|"FOR HONOR AND LIBERTY"
by Glen Sprigg
Sakamoto Sadayoshi stood before the Dark Council for the last time. The room was as dark as a moonless night on Mount Fuji, save for the spotlight that shone down on the unmoving figure in the centre of the room. But though he could not see them, he could sense them, as well as their scorn. But they would not refuse him. They could not.
A voice echoed around him, its origin unknown even to him. "Your petition disturbs us. You would resurrect the past for personal reasons."
"It is necessary," replied Sadayoshi. "My honor demands it, as does the honor of my family."
"We are not blind to your reasons. They are compelling, but the consequences will be grave if you succeed. This is a past our people do not wish to remember."
Sadayoshi said nothing. Nothing needed to be said.
"Nevertheless, you have earned the right. Though we will not bless your mission, we will not forestall you. Travel arrangements have been made. You may go."
Sadayoshi prostrated himself before the blackness, then stood and left the circle of light in silence. He strode to the chamber door and left the Council hall. Only then did he permit a predatory smile to cross his face. At last, he would avenge his family’s dishonor.
Liberty would die at his hands.
"I’m telling you, it’s not going to work."
Jesse Wells gave her roommate a stern look that she hoped would be read as ‘implacable.’ Unfortunately, that word didn’t seem to be in Gina’s vocabulary.
"Sure it will. Look, I know things have been pretty rough for you lately. You’ve been up against neo-Nazis, Dreadnaught, and even that idiot Black Fly just in the last two weeks-"
"Black Mosquito," corrected Jesse absently.
"Whatever, the guy’s a loser. The point is, this is the perfect time for you to take a break. And besides, it’s for the kids. You said yourself you’d hate yourself if you turned them down, would you?"
"That’s completely unfair, and you know it. I didn’t mean it that way."
"So? Look, I know better than anyone how you feel about this stuff. It’s not like I keep hounding you into public appearances. But this is one of those very few things I think is good for you. It gives you some public exposure, gets people used to to the idea of seeing you when there isn’t a deadly crisis going on."
"The media is going to turn it into a circus. They always do."
"Sure, but you’re not doing this for them. Or for the First Amendment, or for the American people. You’re doing it for a bunch of kids who haven’t ever caught a break."
"But that’s not how it’s going to look. What if some political-type decides to try to score some cheap points by ‘endorsing’ me?"
"Relax. I’ve already figured out a way you can do this without having the press or the Guardians of the Public Trust ruining it for you."
"Really?" Jesse cocked an eyebrow as she waited for Gina to unveil a miracle.
Instead, she unveiled a newspaper ad.
"Gina!" Jesse’s hand involuntarily clenched around the flowerpot she’d been holding, and pottery shards scattered all over the floor, along with a shower of dirt and leaves.
"Hey, I told you to relax, right?" Gina took a step back. "Don’t worry, I’ve taken care of it. Read it through before you tear the furniture apart."
She handed Jesse the newspaper. Frowning, Jesse read through it twice. "Great, so now the entire western seaboard knows I’ll be making a special public appearance at the Morningside Orphanage this Sunday."
"It does say that, doesn’t it?"
"Yes, and it’s not- wait a second. Sunday? I thought it was Saturday."
"It is." Gina grinned at Jesse’s confusion.
"Then why does the ad say Sunday? Now the-" She looked up at Gina and crossed her arms across her chest.
"You lied, didn’t you?"
"Yep, guilty as charged. I sent an anonymous e-mail to the governor, the mayor, both senators, every congressman…and I suggested that they might want to cover the costs of the ad. Right now I can picture them gloating over the opportunity they’re going to have this weekend to stand next to America’s newest and best-looking superhero as she clears away a run-down building to make room for a new library wing for the Morningside Orphanage."
"Except that the demolition was scheduled for Saturday."
"Right. But the Powers That Be were willing to pull some strings to reschedule it for this photo opportunity. And this way, you get to talk to the kids, and take down the crumbling building without the Fourth and Fifth Estates shoving microphones in your face."
Jesse gazed at the ad, pondering it for a full minute before turning back to her roommate and best friend. "Gina Landry, you are a twisted person."
Gina chuckled and sat back on the couch. "Now, is that any way for the All-American Girl to talk?"
The hotel was as run-down as the society that had built it. A single dirty bulb lit the grimy hallway. The stench of stale beer mixed with the foul odor of vomit and urine to assault Sadayoshi’s senses with a stomach-turning cacophony. But it would suffice. He would not be staying long enough to care.
How typical, he thought as he scanned the newspaper. And how convenient. This one was just as arrogant, just as brash. Only a fool would announce her whereabouts for the entire world to see. But it only made things easier, and more satisfying. Now the entire world would bear witness to her death, and to the restoration of his family honor.
His equipment had been shipped through a network of Yakuza contacts, none of which knew the true purpose for which they would be put to use. He unpacked it with utmost care; his tools had served him for most of his life, and he knew them well. They were his friends, his allies.
