The flash of light that followed was… I don’t even know how to describe it. It was dark. Like lightning flashing through faraway thunderclouds at night. It flashed briefly, and then it was gone.
And a Defender was standing there, where Maelyn had been.
Her power suit was completely black, just like her morpher: there was no trace of the white and silver accents that decorated my own suit.
“What?” Ruby Scorpion exclaimed.
“No,” Emerald Scarab said. “It can’t be. The Ebon Ghost?”
That name rang a bell. It was the name that the Repulsoids mentioned in their communications whenever a Leader… Disappeared. I’d been told so during my very first briefing. Mae had told me so, even.
So the Ebon Ghost… Was Mae?
“I prefer Defender Black, if you don’t mind,” she said, flicking her wrist; her short sword – also jet black – appeared in her hand.
“I prefer you dead,” Scorpion sneered, rushing towards her, his sword raised; he’d apparently forgotten all about me.
Black easily parried his first strike. And then his second, and third. Her movements were almost lazy, she wasn’t even moving her feet, just her sword arm.
Scorpion paused his attack, and took a few steps back; his sword started glowing, and he let loose his fire crescent at Black – three of them, actually, in quick succession. Again, Black easily deflected his attacks, redirecting the first two off to either side of her, and bisecting the third. She looked remarkably relaxed, not even breaking a sweat against Scorpion’s onslaught.
“Are you quite done?” she asked, tilting her head to the side. “Can I have a turn now?”
Scorpion let out a wordless scream, and rushed Black again; she stepped to the side at the last moment, and brought her leg up, tripping him. He crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust, before rising to his feet and turning to face Black once more.
“This is getting boring,” she said. “Wait, I’ll show you a trick. Don’t blink.”
I must have blinked, because I definitely missed what happened next: one moment Black was standing in front of Ruby Scorpion, the next she was behind him, as if she’d moved instantly. A shower of sparks appeared across Scorpion’s chest – apparently, during her rush, Black had slashed him with her sword.
“Oh, you didn’t see it?” she said. “Hold on, I’ll give you another chance. Tell me if you see this.”
Again it was as if she’d blinked across space, from one place to the other, and again Scorpion recoiled, having been struck by her.
Black clicked her tongue. “Again? How many times do I have to do it before you manage to see it?” She sighed. “Ah, well. Let’s try something else.”
She tapped a sequence of buttons on her morpher – it was so quick, I didn’t see what she pressed. “Mirage,” the morpher’s electronic voice said.
Black seemed to split, somehow: one moment she was standing in front of Scorpion, the next there were eight of her, all identical, standing in a circle around the Repulsoid Leader.
“Have been you paying attention? Which one of us is the real one?” Black said; it was as if the voice was coming from all eight of her clones.
Scorpion seemed to hesitate, looking around, trying to decide. Then he raised his sword, and shot off a crescent of fire against one of the clones, which disappeared into thin air with a shimmer.
“Too bad,” came Black’s voice. The clones moved, all at the same time, and sparks appeared across Scorpion’s back – Black, the real Black, had evidently slashed him once more, though I couldn’t for the life of me tell which of the seven remaining copies was the real one. “Do you want to try again?”
“Why, you…” Scorpion growled, and let loose his special attack thrice, against three of the Blacks standing around him.
“Wrong again,” Black said, as the clones disappeared. “You went for three, so now I get three too.”
Scorpion was slashed three times, in quick succession; he staggered a bit, but managed to remain standing, though it was clear Black’s attacks were having an effect on him.
“You see, this is a game much like whack-a-mole.” Black’s voice was mocking. “Only, if you miss, you’re the one who gets whacked instead.”
I kept looking at them, at the ever-decreasing number of Black clones, as Scorpion kept striking at the wrong ones, and getting slashed and stabbed in return; until there was only one of her left.
“There you are,” Scorpion said. He leaped forward, and slashed at her… Only for her body to shimmer and disappear, too.
He looked around in confusion.
“Have you ever seen someone standing at a street corner, in front of a small folding table with three cards on it?” Black’s voice said. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from: seemingly everywhere and nowhere at the same time. “Well, probably not, since you’re an alien. ‘Come one, come all!’ they would say. ‘Find the ace of spades! Double your money!’ And they would convince you to bet,” she went on. “It’s a trick, of course. No matter what card you choose, you never win. But the trick isn’t in getting you to choose a particular card on the table instead of another, it’s in getting you to choose a card at all.”
The air shimmered behind Ruby Scorpion, and Defender Black appeared, standing there, her sword raised.
“Because the ace of spades was never on the table to begin with.”
She slashed down at Scorpion’s back, putting all her strength behind the blow; there was a bright shower of sparks where she hit, and then almost an explosion as his armour all but disintegrated, his morpher too overloaded to keep up with the damage.
Ipsum was lying on the ground, armour-less, gasping for breath: he seemed really pathetic.
Black took one step towards him.
He started scrambling backwards, on all fours, while looking up at her. “N-no… No!” he shouted.
Black took another step.
“No! Get away from me! Help!” he shouted.
Another step, and I realised what she was doing.
She was toying with him. Like a cat playing with a mouse.
She took another step.
Ipsum struggled to his feet, but then collapsed to his knees again. Struggling, he put as much distance he could between himself and Black, moving towards Emerald Scarab.
“Help me, please!” he said. “My morpher’s shot, I can’t teleport away! Save me, I beg you!”
Black took another step.
