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When we woke up, there was a lot to take in all at once.

First, most obviously, we were all bound up against the walls of the lab, with some kind of glowing magical rings.

Second, the walls, ceiling, and floor were now glowing, and it was now pretty clear, thanks to the eldritch runes and symbols carved everywhere, that the entire room was one big magic circle, designed to concentrate magical energy and confine us inside.

Third, we were in trouble. Big trouble. If it was just Cosmo the Astounding running the show, he'd taunt us a little, then take off for safer waters, leaving us merely embarrassed. But Cosmo wasn't in charge here.

He was working with the Lords of Villainy.

Oh, you're not familiar with the Lords of Villainy? Count yourself lucky. They're not the most prominent villain team. They're not the most powerful. Frankly, I suspect that our group could probably thrash most of them pretty soundly. If only we weren't tied to a wall and unable to move.

Do I have time to summarize these guys? It'll completely wreck the narrative flow, if any, but I guess you need to know who these assholes are.

  • Maximillian Mortis: Leader and very powerful wizard; old, but supposedly immortal; likes to wear black; always looks happy.
  • Cairn: Mineral psychokinetic -- in other words, he can move rocks around; rebellious, angry bad-boy image.
  • Domina Maleficus: Demonic spellcaster; sold her soul for magical power and got turned into a demon for her troubles; a giggling, fire-breathing psychotic.
  • The Headhunter: Battlesuit goon with a high-tech battleaxe; wanted for murder in six states.
  • Khaoss: Former military technician turned chaos magician; wears the loudest and least color-coordinated costume imaginable, but I guess that fits his personal theme.
  • Madame Vulture: Another powersuit wearer -- this one allows winged flight and sonic blasts; heavy facial scarring from unknown causes; very grim attitude.
  • Mastermind: Blond prettyboy telepath with a 15% alien brain. While this makes him think in pretty genocidal terms about almost everyone, it also means he's a complete flake and is likely to get distracted by pretty lights in mid-battle.
  • Olympia: Former supermodel turned musclebound superstrong powerhouse; severe superiority complex; wears an operatic Valkyrie costume.
  • The Rat: Arrogant technological super-genius who happens to be a short rat-human mutant.
  • Revenant: Insubstantial, semi-visible wind controller; claims to be a ghost, but I've got my doubts.
  • Shadow Shinobi: A ninja with shadow powers. Yes, that's exactly as irritating and frustrating as it sounds.

Cosmo normally prefers to run solo -- maybe he was hoping to join up with a larger group for a change.

Hopefully, you can see the trouble here -- it's not just that we're imprisoned and helpless, it's not just that we're facing a full team of ruthless metavillains. It's also that the Lords of Villainy includes a telepath, a ninja, and four different spellcasters in their membership. As I've said before, wizards are trouble.

"Very good, now that we've awakened everyone, I believe we can get started with the executions," said Mortis happily. "This is a pleasant enough bonus; with this much blood, Ms. Maleficus may be able to summon some of her masters."

"So what's the point of the magic telescopes, Max?" Diller blurted. "Just wanting to kill a bunch of kids who like stargazing?"

Smart tactic on Daffodil's part -- no matter how smart they are, guys like Mortis can't resist a little monologuing.

"Oh, certainly not, my dear," he chuckled. "If it were so simple a scheme, why would we have wasted the effort to place them in such contraptions. If mere murder were our only motive, let me assure you that we wouldn't bother with such a byzantine plan."

"Mortis, can we not do this now?" said Cairn.

"Yeah, I wanna kill me some superheroes," growled Headhunter.

"Silence!" barked Mortis. Oh good, he's annoyed. Strong emotions sap concentration and weaken magic spells. And frustration on Cairn's and Headhunter's parts means they're thinking about Mortis now and not us.

"Our previous tests of those Cogliostro Lenses we installed inside the telescopes were unfortunate failures," Mortis continued. "Their purpose was not to kill or injure -- quite the opposite. They were designed to allow instant mind control over those who gazed into them. The ancient Egyptians surely knew the secret of such devices, and in time, so shall we!"

"So why telescopes?" I said. Gotta keep him talking. "What's the point of controlling the minds of a bunch of astronomy-obsessed kids?"

