We reported the incident and turned over the bodies to the Department of Superhuman Affairs. As usual, I acted as the spokesperson when the authorities came to the scene. Agents from the DSA came out personally to speak to us, and their questioning always took longer than it probably needed to.
We confessed everything we knew regarding the Super Fem Force and the Villain Maker. We weren’t sure if this was the only group she had behind left to continue the Epidemic, but with this knowledge, hopefully future bounty hunters would know to be on the look out, and the DSA could better investigate any further outbreaks. Hopefully this was the only group, though, and Supervillains would stop being a problem, now that the Villain Maker was preoccupied on the other side of the world.
We left out the part about the Doorways. TacTech’s story was too fantastical to really believe, and there was really no way to prove it. Real or imagined, however, TacTech had been determined to die over it. I didn’t like it, I knew James liked it even less, but putting the poor thing out of her misery was a better option than having her be snatched up by the DSA and forced to continue suffering for what amounted to nothing.
The Doorways were already guarded or sealed across our continent anyway, and almost no one wanted to try to go into them anymore. Without solid proof of TacTech’s claim, there was nothing more we could convince the ASP to do about the Doorways for now.
The agents, of course, wanted to speak with James, but he kept his distance. They had known he was present in the country, of course, people had caught him in action on camera, but he had not done the necessary procedures to register his presence. Knowing that we didn’t have time to have him detained and go through the tedium of bureaucracy, I had to distract the agents for a moment so he could fly away. When they tried to pressure me to come into the office for even more questioning, I just ditched them, and caught up to the others. By that point, Strider had already gotten herself, Shoggoth, and Hitchhiker away.
We knew now where the Villain Maker was headed, if she wasn’t there already. We needed to go after her as soon as we could. But we also needed a plan of attack. James and Strider teleported us back to the Granville farm house. He said we could take a little time to rest, but he wanted to get going again before the day was up.
It was hard to believe everything we had experienced already had only taken a day. Superhuman conflicts usually ended far quicker than most people assumed, but I wasn’t used to running two missions back to back. Much of that was just due to Strider’s teleport power. Augmented by James’ mana, we could cut clear across the country in seconds, instead of having to spend hours traveling. It was unbelievably convenient.
Still, even with my powers and not having done much after the fight with Knock-Out, I found myself kind of tired. TacTech’s confession had definitely gotten to me. Despite my earlier protests, I thought it a ludicrous account. But there was a niggling thought in the back of my head that wouldn’t let it go.
We’d all had the dreams. Dreams we barely remembered, of being in some strange location, among strange people, performing amazing deeds with our powers. They were just as scattered and illogical as all dreams, though, so there was really nothing to say they weren’t just our brains using imagery from a movie or comic book to make some exciting imagery while we slept.
There was always one dream, though, just one particular scene, really, that had recurred for me a few times. It’s the most vivid piece of any of my dreams that I remember, and I know it only started after I came back through the Doorway.
In the dream, I’m driving some kind of flying motorcycle. I’m riding it off the edge of a skyscraper, and leaping forward, my fist reared back to deliver a punch. Below me, a bright red dragon the size of a whale is surging up at me from the street below. The thing has metallic wings, and instead of fire breath, twin gatling guns are mounted on its shoulders.
I don’t know what happens before or after that, but the few times it’s popped up, the image lingers in my mind after I wake up.
I tried to put it out of my thoughts as I ate a sandwich in the kitchen, then went up to my room to nap for bit. Shoggoth was in his room as well, lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling. James appeared to be meditating, hovering cross-legged in his room. Hitchhiker and Strider I’d seen sitting outside, talking quietly. For about an hour, we all cooled off in our own ways.
James eventually called us back down to the living room. “I’ve been giving it some thought,” he said. “And I would like to give you all the option of walking away.”
We all gave him a stunned look. “What the hell?” I said. “What’s this all of a sudden?”
“I brought you together to help me solve the mystery of the Super Fem Force’s disappearance, and you have done so.” Looking to me, he said, “I paid your fee, so you should be satisfied.”
“Woah, woah, what about that whole thing with Fate?” said Hitchhiker. “Assuming you didn’t just make that up, he said you had a strong connection with us, but we haven’t even been together a week.”
“A shared destiny does not mean we have to physically be together from then on,” said James. “Fate was useful in helping me find you to help me solve this mystery, but beyond that, there is no telling just how we are connected.”
He looked to the others each in turn. “Shoggoth, I know you just want to lay low and stay away from this sort of conflict. Hitchhiker, I know you don’t like being here or working with us. Strider, I would like your assistance in getting to Asia, but I know you, too, wish to make a life for yourself here. I don’t want to deprive you of that.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I said. “I learn that the SFF are now working with the Villain Maker, and you’re expecting me to walk away? You can keep your damn money, I’m seeing this through to the end, if only for Echo’s sake.”
