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Electra

Those Who Fight Monsters

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“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.â€Â-Friedrich Nietzsche

The last few days had been very busy. Erin didn't mind that too much; it was better than doing nothing but working all the time, but it did leave her running way behind on a number of assignments. The library was supposed to have the book she needed on the historical antecedents of superheroes, but it was way, way back in the stacks, where things weren't always reliably filed. It could take a long time to find it, if she found it at all. Nevertheless, she headed back into the maze, hoping that fortune would favor her this one time.

She was running her fingers along a line of dusty hardcovers, trying to read faded Dewey Decimal numbers, when she heard the noise. It wasn't very loud, but it was close. It sounded like someone was being attacked. Erin tensed reflexively, then ran for the sound. The school was generally a safe place, but bad things could happen anywhere, at any time.

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James had been at the school a while now. And while he only slept once every few nights, no one had realized that he had yet to sleep in his own bed. He planned ahead, moved around, never slept in the same place and never where someone was likely to stumble across him in the dead of night. He even brought the blanket and a small backpack with him every night, wherever he slept. He knew what to expect after all. It was the same, every time he slept since he turned 15.

On a blanket covered couch in the back corner, James thrashed and spasmed in his sleep along with moans, whimpers and muffled screams. James feared nothing while he was awake. But he wasn’t awake at the moment. If nightmares were measured on a scale of 1 to 5, this one was in triple digits.

Clad in a simple t-shirt and short, he was covered in sweat. But the really unusual part were the multitude of injuries he bore. Cuts, lacerations, burns, tears. They covered his body, each one fresh and seeping (if not outright bleeding), soaking small sections of his clothes. Every few moments, another one would appear.

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When Erin came upon the macabre scene in the darkest corner of the library, she assumed that an invisible villain had somehow managed to get into the library. She sprinted for James, lashing out at the place in front of him with a silent leg sweep, and then a roundhouse punch, but encountered only air. There was no one there who could be inflicting the wounds that still appeared on his skin. He didn't even seem to be conscious.

Crouching down in front of him, Erin grabbed his shoulders and gave him a swift shake. "James! Hellion! Wake up!" she told him firmly. "What's going on? Who's hurting you?" She punctuated each question with another little shake.

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James deeply under. His body was there but his essence was far below in the deepest reaches of the Pit. And whoever or whatever had him there was not interested in letting him go. But Erin’s forceful shakes were eventually enough to break that hold though who could for sure say why?

For James, coming out of the depths of Hell wasn’t exactly a smooth transition. He might suffering greatly while there. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t fighting back for all he was worth. Of course he struggles were usually futile and he wasn’t exactly his calm relaxed self. He was baser, more violent, just trying to survive.

His eyes snapped open and, as they were an equal mix of fear, craziness and anger, it was a clear sign that he wasn’t quite himself. A gutteral roar and the appearance of an evil blackbladed sword in his hand helped ram that home. Just as he attempted to ram that blade right into the figure shoving him and who, in his blurred mind, hurting him.

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Raw instinct had Erin jerking away at that blank and mindless look, an instant before the blade lashed out. She tumbled backwards, coming up ready to fight. Those same instincts were screaming at her to strike back, that he was a zombie, that he had to be put down before he could hurt her. But James was her friend. James was her friend, she reminded herself, even as she crouched with her arms up. James was her friend, and there were no zombies here. "Wake up!" she rasped. "Dammit, James, it's me, it's Erin!"

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James blinked rapidly, trying to get a feel for where and who he was. As his eyes became clear and he realized he wasn't in the depths of hell, he looked across and understood where he was. The blade vanished from his hands with a thought. "Shit! Erin? You ok? What are you doing here? How did I wake up?" He winced as he looked around, noting the time, doing the best to ignore his injuries for now. "Almost 2...never woke up this early before," he said mostly to himself.

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Erin straightened to her feet, visibly wary as she sized him up. "Are you awake all the way now?" she asked cautiously. He looked better, more like himself, but it was hard to say. She was pretty sure he couldn't hurt her in a fistfight without that blade, but she didn't know about that fire he'd been throwing around. "You were asleep, but something was hurting you. You're bleeding," she pointed out needlessly. "I woke you up. Do you know what caused all that damage?"

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He sat down heavily on the blanket, wincing, finally back and fully awake. "Yeah, I'm back. I'm really sorry about that. Just wasn't expecting..." He shook his head a little bit.

He looked down at his damage body. "Did a number on me again," he muttered half to himself. He stood again, though a lot slower and grimacing. He tore his soaked t-shirt off and threw it on the blanket.

