A convoy of helicoptors hovered through the night beneath the faint glow of a full moon, moving steadily towards the walled metropolis Crest City. The tented battlments surrounding it stirred as they approached and a spotlight illuminated the lead helicoptor. There was a brief conversation between soldiers on the ground below and, a moment later, the light clicked off.
Seated behind the cockpit was a pair of women. While they were mother and daughter, one looked only slightly older than the other. The older woman - appearing to be no more than thirty - was a breathtaking beauty with lustrous dark hair and snowy white skin. She was wrapped in an elegant, brooched shawl with a hood covering her head. Her posture was straight and her legs were folded daintily before her.
The younger woman next to her was not nearly as refined. She wore sturdy, flat-sole boots and well-fitted blue jeans. The hem of her simple tee shirt fluttered in the heavy wind. She was slumped low in her seat and her arms were folded across her chest. Her complexion was slightly darker than her mother's and her blonde hair was cut very short.
They flew over the nearly completed outer wall and looked down into Crest City. Ruined District stood out starkly to them, and the name was more than appropriate. It was an urban quagmire littered with rubble and collapsed buildings. Many that still stood were damaged and leaned as if they could topple any minute. Very few streetlights still worked and fire barrels smoldered like burning eyes.
The older woman, Mortuana, watched her daughter's face very closely as she took it in. "Admiring your handiwork, Sharon?" she asked her over the roaring wind.
Sharon shuddered, but she could not look away from the sight. "This isn't my fault," she said.
"Of course it is, dear. Your intentions have nothing to do with the matter," Mortuana told her. She paused and pursed her full lips. "So, how does it feel to bring a whole city to its knees?"
Sharon finally tore her eyes away from Ruined District to shoot her mother a look of hatred. She opened her mouth to lash out at her, but then something on the ground drew her attention again. Dozens of ant-like people had gathered on a street below. There was the muzzle flash of gunfire, and then strange, red energy seared the air.
"What is that?" Sharon said.
"Crest City is the superhuman capital of the country." Mortuana did not sound very interested. "Most of them are recruited into gangs to help with their turf wars. It is a waste, really. I suppose you will fit in quite nicely. Superhumans are not an uncommon sight here."
A man flying through the air passed by them perhaps a hundred yards away. He wore a cowboy hat and dark, round glasses that hid most of his face. His long blond hair and gray and brown poncho danced behind him. He pulled up in midair to look over the line of helicoptors. Then he turned and flew away to the south.
"Yeah," Sharon said in a low voice that was sweeped away by the chopped wind. "No kidding."
It's incredible how, with time and repetition, even the impossible can become mundane. The first time Jonny flew he felt both an otherworldly joy and a soul-encompassing terror. It was like sneaking a treat from God's cookie jar. But now, as he flew over Crest City, such feelings were the furthest thing from his mind.
Crest City was different from his hometown of Galbton. It was larger, for one thing, and for another the streets were broader and infintely more hilly. Many of the city's buildings were built on inclines and roads rose and fell like a roller coaster. A thick, one hundred meter concrete wall was nearly completed and would soon surround the city. Once it was finished it would make Jonny's job nearly impossible. That was not something he wanted to think about. He just wanted to focus on what needed to be done now.
Crest City was divided into five districts and the differences between them were even more pronounced from the air. The Tech District stood out the most. The tallest buildings in the city were there and made of glass and steel. Even at night they shined, darkly reflecting the lights of the city.
North of that was Uptown and it was the richest of the communities. It was also the greenest, but something about the unnatural brightness and cultivation of the foliage didn't sit quite right with Jonny. Closest to the city were gated communities containing million dollar homes and further out into the countryside were the more isolated multi-million dollar mansions and estates.
In stark contrast was Downtown, south of the Tech District. It was a land of squat buildings and concrete as far as the eye could see. It was the oldest part of the city and, save for the quiet dignity of some of the government buildings, did not show its age well.
