.Warning: Adult themes and language. Reader discretion advised.

What has gone before... Tommy Champion, Nebraska farmboy, and all-round hellraiser turned superhero, arrived in Los Angeles to become the official superhero of Nike. His cocky attitude, foul mouth, and bad temper did not win him any friends, except for Michael Carleton, a Nike image consultant who gave him the superhero nom de guerre "Omega," and Leona Blade, Michael's friend and confidante. Both of these friendships have their down sides, as Michael is a sorcerer with a dark past, and Leona has become the object of Tommy's lust, despite Leona's engagement to Frank Rodgers, a UCLA psychology student and Olympic athlete.

Tommy and the young Canadian hero John Wolfe (better known as Permafrost) both won positions as Nike's sponsored superheroes, and seemed destined for a typical superhero life -- except that Omega is more than a metahuman, he's one of the Seven Chosen, a superbeing who's destined to fight an important battle against the forces of darkness.

Thanks to Omega's greatest enemy, the Black Priest, and the villains Hack and Orchid (whom Omega mistakenly calls Slash), Tommy has experienced a series of recent tragedies. Three deaths have been linked to Omega, including that of MNN reporter Alan Dyment. Permafrost has been kidnapped, and is being transformed into a pawn by Black Priest. Because of the scandal, Omega has lost his endorsement job at Nike, but the tragedy that's made the greatest impact on him is the death of his former girlfriend, Rachel Wiebe, who has been brutally murdered by Orchid. And thus our story begins.
 


Hell
by Scott Bennie

XII: Hell



About two-thirds of the way through any formula action picture, there's the Pity Sequence. You all know what I'm talking about. The "hero" has been a fucking asshole throughout the entire picture, you can barely stand the little cocksucker, and then something happens to him that's even more horrible than he deserves, and he spends the next ten to fifteen minutes in a complete funk until the popcorn chewing masses finally feel sorry for the little creep. That's when the hero's best friend, chewing his way through incredibly earnest dialogue that can barely be heard over the driving back-beat of a 70s schlock rock score, finally persuades his buddy that all he has to do is stop being an asshole, develop a few ethics, and train hard, and he'll be able to knock the block off that Thai deathmatch champion, or win the big auto race, or graduate at the top of his class from fucking Top Gun, or make Mr. T. his own personal bitch.

Well, I guess we just fucking hit the two-third point of my movie. My life is an absolute piece of Grade A Nebraska shit; it's not just a pity party, it's a fucking self-loathing Mardi Gras. Although I have enough pride left that if I hear even a hint of "Eye of the Tiger" in the background, I'm going to fucking go psycho on somebody, that's a promise.

I don't remember much about the minutes after Steve told me the news. Dad and Buck went into hiding as soon as they found out a supervillain might be involved. It takes a lot of prodding, but Steve says her body was found with deep slash marks from a woman's fingernails, and it had been nearly completely drained of blood. I'm pretty sure this is Slash's work. Fuck, I never thought she was this unstable.

"It sounds like 'Slash' is some kind of vampire," Michael says. "A powerful one, if this is the same woman who attacked Permafrost."

"Anyone got a fucking stake?" I mutter.

Kenny had also been attacked, and was apparently under sedation at Lincoln General when Steve left.

"The attacker wanted to leave behind a witness," Michael says. "You must have really pissed her off, farmboy."

There is no way this bitch is going to hide from me. And when I find out where she is, a lot of fucking blood is going to flow, and if the entire fucking planet screams, I won't give a shit.

We talk about Kenny. Steve assures me that all his friends are looking after him. They used to be my friends too. I suggest that Steve go home to be with him, but Steve says that I'm his friend too, and even though I don't admit it, I need him too.

Fuck him, even if he's right. From there, the conversation descends into an insane spiral of self-pity. Don't ask me what I said. I just remember how hurt I felt when I saw Rachel had an engagement ring on her finger, how I couldn't just swallow my fucking pride and be happy for her, and for Kenny? God, I wish I could have just been happy. What the fuck is wrong with me that I think other people's happiness is a curse? I get the impression from Steve that Kenny was hoping I'd settle our differences, that he wanted me to be his best man. Steve doesn't want to admit it, because he's an even worse liar than he is a wrestler. God fucking bless him.

They were going to get married on Christmas Eve. Fuck, that would have been beautiful. I could have made it snow for them, or I could've gotten poor ol' John to give them some real winter. I always thought it would be great to get married on the farm, just before harvest. If it were up to me, I'd conduct the ceremony with everyone standing in the center of a wheat field. Sure, it'd be uncomfortable, it'd be confusing, and you'd lose a bit of the crop from people trampling around, but what a fucking wedding to remember it would be.

Steve and Michael stay with me for hours. I'm just not saying much, and nothing I say is really memorable. Steve is close and practically grafts himself onto me. Michael stays at a distance, listening hard, and saying little. A couple of times he tries to pry Steve away off me, but Steve couldn't take a hint to save his fucking life. Fucking moron.

"Guys, I'm going to try to get some sleep," I finally say. "We'll be doing some serious vengeance in the morning." I pause; the last sentence was way too flippant. "That's a fucking promise."

It's a long, troubled sleep. I don't really have much in the way of dreams, but I think I can hear Steve and Michael talking, and there's something about John in the mix, and my tongue tastes the way it does when I'm exposed to black magic.

"You okay?" Steve says, in a quiet, troubled voice.

"I dunno." Michael's response is a half-groan; it sounds like he's in pain. "I think Tommy was subconsciously resisting. I couldn't make any progress."

"Everything went black for a second, and I thought I saw something," Steve observes. "A figure in black. Everything was shadow, but I thought I saw..."

"That's just a trick of the spell. It's real common when someone experiences a divination for the first time. The subconscious mind makes you want to see something, even when it isn't there."

"I was just hoping I could help..." Steve sighs. "We could help. What about Tommy?"

"He'll be fine. This guy isn't just resistant to magic -- it toughens him. He was built to take it."

"Tommy's about the toughest guy I know, but sometimes I worry about what goes on in his head," Steve says.

Me too, I'm tempted to add.

"His closest colleague was kidnapped, he's been framed for multiple murders, his ex-girlfriend has been killed, and he's lost his job. I'd be real fucked up too if all that happened to me in just a few hours." Michael says.

"I know. It's so nuts. Why him?" Steve says. "He can be a pain, but that's no reason for somebody doing this amount of crap to you."

"I know. God, I fear for the morning." Michael sighs. "Why don't you have a rest? You had a long flight and a longer day."

"I'm not tired."

"Kids," Michael says with a laugh. "He'll need you tomorrow. Get some rest."

I can hear Steve give a long, heavy sigh, and walk out of the room, his feet dragging a bit. There's silence for about ten seconds.

"Farmboy, I'm really, really sorry," Michael tells me in a whisper. "But you are so shit out of luck it isn't funny." Ain't that the fucking truth.

I briefly stir. Maybe this is a dream, or maybe it isn't. Michael has pretty much admitted that he occasionally casts spells on me, "for my protection", he says. He's probably not bullshitting me, but at those times when I think that bullshit and not hydrogen is the basic atom of the universe, I wonder about those spells too

******

I sleep a fucking long time, well past noon. When I awaken, Steve Doerksen is still waiting beside me: teammate, loyal companion, and bedwarmer, his everpresent puppy dog expression on his face. This concerned gaze is filled with a fraternal longing, like the farmers had for Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. At least he's not holding my fucking hand.

"Fuck, Steve, are you still here?" I snarl, looking directly at his face.

If he was a man, he'd tell me "fuck off yourself, Tommy, I'm not here, you're just having a goddamn hallucination, psycho boy."

