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My name is Bertram Ira McKenzie, and I am an English professor, no matter what the Chrome Cobra may tell you.
I am 84 years old and lived most of my life as a perfectly normal, if unusually intelligent, human being. And then, only a few months ago, I had the misfortune of encountering a mad scientist known as the Mad Doctor Gevaudan. He somehow believed I was one of his scientific rivals and used some bizarre perversion of science to rewrite my genetics, transforming me into a 12-foot-tall yellow-skinned ogre. I now have no eyes, ears, or nose, though I seem to have other sensory abilities that allow me close approximations of my lost senses. I don't have hair anymore, but I didn't have much of that to begin with. I have only three digits on my hands and feet. My arms are unusually long. My mouth is larger than it used to be. My voice is a few octaves deeper. I weigh 1,500 pounds.
In other words, I'm an inhuman monstrosity. Not something I'm particularly happy about.
I did gain some new advantages because of my transformation. I'm extremely strong -- I can lift over 1,000 tons, which Atlas has told me is about what he can lift. I'm also invulnerable, I can leap vast distances, I can howl extremely loudly if I put my mind to it.
I don't know what Mad Doctor Gevaudan wanted with a giant monster with a turbo-charged voice box. I rarely use it, at any rate -- even as a 12-foot-tall yellow-skinned, eyeless monstrosity, screaming at a ridiculously high volume simply seems undignified.
Gearbox and Iota have told me several times what my maximum decibel level is, but I've no head for that nonsense, so I forget it every time. But they both consider it impressively loud, and Dr. Denziger has told me to avoid using the top volume unless it's absolutely necessary.
And no, none of these new advantages really seem to make up for the fact that I look like a monster. Quite aside from the practical difficulties of being a 12-foot-tall monster -- crushing furniture, frightening children, not being able to see most colors -- I have to deal with the expectation that I should be a superhero.
I don't want to be a superhero. I want to teach my classes, read my books, write my monographs, terrify graduate students, go fishing, and attend the occasional symphony performance.
But the Chrome Cobra is a very, very insistent woman. I know I shouldn't be afraid of her, but frankly, she unnerves me greatly. After a certain level of haranguing and threats, it became easier to simply give in and be a superhero.
Well, it is also possible that I relished the idea, at least to a small degree. The thing about having great physical power is that you want to use it. And it is probably better to use that power to combat the criminal element than to hurl cars at neighborhood ruffians who won't pull up their pants.
I demanded guarantees that no one would interfere with me teaching my classes, and they got me what passes for a costume -- a black bodysuit with shorts and short sleeves. I have no doubt it looks ridiculous. They suggested code names like Crusher, Professor Ogre, and Bogeyman, but I chose a name from ancient myth -- Polyphemus, the blinded Cyclops from Homer's Odyssey.
After that, I discovered, to some measure of distress, that being a superhero wasn't something I could consider a hobby. It became a second job, and I've been called out on more and more emergency situations. Do I resent the imposition on my professional and leisure time? If I may indulge in vulgarities: you bet your ass I do.
And that leads us to the latest crisis. I've never had to deal with these sorts of ridiculous catastrophes in the past, and I dislike having them take up my time now. In a proper world, I'd be safely retired -- long past retired, let's be honest -- and spending my days fishing. But here I am instead, ordered -- nay, commanded -- to leave my home by an unpleasant young woman in powered armor in order to endanger life and limb fighting against a giant dinosaur from a lost world.
Zorgosaurus has never attacked my neighborhood. Why should I be forced to deal with it? I was working on a new paper on Kit Marlowe, and that's where my priorities should lie.
But I'm called out nevertheless, and with a great deal of foul language, as well. The Chrome Cobra should be ashamed of herself for using that sort of profanity. But I suspect she doesn't actually have the brain power necessary to use proper English.
So here I am, at least 200 feet off the ground, balanced precariously on this giant lizard's head, thumping it repeatedly between the eyes. I've been knocked off three times, only once landing in any snow to cushion the fall. Still, not the most undignified thing I've had to do since getting these farcical powers and this horrible body.
I do wish there were more of the city's superheroes working on removing this monster from the city, but unfortunately, only half of them are on the job right now. And no, for once, it isn't a matter of lazy elitist superheroes slacking off while other people do the work for them.
The problem this time is that there are two Zorgosauruses in the city. One male, the other female. They apparently intend to meet up somewhere downtown and consummate some sort of fantastically violent and obscene reptilian mating ritual.
No one ever considered that there might be an entire species of Zorgosauruses. Obviously, it would be best to avoid letting these monsters hatch even more monsters anywhere, but especially not in the heart of the city.
So to my deep regret, those of us taking on the female Zorgosaurus include just me, Atlas, the Chrome Cobra, Gamma Girl, the Express, Silver Protector Kumiko, and a bunch of useless riffraff, like Iota, the Wheelman, Penitente, and Jonni Rotten. The group fighting the male Zorgosaurus has Miss Mega, Calypso, the Star, Defender, Hypothermia, Gearbox, and another bunch of useless riffraff -- Hybrid, Phantasmo, Squid Kid, Piledriver, and Daffodil.
