Media Nocte

Rawles Marie Lumumba


The aluminum baseball bat caved in with a dull thunk as it hit her head. Lia rolled her eyes as she turned around to face the culprit. Bullets would have stung. But a baseball bat? That was just insulting. The would-be robber at least had the grace to look scared when she took the bat and bent it over her knee before clasping both of his wrists in one hand.

She towered over him. It wasn’t that surprising. She towered over most people, but she had more than a foot on this sweating, trembling mess. A kid, she knew instantly. One look into his wide eyes, left visible through the slit in his ski mask, removed any doubt. Lia sighed as she dragged him to the front of the tiny liquor store and secured him to his two friends with a zip tie. The cashier, who was already on the phone with the police, gave Lia a brief wary look, as if she might change her mind and take over the robbery herself. As if parading around all decked out in superpowers and spandex didn’t mean anything anymore.

No, that wasn’t true. It was as if it didn’t mean anything coming from her. It was different for people like Aegis or the Dolphin or the Order of Defenders—legacy heroes who didn’t spend their time apprehending kids who needed an after-school program or a community that gave a shit far more than they needed jail time. People who did real, calculable good in the world.

She slipped back into the night without fanfare. Two bounding steps and a leap took her to the top of a nearby apartment building, her combat boots thudding against the cement. It was a clear night, the lights of Kingston City shining against the cloudless sky. She couldn’t even blame the weather for her poor mood. In the distance, she could hear sirens ringing out over the normal buzz of city sounds. For a moment, Lia considered leaving it. For a moment, she considered going home to her tiny apartment and calling it a night. Often, police presence meant that she would just be in the way and, more important, she couldn’t help but wonder if this dream was a childish one. Ability didn’t make you a hero. Intent didn’t mean you were making a difference. Wanting didn’t mean you actually belonged. For a moment, it all crashed down on her, a weight—a longing, a desperation, a loneliness—too much for even her to bear.

But only for a moment.

Then, she thought of her father’s unstinting encouragement, the privilege of her incredible strength, and those she’d helped—people whose lives had been saved because she refused to stand aside. With barely a pause, Lia turned, jumped, and chased the sound of sirens.

***

Two fires, an aborted twelve-car pile-up, and an exceptionally creative burglary later, Lia felt better about life. That or she was just too tired to feel much else. The parts of her face and hair that weren’t covered by her hood were streaked with ash, and there was an ache beginning between her shoulder blades communicating very clearly: either catch a semi skidding out at 80 miles per hour or play support beam for a collapsing 30-story building once per night, not both.

The city wasn’t quiet, it was never that, but there was also nothing so pressing that she couldn’t go home and soak in her too-small bathtub for an hour or six. She dropped into an alley a mile or so away from her apartment to make herself presentable.

Her father was the only one who’d ever seen her change and she had been hard-pressed to convince him that it didn’t hurt. It really didn’t… not quite. Lia wouldn’t call it comfortable, but it looked worse than it was. She tensed and spasmed as she literally shrunk in on herself, shoulders narrowing, muscles fading, bones shortening as she lost half a foot in height, the alien blue cast of her skin shifting back to human hues. It was all just a buzzing under her skin, a paralyzing vibration that did its work then flowed from her before things like pain had a chance to register. Her eyes were the only part that truly bothered her. There was always a moment of terrifying blindness when her pupils and irises reasserted themselves, surfacing as if from underwater while the field of pure glowing blue drained away.

When it was over, Lia cinched her belt so that her pants wouldn’t hang low, then pulled down her hood and tucked it under the collar of the jacket she’d stashed in the alley earlier. Last, she changed into a pair of sneakers that were, all things told, not as much smaller than her work boots as she’d like. Boots in a gym bag and face as clean as assiduous scrubbing with the sleeve of her jacket could manage, she strolled out onto the sidewalk.

She was two blocks away from her apartment when the air rent around her. It crackled and hummed as crooked streaks of eerie, impossible black light zagged through the sky, headed for a roiling knot of shimmering dark energy floating nearby.

Lia dropped her bag, disbelief and anxiousness warring within her. A netherportal. Small ones opened sporadically in Kingston; they had for decades. But she’d only seen one once before, up close anyway. A year and a half back one of the biggest portals on record had opened up in the middle of downtown. The Order of Defenders had handled the bulk of it, fighting the shadowreavers that spilled out of it nonstop for nearly eighteen hours. They hadn’t gotten them all, though, no one could have. Lia had been among the errant superhumans throughout the rest of the city, evacuating civilians and picking off the stragglers. The city hadn’t been hit that hard since ten years before, when the entire world had watched. That had ended in tragedy. It hadn’t, however, last time and it wouldn’t this time either. Not if Lia had anything to say about it.

She dropped her jacket next to her bag and changed, the energy shooting through her limbs, straightening her spine. She wasn’t quite finished when the first shadowreaver slammed into her. For two excruciating heartbeats, she was unable to move, still stuck in her transformation as the shadowreaver opened its gaping abyss of a mouth to shriek at her. Then, the invisible bonds holding her snapped like a rubber band, and she flung the creature away. It landed and slid for a dozen yards before clawing at the asphalt and arresting its movement. Lia pulled her hood into place and braced herself as it ran towards her again.

Fighting shadowreavers with sheer strength was a grueling experience. They were protean creatures, and reminded Lia of nothing so much as horrifying Rorschach inkblots come to life. They had vitals somewhere within all the shifting and sliding tentacles and teeth. The trouble was finding them before the swipe of their claws or the sting of their dark energy auras finished you.

Lia jumped over the shadowreaver as it charged and grabbed one of its tails before it could turn about. She swung it in three full revolutions, like an eldritch hammer throw, before slamming it into the ground. It made a gurgling sound and twitched fitfully, attempting to right itself. Lia leapt again and slammed down into it, stomping with both feet at its center mass. It screamed and dark energy began to rise along her legs, but when Lia jumped away, it didn’t move again.

Her too-small sneakers were blackened and warped. Lia tore them off of her feet in pieces. All around her, up and down the street, windows and doors were opening as people peered out at the scene. Screeching tires and sirens alerted her that someone had called the police, but that wasn’t going to matter. The netherportal continued to bubble and roil and, the scout dead at her feet, the full force began to pour out. She counted half a dozen more shadowreavers the size of small horses before the last slithered through, pushing and heaving as though it couldn’t quite fit. Small wonder, it was at least fifteen feet tall, or long as the case may have been. Lia couldn’t really make out whether there were legs somewhere in the thick, frothing mass of darkness.

The smaller creatures hovered around it in a loose circle, spikes rising and falling along their bodies as they all trained their attention on Lia. She took three steps back before charging forward and diving into the largest. It reared up and she drove a fist into what looked like its throat. Below her, the smaller creatures nipped at her heels and she kicked wildly at them. The huge shadowreaver’s tentacles whipped around her, one wrapping about her arm. It burned against her skin, but Lia gritted her teeth and flexed her arm, pulling the appendage taut before yanking on it, hard, with her free arm. It gave with a sound like space itself tearing and slithered loose from her as it fell to the ground.

Behind her, the police and emergency vehicles had arrived. Very human shouting had joined the sounds of the shadowreavers’ screeches as a perimeter was set up around the netherportal. There was little else they could do at the moment but keep themselves and others out of her way. Normal projectile weapons had little effect on shadowreavers, and Lia sincerely hoped they wouldn’t start bringing out explosives and heavy artillery while she was still in the thick of things.

