Shadowgirl

PART 1

I slipped out from behind the boxes in the corner, creeping just inside the wall of the empty warehouse. A man dressed in a strange, shimmering uniform stepped into my field of vision and turned to look in my direction. Giving him a sidelong glance, I froze.

Not that I needed to.

Freeze, I mean.

This guy couldn’t see me. Not when I cloaked myself in invisibility.

Stopping like that was instinctive, I suppose. Some remnant of animal instinct buried somewhere in the depths of my DNA. My body didn’t seem to know when it became invisible. It just acted as it always did. These days, though, stopping like this only slowed me down. Stopping did have the benefit of silencing any sound I might make, I guess. My power only seemed to remove me from sight. I could still be heard. But with soft shoes that made no sound on the concrete floor, the reaction was pretty silly.

I grinned wryly and shook my head quietly, realizing I was giving entirely too much thought to the subject. So I mentally shrugged and continued moving, even as the armed man continued to scout my corner of the warehouse. I had a mission to perform and didn’t have time to waste right now.

As I crept behind the next stacked pallet, I glanced downward. My slender form was clad in the tight, black, form-fitting Shadowgirl costume that my sister had helped me make when I’d turned eighteen. Progressing along the warehouse wall, I remembered the day that I’d been accepted into super.org, my older sister’s look of pride. We’d been placed with a different set of foster parents seemingly every year of our childhood, so my sister Andrea had been the one constant in my life. Her approval that day had meant everything to me.

I’d been surprised to get in the highly selective fraternity of superheroes. As powers went, invisibility was not particularly powerful, but it did make me a natural for stealth and reconnaissance operations. Personally, I would have preferred a more tangible power like strength. Or flight. Or even laser eyes. But alas… no such luck. Stuck with invisibility was I.

Everything else about me was normal. At best. Normal strength, normal toughness… okay, so maybe below-average toughness. I tended to burst into tears when I bumped my shin on the occasional piece of furniture or when I pinch my thumb in a kitchen drawer. Some superhero, right?

I wasn’t even particularly gifted in terms of normal human abilities. I was a C-student, barely making it through art class by convincing my teacher that my stuff was intentionally abstract. I couldn’t hold a tune to save my life and could only manage the second slowest 100-meter time of anyone on the track team. In other words, take away my power, and I was pretty much average or worse in every other capacity.

There was only one thing I had going for me besides my invisibility power. My looks.

Not to brag or anything, but I was beautiful. Maybe not fit to grace the posters in the display at Victoria’s Secret. And I probably wouldn’t be replacing the latest spokesactress at the Dior counter at department stores, but I was good-looking. When I entered a bar, my ginger hair curled and shimmering, I was—more often than not—the hottest girl in the place. Gazes tended to be cast in my direction when I entered the room, and, thoroughly unremarkable in every other way, I enjoyed the attention. Sue me.

So it was more than a little ironic that my only superpower basically negated the only non-super thing I had going for me. I was pretty, and I had the power to make sure that no one saw me. This, I took as proof that the universe had a sense of humor. A twisted one, apparently.

To make matters worse, I had joined one of the few organizations on earth where I wasn’t even among the best-looking women. Even in super.org, I might be better than average, but when every super-powered woman around seemed to be hyper-fit, hyper-endowed, and hyper-gorgeous, I wasn’t even exceptional in the looks department. Even when I wasn’t invisible. No, at super.org headquarters, Sapphire Valkyrie’s were the curves that every male eye roamed. Never mine. But the gorgeous amazon was so freaking powerful and heroic and all that, that I couldn’t even manage to hate her for making me invisible! When I, um, wasn’t trying to be, I mean. 

Even Raven, the leader of super.org that had been the object of many—ok, most—of my teenage fantasies, was clearly smitten with her. Dark, mysterious, and brooding, he was exactly the sort of sexy bad boy I always found myself attracted to. I had even drawn inspiration from him when choosing my “super” name, Shadowgirl.

When I had first arrived at super.org headquarters, I had been so excited to meet him. And I did. For all of about three seconds. And I was pretty sure he didn’t remember any of them. Certainly not like I did, replaying that firm, knee-weakening grip of his every time I drifted off to sleep. 

Yeah. I don’t think he even knew who I was. There were a couple of hundred members of super.org, and I had only been in the group for a few months. And it wasn’t like my power was particularly memorable. Anything but. If the group hadn’t had a need for an infiltration talent, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed in at all!

The last time I’d seen Raven in person, I had watched his rapt attention focused on Sapphire Valkyrie the entire time. Which wasn’t exactly a surprise. The world’s media and tabloids were obsessed with her as well. I suppose it was warranted. When the most gorgeous woman on the planet can toss around cars with ease, it did tend to make her a natural attention magnet.

I felt a surge of jealousy slide up my spine. Why couldn’t I be more like her? Effortlessly sexy, unbelievably strong, virtually invulnerable—basically, the consummate superhero. Clad in her tasteful-but-revealing armor, each time she descended from the sky, her would-be adversary instantly knew that the situation was hopeless. Most never even challenged her. Sapphire Valkyrie had never been defeated. Far more powerful than any other hero, Sapphire had always been viewed as completely invincible.

Which made the sight that met my eyes when I slipped into the back room of the warehouse so jarring.

Sapphire Valkyrie—earth’s most powerful, undefeated champion—was slumped against the far wall, bruised and battered, blood trickling from her lips. My jaw dropped in absolute disbelief. I hadn’t even realized that she could bleed!

I watched as Sapphire Valkyrie rose shakily to her feet, set her jaw in determination, and marched toward her opponent, a guy. Or rather, a huge, hulking block of chiseled muscle. The guy was built! He wore a black, shimmering uniform, just like the guy outside. His arms were as big around as I was. And those abs of his? They were so developed, I could see them through the material of his shirt!

The guy looked incredibly strong, but it was Sapphire Valkyrie he was up against. Still, his lips curled upward in amusement at Valkyrie’s actions. Amusement! 

Sapphire Valkyrie pulled back her fist and launched it with hypersonic speed at the man’s stomach, giving a desperate scream as she did. The massive man made no move to dodge or block. I smirked. Muscular or not, cocky bastard was in for a world of pain!

Anyway, the guy simply let her fist impact his insanely cobbled abs. The blow landed with a concussive force that nearly knocked me to the ground. I stumbled backward, then glanced back up, expecting to find a hole in the wall behind where he’d been standing after a punch like that.

But there was no hole. Or any sign that he had just been struck by a punch that could level a building. Valkyrie’s attack hadn’t seemed to do a damn thing to this guy!

The huge man casually reached down, grabbed Valkyrie’s wrist, and snapped it backward. I cringed as I heard the sharp sound of cracking bone reverberate through the otherwise silent room.

Sapphire Valkyrie’s azure eyes widened, and her full lips twisted open. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a second or two, a shrill scream burst from those lips to fill the room.

Valkyrie had screamed! In pain!!!

The corners of the man’s mouth turned upward into a gloating smile, and he used his other hand to lift her off her feet by the throat.

Valkyrie’s slender fingers rose to clutch at the man’s massive hand, trying in vain to loosen its grip. But it was useless. She was clearly as overmatched against this man as her opponents usually were against her!

I gaped at the sight. How was this possible?

This was Sapphire Valkyrie, for goodness’ sake! There was no WAY that she could be overpowered so easily…

…except that it was undeniable. She was. As hard as it was to believe, It was happening right before my eyes.

After a moment, the huge man tossed her against the wall, a patina of cracks forming upon impact. The battered hero slid down the wall until her shapely derriere hit the ground. The woman gasped for air as she stared dumbly at her limp, rapidly swelling hand.

The huge man turned toward a smaller but equally fit man standing to his left. The smaller guy’s  uniform looked almost identical to the big guy’s. The man’s voice was incredibly deep and raspy as he spoke for the first time.

“Xymon, our intelligence about this world was obviously incorrect. This woman is not an adversary worthy of my attention. You will be able to easily handle this planet on your own. Take charge. It is yours to do as you see fit.” He cast one more condescending look in Valkyrie’s direction before continuing. “Be available when I call on you next.”

The smaller man bowed his head in a gesture of respect. “Of course, sir. Thank you, sir.”

With that, the larger man rocketed upward, puncturing the warehouse ceiling as if it were made of tissue paper as he ascended into the sky. Valkyrie, seeming to regain the usual glint of confidence in her eyes now that the impossibly formidable opponent was gone, pressed her good hand to the ground and stumbled back to her feet. She was still breathing heavily.

The other man—Xymon, the large dude had called him—smiled. “Think you’ll stand a chance against me, do you?”

“I am Sapphire Valkyrie. I will prevail.” Her eyes were defiant.

It was one of her trademark lines, and it had always felt like a solid, immutable truth. Until now. I hoped she was right, but the ease with which the big man had dispatched her sent a sliver of doubt into my heart. Still, this was Sapphire Valkyrie! I couldn’t quite comprehend a scenario where she didn’t win the day.

I felt my eyes widen as she rushed toward him, admiring her grace, her determination. Surely, she would have a better chance against the huge man’s underling, right? But he nimbly dodged out of the way, smashing an elbow into the side of her head. The strike knocked her entire body sideways, head whiplashing as she cratered into the concrete floor. The most powerful hero in the world crashed to the floor, her body limp and unmoving. I watched her face carefully, but her eyes were closed, and she appeared to be unconscious. Hopefully not dead!

My attention rose to the alien who had taken her down this time. To Xymon. The guy was incredibly sexy, with sculpted cheekbones and a delicious-looking body, its tight swells and valleys made all the sexier while it was tense and ready for action. Shit! Why was I thinking these thoughts?! This was hardly the time to be admiring a dangerous enemy!

He watched Valkyrie’s limp form closely for several seconds before his taut muscles began to relax. I couldn’t help but let my eyes roam a little more. I mean, this guy’s ridged arms, chiseled pecs, and carved abs made even Raven’s steel-hard muscles look soft and mushy by comparison. As my eyes traced the bold curve of the man’s ultra-masculine jaw, I felt my cheeks flush with heat.

What was wrong with me? This was the enemy! A serious threat to my planet! I didn’t need to deal with stupid teenage infatuations right now. It was going to be difficult enough to help Sapphire Valkyrie in this fight as it was!

But he was just so heartbreakingly gorgeous! I had to fight the urge to lick my lips.

Attempting to shake the thoughts away—without much success—I slipped behind him. As I neared his deliciously muscled body, unsure what I was going to do exactly. I mean I was a less-than-athletic twenty-year-old girl. Without super strength. Or any other offensive ability. What was I going to…

As I neared him, I felt a strange tingling sensation wash over my skin.

I paused, willing the feeling away, but it only became stronger. I could feel myself begin to sway with unwanted desire and all-consuming weakness as I watched Raven emerge from the shadows to stand before Xymon. My knees buckled, and I fell forward into Xymon’s back. Xymon whirled as I fell to the ground, his eyes widening as they took in my collapsing form.

As my vision faded to blackness, I heard Raven’s deep voice seemingly from a distance.

“So what are your terms for earth’s surrender…”

The words chilled my racing heart as I lost consciousness.

PART 2

I awoke with a start, my eyes popping open with a surge of adrenaline. Was I still in the warehouse? Had Xymon done something to me?

I shot up, belatedly realizing that my head had been resting on a pillow. Clearly, I wasn’t in the warehouse.

Where was I?

The thought evaporated as my surroundings suddenly struck me with their familiarity.

I was home.

I searched my memories of the moments before my blackout for any clues as to how I had ended up back home. I remembered the strange alien, Xymon. In my mind, I relived the strange tingle of sensation that the close proximity to him had generated inside me. I concentrated on my body for a moment, how it felt. Slowly, I came to the realization that the tingle was now gone.

Frankly, that was a relief. What had that been about, anyway? Did the alien have some sort of weakening field? Maybe that’s why Sapphire Valkyrie had been so ineffective against him!