The Ruined District was on the eastern side of the city. It had once been known as Midtown, but the earthquake that rocked Crest City over twenty year ago had nearly demolished it. Buildings fell and streets cracked. What had once been the home of the city's middle class was now the most dangerous part of the city. Most of the main roads were blocked off and police, firemen and paramedics went there at their own peril. It was a no man's land of crime and povery.
The last district of Crest City was the Waterfront to the west. Aside from a few beach homes, very few people actually lived there. It was given over mostly to the shipping harbor and an extensive collection of drab warehouses. There had once been a boardwalk leading to a carnival, but it had declined since the earthquake and had finally shut down. The rides and tents and attractions were still there, dark and abandoned. The rusty ferris wheel stood like some kind of steampunk contraption made by a lost civilization.
It was on the edge of the Waterfront that a flash of unnatural white light burned into the corner of Jonny's eye. He levitated in place and turned his head towards the source, but he saw nothing. He had nearly decided to continue on his way when it flashed again, this time further away. Jonny frowned and flew after it. The flashes were constant, appearing perhaps every twenty seconds and each time moving closer to the harbor. The light had appeared five times when Jonny finally caught up with it. The light flashed again and coalesced into a petite woman wearing a white cloak and hood. The woman ran along the roof of a warehouse and leaped the chasm between it and the next. She turned right suddenly and dove off the roof down at the street below. Jonny gasped and moved to swoop down, but there was no need. The woman turned into pure light, streaked diagonally through the air and reappeared on another rooftop across the street.
Jonny flew unseen behind and above her, watching her traverse the Waterfront in a combination of parkour and lightning-like teleporting. Jonny saw right off the woman was a world class athlete. She had a vertical leap nearly as high as her height and moved with all the grace and nimbleness of a gymnast. Jonny watched in amazement as she flipped off a warehouse roof, landed on a telephone cable and lithely tiptoed across it.
Her destination was the abandoned carnival. She ran to the defunct ferris wheel and streak up it in a flash. When the light faded she sat atop the roof of the highest stationary car. She took a pair of binoculars from beneath her cloak. Jonny followed her line of sight and saw she was looking west at the shipping docks. He hesitated for a moment and levitated in place to decide his next course of action. His earnesty won over his suspicion and he approached her directly. He floated down to the ferris car and waved.
"Nice night, ain't it?" he drawled pleasantly.
There was the steely slithering of metal on metal and Jonny suddenly found himself at the point of a thin, curved sword. His instincts kicked in and he thrust out his palm. A burst of wind crashed into the woman and knocked her from the ferris wheel. Jonny landed on the car and reached down to catch her, but he was too late. The woman fell several dozen feet before she changed to light and streaked upward. When she turned back to flesh she was standing behind Jonny. She stabbed at his unprotected back. Jonny spun around the attack with his poncho and hair flapping around him He hummed a melody under his breath as he did so and, when he faced his assailant, a thick-bladed sword made of ice was in his hands. He swung it at the woman, but she ducked beneath it and stabbed again. Jonny wormed his middle around her katana, turned and flew up in a wind-assisted leap to the car behind them.
"Wait!" Jonny shouted. "I ain't here to fight!"
The woman paid no heed to his words. She leaped onto his ferris car and stabbed down at him. Jonny stumbled back and her katana skewered into the roof. Instead of trying to yank it out, the woman in the white cloak used its pommel as a base for a handstand. Upside down she shoved Jonny's ice sword away with the heel of one boot and kicked him in the chest with the other. Jonny fell off the edge of the car and caught himself on its ledge.
He looked up and saw the girl in the white cloak standing over him. She pulled her sword free of the roof and firmly placed its tip beneath his chin. Jonny tried to peer inside her hood, but her face was hidden by a flimsy, weightless sheet of cloth. She could obviously see out, but it was impossible for anyone to look in. Jonny grimaced and blindy found a pair of footholds for his feet.
"I reckon you didn't hear the part where I said I didn't want to fight," he said.
"Yeah, that was after you shoved me off the wheel." The voice that came out from inside the woman's hood sounded younger than Jonny expected.
"I only did that because you pulled a sword on me."
The woman pulled back her sword a tiny bit. "You surprised me." She said it almost petulantly.
