I jump into the alley, landing between Empyreal and Sledge. Sledge cracks a smile, Empyreal gasps at my arrival.
I don’t miss a beat. I warp right into Sledge’s personal space, and grab their chest to drain some heat back. I need to confirm that Sledge struggles to heal from my temperature based attacks.
Sledge’s chest ices over but their arms still move, whipping at me like a monster’s tail. Black horns grow along the skin, turning his arms into meaty flails. I dodge one but eat the other on my shoulder, and absorb the energy that I can. The horns don’t penetrate deep, stopped by my power, but they do manage to scratch the surface of my skin. This burn out is killing me.
Sledge grimaces. Their chest thaws for a few seconds, and they snap a glare at me. “This won’t be a repeat of our last fight.”
I infuse myself with kinetic energy and dance in, jabbing at him. Barely does anything. Sledge claws at me, mostly missing. Mostly. One of their strikes catches me on the back, ripping open my jacket and my back.
I put all of my heat inside into my hands, drawing from the air around me, and slash across Sledge’s arm and leg, ripping them clean off. Sledge falls back but catches themselves on their arm. They flip up, slapping me in the face with a kick.
I fall back into Empyreal. He steadies me.
“You… are Home Run…” he wheezes. His coughs blood into his hand, still clutching the open wound. “The… cloak…” Empyreal stumbles and leans, about to fall forward.
“Hey, hey, dude, settle in.” I help him sit down next to Lily. “I got this.”
“He’s a monster,” Lily says, looking at Sledge. “I can sense his intent. He’s going to kill us all.”
I look her in the eyes, try to project confidence. “No, they aren’t.”
“You’re wounded,” Lily says. She’s not buying it and neither am I, honestly.
“I’m fine.” I smile beneath my mask. “I’m gonna hit Sledge as hard as I can, and when you see an opening, you run for it.”
Empyreal points behind me, and with a weak voice, he says, “He’s up again.”
Sledge has reformed their body into a monstrosity. They stand at least a foot taller than they did before, their limbs dangle and whip across the ground, wicked talons curve from their hands and feet, and armored callouses cover their body.
Good grief. I stand, and face them, wavering at the prospect. This shouldn’t be harder than Krater, but my burn out has weakened me. “Do all that for me?”
Sledge’s eyes are haunting blue, piercing right into my soul. “You’ve threatened everything.”
“You’re a mask, too.”
“I’ve always worked for the FIS, always to defend our country. I may not be on OPI rosters, but I am a hero and their ally,” Sledge says.
“You gonna prove that by killing capes?”
“These are children playing at being heroes. They do not guard the Hellpact, nor do they fight against OPI’s enemies. They dress up and patrol around like comic book characters.” Sledge spits. “Pageantry.”
I look back at the survivors. Not a one of them, save Lily, is in any condition to fight. Gyrfalcon is still unconscious. Snow Owl can barely string three words together, and Empyreal can’t even breathe right.
“I am sorry but I must defend Tim. You all are in the way.”
“Why? Why not just get a new slaver?” Not that I want them to, but that seems preferable to fighting a losing battle. OPI’s already winning.
“Because you will not let me. You will hunt that one down, and the next, and the next, perpetuating your cycle of violence, because you can not stand a few suffering to save many from the same fate.”
“You shouldn’t stand any!”
“The world you want,” Sledge says. “The one where no one gets hurt, the one where no one suffers. It is noble, it is beautiful, it is brilliant.”
I can’t find the words for a good rebuttal. They seem genuine in praising me.
“It is impossible.” Sledge shakes their head. “I’m doing what I can to make the world we actually live in better.”
“Bullshit,” I say.
Sledge sighs. “You’ll settle for nothing less than perfection.”
“No, I will. But you’re just fucked in the head if you think this is anything close to good,” I say. “Replacing one slaver with another. We can do better than that. We have to.” If I stall long enough, back-up will arrive. More capes or the Underground. If it comes to blows before then, I could pull another Heatwave Home Run. There’s a metal bar in the dumpster by Sledge.
“A shame that we can’t agree, here. If there was some middle ground between us, I could compromise.”
“There isn’t a middle ground between what I want and what you want.”
“You don’t know what I want.” Sledge whips their arms back.
No more words. I warp over to the dumpster and grab the metal bar. I put as much of my heat as I can into it, and dash into Sledge’s guard, swinging as hard as I can.
