Itís not long trip from Liverpool to London, even by a small military transport plane. Everyone with a metahuman gene who thinks of themselves as a "hero" is on the way here. One fucking nuke strike, and the bad guys win. No one says that out loud, but weíre all thinking that. Any time thereís a major gathering of capes and cowls, you gotta think that.
"So howíre you feeling?" Old Glory is huddled next to me -- the flightís almost as cramped as Martin Wiensís bashed up '82 VW van was back in high school, when we packed in as many members of the wrestling team as possible to see if we could survive a trip to the State Invitationals.
"My back feels like shit. And my ribs still fucking hurt," I say. "I donít usually ache this long after a fight."
"But you never fought Avatar before."
"No, but I wrestled Shane Barlow," I reply. It isnít entirely a joke.
"Who?" Old Glory says.
"An old high school wrestling rival, now a freshman at Iowa State," I explain. "You just gotta hate those big, musclebound shitheads," I reply, making all too sure Blockade, whoís sitting in the next row with Dr. Wight, can hear me. Cavalierís been doing his best to keep us separated, but Blockheadís still been doing his best to ride my ass since the moment we were introduced. Itís pretty obvious that he wants a piece of me, and truth to tell, beating someone up might be just the tonic I need.
"For what itís worth, Iím in just as much pain right now as you," Mr. Stars and Stripes tells me. "Only I donít have your recuperative powers."
"At your age, youíre fucking lucky to be able to get out of bed in the morning." I grin.
Old Glory just looks at me and gives me the olí graveyard stare. Heh. I finally put one over on the antique fucker.
We land in London and finally exit the sardine can with wings -- I donít think anyone has ever seen so many superheroes stretch at the same time in your life. A government bus is waiting for us, and weíre driven for about a half-hour through some of the narrowest streets Iíve ever seen. Everything looks fucking old. My eyes are mostly on Glory, whoís looking at the streets with a distinctive déjà vu expression; even with his government-issued half-mask, I can see it.
"Memories?" I finally work up the nerve to ask.
"Not really," Old Glory replies. "After awhile, everything looks the same." I donít know if heís bullshitting or not. "So what do you and Dr. Wight have planned to rescue your Canadian friend?"
"Oh, the usual combination of brute force and trickery," I say. "Heís an alchemist, Iím a stud, and we both know what kind of asshole the Priest is, so there are a few tactics that naturally present themselves. Doc Wightís got at least one major surprise concocted. Have you ever fought the Priest?"
"Back in World War II, I fought beside the Priest," Old Glory admits, to my horror. "He was running this cult in a backwater village in France, and the Nazis didnít like it. Of course I knew about the Priestís little outfit in Boston from the 20s and 30s, but I didnít recognize him as the man behind it; I thought he was just an innocent village priest. Imagine my surprise when I discovered him summoning these horrors from Hell, capturing poor sixteen-year-old German soldiers, cutting out their hearts and I guess sacrificing them to the Prince of Darkness. And here Iíd risked my life defending him! It was the only time during the war that I protected a Nazi. Well, except for that one time I fell under the spell of Der Fesselnder, the Spellbinder..."
Itís about the only time I pry any serious war stories out of Old Geezer, but heís not boring, and itís a long ride. We make our way to a gathering of superheroes. Itís being held in a small building thatís been designated by the British Government for the gathering of metas, itís been sequestered away from the city, near some parkland. I donít really know where we are. London is huge; itís like Los Angeles, but older and cleaner, with narrower streets. Iím beginning to think Americans build wider streets than anyone in the world, but thatís probably a false impression Iíve picked up from flying over Los Angeles freeways.
Weíre led into a large room thatís been set up as a meeting place; I guess the idea is that weíre supposed to get to know each other and become comfortable with each other before taking on the Royals. Of course, Iím not fighting the Royals -- Iím here to join with Cavalier, Dr. Wight, and Blockade to track down Permafrost -- but it makes a good cover for us to be in London. I canít help but walk around with a star-eyed stare, stopping only to apologize when I accidentally step on some troll-like Norwegian metaís tail. There are the Canucks, me and the Doc, Old Glory, Red Lion, and over a dozen other people in costume that either I donít or barely recognize. This includes former members of the Nighthawks, the US military's covert wetworks super-team that was supposed to have been disbanded a few years back, and the perfectly coordinated Red, White, and Blue Ensigns, a recently assembled team of Brits thatís starting to attract a lot of attention. White is male and athletic, Blue is female and athletic, and Red is male and yet another fucking muscle-machine. One thing they do have going for themselves is manners, not that this farmboy was ever big on etiquette. With my rep, Iíll bet theyíre expecting me to start shiting on the carpet, but they still manage to be pleasant, even the big guy.
"Which one of you is Arthur?" I ask them with a grin. They look at White Ensign and then at each other. "Yíknow, King Arthur, destined to return in Englandís darkest hour?"
"Is he supposed to be droll?" the woman, Blue Ensign, asks in an accent thatís so British I suddenly have visions of appearing on an episode of Masterpiece Theater.
"Be kind to him, Blue Ensign, heís trying very hard," White Ensign replies.
I skulk away, and spend most of my time around Dr. Wight. Wightís had promised to brief me and the Canucks on the Black Priest operation in a few hours. Iím sulking a little that Sarah didnít make the jump across the pond with him. After the fourth time I bring up her name, Dr. Wight sighs and asks me flat out: "I take it that youíre missing Ms. Steiner."
"Hell yeah!" I say. "This partyís so fucking boring. The only cool thing is watching Blockade staring at me like a faggot from across the room."
"I really donít appreciate such language, Mr. Champion." Wight says.
"Sorry. Sometimes I forget to click on my idiot filter. Donít take it too seriously," I say. "Itís not like Iím not grateful to you or the Canuckleheads in helping me look for John. Especially you. But yeah, I do miss Sarah."
