414 - "The Sentence is Death!"

Harry Gale didn’t understand cars until recently. Sure, he’s licensed to drive, but that’s for practical reasons. You never know when a runaway bus, construction vehicle, tractor-trailer rig, and so on will go out of control. He’s one of the very few people who could get on board such a vehicle in time, take control, and steer it to safety. He’s even got some training on propeller-driven planes, jet aircraft, and helicopters.

What he hasn’t got experience with is car culture. For example, ever since he got the new car, he’s been stowing stuff in it. He can’t just run back and forth to grab stuff from where he left it. He needs it nearby now, and that’s an adjustment. But he’s seen other people with cars almost live out of them at times. He just never got it. Now he does, because he has to.

Advertising never really got to him either. He could just run past the billboards and jumbotrons at ultra-speed. Every so often he might read one out of curiosity, but he didn’t have to look at it for second after second as this car crawled along the road. Now the signs are in his face. Buy this. Call me. Were you hurt in a supervillain incident? Is your wife unfaithful? Our food is delicious. Rex Tyran. Rex Tyran. Rex Tyran.

He’s been driving all over town, researching the Seven Wonders. The villain team fought the previous generation of heroes, and were captured and put in stasis by AEGIS - they were considered just that dangerous. During the Invisible Invasion from Atlantis, the stasis facility was attacked, and the villains were let loose in the chaos. Now they’re moving forward with some kind of plan. They raided an aerospace research corporation and stole tech. They attacked the remaining HHL members too, but it feels more like they’ve been toying with them than anything else.

Dr. Wissen’s books are part of the stuff Harry keeps in the car. Every so often, when he has time, he’ll just sit in the car and read through them.

Jason Quill has been funding an ongoing conference of nanotech professionals, to help with whatever nano-virus Harry’s been infected with, the thing that may hurt or kill him if he uses his super-speed too much. He takes the opportunity to ask some of the experts about D-SOL-8, one of the Seven Wonders’ members, who Dr. Wissen’s book says uses nanotechnology. They have some interesting things to say - but Dr. Wissen has already covered this territory, and their conclusions are in his books.

The usual suspects - HHL staff, historians, and so on - have also been interviewed by Dr. Wissen, and Harry learns nothing substantially different from what he reads.

Yet the old generation was able to capture the Seven Wonders. The people who have the answers Harry wants, who won’t talk to Harry about it, are the ones who actually did it. The HHL, including his father and mother.


In addition to the weekly meetings he’s in with the HHL, the Chosen (the former JHHL), the Irregulators, and other teams operating in the city, Harry has a daily sync-up with Stingray, A10, Ninjess, and Mirage. Nothing that is discussed with his “anti-Seven Wonders task force” is for anyone outside the team.

The HHL member Vigil asks permission to join Harry’s meeting. Since Harry doesn’t know how Vigil learned about it to begin with, he’s curious about that. But he’s also curious what the veteran hero can tell the team about the villainous subjects of the meeting. For these reasons, and with the blessing of the others, VIgil’s request is accepted.

The two strategists of the team, Mirage and Ninjess, have begun building an experimental toolset for dealing with the six known Seven Wonders. Stingray, the technologist, is in charge of building any necessary equipment for it, with Mirage shadowing his work. Harry is feeding them data from Dr. Wissen’s books. A10 asks questions, pokes holes in bad ideas, and brings tacos.

As the team brainstorms, Harry takes the opportunity to talk to Vigil.

“Why isn’t anyone in the HHL talking about the Seven Wonders with me? I’m starting to feel like a kid again. Do they have a plan that they aren’t sharing, or what?”

Vigil, as always, is coming through a screen or display of some kind. “It’s not like that, Mr. Gale. Rather, I feel that there is indecision about how to proceed, based on the circumstances of the Seven Wonders’ capture.”

“Do you wanna tell me about that?” Harry asks.

“I suspect your uncle Chase is the proper person to do so. Out of respect to him, I cannot explain why.”

Finally, some kind of progress, Harry thinks in annoyance. Only it sends me back to the family that isn’t talking.

“Fine. What can you tell me about Dr. Ken Wissen?”

Vigil thinks. “Not somebody I had thought of in a long time. I am familiar with his work, of course. The foremost researcher on the Seven Wonders.”

“But his books don’t say how they were beaten.”

Vigil says nothing.

“Why would that be?” Harry asks. “Wouldn’t they tell him? If he was so useful to tracking down the Seven Wonders, if he was the foremost expert on them, why didn’t the HHL tell him how they did it?

Again, the older hero stays silent.

Harry throws his hands up in frustration. “I do not get this silence! Does nobody trust us, just because we’re younger than them?”

“Mr. Gale… we should focus on your preparations,” Vigil says quietly.

The team has provisional tools and techniques to possibly deal with Glom, Motormouth, and Veneer. The Hand and D-SOL-8 are a mystery, Khyrrsz is literally a god, and while A10 thinks she might be able to deal with one of them, they always work in pairs or threes.

Most of the tactics they were developing assumed Harry would have his speed. Harry notes with pride that the team is still developing those.

They think I’m gonna get better. I hope so.

A day later, Vigil contacts Harry. It happens while Harry’s driving, and he glimpses Vigil’s presence in his rear-view mirror.

Almost casually, the reflection relays the following message. “A slender thread of credibility informs the rumor that an assassin has been contracted to kill your family, including yourself.”

Harry blinks. “Uh. Please tell me you got more than that.”

“The attack will be mystical in nature.”

“Is it always like this, when you’re an adult hero?” Harry asks in a grim tone.

“Sometimes,” Vigil admits. “The life of a superhero demands constant vigilance. Human beings are naturally unsuited to being in a perpetual state of tension. Failures are emotionally costly. Burnout is a distinct possibility.”

“I assume you’ve told the rest of my family already?”

“I have done so.”

Nice to know there are some things you’ll tell me, Harry thinks, but does not say aloud.

Instead: “Alright. Thanks. I’ll ask around.”

Once Vigil has departed his rear-view mirror, Harry indulges in another new experience - car radio presets, tuning in radio stations. What the hell is this? You don’t just open Spotify and pick what to listen to? Someone else is DJing for you? It’s like a 24-hour livestream. At least he gets to pick a station. He could pair it with his phone, but this is a fun thing in its way. It’s got ads on it too, but everything has ads these days.

He pulls up at home - just another stop on his round of errands - and leaves the car in the driveway. Sure, he could pull it into the carriage house. Leo hasn’t been there in years, and it’s never been cleaner since his dad had to grow out of the habit of dumping stuff in there. But he’s got other things to do. It’ll be fine here.

He jaunts to the mailbox, opens it with a practiced motion, and pulls out the thick wad of mail the family always gets. He walks to the door, rifling through it. Bills - bills - bills - invitations to yet another gala event, promotion, or opening - IRA and 401(k) and other stuff Harry lumps under “retirement” and therefore “irrelevant to me” - and yet more bills. Offers for house care, lawn care. Some letters from Harry’s own charity, Chip In, which he always likes reading himself.

Harry gets inside, wipes his feet, and shouts his hellos to anyone home. He tosses item after item from the mailbox through the expensive beige dingus that scans for anthrax, nanotech, bombs, and related hazards. Everything comes out clean on the other side, and Harry sorts the mail into the hanging baskets attached to the shelf adjacent to the door.

Apple juice, a protein bar, and an anti-inflammatory prescription are part of Harry’s new regime, as he lives with the nano-virus. His schedule is free for a bit. He watches some YouTube, lays down, and stares at the ceiling to think.

Harry and A10 have silently agreed to do something new. Previously, they’d run and fly somewhere, see the sights, that sort of thing. But they don’t seem to want to talk about Harry’s current condition.

Just like people won’t talk about the Seven Wonders, Harry thinks to himself. But now it’s him staying closed-mouth.

Instead, Andi is trying her hand at cooking, and she wants Harry’s help with ingredients and prep. They go shopping together at local farmer’s markets. They taste-test the ingredients. They build a wood-fired grill, the lowest of low-tech cooking tools. They cook. They eat. And they talk.

Cooking is something that by its nature can’t be hurried, no matter what your powers are. It’s a choice by both of them to eschew speed. And it’s tough, because they’re also not supposed to talk about “work” during these times, but work is so pressing on both of them.

Finally, it seems to Harry that Andi can’t handle it. “Listen, about the Seven–”

“Go ahead,” Harry says with a quiet smile. “But this is supposed to be us time, right?”

The girl hangs her head. “I know. Listen. The pulled pork nachos were fucking amazing. You were right about the cheese, okay, go ahead and be smug. We did good. But it feels like we’re fucking around. The Seven Wonders are out there doing who knows what, and they aren’t respecting us.”

