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Chapter Four: The Other Swordsman
Fan woke up the next morning, still slumped in her living room armchair. The rain had finally let up, and the sun was shining. She thought about her conversation with Sanguine the night before as she prepared for the day ahead. Just as she finished donning her signature costume of black and white tights and putting on her earrings, her phone rang. She answered it to hear a few words of broken Rikti language on the other end, and abruptly hung up. Sator had found another lead, and there was no time to lose.
She teleported directly to the Dusk Vanguard base, almost ritually causing a loud enough noise to break Sator’s concentration and cause general chaos within the room. “So where to this time?” she asked as Sator telekinetically cleaned up the scattered papers and clipboards.
“My wish: Fan cease to do that,” the aged Mentalist said in a tone that signified exasperation. It was still hard for the Rikti to convey emotion, but most of the time Fan got the gist of it.
“I’m sure you’re used to it by now,” Fan quipped. “Anyway, you said you knew who the next victim would be. Are you going to send me on my merry way or what?”
If Sator could smile, he would have. Instead, he picked up a stapled set of papers and handed it to Fan, then went back to his work. Fan accepted them and read over the file belonging to the hero Armor Shrike. “Well, Jake Maxwell,” she mused, mostly to herself, “Hang in there, okay? I’m on my way.” She smiled at her old friend before departing.
“Hey, Duran!” Sanguine called as she noticed the unmistakable form of the swordsman entering the base. He paused and waited for her to approach, watching her behind dark sunglasses. She thrust a small stack of papers at him, which he took and skimmed the text of as he listened to her explanation. “Sator is a little busy, so I’m helping out as much as I can here. He told me he might know where our enemies are going to strike next. It’s this hero, Jake Maxwell. Fan’s busy with something else at the moment, so he wanted you to take care of it.”
Duran Dal nodded at Sanguine and handed the papers back to her. “Sounds easy enough. Take care.” He turned and left before Sanguine could wish him luck. Knowing him, he didn’t need it anyway.
The months after the Rikti War concluded were filled
with a sort of desperate sadness that clung to every living soul that still
walked the streets of
A bitter wind swept
Sadness washed over Fan as she walked slowly down the streets of what used to be Baumtown. She felt cold and empty inside. She still remembered clearly the first time she was here, so many years ago. She was still a new hero then, and had felt until that point that she was worthless – one in many. It wasn’t until heroes started dying that she realized just how much her city needed her.
Feelings of fear and worry suddenly overwhelmed her, but they were not her own. She looked around for the source of the mental broadcast, and found a small Rikti – much smaller than normal Rikti, she noted – trapped under a steel beam. A small urge to just walk by crossed her mind, but she recalled that not all Rikti wished for the destruction of humanity. The events that transpired after the second Rikti War that had led to a relative peace between the two races had not yet taken place in this time, but they had in Fan’s, so she knew that during the first invasion, some Rikti actually meant no harm. Sator was living proof of this.
The feelings of fear grew stronger as she approached the Rikti. Fan imagined the Rikti must have been in a panic to be broadcasting its feelings so openly. She felt the Rikti searching her mind, so she tried to convey her own feelings of calmness and peace. I mean you no harm. She wasn’t sure how effective her thoughts were, but at least the fear had subsided somewhat. Fan smiled warmly at the Rikti as she took hold of the steel beam and lifted it. It was heavier than she had thought, and she struggled with it a moment before she managed to lift it high enough for the Rikti to climb through. It hesitated. “It’s okay. Go ahead,” Fan said soothingly. The Rikti crawled free and Fan made sure it was okay before she dropped the beam. “My name is Fan. Will you be oka-” she was cut off as the small Rikti lashed out with a wave of psychic energy. Memories flooded Fan’s mind as a link between the two was unintentionally formed. From the words and images that briefly flashed through her mind, Fan gathered that the Rikti was a young female, named Tk’Lankah. She saw a few images of an older Rikti, who Fan guessed to be Tk’Lankah’s father, speaking to Hro’Dtohz. From what little Fan had picked up of the Rikti language, they were discussing the prospect of “natural-born” Rikti. The father gestured toward Fan. She was confused a moment, but she realized that she was in Tk’Lankah’s memories. The memory faded and Fan fell asleep. In the Rikti girl’s panic, she had exposed her mind, but she was still strong.
Tk’Lankah looked at the sleeping hero one last time before running off.
