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Thread: War of the Dimensions

  1. #21
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    Re: War of the Dimensions

    Prologue:

    “Help, Hitler!” Zorasto had cried. It was an insane scheme, baroque and beyond fixing. Time travel back to 1938. Arranging it so superpowers only affected the worst of humanity. A world of Super-Hitlers and ultra-storm troopers. The planet its lebensraum. Now that would have been a master race!

    And now here he fell amid the burning mud, a lowly maggot writhing and twisting on hell’s hot floor. Oh, such an anti-climax! Thundrax had not even been there, just his friends. This was not how a villain was supposed to be defeated! And that had been Zorasto’s one advantage in all those years. He knew what his role had been. He had never, not once, seen himself as misunderstood. He did not rage against an unjust society – Hell was the worst, but he’d have been just as unjust a potentate as any of the others. And he would have relished in those uncommitted injustices as if they were notes in a rich and engrossing opera. He would have become as fat as universes, if he had his way. And he would have relished it, the ultimate diva. How he would have sung!

    Now, he lay. In Slanders Field, along with all the other lies.

    Slanders’ Field. Now that was a pun worthy of Hell.

    As he crawled in the mud, wallowing in thee familiar stench of brimstone and failure, Zorasto thought he could, through his dim larval senses, feel the footfall of his jailer, the Great Liar himself, as he let rest on the scrapheap.

    “Mercy,” he croaked, Hell’s most familiar song, the one that was beyond consummation. The lover who always pulled back from the moment.

    “Zorasto,” Belial sang, and the voice sounded like a hangman, grim as death and a silence that was not a silence not a silence and not a silence, and the not a silence and the death echoed over the plains. “Defiler, crow’s feast and engine of self-defeat,” he said. “I have brought you someone new.”

    The maggot looked up. Did he bring Thundrax? It was him, wasn’t it? Here to torment him? Here to throw all of his failures in his face? Here to sing the song of his defeat, an anthem mocking and yet heartbreakingly lovely. The sound of thunder on the hills, as sung by a lark? Human virtue that shone bright as a thunderstrike, painfully? It was him, right? Their long grudge would end as all grudges should end, right? The final showdown. The fool, in all his power and pity, would restore him. They would have one last climactic struggle, fire against thunder, the malice of hell versus the most refined will on earth. Villain against hero. That was how these things were supposed to end. In one final, splendid, operatic chord!

    “Yes, bring your thunder…” the Defiler croaked. “Bring your vengeance! Have I not plagued your line for generations? Did I not cast your brother into the void of time? Come!”

    But it wasn’t the champion’s voice that answered him. It was another man’s voice, though just as familiar. A heavenly one.

    “Do not do this mortal,” Neviel said.

    William Carson sighed, stepped on the maggot that was Zorasto, and ground his foot into the dirt of Hell.

    “That was for Jack,” he said.

    And with that step, the three thousand years of pride and failure that was the Defiler, was at long last ended, its existence only a brief, pathetic yelp in eternity, closer to Ecclesiastes than to Milton.

    “Guess I belong here after all,” the third born Carson said, and he brushed the remains of Zorasto off his foot.

    ******

    They call him the Hobbled Man. And he just introduced himself to me as Tristan Carson, my great great great grandfather. Or is it four greats, not three?

    I hate all this ancestral crap. Predestination garbage. Here I thought I was just an ordinary kid from East Van. And that Zorasto was the only one who bought into this destiny bullshit. But no, I have… an ancient evil Carson to deal with.

    And his pet, a black tentacled demon that’s trying to devour my soul.

    “Ow!” I snarl as it lashes my face.

    It draws blood, lacerating my cheek. I’m not sure if the demon’s that powerful, or whether his spells have weakened me.

    “Ow!” I repeat as I see the Hobbled Man grinning.

    “Grburbububl…” rasps the demon.

    Its barbs catch on my costume, tearing at it like blackberry thorns. Some pierce my flesh – you know they’re sharp when they can do that – and red lines form on my faces and torso. Scratches from hell, literally. I fry it with lightning. Full thunder, I’m not holding anything back. I do watch for signs I’m hitting an illusion: a human scream, an unexpected recoil. But none of that happens, instead the bush burns, with white-blue incandescence. Runes gleam on the Hobbled Man’s forehead.

    “Yes, Thundrax yes,” the Hobbled Man says. “I’ll take your power, pup, and send you back to your kennel, to snivel along with the rest of the Carson dogs.”

    The bastard’s siphoning the thunder from me. So I hold back on the thunder, let it swell, and then set it off in one supercharged burst. Man, is that trick hard. Man, does that trick ever hurt. But it does exactly what the doctor ordered (or would if there actually was a doctor of thunder). The runes on Tristan Carson’s forehead smoke, and he’s blasted backward ten feet, to topple on his back. His wards were only proof against part of the impact.

    “Gah!” he cries, arguably the most satisfying gah ever.

    “Sorry, Captain Hook. But there’s no way in heck I’m letting you have that kind of power.” I snarl back. I remember what had happened the last time I faced him, how he fractured me, and it took a hundred and eighty-one attempts and the intervention of Sebastian’s science to reassemble myself. “The Living Thunder is worth by deed, not blood. You have no power over me. Nothing you can do or say can hurt me again.” I vow.

    “I sent your father to Hell.” Tristan Carson tells me, a gleam in his eye.

    And my jaw drops low enough to swallow the fucking planet.

    “He did not go quietly. He was quite the screamer,” the Hobbled Man goads me. “Quite a satisfying display of cowardice. Like father, like son.”

    “You’re lying,” I snarl, after the comment takes forever to sink in. You filthy sack of shit. “You just read about that! Just had to make it personal, didn’t you? It’s probably part of some ritual. You need the rage of living thunder!”

    “He would have given me his wife, if she’d been home. The craven dog.”

    “You bastard!” I scream.

    He laughs, and it wounds the world.

    “My father’s dead!” Dead to me, if not literally.

    “Worse than dead, thanks to me pup,” he says. “Your father is in Hell. Naked, in torment, starving, well his son lives a life of wealth and privilege! Congratulations, boy! That’s common sense worthy of a true Carson. Me!”

    “I congratulate you on your research--” I stammer, repeating my assertion. I’ll thank him with my fists.

    “Yes, it was the best research, child,” he sneers. “Life. I remember it oh so well. It was Groundhog’s Day, 1975. One of my contacts had warned the man, a fatal mistake. Zorasto believed he was the second born Carson and thought he would receive his power; to repay my debt to him, I agreed to turn over William Carson, alive and unharmed. Your father was in the process of leaving your home, trying to escape me, but I stopped him. Your brother had returned home from school early – playing hooky; I threatened to gut him, and I’ve have done it too. So, to save his life – and yours - your father went willingly with me. And I took him to Zorasto. In Hell.” And he laughs again.

    It’s the mistake of his life. Finding humor in the pain of an angry god.

    I can’t really describe my feelings at the moment. Numb with fury? Is that a thing? I’ve had these moments before: when I found Ann’s body; when I found Sarah’s limbs in my freezer, when I discovered that the Westons had been turned to monsters. In that alternate world, when the building collapsed, and I heard the screams calling out for me to save them.

    But this one is way worse.