“They” means the HHL, and Harry knows it.

He doesn’t want to tell her about the threat of attack that Vigil mentioned, not right now.

Fuck it, I know why people sometimes keep secrets, he realizes. But it’s so frustrating to have it done. There’s no good answer here, is there.

Andi has more to say, and Harry listens.

“You are the only guy I respect, that I like, you know, and like like, and… well, it’s because you are the only guy that can calm me down without talking down to me. You help me stay who I wanna be. You listen, and you talk, but you don’t talk over me.”

She shovels more nachos into her mouth, and munches thoughtfully before going on. “But sometimes, I think you aren’t talking enough. Come on, man. It’s okay to be angry about this.”

Harry sighs. “I am angry. No, I promise. But it’s like, uh, it’s like a slow-cooker of anger. The anger crock-pot. 8 hours of simmering. That’s a weird analogy. But I promise I feel it. If I’m not talking more, I’m just not sure what to talk about. I can’t just bully the HHL into doing what I want.”

Andi lets out a longer, stronger sigh. “See, this is why I talk with my fists. I hate it that I can’t just tell someone, ‘do the right thing’ and they’ll do it. I hate that I have to summon up the right words to persuade someone to, you know, help save lives. Because I am so bad at that.”

“You’re good at more things than you think,” Harry says, in what he hopes is a reassuring tone.

“I’m not helping you all with your toolkit prep,” Andi says, sounding miserable.

Harry shakes his head. “You are probably the only person who will be able to carry out half of it. You’re so important to this. Your part just hasn’t started yet. It will soon, because you’ll need to practice. Let this cook, okay?”

This seems to be the magic word choice that gets Andi’s attention, and she acknowledges it with a smile.

The nachos, and the rest of the night, turn out perfectly.

Harry walks in the door late. He finds his parents looking at a letter.

“Sorry, I didn’t check the time–” he starts, automatically.

His dad holds the letter out for inspection.

There’s a date on it, a week from now.

There’s a message. “The Gales are cordially invited to an exclusive event. The Sentence is Death.”

Harry looks up. “Vigil told me,” he says - the first thing he thinks they’ll want to know.

Dad nods. “Good. Then you need to prepare yourself. This is the big leagues, k–”

He stops himself from saying “kiddo”, and tries again. “Harry. I want you to go learn as much as you can about this in the next three days. Come back to us with what you’ve learned. We’ll fill in what we know. Think of this as training. We’ll see if your networking is up to par.”

Harry nods in understanding. “You got it.”

If I can prove I can handle this, maybe they’ll finally tell me about the Seven Wonders.

Harry’s first stop is Charlotte Palmer’s new cafe, Half & Half. It doesn’t have a fixed address, but Harry has a loyalty card, and apparently the cafe will show up generally wherever you are, if you want to find it.

He walks in to find Charlotte urgently planning things with her staff.

“Hey, I was hoping you could help me with something.”

With Charlotte’s attention on him, he hands over the mysterious message and explains. “Someone or something magical is attacking my family.”

Charlotte inspects it carefully. Harry can see a tense frown cross her face. She hands the message back and dispels the frown with force of will. “I wish I could help with this, but unfortunately I am trying to save reality. Or a part of it, right at the moment.”

This sounds pretty serious. “Do you… need any help?” Harry ventures. Without his speed, he’s not sure what he could offer, but if–

“I’ve got at least one Harry helping already,” Charlotte answers. “But I am grateful for the offer and I will let you know should we need more. It may come to that.”

Ah. That does sound serious.

But she continues. “There is a place, Santuario de las Brujas, in the city. The Witches’ Sanctum. They should be able to assist you. Ask for Stella and tell her she’s got five holes punched, and she’ll understand that you speak with my blessing.”

She finds and presents a business card, marked with a cauldron and a shooting star. Harry snaps the street address on his phone camera.

He smiles and salutes on his way out. “Hey, this has been helpful. Thanks. And good luck with the uh, saving reality stuff.”

Harry is really annoyed at one other new reality of driving: finding parking. When he runs, he can just go somewhere, walk inside, do what he’s there to do, and walk out.

Now, to stop a threat against his family’s life, he’s had to circle the same city block three times, signaling a turn every time, braking for sudden rushes of oncoming traffic, waiting for pedestrians, and so on and so on and so on. The one upside is that he’s not immediately recognized as a superhero. Of course that also means he gets cussed out by angry drivers every so often.

The Witches’ Sanctum isn’t labeled as such on the street. But etched into the glass of the store front is the same cauldron and shooting star Harry saw on the business card.

The interior is gloomy. It’s lit by sunlight coming through the front windows, and by actual candles (with proper ventilation to outside). It looks like a cross between a bookstore and a head shop that sold every variety of herb except cannabis. People here have hair in every color of the rainbow. If anyone is surprised to see a well known superhero come through the door, nobody shows it.

Harry approaches the counter and addresses the green haired and thoroughly pierced girl waiting there. “I’m looking for Stella. Charlotte says she’s got five holes punched.”

He hears a response from behind him. “I’m Stella. I hope Ms. Palmer is doing well.”

He turns, to find an older woman speaking. She’s dressed like someone out of the 19th century, looks like she could be his mother’s younger sister, but has blue hair with rainbow highlights and expensive-looking jeweled earrings.

Harry smiles. “Hi. Nice to meet you. Harry Gale aka Mercury. Uh, can we talk somewhere?”

Stella leads the way to a secluded nook. Harry takes one of the narrow, uncomfortable wooden seats and she takes another.

She reads the message his family received, and looks up with some consternation. “So you’ve been targeted by him.”


“Nobody knows his real name. But he signs his messages this way. ‘The Sentence is Death’. He’s known to use writing and linguistic magic, and he’s an assassination, so we’ve come to call him ‘The Sentence’.”

Harry leans forward, partially to ease off the discomfort of the chair. “Linguistic magic?”

“Lean back, please,” Stella says, and Harry does so without thinking.

“Why did you do that?” she asks with a smile.

Harry’s confused for a moment. “Because… you told me to? Did you… Wait, did you do something magic?”

Stella smiles the smile of a teacher on her first day in class. “In a sense. Magic means many things. It can be overt supernatural power. It can be trickery, or mystery, or misdirection. Crowley said magick is the science and art of causing change in conformity to the will. He goes on to say, ‘any required change may be effected by application of the proper kind and degree of force in the proper manner through the proper medium to the proper object.’ All this is to say that magic is a very broad field in terms of its methods.”

She gestures at the chair. “There’s nothing supernatural about the chair, or my commandment. Here, I am the host and you are my guest. The cultural customs of hospitality make you susceptible to following my orders in small matters, matters of decorum and so on. My words have the power you gave them.”

Harry thinks about that. “So it’s kinda like, hmm. Can I tell you a story about stage magic?”

Stella beams. “Certainly.”

Harry leans forward again, just slightly. But this time, he’s conscious of doing it.

“When my powers were developing, my parents would take me to magic shows for practice. ‘See how they do it’, they would say. It had to be live, because the frame rate of television was too low to catch the trick sometimes. So we’d go to these shows. My dad called it a cabaret. My mom wasn’t too enthusiastic about that term, I didn’t figure out why until later. But it was dinner and a show.”

“People would come to the show as well, and talk to my parents about stuff. Politics, superhero stuff, law enforcement stuff. My dad didn’t have to tell me to tune out the talk. I listened, later, but starting out, I wanted to see the magicians, and that’s all I paid attention to.”

“Pretty soon, I could see the tricks. I could speed myself up and see it. I’d watch it again and again, until I learned the trick they were doing. But you know, once I learned it, I was still eager to see magicians, but not that magician. Then I’d learn their tricks. And soon, it wasn’t interesting. The magic was gone.”

“I’d still watch, because my dad had told me to. But I started listening to the other stuff. The guys would tell my dad they needed stuff. He’d tell them what he needed. My mom would say stuff. They’d say stuff. And you could start telling, like, what would get them to listen, what would get my parents to listen. They would call in favors, or mention names, or whatever.”

“I think that’s what you’re talking about with magick, the ‘proper manner, medium, object’ stuff. Anyone can do stuff. I don’t know if I’d call that magic. That feels like it overstates what’s happening. If I go to the fridge at 3am for pie, that’s not magic, that’s getting pie. But if I get away with it, if I’m not obvious about it, if nobody knows who did it, or they tried to stop me but I got around it and they can’t figure out how it was done, that feels more like the magic I keep hearing people talk about.”

