Deathspider/Hosannas From The Basements of Hell
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Hosannas From The Basements of Hell
“I’ve forgotten who I was.”
“It hardly matters now, does it? Down here, there is no room for regret, no place for pity, no need for memories.
“The past can only hurt, it can never help.
“My brothers and sisters here, they are my family, and yet… we’re more distant from each other as…
“Well, imagine the gulf between the beggar and the rich man in his suit and briefcase and eyes full of greed.
“Through our emotional distance we are forever bound.
“In the sewers, in the waste of a society unable to take care of the least of them, the broken, the sick, the despised, the unclean. The outcaste.
“Down here, we have found a purpose, shining through the haze of drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, the endless, boundless fountain of hate and rage and bitterness that is the teat from which we take out nourishment.
“We are Lost.
“And yet, we are found.
“The others, the Rikti, they too are Lost, lost in a world of misunderstanding and mindless aggression. The beautiful people, they say the Rikti are preying on us, changing us, using us, swelling their ranks, but I say it is much like how subjugated and conquered people have usurped their conquerors through the ages. They change us, but we are the Rikti now. And they, us. We have absorbed them, just a different mask for us to wear.
“And why not? I for one, welcome the change.
“Perhaps now, we can physically resemble what we really are, what we have known, all this time, in our hearts… our souls. That we are alien to the society that has found no use for us, that has thrown us away. Cast us from their sighs. And lost us.”
The hideous visage of the Anathema looked over his tribe in the rank gloom of the sewers. Look at them, it thought with a sense of pride, of brotherhood, of belonging. As it had said, they were the least of society. The mentally scarred, defective, men and women too angry or disoriented or disassociative to function in the world they had been born into. Sores, lesions, boils, and weeping cankers were worn like badges of honor. Soiled, torn, filthy rags of clothing worn with no affectations or regard to petty notions of fashion or propriety. More so than the most hideous demon, people recoiled from its kind – sometimes, the fantastically disgusting was preferable to something they could see a glimmer of themselves in.
Better a bat-winged devil than a filthy, insane beggar.
That would change, it vowed.
It moved it’s bulk, it’s body mottled and pink like baby skin underneath an old scab. Muscles in a slow state of mutation bulged under its hide. Its face was utterly unrecognizable from what it used to be. Its mouth was nearly sealed shut, stalagmites of flesh from where it’s lips used to be. Its skull was misshapen and deformed from its original shape.
God, how that had hurt.
Compression, cerebro-spinal fluid leaking from minute cracks in the bone as it changed and enlarged. Months of unbearable, mindless agony as it’s head changed shape.
The pain was the key, though. Pain was a teacher. Pain was instructive. Without the ability to inflict, or threaten to inflict, pain, civilization would be impossible. The pain opened it’s mind. Crippled by paranoia, schizophrenia, and a host of other maladies, the pain forged the sickness in the terrible heat of irrevocable, endless insanity. It was like an eternity of madness, a long, leisurely dip in the depths of Hell…
Until one morning, it stopped. The fog of madness receded. Its mind raced along new vistas of terrible understanding and cyclopean landscapes of thought. Hyperawareness – little surprised it anymore. Telepathy – it could hear… hear… the disjointed thoughts of its fellow Lost. Psychokinesis – when its emotions ran strong, debris around it began to rise from the ground.
The pain had elevated it. The pain was a cruel angel from God, transforming, transfiguring, and evolving it.
Pain was a gift from God. A gift it had to share with others.
The guttural, phlegmy voice of the Anathema spoke again. A raiding party was getting ready to go to the surface, to spread the message. To bring other Lost here, to where they might find a home. Or their deaths. Either way, his tribe offered an escape from an uncaring, loveless world where one’s worth was based on arbitrary concepts of wealth, beauty, or the faulty perceptions of others.
The Lost offered a salvation, of sorts.
“Go forth, my brothers. Go into the hateful world of light and lies. Bring the Gospel of the Lost to the world of the heathens who cast you down.
“Go forth, spread the world of Salvation…”
St. Catherine’s church in King’s Row was dwarfed by the monolithic high-rises around her. She was clothed in a shawl of soot and pollution. The iron crucifix on the steeple was black, transfixed against the bruised skies.
Still, it was a bastion of what passed for human compassion these days. Today, in the chill, crisp January air, the soup kitchen steamed and smoked under a collection of donated Army surplus GP Medium tents in the parking lot. A line of the poor stood in a line wrapping well out of the parking lot and halfway down the block. White, black, and Latino, no matter what the hue God used to bring the human details forth of the canvas of His divine masterpiece, the nuns and priests of St. Catherine’s were there with a weary smile and a steaming pot of soup.
In a world where contemporary Christianity was preaching a gospel advocating that wealth and earthly pleasures were God’s reward to the faithful, a ‘Prosperity Doctrine, these men and women were here in the bitter cold, giving a small measure of the grace they themselves sought to the poor and destitute.
Which made Miguel Sanchez’s appearance behind the folding tables, ladling out soup to the poor, an odd sight.
Bundled in a navy blue Chicago Bears winter coat, the white haired Sanchez offered a smile and a ladleful of chicken noodle soup to the glassy eyed homeless and poor families. It was his third week volunteering for St. Catherine’s, and the ‘regulars’ were beginning to relax at the sight of him. Miguel had been around super heroes for so long that his 6’4”, 230 pound, heavily muscled frame seemed commonplace – not so much out in the ‘real world’. These people were used to being victimized by the physically stronger, and it took time for people to get used to his imposing presence.
This is what Miguel did to forget. His own romantic troubles seemed so petty and juvenile when compared to the problems of these people. More than three-quarters of them suffered from some sort of mental illness. Few, if any, had a warm place to sleep at night. Age and race seemed to matter little. Old black men or young white kids, anyone, it seemed, could just lose their grip and fall down here. He knew that having to come here, for a lot of them, was humiliating.
Some of his peers, and a lot of the regular population of the city thought they were too lazy. That ‘If I can get a job, if I can hold it together, anyone can!”
Sadly, not everyone can.
Ever since Warp Factor had… persuaded him to join the Guardian Angels, Miguel had been given a rather compelling look at the world he had been ignoring over the past six months. The super villains, the problems in his personal life, the constant drive to stay busy to forget said problems – it kept him off the streets. The streets, after all, where he came from. He had become blinded, he thought ruefully, to the same problems he condemned the Freedom Phalanx for ignoring.
Looking into the miserable faces of these people, it began to dawn on him that nobody really cared about anyone else as a rule. Altruism wasn’t a natural human act or motivation. Your feelings didn’t matter to anyone else, and if someone claimed otherwise, it was because they wanted something from you.
You had to rise above the contemptuous human condition to truly care.
So here he was. It seemed a little trite, Mister Security Level 50 ‘I Turn Into A Spider Thing And Eat People’ doling out soup to homeless people in order to make himself feel better, but it was better than what a lot of his peers were doing.