    Forty-five years. I spent forty-five years blaming dad for deserting us. Nearly forty years blaming him for not being at mom’s side when she died. Every Christmas, every Easter, our poverty bespoke his betrayal. Every quarrel I had with Jack was directed at him. Every long hour washing dishes in a filthy kitchen at work, for obese smelly men who looked for an excuse to yell at you. Every insulting minimum wage pay cheque that would go directly into a rich man’s pocket. Those were all lies. Every year my anger grew, every year I vowed never to be like him. When, in fact, my sacrifices made me more like him than I imagined possible. When, in fact, no man ever loved me more. No man ever sacrificed more. No greater love.

    I scream. I shriek. Or howl. All I know is, that for a moment, I’m a chorus of outrage. A chorus of Pain.

    The storm cannot be contained. Almost immediately, Tristan Carson shrieks and falls to his knees, blown away by the anger. The building around us is matchwood, splinters in the eye of god’s wrath. It only took a split second.

    “YOU FOOL…” I snarl.

    “You cannot kill me!” he howls, realizing his error. He holds his good hand to ward against the tempest. It’s as ineffectual as you might expect. “I’m indestructible.”

    “SHALL I FLY YOU INTO THE SUN, AND LEAVE YOU TO BURN UNTIL IT GROWS COLD? SHALL I SEVER YOUR ARMS ND LEGS AND BURY THEM ON THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH? WHAT GOOD WILL YOUR IMMORTALITY BE THEN, HOOKED MAN?”

    The menace in that voice would give Zerstoiten pause. It’s the voice of Storm Island. I’m listening to it as if the words weren’t coming out of my own throat.

    “Mercy, sweet devil, mercy.” He gasps. He had no idea I was capable of this.

    I had no idea I was capable of this.

    ******

    “Craig!” Lewis Frey says. He’s probably in his nineties, but he’s as hale and hearty as a man of fifty. As me, in my other body. As my friend Wally Thompson, who was cursed with immortality for some inexplicable reason, as long as he lived above the sixtieth parallel.

    I smile at Lewis. I know the owner of Club Caprice, the walking swear jar of demonic infestations, put his thieving days long behind him. But still I check my wrist for my gold watch. It’s still there.

    “Lewis,” I tell the man curtly. “I need to go to Hell.”

    ******

    Mount Baker. The last mountain of my boyhood. The last of my mountains.

    One winter, when I was 9 or10, my brother took me tobogganing here. We got into an argument, of course. He never took me here again.

    Baker. Koma Kulshan of the Salish. When I grew up, I saw a sad basset hound’s face in it shadowy face.

    And Lewis told me that it was my way into Hell.

    I suppose I should have talked to the Trismegistus. After all, Lewis isn’t a mage; he’s just Shermy, the innkeeper, a man playing at the role as if it were Christmas. But no place on earth has more demons per square inch than Caprice, and Lewis knows his patrons with all the ruthless precision of capitalism, the coldest, cruelest, and most calculating force on earth.

    “The first thing you need to know about Hell,” he told me, “is that there is many of the damn things in the Netherworld. And not all of them are bad. The one that most of the demons in this club come from is best called Urban Fantasy Hell. It has all the affectations of Hell – the darkness, the fires, that brimstone smell that you just can’t wash out of your wings – but none of the theological damnation, none of the soul-destruction. It’s Hell without a devil. Or God.”

    “I remember.” I once talked bout the Hell I had faced in the confines of Caprice, and I mortally offended a nearby demon, who loudly declared I didn’t know what I was talking about (even though I wasn’t talking to her), and then shunned me thereafter. Even though I was quoting from the official texts of the Trismegistus.

    “Of course she did,” snorted Lewis. “Her personal canon eclipses any lore, y’know. All the lore achieves is to make her less special. But she comes from Urban Fantasy Hell. Not a false Hell – every Hell in the netherworld is as true and as false as any other - but a more mundane Hell.”

    “Hipster Hell, without all that pesky, annoying theological stuff. For the cool demon crowd.”

    “Now, Craig, that’s unkind,” Lewis says.

    He was right. But enough critique; sneering at the cool demon set wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Eventually Lewis was forced to relate legends that are older than Ann Rice, stretching all the way back to Ariosto. The entrance to Hell, he said, was likely volcanic and familiar. And Baker, a two mile high volcano in Washington State, within ogling distance of the Canadian border, was my personal entrance to the Underworld. So I scout it for signs, finding one burrowed in the side of huge fir tree.

    Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

    “Cute,” I say. I’ve read Dante.

    The first apparition I meet is Pastor Bennett. A rough, occasional visitor to my home church in Vancouver, Eagle Ridge Alliance, he’s never especially liked me, and when I’ve attended, he’s taken peculiar delight in accosting me in his sermons. False gods and pride. I always thank him for the sermon, but not this time.

    Next, I encounter a chimera. It’s my old political career, brought to life as a beast. It’s a dragon, whose neck and face bears an uncanny resemblance to the Peace Tower of the Parliament in Ottawa. It speaks with the voice of my old political nemesis, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I fight it for a bit, then realize, after being scorched by its eternal flame, that I can’t beat it. So, I play by the rules of its symbology – I start a motion to dismiss it and call a summer recess. There’s nothing that politicians like more than a recess. The poor beast doesn’t have a chance as it’s voted out of existence. Politicians enjoy a recess more than school kids!

    You’d be amazed at the similarities between politicians and the Breakfast Club.

    The third, most fearsome barrier is a flaming door, set in a tunnel that’s burrowed in the side of the dormant volcano. It’s Zorasto’s fire. And Josiah Brimstone’s, the demon hunter who snagged me once and imprisoned me in Hell;s worst recesses. And Malys. And Belial, and every Hellish creation I’ve ever pitted my strength against. Damnation manifested in physical form.

    “You shouldn’t go, Craig,” a man’s voice tells me — in English that’s spoken with a heavy Quebecois accent. I turn around to spot a man in buckskin and black, holding a large Bible. The torture he suffered in life is shining in his eyes, but there’s also a certain tranquility.

    “Forgive me, sir, but I don’t recognize you,” I tell him.

    “Francis Brebeuf,” the priest tells me.

    “Patron Saint of Canada.” I acknowledge the name with a nod. I may not be Catholic, but I’m no dummy. Father Francis was a Jesuit missionary, a martyr who was, among many achievements, the man who forged the alliance between the Hurons and the French, immersing himself in their culture. Good man, horrible death, tortured by the Iroquois, by the Mohawks. This is really starting to become a Canadianized mirror of Dante, to an uncomfortable degree.

    “He’s my dad.” I shrug. “Turning back isn’t an option. I rescue people. It’s my job. But what good is my job if I can’t do it for my own family?”

    “Hell is failure,” he tells me. “And failure is Hell. By definition, you cannot succeed. Here, failure of the worst kind is a theological certainty. Nothing good lives down here. Nothing good can be achieved here.”

    “I know.” I smile. “I’ve been here before.”

    “Then God have mercy on your soul, in the land that mercy has forgotten.”

    “I guess I’ll have to give Hell its wakeup call.” I say. “Do you have any useful advice, your eminence?”

    “Love is your lifeline.” Brebeuf tells me.

    “I know that better than anyone,” I say. I thank the father, and, my burning fingers grasping the door, I push it open. Its like pushing aside worlds.

    Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” a voice says, portentous and hollow.

    No, Dante, not this time. I’m not abandoning hope, though I enter Hell. After all, though I dare not bring anyone here, hope is still my teammate.

    ******

    1984

    “That awful game again,” I moan, as Hell’s airs seem to bite at me, and the darkness hides gnawing things. I was not a fan. “Dungeons and Dragons my ass. The kids wanted to play their game. Zorasto just gave them what they wanted. Why are we putting our necks out for these nerds?”

