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Back when he played open world games, Ryan always loved to set the AI against itself. To lead one monster on the path of a settlement, and then watch NPCs fight computer-generated enemies for his entertainment. The courier always found it relaxing.

The real-life sight was a lot more stressful.

Dynamis’ aerial force had unleashed a rain of missiles, which Jasmine’s anti-aerial defense had mostly detonated mid-flight. Geist, now a howling specter the size of a building, also redirected some of the projectiles with telekinetic force, blowing up two of the helicopters.

Unfortunately, the Augusti had less luck with the enemy Genomes. The invulnerable Wyvern had smashed through the fortress’ outer wall, sending stones flying in all directions; the pyrokinetic Devilry had started bombarding the superlab’s defenses from above, targeting the turrets, and the aeromancer Windsweep had summoned a miniature tornado to try to repel Geist.

“Hey, Quicksave, want to bet with poor old Mortimer?“ Mortimer said, shooting at the helicopters without taking cover. Bullets and projectiles phased through his body harmlessly. “The one who kills the most corpos wins!”

“Do non-lethal takedowns count?” Ryan asked. The courier was still sitting on his chair with a gun in hand, using a mix of timestops and accurate shots to blow up missiles before they could actually hit the fortress. “Because I left my best, anti-war helicopter stuff at home.”

A projectile aimed for his location, so the courier stopped time, moved the chair away, and let time resume once he had reached safety.

“Showoff,” Mortimer said, unimpressed. “You’re worse than Fortuna.”

“Hey, I resent that remark,” Ryan protested, tossing his gun away when he ran out of bullets. “I work on looking perfect, while her power does all the work.”

Truthfully, Ryan was starting to become a little worried. While the fortress’ human and automated defenses resisted well, Dynamis was making progress, and the courier wondered how Augustus would react to a very public assault on his drug factory. Ryan suspected reinforcements would be on their way soon and turn the already chaotic situation into a massive brawl.

In short, he couldn’t wait.

With some of the defensive turrets down, helicopters managed to land atop the outer wall. Soldiers in riot gear or advanced power armor engaged the Augusti defenders in a firefight on foot, while Wyvern kept hitting the fort in an attempt to make a hole into the facility. The ground shook with every blow of the giant dragon, although it seemed Vulcan had reinforced the old stone walls.

Eventually, Ryan noticed another helicopter landing in the garden nearby. A group of eight riot gear troopers stepped out of it, escorting two Genomes. One was a man with long black hair wearing a stylized, Mad Max-like mix of rusted steel armor and cloak. Most of his face was covered by a red scarf and black goggles, and worryingly, he carried an explosive belt around his waist.

The other, more colorful one, was a young woman Ryan’s age, perhaps of Chinese or Japanese descent. She reminded the courier of these pre-war K-pop idols, dyed hair, lovely face, and cute brown eyes. She wore a strange dress whose colors and length seemed to shift as the courier looked. Her bright, shy smile contrasted with the chaos around her.

“Reload and Wardrobe,” Mortimer said while opening fire at the newcomers, the riot troops forming a plexiglass shield wall to protect themselves. The Dynamis Genomes hid behind them, listening to orders thanks to earplugs. “Just great, I can’t stand Reload!”

“Why, because of his terrible fashion sense?” Ryan asked, rising to his feet and grabbing his chair as an improvised weapon. Seriously, Dynamis’ marketing department should be eradicated; how could they advertise such a fashion disaster?

“Because he just won’t die!” Mortimer snarled, reloading his rifle. “He’s the worst kind of Violet!”

That made Ryan quite curious. He looked at the apocalypse punk disaster behind the shield wall, but couldn’t figure out his power from how he looked. “Last warning, Romano!” one of the troopers said, readying his own firearm behind the shield wall. “Surrender now, or we open fire back! We’re allowed to use lethal force!”

“Didn’t anyone tell you, I’m immortal!” Ryan shouted back, raising his chair threateningly while explosions resonated in the background. “I’ll come back to haunt you!”

“Oh, you’re a Yellow too?” Wardrobe asked from behind the wall, more curious than anything.

“He’s distracted, shoot him!” one of the troopers shouted, pointing a rifle over the plexiglass wall. Mortimer immediately opened fire, disarming the man with a well-placed bullet while Ryan threw the chair at the corporate police.