He nodded and put up his hands in a calming gesture. “I just wanted to make the offer, Max. I meant no offense.”
I calmed myself, then I grinned. “Well, in that case, I’ll keep the money.”
He made a slight smile back. “Of course.”
Strider shook her head. “I’m not leaving, either. I need to know the truth about the Doorways. And, well, I’ve enjoyed our partnership so far.” She smiled, not so forced this time. “Plus, I’m too useful for you to just drop.”
James chuckled. “True.”
Shoggoth sat back in his seat, crossing his arms as he thought it over.
Hitchhiker shrugged. “Alright, cya.” She went to the back bedroom to collect her things.
James and I frowned, but Strider sat up in her seat. “Wow, really?”
Hitchhiker came back out, chuckling. “No, idiot. Don’t worry, I’m committed if you are.”
Strider sat back with a huff. “Jeez, don’t tease me like that.”
“Gotta keep the newbie on her toes,” she said. “I will be honest, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the SFF, but this is bigger than them. Besides, after our little talk, I guess you got me invested. So don’t worry, I am at your service, Your Majesty.” She gave Strider a wink.
Strider rolled her eyes, but smirked. A little private joke, I guessed. It seemed the two had bonded a bit.
I turned to Shoggoth, who was staring at the far wall, mulling this over. “Sho?”
He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, puffing his cheeks a bit. Then he set his jaw and nodded. “Yeah. I guess it’s not like I have anything better to do with my time.”
“Whatever works,” I said. He nodded, casting his gaze towards us again. I think he needed this more than he would admit, even to himself. For the first time in years, he was doing more than just hiding. I didn’t press him on the matter, though.
I turned back to James, saying, “I’m sure we all appreciate the concern, but I’m curious why you’re suddenly worried.”
“This mission is now taking us abroad,” said James. “The Villain Maker is on the move in India. TacTech said she was going after a village of superhumans, and there is only one place I know of that fits that description.”
“Reeha?” I asked. James nodded.
“Um… what’s that?” said Strider.
I almost gave her a confused look. She really was a rookie, despite her skill with her power. “Reeha, India. It’s the sight of a Doorway. It’s also where a vast majority of the continental Asian superhumans migrated to after the Extinction Wave.”
“Outside of possibly New Gondwana, it is the single largest collection of superhumans on the planet,” said James. “If the Villain Maker has perfected her means of mind control, as I must assume she has done with the Super Fem Force, then that is where she could obtain the greatest number of superhumans to control.”
Hitchhiker shook her head. “There’s no way even the Super Fem Force can take on a few thousand superhumans at once,” she said. “There are dozens of supers on Glorifica’s level, some of whom have to be in that village, and most supers outside of America were conscripted into their home nation’s armies, so it’s not like none of them knew how to fight.”
“How many actually saw much in the way of combat, though?” I said. “You know the stats on supers. The majority of those who come back are civilians. Most superhumans don’t want to be heroes or soldiers. They want to be useful, but they don’t want to end up as killing machines. Even if they were forced to join the armed forces, before the Extinction Wave, the nations of Eurasia were trying very hard to not go to war with one another.”
“Not trying to rebuild empires would have helped with that,” muttered Shoggoth.
“We don’t know what method she used on the Force,” said James. “I presume it’s not something she can just do en masse, via a common medium like television, the internet, or radio waves. Otherwise, she could have just broadcasted something around the world. She would need relatively easy targets, a lot of them at once, whom she could take down, one at a time if need be, until she had enough agents to just tackle the rest all at once.”
“That’s assuming the village hasn’t already outed her and kicked her ass,” said Hitchhiker.
James nodded. “I am hoping that is the case.”
“If it isn’t, though,” said Shoggoth. “We’re talking about battling the Super Fem Force, on top of whoever else they’ve managed to turn. We lucked out that the Villain Maker killed the group in that bunker before we had to fight them, but I doubt she’ll give us that courtesy a second time.”
“Yes,” said James. “Very true. But we will not be alone in going there.”
“You have an army in your pocket or something?” I joked.
“Yes, actually.” James set his elbows on the armrests of his chair, and steepled his fingers. “I have not been entirely forthcoming with you all. I did come here because I wish to avenge the SFF. But I was asked to investigate this situation on behalf of the Pacific Alliance’s Superhuman Defense Force.”
The rest of us shared a glance. “What?”
“Officially, I am here under personal business. Unofficially, I am performing an unauthorized investigation on behalf of a foreign power. I have already notified the Alliance of all my findings, and we are to meet half of the SDF on the outskirts of Reeha. When we arrive, a superhuman army 1000 strong will be there to assist in dealing with the Villain Maker.”