    Shamus raises an eyebrow. He’s certainly never heard me talk about people like this before, Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about people this way before. But nerds are just... annoying.

    “And I really didn’t sign onto SUNDER to spend my birthday among the damned.” I mutter.

    Cryo sighs. “Shut the hell up.” He snaps at me. “Whining doesn’t make this place any better, unless you’re actually trying to make things worse.” Frost muttered, like one of his ice javelins directed at me.

    “What did you just say?” I snarl.

    “That’s it!” Shamus intervenes, brushing his hands on his trenchcoat. “It’s this place, it’s amplifying the parts of ourselves that want to grouse – and worse.”

    “Hell’s psychic?” I say.

    “Big time,”Shamus tells me.

    “Oooo, aren’t you just smarter than everyone?” Cryo snorts at our leader. He’s bristling from the heat. Hell is bad for everyone, but for our resident ice mutant, it’s the worst.

    “Nah, George is,” Shamus demurs. Hell seemed to be affecting him the least, though he had to be hurting, as we were all reeling from Avenger’s death at the hands of VIPER and She-Devil, and Shamus had to be hurting more than any of us. Perhaps he was expecting to find him down here?

    “I’m sorry, Shamus,” I say, pointedly not apologizing to that jerk Cryo. “It’s just that I wasn’t expecting to spend my birthday down… In this place.”

    “Well, happy birthday,” Inferno adds. Alone of the team, Inferno seems at peace in the peaceless realm. He’s a fire elemental who once met our earth elemental member, Elemmus, and hit it off well. He’s apparently able to purify metals to a ridiculous degree, which our battlesuit clad member Flux finds extremely useful (or would, if Flux could ever hit a target).

    Between me, Elemmus, and our occasional member Solar Sentinel, SUNDER isn’t lacking in the strength department.

    “Just you wait, kid,” a figure in white says. Where’s he come from? I stare at the newcomer. He’s my height and build, and has my face, but shorter hair. A red maple leaf adorns the center of his chest, and his uniform has a ightning stylings. He looks almost exactly like me! The heck—what am I doing in Hell, dressed like that? Or is that just a mockery of me?

    “Are you—” I stammer.

    “Of course I am. Happy birthday, Craig,” the man tells me.

    “Who the Hell are you?”Cryo wonders.

    The man, wearing a most un-Hell-like smile, ignores the ice mutant, and instead he corners Shamus. The psychic detective has a rare frightened look on his face, but the white-clad me – is he real or an apparition, maybe? – throws his arms around our leader and hugs him with tears in his eyes.

    “Get away from him,” Elemmus says.

    “Not a chance,” the other me says.

    “Okay, That’s enough. Maybe you can explain what exactly’s going on?” Shamus tells the hugger, as if he’s a Christmas tree and the duplicate me is a string of tinsel.

    The man in white releases the boss and wipes away a tear. “Hope it wasn’t too tight,” he says. Is he referring to the hug? He stares at me, then shifts his gaze back at Shamus. Our leader is still trying to work this one out. “I don’t think I ever said this, but thank you for everything you did for me. Good or bad, you made me the man I am today.”

    “I don’t trust him,” Cryo said, because of course he doesn’t. The man ignores him, and instead flashes our grumpy psychic detective the biggest smile in the recorded history of hell.

    “Well, whoever it is, his mind is really strong. I can’t read it.” Shamus frowns.

    “Somebody trained me well,” the man says, his grin fully trained on Shamus. “A man who needs to send his coats to the cleaners every once in awhile. Plus I got a lot of practice over the years. Listening to disco is a great way to train your mental defenses. If you can learn to endure that shit, Hell is a piece of cake. And then there’s putting up with Avenger...”

    “Could someone explain what’s going on?” Inferno asks. The man turns, and the smile immediately fades. What is it about Inferno that changed the man’s mood? He visibly composes himself before answering.

    “I’m him,” he says, pointing at me. “From some point in the future.”

    “Wearing white?” Cryo says. “You’re trying to steal my look?’

    I, that is to say him, laughs uproariously. “Sorry Frost,” he tells Cryo. “I don’t know how long this time collapse will last, so let me inform you of what you’re up against.”

    “Go on,” Shamus says.

    “This is way bigger than you suspect. Zorasto has declared war on play.” The man explains.

    “What?” Cryo interjects.

    “Those D&D players he kidnapped are only the start. He’s attacking the concept of play on an archetypal level. If he’s not stopped, and the kids aren’t rescued, then every time children play, every gaming related discord will feed him and strengthen him. And do you know how often kids argue during games?”

    “Good grief!” Shamus exclaims, realizing the enormity of Zorasto’s plan. My heart sinks too.

    I flashback to boyhood games of Monopoly, and all the times Jack smashed the board and stomped away from the game screaming obscenities. I could get pretty obnoxious over Pennsylvania Avenue. From what I understand, that’s a pretty universal experience. Then there’s Hands Down, and Trouble and the Game of Life… Nothing trigger quarrels like competitive fun. And if they all fed Zorasto...

    “That’s diabolical,” I say.

    “It’s who he is,” the man in white says. “Forget the Brotherhood. Forget VIPER. Forget even the Overlord. Forget even William Donaldson…”

    “Who?” Shamus asks.

    “You haven’t met him yet. Oh joy. He’s a real pill.” My pretty much twin says. Man, this is trippy. But his posture, his eyes… they’re so different! Coming to a theater of operations near you – the Thundrax of Tomorrow!

    “Necessary detail only,” Shamus says. “Info dump now, chit-chat later.”

    “Sure,” he says. “Forget those others. Forget Malachite or Borealis. This is the big one. Zorasto’s assaulting innocence itself.”

    “I know,” Shamus says. The man chuckles sadly. Odd to see someone displaying normal emotions in Hell. Only Shamus and Inferno have managed that so far.

    “Look for Cage Young… the big jerk… and good luck.”

    “Good luck, old friend,” Shamus says, knowing way more about what’s going on than he’s willing to tell. As usual.

    “You too,” the big man sniffs, his facade of strength about to break. “Oh, and expect things to get weird. Zorasto conducted a lot of time control here. There are a ton of breaks in continuity here. “That’s why we can meet. You may meet other mes, or yous. But the mind will put things together.”

    “Let’s hope so,” Shamus said.

    “ Oh, and Shamus? Avenger was just teleported, not disintegrated. There’s a bit of Avenger drama yet to come. Eventually he goes into... get this.. law enforcement!”

    “No!” Shamus exclaims.

    “You’ve never known me to lie,” the man in white says. “Well, Scout’s honor. Law enforcement! And he’s elected mayor too!”

    “I don’t think I can handle this,” Shamus says.

    “I have to admit, I find it pretty hard to believe, and I lived through it! It’s all going down soon too.”

    “I’ll keep my voting hand warm,” Shamus says.

    “Well, take care of yourself, old friend,” he (or is it I) says. “I miss you.”

    “Miss me?” Shamus asks.

    “Would miss you,” the man corrects. Shamus’s eyes narrow.

    “In this line of work? Good luck with that!” Shamus says, and the man disappears into the mist. And with that, accompanied by a discordant chord and a distant bird cry, he, the future, is gone.

    “C’mon guys.” Shamus says. “You heard the man. We’ve got a future to save.”

    “Who’s that?” I say as I spot a new figure in the distance, and the next chapter of the future beckons.

