Grant woke around 10. He checked on their captive guest, delivered him breakfast in the Moon Knight suit and took his preferences for his Keno City accommodation, and took both his breakfast tray and the tray from the previous night back upstairs.
When the elevator finally got there, he pulled the mask off and was greeted by Jean Paul and Marlene, who had since woken up themselves. Samuels was also up and about.
“So what exactly is the plan here?” DuChamp asked.
“See for yourselves.” Spector grunted, handing over the paperwork.
“Keno Cit-- you’re building him a house?”
“It’ll keep him from killing anyone and will allow him to have a life of his own. Besides, what do we care, we’ve all got free accommodation here. Who are we to be bothered by any of this?”
Jean Paul raised an eyebrow at this response. Marlene hit him when Spector wasn’t looking.
“That’s not the big issue though. It’s over 3,000 miles away and we’re transporting a dead man with no papers.”
“Maybe we should just buy a really big dog carrier…” Marlene quipped.
“I’ll prep the chopper…”
“It’s too high profile. I’ve got jamming equipment that covers the Mooncopter’s tracks in and out of the hangar for several miles. But if we fly him all the way out to where we’re keeping him…”
“We’ll be leading whoever abducted him directly where we’d be moving him… OK. That would be less than ideal.” DuChamp accepted.
“We’ve-- we need to drive him out there. We need to smuggle him out and get him passable papers. Talk our way through the border and…”
Samuels nodded at him.
“I don’t think I can talk my way through border… even Canada’s.”
Samuels directed him to the wall at the end of the hallway. “Sir. You know what you need.”
Grant looked nervous. The unknown.
“There’s no need to be scared, sir. I make a habit of forcing the first two on you. To become an entire other person, like Spector, or to be have one that your existing personality doesn’t much care for and conflicts with… that’s one thing. But this final one. That’s what completes you. He’s what brings the other two together. Allows you to find common ground with yourself. He’s the straw that stirs the drink. This needs to be your decision.”
Samuels shoved something into his hands.
Grant looked down and saw a peak cap and a fake moustache.
“What if I do this - I make myself whole - and I still don’t like what I see?”
“Sir, we work every day until we do. If I’m not mistaken, I think that’s what this Moon Knight business has been all about.”
Grant looked up from the hat and moustache and nodded. He looked down the hallway at the false wall at the end of the hallway. The hidden portal to a world belonging to neither Grant, nor Spector and then looked at the closer “side wall” of the hall. A large mirror hung above an antique table and he looked at himself. A man who saw himself as a wealthy philanthropist, wearing a vigilante’s costume, whilst a soldier’s mentality squirmed and writhed within him. On top of the table sat an old antique set of Russian nesting dolls, all stacked within each other with the top halves resting all around.
In a house full of bought antiques, this one actually belonged to his mother. Grant smirked, imagining he must know how the dolls felt for that very moment.
“You know the words, sir. And the name of the man you are looking for is Jake Lockley.”
“Thank you, Samuels.”
“You’re more than welcome, sir.”
Steven Grant walked to the end of the hallway and pulled open the door. The world gave way to the small, mess of a home. Grant removed his Moon Knight suit and got dressed in this Lockley’s clothes. He donned the hat and false moustache, before looking for one last thing.
In a bowl on the kitchen counter, he grabbed a set of keys.
Grant got himself comfortable, looked at the edge of the kitchen countertop and moved further away, to be sure he wouldn’t hit his head. Held his keys to his side and closed his eyes as if he was performing dark magic and let the words come.
“Jake Lockley. Maa Kheru.”
His spine straightened. Eyes flickered. And he fell to the floor.
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In a space between places the man in white fell. He landed with a solid bump, despite the desert sands. He was in a perfectly white suit, tailored immaculately as if by the gods themselves. With an all white face as well, marked with a crescent on his forehead that denoted his patron, he was helped up from the sand by two men, a man in desert camouflaged military fatigues and a man in a pristine black three-piece suit. The man in white dusted himself off and adjusted his suit. The other man in the black suit held his hand out in an “OK” gesture, with a heavy preening smirk on his face. They began to walk.
The traveller in white walked the cosmic sands with the soldier and the man in the black suit until they came upon another. One with the head of a jackal took his hand.
And just as Khonshu would assist many in finding their path, the jackal-headed Anubis led the Traveller in the white suit, the Marine and the man in the black suit to exactly where they needed to be.
There were a set of scales with no marketplace. A ship which sailed the cosmic winds with an audience of deities. A beast. And the scribe.
Anubis walked to the scales and removed the pure white feather of Ma’at. He asked the Traveller in White for a request so politely that he could never refuse, and with permission granted, tore the Traveller’s head off and rested it on one side of the scales where the feather had once been. The man in the black suit re-adjusted the Traveller in white’s tie, before offering another “OK” gesture once satisfied.
Anubis called and Khonshu brought forth what had been requested.
It was a small doll dressed in street clothes, with a ratty little peak cap and moustache. It wriggled between the grasp of both gods’ touch. It ran on rationale, and the reality principle. It was patient and perceptive. The Marine smiled, at last an ally against the whiny man in the suit. The man in the suit smiled, finally, someone who might allow him to get through to the Marine and his primal desires The headless man in white held him in reassurance.
Anubis held the doll at an arm’s distance. Ammut licked her crocodile lips.
Anubis dropped the doll onto the scales, and then set to work adjusting the scales.
The sides reached balance. Thoth nodded his ibis head to the god of death. He picked the head up off of the scales and threw it back to the Traveller in White. The soldier stepped in front and caught the head comfortably. The man in the black suit, cleared his blank face of cosmic dust and desert sands. He handed it to the man in white who held his forearm in thanks and gave the “OK” sign with his other hand. Anubis threw the doll to Khonshu who approached his avatar. His chosen one.
The Traveller re-attached his own head. To do otherwise would be impolite in the company of gods. Khonshu approached.
The god of the Moon grabbed the Traveller in White by the back of his head, his head snapped back as he screamed silently. His mouth opened from the god’s shockingly strong grip. The god held the figure above the Traveller’s gaping maw, the instant seemed to last for a minute. The fall seemed to last forever.
Jake Lockley felt himself being consumed. He felt himself consume. He once again had form.
The body was whole once more.
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Lockley awoke on the floor of his apartment and for a fraction of a second, before his memories started to come back to him, he had wondered what the Hell he’d been drinking the night before.
He walked through the fake wall to return to the others.
“Marc, are you alright?” Marlene had asked.
He’d turned and looked into the mirror.
“Not just yet, but I will be.”
He left the mansion and got into his yellow cab, going to one of his most familiar haunts - Gina’s Diner, making one stop on the way.
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“Get outta here with that damn teabag, Crawley! It probably has a better memory of the flies that hang around yo’ ass than the last time it saw any tea leaves in it!” Gina yelled, getting frustrated by one of her most loyal regulars incessant requests to stretch a single tea bag into a year-long investment.
“I assure you, the flavour remains infused within, Gina my good lady. Just one more cup of--”
“Throw out the bag, Gina. I’ve got a whole box of teabags here with the name Bertrand Crawley written all over it!”
“Jake, my boy!” Crawley lit up, revitalized at the sight of his friend.
“Lockley! I haven’t seen your bony white ass around here in f’rever! Sit yo’ ass down. Coffee’s comin’ right up! You want pie with that too?”
“Nah. Shelve the pie, Gina. Is Legs Leinhart in?”
“Legs? The Hell you want with Legs?! Don’t you go draggin’ my boys into any of this business with Legs, now!”
As if on cue Ricky and Ray rounded the corner and greeted Lockley with excitement.
“Hey did that job the other day all work out for you Jake? We painted the cameras just like Jeeves asked!”
“And I trust he was able to recover his limousine fully functional and in one piece as well?”
“Painted the cam--? The Hell’d you drag my boys into Lockley?!”
“I assure you I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now Legs, Gina. Is he here?”
“Booth at the back…” She swatted him with a tea towel as he made his way there. “And leave my boys out of this!”
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A yellow cab pulled up to the border crossing station connecting between Washington state. It was further, but Lockley felt it more plausible if he were ferrying Jack Russell - now Charles Prince, courtesy of the identity papers provided by one Michael “Legs” Leinhart - across the border to Vancouver. Once he was in, he rest would be easy, so a lot would ride on the choice of crossing point.
”Hello there!” Said the border official.
“Hi!” Lockley drew his driver’s licence and showed the matching cab registration. “Just ferryin’ this guy across the border to Vancouver.”
“He got papers, yah?”
“Charles Prince” produced his driver’s licence and handed it to the official. Who gave it the briefest of looks, more cars coming in behind them.
“Vancouver, eh? That’s a pretty steep fare.”
“You know how it is, some people have more money than sense…”
“Well, you’re all good to go then…”
And that had been it. For all the panic and rigamarole of crossing international borders, the total experience could be measured in painless seconds, and it mostly came down to choosing a crossing point and driving out of his way.
The rest was just Lockley and the open rode. For over a thousand miles of open road. Jack Russell put his seat back and started to sleep. They’d driven a long way already. The Keno City Hotel awaited. At least for 2 weeks until his new home could be built.
Steam rises up from the sizzling skillet, the smell of onions and peppers wafting toward my nose. Stirring the chopped vegetables until I'm satisfied, I scoop them up with a spatula, set them aside on a plate lined with a paper towel to soak up any excess oil, then crack open two eggs into the pan.
Normally I'm on the job before I get a chance to make much of anything, but Lois did insist that I take the day off. That gives me the chance to brush up a little on my cooking.
"Mmm, that smells delicious," says Lois, stretching as she comes out of the bedroom, unkempt hair spilling in tangles down past her shoulders over the oversized T-shirt she's wearing in lieu of pajamas.
"I hope you don't mind me raiding your refrigerator," I say as I whip the eggs into a yellowy mass that slowly begins to solidify in the skillet. "I figure if I'm not doing anything else today, I can at least make breakfast."
"And how are you feeling?" she asks as she comes up behind me and puts her arms around me.
"Like my entire body is one big bruise," I admit. "Slowly puttering around the kitchen is about the best I can manage-- even if something does come up, I probably won't be able to spring into action without falling on my face."
I turn around and look at her, those one-in-a-billion violet eyes glittering in the morning light. Lois likes to put out a hard-edged, cynical, take-no-guff persona to the world, but just beyond that is one of the most deeply caring and good-hearted people I've ever met. And when she smiles, not just grinning or smirking but is genuinely happy, my God, it's stunning.
"I'll get some coffee going," she says, breaking the embrace to reach for a can of grounds. "We could both probably use a little caffeine this morning."
"Yeah," I chuckle. "Neither one of us got much sleep."
Lois's smile starts to fade a little, and I see some real concern on her face.
"About that," she says, "How, um....how do you feel about, y'know....about last night?"
I don't think I've ever seen her like this, so....uncertain of herself. She's always been the dauntless and daring Lois Lane, ready to take on the world at a moment's notice-- I often think in another life, she'd be Indiana Jones if she'd taken up archaeology instead of journalism. That persona of hers is usually just as bulletproof as I am. So to see her letting herself be, well, vulnerable like that, it catches me off guard.
"Well," I say, trying to lighten the mood, "for starters, I feel like I owe you a new bed."
She thumps me on the arm.
"Hey, that was a team effort," she says, meeting banter with banter. "But I'm serious, Clark. I think, I don't know.....maybe we moved too fast?"
I take a moment to consider.
"I know what you mean," I say, turning away from the oven, "We did kind of go from zero to sixty all at once...."
"Sure, I mean, we just....got caught up in the moment," she says, looking away. "Ran headlong into things without a care in the world."
".....yeah.....but, well.....do you....do you regret it?"
As the eggs begin to burn and smoke on the skillet, I turn off the oven and look at her.
"Lois, I've...I've never met anyone like you," I hear myself beginning to gush. "Before I met you, I was hopping around from city to city, changing jobs, changing names, afraid of myself, and afraid of what people would think of me. You were the first person, apart from my Mom and Dad, who could see what I am and what I can do, and wasn't afraid. You inspired me to show the world what I can do, to help people on a bigger scale than I could have ever imagined. You've been there to push me when nobody believed in me, not even myself. And even if I couldn't do even a hundredth of what I can, you'd still make me feel like a Superman. So....do I regret being with you? Not for a second."
Lois wipes away a tear, and gives me a smile that warms me like the heart of the sun.
"Good to hear, Smallville," she says, pulling me close. "That saves me from having to give a similar speech about you."
We share a long, deep kiss, one that lasts until we're interrupted by the shrill beeping of her smoke alarm.
"The eggs!" I exclaim as I turn back to our now-smoldering breakfast. "Oh, hell....."
Lois laughs as I fuss with the pan, smothering the smoke with a lid and trying to fan some fresh air towards the smoke detector.
"Well, there's always a bowl of cereal," she says, pouring herself a cup of coffee and sitting down on the couch. "Any rate, I don't think you'll have much of an appetite for long. Lex Luthor's giving a press conference on GNN."
My expression sours. I still owe him a visit in regards to his part in the events that led to the Toyman AI.
"What's he up to?" I ask, frowning as she turns on the TV and changes the channel to the image of a skinny, red-haired young man with an insufferable look of self-satisfaction on his face.
"Who knows," she says, "but there might be a story in it. Count yourself lucky; Perry was going to have you cover the event in person, but since you're out sick today, he's got Troupe on it."
She turns up the volume, just as Luthor is about to begin his speech.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you, ah, thank you for joining me this morning," Lex Luthor said, shifting back and forth uncomfortably at his podium as dozens of cameras pointed at him. "I, erm, I know there are plenty of more sensational stories you could be covering right now, but, ah, I hope that what I'm going to show you today will make up for the lack of explosions and planetary danger."
There was a dull murmur of half-hearted chuckles from the press in attendance. With his attempt at levity not landing the way he had hoped, Lex went right into his speech.
