My heat sense picks her up right as she enters the building. Her skin prickles with energy like someone ran her through an oven before sending her into the house, and she kicks at Lugs with the speed of a viper strike, knocking him off his feet. Before she can continue her ass-kicking, Saw Off and I are at the top of the stairs.
She’s not even wearing a mask, she’s just a brawler with really hot skin. Looks like Pandahead found her in some female boxing league somewhere. Her hair is buzzed off, her nose looks like it’s been broken several times and repaired. Saw Off rocks a shotgun sneeze off at the same time that Lugs shoots off his own firearm, and both spreads take her in the torso but don’t penetrate her skin. She doubles over like she got socked in the gut, but recovers in a heartbeat.
I tackle her away from the others. If this chick’s bulletproof, she’s going to render the 2nd Amendment mostly useless, unless they want to use the Archimedes Bullet. I scream, “Run for it!” and we roll out into the garden.
My opponent is a hellcat. She’s as fast as Remise and sturdier than her, too, and wrestling me through Shortfin’s garden I have to put more and more of my power to use just to stay ahead of the fight. Bursts of hot air flow from me, enough to wilt and char the grass I roll across, but the heat doesn’t bother her at all.
“We don’t leave anyone behind!” Saw Off rushes out of the house, the others right at her heels. I restrain my heat deep inside so that I don’t burn them, but the hot air stops the 2nd Amendment in their tracks.
Hellcat hits me strong enough to strain my grip on my power for a few seconds, causing me to burn out on absorbing kinetic energy. “You can’t get close, just run-” Before I finish my sentence, I’m flying through the air.
Trees and iron fence break under my back, ripping like pieces of paper as I absorb the force of my impacts but continue with my momentum. I sail across the street and hit glass, splintering through wood and insulation, and ending up face first in carpet.
A woman shrieks behind me.
“Easy, head to the safe room!” a man orders. “It’s a cape fight!” I glance behind me and see a family of five retreating from their dinner table to the kitchen.
I climb to my knees as Hellcat soars in through the hole I just made, launching into a series of blows that would make Remise green with envy. She seems to be getting faster and stronger, and her skin sings with energy so loudly it should be burning her alive, but she just drinks it in.
I have to buy that family time. I also need to buy the 2nd Amendment enough time to get away. At least let them say that, at least when they capture me or when I fall, they say that Home Run protected families. Let them say he saved children.
That is all I can think as Hellcat unleashes her fury on me and all I can do is eat it and carefully use my energy control to feed bits of it away so that I don’t burn the house down. I try to feed some of that energy back into her as heat, to see if I can outburn her. I land a fist and pump a few hundred degrees directly through her skin.
Hellcat grins and swats me with the back of her hand, landing a blow so powerful it burns me out in one go. The world spins and cracks apart as I shoot through the wall and out onto the street. I crash into the roof of a car, crumpling it inward and crushing the engine.
The burn out there should have killed me. I had no control over the kinetic force of those impacts. Guess I’m sturdier than I thought. I pull free of the pinched metal and turn to see two teenage boyfriends sitting in each other’s arms, just free of a kiss.
A husband and wife stare at me from just down the road. People are coming to the windows to see what’s the matter.
There’s way too many people here.
I eat car roof in a flash as Hellcat kicks the back of my head. My power returns, so I pull her into a tumble away from the car, away from endangering bystanders. A sniper rifle cracks and Hellcat rolls off of me like someone shoved her. I get free and see her pulling a bullet from her shoulder. She scowls, her skin hisses from the heat surrounding her but she doesn’t burn.
She doesn’t burn.
“You’re from Dresden!” I shout.
Hellcat grins. “Yeah. Been waiting for weeks for this. When the Panda finally gave you on a platter, well… I’m gonna enjoy this meal.”
She tackles me and we roll toward the elderly couple. It’s all I can do to keep us from bowling over them, using my power to change our course mid-air. The world revolves, turns, transforms around me so fast that I can barely process where I am. Trees, pavement, grass, house, bursting window, shattered kitchen. All my concentration goes toward keeping us from killing anyone, which leaves me no slack to stop Hellcat’s vicious assault.
“Home Run!” Saw Off shouts from down the street. “Move!”
I twist free and another sniper bullet strikes Hellcat right in the chest, crumpling her. Saw Off comes as close as she dares to me, but my thermometer puts my core temperature right under 10k °C, which means I’m radiating a lot of heat. Our conversation happens at ten feet from each other. “Are you stupid? You’re gonna get killed?”