    The Present

    35 years ago. That’s what I just saw, just talked to. Years before Shamus disappeared. On the mission which Inferno did not survive.

    Ghosts of the past. Zorasto really made a mess. No wonder the Dukes of Hell got so pissed at him. But I’m happy. Far happier than expected to be. I came to Hell hoping to find my father, the man who sacrificed for me. I didn’t expect to meet the man who was my second father too.

    I need to find some plains. A plain where I cannot lie, but the truth always hurts. A typical Hell deal. I continue traveling onward. Mountains of torment? Check. Chasms of Madness? Check. Fountains of blood? Check. And predictable. I’m surprised I don’t find Club Caprice here.

    I can make jokes, but it’s the blackest of humor, and the cruelest. Torture and depravity shouldn’t stir the human soul to anything except sorrow. It’s moral cancer.

    And then, on a tree of woe (Hell loves its crucifixions, mocking the Great One), I find a large African American man, naked, and bigger than me. He’s screaming as carrion demon birds are feasting on his eternally regenerating eye sockets. He’s cussing up a storm, as usual. I scare the birds with a thunderclap and wrench him free from his cross.

    “Down you go,” I quip. “It’s not Easter, no crucifixions allowed.”

    “Why you---” he says, lips curled. I’m grinning at the sight, which I’m rather sure he doesn’t appreciate. The gigantic man jumps me and we wrestle. Oddly enough, it’s fun. I get the distinct impression of Jacob wrestling an angel. We grunt and sweat for a bit, digging our feet into the rough, sharp soil of the Underworld. Struggle is the closest thing that Hell gets to pleasure.

    “I’m not losing to a damn demon,” he grunts.

    “I’m only a demon between the sheets,” I joke. Again, it’s a Hellishly inspired joke. Normally I don’t talk about my sex life, let alone make quips about it. Some things are meant to remain private.

    “UGH!” the huge man roars, trying to overthrow me. But he can’t.

    So the match continues. I don’t intend to lose, but don’t ask me to change my name when I win, as Jacob did in the Bible.

    The man is as strong as ever, but I’m way stronger than I was when we first met. It’s like wrestling Bulldozer, not trivial, but not a challenge either. Finally I pin him until the delirium fades, and his eyes revert to normal, to two glasses of sheer meanness. Waking from that only to see my grin must be Hell for him.

    “Hello Cage,” I smile at the demon hunter.

    “Oh,” Cage Young says, grumpily as ever. “It’s you.”

    ******

    “So, over those peaks is the Desolation of Realizations,” the naked man tells me. It’s like I’m walking with an African-American version of Den from Heavy Metal.

    ‘So what do they do?”I ask.

    “Cruel truths.” Cage says. “Great place to hide when demons are dogging your trail a little too hotly.”

    “How long will it take us to get there?” I ask.

    “The same as any other place is Hell,” he replies. “A disappointingly long time.”

    Traveling in Hell is as much over psychological distance as physical. Cage, chewing on a bitter tasting herb like tobacco, surges ahead. At least he isn’t jumping me for an impromptu brawl, which he’s done four times on the journey so far, not counting our first meeting. Cage Young is a fighter, and he’s not particular picky about who he fights. Fortunately, I’m far too strong for him to handle, and I easily weather his fits of rage.

    “Demons don’t like this place,” he adds with a nod.

    “And my father is kept here?”

    Cage doesn’t even bother to nod. “I don’t know about any human,” he says. “But there are angels. Prisoners taken in the great war between Heaven and Hell.”

    “Wait?” I wonder. “Angels?”

    “Nothing is forsaken by the Most High. Not even this place.” Cage answers. “He sends angels here to bring hope every once in awhile and torment the damned.”

    “That’s how you can stand to live down here? Heaven’s hope?”

    “Nope.” Cage says. “That’s just a raid in the war, to let the dukes know who’s in charge. I survive down here from the rich satisfaction of slaughtering demons.” The demon slayer flashes me the most obscene of grins. “Hell is a very target-rich environment for me. You might say that Hell is my heaven.”

    “Do the angels help you?” I ask.

    “Nope,” the demon slayer says. “I’m as badly fallen to them as the demons. Assholes.”

    Given his fits of rage, I can see that the angels have a point. But saying something won’t get me an inch closer to finding dad.

    So we trek onward, and approach the peaks surrounding the plains. They loom like jagged gates; they’re almost cartoonish in their sharpness.

    Then Cage stops, and abruptly turns around and starts running away, I move to grab him. He shoots me a look that’s almost frightened.

    “We went too far,” Cage said. “He’s coming.”

    I had heard nothing. I’m still not hearing a thing, except for a sudden panic in the man’s breathing. “Who?” I ask.

    “What a stupid fucking question, “ he says, pointing at a flying beast. “Him.”

    Out of the sky, a dragon is flying toward us.
    And, without saying a word, with the living thunder welling in every orifice in my body, I rise to meet it.

    “Looks like Black Paladin’s dragon, Malys.” I say. ‘But bigger.”

    “It’s his sire,” Cage cries back to me, still running.

    Dad, I don’t care how powerful this thing is, I’m not letting it get between us. Nothing, angel, demon, or demon hunter, is coming between us again.

    And so the dogfight begins, with me cast in the role of the dog. Well, if I’m a dog, I may well be Cap’s fierce fighting hound, Ajax. Or a rottweiler. A dog as fierce as a dragon.

    I meet the monster in the air, teleporting the moment I see the fire come out of its mouth. It’s baleful green flame, reminding me of that one time I ran into a possessed Kondo Rimi. I whirl, and dodge. Compared to some of my aerial foes, the huge beast is ungainly. Unfortunately, it’s damn tough. Twice as tough as its son, whom I’ve never beaten. I attempt to smash through its wing, but its membrane, shielded by a thin coating of metal, is more than sufficient to counter anything I’ve got in the strength department. I do nudge the beast so he has to make a correction in mid-air (Otherwise I’d have been dragon chow right there and then), but I get swatted to the ground, landing in a pile of dirt, rocks, and thorns near Cage Young.

    “That looks like it hurt!” Cage shouts unhelpfully. I don’t have time to quip, rolling as the dragon dive bombs me, the reptile bastard.

    “Let’s try something else,” I say, ascending again.

    “Dinner’s that way!” Cage shouts at the dragon, pointing at me. The dragon climbs in pursuit and tries to draw a bead on me. Shadowy dragons congeal about it, instant reinforcements for the monster.

    “Fine.” I say, and after its maw alights again, I move in an arc. This time I’m adding descent velocity to my attack speed. And I charge myself with lightning. I better give it everything I’ve got.

    Death or glory. Thank you, Joe Strummer. At this point, I’m willing to knock Zep out for the title of best band ever.

    And I rip through the wing, crippling the great beast. We plummet together, the dragon’s flight speed carrying it some distance. Its distress cry cannot be described.

    I land near Cage Young. The huge man fold his arms. “That looked painful,” he says with a grin. “By the way, dragons don’t need wings. And I think you made it angry.”

    “This is Hell.” I say, brushing myself off again. “Angry is the default. I don’t have much fight in me,” I admit, and then I grab the huge man. “But I’ve still got flight.”

    “It’ll be on your tail.” Cage warns. From the look on his face, I think he’d enjoy seeing me turned into dragon chow? What happened to the guy? He was a badass, yes, but he wasn’t remotely this psychotic thirty years ago!

