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This has been such a rotten night. There was a sportsball riot, and as Silver Protector Kumiko, I was going to help get everything settled down -- but it turned out I was barely needed. The Express had discovered a hidden talent for building super-scientific rayguns, and Daphne Diller had suddenly learned how to cast high-level magic spells. And if that wasn't weird enough, my boyfriend and everyone else in my apartment building had suddenly turned into mad scientists.

And while I was trying to figure out some answers about what was going on, the Chrome Cobra showed up in a giant mega-tech suit of armor and started blasting me all over the street. I think I'm pretty badly injured, and I think she plans to kill me and experiment on my body. I really can't even fight back right now, and unless someone shows up to save me, I'm as good as dead.

"Penitente's been showing some serious talent for biological engineering," says the Cobra after she's shot me with another tremendous sonic blast and broken yet another rib. "I think we'll get him to dissect you and figure out if your magic comes from any internal organs we can harvest. Always a chance we can build something out of it."

"I think you know I can't allow you to do that, Cobra," says a voice from above both of us.

I force my eyes open, and there's Daphne Diller hovering down toward us, surrounded by a crackling field of purple electricity. Her eyes are glowing with the same purple color, and I'm thanking my lucky stars that she's distracted the Cobra from shooting me anymore.

I'm not thanking my lucky stars for long, though, because Daphne starts shooting me with magic purple fire about two seconds later.

"There's something inside her that lets her do magic and science at the same time," she laughs. "As gross as that sounds, I'm still going to tear her soul out of her to see how that's possible."

"You're even crazier than you sound if you think I'm going to let you do that," says the Cobra. "I got here first, and I know how to do much better experiments. Why don't you go back to your snoop jobs and leave this to a professional."

"That's the worst attempt to manipulate me ever," says Daphne, shooting another jet of fire at me. "Did you lose all your legendary brainpower along with your svelte, serpentine figure? You look less like a Chrome Cobra and more like a Titanium Hippo!"

"Daphne, I am going to kill you," says the Cobra. "Then I'm going to bring you back to life as a shambling, stitched-together corpse. Then I'm going to kill you again."

And then, seriously, thank my lucky stars, they get occupied with shooting at each other.

Even then, I'm not sure how much good it's going to do me. I've got broken ribs. I think I might've broken my wrist. I'm bleeding internally. I've got at least two cracked teeth and one that's fallen out entirely. I think my hair might be lightly on fire. When Daphne and Cobra get tired of beating each other up, they'll come after me.

Then, while they're lighting up the night sky with their battle, I feel two people grab me under my arms and lift me upright. I cry out -- no, don't expect me to be stoic when I've suffered multiple injuries -- and one of them whispers, "Hush, hush, let's not alert the big bullies, alright?"

They hustle me away from the area -- mostly carrying me, thank goodness, because I sure can't walk very fast. We move around the building I'd been knocked through, down a couple alleyways, and into a basement at the back of a worn-down apartment block.

"Will they be able to follow us?" asks the woman on my right.

"Not real likely, sister" says the man on my left. "I've obscured our path magically, plus I set down a mystical decoy path to mislead them. All the chaos they're unleashing will probably make tracking us even more difficult."

"Distasteful methods," says the woman. "But necessary, for the moment."

We head down an underground corridor in the basement, and after another couple minutes, we arrive at an unused and terribly dark sewer maintenance room.

"You've been gravely injured," says the woman. "It would be best if you healed yourself."

"But quietly," says the man. "Last thing we want is a bright flare of magick power, little sister."

"Silent Lotus Recuperation," I whisper, mainly because I hurt too much to draw much breath. There's a moment or two where the pain gets worse -- repairing all my wounds like that stings terribly -- and then I'm back to normal. Even my hair has grown back. I could've done this back during the fight if I hadn't been ambushed so completely.

The light bulb in the ceiling buzzes as it flickers to life, and I finally get a look at my rescuers.

Atlas mostly looks the same, but he's torn off his sleeves and gotten rid of his gloves. Those massive arms are covered in mystical tattoos, glowing a very faint green, and I notice that the exposed skin of his face is tattooed, too. He's probably got those tattoos all over his body now.

Jonni Rotten is standing ramrod-straight, as tightly controlled as a violin string. She's wearing a spotless white lab coat and a pair of lab goggles. Her skin still looks rotten and green, but she doesn't even stink right now.