So while I struggle to stay atop this immense reptile, many of my fellow teammates (which I'm not allowed to call "teammates" because we're not on an official team, but how can they order me out of my house to fight monsters if we're not on a team? BAH.) buzz around the beast's head.
Atlas keeps trying to knock it over by punching it in the chest. Gamma Girl, the blue-skinned electric company bureaucrat, shoots it repeatedly with radioactive lasers. The Chrome Cobra keeps bellowing orders at everyone and trying to stab it with the weapons she materializes from her gloves. Express is racing up and down its body, frequently trying to run around it fast enough to create a whirlwind. Kumiko keeps shouting spells at it -- "Cerulean Dragon THUNDERBOLT!" and "Luminous Restful UNCONSCIOUSNESS!" and "Supreme Miniature SHRINKING!" and other such rot -- all to no significant effect.
I have no idea what the ground-based heroes are doing. Being completely ineffectual, I expect.
I also have no clue how the other group is doing. Probably not well, because I can very clearly see the other Zorgosaurus still upright, still lumbering about. If that eight-foot-tall feminist were half as strong as they claim she is, the creature should've already been flung into the ocean by now. I must assume she's off somewhere putting on makeup or things of that nature. Don't know why no one has put her in her place by now.
Things are going quite the way I predicted they would -- utter futility -- when Zorgosaurus suddenly stops dead still. There's a crackle from the communicator I wear on my wrist, and Iota's voice says, "Okay, everyone, we can stop hitting her now. I've got some control mechanisms in place, and I should be able to walk her out to sea."
"Repeat, Iota?" shouts the Cobra into her communicator. "What do you mean by 'control mechanisms?' "
"I've got her wired up for remote control," says Iota as the monster turns and starts thunderously but slowly stomping its way toward the ocean. "I'd been fiddling with a biological control mechanism for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity to test it out."
"Why didn't you ever mention this to us before?"
"I wasn't even sure it'd work," he says. "I didn't want to get everyone's hopes up until I knew it'd function properly."
"It would be nice if we had some idea about your projects, Dr. Denziger," Cobra huffs. "I hate getting surprised this way. Wait a minute, you're not inside that monster's brain, are you?"
"Nah, just the inner ear. I don't think I could navigate a brain without causing brain damage, even to something as big and stupid as a Zorgosaurus."
"Iota, you can't spend your whole life inside that thing's skull," Cobra says. "When you leave, it's going to go berserk, right?"
"Well, she won't," he says. "I can program the remote control to have her swim out to sea, and by the time the device burns out, she should be a few hundred miles out into the ocean."
"Would you guys zip the chatter and just get one of those over here?" says the Star. "We kinda expected Defender and Mega to have our Zorgosaurus finished off by now, but they're making no damn headway."
"Up yours, Star!" yells Defender, sounding tremendously angry and unladylike. "This monster is apparently horny as hell and completely resistant to my pacification burstcasts! And Mega has enough troubles without your snarking!"
"Everyone just SHUT UP!" Miss Mega shouts from the communicator. "I am really getting goddamn tired of being eaten by giant monsters!"
"Umm, I'm really sorry, but I only have one of these devices," says Iota. "I never imagined I'd need more than one."
So while Iota marches his Zorgosaurus out into the Atlantic Ocean, the rest of us focus on the remaining monster. And as it turns out, very few of us were needed at all. Phantasmo -- who I suspect may be underage -- has his ghosts fish Miss Mega out of the creature's stomach, and Wheelman drives a semi up the side of the Infantino Building, jumps it off the top, and uses it to knock the brute unconscious. Iota builds another one of his mind-control devices and sends it off into the ocean as well.
Atlas seems tremendously upset about the large amount of collateral damage to buildings. I don't know how one can avoid such things when you're dealing with giant monsters. Someone else will repair it, like they always do.
With all the strife and stress over, the Chrome Cobra finally gives us leave to return to our real lives. I return to my home, change into a proper tweed suit, gather a few classroom materials, and take a walk to Goodwin College, where I have classes scheduled. Midway there, Calypso flies up and lands next to me.
"Hey, professor," she says. "Got a few minutes?"
"I suppose so, young lady, but I'll need to be in class soon."
"Cool, I just had something I needed to ask you about," she says. "We're going to have a white elephant party this weekend for the holidays. It's a little early for Christmas, but this way, it won't interfere with anyone's holiday plans. Would you like to come?"
"What, you mean the city's superheroes?" I ask. "They're going to have a Christmas party?"
"Yes, sir," she smiles. "Gamma Girl and Defender thought it up, the Cobra said it sounds okay, and we figured we'd try to get something worked out. Defender's going to provide some private party space and all the refreshments -- all we'll have to bring is some kind of silly white elephant gift. Nothing too expensive -- Gamma Girl said to keep it to maybe $20 or less. It'll be nice to get to visit with everyone without worrying about crimefighting, even if it's just for an hour or two."
