My clothes were incinerated, as was the tangling vine. I still felt some degree of heat, but with my durability set to 3, I no longer felt any pain. What I did feel, though, was my body sinking into molten asphalt, and the car I’d just been using melting to slag around me. I was no longer getting damaged, but now I had a new problem: I was stuck. The rock and metal were making me sink into the ground like quicksand, sucking me down, and more over, Jackie’s flame had the force of a fire hose behind it, shoving me down fully. I couldn’t switch to speed or strength without risking injury, but without either, I wasn’t getting out of this.
Worst of all, I found myself gasping for air. My upper half wasn’t yet sunk in, but the fire was cooking off all the oxygen. Even at durability 3, I could still suffocate! I sucked in as big a breath as I could and held it. She had to pause to take a breath, right?
God, this bitch. When the hell did she get super powers, anyway? How long had she been out of prison? How had she even gotten vetted for the Doorway?
Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she did my old trick, and sucked off a few guards so they’d let her sneak past. I didn’t think they would still fall for that sort of thing anymore, but it had been years since my own trip through the Doorway, and so few volunteered anymore. Maybe they’d started slacking their standards again. I couldn’t imagine Jackie forcing her way through.
Okay, this was getting me no where. How long could she project the flame? I’d seen her take a breath, but maybe that was just to charge the blast; once unleashed, could she just keep it up forever? These powers made no fucking sense sometimes. You think they were going to function one way, and then they blindsided you with some quirk or trick.
I would have to risk some burns or she was actually going to kill me. Squatting down somewhat in the molten goo and bracing myself against the pressure of her flame, I tensed, then shifted my energy to strength. Immediately, the heat was overwhelming and I felt my skin start to burn. But I managed to leap clear of the puddle, switch my durability back to max as soon as I was clear. The heat had gotten so great, the molt rock was almost watery, which prevented me from getting stuck, but still made my leap shorter than intended. I still managed to finally get clear of the flame, only to end up in a cloud of smoke. I covered my mouth and risked a breath. With durability up, the sting of the smoke didn’t bother me, but I didn’t get much fresh air. It was enough, however, to make me realize I hadn’t exactly planned a good trajectory. I hit the ground behind another car just a dozen feet behind the one Jackie had melted on top of me. It, too, was on fire, and half collapsed in on itself, but it provided enough cover as I lay down flat and caught my breath. I forced myself to breathe as evenly and quietly as I could.
I wasn’t sure how Jackie could even see through all that mess coming out of her face, but she cut the flame when she realized I wasn’t there. “AAAAAAH! Where did you go, you fucking cheat?!” Her rattling voice bellowed over the roar of the flames. She spat another blast of fire in a wide sweep that went over my head. It wasn’t as bright or hot this time, but it was more than enough set every building in the block on fire.
“YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME, YOU CUUUUUNNNNNNN—”
I shifted to first level speed while she was looking the other way, and dashed down the street. When I could no longer feel the heat at level two durability, I shifted more energy to speed. And when I could no longer feel it at level one, I shifted to level three.
The pain caught up to me. My skin felt like I’d been burning in the sun for a whole day, but at least I still had skin. I bent over in a fit of coughing as smoke and who knew what other chemicals I’d breathed in and hadn’t quite cleared out started biting at my throat and lungs. I allowed myself a few minutes to get my breath clear. At this speed, Jackie was basically a statue. From two blocks away, I could see her monstrous jack-o-lantern form silhouetted in the flames. That whole block was on fire now. Jem’s diner was torched. I only prayed she’d gotten her customers out of there while Jackie was distracted.
I looked around and saw some people crouched behind cars and looking from around the sides of buildings. Some had their phones out, a couple even had binoculars. Some people still couldn’t help but gawk. But these idiots were just going to make this harder if Jackie started firing at them.
I set my jaw. There was no other way to do this. Someone like Jackie, she was a nutjob from the start, and now she was a nutjob with super powers. We’d both been part of the same gang, both been scumbags out to fuck with the world. The difference is, when I got stopped, when I got offered the chance to better myself, I took it. I would never call myself a hero; the work I’d done under Echo was too dirty for that. But I did those things for a purpose, for something greater than my own ego. People didn’t like to acknowledge it, but the work we’d done had benefited millions.
Jackie? Jackie was a sadomasochistic hedonist who wasn’t happy unless other people were hurting. It’d been years since I’d seen her, but this outburst hadn’t convinced me she’d changed at all. Maybe the SFF would have given her a chance, but they weren’t around any more.
Once my lungs were clear and I was able focus again, I took a breath, and started running forward. When the heat got too great, I shifted my durability to level 1 again, but I didn’t dare drop my speed any lower. This was going to require precise timing, and I couldn’t risk Jackie being just fast enough to trip me up. It was a trick I had done many times to take down a tough opponent, but usually said opponent wasn’t so hot I’d risk burning myself alive trying to do it.
I grit my teeth and felt my skin sizzle as I ran straight at Jackie. She was mostly facing the opposite direction, looking wildly about for me, which made this easier. I reared back my fist and punched with all my might. A fraction of a second before I impacted, I shifted all of my energy to strength. My fist plowed through Jackie’s head like it was an eggshell. In the same instant, my body was on fire. I screamed in pain, but before my fist was even clear of her head, I managed to shift back to full durability. Instantly, the pain faded and the flames snuffed out, but the damage was done.
I collapsed onto Jackie’s body, her broken pumpkin head slopping onto the ground, magma-hot goo melting into the concrete. After a moment, the plant-like body armor melted off her form, leaving a stick-thin girl with a crushed skull lying in a puddle of melted sidewalk. Her body was already burning as, on the moment of death, her powers quit working, and she became a mere mortal again. I got up and backed away, trying to wipe the hot goop off me as best I could. I was red as a tomato. My durability helped me recover quickly as long as I kept it at max, but I’d be shedding skin like a snake for at least a day.
