Deathspider/Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell2
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Hosannas From The Basements of Hell Continued
Salvation smiled, pleased with itself, as the legions of heavily armed Rikti and Lost dispersed, away from the sermon mound. Over three hundred of them, with almost supernatural silence, went to ground to greet the ‘Heroes’ in the depths. Where were the heroes, it thought, when…
…. The sullen grey skies of winter, impassive above it all. The barren trees, with bare branches reaching, almost grasping, scratching, for the dreary heavens for a mercy that might never come. The door of the ranch style home opens and that dreaded roar of the old man…
… when these people lost it all, when their lives were discarded by society, their families turning their backs, when they sank to the bottom of the bottle? Too little, too late. I have provided the meaning and direction their lives needed.
Who, then, is the real hero here?
They were splitting into two groups, it knew from the Rikti, who seemed to be more aware of what was going on at the US Military’s outpost than the self important peacock generals who commanded there.
Oh yes, quite a contingent of Paragon’s finest. How sweet it will be, it thought, when I bring God’s wrath down upon them. God’s gift of righteous pain through His will, directed through his servants.
That will be a…
… sight of his girlfriend, high school sweetheart, astride his roommate in the cramped confines of his dorm room, sweaty, the air thick with exhalations, the odor of coupling, the cloying taste of betrayal in this tiny room, stacked against the others like…
…the cell in Block 4, lying on the metal tray with the thin cold foam pads they have the nerve to call a mattress, a bloody clump of coarse toilet paper wedged between his legs to try and stop the bleeding, but doing nothing to stop the shame and humiliation, or silence the satisfied snoring of his violator in the bunk below his, the cold white cinderblock walls just as impassive and uncaring as the fat, slovenly, brutish guards, or the cold grey skies outside the reinforced glass slit windows…
… It shook it’s head.
Phantom memories of a life best left forgotten.
Wasn’t this an improvement?
Purpose, finally a direction, the new found strength of will, the realization of faith and the comfort of knowing his… its… fat was in the hands of something greater than itself?
No, not found in the Bible Study classes on Tuesday nights that were filled with the desperate, the bored, the liars, and the unhinged, with the snoring guard in the corner slumped in the plastic blue chairs, the same ones that did nothing to cushion the hurt when he sat down, or the used up ex-con in front of them, half heartedly preaching forgiveness and how Jesus loves you as long as you will accept Him, trying to forget how he sees himself reflected back at him in this audience of losers, drug addicts, thieves, murderers, and thugs.
This was better than the life that had rejected him… it.
It grunted in derision. It was remembering too much. It had to refocus.
And the best way to do that was to see little Cassie, with her abbreviated leg and her stink of gangrene below her angelic face, like God showing his countenance down from above on the rotting world.
The stink was considerably less pungent down here below the Crash Site.
No water was routed through here save for tepid rain water sitting in isolated pools where the drainage systems weren’t choked with debris. For the most part, the years old filth had caked and cracked like drying mud in the sun, or the great salt flats of Utah.
Valorgirl waited until the entirety of her team was down, arms crossed over her chest. She was curious why Miguel… Deathspider.. asked her to lead the team. He was obviously nervous when giving his speech in front of everyone, but she kind of hoped he would take charge of a team – maybe it would open him up some more, help his self-esteem.
But she wasn’t going to put him on the spot anymore than he already was – he seemed to shy away from the spotlight like it burned him. Oh, and who was this new girl he was with, hmm? Was it jealousy, she thought, thinking back to the few weeks prior to him and his precious Mio getting back together, when he had courted her. Oh, that had stung for awhile, Miguel lamely breaking it off with her with the explanation why he was dumping her… oh God, was it a couple months later he finally got the courage to face her and tell her ‘Well… she’s Mio’, like that was gonna explain anything.
Learning that Mio had dumped him gave her a secret, somewhat shameful, smile of vindication.
But today, he surprised her.
He had asked her in the D last night if she would help out with finding those kids, and with this morning’s events cementing her resolve, he stood up there, figeting and oddly endearing, trying to keep up the nerve to speak, and gave the assembled group their marching orders.
She felt a little touched that he would give her the reigns. She wanted to do her best to – and this is where she felt a mixture of puzzled confusion and a little burst of pride- fufill the promise he planted in them, the promise that today, the bad guy would be arrested and the kids saved. Not a lot of people can do that, and she wondered if he was aware of what he did. She was a little surprised herself. She had written him off as a jerk after he dumped her for his ultimately doomed happy little relationship, only to soften a bit – but only a bit – in the following months, and now he went and got everyone together for this. People never failed to surprise her.
The team was rather unwieldy, though. It was bigger than the random teams she led before, but there was some serious firepower at her command.
As such, the fifteen (16 if you counted Peachie’s familiar buzzing around her head) walked cautiously through the abandoned tunnels. Peachie and Gray Mace were in the lead, on either side of the tunnel. Floating along the center was the purple-grey floating form of Hellstalker, with his thick Texas accent and his Christian indignation over the crucifixions.
Flanking him on either side were Valorgirl on the right, and Modern Samurai on the left, both of them ready to react if any of the front three made contact. Behind them was the pair of Soul Train and Green Wraith, their powers a definite force multiplier considering the team composition.
Between them, Fenix flew slowly, his wingtips brushing the sides of the tunnel, electricity arcing all over his body, while Lucid Haze walked over the dried muck, thankfully he wasn’t stepping into anything moist. Behind them, Bella Noctum on the right side, Belle on the left, with the Peacebringer Solarian Wind between them in what was colloquially known as ‘Lobster Form’. And in a similar formation, covering the rear of the team, Sailor Rush on the right, the Peacebringer Starsearcher in the center, and Deathspider on the left side.
Not exactly the star-studded ensemble like Hour Woman’s team, but Penny was strangely comfortable with that. Not a lot of competing egos to deal with. These people were here to help. They were here to be, well, heroes. It mattered little if they were popular in the circles Heroes ran in, and it just made things easier on her end.
Because, as she would find out shortly, things being ‘easy’ would soon be in short supply.
“You are a Madonna of Suffering, my sweet, sweet Cassie..”
The phegmy voice rumbled in the barrel chest of the Thing that touched her cheek in a mockery of sensuality with it’s mange-dog touch and rancid stink just as nausea inducing as the sickly sweet gangrene eating her leg.
She shuddered under the touch, her eyes half-mad with pain and fear, the perverse caress of the Thing touching not making her skin crawl – it seemed like it was all her skin could do not to rip itself off of her body and run screaming.
“What… what do you want?”
The thing grinned. “Not I. God Almighty has chosen you, with your suffering you have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are His Word, His Angel. It makes my heart burst with love for our Creator to look upon you, so perfect in your misery and pain… You are perfect, sweet Cassie… Out Lady of Suffering… our Angel of Pain…”
She didn’t know if it’s voice was so filled with intense admiration or lust. Either way…
.. oh God, please… save me, please!
“Your friends… they make fine additions to our army of believers – in fact, they’re marching to spread the Word to a group of troublesome Heroes right now! Truly, soldiers of the faith… But you, oh sweet, sweet Cassie, you… You were destined for more. I could see it in your eyes when we took you. When we brought you all to the Chapel. You along, sweet, sweet Cassie… You are the vessel in which God will take His vengeance out on the heathens, the liars, the perverters of His divine Word, the people who rejected us all! Oh sweet Cassie… How I envy you! How blessed you are! How perfect is it that God has given me the vision to see His plan, see the Angel that will exalt His church foreverlasting?”
