Alpha II

Character Study

“You’ve hurt a lot of people already, Alpha. It’s time to stop!” Psych clutched her useless arm close to her chest and spent a few precious seconds creating a relative location freeze to lock it in place. It sent electric shocks of agony through her collarbone, which was probably broken. None of it mattered. She had to stop him. No one else could.

“You’re a fool if you think any of that matters. There’s always going to be collateral damage when crushing a rebellion.” He punched the side of a bus as the people inside shouted in alarm and scrambled away from the twisting, screaming metal. He smiled at a woman inside the bus, curled up in the seat opposite from him as she clutched a bleeding man against her chest. A light of hope entered her expression as she met his eyes.

Then he threw the bus. It hurled through the air so fast that the air roared behind it. Psych screamed, reaching out an arm that shimmered. Just before the bus collided with the side of a building, the wall of the skyscraper crumpled. The shimmering air from Psych’s arm raced out and surrounded the bus, shielding the people inside from harm as it smashed through the glass and steel walls.

Alpha shot forward, punching Psych in the sternum as hard as he could before she had a chance to call back her quantum shield. Her chest caved in under the hit before she was launched straight into the air, blood trailing after her in a sickening arc. He pursued her through the air, not giving the girl a chance to breathe or think as he kicked her in the side. She spun through the air sideways until he drove both fists hard into the back of her head. She crashed down onto a car that crumpled under the force of the hit. Pushing his advantage, Alpha raced for her again, intent on crushing her head completely with a final kick.

His foot broke as it met her quantum shield. He cursed, hopping back and away from the girl as she warily pulled herself out of the wreckage of metal that had once been someone’s only means of transportation.

It was remarkable that the girl could even move at all. Alpha suspected that Psych was relying on her powers to keep her body moving at this point. Her neck was discolored with bruising. She gasped desperately for air as blood trickled from her lips. But her eyes remained defiant. Rather than walk, Psych glided through the air towards him. The space between them shimmered with heat. If Psych managed to get in range of him, he was finished. She would lock his space time and end things in the blink of an eye. He wouldn’t even know he’d lost.

But there was a trick to dealing with people like her. He needed another distraction and a way to get her to send her shield away from her body long enough for him to land the finishing blow.

Alpha retreated. He led the girl back toward the Heroes Association building. And the trap. Because a man like Alpha didn’t make it to the top just from being stronger than everyone else. He made it there by being smarter. By being more ruthless. He was the ultimate hero because he was the best. It was time for Psych to realize the true difference between their abilities.

Psych pursued him relentlessly. She would get close, only to stop in her tracks as he overturned a train or punched a crater into a highway. She wasted precious seconds protecting bystanders. Time that he was able to use to get away.

The HA building came into view at last as he blasted his way through a manufacturing building full of employees, destroying the building’s supports right as Psych was about to come within time stopping distance of him.

She cursed, racing around the supports to reassemble the pieces and lock them into place, giving Alpha the time he needed to enter the building. He burst in through his office window and slammed a fist down on a button.

The building crumbled around him. He laughed cheerfully as Psych flew into view, her face contorted in rage.

“It’s over, Alpha. I’m stopping you here.” Her words were little more than a whisper, hard to understand through the persistent wheeze that issued from her damaged chest. The look she gave him could have caused blisters.

Alpha laughed. “You’re right. It is over. But not for me. Maybe not even for you. But certainly for them.” He gestured toward the ground. The rubble of the building he’d demolished parted as a set of metal doors pushed up and over, revealing the sub basement of the Heroes Association building.

Strapped to a series of tables, battered and bruised beyond recognition, the rest of the members of the Association lay helpless. Psych froze, staring down at them with an inscrutable expression.

“Do you think this will make me hurt you any less?” she asked in a deadly quiet voice.

“I think you don’t have time for that,” Alpha replied. He pulled a switch from a gloved hand and activated it. Light poured out from the walls surrounding the battered heroes, and a low hum issued from the tables where they lay. The Technopath, who lay closest to the walls, began to scream.

Psych cursed. She shifted her quantum shield onto her lover, but the moment it left her body, Alpha rushed her. Before he could land a hit, she pulled the shield back onto herself, but then the Technopath started screaming from the pain of the devices in the wall. The longer the light touched the heroes, the more pain it caused. After a few seconds, all of the heroes were screaming in agony.

“You can’t wait too long, my dear,” Alpha taunted. “Before long, they’ll die. I’ll make sure of it. Unless.”

“Unless what?” Psych snarled.

“If you die, they live.”

It was as simple as that. She was the one who stood in his way. She was the one who made it possible for the Mentalist to take over the Association. The one who stole his position as the ultimate hero. Psych was the one who’d caused the world to lose respect for him. Without her, he could get it all back. No one could stand against him.

Tenfold screamed in agony, her body splitting and reforming over and over. High Caliber strained against her restraints, veins bulging in her neck and arms. Her eyes were red from popped blood vessels. The one who suffered the most, however, was the Mentalist. He suffered under his own pain as well as the pain of all the others in the room. An agonized wail tore through him as he suffered for everyone all at the same time.

Psych watched them, tears in her eyes. And Alpha knew he’d won.

“Stop hurting them. I’ll do what you want.”

“You’ll do what I want, and then I’ll stop their pain.”

Psych floated down next to Akash. He and the few people around him stopped screaming, but the room was too large for her to protect everyone at once. She brushed her fingertips across her lover’s cheek.

“It’s always about power, with you. Who has it and who doesn’t. You think my love for these people is a weakness.” She walked across the room to the Mentalist and gently placed a hand on his forehead. The man stopped wailing. His breath came in ragged gasps and he shivered on the table, tears shining on his cheeks. He whimpered.

Alpha landed next to her. Even if she stopped his personal time, she couldn’t stop what was happening to her friends. He’d already won. “And you think it’s not?”

“It’s not. We’re stronger when we have help.” Psych wiped the sweat off of the Mentalist’s forehead and brushed away his tears, her face like stone.

The Mentalist looked up at her, shaking heavily. “Will it hurt?” he asked.

“I’m afraid so.” Her voice was clear, the wheezing completely gone. Even the bruising on her neck was fading.

