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This isn't how I wanted my first patrol in Metro City to go.

Yes, it was nice to get to meet some of the heroes I share the city with. But pursuing a child abductor through the sewers is something I was hoping I'd never have to experience.

Bad enough I almost get stuck trying to get down the manhole. Bad enough I have to actually do some road damage to get unstuck. Bad enough Penitente is so bad about stifling his laughter.

But these goddamn sewers are full of shit, you know?

It's not even like I can hover over the sludge. The ceilings down here aren't that high. And besides, Penitente is walking through the muck like it doesn't bother him, so I have to do the same. If he can take it, I can take it. I hope.

"Hey, Atlas," says Penitente. "You wanna hover out of that crap?"

"I can handle it, I promise," I say. "There was a case where the Assembly of Order had to invade one of the Church of Sorrow's underground warrens in India a few years back, and that was much, much worse than this."

"No, I mean, I really need you to hover, okay?" he says. "You're big as a house, man. You sound like a buffalo in a swamp, you know? We can make some noise down here 'cause of all the water and echoes, but you got no idea how to do stealth in this kind of environment."

"Oh, sorry 'bout that. You know, the ceiling is kinda low for me, isn't it?"

"Can't you hover, you know, stretched out horizontally, like you were flying?" he says. "I know it's not real dignified... but we are hanging out in a sewer..."

"Yeah, sure," I say. I lift off out of the sludge, lean forward, and take a, well, more or less diagonal stance. I feel like an idiot, but it is nice not to be walking in sewer crap any more.

"Do you want me to carry you?" I ask. "Then you'd be out of that shit, too."

"No way," he says. "I gotta maintain a little dignity, my man."

We trudge on (or in my case, float on) for a while in silence. Penitente does seem to be pretty good at moving quietly through all this muck -- the noise of the water masks the sounds of his footsteps very well.

"Are we even sure we're going in the right direction?" I ask.

"Fairly sure," he says. "On this end of the city, there are a lot of dead ends in the drainage systems. I've tracked people through sewers before, and they all tend to travel away from the dead ends and toward more open areas."

"I just wish I was doing something more to help," I say.

"Don't worry about it -- tracking people is one of my things," Penitente says. "That and whips and motorcycles and improvised weaponry. It's not like I'm ever going to try to take your superstrong-flying-guy role away from you, right? Besides, I'll probably have something for you to do in a couple minutes."

And soon enough, we've reached a junction where six different tunnels branch out.

"Okay, my man with just-barely-superhuman hearing," Penitente says. "Tell me which of these we need to go down now."

So I listen, and for a few seconds, all I hear is water, pouring down from dozens of pipes everywhere. And then I listen more closely, more carefully, and I hear a child crying and a low guttural laugh.

"This one," I say, pointing at one of the tunnels. "This one. Can I carry you now? I mean to hell with dignity, you know? Can I carry you now?"

"Fuck yes," he says. "Let's get going already."

I wrap one arm around him and take off flying, our feet skimming just over the surface of the filthy water below, my head inches away from the ceiling, twisting down every turn of the corridors, until we finally pull up short inside an enlarged overflow area.

Back against the far wall of the pump room is the kid, about four years old, wearing a torn SpongeBob T-shirt, stained with sewage. He's unconscious, but he's alive and looks uninjured.

On either side of the kid, bending over him looking like a couple of slavering cartoon weasels who've just realized they're being watched, are the guys who kidnapped him.

The first is big, over seven feet tall, about three-and-a-half feet wide, skin like scorched hamburger, fists like boulders, and a face like a rusted anvil.

The other is shorter, painfully thin, with a skeletal face, crazed eyes, sticky red skin, and five-inch-long claws.

Ladies and gentlemen: Rawhead and Bloodybones, twin serial killers.

A few years back, Baroness Bathory turned both of these guys into monsters and made them even crazier than ever. Unfortunately for her, she didn't get the nonstop psycho killers she'd hoped for -- they still had whatever psychoses drove their killing sprees, so they still stalked and killed their victims on their own preferred timelines. Of course, that left them plenty of time to hire themselves out as supervillain muscle for anyone who wanted them to rob a bank.

