Chapter 1: Prologue: A Dark World
It happened right at the start of the year 2001.
Right on dot with the clock striking midnight and heralding not just a new year, but a new century and a new millennium.
Huge crowds gathered across the world to celebrate modern human history graduating to this new age.
It was a time of new beginnings.
And a time of new disasters.
Something, even now, nobody really knows how it happened or what it was, but something came from space.
Not aliens, nothing as dramatic as that. Something far, far less personal. At least, if it was aliens, then humanity could have rallied together. Maybe they could have brought their scattered pieces, all their different ideals and borders and peoples, together to make something whole if only there was some definite target they could see and hate together properly.
But whatever happened on this new year, well, there was no rhyme or reason for it.
It was just pure chance. Pure chaos.
The incident known as the Altering.
A solar flare, maybe. Still a topic of debate even now, a hundred years later. Some scientists postulated that it was the leftover emissions from a far-off star that had gone supernova.
Whatever it was, it washed over the world, filling the skies with auroras of countless colors that felt so horribly alien that some went insane gazing at the phenomenon, dooming them into wide-eyed comas that they never awoke from.
Almost forty million people fell into this eternal sleep and never woke up from it. Forty million sounds like a lot, but in the global scheme of things, it was just over half a percent of the world's population.
Those, arguably, were the lucky minority of minorities, for they did not have to live through the chaos that came next.
As strange auroras of madness-inducing patterns and seemingly impossible colors lit up the sky, electronics failed all across the planet. Energy grids grew faulty. Vehicles went haywire.
Technology, the defining crown that humanity prided itself on wearing, slipped off its head and broke its owner's toe.
But that was not it. Not even the least of it.
Technology recovered back to normal after just a month or two, but the Altering had left behind a far more permanent marker for humanity, carving this reminder deep into their bodies.
Individuals all across the world began to develop powers.
Powers that corresponded with spontaneously manifested growths in their bodies.
For some, these powers affected them little. Perhaps they could send out sparks from their fingertips. Or maybe they could make a pebble float with their minds.
For others, it came to define their lives, twisting their bodies into monstrous forms or rendering their minds unstable.
For further others, it made them something far, far beyond human.
Forgive the rather on the nose wording, but one could even say they became superhuman.
People with marvelous powers that let them soar through the skies faster than jets, lift entire buildings, engulf entire cities in flame or flood, or build technological wonders only seen in the realm of science fiction films.
All of these powers came from those tiny little pebble sized growths that would come to later be known as the Alter Organs.
With the mass spread of powers, chaos and turmoil naturally followed as no government entity had any way to regulate this strange new phenomenon.
It did not take long before particularly powerful Altered individuals sought to use their powers to rule the world around them. Naturally, other Altered individuals rose up to meet them, starting the age-old conflict between villains and heroes.
Clashes between heroes and villains left the world in mass disarray. Some Alterhumans desired to keep the status quo, wishing for peace in the world and for humanity to progress. Others saw their newfound powers and believed themselves worthy of taking a piece of the world for themselves. Still others, driven mad or delusional by their strength, became little more than unpredictable forces of nature.
Yet, it is telling that this period of human history is known as the 'Age of Villains', for more often than not, it was the villains that won out against the heroes.
For almost fifty years, Alterhumans fought and triumphed and won and lost in cycles, but no side could ever triumph, and the endless conflict made many believe the world was to break under its pressure.
Major governments collapsed. The threat of global nuclear annihilation came and went. Countless millions died.
But it all ended with the emergence of those developing powers far beyond even all others.
Superhumans among superhumans.
God-like beings that shone shoulders and heads above even ordinary Alterhumans that made the average, unenhanced human seem like a defective, broken product.
Among these mighty beings was Vanguard, a paragon of might who donned the first proper costume and cape, hearkening to superhero tradition that previously was only in the domain of fiction.
With overwhelming strength, he brought peace bit by bit to the world, for no villain could ever challenge him.
After three hard fought years, Vanguard ended the Age of Villains in 2040 by striking down Zahak, the mightiest villain of all whose power to freely take, manipulate, and alter powers made him worth a thousand Alterhumans by himself.
Yet, Zahak's death was not the end of it.
When Zahak fell, quite literally, into the depths of the earth, some say a volcano, others say a fissure or even an underwater trench, something in him, perhaps it was the stolen powers of countless many, exploded outwards, infusing with the earth itself.
From the end of the greatest villain known to man came the beginning of the greatest crisis known to man: the Monstering.
Monsters known as Variants emerged from the villain's corpse, seemingly binding with the planet, and soon, they proliferated around the entire world, spawning from the dirt or seas with unique powers of their own.
In attempting to beat back the Variants, heroes and villains alike had to band together, and in the end, after ten grueling years, the strongest Variants were beaten back to a few select deep rifts in the world, though the threat of variants spontaneously spawning all across the world never truly ended.
The Monstering left humanity with just half its populace and much of the planet inhospitable. The struggle to survive became intense, but with heroes and villains working together, humanity stood through it all.
The Alter Agency was formed to regulate supers, and the Panopticon, a coalition of technology-oriented Alterhumans, was formed to consolidate progress and development, and with these two organizations, societies restructured in the new and harsh world.
World governments formed again, and a sense of normalcy returned.
Now, fifty years later, at the turn of 2100, the start of yet another monumental century of human, no, superhuman history, the world seems to rumble once more with the echoes of chaos.
Vanguard's disappearance in 2090 catalyzed a return of villainy that only ever simmered beneath the public eye.
But now, crime and villainy has started to return ever stronger, taking advantage of Vanguard's absence.
On top of this, Variant spawning rates have accelerated dangerously, as if sensing Vanguard's loss, threatening cities all across the world at a rate not seen since the Monstering began.
This is the world where Aldrich was born into.
A dark world full of monstrosities and rising villains without any powers of his own. Though, as he would find out later, he would not be so powerless after all.