Jake Maxwell was hardly listening to what Colonel Benjamin Hupp of the Vanguard was saying. His heart was pounding, and his blood rushed through his ears so loudly that he could barely make sense of what he was hearing.
It was in his will, that everything he had go to you. I know this is hard, son. I lost a lot of good friends in the war.
It was as if something had broken inside him. That much made sense. That much was mentally tangible.
It seems like there should be something special to a uniform that survives when the person wearing it doesn't.
The colonel’s words clung to Jake like a wet t-shirt. He stared at the armor in the black and violet case as if it were a puzzle he was supposed to solve. His brother was gone, but the armor looked like it had just been made and polished. It didn’t make any sense. Nothing did. It was as if he had been forcibly detached from reality, and now he existed outside of his physical self, observing the world outside of him. He felt numb with disbelief.
Life moved on. The world would not stop for him. He needed time to figure things out, but that was asking far too much.
“This really seems like an odd place to be taking a nap,” a masculine voice announced as he towered over Fan.
Fan looked up, blinking. “I have no idea what just happened,” she responded quietly, still dazed. She examined the man in front of her. He seemed normal enough – except that his body was encased in dark red demonic armor, his eyes were bright gold, his ears were pointed, and he had pink hair. He sported a white trench coat, which seemed to be as unnatural as the rest of him. “Who are you?”
“I was about to ask the same question. My name is Duran Dal.”
“Duran… I’ve heard that name before.” She recalled Sanguine’s story the other night. “You’re with the Dusk Vanguard?”
The demon hesitated. “Yes. How do you know about us?” In these times, the Dusk Vanguard was not a name people just threw around, because it didn’t even exist yet.
“Consider me an honorary member,” she said, standing up. “I’m Fan.”
“Well Fan, I am going to assume that you aren’t here simply to be eccentric and sleep in a pile of rubble.” Duran looked at Fan questioningly.
“Sator sent me,” Fan explained, “to find Jake Maxwell.”
“Interesting. Sanguine sent me to do the same thing.”
“You’ll never hear me complain about having company,” Fan smiled at him. “Shall we?”
“Alright. But just one question.”
Fan looked up at him. “Yes?”
“Why were you sleeping in a pile of rubble?”
Fan gave him a sour look. “A Rikti mesmerized me.” She decided to leave out the details, for now. There was something strange about Tk’Lankah… “And then she ran away.”
Duran Dal didn’t press the issue any further. Together, they headed for the location where Jake Maxwell was supposed to be assassinated.
Jake Maxwell had set the suit on fire, thrown things at it, and even fired a revolver at it. Yet there it lay, looking as if it had just been made. What is that thing? he wondered. It certainly wasn’t from this world – that, he was certain of. If the armor was so durable, shouldn’t it have protected his brother? He furrowed his brow in frustration.
A strange mechanical sound was coming from somewhere outside. Jake headed for his front door, but it suddenly exploded. A woman in a black costume crashed through it, slamming against the opposite wall. She jumped back to her feet in a defensive position, and then noticed Jake. “Jake Maxwell?”
“That was my door.”
“Right. Sorry about that.”
“You could have knocked.”
“I didn’t intend to crash through your door. I was blasted in. I’d advise stepping aside.”
Jake didn’t question her. He moved back quickly, just in time to avoid a shower of bullets coming from outside. “What is going on here?!” he demanded of the woman in black.
“Nemesis. He’s trying to kill you.”
“Me? Why me?”
“You’re Armor Shrike.”
“You must be mistaken. My brother was Armor Shrike.”
Before Jake could answer her question, another wave of attacks came through the doorway, and the hero fell. Her expression twisted into one of confusion, as if being injured by bullets was surprising to her.
Jake could hear the robots coming. He stole one last glance at the fallen hero, and without thinking, he put his brother’s suit on.
It was weird, like he was encased in stone. The armor seemed to adjust to his form – he was by no means as well-built was his brother was – and he could see clearly through the helmet, even though it seemed to be solid outside.
He had no idea what he was doing.
He walked over to the woman, making sure she was still alive. Good. Still breathing, he thought. He would have to buy her time. Another volley of attacks came, this time shattering windows and putting holes through the opposite wall. I don’t think my insurance is going to cover this, he thought. He decided that he wasn’t going to remain trapped in the house. Do they intend to bring the whole structure down on me? While he was confident that the armor would protect him from such an occurrence, his thoughts returned to the hero on the floor.