"Ahh, Calypso, I'm very sorry," I say. "But I won't be able to attend that function."
"Oh no!" she says. "You're going to be out of town early for Christmas? Or there's a university Christmas party? Maybe we could re-schedule..."
"No, no. I don't have any schedule conflicts. I just wouldn't attend that party."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, first of all, I prefer not to celebrate Christmas," I tell her. "It's a vulgar, over-commercialized holiday for an almost-certainly-fictional infant. I'll send some gifts to family, because it's traditional, but I'd prefer to waste as little time as possible dealing with a holiday I consider entirely foolish."
"Oh?" she says, looking terribly confused and hurt.
"And frankly, young lady, present company excluded, I don't like any of the other superheroes in this city. I'd rather spend as little time as I can around them. I don't like them, they don't like me, and I'd would not enjoy having to feign any good will toward them."
"We like you just fine, sir," she says.
"I'm very sorry, Calypso," I say. "But no. You will all enjoy the party very well without me, I'm sure."
"Oh, come on!" she protests. "You can't really be serious, are you?"
"Yes, sorry," I say. "And please, pardon me. I need to get to class now. I'll see you the next time we're both on patrol, alright?"
I will admit, I feel a bit bad about turning down the invitation. Calypso is the closest I've got to a friend in the city's superhero community, and she has been trying hard to get me accustomed to the superhero lifestyle and to persuade the other heroes to be more welcoming. I can tell she was quite keen on having me at the party, but I'm afraid I'm quite unwilling to budge on this issue. If I won't attend Christmas parties thrown by the college chancellor, there really is no possibility that I'll be interested in going to a party held by the city's heroes. If Calypso is disappointed, well, that's the way the world works, isn't it?
I'm not entirely sure why the two of us seem to get along together so well. It may simply be that she was present during the event that caused my transformation, and that she helped free me from Gevaudan's mind control equipment. I hope that she doesn't feel responsible for what happened to me -- I can hardly blame her for the actions of a mad scientist. And goodness knows, our first meeting was not exactly pleasant for either of us, as we spent quite a few minutes bludgeoning each other savagely.
And we certainly have our share of stark differences. I'm in my 80s; she's likely still in high school. She knows my real name, but I don't know hers. I'm an expert on the literature of the English Renaissance; I suspect she, like most members of her generation, has very little interest in reading the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Donne. She is quite enthusiastic about being a superhero; I have very little interest in it at all.
I should, by all rights, get along with Calypso about as well as I get along with any of the other local heroes. Instead, we seem to have developed into friends. She comes to visit me in my office periodically, listens to me complain about my students and fellow professors, and tries to get me to be more social, no matter how doomed those attempts may be.
At last, I make it into my classroom and spend an hour berating my students for their shallow knowledge of Edmund Spenser. I must admit, I enjoy my classes a bit more now that I can terrify undergraduates so much more effectively. I had to deal with students who ignored me before -- since my transformation, I get to enjoy the fact that every terrified eye is glued on me all during class. They may not be learning all they need to know about "The Faerie Queen," but at least they're paying close attention.
Afterwards, I get a few minutes of peace and quiet in my office. Unfortunately, I willingly spoil it all by picking up the phone and calling family.
"Harriet, all I am saying is I would like to get to see you and my great-granddaughter," I say. "Is that really so much to ask?"
"To be honest, Grandfather, it really is a bit much," says my eldest granddaughter. "The holidays are extremely busy this year, Ernest is working night shift for the week, and Carlotta -- well, we know how she feels about you."
"She has barely seen me since I was changed," I say, starting to grow frustrated. "I know my appearance has changed drastically, and she's still very young, but surely she could get used to her great-grandfather's new look? She can't stay afraid of me forever."
"She can if I have anything to say about it," Harriet says. "You're a danger to everyone around you in that body, and I'll never let you near Carlotta."
"Harriet, you've gone completely mad! You have no right to keep me from my own flesh and blood! You know I'm the same person I always have been!"
"Oh, I know that, Grandfather. Your outside finally matches your inside."
And she hangs up the phone on me.
I suppose I should be furious, but unfortunately, I've grown very accustomed to that sort of reaction. I do not have the best relationship with my family. I have three children -- Zelda (and her husband Edward Bernstein), Penelope (and her husband Jason Lorne), and Agatha Girard (widowed). I have five granddaughters -- Harriet Bernstein (divorced), Ruby (and her husband Thomas Mawkett), Lora (and her husband Blake Jacksen), Emily Lorne (divorced), and Violet Girard (unmarried and the shame of the family). I have two great-granddaughters -- Carlotta Bernstein and Katha Jacksen.
We all got along better once. Well, I expect that we all got along better with my wife Starla. But she's been dead for ten years, and they all argued with me more after Starla was no longer around to keep the peace. My daughters are barely civil with me; my granddaughters less so. Everyone came to see me after my transformation, briefly. We've had little contact since then.