He looked across at Erin, thoughtful for a moment. He was a damn good liar when he wanted to be, though this would have to be good one to explain all this away. But the questions wasn't whether he could do it, but if he should or even wanted to. Normally, lying would be a natural first instinct. But things were different now. Coming here, a team. Still...

He nodded at her. "Thanks for waking me. Really. Just, it's not something that's happened before now. And yeah, I know what happened. Same as always," he said scowling. He hooked his fingers in his ruined shorts, turning to face the couch. He wasn't embarrassed about being naked in front of anyone, but at least this way, he gave Erin the illusion of modesty.

He gestured, a ball of flame in his hands. He kept the burn low to not burn anything or set off alarms. He made it quickly envelope him and, under the fire, the damage slowly but completely faded away. He dismissed the fire with a thought before reaching down into the bag and pulling out a pair of shorts, slipping them on. He gestured towards the couch, fly-frying the stained clothes and blanket, which he'd brought for just that reason, leaving the couch untouched. He brushed away the little ash the remained and sat down, resigned.

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Erin looked away, her cheeks coloring just a little as she realized he was stripping down right there in the library. The fireball had her looking back over, very concerned for a moment, but it seemed to be a very directed sort of fire, only destroying what he wanted destroyed. She considered mentioning that they did have a couple of washing machines at the school, but figured her wasn't in the mood. She really wasn't feeling too jokey either, though at least the adrenaline response was already washing out of her very efficient system.

"That's a nice trick," she commented aloud. "You look better. If someone was attacking you while you were sleeping, you should tell someone. They've got psychics here and stuff like that. Someone can help you." She looked away again, uncomfortable for different reasons with giving advice like that, but it was true.

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He nodded. "Just one of my abilities I don't advertise. Along with the sword, talking with demons, things like that. Useful but circumspect for anyone who knows a little about it."

He looked over at her standing across from him. He enjoyed spending time with her. Despite her ridiculous and made-to-break-your-sanity schedule, they had been hanging out a few time a week at nights. It was different, hanging out with a girl and knowing there was little to no chance of flirting, making out and sex. Erin just wasn't ready for that kind of interaction with anyone as far as he could tell (and he usually was quite good at telling). And he was fine with that. Weird.

He'd been here a month or so and had already had a several dates with girls from here. None had struck his fancy beyond appearance, it had been casual so far. Fooling around and the like. With Erin, it was different. Just friends; none of that normal teenage stuff. So besides a little flirting (which was mostly habit and unconscious on his part), he had just regular interactions with her. Odd, but still fun. It also made it easier to talk with her.

He gave a sad smile. "There is nothing anyone can do. I know you didn't get the reference before, besides the part of my family being rich. But my family has something of a reputation for heroing and the like. All sort of wierd stuff. Technology to magic to...other. They've known about me since I was born, even if they didn't want to let me in on it. Nothing they could do either about it either, and they were waiting years for something to surface. Short of kill me I suppose. And even that doesn't take. Not that they would do it. They are "good guys", as much as I dislike most of them." He shrugged. "Some people know who know about this stuff know. And there's nothing they can do. I just try and keep from everyone finding out. Might be a little disturbing for most people to see or hear, hence me never sleeping in my room. Which brings me down here."

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"Just because your family are "good guys," that doesn't mean they're right," Erin pointed out. She was still staying out of arm's reach for the moment, but had relaxed enough to lean against the wall. "I know for sure that superheroes and super-science don't have all the answers, but they sure have some of them. If it's your own powers that do it, maybe someone at the Freedom League could rig up a suppressant for when you sleep." She jerked a shoulder in a shrug. "They can do it for criminals, why not for you?" She knew what it was like to not bother people with one's odd sleeping habits; sleeping in the library was the least strange thing about this whole situation.

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He smiled wryly. "It's not my powers that do this. I'm actually immune to my own powers really. Those injuries? It's a physical reflection of what happens to my essence, soul or whatever you'd like to call it. I'm sure you're familiar with the idea of sleeping is like visiting hell? All the worst things you've seen come back at you. You've got no defense, nothing you can do to stop it? You have to suffer through your own hell." He wasn't exactly sure what her 'demons' were but he'd figured a lot out and knew enough to know her dreams were no picnic either.

"Well, for me, it really is visiting Hell. Literally. I go there every time I sleep. Down to the very bottom layer. No choice, no control. Every time I've tried sleep since I turned fifteen. One of the reason I don't do cat naps. Just means this happens more often." He shrugged. It wasn't an emotional thing, he didn't get upset about it anymore. It had been two years of this now. It just was. "Remember back after the baseball game, when we first started hanging out? I told you about how Demons can't come here unless summoned? Well, the reverse is sort of true. But I can be 'summoned', brought down there whenever I sleep. And, it might be obvious, but hell sucks more than anything, ever. Suffering and pain beyond what I can explain."