She braced her feet against the shadowreaver’s bulk and climbed higher up its body until she was within reach of its snapping jaws. She waited until it opened wide to bite at her head, then jammed her hands in its mouth to keep its jaws apart. It shook its head, but she held it steady, applying more pressure. The smaller creatures went into a frenzy and, as their voices rose, Lia began to strain. She’d been close, she thought, to ripping its head apart, but now the jaws were slowly closing. She let go and threw herself back, twisting in the air to bring an elbow down on the head of one of the smaller reavers as she landed. They scattered, briefly, then swarmed.

Lia yelled as she fought, a dervish of punches and kicks in her desperate attempt to keep from being pulled under. Teeth sunk briefly into her thigh before she drove the offender into the ground. She’d succeeded in toppling one of the monsters into another when she heard the first gunshot. More followed. Someone had broken formation, probably thinking to help her, and now a handful of cops were emptying their clips at the shadowreavers. Lia cursed as two broke off from their attack and charged towards the police perimeter. She clawed at the shadowy tentacle wrapped around her leg, then set off after them.

She caught two bullets in the chest at close enough range that they might leave bruises, but she managed to grasp a shadowreaver in each hand with a desperate dive. She heaved, arms screaming protest, and slammed them into each other. Then, she twisted and slung them towards the largest. They arced through the air and exploded in a flash of blinding light just before coming down again.

Lia blinked. A second beam of light flashed, tearing through two more shadowreavers and scattering the others. She knew who it was before she looked up, her breath catching. Above them, Vigil, the Golden Knight, hovered as he aimed another light blast at the shadowreavers. Lia paused, rendered motionless by the sight. He was breathtaking. His costume was just a few shades darker than the inhuman gold of his skin, and his flowing white cape, looking half made of light as it poured from his curved pauldrons, was only outshined by his hair. She’d had a poster of him in her locker when she was twelve. So had every other twelve-year-old in the country. But more than the adolescent crush and hero worship, he had been an ideal to her. Vigil had been an incredible vision of heroism to which a girl, painfully ordinary in most respects despite topping six feet and benchpressing cars, could aspire.

The anger on his chiseled features as he burned down the remaining smaller shadowreavers was striking. Behind her, the police and the gathered crowd were murmuring, all abuzz with the same knowledge, the same awe at witnessing this little sliver of legend.

In their own way, the shadowreavers had both given Vigil more and taken more away from him than anyone else. He’d gotten his powers when a netherportal opened in the middle of one of the laboratories of The Davison Group, a hugely wealthy corporation specializing in superhuman technologies. They’d invented ways of helping heroes protect the world and stopping villains from destroying it for two generations. The portal had interrupted an experiment and swallowed half of the lab before shadowreavers spilled out to destroy what remained.

There had only been a few survivors. Among them: the 17-year-old scion of the family, Peyton Davison. Somehow, in the epicenter of the disaster, he and another young intern had been transformed. Together, they’d stopped the shadowreavers from doing any more damage. Eventually, he took the name Vigil, and his partner became Morning Star. Over the following five years they joined the ranks of legends. They became world saviors multiple times over and founding members of the Order of Defenders. Then, the netherportals started opening at a drastically increased rate. Until, when they threatened to overrun the country and spread out across the world, Vigil and Morning Star crossed over to stop them at their source.

Vigil came back alone. The nation mourned, and Vigil’s popularity only grew. Until it leaked from within the Order of Defenders itself that Morning Star hadn’t fallen in battle in the shadowy realm on the other side of the netherportals. She’d been alive. Things had been bad. And Vigil had abandoned her there.

He never denied it, never offered any explanation despite endless media requests. He simply carried on as if nothing had happened. Some were sympathetic. Most weren’t. Lia had been among the last to take down her locker poster, but she still took it down.

Staring up at Vigil now as he came to her aid and that of the people around her, the adolescent knot of guilt and conflicted doubt rose up again. She forcibly shook it off.

Only one of the smaller shadowreavers was left and Lia charged it, wrestling its head to the street before grinding it against the asphalt with her knee. With a perfectly graceful dive, Vigil flew towards the center of the huge shadowreaver, his fists glowing as he made contact. Cracks spread out over the creature’s surface, light seeping out, before it exploded, pieces of inky shadow disintegrating in the hair. A low cheer went up as Vigil flew back out of the mess. Lia stood, winded, and he landed directly in front of her. She squinted as she looked at him until, slowly, the bright corona of light around him faded. He was still luminous, but no longer painfully so. He was tall, maybe only an inch or so shorter than her when she was powered down.

Lia opened her mouth, though she had absolutely no idea what she might say. Some clever remark about being a fan of his work had been her fantasy as a pre-teen. In response to which he’d compliment her own surprising ability. Unfortunately, she’d never actually been that great at clever remarks off the cuff.

It didn’t matter.

“Are you an idiot?” Vigil asked her casually.

“I- what?” Lia shook her head as if to dislodge whatever was making her mishear him.

“Queen and drones formation?” he asked, snow white eyebrows raised. “The queen draws power from the drones and uses it to try to widen the portal. It’s proximity based. Scattering the drones and eliminating them is top priority.”

She sputtered. “I was– I meant to–”

He waved his hand dismissively.

“I know you,” he announced. “You’re… Mammoth? Something like that?”

Lia started to correct him, but was distracted when he looked down in puzzlement, then grinned, amused.

“Why aren’t you wearing any shoes?” he asked.

When she was a kid, she’d watched countless YouTube videos of him, official and otherwise, professional interviewers, fans, and paparazzi. That amused smile was familiar, infamous, the signature of his cavalier charm as he made sarcastic, little quips and enthralled all comers. It had become harder and more brittle after he’d come back from the netherportal. He wore it like a child’s mask that had grown too small and tight. Having it trained on her was not a pleasant sensation.

“You’re an ass,” Lia said, though it came out more contemplative than aggressive.

At this, his smile only widened.

“Do yourself a favor and go home, Mammoth. No one wants to clean up the big, ugly stain you’ll make otherwise,” he said. Without another word, he flew up into the night sky, the brightness of his take-off leaving splotchy after-images floating in her vision.

The reason for his hasty departure, other than sheer rudeness, became apparent immediately. A gaggle of reporters, trailing TV crews, had pushed past the perimeter and were surrounding her. They yelled an incomprehensible flurry of questions and congratulations, craning their necks and standing on tip-toe to shove microphones towards her face. Lia stared dizzily into the sea of camera lenses, lost for words, straining for composure, but mostly hoping for deliverance.

The reporters only got louder and more insistent as she stood there, awkwardly silent, so she picked a question out of the din, the easiest, simplest question. One even she could handle.

“Behemoth,” she shouted in order to be heard over all the noise. “My name is Behemoth.”

***

Three Months Later

Lia had never liked waiting rooms. When she was a child she’d spent an excessive amount of time sitting in them, seeing an endless parade of doctors and specialists who failed again and again to figure out why her growing pains were much less “pains” than they were “torturous agony.” That futile exercise had stopped before she hit puberty, when her father had figured out that it wasn’t something doctors would be able to fix. Later, she had spent a lot of time escorting her father to and from waiting rooms as his health declined. The doctors couldn’t fix that either.

None of that had been anything like this. Of course, how could it have been? First, she’d been a child waiting to be poked and prodded, and then a worried daughter hoping for good news. Now, she was a probationary member of the Order of Defenders sitting in the Defenders’ Fortress waiting to be shown around her new headquarters. Lia was thankful that the floor seemed to be made of the same titanium alloy as the high, silvery walls because her rapidly tapping foot probably would have burrowed a size 15 hole into anything else.

