Megan’s house was the “slab home” type, so it didn’t have a basement, enabling me to use my power on her floor. I’d teleported us to another park a couple blocks away, partially hidden between a cluster of trees. Hitchhiker fell on her ass, but managed to recover into a backwards somersault. She rolled onto her feet and whirled to face me.
“You need to stop that,” I said.
“Stop what?” she said, relaxing her stance and brushing some loose grass off her butt.
“Stop provoking,” I said. “Not that I disagree with your theory. But even your attempt at reassurance pushes their buttons.”
I shrugged. “They strong armed me into their little club, on the hunch of some random guy the Earth Mage happens to know on the other side of the world. I’m not exactly inclined to play nice.”
“I’m not here under the best of circumstances, either, but this is important. Anything that could sway the SFF to evil is something that could ruin more of the world. After Europe and Asia, after South America and
Africa, we don’t have a lot left to lose.”
She crossed her arms, giving me cool gaze. “What can we even do about it? Go after them? Assuming we can actually find them, what stops them from just mind-zapping us and turning us into the next batch of random crazy Supervillains?”
“The Earth Mage will figure something out.”
“The Earth Mage is an idiot. Our luck in finding La Luste, her being the one out of three villains that lived, and her minion being the one witness ever found to reveal this sort of thing, that kind of luck is absolutely phenomenal. I was ready to spend the next year dinking around until James finally fucked up enough to get killed or let us off the hook.”
I shrugged, not really having a good answer for any of this. “Maybe this is why that Fate guy led him to us. Maybe this combination, in this moment, lines everything up just right.”
“I don’t believe in fate,” she said. “Superhuman or otherwise.” She shook her head and looked to the side, scanning the park as she mentally chewed over our situation. “One of the Fantasmas was supposed to be a precog. Only his power was some weird fortune-cookie effect, he’d go into a trance, and write down a vague phrase or sentence, and that would, seemingly, be a guide to the best places to hit, and the best to avoid. It seemed to line up, but it quickly became apparent that short-term victories were adding up to long-term costs. Too much devastation, too many innocent casualties, too many of the criminals escaping in the chaos.
“Some would say it was karma, but all it was, was just the consequence of putting too much faith in superstition versus actually investigating and planning things. Members of the Fantasmas wanted quick and easy answers. When I was brought on, and my insider intel proved more reliable than Fortuneteller’s power, some of them still didn’t trust my word over his. My methods were harder, my targets took more work to root out, and righteous warriors don’t have the time or patience for less glorious work.”
She turned back to me. “The Earth Mage is going to get us killed. One lucky break does not mean we’re on the right path.”
“Do you have a better way, then?” I said.
She frowned and looked to the side.
“I thought not.” I put my hands in my longcoat pockets and let those words hang in the air for a moment. “If you really can’t abide any of this, I’ll help you get out. I’ll jump us a few miles further away and drop you off at a train station or something. I’ll say you snagged a man and flew off.”
Her eyes widened slightly at that. “You mean it?”
I shrugged. “I really don’t want to work with someone who’s just going to be a constant problem. And while I agree with you about the Earth Mage being an uncertain leader, I think he’s at least onto something. But if you have no solutions to better our situation and you’re just going to be a snotty pissant, than you’re better off gone.”
She smirked. “Even though Fate says otherwise?”
I shrugged again. “I’m not exactly a devout follower myself.”
She stroked her chin in thought. “James and Max are going to be absolutely furious with you. Why not come with me? Or at least run in another direction.”
I shook my head. “Like you, I’ve done some… morally questionable things. I came here to be a bounty hunter, to make a fresh start, to at least repent some of the bad I’ve done. I think, if there’s anything that could possibly make up for it, it’s this.” I paused for a moment, meeting her gaze with mine. “I think this goes beyond anything you or I have done. I don’t know about destiny, but I do have a feeling.”
Hitchhiker gave a long sigh, putting her hands on her hips and looking out past the trees to the park beyond. A few random joggers were going by, a couple of them men. “You’re trying to say we’re alike, but the thing is, I’m not driven by guilt.” She started walking out of the trees, and onto a paved jogging path. “I’ll make it on my own,” she called back. “Tell the others I said to go fuck themselves.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that,” I said. Before she could get too far, I said, “You might not be driven by guilt, but I know you’re driven by justice.”
She stopped, turning back to me. “I’m not so delusional as all that. The Fantasmas was only ever about revenge, despite what our leader may have said.”
“Sure, revenge was part of it. But that couldn’t be all it was. You might not feel guilty about the means, but you cared. Everything terrible that you did, you did to ultimately better your country. You wanted to protect your people. You’ve still been doing it, even though the Fantasmas aren’t around anymore.”
