We stepped across two whole continents, going north up through Alaska, crossing the Bering Strait, and cutting down across Asia. Technically, we did trespass on Pacific Alliance territory when we stepped through the still (barely) inhabited easternmost part of Russia, but we were gone in the next instant.
Strider’s power was indeed phenomenally useful. Even at our top speeds, Max and I would have taken hours in real time, and with our accelerated perspectives, it would have seemed to take months to run or fly the distance. With Strider, we went half-way around the entire planet in under a minute. Most of that time was me pausing a few seconds to recalibrate the path of earth mana to sling-shot us in the right direction between stops.
It was getting into the evening when we left America, which meant it was the very early morning in Reeha. When we arrived, the small village was only just now seeing the dawn.
I had not been entirely sure what to expect when we got there. Whether a battle would already be in progress, whether the SDF would be rounding up Reeha’s citizens for evaluation, or whether they would be preparing to mount a siege, I expected there to at least be people and a village.
I did not expect there to be a smoldering crater, filled with steaming water still flowing in from the nearby lake. We emerged into a cloud of steam and dust and smoke. With a gesture, I dropped the cloud to the ground, so we could see and breathe properly, clearing the air for a mile around. We found ourselves standing on the rim or a crater wall, gazing down at the total devastation. Reeha had been a tiny village on an island just off the shore of Ban Sagar Lake. Now, two-thirds of the island was sunk beneath the waters.
“Jesus,” said Max. “When did this happen?” She looked to me. “Don’t tell me they got obliterated while we were joking about team names?”
“I thought she wanted to control them,” said Shoggoth. “Did they sacrifice themselves to take her out? Did the Alliance’s Defense Force nuke them?”
“No radiation,” I said.
“No bodies,” said Strider. “Not that I can sense.”
I slowly panned my gaze over the area. A huge mess of elemental mana of myriad types was roiling through the area. A battle had clearly occurred, quick and decisive. Had the SDF arrived, only to already be too late? Had they been defeated immediately by an entire village already taken by the Villain Maker?
“So what now?” said Hitchhiker.
I gazed through the mess of mana in the area, and tracked it as it arced into the sky. I could easily trace where the army had gone. But five of us, alone against several thousand superhumans? It couldn’t be done.
I let out a breath. “We go to the SDF headquarters in Japan. We see who they have left. Then we go to Europe and try to enlist their aid.”
“Assuming she hasn’t already gone there as well,” said Hitchhiker.
I frowned deeply. “I can only hope not,” he said. I turned to Strider. “Let’s go.”
She nodded, but then suddenly paused and whirled. “Someone’s here. Coming up behind us.”
We turned. Most of the landscape behind the crater consisted of trees flattened by the blast, and flooded farmlands.
“Who?” said Max. “Can you see them with your ground sense?”
“Not really. I know because there’s water moving unnaturally across…” she pointed. “Wait. There.”
“Oh shit,” said Shoggoth, taking a step back. He could make out the details of the approaching party before we could, but I didn’t need his enhanced vision to recognize them. They were wearing their classic costumes.
A fair-skinned woman hovered in the air, a pure white bodysuit with a golden G on the front, her form framed by a huge red cape. Below her, four other women were riding a platform of ice, which rode atop a column of water, carrying them over the broken trees and flooded land. Atop this platform stood: A black woman with short-cut hair in a pitch-black body suit that resembled SWAT gear. A brown-skinned woman in a blazing red, orange, and yellow costume with an elaborate flame motif. A black woman with deadlocks, wearing a costume that slowly shifted between white and several neon-bright colors. And finally, an Asian woman in a green kimono, with golden dragon designs upon it.
Glorifica. Echo. Firefighter. Neon. Dragondancer. Some of the most powerful members of the Super Fem Force.
I steeled myself. In the hour while the others had rested, I had absorbed as much earth and lightning mana as my body could handle. I hadn’t triggered the lightning yet, but my body was brimming with strength and durability. I would burn through it fast once I started using it, however. Unfortunately, even at my best, Glorifica was still a whole Class above me. It would take my all just to keep her occupied and not die in the process. My teammates would have to deal with the others, but I could at least get them started before I had to handle Glorifica.