"I'll have to resist any urges to play peek-a-boo with you, then," Jonny quipped. "That's too bad. I'm pretty damn good at it."
"Enough." The point of the sword returned. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"I go by Bard, but my friends call me Jonny."
"Uh-huh," the woman said. "And what are you doing here, Bard?"
Her mode of address wasn't lost on him. "I followed you just because I was curious. Not everyday you run across a girl made of light," Jonny said. "More generally, I'm here tracking down a crime syndicate called the Dragons. Can I climb up now?"
The woman considered. She sheathed her sword at her hip and pulled him up to the car roof.
"Thanks," Jonny dusted himself off. He made sure his dark round shades were still in place. "All right, now it's your turn on this speed date from hell."
"This is not a date," the woman grated.
"It was just a figure of speech, darlin'."
"I'm not your darling, either."
Jonny opened his mouth to reply, but then he prudently closed it again and waited.
"My name is Damsel," the woman said. "I'm here on a stakeout."
"You'll have to pardon me," Jonny said. "But you don't seem like no damsel to me."
"That's the point," she said. "I've never heard of these Dragons you're talking about."
"Not surprising. They're a secretive bunch and they just got here recently. They used to be in Galbton, but now they're here."
"They just left?" Damsel said. "What happened?"
"I happened." Jonny winked at her. He couldn't see, but the toss of her hooded head made it clear Damsel was rolling her eyes at him. He rubbed the back of his neck and looked around. "Well, it's been my experience that stakeouts are usually pretty boring. You want some company?"
"What about the Dragons?" Damsel asked him.
"I don't have any leads tonight. I was just flying around hoping to get lucky."
Damsel tilted her head to the side and shrugged. "Suit yourself. Just don't get in my way."
They sat on the edge of the ferris wheel car and looked out over the harbor. Everything seemed dark and quiet.
"Who taught you to swordfight?" Damsel asked.
"No one," Jonny said. "I just kind of winged it."
"I should have known."
Jonny made a rueful face. "Was I that bad?" He asked.
"Yes," Damsel said bluntly. "You fought with the sword the same way you would hand to hand. I've never seen that before. Interesting, but totally ineffective against anyone who's had any kind of training."
"Who taught you how to swashbuckle?"
"You wouldn't know him, but he's very, very good," Damsel looked through her binoculars.
"Not yet. It's still early."
Jonny looked up at the half moon above them. "Figuratively speaking, of course," he murmured. He looked back at Damsel. "So, what all can you do?"
"You know," Jonny gestured. "Your powers or whatnot."
"Oh," Damsel said. "I can control light."
"That must help with the power bill."
"I can change myself into it to travel around with. You saw that," Damsel went on. "I can make illusions, but they're not really detailed enough to fool anyone. I can make them solid, though, as long as they're not too complicated."
"Spiffy. Anything else?"
"Just this." Damsel seemingly faded away. It appeared as if she had disappeared, but then Jonny saw the slight distorted outline around her form. It was as if the empty air was being filtered through a slightly angled crystal.
"Okay, that's really spiffy."
Damsel became visible again. "It's useful given the right situation."
"I can imagine."
"So, what can you do?" Damsel turned the question back at him. "Besides flying and making swords out of ice?"
"I can control the elements," Jonny said. "Wind, water, fire, ice, earth, lightning, the whole shebang. That's how I can fly, by the way, I just let the wind carry me."
"Wait," Damsel said. "If you can do all that...then you weren't really at my mercy when you were hanging off the car, were you? Why didn't you fight back?"
"Like I said: I didn't want to fight."
"But I could have gutted you if I wanted. How did you know I wouldn't? You a mindreader, too?"
"No, ma'am," Jonny said. "I just like to assume the best in people. A little trust and faith can go a long way."
"That sounds as noble as it does stupid." Damsel said it sourly.
"That's me." Jonny grinned.
They were silent for some time after that, dangling their legs and watching the harbor. When Jonny's cellphone blared out and broke the quiet with a twangy guitar solo that was somewhere between bluegrass and southern rock, both Jonny and Damsel jumped. Jonny gave her a sheepish look, glanced at the caller ID and quickly answered it.