My jaw dropped. “Why the fuck did you not just tell us this before? Or at least me?”
“You work for the DSA,” he said. “You are duty-bound to report something like this.”
I just gawked at him. “If I was going to report you, you fucking tool, I would have done so already! Not that it matters, because you’ve already made a public spectacle of being here!”
He waved me off. “Me simply being here is one thing. I am technically still a citizen of America, and I have never previously acted directly under PA authority. I have a generally positive reputation in both nations as an autonomous actor. I was the best option for plausible deniability. It was far easier for me to come here and make it look like a personal affair.
“Being here as a foreign agent is another matter entirely. Our nations are effectively in a Cold War, it only hasn’t felt like it because, considering everything else that’s happened to our world, our governments have felt it best to simply ignore each other while recovery efforts are made. Understand that, given all the damages caused by our fights, we superhumans are effectively living weapons of mass destruction. My actions here as a representative of the PA could be seen as an act of foreign aggression, regardless of my purpose.”
I glared at him, but the truth is, I didn’t have a rebuttal to that. To be frank, I hadn’t paid that much attention to global politics after the Fantasmas incident, aside from the big, obvious events. I knew travel between the PA and the ASP was forbidden, though I had always figured some kind of black market shenanigans were probably going on.
Still. What a fucking bastard. I wouldn’t have reported him, not when the mission was something this important.
I guess he couldn’t have just assumed that, though. Or even if he could, he probably didn’t want to put me in that position. He wanted my “professionalism” to remain unblemished, to not test my loyalty to my country.
“Okay, well, I know we were all Five Musketeers a minute ago, but if you have an entire army on your side, do you really need us there with you?” said Hitchhiker. “I’m not saying I want to walk away, necessarily, but I have to wonder if, well, some of us might be underfoot in such a large-scale conflict. And you said they don’t like Americans anyway. I mean, Strider could pass for European and I guess Shoggoth could turn himself Asian.”
She tapped her chin in thought. “Actually, I could grab a guy along the way and pass as a local.” She grinned and motioned towards me. “Guess it’s just you who’s fucked, huh?”
I scowled. “I can go to Speed 4, dumb-ass, so I can basically be invisible.”
James nodded. “They aren’t going to like it, especially with a former Stiletto and Fantasmas in our group, but I have vouched for you all. Also, India is well outside official PA territory. The village is an independent community. Ergo, it is neutral ground between our nations.” He glanced around. “You can all still back out now. I’m not pressuring you, but as I said before, I understand you all have good reasons not to come along.”
We all looked at each other, but nobody got up and left. After a few moments, it seemed clear to me what our decision was. “Fuck it. Five Musketeers, right?”
“We gunna do that group hand thing?” asked Strider.
“Fuck no,” said Shoggoth, his arms still crossed.
Strider pouted at that.
James chuckled though. “Guess we don’t actually have a team name, huh?”
“The Earth Mage and the Earthateers,” I said with a sarcastic grin.
James blanched. “God no.”
“Ultra Fem Force,” said Hitchhiker.
“James and I put a damper in that one,” said Shoggoth.
“Please, you’re both prettier than Max,” she said. “You could pass.”
I glowered at her. It annoyed me, but mostly because it was basically true.
“The Fabulous Five!” said Strider.
“There’s already a comic book called that,” James said.
She shrugged. “Back to Five Musketeers, then?” said Strider.
“That was just a joke,” I said.
“And Earthateers wasn’t?” said Shoggoth.
“It was a funny joke,” I corrected.
“Alright, look, we’ll figure the team name out when we start merchandising,” said James, waving us off, but smiling with amusement. He stood, and grabbed his staff from where he’d leaned it against his chair. “If you’re all rested up, we need to get going.”
“I gotta pee first,” I said.
James pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright, five more minutes, then meet me on the front lawn.”
We broke off, each doing whatever last minute business needed to be done. I took an extra moment to splash some water on my face and psyche myself up a little. Despite our little banter, I knew every one of us was probably terrified. We could potentially be going into the largest scale superhuman battle of all time. Or we could be lucky and manage to stop everything in the nick of time. Or even luckier, and find the SDF had taken care of everything already.
Either way, chances are I’d be reuniting with Echo, and she would be trying to kill me or get me under the Villain Maker’s mind control. Shoggoth would be confronting old teammates for the first time since he went into hiding. Hitchhiker and Strider probably had their own concerns, but it was James whom I worried about the most. This would be his chance to reunite with both of the women who had been part of his biggest regrets in life. And they, too, would be trying to kill or control him.
I went downstairs, using Level 1 speed to take a little extra time to ready myself mentally. Then, I joined the others in heading out the door and gathering around James. He once again combined his power with Strider’s, and we teleported our way across the world.