"Where else would I be?" he asks with a shrug.

I sigh, get out of bed, and put on my costume with a thought.

"Is there anything I can do for you, Tommy?"

We trade a long, tense, stare. I swallow the impulse to tell him to fuck off and die. I wish he'd fucking understand what I really mean when I say that. So I'll get serious. "Two things, Steve," I finally say. "First, stay out of my way. I'm not safe to be around right now. Second -- and more importantly -- don't die. I'm sick to fucking death of death."

"Me too." Steve nods.

"And Steve, don't watch me in my fucking sleep," I add. "They issue court orders about that sort of thing."

Steve blushes. "I just remember that the Chain attacked you in your sleep. You need someone to watch your back."

"Is that so?" I say, coldly. It was the wrong thing to say to me right now.

Steve's about to make a flippant retort, but the look on my face stops him cold. I step out of bed, grab Steve's wrist, and squeeze it. By superhero standards, it's a gentle squeeze. But by real world standards, it's hard enough to test the anatomy of even a sturdy Nebraska farmboy. He grimaces, but doesn't cry in pain.

"Hurts, doesn't it? That's what one of the weak supervillains can do to the human body."

"You know it's not easy to frighten me," Steve answers, coming close to grunting each word. I increase the pressure by a fraction. Doerksen almost buckles.

"Listen, you little piece of shit, don't you go fucking thinking that you belong in my world," I say through huge fucking gritted wolf-teeth.

"Ugh." But despite the agony, Steve maintains his eye contact.

"You can't exist in my world! In my world, you are made out of fucking glass, and the slightest goddamn touch will break you."

Steve keeps looking me directly me in the face and continues to fight the pain. I really have to give the guy a lot of credit; he's always had a high pain tolerance, but even I wouldn't have dreamed he was such a total trooper. But that makes it even more important to make my point, so I continue the rant.

"You will die if you stay too long in my world, and I do not want you fucking dead. So keep your fucking distance, Doerksen."

Steve concentrates for a second. "Is that the best you can do, Tommy?" he finally groans.

Shit, Steve's having a genuine, Grade A, macho moment! I'm very fucking proud of him, but I ain't about to show it. I let go of my grip.

"Not even close," I sneer. "And if you stay here, I ain't promising to protect you."

"I'm not asking for protection," Steve says, shaking his wrist and examining it for sprains. "But I'm not going to be stupid either."

"That'd be a change," I say.

"Oh, c'mon Tommy! I know I can't go toe-to-toe against one of your sparring partners. I'm not here to be your sidekick. I'm here because I know better than anyone how much pain you're dealing with, and how much you need support, and despite everything, you deserve it." He jabs a finger into my chest to emphasize his point.

He waits for a contradiction, but I don't give him any. His momentary testosterone rush fades, and his voice softens. "And if I'm getting too close and I'm being too annoying, I'm sorry! I don't do this stuff very well."

"That's for sure," I say.

"It's weird though. Given everything that's gone down between us over the years, I'd never have guessed I'd be at your side" Steve shakes his head.

"Yeah, I treated you like shit most of your life. How many times did I beat you up in the first five grades?"

"At least fifty," Steve says. "But if my dad hadn't beaten you up"

"I'd still have gone after you." I quickly admit, not really wanting to remember what Noah Doerksen did to me when he caught me trespassing.

"It's not like our families liked each other," Steve says.

"It wasn't just the fucking family feud. You were a tall, skinny dork, and you were so fucking full of yourself"

"I was?" Steve questions.

"Well, I thought so at the time. And I could always get a rise out of you, and you didn't back down." I laugh. "And now I'm the one with the fucking bullseye on my back. Now I know the fucking Hell I must have put you through."

"That's ancient history," Steve says.

"There's only one problem with ancient history -- it still happened," I counter.

"Well, I think I'm pretty cool when it comes to forgiving," Steve says.

"I'm not," I say, and I suddenly receive an epiphany worthy of Avery Brooks. Save forgiveness for your friends. Forgiveness isn't something that you give like a fucking Christmas gift -- you have to earn it. Like most everything worthwhile in life. "My game is vengeance."

"That's probably why I'd suck as a superhero," Steve says.

"You suck at everything," I reply, a sick little half-smile forming on my face. No, this is wrong. Steve's making me feel way too good right now. This isn't the time to for good-natured camaraderie, to let wounded emotions heal. This is the time of hurt -- weird but true.

"I'm going for a flight," I say, and with that, I become intangible as a ghost, and fly straight upward, through the roof and out into the bitter, outside world.

"Tommy, wait!" Steve calls my name repeatedly -- you know, he's got a nice voice -- but I don't feel like answering him. We've done enough talking today. It's time to take my misery and spread it like a mushroom cloud over the city of fucking Angels.

I fly over Los Angeles, flying low, daring people to try to aim their spittle at me. To my amazement, I get a lot of honks of support and people giving me the thumbs up signal. The people (at least the people of Los Angeles) don't believe the lies, at least for now. Of course, give them a few days of saturated negative press coverage and they'll be forming lynch mobs.

Sad to say, all of this love and support doesn't mean a fucking thing to me. If Rachel died because some asshole wanted to get to me, if Kenny and the Wiebes and the town of Milford are going through fucking Hell because Rachel made the perfect target for some coward like Hack or Slash to get at me, if someone can't get to John before something horrible happens to him, then I don't fucking deserve anyone's love or trust.

Right now, cheering for me is like throwing water on a grease fire. It's meant to solve the problem, to make me feel better, but it's making it five times worse.

I land on a rooftop of an old building, hook into their cable system, create a television set out of thin air, and watch MNN. It's pretty much an all-day memorial to Alan Dyment, his greatest stories, a shitload of praise from colleagues and rivals, and ruminations on the dangers of covering the superhero business. The whole "did Omega do it?" question is actually secondary to Dyment's memorial, and that's good, that's the way it should be. Although they do replay the Jaguar Grill story over and over and over again, until it attains a certain morbid stature; it's the Joe Theismann leg break of superhero exposés.

Dyment has two wives (one divorced), and three kids scattered between the two marriages (the oldest is 12). What a fucking joy to hear. Way to go, Hack and Slash, who's next on your goddamn agenda -- infants and puppies? You gonna fucking brand them with the Omega symbol? Why don't you burn down some orphanages while you're at it?

I really hope that Permafrost can escape, or that some other heroes can rescue them while H&S are preoccupied with me. I listen to the headlines, and there's no sign of John, either dead or escaped. The press also hasn't picked up on the Rachel story yet. I suspect that Sheriff Goetz is keeping things under wraps, or maybe the FBI has secretly intervened in the case. I can expect that one to blow up in my face at any moment, I'll bet.

There are a lot of people calling for me to make a public statement. Maybe I should just go to Montana, build myself a fucking log cabin out in the wilderness, and live there for the rest of my life.

I guess the question I need to ask myself is "what next?" I intend to stay away from Philadelphia for a day or so. Maybe the answer is as simple as wandering around Los Angeles until I find someone I can legally hurt.

So I patrol. It's getting close to late afternoon, and no one commits crimes at this time of day. But I'm persistent. At one point, I spot Blur running through downtown Los Angeles, and she flags me down. I haven't spoken to anyone in awhile, so I land.

"Hi, Blur." My smile is as phony as Officer Bob Shithead's.

"Hi yourself," Blur says. "I've heard about everything that's happened to you. I'm sorry."

It's such a fucking obvious thing to say, but I can't argue with the sentiment.

"If it's any comfort, last year the Master Mannequin tried to do the same thing to me"

I interrupt her with a glance. "More is going down than you realize. I appreciate what you're saying, but please don't. I don't need the speech."

"Can I help?" she asks. I nod.