It wasn’t that she was nervous. She’d gotten over nervous after having to duck camera crews and probing questions every time she was spotted in costume. And it wasn’t that she was worried what they’d think of her, not really. She’d proven herself weeks ago during the entire zombie debacle, and honestly it wasn’t as if she could do anything more embarrassing than some of her press—like unauthorized toys with neanderthal faces and shoulders nearly as broad as they were tall.

She was just anxious. It had barely been five minutes, but really she’d been waiting for this all her life. Quite simply, Lia wanted to be a Defender, a true hero at long freaking last. She wanted to be part of something that mattered. And if it gave late night talk show hosts a topic to distract them from making stupid jokes about her relationship with Vigil, all the better.

Much of her recent notoriety could be credited to—or as she preferred to think of it: blamed on—him, unfortunately. She was, quite simply, the first person he’d been seen speaking with in years that wasn’t a member of the Order. And even then, he was rarely caught with his own teammates unless an entire city, at least, was at risk. She’d tried, in early days, to point out that he’d obviously just noticed the netherportal. That had been brushed off with claims that Vigil hardly showed up for every minor netherportal that opened in Kingston.

Lia had given up quickly. No matter what she said, she was still the newest and best link to the elusive Vigil. He obviously wasn’t talking and his teammates had been giving out stern “no comment”s for years.

There had been a massive crowd outside of the Fortress when she showed up. The Heroes Museum was closed to visitors today, so someone must have tipped them off. Lia had rushed past the flashing cameras and screaming people as quickly as possible, but she didn’t feel truly safe until she’d passed through the private elevator that took her deep beneath the ground, where the bulk of the base was. Now, another door, one for which she didn’t yet have clearance stood between her and the rest of her life, the fulfillment of her dreams. She stared at it and, as if in response, it finally slid open.

She groaned audibly. Vigil stood there, framed by the doorway, in full costume.

“Nice to see you too, Gargantua,” he greeted her.

“Behemoth,” she gritted out. They’d had what seemed a statistically improbable number of run-ins since the first, and he’d taken to inventing new names to call her each time. The more irritated she got, the more he did it, so she’d toned it down to dull annoyance and rote correction.

A creeping suspicion dawned on her.

“Please tell me you’re not showing me around,” she said, aghast.

He smirked as he swept forward, then stretched out on the soft leather couch beside her.

“Dream on, Jumbo,” he said, in a tone that made clear exactly what kind of dreams he wanted to bring to mind. “That’s way below my pay grade.”

“Then why are you here?”

He ignored her, his eyes trained on her face.

“Do you seriously look like this all the time?” he asked, blithely sweeping a hand up and down in her direction. “Because that’s got to be unfortunate.”

Her face heated, and she hoped that the blue tint of her skin didn’t show a blush.

“Are you this much of a dick all the time? Because that’s definitely unfortunate,” she retorted.

He only grinned and leaned further back in his seat, the black of the couch contrasting starkly with his golden skin and the soft white waves of his hair. He was as dimmed down as she’d ever seen him and his eyes were a deep bronze. He looked like a statue when he was still and quiet—an unfortunately rare occurrence—the forgotten god of an ancient people somewhere in the cradle of civilization. Lia looked away.

The door slid open again to reveal a beautiful woman. She was petite with short, deep red hair and pert features set off by the flickering, multicolored butterfly wings on her back. She smiled as she looked at Lia, though it faded as her eyes wandered over Vigil.

“Behemoth,” she said warmly. “Welcome to the Fortress. Did you get in okay?”

“Yes,” Lia replied, standing quickly, not caring how eager she looked to be off. Then added, to avoid curtness: “Everything was fine, Sylph.”

The other woman nodded and her eyes went again to Vigil.

“Sorry to steal away your friend, Vigil, but I need to get her settled in.” Sylph’s smile at him was toothless and tight.

Vigil shrugged languidly and, without another word, swept past Sylph and back through the door she’d just exited, his cape flowing behind him. The door slid shut again.

“I have to admit,” Sylph said after a pause, “His cape game is unparalleled. I have no idea how he does the whole wind-in-the-hair thing like that.”

Lia looked at her, brow wrinkled, unsure of how or if to respond.

“He didn’t say anything to upset you did he? He’s been… eccentric.” There was no need to say since when.

“Is that code for a raging jackass?” Lia asked. Sylph’s laughter was like tinkling wind chimes.

“Pretty much,” she admitted. The door slid open again as she approached it, and she beckoned Lia through into the massive room beyond. It split off into multiple corridors in all directions. Lia followed Sylph as she walked without hesitation towards one.

“That’s the launch bay,” Sylph said, indicating the room now behind them. “The jet comes up through the floor and launches through the roof.

“Through there is the infirmary, and up ahead one of the gyms—there are several. Kitchen down the hall and to the right and dining room beside it,” she continued, flicking hands this way and that as they continued through the winding corridors. “It’s all circuitous so you’ll come back out in the launch bay if you stay the main corridor. The command room is at the top of the circle. Everyone will meet us there later to get you all properly registered and sworn in.”

Lia followed her, trying to commit it all to memory as they turned down a hall leading deeper into the facility. They passed one or two people in the hall—Nightdarter and Red Raven, who was completely unrecognizable in her civvies—and Sylph confirmed that they’d reached the living area.

“Not all of the Order live here, of course, but those of you still doing the whole double life thing have traditionally found it a nice, little getaway when needed. You’re an accidental right?”

Lia blinked before realizing Sylph meant the source of her power.

“Yes.”

“What lab?” Sylph asked, looking at her attentively as they walked.

“I’m not--,” Lia tried. “It wasn’t…”

Sylph shook her head, a strand of hair falling into her eyes then flicking back out.

“Sorry,” she chirped. “I know it’s rude to ask. Nevermind! And don’t worry, you’re not required to divulge at all.”

She turned away without regard for Lia’s bemused expression. They passed through two open lounge areas before heading towards the private suites.

“That’s actually another lounge,” Sylph said as they approached a tightly shut door, “But Vigil has basically claimed it so it’s better to just steer clear.”

Lia’s brow wrinkled at the undercurrent of animosity. That was far beyond mild annoyance at a jerky co-worker. Sylph noticed, stopped walking, and pulled Lia aside, wings fluttering rapidly.

“Look, we usually save this until a more opportune time,” Sylph said in hushed tones, “But you’ve obviously already discovered the extent of Mr. Davison’s charm so I’m going to tell you what General Justice told me when I first joined up: yes, it’s all true, no, he’s never shown a hint of remorse, so acknowledge him when you have to, hope he doesn’t decide to come along on any of your assignments, and keep your distance if at all possible.”

Lia stared down at Sylph, unblinking, her mouth opening and closing a few times before she could get the words out.

“If that-- then-- why do you let him stay?!” she finally managed.

Sylph laughed, but there was an awkward edge.

“Well, he funds this place. The entire Order of Defenders, in fact. We can’t exactly vote him off the island.”

Lia gaped. Obviously, his civilian identity considered, Vigil was extremely wealthy, but all of this, the entire Order? She’d had to sit down when she found out what her stipend would be. She’d always assumed that the members with endorsements—which was essentially all of them—chipped in. She wasn’t exactly a Forbes subscriber, but this must have taken, be taking, even Peyton Davison’s entire personal fortune at least.