I should be more upset. But part of me feels it's their own fault. They can't bring themselves to respect me, then it's their own loss. I can survive without them quite well. I don't even know why I keep trying to get them to maintain contact with me. Simple stubbornness, I suppose.
Nevertheless, the entire incident puts me in a terribly foul mood, which would normally mean I could start grading exams. Unfortunately, I barely have time to get my red pen warmed up before one of the work-study students from the front office starts hammering on my office door.
"God in Heaven, what do you want?!" I shout. I'm able to yell loudly enough and with enough bass rumble to make my windows rattle.
The student actually opens the door. Usually they run away when I shout like that. He must be unusually brave.
"Dr. McKenzie!" he says breathlessly. "There's a crisis at the front desk! Please come quick!"
He runs off again, not even waiting to hear my response -- which, to be honest, he would not have enjoyed hearing. I strongly consider ignoring his brusquely worded request. Since my transformation, the college administration has begun thinking of me as unpaid security, which I certainly am not. If there's an actual crisis, it should be left to the campus police, who likely get paid exorbitant wages anyway.
On the other hand, however, I am still in a tremendously bad mood. If there's a troublemaker on campus, perhaps I would enjoy throwing some stark terror into his life. And if it's just a standard academic crisis in the front office -- well, perhaps I would enjoy throwing some stark terror into everyone in the front office, too.
But when I get downstairs, I find Jonni Rotten waiting for me. She is by far the most unpleasant person I've ever met, she has absolutely no sense of decorum, and she isn't even slightly afraid of me. Quite the opposite, to be honest. It's profoundly disturbing to me just how badly distressed I am about many of the female superheroes in this city. They're willful and impolite and probably deeply immoral.
"My god, what do you want here?" I ask. "Did you finally go mad and kill everyone in the office?"
"Don't you wish," she snorts. "They're all hiding somewhere in the back."
"I suppose it's a sign of progress that you aren't eating their brains," I say. "But again, what do you want here?"
"I got business on campus, old man," she says. "Thought I'd pay a courtesy visit to see if you wanna help me take out some bad guys."
"I have no interest whatsoever in spending any further time with you," I say. "I have office hours. I have papers to grade."
"Shaddap, grampa," she says, with the kind of leering grin that makes me feel like she knows what I look like naked. "By 'courtesy visit,' I meant 'Let's go, asshole, I need you to kick some doors open for me.' So let's rock already, I need to go beat up some cultists."
And damn me for my cowardice, but I go along with her.
"We're going after the Church of Sorrow," she says as she leads me across campus. Everyone is staring at us -- something which does not normally bother me, but when I'm in the company of this deceased madwoman, I worry that I'll get suspended for even being in her presence. "A bunch of demon-worshiping cultists. They've been around for centuries, mostly hidden in their own secret temples, but they've been a lot more public with their activities for the past few decades. They're not the same as the Disciples of Thoth -- lots of people make that mistake. The Disciples are power-hungry dabblers, when you get right down to it -- their turnover rate is high because a lot of their followers get scared off the first time they lay eyes on Sobek or Set. But the Church of Sorrow is goddamn dedicated, to the point where most of them aren't really human anymore. I'm pretty damn sure most of them don't have anything like a human soul anymore. Anyway, we gotta find these guys and take 'em apart. They've kidnapped a couple high school kids, and they'll probably try to sacrifice 'em in a few hours."
"Why are you telling me this?" I ask, hurrying behind her and wishing I didn't feel like a complete child. "Shouldn't we be leaving something like this for the police?"
"The police asked me to handle this, perfesser," she snarls at me. "I can track these assholes like a radar. They're the scumbags who killed me and my family, and brought me back from the dead. I can feel 'em in my goddamn bones."
She leads me to a storage shed on the outskirts of campus, whips out some sort of heavy baton, and uses it to punch the lock out of the door. It's a fairly large shed, nothing too fancy, filled with small lawn maintenance tools and fertilizer.
"If we must break into university property, I suppose it's better that it be an empty shed," I say. "But I'm not going to buy the college a new lock."
"Keep your mouth shut and you might learn something," she says, kicking dust around on the floor. "Come over here, okay?"
I kneel down, duck my head under the doorway, and inch my way inside. The floor creaks underneath me, and Jonni hops up and grabs onto some hooks hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly, the floor caves in, and I tumble at least 30 feet into a large tunnel.
"My god!" I shout. "My clothing will be ruined!"
"Oh, quit whining, you old fart!" Jonni yells as she drops down the hole next to me. "And try to keep your voice down. If they didn't hear that, I don't want us raising too much of an alarm."
"Did you know there was a trap door there all along?" I ask, more quietly.
"Had a pretty good idea," she says. "Didn't want to waste time looking for a hidden latch to open it, so I figured I'd let your fifteen-hundred-pound lardass do the work for me."
"You could have found the latch and not caused all that noise," I say. "Now your Church of Sadness may be on the way right now."