"You can help by watching your back," I say. "The fact that we fight crime in the same city may be enough to set these psychos off and get them to come after you."

"I can always run away," Blur says.

"Ha-ha," I respond sarcastically.

"You know, when someone gets personal with someone in the superhero community, we tend to come around and rally in support of each other."

"Assholes like me are the exception to the rule," I respond sharply. I've given her the warning, so there's no real need to continue the conversation. "I just hope Permafrost doesn't pay the price."

I begin to fly away. "Omega!" Blur shouts as I strike the airlift pose. "You need to go home and let it rest! Don't go looking for trouble when you're in this kind of mood!"

She's right. She's absolutely right, but I don't care. There's something burning in the pit of my stomach that needs to be cooled, and the only way to cool it down is to find a deserving asshole and give him a fucking firestorm of shit and pain. And every time I think of Rachel, and her smile, and her eyes, and her voice, and the way she used to settle me down when I got mad, and her hands on my shoulders after a match, I just want want

Fuck, I don't know what I want. Except that I'll know it when I see it, and it'll be fucking horrible. It'll be horrible enough to make even Hack and Slash sick.

The afternoon ends, and the quick California sunset brings a comforting layer of darkness to the city beneath me. There's going to be trouble, and that's a good thing.

It's about nine o'clock when I finally feel the premonition. It's a vague one, not really worth checking under normal circumstances, but I land and reconnoiter anyway. I'm in a mini-mall near Brentwood, where I spot a big man in an unwashed, disheveled black and white striped outfit, grabbing an ATM machine and ripping it out of the side of a bank branch to pluck whatever cash he can extract out of it. It looks like a bear pawing a camp and ripping it apart, except it's no bear. It's the Zebra.

Shit, I was hoping for someone who'd give me a real fight. But I'll take what I can get.

I sneak up behind him, invisible, but he vaguely senses my presence and turns around. "Last time we met, I told you to fucking reform," I say, becoming visible. "And here you are, committing crimes again."

The Zebra is paranoid at the best of times, and from the look on his face, I know he can tell that these times aren't the best. "Omega, please, I can explain"

"Right. Explain," I mock. "The bank stole this money from a group of nuns, and you're playing Robin Hood." I shake my head. "I don't fucking care about the excuses. I gave you a chance, and you blew it. Now, you're gonna take your punishment like a man."

The Zebra stares into my face for about five seconds. "Don't kill me, Omega," the villain finally says.

My God, what a fucking weird experience. Three victims allegedly said that to me, and now I'm finally hearing those words for real. I scan the area, and there's no sign of anyone with a fucking tape recorder or camcorder. Too bad for him.

"I am so sick of you fuckers," I say. "Just sick of you!" My voice gets into a rant of pain, and I know what I am. I'm a living wound, a fucking, breathing, slashed artery of a man. "We should be fucking gods, we should be fucking making this world a better fucking place!"

"I..." The Zebra hasn't a clue what to say. And I don't blame him.

I'm breaking into tears and screaming at the top of my lungs. "Do you know what good most people could do with even your fucking powers? Do you know what most people would do with your powers? Have you ever taken a fucking look around this city and asked yourself how much shit there is to clean up?"

"I no"

"And when you try, do you know how much shit you get?" I ask.

"A lot."

"A lot. Fucking right, asshole!" I'm mad enough to spit. "Fuck, I want to kill all of you Why do you do this!" I shout, and I point at the ripped ATM machine. "Why!!"

"I'm sorry," the Zebra says.

That's the absolute worst thing that anyone could say to me right now. I advance on him until we're butting chests. He's about my height, and he actually has a decent build. That's good, that's enough to get the adrenaline pumping, to at least pretend this might be a challenge, even if I know he wouldn't have a prayer against me. And he doesn't have a chance, and we both know it. There isn't even a look of fear on his face; he's transfixed by the insane look in my fucking eyes.

I need to find a more private place to deal with him. I grab him, lock his arm in a whizzer, and then lift us both and fly to a nearby alley. I only stop to place a temporary plastic barrier over the ATM; no one can rob it while we're gone, but the integrity of the crime scene's been preserved. It's a miracle that I'm able to think about that sort of shit, given my mood.

The Zebra struggles for about five seconds, then the fear of heights kicks in and he just freezes. It only takes me thirty seconds for me to find a good deserted alley, and we land. I throw him down on his stomach, and have to lift him by his arm to get him back on his feet. Once he's standing again, I butt his chest with mine again, and I advance until he's backed against a wall.

"I don't want to fight you," he says.

"Tell me why I shouldn't turn you into a hopeless fucking cripple so you'll finally appreciate just what you could have become?" I state in a low, clear voice.

Fuck, in any other situation, I'd be loving this. The Zebra begins to stammer, but nothing coherent comes out of his mouth.

"Tell me!" I demand.

"I never did anything to hurt you," he whimpers.

"You think that's enough?" I ask.

"Well..."

"It's not! Not fucking today! Not even close!"

I begin the beating with a knee to the balls. Strange, I've never intentionally done that in a fight before. I'm an asshole, but I've always prided myself in fighting clean. Shit, there goes that piece of self-respect down the toilet.

The Zebra's head keens like a bird, and he collapses to the ground, hands over his 'nards. I grab him by the throat and lift him to his feet, holding him standing straight. I don't do the Darth Vader trick with him, I want him to be able to speak. "Every man who uses metahuman powers to commit a crime makes it easier for other metahumans to commit even worse crimes."

The Zebra tries to focus through the pain and look at me.

"Every time the press covers the shit you do, it encourages other psychopaths to commit bigger and sicker crimes. You're not even close to being innocent of the shit I'm experiencing. You're a fucking accomplice!" I shout.

"I didn't think of it that way," he croaks.

"You dress up in your fucking Zebra suit" I rip off the mask with a free hand, and then rip a huge tear in the front of his costume, like a man tearing a woman's bodice in a hack romance novel. Shit, does this guy ever have a lot of chest hair! And every pore is sweating. "And you think it makes it all some kind of a game. You give yourself a dorky little code-name, then you use the name and the costume to hide from the world so you can cause trouble without any goddamn consequences. You're like some asshole in an Internet chat room, who thinks that they're free to be a son of a bitch if no one knows who they really are, and it's all just a fucking game!"

"Please..."
 

"The game is over! Over!" I shout.

"Please..."

"Who are you!" I shout, shoving him. "What the fuck is your real name, you goddamn striped asshole!"

"You can do anything you want to me, just don't kill me."

I backhand him, and hear a loud crack. He falls to the ground. I pick him up again, roughly. "Do you think I'm going to rape you?" I snarl. "Do you think this is a sexual thing? There are three dead bodies in Philadelphia with my goddamn name forged on their fucking toetags, my partner has been kidnapped by a pair of sadistic little shitheads and is probably dead, and the woman I love more than anyone else in the world has been brutally fucking murdered, and you think all I care about is some goddamn deviant S&M sexual pickup?"

I punch the Zebra in the stomach, twice. They're short, hard jabs, not even close to full strength. He collapses to the ground again. I'm honestly not trying to kill him, even as angry as I fucking am right now, I still haven't completely lost control. Let's face facts, even as pissed off as I am right now, he ain't worth it. Instead, I'm milking his pain and fear, and hoping to fucking God that something inside me fucking breaks, like a fever, so I can get back to feeling well again. The sad thing is that I think it's beginning to work. As psychotherapy, beating the shit out of someone is way underrated.

