345 Days Ago
“So… you’re Whiplash.” I said, rather unnecessarily as the two of us walked through that empty field. It was all I could think of to say after the several minutes of silence that had followed my decision to believe what she had said about not being in control of herself when Paragon had died.
Gesmine looked at the ground for another moment, watching as both sets of our feet picked their way through the weeds and overgrown grass. “Yeah,” she finally said. “That’s me.” There was another moment of silence, and then she shook her head. “Listen, I knew you’d want me to tell you, but–”
I interrupted, “For my own protection, villains going after the friends of the hero, yada yada, I know. I kinda went through all this in my head a while ago, in between all the freaking about… about Paragon.”
She winced, stooping to pick up a small rock which she chucked ahead of us. “I knew something was up. I thought you saw whoever killed him, and you were just afraid to tell anyone. When I saw you the other day and you were acting weird, I thought you’d come to talk to me about it but changed your mind. I didn’t know how to help you without revealing myself, if you didn’t already know about me. ”
“So you really don’t remember what happened?” I asked slowly. “Any of that?”
Her head shook. “Nothing. I mean, now that I think about it, it’s a blank but when I was thinking about it before, about where I was while he was dying, I just kept thinking that I was looking for him. I was looking for him and then he was dead.” Gesmine hesitated again, and when she finally spoke, her voice was wary. “I… I really killed him?”
“No.” I state flatly. I reached out and took my friend’s hand, squeezing firmly. “It wasn’t you. It was that thing, whatever it is. God, Ges, you have no idea how many questions I have.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a few too.” Ges responded dryly. “Starting with, how did you end up with Paragon’s power?”
“Well, it’s not all his power.” I quickly said. “I mean, I’m not flying around or anything. It’s just sort of… skills that other people know.” I explained what had happened with the knife, what the possessed her had said about Paragon’s power being hers, all of it. Actually, it felt like an enormous relief to actually be able to talk to someone else about all of this.
“He mentioned that.” Gesmine murmured. “That he could use other people’s skills, I mean. I wonder why you only got part of his power.”
“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m still kind of stuck on why I got any of it at all. But it’s good to know one of us has jumped ahead in the line of a thousand and one w t f’s.”
Her shoulders shrugged. “Well of course we have to figure that out too. But my point is, where did the rest of that power go?”
The question made me wince as I offered, “Maybe it went into that oil monster thing that was possessing you? What the hell is that thing?”
Ges let out a long sigh. “That’s kind of a long story. Come on, let’s walk and talk without all that tension between us.”
That reminded me. “I know why I was so nervous, but why were you acting all tense and strange if you didn’t have anything to do with Paragon’s death? You didn’t even remember being there. And why did you mouth that bit about how I was there if you didn’t remember it yourself?”
She turned to walk while answering. “I did remember being there. I mean, to my memory I just ran up and saw him falling. The… creature has a way of adjusting the memories of the people it was in. And I knew my mask was off, so I kind of put it together that you had seen me and that was why you were acting all jumpy and weird. That and I figured you knew something about Paragon and didn’t know who to tell.”
“Well you’ve got that right.” I muttered while falling into step beside her. “Who could I possibly talk to about this?”
Her hip bumped against mine. “You mean besides me?”
“Until you.” I corrected, bumping her back. “But what about your house?” I explained what had happened, that I had called the police and that both the old man and the bad guy had been gone when I got there, with no sign that the cops ever showed up.
Ges sighed a little. “Sorry about that. See, the Society monitors any emergency call involving a member’s home. A clean up team came to take care of things, but you were already gone, and so was that guy you knocked out.”
“And Mr. Vames?” I asked. “Why was he involved in what they were looking for in your house? And for that matter, what were they looking for?”
“I have no idea.” She shrugged. “And Potter Vames, his uhh, he’s sort of the one who introduced me to the Society of Light in the first place. His son was a member and no I’m not going to say which one. That’s his privacy. But he’s sort of an honorary friend of the Society. I guess someone else found out. He was still there when the clean-up team showed up, and he’s been moved now, to a safe place. With his granddaughter, of course.”
I nodded slowly, taking in the answers to things that had bothered me for so long. “Now tell me about this monster.”
Ges was quiet for a moment, until we reached the edge of the field and began to walk along the road that led up behind the mall. We walked in silence, watching a lone car until it had passed us and turned a corner. When she spoke, her voice was a little shaky. “No one knows where it came from. They call it a Drude.”
