Home » The Crystal Hall » Fan Fiction » Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! (My attempt at Ciaphas Cain, Whateley Universe style)
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|Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #57325]
||Thu, 26 April 2012 09:03
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
Squids and Madmen
As with many field agents, I have found life post retirement to lack the purpose which so defined my formative years. It is no coincidence that many of my contemporaries entered the private sector, as well paid security consultants, or the grayer world, in less savory capacities. Luckily, I had something they lacked: this archive. While some might doubt its providence, I can assure readers of its authenticity. It is indeed the written record of that most singular American hero, Joseph Abel, the often named World's Bravest Man.
It is only from my multi-decade long association with Abel that I can make this claim. In this archive he reveals details only he and I could know and sheds light on aspects of his personality I'd only seen hints of before. Weeks after his internationally reported death to cancer, I received a sealed folder, containing an unordered collection of handwritten notes. Why he sent these sheets to me, I can only guess. Various comments in the archive hint at the hopes of publication but if so, I have to question his actions. As with all retiring MCO agents, I signed a range of confidentiality and non-disclosure documents, and even if that were not the case, I would not put my many friends and co-workers in danger by publicly releasing such sensitive information. As is, I have done my best. I have compiled this archive from Abel's notes and placed it in the MCO global archive under a Class 2 restricted access certificate. Hopefully that fact that at least some people know the truth will be enough for Abel.
My task has not been an easy one. Abel pays little attention to chronological consistency, often referring to unrecorded past events and things to come. I have done my best to provide additional information where required but otherwise left Abel's words intact. Piecing together various hints, I have dated the authorship to the last months of his life, between November 2019 and early April of the following year. It is at this point that I would speak a word of warning. Throughout this work, Abel paints himself in an unflattering light, a far cry from the man once described by the Wall Street Journal as 'not the smartest, strongest or most powerful hero, but containing those qualities which make you proud to be human'. To those people who find their faith shaken in this titan of our times I say this: Abel was dying and was always modest, even at his proudest moments. Just because he attempts to justify his actions in terms of self-interest and protection of his reputation does not make those actions any less noble.
Abigail de Bontin, MCO Special Agent-at-Large (Retired) (DeVille)
If there is one thing about being a superhero that continues to surprise me to this day it is this: people are happy to see you. Whether on patrol or engaged in more direct action, faces light up, people cheer and children ask for your autograph. This despite the proven link between resident superheroes and deaths due to paranormal activity. Throughout my long career I have been attacked by cyborg hellhounds, villainous wizards, armies of psychically controlled civilians and squads of power armored henchmen dropped from high orbit. Although I am not proud to say it, people have been hurt, perhaps even killed, in the crossfire. At the very least, property worth tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars has been destroyed. All too often my exploits start with a cry for help and this time was no exception.
At this stage in my life, I was a resident of Baltimore, Maryland. It was the late eighties and I'd already made a name for myself. I'd been recruited by then Mayor William Schaefer to draw attention away from the loss of the city's NFL team. Lose a sports team, gain a superhero. Sometimes I wonder why America prefers the fiction they've created around my life to the truth.
The cry came from a young boy, perhaps twelve years of age. His cheeks and nose were a ruddy red and his clothes thick and miss matched. Here was a child who spent a lot of time on the street, if one who probably had parents somewhere
"Yes, Citizen?" I said, dropping to one knee. This was far before the days of ever present camera phones but showmanship was important even then. Of course, if I knew then what I know now, I would have turned and run in the opposite direction, bad press or no.
"There's a man," said the boy between panted breaths. "He's being attacked." He pointed back the way he'd come, towards a tangle of buildings.
"I'm on my way." My peace said, I rose from my crouch, moving straight into a superleap. Distance whipped passed and I crashed down in an alley. Scattered and loose garbage lay on all sides and I moved forward at my best speed*, eyes open for danger.
* At later points in his career, Abel was recorded exceeding speeds of sixty miles per hour on level ground. Precise details are hard to come by, however, due to his famous resistance to power testing. I advise interested readers to examine MCO files #0934291 and #1862399 for the two best attempts at analysis and categorization of Abel's abilities. #0934291 comes closest to the truth, in my opinion.
I burst out the far side and straight away found my target. Two thugs, armed with knives, were accosting a small, mousy man in a crumpled suit. He had a briefcase handcuffed to his arm. I'd been in the game long enough to be relieved at what I found: two baselines carrying mundane weapons. Some newcomers, fresh to the game, longed for battles with Doctor Death, Cataclysm and the Necromancer. If Abigail has grown a conscience* and you are reading this, I say this: don't. You might get less credit but you'll live long enough to use it.
* I resent this remark.
The closest thug turned, and his eyes opened wide. He wore gang colors, though who's I couldn't be sure. A blue bandanna with a crimson scarf. His companion wore much the same, but his clothes were covered in metal studs.
"Drop the knives and lie on the ground," I said, standing straight, my chest and shoulders wide. I might be all but immune to anything below light artillery but there was no point in taking chances.
The closest thug shouted something to his companion -- I didn't catch what -- and they both charged, knives ready. From the way they moved, neither had formal training but they'd lived and survived on the street. Many martial arts types discount that kind of experience and that was a mistake. All the same, I had superpowers and they did not.
Studs stabbed at me, a hard strike which would have gutted a normal man, but I twisted aside and caught his wrist. I turned with him, leveraging the power of my arms and legs, and sent him flying through the air towards the far wall. He hit with a meaty thump and I turned back to the second attacker. He slashed at me and I moved into the attack. His eyes opened wide -- he clearly was use to opponents who backed away -- and I slammed my shoulder into his chest. With a cry of released breath, he went back and down. I kicked the knife clear and then pinned him to the ground with a boot. In only seconds, I had disabled both men. Simple, quick and easy. No risk to myself and a nice boost to my reputation, perhaps even a bonus from Mayor Schaefer in my next paycheck if it made favorable press. The briefcase spoke of something interesting.
Using a two sets of police issue handcuffs -- patronage had its perks -- I bound both men, not that they were going anywhere in a hurry. Studs was groaning, one, possibly both, arms broken. Bandanna was in better shape but it took a lot more than mundane strength to escape from beneath the rubber sole of my boot. The situation secure, I turned my attention to the victim.
"Good citizen," I said, "are you uninjured?"
He nodded and patted the briefcase at his side. "Thank god," he said under his breath, then looked up at me. "Thank you. I thought they... If they'd gotten a hold of the Inducer Core, I don't know what I'd have..."
Inducer Core and briefcase connected in my mind, and I jumped to the obvious conclusion. "They were trying to steal this core?"
The man nodded, then shook his head. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I'm Philbert Jones. Doctor Philbert Jones. I work for HSC*. One of our inventors, a reclusive woman. She lives in this neighborhood. I had just retrieved the Inducer Core and was on my way back to our lab when I was attacked."
* As is often the case in Abel's narrative, he fails to give sufficient background information for the reader to fully understand the situation, and it falls to me to provide it. HSC, or the Heavy Steel Company as it was formally known, is a Baltimore technological company. Growing out of the city's industrial heritage, HSC, along with many of its contemporaries, transformed from heavy industry to the design and manufacture of extranormal materials and equipment, investing heavily in paranormal research, scientists and inventors. Today, Baltimore's 'supersteel valley' employs many mutant Devisors and Gadgeteers and contains sixteen of the world's one hundred most powerful AIs.
Well, that brought a smile to my heart. The thanks of a wealthy and influential company was not to be underestimated. All the same, I set a frown on my face and tried to look severe. "It is foolish to wander the streets unguarded with hazardous materials."
"I know." Doctor Jones dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. "But our inventor, she's highly temperamental. She barely tolerates me."
I nodded my head, every inch the resolute hero. Sometimes it amazes me people don't fall down laughing. "Then it is my solemn duty to escort you to safety." And if your boss should just happen to mention to the Mayor or city council how helpful I was... In a city like Baltimore, politics is patronage. It can make you or break you but is vital either way.
"Oh thank you," said Doctor Jones. "Thank you."
Once the police had arrived and carted off my two gang members, I proceeded to escort Doctor Jones back to his lab. He had a car nearby so we didn't have to walk far.
As he drove, I did my best impression of alert and watchful, scanning for assassins, tailing cars or people running stop signs. "You're Joseph Abel," he said, as the car pulled onto one of the out-city roads. "My son has a poster of you on his wall." The fact that it took him this long to catch on was not unusual in my experience. Shock is a natural reaction to assault, paranormal or otherwise.
"That I am," I said. The posters were not my idea but it was surprising how well they sold, and it pushed me closer to being a household name. It was an unquestionable fact of the superhero life that a big name hero got more credit for doing something minor than a newcomer for something big, excluding the odd media storm of course.
"Thank you for doing this," he said as he changed lanes. "I am, HSC is, very grateful."
"Think nothing of it. It is every citizen's duty to help those in need." And if you bought that, I have some swampland in Florida to sell you. I really did too. It's quite surprising what some people will leave you in their wills after you save their lives.
If his title was anything to go by, Doctor Jones was an intelligent man but he bought it up all the same. "Do you think? I don't mean to be a bother. It's for my son you understand."
I smiled and nodded and pulled a pen from my utility belt. Out of everything I kept there, the pen got the most use. Even now, years later, I remain oddly proud of that fact. "Who do I make it out too?"
As I made out the autograph, Doctor Jones drove out the city limits and towards the main HSC laboratory complex. The first sign that something was wrong was the smoke rising into the sky.
"Abel?" said Doctor Jones, voice oddly quiet.
"I see it," I said, eyes locked onto the smoke. "That's your lab?"
"Step on it."
Whatever else, he took me at my word. The car zoomed forwards, weaving through lanes and between slower cars to cut every possible second from our journey. We came to a screeching stop outside a large set of steel gates and I leapt out the door. "Stay here."
With a thrust, I exploded into the air and cleared the gates by almost ten feet. I thundered down on the other side, shattering concrete, and took in the situation. I could already see my credit for rescuing Doctor Jones going, quite literally, up in smoke but there was also the opportunity for even greater rewards. If it was an ordinary fire, or if whoever had caused it was safely gone, I could go in and save the day. If not, or if there was undue danger to myself, I could fall back and 'ensure' Doctor Jones made it to safety.
The HSC lab was a low, wide building, in the style of a modern technical park. In most places it was only a single story tall but the foyer stretched to three. It was from there the fire burnt most fiercely. Taking a deep breath, I sprinted forward. My Invulnerability was weak against fire*; this could very well hurt.
* Abel's vulnerability to fire is a running theme in his biography but is, at best, inconsistently applied. Sunbird, one of his semi-recurring nemesi, is a flame projector and Abel repeatedly demonstrates some superhuman resistance to her powers. Mostly likely, his Invulnerability does provide some protection against flames and heat but not to the same degree as against physical attacks.
I superleapt while still a dozen feet away from the main doors and raised my arms to cover my face. The doors shattered before me and I was inside. Heat was everywhere and the smoke made me cough.
"Is anyone here!"
There was a moan from behind the reception desk and I bounded over. A woman lay there, locked to the floor by what looked like a vast lump of glue.
"Are you unhurt," I said, bending down.
"You have to stop it," she said and groaned. While her right hand was affixed to the floor, her left looked to be broken. "The Psycrete!"
"Not until I get you to safety." The fire was building in intensity and with any luck the media might have arrived. Nothing beat carrying a woman out of a burning building for making the front page, but the glue made getting her out difficult. While I could probably break it with my Superstrength, doing so might well rip the lady's arm apart. Best all round to leave the problem for later. I punched down and shattered the floor. I did it again on the other side of the glue blob, and a final time at the triangle point between the two. With a wrench, I lifted glue, woman and a small section of floor into the air and dashed out the building.
Cameras flashed as I set her down. The media had indeed made it, as had the police and fire department. Normally that would mean I'd be getting some help, but all three groups were trapped by the gates. Whoever was meant to open them was clearly occupied by more fiery concerns. The firemen were attempting to cut the hinges with a huge set of bolt cutters but that looked set to take a while. HSC must value their privacy a whole lot.
I dashed forward and grabbed the gates at their central point. With a heave, I ripped them from the wall and threw them to one side. They clanged like Champion's own fist as they hit the ground but it meant the emergency services could gain admittance. It also let the media swarm forward.
"Abel! Abel!" said a female reporter wearing the logo of GNN*. "What's going on? Is this a normal fire or paranormal crime?"
* Goodkind News Network. Abel has had a mostly positive relationship with this network over the years, a feat at least partly due to my own influence during the later stages of his career. The MCO has excellent editorial cooperation with all Goodkind networks and we provide technical assistance and advice for many of their programs, Tales of the MCO being perhaps the best known example. More relevantly, they were more than happy to provide me with a copy of their archived footage from this incident, a fact which greatly assisted me in my task as editor.
"No time to talk," I said as I thundered back towards the building. Supervillains were still a worrying possibility, but retreat was now impossible. A few photographers I could have dealt with, and if not for the emergency services I could have played the 'taking the injured civilian to the hospital' card, but this was practically the perfect storm. Running away now? It would have been the end of my reputation. Joseph Abel, America's Cravenest Man... That was not something I wanted to happen.
Again, I raised my arms and barreled through the outer doors. The fires were larger than before and the flames licked out, deadly tongues which caressed my skin in a way my Invulnerability couldn't stop.
The receptionist had mentioned something called 'Psycrete' so that's where I started. I didn't know if that was some invention they were working on or the handle of a supervillain but there was only one way to find out. A complex array of signs pointed off in different directions and I chose 'Lab (Primary)' as the most likely.
Black smoke billowed along the ceiling as I sprinted forward but I didn't see any more trapped people. The sign led me to a large doorway but it was blocked by an unordered pile of chairs, work tables and shelves. I sent most of it flying with a swipe of my arm and set to work on the rest. As I was pulling the last few pieces of hanging wood clear, a metallic tentacle exploded into my chest.
It felt like a battering ram. It felt like a car had just hit me going full speed. I flew back, body twisting through the air, and smashed into the ground. For a half second I just lay stunned, but only for a half second. Gritting my teeth, I pushed myself up right and started towards the door. The tentacle would have killed an ordinary man but I was no ordinary man. Taking a hit was what I was best at.
The tentacle flashed silver as it withdrew but I could be fast when I wanted to be. I darted forward, caught it just before it would disappear, and yanked. A thud and a mechanical scream issued from the lab. I took that as my queue. Not letting go of the tentacle, I dove inside.
The lab was a large square room, mostly dominated by a huge upturned egg cup attached to the ceiling. From it hung a slowly shrinking spherical mass of white plastic, which vibrated and shook as if liquid. Maybe a dozen scientists were glued to the walls, blobs of semi-transparent slime covering most of their body. It was the giant silver mechanical squid which had my attention, though.
Of its eight metal arms, two were thrust into the plastic egg, seemingly draining it away; another pair ended in a brace of oversized guns, probably the source of the glue; three were used to hold it upright; and I held the final. As soon as I registered in whatever passed for squid eyes, it swung up its glue-guns and started firing.
Some might question the utility of a glue gun over something more lethal. Some might even think of it as nobility on the villains' part, that they resisted the use of lethal weapons. Nothing could further from the truth. Take it from someone who's met Mister Sticky, a self-cleaning rapid-fire pastegun is one of the most powerful weapons in the world and these two were exactly that.
Blasts of glue shot towards me, and I threw myself to the side. The glue guns tracked but I kept moving. In situations like these, getting close was the key*. I superjumped and took the squid in a flying tackle. It crashed backwards, all three tentacle-legs disappearing out from under it. The glue guns went wide, blasting a path of adhesive up the far wall, but I was inside their firing arc. With advantage mine, I began to attack the squid, Superstrength punches slamming down into its torso.
* In my experience, the key is to call in heavily armed backup with Brick-busting weapons but Abel had his own way of doing things.
Whatever material made up the squid's silvery hide, it was strong, paramaterial strong. It took my best punches straight on, the chassis denting and deforming rather than splitting apart. That also gave it time to grab me from behind. A thin tentacle wrapped around my wrist and sent me flying backwards. I slammed into the wall, leaving a dent, but the squid did not release me. It yanked again and I went flying in the opposite direction, over the length of the lab and into a work table on the far side. Glass beakers shattered and I levered myself to my feet. The orb of plastic was half gone from the ceiling now, the squid still draining it down. Whatever else it was doing, the squid was winning.
I threw myself at my foe again, but it was ready this time. A free tentacle flipped up and batted me away, a flash of silver containing incredible power. I stumbled back and knocked into the wall, my charge broken and balance momentarily gone. That wouldn't normally be a problem but this squid knew how to hit a man when he was down. The glue guns came up and opened fire and sticky adhesive slammed into my arms, chest and legs. In moments it would reach a critical mass and lock me tight, perhaps even beyond my Superstrength's ability to break. I needed to act fast and act now.
Before it could trap me forever, I straightened and bore out with my arms. That won me the slightest amount of wiggle room and I used it to smash back against the wall, using every ounce of my strength. It broke apart, concrete shattering, and I wrenched myself forward and free. Glue still covered large parts of my costume*, as did some quite large chunks of masonry, but I couldn't stop to do anything about that. I had more important things to worry about.
* According to GNN's archived footage, a relatively simple suit of white and gold, accompanied by a slightly more complicated jacket, with a hint of Revolutionary War in the cut. As always, Abel forgoes any form of mask.
The squid had almost had me there. If things had gone even slightly different, I'd have been as good as dead. Worst still, playing a defensive game was out of the question too. The scent of smoke stained the air and the lab was growing hotter. The fire wasn't on me yet but that could change very quickly. I needed to end this now.
In a series of short zigzag leaps, I reached the squid, dodging tentacle strikes the whole time. At the last, I let it think me caught but grabbed its tentacle and set my legs, ready to pull. This close, I could more directly apply leverage and yanked with all my superhuman might, fingers digging deep into the metal. It shot towards me, and I slammed my head right into its. The impact left me stunned -- I saw stars -- but did worst things to the squid. It slumped backwards, legs unsteady. If it had been human, I would have labeled it punch drunk. As it was, I most like knocked some stabilizing gyro out of alignment.
All eight tentacles went limp, including the two dedicated to draining the plastic sphere, and I took the opportunity to look up; perhaps only a tenth of the orb was left. That was probably a mistake because it took only seconds for the squid to regain its balance and then it was rising up, fluted body held aloft on three narrow tentacles. I attacked again but it was playing on the defensive now, retreating backwards.
I threw a punch but it was an elusive bastard, deflecting my blows in some form of cephalopod judo. It was almost at the far wall before I realized what was happening: it was making a run for it. If not for the watching eyes of the trapped scientists, I'd have let it leave with my thanks. As it was, I felt compelled to put on one last show.
Spinning to the side, I ripped a table off the ground and sent it right at the squid's head, an oversized discus. It struck, shards of stone* going in all directions, and the squid reeled back. The blow was enough to blast it off its feet but it managed to regain its equilibrium a split second later, two of its longer tentacles anchoring it to the wall. It hung there for an extended moment, then its tentacles rippled in an unnatural way and it shot backwards. The wall shattered and it flew through the gap, into the outside world. Before I could move to follow, it was already swarming across the border wall.
* Stone might seem a slight incongruity here but I have researched the matter and found it likely to be accurate. Granite tables are used in many scientific fields, anything which requires precise physical measurements. Stone shatters; it does not bend or deform like metal, wood and plastic.
Now with some breathing space, I looked around. Smoke was starting to fill the room and the air was hot, not quite scorching but unpleasant all the same. There was still some time before the fire proper arrived but not much. I moved to the nearest of the dozen trapped scientists and began working out how to get him free.
He was an elderly man, hair gone gray and body gone plump. Most of him not concealed by glue was covered by a white lab coat but I could just see a t-shirt and jeans underneath.
"You have to stop him!" he said, face white.
"Stop what? Who?" I said, but my mind was on other matters. There was too much glue to slip him out of his clothes to get him free. It would have to be something else.
"Kissinger, Frederic Kissinger. He's gone crazy!"
I slammed my fist into the wall, light blows designed to weaken rather than shatter. Cracks began to form and the scientist fell from the wall with a squelching sound. The glue still stopped any independent movement but it was an improvement all the same.
"Does this glue have a solvent?" I said.
"A solvent, yes, but you must listen to me." From further away, I could hear the crackling of fire and the beating of water hoses. "If you don't stop Kissinger, it won't matter what happens here. He's got the Psycrete. If he has the Inducer Core too..."
"The core is safe. Doctor Jones was attacked but I arrived in time."
"Oh thank god. When he did not arrive... I thought the worst." He sagged in his bonds.
The crackling of fire was getting a lot louder. "The solvent?" I said.
"The solvent, of course. Kissinger created the glue and its reversing agent while he was employed here. There should be a canister in the storage cupboard over there." He jerked his head towards a small door, halfway down the far wall.
"I'll be right back," I said and set off at a run. The door had taken more than a few miss-aimed glue blasts. That would have sealed it against any normal man but I was far from normal. It exploded under my shoulder barrage and I stormed inside. The solvent was easy to find, located inside a bright green canister shaped like a fire extinguisher. I picked it up, primed the trigger and set to work.
Black smoke was starting to fill the room by the time the last scientist fell free and heat was baking half my face. "Out the hole!" I said, pointing at the large aperture created by the squid. That last man didn't need to be told twice and hurried out, scrambling over broken bricks and shattered concrete. I checked the room one last time and followed him.
An hour found me in a police tactical trailer, along with the ranking officer present, a Major Bondar from the State Police's paranormal response division. Doctor Jones was also there, still clutching his Inducer Core briefcase, as was Doctor Zinzibar, the first of the scientists I'd rescued from the lab. He was also project leader.
"Does someone want to tell me what is going on," said Major Bondar, face hard. He had never been a handsome man and a collection of small scars did nothing to help his appearance. It is times like these I'm glad for my powers. On the occasions when attacks do break through my Invulnerability, I heal fast and clean.
Jones and Zinzibar looked at each other and it was Zinzibar who answered. "It's Frederic Kissinger. He's a mutant who used to work for us."
"A real mutant?" I queried*.
* Since mutants are by far the most common form of paranormally empowered human, perhaps excepting mystics if a sufficiently low level interpretation is used, it is not uncommon for non-mutants to be considered more of the same. This is incorrect and unfair. The unique threat posed by mutants does not extend to all other paranormal breeds. Most importantly, only mutants breed consistently true, only mutants affect non-adults in appreciable numbers and mutants have by far the highest percentage of mentally unstable individuals, as this very case demonstrates.
"Yes," said Doctor Jones. "He's a Gadgeteer 3 on the Yerunkle-Corbin system*, a very strong one. Builder Grade B under Miller-McFarlane most likely."
* Yerunkle-Corbin -- an archaic system for ranking esper traits, based around the control a mutant has over the ability. It was replaced by the Hewley-Aranis system in the mid two thousands, which has expanded scales for individually isolated esper traits. Under Hewley-Aranis, Kissinger would likely rank as either a 5 or a 6. Any reader who both requires more information and has the requisite clearance to read this archive should immediately report for remedial training.
Both Major Bondar and I nodded. "What does he want?" I said.
The two scientists shared another look. It was Doctor Jones who answered this time. "We employ many mutants in our research and development division. Most are just like you and I, but some... Some can be a little strange." Mechanized attack squids seemed more than a 'little' strange to me.
"The best of them are the worst," said Zinzibar, fidgeting with his hands. "It's what you have to deal with. They can build a supercomputer in an afternoon but it might well be powered by sardines and coffee. Kissinger was-- He seemed stable. He was one of the main minds behind our Psycrete project but as the project neared completion, he became more and more unhappy with its progress."
"He wanted to keep working on the Psycrete," broke in Doctor Jones. "Maybe if he wanted to work on a Psycrete 2.0 we could have worked something out but he wanted any and all commercial operations halted until it was perfect. After more than a decade of research, we had something that worked. It met seven out of our nine design goals! That's more than we dreamed of when we started."
"But Kissinger didn't think this was good enough?" I said.
"No," replied Zinzibar. "His behavior and conduct deteriorated until we had to let him go. He left, swearing revenge and to retrieve 'his' Psycrete."
"And you didn't report this?" said Major Bondar. His face was even heavier than ever.
"We didn't want to get him in trouble," said Zinzibar, looking guilty. "I, we, didn't expect this. I thought it was all hot air. The first we knew it was something more was when the squid-bot broke into the lab, wielding his glue-guns. It could only be him."
I took pity on him. "What does the Psycrete actually do and how does the Inducer Core fit into this?"
"Psycrete is a psychic conductor and amplifier," said Doctor Jones. "It greatly boosts telepathic and esper abilities."
"Think of the possibilities," said Zinzibar, the guilt of before forgotten. "With just the ordinary psychic potential all humans possess... You could control machinery with your mind. Ubiquitous telepathy. It could change the world."
"And what would it do for someone who already had superhuman psychic potential, a mutant psychic for instance?" The fact that Gadgeteer was an Esper ability had not escaped my notice.
"With a sufficiently large body of activated Psycrete and an energy source to provide the power?" said Zinzibar. "Near enough anything."
The silence sat heavy in the trailer and I was loathed to break it, mostly because people would look to me for a solution. I did have a solution but I didn't think taking the first plane out state would be a popular one.
After a few seconds, Doctor Jones said, "It's not over yet." He held up a hand and rattled the handcuff connecting him to the briefcase. "That's activated Psycrete and Kissinger only has the inactive base stock and perhaps a few grams of activated test sample. We can activate small samples in the lab but to use its psychic resonance properties on a large scale you need this, the Inducer Core." Every eye in the room was focused on the briefcase in that moment.
"What's to stop him building his own," said Major Bondar. "If he's as smart as you say, it should be easy." I was tempted to agree but both scientists were shaking their heads.
"Kissinger's a Gadgeteer," said Doctor Jones. "That means he can build incredible but not impossible things*. The Inducer Core was built by another mutant who works for us, but she's a Devisor. That means no one but another Devisor can replicate it and probably not even then."
* Future revelations would cast doubt on this, but none of the parties involved would find this out until later. If Abel ever learned the truth, there is no hint of it in this archive.
"Can we destroy the core?" said Major Bondar and I had to agree with him. That was by far the simplest option. It might not be the best thing for HSC's bottom line, or even my own reputation, but it would solve all our problems.
The two scientists shared one of their looks. "I don't think that would be wise," said Doctor Jones. "I didn't build the core, you understand, but I know it's an immense reservoir of neural-psychic energy. Destroying it in an uncontrolled fashion could prove dangerous."
I frowned and nodded my head. It seemed a reasonable worry, and at the time, I was willing to bow to the wisdom of experts. Of course, if I'd known then the full scale of what was to come, I'd have smashed it myself.
"So we stop him getting his hands on this 'core' and he poses a threat no more than any other out of control mutant," said Major Bondar, having clearly decided this was true, no matter what any one of us might say. "We will find him and arrest him. I will personally ensure he spends the rest of his life in Roxbury."
Somehow I doubted it would be that simple.
The following hours were filled with hurried preparation. Doctor Jones and his Inducer Core were hidden away in the deepest cell of Baltimore's temporary superhuman holding facility, Rock 12, a large extension to Baltimore City Correctional Center which served the whole of Maryland. Major Bondar's men and a legion of deputized local police were scouring the city and the surrounding areas for any sign of Kissinger. The MCO had sent a special advisor* to consult on the mutant psyche. I, meanwhile, had put every local superhero on high alert. If things went truly south, we could expect help from New York but it could be a while coming. Until then, Baltimore would be on its own. Despite some quite frantic searching on my part, I could find no convenient excuse to slip away and was left coordinating the superhero response to the emergency.
* Not me. My first face-to-face encounter with Abel was still some years away. According to the records I've been able to find, it was a Senior Special Agent Theodore Vimes, a then twenty year veteran of the MCO. I can only assume that his help and advice were invaluable to the eventual success of the operation but Abel does not seem to mention it or, indeed, acknowledge the man's existence ever again.
A little before five pm, the phones started ringing. The back room staff of Major Bondar's paranormal response command jumped into action.
"We have a report of squids coming south down Franklin Street. Ten, no, twenty of them."
"More coming down North Gay!"
"Are any groups heady for Rock 12?" I said, voice calm.
"Yes," said a uniformed officer standing next to a map of the city. Multiple squid icons were already pinned in place. "There's a sizable force moving west along Orleans Street. If they turn north, they'll be right at the prison."
I stood and grabbed my jacket from across the back of the chair. "I'm going then. Keep updates going out on the superhero channels but I think we'll all be too busy to listen to them soon. Call the New York Emergency Number. Tell them we need everyone they can spare." And if I reached Orleans Street and just kept going, no one could possibly blame me or more importantly know. The New York teams would arrive before long and they could handle things far more efficiently than me. True, they would get the credit but I've already spelt out my opinion on the credit versus risk exchange rate inherent in super heroics.
Within a few minutes, I was in a police car as it shot along the road, lights blaring. Despite the fact that I was Invulnerable, my knuckles were white as I held on with a near death grip. Hopefully no one would charge me for the damage when this was all over. We came to a screeching stop at the junction of Central and Orleans and I sent the Police Officer driver a smile. "Thank you for this, Officer. Now, get back to base. I'm sure there will be much for you to do before we are done."
He nodded and I jumped out. The tires screeched as the car turned and shot back the way we come. From here on out, I was on my own.
Emergency Procedures were in effect and the streets were mostly empty of civilian traffic. A few cars shot passed me, heading away from the danger, but that was it. This was good; empty roads were one of the few places I could really let loose with my speed, although I did leave more than my fair share of potholes in my wake. I started up the road, legs pumping as I settled into a fast jog.
It wasn't long before the squids broke into view. There were seven of them and the smallest was half again the size of the monster I'd fought at the HSC lab. They didn't gleam in quite the same way, however, and I suspected these were made from more pedestrian materials than their brother. With a cry of screeching metal, the center-most raised a huge cannon and fired. The resulting explosion knocked me off my feet and sent me tumbling backwards. I struck the ground, bounced, flew again, then came to a rolling stop, smoking all over and in a great deal of pain. This was clearly not the best time to play hero.
Two squids surged forwards from the group, the bottom four tentacles on each letting out a whooping sound as they held their respective squids aloft on invisible cushions of air*. Another pair of tentacles were devoted to rotary saw blades and the final set more general purpose manipulation. I was only just on my feet when they reached me. A double set of spinning saw blades slashed down from the closest and I blocked with a forearm. Sparks flew and I was forced back a step, a bitten off cry on my lips. The blades couldn't cut me but the heat from the attempt hurt like a bitch. The second came in from the other side and caught me a double slash across the small of my back. I did scream this time and swung around with a fist, confident I could smash them if I could just land a blow. They pulled back, however, hover legs buzzing. From further up the road, the cannon squid fired again. Before I could even think to dodge, an immense weight exploded right on top of me, slamming me down into the road. Against that kind of firepower, even my Invulnerability has its limits and I saw black. I was at the bottom of a shallow crater when I came too, probably only a few seconds later.
* As is often the case, Abel is speaking figuratively rather than literally. According to technological forensic reports produced by MCO teams after the battle, these 'assault-model' squid were using Tesla-type force repulses to stay aloft, similar to what MCO dropships began to use in the mid-nineties. Such devices bear little to no relationship with the air cushion of a hovercraft.
When I forced myself upright, my head was spinning. Lumbering squids broke into view, four of them, each devoting half their tentacles to glue-guns. I jumped for them without stopping to think. If my brain hadn't been running out my ears, I would have landed a clean strike. As it was, I slammed into the nearest shoulder first, sending us both crashing to the ground. Metal cracked and shattered on impact and I rolled away, swinging the corpse of the squid up to use as a shield. I was just in time too. The remaining three glue-gun squids opened fire, pelting their fallen comrade with melon sized balls of sticky adhesive. With a grunt, I kicked out, sending my makeshift shield at my nearest attacker, and then flipped to my own feet. Before I could dash forward, however, a double set of buzzsaws slashed towards me. Knowing what to expect now, I moved into the attack and caught the tentacles just below the spinning blades. Their motors roared just beside my ears and I heaved with all my might. The tentacles tore loose in a shower of sparks and liquid filled cables.
Again the artillery squid fired, and I reacted just in time, throwing myself forward and taking the remains of the hover squid with me. The explosion erupted behind me and the shockwave added even more to my momentum. Once the world stopped spinning, a quick check showed one of the two remaining glue-gun squids hadn't been so lucky.
Shaking myself clear of dust, I staggered to my feet. My old friend 'I really must be overcompensating for something' squid was lining up for another shot. Given my original plan had been to make only a token show of fighting, if any, I was certainly taking a lot of knocks and destroying a lot of squids. With no other choice, I charged, taking the short, rapid superleaps which gave my best speed. The squid fired again but I was running faster than it guessed. The shell exploded behind me and only leant me speed. I opened with a savage right hook and ripped the squid's gun right from its moorings. Sparks flew and I followed up with a kick, using the momentum from my punch to spin myself around and drive my heel right through the mechanical monster's chest. It fell to the ground, tentacles powerless, and let out an electronic whimpering noise. With that constant annoyance dealt with, I turned. By my count I had one glue-gun squid and one hover squid left to deal with.
I located them in moments, but they weren't attacking me, which was something of a shock. Unfortunately what they were doing was worse. They'd joined up with a second group of squids, which had swung in from the north and was now heading rapidly away. That wasn't the problem. In fact, I'd be quite happy if all the squids decided to leave me alone. No, the problem was the small, mousy man held aloft by the tentacles of the second group*.
* Although Abel had no way of knowing it at the time, a second unit of squid had assaulted down Greenmount Avenue. The local Baltimore speedster Miss Maryland attempted to intercede but was defeated. She was found during post battle clean-up, glued to the road and severely injured. Upon reaching Rock 12, the Greenmount Avenue group revealed several squid models specializing in boring through earth and rock, classified as 'tunneling-model' squid in MCO technological forensic reports. Over the course of ten minutes, they were able to penetrate to the most secure levels of Rock 12 and capture Doctor Jones, Kissinger having correctly guessed where he was being held. There is some speculation that the small amounts of active Psycrete in Kissinger's possession might have triggered a more general purpose esper ability in him, but there is only circumstantial evidence to support this claim.
