Dawn had barely broken and already a throng of petitioners stretched from Chevalier’s office to the elevator. I’m sure if they could, they’d have been waiting in there as well. Though I hadn’t come to recognize all the faces, the general groups that came requesting aid were familiar to me by this point. Men, fresh off neighborhood watch committees, come to plead for help with villains or vandals. Government employees —insomuch as there was a government— tasked with the impossible and hoping for assistance through either protection or supplies. Parahumans here to beg reassignment or Warden backing. All being ushered around and accounted for by whatever employees they could spare from other divisions or, more commonly, the front desk.
The most powerful man in the world, and he still didn’t have his own secretary.
It seemed my reputation preceded me. They parted around me like a shark among minnows. Worried looks and bowed heads were much more tolerable than false smiles and pity. Even conversation stopped when they realized I was within earshot. I strode purposefully, using my height to ensure I wouldn’t be impeded. Capes with strength, durability, and flight were common enough to get a nickname, Athenians — named after Athena, the first cape to show these powers.
I was a tad stronger than the average one.
The Warden employees only spared me glances before getting back to their work. Two heavily armored men blocked the entrance to the waiting room. Remnants of the Dragon’s Teeth, a military group equipped with tinkertech that had been integrated during the creation of the Wardens. Only a nod before I was allowed to pass through.
The men in the lobby came begging for time. I was expected.
Through a window I could spy a woman, wings stretched wide behind her, stepping lightly around a chair. It couldn’t be anyone but Valkyrie. A child sat before her, commanding the full attention of her and Chevalier. I had been running through books on body language, using my powers to get a better handle on reading people. It looked like they were nervous. I gave two sharp knocks on the door, catching their eyes and receiving a nod. They should be wrapped up shortly. Chevalier knew better than to waste my time.
The room was remarkably bare for the leader of the Wardens. No matter how beautiful the stonework was, there wasn’t a chair to be found nor even the common houseplant or end table to spruce up the space. Perhaps when things weren’t so dire, we could have the chance to focus on adding a bit of beauty. Not that the Warden’s tower had come up lacking. The parahuman who had sculpted this base had done a marvelous job in her work. There was something to be said for dark stone and gold. I had spent more than enough of my life looking at white, featureless walls.
A window on the far wall faced downtown. From here, with the sun behind it, the city practically glowed. The entire downtown was cast in golden hues, reflective glass shining from the sun and brass signs gleaming in the light. A stray thought hit me, a book from my time in the hospital. Maggie Holt had found strength in goblins, the creatures that had killed her parents. Why couldn’t we similarly find strength in what hurt us? Scion tried his best, but he couldn’t take our sunshine.
I idly ran a finger across three furrows carved into my upper arm. Gold Morning had been my first fight and all I had been was a distraction. A momentary effort to bide time while bigger players were positioned. Under someone else’s will, I had thrown myself into battle countless times with nary an effect on the golden man. Brute force wouldn’t win the day, so my only use was as a sacrifice.
I had been closer than maybe any other person. Thrown time and time again to the front lines due to the nature of my powers. I had suffered strikes and shots that would have torn apart others without even the barest feeling. Towards the end, he finally made his move. I had been pulled back, another swap for a tinker group to try something, but Scion hadn’t meant to let me go. He lunged for my arm but only grazed it. Golden fingers slid through skin like soft butter and it was only the mad rush that followed that saved my life.
I didn’t like to imagine what would have happened if he had caught hold.
It hadn’t healed and likely never would. My only injury. I shifted the golden badge I wore over the wounds and tied it tight to hold it in place.
The door behind me opened and I turned to watch Valkyrie go. She smiled at me and made her exit, the petitioners giving her a much wider berth than myself. Chevalier appeared worn down, his shoulders hunched and body posture guarded. The child remained in the chair and I watched her as I took a standing position by Chevalier’s desk.