A cold chill went down Alpha’s spine. Was she healing? But that was impossible. She didn’t have regenerative abilities, the Association’s healer assured him of that fact. However, it wasn’t her apparent recovery that made him sweat. It was the stone cold look in her eyes as she reached out toward him, her palm still pressed to the Mentalist’s forehead as he matched her expression perfectly.

The world froze, everything going perfectly still as Psych made contact with his forehead. Then it exploded, fracturing into a trillion pieces of information that bombarded him from all sides.

“Welcome to the multiverse,” Psych said. He could hear her words all around him, echoing into the shattered world around him. “This is every universe where you exist and have caused pain to other people. I thought you might enjoy a tour.”

“What good will this do you?” Alpha scoffed. “Do you think this will change me? Make me see the error of my ways?” His mind spread throughout all of the various realities that Psych showed him and he felt nothing. He was proud to feel nothing. Proud that her little trick would not affect him.

“My job is to bring you here,” Psych said. “I know I can’t make you feel things. It’s not my job.”

“It’s mine, actually.” The voice of the Mentalist infiltrated Alpha’s mind like an intrusive thought. Through Psych, the empath traveled the connection made between Alpha and the alternate versions of himself. Then his mind traveled beyond. Into the minds of those that Alpha had touched.

All at once, the empath ripped the pain and suffering from trillions of universes and shoved all of that feeling and emotion directly into Alpha’s brain. The empath screamed under the blowback from so much emotion and retreated from the connection, but his work remained.

For the first time in his life, Alpha understood. The torment of so many emotions racked his body and he felt it in the marrow of his bones. Every injury he’d caused. Every bit of damage he’d inflicted. It turned on him a hundred-fold. The empath had even dragged in every hurt feeling that Alpha had ever been responsible for. The backhanded compliments, the insults, times he’d battered people’s self-confidence.

He crumpled under the weight of it. Alpha, the strongest hero the world had ever seen, curled into a ball and cried. He didn’t resist when Psych pulled the glove off of his arm. He didn’t move a muscle as the machines turned off and the heroes were released from the power-stripping tables he’d trapped them on for days.

He sobbed brokenly as the images of thousands of lives full of pain repeated in his head over and over again.

“Make it stop,” he begged. “I don’t want this. Make it stop.”

Psych looked down at the man. Her eyes were downcast, and her lip quivered. “I’m sorry, Alpha. It will stop when you do.”

“What does that mean?” he whimpered.

High Caliber grabbed him underneath the arms and pulled him into a standing position. “Come on, boss man. Time to go to prison.”

“What does it mean!” Alpha shouted as the woman dragged him away.

Psych never answered. She watched sadly as the Hero of Heroes was dragged away to face the consequences of his crimes.

Tenfold II

Character Study

Estelle sat uneasily on the chair in the doctor’s office. Her leg bounced as she waited for the results of the test. Tenfold sighed. She sat in the chair next to her friend and placed a hand on the anxiously vibrating leg.

“It’s going to be okay,” Tenfold assured her.

“I really don’t think it is.” She clasped her hands in her lap and leaned back, closing her eyes.

“Have you told Akash?”

Estelle exhaled deeply and looked away. “I don’t know what I could tell him.”

Tenfold rolled her eyes.

She knows what’s wrong. Tenfold sat a little straighter, paying more attention now that her intuition was onto something.

What is it? Tenfold asked silently.

I don’t know. But she knows something. Or she has a theory.

“You’re keeping something from me,” Tenfold accused Estelle.

The younger woman crossed her arms. “You know I hate it when you do that.” She looked at the door again as if waiting for the doctor, but now Tenfold was onto her. She was stalling.

“How many times have you blacked out, Estelle?”

“Four or five times.”

“Total?”

“This week.” Estelle slumped in her chair. She drew her legs up to her chest and closed her eyes, as if she was praying. Her lips trembled.

“Are you dying?” Regardless of how hard she tried, Tenfold couldn’t keep her voice from trembling.

“No. Not really.”

“What do you mean, not really?” Tenfold demanded.

She’s already dead, Intuition provided. You can’t die if you’re dead.

Are we going to lose her? Another part of Tenfold wondered.

“I think I’m fading,” Estelle whispered.

The door to the room cracked open and the Association’s doctor poked his head inside the room. “Good morning, ladies. Psych, I got your test results back. It looks like your CT scan came back normal. Better than normal, actually. It seems like some of your brain’s pathways have finally started to rebuild themselves. Your blood tests actually showed signs of heightened regeneration. It seems like your healing factor has finally started to kick in properly.”

“So that’s why she’s been blacking out?” Tenfold asked hopefully. “It’s just her body repairing itself.”

“We believe so, yes,” the doctor said with a smile.

Tenfold turned to Estelle. The young woman wouldn’t meet her eyes. Redness bloomed on her cheeks and nose, and the shining gleam of tears twinkled in her eyes.

“I understand, doctor. Thank you.”

The doctor stood awkwardly in the doorway, looking from Tenfold to the crying Estelle. At last, he nodded to the women and ducked out of the room, leaving them in silence. Tenfold waited for Estelle to explain why she was upset. As always, the younger woman was as obstinate as a cat.

“What’s wrong, now? This is great news! You can’t be hurt as easily.” Tenfold placed a comforting hand on Estelle’s shoulder. “We should be celebrating.”

Estelle wiped her eyes. “It’s not that simple, Ten.”

She’s fading, Intuition repeated. Tenfold went still.

What does that mean? she asked.

I don’t know.

“What did you mean when you said you were fading?” Tenfold asked.

Estelle clenched her fists. “I’m just a consciousness inside a stranger’s body, Ten. What happens when the brain repairs itself and the original consciousness returns? Is there room for two minds in one body?”

“I mean. Yeah. Look at me.” Tenfold was the ideal example of multiple minds in a single body. She and the others made things work well enough.

“Your mind is fractured, but it’s still just one mind,” Estelle said. “Every mind inside of you is a different aspect of the same person. You are complex and wonderful, but you are still just one person.” She folded into herself once more, resting her forehead on her knees. “Ten, I was never meant to live this life. I’m already dead. I’m just a ghost haunting a little girl. But she’s coming back. My purpose for being here is over.”