There's a long pause, as I wait patiently for him to speak again. Do something, asshole! God, I try to calm down, but every second that I look at him just deepens my emotion. But now I realize that what I'm feeling isn't anger anymore, or even hate -- it's just raw contempt. And why shouldn't I have contempt for this waste of metahuman flesh and muscle that's doing everything but the fetal position right now? Contempt is good. Contempt is a clearer emotion than anger, or grief, and it's a lot more fucking productive. I can do something useful with it, if I can clear my head a little, and try to anticipate what's going to happen next.

But he just sits on the ground with his head buried between his knees. I pull him to back his feet again.

"The pick-up line didn't work, shithead," I finally say. "You got something else?"

"Please don't kill me," he says as he trembles.

"Sorry, but it's over," I insist. "The Zebra dies tonight, that's a promise." You wouldn't believe the cold look of fear on this mother-fucker's face. "Now, let's start over. What is your fucking name?"

After five seconds of silence and a dumbfounded look, I repeat the demand. "Tell me your fucking name!" I emphasize my point with another punch to the stomach. The look of agony on his face is satisfying, but it also gives me a bit more focus.

"I wish you'd quit doing that," he says with a cough, spitting a lump of blood.

"Don't. When it stops, something worse is gonna happen," I promise. "Tell me your name, now!"

"It's Adam. Adam Foster," he finally answers.

"Adam Richard Foster," I say. There's a bewildered look on his face. "C'mon, Stripes, did you honestly believe you had buried that name forever? It's going to take more than three layers of aliases to cover your tracks from me. You can't hide from me. I'm Omega. Do you know what that means?"

"It's Greek," the Zebra says.

"It's more than just Greek. I redefined it." I boast, and I point to the 'omega' symbol on my chest and etch it out with my finger. "Omega looks great, punches harder than anyone on the fucking planet, and he can also do research with the best of them. Omega is the complete superhero package."

"Then why'd you ask me about my name?" he says, and I punch him in the stomach.

"Just don't puke on me, okay?" I smile, and I turn him around for a second. After a few seconds of coughing, I spin him back to face me again. "I just wanted to get to know you on a personal level. And you can call me Tommy, Tommy Champion. Now that we've been formally introduced, we can become buds."

"Buds?" He looks at me. I hit him again in the stomach, pulling the blow, but it's still painful.

"Yeah, buds? How's that for a friendly punch?" I grin. "Ain't male bonding great?"

"I'm sorry, please don't hurt me anymore."

"I'm not hurting you!" I insist. "No, no Adam, you do not understand me at all. I'm doing you a favor."

"A favor?"

"Fucking right I am. The Zebra, that fucking embarrassment of a costumed identity, he was a complete dork, a loser. And now he's history. I'm taking him away from you, Adam. We can put the Zebra in a casket and bury him in the goddamn ground." Like Rachel.

Then I rip off the rest of his tights, slowly, leaving him in a pair of white briefs (white except for some recent stains). He doesn't resist me at all. I don't even want to think of the sexual connotations of what I'm doing, and hope he doesn't get the wrong idea either. Maybe if he reforms, I could set him up on a date with Steve. I think Steve would be a good influence on him.

"There, isn't that better?" I say. He doesn't respond. "Trust me, it is. It's a start. Adam Foster is never going to put on that costume again. You're never going to commit another crime, Adam. You see, I'm really fucking sick and tired of all you goddamn supervillains, so you're gonna serve a little prison time, and when you're released you'll make arrangements to meet with Mike Muscleman in New York."

"The billionaire superhero?"

Fuck, I hate dumb people. "No, he's a skinny street person in Brooklyn." I snarl through bared teeth, a tiger of sarcasm. "What other fucking Mike Muscleman could I be talking about, Adam? He will train you so you can actually handle yourself in a fight, then he will help you come up with a new costumed identity with some goddamn dignity to it, and then you will use your powers to fucking help people, or I'm gonna take it personally. So when you get to the precinct house, that's where your one phone call goes. If you hook up with him, you'll never have any trouble from me again."

"So you're not going to beat me up?"

"I didn't say that." I smile, and pat him on the shoulders. The hope evaporates from his face. "I figure you're gonna need some incentive to learn how to fight, and to do that, I need to give you a goal. So remember what I'm about to do to you. When you've finished training with Muscleman, I want you to come back here and try to kick my fucking ass."

He gasps. I put one hand on his chest, push him back to the correct distance, then land a lovely right cross against his jaw. He's deadweight. His body makes a comical bounce as it impacts on the ground.

I check his pulse and scan his brainwaves -- he'll be fine. Then I recite the Miranda over his unconscious form, summon some handcuffs and put them on him, give an exaggerated shake of my head, and fly away.

You know, after everything I said, wouldn't it be great if Hack and Slash, who were secretly following me and capturing my magnificent baritone on their handy dandy Philadelphia tape recorder, were to kill Adam Foster and use all the shit I said earlier to make it look like I did it? Yeah, that'd really blow me out of the water like flaming shit. That's why I teleport back to the alley, turn on the old invisibility power, and keep a close watch on Foster's unconscious body. If my hunch is right, I'll have a nice little reunion with my old friends from Philadelphia any second now.

But it isn't. No one comes to collect Foster, except the police. They collect the body, and think he's a just a stumbling drunk until they spot the Zebra suit; after that, they make a lot of gay jokes that are even cruder than the ones I make. Nobody's mind is filthier than an LAPD cop after fifteen years on the force.

Fuck. The thought of meeting Hack and Slash was the one thing keeping my mind off Rachel.

I track the police as they take Foster away and get his statement. My 'bud' wakes up in the squad car, and while he tells the police that I beat him up, he doesn't accuse me of rape or attempted murder or any of that shit. The police are used to the fact I like to humiliate criminals; it's one of the few things they like about me.

Foster doesn't try to escape, which is fucking smart, for once. The evidence against him is pretty much circumstantial unless I was to make a statement to the police. Truth to tell, he's such a minor league piece of shit that I wouldn't mind much if he gets off Scot-free, provided he actually does what he's told to do.

I follow him invisibly, as he's dragged into the station. He's questioned, arraigned, and he makes his one phone call. He immediately calls his lawyer, but I use my powers to redirect the call to the number of Muscleman's gym. That's enough to give him The Hint; he breaks down and has a long talk with Muscleman's people. Good. My work's done here.

There. I did it. I killed a supervillain. And I did it in the best possible way. Rachel would have approved of the way I did it. Wouldn't you, Rach?

******

The question is answered by the street noise beneath me as I'm flying away from the precinct house. Did you know that Los Angeles sometimes speaks to me? Not just in the distraction: if you look at the city in the broadest possible terms, see its traffic flow, listen to its noises and groans, it really is alive. It's not intelligent speech, more like an animal growl. But after a few months of careful observation, I can understand Los Angeles, its language of concrete, sun, smog, and heat. It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But Rachel would have understood. She was good about that sort of thing, seeing patterns in unusual places and in everyday life.

The death of the Zebra makes for a good fucking distraction while it lasted, but once I've calmed down, I now have to deal with the tragedy that my life has become. I need someone to talk to, and get another perspective, but not from the usual people.

I really need to talk to Rachel. Or the closest person who I can find who would fit the bill.

I head for Frank's place. Not that I really want to speak to Mr. Water Polo (a psychology student would be a good person for me to talk to, but I don't feel like it now). I know that Leona is house-sitting for Frank while he's away playing in the water, and I think she'd provide a sympathetic ear.

Just like Rachel used to do.

The absence of you is the absence of me. For once, the fucking greeting card is right on the money.

I land at a huge set of barred glass doors at the entrance of the apartment, and instead of going through the whole "buzz the room" bullshit, I phase through the door and walk up to the apartment. I can hear the sound of a television playing a rerun of The Simpsons. I think it's the one where Lisa got superpowers, tried to save the world, and ended up nearly blowing up the Springfield nuclear plant. I never cared that much for The Simpsons, but Rachel used to quote from it by chapter and verse.