"Oh, you heroes, your minds are too small and simple to grasp my wisdom," said Mortis. "It was necessary to test them using the telescopes -- how else were we to get the lenses into the hands of the public? After proper testing with the telescopes, we will be able to move on to larger Cogliostro Lenses that will affect larger and larger populations!"

"But something went wrong again, didn't it?" said Chrome Cobra. "You had to get the telescopes off the streets again. What happened? Chaos magic screw things up?"

And another hit. Khaoss was defensive and angry, and the rest of them were resentful and angry. It wasn't enough for the magical bonds to weaken yet -- too many wizards focusing on their spells. We had to break the group's concentration up some more.

"Unless the guy with alien DNA in his brain had some other plans for the telescopes," said Hypothermia icily. "Did he sell you out to his spaceman buddies?"

"I just wanna know why you dillholes were working for a loser like Cosmo," laughed Jonni. "Business ain't so good for you guys, huh?"

"It wasn't my idea," squeaked Cosmo. "I'm just trying to help out."

"Too bad he led us right to you," added Express. "Almost like it was on purpose."

By now, the bad guys' concentration had definitely taken some hard hits. Everyone was irritated at Khaoss and Mortis and suspicious of Cosmo and Mastermind. Emotions were running high -- and it still wasn't doing the job. All those sorcerers in one place meant the spells weren't weakening enough, and our distractions weren't going to last forever. When they caught on, they'd let Headhunter and Domina Maleficus have all the fun with us they wanted. Time for the Hail Mary.

I went full cosmic.

I don't do this often. I convert every cell in my body into pure cosmic energy. I emit heightened degrees of heat, blindingly intense light, and extreme levels of stellar whupass. Most forms of energy dissipate around me. Magic vs. pure 100% cosmic energy is not even a contest -- magic loses and loses hard.

It hurts like hell. It's hard to think. Every cell of my body is burning, howling, crackling with energy. My mind starts fraying at the edges, and panic and pain make it hard for me to hold anything together.

But it did the trick. I was freed from the spell, and the dissolving spells started slowly dropping the rest of us from the wall. The bad guys backed up, surprised. One of the wizards threw a spell my way, and it spun off my aura and disappeared. I kicked one leg backwards and blasted a hole in the wall behind me -- not a big one, but enough to break the magic circle and let El Phantasmo's ghosts rush into the room. And ghosts are real good at cracking magical bonds and breaking a spellcaster's concentration.

And that was as long as I could hold it together. I let the cosmic energy go, and it immediately flared and started fading, a few stray jolts of energy flickering around me as I collapsed on the floor, sweating, trembling, trying to keep from crying or passing out.

I'm lucky I was as conscious as I was -- I barely had time to notice and roll away from Headhunter's high-tech axe. Daffodil slugged him as he was pulling the axe out of the floor, but as I was getting back up, Khaoss hit me with another paralysis spell, and I hit the floor again.

Chaos magic always ends up having weird, unexpected effects. I was still paralyzed, unable to move or help out, but the spell also gave me some kind of heightened senses -- I was aware of everything happening around me, almost like things were happening in slow motion, or like I was looking at the world through my eyes and from outside my body at the same time. Everything was happening at once, and I was watching the entire fight, all at the same time. It was a weird feeling, but not unpleasant, almost fun.

 



Daffodil and Headhunter were closest to me. She got in a good punch, but then Headhunter swung his axe around, caught her mid-torso, and slammed her into a wall. He yanked the axe and Diller right back out, swung them in a short arc, and flung her against another nearby wall, then drove the axe into her forehead.

"One down!" he hollered, laughing.

"Motherfucker!" she yelled back. "You ruined this damn shirt!"

She pushed the axe aside, shoved him backwards, and kicked him in the balls. Headhunter stumbled backwards, howling in pain and rage, trying to get his axe between him and Daffodil.

"You stupid asses never really believe the 'completely indestructible' stuff, do ya?" she shouted. "You always figure you're gonna be the one to prove it wrong. Stupid shitstain."

Daphne punched Headhunter in the jaw, and he rolled backwards again.

"Lookit that, bitch," she snarled, holding up her fist. "Didn't break my skin on that thick, stupid skull. Can't pick up a truck or anything fancy like that, but I'm damn sure I can wreck your shit."

Headhunter swung the axe at her again, but this time, Daphne saw it coming. She met the edge of the blade with her fist, and with a high-pitched crack, the axe bent and deformed around her hand. There was a sudden pop and a low whine as the axe's circuitry gave out.

