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Chapter 2

I heard when you’re close to death, everything slows down. My mother told me it wasn’t true, that your memory really just sharpened so it seemed like everything had. What she didn’t tell me was no matter how hard I tried to forget, those images would forever be burned into my memory.

Justine disappeared. One moment she was sitting there—hands outstretched towards the car. And the next she vanished—the car exploding through the window and slamming into the wall on the other side of the café.

Then everything spun into a blur and I lost sense of direction. I landed against something sharp, and the air was knocked from my lungs. The place filled with screams, pain shot through my arm as something heavy landed on it, and I realized the ceiling was caving in. I tried screaming, but couldn’t. Something was pinning me down, and it wasn’t until I started struggling I realized it was someone—not something.

Whoever it was moved off me, and I bolted up heaving a breath only to be thrown into a coughing fit when dust and smoke invaded my lungs.

“Nora, are you alright?” Matt’s voice sounded muffled and far away.

My head snapped right, and I jumped when I saw Matt crouched beside me panting and covered in blood. I opened my mouth, but a cough was the only thing to escape. My eyes burned and my face felt like it was on fire. I brought a shaky hand to my face, jerking it away when the burning intensified.

“Don’t touch it,” Matt said grabbing my hand and pulling it away. His own hands firmly held my face while he examined me. “It’s not as bad as it looks. You’ll be okay.”

He muttered something under his breath and pulled out a radio. “This is agent Mercer, Nebula has made contact. I repeat—Nebula has attacked. Pisces is injured, and there are civilian casualties. I need backup.”

Agent Mercer? What was he talking about? Matt tried cleaning my face as best he could while I was in my stupor, until something he said stuck.

“Justine.” My head snapped around so fast it felt like I reopened a few of the cuts on my face. “Justine!”

Through the settling haze I saw the bottom of the car facing me, the entirety of it crushed like a can and lodged into the wall. My best friend was trapped behind that car. I watched it take her away with it. My body moved on its own, clawing across broken glass and splinters oblivious to the pain. I had to get her out, but Matt’s arm snaked around my waist and yanked me back. I screamed at him, flinging fists, nails, and feet at his body in an attempt to make him let go.

But he wouldn’t. Instead he grabbed my wrists and locked them behind my body. I fought back but it was useless as he used his own weight to keep me in place.

“God dammit, let me go! I need to get to Justine,” I screamed. Tears blurred my vision, but he didn’t let go. I cursed him. Tried biting him. But the bastard wouldn’t let go, and it wasn’t until I was forced to take a breath that I heard it—a deep groan echoing through the entire room.

Matt swore, grabbed me around the waist again, and tossed me like I was weightless. Not a second later a large crash rocked the café eliciting even more screams. My eyes fought through the dust, and I finally managed to make out the car. Or what was left of it. Most of it had been buried in thick beams of wood and concrete, and the place I’d been in only a second ago was covered in more debris.

“Matt?” I whispered, hoping for some kind of answer. “Matt?!”

“Nora,” Matt’s muffled voice answered. My heart pounded as I moved towards his coughs. Beneath a broken table I found him, bleeding heavily and legs pinned.

“Nora you need to get out of here,” he wheezed. “They’re coming for you.”

Who? The question echoed in my mind, but never reached my voice. Instead, the light filtering in from outside was blocked, and when I looked I saw four people wearing black suits and white masks.

Before I could react they were on me. Sharp, slender fingers dug into my cheeks and yanked my chin up. When I tried to fight back the grip tightened painfully.

“Don’t,” was the only command. The voice was a low and feminine, and my surprise gave her enough time to compare my face to a picture. Then her grip shifted to my arm, and she pulled me up. “It’s her. Be thankful you didn’t kill her, Brutus. Tell Pluto we’re ready.”

One of the other masked intruders hit the speed dial on a cell phone. It must have rung once because he immediately began speaking, and while he did the woman turned to another one.

“Brutus, buy us some time and close that hole.” Brutus nodded and turned towards the hole. Thrusting his arms out, he clenched his hands focusing his energy.

An explosion followed ringing my ear, and I watched as Brutus’ head snapped to the side with a crimson spray and he crumpled. My eyes darted back to where the explosion came from, and Matt lay there barely holding a gun up.

“Shit, it’s one of GASPR’s dogs,” the woman yelled swinging me to the side and kicked Matt’s hand. There was a dull crack, and the gun went flying across the room followed by Matt’s scream.

“You’re going to do a lot more screaming before I’m done with you,” the largest of the group said.

The man was massive, easily weighing 300 pounds and looked to be at least six and a half feet tall. He moved quicker than I thought possible, but before he could reach her the woman holding me barred his path.

“You’ll do no such thing. He’s only a Pulsar, and now he’s disarmed.”

“But Brutus—”

“Dead. And now we can’t close the hole because he was our only LED,” the woman said, slamming her boot down on Matt’s broken hand earning another scream. “So cover the hole. Use your gravity to keep them out.”

He didn’t move, and that’s when I realized they were wearing porcelain masquerade masks trimmed in small black feathers. Under normal circumstances, it would’ve looked ridiculous. But with the powers they were wielding it made them seem detached—subhuman even.

“That’s an order, Ajax,” the woman growled, moving in front of the man easily three times her size. For the briefest of moments, I hoped they’d fight. But as if sensing my thoughts she tightened her grip on me yelling, “Now!”

Ajax flinched as if struck, then moved to the hole. Looking over her shoulder at Matt, she whispered, “That’s the last time I save your skin. Quit playing with the big boys Matt, you’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Mina,” Matt said struggling for air. “Please stop.”

