Ch. 16.3 – Alex (Double Second Anniversary Issue)

This is it, Alex decided, bracing himself physically and Majestically. Before he realized it, Captain Bastion had dropped into the first defensive stance Molly had taught him. Now we find out if my rep is based on anything real, or just dumb luck.

Outside, the ground shook from the clash of dragons. Around him, lights flickered and concrete flaked. The Bastion’s eyes flickered in the direction of the shockwaves, until a colorless, toneless nothing he’d truly felt only once before reclaimed his attention.

The Skeptic came into view, so unchanged Alex wondered briefly if he’d imagined the past several months. No, the Prime insisted to himself. That’s his doing. The black suit was immaculate in spite of the mess. Mirrored sunglasses reflected Captain Bastion twice in miniature. He could just make out the Company agent’s white earpiece as the man came to a halt. “You,” the Skeptic whispered, eyes hidden and expression unreadable. “More ridiculous than ever, somehow.”

Alex flared his cape with a flicker of Blaze, and it billowed in a non-existent wind. “Prove it,” the Captain retorted, almost smiling.

In one smooth motion, the Skeptic drew a pistol from his jacket and fired twice at Bastion’s head. Without thinking, Alex raised his sword, deflecting both bullets. Holy-! he thought, barely suppressing a shudder. The brief wave of terror vanished. Alex smiled. “Keep trying,” he said.

The Skeptic stared for a second, motionless. Then he fired three more times, each at a different part of Bastion’s body. Alex held out his hand and stopped the bullets, holding them front of him for a few seconds before letting them drop. The Captain shook his head, still grinning.

Only a short grunt escaped the Skeptic as he holstered his gun, drawing a short baton in its stead. A quick, sharp flick of his wrist extended it to over half the length of Alex’s blade. A brief spurt of electricity rippled around the rod. Without a word, the Skeptic charged.

Alex braced himself, filling his mind with the Ghost Dragon arts Molly had instilled in him. He drew forth every implanted Vision-echo, every moment of training. Empty your mind, he told himself – remembering immediately that thinking “empty your mind” is still thinking – and became a vessel for the Ghost Dragon Way.

Weapons, fists and feet became a blur of motion. The Skeptic’s attacks came in an economical staccato of violence. Bastion’s defense was a dance of flowing deflection. Alex’s occasional counterstroke pressed the agent, slowing the impersonal barrage. The duel came to a sudden halt when the Skeptic threw a jab at Bastion’s nose. Alex stopped the punch with a well-placed palm. The Skeptic slid back, reassessing Captain Bastion with a twitch of the neck. “You’ve trained,” the agent admitted.

Bastion smiled coolly at his black-clad foe. “I know kung fu,” he quipped.

“You know a fraction of Ghost Dragon style,” the Skeptic scoffed. “I’ve studied martial science for decades.”

Alex slid into a ready stance, crackling sword raised behind him. “I had a really good teacher.”

“It won’t be enough.” The Skeptic circled the Bastion, and Alex wondered if he would try to use the corridor wall as a springboard.

Without warning, the opposite wall exploded, a blur of brass obliterating it. Alex erected a shield of Blaze, blocking for them both. The Skeptic dodged anyway, evading the few chunks of masonry faster than the Bastion’s force wall. The agent stared briefly at Alex, face still unreadable. Both then turned to look out the massive hole, seeing the draconic Ekaida breathe fire at Molly, who leaped three stories through the air to evade. Alex looked past them to the horde of camera crews jockeying for position, chattering rapidly while they sought the best angles that wouldn’t get them crushed. “How can they see that? Shouldn’t the Schism be doing something?”

*It’s Travis,* Rose sent. *He’s suppressing the Schism – yeah, I know, but he’s a Vision Prime – and it doesn’t work second-hand. That’s why the Complex has its grip on the media.*

Alex skipped warily away from the Skeptic. *Are they stopping this?* he asked.

*No,* Victor and Heather whispered, their awe cascading through the bond. *We’re watching it now,* Heather added.

“Skeptic, we need to stop,” Bastion insisted, sword wavering as he lowered it. “The whole world is watching Molly fight a dragon.”