Harry looks up, and smiles. “You know, there’s someone on the villain team, the Seven Wonders. The Hand. She’s a magician too, or dresses like one anyway. Nobody knows how she does what she does. And there’s others on that team too. You know, an important part of supervillain battles is figuring out how the villain does what they do, or how to stop it. You gotta be able to see the trick. Or, I guess how you describe magick, figure out the manner, medium, object.”

The speedster grins in embarrassment. “But I feel like I got away from you on this. Linguistic magic.”

Stella smiles kindly. She’s been listening to everything Harry said, nodding along slightly, and she seems to have followed it all. “I think you understand the fundamentals. And your mention of your father and mother, and the influential individuals they interacted with, takes us to the answer to your question.”

“Language can be a medium, or a manner. The Catholic church, and some practitioners of Hermetic magickal traditions, and even scientists, all use languages like Latin and ancient Greek. For different purposes, to be sure, but to some people, Latin carries more gravitas. It has the weight of tradition behind it. Winston Churchill’s speeches were full of Anglo-Saxon words that resonated with his English audience in a way that the broader vocabulary of English, full of loan-words from French and elsewhere, couldn’t do. Even mundane language can have some magic to it.”

Stella gestures at one of the far shelves of the bookshop. “In the novel ‘Snow Crash’, the author postulates that the ancient Sumerian language fundamentally altered human thought. You’ll find a copy if you wish. We also have a Blu-Ray copy of the movie ‘Arrival’, and if you’ll pardon a minor spoiler, the language of the aliens in that movie has a profound effect on the human psyche.”

She tilts her head, and looks carefully at Harry. “What, then, if there were a language such as is written about in the Bible, which God spoke to create the world? John Dee attested to an angelic language, erroneously called ‘Enochian’ today. Suppose a human speaker were to learn a divine language. If Anglo-Saxon words can contribute to winning a war, what then of a speaker commanding the language of Heaven?”

Harry sits back. To his surprise, even after all the discussion, he’s still conscious of what Stella did to him earlier - giving him the order to sit back, then questioning him on why he’d obeyed.

He smiles. “I guess that would be pretty powerful. But I also like things simple. So, how do you stop something like that?”

Stella nods. “I supposed you’d ask that. There isn’t a simple answer. I’ll tell you what I know, as an archivist and historian of the Sanctum. Like many other ritual practitioners of magic, Churchill knew the power of rhythm, repetition, and buildup. He’d decorate his notes with places for pauses, then enthrall his audiences with waves of sound between those. He knew that real effectiveness depended on directing stanza after stanza into a focal point.”

“Everything breathes, Mr. Gale, even our minds. We take in what we hear, and then we must process it. You can only breathe in so much, and you can only breathe out for so long.”

“Expect the Sentence to build up to his final working. It will not simply be a thunderclap of magical power. It will come in waves. They will build upon themselves.”

The woman shrugs helplessly. “I can give you the texts we have on the Sentence. They may be useful, but perhaps not useful to you as a non-practitioner. The only other advice I have is that like all words, there is also great power in simply not paying attention to what is said. Though how you would do that in the scope of a divine language is not something I know how to explain.”

Harry’s car is becoming a mobile library. Dr. Wissen’s books sit on top of a sweater vest he’ll never wear. Next to them go Stella’s recommended texts on linguistic magic and encounters with “The Sentence”, along with a related thing called the “League of Lemuria”.

It’s frustrating.

If he had his speed, he could be through these books in a couple hours, tops. But right now, even if he tries to speed himself up a little bit, it hurts like he’s on fire, and he gets splitting headaches.

He also can’t just go out and do some superheroics to clear his head. It’s easy to just run around, saving people, getting cats out of trees, moving boxes for people, just casual stuff he can do a thousand times faster than anyone.

He has to read. At normal speed.

So, he finds a nice place to park, turns the radio on, sets the volume low, and starts reading.

Harry Gale turns the key in the ignition and his car explodes.

A moment later, he’s a block away, on the ground and in agonizing pain, as flaming bits of Nissan Z rain down around him. His super-speed saved him, but it really hurt to activate it.

The first thing he thinks about is how Stella is going to be angry about the lost books.

The second thing he thinks about is that he should activate his suit’s emergency beacon.

Four seconds later, Silver Streak has scooped him off the pavement. Ten seconds later, they’re in Nebraska.

“What happened?” his dad asks urgently.

“Car bomb,” Harry manages weakly. “Guess word is getting out.”

Nobody made it public that a member of the Gale family was de-powered. But it was inevitable. If nothing else, people would see Harry driving, and ask why.

“The bomber must have been a pro,” Silver Streak observes. “We took the car to the HHL’s mechanics. They put in the usual security systems. This wasn’t done by any ordinary bad guys.”

The Grasscutters. Or Tyran, Harry thinks to himself.

Dad smiles, but Harry can see the worry behind it. “Guess it’s time we talk about what you’ve learned about this assassin.”

“What are we gonna do about the car payments?” Harry asks, as another thought reaches him.

“It’s handled. Your old man has fantastic insurance.”

The whole thing is bothering Harry, because he can’t stop thinking about it. Having a car was new to him. Being attacked is something he’s familiar with, but a car bomb? It’s a new experience. And it’s one of those mundane things that draws in all kinds of other things.

At home, he asks his questions. “Aren’t the police going to investigate the car bomb? Won’t it come out who was driving?”

James holds up his hands. “It’s fine, son. We have folks in the HCPD. We’ll keep it quiet.”

Bile rises in Harry’s throat, as old memories surface. “Is covering stuff up part of the HHL member’s manual that I missed?”

His dad looks hurt, and his mom frowns. He realizes immediately that he said more than he should.

“I’m sorry. I know you’re trying to help me here. It’s just–”

“It’s hard, being a hero, son,” James says with surprising gentleness. Harry looks up, unsure that he heard his father’s tone correctly.

His mother Helen joins in. “We do know how you feel, Harry. It hasn’t been easy on us.”

She gestures to the sofa and chairs in the living room, and the family sit down together.

“Nautilus left the HHL last year,” Helen says quietly. “The Revanchist team - the HHL members who went into space to chase after the Blot - they felt the same pressure. Your father and I feel it too. That’s why we’ve unofficially withdrawn.”

James nods. “Unofficially is important there. Harry, we’ve talked about this before, but I want to show you something. This’ll answer your questions about the car too.”

He retrieves his laptop and invites Harry to lean over and look as he works. Spreadsheets open on screen, and James Swift explains what his son is looking at.

“The World Alliance wasn’t a for-profit organization, but it was profitable. The Halcyon Heroes’ League is the same way. Through work contracts, bounties on wanted villains, charitable donations, bequests, federal-state-local contributions, and much more, hundreds of millions of dollars flow through the organization. That tower didn’t build itself. Those employees, from the security team to the rapid response phone banks, are well paid for their services. Paid by people who believe in the organization and what it stands for.”

James opens another spreadsheet. “This is the financial statement for Chip In - your personal charity. You’ve been great at promoting it. But I don’t think you’ve ever really looked at the money side of it, have you.”

Harry has not.

His dad grins weakly. “Well, son, it turns out that on paper, you’re a multi-millionaire.”

He jumps through a few tabs, scrolls around, and points at a number that makes Harry’s eyes bug out.

Mom speaks up. “No hero worthy of the name is in this for the money, son. We know you aren’t. We aren’t either. And I don’t know any hero who’s ever said, you know, I think I’ve done enough good for the world, time to retire. What your father and I are dealing with isn’t that. It’s the sacrifices and compromises we have to make.”

Dad gestures back at the spreadsheet. “Harry, things like this are doing good as well. We want this good work to continue. This kind of money is what keeps food banks and shelters open year round. This kind of thing is what helps the victims of supervillain attacks get back on their feet. If someone throws a car at someone else in a fight, the result is a wrecked car. That was someone’s way to get to work. That was how they picked up their kids from school. Because people keep making contributions, because of these charities, those people get the help they need.”

Mom nods. “Sweetie, we know you want things to be simpler. Easier. Just help people, right? But things aren’t simple. They’re never simple, as much as we want them to be.”

Dad nods too. “But people who make our job possible, and who contribute, and legislate, and so on? They want things to be simple in a different way. They want uncomplicated heroes. ‘Just save us from the bad guys, then go back in your box,’ they think. But being a hero is complicated. That’s one of our challenges, Harry. Reconciling the image people hold of us - the image that makes it possible for us to really help those people - with the reality that we aren’t, and can’t ever be, what they would prefer us to be.”

Being a hero is a magic trick, Harry thinks, as his conversation with Stella comes back to him. You’re deceiving an audience that wants to be deceived.

The connection prompts him to speak up. “Mom! Dad! The assassin. I learned some stuff.”

