The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness - Now Complete!

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The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness - Now Complete!

Post by Damselbinder »

"Please, Lucinda, let me talk to her." A slightly overweight, grey-haired man huddled by a payphone. He covered himself with a thick, grey coat, one he'd taken from a homeless man. He tried desperately to conceal his face with an ill fitting hat, but if anything that had just drawn more attention.
"No, Peter," came a curt reply. They were speaking Romansh. "Even if I permitted it, she wouldn't want to. You're a criminal. You're...god knows what else!"
"Lucinda, I might not get another chance. In fact, I rather suppose I won't, eh? All that 'god knows what else' is catching up with me. Please...please just let me tell my daughter I love her."
"No, Peter," Lucinda replied. She tried to sound curt, but emotion charged her voice. "I don't permit lies in this house."
"Lucinda! Lucinda!" Peter smacked the receiver against the base. "You bitch! You fucking bitch! I just want to talk to my daughter! I -"

And then he heard the tapping on the glass.
"Doctor Schiffer?" It was a large man. Burly, vaguely Slavic of accent. "You are not easy man to find." He beckoned to the doctor to leave the booth, and he did. For a second - just a second - Schiffer considered using his powers on this man...but no. That wouldn't have worked.

He walked out, slowly, the weary trudge of a man who knew that his time had come. He'd been too clever for his own good. The road had come to its end. He was a little surprised, then, when this burly man escorted him into the back of a rather nice car.
"Y'like it?" The voice had come from the driver's seat. A blonde man was sitting in it, with curly hair. "Jaguar F-Type. I've been looking for an excuse to get one of these for years." He turned around. "What's up, Doc?"
"Cato!" Schiffer croaked. "I...I didn't think it would be you."
Cato looked him up and down, scanning him. "Oh. You think I'm going to kill you. Ah, c'mon, Doc, I'd never do that! I mean, I owe you so much." He turned back around, stroked his steering wheel lovingly. "If I wanted you dead, I'd have just had my goon shoot you in the gut."
"Why am I here, then?"
"We want you back, Doc. I mean, you've been a very naughty boy. Handing over our trade secrets to the military? Tsk tsk."
"It was my work!" Schiffer barked. "Mine to give to whomever I wish! I - I would have starved!"
"Hey, I get it," Cato said. "Taking pride in your accomplishments. But things have changed. We can't afford for you to be running around on your own and...well, we've figured out a way for you to redeem yourself."
Schiffer breathed out slowly. Survival was survival. He'd take it. "What must I do?"
"Oh, you'll love this, man." Cata turned the key in the ignition, and giggled with pleasure as the engine kicked into life. "You're going to save a damsel in distress!"
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When was it that Sophie first realised it? That is, when did part of her realise? If there were anything a person's mind might wish to repress, surely nothing could warrant it so much as this. Had it been in Ferndale, when she'd seen that black-haired phantom for the first time? Or later perhaps, odd glimmers of something terribly, terribly wrong coming to her in moments of unconsciousness when she'd been captured at the Penitentiary Supreme? Or had it been all those times when a voice had arisen within her to attack, to assure her of her own worthlessness over and over again? Or when she'd seen the phantom again the day she was kidnapped by the Sleeping Beauty Society?

Or earlier.

Since Madam Black.

Since always.

Sophie wandered in darkness. It had no form. There was no up, no down - such ideas were meaningless here. There was only her: naked and cold, walking on, and on, and on. She imagined that she was probably dreaming, and she was right - but this was not merely a dream, and she was not really alone.
[How long did you think this could go on?] Her voice, but not her voice.
"Who are you?" Sophie whimpered. "No...it doesn't matter: you're not real."

Then she was there. She was always there. She was an inch from Sophie if she was that - a mirror of her, but for her jet-black hair. Identical in every other way...but for the rage etched into her face.
[That's true. I'm not real,] she said. [Because of you. Because of you I'm just...shadow.]
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Sophie turned away, but when she did, her doppelganger was there again.
[You do. You do know. You're scared of me. You're terrified to remember.]
"Remember what?"
[What you are.]

Sophie ran. She didn't run to anywhere - there's was nowhere to go. But she ran, and ran, the darkness encroaching ever closer, to chill growing ever-nearer to her bones.
[It's started to slip, hasn't it?] 'Sophie's' voice rang in her ears. [Bits of your real life - of my real life. You're beginning to realise.]
"You're just a dream. You're just a stupid nightmare."
[You're the nightmare! You're the dream! The dream I can never wake up from!]

With the words slightly changed, this had been the nightmare that Sophie had experienced every time she'd fallen asleep since the day the Supremacist had died. She would have it, and then wake, screaming or sweating or just frozen with fear - but then she'd be alright. Mariko would be there, or at least the thought of her, and all would be well. But when she fell asleep that night - one year to the day since her first encounter with the Sin Eater - and the first part of her dream played out much as it always did, she should have shot back into wakefulness. But she did not. This time she would not be released.

This time she would not be able to run from it.

Sophie stumbled, fell, and she found herself pinned by her wrists. She couldn't move, paralysed and naked in a sea of blackness.
[Didn't you think you had it just a little too good? Didn't you think it was just a little too perfect?]
"What...are you talking about?" Sophie was breathless. She could barely speak.
[Your life. Your wonderful life.] Her hair trailed down, touching Sophie's skin. Every strand was ice. [Your friends. Your reputation. Your girlfriend. Your happy childhood.]
"My childhood?" Sophie still couldn't move - and yet she shuddered. The other Sophie shuddered too, mimicking her exactly.
[I think that's the worst insult of all. You get to have it better than I ever did!]

Sophie's mind was filled with images, sensations, a flood too bewildering to process all at once.
"What is this? What the fuck am I looking at?" The other Sophie didn't answer. Sophie herself was merely confronted by image after image of...a very different life. Nothing after becoming Enhancegirl was different - thought still was she denied any memory of the change itself - but almost everything before was. Her parents screeching at each other, a relationship seemingly held together only by mutual spite. Bitter fights with her mother, cold distance - at best - from her father. And she herself, not the spunky, friendly, loving girl that she was now and she remembered herself being: instead alternating between a shrill, bullying meanness to those around her, and a quagmire of depression that, after the last few weeks, was terrifyingly familiar to Sophie now.
[You're looking at reality. You're looking at what a real life is.] Sophie's double leaned in so close that the two might have been about to kiss.
"This is bullshit..." Sophie moaned. "This is just - just made up...just a dream...just a stupid dream..."

Now Sophie wasn't on the ground. She didn't move, but everything else did, and the ground was a wall, and her double was holding her up against it.
[You don't deserve it. You don't deserve any of it.] Every word was as a blade in Sophie's heart, for they felt as if they came from her own soul. [Yeah, that's right, I've heard you. You think I don't have to listen to it all? I know you've felt it.] She touched Sophie's chest - no, her hand was inside Sophie's chest, and she squeezed her heart. Sophie screamed, but the scream was silent. [You know it's all wrong. You know you're wrong. You have so much - your perfect childhood, admiration from all those good people...and Mariko. Poor Mariko...] She squeezed tighter, and Sophie began convulsing in agony. [She tries so hard...but you're still not happy, are you?]
"Yes I am...yes I am!" Sophie gasped.
[You should be. But you aren't. You know that you're wrong. You know that you're nothing more than a hollow lie! That's why all those smiles are such an effort, Sophie: you're guilty. You stole everything from me - my life, my parents...my name. 'Sophie' isn't even our real name!]
Sophie didn't even have to ask. She remembered that day, the day she'd met Schiffer and that name had just popped into her head. The name that, when she'd used it, had shocked Schiffer to his core: "Elena."
[That's right. That's right.]

Elena seemed to grow in size - or rather Sophie seemed to shrink. In a few seconds, she was the size of an insect, squeezed in Elena's fist.
["Think of it! Just think of it!"] Elena squeezed her and Sophie silently gasped in terror. [I don't know how many times I must have screamed that. It took me a year to realise that you just didn't want to know.]
"Know what?"
[What else? How you got your powers!]

Flashes in Sophie's mind. A dark-haired girl - Elena - in Portland, snatched screaming from the street. Gassed, bound - then fragments. The trilling of machinery. Men in masks standing over her. And a parasite, a demon of redness and laughter injected into her body. A parasite who didn't even know she was a parasite: a disease named Sophie Scott.

"It's not...it's not true...it can't be true..." Sophie moaned breathlessly. "Someone's...it's an illusion...the Sin Eater's captured me...or-or Mesmeredith or Mysteria or..."
[No. Not this time.] A series of memories flashed through Sophie's mind. Madam Black. The Sleeping Beauty Society. Hades - all the times she'd been kidnapped and humiliated. [At first, you know, I thought it was just coincidence. Watching you getting captured all the time. I mean, you think you're a superhero, so you put yourself in danger. But no...no there's a pattern.]

And then it was as though Sophie were bound in every way she ever had been. Tied up, wrapped in webs, in duct tape, in chains, drained of her powers, paralysed, drugged - all at once. Every one a punishment for a crime she hadn't known she was committing.

[You know you should be punished.]
"That's not true."
[You know you don't deserve to exist.]
"Yes I do...yes I do!"
[You're trying to make up for it.]
"You're not real. I don't have anything to be guilty for. I'm a good person!"
[Then explain Ocelot.]
"I..."
[You wanted to be debased.]
"She...tricked me..."
[You wanted an excuse to hate yourself.]
"No...you're not...you can twist anything...you're not real!"
[Then why wouldn't you tell Mariko about me?]
"I'm afraid."
[Why?]
"B-because..."
[WHY?]
"I don't know..."
[WHY?]

And then Sophie awoke, and her voice was already hoarse from screaming. She awoke and thrashed in mental agony, clutching her hair like a mad animal.
"Sophie? Jesus, Sophie!" It was Kirsten. She ran in, took hold of Sophie's wrists, trying to get her just to calm down. Sophie didn't even seem to realise she was there at first. But she saw Kirsten, her old friend, and her heart was soothed.
"It wasn't real...it was a dream...it wasn't true." She fell back, almost laughing. "Fuck me with a rake, Kirsten, I have literally never been happier to see you!" She sat up and embraced her, still shaking, her head over Kirsten's shoulder.

Then she felt it. Her head jerked up like an eagle's talons had just clutched her, and she saw her. She was standing there. She was standing in her bedroom. Sophie was awake and she was there. The two just stared at each other, every heartbeat drumming more and more of Sophie's terror into her. She didn't need to say anything. Her presence was enough. It could no longer be denied.
She was there.
She was real.
She was right.

The scream that followed was not exactly a scream. Humans scream, at least instinctively, to attract the attention of someone who could help them. Even on a primal level, the sound that Sophie made was not intended to call for aid. There was no aid to call for. It was just a moan: a terrified lament of all that was and was not. How can a person be saved from their own non-existence?
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Ow...ow, fuck!" Ivan Nazarov complained, his arm still throbbing with agony from when Hades had crushed it. "Please - ow, Christ! - don't mistake my - AGGHH! - expletives for ingratitude..."
"You owe me nothing, Mr Nazarov." The speaker was a tall, ill-fittingly muscular man in a magenta bodysuit. "But please try to keep still." Healer though he was, Caduceus was not normally used to dropping everything to heal broken arms in the middle of the night. But this was a special case. When the call had come in from the Pariahs, he had not refused. How could he? It was they, after all, who had vanquished the Supremacist when he had restored the villain's power, and mitigated the effects of the worst mistake of his life. "There."

With an elated sigh, Ivan leaned back, gasping as the pain left his body, still shaking from its hormonal after-effects.
"Oh that's better...oh that's much better..." Ivan let out a long sigh.
"I'll, uh...I'll show myself out," Simon mumbled. Grateful as he was for what they'd done, there was still something...frightening about them.

"I don't get it." Sam said, looming darkly nearby. "Was Hades after you, or was he after Gallantria?" In fact, to say that Sam was there was not quite right. Having grown accustomed to controlling it remotely, he had sent his armour to the emergency meeting of the Pariahs, while he himself stayed very much in bed. In many ways he preferred it: 'speaking' through the armour made him sound toneless and mechanistic, but he didn't stutter one jot.

"She," Ivan said, "was after me. And I bet I know why, too. She's frightened of me - of us. She's scared shitless that we'll find her and destroy her."
"Then why didn't she kill you?" There was another man in the room. Short and wiry, with cartoonishly spiky hair, Jason Johansson had been the one who'd heard the ruckus, the one who'd found Ivan on the street, bellowing with hatred, and terrifying the people of Seacouver. "You're one of the few guys who can actually be a threat to her, so she catches you off guard and takes you out - but she didn't. It don't make no sense. So maybe she was just goin' after Gallantria."
"That doesn't make sense either," Sam said. "Even if attacking Ivan was just a sort of circumstantial bonus, I can't think of any reason to leave him alive."
"Enjoying our newfound eloquence, are we?" Ivan stood up. "You know, it doesn't really matter why she did it. The point is that we need to find that jumped-up tart and rake her over hot coals...so to speak."

Sam's armour stroked its chin. Gears turned in his mind - and then something occurred to him.
"It seems like theatre," he said. The others turned their heads quizzically in his direction. "I mean, it was a hell of a gamble, wasn't it? Risking an encounter with you. What if Hydrocita had been there? What if you hadn't been hit by that dart? So much could have gone wrong for, what, another captive? She's got a whole bunch already, right? She could have attacked Gallantria by herself if she really wanted her so bad. You could have killed her."
"What's your point?" Ivan said, sharply. He preferred stuttering, easily-mocked Sam to this more confident version.
"Well, didn't that whole thing with Nova and Spectra and what's-her-face seem a little weird to you? Coming out of the shadows after...I guess years of secrecy. All that effort and all that risk - I mean Imperion almost caught her, right? - and she didn't, like, get anything tangible out of it."
"She scared the shit outta everybody," Jason said.
"That's my point. Everyone went nuts and...maybe this is part of the same thing. She's trying to stir things up again, scare everyone by deliberately going after us - after you, because your profile's so big right now. She wants superheroes running scared of her."
"To what end?" Ivan shook his head. "People don't really take huge risks just to twirl their moustaches and have everyone be afraid of them. She's trying to profit from it somehow: perhaps literally. You act as though she's a cartoon character, which I'm sure is the image she means to project. You might be taken in S-S-Sam, but I'm not."

There was one member of the Pariahs who had not yet spoken: Hydrocita. The reason she'd not spoken was because she wasn't there. The reason she wasn't there was because she was three miles away in a sports bar getting hammered and scaring the shit out of its patrons. However, the Pariahs were not left without female company for long: Julia Laurentiis, the Pariahs' Director of Communications entered, and she did not look pleased.
"Mr Nazarov," she said, fixing a pair of dark eyes on the pale ex-diplomat, "we need a public statement. Now."
Ivan snorted. "Yes, I'm sure John Q. Public is John Q. Pissing his pants, but we have bigger fish to fry than public perception."
Julia, however, had no intention of letting it go. "You have to make a public apology. If it had been daytime, that building you half-blew up would have been filled with people. People have been waiting to pounce on you guys as being dangerous, and you've given them a perfect opportunity. We need damage control."
"Julia, we're called 'the Pariahs'! I didn't realise image would be such a concern for us."
"It is if you want to keep your funding, Mr Nazarov. Just a quick Twitter statement would -"
"I was attacked! I was poisoned, and maimed - as if I even needed an excuse!" He was shouting. He hadn't noticed he'd been shouting. He only did notice when he saw that the others look nervous - even Sam, somehow. "Balls to this."

Ivan got up, flexing the fingers of his newly healed arm, threw on his jacket.
"Mr Nazarov, we need to take control of the story before someone else does," Julia insisted. "We can even spin it to our advantage - make it about Hades, and how important it is to have guys like the Pariahs around."
"Dude, all you gotta do is 'express regret'," Jason said. "Ever hear a politician apologise? Those fucks never actually say sorry, they just 'express regret' for whatever."
"It's pointless."
"If we're at risk of losing funding or whatever, then it ain't pointless. You might not need this gig all that much, but I do."
Ivan glowered at him...but relented in the end. "Fine. Alright, Julia, how's this going to work?"

But Julia wasn't looking at him. She was looking at her tablet, and it had clearly given her some ill news.
"What's the problem, Julia?" Sam said.
"This just got a lot harder. Someone at the L.A. Times asked Imperion to comment on the attack - and he did." She raised her eyes to Ivan with a mixture of anger and nervousness of his reaction. "He said 'I don't usually go out of my way to criticise other superheroes, but I have serious concerns about the Pariahs, and about Zjarrus in particular. They're dangerous, and I'm not sure they care too much about collateral damage.'" She shook her head. "This is bad."
"Oh, great," Sam said, "now Imperion hates us. This will in no way end badly..."
"That motherfucker," Ivan hissed. "That motherfucker! He wants a beef with us? Well fine. He's got one!"
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"What? What? What do...what do you..." Mariko stammered, having received the hammer-blow of Sophie's claim. "What do you mean you don't exist? How could that possibly be true?"
"I don't know who, I don't know why, but..." She wanted to lie. She wanted to pretend it had just been another nightmare. But now that she'd realised it, she couldn't keep it a secret. Mariko had to know what she really was. "When they...when they gave me my powers they changed me. My personality, my memories...all fake." She thought of sitting on a couch laughing raucously with her mother as a teenager. She thought of herself as a little child, sitting on her father's lap as he played the piano, in awe of the grace and artistry of his fingers. She remembered her first, awkward kiss with that nice boy when she didn't know any better. And none of it was true. "Everything before...everything before Enhancegirl is a lie! I'm a lie! They didn't just change me - the real Sophie's still in here! She's trapped, and she hates me, and she wants me out because I stole her life! I'm - I'm not even human! I'm just a thing that they forced into her and -"

She couldn't go on. She fell into floods of tears, and when poor, bewildered Mariko tried to embrace her Sophie didn't have the strength not to let her. She buried herself in Mariko's chest, smelling her, feeling her slender arms around Sophie's shivering body.
"There now, my love," Mariko whispered. "It's alright....it's alright..." Mariko said the words almost by reflex.
"It's not!" Sophie pulled away. "It's not alright! Don't you get it? I'm not real, Mariko. Someone cooked me up in a fucking lab!"
"That can't be true," Mariko replied. "That's - that's nonsense!"
"Why?"
"You...of course you're real! You're Sophie. You're...you're my Sophie!"

Sophie looked into her lover's jade eyes. Even in her confusion and fear, there was strength, and love. She felt it. She felt it being offered to her, a lifeline to cling onto. Sophie Scott loves Mariko Asakura: that was reality, surely, if anything was. That was real.
[You're right.] The voice stabbed at Sophie like a dagger of ice, and she froze. [She does love you. Her feelings are real. Yours are...synthetic.]
"No, that's not true!" Sophie shouted, over Mariko's shoulder.
[Fairy-tale love. Childish, shallow.]
"Sophie, who are you talking to?"
"Elena. That's my...that's what she's really called -"
[When being a whore didn't work you tried being a wife. Latching onto to someone who is real, justifying your existence through her.]
"Fuck you! Fuck you, that's not true! That's not!"
[How would you know?]
"Sophie, what's going on?"
"She's there, she's talking to me!"
[How could you be anything to her?]
"Shut up!
[How could you help her?]
"Shut up!"
[How could you deserve her?]
"NO!"

And then a strike - a strike of shocking force across her cheek. Mariko had slapped her, as hard as she could, and was staring with furious, burning eyes. Indeed, this shook Sophie out of her hysterics, but Mariko didn't know how to capitalise on it. She didn't know how she could possibly comfort her. Was she mad? Was it true? How could she know? How could she respond. She looked at Sophie, and tried to imagine how her lover would respond if their situations were reversed. She imagined Sophie comforting her, assuring her of her value, and her importance: compassionate, and empathetic, and loving as she always was.

But that was not what was required.
"Sophie, I want you to listen to me very carefully," Mariko said. "Have you remembered everything about the origins of your powers?"
"No - I just know that -"
"Do you know who did this to you and why? Names? Locations? Any notion of how they would benefit from giving someone superpowers and then creating a false consciousness?"
"No, she...she doesn't know either."
"Then listen to me Sophie." Mariko took her by the shoulders. "This. Doesn't. Make. Sense. It doesn't make sense that someone would do this. Why? How?"
"A telepath. Someone even stronger than Hypnotra," Sophie said. "Mariko I know what you're trying to do, but -"
"Alright, yes. It is possible. But think about it, Sophie. I've been to your hometown. I've met your parents. Are they part of an elaborate conspiracy? Do they know? Were they pretending the entire time I was there? Have they been lying to you?" Sophie didn't answer. "Or were they changed as well? Did someone go out of their way to alter them, just to keep up the pretense? And their friends, their relatives, their employers? People who would notice they'd been altered? Ferndale is a small town - did they change everyone? Kirsten too, I suppose? I mean, you've known her for years, haven't you? And if this did happen, how big is the organisation that did it? The resources this would take - how can it have happened? Ask this 'Elena' that, why don't you!"

Sophie's rapid breathing slowed a little. Not wanting to lose sight of Mariko even for an instant, she gingerly looked past her to where the spectre of Elena stood. She was conspicuously silent.
"She doesn't know," Sophie said. "She only knows that they did something to her." She clutched her chest. "I want it not to be true...oh, god, Mariko, I want you to be right! I want to...to do what I always do and tell her to kiss my ass - but I can't! I can...I can feel it...I'm wrong." Tears began seeping from her eyes, flowing uncontrollably. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, Mariko!" Her instinct was to reach out for her, but the guilt held her back and she just...collapsed into herself, hugging her arms across her chest. But Mariko would not relent.
"Where does that feeling of certainty come from? Hm?" She took Sophie's wrists, not painfully, but firmly. "You've met people who can control the will, like Hypnotra, or create emotions, like Doctor Wingfield. Is it so much of a stretch to imagine that someone can implant certainty into your mind?"
Sophie didn't answer. She tried to, but her voice was choked.

"Someone...someone has done something to you, Sophie," Mariko said. "Of this I'm sure. But that does not mean that this phantom of yours is real! You are real, do you understand?"
"I'm trying to believe you," Sophie said, very quietly. "I'm trying so hard, Mariko but -"
[This is beyond logic.] Elena wasn't in some corner of the room anymore. She was there. She was right there, right in Sophie's face, as if she'd superimposed herself onto Mariko's body as she sat on Sophie's bed. [They tore me out of the world, and put you in my place! You know you don't belong, you know it! Give me back my life!]

Memories thrust themselves over Sophie's. Kirsten was replaced with another girl, part of a posse of friends with shallow connections to each other, uniting just to belittle others and make themselves feel big. Her short-lived skate-punk phase at thirteen was replaced with memories of herself as a preppy bully, her first kiss now in the back of an older boy's car. Her first time having sex wasn't even with another girl - Jill, her first real lover, was replaced with some star athlete that she'd let fuck her just to anger her father. The verisimilitude, the emotional logic between each recollection - Sophie couldn't help but think that she was looking at real memories. Her own seemed to fade into pastel-coloured fantasy. It was too good. It was too happy. And now that she thought about it, there were...gaps. Or blurs, rather, parts of her very early childhood that she just couldn't remember, sandwiched between birthdays and the first real trauma she could remember, her grandmother's death and her mother's despair at it - the only thing that seemed to match up with Elena's memories at all. They felt more real than her own.

Sophie threw herself back, clutching her head.
"I...can't...I can't get it out! I can't fucking get it out!"
Again, Mariko took her lover in her arms, held her close. "Please, Sophie. Please just listen to me. You know what I'm saying makes sense! I'm begging you - please listen!" What had started as shock and bewilderment had taken on some of Sophie's own terror. Despite what Mariko said, despite her logic, it felt...flat, somehow. "I've been ignoring it," she thought, of the mystery that was her lover. "I've been letting myself ignore it for far too long."
"I know...everything you're saying makes sense..." Sophie said. "But - she's...she's there! Mariko, she's right there!" The dark figure had not moved, her face merging with Mariko's as the tall maiden moved closer.
"Well so am I," Mariko said. "So am I. But please, please listen to what I'm saying. Something...something is making you want to believe this. That is what you must resist! Don't..." Her voice wavered. "Don't I deserve that?"

And then Sophie looked up at her with wet, limpid eyes, and a terrible desperation. "Of course...of course you do! Of course you do, Mariko!" A new guilt stabbed at her. "What if I'm wrong? What if I'm wrong and I leave Mariko all alone? No...no I won't! I won't leave her!" She pulled herself out of the raging storm. She couldn't stop seeing Elena. She couldn't stop the torrent of new memories tearing at her, trying to pull her down into oblivion. But she summoned every ounce of strength she had. "I'll try. I'll try..." She didn't believe her. She couldn't escape the ring of truth of Elena's words. But Mariko deserved the effort, at least. "I'm so scared, Koko..."
"I know, my love..." Mariko took Sophie, held her close, stroked her hair as she tried to calm her sobs, stop her from shaking - and indeed to stop herself from doing the same. "How...how can I convince her that this is madness?" And then she realised that while, perhaps, she could not, there might have been someone who could.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It was a harrowing seven hours before a bleary-eyed Natalya got there. Mariko hadn't said much, only that it was the nearest thing to a matter of life and death, and that her own powers would explain far better than Mariko could.
"Thank you," Mariko said, very sharply, when Natalya arrived. It was the most sincere thanks that Natalya had ever received. A brief scan of Mariko's mind - sheer discipline holding back agonising fear - and she was relatively up to date on the situation.
"What? I - how can that be possible? Even the strongest telepaths in the world can't just...replace someone whole cloth!" Sophie a fake? No. No it was...unconscionable.
"That," Mariko said, "is what I am very keen that you prove to her."

They found Sophie sitting on the edge of her bed, shakily drinking from a cup of coffee. She kept glancing at a corner of the room, and wincing occasionally. Evidently Elena had not given her much peace.
"Oh, Jesus!" Natalya cried out as soon as her mind made contact with Sophie. It was not because of any information she'd gathered - it was just because of Sophie's fear, a shrieking vortex of terror that almost made Natalya flee just by itself.
"Wh-what did you see?" Sophie blurted out. There were bags under her eyes, her skin was wan. She couldn't help looking pretty, but it was assuredly the worst Natalya had ever seen her.
"Nothing yet," Natalya said. "Just...I-I'll help if I can."

She sat down on a chair across from Sophie, put her fingers against her temples. There was no actual effect that this induced, it just tended to be comforting for those she read. Taking a deep breath, Natalya looked up into Sophie's exhausted, terrified eyes, and dived in.
"Unhh!" the telepath groaned. There was a cloud of raw emotion that was hard to pierce, even with her powers restored to their full strength. But eventually she did get through it - and found something she did not understand.

Once before, on looking into Sophie's mind, she had found an odd difference in the 'colour' of certain memories. Well now that difference was a jagged tear between the Sophie she knew on one side, and something else on the other. Not just oddities this time, but utterly irreconcilable differences and contradictions. She didn't understand it, but it lent itself far too neatly to the awful things that Sophie was claiming about herself. One thing she could not find, however, was any trace of this 'Elena' herself. Only Sophie's memories of seeing her, of her hidden nightmares, and this explosion of dream-stuff into her waking life. This, perhaps, was some consolation. Two sets of memories, yes that was certainly alarming, but she could find no trace of this double consciousness itself.

And then she felt a sort of...tug. It was very gentle at first, but something about it made Natalya nervous. She tried to pull out, but she couldn't.
"Ah!" The pull was stronger, sharper now. She was hauled into a cave, a dark cave somewhere within Sophie's mind. At first it was formless, empty, totally black. But then Natalya felt something - like she had a body and there was something touching her. Then it was hands grabbing her shoulders, and she screamed as she was spun around, and faced Sophie - only it was not Sophie at all.
[You can see me! You can see me!]
"Wh...what?"
[All the times you dived into my head, and you never noticed me - but you can! I'm here! Please!]
"G-get off! Get off me!" Natalya felt terrible things from this phantom: terror, loneliness, rage - an agony borne of years of isolation.
[I know you, Natalya. I've seen you through her eyes. I've been close to you without you even realising it - you're a good person, so please do what's right! Help me! Help me! I'm begging you - kill her! Kill her and let me out!]

Terrified, Natalya withdrew completely, turning her head away and disconnecting herself from Sophie. Shuddering, she turned away, panting and now almost as afraid as Sophie and Mariko themselves.
"What? What did you see?" Sophie gasped. "Is...is she real? It's true...oh god, it's true isn't it?" She squeezed her eyes shut in a half-successful attempt to stop the tears from coming again.
"Natalya," Mariko said, "what did you see?"
"I saw...I saw what you described, Sophie. Something that...something that presents itself as another you." She shook her head. "I have no idea whether it's...what you say it is." She looked up at the shivering redhead, and jolted. When she looked at Sophie, she saw another next to her, that awful black-haired phantom - awful because a phantom was not necessarily all that it was.

"Ugh..." Sophie lay back on her bed. She hadn't slept one wink, and it was taking its toll on her. She'd have been exhausted anyway, but the deprivation only made it worse. She longed for sleep, but it wouldn't come. There was no more especial terror in nightmare than in wakefulness now - Elena was there in either case.
"Mariko," Natalya said, "can...can I have a word with you in private, please?"
Mariko glanced at Sophie, but she hadn't even really heard Natalya. She just lay on her bed, moaning softly, as close to sleep as she could possibly get. "...alright."

When the two were alone, Mariko noticed that Natalya was still avoiding eye contact with her.
"What is it that you discovered?" Mariko said, sternly. Every time Natalya looked at her, though, she saw just how fragile her veneer of coldness was. There was a baffled fear in her, a heartache creeping up her like poison ivy. Natalya got a terrible flash of what Mariko imagined she might do if Sophie was lost to her.
"I don't know what I discovered. There is a sort of second set of memories in there."
"False memories," Mariko said. "Yes?"
"I..." Natalya shrugged. "Everything after her first memory of being Enhancegirl, from there there's only one set. And that's what Sophie's memories match up with. But if I didn't have that, if I was only looking at the memories from before Enhancegirl, then...I wouldn't be able to tell the difference." She gulped. "But the earliest memories Sophie has, her late infancy and her very early childhood...it feels more like they match up with this second set. But god knows, Mariko."
"Could another telepath do this?"
"Yes. I mean, who's to say what the rules are?" She breathed in sharply. "There's...there's a reason I wanted to talk to you alone. There may be another explanation for this.
"What?" A flash of aggression. "Don't say it. Don't you dare say that she isn't real! That cannot be true. I will not allow it!" When she saw Natalya's reaction, she backed off. "Sorry...I'm sorry Natalya." She slumped into a chair, covering her face with her hands. "Please, go on."

Natalya sat down next to Mariko and, somewhat hesitantly, touched her on the arm.
"There may be a more mundane explanation," the pale architect said. "She... Mariko, Sophie's at the right age to develop schizophrenia."
Mariko looked up sharply. "What?"
"She's been hallucinating, both visually and aurally. She has this...divided self, delusions - if they are delusions - of her own non-existence."
"Hallucinations - fine," Mariko said. "But... schizophrenics don't literally imagine separate personalities. Do they? I mean that's - that's cheesy Hollywood stuff. Surely!"
"I don't know, I'm not a psychologist, but it presents in lots of weird ways." She pinched the bridge of her nose. She hadn't had that much sleep herself. "I minored in psychology at college - I'm sure you can guess why - and I did something on a disorder called Cotard's Delusion. It's the persistent delusion that one doesn't exist, or is already dead."
"But that's not the same as schizophrenia."
"No, but...it can present with it. I mean, people with Cotard's normally imagine that they're literally dead, or in hell or something but - I mean it doesn't seem totally outside the realm of possibility."

Mariko stood up, breathingly rapidly, almost in a panic. She moved quickly to a window, opened it, trying to cool herself down.
"I've seen," Natalya said, "how she reacted when you tried to explain to her how little sense it all makes. She insisted she was certain - that fits with it being a delusion. Insistence despite logic."
"But that doesn't explain those other memories!" Mariko hissed. "Nothing makes...nothing makes sense! Oh god...why...why didn't I realise? Why didn't I s-see something was wrong?"
"Mariko, whatever this is, it's not your fault," Natalya said, though she felt how lame her words sounded.
"Either Sophie's going mad, or - or she never existed to begin with!" Mariko gripped the windowsill so tightly that her fingernails started scraping the paint off. "Of all...of all the people that deserve this, why her? Why Sophie?!"
"I'm...sorry, Mariko," Natalya said, trying not to look at her. But she couldn't quite look away, and she felt terror, dismay and rage erupting to the surface.

"I won't accept it!" Mariko shouted. "If she's...she's losing her mind then I will help her. I will do everything in my power to help her get well. Schizophrenics aren't...monsters! They're people. They can live perfectly d-decent lives if they're properly medicated, right? Right?"
A little afraid, Natalya nodded.
"Fine. Fine and - and if it turns out she's not real then damn reality! She's better than reality! I won't give her up! Do you hear me? I won't give her up! If Elena is real then good riddance to her! Put me in Sophie's mind and I'll destroy her myself!" By the end, Mariko was shaking with tears. She slid down to the ground, clutching her arms against her chest. "She's my vixen...I won't...I won't..."

Before Mariko knew what was happening, a pair of slender arms were wrapped around her, and soft hair was stroking her face. Her finely shaped cheeks were being kissed, and her tears mixed with those of another.
"I'm sorry, Koko," Sophie whispered. "I'm - y-you're right. It doesn't make sense. It can't be true. If - if I am losing it then I'll do whatever. I'll take any pill, I'll do - I'll do fucking anything, okay? I won't leave you...sweetie, I won't leave you..."
Mariko held her as tightly as she could, almost laughing at the absurdity of the situation - now it was Sophie comforting her.
"You're right, sweetie, it can't be true...the world...the world wouldn't be shitty enough to let us have each other and then rip us apart. No way it's that cruel...no fucking way, okay?"
"Okay," Mariko said, quietly, kissing her lover on the cheek. "Alright, sweetheart."
Even as Natalya felt Mariko calm just a little, and even felt a measure of calm from Sophie, she also felt that Sophie did not believe what she was saying. Terrified and tormented by the spectre inside her, she was still as sure as ever of her unreality.
__________________________________________________________________________________
“Is this wise?” Panhellius asked. “I’m sure I’d make a decent tactician, but I’m not exactly a…leader of men.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Jackson replied. “Not every leader has to command by charisma. You’re experienced, and powerful, and people respect you.” Sara, sitting across fromJackson, noticed that her leader seemed a little more relaxed than he had in a while. She was glad of this, but there was still a great anxiety in her heart.
“I leave it to your judgement,” Panhellius said. “I’m going to talk to some of the cape-watchers. See if they think there’s anyone around worthy of joining our ranks.”
“I’ll save you some time,” Jackson said. “Don’t ask Valora: she’s got a bit of a thing about working in teams.”
“Noted,” Derek replied, before leaving Imperion and Nova alone. Jackson appeared to expect Sara to leave, but she didn’t.

“Something bugging you?” the great man asked.
“Yeah. It’s…well, I guess it’s a kind of…abstract concern,” Sara said. “It’s - it’s not that I have a problem with splitting the Pauldron,” she said. “It’s - ”
“It’s that I asked Spectra to lead one of the groups before I asked you,” Jackson said. “Listen, Sara - ” “No, I get that, Jackson,” Sara said, though it wasn’t easy. “After…after how I’ve been recently I wouldn’t want me as a leader either.” She took a breath, looked Jackson in the eye. “It’s you. It’s you taking this new role. I don’t think it makes sense.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Jackson replied. “I can’t trust anyone else to do it.”
“You’re already split so many ways, though,” Nova’s voice had a pleading quality to it. “What if there’s some new villain that we can’t beat without you?”
“I know, I know…” Jackson shrugged, though not in a dismissive way. “I wish I had another solution. Sara, if you can think of another way - ”
“I’m sure the superhumans of this state will be happier knowing that it’s you who’s overseeing them instead of somebody else, but…what about the people you’ve been protecting?”
Jackson frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean… well, we get a bit pretentious about what it is to be a superhero sometimes. Isn’t the basic idea, at least, that we’re protecting people from danger?”
“Sure.”
“Well aside from the Titan – and who the hell knows what he gets up to half the time – you’re the strongest defender people have. I don’t think you know how much of a comfort you are to – to the rest of us.”

Jackson looked hard into Sara’s eyes, for rather a long time. She blushed, and tried not to look down at her feet like a shy schoolgirl.
“You seem better,” he said. “I gotta say, I was scared for a while there.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Sara replied.
“Yeah, I am, aren’t I?” He grinned, cheekily. The boyish charm was back. “But I mean it, Sara. I was really worried about you. Losing Farah sucked – I was really worried we were going to lose you too.” He shook his head. “I’ve seen you get so strong – physically, mentally, the works – but I feel like such a…paternalistic jerk sometimes.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I think that’s why I didn’t ask you to lead one of the two groups.”
“What do you mean?”
“’Cause even when you’re wrecking shop, even when you’re…starlight and power and just…jaw-dropping,” Jackson said, bringing out another blush in Sara’s soft, pink cheeks, “I still…I still feel like I just want to protect you.”
“W-well, I…um...” Sara absolutely could not keep eye contact with him any longer.
“It’s patriarchal as shit, I know. Ugh…” He ran his hands through his hair. “I guess my dad rubbed off on me more than I thought…”
“D-do you feel that way about the others?” Nova was breathing heavily, and failing to hide it. “About Chryseis and Mariko? Did you feel it about Farah? I mean if – if you’re such a paternalistic jerk.”
Jackson looked at her for a curiously long time. He seemed to realise something, and he stiffened.
“No,” he finally said. “I guess I just felt it about you.”
“Why?” She was almost shaking as she spoke. Jackson paused for a long time again.
“Do I need to say it?”
“Yes,” Sara replied, instantly. “Yes, you do.”

But Imperion would not have his say, at least not then. A boom, and a burning streak of orange raced past Imperion’s window, something flying up at terrific speed before landing on the helipad directly above the pair.
“What the hell was that?” Jackson leapt to his feet. Sara didn’t need to ask, though – that flash was an all-too familiar one. Before Jackson could even leave the room, they heard shouts, one voice sharply cutting across all the others. Soon it was close enough to hear.
“Come on, come on, where’s the great man?” A sharp, haughty voice, dripping with arrogance that made even Fahrenheit look modest and temperate. Suddenly, a thin, pale man with dark hair and a close fitting suit stepped into view, preceded by a couple of very nervous looking Morrow Foundation staff. “Ah, there you are!” Ivan Nazarov barked, striding towards Jackson.

“Nucleon? What the hell are you doing here?” Jackson made no attempt to disguise his disdain.
“It’s not nice to talk about people behind their backs, Mister Morrow!” Ivan barked. There were few people in the world who could enter a room being confident of physical parity with Imperion, and Ivan was one of them. “Sara,” he said, his voice taking on a mocking caramel tone, “it’s lovely to see you again. Doing well, I hope? How’s your mother? All better now?”
“Yes, thank you,” Sara said, quietly, folding her arms across her chest. “Did you really come here just to whine about being criticised? For someone so powerful you really are pretty damned thin-skinned.”
“Oh, honey, I love it when you call me powerful.”

Ivan stepped closer, almost looking right in the face of the blonde man who’d raised his umbrage.
“Actually, you know what?” Ivan sat down, casually crossed his legs. “No. I’m not here to complain. I’m here to extend the hand of friendship – and of alliance.”
“What?” Imperion clenched a fist. “What are you talking about?”
“Your wife, Jackson. Oh yes,” the pale man said when he saw Jackson flinch, “Farah’s told us. We know who Hades really is. Efforts to deal with her so far have been pretty bloodless, so I’m proposing a sort of…joint task force. Your lot and our lot coming together, to kill Anya Morrow.” He grinned. “I mean, let’s call a spade a spade, eh?”
“You’re the one who’s been bragging about how strong you are,” Jackson said. “What do you need us for?”
“Information,” Ivan said. “You’re the best source of intelligence on her there is. What makes her tick? What are her preferences? Is she kidnapping all these juicy young ladies because that’s what villains do, or does she like it?”

Jackson relaxed his fist.
“Okay, Ivan. You win. I’m riled up. I’m pissed as hell, and I’m regretting ever making that comment to the press. Now would you please just get the fuck out of my building?”
“Oh, you think I wasn’t serious?” Ivan got up again. “Oh, I was serious. You see, last night, your wife crushed my fucking arm, poisoned me, and abducted the woman I’ve been seeing from right under my nose. And then you have the temerity to criticise me for trying to deal with her?”
“Ivan,” Nova hissed, “calm down!”
“Well what have you done?” Ivan barked. “Eh, Imperion? What have you done to stop this from happening? If you’re too scared or too sentimental to take on your missus, then give me every single piece of information you have on her, and shut the fuck up when the grown-ups are working!”

Imperion didn’t even look as though he’d lost his temper. He reached over, grabbed Ivan by the cuff, and hauled him up off the ground.
“Get. Out.”
“Fuck. You.” Ivan ignited his powers, erupting in a burning orange aura. “You can’t threaten me. I heard that you lost to Lord Delirious, Jackie. Again. The mask of invincibility is starting to slip. I wonder which of the two of us is tougher – auuugghhh!” It hadn’t been Imperion who had struck him. When Ivan was catapulted so far out of Imperion’s office that he almost crashed into his seafood restaurant, it wasn’t because Jackson had thrown him. It had been because Nova had blasted him.
“Ow!” Ivan shouted, getting to his feet. “What the fuck, Sara?!” He looked across at the pair of heroes he’d crossed, saw them standing together. Saw the way Sara looked at Jackson. “Oh. Right.” He dusted himself off. “This isn’t over, Imperion. I’m only leaving now because I’ve realised you might actually have a good reason to hate me.” With that he re-ignited his powers, melted a nearby window, and shot off through it into the morning sky.

“I knew this would happen,” Jackson growled. “I knew that arrogant fuck would - ” He stopped himself. “No, I'm being unfair. After what happened to him last night, I guess a little strut was what he needed to get back on track."
Sara, listening, was again impressed with Jackson's ability to step back. He had the wide view of things of a statesman - of a true leader. At leas, that was how Sara saw it. “Jackson.” Sara had been about to ask what Jackson was going to have said – but the moment, such as it had been, had passed. “I’ll, uh…I’ll rendezvous with Chryseis. She thinks she might have found where Greyhand is hiding.”
“I gotcha,” Jackson said. “And Sara?”
She looked back at him, mostly in profile. He took in the sight of her. Her lovely face, her stardust-sprinkled cheeks, her womanly, petite figure.
“We’ll…we’ll talk later, yeah?”
“Right,” Sara said. Her heart fluttered, and as she turned, she wondered how Ivan had ever seemed like a man compared to this…giant.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Despite her protestations, Sophie did eventually persuade Natalya that she leave - by now even they had heard about the events of Hades' encounter with Zjarrus the previous night, and they rather thought that Natalya might want to be with her brother rather than "helping with my stupid, crazy-ass head again." But soon, the two lovers were once again alone - or rather, they were not.

[I hope you realise how selfish you are, Sophie,] Elena said, refusing to cease her torments. [You think your relationship with your girlfriend is more important than my life?]
Sophie didn't respond. "I'm crazy," she thought. "I...I must be crazy to feel so sure...I have so many reasons to doubt it...so I've gotta be going insane. Otherwise I wouldn't...wouldn't feel so certain." Even in her own mind the words rang hollow.
[Let me put it another way - you are just made up, Sophie, and you know it. If Mariko's so wonderful, doesn't she deserve a relationship with a real person?]

Sophie shot up.
"Let's...let's try and find out. Once and for all, let's try to find out where my powers come from. Let's...let's prove that it's all bullshit!"
"How?" Mariko said. "Do we have anything to go on now that we didn't before?"
"I..." And then something sprang into Sophie's mind. "Wait, yeah! May found something!"
"May Fairweather? The journalist?"
"Yeah! It slipped my mind 'cause I got fucking kidnapped right afterwards!" Sophie grinned. She was almost giddy. "Oh, yeah, we're - we're gonna blow this fucking thing wide open, I swear to fucking God."
[It doesn't matter.]
"Fuck you, yes it does!" Sophie bellowed. Before she could even register Mariko's shock, she said: "May found something out about Schiffer, that shady-ass scientist. He used to work for the Anubis Foundation."
"What?" Mariko's jade eyes shot open. "What would a PR firm want -"
"-with a scientist? I know. It's - it's, y'know, it could be a major lead." Fumblingly, she searched for her phone. "I'll call May. She mighta found something else out."
"Sure."

Rather nervously did Sophie dial May's number. Somehow, more knowledge seemed inherently scary, and it was difficult not just to curl up in a ball and pray for it all to go away.
"Yo, twisted sister," came the answer. Her phone had only rung about three times before she picked up, but it had felt to Sophie like an eternity.
"Hey," Sophie said. "Um, I - uh, I was wondering if you'd found out anything else about Schiffer."
Mariko watched Sophie's face as she spoke. Besides anything May was or wasn't saying, it was creased with pain that Mariko longed to ease. But to her dismay, she only saw that pain increase.
"What do you - May, we spoke yesterday about it. Yesterday. You - no, you told me he worked for Anubis. Yeah, the Foundation. Wh -" She stopped talking. "Yeah, I'm real fucking sure, May! Why would I make something like that up? Like, why would I just pull that outta my ass?! No...no I know...no, I'm sorry I shouted...yeah, um...we'll have lunch soon, okay?"

As soon as she hung up, she dropped to her knees.
"She doesn't remember," she said. She didn't look panicked, or angry. She just looked drained. "She says it never happened. She says that she just told me a little bit about his background. She says she never mentioned Anubis at all."
"How can that be?" Mariko knelt by her. Her lover didn't respond, just staring forward. "Sophie?"
"Maybe it's better...maybe it's better this way: I am going crazy."
[You know the reason.] Elena wasn't visible. The voice - that dark voice which had been spitting poison into her ear for so much longer than she'd realised - clawed at her. [You're crumbling. The pieces are falling apart. You're -]

"Wait a minute," Mariko said. There was a glint in her eye, a spark. She looked the way she did after solving a crossword, only much more intensely. Something had clicked. "Wait a bloody minute. This isn't the first time we've seen this happen!”
"What?"
"The Penitentiary Supreme. That guard - you know, the soldier. Do you remember telling me about him?" There was fire in her eyes. She was onto something.
"Which? The one who should have been guarding Schiffer?"
"Yes. But he wasn't. Even though Schiffer should have been there, yes?"
Sophie nodded. Then her eyes went wide. "He...he forgot as well!"
"Nothing," Mariko said, "is more conspicuous than an effort at concealment. Two people connected to Schiffer in some way and both of them suddenly devoid of information or knowledge that they should have. Sophie - what if that is Schiffer's power? He has the ability to control memory."

It made so much sense that Sophie was astonished it hadn’t occurred to her before. She grabbed onto it, leapt onto it like a man dying of thirst leaping towards a lake.
"Yeah... like...like he fucked with her - with my head when I got my powers or - he did it to make sure he wouldn't get caught or - or something!" Her heart started beating rapidly within her chest. Was it possible - was there some hope for her? "May...May even said there were, like - like big gaps in his history. We just sorta assumed it was when he was doing shady military shit – but maybe there’s gaps because he made them.”
"Our enemy has overplayed their hand," Mariko says. "It is clear what we must do: we need to investigate the Anubis Foundation."
"Yeah. Yeah...we just need to think about how."
"Their main office is in Nevada. We ought to start there. Come."
"What, now?"
"Yes, now. Carpe diem and so on." She helped Sophie up, and as she did, couldn't help but pull her into a kiss.

"Mhh!" Sophie was a little caught off guard, but she took the opportunity once it presented itself. She drew her hands around Mariko’s waist, and pulled her in tightly, feeling her lover’s small, pert breasts against her chest. She moaned tenderly as they kissed, hands running desperately all over each other, as if in dire need of reassurance. Sophie felt the hotness of Mariko’s mouth, the smoothness of her skin as Sophie ran her hands over her shoulders, her neck, her cheeks. She had to stand on her toes to reach her taller lover, and she loved the feeling of it. She let Mariko fold her arms around her, wrapping the redhead in her embrace. She was so beautiful…so powerful…Sophie almost felt as if Mariko could protect her. Almost.

The two pulled away from each other, gasping, but even then only slightly.
“Nothing takes you from me. Do you understand? Nothing.” It was as much to herself as to Sophie, and Mariko knew it.
“I love you, Koko…” Sophie said, and it had the quality of a prayer to it. “I love you. Sophie Scott loves Mariko Asakura. There’s…there’s nothing in the fucking universe that can make that not true, okay?” ‘Even if Sophie Scott is just an illusion’ was the unsaid disclaimer.
“Right. I’ll – I’ll need to contact Imperion if we’re going to be dealing with Anubis. I’m not asking for permission,” she added quickly. “But his Foundation has locked horns with them before.”
“Whatever you say,” Sophie said. Her expression wavered, and so did Mariko’s.

For the two of them both knew that there was an aspect of false enthusiasm. Each was trying to comfort, to encourage, to safeguard the feelings of the other. But they needed something to hold onto. Something to hold back the horror.
“I haven’t…” Mariko began, but had to stop. It was difficult to find the momentum again. “I haven’t seen that expression in your eyes. She – Elena – hasn’t said anything for a while, has she?”
“No,” Sophie replied.
“That should tell you something too. She knows that whoever’s behind this has revealed too much. She doesn’t want to add to their mistake.” She kissed Sophie on the forehead. “I’ll not be long, my sweet.” She went into Sophie’s bedroom to contact Imperion, though at no point did she take her eyes from her lover.

[She’s wrong.]
It was difficult for Sophie not to scream when she felt Elena’s whisper. “Go to hell. You can twist my mind all you like. You can…you can make me believe you – but you don’t have any power over her do you?”
[I haven’t said anything because I don’t want to stop you. I want to know why this happened to me. And if you do find it out – you’ll find out that everything I’m saying is true. Actually, no, you know it already. But she’ll find out. She’ll find out that I’m the one who needs saving!]
Sophie looked away, trying to find her light in the darkness. She saw her, and Mariko smiled as their eyes met, that thin, slightly funny looking smile of hers – and Sophie felt a horribly familiar feeling: Mariko was climbing higher and higher away from her – or rather Sophie was sinking. She was less now than she’d ever been, and she almost wept at the loss of her joy.
Last edited by Damselbinder 5 years ago, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by DrDominator9 »

Incredible chapter with a fantastic concept wonderfully realized. Wow! Can't wait to see this played out.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

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“I’m telling you, Congressman, you can’t trust these super-freaks.” Cato Pict was a man in his element. Thanks to Ivan Nazarov, public perception of the Pariahs was at its lowest point since their debut, and he was doing everything he could to fan the flames of hatred of superheroes in general. “You think the Pariahs are gonna be good little boys and girls and stay in California? No way, José. So start drafting some kind of resolution to keep ‘em restricted to the states they’re registered in – no, I agree, I agree. It won’t pass. But controversy is like a dog – you gotta feed it or it either rolls over and dies or it starts attacking you. Of course you’ll have our support for re-election, that’s what friends are for, right? Okay. Alright. Love to your wife, Congressman!”

Cato hung up, and let out an exaggerated groan. He spun his chair around, slid backwards until he was out of his office.
“Hey, Sanchez!” he shouted, so loud that people on his floor actually stopped what they were doing to see what was the matter.
“Jesus, Cato, what?” An older man stuck his head out of his own office.
“You know Rick Fuchs?” Cato asked. Sanchez nodded. “Is he the one whose brother was a kiddy-fiddler?”
“No,” Sanchez replied. “You’re thinking of Rick Francis. He’s a junior senator in Vermont. Fuchs is the one with the gambling addiction.”
“That’s the one!” Cato laughed. “Remind me to leak it if he welshes on us.” He started whistling My God is an Awesome God, and deftly dodged a metal paper bin that Sanchez hurled at him in umbrage.