I thought back to the moment of my collapse, recalling Xymon’s eyes widening. Had he seen me or just felt me fall behind him? Had I willed away my invisibility power? No, I didn’t think so. Even in my distraction, I hadn’t ceased the use of my power. I should have remained invisible.

But maybe he had nullified it somehow? As he had nullified Valyrie’s strength? Did these aliens have some sort of power-dampening field?

And what had Raven said when he appeared from the shadows in that mysterious (and sexy) way of his? Something about the surrender of Earth? A tingle spread across my skin once more, but this tingle was one of horror. As goosebumps rose from my flesh, I wondered what had come of that conversation. Was earth now under the control of that Xymon guy? Had Raven truly surrendered the planet without so much as a fight? Well, without more than Sapphire Valkyrie’s fight, anyway…

Ugh! Why had I not been able to remain awake?! I’m there for one of the most important events in the history of the world, and I pull a complete freaking wussification and faint! I should probably be kicked out of super.org for that alone.

Frowning, I shook my head. Sitting in bed feeling sorry for myself wouldn’t bring me any answers. I needed to find out what was happening! I swept my feet from under the covers and placed them on the floor. Cautiously, I stood. I expected wooziness but instead felt surprisingly strong.

I strode through my bedroom, eyes scanning for any clue as to how I had arrived back here, anything out of the ordinary. As my gaze fell to my desk, I saw a paper. Walking over to it, I saw handwritten scrawl.

Hope you’re okay. Call me. 847-555-1234.

-Raven

I couldn’t help but smile. Raven was obviously a believer in word economy. I supposed it was appropriate for his dark, brooding image.

My train of thought was interrupted by the sound of my apartment door opening. A lightning bolt of fear jagged through me, and I crept to the doorway of my bedroom, peering trepidatiously into the main room of my one-bedroom apartment. I watched the door swing open to reveal a bright, blonde-framed face wearing an expression of worry.

“Andrea?” I intoned, relief dropping my tensed shoulders.

“Samster?” my sister returned, a hopeful smile beginning to form under glassy, frightened eyes. “Are you okay? When I got the call that you were unconscious, I was so scared. You never even told me I was your emergency contact, and when I got the call from super.org, I just wasn’t expecting it, and I didn’t know what to do, and I just froze up! It took me a minute to recover, and then I grabbed my keys and came straight here, but I didn’t know what to expect, and I… I’m babbling aren’t I?”

She paused for a moment to consider, then continued. “Whatever. I’m just happy that you’re okay!”

Andrea rushed over to me and enveloped me in a huge hug.

A moment later, as she pulled back, she straightened slightly, an odd smile gracing her lips as she took in my appearance.

“What? What is it?” I asked as I looked down at myself, still in my Shadowgirl costume. I wondered if I had been disfigured somehow, fear fluttering my heart as a burst of adrenaline fizzed through my veins. Omigod! What if that tingling had wrinkled my skin? What if I had turned purple? What if I looked like a complete freak or something?

I raced over to the floor-length mirror in my bedroom to examine my reflection. As my mortified face looked back at me, I searched to see what had caused Andrea’s reaction. I didn’t see any obvious deformities or discolorations. I didn’t see any extra limbs growing out of me. It didn’t look as if I had gained fifty pounds…

I watched my features melt from worry into curiosity in the reflection.

Not only did I not look hideous, I actually looked… better.

“Sam? WTF?” asked my sister, leaning against my bedroom wall with a quizzical expression. “I ask how if you’re okay, and you just run away?”

“Sorry,” I offered sheepishly, tearing my gaze from the mirror. “You just gave me a funny look, and I thought I turned into some kind of freakazoid or something.”

“No, it was just my look of wry amusement, I suppose. It’s just that you get into some kind of superhero scrape and somehow come out looking better than ever,” she laughed. “My sister, the supermodel superhero. I should be jealous.”

“Yeah,” I snorted. “Says the brilliant, amazing Andrea who’s headed to Yale Law in the fall. Do you know how many times I’ve heard ‘Why can’t you be more like your older sister’?”

I gave a hollow laugh then continued.

“I’m an average-at-best-looking superhero with a below-average power. I should be the jealous one.” I winked. “Besides, I’m pretty sure that Ivy League lawyers are paid far better than minor-league superheroes.”

“Well, there is that, I suppose,” Andrea said, flipping her hair over her shoulder with feigned arrogance before erupting into giggles.

“Scratch that,” I corrected, slumping. “I’m not even minor league. I have, like, the lamest power ever. Now if I were Sapphire Valkyrie, you’d be right to be jealous.”

Andrea’s expression turned grave at the mention of the powerful superhero. “Well, maybe not so jealous of her now. I saw the pictures on the news with Raven carrying her out of that warehouse. She looked like she was in pretty bad shape. They’re not even saying what happened! Were you there? Did you see anything?”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I could feel my lower lip begin to quiver with emotion. Andrea, observant as ever, noticed immediately and spoke before I came up with any words.

“You were there!” she exclaimed, eyes wide. Her lips formed just two words. “Spill. Now.”

I let out a breath. “Okay, okay. Geez, And!”

I eyed my sister, and she stared at me expectantly, crossing her arms resolutely.

“So, yeah. I was there.” I paused, unsure what I should tell her. Should I share how easily the aliens had dispatched Sapphire Valkyrie? Was super.org attempting to keep that a secret? Andrea was my sister, but her lips tended to be loose.

After my uncertain pause hit about five seconds, Andrea’s eyes bulged. “Freaking hell, Sam. You are NOT going to leave it at that.”

I smiled. Couldn’t help it. Maybe I could just play this off as messing with her? That had the upside of keeping me from having to divulge any earth-shakingly important super.org secrets through sisterly tickle-torture.

She glared at me. “Is that how you got hurt?”

“I didn’t really get hurt. I’m not entirely sure what happened to me. I was fine until I approached the cute alien guy, and then I just…” I trailed off.

“Cute alien guy?” Andrea asked, an edge of eager curiosity to her voice.

“Okay, yes. I ran into the ultimate evil badass. He’s trying to take over earth. And I think he’s a total hottie. Sue me,” I huffed. Then I raised an eyebrow. “But he was…”

If I looked in the mirror again, I was pretty sure I would see a twinkle in my eye. And Andrea was an expert at picking up on my twinkles. And she clearly picked up on this one, biting her lip at this tidbit of juicy gossip.

“So is that why you’re looking so dolled? Going to see Mr. Badass Alien Hottie?”

“Dolled?” I remembered my reflection and turned my attention back to the mirror.

I wasn’t sure whether dolled was the right word, but awesome… or amazing… or even gorgeous would probably fit.

My eyes looked brighter, their emerald hue more vivid. My skin looked as if it had a layer of foundation, perfectly applied. Except that there was no foundation. I raised a finger and ran it down my cheek to be sure. No makeup. My skin was just that perfect.

My lips were redder, more sensually shaped. My hair? Thicker, its rusty dark red more vibrant somehow. My gaze fell to my body. I was still wearing my Shadowgirl costume, but it seemed to be stretched thinner than normal. My breasts seemed fuller and more dramatic, my waist smaller. Tighter. I dropped my hand from my cheek to feel my stomach. I had always been thin, but my stomach felt firmer now. I could feel ridges of definition under the thin fabric of my costume that I knew hadn’t been there before.

I swept my fingers downward to run them over wider, more supple hips. I cocked my head as I tried to tell whether my legs—always my best feature—were longer and more shapely than before. I was fairly certain they were.

“Yay, narcissism!” laughed Andrea, snapping me out of my mesmerized self-exploration.

I felt my cheeks flush.

“I… I just…” I stammered, unsure what to say. I was just so surprised. I had always been pretty, but the woman in the mirror could give Sapphire Valkyrie a run for her money! I was completely freaking gorgeous! A whirling mix of pride and fear spun through my stomach. What had happened to me?

A fleeting look of knowing approval flashed across Andrea’s features before her smile returned. What was that all about?

Before I could finish the thought, Andrea’s eyes dropped to the desk before her.

“What’s this?” Andrea asked, picking up the note on my desk.

I glanced at the paper, remembering Raven’s note.

“It’s nothing…”

“It certainly looks like something to me! So my gorgeous sister has two super-sexy supermen in her life, eh? Raven’s asking you to call him now…?” Andrea’s face turned to mine once more, her eyes flashing, her grin Cheshire.

“Look, it’s not like that. He just…”

“So what’d he say when you called him?” Andrea interrupted, placing the note back on the desk and clasping her hands together.

“I haven’t actually called him yet.”

Andrea’s smile turned instantly to a frown. “Seriously? What are you waiting for? Call. Now.”

Again with the doubled-word Andrea commands!

She marched over to my nightstand, picked up my phone, and dangled it in front of me with a smirk. Sighing, I accepted the iPhone from her manicured fingers. Glancing over to the note on the desk, I punched in the number, taking a moment to save it into my contacts.

I punched the “send” button, then listened to several rings before Raven picked up. As his deep, gravelly voice came on the line, I felt my stomach lurch in girlish excitement. I was talking to my celebrity super-crush himself—Raven!

“Shadowgirl?! Are you okay?” came Raven’s deep, gravelly voice.

He was concerned! About me! My stomach did another flip. I closed my eyes before I spoke in a vain attempt to quiet my emotions.

“Yes. Fine. You asked me to call, right…?” My voice quivered slightly. I hoped he didn’t notice it.

“Yes, I need to see you. Right away if possible. Are you free?”

Oh, God. My stomach might never recover from this acrobatics routine. I had fantasized many a late night about hearing those words from Raven’s lips. ‘I need to see you?’ *Sigh*

“Y-Yes. Sure!”

“Great. I’ll send you the address. Meet me as soon as you can.”

“Okay.”

I didn’t say goodbye because I really didn’t want the conversation to end. But the connection ended from his side before I could think of anything else to say. Damn. But I guess it didn’t matter. I was on my way to see him anyway. Like, in person.

Holy shit!

My eyes slowly rose to meet my sister’s sparkling blues. “Gotta go.”

Andrea simply stood there, stunned, as I rushed out the door. Closing it behind me, I heard her finally speak.

“Wait! You never actually told me what happ—”

As the door closed, I pondered my sister’s words. I wish I knew what happened, myself!

Lifting my hand from the doorknob, I noticed indentations in the metal from each of my fingers. My eyes went wide as I lifted my hand to examine it, finding nothing out of the ordinary.

Had I become stronger? I really needed to know what happened back in that warehouse! Thoughts racing, I hustled out of my apartment toward the address in my text message. I needed answers, and I was headed to the one person I knew would have them.

Raven.

PART 3

As I neared the address from Raven’s text, my mind raced through recent events. They lingered on the part where I had apparently become stronger and more beautiful. My extremities buzzed with suppressed joy at the thought of being able to crush metal in my bare hand. It was what I had always desired, a dream come true. A real, legit superpower! Super strength!

The only problem was that it came in a context of awfulness. Remembering the other events that had transpired at the warehouse, I felt a bit guilty for my internal joy. I mean, the fate of my planet was hanging in the balance, and here I was doing cartwheels over a newfound superpower.

I knew what I had heard Raven say before losing consciousness. All morning, I had been attempting to deny it, to dismiss it as the meandering delusions of a mind shutting down. I knew in my heart, however, that it had happened. I knew what I had heard. The words had been real. Raven had been ready to surrender our planet to those alien invaders.

And I needed to understand why.

I walked up to the front door of a nondescript, cookie cutter, suburban house and looked around. Was this seriously the place I was supposed to meet Raven? I had imagined a dark gothic mansion, or some high-tech secret underground lair. With a name like Raven, I’d always imagined him hanging out someplace Edar Allan Poe-ish… or at least comic book-ish, you know? Not a generic, lemon yellow house on a freaking cul-de-sac. I checked the map on my phone, comparing the address once more to Raven’s text. It matched.