"Ah, dammit!" yelled Headhunter. "You broke my axe! Do you know how much lab time it took to build this?!"

"Aw, poor baby," cooed Daffodil, cocking her fist back again. "Lemme give you something else to study on."

 



The Rat was holding a wildly baroque raygun on Gearbox, who didn't look too worried about it. Of course, his face was almost completely immobile, so emotional analysis was difficult.

"Be smart and back away, metal man," the Rat said. "I dropped you last time, and I can drop you again."

"The smart thing to do, Dr. Fairfax, would be to surrender as quickly as possible," said Gearbox in that weird "HAL 9000" voice of his. "Your scientific talents are wasted with these criminals. You can still reclaim your good name -- maybe even find a way to reverse your unfortunate transformation."

The Rat rasped out a laugh. "You think I've never had someone try to negotiate me into peaceful surrender? How delightfully naïve."

The Rat shot his raygun, sending waves of purple energy at Gearbox. He stopped after a moment, but the robot showed no ill effects.

"What the hell," he barked angrily. "This completely shut down your systems less than an hour ago."

"Dr. Fairfax, please," said Gearbox. "Do you know how long it took me after I rebooted to trace the energy fluctuations caused by your weapon and devise shielding to block it? About two minutes. And that was while I was updating my Facebook status to 'is about to make Dr. Henry Fairfax look like a General Studies major.' "

After that, it was just a flurry of raygun blasts and flailing shapeshifted metal limbs for a while.

 



By now, the magic circle lab's walls and ceiling were mostly broken down, and the fights were spilling out into other parts of the Astrotech building and onto the lawn. Hypothermia caught up with Shadow Shinobi in one of the hallways leading to the front door. Hypothermia shot a bunch of ice shards at him, but the ninja easily dodged them and spun to face him.

"You attack me from behind, ice creature?" whispered Shadow Shinobi from somewhere in the darkness. "You are completely without honor."

"Whatever," said Hypothermia. "I've read your rap sheet. You're not exactly walking an honorable path yourself."

"I will not be lectured by an ice creature," shouted the ninja. "Defend yourself!"

A half-dozen shuriken went flying, but all ricocheted off Hypothermia's icy armor. Another half-dozen ice shards went flying, but Shadow Shinobi again dodged all of them.

"Looks like we got a stalemate, ninja turtle," said Hypothermia.

"I have other weapons, ice creature," said Shadow Shinobi, drawing an eerily pitch black katana from a scabbard. "None may withstand the Shukusatsukuragari!"

He leaped at Hypothermia and drove the blade into his shoulder. It didn't penetrate far, but it made it just far enough into the armor to hurt. Hypothermia shouted and shoved the ninja and his sword away from him.

"You see?" he laughed. "You are truly doomed. No man may defeat the Shadow Shinobi!"

"Great, good thing I'm not a man anymore," hissed Hypothermia, one hand held over his shoulder. "And good thing you're standing in water."

Suddenly, ice flashed up from the floor, encasing the ninja in an instant. It didn't last long, as darkness soon started leaking out of hairline cracks in the ice. Soon, with a final snap of the ice, the ninja broke free, glaring angrily up at his ice-armored enemy.

"Nice start, ninja boy," said Hypothermia. "Now let's finish this."

 



Cairn had made it through one of the holes in the walls and was trying to throw up as many obstacles behind him as he could. Every few feet, another jagged spike of earth and stone would erupt from the ground behind him. And he knew it wouldn't do a damn bit of good.

Sure enough, Express wasn't even bothered by the spikes. He could've dodged around them easily. Instead, he went around and got in front of Cairn. Hell, Cairn was lucky the speedster was trying to finesse the takedown.

And then, a flicker, a whipcrack, and Express was right in front of him, leaning against a nearby tree.

"Don't even think of starting anything, Cairn," he said with a broad, confident smile. "I can dodge anything you throw at me, and if you piss me off, I'll just punch you in the head a few dozen times. Just give yourself up."

"Hey, hero, ya know that residential area about eight blocks to the north?" said Cairn.

"What are you talking about, man?"

Without warning, a trio of the rocky spikes behind Cairn launched into the air like rockets.

"Better hurry, hero," said Cairn. "There's a bunch of poor innocents over there that could get hurt."

