War of the Dimensions
Written for the the anniversary of my supergroup in Champions Online, a Champions/Mutants and Masterminds crossover! "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" (the quoted poem) is by Wilfred Owen.
He was given to soliloquy, that one. Monologues, in the modern parlance. Yet who can blame him? Ancient beyond reason, born in the rage of the first sapient who hurled a stone at his brother, the Warmonger clove the final dimensional wall with the last of many strokes from his mighty axe, and beheld the great jewel beneath him, blue and white and a-buzzing with industry. He inhaled sharply, felt its life and bustle, and the scent of conflict was attar in his nostrils, attar and blood. The world, like most good worlds, was a sacrificial altar. For who did not worship war, who did not lust for its flames, the brace of its barbaric scents?
“I am arrived,” the Warmonger proclaimed, the earth spread beneath him. Revelling in what was to come, he quoted a poem, his deep voice booming the words as cannonfire:
“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
“A charming story,” the newcomer said, appearing into view. Cables grew out his arms and shoulders, highlighting a skullish face, held in crystal.
“It was not intended as such, but I find it so. I love all charnal grounds,” the Warmonger said. “Now who are you?”
“I am Omega. I am the end of all things, the death of light, the ruin of time, the final despair. I am the ebbing of the fading flame, hope’s last ruin. It was I who brought you hither, so you may play with this world as you wilt.”
“An unexpected generosity,” the Warmonger said. The man stank of death, which he enjoyed, and ruin, which was less attractive. He beheld a stillness in the other, which did not interest him. “I assume that you desire the world at war?”
“No,” Omega hissed. “I desire dust! Dust! A world of dust,” Omega said. “Ere the Doom-Coil constricts it, and pulls it to its final fate. I await the fading scream, and the everlasting dark. But there is still time for your sport, ere its terminus, and you might be of mighty assistance. For what is mightier than the impulse that sends the lambs to the slaughterhouse? Do you not crave their braying, their blood? To this end, I make a gift of this world to you."
But finality is my enemy, the Warmonger thought, though he kept his observation hidden. I desire blood and tumult; silence and the grave matters not, it is an anathema: in stillness there is no strife, save the war of the worms. But the Warmonger hid his thoughts. There would be time to wage that war later. Best now to enjoy the banquet laid before him.
“Ray?” Centuria asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Thunderbolt said, feeling the energy bleed very slightly out of him. They’d repair the suit before he was endangered by the energy loss, but his psyche? Disappointment Is a more grievous wound than a suit breach. Ray Gardener Jr. was used to disappointment, the feeling, time after time, that the football of the world had been pulled from him, gleefully, by Dr. Stratos, and by fate itself. He was the son of a superhero, used as a weapon by an arch-villain to bring down his father, the famous Captain Thunder. Thunder’s powers had transferred to Ray, but instead of killing him (as the villain intended), they transformed him, and Ray became the Living Lightning, Thunderbolt. All it had cost him was his physical form. All it had cost him was his father’s career. All it cost him was his life.
He had tried over and over again to restore his physical form, and today he had failed. Again.
“Ray?” the golden-haired girl asked again.
“I don’t want to talk about it!!” His voice would have been louder this time, if he had a throat.
He was using his back-up voice box, which made his words sound even harsher than his more nuanced primary speech synthesizer. Centuria nodded, and accelerated away from him, sighing. Ray sighed as well. Ray, he thought, you are a first-class, asinine, jerkwad of a superhero! Kate Leeds is easily the best thing in my life, and here I am blowing it! Why did being a sullen twit come so naturally?
“Ray, you’re doing it again.” Centuria snapped. “Stop shutting us out. Stop shutting me out. We’re not going to try to help you forever.”
Ray just shook his head. A hiss issued from his helmet, sounding like static. So much of him wanted to hold her, tell her how he felt. She was his kindred spirit. But not today, not after tantrum #68. And he knew if he tried to hold her, he would feel nothing. Ray was just a genie in a humanoid bottle. And when you’re not matter – nothing matters.
“Heads up, people!” Daedalus shouted, calling them to attention. “The day’s not over! Doc’s spotted another dimensional breach at three o’clock.”
All eyes turned to a crack in the sky, like a thunderbolt that did not fade, but which remained in place. The forked lightning of a dimension storm. Out of the void hurtled a winged figure, its limbs blotting the sky, black, beautiful and reptilian.
“Is that a dragon? A fricking dragon?” Johnny Rocket shouted on first sight.
“Wow,” Lady Liberty gasped.
The dragon caught sight of them. Nimbly it swooped to greet them, a black knight sitting on his back. As they drew closer, it hurt to look at them.
“Stand down until we know his intent,” Thunderbolt said. Though the figures irritated him, even looking upon them. Dimensional intrusion, the scientist in Ray told him. Dimensional signature is on an opposing wavelength. Centuria had grated too, when she first came to this world, but not nearly to the same extent.
”I am Sir Gilles de Morphant,” the knight who rode atop the dragon proclaimed. The knight's voice was like razor blades against their skin. Black was his livery and a crow sat upon his shoulder, and his accent was thick and thoroughly French. “I am pledged in service, at least for today, to the Warmonger, Le Belliciste, Le Maître de Gueule Cassée, and let all who oppose me tremble! He has set me aflame, and the earth shall burn! I spit upon mercy and bring death as my gift! Kneel peasants and lowborn, and accept his majesty!”
“Who the blazes is “Warmonger”?” Ray asked.
“Like a Fishmonger, I guess.” Johnny Rocket replied. “But I don’t like what he’s selling.”
“This guy makes my skin crawl.” Bowman added. “Like someone from Anti-Earth, but a million times creepier.” Anti-Earth, of course, being the world from which their evil opposites originated.
“The dragon is mine!” Centuria declared with a shout, rolling her fists into tight balls of fury.
“He calls himself a knight?” Star Knight, a woman in futuristic armor scoffed. “Really?”
“Don’t get cocky!” Johnny Rocket said. “That’s my job! Okay, Freedom League. Let’s show Brave Sir Robin here our version of a good old-fashioned peasant’s uprising!”
“Oh yes,” Lady Liberty said, telling herself it was time to get all 1776 on the black knight’s plated butt!
“It’s the Warmonger, Craig.” Defender said. “He’s back.”
Craig Carson sighed. It had already been a long day, battling VIPER and their latest atrocity, a serpentine abomination they called Ultimate Snake. It had been a tough fight, the big battles always were. Damn giant robot, VIPER’s answer to the Midgard serpent of myth. The Canadian superhero, recently ascended to the leadership of his team, placed his huge palms on the slick glass table, threatening to crack it under his weight, oblivious by his concentration. He stared at the blood-red skinned giant and would not relent. To even look upon him from afar was to invite strife, conflict. “I thought we got rid of the bastard six years ago,” he growled. “He agreed to stay away for five centuries.”
“He’s back,” Defender repeated. “And remember, six years ago, we never beat him. We never even touched him. We amused him. We fought his heralds. And he just sat back and watched and grinned the whole time.”
“Like we were the butt of a cosmic joke,” Craig said, not taking his eyes off the screen. “Or his favorite spectator sport.”
“He feeds off conflict, right?” Kinetik asked. The young speedster looked back and forth between the screen and the acutely concentrating Canadian.
“Yes. And he enjoys it too.” Defender said, remembering the doomsday weapon he left behind, which he helped disarm. A planetary madness bomb, which would have driven the entire population of Earth insane – and stirred them to violence. They had come so close to absolute ruin that day.
“What’s his current location?” Craig asked. “Another war-torn third world hellhole? The gods of war always love a civil war, the more inhuman the better…”
Defender pushed a few buttons on the display, and the HUD shifted, the hologram slowly rotating as data flashed over it. “He opened a portal and vanished just above the ionosphere.” Defender informed him. “So technically he’s not violating his agreement not to return to earth. Of course, his portal might be used by others….”
Craig sighed. He had visited many alternate timelines, met many versions of himself – and almost all them were fascist jerks, who fit quite splendidly in the worlds they lived in. The quiet beep of the electronics, reflected, flashed over his solid form. He was a study of stillness, resolve. His blue eyes were a glaze, but a glaze of fire.