Shrugging, I rang the doorbell, peering into the picture window to see a living room that looked like something out of a Crate & Barrel showroom. A moment later, steps approached, and the door swung open. It was Raven, in costume, lines of worry etched around the visible portion of his dark, masked eyes. If I hadn’t known what was at stake, what he had faced yesterday, the sight of the dark hero in such a prosaic setting would have been comical.

Shoving semi-amused thoughts of the incongruity to the side, I felt the familiar warmth of attraction radiate from my center, as I always did when in the man’s commanding presence. However, this time his presence seemed less authoritative somehow. I wasn’t sure whether it was caused by something in his posture, or simply the knowledge that I might be able to match his strength now. 

Wordlessly, he stepped back to allow me inside, and I accepted the nonverbal invitation and entered. His eyes scanning briefly for any other movement outside the house, he slowly, deliberately shut the door behind me.

As I looked around the white walls and beige furniture, I mused aloud with a crooked smile. “I never took you for a suburb-dweller, Raven. Do you mow the yard in full body armor?”

“Cute,” he said simply, turning to face me. 

“Safe house?” I asked, surmising his reason for using the place.

“Yes,” he replied simply. There was that trademark word economy again!

I turned to face him as well, sensing my features harden slightly as something—maybe my overwhelming curiosity, maybe my newfound powers—welled from within to give me the courage to speak the challenging question that had been on my mind to the de facto leader of super.org.

“Raven, did you surrender to that super-strong alien, Xymon?” I blurted out. As I spoke the first few words, my resolve seemed to instantly dissipate, my voice trembling slightly by the time I reached the word “surrender”. Despite my instinct to lower my gaze, however, it remained intently fixed on his.

The normally stoic Raven blanched visibly at the question. He didn’t seem prepared for it. I couldn’t blame him. I was shocked that I’d had the courage to ask it, especially in so blunt a manner.

“So you heard,” he said softly, his perfect posture slumping nearly imperceptibly in concert with his words.

“I only heard you asking about terms before I passed out,” I told him, managing to keep my voice from wavering this time. “What happened after that? Did you actually surrender?”

Raven stared at me for a long moment, then seemed to melt downward onto the living room couch, as if he were a deflating balloon. His eyes dropped from mine, searching the floor as he spoke.

“I did,” he said simply, his voice barely above a whisper.

A cold shiver passed through me. Raven, my childhood idol and secret crush, the man who always had a clever plan to conquer his enemies, was here, in front of me, admitting his first true defeat. And it was one that came at the cost of the entire planet!

“But why? Without even a fight?” My voice took on a pleading tone as if it wanted some reason to continue to believe in the man before me.

His eyes darted to mine, instantly bubbling over with defensive fury.

“Fight?” he admonished, his posture stiffening in his seated position as he became more animated. “FIGHT?!”

“Did you see what they did to Sapphire Valkyrie?” He rose and took two steps toward me, leaning forward until his face was inches from mine.

“She is ten times stronger than I am, and I’m the second strongest member of super.org,” he hissed. His smoldering eyes seared mine with barely contained anger. “And they threw her around like a fucking rag doll!”

“Fighting would have been a slaughter. Would we really have been in a better position with you dead, Valkyrie dead, me dead, and countless civilians and supers all dead.” He paused to let those words sink in.

I considered his words. He had a point. Those aliens had overcome Valkyrie’s prodigious strength as easily as if she had been a powerless child. I imagined their insurmountable power unleashed against lesser supers and regulars and shuddered.

Seeming satisfied with what he saw in my expression, Raven drew back, his ire fading as quickly as it had appeared. He began to pace the room.

“Do you really intend to let them have Earth? I mean, do you even know what they’re going to do?” I asked, my voice coming out timid. So much for my newfound confidence…

Raven’s expression darkened. 

“No,” he said. With that one-word reply, I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

He continued. “But I needed to make a tactical retreat. Fighting them then would have resulted in nothing but meaningless death. That doesn’t mean that I intend to give Earth over to them. They are preparing terms to send to the planet’s elected leaders, but nothing permanent has been agreed or signed at this point.”

“Then what’s your plan,” I asked, intrigued. I wondered what ingenious scheme he had concocted to combat so powerful a foe.

Raven’s eyes began to simmer with anger once more. “I don’t have one,” came his hushed reply, full of enough venom to frighten away a rhinoceros.

I took a half step backward before realizing that the fury in his anguished eyes was not directed toward me but toward himself. I stood there blinking for a moment, attempting to comprehend the full import of his words until a tsunami of fear crashed over me.

Raven had no plan!

Raven had no fucking plan!!!

Dropping my eyes from his, I felt myself begin to hyperventilate. Lowering my long lashes, I took a moment to attempt to slow my breathing and relax my shoulders. As my thudding heart began to calm, it was my turn to pace.

“So do you know what they plan to do?” I asked, my eyes affixed to the patch of cream-colored carpet immediately in front of me as I strode back and forth across the mundane living room.

“I don’t. They weren’t very forthcoming on that point, and it’s not as if I were coming in from a strong enough bargaining position to demand answers.”

“So we can’t actually surrender, right?”

“It would be unwise to do so unless their terms are explicit as to their intent, correct.”

“And we can’t fight them…” I trailed off. I stopped and turned to face Raven once more. “I think I see your dilemma.”

He nodded, the boiling fury in his eyes tapering to mere frustration for the moment.

I continued to search my mind for a solution but found none. After a moment, my thoughts wandered away from the fruitless task I had given it and back to the other train of thought that had dominated my consciousness on the walk from my apartment to the safe house.

“Unless my new powers are, like, really super awesome…” I mumbled under my breath.

“Your new powers?” Raven replied, interest evident in his rising tone.

Shit! Super-hearing. Should have remembered that it was one of Raven’s powers. I hadn’t really meant to share that little tidbit of information. But maybe it wasn’t all bad. Maybe he could give me some insight on what had happened to me in that warehouse.

“Yeah. When I left my apartment, I was able to dent the doorknob with my fingers.” I confessed. It felt strange saying it aloud. Made it more real somehow. “I’ve never had super strength before. And my body looks fitter than it used to be. I’m a little prettier too.” I probably hadn’t needed to volunteer the latter, but it just sorta came out. Maybe my subconscious was trying to make sure Raven noticed it.

Raven gave me an appraising glance, his eyes lingering on each part of my body for a split second before continuing to scan downward. Heat rose from my neck to my cheeks. I hadn’t been prepared for Raven to check me out. It felt all kinds of delicious—and decidedly uncomfortable, at the same time.

When Raven finished his visual exploration of my new and improved body, his eyes snapped back to mine. “Follow me.”

So he was back to the two word sentences, eh? I wondered what that meant.

Attempting to hold Raven’s gaze as my cheeks burned made me yearn to turn on my invisibility power. But I managed not to. Instead, I simply made an embarrassingly squeaky sound of assent and followed his purposeful march toward the back of the house.

Making a series of odd motions with his hands, a portion of the hallway wall slid up to reveal a secret downward staircase. Scarcely pausing, he descended the stairs. Looking around in wonder, I followed.

When we reached the bottom, I glanced around the secret room. It was a large space with stainless steel walls and a number of metal cabinets and devices lining its sides. It looked like some sort of high-tech laboratory. Now this was far more along the lines of what I’d expected in a Raven lair.

Raven motioned for me to take a seat on an examination table in the center of the room. As I plopped on the cold, stainless steel table, I saw him grab a syringe from one of the metallic countertops along the walls and approach.

He jammed it into my arm before I could ask what he intended to do, but the needle bent before it could penetrate. I smiled. I was invulnerable! Or at least LESS vulnerable. Haha! I grinned. No more worries about stubbing my toe on the corner of the bed in the morning for me!

Raven frowned, then grabbed another syringe, this one with a much longer and robust-looking needle. It looked more like something that was meant for an elephant than a person.

“Hey wait! You’re not actually going to stick me with THAT, are—“

And he stuck me with that.

This one did penetrate my skin, and I watched as his hand pulled back the plunger, gradually filling the cylinder with warm, red liquid.

Still silent, he removed the syringe from my arm and took it to some sort of machine with a computer monitor attached. I glanced down at my arm, seeing blood bubbling up from the prick.

“Aren’t you going to give me one of those little gauze pads like they do at the doctor’s office?” I questioned. Raven, however, seemed too engrossed in his work to notice my query. Jerk.

I hopped off the table and found a box of tissue on the counter at the far wall. Pulling one out, I pressed it to my arm, then joined Raven in front of the large monitor.

As I leaned over his shoulder to see what he was doing, he gasped. “That’s not possible!”

“What’s not possible?” I asked him, wondering whether this was a good impossible or a bad impossible. I wasn’t used to being involved with impossible things, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

“Your DNA! It has patterns that I’ve never seen anywhere except…” he trailed off, seeming lost in thought.

“…Except…” I attempted to prompt him. It wasn’t cool to leave me hanging like that!

“…Except from the DNA sample I was able to obtain from one of the aliens—a hair that they left behind,” he finished, gaze distant.

My stomach plummeted as the words rocked me. Had Xymon’s weakening field done something to me? Changed me? At a cellular level?

“Do you think proximity to the alien somehow changes DNA? Is that why I passed out? Did this happen to Sapphire Valkyrie? Did her DNA start to look like theirs too?”

“I don’t know,” said Raven, stunned.

“So am I going to turn into a clone of this guy or something? What the hell is going to happen to me?”

Raven took a deep breath, collecting himself, and considered. “I don’t think so,” he finally said. “But I can’t be completely certain.”

“Oh my God! I’m going to turn into an alien freakazoid!” I screeched, panic rising in my chest.

“Calm down, Shadowgirl. I said I didn’t think that was going to happen,” said Raven in a soothing tone, my anxiety seeming to bring out the opposite in him.

“But you said you couldn’t be certain!” I said hysterically.

“Of course not. Not when dealing with new alien life forms. There are still substantial differences in your DNA. Just a few similarities, that’s all.”

I turned away from him, feeling tears begin to fall, my emotions unswayed by Raven’s attempt to course-correct. This wasn’t what I’d expected him to say when he’d taken that sample. Not by a long shot. So it turned out that my blessing was actually a curse in disguise. Kind of like my power invalidating my attractiveness. Fuck! Why was there always a catch!

Raven frowned, his eyes intent on me as I returned to my seat on the examination table. His dark irises shone with an unidentifiable emotion as he watched the waterworks from my internal pity party.

“Damn it, Shadowgirl. You’re being given a gift here. Many gifts, actually. Your physical form has some similarities to the most powerful beings that we’ve ever encountered in the universe. And you somehow think that’s a bad thing?”

He placed his hand on my lycra-clad thigh in a gesture that was intended to comfort. As his touch lingered, however, I found myself hoping it would lead to something more. My welling tears ceased as I saw the glimmer of attraction in the comforting look he gave me. It reminded me of the other apparent perks of the alien DNA, like the longer, more toned leg that Raven’s warm fingers now caressed. My eyes searched his for several silent moments before he broke eye contact, retracted his hand, and turned away from me.

“We’re going to have to test your powers,” he said matter-of-factly, apparently deciding to go all businessy now that I wasn’t crying. Damn. Maybe I should have kept the tears going. If that’s all it took to get him in the mood, then…

Lost in thought and beginning to pace once more, Raven mumbled. I couldn’t hear most of his muttered words, but I did catch the last few. “This could be the key to—” Then he stopped suddenly, as if he’d given away too much, looking at me in sudden alarm.

“I’ve got to go,” he announced loudly, his eyes distant, body stiffening in urgency.

What the hell? Did he suspect something that he didn’t want to tell me? Something that involved me, maybe? What was it?

I was about to ask, but he swept out of the lab before I could manage to utter another word. I heard the door at the top of the stairs open then shut, and he was gone. I slumped, questions whirling in my mind. At least I had his number now. I’d give him a call in a bit and try to get more information out of him.