She watched the both of us with the indifference of a kid at the company barbeque. Her blond hair was cut short and she was wearing the sterile cotton shirt and pants combo that were standard in the medical ward. She still hadn’t lost any baby fat and I would be shocked if she was a month over ten years old
“Rebecca, thank you for coming on such short notice.”
He had taken the few seconds between meetings to start jotting down notes from his discussion with Valkyrie and added them to the stacks of paperwork lining his desk. From a momentary glance, I saw it ran through lists of discussions about the nature of powers and possible counters. I attempted to keep my focus on Chevalier’s face, to give his documents some degree of privacy.
“It seemed urgent.”
From his shoulders to his hands, every part of the man looked tense. Dark circles ran around his eyes and he was trying to project a calm visage that would have worked on anyone else. Chevalier was a man with the world on his shoulders. He was currently the one thing holding together every single free world that capes occupied and would likely retain that role until the current elections were finished running. “It is, more than you could possibly imagine.”
His eyes glanced back at the girl. She had begun to ignore us entirely, humming a song I didn’t recognize. To my eyes, she looked like the typical refugee fresh from the portal, though perhaps without the normal layer of fear. He saw the question in my eyes.
“We found her during one of the routine searches on Bet. An incursion on an expansion point for the Machine Army. A bit too close to some leftover tinkertech for anyone’s comfort.”
I had seen enough fighting on that front. The machine army, Nilbog’s children, it seemed there was a never-ending supply of monsters running rampant through what remained of the States on Earth Bet. Survivors clung to what few enclaves were left, either well protected or rural enough to escape the notice of the more dangerous groups, but time was ticking down till even they were routed. The consensus was firm, Bet was lost and the only thing left to do was evacuate.
“She was found in the burned-out husk of a factory. No family, not a human in sight. Narwhal found her and brought her back here, though she didn’t go easily. She fought her the whole way back and nearly slipped the noose.”
I could read between the lines on that comment. I had gone on patrol a few times with the Canadian hero. She was one of the few people brave enough to spar with me during our downtime. There was not a child in this world or any other who could manage to do one over on that woman.
“A new trigger?” I asked.
“No, not exactly, though that’s what we initially thought. There were just inconsistencies, a few things that struck a chord when they were observed. It’s why I requested Valkyrie’s presence before you came. I needed her to confirm it for me. Of course, none of this leaves this room.”
The little girl began kicking her feet, a sign of restlessness. Considering how long she must have been stuck in here with Valkyrie and my meetings, it was only logical she’d be growing anxious. Much like Chevalier, who seemed to grow more uncomfortable the closer he got to the point. I could feel his foot bouncing behind his desk.
“She has the same agent as Eidolon.”
Concern rushed through me and I pushed it away as quickly as I could. Everyone with the clout had heard the rumors about Eidolon following his untimely death during Gold Morning. Fears about the Endbringers had been kicking around for as long as I had been alive. I had never gotten the chance to meet the man during the fights, but the thought of a child possibly bringing about threats as large as them was beyond worrying.
But I wouldn’t be here without a purpose, so I began testing the waters.
“I don’t believe I remember Eidolon being ten years old, or a girl,” I commented.
Chevalier was rubbing at his forehead as he spoke. “We’re still working out the reasoning, but at the moment we only have guesses. I have a meeting scheduled with Riley later just to discuss ideas. We’ve already put together a few hypotheses and none of them are good enough. Not with these stakes on the line.”
I was already running through the possibilities myself. A remnant from Eidolon’s destruction? An ability used before death that had managed to save him? A clone by some hostile group? A new child who had been able to trigger with Eidolon’s powers? Was it even possible for the same shards to trigger multiple times with no clear connection?
Many possibilities, but only one thought came to mind.
“If times are as grave as you imply, you’re going to need to speak to them,” I said.