"You ass," said Express. Then another flicker in the air, and he was gone.

Cairn was able to run for another 20 seconds before Express made it back.

"You stupid jerk, you keep pulling stupid stunts like that..."

Another three spikes launch, this time headed south.

This time, just 15 seconds pass. Cairn tried to duck into the woods nearby, but he didn't have enough time. Before he knew what was happening, a superspeed flurry of punches hit him in the jaw, and Cairn fell back on his ass.

"Goddamn shithead, I tried to give you a chance."

Cairn waved his arms up, and a dozen of the rock spikes launched, this time in all different directions. Express looked good and pissed, but he took off all the same.

Cairn estimated he'd bought himself at least 30 seconds.

 



"Young lady, I assure you, you have no chance whatsoever against me," called Cosmo the Astounding as he stalked through the crumbling remnants of the lab. The power and lights were out, but Cosmo was dropping a new Shining Orb of Solomon every few minutes. Not that he'd need it -- Defender's costume glowed quite brightly.

"You won't be able to lay a glove on me," he continued. "I've cast several anti-technology spells upon myself that should be more than powerful enough to disrupt your little battlesuit."

"Of course, the opposite is not so," Cosmo said, casting another Shining Orb spell. "My wand is fully charged with a number of very entertaining technology-wrecking spells. I've got spells here that can short out circuitry, set plastics on fire, freeze metal, turn your on-board computers against you, make your weapons explode. If you're smart, you'll get out of my way."

"Personally, my dear, I'm hoping you're not smart. You and your interloping friends may have cost me membership with the Lords, and I'd quite enjoy exacting a little punishment in return."

"I must admit, young lady," said Cosmo as he rounded another corner, his wand at the ready. "I am quite curious as to how you're suppressing the glow on your battlesuit. I have read that you can't turn it down, right? Part of the integrated circuitry or some such babble, right? You should be lighting this whole area up like a spotlight."

"I'll have you know," said a voice from behind Cosmo, "I've never had any trouble with shhupresshing my glow."

Cosmo spun around, his heart racing. "Y-You're not Defender!"

"We shhwitched opponentssh," said Hybrid, her fangs gleaming in the dim light of Cosmo's Shining Orb spells. "Now shhhow me shhome of thoshhe anti-technology shhpells, dumbasshh."

 



Meanwhile, Defender was chasing Madame Vulture through the night sky over the lab. The two soared around each other, each making occasional feints in the other's direction. Vulture would fire off her sonic blasters whenever she could, piercing the sky with hypersonic caterwauling. Defender, for her part, seemed content to just dodge Madame Vulture's attacks, without returning with any of her own.

"If you're not going to attack me, at least hold still so I can blast you properly," hissed Madame Vulture.

"It wouldn't do you any good, Madame," said Defender with a laugh. "I'm entirely shielded from that sort of thing."

"Are you laughing at me?" Vulture suddenly shouted. "Don't you dare laugh at me, you bitch! Don't you dare!"

"Does it bother you if I laugh at you?" said Defender mock-innocently. "I promise I'd never laugh at you, even if your DMA files say you've got a weird psychological aversion to being laughed at."

"Watch your mouth," snarled Madame Vulture. "I've read your files, too -- I know you've got nothing but non-lethal and non-violent weaponry. You're in a lot more danger than I am."

Vulture brought her wings together and dove hard at Defender. She managed to dodge aside but not without feeling a slash from the claws on the villain's gloves.

"Still feel like laughing, pacifist?" sneered Madame Vulture as she pulled out of her dive to take another turn toward Defender. "I'll cut you out of that armor piece by piece!"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Madame," said Defender. "You thought I was a pacifist?"

She shot her with a burst of energy, blue-white, like a jangle of static, and Madame Vulture stiffened, her armor shut down, and she dropped like a stone. She rebooted the systems about a second later and pulled back up, looking a lot less confident.

"Neural stun pulse, at the lowest setting, or you wouldn't have been able to reboot your suit before hitting the ground. I haven't even deployed energy nets or started broadcasting the subliminal pacification burstcasts. Let's talk some more about pacifism, hmmm?"

 



There are smart criminals, and there are not-so-smart criminals. The ones who are not-so-smart like to fight superheroes. The smart ones prefer to avoid superheroes, even if they have powers.

