The Aftermath Academy - Ch1 (Pyrrha)

I was there during the third Purge.

You might think that’s a stupid thing to say. Of course I was there. Everyone was there. Over two hundred million people spread across the world, dying in an instant. If you were in a public place, chances were good you saw someone die. Maybe, if you were lucky, you would be around few enough people that only one died and you thought they’d just rejected the Gift. Not so unusual. Even then it was happening more often than it had been. More than one in ten people were dying from it. Mostly it was children, but more than enough adults croaked from that, so maybe you were spared for just a moment the full horror of what had happened.

I wasn’t. I saw the hate in my parents’ eyes, seconds before the light went out of them. But when I say that I was there during the third Purge, I don’t just mean I was affected. I mean I was there. I was in the restaurant, an upscale Mexican place my family habitually went to every Thursday, when Johannes Barber killed the woman in white and the world was plunged back into chaos.

I was eating guacamole. I remember that the tablecloth was a beautiful blue. It contrasted with the woman in white’s slim dress. I was only eight then, and she was the prettiest lady I’d ever seen, this woman who sat down at the table next to us. She had on a sapphire bracelet that matched the tablecloth, and her eyes with brilliant green flecks brighter than the guacamole. There was a softness to them, and a slight smile tugged her lips when she saw me looking. I’d always aspired to be like my mother, but her light tinkling laughter stirred something in my heart that filled me with hope and inspiration.

“Pyrrha, please turn around. People come here to eat, not to be stared at,” my mother scolded me, though her tone was playful. I turned back to my guacamole, ever the dutiful daughter. My mother was not quite as beautiful as the woman in white, if only because she was at least ten years older.

My father was making jokes like he usually does, my mother’s laughter filling the room. I could see Mr. and Mrs. Bahl from down the street a few tables over, eating a fajita plate for two. Everything was… normal, peaceful.

I hadn’t even finished my chips when I noticed something wrong, a darkening of the atmosphere. More tension between my parents, comments made that I hadn’t heard before and didn’t understand. But the mood didn’t touch me, sitting next to the ever serene woman in white.

I wasn’t half done with my first taco when I heard the first scream. It came from only a few tables away. There was a man standing there, smiling, in a tight fitting grey button down shirt with a far too loose navy blue blazer hanging about his shoulders. His clothing was just dressy enough to get him through the door, but only barely, and was worn with a casual disdain. It was also covered in blood. His left hand held the severed head of our waitress by her hair. Tiffany, a waitress we’d had for years, who gave me free cookies for dessert most weeks and always complemented my drawings. Her face was frozen in an expression of shock, blood dripping from her neckline.

The man casually flicked a wine glass with his right hand. It should have fallen over, but it didn’t. Instead his finger broke through the glass as easily as if it were water and, for a moment, the shards and wine just hung in the air, as if time had frozen. Then they sped forward into the eyes of the Mrs. Bahl, whose glass it had been. Her earlier poise was shattered as her screams joined the agonized shouts of a waiter laid out behind their table.

The man flipped a salad fork into Mr. Bahl’s jugular. I heard the woman in white shouting into a phone next to her. “Come get me, please, Barber’s attacking. You know what will happen-“

Two men in fine clothes rushed from behind the woman in white towards Barber, energy blasts whipping from their hands. Barber barely slowed as he stepped past them, the energy turning in on itself and vaporizing half of the bodies of the men projecting it.

I was less than four feet away from him as he took the woman in white’s trembling face into his hand. She was terrified, but I could feel that it wasn’t for her own life. I didn’t understand it then, couldn’t grasp how I could feel what she was feeling, or why.

“Please, do you know what will happen? Please don’t do this,” she pleaded, tears streaming from her face.

“Yes,” he whispered, throat hoarse, a rawness to the word so intense it was as if he spoke after swallowing razors. He snapped her neck like a twig. I turned to my parents in terror, very much for my own life, and saw them staring coldly at me. I’ve never seen them with such a look of hatred for anyone or anything, and looking around the room I saw the same cold, dead hatred. No one was running, no one was hiding, they all just sat there, hatred dripping from their eyes.