“Besides, it’s better to keep him close.” Sylph shrugged. “Some of the older members had… problems with him, even before. And he hasn’t been right, you know? Honestly, everyone’s been expecting him to turn for years.”

That was even more surprising. He was an ass, yes. Undoubtedly. But ready to go supervillain? She found that hard to believe. Rationality said that she should probably defer to Sylph’s deeper knowledge of the man, but, honestly, the casual dismissal with which she’d treated Vigil—and reflecting on her other encounters with the team—with which all of them treated him, didn’t really fit with the idea that he was balanced on a knife’s edge between good and evil.

Sylph misread her expression.

“It’s a lot to deal with, I know, him lurking around. But don’t worry. Trust me, it’s easiest to just ignore him. He barely even talks to anyone anyway. It’s not like we’re inviting him to movie night or whatever, you know?” Sylph’s wind chime giggle sounded, echoing through the corridors.

Lia forced a smile and tried to ignore her discomfort.

“So,” Sylph said, as she began walking again. “I think we need to get you right to the lab to see what we can do about that costume of yours.”

“My… costume?” Lia asked.

“Yes. The do-it-yourself thing is cute and all, but you’re in the big leagues now, sweetheart. You have a brand to uphold.”

***

There was a choice to make and less than a second in which to make it. In that second, all of the noise of the battle, her shouting teammates, the deafening creak of the massive war mechs marauding through Cleveland, all of it was suspended, as Lia weighed her options. A car-sized foot was about to come down on her head. She had time to move, but Aquea had frozen the mech’s power source mid-step which meant that when it came down, off-balance, it was going to keep falling, right into the high-rise building in front of it, reducing it to rubble. Everyone should have been evacuated. It had all happened so fast—it so often did—but they’d been trying.

That didn’t mean they’d succeeded.

Lia chose. The bubble popped and everything rushed back as she raised her hands and braced herself. Pain exploded in her shoulders, in her lower back, in her knees and calves. But the mech stayed upright. Now, she needed it to go back. The street in that direction was clear, nothing but Defenders, who would move, and other mechs, who hopefully wouldn’t. Lia just needed to find the strength to push.

She wanted to straighten her arms, but her elbows wouldn’t obey. She felt asphalt crumble under her and realized that she’d gone to one knee. A scream ripped its way out of her throat and she didn’t know whether it was of agony or determination, but she knew what she wanted it to be. Breath coming fast, heart beating out of her chest, Lia straightened her arms.

Then, she was falling. No, floating. No, she realized as she saw the ground rushing past beneath her, she was flying. She looked up just as the sound of twisted metal and shattering glass reached her ears. Vigil’s arms were wrapped tight around her chest as he carried her away from the falling mech and the demolished building.

“God, you’re heavy, you know that?” he grunted.

“Put me down,” Lia said, cold rage flooding her veins. “Put me down!”

He did, right at the edge of the battle. In the distance, beyond the fight still going on, the fallen mech’s legs stuck out of the pile of rubble in an dissonantly comical manner.

“You’re welcome, Humongor,” he said, singsong. Lia didn’t look at him. If she looked at him, she would hit him.

Ignoring the dull throbbing throughout her entire body, she ran, wordless, back into the fray.

***

“What the hell were you doing back there?”

Behind them the launch bay was sliding closed. The others were dispersing deeper into the Fortress. Lia had promised Sylph she’d go to the infirmary, but first she was stalking after Vigil as he made to go up to ground level.

He glanced over his shoulder at her exclamation, before ducking into the elevator. Lia followed him, sticking one arm out to stop the doors closing before stepping in and staring down at him.

“You’re going to have to be more specific, Big’n’Tall,” he said, as if he’d meant to answer her all along.

“I didn’t need your help,” she spat.

“Ah,” Vigil stroked his chin in exaggerated contemplation. “You’re yelling at me for saving your life. Right.”

“I was fine!” Lia asserted, ignoring that it wasn’t entirely truthful. “You let that mech crash into an occupied building.”

“It was evacuated.”

“You don’t know that for sure. We were blocks out of the original perimeter. And even if it was that was still people’s homes or their livelihoods. We get to fly away at the end of the day, but they don’t.”

The elevator doors opened into the back room of the museum, and for a moment he just stared at her. There was real anger in his eyes. She’d only seen that from him once—not through his months of obnoxious jokes and mockery, not during his sporadic undermining her in the field like today, not even as the rest of the Defenders treated him like a pariah. He’d waltzed through that all as if it were a joke, insignificant, beneath him. The only time he’d ever looked angry had been on the night they met.

He exhaled, a sound of sheer frustration, and walked out of the elevator.

“Fine,” he said, voice dead even. “Next time I get the opportunity, I’ll let you become a sanctimonious smear on the sidewalk with no interference. Now, if we’re done…”

He brightened, literally, the corona of light surrounding him amping up as he lifted into the air. But Lia wasn’t done. Not nearly. She reached out and before he could make it more than a few feet off the floor, she grabbed the edge of his cape and yanked.

He pinwheeled his arms briefly as his motion was arrested, then whipped around to face her again, hovering at her eye level.

“Are you crazy?” he asked.

“What is your deal?” she demanded. “You barely acknowledge anyone else’s existence, but you won’t stop poking and prodding at me. Since the day we met! Why won’t you just leave me alone like you do everyone else?”

“Let. Go. Of my. Cape.”

She let the glowing white fabric slip through her fingers, but did not break eye contact.

“Answer. My. Question.”

He held her gaze, his expression inscrutable, his jaw set stubbornly. Then, he looked away. Lia reached for him again, when the air around them, impossibly, began to split. Vigil knew instantly; he turned and his corona brightened to painful levels. Lia followed his gaze to the netherportal opening right in front of them.

This one looked different than the others. Before, it had seemed as if there were a pinhole between worlds and the portals rippled out from it, straining the barrier. This one was like a huge crooked tear in that fabric separating Earth from the dark realm on the other side.

“Run,” breathed Vigil.

“What?”

“Run,” he said urgently. “Get as far away from here as you can, you can’t be here.”

He didn’t turn from the portal as he spoke. Lia had to shade her eyes with one hand just to look at him. The catch in his voice was foreign in her ears, his breathing loud and erratic. He was scared. Vigil was terrified.

“No way in hell,” Lia replied, and dropped into a fighting stance.

“You are the most stubborn–” Vigil snarled, but stopped short when a creature stepped through the portal. Lia had to assume that it was a shadowreaver, but only because she’d never known of anything else to come through a netherportal. It certainly didn’t look like any shadowreaver she’d ever seen.

It was roughly human-shaped, tall and thin with long limbs and flowing, undulating robes that looked like they could be made of shadow itself. It had lanky, chalk-white hands with pencil-thin fingers that stretched half the length of its body. Its face, if it had one, was hidden within its hood. Nothing but darkness was visible.

It tilted its head on its too-long neck as if considering them, then began to raise one grotesque hand towards Vigil. Vigil brought his hands together in front of him, then cast them out, projecting a thick beam of energy straight at the reaver. It flicked its long fingers and shadows rose from the floor in front of it. The light hit the living shadows, dispersing them, but more only rose in their place. The being’s attention was entirely on Vigil, so Lia saw her opening. She darted forward, intending to flank it, but its head turned as soon as she moved and shadows engulfed her, the dark energy powering them crackled around her, searing hot, before she was sent careening away.