Though I wouldn’t have considered it possible before, Chevalier looked even more uncomfortable. I didn’t need to explain who “they” were, which meant he had already come to that conclusion himself. “I don’t feel comfortable running off to Cauldron at the first sight of trouble. The Keepers suffered enough from the revelations of their involvement on nearly every level. I don’t intend to sour the goodwill we have with our current roster by going to them for something that may be a simple bud.”
“But if it is something important? There aren’t any groups with a better grasp of agents and how they work. I’d prefer to have their view on this rather than hoping we aren’t missing anything.”
Chevalier sighed. “I’ll take it into consideration. Your thoughts are appreciated, but not entirely why I asked for you.”
One look at the child and another at him. “You’re putting me on babysitting duty?”
“I’d hope that you don’t think of it like that, but in essence, yes. Until I’m sure what is going on I’d like to have someone who will be able to deal with any threats towards her.”
He started rummaging through stacks of paperwork as I stepped back to stand behind the child’s chair. She looked up at me with a scowl on her face and I gave a dispassionate look from behind my visor. I had never been good with children and could already imagine all the ways that this would go poorly. Chevalier finally extracted a slip of paper and thrust it at me. I snatched it out of the air but had already read through the words with just a glance. It was the transfer request I had submitted exactly one week ago.
“You’re bored of clean-up duty.” His voice was jovial but he wasn’t asking.
“I could spend the next few months unraveling the twisted knot of Earth Bet’s issues. Breaking the Machine Army’s lairs, destroying Nilbog’s children, tearing apart the villainous organizations crazy enough to keep operating there. But it would all be in service of a dying world. My talents are better suited to dealing with issues here. There are plenty of Athenians, but what sets me apart is my mind. Using me to clear out convenience stores of robots is an utter waste. I would like to start working in the city, combating villains.”
“We’re still in a truce,” Chevalier countered.
“You and I both know that isn’t going to hold for much longer.”
“We’re already hearing rumors,” he admitted. “Many more villains were killed during Gold Morning than heroes, and groups are starting to whisper foul play. No one is sure what happened to Sovereign and in lieu of her, I’m afraid that anger is going to turn to us. With winter approaching soon our thinkers are already predicting rationing and recruitment by gangs. If a powerful group managed to get a strong foothold here, I’m not sure what it would take to rip them out.”
I stood a little straighter and floated a bit off the ground. “Then I will be there to meet them.”
Chevalier smiled. “I’m happy to hear that. I’ll be assigning you a team. You’ll be meeting them on the roof this afternoon. Think of protecting her as your first assignment. Though, for the moment, she’s unofficially just another member of your group.”
Left unsaid was until they figured out what to do with her.
I gave a nod, taking the young Eidolon’s hand and leading her towards the doorway.
“Oh, and Rebecca?”
I paused at the threshold shooting a glance back towards Chevalier.
“Have you decided on a name yet?”
The sun from the window poured over my back, casting my face into shadows. I took the visor from my head to look him in the eye. A name hadn’t ever been important, there were always other issues arising. Fights, meetings, data to pour through. However, flying across America gave you a lot of time to think. I needed a name that didn’t let me fall back into the interchangeable mass of brutes. I rose a little off the ground, gaining a scant few inches, before responding.
“Call me Alexandria.”
The top of the Warden tower was always busy with the coming and goings of flying capes flitting about, but it was the only place you could get a full view of the city. It had been the first building to be created and the tallest by far. A sign of the Warden’s might in this new world. It stood metaphorically as a testament to our victory in Gold Morning, more literally over downtown. It was close enough to the portal network to react quickly in case of crisis and far enough away to not seem overbearing. I could already see in the coming years it would be a bit of a tourist trap.
From there downtown continued, branching out into several different districts. A growing residential area sprawled west, followed by suburbs and some higher-end housing. All so normal, like it had been plucked from any town in America and dropped here. North of that lay the Living Forest, a part-housing, part-orchard innercity jungle, engineered in a joint effort between a biotinker named Blasto and a biokinetic specializing in plants. Already they were working on a mushroom network that they promised would be able to transmit internet connections, gaining back more precious infrastructure.
