Chapter 311

                The pain hit before Crispin ever saw his attacker. A pinch in his neck, and suddenly Crispin’s legs went out from under him as his body refused to cooperate. Slamming to the ground, he tried to force himself to stand, then to crawl, and finally to move at all. Nothing. It was like he’d suddenly been paralyzed with no warning or cause. Only when he saw the white boots and pants step into his field of view did Crispin put it together: one of the kids had found him. Apparently one with the power to somehow steal control of someone’s body.

                “I never thought it would be me. I had to come, had to, but in the back of my mind I never imagined I’d ever get the chance to lay a hand on you. Not with so many others who are so damn strong burning to bring you down.”

                Movement, not the boots, but Crispin’s own field of view was changing as he began to rise from the grass. This kid was lifting him up somehow, telekinesis seemed the likeliest explanation but didn’t account for the paralysis. From the look in this stranger’s eyes, it might not matter. Crispin had a feeling he very well might not live long enough to figure the mystery out.

                “You don’t know me, I’m sure.” Pulling away the gray mask on his head, the student revealed a plain face and brown hair, no distinguishing Super features, or really anything remarkable. “I’m not someone who stands out very often, especially when I pal around with people who are so inherently remarkable. It took me a while to get used to that. To go from being the lone Super in my town, the special one, to being just another person with abilities in a class full of those with better powers. I’m not the guy who stayed at the top of the class for years, or the woman with a mind for subtlety and a power that could bring even the mightiest to their knees, or even the son of a famed villain burdened with tremendous power. I’m just some kid who thinks he’s a Jedi. A background figure. A knockoff. But there is one thing that sets me apart.”

                Crispin was fully upright now, looking directly into those burning eyes. Naked hatred stared back at him, untainted and uncompromising. Given his past, it wasn’t the first time Crispin had seen that expression, however this was the first time he’d been completely helpless for the experience.

                “What makes me different is very simple: I hate you more than any of the others. They all lost Sasha thanks to your attack, but I failed her. My weakness, my hesitation, those are why she had to protect me. I’m the reason Sasha died. And I’ve made a certain amount of peace with that. I’ve stopped trying to summon her force ghost, at least. No amount of peace will let me forgive you, though. Or myself. One thought, and I can sever the nerves I’m pinching. Maybe even take out a more important cluster and get rid of silly little things like breathing. There are no witnesses. No one paying attention. When this ends, no one will dig too deeply upon finding your corpse. They’ll just say a prayer of thanks that you’re gone. I can kill you right here and now, with no consequences.”

                The young man was only inches away from Crispin’s face, near enough to feel the breath of his harsh words. His body still refused to twitch below the neck, whatever nerves this guy was pinching, the grip wasn’t wavering. Crispin was well and truly helpless.

                “I’ve got the means, the opportunity, and more motive than anyone could ask for.” Despite being so close, the student leaned in a few more inches, voice briefly morphing to a fierce whisper. “And I’m not going to do it. You understand that? We are better than you, Crispin. We only kill when we have to, and weak as I might be compared to the others, I still have more than enough strength to take you down alive. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how much I want it, I’m doing this the right way, because that’s what it means to be a Hero. To live up to the standard she set in front of me. You might be able to kill us, when given a whole army to wield, but you can’t drag us down, make us worthless. Turn us into something like you.”

                A wave of relief ran through Crispin’s veins. Another one of the noble sort, thank goodness. Back to jail then, under better guard no doubt, but it would still only be a matter of time until someone needed him again. Perhaps it would be the very same government that held him, faced with a threat so dire they were willing to play ball to get an amplifier’s help. When one had such an asset, using it was inevitable. At conservative estimates, he could be free in as few as-

                Crispin never heard the gunshot, the bullet had already torn through the side of his skull and let pieces of brain out to see the world. To Alex, it was almost like a magic trick. One minute he was staring at a defiant prisoner, the next he was levitating a corpse. Dropping the body, Alex spun around, ready to fight back against whoever was attacking. He’d been distracted, stupidly absorbed in his moment with Crispin and not paying enough attention to the thoughts and world around him. By the time Alex mentally found the source of the shot, the gunman was already stepping out from his hiding place among the trees.

                “Nick? How the hell are you here?”

                “A wonderful question, one that neither of us particularly has time to answer at the moment. I’m sure the others still need help, it’s a circus over there, and you’re more suited to Super combat than I.”

                It was technically true, but not nearly enough to make Alex walk away from what had just happened. “Did you shoot him?”

                “Expertly, if I do say so myself.” The gun was still in Nick’s hand, he wasn’t even trying to hide what he’d done.

                “But… why? I had him. He was captured. Crispin was going back to jail, for good this time.”

                One step at a time, being sure not to seem aggressive, Nick made his way over to look down at Crispin’s body. “I’m glad you believe that. And I’m proud of you for not killing him. Those are the sorts of things we should expect from Heroes. Taking the high road, putting justice over revenge. Despite what you may think about yourself and your place in our class, Alex, I would wager you’re going to make an excellent Hero one day. You can trust me, too, because I don’t gain anything by lying to you, so why would I waste the effort?”

                “If you think all of that, then why did you just murder Crispin in cold blood?” Alex demanded.

                At last, Nick turned from the cooling body, his sunglasses pointing directly at Alex. “Because unlike you, I am not a Hero. I’m not bound by the trust of society or the expectations of my peers. I’m the same thing I’ve always been: a bad man who looks after his own interests first and foremost. The thing is, my friends have become part of my own interests, and this scum tried to take them away with that attack on Lander. Do you know what happens to people who try to steal from a child of Vegas?”

                Nick didn’t wait for an answer, instead he dropped to a squat and pressed the gun to the front of Crispin’s head. “Exactly what you just saw.” Another shot rang out, and then two more. “Just in case he’s got some amplified healer waiting in the wings. Never do things by half-measures, especially killing. A lesson from my aunt that I long ago took to heart.”

                The strangest part of this was that despite probing as deep as he could, Alex couldn’t feel any of the emotions he was expecting in Nick. No anger, no hatred, not even worry or fear. This was entirely mundane to him, a simple task to be carried out, like throwing trash in a dumpster. For the first time, he really understood why the HCP had kicked Nick out so readily when all he’d been doing was helping a friend. It wasn’t that action alone, it was the readiness and ease with which Nick had undertaken it. He was a man who could, and would, do anything to see his goals accomplished, and while that certainly made him effective and terrifying, no one with that mindset should be trusted to hold the mantle of a  Hero.

                “I have to tell people about this. You know that, right? I can’t just let you kill someone and walk away.” Alex was tense, ready to strike if Nick turned that gun toward him.

                “By all means, tell whoever you like. I’ll tell them I saw him preparing to catch you off-guard and acted quickly to save your life. It’s unlikely anyone will believe me, but there’s even less of a chance they’ll care. At worst, I expect a slap on the wrist, and more likely I’ll get a parade in my honor. So relax, Alex. I’m not going to hurt you. Go back and help the others.”

                To prove his point, Nick tucked the gun in the back of his pants, holding up both hands to show he was now unarmed. Without turning, he began to back away, fading into the trees. “And if you need me, today, tomorrow, at any point down the line, I’ll be here. Waiting in the shadows.”