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Defining Moments - a City of Heroes novel


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Hello, gentle readers!  Welcome to my City of Heroes novel, Defining Moments.  More on the title later.  A few notes before I begin:


Some characters are from the game, and I incorporated their in-game dialogue as much as possible.  Most of the new and unique characters here were created by other people; I only created a small percent of those represented here, and the rest were generously loaned to me from friends in the Heroes United in Brotherhood (HUB) player community from the Triumph server.  Some trusted solely in my benevolence and creativity, and others supplied extensive notes on background and motivation.  It was a fun project to tie the community together, and we all had a good time with it... until NCSoft pulled the plug and we largely drifted apart.  I also owe a debt of gratitude to Blue Battler, whose excellent fan fiction (on the live boards, sorry) about a relationship between Penelope Yin and the Clockwork King inspired me further.

 

You will notice that the timing of the novel is off, and character ages and established dates are off from the present.  That's because inspiration struck waaaay back during Issue 11, so the setting is from 2008, not 2022.  I have chosen not to update dates as most of the story is already written, and it's somewhere over 300 pages long;  that's more editing than I care to do.

 

I will post updates once a week, as best I'm able.  This will give me close to a year of regular weekly updates... which, hopefully, will give me the time I need to get off my rear and write more.  Family life is my great adventure now.

 

I will open another thread for discussion.  When I was posting the updates to the Forgotten Legion fansite I first put updates and discussion in one thread, and it made it hard to follow the story.  I won't read or reply to comments here, but will do so there, time permitting.  As I said, family life is my great adventure now.

 

I hope you enjoy this tale.

 

Your humble author,

Grog the Big

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Defining Moments - Chapter 1

 

This is it.  One hour from now, it’ll all be over, one way or another.  If I succeed, it’ll mean a chance at life for a scorched wasteland, and hope for the people who suffered the worst industrial accident in history.  I fail… and I’ll have to take this class over again.

 

“Servus, lab supervisor mode.  Run Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy and Carbon-13 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance tests on loaded samples.  Open chemical database and compare test results to known compounds.  Activate mission computer and open word processing program.  When samples have been identified, transfer results to the mission computer.”

 

“Etiam, Shining Crystal.”

 

She sighed.  “Servus, use English.”  On second thought… “Servus, text mode.  Play Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah on the mission computer.”  A trombone fanfare called from the command center.  Crystal da Silva arched her back, stretched a few times, and then exited the workshop, pulling off her hairband as she went.

 

She was tall, almost 6 feet if you included the mane of long, fiery orange hair.  Fighting crime in Paragon City for nearly four years had improved her already athletic figure; her shoulders and arms were large for a woman, and were well defined, as was the abdomen that peeked out between her white t-shirt and blue jeans.  The jeans were snug in most places, which was either a fashion statement or another sign that crime fighting was great exercise.  Her trademark tiara sat on her forehead, dutifully keeping hair out of her pale blue eyes.  Crystal might not have been recognized as a superhero were it not for her hands.  They glowed red, and occasionally a spark would shoot off and pop like fireworks, a side effect of Professor St. John-Smythe’s treatment to enhance her powers.  The treatment significantly boosted the amount of energy she could safely release, but it also prevented Crystal from fully shutting off the energy in her hands.  At the lowest output, living creatures felt the energy as warm and tingly, but it would eventually eat away at any non-living substance, which is why she pulled a chair away from the Forgotten Legion’s meeting table and dragged it to the mission computer to type; after years of mishaps, the keyboard had been reinforced to deal with super strength typists, made water- and alcohol-proof, and even nuclear hardened after an incident when G-Force Knight tried to fix a software error with a “souvenir” from Warburg.  It was the only computer she knew of where she could finish a lab report without, at the very least, scouring the letters off the keys.

 

The baritone’s opening was over by the time she sat down, and the oratorio quickly segued to the second movement, which was all orchestral.  Crystal typed to the music.  It started fast paced but quiet, quickly growing louder and more emphatic as Mendelssohn illustrated the plight of ancient Israel going three years without any dew or rain.  It was the perfect accompaniment for Crystal’s project; the report had to be completed today, and her fingers flew over the keys with the same desperation reflected in the music.  A few minutes of feverish typing later, the crescendo built, intensifying as it transitioned to the third movement.

 

“Help, Lord!”

 

Crystal’s fingers faltered.  The sound of typing died.

 

“Help, Lord!”

 

Her hands clenched, trembling.  Little pink sparks shot away from her skin.

 

“Help, Lord!  Wilt Thou quite destroy us?”

 

It was normally a powerful choral piece, but now the desperate pleas resonated deep within Crystal’s soul.  She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to drag her thoughts back to the task at hand.

 

What am I doing?  What’s wrong with me?

 

“Is it only their prayer, or yours as well?”