"That's the Church of Sorrow," she says. "And the fact that we don't hear them coming right now makes me think we got the drop on them. So come on -- follow me, and we'll see how much trouble we can get into."
I take a moment to examine my surroundings a bit more carefully. It's a very large corridor, almost twice my height and just as wide. Every inch of the walls and columns is decorated with sculptures and paintings depicting the most horrific debauchery, obscene in ways I've never imagined, worse than anything I've seen on television or movies. There are levels of violence and grotesqueries that would make me vomit if I still possessed a gag reflex.
"My god, what a horrible place this is," I say. "Why did you drag me into this nightmare?"
"Yeah, ain't the prettiest place, is it," Jonni says. "You're along 'cause I wanna see if you can handle these guys, or if you're going to chicken out. You're doing alright so far, 'cause the crap on the walls is pretty disgusting, even for me. You want my advice? Do anything you can not to look at the walls too closely. Come on, let's walk."
We walk down the hallway, Jonni in the lead, since she seems to know where we're going. I believe it's almost completely pitch dark here, but I don't have eyes anymore, and Jonni seems to be making her way just fine. Perhaps the dead can see in the darkness.
"How far will we need to walk?" I ask.
"Probably a ways," she says. "We're likely at the far edge of their compound, and we gotta find where they're hiding those kids. Probably some cells, maybe even their temple. Quit worrying about it anyway -- you superstrong freaks got enough stamina to walk forever."
We walk for some distance in silence, but the eerie quiet and disturbing wall art are making me more uncomfortable.
"Shouldn't we have some more superheroes along for this?" I ask. "Just the two of us don't seem to be enough to battle an army of occultists."
"Don't worry about it," Jonni says. "You're too tough to be hurt by anything but a Kholvarian chaos demon, and I don't think they got enough magical oomph to summon one of those. And I could probably take most of these guys down solo."
"One person with police batons can't fight an army of madmen."
"They're not police batons, dumbass. They're tonfa sticks. Okinawan weapons. They're similar to billy clubs, but tonfa are way classier. Besides, I'm carrying other weapons -- I just like tonfa more. And trust me -- I can handle these guys."
That seems impossibly unlikely, but I decide not to say anything. Contradicting her too much just makes her get more unpleasant. Bad enough I'm in the underground lair of an evil demon-worshiping cult, bad enough my only ally in this horrific setting is a rotting zombie, but I couldn't stand her letting loose with even more insults and profanity.
"So what's this about you skipping out on Defender and Gamma Geek's big Christmas party?" Jonni asks.
"How could you have possibly heard about that?" I ask. "I didn't mention it to Calypso until just before class."
"Word travels fast in the superhero universe, Doc," she says. "Whatcha got against parties anyway?"
"I'm not sure that it's any of your business. But I don't hold Christmas with any great reverence."
"Yeah, neither do I," she says. "I don't believe in gods -- on general principles, I mean. I've met enough of 'em already. Nevertheless, it's not really a good reason to skip the party."
"It's a perfectly good reason," I counter. "Why go to a party commemorating something you don't believe in?"
"I may not believe all the Baby Jesus born in Bethlehem stuff," she says. "But a Christmas party is pretty much gonna be people getting together to eat Christmas cookies, hand out some gag gifts, and maybe sing Jingle Bells. I got no problem with that."
"Well, that's fine, but it's ultimately not my primary objection," I say. "I'm entirely opposed to being forced to socialize with people I do not like."
"Oh no, forced socialization," she says in a mocking tone. "Worldwide hunger, disease, war, injustice -- big deal. But having to be nice to other people and act pleasant -- that's the greatest crime against humanity."
"Mind your tone, young lady. You're a fine one to lecture anyone about being nice to others. I suspect you won't be attending the party either, right?"
"No, I'm going," she says. "I may not be there for long -- I'm not the most pleasant face you want hanging out over the punch bowl. But I'll go and say hi, wish everyone a Merry Christmas, then flip everyone the bird and take off."
"I don't see the point," I say. "You hate them all. Why would you want to be around them any more than you have to?"
"I don't hate them all," she says. "I don't even hate most of them. I'm pissed at everything all the time -- and for damn good reasons -- but that doesn't mean I hate everyone. If you hate everyone, you got serious problems, pal. If your life is that fucked up, it's time to make some changes."
"I hardly think I'm interested in hearing self-help advice from a corpse," I say.
"Ahh, no, I get it," she says. "Really, I do. You heard me make a little zinger, it cut a little close to home, and you gotta go ahead and get snippy, call a few names, distract everyone -- yourself particularly -- from the zinger, so no one will think about it any further. It's cool, man. I've been known to do that myself. Hell, I'm the master of the technique, perfesser."
She stops and wheels around toward me, pointing one finger into my face.
"But if you wanna play that game, I'm gonna take it way past that," she snarls. "I'm a damn bored little girl, ya know what I'm sayin'? I don't sleep, and I avoid leaving my little hidey-hole when I don't need to. So I sit around most of the time bored out of my skull, and I got nothing better to do but surf the fucking Internet. So I look stuff up. I look people up. I like to read about people's lives, 'cause everyone has a more interesting life than I do. So I looked you up a while back, old man."
