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My name is Cecil Tarin, and I'm a superhero.

I'm 16 years old, I'm an only child, and my parents are divorced, so I end up moving to one or the other's house every two weeks. And neither place is a whole lot of fun, 'cause my folks are kinda fucked up. Mom drinks and yells. Dad spends money on his car and yells. No, it's not a lot of fun, but on the bright side, neither seems to care if I spend all hours of the night running around town, which means I can do all the superhero stuff I want to.

As for that superhero stuff? Here's how it got started. A few years ago, I was riding my bike down the street, and I got hit by a car. I went flying, smacked into a telephone pole, and went into a coma. I don't remember any of this, of course. I had swelling in the brain and all kinds of nasty stuff. I apparently died a couple of times on the operating table, and I guess I was pretty lucky to survive.

Once I woke up, I learned something weird. For whatever reason -- brain alteration, psychic awakening, dumb luck, whatever -- I could see dead people. And the dead people thought I was really, really, really cool.

Everyone thought I was having hallucinations 'til I got better at hiding the fact that I was seeing ghosts all over the place. Once I was able to get somewhere private, I was able to talk to them and figure out that I really didn't have to be afraid about there being spectral corpses hanging out in my bedroom wanting to talk about stuff.

The Chrome Cobra calls it "Undead Charisma," and I guess it's a pretty good description. Ghosts, specters, and wraiths like to hang around me. Vampires and barrow wights upnod me. The only mummy I've ever met appointed himself as my guardian for the few days he was in town, and I really had to work hard to persuade him not to follow me home or to school. Every time we have a zombie incursion, I'm the only guy who doesn't get attacked. Even undead supervillains like the Damned Yankee, Lady Nocturne, and Keelhaul Killian generally seem to like me, even while I'm fighting them. Undead Charisma means a lot of weird, kinda scary stuff goes on around me all the time, but it definitely means some good stuff, too.

There are a lot of ghosts in Metro City. Most of them are pretty nice people. They're not all that lonely -- they have each other to talk to, of course -- but they really like getting to hang out with me. And I've had to lay down some serious ground rules for them, 'cause sometimes they appear -- like appear visibly -- at home or at school or somewhere else, and people really freak out when that happens.

So I've had to tell them they had to stay invisible and quiet, and they can't move stuff around. They've been cool with that, but they can't stay out of the way all the time. Sometimes they really want to talk to me. Well, it helps that I have, like, a mental rapport with them -- I can talk to them telepathically and vice versa. But still, sometimes, they want to be audible and visible and want to stack chairs on the table.

Well, I couldn't let them run wild at home, and I couldn't let them run wild at school. So I finally decided I'd take them out and let them run wild around town. The first night, I carted 'em downtown, they found a mugger, and put the serious terror into him. And I realized I could use these guys to do some good. And to be a superhero. Which seemed like a really good thing, 'cause I figured superheroes got all the chicks.

So now I call myself el Phantasmo. I still don't have the kind of build that'll let me look good in spandex, so I wear black pants, a black T-shirt with a cartoon ghost on it, a black jacket, and a colorful luchador mask. It totally covers my head -- no mouth hole, no nose hole, and covered eye holes. I can see out just fine, but it looks like one solid mask.

All the stuff I do, it's all because of the ghosts. They carry me to let me fly. They pick stuff up, they see and hear things I can't, they deflect bullets for me. It's really pretty cool. I try not to take every ghost in town out with me, 'cause that's a lot of ghosts, ya know?

Also, I try to make sure that at least some of them get to move on to whatever afterlife they're heading towards. Sometimes ghosts hang around because they like Earth, and sometimes, they need help getting their unfinished business done. Sometimes I can help with that, and that always feels good.

Right now, I'm hanging out on top of the Evanier Tower, which is a funny thing to call a building that's just four stories high. This was going to be one of my off-duty nights, and I was looking forward to hanging out with some friends from school and watching old "Star Trek" episodes, but the Chrome Cobra called me and said there's another new superhero in town, and I'm supposed to do a meet-and-greet with her this evening.

I'm kinda tired of new superheroes in this town.

See, I remember back when we were a pretty small group -- just an unlucky 13 of us, like we were all outlaws doing our own thing. Squid Kid came along and bumped us out of that cool 13 number, but she was pretty cool, and we were still a small, close-knit, cool bunch of people for a while. Then all of a sudden, there was Atlas and the Star, then Gamma Girl came along, and then, bam, bam, bam -- Calypso, Silver Protector Kumiko, and Polyphemus, and we're all the way up to 20.

It's not like I dislike any of the new superheroes -- I mean, Polyphemus is a huge asshole, and the Star sorta switches from cool, understanding guy to overconfident lecturer at a moment's notice, but even then, I don't mind 'em, and we all get along, and we're really better than we ever have been before.

But still, ya know? So many changes. We're not the same group we used to be, and in a way, I don't really like it.

So I'm hanging out up on top of this building, listening to my ghosts chatter to each other and kick aluminum cans all over the rooftop, when I start hearing this loud, fast thunking noise, getting rapidly closer and closer to me. I see a woman running down the street toward the building -- running really fast, too. Not superspeed, but much, much faster than a person should be able to go.

She gets about a half-block away, then makes this amazing leap, hits the building about three-quarters of the way up, grabs hold of the building somehow, and scrambles her way on top of the roof.

