Gyrfalcon – or Bianca, to her small circle of friends, family, and trusted allies – swooped down over Balthazar Castle, her senses on full alert for both the telltale glimmer of protective wards and the hum of sentinel droids as she descended. She wasn't looking forward to the task that awaited her within the nigh-impenetrable lair, or the inevitable confrontation with her oldest and most dangerous foe, but she knew she was the only one who stood a chance of getting through. No, more than that: it was her sworn duty, and she would see it through no matter the cost.
Touching down a safe distance from the electrified moat, she planted herself in the path of one of the ominous black spheres hovering around the property's perimeter, and issued her challenge: “Byron! I know you're home!”
A bolt of lightning came arcing down from the castle weathervane, leaving a scorched circle in the grass no more than six inches from her feet.
“What are you doing?” a familiar voice cried out from the sphere, distorted though it might have been with reverb and amplified base tones. Sensing the exclamation wasn't directed at her, she waited through an unintelligible but heated exchange before it returned, minus the special effects this time. “Sorry about that. Looks like the new henchman hasn't finished reading the employee manual.”
She rolled her eyes. “Excuses, excuses. Are you going to let me in?”
The lightning came crashing down again, this time close enough to singe a few strands of her hair if she hadn't dodged in time. “That one was from me. Go away.”
Bianca adjusted her stance from battle-ready mode to the hands-on-hips, I am nineteen minutes older than you, and don't you forget it pose she'd perfected by the age of five. “Byron Stacy Balthazar,” she said, enunciating each word clearly and carefully. “Power down the moat, or I bring out the baby pictures. I know I can find the one with you in the tub before you disable the scrying orbs.”
Muffled background snickering ensued, punctuated by an aggravated sigh before the sound cut out. A second later, so did the electric discharge surrounding the castle, followed by loud creaking as the drawbridge lowered in front of her.
“Thank you!” she called out, and traipsed across.
Only belatedly, as she crossed the threshold of the main entrance and waited for her night vision to take full effect, did it occur to her that she should have asked which of the castle's dozens of rooms and innumerable secret passages Byron would be waiting in. Then again, he'd probably have taken that as an opportunity to direct her to one of the nastier trapdoors. Besides, she was pretty sure she knew where to find him. If there was one piece of Dad's training advice he'd retained in spite of himself, it was to always seek the higher ground when cornered.
Sure enough, when she arrived at the top of the attic stairs, Byron was standing in full lab regalia in front of his Cabinet of Horrors, lecturing his still smirking assistant. “Go sterilize the equipment in Gamma Lab.” He held up a hand to forestall the obvious objection. “Yes, I know you just did that. Did you check down to a nanomolecular level?”
The chastened henchman scurried past Bianca, who took a final step into the room and closed the door behind her. Byron tossed his safety goggles onto a nearby counter and turned to face her, arms folded. “Some hero. You realize you've doomed that man to at least three hours of test subject duty until he respects me again?”
“Why don't you just use an alias like the rest of us?” asked Bianca as she located her own bit of counter on which to perch.
“I like Byron Balthazar. It's alliterative. It fits the image. And I bet it makes the family cringe every time it comes up at Headquarters. Besides, would that really stop you?”
“No,” Bianca admitted.
“Then why waste my time?” He reached into the cabinet, pulled out a crystal flask of something that resembled blood but was likely just cheap red wine, and poured a generous helping into a beaker for himself without offering Bianca any. “Speaking of which, why are you here? I have a busy evening of vivisections and communing with the lower planes planned, and I'd like to get back to it.”
So much for her secret hope she'd be able to delay the conversation with bickering until she figured out exactly how to say what she'd come to say. “It's Dad.”
Byron took a long, dramatic swig of maybe-wine, and placed his hand on his heart like the damsels in distress Bianca had always refused to emulate when they'd played pretend as kids. “Ah, the man who named me, raised me, and still has the nerve to wonder out loud how I ever went evil. What profound disappointment have I wrought this time that he felt the need to dispatch his loyal scion?”