“Am I to go alone?” the Canadian asked.
“Well, the mission is just going to be a sortie. A scouting mission. Until we learn what he’s up to.” Defender said, his gaze also fixed on the screen.
“And we learn the identity of the players,” Witchcraft added.
“As if we need to face more than a ten-billion-year-old cosmic god with an axe that can split this planet.” Nighthawk said.
“Uh huh. All the players. We’ll be ready to join you, once we get a signal. Though there may be a bit of a delay. We've gauged the time differential at about 12 to 1.”
"Twelve days there equals one day here. Gotcha." Thundrax said.
"We call it the Narnia effect." Defender affirmed. “But you’d be the only one on this little road trip, at least at first. After all, you’re used to dimension hopping. You’re our best shot.”
”You’ve also survived a lot more.” Witchcraft said. “Face it, Craig, you even lasted a few minutes in the Q. The real Q. After that everything else is child’s play.”
“When the children play rough,” Nighthawk said. He didn’t approve of sending Thundrax on the mission. It should have been one of them.
Craig Carson looked up to the screen and examined it, trapped between irritation and wonder. There was always a danger of being trapped in a hostile dimension. Heck, that was probably the least of the dangers! The brawny Canadian, second tallest man in the room, carefully considered his options. Even if Defender’s word wasn’t impeccable, he’d still go. “We’ll need a force on this side of the portal. Someone to stay behind and take care of stragglers.”
“I’ve thought of that,” Defender said. “Though you won’t like our candidate.”
“Villain, I take it?” Craig asked.
“The worst.” Defender said.
Defender could only be talking about one man. A villain who had a deeply troubled history with Craig, a man of supreme power – who absolutely could not be trusted. But he’d leave that dilemma for Defender --- the less he had to deal with him, the better. The probable candidate could do the job, if he was willing. But Craig had his work cut out for him, big time.
“Guess I’d better pack for a road trip.” Craig Carson said.
“Stupid dragon!” Centuria shouted, as the beast ignored her best punch and snapped back at her, black fangs glistening. “Why won’t you fall?!”
“Stupid? Ce n'est pas ainsi! Malys is a highly intelligent creature! Reptilian, devoid of emotions, and burning with the flames of war! Il avons mange du lion! Just like his celebrated master!” Black Paladin declared.
“No, he’s stupid!” Centuria snarled. “Just like you!”
“Tiresome child. Such little intelligence for one so powerful,” Sir Gilles sneered, and the knight vanished, reappearing in a flash behind Centuria. She was clearly the most dangerous of this League, but he could tame her impetuous youth, or so he thought. War and impiety burned in the villain’s bones. He was a weapon. “Time to remove you from the battlefield… what?!”
With a shout, Thunderbolt charged the knight, overwhelming him with brute force and – though he dared not admit it – rage. They tumbled on the ground, and then both vanished in a spasm of the Paladin’s darkness. The Paladin had just drawn his sword.
“Ray!” Centuria shouted, and she was sent hurtling by a flicker of Malys’s wings. Daedalus cried out and covered her recovery with a rocket barrage, while Star Knight slashed at its head, his energy saber gleaming as it cast reflections from his pitch-black skull. Meanwhile Ray, tumbling with the black knight, found himself reappearing some distance away. So, the villain could teleport!
“I would have finished the girl,” Sir Gilles said, sword raised. He was holding it like a saber, as if he were fencing. “But this is a more chivalrous combat.”
“Centuria would’ve knocked your block off,” Ray intoned. “Looks like that’s my job now!”
“You will fail, child.” the Black Paladin said. “You will fall.”
“The Hell I will.” Thunderbolt snarled. "And I'm a little old for this "child" BS!"
Screaming, the two men clashed. In a roar of thunder, Ray slammed the armored figure, a heavy blow impacting with a solid metal fist. But the knight was unfazed, and laughing, he reappeared in an anti-flash behind the Freedom Leaguer, and impaled his armor with a sudden sword thrust. The Paladin gave it a sadistic, satisfying twist. Ray screamed.
“A mighty blow.” The Paladin said, savoring the moment. “How mighty will your next one be, after I have drained your soul…” With that, he attempted to channel the hero’s lifeforce – and was stopped in his tracks. He felt nothing from Ray, no soul, no intake of energy. The gash in Thunderbolt’s armor sputtered and spasmed furiously, discharging sparks, but there was no blood. Not a gusher, not a pint, not even a drop. “What—“ the Paladin gasped.
Ray weakened as his energy escaped, and he fell to one knee. “Guess there’s no soul for you to steal,” he gasped, his voicebox rasping the words. “Energy form, chump. No soul to leech off.”
Sir Gilles growled and, in a spasm of darkness, the Black Paladin again teleported above him. He drew his mace, and held it aloft.
“Ca me soûle! Then I will have to settle for your life, monsieur,” Black Paladin said as he brought the mace down, and then he shrieked as a lightning charged hand hit him from behind.
“Dad?” Ray asked, his vision blurred, as a red gauntlet bound hand reached down to him and offered to pull him to his feet.
“No, just a Good Samaritan from another dimension.” Thundrax answered, and he pulled Thunderbolt to his feet. If he knew the young man’s name, the mighty Canuck might have smiled. Or thought it confusing. Or both.
“Connard!” Black Paladin snarled, recognizing a man with whom he had clashed many times over the years. Theirs was the bitterest of emnities. During their last fight, with uncharacteristic brutality, Craig had consigned the Paladin to the torments of Hell. There was not a death that was slow or painful enough for the man! “The Warmonger has made me twice as powerful as when last we faced.” The knight boasted, savoring the brutality to come.
But Thundrax only laughed, laughter tinged with bitterness, and he gathered the storm around him. “What a coincidence,” the hero snapped. “I’ve been boosted too! A little more than double our last meeting. To quote my friend Chivalry, “have at thee, villain!”
“I cannot think of a higher pleasure. Or a more worthless dog in whose name to smite!” Paladin snarled, cursing the name of Craig’s friend and occasional teammate, and the two men did a dance of dueling teleports, vanishing before either could land a blow, reappearing only to find the opponent vanished, again and again. But then, focusing on Thundrax, the Paladin got careless. He forgot about Ray. The Liberty Leaguer thrust a hand into the Paladin’s back, charged with lightning. Thundrax, appearing out of nowhere and slammed Sir Gilles in the front. The two lightning attacks resonated, surrounding Sir Gilles in a globe of electricity many times their normal strength. Sir Gilles shrieked and finally fell to the ground.
“Can we cook, or can we cook?” Craig smirked. “Thanks, mister.”
And then Thunderbolt cried out and tackled Craig.
The surprised hero startled, going from “dad?” to mortal enemy in less than a minute. But Craig refused to struggle against Ray, lifting his hands into a defensive position. “Please listen,” the Canadian paragon said. “What you’re experiencing is the resonance between dimensions. My vibrational frequency is way out of synch with yours, and on top of that, you’re been hurt. The discord field is really strong, making me appear like an enemy.” The scientist in Ray attempted to filter his words, ignore his feelings and make sense of them. “I’m registering to you as the most annoying man who ever lived. Nails on a chalkboard. The field does that. It’s why superheroes from different universes always tend to fight so damned often on first contact. It’ll take time to adjust, but you can do it. In the meantime, I’m going to do something no superhero in those stories would ever do. I surrender. I’m your prisoner.”
“You need to shut up,” Ray snapped.
“Not going to happen,” Thundrax laughed. “I’m a talker. The only time I shut up is at social galas. I hate parties.” He held up his hands, he looked into Ray’s faceplate. He could sense the intricate dance of energies behind the mask. They called Ray “the living lightning”. It was an interesting bit of symmetry with the man he held down, “the living thunder”. “Okay kid, it’s your choice. Beat up the guy who’s surrendering, or not. But if I were you I’d see to that wound. I can only contain that breach with my powers for so long.”
“You’re helping me?” Ray muttered, sensing the truth in his words even through his concussion.