She tucked her head as she crashed through the far wall and out into the public museum, startling screams out of the patrons. She skidded and rolled limply, before slamming through a statue of the original Order of Defenders lineup and finally sliding to a stop. The yelling was getting louder and her vision was blacking at the edges, but she waved her hand irritably when she heard footsteps approach.

“No!” she ordered. “Clear the area! All of you!”

Lia wiped at her mouth and nose as she got to her knees. She was bleeding. It had been a while since a fight made her do that. The voice of reason whispered that she was too exhausted from Cleveland, that her system needed time to catch up before it could operate properly. She ignored it. Lia heaved herself to her feet, grabbed one of the broken support beams from the destroyed display, and ran back through the hole she’d made in the wall.

In the back room, the shadowreaver was making its plodding way back towards the portal, and behind it, dragged along in its wake in a tight binding of living shadow, was Vigil. He looked up at her, and shook his head frantically. The fear was still in his eyes.

Lia charged, support beam held before her like a lance, straight towards the shadowreaver’s back. She ran as hard and as fast as she could, as she ever had, but by the time she got near, the shadowreaver had already begun to pass through the portal, Vigil in tow. She reached deeper, for just a little bit more, to that place where she drew the power to change, and plunged forward the last few steps. The beam plowed through the shadowreaver with barely any resistance. It screamed wretchedly as it attempted to face her, but momentum was carrying it forward. Lia’s weight was carrying it forward.

She fell and fell and then, all at once, every light in existence blinked out.

***

When Lia came to it was dark. So dark, in fact, that she doubted for a moment that she had opened her eyes. She closed them and tried again. The overwhelming darkness seemed only to thicken. She was sitting on something hard, the ground she assumed, as it was rocky and coated in gravel. She closed her eyes and opened them again, willing her sight to return. The darkness persisted.

“Oh God,” she muttered, then light burst into being a few feet away. She blinked against it, her eyes watering. When her vision cleared, she sighed in relief. Vigil sat across from her, leaning against the wall of what looked like a cave, his corona glowing dimly. She tried to look down at herself, but the darkness surrounding her was still all-consuming. She could see Vigil, she could see things near him, but nothing else.

“I told you to run,” Vigil said, voice low.

“Where are we?” She already knew.

“Where do you think?” He snorted. “Where the monsters come from.”

“That shadowreaver…”

“You killed it,” he said. “For all the good that does us.”

Lia looked again, down at herself, at the darkness, then moved closer to Vigil, reaching out a hand. A foot from touching his chest, her hand broke through the shadow, like a diver coming up for air. Carefully, Lia crawled forward and arranged herself next to him, their sides nearly touching.

“Oh, now you want to be near me,” he said, flippantly.

Lia rolled her eyes, then regretted it because she was still dizzy enough that it made her head spin.

“Don’t you ever stop?” she asked him sharply. “Can’t you just–”

“Can’t I just what? Be grateful you bothered?” he asked. “I’ll give you this, you’re probably the only one who would have.”

Lia’s anger drained away. “That’s not what I–”

His teeth glinted as he smiled.

“Do you really think I don’t know that they all hate me?”

There was nothing Lia could say to that, so she stayed quiet. The silence stretched out, thick as the darkness around them. She could hear nothing but their breathing. Hers, slightly labored, and his, irregular. She wondered if the shadowreaver had injured him before she’d killed it, but knew that he would resent her asking.

“How deep into this cave are we?” she asked instead.

“About ten feet.”

“What?” Lia whipped her head around to look at him. He hadn’t moved from his steady contemplation of nothing.

“The entrance to this cave is about ten feet that way.” He inclined his head slightly to his left.

“How can we-- How can--,” she stammered, fatigue and confusion and shock all catching up to her. “How can we do anything, get out of here, in this.” Lia waved at the shadows and they crept forward before retreating again from Vigil. She dropped her hand.

“It’s not always like this,” Vigil offered. “Let’s just say that the night here is… absolute. As for getting out of here, what makes you think we will?”

“You did it before.”

“And look how that worked out for the last person who went through a netherportal with me.” His voice was flat.

It was all Lia could do not to shake him.

“Look, I don’t know what happened then and I don’t care. But I am getting out of here and if I’m getting out of here, you are too. That’s it. There are no other possible outcomes.”

“Liar.” He met her eyes. “You do care.”

Lia scowled at him, but before she could reply, he spoke again.

“That thing we fought wasn’t a normal shadowreaver. It was more like one of their masters. The other ones are like animals. The Reaver Lords are intelligent and… curious. The animals have a natural ability to portal. They just dig through like evil, little gophers. It takes a huge amount of power for the Lords to come through, though, and that leaves them vulnerable.” If that had been it vulnerable… Lia didn’t bother to hide the shiver that ran through her.

“So they only do it if they really, really want something. Like me, evidently.”

“Why?” Lia asked, but he just continued as if he’d said nothing.

“The Lords use their own technology to open portals to our world. That’s what we need.”

That was better news than she’d expected.

“Where do we get it? Can we use whatever the one I killed used?”

Vigil shook his head. “No. Each portal is unique, one use only. The only bit of luck we’ve had thus far is that killing it while he was trying to go back made the portal spit us out somewhere it wasn’t meant to.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because we weren’t surrounded by an army of those things.” He ran a hand across his face. “There must be one of their smaller waystations in this area. That’s where we’ll find the means to make a portal back to Earth.”

He fell silent. Lia waited. When he said nothing else, she narrowed her eyes at him.

“What aren’t you telling me? Because that seems way too easy.”

“You’re smarter than you look,” he said without any heat. “Besides the fact that we’ll have to travel by day and hope that no patrols see us since we wouldn’t be able to see more than a few inches in front of us at night? The place is likely to be heavily fortified. And if we don’t manage it all in the next eighteen to twenty-four hours or so, I’m going to be entirely useless.”

Then, he was injured. Lia lay a hand gently on his shoulder.

“Where are you hurt? I might be able to help.”

He shook his head. “I’m not hurt. It’s this place. My powers don’t… work here.”

“But they’re working right now.”

“No, I’m using what energy I have left over right now.” His voice rose and with it she could hear how strained and shallow his breathing really was. “And every minute I’m here more and more is being drained. I don’t know why. They’re extremely susceptible to me in our world, but here? It’s like even the air wants me dead. Some sort of trade-off or side effect.”

Lia’s first impulse was to ask him how in the world he’d survived the first time. He and Morning Star had disappeared into the portal for nearly a week and here he was now, fading after just a few hours. But he wouldn’t answer that question and, really, it wasn’t important just now. If there was a way to duplicate it, he wouldn’t expect to be powerless in eighteen hours. No, instead of thinking about what he couldn’t do, Lia had to concentrate on what she could. This dark realm had no effect on her powers, but constant use, constant abuse, and no rest certainly did.

“I’m going to have to power down,” she announced.

“What?” His open confusion softened his features, made him look younger.

“If you’re going to run out of power, I’ll need to recharge mine. I need to change back to my normal self.”

He actually perked up. “So you don’t always look like that! I knew it. It’d be pretty difficult to maintain a secret identity that way, believe me.”

“Could you just shut up?” she snapped.

When she’d joined the Order, she had been offered guaranteed confidentiality if she wanted to reveal her true identity to the team. Many of them were entirely public, but others kept it within that smaller circle. She could even have kept the information locked down except in the event of her death, when it would be accessible to the Order so that they could look after her next of kin.