All except, of course, for the sword. Alone among the items, it was new, forged by his own hand for one purpose, never before unsheathed, even in training. Now he slid the katana from the sheath, listening intently to the scraping hiss as it came free. The blade glinted in the pale light as he examined it. It was flawless, his greatest masterpiece. He hefted it with care, finding the smooth centre of balance, seeking the spiritual connection that was the true meaning of mastery. Slowly he began to twirl the blade around in a kata he had known from birth. His movements were perfect, his concentration absolute. The blade was his arm, his soul…his claw.
With a silent scream, he swung the blade in a deadly arc, cutting through the protruding wall separating the bedroom from the toilet. The wall screeched in agonized protest as the blade passed through. Sadayoshi stared intently at the cut.
The blade had cut through the strong wood of the walls, as well as through the steel beam that held up the ceiling. He then inspected the blade, and nodded in satisfaction at its unblemished edge.
Jesse groaned into her pillow as the clock radio blared an old Eurythmics hit into her ear. Looking up, she saw that it was indeed eight o’clock, and it was indeed Saturday. Her misgivings flared up again, but she fought them down. Gina was right; it was a good cause, and it would be a nice change of pace from fighting costumed lunatics with bizarre motivations.
Looking across the room, she saw Gina in a similar state of non-wakefulness and grinned in spite of herself. Just because she had to go out and make a spectacle of herself didn’t mean Gina was going to get off easily after the stunt she had pulled.
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead," she called out as she willed herself off the bed. When Gina only mumbled in response, Jesse floated across the room and picked up the bed, shaking it a few times to get Gina’s attention.
"Hey! What are you doing, you crazy woman?! Put me down before somebody sees!"
It was an empty threat, since the curtains were drawn tightly and the door was locked. Still, Jesse saw no reason to refuse her roommate’s reasonable request, so she put down the head of the bed, giggling as she watched Gina tumble out onto the floor in a crumpled heap.
The brunette glared up at Jesse who only laughed harder as she lowered the foot of the bed to the floor. "Just for that I’m going to tell Jenny about you and Tommy Baker at the senior prom."
Jesse snorted in amusement. "Not likely, because then she’ll also hear about you and Brad Harper at the Pacers game."
"Why should I keep secrets from my little sister?" replied Jesse, a picture of innocence.
"You’re just rat enough to do it, too. But it wasn’t what you thought it was."
"What was it, then?"
Gina sniffed in response. "A lady doesn’t tell."
"Hah!" Jesse stretched and yawned. "Dibs on the shower."
"Fine. You couldn’t have done that before turning the bed upside-down?"
"I could have, but then you might have woken up on your own, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun."
Gina shook her head in mock anger. Sitting on the edge of the bed, her eyes flicked to the closet. "What time were you planning on going to the Orphanage?"
Jesse sighed. She still had reservations, but she was committed. If she didn’t do it today, she’d have to go tomorrow, and she didn’t think she could handle the media and political pressure that would be there.
"Might as well get it done early. First breakfast, then I’m going to get something from the library. I’ve still got school to think about, and American History doesn’t get easier to pass the longer you wait. But I’ll go before lunch."
"Sounds good. Hurry up with that shower, will you? I feel like a used dishrag."
Sadayoshi stood at the base of the building. Tomorrow she would be here. Tomorrow she would fly into his trap like an insect to a spider’s web.
There was time enough until then to prepare a warm reception for her.
He stepped past the ‘CONDEMNED’ sign on the front property and entered through an empty window, disappearing into the shadows within.
It was, she had to admit, a perfect day for flying. Liberty laughed with delight as she sped toward the Morningside Orphanage. A few seagulls squawked indignantly as she buzzed past them, but she paid them no mind. There was quite a difference between flying over the bejeweled streets of Los Angeles at night and seeing them in all their smoggy glory during the day. The rushing air did little to prevent the sun from warming her entire body, and she basked in the glow she felt. Gina had been right; she was looking forward to today’s events.
The two of them had gone to some lengths to keep anyone from suspecting Liberty’s true identity. While Gina had brought the car around, Jesse had changed into her costume back in her room, then worn a UCLA shirt and jeans overtop. They then drove halfway across town to a quiet park, where Jesse had discarded her clothes and flown off, leaving Gina behind to gather the evidence and cover her tracks.
Now she spotted the orphanage and angled toward it. A few kids were playing in the enclosed playground, but one of them shouted in excitement and pointed upward, drawing their attention to the blazing red-white-and-blue costume soaring down to join them.
Liberty landed on top of the jungle gym next to a young black girl of about eight years.. "Hi there," she said with a broad smile. The girl smiled back shyly.
One of the boys, bolder than the rest, climbed up beside the two of them. "Don’t be so dumb, Jesse! She’s a superhero!"
Liberty’s heart had stopped for a moment, but she quickly caught herself. "So your name’s Jessica?" The girl nodded. "That’s a pretty name. I’m Liberty."