“Of course I am. It’s what I do. Though to be fair, you owe me at least a gold star.” Craig smirked. He probably shouldn’t crack jokes. Until he adjusted to the dimensional creepiness factor, any attempt at humor would backfire. Unfunny jokes were the worst. “Think, man, think. Use your head, not your heart, not this time.”
Ray lowered his fist. “I don’t have a heart,” he said.
“Liar.” Craig retorted, and he held up his hands against the young man’s angry response. “Okay, that remark hit ten times harder than intended."
"That's a really ugly costume." Ray spat.
"Don't grief the Leaf," Craig answered, chuckling. But the levity disappeared when Black Paladin crawled to his feet and roared.
"Round two," Ray said, charging his fists with lightning, though he still sat on Craig's chest.
"Forget it!" Paladin shouted. "I’ve had enough of this wretched dimension,” he snapped. "I'll kill the Carson on his home ground. On my terms!"
“Fine,” Craig said. “Happy to send you back to Hell. Again.”
“Malys! I come! We shall depart!” the Paladin cried, and he vanished. Soon afterward, he would be found winging to his home dimension – his powers still bolstered by the Warmonger.
A nightmare for a future time.
Centuria was the first to reach Ray. She saw the hero on the verge of losing control and assumed the worst. Though she still didn’t quite feel the discomfort as intensely as her teammate. Their dimension signatures were not as discordant. “Need help?” she asked Thunderbolt.
“Not against this creep,” her teammate answered, pointing at Craig.
“Especially when he’s surrendered,” Craig added. “Your friend’s being influenced, miss. I bet he wouldn’t even attack his worst enemy under normal circumstances, if he surrendered.”
“Ray?” Centuria wondered, thinking of how he’d treat Dr. Stratos in this position.
“We come from universes with different vibrational frequencies, so I’m registering as an enemy to him on a subconscious level,” Thundrax continued, slowly and deliberately. “And that’s probably made ten times worse by the fact that Warmonger was here. Either that, or God is a little kid playing with action figures, and the “Ray” action figure and the “Thundrax” action figure are being smashed together while God is saying….” And here Craig’s voice imitated the cadence of a small child. “Biff! Boom! Pow! “Take that Thundrax, ha, ha!” “Oh no, Ray, stop it!” “I am going to annihilate you, Thundrax!” “Oh no, Ray, stop it, I beg you!””
Centuria burst out into laughter, but it was short-lived, when she saw that Ray was not sharing the hilarity. “There’s energy coruscating through you Ray.” Craig noted, sensing the lightning dance within his suit. “It’s agitated. Try to reduce that, if you can.” Craig said. “And I’d really consider getting that armor breach repaired as soon as possible. This lovely young lady can deal with me if I turn into a threat or menace, or something.”
“Ray, he’s not wrong about that,” Centuria said. “Get repaired, now. Daedalus is waiting.”
“Don’t let him out of your sight,” Thunderbolt snapped, and he flew away, bleeding sparks.
“Get him! Take out the cannons!” Craig shouted, soaring past Centuria to close with Hades. This was his third fight alongside the Freedom League, and in each of those fights, he had taken the lead, put himself at the most risk. He had something to prove. Familiarity didn’t exactly breed contempt, but Craig remained in a state of mistrust.
“Another new pup,” Hades said, only to be slammed in the face by the newcomer. He was fast, unexpectedly so, and quite powerful, knocking the death god on his keester.
“A pup who’s been biting bad guys for last thirty-five years…” Craig said, and he turned back and shouted at the team. “You got the Styxine Stone, ‘Bolt?”
“This thing?” Ray said, and with the combined power of the Freedom League, he crushed the stone in his metal gauntleted fingers. Hades shrieked in dismay as he felt the Underworld pull him back like a fish caught in a riptide. “Ooops!” Ray added. He would have grinned, if he had a face.
“I will not forget this day!" Hades snarled, rubbing his jaw. "No peace awaits thee in thy grave, nor the sweet kiss of Lethe. Long the worms will gnarl your entrails!” Hades howled at Thundrax.
"I've heard better threats from worse than you," Craig snarled, hands on hips.
"O proud mortal. The worms shall long abide in thy corpse!" Hades raged before he vanished. The team shuddered at the hate in his voice.
"Nice punch," Ray admitted. "Reminded me of dad."
“Well. the Styxine Stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” Craig quipped, hands on his hips. He apologized internally to his allies, who were groaning at the remark to a person.
“Tell me he did not just say that!” Centuria moaned.
”Now we know he’s secretly evil!” Johnny Rocket exclaimed.
“Truer words were never spoken,” Daedalus said.
“No wonder you never married.” Siren added. “Who’d want you?”
“Hey gang, does anyone want to hear some dad jokes?” Craig quipped, his smirk reaching truly obnoxious levels. “By the way, good work people. Now let’s rescue the sacrifices and tear down this eyesore of a temple. This necropolis is totally not for us,” he smirked at the crude attempt of a rhyme.
“Hey Ray,” Johnny said. “Can you kick him back to his home dimension? Before we become a group of punning old dudes?”
“And I thought Cap was bad.” Siren moaned, referring to Ray's dad, their old leader.
“I’ll head back home soon enough, when we find out what the Warmonger’s up to.” Craig answered. “But as I was saying, good work, people. It’s an honor to serve with you.”
Daedalus gave Craig a long hard look. The initial effect of the dimensional differential had subsided. Yet there was something off about him. No, he handled himself like a veteran, one of the finest he had met in centuries. He was one heckuva secret weapon to unleash on their enemies. But maybe, just maybe, he was trying too hard to fit in. He was like Centuria when she first arrived from her world, just enough of a mystery to irritate. And he was definitely hiding something.
He might be the best addition the team ever got. Or he might betray them, as others had done, at the worst possible moment. A 50-50 shot.
Daedalus considered past betrayals, hissed, and turned his back to leave Craig behind. He was not alone; no one was being particularly friendly to him, except maybe Ray and Centuria, and Johnny Rocket (who was habitually friendly to everyone). But Ray’s attitude had definitely softened. He indeed reminded Ray so much of his famous father, the now-retired hero Captain Thunder. Even his cornball jokes were the same. Groanable on the outside, lovable on the inside.
The rest of the team gauged their injuries and returned to Freedom Hall, their headquarters, which made even the Barlowe or Homestead look like a hovel. But Thundrax bade Ray to halt.
“Hold on a minute, son,” Thundrax said. “I’ve got a question for you. I can sense the lightning beneath the armor, but everyone calls you by a human name, Ray.”
“That’s right,” Ray said.
“Were you human once?” Craig asked. Ray nodded. “Can you become human?” He shook his head. “How’d you like to become human again, sport?”
Ray would have gasped. He can do that? He just focused on the huge Canadian, unmoving. “Yeah, I would,” he finally said, scared that naming his heart’s desire would jinx it. Again. A villain named Mr. Infamy had once given him that desire, then took it cruelly away.
Craig transformed himself into a bolt of lightning, shot to the top of a nearby hill, then used the same trick to return. Demonstrating the transmutation method, Ray observed keenly, measuring it with his senses. The Canadian hero smiled.
“It’s not going to be easy. You need to learn to draw your energy from the air, make up the difference between material and energy states. Lesson one…” he began.
The Castle was a bizarre hybrid of technology and the archaic, wrapped in 19th Century Bavarian trappings. Few men who had ever stepped foot in here, none had done so by invitation. Defender knew that he was taking an enormous risk by coming here, alone. He had one of the most powerful battlesuits in the world. But the suit worn by the castle’s sole resident made his look like a child’s toy.
Defender was fighting against fear and his ancient hate for the fate of the world. There was nothing that James Harmon wanted more than to break the truce he had agreed upon.
With Albert Zerstoiten. Destroyer of Detroit. His dad’s killer. The man he had sworn on his dad’s grave to bring to justice. On the day when the fires of Detroit still burned, despite a hot summer rain.
“You do not know the level of restraint I am showing.” Destroyer said. “Your dimensional counterpart stole many years from me. He kept me penned like a caged dog, taunted me without mercy. He reduced me to an old man, dependent on people I despised for my escape.”