Sledge opens their body up so my makeshift bat slips right through them. I hit the dumpster, crumpling it like a cardboard box. Sledge grabs the bat, claws my wrist, and pulls the pole free. They throw it down to the end of the alley. “As I said, this won’t go the same way.”
They explode into a flurry of limbs and claws, replenishing my stores of energy but also nicking me with a dozen cuts. Sledge rolls their body into a ball and shoots out a dozen arms, flopping over me and slicing through my defense in one quick spin.
I put my hands up for a guard, trying to fill my hands with heat. That’s the best chance I’ve got right now. I’m still waiting for Lily to find a good opening.
Sledge sees that I’m staring at the wounded behind him. They dash for the downed heroes, claws out.
Damn it! I jump up and kick off the warehouse wall using my power.
My power falters. I’m losing my grip. I can’t make it work much longer, before it completely gasses me out.
Doesn’t matter, I just need to hold Sledge off long enough for them to get help.
I wedge myself between Sledge and their prey with a weakened dash, and Sledge’s claws find a home in my shoulder instead. Right before Sledge pulls me back, an image is seared into my mind: Lily is staring at me in horror, frozen in place. Empyreal’s fainted. Snow Owl can’t even open her eyes.
They aren’t going to get away.
My power is failing me. Sledge puts a beat down on me, dragging their claws deeper and deeper in to my skin. At first they only scratched the surface but now they’re drawing blood.
Sledge smashes me against the warehouse wall, and whips me across the alley into the apartment, crunching into the brick. They sling me up and down into the pavement, and then rag-doll me into the crumpled dumpster. I can’t hear anything, can barely feel, vision spins, everything spins, and my power won’t work. It won’t work, nothing works!
I thought if I could just hold them off long enough, the capes could get away, and maybe Home Run would go down in history as someone who saved people, not as a villain. Now we’ll all die and none of it will matter. Maisa, Bedevil, the Underground, they’ll all wonder why I failed.
Head down, hands busy, no time to wonder if I have a soul or not. Yet, in this last moment, that’s all I can think about.
“You’ve got a heroic heart.” Sledge grips my throat and slams me into the brick wall. “I do admire that, dying for others.”
Dying. I came into this fight expecting to die. I go into every fight expecting to die. I fight with a sword hanging over my neck, a noose wrapped around my throat of my own making.
That’s my block. I hold myself back because I’m afraid of living. I hold myself back because I’m afraid my life only hurts the people around me, just like my power would if I let go.
I’m defeating myself before I even begin. Bedevil’s voice in my head: “You’re holding yourself back.”
Sledge clenches to crush my windpipe.
All those training exercises with Bedevil crushing me after I’d already lost my grip on my power were good for something after all. I’m not as strong as I should be, but I’m strong enough to stop Sledge from killing me. I absorb the pressure they’re putting on my neck, and channel it to my hands. I grab Sledge’s arm. “I’m done dying.”
I wrench Sledge’s wrist back with kinetic energy, snapping their elbow. I press my foot into their chest, brace myself against the bricks, and push the wall of muscle back for some breathing room.
From what I could tell, Sledge really does recover from temperature damage slower. They have perfect control over their own body, but that just means that healing is a function of their will, not an automatic response. I’m guessing that they have to use ambient temperature to change their own internal temperature. They’re probably really good at preventing environmental change in their temperature, but they couldn’t stop me from directly taking or adding heat.
If I fluctuate their core temp rapidly enough, I might be able to overload his ability to heal from the damage, the same way my own power got burned out from using it too much, too fast.
Sledge’s hands grow into black talons again. He claws at me. I dodge the first and eat the second along my back. The talons rip through my jacket, and tear through the skin on my back with cold fire.
I smash my fist into Sledge’s chest, holding the image of stopping all the molecules of air in my hand, flash-freezing Sledge’s skin. I follow up with my left, transferring as much heat as I can in one blow. Sledge’s skin thaws and sizzles, blackens to a crisp. Sledge screams.
“I call this one Freezer Burn, you Stretch Armstrong fuck!”
Bam! One fist hot, one fist cold. I shower Sledge with jabs alternating between freezing and superheated.
“How can I prove you wrong if I die here?” My freezing strike ices them over. Sledge has to thaw to move their limbs, so they can’t put up a good defense for my follow up punch. I jab with my superheated fist, pumping hundreds of degrees into their body. I didn’t have time to read my thermometer before this, but I’m guessing I’m fluctuating them between thousands of degrees. “How can I make a better world than this shitty one if I die?”