"I don't like where this is going, you disgusting revenant," I say, raising my voice. "I will never tolerate anyone spying --"
"Shut up," she says, quietly, lethally, and I shut up. This woman concerns me terribly. "We're in one of the underground lairs of the Church of Sorrow, and I don't want them to know we're here yet. And I definitely don't want you interrupting me when I'm talking. Keep your big mouth shut, or I'll do worse to you than just talk."
She drops her hands to her sides and relaxes. She looks serious and almost serene, or as serene as one can get while also somehow looking incandescently furious.
"So here's Bertram Ira McKenzie, Ph.D., tenured at Goodwin College for over 40 years. Everything looks great for him. But he's got ratings in the bottom 20 percent on those 'Rate My Professor' websites. His students hate him, and it's pretty clear he hates them right back. I don't know about percentages here, but it's pretty clear that some of the kids rating him had hoped to get their degrees in Literature, and they gave up on that because the guy made them hate Literature. It doesn't take a lot of digging around on forum websites to find that other professors think he's a colossal ass, too. And everyone on campus thinks he's likely to eat someone -- student, professor, random clerk at the campus bookstore -- now that he's grown into a gigantic, superstrong monster."
"You like to talk more than I expected from a brain-dead cadaver."
"Shut up, asshole, I'm not done yet. I saw that your wife died a decade ago. Sincere condolences, by the way -- there's nothing worse than losing family, is there? You've got plenty of kids, don't you? Three kids, five grandkids, two great-grandkids -- all girls, neatest thing, huh? They all live here in Metro City, and as far as I can tell, they don't ever come to see you, and you don't ever pay them any visits."
"Leave my family out of this, Ms. Rotten."
"Like you've already left them out of your life, Bert? Your family doesn't come to see you, I can't tell that you've got any friends at the university, your students don't like you, you're utterly alone in the world, and you're complaining that the people who saved you from being a mad scientist's slave, bought you new clothing, and have treated you nicer than anyone else has in years would like you to come to a party to eat Christmas cookies."
"You are the most galling creature I know," I say. "And I believe I'm including the Chrome Cobra in that list."
"Damn fucking straight," she says. "Last word on the subject, smart guy: Change your attitude while you still can. Not just for your sake, and not just for your family's sake. Take it from someone who'll never get a chance to make things better with her own family. Besides, being bitter, infuriated, and alienated is my gig, and I don't like to share."
She turns away and walks down the corridor in front of us. "Now come on, old man, we got cultists to beat up."
My god, what a horrible, horrible woman. She has no right to speak to me that way. No one has a right to speak to me that way. I'm an important man in the community, and respect is my due. There is nothing wrong with my attitude. I don't need anyone else in my life. I need more time to read and write, and companions would simply get in the way of my work.
I'm badly tempted to simply strike her down while her back is turned. But on the other hand, I'm not sure that would actually cause her permanent harm, and would likely only make her angrier. Besides, I don't think I remember the way out of here. So I follow, steaming, determined to do what I can to put her lecture out of my mind.
As it turns out, we're not far from our goal. A few more twists down the hallway, and we come to a pair of immense stone doors, decorated with glyphs and horrible carvings.
"Are those the temple doors?" I ask.
"One of them, yeah," Jonni replies. She traces one of the carvings with a finger, then looks back at me. "You don't have normal human senses, do you? No eyes, no ears, no nose, but you navigate just fine. What've you got?"
"I do have my hearing," I say. "I can also smell just fine. I have something that is like sight, but isn't really. I think the Star said it was a kind of radar sense, but it doesn't feel like radar. I don't even know what radar would be like, but, well, I can basically see. I can feel motion through the air, I can... I'm sorry, I don't even know how to describe some of the things I can sense. Sometimes I don't even know how to interpret them."
"Don't worry," she says. "You'll get used to 'em eventually, and I don't really need a detailed run-down of how your brain works now. All I need to know is whether you can sense anything beyond this door."
I place one hand against the door and listen as closely as I can. I feel for vibrations. I clear my mind and try to utilize all these strange sensory organs that I don't even understand yet.
"I think there are... thirty people inside?" I say. "I hear chanting, but I cannot understand any words. Shuffling feet. Two girls are weeping. I think I smell blood. Old blood, not fresh."
"Good enough," Jonni says, drawing both of her tonfa batons from the scabbards at her waist. "Alright, I need you ready to follow my lead in there. Thirty cultists is nothing -- I could handle them by myself. They probably have a priest or two who can cast some spells -- look for guys wearing ornate jeweled headdresses. We want to capture everyone we can and scare off anyone we can't."
"Are you sure we shouldn't call for some more heroes?" I ask.
"No, the two of us can handle these guys, and it'll take too long to get backup down here," she says. "The hostages will be tied to an altar -- do everything you can to keep them from harm. And this is gonna be really fucking traumatic for them -- kidnapped by evil cultists is bad enough, but they won't see us as anything but more monsters. Once we know they're safe, you need to pour on any charm you can -- use every sweet, flowery word you can. Let 'em know they're safe."