"Does she know how you feel?" Wight asks.
"I donít know how I feel," I say. "I like her a lot. Sheís really very funny, and caring, and not a bimbo or a tomboy, which is what youíd guess from the look. But Iím such a -- well, you know"
"Yes, you are," Wight says.
"I donít think girls really go for guys like me. The smart ones, that is," I say. "And then thereís this superhuman musician! Like thatís gotta be the epitome... the ultimate chick flick fantasy, isnít it? When you have jock vs. arts guy, the smart ones always go for the arts guy. Itís like a law of nature."
"Are you drunk, Mr. Champion?" Wight asks me.
"Fuck no!" I exclaim. "Itís been months since I last got shit-faced. I never drink around people, and lately Iíve had so many people fucking surround me that itís hard to breathe." I pause and sadly reflect. "I must be getting boring."
"I hardly think so," Wight observes. "Perhaps you can compete with your rival in his arena. Do you play an instrument, Mr. Champion?" Wight asks me.
"I canít even sing in the fucking shower," I admit. "Iím so bad that I canít carry a tune performing hip-hop."
"Well, in all likelihood, thatís not the problem," Wight suggests. "Mr. Champion, despite your poor manners and self-destructive habits, youíre a born fighter. You just went toe-to-toe against Avatar, and you did not flinch."
"Big deal. I fucking lost."
"Youíre proving my point," Wight insists. "Youíre born to the profession. In a year, Iíll wager youíll be living on the Protectorate Monolith. Ms. Steiner, on the other hand, is a caring and talented woman, but hardly seasoned in a fight."
"What are you discussing?" Old Glory walks by, leans over, and asks, a cracker in hand.
"Women," Dr. Wight replies.
"Bye," Old Glory says with a smile, and he walks away.
"Is he divorced or gay?" I ask, referring to Sergeant Slobber.
"Mr. Champion, if you complain about how the tabloids treat your personal life, you should avoid such shabby, prurient interests," Dr. Wight observes. But then he whispers in a deadpan: "Iíll bet heís been divorced at least twice."
"Cool," I say, and I catch Wightís face sag as he spots someone coming behind us.
"Why hello, Doctor... Tommy...," a smooth voice says. I recognize the speaker. "Weíre certainly far from home today."
"Why Avery," Wight tells Stone, in a voice dripping sarcasm like fucking venom. "You decided to ignore the fatwa that follows you when you leave the United States. How courageous of you."
"Itíd be hard for a bunch of Arabs to kill a sorcerer," I state.
"Not when you have Mujahideen death spirits tracking the globe, waiting for you to lower your guard," Wight says. Stone shrugs as if he couldnít fucking care less.
"By the way, Iím real glad that Philadelphia worked out for you," Stone tells me. "Too bad about Ireland, though. So round one goes to Avatar?"
"Werenít the Chosen supposed to be fucking invincible?" I glower at Stone.
"Prophecy says that youíre destined to shed oceans of blood and cry tears without number." Stone says. I stop and stare at him. "Well, actually, prophecy doesnít say much of anything, other than when youíve gathered the Seven -- boom! Iím afraid itís up to you to chart your own destiny. But if you want some advice, you need to do some serious training before the rematch. Try Old Glory" He turns and walks away.
"You know," Dr. Wight says, "I think thatís the first time Iíve ever heard him tell a joke."
"It was almost the last time," I mutter. "So what do the Arabs want him for?"
"Not the Arabs, the Taliban," Wight says. "Something about participating in a spell that transported a Fuel-to-Air explosive three hundred meters above a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan."
"Whatís fucking wrong with that?" I ask.
"The terrorists didnít like it," Dr. Wight says and he sighs. "I have a few things to discuss with other people, Mr. Champion. Do try to stay out of trouble; it wouldnít serve Mr. Wolfe any good if you get kicked out of the country before we can affect the rescue."
Fine. Dr. Wight doesnít want to fucking hang around me anymore. Whatever.
I walk away and head to the bar. I spot Red Lion there. Shit, Iíve been avoiding the guy, and Iím not even sure why. I walk over to the bar.
"Youíve been quiet," I say.
"Itís the footage out of Ireland," he explains. "Iím sorry, Tom, I shouldnít even be here. Iím just not in the mood for a social gathering, even one with good intentions." Heís on the verge of sobbing. Shit. I put my arm around his shoulder.
"I heard you came to my rescue. Thanks man."
"Well, itís not like I didnít owe you," Red Lion replies. "Tom, the way you left, was everything alright?"
"I had a call to head back to Philadelphia," I bullshit. "Sorry if I terrified you."
"You left me on the beach in Ireland!" Damon exclaims. "I could have been recaptured by the Royal Elite."
"Fine!" I snap back. "I fucked up. Again. Iím sorry!"
"Apology accepted," Damon replies, in a voice thatís full of Irish soothing and wisdom. "And calm down. It was Avatar. Stop being so hard on yourself."
"Fuck!" I shout in a voice loud enough to bring the entire room to a screeching halt. "Will everyone please stop being so fucking understanding! I lost! I got my ass kicked! I was Avatarís goddamn bitch!" I swallow a sob. "Will people please stop saying that itís no big deal, because it fucking is! Losing to Avatar does not help all those poor sons of bitches in Ireland! Losing to Avatar isnít going to help him break free of the Royalsí fucking mind control! Will somebody please tell me that I fucked up!"
"Tom, those guys over in the corner," Red Lion says, pointing at a couple of civilians. "Theyíre the press"
I just give him an I-donít-give-a-shit look and walk away. Damon has a sad, knowing smile thatís really fucking irritating.
"Is he cracking up?" I hear White Ensign ask Old Glory on the way out.