Well, she's tall. Not as tall as Miss Mega or Polyphemus, obviously. Not as tall as Atlas or Hypothermia or Star or Kumiko or -- ya know what, we've got a lot of tall superheroes in this town. I guess she's about five foot ten, which puts her about on Jonni Rotten's level. She's got shoulder-length brown hair and really green eyes. There are small metal ridges at her temples, blending into her hairline, and more metal ridges along the sides of her neck. She's wearing a red bodysuit with silver trim and a dull red leather jacket. There are stylized "P" logos on her chest and on the shoulder and back of the jacket.

She snaps to her feet, looks skyward, and theatrically raises her arms in the air.

Oh my god, I recognize her.

"Laaaadies and gentlemen!" she shouts. "Children of all ages! You stand in the presence of a goddess! The peak of 21st century technology! The maximum in physical achievement! The ultimate in punishment and pain! The final defeat for all who oppose me! You stand in the presence of... the Piiiiiiiledriver!"

Oh. My. Fucking. God. This is so much better than "Star Trek." Even my ghosts are agog.

I'm going to have to assume you watch wrestling, because otherwise, you suck. And I'm going to have to assume you watch the American Super Wrestling Association, which is the best all-metahuman wrestling organization on the planet. And the Piledriver was just amazing. She was the ASWA's near-unstoppable cyborg, and her matches against the Liberty Belles and Captain Justice were absolutely legendary.

Then she lowers her arms and glares at me, those scary green eyes literally glowing.

"I notice you wear a mask of the luchadors," she says dangerously. "So are you a rudo? Or a technico?"

"D-Definitely a technico, ma'am," I squeak. God, I hope that was the right answer. The Cobra said there was a new hero in town, but Piledriver was always a heel.

But she relaxes, smiles, and sticks out a hand.

"Good answer, man," she says. "You must be el Phantasmo. Great to meet you."

"Thank you, ma'am," I say. "You are the new hero in town, right? I mean, you were always one of the bad guys in the ASWA."

"You do know we were acting, right?" she says, crooking an eyebrow at me. "I would've made a great babyface, too, you know, but I had a talent for monologuing, and you could tear a cyborg villain's arm off while keeping your TV-PG rating."

"Ah, okay, that makes sense," I say. "And yes, I knew it wasn't real, it's just..."

"Don't worry, baby, I understand," she says. "I made a hell of a heel, and I take it as a compliment when people expect me to be the bad guy. It's all cool -- but I'm definitely a real-life face now."

"Well, that's good to hear, obviously."

"Anyway, I already did a little online research on you, thanks to the in-brain internet connection," she says, tapping her forehead. "Ghost control, supernatural powers, all that good stuff. My primary thing is high strength. I can pick up 750 tons. Ain't the best, but ain't that bad either, right? Plus I can run about 50 miles per hour, jump about 300 feet, I got extendable wrists, of all damn things, and I can shoot lasers outta my fingertips. Oh, and crazy-awesome senses, too. How 'bout it, man, go ahead and tell me how much I rule."

"Your ID is public, right?" I ask. "I know they used your name on TV all the time."

"Well, yes and no," she says. "Cyberelle Doomtronika was definitely an alias. But my real name is basically public knowledge. I'm Laura Quinn. You can call me Laura or Quinn or Piledriver or the Mighty Quinn or Quinn the Eskimo or whatever you want to. What about you?"

"Nah, sorry," I say. "Secret ID."

"Hence the amazing mask," she says. "If I ever defeat you in battle, I'm taking that mask for myself, and you'll have to leave town, know what I'm saying?"

Seriously, it's taking all my willpower to keep from nerding out so incredibly hard. The Piledriver herself thinks my mask is cool. And about the only thing that keeps me from collapsing into nervous gigglefits is getting a buzz on my communicator.

"Oh, just a second," I say, tapping the earpiece and turning away slightly. "Got a call coming in."

"Phantasmo, everything going alright tonight?" says the Chrome Cobra.

"Yes, ma'am, not much going on so far."

"You still got the Piledriver there, don't you?" she says.

"Yeah, that's right."

"What do you think?" she asks. "Got a minute for first impressions?"

"Umm, no, not right now," I say. Like I'm going to totally geek out right in front of both the Cobra and Piledriver? Not a chance.

"Ahh, go ahead and tell her," says Piledriver. Wait, her voice is coming in through the communicator? Person-to-person messages on these are supposed to be secure...

"Piledriver?" says the Cobra. "I haven't given you a communicator yet, have I?"

"Already hacked the signal," she says. Wait a minute, she's not moving her lips! She's just talking through the communicator?

"How are you doing that?" I ask. I probably have a completely idiotic expression on my face. Good thing I wear a mask.

"Internal cell phone, man," she says. "All I gotta do is think the words, and it's just like I'm doing the talking. I can hold two phone conversations at the same time. It's pretty impressive, man."

"What do you mean, you hacked my signal?!" says the Cobra angrily. "I'm not going to let anyone fuck with my communicators, Quinn! Including you!"

"Keep your panties on, hotshot," Piledriver says. "I can hear all kinds of radio signals, including this one. You've had me running around superpeople all night who got these signals going on all around 'em -- it was just a matter of time before I got bored and cracked into the communicators' backdoor. Just get me one of these fancy earpieces, and you won't have to worry about me fiddling with your secret communications anymore."

"Fine!" says Cobra. "I'll get you one by tomorrow night. All you had to do was ask, Laura."

"It's more fun this way," Piledriver says. She grins and winks at me. Holy crap, an actual celebrity is flirting with me. My brain is going to explode.

"Oh, whatever," Cobra says. It's always weird to hear her get frustrated at us, even though it happens almost all the time. "Listen, Phantasmo, I just learned an old friend of yours is in town again."