They look like fairly typical -- though monsterized -- supervillain types, with Rawhead as the big strong guy and Bloodybones as the nimble clawed guy. But they've both got little magical improvements. Bloodybones' claws are supernaturally sharp -- he can cut through stone, steel, and all but the very most indestructible of metahumans. And Rawhead is always about 10% stronger than anyone he's fighting.

Lemme put it another way. I'll never be stronger than Rawhead. And I don't think I'm tough enough to handle Bloodybones' claws. And I'm the only hero down here with any superpowers.

And we don't even have time to call in backup. They already saw us, and they both charge right at us.

The only good news here is that they leave the kid back behind them. Doesn't mean a lot, but at least they're not actively engaged in torturing or murdering him. He gets at least a few more minutes to live. Maybe he'll wake up and escape. Maybe someone will show up to help. Maybe Penitente or I will survive and can get him to safety. Too many maybes to make me feel real comfortable about his future.

Rawhead clearly has his attention focused on me, but at the last second, Penitente leaps forward and throws a handful of sewage into his face. Rawhead roars, stumbles, and crashes into a wall. Penitente jumps on his back, jams his fingers into his ugly flat nostrils, and pulls. Rawhead screams -- and visibly shrinks just a bit. He's thinking of Penitente as his opponent now, not me, so his strength has taken a downgrade. He's still stronger than Penitente, but it's a level of strength he can probably survive just fine.

I still won't have it real easy. Bloodybones is scary as hell, and with those long fingernails, his reach is longer than mine.

I wish I'd had more time to prepare for this, but I can't do much beyond trying to keep Bloodybones away from me, and since he has longer arms than I do, that means I get seven or eight shallow stab wounds in my chest, stomach, and arms the first time he takes a swipe at me. Doesn't matter how strong you are, that's not a good way to start out a fight.

And it's not like it's going to get any better either. I'd probably be doing better against Rawhead. He's got a longer reach than I do, too, but I can take a punch a lot better than I can take multiple stab wounds that go all the way through my supposed-to-be-invulnerable skin. The longer this fight goes on, the more he's gonna stab me, the more blood I'm going to lose, the better his chance of hitting an artery or taking out my eyes.

I throw Bloodybones back as hard as I can, and that's a pretty good toss. He hits the other side of the pump room, but he bounces right back and starts coming after me again, giggling like a loon the whole time. Skinny little bastard is fast, too -- gets another good swipe at me that I barely manage to block with my forearm.

I give him a good hard kick this time. Knocks him right back across the room, but it takes him a second to get up now. And by then, I've already pulled a wall down so I can chuck masonry at him. I even hit him a few times, enough to slow him down -- but he's probably almost as durable as his brother is.

While I'm busy throwing bricks, I catch a glimpse of Penitente, and it looks like he's having at least as much trouble as I am.

He's gotten his whip wrapped around Rawhead's neck and is working hard to stay behind the oversized monster and out of his reach while also keeping all his weight on the whip to try to strangle him. Unfortunately, Rawhead is strong enough that, even with his airflow slightly restricted, he's still able to breathe, and he's definitely able to keep fighting.

Penitente is probably fast and agile enough to stay out of Rawhead's way for a while. But if Bloodybones is able to get away from me and help his brother out, he won't be able to last long. Come to think of it, the same is true for me. These guys are both pretty rough customers.

Normally, in a case like this, the smart move would be to switch opponents. But if I take on Rawhead, his strength will ramp up to the point where he'll be able to beat me down and probably wreck the whole sewer. And Penitente doesn't have invulnerable skin to help him out against Bloodybones' claws.

That doesn't leave either of us in a good position. I manage to judo-throw Bloodybones away from me, but it doesn't do him a speck of damage. At the same time, I see Rawhead back himself up to a wall, forcing Penitente to jump clear before he gets crushed. All either of us is doing right now is delaying the inevitable.

Bloodybones comes at me again, claws spread wide, eyes crazed, his voice cracking between giggles and threats. He puts some more nicks in my shoulders, but I manage to throw him away from me again.

And Penitente, dodging an overhead blow from the bellowing Rawhead, grabs his arm on the downswing and judo-flips him out of the way.

And BAM, we both get it. I can see it in his eyes. We can't talk about it -- Rawhead's a moron, but Bloodybones has enough brainpower to know what we'd be planning.