The Skeptic’s glare was evident even through the sunglasses. “And you want to stop it? You, freak?” Alex’s jaw slackened. That was…actual emotion.

Bastion clenched a fist, then mastered himself, letting it go. “Yes.” He dropped the sword, unraveling it before the blade hit the floor. “Travis is behind this. Sure, I want to show the world the truth – but not like this. Not on his terms. If West wants this, it can’t be for anything good.”

“You’re supposed to be better?” The Skeptic pointed his baton at Bastion, as if in judgment. “This is exactly what your mob of crackpots is after.”

Bastion’s eyes narrowed. With a thought, he levitated five pieces of concrete, willing them to orbit around him. “I don’t have time for your denial, Skeptic. We have minutes – maybe seconds – to stop Travis from getting whatever he’s after. It’s killing me to do this, but all I want is what’s right. Let me help you.”

The Skeptic watched Bastion, baton lowering. For a few moments, the agent was still, weighing, assessing. “No,” he answered, his tone as final as his word. Alex grimaced. “You’re still part of the problem, anomaly.” Slowly, he removed his glasses. It was no surprise that the man’s eyes were cold and dead, but the raw, stark rejection radiating from them rocked Bastion all the same. “I’m the only solution here.”

The un-Weaving struck Bastion too suddenly for him to react. His shield, already threaded with color and song, protected Alex enough to stop the attack from undoing his Majestic gift. Instead, the clash of powers shot the Captain away as if from a cannon, past Ekaida and onto the soccer field. “ow,” he whimpered.

*Alex!* Sara gasped, her fear resounding through the link. *Get up get up get up!*

Reeling, dizzy, and dazed, Bastion tried to stand, but “up” was an alien concept. From beyond his vision, the gray nothing stalking him turned dark and harrowing. It moved with footfalls that hammered the world’s majesty flat. All his flame and thunder faltered under the Skeptic’s shadow. Desperately, Alex sought the Zen emptiness Molly taught him, but it slithered away, unreachable.

No. Slowly, Alex drew in light and sound, faith and inspiration. I’m not beating him in a physical fight. The first time I fought this monster, Molly taught me something else. The universe stopped spinning, and Bastion pulled himself to one knee, a hand pressed against the grass. He drew strength from the earth, from deep places his enemy’s gray shadow couldn’t reach. Adventure. Hope. Wonder!

Captain Bastion rose. He stood. He flew, hovering in the air, motes of every color swirling around him. The Skeptic kept striding towards him, eyes emanating the same refusal to accept his existence. This time, Alex didn’t deflect the gaze. He defied it, striking back with joy and art, music and laughter. For an instant, the Skeptic faltered, but the music became cacophony, Bastion’s mind created sound, not song, and the agent stalked forward again.

I’m an artist, not a musician. What… His smile returned. Joy. The choral climax of “Ode to Joy” reverberated through the entire stadium. He held out his hand, and the motes of color became rainbow lightning, washing the Skeptic’s toneless nothing away in a shining torrent. The agent stopped, staring at the erasure of his assault with disbelief. “What?” he blurted.

“Didn’t expect that, did you, suit?” Bastion thundered.

“Expectation is an elaborate form of suicide,” the Skeptic intoned, resuming his advance.

“I’m trying to measure that statement’s irony. I lose track at ‘galactic,'” Bastion countered, redoubling his assault. The Skeptic fired back with a glare, his Majestic denial slowly climbing the stream of light, blotting it out. A chill cut through the Bastion, gritting his teeth as the Skeptic’s terrible emptiness swallowed his iridescent storm. The dragon-duel slowed, even Molly and Ekaida risking occasional glances at the strange battle.

Bastion slowly retreated, pouring every iota of power he had into his attack. It wasn’t enough. The Skeptic marched onward, his gaze as deadening as a gorgon’s. Beethoven’s Ninth faded around them. Wordless fear for Bastion set the Vision bond quivering, and he almost lost contact with his team. Alex’s own fear tore through him alongside images of the Skeptic’s gaze turning on his friends.