Revenant was a smart criminal, and he was getting out while he could.

Being semi-invisible and intangible made it pretty easy -- all he had to do was not go pick any pointless fights and avoid anyone who had any powers that could hurt an intangible supervillain. Which meant, as long as that ghost-controlling kid in the luchadore mask didn't see him, he'd be okay.

"Hey, guy, where ya going?" said El Phantasmo as he caught up to him.

"Oh, hell," said Revenant.

 



"You are nothing!"

THOOM!

"Nothing!"

THOOM!

"You have no defense against my power!"

THOOM!

"None shall stand against the mighty Olympia!"

"Olympia, seriously, cut it out."

"Yes! Beg for mercy! Let everyone hear you beg, you freakish giantess!"

THOOM!

"Ow, Olympia, cool it!"

"Even MegaGirl is helpless before me!"

THOOM!

"The name's Miss Mega, and you should stop it now. Fighting isn't getting us anywhere. Let's just talk about --"

THOOM!

"Talk about that, whore!"

"Oh, nice. Real nice. There is no call for that sort of language, much less all the violence. You could hurt innocent bystanders. Is that what you want, Olympia?"

THOOM!

"You whine like a coward! Beg for mercy, or I will destroy you!"

THOOM!

"Ow! Okay, last chance, Olympia. I've been very patient."

THOOM!

"Fine, if that's the way you want it."

KRA-THOOOOM! OOOM! OOM! OOM!

...

"Y-You..."

"Olympia? You okay?"

"Y-You are such a bully!"

 



Khaoss was getting his gloat on. "You are doomed, little dude," he laughed. "Absolutely doooomed!"

In fact, Penitente was somewhat in agreement. He was crouched down on the other side of a sturdy oak desk in one of the lab's few remaining offices. He'd improvised a slingshot with some thick wires from the lab and a few rubber bands from the desk, but every time he peered around the desk to shoot Khaoss with a pencil or flash drive or something, the chaos wizard would shoot off a spell that would turn part of the carpet next to him into bubble gum or turf grass or hydrochloric acid.

"Seriously, zero powers at all?" laughed Khaoss. "You're like that guy in the cape who repairs people's bicycles, right? Except you're actually throwing yourself in the middle of this stuff, which is, like, waaaaay crazy! I respect crazy, but not that much!"

"Hey, gringo, I'm not the crazy one here," yelled Penitente. "You gotta be pretty nuts to hang out with Maximillian Mortis, right? How many rival sorcerers did he kill in the '80s?"

Penitente risked a quick glance around the far edge of the desk and ducked back just in time to avoid a blast that caused a cluster of singing cartoon tulips to sprout on the side of the desk.

"You think I'm not paying attention, man?" asked Khaoss. "I'm definitely paying attention. To both you and Mortis."

Okay, fine, Khaoss wanted to use chaos magic, then Penitente figured he could utilize a little chaos, too. As he flipped one of the drawers open and dug around inside, he said, "That guy has never played with a full deck. He reversed the planet's rotation in the 1950s, sold the Earth's soul to Hell in the '70s." Awesome, a box full of pushpins and a nice big rubber band ball. "He actually blew up the Earth twice in the '60s, and he and Tiamat destroyed the whole universe in the '90s. He's not stable."

"Sounds awesome to me, man," said Khaoss. "Remember me? Chaos wizard? Hey, what are you doing back there? Do I need to turn that whole desk into something horrible?"

Penitente tossed the whole box of pushpins over the top of the desk. As they transformed in a puff of smoke into purple horseflies, he shot the rubber band ball at the office wall, hoping he'd gotten the angle right on the rebound...

"Ow! Jesus, what was that, a tennis ball?!"

Penitente leaped to his feet, uncoiling his bullwhip... which suddenly turned into a really big rattlesnake. He considered himself really lucky that the head of the snake materialized on the end he was holding in his hand, or he would've already been bitten. But he was still holding onto a large and angry snake...

"Oh yeah, gee whiz, asshole, you think a tennis ball's gonna take me out? You think I'm that slow on the uptake?"

"Dunno, let's see." And Penitente threw the snake at Khaoss.

"Ahhh! Jesus, what the hell! You crazy piece of -- Oh god! Watch it!"

Penitente thought to himself that he'd never gotten into a fistfight with a chaos wizard while both were dodging an angry rattlesnake. But there's a first time for everything.