Defender wasn’t in a mood to rehash old history. Only one incident mattered today: the time Destroyer united with the heroes against the Gadroon invasion. Still Earth’s most perilous hour, forty years of breakneck escapes later. Defender had been a small child at the time, a wide-eyed boy staring at the saucers on television. “Let’s just say the fate of the world deserves restraint. Mutual restraint.” Defender finally said.
“Just as Paris is worth a mass,” Destroyer said, quoting Henry IV of France, the Huguenot who converted to Catholicism to win the French throne. “Of course, they killed him anyway. The lesser assassinating the great. Such is the pattern of the years: the great are always assailed by the lesser. But I can hardly expect an American to know real history. Henry was neither a cowboy nor a President.”
“Henry of Navarre. Converted to Catholicism and ascended to the kingship in 1594.” Defender said. “A contemporary of Elizabeth the first of England. Assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic. One of the greatest kings in European history.”
“So, you have access to Wikipedia in your armor?” Zerstoiten sneered.
“Dad hired a lot of private tutors.” Harmon said. “He didn’t raise his son to be a dummy.” Zerstoiten almost certainly knew Defender’s true identity, if any of his enemies did.
“In America, intellect is a privilege,” Destroyer said.
Defender really wanted to mute that sneering tone out of the mass murderer’s voice, preferably with his fists. More than any other man alive. But he had a job to do, a world to save. “Enough sparring, Doctor," he told Zerstoiten. We despise each other, that’s a given. The scrapheaps you keep sending every September to our headquarters is proof of that. But neither of us wants this planet to fall in an invasion from a parallel earth.”
“It would hinder my plans, yes.” Destroyer agreed. “So, self-appointed hero of Detroit, how can Zerstoiten help you protect your little world?”
“You’re aware of the Warmonger’s current location?”
“If you think I’m so negligent as to overlook a major planetary threat, then you do not know Destroyer,” the villain snapped.
“Fine,” Defender said. “You’ve got good wi-fi. Thundrax volunteered to go ahead of us and scout. If Craig calls us through the portal, we’ll need someone on this side to keep stragglers out.” Defender said. “And that’s you, if you agree to this.”
“So, you’ve made an alliance with the Canadian?”
“Yes,” Defender said.
“At least he is capable, even if his choice of associates is suspect,” Destroyer laughed. “I suppose I can agree to provide assistance. It will amuse Zerstoiten that Carson of all people should owe me a debt of gratitude.” Destroyer shot Defender a withering glance. What he would do to his armor, if the fate of the world did not depend on it. Every scar, every setback, they gnawed on him, rats chewing upon a god. “But do not ask Zerstoiten to shake your hand.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Defender snapped.
“So, that’s it?” Ray would have spat. “That was an anti-climax. You want me to hold this energy matrix for a whole month? Before I try anything else?”
“It’s the one we devised that’s most congruous to your physical form.”
“I do feel a tiny bit more human,” Ray admitted. “But I was hoping for, well, more concrete progress.”
“It’s going to be slow,” Thundrax said. “When I was transformed into lightning by the Hobbled Man, it took a Herculean effort and many tries to reform myself.” That had been three years ago, and he still hadn’t fully recovered. He remembered that nightmare vividly: reforming incomplete, as damaged goods, over and over again. “I don’t want you to reform as – well, a vegetable, or powerless, or with your powers out of control. There are many ways this can go wrong.”
“I’d risk a lot for a normal life.” Ray sighed, or at least the intonation canes out as a sigh. “Well, normal as in physical. I wouldn’t mind having the powers that you do.”
“Don’t,” Craig said. “Be alive. Find your own path to happiness, and don’t waver from it.”
“Is something going on with you?” Ray wondered.
“My life is a continuing drama. I had a mad clone out to kill me – but you don’t need to know that. You need to focus on the here and now.” Thundrax said.
“I take it that’s a yes. Can I do anything about it?” Ray asked.
“Nope.” Thundrax said.
“Is it something the team should be worried about?”
“I don’t think so,” Craig sighed. “And you’ll have plenty of warning if it becomes one.” Thundrax said.
A figure suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Doctor Metropolis, the embodiment of the City, especially Freedom City. “Ray,” he said. “Could you and your guest return to headquarters? Something has come up: the day’s not over.”
“He’s called the Meta-Grue. A renegade of his species – and you all remember how much fun we had with the Grue.”
“Fun, fun, fun, until daddy takes your shape-shifting away,” Star Knight snapped, remembering the original invasion all too well.
Daedalus continued. “He’s taken over an old Atom family installation, but we have him cornered,” Daedalus said. “The sooner we strike, the less prepared he’ll be for us.”
The heroes nodded. They were seated at a great circular table in Liberty Hall. An extra chair had been made available for Craig, much to some members’ annoyance. The meeting had not been the friendliest of Craig’s career.
“We’re being run ragged by all those villains!” Johnny Rocket said. “And do you know what it takes to run me ragged?”
“My guess is Warmonger’s stirring them up.” Craig said. “I could call some friends from my dimension. Of course, this whole situation could be a Trojan horse, part of my evil plan to conquer your dimension.” He glared at the heroes. It was like being a stand-up comic in a room where no one was reacting to the material.
“It’s happened before.” Siren said, breaking the silence. Finally.
“It’s happened to me too.” Craig said, happy to finally address the elephant in the room. “You’re perfectly justified in your suspicions. I once had a teammate who took four years before she showed her true colors.” And Connie succeeded in destroying the Guard when she did, Craig might have added.
“You don’t have the attention span for that,” Centuria noted. “You barely stay in a conversation for more than a minute.”
“Too much sugar,” Craig quipped. “But here’s the thing,” he added. “You’ve confirmed what we call “the dimensional sandpaper effect”, the frequency differentials. I’m adjusting, but I’m always going to be a little bit off.”
“So you say,” growled Star Knight. “Not everyone here is convinced on the science. I’m certainly not.”
Thundrax sighed. Even after he’d worked with them, this was ten times harder than it should be. He had no doubts that every person sitting at the table was a good person, the best this world had to offer. He was sitting with an all-star team. But the barriers to acceptance were unacceptable. “Don’t be so paranoid that I can’t help you,” he said. ”But, don’t be so trusting that you fall into a betrayal. If I’m acting like a nice guy – it all could be a front. I could be posing as a Canadian just so I could take advantage of our “nice guy” reputation.”
“Obviously he has not met Team Canada,” Lady Liberty jested. Canada’s superteam on “Earth-Prime” was not the nicest bunch of heroes – most Freedom Leaguers would have preferred dealing with someone with better manners, like the Crime League. Craig had already been ribbed about them many times; he was tempted to go back, grab Justiciar, Ravenspeaker and Forceknight, and show this world’s Canada what real heroes were all about. But this was not his problem; best to leave that for the next inter-dimensional crossover. He continued.
“If you have see any suspicious behavior from me, ask me to explain myself. Don’t accept “I don’t have time to explain myself" as an answer. I don’t get that luxury. I haven’t earned it here.” Thundrax concluded.
“I think he should be locked up,” Star Knight asked, and more people than Craig would
have liked nodded in agreement. “Why isn’t he locked up?”
“Because he’s committed no crime and his information about the Warmonger and the vibrational discrepancies between dimensions has been checked out.” Centuria answered. “And he submitted himself to a telepathic background check, and we’ve found that he rivals many of our greatest members in his heroism and public service. He’s an asset.”
“All of which could be frauds!” Star Knight shouted. “Similar credentials have been forged in the past.”
Craig sighed and rose to his feet, his huge form illuminated by flashes of data and computer processes. Most of the people in the room expected him to walk out, but he did not. Instead, with palms flat on the table, he asked with a nod:
“Pen and paper, please? And an envelope?” Johnny Rocket hurriedly honored the request. Craig smiled, reminded of Kinetik and the other speedsters he knew from home. The brawny Canuck scribbled a quick message, added a crude drawing, stuffed the envelope, and slid it toward Star Knight. She frowned.