Best to assume we both know what we're doing. Bloodybones comes at me, and I whip my cape around so he gets both his hands tangled in it.

While he's cutting himself free, Penitente hits Rawhead with a nerve strike just above his elbow. While he's screaming about that, Penitente kicks him in the knee to get him off-balance and starts swinging him around for another throw.

I give Bloodybones a couple of fast open-hand slaps on either side of his head -- not nearly enough to take him out of the fight, just to disorient him. I spin him around so he's facing away from me when he gets his claws free from my shredded cape. Then I give him a good hard shove forward at the same time as Penitente judo-throws Rawhead at him.

Bloodybones' claws go in. Rawhead screams. Rawhead starts hitting. Bloodybones starts clawing. What starts out as panic, escalates to self-defense, surges to sheer rage.

Penitente and I don't even wait around to watch. We grab the kid and make for the nearest exit.

As soon as we're back aboveground, Penitente taps on his communicator earpiece and says, "All points, I've got Rawhead and Bloodybones brawling in a sewer. Atlas and I are at a sewer grate on East 30th in Chesler. We've got minor injuries. We have a four-year-old boy, seems uninjured but is unconscious. We need an ambulance for him. The kid's mother should be in a small bodega on 18th -- I doubt the cops have made it down there yet, and I bet she'd like to know her kid's okay. And if anyone could get the Special Operations Squad down here, or at least knock out the bad guys before they kill each other or someone else, that'd be beyond muy bueno. I sure don't wanna fight those freaks off any more..."

And so that's how I met most of the other heroes in town. The Express, Metro City's resident speedster, hits the sewers and locates Rawhead and Bloodybones in about 30 seconds. Defender, a woman with a battlesuit and a snooty accent, flies in and puts the bad guys to sleep with something she calls "pacification burstcasts." Miss Mega shows up and hauls both of the villains out onto the street. Defender squirts Penitente, the kid, the bad guys, and me with some sort of healing gel. And the Wheelman drives up in a very expensive sports car and drops off the kid's mom.

The cops and an ambulance finally show up 10 minutes later. They take Rawhead and Bloodybones to jail, and they give the kid a clean bill of health. Penitente asks the mom if she has a safe place to sleep, then directs her to a local shelter/community center while Defender palms her a handful of fives.

And the Chrome Cobra never shows up at all.

It takes another 45 minutes after that to finish giving statements to the cops, and almost that long to say my farewells to Penitente and the other heroes out there. It's late enough by the time I get home that I'm pretty sure everyone's been asleep for hours.

Audra will kill me if I track a bunch of sewer sludge into the house, so I get the garden hose and wash myself down in the backyard. It's cold as hell, but better to freeze than risk my wife's rage if I track other people's fecal leavings into our kitchen or onto the carpet.

By the time I get my costume into the washing machine and get finished with a proper shower (Yeah, I cleaned myself with the hose in the backyard, but that's no substitute for a good shower, especially with hot water), another whole hour has passed.

When I finally get into bed, Audra wakes up a little, just enough to mumble, "Ev'rything go okay?"

"Same as ever," I tell her. "Idiots trying to kill me, and idiots getting their lights punched out."

"Yayyy," she says tiredly.

"Anything interesting happen while I was out?" I ask. She'll be sound asleep again in another minute, and I won't find out anything interesting 'til breakfast.

"Malcolm hasta write a report on what's-his-name fer school next week," she mumbles. "Thomas Jefferson."

"Our mad-science president? That's kinda a heavy assignment for a third-grader, isn't it?"

"Gerry wants to be a kangaroo when he grows up... an' I dropped the souvenir coffee mug you got from Draculopolis. Sorry..."

"Don't worry," I shrug as I crawl under the covers. "I can pick up another one sometime." If I even want one. Who needs a coffee mug that says "I like my women like I like my coffee -- almost completely drained of life"? It doesn't even make sense.

"Thass about it," Audra says. She'll be asleep any second now.

"Oh, and Lena learned how to fly," she mutters. "Said she wants you to give 'er superhero training now..."

"What?" I say. "Lena can what? What did you say? Audra, you still awake?"

Of course she isn't. And she looks so restful, I can't bring myself to wake her back up.

Well, there goes any chance I've got for sleeping tonight.

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