"We live in uncertain times," he began, "times when we have begun to question the validity of our institutions, the balance of power, and indeed, our place in the world and the universe at large. Just a few short months ago, most of us believed that if there was any sort of supreme power watching over us, it was off and away in some abstract plane, like Heaven or Asgard or the peak of Olympus. Now, though? Now supreme power flies around right over our heads, swooping by in little red capes or swinging on a spider web. When these impossible people, these gods and monsters, walk among us, it's easy, easy to feel powerless.....and if history has taught us anything, it's that there is nothing that can turn good people to acts of desperation, anger, and cruelty faster than feeling powerless....."
Luthor's expression darkened, and his gaze lowered, stewing for a moment in his own thoughts. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, he snapped back to life, with all the energy of an old-timey carnival barker.
"BUT! You are not powerless, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "In the face of Men of Steel and Scarlet Speedsters, we must not forget our own super-powers, the ones that set us above the other 8.7 million species of life on this planet and made us masters of our domain: knowledge. Imagination. Ingenuity. Technology. The gifts bestowed upon us, according to myth, by the titan Prometheus, the trickster who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people. With that, the Greeks became the bedrock of philosophy, of democracy, of society and civilization for thousands of years, while their gods? They're only relevant as museum pieces these days."
Feeling like he had found his proverbial groove, Luthor leaned in to his podium, almost conspiratorially.
"I have a secret to share with you, folks," he said, looking left and right in a mock gesture as if to make sure no one else was listening in. "On paper, about seven thousand people work in the LexCorp Tower on any given day. But the truth is, for the last two months? Nobody has been working at LexCorp. Oh, they're still being employed, don't worry, but I've been running an experiment with a new product that's taken care of their work for them. Every number-cruncher in accounting, every code-monkey and script-kiddie, every lab assistant and every engineer, even down to the janitors, has been allowed to take time off, knowing their work is being handled. My only catch is that they spend time with their families, pursue their personal passions, do whatever they want so they are objectively better people than when my little experiment began. And that they didn't violate the non-disclosure agreement they signed, of course."
The press began to murmur again, confused as to how this was possible.
"And how did I do it?" he asks, again dripping with corny showmanship. "How did I continue to run a multi-billion-dollar international corporation without anyone actually working, and without people noticing? Well, just like Prometheus, I stole fire from Olympus.....and I plan on giving it to the people."
Behind him, a screen lowered down from the ceiling, displaying images of the various smartphones, tablets, headsets, laptops, and countless other home, commercial, and military electronics designed by LexCorp.
"In the wake of the disaster involving the rogue 'Toyman' AI, I realize that many have low confidence in the viability of artificial intelligence," he said, addressing the concern before it could be raised, "but trust me when I say this will put any digital assistant, any functionary bot program, any top-grade supercomputer to absolute shame. Fast, smart, and so user-friendly it could be used by a kindergartner, and so effective that said kindergartner could have a PhD level education before reaching junior high. Constantly learning and updating itself, it is always going to be a step ahead of black-hat hackers and cyber-criminals, so your data will always be secure and private. Picosecond response times, not just gigabytes or terabytes or even petabytes of storage capacity, but peta-petabytes. Adaptive learning patterns that will adjust to each individual user, so it won't just give you access to, say, the works of Einstein, it will work with you to help you begin to think like Einstein."
The video presentation ended, displaying a simple, minimalist logo, of three circles connected by zig-zagging beams of light.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is the promise of Prometheus himself," Luthor said. "This is fire to the people, this is the keys to Olympus, right in the palm of your hands. And it is available, for free, on every LexCorp device-- and, ah, don't go telling everyone, but I may have made it compatible with all of our competitors as well. Say hello, ladies and gentlemen....."
A figure staggers around in the snow. Stumbles. Grumbles. Mumbles. And picks himself up as well as the small axe and firewood he has been collecting.
Ol’ Charlie doesn’t say much to most folks, unless he travels into town to see them himself first. He calls to another Charlie, and a thin greyhound with mixed coloured eyes bounces through the snow wearing a makeshift jumper made from the larger Charlie’s own clothes.
Charlie found the dog taking out a pack of wolves with no idea how it found its way this far north. The fast greyhound had run, stretching out the pack and isolating front runners, which he then mercilessly attacked, before running again to put distance between them. Charlie remembered when he first saw the dog. It’s right eye cloudy as the moon with a cataract, and at night time its eyes would glow - one a piercing blue and the other green.
Maybe it was a lack of creativity, or maybe it was that Ol’ Charlie saw so much of the man he had become in the dog, that he gave him the same name (or maybe it was even that his “own name” wasn’t really his own in the first place and a combination of these factors).
The two Charlie’s got to the house on opposite sides of the energy spectrum. The man ambled in and carefully removed his heavy coat, hanging it on a hook by the door, whilst the dog bounced through, shook off the cold, wet snow, stretched as if further exercise was required and shook its ears.
“Warm up, Charlie.”
On command the dog lay down on the heavy bear skin by the fireplace.
“Attaboy Charlie. I’m just going to run into town.”
He needn’t have said anything. The dog was already flopped on one side on the bearskin and planning to sleep. Head tilted in semi-interest as Ol’ Charlie turned the door handle.
Charlie jumped in his pickup and headed to town. A full moon was coming and he wanted to make sure he was all stocked up for the coming days with food for his friend of the same name.
He stopped by the bar and had two brews, shooting the shit and finding out what was new with the bartender. Her name was Topaz and she was running from something down south as well. He didn’t know what, but only one name and living out here was the giveaway. She knew he was running from something as well for the same reason. She just didn’t know what. They shared a kinship, and a couple of nights a month, a bed. But how much of that came down to convenience and lack of alternatives in a “city” of fifteen, neither of them knew nor cared.
Charlie picked up more dog food and drove his pickup back home, carefully through the snow. He fed his namesake and started to prepare his own kennel. He dragged blankets and bedding into the cell, he went to the toilet and then patted his dog one more time.
He pulled the heavy door with the timelock closed behind him and sat on his bedding and waited for the transformation to come.
He breathed calmly as he felt it wash over him. He grew on his haunches. Sinew and bone twisted. With the safety of the cell, the werewolf formerly known as Jack Russell had been able to take much of the trauma out of the curse and its changes. Without fighting it, much of the pain involved dissipated.
Gone was the man, replaced by the wolf. As he alway would he tried his luck against the walls and hurt his claws in the process on the cell’s pure silver interior. He walked around the cell inspecting every wall, before howling at the unfairness of it all.
The soundproofing of the cell - whilst very good - was not total, and a muffled howl could be heard around the cabin. Having finished his food Charlie would search for the sound, and sensing an unseen friend would jump onto the timelocked door with his front paws and return the howl himself.
Two Charlies baying for one another across time and a foot and a half of steel and silver. Eventually the pair would both curl up and sleep on opposite sides of the thick door, as the timelock ticked down to their impending reunion.
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Flint sat in the breakroom. His partner Gwynn was in the can. The television in the breakroom had cut from some 80s sitcom to a press conference at City Hall.
Flint turned the volume up, to the chagrin of some of the other officers…
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“Look, whatever you do... Don’t announce your intent to run.” Benson said, as he straightened the Deputy Mayor’s tie.
“Mmm.” Carson Knowles grunted, side-tracked as he went through his own speech.
“I’m serious! You don’t want to give these people enough runway to get off a good counter-campaign and make you unelectable.”
“Benson,” Knowles began, an air of entitled superiority thick in his voice, “I’m an army hero, with six years experience as Deputy Mayor and another three years of experience as Chicago’s District Attorney. I have an unblemished military career with honours, the experience to hold office and the name to go with it from when my father held the role. My resume speaks for itself.”
“Just… Listen to me and don’t make our job any harder. OK?”
The podium was currently feeling the weight of the Police Superintendent as he fielded questions regarding the recent scourge of animal attacks, until the media put forward a direct question about the Knight in White who had been using moon shaped darts and equipment.
Knowles took this as his cue and stepped to the podium as the representative from the Mayor’s office.
“I’m glad to field this one for you… Chicago prides itself on progressive policy. And looking at the current trends for crime, the current Administration believes that we the people deserve a police force that will take all the help they can get. Whether that be amongst their own ranks, or from a private citizen determined to make this city, THIS WORLD, a better place.”
He held expertly for a public round of applause.
“And that’s why, even though this Moon Knight is yet to release a public statement, this administration would like to announce that they stand with him on this great endeavour for a better Chicago for tomorrow! We see the heroes who stood, no STAND in front of villains like that Silver Surfer and his tyrannical master, and say WE WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS ANYMORE!”
“So does that mean you’ll be throwing your own hat in the ring at this next Mayoral election?” A man with a press lanyard yelled from the front.
Knowles snapped briefly and glared at the interruption for a half second before re-composing himself.
“We’re not here to talk about hypotheticals of who may or may not be running for office in the upcoming election.”
“Wow. That’s a solid side-step and a non-answer.” He replied.
“It’s an expert deflection from a highly competent Deputy Mayor who’s looking to get thing back on the topic at hand, which is that this administration is getting behind our own local…”
“And when you say this Administration… are you referring to one that you will be leading? How else could you claim to speak for them? Or will the Mayor also be saying this?” The man in the press lanyard got even more stubborn with his questioning.
A smirk crossed Carson Knowles face. He’d been expertly backed into a corner. He grabbed the sides of the podium and tapped it, considering his next move.
“Yes, I suppose you are right on that. After many years of service to both this city and this great Nation, I will be running for Mayor this spring. And in that Administration, we plan to continue our ongoing support of this great HERO. The Moon Knight of Chicago!”
More cheering, and Carson Knowles took the opportunity to wave for photos and interject himself throughout. Away from cameras and prying eyes, Carson Knowles would slip the man in the press lanyard a paper envelope with several thousand dollars inside.
Flint turned off the tv to even more complaints than when he turned the volume up.
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The Windy City. Our city. No better place for a man with a glider cape.
I’ve been staking out gang behaviour in the Upper West Side. A bunch of Irish mob thugs calling themselves the Whyos have been looking to stake a claim.
They’ve been running guns through and flouting local laws. If I can take them down, I’ll not only make the streets safer for the average Chicagoan but I’ll make my own goals that much easier as I take a good sized consortment off the street.
A beautiful woman waiting for me at home, my best friend watching on from above and I feel complete - as stable as I have for a long time.
“The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.”
Warpath, Texas -- SHIELD Outpost 1941
”It all started in Hell. Well, ‘course it did, but I’m sure The Star Spangled Kid letcha in on that much anyhow. Things were… Well, tell you the truth mister, things were different down there. Not much like anything a God fearin’ man’d expect. There was the fire and the brimstone, spiralin’ towers of black rock climbin’ to God knows where. But it was like a… Kinda an inversion of this world. Friday The Thirteenth come to life type deal. Looked like everything from up top had fallen clean through the Earth and had a couple hundred years to rot.
“Way I understand things, Hell’s all cut up into these little sections. Every Demon Lord strong enough’s got their own. Asmodel. Beelzebub. Belial. Others. Never got the pleasure of findin’ a way into their realms, but more n’ a few of their subjects trickled over. Anyway, that’s my of saying I can’t exactly give ya a ‘comprehensive overview’ like you said you wanted. Far as I know, that place could stretch on forever. Worst part is I can’t really tell you how long I was down there. Apparently I was disappeared for three years. Felt like a thousand. Time doesn’t mean anything down there. Guess that’s supposed to make the suffering all the worse.
“Me? No, we weren’t tormented. Least not in the usual way. I think the Demons could tell that we didn’t exactly belong. How? Well, imagine walking down the street, and you see a guy with a mouth where his stomach should be. And the rest of his body is knives. Just knives. Now, imagine everyone around you looks like that. Suddenly, you’re the odd man out, ain’t ya? What’s that? Yeah, ran into a handful of the fellers. Still got the scars… Naw, don’t think that’ll be worth your time. Frankenstein was workin’ on somethin’ called a ‘bestiary’ while we were down there. I’m sure he can hand her over once he comes ‘round.
“Anyhow, what was I sayin’? Right, torment. Clear as I can tell, the lot of us weren’t dead, and I think that got us outta the usual kindsa torture. But by God those boys hounded us to the ends of the Ear--er, Hell. Wasn’t many days we weren’t on the run. It was that way for all of us, in the grand scheme of things it was real lucky we found each other. Otherwise we’d be deader n’ a doornail.
“We got out when we finally found his throne room. Don’t know what we were thinkin’, challenging a creature like that. But maybe that was part of his game. See, thing we learned about Mephisto down there is that he’s a real scheming type. Apparently jes about everything we went through was a test, see who’d be ‘strong enough to face him’. Or maybe that was jes another lie. Point being, we fought that bastard into the ground, used everything we had. Guns, my lariat, Lee’s gas gun, even some special kit we pilfered from demons over the years. Didn’t matter much, though. By the end we were scattered across the battlefield, most of us bleedin’ out.
“I don’t much remember what it was like to accept, but I can piece it together. Friend’s lives and our freedom for one little period of ‘servitude’. How could I refuse? That’s when The Spirit entered my life… Yessir, the feller on The Raft. Well, that was also m… Yessir, it’s more n’ a little complicated.
“Anyhow, we crawl on outta Hell somehow. Not one of us remembers actually doing it. Just waking up in the Desert, and feeling that wind for the first time again. Like a little slice of Heaven. ‘Course, that didn’t last. Come to find out that this whole valley is now home to jes about every brand of Demon we bothered ourselves with downstairs. It’s a wonder the place is still standing, to be honest with ya.
“N’ I’m sure the others told you most o’ the middle, in their bits n’ pieces. Team splits up, chasin’ their dreams. Just me an’ Jonah Hex in Warpath. Then come The Dummy. The Bounty Hunters… Rather not recount it, iffin you don’t mind. But that jes about gets us to where we are now. Duke it out with the Silver Surfer n’ try to learn so many superhero names that I already can’t keep track of. N’, now, Agent, lemme be clear with you. The Spirit don’t often take it upon itself to say too much. But it warned me. It said ‘Somethin’ wicked this way comes.’ Only time it said anything like that before was when The Dummy was coming up on us. You can see how that one went. Point I’m trying to get across is… Whenever it comes, you people need to pull out everything you’ve got. No holds barred. You understand me, son?”
