Paranoid 12-I

HANNAH

Too Pretty To Die.

As I rested one hand on the curved concrete wall next to me, all my instincts were telling me to take a deep breath. I ignored them, for two reasons. One, I didn’t actually need to, and the noise could give me away. And two, I really, really, really didn’t want to, because that would mean inhaling the fumes of the… stuff that I was currently standing in.

The teleportation had felt like licking a battery, except through my entire battery. For the briefest of moments, in the space between there and here, I thought I saw something… else. A world, maybe, or… lots of worlds, all in the same place. It’s hard to describe, and honestly I think it was just the teleport’s side effect messing with my eyes. I resolved to ask Sabi about it: she’d know for sure where Instance has gotten the power from, and maybe if the side effect was standard.

Still, it was only a moment, and then the three of us were standing in the middle of a street, dust swirled around us and a few lingering arcs of electricity flitting across a surface that had no right conducting them. To our left were the shattered remains of a building that looked like it had burst up through the road, and behind it, three floating figures I didn’t recognize, and one lying in a pile of rubble that I did. Skew. She looked significantly worse for wear than the last time I’d seen her, and she'd been covered in blood then. Now, her armor was scratched and chipped, and large tears covered her bodysuit. Judging by the way she was lying in the rubble, she’d probably broken at least a few bones, or fractured them at the very least, and probably some kind of head injury, considering how her head was lolling. Instinctively, I felt the urge to run over to her, but I quashed it. Rushing over blindly wouldn’t do either of us any good. Presumably, the hovering figures (a short woman in blue armor with odd ridges, a… person in tactical gear, and what looked like a mummy wrapped in more types of fabric than I could count) were other Outliers; I didn’t see either of the two I’d already met. The hovering, that was… probably not normal. Or, uh, consensual. Their hands seemed to be bound to their sides, and the woman in blue and the mummy seemed to be struggling against it. Which meant…

Oh dear.

To our left, stood Valiant. Awestruck, Paladin, Galvanize and the Incredible Balthazar (his arm outstretched as he held the Outliers in the air), all in their resplendent glory. And all of them staring at me.

It’s entirely possible that, left to my own devices, I might have just sat there frozen, stammering and stuttering. As it was, I stared back, making a noise akin to a small rodent that has scurried onto a road and now sees the eighteen-wheeler bearing down on it. But then the moment passed, and Stump seemed to remember I was still clinging to his leg. He kicked out, and I barely managed to go intangible before it connected, his foot whoosh-ing through me and dragging a trail of lavender smoke behind it. I scrambled to my feet just in time to dance out of the way of another blow, and then everything seemed to happen at once.

Balthazar suddenly collapsed, a spider web of blue lines arcing over him as he fell. Like their strings had been cut, the Outliers fell out of the air, landing behind a pile of rubble and out of my sight. Which was good, because I had my own problem to deal with.

Stump was still coming after me, body unravelling into a twisting mess of branches that snaked and spun around him. A tendril whipped for ward, trying to wrap around me and hold me in place. I almost let it pass through me, but instead, I threw myself into a roll, moving underneath it and springing forward. Still close to the ground, I dove straight at Stump's legs and passed straight through before he could adjust. Letting it pass through would have been easier, but I’d realized in a moment of inspiration that if I just ignored everything, they were going to figure out pretty quick how to actually affect me. If I dodged and danced, at the very least it would take them longer to figure out, time I could use to find-

Green Cloak! In the excitement, I’d forgotten the reason I’d foolishly caught a ride here. I quickly scanned the street, and saw her unconscious form lying, half-hidden, by a pile of rubble. Oh, good. I breathed a sigh of relief, which began to condense in the air in front of my face. Wait, what? I looked down to see bands of fog wrapped around my torso and limbs, fog that suddenly snapped into ice that weighed me down and held me in place. But Fog isn’t… oh. Instance had a finger extended, pointing at me, wreathed in the same condensation. That made sense; his teammates would be the easiest source of powers to copy. Stump seemed to be holding at bay for now, and I could break out pretty easily, so I decided to go with it for now.

“Why the h*** did you do that!” Stump yelled at me over the noise of gunfire and explosions. Behind us, one of the Outliers I didn’t recognize, the one in tactical gear, was dashing around, unloading enough ammunition to level a small town, and keeping the four- no, three members of Valiant busy. I didn’t know how long they could keep that up, but if it meant I only had to deal with the two Guardians instead of all of them, then I’d take what I could get.

The way the wooden hero’s body was thrashing around made him look agitated, and I couldn’t identify where exactly in that twisting mess his voice was coming from. “You… moron!” Instance was looking at him oddly, a sentiment I agreed with.

“W-well, I'll admit it’s not the smartest thing I’ve d-done,” I said, teeth chattering slightly. I wasn’t actually too cold, it was just a combination of the mild chill and nerves. “B-but your response seems a little much?”

“A little much?!” Stump began, but Instance cut him off with an upraised hand, watching me cautiously.

“You didn’t answer the question,” he said.

Ah. He had me there, I supposed. He had seemed reasonable previously, so… I guess I’d try the truth? “P-partially, it was because of-” a loud boom sounded behind us, and a thin cloud of dust rolled over us “-w-well, because of the Outliers, but mostly it was because of them.” I couldn’t move my arms, so I tilted my head towards where Green Cloak had been lying.

Instance followed my gaze, then looked back at me. “Who?”

“W-what do you mean, who?” Straining my neck, I could just twist it far enough around to see the piece of rubble she’d been lying behind.

She wasn’t there.

“Oh, gee whiz!” I swore, instinctively going intangible and spinning around to get a better look. The dust was heavier over there, but I could tell she was definitely gone. How did these people manage to keep slipping away-

No, they hadn’t! I could barely make it out through the dust, but there was a large figure striding away from the fighting, limp forms draped over his shoulders. That had to be Metalface.

I began running after him, passing through my icy bonds without a second glance. There was a yell from behind me, something I didn’t quite catch, and then I suddenly found myself becoming heavy. Really heavy. Even though I was intangible, it didn’t seem to make a difference, and I almost lost my balance under the increased pull of gravity. But I’m a gymnast. And, more importantly, I have superpowers.

I went dense, and although my next step cracked the ground underneath it, I could move freely. Up ahead, Metalface was staring down at the ground, or something on it I couldn’t see. He leant down, and lifted up-

You have to be kidding me. It was a manhole cover. He was escaping into the sewers.

There was a flicker of brown in my peripheral vision, and when I looked, I found Stump running beside.

I yelped, and jumped to the side, but he didn’t try and grab me again. “These assholes got away from me too,” he said roughly. “I’m not going to let it happen again.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded and redoubled my pace. Unfortunately, Metalface had been too far away, and he was already disappearing down the hole, his teammates slung over his shoulders. He spotted us, and his mask shifted slightly, then he dropped out of sight, pulling the cover back behind him. As we drew close, a flare of orange-red light flared out from the edge, and when we got there a few seconds later, I could see that the edges had been melted into the concrete. He… should not have been able to do that.

“F***!” Stump swore. A multitude of strands extended from his body, digging into the edges and beginning to smoke on contact with the still-molten metal. He strained, and the cover began to move, but it was going to be a slow process.

“Catch up as quickly as you can,” I said to him. Then, before he could reply, I went intangible and jumped through the cover and down into the shaft. 

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