"Do you mean an old friend, like someone I'll be glad to see?" I ask. "Or is this the other kind of old friend?"

"Well, let's just say there's a Canaanite death god crawling out of the sewers near Hewlett Park who you were instrumental in sending back to the underworld a while back."

"Oh, not Mot again!" I groan.

"What, wait, you guys got a supervillain named after apple sauce?" asks Piledriver.

"Mot with one T," Cobra says. "You've got an internal wireless net connection -- look him up. I want you guys to scramble down there to help out. Atlas is on site, along with Gamma Girl, Kumiko, and Express."

"Just the seven of us?" I ask.

"No, just the six of you," she says. "I can't come along this time. I'm stuck at a... family function I can't leave without causing a scene."

"Six of us versus a death god?" I say. "That's not enough, Cobra. You sure you can't get away?"

"If I thought it was a real emergency, I would," she says. "But even I need an occasional night off to tend to my secret ID. And you guys can handle Mot just fine. He was a cakewalk last time, remember?"

"He was not a cakewalk, Cobra. And we had more people fighting him last time."

"Kumiko's a sorceress," she says. "She'll have all kinds of ways to stomp him. Gotta go -- dinner's on. You guys have fun with Mot."

"Okay, so six of us against a death god, huh?" says Piledriver. "Think you can give me a lift to Hewlett Park, Phantasmo?"

So we go off flying. Hewlett Park is clear on the other side of the city, and Piledriver actually weighs about 400 pounds, so it takes a few extra ghosts to carry her. And we all have to fly slower, so it's gonna take longer than I'd like to get across town.

"So do I need to know these ghosty dudes' names?" she asks. "There are so many people to meet."

"Well, they're Felix Kellerman, Janelle Ridge, Dawn Hernandez, Michael Fulcher, and Garry Canne," I say. "But I kinda cycle the ghosts in and out a lot. There are an awful lot of spirits in the city, and they don't follow me everywhere I go. You might not end up seeing these particular ghosts again but every few weeks. Besides, right now, they're mostly invisible."

"Ah, okay," she says. "Thanks for the lift anyway, Felix, Janelle, Dawn, Michael, and Garry. Wave next time you see me, and we'll see if I can remember your names, a'ight?"

I won't make too many bets on her being able to remember their names. There are a few thousand ghosts in the city, and I try not to use too many of them at once -- they're easier to control and keep track of if there are fewer than 20 of them hanging around me at a time. And really, the only reason I'm able to remember all of their names is because I've got a weird supernatural affinity for them. There are times I can't even tell them apart visually -- a lot of them don't manifest in much more detail than wisps of smoke or shadow -- but I somehow always know their names. Still, I also know that they usually like being recognized, so if she's willing to make some effort in that direction, I bet they'll love her.

"So did you just move to the city?" I ask. "And where did you move from?"

"I've actually been here about six months," she says. "Moved here from Los Angeles after the ASWA fired me."

"No way!" I say. "Why on earth would they fire you? You were so awesome!"

"Kid, you are going to be so damn good for my ego," she grins. "Nah, the thing is, I was really, really expensive. All those arms and legs that people tore off me -- they weren't my standard limbs, of course, 'cause those were too strong to be yanked off so easy. So I'd have to be fitted with temporary tear-away limbs, and even though they were flimsier than the real things, they still cost the ASWA quite a bit of cash. So they decided to let me go and keep from going broke for another few years."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," I say. "I bet it was a great job, too."

"It was an alright job," she says. "It got me back on my feet and making some money after a really bad period of my life. But I was really kinda glad to get out of L.A. Lotsa bad memories crowding the place up, ya know? I'd gotten my degree in journalism and done a little sports reporting for ESPN, so I got a job here as a sportswriter for the Metro City Metropolitan. Anyway, I guess the Cobra just found out I'd moved into town in the last week or so. Comes tearing into the house one night, going on about what the heck me and my uncle are planning on doing to the city."

"What's your uncle have to do with the story?" I ask.

"Yeah, I guess Uncle Aggy's what you'd call a mad scientist," she says. "Not a bad mad scientist. He just likes science that sometimes blows up on him. He's a good guy, I mean -- he rebuilt me after my accident. And he moved to Metro City after I did, 'cause he wanted to live nearby in case I needed serious repairs. Anyway, Cobra got it into her head that he was gonna do something crazy, I guess."

"Wait a minute," I say. "You mean Agamemnon Quinn? Your uncle is Agamemnon Xerxes Quinn?"

"Ohh, you've heard of him," she says. "Yeah, okay, he went through a period where he did some bad stuff. I mean, hell, you figure out how to build a giant robot, and you might wanna take it for a test drive, too, right? The thing with the Capitol Records Building was an accident, he did his time -- minimum security facility, got four years off for good behavior -- and he's been a model citizen ever since."

"We have so many mad scientists living in this town."

"Again, Uncle Aggy hasn't caused anyone the slightest bit of trouble in over 20 years. Only reason he's here is 'cause he doesn't want his favorite niece to get in trouble and not have anyone around to weld her back into shape, that's all. He's cool as a cucumber, guaranteed."

"Okay, fine," I say. "I guess we'll take your word for it."

"Yeah, that's what I told Cobra, too," she says. "So she goes, hey, if you're gonna live here, I want you doing the superhero thing. And I start thinking, I'm probably game to try it out. I never much wanted anything to do with the superhero scene in Los Angeles. There are too many out there anyway, and most of them are angling for a shot on reality TV anyway. But the Chrome Cobra shows up and tells you it's time to be a superhero? Who am I to argue? So I dug my old costume out of storage, doctored it up a bit, added the jacket, and here I am, in the living or at least realistically synthetic flesh."