Sometimes small comforts were better than none at all.
As a person without a real job, beyond beating (or eating) super villains, he had the time to spare. But what escapes most of the cape and cowl club is that, alright, yay, you beat up some crazy chicks dressed like slutty gypsies stealing some ridiculous artifact. How did that help the people of the city? If poverty is a major component to crime, and if you come down on the criminal after the crime has been committed, all you are doing is attacking the symptom of the problem. You really didn’t change anything. Maybe, Miguel mused, if he tried to do something positive for people like the ones here, shuffling along to the cafeteria tables in the next tent over, maybe he was preemptively stopping a mugging, a robbery, a rape.
Maybe. That was enough for now.
He turned and Father Dalton was there, second hand windbreaker covering his gaunt frame. Miguel thought he looked like a pale… well, paler… Tony Dungy.
“Yes, Padre? What’s up?”
Father Dalton smiled crookedly. “Paul can take over for you, I was wondering if I could get a minute of your time.”
Paul Wachoski, a Chicago transplant, a stout Polish man who often complained about the state of the NFC North division and the Bear’s quarterback woes, nodded back at Miguel.
“Sure thing, Padre.”
Father Dalton led him over to the rear of the church, near the new HVAC unit that was purchased with ‘mysterious’ amounts of cash over the summer. Parishioners figured it was the doing of some philanthropist with Christian charity in his heart, but Miguel and the Father knew better – when the priest opened the briefcase near the altar with the note attached to the handle, there was still cocaine dust over the low denomination bills. Stacks of bills, that is.
Neither man ever acknowledged who brought the money, or where it came from.
“Miguel, you’ve been coming here for a couple of weeks, and I wanted to thank you for your time. God bless you for helping us. I know you have a lot on your plate.”
Miguel smiled, a genuine smile that came to his face so rarely these days. “Padre, it’s part of my job. I just think I can help more efficiently down here than… at work.”
Father Dalton smiled and nodded, looking down at the ground, and dropped the volume of his voice. “Miguel, I have a favor to ask you. Do you remember a small group of kids… A Pack, I guess they’re called, oldest was a blonde boy of 17, youngest, girl of 14… three boys, I think two girls. Maybe three. Not sure. Family unit, I’m thinking.”
Miguel thought for a moment. “I think so, but you know, we see a lot of kids come through.”
Father Dalton’s smiled faded into a worried frown. “I think something’s happened to them. They were living out south of the hospital, I think, or under one of the bridges there for awhile, maybe three, four months outdoors. Hector says there’s been folks missing out that way. You know how it is sometimes, people tend to drift…” He turned his head to gaze at the tents, face full of emotion.
Miguel nodded slowly. He had done his share of rescue missions over the past year and a half –
- It’s only been that long, he thought to himself. Seemed like an eternity… If time flies when you’re having fun, it was a pretty sorry indictment of his fun quotient.
“Where does Hector hang out?”
Father Dalton sighed. “I thinking he already came and went, but best place, I think, is under the bridges. Usually wears a Celtics or Patriots hoodie.”
Miguel smirked, and patted the Chicago Bear’s logo on the breast of his jacket. “Lucky it’s before the conference championship. Guy might not want to talk to me.”
Dalton grinned. “Somehow I know you’ll pull through.” The smile faded a bit. “You know… ah, never mind. If you could talk to Hector… maybe try to find out…”
Miguel shook his head. “Say no more, Padre. I’ll do my best to find those kids for you.”
Dalton smiled, a bit relieved. “God bless you. Good luck, Miguel…”
Hector Delgado looked blearily up from his makeshift nest, a dirty hand slapping up a cardboard flap as his eyes blinked rapidly. He shifted on his back, and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
He was lucky to have gotten to sleep. Lucky to have woken up at all, really, what with the CIA after him.
They’d have a hard time catching him, of course, him being a deep cover agent. He had to, you see, sleep here, caked in filth… His mission…
… Never mind his mission. It would come to him, he just had to clear his head a bit.
Just a bit.
The disappearances were just proof his pursuers were close. The homeless people were being captured and probably tortured for information. It was the only thing that made sense.
He sat up and fumbled for his ragged sneakers. He should get moving…
His eyes narrowed. There was something out there.
A faint whisper.
His heart jumped. His eyes wide open, he froze in his nest of newspapers and garbage.
“Hector… where are you, Hector?” A man’s voice, almost child-like in tone.
The CIA, he thought. His body stuff like rigor mortis, corpse, corpse to be, deer, deer in the headlights, froze.
“Hector… come out come out wherever you are…” Getting closer.
He couldn’t move, not to like back down and cover up in the trash, or to bolt, madly, screaming, across the street.
Fear had paralyzed him.
The voice hardened, growling.
“Hector… We know you’re here, Hector… Come out to play…”
His nerve broke. He scrambled, shakily, to his feet and began to run, barefoot, over the debris strewn ground. His heart wanting to burst free of his scrawny chest and dash down the street…
… don’t have to outrun the bear, just outrun the guy behind you…
A filthy, ragged man with a long, scruffy red beard came in suddenly to his right. Baseball bat crushed his kneecap. A rusty scream, and Hector falls, falls with an arm outstretched to brace his fall, and it landed on the ground covered with tiny chunks of asphalt, a dirty discarded McDonald’s cup, and broken glass. A cry of horror and pain.
CIA CIA CIA CIA!!!
Panicking, he looked behind him, dark forms walking, coming closer, carrying weapons. The red bearded man loomed over him. Was he CIA?
He… He looked like…
“Donnie?” his high pitched voice cracked. “Donnie? It’s me! Agent Hector! You know me! You know me! Right?”
The man that had once ate next to him at a soup kitchen in Skyway City smiled, a madman’s smile. He dropped into a squat. His pants were dark, and reeked of sewage.
“Hector… We’ve come to help you. We’ve come to save you.”
Hector rolled on his back, his leg on fire with pain. Broken glass imbedded in his palm. Bright red blood. So bright. Redder than Donnie’s beard. “Suh…suh… save me?”
Donnie grinned, a rictus of black, rotting teeth. Not teeth. Stumps.
“Yes, Hector. We’re here to save you.
“Bring you… Salvation…”
Hector’s screams echoed under the overpass, carrying to the tenements on the other side of the lonely street.
Sewers were nothing new to Deathspider.
Oh, oh, oh, how many jerk contacts of his had sent him down into the unbelievably disgusting tunnels below Paragon City, or in the Isles, for that matter? It was as if they had a sick fetish for sending a person down into feces. Gross.
Crawling along the upper arch of the tunnel, he was nearly invisible in the gloom. His spiffy new black and red costume came complete with an air filter in the mask and night vision inserts into the eyepieces, which was helpful since it was all but impossible to track by smell down here. He recalled the hellish days before he got some sort of olfactory protection – his heightened senses made each trip to the sewers… an experience.