I blinked and looked at her. “A druid?”
“No.” Her head shook. “A Drude.” She spelled it. “It’s like a German nightmare spirit or something. That’s just what Augurist calls it.”
That time I couldn’t help but laugh incredulously. “You know, it’s gonna take a while to get used to you talking about people like the world’s most powerful wizard like they’re your friends.”
“They are.” She pointed out before going on. “Anyway, he calls it a Drude, so that’s what the rest of us call it.”
“Fair enough,” I decided before nodding. “Okay, so this ‘Drude’. What do you know about it?”
“Not a lot.” Gesmine admitted. “Augurist is really the one you want to talk to about the details. Mostly I can tell you that we don’t know where it came from. We think it started back when… well, you remember Critter?”
After blinking at the question, I gave a short nod. “Uh, of course. He’s the animal shapeshifter who went nuts a few months ago, pretty much right after he joined the Society of Light. Everyone said that he couldn’t handle the pressure. I don’t–” Then I got it. “Wait, you’re saying he was taken over by this Drude?”
Ges bowed her head and stopped walking. “His real name was Kyle. He wasn’t a bad person, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We think he somehow released the Drude from one of the artifacts that we keep in the Citadel.”
“How could that happen?” I had to ask. “I mean, if you guys, if they had some artifact with this horrible, evil spirit inside it…”
“They didn’t know.” She quickly explained. “They had no idea that the Drude was hiding in one of them, waiting for someone to touch it. And now it’s loose and somehow, it gains the powers of anyone it kills. That’s how Revver and Dynamo died.”
“That’s…” I swallowed. “That’s horrible. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t even… wait…” I frowned. “No, it was the knife.”
Ges blinked at that. “The knife? You mean the one that I–that it used…”
I nodded. “I heard you–I mean it–I mean, you-possessed-by-it, saying that the knife it was using was magic, that it would steal his power.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Gesmine finally let out a sigh. “Well maybe that’s what they were looking for in my house…” Her mouth twisted into a frown. “That just proves how little we actually know about it. The others are going to have to know about that. Maybe it’ll give someone an idea.”
“Either way, built in ability or magic blade, how did I end up with the powers instead of this Drude, then?” I had to put voice to the question that had bothered me for a long time now.
Her head shook. “I have no idea. We’re going to have to ask Kristof.” At my blank look, she winced. “I mean Augurist, sorry.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay. He looks like a Kristof.”
Gesmine nodded, a tiny smile playing across her face. “It’s the goatee.”
“Definitely the goatee.” I agreed. We both smiled, and it was one of those moments that seems to last forever. Or at least, that you never want to end.
Eventually, however, I had to speak, and break that brief spell. “I’m not sure I want to let this Kristof know who I am. Which, I know, pretty much redefines unfair since I just called him by his real name. But you know, I… after everything that happened, we still don’t know who we can trust.”
“You can trust Kristof.” Gesmine said before raising a hand. “But I get it, I understand. Believe it or not, we do know something about keeping secret identities. Sometimes even from each other.”
“I guess you do.” I admitted with a slight chuckle. “But you really think we can keep my identity private from someone who uses actual magic?”
Ges’s head shook immediately. “If he tried to learn it, absolutely not.” Her look softened, and she reached out to take my hand. “But he won’t. He won’t try to see past the mask if you ask him not to. You can trust that.”
I let her take my hand, smiling a little before blinking. “Wait, what mask?”
An hour later, I was staring at myself in the mirror at Gesmine’s house. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into putting this on.”
My friend rolled her eyes. “Oh, listen to this crap. Keep talking like you haven’t been waiting your whole life to put on an actual, real super costume. You forget, Savvy, I know you.”
Her words made me blush and I waved a hand vaguely. “That was… before. I was an idiot. I was stupid, and selfish, and because of me–”
Her hand came out and smacked my shoulder. “Savannah Crest, you knock that off right now. Yes, you made mistakes. Yes, you were obsessed. But what happened to Paragon was not your fault. It wasn’t. If he hadn’t been drawn away by you, something else would have pulled him away. Trust me; the bad guys are bad enough without you blaming yourself. If it wasn’t you, the Drude would have jumped on another opportunity.”