He stepped outside, into clear view of the Nemesis soldiers.
Bullets bounced off
of Jake as he headed toward the squad of Nemesis. He could probably fight the
soldiers. No one lived in
He managed to take down the few soldiers, who couldn’t hurt him with their rifles and bayonets. He found that the best way to handle the Jaegers was to trick them into shooting each other. This required a certain amount of maneuvering, but at last he got lucky and they fired at each other and exploded simultaneously.
He checked to make sure no more Nemesis soldiers were heading toward him, and returned to his house. The hero had regained consciousness and propped herself up; she was staring at her gunshot wounds in disbelief.
“Are you okay?” Jake asked.
The hero looked up. “I am rather confused, but I should be fine.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Fan. So you are Armor Shrike.”
Jake didn’t know what to make of this woman who kept insisting that he was his brother. “I told you. Armor Shrike is dead.”
“What? That can’t be right, Jake. You’re Armor Shrike!”
Jake studied her expression. She didn’t seem to be confused at all. She seemed to be absolutely sure of what she was saying, as if he were the one who was in error. “I think I might have a headache.”
“You have a headache, and I seem to be filled with holes. This is turning out far worse than I expected. Regenerators don’t get hurt like this.” She closed her eyes, as if in meditation, or perhaps searching for some explanation within herself. “This is going to be a problem.”
Duran Dal sped
through the streets of
That meant that someone else’s life was in danger.
He couldn’t understand why he thought of the Rikti that had attacked Fan. It was a stray thought that had suddenly surfaced. Without another thought, he had left Fan to deal with the Nemesis and ran in a seemingly random direction. He didn’t know where he was going, but something in his mind summoned him.
An airborne Jaeger nearly struck him. He dodged intuitively, leaping off to the side without breaking his pace. He skidded to a halt, stirring up dust. He peered through his dark sunglasses, watching the Jaeger smash into the side of a building and explode. Another soon followed. Duran searched for the source of the flying Jaegers, and noticed a Rikti – unusually small, he noted – telekinetically tossing Nemesis soldiers aside like rag dolls. He was briefly reminded of a story of Sator doing something similar to Council soldiers.
Suddenly the pieces fit together perfectly. What if Nemesis could strike an emotional blow at the Grand Diviner, in hopes of distracting him enough to gain an advantage over the heroes? What if he could distract the heroes with a threat to another’s life, while masking his true target: Sator’s niece?
Sator had mentioned a niece, once. Her name was Tk’Lankah. She was easily identified, Sator had explained, because she was so small compared to other Rikti.
Nemesis hadn’t counted on Sator and Sanguine making a mistake. Where Nemesis had expected only one hero, two had been sent. Duran ran to Tk’Lankah’s aid, drawing his swords and quickly taking down several soldiers. All these soldiers for just one target? But it was clear why so many had been sent. Tk’Lankah was doing a good job of holding her own. While her psionic blasts weren’t much use against her robot foes, they were extremely effective against the human soldiers. She simply tossed the robots aside with telekinesis. Much like her uncle, she was a force to be reckoned with.
The Rikti noticed him and instantly attacked him mentally, but he shrugged it off. “I’m not here to hurt you. I know you’re scared. I’m a friend of Sator’s.”
The Rikti’s attacks stopped. She looked at him, silent.
“It’s alright. Come with me.”
Tk’Lankah continued to look at him, then finally nodded, though Duran couldn’t decipher if it were out of assent or dissent until she stepped toward him.
Fan pushed back tears. Her entire body hurt from the wounds, and she couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t regenerating. She felt as if she were being ripped open, and fought to remain conscious. She couldn’t understand why she hadn’t been teleported to the hospital yet. Must be because I don’t belong to this time stream, she decided. She would have to address that issue later. For now, she just wanted to survive the hour.
She was hardly aware of Jake moving her onto a couch, muttering something about being thankful she was so small, but she was going to get blood all over his new sofa. She was even less aware of Duran Dal arriving with the small Rikti in tow, and asking Jake where she was.
She was, however, aware of Duran taking her hand in his, and speaking. “Fan, what happened to you?”
“I got shot,” she said weakly.
“I can see this. Shouldn’t you have avoided being shot somehow? It looks like you just stood and took it.”