“You can’t fight her!” I say. “She’s bulletproof!”
To prove my point, Hellcat rises to her feet, breaks into a sprint, and charges right at us. She’s from Dresden. I don’t know her power exactly, but she seems to get stronger the hotter the temperature around her is, which makes her perfect for fighting me.
Pandahead thought this through. Which means we’re fucked.
A revolver reports, there’s a flash of light as the bullet impacts Hellcat’s chest, and she rolls like a tossed ragdoll when she hits the street. She lands in a heap and does not get up.
Vaquero holsters his pistol and runs a finger along the rim of his hat. The Archimedes Bullet.
“Damn, I forgot about that.” I use my power to drain the heat from around me and feed it in bursts back into the ground as kinetic energy. Once I drop below 5k °C, the air around me is mostly normal again.
Saw Off walks up to me and slaps me on the face, not realizing my cheek would be very hot. She hisses and recoils, nursing her hand, but sticks her tongue out at me. “We don’t leave anyone behind, and that includes you. Don’t do that martyr shit again on my watch, you got it?”
I chuckle and rub the back of my neck.
And then I hear the screaming, the alarms from houses and cars that our path ruptured, and the distant, muffled weeping of survivors. Police sirens sound in the distance.
They aren’t looking at me like a hero, like a cape, like I’m someone who just saved their lives. They’re looking at me like a Youxia, like a demon. Like a villainous cloak, here to flex my power and relive the Anarchy.
“Let’s go,” Saw Off says. “Now. Before-”
The end of the street explodes from a sudden impact, which sends a plume of dust up from the road. A huge shadow lurks in that cloud, a smaller shadow floating above their shoulder, and a voice calls out: “Villains! Surrender in peace!”
“Holy shit,” Lugs hisses.
“That’s…” Vaquero starts for a sprint toward Shortfin’s house, and Mil-dot follows suit.
I know that voice. The word escapes with a heaving breath, a shuddering sigh of fear.
He rises from the broken street, he rises from the dust and shattered concrete, he rises with the easy smile of a hero who has fought many fights and believes in his cause. He’s a hero’s hero, a cape among capes, and he belongs to Houston; from his friendly smile to his massive, broad shoulders that carry the wide city, he belongs to Houston.
Krater emerges and Bedevil hovers at his shoulder, her eyes fixed on me in horror. She’s in her classic Inheritors costume, red boots, red cape, red skirt, and a white, form fitting shirt with a red devil symbol on her chest.
I grab Saw Off by the jacket. “You’re going, now.”
Saw Off starts to protest. “Fuck off-”
“You used the AB,” I tell her. “You have no chance.”
“And you do?” Saw Off grabs my arm. “I’m not leaving you, Gabe Babe!”
“You’re not leaving me, because I’m making you go.” I fill my arm with kinetic energy and throw her down the street. I see Lugs grab her and pull her toward Shortfin’s house. Toward their car.
I know I’m throwing my life away. I don’t care. If you go into any fight expecting to survive, you’ve deluded yourself, anyway. But if there’s a chance I can win and get away, for my friends and for those children, then I’ll do it.
Krater rolls his shoulders. He frowns when he sees me standing between him and the 2nd Amendment. “Home Run. You need to stand down.”
“There’s a human trafficker named Pandahead. He has a stock of several dozen children. If I die, then promise me that you’ll take care of it.” I’m not really speaking to him, though. I turn toward Bedevil. The poor girl can’t move, can’t make a sound. She just stares at me, probably wishing I was somewhere very far away.
You and me both, Ruby.
“No one has to die,” Krater says.
“If my mask comes off, I die. Home Run dies,” I say.
“Then he was always doomed then, wasn’t he, little man?” Krater steps forward and puts his hands on his waist. He’s inhumanely large, at least seven and a half feet tall, and must weigh in at five hundred pounds, almost all of it muscle. He wears a bare bones costume, what looks to be boxing shorts and a simple t-shirt, which he takes off, revealing the granite wall of his chest. “Again. I can see you’re injured. You can stand down. I promise I ain’t gonna let anyone kill you on my watch.”
A cape that doesn’t wear armor is a cape that’s either horrendously stupid or horrendously invincible. Guess which one Krater is.
I’ve got some heat still coiled in me and I start to draw in more, but trying to restrain it is still making me weaker than I should be. I can’t risk burning the people around me.