Crawling along the wall made life easier as well. Not only did you not get your feet in… well… sewage, thus neatly avoiding the depressingly common infections and ‘sewer foot’ (He once took a heroine out on a date once, only to bring her home and discover her feet were obnoxiously rank, the skin sloughing off – it was nasty), but your footfalls didn’t carry. Crazy people tended to pack themselves in blind corners waiting for other crazy people to happen upon them. Not many folks expected something to crawl overhead. Then again, people who could fly didn’t have to touch any surface at all, but sometimes they tended to fly right into people. Trade-offs, he supposed.
This was not the way DS wanted to spend his Friday evening.
Still, it was a favor to Father Dalton. The priest had the unenviable task of giving hope to the people of King’s Row. Too many just fell pretty to despair, or worst. It was men like Father Dalton, and the others at St. Catherine’s who helped keep that part of the city from collapsing utterly into urban decay. Ever since the heartbreaking destruction of his domestic life over Christmas, and coming back to the Row, he had spent his more lucid moments helping where he could. Oh, stopping the Skulls from brutalizing some lone woman who, against all common sense, was out alone in an alleyway around midnight – or stopping the inner city hijinks of some Circle of Thorns jerks from putting a crossbow bolt through someone’s grape, that was all fine and good, but it never effected positive change. Fifteen minutes later, he could catch a scene just like it a few blocks away.
So helping at the church was one way of performing that positive change. Donating stolen drug money (DS had long been guilty of taking the proceeds of the drug deals he busted up to pay the bills – he advocates an 80/20 split. 80 percent went to charities, the school district, churches, and other people in need, while he kept the 20 percent) was another.
Some philosophers may say that there is an ulterior motive for everything that a person says or does – Miguel generally felt the same way. Maybe it was just a way to mask the hurt he was still feeling. Maybe it was a way to justify or excuse the sins of his past, or his more violent excesses that, most recently, was the reason why there were 9 horrible mutilated and partially eaten Malta operatives in the morgue. Or maybe it was even more petty – the drive to make yourself better after you’ve been dumped, so in a childish way, perhaps your ex will regret throwing such potential away.
But maybe motives were immaterial in this case. Maybe here, the action meant so much more than the reasons behind it. You can have the best intentions in the world, you can mean to do anything you want to do, but if you did nothing, intentions without action were empty.
For someone who barely considered himself human anymore, he still had so many of the human insecurities, worries, and fears.
Maybe what you were didn’t mean as much as he thought it did.
Maybe it was what you did, how you identified yourself, maybe that was more important than how you came to be. It was how he felt, after all, about… well, Her.
He shook his head irritably. God. All this thinking.
It was getting near 11, and he had spent most of the day down here, slipping into the sewers after lunch (initially a bad idea), and searched for any signs of the kids, brutalizing Hellions, Skulls, and Vahzilok. It proved fruitless. The only people, one indignant Hellion had pointed out, that were coming down here were psychopaths in tights looking to beat up people with nothing better to do than hang out in sewage.
“You have a point.” He let the guy go.
He lingered for hours, covering miles and miles of tunnels, but ten hours of darkness and brutalizing people was getting old. Oddly enough, no Lost. Which would have been the first people he would ‘ask’. It was as if they had up and disappeared. It was cause for further inquiry, but not tonight. He was tired, hungry, and he needed a shower. Nothing was turning up anyway.
“The hating me is nice…” Miguel held out his hands helplessly. “But what about the not hating me, eh?” he said in his best Zoidberg voice.
It was past midnight and while his costume spun in the washing machine, and Miguel sat across from his daughter at the dinner table. Cherish didn’t seem amused. She sighed and played with her dinner, turning her fork in the enchiladas that Ellie had brought from El Super Mexicano.
“Dad, look, I don’t hate you, okay? Can’t I just sulk about it and feel angry and let down? Don’t I get an obligatory mourning period?”
Miguel looked down at his coffee cup, filled with the contents of the pack of O+ that was now in a red biohazard bag in the trash. Life was unfair, he reflected randomly. She doesn’t want to eat those enchiladas while I have a coffee cup full of microwave heated blood.
“Look, mija, you’re entitled to feel that way. I just… look, trust me, I feel just as horrible about it as you do, but I don’t want you resenting me for it, okay?”
“I don’t resent you, alright? All this ‘don’t be angry at me’ stuff is… well… making me angry!” She stabbed an enchilada. “Ellie? Can you tell him to stop?”
Ellie, lounged on her couch watching a TiVo’d episode of Gray’s Anatomy and knitting an afghan, didn’t look up. “Guys, keep the angst down, please. McDreamy is on.”
Both Sanchezes gave her a sour look.
Cheri had been staying her for a little under a month now with Ellie, a.k.a. Belle of the Superbabes. Other than inhabiting the sparse smaller bedroom in Ellie’s condo, Cherish didn’t really want to disturb the fragile ecosystem of her roommate’s place. Not that Cherish had a lot of stuff to impose with – her worldly possessions fit in a gymbag.
Miguel shook his head. “Alright… alright. I’ll let you be. Just… don’t give me that look.
Cherish pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, much like her mother would when she was annoyed. “What look?”
“That look. Cut it out.”
“You cut out being a pest. You’re pestering me with all this…” Cherish gestured absently, talking with her hands. “…this… thing you’re doing. Stop saying you’re sorry to me. It’s not gonna get Mom to come back.”
Miguel sighed. She had seized on it like a pit bull.
She pointed an accusing finger at her father, still giving him ‘The Look’. “See, what should be happening is you not apologizing to me. What should be happening is you apologizing to Mom. What should be happening is Mom apologizing to you. In no particular order. You both need to stop acting so stubborn and stupid and childish because that is what is making me angry! Duh! You’re my parents, and your jobs are to be together, not act like…”
“A thirty year old guy and a robot girl?”
The ‘Look’, if anything, grew more scathing.
“A dumb thirty year old guy and a dumb…Mom. Just shut up and call her? God, she hasn’t even called me! What did you two do to each other? Why does this already weird situation have to become more complicated? God, I’m verbally dressing down my ten year older than me father!” She put her hand on her forehead, wincing. “God, look what you two dummies have done to me! I’m getting a ‘Dumb Parent’ headache!”
From the living room. “Settle down in there!”
A moment later, in a lower, pleased tone. “Ooooh… McSteamy!”
Miguel’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Hey, watch your mouth…” His brow furrowed. “…young lady!”
Cherish scrunched up her face, leaning forward and whispering back. “I’m telling you the truth!”
“Look, I know how crazy this is, but could you not treat me like I’m a moron? I’m your father!”
Cherish scowled. “Why, afraid I’m gonna upset your girlfriend?” She jerked a thumb in the direction of the living room.
Miguel’s face dropped. “We’ve gone out on a couple of dates! That’s it! Besides, that’s none of your business!”
The ‘Look’. “You’re so full of it! You’re not the only one with a heightened sense of smell! God, you shack me up with your new ‘hunnie’ and you wonder why I’m upset?”