I smiled slyly. I was pretty sure that Raven found me attractive now. I could use that to my advantage. Guys were always easier to persuade when they were into me. And I wouldn’t mind cultivating his attraction for all kinds of reasons…

I got up, climbed the stairs and strode through the banal living room of the safe house to go home, when the front door opened to reveal another breathtakingly handsome man clad in a tight, shimmering uniform.

It was Xymon.

PART 4

As Xymon approached, I attempted to put on a brave face, but as I felt my body begin to tingle as it had in the warehouse, the icy chill of fear whirled into me. I could sense my jaw tighten and eyes tremor with the onset of the unwanted sensation, and I began a mental mantra: “Don’t faint! Don’t faint! Don’t freaking FAINT!”

“I tracked Raven here, but what do I find instead? It’s the pretty girl from the warehouse,” the devilishly delicious alien said, amusement dancing in his eyes. “I can’t say that I’m disappointed, though. You’re much closer to my usual choice in companionship.”

The alien moved in an arc around me, appraising. “You are a little skinny maybe. I know that I have an intense effect on Earth females, but none of the others have fainted just by approaching me. You must REALLY have a thing for perfect bodies and unbelievable strength.”

He paused to let his words sink in for a moment, a smug smirk forming on his perfect lips. “Not that I can blame you…”

I fought to remain standing, the decreasingly solid world seeming to ripple as he came to a stop before me. Xymon gave a lilting laugh at my swaying form. I was vaguely aware that my expression was now completely transparent, revealing my distress, but I couldn’t muster the energy to care. For all my newfound strength, it was all I could do to remain standing, bolstering my weakening knees with just barely enough willpower to prevent another epically humiliating collapse at his feet.

The man MUST have some sort of weakening aura. That MUST be his secret. Right?

“There’s something about you, pretty girl…” he whispered absently, seemingly to himself. His grin faded, the amusement in his eyes melting into something that looked more akin to desire.

Funny, I might have said the same to him! Lord knows, I probably had the same amorous look in my eyes. The man was just so ridiculously well-formed. His body was like a Bernini sculpture made flesh—almost too perfect to be real.

I attempted to speak, but only a soft, aroused squeak managed to escape my lips. If my whimpering little sound were any indication, I was in for further humiliation in the very near future.

I opened my mouth to speak a second time, still determined to make a strong showing this time before earth’s would-be conqueror, but no words came out at all. Bloody freaking hell!

I felt my eyes widen as I stared up at him, at his smiling lips, and I licked my own involuntarily. 

“Jesus, Sam! Get ahold of yourself!” I admonished myself mentally.

What was it about this man? Why did he have such an effect on me? I mean, I felt an attraction toward Raven, yes. Always had. But it was nowhere near this strong. My feelings for Xymon—this sculpted, muscular, achingly sexy alien—were completely overpowering, shorting out my every attempt to control myself, to even stand upright! Was this attractiveness related to his physical weakening power? Some sort of mental enfeeblement power to go along with the physical one? I sure hoped not. At some point, unless we were actually prepared to surrender Earth, we were going to have to stand against this man. That wasn’t going to be easy if I couldn’t think properly, or, well, stand.

As I was attempting to think my way through this whole situation, my body seemed to act of its own accord. Before I knew what I’d done, I had stepped forward, pushed up onto my tiptoes and pressed my lips into his.

The feeling was absolutely orgasmic. Heat radiated from my womb, bursting through me, instantly scorching away all the thoughts and feelings that had been warning me that this was a really bad idea.

His eyes widened briefly in surprise, I think. Then, they closed, his impossibly strong arms reaching around to envelope me. His body felt unbelievably firm against mine, as if it were sculpted from steel then left outside to bake in the afternoon sun. He was warm but his thick muscles were completely unyielding.

The feel of that perfect body against mine was too much. I felt, more than heard, mewlings of desire escape me. My knees buckled, but his arms held me tightly to his delicious body, keeping me from falling. Our kisses became deeper, hungrier. I couldn’t get enough of him. My body wanted to be near his, and my mind, swimming in pleasure, was more than happy to allow it.

We went on like that for seconds that seemed like hours, my slender form lapping up his sumptuous nearness with utter abandon. All I could focus on was the pleasure, far beyond anything I’d previously experienced.

Adrift in the overpowering sensation of his body against mine, I was vaguely aware that I was changing once again. As we continued our torrid make-out session, I sensed that my face was inching upward toward his, the stretch to reach to his lips lessening by the minute.

As the seconds ticked by, my body began to feel stronger, until I could stand again. I locked my still-weak knees, the act pushing my mouth harder into his. Lost in a sea of passion, my hips rose, sliding up his upper thighs as my already long legs lengthened further.

My arms, initially dangling weakly, feeling as jelly-like as my legs, seemed to gain strength. I snaked them around Xymon’s iron physique, my fingers gliding over the thin fabric of his otherworldly uniform, taken on a breathtaking journey of sensual topography by the delicious bulges of his rock-hard body.

For a second, a glimmer of thought returned. Sensual topography? Rock-hard body? What the fuck? My thoughts were starting to sound like a freaking romance novel!

The wispy train of thought quickly evaporated, though, when Xymon picked me up effortlessly to lay me gently on the couch in the living room. Our mouths parted only long enough for Xymon to pull off his shimmering uniform, then tear open my tight top, before his mouth found mine once more. We devoured each other hungrily, as if possessed.

When his lips began to descend my neck, I rolled my head around, squirming in pleasure. My hand rose to the back of his head, fingers clenching his hair as desire made my hungry body manic. As my head continued to toss about with the pleasure of Xymon’s lips on increasingly sensitive flesh, my eyes caught our reflection in the window across the room.

I pulled back my outer leg, sliding my rounded calf along his leg until my foot came to rest against his hip. Xymon’s tongue flicked over my nipples, and I watched the muscles of my leg tense with the rapturous sensation. I watched as my costume, already stretched thin, began to tear along my thigh to reveal tanned, healthy silky skin beneath.

As smooth, feminine muscle swelled, the lower part of my costume gave way entirely, falling away from my bent leg to the cushion of the couch below. I gasped as I took in its defined shapeliness, its impossible length. Was this perfect limb really MY leg?

“Sapphire Valkyrie, eat your heart out,” I thought, the hint of a smirk gracing the increasingly full lips of my reflection.

Continuing to examine the window’s reflection, my gaze flowed from my improving lips to my stunning eyes, now a nearly iridescent green that glowed with health, radiating vitality. My cheekbones seemed regal, my eyebrows rising into dramatic arches, as my visage continued its ascension toward perfection.

Roaming the rest of my body, it was difficult to tell whether my breasts had changed, mashed as they were, beneath Xymon’s godlike body. A moment later, however, I felt the snap of my already torn costume as it gave way completely to my burgeoning chest and had my answer. My smile widened to Cheshire proportions with the knowledge that my breasts had grown. I couldn’t wait to see them. If they had improved as much as my legs had, they were going to be spectacular!

Before I could properly appreciate that aspect of my changes, however, my expanding hips burst through the last remnants of my black uniform, leaving their firm, rounded curves naked to the simmering air.

Like the curtain dropping to reveal an artist’s masterpiece, the rest of my uniform fell away, leaving my phenomenal body bare. My moist skin was no longer separated from Xymon’s by even the thinnest of cloth. Xymon seemed to sense the change and moved more urgently against my naked body.

Uttering a sharp gasp, I felt Xymon’s steely hardness enter me. And omigod, it felt AMAZING!

I had never had sex before, but I would never have waited if I knew it felt like THIS! My friends had always told me that it was painful and messy and not as much fun as it was cracked up to be.

They were wrong.

Seriously fucking wrong.

I released a long, deep moan as his iron cock sent jolts of painful ecstasy lancing through my body, filling me in a way I couldn’t properly describe. I felt wetness flowing from me, covering his hot, unyielding flesh, lubricating Xymon’s manhood as it drove relentlessly into me, turning my breathing into increasingly urgent gasps and whimpers.

He was so strong, his muscles so unbelievably dense. He drove into me with such power and control that I felt myself bucking into my first climax before he had pushed all the way in.

My fingertips clutched at the sculpted ridges of his popping triceps as he crashed into me. I closed my eyes as his godlike body undulated over mine, delighting in the feel of his hardness and my own increasingly firm form as its changes accelerated.

Breathless as a second climax rocked me, I squeezed my eyes shut, my vision dimmed by the pleasure. I tried to open them again, but was racked by another burst of pleasure, then another, as he thrust into my depths again and again.

I orgasmed hard. Again and again. A dozen times. Maybe more. I lost count, adrift in an ocean of rapture, too far gone to look again at my reflection and see what I’d become.

I didn’t entirely lose consciousness, but neither did I entirely have it for hours afterward. At some point, Xymon left, but I simply continued to writhe on the couch, basking in the feeling of my body’s continued transition into its new shape. After the feelings finally faded, I simply lay there, half awake in a fog of semi-consciousness.

When I finally came to my senses, I managed to swing my shaking legs off the couch, set my feet on the floor, and rise. Turning toward where I had lain, I saw the tatters of my costume, broken by the voluptuous curves of my body. I searched through the house to find a proper mirror, until I found it, unsurprisingly, in the bedroom.

I took a step back, physically moved by the sight that greeted me. Waves of silken tresses fell over my shoulders, sparks of copper and orange, embers of crimson and scarlet all caught the sunlight as I moved. The shimmering mass was full, thick, and so utterly vibrant that the swirl of rich color was completely mesmerizing in its cascading ripples.

My eyes seemed to glow like emeralds placed over a jeweler’s lamp. Large and looming, they were bordered by the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen, then surrounded again by the milkiest skin. My complexion was perfect, flawless and fresh, all traces of imperfection washed away like a watercolor painting in the rain. Sculpted cheekbones, sensual lips, and a feminine jawline gave me a face that could make any cover model jealous.

My arms were much slimmer but just as defined as those I had felt on my alien lover hours earlier. My breasts were full, proud, and sure to be drool-inducing when eyes dropped to my cleavage. Was it possible for ‘perfection‘ to be an understatement? If it were, my breasts took that hypothetical into literal territory.

But that was before I saw my stomach. Sleek definition, etched obliques, beautifully defined ridges of abs, visible crevices between each defined muscle… and that without bothering to tense them. When I actually clenched my midsection, it exploded in a network of striations that could put any fitness model to shame.

My slim, firm waist flowed outward into the rounded muscle of my hips and a devastatingly gorgeous ass. My legs were toned, defined, and endless. Dancer’s legs, though so exquisitely shaped that no dancers actually had a pair that looked anywhere near this good.

I felt my knees go weak once more as the full impact of the prodigious beauty I now possessed hit me like a locomotive.

My God. I might be the most beautiful woman alive!

Correction, I thought to myself. I am the most beautiful woman alive.

And it wasn’t close.

I was about as far beyond Sapphire Valkyrie in the looks department as she had been beyond me yesterday morning. Maybe further.

My thoughts progressed to what else that might mean. Last time, my physical power had grown with my beauty. Was that the case again? If it was, how much stronger was I now? I looked at the mirror with a burgeoning grin. My guess? With this RIDICULOUS body?

Pretty. Fucking. Strong.

Then another realization hit me. This one sent my stomach plummeting downward as quickly as the breathtaking reflection of my new body had set it aflight.

I had just slept with the alien badass who was attempting to force Earth to its knees. I had slept with public enemy #1.

Great. Just freaking great.

“Good thinking, Sam! Way to give your virginity to the worst possible man imaginable. Now you’re a traitor to super.org and basically the whole rest of humanity. And even earth’s animals. And plants. Yay, Samantha! You’ve managed to actually redefine the concept of sleeping with the enemy, taking it to a freaking planetary scale!” The thoughts, which I spoke aloud to no one but myself, were so shocking, so deeply disturbing that I simply stood there blinking for a moment.