By now, we've made it over to Hewlett Park, where Atlas, Gamma Girl, Express, and Silver Protector Kumiko are keeping a careful distance behind an extremely thin figure wearing black armor stalking across the park.

As Piledriver and I land, I say, "Hey, everyone. What's the situation? Everyone met Piledriver yet?"

Everyone upnods each other, which I take to be an affirmative -- but honestly, all of them look a little doubtful about her presence here.

"Awright, people, what's the haps?" she says, smacking a fist into her palm. "We gonna go fight evil or sit around here and have a picnic?"

"Yeah, what's the situation?" I ask. "Something must be up, or you guys would already be kicking Mot's butt, right?"

"Unfortunately, he's adapted since the last time he was in the city," says Atlas.

"He has a very powerful magic defense shield," says Kumiko. "The glowing aura around him is basically a life-destroying forcefield. Any living creature that gets within ten feet of him gets juiced. He's killed a couple stray cats, some squirrels, a flock of birds. He seems to be harvesting their spirits."

"Barely avoided him myself," says Express. "Thanks again for the warning, Kumiko."

"No worries, E," she says. "He's shrugging off my spells, too. And I'm leery of what'll happen if he decides to actively target us."

"Or if he starts finding some people to tear apart," adds Atlas. "I'm not a fan of letting this guy roam around free, but I sure don't want him unleashing on us either."

"If it's an anti-life field, we were thinking you might send some ghosts after him, Phan," says Gamma Girl. "At least he wouldn't be able to kill them, right?"

"I don't know," I say. "Last time he came through town, the ghosts pretty much treated him like he was Elvis."

"Yeah, but they distracted him, and they pulled some good info off him," says Atlas. "Probably the only thing that let us beat him before."

"I'll give it a shot," I say, mentally sending a half-dozen over toward Mot to do some quick surveillance. They circle him a few times, probably just on the outer edge of his forcefield.

And then his field visibly ripples, and all of the ghosts get sucked straight into him.

"That didn't look good, Phantasmo," says Express. "That looked very, very not good."

"That... was very, very not good," I say. I'm kinda in shock. I've never seen anything like that before. And I can't sense any of those ghosts anymore.

Then Mot turns around and looks at us. He smiles in a really unwholesome way, and then I'm yanked off my feet as the rest of my ghosts get sucked into him from clear across the park.

"Watch out!" Piledriver yells.

"Crap, crap, crap," I say, probably a lot more calmly than I should've. "He just pulled all my ghosts off me. I can't feel them anymore. I don't even know what the hell happened."

"He stole them," says Kumiko. "Damn, Phantasmo, we should've kept you away. It's like we gave him a loaded gun."

Sure enough, all my ghosts are orbiting Mot now, spinning around him backwards. And they're screaming, even. Nothing hurts those guys, but they're all screaming.

"And we got his attention now, too," says Atlas. Mot is walking toward us now, grinning like a nightmare, ghosts orbiting him. "We need to keep our distance."

"If that'll even help," says Gamma Girl. "Sparky Isotope says Mot almost snared him, too. What if he can do that to any of us, even from that distance?"

"Okay, hang on," says Piledriver. "Ms. Kumiko, I got a fast question."

"Out with it, then," Kumiko says. "I'll try to give a fast answer."

"Is that guy a god -- like a deity walking the earth, incarnate spirit of untold power and all that -- or is he just a guy channeling a god?"

Kumiko pauses a moment. "It's a guy," she says.

"Probably the same guy who was channeling him last time," says Atlas. "You guys remember his name?"

"Vilnius Ravenhurst," says Express. "But that was his new age name. Real name was Raul Blatz. Just a moron with a Ouija board who managed to contact an ancient god."

"Right, but he's still functioning as an avatar," says Kumiko. "And even with a minor deity like Mot, that makes him really scary powerful."

"But he's still just a guy," says Piledriver. "Listen, I need a distraction right now. Gimme magical illusions, illusory people, lots of 'em, all around him. Right now, Kumiko!"

And she takes off running at him.

"Deceptive Rainbow FIGMENTS!" Kumiko yells, and the whole park is seemingly full of picnickers and people throwing baseballs and kids playing tag. Mot looks surprised, looking around at all the sudden activity around him.

Express runs up next to Piledriver and puts a hand on her shoulder. "Laura, what are you doing?" he says. "That shield will blow you apart. Come on, let's --"

But she grabs him with one hand, and there's a pop and an electrical flash. He falls to the ground stunned, probably for just a few seconds, and she keeps running at the monster who stole all my ghosts.

Mot shoots a few magic rays at the illusions around him, and they dissolve in a way which seems to amuse him, because he laughs and keeps shooting at them. He's not paying any attention to Piledriver, which isn't going to help her a bit when she hits his forcefield and gets torn to pieces.

Well, she hits his forcefield -- and she doesn't get torn apart at all. She runs right through it unharmed, and she jams her fist into Mot's jaw and knocks him 20 feet away. The forcefield shatters and falls apart, and he starts to get to his feet. But Piledriver's on top of him already. She kicks him like a football, and he bounces another 20 feet away.

She bounds over to him and drops her fist on him once, twice, three times. Then she stands up straight, strikes a pose, and says, "Beware, Applesauce! You thought to rise against the good people of this fair city? You thought to oppose the causes of justice and truth? Then you must face the unstoppable might of the Piiiiiiii..."