"Yeah, you’re the superhero that’s coming tomorrow to help build us a new library," said the boy. "I’m Kenny, Kenny Routcliff. I’m the one that wrote the letter to the paper."
"Pleased to meet you, Kenny." She shook the boy’s hand. "And you’re partly right. I’m just going to take down the building that’s there. The city is going to build the library."
He grinned at her, then jumped down to the ground. "C’mon! I know Miss Wilson’s gonna want to meet you. She’s the boss around here."
Amused at Kenny’s bold spirit, Liberty followed him down. The other children clustered around her, but Kenny warned them off with a stern look. "Don’t crowd her, you guys! She’s a real important person!"
"It sounds like you’re the boss around here, Kenny," said Liberty with a smile.
"Nah, I’m just older than they are. I’m smarter, too."
"I see. So where can I find Miss Wilson?"
"C’mon, I’ll show you."
Kenny led her through the swarm of orphans. Liberty looked them over as she walked by, more certain than ever that she had made the right decision.
As they reached the side entrance, a woman opened the door and stepped outside. Liberty judged her to be in her early thirties. She wore a plain shirt and pants, and her light chocolate skin was framed by her brown curls. She looked at Liberty in a mixture of confusion and suspicion.
"Miss Wilson?" said Liberty stepping up with her hand out. The woman nodded in confirmation, but didn’t accept the hand. "I apologize for the confusion, but I thought that today would be a more convenient time to help you out."
"I don’t understand," admitted Miss Wilson. "When I saw the ad in the papers I was a bit disturbed by what it meant."
"It was a bit of a misunderstanding. I never told anyone in the media about this, or any of the people who’s names were on the ad." It wasn’t exactly a lie; Gina had done the telling, not Jesse. "But it actually works out better this way. I’m not really interested in being hounded by the press or by the politicians. I’m doing this for the kids, not for myself."
Miss Wilson looked her over with a frown. "It’s a pretty story, but I find it hard to believe."
"Do you see any reporters here right now?"
"No," she admitted. "But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any."
"Then let’s get this done as fast as possible, shall we? I’ll take care of the building first; that should only take a few minutes. I won’t have much time to spend with the kids, but I’ll make as much time as I can before the newshounds get here."
The frown changed to a look of surprise. "Let’s see if I understand you. You’re going to demolish the building, then spend some time with the Morningside orphans, then leave before everyone else gets here."
"More or less, yes."
"You’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical."
Liberty nodded. "I suppose I can’t blame you. But I’m here now, and I’ll stay as long as I can."
Kenny tugged at the woman’s sleeve. "Miss Wilson, can we watch her smash the building? That would be so cool!"
"That wouldn’t be a good idea, Kenny. It’s too dangerous."
"What about watching from the windows?" suggested Liberty. "As long as the windows stay closed, they’ll be able to see well enough."
The children closed in on the two women, pleading with their guardian. Finally Miss Wilson laughed. "Alright, I don’t see why not. But no fighting for better views, and leave the windows closed, got it?"
Cheering, the children raced past the orphanage administrator and headed for the second-story bedrooms. Miss Wilson turned back to Liberty.
"Well, you’ve got an audience after all."
"Much better than the one that would have been here tomorrow, Miss Wilson."
"Call me Kate. And you’re right. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a superhero using our facility as a publicity stunt. But it looks like you really meant what you said."
"I do. But I’d better get a move on if I want to get finished before the media arrives. Even after I leave, though, they’re still going to be asking a lot of questions."
"I know. We dealt with enough of those over the last two days since that ad came out."
"I’m sorry for that."
"Oh, don’t be." Kate waved it aside. "If nothing else, the publicity tripled the funding we were given. And that was just from the letter Kenny wrote to the Times."
"He’s a bright kid."
"Very. But you’re right, we don’t have time to sit and chat over tea and biscuits. I suppose you know what you’re doing?"
"Sure. It’ll be a snap. Think the kids are watching now?"
"Yes, they’ve had enough time to get to the bedrooms."
"Then I’ll get started."
Liberty lifted off and flew over the orphanage, waving to the faces pressed against the bedroom windows. She landed in front of the six-story building that awaited her delicate touch. Stepping through the doorway, she went in search of the support beams.
Sadayoshi spun in stunned surprise as the alarm jangled. Someone was in the building! He swore a muttered oath as he stepped across the floor. Looking down through a hole in the floor, he scanned around the room below, his eyes widening as he saw the gaudily-clad woman. What was she doing here today?! She was a day early, his preparations barely begun! How could she possibly have known?
He crept back to where he had stored his katana. There was still a chance, he reflected. She could not know of his presence here. There were at least a dozen plausible reasons for her appearance. None of them mattered. She was here, and so was he. Only one would leave the building alive.
Though his preparations were far from complete, he had already set up several traps. She would only need to trip a single one, and he would have her at his nonexistent mercy. In mere moments, his family’s honor would be forever restored.