To the east, across the river, came manufacturing sites and Tent City, the aptly named processing area for fresh refugees. The stacks loomed north of that, massive block apartments set into the surrounding forest. They had been created by Agnes Court, a parahuman stuck on community service for breaking the truce, to whom we also owed downtown and the Warden headquarters.
Just to the west of that and almost directly across the river from us lay Tinker Town. Large groups of tinkers previously employed by the Keepers, Toybox, and even villain gangs had remained after Gold Morning. All leftover and grouped up from their efforts to build the device that felled Scion. Many lines had blurred and fallen after that, but, to this day, the settlement wasn’t viewed well. It was seen in much the same way as having a lit stick of dynamite in your backyard. Kept far enough away to avoid any casualties but near enough to watch for issues when it inevitably blew up. It was where some of the smartest minds worked tirelessly to develop new technologies. All in a race to help save what little remained of humanity.
I’d spent most of my teenage life doing this, staring out at the Los Angeles skyline and hoping for something different, something better. Though now that hope felt much more real. It had only taken the end of the world to achieve it. From up here, it was easy to witness all the work in process, millions of humans in tandem, building, growing, toiling together side by side. There was still so much to do and so many working to do it. Parahumans assisted construction companies’ efforts in the ever-growing need for housing. To the north, the farmlands churned with the effort of thousands, plowing fields and harvesting crops. People of every group imaginable came seeking a better life and slotted themself wherever they were needed.
On the very spot where Scion had fallen, we’d laid down the base to replace the Keepers of old. Built the city that I now gazed at. From hundreds of towns came millions of refugees, wishing for a better future. We’d heard their cry and we’d called this city Hope.
I was going to make sure that name wouldn’t fail them.
“It looks stupid,” the girl at my side whispered.
“Shut up, Eidolon,” I said.
I could feel the heat from her glare on the back of my neck. It took a second to realize it had been an actual laser beam. “Don’t call me that! I’m not him. I told the guy downstairs and he wouldn’t listen. I’m not gonna let you get away with it either. Never call me Eidolon!”
“Then why didn’t you correct me during our meeting downstairs?” I asked.
“He stopped saying it to me but I found out he was saying it with the other people! Well, if he’s not gonna listen to me, I’m not gonna listen to him. I made it so I wouldn’t have to hear you.”
The full powers of what had once been considered the most powerful parahuman condensed into a child. It only became more obvious why I had been chosen for this job. This required a subtle hand but a strong arm.
“Then what would you like me to call you?” I asked, dropping down to her level.
“My name is Sabrina and don’t you ever forget it,” she said, pointing threateningly at my face.
“Yo, you the new boss lady?”
Two women had just made their exit from the elevator to interrupt our little talk. The first was all smiles and cheer. She wore a metal suit grafted out of golden panels that slotted together into a knightly armor with a visor not too dissimilar to my own from which blond hair spilled out. She must have been a little over twenty. The other stepped a bit behind her, body language apprehensive while trying to portray confidence. She had a radiant sky blue dress with a lightning design and a simple mask to match. Her wavy brown hair pooled around her shoulders. She must have only been a year or two younger than myself.
I recognized them from Gold Morning. We had been part of a group that arrived together. I had been found in a hospital dying of cancer by a woman who had given me a vial and sent me on my way. It had been a massive operation, looking for people with the correct disposition and no other options. A last-ditch effort to give as many people as many powers as they could and hopefully find someone who could work around Scion’s innate abilities to protect himself. We’d been met with heavy suspicion when the first of us started arriving, but there was no time to question it. They needed all the manpower they could get. These two women had been among that group, though we had never gotten the chance to speak.