“Canadians, or so it’s said, are given to four things. One: grand gestures, Two: self-deprecation. Three: self-righteousness. And four: compulsively apologizing. Well, what I’m doing now falls under the grand gesture category. In the envelope, I’ve written down my permanent weakness. What it will take to kill me. It will kill me. The person who takes the envelope will have my permission to test the method to determine that I’m not lying, and is sanctioned to carry the method out, if I betray you in any way.”
For a moment, all hands were still, and then Daedalus beat Star Knight in taking the envelope. He unfolded the note, read the page, and nodded.
“Interesting,” he said. “It makes sense in a strange way. And I was the right person to receive the information. But the item you mention will not be easy to acquire.”
“You’re heroes. Where there’s a will, there’s at least three ways,” Craig answered.
“Thank you for your trust.” Daedalus said, folding the envelope and tucking it in a pocket of his battle armor – yes, he was that damn practical. “Well played, Mr. Carson. Now, Freedom League, we have a Meta-Grue to smash. Nucleonic energy control, size and density control, telepathy, can become intangible at will: read your profiles, people. We gather at the Pegasus in five minutes.” He turned to Ray. “Not you. Hold on a minute.”
“Sure, D,” Ray said, and they watched the members – and their guest – leave.
“You seem to have bonded with Mr. Carson,” Daedalus said.
“He reminds me a lot of dad,” Ray replied. His face, as ever, was featureless and betrayed no emotion. Not that Ray felt them often. “Right down to the bad jokes. I can’t wait to introduce them. They’ll either become best friends instantly or throw so many barbs they’ll destroy the room with the sheer power of quips.”
“You like him, don’t you?” Daedalus asked. “And you’ve never really got to fight at your father’s side, and this guy is the next best thing?”
“Have you seen his physical strength rating? And you saw what he did against Hades…”
Daedalus fingered the envelope, briefly considering what had been written down within. “Don’t get too close to him. He may not be a traitor. But he will have to go home at some point. A world which produces Warmongers has to be as messed up as ours. He’ll be needed. This isn’t like Centuria. He does have a home to return to. People who love him.”
Ray said nothing, but Daedalus noted how tightly he was clenching his fists. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Let’s get down to business. Just point me at that damned Meta-Grue.”
“I can’t think of any better weapon than you, Ray.” Daedalus smiled. Those that knew him knew that was the highest of compliments from the old artificer. “Let’s go.”
“This is the day,” Johnny Rocket said. It had been a week since the fight against the Meta-Grue, and the team had finally warmed to Craig, at least a little. Especially among the younger members like Johnny. “D thinks we’ve found him.”
Craig roused from the guest bed, yawning, and wrapping a robe around himself absently. Johnny whistled and sped away before the Canadian could respond. But Craig simply grinned, changed into his costume – manually, he had no access to his quick-change power in this dimension, so far removed from the “closet” -- and headed for the ready room.
"Tell him to put a shirt on that dad bod of his," Centuria shouted.
"Not a chance!" Johnny Rocket replied.
"It's okay puritans, I'ma fully dressed this time. I won't get my 80s shirtlessness in your fashion fascist 2010s again, I promise," Craig said, entering the conference room. The meeting had already started.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a confirmed Warmonger sighting,” Daedalus said as the team sat down and the data flashed on their pads. “Gun show, as Craig speculated.”
“After ten billion years, you fall into a rut,” Craig quipped, again emphasizing his foe’s antiquity. “He struck at us through a gun show in our dimension, I figured he’d do the same here. A convenient gathering place for his philosophy. Watch out for weapons coming to life, rising into the air and massacring people. And a single supergun will serve as his herald. You’ll know that when you discover the nearly unbreakable one.”
“And how do we take down Warmonger?” Lady Liberty asked.
“You don’t. He operates on a cosmic level,” Thundrax answered. “He crushed our most powerful superhero like she was a flea,” he added. March 3, 2012. Heralding a bloody summer, and the most desperate hour of his life. It had been six years since that summer, but Craig remembered it vividly, along with the Warmonger’s opening stroke on Marsbase. Poor Emily. “The Star*Guard said that all the heroes on our planet combined wouldn’t have had a prayer against him. Even if every villain in the world fought alongside us.”
“You don’t mind if we test that claim?” Star Knight asked.
“His axe can crack whole planets into pieces with but a single stroke.” Thundrax chided.
“Note to self: disarm him first,” Star Knight said. Craig hoped she wasn’t being serious.
“Beat the plan, show that you won’t be pushed. The only way to win is to earn his respect, and then strike a deal.” Thundrax said.
“That’s not very heroic,” Centuria noted.
“Too many innocents are at stake. You need to play this smart.” Craig answered. “And watch your aggressive thoughts! Being around this guy could’ve pushed Gandhi into a fistfight. Any resentments you have is likely to be pushed tenfold in this guy’s presence. Watch the testosterone.”
“Except him,” Johnny chirped, pointing at Ray. “He doesn’t have any. He has Krrkfizzzterone!”
"Also, I’d like permission to send a signal home.” Craig said. “My mission was to contact the Champions if we found Warmonger. We found him. With your supervision, I’d like to complete my mission. You can send the message and lay out ground rules.”
“You trust these people?” Bowman asked.
“With my life,” Craig said. Though there were a lot of people he’d trust with such a minor thing, he might have added, including the people who sat in this room.
“All in favor of inviting the Champions to the world…” Daedalus asked.
“With the proviso that we can order them to return home at any time.” Star Knight added.
“That’s reasonable,” Craig said. “Oh, and please warn Defender about the dimensional discord, he might find a way to reduce its effects. No sense in you both fighting each other. Oh, and I did promise to leave once we found Warmonger. I’d like to stay, but a promise is a promise. And my word is my word.”
“You aren’t getting out of this that easily, Mr. Carson,” Ray said. “We need a Warmonger expert. You… well, I don’t know what you need.”
“Closure,” Craig said. “Preferably on Warmonger’s face. Oh, and the guy loves to leave bombs and other weapons behind. He’s had time to plant a few, as well as a master control, one trigger to set them all off. The one he pulled on us was a suicidal technopath.”
“Fun,” Daedalus said. “Thanks Craig. Okay, civvies only. Armored figures on stand-by. Expect action. Maybe a Waterloo.”
“This is the best death money can buy,” the gun dealer said. Payment in cash, just the way he liked it!
Martin Schultz smiled, wiping his palms on his “Desert Eagle = Liberty" Eagle T-shirt, with the national bird aiming a .50 action express at the camera. It was one of his best sellers, and while he didn’t have the physique of a superhero, he kept himself in better shape than most of his customers.
“Hey big guy!” he shouted, spotting a blond behemoth in a black turtleneck and fatigues. “You in for some action?”
"Where?" Thundrax asked.
"Overseas," Schultz said. "I got contacts with Proudwater. They could use a big American bruiser like yourself to keep order among the heathens."
“Where exactly? Syria? Lugendu? Afghanistan?” Thundrax inquired.
“Where the Hell is Lugendu?” the man asked. Craig smiled.
“Need to know, buddy,” Thundrax said, covering his mistake. “Need to know.”
“You’re being an ass, dad,” Centuria, who was playing the part of Craig’s daughter, said. She was carrying a shotgun labelled “Little Miss Special”. Someone was having fun at Smith and Wesson. She normally hated guns, but this one was cute. One for the trophy room.
"Father's privilege." Craig said, turning away. "At least until the damn liberuls strip us of all rights."
"Damn liberals!" Centuria laughed.
“Keep an eye out for anything unusual,” Craig whispered. Centuria rolled her eyes. Had he been watching too many movies? Did he really need to say that?
“Actually,” said a man in a NRA hat who stepped in front of their path. Man that was one creepy smile. “Lugendu is a nation in Africa on a parallel earth, run by a man named Joseph Otanga.” Craig started, and the man's smile doubled. It was sickening, like a television evangelist who thought he could mug his way into heaven.
“It is not a particular popular neighbor, but it is feared, and that is the important thing. Even the Snake cannot overthrow it,” a second conventioneer called out from behind. "It is beautiful in its brutality." And there was that smile again.
"Africa burns upon their steaming metal, at the command of their loud weapons." A third man said. "Will you not rally to the call of blood and metal?"
"Craig..." Centuria hissed.