"Howdy, darlin'. Is everything all right?" He listened. "Okay, put her on." When he spoke again it was obvious by his tone he was now talking to a much younger person. "Hey, baby. Did you have a bad dream? I'm sorry."
The one-sided conversation went on. "What? Right now?" Jonny cast a sheepish glance at Damsel and she politely looked away.
"Okay," Jonny gave in to whoever was on the other end of the line. "But you have go back to bed right after, hear?" He took in a deep breath and sang a soft melody.
"The moon is out; the stars are bright
My little girl is tucked in tight
Here's a kiss
- he smacked his lips together - and now good night
"I love you, too. Now go to bed, girl," Jonny said into his phone and clicked it shut. He turned and found Damsel staring at him. He couldn't see her face, but somehow her expression was still evident to him.
"What?" Jonny said it defensively.
"That was so sweet I think I'm going to be sick," Damsel said.
"Whatever." Jonny was obviously embarassed. "Just because we pretend it's Halloween everyday doesn't mean we don't have real lives, right?"
"Speak for yourself," Damsel muttered.
Jonny gave her a concerned look. "You got to have more than this," he said. "I know how crappy this job is. You don't get paid. You don't get praised. The hours are long and boring and when they're not it's damned dangerous."
"Maybe," Damsel said. "But it's a lot more important than anything I'll ever do in my 'real' life."
Jonny gave her a compassionate smile. "You must not have a family yet."
"I'm too young for that," Damsel said. She looked hard at Jonny's half-covered face. "You're pretty young, too."
"I had an early start."
Damsel looked through her binoculars again. "We have some movement down there now. Some cars are pulling up to the harbor." She handed the binoculars to Jonny and let him look as well.
"So what do you think is going on?" Jonny said. "Something being smuggled in or out?"
"In, definitely." Damsel said. "Those are cars down there. No trucks. Besides, with the histeria going on over Blood Ice there's no way in hell anyone would let anyone smuggle anything outside the city."
"I don't get that," Jonny professed. "People are scared to death Blood Ice is going to get out and spread across the rest of the country, but they only built the wall around the landward side. Couldn't it just go out by sea?"
"The whole harbor is under sonar. Nothing gets in or out without the Coast Guard knowing about it."
"So wait," Jonny was still confused. "They won't let anything be smuggled out, but bringing it in is okay? That doesn't make sense."
"It just means whatever is coming in is something they want inside the city," Damsel said.
"I don't get it."
"You will. Come on, let's move closer."
Damsel stood up and leaped from the car. She landed on the one below them, flipped off it and crackled forward as light. Jonny summoned up more wind with a hummed melody and flew after her. They regrouped on a warehouse roof near the docks.
"I can make us invisible," Damsel said quietly. "Just stay close to me. Got it?"
The world seemed to shimmer and then it was done. The strange angled light surrounded them in a globe. Everything beyond it was slightly blurry, but it was easy enough to see through. Without even thinking, Jonny reached out to it.
"Don't touch it." Damsel caught his wrist. "We're only invisible as long as we stay inside. The field will reflect anything it touches. The men down there could look up and see a giant deformed hand here."
Jonny smiled at that. "That would almost be worth it."
"You can play around with my powers some other time. Right now we have work to do."
They watched as more cars showed up. Men in the plain, severe garb of dockworkers lounged around, talking amongst themselves and smoking cigarettes. Jonny's skin itched everytime someone happened to look in their direction, but Damsel's light field left them undetected.
It was nearly an hour later when a dark, half-rusted cargo ship slid smoothly into the harbor. The gathered men went to the dock to wait for it.
"Time to call the cops?" Jonny asked in a whisper. He knew it wasn't neccesary, but he couldn't help himself.
"No," Damsel said in her normal tone. "They'll see cops coming from a mile away and just go back out to sea. Besides, you can count the honest cops in this city on one hand. They're more likely to help them move the stuff than stop them. We're on our own."