I see Bedevil’s ugly cry in my mind’s eye. Her hazel eyes brim with tears. She needs me to live.
Snow Owl, Empyreal, Lily, and Gyrfalcon are somewhere behind me, but they feel worlds away. Even so, they need me to live, too.
Maisa needs me to live.
Megajoule needs me to live.
I need me to live.
Sledge manages to catch my freezing fist before it hits their torso. Frostbite spreads up their arm to the shoulder. “The world you want is impossible.”
I grab their neck with both hands and pull him in. “Only because you’re in my way!” Tear it down, he told me. No more looking down into gutters, no more looking down at street pavement, no more at the bloodied floorboards of dark hallways. “It can’t go on like this! The world needs better!”
Sledge tears into my side. Their claws dig deep into my muscle before I start absorbing the energy. I can’t even feel it.
I flip back, kicking them into the air with a kinetic strike, and land on my feet. Sledge crashes to the end of the alley. The burns on their skin heal far slower than they did before. I’m right. I’m overloading them.
Blood drips out of my jacket. Doesn’t matter.
I look back over my shoulder. Snow Owl’s staring at me, her eyes wide. Gyrfalcon’s still out, Empyreal slumps against the wall, holding his hand to the wound in his chest. Lily staunches the wound with part of her shirt.
“You’re…” Snow Owl trails off. “You’re bleeding.”
“I’m okay. You’ll be okay, I promise.” I turn back to Sledge, rising to their feet.
No more debating, no more arguing over who has the better vision of the world. Those two earths we see, so slight in their difference, circle each other and collide as we charge, screaming.
We meet in a flurry of claws, ice, and fire. Sledge rips my jacket to shreds, cutting into the skin as much as they can before I stop them by absorbing the energy. I smash them with my fists and knees, over and over. Again.
Again. I hear Bedevil cheering me on in my head. Again. Again.
Hot fist, cold fist, hot, cold. Each time the burns and frozen parts of their body heal slower, each time I gain more ground. They can go toe to toe with me so I have to go farther.
My burn out, my block, it still prowls inside me, threatening to undo my work. Trying to stop Sledge from clawing costs me precious strength, so I let them claw me as much as I can without tearing something too vital up.
Sledge rips through my mask with a claw, tearing through my left goggle. I can’t feel any pain, but blood covers my left eye. If I lost it, it’s fine. It’s fine. It won’t win me the fight if I worry about it.
Keep going. No more holding myself back. The light roiling in my skin shines through my shredded jacket and mask, illuminating the alley.
Sledge digs claws into my chest, ripping the last shreds of my jacket free. Their eyes are frantic, wide, desperate. Their body is black and twisted from the massive temperature fluctuations and they can’t heal it anymore. Their voice wavers and squeaks, out of their control: “You can’t-”
Bedevil: “I don’t want to hear the words ‘I can’t’ come out of your mouth.”
“Fuck you, I can, too!” No more time to waste, I’m losing too much blood. I shove my hands against his chest and drain all the heat I can from their body. Sledge gasps, their skin ices over, bruises, cracks and starts to fall apart. No healing.
I press forward, through the storm of talons and muscle. The ground cracks underneath my legs with each step. I press through my block.
Light shines from my skin. Energy floods into me. The block inside my mind dissolves away. My power isn’t fighting against me, it’s a part of me. Me.
I lift Sledge above me. They are an entire tower on my shoulders.
I scream out, and with every ounce of energy I’d held onto for just this, I hurl them into the pavement.
All the energy releases from Sledge’s body in a white hot explosion of super-heated wind and kinetic energy. The street caves in, windows shatter, and buildings around us tremble. The block shakes, and the blast claps over the city so loud it buzzes in my bones.
A massive cloud of dust rises over the alley, parts like a curtain, and reveals the crater. I stumble toward it and look inside with my good eye, waving dust out of my face.
Sledge is an inert blood stain at the bottom of the rubble.
I don’t fall. I don’t kneel. I stand up and raise my head toward the sky, watching the plume of dust broken apart by the first droplets of rain, and lit from above by flashes of lightning, and from underneath by the light shining from my skin.
I throw my fists into the air, and I scream. Half in rage, half in triumph. Rage because the world needs to be changed, triumph because I am alive to change it.
For the first time, I feel all the pain from the fight. Agony courses through my veins, surging with the adrenaline of victory.
My lungs burn with my scream. My body shakes.
My heart beats in my chest, and throbs in my head.