"Nah. The kid just hates to lose." Old Glory smiles.
I donít give a fuck what that senile old flaggot has to say about me. I stomp away into a small area of parkland. Itís deserted -- we must be on private property. I sit down on a bench and just look around at the birds and the squirrels and the other flora and fauna. Iím surprised Iím not bothered by scavengers, yíknow: dogs, pigeons, the press. I expect Blockade to come over and challenge me to a "rassliní" match (which Iíd fucking welcome right now, just to deal with the boredom), but apparently heís under strict orders not to fight me. If I wasnít so miserable about the whole Avatar thing, Iíd seek him out and see if I could provoke him.
After a half hour, getting my ass kicked by Avatar doesnít feel quite as bad as it did, and I make a return visit to the party, which has now shorn itself of its social aspects and has degenerated into a tactical briefing. Wight, myself, Blockade, and Cavalier are officially designated a "B-Team" operation, meaning weíre reserve forces that Old Glory will move to the active list when needed. In truth, itís just a cover for our real operation -- attacking the Black Priestís base in Oxford. Doc moves us into a small study to discuss our mission in private. He also places a ward over the door to safeguard our privacy. Once heís sure no one can spy on us, the briefing begins.
"Our objective is the Botanic Gardens outside Merton College, located near the Magdelan Bridge," Dr. Wight informs us. "We believe that Permafrost is being held in a small chapel on the edge of the gardens here." He points out a small building on a map. "We have no idea how many how strong the Black Mass is in the area, or how many metahumans are in the Priestís complement. I only hope weíre not undermanned."
"No one outmans me." Blockade smiles. We all catch a double meaning in the statement, and I laugh my ass off. Even Wight and Cavalier look amused.
"Doc, after what you did for us back in Philly, Iíd follow you through the gates of Hell," I say. Unexpectedly, Wight shudders at the statement. "But how do you know where Permafrost is?" I finally ask.
Wight pulls out an envelope with a pair of chess pieces in it -- a black bishop and a white knight.
"Wait a minute, isnít that," I stammer.
"Yes, the information comes from Orchid," Dr. Wight says.
My mouth drops open. "Surely you canít trust that bitch! My god, all that woman ever did was act bitter, murder people, and set obvious traps, and not in that order!"
"Well, aside from the fact that we know Orchid abducted your friend, I have (of course) confirmed the information with divinations," Dr. Wight says. "Regardless of the source, the information is reliable. Permafrost is here."
"Yeah, but in what condition?" Blockade wonders aloud.
"Not good, Iím sure. I gotta admit, having just faced Red Lion and Avatar under mind control, Iím really not looking forward to making it three in a row." I pause. "I kinda wish we had olí John Wayne on our side."
"Hey! Weíre not exactly chopped liver," Blockade says, pissed that we havenít compared dick sizes yet.
"Keep your shirt on, Blockade," I say, smile, and pointedly examine the virtually topless singlet thatís his costume. "Guess I was too late on that one."
"Omega," Dr. Wight says.
"Donít worry, as much as Iíd like to show Omega the five letters of the Greek alphabet that follow his name, Iím gonna be good," Blockade growls.
Cavalier looks pretty uncomfortable with the subject. "About Permafrost" Itís so obviously heís trying to change the subject itís not even funny.
"Far be it from me to interfere when someone wishes to avoid a needless confrontation," Dr. Wight interrupts him. "But I would feel far more comfortable going against a foe of the Black Priestís caliber knowing that Mr. Champion and Mr. Roberts," Dr. Wight says, referring to Blockadeís actual name, "were in the same library, let alone on the same page."
"Donít sweat it, doc. I can work with Northern Exposure here, no problem," I say.
"Northern Exposure?" Cavalier wonders aloud.
Blockade doesnít respond directly to the insult. "I donít think that me and Mr. Champion will have too many problems, provided that he can stop obsessing over my superior looks and strength," he boasts.
"What planet are you from, musclehead?" I reply. "Yeah, youíre stronger than shit, but I donít think working out until women can trace the contours of my circulatory system is particularly sexy," I snap back.
"I give up," Cavalier says, literally throwing up his hands. "I should know better by now than to get between two meatheads who are searching for Mr. Goodbrawl."
We both look at Cavalier, and then bust our guts laughing. Cavalier just gets more fucking annoyed. "What! Now youíre laughing? Make up your minds! You guys want to fight, have at it!"
"You wanna go wrestle?" I ask Blockade casually. He nods.
So we do it. I figure we need it. We head out into a secluded back area, and I bulk up, and we let off some steam. The match quickly degenerates into friendly mauling (much like practicing with Kenny) testing each otherís strength and pain resistance. At my full muscle (once I add a few inches to my frame to cancel out his height advantage) weíre pretty close to dead even in terms of physical strength -- okay, maybe he has a slight edge. Either way, it means that if we didnít respect each other before, weíre sharing a condo in fucking Respectberg now.
Interestingly enough, when I hoist him off the ground, his strength advantage evaporates, hard. It seems like heís the fucking modern day Antaeus, son of the earth in Greek mythology, and loses a lot of his strength when his feet leave the ground. (Antaeus was killed wrestling Hercules when Herc lifted him off the ground with a bearhug and crushed his ribs -- death by homoerotic asphyxiation.) Fucking mythology! I decide not to try to recreate the incident -- Iíll save it for when he gets mind controlled.
After ten minutes of exchanging throws and "wrassliní" holds without going for a serious pin, we call it quits. Itís odd, given how much testosterone driven we are, that we both keep our cool and feel the need to goof around. "This has been one fucking week for fights," I tell him. "Avatar, Mastiff, Hack (twice), and Red Lion. Is there anyone else I should look forward to on my macho world tour?"