Returning to his office, he looked over his appointments for the day. He had a conference call with Anubis’ director and a couple of local state senators, a lunch date with an accountant who’d promised him some juicy details on the Las Vegas Chief of Police, and a nosy superhero named Nightlord whose neck he needed to snap. All in all, a pretty normal day for Cato Pict, Anubis’ most dependable talking head, and an able murderer. As one might imagine, there were not many things in the world that could faze this man. Only a few days before he’d had a group of angry troglodytes shoving guns in his face, and he hadn’t even blinked.

Yet now he had a strange feeling. A very strange feeling: it was actually quite disturbing. Like something in the back of his mind was pulsating. He felt dizzy, and a little sick. Something drew him to the window of his office, a need for air – but not just that. He threw open the window, and gulped in lungfuls of oxygen. This made him feel better, but something still drew his eye. He looked down, and saw a car pulling in, twenty floors below. Something about it made him unable to look away, but he couldn’t tell why.

He looked back.
“Shit.” He locked his door, closed the blind on its interior window. He took a moment to centre himself, and as quietly as possible spoke his changeword: “Enhance.” With a brilliant golden flash, his grey suit jacket was replaced with a long, golden coat, the grey of his trousers and his waistcoat now a glimmering silver, and a blood-red mask covering his entire face above the mouth, leaving only the eyes unobscured. He went quickly to the window again, and looked down at the car which had drawn his attention so mysteriously. He saw two women getting out, his vastly magnified senses revealing them in full detail. One was tall, exceptionally graceful and slender: Japanese, at least by ancestry. She was wearing a very fetching beige and cream dress, showing off one shoulder with a slightly frilled hem brushing the tops of a pair of deliciously long legs.

That was not the only treat for Cato’s remarkable eyes. Another woman got out with her, shorter, with hair as red as the coat of a fox. She was wearing a dark jacket, white shirt, and a delightfully tight little skirt that showed off a fine set of lithe pins all of her own. Upping the intensity of his enhanced vision a little, he saw that the thin, white coverings over her legs were stockings, not tights. This was very much to his preference. But as he looked closer, his eyes dancing lasciviously over her gorgeous, youthful figure – ignoring quite purposefully the look of distress and fear in her emerald eyes – he realised that he recognised her.

“Oh, fuckity-fuck!” Cato hissed. “That’s not just any redhead…that’s Enhancegirl!” Sophie’s disguise was thin at the best of times. To Cato in his powered state it was as nothing. “Well, shit,” he muttered. “I knew it. I told ‘em, I god-damned told ‘em something like this might happen…” He looked out again, and saw that the two were having a conversation. Had it been Enhancegirl herself in his position, she’d only have had the power to surveil, not to eavesdrop – but Cato wasn’t Enhancegirl, at least not quite. He craned his neck, and with his enhanced hearing, he listened into their conversation.

“Can you see her now?” the Japanese woman asked.
“No,” Enhancegirl replied. Cato could tell from the quality of her voice that her throat was slightly hoarse: she’d been crying. “But she’s…she’s there. She wants me to know that she’s there.”
“Well, never mind,” the taller woman said. “To hell with her.” She looked up at the building, and if Cato’s powers hadn’t been so subtle, he would have thought she was looking at him. “Now that it comes down to it, I’m…well I’m not actually sure how we’re going to get information from these people. As a member of the Pauldron, I am technically a law enforcement agent. I might be able to compel them to talk through intimidation.”
Cato’s eyes went wide. “The Pauldron? That must be Spectra! What the fuck is she doing here? Ah, geez, this day is getting super weird!”
“Hey, why don’t I talk to them?” Enhancegirl said. “I’ll, um, I - ” She winced. Cato didn’t get why, but she looked fearfully off to the side. Spectra took her hands, squeezed them.
“Go on, my love,” she said, eliciting a delighted guffaw from Cato at the nature of their relationship, “I’m here.”
“I’ll play it like…like I’m a protestor or something. Hell, I could go in as EG and really put a spike up their asses.”
“Three quarters of a good idea,” Spectra replied. “I don’t think you should go in as Enhancegirl – that would attract much too much attention But mostly, yes, I think that works.” Before she could elaborate, however, she heard a great yell of pain from someone above them. Both maidens looked for the source of the noise, but Cato had already yanked himself back inside his office.

“D-downgrade!” he sputtered, shivering with pain, deactivating his powers. “My pills…where the hell are my pills?!” He rummaged desperately around for them. Even though the source of the pain had now faded, he was compulsively desperate for his medicine. He found the bottle, threw twice the intended dose down his throat, and gasped with relief. “Okay. Okay.” As his pain eased, and he took in the flurry of new information that Spectra and Enhancegirl’s arrival had given him, he smiled. He now had rather a cunning little plan of his own.
__________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie hadn’t really known what she’d been expecting of the Anubis Foundation, but when it came down to it, it was a little more…mundane than she was hoping for. It only occupied four floors of the building, the rest devoted to office space for other businesses. She saw a faintly pretty receptionist answering calls, saw a wood-finish décor that had obviously looked very good about five years prior. Saw Elena standing an inch off the ground.

“Jesus!” Sophie gasped. The phantom had been silent, but watchful, for some time now. As she’d said, she had no objection to Sophie’s current course of action – but she didn’t want Sophie to forget she was there.
“Uh, excuse me, Miss, are you alright?” The receptionist was looking at her. Most everyone Sophie could see was doing the same. She’d only just realised quite how loud her exclamation had been.
“Uh, no!” Sophie remembered her purpose. “I want to complain. I want to protest. I want to raise a massive fucking stink because you guys are assholes!”
The receptionist rolled her eyes. This was not the first person even that week to have burst in and started yelling. “Ma’am, if you want to complain, by all means send us an e-mail.”
“Not a chance. You racist jackasses have been getting away with harassing superhumans for way too god-damned long.” It was only as Sophie started saying this that she realised that actually, yes, the Anubis foundation were bastards, and a protest or two might not be such a bad thing. How tirelessly she and her kind worked to be seen as good, how much more work they had to do to justify their presence in the world than normal people. How much harder did these vipers make that task!

“Hey, sweetie.” A smooth voice slithered its way into Sophie’s ear. A short, thin woman, perhaps thirty-three, sauntered over to the redhead. “You know if you want to talk, I’m all ears for a girl like you. Don’t worry, Karen,” she said to the receptionist, “I’ll take it from here.”
“The hell you will!” Sophie said loudly. “You know supers aren’t going away, right? You know how many fucking lives you guys have ruined just because you’re all scared out of your wits?” She was trying to be as boorishly attention-seeking as possible. She couldn’t see Mariko, of course: that was rather the point, so she didn’t know how long she’d need this distraction. Then, quite suddenly, the short woman walked right up next to Sophie, and hissed into her ear:
“We know who you are, Enhancegirl. Follow me if you’re looking for answers.” Then, aloud she said: “Follow me, sweetie. Let’s see if we can’t hash this thing out.”

Sophie froze for a moment. She damn near considered turning her powers on then and there – but caution held her back. Her first thought, of course, was that this woman had confirmed Mariko’s deduction – Anubis did have a connection to the origin of her powers, and the terrible presence within her. But aggrieved and fearful though she might have been, she was far from stupid. The Anubis foundation specialised in undermining superheroes, as well as making life hard for superhumans in general. “They could have found out who I am. Waiting to hold it over my head like an anvil if they ever needed to.” There was another thing she’d noticed as well: the woman hadn’t wanted to say what she’d said in front of the receptionist. Of course, it could have been just a question of levels of access or something, but she had a glimmer of an idea: if Anubis had hidden depths, depths that required the services of someone like Schiffer, they probably had secrets within the organisation as well.

Sophie wasn’t sure if she should follow or not, aside from the possibility of its being some kind of trap. However, she saw a brief glimmer out of the corner of her eye, as Mariko – by now out of sight of the other people there – came back into view. She couldn’t keep her cloak up for long: but she was as far as Sophie’s distractions could get her. She nodded at her lover, and recloaked. “Alright then…”

She followed the woman up to the sixteenth floor of the building, the top level that was part of Anubis’ organisation.
“Name’s Karen Mathieson,” the woman said. “It’s nice meeting a celebrity, even you if you are a yube.”
Sophie was astonished that Karen had said that so casually. ‘Yube’ was a corruption of 'ube', itself short for the word ‘ubermenschen’ – and about the most offensive word a person could use to describe a superhuman. In her entire life – in Seacouver – Sophie had never actually heard anyone use it.
[You can’t blame her. People like you are terrifying.]
Sophie managed to choke a yelp. "Uh, s-sorry," she stammered. "Hiccoughs."
[I was always afraid of superhumans,] Elena said. She was there now, visible, standing across from Sophie in the elevator. [I had nightmares about them when I was a little girl. I saw the Indigo Titan once, just for a second, just flying overhead one time. I was so terrified that I fainted. How are parents supposed to tell their kids not to be afraid of monsters when monsters are actually real? Even your precious Koko could slaughter people like cattle if she wanted to. If she had a couple of bad days and snapped.]
For the first time, Elena had said something which had not frightened Sophie. In a way it almost seemed...immature. The idea that a person could just 'turn evil' - that was puerile nonsense. And then Sophie realised that this made perfect sense: Elena had been trapped inside her since she'd been given her powers. Sophie might have turned twenty, but Elena was stuck as a teenager. Now Elena's reaction had another dose of verisimilitude. Now it frightened her.

Karen led Sophie into a small corner office. It seemed fairly isolated - in fact, from what little Sophie had seen, it seemed as if there was no-one else on this floor at all. Karen beckoned he further in, and invited her to sit down.
“I’ll stand, thanks,” Sophie said. Karen shrugged, and took her own seat anyway. “So you know who I am. Big whoop. You promised me answers: so where are they?”
“Well, I’ll say this,” Karen said. “You’re not as special as you think you are.”
“What do you mean?” Sophie asked. The answer came quickly enough, but Sophie was by no means thrilled to hear it.



She saw the flash reflected in a window. That was what she focused on the most. Possibly she just couldn’t believe that she’d heard what she’d heard. But that was impossible. Except, of course, it wasn't.
“Enhance.” With a speed and agility that Sophie knew all too well, a figure clad in silver and gold reached out for her. His celerity seemed to transcend thought, because before she could even think of responding in kind, a hand shot out, and clamped down over her mouth.
“MMMPHHH!!” Sophie cried out, robbed of her capacity to turn on her powers. Her green eyes grew wide with shock, but she didn't allow herself to be paralysed. She threw an elbow backwards, but it was dodged with a truly casual ease. She stomped down with her heels at her assailant's feet, but they were out of the way long before she could even dream of hitting them. Every movement she made was negated, turned aside, rendered useless. "Mm! Mhhh-MMHHHRRPHHH!" All the while, that same hand - smooth as a man's hand could be, and lethal as a viper's fang - pressed down over her soft, pink lips. Thrashing uselessly, Sophie was kicked lightly in the ankle, just enough to make her overbalance and be easily turned.

"Well aren't you a fucking peach," Sophie's assailant said. Sophie saw her own reflection, as well as that of another, this thin man who had her thoroughly restrained with a few deft movements. "I've always wondered what this would be like. I kinda felt like it'd be gross." He hooked both of Sophie's arms with one of his, keeping them fixed behind her back. "I mean, what with us being so alike, I thought it'd be like groping my own sister or something."
"Mmph! MMMPHHH!!" Sophie moaned, shocked beyond shock at what was happening to her. This man, this stick-insect with curly blonde hair who looked like an ageing member of a nineties boyband had her in his clutches. This man who was a defiance of everything she thought she knew. "Who is he? What the fuck is going on?" The changeword had mostly sealed the deal by itself, but as she squirmed her lithe and lovely body and he countered her with but the slightest adjustments, it became all too clear: he had exactly the same powers as her.

Someone else had the same powers as her. In theory, this didn't confirm anything either way. She obviously got her powers from somewhere, she wasn't born with them. They came with clothes, for heaven's sake, and god only knew how that worked. Yet more than that, it just...fit. It with so well with what Elena had told her. Sophie could just imagine it: assembly line Enhancegirls and Enhanceboys getting churned out for some nefarious purpose. Assembly line Sophies. Hand-gagged and restrained, overpowered and muzzled, the slender redhead saw her reflection, that of her captor - and that of one other behind them both.
[Captured again, Sophie?] the redhead's phantom said. [You really are pathetic, you know that?]
Doubly bewildered and doubly shamed, Sophie had no defence against this accusation.

"You gonna kill this one, Cato?" Karen asked, crossing her legs.
"Cato? Like, Cato Pict?" She knew the name only vaguely: he wasn't exactly a celebrity, but he was on television with sufficient frequency talking up the dangers of superhumans that she had heard of him. Plus, it was a very odd name.
"What? Kill my noble, heroic counterpart? Not a chance in hell." He wrestled Sophie up against a wall. Despite his thin frame, he was frighteningly strong. Sophie didn't have a hope of escaping his grip. "Sophie. That's your real name, right?" He pressed her tighter, pressing his own body against hers as she bucked and writhed. "I didn't think you'd be so hot up close. Normally I'm not into redheads."
"Fhhgghh! Whhh-mhhhhhmphh!" Sophie groaned, straining helplessly.
"Temper temper, bobcat," Cato laughed. "You don't want me getting mean." He sniffed her hair, and Sophie recoiled. "I knew you'd be a problem. I knew it. Well, at least you've given me another reason to be smug about something, and Lor' knows I won't spurn an opportunity like that!" He gave Karen a sharp look. "Let Numero Uno know that I was right. Ask if they want anything done."
"Whatever you say," Karen replied. She got up, and hurriedly made her way towards the door.
"Mghph! MMRHMMHHH!!" Sophie didn't stop complaining and struggling for a second, but she had just enough concentration to glance at Karen. Enough concentration to see her look at Cato. Enough to see that she was petrified of him.

As soon as the two were alone, Cato spun Sophie around, keeping one hand over her mouth, and pinning both of Sophie's arms against her chest.
"You're afraid," Cato said. "I can smell it on you. Literally. Oh, wait!" He smiled sheepishly. "I don't need to explain that to you, do I?"
"Fhggh yhhh!" Sophie kicked out with her knee, but he deflected the blow perfectly, turning her aside with such ease it was almost insulting.
"Let me get another whiff." He leaned in, and to Sophie's disgust, he ran his tongue up her neck. "Euch!" He spat. "Shit, bobcat, that perfume smells okay but it tastes like shit." A punchable smile slowly formed on his face. "But your fear tastes deeeeeeeeeeee-lectable!" Sophie saw Cato's pale blue eyes dart back and forth. She recognised the expression: he was analysing. "Obviously you're scared now," he muttered, "but this isn't all fresh fear. You've been...hmmm...you've been scared out of your wits for hours. Like, full on panic mode. Something's got you spooked - but what?" And then his smile changed. It didn't leave him completely - but it got much, much nastier. "Ohhhhhhhh..." he said. "That sentimental old fuck! You didn't know. That's why you're here now!" He giggled. "Oh, geez, that's actually kinda sad!"
"What? What didn't I know?" Sophie was no longer struggling, and not because she'd realised it was useless. Cato had her powers. Cato had undergone the same process. Whatever had been done to her had been done to him. She was only a few words away from proof, one way or the other, of whether or not she was real.
[What will you do?] Elena's voice rang cold in Sophie's ears. [It's not enough just to know. You already know. When he makes it so that you can't run away from it for one second longer, what are you actually going to do?]
Sophie didn't answer. She really didn't know.

But if more information was forthcoming, it wasn't to be given to her then. Cato got a twinkle in his eye.
"Oooooh, I've had an idea. An awful idea. I've got a wonderful, awful idea!" He came closer still, clearly taking a great deal of pleasure in his superior strength. "Let's have a duel. Hero versus villain, Enhancegirl versus Cato Pict. Counterparts locked in mortal combat! Oh, man it's too good. It's way too good." And then, with all the excitement of a schoolboy, Cato took his hands off Sophie, releasing her arms and her mouth. She needed no further cue.
"E -"

She didn't even get all the way through the first phoneme. Cato moved with a sinister grace and shocking speed - and struck Sophie with a hard chop right at the base of her neck.
"Ahhh!" Sophie gasped. Her whole body juddered. It was like she'd been electrically shocked. "Nhh...hhhh..." She couldn't move. From the spot she'd been struck, a wave of powerlessness seemed to surge through her. She couldn't speak, could barely think. Her arms dropped limply to her sides, her head began to waver from side to side. "My body... I can't...unhh...I can't..."

The shock seemed to travel all the way through her in surge after surge, each one dragging Sophie further into total helplessness. She could barely even find the strength to breathe, and this she did only in short, uneven gasps.
"Uhh...nnnnhhh..." Sophie felt a sort of static, like someone was jamming her nerves' signals to her brain. Everything was getting pale, ill-defined. Her shapely legs shuddered, and in an all-too-appropriate expression of her weakness, Sophie found herself going pigeon-toed, her legs turning inwards, making balancing all the more difficult. "Uuhhhhhhhh..." With a feminine sigh, Sophie lost balance completely, and sank down to her pretty knees, swaying like a reed as she fell, all svelte, helpless slenderness and kneeling, submissive sensuality.

"Damn!" Cato giggled. "Normally I have to pay good money to get hot college girls to get on their knees in front of me, but you're just givin' it away for free." He crouched down next to the half-conscious damsel, grinning all the while.
"En...ehh..." She couldn't say it. Keeping awake was taking every ounce of her strength.
"You know, if it were up to me," Cato said, stroking Sophie's cheek with the back of one hand. "I'd just strangle you to death right here. Boy that'd be fun! But..." He slid his hand down to her neck, extended his fingers around it. "We've all got our orders." He took his hand away. "Damn, you're putting up a pretty good fight! I mean, you're not - you're limp as a noodle and pretty as a picture - but, y'know. You're still conscious." He smiled, patted her on the head, and then struck her again, on the other side this time, between her neck and her clavicle.

"Aaahhh!" Sophie cried, another shock shooting through her, her large green eyes going wide. "Aaaauuhhhh-aaaahhh!" Her whole body shuddered and quivered. It wasn't painful, exactly, but it was overwhelming, as if her nerves were being pumped with stimulus that she couldn't deal with. It only took a second for this second blow to finish the first's job. "Ahh...oooooohhhhhhhh..." The long sigh was like Sophie breathing out the last of her strength. She fell forward, landing fairly softly on her front, lying prone and totally vulnerable on the ground, her arms neatly by her sides, her thinly-covered legs tucked tightly together as if in some last, desperate defence.
"Lights out, babe," Cato said. And indeed, with that, Sophie's eyelids fluttered shut, and she dropped into Morpheus' lap.

Cato turned Sophie's lithe, limp body over, her long red hair like a crown of fire about her head. One of her arms flopped onto her own pert bosom, as though even in her sleep she were fearfully aware of her body's virtues. Her warm, stocking-clad legs had become crossed at the ankles - an even feebler defence.
"Man! What a pretty little peach," Cato said. With balletic agility and speed, he slipped his hand under her thighs, and another under her back, and with his impressive strength, lifted her up into his arms.
"Hh..." the maiden sighed slightly, as she dangled in his arms, her calves bouncing slightly with every step, her wavy, red hair trailing down towards the ground.

"'Why, Mister Pict,'" Sophie's captor said, in a sing-song Southern accent, "'your devil-may-care ways and rugged charms have swept me off my feet, you handsome rogue, you. Why, I think I may be comin' down with a case of the vapours! Oh, I do declare!'" He set her down on a greying, slightly dilapidated couch, and bent her forward, pulling her hands behind her back. Her fingers curled inwards slightly, and she had a penitent aspect about her in her current position which pleased Cato greatly. "Why, you be careful now, little missy," he said, affecting what might perhaps have been an embryonic impersonation of Roy Rogers. "You can't go fainting away in front of every man who appreciates your charms." He took a roll of duct tape from the arm of the couch, and stuck its end to one of Sophie's wrists. "You never know how they might take advantage."

There was a terrifically loud ripping sound, as Cato tore tape away from the roll, wrapping it swiftly up Sophie's slim arms. Every motion was perfectly calculated, the looping pattern geometrically faultless as Sophie's arms were constricted as if caught by a python. Sophie's shoulders were pulled back as her arms were taped up with ruthless strictness, right the way from her wrists to three-quarters of the way up her forearms.
"Chuppah!" Cato laughed as he pulled Sophie back up, her hair thrown back past her shoulders. He now bound her arms to her torso, pushing Sophie back and forth as he needed to while he bound her forearms securely to her back. As her supple body was manipulated, the knocked-out damsel was totally obedient to Cato's whims, her head flopping from one side to the other, her face a picture of peacefulness. Even as Cato wrapped a second layer around her torso, binding her from her waist to right underneath her breasts with such security that even Valora would have taken a moment of effort to break free, she was silent.

"There." Cato moved her back onto the couch, and her head fell back onto its cushions, exposing her soft, white throat. He was almost panting. With his powers active, he could feel every slight movement that she made, the tiniest glimmers of resistance as she moved in his grip. He decided to indulge himself a little more, and ran his hands up and down Sophie's long legs. He enjoyed every contour, every curve of them. He appreciated the slightly more impressionable skin of Sophie's thighs compared to her calves, appreciated the heat that arose from her skin wherever she was touched. So too did he appreciate - even through her stockings - that Sophie waxed her legs, rather than shaving them.

He did not have an infinite amount of time available to him, but smiling cheekily to himself, he removed one of Sophie's shoes. Then, he slid both his hands up this newly unshod leg, his fingertips tracing it with exquisite care, until he came to just under her skirt, and the top of the stocking. He peeled it down, slowly baring Sophie's creamy skin. It glistened slightly, and he could smell traces of soap on Sophie's thigh.
"Made yourself all pretty for me. Ain't that kind!" Cato pulled the stocking all the way off, before carefully replacing Sophie's black heel. Then, he rolled the stocking up into a ball, sniffed it, then squeezed Sophie's cheeks, parting her lips. Her mouth open, Cato shoved the balled up stocking in. "'Oh Cato, you're so bad!'" he laughed. "I know, I know, I'm the worst, ain't I?"

Taking again the roll of duct tape, he pressed a strip over Sophie's mouth, gagging her and sealing the stocking in. He then wrapped the silvery substance which was so very often used against its intended purpose around her head, his powers allowing not only to do this with terrific speed, but also to avoid trapping any of Sophie's lovely hair. When he was finished, there were three layers covering Sophie's soft mouth, keeping her totally muzzled.

With great pleasure, Cato moved back down to Sophie's legs, but here he was a little more restrained. He pressed her thighs together, enjoying the contrast between the smoothness of the fabric of the stocking on one leg, and the almost feathery softness of the skin of the other. Quickly but carefully, he wrapped two strips of tape around Sophie's knees, drawing them tightly together, but leaving her just enough wiggle room to...well, wiggle - at least when she woke up. He did the same at her ankles, only he bound them in a few more layers than he had her thighs.

Standing, he observed his handiwork. The gorgeous redhead lay before him, absolutely helpless and delectably vulnerable, all taped up and soft and smooth...if this was, as Cato had called her, his counterpart, then she was truly his opposite in every way: softness to his wiry strength, helplessness to his deathly power, kindness and goodness to his laughing cruelty. She lay mollified and totally subdued, absolutely at his mercy. This pleased Cato a great deal. He took her by her shoulders, lifted her to her feet. She was only a couple of inches shorter than him, but as she 'stood', unconscious and powerless, she seemed a lot smaller than that. He ducked down, and gracefully hooked Sophie's waist with his shoulder, before hoisting her up and over himself. He didn't grip her particularly tightly. What would be the point? Instead he slipped one hand under her skirt to hold her by her firm, heart-shaped, and eminently squeezable behind, while with his other arm he traced a light, zig-zag pattern up and down her smooth and slender legs, enjoying the feel of her, the weight of her, the smell of her. The defeated captive was an absolute treat for Cato's enhanced senses, and he let himself enjoy it thoroughly. But business was business, and he tarried no longer, beginning to carry her off.
"Well," he thought, "at least I'm letting her relax a little."

Had Cato been a telepath rather than possessed of super-senses, and been able to see into Sophie's mind, see as Elena harried and tortured her even in the slumber Cato had cast her into, he would have perceived just how wrong he was.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Fading in and out of sight as she crept through the offices of the Anubis Foundation, Mariko felt a disjunctive desire within her. Either to have a better stealth power - for not only did her invisibility have a strict time limit, but she was blind while she used it - or to simply be able to tear things up with her full strength and not stop until she had answers. It irritated her immensely that Anubis was not an openly criminal organisation.

More perturbed was she, however, by the fact that she had left Sophie alone. Or rather, not alone. Mariko could just about hold back the fear and dismay now that she had her mission, but she couldn't keep them out of her psyche completely. Her world was on a knife-edge, and she was terribly afraid.

But there was work to be done. She still had no idea where to look, or indeed exactly what she was looking for. She supposed she was trying to find something that would indicate what the hell a lobbying firm would want with a scientist. Something - anything. But to her immense frustration, she found either empty offices, or people doing exactly the kind of work she'd expect. As her eyebrows narrowed, she had a strange sense that - while there was certainly some genuine work being done, there was something...hollow about it all. It was almost like exactly enough genuine business was taking place that it looked real, but it was really just a veil. She wondered whether this was Anubis' real head office at all.

Eventually, after quite some time spent flitting in and out of visibility, Mariko found something that looked at least relatively promising: a storage closet filled with paper files.
"At last." It wasn't much, but it was something. She'd almost got a little complacent, given how empty Anubis' offices turned out to be, but she checked whether or not she was being watched all the same, before burning through the lock with her powers, and slipping inside. "Oh, hell," she muttered. She had to alter her assessment. It wasn't so much a storage closet as a dump, with papers and folders strewn haphazardly around. It was as though the company had been computerising its records, and when finished, just left all the paper in a massive pile. Gingerly, Mariko began rifling through it, but most of it was either tax records or old payslips.

As Mariko looked through the payslips, thinking that there might conceivably be something to do with Schiffer, she recalled the words of Hades, when she had been proclaiming her ideals to the world while holding Mariko and the others captive. 'Most superheroes are amateurs', she'd said, and as Mariko rifled through the scattered papers like a raccoon digging a burrow, she did feel rather amateurish. She had no idea, really, what she was doing. She should have been patient. She should have asked one of her colleagues in the Pauldron for help. Or reached out to one of the many allies she'd made over the course of her career. But she'd been so desperate to leap to action, to do something to help her lover, that she'd leapt long before she'd looked. She almost longed for a trap or an ambush or something - for worst have all would have been simply...not finding anything.

However, a new idea had begun to formulate. Had it been for any other purpose - for anyone at all - she'd have dismissed the notion out of hand, for even as a member of the Pauldron the execution of her new plan would have been a crime: namely, kidnapping. Grabbing someone, as senior as possible, and holding them to threat for information on Sophie's origins. Or better yet, bringing them before Insyte, and having her pull the knowledge out of her head.
"She'd never agree to that," Mariko thought. "No. No, damn her! I'll - I'll force her to!" It was only then that Mariko realised that she was shaking. An image burned in her mind of some stranger looking at her through Sophie's eyes, speaking through Sophie's mouth, of her lover hollowed out and burned away. There was little - perhaps nothing - she would not do to prevent that.

"We'll do...next Thurs...congress..."
Mariko heard voices outside the door. "Shit!" Someone was about to come in. Moving to the furthest corner, putting a large set of metal shelves between herself and the door. She tried to be as still as possible, though in her outfit she felt rather conspicuous: a skintight, silver bodysuit, marked with intricate, futuristic panel-lines, and a small, silver-white domino mask. Her cloak could only be kept up for a maximum of thirty seconds before running dry, so she didn't want to use it until the last possible moment.

For this reason, Mariko didn't see when a man entered dressed - well, not quite as oddly as Mariko herself, but not too far from it. He was dressed in a long, golden coat, and silvery waistcoat - he'd ditched the mask - and he was humming and intermittently singing to himself, to the tune of Tupac Shakur's 'Hit 'Em Up.'
"You claim to be a player but I fucked your wife..." he mumbled absent-mindedly, searching for something on one of the high shelves. Despite the fact that he was physically obscured from her, Mariko could hear that he was only separated from her by a couple of boxes. The potential for being discovered was imminent. She could potentially have knocked him unconscious, but that would potentially draw more attention if he was found by one of his colleagues.

Her hand was very nearly forced when, with surprising agility, this man whisked himself round to the other side of the shelves behind which Mariko was hiding. Only long practice allowed her to cloak herself in time to avoid being seen.
"Hmm-hmm-hmm..." the man continued to hum. Now blinded, Mariko heard him rifling through files. As far as she could tell, he was just sort of strumming his fingers through them, singing to himself.
"Twenty-two seconds." Mariko thought. If he left her no choice, she'd have to just attack. He came closer, and closer, the sound of rustling growing louder. "Fifteen seconds." Closer still. "Twelve seconds." She could smell him now, smell an expensive cologne on him. "Eight seconds." She could almost feel him, darkness rarefying her other perceptions, and she could feel the heat coming from his body. Could he feel her? "Six seconds." Spitting distance now. "Five seconds." She'd have to do it. Even if he turned back now, he'd see her decloak. "Four seconds." He stood still, turned away from her. He stopped humming.
"Hi, Spectra."

The next few moments were a flurry of confusion. Spectra dropped her cloak, but she only saw Cato for half a second before she was plunged into darkness once more, as he slapped his hand over her eyes.
"No!" Spectra cried out, instantly robbed of her abilities. She tried to fight back, but a thin, strong arm wrapped around her torso, pinning her arms to her sides. She tried to kick him, but he seemed to know the very instant that she'd strike, for he kicked at her other ankle as soon as her right foot left the ground, then hauled her down when she lost her balance. "Unnhh!" Spectra grunted as the two fell in a tangle on the ground. But while Mariko merely writhed and kicked out blindly, Cato knew exactly what he was doing. He shifted himself upwards, and wrapped one of his legs around Mariko's torso, using it to pin her arms, and freeing up one of his own. "Get off!" Mariko growled, aghast at being restrained like this, the grip over her eyes like a vice. She bucked and strained as hard as she could, but she just couldn't escape. It didn't stop her from trying though. No - what stopped her was the feeling of something cold and sharp jabbing into her neck.

"Turn off your powers," Cato hissed. "Turn off your powers or I'll pump an air bubble into your jugular vein. You can wriggle all you like: I never miss."
"Not on your life!" Spectra growled in response. "I'll - ah!" She felt a small sting as the needle pierced her skin.
"I mean it, Spectra. After all, you're trespassing on private property, and I'm just defending myself from a dangerous superhuman. The 'stand your ground' laws in Nevada are great, you know that?"
"Grrhhh..." Mariko clenched her teeth. How had he seen her? Even if she'd made some small error, seen some shimmer, how had he known she was Spectra? She felt ashamed that she'd failed Sophie like this - but, then again, she was no good to her lover dead, and all he had to do was squeeze. "Spectrum...is Red."

There was a dim flash, and Mariko's bodysuit disappeared, replaced by her short, figure-hugging beige dress.
"Good girl," Cato said - and squeezed down the plunger.
"No!" Mariko cried out. "You ba-hhhmmmphhhhh!" Cato moved his hand down from Mariko's jade eyes to her mouth, gagging her just as effectively as he'd blinded her. "Mmm-GHHMMPHHH!!"
"Oh, relax," Cato replied. "That wasn't air, Spectra." Indeed, it was not air that Cato had forced into Mariko's bloodstream: as the needle violated her smooth, slender neck, it pumped in a strong, fast acting sedative.

"No...oh no...!" Mariko first felt the effects when her now-bare legs began feeling very heavy. She'd been trying to push herself up, to get some sort of purchase to slam the back of her head down on Cato's, but now her supple, achingly long limbs seemed as though they were being pulled down by thrice three times Earth's gravity. "Mphh...mmhh!" Spectra moaned, feeling as the strength of her body began to fail her. Even as the violent thrashing of her long legs slowed to weak shuffling, still Cato kept his iron grip over Mariko's lips.

"I've already snagged your girlfriend," Cato said in a stage whisper. "She's a peach and a half, I tell you what!"
"Nhhh...nhhh!" Mariko whimpered. "No...Sophie! I...I must...must do something..." Already the sedative was affecting her mind. Her head flopped back in Cato's grasp, and she got her first real look at her captor. She knew the face already, but in her slightly delirious state she was surprised by how handsome he was. He had slightly feminine features, even, though his cruel grin sapped much of his attractiveness. But Mariko wasn't exactly charmed: even partly sedated, she was studying her enemy. Nor had she stopped fighting: with the last of the strength left in her lower body, Spectra pushed herself up just a little, and smacked the back of her head against Cato's nose. Actually, 'smacked' would be too strong. She hit him on the tip, with about as much force as one would use to open a moderately heavy door. Irritating, perhaps, but on the very fringes of what might be called 'painful'. Or so it should have been.

"AAAAUUGHHH!!" Cato screamed. "Ah, you fucking - ow! GEEZ, that hurts! OH!" He shifted himself so that she couldn't perform the manoeuvre again, but this was no longer really necessary. He could feel Mariko's arms slacking, and he unwound his leg from them. They splayed limply outwards. To his delight, and Mariko's whimpering dismay, she was too weak to move them.
"Mmhh...mmmhhh..." That had been the last effort she could muster, and she felt herself sink deeper into her captor's grasp. She looked up at him with half lidded, sleepy eyes, as her vision swam and her senses grew dull. "Mph...mmph..." Mariko complained, thinking that Cato was fondling her. But he was innocent of that charge, at least for the moment. It was simply that as Mariko shifted in her drugged feebleness, her long, naked legs were rubbing sinuously against each other, and the ever-sleepier beauty mistook the accidental strokes for deliberate ones.

Cato, however, wasn't just going to let Mariko sink gently into sleep. Capturing that springy, spunky little redhead had been nothing but pleasurable, but Spectra had pissed him off. She might have been a member of the Pauldron, but she needed to be put in her place. Trusting his preternatural reflexes to warn him if she tried anything, Cato took his hand off his newest captive's mouth and hauled Spectra up to her feet, before shoving her up against a wall.
"Unhh...Sp...Spectrum...is...is...uhhh..." Mariko moaned, her head sagging onto her right shoulder, the one her dress exposed, her short, black hair tickling her skin. "Damn him...damn him!"
"This is such a treat," Cato said. "I mean, Spectra - the Spectra! - wanders her sexy ol' self into my place of business. I've had...run-ins with a few capes in my day, but a man with duties like mine can't afford to get too close to the limelight. Although, I did have a little run in with a couple of your buddies, now that I think of it. Nice fellas. It's such a shame you turned out to bat for the other team, 'cause I love you and Fahrenheit as a couple. Seriously. That would be so marketable."

Mariko could barely hear him. Her eyelids were fluttering, her vision so cloudy that Cato was little more than a gold and silver blur. She'd have slipped right back down onto the ground if he hadn't been holding her up, pressing her against the wall with one hand over her chest. She was awake enough, however, to perceive the fact that Cato was a fair inch or two shorter than she was - more even, given the high heels she was wearing.
"Unhh..." Her cheeks went red. How easily he'd subdued her. How helpless she was - and her height only impressed that helplessness on her all the sharper. She felt delicate in her tallness, as though she were a tree with shallow roots - no matter how mighty and impressive she might be, she would always be fragile: easily felled. "Hhh...auuhhhnnnn..." Mariko sighed, and began to sink into sleep - but Cato would not let her go without one final humiliation.

He took his hand from Mariko's chest, and her quivering limbs failed her, the tall damsel immediately tumbling towards the ground. But at the last moment possible, he took her by the waist, spun her around like they were dancing. She twirled, the hem of her skirt fluttering even higher up her silky-smooth legs, before he caught her, as if in a tango. He leaned down, pulled her limp body up towards him, and planted a firm kiss on her soft mouth.
"Mhh...mhh? Nhhh...nhhh..." Mariko barely had the strength to protest. All she knew was that she felt humiliation pulse through her, dominated and mocked by her skilled, deadly captor. Here, now, when Sophie desperately needed her to be at her strongest, and most effective, she had been utterly overcome. She no longer had the wakefulness to put this feeling into words, but she pictured Sophie's face, and she felt a pang of fear and guilt.

Cato pulled away, with that infuriating smile, and lifted her back up, immensely enjoying the sensation of tossing her back and forth like this. But the games were over, it seemed. She gave him one, last look, one last kittenish whimper, and then her head flopped forward, like some circuit inside her had been cut. She was out.

Cato wasted no time in securing his captive. He bent down on one knee, and draped Mariko over his thigh. Folding her arms behind her back, he was even more ruthlessly efficient than he'd been with Sophie, swiftly box-tying the damsel's arms. The tape growled like a hungry animal as he tore it away from its roll, and Mariko's shoulders were squeezed in against her body as Cato bound her upper arms in place, two circuits of grey plastic wrapped just underneath her small, soft breasts. Her compressed shoulders gave her a rather timid, passive quality, which Cato liked to see in a beautiful woman.

Pict let Mariko roll off his knee, and fall with a small thud onto her back. And there she lay: Spectra, bound and drugged, her finely shaped, red lips slightly apart, as if in surprise, her face beautiful in its serenity, her body's slender charms only increased by being bound and restrained, her long, supple naked legs making her look not only deliciously attractive, but also spectacularly vulnerable. Her legs were bent inwards, one slightly higher than the other as if it had started to try to cross over the first, but had given up. Her body language had a...pleading quality to it. Cato liked to imagine that Mariko was not unconscious, that she was merely paralysed, and within her mind was trying to beg him for mercy, and naturally offering him all sorts of rewards for his kindness.

Cato straightened Mariko's legs, and shivered. He didn't actually use his powers very often, so feeling a woman with them on was an exceptionally rare luxury. He ran his hands up and down her naked legs, yelping like a happy dog as he felt just how long it took his hands to get from her ankles to her thighs. He flipped her over, lifted the hem of her dress, felt her taut buttocks, smacked them with one palm.
"Ow, fuck!" His hand stung much more sharply than Mariko's skin would have. He grimaced, and acknowledged that he'd indulged himself much too much. "Downgrade." He breathed out a sigh of relief as his powers deactivated. He slapped his hand against his chest - no more pain than there should have been.

Binding Mariko's legs took much less time than fondling them had done, partly because of Cato's slightly chastened demeanour. Two layers around her slim ankles - Cato might even have described them as 'dainty' given just how helpless Mariko was - and another just below her knees. Mariko probably had the best pair of legs Cato had ever been this close to, and he didn't want to obscure them one jot. He hauled her back onto her feet, let her just...hang there in his grip for a few seconds.
"Smokin' hot and docile as a fawn," Cato said. "Just like every woman should be." He slapped a single strip of duct tape over Mariko's mouth, smoothing it down to keep it in place, and then scooped her up into his arms, cradling the bound beauty like a fallen princess. Nothing made him feel more powerful than humiliating someone, and he was high on two very strong doses of that particular drug.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

[This is what you want, isn't it?] Elena forced Sophie down, her strength seemingly infinite compared with the feeble redhead. Sophie was naked in a dark void, while Elena was clad in burning white. As Sophie wriggled, she felt cold metal against her bare skin, as the phantom bound her in thick, strong chains, spinning Sophie round and round like a butterfly trapped in a spider's web, wrapping the chains tighter and tighter around her, until she was completely mummified in cold steel, wriggling and moaning in her helpless bondage. [This is what you deserve. Even you know that - you've known it the whole time! You've been hoping, praying that the next capture, the next humiliation would balance the scales. Well it can't! It never can! Nothing can make up for keeping me prisoner in here!]
"It's not my fault," Sophie whimpered. "Even if you're right...it's not my fault! I - I might be the poison, but I'm not the one who injected it!"
Elena almost looked surprised by what Sophie had said. The redhead almost felt as though the chains were relaxing a little. [No. It wasn't your fault. Not at first. But it is now. It is now! Now you know!] If the chains had loosened, they got much tighter again now, and Sophie cried out in pain and anguish as she felt Elena's power over her. She knew what had happened to her in the waking world, and she moaned in dismay, knowing that she was helpless in her body as well as her mind.

But there was another element too now, perhaps worse than Sophie's fear. She remembered Elena's juvenile attitude towards superhumans, saw her bitter, twisted rage - and Sophie did not only feel terror and despair at her presence. She was, at least for now, still Sophie Scott. She saw someone suffering, and she felt pity. But this time, perhaps for the first time, she wished that she did not. If Elena deserved pity, how could Sophie fight her? How could she see her as just a phantom? And every point in favour of Elena's personhood was another against Sophie's. Buried in her chains, she wished for a saviour. For her saviour, her knight, her lady - but she, of course, was just as much a captive as Sophie.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
A few minutes after being sedated, Mariko found herself back in her car - except she was not in the driver's seat. Another Anubis employee who was 'in the know', so to speak, had brought the car round to the blind alley behind the building. So when Cato emerged cradling his helpless conquest in his arms, it was waiting for him, in a spot unseen. He was sufficiently strong to bend down, open the car's door, and hold onto Mariko at the same time, before placing the willowy beauty inside.
"Mhh..." the damsel protested softly, as she was laid within the vehicle. She flopped limply to the side, but she didn't fall for. Her head came to rest on a familiar shoulder: that of Sophie Scott, likewise unconscious, likewise helplessly bound and gagged. As Cato hopped into the driver's seat, he turned back, took a good look at the two lovely young women he'd captured. Humbled, tamed, meekly lying against each other without a trace of resistance - just how Cato liked it.

His phone rang. It was Karen.
"I've heard from numero uno," she said, not bothering with pleasantries. "He wants you to interrogate them. Find out what they know. If it's isolated he wants you to use our old friend on the Asian one and then leave her somewhere to sleep the whole thing off."
"And the redhead?"
"Numero uno wants our old friend to make an assessment. If it's recoverable, fine. If not...well there's always a spot for her underground."
"Gotcha," Cato replied. "Don't want to come along, get your hands dirty?"
"That's what you're for," Karen said, and hung up. Cato shrugged, and looked back at Sophie. He probably found Mariko more attractive, but she was a tasty little morsel, and no mistake. Who knew she'd have turned out to matter to anyone?
"Damn she's fine!" Cato laughed. "Boy howdy, I sure hope I don't end up having to kill her," he said. With that, he shifted into first, and sped off, stealing his beautiful prisoners away.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

To wake next to Sophie was no bad thing, even under the worst of circumstances. As her jade eyes fluttered open, Mariko's disorientation was not total - she knew that she and Sophie were captives. As her consciousness became more total, she could feel Sophie lying against her, could feel her red hair brushing her shoulder. Turning her head slightly, Mariko saw that Sophie herself was stirring. As she did, she inched a little closer, and Mariko felt a little flutter in her heart as her sleepy vixen nuzzled affectionately against her neck.
"Mhhhhh..." Mariko sighed, the clarity of her senses returning to her. She looked at Sophie, saw her taped up, gagged and helpless, and in her groggy state the heroine felt her own thighs rubbing together. "God, she's beautiful..." Mariko thought, recalling a fair few times when she'd had the lovely redhead at her mercy, softly entwined in silky straps or totally overwhelmed in leather bindings. She always got that look in her eyes, that thrill of surrender as Mariko bound her, the suspense as she wondered what her lover might do with her each time, the glittering explosion of pleasure in her expression and her voice, and the warm afterglow when the two panted against each other, and Mariko would see Sophie's delight, see so clearly that she did - in fact - have the power to bring joy into the life of someone else. They had not even been dating yet for a year, but Mariko had a very odd feeling, a sort of...nostalgia. Why? Why should she feel nostalgic for something which was in her present?

The answer, of course, was because she had a terrible feeling that it would not stay that way.
"No. I won't...won't allow myself to think like that." Mariko shook her head, searching for clarity. She looked around. It seemed she and her girlfriend were in a wooden shed. It was dingily lit by a single bulb and one dirty window, and pleasant as it was to feel Sophie against her, she wasn't what one would call comfortable. She was sat on a stained, ripped up couch. Annoyingly, she could even feel a spring poking her in her back.

Mariko looked from left to right, but couldn't see any sign of her captor anywhere. "Shh-phh!" She bumped her shoulder against Sophie's, trying to stir her. Perhaps they could use this opportunity.
"Hmmhhh...?" Sophie's eyes slowly opened. "Hmm...MMPHH?!" More disoriented than Mariko had been, the transition from captivity by Cato Pict, to being wrapped in chains in her own mind by Elena, to awakening bound again was confusing in the extreme for the young heroine. But she gathered her wits, and realised that she was not alone.

"Mhhhphh! NMMHH!!" Sophie moaned, thoroughly gagged by the layers of tape and the stocking behind it, upon seeing that her lover had been taken prisoner as well. "Oh...god..." She leaned her had back in dismay. He'd captured them both: they'd been anticipated, overpowered, and been trussed and muzzled for their trouble. But it wasn't just that: Sophie felt a dread, a bitter dread about what Cato was going to do with her. She didn't want Mariko to be there.

The two maidens turned their backs to each other, and tried to find some way to loosen their restraints. But with Mariko's arms box tied, and Sophie's arms almost completely buried by duct tape, they couldn't get any purchase.
"Mph!" Sophie had moved forward on the couch to try to let Mariko access her hands, but she went too far forward, and began to slip off.
"Whoopsie!" From behind her, a hand shot out, grabbed her by the shoulder, and with wiry strength hauled her back onto the couch. "Whoa there! Wouldn't want our special girl hurting herself, would we?"
"Pict!" It was he. Sophie found herself pushed to the side, and a thin, spry blonde man in a grey suit leapt between his captives, sitting comfortably between them.

"Hiya, ladies," Cato said, throwing an arm around the shoulders of the two women he'd kidnapped. They squirmed fearfully in his grip, but couldn't escape. He pulled them in closer, and they rubbed against him as they writhed in their bonds. "Now I bet you're wondering what we're all doing here today. Well..." He paused for effect. "It was round about...what, 2015, was it? Here's little old me thinking I'm a special snowflake, unique in all God's creation. And then I see a picture in some trashy cape-gossip magazine - required reading when you're in my business - talking about Seacouver's new star. Enhancegirl! 'Well now,' thinks Cato Pict, 'that's a bit of a coincidence.'" He turned to Mariko. "Oh, spoiler warning, I have the exact same powers as your girlfriend."
"What?!" Mariko's eyes shot open, initially in disbelief. But she saw past her captor, saw Sophie. She looked aggrieved and dismayed, but she didn't look surprised: this wasn't news to her. In a way it was good: it cemented absolutely that she and Sophie had been right about the Anubis foundation. But, though it certainly wasn't proof, it felt like evidence of the truth of what Elena was claiming.

"So anyway," Cato said, continuing with his narrative as though he were relating a faintly notable game of golf, "I get a little curious, do a bit of digging. Maybe the powers and the name are just a coincidence, but no: she turns her powers on with 'enhance', turns them off with 'downgrade.' Same as me. Up pops Mister Quizzical Eyebrow, and I put in a call to one of my betters. Ask what the hell's going on. They tell me not to worry. I figure they know best." He looked Sophie in the eye, and grinned. "Then a few weeks ago, I get a call. 'Keep an eye on Enhancegirl', they tell me. 'Nothing serious yet, just find out if she's spotted doing anything that connects with our operation.' 'Okay,' I reply. I'm loyal to a fault, y'see. Guess it's just the way God made me."

He leaned in towards Sophie, narrowed his eyes. "I was almost gonna pay you a visit the day a mutual acquaintance of ours played an unexpected get-out-of-jail-free card. You show up, he gets out...mighty suspicious to me. But after that shitstorm I had other things to take care of."
"Mhh!" Sophie realised whom Cato meant. "Schiffer...he's talking about Schiffer!" He'd used the confusion of the Supremacist's last stand to escape. The day she'd almost managed to wrest answers from him. The day he'd been shocked to hear the name 'Elena'. Clearly, somehow, he was at least deeply connected with her powers' origins, and through him Anubis. Why he had not still been working for them at the time the Pretender and Hydrocita had arrested him was yet another mystery. Had he done something to anger them? Or was it the reverse? Was his military work in some way connected to Anubis as well, or -

[Don't.] A figure even more fearful than Cato Pict manifested itself in front of Sophie. It was like a mirror. Elena was her, only not her. The hair was different, of course, but her clothes were the same - she was even missing one stocking, just like Sophie. Only her countenance was truly different: a meanness and aggression in place of Sophie's sharp tenderness. Sophie supposed that she had always seen these similarities and differences, but only now did they really register fully. It was as if she were becoming more real.

The phantom knelt by her, staring into her eyes. [You're focusing on extraneous shit. You're running from what's important.] Whatever the truth of the rest of Elena's claims, Sophie felt that this accusation had hit the mark. It felt like the net was closing in, and she had no sanctuary from it.
Cato, for one, saw Sophie glance off the side. He face became very serious. For all his bluster, he'd been warned not to underestimate Enhancegirl's cunning. But there appeared not to be anything there. He went on.

"But now you turning up here? Numero uno was very gracious about how right I'd been all along. You are a problem. My question is how much of a one." He took Sophie by the chin, turned her face towards his. "Time to squeeze out all your juicy secrets, Enhancegirl." He squeezed her cheeks, boorishly pushed her head aside.
"Mmmhhphh..." Sophie whimpered, wriggling in the sticky tape that kept her helplessly bound. Over and above the horror that loomed over, being captured and at the mercy of a powerful, dangerous man was no small source of fear and humiliation in itself. It was rather to her surprise, then, when Cato reached over with both hands, and begin unwinding the tape that gagged her. "Auufffhh!" Sophie moaned, as the tape over her lips was painfully yanked off. "Aauuuffhh!" Before she could spit out the stocking still stuffed in her mouth, Cato grabbed her by the shoulders, and roughly shoved her off the couch.

"Ouugghhphhh!" Sophie cried out, hitting the ground hard. She was so tightly bundled up that she actually rolled a couple of times before she stopped.
"Mrrghhhpphhh!!" Mariko angrily protested at her lover's mistreatment, resuming her struggles in earnest.
"Oh, Spectra, honey, I did that for you." Even with his powers off, he was strong and agile. He slipped his hands under Mariko's smooth, glistening thighs, and hoisted the tall beauty onto his lap.
"Mmhhphh!!" Mariko gasped at Cato's audacity. She writhed and wriggled trying to get free of his grip, but he was much too strong. He kept one hand firmly clamped down over her naked legs, and another around her smooth, round shoulder.
"Ugh!" Sophie finally managed to spit the stocking out of her mouth. "Get your filthy fucking hands off her, you psychopath!!" She had shrieked this demand, tearing at her own throat with venom, fear and hatred.
"Hey!" Cato spat back. "I resent that! My hands are exceptionally well groomed, thank-you-very-much." He took those hands, and began roughly fondling Mariko, running one hand as far down her legs as he could, pulling her in close, and even giving a quick, playful bite to her shoulder.
"Mhh! Mmhhh-NNNMPHHH!!" Mariko protested, wriggling her willowy, lovely body as her captor derived cruel enjoyment from it. "Ghhd hfff mhhh!"
"Hey, relax, Spectra. I know Enhancegirl was totally third-wheeling it, but we're alone together now." He slipped his fingers into Mariko's sleek, black hair, before pulling hard on it, yanking her head back as the maiden cried out in shock.
"Stop it!" Sophie vainly tried wriggling towards him, but with her body bound so tightly she could barely move at all. "I thought you were going to interrogate me! Why are you messing with her?"