I swore and started after them, my body complaining at the rapid movement. Kissinger could not be allowed to acquire the Inducer Core; my own life depended on it. As I began to close the gap, the squids changed tactic. Doctor Jones was passed to a quartet of hover models and the rest headed straight for me.
The first to close was a huge thing, the biggest I'd yet seen. Three of its tentacles locked together in a blade shape and began to rotate. Force fields flickered to life, glowing arcs of purple light. Within seconds it had formed into a great, spiraling drill and I had no intention of testing my Invulnerability against it. I leapt up high, passing right over the top. Two smaller models tracked my progress and moved to intercept. Flickers of laser light danced over my body and then hot lead followed. I pulled my arms up and weathered the storm, each bullet hurting like a stinging bee.
I hit earth, rolled and came up fighting. The nearest gun squid was right in front of me. Unlike the other models, this squid's weapons were mounted on the sides of its body, rather than on the ends of its tentacles. It opened fire again and I surge forward, cocking a fist ready to strike. At the last moment it tried to dodge, but I was quite a bit faster than I looked. Its armor parted like tissue paper before my fist and I ripped into its delicate innards. Not pausing to confirm its defeat, I kept moving forward. The hover squids and Doctor Jones were my targets. Anything else was a successful delaying action. Bullets shot at me from behind but I ignored them. Where I was going was far more important. It also didn't make any sense.
The squids were fleeing down South President Street. I didn't know Baltimore like a native, but I was fairly sure that led right to Harbor East and the sea beyond that. Unless Kissinger liked waterfront properties, they were heading towards a dead end.
On the long, flat road I began to make progress again. Even with their hover system to help, eight legs and a tapered body wasn't the optimum design for anything which didn't live in water. When I broke through the final layer of buildings before the shore, they were only just ahead of me. With nowhere left to run, I was sure I had them cornered. Of course, I wasn't counting on their hover ability working as well over ocean as it did on land. Shit. I charged to the water's edge, legs pounding, and superjumped, turning the motion into a dive mid leap.
My dive wasn't graceful and I hit the water, almost belly first. Once again my Invulnerability saved me from serious damage, but it wasn't comfortable and lost me valuable seconds. The squids were making their best speed out through the inner harbor, towards the Key Bridge and the open sea beyond, leaving boat like wakes to mark their path. I began a rapid breaststroke, superstrong limbs throwing waves of water up behind me. As powerful as I was, swimming had never been a particular skill of mine and the hover squids gained ground, Doctor Jones' form growing smaller.
The minutes passed and the salt water stung my skin. The squids followed the curve of the inner harbor. If I didn't catch them soon, they were sure to get away. We'd need to wait for a flyer to arrive from New York and they were still at least an hour distant*. Just when I thought the squids would make a brake for Chesapeake Bay proper, they turned and headed back to land, right towards Fort McHenry. I followed.
* New York is approximately two hundred miles away from Baltimore. It's a rare speedster or flyer who can maintain a speed of over one hundred miles per hour for an appreciable length of time, meaning a two hour journey. This could be reduced if vehicles or teleportation were used, however. Since I have been unable to find any details concerning how, or indeed when, the New York detachment eventually arrived, I am forced to assume Abel is speaking with a reasonable degree of accuracy. I will note, though, that the Empire City Guard had yet to acquire its famous War Wagon.
I staggered back to land, lungs burning. The squids shot right into the heart of the two hundred year old star fort. If this was where Kissinger was held up, he had guts if nothing else, taking over America's only duel National Monument and Historic Shrine, and birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner. With a leap that left my legs burning, I cleared the outer walls and thundered down into the fort's center. There was only an immense pit. If I'd had any choice, I would have hung back, called for backup. As it was I fell straight in. The media called it bravery; I say bad luck.
The ground was hard and I smacked into it face first. Invulnerability twists sensation and this one made me feel like a just flipped-pancake. I groaned and pushed up, spitting dirt from my mouth. Light was streaming down from above. It illuminated a cave of some sort, walls made from hard packed earth*. It was tempting to take a few seconds to catch my breath, but that was out of the question. I could just see the hover squids as they disappeared down a shadowed corridor, their stolen cargo clutched between them. Stopping only to take a deep breath, I thundered after. In the enclosed space, I could hear Doctor Jones screaming.
* As I have remarked before, Abel's writings should not be taken as the literal truth. Kissinger's underground base was not a cave of any sort, nor was it based upon a natural, pre-existing structure. Post battle analysis found almost four kilometers of tunnel, all of it artificial, presumably created by the same 'tunneling-model' squid deployed to assault Rock 12.
I tore around a corner, the squids only a few seconds in front. I could see Doctor Jones, hair water soaked, briefcase whipping from side to side. Light shone from just ahead -- a room of some kind -- and I put on one last boost of speed, superleapt and landed on the rearmost squid. I bore it down and we both slammed into the ground. Metal ripped apart, hover tentacles exploded in showers of sparks and I went rolling forward, completely out of control. I stopped a few seconds later, just in front of a vast throne made from white plastic, the Psycrete. Atop it sat Frederic Kissinger. I looked up at him and he looked down at me.
"You!" he said, disgust in his voice.
In my long career, I have fought many supervillains, both before, during and after my tenure in Baltimore, but I will always remember Kissinger. It was something about his eyes. They were small and wild but also drew you in. Looks wise he was nothing special. He had a narrow chin, covered in beard stubble, and wore his brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. The required costume* was made from a metallic material, which shimmered hologram like as he moved, but it was mostly hidden by a voluminous white lab coat. Kissinger was flanked on both sides by towering squids, large things made from silvery metal. They looked to be made from the same substance as the original, the monster which took my punches and kept on coming.
* Abel is speaking metaphorically here, referring to the general trend for paranormal individuals to don a costume before committing crime. Although some countries do have such laws, the United States of America is not one of them, and where they do exist, they are primarily targeted at superheroes. Supervillains, being criminals by nature, are governed by their own desires, not the rules of society. That said, the MCO has an on-going campaign to encourage distinctive high-contrast outfits for mutants on all sides of the law.
"Kissinger, I presume," I said, as I pushed myself up. "Hand over Doctor Jones and the Inducer Core and no one need get hurt."
"The Psycrete is mine!" he said and slammed his fists down on the arms of his throne. "I created it! Those fools couldn't see its potential, but I can. I will make it perfect!" Supervillains and ranting... What could you do?
I could hear the three remaining hover squids behind me, saw blades buzzing, lifting tentacles making their own noises. The two in front seemed almost tense, like sprinters waiting for the starting gun. This could get bad fast. Kissinger raised a hand and pointed right at me. "Seize him." His two bookends attempted exactly that. They surged forwards, three tentacles used for locomotion, the rest heading for me.
Glue guns fired, and I threw myself to the side, the adhesive blasts coming so close I felt them brush my costume. I came up, fists ready, but the closest silver squid threw itself at me, all eight tentacles in the air. It slammed into me, knocking me down and its tentacles swarmed over my body, gripping tight. I threw my full strength into breaking free. The tentacles groaned, even the silvery paramaterial straining under the assault, but I lacked proper leverage. After a few seconds, I stopped, panting. Kissinger dismounted his throne.
"Jones," said Kissinger as he walked towards the doctor, who was bound much as I was.
"Kissinger," said Doctor Jones, the word almost a grimace.
"You know what I want." Kissinger's eyes were locked on the dangling briefcase. He motioned with a hand and the silver squid which wasn't holding me moved forward. One of its manipulator tentacles whipped out, there was a flash of light and the briefcase fell free. Another blast of light and it flicked open. The Inducer Core lay revealed, set into a foam inlay. It was a small glass tube, perhaps six inches long, and filled with scarlet lightning. Large gold prongs thrust out from both ends. Kissinger hissed as he picked it up. "Finally!" He turned and walked back towards his throne.
"Don't do this, Kissinger!" said Doctor Jones. "We don't know what that much active Psycrete will do to someone."
Kissinger wheeled back around. "Don't know! Don't know! I know everything about my creation. I am its father and its mother. I brought it into the world. It would never harm me! I will empower it and then I will make it perfect and then the world!"
"Listen to yourself." Jones futilely threw himself against his bonds. "Psycrete is a psionically reactive plastic. It's not alive!"
"It will be," said Kissinger, Inducer Core glowing in his hands. "It will be."
While the two scientists talked, I continued to struggle against my captor but its arms remained tight, eight superstrong tentacles. I kicked out with my bound together legs and managed to slam them against the ground. As strong as I was, I simply lacked the leverage for an effective strike. I strained and kicked out again, in what an unkind observer might call a flopping fish. It was a good thing there were no cameras; I don't like to think what it would do to my reputation. The motion did some good, though: moving me backwards towards the far wall.
"You again," said Kissinger, turning towards me, a sneer on his face.
"Me," I said and slammed my back against the wall, driving the squid against it. It didn't waver.
"It's no use, you know," he said, completely incorrectly. Since he was standing still and not using the Inducer Core, my actions had plenty of use.
"Kissinger!" shouted Doctor Jones and the supervillain whipped back around. "What's the point of all this? What do you plan if you succeed?" If my sexual orientation had been otherwise, and the superhero conventions of that time had allowed it, I could've kissed the good doctor. Keep the madman talking, best trick in the book.
"Do!" said Kissinger and shook his arms, sending his lab coat fluttering. I could almost imagine him spending hours practicing the motion. "Do! When I activate the Psycrete, there will be nothing I can't do! I will be able to do anything!"
"Anything? What will you do when Champion drops through your ceiling, or the Magus or the Amazing Three?"
"They will be nothing to me! The Psycrete will unlock my unlimited potential and I will unlock its!"
I slammed my back against the wall again, putting as much of my Superstrength as I could behind the blow. The squid holding me let out a mechanical whine and its tentacles wavered, going momentarily weak before returning to adamantium hardness. I did it again and this time bore out with my arms. For a split second the tentacles held, then I was free. I bore up, heading right for Kissinger. He swung round, his face wild. "Stop him!!"
The three remaining hover squids shot forward, their buzzsaws screaming. I superleapt, arms outstretched and knocked two out of the air in a single strike. One span off to the side, half its hover-tentacles destroyed, and the other cracked down the middle. I grabbed it before it could fall, span on my heel and sent the top half shooting towards Kissinger. His eyes opened wide and he slapped his wrist, activating some kind of controller. There was a boom of sound and a glittering forcefield crackled into view, a dome of warring red energy. The squid struck and exploded, shrapnel flying in all directions, but the field held. My eyes opened wide; I'd never seen something like that before*.
* Modern readers might find this comment confusing, but remember, this occurred in the mid-eighties. PFGs were unique specialized items at this time, created and used by the geniuses who invented them. I remembered being quite shocked when I first encounter such an item, during the final year of my schooling. It would be twenty years before they became reasonably common and another ten until standardization.
The last hover squid strafed by, saws slashing, but it was the two silver monsters which held my attention. My erstwhile captor was slow and sluggish, but its twin was hail and whole. It blitzed forward, bottom three tentacles blurring and glue guns raised. Halfway there it opened fire, and I dived low, going under its assault. Blasts of glue stirred my hair and I moved inside the arc of its fire. In one sudden motion, I stood and punched, all the power of my legs going right into an uppercut. Even paramaterial armor couldn't stop my strength when fully unleashed and the squid shot into the air, striking the ceiling in a shower of dirt.
"He's got the core!" shouted Doctor Jones, pointing from where he lay prone on the ground. Kissinger had dropped his forcefield and now stood just before his throne. The Inducer Core was in his hands and he was moving it towards an odd indentation, just above where his head would rest. Not stopping to think, I jumped.
The sudden motion left my legs burning and I rocketed into Kissinger with all the force and control of a runaway truck. My arms locked around his chest, and we smashed into the back wall. The Inducer Core fell from his grip, ringing loudly as it hit the floor and rolled. From behind came a mechanical whine and a tentacle came slashing down. I twisted clear, taking Kissinger with me out of necessity. He was no match for me physically but I didn't want him activating another gadget like the forcefield. Another silvery tentacle smashed down and this time I wasn't fast enough. It slammed into my shoulder and erupted into white light as some kind of torch ignited. I screamed, the immense heat searing my flesh and even Kissinger yelped, burnt just by being near. Acting on instinct, I grabbed the tentacle and threw it and the squid away. It flew clear across the room, smashing into the wall on the far side. It was an impressive feat by any measure but cost me Kissinger.
He rose and staggered free. The last hover squid moved to cover his escape and I smashed it aside. Kissinger was going for the Inducer Core; that could not happen. I leapt and bore him down. We hit the ground together. The Core smashed under our combined weight. My heart beat once.
For a single expanded moment, the world turned red. Something battered against my mind, a being with more claws than numbers existed in the universe and an infinite rage. Then it was over. I lay atop Kissinger, his body slumped, breathing but muscles limp. Heat licked my neck and I turned half around. The Psycrete was glowing red, not the same all-consuming crimson I'd seen moments before, but the rosy glow of liquid metal.
Off to the side, Doctor Jones groaned, eyes scrunched shut, hands clutched against his temples. He took the briefest look, pupils dilating and expanding at random, and said, "The Psycrete, it's going into meltdown. It's not meant to absorb this level of psionic energy at once. We need to-- Ahh!" He stopped, hands clutched even tighter to his head. "We need to get out of here!"
I nodded. Even without his warning I wanted to be anywhere but here. As I staggered to my feet, the throne began to dissolve, some pieces turning liquid, the closer into an ethereal red gas which billowed and whirled in invisible winds. Fires sprung up when the gas touched mundane things, tables, paper and the bulky stacks of computers. With one hand I grabbed Kissinger by the back of his collar and lifted him into the air, arm straining. That was a mark of exactly how tired I was. With the other I helped Doctor Jones rise and we teetered for the exit, fire and smoke on our heels. Ten minutes later, I was dragging all three of us back into the fresh air and collapsed to the grass, taking deep, blessedly smoke free breaths. The red brick building of Fort McHenry never seemed so good; I was safe.
As is often the case, Abel halts his narrative when his immediate personal involvement ends. Unfortunately, life is seldom this simple and it once again falls to me to provide additional information. At approximately the time Jones and Abel reached Kissinger's base, all mechanized forces attacking the city broke off and made best speed back to Fort McHenry. A short while later, probably coinciding with the detonation of the Inducer Core and the cascade reaction in the stored Psycrete, they deactivated. MCO technological forensic investigations revealed that all models of squid possessed only rudimentary internal processing capacity, far less than would be required for complex independent operation. As such, it was speculated that they were merely drones, operated remotely from some master computer under Fort McHenry. While no such computer was ever found, the base sustained heavy damage and much of the recovered equipment was unidentifiable.
Following his return to the surface, Abel was met by elements of the police and local superhero community, along with a number of media representatives. Abel went on to receive favorable nationwide coverage for several weeks, a fascination stoked by the historic significance of Fort McHenry. It was generally positive in nature, praising his quick thinking and bravery.
Kissinger was taken into police custody and eventually committed to long term care at Clearmountain Secure Psychiatric Facility. Staff psychics confirmed a near total destruction of memory and personality, along with neurological damage which precluded the so called 'blank slate' rebuilt. He remained there until his death in 2015 to an undiagnosed brain tumor.
After several weeks' leave to recover, Jones returned to work for HSC. Despite extensive off site data backups, Jones and Zinzibar proved unable to recreate the Psycrete project, leading to speculation that Kissinger may have had a low level, undiagnosed Devisor trait, a theory I alluded to earlier. They were able to recoup some of their losses by manually activating the small quantity of Psycrete which remained in their possession. Following pressure from the MCO in accordance with our mandate to ensure the proper utilization of criminal mutant technology, they elected to create a highly limited number of neural-psychic amplifiers, which were used to give medical patients with 'locked in' syndrome some interaction with the wider world. We continue to track the location of these devises to this day.
The two gang members who first assaulted Jones were cleared of any involvement with Kissinger but received stiff sentences all the same. In a strange way, the city of Baltimore owns them a debt of thanks; if they had not delayed Jones, he would've been at the HSC lab when it was attacked and Kissinger could have stolen both the Inducer Core and Psycrete in one stroke. Fortunately for all concerned, that was not the case.
On a more personal note, I was transferred from South European to North American operations soon after this incident. One of the first files I was tasked to review was Joseph Abel's. This set the stage for our eventual meeting and the start of a multi-decade friendship.
[Updated on: Sun, 10 June 2012 18:05]
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59189 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Thu, 31 May 2012 05:16
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
Under the Hill
Out of the hundreds of events written and referenced by Joseph Abel in his archive, most are corroborated by supplementary sources. Some received significant media attention, while others are recorded only in fan blogs, police reports, the testimony of the witnesses involved or the MCO's own intelligence archive. There are some, however, which are entirely new to me, describing events which Abel never shared with anyone. In releasing the first of these stories, I have been forced to carefully consider my position. Without other sources, I have been unable to confirm Abel's version of events. This combined with the somewhat fanciful nature of the piece may lead some to doubt its authenticity. To them I will say this: in all areas but the causes of his own actions I have found Abel to be a forthright and truthful narrator. He may temporize, justify, misunderstand, fall prey to romanticism or insert temporally disjointed commentary but I would trust his version of events over the official history or even MCO after action reports.
For what it is worth, the ring which he gains at the resolution of this adventure was recorded as among his possessions by the executor of his estate, and it is certainly one of the more interesting origin stories for Iblis, the Corpse Flame, and, by extension, Sunbird.
Abigail de Bontin, MCO Special Agent-at-Large (Retired) (DeVille)
"MUUHHHAAAAHAAAAA!" laughed Doctor Vortex. "Soon you will die, Joseph Abel! And then! And then the world!" He broke down into another villainous laugh, head thrown back and throat open wide.
I resisted the urge to point out the logical flaws with his plan. Sure, I was well known. The nineties had been good to me so far. But I was hardly the strongest hero in the world or the only one standing in his way. Champion could turn me into paste, no matter how strong or Invulnerable I was, as could most of the really high end heroes, Ms. Might, the Magus, even new comers like Lady Astarte. None of that would help me right now, though. I threw my Superstrength against the bonds holding me flat to the table, circles of metal around all four of my limbs, but they were made from something stronger than just steel.
Light began to gather in the deathray above my head, and Doctor Vortex struck another pose. His leather costume squeaked as he did and the spikes caught the light from the Tesla coil, a requirement for all supervillain lairs. To tell the truth, I missed his old costume, dark purple marked with a lilac spiral. It was the nineties*, though, and that meant grim and gritty. Years later and with the gift of hindsight, bucking that particular trend was one of the best decisions I ever made. It really endeared me to people and furthered my reputation for courage and honesty. God knows I did little else to deserve it.
* As is often the case, Abel does not pay particular attention to the chronology of his archive. Judging from this and other hints, I speculate these events occur sometime in the nineties, probably after ninety one, since I am mentioned, and before ninety six, when Doctor Vortex was caught and incarcerated. Normally a more precise date can be found by cross referencing Abel's writings with reports of the incident in question but, as I've already mentioned, that is impossible in this case.
Lights began to creep along the length of the deathray and lightning gathered at its tip. Miniature bolts arched off. Some shot towards the Tesla coil, which is half the reason I think villains like the things so much, but others headed towards me. Violet electric light licked across my chest and I gritted my teeth. Electricity wasn't as bad as heat but it still hurt like a bitch. I kicked out with my legs, trying to break my bonds, but they didn't even groan. The lights reached the end of the deathray; it activated.
"At last," screamed Doctor Vortex, over the thundering wind which had just appeared from nowhere. "Even your vaunted Invulnerability cannot withstand my Telequantum Disruptor!"
A swirling vortex formed just in front of the deathray, a violet hole in space around which lightning danced. It pulled at me, an ache at the center of my stomach. I felt like I wanted to throw up. The pull expanded, taking in my entire torso, and I felt like I was going to die. Then the lightning went wild. It cracked and shot off in all directions. Equipment exploded, plastics melted and caught fire. Only Doctor Vortex stood untouched, protected by his famous Disruption Matrix*.
* For those not familiar with the career of Doctor Vortex, this may require some explanation. The Disruption Matrix was Vortex's first and greatest invention. Given his status as a Mutant Devisor, it was almost certainly a devise and, whatever the case, no attempt to duplicate it has ever succeeded. When active, the Matrix disrupts the complex energy patterns associated with many paranormal abilities and beings. It has caused energy blasts to unravel, Paranormal Entities to disperse, blocked a range of psionic abilities and even caused devises created by his rivals to fail. All Vortex's subsequent inventions were derived from the principles underlying his Disruption Matrix, almost certainly including the Telequantum Disruptor he used on Abel.
"No!" shouted Doctor Vortex and dashed to one of the surviving computers. "This is impossible!"
Impossible it might be but it wasn't doing me much good. The pull grew even greater, a god insistent on pulling me apart from the inside out. Lightning blasted the lab and ozone filled my nose. A full storm's worth lanced into my chest and I gritted my teeth. The violet hole at the center of the vortex expanded. It started only the size of a dime but within seconds it had passed dinner plate and was heading straight for hula hoop.
"You haven't seen the last of me!" said Doctor Vortex. He abandoned his computer station and headed for the emergency escape pod, an egg shaped capsule at the very back of the lab. "We shall meet again Joseph Abel!" He pulled open the small door and stepped inside. A second later it shot into the air, up through a Perspex tube to the surface.
While good for him, it didn't change the fact that the Telequantum Disruptor was killing me. I threw all my weight forward, straining with every ounce of my Superstrength, and this time the cuffs groaned. Maybe fear was lending me strength or maybe Doctor Vortex's insane deathray had weakened the metal, I didn't care. What matter was I now had a chance. With every cell in my body ready to explode, I threw all my power into my right arm. With the cry of rending metal, it broke free. Not waiting a single second, I ripped the cuff off my left hand and then moved onto my legs. Above the vortex was huge, taking up almost the whole ceiling. It dragged at every inch of my body, inside and out, and my costume was pulled almost painfully taught. I ripped the last pieces of metal away and threw myself free in the same motion.
Lightning blasted down, a burning white spear, and it slammed right into my back. I roared in pain, my Invulnerability the only thing keeping me alive, and hit the ground. The violet-hole's pull was a physical force, dragging me along the ground. I kicked out, pushing against the concrete ground in an attempt to leverage some of my strength, but it was no good. With each passing second, the hole grew bigger, more powerful.
It wrenched my feet off the ground, then my whole body. I grabbed out and managed to snatch the leg of the table I'd been tied too. With a screeching sound, the leg bent under my fingers. There was nothing I could do. The violet hole was too strong. With an almost anti-climactic snap, the leg broke and I flew backwards, right into the hole.
Being poked with something sharp is not a pleasant way to wake up, but, in retrospect, I was probably lucky to wake up at all*. I groaned and rolled, squinting my eyes against a sickly green light.
* This is true. See this section's endnote for details.
"It is awake!" said a voice.
"What is it?" said another.
"Smells like manling," said the first.
"Stupid Quothe. What would a manling be doing here?"
"Not stupid. You stupid. Is manling."
There was a loud sniffing sound. "Doesn't smell like manling. It smells strange."
"Is not spirit, fae or dead dying thing. Is manling!"
I groaned. Now that I was awake, I had the sense to wish I wasn't. My body ached, hurt like it had only a handful of times since I'd received my powers. I half closed my eye, a mostly futile attempt to block out the sickly green light, and looked up. There were two small, squat creatures standing above me, both holding long pointed sticks of blackened wood. Looks wise, they were far from human. Their bodies were covered with long tangled hair, hung with beads and pendants, and their faces were dominated by large bulbous noses. Above the noses were small, beetle-black eyes. I've seen plenty of non-human things in my time, magical spirits summoned up by mystical villains, the alien invasions of my youth*, the non-human shapes some mutants were twisted into and the bastardized monsters born by super science. But these things, they tweaked something very strange in my gut.
* This is presumably a reference to the rash of alien invasions which occurred between 1963 and 1971, roughly corresponding to Abel's early childhood. While this predates ubiquitous MCO after action investigations, analysis by trusted authorities at the time found the alien technology to be within the grasp of advanced human science. This has led some to doubt the authenticity of the invasion, but make no mistake. While these invasions may have been false, MCO forces have encountered and confronted extra-terrestrial activity at other times.
"It sees," said the leftmost of the squat things.
"Of course it sees," said the other. Though it might've been my imagination, the cast of its features looked female. "It has eyes."
"I am sorry." The first looked down, foot scuffing the dirt.
"Quothe should be sorry."
Right, this was getting stupid. I shoved myself upwards, into a sitting position. A wave of dizziness hit my head but I pushed through. "Where am I?" I said. That was always a good first question.
My two hosts looked at each other.
"It speaks!" said the rightmost.
"Of course it speaks," said Quothe, a wide smile splitting his face almost in two. "Stupid Dena. It has mouth."
'Dena' bobbed Quothe on the head with her stick. "No, Quothe is stupid. Many things have mouths. Few speak." Quothe looked downcast at that.
"Um," I said, fount of eloquence that I was. "Yes, I do speak, but where am I?"
Dena finished glaring at Quothe and pointed a pudgy finger upwards. "You are in the Hill."
The hill? What hill? I said as much.
"The Hill," said Dena, putting focus on the first word. "This is the deep mines."
"And who are you?" 'What are you' was perhaps a better question but I didn't want to offend them. As it turned out, it didn't matter.
"We are trow," said Dena. "I am Dena, daughter of Ingagar, daughter of Sinni. This is Quothe, son of Olaw, son of Antoun." Her beady eyes narrowed a fraction. "Who are you?"
"I'm Abel," I said, falling into an easy rhythm. "Joseph Abel." Of course that rhythm could not survive the metaphorical stick in the wheels. "A, um, human."
"See!" said Quothe turning on Dena.
"Doesn't smell human," she replied. She leaned forward, large nose twitching. "Smells of power. Smells like the Lords."
Quothe jumped at that and whipped his head around. "He'll hear you!"
"Stupid Quothe," said Dena and slammed her stick against the ground. I couldn't help but notice the floor cracked slightly under the blow. "He doesn't care about us."
Since most of their conversation flew completely over my head, I focused on the pieces I did understand. "Power?" I said. "I am a superhero."
They turned their eyes on me. "What's a soo-pa-he-row?" said Quothe, mouth split wide as he mangled the word. If nothing else it told me one thing: I wasn't in Kansas anymore.
"I have superpowers," I said, hoping that would explain things. It didn't; I tried again. "I am very strong and very hard to hurt."
"He is Lord," said Dena. "See?"
"Is still human," said Quothe, bulbous face set. "Human Lord."
"Fine," snapped Dena. "Human Lord".
"He will want Human Lord," said Quothe, voice not quite steady. His eyes flicked up, focusing on the stone ceiling.
"Who's 'He'," I said. This wasn't the first time the trow had put the odd emphasis to the pronoun.
Dena set her jaw. "He is the Corpse Flame. He is--" Quothe jumped her, hands pressed over her nose and mouth.
"Don't say His name," he hissed.
From the look on her face, Dena didn't agree but wasn't going to press the issue.
"So let me get this straight," I said slowly. "I am 'in the hill', you two are 'trow', and there's something called the Corpse Flame who wants to meet me."
Quothe was shaking his head, the many beads and pendants which hung their striking together. Maybe it was my imagination but the tunnel's green glow seemed to intensify. Now that I thought about it, I noticed something else. There was no light source anywhere. It came from everywhere and nowhere and even places in between.
"Meet!" said Quothe, and his head snapped from side to side, black eyes darting. "He will bind Human Lord in chains of iron! Human Lord will be like the others."
"There is no need to panic," I said, raising both hands. "Could you just explain what's going on? Maybe I can help. That's what being a superhero means." And if you just happen to give me enough information that I can save my own hide, more's the better. As this currently stood, I had no idea where I was, let along directions to the nearest exit or what might try to kill me on the way.
From the belligerent set to Dena's jaw I guessed she was ready to tell me something. Quothe felt otherwise, however. "Don't tell," he said, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels. "Don't tell."
"Stupid Quothe," said Dena for what must've been the dozenth time*. "I will explain."
* Only the third by my count, assuming Abel hasn't passed over sections of dialog for simplicities sake. Based upon my familiarity with his writing style, I find hyperbole the most likely explanation for this apparent incongruity.
"No. No. No," said Quothe under his breath but Dena just glared at him.
"We are trow," said Dena, eyes on me and not Quothe. "We live and mine the mountain's heart. Above." She paused, pointing a finger up. "Are the Fivefold Kindreds of the Alchemical Hearths. They forge the Moon's Silver from what we mine."
I nodded. While I wouldn't say it made sense, it seemed straightforward enough, even if I had no idea who the 'Fivefold Kindreds' were or even what 'Moon silver' was.
"Higher," continued Dena, "are the Ledger Halls, where coin is counted and contract made. There, humans came to buy our treasures."
My ears pricked at that. If humans could come, they must be able to go too.
"Beyond, is the Solar Refinery of the Nine Lords Sidhe and, at the very peak, is the Throne of the Most High."
Dena's face set in resolve even as Quothe's slackened.
"Years ago, the Noonday Sun sat upon that throne. His light gave our Lords power and with that power they forged the Sun's Gold, the metal you call Orichalcum. Great were their creations and great was their wisdom, but then He came."
"No," said Quothe clutching at the matted hair of Dena's arm. "He will hear." Dena shook him off.
"He came!" said Dena, voice hard if a little high pitched. "Iblis, the Corpse Flame!" The sourceless green light stirred, growing brighter in places, darker in others, but Dena was too caught up to notice. "He shone with green fire to the true Most High's brilliant white, and honey-sweet were the lies that dripped from his tongue. He said, 'See what you have wrought with the power of a single sun, what could you do with two?' And for a time it was good. The light of the Noonday Sun and the light of the Corpse Flame burnt together in the sky, and both their power dwelt within the Sun's Gold we created. The weapons, the rings, the amulets and armor, they seemed empowered to even greater heights, but all was not well.
"Enki, the wisest and eldest of our Lords Sidhe, he who once looked upon the Daughter of the Burning Oak herself, noticed the corrupting power which now infused his creations. He went to the Noonday Sun, eyes covered so as not to be blinded by His all-consuming radiance, and spoke his warning. 'Oh Most High,' he said. 'Heed my words. The Corpse Flame's light corrupts your gold, your very blood, light and tears. I have seen it. Wounds born from his light grow sour and fester. Amulets fail. Armour sunders. Its strength is the honeyed lie, oh Lord.'
"And the Noonday Sun listened to Enki's words, for Enki's wisdom was renowned even when the world was young, when the World Trees still stood and the Emerald Mother sat not in torpor. He called Iblis, the Corpse Flame, before him and confronted the green sun about his purpose and power, but the Corpse Flame was possessed of a wicked cunning. He had corrupted one of the Nine Lords Sidhe, Aeron, and had that once-great fae forge a knife from His light alone. Armed with a weapon born of green-fire, the Corpse Flame attacked the Noonday Sun. Even surprised, Our True Lord was not easily vanquished, and the Hill shook at their battle. Finally, though, Iblis's treacherous heart proved too much, and he drove his blade deep into the Noonday Sun's chest, sending Our Lord into a deathly sleep. With the Throne of the Most High empty, the Corpse Flame stole the seat. He bound seven of the Lords Sidhe in chains of iron and set Aeron at their head. Enki alone escaped. He lives in the under tunnels now, moving from mine to mine, seeking shelter with still loyal trow."
"You should not speak!" said Quothe. "Those names are forbidden."
"I will speak," said Dena right back. "I have seen Lord Enki. Someday he will strike down the Corpse Flame and bring back our Noonday Sun. It is true."
"It is not true!" shouted Quothe. "He is too strong. The old ways are dead. You bring only death and green fire."
As they argued, I noticed the green light was growing stronger. I might be a little out of my depth but I knew something bad when I saw it. Moving carefully on still saw limbs, I pushed myself fully upright and searched carefully. The green light remained omnipresent but shadows of deepest jade lay within it. A new set rolled down the corridor, tall and long. A second later, crashing footfalls sounded.
"They're coming," wailed Quothe and there was no victory in his tone.
Dena's face went still with shock, like she'd been doused with cold water. "They can't be," she said, voice only half a whisper. "They can't be."
"We have to hide," said Quothe and grabbed at Dena's arm. "Hide!"
Three monsters rounded the corner, walking in lockstep. They were infernos of green flame, barely contained in copper-gold armor. Their chest pieces were wide and solid, carved with strange symbols which threw off the eye. Their helmets bore monstrous visages, snarling metal faces of fang and blade. Their feet and hands were great slabs of metal, colored a sickly green by the naked fire which made up their arms and legs. In their hands were pale gold swords, the blades outlined with otherworldly light.
"Run!" said Quothe again. "Dena run!" Dena wouldn't move. She stood frozen, like a deer caught in a car's headlights.
I should have grabbed Dena and ran for it. In retrospect that was clear, but hindsight alone was 20/20 and only precogs get that while staring down the sharp end of the sword. At the time, I was only thinking about getting home and Dena seemed able and willing to help in that endeavor. Protecting her appeared the logical thing.
"Guys," I said, forgoing my 'Good Citizen' bit. "Let's not do this okay?" If they understood, they gave no sign. Come to that, I didn't even know if they spoke English. The trow did but that raised the question of where they learned. It would be something to look into later*, when my life wasn't on the line.
* Despite the seeming importance of this question, it is not revisited by Abel in his archive, and I've been left to draw my own conclusions. My first thought was that the residents of the Hill spoke English because of their acknowledged contact with the wider world. Upon further reflection, however, I have decided this is unlikely. While such skills might exist in the upper ranks of their society or in those elements specialized in dealing with the outside world, it makes little sense for the trow, who appear to be low ranking miners, to receive such training. More likely, in my opinion, is a widespread 'gift of tongues', either esper or magical in nature. See my speculation contained in the endnote of this piece for more details on this and other facets of Hill society.
The green fire monsters continued to advance, showing no sign that they even acknowledged my existence. Their feet beat against the stone floor, a rhythmic metallic smashing. I held up my hand in my best 'halt' pose and quietly wished mine was as good as Abigail's. It did no good.
My guts twisted in warning, but by then I was committed. When they were only a few feet away, I leapt forward, a superjump focused for power rather than distance. My legs burned, more from the Telequantum Disruptor than the strain, and I slammed into the middle monster. It and I went flying backwards, but I was use to fighting. I was in control. Even as the monster was slamming towards the ground, I caught myself and span, coming up behind the leftmost of the two remaining monsters.