“Yeah…” Agent Meskin nodded, his fingers whipping across the page as he scribbled Vigilante’s statement. He looked up to catch the cowboy’s glare in the light that steamed in through the SHIELD Field Tent. He gulped. “I mean, uh, yeah. Definitely. I’ll speak with my superior officer on that.”
Vigilante nodded and picked up his hat from the table. He stood and stretched. Meskin could hear the pop of his joints from across the tent.
”We almost done here?” Vigilante yawned. ”We’ve been going at this for a couple hours.”
“Almost, Mr. Saunders.” Meskin looked down at his clipboard, flipping through a series of pages. “I was hoping I could speak to The Spirit?”
Meskin could see the wrinkles in Vig’s bandana fold as he smiled. ”You think you want that. But you don’t.” The cowboy turned to leave the tent, pulling his hat on.
“Sir! It’s protocol.” Agent Meskin shot up from his folding chair, clenching his clipboard. Vig didn’t turn around.
”Listen, I appreciate everything you boys are doin’ for us. Least you can do on account of me helping y’all out with The Surfer, you said. But don’t think for one second that you came here to tell us what to do.” Vigilante shouldered his way out of the tent. ”You have a nice day, now.” He called back.
It’d only been a few days since he dropped Jaime off after The Surfer, but it felt like a lifetime, and not in that Hellish sorta way. First time in a long time, Warpath was all hustle and bustle. SHIELD Agents ran all over the shop, many of them hauling crates of weapons or jersey barricades. Warpath’d been transformed practically overnight. SHIELD Watchtowers had already been put up in the town’s four corners, and they were already at work retrofitting Vig’s makeshift walls with all kindsa gun turrets and SHIELD tech. He’d tried helping at first, but after shocking himself a few too many times with their equipment, he decided he was more of a grease monkey than a tech wizard. Across the way, by what was left of the Crossroads, Sylvester and Pat sat atop a steel box, spinnin’ a yarn for a gaggle of SHIELD Agents. Sylvester waved to Vig as he passed. Vig tipped his hat and moseyed along. He stopped to watch two Agents trying to pulley a mounted turret up to one of the town’s sturdier roofs. The Spirit hissed in his mind.
“Do not trust them, Gregory Saunders.” It growled. Vig shook his head and moved on from the scene, pushing The Spirit’s commentary to one side.
”They’re gov’ment spooks. A little shadiness comes with the territory.” He contended. ”An’ you said earlier that you couldn’t get no signs from them.”
“There is an incongruity about them. They are unreadable.” The Spirit snapped.
Vigilante paused. The agents were doing better now, getting the gun a few feet into the air. Their faces were red from the effort.
”That so? Like that Black Star feller?” They were almost at their apex now. Just a few more inches and the gun turret’d be up and over onto the roof.
“No. It is unlike The Power Cosmic. But it is sinister, Greg Saunders.” The Spirit warned. The turret was almost in place. The agent on the roof said something, his mouth turning up into a grin. The SHIELD agent on the bottom burst out into laughter and the gun slammed into the ground. The agent fell back, rolling around in a fit of laughter.
Vig smiled. ”Sinister. Sure.” He moved on past the scene, heading for the wide-mouthed road that marked the main entrance to Warpath. Lee and Sir Justin sat at a wooden picnic table they’d dragged to the front of Vig’s house. Lee tinkered with his gas gun, feeding in a series of little pellet-things and twisting a few screws and knobs, giving some babbling explanation to Sir Justin. The knight merely nodded, resting his head in his hand and idly passing sugar cubes into Winged Victory’s mouth.
The white horse sat aside the table, majestic white wings kept tightly at its side. It was a massive thoroughbred, hair clean as a kid on a Sunday, despite apparently centuries of waiting for her master to return. In lotsa ways it was easier seeing it up close than it was thinkin’ on the manner of it. A winged horse livin’ for centuries at a time. Wasn’t like he hadn’t seen stranger these last few months.
“Mr. Saunders?” Vigilante heard a voice from atop the Watchtower closest to the entrance. “You might want to come see this.”
Atop the tower, Vigilante pressed the agent’s binoculars to his eyes. On the horizon were two horses. They were dust colored, blending in almost perfectly with the cloud they kicked up, spare their riders. One was wrapped up tight in a brown trenchcoat, with a white fedora he kept firmly pressed to his head with one hand. The other rider looked like a dead man walking. Tatters in his coat betrayed a sickly screen skin crisscrossed with all manner of scars and stitches. It was hard to tell from a distance, put it looked as if he’d had a bolt driven through his temples. Frankenstein.
There’d been hours of drinking and carousing among the Soldiers before most had gone off to bed, leaving Vigilante sitting across from Frankenstein and his guest, staring up at the stars. The wooden picnic bench creaked under Frankenstein’s weight, but he didn’t seem to mind.He was contented to stare, the occasional spark flickering off the rod embedded in his head.
Frankenstein’s guest, Doctor Occult, he said he was called, fidgeted with a circle pendant with a white-and-black X on it. He looked at the ground, lips pursed, deep in though. Doc O had proved himself a quiet feller, mostly stickin’ clear out of the way of the party. He’d spent the night getting the read on the townsfolk, still in their petrified state. Vig had been trying his hardest not to think about it… But it was time for brass tacks, as his Pop would say.
Vig swallowed and Frankenstein and The Doctor instantly locked eyes with him. ”I didn’t wanna get in the way of the celebratin’. I think we’ve done a good thing, here, but, well… We need to know. What can we do? About them?” Vig leaned forward in his chair. ”We’ll cross Hell n’ back again if that’s what it takes, but we need to know.”
The Doctor nodded. He had taken his fedora off by now. He had flowing golden hair, now slick with sweat from the Texas heat. He ran a hand through it. “Well, they’re still alive, thankfully.” He said. “But… Well, put simply, the curse is a simple one, but quite unbreakable. We’d require a magical artifact of enormous power to even begin shattering it… Unfortunately, I’m unsure of where we’d begin to look for them. Most artifacts of such a level are under lock and key by beings we could not hope to challenge, even with The Spirit of Vengeance on our side.”
Vig nodded slow. ”Give it to me straight, Doc. Exactly what kinda things are we ‘lookin for?”
“We’d need an object of truly awesome ability. The Helmet of Fate, or of Dream. The Metachem Wand, a gem of Cyttorak, a Bloodstone, or even one of King Solomon’s Frogs. This is, of course, failing the presence of the curse’s original caster. As he is… No longer with us? Our only hope is his Master was a powerful sorcerer, far greater than him. If such is the case, they may be able to reverse the effects of the curse. Maybe.” Doctor Occult sighed. “I know it’s a shot in the dark. But right now, it’s the only avenue anyone has to helping these people.”
”A Master, huh?” Vig tightened his fists. The leather of his gloves strained. He turned to look past Frankenstein and Doctor Occult, to the northeast. One named burned on his lips. It ran in his mind, through both his and The Spirit’s consciousness.
Gotham City, 140th Street Alcuin & Spilsbury Towers 8:27 PM
"There has to be a thread to pull. You're just not seeing it. Think bigger, Edward..."
A little under twenty-four hours ago, the citizens of Gotham had awoken to one of the most unbelievable sights of their lives. Rising up just eighty miles miles beyond the coastline of the city, a mushroom cloud had appeared. National health officials and members of both the FBI and CIA were coordinating with eachother on an extensive investigation into the blast, and whether or not it was a failed terrorist attack on US Soil perpetrated by an enemy state. Rumors were already circulating through the usual channels that it was either Khandaq or Biayla, two warring nations that had brought the whole of the Middle East into their crossfire, but very little was known by most intelligence committees. In the meantime, a temporary quarantine had been placed on Gotham and a mandatory curfew had been enacted by the Governor. It simply wasn't safe to freely walk the streets.
Which suited Edward Nashton just fine, as he had been trying desperately to concentrate on his own investigations amid various distractions. Between trying to navigate the treacherous waters of the GCPD, collecting information on the gangs from his two operatives stationed within the city, and keeping a watchful eye on any potential leads that would give him The Batman, the Agent hadn't been given a moment's rest in weeks. With the fallout of the bomb to take into consideration, most workers in the city had been given the day off, leading to many spending a relaxing evening at home. Edward's idea of relaxation was stretching his mind, not his legs, in the pursuit of a larger equation that no one had yet to solve.
The latest puzzle to gauge his interest? The mysterious fifth family of the reigning collective of mobsters, The Five Families.
So far, Nashton had been working multiple angles in order to come up with a feasible candidate. There were many spokes in the wheel of organized crime in Gotham, with multiple moving parts working under the larger families. Operations of a miniscule size, largely headed by would-be gangsters and small-timers looking to become the next Carmine Falcone. But despite checking and double checking the qualifications that would likely be mixed into the variables to put one family above the other and attract Falcone's attention, Edward kept drawing a blank.
Falcone's own Syndicate had been there from the beginning of the movement, whenever Carmine's father enacted The Roman's Holiday Massacre in 1939. Then came the Moxon family, the Syndicate's initial rival from the 1940's all the way the 1960's, with Lewis 'Lew' Moxon cutting a bloody swath through what eventually became the East End in retaliation to Falcone's seizure of power. That family was now represented by Thomas 'El Gato' Blake, the husband of Mallory Maxon and heir apparent. Following them was Salvatore Maroni, a made man of his own accord who helped spring Carmine's original operations in the 1970's. A falling out occurred, Maroni stabbed the Syndicate in the back and gained control of the GCPD, turning the tide and giving his own Capo Italiana a piece of the city all their own.
And then there was the Siberian. Oswald 'The Penguin' Cobblepot. Taking advantage of the fall of the Grissom crime family, who had been considered the third to the hierarchy in Gotham throughout the 1980's, Cobblepot had seemingly bought his way into the fold with a cache of military grade weapons that most seemed to favor over those already on the black market. By all accounts that Nashton could pull together, Cobblepot wasn't particularly well respected by any of the major families, but The Red Triangle had endless resources after Oswald had migrated his business directly from Russia, inheriting billions from his time as a major figurehead of the Bratva. So while the short, fat little man was being kept on a short leash for his erratic behavior, The Penguin was otherwise considered virtually untouchable.
Nashton leaned forward in his seat, carefully scanning over the list of names that could potentially be acting as the fifth member of the titular group. But the list was short, and there was no evidence to support any one of them having made an ascension to the top. Frustratedly massaging his temple, Edward started to seriously consider the possibility that there was, in fact, no fifth family and that the secrecy surrounding their existence was all a ruse.
It made some degree of sense, since Falcone's operations had been taking a hit under the combination of rogue factions like The Royal Flush Gang and Batman's sudden appearance several months prior, but it felt more like feeding a conspiracy theory to give up the search than to buy into the idea that there was a secret faction that no one, not even Falcone or Maroni themselves, wished to acknowledge to their top lieutenants. After all, that was how shadow organizations amassed power in the first place. If one could doubt their existence, they could theoretically rule everything.
That was how the Bilderberg Group and the Illuminati had operated, and Edward had long since managed to tie specific members of the government directly to those organizations. But this investigation was beginning to become taxing, as Nashton had been doing research for close to nine hours straight without so much as a credible lead. He sighed to himself, closing his laptop and standing up from behind his desk in the top floor penthouse office he had built for himself.
"Ah, of course. Why didn't you see it sooner?", he rhetorically asked himself. "Perhaps a drink will clear out the cobwebs and illuminate something. I believe you have a rare Chardonnay awaiting in the fridge..."
Securing both his cane and a silk robe, Edward removed his emerald suit jacket and placed the robe over himself, fastening it as he descended down the stairs and into the dark. Feeling the vibration of his cellphone, he reached within his pocket and produced it to find a text message waiting. It stopped him in his tracks, briefly, noting the urgency of which it was written.
"Trouble. Get out now."
Edward rolled his eyes, tucking the phone into his robe.
"Arthur, you were always entirely too dramatic."
But as he reached the bottom floor of the suite, no sooner did the soles of his shoes touch the marble floor did Nashton hear something shuffling in the distance. Raising an eyebrow, he noted that it was coming from the living room area. An intruder, he mused. Whoever had broken in would have had to do so with some degree of skill, given the many alarm systems that Edward had taken the liberty of installing. Nevertheless, his hand gripped the cane even tighter as he limped ahead to the lightswitch next to the front door, which had been carelessly left open.
The rational homeowner would search for a weapon of some sort, preferably a gun. Nashton was so bored by the notion of this breach that he didn't even want to waste the effort. Flipping the lightswitch on and casting light into the room, Edward stared nonchalantly at the figure that had been rummaging through the dark as they froze.
"You know, Peyton. If you wanted safe habor from the fallout of the blast, you could have just knocked."
Agent Peyton Riley slowly turned around, making her hands visible in the event that Nashton had a weapon. Whenever she saw that he didn't, she frantically pulled a glock from a holster strapped to her own hip and levelled it squarely at Nashton. Rather than being overcome with fear, however, Nashton looked at the loaded gun with a head-tilt, as if he expected something better. As if he were expecting this, in general.
Edward narrowed his eyes into a sneer.
"Do I look to be doing so?", he retorted, his tone laced with condescension. "What is this, Riley? Some sort of blackmail, or am I giving you far too much credit?"
Riley raised the gun even more directly at Nashton's chest. One of her hands began trembling, but she shook it off, taking a step forward as she noted that her superior wasn't so much as flinching. He wasn't taking her seriously in the least, so she would give him a reason to.