"Ah, I'll do my best," I say. "It's been a while since I had to be charming."
"I bet you can do it better than I can," she says. "And remember, no matter what -- and I mean no matter what -- no one dies. Not the hostages, not the cultists. That's my rule, and no one breaks it. You got me?"
"Yes, I suppose so. Let's do this while I still have my nerve."
"Don't worry," she says with an evil grin. "This is gonna be easy as cake. They got nothing that can hurt us. Now bust those doors open and let's have some fun."
I've never gotten to tear gigantic stone doors off their hinges before, and I can tell you it's remarkably exhilarating.
The scene we witness is likely one of the strangest I've ever seen. Over two dozen people wearing ornamental, face-concealing robes and two men wearing bejeweled helmet-like headdresses, all surrounding a low stone altar where two teenaged girls have been tied. The two priests hold daggers encrusted with gemstones. And hovering above all of them is a gigantic, ten-foot-tall winged demon with red, scaly skin, curling horns, a face like a cross between a lizard and a vampire bat, and eyes like burning emerald torches.
"What is that thing?" I ask Jonni as quietly as I can.
She looks unpleasantly surprised. "I'll be damned," she says. "That's -- That's a Kholvarian chaos demon." She pats me on the arm. "Well... good luck, man."
And, howling with rage, the demon flies down at me. I see it coming, of course, and meet it with a good hard punch into its midsection.
It shrugs it off.
I throw a fist into its jaw.
It shrugs it off.
I give it a proper overhead smash with both hands.
It shrugs it off.
It catches the next punch I throw and squeezes my fist in its claw. I manage not to scream, though I'm not sure the frightened squeak I make is any particular improvement.
It flings me to the side, and I'm barely in the air at all before I crash into the wall on the opposite side of the temple. I almost go through the wall, and it's made of heavy stone!
And of course I don't even get back to my feet before the demon is upon me again. It drives a fist into the back of my head, and the pain is so intense, I don't even realize the impact has knocked me through the wall and halfway through the corridor wall on the other side. Massive stone blocks are falling all around me, my suit has been demolished, and I can't even bring myself to care. Why didn't that mad zombie bring someone else along to be this monstrosity's punching bag?
The demon grabs me by a leg and whips me back around, through another section of the wall, and back into the temple again. It grabs my other leg and spins me around in a short arc, using my face to demolish another section of wall. I've had enough of this, and I would like to go home immediately.
It drops me to the floor, and I don't get a moment's respite before it picks me back up by the scruff of my neck. I didn't even realize I had a scruff of my neck, but that's what it picks me up by. It crooks one fist back, ready to punch me in the face -- or through the face, more than likely -- and grins a truly ugly smile at me.
Jonni leaps up on its shoulders, brandishes a small crystal dagger, and stabs it in the back of the head.
It vanishes with a puff of sulfuric vapor, and I tumble heavily onto the floor of the temple.
"There we go, got that crap settled," Jonni says as she gets to her feet. "Get up, old man, we got cultists to haul topside."
"What happened?" I gasp. "What did you do to it?"
"Stabbed it in the head," she says nonchalantly. "Kholvarian chaos demons can be dispelled by stabbing them with one of the ceremonial knives used to summon them. I could've hit it in the leg and made it disappear, but it's more fun to nail 'em in the head. Hurts worse when they get back to Hell. Come on, get up already."
I stagger to my feet, aching everywhere, and realize that the two of us are the only people still standing in the entire temple.
"Did you take out all these people by yourself?"
She glares at me like I insulted her. "Of course I did! You think I can't handle this bunch of clowns without help? You had more to be worried about than I did. Hell, asswipe, you distracted the demon just fine while he was kicking your stupid ass, but I'm the person who took out all of the Church of Sorrow assholes and your damn chaos demon! So watch it with the casual rudeness, you pathetic fucknozzle."
"You have no right to speak to me that way," I fume.
"Oh, be quiet," she growls. "Now go put on your damn professorial charm and go untie those girls from the altar already."
I'm furious. I almost got killed, then I got abused by this ungrateful zombie. But it's not right to leave the hostages tied to that altar. So I do as she suggests -- I approach the girls slowly, use my very most polite and refined behavior and language, and make sure they're relatively calm before I release them. They're still frightened, but it's good that someone in this entire incident is appreciative of what I've done.
We tie the Church of Sorrow cultists together, and I have to drag them out -- and then half of them dissolve into mist when they're exposed to sunlight. The two hostages walk out behind all of us because they're afraid of Jonni, who doesn't make things any better with her usual foul-tempered attitude.
So we return to the surface. The Metro City Police Department have already sent out the Special Operations Squad, and they haul the remaining cultists away. The girls are rushed away for debriefings or counseling, or whatever it is they do for people who have been kidnapped by demon-summoning cults. I think the Special Operations Squad plans to explore the temple complex for more victims or more cultists or who knows what. And who cares, frankly.