Liberty waved the dust away from her face, stifling a cough. This building might have been fancy sixty or seventy years ago, but now it definitely lived up to its reputation as a dump. No one was going to miss this place after she was done with it.
Picking her way around the debris on the floor, she walked over to the first support beam. It wouldn’t take much to knock it down, she realized. A healthy sneeze might do the trick.
"Might as well get this done fast," she muttered. She grabbed the beam in both hands-
And flew back as electricity arced back on her, sparking with a loud crack. She picked herself up off the floor, stunned at how much power had been in the wires.
"I thought this place was supposed to be completely shut down," she said to herself. Her confusion was quickly replaced with anger; the shock had been painful to her, but it would have been lethal to anyone else. Someone at the Department of Public Works was going to hear about this.
Before she could complete the thought, however, she heard a scraping sound behind her. Turning, she saw nothing but shadows. "Great. Now the place is haunted."
She turned back to the beam, but threw herself backward to avoid the deadly sword stroke. As fast as she was, the swordsman was faster, and she cried out in surprise and pain as she saw blood welling up on her arm.
Shocked, she flung herself aside as the swordsman lunged toward her, quicker than lightning. The sword slashed into the floor where she had been seated, cutting through it like butter. Her eyes widened as she saw the blade’s incredible edge in action. But even more frightening was the cold death in the man’s eyes.
He was Oriental, that much she could tell, and young-looking. But he was obviously an expert with this deadly weapon, and she needed a moment to gather her wits. She launched herself upwards, smashing through the ceiling to the second floor.
As the wooden beams cracked and burst apart, she saw a cloud of dust form up around around her. She began coughing, doubling over as she felt vertigo overwhelming her. Her stomach flip-flopped, and she fell to the floor, gripping her stomach and trying to determine what was happening.
Sadayoshi scampered up the stairs to the second floor, his naked blade thirsting for the girl’s blood. The Lotus Mist would make her an easy victim. Vengeance was his at last.
Liberty heard his light footsteps as he came at her. Through the dizziness she saw the sword gleaming in the dim light. In desperation, she grabbed a board right out of the wall and swung it low at the man’s legs. The sword-stroke was reversed as the man flipped backward in mid-stride, landing with catlike grace only a few feet away from her.
At this point, Libery decided that she who lives and flies away gets to try again later after she had some clue of how to stop that deadly sword. Unfortunately for her, the vertigo she was suffering kept her from focusing on where she wanted to go. She rose up off the floor, but went headfirst into a heavy beam, snapping it in half. The ceiling above creaked ominously as Liberty fell to the floor, still dazed.
She could see him stalking her. She was at his mercy, she knew, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. Who was he? Why did he want to kill her? She dragged herself away from him in a futile attempt to escape.
She felt the tip of the sword at her throat. A drop of blood welled up around the impossibly sharp point. Looking up, she saw his face swimming about above her. Through the haze in her mind, she saw the pitiless death in his eyes and realized that there would be no escape. And she didn’t even know who this silent killer was!
"At last," she heard him murmur in perfect English. "The honor of my family will be restored."
She tried to respond, but her words were too slurred for her to even recognize her own voice. But the killer heard them.
"Why, you ask? Does it truly matter? With your death a debt shall be repaid. That is all you need to know." She felt the pressure of the blade increase against her throat.
Then, she heard another voice nearby, a voice that had no reason to be there. "Hey!" shouted Kenny. "Get away from her!"
The boy hurled a piece of wood at Sadayoshi. With contemptuous ease, the man flicked the sword upward to deflect the crude missile. "This is not your concern, boy. Don’t make me notice you."
"The cops are gonna be here soon, and so will a whole buncha superheroes!" said Kenny in a voice that barely quivered. He took a step back toward the staircase as Sadayoshi turned to face him.
"They will not take me alive," he vowed. "Now go, before you anger me!"
He turned back to the fallen heroine, but his attention was diverted once more as Kenny threw another small piece of rubble. "Leave her alone!"
From downstairs, Kate Wilson’s voice floated up the staircase. "Kenny! Kenny, get out of there! This place is too dangerous!"
"There’s some crazy guy with a sword, Miss Wilson! He’s trying to hurt Liberty!"
"What?! Kenny, get down here! Run!" She began to rush up the creaking stairs. Kenny turned and fled as Sadayoshi took a single step toward him.
Kenny ran headlong into Miss Wilson, barrelling into her and nearly knocking her off-balance. The stairs creaked in protest as she clung to him tightly. "Kenny, we have to get out of here!" She looked up to see the face of death itself standing at the top of the stairs. "Move, Kenny!" She shoved him behind her and started down the stairs.
"But he’s gonna kill Liberty!"
"With a sword? Bullets can’t hurt her, how could-"
Sadayoshi slashed at the staircase, cutting through the weakened supports with a sweeping blow. Kate staggered as the stairs began to collapse. "Get off the stairs, Kenny! Hurry!"