"I see them," Thundrax replied.
They were trapped. Seven people with identical smiles were converging on them. Craig had seen that face before.
“He has listened to the voice of the master. He will invite us back,” a random woman added.
“Harken to the cry of the carrion bird savoring its feast.” Schultz said, the selfsame smile alighting his face.
“Did we just set a new world's record for springing the quickest trap?” Centuria wondered.
“If we didn’t, it’s pretty damn close,” Craig replied. The entire hall was beginning to converge on them.
On an elevated stage, standing at a podium above the fray, an administrator smiled at them, and spoke into a PA system. “All men of blood are my playthings.” the man declared, palming his three piece suit as his skin reddened to the color of blood. “And they walk in my perfect discipline, like true soldiers. The agreement you once made with me, valiant one, will be annulled. As I do with all of these people, so I will do to you.Welcome to my cosmic armada. Welcome to the destiny of your species. You, and all of humanity will be pressed into my army of conquest, and you shall fight across the stars at my behest. Your lives are mine.”
“Never, Warmonger,” Craig said. The game was clearly over, even before it had begun. The pair were trapped like a crippled duck at the start of duck season.
“How your blood will race. Your pretensions will be stripped away in the crucible of conquest, leaving you naked at my feet; creatures of violence, preferring the pain of others to your own, consumed by rage at a universe that crushes your hopes in the impossible.”
“Ten billion years of wisdom,” Thundrax shook his head. “And that fascist garbage is the best you can come up with?”
“Deny the truth of the cosmos if you will,” Warmonger said. “Deny the nature of reality! Such denials are but another struggle, a war of principles and choices! The sparks of your ideals may burn brightly for a time, but when they touch the ground, the real world, it is the flames of war that shall burn.”
“Does this guy like to talk?” Centuria asked.
“Oh yeah.” Craig answered. “He’s a real chatterbox. Thinks he’s a poet too.”
“Thought I noticed.” Centurion’s daughter said, going back to back as the other undercover League members closed into support them.
“I will not touch you. Nor even your allies. Our agreement still binds me,” the Warmonger said. “But my followers are not so easily constrained. Nor him.”
“No,” Lady Liberty gasped as a new figure materialized.
"Not again,” Doctor Metropolis almost sobbed.
“And we don’t have Centurion or the Captain with us this time,” Daedalus moaned.
His arrival was accompanied by the toll of mourning bells. Steam awoke about him as he coagulated into view, in which images of death flowed: a stillborn baby, a child beaten to death by a drunken father, a suicidal teenage girl, a kid, barely an adult, ravaged by AIDS. A room full of children gunned down by the damned, a near-sighted middle-aged man killed by falling rubble from a superfight, an old woman crying in pain from the ravages of old age and cancer. Life was snuffed like candles in a hurricane. Craig Carson had never seen this face before. But Death, how he knew its face so very, very well.
“This is the end of all things,” Omega said. “Worship me, and give into despair. Give into the cold and quiet and the eternal tomb and the coil of unlife about your throats.”
“Are they having a melodrama competition?” Johnny Rocket snapped. “Geez, that dialogue.”
“Battle stations.” Daedalus said, ignoring Johnny for now. “Situation Omega. This is no drill. This is what we’ve trained for, people. For Centurion. Let’s take him out.”
Craig stared at the figure. He had died three times in his superheroic life, and though he had been revived, he felt the throbbing of old wounds. Wounds long forgotten. He had so many. He had sat on the brink of life and death so many times, it was familiar countryside. “Okay,” the Canadian said. “You heard the man. Anyone who quotes from the Book of Revelation right now loses their library privilege for a whole month.”
“No Pale Rider references.” Vixen said. “Gotcha.”
“This battle deserves a finer arena,” Warmonger said, and suddenly the building and its denizens was unearthed – and relocated in a vast rubble strewn devastation of war, somewhere well beyond Freedom City. A once great city, proud and ancient, now a haunt stretching for miles in all directions. Craig thought it might be Aleppo, but it could have been anywhere.
“Much better.” Warmonger smiled, breathing in the smell of the charnal ground as if they were a fresh spring breeze.
“I would have preferred a more populated area,” Omega moaned.
“Let those who would be heroes gaze upon the failure of their ideals,” Warmonger said. “These corpses were hopeful, happy people once.”
“This changes nothing,” Daedalus said, setting the barb aside. He had seen the failure of human ideals for over three thousand years, and had not despaired. Civilization was a sculptor, gradually carving out utopia over the centuries. One day, it would be achieved, but for now, the ideal was a work in progress. A cathedral of human achievement, whose building spanned millennia. Daedalus was a craftsman, he was patient, and in the end, not even the gods will have wrought better. That, Warmonger, is the power of humanity. “Okay, people, focus on death metal over here. Leave black metal alone for now. Attack!”
And so the battle began. The former gun show patrons died in an instant, to be reborn as Omega’s deathlings. They would be fodder for the Doom-Coil later. The Freedom League broke into pairs, doing quick strafing runs against Omega, performing attacks, and quickly darting away before the villain could perform his homing attacks on them. Gradually they wore him down. Gradually the gun show attendees turned minions fell, mostly from Johnny’s whirlwind attacks. But also, gradually the heroes fell, one by one: first, Lady Liberty, then Bowman, then Doctor Metropolis. Mighty champions, all worthy of song; the black death felled them, the will of Omega. The heroes groaned and lay still on the ground, their life force a faint whisper. Omega said nothing, but smiled as they lay prostrate and defeated at his feet. As all people would lay, before death, before his majesty.
“I’m not sure we’re going to beat him!” Centuria said, watching Johnny Rocket fall to a black homing beam that outraced he fastest man in Freedom City. Dad forgive me, she added to herself.
Seeing his teammates waver, Thunderbolt took the lead. “Death or freedom!” Ray snarled, breaking ranks and finally taking the battle to the bad guy. No more strafing tactics. “Time to go down, hero style. It was Death or Glory, his favorite Clash song.
“Keep up the pressure!” Daedalus shouted, seeing a couple of his teammates veer away too soon after Ray was backhanded into them.
“I have survived the pressure of stars,” Omega boasted, and he cut down Siren with a blast.
“This is marvelous,” Warmonger said, delighted by the fight. “A veritable feast!” Thundrax spat an obscenity at him and the Warmonger turned to address the veteran hero. This was the first time he had ever given Craig his full attention, and Craig felt the titan’s gaze intensify the violence within: the primal storm, which magnified to an extent he had only felt once before in his life, on a terrible day when he had lost control. It brought back memories of elder worms and obscene rage, and killing his oldest friends. The Warmonger sensed those memories reawaken, the most heavily suppressed memories in Craig’s mind, and he basked in them. “So, you too have experienced beauty,” he said. “But what you fail to realize, as much as you may belittle my cause, is that I am your strength. The will to defy death, your fighting spirit. That is my gift.”
“Your ally doesn’t seem to share it.” Thundrax spat. He felt sick.
“Death is not my ally,” the Warmonger said. “It is but a byproduct of the crucible, the disposed part. But that which remains is life, strong, and vibrant. Little man, I nourish the universe. Did you not know?”
“We don’t need you, or your discipline or your damn crucible!” Thundrax raged.
“Spoken like a soldier.” The Warmonger answered.
“It matters not,” Omega said, holding Ray limp in his hands and casting his body down to the earth. “I have all but won.” He grinned at Centuria. “Come and fight, child,” he said.
“Ray!” Centuria shouted, and in a berserk frenzy, she fell upon Omega. But then, unexpectedly, the sky opened over them, and through the portal issued, the bright armor of Defender, followed by the other Champions and a half dozen of their closest allies. The cavalry had arrived.
“You heard the man!” Defender shouted. “Teams of two, dambuster runs! Watch out for those death beams!”
“There are too many of them, even for me!” Omega noted. The fight had taken its toll on him too, he was in no shape to fight a fresh threat. In desperation, he turned to the Warmonger. “Ally, now is the time! Now is the hour of our alliance! You must step forward!”
Warmonger merely laughed. “You were never truly my ally. You are but a maggot with delusions of grandeur, feeding on corpses and dreaming of the stars that can never be yours.”