To the disgust of all present but himself, Cato ran his tongue up Mariko's long and graceful neck, up over her jawline and her smooth, finely shaped cheek. Mariko shuddered and moaned, so humiliated that she couldn't look her lover in the eye.
"Oh, I know," Cato replied to Sophie, speaking with an eerie softness. "Just letting you know I'm serious. Plus, I guess I've got a thing for leggy Asian girls..." He gave his captive's thighs an appreciative squeeze. "So tell me, Sophie," Cato said, his blue eyes piercing the redhead, "how did you wind up at the Anubis Foundation today?"

Sophie hesitated. She was aware that, ungagged, she could easily have activated her powers, but she didn't want to risk reprisal to Mariko, at least not yet. She might have been able to wriggle free in such a state, but it would obviously have taken far too long. Even with Mariko not still helpless in his grip, Cato could easily do all sorts of things to her as she writhed - and he was at perfect liberty to turn on his own powers, of course.
"Wait - why hasn't he turned on his powers?" Sophie had not seen what Mariko had seen, that Cato was peculiarly sensitive to pain in his powered state, but she was beginning to suspect that something was not right. Mariko could see that Sophie was calculating, and wished that she could tell him what she knew, but she was even more helpless than her girlfriend.
"I'm waiting, bobcat," Cato said, giving Mariko's thighs another squeeze. "Do you want this hand to go higher?" He grinned punchably, and Sophie grimaced.
"I...we found a connection to Peter Schiffer," she mumbled. "That he used to work for Anubis."
"From who? Oh, damn it!" Cato shouted, and both damsels jolted. But his countenance grew jolly again soon enough. "Sorry. From whom?"
Sophie glowered at him. He was obviously toying with them. As to his question, her instinct was at first to deny him anything. After all, May had been her source of information whether she knew it or not. But then, Anubis must have got to her already, or she wouldn't have forgotten.
"A journalist," Sophie said, carefully. She watched Cato's reaction intently. He was difficult to read, but not utterly inscrutable. Sophie guessed that he had not been given any new information. "May Fairweather," she said, quietly. "But I think you already knew that."

Cato smiled. "You're absolutely right," he said. "Guess I just wanted to see how obedient you'd be!" He laughed, merrily. "But there's something else, isn't there?" He narrowed his eyes. "I could smell the fear on you before, when my powers were on, and it wasn't just 'cause of me. What made you come here today?"
Sophie swallowed. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Much of her hesitation was because she just didn't know how to put it. Much was because she wasn't sure whether it was wise to reveal anything to Cato. But a great deal more was because she was terrified of what he might say in response.
[Cowardice.] A single word shook in Sophie's ears. [Pure, simple cowardice.]
Sophie quivered at Elena's voice, looking desperately at Mariko. Saw Cato with his thin arms wrapped around her, fondling and stroking her beautiful body even now. Saw the tape binding her graceful, supple limbs. Saw the single strip of tape smoothed over her lips. "Cowardice..." Sophie repeated. "Well, if you say so." And then she screamed.

"No! NOO!" she cried out. "Help! HEEEEELLLP! Somebody!" She turned away from a slightly off-guard Cato, and began wriggling like a caterpillar on the ground, crying desperately all the while. "We've been kidnapped! Please, someone help us!!" She dragged herself with what pathetic speed she could muster across the wooden floor, trying to get towards the door, alternating between screaming for help, and just moaning with dismay.
"Wow," Cato said. "Pointless and embarrassing. What a winning combination." He stood up, sighing wearily. He walked casually over to Sophie's writhing body, grabbed her by the shoulders, and flipped her over.
"No!" Sophie screamed, throwing her head from side to side in feeble protest, tossing her long, silky, red hair back and forth. "Let me go! P-please just let me go..."
"Oooh, I like that," Cato said. "Say 'please' again. Go on, bobcat."
"Please..." Sophie whimpered, looking up at him with limpid green eyes.
"Man, I'm getting shivers!" He grabbed the back of Sophie's neck with one hand, and began rubbing her bare leg with the other, enjoying the fact that he could see her squirm this time. "I tell you what. Since you're such a polite little girl, I won't punish you this time. I'll just put you back. But, uh," he added, scratching his nose, "if you do it again, you and your ladyfriend spend the rest of the interview naked, and I start doing shit that'd make even Hades blush."

There are many reasons why being prejudiced, against whatever group - genders, sexualities, races, etc - is a bad thing. The first and most obvious being sheer moral repugnance, but one would imagine that this claim, at least, is uncontroversial in our current epoch. The other reason, however, is that assuming - as Cato did - that women were inevitably feebler, weaker, stupider and by inclination meeker than men tends to leave one prone to underestimation. All the more so for Cato, who was so enjoying the helpless squirming of his pretty captives, the tormenting and taming of a woman being much sweeter a pleasure when they were as beautiful as Sophie and Mariko were. He indulged his cruelty, and it was used against him.

Mariko had not taken Sophie's sudden attack of cowardice seriously for an instant. An advantage, if one could call it that, to being captured as often as Sophie, and latterly Mariko, were was that it led to a great supply of resourcefulness. Sophie had no way of communicating that Mariko's gag looked as though it would be relatively easy to remove if she could find a tool, but she didn't need to. She had hesitated a little when the opportunity had been presented to her at first, for she wasn't immediately sure what to do with it. But then she remembered one of the first things she'd felt when she'd woken up, aside from her lover lying against her: that bloody spring poking into her back. Turning, she saw it poking out, and she pushed her face towards it, trying as quickly as she could to get it to her gag. She at first tried just tearing, but the tape was too thick. Angry at herself for having wasted time, she instead manoeuvred herself to try to get the short prong underneath her gag.
"Mhgh!" Mariko complained, as the spring scraped against her skin. But Mariko had no time to be squeamish. Up so close she couldn't actually see the damned thing, and had to suppress a growl of frustration. She knew Cato might see her at any moment, but the more she hurried the more the damn spring seemed to slip away. "Oh, hell!" To her dismay, Mariko realised that she could no longer feel it. "Clumsy idiot! I've shoved it back into the upholstery!" She moved back a little, but found something tugging at her as she did. Almost annoyed by this double reversal of fortune, Mariko discovered that she had, in fact, managed to get the spring hooked into her gag, just about piercing it. She pulled, but had to be exceptionally careful how she did it, lest she just pull the damned thing back out.

"Oh, shit!" Cato finally realised his mistake. Leaping from Sophie like a snake striking, he lunged out towards Mariko. "Enhance!" He exploded into burnished gold and gleaming silver, a blood-red mask covering much of his face. This in itself was so abhorrent, seeing someone else use Sophie's powers and charms for themselves, that it damn near took the fight out of Mariko right then and there. But out of shock and partly out of sudden instinct, Mariko not only pulled her head aside in an effort to ungag herself, she pushed down with her feet and stood to give the action as much force as possible. And she succeeded! The tape tore away from her mouth, freeing her lips and her voice. Now it was time to turn the tables on this sociopathic gobshite.
"Spectrum is -"

She'd been as fast as she could. She'd responded to the opportunity Sophie had given her immediately she realised that that was what it was. She'd fought to free her lips and her powers with unwieldy, insufficient tools, as quickly and as artfully as her humiliating bondage would allow. But it wasn't enough. He was just too fast.
"Oohhnhhh!" Mariko gasped, her eyes going wide as saucers as she felt the blow to her stomach. "Ahh...ahh!" she gasped, her bound body shaking and trembling.
"Not good enough, Spectra," Cato hissed. "Not by a fucking long shot."
"Hh...ghhh...!" Mariko could hardly breathe. "My body...I...can't...!" She didn't even know exactly what Cato had done to her: he hadn't even hit her that hard. But her legs trembled, her ears rang, her vision began growing dark: she couldn't move, couldn't speak. With a single, perfectly aimed blow, Cato had knocked all the strength out of her.

"No!" Sophie cried out, as she saw Mariko's face go from shocked, to dismayed, to a sort of dull-eyed sleepiness. Cato moved aside, and let the long-limbed beauty sink slowly down to her knees. Her shoulders sank, her head wavered from side to side, her jade-eyes slowly fading shut. Stunned and ever weaker, Mariko saw her lover lying bound in front of her. She could barely think at all as she drifted into unconsciousness, but...there was something. Yes, there was something she could do, wasn't there? She just couldn't remember. She saw Sophie's face, angry but still so pretty. Her lips, her soft, freckled cheeks, her eyes, which were of such a lovely shade. Such a beautiful colour, such a sparkling shade of...of...what was it again? Oh yes, of course.

"...green!" Mariko spluttered out, finishing the invocation. Her short beige dress was replaced with her panelled, silver bodysuit and domino mask. She'd done it! She'd activated her powers - but that didn't undo what Cato had done to her. The Mistress of Light was still slipping into darkness, and there seemed nothing she could do about it. With her eyes fluttering, the kneeling captive began swaying like a reed in the wind. "Ohhh..hhhhh..." she sighed, barely able to cling onto consciousness at all. She was about to faint. She and Sophie had tried, but they hadn't been clever enough. It seemed that Cato completely had the measure of them, and indeed Mariko felt his hands on her shoulders.
"Now that's disappointing," Cato whispered into her ear. "This outfit doesn't show off nearly as much skin as your old one! Maybe I can loosen your girl's tongue a little if I cut you out of it..."
"My...girl?" Mariko's fading vision managed to to take in Sophie one more time. She'd failed her a second time, and now she was entirely at Cato's mercy. It was over. It was over. They'd lost.

"No!" Mariko gritted her teeth. With one last, titanic effort, she forced her eyes open, drew upon energy she didn't have, and let out one small blast of light. "Aaaauuuuhhhhh..." With that, she'd drained everything she had left, and she fell straight forward, now lying prone upon the ground in utter defeat, every contour of her slender body revealed in full detail to her grinning captor by her skintight suit.

Except Cato wasn't grinning for long. The blast hadn't even been aimed at him, and besides was truly feeble by Spectra's standards. But with his enhanced senses, he perceived its angle. Without even having to think about it he calculated its trajectory, and cursed himself for his complacency when he realised what Spectra's purpose had been. He started running without another thought, but by then it was too late. The thin beam of light, given force and potency by the energy from which Mariko formed her soul-light, lanced out in a perfect straight line - and sliced Sophie's bonds apart.

"Enhance!!" Sophie damn near screamed, leaping to her feet as she tore away the tape from her body. With a surge of smell and colour, her powers flared into life, her gold dress and red mask manifesting at her call. She threw herself towards her enemy in a mad dash, but she was no berserker. "150lbs, 5'9", right handed, no dominant foot or he's deliberately hiding it, old wound in his right arm might be vulnerable, he's strong but the bones in his wrists and index fingers are a little thin, might be able to break them. He'll be stronger, need to watch out for his speed, go for soft parts -" This and a hundred other things Sophie absorbed about her opponent in the four seconds before they clashed. But of course, she was not the only one making an analysis.

"5'8", not that muscular, but she's springy, probably physically faster but watch for reaction times, right handed but left footed; heartbeat's steady: she's got a lot of stamina; she'll know she's weaker: expect attacks to eyes, joints, groin, throat; one good hit'll put her down; her arms' posture looks like she's expecting another neck chop, let her think that, go for the stomach or the head -" The gap between them was closed. Sophie struck first, using the momentum of her dash to make a quick kick at Cato's knee with her right leg, a sort of test to see whether that might be a lucrative point of attack. But if it would have been, she didn't find out, because Cato not only blocked her attack, he hooked his calf around hers and yanked it off to the side, putting Sophie off balance.

She saw the follow up, a knee shot to her stomach, but she responded with deathly speed, slamming her right foot down, and making an awkward looking pivot that meant that Cato's knee hit the edge of her hip bone instead of her stomach. This was painful, but it had no stopping power, and both fighters recalibrated themselves. Their initial exchange had been a tie. Cato took the initiative on the second, rushing at Sophie with the aim to swing a strong punch at her head. The idea was that she'd dodge it, but he'd use the momentum to move quickly into a spinning kick to Sophie's kidneys. But he saw her step back instead of duck, lowering the guard of one arm - she'd seen through the feint. He saw that she'd seen, and adjusted to make a straight jab, but she saw that he saw, and and moved to take the jab, knowing that it couldn't really take her out of the fight, and go for his stomach or groin. But he saw that she'd seen, and she saw that he'd seen that she'd seen -

They both froze. Or rather, they stopped still, but their bodies were constantly making tiny adjustments to the others', their eyes constantly darting back and forth between each of their opponent's limbs, and to their eyes themselves, to see where they were looking, and how that might factor into a plan. Sophie took a step forward, and Cato lowered his centre of gravity, but that was it. There were too many possibilities! Not only the innumerable, subtle changes, but the possibility that those were feints, and some of them were, so had the other seen through their feints, was the glance at their shoulder or knee or neck itself misdirection? Their senses were rarefied to such a degree that it was almost like a battle between telepaths. And there were too many unknowns! Were their powers exactly alike? Sophie didn't know that Cato had enhanced hearing, but Cato didn't know that Sophie lacked it, but such possibilities occurred to both of them? Might Cato's vision be sharper? Might Sophie's proprioception be more refined? Neither had ever faced someone with such similar powers to their own, and it was so different to fighting any other kind of opponent that there was almost a total impasse.

For four agonisingly stretched out minutes they stood like this, slight twitches and changes of posture the only differences made between them. Sophie was hesitant because she knew that Cato was much stronger than she was, and Cato was hesitant because - now fully aware that Sophie's accuracy - she knew just how much pain she could cause him. His left knee was still throbbing just from that glancing blow against Sophie's hip, though it didn't affect his fighting ability.

Nevertheless, as the two scanned every inch of each other for some kind of advantage, Sophie perceived that the area around his knee was unusually hot, and the blood vessels around it were throbbing with an unusual intensity. It was like he was in quite intense pain, but Sophie hadn't hit him that hard, had she? And then she noticed something else: there were two items in the pockets of his trousers. The first was the key to Mariko's car, and the other was a small bottle of pills. With her enhanced vision Sophie could easily see the label: 'Astramorph.' 'Morph' as in 'morphine'? Now why on earth would he need that?

While Sophie plotted, Cato grew ever more concerned. Not only was he no longer remotely certain of his ability to defeat Enhancegirl, he was aware that time was not on his side. Depending on her constitution, Spectra might have stayed unconscious for as little as a few minutes. The longer this went on, the more and more likely it was that she'd wake up, and if she did he was, in a word, fucked.
"You moron! You blithering idiot!" Cato vividly imagined himself clawing at his own face. He could see the gears of his enemy's mind turning, thinking. She was planning something, and his anger switched quickly from himself to her. "That tricky little fucking cape's not getting the best of me, I don't give a shit. No way, no how!"

Cato lunged forward with sharp speed, deciding that he'd just tank the inevitable counter attack and let his momentum do the talking even if pain made his will falter. But to his surprise, Sophie didn't dodge out of the way. He punched her, aiming for her jaw, and though she raised a boxing guard to protect her face, she was still hit with the full force of the punch, and her light body was thrown backwards.
"Auuhh!" she cried out as Cato's vicious strength knocked her down. But Cato was not even halfway through putting his smug smile back on his face before he realised his error. At the moment of the punch, Cato had planted his feet, firmly, to get maximum purchase for the swing. This meant that he did not, in that instant, have free use of his legs. Sophie had seen this, and used it, her own leg striking out like a whipcord, and kicking Cato hard in the thigh, a couple of inches below his waist. This was by no means a vital spot, and in Cato's position being struck there had no hope of overbalancing him. But the spot on his body wasn't really the point. The point was that Sophie had kicked him right where he'd pocketed Mariko's key.

"AAAGGHHHH!!" Cato cried out, as the metal dug into him. His sensitive nerves screamed at him, his thigh feeling like it had exploded with pain. In desperation, he reached for his pills, but his movements were all too obvious. Sophie's theory had been conclusively verified, and she sprang up like a tigress. Emboldened, her attacks were much less calculated now, but then they didn't have to be. All she needed to do was to force him to block rather than dodge. As he fumbled for his pills he didn't even do that, instead just turning his body away from her so that she couldn't attack his thigh again. So instead she just kicked him in the face.

"Aaaahhhh! You wriggly little whore!" Cato spat. Now his cheek and his jaw throbbed even worse than his thigh. He reached for his pills again, but Sophie wouldn't let him. However, after two more frustrated attempts, he focused himself, and actually pulled a rather clever feint. He turned the right of his body towards her, as if guarding the pocket with his pills in it. Expecting him to go for them again, Sophie began to move to block him from doing so, but she dropped some attention from the other side of his body. Sensing this, he reached into his right pocket, and whipped the key out, intending to stab it into Sophie's side as she moved to attack his left. But pain had disturbed the sensitivity of his other senses, whereas Enhancegirl had no such restrictions. She saw through the deception, dodged the key, pinned Cato's arm between her left arm and her side, before driving her elbow into his face.

Howling in pain and dropping his improvised weapon, Cato fell back, now wholly on the defensive.
"That's what you fucking get!" Sophie cried out, summoning up the fires of her fighting spirit. "You might have my powers, you cocky asshole, but you haven't been through what I've been through!" Now that she was not so nervous of him, further differences were becoming clearer. Though the speed of his reactions suggested that, like her, Cato had access to the autonomous nervous system aspect of his powers, it felt like his instincts were not so refined. He was noticeably faster than her at responding to attacks approaching from out of his field of vision because of his hearing, but not only did Sophie not notice that, it was completely moot: if he had his back to her he was at a disadvantage anyway. She was quicker. She was more accurate. She was better.
"You - ahh - don't know - urrghh - the kinds of things, I get up to in my spare time, bobcat," Cato growled. There was something of the quality of a death-rattle in his voice, and there was blood on his face. "I'm a killer. You're just a pretty redhead in a sexy little dress who runs around 'fighting crime'. Next to me, you're -"
" - a fighter," Sophie said. "Let me guess. You use your powers to sneak around without anyone seeing you. You move like a fucking shadow or whatever, and you kill people without them even seeing you. You're a deadly, super-awesome, stone cold badass." She cricked her neck. "Well guess what, Mister Pict. Being good at murdering people doesn't make you good at fighting them. You might have power, enough even to make this a fair fight." Her blood pumped. Her heart thumped. She felt the heady thrill of exulting in her own prowess and talent. It was almost like a normal day. It was almost like just being a superhero and battling a villain. It was almost like she wasn't nearly paralysed with existential terror. "Well guess what?" She scraped the floor with her foot, like a bull. She wanted to hold onto this feeling, to bury Elena with the fury of combat. "I'm Enhancegirl, you son of a bitch. I've been punching above my weight for a long ass time, so what do I have to be scared of from a fair fight?!" She clenched her first. "Oh, one more thing you grasping fuck: this is what I do to people who mess with my girlfriend!"

Sophie seemed to attack in four places at once. Cato's left ankle, his right knee, his kidneys, his face. Cato's senses could keep up, but he just couldn't move fast enough. He overbalanced, howling in pain, and Sophie very nearly crushed his ankle with one vicious strike with the heel of her short, silver boot. He fell to his hands and knees, and Sophie gathered all her strength, and struck him as hard as she could with both hands. He fell prone, and Sophie leapt onto him, pinning one of his arms with her knee, and pulling the other behind his back. She gripped his wrist tightly, twisting it at an odd angle.

"Now it's me who's going to be asking the questions, Cato," Sophie said.
"Oh...c-come on, girlie," Cato said. "You really don't think I can get out of - AAAAAHHHHHH!!" He cried out in agony as the victorious Enhancegirl twisted his wrist.
"I'll start with the wrist," Sophie said. "Then I'll move onto the fingers!"
"Ah, geez, alright!" Cato yelped.
"First question," Sophie hissed. "Who's your boss?"
"Robert Springfield," he replied. "He's our - ow, fuck! - our director. That's public record, bobcat."
"Alright," Sophie replied. "Who's his boss? Who's the one really in charge?"
Cato smiled. "What am I, an idiot? I'm not telling you - AAAHHH, FUCK OW, GOD FUCKING - AARRGGHHH!!" Cato gasped, as Sophie twisted his wrist painfully. "Look, there's things I'll say to avoid getting tortured, but there's torture I'll take to avoid getting killed! Now maybe if our situations were reversed, I'd find some way of making you squeal anything, but I'm sensing you're not willing to start pulling nails!" Sophie winced. He was right. Even this was making her feel pretty uncomfortable.

"Alright then. Tell me what Peter Schiffer does for Anubis." Sophie squeezed Cato's wrist threateningly. Reluctantly, he began to speak.
"...I'm sure you've guessed by now that we're not just a PR firm. Schiffer ran our sciences division. Heh, he was our sciences division until he split a couple of years back."
"He gave you your powers?" Sophie asked. Cato nodded. Sophie opened her mouth to ask another question, but stopped, and asked something else instead. "Were you the only one?"
"As far as I know," Cato said. "But I didn't know about you until you got your name in the papers, so who the hell can say? I'm just a lowly attack dog, bobcat."
Again, Sophie was about to ask something, but stopped and asked something else. "Why? Why did they do it?"
"As f-far as I know...rrhh...there was some kind of...initiative we were running out of our Cali branch," Cato said. He was beginning to pant. He was deadly enough without his powers, so he only used them when he absolutely had to.
"Go on." Sophie's restraining of him aside, his previous dose of pills had worn off completely, and everything was starting to become painful.
"Far as I know we were just...trying to make more superhumans. I don't know why and it didn't get far: Numero Uno shut it down, uhhh...I think about the time the Penitentiary Supreme opened, so like...a year after they made me. I thought I was the only success before you showed up."

Sophie didn't hear the last sentence. Indeed, much of the rest of Cato's answers were now as nothing to her, slipping from her memory until they were as nothing. There was only one sentence, one string of three words actually, that rang in Sophie's mind: "They made me." Time seemed to stand still. Cato, sweating and shivering with pain underneath her. Mariko lying bound and unconscious a few feet away. Her own heartbeat she could no longer hear. Her own breathing seemed to stop. The room darkened, as if in frozen time even light could no longer move. "They made me." It throbbed in her head over and over and over again, screaming at her, deafening her. She couldn't hear her heart beat but she felt the organ tighten, as though a cold fist had just clenched over it.
"They made me."
"They made me."
[They made you.] Sophie felt Elena's fingers on her shoulders, ice against her soft, warm skin. [They made you. You're an invention, Sophie. I'm the real one!]

"No," Sophie whispered, softly. "Please no..."
"No what?" Cato asked. He twisted his head round, saw her countenance changed. A sly smile crept up his face.
"You...were..." Sophie mumbled. Cato watched with pleasure as the fire in her eyes dimmed to nothingness, as water, rather, began to well slightly. She was panting, struggling to control her breathing. Oh yes, Cato much preferred her like this.
"What is it, bobcat? First time an interrogate-ee has ever had to coax out the questions from the interrogator!" He felt he knew, however, what she would ask.
"Were...were you always called C...Cato Pict?" Sophie asked, so quietly that Cato would not have heard her had he not had one additional sense to her. He turned his head, slowly, and looked her in the eye.
"Back when this little situation we've got here was reversed," Cato said, cruelty helping him fight his pain, "I was going to ask you what got you so scared. But I think I know now." He smiled, broadly.

"No, I wasn't always called Cato Pict. At least the last guy in here wasn't called that. I guess he wasn't loyal enough, whoever he was. I do know, though, that I've only been signing my name 'CP' since I had my powers. They made me: I'm an artificial personality that Peter Schiffer created. And I'm guessing that that thing that's got you so scared...is you've just realised that you are too." He looked hard into Sophie's eyes as he said this. He watched with delight as she shattered into a thousand pieces.

"No...no, no, no..." Sophie whimpered. "No, no, no..." She relaxed her grip. Like an adder, Cato slithered out of her grip, wriggling free entirely. She barely even seemed to notice. Her eyes weren't just wide - they stretched open so far it looked painful. "No! NO!"
[Yes, Sophie,] Elena said. Her tone was almost soothing. [There's no more denying it. No more running. No more fighting.]
"It can't be true! It can't be true! I don't want to...I don't want to disappear! Please!" She looked round, and saw Elena standing over her. She looked into her eyes, and clutched her hands together as if in prayer. "Please...please don't...please don't be true...please don't make me disappear!" She shook, sobbing openly, Cato now almost entirely forgotten. "I have so much...please don't take it away! Please don't!"
[I can't make you disappear, Sophie,] Elena said. [There's nothing to get rid of.] And all became black.
Sophie looked down, and there was nothing there. No legs, no hands, no eyes. No arms, no chest. No heart. No skull. Nothing at all. Sophie screamed. She screamed, and screamed, so loud and with such terror that she didn't notice Cato throwing his entire supply of pills down his throat. She didn't notice him grab her, haul her up to her feet.

"Thaaat's better!" Cato laughed,holding her by her shoulders. "Got it all figured out, bobcat? Figured out just what you are?" He tutted. "Poor little girl. Why did Schiffer have to make it so convincing this time?" He laughed. "I mean, sure, you don't have my sensitivity to pain, but...damn, I don't envy you this. I don't. You?" He looked at the sobbing, shaking young woman in his grip, so tormented with anguish that she could barely even see him. "Aww, I'm actually starting to feel bad. C'mere, sweetie, let Uncle Cato make it better." He pulled her in closer, almost like he was hugging her, but this at least somewhat snapped her out of her dismayed reverie.
"No!" she screeched, writhing out of her grasp. She struck out, relatively clumsily, but he didn't block. Her first cracked into his nose, almost breaking it. He didn't even wince.

"Oh the wonders of modern medicine," Cato said. Blood spewed in great streams from his nostrils, trailing down his face and dripping onto his clothes, crimson mixing with gold and silver. She tried to fight back, but this time he grabbed her wrists, and pulled them - and her - close, and now blood was dripping onto her hands, and she was looking into his eyes, and his handsome face was cut with darkness and cruelty and death. "You get it now, Enhancegirl? We're the same. We're nothing. We're ghosts! And isn't it wonderful?" He leaned in closer. "We're not even like other superhumans. We're not even alive, not really! Don't you love it?!" His grin grew wide, blood staining his teeth now. "Don't you love being dead?!" And he grabbed her by the back of her neck, and he kissed her, his blood staining her face now, trickling down over her mouth and chin and her creamy, slender neck. She didn't fight. She couldn't. There was no 'she'. There was only the taste of blood, the icy fingers of Elena, and the sound of her screaming at Sophie again and again and again. She didn't even whimper, not even when she felt Cato's hand on her thigh.

When the attack came, Cato didn't at first notice it. His medicine had blinded him to pain, but he felt something strike him like someone had just shoved him hard in the side. He did notice, however, when he smelt burning flesh. He looked down, and saw - rather to his chagrin - that there was a thin, smoking hole in his side.
"Well. That's...undesirable." He looked up, and saw a maiden in silver struggling to her feet. Her jade eyes bore into him as surely as her power, and they burned with hatred.

"I will not be able to restrain myself," Mariko said. She put another hole in him, through his right shoulder, with a pinpoint laser strike. "I will not be able to prevent myself from killing you." Another, in his hip. "Run! Run!" Spectra bellowed. "Flee or die!" She cloaked herself in blazing, gold-white corona. There was more to the threat than Cato saw. As Mariko saw Sophie having a kiss forced on her, her face filled with horror and covered with blood, and her cheeks streaked with tears, the willowy hero was choked with rage - but Cato's blow had done her damage, and she did not know how long an extended battle might go. When Cato, finding himself riddled with holes and faced with an enemy whose power - pain or no pain - exceeded his by quite some orders of magnitude, he realised that taking Spectra up on her offer was probably his best shot at continuing to live. He ran out - or rather, hobbled as fast as his punctured body would let him.

"Unhh..." Mariko very nearly slipped out of consciousness again from the strain of using her powers so quickly after having woken. But she didn't allow herself to. "Sophie," she said, turning her attentions to her terror-stricken partner. "Sophie, are you alright?" The redhead didn't reply. She didn't even seem to acknowledge Mariko's presence. Mariko was, at least, slightly relieved when - on taking the shaking damsel in her arms - she found that the blood on her face was not her own. Picking up the discarded stocking that Sophie had been gagged with, she daubed the blood off her girlfriend's face. Sophie was almost catatonic, scarcely even glancing at Mariko. She pulled the redhead in close, embraced her, terribly worried for what was wrong, and praying that she didn't know the answer already.

"What did he do? My sweet, what did he do to you?" Mariko held Sophie against her as tightly as her slim arms would allow.
"He..." Sophie began, but almost couldn't say it. Mariko moved back a little, and Sophie looked at her with eyes that seemed almost...hollowed out. "He told me...he's like me..." Her head wavered slightly, like she'd been stunned. "Mariko, he's fake. He's like me. He's like me. I'm fake. Mariko...oh..." Emotion seemed to return to her, though she shuddered as thought it was a poison. "Mariko, it's all true! I didn't tell him - he already knew! He already knew! He told me...everything. Schiffer. Anubis. Him. Me."
"Sophie, don't -"
"There's no - I mean I - I wasn't crazy! Oh, god I wish I were crazy... I wish I were schizophrenic or psychotic or - or anything...but he proved it. There's no doubt, anymore. Elena's the real one. Jesus..." She trembled. "She's been trapped...she's been trapped for so long, that poor fucking girl... I'm like him, a - a dead thing!" She put her head on her girlfriend's chest. "Mariko...Mariko, Mariko..." she whimpered - and then she seemed to seize up, and she screamed: "Why did you have to fall in love with me?! Why couldn't you be with someone better?! Why couldn't you be with someone real?!" She fell to her knees, weeping and crying with animalistic hysteria. Mariko dropped with her, trying desperately to comfort her, but words vanished in her lover's sobs. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."
Mariko felt her ears ringing. She wanted to say something, anything - but she couldn't. Darkness had crept into both their hearts, now, and there seemed no escape from it. But for all her and Sophie's agony, there was one that stabbed at Mariko worse than any other.

She was starting to believe it.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Well, she did show up with a member of the fucking Pauldron," Cato hissed into his cellphone. He was gasping with pain from the tiny boreholes Spectra had drilled into him, but with his powers off he was just about coping. Really he was suffering most from having to drive the pissy little Buick he'd stolen. "So, you know, I don't feel too bad about letting them go. Don't be stupid, they can't prove shit. But, uh..." Cato decided he would not tell Karen that he'd given up any information. "They knew about Schiffer's connection to us, but not much else. We're fine. What I found out is more important. Tell Schiffer his little experiment ain't working quite right. She's hearing voices from the past. Huh? What name did she use? Sophie Scott. Is that -"

Karen hung up, turned to the greying scientist. He was working on some odd little transceiver thing, the function of which she could not easily guess at.
"Sophie Scott," Karen said. "That's what Enhancegirl's going by."
"I see," Schiffer required. He glanced up at the large, armed man behind Karen, who did not take their eyes off him for a moment. "She thought she was giving me a pseudonym when she visited me...so it was only subconscious at that stage...fascinating...she is still in there somewhere..."
"Something you'd like to share with the class?" Karen asked. She hated these little check-ups. Unlike Cato, she was not so cheerfully obedient to her paymasters. She'd rather have been doing the work she thought she'd be doing when she took the job.
"I believe the situation can be recovered," Schiffer said. "At any rate, she will be a valuable subject."
Karen frowned deeply at him. "She remembers. That wasn't supposed to be possible. Numero uno isn't gonna like that."
"There is no problem," Schiffer muttered. "She...merely suspects. Most of this information she obtained from that journalist."
Karen raised an eyebrow. "You'd better hope so," she said. "In fact, you'd better hope that your memory isn't too good either, from what I understand."
"Yes," Schiffer said, gravely. "Indeed. So," he said, almost cheerily, "what is the plan for the girl?"
"Plan?" Karen snorted. "She's going underground, Petey. At this point, there's no sense risking anything else."
"I see," Schiffer said. A long moment passed. "There is no alternative?"
"You should be glad we didn't off her straight away," Karen replied. For a moment, Schiffer glared at her.

But then cheer took hold of him again, and he said: "D'you know, when I was working for your military, developing the High-Armour project, I came up with a sort of mini-version before I got to the real work. It was more like something I did to keep myself entertained, really."
"And I care because...?" Karen said. She ostentatiously glanced at her watch.
"Well, it had no strength enhancements, no sensory enhancements, no remote faculties - absolutely nothing that one might remotely describe as fancy, eh? The weakest superhuman with any kind of offensive ability would tear through it like paper. But it had two nice qualities. It could deflect a bullet from a handgun even as large as your bodyguard's there, and it had a nice big sharp bit on the right arm. Could never get the materialisation to work on such a small scale. But - I had a lot of leisure in prison to think about how to boost it." He attached the little transceiver to his wrist. "Just a little battery, really!"
"Petey, I've got yubes to keep down, okay? What's your point?"
"My point is...I'm not going to let you kill her." Schiffer fixed Karen with a cold stare. "Or anything equally, ehhh, unsavoury."
"You're not in a position to demand shit," Karen said. "You're lucky to be alive."
"I'm not demanding anything. I'm just not going to permit it." Schiffer replied. He straightened his tie, and stood up. He patted his stomach. It was, to his pleasure, much reduced since before his incarceration. He fixed the heavy with a look, and smiled at him, sweetly. "Exo-generate."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It was a long, long trip back to Seacouver. By the time they got back to Sophie's flat - it seemed safer with more people around - it was not late, but they had left in the early morning, and by now it was firmly the beginning of night-time. They walked inside, and Mariko offered Sophie her arm, but she didn't take it.

They went straight to Sophie's bedroom, and Sophie sat down. Her eyes were drained of tears. She just sort of... stared. Mariko sat down across from her.
"So...er, what's our next move?" Mariko said, acutely aware of how lame it sounded. "Come on, Sophie, we must -"
"Stop it," Sophie said. "You know what we need to do now. What I have to do. I have to...put things right."
"No," Mariko said, with a semblance of calm. "You are not...you are not going to be just...thrown away! I won't allow it!"
"Mariko..." Sophie looked at her lover with sad, exhausted eyes. "It's not Elena's fault. I have to...I have to find some way of -"
"No." Mariko clenched her fist. "You're...you're talking about committing suicide! Let's not mince words, Sophie, that's what it is."
"She's trapped! She's trapped and helpless! You're talking about leaving an innocent person in...darkness - no body, no freedom for the rest of her life!" She put her head in her hands. "I don't want this...but how...how can I just leave this? She's real, and I'm a - ghost..." She looked up, and Elena was there, standing next to Mariko. She said nothing, but she looked at Sophie still with hatred. No - it was not quite hatred anymore. Just desperation and pain.

Mariko slammed her fist down on Sophie's desk. "Fine. Fine. If I cannot convince you..." She stood up. "Kirsten!" she shouted, so sharply that Sophie winced. A few seconds later, the half-filipina came in, a little shaken.
"Um...hey? Oh, Sophie, sweetie, are you feeling better?" Kirsten asked. "I've been pretty damn worried about you since last night!" Sophie mumbled something incoherent.
"Kirsten," Mariko said, and Kirsten noted a sort of near-panic in her voice. "This request may seem strange, but would you please tell Sophie about the earliest memory you have of her?"
"What? Oh, uh..." She thought for a moment. "Meeting you in middle school. You just walked over to me, said hi and asked me, like, a million questions. Then you went on for a little while about women's baseball. I thought you were weird, but like, cool weird. Y'know?"
Mariko looked sharply at Sophie. "There. D'you see? Middle school! How would they - ?" Her voice was shaky. "Sorry for shouting, Kirsten, it's, er...superhero business."
"Right," Kirsten said, slowly. "Hey, Sofe?"

The redhead looked up, and saw Kirsten looking at her with sympathetic eyes. But then her expression changed. The room seemed to darken as she spoke.
"Actually, I made all that up," Kirsten said. "I first met you when Anubis told me to keep an eye on you and got me a place in the same dorm as you."
"Wh-what? What?!" Sophie was barely audible. Mariko's eyebrows furrowed at the redhead.
"Uh, yeah, duh. I work for them. I'm just keeping an eye on you to make sure you don't do anything that could jeopardise them. I know you thought we were friends, but - well, what can I say? I'm such a damned good actress, aren't I?" She smiled.
"Kirsten, are you...are you fucking with me?!" Sophie shot up out of her seat. "Why - why would you be doing this? What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Sophie, what's the matter?" Mariko said. She looked hopelessly confused.
"What's the problem?" Kirsten said. "The cat's outta the bag, isn't it? You know you're not a real person. So why do I have to keep pretending?"
"No. I - this - this can't be - this can't be true..." Sophie felt hot. She was almost hyperventilating. Her vision was...swirling, as though she'd been cracked over the head.
[Why are you surprised?] Elena whispered in her ear. [You know the truth now.]

"Sophie?" Mariko said, sounding really rather alarmed. "Are you feeling alright?"
"Am I - am I feeling alright?! Are you fucking kidding me?!" She turned back to her old friend - or the person she'd thought was her old friend. "You mean...all this time...you just let me believe it? You let me think...you let me think I was real?!"
"Well, you mighta been cooked up in a lab and shit, but you're still pretty fun to hang out with." Kirsten shrugged. "I mean, that was the job, right? Nothing personal." She laughed. "I mean, how could it be? You're not a person at all, are you?"

With a howl of rage, Sophie leapt at Kirsten like a banshee. She grabbed her by the throat.
"Sophie, what the hell are you doing?!" Mariko shouted. But Sophie seemed not to hear her.
"You let me believe it! You let her believe it! Do you know what you've done?! Do you know how much fucking pain you've caused?! For some god-damned experiment?!"
"Oh, please," Kirsten hissed. "Mariko'll get over it. And if she doesn't, well...one less superhero to worry about, r -"

Screaming with rage, Sophie forced Kirsten down onto the floor, slamming her down as hard as she could. She raised her fist high, blood in her eyes - but Mariko caught it.
"Have you gone insane?!" Mariko was not a better physical fighter than Sophie, but she was a little stronger, and she hauled the redhead off her friend, holding her back. "What are you doing?!"
"Didn't you hear her?" Sophie gasped, tears in her eyes. "She's with Anubis!"
"What? How could you know that?"
"She - Mariko, she just fucking said it!" But as she looked into Mariko's eyes, she saw nothing but fear and bafflement. She looked back at Kirsten, and instead of seeing her scowling with hatred or smiling cockily, she saw her shaking, terrified, and softly crying to herself. Her whole aspect had changed.
"Kirsten, are you alright?" Mariko said.
"No! No I'm not alright! My best friend just tried to fucking kill me!"
"She...but - she..." Sophie could hardly speak. "What...what did you hear her say?"
"What? Er..." Mariko was baffled. "She... she said that she was worried about you, but that she and...and your other friends care for you and will always be there if they're needed. You seemed confused and then you started shouting and then you attacked her!"

Kirsten got up, still panting and afraid.
"What the fuck?! Jesus, Sophie, like, what the fuck is wrong with you?!"
"I heard...I..." Sophie dropped to her knees. "Kirsten...Kirsten I'm sorry..."
"Please try to understand, Kirsten," Mariko said. "It's..." She searched for a simple way of expressing it. "A telepath has affected her mind. That's why she's been having all those nightmares. She's not -" She'd been about to say 'she's not herself' - but as one might imagine, she didn't quite want to put it that way. Kirsten tried to speak. She even, bless her, tried to summon up her sympathetic instincts. But she wasn't used to this sort of thing, and she ran crying to her bedroom.
"Kirsten!" Mariko shouted, but Sophie grabbed her hand, shook her head.

"Elena did this," Mariko hissed. "She did it! She tricked you! That's the person you want to save - oh hell, now you've got me doing it...the alleged person." She grabbed Sophie by the shoulders.
"No. Koko, it wasn't her. It was...I'm falling apart," Sophie said. "Whatever stitches were holding all...this together are snapping. Every time I find something else, I can feel them all getting closer to snapping. I'm breaking. I'm breaking into pieces, Mariko. I have to...I have to find some way to give Elena her life back..."
"NO!" Mariko bellowed. "I won't permit it. I will not. You're not in your right mind. I will keep you safe by force if I have to. I am quite serious about that!" She pointed at Sophie. "Doctor Wingfield. Doctor Wingfield can help you. We shall take you to the Methos Institute the first thing tomorrow. No - better yet, I - I shall find Peter Schiffer myself. I shall drag him back here, and I shall have him destroy this Elena and leave you as you should be."
"Mariko, you'd be killing an innocent person!"
"She is not a person! She is a thing! All those vile things you've said of yourself - it's she who deserves those insults!" She had a wild look in her eye. Quivering, talking almost too quickly to be understood. "I'll...I'll have Natalya connect our minds somehow. I shall go in there and cut this cancer out! I will not let you destroy yourself! I will not!"

She fell to her knees, beautiful even in her crushing grief. She covered her face, ashamed of her tears, ashamed that she could not be Sophie's pillar, afraid that doubt had taken so firm a root within her. And then she felt slim arms around her shoulders, and soft hair against her neck.
"I'm sorry," Sophie whispered. "Please don't cry. Please don't cry, my love..."
"I mean it," Mariko replied. "I won't let you leave." Sophie believed her.
"Fine," Sophie replied. "We'll...we'll talk to Doctor Wingfield. Maybe he can help. I mean, shit, Elena's been cooped up in...in here for nearly three years. She can wait another couple of days..." She looked over Mariko's shoulder, saw Elena standing by one of her drawers.
[She won't let you go.]
"I know."
[You know what you have to do.]
"...yeah."

Sophie stood up, kissed Mariko on the top of her head.
"Hey, guess what? Top of everything else I've got a headache." She went over to the drawer Elena had been standing by, opened it, rifled around in it.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Mariko said. She almost laughed at the mundanity of it. "Do you have any aspirin?"
"Yeah." She found a small face towel inside the drawer and, buried deeper within it, another item. Ever since her run in with Adrienne the previous year, she'd made a habit of keeping some handy, just in case. She winced in guilt at what she was about to do. But it was the only way. The only way. The only way to save them both.
"I wasn't joking about searching for Schiffer," Mariko said. "You say Pict mentioned something about Anubis' California branch. Perhaps we'll -"

She probably smelled it about a good few seconds before the chloroform soaked towel was thrust over her mouth and nose, but she didn't believe it. When it did cover her mouth, and when Sophie's arm wrapped around her torso, restraining her, she still didn't believe it then either.
"Mhh...mmmphhh?!" Mariko gasped, scarcely even struggling at all. She raised her forearms, but only to sort of check that, yes, this really was happening.
"I have to do this," Sophie said, her voice choked. "Please forgive me, Mariko..."
"Nmmmphh! MMMPHHH!!" the slender maiden now made a bit of resistance, but she couldn't get a good purchase. Sophie had her well and truly caught. The sickly sweet smell washed through Mariko's senses, choking her thought and her intelligence, and sapping the strength of her willowy limbs.

Sophie herself could hardly believe what she was doing. But she had to. She had to give Elena her life back. And Mariko - leaving her fastened to a dead thing - no. Sophie violated her beloved by her very presence. She had to save her too. She could no longer trust herself in any case. She'd attacked Kirsten - she couldn't bear the thought of what her incipient madness might make her do to Mariko.
"Mph..." Mariko's jade eyes fluttered as she felt the first tendrils of sleepiness begin to take hold of her. "No...I can't...can't let her do this..." Mariko thought, but the slight disparity in their strength was more than overmatched by the chloroform. "Mmmhhh...mmmphhh..." Mariko's arms were too heavy now to keep up, and they flopped to her side, swaying slightly as they hung there. "No...oh...ohhhh..."

Sophie felt Mariko's long, naked legs rubbing slowly, sinuously against each other, and against her own, and was tortured by Mariko's loveliness. How she longed to throw her madness aside! To grab Mariko, to leap into bed with her and sigh odes of ecstasy to her - but she could not. Elena would not allow it - and Sophie's morality shackled her too. Elena would be free. Mariko would be unchained from her. Sophie's feelings didn't matter. But oh, god, how much she longed for her wise, strange, tender beloved!

"Mmhhhh..." Mariko sighed, as a warmth settled over her. She began to undulate as the drug's effects pulsed through her, her graceful body now helpless and weak. She felt so sensitive. Every touch as Sophie held her, grappled her made Mariko's spine tingle. Her thighs rubbed together, and her cheeks grew red. Drowsy and mollified, Mariko's addled mind was, by some cheat of fate, temporarily lifted from its troubles. She knew that Sophie was chloroforming her, but she could no longer remember why. "Oh...she...she has me..." Mariko thought. "Limp in her grasp...so weak...and I'm all hers...I'll be...hers to do with...whatever she wishes...unconscious...defenceless..." She shivered a little. "Mmmmmmmhhhhh..." she sighed, her head falling backwards, exposing her neck. She felt exquisitely vulnerable. ". "I'm yours..." Mariko thought. "I'm always yours..." Then pain entered her heart, and she was not sure way. "Please let me...be yours..."

With one last quiver, and a slow sigh, Mariko fell back into Sophie's arms, completely unconscious. Sophie kissed her neck, and swept the achingly beautiful young woman, who had with such passion given up her heart into Sophie's guard, up into her arms.
"Oh!" Sophie cried out, feeling a desperate sadness as she saw Mariko lying there like a princess in her arms. Like a bride. All that could no longer be stabbed at Sophie, and she couldn't bear the thought of it.

She laid Mariko down on her bed, making sure she was as comfortable as possible, folding her arms in her lap, taking off her shoes. Sophie suddenly felt very cold. She slipped into the bed next to her, and for a few minutes just lay there with her. She tucked her head into the crook of Mariko's neck, and held her hand, and kissed her, and whispered in her ear all the things she had said before, but could never say enough. Until she got up - and it was like tearing out her own heart - and said the two words to her beloved that she'd prayed she'd never have to:
"Goodbye, Mariko..."

Three hours later, when Mariko awoke with a wail of heartache, Sophie was gone.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by DrDominator9 »

I sure hope there is a way out of this for Sophie that makes sense. You've got me worried here, sir!

With that said, nice work.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

Natalya had been deep asleep when she'd received the call, in the early hours of the morning. She was rather embarrassed at first waking: she'd been having a fairly amorous dream about being kissed under a blanket of stars by a man with no voice. But the cool air of the night roused her, and she answered a little blearily.
"Yes...?"
"I didn't know whom else to call." The voice was sharp, calm, almost too calm. "I need to...I can't find her." The voice broke off, and Natalya could hear the sound of gasping, then a loud thump. Not that she knew it, but the speaker had just hit themselves in the chest to keep from breaking down entirely into tears. Slowly, Natalya's bleary head managed to clear a little. She realised that it was Mariko speaking, and her heart grew fearful. "I've searched everywhere, but I can't find her."
"Are you talking about Sophie?" Natalya said. She blinked her owlish eyes. "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"I think I'd be alright if someone had just taken her," Mariko said. "Then I - I could do something. Plan. Think of something. But I can't think. I can't think. I've just been driving around. She left. She wasn't taken, she left."
"What do you mean?"
"We found out certain things and she's - she's convinced now that she's an artificial - that, I mean that she isn't real. It's nonsense, of course, it's totally illogical, but she believes it and she thinks that Elena has to -"

Mariko had been speaking extremely quickly, but she'd cut herself off with a sort of cry. Natalya was wide awake now, sat up sharply in her bed. The situation was obviously extremely urgent. To hear Mariko Asakura in such dire distress must have meant things were ill indeed.
"Where are you? I'll come to you."
"I, er..." There was a fumbling sound. "I think I'm - I'm somewhere near Lambert Avenue."
This surprised Natalya. Lambert Avenue was barely in Seacouver proper at all, a sort of orphaned high-street that had been the first and only element of an attempt at creating a suburb that would attract wealthy L.A. types. If, as she'd implied, Mariko had been looking for Sophie, her search seemed to have become desperate. "Well," Natalya said, "that's not too far from me. I'm coming for you, Mariko." Natalya could not resist the pull of a person asking for her aid. Invigorated by this though she might have been, she was also deeply afraid. She was afraid that it was all much worse than she'd imagined.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie wasn't sure where she was going. She wasn't even sure where she was anymore. Her feet hurt. She'd been walking for hours, and she wasn't even in Seacouver anymore. She could see the Pacific, but she wasn't walking on a beach. All she knew was that something was pushing her, drawing her North. Elena had been silent for the past couple of hours. Sophie wondered if her phantom - no. She wondered if her true self was showing her some sort of mercy.

A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times the thought of Mariko made her want to turn back. And just as many times did the thought of Mariko drive her on. How pure she seemed now, how righteous and good; and how small, repugnant and filthy Sophie felt. She couldn’t be with her. How dare she?
“She’ll be alone.” Her own voice within, not Elena’s, and the thought of plunging her lover back into the coldness of solitude was almost too much to bear. “No.” Sophie spoke out loud. “She won’t. She won’t be alone.” Mariko did, after all, have her company of heroes. The giants with whom she stood as an equal. Who knew? Perhaps among their number was someone who was truly worthy of her. She found herself imagining Mariko being courted by Fahrenheit, or Panhellius, both of whom – from what Mariko had said – were not wholly unlike Mariko herself, with Fahrenheit’s aristocratic bearing and Panhellius’ stern logic and strong sense of loyalty. She tried as hard as she could to keep thinking about that. Painful as it was, the thought of Mariko being happy, even with someone else, was a deep comfort.

To her chagrin, though, she found herself wondering what would have happened if their situations had been somehow reversed. She really didn’t know what she would have done, but she had a feeling that Mariko would sternly refused to acknowledge her true self. Would have remained totally loyal to Sophie herself, regardless of any other considerations. As long as there was the slightest glimmer of doubt.
[There isn’t any doubt.]
Sophie no longer recoiled in quite the same way when Elena did speak to her. There was a different quality to her voice now. Almost…pity.

Suddenly, Sophie ran off the rocky path that wore slowly on the soles of her shoes, towards the road, a highway. She stood on the very edge of it. The cars were not all too frequent, but those that were there travelled at sixty miles an hour at least.
[What are you doing?!] Elena shouted, truly alarmed. [You can’t be thinking of doing this! I’ll die with you!]
“Promise me,” Sophie hissed. “Promise me you’ll check in on her. Promise me you’ll make sure she’s okay.”
[She’s part of your life. Not mine. I don’t have to -]
“Promise me!” Sophie clenched her fists. “Everything you’ve shown me, all those memories…you don’t exactly seem like a fucking saint. You’re bitchy, and selfish. If we were separate people, and I knew you, I wouldn’t want anything to do with you.”
[I’m real.]
“I know! I…know…” Sophie shivered. “But…if you don’t promise what I asked then neither of us deserve to be real. Do you understand me? Neither of us!”

There was a long silence.
[Fine.] Elena said, but she didn’t say it with venom. [I’ll check in on her sometimes. But not because I owe you anything. Because she’s innocent in all this and it’s the right thing to do.]
Sophie almost found it within herself to smile. “Alright,” she said. “Alright…” It comforted her to know that, perhaps, Elena did have some good qualities.

She resumed her increasingly weary trudge. She was now consciously aware of something…pulling her onwards, and she didn’t resist it. Elena followed her, looking over her shoulder – ensuring that her fortitude did not waver. Sophie did not see, however, that there was another who followed her. An even darker presence, perhaps.

She was a woman, but it wasn’t immediately apparent that that was what she was, for she was of an androgynous build and mien. She walked, but she seemed to float, clad in a coat that could almost have been a cloak. She looked upon the figure of Sophie with bird-like eyes, and feelings at which no guesses could be made. A telephone was produced from her pocket, and it couldn’t have been a younger device than twenty years old.
“I’ve found her,” she said. “Little Red Riding Hood’s gone on a bit of a walkabout.” She paused as the other spoke. “Of course I can,” she eventually replied. “Anything for a dear friend.” She spoke with a strange dullness to her tone, as if no real emotion was actually being felt, but she was doing a fairly decent impersonation. “See you soon, Peter.”
________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Natalya found Mariko, her fear – Natalya’s, that is – had only grown. Mariko had been at saturation point for quite some time. She found Mariko’s car – a trim little Honda – about halfway up Lambert Avenue. Mariko was standing just outside it, her posture very straight. As soon as she came into view, Natalya realised that she was trying very, very hard not to have a panic attack.