"I've discovered an interesting method to reduce the olfactory evidence of my putrefaction," she says as if reading my mind. "It wouldn't do for Atlas to hide us magically if I gave us away with my usual undead stench, would it?"

"Okay, can I assume you guys aren't going to try to kill me?" I ask.

"For the time being, that is correct," says Jonni.

"What she means, little sister," interrupts Atlas, "is that we're totally favorably disposed toward you, unless we start going crazier than we are right now."

"Probably not very reassuring, Atlas," Jonni says.

"Yeah, I'm having trouble getting the right words out, ya know?" he says with a grin.

"Alright, fine," I say. "Could you guys just tell me what's going on? All I know is everyone's going either mad scientist or mad wizard on me, and almost everyone wants to kill me."

"Unfortunately, we have no explanations at all for what is causing these phenomena," says Jonni. "What we've seen makes no rational sense."

"No irrational sense either," Atlas says with a laugh. "That's a magic joke, get it?"

"Should've expected that, I guess," I say. "Why are you two not on the Everyone-Hates-Kumiko bandwagon? And how on earth did a magical zombie end up on the mad science side of things?"

"I have some thoughts on that," she says. "And I believe your questions are connected. First, I should indeed be casting spells and cackling insanely with the rest of the wizards. I'm not a scientific person, and considering my origins and my interests in heavy metal and excessive violence, I can very easily see myself reigning over a magical realm that looks something like every single Iron Maiden album cover. However, my body tends to... resist magical energy. I suspect that, since the path to sorcery was essentially closed to me, I was slotted in with the scientists by default."

"And in my private life, I'm an engineer," says Atlas. "Sticks me with the super-scientists, right? All I can figure is I've been reading my youngest kids 'The Hobbit' over the past month, and all they wanna talk to me about is wizards and hobbits and dragons and the One Ring. So here I am, casting spells when I should be building, I dunno, bridges with lasers on 'em."

"My theory is that since Atlas and I are being affected by powers that don't match up well with our personalities, interests, and expertises, our minds are somewhat clearer," Jonni says. "And it's entirely possible that, since you apparently have strong interests in both the mystic arts and the technological sciences, you're able to harness both science and magic while maintaining a more balanced psyche."

"Though you're probably not getting as smart as the rest of us are," says Atlas.

"True," says Jonni. "Mad science does tend to lead to uncontrollable genius, and I suppose, vice versa. Whether that's good or bad is a matter for future debate, perhaps."

"Am I safe in assuming that this is happening all over the city?" I ask. "I've run into several civilians who were inventing some really disturbing stuff."

"Yeah, civilians, superheroes, and supervillains," says Atlas. "Pretty much everyone's got the bug. The heroes and villains are doing bigger stuff than the civilians are, though."

"And lots of -- I suppose you could call it cross-disciplinary collaboration," says Jonni. "Superheroes and supervillains teaming up to create inventions together. The Star and Penny Dreadful are building the most wonderful Stellar Fusion Cannon."

"Is there any way to fix this?" I ask. "Something like this can't possibly be good, can it?"

"I'm enjoying getting my perceptions expanded," says Atlas with a grin.

"Well, no matter what Atlas may believe, no, it's not good," says Jonni. "And it's certainly not stable either. As for the question of how the problem can be solved, I'm not sure I can help. I haven't given very much thought to the question."

"Well, don't look at me," says Atlas. "Stuff like this is entirely out of my pay grade."

"Okay, this isn't worldwide, is it?" I ask. "If this is something going on all over the planet, we'll have to hope some competent superheroes figure out how to fix this."

"Nah, it's just in Metro City," says Atlas. "I don't think it's even the entire city. I hear everything's just fine over at Baltazar Bay."

Then whatever's happening is confined within the city. It should make it easier to fix, but I think I should consult the Council of Thaumaturges. I bet they could send in a strike team and take care of this easy.

"You guys figure it's safe for me to cast a communication spell so I can check in with the Council of Thaumaturges?" I ask.

"No way," says Atlas. "Daphne's way paranoid about the Council. You make any kind of contact with them using magic, and she'll know about it. Phones should be safe, though, as long as you use a completely non-magical phone."