“Man, can these guys chew the scenery.” Thundrax quipped. “They’re worse than me!”
“Fool! Ten billion years of life is nothing in the vast dark of eternity!” Omega snarled, and he pounced on the Warmonger. The cosmic conqueror found that he, even weakened, was powerful enough to pierce the Warmonger’s protective barrier. What followed was a primal clash, an animal thing, as two of the most highly evolved beings of their worlds were reduced to tooth and claw, the level of beasts. The two titans wrestled for a minute, then vanished.
“I think we just won,” Witchcraft told Defender.
Centuria helped Ray to his feet. “It’s over,” she said. One of those superhero things that really don’t need saying, but gets said anyway. Sometimes you just need a capstone, especially to the epic.
“We’d better get your armor fixed,” Craig said, and he turned to Defender. “Defender, Daedalus. Daedalus. Defender.”
“Thanks for your help,” Daedalus said.
“You’re welcome,” Defender answered. “I’d love to stay and chat and take a look at your world, but I’ve got a city to protect.”
“Ah,” said a voice from a hologram globe that had inconspicuously accompanied the
Champions. ”But Zerstoiten would not deny you such a long-deserved repose! Stay Defender, stay as long as you like. In fact, I am insisting on it – by sealing the portal with my force field, then closing it forever and taking control of my city once again.”
“Now who didn’t see that coming?” Defender’s ally Nighthawk moaned.
“Freedom League!” Ray shouted, seeing the barrier appear at the edge of the portal. “Let’s help our guests back to their homes, shall we?” And the Freedom League and the Champions attacked the barrier with all they had, and their combined strength overcame even the best efforts of Destroyer.
“The portal won’t close for a few hours,” Daedalus told Defender. “You can breathe a little easier. Relax.”
“Are all your archenemies such colossal jerks?” Centuria asked.
“He’s a special one,” Defender answered, chastizing himself for trusting Zerstoiten.
With the battle over, the two teams took the opportunity to shake hands and mingle -- except Nighthawk, of course. Johnny Rocket and Kinetik compared costumes and gawked at each other.
“Wanna race?” Johnny finally asked.
“Sure!” Kinetik grinned, and they sped away on the count of three.
“Is it wise to stay?” Nighthawk asked.
“Well, with the portal being held open, we have a little while to get to know each other.” Defender said.
“In other words, no. Unless we want to be..." And Nighthawk spoke the next word like a curse. "... social...”
“C’,mon!” Centuria exclaimed. “Be a neighbor, scowly guy! Find that inner Mr. Rogers and swing for the porch!”
“No,” Nighthawk answered.
"The dimensional differential stabilizer is working beyond specs.” Defender reported. “But I can stiil fine tune it just a little further...”
“Defender,” Witchcraft said. “You putz. Perhaps we should leave before they start to break down, rather than you fretting about them all day?”
“But--- but-- thus may be my only chance to test them when the vibrational differential is this great...”
“Now!” Witchcraft insisted, and she and Centuria traded very approving looks.
“I’m staying,” Thundrax informed Defender. “Ray needs someone to help him become human again, and I’m the best man for the—hey!”
And that’s when Thunderbolt grabbed Craig and hurtled for the portal.
“What the Hell are you doing?!” Thundrax snapped, not resisting the hero’s grasp.
“Sending you home!” Thunderbolt answered. “Telling you to get off the lawn. Thank you for everything you’ve done. I love you, man. My world owes you so much. But you’re needed back home.Your services are no longer required here!”
“Scram! Beat it mister! That’s an order!” Ray barked.
“But I was going to help—”
“I don’t need a messiah, Craig!”
“But your powers...”
“I’ll manage.” Thunderbolt said. “I’ll find a way back to my physical form. And I won’t forget you buddy. Or your terrible outfit.”
“My dimension next time?” Craig asked.
“Deal,” Ray answered. Oh, if he were physical again. He would have worn such a smile! “In you go!”
And with that, Thunderbolt tossed Craig through the portal, back to his home universe. The Champions and the others lingered for an hour or so, but followed soon enough. Only the Warmonger was left behind – maybe – and if he survived his fight with Omega, he could make his own way back.
Craig Carson stood alone in Protectors’ headquarters, sulking a bit. They had reached the other side of the portal, only to find that Destroyer had fled to the Zerstoitenstern. It truly was over, and yet Craig felt the wounds that the Warmonger reopened, especially the emotional ones. He was such a scarred, scarred man. Cosmic Glory, a teammate he had known since she was a child, had told him that he wore depression like many superheroes wore capes; today, of all days, she was righter than she had ever been.
“We’re back!” Glory said as the Valravn returned to base. Craig had come out to the hanger to greet them. “Craig, you’ll never guess what had happened. Dessicus and the Trikon, and the Hzeel, and the Elder Worms, and Firewing! And the Star*Guard! It was epic! And we even saw Mr. Indomitable!”
“Jim said to give you a really big hug,” Sebastian was beaming, happier than Craig had seen him in years.
“Boy, I was great even by my standards!” Jinn declared.
“You almost started an intergalactic war,” Blue Cyclone said, shaking her head.
“Well, glad to be back,” Captain Adamant added, petting his German shepherd Ajax on the head. Ajax seemed glad to be back. He was briefly the first dog of the stars, but there was no place like home. “Hope you weren’t too bored, Craig.”
“I survived.” Craig said, and he readied himself for the next battle. Though he felt his years keenly, though he burned within, Warmonger or no, there was always a next battle to fight. It was his life of a Protector, a costumed protector of the public good, and he would have no other.
Last edited by Thundrax; 04-14-2018 at 05:56 PM.
Re: War of the Dimensions
More fiction. Purge is the creation of @Reldin .Warning: Some not nice language. A stream of conscientiousness experiment. Inspired by the art I commissioned recently.
Wrath of the North
I’d walk into fire for you, Vancouver. And today, I’m doing just that.
And the fire strikes me, red as an angry sun. Holes burn in my uniform. Holes burn in my skin. The smell of human flesh, charred and toasting, wafts into my nostrils.
Who are these people?
The Men in black, armed with red lasers. Slipstreams of sunheat, marveling at my advance. Gritted teeth through dusky helmets. Red tinted lenses, reflecting my light. The light of mighty Mars burns my cloth, my flesh, and, as angry as Mars, I burn back. It doesn’t matter who they are, criminal dilettantes, dancers of misery. Only their crime matters. My eyes are wrath. My hands are ancient gods, the lords of the mountaintop, coiled into fists. And I shine.
Beacon of my town. I am Vancouver’s fist. The retribution of the north, I sing.
A question burns in me. No, not why, that doesn’t matter anymore. Not who. I’ll leave the identity of the men in black for after the battle, for when the authorities piece together the jigsaw of their crime. Or maybe they’ll broadcast it, as they do so often. No, here’s the question. It’s the simplest thing, asked by anyone who dons the wardrobe. How did I get here? How did our lives become apocalypse?
Our roles are wardrobe, and we gird ourselves in them. We are the shield of the innocent. We are the sword of their wrath. We are the singers, and I’ve sung thirty-five years of warsongs. My anthem is thirty-five years of burning blood. Thirty-five years of barely checked rage.
Today my song asks: whatever possessed you to do this to my city? Leveled for six blocks, bodies everywhere. Glass mansions of the overclass, now shards, tinkling in ruin. Shops of the poor, broken signs in Cantonese and Punjabi, their brokenness screaming. Did you really believe there would be no consequence? You’ve hurt my people, you bastards. I am their steward, their shepherd. The greater their pain, the greater my wrath.
The thunderbolt feels like an orgasm as it issues from my body. Two men fall. Their screams are sick things, as is their twitch amid the rubble. Good.
Ultimatums stick in their throats, these black-clad nothings, whose weapons are powerful enough to burn through the mesh of my costume, embroidering my skin with their calligraphy. Ultimatums waft from them like crow calls. And I do not answer. The god within does not like to chat. His conversations are screams, and booms, and the roll of the tumultuous airs, akin to the screaming sky when the world was young.