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Her eyes widened at that, a kind of horrified empathy. "Your dreams are real," she murmured, wrapping her arms around herself. At least she had that much comfort, the things she saw in her head at night were just memories or mind games, gone when she woke. "How can hell summon you?" she demanded. "What right does anyone have to do that? Cant you get, like, a church involved? Or the pope, or something? Summers probably has some kind of a connection there."

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He sighed, just going to lay it out in plain words. He shrugged. "What right? How? Remember those demons at the game? I said I bluffed them? Well I did. What I didn't tell you was a kind of important tidbit. Why they bought it, went against their control spells and vanished. My father and what I'm supposed to do. He sort of owns me." A short pause. "He's one of the Lords of Hell." He looked over at her, watching her closely. He hadn't lied to her about any of his past and background. But he certainly had glossed over it or no mentioned it at all. One never could tell how someone would react. "James Prophet, half-demon. Nice to meet you," he said with a wry and sardonic smile.

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Erin's brow furrowed. "Well then, I guess the church isn't an option, not if you're just gonna burst into flames..." She raised a hand and rubbed her face. "Sorry. I was sort of having a religious crisis before all this, and I have a feeling it's not going to get any better. But that's what you meant about destiny, isn't it?" she asked, putting her hand down and looking at him. "If your father is big in hell, maybe he wants you following in his footsteps. So why the torture, then? Why does he keep hurting you?"

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He chuckled. "Yeah, not likely to help. Though I'm certain some would like to try that."

"A religious crisis? About what?" He didn't have any idea if he could help with it, but talking about someone else's problems was usually a lot easier than talking about your own.

He nodded a little as she started putting it together. "Yeah, this is what I meant. The torture and all that is because I'm not really playing ball, not doing what I'm told or supposed to. I've never been good at that. He doesn't want me to follow his footsteps and rule in hell. He's as close as close to the top down there as you can get really. What he wants is to rule up here. Hell on Earth. But he can't come here. Remember that bit I said about having to be invited/summoned for demons to come here? Well, this is where I come in. Someone's got to open the door and lead the armies of hell before he gets to show up." His tone and grin were both sarcastic. "Guess who's suppose to do that?"

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Erin grimaced as she absorbed the situation. "So he can't touch you, except when you sleep, but then, you go down to him. Because he's a lord of hell... at least around here." She stared down at the floor for a minute, tugging on the ends of her hair. "Have you ever been to Quark's lab?" she asked suddenly. "It's in another dimension. Things are different between dimensions, and things can't always reach across. Maybe if you could go there to sleep, you might be safe. I think there are some dimensions without God or heaven or hell. It wouldn't work forever, but if you can find one, maybe you could at least get a break."

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He shrugged. "I think there's a hell everywhere. Maybe different ones. Maybe the same. But I honestly don't know." He frowned. "I could run I suppose. Hide out somewhere. I'd be found eventually though. I'm certain of that. And it might even buy me a little time get some good sleep in." He paused, frowning. "But honestly, I don't want to give him or anyone the satisfaction. I admit that I might have to, just to buy time if nothing else. I just don't like the idea. I hate running." He sighed, knowing it didn't matter what he wanted given what was at stake. "Something to think about though I guess."

He shrugged. "Well, now you know. I don't advertise it but...it isn't exactly something people are usually ok with."

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Erin shrugged. "I guess I can't get too worked up about it. It's just hell. It's something we can stave off, or fight if we have to. You don't want it to come here, and it sounds like you're an important part of the plan, so helping you is smart." She paused for a minute, thinking about how that might sound. "It's not that I don't think it's a scary situation, or that you're in a tough place. But none of it has happened yet, so it's not too late to stop it. It's worse when something comes out of nowhere and there's nothing you can do."

She pushed herself off the wall, looking over at him. "And it's not running away if you can find a place to sleep where he can't get you. It's thumbing your nose. You're here, and he's not, and there's nothing he can do about it, and now he can't even get you when you sleep. I bet it would piss him off."

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He chuckled wryly. "Why do you think I'm always trying to just have fun and enjoy life? No sense letting it get me down. I fight it how I can, work on the things I can fix and just deal with the stuff I can't. Being happy generally isn't something they get or understand so that helps too."

He looked and nodded. "I suppose. It's not like there are places on this world I can sleep. Maybe I'll have to find Quark and ask him later. How'd it come up for you? Trying to find out about your home, if it was better now" he asked.