I looked up as I heard sirens. The whole block was engulfed in flames, and already I could see fire trucks coming around the corner. If I wasn’t so injured, I would have shifted to super speed and strength and started helping them set things up, manned one of the hoses myself if they’d let me. I just hoped everyone managed to evacuate.
I turned towards Jem’s diner, still just behind me. She had managed to use her telekinesis to press her tables against the windows to block the flames, but the windows had still been busted out and the front of the building was on fire. I strode through the front door, heedless of the flames. No one was there; Jem had let everyone out through the back.
I checked behind the counter to see my stuff was gone, then went down the hallway to the emergency exit. There were some people milling about on the next street over, but Jem was still there in the alleyway, her eyes moist. She saw me, then looked to her diner. “M-my restaurant,” she said, her lip trembling.
“I know, hon,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I would have put a hand on her shoulder, but my body was still felt hot enough I thought I might burn her. I cleared my throat. “Um… you have my stuff?”
She looked at me almost confused for a moment, then blinked, and slowly pulled my wallet, keys, and phone from her apron pocket. Then she blinked again as she realized I was stark naked. She put my stuff back in the apron, then slipped it off, and handed it to me. “Thanks, hon.”
“Did you stop her?”
I put the apron on. It was small on me, but it covered just enough that was I wasn’t giving everyone a full frontal. “She’s dead.”
“G—” She hiccupped. She couldn’t actually bring herself to be glad. “Okay, well… okay.”
“You want me to—”
“Just get out of here, Max.”
Now that stung. I scowled and started walking off. I almost yelled back a sarcastic, “your welcome,” but I wasn’t in the mood to get into another fight. Jem was a nice girl, and a fellow superhuman, but she’d never been in action like me. She was as close to a normal person as one of us could get, just using her powers as a convenient tool to live her life. Most superhumans did. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the first battle she’d actually seen up close. Even when you watch the fights on the news, you never really appreciate the intensity of it unless you’re there.
Plus the fact that she’d almost just lost her business. How could she have known that when she’d dumped Jackie out the door, she’d been setting off a living bomb? I hoped she’d be able to get things back to normal quickly.
I debated going back out to the street to see if I could do something to help, but I didn’t have any training as a fireman, and I needed to go lie down someplace and recover. The more I had to use the energy for anything else, the longer it would take for my durability power to heal me.
I got about ten feet before a shadow fell over me, and I looked up to see a familiar figure. A man dressed in tan robes with a green sash, his long black hair tied up in a pony tail, hovered in the air above me. He pointed at me with a long ash-grey staff with a gnarled hook at the top. “Don’t go anywhere, Max. I need to speak with you.”
He then flew over to the burning street, and I saw him start waving the staff around and whipping his arms about. Fires instantly snuffed out, smoke was cleared from the air. Water curled out of the fireman’s hoses and evenly soaked into the burnt material all down the street to ensure it wouldn’t spark up again. In less than a minute, the man called the Earth Mage, the first superhuman to emerge from a Doorway, had accomplished what would have taken the whole team of fire crews hours to suppress.
He spent a few more minutes talking with the firemen and the police. I skulked about in the alley, walking down a few stores to stay further out of the way. Jem, once she saw the fires were put out, went back inside to assess the damage.
After ten minutes of waiting, during which time I started plucking bits of dead skin off myself, the Earth Mage returned, floating down over the rooftops to set down a few feet next to me. “I saw some bone fragments in a pile of ashes and molten concrete. I assume your opponent is deceased?”
I glowered at him. “You weren’t going to be able to capture her. I knew her from my old gang days.”
“Ah. Well, I shall take your word for it.” He stood there a moment, looking me over.
“Don’t make me start chargin’ now.”
“I’m just wondering if you’re okay.”
“I’m fine, James. Long as I keep the durability up, I should be all patched up by tomorrow night, or the next morning.” I pulled another bit of peeling skin off to emphasize the point. “So, if you’re in town, where the fuck were you five minutes ago?”
He looked away from my vulgar display of self-repair, and said, “I got here as fast as I could. In fact, I’m only in town because I was looking for you.”
“I have a phone, you know.”
“I didn’t have your number.”
“I’m a registered supervillain bounty hunter. You could have checked with the ASP’s Superhuman Affairs office. Speaking of which, I need to call this in, even if it’s not part of an assignment.”
He frowned at that.
“Heh. Still on bad terms with them, eh? Did you even go through customs, or did you just fly past the border?”
“I’m still a citizen of this country, technically.”
“You sure about that? You were off in
they made the change. Same rules might not apply, especially for us.” Australia
He sighed and made an impatient wave of his hand. “We’re getting off track. I was seeking you out because I need your help.”
I stood and stretched, making sure the apron slipped a bit to expose my chest, just to make him uncomfortable. Not that I had a lot to show off, but it was enough to make him scowl and look to the side. He slipped off his green sash and tossed it to me. It was large enough I could wear it as a shawl. I let it hang over my shoulders.
“Fine, James. I’m not on any assignments right now. But I do work for pay. I’m not doing any freebie vigilante gigs like a sucker.” I motioned toward Jem’s diner. “That was a personal thing.”
James gave me a little smile, but there was no humor in it. “I can pay you, but I have a feeling that won’t be your top motivation.”
I raised an eyebrow in intrigue. “Oh?”
“This is about the Super Fem Force.”
I frowned at that and crossed my arms. “What about them? They got killed. At least they took their enemies down with them.”
“That’s just it. I don’t think they did.” He paused, probably to be dramatic.
“What?” I pressed. “They didn’t die? Or they didn’t take out all their enemies?”
The Earth Mage gave me a grave look. “Either.”