“But it was me.” I replied, my own voice soft. “Don’t hit me again. I know it wasn’t entirely my fault. I know it wasn’t my choice, and I know I’m not the one that killed him. But my choice or not, my action or not, I contributed to what happened, and that’s not something I can just forget about.”
“So don’t forget about it.” She told me, the quiet seriousness of her tone matching my own. “Use it. All of us have reasons that we use to inspire us to greater things, Savvy. Not just vigilantes, but everyone who puts it on the line to help people who don’t have as many advantages. Use it, but don’t let it use you. Don’t let your guilt take over your life.”
“Besides,” Ges added after a moment. “You look good.”
I looked at myself again. Gesmine had given me what she called one of her ‘old speed suits’. To begin with, it was a one piece body suit that zipped up in the back with a tiny, nearly invisible zipper. Once it was zipped all the way up, a second zipper, horizontal this time, wound from the left shoulder all way to the right, sealing the first zipper out of sight behind another piece of the suit and making it impossible to simply grab and rip down.
There was also a mask involved, just as Gesmine had promised. The back of the mask was literally attached to the back collar of the suit, so when it was off, it hung like a hoody. Then it could be pulled up and over the head, all the way down as a full face mask, which itself was secured with another tiny zipper in the front.
In all honesty, it was kind of a pain in the ass to put on correctly, but whoever had made it had definitely gone out of their way to make it difficult to simply have it taken away.
Color wise, the suit had a black and gold scheme going. The base of the suit and mask themselves was black. The mask then had these gold lines that each began on either side of the top of the head and circled down over the eyes before going back, like a C and a, well, backward C. Those lines continued down over the shoulders of the suit itself, one widening to flare out almost like a flickering flame on the right hand side so that the gold took up most of the lower right, with only specks of black in that area until it reached the legs of the suit, where black returned with only small dots of gold, as though the previously stated ‘flames’ were giving off sparks.
Meanwhile, the other gold line stayed thin and small, accenting the black on the opposite side until it reached the other leg, at which point it too flared out into a gold flame that took up most of the leg.
The suit had feet built in like those old kiddy footy pajamas, though standing in them felt as though I was wearing a good, comfortable pair of tennis shoes. They were also black like most of the suit, with gold highlights and soles.
“And you just happened to have this lying around.” I smirked a little, keeping the mask down in hoody form for the moment.
“Like I said,” Ges paced around me as though making certain that it was fitting properly. “I used it for training until it stopped fitting.”
That confused me. “It stopped fitting? Haven’t you been the same height since we were in like, eighth grade?” And yet, she was still taller than me. Gesmine had grown up quickly. She’d practically been a giant to the rest of us for a couple years there before she stopped growing and we caught up. Now we were both around average height, even if she did still have a couple of inches on me.
Gesmine shifted her weight and looked a little embarrassed. “Yes, I stopped getting taller.”
“So what do you mean it stopped fitting?” I started to ask. “You’re just as thin as I am. I mean, in shape, and I guess I know why now, but you’re not…”
My friend gave me a meaningful stare. She was openly blushing now, and spoke through gritted. “You know, something else grew in the last couple years?”
“Something el–” I got it then, and my face grew red. “Oh.” I looked down at myself and groaned. “Ohhh. Right, so I’m wearing your pre-puberty suit. Now I feel great.”
Laughing, Ges shook her head. “You’re fine, Savvy. And you make that suit look better than I did.”
“What I don’t get,” I said in an attempt to change the subject. “Is why I even need to wear the whole thing. I mean, the mask I get, to hide who I am from Augurist so we can talk to him. But the rest of it?”
She shrugged. “Well, you kinda need the protection of the suit if we’re going to run there. Kristof lives across the country, so unless you want your clothes to turn into rags by the time we get there, you’re gonna have to wear something that’s going to be in one piece after we get up to the speed we need.”
That made me blink. “Wait, run there? I don’t know if you noticed, but you’re the only one of us with super speed powers. What, are you gonna carry me?”
Chuckling, Ges shook her head. “No, but if I hold your hand, I can pass my speed powers to you so that you can keep up. It’s like in those old shows or whatever where Superman could make someone fly next to him just by holding their hand.”
“So… I’ll be able to move as fast as you…” I tried to take that in. The idea was amazing, and made me realize just how many questions I had for her. “You know I have to ask how all this happened. How you got to be so fast, I mean. And all the rest of the stuff about you being a… a hero.”
Gesmine’s smile grew. “And I’ll answer your questions. All of them. But right now, let’s find out what Kristof knows.”