Again, the scabrous touch.
Tears formed in her eyes, trembling uncontrollably. This monster… oh god… what was he going to do to her? He was crazier than anything she had seen since she lived out on the street. Sure, there were the religious nuts, but they were harmless… this one…
Her heart shrank, her stomach roiled, empty, the acid eating away at the lining, she hadn’t eaten in days. Oh God, please… let me die before he touches me again or I’m gonna scram and if I start, I’ll never be able to stop screaming and I’ll go crazy and… Oh please… God…
It grinned, reading her thoughts. “No, Cassie… God has different plans.”
Its eyes gleamed malevolently. “Let me show you.”
Hour Woman smiled in spite of the day’s events and her surroundings.
Her team, with the aid of the Army, had located the mass of Rikti and Lost with their Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. The UAV was shot down, of course, much to the chagrin of the generals, and, she thought sourly, the taxpayers, but it enabled Team One to rush to the location.
Now they were moving northwest, the UAV gave them the grid coordinates, but from the pictures transmitted back to the Operations Center, they were able to make out where they needed to go – near a War Wall, opposite the iridescent blue of the alien ship, on the east side.
Dragonberry chatted with the hulking form of Rakescar at the forefront of the powerful team, all suspended and aloft by the gale force wind Hydrophidian provided. Like dry leaves flying on the breeze, except these leaves were about to hammer the heck out of some bad guys.
She grinned. It amused her to think of it like that, first almost like a haiku, then like something you’d hear on a network television cop drama advertisement.
She could see the mass of hostile targets from here with her unearthly glowing green eyes. The dark mass was dispersing as the rolling cloud approached. Some were firing, crackling plasma shots hurdling forward, striking noone.
“Shooting at us, huh?” Dragonberry yelled over the deafening wind. “Oooo! They are just asking for some major ka-powies!”
A relaxed chuckle seemed to come from everyone in the cloud. As though ‘That’s our DB!”
Hydrophidian looked to Hour Woman as they approached, and with a thoughtful nod, Hydro set them down. Rakescar and Dragonberry lunged towards the dispersing crowd, and soon the team deployed – Hour Woman, Kichi, and Bright Arrow stayed close, and to the rear. Hydrophidian, Jordan Norris, Fearghas, Claire, High Concept, and Natasha advanced under the watchful eye of Supermum, Teras Lyn, Nariko, and Antitype. The hulking, spined Dieselmeat disappeared.
The Rikti drones fired haphazardly, some bolts exploding harmlessly against Dragonberry and Rakescar, who waded into a group of Soldiers, both apparently to get this rescue mission on with.
Rakescar slammed his stone hammer into the ground, creating a massive shockwave throwing Rikti into the air, a squad toppled onto their backs, while Dragonberry descended upon them, long spines erupting through her skin, and slashing into their armor.
“WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, BABY! RAAAAAAGH!” Rake screamed to the aliens, who, in all likelihood, failed to get the reference.
On a ridge of crumbling buildings, the rattle of automatic weapons fire. Lost, armed with stolen US military rifles, fired wildly at the mass of superbeings.
Jordan smiled. “Cant let those two have all the fun!” He launched a massive, roaring fireball at the Lost, the detonation a massive conflagration that burned them alive. “Hah! Too easy!”
Supermum floated nearby, destroying a Rikti drone with a flash of laser fire coming from her eyes. “Jordan! No killing!”
Jordan snorted. “Tell that to the people who did an impression of Christ this morning.”
“Listen to me, you spoiled little wanker, you had best watch yourself…”
The tall woman in leathers looked up to Supermum, snarling. “You watch yourself, you touch him, I touch you!” Red lightning arced around her.
Fearghas shook his head wearily. “Cool it, people. We’re not here to squabble. Besides” he noted sourly. “There’s more of them than us.”
Hour Woman noted the exchange, irritated. It was only a matter of time, she thought, until the Red Siders showed their true colors. Irritatingly, the Cyndi Lauper song popped in her head. “Damnit.” She glanced at Kichi, nearby curling her lip. Probably trying to…
She shook her head, bright light flaring from her eyes as a premonition hit her with the force of a blow. Kichi turned to her, narrowing her eyes at Hour Woman’s expression.
“What is it?”
Hour Woman stammered, face draining of all color.
“Oh… oh god!” She screamed to the team, who were too busy fighting or squabbling among themselves. “PULL BACK! PULL…”
A flash of bright blue from the Rikti Mothership, and where Hour Woman, Bright Arrow, and Kichi once stood, the world exploded into white oblivion.
Valorgirl heard the rumble, then felt the shockwave, as the Rikti Mothership’s artillery batteries opened fire upon Team One. The earth shook and those on their feet were knocked to the ground, those in the air slammed into the side of the tunnel, dust and debris falling about them. Penny grunted, eyes wide.
“Oh my god! What was that? Is anyone hurt?”
Gray Mace staggered, but braced himself against the wall. “Huh. Sounds like someone’s having fun.”
Valorgirl looked irritably up at him, then back at her team. Sailor Rush picked himself up, brushing the dust from his battered leather jacket.
“Sounds like someone dropped a bomb up there!”
Valorgirl tried her radio, and was rewarded with a steady hiss of static. “Team One! Come in! Hour Woman! Anyone?”
Modern Samurai frowned. “You don’t think…”
Someone murmured softly. “Oh no…”
Valorgirl shook her head. “Guys, we need to keep it together. We gotta find those kids! Stay focused. Remember why we’re here.”
“Ah think we about tag it us a reminder, girl..” Hellstalker said in that Texas drawl, and the tunnel rumbled as he morphed into his Dark Nova form.
Penny looked ahead and regretted it. In the wide chamber ahead of them, illuminated by the green glow of hundreds, it seemed, of Rikti Plasma rifles.
In the eldritch glow, she could make out the forms of ragged, crazed men, the green light reflecting in their eyes, with the impassive forms of Rikti Headmen and other, less humanoid things…
Penny cracked her knuckles. “Team Two! Get ready! We have a fight on our hands!”
Hydrophidian shook her head, the deafening explosion having lifted her into the air and now she was sprawled on the ground, her costume singled, and caked in dust and ash. She coughed out blood phlegm onto the ground, blinking to clear her eyes. The others were in similar positions, slowly coming to their senses.
The realization of what happened and where they were hit her suddenly, like ice water dashed in her face. Horrified, she looked back…
Hour Woman, Kichi, and the winged fellow… where they were…
Nothing but a smoking crater.
She turned, getting up to a knee. All around her and her team, the alien forms of the Rikti, and the ragged madmen of the Lost.
“AH! A BELIEVER! So rare these days!” a guttural voice roared. She looked to see the hulking form of a Lost mutate, easily larger than any she had ever seen before, with a gigantic crucifix burned into its chest, from it’s throat down past the waistline of it’s dirty, crusted pants.
“I see the high and mighty have come to smite their enemies, and ‘avenge’ those poor souls they only now notice when their carcasses were shoved under your upturned noses!”
The Lost stood over Hydrophidian, baleful fires burning in those insane, gleaming eyes.
“In the name of our Lord, God Almighty, let us show these hypocrites the glory of PAIN!” it roared, to the raucous cheers of its followers.
“LET THE SLAUGHTER BEGIN!”
They came on like a wave, a rising scream coming from throats rusty with disuse, firing as they ran. The air burned as bolts of energy traveled from the muzzles of the Rikti plasma rifles towards the tunnel where Team Two braced themselves.