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She shook her head and looked away for a minute, fists clenching. "My world isn't going to get any better," she said finally. "I asked Quark if there was a way to go back there and go back in time to stop what happened. He scanned me and was able to open a portal to my world. But it wouldn't have helped. Alex explained it to me, and said that the most I could do was divert the timeline so it happened differently, cause a new one to branch off, and destroy the one I come from. There would be new copies of all of us, like there are here in this world, but it wouldn't actually stop anything. It wouldn't bring anyone back." She closed her eyes and pressed her fingers hard against her eyelids for a few moments, as though she was physically forcing back tears, but when she opened them, her eyes were dry. "I don't think it would do anyone any good."

Erin shook her head to clear it, refocusing herself on the problem at hand. "But the point is, Quark has a lab that's outside of this dimension. It seems like it might be really small, just the space for him to work in, but that might mean it's not got a lot of supernatural stuff tacked onto it. If no one lives there, who'd be interested, right? If he hesitates, maybe you could offer to let him scan you. He seems like the curious type."

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He tilted his head down. "Pretty crappy news all around then." He watched her for a long moment, not having any idea what to say to someone who's whole world was flushed down the toilet. There just weren't words for that kind of thing. "I'm sorry." It was a damn lame thing to say but having your hopes destroyed wasn't something words could fix. Well, maybe they could help a little. Certain words had a massive power all their own. But first, he'd deal with her idea and Quark, just in case she decide to take offense to his other thoughts.

"Ok, I'm sold. It can't hurt to try. Well, it can, but you take your chances right? I'm willing to give it a try. Who knows, it might even be fun," he said with a small smile.

He stood up and walked towards her, stopping just out of arms range. Not that it mattered, given her speed; she could be on the other side of the building and still hit him at a dead run before most people could move more than a few feet. But while he acknowledged she could tear things up with ease, it didn't bother him. The joys of spending time in Hell.

"I might be out of turn to say this. Feel free to yell at me or tell me to shut up or whatever. It's ok. But I think you're wrong there. About doing any good. I don't claim to understand temporal physics or alternate dimensions or any of that; I'm kind of amazed at the possibility that you can attempt it. But if it could work, I think it would do something. It would do some good, quite a lot really." He watched her face but made no move otherwise. "It would create a new path or thread for that timeline to follow, starting right before whatever tragedy hit your wold, right? Everyone would be back. Alive, healthy and happy. That sounds like a lot of good to me. But the rub is that you'd be alone. There'd be a you from that timeline, living the life you would have had. You'd be be truly cut off. You'd still have a home here, but I get that it wouldn't be the same for you I know. Probably freaking hard as heckon you."

"And when you go...because I know you will even if you don't. Even if it's just to try and it doesn't work, I can't imagine you not going. But when you do, call me. I'll go with you. If nothing else, no one should have to face their personal hell alone when there are other options." Right about now, he'd normally be offering someone a hug. But Erin...well, she wasn't exactly on the same wavelength as most people. He was here if she needed something but he wouldn't push comforting nor was he even sure she needed it.

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"This is that dimension," she replied softly. "The one where nothing happened, where no one ever got sick. As far as Dr. Atom could tell, my Dr. Atom, this universe was our closest neighbor before everything went to hell. Up until sometime at the end of 2006, we might have even been the same universe." Erin was staring straight at the wall ahead of her, unblinking, obviously hanging onto her composure with both hands and a white-knuckle grip.

"I don't know why this universe is fine and mine died. There has to have been something. I know you don't have a vaccine we didn't, or superheroes we don't. After being here for almost a year, sometimes it was like all that was just a bad dream. No dead bodies, no graves, not even anyone who remembers. If I destroy my world, they lose even the graves and the bones. They were real people. They lived lives that ended too soon and they died miserably, and it's not fair that nobody ever knows or remembers. If I go back and make a copy, that's all it is, just another copy."

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James shrugged, slowly taking a single step. "I don't know. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. Would it be better for that past to have happened? To have diverged? To have only you to remember? Or would it be better to try and make it so it never happened? Leaving just you. What would you rather do Erin? What would be better for you? To help you heal."

He looked at her for a long moment, keenly aware of the distance between them wasn't enough to stop her swinging as he took a second step. "But Erin? They aren't copies. You aren't a copy. You're an individual. Unique. You have your own mind, heart and soul. And given my background, you might want to trust me on this," he said gently.

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"Nothing helps," she told him, her voice cracking on the last word. She swallowed. "I have to go." Just like that, she was gone, a few papers rustling as she took off, around the corner and down the hall. He could hear the crash bar catch on the emergency exit, but thankfully it didn't trigger a fire alarm, and she was gone.

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