"Cool," I say. "I want to rip that mother fucker apart real bad, after what he did to Sarah."
"Knock-out," I explain. "Sorry. Iíve been told itís less than kosher not to use code-names."
"I didnít think she was trying to hide it. And Iíve met her. Sheís got a lot of pluck," Blockade says.
"Whereíd you meet her?" I ask.
"Musselmanís Gym in New York City. Itís one of the few places on earth
that has the equipment to put guys like us through a real workout." I think
to myself that a crossword puzzle would give Blockade conniption fits,
but for once I keep my fucking mouth shut. "You should drop by there. We
could get serious there."
"Iíve been looking for an excuse to drop into New York and see Knock-out. I could do that," I say.
"And Mastodonís tough, but youíd take him. I always figured me and Avatar were the only real heavyweights," Blockade says.
"Iíd add Sandstone," I say. He doesnít say a thing, either in protest or support. "So whoís better between you and the A-Boy?"
"I dunno. Avatarís never fought me. Our paths have rarely crossed," Blockade says, unconsciously rotating his massive shoulders and working out the kinks. "And I know he beat the crap out of you, but I envy that you got a crack at him. At least you know." The unspoken end of the sentence, the "whoís better," sticks in my craw.
I never trust a person who says crap instead of shit, but thatís beside the point. "Yeah, I can see thatíd suck," I tell him. "So do I rank as a heavyweight?"
"If I give that to you now, itíll make our next scrap less fun," Blockade answers. "Youíre pretty good -- for an American. But we Canucks have very high standards."
Itís amazing how obnoxious every Canadian can get when they start doing the whole Canada vs. U.S. thing. Fuck them. Itís almost as bad as the Catholic/Mennonite thing between Milford High and Kearney. "We better get back to Wight and Cav. They might get attacked by a wren or a swallow, and theyíd be up Shit Creek without a real man to protect them."
"In my case, Iím worth five real men," Blockade says, adopting his pro wrestling bravado.
"Four and a half." Blockade smiles. I suppress the urge to jump him, and we return to the group. Wight and Cavalier exchange glances as we approach. I reach up and hang my arm on the big guyís shoulder. "Blockade and I are planning to hop over to Amsterdam and get married." I joke. Blockade looks at me and bats his eyes. (Shit, he couldíve done something a little more physical to set up the joke -- the whole eyelash thing was old when Some Like It Hot was playing its first theatrical run.)
"Congratulations," Dr. Wight deadpans. Cavalier looks completely disgusted.
"But we were hoping to get our wedding presents now. How about the Black Priestís head on a platter?" I say.
"Anything to shut you two up," Cavalier says. You can never tell if heís joking or not. "Okay Doc, whereís the first stop?"
We make our way in secret to Merton College in Oxford. Wight gives me some mind boggling spiel about this place being over two centuries old when Columbus discovered America. "Arenít you a little short to be playing tour guide?" I joke.
"I wasnít aware of the height requirements of the job," Wight says back. "Now quiet. I need to cast a spell"
Thatís when I lunge down and grab Wight and dive with him, preventing him from getting impaled with a heavily barbed spear.
"Macha!" Cavalierís sword is drawn as sharply as his voice. The Black Priestís warrior woman strides out of a clearing, and Sandstone trundles out of the earth beside her.
"No further shall you advance," Macha declares in very bad grammar. "My spears shall ward the passage."
I burst out laughing. "How many experience points do you get for mangling the English language, lady?" I mock. "And what level are you?" I add, referring to that old geeky Dungeons & Dragons pastime.
"Far higher than yours, false Cuchulain," she announces. Fuck, is she comparing me to the biggest goddamn brat in the history of Irish mythology, the so-called hound of fucking Ulster? "Never have I been more insulted when that woman mentioned you in the same breath as him. Shall I prove what a liar she is?"
"Huh?" I say. "Who the hellís a liar? Who are you talking about?"
"The woman Orchid," Macha says.
What the fuck? "Lady, 'liar' is the least of that womanís problems," I reply. Iím getting a shut-the-fuck-up look from Cavalier, but Wight looks interested in how the conversationís going to evolve. "And shouldnít you be over in Ireland, doing whatever the Irish do when somebody fucks over their country? Youíre supposed to be one of their gods, so what the fuck are you doing hanging around with the goddamn Black Priest when thereís a job to do?"
"How dare you!" Macha hisses, throwing a spear at me full force. I grab it in mid-flight and break it over my knee.
Sandstone lunges at me, but Blockadeís on him the moment he starts to move. Cavalier interposes himself between me and Macha. I move to intercept, but Wight holds me back.
"Donít commit yourself yet," he says, wisely. "All the players have not arrived."
Heís right of course, though thatís a real tough order to follow. I nod. "Sheís quite the banshee, isnít she?" I smile, and then focus my attention on the matter at hand. I canít commit myself fully, but I can lend a helping hand. As usual, itís hard for Blockade to land a solid blow on Sandstone because of his shifty sand form, so I use my mojo and crystallize the sand a little, making it easier for Blocks to land a solid punch.
"You didnít need to do that," Blockade snarls. But the only reason I beat Sandstone was because it was hard for him to connect with me -- Blocks is a bigger target than me, and he ainít nearly as maneuverable. He needs an edge.
About thirty seconds into the fight, Cav takes the third of three nasty stab wounds and goes down. Heís helpless, so Iíve gotta intervene. I step over his prone body and challenge the Black Massís Xena clone.
"Again, the false Cuchulain." Macha sneers. "I challenge you to prove who you really are!"
"Okay," I say, glad for anything thatíll give Cav a little bit more time to recover. I pull my wallet out of my costume (actually, I just summon the damn thing magically, but I pretend to use pockets). "Check out the driverís license."
"Do you think Iím so easily mocked!" Macha hisses.