She led me into the backyard, and we passed the spot where we had carved the initials of our crushes into the wood. “So, MFH, one of these heroes you hang out with?”
She blushed once more. “That, right there, is one question I’m not answering now.”
“Ooh, now I’m even more curious.” I teased. It felt good.
Gesmine changed the subject. “We’re running. Here’s how this’ll work. We hold hands. I’m going to start at a jog, just a normal human jog, and then gradually work up. Eventually you’ll be going faster than any jet. It’s sort of like letting a frog boil. Just, with less horrible death involved. Trust me.”
This time, I didn’t hesitate. “I do.”
She pulled her own green and black mask up and on, securing it carefully, and then I did the same with the one she had loaned me. Rather than simple holes for the eyes, the mask had a couple of lenses, colored gold to go with the accompanying accent lines, which Ges had told me both amplified low light and dampened intense brightness.
We looked at each other for a moment like that, and I couldn’t help but remember the time we had both gone trick or treating as Ninja Turtles. Clearly, life had taken a turn into the absurd since then.
“Okay, Raph.” Gesmine said, clearly thinking of the same memory. “Let’s do this.” She held her hand up and I took it.
As promised, we started by trotting at an easy pace. I held my friend’s hand tightly, not wanting to lose my grip and end up plummeting back down to normal human pace once we got up into the kind of speeds Ges was capable of.
That trot slowly turned into a jog, then a run as we headed from Ges’s backyard into the alley behind her house, scaring a couple of stray cats on the way.
By the time we reached the road, the two of us were moving so fast, my legs pumping beneath me to keep up with the other girl’s, that we passed a car that was doing forty like it was standing still.
Actually, at that point, everything looked like it was standing still. I saw people start to turn as though to look at us, but we were going so quickly by then that it was as though they were moving in slow motion. We were there, then past them and gone by the time they started to react.
Faster, even faster, we kept moving. We were running so quickly that, as Gesmine hung a left and took us up onto a freeway, the two of us were able to run around and between the cars exactly as though they were standing still, in spite of the fact that most were nearing triple digit speed numbers.
And yet, our speed kept increasing. Within a minute of reaching the freeway, I saw a sign announcing that the exit for a town that was an hour’s drive in good traffic was coming up.
We blew past the exit and kept gaining speed. We ran around a traffic jam that had built up around an accident, Ges slowing just enough to assure herself that everything was in hand, then kicked it up another notch.
I could see a cup of soda that someone was tossing out of their car. It was clearly tumbling end over end and spraying liquid as it fell, but from my point of view, it looked like a frozen explosion of cola in midair. Somehow, I was both moving faster than anything possibly should have been able to, while still seeing and comprehending everything else as though they were actually moving slowly.
It was, singularly, the most amazing experience I had ever had up to that point, and, to this day, remains a highlight of my life.
When Ges finally signaled a slowdown, we stopped just behind an old truck stop. I bent over to grab my knees, panting. “That, that was amazing. That was… incredible. That was… that was awesome.” I managed to get out while panting. “Where are we?”
“Near Kristof’s house.” She answered. “You know, in Oregon.”
My eyes widened, and I sputtered, “Oregon?” Then I looked at the time that was displayed on the nearby freeway sign. It was… I took a moment to do the mental math. If we had started out in the Eastern time zone, and we were now on the Pacific time zone, it was… roughly an hour later. It had taken an hour to cross from one side of the country to the opposite side. I didn’t even know what kind of speed that was. That was something like two thousand miles an hour.
“That’s amazing!” I repeated my earlier statement, shouting it this time.
Gesmine laughed and covered my mouth through the mask with her hand. “Shh, yeah, you’re pretty damn awesome already.”
“Me?” I shook my head. “Sorry, Ges, that was all you. I was just along for the ride.”
My friend’s smile turned sly. “Nah, it really wasn’t.”
I frowned at that, confused. “What are you talking about?”
She shrugged. “I was kind of lying.”
“About… what?” I asked, uncertainly.
“I can’t really share my speed just by holding your hand, Savannah.” She said softly. “I just wanted you to think that I could so that you wouldn’t realize what you were you doing, so that you’d do it without overthinking it. You were borrowing my speed yourself, just like you do when you borrow someone’s skill. You were using my superpower.”
“You were wrong. You can use other people’s powers, just like Paragon.”