I slumped to the perfectly made bed and cradled my head in my hands. Tears welled. I remained in that position for a few moments, my stomach and mind competing to see which could out-somersault-in-horror the other.

Then, I began to laugh. What I had done was so absurd—and so utterly awful—that it suddenly struck me as hilarious. It began as a light, hissing wheeze; progressed to a giggle; then to a belly laugh; before I broke into a full-on guffaw, rolling back and forth on the never-before-used bed until tears of a different sort streamed from my eyes.

Gradually, my inappropriate moment of levity passed, and I sobered, still lying on the bed with my gorgeous hair splayed over the covers like a river of copper.

My thoughts turned to the last unknown outcome of the afternoon with my alien super lover. How strong was I? Was I stronger than Valkyrie? Than Xymon? I doubted it, but…

I rolled over and raised my head to sneak another curious glance at the mirror.

Damn, I looked good!

A glimmer of hope lodged itself in my soaring heart. Could I really be among the strongest people on Earth? I couldn’t hide a smile at the thought. Maybe I’d grown strong enough to actually help in the fight against Xymon? To make up for this sorta-betrayal of my team and my planet? My brilliant white grin was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

I popped up from the bed, grabbed my phone, and found Raven in my contacts. I strolled out the front door of the cookie-cutter house as I waited for Raven to answer.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a neighborhood teenager falling off a skateboard. Turning to him, I saw that his eyes were wide, pupils dilated, glued to me. Why was he…?

Oh, shit! I was freaking naked! My costume was in tatters, still on the living room couch! That little detail had eluded me as I’d been concentrating on what I would say to Raven.

I turned invisible before the crimson had even fully blossomed on my cheeks. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was truly and completely grateful that I had that power. 

Raven answered with a gruff, “What is it?”

Flustered from my unintentional peep show (see if you can match THAT body in your lewd internet surfing, kid!), I paused for a moment, blinking rather than responding to Raven’s question.

“Shadowgirl?”

Oh, yeah. I remembered what I was going to tell him.

“Got something to show you. I think you’re going to like it…” I said, a smirk curling my transparent lips.

“As long as I don’t tell you how I got it…” I thought to myself.

PART 5

I proceeded to the new address Raven sent me after our brief conversation. As I trudged to the warehouse district where he was apparently now located, I wondered idly how many safe houses he had around town. 

Deciding to put my longer, stronger legs to the test, I ran all the way there. My speed was such that wind whipped at my cheeks, but the usual chill I would have felt was not there, my invulnerability protecting me from its bite. With a grin, I added super speed to my growing list of powers. When I neared the location, I slowed to take in the surroundings, then shivered. The last time I was in this part of town, I’d met Xymon… and promptly fainted.

I had arrived at the address in seconds, far faster than Raven probably expected me, so I decided to remain invisible and sneak inside to see what exactly Raven was up to in here. He was always so secretive that it just seemed a good way of getting some insight as to his activities—especially after he had hinted at some sort of knowledge that involved me back in the last safe house. Maybe if I snooped a little, I would find out what he was actually up to.

Slipping into the door, leaving a mangled deadbolt in my wake, I never tripped the motion detectors. They failed to detect my invisible body. I also evaded the top-of-the-line laser security system by walking straight through it. The beams passed right through me, undisturbed, to their receptors on the other side. Yay, invisibility! I guess that my original power did have its uses from time to time.

I looked around to find a spotless, stainless-steel interior with blue LED lighting and what looked like very high-tech and extremely heavy-duty gym equipment. The place was pretty rad. Way cooler than the other safe house. This must be Raven’s gym or something. This stuff certainly looked like it was heavy enough to give him a heck of a workout.

At the far side of the vast room, at one of the machines, sat Sapphire Valkyrie, pumping out bench presses with solid metal weights the size of cars on each side of the bar. She looked as gorgeous and healthy as ever, clearly having fully recovered from her beating at the hands of the aliens the day prior. Raven stood next to her, looking on as she worked out.

As I neared, I moved with absolute silence, knowing that Raven’s super-hearing would detect even the slightest sound. I began to hear their conversation.

“I don’t understand it, Lisa,” said Raven. “She seemed to be weakened just as you were by the alien’s presence, but I’ve tested your DNA, and you don’t show the alien sequences that she does.”

“Yeah, well I’m probably made of tougher stuff than she is,” Valkyrie smirked. “I’m glad not to have anything in common with those filthy alien bastards.”

“Well, I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing! She seemed to be affected by the proximity to the alien in other ways as well. Denser musculature, increased strength and speed, enhanced invulnerability. The proximity of the alien to you didn’t seem to have the same effect at all. Your powers are the same as before.”

Valkyrie gave an annoyed grunt. “Well goodie for her. Maybe she’ll manage to actually take a hit next time before she collapses like a wet noodle.”

I felt a frown form on my lips. Sapphire Valkyrie was kind of a jerk when out of the public eye. Wet noodle?! Was that really what she thought of me? I set aside the sting from her comment, however, to listen to Raven’s reply.

“Her new powers are still nowhere near yours, but they probably rival mine,” he continued, nodding his head toward the LED display on the machine.

“I’m actually beginning to wonder if Shadowgirl was somehow infected by them. She may be becoming one of them,” he finished.

My stomach clenched, bile’s bitterness rising inside me at those words. Had I been infected by Xymon? Was that why I found him completely irresistible? What if our lovemaking had accelerated the changes? They had clearly changed me again. Was I more alien than human now? The thoughts rattled me to the core. What was happening to me?!

Sapphire Valkyrie lowered the massive weight a final time until it came to rest on the platforms on either side of her. She slid out from under the thick bar and sat up. “Well, if my invulnerability protected me from being infected with their DNA, then that was about the only good it did. I’ve never been completely overpowered like that in my life! Their power was incredible.”

Her eyes became unfocused, looking at some distant point as she continued. “There is no way anyone could actually be that strong. They must have a way of weakening me. What I need from you is your help in figuring out how to shield me from that effect. I need to be able to fight them.”

“I know!” replied Raven emphatically. “That’s exactly why I’m studying the impact of their proximity, their ability to weaken when close. And right now, it seems like Shadowgirl’s DNA holds the key to learning how it works.”

“Well at least the little brat might be good for something. I don’t know why you ever let invisi-girl into super.org. Invisibility? Pfft. It’s almost as worthless an ability as that prankster on social media has. You know, the one whose only power is the ability to make articles of clothing vanish?” Valkyrie said, rising to her feet.

What?! Little brat? That bitch! Was that why Sapphire Valkyrie had never spoken to me? Why she had always seemed so standoffish? It wasn’t just that she was busy doing superheroey things; she just didn’t respect me in the least!

Anger replaced the uncertainty inside me, beginning to boil the blood in my veins.

“Come on, Lisa. That’s harsh,” said Raven. “She’s been able to gather some good intel for us on her infiltration missions.”

My anger cooled slightly as Raven came to my defense. At least he thought I was worth something.

“Ha. I’ll show you how infiltration should be done,” replied Valkyrie, her tone dropping to a husky purr as she stepped into Raven and gave him a deep, probing kiss.

There had always been talk of Sapphire Valkyrie and Raven being an item. They had never confirmed them but neither had they denied any of it when reporters brought it up. The looks they occasionally gave each other continued to fuel the talk at headquarters, however. Now, I knew for a fact that the rumors were true.

The not-entirely-unexpected revelation pushed my simmering anger back to a full boil. How dare this bitch badmouth me, then make a show of snogging Raven—my crush since childhood—right in front of me!

A more rational part of my mind attempted to inform me that she didn’t know I was here, that the action wasn’t intended as another personal insult to me. But screw rationality. Anger’s red haze crept into my vision. I didn’t need Sapphire fucking Valkyrie. I might even be as powerful as she was now. I was damn sure that she couldn’t hold a candle to me in the looks department now! Let’s see who Raven truly liked better now. I had seen the stirrings of attraction in his eyes back in suburbia. And I was far sexier and more powerful now…

“Ahem,” I said, dropping my invisibility, except for a cloak of transparency over my private parts. The result was something like a chameleon bikini. I appeared behind Valkyrie, who was still locked in an embrace with Raven.

Raven’s eyes darted to mine at my sudden appearance, then widened as they took in my ridiculously gorgeous face. As his gaze dropped, his dark eyes opened to epic proportions as they drank in the rest of my perfect form.

That’s right, Raven. Check me out! I felt smug delight at the effect my newfound beauty was having on the man.

Valkyrie—Lisa, as Raven had called her—seemed to sense the change in Raven’s posture as he tensed involuntarily. She followed his eyes to me.

Her jaw dropped. She was clearly as surprised as Raven about my new appearance.

“W-who?” she stammered in an awed whisper.

“It’s your friendly neighborhood Shadowgirl, of course! You know, the one with the abilities that are as useless as the underwear-vanishing punk’s?” I replied, my voice bitter with sarcasm and hurt. “At least my ability let me see what a bitch you really are, though.”

Doubt flickered across her features. I had never seen that before. Not even with the aliens who had kicked her ass in the warehouse. Maybe they had overpowered her, but she had probably never felt like the least attractive woman in the room before. I felt a smile twist my lips upward. And I was the one making her doubt herself. Me! The realization set my spirits aflight. In an instant, I felt confident, unstoppable.

“Care to back up those words, Valkyrie? Right here? Right now? Think I’m going to collapse like a wet noodle in front of your sorry ass?”

Holy shit! Had I just insulted her? And, um, challenged Sapphire Valkyrie to a fight? Omigod. That probably hadn’t been a wise move. I’d better be right about at least being in her league after my latest round of changes. Otherwise, I might be living the final moments of my life right about now.

The doubt, which had lasted only an instant, completely disappeared from Valkyrie’s expression. Her full lips fell into a frown. Her cobalt eyes narrowed. Her hands clenched into fists. I could almost hear her thoughts: “How dare she…!”

I flicked my eyes toward Raven, whose countenance looked so utterly shocked at the sudden turn of events, that I instinctively wanted to go comfort him.

In that instant, however, my attention on Raven, Valkyrie struck. She was so fast! As my eyes zipped back to her, I saw her fist accelerating toward me. Time seemed to slow, but her fist was already less than an inch from my stomach and even now, with my enhanced physical abilities, I wasn’t fast enough to dodge out of the way or block from that distance with so little warning.

Shit!

I tensed my abs and waited another instant for her fist to connect, bracing for impact. God, I hoped I survived this. I really, really didn’t want to die right now. I squeezed my eyes shut.

Then her fist connected. I heard a series of sharp cracks. Oh, Lord. Had her fist gone clean through me and snapped my spine? So much for the hope I’d held out of not dying…

…Except that it didn’t hurt. At all. Was that good? Or bad? When one’s spine snapped, could they no longer feel pain? Wow! At least if I had to go, maybe the nature of the injury would keep me from hurting too badly. Maybe I would only be paralyzed from the waist down and could survive this thing? 

After a moment, my eyes still squeezed shut, I worked up the courage to check out my gruesome injury. I popped one eye open to look down at my stomach. It looked fine. My too-perfect-to-be-real eight bricks of impenetrable muscle didn’t show so much as a red mark. So what had made the cracking sound?

I looked up at Valkyrie, who was cradling her hand next to her own stomach, grimacing in obvious pain. It took my surprise-addled brain a moment to realize what had happened.

Sapphire Valkyrie had struck me in the stomach… and broken her hand against my apparently super-er abs.

A massive grin burst out on my face as I realized the ramifications of that fact. Not only was I out of Valkyrie’s league in beauty now, I was out of her league in strength as well?

Hell, yeah!

I thought back to all the time I’d spent wishing I were like her. Unbelievably beautiful, unimaginably strong. But I wasn’t like her. I was beyond her. Far beyond. In both ways. Pride surged within me. I was the strongest. I was not only superior to Sapphire Valkyrie, I was far superior.