“Normally, I just heal this kind of stuff.”
Duran looked genuinely concerned. “We need to get you to a hospital.” He pulled back, letting go of her hand.
“Wait,” Tk’Lankah said suddenly. “My Ability: Healing. This Hero: Met Before.” The Rikti timidly reached out to Fan, her hands hovering over the most serious of the wounds. Her hands glowed green, and so did the wounds, until all of them were completely healed. The Rikti looked a little drained, but she stepped back and nodded firmly. “Earlier Behavior: Sincere Apology. This Gesture: Gratitude.”
“Thank you,” Fan said, feeling her strength recover. “You saved my life. No thanks to Duran of course, who abandoned me in the first place.” She sat up, then was hit with a wave of dizziness and fell back down. She sighed. She hated being weak.
Duran shot Fan a look of annoyance, though it was mostly hidden by his sunglasses. “I was busy saving the one who saved you.”
“I’m not going to thank you for leaving me like that.”
“Fine,” Duran said.
Jake watched the two heroes during their exchange. “Are you two married or something?”
Fan gave Jake a look that threatened murder.
“Guess not,” Jake mumbled, mostly to himself. “Well, I guess I should be thanking you for saving me.”
“No need,” Fan whispered. “I didn’t do anything, except nearly get myself killed.” She stared off into the distance, seeing nothing.
“Well, at least you gave me some perspective,” Jake amended. He was still wearing his brother’s suit, though he had taken the helmet off before moving Fan to the couch.
“Sorry about the door,” Fan said. “And the windows. And the wall. And the furniture,” she added.
“It’s not all that bad. I was thinking of remodeling,” Jake lied. He was trying to comfort her, but he knew he was failing miserably. He was also trying to ignore the Rikti standing a few feet away from him. She seemed kind enough, but that didn’t change what happened to his brother…
As if sensing Jake’s distress, Duran extended a hand to Fan. “We should get going. I really need to talk to Sator.”
Fan took his hand gingerly, allowing herself to be pulled up to her feet. Standing this close to him, Fan realized he was nearly a foot taller than her. Fan turned to Tk’Lankah. “Seek out Megumi Yamato,” she said, and the Rikti nodded, puzzled. “She can help you. Trust me.” The Rikti looked at Fan thankfully, and, also sensing Jake’s discomfort, sped away.
“Megumi Yamato?” Duran asked.
“Tk’Lankah’s best friend. I figure it can’t mess up the time stream too badly, since they were going to meet soon anyway. I think Armor Shrike and I meet soon as well.” She turned to Jake with a serious expression. “You never met me, okay? I won’t be surprised if the universe simply explodes, the way we’re mucking everything up.”
“Okay,” Jake promised numbly.
“Can you stand?” Duran asked of Fan.
“I think so.” She let go of him and immediately began to fall over. Duran caught her. “Guess not.”
He lifted her into his arms quicker than she could protest, and she held onto him, resigned. He sped out of the hole that used to be a door, holding Fan securely against his chest. He ran with such incredible swiftness that with each leap and bound, Fan felt like they were flying. She did not like being carried like this, but what could she do? For some reason, her body wasn’t working the way it used to.
After a few minutes of running, Duran slowed to a stop and set Fan down, careful to hold her steady. They were standing on a fallen building, near where they had first met in Baumtown.
“Why are we here? We could have returned to the base from anywhere,” Fan asked quietly.
“Crey,” Duran said. “They’ve been tracking you. Sanguine added a note to her report, warning me to look out for them. She thinks they did something to you. I don’t fully understand what is going on here, but I think you should show them that they failed in their efforts. Can you do that?”
Fan tested her footing, but found that her legs still wouldn’t support her weight. She frowned and hovered just barely an inch off the ground, letting whatever power within her that made her inhuman hold her instead. She floated down the building, and then gave the appearance of walking. The Crey spotted her and raised their pistols. Fan ducked behind a tank that had been abandoned, presumably from an order to flee during the war. It didn’t really matter. Fan lifted it with ease, and threw it at the Crey agents before they could fire their weapons.
Duran was at her side in an instant. “That will show them,” he mused, impressed. “Now, I believe, it is safe to leave.”
Fan didn’t remember blacking out. The very last thing she remembered was standing beside Duran after she had thrown a tank. What was happening to her? Why had she suddenly become so… normal? She still had her inhuman strength and ability to fly, though these abilities now took a lot out of her, when they used to be second nature.