"You're fond of riddles, aren't you, Edward?", she began, her voice holding back venom. "Then see if you can answer this one. Is it Agent Edward Nashton, profiler for the CIA? Or is it Arthur Wynne of Cadmus, expert manhunter? You told Gordon the former, and told the Secretary of State the latter. And that's just the tip of the iceberg whenever it comes to your many aliases and chosen professions, isn't it?"
Nashton didn't so much as blink.
"You know what? It's irrelevant. I think the real puzzle is staring us both in the face."
Narrowing her eyes, Riley's finger overlapped the trigger.
"Are you Edward Nashton... or Edward Nigma?"
Once more, Edward didn't seem threatened or even affected by this acquired revelation. Though everything she said was entirely true, Nigma simply shook his head, shooting her a glare.
"My, Agent Riley. It seems as though you've been busy."
"Shut up!", she protested. "Three years. For three fucking years you've been lying to me. Lying to everyone, making up false credentials to hide your criminal past and getting by with it in the face of every major government organization that you've somehow managed to cross. Giving us cryptic clues about the Agency we were even working for. Funneling our paychecks through wired accounts, supplying us with equipment on your own. Christ, Edward. Was any of it real?"
"Technically speaking? No."
Edward took a limp step forward, causing Riley to tense up as she gripped the gun.
"The truth is, this was all a series of investigations. My own private investigations, to gain knowledge where others could never acquire it. Never hope to acquire it, as most weren't smart enough to see the bigger picture. But to speak of your so-called credentials? That much is true.", he admitted. "They were falsified from the beginning. You don't work for any official agency any more than I do."
Nigma blankly stared her in the eyes as tears began to form in hers.
"Which, given the way you were hired, one would think you would have figured that out long before now. You were an Ivy League dropout, Peyton. I found you selling your body on the streets of Coast City just so that you could meet your meager rent. What government organization, pray tell, would have you with that kind of resume?"
"You arrogant bastard.", she spat behind gritted teeth. "Why go to all this trouble? Why the deception with me and Brown? We both stuck our necks out for you too many times to count. We risked our lives to give you intel! And now you're telling me that it was all just so you could play some sick, twisted game of mental superiority?!"
"Is it really a game if it's the truth?"
Riley began to circle him, hoping to give herself some leverage between Edward and the front door, in the event that he somehow gained the upper hand. Through her own investigations, Peyton had discovered an alarming rap sheet for the criminal that she now saw herself staring down, exposed for what he truly was.
He'd started as a low-level hacker, leaking government secrets to terrorist cells and then framing high-ranking officials for his crimes. As he'd started to make a bigger name for himself as the hacker 'Enigma', the aliases began to circulate.
Edward Nashton. Arthur Wynne. James Glover. John Gorshin. Frank Carrey.
All members of a top level intelligence agency, swooping into an active investigation whenever each organization needed it. The genius willing to lend out his expertise, knowing which string to pull in order to solve the unsolvable case. This was his scheme. And he'd been playing it for over a decade, now, with no one becoming the wiser. No one that had lived to speak of it, that is.
But what was most alarming about this was the apparent lack of motive, as Nigma had financed his own operations from the beginning, with bank records almost non-existent with any of those given aliases. So he hadn't done it for money, which meant that there was something even more nefarious behind the facade. What Riley hadn't figured out was what that was.
"Before I answer your questions, I'd almost be betraying my reputation if I didn't pose one of my own.", Nigma offered, never breaking eye contact. "How did you learn of all this? You're smarter than Brown, I'll give you, but you were never that smart. It must have taken quite a considerable amount of effort for someone of your resources to come up with all the necessary pieces."
Riley's fear faded, as her expression exuded a level of cockiness.
"For such a brilliant man, you certainly aren't very careful, Edward. All you had to do was set me on the path, and everything came to light whenever I started digging. You revealed that machine to us, gave us the fake story about it being lifted from a would-be cyber terrorist. There was something off about the whole thing, so I looked into who that criminal could have been. Turns out, there was never such a man reported in the first place, which led me to focus on you. And that's when the dominoes started to fall."
"It was almost too easy."
Nigma still didn't seem even somewhat phased by any of this.
Infact, he began to chuckle, prompting Riley to stare back in a hostile confusion.
"You think this is funny, you psychotic piece of shit?!"
"Forgive me, Peyton. It's just in the way you said it.", Nigma replied. "That it was almost too easy. Rather than the fact of it simply being too easy. Ask yourself this, Peyton. With all of the high-level clearance that I've been afforded over the years, and all of the information that you found, how is it that you, of all people, were able to vet me when entire teams of intelligence ops never could?"
"It's because I allowed it, you crusading idiot. I set the trap, you took the bait. I'd been tracking your little investigation since it started, placing the right incriminating files in the right areas for you to find, leaving it all out in the open just long enough for you to stumble across them. Handing them to you as if you were a child.", Nigma began, increasingly hostile himself. "And what did you do with the information? Report me to the GCPD? To Gordon? Or perhaps get in touch with the CIA? Cadmus? SHIELD? No. You did nothing of the sort. You texted Brown, and you came here with a gun, all so you could brag about how you followed the breadcrumbs that I laid at your feet."
Peyton's hand began to tremble once again. Surely, he was just trying to save face.
He was skilled and a shrewd manipulator, but to go to that level of effort?
That indicated a level of sociopathy that she had never even began to encounter.
"You're lying.", she outright accused. "This is all some mind game that you're trying to pull in order to spare yourself the extra time. Even if that insane story was the slightest bit true, I didn't come here to brag, Edward. I came here to find that damned machine, your 'Tabula Rasa', and turn it over to Gordon myself. Giving him the files would be one thing, but to have your skeleton key to go with them? It would send you away for life. I planned this, and you're just angry that you got caught with your pants down."
Nigma smiled, mischievously.
"Then, pray tell, where is the device?"
Riley levelled the gun to Edward's temple, stepping into close enough range.
"Funny. That was what I was about to ask you. Hand it over right now, and I don't have to kill you."
Twisting a hidden dial on the back of his cane, Nigma made sure to keep her attention squarely focused on him as he waited for the panel at the bottom of the cane to slide back.
"Do grow up."
Slamming his cane against the floor, Riley was immediately caught off guard as she suddenly felt several thousand volts of electricity course throughout her body. Her nerves instantaneously froze up, the gun fell to her feet, and she doubled over before collapsing to the floor, still conscious but numb. Nigma stepped over her and slid the gun away with his shoe, indicating the footwear with his cane.
"Insulated soles. You would have done well to bring yourself a pair."
Riley stared up in horror, realizing that the madman had gained the advantage.
"Oh, god. Oh, god..."
Nigma leaned over her, tilting his head once again.
"Frankly, Peyton, you did me quite the favor in going about this as predictably as possible. Whenever I revealed Tabula Rasa's existence to you and Brown, I did so with the intention to see what you both would do with such knowledge. Knowledge, as you may have already guessed, is the greatest commodity in existence. It either pushes us forward or clouds our perspective, sending us back. I needed the knowledge, for instance, of whom I could trust in going forward with my plans for Gotham. And that has been made clear. You, however..."
Poking her temple with the cane, Nigma glared at her with a look of disapproval.
"Came up short, as always."
The tears now streaming down her face as she realized that she was entirely helpless, Riley looked to Nigma with a clear plea for mercy etched across her face.
"Please. Please don't kill me. I... I'll keep quiet. I won't say a word."
Standing up straight, Edward didn't so much as acknowledge her as he turned around and continued into the kitchen.
"I have more pressing matters to concern myself with than your empty promises. But if you're worrying that I'm the type of person who enacts personal vengeance, you honestly insult my intelligence. I have no intention of killing you."
Opening the fridge, Nigma produced his bottle of wine as Riley noticed the front door creak open. Standing in the doorway was Arthur Brown, her partner and the other patsy that Edward had made a fool out of for three years. Her eyes widening, she tried to move as if to warn him to turn back. He had been her back-up, in the event that things went south, but Nigma was more clever than she had anticipated. Brown was better off running and getting the documents to Gordon as quickly as he could.
"That being said..."
"I can't speak for Arthur."
The back of Peyton Riley's skull shattered open as Brown stood over her lifeless body, a smoking pistol in hand. Her blood splattered over the marble floors as her brains began to spill out, which Edward was quick to step over as he advanced, holding two glasses of his freshly prepared Chardonnay. Handing one to Brown, he took a long sip of his before looking down at the corpse.
"Such a pity. I had hoped she would have been smarter, but Peyton really had always been a disappointment. Now we're a woman short."
Brown looked at the glass of wine and merely placed it aside, sheathing his gun as he looked towards Edward with little-to-no emotion.
"Then I assume we're going to be recruiting, sir?"
Nigma smiled to himself, allowing the wine to swish around in the glass as he contemplated that very notion. Perhaps it was time to begin an expansion of their operation. All that it had taken to convince Brown to turn against his partner was a hefty sum wired directly to his account, electronically stolen from some millionaire that Nigma had chosen at random. And if that was all that it took to get people on his side, he would have no shortage of loyalists to pluck from Maroni's grasp in the GCPD.
"We already are. Why else do you think I set up the hit on Dent by placing him in Miss Isley's crosshairs?", Nigma curtly replied. "The Batman Task Force isn't merely to capture a caped vigilante. It's my own bit of insurance to ensure that everything runs smoothly from here on out."
Glancing down at Peyton Riley's dead body, Nigma posed a riddle to both himself and to her. An old favorite of his from childhood.
"When is a door not a door?"
Gotham City, Dini Plaza The Syndicate Hideout 9:00 PM
"And when did you receive this message?"
Roman Sionis looked at his phone, checking the exact date and time attached to the photo. Carmine 'The Roman' Falcone looked toward him with a skeptical eye from behind his desk, as his bodyguard, a man known only as Meredith, stood to his left and Selina Kyle leaned against the wall to his right, filing her nails and making her disinterest in the matter clear. Sionis had called ahead, particularly eager to share the news.
The Penguin was dead. The photo on Sionis' phone was of his corpse, having been strangled and strung up on a pole overlooking the dance floor of his nightclub. Which theoretically meant that The Red Triangle was no more, and that there would be many vying for the now vacant fifth spot on The Five Families' roster.
"Just a little over an hour ago. Had a guy working Maroni's beat confirm it for us through the forensics lab. They just carted Cobblepott's fat ass away after his mistress found him."
Falcone reached for the phone as it was handed to him. Carefully inspecting the photo for himself, which showed the corpse's face in great detail, he seemed displeased with the result, rather than content with the matter of the rogue Siberian finally being settled.
"Don't you see what this means, Carmine? His men are ours. All we gotta do is make an offer, and Grissom's old territories are back where they belong, under Syndicate jurisdiction."
The Roman didn't even look at Sionis as he placed the phone down.
"You said that this came from an anonymous source. Did this man on Salvatore's payroll happen to have the number ran?"
Sionis raised an eyebrow.
Falcone placed his hands together.
"Roman, you're not exactly seeing the bigger picture, here. You see opportunity where there likely is none. If Maroni's people already know about this, Capo Italiana is likely to be making the very offer that you spoke of to The Penguin's men. This is now his opportunity, not mine, and you allowed it to slip through your fingers."
"With all due respect..."
Carmine slammed his fist down onto the phone, simultaneously cracking the screen and silencing his underboss in one fell swoop.
"And the more prevalent issue is not what we can gain from this. I'm more concerned with who could have done this to Cobblepot in the first place. By all accounts, he was well protected. Some even claimed he was building an army of freaks to stake out even larger areas of Gotham for himself. So whoever did this is likely incredibly skilled, and considering none of the other bosses have taken credit..."
A look of realization washed over Sionis' face.
"Someone's targeting us."
Selina finally stopped to admire her pedicure, leering at Sionis' ineptitude.
"And the cat finally swallows the canary."
Falcone snapped his fingers, prompting Meredith to step forward.
"I want an assembly of all organizational figureheads. Tonight, with no excuses to be accepted. This will be a matter for all of us to discuss, moving forward. Extend an invitation to Cobblepot's entourage, aswell. Though I don't expect them to attend."
Roman looked at the bodyguard with a sense of offense, turning back to Falcone.
"Why are you making him do that? I have everybody's number, and could get them here within the hour."
Carmine glared back at Sionis with a measure of contempt.
"You weren't even competent enough to handle a simple confirmation of this rather sensitive information. I don't expect to be able to trust you to carry out an even simpler task."
Roman angrily stared back, but was still smart enough to say nothing. The old man had looked down on him for years, chided him at every turn, and questioned his methods whenever possible. It had grown tiresome, given the amount of loyalty that Sionis had placed towards Falcone since earning his spot in the organization. But this sleight was one too many.
"It's sir, to you. You'll earn your right to formalities when I've decided you're worth being allowed to them. Now get out of my office, and take the rest of the night off. You're dismissed."
His eyes widened, Roman nevertheless stood up from his seat. He didn't know whether to shoot the old man right then and there, but the temptation was certainly hanging over him. Eventually, a cooler head prevailed and he decided against it. With a careful nod, Sionis wordlessly turned around and promptly exited the room. Selina watched him as he left, before turning to her father.
"You don't really believe that Maroni's capitalizing on this, do you?"
"Not in the slightest. But the idiota has to learn if he wants to run a significant portion of my operation. I'm not handing him the votes to lead Waynetech as CEO if he manages to screw up even a single job that's tossed his way. That was not how you handle matters of interest."
Raising an eyebrow towards Meredith, who was still standing to attention, The Roman caught him off guard with another snap.
"Hey! Didn't I just give you an order?"
Realizing his error, Meredith nodded once more, reaching for his phone.
"My apologies, sir. I'll relay the message at once."
Roman hand-waved him away.
"Do it outside. I've further business to conduct before the meeting."
Meredith looked towards the door, hesitant to leave his employer unprotected. But he knew it was unwise to question Falcone for even an instant, as Sionis had already thoroughly proven.