“You have more purpose than that,” Tenfold said roughly. “You can’t just let her throw you out. This is your body, too.”

“It’s not. It never was.”

“So you’re just going to give up? You’re going to let her kill you?” Tenfold stood up, anger seething as she fought to understand what was happening to her best friend. “We don’t want to lose you Estelle. We can’t.”

“You’ll have to. I’m sorry, Ten. I really am.” Estelle wiped her eyes. “I don’t want to go, either.”

“Then don’t!”

“It’s not my choice.”

Tenfold split. Three duplicates walked out of her body. They nodded to one another, then absorbed her back into them. Inside her own mind, Tenfold screamed as her other personalities soothed her. The three duplicates that remained on the outside turned to face Estelle, their expressions hard with determination.

“We’ll find a way to save you,” the three said in unison. Two of them stormed out of the room, but the third, Intuition, remained.

“If you are gone, what will be left in your place?” Intuition asked.

“Me. The version of me that should have lived this life.”

Intuition frowned, touching her lip as she thought it through. “This other you. She won’t know anything about the world. How to use her powers. How to be a part of society. Who we are.”

“I think she will,” Estelle said. “I think she’ll know all the things that I’ve known. I was left in her place to make memories. To form her so that there would be a life waiting for her when she returns. The one that remains will be me, but not the me that you’ve known until now.”

“How can you be certain?”

“I can’t. I’ve never been able to see the future. But I have a feeling.” Estelle flashed a sad half-smile, which Intuition returned.

“Intuition can’t always be trusted.” She knelt in front of Estelle and pressed the younger woman’s fingers to her lips. “I can’t bear to watch you go, Psych. You are my best friend. I won’t watch you go.”

Estelle sniffled, swiping at more tears that poured down her face. “I understand. I won’t hold it against you.”

Intuition stood and walked out of the room, leaving Estelle alone in her worry. She leaned against the wall outside of the door, clasping her mouth to stop the guttural scream that fought to work its way out of her throat.

Inside the room, Estelle’s agonized whisper pierced the silence of the hallway. “How am I going to tell Akash?” She began to sob.

Once again, Tenfold split. Every personality that ever lived inside of the woman came out, but not one of them was strong enough to bear the pain that she felt. The hallway filled with her duplicates, each one crying and holding onto the others for support.

“We can’t let her see us like this,” one of the duplicates said. “It’s too much.”

“We’ll go home.”

“We’ll find a way to save her.”

“We should go to the bar.”

“We’ll die without her.”

“We won’t.”

“We will.”

“We’re not strong enough.”

“Stop!” Intuition snapped. “Go where you need to go, just don’t stay here.” She shooed her duplicates away until she was the last one left.

Will we be alright? Tenfold asked from the safe place inside where she still sought shelter.

“No. I don’t think we will.”I don’t think so, either.

Grounding Exercise

Poetry

Dishes in the sink;
sweat stains on the couch;
the smell of old wood.
Light filters through windows
in prisms of color
that streak the ground in pastel rainbows.
Particles of dust dance in the air–
an everlasting waltz.
His skin smells of soap and spice.
The stubble on his cheek
leaves trails of red across soft, pale skin.
Calloused and scarred fingers
trace gentle circles on my hips,
reminding me ever gently
that this is love;
this is life;
this is home.

What I’m Worth

Poetry

Worthy to be loved
Worthy to be seen
Worthy to bear the fruit
To stand in the shadows of kings
to bear the burdens of artist and ingenue
to hold the weight of the future in my womb

Unworthy to share machinations of thought
Unworthy to be heard
Unworthy to choose a path beyond the cultivated garden
where my mother was beaten to submission
where her light was stolen and smothered
where she did no greater good than the day she bore a son

One day you’ll be president
One day you’ll be Queen
One day the world will stand in awe of what you’ve done
A little lie because we don’t want them to know
a little lie to give some hope
a little lie because you’re worthy to be loved
but only in body
and even then
only for a while

Ink for Blood

Poetry

Static burns in my chest
scraping raw the edges
where hope meets reality.

I once dreamed in technicolor
though the world tells me
that black and white is the limit.

Who are you to stop me
from bleeding color into life;
a desperate hope though it is?

I have ink for blood,
and I’m not afraid to use it–
to lose the pigment that fills me.

Though the static leaves scars
and the dream has long faded,
hope remains.

There is nothing else.

A Held Breath

Poetry

We started off our ‘20s with a
Bang Bang Bang.
The only upside is that things can
only go up from here.
When you’re living rock bottom
the basement looks like a ceiling.
The glass is so pretty
the way the sunlight sparkles through;
we stand mesmerized like ants
as all hope burns away.
Those fantasies and dreams
were never built to last;
like straw houses standing alone
while we hold our breath–
the promises were broken before my first gasp,
and will stay that way
long after my last.
They call me an optimist;
I’m afraid they might be right.

Co-writing a Story with AI

Fantasy

This story snippet was written using AI Dungeon, a game that uses AI to guide your adventures. Everything written in blue was written by the AI and everything in black is my own contributions to the story. I had a lot of fun using the free version of the game, and it’s definitely a game I’d like to eventually return to and see how a full story might play out. I hope you enjoy this first attempt!


You are Puck, a rogue living in the kingdom of Larion. You have a long steel dagger and a length of rope. You walk down the city street looking for somewhere to steal from. You look around and see a shop window full of beautiful vases. You think to yourself ” Vases? What sort of thief are you?” but then you see a little dagger that you think would look nice on your belt. 

You walk up to the window and look at the dagger in your hands. It is a beautiful weapon, made of blue-glazed steel. You place the dagger in your belt and then slip inside the window.

The shop is mostly empty with only a sleepy shopkeeper and a handful of customers idling about. You keep to the shadows, out of sight, and slowly make your way toward the beautiful blade that would make a lovely match for the dagger already attached to your hip.

The display case is at the far corner of the store.

You wait for a customer to distract the shopkeeper, then quietly slip next to the case. The lid lifts easily without a noise, and you withdraw your new dagger. It has the same blue-glazed steel as the one already on your hip, but a curious amber gem adorns the pommel; too fine a piece to be left in a ramshackle shop such as this.