She rolled her eyes. “You done?”
“I suppose so. You going?”
She turned and took a step, then stopped again. After a letting out a loud sigh of exasperation, she turned back and crossed her arms. “If you tell me what you did, I’ll try to cool down the sass.”
“What I did?”
“Yes. What could you have done that was comparable to me?”
I frowned in thought. “How many deaths do you think you’re responsible for? Directly or indirectly?”
“Depends on how far you want to spread the blame between me and my fellows. I frankly never kept track.”
“I see. Well I did keep track. And I have a feeling your number is a fraction of mine.”
She gave me a studious look for a moment, then her eyes widened. “You weren’t in
Europe when New
Her jaw dropped for a moment. “You’re one of them? One of the Ten?”
I said nothing. I didn’t need to. She was a smart woman.
“Heh. Hahaha. HAHAHAHAHA!” She doubled over laughing. “Un-fucking believable! I knew there was something more to you!”
I let her get it out of her system. Finally, she walked up to me and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Ah, fuck it. If a damned Queen is gunna try to save the world, I really don’t have much of an excuse, huh?”
“You going to behave, then?”
She smirked. “Yes, your majesty.”
“Please don’t tell the others.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re secret’s safe with me.”
I nodded, then terraported back to Megan’s house, in the front yard. Max and Shoggoth were waiting for us, while James was having a final word with Megan.
“You girls have a nice talk?” said Max, scowling.
Hitchhiker made a salute. “Sir, yes, sir!” she said. “I promise to only be a smart ass every other Tuesday!”
Max blinked, then looked at me. I just gave her a nice smile in return. “I gave her a pep talk. And she if acts a fool again, I’ll teleport her face-first into your fist.”
Max just stared at me for a moment, then made an amused grunt. “Just warn me in advance, so I can put all my power into strength.”
“You bet.” I nodded towards the door. “So, we learn anything else?”
Max shook her head. “Unfortunately, no. James is just checking the place over for any sort of trace elemental clues to possibly track. Mother North had ice powers and Emberlight had some kind of burning smoke.”
“What about Megan and Steve?”
“I spoke with the DSA, they’ll arrange for him to be taken care of while she undergoes the check up. But as fine as she seems, she’ll probably get released early.”
“I tried to see if I could snap him out of it, but no such luck,” said Shoggoth.
“I see. That’s a shame.”
James came out of the house, looking hopeful. “I managed to pick up a trail, but it’s incredibly faint. There was a trace of Ember’s power on the lock, and once I identified it, I noticed a larger trail through the sky. She could form smoke constructs, right? She probably made a skeleton key to get in, and made a hover platform to carry herself and the others. From that, I have a very tenuous thread.” He noticed me and Hitchhiker as he stepped to the side, and Shoggoth’s body was no longer blocking the view. He frowned. “Everything settled?”
“Sure thing, boss,” I said.
Hitchhiker gave him the mock salute as well. “Forgive my earlier remarks.”
His frown maintained, but he nodded. “Fine. We don’t have time to argue right now. We have our lead, and if we do not follow it now, we may never be able to pick it up again. We’re stepping into deep conspiracy territory here.”
“Let’s go, then,” I said. “Where to?”
“I will follow the trail of Ember’s power, and direct you along the path, as far as I can see it in a given moment. Hopefully, we can reach them before the trail fades completely.”
I nodded. He gazed into the sky, and after a moment, I sensed his power of earth mana blend into mine, and stretching it beyond its normal limits once more. I could get used to this particular aspect of our partnership.
This was much slower than the previous “super jumps” we’d done. Since the Earth Mage could only trace the smoke mana, or whatever he was seeing, so far at one time, we had to stop frequently so he could keep picking the trail back up. Instead of teleporting hundreds miles at once, we had to go in two or three mile jumps, pausing a few seconds in between.
Even despite this, the further along we got, the thicker the trail seemed to be, so we were soon doing double, then triple the distance. All told, we crossed 376 miles west. We finally stopped along a lonely gravel road in Kansas, in front of an abandoned farm. The fields were overgrown with weeds, tall grass, and unharvested wheat. Up on a hill was a dilapidated barn, collapsing in on itself, next to a boarded up old farmhouse.
Against all appearances, however, the place was not abandoned. I could sense a sub-basement had been constructed below the house, with a tunnel exit that actually came out in the middle of a cluster of trees a quarter-mile away. The sub-basement was a smoothly constructed reinforced concrete structure, with a lot of electronic equipment set into the walls and floor. There were also five people present, all dressed in black clothing. Four women and a man, this latter person a squat, stocky figure who wore chains wrapped around his torso and limbs.
The moment I sensed this, I terraported us nine-tenths of a mile away.