"However, I expect the Cobra is still monitoring any calls being made by super-people," says Jonni. "So you'd risk detection by her as well."

Bad luck all around for me. I've got tons of spells and enchantments on my phone, so I'm sure Daphne would notice it. And I could use my burner phone to get around the Cobra's digital surveillance, but it's back at my apartment, but I don't much want to risk going back there.

But it's not like I can't get a new burner at any cheapass convenience store in the city.

"Okay, listen, I'm gonna need to go back out there to pick up a burner phone I can make that call with," I say. "But I probably can't go outside as a superhero without getting a lot of attention and bringing the Cobra, Daphne, and who knows who else after me, right? So I think I'm going to have to reveal my secret identity to you guys. Are you going to be okay with that?"

"Ah, geez, I guess so," says Atlas nervously. "It's always so stressful to have to deal with that sort of responsibility over someone's real name."

"I should be able to deal with it just fine," says Jonni. "You can rely on my discretion."

There's no benefit in delaying this longer than I have to. I reverse my transformation, draw all the magic back into me, and settle back down to earth as a perfectly normal freelance writer and politics blogger.

"Nice to meet you both," I say. "My name's Kumiko Takahashi."

"I hope you don't mind if I keep my secret identity," Atlas says. "I might be willing to reciprocate the identity revealing later, but I don't think it's smart to do it when I may not be in my right mind, ya know?"

"And mine is, of course, a matter of fairly public record," says Jonni. "Should we accompany you wherever you're going, or will you be alright on your own?"

"I should be okay," I say. "But I wouldn't mind if you'd walk me to the nearest exit back topside."

The three of us start out for the nearest access hatch, which they say will open in a mostly empty alleyway just two blocks from a MetroMart store.

"You sure you don't want us coming along?" asks Atlas.

"I'll be fine," I say. "I won't be out there long enough to get anyone's attention, especially if I avoid using any magic. There's no reason to worry about me at all."

"Plus we're likely a bit conspicuous, Atlas," says Jonni. "I'm not sure which of us looks more unusual right now."

"I'll see you guys in ten minutes, 15 minutes tops," I say, and head out of the access gate.

Sure enough, the alley is empty, but once I'm out onto the street, it's obvious that this is going to be a more complicated mission than I was expecting. It seems that an outbreak of implausibly vast scientific and magical knowledge has put everyone in the mood to party -- or fight or cause destruction or at least mill around drinking and looking for trouble. So the street is full of people, all seemingly hoping for an excuse to unleash unsound and unsafe energies on everyone else.

Maybe if I just avoid drawing attention to myself I can make it into the MetroMart and back?

Ha ha, you know how well something like that goes.

I'm not ten steps into the street before some idiot gangbanger grabs my wrist. "Goin' somewhere, China doll?" he leers at me.

I don't say anything immediately. "Let go!" and "You're hurting me!" are exactly what this dork wants to hear, and if he's willing to start trouble in a crowd like this, he's not going to be fazed if I start yelling for help. So I take a good look at him and his crew.

Well, the guy holding my wrist is pretty short, even considering that I'm six feet tall. He's got a sweaty look and feels like he's running a high fever -- I'm willing to bet he's turned out to be an elementalist mage, probably specializing in fire magic. He's backed up by four other goons, two slightly shorter than I am, two slightly taller. They're a mixture of ages and races, and all are wearing gang colors -- though they're all wearing different gang colors. Looks like the Metro City gangs are going to be uniting around whether they've got scientific or magical skills.

These guys are obviously magic users. Besides the flamecaster, I peg the others as a summoner (hopefully of something infernal -- it takes a few minutes to call up a demon), an alchemist, a nature magician who has no idea how badly he's handicapped himself by staying in the city, and -- whoa, if I'm reading the last guy's aura correctly, he's a dragon in human form!

"Is that guy from out of town?" I ask the fire mage, jerking my head at the dragon.

"Yeah, from Philly, I think?" I caught him off-guard, which makes it even more fun when I slip my hand out of his grip, spin him around, and put him in a chokehold.

Hell, no, I'm not using my powers. I don't need to with these chumps. I've been a superhero since I was 14 years old. I've been beating the snot out of demons and supervillains and worse for years, I've been trained in more fighting styles than I can remember, and I'm more than capable of beating up a bunch of overconfident gang kiddies with borrowed magic powers they don't even fully understand.