No, of course she doesn't get to finish the speech. Mot pops her with a magical shockwave that hits her like a bomb and blows her a good 200 feet back behind us.

But by then, Mot has already lost any advantage or momentum he used to have.

Kumiko nails him to the ground with a "Righteous Lightning JAVELIN!"

Gamma Girl scorches him with a super-heated blast of radioactive fire.

Express hammers him with a couple hundred high-speed punches.

Atlas hits him with an overhand smash that leaves a crater in the middle of the park and sets off every car alarm in a half-dozen blocks.

I don't get to do much, but I'm right in there peeling ghosts off him as fast as I can.

It's all over in less than 30 seconds. Mot vanishes -- or at least the "Mot" aspect, with the skeletal frame, black armor, and horrible grin -- and leaves behind a chubby guy with dyed black hair, a black T-shirt, silver jewelry, and a bunch of broken bones.

"Kumiko!" Atlas shouts. "Go find the Piledriver -- see if she needs to go to the hospital!"

"Cool your jets, man!" says Laura as she strolls up to us. "Most of what he hit me with was straight kinetic energy. Didn't hurt me a bit."

Well, I don't know about that. It looks like someone tried to feed her through a wood chipper. Her costume is torn, her arm looks like someone's tried to cut her skin off with knives, and half her face has been torn off -- and all I can see underneath is a gleaming metal skeleton.

"That," says Gamma Girl, "is one million percent gross."

"Yeah, no kidding," says Kumiko. "That's horror-movie gross. The guy hurt you more than you think."

"Ahh, this is nothing," she says. "He just sent me flying. It was the trees I landed in that did all the damage. Besides, this is all just cosmetic damage. I've got a few gallons of synthetic skin solution at home -- I can get all this fixed up myself in a jiffy."

"I wanna know what the hell you were trying to do," says Atlas. "You had him on the ropes, and you stop to make a damn speech?"

"Seemed like a good time for a monologue," she says with a shrug. "Gotta roll with your instincts, and the crowds usually love that stuff."

"There weren't any crowds," says Kumiko. "And wrestling has absolutely nothing to do with crimefighting. If you're going to keep trying to treat this like a game, you're never going to be any kind of worthwhile superhero."

"Listen, I'm not worried," Laura says. "I'm new to the biz, I know. I'm learning the tricks and schticks. I'll be fine, soon as I can get the feel of the canvas. And don't try to tell me not to speechify, sister. Nothing wrong with bringing a little style to the proceedings."

"You are goddamn hopeless, Quinn," says Kumiko. "Playing dumb is no way to win fights."

"Speaking of which," says the Express. "That stunt you pulled was too much of a risk. Mot's shield still could've killed the biological parts you have left. You can't rely on dumb luck in situations like these."

"It was not dumb, it was not luck, and it was a safe gamble," Piledriver says. "Any living thing that touched the forcefield got torn to shreds, right? Well, I'm a scoopjob, you know? A total conversion model. My living bits -- brain, spine, spleen, appendix, you name it -- are all buried under synthetic skin and a metal endoskeleton. Even my two remaining toes are coated in titanium. The shield wasn't gonna touch anything but the non-living cybernetic parts."

She turns and jabs a finger at Kumiko. "And don't call me dumb," she says. "I've got a bachelor's degree in journalism, with a minor in statistics. I graduated cum laude. I'm certified in first aid and lifesaving. And the owners of both the Falcons and the Mustangs already hate my guts because I've asked them too many questions they didn't want to answer. So don't even dream of treating me like a dumb jock, just 'cause I used to wrestle, okay?"

"Fine, whatever," says Kumiko. "You're a genius, and when you screw up, it'll be because you're just too damn smart to use tactics."

"I don't care, sister," Piledriver says. "My uncle's a genius. I hear the Cobra and Iota and that iceberg guy are geniuses. I'm just here to punch bad guys in the face, sometimes by figuring out how to get through their magical forcefields."

"Both of you settle down, please," says Gamma Girl. "I'm not in the mood for this kind of nonsense."

"Right," says Express. "And at any rate, Laura, I think I'd ask that the next time you're punching your way through a forcefield, please do it without tasering me. That's no fun with a superspeed nervous system."

"Ehh, fair enough," she says. "Like I said, I'm learning the ropes, and I'll try to get better."

"Listen, guys, I want to package this guy up for the Council of Thaumaturges," says Kumiko. "If he's channeled Mot more than once, I think we'd be better off letting the Council keep watch over him. They might be able to block him off as an avatar for good, but I'll have to transport him to a Council safehouse. Need anything else from me tonight?"

"Probably not, Kumiko," says Atlas. "Thanks for your help."

As Kumiko teleports herself and the ex-Mot away in a flash of light, Gamma Girl says, "Phantasmo, where are your ghosts? Have they all gone invisible on us?"

"No, not really," I say. "They're basically traumatized. They all went home for the night."

It's really very freaky. I understand that getting forcibly and painfully torn away and used as a power source by a death god would be pretty devastating, but I think I expected all of them to be a little more resilient than that. There are various technologies and magics that can temporarily discorporate them, but they always bounce right back from that. But this time, they were hurt and scared, and they all begged to go rest up in their graves. What could I do? I told 'em to go and let me know when they feel better.

"So you essentially don't have any powers right now?" Gamma Girl asks. "If you don't have any ghosts, you can't even get yourself back home, can you?"

"Well, I'll pick up a few fresh ghosts as time goes by," I say. "You know, there are enough roaming spirits in the city, and a lot of them kinda seek me out anyway. But it'll probably take at least 30 minutes, maybe a whole hour to get enough of them to let me do much of anything."