You grip the hilt in your hand, and make sure that the dagger is securely fastened to your belt.

You slip out the front door, and back onto the street. You have your prize.

You walk slowly down the city streets, keeping a close eye on the crowds.

You are Puck, a thief, and you have an important mission to perform.

The merchant’s guild has been fencing in stolen goods, lately. Normally Puck wouldn’t mind, but it caught the attention of the thieves guild. The thieves guild had made it Puck’s business to find out who was behind the black trade and why the thieves guild had yet to receive their cut.

After all, it wasn’t like stealing from small time merchants was really all that profitable. You say “I am ever the loyal dog.” You decide to let the dagger that is already on your belt do the talking and head in the direction of the guild.

Alpha

A Character Study

Alpha couldn’t be bothered to walk the halls of the ER attached to the Hero Association. He jumped out a window and flew to the top floor instead. The fewer people he had to run into, the better. The sycophants and worshipful followers gave him a headache even on the best of occasions, and the Association was the number one gathering spot for that lot. Not that he didn’t understand their feelings, of course. He was, after all, the most powerful super alive.

The window leading into Psych’s room burst open before Alpha even reached it. The Mentalist, a dark and lanky man with disheveled clothing and dark circles under his eyes, scowled out at Alpha with his arms crossed over his chest.

“You’re not coming in until you promise not to harm her.”

Alpha rolled his eyes. “She’s a criminal.”

“She’s a child.”

“You can’t stop me from getting to her if I really wanted to do it,” Alpha pointed out.

“That remains to be seen.” The Mentalist glanced back into the room at the one who spoke, fighting a grin. The voice was raspy and crackled with congestion. What had the healer said? Blood in her lungs. Broken ribs. Concussion. Seriously, how had such a frail creature caused them such problems? No proper super should be this badly injured.

“You think the Mentalist could stop me?” Alpha scoffed.

“I’m in a hospital bed and even I could stop you,” the girl said. “The Mentalist wouldn’t even break a sweat. Or do you really think brute strength would work against someone who can break your mind?”

“I can’t break minds,” the Mentalist demurred.

“No, you don’t break minds. Can’t and won’t aren’t necessarily the same thing.”

Alpha flew closer to the window, but the Mentalist stepped up to block his path. “She’s a kid, and you will promise not to hurt her.”

The much more muscular super peered around his subordinate. He could see the girl’s feet at the end of the bed, and a quiet figure standing in the corner. More than anything, Alpha hated being told what to do. As if the Association and everyone in it didn’t belong to him. But, he had to admit, the Mentalist did have his shady little tricks. It was easier just to agree. He didn’t feel like having someone clean the splatter off of the wall.

The Mentalist glanced at him with a raised eyebrow and Alpha grinned. “Fine. I promise not to harm her. For now.”

The man in the corner snorted, but Alpha barely even glanced his way. The man was a nobody. Probably just the civilian that had brought her to the Association after he found her unconscious. The healer said the man refused to leave the girl’s side, and no one wanted to accidentally hurt him by trying to force him out.

“You have a lot of explaining to do, Psych,” Alpha warned her in a low growl. “After what you did to my heavy hitters, you’re lucky we even bothered to have you healed at all.”

“Sure thing, Ed. Whatever you say.” Psych leaned back on the bed and closed her eyes.

“Estelle,” the Mentalist sighed. He pinched the arch of his nose. “Why do you insist on being so antagonistic?”

“I’m good at it.” She twisted where she sat, her mouth pinched into a fine line. The man in the corner stepped forward. Alpha barely remembered he was there at all.

“She’s obviously in pain,” the man said quietly. “I thought you were an empath, can’t you tell at least that much?” He reached down and took her hand in his. “Can’t we get the healer to see her again? She obviously needs more help.”

“Not if she won’t allow it,” the Mentalist said, glaring pointedly at the girl. “If you would release your psychic shield, he could fix you the rest of the way in minutes.”

“I’d rather deal with it myself.”

“Psychic shield?” Alpha asked blankly. Having them talk around him like he wasn’t even there irritated him. Was he or was he not the leader of the Association? He deserved their respect.

“She projects a wall of psychic energy around herself as a natural defense,” The Mentalist explained. “It’s impenetrable. Nothing can get through it unless she wants it to.”

“Psychic energy.” The man who still held the girl’s hand glanced down at her with a raised eyebrow. She grinned up at him like he was a favorite toy.

“That’s what it is,” she said. “Why would I make that up?”

The man snorted, but didn’t say anything. The Mentalist harrumphed. “You can let her go, now, Akash,” he said, his eyes drilling holes into the pair’s linked hands.

Psych grinned impishly at the Mentalist. “Party pooper,” she said. The man, Akash, blushed and released his grip, taking a step back as he shoved his hands into his pockets. She sighed, her grin fading to a complicated frown. “I want to leave.”

At last, Alpha was in his element. “I don’t think so, Psych. Not until you’ve paid for your crimes!”

“What crimes?” she asked, her voice bored. “The heroes stopped me every time I tried, didn’t they?”

“You stole tens of thousands of dollars over the course of two years!”

Psych tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. Doesn’t sound like me. Do you have proof?”

Akash couldn’t quite hide his grin, and the Mentalist nearly choked on his own laugh. Alpha sputtered for a moment, caught off guard. Technically, they did not have proof that the girl stole the money. It wasn’t discovered that anything was missing until well after she’d run off, and there was no video footage or physical evidence to link the girl to the crimes. The only proof they had was that she was in the area when most of the things were stolen. Even when they raided her home and checked her employment records, there was no sign that she’d done anything wrong. They hadn’t even found her uniform. If it weren’t for the Mentalist positively identifying the girl, they wouldn’t even know she was Psych to begin with.

“Well then, I guess I’m free to go since there aren’t any crimes I can be charged with, right?” She swung her legs out of the bed and floated up rather than stand.

A chill that made no logical sense ran down Alpha’s back at the sight of her floating before him. Her hair and the robe she wore fluttered slowly as if the girl floated in water. When she moved through the air, it was with finite precision, as if a robot programmed coordinates in her flight path. It seemed as if the world moved around her instead of the other way around. Fighting the part of himself that told him to flee, he reached out to grab the girl’s arm.