Iím tempted to flip her off and say yes, but thereís something weird going on here. "Lady, why the hell are you even listening to someone like Orchid?" I may as well be questioning her sanity, but that woman always got to me, and I gotta know what she said. "And just what did she say to you?"
"She said that you were the reincarnation of Cuchulain. She pointed out many parallels between your life and his," Macha stated. "That you obtained your power in your seventeenth year, your connection to the gods of sun and water, obtaining your powers from a lightning strike"
"Orchid is living proof that you can read way too fucking much." I sigh, briefly glancing at the disapproving Dr. Wight. "If sheíd lived in the real world instead of fantasy book land, she might have been able to deal with her issues, instead of becoming a demon-possessed psycho bitch."
"Be it as it may, I will destroy her." Macha smiles. "And you as well, for her false claim."
Cavalier begins to stir. Macha kicks him in the face, and wards me away from him with her spear. Iím trying to keep an eye on this, an eye on the fight between Blockade and Sandstorm thatís tearing up the gardens about fifty meters away, and any hint of other Black Mass members on the scene.
"Lady, you do realize that Orchid and I are mortal enemies, donít you? And that killing me to spite her would be like, well, killing Fomori to get at Nuada." I hope Iím remembering the mythology right
"Iím not the fool you think I am. The child loves you," Macha states. Holy shit! Where the fuck did she get that idea? "I see you donít believe me. How blind can you be?"
"Where the fuck did you get that impression?" I say, not believing what Iím hearing.
"She slew your former lover. Only love is powerful enough to kindle such hate. One look at your image, and she became obsessed with you, even though you dwelt nearly a thousand leagues away from her. Look at the elaborate skeins she wove to ensnare you. What else could it be but love?" Her face wears a very sad, but still very condescending look. "And, then there is the second of the childís two great insults, comparing you to my beloved Cuchulain."
Yet another fucking mythological loony tune. "She got to you, didnít she?" I say with a smile. Her obsession with Cuchulain is definitely her weakness. "You donít know for sure, do you?"
"Of course I do!" Macha snarls. "The true Cuchulain was a force of nature. No one could restrain him from joining battle, as this dwarf has done! And surely no mere godling such as Avatar could have bested him!"
"Jesus!" I snap. "Is everyone going to shove fucking Avatar in my face?" I turn to the self-satisfied woman. "Despite your bullshit, I can see you still have doubts. Not that I really care, but I can think of one way to prove whether or not Iím your Celtic Warrior Asshole."
"Whatís that?" Macha says, ignoring the insult.
"Iíll show you if you let me," I promise.
"Do you worst!" Macha snarls, giving me permission, and lowering into a combat crouch. Sheís obviously expecting me to attack her.
Of course, I have the opposite idea in mind. I grab her, and I kiss her, a long, passionate fucking kiss that lasts for about fifteen seconds. She struggles for the first five, then she melts until we catch our breath.
"You, misbegotten swine!" she snarls as I let her go.
"No one fakes a kiss, Macho Girl," I say. "Itís like a fingerprint. If Iím the guy you knew reborn" (And I hope to fucking god Iím not!) "that should give you a fucking clue."
Macha stares at me, uncertain of what sheís feeling. "Macha." An all-too-familiar-voice calls out. "To my side, now! This one is not for your talents."
"I would swear vengeance, but it is unnecessary," Macha spits at me. "An evil eye watches you boy. It shall guide you to your doom."
"If somebodyís eye offends me, Iíll fucking pluck it out," I paraphrase. Cavalier and Wight, who werenít exactly impressed to see me kissing on the first date, get to my side. Sandstone and Blockade untangle themselves. "And that assholeís entire fucking body offends me," I say, pointing at the Priest.
"It is good to see you again, Chosen." The Black Priest smiles. "The sight of you is like dark prophecies sung sweetly in my ear."
"Whereís Permafrost!" I shout.
"Near. Very near," the Black Priest says calmly. "And do not fret. You are destined to find him. Take comfort in it."
"Comfort? From you? Why the fuck would I do that?" I declare.
"Have you told him about the challenge, Doctor?" the Black Priest asks.
"Ah, you noticed me," Dr. Wight doesnít reply directly. "How disappointing to see you in your current condition." I give the Doc a questioning look. "I had rather fondly hoped that one day, you would depart from the ranks of the living," Wight clarifies. The Priest seems amused by the insult. "As for the challenge, if you wanted to rub Omegaís nose in it, you should have made it a little more obvious."
"What now?" I sigh. "What bullshit does he have in mind this time?"
"All heroes must perform certain deeds." The Black Priest smiles. "It is part of their story, a natural progression toward an apocalyptic climax."
"How fucking post-modern of you," I say. "So by making me do all this Joseph Campbell shit, youíre accelerating Armageddon?"
"Precisely," the Priest answers. "I bring you the labyrinth, Chosen. At its core is your missing comrade."
"And let me guess, Iím supposed to jump through a lot of hoops, perform mythic deeds, yada yada yada, only to discover that once Iíve reached the center of the maze that youíve done something horrible to him -- and to save my friend, I must beat the shit out of him," I mock with a snarl. "Oh, the pain and suffering. Oh, the tragedy." I cross my arms and scowl. "Donít you assholes have anything new to offer?"
The Black Priest starts roaring with a laugh thatís so long and so fucking evil that I nearly shit myself.
"Thomas," Dr. Wight says in a low voice. "I know youíre tired of playing this bastardís games, but if there is any hope to find Permafrost."
"I know," I say with a quick swallow. "But do these assholes have to be so fucking blatant about their manipulations?"
"Take pleasure in beating them at their own game, Omega," Cavalier says, in a voice that drips sagacity and wisdom like a senior year history teacherís. "When you can take the full measure of their schemes and break them, then you have achieved the greatest victory of all."