The projectile bounced off the shields, while Wardrobe’s clothes literally changed shape. Her strange dress transformed into a wolf mascot suit, and she leaped over the garden with the strength and agility of a werewolf. Ryan had to stop time to prevent her from pouncing on him like a mouse, using the brief time window to put the Fisty Brothers on.

“Oh my, here I go dying again!” Reload said gregariously, as he leaped over the troopers’ shield wall, and rushed at Mortimer’s cover like a suicide bomber. In a scene straight out of an action movie, the hitman shot the hero in the chest, but he continued his charge. Reload jumped at Mortimer, who quickly phased through the ground below. The hero’s belt detonated and blew Mortimer’s stone cover to smithereens.

Ryan sensed a vague, familiar sensation at the back of his skull. At first, he thought it was Acid Rain’s doing, until Reload’s body reformed at the spot where he died in a flash of violet light, completely unharmed. His intact suicide belt was still around his waist.

“You copycat, I was wearing suicide belts before they went mainstream!” Ryan pointed an accusing finger at Reload, running in circles to escape Wardrobe’s claws. “If you stop time, I’ll sue!”

Why didn’t Dynamis call him Timelord?

When Mortimer didn’t reappear, the troopers turned to Ryan and started providing Wardrobe with suppressing fire. The happy courier stopped the clock to avoid the bullets and closed the gap with the mooks, punching the closest one with Fisty when time resumed. Much like the cannon fodder they were, they went down in one hit.

While her boyfriend was busy brawling with the troopers, a fully armored Vulcan emerged from the fortress, tackling Wyvern rugby-style. The mech pushed the surprised dragon back against Ischia Island’s reefs, the transformed hero responding by unleashing a stream of aurora-like light with her maw. Crimson beams came out of the fortress to shoot the helicopters, probably Sparrow’s doing,

As Ryan single-handedly demolished the trooper corp and Wardrobe remained at a distance, trying to figure out her approach, Reload entered the melee. He looked under his armor and brought out a tiny metal rod.

A sword of violet light came out.

Ryan interrupted his one-sided beating of a trooper to look at the divine weapon, mesmerized by its perfection; a pure, timeless design, and the purest shade of violet he had ever seen. It would match his suit perfectly.

It was love at first sight.

Ryan instantly activated his power, stole the blade, and kicked Reload in the frozen time.

When time resumed and the hero fell on his back among the flowers, Ryan raised his trophy up to the skies. It was as weightless as a feather, but much to his disappointment, it made no sound.

“Schvrmmmmmmm!” the courier said, trying to imitate a real lightsaber’s noise. “Schvrmmmmmmm!”

He would never let it go.

“Hey, my laser blade!” Reload complained, rising back to his feet while Ryan returned to beating on the troopers.

“A lightsaber!” Ryan shouted back at this ignorant fool, absentmindedly slicing a Dynamis mook’s shield and rifle with it like butter. “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.”

At this point, his quips wrote themselves.

“Thankfully,” Reload said while drawing a second, crimson laser blade, “I got a spare!”

Wrong color though.

By now, Ryan had kicked the ass of every mook present or disarmed them, leaving only the two heroes to challenge him. The troopers fled back to the helicopter and quickly retreated from the island entirely, the Genomes facing each other in a Mexican standoff. The courier briefly glanced at Jasmine, but his girlfriend seemed to have the situation well in hand. The Genius and Wyvern were engaged in a long-range aerial firefight, with Vulcan repelling her ex-partner from the island’s perimeter.

“Hey, Quicksave!” Wardrobe’s werewolf suit transformed into a Jack O’Lantern Halloween costume. A pumpkin mask covered her head, the lips moving as if they belonged to a living being. “Is it true you can stop time?”

“Yes, I can!” Ryan replied with the same friendly tone, pointing his lightsaber at her like a fencer. Reload raised his own weapon, trying to find an opening; or perhaps to look cool. “Is Felix the Cat with you?”

“Oh, he wanted to come, but Enrique said no!” Wardrobe replied, manifesting a yellow facsimile of a fiery lantern in her hands and throwing it at Ryan like a stone. “I’m Wardrobe by the way! Nice to meet you!”