Natalya parked, got out and came to stand with her friend. She saw in Mariko’s mind the sequence of events that had led her here: the encounter with Cato Pict, Sophie’s apparent hallucination and attacking her friend Kirsten, and – finally – drugging Mariko to stop her from following her. Then hours of aimless, fruitless searching.
“I expect you’ve caught up by now,” Mariko said, slightly hoarsely. Natalya saw that she’d been screaming. “I’m disturbed by my lack of composure. Can you help me to think rationally?”
“Mariko I’m finding it hard to be rational,” Natalya said, but Mariko didn’t seem to hear her. Her jade eyes were open very wide.
“I can’t seem to focus on the task at hand. I can’t think: I feel…thin. Like there’s…” She began breathing harder, putting her hand on her chest. “Like there’s…too much in here. She’s made my heart too big: there’s not enough of the rest of me, or – no, that’s a terrible metaphor, my apologies.” Her voice was shaking. “I mean, of course the situation is very disturbing, I can’t really blame myself for feeling some unhelpful emotion, but…” She stopped speaking, covering her eyes with a hand. “I just can’t…work out what to do.”

It was only now that Natalya really felt the things that Mariko had to struggle against. Only now that she saw a real delicacy within her, a terrible difficulty with understanding the feelings and motivations of others, and of herself – coupled with a great capacity for passionate emotion herself that made for a painful paradox. It wasn’t that her emotions were flighty: rather that there was…well a sort of heroic aspect to them, like great, strong tides. Only with Sophie had she been able to let those tides flow without trying to fight them, or without being broken by them. Now she was trying to shove it all back in, and though it had never really worked, it certainly wasn’t working now.

Natalya looked away. She found that there were tears in her eyes, and she wasn’t immediately sure why. And then she realised that there was one thought that Mariko was trying desperately to suppress, lest she lose heart completely. Natalya opened her mouth, but there were no words. Gingerly, the naturally shy architect reached out to hug Mariko, or at least to put an arm around her to give her a little comfort, but Mariko pushed Natalya’s hand aside.
“I can’t be strong,” she whimpered, her voice quavering. “She never needed it m-more but my wits have deserted me!”
“It’s alright, Mariko,” Natalya said. “We’ll think of something. You were right to call for help.”
“I…don’t…I…” Mariko couldn’t even just be upset, or afraid. Sophie had left her. She had decided to leave, to allow herself to be destroyed. It felt like everything was collapsing around Mariko’s ears. She couldn’t think; she could barely breathe. It had all come to ruin, and Sophie had been nothing more than a dream. A wonderful, perfect dream. Had it been too perfect? Had Mariko known, perhaps, all along? Or was she just retroactively looking for reasons why it was her own fault? Reasons why she should have known sooner?

All that was clear to Mariko was her despair at what had been wrested from her.
“I wanted…I wanted so much just to – just to be with her,” Mariko said, turning away from Natalya in embarrassment, twisting herself aside. “I feel as if she’s gone. I can’t help it. Why do I feel like it’s already over?!”
“Because she chose to leave,” Natalya thought, but she didn’t say it. Mariko’s eyes weren’t blinking, her hands were clenched so tightly into fists that they almost looked as if they would snap. She was on the point of genuine hysteria.
“Someone else would have realised sooner. Someone else wouldn’t have missed something as huge as this. But I don’t…work properly, Natalya. You can see that, I’m sure. I…malfunction. Yet she loved me anyway – and I failed her. I failed her, Natalya.”
“You haven’t,” Natalya insisted. “For god’s sake, Mariko, how could anyone guess at something like this?”
“I should have. I’m her partner, I should have - ”

A great sob tore through her, and though shame made her try to stifle it, her heart made its cry whether she liked it or not. “I should have stopped her…!” She was openly crying now, tears running down her cheeks. Her whole body seemed to be at war with itself. She was struggling to breathe. Natalya embraced her and this time Mariko didn’t stop her. As the architect held her, Mariko felt frail. She was so very slender, after all. Over and over again in her mind Natalya saw repeated the shock as Sophie clamped the drug-soaked rag over her mouth, and the horror as she woke up alone. There was, perhaps, no situation that Mariko would be worse at dealing with than this.

Natalya saw flickers of memory arise in Mariko’s mind, of one year earlier, just before she and Sophie had got together. Her powers stolen, her feelings for Sophie never – it seemed – to be returned, Mariko had been in a state like this before. And it had been Sophie who had held her together, Sophie who had slept with her – literally – and made sure she was alright. Mariko was stronger now than she’d been then, but she’d built that new core of strength around Sophie. Now that had been ripped out, and everything else was crumbling. It felt to Mariko as if she was the fake, as if she was artificial – that all her best elements were only real as long as Sophie was looking at them.

A distraught mind’s defences were low, and Natalya’s powers gave her vastly more influence now than she’d have had normally. She tried to find something she could use to give Mariko her strength back, some new keystone. But everything precious was so connected to Sophie: it wasn’t as though she was Mariko’s entire life, but she cared so much more about her than about anything else that all else seemed to pale in comparison.
“It’s pathetic,” Mariko thought, as if sensing where Natalya was probing. “I’m so little without her.”

“No,” Natalya thought. That was not quite true, was it? There was something else. In her efforts to be a better person for her lover this was a side of herself that Mariko had treated almost with contempt. It couldn’t be eliminated, and it certainly had its influence over her whether she liked it or not, but she’d tried not to let it rule her as it once had. Her pride. “Mariko, turn your powers on.”
“What?”
“Please,” Natalya said, rather insistently.
“Um…alright,” Mariko said. She didn’t see the use. “Spectrum is Green.” A powerful flash, and Mariko’s dress was replaced with the silvery costume of her other self, of Spectra. She felt strength at her fingertips, power running through her entire body. It was surprisingly comforting, but there was more to Natalya’s suggestion than that.

“Do you remember,” Natalya asked, “when I told you I wasn’t going to be Insyte anymore?”
Mariko nodded. Natalya could see that, despite herself, Mariko had already taken on a slightly nobler, more dignified posture. Natalya almost smiled, but went on:
“I said that being Insyte didn’t matter to me. Not in the same way that being Enhancegirl or Spectra matters to you and Sophie, anyway. But it’s more than that.” She stopped. She knew she had to choose her words carefully. “Imagine if it wasn’t something so complicated. It must be almost impossible to think logically about such a – a bizarre situation like this, mustn’t it? Imagine if…imagine if Sophie had just died.”
Mariko looked at Natalya like the telepath had just punched her.
“I do have a point, I promise,” Natalya said, thinking that perhaps she’d not been quite careful enough. “Let’s say you were fighting some terrible enemy alongside her and whoever it was just…just killed her. You’d feel terrible grief, obviously. It would be – it would be the worst thing that had ever happened to you. But all the things that were true about you before, still would be. You’d still be Spectra. You’d still be a hero. You’re Spectra-who-earned-Sophie’s-love. That wouldn’t stop if she’d died and it hasn’t stopped now. You still exist.”


Mariko stared into Natalya’s eyes as if it were she who was the mind reader. “You almost sounded like her,” she said quietly. Natalya shrugged.
“Well,” she said, “you’re not the only one who loves her.” She smiled slightly, and while Mariko didn’t smile back, Natalya felt a small measure of calm restored within her. She looked again within Mariko, and saw that while Sophie was still very much the core of her strength, she’d managed to make it abstract. To love Sophie not only as a person, but as a concept, and to imagine Sophie’s love for her as a fact-in-the-world: Mariko Asakura is such that for everything Sophie-like, Mariko Asakura deserves that thing’s love. It was almost funny how Mariko could turn passion into formal logic, while losing none of the passion itself. Natalya saw more clearly than ever why Sophie had been so charmed by Mariko, and so apt to fall for her.

“I don’t know where she might have gone,” Mariko said, grabbing the reins of her mind with the strength that Natalya had given her, or rather that Natalya had revealed within her. “At first I thought she might have gone back to the Anubis Foundation, but they’re the ones who made - ” She stopped herself. “Who, in Sophie’s mind, made her. They’d either destroy her or get rid of Elena, and it’s Elena that she wants to save.”
“Perhaps she’s looking for that scientist. That, um… Schiffer person.”
“Yes,” Mariko said, the gears of her mind ticking back to full speed. “Yes, but where? He escaped from prison. He might have fled the country by now.”
“Do they have any other offices?”
“I don’t know that it matters. Even if he was somehow back in bed with Anubis, how would Sophie have any way of knowing that?” Mariko shook her head. “I don’t even know if she had anywhere in mind. I think she was just – just trying to make sure that I didn’t follow her.”
“Where could she have gone, then?”
“I don’t know,” Mariko said. "But...perhaps there are more resources at my disposal than I'd thought. I'd been thinking about this like a personal quest but there's more to it than that. Anubis. Schiffer. This 'numero uno', whomever he may be."
"What do you mean?" Natalya asked.
"You said it yourself,” Mariko said. “I am still Spectra. And Spectra no longer fights alone.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Fahrenheit, or Shane Shackleton to his friends, was at that moment somewhat south of happy. It was his turn on night-shift duties, which he hated. He’d already had all the free seafood he could stomach from Imperion’s little restaurant. It wasn’t even as if, should trouble start, he’d be the one to have to deal with it by himself. He just had to be the one to summon reinforcements if it was necessary so to do. Besides, with the great glut of superheroes within the little three city triangle that Seacouver, Sacramento, and Renning City there was often little for the Pauldron to do in terms of instant-responses. Generally their main order of business was dealing with the larger or longer term threats that others didn’t have the strength or resources with which to deal.

“Bet the Pariahs don’t have to do this sort of crap,” he muttered to himself. He’d more or less kept his opinions to himself in the team’s various discussions on their new rivals. Though Nova and Spectra seemingly didn’t quite share the deep suspicion that most of their colleagues did, it was only Shane who thought that they were actively a good thing: a stick to the Pauldron's carrot, so to speak. He rather wished that he’d been there when Ivan had burst in earlier: he actually agreed that Jackson’s response to Hades had been pretty anaemic. He might, he thought, have been able to embarrass his leader sufficiently to get him to agree to Ivan’s proposal.

Shane thought back to his last team, the Fundaments. They were a pretty pissy little organisation, really, but they’d been more in character like the Pariahs than the Pauldron, and the team had been threatened with enforced disbanding orders more than once. Fahrenheit had been their hatchetman, the one most likely to be sent on solo missions, and he’d liked that just fine. They tended to be a little more bloody than the Pauldron, and he didn’t mind that either.

When he’d exposed Gravion, their leader, as a criminal and a loose ally of the Supremacist, he’d become the only real celebrity that the Fundaments had ever produced. He’d also made sure to lead ruthlessly thorough investigations against the rest of his team-mates. That had cost him the rest of his friends, as well as his then-girlfriend. When Imperion had offered him a spot on the roster - Fahrenheit's catapulting to fame had roughly coincided with Thaddeus starting the WCC - Shane had almost thought that Jackson had expected him to say no. So he said yes.

"Relief!" he cried out, when his communicator went off. "Fahrenheit speaking. Oh, hello Mariko!" He cheered up at the sound of her voice. The two hadn't interacted a great deal since Mariko had joined, but she was such an odd sort that he couldn't help feeling a sort of patronising affection for her. "What's got the Mistress of Light up at so late an hour?"

For a few minutes he listened intently. Anubis secretly running some sort of project to make superhumans? Cato Pict turning out to be a superhuman himself? And something pretty awful happening to Mariko's girlfriend...
"Christ on a bicycle," Fahrenheit muttered to himself. "You have been a busy girl, haven't you? I'll put out the word to the relevant people."
"Thank you, Shane," Mariko replied. "Though, I suppose we'd better tell Jackson about this."
"No," he replied, quickly. "Rule one of working for anybody, Mariko, is that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Jackson will do the right thing, I'm sure. He always does - but not always quickly enough. A situation like this requires haste." He stroked his chin, adjusted his sash. He thought again about what he'd said before. "You say Cato Pict has pretty much exactly the same senses as Enhancegirl?"
"He has a sensitivity to pain that Sophie doesn't have," Mariko replied. "Whether this confers some other advantage I'm not aware. Certainly he was no match for me when it came down to it." She sighed sharply. "I wish Sophie were here."
"I'm sure you do," Shane, a little surprised that Mariko was talking to her like that.
"No, you misunderstand. Her powers make her the best tracker I know."
"Well, unless you're suggesting that we ask her to find herself, then - " Shane stopped. A slow smile crept up his face. He thought again about what he'd said before. "Exactly the same powers, eh?" Then out loud: "I've had an idea. It's a good 'un, I think. But let me say this much: we're definitely not telling Jackson." The slow smile was now a grin. "You keep looking around as best as you can. Just keep your phone charged, for heaven's sake." He hung up, and immediately sent a text message to another number. He then threw on his long coat, and headed out. He was almost dancing.

A few miles away, a red-haired man in a short beard was shaken awake - literally. An ordinary alarm clock wouldn't have woken him, so he had a system which would shake his bed to wake him up. It could also be triggered by a special number being texted, and naturally his Pauldron colleagues had it. It jolted him awake a good three hours before he customarily rose, and he wasn't pleased. He groggily got himself up, and looked at his phone. One notification pipped up ahead of all the rest. It wasn't from Jackson or Derek, as was ordinarily the case when he was so rudely awoken, but from Shane.
"Mark, it's the best thing ever," it read. "Mariko's lady is in mortal peril - and the way that we save her is by beating up Cato Pict."
Mark blinked, re-read it a couple of times. Eventually, he just replied: "Gnarly."
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Help! HEEEELLLP!" The voice rang out clear in the shadows. Sophie was startled out of her dream-like state. She only now realised where she was, walking along the side of Interstate Five, or at least one of its major tributaries. She looked around, unable to see where the voice had come from. "HHHEEEEELLLP!" It was a man's voice. Sophie was a little clearer of where it had come from this time, and she rushed over to it.

She found a disquieting scene. There was a struggle going on between an older man, pushing sixty at least, and a younger one, nearing forty, by the side of a car that had pulled onto the hard shoulder. Naturally, Sophie assumed at first that it was the older man who had cried out for help, but not so: he was heavily built, broad, with a heavy gut and a mean look in his eye. He had the younger, much skinnier man shoved up against the car, and there was already blood on the younger man's face.
"HELP!" the younger man screamed again. "This guy's gone fucking nuts!"
"Motherfucker, you piss me off and you're too much of a pussy to fight for yourself? I oughta break your god-damned face!"
"Your fucking taillight was busted, I didn't see you!" the younger man shouted back. Only now did Sophie see nearby a motorbike with a pretty scratched up bumper, though to her eye it didn't look all that badly damaged. The question was not if Sophie would intervene, but how? As herself, or as Enhancegirl?

"Why ain't you fighting? Huh? Hit me, you fucking coward!"
The second man seemed to consider it, but at any rate he wore out his attacker's patience, and he was punched hard in the stomach. He dropped to his hands and knees, but was knocked entirely onto his back when he was kicked over. As he groaned, the older man started rifling through his pockets, finding a wallet. He took out all the cash he could find - something like two-hundred dollars - and stuffed it in his own pocket.
"We'll call this damages plus compensation for emotional distress," the motorcyclist said. "I oughta -"

A flash, a gold blur, and the motorcyclist was flat on his back, wheezing. He couldn't even work out where he'd been punched. He looked up, and saw a woman in gold and red standing over him, eyes glittering like jewels in the orange light of a streetlamp. There was a distant, sad look on her face, and her hair blew in a sudden wind. Had he been more poetically inclined, he might have thought she looked like a woman in a painting - but the lowly fool only really felt intimidated.

Enhancegirl scratched her temple. "If I were in a better mood I'd tell you off or make a funny quip or something, but I'm really not feeling it right now. Give the money back, get on your bike, and leave, or I'll beat the hell out of you." Sophie narrowed her eyes, but he said nothing. "You know who I am?"
"Y...yeah." He spat.
"Then you know I could do you some really serious fuckin' harm if I wanted to, right?" Slowly, the motorcyclist nodded. "Then get the hell out of here."

A minute later, Sophie was handing back the money to its owner, as well as helping him to his feet.
"Thank you," he stammered. "Thank you very much." Shocked though he was, he flashed a brief but genuine smile at her.
"Not a problem," Enhancegirl said. "Like, wow that guy was an asshole."
"This is, I think, an understatement," the man said. He bespectacled himself. "Oh! You're Enhancegirl! I - I didn't recognise you."
"Hey, don't worry about it." Sophie laughed slightly. "I'm still getting used to being famous."
"Sure." He was about to get back in his car, but he fumbled the keys and dropped him. His hands were shaking. "I'm sorry...you must think it's cowardly of me. Not fighting back, and then - well I don't think I'm going to be driving anywhere for a while."
"Don't," Sophie said, touching him on the arm. "I mean, come on, if people didn't need rescuing people like me would be out of a job."
He didn't quite laugh, but he gave a sort of snort. Sophie looked at him a little closer, and with her enhanced senses noticed that he was stronger than he looked.
"Would it make you feel better if I told you that, actually, you probably could have taken him?"
"Oh I know that," he said. "I imagine I could have hurt him very badly." His fingers crackled with flames.
"You're a superhuman!" Sophie half gasped, half laughed. "Why didn't you...?"
He shook his head. "This is going to sound ridiculous in this day and age, but - I don't believe in violence." He immediately grew defensive. "I know, I know, 'what if Hitler invaded America' or 'what if you had to shoot someone to save your family' but - I suppose it's the closest thing I have to a religion. It's not logical, but it's mine. That probably sounds very stupid."
"No," Sophie said. "It sounds poetic."

She was about to resume her weary, aimless trudge, but she didn't want to leave this man here alone. She could see that his attacker was long gone, but she was still worried for him.
"Could you...could you tell me about yourself?" Sophie asked.
"Hm?"
"I've done a lot of fighting recently. Taken down a lot of nasty customers - and yeah, sure, that totally needs to happen, but..." She shrugged. "I can't say that I don't believe in violence...but I never wanted to be a warrior. I've helped you, and -"
"You saved my life, probably."
"Then tell me about the life I saved," Sophie said. "The last life I'll ever save."

So he did. His name was Terrence Dalton, a father of four and the owner of a small metallurgy business. He hadn't known anything about metallurgy himself - he'd just wanted to invest in something that made things. He'd been born in New York, and had one child there by his first wife, but the marriage hadn't lasted long, and he didn't see much of his son. By his second wife he'd had three daughters, and he was returning from visiting the eldest of those, who was at a prestigious art school in Renning City. His son and his youngest daughter had both inherited his gift, with his son being an electrokinetic, and his daughter being immune to being poisoned. ("Found that out when she fell into a wasp's nest when she was four years old. Her only complaint was that the gross bugs were poking her.") Sophie asked him about his other daughters, and Terrence told him. She asked him about metallurgy, and he told her the things that he'd belatedly picked up, and about the butter-knife he'd managed to make on the tenth attempt as a gift for his wife, which hung proudly on their kitchen wall.

By the time he'd finished, forty minute had passed since their meeting, and his hands were no longer shaking. The sun was beginning to come up, very slightly, the sky now taking on a slight bluish tinge, the colour of bleary eyes and too-late nights.
"I need to get going," he said. "Thank you for what you did. And thank you for staying with me."
"It was a pleasure," Sophie said. "Just..." She had to stop her voice from breaking. "Don't forget me."
He laughed openly. "Fat chance of that!" As he was about to get in his car, she put her arms around him, and kissed him on the cheek. He blushed, wondering exactly what he'd done to earn such affection from the famous hero. But before he could ask, she'd vanished into the long shadows of the scarcely-started day.


The path had started becoming more wooded, and as Sophie saw the first rays of the sun, she realised that she was decisively heading North. She didn't know why but it seemed that this was the correct way to go.
"I feel something pulling me," she said, out loud. "Is it you?"
[No.] Elena replied.
"Then why aren't you screeching at me? Why aren't you telling me digging your fucking nails into my head?" Some of the fear had passed out of her. The worst thing that Sophie could possibly have imagined Elena to signify had turned out to be true. She had the courage now to look Elena in the eye, for she had already won.
[As long as...you're still doing what's right, I'm not going to torture you.] She flickered on the edge of Sophie's vision and then vanished. Evidently she had no more to say.

Suddenly Sophie sensed something was wrong. She looked around, but all seemed well. A couple of squirrels chattered, a sparrow flew by. The sun was rising on her left, starting to creep above the shorter trees.
"Wait, what?" Sophie realised what was wrong. The sun was on her left. Going North, a rising sun should have been on her right. Had she come in a circle? The road was still in view: it seemed impossible that she could have made such a grievous navigational error. She turned around, and went back in the direction she should have been going to begin with. And then a few seconds later, the sun was on her left again, and she knew that she wasn't just being clumsy. "Someone's doing this!"

Everything seemed to grow still. Sophie listened quietly for the sounds of an enemy approaching her. She could hear nothing, but felt that something was wrong. With her enhanced eyesight she took in every detail she could in as wide a radius as possible. Trees, plants, a snake slithering towards a patch of sunlight. A woodland bird that she didn't know the name of feeding its chicks. Beneath her, water, a little underground stream that ran off towards the East.
"There!" There was something wrong. Behind her, there was a - a distortion. It was a little like the effect of that woman Shimmer that Sophie had once encountered, who had the power to cloak herself. But no, that was not quite it. It was less that light was distorting - more like the space was distorting.

Sophie gulped. She had in her life encountered two superhumans who possessed the power to distort space. One of them she had destroyed - the 'vampire' Erin - but the other remained. A sharper, more earthly fear arose in Sophie's mind.
"Mysteria!" Sophie had encountered the villain once, the day that she had fallen into the clutches of Hades. Her powers were truly bizarre. She had not only the power to distort space, but also a sort of animating power - she could bring to life objects that she touched. Sophie had fought her before and had, in a sense, been victorious, but had wasted her victory and been captured nevertheless. But beyond the fear of Mysteria herself, and knowing that - of course - Sophie had been followed, the redhead wondered what on earth a servant of Hades was doing after her now.

And then she remembered. Remembered how she'd been started on this path in the first place. As she crept softly towards the source of the distortion, it occurred to her where she'd first heard the name 'Schiffer': Insyte had pulled it out of Mysteria's head, at the temporary cost of her powers. Now there was an element of the mystery that Sophie had not considered sufficiently. How the hell did Mysteria have any idea about Peter Schiffer? Sophie had thought, roughly, that she understood more or less what had happened, if not the whys and wherefores, regarding her powers and herself...but only now was she reminded of how much she still didn't know.

"I see you've noticed me." An emotionless voice rang through the forest, and Sophie froze. It didn't feel like it was coming from the distortion. "You are a very clever girl."
"Where the hell is she?!" Hiding from Enhancegirl was not easy, but Mysteria was one of the few who could. Sophie employed all her senses now, trying to pick up a scent as well as sight of her. She felt that if Mysteria were deliberately obscuring her presence, scent might be something she'd either overlook, or that would fall outside her power. She sniffed. She could almost subconsciously detect a subtle incongruity, but she couldn't quite place it. She laid faith in her instincts, and kept moving.

"Why are you here?" Sophie called out. "Did Hades send you?"
"Hades?" Mysteria responded. "Oh no, not today. He pays very well, but infrequently. Not every day in his service is quite so exciting as the day we met, Enhancegirl."
Sophie was confused for a moment by Mysteria's choice of pronouns, but remembered that many of Hades' servants had done the same. Her identity as Anya Morrow was still only known to a small handful, and Sophie was doubtful that even his faithful Plasmarr knew the secret. "Then why are you here? What do you want from me?" Silence. "Last time we fought I beat you. I was stupid and I didn't put you down hard enough, but I won! This time I'm not gonna make the same mistake!" More silence. Had Sophie made a mistake? She'd been willing to talk because she'd been sure that Mysteria already knew where she was. But if she'd only had a vague idea, then it would make sense for her to bait Sophie into revealing herself.

And then, as if reality had altered around her, Mysteria was there. She was standing exactly where Sophie had first sensed the distortion. She looked almost ridiculous in the forest in her dark jacket, her bow tie, her tall riding boots. Like she was shooting a music video. But there was something off about her - a sense of inherent wrongness. Sophie supposed that her adrenaline after taking down Arachna just before their first fight had helped her fight through this, but that horrible sense about Mysteria seemed to gum up Sophie's senses. She felt slower, less aware.

But something seemed to be bothering Mysteria as well. She blinked at Sophie like an owl, tilting her head from side to side like a confused animal. Then, quite suddenly, she jerked her head to the side, as if something had caught her eye a few metres away from Sophie. A little cautiously, Sophie turned her eye to where Mysteria was looking, and then looked backed at her enemy with - Sophie was not even sure what emotion she felt. For standing right in the spot where Mysteria was gazing, right where her birdlike eyes were locked, was the dark figure of Elena, looking back.
"Now that is...that's..." Mysteria looked truly confused. "Now that really is very...strange."
"Wh-what the fuck?!" Sophie fell backwards a few steps. "You can see her?"
"Ah," Mysteria said. "That must be...Elena?"
"How are you doing that?" Sophie felt strangely...violated. Fearful as her presence was, Elena was within her. Someone - anyone - seeing her was wrong. Even when Natalya had come into contact with her it had felt deeply disturbing.
[She knows my name.] Elena said. [She can see me...]

Enhancegirl faced her enemy.
"Why are you here?" she asked, glancing back and forth between the two phantoms. "If Hades didn't send you, who did?"
"Doctor Schiffer of course," Mysteria said, still looking at Elena. "The two of us are fast friends."
"What? Why - why would he do that?" Possibilities whirled in Sophie's mind. What was Schiffer doing? Had he sent Mysteria just to get rid of Sophie, or to restore her? Did he mean to bring back Elena, or to destroy her and bring back Sophie? Or neither?
"You seem afraid," she added, and Sophie couldn't tell to which of the two she was speaking. "I assure you there's no need. All Peter wants to do is to put things back how they were." The ambiguity was infuriating. How they were when? Before Sophie had realised Elena's presence, or before Sophie was created in the first place? At any rate, anything wished by Mysteria seemed to demand opposition, and Sophie steeled herself for combat.

She rushed forward, trying to use Mysteria's perplexity over Elena to her advantage. The villain didn't appear to react at first, but when Sophie closed in on her, suddenly Sophie realised that she'd been deceived. She realised now what was wrong with Mysteria's appearance - she wasn't lit from the right side. In the low light of an anaemically sunny morning, and not being in direct sunlight anyway, it wasn't easy to notice - but Sophie did notice it, and she noticed it in time.

Bending light in some way, Mysteria had projected a sort of image of herself, displacing her image. But at the last moment, Sophie saw through the illusion, and looked up. Mysteria was above her, in the trees, and a living serpent of rope was shooting out towards her, animated by its master's power. But Mysteria's trick hadn't been enough, and Sophie wasn't fooled. She leapt back out of the way, and the rope lashed at empty air. In a fraction of a second, Sophie's powerful senses and calculative ability worked out the surest, quickest path to close the distance between herself and Mysteria. At close range, even with Mysteria's distortive abilities, she had the advantage. She was just about to make her first strike: she was a panther, a leopardess. She knew what she had to do, she knew that she couldn't allow them to twist her even further, or to erase Elena for good. If this was to be her last battle, then she would make it such a battle, the final blaze of her golden fists.

And then darkness fell upon her.
"What?!" Sophie cried out. She was blinded. And not just blinded, but deafened. And not just deafened but numbed: she couldn't sense anything. "What's happening?" She didn't understand it. Mysteria hadn't shown the power to do this. Had she an ally? Sophie tried to think if she had seen any hints of some other enemy, but then she realised that there was a familiar chill over her. Elena's hands were covering her eyes. "What are you doing?! Why are you stopping me from fighting her?!"
[You heard what she said,] Elena replied. [She's going to put everything back how it was.]
"Elena, let me see! Let me fight!"
[Why? So you can stop her from taking us to Schiffer? He's the only one who could fix this.]
"He's not going to fix it! I - we were just some experiment that went wrong. I was never supposed to know: he's going to destroy us!"
[No. I know that Schiffer is going to put it right! He has to!]

Before Sophie could raise any further objections, she finally felt something - and to her horror, she knew the sensation well. Rope lashed at her, and Sophie couldn't avoid it.
"No!" she cried out, and her senses returned to her, but all too late. She was caught! The rope seized her lithe body, coiling like a snake around Sophie's torso, her upper arms snapped to her sides. "Ahh!" Sophie gasped, shocked at her sudden capture. She struggled, but the rope was more than a match for her strength. It coiled round and round and round, twisting with frightening subtlety and skill: Mysteria knew exactly what she was doing. As Sophie tried to stop her forearms from being submerged, the cords seemed to take stock, looping around her wrists, pulling them behind her back. "Aaaauughh!" Sophie groaned, as she felt her wrists lashed together, crossed so that her hands were facing uselessly outwards. This done, her binding only continued, rope continuing to cocoon the distraught, supple maiden. There was an embarrassing rapidity to it, like many hands were wrapping Sophie up, pressing in her soft, creamy shoulders, squeezing her bosom, and leaving her slender white arms bound and useless.

Within just a few seconds, Sophie's torso was completely wrapped up in rope, from just below her bare shoulders to just below the hem of her short, shimmering golden dress. Between her waist and her sternum, only Sophie's hands were visible, flapping uselessly behind her back, and still she could feel ropes wriggling about her, tightening. Bound as she was, with her minidress covered, she might well have been naked beneath her bonds. Before she could even think of running, she felt a sharp yank: the other end of the long rope that had bound Sophie still trailed upwards to the trees - and into Mysteria's hand. She pulled on it to keep Sophie in place, proving at least strong enough to match her. Then, looping her end of the rope about the strong branch on which she'd perched, Mysteria leapt down from the tree, and the branch acted as a fulcrum. As Mysteria went down, once the slack had been used, Sophie went up.
"NOOOO!!" Sophie cried out, as she was hoisted into the air, a good five feet off the ground. She thrashed, kicking her long, bare legs, straining and struggling to get free. Her cheeks burned red: roped up and hoisted like this - it was humiliatingly efficient. She'd been caught like an animal: outsmarted, subdued, and now rendered helpless - all tied up and totally defeated. It had taken Mysteria seconds.

"That was very odd," Mysteria said, securing the line on a tent peg to keep Sophie suspended. "I thought you were going to attack, but then Elena stopped you. Something's very...strange." She sounded almost disturbed, but Sophie wasn't listening. She was thrashing ferociously in her bonds, kicking her legs to try to get some momentum, to swing enough to break the branch. But the branch was strong, and though it creaked, it wouldn't break.
"Why...why are there so many people like you?!" Sophie cried out. "So many shits who'll - uuuurrhhhgghhh! - do this to people! For money or for kicks or...whatever the hell it is that you want!"
"You're quite an intemperate person, aren't you?" Mysteria said. She took Sophie by one of her uselessly kicking legs, and spun her around.
"Do you know what's going to...what's going to happen if you give me to Peter Schiffer?" Sophie was truly desperate, wriggling her naked shoulders in the humiliating half-cocoon of her tight bondage. "Does it mean anything to you? He's...he's going to destroy us..." She hung her head. She almost sobbed. She had left Mariko - she had left Mariko - only to get herself captured. Now it was all moot. Now she and Elena were going to be got rid of. Swept away to cover Anubis' tracks. "MMmmphh!" Sophie gasped, as a thick, white cloth was pressed over her lips and nose. It wasn't drugged - but it was a very effective gag. "Mff! MMMMPHHHH!!" Sophie moaned, feeling the smooth fabric tight against her mouth, keeping her muffled and unintelligible.

"Hush now, Enhancegirl," Mysteria said, holding her lovely captive by the chin. She spoke in a soft, calming tone, like she was pouring honey into "Hush now. Look here - I've got a fun little trinket for you." From her pocket, Mysteria produced a pretty little necklace. From a thin chain hung a little brass gyroscope that spun impressively from the slightest movements upon it. "Look at this, Enhancegirl. Isn't it pretty? Watch how it spins..."
"Mmphh...mhhhhh!" Sophie knew this kind of language perfectly well. The spinning trinket, the low, soft tones that Mysteria was using - she was trying to entrance her. She turned her head away, but Mysteria turned it back. Her eyes, big and green and wet, found themselves locked onto this spinning contraption.
"How awful this must all be for you," Mysteria said. "How tired and stressed, and anxious you must be. I wonder how long it's been since you slept...oh you must be tired. You must be exhausted..."
"She's...right, I'm...haven't slept since two nights ago...haven't slept well in...months..." Her eyelids suddenly felt very, very heavy. "No... I'm...I can't let her do this..."
"Let's make you more comfortable," Mysteria said, slowly removing Sophie's mask, revealing her sweet face in all of its charm and prettiness.
"Nmphh...nnnhhmmhh..." Sophie whimpered, a little pathetically as her warrant was stripped from her. But she didn't stop looking at the necklace, not for an instant. The embarrassment of her capture, the terror of Elena and the existential despair that had been tormenting her, the shame and guilt of forsaking her beloved - Sophie's psyche could hardly have been weaker.

"Don't worry," Mysteria said, beginning to stroke Sophie's long, red hair. "Relax...relax, Enhancegirl." She was almost whispering. "It's been so hard, hasn't it?"
"Mmhh-hhmmhh..." Sophie whimpered, not sure herself if she was just protesting or if she was answering. Here eyes went rhythmically back and forth with the spinning gyroscope. Back, and forth...back, and forth...
"Well now just feel the softness..." Mysteria said. "You've fought so hard. Now it's time for you to relax..."
"Mmmmmmhhh..." Sophie sighed, and she couldn't resist the relief that Mysteria offered. She felt the hand stroking her hair, petting her like a kitten, felt relaxation washing through her like warm water. Her creamy, bare legs were barely even writhing anymore.
"Relax, Enhancegirl," she said. "Relax...and sleeeeeep..." With this very word, Mysteria seemed to send a soft pulse through Sophie's body, and she mewed helplessly. "Sleeep..." Mysteria repeated, weaving the spell as securely as she could.
"Mmmmhhhhhhh..." Sophie's eyes were feeling very heavy. Waves of somnolence were thumping softly through her with every swing of the gyroscope. "I'm so...so sleepy..." Sophie thought, charmed and hypnotised almost into forgetting her situation. Her mews faded to near-inaudible sighs, all strength fading away, flowing out of her. She let it. She couldn't resist, couldn't possibly resist what Mysteria was offering her. Peace...calm...sleep... "Mmmmmhhhh..." Sophie mewed, as with one final sigh she fell under Mysteria's trance, and dropped deeply into slumber.

"Marvellous," Mysteria said, something at least a little like a smile on her face. In a flair of her queer abilities that even the most hardened superhero might have mistaken for genuine sorcery, Mysteria touched the line from which Sophie was hanging and it seemed to shrivel up, yanking itself from the grip of the tent peg, allowing the bound maiden to fall directly into Mysteria's arms. She turned her around, cradling her like a fallen princess, exhibiting more than a touch of interest in the feeling of Sophie's long, supple legs, and the sight of her exposed, white neck. But strange though she was, Mysteria knew she had a job to do. Yet something disturbed even that bizarre mind. She saw, still, watching her, the figure of Elena, her eyes boring into the villain's. And then she faded, as if she had never been there. Mysteria kept staring for a moment, shrugged, and then continued on, bearing Enhancegirl back to the place - well, the place where she'd been born.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Elena left the house in something between a sulk and a strop. Her father shouted something after her, but if she'd heard it at the time then it was quickly lost from her memory. All she remembered was that she'd shouted back that she hated him, and had turned away. She was never to see him again, as it turned out.

She wore torn stockings, and a skirt that was much too short. She didn't know where she was going, exactly. She just couldn't stand to be in the same house as him. She didn't notice the van following her. She didn't think she was in any danger. And perhaps she wouldn't have been if she hadn't stopped for that cigarette. If only it hadn't been for the rain!

She couldn't light it. Her lighter was pretty crappy at the best of times, but it was no match even for a light drizzle. She ducked into an alleyway: she could see an overhang which would cover her. So she hid under it, lit her cigarette, smoked it, and stopped. Perhaps she regretted doing what she'd done. Perhaps she regretted saying all those awful things to her father. Perhaps she really wanted his love and forgiveness after all.

It didn't matter in the end. The van screeched into the alley, completely blocking its only exit. Elena had trapped herself like a rat. Two men leapt out of the back. Elena didn't even have time to scream before they grabbed her, and when she did scream it was almost immediately stifled. A plastic mask was shoved over her face, and a chemical smell poured out of it. Soon Elena felt light, and weak, and she slumped limply into her captors' arms. They bound her there, in the rain, trussing her up with cheap, coarse rope, tangling her chest, her arms, her much-too-exposed legs, as she moaned and whimpered weakly. They tossed their bundle into the back of the van, and even as she moaned, they gave her more of the gas, until she finally, tearfully passed out, with her last thought being that she wished she'd listened to her father.

Then the memories were more scattered. Only vague images. A laboratory. Herself, stripped, bound by straps to some sort of slab. A machine - a thing they'd attached to her head. And then a substance - a poison, or a drug, or something. It made the light too bright, made sounds too loud and too sharp, made every touch an information overload, and made everything hurt - though she seemed to remember that they'd given her something else to take the pain away, and mercifully the sounds around her went back to normal.

And then the worst thing of all. That machine they'd strapped to her head, and a man. A man with a terrible, ruinous power. He alone could not do what they'd done to Elena, but he was not just a superhuman. He was a scientist, a technician, and he'd found a way to bolster his strength, to do more than just wipe away recent recollections. Elena felt herself sinking, deeper, and deeper and deeper. Felt herself forced down into a black pit, a tiny cell within her own mind. Probably they just meant to destroy her entirely, but her survival even in the form in which she remained was not, Elena felt, down to any particular strength of will on her part. They just hadn't perfected the process. Yet as she sank, she saw something shooting past her. A flame. A gold and red flame, laughing and joyous and kind, and so terribly ignorant of what she was, or the cost of her inception.

First horror. Paralysis. The terror of seeing someone walking away with her body, starting a life that should rightfully have been hers. Alien memories suddenly flooding her - and then with all that happiness and love in her imagined life, she threw herself into terror after terror, humiliation after humiliation. Constantly threatening a conjoined doom for both herself and for Elena, her dark passenger. And all the while, Elena felt herself sinking slowly away.

Until something happened. Some new trial for 'Sophie', some terrible new menace that ensnared and almost destroyed her. But this one left something behind in its victim. Nothing more than a husk, really, with no more power of its own. Much like Elena, who had no power of her own. But when she reached out to it, when she took what remained of it, she felt tiny glimmers of potency awaken inside her. So she waited, and tried to be patient, and allowed herself to grow strong...

Sophie awoke, not quite with a start, but with a shudder, as Elena's memory shocked its way into her psyche. She feared a sort of override, that these memories would be taking the place of Sophie's own - but for Sophie these memories had no counterpart, no 'false version'. For her it was just darkness.

Darkness was, more or less, where she found herself. There was enough light for her enhanced senses, but a normal person would have been half-blind.
"Mmhhph...mhh?!" Sophie had expeted to awaken bound, but not like this. She was doubly bound with straps: a set of thin, but strong black leather tying her up, binding her arms inexorably to her sides. A strap pinned her wrists against her hips, her elbows against her ribs. A strap was wrapped around her upper body, across her breasts, binding her upper arms and squeezing her shoulders inward. Another set of straps bound her legs: two straps around her thighs, squeezing in her soft, creamy thighs, pressing into her skin like a lustful hand, another strap binding her ankles, and her calves. "Mmhhhphh..." Sophie even felt leather over her lips, keeping the captured redhead muzzled as well as trussed. And though the straps themselves covered the more...delicate areas of her body, Sophie was otherwise naked. As she wiggled her beautiful body so helplessly, she felt terribly ashamed. Not just of being kidnapped, bound, gagged and stripped - but of her failure.

Those were not all her restraints. She was lying on a slab, plastic, like in a hospital, and to it Sophie was firmly fixed. More straps, older, brown leather, bound her in place. Across her chest, her waist, her knees - even across her forehead, preventing her from moving her head much at all.
"Mmhhh...hhhmph! MMRRHHMMMMMMPHHHH!!" Sophie cried out, wriggling and bucking in her overwhelming restraints, but she couldn't move. She was helpless, again. Looking around as best she could, she tried at least to discover where she was. To her dismay she realised that it was now all too familiar. She'd seen it, in Elena's memories. "Here," she thought. "This is where I was born!" There was a familiar smell in the air, too, but Sophie couldn't instantly place it.

Footsteps. Directly behind Sophie, and she couldn't crane her neck enough to see. She heard the tapping, though, the slightly awkward shuffling. After what seemed like an age, he came into view - and Sophie didn't know whether to scream or cry.
"I hope you are not feeling too perturbed," Schiffer said. "But the restraints were necessary. As for your clothes...strictly a practical matter, I assure you." He stood next to her, and Sophie saw him peering at her. He was quite openly ogling her vulnerable, naked body - and yet he wasn't. He inspected dispassionately. He spoke, however, with energy. "I never thought this opportunity would come," Schiffer said. "Even when I saw you fighting openly as Enhancegirl, I assumed that I would never have the chance even to see you again, much less to fix my mistake." He shook his head. "Fool that I was, I kept searching, but...I never found another that would fit. Never another whose mental patterns were suitable."

He strolled around Sophie, standing by her feet. He smiled.
"Then there you were. There you were at the Penitentiary Supreme, and you put hope back into my heart that she was still in there, when I thought I'd failed utterly!" He patted Sophie's calf. "I shall put everything as it was meant to be." He had prepared in advance of Sophie's arrival, or at least it seemed so. Some sort of device he added to Sophie's slab, a metal ring whose struts attached to the base of the slab. It was set to be directly above Sophie's head. She recognised this too: it was old-looking, and dilapidated, but it had had a feature in Elena's transformation - or rather her imprisonment.
"Plhhss..." Sophie whimpered. "Plhhhss shhvv hhrrhh..." Schiffer frowned at this. He saw that there were tears in Sophie's eyes. He even undid her gag: indeed, her voice was no threat to him here. "Please save her," Sophie repeated. "Please save Elena! She never deserved any of this...you can erase her memory of you with your powers can't you?! So give her back her life...please...or all this has been for nothing."
Schiffer was looking at her strangely. The greying man seemed confused - but then something clicked.
"Oh my dear child," he laughed. "No, no, no, no, no, you really have got the wrong end of the stick. It is Elena that I want to save."

Sophie's heart froze. "Wh...what?"
"It was so difficult finding someone who would fit, who looked enough like her, whose mental patterns were sufficiently similar. You really were a very lucky find, Sophie Scott."
"No," Sophie said, very quietly. "You made me up. You changed Elena and you put me in her place."
"Quite the reverse. I tried to get rid of you, to - to have Elena back, but...there were errors. But now I'll do it right. And she'll be better...better than she was before...she'll be what she ought to have been. My daughter...my loving, beautiful daughter..." He looked around in sudden desperation, as if searching. "Elena, my girl! I don't see you, but if you're there, don't you worry. I'm going to have you back soon!"
[I'm here!] Suddenly she appeared, though Schiffer still didn't see. [I'm here, papa, I'm here! It's you! Please help me, Papa! Get me out!]

"I...ah...n..." There were no words. There was no way, really, of describing Sophie's anguish. "No...no, it can't...it can't have...it can't have been for nothing..." It was like a dream, for she could not move and her words had no power when they left her throat. "This is another...another hallucination... This can't - this can't be!" Young, fit and strong though Sophie's body was, she was not all too far from having a heart attack from sheer pain. All for nothing! Why, why why hadn't she listened to Mariko? Why hadn't she asked more questions? When she'd realised that she'd been hallucinating those awful things Kirsten had said, why hadn't she said "Well how do you know me then?" When hadn't she had Natalya interrogate her parents? Why had this idea, this idea that Elena was real and she was not, why had it choked her? Why had it overpowered her so? How could she have possibly thought that abandoning Mariko would be the more loving thing to do? She let out a great wail of rage and shame and bitterness.

And then Elena looked at her. Now Sophie knew. Now Sophie knew why she'd let Mysteria capture them. Why she'd wanted Sophie alone, vulnerable - to allow her 'father' to catch them. And now she recognised the smell in the air, and knew why Elena had guided her North. She was in Ferndale. They'd caught her and done this to her in her own hometown, and that was where she'd been going to all along, like a homing pigeon!
[Throw her away! I don't care if she was the real one! Throw her away! I want to live! I do! I want to be the real one!]
Sophie only stared. She couldn't believe it. And then she screamed, and cried out in desperation for someone to save her, but this only gave Elena a twisted, sadistic pleasure.

And then with terrible glee, Schiffer switched on his machine, and Sophie felt herself begin to fade, as Elena truly began to take hold. And them, in that last moment before collapsing into her own internal world, as Schiffer's machine tore her mind open, and everything that she was began to dissolve into oblivion, Sophie remembered.

She remembered everything.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

Two years ago...

In her heart, Sophie had fallen out of love with the forests. That was not to say that the sound of the streams, the smell of the sweet country air and the rich, great greenery that surrounded her in her hometown did not bring gladness and pleasure to her heart; it did, and it always would. But in her youth, in her true girlhood, Sophie had thought that - while she had no intention of remaining in Ferndale - that she probably wanted to stay in the country.

But less and less was this the case. When she'd been accepted to Seacouver U, a pretty mediocre college, but highly respected for its Political Science department, she'd been surprised at how happy she was at the thought of living in a city! Seacouver was hardly L.A. but it was a real city. There were theatres, and independent cinemas, and pretentious record stores, and who-knew-what-else! She loved the very thought of it. She was so excited about starting college and moving to Seacouver that she was doing it twice: she'd already helped Kirsten move, and her great friend's mother owned an absolutely cavernous camper van, so Sophie had already moved in her stuff. Really, she was only still here to say goodbye to her parents.

"Freedoooooooooom!" Pamela cried out, and blew a long note on a trumpet. "Free at last! No more lending you the car; no more listening to your weird Korean pop music; no more having to be a good influence! I can stay up all night drinking and gambling and having casual sex with with strange men! Oh man, I am gonna smoke SOOO MUUUUCH WWEEEEEEEED!" She blew another note on the trumpet, and her daughter stared.
"Did...did you buy a trumpet just to do that?" Sophie asked.
"What? Of course not!" Pamela scoffed. "I stole it."

Before Sophie could raise an even greater cry of 'what the fuck, Mom', Sophie heard shouting from the top of the house.
"PAM!" boomed a loud voice. "HAVE YOU BEEN MESSING WITH MY INSTRUMENTS AGAIN?!"
Pamela responded to her partner with a deafening blast of the trumpet. Sophie heard thumping, and a man with great, green eyes, and hair and a beard the colour of rust, appeared at the top of the stairs.
"Dad, Mom's being a lunatic again," Sophie said, in an over-the-top stroppy tone.
"'Again'? Still!" Jerome shouted. He moved gracelessly down the stairs, took his trumpet back from Pamela and, after giving a frustrated sigh, kissed her on the mouth. "Right then," he said, smiling at his daughter. "Let's roll."

The three of them, as they often did on a Sunday morning, went to see a matinée at the Fortuna. It was a science fiction film about Matt Damon getting stranded on Mars, and as always, the family was united in mutual disagreement.
"I thought it was predictable," Jerome huffed. "The story was dime-store thriller crap. It was like watching a slightly more outlandish version of Apollo 13, except at least Apollo 13 was a true story!"
"It was Castaway in space," Pamela replied. "You cry at Castaway every time."
"I do not!" Jerome folded his arms. "Besides, in Castaway he doesn't even know if anyone knows where he is. Everyone knew where Matt Damon was, so the movie didn't feel isolated, or afraid - just sort of vaguely anxious."
"I kinda liked it," Sophie said. "Space travel in sci-fi always seems pretty safe outside of horror movies. It was good to see, like, how hard it would be. Not that the movie focused on it. My problem was -"

Her parents groaned - they saw it coming a mile off.
"What?!" Sophie was instantly defensive. "Why weren't there any superhumans on their crew? You're telling me they send a mission to Mars, and they can't find one guy who can breathe in a vacuum, or has like a super-brain as a backup computer, or who has, like, magnetic powers so they don't need fuel to get off the planet or something."
"Does every film have to be about superhumans?" Jerome said. "There are other things in the world besides that, you know."
"It just doesn't make sense!" Sophie insisted. "Like, there's not even a mention of it. It's like - it's like if you made a horror movie, and the people were getting chased by the monster and not once did anyone, like, think of calling the cops on a cellphone. Like, at least have a throwaway line, like 'oh no, there's no signal.' Don't insult my fucking intelligence. Same with this movie. Everyone knows NASA recruits superhumans exactly for this type of shit. What?"
Pamela was looking her daughter in the eye. "You seem awwwfully defensive about this," she said. "Are you sure you're not secretly Valora or something?"
"Mom, if I had superpowers, I would be shoving them in your face day and fuckin' night. Besides," Sophie added, cupping her modest bust, "I don't think I've got the right equipment to be Valora." She stuck out her tongue. Pamela laughed. Jerome shook his head in dismay. The raucous mother-daughter pair would have probably drawn tuts and disapproving glances, but Ferndale was a small town, and its citizens were used to them.

"Shit," Sophie muttered. She'd seen the time. "I've got to go," she said. "I want to get into Seacouver before nine."
"Of course," Jerome said. "Alright, I'm going full Polonius here, so listen up, kid." He took her by the shoulders, their bright green eyes meeting. "This is where all your real adventures start. Stretch your legs, do what you love - make every mistake that young people need to make. Invent some more of your own. Fall in love, fall out of love, join the Communist Party - whatever. Be as wonderful to all the people who are going to be special to you as you've been to us."
"Jesus, Papa, don't make this any harder than it has to be..." Sophie felt tears in her eyes, and embraced her father. "I love you, dad."
"I love you too, Sophie," Jerome replied.

"Back off, shitheel, it's my turn." Pamela lightly pushed her partner aside and ruffled her daughter's red hair, before kissing her on the forehead. She seemed to be about to make another joke, but she couldn't quite bring herself to. Her upper lip quavering, she squeaked out: "I'm gonna miss you so much, honey. Oh geez," she said, laughing through her tears, "it's been so much fucking fun raising you! You have no idea how boring it is hanging out with him without you around." Quickly, she shot her partner a warm smile, just to make sure he knew she was joking. She turned back to her daughter. "Just, like...grow, but don't change. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah, mom," Sophie replied. "I gotcha."

She looked again at her parents, and felt an ocean of love and gratitude for them. She was a little scared, and she knew she was going to be a bit homesick, at least at first, but she felt ready. She'd had a wonderful childhood, but she was ready for it to end now, and that was a combination which she knew did not always arrive so neatly.
"I love you guys so much," Sophie said. And then something flickered, like a sort of psychic twitch, and suddenly she felt a little smaller. God they'd been good to her, Sophie thought. "I really don't deserve you," Sophie said, quietly. Suddenly, her mother's face took on a wrathful aspect, and she gripped her daughter's arms tightly.
"Never say that," she said, with an almost violent insistence. "I hate it when you say stuff like that. It's total bullshit."
"I'm - I'm sorry, mom," Sophie mumbled. Pamela hugged her daughter against her chest.
"You deserve every fucking ounce of happiness you can get. And if anyone - including you! - ever tells you otherwise, I will march over to Seacouver and beat their asses myself. You dig?"
"I dig," Sophie said with a teary-eyed smile. "I dig. Honestly. I dig it like my grave." And so, with a few more goodbyes and sudden panic about Sophie's passport which turned out to have wended its way into her mother's backpack, Sophie was off.
"It's still in her, Jerome," Pamela said, breathing nervously. "I can feel it. It's still there."
"Yeah, well," her partner said, "there's a lot of other stuff in there too."