"Perhaps you would find the words of Vince Lombardi more comprehensible," Dr. Wight elaborates. "He said never to attack your enemy at his weakest point, always attack him at his strongest. If you can defeat his strengths, then a complete victory will be yours."
"I get it. Cool," I say. "Lombardi was a tyrannical asshole, but he was a smart tyrannical asshole."
"This place is ancient, Omega," the Black Priest says with a leer. "And it houses forces that are more ancient than its walls. Are you prepared?"
"I hate you," I tell the Priest. "Letís get this mythic bullshit over with."
"Are you certain that is what you want? A mythic ending?" the Priest asks me. "In four-color dramas, in comic books, in these comfortable little fight stories that you so doggedly recreate, the hero wins nearly every time. But in mythology, victory is far more uncertain, and tragedy abounds." He turns to Macha, and then to Cavalier, and smiles faintly.
"I realized that after I fought Brazos," I say, not willing to let him know heís spooking me. "But I promise you this, Priest, every fucking hoop you make me jump through, and every second of pain you make me experience, I will remember. Because if this is myth, you and I will have a reckoning."
"So speaks the cornered tiger, barely realizing what all the guns that are trained on him will do to his glorious tiger form once the hammers drop," the Priest replies.
"Jesus Christ, now youíre William Fucking Blake," I snap. "Letís just do it." The Priest nods.
The Merton Botanical Garden is not normally a hedge maze, but it is today, as the Black Priestís spell engulfs the area, and a large, thick, dank maze of ivy-entwined hedge. And just what plants are hedges anyway?
I walk into the maze, and I donít look to see that itís sealed behind me -- I know the asshole Iím dealing with. I make marks in the floor of the labyrinth, but the instant they appear, they vanish. To my surprise, I donít hear the Priestís voice gloating about my ignorance. I fly up to get some altitude, but naturally, that wayís barred to me too; thereís an invisible barrier above me. The Priest must have spent quite a bit of time preparing this little encounter. Of course, this begs the question of why heís even allowing me a shot at John, but weíll handle that in the post game analysis.
My first obstacle is a fucking big door, set square in the maze. On it, thereís an inscription: "Only through violence can this door be opened, but the violent cannot pass through it."
I guess that leaves me out.
I think about the riddle for about five seconds, and I think I come up with an answer. I create a violent force field around the door that pries it open, and then try to calmly walk through it. I bounce off an invisible barrier.
"Hey!" I protest to no one in particular. "My solution does meet the conditions of your fucking stupid riddle!"
No one answers me. I pace a bit, trying to think of a secondary solution, and when nothing comes to me, I use brute force against the opening and after about fifteen seconds of sweat, Iím through.
"So much for riddles," I say, and I continue through the maze.
After twenty more minutes of wandering around shrubbery, I come to an opening. Unfortunately, as soon as I step through, I get a feeling of intense danger where Iím about to step. I manage to keep my foot from stepping on the precise spot, and instead I twist and throw myself backwards. Thereís an explosion where I stepped, and something comes shooting out of the earth, a dark force that wails with the most hideous fucking sound you ever heard, clutches with occult talons at what would have been there, and then sinks with a moan back into the earth.
"Demon land mines," A manís voice informs to me. I canít pinpoint the source. "A pity you didnít fall for them. I prefer easy victories."
I turn around and look for the source of the voice -- whoever it is must be a fucking ventriloquist. I look for heat signatures in the shrubbery, then try to see if I can find a mental presence, and abruptly I receive the most painful headache Iíve ever had. A thousand masks, hidden in the brush, light up on the combined infrared-psionic vision like fucking Roman candles. Theyíre like masks from the movie Scream, only animated, and they bring to life every fucking nightmare and bad experience Iíve ever had.
The pain of getting hit by lightning. Crying for six hours after seeing mom pick up her bags and I finally realized that she meant it this time. The moment Steve told me Iíd never see Rachel alive again. Getting my collarbone broken by Barlow. Avatarís bearhug. Granddadís funeral. Getting the shit beaten out of me by Noah Doerksen when I was five because he caught me tresspassing on his farm. And, worst of all, the first time that Buck lost control, fighting with him while Mr. Dyckís barn burned around us.
"Asshole!" I snap, and I block the knife thrust thatís heading for my throat. Itís Hellblade, a mercenary wearing demon camo paint over a hirsute body and a costume straight out of Gladiator. His knife is huge, its size is psychological as well as physical. Itís another fucking demon weapon, just like Hackís chainsaw.
"You didnít like my surprise," he purrs as I catch his wrist and (despite resisting with strength thatís well into the superhuman) casually break it. The pain doesnít even register on his face. He drops his knife, kicks it before it hits the ground, catches it with his other hand, and slashes my face with a smooth, continuous motion. The knife burns me when it hits the fucking thingís poisoned, and almost immediately my visionís blurring. Shit, this is so goddamn painful I can barely describe it. "I really love skinning the spandex off you boys," he says. "Itís like a second skin."
Hellblade lands a knee to my balls, and tries to plunge the knife deep into me. I remember the footage I saw of how he nearly killed Halcyon in San Diego ten years ago, and thatís enough to get me really pissed off. I grab him by his throat, and shake him down. My left hand grabs the wrist of his knife hand and shakes the blade loose. "You shouldnít get Ďthe spandexí mad, Hellblade," I say. "The Spandex is pissed, and soís Ďthe boyí inside it."
"Core," Hellblade calls through a choke.
I turn around and face a beautiful evil. Heís a humanoid figure, seven feet tall, basalt-skinned, with veins and cracks of molten gold illuminating his body. His face is a living mask of pure gold. "I wouldnít take another step, Core, unless you want his throat crushed."
"That threat comes too easily, boy," Core says. "I donít need to play poker to know when youíre bluffing."