"Aren't we always?" Jonny said. "I could call in my backup, but we're kinda in-between babysitters at the moment."
Damsel looked genuinely surprised. "Your wife is your sidekick?"
"Soon to be wife," Jonny said. "And she's my partner, not my sidekick. She'd kill me if anyone ever called her that."
"I'll remember that." Damsel smirked. "Ready to kick some ass?"
"This is your party. Lead the way." Jonny gestured.
They let the cargo ship moor to the dock and waited until the movers were hauling the first load of suspiciously unmarked crates before they struck. Damsel streaked in as light and materialized in time to kick two of the movers senseless. She slashed apart a crate with her sword and elbowed the man who had been carrying it hard in the face. A pile of cold, black guns clattered to the ground.
"Good," Jonny let out a sigh of relief. "I would have been really embarassed if those crates had been filled with legit teddy bears or something."
"Oh, shit!" One of the movers yelled out. "It's her!" He and several of the other men ran away.
"They seem to know you," Jonny said.
One of the men arced a crowbar at Damsel. She blocked it with her sword and sweeped his legs. "I've made myself a bit of a reputation," she said modestly. The crowbar fell and conked its former wielder between the eyes.
Jonny turned and, humming once again, held out his hands at the fleeing dockmen. A wall of fire flamed up and blocked the landward end of the dock. Some of them jumped into the water to escape, but most of them turned back and fearfully braced themselves for a fight.
"I almost feel bad for them sometimes," Jonny said.
"I don't," Damsel said. "Do you always talk this much during a fight?"
Jonny took the hint and went to work.
He whistled a tune even as one of the smugglers charged at him. A thick ice shield formed around his left forearm and a crackling whip of electricity was conjured in his right hand. He shoved the man away with the shield and arced the whip at him. Electricity flowed through the man. He shook for a split second and passed out in a heap with his clothes still smoking. A heavy set woman stepped from the crowd of those who had attempted to run away and pulled out a pistol.
"Yeah, no," Jonny muttered. His whip became an electromagnetic field. The pistol was yanked from the woman's hand and flew into Jonny's. He started to throw it into the ocean, but then he had a better idea. He opened the pistol's chamber, clicked out the bullets and replaced the ammo with glowing white electricity. He held his left hand straight across his chest and used it as a base to rest his aiming hand on and began shooting at the smugglers like a marksman. It wasn't fair, really. Trapped between him and the wall of fire, the smugglers had no cover and no where to run from his gunfire. It immediately stopped being a fight and turned into a menial chore. Bolts of lightning shot from the gun and each time a smuggler went down in the same fashion as the victim of his whip had.
Damsel's attacks were just as devastating, if not more acrobatic. She streaked into a group of smugglers and reappeared in a leap, kicking in two directions at once. She landed on her hands and flipped her heels into a third. She turned with a snarl and reared back her sword to attack a fourth, but she stopped when she saw he had covered his head and was cowering before her. Damsel sighed and casually shoved him off the dock into the dark water below.
The cargo ship's airhorn blew and a pair of men frantically untied the heavy anchor rope from the dock. Damsel advanced on them, but one of the men picked up a machine gun from one of the crates and opened fire on her. She streaked away as light as bullets bit into the dock floor and whizzed through the air.
"Bard! The ship!" she shouted.
Jonny saw the ship slowly pulling away from the dock. He let the flame wall that blocked off the harbor disipate and flew after it. He landed on its deck and looked through the window into the bridge. The captain at the controls immediately shouldered a rifle and fired at him. Jonny ducked and shards of broken glass rained down on him. He hummed and gestured with his hand. A stream of ocean water rose up the side of the ship like a sea serpent. Jonny flicked his palm and the jetstream smashed through what was left of the window and knocked the captain off his feet. Jonny vaulted into the cabin, splashed across the floor and kicked away the dropped rifle. The captain hurriedly got to his feet and stumbled into a clumsy, desperate swing, but Jonny ducked it and buried his fist deep into his stomach. The captain fell gasping for breath and Jonny killed the ship's engine. Outside he could hear sirens in the distance, but he knew from experience they were still several minutes away.