He relates his time talking to Stella at the Witches’ Sanctum, and what he remembers reading from the books. He talks about the Sentence, the mysterious wizard-assassin, and what little he read about the League of Lemuria.

At the end of the recitation, his parents look at each other and nod.

His mother goes first. “We’ve talked to our contacts and sources. They corroborate some of what you’ve said. Some of that is new to us. Some of what we know will be new to you.”

They don’t actually say the name “Hecate”, but in light of what was said about compromises and sacrifices, Harry has to think they talked to her at some point. At least he didn’t have to, he muses.

He borrows his dad’s laptop and starts taking notes. The least he can do for Stella, to repay those lost books, is to submit something new.

Every so often, he’ll re-edit what he’s typing, to try and organize it in the moment. The gist of what he gets is thus.

The League of Lemuria is an organization of uncertain age. All that is known is that it follows some kind of very long-term plan, meant to shape history in unspecified ways. It is made up of all sorts of practitioners of magic, scholars of the occult, and so on. If it has leaders, none of them are known. What distinguishes it is its callous methods and mysterious goals. Blood sacrifice, assassinations, and so on are the least of the dark things attributed to it.

There are organizations that oppose the League, and Harry learns that the Witches’ Sanctum is the front for one such group - effectively, the JHHL or “feeder team” for another group of secretive veteran magi who are on the front lines of the conflict. The Grail Knights, Armiger’s organization, are another long-time opponent of the League. Harry has met Skinner, Armiger’s current mentor in the Knights, and that guy always seems like he’s ready to go on another black-ops mission.

“So we can count on some help?” Harry had asked at one point.

His dad had frowned at that. “Heroes like us, son, at our level… we’re expected to be able to take care of problems like this. We might get help, but we need to be seen as able to face any challenge that comes our way.”

Harry had figured it would be something like that.

The Sentence himself is one of the League’s assassins. He takes contracts, priced in the millions of dollars, to deal with superheroes and other hard to kill sorts. He has a pretty good record, but he’s really only brought in for big problems. Heroes on Silver Streak’s and Tempest’s level, Harry thinks.

As expected, he uses a combination of written and spoken linguistic magic. Harry’s books and his parents’ testimonials from other heroes agree on this. Worse, he’s not above using this magic to put civilians and innocents in jeopardy, as a way to coerce heroes.

Harry is angry about that, and he sees his parents’ agreement in the hard looks on their faces as he voices his feelings. “Doesn’t seem to matter what the powers are. ‘I will hurt these people to get what I want’ is something villains always do.”

At the end of it, Harry has something to take to his own team. And he’s buoyed up by the smiles of pride he sees from his parents at the end of the review.

Inside Stingray’s lab, the team brainstorms.

Ninjess goes first. “If they are magical compulsions, such as for self-harm, we can neutralize the civilians’ hostage value by knocking them unconscious. Gas weapons, for example.”

Mirage joins in, from a holographic broadcast station at the center of the lab. “Augmented reality modifications to your visor may allow you to block out the written effects of a hypothetical Enochian language. I understand that you’ve rejected this option in the past. The frame rate of cameras and screens would be too slow for you to properly process things at hyper-speed, as I understand it, but right now you don’t have that, do you.”

Sympathetic as always, Harry thinks, bemused. But he’s not going to derail this conversation with unhelpful asides.

“Similarly, sound-dampening ear buds may interfere with spoken commands. Of course, the efficacy of such tools is untested.”

Stingray is up next. “The quantum acoustics work I’m doing can do more than make barriers. If I can disrupt sound across an area, maybe we can build a neutralizer against spoken magic.”

At length, the team looks at A10. She shrugs. “I got nothing.”

The others look, and she looks back. “I can punch the guy if he shows up, I guess.”

Harry looks at his team. He looks at A10. “Hey, can I talk to you outside for a second?” he asks.

The others’ eyes follow them outside. Harry sees A10 want to look back, over her shoulder, to see the looks, and he shakes his head just enough to dissuade her.

Outside, he sits down across from her, cross-legged, elbows resting on knees.

“Tell me that thing you told me, about people putting you in boxes,” he says quietly.

Abuela told it to me. 'If someone tries to put you in a box, that makes them a boxer. If someone wants to box with you, you get to punch ‘em in the nose.’” Andi looks up with a weak smile. “It sounds silly now.”

“It sounds good,” Harry says with a smile. “So. What happens if you’re the one putting yourself in a box?”

Andi immediately picks up on what he’s saying, and protests loudly. “I’m no good with this stuff! I don’t do technology. I don’t do magic. I just hit stuff. I’m not versatile like you guys. I have one thing and I do it well. But it feels weird because I’m sitting there with you all and you look at me, and I feel like a fool because I have nothing to contribute.”

The last time they’d talked, Harry had tried to be reassuring by telling her she had times to contribute. Now, he’s not so sure he should do that. It feels like he’s giving up on her.

He tries a new angle. “You do one thing really well. I agree. Now that you’ve got that down, do you want to try learning more? Do you want to be more than just what you are? It’s up to you. It has to be. But you don’t have to do it by yourself.”

Andi hangs her head. “I had a crush on you in high school, you know.”

Harry is not sure how to respond to that. Fortunately, staying quiet is the right move here, because she keeps talking.

“I guess… I think, anyway… that I… I wanted you to see me like you. You have powers. Your family has them. And… it’s the same with me. Tatanka being my uncle… me inheriting from…”

She tosses her hands in the air. “I don’t know. I wanted things I can’t really explain. I wanted… I wanted…”

Finally she looks at Harry. “I wanted to be like you. I wanted it to be as easy as you have it. But it’s not easy for you at all, is it.”

Harry smiles warmly. “It’s not. Not at all.”

Andi pouts, just a bit. “You make it look easy, you bastard.”

With a flourish, Harry produces a pack of playing cards and grins. “I am the famous magician, the Great Harry Houdini Gale. Fooling my audience is what I do best. Here, pick a card, any card.”

He presents the deck, fanned out. Andi stares at him, just for a moment, picks one, and flips it over to read it.

Harry takes the card back, pretends to think a moment, draws another card out, and presents it. “Is this your card?”

Andi gapes. “Six of diamonds. Yeah. But how?”

Harry turns the cards around for inspection. Every single one is the six of diamonds.

“How did you do that?” Andi demands, with a curious smile on her face.

Harry smiles and lets out a breath. “It’s not that great a trick. I have fifty-two decks of cards. As a kid, my parents took me to see card tricks and magicians and stuff. As a speedster, I fidget a lot. I get impatient waiting for things to happen. I’d do a lot of things to pass the time. Oh god, so many goofy things. But one of those was stuff like card shuffling. I’d take all these decks and deal them out so every deck had only one card. I just brought this one along to play around with, in case I got bored. Which I have to say, hasn’t happened once since someone started gunning for my family.”

“The hard work that nobody can see…” Andi looks like she’s realizing something. “Cooking’s that way, isn’t it. Everyone talks about the recipe, nobody talks about doing the dishes. But they have to be done, just the same.”

She leans in and kisses Harry’s cheek, to his surprise. “I’m not going to let you down, Harry Gale. I’m gonna do the work. I’m going to step up and improve. Because I’m sick of you doing all these things for me, like cheering me up, and not doing enough for you.”

Harry remembers his mother, describing real heroes. None of them ever retired thinking they’d done enough.

He nods, rises to his feet, and extends a hand. “Come on. We have friends. Let’s all figure this out together.”

1 Like

A10 doesn’t talk easily about herself at first, but Harry’s steadying hand on her arm helps her gain confidence and focus. The others in the lab listen attentively.

“My uncle on my father’s side is the hero Tatanka. Lakota. One of the good guys in the HHL.”

She remembers and self-corrects. “Stepfather’s. Second father’s. My family tree is seven kinds of fucked up. Anyway.”

“My uncle on my mother’s side is - was - Chankoowashtay del Rio. Sioux. He was the original Thunderbolt. I suppose that makes me Thunderbolt II, but I prefer… the other name.”

She doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes.

“I wished… I wished I had power, like my uncles did. And when Uncle Chan… when he passed away, I got it. Like I’d wished. Like I’d taken it from him. Like I’d taken him away, so that I–”

She looks up, her lips trembling as she attempts a smile. “I don’t think about this stuff much. Don’t want to, most times. If I hadn’t wanted to be like Uncle Chan, if I hadn’t prayed for that, would he still be with us, y’know?”

She seems to have more to say, but isn’t ready to say it yet. To everyone else’s surprise, it’s Mirage that speaks up.