Just like… the aliens.

As the thought occurred to me, it must have occurred to Valkyrie as well. She looked at me with glassy eyes and spoke, her tone hushed. “You’re just like the invaders…”

The thought put a quick damper on my rapidly inflating ego.

Maybe my DNA was even more like theirs now. It certainly appeared that way. Was I more like them than myself now? Had I become one of them? SHOULD I become one of them?

That final thought sent another shiver down my still-fully-intact spine. If I were more alien than human now, should I join them? Did I belong with them?

Before I could complete the line of thought, Raven seemed to have a thought of his own, and he pressed some sort of device against Valkyrie’s shoulder. Valkyrie cast him a meaningful glance, glared at me, then disappeared in a whoosh of superspeed, leaving Raven and me alone in the supergym. Raven looked down at the display of the device, then looked up, staring at me thoughtfully. 

“She wasn’t weakened at all. Her strength registered the same as always. You are actually that much stronger than she is.” His voice held a note of something I’d never heard in his voice before. I couldn’t tell if it was awe or desire, but either seemed a possibility. Maybe both.

“Did all of these changes just… happen… after we parted?” asked Raven, eyes glued to me, roaming the masterpiece that was my body.

“Um… yeah,” I said, choosing not to elaborate. I still had aspirations of hooking up with Raven, my teenage crush, someday—especially looking like I now did. I didn’t think that telling him I’d just gone full-on slutbomb with Earth’s archenemy would help me achieve that end, especially not after I’d picked a fight with Valkyrie.

“Fascinating…” Raven trailed off. I caught shimmers of desire in his eyes. I had only seen him look at Valkyrie like that previously. Never me. Not until now. And the fire within his gaze burned with more intensity than I’d ever seen before. Prickles of heat goosebumped my flawless flesh.

Raven shook his head as if clearing away unwanted thoughts. When he spoke again, he was almost his usual disciplined self, though I could still see the lingering heat in his gaze. He wanted me.

“I doubt I’ll be able to get a blood sample anymore,” he said wryly. “Would you mind plucking a hair for me? That might be the only way I can get a new sample of your DNA…”

“What?” I said, momentarily confused. I needed to get used to this whole super-powerful status. “Oh… yes, of course.”

That hadn’t been what I’d expected him to say. But it made sense. He wanted to see what was happening to me. I had to admit that I was more than a little curious, myself.

I plucked a strand of vibrant red hair and handed it over to him. He took it gingerly, as if it were an item of extraordinary value, then walked it over to another DNA scanner at the side of the room.

“How many of those scanner things do you have, anyway?” I wondered idly aloud.

He ignored me, too intent on examining my sample to notice anything else.

“So what’s the what?” I said after a few minutes of silence. Before I could stop myself, I asked another question as well—the one that had been lingering in the back of my mind. “Am I more alien than human now?”

Raven turned toward me, locked eyes, expression stony, and spoke gravely. “Yes. Your DNA is very much like Xymon’s, except magnified somehow. There are dissimilarities still, of course, but I would say you are now more like him than like me.”

Something about the way he compared me to himself rather than humans in general made things more personal. More real. More… heartbreaking.

I felt tears well and roll down my cheeks. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to become an alien, despite its clear benefits.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Valkyrie clearly didn’t like me. Raven seemed to be distancing himself from me as well, telling me I was more like them now. Was I one of them now? Did I have a choice in the matter? What if super.org didn’t trust me anymore? What if they kicked me out? Pissing off Sapphire Valkyrie might result in exactly that.

Confused, hurt, and angry, I wasn’t sure where my loyalties should lie anymore. I slipped into full invisibility and left the building at hyper-speed, deciding to go back to my apartment and regroup.

When I got back, I opened the door to find Andrea still there. When I dropped my invisibility, she turned to face me.

When she saw my new appearance, I expected shock. I expected surprise. I expected awe. But written over her features were none of those. Instead, she simply gave me a knowing smile.

Then she knelt on the floor, bowed her head, and spoke in reverent voice. “My queen.”

Um, what? I had been ready for a number of different reactions from my sister. But not that one.

Queen?

PART 6

“Quit screwing with me, And. I’ve had just about enough craziness today, and I really need someone to talk to right now.” I walked over to where she remained bowed, grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet.

Andrea continued to avert her eyes, keeping them locked on the ground before her.

“WTF, Andrea? Enough already!” I seethed, exasperated at her odd behavior. I didn’t have the patience for her antics right now. I seriously needed to talk through what had happened today. She always picked the worst times to mess around.

At the vehemence behind my words, Andrea’s eyes darted to mine before quickly dropping to the floor again.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to converse casually with you any longer, now that you have taken your rightful place as our queen.”

Okay, who was this person in front of me? She certainly wasn’t acting like the Andrea I knew. She wasn’t talking like the Andrea I knew either. So formal. Converse? Since when did Andrea use words like “converse”? Since when did anyone use words like “converse”?!

“I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about! I know I look a little different, but you don’t have to keep calling me a queen! Now talk to me like you’re my freaking sister, already. A lot of shit happened today, and you’re the only one I can trust to talk to about it.”

I really just wanted a safe person to confide in right now, but from her continued un-Andrea-like behavior, I could see that I would need to deal with… whatever this was… first.

I sighed, closing my eyes to gather my patience. “Okay, Andrea. You win. Now tell me what this queen business is all about.”

Andrea sucked in a slow breath of her own as she considered my words carefully, eyes darting about as she thought. After a moment, she began to speak, her gaze still averted from mine.

“You have assumed your mantle as Queen of the Xyr. Now that you have both assimilated the power of and consummated a relationship with another Xyr, you have announced your presence as our rightful Queen.”

What the hell was she talking about? Xyr? Was that what the aliens were called? How the heck was I their Queen? Just because my DNA had morphed from that Xymon guy’s presence, and when I had, um, bumped uglies with him? That made no sense.

“Huh?” I replied like a dumbass, my confusion proving too great for my typical loquaciousness to overcome. I paused, then tried again to articulate any of my million questions.

“Okay, so… huh?”

Yeah, so my second attempt was just as lame as my first. I’m not proud of it, but you try communicating after a day in which you passed out, fucked earth’s greatest-ever archenemy, had half your DNA replaced, turned completely gorgeous, became super-strong, and got into a one-sided dust-up with earth’s most powerful superhero, only to find out from your goofball sister than you’re some kind of alien queen. It’s a lot to take in, alright?!

Andrea looked sheepish. “I’ll start from the beginning…” she replied in a soft voice.

“Yes. That,” I managed to get out, hoping that this explanation was a little more complete than her last.

“The Xyr Empire has been expanding throughout the galaxy for the last several million years. The Empire is over a thousand planets strong now, and Emperor Xoron is on a mission to conquer more planets during his rule than any of our previous leaders ever have. He is the strongest emperor we’ve had in generations, with a particularly effective combination of powers.”

“You see, every Xyr is born with at least one power. Mine is invisibility. Emperor Xoron has three: immense strength, perfect invulnerability, and the power of flight. He also does not like to be challenged. He is a despot and has abused his power during his reign, putting down anyone that might rise as a rival. He has built an imperial security division loyal only to him and has countless operatives constantly scouring the Empire for dissidents.”

“Of particular interest to his security operatives are those who show Queen potential. For someone to develop into a Queen is extremely rare, even among those who show the genome of potential. The emperor is unusually powerful, so the only real threat to his continued rule would be the emergence of a Queen, and he knows it.”

“So Queens are more powerful than emperors?” I questioned as my mind struggled to keep up with the ramifications of this information. Did this mean Andrea and I really were aliens?

“Not inherently. Queens develop no powers of their own. Their power is the ability to replicate those of other Xyr that they come into contact with and amplify them.”

“Amplify them?”

“Yes. For example, you replicated my invisibility power when you matured. However, you can hide parts of your body selectively, like invisible clothes, just as you are doing right now. I can’t do that. For me, invisibility is either all or nothing. I also can’t hide the clothes I’m wearing over my body like you can. I have to be naked to be properly invisible.”

“So you can turn invisible too?” I was stunned. I was learning more about my sister in the past few minutes than I had ever suspected there was to learn.

She vanished, her clothes still visible, looking as if they were draped on a transparent mannequin. After a brief moment, she popped back into existence, the slightest hint of amusement on her lips as she studied my astonished face. The emergence of the old, mischievous Andrea was a welcome sight. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. She seemed to catch herself, eyes dropping once again to my feet, her expression turning stony once more. 

“I smuggled you away from our Xyr planet when you showed the genetic markers of a potential Queen. I knew that someone would be coming to kill you when I saw your test results. They kill anyone with Queen potential. Queens only appear every ten thousand years on average, so almost no one with the potential actually develops that way, but the emperor doesn’t care. To him, it’s not worth the risk of leaving any possible challenger alive. Because Queens can replicate and magnify powers, they have the capacity to become far more powerful than others of our species. Even him.”

“But Raven said my DNA was only partially like Xymon’s! Only partially alien!” I said, unsure how I felt about being told I had always been an alien.

“Our DNA shares similarities with that of humans. Before you began to replicate more powers, your DNA may have been similar enough that the differences went unnoticed. As you adopt more powers, however, it will transform your DNA at a molecular level. Since powers are not something that normal human genomes possess, yours will appear more and more different from that of normal humans with every power acquisition you make.”

My mind whirred through the implications of Andrea’s words, but before I could ask about anything else, there was something I had to know.

“Andrea, are you actually my sister?”

“I am,” she replied. I could see pride in her eyes as they flicked upward to connect briefly with mine.

“So you took me here… to save my life?”

“I did.” Her eyes remained on mine this time.

I strode over to her, my long legs covering the distance in two steps, and embraced her in a huge hug.

“Easy! Easy!” she begged as the air whooshed out of her lungs. Oops! I needed to remember my newfound strength! I immediately eased off on the intensity of the hug, but I didn’t let her go.

“Thank you,” I whispered into her ear, feeling tears of emotion well in my eyes. I thought about what she had done. My big sister had left her home, her people. For me. It was difficult to imagine the scope of that sacrifice. She would have had to leave behind everyone she knew, adapt to a new culture, a new language. And we had just been kids!

Kids. In a flash of insight, I realized that she must have had help. “Do we have any other family here? Real family, I mean?”

Andrea’s brow furrowed, and she looked conflicted, as if she were reluctant to tell me something. Before she could, the door burst open and in strode Xymon.

“So you’re the traitor to the empire,” accused Xymon, staring directly at Andrea. “The one who defied the emperor’s orders.”

I moved between them, worried that Xymon would do something to her.

Xymon didn’t seem to care that I had blocked his path, continuing to speak. “After our little encounter earlier,” he said, eyes shifting to focus on me. “I did a little reading on the phenomenon that drove our actions and realized what must have happened. That I had awakened a Queen. Now I’ve come to remedy that little mistake.”

Suddenly, without any further words, he leapt forward, launching a fist directly at my head. Time seemed to slow, just as it had in my confrontation with Sapphire Valkyrie. This time, however, I was paying attention and able to react in time. I dodged to the side, twisting my core to evade his heavy swing. As I sidestepped, his forward momentum carried him toward me. I threw a hard elbow into his temple, sending him through the wall of my apartment, flying across the street.

Whoa! Had I just done that? Xymon had dispatched Sapphire Valkyrie with ease! I knew from my encounter with her at Raven’s gym that I could too. I had been less certain how I would match up against Xymon. Judging by how time had seemed to slow, how his movements had seemed relatively slow to me, I seemed to be faster than him. Could I be stronger as well? Andrea had said I could magnify the powers of other Xyr. But I didn’t know exactly what that meant. Xymon had quite a bit more muscle mass than I did. Would the magnification be enough to allow me to beat him?