A blast plowed into Gray Mace, who grunted as the searing hot energy marred his armor. “Game on!”
On the other side of the tunnel, Peachie grimaced as rock formations appeared over her body, and her fists glowed with a nimbus of energy. Between them, Hellstalker fired a bolt of Nictus energy, detonating against a mass of Lost.
Valorgirl and Modern Samurai ran past the pair and from behind them, Lucid Haze and Fenix unleashed a fusillade of lightning bolts and energy blasts. Soul Train and Green Wraith moved alongside the sides of the tunnel, and Gray Mace, Peachie, Samurai, and Penny felt a surge of energy coursing through their bodies, everything seeming to slow down while they sped up. Fenix and Lucid stood beside the Warshade, the three firing relentlessly at the oncoming horde.
A flash of plasma, and Lucid went down screaming, clutching his midsection. The smell of burnt flesh filled the tunnel.
“It burns!” he screamed, rolling on the ground as his guts were seared with white hot plasma.
Belle rushed to his side under the oncoming blasts, a powerful green glow washing over her teammate. Lucid moaned in pain, but soon the seared and blackened flesh began to re-knit, healing instantly.
“Holy crap… that friggin hurt!”
Belle grinned. “Oh hush, ya big pansy!” With one hand she ruffled his hair, the other reaching over him to fire a blast of mystic energy down the tunnel, striking a Lost and knocking him on his back.
Solarian changed forms again, this time to the Bright Nova form, and he rushed over their heads, taking a place near the Warshade, and in unison, luminscent bolts flew alongside purplish-gray discharges from Hellstalker.
Lost flew, stunned, through the air, or dropped to the ground, writhing in pain.
The team moved into the open chamber. Gray and Peachie standing a distance apart, energy bound fists flying, stone hammer and metal shod fists crashing, while Valorgirl and Samurai moved into the fray, Samurai wielding his katana, slicing through the muzzles of Rikti weaponry, Penny launching high velocity kicks and punches. Soul Train winked out, and reappeared in a mass of Lost on the opposite end of the chamber, and there was a flash of light, and dozens of Lost took to the air, flailing, some catching fire.
She reappeared near Belle, her clothes smoldering, her brown skin smoking. “Huh… dat train ran off de track! Woo! Damn, girl!”
Belle shook her head, smirking, and green energy coursed over Soul Train. Bella Noctum moved past them both, her powers aiding the front four fighters.
Green Wraith boosted himself, moving at blinding speed at their foes, firing decimating blasts at his foes at point blank range, nearly tearing some in half, or knocking them clear across the chamber.
As the group advanced, Sailor Rush, Starsearcher, and Deathspider moved behind, covering the rear of the tunnel. As the light show commenced, the sewers suddenly seemed very, very loud. Rush smiled, rolling his shoulders, un-tensing his muscles, while Starsearcher floated in Nova Form, the light from the Kheldian illuminating the tunnel. DS stopped and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Rush looked at him. “Hey, Spider… What’s up?”
And that was when Rush heard the deep, monstrous growling. The two men turned, and after what seemed like an eternity, so did the Peacebringer.
In the tunnel behind them, large, four-legged beasts advanced into the shadows given off by the light of the Kheldian. Easily seven feet tall at the shoulders, their bodies were a horrific mix of Rikti and canine. The strange alien eyes glowed a malevolent red, and their mouths were open, lined with gleaming, wet fangs.
The largest, the alpha male, stopped and the pack (it was impossible to say how many there were) halted as well, growling in unison. The lead… thing… raised it’s monstrous head and howled, a loud, piercing, keening cacophony that was joined by the others, an otherworldly, chilling sound that stopped Team Two in their tracks.
“This is different.” Deathspider remarked.
The Hounds leapt for them.
Salvation’s cry filled its faithful with a furious, incandescent joy.
They surged forth, some with rifles, some with the broad bladed swords of the Rikti, some with more terrestrial weaponry, but no matter what they wielded, they crashed down on Team One, and what had started as a ludicrously easy fight turned into a nightmare for the beleaguered Heroes and villains.
Jordan Norris, who had moments before, incinerated a group of Lost, was shot through the gut by a Lost with a shotgun, buckshot shredding the boy’s stomach. Already stunned and roughed up by the artillery strike, he fell forward to his knees, quite astonished. A Lost with a baseball bat, held like a home-run slugger, smashed the weapon against his cheek, shattering the bone and more than a few teeth. He went down in a bloody heap.
This did not endear them to his bodyguard.
Antitype screamed, and arcs of red lightning arced out, obliterating the two Lost who felled her client, their blood boiling, their eyes swelling and exploding outwards, and they dropped to the earth, cooking.
She was promptly slammed in the back by the fist of a Chief Soldier, driving her to her knees, and it followed up with a cruel slash across her back, ripping through leather, skin, muscle, and glancing off her spine.
The others were not faring much better.
Claire and High Concept were still, white forms, pinned under a steel I-beam, unconscious, and covered in ash and dust. Nariko was being pummeled into the dirt by a crowd of Lost, savage, brutish expressions on their crazed faces, knocking her back into the dirt every time she tried to stand.
Few things in life are as demoralizing and frightening as the inability to make sense of a situation. Think of childhood, the terrible fear of the unknown. Humans fear what they do not understand.
It would seem that, for all the power the members of Team One possessed, they had sorely underestimated their opponents. For most of them, the Lost were a joke, losers. A bit sad, if they were to stop and think about it, but such concern, like gratitude, had a short half-life.
Oh, there were the Rikti, but to most that didn’t fight through the hellish siege of the War, they were alien monsters who, on occasion, talked funny.
They, in their arrogance, had failed to see the danger. Salvation was insane, to be sure, but sanity and rationality are cousins of the most tenuous relation.
Imagine your soul to be an ocean.
On the surface, things may be stormy or placid. And deeper down, thoughts swim like fish in the current, darting and moving along, the daily ruminations and such.
But let us descend further.
As we plunge into the lightless depths and into the crushing pressure of memories, the weight of our experiences, we find monsters lurking down there, horrible thoughts and fantasies, a nightmarish world that for most, never sees the light of day.
How could it? Such things are accustomed to the depths, for if they were to be plucked from the bottoms of our souls, they would explosively decompress on the surface, dirty little thoughts pricked by the needle of reason and restraint. Ask any diver and you would know, surfacing too quickly is certain doom.
Insanity, then, is the constant pressure that allows those monsters to remain intact in the painfully bright and vulnerable open world, to roam free.
But never mistake ‘insane’ for ‘stupid’.
Salvation knew they would come here, because Heroes tended to be painfully direct – the circuitous, subtle approach never seemed to hold much appeal for them, as though the spandex had constricted the blood flow to their simple brains. A simple draw had led them in range of the Mothership’s still functioning Directed Energy Artillery batteries – the few that still functioned. Now stunned and not nearly as cocky as they were when they touched down, the Capes, as it were, had been bushwhacked by the same people they had long ignored.
Which was fine. A turned back is easier to stab.
Salvation loomed over Hydrophidian, who still kneeled, stunned, the animal part of her brain taking over, the fear making her a deer in the headlights. Normally, this would pass and higher cognitive functions would take over, but those split seconds required were not in supply. Her equilibrium, it mused, was thrown off by the concussion of the blast.
It made kicking her all the more enjoyable, her head rocking back with a spray of blood as its foot broke her nose.
However, as Aristotle preached, there must be moderation. The joy of kicking her in the face momentarily blinded it to Rakescar’s charge, but not, obviously, the crushing impact.