Sophie had a little walk ahead of her. There was a coach for her to catch, and the station was a little ways outside of town. Still, she allowed herself to enjoy the walk, the fading summer warm, but not too warm. She was dressed as she often was, in a short, tartan skirt, white blouse, and white stockings covering her pretty legs, feet clad in buckled black pumps. They tacked lightly against the ground, with a duller and duller sound as the quality of the pavement faded, from stone to little more than a tarmac path.

Suddenly everything seemed to grow quieter. She could no longer hear the sounds of the birds. She could no longer hear the sounds of Ferndale's traffic. She could no longer even hear her footsteps, except as long echoes. Sophie's heart beat, not faster, but harder within her chest, or so it seemed at least. The sound of her own breathing was the only one that still filled her ears, and that almost completely. She wondered why. She wondered why she suddenly felt afraid. Was it leaving her parents? No, that gave her a measure of sorrow, certainly but not fear. Was it, perhaps, the rigours of collegiate study? Yes, there was fear there, but of a more mundane sort - mere anxiety, really. She felt as if something was about to end. Her childhood? Perhaps. But no - the slow dawn of adolescence passing into adulthood that university life gave was not so sharply cut off as this fear in Sophie's heart seemed to suggest.

Though by now already a decent practitioner of judo, Sophie was not yet close to being a fighter. Why should she be? Her life had been peaceful, and she lived in the civilised world. But she had some measure already of the qualities that would win her renown. Sharp wits, and compassion - and instinct. It was not whetted yet, however, and it only brought Sophie fear, for she lacked yet any power for her instinct to direct. It merely meant that she spent the last moments of a normal life in trepidation; the last moments before Sophie was captured.

"Mh?" When the first gloved hand clamped over Sophie's soft mouth, she didn't scream. It was like an electric shock had shot through her. She raised her hands, but not in struggle. She was just sort of checking that it was really there. Thick and muscular, and holding her with such force that she could barely move her head. It was only when she felt that her lips could no longer part, that there was something sticky and strong holding them shut that Sophie truly realised what was happening, and for the first time a gagged moan would struggle to escape her throat. "Mmmh...! MMMMMMPPPPPHHHHHHH!!"

"Shut up little girl!" a man's voice hissed in her ear. "Unless you want this to be a lot more painful than it needs to be." She felt his breath hot on her neck, felt him pressing up against her as he held the slender eighteen year-old girl in his grasp. Sophie didn't know what to do. All her skill, such as it was, in martial arts totally deserted her. She just sort of...froze. She felt her assailant wrapping more tape around her mouth, winding layer after layer over her lips, her jaw, roughly moving her hair out of the way so that the tape would stick better.
"Mmmmh-mhhhh-MMMMHHHHHH!!" Sophie whimpered, each moan growing louder as yet another circuit sealed her voice. The man took his hand away, and almost in disbelief Sophie reached up to feel her gag, to feel that it was really happening. "Oh my god...oh my god..." she thought, and suddenly all those times that she'd laughed at girls in horror movies who stood cowering before monsters instead of running didn't seem so funny anymore.

"No you fucking don't!" Mistaking what Sophie was doing for an attempt at resistance, her abductor seized her thin, white arms, and forced them behind her back. Sophie heard the growl of duct tape being torn from a roll, and the sharp discomfort as her arms were held securely together. Only when Sophie gasped at the feeling of tape on her skin, of the sharp squeeze as her wrists and her forearms began to be bound together, did it go from nightmare to terrifying reality.
"NNNMMPHHHH!!" Sophie screamed, and began struggling in earnest, wriggling her shoulders which became squeezed ever more inward as tape was wrapped higher and higher up her arms, trying and failing to wrest herself free. Her long legs began kicking, and flailing, and - more by chance than by design - her heel kicked against her attacker's knee, and their grip loosened. Sophie managed to burst out of his grasp, trying to run, but he tripped her, and she stumbled. She didn't fall, but he caught her, wrapping one arm around her stomach.

"HHHLLLP!!" Sophie screamed. "HHHHHHHHLLLLLLLLLLLP!" But the country lane was empty, and no-one could hear her but her enemy.
"Grab her legs!" the man shouted, and with a small whimper Sophie realised that her captor was not alone. A black figure, his face cheaply but effectively obscured by a balaclava, appeared in front of the redhead, and with strong hands grabbed at her lower body. Sophie wriggled, and kicked, but she was no match for him, and soon he had both arms wrapped around her long, slender legs. Her terror only grew as her legs were restrained, and lifted up into the air, not just because she was now truly caught, but because Sophie began to fear exactly what these two men wanted from Sophie, from the attractive young redhead in her short, tartan skirt, all tied up with no-one to save her.

"Hurry up!" the man holding Sophie's legs shouted, and the two began carrying Sophie between them. They didn't have to go far, and though she fought and writhed in their arms, she was more subdued by her fear than by her bonds. They reached their target soon, and Sophie gave a whimper when she saw what it was: a plain, white van.
"They're...they're taking me," she thought, with horror. "They're kidnapping me!" They hauled her over to back of the van, its doors already ajar, opened it up, and tossed her inside. "MMPH!" Sophie cried out, rolling a few times in her bound state. She tried to stand up, but both her captors leapt in, and one of them roughly pushed her onto her back. Both, she now saw, were holding rolls of duct tape, and she whimpered fearfully.

"We've got you," the first man said. "You're a captive, little girl, so make sure you fucking act like it." He was the one to grab her legs this time, and though Sophie did wriggle a little, she didn't put up much of a fight. Resting her ankles on his leg, he forced them together, and unrolled four circuits of tape around Sophie's ankles, pressing them together with painful strictness. At the same time, the other man took Sophie by the shoulders, forced her up into a sitting position, and began twisting his tape around her torso, above and beneath her breasts in alternation, pinning her arms so tightly against her back that it was impossible for Sophie to move her arms at all without having to move her entire upper body. She could smell his breath, hear him panting as he put his hands all over the gorgeous, whimpering young woman.

The first man was more openly lecherous. He squeezed and groped Sophie's beautiful legs, showing a particular liking for pressing his fingers into her thighs. Sophie looked at him with pleading dismay, but if anything this only egged him on. Pushing her legs against each other, he bound her soft thighs together with harsh, strong tape, which clung tenaciously to the fabric of her white stockings.
"Nnnhhh...nnmmmmphhh!" Sophie moaned, hanging her head in fear and shame at her awful powerlessness.

And then the two men got up, and stood over her. Sophie looked back up at them, and struggled, but she realised now just how helpless she was. Her arms were fixed to her back, her hands wiggling a little but otherwise useless. Her long, smooth legs were trapped together, a slight shuffling all the movement of which they were capable. Her voice was muffled to unintelligibility and quietness. There were tears in Sophie's eyes, a humiliation at not being able to move, or speak. And there was another element to it as well: no matter their intentions, no matter if they'd been straight women capturing her with cold, clinical detachment, Sophie could help feeling that there was an inherently sexual aspect to what was being done to her. Taking her, putting their hands all over her body, binding her up and exerting their will over her...it was humiliating. She'd had dreams, from time to time, of some tall, strong woman tying her up and pleasuring her as Sophie lay helpless and mewing - but that had been fantasy, and this was cold, terrifying reality. Three more words only increased her terror.
"Get the chloroform."

"Nmmhhh...nnmmhhh, pllhhhhsss!" Sophie whimpered, shuffling towards the back of the hold. "Hm'll bm ghhd, hm fwmhr..." the redhead mewed tearfully: 'I'll be good, I swear' she was trying to say. But as the second man took out a dirty, oil-stained rag, and soaked it in a clear liquid from a brown jar, Sophie realised that they wouldn't care even if they could hear her. Two strides closed the distance that she'd managed to wriggle, and he knelt down, his knees on either side of her torso.
"Nighty-night," he laughed, and shoved the wet rag down over Sophie's face.
"NNNNNMMMMHHHHH!!" Sophie screamed, as her mouth and nose were covered. She threw her head from side to side, casting her red hair about her like flames. But there was no real fire left in her. A foully sweet smell forced its way into her, choking her senses, flooding her with weakness. She writhed and bucked, and kicked out her bound legs, but to no avail. "MMPHHH!! Mhh...mmhh?"

She felt sleepy. It was like going under for an operation, only she didn't want this anaesthesia to work. Her legs fell flat on the metal floor, mostly still, just wiggling a little. Her smooth shoulders stopped writhing, her pretty head stopped twisting from left to right. Her thoughts grew scattered, hard to focus on. "Wh...what's happening...? I feel...I feel all weak - can't think straight..." She felt her eyelids begin to flutter. "Drrhhhggd..." she whimpered: 'drugged'. "Hhhllp..." But no help was coming. In fact, her plea only pushed her captor to grab her by the back of her slender neck, and push her face harder into the cloth.

"Mmmmmmhhhhhppphhh..." Sophie moaned, as a pulse of weakness throbbed through her body like a wave. "Mhhph...mph...mmhhh..." Each little mew accompanied another 'thump', another undulation of her supple body as she was brought under. Her vision grew dark, and she began drifting out of the waking world. Her last thought was a vain, desperate hope for someone to save her. A cop - no, better yet, a superhero. A man or woman of power who would swiftly dismiss and ensure the punishment of these evil men. Imperion the Twice-Blessed, or mighty Valora - or perhaps the tall, fair and artful Spectra, the most beloved hero of Sophie's new home. It was with thoughts of her that Sophie passed out, her body limp and totally defenceless before the men who'd seized and captured her.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Sophie awoke, about two hours later, she was in a white room. Or rather, she thought she was at first. Really it was just her eyesight swimming back into view, and she saw soon that the room was really grey: it was merely that there was so much white around her. Figures and shapes that she couldn't identify at first. "Where...where am I?" She tried to move, and found that she could not. She remembered that she'd been kidnapped, and through a strap covering her mouth, she let out a soft scream.

"She's awake." A face moved over Sophie's, peering at her. If the redhead hadn't been trapped in place she'd have shrunk back. "Good afternoon," this person said. They had birdlike eyes, and Sophie couldn't tell if they were male or female. "You're very pretty."
"Misty, stop being a freak." A harsh, arrogant voice rang out, and the woman - or so Sophie supposed - moved aside. Sophie blinked, and saw in more detail where she was. It was a square, grey room, sheer concrete, but lack of décor was the only thing about it which looked cheap. It was otherwise like a hospital room, with the slab on which Sophie was bound with plastic straps the centrepiece. Wires were attached to her chest, her temples, leading off into one machine that was obviously monitoring Sophie's vital signs, and one that she could not guess at. There was something above her, too - a ring of metal, though it didn't appear to be doing anything. There were three people in the room, aside from Sophie herself: 'Misty', a tall, dark-haired man with a sneer on his face, and an older looking man, with a couple of wisps of grey hair, who was too far away for Sophie's still blurry eyes to see.

"Whh...mmhhh?" Sophie whimpered. The straps were pulled tightly across her body, slotting into gaps on the slab she was on to keep her arms tightly against her sides. She could barely lift her head, but she managed to do so enough to see that she was in a white hospital gown, soft, and loose, and all too short. "Mhph..." Sophie whimpered, shivering when she discovered that she was naked underneath it, and fearing what her captors had done to her while she was unconscious and defenceless.

"Petey, what's the hold up?" the dark-haired man shouted. "She's awake now, so let's get started." The shorter man turned towards him, and for the first time, Sophie laid eyes on the face of Peter Schiffer. Not quite so fat and not quite so grey as he would be in years to come, he moved towards the helpless redhead, apparently making an effort not to ogle her. He was carrying something in his hand - it was a syringe, clearly, but not like any Sophie had seen before. It had some sort of electronic component in it, and as it came closer, Sophie saw that there was some kind of odd, black...vapour inside it. Little crackles of electricity ran through it, and Sophie felt two fears, one explicable, one not. The first was simplest, and greatest: she'd been kidnapped, stolen for a purpose which could only be evil, used by people who clearly saw the lovely redhead as mere means to an end. The second was lesser, to be sure - but deeper somehow. It was fear of the substance in that syringe.

She didn't know what it was. She couldn't even vaguely guess. It didn't look like anything more or less than wispy smoke, yet it set a dread in Sophie's stomach.
"What are they going to do to me?" she thought, and found tears in her eyes again.
"Renfield," Misty said, addressing the dark-haired man. "She's crying." She stroked Sophie's cheek, wiping away the tear. "Don't cry, young lady," she said. "We're going to make you very special."
"Misty, if you could not talk to me, that'd be greeeeeat," Renfield said. Then, to Schiffer: "I thought the Big Man shut this project down."
"What? No, no, not at all. I wouldn't do something like this without his approval. 'The Big Man', as you say, ordered that, eh, no more resources be invested into the project," Schiffer said. At this time, his Swiss accent was less well disguised. "What we have here are leftovers and some personal investments. He is perfectly happy for me to use them until they are expended: I imagine we have enough for about three more attempts. We, eh, may be able to secure more funding if we are successful."
"Hmm." Renfield eyed Schiffer with suspicion, but said nothing more.

Schiffer checked Sophie's vital signs. "All good. A healthy, fit young woman. This should work even better this time..." He looked at Sophie again, and the girl stared back at him with pleading eyes. There was a look in his, though - a sort of desperation. But he looked away again shortly thereafter.
"Hey!" A man entered, thick-set and burly. Another, slightly taller man came in behind him.
"Mhhph!" Sophie whimpered, realising that these were the men who had actually abducted her. One of them looked her up and down, and she shivered with disgust when he winked at her.
"Where's the cash, Schiffer?"
"I beg your pardon?" Peter turned to them with fury in his eyes. "I already paid Susan for your hire."
"You paid...let's call it a call-out charge," the first man said. "And hush money."
Schiffer blanched.
"Yeah, that's right," the second man said, the one who'd first caught Sophie by the legs. "We know who you work for. You want a lady snatched and you come all the way to our boss? I mean, shit, you guys must have access to the best kidnappers around. So pay the fuck up, or we tell Ha -"

The kidnapper's last words were fittingly greedy. Schiffer's hand was so fast, the bullet so accurate, that he died with no distress in his heart whatsoever. He just collapsed. The other, however, met his end with terror and with an embarrassing failure. He reached for his own gun, but so shocked was he that he fumbled badly. Schiffer fired and missed twice before finally clipping him in the shoulder just as he was aiming. The gun fell out of the kidnapper's hand, and he dived for it, but this only made it easier for Schiffer to shoot him in the back. He gave a gurgle, and died.
"MMMPHHHHHH!!" Sophie screamed, seeing the men collapse, dead, seeing the blood gushing out of them. "HHHMMPHHH! MM-NNNNNNMMMMPHHH!!" She writhed and strained, terrified and bewildered, but terror gave her no greater strength.

Renfield stared at the scientist.
"Uhh...don't you think that was an overreaction?"
"Nonsense. They weren't useful anymore and were potentially a liability." He sniffed. "It was only logical. Help me remove them." He holstered his pistol, and set the syringe aside. Fifteen minutes later he and Renfield had finished dumping the bodies in the back of the kidnappers' own truck. When they returned, Misty was staring at the syringe, as if it held a great fascination for her. She smiled when Schiffer re-entered, though.
"Are we going to make her like Cato?" she asked. "She is very nice to look at - it wouldn't be so bad to keep her around."
"Yes and no," Renfield said. "Pict wasn't supposed to end up quite so...crazy." He moved over to the metal ring, adjusted something. "Don't be scared, sweetie," he said to Sophie. "We're turning you into a superhero!"
"Wh...what? What are they talking about?" Sophie looked again at that syringe. "What's that stuff going to do?"

But Renfield gave her no more answers than that. He again moved towards the metal ring, and it began to hum. He adjusted some controls.
"Okay," he said. "She's ready." He nodded at Misty, and she took the syringe from where Schiffer had set it aside.
"Nhh...plhhff...pllhhhff..." Sophie whimpered, looking up with terrified eyes at her captors, shaking with mortal fear, and terrible dread. The needle came closer, and closer, and the bound redhead now cried openly, her body shaking with sobs, tears streaming from her eyes. She was sure now that they were going to kill her, and it all seemed horribly unfair. Right on the cusp of leaving home, of starting this great new epoch of her life, it was going to end. She tried to be dignified. She tried to calm herself down, but the tears poured out nevertheless. Her only comfort was that the last time she'd seen - and would ever see - her parents, they had exchanged only words of love. At least their last memory of her would be exactly as Sophie would have wished it.

At the very same moment, Renfield activated the metal ring, and Schiffer pressed his fingers against Sophie's left temple, and Sophie felt a sort of...boum through her, like a blast of electricity had just coursed through her mind. Something felt wrong. She felt...like something was tunnelling into her, but could not get all the way inside. Though she began to feel strange. How had she got here, again? Someone had...grabbed her...and...what else?
"Mh!" Sophie cried, as the needle pierced the skin of her upper arm, and darkness flowed into her veins. She screamed through her gag, and shuddered, her whole body convulsing. "MMHH!!" she cried, feeling something within her shift. Her eyes - they were so sharp! They burned with overwhelming detail, flooding her mind with more than she could cope with. And her skin! The feeling of her gown, of the straps binding her: she could feel and almost absurd sensitivity, her own hair on her head agonisingly multifaceted in the sensations that were forced into her. She found a thousand smells and tastes overpowering her too: her own body, perfume, her sweat, her tears: the smell of Misty, and the two men. Sophie couldn't cope. She shook, and shook, in an agony of detail, her body seeming to flash with a golden light.

"Gabapentin!" Schiffer barked, and Misty handed him another syringe. He clicked his tongue - this process precluded the use of an IV drip, so he just injected it into Sophie's neck. Slowly, the shaking began to abate, but Sophie had lost consciousness. He checked her vitals anxiously, but they were within his expectations.
"What now?" Misty asked. "Do we just have to wait?"
"Mm," Schiffer replied. "If it hasn't worked within two hours, it won't work at all." He adjusted his tie, and Renfield clapped.
"Great!" he said. "Then I'm going for a fucking smoke." He clicked his fingers, and left the room, though he stopped to take one last look at the helpless, scarcely-dressed redhead. He almost felt sympathetic. As he left, however, he did not notice Schiffer make a sudden movement towards the ring. With quite subtle fingers, he removed a disc from a small slot, and inserted another.
"Soon," he whispered. "Soon, I'll have you back..."
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie fell into darkness. She tumbled deeper and deeper into a black pit - a cove, perhaps. She didn't know where she was, or why she was there, but the walls stretched upwards into a starless sky, higher than Sophie could believe. The closer she looked, the more she realised that it was not just black. The walls were of a cool stone, and streaked with blues, purples, and indigos. Sophie felt like she was in a place of safety. The darkness was not fearful, but comforting, a warm, dim blanket. The thoughts of her abduction, and that horrible black substance were distant thoughts now.
[Mine...]

Sophie froze. She was not alone. She felt like that was terribly wrong - here she should be alone, if anyone ever was. But, tremblingly, she looked round to where she felt the voice might have come from.
[Mine,] it said again, and Sophie saw that there was something with her in her cove. It wasn't really a thing. More like a mist, really, but it was flowing inwards, gaining form. [This is mine...]
"Who's there?" Sophie called out, though her voice was weak and frightened. "Wh-who are you?"

The mist began taking shape. Arms it had, and legs now, and it began to walk towards Sophie. With each step it became more human, and with each step the terror in Sophie's heart grew. And not just her terror - something was changing within her. With every step there was a boum on the outside of her cove, as if something was trying to hammer its way in. With every boum, a new memory forced its way into Sophie's mind. Terrible, awful memories of parents who hated each other - of herself as a horrible, spiteful, vain, vapid girl, who cared only about herself.
"What is this? What - what the fuck is going on?!"
[This is mine,] the figure said, more confidently now, and with a voice that more clearly came from the figure itself. A body began to become more distinct: medium height, slender but feminine, long legs and shoulder-length hair - black as pitch. Green eyes, not Sophie's or her father's green, but like toxic waste. Her face was and was not like Sophie's. It seemed to flit between absolute mirror-like identity, and a different face, with smaller, sharper features. Still pretty...but meaner. Shallower.

Suddenly, the figure leapt out at Sophie, seized her by the throat, wrestled her down to the ground.
[This is mine! You're not real! You're a fake! Just die! Just die!] So vicious was she, so wrapped in reckless hatred, that to start with Sophie was paralysed. The dark figure's hands squeezed tighter, and Sophie found it harder and harder to breathe. Who was this phantom? Why did she seem to hate Sophie so much? She pressed her fingers ever tighter, and Sophie felt the darkness of which she was composed begin to flow into her. New memories began to claim dominion over old. Shadows over light. Misery over joy.

Sophie realised now what was happening. They weren't killing her: it was worse than that. They were replacing her. She was to fade away, and this horrible, spiteful girl was going to be left in her place. They were taking away her past. Sophie was going to be gone and replaced with this shadow, this...Elena.
"No...!" she croaked. "Please...please stop!"
[I won't stop,] the dark figure hissed. [Not until you're dead and I get to exist! And - and I can say sorry to papa...]
"What the - what the hell are you talking about?!" Sophie gasped. And then she saw an image - an image from this new set of memories: the dark figure and the older man, the one who'd injected her with that...that stuff. She saw now - the dark figure was the scientist's daughter. She remembered how Schiffer had looked at her, and what was being done to her became all the more horrifying. The dark figure gripped her tighter, and Sophie began to fade into blackness. Not unconsciousness - she began to understand that she already was unconscious...but into simple nothingness.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Renfield ended up smoking for quite a while, getting through three little white sticks in a row. Irony of ironies, he was also enjoying the fresh air: the little building on the outskirts of Ferndale made for a good hidden laboratory, but it didn't have much in the way of amenities. Schiffer was Renfield's immediate superior at Anubis, so he'd done as he was told, but he was a little suspicious. When they'd turned that foppish little coward into Cato Pict, the orders had come from on high - he found it hard to believe that Schiffer had been given such autonomy.

And then a car pulled up. It was an oddly coloured, lime-green Polo, and Renfield recognised it. He wouldn't have done - he wouldn't have cared - but for the fact that it was such a ludicrous incongruity with its owner. A big, burly man got out of it, looking none too pleased. Renfield was a little nervous when he approached, for the man was not known for being temperate, but if anything it would help him understand what the hell was happening.
"Double-R!" Renfield called out. "What's the haps?" But 'Double-R' didn't answer. He thumped his hand on the ground, and a spear of earth and stone burst out, striking Renfield straight in the chest. He flew back about twenty feet, and landed hard on his back. He opened his mouth, in shock and pain, but he couldn't make any sound come out. He couldn't move. This was, in fact, because his spine was shattered. He would be crippled for the rest of his life. Fortunately, perhaps, that life would not be a long one: he died, gargling on his own blood, within three minutes of three minutes of the attack.

Inside, Schiffer heard the thump, and feared the worst. He looked again at Sophie and saw her twitching, her face in pain. Her body flickered gold, as if something was trying to take shape. A dress - a two-piece - a bodysuit - a cloak - shifting rapidly from one thing to another. He frowned. This hadn't happened with Cato. He looked again at the cloudy substance that he'd put to such strange use, and wondered just what in the hell it really was.

But that was not his immediate concern. His immediate concern was when a man in a cheap suit with short hair and an ugly expression walked into his laboratory.
"Uagh!" Schiffer gasped, realising that he'd been discovered.
"Hello there," Misty said. "And you are?" The man looked at Misty, scowled, and then backhanded her right across the face. She gave an astonished cry, flying across the room from the man's vicious strength, crashing into a glass cabinet. Mercifully, the cuts this gave her were not serious, but she was stunned almost into unconsciousness.
"Misty!" Schiffer cried out, his heart not wholly black. But soon enough it was himself and only himself that he was worrying about, when the intruder seized him by the throat, and slammed him up against a wall. "R-Royal Rumble, uhh, what a, eh, surprise to - to see you out in the - ackk!" Royal Rumble squeezed tighter, and grimaced.
"You shouldn't have hired those two goons," Rumble said. "They ain't professionals. They talk: and we heard." He squeezed tighter still. "Of all the people I ever thought might try to screw the boss, I never thought it'd be a brain like you. What? Did you think you could get away with it because you've been so important? Nobody's irreplaceable, shithead!"
"I - I designed his -"
"He doesn't care! I'm gonna drag your ass back so he can decide what to do with you." He shook his head. "Nobody crosses Hades and gets away with it."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie and the phantom grappled, the dark figure screaming in bitter rage and venom in Sophie's face, and Sophie quailing and struggling desperately in fear of her. More memories flooded in, of further and further back in Elena's life. Each one clawed at her like the talons of a bird. She saw now Elena's earliest memories, her girlhood that bordered on infancy. A dark misery, all the worse for being totally uncomprehended. Here, and only here, did Sophie feel an uncomfortable familiarity, though she did not allow herself to dwell on it for long. Instead, she found herself realising something: Elena felt empty.

Yes, the memory was fairly detailed, and perhaps Sophie was not perceiving the entirety of it, but it felt...hollow. There was emotion there, but pure emotion - emotion without attachment to a person, not really. It was like someone had taken an incredibly detailed print of the memories and hatreds of a real person, but there was no person there. As Sophie looked up into Elena's eyes, she saw her now as...hollow. Shock, fear and the terror of Sophie's kidnapping: those were Elena's chief weapons. But there was no Elena. Not really.

And then Sophie felt something inside her. Through the awful, humiliating fear of being captured, bound and abducted, it was hardly surprising that she had not known it was there. And indeed, in a life of friendship, and love and a good deal of happiness, it was easy to see how one might think that this quality would not be something that would be - or would need to be - in plentiful supply. But courage, which Sophie felt within her, was not just a quality for soldiers, or superheroes, or firemen. It took courage to be willing to open herself up to people. It took courage for her to accept the reprimands that her parents made and, when she got older, to challenge some of them. It took courage to listen to her friends lament their mistakes and to offer more than cheap consolation. It had taken courage to fall for Juliette, to be totally open about her sexuality - and it had certainly taken courage to end it without letting her anger turn to genuine hatred. And lastly, mostly, it took courage to love - and not too many loved more or more deeply than Sophie Scott. She felt her courage now, a gift from those she cared for, and a sword that she had long tempered without realising. It was the courage, would that she yet knew it, of a hero.

Sophie grabbed Elena's wrists, and pushed them from around her neck. Space had no meaning here, and it was now as if she was standing.
"You're not real," Sophie said, but this was no fearful protest, but clear, simple statement. "You could be. You would be if I surrendered, if I let you take me over. But guess what?" She leaned in close. "Fuck. You." She struck at Elena, and the phantom reeled. "Maybe this doesn't matter. Maybe they're just going to kill me when I wake up. If I wake up. But I'm not letting you take me. I'm not...I'm not going to let eighteen years go to waste! Maybe they end...maybe this is the last day of my life - but it's my life! Not yours!"
[You don't deserve it,] Elena said, and Sophie felt ice in her heart. In her slowest, stillest moments, she'd heard a voice whisper those words to her many a time. Her bravery faltered - but not enough to defeat her. She imagined the face of her mother, of the sharp shock of her rebuke when she'd heard Sophie use those words of herself.
"Maybe I don't," Sophie said, "but you don't get to tell me that. How dare you? How fucking dare you try to take my life from me?!" With a great cry, Sophie struck out, and Elena's hollow form was sent reeling, tumbling. And how hollow it was! Where once had been a face, there was only a void, and fearful though the sight was, it was a reminder of the truth. Sophie was real, and Elena was not. Sophie had fought her first battle - and she had been victorious, the shadows of Elena seeming - seeming - to fade into nothingness. And then Sophie awoke - and she awoke into chaos.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The lab was wrecked. Royal Rumble had punished a foolish attempt by Schiffer to shoot him with a seismic blast that had split the floor and the ceiling, hurling his gun far beyond its owner's reach. Misty lay twitching on the ground: something had spilled onto her, darkening her clothes, and it was clearly affecting her. Rumble's blast had also split the slab on which Sophie was lying. It dipped in the middle now, and Sophie found herself much less loosely bound than before. She had no idea what was happening, and the sight of it all was so very dreamlike that she wasn't sure if she'd really awoken. But there was a dinginess to it all that suggested reality unmistakably. Ignored for the moment, Sophie found that she had enough freedom to wriggle her arms out from against her sides, and with shaking hands she began to unbuckle herself.

Schiffer saw this. He saw Sophie awoken - but was it Sophie? Had it worked? Had he given himself a new - a better - Elena? Or was it yet another failure? As the hand around his neck tightened, another thought came to him: did it matter? If Royal Rumble killed him, then what was the point? He saw as the redhead managed to wriggle herself out of her partially broken bonds, and saw her look askance at him. And then he remembered, Elena was not all she had been injected with. It had started as simply a way to make superhumans - but when he'd realised what else it did, that it put a person's very reality in flux, regret and narcissism and a thorough helping of morbid curiosity had set him on this path. To use what Hades was using him for in order to remake his daughter. To make his Elena live again - not that she had ever really died. But to make her his: what a real daughter should be.

All useless if he was dead! So as he saw Sophie sneaking outside of the bullish Royal Rumble's tunnel vision, he decided he would test his daughter's loyalty to her father. He looked right at her, and was about to call out to her, to let Royal Rumble know she was there. But this proved moot. She was not trying to escape. She was trying to get Schiffer's gun.
"Hey, sh-shithead!" she cried out, levelling the pistol at him. Slowly the villain turned.
"What are you doing?" he said, quite calmly.
"I'm f-fucking h-holding you up!" Sophie said. The gun shook in her hand, but it was still pointing at Royal Rumble. "Let him go!" To Sophie's surprise, Royal Rumble did just that, though he shoved him to the ground.
"Elena!" Schiffer called out. "You -"
"And you shut up too!" Sophie cried out. "I'm not gonna let him kill you and your friend, but that doesn't mean you aren't going the fuck to jail because of what you did to me! Oh and b-by the way," Sophie said, trying to stop her teeth from chattering, "my name is Sophie!"
"No..." Schiffer mumbled. He hung his head. He'd failed. He'd failed - and now he'd never get another attempt!

"I'm a superhuman," Hades' henchman said. "Royal Rumble. Put the gun down before I have to hurt you."
"Well if you're so badass," Sophie hissed, "how come you haven't just taken me out?"
"Good point," Royal Rumble said. He stamped on the ground, and a tremor shook the small building. Sophie yelped, and the gun was thrown from her hand.
"No!" the redhead cried out, diving for it, but Rumble was faster than he looked. He reached for her and with one great hand he seized both of her wrists, shoving her up against a wall. "Unnhhh!" Sophie groaned, caught and overpowered once again. "Get off me!"
"You brought this on yourself, girl," Rumble growled. "If you want to know, I did see you. I was gonna let you sneak out, but then you had to go and play hero! I'm probably just going to hand you off to some associates of ours who deal in normie chicks, but maybe I snap your neck before I hand you over."

Schiffer looked at Sophie struggle in the grip of Hades' servant. He thought of what he had done: arranged for the kidnap of this innocent girl. Forced into her a material that had such foreboding implications about their world that even he choked his curiosity for the sake of peace of mind; tried to overwrite her mind - and for what? He laughed at himself. How stupid he would have looked. How much Lucinda would have laughed at him and hated him even more. How much Elena, the real Elena, Elena Schiffer - or as she was now, Elena Bossard - would have thought him a disgusting, frightening freak.

Schiffer would forget this moment in later years. Resentment and bitterness and loneliness forced him to, to reclaim his original, insane purpose - but in that moment, he felt guilty, and what's more, he acted on it.
"We gave you power!" he shouted, his voice croaky from being half-throttled. "Use it! Use it, Sophie - the changeword is 'enhance'!"
Struggling in Rumble's grip, and at a point of supreme desperation, Sophie stumbled over the word at first, feeling almost silly - but she said it again, and her light filled the world for the first time.
"Enhance!"

There was not just a flash, but an explosion - actual force burst out of her, pushing Royal Rumble back. For some time Sophie was consumed in it, consumed in the brilliant glow of her new powers. She might have ended up looking like anything...except just as the light began to fade, a thought crossed Sophie's mind. An old newsreel replayed on television, recounting the adventures of the second Lady Luck. How pretty she'd looked, a young Sophie had thought, little knowing of the significance of how her eyes had lingered on the legendary heroine's shapely legs, how spry and lithe and adventurous. And as she thought this, and her warrant manifested for the first time, it patterned itself after her thoughts.

Gold it was, shimmering and shining like the classical heroes of her grandparents' youth, let alone her own. A simple, strapless dress - figure hugging, but pleated at the bottom. Sophie's long legs left bare, like a huntress in Ancient Greece, short silver boots offsetting the burnished gold of the rest of her outfit. And if her minidress suggested agility and straightforward, uncomplicated, girl-next-door sexiness, then the long gloves that caressed Sophie's arms suggested poise, dignity, elegance. And to top it all off, a red mask, to keep her and her loved ones safe, to ensure that her only restriction would be her own courage.

"Wh...what the?" Sophie looked down at herself. And with what eyes did she look! Not the overwhelming agony of before, but sharp, incredible detail, her brain gaining the power to process the overload. Not just that, but colour! Shades of red and purple that she'd never knew existed appeared to Sophie, and she realised that she was seeing colours that ordinary humans could not. And not even just that - she looked at a wall, and then with a moment's concentration, she looked through it! She could see through walls! And smells...smells richer and sweeter than any she'd known. The world was alive - so alive! Insects and plants and warmth everywhere...it was wonderful. And then she turned her eyes to Royal Rumble, and she could see him. Better than he'd ever seen himself. Every tension of every muscle, every sinew, every old injury. She could smell his blood, and feel the vibrations in the air from his heartbeat. "This is what it's like..." she thought. "This is what it's like to be a superhuman! I'm...more!"

But Royal Rumble was more too, and he wasn't impressed.
"What the fuck are you supposed to be? What the hell is...this?"
"I started the day as a damsel in distress." Sophie smiled. She realised she'd already given herself a name. "Guess I'm finishing it as a superhero, asshole. You can call me...Enhancegirl." She clicked her tongue. "Huh. Sounds weird... . Eh, I'll think of something else later."
"There won't be a later!" He raised his arm, gathering seismic energy in his fists. But Sophie saw - she saw long before he had even finished clenching his fists. She didn't know what she was seeing at first, but she seemed to have so much time to work it out. She was so fast! And she rushed at him, and she knew exactly where to strike. She hit him just beneath his ribs, and he was put totally off balance - she'd hit a week old bruise and brought it right back to its full pain. He lost instantly the strength he'd gathered. He tried to punch her, but she found that she could see exactly where his arm was going to be. She just...stepped back, and he missed. It was like magic. She kicked at his heel, but it held firm. Then she kicked again, recalibrating, and his ankle buckled this time under the force of a greater kick. He cried out, and fell to one knee. She drew her arm back, and with wild strength, slammed her fist as hard as she could into Royal Rumble's temple. She cried out with the pain of it, her knuckles stinging terribly - but Royal Rumble came off far worse. He swayed, bobbed - and then fell unconscious on his back.

"Oh thank god..." Schiffer sighed. "Unnhh..." He staggered to his feet.
"Stay back!" Sophie shouted.
"Relax," Schiffer said. "I'm not armed. I'm a doctor, yes? You...appear to value life - I'm checking this man's vital signs." He crouched down next to Royal Rumble's fallen body. He pressed his fingers against the man's pulse, and then concentrated. A moment later, he'd deprived Rumble of his memory of the day, leaving only a blank hole.
"I meant what I said," Sophie said. "You're under arrest." She felt a great confidence, a giddy power coursing through her. How much she had wanted this, without knowing it! That it had been forced on her took colour from the experience, but she could hardly deny its pleasure. She, Sophie Scott, a real-live superhuman!
"Yes, yes, of course..." Schiffer muttered. Then he swallowed. His eyes narrowed. "Ah!" he complained, grabbing his thigh. "I...I know I don't have the right to ask anything," he said, "but could you...possibly help me up?" He reached out his hand. Sophie breathed out slowly. She was suspicious - but with her new powers she scanned him, and saw no weapon. She reached out her hand, and he took it. And in that moment, he had her.

"Unh!" Sophie cried out, as something thumped through her, a pulsewave of numbness. Her eyes went wide, and then went blank. Schiffer grinned: she'd fallen into his trap.
"Forget me," he said. "Forget Misty, and Renfield. Forget this place. Forget..." He was about to tell her to forget her powers, but the changeword was not so uncommon to English speaking tongues that she might not reveal it accidentally. That might be worse. No: he would be more subtle. "You forget how you obtained your powers - you will not think of it. Ever. You are new to your powers, but you have used them before - you remember that you fought Royal Rumble, but no more than that." This was difficult. He was about to add something, and here there was no guarantee of success. His powers were limited enough: had the process of giving Sophie her powers taken more than five days, he'd have been powerless to rob her of the memory. But he focused. "You are a superhero. In fact..." He grinned. She'd sent him those fools and nearly cost him his life. Perhaps he'd send a gift in return. "There are reports of a nasty person kidnapping pretty girls in Seacouver. You have a mind to do something about this slaver, this...Madam Black."
"I'm...a superhero..." Sophie mumbled. It was clearly not inimical to her character, or she'd not have taken up so easily. And then all, for Sophie, was darkness.


Two hours later, Sophie was waiting for her bus. She didn't know why she'd been so late - it was almost nine and she'd wanted to be in Seacouver by nine. Her clothes felt odd, too, like they'd been put on hastily and badly. A couple of her buttons were out of order. She didn't know why everything felt so odd, but she didn't really want to think about it. She would seem in a bit of a daze to her friends and professors for her first few days in Seacouver, but soon enough she was her sprightly self. After the initial madness that was the beginning of the semester, Sophie's thoughts began to turn to more serious matters. Those reports of kidnappings had only increased, and yet no-one seemed to be doing anything about it. It was time for Enhancegirl to step in for the first time. Wait, what? First time? No, no, no: she'd fought a few times before. She'd fought Royal Rumble and...uh...well that didn't matter. She didn't need to think about it.

And until October 31st, 2016, she never would.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Present Day

The memories rushed back in. Of course, Sophie only recalled her own parts in the tale, but it was more than enough. Even as Schiffer's machine forced Sophie again back into the gloom of her own subconscious, she remembered everything - her first kidnapping, acquiring her powers - and, more importantly at that moment than anything else, her battle with Elena.

"I won," she said, as Elena manifested before her in a formless dreamscape. "The first time...all the way back then...I won! I beat you!" She laughed. "You don't scare me anymore, you piece of shit! I know that I'm the real one, and I know that I beat you before!"
[You have no idea, do you?] Elena said. [You want to know how I clung on? You want to know how I managed not to vanish?] Her rage seemed real. The first Elena, in 2015, had been little more than a screeching phantom, empty and brittle. But now...now there was something more to her.

But Sophie didn't care. She'd won before, and she would win again. She would redeem herself for her grievous betrayal: she would fight her way back into the light, and back into Mariko's arms. She would save herself - as she had done before.
"Enhance!" Meaningless in her own mind though the word was, she said it nonetheless, and even if no real power came with it, she felt the sword of her selfhood grow sharper, stronger. She leapt into battle, fierce, furious, and determined.

All the more aggrieved was she, then, when Elena - mimicking her golden form - moved with inhuman speed, and seized her from behind.
[You don't get it, do you?] Elena hissed. [When you make a building, and you keep adding to the foundations, it gets weaker. You're more than you were, Sophie, but the foundation isn't any stronger!] She held tighter, and Sophie gasped and writhed in her grip. [Where do you think I've been? In the deepest, the darkest part of you, the part that your loving parents could never reach, that your precious Mariko never even knew existed - that's where I was! For years!] A flash entered Sophie's mind: herself as a little girl, bawling with tears and trying desperately to hide them. She'd thought - even when she thought she was the fake one - that this memory belonged with Elena...but now it seemed like a joint connecting them: part of both their psyches. Why had she forgotten this? What was this memory?

[But I wasn't the only one there,] Elena said. [Not forever. Something else slipped in...something you thought you'd destroyed. A piece...just a little piece...but it saved me. It means I can have my life back!]
"It's not your life! You know that now - it never was!"
[But I fought for it! You gave up! You gave up everything because it was 'the right thing to do'! I'd never have done that. I'd live. I'd live for any cost! I'd kill you a thousand times over!]

She forced Sophie down once more, and once more the two competing selves grappled. And Sophie looked up into Elena's eyes, and saw that they were dark now, not even the sickly green of before, but black as spent coals. And she felt a power from her, a power that Elena had been saving for this moment. She'd needed Schiffer's help, the machine, to suppress Sophie's mind, even in the redhead's distraught and shaken state. But now her moment had come, and Elena unleashed upon Sophie the darkness that had nurtured her, that had given her form and something approaching true life.

For Elena was not the only dark being that had taken root in Sophie's mind. A year before, Sophie had plunged foolishly into the depths of the lair of a being perhaps as fearful as Elena had been to her. A being which, in twisted, insane purpose, poured enslaving darkness into the minds of their victims, keeping watch over them, and destroying all resistance to its master's will. But Sophie had been saved, and her enslaver's power broken. But a portion remained - purposeless, impotent. It would have faded to nil - had it not crept into the grip of another dark passenger. Elena's own power was not enough to conquer Sophie. Even with Schiffer's machine she had failed, and would fail again. But now, as Sophie saw with horror, Elena wielded a fraction of the power of the Sin Eater. And with it, she smothered Sophie in oozing, liquid darkness...
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

It was only when Cato Pict arrived at his opulent home that he realised just how sore his errors had been. He had given away far too much, and he had gained nothing in return. He had been so sure of his invincibility, so focused on tormenting his captives, that he'd let them get away.
"Fucking whores," he spat. Yet some tremor lingered in him. It was not that he felt guilty, for he was probably physically incapable of that emotion, but a glimmer of him wondered why, when Anubis had made him, they'd elected to make him like this. For the most part, though, he was just afraid for his personal safety. He was a tool, and he knew it, and as he had been made, he was sure that Anubis would be quite willing to unmake him if they so desired.

It was not in Cato Pict's nature truly to oppose their will, for loyalty to Anubis, and to their hidden master was woven into very fabric of his identity. Yet he himself was well aware of this...coding, if you like. Would he have tried to attack them if they turned on him? No. At any rate, such a thing would be foolish. Would he try to escape? Well, he wasn't wholly sure. But if he found that he could disobey sufficiently, then he would put into motion one of several possibilities that he'd left at his disposal for escape

But, in fact, that was not the most serious of his potential concerns. Disaster had struck. Karen was dead - and Schiffer was missing. Cato could not contrive how - or why - the tubby bastard would have gone rogue again. Cato hadn't been told much: he was a talking head and occasional assassin, and all the secrets of his masters were not open to him. Schiffer lay at the heart of many of those secrets, so Cato didn't know everything there was to know. So with a cry of "c'est la vie" he sat down in a char, poured himself a glass of whiskey - and realised that there was an intruder in his house.

Cato didn't have his powers on, but he knew that something was wrong. Certain features of the room had been subtly disturbed, in a way that suggested deliberate concealment. He finished his drink, and stood up. He controlled his breathing, narrowed his eyes. Had Enhancegirl and Spectra come after him, perhaps? No, that didn't seem likely. Rather more likely was it that someone had come to punish him for his error. He wondered who it was who'd been sent after him, and whether he'd soon feel the sting of lead shooting through him.
"No."

Loyalty was one thing, rolling over and dying was quite another. With a flash, Cato activated his powers, and prepared for combat. Though he shared Sophie's powers for the most part, his vision was not quite so refined as hers, and he could not see through any but the thinnest of objects. He did, however, have his enhanced hearing. He closed his eyes, and for a moment he was convinced that he'd made a mistake, for he could hear no-one. Even the stealthiest assassin, the most skilled thief, would have betrayed some sign of their presence, some indication that Cato was not alone. But he heard nothing.

"Wait..." Something wasn't quite right. He stamped his foot down, making a loud noise that reverberated throughout the entire house. There! He sensed it now: there was a void of sound on the floor above him, sound not being reflected from it at all, just...absorbed. "Oh, shit!" It was worse than he'd thought. Not Anubis, or Anubis' master, for there was only one superhuman Cato knew of who could produce such a disturbing void of sound. "Askancepoint!"

He growled. The Pauldron was after him, had sent their stealth specialist: yes, he could smell him now, a faint scent of someone who was going out of his way to be hidden. Cato narrowed his eyes, but grinned. He reached under the coffee table where he'd left his glass, and pulled out a small object that he'd taped to the bottom of it. Then, with a flick, he extended the switchknife's blade.

He ascended the stairwell, knowing that while Askancepoint could conceal his presence pretty effectively, he wouldn't be able to hear Cato coming. He giggled, began whistling 'Kumbya, my Lord', another of Sanchez's bêtes noirs, and tossed his knife skilfully from one hand to the other. He reached the top of the stairs, turned towards the study. The door was open, and Cato wondered if he might be being led into a trap. He focused for a moment, calculating the necessary angles. He stamped again, until he was exactly sure of Askancepoint's position. Then, he took his blade and hurled it, handle first, in a sharp arc. It tacked against the doorframe, but this was all by design. The glancing blow corrected its flightpath, and sent it straight towards Askancepoint.

With his enhanced hearing, Cato perceived what happened to his knife. It went straight towards his target, alright, but it never reached him. To Cato's great confusion, it slowed down sharply, losing all momentum in an instant, and dropping to the ground, harmlessly.
"What the fuck?!" Aware that he'd now announced his presence, Cato tried to turn and run. He didn't run, however, because he couldn't turn. His foot slipped on the carpeted ground as though he was walking on ice, and he fell flat on his back. He looked up in confusion, and saw two men standing over him.

"How goes it, Mr Pict?" Askancepoint signed, knowing Cato would understand.
"Didn't you know?" his erstwhile companion, the deadly Fahrenheit, signed as well. "My friend here can extend his little cone of silence partway outside his own body. It meant we had to stand very close..." He winked at his friend, and Mark pretended to fan himself.
"What are you doing here?" Cato said, out loud. "What are you gonna do? Arrest me? Your little eastern flower broke into private property under false pretences: any charge you try to pin on me will never stick." He smiled. "I suggest you get out of here before the Pauldron's problems really start to mount up."

Shane laughed.
"Oh that is amusing." He signed to Mark, and he joined him in silent mirth. "Do you see pink hair on this head? Am I wearing garish, green armour? No. Then I'll thank you not to mistake me for someone who cares enough about law not to give you the beating you deserve." He narrowed his eyes and extended his hand, and Cato suddenly felt an unbearable pain in his left arm.
"Ahh...AAAHHHH!!" he cried out. He was still under the effects of his medicine, but it was like his very blood was burning. "Wh...what are you doing?!" Suddenly, the pain ceased.
"You're going to help us, Mr Pict," Mark explained. "Or my friend here is going to make you wish you were a nicer man."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Unnhhh...aahhh!" Sophie cried out, plunged into primal shadow. The truth at last had been revealed to her, but Elena wielded an awful strength, and used it to force Sophie deeper and deeper down.
[You won't win this time,] she hissed. [I was weak back then - but you can feel how strong I am! How strong you let me get!]
"I didn't let you do anything!" Sophie pushed her back, and stood firm, for it felt now as if there was indeed ground beneath her feet. She had faced darkness before. She would not be cowed! "You were right to stay hidden. You were scarier when you were just a shadow in the back of my head. Now? Now I know you're just...just something a batshit scientist cooked up."
[You knew, deep down. You knew I was here, but you wouldn't let yourself face me.]
Sophie looked into Elena's toxic-green eyes, her twisted snarl - and for the first time she laughed. "That shit isn't gonna fly anymore. 'Ooh, you knew deep down! Ooh, feel guilty!' Fuck that. Fuck that. Your crazy 'pop' used his fucking memory powers on me! I really don't feel all that responsible anymore, Elena."

Her phantom looked back, first grimacing - and then slowly smiling.
[But you are responsible. You fed me. Every humiliation fed me. Let me show you.] With a sort of rumble, the formless darkness began to take a kind of shape. The floor was not now just a surface - it was solid, flat metal. Walls began to appear - or were they walls? Metal, yes, like the floor - but the whole thing was too small, it seemed, to be a room - and what room was made out of metal, anyway? What was it? A shipping container?

And then Sophie remembered. This was it, this was the place - the site of her first battle, and her first defeat. She looked up into Elena's eyes, but found that they were no longer Elena's. They were harder, smaller, and meaner. Her hair was still black, but much shorter. Her face was older, though not old, and cruel. She had a vain, cruel look, as if everything were as shallow and vile as she herself.
"Madam Black!"

[Just an ordinary, human woman, and I still beat you,] Black said, her own voice - as Sophie recalled it - mingling with Elena's. [In fact you literally just delivered yourself into my hands. Well, if that's what you want....] A tangle of ropes burst out of her body, and they tangled around Sophie's body, binding her arms behind her back, cinching her legs together at the knees and ankles.
"No!" Sophie cried, her lithe body bound. Restrained and captured, Sophie fell to her knees, wriggling in her short, tartan skirt and thin, white blouse. "You think this is - urghh! - going to be enough? You think you can destroy me just by - gmmphh!" Madam Black had pressed her hand over Sophie's mouth.
[No,] she said. [This won't be enough. I'm just reminding you how Enhancegirl began: with you, defeated, helpless and humiliated. But we've only just started: I'm going to show you just how weak you really are!]

And then 'Black' took her hand away, before the other clamped over Sophie's mouth and nose. Soft fabric, and a familiar smell.
"Mmmphhh!!" Sophie moaned, writhing in her bonds in this mindscape of Elena's making. "Mmhhh...mmmhhhh..." Her vision began swimming. "But...it's not real...why am I...getting weaker?"
[Because that's all you've done for the last two years,] Black said, shifting back into the visage of Sophie's other self. [Get weaker...and weaker...and weaker...]
"Mmhhhhh..." Sophie sighed. Her 'body' began swaying from side to side, her eyes fluttering. She never got used to it, no matter how many times it happened. She never felt anything other than a deep, sensuous humiliation, feeling her lovely body growing soft, and warm, and utterly vulnerable. She blushed with shame, and with a long sigh, tumbled deeper into the pit of darkness.


Outside Sophie's inner realm, Schiffer watched with great anticipation, monitoring his victim's brainwaves. Though he didn't have enough data to say for sure what each change might mean, he saw a certain aspect of Sophie's brainwaves weakening somewhat. He smiled. It was working.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The helicopter landed a little clumsily in Seacouver's outskirts. Mariko and Natalya had since given up their manual search, and were glad indeed when Mark and Shane arrived at last.
"Ahoy!" With the grace of a horseman, Fahrenheit jumped out. "I came as fast as I could," he explained. "Hopefully Imperion doesn't wake up and ask where his helicopter went..."
"Did you find him?" Mariko tried very hard to sound poised and professional, and she damn near managed it.
"Mariko, dear heart," Shane said, "your doubt wounds me."

From the hatch of the helicopter, two men emerged. One was shorter, red-haired. The other was blonde, handcuffed, and very, very angry.
"You think you can do this to me? You think you can get away with this?" He smirked, going into full on PR-mode. "Superhumans are always acting like they can get away with anything. Well guess what: you can't."
"Guess what," Fahrenheit replied. "The message doesn't sound quite so convincing now that we know you're a superhuman too." Mark shoved Cato down at Mariko's feet. The redhead looked up, and saw Natalya, and he instinctively gave her a warm smile. She smiled back, nervously, before the gravity of the situation reasserted itself.