Krater clicks his tongue. “Okay. We’ll do this.”
He lunges with an explosive step, shattering the pavement beneath his feet with a thundering boom, and then he’s on top of me.
I make one successful dodge by slapping his hand away from me, using enough force that the windows shake around us, but his next grapple catches my leg. The world turns and turns and I smash against the street, throwing out energy as I can, kicking and fighting as I can, but my burn out from restraining the heat inside is doing more against me than Krater.
Krater slams me into the pavement so hard the world goes black. The impact shakes the neighborhood, and I see stars. Holding back as much as I did, there wasn’t even a fight.
My vision returns after a few painful breaths, after I realize I’m not dead but I’ll definitely feel this in the morning.
“That it? You’re supposed to have burned out Dresden, but I don’t see no heat.” Krater shakes his head.
Bedevil floats over, her eyes locked on mine. “2nd Amendment got away.”
“Yeah, damn.” Krater’s face is covered in a rocky substance that sloughs off as he wipes his chin. “Popped me good, though. Can see why this one almost got called a Cloak. You keep him down.”
“Are you going after the masks?” she asks.
“Nah. Gonna go help the people. I can hear some screaming. Keep him restrained until back up gets here.” Krater jogs off to go get help the survivors of my fight with the Hellcat.
Silence from Bedevil as she wraps her telekinetic tendrils around my arms and legs, and binds me so tightly that trying to escape in any way would dismember me. She kneels down next to me, still staring me down.
I breathe in heavy gulps and try to say something, and only manage, “R-Ruby… please…”
Bedevil snarls. “Shut up. You… you… you ran from me, you ran from me.”
“There’s no way.” Her heart, she will break, this will destroy her. “No way you could know. Showing you. It would do nothing.”
Her hazel eyes brim with tears and spill over. Her lips turn up into a grimace. “I will know. I will know, now.” She reaches and takes off my mask, and sees the truth.
Bedevil sees the truth at last and is struck dumb by it. She falls back on her butt and stares at me, and the tears fall torrentially, and her mouth works in vain to produce some sound but there is nothing. I was right, I was absolutely god damn right. She knows that I have Megajoule’s face in an instant but she does not understand it.
Her tendrils unhook from me. I grab my mask and summon all of the kinetic energy that I can, and launch out of the street. I sail over the houses, away from Bedevil and away from the scene of the crime.
Something crashes into me mid-flight with a huge amount of strength. Stony arms wrap around my waist. Krater.
We shoot into the ruins of Cosmoworld. I bounce off a metal loop de loop, ripping free of Krater’s grasp, and crash into a bumper car arena. The structure groans and collapses around me, and I’m left blinking up at the stars again. Still alive, I rise to my feet and make my way out of the wreckage.
Krater waits for me in the pavilion outside, sitting on the bench around a stagnant fountain and catching his breath. The roller coasters loom over us in the dark like monstrous skeletons, the ancient remnants of huge beasts.
“Come on, man, don’t make me kill you,” he says. “Listen, you come back to the Tower and you can tell my director all about Pandahead and his shit. If you’ve got evidence we can nail him.”
I don’t have anything concrete to give them, anyway. If they bring me back they could have a mind reader to dig my friends’ names out of my head, or just torture me the old fashioned way. They bring me back and I go back to the laboratory they made me and I die. End of story.
“Sorry, Krater. Either I die or I escape. You know about him and that’s enough.” I’m strong enough to stand, which is good. There’s got to be acres of empty space around us, without a soul inside it.
A light bulb explodes in my head. No one nearby to get hurt. My full strength probably won’t kill Krater.
I could use everything I have.
Krater sighs and stands up. “Listen, don’t make other people part of your suicide, man. Come back with me. You’re too busted to go on, anyhow.”
I take off my jacket, which isn’t as heat resistant as my under shirt, since Doc only made it out of regular thermal resistant material. My shirt, my jeans, and my mask are made with my hair, which means they can stand up to my full heat. The boots may not make it, though.
“You expected more of me, didn’t you?” I ask.
Krater rises. His laughter is deep, it resonates within his huge chest. “Not really. You won’t stack up to me. I can bring you back to the Tower alive, whether you want it or not.”
“You’re that confident.”
“I’m Houston’s Hero.” Krater steps forward. “It means something, Home Run.”
I steel myself, and then unleash the heat I’ve had restrained inside.