W E D N E S D A Y, A U G U S T 0 8T H | M A R V I L L E G E N E R A L H O S P I T A L
Her eyes stayed fixed on the television screen, as she sat on the end of the hospital bed watching the Clash of Titans unfold on the other side of the country. Behind her stood the nurse who was currently tending to Barbara’s wounds as she cleaned the numerous lacerations that now covered the majority of her shoulders and back. Remaining still as the nurse removed glass and blood from her hair, Barbara watched the vicious battle between the Surfer and her lover.
Each blow Thor took from the Surfer caused Barbara to wince as her heart sank in her chest fearing that the next hit Blake took would be his last. It felt wrong to be sitting in a hospital room while Blake was in the fight of his life, it wasn’t something she had signed up for. Blake at least had known that Barbara was going to work for the Sheriff’s department, she on the other hand never had any notice that Blake was going to start fighting aliens and witches.
“Crazy world we live in now, eh hun?” The nurse asked noticing that Barbara’s gaze hadn’t left the television screen. “I like the ones that don’t wear masks personally, that Superman’s a real tall glass of water.”
“Pretty fond of Thor myself,” Barbara replied with a weak smile as she kept her eyes fixed on the screen.
“You don’t say?” The nurse replied, playful sarcasm dotting every syllable as she spoke. “You haven’t taken your eyes off that there screen the entire time I’ve been working on you. I’ve had grizzled veterans react more to me putting stitches in than you have.”
“Well,” Barbara started, “I have to say, the local boy is putting on quite the show right now, showing the Yanks how we d-” She paused as the Thor fell to his knees, fear overtaking every cell in her body. Noticing what was happening, the nurse paused as both women watched the screen in silent horror as the Surfer plunged his hand into Thor’s chest.
Barbara’s world seemed to end for a moment, her head spinning as her heart screamed out in denial at the idea of Blake’s death. Tears swelled in the corners of her eyes as her throat tightened, her mouth going dry as four words stumbled out from between her lips.
“Come back to me...”
It was as though Thor had heard her whispered words as he suddenly lunged forward, savagely attacking the Surfer. Barbara gasped as what had looked like Thor’s final moments suddenly changed into a moment of triumph as he held the Surfer at his mercy.
“Well that was quite the scare.” The nurse said, breaking the silence with a nervous chuckle as Barbara turned her eyes from the screen. “Wonder where Superman was this time, didn’t he kick that silver man’s ass back in Central City?” Whether by intention or not, her question was left rhetorical as Barbara breathed a deep sigh of relief. The tightness in her chest loosening as Thor’s victory was assured.
N E W Y O R K B A Y, N E W Y O R K:
W E D N E S D A Y, A U G U S T 0 8T H | T H E R A F T
The adrenaline slowly left Thor’s body as his mind was left reeling at the events that had just unfolded before the God of Thunder. He had just gone toe to toe with a man possessed by the Power Cosmic, an ancient force that the Allfather and indeed, all of Asgard had thought lost to the vastness of the universe. Yet here it was before him, a fraction of the Power Cosmic, very much found and once again, a threat to the Nine Realms
The woman, Barda, had taken the Power Cosmic’s host away and Thor found himself, alone, standing amidst the ruins of what was once Earth’s greatest prison. For now, Midgard was safe, and at least for the moment, Blake was free to return to his life. Pain surged through his body as Thor placed a hand over the gaping wound in his side, kneeling as he took a breath. The world around him suddenly faded from focused as Blake fought against the instincts of his past life.
After such a prolific victory, Thor would have spent the night feasting and drinking. The halls of Valhalla would have swelled with praises of his battle while Asgard was thrown into a celebration. But, Thor was not raised to believe he was mortal.
Fear and panic began to set in as he looked down at the blood covered hand as he pulled it away from his side. The other heroes had departed, going their own ways as Thor raised his eyes towards the sky as he hand slid from the open wound to his belt. Looking down, for the first time, Blake noticed that his armor had a small pouch on the belt as he reached inside it, producing a ring box as he slumped back on the ground.
The diamond ring glistened in the sunlight as the skies overhead cleared. Staring at the ring, Blake moved his eyes towards the sky, a single tear rolling down his face as a cold feeling began to slowly spread through his body.
Blake’s head spun around quickly as he located the source of the noise, his eyes met those of a raven as the blackbird stared back at him.
“Allfather.” Blake managed to say, his voice cracking as he forced himself to stand, his legs carrying a few steps closer to his father’s messenger before he collapsed onto one knee.
Come to me, my son.
“The pain, I can’t,” Blake protested as the bird shook its head at him. At that moment, Blake could have sworn he saw its beak smile as Odin’s voice returned in his head.
Your humanity will one day be your greatest strength but for the moment at hand it is but a weakness.
“But I am human!”
You are not a man, you are the God of Thunder! A Prince of Asgard, now act like it.
With a roar, Thor staggered back to his feet, returning the ring to his belt as he looked towards the sky.
“Heimdall!” He bellowed. “Open the Bifrost!”
An aurora of red, blue and green suddenly appeared in the blue sky as a pillar of light engulfed Thor, pulling him into the air as he disappeared over the horizon before dropping onto the main street of Marville once again.
“You fought well, my Lord.” Heimdall stated greeting Thor as he braced his friend as Thor’s wounds caused him to falter again. “But now is the time to rest.”
“The wound is not closing,”
“It is the work of the Power Cosmic.” Heimdall replied as he plunged his blade into the ground again, the pair vanishing before reappearing surrounded by pine trees as Thor found himself in Raven’s Grove once again.
“Come forth, my son.” Odin beckoned from across the clearing as Heimdall helped Thor towards his father as the elder Asgardian sat beside the tooth-shaped rock. “Let me have a look at what ails you.” The Allfather stated as he pulled the armor away from the fist-sized hole in Thor’s chest. Residual energy of the Power Cosmic still lingered around the wound, preventing Thor’s natural healing thus allowing him to continue to slowly bleed out.
Placing one hand on the wound and another on the tooth-shaped rock, Odin called upon what little remained of Asgard’s ancient forces as he transferred the wound from Thor to his own body.
“No!” Heimdall roared as he left Thor’s side, catching the Allfather as Odin fell towards the ground.
“Why!” Thor asked as his strength returned.
“I am tired, my son.” Odin replied as he looked towards the sky. “My wife calls to me, can you hear her?”
“I am not ready for you to leave. I have so much more to learn.” Thor protested, his throat tightening as Heimdall cradled the dying King in his arms.
“I have taught you everything you need to know,” Odin replied, his voice strained as a smile slowly crossed his face.
“You just need to…” He took a deep breath, the world around Thor going silent before Odin uttered his final words.
“...remember... my son.”
Heimdall looked down at his arms in horror as the skies turned dark from Thor’s sorrow, rain pouring down on the pine grove as the ravens let out a mournful noise. Odin’s body faded, disappearing before Thor’s eyes as he turned to ash before being swept into the wind.
Thunder roared as lightning struck the pines, Thor’s grief overwhelming Midgard’s elements as he fell to his knees while Heimdall rose.
“The King is dead.” He stated before turning to Thor, “Long live the king!”
“W-what?” Thor asked, his red eyes turning to look towards Heimdall.
“The King is dead.” He repeated, “Long live the king!”
“The Heir to the Throne of Asgard.” Heimdall respond, “With the passing of the Allfather.” He paused before confirming exactly what Thor had realized.
“You are King.”
From the shadows of the pine, a pair of bright green eyes reflected in the darkness of the storm as a coyote watched Thor and Heimdall. An expression of satisfaction fell over its visage as it hungrily licked its chops before backing into the darkness of the thicket, disappearing without a sound.
F R I D A Y, S E P T E M B E R 2 8T H, 2 0 1 8 - 0 6 : 5 8 p m | T O W N H A L L
Nearly a month had passed since Thor had fought the Gentleman Ghost and his army of the undead after the Silver Surfer had unleashed the inmates of the Raft in order to test the mettle of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It had also been a month since Thor had inherited the crown of Asgard, something that Blake had not been able to completely wrap his head around. How was he to be king of a place that did not exist and a people who were gone?
The question had hung over his head from the moment that Heimdall had told him he was now the King of Asgard and to this day he was still burdened by the weight of the answer. Blake had failed to mention his new position to even Barbara. Part of Blake simply believed it was a formality provided by Heimdall, and that nothing would come of the title. But with the way the world was changing, he wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if he was somehow expected to transform Marville into New Asgard. But none of that was important at the moment, especially not at this moment.
This moment belonged to Barbara.
Due to her actions during the Marville’s live production of ‘The Walking Dead’, the Mayor and the Sheriff had decided to honor Barbara with an accommodation and had thrown an event in her honour. Loosening his tie, Blake fiddled with the ring box in his pocket before taking a sip from the glass of bourbon that the waiter had sat in front of him. Somehow despite fighting the Silver Surfer, proposing to Barbara Norris was still the most nerve-racking thing that the God of Thunder had ever done.
Blake had attempted the action several times over the last month and each time had failed to pull the trigger. There was never the ‘perfect’ moment, or perhaps it was the fact that he’d have to tell her by marrying him she’d be crowned Queen of Asgard that was holding him back. No matter, Blake had resolved that tonight was going to be the night he finally proposed to Barbara Annabelle Norris.
The squeal of feedback echoed over the Town Hall as several attendees covered their ears. Wincing, Blake took his seat before taking another sip of his drink as he looked towards the stage. In the chair beside him, was a bouquet of three dozen white roses, waiting for Barbara to receive her award and that was the moment when Blake would approach the stage.
It would be perfect.
Marville’s mayor, Roy Thomas cleared his throat before addressing the crowd as Blake looked up from his drink.
“Well I’d like to thank you all for coming out tonight to not only support one of Marville’s best, but also the entire Sheriff’s Department. Without their dedication and training, I’d hate to think what the state of our little town would be right now.”
“What about Thor?” Someone in attendance shouted as the Mayor’s brow furrowed in slight frustration.
“What about Thor?” The Mayor retorted as Blake inwardly groaned.
So much for perfect.
Despite the glowing reviews from most of the citizens of Marville, nothing that Blake had done as Thor seemed to sway the Mayor to his side. The Mayor was simply not interested in having a ‘resident superhero’ bringing the town down like the ‘Batman in Gotham.’ How the Mayor even thought he could compare Gotham and Marville was a problem in its own right but it was neither here nor there at the moment.
“Did Thor not save the day by defeating the Raft prisoners?” The same voice yelled back as Mayor Thomas impatiently tapped his foot. “Did Thor not save the entire world when he took down the Silver Surfer?”
“Perhaps then the ‘world’ can show ‘Thor’ some gratitude then.” The Mayor responded. “But we’re getting away from tonight’s purpose,” He continued redirecting the conversation as Blake sighed in relief.
“Tonight is for Marville’s finest, the Sheriff’s department, those who have dedicated their lives to defending our small community.” The Mayor stated steamrolling over any other objections about the lack of recognition for Thor.
“I’d like to extend an invitation to Sheriff Daniel Lamb to come on up here and tell us about tonight’s honouree.” The audience clapped as the older man walked across the stage in his dress uniform, shaking the Mayor’s hand as he took the microphone.
“Well thank ya, Mayor,” Lamb began, “I just have to say it is wonderful to see so many of y’all took time out of your busy lives to come and support the Sheriff’s Department. It may be our job to keep the streets clean, but when it comes to Marville, y’all do most of the work for us.”
Clapping along with the rest of the crowd, Blake couldn’t help but smile. Lamb could be a right moron at the best of times, but the man did know how to work a crowd if it meant votes come election season. Considering Barbara’s rising popularity, Blake had a hunch the Sheriff was going to need all the help he could the next time re-election came around.
“While I’d like to stand up here and tell you that all of my deputies are outstanding, there’s one in particular who raises the bar in everything she does. This deputy has never missed a shift, never had a wrinkle on her uniform, by far one of my top performers no matter what exam you throw at her.” Lamb bragged as Blake couldn’t help but feel pride for Barbara. As someone who did not grow up in this community, to be so integrated and recognized was a far bigger accomplishment than he was sure she was aware of.
“I lost more deputies than I care to talk about during the attack on our town, but I know those losses are far fewer thanks to the actions of one individual.” He paused, turning his head to the right side of the stage. “Miss Barbara Norris, why don’t you come on out here.”
Standing up as he clapped, Blake let out a whistle as Barbara crossed the stage. She was stunning, her dress uniform perfectly pressed, not a hair out of place as she shook the Sheriff’s hand.
“Miss Norris, as the Sheriff and on the behalf of the people of Marville, I’d like to present to you this accommodation for outstanding service in the line of duty.” Rising from his chair, Blake picked up the bouquet as he approached the stage, climbing up the stairs he presented the flowers to Barbara as she kissed him on the cheek, posing with him as the local paper snapped a couple of pictures.
“Miss Norris,” The Sheriff asked as he turned to her, “Do you have any words you’d like to share with the people of Marville?”
“If you don’t mind, Sheriff,” Blake interjected as Barbara shot him a confused look. “I’ve actually got a few words prepared that I’d like to say to Miss Norris here.” Lamb blinked a few times before replying.
“I don’t see why not Mr. Donaldson,” He stated before reluctantly passing the microphone to Blake as he mouthed an apology both towards Barbara and a very confused Mayor Thomas.
“First off, I’d like to say thank you to the people of Marville,” Blake began realizing he needed to warm the crowd up a bit before he dropped on one knee. Despite that, he could see a couple of the community’s elderly women elbowing each other, obviously more aware of what was about to happen than the Barbara was herself.
“When I returned from college with Barbara, you welcomed her into this small community as she had always been here like she belonged here. I think I can safely speak on Barbara’s behalf when I say, there has not been a single person here who has ever made her feel as though she doesn’t belong.” He smiled, clearing his throat as he continued. “Out of all the places I’ve visited, this is by far the place I’m happiest to call home. You all are the warmest, sweetest, kindest people and if there was a picture of Southern hospitality on the Wikipedia page, it’d be your smiling faces.” Blake pointed towards the crowd before turning to Barbara.