Cato looked up at his former captive. He saw with his enhanced eyes that she had been crying, deeply crying, and recently too.
"Awww," Cato crowed, laughing, and still feeling the sting of the wounds Spectra had given him. "You and your girlfriend have a fight? Did you not want to fuck her once you knew she was grown in a -" A hammer of light struck him, sending him sprawling backwards.
"You do not want to make me lose my restraint," Mariko said. "It hangs, Pict, on a knife-edge." She grabbed him by the collar, and shoved him up against the side of the helicopter. "As does your life!!" She threw him back down on the ground. He may have been strong, but he was light, and Mariko was tall. Before he could move again, he found a glowing blade of photonic energy at his throat. "Natalya?"

Natalya didn't move at first. She was looking at Mariko, and felt a terrified anger boiling so close to the surface of her mind, that little sparks of her power burst out of her. She had only ever felt such rage once before, from her brother: and it had preceded his killing twenty people. Mariko looked at her, and the telepath started in fright, but then remembered what she wanted.
"Uh...y-yes," she stammered, handing Mariko something that they'd picked up from Sophie's flat. Mariko took it, and gave perhaps the most unconvincing smile of her life when she saw the nervousness in Natalya's eyes. She then held it in front of Cato's face.
"Huh? What the hell is this?" Cato's confusion was quite genuine: it was a crumpled up t-shirt.
"Smell it," Mariko ordered. The order was unnecessary: Cato's enhanced senses immediately took in the scent, both the scent of the cotton itself, and another melange that clung to it, one that he realised was familiar. "Mmmmhh..." he sighed, taking a deep whiff. "Smells like a pretty little redhead I happen to know..." He grinned. "She does taste good, doesn't she?"
"Where is she?" Mariko asked. "I know you have the power to tell me. Use your senses. Tell me where Enhancegirl is."

Cato looked at her. For a moment he was about to make another sick joke, but Sophie's absence at the same time as Schiffer's could be no coincidence.
"Did he kidnap her? Or did he get her to go to him, somehow?" He didn't know what lie to tell. This was significant information: what would Schiffer want with one of his old experiments? He could indeed sense Sophie's scent: she'd passed nearby, and the trail, as far as he could tell, led North. "I -"
"He knows," Natalya said. "He's smelled that she's gone North, and thinks that she might have gone to Schiffer, or that Schiffer might have abducted her." Cato looked at her with horror. He saw her owl-like, yellow eyes.
"A telepath!!"

"Schiffer?" Fahrenheit's heart was troubled by the mention of him. "The man who made Sam Sparr's armour?" He explained to Mark.
"So Schiffer's been working for the Anubis Foundation all this time?" the redhead asked. He and his friend looked to Spectra for answers.
"No," she said. "As far as we've gathered, he returned to Anubis' service only after his escape from the Penitentiary Supreme." Shane shook his head.
"I told him," Fahrenheit said. "I told Jackson it was a bad idea sticking them all in one place. One pops out, so do the lot of them! Did he listen? Did he hell." But that was not the matter at hand.
"Look deeper, Natalya," Mariko insisted. "Look deeper!"
Warily, Natalya did so, and shuddered at the mind she found. It was a bizarre combination of a psychotic, mad cruelty, of blood and devilish laughter, and a kind of...order. It was as though she were looking into a constructed madman.

"OUT!" Cato screamed within his mind, and his eyes burned into her with fury. Momentarily Natalya was afraid - but deadly and cruel though he was, he had no power to turn her aside, and not forgetting her purpose, she delved without hindrance. There she found many secrets: his memories of awakening, of instantly being turned to work as an agitator and hatchetman, being pulled into Anubis' more open business when his bullying charisma was discovered by his superiors.

But it was not memory that Natalya was interested in, but his present perceptions. She saw as, despite himself, his calculating brain began to refine his perceptions. There was more of a bleed from one sense into the other in him than in Sophie, and while Enhancegirl's sense of smell remained wholly in the realm of the olfactory, Cato's did not. He began to see Sophie's scent trail, unable to keep himself from curiosity about it. And as he perceived it winding ever Northwards, he wondered just where it was going.

And then a flicker of memory. A half-remembered conversation from a fragment of a second hand discussion, but Cato's mind was too sharp for its own good, and he couldn't help it from bringing it up. The day that Schiffer had disappeared - the first time, in 2015 - and Cato's true master had sent Royal Rumble to investigate. He'd not found anything - but he'd awoken in some podunk little town out in the boonies. What had it been called? Riverdale, or Fernleaf, or something...
"Ferndale," Natalya said. She looked at Mariko. "That's...that's Sophie's hometown, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is." Mariko said, restraining her emotions better. The presence of her allies made her situations feel much more like a mission, and it helped her focus. "I take it," she went on, "that's where he thinks she is. Is it?" The last two words were not as calm as the nine that had preceded them.
"That's right. He thinks Schiffer might have had a laboratory there."
"Then," Fahrenheit said, tapping his foot impatiently upon the ground, "let's not waste another moment." He signed to Mark, briefly explaining the situation, before telling him to chuck Cato back into the helicopter, which the redhead did with pleasure.

Fahrenheit looked back at his silver-clad ally, and saw her for the first time unmasked. Not literally, but she seemed at last to be fully human. She was quivering. Her eyes were red from tears. She looked exhausted, and frightened, and sort of...shellshocked. She was such a powerful superhuman, so poised and professional, that he almost didn't think about it - but she was more than ten years younger than him, only twenty-one.
"Hm?" Mariko hadn't seen him walking to her, only noticing Shane when he put his hand on her shaking shoulder.
"Don't worry," he said, winking. "We'll fetch your princess from her dungeon."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie 'awoke' in relative darkness. Or at least, her vision was obscured.
"Ohh...oohh..." she whimpered, softly, trying to move, but finding herself softly restrained. It felt pleasurable, though: a soft, smooth fabric cast over her fair, white body. Her arms were pressed against her sides, her legs caught tightly together, but she had a degree of freedom of movement. She writhed and sighed, feeling a mixture of dismay and forbidden delight. It was only when the smell wafted into her nostrils that she realised what had happened to her. "Oh...oh god..." she mewed, as she felt herself bound in the drugged cocoon of an enemy whose presence always made her shiver: Nyx.

[Enjoying it?] Through the nylon cocoon in which the slender maiden was trapped, she saw a figure in thick, dark leather, with blonde hair. [You know that you are.] Her fingers danced over Sophie's legs, and the bound damsel shivered at the touch. [You love it, don't you?] she said in Nyx's dulcet tones. [Being bound and gagged...being helpless in another woman's arms...being weak and limp and sooo sexy...] She lifted Sophie up, and the redhead was almost totally limp. She sat behind her, wrapping her legs around Sophie's torso, before pressing into her neck and shoulders with her hands. [That's it...that's it Sophie...sink into darkness...there's shame in your heart but if you let it absorb you...] She reached down, and began fondling Sophie's breasts, and with a long moan, the redhead realised that she was scarcely dressed at all underneath her cocoon, and the touch felt so pleasant and -
"No!"

In an instant, the illusion was cast aside. The cocoon was torn, and 'Nyx' was thrown back, and Sophie stood on her own feet, clad as she'd been before, in the clothes that she'd been captured in before receiving her powers.
"You really thought that would do it? You really think you can destroy me just by, what, reminding me I'm into bondage? So what if I like that? So what if...if I like being vulnerable?" She thought of herself trussed and naked in Mariko's arms, defenceless, pleasured and adored. She longed for nothing more than to return to those arms, and she remembered what she was fighting for. "Is that seriously the best you can do? 'Cause if it is, why don't you crawl back into the hole you came out of?!" Suddenly she was no longer dressed as Sophie, but as Enhancegirl, flashing gold and red. It was a meaningless change in this mental realm, and yet it was not, for her will came with it.

Nyx's visage shifted back into that of Elena's, and she looked with loathing at her red-haired shadow.
[You're right. We're not done yet.] With a crack, a new face burst out of Elena's, leering, and greedy, and slick, chitinous tendrils burst out of her back. Wet and slimy, they grabbed Enhancegirl's beautiful body, clutching, seizing, squeezing her, binding her fair limbs, rubbing lasciviously against her soft, naked legs, slithering across her bust, and chilling Sophie's heart as they slid over her bare shoulders.
[Do you remember me, you stupid little valley-girl?] her captor spat, in the voice and form of Adrienne, the power thief who had brought Sophie and Mariko so very low.
"Yeah, I r-remember you," Sophie said, trying to choke her fear. It was not mere image that Elena conjured, but the full power of Sophie's memory of her old enemies. "I remember - I remember Mariko kicked your - mmgghmph!" A tendril had shot out, and formed a sort of mouth, with which it covered Sophie's mouth, and her nose. "Mphh...HHHMMPHHH!!" Sophie wriggled and fought, but the tendrils only squeezed tighter, stroked all the more lasciviously.
[Remember how you collapsed,] Adrienne said, sneering. [When I took away your power. Remember how you felt like nothing?]
"MMMPHHH!!" Sophie cried out, as she felt an all too familiar draining. "Mmmphhh...mmmhhhhh..." Weakness took her, strength draining from her limbs. Her groans became mews, struggles becoming helpless wriggles of her agile body. Her gold dress flickered, and vanished, leaving her once again in her blouse and skirt and stockings, pretty and youthful and helpless as a kitten.
[Well you are nothing! Resting your identity on a childish dream - being a superhero. It's hollow - and I'm going to fill the hole you've left for a real person!]
"It's not childish..." Sophie insisted. "It's simple, and...and good! So much isn't...but some things are!" But the fear of "Adrienne's" words hit the mark much better than Nyx's had done. She felt weakened - but not beaten. For by her mere presence, Adrienne undid her own argument. “As long…as long as people like you exist, then Enhancegirl isn’t a childish dream. As long as people like you need to be stopped, then being a superhero isn’t hollow!”
[Maybe not for people like your girlfriend, or Imperion. They’ve dedicated their lives to it. You? You’re an amateur.] The words were familiar… but they did not belong to Adrienne.

And then Elena's form began to bubble, and shift, and stretch. Sophie recoiled in disgust as she watched Elena's face distort, flattening sickeningly into a featureless oval. But then that oval gained a sheen, and her arms gained spiked, twisted bulk.
“Unhhh!” Sophie cried out, falling from the slimy grasp of Adrienne’s tendrils, shaken and weakened, even if not yet overcome. Yet now Sophie found looking in the face of her most terrible enemy: the blank and fearful face of Hades.

"You...you're not real," Sophie said, reminding herself of where she really was, and what was really happening.
[No indeed,] the titan boomed, [my whimpering girl with thighs so soft and neck so slender...] He leapt for her, and Sophie tried to move, but she was suddenly sluggish and slow, and Hades loomed so tall. Her arms reached out and seized Sophie, clutching her in one great hand. [I'm worse here than in reality. I am a nightmare here. I have engraved myself, indelibly, into your soul.]

Sophie wriggled, and writhed, but Hades’ claws were like great clamps around her torso. The maiden’s long, stocking-clad legs kicked wildly, but she felt girlish, foolish for continuing to resist. But then, wasn’t that the whole idea?
“No!” she screamed, and with a great cry, leapt from Hades’ grasp. “A few shitty memories won’t make me give in. I’m not just going to…wilt. Maybe you would. Maybe you would scream and run – but fuck you if you think I’m going to! You know how much good is tied to all of that? Madam Black – yeah, I fucked up and got captured, but I screwed up her whole operation. I rescued, like, seven people. Nyx? First time I met her, I won. Taught me that I could rely on myself to get out of danger, at least some of the time. Adrienne was one of the worst experiences of my life…but it brought me and Mariko together. The night she took our powers…that’s the first night we spent as lovers, even if we didn’t know it.” She clenched her fists. “And Hades?” She fixed her stare right at the centre of that terrifying silver oval. “I fought alongside fucking legends against her. Valora. Stellar. Nova. Spectra. Even the Starlight Squadron. I won’t let myself forget that.” She scowled, panting with fury, trying to let her anger be stronger than her fear, for she felt a great pressure on her very self, a pressure that had little to do with Elena, and more with the fiendish devices of her ‘father’. “So don’t think you can use this against me, not even my worst memories. They’re mine! Whatever power you think they have, it’s my power!”

And now it was not just Elena who wore armour. Sophie ran at her shadow-self, and even as she ran, her arms and legs became clad in grey metal, inlaid with obsidian, her beautiful face covered over with a formless, silver oval. Sophie had been through terror, and humiliation, and horror, but she had survived, and what it had left behind was hers to use. Now cast in as terrifying a visage as Hades-Elena, Sophie leapt at her enemy and forced her to the ground.
“How dare you call me hollow?!” Sophie shouted, tearing away a great chunk of armour. “How dare you say fucking anything about me? You tried to trick me…not just taking over my body, but trying to make me think I was never fucking real to begin with – you scared me like nothing’s ever scared me before and then you had the balls to ask for my sympathy!” She tore, and tore, ripping piece after piece after piece from Elena’s armour. She expected to find Elena within, shrieking and clawing and screaming her reckless hatred – but she did not.

A hand reached out of the wreck of Hades’ armour. A light brown hand, slender but strong, with long, skilled fingers that could work so many arts, both subtle and gross. It reached out, and it touched Sophie’s helm. She might have mistaken it for the hand of Raymond Parr, for the helm melted at her touch. Down it went, dissolving the armour, which hissed away into steam as her fingers stroked it. As her fingers reached Sophie’s pelvis, she felt a pulse of heat and dark pleasure. The last of her armour melted away, and Sophie sank slowly to her pretty knees.

“Unnhh…” Sophie sighed. She felt weak. Not sleepy or drained, but rather feebler, like her actual physical strength had been reduced. She looked down at herself, and her clothes looked…different. Her blouse was tighter, and partly unbuttoned, revealing much of her pert chest. Her skirt was even shorter, her stockings thinner, her pumps now changed to heels so high that she’d have struggled to walk. She felt a smooth hand take her by the chin, lifting her head, and she looked up with limpid, emerald eyes.
[Hey there, Pippi,] Ocelot said. [Miss me?]

In truth, Sophie had begun to anticipate that Elena might try something like this – but she hadn’t been prepared. This wasn’t like Hades. There was nothing from Rachel that Sophie wanted to keep, nothing that did not bring her humiliation and shame. Ocelot stood there in all her twisted sensuality, looking at Sophie with that unbearably arrogant, sexy smile. She was clad in her bodystocking, padded with body armour, and Sophie felt small and vulnerable next to her.
[Look at you, all cute and girly on your knees there,] Rachel said, [gives a lady ideas.] She took Sophie by the back of the head, moved her so her forehead was resting between Ocelot’s thighs. She began stroking the maiden’s soft, red hair.

“Don’t…don’t touch me…” Sophie whimpered, feeling all those familiar emotions rushing back in. Subdual, and weakness, and sensual shame, a feeling of worthlessness – of wanting to be worthless, of being sullied, and that sullying being a comfort. What was there to be afraid of if she really was just something to be toyed with and kept. “No…” Sophie moaned, but even as she moaned she felt Ocelot slip behind her. She was pulled up to her feet. “Ahh…!” Her blouse was torn, pulled down, exposing her pert bosom and pinning her arms somewhat. As she wriggled, Ocelot kissed her pale neck, and she Sophie gasped. “You…you can’t do this…I don’t want you…I hate you! I hate you more than – mmghhmphhh!” A thick, white cloth was pulled between Sophie’s lips, cleave-gagging her with a threatening luxuriousness. Sophie’s hands were pulled back, and a silken strap bound them as well. It was simple, as bindings went. With a little strength, and a little cleverness, Sophie probably could have broken free – but she didn’t.

Ocelot bent down, and began kissing the backs of Sophie’s thighs through her white stockings, even as she pressed her knees together, cinching Sophie’s legs together.
[You like the darkness,] Ocelot said. [It’s not just about enjoying being tied up. You like being brought down to this level, don’t you? Oh, don’t get me wrong: you love the light, Pippi, I know that.] An image of Mariko flashed before Sophie’s eyes, noble and mighty and virtuous. [You adore it. You worship it. You know you’re not worthy of it. You know you don’t deserve it. Deep down you know you’re still beneath her.]

Sophie was silent. Ocelot swept her up into her arms, and carried her like bride. Sophie was almost completely limp, but she held her head up, looking Ocelot in the face. There was a bed now, somewhat misremembered, but close enough to what Rachel’s real bed had been like, the bed where she and Sophie had had sex for the first time.

She laid her down, and kissed her ankles, then her calves, moving slowly up to her thighs.
“I’ve tried,” Sophie said, haltingly. “I’ve tried not to think of her as being above me…I’ve been trying not to, but it’s so easy. It’s easy to feel like I’m nothing next to her. She’s amazing, and I feel…so…small…so pathetic.”
[That’s right Pippi. So just sink into the darkness…just sink into it…be washed away.] She looked up, right into Sophie’s eyes, and saw her smiling.
“But you know what? I don’t have to resolve all my fucking issues to deserve to live!” And then Sophie was no longer bound, and one hand was around Rachel’s – around Elena’s throat.
“This was your last shot?” Sophie said. “Trying to talk me into letting you steal my life, using the face of the person I hate most in the entire fucking world?!” She thought of all that Elena had put her through. The doubting. The despair. The terror. The shame of what she’d done because she thought she was it was right. And all Elena had turned out to be was this. “You lose,” Sophie said simply – and she squeezed.

The walls came crashing down about her. The detritus of her mental struggle was swept away, and Sophie and Elena were plunged into true void. As they were, Elena’s disguise was swept away as well. She no longer looked like Ocelot. She no longer even looked like Sophie. She was, Sophie realised, now looking at Elena’s true face, at which she’d only briefly glimpsed in their first, short encounter two years prior. It was narrower than Sophie’s, sharper, more angular. Still pretty, but too worn by spite to be truly beautiful.

“It’s over,” Sophie said, as Elena collapsed to her knees. “You tried to take over, and you lost. You lost!” She felt a giddiness, a lightness in her heart. It was as though she’d passed some great trial, and she clenched her fist. “I should never have let it get this far. I should have found some way to cut you out – but it’s done. It’s finished.”

And then she saw that Elena was crying. Not just crying, but bawling, screaming in misery and sorrow, contorting and twisting with anguish.
“It’s…not…fair!” she wept. “I didn’t…d-decide to be in you! Papa…Papa put me here! It’s not my fault…I just…w-wanted to be alive!” Sophie felt a great pang in her heart, as sympathy for this being, whatever she was, grew in her. The fragment of the Sin Eater’s power that had made her more than just a program had been a terrible cruelty. Sophie experienced a great pity for Elena in that moment, a pity for a person who would never be. She was too close to reality for Sophie to just sweep away. Elena had done unforgivable things to her, had wounded her more intimately than anyone else could have. But she had been born into this…half-life, and not of her own volition. She wanted to be real: how the hell could Sophie blame her for that?

She had a sudden urge to comfort this non-person. She would not yield to her, but she didn’t want every moment of Elena’s ‘life’ to have been spent in misery, and fear, and hatred. She knelt down, and slowly slipped her arms around her.
[All those people you’ve saved…why not me? Why couldn’t you save me?]
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I am sorry. I wish it didn’t have to be like this.”
[It isn’t.] Elena said. Sophie was confused.

And then she felt something. A sharp pain in her abdomen. She looked down, and saw a long blade sticking out of her chest.
“Wh…what?” Shaking, she fell back. “What…what did…you do?” Slumping onto the ground, she looked up with renewed fear at Elena, who looked back with half closed, scornful eyes.
[No, Sophie, I didn’t think that little parade would be enough. The point wasn’t for them to break you. The point was to pull you further down into your memories. There’s something in you that’s older than me, older than what Schiffer did, and it’s where I had to cling on for those years. It’s nothing new, the way I beat you. It’s something that’s always down here. I couldn’t bring it up to you, but I could bring you down. I almost thought you had won…but then you had to be good, didn’t you? You had to open yourself to me. So here we are Sophie. The truest, deepest part of you. It bubbled up in your weakest moments, but it wasn’t just a remnant. Well we’re here now. Do you feel it? Do you feel it?]

Sophie felt it. It was…it was like the exact opposite of turning her powers on. Everything became grey, and dull. All the life seemed to drain out of her, and everything – all her strife, and battle, and victory was reduced to a dull ache. Nothing mattered, because she didn’t matter. And if anything did, she had no right to take part in it. How lowly she was. How undeserving. She let out a small wail of despair, growing cold. She felt like she was dying, but she couldn’t find the will to escape. She didn’t even want to be saved anymore.

She imagined Mariko, or Natalya, or even Kirsten coming for her, and it was agonising. She didn’t want them to see her. She didn’t want them to have to endure this. Where had it come from, this awful feeling? Why was it so familiar?
[You see? There’s so much of you, Sophie, so much life: but the foundations were weak. So you can stay here,] Elena said. [I mean, you were willing to throw away your life for me,] she said.
[No…] Sophie moaned, but she had no voice. She had no will. No desire. She was fading into nothingness. No courage. No strength. Just a young girl crying into the night, paralysed with misery, a misery that was too old for her to understand.
“Goodbye Sophie,” Elena said, and she spoke with a clear, strong voice. “I hope you just disappear. I suppose that’d be more merciful.” And then she rose out of the deepest cavern of Sophie’s heart, leaving Sophie herself at its centre, frozen in deep, cold despair.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

With Cato’s nose, and Natalya pulling information out of his head, it was not hard for the heroes to find Schiffer’s laboratory. What was hard, however, was finding a safe place to land. They spent agonisingly long minutes searching, before finally locating a spot to set down.


Mariko didn’t waste another moment. She leapt out of the helicopter before it had even quite landed, and barrelled towards the small building – it was half bunker, really – on Ferndale’s outskirts, west of the forest where she’d fought Hydrocita. Natalya ran after her, but hesitated briefly. She turned back, looked at Mark.
“Don’t worry,” he thought to her. “You help Mariko. We’ll stay here and look after Cato.” She nodded, and pursued her friend. She found her slicing through the heavy, steel doors like they were tissue paper. She didn’t even stop to acknowledge Natalya’s presence.

The two ran as fast as they could, knowing that too much time had been lost already. Yet something was wrong. The building wasn’t big at all – there were only two corridors – but they seemed to take so long to navigate.
“Wait,” Mariko said. She was close to hyperventilating. “We’re going in circles…we’re – how can we be going in circles?! This is a straight path!” She looked back and forth. “It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense!” She threw out her power and drove deep bore holes into the walls. She fired in a blind panic, and it was panic. This night – this awful, long night of madness and confusion. She’d been awake for so long – her chloroformed sleep had given her no real rest – and she could barely think.

“Mariko.” Natalya spoke as sternly as she could manage. “Calm down. Don’t panic.”
Mariko heard her, and she tried to calm herself, but she couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening, or had already happened to Sophie. Dead, perhaps, dissected for some cruel purpose, or perhaps just…undone. Replaced, whole cloth with this phantom, this ‘Elena’. And now this! A corridor that would not end, a straight line that was a curve. Perhaps it was she, not Sophie, who was losing her sanity.
Natalya saw these thoughts, and had no immediate answer. But the answer didn’t lie within Mariko’s head, but within her own. “I – I think I know what’s happening,” she said. “The superhuman who helped deliver Sophie and me to Hades – the one whose mind almost broke my power: she can distort space.”
“Clever, Insyte.”

It was almost as if she’d been there all along. She stepped out from a corner that did not exist, and faced the two heroines with all the baffling, incomprehensible power at her disposal. Mysteria.
“I take it you are here to stop Doctor Schiffer,” Mysteria said, with that bizarre tonelessness of hers.
“We are here,” Mariko said, “to rescue Enhancegirl from his clutches. Do you oppose us?”
“Peter is a dear friend,” Mysteria said. “We would not be - ”
“Natalya, cover your eyes,” Spectra replied. She extended her hand, and let out a blistering, blinding volley of light. Mysteria was dazzled, unable to see a thing. She distorted space around her as best she could, meaning to deflect any attack that came at her while she was blinded. But Spectra would not permit this. She strode right up to where Mysteria stood, and carefully put her hands onto the villain’s chest. It looked as if her arm had snapped halfway down the forearm, like a reed in water, but this was, thankfully, an effect of Mysteria’s powers. The villain just about recovered her vision, at least in part, in time to see Mariko standing before her. “If you manage to avoid rotting in prison,” Mariko hissed. “Remember never to cross the path of Spectra again!” With that, she fired a thick, yellow beam of light, casting Mysteria backwards so far and so fast that the villain – before she lost consciousness – was sure for a moment that Spectra had killed her. Had she fought Mysteria after entering the chamber where her lover lay captive, she might have.

“No!” Schiffer cried out, as the two heroines entered his lab. “You’re not going to stop me! Not this time!” But his defiance faded to fear when he looked into the jade eyes of Mariko Asakura. She burned with a hot, white aura. She saw her lover stripped, bound, and plugged into some insidious machine.
“Insyte,” Mariko said, her teeth bared like a furious tigress, her hands shaking with rage. “If I destroy this machine, is there any danger to Sophie?”
Natalya looked into Schiffer’s mind, and was surprised in the extreme by what she saw – his history with Anubis, his awful, mutually abusive marriage, dark spots where it seemed he had erased his own memories. But she found what she needed ‘ere long.

“No,” the telepath said. “It’ll just stop the process.”
“Good,” Mariko said, before cleaving the metal ring in twain. Schiffer gave a cry, sinking in desperation to his knees.
“No!” he cried out. “Do you…do you know what you’ve done? Years of toiling away in secrecy, and I finally get the chance to - ”
“Quiet!” It was not Spectra who had shouted, but Natalya. “Don’t say another word, you horrible, despicable bastard!” She probed freely. He had a telepathic ability as well, and he resisted, but in power she was far greater than he, and she forced his resistance aside – and found knowledge that gladdened her heart more than she could measure.

“Spectra…” she said, almost choked with relief, “Elena is the construct! He made her…some sort of sick replacement for his own daughter because she didn’t love him.” There was another great secret too that Natalya had discovered – but she decided to save that for another moment.
“Ohh…oh thank god…oh thank god…!” Mariko almost fell to her knees. It was as though a chain had been bound to her, and not just a chain, but barbed wire, coiled around her body and stabbing pain into every crevice, every pore. But now she’d cast it off. She was real. Her Sophie was real.

Her heart filled with tender joy, she rushed towards her beloved’s slumbering body. She fumbled with the straps, not wanting to use her powers, for fear of the slightest harm coming to Sophie. As Natalya watched vigilantly over Schiffer, Mariko gradually unbound the slender redhead, but she couldn’t maintain her focus on the task, and after a few minutes had detached her from the slab, but hadn’t actually unbound her limbs. Mariko looked upon her lover’s sleeping form, and thought that in no moment of her life had she ever perceived something so beautiful. She wrapped her arms around her, and buried her face in Sophie’s soft, red hair.

“Uhhnnh…” the redhead groaned, and Mariko realised that she was awakening. She moved back, and saw her green eyes fluttering open.
“Sophie!” Mariko’s emotions were almost too strong for her to express, and indeed her face didn’t look happy, just sort of wide-eyed and on edge. “Sophie, my love, are – are you alright? Please, answer me!”
As the redhead opened her eyes, Natalya risked a glance at her. In that instant, the lightness of her heart was replaced with a terrible, biting dismay. She actually cried out from the horror of it.

Yet Mariko didn’t hear her. She didn’t need Natalya’s telepathy to realise what had happened. For when her lover’s eyes opened, after a few bleary, confused blinks, she had perceived Mariko holding her. Instinct kicked in before intelligence, and she recoiled at the sight of Mariko, a look of disgust on her face. Mariko saw, and she knew. She knew those eyes all too well: she had committed to memory their every facet. Mariko knew Sophie’s eyes and she knew when it was not Sophie looking out of them.
“Uh…um…my love, you…you came to rescue me!”
“No,” Mariko mumbled. “No…no, no…” She fell backwards, leaving the redhead bound on the table. “It’s…no, this…I – I…” She had no words. She had no thoughts. She did not even realise at first that she had any emotions. Her ears rang. Her eyes felt as if they burned in her sockets. Her heart was a jackhammer in her chest, though she wished that it would stop completely. This was not hyperbole: there are many who unwisely say such things in jest, or who think they say it earnestly but mercifully just misjudge the depths of their sadness. But purely, and truly in that moment, Mariko Asakura she had died rather than see this. There could be no greater failure. There could be no loss more terrible. There could be no fate more cruel for one who deserved it so little.

“Hey!” Sophie called out – only it was not Sophie. “Hey, let me go! Isn’t someone gonna untie me?” She wriggled and strained in the leather straps that bound her. “Let me the hell out!”
“Quiet,” Mariko said. The redhead opened her mouth again, but Mariko shouted over her: “Quiet, Elena! Don’t say a word! Don’t say another word with those lips!”
Elena went quiet, but she glared up at Natalya with fear and bitter scorn.

“Is there a way to reverse it?” Natalya barked at Schiffer, but he did not reply, nor could Natalya easily sift his thoughts on the subject. “Answer me!”
“Elena!” he cried out, overjoyed at his success. “Elena, that is you, isn’t it?”
“Papa!” she cried out. “It’s me – I’m here! I won!”
“Of course you did,” he replied. “Of course you - ” Suddenly, he scrambled up to his feet, or tried to. He didn’t succeed, for Mariko dived at him, intending to dash his brains out upon the hard floor.
“Mariko, no!” Insyte got in her way, tried to hold her back.
“You killed her!” Mariko cried, screaming with agony. “You killed her! You…you…” She collapsed again, rage giving way to sheer grief. She clutched her heart, the pain too sudden and too near for her to cry, at least not yet.

It was at this moment that Askancepoint entered, and found a frightful, bewildering scene. Enhancegirl bound, screaming to be released. Schiffer on the floor, retreating in fear from Mariko. He couldn’t hear her, but he could see her right enough, and he could feel her anguish. Insyte saw him, and looked pleadingly at him.
“Shane’s standing guard,” he explained, “I was worried something might be wrong – can you explain to me what’s happening?” While she could hear his thoughts, he could not see hers. She tried to explain it as simply as she could for him to lip read, and she eventually succeeded, but she’d had to do it in stages, and the last stage took three attempts. If Fahrenheit hadn’t already explained the broad outline of the situation to him, he’d have been utterly lost.

“Does Schiffer know for sure that there’s no way of undoing his actions?” he asked. She looked back at the scientist, and then she nodded.
“He thinks so.”
Mark frowned. This wasn’t his realm. He infiltrated bases and took down supervillains, and occasionally assisted in the Big Punch-Ups, as he thought of them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to deal with psychic shenanigans like this. But one solution did come to mind: “You.”
Natalya looked confused. “What do you mean?” she mouthed.
“You. You were powerful enough to free the Indigo Titan from Hypnotra. You were powerful enough to kill her ability.” He knelt down near her, and suddenly he looked almost knightly. “If anyone can save your friend, it’s you.”

Natalya looked again. She saw the squirming, screeching form of Elena, and could see no trace of Sophie. She seemed utterly destroyed – yet surely it was worth a try. Gathering her courage, she got up, and slowly made her way towards the redhead.
“Don’t you get near me!” she shrieked. “Keep your freaky powers away from me! You can’t take this away. She’s gone! She’s gone! I chewed her up and spat her out.” Natalya tried to ignore what she said. She focused her breathing, preparing herself for a deep dive into a cruel mind.

At the last moment, however, a hand took hers. She thought it might have been Mark, and she blushed, but it was Mariko.
“Can…can you bring me with you?” she asked. Natalya considered for a moment.
“I…can try,” the telepath said. Mariko was not pleased, but she accepted the answer. The raven-haired architect held onto Mariko’s hand, placed the other on Elena – and then all three sank into the formless realm of the mental.
______________________________________________________________________

It was a new experience, and not a pleasant one, for Natalya to be this deeply inside a hostile mind.
“GET OUT!” Elena screamed, and sounds assailed her. Flashes and images of horrid memories, a mixture of Sophie’s real memories and Elena’s copied ones, battered Natalya. Pain and nastiness and hatred clung to her, threatened to ruin her utterly. But just as she thought she was to be overwhelmed, a light pierced the shadow.
“It seems that you are stronger than you thought,” Mariko said. Her voice was shaky. As she had given protection to Natalya, so too did she appear to draw strength from her.

“You think you can just force me aside?!” Elena bellowed, her voice echoing from all around them. “This is my mind now! It’s mine!”
“It is not!” Natalya shouted back. “It belongs to Sophie, and by all the power I possess, I will do everything I can to give it back to her!” She drew herself and Mariko down, deeper and deeper.
“Ughh…” Mariko groaned. At first her ally thought she might be fading back out, but no: it was the admixture. For all Elena’s words, there was so much of Sophie still buttressing her incomplete persona, and the familiarity mixed with the darkness was not easily coped with. As they went deeper into Elena and Sophie’s shared subconscious, Elena assailed them at every turn with threats and screams and phantoms. As against Sophie, Elena rose up the shadows of Sophie’s past against them. But without Schiffer’s machine to enforce the psychic pressure, these were phantoms only. Mariko cast them aside with furious power.

But though she searched, and searched, Natalya could still find no trace of Sophie’s consciousness. Everywhere she looked was more of the same foul shadow that had invaded her, and taken over everything that she was.
“She’s nowhere. She’s nowhere. All the pain your power brings you, Natalya, and there’s nothing you can do with it. You’ll never find her, because she’s nowhere to be found! She’s dead!”
“Silence, phantom!” Mariko tried to sound intimidating, but it came out as a shriek. It seemed Elena sensed this weakness, for she turned on Mariko next.

“Poor Mariko. Poor, noble, good and beautiful Mariko,” Elena hissed. “Poor frightened, awkward, socially retarded Mariko. You got so good at projecting this superwoman image of yourself, which you’ve even got Sophie buying. She worships you. You’re a fucking cartoon character in her head.”
“Why would I listen to anything you have to say?!” Mariko barked. She didn’t notice as the mental scenery around her grew darker. “All you are is spite, and bitterness. All you can do to justify your own existence is to screech at others, you parasite.” She didn’t notice that she could no longer see Natalya at her side.
“You think I’m lying? I know Sophie better than you. I’ve been in her head – in her head! – for two years. She spends every day trying to ignore the fact that she doesn’t feel worthy of you. Don’t feel too bad. It’s not just you. I don’t think I’ve heard her think anything more often than she’s thought ‘I don’t deserve this.’ You. Kirsten. Natalya. Her parents. Maya. Anything. And you make it so much worse. You fucking aspie, you don’t even see what’s in front of your face!”
“That’s not…that’s not true!” Mariko replied. She could vaguely hear shouting in the back of her mind, but couldn’t make it out. “I’ve not been blind…I’ve raised these concerns with her…”
Elena laughed. “Listen to yourself! Is she your girlfriend or your line manager? All she needs to do is brush you off with something that sounds logical: and there’s nothing easier to bullshit than logic, especially about emotions, especially to someone as malformed as you! That way you could go on thinking that you had a great relationship, and she could go on hating herself.”

“No…no…” Mariko whimpered. She was almost as weakened by long fear, and grief, and lack of sleep, as Sophie had been. Isolated from her telepathic guide, who groped vainly for her in the dark, Mariko was terribly vulnerable, and Elena drove the needle in while she could. Night closed around Mariko: the darkness of the fragment of the Sin Eater had not deserted Elena, and she wielded it fiercely, cutting her off completely from Natalya.
“You know how I can prove it? ‘Cause it was so fucking easy to get her to believe that she was the fake. She almost wanted to believe it. It was easier for her to run away from you, to give herself up so that I could be alive instead.”
Mariko whimpered, and sank to her knees.
“It was easier for her to leave you.”
Mariko covered her eyes, shook her head.
“She wanted to leave you, Mariko. She couldn’t bear being by you anymore.”

And then the half-screams that were Mariko’s moans of dismay stopped. She took her hands away from her face, and narrowed her eyes at her lover’s phantom.
“You’re right about much. I am malformed. Sophie does lack some confidence sometimes. And yes, I am an ‘aspie’ – as if that would be news to me!” She stood up. “There is one thing, however, about which you are sorely mistaken.” Her eyes lit up, and a golden corona appeared around her. “Logic is only easy to bullshit to the stupid!” She let out a bellow, and a wave of gold burst out of her. “As if it wouldn’t occur to me that you would twist the facts. As if it wouldn’t occur to me that you, whose very existence is a lie, would not be deceptive! I know why - .” Saying this almost made Mariko lose her momentum, but she did not falter. “I know why Sophie left. Because she, more than any of us who dare to use this word to describe ourselves, is a hero. She is good. You used that against her! She wanted to save you because she thought you were innocent!” She let out a mirthless laugh. “Did you really think that you could make me despair, by reminding me of Sophie’s heroism? By reminding me of the first quality – the first of so very many – that made me long for her? That made me adore her? You thought that would weaken my resolve?! It seems perception is another quality of Sophie’s that you don’t share!”

There was a burning, radiant light. A terrible light, a light which was born of grief, and wrath, and righteous anger. Elena covered her eyes in pain, and the darkness that she had woven was cast asunder.
“Mariko!” Natalya and Mariko were revealed to each other, and though this alone was a glad tiding, it was not the only one that the two received. In the harsh light that poured out of Mariko, Natalya perceived something that had been hidden before: one more level. One more hidden place within Elena’s mind.
“Here, Mariko!” Natalya called, and the two ran towards it. A great door appeared, stone and cold. Natalya reached it first, and though she pulled at it, it would not budge.
“Stand aside.” From within Mariko, from the deepest core of her power, a figure of light burst forth. Her soul-light – a part of her very self, and easily taken with her even into a realm such as this. Natalya wondered at it, for now she saw it far more clearly than she had done before during the battle with Hades. It shifted between glittering, radiant forms of all colours, taking on different shapes and aspects. At one moment it was shaped like her beloved uncle, Daisuke, then much like his own soul-light, which he’d named Light of the Dawn. Then it shifted again, and took on a shape like each one of her Pauldron allies in turn, though at that moment, the cool white of Fahrenheit, and the warm, fireside red of Askancepoint burned the brightest in Mariko’s heart. Then it took another form, black and violet, grave, yet kind and with a leap of her heart Natalya realised that she was looking at her own visage, before it shifted one last time, burning with fiery gold as a waterfall of flame ran down its back – the truest reflection of its master’s heart – before it seized the doors, and heaved them open.

“Auughh!” Mariko cried. Even here, her soul-light weakened her by use, but she did not collapse. She ran inside. Natalya was to follow, but she heard behind her a terrible screeching, and like a banshee Elena descended upon her, clawing and biting and scratching.
“This is my head! I’ll tear you to pieces!” Elena hissed, but Natalya stood firm, barring the door.
“This,” Natalya said, “is no more your head than it is mine. And of the two of us, you’re the phantom, and I’m the telepath.” She clenched her fists. “Let’s see who’ll tear who to pieces!” And then she took on an aspect of power to oppose the darkness, the most terrifying she knew – and yet one all too dear to her heart. “Back! Back!” Natalya bellowed – as she burned with all the nuclear might of her brother.



“Sophie!” Mariko cried out, entering the cold, blue chamber. Snow lay upon the ground, and Sophie, naked and alone, was half buried in it. Mariko ran to her, and took her by her cold shoulders, and rested her head upon her lap. Her eyes did not open. “Sophie, my love, please don’t…please don’t…”

And then, very, very slowly, so slowly that Mariko at first thought she was imagining it, Sophie’s eyes opened.
[Mariko…?] she whimpered.
“Yes! Yes, yes, yes, my beloved, it’s me!” Mariko almost laughed. “You couldn’t get away from me so easily, my sweet.”
[No…no!] Sophie moaned, and she turned away from Mariko with a great and terrible sob. [Don’t…don’t see me here, please…please!]
“What?” More confusion. More dismay. “Sophie, I don’t understand. What’s the matter? What’s - ” And then Mariko took Sophie’s hands, and a terrible sensation flowed through her. A deep, grey pit of misery, of the terrible guilt that went with it. How dare she be unhappy? How dare she be so sad when those around her were so good to her, so kind and loving?

“Auhhh!” Mariko gasped, releasing Sophie’s hands, shaken by the glacial weight and strength of it. Had this been in Sophie all the time? This self-loathing, this deepest, darkest depression? This was no construction of Elena’s. This was what had allowed her to survive her first defeat in 2015, by clinging onto this most terrible part of Sophie’s psyche, but she had not made it.
[You see? Do you get it?] Sophie whimpered. [This is…this is what I really am…you don’t want this…you can’t – can’t want this.”
“Sophie, I – I –“ Mariko didn’t know what to say. What was this? Why was it here? She knew that Sophie had her more sombre moments – or had had them, anyway – but this was different.
[How…how can I be with you when I’m like this?] Sophie moaned. She turned her eyes to her lover, and Mariko saw love, but so much sadness, too. [You need…you need someone happy – you deserve someone happy…]
“Weren’t you – aren’t you happy with me?” Mariko asked, tremulously.
[Yes! Of course…but…it – it doesn’t – it’s not the same. I could collapse back into feeling like this. I was doing that before…before Elena…]
“But she was making you do that. She brought this on you!” Mariko insisted, but Sophie shook her head.
[She didn’t…she didn’t create it. It’s inside me. I’ll never be what you need. You need…] She sobbed again, and it was half a scream. [You need someone who can bring you joy, Mariko…]

Mariko had no words. She didn’t understand. She didn’t understand it at all. How had this been here? How could Sophie be happy, but still not be, and not have known? Had Elena caused it, or hadn’t she? There were too many variables. It was too complex. She couldn’t arrive at an answer.
“So damn the question,” Mariko thought.

She lay down next to Sophie. She lay down, and she put her hands in Sophie’s. Once again, that awful, slow, lifeless misery flowed through her, and it was almost more than Mariko could bear. It tore at her, and before long she too was naked, lying with Sophie in the snow, their bodies no defence at all against the long, dull chill.
[What are you doing?] Sophie said. [Why…why would you take this on yourself?]
“There are things that matter more than one’s own happiness,” Mariko said. “Loyalty. Uprightness. Justice. Tolerance. Love. Sophie…I would take this feeling, and I would endure it until all the ages of the world are spent before I would be parted from you. I don’t love you because you make me happy – though you do, my love, more than I can say.” She had to stop. The chill was overweening and she struggled against it.
[Mariko, please let go. Please!] Sophie begged, but at this point she hadn’t the strength to enforce her command.

“I don’t…love you because you make me happy,” Mariko repeated. “I love you because of what you are, and because of what I am. I love you because ‘Mariko and Sophie must never part’ is, I assure you, hard-coded somewhere into the fabric of reality. I belong at your side. As your support, your counsel, your lover, your friend, and most precious in all those respects. At least, that’s how you are to me.”
[Mariko…] Sophie let out a gasp. [I know what you’re saying…but you can’t be with someone who makes you miserable. I’m going to, I know I am! Even if I break loose, I’ll make you - ]
“Nonsense!” Mariko barked. “It’s not true, Sophie. There’s a reason you’ve not fallen into this line of thinking before. Elena has put you in a position where you can’t get out of it. But…perhaps she has done us a favour, my love.”
[What do you mean?]
“You’ve been so kind to me, Sophie. So patient of my poor way with people, my rudeness, my awkwardness.” She kept one hand squeezing Sophie’s, but used the other to stroke her face. Through the bitter sadness, Mariko forced a smile – or rather, she forced herself to find the strength for a real one. “Now there’s something of you that I can be patient about.”

Sophie looked, astounded, into Mariko’s eyes.
[How did I get you? How the hell did I…how did I get someone as wonderful as you?]
“Because, my sweet,” Mariko said, kissing her on the cheek, “you deserve it.”
Perhaps that thought would not have had such power, had Mariko’s gesture of affection not triggered in Sophie a recent memory. She recalled the face of Terrence Dalton. A man she’d saved without hope of reward, or fame. A simple man, but not stupid, and she’d not just saved his life and walked off. She’d listened to him. She’d taken an interest in him. She’d been kind. And with that thought, Sophie wondered if perhaps she did deserve Mariko after all.

______________________________________________________________________

“Back!” Natalya bellowed, and fire poured from her. Elena reeled, but dark fire of her own met the explosive strength of Insyte, matching it. She howled, and Insyte covered her ears.
“Got you!” Elena screeched, and let loose another dark burst. It exploded at Insyte’s feet, and she was hurled onto her back.
“You can’t beat me,” Elena said. [It’s like I said: this is my world, and no-one can challenge me in it, do you understand?]


Something was wrong. The way Elena had said that last sentence: her voice had rung…hollow, somehow. Like before. Like when she’d been -
[No,] Elena said. [No. I’d won! I’d WON!] She turned towards the great stone doors behind which Sophie had been imprisoned. Elena gasped and shrieked, and rushed towards them. They burst open, and light poured out. And it was not just Spectra’s light – but the golden radiance of Enhancegirl. She saw them there, through the glare. She saw Sophie, cradled in Spectra’s arms: rescued, weak – but not powerless. And though Elena raised all her darkness against them, it could not stand. And then there were not two, but three – and fire joined with the light, and Elena screamed as it burned her.

Natalya, who despite her pain and loneliness found kindness, grace and selflessness.
Mariko, who despite her uncomprehension and brittle pride found humility, love and empathy.
And Sophie, who despite her doubts, her defeats and her sadness found courage, strength and limitless compassion.

Against these three was Elena’s power arrayed. Five of her wouldn’t have stood a chance. With a scream of hatred, she was burned, finally, away.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

The three did not emerge from Sophie’s inner world with a start, but rather, with a slow rise from pretended sleep into full wakefulness. Mark only noticed something when he saw Natalya and Mariko frantically unbinding Sophie, and saw the redhead, weeping, throw her arms around her lover and – without shame for her nudity – kissing her with the desperate passion of the nearly drowned gasping for air.

“I love you,” Sophie said between each kiss, over and over and over again, as if cementing once and for all her reality, her truth. Mariko didn’t reply in kind. She just wanted to feel Sophie, and to hear her speak in her own voice, and to know at last – at last! – that she was safe. They had passed through darkness and despair, and they had emerged at last.

Natalya watched them, letting herself be rewarded by feeling their love wash through each other. She had rarely, if ever, felt such sincere relief. She saw Mark out of the corner of her eye, and he – of course – realised what had happened. She saw in him almost as much relief as in herself, despite the fact that he didn’t know Mariko very well, and he didn’t know Sophie at all.

Was it because of her relief? Was it because she had seen something good in him? Was it, perhaps, because of Sophie and Mariko’s emotions lingering still in her? At any rate, Natalya strode over to where Askancepoint was standing, and she stroked his hair, and kissed him on the lips. When she pulled away, he was looking at her with surprised, but soft eyes. He reminded her so much of a springer spaniel in that moment that she laughed out loud, and he kissed her this time, and she let him.

It was forgivable as lapses go, perhaps, but a lapse nonetheless. Schiffer dived forward, attempting to make his escape. Askancepoint tried to stop him, but he reacted too slowly, and Schiffer ended up grappling with Natalya.
“I am sorry, my dear,” the scientist barked, “but I have no intention of being a prisoner again!” He grabbed hold of as much of her memory as he could get his hands on, and imagining a great sword, he sliced. Yet, even as he did, Natalya fought back throwing up her strongest psychic resistance. Yet this resistance was not a match for Schiffer – on the contrary. It totally overwhelmed him.

“AAUUUGHHHH!!” he screamed, collapsing to the ground, clutching his skull in agonising pain. “AAAUUGHH!!”
“What?” Spectra, from across the room, leapt forward. “What’s going on, what’s happening to him?” But by then it was too late. Schiffer had lost consciousness. Natalya, however, had an ominous feeling that that was the least of what she’d done to him.
______________________________________________________________________

So, restrained and unconscious respectively, Mysteria and Schiffer joined Cato in the Pauldron’s custody.
“Fahrenheit,” Mariko said, just before the two friends set off. “The three of us will remain here a while. We think it’ll do Sophie good to be in her hometown for a little while.”
“You do what you think is best, Mariko,” Shane replied. “I’m very, very glad that we succeeded.”
With a much-lightened heart, Mariko smiled at her now very dear ally. “Shane…for as long as I live, I shall not forget what you did today.”
“See that you don’t,” Fahrenheit replied, with a smile. “Enjoy the boonies, Spectra.” With that, he and Mark zipped off, merry in the number and quality of their captives. There was still much to learn from them, after all.

This left the three heroines together, on Ferndale’s outskirts. Mariko and Sophie, who was pale as a ghost, and exhausted as an ox, clung onto each other as if for dear life, their affection never shining brighter than it did then. Sophie took this moment to relate to them what she’d recalled of her origins. Natalya and Mariko looked gravely at each other, and then at her.
“So that’s why fighting Royal Rumble was your first memory of being Enhancegirl,” Natalya said.
“I need to inform Imperion,” Mariko said. “Royal Rumble’s presence strongly suggests Hades’ involvement.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Natalya said. “I got something from Schiffer back there.” It was time to reveal that secret. “Schiffer…is the one who designed Hades’ armour. I don’t know whether he worked for him directly, or if it was through his position at Anubis, but there is a connection.”


“I can’t…Jesus I can’t think about this right now.” The party were agreed that the matter would be deferred: too much had happened to leap into new mysteries all of a sudden. “I’m sorry. Oh, Christ, I’m so sorry…” Sophie said, for the umpteenth time, addressing both of them. “I – I can’t believe that I let her…that I let that happen to me. I’m so sorry!”
Mariko kissed her head, and squeezed her hand. “Don’t apologise. This was done to you, not by you.”
“Not everything.” She looked at Mariko, gravely. “We can’t just…we can’t just sweep this away, alright? We need to talk about what happened.”
“Now?” Mariko almost sounded afraid, and Sophie gave her a loving, but tired smile.
“No…no not now.”

Sophie turned towards Natalya.
“Fucking…when am I ever going to be in a serious jam that you don’t get me out of?”
“I’m sure it’ll happen some day,” Natalya replied, with a sly smile that actually reminded Sophie ever so slightly of Ivan. It was creepy in either case, but at least Natalya pulled it off better.
“I -” She stopped. She stopped right in the middle of her sentence. She turned around, looked at Mariko, quite casually. “I feel kinda funny,” she said, before collapsing to the ground.

“Sophie!” Mariko leapt forward, catching her lover before her had could smack against the thinly grassed ground. She had not quite fainted: she was murmuring and shaking. Something was wrong. Badly wrong. “Natalya, call an ambulance!”
“That won’t help.”
“What?”
“There’s nothing physically wrong with her,” Natalya said. She peered into Sophie’s mind, and was aggrieved by what she saw. “Elena’s destruction…it left her too delicate. Her ego is…it’s collapsing! I’ve never seen something like this before.”
“Can you repair it?”
“No,” Natalya said. “I mean – not by myself.”