Kenny leapt down to the floor, rolling away from the falling wood. A rotted piece of wood clipped him on the leg, causing him to cry out in pain.
The stairs split apart and fell inward, dragging Kate with them. She screamed in terror and pain as the wooden beams crushed her legs and pelvis, burying her beneath them. High above, Sadayoshi looked on with impassivity at his handiwork.
Kenny saw Miss Wilson unconscious beneath the fallen stairs. He hobbled over to the pile of wood, trying to move the beams off the woman. "Liberty! Liberty, help! Miss Wilson’s hurt bad!"
Sadayoshi turned back to his victim, still lying helpless within the grip of the Lotus Mist. "It is unfortunate that innocents must come to harm in this matter, but nothing will prevent me from restoring my family honor."
She struggled to regain her focus, and he almost admired her for it. "Your struggle is futile. Just like the woman below, you must accept your fate."
He stood above her, his sword raised to strike. "Farewell, Liberty. Die with honor."
The sword came down…
Sadayoshi’s eyes widened as Liberty flew backwards out of harm’s way. She smashed through a wall into another room, landing awkwardly on the floor. Sadayoshi snarled in hatred and rushed forward, his hate-filled eyes following her every move.
Again he swung a killing blow, and again he missed.
Liberty rolled aside and staggered to her feet. Her stance was unsteady, but her eyes were hard with purpose. "I’m not dead yet. And you’d better hope to Christ that that woman isn’t dead either."
"Impressive," murmured Sadayoshi. There are few who can recover so quickly from the Lotus Mist. But I can see you have little more than your adrenaline to sustain you. Why delay the unavoidable?"
Liberty glared back at him. "Try me. You’re tough when you’re ambushing someone or chopping stairs. Afraid of a fair fight?"
Sadayoshi leapt forward with a focused scream, but Liberty shot upward like a rocket, punching through the roof like tissue paper. The assassin rolled aside, avoiding the wood chunks that rained down around him. On instinct, he dove even further away as Liberty flew straight back down, narrowly missing him as she plunged down through to the first floor.
Despite his calm demeanor, Sadayoshi was furious. How could she possibly be moving after being exposed to the Lotus Mist? She had no special recuperative powers, he was certain of it. She should have been paralyzed for hours. His insides churning with rage, Sadayoshi flipped through the hole Liberty had just made, landing on his feet with his sword poised to strike.
Liberty saw him, but her mind was on other things right now. "Kenny, you have to get out of here. Call the police, call the Justice Brigade, call anybody! But get out of here!"
"What about Miss Wilson?" protested the boy even as he backed away.
In response, Liberty snatched a beam from the pile covering Kate, and threw it like a javelin. Sadayoshi dove aside and rolled to his feet. Liberty continued the barrage, but not one of the missiles found the mark.
But Liberty had accomplished one of her goals, at least. A very quick glance told her that Kate was still alive, though badly injured. She turned back to the assassin, and the icy stare froze him for just a moment.
"No matter what happens, Kenny, you get out of here and call for help. You understand me?"
"Yes, ma’am," he muttered.
Liberty faced her would-be killer, willing her fear down. There were more lives at stake now than her own. The knowledge had given her the strength to will her body into action, blowing past the weird mind-numbing effect of the dust she had inhaled. Now, the last vestiges of her weakness disappeared as she heard Kenny running for the nearest exit.
"He was right about one thing," she told the assassin. "There are going to be a lot of people here very soon. You’ll never escape."
"It doesn’t matter. I will not fail in my task."
"I don’t even know who you are, let alone why you think you have to kill me. What did I ever do to you? I’ve never even fought a Chinese villain before."
The assassin stalked around the room, his sword held rock-steady before him. Liberty followed him with her eyes, her entire body tensed for action.
"Japanese, you blind, stupid woman. Now you add further insult to my honor?"
"Oh, now you get all touchy."
Sadayoshi growled at her and spun in a tight circle. A series of small, razor-sharp missiles flew from his open hand toward her. Libery flinched from them instinctively, but they bounced harmlessly off her invulnerable skin. But the movement was enough to give Sadayoshi the opportunity he needed. Rushing her, he swung at her exposed throat. In desperation, Liberty shoved a piece of rubble upward, deflecting the swing just enough. She felt a sharp sting in her cheek, and tasted blood on her tongue.
He had been right; she was running on adrenaline. But a metabolism like hers took adrenaline and super-charged it like nuclear fission. As he moved to strike again, she slammed the palm of her hand against his arm and heard the cracking of bones.
Sadayoshi emitted a hiss of pain, but forced himself to ignore it. Even as his deadened arm released the katana, his free hand snatched it out of the air and swung another blow. Surprised, Liberty felt it cut into her thigh. She staggered, her hand clutching at the wound. It wasn’t too deep, but it hurt like hell! She hadn’t felt this kind of pain since her powers had kicked in, and she didn’t like it anymore than she had as a kid.