Miguel curled his lip. “Your mother’s doing the same thing. I don’t know why you’re demonizing me!”
Cherish’s voice rose angrily. “You’re both being jerks! Would you two PLEASE stop seeing other people before you both drive me crazy?”
A sigh from the living room. Ellie set down her knitting needles and yarn and stood up, turning around to glare at Miguel and Cherish at the dinner table. “Miguel… I think you need to finish your dinner. Cherish… I think you should go shower and calm down.” She sighed unhappily. “You’re both so lucky I have this episode TiVo’d…”
Cherish stood angrily, scowling at her father. “Fine! God!” She stomped to her room.
Miguel called after, hoping to gather some shreds of his dignity left. “And don’t you slam that…”
The door slammed shut, reverberating through the condo.
Miguel frowned and took a long swallow of his ‘dinner’. He lowered it, shaking his head. “You know, I’ve had a daughter from a little over four months. Isn’t that too soon to be dealing with the whole ‘teenage argument’ thing?”
Ellie hid her smile and gestured to her upper lip. “Um… you got a…”
Miguel looked at her questioningly, his upper lip crimson. He had a blood mustache.
“Nevermind. I’ll put your costume in the dryer.”
Slowly. Not so fast.
Hector put his hand to his head, cracking his eyelids ever so much. His hand came away sticky with congealing blood. No wonder his head hurt.
He opened his eyes wider. He was in the sewers, by the stench that even gave him pause. His own unwashed body, at its worst, never smelled so… omnipresently foul. He blinked, still gingerly inspecting his scalp with his fingers. Yep, someone really did a number on him.
The pain was enough for him to momentarily forget his shattered knee, and when he tried to sit up, his leg reminded him, quite stridently ‘Hey man, you know you got kneecapped, right?’
Hector moaned softly, looking downward at the grotesquely swollen mess that was once his right knee. Tears of pain and fear began to grow and spill down his cheeks.
“Shhh!” a soft, girl’s voice. Hector turned his head to regard a blonde teenage girl, long dirty locks tangled and matted, her face caked with dirt and grime. “You’ll just bring them in here if you show them how much it hurts!” she whispered urgently.
The ghastly gore soaked bandage covering what was left of her leg…the stump where her foot used to be…
“Oh god oh god oh god…” he whispered, like a mantra, panicking at the sight.
“Shut up, please!” she whispered, real fear in her blue eyes. “Please please please, they took my foot, don’t make them come back, please!”
“Ay… but why? Why did they do that to you?” Hector was breathing quickly now, horror fueling his jackhammering heart.
Her eyes shed tears, her own nerves being drawn overly taught by this man who threatened to bring the Bad Men back. She whispered back. “If I tell you, will you please be quiet?”
Hector nodded, his chest rising and falling, rising and falling, close to hyperventilating.
She bit back a cry of pain and amazingly, dragged herself slowly towards him, the bubbling sewage masking the rasp of cloth and the slap of her palms on concrete. She laboriously drug herself the ten feet to him, agony evident on her face. God, Jesus Christ, Our Savior, Hector thought, what Hell were we delivered into? She settled against the wall and bit her lip till she drew blood. Trying to ignore the stench of infection under the ever present stink of sewage. She raspily whispered.
“They… they brought us down here, my Pack… I… I forget how long ago. They talked about angels and I thought it was gonna be…” She closed her eyes. “I… I was asked if I believed in God… they laughed and told me pain was God’s gift to us… that pain would bring me closer to god…” Her hushed voice cracked. “They took my foot! How could they do that to me? How could anyone do that…” her voice trailed off, seeming to collapse against the wall, physically and emotionally, hot tears coming heavy and fast, the bleak realization that, yes, it actually happened to me, seeming to finally sink in.
The scrape of metal against concrete.
The girl froze, closing her eyes.
“What’s that?” Hector gasped softly.
Her jaw set, desperately trying to stay still.
“TALK TO ME!” he panicked, fear claiming him whole.
Two figures emerged from the door, a dim light behind them. Hector screamed and tried to crawl away, the agony igniting again as he drug himself across the filthy ground.
“Look, brother… Hector is in pain.” One of the figures says, his voice oddly cheerful, like it was a pleasant surprise, a gift from Hector that he was showing for their benefit.
“He’s closer to God, brother…” the other said with a satisfied grunt. To him, by his tone, everything was as it should be. The two men advanced on Hector, who screamed in senseless terror.
“Come, brother. Let us prepare Hector for Salvation. He looks so close… but has so much further to go…” Heavy, scabrous hands, feeling like the skin of a dog with mange, clamped over Hector’s scrabbling arms, and roughly brought him up, Hector’s weight pressing down on his ruined knee, evoking a blood-curdling scream from the man.
As the two powerfully built Lost carried Hector to his fate, they passed over the girl, corpse still, controlling her breathing, controlling her insanely powerful instinct to scream for help. She had learned, over the past week, to stifle that urge. Her family, her Pack, they had screamed, they had obeyed the impulse.
It didn’t save them
There was no point in screaming. Aside from the fact that cries of pain only incited the Bad Men to further acts of sadistic brutality…
… nobody was coming.
Nobody would hear her cries.
Better just to control her fear. Control the pain. Until it ended.
God, she prayed, please let it end.
The Anathema watched his brothers drag Hector down the tunnel to the Chapel. There…
Well, there, Hector would be initiated into the Tribe. There, he would either accept the teachings of Pain, Angel from God…
Or he would die in agony, obviously unfit, obviously unworthy.
It rolled it’s massive shoulders, ready to preach his sermon, ready to show this child of God the Way. The Way to conquer his madness, how to hone his insanity and triumph over a lifetime of misery, suffering, anguish, and rejection by the cruel Bright World.
Hector would become Lost.
And yet, found.
Welcomed, at last, to a brotherhood that would bring him acceptance, that fundamental human need.
He would find Salvation.
The giant Anathema began to follow its brothers to the Chapel. To prepare Hector to accept it.
“God’s choices in inflicting suffering are not satisfactory to us, nor are they understandable, unless innocence offends Him. Clearly, He needs some help in directing the blind fury in which He flogs the earth.” – Thomas Harris, “Hannibal”
No sign of the children. Deathspider’s days and nights had been filled, searching Paragon City’s sewer networks. The Hellions, Skulls, Vahzilok, and other associated criminals that had gone to ground in the city learned quickly to lay low, lest a vision in red and black descended upon them in the dim stench of the sewers. It was as though the miles and miles of tunnels were but strands of a web, and they were the prey for the predator that lurked in the depths.
Still, no Lost. It was as if they had all but disappeared. Could they have gone deeper, in the old abandoned network? DS doubted it. The Lost didn’t possess the inhuman physical toughness required to live in the abandoned sewer network. Most superhumans didn’t. But still…
Homeless people. Sewers. The Lost. It all seemed to go together. The three were connected, he knew… but where were they?
It was only through a chance meeting in the D, on one of his rare breaks from the search, did he find a lead.