Lia had declined it all. She didn’t have any next of kin, not anymore. No family, no close friends either, really. Of course, neither was she established enough to have a nemesis or someone who would target her in her civilian life. She kept her identity a secret because she just couldn’t stand the idea of how utterly, pathetically mundane she was. An awkward, homely girl who grew into an awkward, homely woman. One who never quite knew what to say in any situation other than a fight, and wasn’t good at anything in particular. Except one thing: being strong, being Behemoth.

Shockingly, Vigil obeyed her command to be quiet. Lia didn’t waste time pondering why. She just concentrated and let the change flow through her. It was over in a matter of seconds, and she pulled down her hood in order to tuck some of her hair—curling wildly around her head—behind her ear. She didn’t look for Vigil’s reaction. Her face became harsher, broader, and less human when she changed, but she was under no illusions that she was some great beauty even without that.

To her immense relief, Vigil made no comment. To her immense annoyance, he did ask a question.

“What’s your name?”

She rolled her eyes at him. “You know my name.”

His smile showed no teeth, but it somehow seemed more sincere for it.

“I mean your real name.”

“You refuse to get my codename right, why should I tell you my real name?”

“You know mine.” She glanced at him, and then away again. He was actually looking at her pleadingly, eyes overly wide and mouth turned down.

“Everyone knows yours,” she protested. “And it’s not like I call you by it.”

He nodded slowly.

“No one does,” he observed.

She sighed heavily.

“It’s Lia.”

“Lia,” he said, over-enunciating as if he was tasting the sounds, rolling them around on his tongue. “You should just go by that. It’s a much better name than ColosSally.”

She couldn’t help it. That startled a laugh out of her.

“That was weak,” she said, once she’d composed herself.

“Herculea?”

“Please.” She waved a hand dismissively.

He paused, considering. “Ginorma.”

“Slightly better,” she replied with a grin.

This time, he laughed. She’d never heard him actually laugh before. It was a surprisingly sweet sound. There was a richness to it, and an unexpected warmth.

“How exactly did you get so strong, Lia? I know your story’s different.”

She started to protest that changing in front of him didn’t entitle him to an inquisition, but his eyes had fluttered closed and his breathing had gotten no steadier.

“We’ve never been entirely sure,” she said. “My dad always thought it was the meteor crash.”

“The radiation? Like Aegis?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “Well, sort of anyway. I mean, I didn’t study it like him or anything. My mama was pregnant with me when my parents lived near one of the crash sites outside of Annapolis. In the end, I survived. She didn’t.”

At this, his eyes opened again.

“Pregnant with- That was in what? ’08, ’09?” he exclaimed. “How old are you? 19?”

Lia’s back straightened, and she pursed her lips indignantly.

“It was in 2004 and I’m 22.”

“Jesus,” he breathed. Then, a smile broke over his face. “I bet you had a poster of me on your bedroom wall.”

“No,” she said immediately. It wasn’t strictly a lie. “And you’re not even that much older than me.”

“Believe me, I am entire lifetimes older than you,” he murmured, closing his eyes again.

“Well all those lifetimes must have been good to you because you look remarkably as if you’re in your early thirties.”

He didn’t open his eyes again, but he swallowed once, thickly, and Lia thought of the darkness bearing down on them, smothering them with its oppressive weight. She thought of the fear in his eyes at the fortress.

“Not entirely.”

Lia opened her mouth and closed it again. Then shifted a bit. There obviously wouldn’t be any more comfortable accommodations than leaning against this wall for the night. Vigil’s corona had dimmed significantly. Most of the light was now coming from the faint glow of his luminous golden skin. His breaths grew slightly steadier as he drifted off to sleep. Lia closed her own eyes.

“We’ll be fine,” she whispered into the darkness.

She was half asleep when his response came.

“When you say it, I almost believe it.”

***

The dark realm, unsurprisingly, had no sun. Daytime, as it was, was signaled by a bizarre navy and purple miasma that hung in the coal black sky. The glow dialed the total pitch black up to the darkness of, say, a night in the country. Not especially great for navigation, but better than before.

Lia had not powered up again. She told Vigil that was to further conserve energy. Her transformation was nearly instantaneous. If there was trouble, she could be ready. She’d even picked him up and held him over her head to demonstrate how much of her strength she still retained in her human form.

But the truth was, she wasn’t entirely sure that she could change, even if she needed to. Overnight, her accelerated healing had gone to work, and many of the aches and pains that she suspected had been fractures and other more serious injuries had faded. But though she felt slightly better holistically, she was near running on empty. It didn’t help that there was nothing around that looked remotely safe for her to eat. Vigil hadn’t even bothered teasing her about her stomach growling. He probably thought it would be too cruel, given that he didn’t much need food himself.

The only good news was that they’d managed to avoid running into any of the patrols Vigil had been worried about. They traveled at a steady pace for the first few hours after “dawn” but as time went on, Vigil slowed. He’d let his corona go out entirely by midday, and a few hours later, even his skin and his bright shock of hair seemed to be fading. Eighteen hours, evidently, had been an optimistic estimate. By her calculations, they only had a few hours of light left, and she would be shocked if, after another night, Vigil wouldn’t be entirely dead weight.

Then, they saw it. Vigil’s vision was better, and his sharp intake of breath signaled Lia. She looked up, straining her eyes, following his line of sight until she saw it too. A jagged spire jutted up in the distance. Not even that distant, Lia realized as they kept moving forward. The visibility was so poor that had she been alone, Lia would practically have tripped over it before noticing it.

“Please tell me that’s a waystation,” she said.

“It is.” He didn’t sound particularly happy about it, but Lia was happy enough for the both of them.

“We just need to get closer,” she said. “Figure out a plan to get inside.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Vigil replied softly. His corona flared back into life just as the first shadowreaver leaped out of the darkness. Lia ducked under it and Vigil hit it squarely with one glowing fist. It yelped and limped back a few paces. Lia kicked it as hard as she could. It went down, but another took its place. Bracing herself, Lia changed.

Or, she tried. The buzzing current of power under her skin was replaced by crippling pain. Her muscles twitched wildly, her skin turning blue in blotches. She had been right to doubt. There just wasn’t enough left in her to change. She let go, the pain stopped, and she fell, hard, to the ground. Underneath her, shadows rose and wound around her limbs, searing.

Reaver Lords stood on either side of Vigil. His corona flickered, erratic, as he looked at her with desperate eyes. Then, the Reaver Lords began to speak: sibilant whispers and creaking, scratching sounds that rang through the air. One long sequence sounded, then another. Vigil’s eyes widened, shocked and desolate, and his corona blinked out. The shadows engulfed him just before they rose up around Lia’s head and blocked out all else.

The barest bits of light returned when the Reaver Lords dropped Lia and Vigil in a cell. It wasn’t, in essentials, much different than their cave had been. Transparent globes held little puffs of the sky miasma on either wall, enough so that Lia could make out Vigil’s profile and the outline of her own body as they sat on the floor. It was smaller too than the cave; there was barely a foot of space between them as they leaned against opposite walls and her legs, stretched out, were a scant few inches from touching the door.

“What did they say?” she asked.

“What?”

“When they took us. They spoke. I know you understood it. I saw it on your face.” She’d seen him give up. “What did they say?”

He was quiet so long that she thought he wouldn’t answer at all, that he would brush it off like he had every other inquiry about his time here for the last decade. Then, he sighed, softly, and that was truly a surrender.

“Morning Star,” he said. “They said Morning Star.”

In this light, his silhouette was a sinuous line, his cape wrapped about him making him almost entirely white against a pure black backdrop, like a chalk drawing.

“I think it’s time you told me what happened.”