 



"Little darlings, where are you?" laughed Domina Maleficus. "Don't any of you want to play?" She theatrically spit a fireball into her hand and tossed it from hand to hand.

"I think we can take her, Wheelman," said Squid Kid, hiding in the warehouse shadows 50 feet away. "She may be a seven-foot-tall firebreathing, spellcasting demon, but just follow my lead, a'ight?"

"Uh, Squiddy, we got a problem," said Wheelman.

"Make it fast, man," said Squid Kid as her arms turned into inky black tentacles and another six tentacles sprouted out of her back. "We got demon ass to kick, ya know?"

"I gotta get outta here, Squiddy."

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Come on, you know I'm no good without a car."

"Oh my god, Greg, you'd better hope that bitch kills me, or I'm gonna kick your stupid butt."

"Thanks, Squiddy, you're the best," said Wheelman as he ran for the door.

"Hey, was that the Wheelman?" said Domina as she bent down to smile in Squid Kid's face. "Did he really just leave you to fight me all by yourself?"

Squid Kid barely dodged away from Domina's fire blast, wrapping her tentacles around nearby shelves to yank herself out of the way. She swung up to the ceiling and suspended herself next to the rafters.

"Hey, it's Dumbina Smellificus!" yelled Squid Kid. "You been eatin' beans, ugly? I think someone squeaked one out."

"Very funny, goth girl," sneered Domina. "Come on down, let's party."

"I don't wanna party with you, bowhead," said Squiddy. "I don't wanna get Max Mortis' cooties on me!"

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, him or Khaoss, I guess. Or Cosmo, eww gross! Or are you doing all of them?"

"What -- You had better watch yourself, bitch."

"I mean, all those other wizards -- it's not like they need you around except for, ahem, eye candy and party favors, right?"

Domina let loose with another fire blast, but Squid Kid was already swinging toward the back of the warehouse. Domina caught up to her just in time for Squid Kid to hit her with a burst from the fire hose reel by the back door. Domina was left soaking wet and livid with rage.

"There!" laughed Squid Kid. "Try sparking a fire through that!"

A couple of small fireballs flared to life in Domina's hands, spread up her arms and to the rest of her body, her skin sizzling as the water was roasted away. "Magic fire doesn't give a fuck about non-magic water, little girl."

"Ohhh, wait, I thought that was the magic firehose," said Squid Kid. "Could you give me a second to go find the other one?"

"Very funny, goth girl," growled Domina. "How do you want to exit this life? Burned to a cinder, fried to a crisp, or exploded in a fireball? Oh, never mind, let's go for all three."

At that moment, a yellow 1979 AMC Pacer blasted through the back wall of the warehouse, spun through three-and-a-half donuts, flipped sideways over Squid Kid, and slammed its back bumper into Domina Maleficus, sending the demon flying the length of the warehouse.

"Wheelman!" yelled Squid Kid. "I thought you'd bailed on me!"

"Just had to find a car I could drive, Lenore," said the Wheelman, leaning out of the window. "You think I'd let my favorite goth-punk supergal face a fire-breathing demon all by herself?"

"Whatever," said Squid Kid as Domina charged at them from the back of the warehouse. "Let's just put the crazy bitch down for the count -- you owe me a six-pack for leaving me to fight her on my own."

 



Jonni Rotten had one extra fly buzzing around her. Unfortunately, this one was shooting her with stunner blasts.

"Ow! Dammit, ow! I swear to -- OW!" she hollered. "Iota, snap the fuck out of it!"

"You've got to be stopped, Jonni Rotten!" came Iota's somewhat disembodied voice, amplified by speakers in his armor. "Your opposition to the Betelgeusean invasion has gone far enough!"

"Are you even listening to yourself?" Jonni shouted. "You're being mind-controlled by Mastermind, and he's making you spout stupid alien propaganda! You sound ridiculous!"

"You sound ridiculous!" scoffed Iota, circling almost invisibly around Jonni. "How do I know you're not being mind-controlled by filthy human mind-controllers?"

"Because I've got a dead brain that's immune to psionic powers, dumbass. Ow, goddammit, cut it out!"

"Another blow for our glorious Betelgeusean masters!"

"Okay, that tears it," said Jonni, pulling a couple of shuriken out of a pouch on her belt.