The crater wall we stood atop was a dozen feet above the water level, and the strip of land behind us, leading to the Doorway, was only shallowly flooded. Strider could still teleport around without risk of being fully submerged. Max at least had her speed to keep her safe. Shoggoth might survive most of their assaults, but he and Hitchhiker wouldn’t be of much use in this battle. This was going to be rough.
The Force came up to us, the pillar of water freezing to merge with the ice platform and become a solid, wide column for the group to stand upon, matching our level. The water and ice was being controlled by Fire Fighter. It was an intentional mislead that her costume boldly screamed “fire powers”, but she was in fact a water elemental.
Like me, she could not create elements, but worked with what was around her. With a finger twitch, I snapped her elemental connection. She didn’t seem to notice, but when she next attempted to use her power, it wouldn’t work. It was a temporary disconnect; the others would have less than a minute to taker her down before her power kicked back on, while I handled Glorifica.
Neon, the woman in the color-shifting costume, could generate her own light. Another finger twitch, and I created a rebounding light mana weave, so that her powers would turn inward if activated. It wouldn’t hurt her, but she wouldn’t be able to use them offensively.
Echo was next. Her main power was sound related, and there wasn’t strictly a “sound mana” for me to work with. Rather, I could manipulate wind mana around her to somewhat redirect her sonic attacks. She knew enough about me to anticipate these moves on my part. I could only hope she didn’t have some kind of counter already set up.
All this I did in the few seconds between their group attaching their ice platform to our crater wall, and Glorifica floating down front of her team. We now stood about fifteen feet apart. I kept my eyes on her the entire time, waiting for her attack at any moment.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hitchhiker lean towards Shoggoth and heard her whisper something, but I kept my focus on Glorifica.
“James,” she said. “I’m so glad it’s you.” Her voice was honey-soft as always. Her golden hair perfectly framed her naturally pretty face. Her power had toned her body to a fit, but curvaceous figure, but despite her skin-tight costume, she still didn’t really carry herself in the way you’d expect a supermodel would. She stood tall, but there was nothing threatening or arrogant about her demeanor.
“Lisa. I’m assuming there’s no way to talk you out of this.”
She smiled sadly and shook her head. “I did my best to resist. But she’s not wrong, James. She’s doing this to protect people. You’ll see when she shows you, when she makes you remember.”
“When she makes us believe what she wants us to believe, you mean.”
“It’s true, James. This isn’t mind control. This is our awakening.”
“The Lisa I knew would never condone what she’s done. Turning innocent civilians into crazed berserkers, turning you and your team into accomplices, killing those who outlive their usefulness.”
“It is regrettable, but it must be done.”
I narrowed my eyes. She spoke with absolute confidence. There was no sadness in her voice, just resignation. “I guess I was wrong to give you the benefit of the doubt after all these years,” I said. “But then, I suppose you did condone the Stiletto, so for all your grand speeches, you never actually had a problem with acceptable loses.” Provoking her wasn’t the smartest move, but I wanted to see if there was even a chance I could shake her, if the Villain Maker’s mind control had any sort of weakness.
She shook her head again, completely unfazed by my words. “You just don’t understand, James. But you will.” She held up a small, cylindrical device. “All of you will.”
And with a rush of wind, she rocketed me in the sky. She had me in a bear hug I couldn’t break, pinning down my arms, and making me drop my staff. Almost as fast as Strider could teleport us, she had us up beyond the clouds.
Lisa was a Class 5 in strength and durability. Even at my strongest, I was helplessly trapped in her grip. She had managed to knock the wind out of me, enough to stun me for a moment despite my own durability reaching Class 4. My one advantage, however, was that while she was technically a Class 5 in speed as well, her speed had its own limitations. Normally, she was no faster than a normal person, but she could propel herself at super speed at will. Her perceptions and reflexes did not accelerate to match, however, and she had little control over her movement at such speeds, other than to stop and start. When she moved at speed, she moved like a bullet, straight shots or very wide arcs, forced to stop and re-position herself if she wanted to change direction or adjust her actions mid-flight.
By contrast, when I tapped into the lightning mana stored within, was fully accelerated. The world around me seemed to freeze. Just in time, too, as she had already been moving the Villain Maker’s device towards my temple.
