“Holy shit, that was intense.” I groaned, falling to the floor. My knees felt like they were made of jelly.
“You okay, kid?” Stalker asked. “Are you hurt?”
I shook my head. “Blood loss, electrocution, and tonnes of blunt-force trauma,” I replied. “It wears a guy out.”
“Are you okay to move?” Stalker asked. “Doctor Flux might be dead, but the mission is far from over. We still need to account for the laboratory.” He paused, looking around. “Or what’s left of it. The Assistants need capturing too.”
“I’m going to need some time,” I answered, patting my pockets for snacks. Vae wandered over, feasting on a protein bar. She handed me one, and my mask parted to let me eat. “Thanks, Vae.”
“You did well.” Stalker reached into his pocket and fished out a skinny sausage wrapped in clear packaging. It resembled pepperoni but was no thicker than my finger. He passed it to me. “Get that healing factor to fix you up. Then you can assist with the clean-up.” Stalker turned to the others. “The rest of you can spread out and reclaim any cubes or weaponry still lying around. If you find any Assistants, capture only. Doctor Flux is down, and we have time on our hands. There is no need to rush and cause any more loss of life.”
Vae looked at me hesitantly but then nodded and followed Calypso out of the laboratory. Protostar went in the opposite direction from them to cover more ground. Thanks to his suit and his energy’s destructive power, he functioned best solo—or so I assumed.
After devouring the energy bar in a couple of seconds, I took my time with the sausage. It was dry and salty but carried more flavour than I had imagined. The muscles and blood vessels along my ribs uncoiled of their own accord as Metabolic Regeneration fixed the damage. Moments later, the aches and pains disappeared, but I still felt tingly from Doctor Flux’s electrocution. Beta’s suit had once again saved my life. I bet that the shock would’ve killed me without its insulation.
While I ate, Stalker zipped around the laboratory. He scanned the dead rift creatures and destroyed the remaining equipment. My eyes drifted to the single intact rift creature. The feline had retreated to a corner of its glass cage, and its eyes darted between the two remaining living creatures in the laboratory. I needed to kill it or set it free but couldn’t figure out how to go about it before Stalker could stop me. His speed and phase-shifting made him a terrifying threat. Now that I had seen him in battle, I was sure that his martial skills made mine look like a joke.
I waited until he was on the other side of the room before creeping towards the Cheshire Cat. Setting it free would be easy, but I wanted to try to kill it too. Feeding Kabandha its essence, and gaining the ability to open rifts would go a long way. I wouldn’t just have the ability to hop between dimensions, collecting essences, but it would also serve as an excellent escape tool. Perhaps it would accelerate me towards my goal of reclaiming the Sur Veda.
When I was six metres from my goal, Stalker appeared in front of me. I couldn’t see his expression behind the goggles or mask, but I prepared for an attack. He had proved himself as a volatile figure.
“What are you doing, Argus?” Stalker asked.
“I’m going to kill that thing,” I answered. There was no point in lying now. Perhaps it was idealistic of me, but I hoped honesty would help me change his mind.
“Why?” Stalker asked. “The mission involves preserving the rift-creation creature and the lab equipment. You let one of them escape, so its paramount that we preserve this one for capture. Vish wants it for the League.”
“Should he have it, though? I know Vish is a superior hero, and speaking ill of him will likely screw me over, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I expected Stalker to intervene, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he crossed his arms and remained in the way. “The League exists to do good and protect people, not rule over them. Given Doctor Flux wasn’t lying, his intentions were much tamer than Vish’s. I don’t believe the League should build an army and use it to control people. Our job is to maintain balance.”
“Is that why you sabotaged all the devices and killed the other creatures?” Stalker didn’t budge, and his tone made my heart rate accelerate. “Your actions wouldn’t just get you expelled from the League, you know? It’s enough to persecute and believe me. You don’t want to face an S-ranked hero’s wrath. They might declare you as a public menace, and then your life is as good as over.”
No answers came to me. My external eyes drifted above our heads to keep an eye on Stalker’s movements. If he started accelerating, I’d have to meet him in combat. The food was healing my injuries, but I was still exhausted. If Stalker and I fought, my chances of coming out on top were more or less nil.
Stalker made a show of tapping the side of his goggles. “I’m recording you now, Argus,” he said. “You know what? I’ll broadcast this to nearby heroes as well. I order you to stay away from the rift monsters and not get in my way. You’re to ignore all previous orders and only do what I tell you to. Is that understood?”
I knew I couldn’t obey. Making a move now would cement me as an enemy of the League, though. So, I have no choice but to nod at Stalker.
“That’s not good enough. I want you to respond to my order verbally.”
“I understand, Stalker,” I replied.
“Good.” When Stalker raised his firearms, my calf muscles coiled, and I prepared to throw myself sideways. He didn’t point the gun at me. Instead, Stalker spun on his heel, pointed his weapon at the glass cage and fired. The bullet ripped through the feline creature’s skull. Blue blood sprayed from the wound, and the beast collapsed. Stalker holstered his weapon before turning back to me. “You’ve rested long enough, Argus. Go help the others.”
“Yes, Stalker,” I replied.
Then the veteran hero tapped the side of his goggles once again. “The matter is now out of your hands,” he told me. “Good job. It feels good to encounter young heroes like you, Argus. If it were up to Vish, he’d turn the League into his personal army and rule England like it were one of the nations in the wildlands. When I retire, I’ll know the city is in good hands.”
“Thank you.” I sighed as relief washed over me. “You have no idea how terrified I was.”
“Be thankful that the jammers have locked out Watchtower. She has her ways of hacking into local surveillance or track events through poorly guarded Holoscreens.”
“Won’t you get into trouble, defying Vish’s orders?”
“What will he do?” Stalker laughed. “I have been with the League much longer than him and have my ways of getting out of trouble. They might confiscate my license, but I’m at an age where private security might serve me better.” He sighed. “Piece of advice, kid, quit while you’re ahead. I should’ve retired when my phasing slowed down. As for Vish, he’s addicted to fame and power. I doubt he’ll ever step down willingly.”
“I misjudged you, Stalker,” I said.
“And vice versa. I swore never to take on an apprentice—sidekick, or whatever we’re calling it nowadays, but is it a position you’d consider?”
Before I could answer, apart of the ceiling collapsed, throwing up a cloud of dust. A golden chakram flew through a neighbouring wall, and moments later, another one followed. It zipped around, carving open a human-sized hole.
“Hide!” Stalker ordered, pushing me away, turning to face the opening.
Kabandha’s tongue had been stirring within my forearm all along. Stalker wasn’t watching me, so I paused by the broken glass cage and let the tongue steal the creature’s essence. I didn’t know what kind of tech the league had and what they’d successfully recover from the destroyed laboratory. Hopefully, removing the essence from the equation would ensure Vish’s downfall. When more pieces fell from the ceiling, I ran across to the room to a pile of rubble and destroyed machines. They provided enough cover for me to cover myself.