Had Salvation not been so heavily muscled and preternaturally resilient, Rakescar’s charge would have snapped it’s spine like a dry twig. As it was, they collapsed in a heap, Hydrophidian narrowly avoiding being crushed into pulp by the massive forms.
Rakescar was on his feet quickly, stone hammer in hand.
Salvation staggered upright, only to catch a resounding blow to the jaw. A grunt of pain.
Sweet, inviting pain.
“Huh… More, if you please…” A guttural chuckle.
Ever obliging, Rakescar began to rain savage, punishing blows down upon the Mutate, with enough force that the ground shook with every strike. Salvation dropped to a knee, its body on fire with pain.
Pain that refocused.
Pain that was the oiled whetstone to the razor sharp mind of the insane Mutate.
“Ah… That will do nicely.”
Then Rakescar screamed in agony as Salvation psychically force-fed all the agony the Mutate had endured under that stone hammer back into the Brute’s brain, making him stagger back, transforming back into the meaty, muscle bound, mohawked form of Tyler Preston.
His vulnerable human form.
Unable to hold the massive stone hammer, it fell to the ground with a dull thud as Tyler clutched his head, blinded by the psychic assault. Footsteps now, as Salvation lunged forward, grabbing the stone hammer with one hand, and smashing its fist into Tyler’s chest, cracking ribs like eggshells. And Rakescar fell, writhing in agony.
The loud, strident thoughts of a horrified, yet angry young girl coming close behind. Ah yes, Dragonberry. It hefted the hammer, breaking the haft over its knee, fashioning a spear. Twirling it with astonishing speed, it turned and there!
A stone javelin hurtling through the empty air, striking and impaling the spine covered, jade glowing girl, who stared down in shock at the four foot length of heavy granite jutting from her scaled belly. Not seeing the blunt, broken end peeking through her hide, just over her kidney, blood flowing freely from where it had burst through her super hard scales.
She gasped, blood flecking her lips.
You should pull it out, beat me with it… the Mutate helpfully suggested to the young mind. This young, shocked, suggestive mind.
With a sickening squelch and a howl of anguish, Dragonberry’s vulnerable mind followed the powerful psychic suggestion, and ripped the stone spear from her gut, staggering, blood gushing bright crimson against her emerald hide. She launched herself at Salvation, bloody haft held high…
…but as she advanced, her steps grew slower…
…blood loss weakening her…
…until the haft fell from nerveless fingers… falling heavily to the debris strewn ground, as did she, kneeling before the powerful Mutate, who promptly slammed his fist into her face, sending her into blissful unconsciousness.
The Hounds leapt into the three, one on each, while the rest of the pack leapt past towards the others. One clamped down on Sailor Rush, great long fangs sinking effortlessly into his body, and it shook him like a rat.
Starsearcher knocked the one leaping for him down flat in the dried much with a powerful energy blast, the bolt flaying it’s distorted alien face, a skein of charred crimson ruin beneath.
Deathspider leapt up as the alien Hound snapped it’s powerful jaws shut where he had been standing, and leapt onto it’s back, twisting and falling onto it, his arms wrenching around the thing’s bull neck. He strained his arms as it lunged and spun, jaws snapping as it tried to dislodge its attacker, but to no avail for either of them – the thing’s neck was too big to easily snap, and yet his grip was sufficient enough to prevent the thing from moving its head back to maul him.
Irritated, he released the thing’s neck with one arm, and slid his body forward, rotating to the opposite side of where the dog thing was snapping – it went left, he went right, and plunged his hand into the ear cavity of the monster, fingers together, extended and straight, forming a knife hand, or more apt, a spearhead. As bone cracked and gave way, his hand was engulfed in the hot spongy innards. His fingers spread, and forcefully, he wrenched the thing’s brains free from the stout, deformed skull.
Sailor Rush was not having a pleasant time.
As the Hound whipped its powerful head about, the teeth shredded his abdomen, slicing through skin, muscle, intestines… Screaming, he reached up with both hands, thumbs soon digging into the red, pupil-less eyes, driving his digits deep into the popping wet sensory organs, and the dog thing, in no uncertain terms, voiced its displeasure, releasing him with a howl of rage and agony. It blindly backed away, spinning around and cracking it’s head on the tunnel wall with a meaty slap, and loped down from whence it came, passing the skinned and burning face of it’s dying pack mate.
The pack, was already among Team Two as the three in the tunnel were dispatched.
A gigantic form slammed into Belle, knocking her to the ground, the demonic face and slavering jaws opening wide for her face. Too shocked to even scream, she raised her hands in self-defense, and from her gauntlets, up into it’s face, disintegrating the upper jaw and most of it’s disfigured head, a blinding blast of mystic force shot up, punching a hole in the top of the tunnel. The wound neatly cauterized, the thing shuddered, staggering back, tongue lolling spasmodically on the fanged tray of it’s fused lower jaw, the cranial cavity neatly bisected by her blast – tiny red spots of heat still visible around the blackened bone and char-broiled meat of half it’s brain. It voided it’s bowels nearby, in the wide gutter in the center of the tunnel, and collapsed, still twitching.
Soul Train, Lucid, and Fenix also were set upon, and energy blasts and lightning bolts crackled in the stale air as they fought off the Hounds. Soul Train, still weakened by her Nova Blast, screamed a colorful and creative string of profanities as a pair of jaws clamped down hard over her outstretched arm, snapping bone with the terrific force… and soon, her arm felt heavy, a severed monster’s head still clamped over her arm, teeth buried into flesh, raspy tongue pressing wetly against her forearm – but the body was gone, smoking and split in half on the ground in front of her. She had blasted it right down its throat.
Lucid and Fenix, after slaying their canine friends, rushed to her, and attempted to pry it’s jaw loose, eliciting a series of screams from the wounded, and decidedly unhappy woman.
In the chamber, things weren’t much better.
The initial waves were easy enough, but it appeared that they were merely sent to ‘fix’ the Team in place. Concentrated sniper fire from the catwalks above rained down upon them. One particularly canny shooter blasted through Penny’s knee and she fell, screaming, at the white hot pain. It would regenerate, true, but that knowledge didn’t make it hurt any less. She gritted her teeth, blinking to try and focus past the searing pain. Gray Mace has stepped in front of her, and volleys of plasma collided with his armor, drawing a rare grunt of pain.
“Lady, we got problems!” he snarled.
Hellstalker and Solarian were firing back with unerringly well placed bolts of cosmic energy, but without the added firepower from Fenix and Lucid, the Lost were pressing forward, followed by Rikti… Drones materialized near Peachie’s position, and hammered the girl relentlessly with searing hot fire.
Green Wraith and Samurai were swamped with the rush of foes, Wraith dragged down by their superior numbers and driven to the ground. Modern Samurai gave up trying to disable and went for more lethal solutions, dismembering as many as he could before being dragged to the ground, disappearing under a crush of bodies.
Oh God, Penny thought, as she surveyed the battlefield. Oh god, this is all my fault…
Her thoughts were interrupted by a young boy, no more than fourteen, his face bearing fresh, cruel, angry red cuts, his eyes puffed and blackened, ethnicity indeterminate from the seemingly omnipresent bruises coloring his skin. He hefted a Rikti plasma cannon as he stood apart from the group mauling Green Wraith, his mouth spreading in a ghastly rictus, teeth shattered, a smile full of blood and madness. The rifle powered up for another blast, aiming for Valorgirl’s head.