“When I was coming in from the cold, I had a list of people I planned to impress. A sort of barometer for whether I’d achieved my goal of becoming a better person. Tatanka was on that list. What I knew about him, and his record, impressed me. I don’t know if the biological Alycia Chin achieved that.”

She pauses, realizing perhaps that this needs to turn into something more. “I don’t know how Tatanka views you. I didn’t know much about your record before. I didn’t know much about Thunderbolt, other than that the World Alliance invited him to join, and he had refused. But from what little I have seen, I can say that although you may not be exercising your powers to their utmost potential, you have stayed faithful to the ideals of the superhero community.”

It’s a weird thing to say, but a very Mirage thing to say, and it brings a smile to A10’s lips. She’s able to continue her explanation.

“I have family from Chile and Peru. Abuela - Ignacia Carrasco - she’s Chilean. She married abuelo, Hector Guzman, from Peru. She moved the family up north when the junta took over. One of their children, my birth father, he married into Sioux folks in New Jersey, who’d themselves come from Wisconsin. The American 70’s hit him like a truck, which is why my full first name is, um, Andromeda.”

“When he passed, my mother remarried, of course. But she found people closer to home, among my father’s kin. That’s why I have two parents from the Seven Council Fires and grandparents from South America. Plus cousins from other families who’d come along, and done the same thing as us. Even Uncle Chan’s power decided it had to keep itself in the family.”

A10’s strange smile reflects the feelings she’s still struggling with. “It’s funny. Words really are magic. Abuela took charge of Uncle Chan’s stuff. Defended his legacy. Wanted to make sure he was remembered. And he was, even when some of the paler American heroes didn’t care. Because she used her words.”

She stands up. “I guess I should start by getting Uncle’s old notebook back. He wrote down his experiences as a hero. Probably includes stuff about powers. Probably a good place to start.”

She pats Harry gently on the shoulder on the way out. “Looks like you aren’t the only one here with a reading assignment.”

There’s one day left until the Sentence’s promise to appear.

Andi is depressed. When she comes to the team sync-up, she’s clutching a weather-beaten leather journal.

“I learned some stuff, but nothing that’ll help here,” she says at last, when pressed. “I’m sorry. I thought…”

Harry rests a comforting hand on her shoulder. “This isn’t the last bad guy you’re ever gonna fight, you know. And besides, if you aren’t sure what all you can do, nobody else is either.”

“Alright. Let’s review the plan…”

The average passerby on a modern street might remark on his appearance. He has the look of someone of an older era - and should, given his 237 years of life. Few could easily quantify the reason for their impression. He would have no difficulty explaining the sensation, and would do so thus:

One’s skin is pulled across one’s flesh more tightly when one is raised hungry. One’s body is flayed of all excess fat when one is accustomed to labor. The skin becomes weathered and textured and detailed by the scars and marks of diseases untreated by modern medicine. One’s frame is spare, sculpted by the rigors of hard work rather than the measured exercise of modern mankind.

Others might remark on the eyes of such a man. They hunt like a bird of prey, and they drink in like a man dying of thirst and offered a pitcher of water. The eyes lay sunken into the face, above well-developed crows feet and below a formidable pair of black eyebrows.

The mouth is half hidden by a well tended and equally thick mustache. A proper gentleman would not be hirsute - grooming is essential to signify dignity - but a fertile, virile man will have hair and wish to exhibit it. The mustache signifies masculine power and the leisure time needed to cultivate it.

Above all, the carriage of this man is that of grace, elegance, and poise. Here is a man who rose out of the cesspools of the human primate and clawed his way, through desperation and determination, up to his current position.

He wears his wardrobe like a suit of armor, like a thick plate mail that will protect him from the disdain of others. More recently, it provides significant occult protection.

He wears a sack suit in a conservative gray color. Although the contemporary fashion advice was to avoid stripes, his suit exhibits something like them. The stripes are not simply unique colors - they are threads carefully tailored into the suit that spell out phrases and sentences in the One Tongue. They are mystic invocations frozen into fashion.

His pocket watch has its own potent enchantments. Missiles will miss, bullets will not find him, and beams will be diverted. His fate will not intertwine with those who attack him from afar.

He wears a ring, inset with a cursed gem. The ring’s power and purpose is to cast the curse outwards, against those who would exhaust him by engaging in physical altercation.

All told, his spells and enchantments tell interlopers to beware, in a language beyond human comprehension. “Do not harm me,” they say. “You cannot defeat me. I am powerful. Fear me, and show me respect.”

Most fearsome of all is the book he bears. Kept in a leather satchel on a strap around his shoulder, and matched with a quill pen and enchanted ink, anything he writes can become reality to those who read it.

Long ago, he looked up from his wretched life and dreamed of telling the stories and speaking the words that changed peoples’ lives.

Some people claim that only “true names” have power, but the Sentence knows better. Any name can inspire hope or cause fear, as his adopted alias does now. Controlling someone’s emotions is a form of power. If someone knows a true name you wished to conceal, that’s one secret they know about you. Do they know others? That uncertainty is power.

Stories are a form of power. People mold themselves to the stories they find themselves within. They enact roles given to them, even if they would prefer not to. After all, if you don’t have a story, nor a name worth having, you’re nothing at all.

Long ago, he would have made any sacrifice to become the world’s most potent writer.

Not so long ago, something accepted his bargain.

It is the day he will destroy the Gales, per his contract.

He knows where they live. He’s confident they’ll be there. To run is to admit fear, and that story can only end badly for them.

He has an assortment of teleportation and transportation magics at his disposal, but he prefers the simple ways for something like this. So he tells a story.

Once upon a time, there was a car. The driver had gone into a nearby building and was engaged in some business therein. The car wasn’t running, but the driver had left his keys behind in his haste to resolve matters…

The Sentence climbs into the unfamiliar car, turns the key, and begins driving.

He exits the vehicle in front of the Gale estate, and takes a short walk.

Sure enough, James Swift and Helen Gale are outside, waiting for him. They’re dressed in their HHL uniforms.

“The Sentence is Death,” he announces aloud. “I have come for you, Tempest and Silver Streak.”

“Hope you talk as fast as we can run,” replies James with a cocky confidence the Sentence personally finds distasteful.

He need not speak quickly. He need merely tell them a story.

You cannot hurt me,” he says aloud, in the Enochian language he’s mastered.

The two speedsters disappear in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, the air is full of rope - chains - nets - items of restraint, being wrapped around him at ultra-speed.

I’m not here,” his suit tells the world, through the embroidered incantations. The constraints close around nothing but air.

He pulls a business card from a pocket and presents it to anyone who can look. As the two speedsters dash around him, scanning, their eyes must naturally fall upon it - faster than he can see, but he need do nothing.

I am invulnerable to your attacks,” it says, in the script of the gods and the heavens.

Gusts of wind, sharp enough to cut skin, roar past him but do not do much as cause his suit to flutter. The Gales’ attack has been stopped short. His story has taken root in their minds. They cannot harm him because they now believe they cannot.

A pit opens beneath his feet - and dirt comes pouring out of it at immense speed. The Gales are digging up their own lawn to entomb him. A trinket of levitation activates, and he hovers inches above his former position.

There’s a flash, and a crack as the air parts for things moving faster than sound, and the Gales are back in their original place.

To make things easier on them, he levitates away from the pit, and over solid grass.

Curious. He was expecting more combat banter from them. They’re just standing there, waiting. But no matter.

“You cannot stop me. This story has only one ending.”

They try a new tactic, and the Sentence knows what it was in the moment it fails. Tempest races past him to distract him, while Silver Streak grabs for the business card he still holds. The speedster falls back to normal human velocity in the process, and stumbles backward. The curse of negation on the card took effect - as long as the man held it, he was bereft of his powers.

The Sentence kneels and calmly retrieves his card from the ground where it fell.

The next few minutes are thrust and parry. Together, the speedster team test his defenses, and each time, the Sentence musters another charm or speaks another command.

“Is this all that the Gale family can muster?” he asks them aloud. “Tricks? My understanding was that you were potent superheroes. Of course, I’ve taken your power. Soon I will take your lives. As soon as I know that I have done the job properly. I notice your son Harry is absent.”

He could command them to tell him. But he knows something important. The stories he tells exist in the emptiness of uncertainty. They have never fought him before. Perhaps he is unbeatable - perhaps his powers are simply that potent - and in that space, his own stories can take root.

But other stories have had a lifetime to unfold and thus grow in strength. The tale of two loving parents, protecting their child from harm, for example. He cannot simply ignore the power that story already holds over them. He would have to find ways to weave his tale around it, like a constricting vine that grows around a rose and eventually chokes it off.

He pivots immediately to another version of his story.

“Once you have fallen, he will come to avenge you. And I will take him too.”