Caught in this moment, I took the luxury of gazing at her. Her face was perfectly calm. I remembered the last time we were this intimately close, the night before we went to stop the Shadow Queen, and everything went to hell. I wondered, if we could snap her out of it, if Lisa’s old personality would resurface. If the heroic, kind woman would be able to fight through the trauma and still be a hero, or if she would be like TacTech, and wail and scream for us to let her die for her sins.
If this were a comic book, if I were a better man, if I were the superhero I played at being, then I could have perhaps found another way. But here and now, there was no time, and no options. Even in a world of physics-breaking superhumans, reality was harsh. If I was going to save the world from the Villain Maker, I would have to do the unthinkable, and kill one of the world’s greatest champions.
I told myself that Glorifica was dead the moment the Villain Maker got into her mind. It was a small comfort.
I unloaded every bit of lightning mana from my body into her in the same moment that I used a burst of strength to grab her hips and use them as leverage to pull myself down and out of her grasp.
With a flash of lightning and thunder so bright, it temporarily blotted out rising sun, Glorifica was, very slightly, dazed. Her grip loosened just enough, for about half a second, that I managed to yank myself down, and kick off her body, using wind mana to fly back through the air.
Her cape had been disintegrated in the blast of intense heat, but she was otherwise unscratched. She hadn’t even been budged from her spot; my kick-off had only moved myself. Already, she was blinking the light from her eyes and shook her head. I had used up all my speed already, but I tried to increase it some more with the ambient lightning mana still in the sky. Wind mana granted me a little swiftness, but it mainly helped me in flight and agility. It was only thanks to that that I managed to dodge Lisa’s next rush by a fraction of an inch. I felt her fingers rank the air next to my cheek as she zoomed past me.
I wasted no time, whirling and firing a barrage of wind mana concentrated into molecule-sharp blades. Lisa had already stopped and was whirling to face me. The blades slashed across her form, a thousand invisible scythes that could have each cut down the full height of a skyscraper like butter. They splashed off her like raindrops. I managed to make a single tear on the left sleeve of her costume, the skin beneath unblemished.
Still absorbing mana as I went, I managed to dodge her next rushes. I bolted down towards the ground, only to see we were several miles north of Ban Sagar Lake. Her initial rush at me had been at an acute angle to the ground. When we hit the clouds, we had traveled a good distance across the land as well as up into the sky.
I continued to dodge her rushes, my speed increasing as I focused all the wind and motes of lightning mana into a physical boost. At the same time, I reached deep into the earth. I compacted house-sized chunks of bedrock into hyper dense pellets. Huge chunks of the landscape imploded into sinkholes as the ground itself machine gunned Lisa with diamond bullets denser than the planet’s core, at a quarter the speed of light.
She plowed through them like I was lightly tossing grains of sand at her. Once again, all I managed were tiny rips to her costume. She braced herself to rush at me, and I whirled again, but this time, it was a feint. Instead of a charge, brilliant pink laser beams fired from her hands. “Stun Rams” she used to call them, beams of pure kinetic force, which also shocked the nervous system of living beings it touched and the circuitry of any machine it hit. Her fists hit much harder, but the Stun Ram could be even more effective with its range, speed, and ability to briefly disable even opponents as tough as herself.
I had anticipated this attack, but unfortunately, I wasn’t quite fast enough to dodge it. She anticipated where I would be, and the beam struck me right in the chest. I felt an instant jolt to my nerves, and I went light headed and numb. The effect would only last a couple seconds, but that was about seven-quarters of a second more than she needed. She was on top of me before I could even register that I’d been hit.
I’d already bled through most of my earth mana just breaking her grip and had not had time to replenish it. Even if I had not been briefly paralyzed, I was now barely Class 2 in strength. I may as well have been a mouse trying to move a mountain. Lisa grabbed my wrists and pinned them over my head with one hand, then wrapped her legs around my thighs, trapping me completely. With a simple pull, she could have torn me half. Instead, she used her free hand, which still held the Villain Maker’s device, and pressed the cylindrical gadget to my temple.
“I’m so sorry, James,” she said. “But you’ll understand now. I promise you, a terrible as it is, this needs to be done.” She leaned forward and gently kissed me. “Remember…”