“Barbara, I am so proud of you tonight, I am so proud of the stand you took to protect this town, to stand shoulder to shoulder with beings who up until about three months ago, I wouldn’t have believed existed you. You are an encouragement to us all, you strengthen this town, you strengthen me. When I am with you, I feel whole.” Blake said as the crowd collectively cooed behind him, Barbara smiling at him as she began to notice Blake’s hand fidgeting with something in his pocket. Her eyes began to widen as Blake realized he needed to hurry this along.
“But I do have one thing to admit.” He paused, “I really don’t like your last name.” He stated before dropping to one knee as the pulled out the ring.
“That’s why I’m asking you to take mine.” The crowd cheered as Barbara covered her face with shock, the Sheriff laughing as he swung his arm as though his favourite quarterback had just scored a touchdown.
“Barbara Annabelle Norris,” Blake stated. “Will you marry me?”
W A S H I N G T O N, D . C . :
F R I D A Y, S E P T E M B E R 2 8T H, 2 0 1 8 - 1 1 : 4 3 p m | T H E T R I S K E L I O N
The Triskelion was one of the most secure buildings in the entire world, there were few known establishments that were more secure. Though despite all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s advanced intelligence, the Triskelion was still built before the common agent had to think about a metahuman infiltrating their ranks let alone the building.
Lady Elaine Marsh-Morton was no a metahuman though.
But her employer was a very powerful man, and even S.H.I.E.L.D. was not incorruptible. Everyone had their price, just the same as she had hers, but the truth be told, she would have done this job for free.
A collector of all manner of weapons, Lady Elaine had a particular soft spot for antiquities. It was her gimmick in a manner of speaking, but even she knew when to resort to modern armaments, one didn’t walk into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nest unprepared after all.
“Take a left at the next corner.”
She frowned a little, did he not realize she had almost completed this job already? Had Creel not botched his chance at freedom, she would have already collected her boss’s prize and been on her merry way.
“I do not require you to navigate for me, Collins.” Elaine snapped back as she took the left turn, rounding the corner into another long, well-lit corridor. “It may all look the bloody same, but I know where I’m going.”
“Then why is this your second attempt to complete the job?”
“Piss off.” Lady Elaine replied as continued to the elevator at the end of the corridor. Entering the elevator, she entered the correct destination as the elevator began to ascend to the appropriate level for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s archives. An awkward silence hung in the air between Lady Elaine and Collins as she waited for the elevator to come to a stop, four-chord music playing on a loop as the elevator continued to move.
Coming to a halt, the doors opened as Lady Elaine stepped out of the elevator and into a warehouse filled with rows of sealed boxes organized across various shelves and racks.
“I’m in.” She stated before moving through the room as she pulled a scanner from her belt, entering the energy signature her employer provided as she began to scan the room.
“There’s a hot spot in the North West corner.” Collins stated as Lady Elaine moved through the room towards the source of the signature. Locating the box, she produced the necessary tool to pry it open as a smile spread across her face. Her reflection smiled back at her in the mirrored blade as her hand traced the intricate designs carved into the weapon.
“I’ve got it.” Lady Elaine replied. “Let him know that I’ve secured Járnbjörn.”
Sunrise. The birds were singing and the many businesses of Gotham City had began to open up shop. This was especially true of the prestigious Roman's Empire, an exclusive investment firm that catered to the elite and the particularly well-connected citizens of town for a very obvious reason. It's owner was Carmine Falcone, the biggest crimelord in all of Gotham. Every member of The Roman's Syndicate invested their money into it, with the assurance that it would be well protected. An assurance that had proven true, over the years. The few unlucky individuals that had attempted to commit a robbery at the establishment were not only found and tortured, but their bodies were mutilated beyond recognition, their families were murdered, and each one had been considered a missing person going back at least a decade. Point being that if you stole from The Roman, you ceased to exist entirely. That type of security made Roman's Empire the biggest bank in all of Gotham, as some had deposited millions, if not even larger fortunes.
One individual, however, didn't see it that way. He saw only opportunity for a year's worth of preparations that were about to pay off. As two unmarked vans pulled up across the street, parking bumper to bumper in a unified position, the back doors of the vehicles slowly opened and several men and women clad in black and white all stepped out, carrying large, reinforced suitcases. All wore masks that completely hid their features, save for one man, who led the pack as they descended upon the front entrance in a calm and orderly fashion. The man was wearing a large leather overcoat, fur-trimmed and decadently prepared. His hair was slicked back and his skin was tan, making it clear that he was a man of some considerable class. And under his arm rested the oddest accessory of all - a large umbrella.
But as they approached and the security guards standing just inside began to radio for back-up, a third van pulled up behind them, as if on command. This one was larger, and very clearly armored, displaying the GothCorp logo on it's side as it's back door opened aswell. Out stood an armored boot, followed by another, as a particularly inconspicuous owner stood up and departed while wearing a modified cooling unit. He had been seen on the news, as of late, for an attack on the Starling Fashion Show. To eyewitnesses that were there, in the midst of a battle with The Batman, the man had called himself Mr. Freeze.
Behind him, other mysterious, hideous figures emerged. A large, muscular man with cracked skin and a series of tattoos that accentuated his deformity, making it seem as if he were a human crocodile. A smaller, demented looking individual who curiously wore a bloodied apron and wielded a meat cleaver followed - his skin was a reddish pink hue and his nose had been cut off, making him resemble a pig. A manhole cover was lifted on the street behind them, and out from the sewers emerged a mass of living clay, having been blown up and destroyed just two days earlier before reforming and being given the opportunity of it's life.
These individuals were all converging at once, and despite the considerable armed presence inside of the building, the man leading the pack didn't seem the least bit worried. There would be resistance at first, but only at first. They had a small battalion, while he had an army of men and women wielding the highest caliber weapons, superpowered individuals that had seen their share of disenfranchisement and were looking to take it out on the world, and one mind steering them all towards a common goal. In short, this wouldn't last any more than a few minutes. And that was being generous.
With a puff of his lit cigarette, the leader smiled as the door was opened for him, with guns already drawn. There were precisely forty-one high level employees of Roman's Empire, all of whom were working that day. Some had families. Some were innocent. But others weren't, and for that reason, they were all going to die.
"Take it all."
The world will die alone, the fair will fall below...
"If you're just joining us, shocking news coming out of the financial district today as the site of a popular bank in Gotham City became the site of an unprecedented robbery turned massacre. Perpetrated by what appears to be a group of metahuman terrorists working with organized crime, the attack happened this morning just after sunrise, as the ringleader of a group calling themselves The Red Triangle looked to security cameras and made his motives clear. Viewer discretion is advised, as the footage could be considered disturbing."
The GNN news anchor hesitantly waited for the footage to roll, before partially grainy footage appeared across practically every television in the city. In the footage was a man, staring directly up at the camera, as the sounds of bullets flying, people screaming, and general chaos could be heard behind him. He took a hit off of his cigar, tossed it aside, and outstretched his arms.
"This, people of Gotham, is what happen when you become complacent. When you let the wolves rule the den for too long, and allow them to become so comfortable that they catch themselves look the other way. You get the occasional tiger waiting in the snow, looking to pounce on them and take everything they've ever known. I have been called many names over the years, including The Penguin, but that tiger is what I am today."
Placing his hand against his chest, the individual smirked as he introduced himself.
"My name is Oswald Cobblepot. For the past year, I've allowed each member of The Five Families to believe that I was someone else, while a paid actor took my place and helped to build my empire in secret. That man is now dead, having outlived his usefulness, and his body can be found in the trunk of a Volkswagen Polo that is parked on the Wayne Memorial Bridge. I say this because I stand unafraid of the consequences of my actions, today. And I'll tell you why."
Cobblepot gestured to the scene behind him, which was just off camera. But the noises were enough to get the point across. Looking back towards the camera, The Penguin narrowed his eyes and showed no sense of remorse in the violence that he was allowing to transpire in his name.
"The police cannot touch me. While it is something of an open secret, they are all under the control of a man named Salvatore Maroni, the leader of an organization calling itself Capo Italiana. Through posing as the bodyguard of Carmine Falcone, The Roman, I have acquired a ledger of each and every officer and public official working under him. I have also taken the liberty of having that ledger's contents transferred to the digital spectrum. Should a move be made against me by the GCPD, that list goes out to the public."
Removing another cigarette from within his jacket, The Penguin struck a match against his sleeve and nonchalantly lit it. Blowing smoke into the camera, he continued on, making it clear that he was far from done.
"But the police are nothing compared to organized crime. Anyone who's lived in Gotham for even a modicum of time knows this. So in the interest of keeping myself far away from their meager grasp, I issue this warning. Try and come for me if you wish, but know that for as much intel that I have on the cops, I have twice as much on you. I've been privy to The Roman's most secure back-door dealings, and have made note of every single member of The Five Families and their many illegal operations. Should I die or be injured by one of you trigger-happy ladies and gentlemen, that information will automatically leak to every federal bureau in the country. Gotham may be corrupt beyond measure, but the United States government won't hesitate to slap the cuffs on you. So if I go down, the rest of you go with me. The Five Families are done."
Giving a particularly devious smile, Cobblepot held up a stack of thousand dollar bills.
"And should you come for me anyway? Well, just listen to the environment I've created with just one attack. That is the sound of bank tellers being frozen solid, security guards being choked to death with clay, the elite having their throats ripped out by filed teeth, and pedestrians being butchered. Once this is over, the police will find that I am not in any way exaggerating any of those methods of brutality. This is the work of powerful people who have sworn their allegiance to me. Those who you've written off as metahumans, or freaks of nature, looking down at them when they were meant to rise above you. They are being given parts of Gotham to control for themselves, once we remove The Five Families from power. And there is nothing that any of you can do to stop it, even if you were foolish enough to try."
Using the still burning match that he had used to light his cigarette, The Penguin brought it to the stack of thousands and waited as it burned, before tossing it aside and allowing smoke to surround him.
"Make no mistake. This is a declaration of war, and we've just made the first strike. The next move is your's, Gotham."
As he smiled once again, the feed cut out, leaving a stunned news anchor to try and pick up where the footage had left off. Equally as stunned were the assembled group of mobsters who had been called back to The Loeb Building, their neutral spot, just hours after assembling at Carmine Falcone's behest. The Roman had thought The Penguin dead, and had even provided proof. But it was all a ruse. His bodyguard, Meredith, had been the real Oswald Cobblepot all along. And now he knew enough secrets to absolve him from immediate retaliation, not to mention a group of metahumans to back him up from physical harm.
Among the many figureheads of The Five Families, save for Falcone himself, was Salvatore Maroni. The usually temperamental crimelord was just as shocked as everyone else in attendance, as the room fell deathly silent, but only Maroni was the one to be able to convey the first immediate thought on everyone's mind.
Time will take our place, we return it back to one...
Agent Nashton, having heard about the incident at Roman's Empire, marched into Precinct 27 with a small crowd of officers flanking him. Captain Gordon looked up from watching the television footage of The Penguin, already put into a foul mood by the escalating violence that had just rang out like a single shot across the entire city, and shook his head as Nashton approached the door to his office.
Putting out the fifth cigarette that he had smoked since the footage aired, Gordon got up from his seat and went to meet the Agent at the door. Mercifully, he thought to himself, his daughter wasn't working today. He didn't want to have to explain how they were unable to prevent this, as it was a question that he was already asking himself.
"This is possibly the worst time for you to make an entrance, Nashton."
Nashton sneered, gesturing to the officers behind him.
"Correction, Captain. This is actually the best possible time. Behind me are the selected candidates for The Batman Task Force. They will be working with your department in an effort to stop this insanity before it can truly begin. And it starts with the vigilante."
Gordon gave the Agent an incredulous, stupefied glare.
"The Batman? Nashton, The Batman is the least of our concerns right now! Didn't you watch the news?! The Penguin's just declared war on Falcone and the mob! We've got to send tactical units out there to protect the streets, not go on a manhunt for one masked lunatic!"
"What was that, Captain? I couldn't hear you over the sound of my ears ringing."
Both Nashton and Gordon turned to see another figure emerge into the Precinct, as multiple officers stood in recognition. District Attorney Harvey Dent approached Gordon, pointing to a scar left by the bullet wound that had struck him in the side of the head on the night of his Anti-Batman rally. Gordon looked back at Nashton, then at Dent.
"You're in on this too, Counselor?"
"You're damn right I am.", Dent countered, bitterly. "Somebody's got to stop this, Jim. I've been tolerant of your department's lack of progress in getting results in the Batman investigation before now, but that tolerance has only been stretched thin. It was bad enough when he nearly killed me, twice, but now he's inspired a whole host of costumed terrorists to come barging out of the shadows and protect Cobblepot. This violence started when he initiated it. If there's an example to be made of anyone, it's him."
Gordon remained silent.
He could easily dissuade Dent by telling him the truth. That Batman hadn't been the one to shoot him, and the real sniper had been taken into custody weeks ago. But Floyd Lawton had long since been transferred to some secretive government facility under the orders of a Commander Waller, and if the Captain told him the truth, it could mean his own arrest.
The right thing to do was come clean and face the consequences of his actions. But right now, Gotham City was in a state of peril that it had never even seen before. Gordon was damned if he was going to allow corrupt politicians like Mayor Thorne and Commissioner Loeb dictate what happened next in this war for the streets. There were honest cops, decent people who worked with him that could help turn the tide.
"Even if what you're saying is true. And I'm leaning heavily on if, Dent."
Gordon pointed towards the precinct's windows that showed skyline of Gotham.
"What the hell are we supposed to do about Cobblepot?"
Dent narrowed his eyes.
"One threat at a time. For now, you're going to work night and day to bring us The Batman. Or so help me, Captain, I will personally see that you're removed from your post."
Gordon stared back as the District Attorney angrily left, leaving a satisfied Nashton in his wake. Mockingly placing a hand to the side of his face, Nashton watched Dent exit the building via the elevator.