“Dammit, Byron, not everything is about you.” The words came out more sharply than intended, but at least she had his full attention for what came next. “He's dying.”
If not for the beaker slipping from his hand and shattering against the stone floor, she wasn't sure she'd have been able to tell whether he'd understood her, so little did his expression change. Then he scowled. “Impossible.”
“Denial's not a good look on you, bro,” said Bianca, surreptitiously attempting to check her outfit for red wine spots. Of all the helpful advice on being a hero she'd ignored from her parents in her own, far less dramatic brand of teenage rebellion, insisting on a mostly white color scheme was by far her biggest regret.
She couldn't recall if she'd ever told Dad that. She wondered what else she might have forgotten to tell him, and whether she'd remember in time.
“No, I mean, I saw him,” Byron protested, as he signaled for a drone to clean up the broken glass, and Bianca blinked back tears. “That footage of him breaking up the assassins' ring? It was all over the info networks. He looked fine to me. Maybe a shade less apoplectic than usual, but...”
“That was Uncle Manny, with an assist from the Illusionist,” she interrupted, before Byron could go off on another self-pitying digression. “HQ thought it would be better if no one realized Dad was missing in action, or went digging into his condition.”
“Condition? What condition? He's the Indestructible Man. He's never even had a cold.”
“Tell that to the cancer.” Under normal circumstances, Bianca would have felt a certain amount of triumph at the speed with which this finally silenced Byron. Instead, she found herself looking anywhere but at him, for fear she'd start crying again. “We're not even sure where it started, it's that aggressive. Doctor Dauntless says this happens to a lot of first-generation supers, especially the ones who got their powers in lab accidents. He recommends we get tested, though, just in case it turns out to be a more mundane mutation.” Her desperately roving eye fell on a suspicious counter stain. “And you should probably make sure this place is up to code.”
“What's the prognosis?”
“Three months at most. Could be as little as three weeks.” The curiously muffled quality to his voice prompted her to dare a glance in his direction, only to discover the upper half of his body submerged in the cabinet as he plumbed the depths reserved for particularly rare or dangerous items. She briefly considered employing her x-ray vision to figure out what he might be looking for, but the headache she'd gotten the last time she tried had left her with the impression her powers weren't cut out to handle dimensional folding that intricate – or that maybe he'd just had the damn thing lined to prevent such tricks.
Fortunately, she didn't have long to wait before Byron emerged, a piece of glowing chalk clutched between his gloved thumb and forefinger. Shooing away the drone with his free hand, he bent down and commenced sketching a large circle, pausing every so often to add a cryptic rune or symbol along the border.
“What are you doing?” demanded Bianca. “No, don't explain,” she clarified quickly, as Byron shook his head in disgust and took a deep breath that could only signal the start of one of his more condescending lectures. “Even I can tell that's an invocation. I mean, why? You don't think Mom's been trying spells? She and Lady Rowan have come up with half a dozen new ones so far. Magic isn't going to fix this.”
“Not if it's namby-pamby light magic,” Byron scoffed, as he finished the circle and began a line bisecting it. “That's the trouble with you heroes. You wring your hands and walk away saying there's nothing more you could have done, when the truth is you're just not willing to do what's needed.”
Bianca edged back from the pentagram beginning to take shape. “Willing or not, you know Dad wouldn't be okay with you selling your soul for him.”
Somehow, Byron managed to roll his eyes without breaking the line of chalk. “Like I even could. Where do you think I got the loan to buy this place?” He connected the final vertex and stood. Behind him, the pentagram blazed into cold blue flame. “But I've got other bargaining chips.”
“Byron, please!” Bianca cried, over the unearthly wails beginning to fill the room. “I didn't come here so you could conjure or mad science up some miracle cure--”
“Didn't you, though?” Before she could answer, he shrugged off his lab coat, tucked the chalk into his pocket, and placed one foot across the circle's threshold. “I'll be back in ten days, tops. Tell Dad to hang in there.” He stepped into the pentagram and vanished in a sudden flare of green light.
Bianca sighed and went looking for the henchman. Someone was going to need to turn the moat back on when she left.