Images! Bastion glared back at the Skeptic, fire into ice, and created an image of a blazing, winged shield. The cold denial’s advance came to a abrupt halt. This isn’t chaos against order. Art isn’t just light, any more than music is sound. Alex’s smile returned. You lose, Skeptic.

The Smith leaped from Bastion’s shield, his sword slicing at the Skeptic’s emptiness. It wasn’t quite the Smith from his comic, some of Bastion’s own appearance merged with the hero’s, but that only seemed to strengthen the figure. With a grunt, the agent turned his deadly gaze on the hero-image. The Smith wavered, rippling like a banner in a hurricane. Hunter, Alex thought, visualizing the Smith’s friend. Something of Max flowed into the Hunter-form, and a dark avenger roared down to protect his partner. Together, the duo started advancing on the Skeptic.

“No,” the agent hissed, pointing his baton at the figures. Again, his denial made them flicker. Alex concentrated, and the God-Witch appeared by their side. The Witch had Sara’s form, though it wore the same mask the Weaver did. She traced arcane symbols in the air, and the trio advanced on the Skeptic.

“No!” the Skeptic snarled, coming to a halt. His eyes unfocused, and the nothing spread from him in leaden waves. All three images lost color, slowly graying out. Yes, Alex insisted, and the Tiger-Fist appeared. Molly didn’t let me put her in my comic, he mused, but I doubt she’ll object to this. The raven-haired amazon dove at the oppressive aura, her punch driving it back with sheer determination.

“NO!” With a vicious slash of his baton, the Skeptic cast out pure negation. It was brutal and vindictive, unlike anything Bastion had even imagined. All four hero-icons faded, washing out to the edge of erasure.

“Walk away, Skeptic,” Bastion demanded, pouring the strength of the team’s friendship into his images. Though they couldn’t advance further, all four stabilized, regaining saturation. “If I have to do this, your denial won’t protect you any more.”

“Go to Hell, freak!” the Skeptic roared, and the negation field reached its zenith. It spread from him in a single surge of disgust and rejection. We’re not supposed to do this, Alex thought bleakly. Forcing majestas on anyone, even him, isn’t the Alliance’s way. Mere reverberations of the surge clutched at Bastion’s insides, nauseating him. Neither is killing. No good choice. He sighed and pictured one last hero. Least bad it is, then.

Wonder Rose appeared in the heart of the image-team, smile and wand sun-bright. “Oh, honey,” the image said, raising Life Blossom high, “you should have listened.” Light poured into the gem-rose at the wand’s tip, and poured down a literal rainbow, as if from a prism. The negation field shattered, and the other four characters flew through the Skeptic.

The Gray Company agent froze, eyes widening. He screamed, then collapsed, hugging himself as he twitched. The five images watched him fall, fading away with his terrible emptiness. “Real. Real. God help us, it’s all real.”

Captain Bastion floated down to the Skeptic’s side, landing gently on the grass. “Yeah.” He paused, sensing the fragments of stolen Weaving drifting wistfully. One, Alex knew instantly, and he gently wrapped Sara’s lost power in his Majestic talent. You’ll be whole again soon, love. The rest, he gave a boost, and they flew to find their Majestic homes once more. Bastion returned his attention to the ravaged man at his feet, inspiration sparking within him. “I suppose…you can forget. We can do that.”

The agent – not the Skeptic any more, apparently, Alex mused, no longer sensing the innate nothingness the man had borne – looked away, still shuddering, then shook his head. “No,” he decided, grimacing. “None of this should be…but it is.” He glared up at Bastion. “That can change.”

“You,” Alex snarled. A brief, wild rage roared through him. One sharp thought. That’s all it would take. With a shake of his head, the Bastion Knight dismissed the notion. “Don’t look for me until you’ve learned something,” he snapped, turning away.

Alex froze in place at the sight of Ekaida barreling towards him, dragon’s smile baring rows of dagger-teeth. “O Captain, my Captain!” she laughed, mouth opening enough to swallow him whole. To Bastion’s immense relief, she came to a sudden halt, then flew in the opposite direction, slamming into the far wall.