Five seconds later, the apartment door opens.

"Leona?"

She looks tired and thoroughly unamused. She acknowledges my arrival with a sad nod. "Tommy, you shouldn't be here," she says.

"Why not?"

"I think you can guess the reasons," Leona says.

"I'm sorry," I say. "You're right, I shouldn't be putting you in danger. But after I've managed to put Hack and Slash away"

"It's not that," Leona says. There's something cold in her voice, but it's a sad coldness. "It's not safe to be around you Tommy, not alone."

"What are you talking about? I thought you liked me," I protest. "I'd never let anything hurt you."

"Tommy, I don't really know you," Leona says. "I've known a lot of guys who could be very sweet, and then you look at them the wrong way, and they become, well..."

"Well, what?"

"Well, y'know, monsters," Leona says.

Fuck. Oh fuck. I can't believe what I'm hearing. "And what gave you the impression that I could be one of those people? Because I have powers."

"No," Leona says. "It isn't the powers. All guys think they have powers, of one sort or another. It's the way you look at me that bothers me, and the way you look at Frank."

"What!" I protest.

"And you're violent, Tommy. Look at what you did to Halcyon."

"That was a long time ago, Lee. I apologized for it. I paid for it."

"But it didn't stop," Leona says. "You kept hurting people. You kept humiliating people. You stripped people naked and you sunburned your name on their buttocks. You played with cars like toys while people were still inside them"

"They were criminals, Lee!" I shout.

"They were human beings, Tommy," Leona insists.

"They threatened people's lives!"

"But you didn't do it to keep them from threatening people. You did it because you enjoyed it," Leona says sadly. "There wasn't any other reason. I can't have someone like that in my life. I'm sorry, Tommy. You were fun to be around, and I do hope you find some sort of peace."

"Leona please," I beg. "You don't know what's happened. I'm just lost. "

"Good-bye," she says softly. And she closes the door in my face. The sound of it is a hammer against my skull.

Halcyon. That's the name that Leona mentioned, the one who destroyed any chance I had with her. I remember the words the Priest told me in my dream, whether the life of Halcyon was worth the price I was about to pay. Fuck, it sure wasn't. Suddenly it seemed obvious to me that all of the shit that had come down on me could be laid on Halcyon's doorstep. Fuck that asshole. If Halcyon hadn't sued me, if he hadn't provoked me, MNN wouldn't have come down on me so hard. Dyment would still be alive.

If Halcyon hadn't provoked the Priest, John and I wouldn't have needed to defend him. Mind you, I have no solid evidence to link John's kidnapping (or Hack and Slash) to the Priest, except for a dream. But I'm pretty fucking sure I'm right.

And he bugs the shit out of me. I saved his fucking life, and did he thank me? I put myself at risk against the goddamn scariest villain on earth, and did he thank me? Fuck no! And then (if my dream was right) the Priest goes and hires Hack and Slash to get John, and Rachel dies, and I lose my job, and did he thank me?

I'm going to visit the asshole and deal with him. I'm going to make the goddamn idiot realize just what a fucking ingrate he is.

So I head west, for the sleepy shores of Malibu. It's starting to get late, but trust me, I care even less about that shit than I usually do. The air is crystal clear tonight; there's a sea breeze blowing, but it doesn't bring in the usual accompanying cloud cover. Sometimes when I'm bored and I'm flying, I use my powers to scrub the air around me, and reduce the surrounding smog. But tonight, the more smog, the more sickness, the better, the better I'll feel. It matches my mood.

I hit Halcyon four times in the face last time. I wonder what he'd look like after five?

I arrive at his beach house at close to midnight. I don't know where the fucking time went. I guess I've been doing a lot of idle flying. It's real easy to loose track of where the time when you do a lot of patrolling. I don't even bother listening to what's going on inside; I just bust down the front door and charge in. How's that for a fucking knock?

Halcyon is resting on the couch, watching something that looks like either a really racy independent film, or a soft-core porn film. Either way, I don't care. "Let's chat," I say.

Halcyon gets to his feet, taking on an offended posture. He's out of costume; he's wearing a bathrobe and some pajama bottoms. "What are you doing here?" he says.

"I was having an interesting day," I say, and I advance, steel-eyed. "I thought I'd share."

Halcyon holds his ground, and there's something about his face that I really don't like, so my expression twists and I fucking backhand him. He started glowing as soon as I got within fighting distance, and I wasn't hitting him at full strength, so I don't do much to him except knock him on his ass. "How's that for sharing, asshole?" I say.

To my surprise, Halcyon responds by putting his hands together, and he fires a pretty good blast of raw energy that connects with me in the center of my chest. It hits me a lot harder than I expect, and knocks me into one of his walls with a crunch.

Fuck, my costume's smoking!

Halcyon gets to his feet, and he's got a pure psychotic expression on his face. "Bring it on, farmboy!" he snaps, and he beckons me to come at him. "I've been waiting months for this. Hell, I've been waiting years for this!"

This is one invitation I can't refuse. I lunge at him. He catches me in mid-flight with a hard left hook, reinforced by a shield of solid energy that encases his fist. It hurts a lot, but it doesn't wreck my game face, and I tackle him and start wrestling him. He's not a weakling, but he can't compete with me in this arena. Desperately, he fires off three more energy bursts, and finally connects with the last one, a tight beam that impacts against my chest and sends me shooting straight up. Shit, am I really off my game that much tonight?

Before I can connect with the ceiling, I become intangible, phase through both the ceiling and the roof. Once I've crested, I use the last bit of momentum to kick myself over, into a descending position, and then I plunge straight down on top of Halcyon, solidifying at the last second. It takes the wind out of him, and I think he's out of the fight, until another energy pulse hits me square in the chops.

I shake my head and brace; within a split-second, I've come up with a new game plan. I wait for the next incoming energy beam from Halcyon; when he fires it, I concentrate hard, stop it in place and then reflect the energy straight back into him. Shit, it felt weird doing that trick. His power feels subtly different this time, but it's not the black magic mojo I'd expect if he suddenly made a pact with the Priest, which was my first fear. In fact, it almost feels like my power.

I stop my onslaught and stare directly at him, hard. No, he's not another Chosen either. I think I'd recognize him if he were.

"You've gotten a lot tougher," I say. "I'm glad to see something good came out of that scrap against the Priest, because you have no idea what I've been going through because I saved your ass."

"Bullshit," Halcyon says. "You didn't give a damn about me. You just wanted to beat the Priest. You wanted the glory! You wanted to do something my generation of superheroes couldn't do."

"What the fuck are you talking about? I was trying to save your life, asshole!" I scream. "Why the fuck do you think I called John in for back-up? And look what happened to him."

"You're telling me that you give a shit about me?" Halcyon says.

"God fucking knows why, but at the time, yes, I actually did give a shit about what happened to you. And where the fuck did it get me? I've been framed for three murders, John's missing and probably dead, I lost my job, and the woman I love has been murdered. I just came here to thank you in person for this."

Halcyon starts tittering. I really want to slap the amused expression off his fucking face. "Let me guess!" I spit, and my voice becomes a parody of Halcyon's, with a touch of the Outsider thrown in to raise the obnoxiousness level to truly obscene levels. "'This is only the tip of the fucking iceberg, Omega.' 'Now you've been baptized, and it only gets worse from here.' 'You aren't a real superhero until you've lost at least three loved ones!'"

Halcyon keels over laughing -- in fact, he's in fucking hysterics. You find that funny? Goddamn you, you fucking bastard! I don't give a fuck what you think of me, but I will let myself get ass-fucked by the Royal Elite before I let a piece of shit like you laugh at Rachel's death! I walk over to Halcyon, grab him by the throat, and begin choking him.