"Whatís with all this Ďboyí bullshit?" I scowl. "Who taught you English -- the Klu Klux Klan?"
"No," Core says. "Just the normal cesspool of humanity. You were so eager for us to learn your language, so you could hear our voices fawn all over you, tell you how superior you are."
Us. Core still harbors the delusion of being Prince of the so-called Mantle Men, a subterranean civilization that was wiped out because of the evils of nuclear testing. Yet another tragic, pulpy supervillain origin, just like child abuse, or the size of O.J.ís alimony payments. Underneath the sob story, heís just another criminal asshole. Who the fuck programmed this bullshit into him -- Stan Lee?
I throw Hellblade to the ground, he takes a misstep, and gets sucked into the earth when another demon land mine explodes under his feet. His scream seems to echo everywhere around us. Holy fuck!
Core launches at me before I can react; Hellbladeís accident has definitely left me flat-footed. In fact, I donít even feel his punches until the third blow lands. Part of it is the numbness in my face from Hellbladeís poison, and part of it is just me stopping to consider what happened to my enemy. But whatever happens, I better do something quick. The longer Core stays in the same spot, the stronger he gets, and heís thoroughly dug himself in.
"You may call yourself the Omega, but I am the ending!" Core declares.
"Bullshit," I say, and I lift him off the ground. Shit, heís heavy, but at least Iíve broken the olí kinetic cascade trick
Then he slams me with a solid basalt fist, and itís stronger than his previous blows. Shit, this ainít supposed to work like that!
"Did you think Iíd have the same weakness forever?" Core snarls. "Or that I lent my services to the Priest because I enjoyed his company? I came to him because heís given me the ability to keep increasing my powers even after I make major expenditures of kinetic energy. You donít have a prayer."
"Fine." I land, and remember what Dr. Wight and Cavalier told me, about beating people at their strength. "Give me your best, because even with Hellbladeís fucking venom running through my veins, my best is better than anything youíve got to fucking offer any day of the week."
So we slug it out, with me giving it my all, and Core getting stronger with every passing second. Once again, I have the maneuverability advantage, but Coreís also amazingly resistant to my blows.
"This time I am going to win!" Core snarls determinedly as we fight, beginning to land punches a little more frequently as I get tired. "And all the defeats all the demons get put to rest"
I donít know if I can take much more punishment, but something heís said has given me an idea. "You want demons?" I smile. I touch him, and allow Core to see both into the infrared and into the psychic plane, so he can see the masks. "Say hello."
I expect him to be distracted, but if anything, the sight of a thousand masks of madness does too fucking good a job. The sight of Hellbladeís forest of psychic masks brings the so-called destruction of his people to the fore, and he canít cope. Not to mention ten years of defeats against people like Avatar, Echelon, Blockade, Seneschal, Mike Muscleman, and even the Forgotten (or at least I think he beat Core, everything gets a little hazy when I try to remember the details about that guy). Core goes completely catatonic.
"Sorry, you son of a bitch, you were just doing too fucking good," I say, and I leave him to stand there like some art deco statue. I head toward what I think is the center of the maze. Itís hard to navigate when any landmark you make is instantly removed. I guide myself more by the fluctuations of magic than anything else; the Priest has to reinforce certain places more strongly than others, so Iím guided not so much by the physical as the mystical; it becomes, by my perceptions, what magicians would call a ley line maze.
Fuck, Iím getting a little too deep into the occult, arenít I? Mom would have a heart attack if she knew -- if she still gave a shit about me.
Every once in awhile, where the magicís weak, I try to test the mazeís defenses, fly above for an aerial view, or try to project my senses high above me. Neither trick works. Thereíll be no clever victories for this boy today. Or so the Priest thinks.
Iím beginning to get tired. The venom effects are beginning to fade, and my mindís less clouded, but itís a bitch trying to keep track of the mazeís features on two levels of reality. But finally my patience pays off: the hedges are turning from green to brown, and then get white with frost. The ground gets ice slick, and finally, is covered with a thick white snow blanket. Rejuvenated, I stride for a clearing, where I spot several snowmen artfully decorating the glade, mouths agape in joyful surprise, their fingers pointing in one particular direction.
"Alright!" I shout. "I can take a hint, John."
One of the snowmen shuffles and moves, and John steps out of it. "Boo," he says.
"That fashion show in Philly really sucked, didnít it?" I say. "I told you that you shouldnít have wasted your time there."
"Yeah, it was boring," John answers. "I was almost glad when Hack and Orchid showed up."
"By the way, Iím not fighting you," I say.
"Given how you like to fight, thatís a real insult," John replies.
"No, Ďfuck youí is an insult," I reply. "Coming here after so much has happened, not giving up on you despite the rest of the world going to fucking shit, well, that should tell you how much you mean to me."
"No. You came here so you could tell yourself what a big man you are," Permafrost counters. "And itís because you hate the Priest, you didnít want him to win. You never did a good deed in your life that wasnít driven by greed or ego."
I look at him and smile. "You know, youíre probably right. But what about you? Whatís Mr. Black and Bad done to you? Made you more powerful? Whatís his bullshit line?"
"I get to survive the end of the world," John says.
"Fuck!" I laugh. "John, you idiot, do you really want to stick around for the clean-up on that bash? And even if that partyís coming, what makes you think the Priest can make good on the promise?"
"If you canít have faith in a Priest, who can you have faith in?" John asks.
"Donít talk to me about Priests," I snarl. "Not only do I have to worry about that black clad asshole, Iíve got Reverend Dykstra having an affair and fucking my mother in his basement on Christmas when she should be with her family. So donít talk to me about Priests."
"Man, you need a shrink," John says.
"Show me someone who doesnít," I reply. "By the way, if thereís anybody here who hears voices in their head, raise your hand."