Now the tale of protecting a child will belong to him. Now they will work harder and harder to take him down themselves, to defend their boy. Soon, they will consider compromises and sacrifices.

Still they remain silent.

Troublesome. He’d hoped to learn more from them. And the Gales are known to be talkers. Perhaps they are taking him more seriously than their other opponents.

Actually killing them will be simplicity itself. The curse of negation, and a poison he carries, are all he needs. What’s left now is to break down their resistance. If necessary, the hostages he’s taken may persuade them. But he’d rather do it here and now. Only thus will the story of his invulnerability grow.

It’s time to exhaust them. He draws out another card, and reads it aloud, reifying the story thereon.

Your worst enemy is here now. They are fighting you. Defend yourselves, or die.

It is a phantasm - a trick - but one he has wielded before. It is challenging, as there are two separate minds and thus two separate illusions. They will fight free of the effect soon. But it will exhaust and delay them, giving him time to consider the situation.

The speedsters disappear - moving at hyper-speed again - and the Sentence smiles.

It is not the defeat of an enemy that is sweetest to him.

It is that he, and he alone, is to be the author of their fate.

The Sentence has, of course, researched his targets. He knows they researched him.

He watched with amusement as Harry Gale obtained books about him from the Witches’ Sanctum. He was a tad surprised when the lad’s automobile exploded - someone else was clearly after Harry. It was informative to learn that the boy’s seeming loss of power was either a lie or an exaggeration.

He knows, for example, that the strongest enemy the Gales ever faced were the Seven Wonders. The Neanderthal god - the bouncing trickster - the woman who can flatten herself thinner than paper - the mysterious technological man - the talkative robot - even that pretend magician. The Sentence only grants her respect because, mundane as her approach is, even he cannot determine how her tricks are performed.

Now the Gales are facing their phantoms. How long until the speedsters exhaust themselves against the creations of their own minds? How soon until James and Helen’s bodies cannot keep up with the demands their hijacked minds place on them?

He can still see the occasional blurred body rush past. The two are fighting their enemies right here. When they finally collapse, they will be mere yards from the Sentence. He need not trouble himself to find them again.

He withdraws his book from its satchel, readies his quill and ink, and begins writing in the Enochian language that compels even reality itself to obey.

The writing is interrupted by the sound.

It’s a sound he’s never heard before. Curious. He’s fought numerous superheroes, not a few supervillains, and several beings of mysterious and mystical provenance. A truly novel experience is therefore welcome, even when it bodes ill. For example, it cannot be coincidence that he hears it now, as he’s battling two important enemies.

He pauses to examine the surety of his enchantments. No - they are still in place. A sonic attack, created by the Gales? They’re under compulsion not to attack him. Harry Gale? Another superhero, some ally of the Gales who is now on the scene and acting against him? Possible - but unless it’s another speedster or someone else who can conceal their presence from him, he’ll soon pick them out.

What about Matt Chase, the hero called Comet? He wasn’t included in the contract, but he’s certainly loyal and would rise to the defense of his imperiled family. Still, he’s not appreciably more powerful than the Gales themselves. And he can’t outrun the effects of the enchantments which protect the Sentence’s person, any more than the Gales could.


He readies his card again, the one on which rests the curse of negation.

The cursed jewel of his ring throbs, as he calls on its power to protect him. The pocket watch on its chain grows warm, as the magics placed on it are summoned to his defense. The incantations woven into his suit intensify in their power.

I am safe. I am secure. I am invulnerable,” he tells the cosmos.

He resumes writing in his book.

The legendary speedsters, the Gale family - James, Helen, and Harry - will pass from this world at the hands of an Enochian sorcerer. They were compelled to attack him by circumstance and geas, yet found him invulnerable to all harm. They exhausted themselves against his defenses. And when they were helpless, their powers were neutralized and poison was administered.

The Gales could exit this story at any time they wished. They could flee.

But doing so would cede to him their conviction of his superiority. It would only make his victory against them more certain at their next engagement.

He has failed assignments before, of course. Friends of his marks would intervene, and he’d refund the price of the contract. But nobody has fought the Sentence a second time, having survived the first. Building a legend is worth two hundred and fifty million dollars in the Colonies’ currency.

Suddenly, everything goes dark.

He hasn’t gone blind - it’s just that there’s no light, anywhere.

He commands a tiny fraction of atmosphere to ignite, and a ball of fire harmlessly fills his palm. In its light, he can see himself, his book, his quill, and so on. He’s standing on something solid. Beyond him, the flame reflects off something, but it’s dim and diffuse.

An illusion? Or something real?

He commands the world around him to reveal itself, and there’s a faint ripple as the magic takes effect, but just as quickly it fades.

What trickery is this?

His book is still open. But he needs a foundation for whatever story he wishes to tell with it. Otherwise, his victories would all stem from the two-word tale of “I win”.

He could teleport away - and fail to kill the Gales.

No - there’s another option. Tactical teleportation.

He activates one of his charms. The magic engulfs him. And he is again cocooned in the familiar blackness.

He should have gone to the other end of their yard.

The charm can’t have failed. Yet as far as he can tell, his surroundings haven’t changed.

The sound hasn’t faded. But now he hears the voice.

“You were so busy telling the world how to be, you couldn’t spend time listening to how it is.”

Operations have moved to the Gale house, where both Mirage and Ninjess agree the Sentence will appear.

The windows are carefully shuttered, with LCD screens instead of glass. Stingray’s quantum-acoustic tech has been installed throughout the house, to block any and all sounds, including voice, from intruding. That system is now up and running. Radio still works, but no speech or writing can enter or leave the sanctum. There’s one critical exception, but Harry needs that exception for his plan to work.

“It’s showtime,” Harry announces into his suit’s throat mike, as the Sentence approaches the property. Mirage’s sensor drones have picked him up.

His parents are in the other room, waiting. They wear specially made contact lenses, and specially engineered earplugs. For the duration of the exercise, they will find their senses muffled. But they hear his voice over the radios in their suits, radios which use bone induction to carry the message into the inner ear, past the plugs.

Uncle Chase hears it too. He isn’t on the property, not yet, but he’s ready.

A10 has been sedated and is now laying on her back in his bed. Harry himself feels extremely awkward about this whole deal, especially since his girlfriend is on his bed, in his bedroom, while the rest of his team is just, you know, hanging out watching that. But it’s how things are.

Mirage is projecting through a computer setup courtesy of Stingray. She and Ninjess are carefully watching on a pair of monitors, while Stingray is operating the electronics.

“Go outside,” Harry orders his parents, and they do. They know their own home as well as anyone, and they can count off steps to the front door. They can find the doorknob in the dark. They can feel each others’ presence well enough, thanks to a situational awareness honed by decades of crime-fighting.

“He’s standing 17 meters away,” Harry announces. “3 meters left of the path. Dad, angle left, 11 o’clock. Mom, slow down a bit.”

His parents follow his spoken instructions. They’re aided by the high-precision inertial gyroscopes Stingray fitted into their suits. These instruments provide direction and distance data via induction with the skin - Silver Streak and Tempest are literally feeling their way across their own lawn."

Mirage is watching the video. “The Sentence is death. I have come for you, Tempest and Silver Streak,” she says, reading lips and narrating aloud.

“Dad, quip,” Harry says quickly.

“Hope you talk as fast as we can run,” James Swift says, though he cannot see or hear the target of his boast.

Mirage shakes her head after a moment. “He’s speaking but it’s not English. This must be the Enochian language. He’s telling them something.”

“Dad, mom, blur,” Harry says. And his parents obey.

Harry turns to A10, the one person permitted to listen to the words of the Sentence courtesy of a long-range microphone. “I cannot hurt him,” she says, in a dreamy voice.

Mirage has administered a mixture of drugs and hypnotism. A10 wasn’t happy about it, but she acquiesced when Harry told her that her part was the most dangerous, and the most important.

“We can’t know what he’s commanding unless someone listens,” he’d explained.

And A10, who didn’t know her powers as well as her predecessor, but who very intimately knew both facing danger and protecting Harry from harm, had accepted her role.

“Mom, dad, nets,” Harry orders. It’s an easy tactic, an obvious move, but he wants to see how the Sentence will get out of this one. Sure enough, short-range teleportation.

“This guy sucks,” Harry mutters to himself.

“Card,” Mirage says urgently. A10 can’t hear this, and can’t read it given the limited setup they were able to arrange, so Harry has to guess.

“Dad, he’s holding a card. 2.7 meters from your current position. Mom, circle him. Dad, make a play for the card.”

Harry adjusts his father’s eye protection, opening a gap in the infrared for just the moment needed for the man to target the card.