She could feel him nodding more than see it.

When he spoke, his voice was flat, as it always was when any reference to his time beyond the portal was made. She saw how people could mistake that lack of inflection for a lack of emotion, but she understood now, now that she’d seen him here. It was an attempt to control something that he wasn’t sure he could handle.

“We didn’t know what we’d find, but neither of us expected this. It’s a whole world, full of conflict just like ours. I was sick, weakened, immediately. But Morning Star was different. Her powers didn’t work the same way as mine.” That wasn’t wholly surprising. Vigil was the Golden Knight, the sun, giving off pure, simple light. Morning Star had been pale like the moon, translucent almost, a prism that could reflect a rainbow.

“She was more here. The shadow didn’t drain her, it energized her. Enough so that she could even sustain me with power to spare. It was much easier to tear a swath through this place under those circumstances, as I’m sure you can imagine. It didn’t take us long to discover why the attacks on Earth had been increasing. There were different factions. Two were the most important. One, the dominant, was all for full-scale invasion and they’d been pressing their… scientists, magicians, I don’t know, into opening more and more portals.

“But it took a lot of power, a prohibitive amount, even just to control when and where they forced the shadowreavers through, and the environmental effect of each open portal on this world was becoming more and more dangerous. The second faction, aware of this, wanted to scale back, find safer, more stable ways than they had. Plan the invasion more carefully once they were assured of their ability to overwhelm us quickly. The problem was that could take a long time and most of the beings in this world aren’t exactly naturally patient.

“We couldn’t fight an entire world, and postponing an invasion was better than nothing. So, we cut a deal. We helped the second faction to annihilate the leadership of the first. But when we were done, their curiosity outweighed their dedication to keeping their word. They turned on us, imprisoned us, experimented, tortured, it’s all the same. It ran together after a while.”

Lia shook her head.

“Finding all of this out, communicating, fighting a war, going through all of that, how is that possible?” She knew the dates. Everyone knew the dates. They’d gone in on a Tuesday in July. In the middle of the night that next Monday, Vigil had come back alone.

“Time works differently here,” was all he said and Lia thought about their first night. The things he’d said about her age.

“How long?” she asked, quietly.

“I honestly have no idea. You lose track.” His voice was hollow. “At any rate, they got tired of me eventually. I was weak, useless on my own, but Morning Star, well, she earned their trust. Their respect. At times, it even felt like their worship. She bided her time, conserved her power…”

“She broke you both out,” Lia said.

“It was more like… a hostile takeover. See, somewhere along the line, she decided that she didn’t want to go back. This world responded to her, it bent to her will, it obeyed her. She didn’t want to give that up. She asked me to stay. To rule here. I ran. Hitched a portal back to the other side. You know what happened after that. I was the most popular hero in the world, but I was not the most popular in my circle. That’s what did me in.”

“Yeah, well,” Lia said. “You can be a huge asshole when you want.”

“And I almost always want, right?”

“Right.”

Impulsively, Lia reached across the distance and groped for his hand. He let her take it.

“I didn’t want to tell them that Morning Star had turned. I could have stayed. I could have tried to help her, figure out if it was the imprisonment or– but I didn’t. I wasn’t going to ruin her legacy too. Better she die a hero.”

Lia let that confession sit for a while, rest between them and sink in, before she spoke again.

“Are these her forces?” she asked. His hand was still warm in hers.

“No. They’re fringe troops, only a handful. The one you killed, the two who captured us, and one more. They want to try turning me over to her to curry favor, I think. I guess I’m remembered.”

“How long do we have?”

He sighed. “Until they get tired of poking at me. They’re far enough down that they never got the chance the last time.”

“I’ll think of something.”

Vigil didn’t respond, just held Lia’s hand silently until they came and took him away.

***

Lia didn’t know how long they kept Vigil, doing whatever it was they were doing to him. She couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t see anything; there were no windows in the tiny cell through which she could even attempt to count the passage of time. There was just her, with her thoughts, alone in the dark. She tested the door of the cell. At full power it was possible that she could have broken her way through. But she wasn’t at full power and she had no idea how to find Vigil or where to go if she could get out. She dozed off for a while, at one point, but it was the least restful sleep she’d ever experienced. Her dreams were colorless and dark.

An indeterminate, interminable time later, the door opened and Vigil was pushed back into the cell.

Lia caught him before he could fall to the floor and lowered him gently, cushioning his head on her lap. His cape was gone, his hair the only smudge of white in the darkness. Part of his bodysuit as well. The way that he was trembling made her perversely glad that it was too dark for her to properly see his wounds. She steadied him with a hand on his chest. She could feel his heart fluttering like an injured bird beneath her palm.

It didn’t matter that she wasn’t at full strength. It didn’t matter if she barely had half a plan. She wouldn’t allow anyone to suffer like this if there was anything she could possibly do about it, and she certainly wasn’t going to allow him to.

“Vigil,” she said quietly. “Vigil, listen to me.”

He took a shuddering breath.

“Do you remember what you asked me before?” he said.

“No. Concentrate on what I’m asking you now: do you know where the portal device is located?”

“Ground floor,” he murmured thickly.

“And what floor are we on?”

“You asked me why I wouldn’t leave you alone.”

“Vigil–”

“Because you don’t belong.”

It stung more than it should have. After all of his stupid jokes and obnoxious digs, it was silly that he could still hurt her if he aimed his shot just right. She wished it wasn’t so. She wished that she was different than who she was.

She steadied her voice. “I am every bit as good as–”

“No,” he interrupted, more through the force behind the word than the volume. “You’re better. You are more of a hero than I’ve ever been in my entire life, than I’ve ever met.”

She stared at him so hard that she could almost swear she saw more than the meager light allowed. His speech was halting, but sincere.

“I was hand-picked. Most are. It was all more public with me than intended, but it worked out the same. My family deals in heroes, not just paraphernalia, has for generations. Packaged, processed, and marketed. Trade on an ideal, apply science, make a star. And, you know, do some good to keep the brand viable.

“But you,” he said on an exhalation. “You are… an anomaly. A freak accident. A completely ordinary, extraordinary woman who just wants to help. Other people like you exist, I think, but not among us. Natural selection forbids it.”

He reached up and lay his hand over hers where it was still pressed against his chest. All the warmth had gone out of it—his skin was clammy and cold.

“And now,” he finished. “You, extraordinary, ordinary Behemoth, get to die here with me. And you deserve so much more than that.”

“Stop being maudlin.” Her voice broke, but she ignored it. “I’m not going to die here and neither are you.”

He laughed, but it came out part wheeze and part cough.

“Your determination is adorable, but--”

“Peyton.” He stopped speaking, stopped moving, she worried for a moment that he’d even stopped breathing. “If I really am the greatest hero that you’ve ever seen, then shut up and let me save you.”

“…Yes, ma’am.”

“Now, what floor are we on?”

“Second, maybe third.”

Lia nodded.

“All right then, two, maybe three, floors to freedom.” She turned her palm up so that it was pressed against his, their fingers lacing together. “I can do that.”

***

The plan was rather too simple to really be called a plan.

Step One: Break down door.

Step Two: Run like hell.

Step One was currently the sticking point. They’d both slept, there together on the floor, and without any pressing wounds to heal, Lia did feel that she had enough energy to attempt another change. But after the unexpected fasting, she doubted she could maintain it for very long.

But two, maybe three, floors was all she needed.