Well, she took the battle as seriously as Ryan himself did. A shame they were fighting on opposing sides, the courier was pretty sure they would get along great.

Using his pilfered lightsaber, Ryan cut the lantern projectile in half, the strange device collapsing into harmless yellow dust, before parrying Darth Reload’s blade as he attempted to flank him. The two laser swords met without one going through the other, and Ryan used a timestop to dodge a new fire lantern from Wardrobe. This time the projectile exploded into ghostly fire upon hitting the ground.

Her power was weird.

Unfortunately for him, Reload was an amateur with a fancy weapon, while the courier had mastered every style of swordsmanship known to mankind. While the setup was epic, the lightsaber duel left Ryan wanting.

“Seriously, at this point, you force me to use only one hand,” the courier said, putting an arm behind his back and parrying all of the hero’s strikes with the other. “And it still feels unfair.”

“I’ll show you unfair!” Infuriated by the taunt, Reload attempted to detonate his suicide belt, but Ryan used his timestop to move out of range. The hero exploded into dust, before reforming.

“Use your anger!” Ryan mocked him, absentmindedly cutting a fiery lantern from the side. “Use your pain! I’m sure you have a lot to draw upon!”

“You can spam time-stop?” Reload snarled with anger, wildly striking the rival Violet Genome with his blade the moment he recovered. His poor attempt at breaking past Ryan’s defense didn’t work, but it only frustrated him further. “You overpowered cheat!”

“Unlimited power!” Ryan replied. With a swift move, the courier cut the hero’s arm off… only for it to reattach itself to the body. Limited time-rewind, except applied to the body and objects in close contact. He refused to go down, no matter the amount of failed tries.

Ryan felt some spiritual kinship for this guy. Not enough to take him seriously of course, but he would probably invite him for a drink once the dust had settled.

“Why don’t you transform into Supergirl though?” Ryan asked Wardrobe while dodging a strike from Reload. He stopped time, grabbed the hero by his scarf with his free hand, and used the momentum to throw him at his teammate. “You could wrap up this battle in seconds if you did!”

“I can’t, that’s copyrighted content!” the Yellow Genome replied as time resumed, her costume transforming into a bedsheet. Reload went through her body as if she wasn’t even there. “I can only use public domain stuff!”

“What, intellectual property is your Kryptonite?” Ryan asked, immensely disappointed. “How does that even work?”

“I don’t make my power’s rules, alright!” Wardrobe replied with a scowl, wounded by his comment. Her costume changed once more into that of a witch, and she shot a lightning bolt at Ryan with her fingertips.

“Sorry, sorry,” Ryan told Wardrobe, blocking the lightning with his beam saber, Star Wars-style. “Honestly, I would totally hit on you under normal circumstances. You’re completely my type, but I have an exclusive contract right now.”

“Oh, thanks, but I have an exclusive contract too!” she said cheerfully while Reload rose back up. If anything, Ryan admired his perseverance. “Do you want to be my archenemy? I have none, and marketing says it boosts the ratings!”

Well, Psyshock was dead in this loop, so… “Sure, I’m free every weekend!”

“Thanks!” Wardrobe’s costume changed again, this time turning into a mummy cosplay. The flowers around her immediately turned to dust, and her bandages transformed into tattered leashes flying towards Ryan. The courier hastily cut them with his laser blade, while Reload attempted to flank him from the left.

It confused Ryan why Wardrobe didn’t change into another Genome, or stick to one form instead of switching constantly. Perhaps it was her fighting style, or her ability, however versatile, had a time limit.

Still, it was one of the best fights he had since he arrived in New Rome! Completely worth the trip!

“His power is completely busted!” Reload complained, as Ryan briefly stopped time to dodge one of his strikes. “Wardrobe, you got anything that can resist it?”

“I think I do, but Enrique won’t like it!” she replied, her costume shifted. Ryan stopped moving, observing the scene unfolding. Wardrobe’s costume transformed into the guise of an ancient Greek god, including a toga, sandals, and a laurel crown of gold. The costume seemed to cover her skin, turning it into an unnatural shade of white.

It made her look like an ivory statue of—

Shit.

Ryan immediately stopped time, turning the world purple.

All movement, all noise stopped. The raging battle in the background became nothing more than a prop, a moment frozen in time.

