from him will kill you.”
“And the guy he’s with? It looks an awful lot like Hellgate if you ask me,” Daisy stated in an “I told you so” tone.
The DVA had put her report of Hellgate at Sprout on the backburner when everything went to shit in Orlando, and now it was coming back to bite them in the ass.
“That’s still unconfirmed,” John replied diplomatically. “But if the second subject does reveal themselves to be a teleporter with fire powers then Matchbox will shift her concentration to him with Galavant as assistance. Your gear is fireproof, right?”
“Fire resistant, but I’ll be fine.” Galavant replied, practically vibrating with rookie excitement.
“Don’t get barbequed, Galavant.” Daisy stepped in as the veteran. “Take it slow and easy. Back up Matchbox. Her speed and fire resistance are the best counter to Hellgate we have.”
The junior Hero nodded her appreciation, but she was in the zone and focused on the park.
“Any questions?” John sounded uncharacteristically nervous, and that didn’t sit well with Daisy.
<We’ve got ForceOps backup, but none of them are in the same weight class as any of us. Ford will move people around, but that still leaves us vulnerable. We’re not bringing enough people to this fight.> Daisy concluded, but it didn’t matter.
They had to do the job with what they had available, and whatever was happening at Lander meant they didn’t have much. What reinforcements they were able to get were hunting the RPG teams and other terrorist Supers rampaging around Orlando.
But this was all part of being a Hero. You did your best with what you had, you did the job, or you died trying. She’d seen a lot of people go out with a bang, and if today was her day then she’d go supernova on the jihadist’s ass.
“Ok, let’s go.”
The group didn’t put their hands in and do a last-minute cheer. They weren’t a high school football team. But they did give each other nods as they broke up and moved away.
And that’s when Galavant got shot in the head.
“Wait for them to make the first move,” Armsman whispered.
Liz rolled her eyes, taking her attention off the binoculars for a second. “This isn’t my first time.”
“And this is about my five-hundredth time.” Armsman snapped back, pulling his attention away from his scope. “So listen to me, kid.”
Liz didn’t like being called a kid, but she conceded the point. Armsman was a pro at this.
Seraphim had shown up a few minutes ago, and was talking with the other Heroes. Iron Giant was making tactical gestures with his hand, which gave her and Armsman an idea of what they were doing.
“Hellgate, this is Wraith.” All she heard was sizzling static.
“ForceOps is jamming all frequencies.” Armsman had settled back into his prone shooting stance. “We’ve only got line of sight to work with now.”
<That sucks.> Liz sighed, and went back to watching the binoculars.
Unlike her Uncle, she would have to pop up over the edge of the roof to fire at the Heroes. He’d secured the only firing position with a line of sight to the assembly area while still remaining concealed.
“Why don’t they have their own snipers in position? This is a pretty sweet spot,” she wondered out loud.
“They’re getting there.” Armsman replied. “But they’re focusing on fields of fire into the park, not their assembly area.” He directed her attention to some trees and other nearby buildings where she could make out barrels pointed toward the park.
<I can’t believe I missed that.>
“Still,” she felt far less secure on the school’s roof then before. “This is still a great spot.”
“I’m sure they’ll be here any minute.” He replied as his breathing slowed and he focused on his target.
“Then what the fuck are we still doing here?” She hissed back, reorienting her rifle toward the roof access door across about thirty feet from them.
“We’re here to initiate the ambush. If anyone comes through that door deal with them. Then we relocate to our secondary position.” He slid a picture across the gravel for her to look at.
She looked back through the binoculars and saw the Hero group begin to break up.
“Almost there.” Armsman spoke to no one in particular. “Almost there.”
Then, at the worst possible moment, Liz heard the click of the roof door being unlocked. <You’ve got to be shitting me!>
She dropped the binoculars and brought the rifle up to her shoulder just as the two ForceOps soldiers walked out onto the roof. Armsman’s rifle went off with a thundering BOOM. Fifty caliber rifles weren’t exactly quiet, and that caused the two soldiers’ heads to snap in their direction.