I could fly. I do not. A juggernaut walks in the thunderbird’s place. Talons bared, wings spread. Is he screaming in the ruins?
You’ve hurt my people, those squawking, awkward, glorious things. The people of the sea, watching the dark waters in the shadow of the mountains. My thunder is the promise of their retribution.
And another two agents fall. The remaining agents continue to bellow, and burn me with their gifted suns, these guns, these pathetic little murdersticks. Plowshares gone bad. That’s a Biblical reference, folks.
I’m glad Billy can’t see me now. Or David. Or Alex. Or any of my friends. Well, maybe Avenger. He’d enjoy seeing me like this, the jerk.
I don’t exist to entertain men like him. I never did. The world is a chorus, and I keep it in tune. I nudge the progression of the world’s symphony. But when I’m like this, this vessal of wrath, it’s hard to carry a tune.
I guess my life’s pain is fueling my wrath, as if it needed any assistance. I mow down another of these moral weaklings, and I crush a gun for fun, for the pleasure of removing one less instrument of suffering from the world. In doing so, I make a pasture out of a battlefield.
One of them is talking on a communicator. I can see him screaming, the little darling. Like words will make a difference now.
And, to my dismay, that’s when the sky falls.
It’s a modern dragon, coiled hate of technology. The wash of its rotors pushes against my body. I hear its delirium, smell its burning fuel. An attack copter, to be prosaic. Technical specs rattle in my brain. Its machine guns rattle too. It shares its metal gifts with me. It pounds me with rounds that could pulverize a city. It was built for carnage, and its pilots are revel ling in it. I can see the joy in their faces. The craft is as noisy as war fully raging.
And I scream as loudly in my response, my body burns and sings, and I twist its rotors into origami. It’s not even a challenge. I burn, and I twist, and the rotor flies from its sheathe. They’re only a titanium-aluminum alloy, lined with a little kendrium. I’ve dismantled better. Like a stricken butterfly, the chopper falls from the sky. No more wop, wop, wop, thanks to my rotorectomy, it’s wopless. I put a hand on the undercarriage to slow its fall. This is how you don’t kill people. You can thank me by never pulling this shit again.
“Get him! Kill the bastard!”
And that’s when they shoot me in the back.
I don’t care if you’re Vanguard or Grond, 155mm caliber rounds hurt. A succession of them hurt like a son of a bitch. The smell of gunpowder is everywhere. It’s the smell of Hell -- I know because I’ve been there. Hell is gunpowder, pigshit, and cigarettes, dialed up to eleven.
I turn around to face my attacker. Twenty feel tall, black angled metals, a robot based on the design of Darth Vader’s helmet. It’s silent as its walks - sound suppressors - the silence is unnerving, especially for its size. It ought to have a grander entrance. The robot’s an old design, styled for the modern age, an offshoot of the old Minuteman robots. Its emblem grins at me. Finally, I recognize who these people are, and I scowl. Dragons of hate, a mutant hunting robot, the ultimate weapon against genetic progress. It belongs, as do the agents, to an outfit called Purge. The genetically pious, worshiping a false ideal of stable genetics. As if that were even possible, in a world flooded with mutagens and radiation zones.
I really don’t like these guys, these vandals of a phony virtue that inspires them to terror. False, false, false, genetic purity, my ass, they don’t know have any clue what they’re fucking talking about. They’re flat-earthers gone villain. They attacked Toronto in force several years ago. Man, that had been a mess.
With a cry of pain and rage, my body becomes electric, a blue white-smear of shock. I rematerialize next to it, within punching distance. Hurriedly, I see the reloader whirring, spinning, getting ready to unleash its cargo. I shouldn’t be able to do this trick, but I tear at the kendium-laced cables to rip away the firing mechanism. It jerks, almost comically. It brings its clawed appendage on me, glinting like it was having an anime moment. And I grab the claw in mid -swing, and with a grunt and a scream, I break it into two. The robot should be dismayed. Not in its personality matrix, I guess.
This is only the start of my robot surgery. An arm is ripped off next, then the other arm, then a leg. It tumbles to the ground like a helpless spider. I rip off its head, then tear at the circuits like an angry muppet. Like Animal. The electrical discharge should fry me, but instead it feels as warm as a happy puppy. A murder machine dies today. Purge loses again.
In the end, I turn to the men in the fallen helicopter, who are trying to limp away. He’s the commander. He gave the orders. He spread fire and death over six city blocks. All to kill one mutant kid.
I drink in his fear like wine. It’s intoxicating, almost literally. I want to kill him. It would be a better world without the little hate-mongering shithead. Hundreds have died today; had they struck in prime time, it would have been thousands. In my city. My home.
There’s so much hate in the world these days. The species should be lifting each other up; we should be supporting each other In our pain in this frenzied madness called life. Not burning city blocks in fear and hate. Not giving into the dragon within, not relying on weapons to be a man. Not electing dragons to high office. They just don’t get it. How often have I spilled my blood for these people? I must be the biggest damn masochist alive.
Deep breaths Craig. Don’t lose it.
Of course, I don’t kill him. I turn his head to inspect the carnage. There’s a look of sick satisfaction on his face, and I want to kill him all over again. Again, it takes a physical effort to resist the call of wrath. How dare you. What the hell is remotely satisfying about today?
More deep breaths, Craig. More deep breaths.
Again, I barely win the battle against myself, against the storm god within. That petty, primal, vicious thing. And no one would have blamed me if I’d lost it. Vengeance is vicious, especially when it’s justified.
As the police arrive and the commander’s led away, to say good-bye to the gene pool, amid the grief I feel in the sheer realization of the scale of death and ruin, I fight the urge to laugh. I’m still human. Once again, I’ve resisted the call to place the god first.
Is this justice, or justification, a voice asks me. Do you place your morality ahead of the dead?
No, I answer. I’m alive, and I didn’t lose myself. I did not lose control, I did not violate Craig Carson in my wrath. No enemies died. No flowers were crushed beneath my feet. It’s important to me that I don’t kill. When I was young and stupid and a sweet kid, it was the most important thing in the world. Now that I’m older, it still heads my list. I just understand the price we pay for it a little better.
You’re Craig Carson. The shoe salesman’s baby boy. Never a judge, jury, or executioner. Always striving to hold the lamp. Light the way to a better future, and lift the fallen. To make cruel people decent, make decent people better, make good people great, and partner with the great to ascend the heavens. You mustn’t fall. Too many people fall. They make themselves citizens of fear, and in accepting that dual citizenship, they diminish their homelands. I’m not one of them. I’m Canadian, purely Canadian. As the anthem says, we stand on guard for thee. Not me, thee. For the other. For each other.
It’s so hard not to give into the vengeful god within all of us, when we want to get our hands bloody. So damn hard. But the path of rage leads to people building charnalhouses. That’s what we need to prevent. Killing only lays the brickwork of that terrible holocaust. The fearful build walls and furnaces, but the great build towers. To see and appreciate the world, and to watch.
But what about that other Canadian icon? “If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies blow...”
Dammit, we are wardens. Not juries, not executioners: wardens. We stand on guard. But isn’t that the mission statement of this profession, to protect, to guard? Because, above all else... I am a protector. It’s the most important thing in the world, at least to me.
The fires ebb, and the crews arrive, the dead are counted, the media asks hard, necessary questions, and then it’s time for a tired, weary god to venture skyward, seven hundred leagues east back to Millennium. I’m wounded, but I’m intact, my mission is intact, my passions tempered, my soul bloodied and unbowed. No. not “and unbowed”, it’s “but unbowed”. Stupid Craig stupid. Get it right, Craig, you made too many mistakes today. You made the biggest one possible. You were late getting to the scene of a massacre, and people died...
After an hour or so, the crying stops. You can only weep for so long. My eyes are calm, finally calm, and, flying above the great blue snake of the Saskatchewan River, I slow to sub-Mach speed, and drink in the scenery below: lakes and fields and faces full of wonder. Wonder, even for a schmuck like me. Damn, I love their faces. Damn, they’re worth dying for.
Well, one of these days...
Last edited by Thundrax; 04-14-2018 at 10:28 PM.