The team hold their breaths as the tension of the moment mounts. Simply touching the card might be fatal - but Harry has contingencies in place for that. Uncle Chase would rush in, grab James, and get him to Cross Hospital. A doctor is on standby. If those guys couldn’t save his life, nobody could. And barring that, the HHL tower has one of AEGIS’ stasis prison units in its basement. They could take him there, if it came to it.

But surprisingly, Silver Streak simply falls out of hyper-speed and collapses to the ground.

“Stun. Or power negation,” Mirage hypothesizes. “Probably the latter. He’s still running. The deceleration is what surprised him.”

“He’s invulnerable to my attacks,” A10 recites in a languid tone.

Harry nods. “Wind attacks. 3.5 meters away from you. Mom, 11 o’clock. Dad, 1 o’clock.”

The Gales live up to their name, and create a vortex of air. In their sense-inhibited states, they can’t just punch the guy, super-speed or not. An area attack is easy enough - but it doesn’t connect.

“His clothes make him immune to basic attacks,” Harry explains. Not for nothing did he study the books about the Sentence. “Mom and dad aren’t geased, but even so they can’t hit him. Had to try though.”

He orders another tactic into the microphone. “He’s still in position. Dig a pit around him. I think he can levitate, but let’s see.”

Sure enough, his parents excavate their own front yard, to no avail. The Sentence floats defiantly above it. But it had to be tried.

“He’s moving left. 0.3 meters per second,” Harry reports. His parents turn their heads, to maintain the illusion that they can see the Sentence. They glance at each other, to break up the robotic aspect it gives off, and Harry fills in a vector for when they must look back.

Mirage continues lipreading. “You cannot stop me. This story has only one ending.”

Harry needs to buy a little more time before he can be sure of his endgame.

“Okay,” he relays to his folks. “Adjust 4 meters left, 2.5 meters back… Perfect. Attack Lambda-2.”

The next few minutes are thrust and parry. His parents have a battle-tested playbook from their time as heroes, and Harry knows it as well as they do. It contains plays that range from “inconvenience” to “lethal force”, and Harry has to test the boundaries of the Sentence’s magical defenses.

At last Ninjess holds up a hand and nods at him, telling him she understands what the team is seeing on the monitors. “The compulsion will take effect regardless of whether your parents can see or hear him,” she says.

Mirage concurs with a curt nod.

“Fine. Plan B it is,” Harry declares.

Before he can go on, Mirage breaks in with more lip-reading of the Sentence. “Is this all the Gale family can muster?”

She finishes the last part of his speech: “Once you have fallen, he will come to avenge you. And I will take him too.”

A10 is the next to speak. “Your worst enemy is here now. They are fighting you. Defend yourselves, or die.”

Harry activates his throat mike. “Mom, dad, orient on Safe Zone 2… Okay. I’m disabling your sense blockers. It’s Plan B. Run downtown and grab the stuff, and we’ll be ready to assemble it.”

Harry turns to Stingray and Mirage. “We’re ready. Activate the sound dampener and hologram.”

In a wide radius around the Sentence’s current position, Stingray’s quantum-acoustic barrier rises up. Mirage activates a holographic projector, which in turn projects an image of the Gale property onto the barrier. Anyone inside the barrier will see only the lawn as it was, and hear nothing of what’s happening outside.

They watch the Sentence grow tense, and get a book from a bag slung over his shoulder.

“This is it,” Harry concludes. “He’s getting ready to bring down the big guns. Mom, dad, how we doing?”

It’s James that answers, and Harry somehow feels relieved to hear his father’s strong, confident voice, after a tense several minutes of battle and deception against the sorcerer. “65% of the stuff is here, sport. Comet’s ready too.”

“Thanks dad. That’s probably enough stuff. We can start building the walls.”

The next minute is spent in a truly bizarre spectacle. For Silver Streak, Tempest, and Comet are rushing all about their property, erecting solid slabs of the blackest possible material into a honeycomb of cells all across the landscape!

Harry’s teammate Leo worked with Jason to build the Leviathans, when Atlantis was invading the surface world. It required the production of a tremendous amount of allotropic carbon, which in its native state is pitch black. Until now, these reserve blocks have been sitting in a warehouse owned by Jason Quill, and known of by Mirage. Now they’re being put to use, building a prison around the Sentence - a prison he won’t be able to see.

The interior of the prison is built, almost to the boundaries of Stingray’s bubble.

“Plan B is ready,” Harry announces. He switches frequencies on his microphone. It’s time to speak to the Sentence, through the radios scattered across the lawn.

“You were so busy telling the world how to be, you couldn’t spend time listening to how it is.”

They hear a garbled sound come across the radio. A10, the only person who can hear Enochian safely, speaks from her hypnotized state. “Free me.”

Harry gestures toward Stingray - you’re up - and speaks again. “Or what?”

A10 echoes the enraged sorcerer’s order once again. “Free me.”

In spite of the drugs and hypnosis, the others can see A10 begin to rise from the bed. Concern sweeps across Harry’s face - if the Enochian magic is powerful enough, could it overwhelm the protections the team has put in place?

He has to work fast.

“Ready,” Stingray says tersely.

Harry Gale steps out of the darkness and into the sight of the Sentence.

Free me,” the sorcerer orders, for a third time.

Harry, for some reason, is faintly glowing. His movements are jerky.

“I do magic from time to time. Do you want to see a magic trick?”

His voice echoes from all around the Sentence, although his mouth doesn’t move.

Confidently, the Sentence extends his cursed card. “Perhaps you would like to see mine.”

He gloats as Harry accepts the card. And his smug face turns to shock and surprise as it fails to have any effect on the faintly glowing apparition.

“Ah. I love card tricks,” Harry’s voice says, as the glowing Harry Gale steps back, the cursed card still in hand.

“Is this your card? Ha ha ha.”

Stingray is remote-operating the Stingray suit, and Mirage’s holographic projector has been disguising it as Harry. Now all of that is shut off, and the suit is walking mechanically back toward the house.

“What do we do with the Sentence?” Ninjess asks. She’s busy easing A10 out of her receptive trance, to break her contact with the sorcerer’s magic, but she can ask the question everyone wants to know.

“I think we leave him alone,” Harry says at last. “That’s Plan B in a nutshell. Ignore him.”

“I don’t like it,” Stingray grumbles. “He’s a major league assassin, right? Bad guys are supposed to be arrested.”

Harry knew this moment would come, and he’s ready with his arguments.

“All of my reading says that the Sentence’s power is what people believe about him. Magically induced, but also mundanely sparked. It’s like his power is his reputation. Get it?”

He holds out his hands. “On the one hand, I agree, it’d be great to nail him. But he’s got these other passive defenses, and we don’t really have a way to crack those with the constraints we’re operating under. We can’t engage him without perceiving him, and if we do, he’s got us.”

“On the other hand… if he walks away, he loses. And if he’s seen to lose, if we know and he know he lost, he loses power. If he comes back to try again, well, we know his tricks. Maybe he has some new ones. Maybe we do too. But the point is, he’s like an Internet troll. We block him and we move on.”

Harry grins. “Besides. We got a lot of good data. We can go back to folks like Stella, at the Witches’ Sanctum, and tell them everything we learned. Plus, we got one of his cards. Let some experienced sorcerers tackle him if they want.”

There’s a knock at the door, and Harry opens it to find his parents and Uncle Chase. Behind them is the Stingray suit, still holding onto the business card.

“He’s in the cells still, teleporting around,” Harry reports. “He’ll probably find his way out in a few minutes.”

His parents beam. “I’m proud of ya, son,” James announces. Helen echoes the sentiment. “Harry, you did so well.”

“What’s the next move?” Chase asks.

Harry has to sit down for a moment, as the truth hits him. His parents are here. But perhaps for the first time, they’re looking to him for leadership.

How did that happen?

The Sentence took his book and went home.

Once they were sure he was out of the prison, the Gales dismantled the carbon walls and returned it to the Quill warehouse.

He might return. He might just move on. But he has been beaten, and the Gales know it, and the Gales make damn sure everyone else hears about it.

A10 hasn’t told Harry the truth about the journal. She’s too frightened of what she found in there. She needs to think. She needs time to process.

She’d volunteered to be hypnotized, so the team would know what the Sentence was saying. What she’s learned about her powers told her she’d be safe doing so.

Harry didn’t know that. Harry had worried about her. He’d fretted about her safety, and then he’d trusted her to do what heroes always do.

And that was really sweet, and nice, and made all her terror worthwhile.

“We still haven’t beaten a villain worth the name, to help your reputation,” Stingray grumbles. “People still don’t trust you like they do other heroes.”