Sadayoshi came at her once again, but she took to the air and flew up to the second floor, out of his reach. In the distance, she heard the soft wail of approaching sirens.
"Not bad for a kid," she called down to him. "But it’s over. The cops will be here in another minute, and you can’t reach me up here. Thanks for taking out the stairs."
"You are mistaken about a great many things, Liberty. Perhaps I cannot reach you in the air, but I can most certainly reach this unfortunate but still-living woman."
Liberty blanched. "You bastard! You wouldn’t!"
The assassin merely smiled as he lowered the point of his blade over Kate’s chest, his eyes never leaving Liberty’s face.
"Your choice is simple. Face me, or she dies."
Libery clenched her fists in helpless rage. "Alright, you sicko! But before we get on with this, tell me what the hell the point of all this is!"
"And give the police time to interrupt this final dance? I think not. Choose, Liberty. Your life, or hers. Choose now!"
Liberty didn’t hesitate. She launched herself like a rocket straight at the assassin, hoping to hit him before he could react. But his reflexes were faster than she had imagined, and he dodged to the side and sliced his sword across the back of her leg as she flew by. The sting of the sword wasn’t as bad as before, but it was bad enough. She stayed in the air, hovering only a foot off the floor as the swordsman lashed out at her once again. She pulled herself upward and over the sword, then kicked him in the shoulder. He spun away, his shoulder tearing with the force of the impact. This time his pain was too great to ignore, and he allowed a scream to escape his lips. Liberty came at him, but he fell backwards and kicked her as she passed over him, knocking her off-balance and crashing her into the wall. The building groaned around them.
Liberty got to her feet, wondering what kind of man she was up against. He didn’t seem to have any metapowers, but he was a lot faster than she was, he could probably kick Bruce Lee around like a football, and that sword was the sharpest thing she’d ever heard of.
"Dropped your sword, huh? Too bad." She landed, testing her leg and finding she could stand well enough.
Sadayoshi ignored her taunts. His shoulder was dislocated, but he focused himself beyond the pain. As she stepped toward him, he threw himself into a backflip, using the momentum to drive his shoulder into the wall. The pain was incredible, and he screamed out loud as the shoulder snapped back into place. Liberty stopped, stunned at the suddenness of his actions.
"Haven’t you had enough?" she demanded, placing herself between him and the sword.
"Not as long as you still live," he vowed. The sirens were getting closer. He accepted the inevitable: he would not leave this place alive.
"What did I ever do to you?" she asked. "I’ve been a superhero for all of a few months, and I’ve never seen you before."
"Not you," hissed the assassin. "Your predecessor."
"My-" Liberty’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"You are not the first Liberty. There was another."
"You mean back in World War Two? That’s sixty years ago! My grandparents weren’t even married yet!"
"Do you think that matters?!" screamed Sadayoshi. "You wear her name, her colors! You carry on in her name! Did you think I could allow that dishonor to stand?!"
"What dishonor? What are you talking about!"
"After America forced the honorable Japanese military into declaring war upon this decadent country, the first Liberty was present at Pearl Harbor. She singlehandedly stopped the third wave of planes from reaching their assigned targets. One of the planes that went down was piloted by Sakamoto Kazuhiro."
"An ancestor of yours?"
"No. My son."
Liberty gawked. "I hope I look that good when I’m a hundred years old."
"One hundred and seventeen," he corrected. The pain in his arm was dissipating. The red, blue and white lights from the police cars outside cut through the dust in the room. It would be over soon.
"I was twenty-five when the Tunguska meteor struck. Since then I have not aged a day. But my sons were not so fortunate. Three of my sons died within hours of their birth. The eldest, Kazuhiro, lived long enough to die at the hands of your predecessor, leaving his infant son behind."
"And you blame me for this? Maybe your country shouldn’t have attacked Pearl Harbor. Then your son might not have been killed like that."
"You are a foolish child! Your president gave us no honorable alternative but to declare war! How dare you stand there and believe the lies you were taught!"
"Look, you’ve got some serious issues to work out, but killing me isn’t going to bring back your son."
"It will restore my family honor. I spent the remainder of the war seeking Liberty’s death, but she eluded me each and every time. Then I was captured, and I spent several years in prison. When I left, she had retired, and I never found a trace of her. But your death will suffice to remove the stain that Liberty has placed on my honor."
"Well, considering that this building is now surrounded by cops, I don’t see how you expect to get out of here."
"I do not. I will fulfill my family debt, and I will not be imprisoned again."
"You’ll never escape." She could see he was ready to make some sort of move. "They’ll catch you, no matter how fast or clever you think you are."
"No. They will only find our bodies."
She paused for a moment as the words sank in. "You’re going to do that Japanese suicide thing, is that it?"
"I shall do what I must to restore my honor. Nothing else matters."