Halcyon has a big insane smile on his face, and he reaches up and grabs my face. I receive a real bad feeling about what's about to happen next, but it isn't until his power kicks in, and he starts drinking my fucking mojo like a can of beer in 100 degree weather that I really start to panic.

"Fuck!" I shout. It feels like he's trying to fucking rape me. With a wild surge of strength, I throw the leeching son of a bitch off me, and he hits against the wall hard. Break your neck, you goddamn asshole, I think, but Halcyon gets back to his feet quickly, and with an insane grin. "Fuck!" I repeat. "What the fuck were you doing?"

"Taking back what was stolen from me," Halcyon says.

I can feel the power that Halcyon stole slowly coming back to me -- no permanent damage was done. Fortunately, my defenses against this sort of magical attack are as good as my physical defenses. "Goddammit! I didn't steal it from you! Yeah, I hit you a few times -- after you stole credit for the Warders from me. But not only did I pay you back financially, I saved your fucking life."

"Yeah, you're a real sweetheart," Halcyon says with a truly evil smile. "And you broke down my fucking door just now to help with the air conditioning."

"I wanted you to know what you'd done to me," I respond.

"And you weren't choking me, you were giving me a neck adjustment," he says snidely.

"You were laughing at Rachel's death, you goddamn son of a bitch!"

"Oh, quit your whining." Halcyon says, and he leans back against a wall and smiles at me. "Your problem isn't with me, it's with the Priest. He screwed me, now he's screwed you. So instead of going after the goddamn easy target, why don't you show me some balls and fight the real enemy?"

"And take on the Priest?" I say, not believing what I'm hearing.

"You think you're so good?" he taunts me. "You think you're a God? Then act like one! The Priest is an abomination. Become a God, and strike him down!"

"And you'll be right at my side, helping me?" I ask. Actually it's more of a put-down than a question.

"Fuck no!" Halcyon says. "Now that I've gotten some of my power back, I intend to stay as far away from the Priest as possible. You're the hero, farmboy. You're the God, farmboy. You want the fucking glory, then go earn it. Kill that son of a bitch and send him straight to Hell."

I snort, but I don't really have a response.

"And when you do," Halcyon promised, "Not only will I thank you, I will kiss your fucking ass."

"Let's just leave it with a thank-you, shall we?" I say.

"Deal." Halcyon smiles.

"But he's got a fucking army of supervillains with him," I say. "Macha, Sandstone, Misfit, that shape-shifting shit, and now Hack and Slash. I can't beat all of them"

"That's your problem."

"Bullshit. It's our problem, asshole. Do you think he's finished with you?" I examine his face, which suddenly grows worry lines -- fuck, it's good to turn the tables on this smug old bastard. "Do you think the fact that you got away from his fucking hit squad doesn't gnaw at him? You're the loose end, the loose thread on his immaculate black suit that he needs to snip."

"I've got plans," he says in a less than reassuring voice.

"Bullshit." I laugh. "You can barely put together a sentence, let alone a plan."

"Have you ever considered that I might not be alone?" Halcyon says.

"Okay, now you're just fucking with me," I snarl. "Who the fuck would join forces with a loser like you?"

Halcyon's smile gets obnoxiously large. "If only you knew"

I'm getting the impression that he isn't entirely shitting with me. "Fine. Do what you want. And for some goddamn reason I can't possibly justify, if you fucking need me, give me a call."

"Like that'll happen," Halcyon sneers.

"And our fight's not over," I shout. "I'm just putting it on hold for awhile."

"You got that right. And when we restart it, I'll be twice as tough as I was today," Halcyon promises.

"Bullshit. You won't be taking back any more power from the Priest. You won't go near him."

"I won't have to." Fuck, that's the most irritating smirk I've ever seen.

"If you start stealing power from defenseless people, I'll break your fucking neck!" I spit. Halcyon just giggles.

"Spoken like a true superhero," Halcyon says. "Y'know, that concern for the innocent would be a little more convincing if you weren't a murder suspect..."

"Fuck you!"

"I won't take power from any innocent people. Scout's honor," Halcyon says.

"You were a boy scout?" I ask, not believing what I'm hearing.

"Until they kicked me out," Halcyon replies. "Now get out of here. Go be a God somewhere. Go deal with your shit. And good luck, asshole!"

"Same to you, asshole!" I snarl back, and I fly away. I was going to fix Halcyon's door when I left, but now the asshole can deal with that by himself. Heh.

But for some curious reason, I stop outside the house and I listen. If Halcyon really is working with someone, maybe he'll tip his hand after the encounter. He strikes me as the sort of person who doesn't have a clue how to shut himself up, so all I have to do is wait and listen.

And sure enough, a few minutes after I've left, and he's on the phone. It's not hard to use my powers to eavesdrop on him, and the person who's on the other end of the receiver.

"He was here," Halcyon says.

"The Priest?" The other voice questions in a very familiar tone.

Holy shit, it's Michael!

Needless to say I'm pretty much glued to the rest of the conversation.

"No! It was Omega! He tried to beat the shit out of me, but when I resisted he ran away with his tail between his legs," Halcyon says. Lying asshole.

"Yeah, right." Michael sounds less than impressed. "Please tell me that you didn't say anything that'd clue him in to what we're doing."

"Of course I didn't!"

"If you blow this, Halcyon, I'll have your goddamn balls on a torque!" Michael is not in a good mood.

"You can try, Carleton," Halcyon snaps back. "Frankly, I don't know what you see in the punk."

"You damn well know what I see in the farmboy," Michael says. "Aside from being the best weapon we've got against the Priest, he's also the biggest reserve of living magical energy on the entire fucking planet. And don't forget he's the only person who can safely restore you to your full power, or that your power gains may only be temporary."

"Who cares? I nearly got it all back from him myself," Halcyon says.

There's a long pause, a couple of deep breaths, and then Michael starts screaming. "You idiot!" I can imagine the look on his face; I know what Michael looks like when he loses it. "Please tell me you didn't try leeching it from him by force?"

"I couldn't. He resisted. I could barely touch his power!" Halcyon explained.

"Of course you couldn't. He's the First Chosen. What the fuck were you thinking?"

"He tried to kill me!"

"Good!" Michael shouts back. "Let me set you straight on one thing, old man. I don't give a shit about you. There's only one reason I want you to get your powers back, and it's not for your fucking health. And I sure as hell don't want to put Tommy in danger when we're doing this!"

"If you care about this little project of yours, keep that goddamn kid away from me! He wrecked my door, the little shit!"

"I'll pay for repairs." Michael sighs.

"Goddamn right you will. And you've got bigger problems. He's gone nuts!" Halcyon declares.

"You're still alive, aren't you?" Michael hisses. "He can't have gone too nuts. Or maybe he didn't go nuts enough."

"Don't you get cute with me, Carleton! I don't think he'd appreciate what you're doing to him..."

"Don't you dare fucking threaten me!" Michael says. "You don't want to know what I'm capable of doing when I'm pissed."

"I don't care!" Halcyon shouts. "Just keep that asshole away from me and my property!"

"Okay." Michael has calmed down. "You're right, it's probably a good idea to keep him as far away from you as possible right now. I'll talk to him."

Michael slams the phone down, and Halcyon curses at the air for a few minutes. Shit, Halcyon and Michael are working together? Using me as a weapon? What the fuck is going on inside Michael's devious little head?

I think of Michael as a friend, and I don't think of Halcyon as an enemy, but clearly something's going on with both of them that is wrong. Are they leeching magical energy from me, to restore Halcyon? That would explain why Halcyon's power felt so familiar, and how he got so strong so fast.