His fingers slid off of a solid surface several inches over her skin. She looked down her petite nose at him, as if Alpha, the strongest hero in the entire world, was nothing more than a bug to her. What’s worse, for the first time in his life he actually felt like one. Was this what it was like for the people who met him? This sense of being entirely outclassed?

“I’m leaving,” Psych announced.

The Mentalist gently pushed Alpha aside and touched the girl’s hand. She let him, Alpha realized. “I told you that I would happily take you in, Estelle. You’ve already been through so much. Let me protect you.”

Psych looked away from him. A small tremor traced its way across her shoulders before her chin firmed and she pulled away. “I can protect myself.”

“You’re just a child,” the Mentalist said.

“I’m not a child. I’m sixty-seven,” she retorted with a pert smile.

“You’re sixteen,” he replied, voice dry.

“I’m an old sixteen. Ancient. Practically a fossil.” She looked past the Mentalist, her eyes clinging to Akash with an expression of longing that looked too mature for her young face. For a moment, Alpha could almost believe that the girl was in her sixties. “Akash. You could come with me.”

Akash frowned. “You should stay here with the Mentalist. It’s where you belong.”

“I don’t belong anywhere in this world,” she said.

The pressure in the room intensified. For a moment, Alpha’s body felt as if it was being torn apart–like every cell of his body would disintegrate at once. He collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath. Somewhere on the other side of the room, Akash cursed. When the pain subsided, Psych was gone.

Alpha panted, pressing a hand to his chest as if unsure his body was still in one piece. “What was that?” he demanded. “What did she do?”

The Mentalist didn’t answer. He stared at Akash, who floated in the air with his arms held out wide and his eyes glowing. He stayed that way for three minutes before dropping to the ground with a scowl.

“Well?” the Mentalist asked.

“Moon,” Akash growled. “She went to the moon.”

“What? How?” Alpha demanded. Even he couldn’t fly to the moon that quickly. Was the pain he experienced caused by the air burning as she left?

“What is she really?” the Mentalist asked.

Akash hesitated. “That’s not for me to say. It’s her secret to tell.”

“Then what are you?” Alpha demanded.

Akash looked at Alpha like he was a speck of dirt. Lip curled in animosity, he said, “I’m called the Technopath.” The name meant nothing to Alpha, so he looked at the Mentalist, whose skin had gone pale.

“Is that so?” the Mentalist asked.

“It is.”

Neither man said anything further. They stared one another down and the tension in the room grew palpable. At last, the Mentalist sighed, backing down. “I see. It’s that serious, is it?” Akash blushed, but didn’t answer. The Mentalist nodded and glanced at Alpha. “I will take care of the Psych case. Place her under my jurisdiction. I’m officially applying for the right to adoption. I will take responsibility for her from here on out.”

“Something tells me she won’t appreciate that,” Akash said. “But we can try, I suppose.”

“You can’t decide these things on your own,” Alpha said, feeling for all the world like a pouting child. “I’m the head of this Association. That girl is a danger to everything I’ve built!”

“That girl is a runaway child who is desperately trying to survive on her own,” the Mentalist said.

“She’s kind,” Akash added. “Kinder than I had reason to hope any super could be.”

“She didn’t seem that kind, to me,” Alpha muttered.

“She doesn’t like you,” the Mentalist said. “You don’t even need to be an empath to pick up on that much. You’d have to be a moron to not realize it.”

Was that a slight on him? Alpha glared the Mentalist down, but the empath only smiled sweetly in reply. That more than anything set Alpha on edge. He ground his teeth in frustration. If the girl hadn’t already put him on edge, the Mentalist wouldn’t have dared to talk down to him like that. Something about her put him off, that was all.

“Why don’t you go back to your office and fill out the paperwork for the adoption?” The Mentalist suggested. “We can take it from here.”

“I’m still your boss,” Alpha said.

“Yes, of course you are,” the Mentalist replied. “And I do appreciate you getting to work on that for me. Akash, if you would? I believe we have a workroom you could use to help track Estelle.”

He led the Technopath, or whatever he called himself, out of the room. Abandoned, Alpha sank into a chair and dropped his head into his hands. He never wanted to see the girl again. If the Mentalist never found her, well, it was no problem of his. All the same, maybe it was better to let the empath take the fall for whatever the girl chose to do next. If the past was any indicator, it wouldn’t be long before she got into some kind of trouble. And then Alpha could be rid of her and the Mentalist both.

They were below him. Little more than pests. He kept telling himself that as he flew back out the window and down to his office on the lower floor to get started on the paperwork. Alpha wasn’t scared of some strange super kid. He was a Hero. The Hero of heroes. Strongest in the world. Nothing could stop him. It was fine. Everything was fine.

The Mentalist

A Character Study

Tenfold wouldn’t come out of her room. That, more than anything else, made the Mentalist hate Psych, or whatever it was she called herself. Their encounter had scared the woman beyond reason. Or, perhaps, it was with good reason for her to be so afraid. After watching the video footage of the encounter between Psych and Tenfold it had become abundantly clear that Psych far outclassed the duplicator. It was as if they hadn’t even been playing the same game.

None of Tenfold’s hits had landed on the woman. At first it seemed like it. Psych reacted perfectly to every hit; slammed into walls so hard that it had left craters; and yet, the video footage told a different story. The walls broke before Psych hit them. Tenfold’s fists stopped just short of the red clad villain. And in the end, with a single touch, Tenfold had been left locked in place and completely vulnerable. The villain could have done anything to her, at that point. Tenfold could have been killed.

Instead, the villainess had simply tucked a slip of paper into Tenfold’s sleeve and made a run for it before backup arrived. The thought of it made Mentalist’s stomach churn. All of the top brass of the Hero Association had poured over the note. They tried to ascertain whether it was a manifesto, a declaration of her next target, or anything that made sense at all. It wasn’t. It was an address that led to a small apartment rented out by a poor couple and their four children.

Inevitably Alpha, the leader of the Hero Association, assigned the Mentalist to find out why Psych was targeting this family. And the Mentalist had readily agreed to the job. Because Tenfold still wouldn’t come out of her room.