“I am. My name is Rebecca, though in uniform you can call me Alexandria. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Cassie, though they gave me the temp name ‘Hero.’ Don’t call me that by the way, far too pretentious. Hey, if you’re gonna have a real name like Alexandria, maybe you could just call me Cassandra. A lot easier than thinking of some cape name,” she said with a shrug.
“I’m not using Alexandria as in the name. It’s a reference to the library of Alexandria,” I said.
“Well don’t worry, Cassandra isn’t my real name either, it’s Cassie.”
My pint-sized companion butted in. “You can’t make your superhero name the same as your real name. They’ll figure out your secret identity!”
Sabrina, whatever she may be, probably shouldn’t have known about that. I wasn’t sure whether it was a slip on her part or a new clue to pick at, but I had gotten the impression that Chevalier had done his part to keep her in the dark on most things. So what did this imply? She had a semantic memory first of all. The regular knowledge of a child raised in this world, perhaps, or a man playing at it?
Doubtful on the second one. Her personality didn’t seem conceited enough to match with the man I had seen in those videos.
“Ah, but don’t worry, it seems so obvious that no one would ever figure it out. It’s just too easy,” Cassie said with a wink.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sabrina complained.
“I didn’t get your name,” I said to the other girl, attempting to head off an argument between an adult and a ten-year-old.
The teenager ran a hand through her hair and shook it out, frizzing up everything like an electrical storm. “They gave me Legend,” she said with a smile. “I’ll probably change it too. Just haven’t found the right thing to use yet.”
“A pleasure,” I said with a nod.
“You didn’t say a pleasure to me,” Cassandra said, stricken.
“No, I did not.”
The tinker grabbed at her chest, but I ignored her theatrics. If I was going to lead this team, it was going to be done right. I’d pour over their files on my own later, but for now, I’d give direction. “I’m not sure what you’ve been told, but our work has attracted the eye of the Wardens for a reason. I’d like to get started working together tomorrow, running through powers and interactions. We’ll also need to discuss possible future patrolling positions for us and villains we may be facing. I’m already putting together a long-term plan on our team’s capabilities, but I can’t do that without a read on who we are.”
“Come on, you don’t see what’s going on here?” Cassie asked. “I recognize the two of you from the fight and I’m guessing the kid isn’t just here for show. Four girls, four strong powers? I’m sure it wasn’t an accident. Chev must have gotten into his head he was going to form a new Tetrarchy. Something the Wardens could push to harken back to the early days of parahumans.”
I frowned. The Tetrarchy had been the group of four that had led the Keepers, the Parahuman hero group integrated into the United States government. The guiding beacon of this world, undone after it was revealed they were manipulating things behind the scenes with another group called Cauldron. Athena was the quintessential brute and flight combination whose name had defined the powerset. Era was a time manipulator of unimaginable proportion. She managed to land a place in the Wardens after it had come out she was not privy to some of their darker secrets, though Cauldron's taint still clung to her.
Sovereign was a powerful master. No one spoke about Sovereign anymore.
The idea of being some second-hand version of true heroes felt wrong to me on every conceivable level.
“No, not the Tetrarchy. Whatever remains of them is gone, shattered and scattered, much like the Cauldron that made them. If Chevalier thought it was a good idea to harken back to the Tetrarchy then he is a fool.”
I floated a bit further in the air, barely a foot above the ground, as I stared off towards the portal that led to Earth Bet.
“This world doesn’t need another Tetrarchy, manipulating them from the shadows. They need something new. A shield to defend, a sword to strike. A new Protectorate.”
I floated back and held out my hand, palm down. It took only a few shakes for the others to get the picture and the two heroes slapped their hands on top of mine. I took Sabrina’s and laid it down on top.
“You’re very good at speeches,” Legend said.
“I practice,” I told her.
“Well, it looks like it pays off, boss. So what’s the first order of business?”
“First, we’ll need to work on you addressing me by my proper title,” I told her with a blank expression. “Next, I think we need to have a talk about our newest recruit. There are a few things about her that you don’t know yet.”