Peyton stood just off to the side—there really wasn’t room for him to go far—and she didn’t need to be able to see him to know that he was looking at her with concern. She ignored it. She ignored everything, concentrated, and reached deep within.

It was easier than the last time she tried, but not by much. The pain was still there and she screamed as it cut through her, whatever natural failsafe that was normally in place utterly exhausted. Her bones grew and reshaped, her muscle mass bulged, expanded, and she could feel every bit of it. But she completed the transformation.

She rested her hands on her knees, breathing heavily, then stood. Her head nearly scraped the ceiling now, which somehow made her feel better about the door. A day without being able to change and she’d felt so unbelievably small. Now she was massive, unstoppable. Without preamble, she raised her foot, marshaled her strength, and kicked. A stab of pain shot through her heel. The door flew entirely off its hinges.

“Now you’re just showing off,” Peyton said.

“Come on!” Lia reached for his arm in the dark and braced his body against hers. Then, she took off down the hall.

Peyton hurriedly whispered directions as they went, her at a jog as she half-dragged him, limping, along. After the crash the door made, there was probably little reason to be quiet, but it made her feel better and she assumed Peyton agreed. There was one wrong turn, and Lia nearly burst into tears when they arrived at the spiral stairwell leading to the lower levels without other incident.

In the end, it was two floors, and Lia didn’t need Peyton to direct her once they exited the stairwell. The mechanical hum and flashing lights of the portal device emanating through a wide archway was unmistakable.

She raced towards it, not believing, but hoping, that it could be this simple. Upon stepping into the room, she realized why they’d met no resistance as they fled through the spire.

All three of the Reaver Lords were here.

Peyton’s corona blared blindingly bright, brighter than she’d seen it since they fell through the portal. The shadows that had already begun to rise reared back, bubbling and twisting, and the Reaver Lord’s hissing screams filled the air. Peyton fell to his knees, all color, all luminance, drained from his skin.

“I’m done,” he croaked.

“Get to the portal,” Lia instructed, as a pack of shadowreavers spilled out of an entry behind the Reaver Lords. “No matter what, get to the portal.”

Before the shadowreavers had a chance to charge, Lia grabbed at the metal making up the frame of the arched entryway and pulled. She wrenched a piece off, and launched it like a javelin, straight for one of the Reaver Lords. It didn’t dodge any better than its compatriot back on Earth had.

It crumpled to the floor just as the pack overtook Lia. For a moment, she was lost in a sea of snapping jaws. Then, she surged forward, pulling, tearing, ripping against winding tentacles and raking claws. The Reaver Lords were still stunned, reeling, but it couldn’t last forever. Peyton was half-staggering, half-crawling towards the glowing console they’d been gathered around. But going through wouldn’t be enough. They’d found him before, whether through calculation or dumb luck; they’d appeared within the Fortress itself. They couldn’t be allowed to do it again.

The second Reaver Lord fell to its own pet, or at least one’s detached claws that Lia slammed into the side of its hood. The third, however, had finally recovered. Lia jumped, dancing away from the shadows that had begun to rise, they closed instead around one of the last shadowreavers. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Peyton at the console, his hands working the controls.

Lia couldn’t move fast enough the next time, and the burning cold touch of the shadows wound around her limbs. She did the only thing she could do: she fought. She fought for every step, every inch, as she slowly, inexorably made her way towards the final Reaver Lord. The pain of the shadows’ binding grip faded to numbness as new pain lanced through her. The shadow tentacles loosened momentarily as she shrank, her skin returning to normal, her change reversing itself. Lia kept going. She kept going as every nerve in her body screamed, as next her costume loosened, then began to hang from her as she, impossibly, lost yet more muscle mass, her body beginning to feed on itself for energy when there was nowhere further to power down.

In the end, all it took was one sharp twist of the final Reaver’s neck. The shadows dissipated as its limp body fell to the floor. Nearby, the portal had grown and taken on a different color that Lia could only hope meant it was ready. Vigil was slumped over the console. After all that, it didn’t seem like much to stumble forward, lift him into her bony arms, and walk through.

The light on the other side blurred her vision. She could hear voices, lots of them, and the clicking of camera shutters. Sylph yelling her name with relief cut through the din, and then a few rapid fire questions reached her ears in a confused garble before Lia collapsed to the floor, Vigil still in her arms.

***

She slept for a week. She wasn’t quite unresponsive enough for it to be called a coma, but it came close. She woke to a gnawing hunger that could no longer be sated by an IV drip and literally thousands of media requests. They’d been gone for approximately 13 minutes. The rest of the Defenders hadn’t even had a chance to clear the area, which accounted for the images of her plastered all over every news channel and on the front page of every news site. She was pictured standing in front of the fading portal, the shocked Defenders all around her, Vigil clutched to her chest in a full-on bridal carry. At least she was barely recognizable: gaunt and shambling, almost skeletal. Not to mention much shorter and browner than normally known to the public. That was little deterrent for any number of industrious Photoshoppers. She was sure one of the “improved” versions would become standard within a few weeks.

She declined every single request for comment, spoke only to her teammates of it in the debrief, and didn’t even fake a smile at intermittent references to how lucky she was it hadn’t been the other way around, that she hadn’t needed to count on Vigil to get her out.

The man himself was barely present. She’d seen him in the infirmary once. Sylph informed her in a furtive whisper that he’d been there constantly while she was out, after he recharged anyway—which, for him, was apparently a rather simple matter of lying out in the sun for a while. The urge to tell everyone the things he’d told her was strong, but she knew he’d never forgive her for betraying his confidence. And, honestly, she didn’t know how much it would have helped, at least amongst the Order. There were grudges on both sides that went back a long way and Lia knew she couldn’t be the one to fix them. Not all alone.

In the end, she had to sneak out of a party in her own honor to get a chance to speak to him. He was on the roof of the Fortress, staring out at the massive crowds gathered around the building, hoping for a peek of the heroes and world-shakers attending the exclusive celebration inside.

“They’ll miss you,” he said, slanting a look at her. His mouth was turned up at the corners, amusement clear.

“No, they won’t,” she said. “Sylph’s covering for me.”

“You’re going to be a superstar, you know that, right?”

She stepped up beside him, liking the warmth, the heat radiating from him along with the light.

“You know that’s not what I want.”

He grinned. “It’s cute that you think what you want matters.”

“You’re such an ass,” she said fondly.

He rocked on his heels, still smiling.

“We should move back some,” Lia offered idly, “before someone down there sees us.”

Peyton shrugged.

“Let them see. Unless, of course,” he gave her a heavy-lidded gaze, “you plan to do something… private.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You want to see a movie or something? I’d really like to be somewhere that’s not here for a while.”

He looked at her, the picture of delight.

Lia, are you asking me out on a date? I knew you had a crush on me!”

Ignoring the heat rising to her face and ears, she scoffed and grabbed his arm, tugging him towards the back of the building where they had a better chance of making an escape without being seen.

“Who’s dreaming now?” she asked as they reached the far edge of the roof.

He held out his arms to her and, groaning, she stepped into them so that he could lift them both into the air. Below them, a few industrious fans camping out near the back entrance spotted them and began to scream in glee.

“Still you, I think,” Peyton said, lips close to her ear.

A handful of high little voices shrieked her name as they took off. Lia grasped Peyton’s arms tighter as he picked up speed, and didn’t contradict him.


 

Rawles Marie Lumumba is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. By day, she helps far more impressive persons than herself publish books. By night, she writes stories about girls and feelings, reads lots of romance novels and young adult fiction, and watches way too much genre television.