It would have to be, I decided. This guy was clearly out to hurt Andrea and me, and no one else was going to swoop in and be able to save the day. Not Raven. Not even Valkyrie. They were far too weak to do anything about Xymon. It was up to me.

I ran through the newly created doorless entrance to my apartment, chunks of plaster and wood dangling from its ragged edges and looked around for Xymon. There was a crater in the brick of the building across the street where he must have struck. Sheesh, I’d hit him HARD! But no sign of—

*BAM!*

Before I knew what had hit me, I was hurtling through the air in a rainbow-shaped arc, head over heels. Stunned by the power of the fist that had struck me, I barely comprehended what was happening as the ground grew near. I struck the pavement of the street below face-first.

Pain radiated from my jaw, now buried in shattered asphalt. Collecting myself for a millisecond, I proceeded to push myself up from the impact crater and wiggled my jaw back into place.

Okay, so this guy’s punches definitely hurt. I’d been half-hoping that I would be as invulnerable to him as I was to Valkyrie. Now I knew that I wasn’t. This was a real fight. And I had to win it. I couldn’t afford to mess around here. He was after my sister!

I felt the concussions of Xymon’s steps striking the asphalt as he ran toward me, alerting me to incoming danger. He was probably coming to finish me off, so I’d better get ready. I bounced to my feet, squaring my shoulders and shifting my weight to the balls of my feet. “There,” I thought with satisfaction. “I was ready to dodge whatever he was about to throw at me next.”

He swung. This time, he didn’t catch me off guard. I flung up my slender, muscled arm, intercepting his fist and knocking it to the side. The impact to my arm hurt, but far less than his uppercut to the jaw had. I launched a front kick into his hard, cobbled stomach, but those muscles couldn’t stand up to the power of my strike, and I buried my foot into his abdomen. He flew backward, body collapsing in on itself, his limp feet digging a trench into the street to bring him to a stop 100 meters away.

He rose, slightly wobbled, spit out a mouthful of blood, and came at me again. This time, I decided I was going on the offensive. I sprang forward as he neared, swinging my fist with the momentum of my entire body before he could counter, feeling my stomach tighten, hips twist, and arm sail upward as I willed every ounce of my power into it. I connected with his jaw at hypersonic speed, and his head whipped back as I struck. I felt the jawbone crack under my clenched fingers, then he was flying upward, just as I had moments before, except higher and further. I was stronger than he was!

“Take that, alien scum!” I thought with a satisfied smirk.

Then I thought about that sentiment. I was an alien too. The same race that he was. His Queen, actually, if Andrea were correct about my royal status.

This was going to take some getting used to. I had yet to internalize the fact that I was an alien, not a human.

I swallowed hard. 

I was fighting my own people. I didn’t know what to feel about that. Should I be fighting my own people? I’d sworn to defend the people of earth when I’d joined super.org. Which people meant more to me—those from the place I’d grown up or those who’d provided the DNA that made me up?

My mind swirled with questions that I had no answers for. Not yet. I didn’t know who to consider my people, whose side I was on anymore. This was all happening so fast…

Xymon crashed into the ground half a kilometer away, momentarily jarring me away from my reverie. He lay there motionless, at least for the moment.

Thank goodness! I needed time to think, to figure out who I should be defending. I needed time to decide my course of action.

So of course, I wouldn’t get it.

“So maybe there is a worthy challenger on this planet after all…” said a deep voice echoing from somewhere behind me.

Shit! Why was the universe conspiring to keep me from properly digesting the earth-shattering information dump Andrea had given me? Who was it this time?

I whirled to find the huge man from the warehouse—Xymon’s boss—behind me, holding Andrea aloft by the throat. She squirmed and struggled, eyes wide in fear, but she couldn’t budge the man.

My stomach sunk as I realized who the man must be.

Emperor Xoron.

The guy that wanted me dead. The most powerful man in the universe.

Monkey balls.

I took a cautious step toward him, drawn forward by my concern for Andrea. A second step. I began to feel a familiar weakness in my knees.

 No, no, no, no, no!! I sure didn’t need that right now…

The massive, bulging alien grinned darkly, eyes glued to mine, and squeezed his fingers. I heard a loud snap. Andrea’s head lolled, her eyes going instantly dull.

I stood, blinking uncomprehendingly for several seconds before a wave of horror tore through me. It rose from my toes, rolling upward until it reached the top of my head. I felt myself begin to shake, and a scream gurgled upward from somewhere deep inside, ripping itself torturously from my lips.

“Noooooooooooooo!”

Muscles twitching into adrenaline-fueled rigidity, all ability to think instantly drowned in a whirling sea of snarling hatred, I launched myself at him.

PART 7

My fists slammed into his face with unsatisfyingly soft thud. I expected him to fly backward as Xymon had. Instead, my attack barely managed to knock him back a step. Still enraged, I poured my anger into repeated strikes to his face. They barely seemed to affect him. My knuckles ached, feeling as if they had been slammed repeatedly into a moss-covered rock. The tough, tanned skin of his face had probably been the only thing softening the impact with his bones, preventing me from breaking my hands.

I began to breathe heavily as my rage-fueled outburst went on without doing any serious damage. As my attacks began to slow, his surprise at the unexpected speed and ferocity of my attack turned to smug confidence. He had realized exactly what I had: I couldn’t do any damage to him.

The strength that had allowed me to eclipse Sapphire Valkyrie and defeat Xymon didn’t seem to be in Xoron’s league.

Just how powerful was this guy?!

Recovered sufficiently from the surprise of my sudden flurry of blows, Xoron pulled a huge fist back and launched it into my abdomen. The blow hammered into me, plowing through the sculpted abs I’d been so proud of with ease. My eyes bulged as my stomach exploded in unbearable agony, and flew backward into the sky from the force of it. 

Reeling in agony as I sailed through the air, he didn’t give me any time to regroup from the aftereffects of his immense power. Launching himself into the sky, he accelerated after me. I saw him coming, but there was nothing I could do. I flailed helplessly with my limbs, but there was no hard surface to push off against. I was helpless. A sitting—er, flying—duck. There wasn’t anything I could do about his approach except brace for another devastating attack.

As he cocked his fist again, I squeezed my eyes shut, attempting to ready myself for the pain I knew was coming. Sure enough, a microsecond later, it arrived. My throat erupted in excruciating pain. He had punched me in the throat! I attempted to swallow, then to breathe. I could do neither. Preoccupied with these difficulties, clutching at my nonfunctional trachea, I didn’t even notice as the ground raced toward me, his blow driving me back to earth at breakneck speed. Another detonation of agony rattled my bones as I smashed into the street below. My movement stopped only when I was at the bottom of an impact crater a good ten feet under the surface of the road above.

I had thought I was such a badass after beating Sapphire Valkyrie and Xymon with relative ease. Writhing in pain at the bottom of the crater, unable to breathe, I realized that I hadn’t truly risen above my usual level of failure. I was still below expectations. Below what I needed to be. Below Xoron.

The realization stung. Not because of my ego—I was accustomed to failing to meet expectations—but because I knew that I was letting Andrea down. Just moments ago, she had given me hope. She had made me realize that I had the potential to be incredible, to be a Xyr Queen—likely, the most powerful woman in the universe. She had sacrificed, first, her home for me to have that opportunity. Then, her life. I desperately wanted to live up to the potential she saw in me, to make her sacrifices worth their cost. But I was beginning to realize that I would never have the chance to become what she must have wanted me to. Just as I hadn’t been able to save her.

With two punches, Emperor Xoron had taken the fight completely out of me. The thought sent a jolt of anger through me. I had to do better than that. For Andrea. Uncaring that I still hadn’t been able to manage to suck in any oxygen after the vicious strike to my neck, I set my jaw and struggled to my feet…

…just in time to see Xoron swoop down from the sky to land in front of me with a dark smile. “Ready for more?” He smirked. “Excellent!”

Massive, iron fists flew into my head, my stomach, my hips. I felt the heat of bruises forming on my face, the crunch of ribs breaking, the slapping sounds of my muscles being obliterated under Xoron’s shower of might. But the blows just kept coming. The man was merciless as he shattered my gorgeous body.

As Xoron smashed a fist into my solar plexus, the expulsion of air finally opened my trachea, allowing me a few ragged breaths at least, as I continued to be rocked by ever worsening bursts of absolute agony.

Limp, held up only by the earthen wall of the crater that would probably, I thought wryly, become my tomb, I felt Xoron’s attacks suddenly cease. One eye was swollen shut, and I felt liquid, blood probably, trickle down my face. I looked around uncomprehendingly, my brain too preoccupied with the shrieks of pain from my raw nerves to properly process information. I didn’t understand what was happening. Where had Xoron gone? Why had he stopped.

Finally, I had the presence of mind to look up.

Flying at breakneck speed, massive fists outstretched before him, Xoron screamed toward me. His hands impacted my upper chest, just above my breasts and under my damaged, burning throat. My already bruised back crashed into the side of the crater, yielding a fresh flare of pain. I smashed back-first through the ground, tunneling until I cracked through the foundation of one of the surrounding buildings. 

Xoron again swooped upward into the sky, leaving me crying and whimpering, half-buried in the ground. As my vision began to dim from the severity of my wounds, the building, whose concrete mooring had been pulverized by my broken body, collapsed on top of me.

I felt nothing but burning agony as ton after ton of steel on concrete rained down on me. When it was finished, a strange silence descended over me, a welcome relief from the cacophony of sound from the building’s collapse. Everything was dark. When I made the slightest motion, pain jolted through me like electric current, and I felt the shifting of broken bones. The realization that I was going to die settled over me. I couldn’t muster the energy to care. Nothingness would be a welcome relief at this point, a break from the torturous agony that seemed to radiate from every part of my body.

As I awaited death, trapped under thousands of tons of twisted steel and glass, unable to breathe again, my heartbeat gradually slowing, I began to hear a faint scratching sound. As my consciousness began to wane, it grew closer, until blazing light suddenly blinded me, searing me to alertness, tearing me away from the peaceful detachment I’d begun to drift toward.

“Come on, Shadowgirl. You don’t get to wuss out now, like some common clothes-vanisher. Let’s go!” The voice belonged to Sapphire Valkyrie. She’d made a joke! I didn’t laugh. I did, however, feel her slender fingers reach under me and pull me free of the rubble.

“Play dead,” she whispered as she dragged me into the open. As she continued to pull me along the rubble-strewn ground, I heard voices growing closer.

“Enough, Emperor Xoron. We already agreed to surrender. We’ve been trying to work out a deal with this Xymon character you left in charge, but he’s never around to talk! Now that we finally find him, he’s taking a nap in the middle of the street! Not very professional!” came the deep baritone of Raven’s voice, tinged with the slightest bit of sarcastic humor.

“Napping?! He was attacked! He’s injured and unconscious!”

“Yeah, attacked by one of your own people! You guys really need to get on the same page here. How can I negotiate when your people are in such a state of disagreement that they’re fighting each other!”

Despite my overwhelming pain and the fact that I was supposed to be playing dead, I was tempted to smile. Leave it to Raven to bully an alien overlord five zillion times powerful than he was while negotiating terms for earth’s surrender. No one else would have the nerve…

I suddenly realized what he was doing.

Buying time.

I felt the movement of my body cease as Valkyrie lowered my head and shoulders gently to the ground close to where Xoron and Raven continued to argue back and forth. I began to feel the now-familiar tingle of my body’s absorption of the power of another Xyr. She had gotten me close enough to the alien overlord to duplicate his power. And magnify it, I hoped.

Respect for Raven and Sapphire Valkyrie filled me. They were teaming up against impossible odds to help me. Despite being ridiculously outclassed in power, they were finding a way to help Earth escape the clutches of the Xyr emperor. To help me! But how had they known what to do? Did they know I was a Xyr Queen? Were they just hoping something happened to me in the presence of this, the most powerful of Xyr, as it had with Xymon?