It turned too, green fire roaring, and I slammed a punch right into its armored chest, and by God did it hurt. Pain shot up my arm and my hand pulsed. Either these things were made from something seriously weird or my Invulnerability was on the fritz. Not a pleasant thought either way. Whatever the status of my superpowers, my strength was still intact. The monster's armor buckled and tore and it went flying back. I didn't have a chance to follow up my victory, however, because a presence loomed up behind me. I span, just in time to see a razor sharp sword tearing towards my head, held by the first monster I'd knocked down. I only just dodged in time.
It roared, green fire flaring high, and slashed again. Normally I'd have blocked with a forearm but I learned fast when necessary. I span clear, then jinked back, moving to strike the monster's side. It twisted but couldn't bring its sword up in time. Instead, it showed that it wasn't all brute and dodged forward, using my old trick of moving into the blow. My fist struck home but it was a bad hit, robbed of its normal power, and probably hurt me more than it did the monster. My hand throbbed, hot then cold, and the green fire monster slashed out with its off arm. It didn't have my problems.
I went flying back, my chest aching, and slammed into the far wall. That didn't add to my pains, just the normal dull sensation of heavy impacts. Good, that was something. My Invulnerability was still working. These things just had a way around it. On second thoughts, I wasn't sure if that was good or bad.
My opponent charged, sword held ready, and I threw myself to the side. It didn't stop in time and clanged against the wall. Not one to waste an opportunity, I came up behind it and repeated the motion, this time with my hand providing the motive force. Stone cracked, dust fell and a green fire filled helmet rang like a struck gong. While it was still off balanced, I swept its legs out from under it and slammed my foot into its chest, a downwards stomp. The blow sent the shock of impact up my leg but drove the monster into the ground. The green fire died down, becoming less bright. I struck again and the floor cracked under my assault. A third stomp and the fire was barely a spark. A fourth was not needed. The monster lay limp, limbs unmoving, illuminated by the barest spark of flame. One down, two to go.
A scream came from up the corridor and I whirled around. The two remaining green fire monsters were advancing towards the still frozen Dena, one damaged by my punch but the other hale and whole. Now that I was on my feet, Dena seemed a lot more childlike, barely my waist in height, features oversized. Quothe was tugging at her, but she still wouldn't move, eyes frozen facing forward, locked to the green flames which billowed from the advancing monsters. Quothe let go of Dena and moved in front of her, his blackened stick raised like a spear. Its point shook.
I charged the green fire monsters from behind, and Quothe did the same from the front. His blackened stick raised sparks as it skidded off the foremost monster's armor but did no more. I drove forward with all my strength and body-tackled the rearmost monster to the ground, but it twisted in my grip, green fire flaring. Its pale gold sword glinted. There was a pressure in my stomach. There was an odd warmness. I fell to the ground.
"Quothe did it!" said Quothe, waving his arms and stick. His oversized nose was almost red. "Noonday Sun, Enki, Aeron, Iblis, the Corpse Flame! It was me."
I tried to roll away but my limbs were weak, limp lengths of flesh bereft of my normal preternatural strength. I raised my head but it was hard. Waves of dizziness filled everything and cotton wool stuffed my ears. Red stained the front of my costume, a deep, deep crimson. It expanded as I watched. It was... Interesting? The blood grabbed my eyes like a magnet.
The clanking cry of metal on stone sounded from beside me. The green fire monster I'd knocked down was pushing itself back up, its breastplate even more damaged than before but not slowed for that.
"No!" screamed Dena. "Not him." Her voice grew quiet. "Not him." Metal slammed against stone but it was getting quieter. The green fire monsters were going away? Did that make sense? To my befuddled mind it did. I managed to twist my head and only just stopped from vomiting. The two surviving monsters were dragging a small figure away. Something clicked in my head. It was Quothe. They were taking Quothe away. Dena collapsed to her knees, hands plastered against her face, sobs wracking her body. She was still here.
"Dena," I said but my voice was weak and speaking made my chest tight. The wound still didn't hurt; that had to be a bad sign. Since she'd ignored me, I tried again. "Dena!"
This time she looked up, beetle black eyes shining with tears. Upon seeing me, she started to cry again, great body shaking sobs. "They took him," she said. "They took Quothe. All... All my fault. If I hadn't-- If I hadn't said the names. If I hadn't called His attention..."
My chest was numb and so was my brain. "Listen," I said but stopped as some invisible force stole my breath. "We can still save him but I need..." I stopped, vomit welling up in my throat. "I need you to get me help."
"I'll," she said but sputtered to a halt. "I'll-- There's nobody. He controls everything. Quothe is gone. It's all my fault!"
Most of my front was covered with blood. I reached down with a hand, touching the wound. That brought pain, a thundering wave. It set my chest aflame. Up until this point most of my career had been spent dodging danger and protecting my reputation; this was the closest I'd ever come to my own mortality. I could feel the numbness expanding, advancing ahead of the now burning pain, and in some ghastly symmetry, my brain turned to mush. I could barely think.
While I still could, I staggered to my knees. My limbs were almost powerless but I made them work. One hand clutched to the wound in my stomach, I dragged and pushed myself forward. I only made it the few feet to Dena but that was enough. I collapsed to the ground, to the dirty rock now covered with fresh red blood.
"Save Quothe," I said, my voice half a whisper despite everything I could do. "Save me. I-- I will save him." Bargaining with a bereaved loved one... Not my proudest moment in retrospect, but there was some truth to it. If anyone had a chance of rescuing Quothe, it was me.
Dena drew in a great breath, bulbous nose almost vibrating. "I can-- There might be somebody." She rose to her feet. "I'll..." She ran off without finishing the word, feet thudding against the hard stone ground.
There was no way I could move anywhere. Those last few words had taken everything I had. I kept my hand plastered over my stomach, trying to slow the flow of blood. My powers let me heal quickly and cleanly, but not quickly or cleanly enough for this.
The world swam in and out of focus. The green light was too bright to look at one moment, then barely a shadow the next. I felt like vomiting. I felt like a large part of my insides were missing. My stomach burned with strange flames, but the rest of me felt numb, as if deadened by cold. I shivered, goose bumps rising on my skin. I sweated, water rolling off me in sheets. And then-- And then blessed relief. A cool wave passed through me, refreshing and rejuvenating. I looked up. A tall man knelt above me, hands on my stomach. Only he wasn't a man. His skin was sky blue, his ears pointed and curling spirals ran over his body.
"Rest," he said and I did. The last thing I saw was Dena standing beside him, shifting from leg to leg.
Due to the length of this piece I have elected to split it into parts, each of which will include a fraction of my normal summation. This has caused me no little problem. With only limited additional background to relate, I have been forced further into the realms of commentary and speculation than I would otherwise have liked, relating my opinions rather than factual consequences. With this piece, however, there was little choice.
The first thing I must discuss is the Hill itself, a society cut off from the wider world. While this is not unheard of (over the last one hundred and fifty years, superhero groups and costumed adventurers have contacted no less than fifteen isolated city-enclaves) there are several unique factors which differentiate the Hill from others.
While its residents' inhuman nature is perhaps the most pressing question, I am forced to set it to one side for now. Instead I will comment on the unifying purpose which runs through Hill society: the creation of the Sun's Gold, Orichalcum. While this may be an oversimplification (and indeed, no society can possibly be described in so simplistic a manner) it does appear to be a common thread, with each level dedicated at least in part to its creation. See Dena's explanation for an overview.
According to research I have performed, Orichalcum is a mythical metal recorded by Plato in his Critias dialogue. Literally meaning 'mountain copper', it was believed to be second only in value to gold and is closely connected with legendary Atlantis. Further research, however, has revealed additional facts. According to MCO mystics with whom I've consulted, the metal known as Orichalcum is highly valuable and coveted in their craft. While I am unable to prove a connection between the two beyond the shared names, it is indicative and would explain why the Hill sought to sell their creations.
A more distant but equally important question is why Abel arrived at the Hill. Untargeted teleport jumps have occurred before and examination of the data may provide some additional information.
Out of the 157 untargeted teleport jumps I've been able to confirm, 70 (or just over 44%) ended in the complete disappearance of the jumper. Of the 87 who emerged (alive or otherwise), 44 (or slightly over 50%) appeared in a random location within one kilometer radius of the teleporter, 12 appeared in some location special to themselves (normally a family home or team headquarters), and 13 in a location special to the teleporter's creator (it should be noted that in all but one of these cases, the teleporter was devisor in origin). The remaining 18 (or just over 20%) reappeared near some kind of large scale grounding element -- sizable metal structures, experimental multi-dimensional gates, the center of mystical summoning rituals and similar. It is to this last group I'd speculate Abel belongs. He appeared at the bottom of an extensive mining operation which appears to involve many mystical elements. If the Hill's Orichalcum is the same as the mystical community's, I have no trouble believing it could have served as a grounding element. Indeed, it is a surprise it has not done so before.
[Updated on: Mon, 04 June 2012 13:42]
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59234 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Fri, 01 June 2012 05:05
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
Under the Hill
I awoke sometime later, my back against a hard stone slab. For all of that, I felt good. Better than good, great even. The residual pains caused by Doctor Vortex's Telequantum Disruptor were gone, as was the fire in my stomach and the spreading numbness. With more than a little care I touched my stomach. There was only smooth skin, no gaping wound, no bandage or stitches. Either someone had a Healer* in their employ or something very strange was going on.
* Abel is presumably referring to the rather obscure mutant power classification of Healer, as it exists under the Castle-Corbin power grading system. This is neither the first nor last time Abel demonstrates quite in depth knowledge of Castle-Corbin or its adopted subsystems (Yerunkle-Corbin, Hewley-Aranis, Renae-Bender etc). Where, or indeed why, he picked up such knowledge I can only guess.
Now more confident in my seemingly miraculous recovery, I pushed myself upright, one hand against the slab, the other keeping the bed sheet pressed against my stomach. My guts didn't seem ready to fall out but it paid to be careful.
There was a crash and I whipped my head around. Dena stood there, her hands held near her chest, a stone plate spinning on the floor. "Human Lord is awake," she said. "Come, he will want to talk."
"My costume," I said. Other than the bed sheet, I wasn't wearing anything. At Dena's confused look, I added, "My clothes. What I was wearing." She pointed off to one side, to where my costume lay, a neatly folded pile of silver cloth. That was all though; she made no motion to leave me alone. "Could you?" I made motions towards the door. She just cocked her head, clearly confused. Maybe she'd been instructed not to leave me unescorted*?
* While I normally give Abel's speculations all due weight, this one appears to be in error. Judging from this and other incidents, a more likely explanation for Dena's action is a lack of a nudity taboo in Hill culture.
Rather than fight the point, I used the bedding to hide myself while I pulled on my costume. It was only when I was slipping into the final piece -- the jacket -- that I noticed that there was no red stain covering the front and, come to that, no hole either. Someone had washed and mended my clothing before returning it. That just had to be a good sign.
"Let's go," I said.
Dena led me out of the small room I'd woken up in and down a narrow corridor. It was winding and followed the path of the rock. If not for the rounded edges and smoothed walls, I would have labeled it a natural cave. Before long, I began to hear the sound of water, the thundering smash produced by only the wildest of rapids.
With a bit of effort, I squeezed through one final gap and stepped into a wide chamber. Droplets of ice cold water hit my face but they weren't from a river; no, they were from a waterfall, a great wave of dark water which crashed down from high above. I looked up, neck straining, but couldn't see a source. It seemed to fall from an almost infinite height. Apart from the small ledge of land I stood on, most of the chamber was submerged, an underground lake with invisible depths. The water was in constant motion, countless ripples moving in all directions, and over it danced blue light. That struck me. For the first time since I'd arrived, the omnipresent green glow was absent.
There was movement behind me and Dena slipped through the gap, but my attention was all ahead. Something was shifting in the heart of the waterfall, a man or something which looked like one. I almost stepped back but Dena placed a hand on my thigh and shook her head. This was who I was here to meet.
The figure strode from the shower of water, feet sending ripples shooting in all directions. I'd seen people walk on water before but most were flyers, only playing Jesus. This looked to be the real thing. He was tall, taller even than me, but whipcord thin, body lined with tight, hard muscle. His skin was the lightest of blues and spiraling tattoos covered almost every inch, and I did mean every inch. He stood naked and unashamed, from his sculpted jaw to the hard muscle of his chest and stomach to other things I didn't dwell on. Sufficient to say, he was clearly very male.
"I am Lord Enki," he said, voice low but melodious. The words somehow merged with the thunder of the waterfall. "You are Joseph Abel, and you have made a promise to one of my people: Dena, daughter of Ingagar, daughter of Sinni of the Kindred Trow. I hope you intend to honor that promise. Your health has been bought but at a price. It would be ill advised to break such a pact when magic as old and potent as mine is involved."
For a half second, I stood confused, then realization hit. He must mean my promise to save Quothe. I hadn't planned on not keeping it -- she did save my life after all -- but it was a bit more complicated than just doing it. Maybe I could leave and come back with some reinforcements? I was due some favors from some quite powerful superheroes. The Magus, for one, owed me big time for destroying those photographs. Maybe I'm overly attached to my own hide, but I'd feel much better with a few A-listers standing between me and swords which cut through my Invulnerability like it wasn't even there.
"I will of course do what I can," I started, mind only a few words ahead of my mouth, "but--"
Enki held up a hand. "Do not think I seek to threaten you, Joseph Abel. I speak merely to inform. You have entered into a pact with Dena and I -- she for my help and you for yours. Such pacts have power, and I could no more set aside your debt than take the moon from the sky."
That sounded nastily similar to the kind of thing some of the mythical heroes I'd worked with said. They were big on fulfilling oaths*. And wearing dresses, of course, but no one's perfect. I'd had more than a few nasty encounters with such things myself. The one time I'd tried to run out on such a debt hadn't been a pleasant experience.
* This is presumably a reference to the Law of Pacting, one of the often reported 'Laws of Magic'. While the official MCO position is stanch neutrality on the nature of magical events, interested readers can find more information in the MCO's secure archive. File #2167551 'A Study of Magical Events as Expressed by Psionic Mechanisms' by Doctor Messing, and file #0019633 'There and Almost Back Again' by Doctor Alexander may both prove enlightening reads, though I would only call the latter enjoyable.
"Quothe, son of Olaw, son of Antoun will be taken to the Throne of the Most High," continued Enki. "You must act quickly if you are to save him. I will lend what aid I can." He held out his hands, broad and long fingered. Three items lay there. "These items contain a portion of my power, Joseph Abel, uncorrupted by the Corpse Flame's foul radiance. With them you may yet prevail."
Dena picked up the first item, a brooch made from spun silver and aquamarine in the shape of a butterfly. Its wings were opalescent and seemed to flutter as the blue light of the chamber played across them. She passed it to me.
"This amulet," he said, "will protect you from the eyes of enemies. To them you will appear but one fae among many, but take heed. Against the undiluted light of the Corpse Flame it will fail as surely as the candle does against the storm."
Dena lifted and handed me the next item, a small hand mirror, the surface perfectly reflective silver, the rim made from stone.
"This mirror is made from the Moon's true tears and the Earth's shaped bones," he said. "The powerful might seek to hide from Luna's light in the Earth and the cunning might seek to elude the Gaia's power in the sky but no one may avoid both. Within its reflection, all things will appear as they truly are, stripped of glamor and false power."
The final item was a miniature horn, only about the size of my thumb but marked with engraved symbols that would've been fine for a normal sized piece. Dena lifted it with shaking fingers and offered it to me. I accepted.
"I have felt your power, Joseph Abel," said Enki. "You are truly as Dena names you: a Lord Sidhe born to humans. For this reason I will lend you a third and final piece of my power. This horn is filled with my own breath. Should the moment come when the Corpse Flame lies vulnerable, blow this horn and I shall come with all the aid I can bring." He found my eyes and his were like cut gemstones, so very hard and sharp. "Do not abuse this power, Joseph Abel. I give you this for the chance my people might be free. Misuse it and that hope may be shattered for all time."
I licked my lips and nodded. "Thank you."
He nodded in reply, not a bow but a mark of respect all the same. "Now I must return and rest. My power has been greatly strained creating such things and I risk being found." He turned, gaze locking onto Dena at my side. "Dena, you shall serve as Joseph Abel's companion in his task."
"Me," she squeaked and took a step back, the beads and pendants which hung from her hair chiming. "I-- But this is all my fault. If I hadn't..."
"Be still my child," said Enki, a smile on his face. "There is strength in you, strength you do not yet know, and Joseph Abel will need a guide. Guide him well, Dena. Save your friend."
She bowed her head. "I will do what you say, Lord Enki." Her voice only quavered a little.
"Good. Now leave me." Dena bowed and backed away, and I followed. Enki retreated under his waterfall, disappearing behind a veil of falling water.
As Dena and I walked back along the winding corridor, the light slowly shifted from blue to green. When the former was completely gone, I shivered. It felt like someone was watching me. Hopefully, Enki's gifts would keep me safe.
The brooch was pinned to my costume under my jacket. It wasn't the kind of thing I'd normally choose to wear but its abilities were too much to ignore. The mirror hung from a hoop on my utility belt. Not the best place for it but I lacked better. Lastly, the miniature horn swung on a cord around my neck. If it really could bring the cavalry running, I wanted it close at hand.
"You said Quothe was taken to the Throne of the Most High," I said. "That's at the very top?" Dena nodded. "There will be guards, more green fire monsters?" Another nod. "Best we get going then." And maybe I might even find a way to keep my skin intact.
Dena led the way past the room I'd woken up in and into a larger passage. The stones were rougher here, marked by tools and human (or perhaps not so human) hands. We kept going and passed a side tunnel of sorts. There were two trow in it, driving their blackened sticks into the rock. Where they hit, it cracked and fell.
"Trow mine," said Dena as way of explanation.
The further we went, the more trow there seemed to be, pushing carts laden high with stone, mining rock and finishing walls. From one room I felt and saw the heat of smelting fires, in another some kind of green skinned creature, covered in vines, was causing plants to grow. Hours passed and I was beginning to realize exactly how big the place was, less a hill and more a mountain, if not an entire range.
Thanks to my superpowers, merely walking was not an issue for me, but I was a little surprised that Dena kept going. Hour after hour, she placed one foot in front of another, her small legs requiring two or even three steps for each of mine. Perhaps four hours after we started, if my internal clock was to be trusted, Dena stopped and pointed ahead, towards a great carved arch.
"This leads up," she said, voice hard. "We must pass through the Alchemical Hearths next."
"Will that be more dangerous?"
She froze at the question but only for a split second, then she shook her head and answered. "The Fivefold Kindreds have sharper senses and keener magic than the trow, and He watches them more closely. Danger will be great."
"Be careful then."
She nodded, her face emotionless, and set off. I touched my butterfly brooch and followed.
The walls inside the arch were carved with great scenes, each a masterwork of detail and composition. One showed fairy like creatures dancing through a forest, every leaf marked in painstaking detail. A second depicted armored spear wielding warriors driving back a monster, an almost crudely drawn creature without the intricate engravings which defined the warriors. Another showed a portrait of ten figures, only one male, sitting upon thrones in a half circle. All wore crowns and all were stunningly beautiful, even only as marks on stone. I tried not to gawk -- my wits were much better focused on more life threatening things -- but it was hard.
At the end of the arch, we met with a group of trow. They were loading metal bars into the back of a cart, some silver, some gold and some other colors still. A squat pony was hitched to the front and two trow sat on the driving platform. Dena walked forward and said a few words to the trow holding the reins, too low for me to hear. The driver had lighter hair than Dena and was perhaps a head taller but the height of the cart made it hard to judge. After a few seconds he looked back and beckoned me forward.
"We travel together," said Dena.
The journey lasted some hours, the cart following a long circling tunnel upwards. Our hosts were named Bryd and Sinni*, and though I was told their family lineages, I must confess the years have washed them from my mind. Bryd proved the quiet sort, only saying a few words and they were of the simple kind, closer to Quothe's speech than Dena's. Sinni, though, chatted away, telling me of friends, relations and children. It appeared trow family structures could become quite complex, with 'marriages' (though I'm sure that was the wrong word) lasting only an agreed upon score of years before breaking up with mutual consent. Sinni told of her four marriages, each of which produced three children. If she'd been able, I was sure she'd have broken out the photos and home movies too.
* If this is the same 'Sinni' as Dena's grandmother, Abel gives no sign.
Dena matched Bryd in not talking, just sitting almost unmoving in the back of the cart. Her blackened stick was clutched in her hands and she turned it slowly, round and round. I was sure the rest must be doing her some good but she showed no outward gratitude for it.
We passed other carts on the path, heading in the opposite direction, but we did not slow our assent. Sinni was always quick with a wave and a word, though. Just as the journey was kindling a spark of lethargy within me, Dena uncurled and stood.
"There will be a checkpoint ahead. We must travel on foot." She nodded to Bryd and Sinni. "Thank you for your aid."
"Welcome," said Bryd and nodded his head, the oversized nose common to all trow dipping.
"It was nice to meet you, dears," said Sinni and gave me a smile.
I smiled back, touched the butterfly brooch under my jacket and jumped off the cart. It trundled away into the distance, around the great curve of the tunnel.
"He," said Dena, and there was no doubt to whom she referred, "watches the entrances and exits to the Alchemical Hearths but trow built these tunnels. There are ways around."
"Secret entrances?" I said and Dena nodded.
"Mother spoke of them, ways through rock and stone. We need to find one." She moved to the far wall and began feeling along it, touching the rock almost gingerly with her fingertips. I thought I had a better way.
Turning my back on the scene, I pulled the mirror from my belt and angled it so it caught the far wall. The reflection was crystal clear but also different. Tendrils of ethereal green energy flowed across the image. One touched Dena's back and she twitched, not a big motion, just the kind of thing she'd done countless times before. That wasn't a nice thought.
I moved the mirror slowly, scanning the wall for signs of our hidden path. I'd worked with enough magic-types over my career to know their creations were normally pretty reliable*. No less than those created by tech heads at any rate. I found it after only a few seconds searching. The rock wasn't perfectly smooth. It wavered in and out and there was even the occasional crevice, never longer than a few feet in length. To the naked eye, that's exactly how the secret entrance appeared but the mirror showed the truth: a long winding path.
* My own experiences are less positive than Abel's in this regard, but that is likely because of our respective environments. The mystical superheroes with whom Abel interacts are mostly Mutant Wizards, whose powers tend towards the powerful, repeatable and reliable. The few who fall into other categories represent the pinnacle of their craft. The MCO, by comparison, employs a number of mystical adepts in a range of roles but most are of a far lower skill. As such, their abilities are less overtly potent and more erratic. A similar pattern can be observed in psychic talent and other areas with both baseline and superhuman equivalents.
"There," I said, turning and pointing. Dena looked up, saw the mirror in my hand and moved to check. Something like a wave of light vanished when she touched the rock and the secret stood revealed.
"I go first," she said. "You follow." We set off.
The tunnel was tight and cramped, more suited for Dena's small frame than mine. Fortunately for all concerned, I was a superhero. My Invulnerability meant the sharp rocks couldn't hurt me and my Superstrength allowed me to muscle through. Still, I was glad when the tunnel proved short. After only ten minutes walking, we reached a seeming dead end. Dena raised a hand and it dissolved too, an illusion which ran away like water.
We walked through and entered the Alchemical Hearths.
The first thing I noticed was the heat. It was hot, sweat run down your face hot. The second was the noise. People shouted, hammers struck metal and voices sung in fae harmony. I looked down at Dena. "What does this place, um, do?"
She turned to look up at me, face as fast as stone. "Trow mine," she said, after a second's pause. "The Fivefold Kindreds refine. They take our metals and stone and turn them into higher things, material fit for the Lords Sidhe to work."
"They create the Orichalcum?"
"No." She shook her head, pendants and beads clacking. "Only the Lords create the Sun's Gold. The Fivefold Kindreds create the materials the Lords use."
We were standing in a narrow alcove. It was small and out of the way but we couldn't stay there for ever. If nothing else, standing right next to a secret passage didn't seem like a good idea. What if someone else wanted to use it?
"We're heading up to the Ledger Halls after this?" I asked. Dena's brief description of the Hill's structure seemed a while ago but it was simple enough. She nodded and motioned me to follow.
Out of the alcove, the heat and sound were worse. They beat against me, an almost physical wave. I wasn't Invulnerable against sound as a surprising number of villains had demonstrated over the years, even if I was resistant to the physical damage it could cause.
We passed a set of anvils where a quartet of large round men, wearing only loincloths, were hammering metal. They struck in perfect rhythm, four hammers landing so nearly as one only my eyes told me there were four at all. Each blow sent their large bellies shaking and made their oversized hoop earrings jump, pulling on their already over stretched earlobes. Sweat beaded on their mahogany skin, and it ran in lines down their bodies. It matched and melded with the patterns already there. Their skin wasn't just the colour of polished mahogany. It looked to have the grain of the wood too, an organic arrangement of deep browns and knot-swirls. One looked up as I passed, but Dena and I kept our heads down and hurried on.
Further on, a group of small, lithe creatures were maneuvering a steaming crucible by means of a dense network of chains. The tallest was only Dena's height but they were scaled like miniature men. Dress them in red and white and they could all have jobs in the grotto come Christmas time. The crucible tipped and a stream of liquid silver poured forth. From nowhere a wind blew and it carried a chant within it, deep base words I could only just hear.
We pressed on, past workshops and down corridors filled with people of all shapes and sizes. I raised an arm and wiped sweat from my brow. Not only was it hot but the air was humid too. In places steam billowed around the ceiling and rivulets of water ran down the walls. Given I was wearing a quite well designed superhero costume and still suffered, I couldn't imagine what Dena must be going through behind her dense hair.
A large cart, drawn by what could only be a bronze boar, trundled passed, and we had to stop. Frozen in place, I could feel eyes on my back and the green light seemed especially sinister. I looked around. Some kind of lizard, either a big salamander or a miniature dragon, was blasting flame into a furnace. It was watched over by a pair of swarthy figures, human sized but fallow of skin and strong of arm. The shorter turned and looked at Dena and me. His face was long and angular, and he frowned at us, eyes narrowed. I resisted the urge to touch my butterfly brooch and was very grateful when we could resume our journey.
Despite being underground, there were roads in the Alchemical Hearths. My sense of direction wasn't good enough to map them but we seemed to be moving with a purpose. Of course, roads had their own dangers.
There was the thunder of locked steps from up ahead and the ever present green light grew brighter, a flickering burning flame.
"Off the road," said Dena, jabbing a finger towards a side corridor, voice hard. I hurried to obey and we crouched down into an empty forge room. The fire in the far corner was out but the stones still gave off heat, a dry radiance which was a relief in many ways. There was a wall between us and the road, built of bricks rather than natural stone left to stand. Perhaps because of that, it did little to block the sound.
Smash. Smash. Smash.
What sounded like a dozen feet hit the ground in military lockstep. My hands itched. I wanted to know what was going on. If a dozen green fire monsters were about to stab me I wanted to know before the swords started to move. I unhooked Enki's mirror from my belt and angled it so I could see through one of the windows.
It took a little fiddling but I finally got the angle I needed. The road came into view, a wide tunnel of flat stone lined on both side by the Hill's equivalent of buildings, structures dug into the mountain rock. Ethereal green mist hunted through the air, tendrils reaching, tasting and grasping. It seemed especially thick.
Three green fire monsters marched into view, humanoid figures of roaring green flame contained in suits of copper-gold armor. Only... In the mirror they were something more. At the heart of each monster was a person. To the left was a trow, body a ghostly image born of the mirror's magic but undoubtedly one of Dena's people. The middle figure was one of the Santa elves, the miniature humans who I'd seen working not half an hour ago. Weeping sores clung to her face and most of her hair was gone. The little that was less seemed like straw. The final figure was of a kind I'd not seen before, a moderately anthropomorphised insect, most resembling a praying mantis. In the mirror I watched them trudge passed and was glad to see them gone.
Once they were out of view, I knelt down next to Dena. "There were people at the heart of those monsters," I said, voice hushed so only she could hear.
Slowly she nodded, eyes not meeting mine.
"Is that," I said but stopped. "Will that happen to Quothe?"
Another nod. "It's..." Her voice was even softer than mine, barely a whisper. "It's what He does to all who oppose him."
His enemies become his servants, I thought. And are sent back to fight former friends. I couldn't say that out loud, though. Dena was already blaming herself and I needed her help. A magical debt demanded it.
We waited in the empty workshop for some minutes, enough time for the green fire monsters to move far away, and then left. The heat and sounds seemed deadened after my close encounter but I walked all the same, step after step, passed mahogany men working in eerie symmetry, screaming Santa elves, fire breathing lizards and God only knew what else. Despite the sheer breadth and scope, it had lost some of its alien wonder. By the time Dena motioned for us to stop, I was almost numb to it all.
"That leads to the Ledger Halls," she said, pointing forward. We were knelt at the side of the main road, partially obscured by a pile of bent metal sheeting. Up ahead the road curved upwards, but was guarded by a large portcullis, made from what looked like iron. Before it stood four green fire monsters, two on each side. Light shone from them and the shadows they cast writhed as if in pain. "We need to find a way through."
"I could lift the portcullis," I said. It was big and heavy but I was pretty sure I could lift it. I might feel the burn but it wouldn't be the biggest thing I'd ever set my Superstrength against. The guards would be the problem, though. The thought of fighting people who could so easily and lethally bypass my Invulnerability was not a pleasant one.
"It's made of iron," said Dena. "He had it built." She said it in an oddly fatalistic way that left me confused.
"So?" I said. "Unless it has some kind of magical protection I can lift it."
"It's iron," she said, as if I really wasn't getting something. "Cold forged from the bones of the earth."
"So it's magic iron then?"
She turned on me, bulbous nose coloring. "No. Cold Iron. It burns even the Lords Sidhe. No magic can stand its touch."
"Iron doesn't burn me," I said, somewhat confused. Dena sent the look right back at me.
"Iron burns," she said, and I could almost hear her teeth grinding. "Cold Iron burns twenty fold." She banged her blackened stick on the ground and cracks spread from the impact point, a spider's web of broken stone.
"Burns you maybe, but not humans," I said and tried to think back. Maybe burning iron was just a magic thing but I couldn't remember any of the mystical superheroes I knew acting strange around the metal. Then again, I couldn't remember them not acting strange either. Whatever the case, my powers weren't magical in nature*.
* Almost certainly true, but it is strange to hear Abel admit this. His career was characterized by a marked resistance to discussing the nature of his abilities, of which his refusal to undergo any form of power testing is but a part. Genetic tests on recovered blood samples prove he lacks the meta-gene complex and likewise show he possess only negligible non-human genetic material, certainly below the Innsmouth Limit. I would once again direct readers to files #0934291 and #1862399 for further information, or a future volume of this archive were in depth discussion of Abel's powers would be thematically appropriate.
Dena muttered something under her breath, but I didn't catch what. Rather than let her sulk, I spoke up. "It doesn't matter. We can't just fight our way through," I said. "That would raise the alarm, and we still have two more levels before we reach the Throne of the Most High. Are there more secret tunnels?"
Slowly, Dena shook her head. "These areas were mined long, long ago, before even my mother's, mother was born. I do not know."
"I could try the mirror," I said. "If they're here, I should be able to find them."
This time Dena nodded and we moved to the nearest wall.
Gazing into the mirror wasn't a pleasant experience. I saw my face, broad jawed and still mostly clean shaven, but around it swum a miasma of putrid green fog. That wasn't the only strange thing either. The butterfly brooch flickered with otherworldly light, like a paper flower which had been folded into more than three dimensions. The miniature horn was worse. It appeared as a twisted cone of air, a tornado compressed until it was only a thumb's length long. Even my body wasn't normal. It ran with strange, half seen light, just under the surface, which pulsed and dimmed as I moved. Of course, as image obsessed as I could be at times, it was well behind saving my sorry skin in the order of importance. I began scanning the wall.
Stone and more stone. Rocks, crevices and cracks. I thought I was never going to find our hidden entrance but after half an hour's careful searching, I spied something. It was a door, invisible to the naked eye but outlined with silver light in the mirror's depths. That wasn't what made me notice it, though. It was the two lines of absolute blackness which barred it shut.
"There," I said, pointing for Dena. "Try touching it." She moved forward and did exactly that but nothing happened. "Try again." This time I watched in the mirror. When she touched the door, it swum with silver light but the black bars drank it all down. I turned back around and explained what I saw.
Dena was quick with an explanation. "Iron," she said. "He's barred the way with iron. No fae could open this door."
"I'm no fae," I said.
We were about half a mile from the green fire monsters and the portcullis, but that wasn't far enough for my liking. I would need to be careful. Slowly and with all the caution I could muster, I began digging into the rock. For a normal person that would be impossible but when you have both Superstrength and Invulnerability, a lot of things can become quite easy. I forced my fingers in as deep as I could, then dragged down, ripping apart stone. Cracks spread and rock cried out as it was rent asunder but it wasn't too loud, not in comparison to the thumping of hammers and the screeching of cooling metal which constantly filled the Alchemical Hearths.
Dena gasped and drew back when I reached the first iron bar. I glanced at her, frowned, but turned back to my task. The bar came free in a screech of twisting metal and I hefted it in my hand. It was about four feet long and rough around the edges. It was no Excalibur to draw from the stone* but if people around these parts were weak to iron, it might be a useful tool.
* While some might find this notation pedantic, I feel compelled as a faithful editor to add it all the same. According to legend, Excalibur was given to King Arthur by the Lady of the Lake. The sword drawn from the stone was a different blade. Abel is probably confusing the two stories.
"You're touching it," said Dena in an almost hushed voice from several feet away. Her beetle-black eyes were wide, and she was fingering one of the pendants which hung from her hair.
I ignored her and placed it off to one side. "One more to go."
Because of the mirror, I knew exactly where the second bar was and I reached it with a minimum of fuss. I drew it out without bringing the roof down on our heads and placed it with its twin. A quick check with the mirror showed no more black bars but the silver outline was faded in places too, a ghostly memory of what it had been. If I'd broken the door, getting in might be quite a bit harder. Only one way to find out. "Try opening it again."