"And how are you going to kill me now? Your sword is out of reach, and you can barely move your arms anyway."
His reponse floored her. His supposedly-disabled left arm whipped around, and several small objects struck her, exploding in a cloud of smoke around her. She threw herself aside, holding her breath in case it was more of that mist. But as she moved, Sadayoshi dove through the smoke, rolling and grabbing his sword.
Liberty turned to see him charging her. She leaped up, grabbing a crossbeam and pulling herself to the ceiling as the sword passed just underneath her. She dropped to the floor, yanking down on the beams and bringing half the ceiling down on top of the killer.
The rest of the building, which had been creaking ominously throughout most of the battle, began to sway slightly on the weakened support beams. Liberty ran to Kate and deflected a falling chunk of rubble away from her. She picked up the unconscious woman and dodged more pieces of wood. Turning, she saw Sadayoshi stagger, his leg pinned beneath the collapsed ceiling. A loud creak got Liberty’s attention, and she looked up to see the wood cracking.
"Time to go, Kate," she said, and ran to the door. She kicked it down and carried Kate outside into the bright daylight. Her eyes blinked wildly in the dazzling sunlight, but she saw an ambulance among the crowd of reporters. Instead of pushing through the clamoring throng, she simply airlifted Kate to the waiting attendants.
"The staircase fell on top of her! She’s still breathing, but she’s hurt real bad!"
The gray-haired attendant nodded. "We’ll take care of her. You look like you could use some band-aids yourself."
"Later. There’s still someone inside."
Several reporters thrust their microphones into her face. "Liberty, why did you show up a day early? Why did you let a child follow you into the building? Do you have trouble with the calendar? How many supervillains were you fighting? Have they escaped yet?"
"Out of the way, please!" Liberty took off once again, flying through the doorway. The beams were visibly swaying now. She saw Sadayoshi struggling to free himself from the rubble.
"Let me help you!" she shouted to him. She shoved aside a few beams and grabbed his arm. He glared at her with pure hatred and shoved her away. Surprised by the strength he still had, she stepped back. "Are you crazy?!"
In response, he threw his sword at her. She flung herself to the side as the blade whistled by her and buried itself to the hilt in the wall. She wanted to scream in frustration. She looked back at him, then yanked the sword out of the wall.
A dreadful eagerness welled up in his eyes. "Yes. It is the only way now. I have failed. You must restore my family’s honor for me."
"What, by killing myself? I’m not as crazy as you are."
"No. Take my life."
She gaped at him. "You really are crazy. You expect me to kill you? In case you didn’t notice, I’m one of the good guys. I save lives, I don’t take them."
"You must!" he insisted. "It is the only way!"
"Sorry." She set the point of the blade against the floor, then brought her foot across the blade, snapping it in half. Throwing the hilt aside, she met his chagrined gaze. "My name’s not Kevorkian."
The light in Sadayoshi’s eyes flared up for a moment, then died. "No. To my family, your name is Death. So be it."
He pulled a knife from a hidden pocket. Liberty braced herself for another attempt on her life, but Sadayoshi reversed the blade in his hand. Meeting her eyes, he plunged it into his own stomach.
"NO!" screamed Liberty, too stunned to move. Sadayoshi drew the blade upward, eviscerating himself before her. His eyes never left hers as the light faded from them. He slumped down, his blood spreading across the wood that surrounded him.
Liberty stood frozen to the spot, her mind unable to accept what she had just seen. She didn’t hear the support beams shattering, didn’t see the walls tumbling down around her. She hardly felt the wooden beams as they slammed her to the floor, burying her beneath them, the terrible noise drowning her anguished cries.
The cameras were still focused on the collapsed building. It had been several minutes since Liberty had gone back inside, and there was no sign of her. Many of the reporters spoke crisp words into the live feeds, eager to bring the scene into the living rooms of Southern California.
Several other newshounds had surrounded the ambulance where Kate Wilson was being tended to, and where Kenny Routcliff stood, tight-lipped, watching for any signs of Liberty. "What were you doing in the building, Kenny? Did you see the man she was fighting? Did he threaten you? Was he powerful enough to kill Liberty? Why did Liberty come a day early to the orphanage?"
The rubble shuddered, and every eye turned toward the ruins. Kenny rushed forward, slipping past the crowding reporters until he ran into a police barricade.
As the cameras filmed, the rubble rose up, then fell away, revealing a disheveled Liberty, her costume torn and covered in dirt, her blonde hair a tangled mess. She shrugged off the last of the rubble, ignoring the cameras and shouted questions. After a moment, she flew over to the nearest police car, followed by a mob of reporters.
"You didn’t get him out in time?" asked the cop, wiping sweat from his forehead.
"He-" her voice choked off, and she cleared her throat. "He didn’t want to be saved. He wouldn’t let me save him."
The cop frowned. "You’ll have to give us a statement. If a man died in there, we’re going to have to do some investigating."