"Don't make me laugh, Jonni!" said Iota. "You're good, but not even you can hit me with throwing stars when I'm this small!"

"I don't need to hit you, shorty," she said as she flung the shuriken into the darkness at the far end of the room.

"Ahh, ahh, oh god, you stuck knives into my hand!" wailed Mastermind, lurching out of the shadows with Jonni's stars jabbed into his palm. "You and your primitive stupid earth weapons, bitch!"

"Io, you got your head back together now?"

"Oh, shit," groaned Iota. "Jonni, I am so sorry. So incredibly sorry. I can't believe he had me doing -- "

"Iota, shut the fuck up, get your head on straight, and switch on the anti-psionics gear in your helmet already," snarled Jonni. "Don't know why you didn't have it on in the first place, you shrunken moron."

"Fine, fine, it's all switched on. You gonna keep griping at me, or you wanna stick more knives into Mastermind?"

"Zap him a few times first," said Jonni. "After that, I'm gonna puke worms in his face. Can't believe I never thought of that one before..."

 



"All I'm saying is, you were wrong to take that control away from me. It should've been my decision to say how that rescue should've gone down."

"And all I'm saying is, you were in no position to judge the right rescue. I had to make a command decision, and I made the right one."

"And all I'm saying, is that I have defeated both of you!" bellowed Maximillian Mortis. "Submit to my towering intellect and unquestionable mystic might!"

"Shut it, Mortis," said the Chrome Cobra, calm despite the spectral vapor wisps coiling around her and Atlas and holding them suspended above the floor. "We're having a discussion."

"You are both mad!" shouted Mortis. "You are helpless in the sorcerous grip of the Clutching Shackles of Mal'Arigo! I am preparing spells to eviscerate both of you! Give in to the terror you feel in your hearts!"

"I'd accept that 'command decision' argument if you were dealing with a civilian," said Atlas. "But you were dealing with me, and I had plenty of experience with situations like that."

"And if you'll remember, we had the situation under control almost before you were awake," said the Cobra. "Letting you take the lead would've delayed the successful resolution of the crisis for at least another 30 minutes -- and it still would've compromised the security of your identity."

"So why bring me into it at all?" Atlas asked. "Was it just your best chance to brag about how you had everything under control? A little ego-boosting at my expense?"

"SILENCE!" shrieked Mortis, gesturing wildly. "Clutching Shackles of Mal'Arigo! Bind the fools tighter! Tighter! No more shall they ignore their endless peril!"

The swirls of fog wrapped themselves tighter around Atlas and the Chrome Cobra, but Mortis' laughter died in his throat as Atlas began pulling the mystical shackles off of himself in misty chunks, while the spell around the Cobra dissolved in a flash of light.

"What are you doing?" Mortis screamed. "Th-The Clutching Shackles of Mal'Arigo! What are you doing?!"

"You think I've never dealt with the Clutching Shackles spell?" asked Atlas. "The Damned Yankee used to always throw that one at us in the Assembly. Didn't you realize it's only rated at about 15 tons? As long as you can handle more weight than that, you can force your way out of it."

"And I called in a favor from the Seventh Son," said the Cobra. "Got him to help me program a couple dozen counterspells for my armor. A click of a button, and I can broadcast a counter through my weapons systems. And speaking of my weapons systems..."

The palms of the Cobra's gloves lit up with white light. A pair of swords formed in either hand, first sketched out like three-dimensional blueprints, then filled out until she was holding a couple of hard-light scimitars, glowing with harsh white light.

"Shall we continue our discussion at a later date, Atlas?" she said, just a hint of smirk visible under her mask.

"Sure thing," said Atlas, cracking his knuckles. "It's gonna be an honor to trash this magician's ass with you, Cobra."

 



When I finally came to, Khaoss' spell had long since worn off, and the battle was long over. I woke up back in my apartment, lying on the couch, Hector hovering over me, and the Chrome Cobra and Miss Mega sitting at the kitchen table.

"He's awake!" Hector shouted out, then wrapped me up in one of his crazy bearhugs. "No more getting your stupid ass kicked, please, Mike. It was easier when you did this stuff with the Assembly and I'd never have to see the rough stuff."

"Uhh, Hec, audience present," I mumbled. "Secret identity and all, man."

