Chapter 68

The movie was, well, pretty much exactly as terrible as both of them had expected it to be. Unfortunately, it was also a tense affair, since as awkward as conversation between the two had been, silence turned out to be even worse. The fact that they were the only two people in the theatre certainly didn’t help things much, and by the time the credits rolled, Alice and Nicholas both breathed a sigh of slight relief to be done with it.

The parking lot was even emptier than when they’d gone in, not surprising given the late hour and the poor options available for viewing. Still, the neon glow from the marquee lit the lot well, and neither felt particularly in danger as they walked toward Alice’s car. For Nicholas, this was because he erroneously believed he still had people watching over him. For Alice, her confidence came from surviving two years in the HCP and being very sure of her own abilities. In this manner, she was not the first Super to be caught unaware and overconfident, nor would she be the last.

The slight pop of sound was all the warning they received, and it was woefully inadequate. Nicholas felt the pinch of pain in his neck, immediately recognizing the sensation as a dart entering his skin. A cold, numb sensation began to flow through his veins. He barely made it another two steps before his feet refused to respond correctly. All Nicholas could do was twist his body as he began to fall, getting line of sight on his assailant. Even though the tall form was some distance away, the glowing orange eyes gave away its identity immediately.

“Alice,” Nicholas grunted, the unknown poison making his tongue slow and heavy. “Run.”

“No, Alice, was it? I must insist that you stay.” Nathaniel’s voice rang out across the parking lot as he gracefully stepped closer. Strangely, he was dressed better than either of them, a black suit paired with an orange button-down that clashed horribly with his flickering eyes. “I think our little party just wouldn’t be the same without you.”

Alice took in the scene, the initial sense of panic and surprise quickly fading as she assessed the situation. There was a dart sticking out of Nicholas’s neck, and from the way he had fallen it appeared he was at least partially paralyzed. The young man advancing on them wore an expression of unmasked hatred, there was no question he was intent on doing Nicholas serious harm. Probably her as well, judging from his statement. Given his eyes, he was either a Super or a Powered, and not knowing his ability put her at a huge risk. On the upside, the small black gun in his hand couldn’t possibly hold more than one dart of that size at a time. It meant he’d have to reload, an opportunity she would never give him, and he’d used his first shot to take out Nicholas instead of the blonde date he surely assumed was no threat. Alice let a light smile wash over her face. He was going to regret the hell out of that decision.

“Party, huh?” Alice dropped her purse to the ground and stepped out of her heels in a practiced motion known only to debutantes and pageant queens. Her hands came up to her ears, deftly removing the modest earrings she’d selected for her night out. “What makes you think I want to party with a guy like you?”

“Given that you’re out with Nicholas, you clearly don’t have high standards,” Nathaniel rebutted. He looked over at his nemesis. “Really, Nicholas, I did warn you I was specifically here to take away everything you wanted. I give you that courtesy, then you stroll out to a nearly deserted location with such a fine-bodied harlot. It’s almost like you didn’t think I meant it.”

“Did you just fucking call me a whore?” Alice asked, an unexpected wave of anger washing over her mind.

“I actually said harlot-”

“I know what harlot means, you son of a bitch.” Alice tested her range of movement in her dress by stepping carefully back. She could use her footwork, but kicks were out of the question. That was alright, her hand-to-hand skills were likely more than adequate. She might not be allowed to use her powers, however two solid years of training and fighting had left her with plenty of mundane ass-kicking options. Then again, this fellow wasn’t under the same constraints as her.

“Hey, what’s his power?” Alice asked Nicholas, making no attempt to whisper or hide her question.

“Fear,” Nicholas wheezed out. His eyes kept scanning the area, they were the only part of him able to function with some degree of normality. Where the hell were Eliza and Jerome?

“You can stop looking for your backup,” Nathaniel told him. “I see you searching all over for them, but they were unexpectedly detained by a very inconvenient car explosion.”

Strangely, his words had a more chilling effect on Alice than Nicholas. She’d been expecting a fight, and understood this person was an asshole, but she hadn’t truly grasped what was on the line until he casually admitted to murdering people. Her anger at his words faded instantly. This wasn’t a place for petty emotions. Alice was fighting for her life. No, for both Nicholas’s and her life. It was different from every match she’d been in so far. There was no safety net, no agreed-upon rules: this was win or die. This, she realized deep down in the core of her being, was what she’d signed up for. This was what it was like to fight as a Hero.

It said volumes about the character of Alice Adair that, upon reaching a moment that had broken the will of many before her, the idea of running away never even entered her mind.

Instead, she dashed forward, quickly closing the gap between her and the assailant. She was quick, but without super-speed there was no way to be fast enough not to give him time to prepare. Nathaniel was ready when she arrived, sending a long-legged kick right for her midsection. Alice side-stepped it easily, countering with an open-palmed strike at his eye. Nathaniel dodged, barely, and still received a blow to the temple for his trouble. He darted backward quickly, faster than Alice could follow in her dress.

“You’ve got spunk,” Nathaniel complimented. “I think that’s enough of that, though.” He reached into her mind and found the biggest, oldest, fear that she had, the one that had dominated the majority of her life. With a minor exertion of will, he activated it, filling her brain with an illusion that was sure to send her into fits of terror.

To Alice, in an instant she went from fighting the orange-eyed man in the parking lot to tumbling through the air, miles above the ground and quickly dropping. It was the nightmare she’d had ever since she was a little girl: she’d floated too high and was now falling, dying the way any Powered with flight ultimately would.

Back in reality, Nathaniel felt the burst of fear come from the girl, filling him with strength and energy. He turned to Nicholas, who was clumsily clawing at the ground, trying to pull himself up.

“Let… Alice… go…”

“I highly doubt I’ll be doing anything of the sort,” Nathaniel replied, lazily ambling over to the man who’d bested him year after year for the entirety of their lives. Seeing him sprawled out helpless on the ground warmed Nathaniel with a great glow of satisfaction. He couldn’t wait to hear Nicholas begging for his life. Or, perhaps, for the life of the girl. “I think she’ll be a great addition to our evening. I must say, you do have fine taste in women. Even among the gaggles of women in Vegas, you have a knack for pulling out the most beautiful ones.”

“Vegas, huh?”

Nathaniel felt a strange prickle of worry run down his spine at the sound of the voice. He turned around to find the girl, Alice, staring at him with a dark humor in her eyes, clearly no longer bound by the illusion.

“If you’re one of his Vegas enemies, then that makes this a lot easier,” Alice said, mentally flexing her own abilities in preparation. If Nathaniel was from Vegas, then he wouldn’t be aware of the rules for the HCP, including the ones precluding the use of abilities or maintaining secret identities.

“Do not underestimate-”

“Save it,” Alice interrupted. “This fight is already over, you just don’t know it yet.”