I'm not even nervous about the dragon. Do you know what really powerful dragons do? They build gigantic lairs stocked full of gold and treasure. Do you know what really not-powerful dragons do? They disguise themselves as humans so they can slink around and try to siphon off some real magic.

So anyway, I've got fire boy in a chokehold, and just like fire needs oxygen to burn, fire mages need air to cast any decent spells. The other gang kids aren't completely used to magic powers yet, so they're still trying to figure out what spells to hit me with.

So without letting go of the fire mage, I kick the summoner in the crotch, then when he starts to stoop over, I kick him again, nailing him right in the chin and knocking him over on his ass.

The alchemist is fumbling for the glass soda bottles he has his potions stored in. I kick him again, not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to shatter a handful of the bottles. Magic powders and unguents go spilling everywhere, and that's when I let go of the fire mage, throwing him right at his alchemist pal. The fire mage casts the easiest spell in the elementalist catalog and sets himself on fire -- which immediately sets all the alchemical potions on fire, too.

While everyone's panicking about that, I pants the nature wizard and steal his cell phone. Then I grab the dragon by his tail -- which is a fantastic way to get his attention, because he knows it's supposed to be invisible.

"This is no place for you, lizard," I whisper in his ear. "If I can see you, lots of other people can see you. And lots of them would love to have a stuffed dragon head mounted on their wall."

I don't stick around to see if he'll take the hint. I've got the phone, and I want to get out of here before the rest of the crowd on the street gets over their surprise and starts fighting with each other, or with me. I beat feet for the alley and run straight back to the access panel back to the sewers.

"That was much faster than expected," says Jonni as we close the gate behind us.

"Yeah, the streets were pretty quiet," I say, and the three of us head back to the maintenance room.

I check the new burner phone for any hidden enchantments, then dial up the number for the front desk at the Council of Thaumaturges.

"Hi, Elfina, this is Silver Protector Kumiko, stationed in Metro City, associate member 1611," I say. "Could you transfer me to a senior council member or control agent? We've got a situation here I need to report."

I settle down for a long wait on hold listening to Enya music, but to my surprise, I'm put through to the Council's chairman pretty quickly.

"Kumiko, what's your status?" says the Seventh Son. "Are you alive? Have you gone mad yet?"

"Okay, well, obviously, still alive," I reply. "And I haven't been fully affected by whatever's going on. I've got a lot of technical and computer skills, and it appears that having a lot of magical and scientific skills make you resistant to going either full mad-scientist or full insane-sorcerer. Doesn't mean I'm not having a few really wild ideas about making zombies with 3D printers and casting spells through social media networks..."

"Then you're not a lost cause yet," he says. "Thank god. Now get the hell out of there as fast as you can."

"I think I'm going to be needed here, sir," I say. "At the very least, I can help guide the council's troubleshooter strike team around town."

"We're not sending anyone to help this time," he says. "If we send the Mages in Black, they'll succumb almost immediately. We've already contacted the Science Alliance, and for once, we agree on something. Metro City can't be saved. Get out while you still can."

"That's -- That's ridiculous," I say. "There are seven million people here. You understand that, right? We can't just abandon seven million people."

"I'm no happier about it than you are," he says. "I've got good friends in Metro City -- good friends and more. But what we're seeing there is absolutely unprecedented. People are creating insanely powerful magicks and inventions at a faster and faster rate. Our best estimates say it'll be less than four hours before the city is destroyed. The Council is hoping for some sort of black hole implosion to minimize the damage; the Science Alliance is expecting a massive teleportation accident, if we're lucky. Worst case scenario would be high levels of thaumaturgic particles and ultra-high tech nanites interacting together -- the explosion would throw the planet out of its orbit."

"Why are you still talking?" I say. "Seven million people. You want to abandon seven million people."

"We don't have a choice, Kumiko," he says. "Teleport out of there as quickly as you can."

"I am going to kick your ass clear to the Vulzhanti Quarter next time I see you," I say. And I hang up as hard as I can.

"Whatever that was, it didn't sound encouraging," says Jonni. "Should I assume the Council won't be offering any assistance?"

"No, they're not," I say, still fuming. "They said whatever's happened is going to destroy the city in less than four hours. No way I'm gonna let that happen. It's gonna take a little time to figure out a plan to deal with this -- can I count on you two for assistance?"