Dena moved forward, her eyes locked on the two metal bars as if they were poisonous vipers, and touched the wall. Lines of light spluttered into existence, marking the arching curve of an ornate door. Scrolling script ran across it, the language not something I recognized let alone read. If Dena could, she gave no sign. Instead, she reached out with both arms and pushed. The door swung open like the magic it was, splitting down its central axis.
Beyond the door was a corridor, free of dust and cobwebs but clearly long abandoned all the same. I gathered up the metal bars and walked through. Dena followed.
I'd only walked a few stepped when stone groaned from behind me and I spun. The door snapped shut and the silver light died. It was the silence which struck me most, though. For the first time since entering the Alchemical Hearths, nothing was pounding against my ears. I let out a breath. It seemed oddly muffled, the sound hollow.
"We need to keep moving," said Dena, pointing forward. The tunnel curved so I could only see the next twenty or so feet but I knew what lay at the far end all the same.
"Wait a second."
If I was going to risk my life, I wanted every advantage I could grab. Right then that was the two iron bars, either of which was capable of disrupting the kind of magic used in the Hill and burning its residents. That wasn't the kind of advantage I'd survived years as a superhero by ignoring. I set one bar to the side and made a hanging hoop for the other, using some tie-wraps from my utility belt (an essential tool for any practically minded superhero*). Once I got everything settled, I hung it on the opposite side from the mirror and set off down the corridor. "Come on."
* And MCO special agents.
"Why bring that," said Dena, frowning, her feet tabbing against the stone floor. The poisonous viper expression was back in full force. Truth to tell, I wasn't sure it had ever left.
"If we need to fight it may be useful," I said. Of course, if I'd fully thought things through, I would've realized the somewhat large flaw in my plan but that wouldn't come to light until later, at the worst possible moment.
From the way she stalked forward, I didn't think Dena agreed.
The curve of the corridor followed the line of the wall, heading towards the portcullis gate. As I've remarked before, I'm not very good at mapping things in my head but after walking for about ten minutes, I felt sure we must be right on top of it. Each step I took stoked those worries. I felt sure a green fire monster was going to appear at any moment, sickly light glinting off a sword able to cut me as if I was a normal man. The relief was almost physical when a staircase came into view.
The stairs formed a square, with an open area in the middle. I stuck my head inside and looked up. Even with the ever present green light, I couldn't see the top. "Looks like we're going up."
In this section Abel travels through the Deep Mines and the Alchemical Hearths. In doing so we receive our only true look at Hill culture and society. These levels appear to be the largest and house the bulk of the population. Additionally, although we meet the residence of other levels, it is under very different circumstances. This section is the only glimpse we receive of 'normal' life.
The Deep Mines seems to be populated primarily by trow, though there is at least one mention of a 'green skinned creature, covered in vines'. They appear to be principally miners, as related by Dena in the previous section, but also engage in stonework, smelting and possibly food production. I'd also speculate that they form something of an undercaste in Hill society, even thinking of themselves as insignificant compared to higher levels. Still, they appear to serve a vital function and engage in a range of cultural pursuits, mostly based around stonework. Abel seems particularly impressed by their engravings, and the network of secret passages suggests they are not entirely resigned to their fate.
Above the Deep Mines are the Alchemical Hearths. There appears to be at least limited travel between these two levels. Dena is able to guide Abel and has knowledge of the secret passages connecting the two. Likewise, other trow transport goods upwards, though we do not know if they enter the Alchemical Hearths proper or are stopped at some sort of border crossing. There is evidence for both possibilities. Dena is able to travel relatively freely once within the Alchemical Hearths and she, unlike Abel, was not protected by a magical amulet. On the other hand, Abel and Dena are forced to enter in secret, they do draw attention once inside and Abel does not relate seeing any other trow. This does seem to strength my caste based interpretation. While travel between levels is possible, it is rare and based upon necessity.
Another important question is who are the 'Fivefold Kindreds'? Three seem fairly clear, the 'mahogany men', the 'Santa elves' and the 'swarthy figures'. But the remaining two are more ambiguous. It is possible that Abel simply didn't meet them, though he encountered the other groups multiple times. Another option is that the name is a legacy and they no longer exist, having died out through attrition, warfare or disease. A further possibility is that the name is metaphorical, with heat, fire, knowledge or materials being counted in the Fivefold Kindreds' number. Without additional details concerning Hill psychology, guessing would be impossible. If I am right, it could be very inhuman.
[Updated on: Mon, 04 June 2012 15:00]
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59289 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Sat, 02 June 2012 07:08
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
Under the Hill
The climb was long and tortuous, for anyone without superhuman abilities anyway. God be praised, I did fall into that category, but Dena wasn't quite so lucky. Her face was set hard as she climbed, stair after stair, ledge after ledge. If the steps had been sized for human legs rather than trow I doubt she would have made it at all, but they were and she did. Almost half an hour after we started our ascent, the stairs stopped and we came to an exit, a blank section of wall in the shape of a door. A quick check with the mirror confirmed the presence of more iron, and indeed, I could see where the bars had been hammered home. While I set about removing it, Dena stayed well back, fingers once more toying with her beads and pendants. Once the two iron bars were safely removed, I motioned her forward.
She touched the wall, pushed and we both stepped out into the Ledger Halls and into one of the largest treasure vaults I'd ever seen.
The room was perhaps twenty feet long by ten wide and filled with valuables. There were piles of furs, strings of beads and lumps of amber. Coins stamped with the heads of Roman Emperors mixed with those of kings long dead. Mounds of banknotes covered an entire wall, the dates of which spanned hundreds of years. Dollars, Pounds, Yens and Roubles lay in piles. Currencies I didn't recognize sat everywhere, as did those I only wish I didn't. Emperor Gizmatic smiled out from a stack of 22 carat Gizcoins, gold bullion issued by his private fiefdom Karedonia. Beside it was a pile of silver from the Isle of Atlas, one side showing the super technological floating fortress itself, the other the scowling visage of Director Chang, the mad scientist who was psychically linked to the outermost of its AI cores. There were bars of precious metal, chests stacked with ornate bronze axes and decanters full of colorful shells. If something had been used as money at some point in human history, it looked to be here.
I looked to Dena. "What is all this?"
"A gift vault," she said and looked around, somehow not bothered by the tremendous amount of wealth. "When humans come for our creations, they must give something in return. That is the way of things. But we care not for human coin."
"But the gold?" I said. "The metals. Surely you could use them rather than mining."
Dena sniffed and turned on me. "Humans know nothing of the earth. Their metals are worse than worthless."
Despite the temptation, I resisted the urge to pick up a few small and valuable items. Instead, I focused on my goal: getting out of the Hill alive. "Where to from here?"
"I have never been beyond the Alchemical Hearths," said Dena. "We must find our own way."
That wasn't what I wanted to hear, but it wasn't the end of the world either. We just needed to keep heading upwards, until we reached the Throne of the Most High. Simple?
I walked to the treasure room's door and looked at it; it was a solid slab of stone with no handle. A check with the mirror showed that it shimmered slightly but not in the same way as the trow secret passages. "How do we get this open?"
Dena walked to my side and frowned, beetle-black eyes squinted. "The ledger wardens manage these doors," she said. She brushed it with the back of one hand but to no effect.
"But why put a secret trow passage in a room a trow couldn't exit."
"The passage is older than the door. This is new. Two thousand years."
Two thousand years was new? That was news to me. "Stand back," I said. "I'm going to open it for us." Brute force and ignorance solved a multitude of problems in my experience, even those involving twenty times antiques.
I set my legs and forced my fingers under the door's lip. Then I lifted. Stone groaned, dust fell and I forced the stone slab upwards, fighting for every inch. I gritted my teeth, my face a grim visage. It was a lot heavier than it looked. Either it extended a long way into the ceiling or yet more magic was at play. Once I got it to chest height, I held it still, arms straining.
Dena ran forward and ducked under the door, moving a lot quicker than I normally gave her credit for. Now came the hard part, though. I hunkered down, turned, caught the door on my shoulder, bit down against the pain this caused, twisted and came out the other side. As soon as I let go, the door slammed back into place, a deafening thud more akin to an avalanche than a door.
"That," I said and let out a deep breath, "was no ordinary door."
"The wardens' magic is potent," she said.
With that ringing endorsement, I looked around. The gift vault opened up on to a high, vaulting chamber, a perfect square. Columns fashioned from white stone lined all four walls, supporting a ceiling painted with five huge scenes. The nine queens and single king were there again, even more breathtaking than before. They took up a huge swath of the ceiling to my left. At the opposite end were seven regal figures, grouped together in counsel. Their skin was a mixture of blues, greens and browns and they each held a golden trident, the paint so bright it almost shone. Opposite me were eight great dragons flying in formation, some in the western style, great lizards with leathery wings, while others looked Chinese, serpentine demi-gods. Above my head were twelve inhuman shapes of smoke and flame, like no-nonsense genies, their bodies hung with jewelery. In the center, equidistant from the four murals, was a giant circle, a solid mass of black stone which didn't looked painted on at all. Around it where seven female figures, clad in white and painted so they knelt facing the circle, necks bent, hands clasped as if in prayer.
"And this?" I said, voice hushed. Even so my words seemed to fill the room, pulled from me like a vampire might drink blood from a victim. When they at last faded, the hall was silent once more but it was a hollow silence, empty of life.
"The entrance chamber," said Dena. "We tell stories of it. Look." She pointed to the left, where the queens and king were painted. Under them was a double set of doors, fifteen feet high, ten wide and made from the same pale-gold metal as the green fire monsters' swords. It had the same glow too, sickly fire, visible even over the omnipresent green light. "They've stood closed and locked since the-- Since He took power."
Closed and locked and glowing with magic. That was not how I liked my exits. Open and easily ducked through was more my style, preferably with no security cameras or people watching. Not that it often did me any good. Trouble had a habit of finding me.
"Come on," I said and turned away from the door, the memory tugging like an insistent child. Like a child, though, it was foolish and didn't know better. Even if I could force the doors open, which was a big if, running out on a magical debt was a supremely foolish thing to do. Just look at all the trouble helping Madam Eldritch move had caused me. Hiding that egg timer was just unfair.
The soles of my boots tapped against the floor of the entrance chamber, the sound oddly sharp and potent. The room was large, the walls spilling away in all directions, and it left me feeling exposed. That wasn't normal for me. I tended to preen under public attention, after putting up a suitable front of humble humility, of course. But this... This left me nervous. I glanced down at Dena. She seemed to feel it too, head scanning from side to side, alert and ready for danger. We were staying as close to the walls as we could, of course, shielded by the line of columns, but I doubted that would be enough.
The doors in the far right wall crashed open and seven figures rushed through. They were the size of humans and wore green robes with conical hats of the same colour, the style and cut Chinese.
"Down," I hissed and crouched behind a pillar, Dena at my side.
"Ledger wardens," said Dena, eyes flicking from side to side. The wardens were spreading out, searching the room. They'd find us any second.
"Will they help us," I said in a hushed whisper, "or turn us over to..." I motioned upwards.
Dena just shook her head, black eyes wide. She didn't know.
"Located!" said one of the keepers in a chirping voice and the rest turned. They thrust out their hands, hidden under voluminous sleeves, and the ground shot towards me in a wave.
I went one way and Dena went the other.
"We're not here to fight," I said, just as the ground exploded where I'd been. "We're just--" They didn't listen. Of course they didn't listen. Even as I was talking, they clapped their hands together and stabbed downwards. Circular depressions appeared at their feet and rock spears shot up from mine.
Right. If they wanted it that way.
Rock shattered against my Invulnerable body as I dashed forwards, heading towards the nearest warden. He slapped his hands together again and tapped the ground. A rock wall shot up, small stones flying off in all directions, but I drew my arms over my head and broke through.
"Okay," I said, panting slightly, my fist clenched around his collar. Judging from the way he was squirming, I think I made an impression, but it was hard to tell. A black veil hung over his face, obscuring it from view. "Let's talk this out, okay?"
The other six wardens changed their footing, one foot sliding behind the other until they were bent forward. They inverted their hands, paused for a moment and stabbed back. Rock exploded behind them and they shot forward, moving as if launched by Champion himself. I had just enough time to throw myself clear before the first shot passed. That put me right in the path of a second and a bow-wave of rock sent me spinning to the ground.
I groaned and pushed myself back to my feet. So did the warden I'd tried to capture a few seconds before, but now he looked different, very different. In the confusion his hat had been knocked clear and in its place was a bug's head, long and chitinous, set with an oversized collection of multifaceted eyes. It was a twin of the creature I'd seen inside the green fire monster.
The warden took a fighting stance, arms raised. "Bind and cease!" he said, and the way his insectoid mouth moved did not match the words. Not my day. Not my day at all.
His six compatriots turned, still riding upon waves of earth, and raced towards me. I twisted out of the way of the first but his trail of disrupted earth fouled my foot. I went down, rolled and came up, just as another two bugs were slamming towards me.
They hit in a cloud of moving rock and stone. It would have quite possibly killed a normal human but I was hard to hurt, even among superheroes. Momentum meant I lost my feet but superhuman Invulnerability meant I came up fighting. I ripped the iron bar from my belt and held it across my body, saying in every way but words, 'Just try something.'
"Human," said a voice from the door. It sounded broken, like once fine crystal shattered and crudely remade. The wardens halted where they were, earth-waves frozen in place. Their heads turned and mine did too. An almost human figure stood in the doorway, a woman without clothes but not unadorned. Her face had a vulpine cast to it and her ears were sharp, ending in narrowed points. She stood a little over six feet tall and auburn hair jutted from her head, dried and shriveled. Scabs and weeping sores clung to her exposed skin and jewelery-fine chains covered the rest, twining around her body from head to toe. Link after interlocking link coiled around legs and across breasts. It created a spider-fine web around her hands and dropped across her brow like a coronet. It was the dark-silver of iron but glowed with green flame all the same. She was like her voice, broken but held together, a sundered reflection of Enki, still clinging to some measure of power.
The woman raised her hands and then drew them apart. The ledger wardens scampered to obey, plastering themselves against the walls.
"Human," she said again and I saw the glint of metal at the end of her tongue. "What." She paused, cocking her head. "Are." She tried the other side. "You?"
Since stealth was off the cards for the foreseeable future and I had no idea how to answer her question, I decided to try the direct route. "I'm here to see your boss. Take me to your leader."
She froze, inhuman in her stillness, not appearing to even breathe. After many long seconds, she said, "Come."
I risked a look around the hall. The ledger wardens were kneeling heads down, arms folded in front of them. I could see no sign of Dena. Maybe she did the sensible thing and ran away? If so I could only hope she forgave herself for it. There was nothing she could have done.
She turned and walked out of the room and I had no choice but to follow. Out of the entrance hall, I felt marginally less exposed but only slightly. The corridors were lined with carven scenes and not all were friendly. Some seemed intent on menacing me with spikes of obsidian, or whatever black stone had been used to create the very realistic images.
After five minutes of walking, the silence began to grate on me. "What's your name," I said.
She gave no answer.
"You're one of the Lords Sidhe aren't you?" Dena had said all bar Aeron and Enki were bound in chains of iron, and she did share a certain something with Enki, as far as I could tell these things.
There was no sign she even heard me.
"Tell me something!"
"I," she said, not slowing or looking around, "was Ninegal."
"Was?" I said, my main goal to fill the void. "You're not anymore?"
"No. She was someone else."
We reached a crossroads of sorts. Ahead, the corridor carried on much as it had before, but it angled up and down on either side, the kind of slope I'd climbed to reach the Alchemical Hearths. Ninegal, for that is what I elected to call her for want of something better, turned left and started up. I matched her path, the iron bar a weighty mass in my hand.
What followed was an uneventful twenty minutes, footfalls and the clinking of chain the only sounds. The monotony was only broken once, when a cart appeared ahead of us and trundled into view. It was empty of cargo but driven by three Santa elves, the miniature humanoids I'd seen in the Alchemical Hearths. Upon seeming us, their eyes opened wide and they forced the cart to the very edge of the road. There was just enough room that Ninegal did not need to alter her path. In fact, she never even acknowledged the elves' existence.
Eventually, the road leveled out and we came upon a huge set of iron gates, equal in size to those I'd seen in the Alchemical Hearths but far more ornate. The iron was twisted into shapes, circles spinning around circles, mushroom clouds and shattered cities, towers cast down and walls broken open. At the pinnacle of the doors hung an iron sun and the omnipresent green glow was especially heavy there.
Green fire monsters stood guard at the gate, two on each side. I looked at each in turn, forcing myself to meet their eyeless stares even as their inferno-bodies blazed as bright as the sun.
Was one of these Quothe? I had no way to tell.
Ninegal flicked out a hand, her chains clicking, and the four green fire monsters moved to obey. They drew the gate open, two to a side, and Ninegal walked through. I followed, into the Solar Refinery and the penultimate stage of my journey. I could only hope Dena was okay.
The Solar Refinery was quiet, but it wasn't the deathless quiet of the Ledger Halls. Water gurgled from one side, a miniature waterfall which fell from high on the ceiling and trickled away through unseen vents. A tree grew opposite, its leaves silver and fruit golden. Between the two burned a single flame, half my height tall but perfectly formed in shape and colour, quintessential fire. Opposite that was a garden of hanging chimes -- small bells and flutes which sounded the gentlest of notes as the air stirred. Of course, by far the most noticeable feature was the harsh beam of green light which stabbed down from the ceiling, guttering out in a parabolic bowl, fashioned from rune inscribed gold. Around it stood three figures. All but one were wrapped in chain.
Ninegal took a single step forward and dropped to her knees, chains sounding. She bowed her head, like a supplicant in a church, and the lone unchained figure turned, his eyes sweeping over Ninegal and onto me. They were cold and dark, chips of flint set into an impossibly fair face. This, I realized, was Aeron, the Lord Sidhe who betrayed his brethren to the Corpse Flame. If Ninegal was Enki's shattered reflection, Aeron was his dark mirror. Power wrapped around him, a wild strength, and jagged tattoos covered those parts of his body not clothed in animal furs.
"What do you bring before me, Ninegal?" he said, mouth opening to show teeth far sharper than any humans.
"My Lord," said Ninegal, voice only just above a whisper. "He is human. This one found him in the Entrance Hall."
Aeron closed his eyes and froze, not even breathing. A nimbus of green light played around the edges of his body, bleed over from the blazing spear descending from above. After three long seconds, he renewed his gaze and said, "The wards still stand. The doors are sealed as the Most High has ordered. How is this possible?"
"This one knows not, My Lord. He asked to be brought to you."
Not quite correct, I thought, but I wasn't going to push that particular point.
Aeron's eyes flashed back to me and he stepped forward, muscles moving like a stalking predator. I shifted my grip on the iron bar. If I needed to fight, there would be scant warning. There so seldom was.
"How did you enter here, human?" he said, voice hard and harsh. Dark shadows rolled around his face.
"An accident," I said, still not sure how I wanted to play this, "and I'll be happy to leave as soon as possible." Aeron showed no sign of responding. The silence hung for an uncomfortable second until I pushed on. "I ask only one thing: return the trow known as Quothe to his people."
There, I'd said it. Magic bound me to this path however much I might wish otherwise. I could only hope Aeron took it well. He didn't
"You dare," he said and seemed to grow taller. He towered over me, cloaked in nigh-incalculable power and infinite majesty. The room grew darker until only Aeron remained, standing before the too-bright pillar of green light. "You, whose kind crawls like rats over this once fine planet. You, who would not be fit to till a field or lift a craftsman's tool in a proper age. You dare invade my kingdom and dictate terms to me!"
He raised both hands and green fire gathered in them, raging infernos to set any earthly fire to shame. I launched myself to the left, just as he threw both blasts forward. They missed me but hit the wall, turning a great section of it into bubbling rock. If I'd stopped to think, that would have been terrifying but I had more immediate troubles right them. I leapt forward, iron bar held like a police baton, and swung for Aeron's head but he was quick. There was another flash of light and he held a sword, long, two handed, and crafted from pale-gold and green flame. He blocked my strike, twisted and his sword was inside my guard. I jumped back but not before he scored a line across the side of my face. It burnt, a pulsing pain.
Aeron was bad enough but he wasn't alone. The other Lords Sidhe moved towards me, Ninegal and two men I didn't know -- one so thin his ribs showed under his chains and the other hollow eyed, dead to the world.
They advanced and I moved back, trying to keep my options open. I looked from side to side, scanning the room for an easy exit or signs of an incoming attack. Something was happening but I had no idea what. The flame standing in the corner of the room shrank, the tree wilted and the chimes stopped sounding. The dead eyed man snapped his head towards me and I was hit by a wave of force, the equal of any telekinetic punch I'd taken over the years. I smashed into the back wall, so hard the stone shattered and I was flung into the corridor outside. The next wall cracked but did not break and I felt to the ground, breathing heavily but not down. If there was one thing I could do, it was take a hit.
Something moved at my back and I threw myself forward. Hands reached towards me from the wall, stone animated by some kind of magic. That wasn't good at all. The anorexic sidhe stood in the hole, mumbling words under his breath. More hands grabbed at me, cold fingers of rock, reaching out from the floor, walls and ceiling. I leapt for him but something closed around my ankles, yanking me to the ground. I rolled, kicked out and shattered my attackers but more took their place. Hard fingers closed around my neck, squeezing down, and I jerked upright, breaking myself free but only just.
Even while I was recovering from the assault of the thousand hands, there came a roar and Aeron charged at me, two-handed sword held ready. His feet pounded against the stone floor, and his blade glimmered the same pale-gold color as the green fire monsters' weapons. Relying on my Invulnerability would be a mistake; almost dying once was enough for me.
Aeron's swung, the blade whistling as it cut through the air, and I ducked low. It slashed over my head, stirring my hair, and I moved forward. While Aeron was extended, I came up inside his guard, legs gathering power for a knockout punch, but he was ready for such a tactic. He struck out with an elbow and smashed it into my face. It didn't hurt but knocked me a half step to the side. That put me off balance, a problem which rapidly became a lethal issue as he swung again.
The blade tore down, aiming to take my head off at the neck, and I only just rolled clear. I came up facing Ninegal, the battered and chained woman only a few feet away. She drew in a breath and screamed, green fire dancing on her tongue-ring. The sound was a physical wave and sent me flying back, even as it tore at my ears and ripped chunks from the wall. The ground came up hard but I landed well, rolling then coming to my feet.
Ninegal and the anorexic sidhe looked ready to charge me, hunting hounds straining at the leash, but Aeron held up a hand. He almost growled as he looked at me, teeth bare. "What are you, human?" he said. That seemed to be a common sentiment in these parts.
I didn't answer; instead I just took the opportunity to gather my breath and plan my next move. I was facing four superhuman opponents and was not yet at my goal. The only silver lining was that they didn't seem to understand human superpowers*. Quothe hadn't known what a superhero was and Aeron was looking at me like I was some kind of mutant ant, utterly alien. That had to be worth something.
* An interesting observation on Abel's part but a risky one. Quothe can hardly be called an authoritative source on the totality of Hill knowledge, and Aeron might merely have been surprised that Abel had powers, not that such powers existed at all. We simply lack sufficient information to correctly interpret the clues. That said, if my theory is correct (see this section's endnote) he knows very well.
"You will answer," said Aeron, voice the bass rumble of a marching army, and he raised a hand. Claw like fingernails bit down into his palm and blood welled up, a black-red stain. "Answer!" The word hit me like a telepathic anvil. My mouth opened, a response on the tip of my tongue, but I bit down at the last moment. The pain helped.
I took a step back, moving carefully in case Aeron decided to end his truce and stone hands appeared at my feet.
The blood continued to spread down Aeron's hand. "Answer!"
My heart pounded in my chest. I wanted to answer. The words wanted to rip themselves from my lips, even if I didn't know what they might be. I kept retreating, though, and kept biting down on my tongue with a significant fraction of my Superstrength.
Ninegal dashed forward, moving quicksilver fast, and the anorexic sidhe was only just behind. I threw the iron bar with all my might, turned and ran. Iron hit flesh and there was a cry as someone slammed into the ground. It must have been Ninegal because stone hands erupted from the walls on all sides, hundreds of taloned fingers reaching for me.
I raised my arms to cover my face and just barreled forward, barely slowing. Stone arms shattered as they tried to grab my limbs and the cut on my cheek pulsed, now a numb streak surrounded by a bulwark of fire. The corner was just ahead and I tore around it, going almost full tilt. Open corridor stretched ahead but that would only do me so much good. I skidded to a stop, turned and plastered myself against the inside wall.
Ninegal tore around in hot pursuit*, iron covered hands extended for balance. Her eyes were wide and her head shot from side to side, searching for me, but it was already too late. I stuck out a foot and she crashed forward, heading towards the ground with all the power of her almost superhuman speed. She hit with a meaty thump but that didn't matter. I dove onto her back and began tearing. The lengths of iron chain shattered as I ripped them apart, green light flaring with each broken link. In only a handful of seconds most of it was gone.
* Ninegal's presence here is a slight incongruity. Only two paragraphs earlier Abel describes hitting her with his iron bar. If this was the case, the 'anorexic sidhe' would likely be first around the corner, not Ninegal. Since Ninegal's presence is integral to Abel's tale from this point on, it is probable that the previous statement was in error. The anorexic sidhe was presumably the one hit and was creating his stone hands while lying on the ground.
"Free," she said, voice barely a whisper as I pulled her erect.
"Come on!" I gripped down on her arm and ran forward, forcing her to come with me. Heavy footsteps pounded from behind. If it was either of the two chained sidhe, there was a chance I could repeat my trick; more likely, though, it was Aeron and that would mean trouble.
We rounded another corner, just ahead of pursuit. My breathing was heavy and Ninegal was only just keeping up. I needed a miracle; one came. A side door pulled open a dozen feet ahead and a face stuck out, covered with brown hair and set with a bulbous nose. Dena!
The small trow saw me and her eyes opened wide. I barreled into her room, dragging my charge with me, and slammed the door closed.
"Passage," I said, taking deep breaths. Dena got here somehow and if there was a secret passage there might yet be hope.
Dena nodded, eyes even wider than before, and pointed to a section of wall holding a mosaic picture of a great tree. It was only then that I noticed the mirror in her hand, my mirror. I shot a glance to my belt but the hook was empty, probably lost in the fight against the Ledger Wardens.
She jumped and did as I commanded while feet pounded just outside the door. The key this time was a specific leaf, near the apex of the tree. Dena touched it and the mosaic shimmered, becoming transparent. She dashed through first, the wall rippling like a vertical pond, and I went next, dragging Ninegal behind me. It cried out when she passed through and closed with a snapping hiss*, but that was a problem for later. What mattered now were the people following me. I stood in silence, heart pounding, arms shaking from the adrenalin. After perhaps a minute, I let out a breath. We were safe for now.
* While Abel doesn't investigate, this was likely because of the iron still on Ninegal's body. Some types of mysticism react negatively to the presence of iron, and Hill magic seems especially vulnerable in this regard. Readers desiring further information may wish to review standard operating instructions for dealing with Faerie-type mutants and associated literature.
Dena looked at me, shock clear on her face. "What. How?" Her eyes flicked to Ninegal and she did something between a horrified gasp and a terrified wail. "My Lady!"
Ninegal, for her part, didn't look like anyone's 'lady'. Weeping sores and scabs still covered her body, even more noticeable now most of the chain was gone. I worked to remove the last few links while she stood dumbly.
Once all but one was gone, I looked her in the eye and said. "Open your mouth." She just looked at me, eyes dull, and I sighed. "I need to remove the ring in your tongue. Please?"
"In-- In her tongue?" said Dena, voice faltering.
Slowly, like a child taking her first steps, Ninegal opened her mouth and I reached out. "This might hurt a bit."
If she had an opinion, Ninegal didn't share it.
Moving as fast as I dared, I broke the ring between two fingers and twisted it free. Blood welled up in her mouth and she just stood there for several long seconds. Then she blinked. "Free," she said again, if anything softer than before. "I am free." That time was louder. Her eyes focused and locked on me. "You freed me."
"My Lady," said Dena, staring up. "Are you unhurt? Do you-- Is there anything I can do?"
Ninegal shifted her gaze to Dena. "A trow," she said. "Here?"
"This is Dena," I said. "She's been helping me. We're trying to rescue a friend of hers."
"How," said Dena. "How did you stand it?" Her eyes flicked to the iron rings scattered on the floor and she took a step back.
Ninegal looked down too, her slightly slanted eyes flicking from ring to ring. "It is not true iron," she said, voice still low but stronger now. "It was once, but it has been alloyed with the Corpse Fla--"
I moved forward at that and shook my head. "Best not to say that name. He can hear."
For a half second I feared an extreme reaction, like Aeron's immolation attempt, but Ninegal proved her wisdom and sent me a sorrowful smile. "You are wise, Human," she said. "His power is great. It would be foolish to underestimate him." She paused and took a breath, her eyes going somewhere far away. "The chain... It is an alloy of iron and my former captor's power, forged in his light. He twisted that already most hateful of metals, making it fouler than anything I can imagine. While it touched my skin, I was slaved to him, my powers bound to his glory. But you saved me from that. No fae could ever do such a thing."
"It seemed a good way to stop you killing me," I admitted with a rueful smile, but I was well aware it was only a drop in the bucket. By my count, there were six Lords Sidhe still bound as the Corpse Flame's thralls. Enki and Ninegal were free, and Aeron was held only by his betrayal, but the rest were arrayed against me. Worst of all, Aeron knew I wanted to rescue Quothe. In retrospect, saying that was a big mistake.
"Lady," said Dena, her voice softer than I'd ever heard it. "My friend -- Quothe -- he's been taken to the Throne of the Most High. He-- He sacrificed himself for me. I have to save him. Have you seen him? Is he still..." Her eyes dropped.
"The answer is beyond my knowledge," said Ninegal and matched Dena in casting down her eyes. "I have not been to the Throne for many months."
"Will," said Dena, voice breaking up. "Will you help us?"
Ninegal shifted her eyes from Dena to me. "Is this your quest too, Human?" she said.
"The name's Joseph Abel," I said and let out a breath. "And yes, for better and for worse, I'm seeing this through to the end."
"Then I shall offer all the aid I can," she said, "for the debt I owe you and the duty I owe my people."
That was one piece of good news. Even if I was facing impossible odds, at least I wasn't facing them alone. It was time to get started. "Where are we, Dena?"
Dena jumped and shot a glance at Ninegal. "We're in-- I mean. This is a passage, leading from the Ledger Halls to the Solar Refinery. The tunnel branches. It could go other places. I found it using the mirror and worked out how to open it."
"It isn't a trow path?"
"No." Dena shook her head. "The magic is not trow." She proffered the mirror, the reflective surface glinting in the omnipresent green light. Presumably that was how she knew.
"That mirror," said Ninegal and reached out with a hand. Her fingers were long but the skin was a patchwork of weeping red sores, flesh broken open where the chains had sat. Dena froze for a moment, eyes locked on the iron wrought wounds, then held it out.
"We were given some aid by one of your fellows," I said, "but it's best not to say his name. Blue skin. Likes waterfalls. Has spiral tattoos." I pulled the miniature horn from my shirt and held it up for her to see. Then I had another thought. I pulled the butterfly brooch from under my jacket and held it out. "Can you tell me what's wrong with this? It's meant to hide me but you saw through it."
Ninegal took the brooch and turned it over in her hands, the opalescent wings glinting. "It is iron blighted," she said. "A beautiful thing, but the magic which gave it power has been disrupted. As I am now, it is beyond my ability to repair."
I frowned and ran a hand over my face. So that's what had happened. My iron bar-come-club had done more harm than good. So much for my clever fae beating plan.
"The mirror and the horn," I said. "Do they still work?"
Ninegal examined each in turn, using the lightest touch of her fingers. "Both have suffered the touch of iron but they yet contain purity of pattern and their vital sparks. They should remain functional. The butterfly amulet was especially delicate."
That was a relief. If I was to survive, I needed all the help I could get. My gut twisted at the thought. I had a feeling I wasn't over the hump yet.
"We need to get going," I said, looking down at Dena, then around at Ninegal. "Can we get to the Throne of the Most High from here?"
"In times past, perhaps," said Ninegal, "but that way will be blocked to us. These are the Sidhe Ways, though I did not know there was an entrance here. They run to all places, such that we might see all things in our realm. Even today they are used. My brothers and sisters know these routes as well as I, and they lie yet enthralled."
Not a ringing endorsement. "Are there other ways?"
"There are two," she said. "The first and widest is the Path of the Devotee. It was once the greatest of roads but today it is a dark path. There are one thousands steps along its length and each is protected by potent wards and spells. Five iron gates block the way and each is guarded by a fae whose very soul has become a crucible of green fire. The second is the Path of the Supplicant. Its magic is old -- the magic of king, blood and land -- and it lies still open, but not unguarded. One of my kin will stand sentinel-watch upon its entrance."
One Lord Sidhe verses iron gates, magic and green fire monsters? While it was a narrow call, the Path of the Supplicant seemed to be the better deal. Just as I was about to voice that thought, Dena shook her head violently, pendants and beads clacking together.
"We can't! No one can walk the Path of the Supplicant," she said, looking at me. Then her eyes flashed to Ninegal, horror on her face. "I-- Dena is stupid."
While I might have only known Dena for a day or so, I thought I had a pretty good read on her character. "What don't I know?"
Dena continued shooting terrified looks between Ninegal and I, so it was left for Ninegal to answer. "The magic which stops the-- Which stops my former captor closing the path, also makes it perilous to walk. It tests all who seeks to use it. Any fae may seek audience with his king, but only those whose causes are most worthy can demand such, by walking the Path of the Supplicant. I can use my power to provide some protection but the journey will not be without risk."
I took a breath. "Let's do it."
While the previous section allowed a more in depth look into Hill society, this section contains perhaps more information. Chiefly, it pushes us past the tipping point where I can ask the question I alluded to earlier: What manner of creatures inhabit the Hill?
The options are many and varied. Are they aliens, a mad devisor's science experiments, a collective of Stable Paranormal Events or even mutants? The Lords Sidhe are most telling in this last regard and it is from them I base my theory.