    “Then let’s take it some place dangerous,” I say, and that’s when I grab the naked demon hunter and fly him over the mountains, to safety. Like him or not, he’s still my best way to find dad. And so we soar over the mountains. Craggie, jagged peaks, like something you’d see in the most surreal of cartoons. The ones made by Eastern European animators on meth.

    “You won’t like what you find,” he warns me.

    “Bite me,” I reply, and immediately regret it, as that’s what he does. He may be a human pit bull who’s the size of Andre the Giant, but I can barely feel them.

    “Not literally, moron!”

    “Just wondering what all the fuss is about you.” Cage smiles. “It’s not your taste.”

    “Of course not.”

    “You're still a nice kid after all these years,” he tells me, and he means it; we’re in the truth effect of the Desolation now. “You poor idiot, expecting the impossible. There are no happy endings in the land the Lord has forgot.”

    “Then prepare for a first,” I snap back. “I’m making my own happy ending today.” I vow.

    “Everyone thinks they can beat Hell,” he tells me. “Yet nobody ever does.”

    “Including you and your demon slaying armies?” I ask.

    Despite the flight and the risk of losing it, he draws an ancient stone knife. “What’s that: I frown.

    He slides it along my left a bicep, and it bleeds. Ow! It doesn’t bleed a lot, but the knife could do damage if he was in the right mood. And he knows it.

    “It’s the blood of Thunder,” he smiles, basking in my vulnerability.

    “How special,” I scowl.

    “Baby’s killed a lot of demons. But it don’t discriminate. It’ll kill you just as quick.” Cage boasts, the threat twinkling in his eyes. “You like pain, Carson? Baby likes pain.”

    I briefly glance at the bleeding arm. It was only a slice, but he could kill me if he wanted. Mythic blade, I’m vulnerable to its magicks. Out of earth’s earliest myths, it’s a weapon that predates the living thunder, and it’s my biggest weakness. It’s like that glowing green rock that could kill you-know-who. I have no protection against it. That knife could kill me if he wanted, we both know it. And I don’t care.

    I’m almost there, dad.

    ******

    Groundhog day, 1975, Vancouver

    “Dad, why do I have to go to kindergarten?” Craig whined.

    His hands were on his hips, and his lip upturned in disgust. In fact, it was the epitome of youthful disgust. William Carson laughed.

    “Because I need one of my sons to be smart,” he told his son.

    “Fuck you, dad!” Jack shouted.

    “Language!” Eileen Carson shouted back from the kitchen. “How many times have I told you, Jack Bailey Carson?”

    “Dad started it!” Jack snarled back.

    “I didn’t swear,” William Carson said. “I just called you an idiot.” He chuckled.

    “Fuck you, dad,” Jack snarled back, picking up a soccer ball. “We’ve got a game against Tech fourth period.”

    “Kick their ass, son.” William Carson said.

    “They’re gonna bleed,” Jack grinned, heading out the door.

    “Bill, a Mr. Neville phoned. I think he was a store rep,” Eileen reported.

    “What did he want with me?” William Carson asked. “I don’t have any purchasing power!” Little did William Carson suspect the message would be the catalyst for a day of murder and mayhem – that would end with William Carson being dragged to Hell…

    ******

    In Hell’s bleakest reaches, beyond Damnation’s Door, lay the Desolation of Realizations. Across this vast, grey plain all lies are laid bare, and naught but painful truths may be spoken here. No creature desires to come hither, especially among the peoples of Hell, to whom falsehoods are meat and bread. However the Lords of Pride have found these wretched plains ever useful in the enforcement of covenants, and thus an oasis of truth sits in the heart of hell, for any with the desire to take advantage of its qualities.

    In the heart of those plains, a trap had been sprung. Within a circle of falsesilver, barbed and burning, the angel Neviel the Whisperer stood ensnared, seemingly without hope of heaven. He had been gifted with seven great prophecies by his Lord Most High, and at his feet groveled a wretch, its skin blackening, his limbs twisting, his feet broken. What was left of William Andrew Carson, father of Thunder.

    “Dad?” I shout, rushing to my father’s side.

    “Craig,” William Carson says, trying to move away from me, His son. I can see the wheels turning. Why did I choose now, of all moments to come to his rescue. Hell has the shittiest timing, I’m sure he’s thinking. Unable to drag his broken body away, he tried to ward me away with his hands. God, they’re starting to devolve into claws. What happened to him?!

    “I.. I…” he rasps “S-stay away.”

    “The Hell I will,” I snap, and I embrace my father, openly weeping. I couldn’t give a shit about appearances. “Dad, what happened?’”

    “I wanted to save you,” William Carson said, and he wipes away the tears as if I were still a small child and not a walking mountain. To fathers, all sons are little boys.. “Craig, no.”

    I‘ve been called the mightiest man in Millennium, and lately it’s been with good reason. But the Mighty has broken down. The Mighty kneels. I’m that five year old boy again.

    “Craig Alexander Carson, stop that now! What would your mom say?”

    “Mom would understand.” I weep.

    “I know,” William Carson sighs, remembering his wife. She had been so loving, so brave. And she had fathered at least one extraordinary son, my brother. Dammit, Jack should be here. Mom should be here.

    My tears are rivers. Hell is the incarnation of sorrow, but the self-pity of Hell is nothing compared to the sorrow I feel at the moment. I clutch my his father closely, torn between a need to hold and protect him and a fear of crushing him. It would be just like Hell if I killed him by accident. Like Ann. Dad bows his head but he’s relishing the embrace. For the first time in ages, is he feeling like himself, human, still human? God, I hope so.

    “What the Hell happened?” Cage Young asks. I haven’t even noticed the man since I saw dad.
    Neviel glares at the demon hunter, but the whispering chooses to answer the question: is it for my sake. He owes me that much, for a lifetime of sacrifice and goodwill. How many people have I saved over the years? Only now do I realize everything was for him and mom.

    “He tried to destroy Zorasto,” Neviel explains. “But murder, however well-intentioned, will never be rewarded, and especially not in this place. Zorasto was not a demon. He was but a human host, twisted and defiled. Do you know what your enemy truly was?”

    “An ambitious jerk?” I groan.

    “True,” Neviel answers. “But I speak of his nature, not his character. The true Zorasto is an eternal spirit. He can diminished, he can be crushed, he can be defeated, and become subservient to the fabric of this place. But he cannot be slain.”

    “Baby begs to differ,” Cage Young says, flashing the dagger in the light, or what passes for it, of the infernal sky.

    “Then baby is in error,” the angel snorts. “ The demon is an infection, “ He turns again to Craig and William, “And your father, the infected.”

    “Yes,” dad sadly croaks.

    The angel again turns to Cage Young, who’s stoically watching the scene. “You’ve only slain the flesh of demons, you and your living steel. You’ve never come close to touching their spirit, their essence. You’ve achieved nothing here, except to increase Hell’s suffering. You’ve played into the Lords of Hell’s need for a bogeyman, someone to instill fear in the demon ranks. You distract them from the atrocities committed by their true enemies, their lords of Hell, who serve only themselves. Fear of you only brings them closer together. Congratulations, man of violence.”

    “Bite me, angel,” he says, “If what I’m doing is nothing, it’s the most satisfying nothing ever.” He turns to us, the sobbing pair. “But I can’t let this happen.” His dagger appears in his hand with a thought. Useful talent, especially when naked. “I’ll make it quick,” he promises.

    “No!” I cry.