John does, grinning wide. We both know about the tornaq, the Inuit spirits that give John his powers, and who also talk to him. I wonder if the Priest has negated their influence? "And Iím still more sane than you, Tommy," He boasts.
Thatís it, John, lower your guard I start to inch closer. For the plan that Doc Wight and I concocted to work, I need to get close. Every fraction of a second is an advantage Iíll take.
"It ainít always bad to be a little crazy," I say.
"Oh yeah? Two words: ĎJaguar Grill.í" Itís not like John to reopen old wounds like that. "You can lie to yourself all you want. At least Iím honest," he says.
"Well, that depends on the fucking subject," I reply. "Did you really get religion, or did the Plaque Beast get into your head and fuck it up? Is what youíre telling me free will, or is it memorex?" John doesnít say anything. "Whatís the matter? Havenít you got a fucking joke for that?"
"Thatís all you ever thought of me. Or anyone else," John accuses. "Weíre just jokes for you to laugh at."
"Really?" I take a step closer, estimating the distance between us as about a tenth of a second rush. With Johnís reaction time, I need to cut that at least in half, and get him upset, to take him by surprise. "If the jokes bugged you, whyíd you enjoy telling them?" John doesnít say anything. I take another step forward. "Címon, man. Piss on the goddamn brainwashing, and come on back to us. Whatever heís done to you, weíll find a cure! Youíve got a whole pantheon of gods ready to help you! What the fuck is he gonna do about that?"
John looks up at me and gives the most fucking disturbed laugh Iíve ever heard, a laugh thatís just this much fucking shy of complete despair. I know Iíve lost him now. Oh, what the fucking hell
I rush him. He immediately becomes a cloud of frost, untouchable, and starts to snowblind me. Shit, thatís gonna make our plan a fucking lot harder to implement. "No fight, eh?" he says.
"You know how I like to bullshit." I shoot back. I canít see even see to the edge of the fucking maze, and shit itís getting cold, colder than anything Iíve felt since I got my powers, even outer space -- Johnís powers arenít exactly science friendly. I remember seeing the Tyrannical Trio treated for hypothermia -- now I know how they must have felt.
The ground beneath me hardens, and cracks, and ice spikes are erupting everywhere. All as John maintains his ice storm form. "You shoulda done this to Hack and Orchid!" I shout.
"I wasnít thinking straight in that fight!" a voice carried on the wind answers.
I smile, concentrate, and I use my magic to flood the area around us with warmth. Now Johnís way better at this than I am, and I ainít trying to compete with him in his arena. But heís getting burned by the energy, and Iíll bet I can take his punishment better than he can handle mine.
After about ten seconds, John realizes this, and changes his tactics. As I expect, he solidifies -- and Iím on him in milliseconds. The instant heís solid, I grapple him, and I pour a concoction that Doc Wight gave me down his throat. The hard part is forcing him to drink. But after an uncomfortable two seconds, he finally swallows it, and I get into his mind and Iím on him like a bad hangover, just screaming at him to shake off the Priestís influence.
"All right!" John snaps. "Get out of my head, Tommy! And man, that stuff was vile! What was it?"
"A potion brewed by Doc Wight," I answer. "Designed to negate outside mystical influences on the mind. We used your favorite beer as a base -- Moosehead."
Heh, John hates that shit. "You bastard," he says.
"I ainít a bastard," I answer. "My parents were legally married. John, you have got to stop getting Ďbastardí confused with Ďassholeí."
"Man, I feel sick." Permafrost shakes his head and fights an urge to throw up. "The Priest put something inside me, to control me. Now that the link has been broken, the tornaq are eating it now."
"Weíd better get you to a hospital." I surround John with a regeneration field -- for all I know, the Priest may have fucked up his vital organs so the tornaq would literally eat John alive if he lost control of him, because thatís the way the Priest thinks.
John and I manage to combine our powers on the barrier on the edge of the maze, and immediately it shatters. I spot Doc Wight and the others in the distance, and immediately head toward them. Wight immediately holds up a special lense, inspects John and nods. He was worried that Permafrost might actually be the Black Priestís pet shapechanger, Doppleganger. But Iíd give an Oscar for Best Bullshitting to anyone who could fake Permafrostís performance that convincingly.
"Itís him," Doc confirms.
"This is not over, Chosen." The Black Priest makes his non-requested appearance. Heís looking real pissed at the moment. Of course, "drama queen" is at the top of the fucking list in a supervillainís job description.
"Of course it isnít," I tell him. "Youíre still breathing, asshole."
He stews on the insult for about five seconds, his arms drawn at his sides long and tense, his hands this close to balling into fists. "Enjoy your triumph, Omega," he finally says. "Itís as short-lived as life itself."
"Oh, go have an apocalypse or something!" I tell him.
"You shall not mock me again," the Priest promises, and he and the rest of the Black Mass vanishes.
John collapsed into Cavalierís arms, and he and Blockade are supporting him. Docís calling for an immediate evacuation, and informing the British authorities about the damage to the gardens. I mention Core and Hellbladeís "demon mines", and he starts to grumble about the amount of extra shit he has to do, and he wanders toward the garden, casting some sort of spell as he walks. It ainít politically correct (meaning itís sick and wrong), but watching him waddle as he walks is pretty fucking funny.
And finally, for the first time since I visited the Protectorate satellite, I have a chance to sit back, take a deep breath, and actually think about everything thatís happened. There is no way we should ever have gotten John back alive. No fucking way. I really donít buy the whole "letís make him walk in a heroís shoes" bullshit either, although I have to admit thatís a possibility. This thing has got to be some sort of trap, and I gotta be ready for it when it closes.
But Iíll worry about it tomorrow. Todayís just been too big of a bitch.