She looked harder, scanned deeper. The foundations of Sophie’s mind were in jeopardy – they needed to be reinforced. “We – we need to get her somewhere with a deep connection to her past.”
“She’s in her hometown! Isn’t that enough?”
“Apparently not,” Natalya said. “Is there anything here which you know is special to her?”
It didn’t take long for the gears of Mariko’s mind to turn, and realise what needed to be done. Soon, the three heroines, one borne in Mariko’s arms, had arrived at the large, quirky house. When the door opened, and Pamela saw her daughter unconscious in Mariko’s arms, she first wondered what the hell was going on, and second screamed out loud when she realised her daughter was hurt.
__________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie awoke to singing. It was an old folk song, The Golden Vanity, that Sophie’s grandmother had sung to Pamela, and that Pamela in her turn had sung to Sophie. It was a song she’d not heard in fourteen years, but she remembered almost every word. She opened her eyes, and saw her mother sitting by her on their soft, comfortable couch, and felt her hand stroking her hair.
“Mmmhhh…” she sighed. It felt like a dream. An idealised dream of childhood comfort – but it was quite real. Her eyelids opened fully now, and she saw her mother in full detail, and her father nearby.
“Mom?” she said, sleepily. “Papa?”
“Morning, squirt,” her mother said. She saw them smiling warmly at her, and a thousand-and-one memories of happiness, and love and laughter flooded into her. An unseen pillar within her was repaired, but as if in payment, Sophie burst into tears. Everything that had happened to her: the tormenting shadows and hallucinations, the screeching voice of Elena, the bloody dance of Cato Pict – it was too much, and she couldn’t take it. Her mother held her tightly, rubbing her back as the young woman wept. Nearby, Jerome looked at her with gravely concerned eyes. He turned around, and looked at Mariko and Natalya, who were waiting nearby.
“So tell me,” he said, and he didn’t sound happy, “how long has my daughter been a superhero?”

But the question was unnecessary. A fear of secrets had been impressed upon Sophie with severe gravity, and she told her parents everything. About her origins, about being Enhancegirl, about Schiffer – all of it. And she told them, as best she could, about Elena, and what had happened to her. When she mentioned the Sophie-with-black-hair, and the deep well of darkness, Pamela and Jerome exchanged dark looks. Mariko noticed this. But the story went on, and by then the questions had shifted.
“I…holy shit…” Pamela mumbled. “You mean – they abducted you here? In town? In Ferndale?”
“Just outside it,” Sophie said.
“Oh god…so – wait. Last year when Enhancegirl and Valora got exhibited by that fucking Nox, or whatever the fuck – Jesus, Sophie, that was you?”
“Y-yeah…”

Sophie suddenly felt terribly ashamed of her deception. “I’m sorry I lied,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to deceive you – I – I was…”
“A superhero keeps themselves secret for any one of a dozen reasons.” Mariko had spoken up. She seemed afraid that Sophie’s parents would not understand, that they would try to stop Sophie from being Enhancegirl, and that in her present state, she would listen to them.
“No,” Jerome said, “I get it. It protects us, and it protects her. That makes sense.” He seemed contemplative. “So, Sophie…you’re the one who stopped the Supremacist last year? And you’re the one who beat Dextrus in the Penitentiary Supreme?” Sophie nodded. “Wow,” Jerome said.

Pamela looked at him with enraged eyes.
“You cannot be okay with this!” Pamela barked. “Look at what it did to her! Natalya – that is your name, right hun? Okay, great! – Natalya said that her whole mind was going to collapse. Does this sort of thing happen often?” She addressed this to Sophie herself.
“Well,” Sophie mumbled, “not quite this kind of thing.”
“Jesus…” Pamela shook her head. “Jesus fucking Christ, Sophie, when I told you to grow this isn’t what I meant!” She folded her arms. “I’m really mad, but I’m also incredibly proud of you, and it’s a really confusing mix of emotions!” Light laughter rippled round the room.

Sophie had to admit that they were taking it awfully well. She’d expected screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth at the least. But a thought came into her mind that she’d not considered before.
“You need something to eat, superheroes or no,” Pamela said, “and fuck me if I’m not hospitable.” Everything about her body language and tone suggested that she was about to cook…except she turned her head towards Jerome instead. “Well?” He gave a resigned sigh, and walked into the kitchen.
______________________________________________________________________________________

The meal was relatively brief. Mariko and Sophie were famished, while Natalya had found herself rather overwhelmed by Sophie’s larger-than-life parents, and had invented an excuse to leave. She was struggling to figure out the train schedules at the same time that the meal finished. Pamela peppered both her guests with innumerable questions: how did their powers work; what was the going rate for a state-sponsored hero; did Sophie intend – like Mariko – to make a full career out of hero-ing; were there any…non superhero applications for their powers, and so on.

But there was another matter to discuss.
“Sophie…” Jerome said. He sighed uncomfortably. “Sophie, what do you remember about your early childhood? Four, five? Not much, right?”
“Just grandma dying, really,” Sophie said. “Why?” Her parents frowned at each other.
“Sweetie,” Pamela said, “when you were a really little kid…when you were about four…” It was difficult to say. “Sweetie, you were depressed.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean clinically. You were…” She was almost tearing up. “It’s not very common to have in kids that young, but it does happen. And for more than a year you were just…miserable.”
“And you blamed yourself,” Jerome said. “You used to hide in the crawlspace so we wouldn’t hear you crying. ‘Mama and Papa don’t deserve sad-Sophie’. I lost count of how many times you said that.”

Sophie reeled. It was…well, it was knowledge that she just didn’t know what to do with. But within her own mind, after what had happened…it made far too much sense. A deep, primal sadness that she’d been trapped in – or, put another way, the depression of a child too young to understand what it’s going through. She felt Mariko hold her hand under the table, and it was an anchor in a storm.

“And then ‘sad-Sophie’ became ‘bad-Sophie’,” Pamela said. “You used to make these drawings of ‘good-Sophie and bad-Sophie’: one with red hair and…one with black.”
“So…Elena was patterning herself after that form, then,” Mariko said. “Taking the shape and colour of…” It felt awkward coming off so dignified a tongue. “Of…’bad-Sophie’.”
But Jerome shook his head. “No,” he said. “’Good-Sophie’ was the one with black hair.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe that there’s anything in the world that could actually take advantage of something like that. It’s…kind of sickening.”

“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?!” Sophie barked. “Why would I not want to know that?”
“Because you got better,” Pamela said. “After about a year the therapy and the medication were working like a fucking miracle. They treated you, and you got better. And then you repressed the shit out of it. At eight years old, less than three years after you finished the treatment, you didn’t remember anything. I kept giving you these gentle reminders, but by the time you were fourteen I kinda gave up. We figured if you needed to repress it, you go right the hell on and repress it.”

The shaken redhead sat back in her chair. She tried to imagine it: pills and therapy and - things that a child that young shouldn't have had to deal with - or, moreover, to need. Elena was gone but she still felt like there was a sort of alien presence inside her. But, then, it wasn't so alien, was it? She'd felt the coldness of the chamber Elena had trapped her in before, not often, and never for long - but she had. She realised that she was almost crying.
"So...what, I just magically got better?"
"Nothing magical about it," Jerome said. "You got helped, and you - you've always been a fighter, Sophie." He gave an odd little movement, covered his eyes for a moment. Sophie and Pamela both knew that he himself was trying not to cry. "I'm sorry, Sophie. I'm sorry you had to go through all of this. You just...you seemed happy, and we didn't want to break it. You forgot so completely it was - almost a little scary. And we forgot it too. Do you understand what I mean? The thought of you being as miserable as you were -" He breathed out, unevenly. "No parent wants to think about that."

Sophie got up.
“Well fuck,” she said. “I guess we both hid shit from each other, didn’t we?” She sounded angry.
“I think,” Jerome said, “we both had good reason.”
“Yeah,” Sophie mumbled. "Maybe.” She took a long, heavy breath. “Um…excuse me…” She didn’t exactly run out, but she moved pretty quickly to leave the room. After a moment, and an awkward, nodding bow, Mariko followed after her.

Mariko found Sophie sitting on the edge of her bed, her arms around her knees.
“Are you alright?” Mariko asked.
“Yeah…yeah, I’m okay,” Sophie replied. “It’s just…” There were tears in her eyes. “Jesus Christ…” Mariko slipped her arms around her, and allowed Sophie to sob into her chest. “It’s too much…” the redhead said through her tears. “It’s too much…”
“I know,” Mariko said, not undisturbed herself. The two spent quite some time like that, just holding each other. Sophie felt like she had just thrown up, having that odd, shivery sensation when one feels awful, but also extremely relieved. Mariko, for her part, felt extremely anxious. The news about Sophie, about this part of her that Mariko had never known of, disturbed her deeply.

"I feel so fucking stupid," Sophie said. "Like...that was what was letting Elena hold on? That was the big scary darkness? I had depression when I was a little kid - that's all?" She laughed bitterly. "It seemed like the worst, most terrifying fucking thing in the world when - when I was inside my own head - but it was nothing! It wasn't some big, scary trauma, it was just - " She gritted her teeth. "It's so...like...mundane! Now what's my fucking excuse for...all this?"
"Does the fact that it's relatively commonplace make a difference?" Mariko asked. "There's a reason, isn't there, why Natalya's powers give her such distress. Sophie...do you think that if I had been in your place that an Elena couldn't have found something in me to cling onto?"
"I...I don't know..." Sophie said. "Urgh, it's just...I don't know. I wanted some big truth. If I had to go through all that I - I wanted some big fucking eureka moment. But I guess it explains a couple of things but - I don't feel like I know myself any better. Now I'm just scared that it might happen again."
Mariko had no answer to this. Partly this was because she shared Sophie's fear.

“Did we rush into things?” Mariko said, suddenly. Sophie looked at her, confused, so Mariko went on. “Last year it was all so…dramatic, wasn’t it? It was hard not to fall totally into each other’s arms without thinking much.” Seeing the concern in Sophie’s eyes, Mariko made it clearer what she meant. “I have no doubt in my mind, Sophie, that we belong together. I love you, and I always will. I suppose I mean…was the way we came together best for us? I’ve read things about couples who keep a lot of distance at first, and apparently that strengthens the relationship later on, though I don’t quite know how…oh, hell!” Mariko hissed. “I’m getting tangled; do you know what I mean, though?”

Sophie thought for a moment.
“I think…I think I wouldn’t change how we came together. I don’t think it’s our relationship, how we’ve been with each other, is the problem. I actually think we’ve been pretty smart. It’s us. As, like, individuals. I kinda assumed that I was ‘done’ when I got to eighteen, but…even in just two years I’ve changed so much. And so have you – in fact I’d say you’ve changed more.”
“I suppose so.” Mariko thought back to her eighteen year old self: hard, cold, rude, and haughty. “Well I suppose I’m still like that,” she thought. “I just have one or two more redeeming features.”

Sophie let out a long sigh. “Obviously something like this, like a childhood depression that I didn’t even know about, that’s kinda dramatic,” she said, trying and failing to sound amused, “but there’s gonna be other stuff. Stuff we didn’t know about ourselves. That…that has to be okay. It has to be okay for us to still be growing up a little.”
“I disagree with you on one point,” Mariko said. “And hearing about this thing when you were a girl…it makes sense, and not just because of Elena. Or – oh, well, you’ll see what I mean.” She touched Sophie’s hand. “Before we came together, you had a tendency to be quite despondent. I didn’t know you well in your early days as Enhancegirl, but you’ve told me how doubtful and down-on-yourself you were. And last year, with everything that happened – after what Nyx did, you stopped going out to crime fight, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I’d call depressive,” Sophie replied.
“For a superhero I can’t think of a better example,” Mariko said, “but that’s not my point. The point is, you’ve been – before Elena started influencing you, this year I hardly saw you without a smile. Or…well, I mean, you’ve been angry or frustrated, but never…sad. Never morose. And even I noticed that you had that aspect to your character, even when we were just friends. I suppose I wanted to believe that you were just happier, but - ”
“I was,” Sophie said, earnestly and insistently. “I am.”
“Alright,” Mariko said, “but it’s something you said. When Elena had trapped you, you said something like ‘you shouldn’t be with me because I can’t bring you joy.’” She blinked, thinking very hard, and choosing her words very carefully. “I – I think you’ve been trying so hard to be my perfect, happy girlfriend…I – I don’t think it’s coincidence that Elena appeared when she did. I think for my sake, or at least mostly for my sake, you were repressing – well obviously not any negative emotion, but anything even remotely approaching how you were as a child.” She took both of Sophie’s hands. “My love – be sad if you’re sad. Be morose if you’re morose. For god’s sake, you know that I know how damaging it can be to repress emotion. Let me help, or if I can’t help in – in any particular instance, then let me at least be by your side. Or distantly supporting you. Whatever. I mean, you know what I mean.”

Sophie was staring at her, with an expression of deep curiosity, almost wonder. She reached out, and she stroked Mariko’s hair.
“You’ve changed,” she said, “and all for the better. Can you imagine the Mariko of two years ago saying that?”
“No,” Mariko said, with a slight laugh. Her face grew graver, though. “I was wounded, Sophie. When you drugged me…when you left.” She looked up. “But I want you to know that when I found you lying in that snow…I – I didn’t care. I just wanted to save you.”
“Oh, god, don’t say that,” Sophie replied, moving in closer. “You know I can’t fucking resist it when you rescue me…my beautiful knight in shining armour…” The two kissed, a little hesitantly, but warmly. Yet when Mariko put her hands on her lover’s shoulders, she found they were shaking.
“Are you alright, my love?” Mariko asked.
“No,” Sophie said. “I’m really, really fucked up right now. I feel like bursting into tears every five seconds and…are you gonna judge me if I say I – I don’t think I can be Enhancegirl for a little while? Knowing that I never actually decided to start doing it…I kinda feel like I have to decide again. I mean, I’m not retiring, like at all, but – for now…” This time she wasn’t able to fight back the tears. “For now, can I just be your Sophie?”
“Of course,” Mariko said, and took her lover in her arms. “It’s much less than you deserve, but I suppose it’ll do.” Sophie batted her lightly, but nestled in her embrace all the same.



They held each other until both fell asleep. That night, Sophie had a dream about a girl with black hair. She tried to say something, but had no strength to speak. Sophie looked at her as she shouted silently, and for a moment was afraid, but it vanished into dark vapour. This time, it really was just a dream.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

With Cato’s nose, and Natalya pulling information out of his head, it was not hard for the heroes to find Schiffer’s laboratory. What was hard, however, was finding a safe place to land. They spent agonisingly long minutes searching, before finally locating a spot to set down.


Mariko didn’t waste another moment. She leapt out of the helicopter before it had even quite landed, and barrelled towards the small building – it was half bunker, really – on Ferndale’s outskirts, west of the forest where she’d fought Hydrocita. Natalya ran after her, but hesitated briefly. She turned back, looked at Mark.
“Don’t worry,” he thought to her. “You help Mariko. We’ll stay here and look after Cato.” She nodded, and pursued her friend. She found her slicing through the heavy, steel doors like they were tissue paper. She didn’t even stop to acknowledge Natalya’s presence.

The two ran as fast as they could, knowing that too much time had been lost already. Yet something was wrong. The building wasn’t big at all – there were only two corridors – but they seemed to take so long to navigate.
“Wait,” Mariko said. She was close to hyperventilating. “We’re going in circles…we’re – how can we be going in circles?! This is a straight path!” She looked back and forth. “It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense!” She threw out her power and drove deep bore holes into the walls. She fired in a blind panic, and it was panic. This night – this awful, long night of madness and confusion. She’d been awake for so long – her chloroformed sleep had given her no real rest – and she could barely think.

“Mariko.” Natalya spoke as sternly as she could manage. “Calm down. Don’t panic.”
Mariko heard her, and she tried to calm herself, but she couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening, or had already happened to Sophie. Dead, perhaps, dissected for some cruel purpose, or perhaps just…undone. Replaced, whole cloth with this phantom, this ‘Elena’. And now this! A corridor that would not end, a straight line that was a curve. Perhaps it was she, not Sophie, who was losing her sanity.
Natalya saw these thoughts, and had no immediate answer. But the answer didn’t lie within Mariko’s head, but within her own. “I – I think I know what’s happening,” she said. “The superhuman who helped deliver Sophie and me to Hades – the one whose mind almost broke my power: she can distort space.”
“Clever, Insyte.”

It was almost as if she’d been there all along. She stepped out from a corner that did not exist, and faced the two heroines with all the baffling, incomprehensible power at her disposal. Mysteria.
“I take it you are here to stop Doctor Schiffer,” Mysteria said, with that bizarre tonelessness of hers.
“We are here,” Mariko said, “to rescue Enhancegirl from his clutches. Do you oppose us?”
“Peter is a dear friend,” Mysteria said. “We would not be - ”
“Natalya, cover your eyes,” Spectra replied. She extended her hand, and let out a blistering, blinding volley of light. Mysteria was dazzled, unable to see a thing. She distorted space around her as best she could, meaning to deflect any attack that came at her while she was blinded. But Spectra would not permit this. She strode right up to where Mysteria stood, and carefully put her hands onto the villain’s chest. It looked as if her arm had snapped halfway down the forearm, like a reed in water, but this was, thankfully, an effect of Mysteria’s powers. The villain just about recovered her vision, at least in part, in time to see Mariko standing before her. “If you manage to avoid rotting in prison,” Mariko hissed. “Remember never to cross the path of Spectra again!” With that, she fired a thick, yellow beam of light, casting Mysteria backwards so far and so fast that the villain – before she lost consciousness – was sure for a moment that Spectra had killed her. Had she fought Mysteria after entering the chamber where her lover lay captive, she might have.

“No!” Schiffer cried out, as the two heroines entered his lab. “You’re not going to stop me! Not this time!” But his defiance faded to fear when he looked into the jade eyes of Mariko Asakura. She burned with a hot, white aura. She saw her lover stripped, bound, and plugged into some insidious machine.
“Insyte,” Mariko said, her teeth bared like a furious tigress, her hands shaking with rage. “If I destroy this machine, is there any danger to Sophie?”
Natalya looked into Schiffer’s mind, and was surprised in the extreme by what she saw – his history with Anubis, his awful, mutually abusive marriage, dark spots where it seemed he had erased his own memories. But she found what she needed ‘ere long.

“No,” the telepath said. “It’ll just stop the process.”
“Good,” Mariko said, before cleaving the metal ring in twain. Schiffer gave a cry, sinking in desperation to his knees.
“No!” he cried out. “Do you…do you know what you’ve done? Years of toiling away in secrecy, and I finally get the chance to - ”
“Quiet!” It was not Spectra who had shouted, but Natalya. “Don’t say another word, you horrible, despicable bastard!” She probed freely. He had a telepathic ability as well, and he resisted, but in power she was far greater than he, and she forced his resistance aside – and found knowledge that gladdened her heart more than she could measure.

“Spectra…” she said, almost choked with relief, “Elena is the construct! He made her…some sort of sick replacement for his own daughter because she didn’t love him.” There was another great secret too that Natalya had discovered – but she decided to save that for another moment.
“Ohh…oh thank god…oh thank god…!” Mariko almost fell to her knees. It was as though a chain had been bound to her, and not just a chain, but barbed wire, coiled around her body and stabbing pain into every crevice, every pore. But now she’d cast it off. She was real. Her Sophie was real.

Her heart filled with tender joy, she rushed towards her beloved’s slumbering body. She fumbled with the straps, not wanting to use her powers, for fear of the slightest harm coming to Sophie. As Natalya watched vigilantly over Schiffer, Mariko gradually unbound the slender redhead, but she couldn’t maintain her focus on the task, and after a few minutes had detached her from the slab, but hadn’t actually unbound her limbs. Mariko looked upon her lover’s sleeping form, and thought that in no moment of her life had she ever perceived something so beautiful. She wrapped her arms around her, and buried her face in Sophie’s soft, red hair.

“Uhhnnh…” the redhead groaned, and Mariko realised that she was awakening. She moved back, and saw her green eyes fluttering open.
“Sophie!” Mariko’s emotions were almost too strong for her to express, and indeed her face didn’t look happy, just sort of wide-eyed and on edge. “Sophie, my love, are – are you alright? Please, answer me!”
As the redhead opened her eyes, Natalya risked a glance at her. In that instant, the lightness of her heart was replaced with a terrible, biting dismay. She actually cried out from the horror of it.

Yet Mariko didn’t hear her. She didn’t need Natalya’s telepathy to realise what had happened. For when her lover’s eyes opened, after a few bleary, confused blinks, she had perceived Mariko holding her. Instinct kicked in before intelligence, and she recoiled at the sight of Mariko, a look of disgust on her face. Mariko saw, and she knew. She knew those eyes all too well: she had committed to memory their every facet. Mariko knew Sophie’s eyes and she knew when it was not Sophie looking out of them.
“Uh…um…my love, you…you came to rescue me!”
“No,” Mariko mumbled. “No…no, no…” She fell backwards, leaving the redhead bound on the table. “It’s…no, this…I – I…” She had no words. She had no thoughts. She did not even realise at first that she had any emotions. Her ears rang. Her eyes felt as if they burned in her sockets. Her heart was a jackhammer in her chest, though she wished that it would stop completely. This was not hyperbole: there are many who unwisely say such things in jest, or who think they say it earnestly but mercifully just misjudge the depths of their sadness. But purely, and truly in that moment, Mariko Asakura she had died rather than see this. There could be no greater failure. There could be no loss more terrible. There could be no fate more cruel for one who deserved it so little.

“Hey!” Sophie called out – only it was not Sophie. “Hey, let me go! Isn’t someone gonna untie me?” She wriggled and strained in the leather straps that bound her. “Let me the hell out!”
“Quiet,” Mariko said. The redhead opened her mouth again, but Mariko shouted over her: “Quiet, Elena! Don’t say a word! Don’t say another word with those lips!”
Elena went quiet, but she glared up at Natalya with fear and bitter scorn.

“Is there a way to reverse it?” Natalya barked at Schiffer, but he did not reply, nor could Natalya easily sift his thoughts on the subject. “Answer me!”
“Elena!” he cried out, overjoyed at his success. “Elena, that is you, isn’t it?”
“Papa!” she cried out. “It’s me – I’m here! I won!”
“Of course you did,” he replied. “Of course you - ” Suddenly, he scrambled up to his feet, or tried to. He didn’t succeed, for Mariko dived at him, intending to dash his brains out upon the hard floor.
“Mariko, no!” Insyte got in her way, tried to hold her back.
“You killed her!” Mariko cried, screaming with agony. “You killed her! You…you…” She collapsed again, rage giving way to sheer grief. She clutched her heart, the pain too sudden and too near for her to cry, at least not yet.

It was at this moment that Askancepoint entered, and found a frightful, bewildering scene. Enhancegirl bound, screaming to be released. Schiffer on the floor, retreating in fear from Mariko. He couldn’t hear her, but he could see her right enough, and he could feel her anguish. Insyte saw him, and looked pleadingly at him.
“Shane’s standing guard,” he explained, “I was worried something might be wrong – can you explain to me what’s happening?” While she could hear his thoughts, he could not see hers. She tried to explain it as simply as she could for him to lip read, and she eventually succeeded, but she’d had to do it in stages, and the last stage took three attempts. If Fahrenheit hadn’t already explained the broad outline of the situation to him, he’d have been utterly lost.

“Does Schiffer know for sure that there’s no way of undoing his actions?” he asked. She looked back at the scientist, and then she nodded.
“He thinks so.”
Mark frowned. This wasn’t his realm. He infiltrated bases and took down supervillains, and occasionally assisted in the Big Punch-Ups, as he thought of them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to deal with psychic shenanigans like this. But one solution did come to mind: “You.”
Natalya looked confused. “What do you mean?” she mouthed.
“You. You were powerful enough to free the Indigo Titan from Hypnotra. You were powerful enough to kill her ability.” He knelt down near her, and suddenly he looked almost knightly. “If anyone can save your friend, it’s you.”

Natalya looked again. She saw the squirming, screeching form of Elena, and could see no trace of Sophie. She seemed utterly destroyed – yet surely it was worth a try. Gathering her courage, she got up, and slowly made her way towards the redhead.
“Don’t you get near me!” she shrieked. “Keep your freaky powers away from me! You can’t take this away. She’s gone! She’s gone! I chewed her up and spat her out.” Natalya tried to ignore what she said. She focused her breathing, preparing herself for a deep dive into a cruel mind.

At the last moment, however, a hand took hers. She thought it might have been Mark, and she blushed, but it was Mariko.
“Can…can you bring me with you?” she asked. Natalya considered for a moment.
“I…can try,” the telepath said. Mariko was not pleased, but she accepted the answer. The raven-haired architect held onto Mariko’s hand, placed the other on Elena – and then all three sank into the formless realm of the mental.
______________________________________________________________________

It was a new experience, and not a pleasant one, for Natalya to be this deeply inside a hostile mind.
“GET OUT!” Elena screamed, and sounds assailed her. Flashes and images of horrid memories, a mixture of Sophie’s real memories and Elena’s copied ones, battered Natalya. Pain and nastiness and hatred clung to her, threatened to ruin her utterly. But just as she thought she was to be overwhelmed, a light pierced the shadow.
“It seems that you are stronger than you thought,” Mariko said. Her voice was shaky. As she had given protection to Natalya, so too did she appear to draw strength from her.

“You think you can just force me aside?!” Elena bellowed, her voice echoing from all around them. “This is my mind now! It’s mine!”
“It is not!” Natalya shouted back. “It belongs to Sophie, and by all the power I possess, I will do everything I can to give it back to her!” She drew herself and Mariko down, deeper and deeper.
“Ughh…” Mariko groaned. At first her ally thought she might be fading back out, but no: it was the admixture. For all Elena’s words, there was so much of Sophie still buttressing her incomplete persona, and the familiarity mixed with the darkness was not easily coped with. As they went deeper into Elena and Sophie’s shared subconscious, Elena assailed them at every turn with threats and screams and phantoms. As against Sophie, Elena rose up the shadows of Sophie’s past against them. But without Schiffer’s machine to enforce the psychic pressure, these were phantoms only. Mariko cast them aside with furious power.

But though she searched, and searched, Natalya could still find no trace of Sophie’s consciousness. Everywhere she looked was more of the same foul shadow that had invaded her, and taken over everything that she was.
“She’s nowhere. She’s nowhere. All the pain your power brings you, Natalya, and there’s nothing you can do with it. You’ll never find her, because she’s nowhere to be found! She’s dead!”
“Silence, phantom!” Mariko tried to sound intimidating, but it came out as a shriek. It seemed Elena sensed this weakness, for she turned on Mariko next.

“Poor Mariko. Poor, noble, good and beautiful Mariko,” Elena hissed. “Poor frightened, awkward, socially retarded Mariko. You got so good at projecting this superwoman image of yourself, which you’ve even got Sophie buying. She worships you. You’re a fucking cartoon character in her head.”
“Why would I listen to anything you have to say?!” Mariko barked. She didn’t notice as the mental scenery around her grew darker. “All you are is spite, and bitterness. All you can do to justify your own existence is to screech at others, you parasite.” She didn’t notice that she could no longer see Natalya at her side.
“You think I’m lying? I know Sophie better than you. I’ve been in her head – in her head! – for two years. She spends every day trying to ignore the fact that she doesn’t feel worthy of you. Don’t feel too bad. It’s not just you. I don’t think I’ve heard her think anything more often than she’s thought ‘I don’t deserve this.’ You. Kirsten. Natalya. Her parents. Maya. Anything. And you make it so much worse. You fucking aspie, you don’t even see what’s in front of your face!”
“That’s not…that’s not true!” Mariko replied. She could vaguely hear shouting in the back of her mind, but couldn’t make it out. “I’ve not been blind…I’ve raised these concerns with her…”
Elena laughed. “Listen to yourself! Is she your girlfriend or your line manager? All she needs to do is brush you off with something that sounds logical: and there’s nothing easier to bullshit than logic, especially about emotions, especially to someone as malformed as you! That way you could go on thinking that you had a great relationship, and she could go on hating herself.”

“No…no…” Mariko whimpered. She was almost as weakened by long fear, and grief, and lack of sleep, as Sophie had been. Isolated from her telepathic guide, who groped vainly for her in the dark, Mariko was terribly vulnerable, and Elena drove the needle in while she could. Night closed around Mariko: the darkness of the fragment of the Sin Eater had not deserted Elena, and she wielded it fiercely, cutting her off completely from Natalya.
“You know how I can prove it? ‘Cause it was so fucking easy to get her to believe that she was the fake. She almost wanted to believe it. It was easier for her to run away from you, to give herself up so that I could be alive instead.”
Mariko whimpered, and sank to her knees.
“It was easier for her to leave you.”
Mariko covered her eyes, shook her head.
“She wanted to leave you, Mariko. She couldn’t bear being by you anymore.”

And then the half-screams that were Mariko’s moans of dismay stopped. She took her hands away from her face, and narrowed her eyes at her lover’s phantom.
“You’re right about much. I am malformed. Sophie does lack some confidence sometimes. And yes, I am an ‘aspie’ – as if that would be news to me!” She stood up. “There is one thing, however, about which you are sorely mistaken.” Her eyes lit up, and a golden corona appeared around her. “Logic is only easy to bullshit to the stupid!” She let out a bellow, and a wave of gold burst out of her. “As if it wouldn’t occur to me that you would twist the facts. As if it wouldn’t occur to me that you, whose very existence is a lie, would not be deceptive! I know why - .” Saying this almost made Mariko lose her momentum, but she did not falter. “I know why Sophie left. Because she, more than any of us who dare to use this word to describe ourselves, is a hero. She is good. You used that against her! She wanted to save you because she thought you were innocent!” She let out a mirthless laugh. “Did you really think that you could make me despair, by reminding me of Sophie’s heroism? By reminding me of the first quality – the first of so very many – that made me long for her? That made me adore her? You thought that would weaken my resolve?! It seems perception is another quality of Sophie’s that you don’t share!”

There was a burning, radiant light. A terrible light, a light which was born of grief, and wrath, and righteous anger. Elena covered her eyes in pain, and the darkness that she had woven was cast asunder.
“Mariko!” Natalya and Mariko were revealed to each other, and though this alone was a glad tiding, it was not the only one that the two received. In the harsh light that poured out of Mariko, Natalya perceived something that had been hidden before: one more level. One more hidden place within Elena’s mind.
“Here, Mariko!” Natalya called, and the two ran towards it. A great door appeared, stone and cold. Natalya reached it first, and though she pulled at it, it would not budge.
“Stand aside.” From within Mariko, from the deepest core of her power, a figure of light burst forth. Her soul-light – a part of her very self, and easily taken with her even into a realm such as this. Natalya wondered at it, for now she saw it far more clearly than she had done before during the battle with Hades. It shifted between glittering, radiant forms of all colours, taking on different shapes and aspects. At one moment it was shaped like her beloved uncle, Daisuke, then much like his own soul-light, which he’d named Light of the Dawn. Then it shifted again, and took on a shape like each one of her Pauldron allies in turn, though at that moment, the cool white of Fahrenheit, and the warm, fireside red of Askancepoint burned the brightest in Mariko’s heart. Then it took another form, black and violet, grave, yet kind and with a leap of her heart Natalya realised that she was looking at her own visage, before it shifted one last time, burning with fiery gold as a waterfall of flame ran down its back – the truest reflection of its master’s heart – before it seized the doors, and heaved them open.

“Auughh!” Mariko cried. Even here, her soul-light weakened her by use, but she did not collapse. She ran inside. Natalya was to follow, but she heard behind her a terrible screeching, and like a banshee Elena descended upon her, clawing and biting and scratching.
“This is my head! I’ll tear you to pieces!” Elena hissed, but Natalya stood firm, barring the door.
“This,” Natalya said, “is no more your head than it is mine. And of the two of us, you’re the phantom, and I’m the telepath.” She clenched her fists. “Let’s see who’ll tear who to pieces!” And then she took on an aspect of power to oppose the darkness, the most terrifying she knew – and yet one all too dear to her heart. “Back! Back!” Natalya bellowed – as she burned with all the nuclear might of her brother.



“Sophie!” Mariko cried out, entering the cold, blue chamber. Snow lay upon the ground, and Sophie, naked and alone, was half buried in it. Mariko ran to her, and took her by her cold shoulders, and rested her head upon her lap. Her eyes did not open. “Sophie, my love, please don’t…please don’t…”

And then, very, very slowly, so slowly that Mariko at first thought she was imagining it, Sophie’s eyes opened.
[Mariko…?] she whimpered.
“Yes! Yes, yes, yes, my beloved, it’s me!” Mariko almost laughed. “You couldn’t get away from me so easily, my sweet.”
[No…no!] Sophie moaned, and she turned away from Mariko with a great and terrible sob. [Don’t…don’t see me here, please…please!]
“What?” More confusion. More dismay. “Sophie, I don’t understand. What’s the matter? What’s - ” And then Mariko took Sophie’s hands, and a terrible sensation flowed through her. A deep, grey pit of misery, of the terrible guilt that went with it. How dare she be unhappy? How dare she be so sad when those around her were so good to her, so kind and loving?

“Auhhh!” Mariko gasped, releasing Sophie’s hands, shaken by the glacial weight and strength of it. Had this been in Sophie all the time? This self-loathing, this deepest, darkest depression? This was no construction of Elena’s. This was what had allowed her to survive her first defeat in 2015, by clinging onto this most terrible part of Sophie’s psyche, but she had not made it.
[You see? Do you get it?] Sophie whimpered. [This is…this is what I really am…you don’t want this…you can’t – can’t want this.”
“Sophie, I – I –“ Mariko didn’t know what to say. What was this? Why was it here? She knew that Sophie had her more sombre moments – or had had them, anyway – but this was different.
[How…how can I be with you when I’m like this?] Sophie moaned. She turned her eyes to her lover, and Mariko saw love, but so much sadness, too. [You need…you need someone happy – you deserve someone happy…]
“Weren’t you – aren’t you happy with me?” Mariko asked, tremulously.
[Yes! Of course…but…it – it doesn’t – it’s not the same. I could collapse back into feeling like this. I was doing that before…before Elena…]
“But she was making you do that. She brought this on you!” Mariko insisted, but Sophie shook her head.
[She didn’t…she didn’t create it. It’s inside me. I’ll never be what you need. You need…] She sobbed again, and it was half a scream. [You need someone who can bring you joy, Mariko…]

Mariko had no words. She didn’t understand. She didn’t understand it at all. How had this been here? How could Sophie be happy, but still not be, and not have known? Had Elena caused it, or hadn’t she? There were too many variables. It was too complex. She couldn’t arrive at an answer.
“So damn the question,” Mariko thought.

She lay down next to Sophie. She lay down, and she put her hands in Sophie’s. Once again, that awful, slow, lifeless misery flowed through her, and it was almost more than Mariko could bear. It tore at her, and before long she too was naked, lying with Sophie in the snow, their bodies no defence at all against the long, dull chill.
[What are you doing?] Sophie said. [Why…why would you take this on yourself?]
“There are things that matter more than one’s own happiness,” Mariko said. “Loyalty. Uprightness. Justice. Tolerance. Love. Sophie…I would take this feeling, and I would endure it until all the ages of the world are spent before I would be parted from you. I don’t love you because you make me happy – though you do, my love, more than I can say.” She had to stop. The chill was overweening and she struggled against it.
[Mariko, please let go. Please!] Sophie begged, but at this point she hadn’t the strength to enforce her command.

“I don’t…love you because you make me happy,” Mariko repeated. “I love you because of what you are, and because of what I am. I love you because ‘Mariko and Sophie must never part’ is, I assure you, hard-coded somewhere into the fabric of reality. I belong at your side. As your support, your counsel, your lover, your friend, and most precious in all those respects. At least, that’s how you are to me.”
[Mariko…] Sophie let out a gasp. [I know what you’re saying…but you can’t be with someone who makes you miserable. I’m going to, I know I am! Even if I break loose, I’ll make you - ]
“Nonsense!” Mariko barked. “It’s not true, Sophie. There’s a reason you’ve not fallen into this line of thinking before. Elena has put you in a position where you can’t get out of it. But…perhaps she has done us a favour, my love.”
[What do you mean?]
“You’ve been so kind to me, Sophie. So patient of my poor way with people, my rudeness, my awkwardness.” She kept one hand squeezing Sophie’s, but used the other to stroke her face. Through the bitter sadness, Mariko forced a smile – or rather, she forced herself to find the strength for a real one. “Now there’s something of you that I can be patient about.”

Sophie looked, astounded, into Mariko’s eyes.
[How did I get you? How the hell did I…how did I get someone as wonderful as you?]
“Because, my sweet,” Mariko said, kissing her on the cheek, “you deserve it.”
Perhaps that thought would not have had such power, had Mariko’s gesture of affection not triggered in Sophie a recent memory. She recalled the face of Terrence Dalton. A man she’d saved without hope of reward, or fame. A simple man, but not stupid, and she’d not just saved his life and walked off. She’d listened to him. She’d taken an interest in him. She’d been kind. And with that thought, Sophie wondered if perhaps she did deserve Mariko after all.

______________________________________________________________________

“Back!” Natalya bellowed, and fire poured from her. Elena reeled, but dark fire of her own met the explosive strength of Insyte, matching it. She howled, and Insyte covered her ears.
“Got you!” Elena screeched, and let loose another dark burst. It exploded at Insyte’s feet, and she was hurled onto her back.
“You can’t beat me,” Elena said. [It’s like I said: this is my world, and no-one can challenge me in it, do you understand?]


Something was wrong. The way Elena had said that last sentence: her voice had rung…hollow, somehow. Like before. Like when she’d been -
[No,] Elena said. [No. I’d won! I’d WON!] She turned towards the great stone doors behind which Sophie had been imprisoned. Elena gasped and shrieked, and rushed towards them. They burst open, and light poured out. And it was not just Spectra’s light – but the golden radiance of Enhancegirl. She saw them there, through the glare. She saw Sophie, cradled in Spectra’s arms: rescued, weak – but not powerless. And though Elena raised all her darkness against them, it could not stand. And then there were not two, but three – and fire joined with the light, and Elena screamed as it burned her.

Natalya, who despite her pain and loneliness found kindness, grace and selflessness.
Mariko, who despite her uncomprehension and brittle pride found humility, love and empathy.
And Sophie, who despite her doubts, her defeats and her sadness found courage, strength and limitless compassion.

Against these three was Elena’s power arrayed. Five of her wouldn’t have stood a chance. With a scream of hatred, she was burned, finally, away.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________

The three did not emerge from Sophie’s inner world with a start, but rather, with a slow rise from pretended sleep into full wakefulness. Mark only noticed something when he saw Natalya and Mariko frantically unbinding Sophie, and saw the redhead, weeping, throw her arms around her lover and – without shame for her nudity – kissing her with the desperate passion of the nearly drowned gasping for air.

“I love you,” Sophie said between each kiss, over and over and over again, as if cementing once and for all her reality, her truth. Mariko didn’t reply in kind. She just wanted to feel Sophie, and to hear her speak in her own voice, and to know at last – at last! – that she was safe. They had passed through darkness and despair, and they had emerged at last.

Natalya watched them, letting herself be rewarded by feeling their love wash through each other. She had rarely, if ever, felt such sincere relief. She saw Mark out of the corner of her eye, and he – of course – realised what had happened. She saw in him almost as much relief as in herself, despite the fact that he didn’t know Mariko very well, and he didn’t know Sophie at all.

Was it because of her relief? Was it because she had seen something good in him? Was it, perhaps, because of Sophie and Mariko’s emotions lingering still in her? At any rate, Natalya strode over to where Askancepoint was standing, and she stroked his hair, and kissed him on the lips. When she pulled away, he was looking at her with surprised, but soft eyes. He reminded her so much of a springer spaniel in that moment that she laughed out loud, and he kissed her this time, and she let him.

It was forgivable as lapses go, perhaps, but a lapse nonetheless. Schiffer dived forward, attempting to make his escape. Askancepoint tried to stop him, but he reacted too slowly, and Schiffer ended up grappling with Natalya.
“I am sorry, my dear,” the scientist barked, “but I have no intention of being a prisoner again!” He grabbed hold of as much of her memory as he could get his hands on, and imagining a great sword, he sliced. Yet, even as he did, Natalya fought back throwing up her strongest psychic resistance. Yet this resistance was not a match for Schiffer – on the contrary. It totally overwhelmed him.

“AAUUUGHHHH!!” he screamed, collapsing to the ground, clutching his skull in agonising pain. “AAAUUGHH!!”
“What?” Spectra, from across the room, leapt forward. “What’s going on, what’s happening to him?” But by then it was too late. Schiffer had lost consciousness. Natalya, however, had an ominous feeling that that was the least of what she’d done to him.
______________________________________________________________________

So, restrained and unconscious respectively, Mysteria and Schiffer joined Cato in the Pauldron’s custody.
“Fahrenheit,” Mariko said, just before the two friends set off. “The three of us will remain here a while. We think it’ll do Sophie good to be in her hometown for a little while.”
“You do what you think is best, Mariko,” Shane replied. “I’m very, very glad that we succeeded.”
With a much-lightened heart, Mariko smiled at her now very dear ally. “Shane…for as long as I live, I shall not forget what you did today.”
“See that you don’t,” Fahrenheit replied, with a smile. “Enjoy the boonies, Spectra.” With that, he and Mark zipped off, merry in the number and quality of their captives. There was still much to learn from them, after all.

This left the three heroines together, on Ferndale’s outskirts. Mariko and Sophie, who was pale as a ghost, and exhausted as an ox, clung onto each other as if for dear life, their affection never shining brighter than it did then. Sophie took this moment to relate to them what she’d recalled of her origins. Natalya and Mariko looked gravely at each other, and then at her.
“So that’s why fighting Royal Rumble was your first memory of being Enhancegirl,” Natalya said.
“I need to inform Imperion,” Mariko said. “Royal Rumble’s presence strongly suggests Hades’ involvement.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Natalya said. “I got something from Schiffer back there.” It was time to reveal that secret. “Schiffer…is the one who designed Hades’ armour. I don’t know whether he worked for him directly, or if it was through his position at Anubis, but there is a connection.”


“I can’t…Jesus I can’t think about this right now.” The party were agreed that the matter would be deferred: too much had happened to leap into new mysteries all of a sudden. “I’m sorry. Oh, Christ, I’m so sorry…” Sophie said, for the umpteenth time, addressing both of them. “I – I can’t believe that I let her…that I let that happen to me. I’m so sorry!”
Mariko kissed her head, and squeezed her hand. “Don’t apologise. This was done to you, not by you.”
“Not everything.” She looked at Mariko, gravely. “We can’t just…we can’t just sweep this away, alright? We need to talk about what happened.”
“Now?” Mariko almost sounded afraid, and Sophie gave her a loving, but tired smile.
“No…no not now.”

Sophie turned towards Natalya.
“Fucking…when am I ever going to be in a serious jam that you don’t get me out of?”
“I’m sure it’ll happen some day,” Natalya replied, with a sly smile that actually reminded Sophie ever so slightly of Ivan. It was creepy in either case, but at least Natalya pulled it off better.
“I -” She stopped. She stopped right in the middle of her sentence. She turned around, looked at Mariko, quite casually. “I feel kinda funny,” she said, before collapsing to the ground.

“Sophie!” Mariko leapt forward, catching her lover before her had could smack against the thinly grassed ground. She had not quite fainted: she was murmuring and shaking. Something was wrong. Badly wrong. “Natalya, call an ambulance!”
“That won’t help.”
“What?”
“There’s nothing physically wrong with her,” Natalya said. She peered into Sophie’s mind, and was aggrieved by what she saw. “Elena’s destruction…it left her too delicate. Her ego is…it’s collapsing! I’ve never seen something like this before.”
“Can you repair it?”
“No,” Natalya said. “I mean – not by myself.”

She looked harder, scanned deeper. The foundations of Sophie’s mind were in jeopardy – they needed to be reinforced. “We – we need to get her somewhere with a deep connection to her past.”
“She’s in her hometown! Isn’t that enough?”
“Apparently not,” Natalya said. “Is there anything here which you know is special to her?”
It didn’t take long for the gears of Mariko’s mind to turn, and realise what needed to be done. Soon, the three heroines, one borne in Mariko’s arms, had arrived at the large, quirky house. When the door opened, and Pamela saw her daughter unconscious in Mariko’s arms, she first wondered what the hell was going on, and second screamed out loud when she realised her daughter was hurt.
__________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie awoke to singing. It was an old folk song, The Golden Vanity, that Sophie’s grandmother had sung to Pamela, and that Pamela in her turn had sung to Sophie. It was a song she’d not heard in fourteen years, but she remembered almost every word. She opened her eyes, and saw her mother sitting by her on their soft, comfortable couch, and felt her hand stroking her hair.
“Mmmhhh…” she sighed. It felt like a dream. An idealised dream of childhood comfort – but it was quite real. Her eyelids opened fully now, and she saw her mother in full detail, and her father nearby.
“Mom?” she said, sleepily. “Papa?”
“Morning, squirt,” her mother said. She saw them smiling warmly at her, and a thousand-and-one memories of happiness, and love and laughter flooded into her. An unseen pillar within her was repaired, but as if in payment, Sophie burst into tears. Everything that had happened to her: the tormenting shadows and hallucinations, the screeching voice of Elena, the bloody dance of Cato Pict – it was too much, and she couldn’t take it. Her mother held her tightly, rubbing her back as the young woman wept. Nearby, Jerome looked at her with gravely concerned eyes. He turned around, and looked at Mariko and Natalya, who were waiting nearby.
“So tell me,” he said, and he didn’t sound happy, “how long has my daughter been a superhero?”

But the question was unnecessary. A fear of secrets had been impressed upon Sophie with severe gravity, and she told her parents everything. About her origins, about being Enhancegirl, about Schiffer – all of it. And she told them, as best she could, about Elena, and what had happened to her. When she mentioned the Sophie-with-black-hair, and the deep well of darkness, Pamela and Jerome exchanged dark looks. Mariko noticed this. But the story went on, and by then the questions had shifted.
“I…holy shit…” Pamela mumbled. “You mean – they abducted you here? In town? In Ferndale?”
“Just outside it,” Sophie said.
“Oh god…so – wait. Last year when Enhancegirl and Valora got exhibited by that fucking Nox, or whatever the fuck – Jesus, Sophie, that was you?”
“Y-yeah…”

Sophie suddenly felt terribly ashamed of her deception. “I’m sorry I lied,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to deceive you – I – I was…”
“A superhero keeps themselves secret for any one of a dozen reasons.” Mariko had spoken up. She seemed afraid that Sophie’s parents would not understand, that they would try to stop Sophie from being Enhancegirl, and that in her present state, she would listen to them.
“No,” Jerome said, “I get it. It protects us, and it protects her. That makes sense.” He seemed contemplative. “So, Sophie…you’re the one who stopped the Supremacist last year? And you’re the one who beat Dextrus in the Penitentiary Supreme?” Sophie nodded. “Wow,” Jerome said.

Pamela looked at him with enraged eyes.
“You cannot be okay with this!” Pamela barked. “Look at what it did to her! Natalya – that is your name, right hun? Okay, great! – Natalya said that her whole mind was going to collapse. Does this sort of thing happen often?” She addressed this to Sophie herself.
“Well,” Sophie mumbled, “not quite this kind of thing.”
“Jesus…” Pamela shook her head. “Jesus fucking Christ, Sophie, when I told you to grow this isn’t what I meant!” She folded her arms. “I’m really mad, but I’m also incredibly proud of you, and it’s a really confusing mix of emotions!” Light laughter rippled round the room.

Sophie had to admit that they were taking it awfully well. She’d expected screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth at the least. But a thought came into her mind that she’d not considered before.
“You need something to eat, superheroes or no,” Pamela said, “and fuck me if I’m not hospitable.” Everything about her body language and tone suggested that she was about to cook…except she turned her head towards Jerome instead. “Well?” He gave a resigned sigh, and walked into the kitchen.
______________________________________________________________________________________

The meal was relatively brief. Mariko and Sophie were famished, while Natalya had found herself rather overwhelmed by Sophie’s larger-than-life parents, and had invented an excuse to leave. She was struggling to figure out the train schedules at the same time that the meal finished. Pamela peppered both her guests with innumerable questions: how did their powers work; what was the going rate for a state-sponsored hero; did Sophie intend – like Mariko – to make a full career out of hero-ing; were there any…non superhero applications for their powers, and so on.

But there was another matter to discuss.
“Sophie…” Jerome said. He sighed uncomfortably. “Sophie, what do you remember about your early childhood? Four, five? Not much, right?”
“Just grandma dying, really,” Sophie said. “Why?” Her parents frowned at each other.
“Sweetie,” Pamela said, “when you were a really little kid…when you were about four…” It was difficult to say. “Sweetie, you were depressed.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean clinically. You were…” She was almost tearing up. “It’s not very common to have in kids that young, but it does happen. And for more than a year you were just…miserable.”
“And you blamed yourself,” Jerome said. “You used to hide in the crawlspace so we wouldn’t hear you crying. ‘Mama and Papa don’t deserve sad-Sophie’. I lost count of how many times you said that.”

Sophie reeled. It was…well, it was knowledge that she just didn’t know what to do with. But within her own mind, after what had happened…it made far too much sense. A deep, primal sadness that she’d been trapped in – or, put another way, the depression of a child too young to understand what it’s going through. She felt Mariko hold her hand under the table, and it was an anchor in a storm.

“And then ‘sad-Sophie’ became ‘bad-Sophie’,” Pamela said. “You used to make these drawings of ‘good-Sophie and bad-Sophie’: one with red hair and…one with black.”
“So…Elena was patterning herself after that form, then,” Mariko said. “Taking the shape and colour of…” It felt awkward coming off so dignified a tongue. “Of…’bad-Sophie’.”
But Jerome shook his head. “No,” he said. “’Good-Sophie’ was the one with black hair.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe that there’s anything in the world that could actually take advantage of something like that. It’s…kind of sickening.”

“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?!” Sophie barked. “Why would I not want to know that?”
“Because you got better,” Pamela said. “After about a year the therapy and the medication were working like a fucking miracle. They treated you, and you got better. And then you repressed the shit out of it. At eight years old, less than three years after you finished the treatment, you didn’t remember anything. I kept giving you these gentle reminders, but by the time you were fourteen I kinda gave up. We figured if you needed to repress it, you go right the hell on and repress it.”

The shaken redhead sat back in her chair. She tried to imagine it: pills and therapy and - things that a child that young shouldn't have had to deal with - or, moreover, to need. Elena was gone but she still felt like there was a sort of alien presence inside her. But, then, it wasn't so alien, was it? She'd felt the coldness of the chamber Elena had trapped her in before, not often, and never for long - but she had. She realised that she was almost crying.
"So...what, I just magically got better?"
"Nothing magical about it," Jerome said. "You got helped, and you - you've always been a fighter, Sophie." He gave an odd little movement, covered his eyes for a moment. Sophie and Pamela both knew that he himself was trying not to cry. "I'm sorry, Sophie. I'm sorry you had to go through all of this. You just...you seemed happy, and we didn't want to break it. You forgot so completely it was - almost a little scary. And we forgot it too. Do you understand what I mean? The thought of you being as miserable as you were -" He breathed out, unevenly. "No parent wants to think about that."

Sophie got up.
“Well fuck,” she said. “I guess we both hid shit from each other, didn’t we?” She sounded angry.
“I think,” Jerome said, “we both had good reason.”
“Yeah,” Sophie mumbled. "Maybe.” She took a long, heavy breath. “Um…excuse me…” She didn’t exactly run out, but she moved pretty quickly to leave the room. After a moment, and an awkward, nodding bow, Mariko followed after her.

Mariko found Sophie sitting on the edge of her bed, her arms around her knees.
“Are you alright?” Mariko asked.
“Yeah…yeah, I’m okay,” Sophie replied. “It’s just…” There were tears in her eyes. “Jesus Christ…” Mariko slipped her arms around her, and allowed Sophie to sob into her chest. “It’s too much…” the redhead said through her tears. “It’s too much…”
“I know,” Mariko said, not undisturbed herself. The two spent quite some time like that, just holding each other. Sophie felt like she had just thrown up, having that odd, shivery sensation when one feels awful, but also extremely relieved. Mariko, for her part, felt extremely anxious. The news about Sophie, about this part of her that Mariko had never known of, disturbed her deeply.