“Oh, so that’s how it looks,” Wardrobe said, looking around in amazement at her frozen teammate. Her fingers shone with yellow electricity, almost golden. “It’s so pretty!”

Chitter had warned him in a past loop, but he hadn’t listened.

Shit, shit, shit!

“Shit!” Ryan shouted while Wardrobe blasted him with a lightning bolt inside the frozen time. The blast hit him in the chest, propelling him backward.

It hurt, and it looked like a bolt… but having died from electrocution more times than he could count, Ryan immediately recognized the attack as a pale imitation of lightning. The real thing would have killed him on the spot, but this yellow imitation only inflicted minor damage; it ran on movie logic rather than real thunderbolts.

Ryan ended his unwilling flight at the edge of the garden, where the flowers reached the Mediterranean seawater. Time resumed, Reload immediately shouting in happiness. “It worked!”

“I can’t hold it…” Wardrobe said, her clothes shifting uncontrollably. One second, she was dressed like Augustus, and the next, she wore a tyrannosaur mascot costume. “Damn it, the persona isn’t stable enough!”

At least she can’t use the original’s full power, Ryan thought, as he rose back to his feet. Or else he would have been vaporized.

His chest still hurt like hell though!

“It’s over, Quicksave!” Wardrobe said with a smirk as she embraced her new saurian form, while Ryan stood tall once more, lightsaber in hand. “We have the high ground!”

Ryan wanted to groan, but her delivery was just perfect.

Though they had underestimated the power of friendship.

Ryan sensed something emerging from the waters behind him, the clinks and clanks of heavy robotic armor stepping on the land music to his ears. Dynamis’ heroes blinked in surprise, before taking a torrent of pressurized water to the face.

Ryan looked over his shoulder, as his oldest friend moved to his side, her water weapon unleashing everything it had at the Il Migliore duo. “Shortie!”

“Sorry, sorry!” Len pleaded, her voice distorted by her underwater armor. “I came as fast as I could!”

She maintained the water pressure, but much to Ryan’s astonishment, the liquid started splitting into two halves. Wardrobe and Reload stood unharmed in the middle, the Yellow Genome’s costume having once more changed to some sort of wizened old man cosplay, white beard included.

“You can even copy Moses?” Ryan asked his newfound rival, astonished by her power’s sheer flexibility. “What else, you can dress as Jesus Christ and turn water to wine?”

“I do that at parties sometimes!” she replied, while Len stopped using her water pumps. The duo watched the other for a few seconds, trying to think of a way out.

A series of explosions interrupted the standoff though, as a Dynamis helicopter crashed nearby in the garden, going down in flames and setting the flowers ablaze.

Ryan looked at the Mediterranean Sea. Colossal water arms the size of skyscrapers had sprouted from the waves, pursuing the helicopters like snakes.

Devilry stopped bombarding the fort to focus on these strange phenomenons, blasting the water tentacles with mighty fireballs. Yet, even as they turned to steam from the heat, more appendages rose from the waters in an attempt to crush the flyer. Far away, Ryan noticed multiple jet skis making their way towards the island; among the drivers, he recognized a few familiar faces, such as Greta.

Reinforcements.

Meanwhile, Wyvern and Vulcan had become spots in the skies, the duo continuing their battle above the clouds far out of sight. And though the outer wall had mostly crumbled from the bombardment, the Augusti’s fortress remained mostly intact. Geist shielded the hole Wyvern had made in the structure, telekinetically raising stones in an attempt to cover it back up.

“Neptune,” Reload said while looking at the watery arms, before turning to his teammate. “Wardrobe, bring out the Apocalypse Suit!”

“But it’s too dangerous!” Wardrobe protested.

“If you don’t use it, he will sink us all!”

Wardrobe inhaled, her costume shifting while Ryan and Len prepared to make their final stand, back-to-back.

The sound of a gunshot echoed across the battlefield, and Wardrobe collapsed.

For a second, time seemed to freeze, and Ryan had nothing to do with it. The heroine’s body hit the ground while a shocked Reload watched, a figure having phased out of the ground right behind them.

“Good grief,” Mortimer said without any remorse, the tip of his rifle still fuming. “Looks like Mortimer won the bet.”

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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