I attempted to keep my labored breathing quiet as I felt my bones knit back together, my swelling go down, and my bruises fade. Strength began to flow into my muscles. Every time Xoron looked down at me, perhaps wanting to ensure I was actually dead, Raven chimed in with another comment that rattled the hulking, uber powerful emperor and drew his ire—and attention—back to his clever eyes.

This process went on for at least fifteen minutes before Xoron finally put an end to Raven’s banter with a frustrated roar. “ENOUGH! You will not dictate terms to ME! I can crush you and everyone else on this pitiful planet. The only one with the potential to challenge me was…”

He turned to where my body lay, less than ten feet away, words trailing off as his face went pale in terror.

“Her injuries! They’re gone!” he gasped.

Oops! The game was up! I popped open my eyes, able to see clearly now, feeling far better. Better, even, than I had when I started this fight. An intense attraction to the massive emperor rolled through me in tingling waves, just as it had with Xymon in Raven’s safehouse. I was not about to give in to that now, however. Chiding my aroused body, I clamped down on my growing desire. Xoron wouldn’t hesitate to slam a fist into my lips if they moved in for some kissing action. And I did not want to be on the receiving end of that man’s fists any more!

“Don’t forget about that shitty invisibility power of yours…” whispered Valkyrie with a wink as I leapt to my feet.

Except that I didn’t. Leap to my feet. Instead, I leapt into the sky without making the return trip. I just kept rising!

Holy shit! I could fly!!!

I concentrated on moving faster, launching myself upward in earnest, accelerating quickly, leaving a stunned Xoron far below. I must have picked up his power of flight!

Sweet!

Take that Valkyrie! This was the best power of all! I did a few spins and somersaults in the air, joyfully testing my new power, before deciding I needed to get back to business. I glanced below me once more to find that Xoron was no longer there.

Damn me and my need to goof around at the worst possible times! In the middle of a fight, I’d managed to lose track of the most powerful—

*BAM!*

The clap of Xoron’s fist pounding into my stomach was loud enough to shatter a few windows below. It hurt. Bad. But it wasn’t quite as devastating as last time. My abs had held up to his earth-shattering power this time, though they ached like hell. Hurtling through the air once more, this time I was able to use my newfound power of flight to stop myself. I was no longer helpless in this airborne arena, though from the feel of his latest punch, he was probably still stronger than I was.

“This time, I won’t take it so easy on you. This time, I’ll finish this!” Xoron yelled accelerating toward me, his face approaching mine with an intimidating snarl twisting his features.

My stomach plummeted in terror, as raw, all-too-recent memories of my recent bloody-pulpification danced through my mind. Think, damn it! I needed to spend more time near Xoron to finish duplicating his power. But how could I do that without being pounded into oblivion again? 

Wait! What had Valkyrie told me? Don’t forget about my shitty invisibility power!

Of course!

I winked out of sight, dodging to the left to float, undetectable, in the air as Xoron sailed by. He stopped, confused by the lack of contact, searching the sky for me. I snickered as his eyes darted frantically about, using my power of flight to zoom in behind him, so that I was close enough to him to continue absorbing his phenomenal levels of strength and invulnerability. 

As I closed on his position, I once again felt my libido wrestle my willpower for control. I mentally uttered pet-speak repetitiously, like a mantra, as I struggled to control the burgeoning arousal that seemed to accompany my rapidly ascending power.

No! Bad libido! Down girl!

Finally, I felt the knee-weakening, tingling desire for my enemy subside. In its place was a crackling torrent of power that seemed to roar through every square inch of my body. I felt incredible. Invincible.

I clenched a fist, watching deep grooves appear in my tensed arm. Hard, defined muscles quivered with unimaginable strength. As I remembered Andrea’s lifeless body dropping from this man’s fingers, fury boiled anew within my chest. Emotions surging, I let out a powerful scream that sent a shockwave rippling through the city below. Dropping my invisibility, I launched my fist at the hulking figure before me.

This time, when my fists met with his face, it caved under the force of my knuckles. Bones cracked beneath my clenched fingers.

He launched a counter strike, but I was on him by then, creating very little distance between our bodies as I busily pounded on his face. His fists struck me on each side, just above my hips. I barely felt them. He continued to rain blows into both of my obliques, only to have them bounce off the impenetrable muscles of my abdomen harmlessly.

Our faces close, I smiled at his frustrated expression, my righteous anger shining through. I snaked my sculpted arms around him and squeezed as hard as I could. Xoron looked confused for a moment. Then I saw something new in his eyes.

Fear.

I pulled him toward me with every ounce of strength in my supercharged muscles. I felt his body begin to give against my impossibly hard physique. My breasts pushed his huge pecs inward, bowing his ribs. I redoubled my efforts, shifting my position for more leverage, then pulling him toward me once again. I felt his muscles give under my relentless pressure. His ribs creaked, then began to snap, one by one. My hands pulled against his smooth, sinewed back until I felt one more loud pop. His eyes held shock, widening in response to the cracking of his spine. He looked at me in disbelief for several long moments until the life faded from his pupils, and they locked on some distant point on the horizon forever.

A pang of regret touched my heart as I dropped his body from the sky. As I watched his limp body plummet to earth, I felt strangely hollow. I had never killed anyone before.

He’d deserved it. For Andrea. Still, the act left me with a strange, vaguely horrified feeling. I tried to tell myself I had done the right thing, that he had been a threat to the lives of everyone on earth. I believed it even. Truly, I did. But there was something in the depths of my soul that remained unconvinced that my action had been entirely just.

Conflicting emotions warring within me, I descended to the street, where Raven and Sapphire Valkyrie awaited, beaming at each other and slapping high fives. Their celebration was at once warranted and wholly inappropriate. I had just killed a man.

As I neared, I saw Raven’s eyes bulge before he averted his gaze. Sapphire Valkyrie’s jaw hung loose as if dangling from an over-greased hinge.

What were those reactions for? I wondered.

Then I remembered. When I’d removed my invisibility this time, I’d forgotten to leave my woman parts cloaked. I was naked as the day I was born, floating down from the sky. Must be quite a sight! I looked down at the bare, flawless skin of my breasts, which seemed even larger than before, debated whether to create a costume of invisibility, then shrugged. Screw it. I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. I was completely freaking gorgeous! 

“Rockin’ the minimalist fashion look, I see,” said Sapphire Valkyrie attempted to joke, but her voice was shaking and slightly hoarse. She averted her gaze as if afraid to look me directly in the eye. I glanced at Raven, who was trembling as he looked into my eyes, his own open abnormally wide. He seemed to want to speak, but when he opened his mouth, no words came out. 

Oh no! Was I disfigured somehow? Maybe my previous injuries hadn’t healed right? Or had my interaction with Xoron changed me to become even more gorgeous? Either possibility could explain their reactions. I cast about for a mirrored surface, finding one on the surface of an office building on the far side of Raven. I stared at my reflection in the mirrored glass window, seeing my current self for the first time.

I sucked in a sharp breath. Before me stood a proper Xyr Queen in all her significant glory. Bearing regally tall, muscles chiseled and powerful, ginger tresses catching the glow of the afternoon sun like a banner of fire in the billowing wind, I was devastatingly magnificent!

My body had bulked up a bit, not to the point where I looked like a bodybuilder, but as if I had been an extremely sexy model who had gotten pretty serious about her weight workouts. Not even the most religious gym-goer, however, had ever looked quite this defined. And no model had ever looked this sexy, I decided.

My curves had grown more voluptuous than before, despite the ripped muscles that popped into defined relief with every movement. My lips, now naturally a vivid shade of rose, burst into a heart-stoppingly brilliant smile. My body moved with leonine grace, my posture unconsciously broadcasting my newfound status as royalty. I looked every bit the part of a mind-bendingly powerful alien Queen.

My smile disappeared and tears welled, however, as another thought returned. My Queendom, wonderful as it was, had cost me Andrea.

I ran to Raven and hugged him as tears began to stream down my cheeks. The danger passed, I needed some emotional release. My sister had just died, and I couldn’t contain my sadness any longer. Now that I didn’t have Andrea, I was turning to Raven to be my support.

“He killed Andrea, Raven. He killed her,” I sobbed. Raven stood tall, hand rubbing circles on my back as he waited for me to cry myself out. Valkyrie came over and put a hand on my shoulder. 

“I killed Xoron too! I killed somebody, Raven!” I gushed, tears bursting forth with renewed vigor from the other traumatic experience I’d just been through.

“What a way to go, though,” replied Raven, finally speaking. His voice was flat but his lips held the barest hint of a smile. “Crushed against the most gorgeous body in the universe? I can only hope I go out like that!”

As I absorbed his words, a bubble of laughter gurgled its way upward. It exploded in a sort of half-laugh, half-sob. A hysterical bout of a dozen more laugh-sobs followed before I could speak again. “Damn you, Raven! I’m supposed to be feeling properly horrible right now.”

“Hey, that’s my motto: here to screw up a perfectly horrible moment.”

A couple more laugh-sobs escaped from my lips. Valkyrie smiled as well.

“Which you did, by the way,” Sapphire Valkyrie interjected. “Back there, with the big guy. Nice work on the distraction. You kept that going longer than we ever dared hope! I thought I was going to lose it and start laughing about a dozen times…”

Raven nodded, accepting her compliment graciously. 

“How did you guys know that putting me near him would allow me to absorb his powers?”

Raven looked sheepish. “I may have accidentally planted a small transmitter on you when you left the gym warehouse.”

“You planted…?” I trailed off. So he had heard Andrea’s explanation. He knew everything—or at least as much as I did.

I wasn’t sure whether to be angry or happy. Considering that they had used the knowledge to save my life, however, I supposed it should be the latter. How could I be angry at them after that?

Before I could respond to Raven, however, Valkyrie squeezed my shoulder. “I want to apologize. About before. I’m just… not used to being upstaged by other superheroes, I suppose.” Sapphire Valkyrie’s expression was one of sincere contrition as she looked me in the eye for the first time.

“You don’t owe me an apology. You saved my freaking life back there!”

“And you saved the life of everyone on the planet,” she fired back with a wink.

“Oh, yeah. There is that.” Not a very humble response, I know. But I hadn’t really been prepared to accept a comment like that, being a really new galactic super-empress and all.

Valkyrie smiled, then flew away, leaving me alone in Raven’s comforting arms.

The moment was too much. Unable to resist any longer, desire joining joy and guilt in my dizzying maelstrom of emotions, I leaned forward and kissed him.

As quickly as I had done it, I drew back, my eyes going wide. Oh, no! That was not appropriate. Raven and Sapphire Valkyrie were a thing! And I’d just made up with Valkyrie too! Now I’d given her reason to go all bitchy on my ass again! And this wasn’t the time for such things anyway. I hadn’t even properly mourned Andrea.

“It’s okay. Valkyrie and I moved on from each other a long time ago. We’re not together any more.” Raven said, seeming to read my mind.

“But back at that warehouse gym! You two…” I objected, the memory of their kiss replaying itself in my memory.

“…may still see each other from time to time, but only when we’re both single and need to share something that only a super-strong companion can. A bit of a friends-with-benefits situation.”

My shoulders dropped, and I let out a shaky breath. “Thank God! I didn’t want her to go breaking her hand trying to slap me again!”

I really did need to work on the whole humility thing again. When I had simply blurted the truth of my situation before, it had always been humble enough. Somehow, that didn’t work so well as a super-alien Queen.

Raven grinned, then gave me a long, passionate kiss. When we came up for air, I gave him another long, lung-compressing hug.

“Thank you,” I said as I released him, my eyes glassy with coming tears. “I need to take care of Andrea right now, but maybe afterward, I can see you?”

“It’s a date,” he winked, then turned to take command of the cleanup effort.

I sighed, then turned to find my sister’s body near the hole in my apartment. 

When I got there, however, she was gone.

Stay turned for Shadowgirl 2 summer 2021…

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