    The next moment is a flash of chaos, a hellish strobe of tragic events. The metal flashes as it falls, aimed dead center at dad’s chest. His eyes widen in horror. A bloodsong sings. Then I, the big damn hero, teleports into its path at the exact moment the dagger falls --- and the dagger plunges dead center into my chest.

    The key word there is probably “dead”.

    “Craig!” dad shouts.

    I cough, spitting blood. Good, I protected dad from the big idiot.

    Dad embraces me.

    I collapse to my knees, the dagger lodged in my heart. I sense the dagger as a living thing within me, appalled. Much good it does me.

    “Well shit,” Cage Young says with a scowl. “That wasn’t supposed to happen!”

    I’ve been stabbed before. I’ll spare you the recaps, but it’s never fun. The heat of the wound, followed by the coldness of blood loss, the feeling of one’s life force ebbing. On previous occasions I’ve panicked, but this time the realization of death is almost peaceful. But I really don’t want to die at my father’s feet. I look to the angel, who looms above us in horror. Even an angel can be dismayed.

    “Well,” I say. “This sucks.”

    ******

    I adjust to the feeling of metal in my chest. Despite my earlier fears, I can continue to exist in this state, at least a little while. I rise to my feet. This hurts like… well, you know the place we’re at. I try to keep as rigid as I possibly can; no sense moving the dagger without necessity. I turn to Cage Young.

    “Dude,” I tell the man, continuing to spit blood. “You need a twelve step program to kick the murder habit. Asshole.”

    Cage doesn’t say much. I suspect he has no problems with my label. “You shouldn’t move,” is about all the demon hunter musters. The dagger, which is sentient, is letting him know what it thinks of the incident that saw it lodged in my heart. It can’t be fun being chewed out by a sapient weapon.

    “Don’t tell me what to do,” I reply. The blood’s welling in my chest. I’m remaining alive on pure life force now. It’s one of my greatest and most dubious gifts: remaining alive when I shouldn’t. But it won’t last long. I need a hospital. Or
    a healer.

    “Craig…” dad murmurs.

    “Dad, don’t. I’m not letting a little metal shank put me down for the count.” Again, I turn to the angel. I fake a smile.“Well? Have I earned a little divinely love and care?”

    “Earned it, yes, a hundred times over,” Neviel says. “But whether you can receive it from me, the answer is no. I can barely heal myself in this place, let alone others, even the deserving.” Neviel says.

    “You’ve healed me a few times,” dad notes. The angel bows his head sadly.

    “Once, when I was far stronger,” Neviel says. “But not from so grave a wound. And Hell is an affliction. It weakens you over time. As your current state amply demonstrates.”

    “I thought I was being punished,” dad says.

    “Hell is its own punishment,” Neviel replies.

    I grab the dagger and with a grunt, I pull it through. The cascade of liquid Thundrax that follows is devastating. “I’m not sure this was such a good idea,” I wince. The cold is getting worse, that’s not a good sign. Maybe my heart can regenerate in time. Maybe my divine body can fight the infection of Hell. Maybe I’ll die.

    “I’ll make a deal with the powers here to save you,” dad says, clearly desperate.

    “No!” I insist. “You’ve wasted too much of your life down here as it stands. I’m getting you home, and healed up if it’s the last thing I do!” I brandish Cage’s dagger. I get the oddest feeling from “baby”. Is she an extension of Cage? What the Hell is he? “This isn’t going to be pleasant,” I tell dad, “so please hold still.”

    Then, still bleeding, I bend down, grab the foot and I take a dagger to the infection that is Zorasto. Then I begin to suck out the poison. The angel described it as an infection. Maybe I can suck it out.

    “Craig!” dad says.

    “Mortal,” Neviel warns, uncertain of the outcome of my actions, for all his prophecies. It may be the biggest mistake of my life, but I pay him no heed. Someone else needs me.

    “I love you dad.” I say to William Carson. The shoe salesman. “I’ve saved whole cities. I’m proud of every man and woman and child I’ve ever helped. But they’re not my dad. I love you. Now let me give my life healing you.”

    “No,” dad says. The world bristles around us, like a rising storm. I can feel the air surge around us, the rankness clearing, the foulness fading.

    “Yes,” Neviel smiles. “You’re removing the poison. Not just from your dad, but from this place!” Cage says nothing, but takes his dagger back. It’s singing a gospel chorus in the man’s fingers.

    “Stop that,” the behemoth mutters to his weapon. “Man, this is corny as Hell. And I’d know.”

    “But it’s working…” Neviel says.

    ”Just don’t say it!” Cage moans. “Please don’t tell me this is the power of..”

    “…the love of a son for his father. The son is sacrificing himself for the father.” Neviel is smiling as he feels my emotions surge through his body. A tidal wave of love. “It’s the most un-Hell-like thing imaginable.”

    “It’s asinine,” Cage moans as he takes a mortal wound to his cynicism.

    “No, killer, it’s beautiful,” the angel counters. “To Hell, this is desecration.”

    “It’s not the only one,” Cage observes.

    I couldn’t care less about their opinions right now. Though like Cage, I’m not enjoying the moment. I’m cold, and I’m losing strength fast. Finally my world grows black, even as I see dad’s flesh start to get more human. He’s fighting the poison. I’m fighting the poison for him. Zorasto is losing again, and he’s not even alive to taunt me. It’s an amazing feeling.

    I remember a song I wrote for mom when I was 10. The tune is almost identical to the Beatles’ Across the Universe. I guess I wasn’t much of a musical prodigy: few kids are Mozart. The song is as earnest and as saccharine as anything composed by a frightened, too nice for his own good kid, but it’s special to me: I sang it to mom on her deathbed. I have no idea why this ancient ditty, this sketch of a chorus, is popping into my brain right now. But I sing it.

    “Life wouldn’t be worth living, but for sentiment and dreams, my love, sentiment and dreams.”

    And so, to the strum of little Craig’s imaginary acoustic guitar, the mighty Thundrax falls. But let’s face facts, Craig Carson. Isn’t this the death you’ve been waiting for all this time?

    ******

    I wake up in my apartment in Millennium. I’m alone,my chest is covered in dried blood, but I’m not dead. My heart is strong, my body warm. The air is fresh and peaceful, and feels sweet in my lungs, rubbing against my skin. This place is not Hell. It’s beautiful. There’s no sign of Neviel, or Cage Young, or dad, but based from the quantity of blood that’s smeared and dried all over my chest, it wasn’t a dream.

    “Thank goodness,” Kivioq says.

    "Kivioq?” I question the voice. There’s chatter on my team channel. Something about MEKKA and a battle off-world. It makes sense, otherwise I’d be waking up in the Barlowe autodoc.

    “Craig, please be silent and listen,” the AI instructs, conveying urgency in his voice. “I have a message, and you will want to hear this immediately.”

    “I need to find my dad,” I insist.

    “This will tell you where he is,” Kivioq answers, and I’m suddenly facing a hologram of my father. He looks a lot more human than he looked in Hell.

    “Craig,” dad says. “I need to complete my healing in a special place. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe a year or so, right?” he looks to someone “off camera”.

    “At least,” I hear Neviel’s voice. If Cage Young is about, he doesn’t say anything. Not that I’m that concerned: the man can take care of himself. Although, like me, he may have a hard time adjusting to serenity. When one has lived a life of drama on the heights, it takes a special gift to appreciate the small. But it should be savored. Life is unique unto itself, great or small.

    So observes the shoe salesman’s baby boy.

    “But I will be back.” Dad promises me. “It won’t be like the old days. But they will be good days. As for what happened to us…”

    “I blacked out.” I note.