"Like they don't know, baby," said Hector. "They came in the window, and I don't think the neighbors saw, so chill out."

"Glad to see you're alright, Mr. Fremont," said the Chrome Cobra as she got up from the table. "Sorry you missed out on all the fun back at the lab."

"Chrome Cobra, nice to see you, too," I said. "Don't know why you're bringing outsiders into my home and flinging around my real name. Hope you have a good explanation?"

"I was carrying you, sir," said Miss Mega as she joined the rest of us. "She was projecting a stealth field around us so no one could see us, and that takes up too much power to enable both flight and enough superstrength to lug you around." She looked extremely sheepish to be here. "I can keep a secret, sir. I promise, mum's the word."

"I don't know a thing about you," I said. "What makes you so damn trustworthy with my real name?"

Miss Mega jerked her head toward the Cobra. "I know her real name, and I haven't blabbed it yet," she said. "If I can keep her secret, I can keep yours."

"I guess that'll have to be good enough," I said. The Chrome Cobra sure did seem to have a passion for upsetting people's lives. "So how did it all turn out? Did we get out okay? Are the Lords of Villainy in custody?"

"We all made it out okay," said Chrome Cobra. "And most of the Lords are in the MCPD meta-lockup right now. Max Mortis got away, thanks to one of his ever-so-handy teleportation spells. The Rat got away, so did Shadow Shinobi, Madame Vulture, and Olympia."

"Olympia can fly, and I can't," said Miss Mega, sounding disappointed and irritated at losing the collar. "But I doubt she'll be back. I broke her nose, and she took off like a shot."

"Daffodil says the cops are onto Astrotech," added the Cobra. "Don't know if they knew what Mortis was up to. I expect they'll claim magical mind-control -- whether that's true or not, I don't know."

"What about Benedict Alexander from Severn, Alexander & Burke?" I ask. "He was bailing out Astrotech's hoods. Is there a connection there?"

"Probably, but good luck proving it," said Miss Mega. "Alexander and his firm have gotten away with more stuff here in Metro City than you'd believe."

"Benedict Alexander is a target for another day," said the Cobra. "We did good work tonight -- captured a major villain organization and upset a plot by Maximillian Mortis himself. And the first time all the city's heroes have worked together on a single case. We'll all enjoy some good press in tomorrow's papers, that's guaranteed."

"And we couldn't have done any of it without you, sir," said Miss Mega. "I know you were out for most of it, but if you hadn't broken that binding spell, we all would've been done for."

"There's a lot of self-congratulating going on here," I said. "We should have an after-action meeting. Evaluate what we did right, what we did wrong, talk about how to improve."

The Cobra snorted as she headed for the window. "I think not. That's for teams, Star. We're not a team. We're all independent operators, and I suspect that's the way it's going to stay. Let's hit the road, Mega -- leave these two alone." She clicked on a switch on her belt, and she turned semi-translucent as she hovered out the window.

Miss Mega followed her. "It was really nice to meet both of you, Mr. Fremont, Mr. Davila," she said. "And seriously, mum's the word, I promise." She put one foot on the windowsill and launched herself out over the city. As big as she was, as strong as she was, I was a little amazed she didn't take the whole window, even the whole wall, with her.

Hector and I were left alone in the apartment. We just sat there for a minute or two before Hector said, "You need a drink or anything before bed?"

"Nah, I don't think so," I replied. "Maybe getting hit with a chaos magic spell is like getting a concussion. I might better not drink anything tonight."

"I meant juice, doofus," said Hector. "I'm not gonna offer you beer this late at night -- you got work in a few hours."

"Fine, but I can get my own juice," I laughed at him. "Weekend's coming -- we'll hit the club then."

"Sounds great," said Hec. "So what did you think of them? That Chrome Cobra girl was wound up like a spring the whole time she was here, and Mega Girl reminded me of that tall, musclebound drag queen down the hall in San Fran. How were they all in a fight?"

"I dunno, man," I said as we headed for the bedroom. "They're sure nothing like the Assembly of Order."

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" asked Hector. "I know you've always been a team player, but ya know, the Assembly of Order was really a bunch of jerks. Maybe you were just too close to 'em to see..."

"Let me sleep on that for a few days, okay?" I said.

Hector's right -- I'm a team player. My whole metahero career has been spent on superteams. I can't help but wonder if I can hack it in a city with no superteams...

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