I may be a good pro-life farmboy, but Jesus Christ, I do have the right to control what happens to my own body. Don't I?

But no matter how pissed I am about Michael and Halcyon, I keep coming back to one important point. Halcyon is dead on the money about one thing: my real enemy is the Black Priest, and compared to that piece of shit, everyone else on the planet, including even Hack and Slash, is a fucking saint.

So we've passed that two-thirds crisis point mark of Omega -- Portrait of an Asshole: The Goddamn Movie. And do I feel better?

No fucking way. Rachel's dead, I'm still a murder suspect, Halcyon and Michael are playing some weird game with my life, and I can't get that fucking Bill Conti Rocky tune out of my head. But Halcyon is right, and so is Michael, if I read his hidden agenda correctly. The Priest's behind everything. And having a necromancer like Michael in my corner is going to be useful against Hack and Slash.

I'm unemployed, but surprisingly, I don't give much of a shit about that right now. Big shrug.

******

I head back home. Steve's there, sleeping on the sofa; he gets up as soon as I materialize through the ceiling.

"I was worried," Steve says. "You okay?"

"Of course not." I spit. I take a look at Steve, who's standing in front of me bare-chested. "Shit, you've put a lot of muscle. What do you weigh?"

"227," Steve says with a smile. "You?"

"260, last time I weighed myself," I respond. "But no sex or wrestling tonight," I tease. Weight and bench press comparisons are common foreplay between wrestlers looking for an impromptu bout.

"I wasn't planning on the first," Steve says, involuntarily flexing. "Although that Michael guy is cute. When I first saw him I thought you were hanging with Tom Cruise." I break out into a fit of laughter. "So did you commit any crimes tonight?"

"A couple. I beat up a supervillain and busted down a door. All in the name of goodness and virtue"

"And running around completely unhinged," Steve says. I look at him hard. "Sorry"

"Shit, Steve, don't fucking apologize for telling me the fucking truth," I snap back. "I need to hear it. I need an asshole who'll keep me in line."

"We should've traded dads," Steve quips.

"I said asshole. Not psychotic son of a bitch who dedicates his life to making his son feel so miserable that he jumps off a fucking water tower," I state. "Shit, I'm sorry."

"You're telling the truth too, Tommy." Steve shrugs. "He did that to me. The best day of my life was when I moved in with your dad."

"Steve, any word from Milford?"

"They say Kenny's going to need psychiatric help."

Shit. And Kenny's the most stable guy I know, except for dad.

"When's the funeral?"

"Tomorrow. Three o'clock, Bellwood Mennonite."

"I'll fly us there tomorrow," I state.

"You're going?" Steve seems surprised. I nod.

"That bitch took Rachel from me. I'm not letting her scare me away from me from her memorial." Steve shakes his head. I give him a slight shove. "I know what you're thinking, it's in piss-poor taste and if Kenny's there"

"You could push him over the edge, Tommy."

"Kenny's tough. And I can take precautions," I reply. "So it's a ticket for two, no argument."

There's a long pause. "Make that a ticket for three." Michael says, emerging from a back room. He ignores my stare. "If a major vampire's involved, you need back-up. And I'm a little curious about her."

I frown a bit at the last remark.

"Trust me, I don't want to screw the vampire, farmboy." Michael shrugs. "I just want to make sure this Rachel girl doesn't rise on the third evening and start sucking your town's blood."

Shit. Good point. As long as Michael is useful, I shouldn't risk antagonizing him. "Be glad to have you along." I smile back. But the smile's a complete fraud.

******

My idea of a plane ride to Milford is to take my Jaguar, put an airfoil shaped force-field around it, and then fly at Mach 3 straight to Nebraska.

I land at Milford at two in the afternoon. The farm's empty: Dad and Buck are still in hiding. I use my powers to change into a perfectly fitted black suit, and do the same to Michael and Steve. Steve's impressed. Michael isn't, as usual. He just sighs. "I'm not here for the funeral. I'm here to inspect the body and make sure this place is safe. I can't conduct the ritual in public, farmboy."

"You're going to a funeral, and that's that." I smirk back at him. Michael mouths 'fuck you' at me. Bah. It'll do him some good to see how real people live.

I take the old Dodge pickup out of the garage; dad has the keys, but no one's going to stop me. We arrive at the church around two-thirty, and to my horror, there are two dozen people surrounding the church holding camcorders, and microphones.

Shit. The fucking press discovered what had happened to Rachel. Goddamn them!

They see me and immediately swarm over me. I'll be fucked before I let this thing turn into a circus.

"Omega, do you have any comments on the death of Rachel Wiebe?"

"Omega, what about Alan Dyment?"

"Omega, what's your current status with Nike?"

"Omega, have you been served with a warrant by the Philadelphia PD?"

"Omega, what about Permafrost?"

I step out of the truck and look at them sadly. I swallow hard, and keep my tongue close to my teeth, in case I need to bite it. I have to conduct myself with impeccable manners and dignity. Shit, I hate that stuff.

"I will give you a full briefing later," I say, standing as straight as I can. "The people of Milford like to be accommodating to their out-of-town guests, but we're busy mourning a very gallant young woman, so please forgive us if our hospitality is a little lacking today."

And get the fuck out of here. But I don't say it. I feel constipated.

Michael, Steve and I head into the church. All eyes are upon me, and I can tell I'm not very popular today. I wonder who'll be the first person to tell me to fuck off to my face?

We get a seat. Michael fumbles with a pair of rings. "No active necromantic energy," he says. I nod stupidly. I really can't believe this is real. We're not burying Rachel, we aren't. Time passes at a surreal rate; I'm trapped in a barely out of synch slo-mo reality that has only a passing resemblance to the real thing.

And then they bring in the body.

And then Pastor Didyk starts the service. It's very religious (which some people mind, but I don't) very much about God and Rachel's service to him. It's a weird service that I seem to hear in the distance of my ears, like the waves on the beach at the edge of my hearing, and I have to struggle to hold onto myself, because there are times when I'm coming really close to losing it.

"It should be remembered that the battle of good against evil has its casualties, and good does not always triumph," the pastor says. "It is the act of resistance, rather than victory, which defines our role in the struggle" He quotes a number of relevant Bible passages; Ray Didyk is an old fashioned minister, a man of quiet intensity, rather than blood and thunder, or compulsive "PTLs" and raised palms that you find in the youth revival churches. Rachel wasn't into that sort of religion.

After a half hour, people come up to give testimonials; Danny Wiebe, Rachel's younger brother (and a really good wrestler who's entering his junior year), Pat Finley, the president of the bank where Rachel worked, and Menno Wiebe, Rachel's father. It's when Mr. Wiebe is talking about love that I decide to take the plunge. Fuck, it's the most difficult moment of my entire life, facing the people of my town, and Rachel's family, after failing them so badly.

I rise from my chair, and I feel the penetrating stares of the assembly. My powers are lowered, as they have been throughout the service. In Rachel's presence, I am what I always was with her -- completely human.

"I wanted to talk about love too," I say. "The love that's so intense that it does more than consume a person, it defines them. That was Rachel's gift to me -- she defined me, and her love and her intellect challenged me keep redefining myself, to better myself, even when my baser nature kept pulling me down."

I pause and struggle to compose myself. Most of them probably think I'm faking. Fine. They're entitled.

"I have never known anyone who was more worthy of love in my life than Rachel, and I know that I never will again. I can't tell you how sorry I am"

Half the gathering groans audibly, and a couple of people whisper "Knock-out." Shit, I don't want Sarah's reputation dragged through the mud.