    “Hell couldn’t contain such love as you showed. Such sacrifice. So it spat us out.”

    “So we infected Hell as badly as Zorasto infected you.” I say.

    “Precisely.”

    “It would have taken too much effort to destroy us, so out we popped. All from the power of love.“ Or Huey Lewis.

    This has to be the sappiest end to an adventure in my life – and, without a fucking doubt, the absolute best. I’m grinning like a sheepdog on a warm spring day. I realize my entire life, all the pain, all the trauma, all the sacrifice, even the tragedies and mistakes, has been preparing me for this day. The day I rescued dad. The day I beat Hell. “If you’re not back in a year, I’m coming for you.” I promise my dad. “No more tragedy. Happy endings only from now on.”

    “God almighty, I hope so,” dad says.

    “Craig,” Kivioq informs me. “A tornado’s formed on the outskirts of Millennium City….”

    I turn to face the camera. “Call of duty, again. Time to repay the world for giving me such a great dad!”

    “Kick its ass, son,” dad says, and I seal the promise with a nod and a gaze of resolution, and I head into black skies. That’s the duty of this storm god with a man’s soul. To calm the sky, to bring joy, and spread kindness. To protect the good in this world.

    Man, am I ever the biggest dumbest sap on the planet. Sentiment and dreams indeed.
    Last edited by Thundrax; 07-15-2018 at 02:51 PM.

  2. #22
    UN Basic Recipient
    Join Date
    Mar 2018
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    24

    Re: War of the Dimensions

    Fortress-ified

    Author’s Note: Okay, this really warrants a warning label, and an explanation.

    This is written for my accountant, an old college mate. He’s Dark Prowler’s player, but he also played a dumb brick in Champions (100 STR!) named Super Fortress. He doesn’t like Trump, as Mr. Trump’s trade policies are really hitting hard against his client base. This year’s commissioned story doesn’t pull punches.

    If you don’t like politics in your superheroes, or you’re tired of Trump-bashing, stay the hell away from this story. It is not kind.

    Otherwise, thank you for choosing Thundrax.

    ******

    “Ma! Beer me!”

    “I’m busy! Get it yourself!” his wife shouted.

    “You;re already over there and I’m not!”

    “Bit me!”

    Fortress grumbled and sucked on the empty Coors can, inhaling the alcohol fumes. He considered getting up and going to the refrigerator and getting a sixpack. Maybe later.

    Man, what a boring baseball game. When does football start? Not Canadian, not college football either. Real football.

    “Ma, I need beer!” he repeated.

    “Get it yourself!” his wife shrieked.

    Super Fortress, who called himself only Super Fortress, had been a hero. A great superhero. He claimed to be the strongest man on earth, and Vanguard, whom everyone else thought was Earth’s mightiest hero, didn’t feel motivated to press the point. In the early 90s, a new band, Billy and the Heroes, invited Fortress to join on as its drummer. So Fortress retired to become a rock star. It was all a plan to capture his archvillain, but the band broke up before it could be attacked. At the same time, Fortress received a cheque for millions from a billionaire he once rescued, and he decided to retire. After all, Clinton had just become president, and the country was sure to go down the tubes.

    So Super Fortress retired. After controversial remarks in a few interviews led to him being labelled “the Ted Nugent of superheroes”, he stopped giving interviews. He made his home in a rundown home in Atlanta, living common law in squalor after his first two divorces sapped away his income.

    On his front yard, there was a cheesy sign of Fortress in his now long past prime, waving an American flag. Normally bare-chested (he was an extraordinarily well-built man in his sculptured heyday), he painted on a MAGA shirt during the 2016 presidential campaign.

    “I’m not saying he’s a bad superhero,” one of the presidential candidates said. “I’m just saying that the Protectors could do better, a lot better, let me tell you, than a muscle-headed pretty boy, let me tell you one thing.”

    The reporter nodded. “So you’re telling us here at Fox and Superfriends that you’d like Thundrax booted out of the country?”

    “We don’t need American superhero jobs taken over by Canadians, let me tell you! There has to be some American who can step up and send this clown back to Justin! We need American superheroes in charge of American superhero teams!”

    “But two years ago, Mr. Carson helped save Congress….”

    The president sighed, looking stone-faced, orange, and deeply unhappy as he discussed anything he found unpleasant: like anything other than himself or his golf game. “I’m the real superhero here. I’m a real stable genius. Supergenius.Thundrax has one building, I have many buildings. He’s in charge of one little superteam, I’m the captain of one big superteam called America. And as my good buddy Invictus recently reminded me - a much more powerful superhero, by the way —Thundrax — and what kind of a name is that — had to rely on a whole team of American superheroes. All sorts of people! I hope that an American superhero will step up and kick his behind back to where it belongs.”

    And, watching this, Super Fortress had an epiphany. Also, he had to go out and get beer anyway. Why not leap up to Millennium and send the jerk back to Canada personally?

    ******

    “So Trump mentioned me by name?” Craig asked. “Kivioq can you play the clip?”

    “He wants to kick you back to Canada?” HUGIN reported. It was serious when UNTIL’s AI directly intervened, telling Kivoq to stand down. Normally, he only did that for Destroyer, Mechanon, EUROSTAR, Firewing, or Takofanes. But mutterings that he was going to pull out of the UNTIL treaty had alarmed the AI, and he was intervening as best as he could to keep the situation stable. “Perhaps you should head back to Canada for awhile. Defuse tensions?”

    “Maybe once Alex returns to the team. Though Alex was with GLOBE, and GLOBE is Canadian…”

    “Craig, there’s a derelict in Memorial Park, calling you out.” HUGIN reported. “It looks like he’s wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt. It’s a very poor fit. Good upper body development, but from the pecs down… it’s a disaster zone.”

    Craig sighed. The word “derelict”? That meant an irrational man who needed to be handled diplomatically but was often the least capable of reacting to it. Or as some called it, “the All-Lose Scenario”. “On my way.” Craig affirmed. “And HUGIN? Do we have any ID? Or is he a civilian?”

    “Yes. My word, he’s aged badly. Can that man be what’s remaining of… Super Fortress.”

    “What?” Craig said. He had met him several times in the eighties, back when he had been rude and dismissive over several warnings that Craig had given. A fake hero, secretly aligned with VIPER, had earned his trust, flashing the “Real American” card. “I’ll put on my diplomat’s hat.”

    “He wants a fight, Craig. And for a mutant of his strength, it’s impossible for his powers to decline that badly. Be careful.”

    “Í won’t let any bystanders get hurt.” Thundrax promised. Once before, he had matched physical strength with Fortress three decades ago. He wasn’t even remotely a match for him then, and unless the years were truly cruel, he doubted he would be now.

    Knowing this, he landed next to the tattered titan. The mighty American’s hair had long turned grey, with a scraggily beard, and his pot belly, once a proud six-pack, was pronounced and protruding. He was still badly winded from leaping and stomping across the country in Grond-like leaps.

    “Need liquid?” Craig asked the puffing man.

    “Beer,” Fortress huffed back, too winded to care that the object of his errand was being charitable.

    “I’ll be right back.” Craig said, clapping the man’s sill broad shoulders and flying off. Three minutes later, he landed again and handed the old hero a case of Budweisser.

    “This bud’s for you.” He said. Fortress grabbed the case and guzzled it in a fashion that offended even a man with Craig’s less-than-prissy table manners. Then he did the same for a second six-pack.