All MCO agents are trained in the basics of mutant classification, from power rankings, to trait identification and common development patterns. Because of this, I'm sure some of my readers will have already drawn the same conclusion as me. For those who haven't, I will expand.
Faerie-type mutants are one of the most common radical divergence development patterns. Victims experience a standardized package of physical mutations, operating on the genetic level, and an accompanying set of psychological changes. In addition, they normally gain an above statistical average collection of mutant abilities (sometimes whimsically described as 'fairy' in nature), as well as an extreme aversion to certain substances, iron in particular. In fact, a complete shutdown of mutant abilities and associated powers has been reported in a number of cases were a Faerie Mutant was forced into prolonged contact with iron.
The Lords Sidhe, as described by Abel, match this pattern almost perfectly, as do the other 'fae', if to a lesser degree. Ninegal, for example, is described as tall and with pointed ears. She is shown as vulnerable to iron, her face is characterized as vulpine and Abel styles her as 'almost human'. This is a very close match to the Faerie Mutant ideal. Her abilities, too, are what would be expected. Vocal based telekinesis (the so called 'Siren Trait') is a well-defined mutant ability and even matches the doubtful 'fairy nature' criteria, mimicking the mythical Banshee. The obvious fairy connotations of names like sidhe, fae and trow (which are a type of troll in Scottish folklore and the origin of the modern word 'drow') also bears comment.
The sheer size of the Hill and its population might seem an issue but it need not. Even conservative estimates place the Faerie Mutant population at over five hundred individuals and this number rises to over a thousand when less reliable sources are included. Of course, many predate the formation of the modern meta-gene complex (see file #1424223 'The Braeburn Report' for more information on the modern complex's proto forms) but there is a large degree of consistency, even across the centuries. This provides a more than sufficient body from which to draw a sizable population, assuming it was subsequently expanded by breeding and the adoption of related entities.
Based upon this evidence, I'd speculate that the Hill was founded by an isolationist colony of Faerie Mutants, who locked themselves away from the world sometime in the last few hundred years. The multi thousand year timeline implied by Dena would contradict this idea but it can be ignored as ridiculous. I'd further theorize that their numbers are being 'bulked out' by a sizable contingent of Stable Beneficial Paranormal Events, possibly created in a similar way to Faerie-Magic hobgoblins. The Noonday Sun is clearly such an entity and it is highly likely that the trow, Fivefold Kindreds and assorted others contain such beings as well, even if they are not entirely composed of such.
The means of exchange related by Dena is also particularly telling in this regard. To quote,
'When humans come for our creations, they must give something in return. That is the way of things. But we care not for human coin.'
Many known Faerie Mutants are bound by a similar compulsion, though there is disagreement as to why. Some MCO analysts believe it to be cultural in nature, a modern day gift economy, but this fails to account for the fact that it is spread across multiple independent groups and individuals. The Law of Pacting is also often cited, but only a small minority of diagnosed Faerie Mutants possess a true Wizard Trait. Most likely, in my opinion, is an induced psychological instability, caused by their mutations.
The fact that this instability is also present in the Hill is a strong piece of evidence for my theory, and also a warning of the danger they could pose if the massed power of the Hill was ever to break loose.
[Updated on: Tue, 05 June 2012 12:52]
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59363 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Sun, 03 June 2012 07:16
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
Under the Hill
The word was out. A Lord Sidhe had escaped and a dangerous human was on the loose. Hoards of what Ninegal called 'lesser fae' prowled the halls, overseen by the towering green fire monsters. If it was still just Dena and me, slipping through would've been impossible, but Ninegal knew where she was going. She led us along winding side passages, through domes filled with yellow and withered plants, passed zen-like rock gardens, and around pools of moving water.
Finally she stopped and pointed forward. "There." The Path of the Supplicant was marked by two ancient and gnarled trees, growing out of an earthy stone floor. They were oaks by appearance, rough of trunk and covered in brown-green leaves, wilted but still alive. The top-most branches pressed against the cave roof and the lower twisted together to form an arch. Beyond that arch was a dark path. That struck me as odd until I realized what was missing. Under the oaks, there was no green light.
"Do you know who's guarding it," I said, voice a whisper. I couldn't see anyone but Ninegal was convinced someone must be there.
"Nujalik," said Ninegal, voice pitched as low as mine but far softer, like silk. "She is a huntress of formidable skill."
"Do we have a plan?" Plans were good things in my experience. It gave me a chance to put things between me and danger.
"I will use my voice," said Ninegal. Visions of her sonic-scream knocking me off my feet filled my mind. "The trow -- Dena -- will stay back. You, Joseph Abel, must move quickly when the opportunity presents itself and remove my kin's chains. Once freed, she will cease to be a threat."
Not the best plan I'd ever heard, but I nodded all the same and held up three fingers. Heart pounding, I counted down. Three, two, one, go.
Ninegal burst from concealment and I was only just behind. Nujalik had to be around here somewhere. We had to find her before she got the jump on us. We almost didn't.
She fell from the bows of the left oak, lengths of chain trailing behind her body. Her hands morphed and became curved blades made from silvery metal. She hit the ground and leaped forward like a stag, heading right for Ninegal.
Ninegal screamed, a vast wave of sonic energy, and the other sidhe was thrown back, air twisting around her like a whirlwind. Nujalik hit the ground, bounced but thrust out a sword-arm. The blade screamed as it tore through rock but it allowed her to regain her feet and she let out a cry of her own. A chilling mist rose up from nowhere and spectral beasts* appeared within it, huge, shaggy muskoxen, hulking polar bears and swift arctic foxes, each bound in ghostly reflections of their mistress's chains. They let out a bone-chilling howl and charged, and she was right there among them.
* Over the course of the following scene, Abel describes the spectral beasts in many different ways, ghosts, spirits, phantoms and other derivatives, many of which have conflicting formal definitions. Readers with appropriate technical training are warned not to take Abel's words as an endorsement of the creatures' nature. While the spectral beasts are undoubtedly some form of Paranormal Event, exactly which kind is uncertain.
Ninegal focused her scream and the ground exploded before her. The ghosts bounded through unharmed but Nujalik was halted in her tracks. Two muskoxen charged right for me and I dodged clear but that left me out of position. A fox leapt in while I was distracted and ripped at my arm. Its teeth were like ice daggers and I jumped back, my flesh burning with a chilling flame. They hadn't physically cut but had done damage all the same. My arm was heavy and slow, as if left too long in the cold.
I backed up, trying to keep all the ghosts in view, but it was a losing game. I had no way of hurting them and the reverse was not true. Spectral teeth showed as the arctic foxes growled and the horns of the muskoxen were impossibly sharp, curving weapons which ended in points of blue light. It would only be a matter of seconds until they charged. If that happened my options would be highly limited.
The largest polar bear I'd ever seen broke first. It thundered forward, feat smashing against the ground, then rose up, great chest spread wide and paws ready to attack. I leapt back, dodging its strike with inches to spare, but the bear was only the first of my problems. The spectral host surged towards me, their howling voices sounding like the hunting packs of Hell*. Troops of foxes tried to flank me while an arrowhead of muskoxen charged right down the center. I jumped high, leaping over that assault, but was met by two bears on the way down. They swung at me and I hit the ground, rolling under their swings. Even so, a set of phantom claws raked my back and I had to bite down to avoid crying out. I came up just as a fox shot at me. It streaked by my head and into a nearby wall, and I sincerely doubted a flesh-and-blood creature could make such a leap.
* Given what I know of Abel's career, he may well be speaking from experience when he compares the two sounds.
A phalanx of muskoxen charged towards me, trying to pin me against the wall, and I had to jump again. Baying foxes followed my path, voices letting loose blood curdling cries, and I caught a proper glimpse of Nujalik.
Nujalik was softer than the other sidhe I'd met, round of face and gentle of limb, if still sharp of ear. Red paint marked her face, lines radiating out from her nose, and chains cut a crisscrossing pattern across her body, leaving deep bruises in her flesh. For all that, she more resembled a storm than a woman. Her blade-arms slashed down against Ninegal, strikes so fast I could barely follow. Ninegal could though, and she was just keeping up, bursts of sonic scream and frantic dodging just enough to stop Nujalik landing a fatal blow. Nujalik might lack the predatory leanness of Aeron but she had the same killer instinct.
I hit the ground at the far end of my leap and turned. Foxes and larger creature tore towards me but I'd bought myself a few seconds. From across the cave, Ninegal drew in a great breath and screamed. The noise shook the room, and small stones fell from the ceiling. My ears rang, and the floor seemed to twist under me, but that was a comparatively mild result. Nujalik went flying back, body spread as if hit by a truck. She smashed into the left most of the oak trees, a blow which shook free a cloud of leaves, and fell to the ground. Only a half-heart beat later, she was pushing herself up but that was all the time Ninegal needed.
Ninegal opened her mouth wide, throat extended, and words filled the room. They seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. They burst from the wooden hearts of the oak trees. They came from the rocky walls and earthy floor. The very air resonated with their power and for one moment they hung pure and true. Then they twisted, turning in on themselves in the mind-boggling way I'd come to expect from mystical events*.
* According to MCO mystics I have consulted, 'Linguistical Inversion' appears to be the technical term for this effect. The fact that it is common enough to have a name is faintly worrying.
A whirlpool of words swarmed around Ninegal as she stood in place, arms upraised. She screamed a new word, one so bright and terrible that it seared itself from my mind even as I heard it*. The ghost animals froze where they were, hulking bears caught mid-stride, foxes mid leap and muskoxen mid stampede. Their phantom chains shattered in an explosion of green shadow and their bodies went with the chains. Burning white light erupted from inside their chests and their spectral bodies broke apart at the seams. Energy I couldn't explain and didn't like battered me from all directions, a sub-zero wind against my skin. Ninegal was safe within her vortex of sound but Nujalik had no such protection. She fell to the ground, halfway through her own charge, and screamed. At the time it seemed like a fortuitous end to the fight. Of course, knowing what I know now, I have to really question Ninegal's forward planning skills.
* I find this highly dubious myself and it is a typical example of Abel's somewhat unfortunate habit of adding romantic imagery to critical events. A more likely explanation, in my opinion, is that Abel's ears were still ringing from the first scream. In any event, there is clearly insufficient evidence for Abel to draw a proper conclusion on the word's nature.
"Now," said Ninegal, between panted breaths.
Never let it be said I didn't do my all when my life was on the line. I sprinted towards Nujalik and started ripping lengths of chain free with all my strength. Links broke and flew in all directions, ringing out as they struck stone. Nujalik looked at me with numb horror as I turned her around and pulled her front chains loose. With those gone, she let out an almost contented sigh and went limp. Her arms shifted from metal to flesh and blood. It was an improvement by any measure.
"Quickly," said Ninegal as I pulled the last few pieces free. She moved up to stand beside me. "Speaking her name will have called attention, and there may be hidden watchers, ready to give warning." As if I hadn't been the one to warn her exactly that only half an hour before...
"Dena," I said as I lifted Nujalik into the air. She was lighter than she looked, even factoring in my paranormal strength. "Time to go."
With Nujalik slung over one shoulder, I ran towards the Path of the Supplicant, my two companions on my heels. It was time for the last stage of my journey. It was time to leave the Solar Refinery and walk the penultimate road. And may God have mercy on my soul because my opponents surely wouldn't.
The path was dark. Nearer the entrance, there had been some light, just enough to see by but it was gone now. There, the walls had been made from a woven mass of tree roots but it was impossible to tell if they still were. A single green spark showed behind and an equally bright dot of red showed in front. Apart from that, I couldn't see anything at all. My other senses were forced to make do.
I could hear Dena's breathing off to one side and feel her presence, either the limited psi senses I'd been assured all humans possessed* or something more mundane. Ninegal was at the other, singing a melodious song that would allegedly protect us. Nujalik hadn't woken and was still over my shoulder. Unless she stirred soon, my hope of having a second Lord Sidhe to help rescue Quothe looked unlikely.
* True to an extent but unlikely in this case. All humans possess intrinsic psionic ability but it requires training to manifest in meaningful ways. An extreme minority of baselines may spontaneously manifest unfocused psi-talent outside of a proven paranormal multiplier (Origin Events, Mutant Manifestation, Dynamorph bonding etc.) but such people almost always possess a large number of psi-linked genetic markers. Abel does have one such marker -- the so called Friz-Carrière Factor -- but it is primarily associated with energy manipulation, normally baseline-scale photo or electrokinesis. 'Presence sensing' would be an ESP talent and more closely linked with the Helmholtz sequence. Part of the classical Helmholtz sequence overlaps with the modern meta-gene complex, meaning it is now possessed by a non-insignificant percentage of the population, but as I've already remarked, Abel lacks the meta-gene complex. There is some debate over whether Abel gained a 'Danger Sense' as part of his abilities but even if he did, it is unlikely to be relevant in this situation.
So far, there had been no sign of the danger Dena seemed so afraid of. While that normally ranked high on my list of things I wanted to see, this time it just made me nervous. From the way my gut was twisting, I just knew the other shoe was going to drop and drop soon.
Something moved in the darkness ahead. I couldn't say how I knew but I did. Dena froze in place and so did I, the motion so sudden Nujalik thumped against my back. Ninegal kept moving, though, step after step, her voice swirling around her. With no other choice, I hurried to catch up.
"Who walks my path?" said a voice from further down the tunnel, a whisper on the wind. "Who seeks their rights to speak and be heard?" The red dot seemed bigger than before and I risked a look back. Its green twin was tiny, reduced to a pinprick.
"Answer the questions," said Ninegal, somehow managing to sing and speak at the same time, her two voices meshing in strange ways. "But do not slow. We must not challenge the shade until there is no choice."
No pressure. "My name's Joseph Abel," I said, and my voice echoed down the tunnel. It repeated a thousand times and the whisper on the wind snatched up one of the repetitions.
"Joseph Abel," it said in my voice. The sense of presence moved, circling around me. Its gaze bored into the back of my neck and I shivered. Dena matched the motion, just close enough for me to feel; she must be feeling it too. "Why do you walk my road, Joseph Abel?" Most of the sentence was in its original voice, a whisper on the wind, but my name was all mine.
I shot a glance towards Ninegal but of course, I couldn't see anything. "There's someone I need to rescue."
"Do you pursue aid in the force of arms, Joseph Abel, or is it clemency you seek?"
Both and neither was the truth but I didn't think that would go down well. Time to put on my acting cap and play this for all it was worth. "A pretender sits on the Throne of the Most High," I said, trying for a long, carrying voice. I almost managed. "He has taken the trow named Quothe. I am here to rescue him."
"You would petition for Quothe's release?" it said and Dena huddled closer to me, her hair touching my arm.
"I will do what I have too," I replied, voice flat. In the void which followed my words, only Ninegal's song made a sound.
"I am the Shade That Watches," it said after many long seconds, "a memory of a reflection of a thing which once was yet might again be. The Daughter of the Burning Oak* set me to guard this way. I must test all who walk this path, Joseph Abel. Prepare."
* This is the second mention of the 'Daughter of the Burning Oak' and it bares comment. Knowledgeable readers might recognize it as one of the many titles claimed by the Faerie Mutant and/or Unspecified Stable Malignant Paranormal Event known as Fey, alongside Paramount Queen of the West, Chatelaine of Tyr-na-Baine and according to one less than reliable source, Unga-dunga. Whether this is a coincidence or evidence that both groups are drawing from a shared mythology is unknown. It is even possible, however unlikely, that Fey was born and raised in the Hill, before leaving and coming to international attention. Certainly, there is little evidence that she existed prior to 2006, although this can be at least partially explained as the results of a Faerie mutant transformation. Like so many things, there is frustratingly little information.
I took a breath. That wasn't ominous at all. Without a word being said, we came to a halt, even Ninegal, and I scanned the path ahead, searching for the danger I just knew was there. I found it deeper in the tunnel.
Perhaps a mile distance, the red glow shifted, growing until it was a wall of flickering yellow, red and orange. It flared up, building until it touched the ceiling and in that moment it rushed towards us.
"Fire!" said Ninegal. "We must move quickly." Her song changed, focusing and becoming harder. The words leapt forward and the air hummed, not quite a sonic-wave but not normal either.
"Get on my back," I said to Dena. In the light of the onrushing flames, I saw her shake her head, eyes wide. "There's no time for this! I'm Invulnerable; you're not." Best not to bring up that fire still burnt me. "Now get on." I hunkered down and Dena swung up onto my back, her arms around my neck. With a trow on my back and a Lord Sidhe over my shoulder, I wasn't at my most balanced but there wasn't much choice either.
The fire blazed down the tunnel, heading right for me. Heat beat off it in waves and scorched my face. Speed was hard to judge but it was fast, perhaps even faster that I could run, consuming tens of meters in every second. I had no idea how we were going to escape it. As it turned out, Ninegal had a very different plan.
She set off towards the wall of fire at a dead sprint, slower than my top-speed but still verging into the superhuman. Eyes wide, I tore off after her, my panicked mind trying to work out what she was thinking. It was her eyes which told me; they were locked onto the flames.
"You're going to break through?" I shouted, voice loud to carry over the cracking roar.
Ninegal just nodded in reply, and Dena gripped me even tighter than before. Between my speed and the fire's own ferocity, it was on us in mere moments.
It was twenty feet. Ninegal's plan was insane.
Fifteen. The wall of red fire towered over me.
Ten. My gut twisted.
Five. I leapt, my legs burning with the effort even as the fire scorched my face.
I raised my free arm, using it as a shield, and burst through the wall of fire. It didn't burn me. In fact, it felt like cool water. The ground appeared at the far side and I only barely had the presence of mind to land on my feet. Dena dropped from my back, just as shocked as I was.
For one long second, I stood frozen, only my panting breath signaling I still lived. There was no sign of the fire anywhere, not in front or behind, no scorched walls or burning heat. Only the light remained -- a flickering yellow glow which illuminated the tunnel.
"A hologram," I said, when I could think again. It was the only thing which made sense.
"A test," said Ninegal, correcting me. Not that she had much right. She looked only a hair more composed than I did, and that was ignoring the raw sores. "We have to keep moving." We never got the chance.
The floor ripped apart a few feet ahead, an immense chasm opening. The ground shook like a major earthquake and I threw myself back, away from the edge. For a few seconds, I stayed put but the tremors died as quickly as they came and I risked a look. The chasm disappeared into unseen stygian depths and the far side was only just in view, perhaps one and a half football fields away*. In my younger days, I might have made to move across at once, banking on it being fake like the fire or that my Invulnerability would protect me, but I knew better now. Villains just loved the 'first trap an illusion, second trap real' trick. They thought it the height of wit.
* Assuming this is an accurate statement, the far side was 540 feet or 164.59200 meters away. This is well beyond even Abel's ability to jump.
I found a loose stone and tossed it in. It span as it fell and disappeared into invisibility well before it reached the bottom. Even a minute later, there was still no sound.
"Any ideas?" I said aloud. My voice was quite a bit calmer than I felt. I picked up another stone -- the miniature earthquake had torn no small number loose -- and threw it with all my strength. My arm burnt but the stone shot through the air like a cracking whip and smashed into the far wall, perhaps three feet below the level. My Superstrength was just enough to reach the other side but I doubted I could throw a person that far and they wouldn't survive the trip. It was times like these, I really wished I could fly but I'd missed out on that part of the superman package*.
* Superman package -- a slang term commonly used in the superhero community, particularly the mutant part thereof. It refers to someone who possesses enhanced strength, resistance to damage and, as implied by Abel, the ability to fly. It is a moderately common set of abilities among active superheroes but a highly valued one all the same.
"My abilities and magic will be of little help," said Ninegal, lips pursed.
Dena shifted by my side and I turned to look. She held up the mirror, threw a glance at Ninegal but pushed on all the same. "If this is a test, there must be a way through. The mirror will show us."
"The mirror is crafted with care and power," said Ninegal, "but by sidhe hands. As skilled as my brother is, these are diminished times and the powers bound to the Path of the Supplicant are older and more potent still."
Dena took the simple admonishment like a physical blow, pulling into herself, but I shook my head. "Whoever made these tests also wanted them to be overcome. Even if you're right and they could hide their secret, that doesn't mean they did." I took the mirror from Dena's lacks hands and turned my back on the scene. The chasm was as real in the reflection as it was in real life but an angular trail bridged the two sides, a twisting and turning path like the true route of a complex maze, surgically removed. I passed the mirror to Dena and she smiled at what she saw.
It took some discussion and even more trial and error but we got our method sorted out. We'd go one at a time, Dena first, since she was the smallest and lightest, then me, carrying Nujalik, and finally Ninegal. Since all three of us would need the mirror, it would need to stay on the nearside until Ninegal's turn to cross. That also meant we'd be guiding each other across with instructions. In my experience, superheroics degraded to children's party games with depressing regularity. It even had fancy dress.
"Take three steps forward," said Ninegal, her voice twisted in on itself. While it sounded like normal speech to me, it also carried the five dozen feet to where Dena was standing on open air.
Slowly but with more surety than I would later show, Dena walked onwards. After the third step, she came to a halt.
"Turn a quarter circle to your right."
Dena did that too.
"Now, onwards fifteen steps".
It was a painstaking process but Ninegal proved as true as her voice. After perhaps half an hour of agonizing progress, Dena stepped off the far end of the invisible bridge and onto solid ground. While good for the mission and her, I couldn't help the sinking feeling in my own stomach. It was my turn now. Ninegal, of course, had to rub it in.
"It is your turn, Joseph Abel," she said. I just nodded in reply.
The first step was the worst. I'd seen Dena do it, I'd even touched the invisible path with my hand, but the first was the worst all the same.
"Four steps forward," said Ninegal, sounding as if she was speaking from a close, but not overly intimate distance.
My gut twisted but there was no going back now. I stepped forward and my foot came down. My eyes screamed that there was nothing beneath me but I overrode those base instincts with sheer willpower. Nothing met my foot and my foot met nothing. My heart beat. Then-- I let out a breath. My foot met something solid and I took another step forward, shifting Nujalik's limp bulk to get the balance right at the same time.
Over the next fifteen minutes, Ninegal guided me across the chasm. The route was nowhere near direct and more than once I came close enough to the far edge that I thought to jump but I never gave in to temptation. Of course, my life was never simple, not from the moment I received my abilities to my twilight days*. Just as I was passing the halfway point for what must have been the fifth time, Nujalik started to stir. Then she started to scream. Then she started to kick and struggle.
* This is likely a reference to Abel's diagnosis of terminal cancer and the final six months of his life. While never addressed directly, it is important to remember that Abel was fully aware he was dying when he wrote this archive, with complete knowledge of his over four decade long career.
If you've never tried to contain a panicking person while standing on an invisible bridged over a bottomless chasm, well... You've clearly not been in the superhero business very long. I managed to shift my grip and put her in a bear hug. Her arms were trapped against her side but her legs were free. They beat against me but being Invulnerable did have its benefits.
"They're gone," she screamed, grief twisting her voice. Her arms morphed, becoming long, silver blades, but stayed trapped. She threw back her head and let out a howl, just like when she called her spectral beasts. They didn't come but the air chilled. Frost formed on my skin and I shivered. Cold and heat, my Invulnerability did little for either.
She threw herself into renewed struggles, moving with all the strength of the mad and insane. If it was just a matter of hurting me, it wouldn't be a problem. With her blades, maybe, but I was just too strong and tough for blunt force blows to do much good. But it was more than that. All she needed to do was throw me off a single step and we'd both tumble into the chasm.
"Calm down," I said from between gritted teeth. "You're free now."
"You killed them," she said and her blade-arms twisted, the edges biting into my chest. "You killed them all."
"Look where you are," I shouted and managed to turn from side to side without overbalancing. "We can talk about this but not now."
That seemed to get through. Her breath remained ragged, hot, fast and hard, but her struggles stilled.
"I removed your chains," I said. "You're free but we're also on the Path of the Supplicant and as far as I can tell, this drop is very real."
"They're dead," she said, but her voice was calmer, almost a shaped breath.
All was quiet for the following few seconds, then Ninegal's voice sounded. "Step forward three and a half paces."
Nujalik stiffened at the words. "Not now," I said and she nodded.
It was a harrowing fifteen minutes to the far edge. Nujalik seemed content to let me carry her but that was harder than it might seem. I was now carrying her, not a limb body, but a living moving person. Needless to say, balancing became more of a challenge. Finally, though, I stepped off the far side and onto solid ground. Nujalik slipped from my arms and touched down on the ground with barely a sound. Then she turned, looking back the way we'd come. I followed her gaze. She was looking at Ninegal, who was now making her own way across. My gut twisted. Something told me I wasn't going to like the meeting.
Ninegal made the crossing faster than either Dena or I. She walked backwards, eyes locked to the mirror to guide her path. Each foot was surely placed and she moved with the grace of a dancer. Perhaps ten minutes after starting, she stepped back onto solid ground and looked at Nujalik.
"You killed my spirit-kin," said Nujalik, voice flat.
"I stopped and freed you," replied Ninegal in the same voice.
"I will not forget this."
And that was that. They turned from each other and I noticed Dena standing nearby, shooting worried glances at both. Nujalik faced me and said, "Human--"
"Joseph Abel," I broke in.
"Joseph Abel, why do we walk the Path of the Supplicant?"
And so I again explained about Quothe and the need to rescue him, downplaying the magical compulsion and adding the understated humility the public seemed to eat up. When I was done, she nodded her head, rounded face seeming almost serene despite the war paint and network of ugly purple bruises. "My spear is yours for the service you have done me, Joseph Abel, but when our task is over and my geas lifted I have other accounts to settle." Her eyes flicked to Ninegal when she said it, signaling Bad Things. That was a problem for later, though, and something I should be able to avoid by being somewhere far, far away.
"Let's move on," I said and motioned down the tunnel. We'd face illusionary fire and a real chasm. What would be next? Something horrible and painful, no doubt. As often happened when I assumed the worst, I was right.
We walked on, Ninegal singing her protective song, the rest of us quiet. After perhaps half an hour, I noticed a spot of green ahead. It grew bigger the closer we got. Elsewhere in the Hill, there was an omnipresent green glow. If it was returning, we might be reaching the way out.
The thought sent a grim smile to my face and I set towards it with a renewed vigor, legs eating up the distance. Dena was forced to run every third step to keep up but I was too focused to worry about that right then. The green dot continued to swell, expanding to fill the passage, but something just didn't look right. The nagging wrongness only grew as I drew closer, until it finally clicked. This wasn't the omnipresent green that stained the rest of the Hill. This was the green of living, growing things. More walking proved me right. A wall of thorny vines blocked the tunnel, reaching from side to side and floor to ceiling. It was as thick as any briar patch and the thorns ended in needle-sharp points.
Dena, Ninegal, Nujalik and I stopped in front of it and without a word, began searching for a way through but there was none to be found. The thorns completely blocked the tunnel and I couldn't even guess how thick it was. It was dense enough that seeing more than a few feet into its tangled depths was impossible.
"The mirror?" I said. Dena looked hopeful and Ninegal passed it to me. I turned my back and angled the reflection until I could see. No matter how hard I searched, I could find no hidden path or secret way, just a wall of thorns. If anything, they looked meaner and sharper in the mirror's surface. "Any other ideas?"
"My voice could break this barrier," said Ninegal and given what I'd seen her sonic scream do, I believed her.
"My blades could cut it," said Nujalik and held up a morphed arm, three and a half feet of bladed silvery metal.
I touched Dena on the shoulder and drew her back. "When the gods squabble, it's best to make yourself scarce," I said under my breath, thinking of all the A-list battles which had almost killed me. Dena looked faintly horrified at my words but let me lead her away.
Once Dena and I were clear (though it was more likely due to coincidence than consideration), Ninegal drew back and let out a scream. The air ripped apart in front of her and a sonic wave slammed into the thorn wall like an oversized gadgeteer blender*. Pieces of ripped apart vine flew in all directions, some almost vaporized, others merely shredded. Her scream drilled deeper, but the vines weren't done. They swarmed in, a thorny mesh which sealed the wound almost as fast as Ninegal could cut it anew.
* This is either colorful language on Abel's part or a reference to the now infamous blender incident of '88. While some people contend the blender was a legitimate response to the bio-devisored mutant cabbage, I believe that blame rests equally on all parties involved, including the creator of the experimental allotropic iron reactor that caused the radiation spill the mutant cabbage were created to clean-up.
Ninegal's scream petered off and Nujalik charged forward into its wake. She let out a howl of her own and frost grew on the vines, spidery patterns which spread with supernatural speed. Her sword-arms flashed as she slashed down and the frozen vines shattered under her assault. She pushed forward, cutting a shaft a half dozen feet long, and let out another howl. Another chilling wind whipped forth and more thorn vines froze, but if Nujalik thought the cold would keep them from regenerating, she was wrong. The wall started to close, new vines snaking in as old made way. Worst of all, Nujalik's howl had slowed things. The vines nearest her were slow and sluggish, while those nearer the face were moving faster. My eyes opened wide. She was about to be walled in.
I charged forward but didn't make it in time. The thorny vines melded together, barring my way, but that didn't matter. I drew my arms up to cover my face and charged right through.
I'd expected resistance, that the vines would try and halt my progress only to be broken by my Superstrength. That wasn't the case. I'd also expected my Invulnerability to protect me, that the thorns would turn harmlessly off my skin just like bullets and knives did. That wasn't the case either. The thorn wall opened under its own power, the vines shifting and giving way, but not quite far enough. The thorns cut across my skin as I charged forward, not deep but they slashed through my costume and raised bloody trails across my skin.
I reached Nujalik in only seconds. She was a whirlwind of silvery-metal, her sword-arms moving so fast I could hardly follow. The vines pushed in from all sides and she was only just keeping them back.
"Don't fight it," I said. Whether she listened to my command or was simply shocked into inmotion by my presence, I don't know. Whatever the case, her swords froze mid-dance and the thorns thrust in. They stopped just above her skin, like they had with me, tiny knives ready to slice but not unduly harm. "Back this way."
I walked backwards and Nujalik followed, vines shifting and moving like animate creatures. We both emerged back into the corridor, covered in tiny cuts but otherwise not hurt.
Ninegal looked us both over and pronounced the thorn wall another test.
"A test," I said. "A test of what?"
"The fire tested our courage and commitment," said Ninegal after a slight pause. "The chasm our wisdom. These thorns? I do not know. Our willingness to sacrifice, perhaps? We must accept pain and leave blood to pass. Neither are easy things to do."
Her words hung heavy in the air, but I'd never been one for letting social embarrassments stop me when my life was on the line. "We keep going?"
All three of my companions nodded. It was time.
The thorn wall was thick but we pushed through. I spent most of the passage with a grimace on my face and my teeth locked, each step bringing a new set of tiny pains. Maybe my Invulnerability made me soft? Whatever the case the thorns were fast becoming more than a nuisance.
After ten minutes of moving forward, the thorns ended. I let out a slow breath, my hundreds of cuts stinging as I stood in the cool air. My silver costume was covered with small smears of blood, welling up from below in tiny beading droplets. Most of the cuts were only a nuisance but those around my left cheek throbbed, pulsing in time with the wound Aeron had dealt me.
The rest of my motley band arrived a few seconds after me. Ninegal was first, the thorn cuts almost unnoticeable against the sores which still covered her flesh. Dena came next and her dense hair seemed to have provided some protection. How hair could possibly prove a more effective shield than superhuman Invulnerability, I had no idea, but only her bulbous nose showed dark-red blood. Nujalik was last, arms transformed into swords and crossed over her body to provide some kind of protection. She looked to have suffered worst of all. Her rounded face, limbs and body were prime targets for the razor sharp thorns. Crimson streams ran down her flesh and her footprints left colored stains.
"I don't suppose anyone knows much healing?" I said. Enki had managed to heal me from a lethal wound so it wasn't beyond belief, but given the sorry state some of us had been in even before the thorn wall, I wasn't hopeful.
"My skills do not lie in that area," said Ninegal, and she turned to face me. "Mine is the magic of music, sound and song and the weaving of those things into the Sun's Gold. I could sing a melody of long health and clean healing but the effects would be like the sun on the trees, immense in power but spread over weeks not mere moments."
Nujalik just shook her head, an almost violent side to side motion like a dog worrying a rabbit. Dena didn't answer. She was staring down the corridor, eyes desperate. In truth, I could feel a measure of that longing too. Some things you just wanted to be over.
Without further words, I started walking again and the others followed. At some point in the thorn wall, the tunnel had morphed from rocky walls back to woven tree roots, knotted lengths of brown bark which twisted together in an arch over my head. I licked my lips, tasting the air, and stayed on my toes, ready for the next test or the way out. Perhaps that was why I almost jumped out of my skin when an invisible presence appeared behind me.
"Joseph Abel," it said in my voice, whispering in my ear. At once I knew who it was: the Shade That Watches, the spirit, ghost or maybe magic spell set to guard the Path of the Supplicant. "You have passed my three tests. Go from this place and entreat the Most High. Know that by walking this path your cause has been judged worthy and you will be heard."
"Thank you," I said aloud because it was always a good idea to be polite, especially to people who could change the geography of the local landscape.
"Good bye," it said and then it was gone, its presence flitting away as quickly as it came.
Green light began to spill from ahead, and there was no mistaking it this time. This was the light which burned within the green fire monsters, this was the light which clung to the pale-gold weapons, this was the light which served Aeron as a weapon and this was the light which filled every inch of the Hill not protected by other means. It was as bright as I'd ever seen it, brighter, the harsh blasting power of the noonday sun in the hottest of deserts twisted to green.
This was it. I swallowed as I walked the last few feet, a lump in my throat. It was time to storm the Throne of the Most High. It was time to save Quothe.
"Remember," I said as the green light grew blinding. "In and out. We grab Quothe and leave as fast as we can. No heroics." It was a good plan, the kind of plan which had kept me alive these long years. Life, unfortunately, would never be that simple.
By far the most dangerous aspect of Faerie Mutants is this: they are psychologically inhuman. Due to their mutation, their very way of looking at the world has become alien. The greatest threat the MCO faced during the latter part of the twentieth century was the formation of a cohesive mutant identity, fundamentally opposed to baseline humanity. Where Faerie Mutants are concerned, this has already happened.