And the campus is already crawling with more superheroes.
Silver Protector Kumiko pigeonholes us almost as soon as we're back in the sunlight. "What the hell did you guys think you were doing?!" she demands. "Running around a temple of the Church of Sorrow without mystical protection is a great way to end up sacrificed to elder fiends! You should've called me before you even went down there!"
"Cork it, Sailor Uranus!" Jonni snarls at her. "I've tangled with the Church plenty. Never needed a magic TV star to babysit me before."
"Judging from the looks of Polyphemus," Kumiko says, jerking a thumb in my direction, "You tangled with something a lot tougher than you were expecting."
"Pff, big deal," says Jonni. "If he can't handle a Kholvarian chaos demon, he's got no business playing superhero."
"They had a Kholvarian chaos demon?!" Kumiko shouts. She looks around for the Special Operations Squad. "Sergeant!" she yells, charging toward one of the officers. "I'm going into that temple with you! No telling what might be lurking in that hellhole!"
"Well, there," Jonni says, rolling her eyes. "At least that irritating witch is out of our hair. Looks like it might be a nice day after all..."
"Hey, hey!" says the Piledriver as she bounds up to us. " 'Sup, my homies?"
"Oh god," Jonni growls. "And me completely unable to commit suicide."
"Hey, Jonni, that's no way to talk to the Ultimate Cybernetic Superbabe!" Piledriver says, lapsing into her monumentally irritating professional wrestler chatter. "No one, alive or dead, can quench my thirst for battle! No one can slow down the Cyborg Locomotive as she roars down the tracks of justice! No one can stop... the Piiiiledriver!"
Some of the students around us applaud enthusiastically, and Jonni says a fairly large number of truly distasteful words before stomping away from both Piledriver and myself.
Well, good. Jonni Rotten has been nothing but trouble for me today, so I'm entirely pleased that she had to suffer through Piledriver's attentions. I genuinely don't care about her cyborg nature, but her aggressive manner, overly familiar attitude, unwholesome alternative lifestyle, and bizarre wrestling blather are possibly more irritating than Jonni's relentlessly offensive behavior. Perhaps I'll be permitted to return to my office in peace now.
Of course, it is not to be. "Quite a busy day for you, isn't it, Dr. McKenzie?" says the ice creature Hypothermia as he walks up to me. I'm not very fond of this one either. I can't imagine he even counts as a living being -- as far as I can tell, he's composed solely of ice, which isn't something that should ever be considered alive at all. Even worse, he's another of those arrogant scientists, and I don't think I like scientists very much anymore.
"A bit unfortunately busy, yes," I agree reluctantly. "I'd hoped to spend the day grading papers and working on a new article. I'm sorry, do you have an office on campus, Dr. Hypothermia?"
"Dr. Mauro, actually," he says. "Kelvin Mauro. Call me Kelvin, if you'd like. No, I was on campus to consult with some of the biochemistry faculty on some projects. Thought I'd stop by when I heard you and Jonni had a run-in with the Church of Sorrow."
"Not a pleasant experience," I say. "I wish she had recruited a few more of you people to help. Maybe I wouldn't have had to bear the brunt of that demon's attack."
"Normally, she takes on those cultists solo," he says. "Just the fact that she's willing to take on assistants is probably a good sign for her."
"I am no mere assistant, sir," I tell him. "I have a position of some importance, I've spent years establishing myself as a professor, and I deserve respect. I am no mere assistant to be dragged along on the mindless escapades you people indulge in."
"Sorry, Dr. McKenzie, but that is something that happens to all of us from time to time. We all try to give each other a hand when we need help."
"If I wanted to help other people, I would've gotten a job as a -- well, I've no idea. Some job where you help people who don't deserve the assistance."
"Holy crap," says Hypothermia. "I don't know what the hell is wrong with your brain, but I wish like hell you'd either get it fixed or stop being able to talk."
"I don't have time to be insulted by mental midgets," I say, turning to leave.
And I stop short, because a woman is standing directly in front of me. She's wearing a blinding white robe and carrying a large metal cone, and there's a blazing light like a candle flame erupting from the top of her head. I can't tell is she's old or young -- in fact, I am not completely sure she's a woman at all. She's looking at me and smiling in the strangest way.
"Who is that person?" I ask.
"Who is which person?" says Hypothermia. "What are you looking at?"
The woman isn't alone now. There are several people with her -- a young couple, dressed in out-of-date clothing, gazing at each other adoringly while three little girls wearing ridiculous Santa hats run around them, screaming laughter. My word, what a caterwauling...
It's Starla. It's my wife, Starla, alive and young again. The girls are my daughters, back when they were children. The man is... The man is me. He's me. I can't believe... God, I remember this. I remember this so clearly, like it were yesterday, like it was minutes ago. All the happiness possible, a world open in front of us, I remember this...
The universe spins like a top. I feel the ground rise to meet me. I sleep like a babe.
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