"I would say that he has an axe to grind, but I think that would be understating it."
Shooting Nashton a hateful glare, Gordon looked to the individuals behind him.
"And these are the candidates?"
Nashton produced a completed folder, outlining the candidates through their GCPD personnel files.
"Hand selected by me, Gordon. Each and every one of them."
Gordon eyed them each, knowing fully well that at least half of them answered directly to Maroni's people without even having to read their files. They sure as hell couldn't be trusted, but at the end of the day, what choice did he really have but to let it happen? The city was at war, and war required soldiers.
"Do what you need to do. I'm going to start working on the real problem in this city, Harvey Dent be damned."
Pushing the folder against Nashton's chest, Gordon turned around and slammed the door to his office in the Agent's face. Nashton simply turned to the group of candidates, each waiting on his first official command as leader of the Task Force. Giving them all a smile, he leaned against a desk and
"You heard our District Attorney. We have a Bat to hunt."
The calm before the cold, the long and lonely road...
Carmine 'The Roman' Falcone entered the catacombs far beneath the city with some trepidation. He wasn't accompanied by anyone, of course, given that his traitorous bodyguard had ended up being The Penguin all along. But he had nowhere else to turn in light of these events. The Five Families were no longer operating on firm ground, and with the threat of war looming, he had to consult the fifth family once and for all. Looking out into the darkness ahead of him, Falcone called out to the hollow shadows.
"Is anyone there?"
At first, there was silence.
"Is there anyone there?!"
"We're here, Carmine."
Eventually, a light cascaded onto a group of individuals before him. Spooked, Falcone fell backwards, looking at them with a combination of rage and fear.
"We're always here."
He wouldn't be able to speak out of turn, of course, given that they were the oldest and most feared organization in the history of Gotham. But he was particularly jumpy today, in light of recent events.
"Christ. Then I suppose I should cut straight to business."
Falcone removed his hat and placed it infront of him, humbled beyond words. Gotham City was about to enter a war the likes of which it had never seen, and he had been too foolish to see right through the act that was being played out before his very eyes. If Falcone had vetted 'Meredith' alot more closely, he might have sniffed out the rat before he could make his move.
"There's a troublemaker. Someone who's set his sights on my business. Our business. He calls himself The Penguin, for some reason I never understood, but he's really just one more cheap hood who hides behind money and needs to be taught a lesson in respect."
Falcone sighed to himself.
"The problem is, he's got serious power backing him. Raw, physical strength. Something that I'm not sure if I can fight alone. The other families are... skeptical, to say the least, of trying to join in a fight that they see as mine to finish. So I was hoping that you would be more accomodating."
Looking back up at the group, the old man’s eyes were pleading.
"Will you help me?"
There was a silence, as they looked upon him. Their expressions blank. Indiscernible.
"You have done this to yourself, Carmine Falcone. As your father once did, before we were able to silence him. You share his trait of foolishness in believing that your empire was secure. That all challengers would fall to your influence. When the truth is, influence can be fleeting."
Falcone grit his teeth, reminded of the fact that these people had brought an end to his long departed father. Ushering him into the life, forcing him to make his bed on the corpses of others. Because of them, he lied awake at night, wondering if it could've been different.
"And what about your's, huh? How is mine fleeting, but your's intact?"
In an instant, The Roman felt a blade scratch against the skin of his throat. Suddenly brought to being still, the color drained from his face and he looked back up, petrified.
"I... meant no disrespect."
"Of course you did, Falcone. But we're more forgiving than you. And the reason that our influence has remained is because we have been selective. Our predecessors were smart enough to stay hidden, and we have remained in the dark."
Falcone let out a sigh of relief as the blade was removed, and the individual wielding it vanished.
"But to answer your question, we may not help in the way that you wish. But we're going to be watching. After all..."
"The Court of Owls watches, watches all the time."
Look for the light that leads me home...
Alfred Pennyworth placed the last remaining piece of the destroyed Batsuit in the raging fire of the furnace, watching as the kevlar began to melt before shutting the door. Bruce had insisted that there had needed to be a change in direction, and it started with the costume. He needed to create a new one, a better one that could help him maintain the advantage in the tribulations ahead.
But Bruce had left just earlier for a destination unknown to him, and it left Alfred worried. Oswald Cobblepot had just declared war on the entire city, it seemed, and Bruce's first instinct was to run. It was very much unlike him, and he wondered what his employer could be thinking. But he had resigned to the fact that it wasn't his place to question such matters, as Bruce would soldier ahead in the end and win the day. That, he had faith in.
Wiping an excess of sweat from his brow, Alfred looked off towards one of the earlier Batsuits. It was simple in it's design, and it's function was severely outdated in terms of protection, but he had to admit. There was something about it that might work, with the right modifications. Walking toward it to inspect the material further, Alfred was caught off guard as the Batcomputer suddenly sprang to life. Spinning around, he watched as the screen circulated through various colors.
Then it just... shut off.
Walking up to the massive command console, Alfred initiated the boot-up sequence. Everything loaded just fine, as it was before. Bruce's case files from the morning's massacre were even still open. Alfred inspected the monitor closely, before eventually shrugging off the brief disturbance.
"Must have been a glitch, of some manner."
Content, he headed back to the Batsuit chamber to inspect the outfit that had caught his eye.
But behind him, the computer began to circulate through colors once again. And then it began to download schematics, all on it's own. Six letters subliminally flashed across the screen, infront of the schematics for most of Batman's arsenal, followed by a logo that briefly appeared.
The letters flashed once again, in sequence.
H. A. R. D. A. C.
By the time Alfred had exited the chamber, the computer screen was blank once again.
As though nothing had happened at all.
Tired of feeling lost, tired of letting go...
Selina Kyle stared out at the skies of Gotham from her penthouse window, watching as the sun set on a city gripped by fear. Angrily, she brought the curtains to a close, shutting the world out as best as she could in the fleeting moments that she had to herself. This was a disaster, and Carmine Falcone knew it. Yet all he had done was run in the face of adversity. It showed the kind of leadership that Selina was more used to, beyond the bravado and beyond the threats. Falcone had always been a fraud to her, but being his daughter allowed her some small advantages. In the wake of all of this, however, it seemed as though those advantages didn't outweigh the opportunities that would be coming her way if she severed ties with the Falcone name altogether.
Staring at a portrait on her dresser drawer, Selina reached down and picked up the framed photograph. It was her most prized possession: a picture of her late mother, just before she had died. Had Maria Kyle lived to see the daughter that was staring back at her portrait, she likely wouldn't have approved. Her tryst with Falcone had ended rather bitterly, with Maria never once wanting to be apart of the life that he'd lived. And because of that, Selina thought to herself, she was dead. Though she couldn't yet prove it after all these years, Carmine had personally murdered her mother and lied to her about it since she'd been old enough to ask. It was why he had those hideous scars on his face. The lasting claw marks of a woman brutalized who had tried to fight back against her aggressor.
Thanks to Cobblepot's war, whenever Falcone returned, he was going to be too distracted to pay attention to whatever Selina was up to. Which meant that she could finally spend less time playing the dutiful mobster's daughter and devote more time towards her ultimate goal: stealing everything that he held dear right out from him, a piece at a time, until his empire was worth nothing.
Placing the photo down, Selina looked down at her bed and placed a hand against the back of a black cat. Isis, as Selina had named her, purred in recognition as she began to have her ears scratched. Selina smiled, somewhat, looking down at the creature.
"You know, girl, you may actually be the only friend I have in this world. Aren't you lucky?"
She didn't know how, but somehow, Selina had screwed things up with Bruce Wayne. The billionaire boy toy wasn't answering her calls, and she had been stonewalled by the butler. Despite stringing him along under false pretenses in a bid to ensure Wayne didn't make a move for his company, there was a part of Selina that felt genuinely for the man, as he seemed kind. Generous, even. Both qualities were almost non-existent in the men of Gotham. Had she been honest with him, she wondered what kind of a future they could have had.
But that was over, now. Alot of things were. Everything had changed. Walking over to a section of her wall that was covered by a painting of the Paris skyline, Selina pulled it aside to remove a secret compartment. Flicking a lightswitch on that was hidden within, she stared back at the various news clippings and articles that she'd been collecting for some time now. They all revolved around one subject.
Selina cracked her neck as she began to remove her clothes, replacing them with a suit that she'd had specially made from a number of different specially reinforced items. A black bodysuit zipped up against her curvaceous form, a pair of militarized climbing boots strapped against her legs, a belt containing various thieving tools slid together to connect at the center, and a hood hung behind her head. Whatever or whoever The Batman was, he had definitely left an impact on Selina whenever he'd first arrived in Gotham. He had given her the perfect way to exact revenge on her father, whether he knew it or not.
From the shadows, behind a mask. In the dark of night.
Selina pulled the leather gloves up against her forearm, twisting her palm. The fingertips immediately sprang forth a set of razor sharp claws all her own, in honor of her late mother's fight to the death against her father. If Batman could stalk criminals doing what he did, then she could certainly do what she was about to do without much notice. It's just the sort of city that Gotham was becoming. And some small part of her, despite the vengeful task she was about to set upon, enjoyed the thrill that such a thought arose within her.
"You can finally rest well, momma."
"I'll make him pay for what he did to you."
Tear the whole world down...
My city is at war.
The thought kept sticking with me as I awoke to the footage of Cobblepot this morning. Saw the bodies of those that had been slain in his grandiose effort to incite The Roman's wrath through the police photos and reports that I'd taken from the GCPD database. It was all too much for me to bear at once, which is why I told Alfred that I had to get away. Had to take a flight to somewhere remote, just to collect my thoughts and analyze how I was going to approach this. The excuse of needing time to heal from recent injuries was also sufficient in getting me out of the country. So as much as he didn't like it, he reluctantly agreed, and booked me a flight to my chosen destination: Budapest.
But my actual motives in coming here are somewhat astray from my given excuses. This becomes all the more evident as I arrive outside of Leopoldov Prison, one of the oldest maximum security penitentiaries in the world. I'm barely running on thought, at this point, more than I am instinct. There are currently one thousand, four hundred and twenty six inmates within this structure. But among them is one man in particular that I've come to seek out today, in response to the metahuman war that Cobblepot threatens to unleash upon Gotham.
Poison Ivy. Mr. Freeze. Clayface. And even Superman, to an extent. They all showed me that for as much training as I underwent to prepare for the criminal underworld, I had absolutely no idea of how to handle threats of this specific nature. People with special abilities aren't exactly something that one could have prepared for, given that until a few months ago, none ever really knew that they existed. But one man has hunted them, and even more impressively, he's managed to subdue them. He's the man I came to see, and as it stands, he's one of my old mentors.
We had a falling out. I disagreed with his methods. He preferred the kill, I preferred to seek a different approach. But he was damn good at what he did, and in the very little time I spent under him, I learned a great deal about how to survive. Now that I'm facing down the worst threat that Gotham's ever seen, I'll admit... I'm out of my depth. I need training that only an experienced metahuman hunter could give me. Which means burying an old rivalry, no matter how much I believe that the man deserves to rot in this hell of a place.
"<Five minutes. Then you leave.>"
I don't even look the guard in the eyes as he escorts me to the cell I requested.
"<I'll only need three.>"
With that, he allows me to enter, where the man in question is sitting in the shadows. I take a moment to look at him, to see how far he's fallen, before looking off. They say that great men can often aspire to the paths of the damned. It makes me wonder, in this moment, what sorts of paths that terrible men can aspire to. And if by doing this, I'm damning myself.
"It's been a long time."
He remains silent as I remain standing.
Glaring. Refusing to take my eyes off of him for even a second.
"I know about what you did to get here. Your sentence is, by all means, light compared to what you deserve. But you have a chance at redemption. A once-in-a-lifetime chance that I'm willing to offer you in exchange for something."
Folding his arms across his chest, he narrows his eye at me as I continue.
"Once upon a time, you were one of the most skilled people to ever hone my capabilities. I left you thinking that I had learned everything that I needed to, that you were beyond redemption and couldn't rationally give me anything others would not provide. But I was wrong, and I'm here to admit that. And to say that I need your guidance again."
Massaging the bridge of my nose, the next few words are strained. Hesitant, as I barely want to admit them out loud. But it's the reason that I've been driven to this absolutely insane length. I wasn't willing to admit my limitations, and they cost me. Had I sought help from the beginning, what happened with Cobblepot may have been avoided.
"I know that you're aware of who I am. Who I really am, when Gotham City goes dark and needs someone to protect her. You taught me the methods that I've utilized to avoid incarceration, and as you told me once, that might aswell be as incriminating as a fingerprint. So let's not dance around the details. I need to be able to protect Gotham from metahumans. You're the only one that's come close to subduing one, much less killing one. So under the condition that you train me to overcome them, and push me to my limit, I'm giving you a chance at freedom."
My expression hardens as he smirks at that.
"A limited freedom, but a freedom nonetheless. Which is more than they're offering you with a life sentence. I have connections. I can pull strings and get you out of here within the week. But I'm putting you under my own surveillance. Nothing you do will be beyond my knowledge, and that includes killing. So if you want any measure of what I'm offering, you'll agree not to take a life. Once we've finished, we go our separate ways. And you continue to build a life without murder."
His smirk fades. Mine grows. Knew he wouldn't like the catch.
"This is the only version of any offer I'm going to make you. Take it or leave it..."
The man known as Deathstroke leans forward, his face no longer obscured by the darkness. He could tell me to go hell. He could try to attack me. He could laugh in my face, for all that I care. But I need him more than he needs me, so I simply wait for his answer, patiently. He thinks it over. Gives it a real consideration. And then looks up.
"Good to see you haven’t changed, kid."
Extending his hand, I look at it as though I'm being offered a deal with the devil himself.
And I may very well be.
