Shane felt the hot pain carve its way through his leg before he even registered the loud cracking sound of the gun firing. He fell against the soft grass, already too aware of the footsteps racing toward him. Stupid. It had been stupid to try and cross this open area. It had been stupid to split up from Chad so his friend could run a group to the base. It had been stupid to do a perimeter sweep alone. He knew better than that, had been trained better than that, but it didn’t save him from making key mistakes in the heat of actual conflict. Now, he was going to pay for those mistakes, unless he acted quickly.
Flipping onto his back, Shane was momentarily knocked dizzy by the movement and blood loss. He could see the three men coming, dressed in the same combat gear as every other squad he’d managed to avoid so far. There was no avoiding these three. Their weapons were trained on him; it was clear they were lining up their shots. If he hurried, if he was precise and quick, he could cut them all down. There would be no time for wounding, however. Shane had to kill them. He had to cut their lives away with their flesh, and as he tried to focus, that thought kept bounding back to the front of his mind. He’d never killed before, and as he looked at their approaching forms, Shane DeSoto did something he’d never done before. Shane hesitated.
It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Even as he tried to refocus, Shane knew it was pointless. The bullets would shred him long before he could counterattack. All that was left was to wait for the inevitable.
This time, he heard the bullets before he felt them; chiefly because they never hit Shane at all. Instead, they ricocheted off a golden wall that had suddenly materialized in front of him. At a single glance, he knew who had created it. Save only for its owner, there was no one in the world more familiar with the golden metal than Shane. He’d been fighting against it for as long as he could remember.
As the sound of bullets died away, Shane realized he could make out the noises of a battle taking place on the other side of the wall. It wasn’t what he was accustomed to hearing, though. Rather than the soft slaps and ruffles of blows striking flesh or clothes, Shane heard a cacophony of light-whistles, painful screams, and wet sloshes. He tried to pull himself up to look, but his leg refused to bear his weight and the wall blocked his view even as it protected him. Then, with one last sound of something crashing to the ground—and splashing into a puddle by the sounds of it—the fight was over. The golden wall disappeared, revealing Angela in her usual suit of Sunlight Steel armor.
He was glad to see her, not to mention relieved that he was no longer about to die. She shone under the stars, a pillar of power and protection. For a moment, all Shane felt was thankfulness, relief, and joy. That wonderful moment marked the last time he would ever see his sister in exactly that way, and it ended as his gaze continued downward to find the bodies of his attackers. Or, rather, the pieces of them he could still recognize as human.
Shane was barely able to get his stomach facing the ground before the first wave of vomit escaped. It stung as it left him, burning along with the tears that were pouring unbidden from his eyes. He’d always known the duty of a Hero. He’d always been perfectly aware of what he was training for. But to know it and to see it scattered in the grass, bits of blood and sinew still clinging to her golden weapons . . . that was a whole other beast.
“Shhhh. It’s okay.”
Angela was standing over him, gently stroking his back as his vomiting turned to dry heaving and slowly began to die off altogether. He braced for the joke, for her teasing, but neither came. She just stood over him, offering comfort and keeping him safe.
“I’m . . . fine,” Shane managed to grunt out at last. He began to pull himself up, but the fierce, shooting pain in his leg made it clear just how not fine he was.
“Like hell you are. A few inches over, and they’d have hit your femoral artery. As it is, we need to get you underground and to a healer.”
Shane let out a soft snort. “I don’t think I’m walking anywhere.”
“I wasn’t going to ask you to.” Shane felt a massive hand close around him, completely enveloping his torso. He glanced down to find a giant golden gauntlet hovering in the air as it hefted him upward, Angela standing a few feet away and presumably guiding the process. “Don’t worry, little brother. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Thank you,” Shane said. He felt worthless, ashamed, and defeated as he floated along next to his sister. She hadn’t hesitated, not even for a moment. She’d seen what needed doing and had acted without a second’s thought. For the first time in all of his years trying to catch her, Shane finally understood how different they truly were. “Not just for the lift, for saving me too. I . . . I should have been able to handle them, but . . .”
“Shane, I’m going to tell you something that I’ve known for a long time. The gods played a very cruel prank when they made you, little brother, because they took one of the most murderous powers I’ve ever seen and gave it to a boy with an impossibly kind heart. Don’t apologize for not wanting to take a life, and don’t you dare feel bad for it. Killing isn’t supposed to be easy. You’re not the one who is messed up here.”
“I’m not that kind. All I do is train and practice. I’m not even like Chad, who spends his time helping others improve. The only thing I’ve ever focused on is getting stronger,” Shane admitted.
“We grew up in a house full of Heroes. And we saw so many of them fall. There were only two conclusions we could reach in that sort of environment: either to not be Heroes, or to be as powerful as possible so that we could live a little longer,” Angela replied. “You’ve known the score since you were a child, Shane. Them, or us. On the battlefield, that’s how it is, and we’ve seen the headstones to prove it. You’ve had all that drilled into you for so long, and yet you still train in non-lethal combat. When the time comes to kill, you look for another way. That’s how I know you have a kind heart. Because a normal person can’t hold on to that goodness while living in our kind of world. It breaks them inside, takes away the little morality checks that keep us human. It turns them into someone like me.”
“Don’t.” Angela shook her head, causing a metallic rattle through her armor. “We both know I’m fucked up. I made my peace with that a long time ago. But I’m glad you’re not like me, little brother. Hell, I’m proud you’re not like me.”
They walked (well, floated in Shane’s case) in silence for a few moments, save for the far-off sounds of gunshots on occasion.
“Charon,” Shane said finally.
“What did you call . . . Sharon died a long time ago, Shane. Are you getting confused from blood loss?” Angela picked up the pace, and Shane felt himself being jostled about.
“No, stop! I mean, slow down.” The hand dropped to a slower pace, and Shane found himself grateful that he’d already spent all of his stomach’s contents on the grass. “I said ‘Charon.’ It’s the name of the ferryman in Greek literature who brings people across the river Styx. One who ushers in the dead, if you will. I was planning on using it as my Hero name, you know, to fit my creepy shadow-cutting vibe, but honestly, I don’t think it would fit anymore. You’ve had trouble thinking up a Hero name, right? Well, you can have that one.”
Angela tilted her armored head as she considered the offer. “Charon, huh? I’m fond of the name, obviously, but for a Hero it sounds kind of mundane.”
“Yet you are anything but.”
“But they won’t know that, at least not at first. Still, I do like that bringer-of-death thing. Plus, it’s a gift from my dear little brother, and a reminder of one we lost. All right, I’ll take it. Thanks.”
“It is, sadly, the least I can do.”
“Chin up,” Angela said. “We’re almost to a lift, and once you’re patched up, we’ll get you back up here and in the fight. Only, this time, you’ll have a partner.”