The kids… she thought, horrified at the insane visage of this young boy. They turned those kids into…
The cannon fired.
The soldier helping Hour Woman to her feet, she thought in a daze, was kinda cute.
“Are you alright, ma’am?”
Ma’am? Now that’s a polite boy. Wonder if he’s as polite in… she nodded, groggily. “Yeah, I…” She stopped, looking around. Kichi and Bright Arrow were also being helped up. “Oh god…”
She looked north, where a gigantic, swirling cloud was plunging towards the earth.
She let go of the soldier’s arm, shaky on her feet. Images flitted back at her.
Her team, borne aloft by Andi’s wind.
The Lost and Rikti, scattered and scurrying for cover from the massive team…
The bright blue flash, and the last second teleport away.
“I have to go.” She said, voice wavering.
A gruff voice behind her. A General, with subdued black stars running up his collar stepped up to her, arching an eyebrow.
“Hour Woman, eh? I don’t know what your team did, but nobody’s going in there with that storm churning and the ship popping off live ones. I’m not having any Capes getting slaughtered on my watch.”
Hour Woman looked at him irritably. “Look, General, my team is out there, and I have to…”
The General cut her off.
“No. You –have- to sit back until we make sure it’s safe. You have to save your team. I appreciate that. Nobody appreciates that more than me, lady. But I also happen to have the responsibility to make sure people don’t come home in a body bag if I can help it, and that extends to you. Now I can’t do anything about your friends right now, not without putting my men and you three in danger, and that’s not going to happen. That’s just the way it is. Now, let me do my job and make sure it’s secure for you to go back in, and I don’t want any backtalk, otherwise I will personally make sure Statesman puts his boot so far up your ass, he can use you for a thigh high. Now, do we understand each other?”
Hour Woman sputtered. “Wait… What? If you don’t let me out there, my friends are all going to die, if they haven’t already! All you’re doing is keeping me from doing what I have to, and that’s bring that Lost bastard in! Now…”
The world shook, the sky shuddering and cracking wide open as thunder exploded overhead in the heavens. A gigantic storm was breaking over the Crash Site.
Rain lashed down upon the military outpost, sudden and fierce. The General grabbed Hour Woman by the writs, his words lost in the deafening roar of the thunder and wind. His meaning was clear – get inside.
A bolt of lightning struck from the heavens, like the fury of Zeus had descended, obliterating one of the guard towers, sending two hapless sentries flying.
Kichi and Bright arrow were escorted, along with the general and Hour Woman to the Command Post. This was not a place for mortals to linger.
The fury of the storm churned and spun over Paragon City. Hero and criminal alike looked to the skies, dark and shot through with veins of lightning, and thought better of being outside. Meterologists scratched their heads at the Weather Channel, at the sudden, inexplicable maelstrom punishing Rhode Island.
And guiding the anger of Mother Nature, hands raised to the skies, was Hydrophidian, calling down elemental forces upon the Rikti and the hulking, powerful Salvation.
While others gathered the wounded, Fearghas, Super Mum, Teras Lyn, Antitype, and out of nowhere, Diselmeat, assaulted the bestial mutate.
A broadsword flashed out, slicing deep into the mutate’s abdomen, drawing a howl of rage and furious joy. Teras’s hand was gripped with terrific force, breaking his wrist and the sword fell from nerveless fingers. Just in time for the large form of Diselmeat to appear behind it, and plunge a huge, cruel looking spike through Salvation’s back. A roar of shock and rage, and a powerful backhand, snapping the spines from the Stalker’s body, fist smashing into the villain’s jaw, dropping him and staggering Salvation.
Fearghas with blazing gauntlets slamming over and over into the Mutates, Super Mum lashing out with powerful kicks and fist strikes, staggering the thing. Crimson Lightning flashing and Antityper, bloody yet eyes alight with anger, joined the fray, making the monster stagger under the force of their blows.
Hydrophidian watched as the others were gathered, her mind not wholly her own, and she knew the fight was doing nothing but making the creature stronger. This monster would be vanquished, she realized, but not now. Somewhere close, their goal was being achieved, deep under the rain lashed earth, the children were being found. Revenge would prove nothing, and the lives of those on her team were not to be fruitlessly squandered like this.
The others, Claire, High Concept, Jordan, Nariko, Dragonberry, and Rakescar, casualties of revenge, were aloft, gently floating in the caress of the wind. Hydrophidian looked down, eyes on fire, blinding white, and in an unearthly voice, she called out. “Team One! We have what we came for! Let the rain wash this filth away!”
The five fighters were swept away in a gust of wind, leaving Salvation screaming with fury, alone on the battlefield. She looked down at Salvation, pitiless, and in that voice, the voice of an angry goddess, she spoke.
“Your faith is a perversion, and a blasphemy upon all your God stands for. Let the rain send you to His judgement!”
And then she was gone, and in her place, the hurricane force winds and lightning crashed upon the battlefield.
Andi’s storm did another beneficial thing. As Team Two fought in the abandoned sewers, floodwaters rushed into the old operational drainage systems, but in ways no civil engineer would ever make sense of. As though the will of God guided the churning tide.
As Valorgirl and her beleaguered team fought not only to save themselves but save the children who had been brainwashed and subverted to the Lost, she began to lose hope. Green Wraith and Modern Samurai were being beaten to death. Behind her, the surge of Lost were being fought back by Deathspider, Sailor Rush, Belle, Soul Train, Fenix, Lucid Haze, and Starsearcher, but they were being overwhelmed by sheer numerical superiority. Standing over her, Gray Mace was being hammered by plasma blasts, while Peachie was knocked off her feet into the muck by a concussive bolt.
And then she heard the rumbling.
“Oh God, what now?” she gasped, her costume tattered and torn, her exposed skin blackened and smoking from energy blasts.
As if answering, the chamber rumbled and shook, and from the tunnel opposite of the one leading in here, a titanic blast of rain water, dark with sludge and filth, exploded into the room. Rikti, lost, and superhuman alike were overwhelmed with the surge, and the fight was over. Only one thought raced through many of their minds – survival.
Valorgirl was almost washed away in the tide, yet Gray Mace’s hand flashed out, fingers closing over her forearm.
It seemed to be sound advice.
Hour Woman stood in the command post while the mystically summoned storm tore the Zone apart. Wrapped in a green wool blanket, she and Kichi and Bright Arrow dripped onto the floor, shivering.
“This does not bode well.” Kichi commented, looking out into the black.
“This bears the mark of the Divine.” Bright Arrow remarked, and sipped at the surprisingly palatable coffee offered by the General’s men.
Kichi raised an eyebrow, skeptically noting his wings. “Why, how would you know? Because you’re an Angel?”
Bright Arrow shrugged. “Yes, that’s right.”
Kichi muttered to herself.
Hour Woman shook her head, despair creeping over her. She was the leader of the team, and look! She had no team, lost in the storm. Maybe Andi’s doing, but who knew? It very well could have been her final act, and the entire team may be dead and it was all her fault because they were cocky and overconfident and didn’t take this seriously. They went over there like this was a picnic, a fun little romp. Look where it got them…
Deeper in the command post, a burst of radio traffic, and soon, a flurry of activity as rain gear was thrown about, zipped up, weapons rattling as men rushed into action.
“What’s going on?” Hour Woman asked, alarmed at the rush of men, streaming out the door.
The General grunted, peering at a monitor.
“Huh. Looks like your friends are back, ma’am.”