Scarab looked down at Ipsum, who was staring at her with pleading eyes, while hugging her knees. She reached over with her hand, and flicked the switch on the light pole next to her: the electrical web that had been cast over the quarry disappeared.
Black took a stance, as if she was about to launch herself towards the two Repulsoid Leaders.
“Black!” I shouted.
She ignored me. I saw her muscles tense as she prepared to lunge.
I struggled to my feet, and with all my strength I jumped towards her, landing by her side; because of the effort, I fell to one knee, but I managed to place a hand on her arm.
“Mae. Enough,” I said.
She turned her head to look at me.
“He’s already beaten. There’s no need to kill him.”
She looked from me to Scarab and Ipsum, just standing there.
“They’re like bugs. They’ll just come back if we don’t exterminate them,” Black said. “You know this, right?”
I shook my head. “Not like this.”
She held my gaze for a couple seconds, but made no effort to shake off my hand. I turned towards the two Leaders.
“Let’s go. Please,” Ipsum pleaded.
Emerald Scarab didn’t say anything for a couple seconds; she just looked at me. Then she spoke.
“I have overestimated you, Red,” she said. “I never thought you would go so low as to work with a murderer.”
“What? No,” I protested. “I didn’t…”
“She is one of the Defenders, is she not? One of your allies,” she spat out. “Disgusting.”
I started to say something else, to tell her that she was wrong, that I hadn’t known Mae was Defender Black; but Scarab just grabbed Ipsum’s outstretched hand, dragged him to his feet, and they were gone, in a flash of green light.
I felt Black relax. “Great. More work for me,” she said. She flicked the lever on her morpher, the electronic voice said “Power Down,” and her armour disappeared. “Do you realise what you’ve done? Now I have to hunt them both down before they blab my identity around,” she continued, jabbing a finger into my chest. “And I don’t think I’ll be able to get them: Scarab has escaped me several times before. God, this is just… A mess.”
I was startled: I’d never known Maelyn to be so… Aggressive. I stared at her for a few moments, then said, “What do you mean, she’s escaped you before?”
She made a frustrated sound. “Do I have to spell it out for you? Are you really that stupid? Alright then.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve been sneaking into enemy territory every now and then, in the dead of the night, to kill enemy Leaders. To get rid of them, so we suffer less casualties on the battlefield.”
“You kill them? How?”
“In their sleep, mostly. That’s when they’re most vulnerable,” she said, matter-of-factly.
I thought back to Scarab’s words. “But that’s… Murder, isn’t it?”
“Assassination,” she corrected me. “It’s a perfectly legitimate warfare tactic. Especially against terrorists.” She paused. “Got anything to say about it?”
I looked at her for a couple seconds, then shook my head. “Let’s just go home,” I said.
She shook her head. “Before we do, we better get our story straight,” she replied.
My eyebrows rose under my helmet. “Story?”
“Of course. Nobody except General Ryder knows I’m Defender Black – I would be a piss-poor black ops agent otherwise – and it has to stay that way,” she said. “So, when we get debriefed, remember: you’re the one who defeated Ruby Scorpion, despite being injured by him. Think you can remember that?”
I nodded, and offered her my hand. She grabbed it.
“Good. Oh, and of course, don’t go around blabbing about my identity. I would hate to have to kill you, and anyone else you told.”
I stared at her for a couple seconds: I couldn’t tell if she was kidding or if she was serious. Then I just tapped the side of my helmet and said, “Defender Red ready for transport.”
A flash of red light, and we were gone.
Later that night, well past midnight, I lay down in my bed, looking at the ceiling, thinking about the events of the day.
Since my injuries weren’t severe, I’d visited the medbay after being debriefed; they gave me a clean bill of health, though my injuries would keep me sidelined – no strenuous physical activity, and absolutely no missions – for a full week. Apparently, I’d been lucky: according to the other Defenders, the attack that had hit me, Ruby Scorpion’s crescent moon of fire, had been what had killed my brother Mark; though before that, he’d been severely weakened by his battle against three Leaders at the same time.
As I was entering my room for the night, I saw Maelyn down the corridor: she flashed me a cryptic smile, which honestly seemed a bit creepy after what I’d learned about her that day.
Mae being a Defender was a surprise; and the fact that she’d been going around killing Repulsoid Leaders, well… That was even more of a surprise, to be honest. I’d always thought she was a sweet girl, someone I could even see myself dating; now… Not so much.
I wondered which one was the real Mae: the shy, bashful, clever, funny girl I’d known thus far, or the brash, aggressive, bloodthirsty Defender Black? Which one of those was the mask? If it was the former, she was really good, having to keep it up almost constantly, except for when she was on a mission.
And speaking of secrets: she had said that General Ryder was the only one who knew of her secret identity. What other things was the military – the general – hiding from me? From the rest of the Defender Squadron?
I thought back to the letter Mark had written for me, but had never sent. Uncle Victor. There was something he’d found out, and which he needed to speak to me about in person. Something really important. Had he discovered Maelyn’s real identity? Or something else?
Well, there was only one way to find out: I’d need to investigate Defender Base and its going-ons myself. And maybe, just maybe, I knew where to find some clues about where to start looking.
I flicked on my bedside light, got up from bed, and sat down at my desk. I opened a drawer, pulled out my brother’s journal, and set it down on the table.
I took a deep breath. This would be a violation of my brother’s privacy; but I had no choice.
Forgive me, Mark.
In the gloom, I opened the journal to the first page and began to read.