It was less than a second after Johannes Barber killed the woman in white that the Butler came, teleporting in less than a foot from me. It hadn’t even been sixty seconds since Barber dropped his first body. When the Butler was twenty minutes late, Calamity City was lost to Tremortize and a million people died. When the Butler was five minutes late, the Emerald Isles sunk beneath the might of Tidalerror, and thirty-three million people died.

Less than a minute to act, and he was less than a second late. Almost a twentieth of the world’s remaining population would be dead a moment later and close to a tenth as collateral within a couple of months. I know he’s saved the world a few dozen times but I’m surprised there haven’t been more sensationalist articles out there claiming an inverse correlation to his tardiness and lives lost. Though I guess most people don’t know what triggered the purges.

“If you wanted to die that badly, you could have just asked, Johannes,” the Butler said with a sneer. I could feel the anger radiating off him. A righteous anger, a certainty that there was nothing more he could do to change the outcome, only avenge the victims. I still didn’t get it yet, didn’t know what was coming. He didn’t even give Johannes time to respond, just speared his arm through the man’s chest.

For a second, Johannes was entirely unaffected, smiling, so proud of what he’d set in motion, so self-satisfied with the blood he’d spilled. But then he began to tear apart right in front of me. The threads of his clothes unraveled and were absorbed into the hole in his chest. His flesh followed. If he was surprised, or in pain, or cared about being ripped apart and sucked into a dimensional gateway in any way, he didn’t show it. I couldn’t feel it from him either; his smugness never wavered even as he was flayed alive. His too wise smile was one of the last things to collapse, his eyes finally liquefying and being sucked in, and then he was just gone entirely.

The Butler looked down at the woman in white. I could feel anger and fear, but no sadness. I was confused, made more so by the realization that the feelings of hatred had not dissipated at all. I looked back at my parents and they were still just staring at me. My father’s hands were clenched around a knife.

“You’ve changed,” my mother said emptily. “You’re not our little girl anymore.” My father stood up. He was grinding his teeth so much I thought I heard a crack and I shrunk back.

“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s ok. The bad guy’s dead! Please, stop, you’re scaring me!” I fell out of my chair as my father moved towards me with the knife. Other men and women were standing up now, gathering around me and The Butler. My father towered over me. I couldn’t see a trace of the kind man who was always giving me hugs and teaching me things about the world. He moved to stab me and abruptly The Butler was standing between us, the knife only a couple of inches away from my face, stabbed through The Butler’s hand. He didn’t even flinch, though I could feel he was in pain.

Johannes Barber may not have felt any pain but, for all his strength, The Butler was not an unfeeling statue. Pity came off him in waves as he glanced towards me.

“I am sorry kid; this will be over in a minute or two. These aren’t your parents anymore. Whoever any of these people were, Barber killed any chance of saving them when he broke Lilly’s neck,” he said, waiving towards the woman in white. “When she comes back, most likely they’ll all be dead. You must be really special for this not to be happening to you.”

I didn’t feel special. I just felt terrified out of my mind, tears streaming down my face. The crowd was closing in even closer and The Butler was standing over me defensively. My father just kept trying to push the knife in closer to my face, but was making no headway.

I could sense The Butler’s desire just to rip them to shreds and be done with it, but he was holding back. I believe now it was out of consideration for my mental well-being. Not that it was much less traumatizing when I saw everyone else in the room drop dead while the woman in white’s neck realigned itself and her eyes opened back up as if she’d just been taking a cat nap.

The horror that radiated off her would have been almost palpable even if I hadn’t just developed my first ability. “No,” she whispered. “Not again. Not this... I couldn’t… I tried to take his powers away and it didn’t work. I tried!” Tears were streaming down her face.

“I’m sorry,” The Butler told her softly. “I thought James and Samson would be enough to protect you from anyone while you shut them down. I never imagined Barber would go after you. His reality bending must have cancelled your power the way you and Alysa do.”

A sudden spike of desperation came off the woman in white, Lilly, The Butler had called her. “This can’t happen again, Jared! This can’t ever happen again. Every second we wait is a chance for the damage to create more potential victims. You have to kill me. Please, the same way you did to Barber. Something I can’t come back from. Now!”

Fear washed over The Butler, Jared. Even while in a state of shock I knew it was momentous to have learned his name. Jared shook his head. “We can protect you better, Lilly. You can just stay at base until we find a cure.”