Outside, a swirling vortex of wind touched down in the compound admist the driving, torrential rain. Hydrophidian laid her comrades gently on the ground, where soldiers rushed to their aid. Soon, medics ran out with stretchers. Hour Woman was overcome with emotion, relief and guilt, and rushed over to where Dragonberry was being loaded onto a stretcher. The girl opened up her eyes and smiled groggily at Hour Woman.
Hour Woman was glad her tears were indistinguishable from the rain sluicing down her cheeks. “Bridgie… oh God, what happened out there?”
Dragonberry smiled, obviously too much in shock to remember, or was just beyond caring – it looked like she was doped up or medicated already. “We… gave em some ka-powies…”
Hour Woman smiled in spite of herself. “Good job, DB. You sure did…”
“Hey…” a weary voice behind her. She turned, and Andi slumped into her arms, her nose puffed, angry red, wisps of blood washing down her chin. She looked and sounded completely drained.
“I’m so sorry, Andi…”
Andi shook her head, that same strange contended weariness she had seen on DB’s face. “Shh…. You’re alive. We’re all alive. The kids… Penny’s got the kids. It’s all that matters. The only thing that matters.”
When Penny and her team appeared out of the gushing storm drains, soldiers were there waiting with MEDEVAC vehicles and medical personnel to tend to the wounded.
What they got was a surprise.
Marching out of the sewers were over two hundred ragged men and women, in various stages of dementia and injury, but all strangely docile. Equally amazed were the members of Team Two, who staggered out into the winter rain, soaked, battered, and weary from the battle below.
As the prisoners were taken to hastily erected tents surrounding the Portal leading to Peregrine Island, the team was reunited with Team One in the hospital. Penny and Hour Woman hugged and went over what had happened, both just as bewildered by what had occurred.
As the teams were cleaned up and attended to, there was a quiet calm descending over them all.
It was palpable, everyone could feel it, sense it, but no one could put their finger on it, or speak of it for fear of it leaving. The calm serenity seemed to make what had happened to the teams easier to handle.
The villains were congregated in the Emergency Room, as Jordan’s injuries were tended to, and Antitype had her back stitched up. Natasha Nadir and Fearghas, both looking worst for the wear, stood guard against any ill-advised attempt by a Hero to ‘arrest’ them.
Valorgirl, wrapped in an army blanket, and her hair still drenched and tangled, slipped past Fearghas to see Tyler Preston, who lay on his back, his ribs taped and wrapped tightly. He blearily opened his eyes and grunted as Penny approached.
Penny smiled. “Hey Tyler. Heard you and the Big Bad Guy went round for round.”
He scowled. “Jerk took me out. Didn’t expect him to be able to put the whammy on me, damn Jedi mind trick. Guy has a head fulla crazy. Dropped me but good.”
Penny nodded and hugged herself, drawing the blanket tight. “You’re still here to talk about it. Better than the alternative.”
They both looked away, lost in their own thoughts for a moment.
“Ya know… Penny. When that freak hit me with his psychic thing… he showed me what went on inside that head a his. Guy is a sick, demented freak.”
Penny nodded, looking at her feet, feeling guilty she wasn’t there to help.
Tyler grunted in derision. “And ya know what? Most of us who came out today, hell, most of the folks I know in the Isles… We ain’t evil sickos like that freak. We’re just selfish, I think, way too violent, just don’t care, y’know. But this guy…. You take a look inside his head, all the hurt and the sick, and that’s evil. And that psycho popped up in your backyard. Kinds makes me wonder what we got brewing over in the Isles. What kinda sickos we’re making…”
Penny kept her eyes on her feet. “Yeah… but can you guys do there what we did today, and try to stop it?”
Tyler looked up at the ceiling, frowning. “I dunno, Penny. I don’t think anybody really cares enough to even realize there was a problem.”
“Away… all of you… get away.”
Salvation looked on at the gleaming metal transmutation chamber in the heart of the Chapel. His followers scattered at the sight of their mangled, horribly wounded leader.
Across his gut, a wickedly deep slice from Teras Lyn. His jaw was still fractured from Rakescar’s initial assault, and his body was a mass of seared, charred, and bruised flesh. And still jutting from his body, impaling him, were two of the Stalker’s long spines, through his back and emerging through his stomach. Digestive acids were burning through his insides.
Such terrible, incandescent pain.
Still, it made the inspiration seem all the more logical. The pain was so intense, he could see God.
In the transmutation chamber, Cassie, sweet, sweet Cassie, was suspended in the mutagen, transforming her from the weak, contemptible human girl she was into an angel made flesh. The ultimate expression of his… it’s… faith.
But the Heroes… oh, how it burned him… IT… that they would come to defile his Chapel and steal away it’s angel.
This, logically, called for a diversion.
A sacrifice had to be made.
His was a faith riddled with the concept of sacrifice. Through sacrifice, blood sacrifice, could God be appeased.
In this case, he… it. IT! It had to sacrifice itself to the Heroes to allow sweet Cassie the time to mutate and evolve from the dross into the Divine. If she was lost, all this – the Church, the statement to the world of Light and Lies, all of it, would be for naught.
Salvation couldn’t allow that to happen.
It laid a bloody, ghastly hand on the cool steel of the chamber, relief for the first time since the battle began, slowing in the coming. It almost started to cry, as pain turned to hurt.
For it knew it would never see beautiful Cassie, radiant and terrible again in it’s lifetime.
But such are the sacrifices of faith. Steeling itself, it started the trek to Atlas Park.
Deathspider was amazed the rain didn’t let up. Sheets of it coming down, lightning flashing down followed by peaks of crashing thunder. Hours had passed since they had emerged, shaken and soaked, from the sewers. In Peregrine Island at that moment, rescue workers separated the Lost into manageable groups, to try and help them, if they were still able to be helped.
The folks were still downstairs in the ER, drying off and warming up. Nobody wanted to be out in the storm, especially with the strange, soporific feeling everyone involved was exhibiting. Was it some unforeseen aspect of Hydrophidian’s powers that had affected everyone, amplified by the same force that turned her weather control powers into a storm of biblical proportions? Or was that it? Did they all just witness an Act of God?
He shook his head. Didn’t matter. The end result, no matter what, was some of the kids, not all of them, according to the phone call from a worried yet relieved Father Dalton, were back. A girl was still missing.
Given the circumstances, he wanted to say but didn’t have the heart to say, we’re lucky more weren’t missing.
He stood at the window of the upmost floor of the medical center, his costume damp and hanging on a hook in the reclamation room nearby. He was in a pair of black bike shorts and wrapped in a blanket, and was reasonably warm, all things considered. He wanted to go home, but perhaps he was fine where he was, watching the rain bathe the city for a little while. Keep the thugs and the crazies off the streets for a little while, at least.
“Whatcha doing, Snuggles?”
Miguel turned to see Belle, also wrapped in a blanket. She padded over and slipped beside him, nuzzling him. “Hey kitten. Just watching the rain, thinking.”
Ellie smirked. “Dare I ask?”
She laughed and squeezed him. “You love it, and we both know it.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Seriously though. Whatcha thinking about?”
He shrugged, smiling. “Ah, I dunno, Valentine’s Day presents, maybe.”
“I like that train of thought.”
There were few Heroes willing to stand in the customary spot underneath the statue of Atlas in the pouring rain. After all, the cat girls tended to dislike the water.
So when Salvation stood there, still scarred and bleeding from his encounter with the Heroes earlier, it didn’t make quite the impact as it had hoped.