Hydrophidian smiled at Miguel as he led an elderly woman into the Sodality’s office in one of Galaxy City’s high rise office buildings. Miguel was dressed in his customary Chicago Bears winter coat and a 2006 NFC Champions Bear’s baseball cap, while the elderly woman, in her 60’s, and bundled under a heavy coat, looked suspiciously at her surroundings.
“Hey there” Miguel said, rubbing his bare hands together to warm them up. “This is Mrs. Petrillo. Father Dalton and I flew her out from Buffalo earlier today. Sorry it’s so late, her flight just got in, and traffic was horrible.”
Hydrophidian smiled warmly at the elder woman. "Hi. I'm Andi. Don't worry, none of this is going to be difficult."
The woman slowly, mincingly walked up to the two, offering a hand. Miguel looked nervously at Hydro. "So yeah. I had to fly her in from Buffalo. She’s Cassie’s grandmother, closest relative we could come up with. Father Dalton found her through some old church records.”
Hydrophidian took her hand gently and gave a slight bow, still smiling. Andi was focused on the woman, speaking quietly to her now. "Do you want to sit down? Want something to drink?"
The old woman smiled at Andi. “Hello, I'm Emily Petrillo... Mr. Sanchez said this was about little Cassie?”
Miguel stepped back, anxiously, clenching his fingers. Andi glanced at Miguel, not wanting to reveal anything he doesn't want revealed about the situation.
“Cassie, yes.” Andi motioned to a seat.
Miguel swallowed. "Ah, yes. Father Dalton's been worried about Cassie, and we were hoping you could give us some information."
Mrs. Petrillo took a seat slowly, the woman obviously suffering from arthritis. She looked up at Andi, smiling. “ My little Cassie... oh goodness, I haven't seen her or her father in years!”
Andi smiled gently, noticing the woman's strain. "Just relax, Mrs. Petrillo. This won't take long." Her hand on the old woman's shoulder glowed almost imperceptibly... and a subtle, soothing wash of life-essence was sent to Petrillo's aching joints. “May I take your hand?” she said calmly, and slipped off her gloves.
The old woman nodded, questioningly looking up at Andi, but offered her wrinkled, bony hand. “Well, of course, young lady...” The old woman's rheumy eyes regarded the young woman, and Miguel noticed the woman's look of discomfort. "Ma'am, Andi here is a registered Hero. We're trying to use the best, most effective ways of finding out where Cassie could be."
Andi took her hand. "We need to find Cassie, with your help. See, I can sense her, through you... through the bond you have with her, as family..."
The old woman's hand is a bit cold from the January chill, but she placed it in Andi’s warm grasp, raising her eyebrow in skepticism - this woman believed in the power of prayer, not 'superheroes', to be sure. But still...
Andi breathed in. “Okay. Let's give this a shot.” Andi took a deep breath, smiled once more up at the old woman, and then closed her eyes to focus. She settled in and the scent of lilacs became strong in the room. The air took on a fresh and cool quality: the shifting of seasons, from Winter to Spring. The old woman sighed softly, feeling the energies coming from the young woman, taking in the scent, her mind wandering. Andi opened her eyes after several moments and smiles again, carefully releasing the woman's hand.
Andi said softly. “Thank you.”
Miguel looked to Andi, his dark eyes gleaming.
The old woman nodded, a bit confused. “What... did you do, young lady?”
Andi stood slowly. “Just tried to pick up on your grand daughter... make it easier to find her.”
Miguel stepped forward, his voice hopeful. “So you got something?”
Andi looked to Miguel. "She's out there." Miguel narrowed his eyes, his voice dropping a bit, a bit chilling. "Where?"
“Bright life... she's...” Andi turned, pointing to the southwest. “That way. Definitely in the city. Actually… below that. Beyond the Row.”
Miguel frowned. "I'm gonna need a bit more than... The se...". He paused. Miguel looked down to Mrs. Petrillo. "Excuse us for a moment? Andi, can you show me on a map?"
“Er. Well, kinda.” She motioned for him to follow her around the large conference table, to where a flatscreen monitor was built into the table top. She punched up a map of the city.
Miguel whispered. "Southwest of here… That direction... that's past Independence Port...” Miguel traced his finger over the far west section... down to the Crash Site.
Miguel said in a soft voice. "That... makes sense..." “Somewhere in there.” Andi said quietly, smiling over at Mrs. Petrillo, who looked around at the bare grey office walls curiously. “Below there.”
Miguel nodded grimly. “The sewer system leading there's been blocked off for the past 3 years. Crash Site. It's gotta be. The Lost don't hang out in the Folly. And their Rikti masters... makes too much sense.
Andi quirked her lip. "I'm sorry I can be more specific."
Miguel turned to Andi. "It's more than what I had to go on. I'm assembling a team. Now I know where to look. I know it's a lot to ask and it might be dangerous… But we could use you down there, Andi.”
Andi frowned faintly then nods. "Okay."
Miguel closed his eyes and sighed. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
Andi whispered, "There's something else."
Miguel lowered his voice, nodding. "Yeah?"
Andi smiled briefly at the grandmother and then angled herself so that she mostly has her back to her. "She... flickers."
Miguel nodded, grimacing. "Not a lot of time."
“I dunno. She's strong. She's not, like... it's strange. But it's a flicker. Mighta just been something interfering. Lotsa psychics amongst the Rikti. I dunno if that'd interfere at all.
Miguel nodded, shivering a little before regaining his composure. "All right. I'll be assembling the team soon. Thank you. I mean that."
“Or maybe...” Andi frowned suddenly, whispering. “Maybe... alteration..."
Miguel frowned. "You don't mean... No. That's not going to happen."
Andi held out her hands helplessly. “I dunno. I'm just guessing. It's not like anyone gave me a guidebook on this stuff, y'know? I'll be on standby. Call when you need me.”
Miguel took Andi's hand. "We'll take care of it." Andi nodded, smiling a bit sheepishly.
“Wish I could help more.”
“You’ve done more than enough.” He turned to look at Mrs. Patrillo. “Mrs. Petrillo... I'll be taking you now to go see Father Dalton. He's anxious to see you again.”
The woman nodded, not entirely sure what this all accomplished, but she slowly, painfully rose to her feet.
Andi smiled, walking over with Miguel to the old woman. “Thank you again, Mrs. Petrillo. You made this possible.”
“You know where Cassie is?” she said questioningly to Andi.
Andi placed her hand on the woman's shoulder, letting another wave of life-essence soothe her joints. "We have a good idea. It'll narrow the search down considerably."
The old woman smiled, amazed at the healing power of this young woman. “God bless you, miss... “
Miguel took Mrs. Petrillo's hand and nodded to Andi. "Andi, I'll be in touch. Thank you so much.”
Andi smiled. "And you, Mrs. Petrillo. Like I said, just call when you need me. I'll be here... filing or something.” She wrinkled her nose.