"Alright then, you guys know what I'm thinking?" Piledriver says. "Phantasmo needs a little time to get back into the swing of things. So who's up for taking a break and getting some nosh? I'm buying!"

"I'm gonna go ahead and take a pass," says Atlas. "As long as the rest of you guys can make sure Phan's going to be okay."

Express, Gamma Girl, and Piledriver all promise to keep watch over me, which on one hand makes me completely embarrassed, 'cause I can take care of myself. But on the other hand, it's been a really long time since I didn't have a horde of ghosts hanging around to protect me, so I guess I'm a little nervous about that.

So we head on over to DeCarlo's Diner over on 76th, which is always open late. And for once, they almost don't let us in, because seriously, half of Laura's face is torn away, and she looks really weird. It probably doesn't help when she glares at the counterman and says, "Your clothes... give them to me now" in a near-perfect Schwarzenegger accent.

I'm really kinda starving, so I order a double cheeseburger and soda. Express gets the enchilada platter and one of DeCarlo's signature chocolate-peanut butter milkshakes, and Gamma Girl goes with an order of pancakes, a small orange juice, and a large coffee. Piledriver doesn't actually order anything.

"Nothing for me, babe," she tells the waitress, tipping her head toward her -- I think she's trying to wink, even though that half of her face is gone. "I run on batteries -- any grub down my gullet just has to get manually flushed out later."

Once we get our food, Gamma Girl says, "Listen, Laura, I hope I'm not prying, but what kind of accident could you have had that destroyed almost your entire body?"

"Not prying at all, GG," she says. "Wasn't even anything too unusual -- just a really bad car accident. We were driving out on the PCH, and this out-of-control semi jumps the median and plows into us. I broke almost everything and ruptured the stuff that couldn't break. The docs weren't making any progress on keeping me going, so Uncle Aggy brings in his homemade stasis chamber and tells the hospital he'll let them have it for free if they'll put me in and then let him work on fixing me up. A month later, I wake up in something that looks a hell of a lot worse than this current model, but hey, I was alive. And he's kept working on improving me ever since."

"You said 'we' were in the accident," says Express.

"Ah, yeah," Piledriver says, growing more serious. "That was my Delilah. She died on impact. I missed her funeral and everything."

"Delilah..." Express says slowly. "Wait, you mean the actress Delilah Lockhart? You were the secret girlfriend the tabloids kept talking about?"

"Yeah, well, if Prop 8 had been overturned, she was gonna come out of the closet," she says. "And the tabloids can, as I have said a few billion times over the last few years, completely eat my goddamn ass."

"Wow," I say. "So you're our first gay superhero as well as the second celebrity superhero to move to Metro City."

"No, the Star's gay, Phan," says Express.

"What, seriously?"

"I'm a little surprised you didn't know," he says. "I know you're young, but I thought your gaydar was more developed than that."

"Keep it under your hat, please," says Gamma Girl. "I don't think he's aware that any of us know, and he certainly doesn't want any of the local radio wingnuts finding out."

"Consider my lip zipped," Piledriver says. "I'm no fan of the closet, but it's not my decision anyway."

"My mind is still kinda blown by this," I say. "I didn't have a single clue."

"Okay, listen, here's the thing," Laura says. "Don't start acting like it's a big thing to the guy, alright? I mean, you were friends with him before, weren't you?"

"Well, kinda sorta, I guess."

"Alright, then keep things on that same kinda sorta level, ya know? Freaking out and treating him like a total stranger is a major party foul."

"Wait a minute," says Gamma Girl. "Derek, this better not be why you're always feuding with the Star."

"No, Renee, it isn't," Express says. "I didn't like him before I found out he was gay. Stupid Assembly of Tokens punk..."

"Hold on," I say. "I don't have to worry about, you know..."

There's a bit of a pause. "Worry about what?" asks Express.

"You know, if he's going to... hit on me?"

"Phantasmo, what the hell!" Piledriver shouts.

"Ohhhh my god, man," Express says, putting his head in his hands.

Gamma Girl snorts suddenly with laughter. "Sparky!" she says, jabbing a finger at her invisible spirit friend. "Very funny, smart guy, but don't say anything like that again!"

"Okay, fine, if I knew you were all going to react like this, I would've stayed quiet," I say. God, sometimes superheroes are such assholes.

"No, no," says Gamma Girl. "Me laughing was not directed at you, not at all!"

"Right, right," Express says. "But no, you don't have to worry about that, okay? Gay people are no more or less likely to hit on anyone than straight people are. And I may not like the Star, but he's not the kind of guy who goes hitting on other people. Just put your mind at ease, okay?"

"This is a learning moment, Phantasmo," says Gamma Girl. "Let's all learn from it, and I promise it'll never get mentioned again."

"Take it from someone who knows," Piledriver says. "There are definitely fewer gay guys who hit on other guys than there are straight guys who hit on every woman they meet. I mean, why would you go making that kind of trouble for yourself? It would just be so rude and awkward."

The bell over the entrance jingles, and Miss Mega squeezes through the door into the diner. "Hey, you guys, took forever to find you!"

"Hey, Megs," says Express. "How's the weather up there?"

"Wanna grab a seat?" asks Gamma Girl. "We're almost done with the food, but I bet we've got a little time left for more coffee."

"No thanks, guys," she says. "I was supposed to meet up with the Piledriver over at Ormes Park, and Atlas mentioned that you all stopped off over here."