 

The sonorous bass voice came from nowhere.  Crystal looked over her shoulder, did a double take, then shrieked.  She rocketed out of the chair, pirouetting around to stop at the ceiling and look down.  As she brought her hands up into guard position, their soft red glow turned into brightly shining spheres of immense destructive energy.  They illuminated the command center, the intruder, and Crystal.  Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath and identify whoever had snuck up on her.

 

“The harvest now is over, the summer days are gone.  And yet no power cometh to help us!”

 

The figure standing by her chair met her gaze, a slight smirk showing through his goatee.  He was powerfully built, wearing black armor and cape with a gray flame motif.  Spiked boots, gauntlets, and shoulder pads gave him a sinister look, but not nearly as much as the gray skin, ram’s horns, and red eyes that blazed with the fires of Hell.  Crystal racked her brain trying to think of a villain strong enough or clever enough to break the base’s coded barrier, and then she noticed the symbol on his chest.  It was the skull of the Legion.  No, not quite the Legion’s insignia: the skull was gray, not red or black.

 

Gray?  Why gray?  Wait, the Legion used to wear gray and black!  He’s one of the old guard!  What’s his name?  Could that be…

 

“Sh-Shadowspawn?” she asked.

 

“Very good, Shining Crystal.”  He winked at her.  “You can come down now; there’s no need for you to fear me.”  As Crystal descended he remarked, “It’s good to see the young members are learning their history.  Pleased to meet you.”  He extended his hand.

 

Crystal powered down and took his hand, being careful to keep the handshake short.  “You scared me!  Wait, um… where did you come from?  I don’t mean to be insulting, but aren’t you dead?”

 

“I was.  Immortals never stay dead.  I’ve merely been away for a time.  Traveling, you know.”

 

Crystal finally caught her breath and commanded, “Servus, save document and pause music.”  The chorus ceased abruptly.  Now only the chirps of Servus, the Autonomous Expert System, were heard in the command center.

 

“An interesting choice in music!” boomed Shadowspawn.  “The story of a desperate people, crying out for salvation.  Very appropriate selection for a hero.”  More quietly, he continued, “But didn’t they bring their plight upon themselves by their own transgressions?  Something on your mind along those lines?”

 

It was impossible to look into his eyes indefinitely.  Crystal lowered her gaze.  “I’m under the gun with this project, and just needed some inspiration to help finish in time.”

 

“Time is irrelevant!  You will finish as you need.  Look how much you’ve completed already!”  Shadowspawn gestured to the monitor.

 

Crystal furrowed her brow in confusion as she turned around and glanced at the screen.  The pages were filled with text, equations, and diagrams, most of which she didn’t remember typing.  She quickly scanned the document and saw that, except for the results and discussion, the report was complete.  Even her typos and grammatical errors had been cleaned up.  She turned back to Shadowspawn.

 

“How… did you DO that?” she asked, her eyes open wide.

 

Shadowspawn smiled broadly.  “Fate has a way of taking a hand.  You sought deliverance from your plight, and so…” He gestured again at the mission computer.  “I’m intrigued by your work,” he continued.  “It doesn’t look like crime-fighting, but still, it seems important.”

 

Finally back on familiar territory, Crystal relaxed and replied, “Well, it’s a synthesis of p-tert butylcalix[4]arene.  The synthetic process used here is new, something my Orgo professor developed, and for assignment we had to synthesize the chemical using that process and verify the results.  See, if it works, it’ll mean that we can efficiently isolate and remove radioactive cesium from soil, preventing groundwater contamination and the associated health problems.  The trick is making a 4-arene, not a 6 or an 8, ‘cause it’s the 4-arene that bonds to Cesium-137.

 

“There’s a group of professors at PCU who’ve volunteered to help with nuclear waste cleanup at Chernobyl.  I can’t go there myself, but I can help verify their techniques.  Besides, it’s, like, the final grade for my Orgo lab class.”

 

“I see," Shadowspawn intoned.  “Would you leave Paragon City just to dig up radioactive dirt?  There are many threats to public health right here.  You can find their names and whereabouts on the police band, if you’re curious.”

 

Crystal sighed.  “I’ve visited dozens of alternate dimensions, gone on missions in the Shadow Shard, and even taken a trip to the Rogue Isles, but those all involved punching people and breaking things.  It’d be nice to go somewhere outside of Paragon, do some good, and not get blasted or walloped, or to have to smash something.  I haven’t even been home to visit my family, and they’re only an hour away!”

 

Shadowspawn smiled broadly again.  “I see you’ve not yet made the life you wanted for yourself.  Be patient with this world and its rules, hero.  You will find a way to do the good you seek," he finished, pointing a finger over Crystal’s shoulder at the mission computer.

 

She turned around to look and saw her FTIR and NMR test results prominently displayed on the screen.  Her jaw dropped.  She whipped around and exclaimed, “The NMR was supposed to run-”

 

Shadowspawn was gone.  He had vanished as silently as he had arrived.