And here she was, in the medical bay of the Dusk Vanguard base, for the second time this week. And once again, Sanguine was sitting in the chair beside the bed, looking worried. “Oh good, you’re awake.”
“How long have I been out?” Fan asked wearily.
“Only a day. I suspected worse. You were nearly comatose when Duran brought you in.”
Fan frowned. “A day? What happened to me?”
“I was hoping you’d answer that. Fortunately, Sator and Duran have an idea. I’ll go get them.”
Fan nodded and watched Sanguine leave. A few moments later, she returned with Sator and Duran in tow. Sanguine returned to Fan’s side, holding onto one of her hands.
Duran spoke first. “Sator took the liberty of taking a blood sample from you. There were some…startling revelations.”
Sator nodded, holding up a chart. “Your Heritage: In Question. Blood Sample: telling. Revealed: Kheldian Origins.”
Fan blinked. “Kheldian blood?”
“What do you know of your family, Fan?” Duran asked gently.
Fan considered this. “My mother was definitely human, as was my father. My grandfather committed suicide when my grandmother disappeared. So I guess the only unknown variable is my grandmother. But that makes no sense, because I ended up being special and Jive was completely normal…” she trailed off, frowning deeper.
“It seems some of the pieces are fitting together,” Sanguine said. “That was the other thing we found out. Those missing Regenerators? I was one of them. Crey seems to have found a toxin that slows the regeneration process of meta-humans. And demons,” she added. “And it eventually kills whoever is injected with it. They must have known you were weak to quantum technology, Fan. How else could they have gotten a toxin into your bloodstream without your body naturally rejecting it?”
“If that’s true, then we’re dealing with forces that are already several steps ahead of us,” Duran said gravely. “We’ll need to find an advantage, and fast.”
Sanguine looked at Sator, as if communicating with him silently. “We don’t have time to look right now. There’s already another attack in progress. Does Lockhart Industries sound familiar?”
Fan shot out of bed, ignoring her weariness. “I’m on it.”
“No you’re not,” Sanguine protested.
Fan glared at her threateningly.
“Well, at least take Duran with you,” Sanguine pleaded.
Fan sighed, and then nodded in agreement. Duran didn’t seem to mind being drafted into the task. He’d never complain about a chance to take down some villains.
“Medicine: Please Take,” Sator said to Fan, offering her two pills from a bottle. “Will Counter-Act: Toxins: Limited Time,” he explained.
“Thanks,” Fan said, and took the pills. “At least someone knows better than to try to stop me,” she teased.
Sanguine grunted and stalked out of the room. Fan looked after her, concerned. “Crey will pay for what they did to her. I’m going to make sure of that.”
“What is our task, Sator?” Duran asked.
“Fan: Already Understands,” Sator answered simply, and followed Sanguine out of the room. He was still distracted by the disturbing news that Duran had given him about Tk’Lankah.
Duran turned to Fan. “I’ll explain when we’re there,” she said, answering his silent question. “We need to hurry.”
Jennifer was dying.
This was disturbingly clear to her as she lay on the cold street, bleeding from various burns and cuts. She didn’t know why she had attacked the 5th Column soldiers. She was, after all, only human. And humans died. She was not immortal, or different, or powerful.
The 5th Column had trapped a beautiful, bright-blue creature, and for some reason Jennifer thought she could help. That she should help. She had failed, and now she would die for her foolishness.
Something cool and pleasant touched her cheek. She recognized it as one of the tendrils of the alien. Was it sympathetic? She couldn’t tell. It had no form, yet it had been capable of blasting the soldiers with its brilliant white light as soon as Jennifer had opened the cage. But the alien was too late to stop the soldiers from attacking Jennifer.
Jennifer’s vision dimmed, and the alien was more urgent in its attempts to gain her attention. Was it… trying to talk to her? She struggled to focus on the creature, and was rewarded with a beautiful, sonorous voice in her head.
You saved me.
Jennifer nodded weakly. Her head was pounding.
“Wh-What are you?” Jennifer managed to whisper through the relentless pain that assaulted her.
I am a Kheldian. I want to offer you a chance to be reborn… as a Peacebringer. I can tell you have a good soul. Will you be my host?
Jennifer nodded, though the motion was so slight, she wasn’t sure the Kheldian would have noticed it.