Express, Gamma Girl, and I all point exaggeratedly at Piledriver. "There she is," I say. "As if you probably couldn't tell..."

"Hi, Piledriver, how are you?" she says, extending her hand. "I'm Miss Mega."

"Oh my god," Laura says, her remaining eye as big as a saucer. "Where have you been all my life?"

"Say again?" Mega asks.

"Seriously, dollface," Laura says. "The things I could do to that body. I mean, babe, I'm a cyborg, and my tongue absolutely never gets tired."

"What." Oh, man, that's the tone of voice she uses when she's about to hit someone with a bus.

"I mean, I knew you were scrumptious from seeing you on TV," says Piledriver. "But oh my god, woman, you are completely beyond belief! You doin' anything after patrol?"

Miss Mega puts her hand back down. She twists her head a little, and the muscles in her neck crack like a redwood forest exploding.

"Please don't hit her, Megs," Express says. "You'll knock a hole clear through the diner."

"I have to go make a phone call," Miss Mega says. "Also, I have to go find something I can break."

And she walks out. She even leaves the door attached to the diner, which is a little surprising, 'cause I was expecting her to tear that entire wall down.

"Oh my god, I think I'm in love," Piledriver says.

"I cannot believe you," Renee says. "After what you just said a minute ago!"

"Rude and awkward," Express says. "Goddamn, woman, were you even listening to yourself?"

"Come on, everyone here was thinking the same thing," Piledriver says. "I can't be blamed anyway -- I've been in a booty drought for so long."

"Okay, I'm getting out of here," I say. "That was scarier than Mot."

"Have you picked up enough ghosts, Phan?" Express asks. "I can give you a lift at least part way home if you need it."

"I've got a half-dozen who've drifted over," I say, heading for the door. "I'll be fine. Thanks for the dinner break, Laura, but please don't almost get us killed again, please."

"Hasta la pasta, Phan!" Piledriver waves. As I get into the parking lot, I can still hear Derek and Renee yelling at her.

Well, I don't know what to think of her. I mean, I'm a huge fan, obviously, because I loved watching her kick ass in the ring. But does she have what it takes to be any good as a superhero? She's kinda taking all of this like it's no different than running a faked-up match in the pro leagues. And there's a big difference between having a wrestler pull off an arm that's been gimmicked to be pulled off and having to fight Painkiller when she's trying to slice your stomach open, or Beelzebambi when she's trying to burn your face off, or Mishmash when he's trying to chop up a bunch of second-graders.

And the bit with Miss Mega -- I don't even know if that can be classified as flirting -- was really not cool. Yes, sure, Miss Mega is kinda mind-bendingly sexy, but she already gets that really aggressive catcalling from cops, reporters, construction workers, random people on the street. Not so much from supervillains, because they all remember how hard she hit Rageface that one time. But she still gets such an awful lot of that crap.

So the rest of us superheroes have basically decided not to do that to her. I mean, there are a few exceptions, mainly Wheelman, 'cause no one can really shut him up and he's not too sleazy, and Squid Kid, 'cause she keeps stuff light and pretty funny. The rest of us pretty much stay dignified and professional and think about baseball a lot. We don't want her getting as irritated at us as she does at the city's cops -- and not just because she's terrifyingly strong. I guess we just want her to have a group of people she can hang out with who aren't going to be assholes to her.

Anyway, I've only got six ghosts with me right now, which is a lot less than usual, so I decide not to have them fly me around. Carrying a human, even a pretty lightweight human like me, takes a little work, and I don't want them distracted with holding me up in the air if there's something more important I need them to do. So I start walking for home.

It's a nice night for a walk anyway. Not too much crime going on, the streets are pretty deserted, and the weather is pretty nice. The ghosts and I run off a couple of muggers, and that's about as busy as things get. I figure once I get about a quarter-mile from Dad's house, I'll have the ghosts turn me invisible until I can get in the back door of the house.

I'm taking a short cut through an alley when I run into another of Metro City's superheroes.

"Oh, hey, Jonni," I say, dreading what's about to happen. "How are you doing?"

"Phantasmo!" she says happily. "Man, it's so great to see you again!"

She gives me a hug. And I'm lucky she's currently in one of her dry-and-crumbly phases instead of a squishy-and-leaking phase, or my suit would be completely soaked in rancid corpse fluids.

Oh, yeah, Jonni Rotten hugs people. You didn't know that, did you? You thought she was strictly a vengeful, enraged, foul-tempered zombie ass-kicker, didn't you? Yeah, Jonni hugs people. Well, not so much people. More like just one person.

This is the main reason why Undead Charisma sucks.

"I know I just saw you the other day, when we were all beating up on the Psychotronics," she says. "But it still feels like it's been so long. I don't know if that makes any sense, but... it's just so good to see you again."

She's not releasing the hug yet. And damn me, I'm too polite to stop hugging her back.

"That's... nice, Jonni," I say. What else can I say? "It's nice to see you, too."

"That's... That's nice," she replies, smiling at me. "Do you wanna... patrol together a while?"

"Well, I would, but we had a run-in with Mot," I tell her. "And it kinda wore me down. So I thought I'd turn in early, try to get some extra sleep."

"Mot again," she says, quietly but vehemently. She frowns -- not hard, just... lightly angry. And her hug tightens a little bit, just a slight squeeze. If it were anyone but Jonni, it would be really, really cute. "I hate him so much. I don't even know why, but there's just something about him that makes me so angry."

"He's a pretty rough customer," I say. "He stole all my ghosts away, at least for a while."