Miguel looked back at Andi as he led the old woman out the door and back into the cold night, thoughtfully regarding the heroine. Obviously, being a loner wasn’t helping find these kids… There was a lesson to be learned here.
The Lost would show up, just not in the way Deathspider expected. Irony, in situations as the ones the players in this little saga were concerned, seemingly was God’s way of prolonging the experience, like a connoisseur of fine wines. You had to savor the experience. You had to let the wine breathe.
Paramedics swarmed over the recently cut down forms of seventy-five crucified men, women, and children. The quiet morning calm was shattered the moment the woman, who regularly walked her dog in the rosy light of dawn, shrieked in horror at the sight of a man nailed to a cross, and lashed to a lamp pole outside of her apartment.
The first responders were woefully unprepared for the task.
An hour after the first 911 call was made, an armada of police cruisers, ambulances, and fire engines descended upon the scene. Soon, heroes affiliated with the police arrived to assist.
Seventy five men, women and children, ranging in ages from fourteen to sixty four.
The array of sacrifices were hung along seemingly from any convenient post along Aerie Road in Skyway City – on lamp posts, street signs, off the sides of buildings in an grotesque display. On each of their victims, carved into their foreheads was apparently the reason why they were there- in bloody, ghastly script…
Some of the victims were unfortunate enough to still be alive. If only, they might have lamented, that they had succumbed to the horrific torments visited upon them and died before their psychotic captors had crucified them. But then, the ones still clinging onto life were far beyond many things, and bemoaning their fate was unfortunately one of them. What Salvation’s faithful had done to their bodies, shattering their psyches in an insane torrent of this malignant psychosis – his Gospel had destroyed these people’s minds.
People, when encountered with such an insane, improbably scene like this have a curious sort of tunnel vision, a lack of deeper cognitive functions, a sort of selective perception.
People in emergency situations tend to experience a psychic ‘step back’, they revert to type. A policeman will assume what he feels in an appropriate persona for a policeman and attempt to act authoritatively, cool headed, tough. A paramedic, she will react as how she feels is an appropriate for a medical professional. Anything they truly feel will be under the surface until later.
Later, after the sound and the fury, when they and their peers are gathered together until one of them broaches what they had seen. They might act callous and unaffected, or express annoyance at the actions of their other responders, but all will be secretly relieved that someone else brought it up, lest their own fears be ridiculed, or their competence called into question.
There, again. That universal human need for acceptance.
The death toll came to fifty three. Fifty three men, women, and children. Some of the police recognized them as homeless men and women from King’s Row, Atlas Park, Galaxy City, Brickstown, and the former community of Eastgate.
All of them, apparently, unworthy.
Think about that.
Think about that, as the police who recognized these victims may or may not have. True, Law Enforcement breeds little introspection, and even fewer intellectuals, but some officers made the connection.
In a perverse way, some monster had simply placed a physical label on what society had already felt about these people. Consider Mark Lydon.
Mark Lydon was a mentally ill man in his early forties, wild haired, wild eyed, years of alcoholism, malnourishment, and periodic stays in jail grinding pounds off his once formidable frame. In his twenties, it took ten cops to wrestle him down to handcuff him.
Mark’s life had become predictable. Mark committed a misdemeanor – trespassing or some other petty offense. The cops threw him in the county jail. As they years went by, he would get his Social Security disability check, bond out, and go back on the streets.
But people don’t want a crazy looking guy wandering the streets, do they? The cops would find him somewhere, and since Mark was unstable at best, they would goad Mark into a fight, antagonizing him into taking a swing at one of them.
Within days of bonding out of jail, he would be arrested again, and go back to his cell at county until his disability check arrived. He would bond out again, and the cycle repeated itself.
Over and over again.
Until a couple weeks ago. Nobody had seen Mark. He wasn’t in jail, he wasn’t standing in front of a boutique in Founder’s Falls, disturbing the rich or middle class women who, really, didn’t want to see a dirty crazy man where they bought their scented lotions.
You can almost hear their indignant whine. “What are we paying the police for?”
Until the same cops who would sigh in resignation at seeing mark and fighting with the poor guy, found Mark strung up like a flagellated Christ with a shock of clumped, matted grey hair. His wrists and feet were pierced with railroad spikes, his body broken and bruised, dried blood caking his face and torso.
And ‘Unworthy’ carved into his forehead.
And when they cut down his mangled body, and the paramedics tried to clear his airway, what did those same officers feel as they watched his chest rise and fall for the very last time?
How would you feel?
Deathspider watched from the rooftops as they cut down the crucified victims. He had heard the flurry of incredulous, panicked radio transmissions. He had rushed out of the sewers to Skyway City. And he looked on in stunned silence at the grim scene.
There were no dignity in these deaths. These people were tortured and then put on gruesome display for some sicko’s perverse pleasure.
Others like him, he could see them watching from a distance.
He slowly exhaled, turning to Hour Woman, who floated in stunned, horrified silence behind him. His hands clenched into fists. The only rational response to such an affront to humanity.
“Alright. Assemble the team. We’re going after them.”
“The world will not be this way within reach of my arm” – Clarice Starling, “Hannibal”
The call to arms was impressive.
By mid-morning, there were twenty heroes gathered in Crey’s Folly, some friends of Deathspider, some he never spoke to or heard about before. But this wasn’t about friendship or a popularity contest.
This was about avenging the ones Salvation had destroyed in his madness.
At the heavy steel blast doors of the entrance to the Rikti Crash Site, they gathered. Hydrophidian’s directions had led them to this place, the probable location underneath the Zone, in the sealed off sewers of the Crash Site. Between the Rikti running amok and the harried, paranoid military, those sewers were a less than desirable place to run around in. But looking at the might assembled here…
There, before the gate, stood a veritable who’s who among Paragon’s heroes. Valorgirl, clad in a Statesman-esque full length costume, hovered with Dragonberry (scarf fluttering in the chill wind), Super Mum, and Hour Woman, the four conversing quietly, subdued by the morning’s discovery. Hydrophidian stood with Clair De Lune, while two Peacebringers floated nearby – Starsearcher and Solarian Wind, their ethereal white forms seeming muted by the overcast, polluted skies of the Folly.
Teammates of his, Fenix Alheron and Lucid Haze were there as well, representing the Guardian Angels. Modern Samurai, Green Wraith, and Sailor Rush leaned against the heavy reinforced concrete of the War Wall, fighting men resting before the call to action. Others were coming in as well, having heard the call Hour Woman put out on the police frequency, or having witnessed the atrocity first hand, like Soul Train, who teleported in, and seemed mildly surprised by the turn out.
Deathspider clung to the War Wall, looking at the growing small army assembling. Part of him felt gladdened that people still had that sense of justice, of decency, left in their hearts. That because of what happened to the victims in Skyway, and Cassie and her friends, these people were here to set things right. The other part of him felt as usual. Pessimistic.
If, he thought soberly, we are only as strong as our weakest link, then humanity is only worth as much as how we protect the weakest of our own – the sick, the poor, the young, and the old.