I was shocked, Matt knew her? How? The smallest hope of escaping appeared. But just as quickly, it died when Mina turned away.

“Pluto shared his plans with me,” Mina said. “I’ll do everything within my power to see them through.”

“He’s here,” the one who’d been on the phone said.

The air in the middle of the destroyed café darkened, then rippled, and from it a man stepped out. He was different from the others, wearing a long, black, tailed suit instead of a blazer. His mask covered the entirety of his face while long black feathers wrapped around the sides. But his eyes were the most striking feature. Bright blue, they cut right through me. Yet beneath that, familiarity tugged at me.

Before I could think on it anymore, he held out his hand to the one he’d spoken to on the phone. He said nothing, but the silent order was understood. The man pulled a gun from his jacket and handed it to Pluto.

My knees shook and my heart felt like it was going to burst. Was he going to shoot me? Why? What the hell was going on?

Pluto stared at the gun as if lost in thought. No one spoke. Then, my breath caught as Pluto raised the gun and held it to his eye. Silence continued, and I watched unable to process what was happening.

“Nothing.” Pluto said, “I can’t see it.”

His voice was so hushed I nearly missed it. Yet I could feel the power it held.

And the madness.

Why else would he look down a loaded gun? He was insane, and I refused to leave with these people, let alone him.

I snapped my foot out kicking the back of Mina’s knee before pivoting and slamming my elbow across her temple. I knew learning MMA would come in handy. I turned to run but couldn’t move my legs. Panic constricted my chest, and I looked down to see thick, black, tar up to my knees. I was so distracted I didn’t notice Mina get back to her feet.

“You bitch!”

I turned to Mina’s voice, and pain exploded behind my eyes as I met her fist head on. I felt her small hand grip the front of my shirt, and I braced for the next blow. But it never came. I opened my eyes, and jumped to see Pluto holding Mina’s fist.

“That’s enough.”

Without even a moment of hesitation Mina bowed her head and stepped back, “Sorry, sir.”

“It’s fine,” Pluto said, and then his mask shifted to Matt. “He’s GASPR. Why’s he still alive?” Mina shifted but said nothing. “You knew him.”

Again she said nothing, but gave a terse nod this time.

“Just this once then,” Pluto said.

“But he killed Brutus,” Ajax said stepping forward.

Pluto’s expressionless mask stared back at Ajax for a moment, and then scanned the room. “How many did he kill doing this?

“One.” I was surprised by my own voice, but the memory of Justine disappearing replayed before me and I started to shake. “At least one. The bastard sent a car right at my friend. Fuck him!”

“Then I’ll consider it even,” Pluto said, and before anyone could say anything else he held up his hand, “We’re leaving.”

The air rippled again. I tried to rip away but my limbs suddenly felt heavy, and as the seconds passed standing even became difficult. One by one, the group entered the rift and disappeared until it was just me and the insane leader.

“Keep breathing or you’ll pass out,” he instructed.

He pulled me forward, and as I struggled against him I felt a hand clamp around my ankle. Feeling me stop, Pluto glanced back and I felt the irritation behind his mask. His eyes bore past me to Matt, and contempt saturated his words.

“Don’t test my patience.” He raised his hand and a black haze materialized around it and then condensed.

“Don’t underestimate me,” Matt spat back.

A pressure began building in the hand wrapped around my ankle, and as it grew the same pressure started building in my chest and head.

“Let go,” Pluto said and pointed the black mass at Matt.

Whatever Matt was doing hurt. The pressure was unbearable, I could hardly breathe. And every heart beat radiated pain before slamming against the inside of my skull. Yet nothing was happening, and that seemed wrong. All this pressure needed to release from somewhere, and if it didn’t what would happen to me? Better question—what would happen to Matt if he got hit with that black stuff? Didn’t he care about that?

“Last chance,” Pluto said.

“Get bent.”

The black mass shot forward, and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Inside my chest something shifted. Then cracked. Then burst. A blinding light flared up, and I felt weightless. A roar filled my ears as white swallowed the world, the pain disappeared, and then I was falling.

For the second time in the span of five minutes my breath left me. I tried curling into a ball, but couldn’t. My body wouldn’t respond, I was losing focus, and a wave of exhaustion weighed me down. I lay their gasping and plastered with sweat, nerves tingling with phantom pains. Movement caught my attention and I craned my neck up to look, almost too tired to move my eyes.

I wish I hadn’t.

Pluto stood hunched over me, panting and holding one of his arms at his side. Fear rippled through me when we locked eyes.

“Too soon,” he whispered, and I winced as if he yelled. But there was something else in his voice, like he was frustrated and scared. “You awakened too soon.”

I was beyond confused. Awakened what? He wasn’t making any sense. Hell, I couldn’t even focus enough to think straight. He let go of his arm and reached for me.

I tried to move away, but failed. I tried to tell him to stay away, but only a whimper escaped. I felt helpless, and it made me furious. It wasn’t me. I was stronger than this. I could hold my own. I could fight back.

But this man terrified me. His very presence paralyzed me, and no amount of internal screaming could move me.

Just as his hand closed around me another gunshot rang out. Pluto jerked back grabbing his face, and somewhere behind me I heard voices yelling and more gunshots. The edges of my vision blackened, and when Pluto looked back he was covering his exposed face, the bullet having broken his mask. A corner of his face peeked out, and it was all I needed to see for my blood to freeze. The air rippled, and he vanished.

My world went dark, and memories I’d suppressed long ago returned. Memories of my dead brother.

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