His anger built as he approached the apartment building. There was no reason to get regular civilians involved in the game of heroes and villains that the supers of the world played. Supers were little more than entertainers. They were highly paid wrestlers at best. The fact that most of them could take out a city without breaking a sweat–well, they tried not to let too many people dwell on that fact. Laws for supers were much more strict than for anyone else, and that little bit of inequality would just have to put people at ease.

Mentalist reached out with his mind as soon as he entered the building. Tracking distance with his mind was impossible, so he searched through mental images until he found ones that matched the faces of the people he was looking for.

A sense of fear and pain hit him so hard that the Mentalist nearly stumbled into one of the other people taking the elevator with him. His heart seized and he punched a hole through the top of the elevator, briefly making a mental note to pay for the repairs later, and flew upward to the floor where he knew the family lived.

“She can’t already be here,” he cursed himself. “It’s too early.”

But villains who didn’t play by the rules of the association rarely followed any set of rules at all. It was stupid of him to assume Psych wouldn’t attack before the date and time she’d written on her note. He was through the elevator doors and at the apartment in the blink of an eye. He’d already ripped the front door off of its hinges before he even thought to take a closer look at what was happening inside.

A teenage girl huddled on the floor, covering a small child with her body as a woman struck her over and over with an iron pan. A bottle of whiskey lay on the ground at her feet, its contents soaking the taupe carpet.

“How dare you talk back to me! After all I’ve done for you!” The pan swung down once more and the teenager cried out in pain, but refused to move away from the little boy who huddled under her and cried. Bruises covered the girl’s face and neck. Blood poured freely from a gash on the boy’s head.

“He didn’t mean it!” the teenager gasped. “Please stop!”

Up swung the pan again, and back down, aimed straight at the girl’s head. It struck the Mentalist’s outstretched hand before he’d even realized he took a step. The woman stared at him blankly, and never had he wanted to strike down a civilian more than in the moment when her eyes met his.

He knew her entire life in a flash. Her name was Faith Hudson. Her own parents locked her in closets and refused to feed her for weeks on end. She’d run away from home at seventeen with the first boy who promised to take care of her. Her whole life was spent running from bad situation to worse until eventually she’d ended up with an abusive husband, taking care of his two kids.

She’d decided to foster to fill the void in her life. Faith had just wanted something to call her own, and her husband didn’t mind the extra money the new kids brought in. But the girl had turned out to be weird, and the boy was too difficult for her to handle. Resentment broiled inside of her at the two useless children she’d taken under her roof. She’d taken to drinking. Then she’d taken to beating them, just like her parents had done to her.

They deserve it, the woman thought. It’s their fault. Why can’t they just be normal?

The Mentalist flinched away from the woman’s mind. He didn’t want to pity her. Part of him didn’t pity her, and never would. That fact made him uncomfortable. He was the hero who always knew where people were coming from; he should have more compassion. That was difficult to feel as he stood over two bloodied and battered children who’d done little other than accidentally spill the woman’s whiskey during a tantrum.

The Mentalist scooped the children both up into his arms. “I’m here to protect you,” he said.

The girl nodded, but refused to look him in the eyes. Instead, she cradled the squirming young boy close to her chest. “Get us out of here,” she whispered. The boy wept silently.

Within minutes, the three of them stood in front a DCS worker at the hospital as the Mentalist quietly explained what he had witnessed in the house and what had brought him there in the first place. The woman listened quietly, nodding occasionally before gesturing for him and the children to take a seat.

He sat next to the children with a scowl.

“She didn’t believe you?” the girl asked. She appeared more resigned than worried.

The man hesitated, not sure he should explain what had him so angry. Rather than mention the woman’s underlying thoughts, he said, “She had no choice except to believe me.”

The girl nodded and looked away. “They never believe me, when I tell them. I’ve tried to report it before.”

“I know.” The Mentalist sighed, rubbing his temples to hide his anger. It had been on the forefront of the social worker’s mind. The girl, Estelle, was a known liar. She’d falsely reported the family for abuse three times according to her records. There had never been any evidence to support her claims, and the social workers had been instructed to take down her reports but put them in the de-escalated claims pile. This time, since the Mentalist had been there and witnessed the violence first-hand, they had no choice but to take it seriously. It made him sick to think what might have happened if he hadn’t been there to stop it. The girl might have died protecting her foster brother.

“It’s okay,” Estelle said, patting her brother’s shoulder gently. “He’s safe, now.”

“And you?”

She snorted, but didn’t answer. Instead she kept her eyes glued to the nurse who approached them with a chart. Estelle stood quickly, the little boy dangling from her arms. “Take him, first,” she insisted. “His head hasn’t stopped bleeding.”

The nurse whisked the boy away and Estelle sat gingerly in her chair. Her breathing was rough and from the waves of pain that emanated from the girl he was certain she’d broken at least one rib. He was amazed. The girl was a fighter, through and through.

“You’ll be safe now, too,” the Mentalist promised.

Estelle stiffened slightly, then relaxed her shoulders. “Yeah. I know.”

“We could try to arrange for a family to take the both of you,” he offered.

“It would be harder to place him.” She bit her lip and closed her eyes as she tilted her head back against the pillar behind her. “Could you check in on him, from time to time? Make sure he’s ok?”

“I will. I’ll do the same for you.”

“I won’t need it.” A tear fell down her bruised cheek. The Mentalist cursed himself for not coming to the apartment even a little bit sooner. He hated the fact that the girl had gone through this at all. She was so young. Barely fourteen, though her demeanor gave her a maturity well beyond her years. All the same, she was only a child.

No one had seen the horrors that this child had suffered. No one except Psych, who had sent the entire Hero’s Association to hunt the family down and protect the children. At the end of the day, he wasn’t the real hero. It was the red-clad woman who’d scared his friend that had saved these children.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” Estelle said. She stood up, clutching her ribs and limped away to the bathroom. The Mentalist barely made note of her exit, trapped as he was in his own self-pity and doubt.

After a time, the nurse returned to take Estelle back to the examination room.

“She’s in the bathroom,” the Mentalist explained. “How is the boy?”

“A small concussion. He needed three stitches, and we’ll keep him under observation.” She smiled broadly at him. “I’m a huge fan of your work, by the way. I have a thing for the thinking type heroes. You guys are the best.”