"Assistance?" Atlas says, chuckling. "Little sister, I don't know about assistance."

"You mean you're not willing to help?" I ask.

"I think you have the question backwards," says Jonni. "According to my data and analysis, Atlas has over ten times your magical output levels. And while I don't know whatever your scientific expertise may be, I'd be willing to guarantee I have at least 50 times your technical knowledge -- probably a great deal more. Simply put, Atlas and I will be the project supervisors on this task. You'll need to be our assistant."

"I think that's really unlikely," I say. "I've got years of experience, and I've been trained extensively on magical problem solving."

"You wanna test me?" asks Atlas. He has a really broad smile, and his tattoos are starting to glow a bright blue color. I remind myself that whether or not he's got more magical oomph than I do, he's also freakin' insane right now. Sure, I'm a little crazy, too, but I'm level-headed enough not to start a magical duel with a crazy person.

"Alright, guys, let's just focus on the task at hand," I say. "Saving the city -- that's what we do best, right?"

"Indeed," says Jonni. "And Atlas, let's remember we can use Kumiko's experience in magical matters to complete the project more efficiently. May I suggest the two of you use whatever mystical powers you have access to in order to pinpoint the source of the magic plague we're dealing with? I'll see if I can create a device to determine what's causing the mad science outbreak."

"Well, I can at least help with that," I say. "Just a moment so I can transform."

"Wait, wait," says Atlas. "I really don't think you should do that. Daphne's probably still keeping an eye out for your magical aura."

"Aren't you being a little paranoid about her?" I ask. "She can't be that fixated on me, can she?"

"I'd actually be willing to bet she is," says Jonni. "She hit the obsessed-with-power point even before the Cobra did."

"Listen, you can transform later, okay?" says Atlas. "Just wait a while. Let us get past the point where we're doing passive research. I mean, once we're walking away somewhere, maybe we'll be somewhere shielded from magic and she won't even notice."

"You're not scared of her, are you?" I say. "I mean, she may have a decent amount of magic, but you're still superstrong and invulnerable."

"Maybe it's a sign of your own personal insanity," says Jonni. "But being afraid of an indestructible psychotic with powerful sorcerous abilities makes decent sense to me. I have a few devices I think I can use on her if she shows up, but I'd really prefer not to let her get very close to me at all. Just wait a few minutes, alright? We'll try to have some results for you soon."

Not much point in arguing -- I certainly don't want to tangle with Daphne again, and we would be better served by avoiding unnecessary conflict and just finding the cause of the insanity outbreaks as quickly as possible. So I have to content myself with watching Atlas go into a trance and start chanting obscure passages from the Third Parchment of the Scarlet Moon, while Jonni makes subtle adjustments on a kit-built tablet computer with a lot of extra wires, an old TV antenna, and a black onyx crystal jammed into the back.

It bugs me that I'm not able to contribute more. I've still got most of my magical knowledge when I'm un-transformed -- I just can't generate or channel the amount of power I need to cast spells. So I feel like I should be able to help out with some of my own mystical know-how.

I try listening in on Atlas' chant -- and every few minutes, I think I catch him making a pronunciation error in the incantation. And every time I almost point out the mistake -- just before realizing he isn't mispronouncing anything -- he's improving the chant as he goes along. The Third Parchment of the Scarlet Moon was written about 4,000 years ago, and I've only heard it recited a few times because it's so damned hard -- and he's making efficiency adjustments on the fly! Without training!

This is frustrating as hell, so I purposely stop paying attention and focus on Jonni's fancy tablet contraption instead. Of course, that's almost as infuriating as watching Atlas invent new magic spells. Even with my mind focused on science and technology, even with the mad science juju working on my brain, I still can't tell how her machine works or even what it's supposed to do. The wiring is haphazard, the interface makes no sense, and I can't even figure out how she embedded a crystal into the tablet without breaking it. I almost suspect she's playing some sort of prank, but Jonni's never seemed like the prankster type.

I hate this. I absolutely hate this. I hate feeling so inadequate and powerless. I hate being the most useless person in the entire city. I bet everyone else in Metro City would be better equipped than I am to deal with this crisis. Jonni or Atlas or, I don't know, some six-year-old kid from Shusterville is going to save all of us, and I'll never live it down. I'm going to have to retire early and write my memoirs. Confessions of a Washed-Up Anime Star or some garbage like that.