There was a flash of light and Damsel was suddenly in the cabin with him. "Look out!" The words hadn't escaped her mouth when a volley of gunshots exploded into the room. Damsel shoved him to the floor as sparks flew around them. Damsel let out a pained cry.
"Damsel!" Jonny said. "Are you all right?"
"R-ricochet," Damsel said. "Got me in the back."
Jonny lifted her cloak and saw a quickly blossoming red stain on her white gi, just above her waist. "How do I take off your cape?" he asked.
"Just tug it," Damsel said laboredly. "It's designed to pop off."
Jonny pulled off the cloak and wrapped it around her middle as a makeshift bandage. They flinched as more gunfire rattled around them. "We can't stay here," Jonny said. "We have to get you to a hospital."
"No hospitals," Damsel said. "There's a place in Ruined District called the Rose Clinic. Take me there." There was a shimmering in the air and, as she had before, she put them in a light field that made them invisible. "Let's go," she said.
Jonny picked her up, shouldered his way out of the cabin and took to the sky. They rose quickly and soon left the harbor behind them.
The convoy of choppers touched down in an open, grassy field in Uptown not far from the city's outer wall. Sharon saw immediately that they had taken the scenic route. The could have flown over the wall and come directly here, but Mortuana had seen fit to show her Ruined District instead. Sharon thought about that moodily as she and her mother stepped out of the helicoptor.
A voluptous, middle-aged woman in a sleek night gown was waiting for them. She seemed nothing more than a rich socialite, but Sharon could see the subtle, telltale signs that she was something much more.
"Mistress Maubbison," the woman bowed respectfully before Mortuana. "It's good to see you again."
Mortuana lowered her hood and nodded slightly in adknowledgment. "It has been a long time, Vivian."
"Please, Mistress. My name is Candy here." She glanced at Sharon. "Is this your daughter? She's a fierce one."
"She is impossibly stubborn," Mortuana said in the voice of a martyr. "And she's also completely indifferent and ignorant of the finer pleasures in life. As far as I know, she is still a virgin."
Sharon raised her chin higher and dared herself to blush.
Candy smiled slightly. "That's quite a feat given the circumstances," she said.
Mortuana's face was annoyed, but then she imperiously brushed it away. "How is Marcus?" She asked.
"As ambitious as ever, but I think the city is more conflicted than he thought. It seems like his plan is to keep pumping Blood Ice into the city and let the gangs take each other out; or wait until one gets dominance and make an alliance with it."
"That could take a long time," Mortuana speculated. "And Marcus is not young anymore."
"But Reba is," Candy pointed out.
"How is she, by the way?"
"Her training progresses," Mortuana said. "And Sandstone seems to agree with her. I believe she is happy."
Candy smiled gratefully.
"Tell me about the River," Mortuana said.
"It's been acting strangely. Normally, as long as no one tries to cross, it's as calm and still as a pond. Starting a couple of weeks ago, it's been churning and boiling non-stop. I thought you would want to know."
Mortuana cut her eyes at Sharon. "I suspect it is even rougher now," she said. "Has Marcus set aside the usual rooms for me?"
"Of course," Candy said. "Marcus adores you."
"Everyone adores me," Mortuana said as a matter of fact. She made a rueful face and vainly brought a hand to her hair. "Except for the wind, perhaps. It certainly disagrees with my hair. I sorely need a brush."
Candy smiled fondly. "I'm sure that can be arranged, Mistress. This way."
Men and women exited the other helicoptors and Candy's people helped them with the baggage and equipment they unloaded. Sharon trailed along as her mother and her friend began to move away.
"Is that servant with the pretty hands still in your employ?" Mortuana asked Candy. "This trip is uneccesarily stressful and has left me feeling decidedly frisky."
Candy laughed. "I thought that might be he case. He's waiting for you in your room."
Sharon's face showed her disgust, but she kept her opinions to herself as she silently followed. They rose above the crest of a hill and looked down at the opulent palace that was Verilli Estate.