Because it was easy to look at this, he knew, and dismiss it as an unfortunate incident. The Crey, Nemesis, the Council, Arachnos… God, the list went on and on of otherworldly threats, megalomaniacal super villains, nuclear bombs threatening to blow up the whole world – in utilitarian terms, what of some homeless bums crucified, some homeless kids kidnapped? There were so many other problems.
Except that’s the thing.
Evil, true evil, is not the cackling villain twirling his mustache. Not the ticking time bomb, or the gibbering, slavering monster come to devour the innocent. True, elemental evil is the desolation of the spirit, the emptiness of the human heart.
What scares you about serial killers? The sociopath?
It isn’t the thought of death – no, death lurks behind the wheel of every motorist, every cigarette we smoke, every drop of alcohol, in the air, in the food we eat, in the arms of the one we love. Humanity is well acquainted with death. What scares us is not what someone does, so much as it is someone has the capacity to do it. That someone’s spirit is so empty that they could, and will, do the most unspeakable acts, and not care.
Evil, then, is when the self-appointed guardians of decency, so-called champions of the downtrodden, the defenders of the weak, the righteous, look at people like the ones crucified this morning – and do nothing, feel nothing.
“It’s too bad, but there are more important priorities than some lazy, dirty bums – we have a world to save!” they say.
In doing so, they lower themselves to the level of the sicko who did this to those people, through negligence, or apathy, allowed those people to get a point to where something like that could happen. Did happen. To be ostracized, dehumanized, and trampled underfoot by a society that supposedly cares so much for democracy, human rights, and freedom when they ignored the human tragedy underneath their own noses speaks of a society on the slippery slope to degeneration and rationalization. Rationalizing why these people were living in cardboard boxes, freezing in the winter, why they weren’t provided for by the richest of all nations, why they were reviled and considered subhuman.
Because they were crazy and penniless? Because they no longer fit into the herd?
Deathspider grunted. No crazier than the rest of us. Is that what we are? A herd of animals and the sick, old, and weak get left behind for predators like the scum who did this to have their way with?
We’re better than that, he thought as he looked over the team. Pity it took those people to be sacrificed to get our attention.
Hour Woman hovered up to him, her glowing eyes flashing. “I think we’re set, Miguel.” She said, gesturing to the crowd. “What do you want to do?”
DS regarded her, not quite certain of what to say. “I dunno… what should I do? I’m not a leader, and god, I doubt any of these guys would listen to me anyway…”
Hour Woman smiled crookedly. “I dunno, you sounded pretty sure of yourself earlier…” She dropped her voice into a masculine growl. “Assemble the team!’ That sounded pretty in command to me. God, now I’m wondering why I listened to you!”
DS looked down, flushing under his mask. “Cut it out. I’m being serious.”
“So am I. Look at it this way. Don’t think of it as them doing it for you, or you have to prove something to them. We’re all here for those kids and to bring those guys who did that to all those people this morning to justice. You and Andi got us to this point. Let’s get going and finished what you started.”
DS nodded slowly. “You’re right.” He turned to look at Hour Woman. “Hey…”
“Thanks for helping. And the pep talk.”
Hour Woman smiled. “It wasn’t a pep talk. It was just nicer than ‘Get your butt in gear, holmes.” She paused. “Oh god, I just said ‘holmes’.”
“Yeah, don’t do that again.”
Deathspider leapt off the wall and landed lightly on the ground in front of the assembly. Rising from a crouch, he looked upon the twenty-odd heroes and heroines and cleared his throat.
“Right… Ah, I’m not good at this sorta thing, so bear with me. We all know why we’re here. We got a big group of folks here, and I appreciate you guys answering the call. These guys who did this, who kidnapped the kids, who hurt those people this morning… A few days ago, you might have seen them in passing. We all do the same thing. They don’t pose a direct threat, and we ignore them. We all do, I know. But while we ignored them, they went ahead and did something that has killed fifty three people. That we know of. Twenty three people will be scarred for life. That we know of.”
“Was there anything we could have done to stop them? Maybe. I wish I knew. But what’s done is done. We can’t change it. We can’t undo it. But we can make it right. We care enough to go ahead and make sure whoever did this will pay for what they did, and that they can never do it again to anyone else.
“We’re gonna save those kids. We’re gonna do right by the people everyone else gave up on.”
DS fell silent for a moment, feeling their eyes upon them. Penny, aka Valorgirl, looking at him intently, almost studying him. Sailor Rush and Green Wraith off the wall, nodding grimly. The others watching him, silent, listening. It was a bit intimidating. Funny, he thought. I’ve gone toe to toe with some of the meanest people alive, and watching my friends and peers looking back at me while I talk is totally freaking me out. He inhaled deeply, flexing his fingers.
“Divide up into three teams. You guys know what you can do better than I, so lets make sure each team is balanced out in case of heavy Rikti resistance. We’re looking for masses of the Lost, specifically ones, I guess, with a heavy religious bent. Look for hostages, prisoners, anything like that. Interrogate as much as you can. We’re not here to slaughter us some Lost, we’re looking for their ringleader and those kids. Which isn’t to say don’t punish them for what they did – but the boss and the kids are the primary objective. The PCPD is letting us use their radio frequencies to keep in touch down there. Nobody’s down in the sewers besides the Rikti and the Army, so watch yourselves. You can just as easily be killed by friendly fire as a plasma bolt from one of their ray guns. Out teams need to stay close, not too much, but enough to where we can reinforce each other. Nobody is being left out to dry.”
He exhaled and inhaled again. Public speaking was not his strong suit, hurting things was. His fingers thrummed restlessly on his thighs. “Any questions before we go?”
A harsh bark of laughter.
“Nice speech, Dud-spider!”
Heads turned. Standing defiantly at the rear of the crowd were a small group of Red Siders. Kichi and Fearghas stood near a tall, lean woman with an eyepatch and a younger male, no more than 15. Another young woman with dark blue hair in a leather jacket stood near a giant man in medieval armor, and a spined green and black horror crouching low in front of them both.
And, of course, one of the last people DS wanted to see. Rakescar.
Grey Mace, nudged the girl next to him. “You owe me five bucks. I totally called him Dud-spider.”
Murmurs ran through the crowd of heroes, and power signatures flared.
Mace held out a hand. “Nah, we ain’t here to fight’cha. We heard what happened, and ass much as you dopes prance around thinkin’ you’re sumthin’, I ain’t gonna let no kids get hurt cause some maniac. ‘Sides, way I hear it, you mopes need all the help you can get.”
Hour Woman curled her lip. “Yeah, you guys are all heart. What’s the catch?”
Jordan spoke up. “No catch. We’re just here to lend a hand. Unless you guys are too high and mighty…?”
A murmur went through the hero crowd. DS grunted. “Fine. You guys split up onto one of the teams that are forming. You turn on us, you’re going home in a body bag. But if you’re on the level, I’d be stupid to refuse the help. People not caring is why we’re going down there.”