    “Now,” Fortress said, stripping off his shirt with reverence. He flexed his pecs a bit, but they had sunken like Trump’s jowls.“I’m going to kick your ass back to Canada. For Donald Trump! And for America!”

    Man, he’s sweating like a pig, Craig thought. It was macho posturing at its finest. Fortress had always been a bit of a self-parody, but now?

    “You can try,” the Canadian said. “Or we can go about this a more peaceful way. How about I take you out to Comerica Park? We can catch a double-header and I can treat you to all the corn dogs you can eat! Then I’ll take you out for drinks over at Nemo’s bar. I think they have an old picture of you in their superhero wing. I bet they’d be over the moon if you signed it! And you’d absolutely be an amazing hit with the kids!”

    Fortress thought about it for a moment. All that glory sure was tempting! “Nope!” he finally said. “You’re not going to deceive me with your Canadian hospitality!”

    “But, but… beer, Fortress. Ice cold beer! And Al Kaline’s glove!” Craig cajoled. “C’mon. Any dumb ol’ ape can do the macho thing. Even jerks like us! But beer and sports memorabilia? And a jukebox full of Zep records and Metallica? That’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!”

    “Well….” The old hero mused.

    “C’mon, Fortress, ol bud, lighten up! Everyone knows you’d kick my ass in a fight. Back in the day, you kicked everyone’s ass! But only you can Make America Fun Again!”

    Fortress’s disposition immediately turned sour, and Craig realized he had pushed the living apocalypse one quip too far. Impressively glowering, he sneered at Thundrax: “Are you mocking Donald Trump?”

    “Why no—” Craig replied.

    "Nobody sneers at Donald Trump and gets away with it! Not on my watch!”

    “C’mon Fortress….” Craig begged. But the man shoved the Canadian in his pecs, the universal symbol between macho strongmen that The Battle Was On… Craig sighed and removed his shirt. Challenge accepted.

    Fortress’s wild swings completely missed, but he forced Craig back and he felled him solely from the air of the whiffed punch. Now that was strong! Craig realized his danger but didn’t especially care. He danced around Fortress, throwing Muhammed Ali mock jabs. Fortress leapt at him and planted himself face down on the dirt. Craig straddled the former hero’s back and rode him like a bucking bronco. And did the man ever buck! Fortress reached back, grabbed him, threw him to the ground with a snap mare and tried to follow with a double footed stomp to the stomach. Craig rolled to his feet and nailed the hard-charging ex-hero with a running dropkick.

    The fight continued. Fortress threw a series of increasingly weaker punches, sweating profusely and huffing. Craig continued to dance with Fortress for a few minutes, and then, seeing the man too exhausted to defend himself tripped the hero to his back. Fortress landed on his still broad back with a thud. Craig knelt on the man’s stomach and loomed above the personification of American brawn, hands spread-eagled on the man’s pectorals. Fortress huffed, unable to fight back.

    “Are you two making out?” a woman, who was walking her pug on a leash, asked.

    “No!” Fortress exclaimed. “I just need to catch my breath, and then I’ll kick his ass.”

    “No, miss. Just a couple of old friends having a friendly tussle. Nothing more.” Thundrax said to the woman. “It’s okay for two people to show affection, but I don’t do it in public. By the way, that’s an adorable pug. What’s her name?”

    “Nate.”

    “Oh. Terrible name, sorry,” Thundrax said. “But he is a real cutie. Hey Fortress! We really should be doing this in cutoffs if we’re going full eighties for this fight! Note for next time.”

    “Just give me a minute to catch my breath!” Fortress huffed.

    “I suggest yoga,” Craig quipped at the out of shape hero, whose heart was pounding like a jackhammer. No immediate sign of going into cardiac arrest, good.

    “You two are weird!” the onlooker exclaimed.

    “The eighties were a little strange. Great music, though.” Craig replied. Pointedly ignoring the heroes, she hurried away from the scene of the fight, her dog immediately regretting the forced march.

    “Just give me a minute…” Fortress huffed again. The fight had left him beet red. All he needed, Craig thought, was a little white and blue to complete the ensemble. What happened to the star spangled briefs he used to wear?

    Craig let his opponent get to his feet. At least they weren’t endangering any bystanders, whether or not they thought they were weird.

    “Ten seconds,” Fortress said. “Then I kick your ass back to Canada.”

    “Hey big man,” Craig smiled. “I’ll tell you what. Rather than putting anyone in danger…. Because I know even on your worst day, you only hurt bad guys and bad architecture… you can punt me in the ass. You think you can kick my ass? I’ll give you your shot."

    Fortress gaped in disbelief. “Huh?” the old hero wondered. This had to be a trick. Canadians could be such tricky creatures!

    Craig turned his back, leaned over, and stuck out his ass. Good thing Dark Prowler isn’t here, he thought. I’d never hear the end of it!

    Fortress took several deep breaths and a couple of warm-up kicks – ow, he may have sprained something! – and then charged his foe. “Donald Trump!” he shouted with glee, and, with a mighty thud, he kicked Thundrax over the Detroit River. As the hero hurtled out of sight, Fortress collapsed to his back from the exertion. His entire body ached.

    “Ow.” He moaned, shutting his eyes.

    Craig returned two minutes later, rubbing his butt. “Great kick, Fortress!” he announced. “I’m going to feel that for days!”

    “But wait—” Fortress huffed. “I just got rid of you!”

    “I came back,” Craig grinned. “UNTIL treaty. I didn’t have any hassle on the UNTIL signal crossing the line – this time. Man, I bet you’re hungry after an epic punt like that! How about I treat you to lunch at Aladdin Sweets and Café? Followed by pictures at Nemo’s. I’ll even wear one of those stupid hats as a peace offering.”

    “No way,” Fortress said. “I want you to sign an official document saying that I kicked your ass over the Detroit River. And that, when Trump sends you back to Canada, you’ll stay there.”

    “Of course, ’ll abide by any lawful directive.” Craig snapped, suspecting that if the day came to bar him from the country, it wouldn’t be lawful. But for the moment, Trump’s interest was not focused on UNTIL.

    “And that you officially admit I’m better than you.” Fortress added. “In writing!”

    Craig sighed. Man, this is juvenile, he thought. But if this earns the world some peace and gets them to a place where Fortress is happy, sure.

    So an afternoon followed where Craig treated the man to the best ethnic cuisine and culture that Millennium had to offer, hoping the lesson would set in. Fortress complained about the curry being un-American and asked for hot dogs. They finally served him a half dozen steaming ballpark franks, with plenty of moustard and relish.

    “Much better. Make food great again, Not this foreign garbage.” he chortled. Craig shut his eyes to keep the man from seeing them roll.

    And, after dinner and a double-header, and more Buds than was wiser, Craig bought the old hero a ticket back to Atlanta – first class, of course - and sent the man on his way. Because, in the larger scheme, though Craig considered the times disastrous to the point of despair, politics would eventually sort itself out. Craig had reconciled with his enemies before. It wasn’t about having the bigger pecs, but being the bigger person. That, he thought, is how you made America – and the whole damn planet, this world populated by stupid and glorious humans – not just great again, but greater than it ever was. Fairer, kinder, more sustainable, cleaner, more prosperous: a world of problem solvers and troubleshooters. It was even on Craig’s mission statement, formulated many years before anyone seriously considered Trump as president.

    Make every tomorrow better than every yesterday.
    Last edited by Thundrax; 07-15-2018 at 05:35 PM.

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