There is strong evidence that Faerie Mutants are required by their mutation to recognize an internal ranking structure, sometimes characterized by noble titles. How these titles are awarded is unclear but there is a range of case studies which show newly emerged Faerie Mutants being instantly recognized as having a specific title and taking up the social position associated with it (see files #0223999, #0914879 and #1494485 for clear examples of this trend, spanning twenty five years).
A similar structure can be seen in the Hill, with its level and species based caste system, with trow at the bottom, moving up to the Fivefold Kindreds, then the ledger wardens and finally the Lords Sidhe. The 'Path of the Supplicant' is also a perfect example of their inhuman culture. At first glance, it may appear to be a form of trial by combat or ordeal, an outdated but fundamentally human idea, but this is not the case. The reactions of Dena and others give the Path an almost quasi-religious or demonic reverence, so powerful that even an invading dictator cannot change it. I'd speculate that this is another example of an imposed Faerie Mutant psychological change, similar to the balanced gift giving imperative.
This section also introduces Nujalik and provides further evidence for my Faerie Mutant theory. While she conforms less exactly to the faerie ideal, the basics remain. She has the characteristic pointed ears, a vulnerability to iron and mutant abilities. Her powers are less easily categorized by observation (and indeed, it is folly to do so even in seemingly clear cut cases), but I'd speculate on a Shifter Trait to account for her transforming arms and either a Manifestor or Channeler Trait to account for the freezing howl and summoned ghosts. While the Channeler Trait might at first seem a better fit, it is tempting to class the ghosts as Manifestations and fold the sword-arms into the Trait as well, as some sort of partial Shell Manifestation. Extensive testing at an accredited facility would be required to know for sure.
Whatever the case, she clearly demonstrates the extreme and unstable emotional responses indicative of Faerie Mutants, particularly in regard to Ninegal's destruction of her summoned ghosts. Her seeming acquiescence once calmed is also not unexpected. Indeed, hot anger/cold anger switching is a moderately common and observed trait. Future events prove she has not forgotten.
[Updated on: Mon, 04 June 2012 16:08]
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59408 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Mon, 04 June 2012 08:46
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
Under the Hill
The Path of the Supplicant came to a sudden end, and I almost stumbled. The Throne of the Most High stretched out to all sides. It was shaped like an upturned cone, a huge circular floor lined by negative gradient walls which met at a point a hundred meters above my head. In the center stood a pillar of fluted crystal, fifty meters tall, and at the peak sat a burning mass of green fire, as impossibly bright as the sun.
Iblis, the Corpse Flame, sat upon his throne and I could feel his fell gaze upon me. Worse still, we were not alone. Between us stood twenty green fire monsters, creatures of roaring flame bound inside copper-gold armor. They drew swords in perfect unison and marched forward, a moving wall.
"Break through," I said as I charged, shouting to be heard over the crashing of metal feet against stone. "Find Quothe."
Nujalik gave a savage cry and ran to meet the fray, out pacing me in moments. Ninegal was on my other side, sprinting to keep up. She was slower but she didn't need to make contact to attack. The air tensed around her as she drew in a deep breath. A half second later she released it as a sonic scream, a wave of focused sound which ripped up the ground like tissue paper. Corkscrews twisted in my ears and the wave hit the green fire monsters. Three monsters twisted in on themselves, armor deforming like miniature black holes had opened in their chest. They went flying back and smashed into the next rank, sending them crashing to the ground too, but there were still more behind, a legion of flaring green flames. It opened one hell of a gap, though.
Into that gap streaked Nujalik, little more than a human shaped blur. She struck out at the first monster in her path and stabbed clear through its chest. It exploded into a pillar of green flame but she'd already moved on, a whirlwind of destruction. She danced between the monsters, leaving deep gouges in copper-gold armor and raising waves of sparks. Their orderly ranks dissolved into chaos as they tried to stop her but she was more a force of nature than an opponent.
That seemed like a golden opportunity to me, and I hit their broken ranks like the brick* I was. Pain shot through my arm as I sent the first monster flying, my best right hook. It smashed into the next in line and both were sent sprawling to the ground in an unordered tangle of burning green limbs. I tore through the gap I'd made, shoulder barged one monster aside and broke free.
* Based upon context, Abel is likely referring to the colloquial power classification of 'Brick', meaning a strong and tough paranormal. Abel is a fairly classical example of the 'Brick' power set, though he is perhaps more intelligent that the stereotype.
Clear of enemies and unstabbed, I sprinted towards the center of the room, the speed of my passage blasting holes in the ground. The crystal pillar blazed with green fire and in front of it knelt the chained figure of a trow -- a squat shape covered with thick hair and festooned with beads and pendants. Wisps of green fire burnt around the edges of his body and he stared deeply into the pillar, lost to the world.
"Quothe!" I scream and pushed forward even harder, my legs burning as I leveraged every inch of my Superstrength.
If the chained trow was indeed Quothe, he didn't turn. His attention stayed locked to the pillar. The same could not be said for the Corpse Flame. Its fiery gaze swept the hall and long experience told me to dodge. I did, and a blast of focused light slashed down from atop the pillar. It burned an impossibly bright green and the floor exploded in a wave of superheated rock shards.
The fell gaze dimmed a fraction but did not disappear. It swept towards me, no longer explosive but leaving glowing red floor in its wake. I again threw myself clear, but just the side heat was enough to toast my skin.
"The crystal!" I yelled as I pushed myself to my feet. "Ninegal, break the crystal." Now I just had to hope her sonic powers could do it*.
* A moderately safe assumption on Abel's part, which he would know based upon his years of experience. Explosive Resonance is one of the most basic Siren powers, and Ninegal had already displayed far more advanced skills. Of course, the sheer destructive scale of what Abel was asking could've proved an issue but, thankfully for all concerned, it did not.
Ninegal looked up at my cry, long face turning as she scanned for me. It almost cost her everything. A green fire monster reared up behind her, pale-gold sword striking out, but she heard just in time and roll clear. In a flash of motion, Nujalik rose into the gap and struck out with both sword-arms. The silver blades plunged into the monster's chest and it exploded in a wave of green fire. I, of course, was having problems too. The Corpse Flame struck out again, a blast of green light which expanded like a cone. The only warning I had was the preparatory shifting of shadows atop the pillar but it was enough. I superjumped with all my power, a self-propelled cannon ball which flew across the chamber. Heat hit my back, my costume smoldered but I was just fast enough. Ninegal found me then, her eyes locking to mine, and I jabbed a finger at the crystal pillar. Comprehension dawned on her face and she sang.
It was a pure note, a single sound which started low but rose higher. The crystal pillar shook just as it hit the painful range and Ninegal held it there, pumping it full of power. In a flash of sound, the pillar exploded into a cloud of diamond dust. It was a cloud which filled the room and at its core burnt a green sun that hung almost unmoving in the air.
I covered my face* and charged forward, aiming for Quothe. Green light glinted off a billion surfaces. It was like standing in an infinitely large house of mirrors which was also playing host to a laser disco.
* With what is unclear. I would venture his jacket since I've observed Abel doing so on other occasions. Given future statements, it cannot be his hands.
There was a flash of movement and a figure shot up from a hole in the floor, appearing from where the pillar had stood. He landed like a cat and cast around, searching for something to catch and kill. Even with the diamond dust obscuring my vision, I could recognize that body shape and those predatory movements anywhere. This was Aeron, Lord Sidhe and according to Dena, arch betrayer of all the Hill held dear. The crystal pillar must have been the source of the blazing bar of green light I'd seen upon first entering the Solar Refinery. With it gone, there was now a direct connection between the two levels.
Aeron saw me and charged, a two handed sword of green fire and pale-gold in his hands. The cut on my cheek throbbed. Given what had happened last time I tried to fight him, I decided prudence was the better part of valor. As soon as he was committed, I superleapt to the left, arms wide for balance, touched ground, then exploded forward, leaving a spider's web of cracks behind. I shot passed Aeron, heading for the center. Quothe had to be somewhere. Once I had him, I could sound the retreat and get the hell out of Dodge.
A howl shook the Throne of the Most High and frost formed on the hanging crystal dust. That helped some, adding weight and pulling it down, and I began to see again.
An immense man lay on the ground, a titanic figure, huge but bound. His arms, legs, torso and head were featureless things, without the detail which defined a human. His flesh was the colour of banked coals, soot black but split through with lines of white hot fire. A dagger of green flame and pale-gold thrust out from his chest and it was held in place by two immense iron chains that cut diagonals across his body, crossing through a ring in the dagger's pommel. Each link was as thick as my leg and they shimmered hot where they passed over the glowing lines. Water pooled around him, the air wavered in a heat haze and no frost clung to his form. Based upon all that evidence, I could draw only one conclusion: this was the Noonday Sun, formally trapped inside the crystal pillar, now loosed from that prison but in no sense free. He also wasn't my problem.
From behind came a war cry and Aeron tore towards me again.
"Aeron!" came a second scream, and Nujalik met him halfway there, sword-arms flashing. Aeron caught her first attack on the flat of his blade but Nujalik was like a whirlwind. She twisted in mid-air, using Aeron's own sword for leverage, and caught him a kick to the side of the head. He staggered back and Nujalik pressed forward but not quite quickly enough. Aeron recovered, blocked her swing and counterattacked. He thrust out with his two handed sword, a stabbing blow at odds with his normal slashes. Nujalik blocked with her sword-arms but he twisted and jumped the blade. It flashed up and cut a narrow gash down the fleshy part of her arm. Nujalik let out an animalistic hiss but didn't let it slow her. She smiled, showed fang like teeth, and ran right back into the attack.
If I'd watching on pay-per-view, the fight would have glued my eyes to the TV but I wasn't and had more important things to do. "Quothe!" I said as I cast about. Crystal dust covered everything, now locked in place by a covering of fast melting ice. I couldn't see the trow anywhere.
A rumble shook the sky and I threw myself to the side on instinct. A blast of roaring green fire crashed to the ground and I only just got clear. The fire spread like lighter fluid, rolling out in a wave and I had to keep retreating. The heat burnt my cheeks and I coughed into my face covering, some kind of foul smoke assaulting my lungs. After only a few seconds a second heat met my back and I risked a look.
The humbled form of the Noonday Sun lay there, bound in his chains and stabbed through by a green-fire dagger. He was sized closer to a building than any normal man. While he wasn't my problem, I also had no better options. It had worked out well for Ninegal after all.
I set upon his chains with gusto. They were thick and hot but I was very, very strong. The first link groaned as I seized it and broke when I fully applied my strength. It did so in a blast of green light so intense it forced me back a step.
Thunder boomed in the sky and I dodged to the other side of the Noonday Sun, just in time for a fiery strike to immolate a dozen feet wide stretch of floor where I'd been standing. I grabbed the next chain and had to bite down a cry of pain. The metal was hot, not merely warm but blazing, as if it had spent hours heating in an oven. I grabbed my jacket and wrapped my hands. That helped some and the link broke like a length of toffee.
With the two chains broken I should be able to drag them free, I thought. That was the plan at any rate. I grabbed the trailing length of the nearest chain and pulled. It was like trying to drag a bus. The ground cracked under my feet but I took one step back, then another then another. The chain tore free and I gave a cry of joy but it was short lived. The sudden release sent me stumbling back and I ended up on my rear, looking up into the sky. There I saw the Corpse Flame, a burning green mass, hanging motionless as if gravity was an unimportant concept. Green fire poured off his body like an over bubbling cauldron. His* gaze turned towards me and I threw myself to the side, only just avoiding a blast of light so intense even the near miss wrote emerald after images across my eyes. I heaved myself to my feet and cast about for Quothe again. There was still no sign. He must be hidden under something, either a pile of crystal dust or a much heavier and hotter object. My eyes turned back to the Noonday Sun, a fatalistic reverence filling my chest.
* From this point on, Abel switches from using 'it' to describe Iblis, the Corpse Flame, to 'he'. I considered revising the pronoun usage to use purely one of the other but, upon reflection, have decided to let it stand. Abel presumably had a reason for doing what he did, possibly to represent Iblis's move from an impersonal force to an active opponent. Alternately, it may have been accidental but I am willing to give Abel the benefit of the doubt.
Both main chains were broken but one was still held in place by the Noonday Sun's own body weight. I ran towards it, reached out and started to drag it free. My legs burned but this was something I could do well. Inch by hard fought inch it came, lengths of chain pulled from under the Noonday Sun's immense form. Then, with a rush of movement, it was free. I stumbled back, my arm and thigh muscles buzzing with the sudden release. This time, though, I kept my feet.
Once I regained my balance, I shook my head to knock some things back into place and moved back into action. With both chains gone, the only thing holding the Noonday Sun was the dagger thrust into his heart. If I could remove that, I might yet have a chance*. I just had to hope Quothe was okay, assuming he really was trapped underneath.
* While Abel's assumption that removing the knife would heal the Noonday Sun would prove to be correct, I have to question his logical process whereby he arrived at the conclusion. Knife wounds tend to be highly debilitating injuries, even to high powered paranormal assuming the knife can be forced through whatever defenses they possess. Furthermore, removing such a knife can cause additional injury, as blood loss increases and the surrounding tissue is further damaged. While there are cases where removing a foreign body can cause near immediate recovery (Faerie Mutants with iron wounds and high level Regenerators undergoing extreme allergic reactions for example) such cases are far from the norm. I am once again forced to assume Abel has additional information he did not relate in this archive. Failing that, he got lucky.
It was a plan, a good plan, but I never got the chance.
From above, the green sun gave a great shout, his voice like an exploding bomb, and I was thrown flat against the ground. A second wave beat down and it took all my Superstrength too staggered to my feet, each inch costing me a wave of pain from overstretched muscles. I had to get to the dagger. Even if Quothe wasn't trapped, another ally could only help the situation. It was my only chance.
The Corpse Flame touched down, no longer a sun, now a great burning man. He stood between me and the Noonday Sun, a blazing inferno of green light, too bright to look at.
He swept his hand through the air and I was sent flying back. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced, an unstoppable wave of heat, light, fire and force. Even Champion couldn't do better. I smashed into the far wall and it shattered behind me, a size and depth more normally associated with impact craters. I hung suspended for a moment, then fell to the ground face first. I could taste blood on my lips and my back throbbed. I was hard to hurt, very hard. It took light artillery at the very least to blast through my Invulnerability and the Corpse Flame didn't appear to be packing a tank in his back pocket.
Lying there, I realized something else. After defeating the Noonday Sun, the Corpse Flame and Aeron had chained all but one of the Lords Sidhe, each of whom were high level superhumans*. Aeron was quick and deadly but didn't seem vastly more powerful than his kin. That left only one person to provide the extra strength.
* While the technical truth of the statement may be open to debate, the spirit is undeniable. The Lords Sidhe depicted in this work have powers comparable to a mid to high range paranormal. While none appear to reach the very peak (occupied by the bare handful of Champion level combatants) they are formidable none the less.
The last of the shattered crystal pillar had fallen by the time I staggered to my feet. The Corpse Flame stood where it had been, two dozen feet tall. Nujalik lay crumpled against the opposite wall, one arm transformed into silvery metal, the other flesh and bent at an odd angle. Ninegal was hunkered down off to one side and had managed to somehow keep her feet. Despite or perhaps because of that, she stood in a tiny oasis of calm, surrounded by ripped apart floor and deformed green fire monsters.
An iron gate was thrown open on the far wall and five people dashed through, flanked by a half dozen green fire monsters on either side. Two I recognized at once: the anorexic sidhe from the Solar Refinery, gaunt body hung heavy with chains, and his hollow eyed, dead to the world companion. Deduction said the remaining three were the missing Lords. Furthest from me was a small man with skin the colour of spilt ink. His chains were solid manacles that bound his hands together and a metal gag sealed his mouth closed. In the middle ran a once fair woman, long of face and sharp of ear, with skin the colour and texture of aged parchment. Her chains were far more delicate, the individual links lines of flowing script that joined together into sentences and bindings both. Last and closest was some sort of cyborg. His body was implanted with whirring gadgets made from bronze and brass. Miniature flywheels spun, his left arm was a clockwork-construct and bulbs of trapped lightning flared with a ghostly light. An iron collar hung heavy around his neck and bindings of the same metal sat against other pieces of unaugmented flesh. He didn't look like the kind of person I wanted to fight. None of them did. Things only ever got worse.
My eyes flicked from side to side and I licked my lips. My allies were down, missing or injured. I was hurt and the reinforcements meant I was even more outnumbered than before. "Just give me Quothe," I said aloud. "We leave. No one else gets hurt."
The newly arrived green fire monsters ignored me utterly. They formed up into a line, a protective shield between me and the Corpse Flame. The five Lords Sidhe gathered behind them, and Aeron was behind even them, a shadowy shape against the blazing form of his master. And that was when Dena made her move.
Even with the gift of hindsight and many more years of experience, I still have no idea where she was for most of the fight. Keeping out of the way most likely, a sensible thing to do. But when my other allies were down and the enemy's attention was focused solely on me, she acted. She moved with the disconcerting speed she sometimes used -- away from the far wall, across the floor and to the Noonday Sun's side. Then, moving like a squirrel, she swarmed up one of his arms, which couldn't have been an easy thing to do. There was no ice for meters around, and I knew from personal experience that his body could heat metal to a painful degree.
"You'll never get away with this!" I said in my loudest voice, booming over the chamber. My goal was simple: draw attention to me and away from Dena, the one person who might get me out of this alive. If I could get them ranting (Aeron, Corpse Flame, both. I'd even settle for the green fire monsters) I might have a chance*.
* Provoking his foes to rant is a tactic Abel has professed a liking for in the past. Given his reputation and long career, it is clearly effective but perhaps not best suited for MCO field operations.
Dena reached the top, hands scrabbling for purchase, and sprinted towards the green-fire dagger, a length of metal and fire even taller than she was.
This was it, I thought as my guts knotted, the most dangerous moment. Worse still, the bad guys weren't taking my bait. What I wouldn't give for a number three supervillain laugh right then*, but Aeron just slashed his hand through the air and the green fire monsters marched forward, metal feet crashing against stone. Otherworldly light glinted as they drew their pale-gold swords and the wound on my cheek pulsed in burning sympathy.
* According to a Wikipedia, #3 is a 'cackle of sadistic glee at a defeated opponent'. Needless to say I am highly skeptical that standardized supervillain laughs are really a thing.
Dena gripped the dagger with both hands and heaved, her whole body straining. My heart beat but the knife didn't come free. She needed more time; that was what I was here for. I picked up a lump of fallen stone and threw it forward, a missile borne by all my enhanced strength. It cracked off the leading green fire monster and it went crashing back. No doubt incensed by my refusal to keel over and die, Aeron again swung his hand. The green fire monsters broke into a charge, and the Lords Sidhe went with them, five superhumans more than ready to kill. It really wasn't my day.
I set my legs and readied myself to meet them. I couldn't dodge too much, for risk of drawing attention to Dena, but a little should be okay. A superleap to the left, to lose the monsters, then another to engage the Lords Sidhe. The important thing was that they never needed to turn around to engage me.
It was a bad plan, a plan as likely to get me killed as work, but sometimes the universe does smile on me.
In a shower of red flame, Dena tore the dagger loose from the Noonday Sun's chest. It was big, huge, and under its weight she staggered back. For one brief moment she hung in balance, then she lost her footing and rolled down his side to the ground. That was for the best. In a wave of heat even I could feel, the Noonday Sun shrugged off his coal black coat and rose. Underneath was all the heat and fire of the sun*.
* This is clearly poetic language on Abel's part. If the Noonday Sun was truly as hot as his namesake, nothing in the room would have survived.
The green fire monsters froze in place and their master turned. The two huge titans faced each other, one burning radiation green, the other the white-yellow of natural light. The omnipresent green light retreated and sunlight took its place. They found equilibrium at the midpoint. I could feel both combatants tensing, the quiet before the storm, the almost psychic pressure of two premium grade boxers staring each other down. They would fight and one would win, and I had no idea which. There was only one card I had left to play.
While my opponents stood frozen, I pulled Enki's horn from where it hung around my neck and blew a blasting note. It tore through the Throne of the Most High, filling it with the crashing of waves and the thunder of rivers. The melt water jumped at the horn's cry, tiny reverse droplets reaching for the sky. If there was ever a moment where the Corpse Flame lay vulnerable, it was now.
"Kill him!" said Aeron, his voice chaos and slaughter. "Bring me his heart!" The green fire monsters broke into a charge and the Lords Sidhe went with them.
Behind, the two titans of fire slammed together and thunder filled the chamber. To the side, Ninegal screamed, a sonic attack of paranormal energy. A wall of sound slammed towards the green fire monsters but the sidhe with old paper skin shouted a word of her own. The scream froze in mid-air, literally, transforming into crystals which shattered into musical notes when they hit the floor.
The green fire monsters kept on heading right for me and I cast about. A dozen was far too many to engage directly and the Lords Sidhe made it even worse. It would have to be my original plan: lose the monsters and attack the lords. A few broken chains and I might even have reinforcements.
A battle horn sounded and it took me a moment to realize it was mine. The sound echoed out from where Enki's horn sat in my hand. The water sounded in response, a thousand crying bells, and figures rose from it, head, shoulders and then legs appearing as if my magic. Enki was first, no longer naked but clad in copper armor, but he was not alone. Others rose with him, two dozen trow, likewise armored in copper plates covered with mystical runes.
Enki roared, the sound of sea storms, and the trow matched him. They charged to meet the green fire monsters, the trow brandishing spears, Enki a wall of telekinetically controlled water. They met in a crash. Enki's wave knocked half off their feet and then the trow were on them, stabbing down with spears.
Aeron, body lean and dark, leaped and covered a dozen feet in a single moment. He bore down on Enki, sword held ready to kill, but Enki twisted, the water moving with his body to lend strength and speed*. The sword cut nothing and Enki struck out, a blast of water following the motion, but Aeron still held a measure of the Corpse Flame's power. Sickly green fire sprung up in his hand and the two powers met. Steam exploded in all directions and both men jumped back, skin discolored from the blistering temperatures.
* Although Abel doesn't say, Enki had presumably gathered water to cover his body for this purpose. A similar technique has been observed in mutant Aquakentics and other telekinetic variants. It can be quite effective but seldom equals an optimized PK field. This is further proof for my Faerie Mutant theory.
I moved forward then, fully aware than my life would be forfeit if any of the major battles went against me. That said, there was only one real show in town. I grabbed a rock and superleapt, my legs burning. The ground flashed by -- green fire monsters, trow and Lords Sidhe all locked in battle -- and I came to a skidding rest half a world away. Just ahead, the two titans battled, green fire and yellow fire, Corpse Flame and Noonday Sun. I took aim, drew back my arm and let loose with every ounce of my strength. The rock exploded against the Corpse Flame's head, shards of stone flying in all directions. I cast around, found a piece of ripped up floor, and took aim again but never got a chance to throw.
Mr Clockwork Sidhe* bore down on me, his mechanical left arm split apart to reveal a trident sparking with crimson energy. I jinked back, lightning dancing against my front, and threw the rock with all my available might. It shattered off him but I'd not had time for a proper wind up. He powered through and I had to block the trident with a forearm. Energy tore across my skin and into my flesh, ignoring my Invulnerability, but I retained enough sense to strike out. When I land a proper punch the effects can be extreme and dramatic. This wasn't quite such a blow but bone shattered under my fist all the same. Mr Clockwork Sidhe staggered back, clockwork hand slotting back together as it came up to hold his ruined right, and I advanced, just in time for Iron Gag and Dead To The World** to bear down on me.
* Presumably the person previously described by Abel as a 'cyborg'.
** The 'small man with skin the colour of spilt ink' and the 'hollow eyed, dead to the world companion' respectively. The former would later be named as Ellegua, but for the time being Abel is maintaining the internal consistency of his narrative.
The first I knew of them was when a telekinetic wave knocked me off my feet. I hit the ground, rolled on instinct and rose to see Dead To The World looking at me, eyes at once dull and locked against mine. Iron Gag was just behind him and darted forward. His hands were bound together in front of him but, as the saying goes, that's just a fancy word for mace.
He struck out and I moved into the blow. Iron struck my flesh but I felt only pressure not pain, and it put me in a perfect position for a counterattack. Unfortunately, Iron Gag was quicker than he looked. He twisted, there was a flash of metal and the manacles pulled back hard against my neck. Invulnerable I might be, but I still needed to breathe. I drove an elbow backwards but met only air. He'd drawn himself up, all his weight pulling down on my neck as he hung in the small of my back, but that meant the manacles weren't protected. I clawed at my own neck, got my fingers under the links and broke them in a burst of strength. A flare of green light blasted out and scorched my skin, but Iron Gag dropped free. When I whirled around, his eyes were sparkling as he lay on the ground.
Dead To The World gritted his teeth and did a psychic head nod, a rapid forward and back motion of the kind which looked really good looming out of a TV but kind of silly in real life. That didn't help me, though, and I was blasted off my feet, hit the ground and rolled for a dozen yards before skidding to a halt. It wasn't as powerful as the first time he'd attacked me -- a lifetime ago in the Solar Refinery -- but it was more than respectable all the same and I wasn't in the best shape to start with.
The world wobbled as I pushed myself up, and the Corpse Flame and Noonday Sun crashed together in the distance, giants too bright to look at. Heat beat out and soaked the Throne of the Most High. Armoured trow fought green fire monsters and the Lords Sidhe on my side battled those on the other. Metal beat against metal, people cried out in pain, blood soaked into the ground and there was the ever burning rush of fire.
My two erstwhile opponents had been intercepted by a squad of trow, which was good. I needed a moment to regain my breath. What I needed more, though, was a weapon or way to bring this fight to an end. The Noonday Sun had been taken down by an oversized magical dagger but I couldn't see it about. Dena must have taken it with her when she returned to cover. I couldn't see Quothe either and that was a bad sign. I had no idea what my magical debt would do if its target died.
When Enki was outfitting me for this misadventure, he'd completely failed to give me a god killing sword. A horn to bring aid, a mirror to show truth and a butterfly brooch to hide from the eyes of enemies were all very good but I wanted something which could take down the Corpse Flame. I looked about the Throne of the Most High. The green fire monsters had swords which could cut through my Invulnerability but it would be risky to get one for exactly that reason. I was almost ready to take that chance when I had a better idea.
At full speed I crossed the room in moments, dodging battling combatants. I skidded to a halt, just in front of the oversized iron gates, and reached out. This would be a tough one. The gates were huge, fifteen feet high and very thick but split in two. I grabbed the left side as near the center as I could reach and wrenched it from the frame. My legs and arms burned, over stretched and long misused, but the gate came free in a shower of broken stone and shattered metal. It was large and unwieldy but also perhaps the ultimate weapon in the mixed up reality of the Hill. If the Corpse Flame was immune to iron, he was the only one, myself not included.
I maneuvered the gate so it was held at an angle in front of me and charged, my steps made uneven by the extra weight. Halfway there, I shifted my grip, spun on my heel and sent it spinning through the air. It flew like a giant discus, propelled by all my paranormal strength, and smashed into the Corpse Flame's lower back. He screamed, oh God did he scream.
The iron gate was lodged halfway into his back. The omnipresent green glow retreated and sunlight took its place. The Noonday Sun raised a hand and a solar flare erupted forth. He held it like a sword and stabbed down. The Corpse Flame only just rolled aside, crushing and baking six green fire monsters and an equal number of armored trow. From the side, came an immense wave of water. It smashed into the Corpse Flame, and this time when the Noonday Sun struck he had nowhere to go. The sword of light skewered into green fire flesh, and the omnipresent green glow completely vanished.
"Behind you!" shouted Ninegal, and I looked behind but it wasn't me she was warning. I snapped back just in time to see Aeron run his sword through Enki, in one side and out the other. The blade was pale-gold and burnt with green fire. The tip stood a foot clear of Enki's pale blue chest, armor included. Enki looked down at it. His hands were still outstretched, raised from commanding the wave of water. The energy went out his body.
Ninegal screamed a second time but now it was filled with focused sonic energy. Even out of the direct path, my world swum as the noise fouled my balance. Aeron wasn't nearly so lucky. It hit him full in the back and the concentrated energy ripped him apart. Flesh exploded, bones vaporized and what was left fell forward. He died, then, lying on top of Enki. Both men breathed their last but things weren't quite over.
Green light exploded from the corner of my vision and I turned but it was already too late. The light was coming from the Corpse Flame. Layers of flame fell away from the burning man, like a snake shedding its skin again and again. Within the blink of an eye, only the barest wisp remained but it was now free of both the flaming sword and the iron gate. It shot towards the nearest wall and disappeared before I or anyone else had a chance to react. In years to come I'd come to regret not doing something but right then, I was just glad to see it go.
All combat froze at that and I had no idea what was going to happen. Aeron was dead and his master fled. Would the green fire monsters lay down their arms? Could they? What of the Lords Sidhe who were still chained? I needn't have worried. Free of his foe, the Noonday Sun raised his hands, burning sheets the size of cars, and spoke a single word. "Peace." Everyone who wasn't on my side fell to the ground, pinned my waves of force. It was good to know not only the bad guys could do that trick.
Things were almost anticlimactic after that. I was pressed into freeing the Lords Sidhe from their chains but that was easy for me. With the Noonday Sun holding them in place it was safe too, which was a nice change of pace.
Dena reappeared and brought a surprise with her: Quothe. The other trow was burned and battered but still lived. After removing the dagger, she'd found her friend and dragged him to safety.
He looked up at me, turned to Dena and said, "Told you he was Human Lord."
Dena swatted him on the head and said, "Stupid Quothe." But there was a smile on her face.
One of the Lords Sidhe even healed my cheek. Renenutet was her name, the Sidhe with words for chains and old paper for skin, though she recovered from that last affliction with remarkable quickness. It continued to sting for some days and the mark never entirely faded but it was a step up from the numbness and burning fire.
In all, I stayed in the Hill for two more days, time spent recovering and lending my services in removing the iron gates, but all things must end. Come the third day, I spoke to Ninegal of my desire to leave. My debt to Enki, Dena and Quothe was fulfilled, even assuming the magic had survived the former's death, and I had a life to get back to. She didn't question my decision and merely nodded.
As we walked I thought of the questions which still remained unanswered. Where had the Corpse Flame gone? What was he? What was the Hill? But there was only one I truly wanted to know the answer to. Casting my voice low, I asked, "Ninegal, what will happen to you and Nujalik? She seemed angry about what you did." And that was an understatement. I'd been carrying Nujalik when she went crazy on the invisible chasm bridge. She'd wanted to kill Ninegal for destroying the animal ghosts. Nujalik didn't look angry the last time I saw her -- magically healed from her adventures and working on repairs -- but that didn't mean much.
At my question Ninegal frowned. "We shall fight to the death before the Noonday Sun. One will be judged worthy; the other's life will be forfeit."
I gulped at that but tried not to show it. "Would it help if I asked her not to?"
Ninegal shook her head. "No, but our dual has been postponed. The Noonday Sun has decreed it. Until the damage wrought by the Corpse Flame is mended we will stand as sisters. Only after will we taste blood."
This was the kind of thing best not to leave behind in my experience. It tended to come back with sharp claws years later. But there was nothing I could do. I nodded my head and we finished the journey in silence.
Fifteen minutes later, we entered the entrance chamber, the floor now repaired and the great ceiling mural as splendid as ever. Somehow the Lords Sidhe knew to meet us there, all six other surviving members. Free from their chains, they looked a lot better, people of majesty and power, not chattel.
"We have one final gift for you, Joseph Abel," said Ninegal and held out her hands, palms outstretched like Enki had done so long ago. In that cup sat a pale-gold ring, simple, yes, but in a way I couldn't describe it shone with all the light of the sun. "This is the first true Sun's Gold we have made since the banishment of the Corpse Flame. I give it to you, a gift given in payment for all debts owed and as a symbol of the friendship you have earned here. Take it, Joseph Abel, Friend of the Sidhe."
At that last, all heads bowed and, fast on the uptake at moments like these, I bowed too.
"It is an honor," I said and picked up the ring. It felt oddly heavy in my hand and when I slid it onto my finger, the sensation was real, not merely heavy pressure. Like the green fire monsters' swords, this ring ignored my Invulnerability.
"Ellegua will send you home," said Ninegal and one of the Lords Sidhe stepped forward, the man I'd once called Iron Gag but he now showed me a dazzling white smile.
"I am the Lord of doorways and crossroads," he said. "Think of home and I will send you there."
A few days ago I might have doubted such a grandiose claim but that was a few days ago. I pictured Baltimore and my small apartment. Ellegua nodded and raised his hands.
A portal shimmered into view, a purple gash in the world. I stepped through and went home.
In this section, Abel defeats Iblis, the Corpse Flame, and returns the Noonday Sun to his throne. The former escapes, however, but would not be gone long from Abel's life. He would return in years to come, bound to the mutant Avatar Sunbird, a menace to Abel and the World both.
This brings me to my next point and allows me to finish this endnote as I began: discussing the Hill. Even sealed, the Hill is a threat the MCO cannot afford to ignore. An isolated colony of Faerie Mutants is not an issue in and of itself, but such a colony left to expand and breed can fast become one. It has already released one hostile entity into the world. What else might it do?
One of the greatest threats posed by modern day mutants is their ability to breed true, and inheritable genetic changes (like those possessed by Faerie Mutants) only compound this issue. In the Hill, these problems are magnified to an even greater degree. Cut off from the wider pressures and safeguards of society, they can only expand. Should a charismatic leader arise, the Hill's apparent policy of isolation could quickly change to one of expansionism. Depending on the Faerie Mutant-Paranormal Entity ratio, that could mean thousands of mutants set loose on the world. The very least the MCO can do is deploy intelligence operatives to observe the situation, and be ready to act should circumstances change.
There is one major problem with this plan of action, however. Despite a careful examination of Abel's writing, I have been completely unable to derive the Hill's location. It is clearly underground and quite possibly inside a mountain range (as Abel himself speculates) but that could mean anywhere from the Rocky Mountains to the Himalayas. Abel enters and leaves by teleportation, never seeing his surroundings. It is a very frustrating and potentially deadly problem.
As such, I will end with a plea. The Hill has acknowledged, if limited, contact with the wider world. If anyone reading this has knowledge of its location, please immediately report it to your Field Office Director. Properly aided and guided by the MCO, the Hill could flourish. Left free, it could become one of the greatest threats to mankind ever known.