"I know," I acknowledge. "You're getting no argument from me. But it has to be said"

"What the Hell do you think you're doing here!" A voice cries out from the other end of the church. "The only reason she's dead is because of you!"

Shit, it's Kenny.

He's limping down the aisle, and his left arm's in a sling, and it must be hurting him just to talk. His curly brown hair is wrapped in bandages, a half-mummy version of my friend created by Slash. Michael makes a subtle gesture and begins an inaudible chant. Kenny's dad, Steve, and Mr. Wiebe try to interpose between us. I wave them away. Let Kenny speak his peace. He's earned the right.

"There's only one reason she was in Nebraska. It's because someone didn't do his job," Kenny shouts. "She did her job. She was a bad guy. She even went looking for a good guy to tussle with. But the good guy ran away. He didn't do his job."

"Keep talking," I prod, in a low voice.

"The job of people like Tommy is keep people like her away from people like Rachel. But, unfortunately, Tommy thinks his job is to get a fat Nike contract and leave the bad guys to someone else. That's really a shame."

This sure doesn't sound like Kenny.

His eyes narrow and get harder. Again, it doesn't look like Kenny at all. I've never seen this look on his face, and I've been with Kenny when he experienced every emotion you can possibly imagine. "You see, he didn't just let go of the job. He didn't just run. He decided to try to play little games with her. He thought he could hurt her and run away. Unfortunately, not everyone can run as far as Tommy can."

"How do you know what happened in Philadelphia, Kenny?" I ask.

"Tommy hung us two out to dry so that he could keep his own hands clean!" Kenny's not answering the question and the speech pattern is so wrong shit, he's been conditioned. No wonder he's had a breakdown -- the bitch used telepathy on him! Killing Rachel wasn't enough for her. She just had to twist the fucking knife!

"Kenny, listen carefully," I begin to say.

"Listen to this!" Kenny snaps, and he fumbles with his good hand, and pulls a gun out of his sling. There's yet another collective gasp. I gesture everyone to stay back. Most people duck and cover. Kenny's dad, Sheriff Goetz, is ready to tackle him, and I have to give him another urgent look to ward him away.

"I know you won't shoot, Kenny...," I say.

"Tommy Champion thought we made a better target than she did," Kenny announces, and he squeezes the trigger.

The first shot hits me in the shoulder. The second shot is dead center between the eyes then it drops and clatters to the floor as my powers kick in -- shit, the bullet was only an inch from my forehead.

He's failed. I see Kenny move the gun toward his mouth and begin to pull the trigger. "No!" I shout. Kenny's face has a slight, knowing smile, and I watch as he closes his eyes and braces for the shot that will end his life.

But it never comes. With a big sigh, I win the race against the dropping hammer, and the gun vanishes from Kenny's hand a split second before the bullet discharges. He stands there in stunned silence, expecting to be dead. I rush forward and grab him, and hold him in an embrace. After a second, his grip changes, and so does the look in his eyes. He's Kenny again. I notice Michael is putting aside a talisman, and he's got a subtle smile on his face. (I didn't even see that talisman on him when I changed his wardrobe!) God bless that son of a bitch.

"You ain't done me any favors," Kenny tells me, his voice almost a whisper.

"Bullshit," I say quietly into his ear. "And I know that Rach would disagree." Kenny breathes a big sob. "I love you, man," I finally say. I don't think I've ever said that to a guy before, not those words. Fuck, that line is as overwrought as a piece of Bill Shatner dialogue, but I can't think of anything else to say.

I turn around to face the assembly, which is still pretty much stunned. "Mr. Wiebe, Kenny and I need to have a long talk. I know that dad would want me to extend the deepest condolences of our family. Rachel meant the world to him. My apologies for everything that's happened."

Menno Wiebe gets out of his chair and embraces me. "Thank you, Tom," he says. It's meant as a gesture of recognition, and forgiveness. God, I don't deserve it. A lot of what Kenny said was right on the money.

I pause briefly at Sheriff Goetz, who looks like he's in complete anguish. "It wasn't his fault," I tell him. "It was all her." He nods. "He can start healing now."

I put my arm over Kenny's shoulder, muss up his hair with a friendly hand, and lead him out of the church. Then I gently grab him, and fly away with him.

We find ourselves an open field and a pond south of Milford. I use my powers to heal his physical injuries, and we have a long conversation under the harvest sun. Kenny explains everything. He tells me everything that happened. Then he gives me permission to go into his mind so I can see exactly what happened in even clearer detail. It's hideous. Torture, murder, and the unbelievable hatred of a fucking vampire bitch. I explain to Kenny about what really happened in Philadelphia.

"You never did like taking the direct route when you could be a sneaky asshole instead," Kenny tells me.

"I never dreamed she'd be that unstable," I say, mournfully. "I should never have called her a 'dumbass.' That's probably what set her off. I shouldn't have rubbed er nose in the fact that her plan was incredibly fucking obvious and it wasn't going to work. She probably thought she was being so clever. Nothing guarantees getting a bad reaction like destroying a psychotic's worldview."

"So what are you planning to do next?" Kenny asks.

Fuck, that's a good question.

"Y'know, there's one law in the universe that's more true than any other," I say.

"E=MC²?" Kenny asks, but I shake my head. "'Milford boys are good with women or with the soil, but never with both?'"

The local proverb's true, but I have a different theory. "Shit rolls down hill," I answer. "I could deal with Slash. I could beat her, capture her, torture her, maybe even kill her. But that won't solve a thing. She's just a foot soldier. I've got to go after the general. The shit came from someone above her, the real enemy. Slash is just a diversion, someone to keep me away from the real threat."

"But Tommy, if you just ignore her, people will die," Kenny says. "Not everything she put inside my head was a lie."

"I know," I acknowledge. "But the problem is, if I ignore the people who might cause a lot of major damage, just so I can chase some psychotic who kills a few people and gets a high public profile, then what do I tell people when the villain no one knew about detonates a nuke over Los Angeles?"

"What do you tell Rachel?" Kenny says, without hatred. "Or her other victims?"

"Something glib," I say. "'Sorry, I screwed up,' 'Sorry, I couldn't be everywhere at once.' I don't really know."

"You used to be real good at explaining yourself," Kenny replied with a sigh.

"I used to be good at bullshit," I admit. "At justifying the shit I did to high school kids. But I don't want to live a life that's filled with bullshit anymore."

"Tommy," Kenny says. "I got a confession the words I spoke at the funeral were Slash's, but the gun that was my idea. That was all me. I wanted to kill you."

"And you always said I had a bad temper." I laugh. "If I thought you had killed Rachel, I'd probably try to kill you too. You did your best to fight the mind control. That's all I could ask. What happened with the gun was between the two of us, and as far as I'm concerned, it's over. It's buried."

"Thanks," Kenny says. "So what's next on Omega's big agenda?"

"The Black Priest," I say. "I know in my gut that he's the one who's behind John's disappearance, and Slash's attack. He's the one who's pulling that bitch's strings. The Priest is fucking walking, and plotting, and chewing Hell's bubble gum at the same time. He has to be destroyed, and the sooner, the better."

"Wow," Kenny says. "Destroyed?" I nod. "That's intense. That mother fucker's supposed to be major bad news. Tommy, I don't want to see you die doing this gig."

"Better me than dad, or you," I say. "And I probably will die, in fact, I expect to die, if I go after the Priest. But that asshole has thought of himself as invincible -- untouchable -- for decades. But tomorrow, that's gonna change. Tomorrow, the first of the Chosen goes to war."

A Day That Will Live In Infamy. Roosevelt had his declaration of war, and now I have mine. Somebody, somewhere, you'd better light the candles and start the prayers. We're gonna need them.
 

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