I don't even know if they're actually working on fixing the problem. They might be sending messages to Daphne and the Cobra so they can come kill me. It'd be just like them, all jealous of me, always looking for a way to get back at me. I should hit 'em while they're not paying attention. I should do it. I should -- Oh god, paranoia. I'm going crazy like the rest of them. It feels like everything's going downhill so fast.

I don' t have time to obsess much more about my personal mental health, because Atlas and Jonni both finish their investigations after only another few minutes.

"Someone punched a hole through reality, sisters" Atlas says as he emerges from his trance. "We've got an opening into a dimension of pure magical energy, and it's been flooding Metro City with mana pollution. It's causing mass mystical empowerment and supernatural derangement everywhere within range."

"Looks like the problem on the mad-science side of the equation is -- as always -- nanites," says Jonni. "Looks like some halfscan dimwit set up a nanobot generator apparatus designed to alter people's brains to make them more scientifically brilliant as well as more mentally and emotionally unstable."

"I was kinda hoping it'd be just one problem, not two," I say. "It'd be easier to take care of that way."

"Sucks to be us," says Atlas. "The dimensional rip is located under downtown, about three subterranean levels below this. Didn't even know Metro City went down that deep, right?"

"Really?" says Jonni. "Can you pinpoint where this magical rip is? Fairly specific cartographic coordinates would be best."

Atlas rolls his eyes. "Carto-whatsit?" he says. Without waiting for her to correct him, he waves his hands in the air and uses glowing magical energy to create a three-dimensional map of the city. He sketches out a point near the center of downtown about 800 feet below street level and marks it with a tiny frowny face making adorable high-pitched grumbling noises.

Jonni leans down and looks closely at the magical 3-D diagram. "You already told us you're an engineer, Atlas," she says. "Don't try to pretend you don't know what 'cartographic' means. That's where your dimensional hole is, right? Guess what else is in that location."

"No kidding," says Atlas. "The nanite generator's in the same room? No way that's a coincidence."

"Oh god, you guys," I say. "The Seventh Son mentioned something about what would happen if we got high levels of thaumaturgic particles and ultra-high tech nanites interacting together."

Jonni does some quick calculations on her tablet and winces. "Oh, very unpleasant," she says. "Not good at all. If something isn't done in the next few hours, there's likely to be an explosion that could throw the planet out of its orbit. It's going to take some really incredible science to get this one mopped up."

"Be serious, sister," says Atlas. "We all know a crisis this big is going to need magic to get fixed."

"Let's just get it together, guys," I say. "No arguing about tactics -- let's just go be superheroes and save the day."

Jonni plots us out the closest direct path to the dimensional/nanite anomaly, and the three of us start off through deeper and deeper sewage and subway tunnels.

It's not as unpleasant as I was afraid it'd be. All these tunnels appear to been abandoned or decommissioned ages ago -- they're large and walkable, and they're not coated in poop. They're dark, but Atlas has a light spell, and Jonni's hypertech tablet has a flashlight function. So it's a nice, comfortable walk, really.

We walk along for a while in silence, which I'm discovering I don't really enjoy. I can handle quiet just fine normally -- but for now, my paranoia is creeping up on me, and the longer no one says anything, the more I worry that they're both plotting against me.

"Tell me about these tattoos, Atlas," I say. "There are a couple tattoo mages in the Council of Thaumaturges, but they usually take about a decade to get all their tattoos inscribed. It tends to be a pretty painstaking process to encode spells into ink and get them properly placed on your skin. How did you manage it so fast?"

"Well, they're not really proper tattoos," he says. "Can't really put a tattoo on invulnerable skin, you know? It's kinda like how my magic is expressing itself through me, see? My magic wants to be visible to the world, so it marks itself on my skin in a way that looks like a tattoo. I guess they work like regular tattoo magic -- each tat represents a set of spells, right? But it's like the universe is picking how I make magic for me. Does that make sense?"

"I guess so," I say. "But the tattoos will probably disappear if we shut down the dimensional portal."

"I'm not worried," he says with a grin. "I took some selfies earlier. I bet I can have 'em re-inked later if I need to."

"Good luck finding a local tattoo parlor with enough artistic and magical skill to re-ink supernatural tats," says Jonni dryly.