She nodded. "I’ll tell you everything, but I just watched a man commit suicide rather than let me pull him out of a falling building. I…I’d like some time alone, if you don’t mind."
A microphone was thrust into her face. "Dave Bancroft, WLAV News. Did he tell you why he was here? How do you feel about what happened here? Did you deliberately mislead the American people by coming a day early to this function? Could this tragedy have been avoided if you had been more honest with us?"
Liberty turned and stared at the reporter. Undaunted, Bancroft held the microphone steady, an expectant look on his face. "I thought I could help the orphanage without turning this into a media circus," she replied. "I wanted the story to be about these kids, not about me. I don’t know if another day would have made a difference in what happened here. All I know is that I’ve never felt worse in my whole life than I do right now, and there’s nothing else I can say."
"Just another question, Liberty-" shouted Bancroft, but she was already airborne, her eyes blurred with her tears as she tried in vain to outrace the pain in her heart.
Jesse looked at her reflection in the mirror, a sad smile on her face. The cut on her cheek was healing very well; by tomorrow there might not even be a scar. Her other wounds were also feeling much better, although she knew she wouldn’t forget the incredible sword any time soon.
The door opened, and Gina came in. "How are you doing, Jess?"
"Physically? I’m doing fine. I’ll be done with the bandages in a couple of days at most."
"Good. But that’s not what I meant."
"I know." Jesse slumped down on the bed, her head in her hands. "I just keep seeing his face, Gina. He made me watch him kill himself. It was like I was frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t stop him. I just saw those eyes, staring at me and hating me like it was his religion. And all because of something that happened sixty years ago."
Gina put her arm around her best friend and pulled her close. "I don’t know what to say, Jess. I can’t imagine what it was like for you to see that, but you know I’m here for you."
"Hey, what else are friends for? By the way, I heard on the news that the Wilson lady is going to be fine. She took a nasty beating, but she’s going to pull through. And that Kenny kid is getting huge attention from the press. Seems he was up on the roof of the orphanage instead of with the other kids, and he saw the guy setting up some sort of trap. When he saw him grab the sword, he ran down to warn you."
"That wasn’t too bright of him; that guy was way too dangerous. But he did save my life; I was out of it until I realized that he and Kate were in trouble. Then I just…forced myself to do something, anything to protect them."
"Well, that’s why you wear the flag-suit." Gina turned Jesse’s face and met her eyes. "Face it, Jesse. You might not be after the fame and glory, but you’ve got something inside of you that just makes you help other people. That’s something special, and don’t you ever lose it. It’s not the powers, it’s not the costume; it’s you."
"Do you have any idea how corny that sounds?" Jesse laughed in spite of herself.
"Yep. But it got you smiling, didn’t it? And it doesn’t mean it isn’t true."
"Thanks." Jesse rolled onto her stomach, staring at the wall. "You know what’s really weird about this whole thing?"
"He told me why he was trying to kill me, but he never told me his name…"
"Well, it doesn’t matter now. He’s dead, right? It’s not like he’s going to come back from the grave and come after you."
"Oh, God, I don’t even want to think about that."
"So don’t. Tell you what. Let’s grab some food, my treat."
"I suppose, but I’m not really hungry."
Gina pulled her off the bed. "Sure you are. There’s a new cook at the pizza shop. Wait until you see those eyes."
The door shut behind them.
The room was dark; no spotlight disturbed the inky perfection of the Dark Council’s chamber. In the still silence, a voice spoke up. "How shall we judge him?"
"He failed in his mission, and paid the price that was required."
"It was a fool’s mission. He was blinded by hatred. He did not plan his attack, he merely acted on impulse. It is no surprise he failed."
"Nevertheless, he acted properly in the end. He did what was necessary."
"Then it is settled."
There was a brief murmur of assent.
"Then his name and honor shall be restored, and the matter forgotten."
"Not yet," interrupted a voice from the chamber entrance.
"Who dares to disturb the deliberations of the Dark Council?"
The spotlight flared into life, falling upon a muscular young man with fiery red eyes. "I dare, for this Council has neglected its duty."
"Strong words from a stripling. Explain to us why you should be permitted to leave this chamber alive."
The red eyes looked around the chamber, and a vicious smile of anticipation grew on the harsh face beneath them. "My grandfather’s death went unavenged for sixty years. You would have allowed my great-grandfather’s death to be forgotten. But the Sakamoto name shall never die, as long as one of us lives to avenge the wrongs that have been done to us."
Before anyone could reply, the young man exploded into flames. Fire spread quickly throughout the chamber, and the stench of burnt flesh mixed with the greasy smoke. After a few brief screams, all was quiet. The flames died down, and only the young man remained. The room darkened again, save for the spotlight that still shone down.
He spun on his heel and walked to the chamber door. As his hand closed on the handle, he turned back to observe his handiwork.
"May your honored soul rest in peace, Sakamoto Sadayoshi. The Phoenix shall complete your life’s work. And Liberty will burn."