"Oh no, not your ghosts!" she gasps, finally breaking the hug so she can hold me at arms' length. She looks like she's about to cry.

"No, don't worry, I got 'em back," I say. "We beat Mot down again. Have you met Piledriver yet? She helped out a lot."

"No, I haven't met her," Jonni says. "I'm supposed to see her tomorrow. Am I gonna have to kick her ass?"

"No, no, I don't think so. She seems nice enough. She used to be a pro wrestler, but she seems like she knows what she's doing, for the most part. She kinda likes doing monologues, though."

"Ohh, I will have to fight her," she says, scowling. "I hate monologues."

"Okay, please don't fight her. We should try to make her feel welcome, ya know? I don't think we want to run her off. She'll be doing monologues at the bad guys, not at us."

She looks me in the eye and smiles again. "Oh, Phan, it's so great that you think of others that way. You're so... so thoughtful. You're just such a great guy!"

She hugs me again. And, god help me... she kisses me.

At least the mask is between us. But the cloth isn't that thick, and I can basically feel her lips on mine. Her cold, dry, dead lips. And I'm going to have a million nightmares, starting right now.

She suddenly jumps back, looking possibly almost as horrified as I am.

"Oh god," she gasps. "Ph-Phan, I'm sorry. I forgot myself. I'm so, so sorry."

I start to say something back, but I can't really catch my breath yet. My lungs are kinda filled with zombie stink. I try to say something reassuring, but all that comes out is a cough.

"I know," Jonni says, sounding almost panicked. "Phan, I know what I am, I know you can't possibly feel anything for me. I'm so sorry, I am."

"L-Listen, Jonni," I finally manage to say. "This is -- This is --"

"No, please, don't say anything else," she says. She sobs, she looks like she wants to cry -- but she can't because her tear ducts don't work anymore. "I'm sorry, Phan, I know I'm... I know I'm disgusting. I -- I'm going away, okay? I'm so, so sorry."

And she runs down the alley, making those dry, gasping sobs all the way, and disappears into the street beyond before I can say anything else.

And I kinda feel bad about this, too. It's not her fault -- it's this damn Undead Charisma thing. I hate that she thinks she's disgusting, even if she is kinda disgusting. I hate that I get grossed-out when she kisses me -- even though I really am grossed out. I really hate it that, for a few brief moments, she lets herself feel normal emotions like a normal person -- and then gets her nose rubbed in the fact that she isn't normal, and she never will be normal.

And I swear, I hope she never draws the connection between Undead Charisma and... how she feels about me. Because I have no idea how she'll react. I just don't want her to kill me, you know?

I don't even know if there's anything I could say to her to make her feel any better. "I'm so sorry you're doomed to a loveless existence." "Don't worry, there's a necrophiliac out there for you somewhere." "I really do feel bad that I want to vomit every time you touch me." God, if I ever said anything like that, I'd let her kill me.

Nothing I can do about it. I wish there was, but there just isn't. I have my ghosts turn me invisible, and I walk the rest of the way to Dad's house.

I head for the back yard, unlock the back door, and head inside. By now, Dad's gotta be asleep, but just to be sure, I hide my mask and button up my jacket to hide the ghost logo on my shirt.

But weirdly, Dad is standing in the middle of the kitchen waiting for me.

"Uh, hey, Dad," I say. "Sorry I was out late -- we were watching Star Trek episodes, and I lost track of time."

"One of your friends came to see you, Cecil," Dad says slowly. "He's waiting for you in the living room."

That sounds ominous and weird. It doesn't help that Dad's eyes are glassy and unfocused, and that none of the lights in the house are on. My internal danger alarm is ringing like a siren.

Dad turns away without saying anything else and goes to sit at the kitchen table. He puts his head down in his arms and seemingly goes right to sleep.

I hit my communicator. I know Cobra probably won't pick right up if she's doing some kind of family dinner thing, so I leave a message. "Cobra, send anyone who knows my ID to my house. Fast, please -- I might be in trouble."

Then I put my mask back on and send all my ghosts into the living room to kick as much ass as possible.

By the time I follow them in, they're already getting thrown back into my face. You know anyone who can beat up ghosts? There aren't very many people who can do that.

Then someone grabs me by the lapels of my jacket, picks me up, and slams me against a wall. It's dark as pitch in here, and I can't get a good look at the guy. Tall, strong white guy in a suit, that's all I can tell.

And I don't have a lot of opportunity to examine him either. I get swung around again and slammed into another wall. My dad's favorite photo (it's a picture of his first Corvette) slides off the wall. Then I get swung around again and slammed into another wall.

"I apologize for the rough treatment, my young friend, but it's quite necessary to make sure you are listening to me. Are you listening to me?"

"I'm gonna stomp your face in if you don't let me go!" Okay, maybe a bit of false bravado, but it's one of the things that comes naturally when you fight supervillains all the time.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tarin," he says. "But your spectral friends cannot harm me, and without them, your offensive capabilities are limited. Now I hope you will calm down. I need your assistance with a pressing problem."

"Coming into my house, putting the mental zap on my dad, throwing my ghosts around, and bouncing me off the walls is not a good way to get me to calm down," I yell. "Not a good way to ask for help either, dumbass!"

"I won't tolerate name-calling, Mr. Tarin," he says. "Common courtesy should require you to address me by my name."

"Common courtesy?!" I yell at him. "Do I need to mention the wall-slamming again? And I don't even know your name!"

"Ah, of course, my apologies." He smiles, and in the dark room, his teeth are very, very white and very, very sharp. "You may call me... Dracula."

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