Ninjess smiles and rests a hand on his arm. “It doesn’t matter. We have grown in strength and unity as a team. We have developed tools and tactics together. And… it has been pleasant being with you, Trace.”

The young man smiles, in spite of himself. “Yeah. I guess it’s been good for that reason. And I like being around you too, Fuko.”

The squid girl gives his arm a quick squeeze, and his cheek a quick kiss. “Besides, what kind of ninja would I be if everyone knew about me?”

Mirage and Vigil are having a conversation. Specifically, she is at the home of Wayland Bryce, the Vigil’s civilian alter ego. He is at his computer and she is, for lack of a better explanation, inside it, looking through the screen at his face.

“You invited my suspicion,” Mirage says carefully. “I am now exercising that suspicion.”

“In general, or on a specific matter?” Bryce asks calmly.

Mirage frowns. “I was able to be projected into the computers at the Gale house with your hmm, privileged access to the Quill supercomputer. I assume that means you had access to our equipment during our battle with the Sentence. His sorceries can control the minds of those who see and hear his Enochian language. In plain English, sir, I wish to determine if your eavesdropping has compromised you.”

Bryce laughs heartily upon hearing that.

“Perhaps I should explain more clearly about what I hinted at,” he says.

“Perhaps you should.”

The billionaire settles back in his chair. “The being I partnered with is known as Binarya, the Cybergod. They - their identity is plural - exist as both a digital and spiritual entity, you could say. As such, my soul is hmm, spoken for. Magical compulsion will not reach me.”

Mirage narrows her eyes. Such a gesture is worse than futile as a purely digital being, but it is a purely human response she cannot help but make. “And through this alliance, you’ve transcended your agoraphobia to become a traveler in the virtual world. Looking out of every webcam, every screen, every display–”

Bryce nods. “Quite so. When I found Binarya in the family’s corporate core, I wondered how such a thing were possible. It is as though my family had bound a digital demon in a circle of ones and zeroes. Through their control over Binarya, they profited immensely. I chose to free the being, for better or worse. They vested some of their power in me.”

Mirage sighs. “Perhaps it was incorrect to ask whether you were in thrall to the Sentence. I should have asked generally, to whom are you in thrall?”

“You suspect Binarya,” Bryce says quietly.

“I suspect everyone and everything,” Mirage tells him, cold as ice.

Yet the man simply chuckles. “Wise. That is why I wish your help. You see, like you, I am the recipient of a power from my family - a power I cannot truly ethically use. That is why I am the Vigil, and nothing more. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

“Who stands vigil over the Vigil, if you’ll forgive my mistranslation.”

Bryce nods. “And you should know that Binarya has a great interest in unique digital artifacts - or beings. Their power may be turned against your technological enemies D-SOL-8 and Motormouth. But I wish to guard you as carefully as you guard me, should their eyes turn to you too.”

Harry was ready to turn the cursed business card over to Stella at the Witches’ Sanctum, until a chance thought made him return to the Quill compound.

Jason Quill is out somewhere - probably gallivanting around the globe with Alycia, Harry thinks privately - but there are still nanotech experts on hand.

He gets a meeting going, and starts asking questions.

“Hey, you guys can’t operate to remove the nano-virus from my system, because if you try, my powers activate unconsciously, right? And then the nano-guys activate, and I die on the operating table, right?”

The nanotechnology experts look at each other and voice their agreement - with a parade of technical explanations, clarifications, qualifications, and so on. But in essence, that’s the size of it.

Harry holds up the card. “What if I didn’t have my powers?”

The last thing Harry remembers before going under is his mother’s worried face, and his dad’s falsely confident thumbs-up.

The surgery finishes without incident. It’s going to take six days to recover, the doctors and scientists estimate. But the nano-virus looks like it’s cleared up.

Herr Doktor Uhrwerk, one of the science specialists, is on hand to sum up the outcome of the procedure.

“The nano-virus is now dormant, allowing us to study it. We wondered about questions such as its power source. We were surprised indeed to learn that it was tailored - that it was so effective precisely because it could obtain metabolic energy from a Flitzer - pardon me, ‘speedster’ is the English. In a mundane human body, such as this special card permitted young Mr. Gale to be, the virus lacked a means to energize itself. We speculate that the nature of the nano-virus is as a containment system, or hmm, system for imprisoning individuals with your family’s particular power set. It is extremely unclear who could have engineered such an advanced specimen, and for whom it was intended, if not yourselves.”

“More worryingly, it responded to certain Quill nanotech protocols. This suggested to us that the sample we studied before was perhaps from the future - an offshoot of state-of-the-art work. Yet it is much more advanced than the samples which Mr. Quill himself permitted us to study. You see the difficulty? Someone has come back in time, with Quill-style nanotechnology, and this was engineered into, if you will forgive my bluntness, a prisoner’s collar for speedsters.”

The scientist takes his leave, and Harry is alone with his parents.

“Mom, dad… I have something to tell you both,” the young man says in quiet contemplation.

He really doesn’t want to bring it up. But they’re going to drive themselves out of control chasing down this nanotech thing, or maybe mistrusting Jason, or something. The unanswered questions won’t let them rest.

He has to say something.

“Mom, Never-miss of the Stellar Six is a young clone of you.”

Helen Gale has handled many shocks in her life. This one causes her to sit roughly down in a nearby hospital chair.

“How sure are you?” his dad asks tensely.

I saw her face, dad. When the Grasscutters attacked the HHL. So did Stingray. And I figured it out. Never-miss has that supernatural accuracy with guns because she can just, y’know, mess with time. Aim - aim - aim - fire. She’s just really careful not to use her speed. Or was, until I unmasked her and she ran off.”

Helen has taken a few deep breaths. Her voice is tightly controlled. “Harry. I want to tell you not to worry about it. I wish I could say that your father and I would handle this. But I don’t think you’d be satisfied with that, would you. You want to be involved.”

Harry looks from his mom to his dad and back again. Is this it? Are they going to start telling him about the Seven Wonders? Or other secrets? Is this the breakthrough he’s hoped for?

“I am involved, mom,” he says, choosing his words with care. “See, I think it was Never-miss that infected me with this stuff. She could have moved fast, while I wasn’t paying attention. She’s probably the only one who could have moved fast enough I wouldn’t notice. And if Tyran has a clone of you, that means they had a test subject, to test the nanotech on, before using it on me.”

His father speaks up. “Why would they target you now?”

“Dad, earlier that day, I found out that Doug Pitt was Mudmaster. You know, the geokinetic–”

“The Elementals,” his dad says. “I remember. Okay.”

Harry continues thinking aloud. “I think they realized I was onto them. I think they targeted me. They couldn’t just kill me outright - so I think they set me up to be killed in that car bomb. The most mundane way of getting me. Something anyone could do. But they had to infect me first, with a tool they’d already developed. Maybe to keep Never-miss under control.”

He looks back to his mother. “I think maybe Doug Pitt is a clone too. I got to thinking, maybe they’re all clones. But I’m not sure. Mudmaster’s supposed to be in custody. But Tyran took over AEGIS, so now that could mean anything. I just don’t know. But…”

He finally has to say it. He doesn’t want to. But the words demand expression.

“Mom, I didn’t know what to do about this. I shoulda said something earlier. I’m sorry.”

His mother finds the strength to rise from the chair, and approach for a careful hug - mindful that Harry is still recovering from his own ordeal. “My son, you did the right thing,” she whispers. “You trusted us.”

With that admission, Harry takes a gamble. Maybe it’s time.

“So… listen. About the Seven Wonders. I can’t give up on that either. And I have to know. They were in custody, so they got beaten once. Had to have been. But Dr. Wissen’s book doesn’t talk about that, like, at all. How did the HHL beat them?”

James and Helen look at each other.

James talks first. “You’re gonna hate me for saying it, son, because it’s gonna sound like a cop-out, like your old man is dodging responsibility. But you’re gonna have to talk to Matt.”

“Uncle Chase?” Harry asks in confusion. “Why him? Weren’t the two of you involved?”

“You just - you have to ask him,” his mother affirms. “And - he may not want to talk about it. Harry, you’re worried we don’t trust you, aren’t you?”

He gulps, and nods.

Helen smiles, but Harry can see sadness in her eyes.

“It’s not that, son. It’s - it’s something else. Listen, Harry. Talk to Matt. And son, this is important.”

She leans close, and he can feel her breath, and see fear in how she looks at him.

“Don’t talk to anyone else about the Seven Wonders. From now on.”

The mystery of the Seven Wonders deepens, but at least the Sentence has been defeated - in a uniquely appropriate way. What do we think about this, and where might we be going with all this?

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