[Updated on: Mon, 04 June 2012 15:17]
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59810 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Tue, 12 June 2012 18:01
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
An Undiplomatic Affair
Over his long career, Joseph Abel, the media titled 'World's Bravest Man', fought many battles. Some were large, the world hanging in the balance, while others were small but no less important. Because of my long association with Abel, I've had the privilege of fighting alongside him on many of those occasions. Most of those tales are recorded in this archive, and I have picked this piece to edit and release next. It is one of Abel's most famous adventures, although I fear he would dislike that term. It is not our first meeting, or even the first time be faced danger together, but it is the first time I caught a glimpse of what made Abel truly great.
As always, Abel defends his actions in terms of self-preservation and protection of his reputation, and, as always, I contend there was a nobler side, the true selfless heroism which drew public accolades and respect across his whole lifetime. I will let my readers judge for themselves which is the truth.
Abigail de Bontin, MCO Special Agent-at-Large (Retired) (DeVille)
"Abel," said a voice just behind my shoulder.
I turned and smiled. "Abigail. It is a surprise to see you here."
The French Ambassador's masquerade ball was filled with the great and powerful. I wore full black tie and, in deference to the setting, a carnival mask, festooned with colored feathers. Abigail de Bontin, MCO agent and friend of mine, wore a red cocktail dress, which hugged her hips and bust. She too wore a mask, a thin stiletto the same colour as her dress. A waiter walked passed, carrying a tray of drinks. I snagged two and handed her one. The party was going well, I thought. The food was nice and the company had suddenly improved. Of course, if I'd known what was really going on behind the scenes I'd have run for the hills.
"To what do we owe the MCO's interest?" I said, a smile on my lips and in my voice. "Surely nothing at a mere social event would require your presence."
She took a light sip of her sparkling wine and smiled back, clearly enjoying the flavor*. "I beg to differ. Emperor Gizmatic himself is in attendance. Many of the criminal microstates have sent representatives and several major superhero groups received invitation."
* On the contrary, I was merely being polite. The wine was decidedly sub-par if I remember correctly.
"A masked ball for superheroes," I said, contemplatively, not that all or even most of the people present had powers. "It does seem rather redundant."
That earned me a light chuckle. "Not for you, Abel. You're probably the only superhero who can hide his identity by putting on a mask."
"I'm not the only one," I said with all the false modesty I could muster. "Doctor Amazing doesn't wear a mask. It helps the public trust me, and trust is very important."
She looked at me and cocked her head, deepest brown hair falling in a wave. "You really believe that, don't you?"
Of course I didn't. If the circumstances of my coming out party hadn't made it impossible, I'd be covering my face like everyone else. As it was, I was merely making the most of a bad situation. Needless to say, explaining that would undo the little good I was getting from the deal, so I smiled and nodded. "Trust is very important, but the MCO understands that as well. General Order 77*?" I nodded towards her mask.
* While I expect all MCO agents to be fully acquainted with the fifty six active standing general orders, I'll expand here all the same for posterity's sake. General Order 77 was implemented in the late nineties, to fight back against the rising levels of criticism targeted against us at the end of that decade, after the fervor from the Fools Fight began to fade. It requires all MCO agents operating in public to keep their faces visible. While a good idea, it was undermined by an overly broad range of exemptions and the rise of full body power armor as our force projection tool of choice. Abel probably thought his comment quite witty given that I'd been forced to cover my own face as a condition of entry.
"Quite," said Abigail and scanned the room, one long finger circling the rim of her wine glass.
"You're not planning to arrest anyone, I trust?"
"Of course not." Her eyes sparkled behind her mask. "My boss would be most displeased."
"Ah, yes. US Director of Operations Cranfield. He's over there, talking to the good emperor." I followed her finger. Cranfield looked to be a large man, gone fallow with desk work, but he hid it well with the aid of an expensive suit. While I couldn't see his face, I doubted it differed much from the overall image. Behind him was a small, geeky man who could only be Emperor Gizmatic. The 'shy chin' would be clue enough. The fact that half his face was taken up by cybernetic replacements was just the icing on the cake.
"I trust you are not merely serving as arm candy?" I said and smiled, attempting to remove any sting from my words.
She sniffed and mocked offended. "Most certainly not. I was selected for attendance based upon my impeccable service record. I'm sure the fact I look stunning in this dress is completely coincidental."
Director Cranfield gave a small nod of his head and backed away from Gizmatic but was immediately replaced by another potentate. He was tall, perhaps even taller than me, and had midnight-black hair to my silver-blond. I took a step back. Whoever was responsible for feud checking the guest list had really dropped the ball. "This could be trouble."
Abigail cocked her head. "Hum?"
"That's Black Alexander," I said under my breath. "Leader of the--" Abigail cut me off.
"The Five Hands," she said. "I know. The MCO keeps track of all major superhero groups, especially those entirely composed of mutants."
"Well did you hear what happened to the Queen of Hearts?" Abigail shook her head. "She disappeared." No reaction. "While in the Caribbean." A glimmer of dawning horror. "While responding to a mayday call off the coast of Karedonia." And there it was. Abigail's face was a blank mask.
"He thinks Gizmatic's behind it."
It wasn't a question. I answered all the same. "That would be my guess."
'You bet your life he was,' I said every way but aloud. In that single respect I replied, "No one can prove anything."
Across the crowded hall, Black Alexander was still speaking to Gizmatic, and it was not going well. His hands were crushed into balls and the muscles on his back stood out, visible even under his black-tie suit. Then Gizmatic laughed. That's what did it I think.
Black Alexander smashed Gizmatic right across the face, and when you're superstrong and superfast and have a funky mutant power which means you do things perfectly, you can really punch. People screamed, others stood frozen, still more backed away and Gizmatic was flung back. He hit the ground, rolled and pushed himself right back up. Nerdy he might look but the guy had a long running vendetta with Champion*. He could take a punch.
* Abel is incorrect in this. Gizmatic's 'vendetta' was with the third Champion only. It did not extend to the fourth, fifth or sixth.
"You dare attack Gizmatic!" said Gizmatic, voice low but filled with menace. He slapped his wrist and the flux-royal costume he was wearing* burst apart as hunks of armor expanded out. The slabs clunked and slotted together, forming into a suit of burgundy red power armor. It was covered with guns. He opened fire.
* The Karedonia Imperial Dress Uniform. I am told it draws historical decent from the state costumes worn by Napoleon III during the Second French Empire, but I do not see the resemblance myself.
I jumped in front of Abigail, arms raised to cover my own face. A bullet deflected off my arm but it did no more than sting. Across the room, Black Alexander blitzed forward, dodging and weaving through the blizzard of bullets and energy blasts. Other superheroes were advancing too, as were some of the 'former' supervillains who'd managed diplomatic appointments in the criminal microstates.
"Aren't you going to try and stop them?" said Abigail from behind me, just as a blast of energy struck the ceiling. Everyone who didn't wear a mask for a living ducked but only a shower of plaster fell.
"I'm sure I'd just get in the way," I said, this time trying very hard to hide my true meaning. No way in hell was I getting involved in this kind of superpowered brawl if I could help it, not against players on this level. Since the masquerade ball was well and truly at an end, I threw my mask on the ground and began backing away, pushing Abigail towards the rear exit. Of course, someone of my notoriety couldn't make an exit entirely unnoticed.
I felt eyes on me, a lot of eyes. I turned and found a large portion of the non-superhuman guests were looking at me, including a fair number of who'd decided cowering in my invulnerable shadow was a great idea. In fairness, it probably was. Just muscling through would do nasty things to my reputation. That left only one real choice.
"This way ladies and gents," I said in a loud carrying voice. "I'd advise you to come this way and clear the crossfire in a quick and orderly fashion." Somewhat to my surprise, they listened, and I was soon acting as rear guard for a significant fraction of the civilians in attendance.
We reached the rear door, a small wooden thing and the cry went up that it was locked. I waded back through the sea of important people, put my shoulder to the door and shattered it with barely a touch. The way clear, I began motioning people out. They did so in a wave, desperate to get away from the superhuman destruction. That was wise. The main act was only just warming up.
Black Alexander and Gizmatic were still going at it, trading punches like the titans they were. Gizmatic's armor seemed able to absorb all but the most powerful of Black Alexander's blows, but the superhero was too quick for turnabout play, always just beyond a fist's reach or out of an energy bolt's path. Around them the brawl had expanded. The rest of the Five Hands were mixing it up with supervillains I didn't recognize. Jackbox was flipping about the hall like the demented martial artist he was. Deduce had split and had a cocktail dressed supervillainess trapped between his two halves. Even Ace's High was doing his part, fighting a ferocious midair battle with an Asian woman in a dragon print dress. Other superhero teams were fighting too. Quarterhorse III of the Guard was locked in the classic arm straining wrestling match with Brutimax, culture minister and head minion of the Sovereign Grand Dutchy of Tanzgo. A woman wearing a slip of a dress, who might've been Beach Bunny*, was launching heat blasts at a living snowman, Permafrost of the Highly Disputed Central Antarctic Territory**. Pachyderm was attempting to play brick-stomp with a pair of teleporting munchkins, who were playing their own version of PETA friendly whack-a-mole right back. In short it was chaos, and I wanted out of here as soon as possible.
* It was indeed Beach Bunny of the West Coast League. Abel was presumably confused by the amount of clothing she had on.
** The name is misleading. The Highly Disputed Central Antarctic Territory is actually one of the more recognized criminal microstates, presumably because most of the world didn't care, Antarctic Treaty System or no.
The last of the civilians exited the door and I looked around. The center of the room was a melee of paranormal combat but there didn't seem to be any civilians still in danger. Those who hadn't followed me had made their own exits. I looked to Abigail. She'd drawn a sleek silver pistol at some point and was holding it in a two handed grip. "Time to make our exit, I think," I said. Hopefully the pistol did not indicate she wanted to get involved.
Abigail gave me an odd look that left me wondering if she suspected my true intentions* but backed out the door. I followed, perhaps a bit faster than someone of my supposed reputation should.
* Completely incorrect. In fact, I was quite impressed. Up until that point I'd been left with the impression that Abel had more muscle than brains, brave and noble, true, but more than willing to jump into a fight even if it did more harm than good. The fact that he moved quickly to evacuate most of the civilians was notable.
Outside the sounds of superhuman battle were faded, if not completely gone. True, the ground shook every few seconds but that was almost normal to me by now. I took a breath, drinking in the cool night air. "And this, Abigail," I said, "is why feud checking is vitally important for all diplomatic functions."
"Does this happen often?"
I shook my head. "No. They're usually better at keeping the villains and heroes apart, those with real issues with each other at least. Black Alexander was keeping the Queen of Hearts business close to his chest but they should have known. They're paid to know this kind of thing."
The roof of the hall exploded as Gizmatic shot into the air, jets of fire roaring from his armored boots. He held Black Alexander in a crushing bear hug but the hero was giving almost as good, slamming blow after blow into Gizmatic's shielded head with his one free hand. Other flyers rushed up beside them -- Ace's High, little more than a streak; Quartermane's Amazing Mechanical Man, blue alcohol flames shooting from all four limbs; the oriental villainess from before, lightning blasting from her mouth. Others. Too many. They swarmed through the sky, trading blows, bullets and powered blasts. I was very glad to be safely on the ground.
There was a roar from inside the hall, loud enough to shake the lids of nearby dustbins, and Brutimax charged out, bursting through the wall. Brick dust fell around him and I almost took a step back. He was big, big in the way elephants were big -- not just tall but huge, wide and covered with muscle. His tailored suit had split at the seams and his pupils were small, pin pricks to the white whales of his eyes. He saw me, let out a second roar and stampeded forward, each step sending tremors through the ground.
While fight and flight warred in my head, Abigail took action. She raised her silver pistol, took aim and fired. A bolt of crackling blue energy took Brutimax right in the head and he fell, a puppet with its strings cut.
"Immobilizer pulse," she said, a note of pleasure in her voice. "Mostly non-lethal. Forcibly induces unconsciousness."
"Do not use on pregnant women or people with heart conditions," I said and rolled my hand. "I know the drill." Of course, there was a reason she'd mentioned the 'mostly non-lethal' part. I moved forward, legs tensed in case I needed to make a fast exit, but it wasn't needed. I knelt down at the gigantic man's side and looked him over. His neck was huge and the carotid artery was visibly pulsing, no need to touch it at all. His breathing was equally evident, a localized storm. "He's not dead," I said, turning back to look at Abigail. "Not pregnant either." That earned me a 'don't be stupid' frown.
With a heave, I started rolling Brutimax into the recovery position. The man might easily have weighed over a ton but that was well within my lift range, even on a bad day. With a meaty thump, he settled onto one side and I set about straightening his airway. That's when I noticed the half dissolved patch affixed to the back of his neck, about the size of my thumbnail.
"Abigail," I said leaning closer. "Take a look at this."
Her presence loomed up behind me just as I was reaching forward with a finger.
It was too late. I brushed some of Brutimax's lanky black hair aside and accidentally scraped the back of the patch with my finger.
I saw red.
Even the weak light of the street lamps burned my eyes. I returned to awareness, eyes scrunched mostly shut, hyperventilating while I knelt on the ground. Abigail stood some feet away, gun raised. My jaw was sore. It took a lot to hurt me, let alone deal enough damage that it lasted more than a few seconds.
"What," I said and shook my head. The light still burnt. "What happened?"
Abigail stayed where she was but the gun dropped an inch. "The patch," she said. "It's a devisor drug. Rage-ahol. You just took a super dose."
"A drug?" I said and shook my head again. My brain just would not settle right.
"Yes. It causes extreme aggressive reactions in its subjects. It burns out fast if you don't receive a constant stream, but you did attempt to assault me while under its effects*."
* Since editing this archive gives me the opportunity for greater eloquence, I will expand. Upon touching the patch, Abel disturbed the timed distribution system and absorbed a super-concentrated dose through his skin. This caused the so called 'red flash effect', where higher thought is completely disrupted and the victim will attack anything and everything. In Abel's case he immediately attempted to attack me, but I was able to dodge his first strike and hit him with an immobilizer pulse before he could take a second. While this did not stop Abel, indicating his Invulnerability also grants him some form of psi resistance, it did slow him enough that the drug burnt itself out before he could drive home his assault. The fact that he managed to punch himself in the chin probably helped.
"I," I said, and took a deep breath, trying to slow my thundering heart. "I do apologize." I tried for a roguish smile but it had more than a little grimace to it. "I'm okay now?"
"You should be. The drug is remarkably clean and leaves no traces in the body after it's gone. It can cause problems while it is still active but seldom after."
That did comfort me some and I pushed myself up. "Some kind of battle booster?" I asked. Quite a few supervillains committed crimes while high on drugs. Cocaine was more common than what I was suggesting, drugs that made you stronger and faster while taking them, but the latter existed too. I'd never heard of Brutimax using something like that, though, not that I followed his career with any interest.
"Possible," said Abigail and finally walked forward. "But that patch." She pointed to where Brutimax still lay. "It's a stealth model. The dose starts low but expands with time, increasing as the patch dissolves. It culminates in a red flash and the complete destruction of all evidence. It's used to drive someone into a rage, not as a tactical force multiplier." She knelt beside Brutimax and motioned me down. "Move his hair and be careful this time."
I was tempted to refuse point blank but it was a small request. Grabbing the hair well up from where the patch lay, I pulled it up, laying Brutimax's neck bear.
"I don't recognize the model," said Abigail after a moment, lips pursed. "But it is highly degraded. It will probably completely dissolve in five, maybe ten minutes time." She stood and stretched. "Quickly. I need my field belt." She set off at a fast walk, heading for the car park and I followed close behind.
The French Ambassador's masquerade ball was a diplomatic function and that meant carpooling was not on the cards. Hence, the car park was chaos. Horns blared, lights flashed and people shouted in a dozen different languages from rolled down windows. Twenty maybe thirty cars were all trying to leave at once and the only result was a logjam. Abigail strode through the twisting lines of cars and stopped when she reached a large black Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows, one of the few cars still empty. She knelt down by the door, pulled a thin lockpick from the sleeve of her dress and started to fiddle.
"Do you always carry lockpicks?" I said, genuinely curious. For such a sheer dress, she did seem to have a lot of holdouts tucked away.
"A lady never tells," she replied, eyes still focused on her work. Only a few seconds later it clicked and she pulled the door open.
"This is your car, right?" I said. Caught up in the moment, it had only just occurred to me we were breaking in.
"Abel," she said, turning around and sounding faintly exasperated. "Of course it's not my car. I'd hardly need to break into my own car, would I?" She turned back around and rummaged about inside. After a few seconds she came out with a narrow belt, lined with pouches.
"So whose is it then?" I took a step back and looked around, searching for that annoying individual just waiting to shout 'stop thief', but everyone else was much too busy to notice what we were doing.
"My boss's if you must know," she said and turned her back to me. "Fasten this." She'd pulled the belt around her waist and was holding the clasp behind her back. I did so with a smile and if my hands lingered a bit longer on her shapely rear than strictly necessary, no one could blame me.
The belt in place, she turned back around and closed the door. "I'm ready. Let's go."
"Aren't you going to change?" The tight red dress, while stunning, couldn't be the best thing for this kind of work.
"We don't have time, and espionage in formal wear is something I learnt in school; I got top marks"
"What kind of school teaches that?"
In answer she just smiled and ran back the way we'd come.
When we arrived, Brutimax was still lying prone on the ground, a great elephantine mass.
"We need to be quick," said Abigail and looked about. "The Police will be here soon." She was right, of course. The fight went visible maybe ten minutes ago and that didn't even take into account the panicked calls from dozens of important people. We were already running up hard against our time limit. DC didn't have many superheroes but its police force packed power armored response units and heavy assault frames. Hell, the MCO might even send a dropship to join the party. US Director of Operations Cranfield had to be doing something if he wasn't making a run for it.
Abigail pulled a small camera from her belt and started taking pictures of the patch. While she was gathering evidence, I looked up. Neither Gizmatic nor Black Alexander was visible but others were. It almost looked even more crowded than before. Quartermane's Amazing Mechanical Man was blasting away with his chest-mounted Gatling gun. Two energy supermen -- mutant energizers, Dyna-Hosts or something stranger -- were slamming into each other, little more than corona of light. A pair of flying bricks were trading bone shattering pouches. It took me a second to realize they were both heroes, Atlas Stones of the Old Penny League and Blaze, a Justice Brigader.
"Look," I said.
"It's the red flash effect," said Abigail after glancing up. "They barely know what they're doing at this point."
"They're patched too?" I said then paused, horror dawning in my chest. "Someone planned this."
"I'd bet money on it."
That was scary. Someone who could orchestrate all this was not the kind of person I wanted to tangle with. I quite liked my internal organs where they were, thank you very much. "It can't be everyone," I said, speaking out loud as I tried to work out the best way to keep my skin intact. "I'm not tagged and the Mechanical Man up there doesn't even have a biology." That brought a thought. "But it wouldn't need to be everyone, would it? The riot effect. Put Black Alexander in place to start a fight, tag a few heroes and villains so they jump in and human nature will take care of the rest."
"It makes sense," said Abigail, lips pursed. "The patches will keep ramping up the Rage-ahol dose; the fight will keep intensifying, even for the people without patches; and it will peak just about when..."
"Just about when the power armor arrives," I said, finishing for her. The future path of events was as clear as day. The fight would climax just when the police paranormal response forces stormed the scene, and D.C.'s were the toughest in the country, a military force in all but name. Too many supervillains thought kidnapping the President was a good idea. If they fought... It would be utter chaos, right at the heart of America. Superheroes, supervillains and law enforcement in a battle with almost as many sides as individual combatants.
"We need to find out who's behind this," she said and pulled a small mobile phone from her belt. "This could just be a distraction."
That was another nasty thought. "A distraction for what?"
She held up a finger and started talking, outlining the situation to whoever was on the other end*. The call took two long minutes, one hundred and twenty seconds of smashing fists, exploding energy blasts and cracking firearms. At last, she hung up and turned her attention back to me. "The Field Office will do what they can but there's only so much they can do. The police units need to act. This fight can't be allowed to spiral out of control." As if to mark her words, two flyers smashed into the ground, passing through one side of a building and out the other along the way. The earth shook under my feet.
* The MCO Washington Field Office, a Special Agent Biggs to be precise. I found him to be a most agreeable young man. His future career proved me correct and, as of writing, he is a Deputy Director in the New York Office, with views to promotion.
"Where do we begin?" I said, hoping for somewhere far away from here. A library search maybe? Old Madam Eldritch used to spend an inordinate amount of time researching things in libraries before her retirement. I envied her.
"We need to find and stop the mastermind. Who could do this?"
I frowned at that; it was just what I didn't want to hear. Luckily, Abigail seemed to take my expression as a sign of deep contemplation rather than what it really was. Worst of all, a list of names did come to mind, and none of them were good.
It could be the likes of Professor Reaper or Deicide, those who created chaos for chaos's sake. It could be someone of Crucible's creed, the insane Social Darwinists. And the list really opened up if this was just a distraction, a big lightshow to draw attention away from a strike at another location. Virtually any villain could be behind such a thing, though few would be insane enough to move so directly against not only the hero community but also the criminal microstates and the US Government.
My eyes opened wide; I'd just thought of something and it even came with an inbuilt excuse for being somewhere else when the police arrived. "The feud checking!" Abigail raised an eyebrow, but I pushed on. "You said it yourself. The Black Alexander-Gizmatic fight was no accident. That means whoever was meant to be keeping them away from each other must be in on it." Laziness and incompetence were also possibilities but we could spend a few hours finding out either way.
"The ball was planned by Goodkind Business and Events Services," said Abigail without even a pause. No doubt she'd analyzed every detail before attending*. "They had personnel on site, below stairs, but they might have fled."
* Not me personally, but otherwise correct. With the US Director of Operations in attendance the security assessment was quite thorough, though, in retrospect, not thorough enough.
Shit, I thought. I just knew Abigail wanted to run inside and hunt any stragglers down. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but it would be completely against my reputation to admit such a thing. Caught between conflicting desires, I temporized and said, "If there really was a conspirator, I'm sure he'd run at the first sign of trouble. That, or never be here at all."
Abigail tightened her lips but nodded all the same. Rather than attempt to argue the point, she pulled out her phone and dialed a number. "It's me. Get onto Goodkind Business and Events Services and check their records. Find out who was 'feud checking' the French Ambassador's masquerade ball and find out where they went." There was a pause. "I don't care. I have power armored police heading my way and I need this information now." Another pause, longer, an agonizing thirty seconds. "Right, right, got it.
"A Frank Grimes was appointed to validate the guest list," she told me. Someone squawked on the other end of the phone. "He didn't leave with the other Goodkind employees."
I could feel the universe closing in on me and I didn't like where it was pushing. Unfortunately, there was no choice. "It's our only lead," I said and nodded my head, channeling my best King Solomon. "Let's go." My stomach twisting, I raised my arms to cover my face and dashed back inside the hall. Abigail followed just behind.
The hall was a battleground. Debris from the smashed roof lay everywhere and figures clashed around and through it. There was a flash of movement and Jackbox appeared in front of me, a short Hispanic man wearing the remains of a tux.
"Abel!" he said, holding up both hands, just before I was going to punch him out. "They've gone crazy. Everyone's gone crazy." From the looks of things he'd moved beyond his initial 'jump in and help my teammate' reaction. That was good.
"They've been drugged," I said, eyes scanning the room. It was only a matter of time until some red flashing hero or villain charged our way. "How many people are still in their right minds?"
"Ace's High and Black Alexander are gone," said Jackbox, "but Deduce is still here. We're trying to contain the others but they're crazy!" Not quite what I asked, but it would do.
There was a roar and a pile of wooden beams burst apart. Pachyderm charged right at us, scarlet lightning leaking out his eyes even as the air around him crackled with energy.
Jackbox flicked to the left, bounced off the wall and shot back down, foot extended. He struck Pachyderm in the head and the other man went staggering back. Not bad for a guy without Superstrength, and it left the door open for me. I charged forward while the Energizer Superman was still off balance and threw a punch right at his jaw. His corona burnt my fist but it connected all the same and Pachyderm went flying.
"Jackbox," I shouted, even as I ran towards the downward stairs. "Police incoming soon. Keep these guys off us." I looked back to see him flash me a mid-air salute and then he was twisting off, heading towards Quarterhorse III. I kept moving.
Abigail and I burst down the stairs and I looked around. The place looked abandoned, overturned food carts and discarded napkins lying everywhere.
"This way," said Abigail and took the lead.
We burst through room after room. All were empty. A voice boomed from upstairs, twisted by an electronic sound system. "Stand down. Paranormal Response Police."
If the superheroes and villains above had a response, I didn't hear it. The sounds of superhuman battled continued unabated.
"We're running out of time," I said, looking around. Gray corridors stretched in all directions, lined with gurgling pipes and electrical wiring. If the police attacked and the fight went into overdrive the ceiling could well come down on our heads.
"Listen," said Abigail. She closed her eyes and turned her head from side to side. After a few seconds I heard it too, a gentle sobbing. "That way." She opened her eyes and her finger shot out. It was pointed down a side corridor. My guts twisted just looking at it, but I was committed.
We set off at a dead sprint, following the sound. It got louder every second. We turned a corner and I pointed. "There." It was the laundry room, the door open, the sound of sobbing drifting forth. We ran inside.
The man, presumably Frank Grimes, was thin, had brown hair and a slightly mousy face. He sat on a green plastic stool, face in hands. He looked up and his eyes were red.
"I-- I didn't want to do it," he said. "He made me. He has my family!"
Abigail kept her gun raised but I stepped forward. "Who?" I said. "What's happening?"
He kept his head raised, eyes filled with an almost desperate yearning. "It's almost time. I can feel it starting. If he-- If my family's okay. Tell them I love them. Tell them I'm sorry."
I grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to his feet, fingers clamping down. He showed almost no reaction. Given that I can bend steel, something was very, very wrong. "Talk to me," I said.
His eyes rolled back and his head began to loll about, rolling from side to side. He was limp in my grip. I shook him and shouted in his face. "Tell me!"
"Abel," said Abigail. Her voice had a catch to it. "Look at his hands."
I looked down. Grimes was white but no matter his race, this colour wouldn't be natural. Metallic circuitry rose up on his skin, starting at his fingertips but spreading along the backs of his hands and up his arms. It formed an interlocking pattern of impossible complexity but also contained a purity and simplicity of purpose seldom seen.
I backed away and look to Abigail. Whatever was happening, it was well beyond my experience. Any solution would need to come from her unless we resorted to brute physical violence. As it turned out, her solution was rather similar to what mine would've been. She fired.
The blue bolt of energy slammed into Grimes but washed over his body, his skin glowing with some kind of skin tight forcefield. The circuitry continued to spread and reached his head, growing up from his neck, along his cheeks and around his eyes. It formed into a spidery lightning bolt on his forehead, a jagged line. For one brief moment, Grimes's eyes regained focus. He looked at me and his lips moved. The circuitry started to glow even as he mouthed a single word, a name all superheroes knew to dread.
"Get down!" I screamed and dragged Abigail to the ground, my body on top of hers.
In that moment, the circuitry reached its final and ultimate form. Harsh lights crackled over Grimes's body. His eyes went white, then red, blood vessels rupturing. Power gathered around his head, the lightning bolt cracked in two and all that energy exploded upwards, a near infinite wave, so strong it dug gashes into the concrete ceiling and distorted the air.
Something beat against the inside of my skull but I was below the blast, only absorbing the dregs and the backscatter. Even so, the message was clear: White House. Kill. President. White House. Kill. President. It repeated a near infinite number of times in just the first second. Twice as many in the second. And so many in the third it made the first two seem like nothing. Then it ended. Grimes fell to the ground, the top of his head missing, smoke rising from his exposed brain. The circuitry was lifeless, dead. So was he.
I pushed myself to my feet and looked down. Abigail was blinking and rubbing her face. "What," she said. "What happened?" She shook her head and grabbed a pill from her utility belt, some kind of MCO superdrug most likely*. She swallowed and looked about again. Her eyes were clearer. "That was a flash imprint."
* An Aspirin if I remember correctly. Secret superdrugs are all well and good but the basics have their place too.
"Massed psychic indoctrination in an instant. It is-- It's meant to be impossible. The mind's too personal and you can't just force it to do things it wouldn't normally do, not without major psionic intervention, and that just can't be done on a large scale."
A lump of concrete smashed down from above and I pulled Abigail clear. That's when I noticed the silence. For the first time since this mess started, there was no battle.
"Oh God," I said, horror dawning over my face. I looked up. The ripped apart ceiling didn't quite reach the hall above but it didn't need to. There was only one thing which could be there. "He's got them all."
Abigail looked at me.
"He's got them all!" I said again. "The superheroes, the supervillains, the police power armor units and anyone else who's turned up. Perhaps even some of the dignitaries if they haven't gotten clear. He's turned them into mind controlled weapons."
Grimes had told me in his last moment of lucidity before the end, and I said the name now. I said the name of the man who killed Champion number five. I said the name of the man who had a body count in the millions. I said the name of the man who knocked the Chinese industrial space station out of the sky and used it to create a tidal wave which killed more people than most A-list supervillains ever did. I said the name of the man who killed the gods of our time.
|Re: Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man! [message #59875 is a reply to message #57325 ]
||Wed, 13 June 2012 18:32
Registered: August 2011
Joseph Abel, World's Bravest Man!
An Undiplomatic Affair
Abigail and I sprinted towards the stairs. She was talking on her phone while I focused on moving forward with everything I had.
"Get a message to the White House," said Abigail.
We dodged around an upturned food cart.
"I don't care. Use every emergency protocol we've got."
A steam pipe lay half broken on the ground, bellowing forth its boiling blood. Abigail leapt it and I barreled through, hands over my face. It only scolded a little.
"Deicide just set off a flash imprint. Almost every paranormal in D.C., half the police and Hell only knows how many guests are heading for the White House. They're going to try and kill the President."
The stairs came into view and Abigail climbed them only a hair slower than me.
"No! The Rage-ahol was only a part. It was just to get the police and paranormals in one place. This is the real plan. It's an assassination."
I burst into the hall, Abigail on my heels. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Broken roof beams and shattered concrete lay in great piles, and in between was the discarded detritus of the French Ambassador's masquerade ball - shattered wine flutes, spilt drink, smoldering curtains and the trampled remains of masquerade masks. I scanned an arc from one side to the other, eyes taking in the desolation. There were all the signs of battle but one: the people. There were no police, no superheroes, and no villains. Outside was almost worse. The broken shards of police barricades lay scattered on the ground, along with piles of traffic cones and reels of red tape. The blocky shape of a power armor deployment vehicle lay on its side, deployment hatches thrown open, metal body ripped apart. Even Brutimax was gone and no out of control paranormals battled in the sky. If Deicide had planned this, the Rage-ahol would have worn off just as the bomb was detonating. That way he got the maximum number of effective soldiers.
"It will take fifteen minutes for them to reach the White House from here," said Abigail, her phone down, her eyes locked to mine. "Assuming they travel as a group, slowed by their slowest members." It went without saying that some of the heroes and villains could travel that distance in seconds.
A crack of thunder split the D.C. sky and a milk-white dome crashed into existence, like a cresting wave. It blotted out a great arc of the heavens and, though I couldn't be sure, it seemed to be centered on the White House. It stood strong and impenetrable against the sky, my nation's ultimate defense of its Commander and Chief. Against the forces heading its way, I didn't give it good odds.
While I stood still, a lead weight sinking into my stomach, Abigail went back to talking on her phone. After a few seconds, she passed it to me. "They want to speak to you."
I took it, hand shaking slightly. "Hello?"
"Joseph Abel?" said the voice on the other end. "This is Agent Smith, director of White House security. We're calling you in."
"We're drafting you into the President's security detail. In the case of massed paranormal assault, plan Red Alpha calls on us to draft all available paranormal assets with a loyalty rating of one. If hostiles breach the force screen, we are not confident available forces will be able to stem the tide."
A whirlwind of responses flew through my mind. Thanks but no thanks was quickly discarded. I'd really rather go fight the mind controlled hoard head on was just untrue. In the end my mouth moved without my brain telling it to. "I have a loyalty rating of one?"
There must have been a fair amount of astonishment in my voice because Agent Smith laughed, even with the seriousness of the situation. "Yes. Ever since you rescued Senator Nelson's daughter."
As far as I was concerned, walking into a Syndicate hardsite and actually coming out with the hostage should count against me in any hypothetical loyalty matrix. It definitely would it they knew what went on inside. As it was, I put on my most humble voice and said, "I will of course do whatever the President needs of me." I even added just the right amount of loyalist resignation, as if to imply I'd much rather be in the fray. Of course, the truth was rather different. If running away wasn't an option, and with Abigail watching my every move it probably wasn't, I'd much rather be behind a military grade forcefield playing bodyguard, than in front of it, attempting to halt the unstoppable force.
"Good," said Smith. "Come to these coordinates. Someone will meet you." He rattled off the directions and I handed the phone back to Abigail.
"Go," she said. "I'll coordinate with the forces we still have available. Three MCO dropships* are on route, as are military and specialist forces. Keep the President safe for half an hour and we'll do the rest."
* While I did not know the details at the time, hindsight and access to the MCO secure archive has allowed me to identify these reinforcements as the Shield, Valiant and Trueheart, E-Type dropships assigned to the North Eastern Rapid Response Force. A much larger force was also readying in the fleet docks of New Genesis but events resolved themselves before they gained permission to enter United States' airspace.
I nodded and set off at a run, bounding over fences and around abandoned cars. Despite Abigail's optimistic words, something twisted in my gut. No way was this over yet. As was often the case when I indulged in pessimistic thoughts, I was right.
The closer I got to the White House, the larger the dome seemed to grow. It towered into the sky, a titan which cast tinted shadows over a great swath of D.C. My legs burned and the tarmac exploded under my feet as I tore towards it, but that was a problem for later. Now that I had a better grip of where I was, it was clear the forcefield covered more than just the White House. It also protected a fair section of the surrounding gardens, enough to give depth to any defense. I wasn't sure how much good it would do anyone.