“Thank you, that really means a lot.” They stood and chatted until finally the nurse peeked around him to the bathroom. “Is she okay in there? It’s been a while.”

Without waiting for him to answer, she walked over to the bathroom and slipped in the door. He felt her surprise before she stepped out and called him over. “She’s not here,” the woman whispered.

The Mentalist took a step back in shock, then opened his mind to search for images of the girl. His eyes glowed and the air around him became thick as he spread out his search radius to the edge of his reach. At last he let the mental trick go with a curse.

“She’s gone. I think she ran.” He pulled out his communicator and typed a message to the Association, requesting backup to search for the girl. He didn’t have to wait for a response. A text popped up on his screen right away.

Runaway civilian teens are the jurisdiction of the police, not the Hero Association. Wrap up your business there and return to headquarters as soon as possible.

A cold ball settled into the bottom of his stomach. A child disappears in the middle of the city and this was the best response they could muster? Not for the first time, the Mentalist resented the title of Hero that had been bestowed to him the day he joined the association. Some hero he was, if he wasn’t even allowed to protect a child in need.

“Damn them,” he muttered. “Could you report the girl’s absence to the case worker on site?” he asked the nurse. “I’ll look for her on my own.”

The nurse nodded and ran off to do as he asked. The Mentalist took to the air, flying out of the hospital and over the city, scouring the minds that passed below him for any glimpse of the girl, however brief.

She was nowhere. Estelle had disappeared into thin air, as if she’d never existed at all. The Mentalist kept looking for her all night until his mind dragged and body dipped and swayed through the air as if he was drunk. He crawled into his bed that morning haggard and miserable.

He’d failed the child. Failed her so thoroughly that he would never forgive himself.

“It won’t happen again,” he swore. He would never fail another child like that ever again. And if he ever had the fortune to find Estelle, wherever she was, he would make sure she had a safe home to return. Even if it meant taking her in himself.

Tenfold

A Character Study

Tenfold watched silently as the red-clad woman floated from store to store in the packed mall. She carried several large bags slung over her shoulder and gleefully filled them in each place as the terrified store clerks stood helplessly by. As far as criminal acts were concerned, it wasn’t exactly diabolical. She never went near the jewelry store; the most expensive thing she’d placed in one of her bags was a gaming console, and even then she only took one.

Normally Tenfold would have left the petty criminal to one of the newbie heroes. The problem with that, in this case, was the way the woman flew. Something about it sent chills down her spine. It was like watching someone float in water. She didn’t angle her body to turn or pitch forward and back to change her speed; rather, she hung leisurely in the air and the world moved around her.

It’s eerie, a part of her thought quietly.

Let someone else handle it, a second part agreed.

“I can’t,” Tenfold whispered to herself. “We don’t know who she is.” She glanced at her com one more time, hoping the Association would get back to her and identify the unknown super.

I don’t like it. The new voice was always one of reason. Tenfold knew better than to ignore that part of her. Her intuition was never wrong.

“Why not?” Tenfold asked. A passing shopper looked at her with a strange expression, but she ignored it. It wasn’t the first time strangers found her odd, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Technically she didn’t need to speak out loud to the voices in her head; it was a bad habit.

Most villains wear black. The ones that are okay with sticking out are the most dangerous. Another shiver went up her spine. As usual, her intuition had a point.

The red-clad villain didn’t even wear a normal uniform. She had tall red boots, loose red pants, a red turtleneck, and a flowing red jacket over it all. A red ski mask covered the villain’s hair and face completely. Whoever it was didn’t want anyone to guess who she was, but she clearly wanted to be seen.

It’s not a registered villain, another voice added. It can’t be. The Association would have gotten back to us by now.

Tenfold looked at her com again. Still no response. She sighed, rubbing her temples as voices clamored for her to run away. But she couldn’t. The shoppers and store clerks on the floors the woman visited were scared. She had to do something about it.

Please no. Intuition, yet again, screamed at her that it was a mistake.

“We have to. If she’s not registered, she needs to be taken in and face punishment.” Several voices inside of Tenfold’s head groaned. “We can fight about it later. Just get out here.”

One by one, several forms stepped out of Tenfold’s body. The voices in her head grew quiet until, at last, she was the only one left. The blessed silence was peaceful, but also a bit lonely. She didn’t like to be separated from the others for long. The other figures were all perfect duplicates of Tenfold, each looking to her with different expressions ranging from irritation to outright mutiny.

“We can fight about it later,” Tenfold said. “For now, we’ll focus on bringing her down.”

“I’m not sure we can,” Intuition said. She looked uneasily toward the red villain, before turning back to the others. “Call for backup.”

“We are our own backup,” one of the duplicates muttered. She practically vibrated with excitement. That one was always ready for a fight, for no other reason than to test herself. Obviously, that competitive spirit was a very small part of Tenfold, because the rest of the duplicates shifted uneasily at the thought.

“I’ll call,” Tenfold muttered, giving her competitive self a stern look. She typed out a quick message and waited a few seconds for a response. “ETA ten minutes.”

“What if she’s gone by then?” one part of her asked.

“What if she hurts someone?” another chimed in.

Tenfold chewed on her lip and peeked around the corner at the red woman. Her breath caught in her chest. The woman was turned, fully looking at the pillar behind which she and her duplicates remained hidden. Her posture was casual, hands in pockets as the tail and belt of her long jacket flowed out behind her.

“We’ll have to keep her busy,” Tenfold said.

Before the others could complain, she stepped out from behind the pillar and struck a pose. She genuinely hated this part of the job, but if the shoppers thought this was anything other than a normal, planned show then they would panic. People could get hurt. As far as they were concerned, this whole episode needed to be nothing more than a silly pro-wrestling match with super powers. Because that’s how things were done.

“Halt, in the name of justice!” A couple of her duplicates chuckled at the stupid line. She fought to keep from turning around and glaring to shut them up. “I don’t know what makes you think you have the right to rob these innocent people, but I’m here to protect the peace! Leave these people alone!”

The red woman floated smoothly down, hovering in the open air on the other side of the railing in front of Tenfold. She laughed, her clear voice ringing out to the crowd around them. “Innocent? Oh, please. None of these people are innocent, little hero. Their minds are full of dark deeds, just waiting to come to light.”