Still, it was an impressive sight, a gigantic, battle scarred Mutate fearlessly standing underneath Atlas, roaring out in a garbled, phlegmy voice its’ challenge. What few Heroes who were there were easily dispatched with brutal efficiency back to the hospital.
Beating it’s chest like a primate, it called out, mocking the Heroes, that it was unbowed, that it’s true faith would survive, no matter what.
Such confidence was needed when it saw the form of Statesman floating down from the stormy skies, along with several other members of the Freedom Phalanx.
“Finally…” it growled.
“Salvation… we’d like to have a word with you.”
Far south, below the soft lands of mountains and green lay a wasteland of eternal winter. Here, life is precariously balanced on the edge of a knife. One slip, one misstep, and your death is assured.
And here, in the desolation of white and nothingness, lay the facility where Earth sends it’s most incorrigible, the most dangerous, the worst.
A crystalline fortress emerging from the leagues of ice and snow, it glitters in the harsh, deadly sunlight. Generations of pollution has scoured away the ozone here, lending another hazard to life. Fitting, then, for an inhospitable prison for the worst.
If one were to fly over the compound, it would look like a six pointed star with mile long, gleaming cylinders half buried in the ice, radiating out from a central facility, not unlike an airport terminal.
It was the most secure place that Statesman could put the beast that had started a crusade.
Each of the six cylinders were built around six sub-sections, cylinders as well, like long, exaggerated chambers of a revolver. In each, five hundred ten by ten cells stretched along the subsection, for a total of eighteen thousand individual cells. Little room was wasted, considering that with superpowered occupants, anything could become a potential weapon, a security liability. Thus, there were no amenities such as beds, plumbing, or even windows or bars.
Each occupant was encased in a gigantic block of solid ice. Trapped in eternal stasis, held in suspended animation for all time.
Truly, the end of the line.
Oh, how the ACLU would howl over this!
Then again, they were a bit out of any bleeding heart’s reach. Here, only the word of the Warden meant anything in the frozen oblivion.
Portal Corporation, and their dimension hopping ways, aided considerably to the world’s problem with dealing with super crime. For some, being housed anywhere near a populated area was simply not an option, regardless of security or restraints. Powerful psychics, for example, who responded… poorly to inhibitor drugs.
For some, not even being housed on the same planet would be enough. Hence, the location was an important consideration. Not –just- Antarctica, but in another dimension. One already without a lot of the inherent problems of Earth – living inhabitants.
They chose a world where nuclear Armageddon had already occurred – only a smattering of human tribes staggered blindly through the radioactive ruins of their world. Perfect for the needs of the facility, and proving conclusively that even nuclear apocalypse can have a purpose. The Warden had wanted the dimension where a zombie apocalypse had occurred – it was perfect for the psychic and vampire inmates, who if they somehow escaped, they’d have nobody to manipulate or feed on., but an overall squeamishness and concern over necromantic inmates had quashed that idea. Better the cold, sterile, poisoned earth.
Only a handful of people actually knew what coordinates lead to the world, and none of them knew each other or even met. Six different Portal jumps were required to locate the Cooler, and they changed all the time, leading through a succession of different places and times. Thus, unless you knew where to start looking, it was well nigh impossible to just stumble upon it. Every step possible, conceivable, had been implemented to ensure that for the inmates, escape or rescue was impossible. There could be no weakness, no loophole to exploit. Mystic scrying or summoning the inmate back home? Negative. The Ice Shamans saw to that, constantly weaving their magics to keep the Cooler innocuous, invisible, undetectable.
It had to be the end of the line.
For most, this meant simple cryogenic storage, flash frozen and encased in ice to not only preserve the integrity of the inmate, but to ensure that if they, under some circumstance, were able to withstand the freezing process, they would be unable to break free, their limbs at such an angle that any sort of movement would be physically impossible. Likewise, being frozen solid has it’s benefits from a security standpoint – no need to feed, clothe, or interact with them beyond checking to make sure the temperature didn’t rise. No danger to the guards, either.
And, if the facility was under attack by some would-be rescuers, special fracture lines in the ice would ensure that the rescuers would be left with shards of their friend – each cell could be remote activated, and a concussive blast would split the inmate apart, thus making any rescue attempt ultimately futile.
Why the elaborate set-up? The extra dimensional jumping, encasing them in ice… why not simply kill them?
Some, well, you couldn’t kill if you tried.
Some were still scientific or mystical breakthroughs, their biology studied by top minds in their fields.
Some were considered more valuable alive.
And, of course, Statesman refused to kill.
So then, the only recourse was to incarcerate them in a place much more secure than what was conventionally available. Ziggursky was a joke – thanks to Arachnos, it was nothing more than a sieve, a temporary holding cell, not an indomitable fortress.
And the Warden, who preferred the quiet and the chill to the rush and kinetic frenzy of being a hero, made sure that the embarrassment of Ziggursky never happened here.
Nearing sixty, he had opted out of the heroic life in his early thirties, during the (no pun intended) Cold War. Heroes were being secretly drafted to fight in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and a host of other dirty hell-holes – he wanted no part of that, and instead went into a familiar profession – law enforcement. Let the kids fight the ideological stalemates, let them die without their own country acknowledging they ever existed.
He never looked back.
Back before the War Walls, before the reclamators, before the unreal sense of immortality within the city limits made the kids stupid, reckless, and soft, Paragon City was NOT a nice place to ply the skintight trade. It was an often brutal, short, and ugly life, and you didn’t get a second chance. The villains, they liked to torture, maim, and kill. Only the truly invulnerable, crazy, or suicidal stayed intact for long. He hated having to put himself constantly in danger – for what? To be lost in a garish kaleidoscope of people with identity, sexuality, gender and God knows what else issues, disorders, and mental handicaps? He could get all that in law enforcement, and without the eyesore of costumes.
Now, appointed to take care of the largest penitentiaries for super criminals ever built, the Warden was content. Quiet, cold, and beyond the reach of those who would make a mockery of the law.
He hovered near the Portal in the center of Intake, in the central building, watching it crackle to life, a bemused expression on his face. Surrounding him were thirty of his officers, all like him in that they no longer felt fulfilled by fighting the hopeless battles on rooftops and in alleyways, in the sewers. And like him, all were comfortable in the cold. To be an officer at the Cooler, one had to be superhuman to withstand the climate, and be able to perform an emergency re-freeze in the unlikely event of a thaw.
The Portal flared to life and there he was.
His breath smoked and swirled around him as he stepped down the ramp. Behind him, on a floating platform, encased in a steel and plexiglass cocoon, was in the inmate. Surrounding the inmate, six PCPD Psi-Division officers in heavy winter gear. The Warden watched with smug satisfaction at the shudder each of them exhibited as the cold air hit them.
“Marcus. You’re looking good!”
Statesman nodded, grimly treading on the cold steel floor towards him. The guards moved in, and assumed control of the inmate, guiding the platform to Processing and Booking.
“Stephen. I got an interesting one for you this time.”
Warden grinned, each tooth blinding white and perfect. “I should say so. I followed the story on the news. Congratulations for taking him down in Atlas Park without a lot of collateral damage.”
Statesman grunted in derision. “We got to him too late for that. Crucified all those folks in Skyway City. God knows how many others he’s hurt. If that group of heroes out in the Crash Site didn’t flush him out and soften him up, it would have been a lot worse.”
Warden arched an eyebrow, smiling. “Oh? Glad to hear the kids are still able to do something more than posture and whine.”
Statesman regarded Warden’s sanctimonious smile for a moment before replying. “Still bitter, Stephen?”