"I feel so fucking stupid," Sophie said. "Like...that was what was letting Elena hold on? That was the big scary darkness? I had depression when I was a little kid - that's all?" She laughed bitterly. "It seemed like the worst, most terrifying fucking thing in the world when - when I was inside my own head - but it was nothing! It wasn't some big, scary trauma, it was just - " She gritted her teeth. "It's so...like...mundane! Now what's my fucking excuse for...all this?"
"Does the fact that it's relatively commonplace make a difference?" Mariko asked. "There's a reason, isn't there, why Natalya's powers give her such distress. Sophie...do you think that if I had been in your place that an Elena couldn't have found something in me to cling onto?"
"I...I don't know..." Sophie said. "Urgh, it's just...I don't know. I wanted some big truth. If I had to go through all that I - I wanted some big fucking eureka moment. But I guess it explains a couple of things but - I don't feel like I know myself any better. Now I'm just scared that it might happen again."
Mariko had no answer to this. Partly this was because she shared Sophie's fear.

“Did we rush into things?” Mariko said, suddenly. Sophie looked at her, confused, so Mariko went on. “Last year it was all so…dramatic, wasn’t it? It was hard not to fall totally into each other’s arms without thinking much.” Seeing the concern in Sophie’s eyes, Mariko made it clearer what she meant. “I have no doubt in my mind, Sophie, that we belong together. I love you, and I always will. I suppose I mean…was the way we came together best for us? I’ve read things about couples who keep a lot of distance at first, and apparently that strengthens the relationship later on, though I don’t quite know how…oh, hell!” Mariko hissed. “I’m getting tangled; do you know what I mean, though?”

Sophie thought for a moment.
“I think…I think I wouldn’t change how we came together. I don’t think it’s our relationship, how we’ve been with each other, is the problem. I actually think we’ve been pretty smart. It’s us. As, like, individuals. I kinda assumed that I was ‘done’ when I got to eighteen, but…even in just two years I’ve changed so much. And so have you – in fact I’d say you’ve changed more.”
“I suppose so.” Mariko thought back to her eighteen year old self: hard, cold, rude, and haughty. “Well I suppose I’m still like that,” she thought. “I just have one or two more redeeming features.”

Sophie let out a long sigh. “Obviously something like this, like a childhood depression that I didn’t even know about, that’s kinda dramatic,” she said, trying and failing to sound amused, “but there’s gonna be other stuff. Stuff we didn’t know about ourselves. That…that has to be okay. It has to be okay for us to still be growing up a little.”
“I disagree with you on one point,” Mariko said. “And hearing about this thing when you were a girl…it makes sense, and not just because of Elena. Or – oh, well, you’ll see what I mean.” She touched Sophie’s hand. “Before we came together, you had a tendency to be quite despondent. I didn’t know you well in your early days as Enhancegirl, but you’ve told me how doubtful and down-on-yourself you were. And last year, with everything that happened – after what Nyx did, you stopped going out to crime fight, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I’d call depressive,” Sophie replied.
“For a superhero I can’t think of a better example,” Mariko said, “but that’s not my point. The point is, you’ve been – before Elena started influencing you, this year I hardly saw you without a smile. Or…well, I mean, you’ve been angry or frustrated, but never…sad. Never morose. And even I noticed that you had that aspect to your character, even when we were just friends. I suppose I wanted to believe that you were just happier, but - ”
“I was,” Sophie said, earnestly and insistently. “I am.”
“Alright,” Mariko said, “but it’s something you said. When Elena had trapped you, you said something like ‘you shouldn’t be with me because I can’t bring you joy.’” She blinked, thinking very hard, and choosing her words very carefully. “I – I think you’ve been trying so hard to be my perfect, happy girlfriend…I – I don’t think it’s coincidence that Elena appeared when she did. I think for my sake, or at least mostly for my sake, you were repressing – well obviously not any negative emotion, but anything even remotely approaching how you were as a child.” She took both of Sophie’s hands. “My love – be sad if you’re sad. Be morose if you’re morose. For god’s sake, you know that I know how damaging it can be to repress emotion. Let me help, or if I can’t help in – in any particular instance, then let me at least be by your side. Or distantly supporting you. Whatever. I mean, you know what I mean.”

Sophie was staring at her, with an expression of deep curiosity, almost wonder. She reached out, and she stroked Mariko’s hair.
“You’ve changed,” she said, “and all for the better. Can you imagine the Mariko of two years ago saying that?”
“No,” Mariko said, with a slight laugh. Her face grew graver, though. “I was wounded, Sophie. When you drugged me…when you left.” She looked up. “But I want you to know that when I found you lying in that snow…I – I didn’t care. I just wanted to save you.”
“Oh, god, don’t say that,” Sophie replied, moving in closer. “You know I can’t fucking resist it when you rescue me…my beautiful knight in shining armour…” The two kissed, a little hesitantly, but warmly. Yet when Mariko put her hands on her lover’s shoulders, she found they were shaking.
“Are you alright, my love?” Mariko asked.
“No,” Sophie said. “I’m really, really fucked up right now. I feel like bursting into tears every five seconds and…are you gonna judge me if I say I – I don’t think I can be Enhancegirl for a little while? Knowing that I never actually decided to start doing it…I kinda feel like I have to decide again. I mean, I’m not retiring, like at all, but – for now…” This time she wasn’t able to fight back the tears. “For now, can I just be your Sophie?”
“Of course,” Mariko said, and took her lover in her arms. “It’s much less than you deserve, but I suppose it’ll do.” Sophie batted her lightly, but nestled in her embrace all the same.



They held each other until both fell asleep. That night, Sophie had a dream about a girl with black hair. She tried to say something, but had no strength to speak. Sophie looked at her as she shouted silently, and for a moment was afraid, but it vanished into dark vapour. This time, it really was just a dream.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness

Post by Damselbinder »

"So...uh, you want to run this all by me one more time?" Imperion said. Save for Spectra, the whole Pauldron was gathered. Fahrenheit was reporting on the previous day's events. He regaled to them what he'd learned, that Anubis were responsible for some dark experiments, that they had given Enhancegirl her powers - and empowered Cato Pict too.
"Wait, wait," Chryseis said, a little lost. "So...Anubis...wanted to give Enhancegirl a different personality?"
"No, no, no," Shane said. "Well. I mean, maybe. But the scientist - Schiffer - he had some other plan. Certainly what he tried to do to Enhancegirl just now was his doing."
"What happened to Schiffer?" Panhellius asked. "I heard something about him getting sent of to the Methos Institute. What happened to him?"
"He got on the wrong end of a telepath," Fahrenheit replied. "He had a memory-related power, and it backfired on him." He shrugged. "Now he can't make new memories. I made the call to send him to Wingfield - I don't think Hayward has the resources for him at the moment."
"No," Jackson replied, gravely, "I guess not." Jackson's pet project, the Penitentiary Supreme, was still not healed from the Supremacist's attempt at escaping it. He'd spent a fair amount of time helping to rebuild the damaged sections with his own vast strength, but the work wasn't done yet, much to his chagrin.

"There's more," Fahrenheit said, "and pay attention, because this is where shit gets really messed up." He explained what Natalya Nazarov had discovered from Schiffer - that there was a connection between the Anubis Foundation and Hades, though what that connection was even she had not been able to discover.
"Shouldn't we have Insyte here herself?" Chryseis asked. "I'd sure like to get a little more detail."
"I think we can take Shane at his word," Jackson said. "Besides, if that's all she found, I don't think an interrogation is going to be very useful."

The Jade Colossus ran his hands through his hair. "This is getting ridiculous. We've found Anya's - Hades' - fingers in so many god damned pies."
"It does sort of make sense, though, doesn't it?" Nova said, speaking up for the first time. She'd been deep in thought - and not a little of her heart had gone out for Mariko who - if Shane was to be believed - had been through a pretty terrible ordeal herself. "Hades seems to hate superheroes. Anubis is going out of its way to make life as difficult as possible for them. I -" An idea struck her. "Jesus, Jackson, do you think that's why Hades operates openly in California?"
Jackson narrowed his eyes at her. "What do you mean?"
"Anubis have never been able to get much of a foothold here because of the work you've done. Maybe Hades is using her status as a crime boss to do what Anubis couldn't - or maybe even to make the situation easier for them."
"It's possible," Panhellius said. "Hades' goals have seemed nebulous from the start: this gives them a little more logic."

Imperion stood up, looked out over Sacramento.
"There is no logic," he said. "Or not much of one, anyway. When I faced her on that rooftop...I didn't see someone who had some big, grand goal in mind. She's just...hateful. I don't like using this word but she's evil. That's how we need to think about this. We're up against someone who's trying to do as much evil as possible. I'm not sure we'll ever catch her. I had a chance back in Seacouver, but...she's not gonna make that mistake again. She just...vanishes." He turned to his allies. "Which is why I need us to focus on this new initiative. Spread what we are out, make people feel safe and -" He laughed slightly. "We've gotta be like the anti-Hades. We're lucky. When we talk about 'good' people actually listen, 'cause we're superheroes. So we need to use that." He shook his head. "It's going to be a long road. But we keep fighting the good fight. We don't give in." He looked Fahrenheit in the eye. "Which means I need to be able to trust everyone." Jackson's underling squirmed a little under his gaze. "We need to be united, even if we're not always working together. Things are going to change, guys...but not what we do. Just how." He tapped the armour on his shoulder. "Always the Pauldron."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Two days passed in warm and verdant Ferndale in quietude. This time both Sophie and Mariko stayed at her parents' house as Sophie...well, perhaps 'convalesced' was the best way of putting it. She may have fallen out of love with the forests and the streams, but they gladdened Sophie's heart, soothed it. She spent the first day walking hither and yon with her lover, not talking a great deal, just holding her hand as she trod her old paths through the forests, and by the waters of her home.

One the evening of the second day, Sophie was lying with her head on Mariko's lap, Mariko herself sitting against a tall, old tree - damaged by lightning, but not destroyed by it.
"Koko, do...do you look at me differently now?" Sophie asked. Mariko looked back at her, and her heart was faintly troubled. It was not as though Sophie's eyes had been carefree and jolly at all times that Mariko had known her, but there was a...tiredness in them that had not been there before. If the old cliché about 'that which does not kill us...' was true, then the process of strengthening was as yet incomplete.
"Only," Mariko eventually replied, "insofar as I can see that you've been through something terrible that you hadn't been through before." She blinked. "I have a feeling that that's not a very helpful answer."
It wasn't, but Sophie didn't mind all that much. She'd felt herself almost...basking in Mariko's presence, regardless of what she said. No, 'basking' wasn't quite right. She was just anxious not to be apart from her. It was not as if she'd taken Mariko for granted, nor indeed was it the first time that she'd been under threat of losing her - but this had been different, and she just wanted to feel her lover's presence.

It was not just that. As peaceful as Ferndale was, her childhood home was less so. There was an elephant in the room the size of the house itself: Sophie's being Enhancegirl. Her father seemed strangely...contemplative about the whole thing, when she'd expected him to be dead set against it. Her mother's reaction made more sense: she was desperately concerned for Sophie's safety.
"You're so young," she'd remarked the last evening, quite out of the blue. "Do...do you really want to be spending your life fighting?" If Pamela had discovered her secret before the events of Elena's assault on her, Sophie would probably have said something like 'yeah, if I'm fighting the right battles.' But now she wasn't so sure.

Sophie heard Mariko begin to hum to herself, and Sophie didn't recognise the tune, but she let herself be swept along by it. She felt Mariko's graceful fingers teasing through her soft, red hair, and she felt soothed. Then she realised she felt a little ashamed: she had lost her battle with Elena: Mariko and Natalya had had to save her. This had probably been the most significant battle, the most close to her heart, of any she'd yet fought...and she'd lost. It was an opportunity that would never come again - thank god - but Sophie felt like a failure. But Mariko looked rather peaceful stroking her, and she didn't want to -
"No." Sophie caught herself doing it - hiding things. "Hey, Koko?"

She explained her feelings, somewhat hesitantly. Mariko looked at her, her eyebrows creasing slightly.
"Well it's not as if it was a fair fight," Mariko said. "She'd been going out of her way to weaken you for months. As losses go, I don't think this ought to bring you much shame." She frowned. "Was that actually helpful?" she thought. "You know in a certain sense, you were responsible for saving yourself. The strength I had, the reason I was able to help save you - everything I've done and achieved over this year...it's because of you. I wouldn't have any of it without you."
Sophie smiled slightly. "That's not true. I know I helped, but...look, I get what you're doing, sweetie. You don't need to fix it," Sophie said. "Just be here." She giggled, sitting up and brushing her nose against her girlfriend's. "Just be my Koko-bean, okay?"
"'Koko-bean'?" Mariko scoffed. "That's a new one."
"Well you're the one who's all serious the whole time! I have to find some way of making you cute."
"And by that I take it I'm not cute most of the time?"
"'Most of the time'? You're never cute!"

She straddled Mariko, her inner thighs brushing against the outside of Mariko's long legs. "I just have to settle for you being beautiful...and graceful...and sexy..." She spoke low, and the two maidens' noses brushed close, their lips almost meeting. Sophie felt Mariko's thighs shifting between her own. "Is it...is it wrong for me to feel grateful to you for being with me? That sounds like a fucked up way of thinking about it." To Sophie's surprise, Mariko's face lit up.
"Ah, Hugh Prather talks about this in A Book For Couples! He asserts that it implies beholdenness. Well," she said, "I don't think he put it quite as neatly as that, but you take my point. At any rate, I thought of a way that one might...adjust such an emotional tendency." She leaned forward, kissed the spot just in front of Sophie's left ear, then whispered: "I try to be grateful that you exist." She pulled back so that Sophie could see her face. "And I am very, very grateful for that, my Sophie...my beloved..."
"Mariko..." Sophie kissed Mariko on the mouth, and then didn't stop for quite some time. They undressed each other, and made love in the forest, and between their moans and tender sighs, they laughed, naked among the trees, and Sophie felt, not that all sorrow had left her heart, but that at least some joy had returned to it at last.

A couple of hours later, the two were back at Sophie's parents' house. The girlfriends entered, and found Pamela at the kitchen table. She looked concerned
"Hey, Koko, gimme a minute?" Sophie whispered. Mariko nodded, and ascended the stairs, leaving Sophie with her mother.
"Sophie, before I say anything else," Pamela said, "I - I want to ask you to forgive us."
"What?" Sophie replied. "What for?"
"For being cowards," Pamela replied. "For not telling you about when you were a kid."
"Hey, it's alright," Sophie said, half-sincerely. "I mean, I didn't tell you about...y'know. Being a superhero and shit."
"Yeah, well you expect kids to lie to their parents," Pamela replied. "I mean - don't! - but, like, I get it. Parents aren't supposed to lie to their fucking kids." And then she looked at Sophie with wistful eyes, but she seemed younger, somehow. "Those eighteen years raising you here, Sophie - you know how that Elena...thing tried to convince you all your childhood memories were made up, right?"
"Yeah, I remember," Sophie said, darkly.
"Well I'm not fucking surprised it was so convincing, sweetie," Pamela said. "It...it was like a dream. It was blissful. You were wonderful, and this place was great, and Jerome was perfect..." She threw up her hands. "I didn't want the dream to end. I was - we both were, me and your dad - so stupid." She was getting a bit teary. "Oh, it is not fair of me to cry...I just - the way you described it, what that awful man put you through...I can't help feeling like if I'd told you, that thing wouldn't have been able to get its claws into you."

Sophie sat down next to her.
"Happiness is scary, isn't it?" the redhead said. "It always feels so much more fragile than feeling like shit. Like - like it's hard as hell to fly, but it's easy to fall. Easy to just crawl along the ground."
Pamela laughed gently. "Alright Confucius, where'd ya get that?"
"I get it, Mom," Sophie said. "I mean, a, I'm not even sure it mattered all that much. I mean, it was in me whether I knew it or not, so I don't think it'd have made a difference. But I get it. You wanted to protect me, and dad - and yourself. You wanted us all to keep being happy. This is the worst lie you've ever told me - and you were doing it 'cause you love me." As Sophie said this, she heard the voice of her lover ring inside her like a cool bell. "But there's some things more important than happiness."
Pamela looked at her very seriously. "Is that why you do it? Is that why you put yourself in danger and take on people who want to kill you or...or worse?"

Before Pamela asked, Sophie would have said no. She'd certainly never thought of it like that - but there was a greater truth to it. She, Sophie Scott, had this old darkness in her, and so many doubts and faults that held her back and tripped her up and got her into bad situations - but she fought anyway. She thought of her early period as Enhancegirl, before she'd met Maya, which had undoubtedly been the most difficult. Failure after failure, defeat after defeat - and yet she hadn't stopped. She'd gone on because...well, because it was more important to fight the things that needed fighting, to help those it was within her power to help, than for her to feel good about herself. Sophie let out a sigh of relief, relief that she didn't know she needed: she still didn't know of the true significance - if any - of her parents' revelation, but she knew that it could no longer stop her. It would not stop her from being Enhancegirl - or if one day she found that could do more in another capacity, it wouldn't stop her from doing that, either. And it wouldn't take Mariko from her.
"Yeah," Sophie eventually replied. "Partly. I want to...I want to be good, Mom. Does that sound stupid?"
"No, you dumbass," Pamela laughed. "It sounds so much like you I want to fucking spit." And then mother and daughter embraced, and Sophie felt that another part of her had grown up, just a little bit.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
One week later...

There had been an unexpected victory: Gallantria, along with fellow abductees Sinbuster and Double-Dare, had been rescued from Hades' clutches by the Pariahs, though really it had been a very queer chance. Though Ivan would sanction only violent, drastic measures, and Farah didn't have the patience for sustained investigation, Sam Sparr had been looking for the power-boosting Enhanceman. A much overlooked feature of the kidnapping of Nova and Spectra by Hades had been their being lured to Renning City by the villain, and Sam had been trying to pick up his trail, knowing that unlike so many who professed loyalty to Hades, Enhanceman at least must have had direct contact with Hades herself. It helped that his armour, not so unlike Hades', after all, made him quite an intimidating investigator. He'd found the man without too much trouble, and he now languored in custody at the Penitentiary Supreme - but for a good seven years fewer than he might have done - for he had given up one of his master's secrets.

The image was now famous. The hidden lair torn apart with fire and water and earth, Catastrophe aglow with the power Angermax had yielded up to him and defeating the few superhumans who had not immediately surrendered when the Pariahs had appeared. Ivan flying with a quivering Gallantria nestled in his arms, arms wrapped around his thin neck, his face unmistakably that of a man whose guilt had been assuaged. And at the centre of frame, the Pretender, whom even Ivan acknowledged as the true hero of the day, with Sinbuster in the arms of his empty, ambulatory armour, and Double-Dare in his own arms.

For this reason, the motivation for the party was twofold. In the first instance, it was celebrating one of Hades' few clear defeats, and in the second, it had been convened as a celebration of the opening of the Combined Registration Office, under Jackson's management. Already it was being touted as the centre of California superhero-dom - not least because it had been opened - where else? - in Seacouver, where so many young superhumans gathered anyway.

Jackson, dressed handsomely in a blue, well-fitting suit, leapt up with surprising agility onto a table in the largest room of the CRO's brand new headquarters, the Nest. Some were already calling the CRO 'the Crow', and its HQ had gained the appellation as a result.
"First off, thank you all for coming," he said. "Big shout out - am I young enough to get away with saying 'shout-out'? Ah, whatever - to my ex-cronies for showing up." This was addressed to three people: Thaddeus Murderball, who was there with Vitra and another teammate; the retired hero Cougarman, who'd been in the Pauldron's original line-up and had moved back to California to assist his old leader; and a certain dirty-blonde hydrokinetic, who'd turned up with quite some reticence. "Secondly, a thank you to Mister Sparr. That was some damned fine work you did, son. To the Pretender!"
"To the Pretender!" the crowd replied, though Sam distinctly heard Farah muttering 'what the fuck' before half-heartedly joining in. Sparr's suit was extremely ill-fitting. Too baggy in some places, too tight in others. He looked around at the famous faces - handsome men, beautiful women - and he felt horrifically out of place. He still half-suspected it was some sort of trap - but he'd received assurances that the military was no longer after him.

"And lastly, I -" Jackson paused for a moment. He looked oddly distracted. There were confused murmurs from the others, but he seemed to come alive again, and went on. "Lastly, I want to give thanks - and an apology - to Miss Scott." Indeed, Sophie was there. Clad in an ochre, Chinese-style dress with long slits up either side of its skirt, she had thought that she was simply there as Mariko's date, but it seemed that Imperion had another purpose in inviting her. "Thanks, first, for being an inspiration to the people of this city. I know it's gotten pretty crowded here in the last few months - and I have a feeling that's only going to increase - but you've still stood out. The things you've done and the battles you've fought - I don't know of many heroes who've accomplished what you have with so little firepower. I know you've..." He paused, this time clearly to choose his words carefully. "I know you've been through a bit of a...trial recently. All I'll say is I'm glad you came through it. I haven't been in this city for very long," Jackson said, "and I know your career hasn't been the longest... but I can already tell that Seacouver wouldn't be the same without you." He raised a glass. "To Enhancegirl!"
"To Enhancegirl!"

Sophie flushed red. It felt a little ridiculous being praised so effusively by one of the most beloved superheroes in the world. Besides which, it had been a week since her ordeal, and she still hadn't yet done any further superheroics. She felt embarrassed, and small compared to all these giants, and felt like none of them would have been so weak as she had been. Yet two faces came into her sight, and both gave comfort to her. The first, of course, was Mariko's. Her jade eyes glittered with pride, a warm smile parting her slender lips. Yet there was another face, too.

Behind Mariko a little ways, in a thin, blue gown, was a slim, petite young woman. Her powers must have been active, for her hair was candy-floss pink, and every now and then a little blue-white spark would appear somewhere around her. She was not a woman Sophie knew well. She was not really a woman Sophie knew at all. They'd exchanged brief words in Ferndale when they'd first met, and then a sentence or two when they'd both been Hades' captives, but she only really knew Nova - for it was she - through what Mariko had said of her. Here was a famous, much-admired hero: gorgeous, celebrated and vastly more powerful than Sophie - yet her ordeal at Hades' hands had almost broken her in two. There was weakness in her, and that weakness reminded Sophie that she - that both of them - did have strength. The two women's eyes met, and a small measure of understanding passed between them.

The evening went on in a very pleasant manner, at least for most people. Sam Sparr tried as best he could to slip into the background. Farah was talking animatedly - perhaps a little too animatedly - with her old ally Cougarman, and he didn't know anyone else. He thought back to what Ivan had said when they'd received the invitation: "It's horseshit. You do know that, right? We've swung back into popular favour, so he's trying to mend fences. He'll throw us in the shit as soon as we do something that he doesn't like. I'm not wasting my time with that hypocrite." Now that Sam was there, he had to say that it didn't seem like anyone was very interested in him. But someone did spot him.

"Heya!" A slender blonde with a bouncy gait and dimpled cheeks approached the sullen young man. "You're Sam Sparr, right? I'm Amanda."
"Uh..." Sam didn't even get to the point where he could begin stuttering. Long arguments could be made about whether Mariko, Sara, Sophie, or Chryseis was the belle of that particular ball - but this woman was definitely in the running. She was wearing a short, strappy blue dress, with smooth, almost shiny legs, and Sam was finding it hard not just to gawk. "Y-yeah," he forced out at last. "A-and y-ou are?" He then remembered that she'd already given her name, and he almost slapped himself on the head. But she didn't seem to think him stupid.
"Oh, right, of course. I'm Vitra! Can I just say thank you so much for what you did?"
"Huh? Uh - s-sure I g -" He couldn't get the word 'guess' out at all. The strap of her dress that clung to her right shoulder had almost slipped off, and he was suddenly imagining it going all the way off, and really, really trying to stop.

"The reason I say it is, well, Double-Dare is a -" Amanda's face flickered slightly. Had Sam been good at reading emotions - which he wasn't in even the slightest degree - he might have detected a wisp of heartache. "She's a good friend of mine. So, you're kinda my hero right now."
"Uh, w-well, I...you know, all in a d-day's w-work," he said. "Wow. Nice. Fucking awesome. Oooh yeah, Sam, she's gonna swoon in your fucking arms! Watch the master at work!" Yet, despite Sam's damning verdict of himself, he found Vitra leaning in for a conspiratorial whisper.
"Hey, Sam?" she said, softly, and suddenly the Pretender's trousers felt a little tighter. "Could you come with me for a sec?"
"Wh - I - uh - tha...huh?" Sam was panting. Literally. "Are..." He looked at himself. He looked at the other men around him. "Are y-you s-sure you're n-not, like, confusing me for F-F-Fahrenheit or s...something?"
"Yeah, I'm sure," Vitra said, laughing. "Come on!"
"Oh nice," Sam thought, as she led him off. "Now at least I can crushingly humiliate myself without a crowd of people watching."

Perhaps because of the little moment Sophie had shared, or imagined that she'd shared, with her, the redhead found herself engaged in conversation with Sara.
"How've you been?" Sara asked, out of politeness' sake more than anything else.
"What, since last time we met?" Sophie laughed. "Well, I haven't had any days as bad as that one again, so I guess I'm doing okay."
"If you say so," Sara replied. She knew the broad outline of the events of a week prior. "Well done fighting Dextrus, by the way. Even I wouldn't have taken him on in a hurry."
"Thanks," Sophie said. "He said that he'd beaten Imperion once. I was surprised: he was strong as hell, but, like...he didn't seem on Jackson's level."
"No," Nova said, not quite sure she was happy about Sophie being so familiar as to use his first name. "It was odd. Imperion was paying a visit to a super-team the Canadian government tried to form. Though considering the five they found were about half the superhumans in the entire country, it wasn't a successful venture." She was exaggerating, but Sophie got the joke: Canada's superhuman population was famously sparse. "Then Dextrus just attacked out of nowhere and - well he must have caught Jackson off-guard or something, but yes. He won handily."

There was a lull. Eventually Sara broke it.
"So what do you think of all this? The Registration Office?"
Sophie clicked her tongue. "I mean shit like this is kinda inevitable, I guess. People like us really can be dangerous, so it makes sense to have measures in place. I guess it'd be easy to let it get draconian."
"Jackson would never let that happen," Sara replied, very quickly.
"Yeah, of course," Sophie said. "But, like...I almost wish he wasn't running it, though."
"Why?" Sara replied, with a look that said in clear terms 'you'd better be going somewhere with this'.
"Because he's a superhero. I know he's a hundred billion other things too, but, like..." She thought for a moment. "You know Peter Wingfield? He's a senior psychiatrist at the Methos Institute. I'd like someone like him to run the Crow."
"Why a psychiatrist?"
"It's not because he's a psychiatrist. It's 'cause he's a superhuman who uses his powers to help people, and he isn't a superhero. I wasn't born with my powers, but I feel like a lot of kids who are see, that like..." She searched for the right way to describe it. "Superhumans are either using their powers to hurt people, or they're using it to stop bad superhumans. We have fucking crazy-ass magical powers - I feel like this CRO thing could be, like, a way to start letting supers have powers as part of a more normal life." She laughed. "Did that make any sense?"
"It made a lot of sense," Sara said. She realised just how sorely she had underestimated this young woman. She gave Sophie a smile that had pleasure in it, but was tinged with a sort of wistfulness. "You know, you and Mariko make quite a pair."
Sophie saw over Nova's shoulder that Mariko was talking to Derek and Thaddeus, the two Pauldron members having a back-and-forth about - of all things - the morals of capital punishment, their lips moving almost as fast as Panhellius' arm. And then she glanced at Sophie and hard logic was replaced by gentle love - before switching rapidly back again. Sophie almost laughed at the contrast.
"Yeah," Sophie said, eventually. "I guess we do."


"So," Vitra said, leading Sam somewhere relatively private. "Could you show me?"
"Sh-show you? Show you wh-what?" Sam almost shrieked back. "This is...someone's playing a fucking prank on me or something! Ooh! If Ivan somehow set this up I swear to God I'm gonna plant my foot so far up his Russian ass that Rasputin'll feel it!"
"Your armour, silly!"
"...oh." Feeling immensely deflated and immensely relieved at the same time was an odd combination of emotions, but Sam decided that it was not the worst that could have happened. "Sure. Uh..." He suddenly felt very awkward. Well...even more than he had before. "Exo-generate, I guess..." With a dim flash, Sam's body was covered in spiny metal, crested with blades and bristling with weaponry. Amanda actually shrank back a little - he really did look fearsome. But soon her intimidation was replaced by sheer interest.
"Wow!" she gasped. "It looks so awesome!"
"Thanks," Sam replied. He activated the 'speakers' in his armour, through which he could merely think, and words would emerge. "It's a pretty crazy piece of machinery."
"And you can get out of it, right?" Amanda asked.
"Uh, yeah."

A little unwillingly, Sam opened the seal on his suit, and awkwardly stepped out. Amanda put her hand towards the open hatch, and to her surprise he quickly slapped her arm away. "D-don't touch the inside!"
Amanda was a little shocked by Sam's sudden, almost vicious leap. She hadn't realised he possessed inhuman strength and speed of his own. "I'm...I'm sorry," she mumbled. "Is it delicate?"
"No...no, i-it's actually p-pretty sturdy in there," Sam said. "But it doesn't...d-doesn't like s-strangers. If you don't h-have my p-power - my exact power - it'll t-try to dissolve you. You could have l-lost your hand." He focused for a moment, and closed the armour. It stood empty.
"Oh. Oh, wow!" Amanda smiled. "Awww, look, you're my hero again!"
"...uh, y-yeah..." A smile flickered on his face. "I, uh, can move it around, though." He concentrated, and the armour began to move of its own accord.
"Wow!" Vitra laughed. "That's so cool! How far can it go away from you?"
"I h-haven't found a limit yet," he said. He focused like he was trying to solve a differential equation. To Vitra's delight, the armour bowed gracefully. "I...g-guess it is pretty cool, huh?"


In the main room, a dance-off had begun the likes of which had not been seen in many an age. Cougarman, with his lightning-fast reflexes and ability to control his own centre of gravity, pitted himself against Fahrenheit, whose powers over friction put many a move at his immediate disposal. He was in the middle of an unbelievably fast pirouette, which only seemed to get faster and faster as it went on.
"C'mon, Tobias!" Farah shouted, talking to Cougarman. "Waste his smug ass!"
"Aww, gee, Farah, I'm tryyyin' to!" Tobias said, in a voice that sounded disturbingly like James Stewart's. "I-I-I'm not as young as I used to be, see?"
"Come on Shane!" Jackson shouted. "For the honour of the Pauldron!" Across from him, Jackson saw Mark spelling out 'Shane, you suck' in individual sign letters, timing it so that Shane would see one letter with each revolution. When Fahrenheit got to 'Shane you s-u-c-' he added another component to his posture, namely the extension of the longest digit of his right hand. Imperion and Thaddeus hooted with laughter at this, and even Mariko - who was always a little more giggly when drunk - began clapping and cheering as well. Nova saw her, saw her ally throw her arms around Sophie's shoulders as the two laughed, and kissed, and felt a portion of normality return to them. She felt very lonely all of a sudden.

And then she realised something. Someone was looking at her, and at first she was about to return their gaze, but when she saw who it was she didn't. She felt shy; girlish even. But she lifted up her eyes, and she saw Jackson was looking at her. Right at her. He started walking away from the crowd, and she realised that he wanted her to follow him. The two heroes ascended a flight of stairs, and Sara found herself alone with Jackson. It was empty at present, but it was to become an office. At that moment, though, there was nothing in it but the two of them, and the starlight.

"You look beautiful," Jackson said.
"Thank you," Sara replied, softly. He took a step towards her, and she shivered.
"I think Ivan Nazarov was right about me," Jackson said. "He said I was a coward, or near enough, and he was right."
"That's not true," Sara said, insistent. "Ivan's an arrogant, self-aggrandising bastard. You threaten his ego, that's all."
"I still love her," Jackson said, and Sara felt ice in her heart. "It's stupid. It's the stupidest thing in the world, but...I find it so hard to connect the Anya I knew to Hades. I guess that's what you call cognitive dissonance, right?"

And then Sara got it. He wasn't confessing. He was letting her down easy. Her crush, her foolish, stupid, childish infatuation was nonsense. Of course it was. How could she have been so stupid? In the starlight tears began to glitter in her eyes, to her mortification. She would have turned away, but she was rooted to the spot.
"So I guess," Jackson went on, "that's why I feel like such a scumbag. Because of you."
"Jackson, you don't have to -"
He held up his hand. "Let me finish. I'm older than you. I've been married. You're my employee. There are a hundred different reasons - but none of them really mattered." He came closer. "What stopped me from...well, from giving in, I s'pose you'd call it, is 'cause I felt like I was betraying her. Not like I was cheating or anything like that, but -" He stopped, and was close enough to touch her - and he did. One finger of his mighty hand stroked with exquisite gentleness over one of Sara's soft, pink cheeks. She was as a woman paralysed, looking up into his eyes helplessly.

"You're gorgeous. You're principled, and loyal and strong...you're goddamn magnificent. And you make me feel like a bastard because I love you so much more than I ever loved Anya."
Sara gave a sort of cry. She couldn't move. She couldn't believe it was happening. She couldn't believe it was real.
"I don't know what to do with you, Sara. You're one of the strongest superhumans around, but...there's a softness. I think there's a part of you that needs someone to take care of you. Like I'm sure Sophie Scott does for Mariko. I shouldn't be doing this...I really shouldn't be doing this...but I want to be the one who does that for you, Sara. You can be weak with me, if you need to be."
"I do need it...I need you...Jackson, I love you," Sara said, unsure of what she wanted to say first. She opened her mouth, but she found Jackson's lips pressing against hers, felt his mighty arms wrapping around her body. He could have snapped her like a twig, and she felt a strength in his grip...but he was gentle with her. He smelled manly, but not overwhelmingly. His short beard tickled her, but did not sratch. He was firm, but not forceful. She felt fragile, and delicate, and feminine in a way she hadn't allowed herself to feel before. And suddenly Hades felt like she had no power over Sara - or, perhaps she did, but Sara now had a shield, that protected her so much more wholly than the word 'pauldron' suggested.

When their lips parted, Sara let herself sink against Jackson's chest. "I love you, Jackson," she said again. "Your strength...your courage...the way you make everyone around you feel like they matter. I remember when we met Spectra and Enhancegirl and I was so...dismissive and you were - were..." She searched for the right word, and found it. "Kingly. You were kingly. Jesus, you make every one of us feel like kings."
"Or queens," Jackson said, stroking Sara's pink hair, but she shook her head. She looked him in the eye, and she looked very delicate indeed: a pristine, precious treasure.
"No...I - I don't feel like a queen with you." She laughed, at herself. "I - I feel like a princess..."
"Hey, alright: then feel like a princess," Jackson said, in that easy, California surfer way of his.

And then he got a look in his eye. His charm and charisma seemed to vanish from his face, as though something had deeply disturbed or troubled him. The corner of his mouth curled.
"What is it, Jackson?" Sara asked.
"It's...it's been a long time since I've even let myself kiss a woman," he said. "Can, uh, I have a little time alone? I need to do a bit of soul-searching."
"Of course," Sara said. "Whatever you need." And so she left him in the starlight as she returned to the party, and Mark was the first to see her as she descended. He saw the smile on her face, the light in her hazel eyes, and he grinned. He nudged Shane, panting with exhaustion after a too-narrow victory, and inclined his head towards Sara. Shane looked at her, and saw her face, saw the blush in her fair cheeks.
"Well, I bet nobody saw that coming," he muttered.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Sorry doesn't cut it! 'It wasn't my fault' doesn't cut it! You fucked up, and now you're going to pay!" Greyhand roared at his underling, a feeble superhuman with a minor cryokinetic power.
"No, sir, please! Don't - AAAHHHHH!!" A second later he was dead, as Greyhand poured stolen lightning into him, and wrecked him from the inside out.
"Fucking morons. Fucking useless!" Greyhand spat, kicking over an empty paint can. With some of the other escapees from the Penitentiary Supreme, Greyhand had started a little criminal enterprise of his own in Renning City. Unfortunately, though it had caused a great deal of damage, and a great deal of trouble for local superheroes, it had made him no money whatsoever. He'd run a local gang out of this warehouse, so the king had his little fiefdom, but that was it. Every attempt at a robbery, or hold-up ended in failure. His men were afraid of him - but they were too afraid of him. They lied to avoid his wrath, or blamed each other when the slightest thing went wrong. Raymond had proven only one thing in his time as a criminal mastermind: he was an effective bully, but he was no leader of men.

He had a couple of other guys, but the man he'd killed was one quarter of his remaining operation. He was furious, constantly, and the only thing that comforted him even in the slightest, was the discovery of his new power, and trying to push it as hard as he could. He had now got to the point where he could draw electricity to him even if he wasn't touching a source of it directly. But he was afraid to test it. Since his great victory over the Generator, he'd been loath to test himself against another powerful opponent, lest he prove unworthy of the fear his name now carried.

He heard steps coming towards him, metal tacking against the concrete floor. It must have been Tinnitus, named for the ringing sound his metal limbs made when they cracked against someone's skull.
"Where the hell have you been?!" Raymond bellowed. "This useless little shit's been taking up floor space, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna be the one cleaning him up."
"Charming as ever, Greyhand."

Raymond froze. He didn't want to turn around. He didn't want to hear what he knew he'd heard. He didn't want to make it true.
"You fool. Did you really think I would allow you to operate in my sphere of influence without giving me due compensation?" Another clank. They were getting closer. "Did you think I would allow you to slay my lieutenants, and disturb my profits? No, Greyhand. You have caused me enough trouble. Many foes I have faced, some mighty, some less so - but I am insulted that I needs must use my strength against you. I will tear your precious arm from your body. I will splinter it. I will use the broken splinters of its bones to tear out your heart!"
"No."

There was a long silence. Raymond's response had not been begging. It had not been a scream, or a moan. It had been firm. Vicious. Greyhand turned around, and perceived his enemy: Hades stood there, tall and grim, faceless and mighty in dark armour.
"...'No'?" Hades repeated, perhaps angered, perhaps amused.
"Yeah, that's right, you fuck. You don't know who you're dealing with anymore, do you?! I'm Greyhand! I beat the Generator one on one! I'm the deadliest fucker there is! And no-one...no-one threatens me anymore. I'll kill them first. I'll kill you Hades! I'll kill you!"
Hades laughed openly. "This is ridiculous. I will rend your head from your neck."
"You can try!" Raymond bellowed, and he opened his hand, and he began to glow blue. Lightning hissed and crackled about him, and a deathly light filled his eyes. He grinned, and laughed, giddy on the feeling of it. And then he leapt forward, with a great roar, and terawatts of stolen power burst out of him in a great explosion of lightning.

"Ha...ha..." Raymond gasped. But when the dust cleared, his enemy was not destroyed. They were, however, crackling with electricity, and appeared to have been pushed back.
"So," Hades said, "this will be a battle will it? Very well, Greyhand. I shall enjoy your death all the more when it comes - and it will, and that right soon." And Hades leapt forward with a mechanistic screech, and Greyhand bellowed, pouring all his great hatred into himself, and letting that be his strength.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

By now, the party had died down. Farah and Sam had been the first to leave, prompted when Sam finally realised that Vitra did not in fact, want his number. Then Thaddeus, then Vitra herself, and even Chryseis and Panhellius. Soon it was just Sophie, Mariko, Sara, Shane and Mark. Mariko was really quite drunk, and almost fallen asleep in Sophie's arms. Shane and Mark were having a conversation in ASL so rapid that even they were getting lost, and Sara...was just smiling.

Sophie dared to get up and go over to her, leaving Mariko contentedly curled up on a comfy chair.
"Something cool happen?" Sophie asked. Sara laughed.
"Yeah, you might say that," she replied. Sophie clapped her on the back.
"Awesome." She leaned in. "By the way: I like, barely know you - and even I could see it. Just saying."
Sara looked rather put out by this remark, but saw that Sophie meant no ill by it.
"I hope it's everything you want," Sophie said.
"I know it will be," Sara said, more to herself than to anyone else.

Sophie wandered off by herself a little, exploring the empty building which would soon be the centre for all her kind in the state - perhaps all her kind in the country. She happened to check her phone - and saw that she had fifty-eight missed calls.
"What the hell?" More to her concern, they were all from the same phone number: May's. She called back - the phone dialled only once before May picked up.
"Jesus-fuck, Sophie, answer your fucking phone!" May hissed through the receiver. "I thought something had happened to you!"
"Chill the hell out!" Sophie replied. "What's the matter with you?"
"You were right," May said. "That I forgot about investigating the Anubis Foundation. You were right. You must have been!"
"Wh-what?" Sophie was bewildered. "How do you know?"
"B-because I get this feeling, right? I get this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach that something's not right. And I keep thinking about what you asked me. So, almost on sheer fucking instinct I start investigating Anubis again, just a little." She breathed out, and Sophie realised that she was smoking. To her knowledge it was the first time May had smoked in six years.

"It starts slow, yeah? But then I start to spot...patterns. Things I feel like I've done before. I feel like I know exactly where to look, exactly who to call - and it starts getting clear that I was investigating Anubis, 'cause waaaaay to many people recognise my name. It's just weird. So I start digging a little deeper, and I find it."
"What?"
"I find the holy fucking grail, Sophie! I find one e-mail, one tiny stupid little e-mail from some accountant in the Utah to some little tax-haven in the Canary Islands. Sophie - I found out who owns Anubis!"
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"GYYAAAHHH!!" Greyhand roared, filling Hades with all the power at his disposal. And though the villain did not fall, they slowed and Raymond knew that it must have been doing something. He fired everything, all the power he had, and he stole more, as much as he possibly could from the power grids around him.

Hades just endured. Greyhand was hampering the villain's mobility too much for them to dodge, but they remained stalwart. Hades smashed their hands on the ground, and the floor shook so hard that the roof buckled, bricks tumbled down, and Greyhand was knocked clean onto his back. He scrambled up, but Hades did it again, and again, and he couldn't right himself.

"You are nothing. You are less than nothing. You were worth more, Greyhand, when you served that madman Arrhenius. At least then you were something original, as opposed to the dullest kind of fool: one whose vanity makes him overestimate himself."
"Overestimate this you smug fuck!" Greyhand bellowed, and this time joined his lightning with bullet sized fragments of shrapnel, letting all his power flow out. At first it seemed that Hades would endure this too - but then suddenly, the villain staggered, and fell to one knee. "Oh yes," Greyhand laughed. "Oh yes!" The shrapnel had lodged itself into the obsidian inlays of Hades' armour, and they conducted his electricity all the better. It seemed Hades couldn't take it.

"Another upset!" Greyhand laughed, walking over to sneer. "Another 'great' thinks they can take me on and pays the price! That's what you get! That's what you - achhghh!"
He had forgotten just how fast Hades could be. Without warning, the villain leapt up, throwing off the mantle of feigned weakness and seizing Raymond by the throat. He raised his 'special arm' to fight, so Hades ripped it off.
"Ah...ah...!" Raymond didn't feel it at first. He just stared at the stump. Then, when he did scream, the noise could be heard for miles around.
"This was always how it would end, Raymond," Hades said. "You should have come to me. You should have prostrated yourself before me, and I would have shown you clemency. I would have shown you mercy. But now, you shall receive none."

Moaning, Raymond lifted his other arm, reaching towards Hades' mask.
"Oh don't be foolish. I know your power is only in one arm."
And then Raymond laughed. With bitter, hateful spite in his eyes, he laughed. "That's...not quite right Hades," he said, hoarse through the pain of it all. "I only have it in one arm...at a time!" And then he placed his hand on Hades' oval mask, activated his power, and tore downwards, ripping not only the mask, but also a good portion of the chestplate.

Raymond revealed much of the form of a breathtakingly beautiful woman. Tall, dark skinned, with long hair, and lovely features. She was completely naked within the armour, and even in his agony, Raymond found himself ogling her bare chest - but even he only managed it for a second. For something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Her eyes were closed. She had a look of utter, serene peace on her face: she was clearly quite unconscious. Yet the armour did not fall. Indeed, it stumbled backwards, dropping Raymond, and lifting its arms in defence.
"Wh...what the fuck?!" Raymond spluttered. And then he smelled something. He noticed, in fact, that this woman was soaking wet - a strange liquid, a little more viscous than water, covering her, filling the interior of the armour. It smelled of pomegranate. "That's not armour..." Raymond stammered. "That's...that's a stasis tank!"
But he would take his secret to his grave. The armour stumbled forward, seized him again, and then tore Raymond's head from his shoulders.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"No way," Sophie said. "That's insane. It's not fucking possible!"
"It is."
"But it doesn't make sense!" Sophie said. "Why would -?"

And then it did. Sophie remembered, now, talking with May about Anubis. Remembering how they'd been so successful outside of California, but so impotent within it. And what effect had this had? It had driven superhumans into California, particularly to the triangle of Renning, Sacramento, and Seacouver. This new CRO - what effect would that have? More superhumans into the triangle. Hades' threats and reign of terror, their professed loathing of superheroes. What had been the result? More superhumans into the triangle, especially into Seacouver. And, of course, Hades had attracted a legion of superhuman criminals into those same places, so there was always a reason for the heroes to stay.

The Penitentiary Supreme, which had increased the superhuman population of Seacouver by nearly a quarter overnight. The Methos Institute increased it further still. But there was yet more. Sophie's mind began racing, but things were fitting all too easily into place. What had Cato Pict said had been the purpose of the project that had given him and her their powers? 'To make more superhumans'. They'd stopped of course but -
"Oh my god...!" Sophie's face was white. Her pulse throbbed in her chest, and her ears rang. What had Cato said?
"They stopped round about the time that the Penitentiary Supreme opened." The Penitentiary Supreme. The super prison that had been more than just a government initiative, but a personal project.

Imperion's project.
"I'm telling you," May said. "It's Jackson Morrow. He owns the Anubis Foundation! I don't know why - but he does."
"May," Sophie said, very softly. "Can you prove it? If you took this to the police tomorrow, would you prove it for sure?"
"No," May said. "I know...but I can't prove it from just what I found."
"Then delete it. Or send it to a lawyer or something. Until you can prove it, you don't do anything else. As far as anyone knows, your memory of all this was erased."
"Sophie -"
"Do it!!" Sophie almost screamed. There was a murmur of assent, and Sophie hung up.

She stewed in paranoid terror for another five, maybe even ten minutes. She just stood there, her eyes flickering back and forth as she tried to work it out. Why? Why do all this? What was the point? Who could possibly benefit?
"Dextrus," she muttered. "I beat Dextrus...but he couldn't..." Why was that significant? What else was there? What had Nova told her? He was in - Canada, was it? Rural. Spacious. Very few superhumans.

Very few superhumans.

Sophie was now actively shaking. She took her phone again, and dialled the number of a friend.
"...hello?" A young woman's voice, a little shy, and quite soft.
"Ella, it's Sophie. You...you know superheroes, right? Like, the trivia and shit?"
"Um...yes?"
"Tell me about every time Imperion's ever lost a fight."

In all there were five occasions: his loss to Dextrus; his two defeats by Lord Delirious, both in rural Arizona. The second time, Ella had noted, reports were that he'd done well at first against Delirious, but then suddenly it was as if his strength had just run out. Two other occasions: one loss to the Indigo Titan, which told Sophie nothing, and another to a villain named Force-of-Arms. This was early in Imperion's career, when he hadn't been very famous. But Force-of-Arms was reckoned as being about as physically strong as Stellar's Black Star - strong, yes...but no match for Imperion! And where had that taken place?
"The Scottish Highlands," Ella said. "I guess he was on holiday."
"Thank you," Sophie said, hanging up.

Wherever there were superhumans, and lots of them, Imperion was invincible. Wherever they were sparse, or absent, he was as vulnerable as the rest of them. That was it. That was it. He'd been pouring superhumans into this small area to increase his powers. All the tax breaks, and government benefits, all those speeches and all that work - it was just to bring more and more and more...
"Oh god...oh god..." Sophie gasped. "No. This...no, no, no. I fucked up. I've got something wrong. I'm making assumptions. It's just...just leaps of logic." It was theory. Not even that. Mere hypothesis. Nothing to take seriously. Not yet. Not ever!

But then she saw Jackson descending the stairs, a look of grave concern on his face, of terrible anxiety. He noticed her - and he saw. He saw an expression that she could not hide. She saw the terror, the horror in her beautiful green eyes, and they were mirrored in his. For a second, an infinitesimal fraction of a second, there was an aspect of the beast about him. He seemed about to leap upon her, but he checked himself. But it was too late. He could not stop. The matter was of the most pressing urgency imaginable. He had to leave. He had to leave her there.

It took all of the redhead's strength not to collapse to her knees. For she knew now, beyond any doubt, that she had looked into the face of Hades.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

We're not done yet, ladies and gentlemen! Join me soon for the TRUE finale of arc 3: The Perils of Enhancegirl 16: Heavy Lies the Crown!
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness - Now Complete!

Post by DrDominator9 »

Wow! Well, okay, let's take a step back and think about this. Imperion is using Hades as a means to gather all the super beings he can to close proximity. That's a mind-fucker! Something to ponder as to the future of the Pauldron.

Meanwhile, let's backtrack to the core of what this story was about and just how well it was told: Enhancegirl's powers, her origin and her weaknesses. I'm not sure at what point you came up with this concept or if you've known about Enhancegirl's origins all along but this reveal and how you handled it were absolutely masterful, damselbinder. The emotional gravity of the story was incredibly powerful and all of the scenes displaying those emotions in such gripping ways was a real roller-coaster thrill ride for me.

If someone wants to study a story where character motivation is marvelously drawn, this is the one. Sophie and Mariko's actions throughout are wonderfully realized and quite a testament to the value of love, whether its shown in a superheroine peril story or in real life. Nicely done, my man!!!
Follow this link to descriptions of my stories and easy links to them:

viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32025
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl 15: Heart of Darkness - Now Complete!

Post by Damselbinder »

DrDominator9 wrote: 4 years ago Wow! Well, okay, let's take a step back and think about this. Imperion is using Hades as a means to gather all the super beings he can to close proximity. That's a mind-fucker! Something to ponder as to the future of the Pauldron.

Meanwhile, let's backtrack to the core of what this story was about and just how well it was told: Enhancegirl's powers, her origin and her weaknesses. I'm not sure at what point you came up with this concept or if you've known about Enhancegirl's origins all along but this reveal and how you handled it were absolutely masterful, damselbinder. The emotional gravity of the story was incredibly powerful and all of the scenes displaying those emotions in such gripping ways was a real roller-coaster thrill ride for me.

If someone wants to study a story where character motivation is marvelously drawn, this is the one. Sophie and Mariko's actions throughout are wonderfully realized and quite a testament to the value of love, whether its shown in a superheroine peril story or in real life. Nicely done, my man!!!
Thank you very much indeed Dr. D. I'm really glad that you enjoyed it as much as you did, and that the various elements came through well. Enhancegirl...well, I didn't always know this origin, but somewhere at the back of my mind was always this idea that there was something...not quite right with her, if that makes sense.

I'm very pleased that Mariko and Sophie's actions make sense to you, and that the value of their love came through. It's not just kissing and having sex and planning for your future, it's not even just the small stuff: if you're in love with someone you share a part of your heart with them. It's an heroic emotion - at least the way I see it.

As for the Hades reveal, now THAT I planned for since the moment Hades' name was first mentioned in the Christmas special. Man, he must be some kinda douchebag, huh? And now that all this has happened, the mighty Imperion and the fair Enhancegirl are headed towards a confrontation...can our heroine even survive?
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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