But it was already too late for them.
Liz fired a quick shot into the nearest one’s center of mass. The first soldier stumbled back as the electromagnetically propelled round hammered into his gut.
<A fucking strongman!> Liz screamed internally, as she fired a round into the second target.
That result was much more satisfying.
The soldier’s chest exploded in a jamboree of blood, bone, muscle, and pulverized internal organs. A cloud of pink mist wafted away from the man as he fell to the ground already dead.
But there wasn’t any time to celebrate. The strongman was recovering and he was pissed.
<I would be too if I just watched my buddy get turned into a donut.> she was already on her feet and charging the bent over man.
She dropped the rifle and drew her Glock. She fired rapidly, pulling the trigger, and tracking shots up his legs, all over his chest, and finally into his face. The smaller rounds didn’t pack half the punch of her rifle, but it was enough to annoy the shit out of the guy. He swatted at the cascade of bullets smacking into his face like an angry hive of bees.
While he was distracted, Liz grabbed a grenade with her other hand, and thanked god it had an electronic detonator and wasn’t one you had to pull the pin on. Any movie that showed a person pulling the pin out with their teeth was a load of horseshit. Those things were rammed in them like a motherfucker, and pulling them was a two-handed job. Two hands were something Liz didn’t have the luxury of at the moment.
She flipped up the protective barrier, so she didn’t blow herself up by accident, and hit the ominous red button. The grenade beeped its destructive acknowledgement, and she knew she had three seconds before things went boom boom.
<Sixteen.> she counted as the last bullet exited the barrel.
The soldier was still on his feet, and the look he gave her was pure murder, so it was a good thing the explosion of sense-depriving blackness robbed him of his sight. Liz appeared behind him before he even knew what was happening, shoved the grenade in the small of his back between him and the tactical vest he was wearing, and then she teleported him back down into the assembly area. Lastly, she teleported back over to Armsman, who hastily grabbed her hand.
“Don’t leave my side again, understand!” He had to yell over the ensuing explosion the rumbled through the building’s foundation.
The grenade she’d chosen was some military-grade shit that was designed to take down strongmen. So if the soldier wasn’t dead, he was going to need some intense healing if he ever wanted to take an unassisted piss again.
“Geez,” she shot back. Peeking over the roof a second before bullets started to chew away at the concrete.
They’d figured out their position and were doing their best to turn it to rubble. They’d start using more than guns in a second, but that wasn’t the worst thing.
“You missed!” She half-screamed, half-laughed in Armsman’s face as she remembered the quick peek she’d gotten of the assembly area.
She couldn’t tell but she was sure the veteran was blushing.
“The flame girl stopped and turned just as I pulled the trigger. There was no way to compensate.”
“HAHA. You still missed.” She didn’t bother keeping it down as louder booms started to echo up from below and larger chunks of the roof began to fall away.
It sounded like ForceOps was bringing their own fifty-cal to the party. <Took them long enough.>
“I hit the armored guy in the head.” Armsman defended his marksmanship. “And if you haven’t noticed he hasn’t gotten back up yet.”
Galavant was still lying face down in the dirt, but that wasn’t the point. “A miss is still a miss.” She tightened her grip on the older man. “If you miss again you’re buying me beer for a year.”
This wasn’t the time for banter, but she just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bust the legendary villain’s balls.
“Fine, deal.” Armsman relented.
She couldn’t hear him exhale over the roar of returned fire, but that all died away as they teleported to their next sniper’s nest.
The unlucky cameraman who thought he was recording the fight from a safe distance became the leading actor in a live-streamed murder when Armsman shoved his Katana through the guy’s heart.
Liz picked up his camera, which was still streaming, and filmed herself gazing silently into it for several seconds.
Her grinning mask did all the talking.
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