Tenfold nearly melted with relief. This woman, whoever she was, played the game. She couldn’t be that dangerous, right?

“Don’t let your guard down,” Intuition whispered behind her.

Almost on cue, Tenfold’s body froze in place, as if the air around her solidified. The red woman floated upwards and Tenfold followed suit, panicking. Below, her duplicated rushed out from behind the pillar. Two of them leapt into the air to grab hold of Tenfold’s feet. The rest sped up the steps, following along on the sidelines to try and encircle the villain.

“Who are you? What are you doing to me?” Tenfold yelled.

“My name is Psych,” the red woman announced. “And I’m here to bring the darkness to light.”

Tenfold struggled against whatever force bound her body, grunting with effort. One of the duplicates that dangled from her legs climbed up, first steadying herself by using Tenfold’s feet as a platform before clambering up to her shoulders and leaping toward Psych. The supervillain twisted out of the way, allowing the duplicate to sail uselessly past before freezing her in an awkward pose.

Two more duplicates leapt toward Psych at different angles. For a moment, it seemed as if the pincer attack might catch her off guard; but then she dropped down several feet, allowing the duplicates to collide in the air and freezing them at the moment of impact. She laughed heartily and twisted her hand, setting the duplicates spinning in place. Tenfold and the strangely posed duplicate twisted around in a wide orbit of the two embracing duplicates.

“Oh, this is fun,” Psych said, raising an arm flamboyantly. More duplicates rushed her all at once, but the villain froze all of them in various embarrassing poses before sending them into orbit along with the others.

“Let us go, Psych. This isn’t a game.” Intuition stood at the outside edge of the top floor, staring down at the cluster of duplicates as they spun helplessly around one another.

“Isn’t it?” Psych asked, touching her chin in thought. “It seems like a nice little game to me.”

Intuition launched herself forward at the villain. Before Psych could freeze her in place, she threw a fistful of dirt at the woman. Psych called out in pain as the dirt hit her hard in the face, distracting her just long enough for Intuition to land a solid punch to the gut.

Psych flew backwards, slamming hard into a pillar. Intuition landed on a duplicate, absorbing her back into her body, before dropping lightly to the ground and disappeared back into the mall. The villain stood slowly, shaking herself off and brushing dust from her clothes.

“You pack quite the punch, little girl,” Psych taunted, floating back up. “That was a mean little trick you played, don’t you think? Unbecoming of a hero.”

Something pelted Psych from behind and the woman turned, one hand out as if ready to freeze someone. When her back was turned, Intuition and the rescued duplicate leapt out to recapture more of the captured clones, disappearing once again before Psych could capture them.

“That trick won’t work a second time,” Psych growled.

“How about this, then?” Intuition leapt from below, slamming Psych upward into a beam. Psych moaned in pain and several of the duplicates broke free of her grasp as she lost her concentration.

Again and again the duplicates took advantage of the villain’s blind spots, slamming her into walls, distracting her as more of the duplicates were rescued, until the last of them was finally free of her grasp.

Tenfold checked her comm again and nodded toward Intuition. Backup was here. It was time to end this. All of the duplicates surrounded Psych on all sides. The woman heaved, exhausted. She dropped a few feet in the air before gaining altitude again. The contents of her bags of loot were scattered around, forgotten in the fight.

“It’s time to take you in,” Intuition said. “You’re no match for all of us, Psych.”

“That’s what you think,” the villain gasped. She raised her arms and the entire building began to shake.

As one, Tenfold and all of the duplicates rushed out of their hiding places, high over the villain’s head. For a moment, they all paused briefly in the air, shuddering briefly before continuing forward. In the center, above Psych’s head, Tenfold collided with her duplicates, reabsorbing them into her body. She dropped on top of Psych and slammed her fists down onto the woman’s shoulders, sending her shooting down to the ground so hard that a crater formed where she landed.

Tenfold dropped down next to the woman, breathing heavily as all the shoppers cheered her victory. Something about the crater gave her pause. “Have I ever hit anyone that hard before?” she whispered.

We can’t hit that hard, a voice in her head whispered.

Something’s wrong, Intuition agreed. Her clothes aren’t ripped. After a fight like that, they should be damaged, right?

“Your right,” Tenfold agreed. She slowly made her way to the woman lying unconscious in the middle of the crater, body tensed for a trick. Her backup would be here any second to help her clean up, but the worry made her overly cautious.

Tenfold knelt beside Psych, reaching out to touch the woman’s mask.

She blinked and Psych was gone.

“What…” Tenfold looked around. She was surrounded by members of the Hero Association.

“Tenfold?” The Mentalist asked nervously. “Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m fine.” She stood up and looked around, confused. “When did you all get here? Where is Psych? Did you take her away?”

They’re looking at us weird. Tenfold shivered and clutched herself for warmth. The other heroes traded glances before the Mentalist rested a calming hand on her shoulder.

“She got away. You were frozen in place. No one could wake you until I broke you out of the psychic hold she’d placed on you.” The words were loud and reassuring, but Tenfold couldn’t help but notice the slight waver in his voice; he wasn’t certain. Why wasn’t he certain?

Tenfold stared down at her hands rather than look at the confused heroes that surrounded her–and went still. Tucked into one of her sleeves was a small slip of paper. Shaking nervously, she unfolded the note, reading it over twice and still unable to stop the shivers that wracked her body. A duplicate stepped out of her and took the note.

“I’ll take it from here,” her calm self said, gently touching Tenfold on the shoulder.

Tenfold nodded and allowed herself to be absorbed into her duplicate.

“Psych left us a note,” the calmer version of Tenfold said, handing it to the Mentalist.

What did she do to me? a voice in her head wondered. Why don’t I remember? All the voices in her head murmured amongst themselves, but Tenfold ignored it as she watched her compatriots with level eyes.

“What is it?” the Mentalist asked.

“An address. And a timestamp.”

“Another attack, maybe?” One of the heroes asked. The others crowded around, checking the note quietly. The Mentalist didn’t join in. He watched Tenfold, worry in his expression.

“Are you alright?” he whispered.

No. No, I don’t think I am.