"You're too negative all the time, Jonni," says Atlas.

"An unrelenting sense of realism is not the same thing as negativity," she says. "And you've started talking like a hippie all the time. You should try to go mad more entertainingly than that."

"It's not my fault my senses have been opened up to the secret universe all around me," Atlas grumbles. "And at least I didn't get even stuffier and more uptight than ol' Professor McKenzie."

"Yes, and Polyphemus is a magician like you right now, isn't he?" says Jonni. "So watch who you criticize."

"I did sorta expect you to go the opposite direction, Jonni," I say. "I thought you'd be robbing graves and building undead minions."

"Disgusting," says Jonni. "No, my thinking before has always seemed random and haphazard. Thinking about science has improved my brain function, and it pleases me to be able to adopt more orderly mannerisms. And honestly, the lab coat is stylish and covers a few unsightly zombie stains."

"It's not bad," says Atlas. "Never really minded the heavy metal shirts, though -- and black hides stains better than white anyway."

"I think I'd like to test that little theory out," says the amplified voice of the Chrome Cobra as she looms out of the darkness of the vast corridor ahead of us. "I think I'm going to put a lot of stains in all of you."

She's upgraded her armor again. How the hell does she find the time? She's added an extra ten feet in height and probably at least a ton of weight, too. Everywhere there's not a spike, there's a gun.

And she's brought some friends, too. Express is there, juggling a dozen different ray guns, making adjustments to all of them at superspeed. Penitente is there, computer keyboards strapped to his forearms, typing a nonstop stream of code we can see reflected backwards on a glass visor he wears over his face. Piledriver is there, the skin of her face torn away to accommodate a dozen artificial eyes drilled in all over her skull.

Penny Dreadful is there, too, quiet, focused, calmly making adjustments on an exoskeleton she's wearing. And Professor Quackers is there, not driving his QuackTank, for once, but wearing a suit of duck-sized powered armor.

Most surreal are the three hovering in the back -- Iota, Hypothermia, and Gearbox, slowly orbiting around each other in a trance, seemingly held aloft by the endless stream of bizarre mathematical equations they're chanting.

"There's no way in hell I'm letting you losers beat me to the Power Generator," says the Cobra. "Once I absorb all those nanites, I'll be able to control everything."

"Keep away from them, Cobra," says Daphne from behind us. "No one's getting to that Rift Event before I do."

Daphne looks basically the same, aside from the glowing purple eyes, the mystic robe that's simultaneously light purple and pitch black, and the wildly demented grin.

She has a few allies who've tagged along, too. Squid Kid has way more than the usual eight tentacles out, and more than the usual eyes, too. The Wheelman is wearing godly Grecian robes, hovering over everything with a beatific expression on his face. Gamma Girl is wearing an extravagant imperial gown and ornate crystal crown and is accompanied by a giant ball of blue light shrieking, "BOW BEFORE THE TERRIBLE AND INFINITE EMPRESS OF RADIATION!" Hybrid is bringing up the rear, humming tunelessly to herself and demonstrating advanced skills in the rare and notoriously difficult arts of dance magic.

All the supervillains they brought with them -- Cosmo the Astounding, Beelzebambi, and Strych-9 -- have already gone the floating-catatonic-and-chanting route, with their theoretical magical equations rendered in fire and green-tinted electrical energy.

The three of us spring into action, too. Atlas leaps forward, punches Penny Dreadful back through one of the sewer walls, and his tattoos uncoil from his arms like jittering tribal claws, slashing at everyone around.

Jonni calmly pulls her tonfa sticks out of her lab coat pockets and activates trigger buttons on the handles. Solid beams of pure white light extend from the ends of the sticks, like a couple lightsabers from "Star Wars," and she charges into the fray, methodically and acrobatically striking at her foes.

I finally get to transform, swirling with magical power and my costume forms around me. And with mystical energy surrounding me and dozens of powerful spells ready to cast -- I turn around and run the hell out of there.

No, I'm no coward, but it'd be nuts to trust all those lunatics. Any one of them could be looking for a chance to kill me. Hell, I bet all of them were going to kill me. I'll take things on my own from now on, thanks very much.

This may be madness, but I don't care anymore. The whole world is insane, and the only way to survive it is to be the maddest of them all.

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