Grey nodded, slamming a metal shod fist into an open palm. “Hey, I don’t care about anything ‘cept beatin’ those sickos into a greasespot and savin’ them kids. Fight with you jerks another time.”
Sailor Rush swore softly. “Huh, figures. We ready there, Spider? Let’s get going, huh?”
DS nodded. “Yeah, let’s get into our teams. The clock is ticking for those kids.”
Sailor cast another glance at the villains, who started to walk towards the assembled heroes. He grunted to himself, shaking his head. “Hooyah.”
Salvation stepped out of the crumbling remains of the concrete outflow pope, where its minions had toiled weeks ago, into the sublime devastation of the Rikti Crash Site. Oh, how the earth shook that day! When the glowing craft of their Rikti brethren collided with the world.
Here, the air was filled with the crackling discharges of plasma cannons, US Army 105mm artillery shells detonating, the soft mechanized tread of Rikti Power Armor, the trundling clank of tanks rolling over buckled and cracked pavement. A symphony.
Behind him, coming from the depths were the faithful, come to see the brethren who had come before. Few of the main Rikti forces had survived the intervening years since the invasion – the bulk of them were mutated from the very same people they tried to exterminate and enslave years before.
It raised its massively muscled arms wide towards the vibrant blue force field surrounding the Mothership.
For Salvation, it was like a gift from God.
Humanity is much like other animals – acceptance in the context of their family or society is a fundamental drive, need, instinct. The bee with out a hide, for example, or the classic iconoclastic image of the ‘lone wolf’, the lost and isolated doe. Once they are outside of the social dynamic of their species, they are alone and vulnerable.
Human beings, however, sometimes are able to form new societies, new bonds, and find acceptance from others. Sometimes, being an outcast is the only requirement for kinship with the same, to develop understanding with another of your own kind, without regard to color or creed.
And like all fledgling societies, there sometimes are growing pains.
Hence, the crucifixions this morning.
However, it was also a gesture rife, like certain words in the English language, with several other meanings. The two obvious ones, of course, the position Salvation’s faithful put the disposed in – crucified and carved up.
If the story of Jesus taught anything, it was that only through suffering can mankind touch the Divine. That pain, like Jesus Christ suffered, was the key to the kingdom of Heaven. Crucifying the unworthy was crucial to teaching his faithful that through spreading pain to others was spreading the word of God to others. And if it wasn’t such a lethal procedure, it would nail up his followers to let them get closer to God. Unfortunately, the spirit was willing, but there had to be limits – can’t very well spread the Gospel nailed to a cross, now can they?
Carving the message in the foreheads of the worthless was also crucial – after all, what if it had rained? Merely writing on a piece of cardboard with magic marker wouldn’t have done the job that an Exacto knife did. Salvation shook its head at the absurdity of such a thought. Just because it was in love with God didn’t mean it was stupid!
But still, there were more meanings.
Like blatantly telling the residents of Paragon City “Look! Look what your despicable selfishness has wrought! Look, this is what you thought, and so they have become!” in not so many words. Brevity was key, considering the media they had to work with.
But what spelled the dooms of those poor souls was their inability to accept God’s will. They couldn’t make the connection between suffering and enlightenment, between pain and paradise. No, they had clung steadfast to the wishy-washy notion that God ‘loved’ them and that Jesus was like some go-to guy, praying to him like He was a Wal-Mart of whatever miracle you needed. Rubbish! The Bible itself was quite clear on the connections!
Man was to toil, woman was to feel the pain of childbirth. There is was, the start of it all in the Garden of Eden after Man Fell.
What about Abraham, commanded by God Almighty to kill his son. What, that didn’t hurt?
Or Sodom and Gomorrah. Through the wholesale destruction of two cities, God instructed us how to live our lives. Plus, turning someone into a pillar of salt for disobeying Him
And of course, it goes without saying, the story of Job. What could be any clearer?
Still, they didn’t listen. Or rejected God altogether.
They were still filled with too much hate, equating, quite mistakenly, God and church with the society that rejected them. Too mad at Daddy, it would appear.
They simply couldn’t let go of the hate.
Pity. Perhaps God would spare them, but they had no place in Salvation’s church.
His reverie was interrupted, his head throbbing with the forceful telepathic assault of a Rikti mentalist.
“Marshalling of forces. Objective: Preparation for counter assault. Targets: Hero Retaliation.” Salvation thought back, clipping it’s thoughts into the Rikti’s curious military-ese.
“Query: Reason for luring Hero Forces into secure area” The cold alien voice sent back, it’s displeasure making the veins on the side of Salvation’s head bulge.
Salvation grunted with the effort to keep it’s psychic defenses intact. A show of weakness could prove fatal. And after all, it was just a little pain. It felt touched that the Rikti would intuitively understand this.
“Intention: Elimination of possible enemy forces that pose threat to operation. Operation: Reproduction.”
As though the mentalist was conversing with its superiors.
“Explanation: Sufficient. Reinforcements: Assigned.”
Movement from the rubble. Rikti forces that were lying in wait to cut down Salvation’s faithful, now their guardians.
Salvation smiled with what was left of it’s mouth. It wondered what the Heroes knew of God.
“You thought you could leave me out of this?”
Deathspider turned to regard the materializing form of Belle. He looked up at her with an odd sense of relief and mild worry that she was here. Relief because she was a competent asset in a fight, and well, he was rather fond of her. Worried because he didn’t know what they’d be up against below the Crash Site, and that could mean a lot of things. Most of them bad.
“I didn’t have a lot of time. If these whackos that took the kids are the same that hurt all those people, and I think they are, then we have to move fast. I’m sorry I didn’t get ahold of you.”
Ellie smirked. “Uh huh. You invite the Big Breasts Brigade who float around in leotards, but you don’t invite me. I see how it is.”
DS shook his head. “I like your breasts. They’re fun sized.”
Ellie promptly swatted him.
Others were arriving – one in particular, Hellstalker, one of his fellow Guardian Angels. The country fried man swooped low, tipping his hat to Ellie and shaking DS’s hand. “Howdy, hoss… Looks like I’m just in time”
DS grunted. “Thanks for coming. Warp not showing up?”
“I dunno, son, Maggie might notta heard.” The warshade’s eyes were glowing with purplish wisps of energy. “It’s early still. She might show.”
DS nodded. “Right. Well, the others are going in. We’d better get moving.”
Hellstalker nodded in agreement. “Y’know, what they did to them people ain’t right. And that blaspheming ain’t right at all either, don’t sit right with me. I ain’t gonna lie back and have somebody use Jesus as a justification for killing. My mamma didn’t raise me to just let that pass.”
DS regarded Hell for a moment. “Amigo, it don’t matter why you came, just that you’re here and you’re helping. By the way, this is Ellie, a friend of mine.”
Tip of the hat. “Ma’am.”
“Now… let’s go get those kids home.”
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 Deiselmeat 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.
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.
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.