Harleen Quinzel had been walking through Robinson Park for an hour, sobbing to herself and generally feeling sorry for her predicament. But her legs were just about to give out, and she was tired of making a scene for any onlooker that happened to come across her path. Peering through the darkness between reddened eyes, she spotted a light in the distance and was immediately drawn to it. Slowly, she approached the bench that was lit up like Christmas morning, wiping the smeared makeup from her face and drawing back a combination of blacks and reds. Disgustedly sighing at the sight, she looked up to notice that there was a man already seated at the bench by the time that she made it.
"Oh!", she exclaimed, surprised. "Sorry, mistah. I didn't think this was occupied. I'll get outta your hair."
The man looked back at her, curiously, before scooting over and allowing her room.
"Nonsense. There's room for two. Come, sit! The park can be lovely this time of night."
Harleen looked quizzically at the man as he grinned, seeming genuinely upbeat. She wanted to disregard the offer, as she didn't even want to know what she currently looked like in the mirror, but there was something hypnotic about the man's gaze. It was as if saying no to him wasn't really an option. And despite being the only other person she could see for a mile, Harleen didn't feel the least bit threatened by him. If anything, he had a kind face.
"Well... if you're instistin'."
Sitting down, she tried to fight back the tears from streaming forth again. The man didn't seem to be paying attention, as he was looking out to the city itself. As though he were marvelling at it, like it were some grand tapestry rather than hell on Earth. Eventually, however, Harleen couldn't take it anymore. She placed her hand over her face to try and hide her crying, but the man eventually noticed.
"Oh, dear. What's wrong?"
"Nothin'. Nothin's wrong. It's just..."
Despite herself, Harleen broke down.
"Everythin's wrong. God, it's just... I'm sorry, but I gotta vent, ya know? I wouldn't have even come ta this stupid park if I still had an apartment ta go back to, but my looneypants landlord evicted me! He kicked me out all because I had a damn dog that wouldn't stop yappin'! An' now I've got nowhere ta go!"
Despite her hysterical outburst, the man seemed unphased, offering a kind hand to her shoulder.
"There, there, my dear. I'm sure it's not as bad as you're making it out to be."
"Ya haven't heard the whole story."
Harleen sighed, furiously wiping tears from her eyes.
"When I got the eviction notice, I figured, hey, now's the best time to move in with the boyfriend, right? Just until I could get back on my feet, I told myself. He'd love to have me over, I told myself. We'd been seein' eachother for a year! But what do I find when I get to that creep's doorstep? Another woman, in his bed right alongside him! He didn't even pretend like it mattered!"
The stranger seemed to recoil the hand, realizing the futility of such a gesture.
"Well, that does seem to be a bit of a downer..."
"So I took a waffle iron and bashed his skull in! Now he and his new galpal are pressin' charges, because'a the fact that I maybe tried ta claw her eyes out. I'm gettin' sued by the douche who screwed me over!"
Harleen leaned forward, allowing the tears to freely fall against the pavement.
"All I got left is a job that barely pays. Some psychiatry thing, and even they're startin' to get tired'a my antics. All I want is a little break from life, ya know? All I want is the chance to be happy. Like, really, really happy. The kinda happy that you see in the movies. But what do I get? Stomped on. Chewed up. Spit out."
For a moment, the stranger seemed unsure of what to say.
And then he started... giggling.
Harleen shot up, surprised, as the giggle fit turned into full blown laughter. The gaunt man slapped his knee, fighting back tears of his own, but of happiness. Harleen angrily eyed him, standing up from the bench and placing her hands on her hips.
"And what's so freakin' funny about that?!"
The stranger shook his head, eventually calming himself down.
"Hehe. Hah. No, you misunderstand. I wasn't making fun of your predicament, my dear. Truly, I meant no disrespect. It's just..."
He began to laugh again.
"A waffle iron! That's classic!"
As his laughter continued, Harleen's frown slowly turned into a smile.
And then she began laughing aswell, sitting back down on the bench beside him.
"Well, when ya put it that way. I guess it's kinda funny."
Grinning back at her, the man took her hand in his, and placed his other hand over it.
"The world can be cruel sometimes, it's true. But you'll land on your feet, my dear. As long as you see the funny side of life, you'll always land on your feet. That's the great punchline of the universe. You do your set, you get booed off stage, and then you try again until someone laughs with you. Then you find that you're not alone anymore, and life starts to seem alot less cruel."
Harleen was genuinely taken aback by the man's words, not expecting such eloquence or kindness. She'd never even been told that she'd been worth a damn in her life, let alone that she had the power to get back up. Everybody had always beaten her down. This man was laughing about the way she dispatched the creep that had cheated on her.
It made her smile. Genuinely, she felt just a bit happier than when she arrived.
"I don't know what ta say ta that. But you're right. I ain't let this be the end’a me. Thanks, mistah."
He patted her hand before relinquishing it.
"Anytime, dear. It's what I hope to do to this town. Spread joy as far as the eye can see."
Harleen raised an eyebrow.
"You in some line'a charity work or somethin'?"
"You could say that. I am about to give back, in a way."
Harleen couldn't believe it. Not only was the man jovial and kind, but he had a good heart, aswell. That was a one-in-a-million catch if she'd ever seen it, and yet when she looked at his hands, she saw no signs of a ring.
"I just realized I never gave my name. That's awfully rude of me."
Extending her hand, Harleen flashed a grin of her own.
Placing his hand in her's, he nodded once.
As the two rested against the bench, Jack began to softly giggle to himself once more. Harleen looked over, curiously.
"What's got your goat now?"
Jack smiled, glancing over at her.
"Oh, nothing. It's just that I went back to thinking about your story. And, well..."
J'son arrived at his destination in some remote underground facility and saw a shuttle parked nearby. He entered the building and saw that Ferrin Colos was waiting for him. Colos bowed at the sight of his majesty and said, "We have news to share, your majesty. It's regarding with your son."
"I know. He's here right now." J'son said, which caught Colos off guard for a moment. He decided to come here after all. It was a proud moment that he couldn't wait to tell the others. For now, he had to be calm in front of his king. Colos said that it was great news that Peter Quill decided to come to Spartax to meet his father. J'son nodded and said, "What's the other news?"
"We found out something strange that Quill was carrying." Colos explained. "At the moment, Carla is trying to figure out what the sample we obtained is. And we still have reason to believe that he still has it on him. With your request, your majesty, I would like to send Hollika to take the object for further studying."
J'son was silent for a second as he was thinking out the consequences of the choice. Either he dismisses Colos' request and miss out on an opportunity or steal it and risk ruining the bond with his long lost son. He looked at Colos and said, "Alright, I give you permission to do it. He will most likely want to stay the night so he will be in one of the guest rooms. Make sure you are careful to leave everything intact because you will be in trouble if he notices something."
"Got it." Colos said. Before he could say farewell to his king, Sleer Prigatz walked in the door with a huge grin on his face. Prigatz was more violent and direct than the other four because his race was usually like that with a few cases. Colos always had a hard time keeping him in line and calm during missions and training exercises. He was thankful that J'son realized that he wasn't leadership material while forming the Darkstars. Then, he saw his fist covered in blood. It wasn't clear if the blood was his or not. Regardless, Colos asked what happened and what he broke this time.
"First off, I didn't break anything." Prigatz answered annoyed. "I found someone important, your majesty. Should we lock them up in the dungeon for interrogation?"
J'son said, "Yes, the standard protocol as always. Take the prisoner there and question them. Inform me of any developments. Now, I have a dinner to attend to."
And with that, the king soon departed from the palace for tonight's dinner. While he was being driven back, J'son didn't know what Quill was planning to do next. Stay here? Leave? It was all a mystery to him that won't be solved for a while. He personally would like if his son decided to stay forever, but he was an adult. And he would respect his decision. Or he thought he could. He didn't want to lose him like how he lost Meredith. He couldn't deal with that emotion again. Once he was back at his palace, J'son processed for the dinning room where his son and daughter were waiting for him.
Dinner went well for eating with his son for the first time. Quill couldn't believe at the fine foods and started to taste some of them. Meanwhile, Victoria ate her food and then excused herself to finish up work leaving father and son alone. They talked for a while longer about how their lives were going before today. Then, J'son began asking questions about his time in space. That was when he heard the names of Yondu and Kraglin. He haven't heard their names in a long time. He looked at his son for a moment as if he wanted to ask him something, but resumed eating his dinner.
After dinner, Quill and J'son went outside to talk some more. It was one of the best nights that both of them ever had in a long time. They spent most of the time talking about Meredith and what a great person she was. J'son told him how they met up while Quill shared her last moments before spending the remaining months in a hospital bed. They spent hours talking about other things until they noticed that the sun was rising. Both of them laughed at the realization that they spent the entire night talking. Peter thanked his father for welcoming him and then received a hug.
At first, it felt awkward, but that feeling went away almost immediately. Then, it felt normal. Just like a father and son hug. Eventually, J'son let his son sleep in the guest room after a night of talking. Quill ended up in the guest room and was impressed. It was better and more comfortable than the ship. He took off his coat and went to lay on the bed. Yesterday was a great day for Quill. He got to meet his father and learned more about his mother before she got cancer. For the first time in a long time, he felt that he was home. And he never wanted to lose that feeling again.
The sky darkened above Antarctica's highest peak. The sound of the clouds rumbling brought a frown to William Johnson’s face. It was his forty-seventh ascent up Vinson Massif and he’d never once known the clouds to look so heavy and dark. Every part of him felt like they should turn back, but the small expedition group he was lead were only six hundred feet from the top and he knew well enough they wouldn’t turn back now – even if he ordered them to. He had to hope that the heavens didn’t open on them before they made their way back down.
“<Sounds like lightning.>”
Pierre was the most level-headed of the four civilians in Johnson’s group. He was a French extreme sports enthusiast that had traded in banking for a life of risk. He was also the only other person making the climb that had any experience on a mountain. Johnson could tell from the look on Pierre’s face that he knew the clouds were a bad omen.
“<Lighting is the least of our worries. If there’s a downpour there’s no way we’re making it back down the mountain in one piece. It’s tough enough making the descent in good conditions.>”
The Frenchman nodded anxiously and continued to trudge behind Johnson. The Americans following after them were struggling for breath. Despite what they’d been told months before the expedition, none of them had bothered to prepare for the expedition, least of all the forty-two year old that seemed to think climbing a sixteen thousand foot tall mountain would be as easy as running a half marathon. They were morons to the last of them but Johnson was used to it. He’d been leading men with more money than sense up and down these slopes for decades.
There was another loud crack from the clouds above them. This time the group stopped as the rumble of the thunder made the entire mountain shake. They could almost feel it in their chests. They stared at the clouds, scared stiff of a coming maelstrom, until one member of the group pointed a finger towards them.
“Can you see that?”
“We need to keep moving,” Johnson called back to them bullishly. “The weather is not going to get any better and I know you didn’t come this far to turn back now so we need to keep moving.”
“<There’s something falling.>”
The anxiousness in Pierre’s voice caught William’s attention. He stopped despite his reservations and peered up at the object that was falling from the clouds. It was tough to make out among the swirling winds. He reached for his mask, pulling it away from his face, to better see the thing falling from high above them.
“It must be a bird,” Johnson muttered. “What else could it be?”
Pierre braved the bitter winds by plucking the mask off his face also. “<A bird? At this height? That doesn’t make any sense. No bird can survive in this cold.>”
Another shock of lightning in the distance shook the mountain. This time William was forced to hold Pierre’s arm to stop himself from losing his footing. The other men murmured in disbelief as the brief moment of clarity the lightning had provided revealed the object’s true form.
“<It looks like a person.>”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Johnson said with a shake of his head. “It can’t be.”
A sudden gust of wind sent the object barrelling towards the men. The closer it got to the five of them, the clearer it became that Pierre was correct. It was a person, as improbable as that seemed, and it was heading straight towards them. Johnson shouted a warning to the civilians, yanking on the rope that bound them all together in an attempt to move them out of the falling body’s path. A particularly unfit member of the group struggled to jog out of its path and the Frenchman Pierre shoulder-barged him to the ground at the last second.
The body landed with such a heavy thud that it felt almost like another thunderclap. The mountain shook, jarring the sheet of snow that was resting on top of it, and Johnson looked up at it with despair. If the rain didn’t get them, an avalanche surely would. Some snow knocked loose but to his relief the sheet held and the shaking mountain seemed to steady beneath them.
Pierre made his way towards the body and used his gloved hand to lift its head. “<It’s a man – and he’s still… he’s still breathing, William.>”
“Have you been living under a rock for the past year?” An American shouted over at Pierre. “That’s not a man, you idiot, that’s Superman.”
The American tried to turn the man over but was unable to lift him. He signalled to the others and his friends trudged through the snow to help him. In unison they bent their knees and rolled the body over to reveal a tattered, blood-splattered costume that bore an insignia was familiar to all of them. It was Superman, alright – though there was something different about him. His face was flecked with stubble and there were thick streaks of grey hairs along his temples.
Pierre eyed Superman’s wounds anxiously and then looked at the expedition leader Johnson for direction. “<What do we do? He looks hurt.>”
Johnson reached for the radio on his lapel. He was about to call for help when he noticed that Superman’s eyes had opened. They were glowing red. The first word was barely out of Johnson’s mouth when his jaw was disintegrated by a beam of the Man of Steel’s heat vision. Blood splattered across the snow and sprinkled Pierre’s face. He let out a scream as the expedition leader fell to the ground with a thud.
The Frenchman instinctively started running. His frozen feet were trudging through the blood-splattered snow when a gust of wind sent him barrelling to the ground. He lifted his face from the snow and noticed that in the blink of an eye Superman had torn through the rest of the group. They hadn’t even had time to scream. Pierre’s heart was pounding in his mouth as the red eyes of Superman rested on him.
Pierre screamed out for mercy in every language he could speak. He was using his hands to claw his way through the snow in vain as the Man of Steel approached him. His world turned upside down suddenly as Superman lifted him from the ground as easily as if he were weightless.
Superman stared down at the dangling Frenchman through blood-red eyes that were teeming with malice. “Where are the Fantastic Four?”