Molly let go of Ekaida’s tail, shaking her arms out. “If you’re done changing the world, Captain, I could use some help over here.” Bastion stared at the Ghost Dragon, unmoving. “You didn’t notice?” she asked, pointing at the center of the field with a single thumb. Following her gesture brought twenty cameras to Alex’s attention, over a dozen pointed at him.

Worry about them later, he decided, flying to Molly’s aid.

Ch. 16.3.1 — Travis

*…mayday,* Travis heard. That sounded like the Skeptic, the Sovereign psychic thought. That’s impossible, though. Unless…

*Why, my dear implacable Skeptic,* West beamed, leaning back in his command chair, *that sounds like a telepathic distress call. I thought you didn’t believe in such nonsense.*

*Not now, West,* the agent insisted. *I need evac.* He paused. *Bastion walked all over me.*

Travis sighed. *Mercifully, that’s an exaggeration. Will Rift teleportation ‘walk all over you’ as well, Skeptic?*

Another pause. *My name is John. And no, it won’t.*

“John.” Of course it is. Travis rolled his eyes and directed the armor-clad woman at his side with one finger. She vanished, quickly returning with the prone, quivering Skeptic. Another gesture, and she vanished again. West grabbed the cane he’d chosen for this moment and strode to the agent, towering over him. “Explain,” Travis ordered.

“I lost,” John shot back. “Isn’t that obvious?” The former Skeptic closed his eyes, his breathing labored. Weak, from the Majestic purge. Just as his victims were. “We need to report this disaster to the Complex.”

“Well.” With a flick of his wrist, Travis tossed the cane up, catching it at the end. “That’s a matter of perspective, don’t you think?” With a grunt, John opened his eyes again, and they went wide in pain and shock as the Vision master slammed the cane’s head into his stomach. “You miserable, knuckle-dragging atavism.” Travis’ knuckles went white as he brought the weapon down on the agent’s shoulder. John gritted his teeth, no sound escaping. “Gray Company thought they could use you to terrorize me? Control me? ME?” In spite of his months of planning, he slammed the cane into John’s skull.

The man twitched, going limp, but continued to breathe, turning an unfocused glare on West. “Oh, good. You’re still with us.” Travis hunched down at John’s side, his jaw trembling. “Do you know why I’m explaining all this to you? Vision isn’t just telepathy, you know.” He pressed the cane head against the broken shoulder, and the agent let out a hiss. “It’s also a matter of spirit. The world feels everything we do. That’s the only real value in a ritual sacrifice, you see. We tell the universe what we want, then force it to relinquish what we demand.”

West stood, swinging the stick experimentally. “What I want you to take into the Vision as you die is simple. I planned this. Bastion is weak, you are undone, and Taylor is all but mine. I will teach the world that heroes die, no one rescues the damsel, and the so-called ‘villain’ wins.” He raised the cane overhead, trembling with the effort not to swing. “Oh, and with the Schism gone, your fellow Gray Company neanderthals will learn their place!” He brought the cane down. Again. Again. Again.

When John stopped moving. Travis exhaled, feeling the satisfaction in his bones. He smiled, almost wishing one of his enemies could see it. The Vision itself shuddered as it warped to conform to his model of the future. “God, that felt good.” Something trickled down his hand, and he grimaced at the stains on his jacket. I’ll have to burn the suit, though. Damn. Waste of a good Brioni. He casually dropped the cane. Steel core was just as advertised. The Sanction does good work. When all this is over, maybe Gray Company can be replaced entirely. West straightened his tie, returned to his seat, and cast his will out to his servants. *Begin Phase Two.* The Skeptic’s body vanished.

Written by Peter Flanagan

Peter Flanagan was born in the Bronx, New York, giving him the right to root for the Yankees while making less than six figures. After a long, largely pleasant interregnum in suburban Connecticut, he moved to the Inland Empire, California to be with his wonderful wife and muse, a stepson, and a crazed feline. An occasionally too-avid player of and writer for tabletop roleplaying games, his other passion is metaphysics, which informs most of his fiction.

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