“There is no cure,” she screeched. “Alan murdered everyone who ever could have cured me before they even had the ability to.”

“He wasn’t omnipotent, even someone with his power couldn’t plan for every contingency.”

“You’ve been looking for ten years, Jared. There’s nothing to find. And I would rather die than stay in a corner my whole life, terrified of every little thing because tripping on a stair or choking on a hamburger could do this,” she said, motioning violently to the bodies surrounding us. “I can look harder, spend more time,” Jared said, pleading.

“Than you already have? And what will you give up, being a good husband and father or saving the world? Kind of defeats the point if you give up the latter and I will not be responsible for you failing on the first. Our family is too important and they need you. You’ve already given me more time, and I’m thankful for it. But there isn’t anything worth this. Not again. Now stop arguing and kill me.”

Jared stood there in indecision. “Please, don’t make me do this,” he said. Lilly shook her head sorrowfully and grabbed a knife from beside her, plunging it into her own throat, then fell over dead again. At this point the shocks were so much I felt numb and I barely even registered it when the knife slid out of her throat and she sat back up, gasping again.

She looked at Jared pleadingly, and then picked the knife back up, ready to do it again. But she stopped, staring at it, breath coming harder, arm trembling. “I need to. I need to.” She steadied herself, and then thrust it into her neck again.

It slide out again and she picked it back up. I could feel how much Jared wanted to stop her, wanted to take the knife away and take her away from this place. His heart was breaking into pieces, but he just stood there, because beneath his grief he knew she was right. His mind was like an open book to me, and I could see that he realized he was making excuses, trying to save someone precious to him at the expense of the rest of the world. I could feel his certainty that more people would die, a lot more people, if he didn’t just let her keep going until she couldn’t get back up.

But she was staring at the knife now, arm shaking uncontrollably. I could feel her pain, her fear, her sorrow. “I can’t,” she said dropping the knife, sobbing. “I have to. But I’m too weak. It hurts and I can’t do it again. Please…please Jared. I’m so sorry. If I were stronger I could do it myself, but please, kill me. We don’t have much time. It only took a few hours for the second purge to wipe out hundreds of millions, once people start realizing what’s happened there’s no telling how many will begin to hate.”

Tears were running down Jared’s face. He bent over and wrapped his sister in a hug. “You were stronger than most to even try. I love you little sister. Say hi to Bobby for me.”

She nodded her head. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then just like that she was gone, body consumed in a blinding light. Her ashes spread out over both of us. Jared sat on the ground, looking at his hands.
My parents’ deaths hit me later when the shock wore off. I spent years sobbing quietly in my bed over their loss. I have lost others precious to me, whom I still mourn for every day. But never have I felt, from myself or anyone else, the grief I felt from him in that moment. The invincible Butler, the immortal savior protecting our world, the one worshipped by some as a god. He was given maybe twenty seconds of pure, unadulterated grief before his phone started going off.

I could tell it was important. He knew that whatever the call was about was something where he had to go save a lot of people. Most likely that it involved stopping someone who could kill a city, a country, or even the world. And for a moment, just a moment, he didn’t care. He didn’t care if the world itself burned if it couldn’t even let him grieve for his sister. He couldn’t stomach the thought that whoever he was being called to execute was someone else with devastating powers they just couldn’t control, who was just scared or in pain, and unintentionally lashing out. But then images flashed through my mind. Images of a woman, of children, of others he loved, and he stood, taking the call.

“Already starting, huh? Got it, I’ll be right there. Yeah, it was Barber. He’s dead. No, it won’t happen again… that means exactly what it sounds like it means. I’m sorry too. Hang in there just a minute. Try not to melt your communicator again; this is going to be a long day.”

He hung up. He looked at me, his emotions going numb, forcefully dragging them together behind a resolve to protect, no matter what was required. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I could stay with you. You didn’t deserve this, but I’ve learned people rarely get what they deserve. Good or bad. Please stay safe.”

With that he was gone, busy executing many of the surviving hateful who were using their new abilities to wreak havoc. And I was left alone surrounded by the dead bodies of friends and family who were only affected because of a secondary power of a sick madman.