Flyers swarmed around the dome, circling hornets, and energy blasts slammed into it from above and below. The smaller blasts detonated like miniature thundercracks and sent ripples skittering along the dome's surface, but the larger looked like full sized lightning bolts. They raised crashing waves on impact, great undulations in the milky white forcefield. I thought it must surely fail, but it somehow held on. I doubted that state of affairs would continue when the rest of Deicide's suborned forces arrived.
I could just hear those forces, the clatter of an army on the march. Steeling myself, I jumped forward, bounced off the roof of a parked van and caught a look. Only the front elements of the mind-controlled hoard had reached the forcefield so far. The rest were still moving along the road, a huge group of lumbering power armored figures, slowly driving vans, hulking supervillains and what could only be civilians. I hit the ground and rolled, absorbing the blow. The knowledge of what awaited me lent strength to my limbs, and I pushed forward with everything I had.
I reached my destination only a few minutes ahead of the main force. It was a section of the forcefield, shielded from view by a collection of trees. A blurred shape moved on the other side and a hole appeared, a perfect oval cut into the dome, glittering with blue light. A man in his mid-thirties stood there. He had short cropped brown hair and wore a black suit, the quintessential secret service agent. A second agent moved up beside him, and I stood still, not quite sure what I was meant to do. This one appeared younger, late twenties, and had sandy blond hair. He looked at me and his eyes were a very mutant crimson. Pins and needles played against the inside of my skull and I resisted the urge to step back.
"Clean," said the red eyed agent. "No mind control. No hostile intent." He looked both ways, scanning the outside world beyond the forcefield. "Inside, quickly." I did as instructed.
As soon as I was through, the portal closed and we headed towards the White House proper, eating the distance at a fast jog.
"I'm Agent Johnson," said the red eyed mutant. "This is Agent Williams." He motioned to the other secret service agent.
"Joseph Abel," I said, probably fairly redundantly.
"We know," said Williams, "and glad to have you. You're the only loyalty one superhero still active anywhere in the city."
"I'm the only--" I started to say but was cut off. The world shook and the sky seemed to come alive. Countless waves rushed over the dome's surface and an almost solid wall of noise beat down.
"Damn it," said Williams, shaking his head from side to side. "That's the brick-killers*. I don't know how much of that the screen can take."
* Williams is likely referring to the high caliber 'brick killing' weapons carried by the suborned police assault frame units. Such weapons are designed to blast through the Invulnerability powers possessed by many paranormals, Abel included. Unfortunately, and as these events demonstrate, such weapons can be turned back on their owners and are equally potent against standing forcefield defenses, such as those protecting the White House.
"They have Coolidge equivalents* out there," said Johnson, head scanning the parameter. "If they get inside, we'll have trouble taking them down."
* Coolidge-type power suits were the apex military models available at the time, the Roosevelts of their day. It's unlikely small arms fire would prove effective against them and even man portable artillery might struggle. One of their primary purposes was to defend Washington, D.C. against even the most powerful supervillain attack. In that task, they have proved themselves on a number of occasions but having so potent a force deployed in the Capital is not without risk.
Neither had more to say so we upped our speed and sprinted for the White House, pulling out all the stops. In my case that involved doing some quite considerable damage to the landscaped lawns, but no one saw fit to complain. This might be the White House but it was also the White House under siege.
The two secret service agents led me in through a side door, down a network of corridors and to an operations room of sorts. It was filled with people, working in an only mostly chaotic fashion towards the defense of the White House.
"Military forces are reluctant to deploy, sir," said a young black man from in front of a phone bank. "They're worried about a second flash imprint. It could make the situation worse."
"Damn it," said a second. I recognized the voice as Agent Smith's. "They're right. Do we have anyone?"
"Quartermane's Amazing Mechanical Man has joined up with the ground-zero MCO agent, sir. He wasn't affected. A few of the stronger psychics have also broken loose but they're not fit for battle. We're trying to get a unit of psi-blank troops together but they're scattered all over the country. It could be hours. MCO forces are willing to drop but if the military's right and there is another flash imprint..."
Agent Smith rubbed his forehead. He was older than I'd have guessed, late fifties or early sixties. "Tell them to hold off. Tell them--"
A second earthquake tore through the White House and the lights flickered. Someone screamed near the back of the room but most kept their feet and calm. I grabbed a table and tried to look stoic.
"Force screen integrity down," said a young man from a computer console, voice a little shrill. His black jacket was thrown over the back of his chair and his tie was pulled loose. "This is no mindless assault. They're concentrating fire." He pointed towards a bank of monitors on the far wall. The center most showed a line of police assault frames, half again man sized machines, affixed with huge guns. Around their base stood a flock of civilian figures, still in their clothes from the masked ball. I zeroed in on one face. It was the French Ambassador, mask forgotten but still dressed in only slightly torn finery. They were human shields, I realized. Politically valuable human shields. I had no doubt what the final accounting would entail. Not with the President's life on the line. But it would slow hands.
"How long 'till those frames are out of power?" I said.
"Twenty minutes," said a female voice from behind me. "But they have three deployment vehicles. They have power and ammunition stocks."
I scanned the monitors until I found the vehicles. There were three of them, large blue vans, the deployment hatches on their sides thrown open. A line of people were unloading bulky crates, probably ammo, and another set were unspooling long cables. If they got all that deployed, they could bombard the White House almost until the end of time.
"We need to take them out," said Smith, voice a hair lower than normal. "Mechanical Man, psi-blanks or missile strike. I don't care."
Movement caught my eye and I saw a miniature Brutimax rip a car off the ground and hurl it at the forcefield. It exploded into a fireball on the screen and I heard it too, a dull thunder which penetrated even to the heart of the White House. Others were there too, almost everyone from the party, superhero or supervillain, those drugged with Rage-ahol and those who'd merely been drawn into the fray. The Wind-up Energon stood with arms raised, crackling circles of power running around him, growing brighter and brighter as they contracted and wound tight. Atlas Stones was hurtling huge lumps of masonry. Permafrost was spreading energy draining black ice wherever he touched, draining the forcefield's power. The Facilitator, Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Isle of Atlas, slashed with his electro-swords. Pachyderm threw scarlet energy bolts, blasts which left the screen filled with static for seconds after. Others were there too, almost too many to count or follow, but they were all following Deicide's program: White House. Kill. President. The words echoed in my head, a ghostly chorus.
I stood still, something twisting in my stomach. The only glimmer of light was the absence of Gizmatic. He must have been outside the flash imprint range. But that didn't make the real situation any better. Despite all my experience at staying alive, I could see no way out of this situation. There was no back door to duck out of and no ally to perform a last minute rescue.
More energy blasts smashed against the forcefield, more bricks threw punches and the power armored police opened fire with small arms. It was like an army. It was an army. There was enough fire power out there, both paranormal and conventional to take on a small country. Two short figures flashed into view on the screen for a split second, before disappearing again. An explosion bloomed in their wake. That jump started my memory. "There were teleporters at the party," I said and tried to put my back against a solid wall without anyone noticing.
"The White House is protected by over ten separate teleport scramblers," said Smith. "As well as extensive psionic and mystical protections. It's why bastards have to try things like this rather than attack us directly. Mind control is all but impossible on the grounds."
That was something of a relief but only a short lived one. The assault frames fired again, a massive wave of fire which came from a dozen guns, each almost the size of an age-of-sail cannon. The ground shook under my feet, the lights flickered, then died and the computers went with them. For almost three seconds there was silence. My heart beat in my chest. I could hear the breathing of dozens of people. Then the lights came back on, and the computers with them.
There was a mad scramble as people tried to catch up on what they'd missed.
"Force screen holding but only just," said someone.
"Jets are inbound. Firing solutions in two minutes," said someone else, almost talking over the first.
"Switchboard reports calls coming in from embassy row. They want guarantees their people will be unharmed."
"MCO dropships are holding position. Power armor ready to deploy."
"Esper Command still reports no lock on Deicide. One residual pattern in Virginia and two in Maryland. We're deploying forces to investigate but--"
"Damage report! We lost generators two through four. One, five and six holding steady but the force screen is weakened. We might not survive another strike."
"Enough," said Smith and silence rolled out from his words. "Evacuation order is in effect. Johnson, Williams, Abel. Get the President to the dropship and watch out. If the force screen falls, we may have hostiles."
Johnson and Williams turned about and dashed through a door in the rear wall of the operations room. I followed and found myself in a small metal lined chamber, its only ornamentations a sofa and a low table. At the sofa sat the President, face tight but otherwise calm. A pair of secret service agents stood on either side of him.
"Mr President," said Johnson. "We need to get you too safety. There's a very real possibility that the White House may be breached."
The President nodded and rose, a briefcase clutched in his hand. Williams moved to the far wall and thrust out with both hands. An oval portal twisted into existence, the sides glowing blue. It was like someone had cut a hole in the wall, clear to the other side.
"Everyone through," he said, voice just a touch breathless. "The dropship is being prepped."
Johnson went first, gun in hand, and one of the new secret service agents followed, a slightly sickly young man with limp brown hair. Once they had established a perimeter, the President went next, crawling on his hands and knees. I was after him, with the last new agent and Williams close on my heels.
"This way," said Johnson, and started ahead. It was a narrow metal corridor, without windows or doors. "Brown, with me. Focus on hostiles. Jones, lifeguard. Abel, keep close. Williams, eyes back."
The slightly sickly young man moved to just behind Johnson, meaning he was presumably Brown. He scanned from side to side, lips moving as if he was reading something. The other newcomer, Jones, was a fairly buxom woman in her early thirties. She positioned herself next to the President and kept alert.
Behind, the hole in the wall snapped close and we started down the corridor as fast as we could. Every few seconds the lights would flicker and a peal of thunder would tear through the White House, but these were small strikes. We'd know when the police assault frames fired again.
"Danger!" shouted Brown, shadowed eyes wide. We stopped dead. Jones threw up her hands and a glimmering wall of light swept around her and the President. Then the world shook itself apart.
In an ear splitting cry, the lights died and the forcefield around the White House fell. At almost the same instant, two diminutive figures appeared in twists of lights. It was the teleporting munchkins from the ball. Now that things were marginally less chaotic, I recognized them: Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Wonderland. I dashed forward with all my speed and punched Tweedledum right across the face, not holding back at all. He went back with a sickening crack and his brother let out a scream of his own. Mind controlled or not, anyone associated with Wonderland deserved everything they got.
Tweedledee launched himself at the President but he bounced off Jones's shield, arcing lightning rolling over his body. Johnson span, gun rising, but Brown beat him to it. For a sickly fellow, he sure moved quickly. He thrust out with a hand, and Tweedledee was blown into the wall by a wave of telekinetic force, strong enough to break every bone in his body.
We stood still for a second, tense and ready, then Brown nodded. "Safe for now."
"Move," said Johnson. We did exactly that.
The corridor led to an enclosed hangar of sorts, and in it sat a stealth-black dropship, its anti-gravity engines already purring. The ramp was open and we dashed aboard.
"Go," said Johnson.
An electronic motor started to groan and the ramp climbed upwards, inch by agonizing inch. The secret service agents pushed the President into a crash couch but stayed standing themselves, guns drawn and paranormal powers ready. More from a sense of propriety than anything else, I copied them.
From the flight cabin, came two voices, the Captain and Copilot going through the pre-flight check list.
"Confirm force screen is down?"
"Confirm anti-gravity systems active?"
"Confirm energy cell levels?"
"Ninety percent. Confirm."
The ramp clicked shut and sealed with a hiss. The secret service agents dropped in to seats themselves and I did likewise. Their guns stayed drawn, though, sleek black pistols ready for use.
"Confirm defensive systems active?"
"Ready for take-off?"
With a thud of force the dropship shot into the air. The acceleration slammed me down, a dragging pull on every cell in my body, but I was superstrong, not to mention Invulnerable. It was only an annoyance to me. From the looks on the President's and agents' faces, it was a lot more than that to them.
The President had his eyes squeezed shut and teeth clamped. Jones was pushed almost flat into the lift couch, her hands opening and closing, sparks dancing from the tips. Brown looked even worse than normal, hair lying like lead against his head. Williams was just tense, every muscle held taught. Only Johnson was standing up to the force okay, mutant eyes almost shining.
After perhaps a minute of going straight up, the dropship slowed.
"Anything?" said Johnson aloud, looking towards the flight cabin.
"Nothing on radar," said a slightly shaken voice from the same direction. He paused to groan. "We've shaken off any pursuit. Overwatch* reports defensive lock."
* Overwatch was an American defensive weapons satellite, positioned in geostationary orbit over Washington, D.C., launched in 1978 and retired in late 2012. Its primary purpose was to provide ballistic missile cover for the Eastern Seaboard but, judging by this comment, it was also responsible for defending the Presidential dropship from outside attack.
"Good," said Johnson and pulled six cards from his jacket pocket, blank faces up. "Pick a card, Mr President. We need to know where to make landfall."
Just as the President was reaching out, Brown's eyes opened wide. "Danger!"
Only a split second later, the dropship rocked as if struck by Champion himself.
"Teleport scramblers down," screamed a voice from the flight cabin.
Brown's eyes opened even wider and his head snapped from side to side. "Sonics!"
Well I knew what that meant. I plastered my hands over my ears and staggered to my feet. Johnson and Williams pulled earplugs from their pockets while Jones dove for the President, conjuring up her forcefield as she did.
There was a second tremor and a figure snapped into view. Smoke and steam poured from a tattered set of brown robes, and the bottom half of his left arm was just gone, a blackened stump, ending where the elbow should be. The figure looked down at his missing arm, then up again. I met his eyes. They were small and insane. The face around them could best be described as Albert Einstein on meth. Deicide.
Deicide dropped a small devise from his one good hand and it hung in the air, impossible colors flaring about it. An almost solid wave of noise beat out and even with my ears covered, my guts twisted and I fell to the ground, equilibrium shot to hell. It felt like my stomach was crawling up my throat and I wasn't the only one. Williams was almost convulsing on the ground, hands locked around his head, and Johnson was only just still moving, arms shaking as he tried to raise his gun. Going by the sounds from the flight deck, the pilot and copilot were having an even worse time of it. Jones and the President were still locked behind a wall of light and that left only Brown. He'd fallen to one knee but struck out as I watched, one hand leaving his head to spear forward. The floating devise exploded in a shower of sparks and the sonics ended.
Johnson attacked with almost supernatural speed. His gun swept up and he fired again and again, tracing a line of bullets up Deicide's center of mass. Williams was only a hair slower and then he was firing too, still prone on the ground but shooting for all he was worth. At this range every bullet was on target, every shot perfectly placed, but not one hit. The storm of lead hung an inch clear of Deicide's smoking clothes, trapped by some defensive devise. Brown stabbed out with a telekinetic strike but it too failed. I shook off the last of the sonics effects and looked for an opening. One wrong move could kill me. This was Deicide, for God's sake.
When it became clear bullets weren't working, Johnson tossed his gun aside and jump towards Deicide, a knife in his hand. A high-pitched hum filled the cabin and the blade blurred.
"Johnson," said Deicide, as he blocked the strike, the motion jerking and stilted. "Mutant. Exemplar and telepath. Expert in the detection of mental tampering and hostile intent." He drove a palm strike right into Johnson's chest, knocking him back.
I knew an opening when I saw one and so did the other agents. Williams and I both attacked at the same time, while Brown telekinetically ripped an acceleration couch from its moorings and sent it flying at Deicide.
"Williams," said Deicide as he caught the man's blow. "Internalized Power Gem." He swung Williams around, using his body to deflect the incoming couch. Both couch and secret service agent slammed into me and we all went tumbling back, a tangled mess. "Able to create temporary pathways through solid objects."
While I staggered to my feet, Deicide turned his attention on Brown.
"Brown," he said. "Mutant. Package Deal Psychic." Brown struck out with another telekinetic strike, aimed directly at Deicide. The air in front of the super villain boiled but he did not move. "Esper Danger Sense verging on precognition and powerful ranged telekinetic. Negligible telepathic gifts." Deicide raised his one remaining hand, middle finger extended, but before he could do anything both Johnson and I jumped him again. Deicide whirled to face me and a golden blast of energy shot from his finger, erupting from some kind of glove-mounted emitter. It slammed into my chest and I fell back, invisible flames burning my body. The pain grew worse with every passing second and by the time I hit the ground clawing fingernails raked across my skin, burning needles skewered my heart and my blood seemed to boil. It all happened at once and even the time between heartbeats seemed an eternity.
"Not your game!" screamed Deicide but by that time Johnson was on his back, trying for a chokehold. The secret service agent dragged at Deicide's neck, all his weight pulling back on his arm, but it did no good. Deicide made a strange motion with his hand and a wave of force washed out. It ripped Johnson clear and knocked me back, a limp form still near-paralyzed from the pain.
Even when I came to rest, I was in no fit state to stand up, let alone fight. Just breathing took all my effort, each movement of my lungs a contest I needed to win. Deicide swung back towards Brown and jabbed out with his finger, the golden beam tearing forth, but Brown threw himself to the side. He came up, gun in hand, and fired. The bullet shot forward and passed over Deicide's shoulder but it wasn't aimed at the mad devisor. It struck a levitating fire extinguisher and the pressurized cylinder exploded in a cloud of foam and high speed metal.
Deicide was blown forward and Brown went back, red spreading out on his white shirt. Something hard and sharp slashed into my back but that was one thing I didn't need to worry about. For a single second it looked like we might have won but that was probably wishful thinking of the most foolish kind. Deicide pushed himself to his feet, using his one good hand. I tried to do the same but only got to my knees, my chest still burning from the golden beam.
"Joseph Abel," said Deicide, staring down at me with his insane eyes. "Origin. Superior strength and resistance to damage."
"Never been proved, bastard*," I said, the words slurred.
* Abel is probably referring to Deicide's assertion that he is an Origin hero. While it is true that this has never been conclusively proven, an Origin Event remains the best explanation for his abilities, matching Abel's story as related in this Archive, media reports at the time and the nature of his paranormal powers.
Deicide showed no reaction to my words. He just looked down at me and said, "Anomaly. Should not be here."
"I have that way with people," I said, voice a bit more confident. The burning was leaving my chest but left a painful hollowness in its wake. It was still better than the nails of pain and boiling blood. Anything and everything was better than that.
Deicide raised his finger and I tried to throw myself clear but my limbs were still weak. The golden beam slammed into my side and I screamed, screamed as the worst pain I'd ever felt tried to tear me apart. I don't know how long it lasted. It seemed like forever to me. But after the universe had lived and died a hundred times the pain dimmed and the real world returned, a dull shadow I could only just comprehend.
"Jones," came the voice of Deicide, and his twisted tones sent my body shuddering with phantom pains. "Dyna-Host. Ability to project powerful forcefields." There was a snapping hiss, a flash of light and a female scream.
"You'll-- You'll not get away with this," said the President, voice panicked but still firm.
Deicide ignored him. "President of the United States of America," he said. "Base-line. Possesses access to the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons."
"If you kill me, you'll be the most wanted man alive," said the President. "The United States won't rest until you're dead."
Once more Deicide forwent a response. A pulsing noise filled the cabin and strange lights played along the floor, similar to the sonic weapon but without its debilitating effects. "Russia was responsible for this attack," said Deicide, voice meshing with the noise in obscene harmony. "You will order an immediate nuclear response."
"Russia..." said the President, voice slurred.
"Russia was responsible for this attack," repeated Deicide, voice a hair more forceful. "You will order an immediate nuclear response."
"Russia was responsible for..."
My blood went cold, even as the flames of residual pain still burnt at my body. The goal had never been to kill the President, I realized. That made no sense. Deicide could have as easily teleported a bomb on board the dropship as come himself, more easily in fact. What had Agent Smith told me? Mind control was impossible in the White House. That was the point: to get the President here, a place with few guards, no reinforcements and without the protections which guarded the White House. The feud checking, the Rage-ahol, the flash imprint, the massed attack... None of that was the point. It had all been a lead up to this moment. This wasn't an assassination of one man. It was the start of a nuclear war.
I staggered to my feet and squinted my eyes, trying to bring the world into focus. Jones lay limp on the ground, her hands covered in burns. On the acceleration couch sat the President and above him stood Deicide. Preternatural light played over the scene, and it came from an oddly shaped cube clutched in the madman's hand. The President looked almost lost in its depths.
"Russia was responsible for this attack," said Deicide again, and the cube pulsed in time with his words, its near infinite interior twisting. "You will order an immediate nuclear response."
"Russia was responsible for the attack," said the President, voice more certain now. "I will order... I will order..."
I half ran, half fell forward and threw a punch, but it slammed into an invisible barrier feet from my target. Ripples ran along suddenly solid air, sketching out a cylindrical forcefield around Deicide and the President. This was why he'd use non-lethal weapons, I thought. Protected by the forcefield, Deicide could work at his leisure. When done, he could turn his attention back to me and the secret service agents. He might even intend to turn his mind-control devise on us next*. Too bad Deicide hadn't planned on me being here.
* A very real possibility. The United States, like most WMD wielding powers, has security measures in place to make it difficult for mind controlled military officers or officials to order attacks. Having the secret service agents, including a psychic specializing in the detection of mental manipulation, support the President's order would go a long way to furthering Deicide's omnicidal plan.
Deicide looked up from the President and glared down at me, just as I slammed a blow into his forcefield, all my strength behind it. The dropship shook from the force and waves crashed over the cylinder. I waited a moment, judging my time, then struck again. Electricity burned my fist but it was worth it. The waves grew wilder, constructive interference building, and I punched out a third time almost immediately. The forcefield broke in a bark of sound, sparks shooting from a small devise at Deicide's belt, and I charged forward.
"Not your game!" shouted Deicide as he ran to meet me, wild rage on his face.
He threw a punch and I only just blocked, the blow driving me back a step all the same. Either Deicide had some kind of hitherto unrevealed Superstrength or he was wearing light power armor below his burnt and still smoking robes. He attacked again, his body moving in odd jerks, but this time he swung with his other arm, the limb destroyed by the teleport. The motion threw him completely off balance and he staggered passed me. Not one to waste an opportunity, I slammed a blow into his back with all my strength. My arm hit something hard, metal or ceramic, and Deicide crashed into the floor. The strike would've killed an ordinary man, reduced his spine and back to a fine paste, but Deicide was anything but ordinary.
He flipped around, the motion made up of sudden stops and starts, and struck out, a golden beam erupting from his leading finger. My heart froze, a painful smack in my chest, but I dodged at the last moment and dove for him, grabbing his extended limb to keep it pointed away from me. The beam exploded in a shower of sparks against the ceiling, and Deicide tried to drag it down using main force. It took every ounce of my strength to stop him, my whole body straining, which should've been impossible. Not even a full sized suit of superhero grade power armor could match my strength and definitely not whatever cut down version was in play here. But this was Deicide, one of the most powerful Devisors in the world and definitely the most insane. He broke the rules.
His fingers danced, the golden beam stopped and a wave of force ripped me free. It knocked the President from his seat and sent Jones's body spinning across the ground. I threw myself upright, the motion leaving a dent in the deck plating, and darted close.
Deicide's head wasn't armored so that's what I struck for, a powerful right hook. He dodged the blow and almost spat at me, lips wet with foam. For a moment I thought he was going to try and tear me apart with his bare hands (or rather hand), but he gathered himself and jabbed out with his finger, the golden beam stabbing forth. I almost froze at the sight of it, phantom pains and memories unbidden running through my head, but recovered just in time. I sidestepped and the beam shot passed, so close it sent an electric chill down my arm. Deicide drew his hand to the side, trying to slash the beam into me, but I was faster and leapt forward, superjumping with all my strength.
My legs burned as I almost flew towards him, and I grabbed Deicide in a bear hug. We slammed into the far wall, a chaotic tangle of limbs, and I did everything in my power to keep him down. If Deicide won, it would be nuclear war. Countless millions would die from the panic alone. When the Devisor, Gadgeteer and Science Hero warheads detonated, it could end all life on Earth. Since I was classified as life on Earth under any definition you cared to name, I was strongly motivated. Unfortunately, this was Deicide. One of only a handful of people ever to kill a Champion. Motivated was not enough.
He got a leg under my chest and kicked out. I tried to hold on, one hand gripping a wall fitting, but it broke under my grip and I was shoved back. Then the hole opened behind Deicide, clear through the hull and lined an electric blue.
Air rushed out, yanking at my hair and black-tie suit, and it pulled me a step forward before I could anchor myself. If I'd been in Deicide's place, there's no doubt in my mind I would've been sucked right out, but Deicide was many things I was not. He jumped clear, body contorting, and landed on solid ground. The hole vanished as quickly as it came and I risked a quick look. Secret Service Agent Williams was on his feet if only just, one hand outstretched.
Deicide glared at Williams, the same look of barely contained rage he'd worn when I'd interrupted his plans. An idea formed in my head. Years later, people would call it one of my most heroic deeds. I call it not dying in a nuclear inferno.
"Make a hole behind him!" I yelled as I charged forward. Williams obeyed. If he'd stopped to ask why or even to think, the world could've ended that day. Thankfully he was well trained. The hole bloomed to life, a blue lined oval cutting through hardened armor and everything else. The dropship shuddered and jerked as pressure once more worked its deadly magic. I slammed into Deicide, all my superhuman strength powering the motion, and we both shot out through the hole.
Bravery? No. This was simple logic. A nuclear war would definitely kill me. A fall from this height only probably would.
Deicide and I fell through the sky, air battering our bodies. We were locked in a contest of strength. He screamed, mouth open, but the wind stole the words. I punched him as hard as I could, which wasn't very without ground under my feet.
The dropship was a rapidly diminishing dot in the dark sky. Something was stealing the breath from my lungs. Deicide tried to blast me with his golden beam but the shot went wide. The world spun. Everything was happening at once.
The Earth was getting bigger beneath us. The dropship had never reached orbit, not even close, but it had been high all the same. That was a long way to fall.
Deicide screamed again and I heard part of it this time. His fingers curled into a shape, little finger and thumb touching, and our descent slowed, the force of it almost jerking him free of my grip. The air around us danced, played with by energies I couldn't even begin to comprehend*. He tried to claw my face but I got a hand around his wrist, and, since I had the advantage, head-butted him in the face. He reeled back, blood streaming for his nose. If I'd had just a little more leverage, I could have ended him there, but that was not to be.
* Probably a fairly simple, if wide area, Tesla-type force repulse or devisor variant, similar to the engines used to propel dropships.
His fingers danced and a wave of force ripped at me, trying to tear me loose, but I held on. It battered against my face, the blows only a dull pressure thanks to my Invulnerability. That did little to help my clothes, though, and my jacket was torn to shreds, dragged from my body by a force only a hair less powerful than me. It was like hanging from a ledge. The wave was a second gravity only ten times as strong, pulling me at sharp right angles to the first. I lost my grip on his arm and repositioned it around his waist, holding on for dear life. Around us, the air still danced as he slowed our descent and that was the only thing that mattered right then.
Deicide slammed a blow into my face, made impossibly strong by the power suit he was wearing. It shook my bones but I was well anchored. He did it again and again, and I just concentrated on keeping my arms in place. With a scream, he drew back a jerking hand and pointed his finger right at me, golden light spilling from the tip. Images of pain filled my mind, of boiling blood and red hot needles touching my organs. My arms wavered and that was all he needed. The force wave ripped me free, the golden beam shot through where my head had been and I went spinning away. Once out of the bubbling air, gravity took its full hold again and dragged me towards the ground. Deicide, the cheating bastard that he was, seemed to shoot into the air.
My heart beat hard and blood pounded in my ears. The ground was close now. Too close. I looked down and could see buildings and fields and trees. I was going to hit any second.
I spread out my body, trying to maximize my drag. Human terminal velocity was only about one hundred miles per hour*. That wasn't so much. I was regularly hit by things going much faster than that. Still, with the ground filling my vision, that was a small comfort.
* Between 117 and 125 mph, to be exact, assuming a deliberately large area is turned towards the ground as Abel did. Whether Abel reached this speed, however, remains uncertain. Depending on his altitude when he broke free of Deicide and how efficient the anti-gravity device was, he could have still been accelerating on impact, and almost certainly was at this point.
Green filled everything. I could see individual trees. To my fear charged mind, even the leaves seemed visible. It was all coming up too fast. There was no way I could survive this. It was impossible. People just didn't survive jumping out of planes without a parachute, not unless they could fly under their own power, and I'd jumped from higher than that. God damn it, I'd jumped from an anti-gravity dropship designed to get the President of the United States the hell out of Dodge!
I shifted position, bringing my legs down, and bent my knees, just as if I was coming down from a high but not suicidal jump. The ground was just below. Twenty meters. Ten. Five. I tried not to tense. I tried really hard not to tense. I hit.
The earth slammed into me, my legs taking as much of the impact as they could. I went tumbling forward, rolled, hit again and came to a grinding halt. Behind me stretched a huge ripped apart swath of land, upturned grass and torn apart mud. Pain filled my limbs and chest but I was alive. I laughed aloud, laughed because I'd just done the impossible. I was alive. It was too bad I could barely move.
As I have remarked before, Abel tends to end his writing when he is out of immediate personal danger. While this does keep his archive short and precise, it means many key details are omitted, and the reader lacks a full picture of events. I have taken it upon myself to provide this additional information.
Following his plunge from high altitude, Abel was recovered by elements of the United States' government, who had been tracking the progress of the President's dropship. He was treated for two broken legs, one broken arm and several cracked ribs, probably the worst injuries he ever received during his career from purely blunt force trauma. Once contact with the President was re-established and the full story became known, he was given a hero's welcome, culminating in his award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom the following July. He accepted with his standard understated humility.
The President's dropship made landfall at a military facility I am choosing not to name, even under the protection afforded by a Class 2 restricted access certificate. He was examined by army doctors and freed from any lingering psychic effects, which were minor thanks to Abel's early intervention. The secret service agents were less fortunate. Agent Brown died of his wounds before he could be brought to a suitable hospital facility, the fire extinguisher he detonated having caused large scale internal bleeding and damage. Jones retired following the incident. Whatever method Deicide used to breach her forcefield left her powers damaged and caused them to grow increasingly erratic. In mid two thousand and one, her Dynamorph was removed for her own health. Johnson and Williams were able to return to duty following medical leave, as were the dropship's pilot and copilot.
In Washington, D.C. the situation also grew grave. With the White House's force screen breached, the suborned police and paranormal forces attacked on mass. With the situation rapidly deteriorating, MCO forces were deployed and elements of the United States army advanced from the rear, both paranormal, mechanized and power suited infantry. Fast moving MCO strike teams concentrated on aiding in the evacuation of White House personnel and the retrieval of key diplomats. A number of casualties were sustained during this stage of the operation, on both sides. See file #1000688 for a full listing.
Once this goal was accomplished, active forces were pulled back and a siege instigated. With limited ammunition and failing batteries, the suborned police power armor and assault frame units were soon rendered useless, without a shot fired. This left only the paranormal forces, and they seemed willing to camp in the White House premises indefinitely. Such a state could not be allowed to continue, however. The official MCO position called for a hard, armored push, supported by brick-grade capture weapons (paste-guns, capture foam, electrified nets etc.), but I make no secret of the fact that I disagree with this course of action.
In the end, the situation was resolved by the deployment of significant psionic assets. Military and superhero community psychics, supported by MCO base-line equivalents, were able to undo Deicide's programing on mass. I am told that though the flash imprint was very powerful, its standardized nature also made it simple to detect, isolate and remove. After receiving medical attention, all but a small minority of the affected persons made a full recovery. Finally and despite persistent rumors to the contrary, I can categorically deny that a secondary force of mystics was also used. While it was considered, a purely psionic response was considered the optimum solution given the nature of the problem.
Deicide was not captured in the aftermath of this incident and he continues at large to this day. The reward for information leading to his capture or death currently stands at $100 million. His part in this affair became public out of political necessity and it greatly added to his infamy, although the public at large continues to believe both the assault on the White House and the subsequent battle in the dropship were part of an assassination plot, not an attempt to start a nuclear war.
Additionally, several elements of his plot only came to light during the detailed follow up investigations and I will relate them here:
First, forensic accounting and psychometric investigation revealed the presence of an paranormal mercenary at the Masquerade Ball by the name of Tindalos. Since he was not on the guest list, it is commonly assumed he was employed by Deicide to deploy the Rage-ahol patches. I have my reservations but it remains the most likely explanation.
Second, postmortem and genetic analysis on the body of Frank Grimes, the unfortunate soul used as a living bomb by Deicide, revealed the presence of several genetic markers commonly linked to abnormal psi-trait development. While it is unknown if Grimes ever manifested psionic abilities, it is strongly suspected that they were the core Deicide built his flash imprint devise around. Upon this discovery, all genetic material was destroyed and a careful watch is kept for the emergence of any clones. Deadly force has been pre- authorized in all such cases.
Third, Grimes' family was found in a facility in eastern Virginia. While his daughter was unharmed, his wife was killed during an armed police raid. Due to the confusion caused by an extensive robotic security system, which had engaged the police with lethal force during the raid, the shooting was ruled an accident.
Fourth, technological forensic analysis by MCO personnel, military investigators and Federal Law Enforcement officers at this and two other facilities (located in Maryland) discovered the presence of a triangulated set of teleportation stabilizers. These devises allowed Deicide to overcome the scramblers built into the President's dropship and teleport aboard, a feat made possible due to the purely vertical nature of the dropship's initial exit route. Presidential security protocols were changed in the wake of this event to make such an attack impossible a second time.
As a final note, I will digress slightly and relate the fate of Black Alexander. Following his assault on Gizmatic, he was found severely beaten two days later in one of D.C.'s more disreputable areas. Due to Gizmatic's reluctance to return to the United States to testify and the widespread use of Rage-ahol at the ball, no charges were brought for his actions. The true fate of Queen of Hearts was never determined but Black Alexander remained convinced of Gizmatic's involvement. During the summer of 2017, while the world's eyes were on the unfolding disaster on the Isle of Atlas (see elsewhere in this archive for Abel's part in these events), Black Alexander attempted to infiltrate Karedonia. While we may never know his true motives, I believe he intended to find out the truth and, most likely, dispense what he believed to be justice. While he was more successful than most, making it passed the border guard stations and to the island's interior, he was eventually caught by Gizmatic's robotic security forces and executed. At least a measure of his blood lies on Deicide's hands.
[Updated on: Sat, 24 November 2012 19:17]
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