The Warden laughed. “Marcus, I was never bitter. People so often mistake bitterness for frank objectivity.”
A grunt. “Right.”
“So now, heroes flushed this beast out? Good for them. I’m glad they managed to bring him out of the shadows.”
“They also weakened him considerably, managed to get over two hundred of his followers. I’m proud of them, Stephen. They caught a monster before he became a major, major problem. Exactly what Heroes are supposed to do.” He leveled a glance at the Warden. “What you’ve been complaining about all these years, them not doing their jobs.”
The Warden smiled and held out his hands helplessly.
“I’ll have to put them on my Christmas card list, Marcus. How have you been, though? Any sign of Reichsman? Tyrant still being a pain?”
Statesman shook his head, sighing. “You don’t have an off-switch, do you? Poking everything and everyone with a little pointed stick, just because you can. Don’t you ever get tired of the hate?”
“Marcus, if I didn’t hate, I couldn’t do the job the world depends on me to do. You can’t live in a dimension where the world is a radioactive parking lot, surrounded by the ice-cubes of thousands of murderers, demons, and psychopaths, in the middle of Antartica without being able to hate, and use that hate to survive. If I come off as brusque, rude, and hateful, well, those are the qualities that make me able to keep this place together and keep myself from going crazy.”
Statesman sighed. “If that’s what you feel you need to do, need to be, to get by, Stephen, I’m not going to denigrate what you do or your importance to the cause. But by the same token, just know that there’s a lot of ‘kids’ out there working hard to try and make a difference. And they deserve some respect as well. I appreciate the hardships you’ve gone through. Trust me, I lived them with you. Just… Nothing I say is going to change your mind or attitude, will it?”
Stephen laughed again, the mockery and edge dulled a bit, softer now. “No, Marcus, you’re incapable of the task, but to be fair, humanity generally shares the same disability. I understand what you’re saying. Enough. Want a drink?”
Despite himself, Statesman grinned. “Yeah. Might as well.”
The events in the Crash Site were fading into the past. It had been two weeks since the nightmarish showdown in the sewers, since Hour Woman’s team fought the mutate who called himself Salvation, and nearly got themselves killed in the process.
The Bears had lost in the Super Bowl.
Valentine’s Day and an incredibly embarrassing romantic stunt by Miguel had passed.
No end of the world, no cataclysmic event.
Miguel lay in the bed he shared with Ellie in their new apartment on Peregrine Island, in the quiet neighborhood of Mera Heights. Ellie was sleeping soundly, curled up against him, warm under the comforter, warm on his skin.
As far as conclusive victories go, what had happened left a lot to be desired.
Oh, they saved the kids, and hurt Salvation enough for the Freedom Phalanx to finish off, but it lacked the satisfying feel of the hundreds of other plots and villainous schemes he had chanced upon over the course of his short career.
Which was fine.
The many nefarious plots and villains he fought over the past two years – what did he really accomplish? What lasting impression did he make? Who did he really help outside the scope of the missions themselves – a kidnap victim, beating bad guys up (or worse, eating them), foiling some socially handicapped maniac from taking over the world? Not many, when he stopped and reflected on it. In that, he was no different from every other schlub hero in the city, small victories that caused casualties to his side in subtle, insidious ways – burning out, giving into temptation, becoming blind to the people you were sworn to protect.
What the two teams accomplished ago those two weeks ago had far-reaching consequence that surpassed anything any of them had truly accomplished on their own.
The children, though irreparably harmed by what that madman had done to them during the time they were his captives, were intensive therapy, to bring them back to reality, to show them they wouldn’t be hurt by him anymore. Perhaps they were too late to keep them from behind harmed, but now at least those kids had a shot at having a normal life.
As for the legion of Lost taken captive, they too were being helped, separated, processed, and taken to several mental health facilities up and down the Eastern Seaboard. They too were victims, they just weren’t as obvious as the children.
And though they didn’t beat Salvation in a classic, cartoonish showdown, they put enough of a hurt on him that others could bring him down. Miguel had heard from Dr. Sheridan, in Brickstown, that Salvation had a variety of exotic (for the Rikti) mutagens swimming around in his bloodstream that nobody on the planet had seen before. Their exact properties were unknown, but the effects were obvious – they had turned one of the Lost into a superhuman, insanely powerful creature with off the scale strength, endurance, and psychic powers. As it was, the thing put Back Alley Brawler in the hospital for a couple of days, and hit Sister Psyche so hard with a mental blast she woke up hours later screaming until she had to be sedated for her own good.
Still, the Freedom Phalanx made it look easy, which stuck in some of the team’s craw, especially the ones who went toe to toe with the beast. It was easy to look at that and say ‘What we did meant nothing’.
No, it meant everything.
Too often motive and effort is not given it’s due, especially in the absence of effort on the part of others. To try, even if you fail, is looking into the faces of apathy, futility, and despair, and saying ‘No, I refuse to accept this, I want better’. To say to everyone that hurt you, held you down, tried to hold you back, and never believed in you that you’re not going to take it, that your world will not be defined by what cannot be done, but what you can do.
And for that, in the absence of a quantifiable victory, Miguel felt proud of himself and the ones who came to stop that madman and rescue the ones Salvation had hurt. They tried, where others didn’t. They cared enough to at least do that. And the victory that others claimed would have been impossible without the two teams doing what they did, their sacrifice.
And that was more satisfying than he ever thought it could be.
Hector Delgado crept back in from the squalor that was Mercy Island. The filth and desolation of this, the least of the Rogue Isles, surpassed the dingiest of Paragon City’s barrios.
But under the dirt and misery, a miracle was occurring.
Into the new Chapel, Hector nodded to the guards at the entrance of the Sanctuary, where beyond, the hope of their faith was shuddering in the throes of birth. The air was electric, stinking of sweat, grime, and the cloying odor of the mutagen bath where Salvation had placed the girl, the angel who would save them all.
Pausing at the threshold, Hector took a deep breath, steeling himself. This is why their leader sacrificed himself, why he allowed the hateful Heroes to take him away. Why he gave himself to them, to allow the Church and their Angel the time to get away here, to the Rogue Isles, where they could find new converts, to spread the Gospel of Divine Pain.
Closing his eyes, reassured of his devotion, he entered the Sanctuary. The room beyond was bare save for a host of electrical cables, black and as thick as pythons, leading from the walls to the gleaming metal transmutation chamber. It was open, the hatch spread wide, and in a pool of stinking fluid on the floor sat a creature of exceeding lovliness.
Gleaming wetly in the dim light from the chamber, the Angel looked up at Hector, long blonde hair plastered to her flawless form, large angelic wings dripping ichor. Her face was a wonder to behold, with depthless black eyes that spoke of redemption and damnation.
Hector gasped in religious rapture. The black eyes focused on him, searing his soul under her gaze.
“Speak… who awakens me?”
Hector dropped to a knee in the warm pool of mutagen, heedless of the danger it posed to his body. After all, when confronted with a messenger from God, what choice do you have except to give supplication?
The Angel held out her slime covered, delicate hand, brushing over Hector’s filthy black hair. Her touch sent shivers down Hector’s spine, redemption and damnation, redemption and damnation…
“Hector, my child… you honor me with you devotion to God and His Church. Your faith will be rewarded. Now… bring the brethren to the Chapel. I should like to look upon the Faithful.”
Hector nodded, overcome with awe and love. He stood, suddenly dizzy. The mutagen was seeping through his skin. Not long now…
The Angel smiled.
Not long at all.