 

“-for… another… never mind.  Thank you!” she shouted into the empty room.  Crystal sat heavily, her brow furrowed in puzzlement.  So rattled was she that she forgot all about Elijah.  After a brief pause to collect herself she resumed typing, all the while thinking about Shadowspawn and that secret, knowing grin that never totally left his face.  A line from Mystery Men popped into her head; there was nothing more appropriate to describe her encounter.

 

Well, he’s terribly mysterious.
 

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Defining Moments - Chapter 2

 

“Turning something in on time, Ms. da Silva?  That’s not like you.”

 

Dr. Leo Ott was not a nice man.  Reviled by both student and faculty alike at Paragon City University, he maintained his position through a superlative talent at applied chemistry.  Set next to his uncanny ability to push the boundaries of organic synthesis, bringing prestige and research money to the Chemistry department, his abrasive personality was deemed irrelevant.  He expected a great deal from his students, yet never managed to convey what he wanted to see from them.  Some called his style “sink or swim”; there were less charitable descriptions as well.  

 

He was also impervious to any student’s life circumstances that prevented the timely completion of assignments, or attendance of lab and lecture.  Crystal found this last character trait especially obnoxious.  Most undergrads would lose work due to a computer crash, or the dog, or they might get stuck in traffic and arrive late.  She, on the other hand, had all manner of evildoers attack her as she went to and from class, and received calls for help day and night that couldn’t be delayed until it was convenient to her schedule.  Still, she had signed up for his classes before, and would do so again for one reason only: Dr. Ott would not take money from Crey Industries, nor would he work with anyone who did.

 

Ignoring the insult, Crystal dug into her backpack.  “Here you are, Dr. Ott.  Printed report, a copy on disk, and the remainder of the product”, she said, producing the named items as she spoke.  “I sent you another copy of the report by e-mail.”  She made to deposit the items on his desk.

 

“Not here!” he barked.  “Give the report to Iqram and put the sample in the lab.”

 

Crystal retracted the report, disk, and vial.  “OK, Dr. Ott.  It’s exciting to think this work will clean up the contamination at Chernobyl and restore the land.  Maybe something like this could work in Paragon.”

 

“Don’t care,” he grumped.  “I did my part.  The cleanup’s in the hands of the chemical engineers and geologists now, if they can ever figure out what I told them.  Close the door on your way out”, he commanded, dismissively flicking his hand.

 

After quickly retreating, Crystal dropped off her materials and stepped outside into the early spring sunshine.  The official start of spring was a week away, but the weather had already warmed up.  The temperature was in the low 60s, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  She took a moment to watch the other students make their way around the courtyard of the Founders’ Falls campus, bundled against a stiff breeze coming off the water.  The campus joke was that if the Terra Volta reactor were ever successfully destroyed, the campus would be converted into a wind farm.  Crystal got a few quizzical looks from the pedestrians; she was underdressed for the blustery conditions yet suffered no ill effects.  Her only visible concession to the biting wind was a pair of gloves.

 

It looks so wonderful.  No gunfire, no life or death decisions.  I’ll bet not one of them is thinking about Nemesis or Recluse unless they have a paper to write.

 

As Crystal walked down the steps of the chemistry building, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed.  “Hi, Jenny.  It’s Crystal. …No, no criminal activity here. …OK, I’m sure someone nearby is doing something they shouldn’t, but I’m not calling about that!  Do you have a minute?  I could use your perspective on something. …I’m on the Founders’ Falls campus, heading to Helados. …It’s not too cold for me! …Fine, my treat, but that means I get to pick! …OK. …Yeah, no problem, I have time.  Just come when you’re finished.  I’ll make sure the ice cream won’t melt.  …Oh, ha ha ha!  Very funny, you big meanie! …’k, see ya.”

 

The phone closed with a snap, and Crystal picked up her pace.  Flying would have been much quicker, but she wasn’t in a “super” mood, nor did she want the attention.  She walked to the bus stop, fished her recently purchased bus pass out of a pocket, and waited patiently.  The first bus that stopped was bound for Talos Island; Crystal passed on that one.  The next bus was headed her way, so she hopped on board, swiped her pass through the reader, sat down, and prayed no one recognized her.

 

Everything looked different at ground level.  The historic buildings loomed on one side of the road, separated by the canals that made Founders’ Falls a popular and pricey place to live.  Louis Park sloped up on the other.  Out of habit, she kept watch on the park side for trees that weren’t swaying with the wind, or oddly shaped piles of rock that were too close to the road.  Nothing threatened the bus though, not even as they made their way south past the more dangerous area of Hutchinson Park.  The bus made its last stop at a small parking lot in the southwest corner of Liberty Town.  Crystal exited and made her way to a footbridge that spanned the first canal she had to cross.

 

This was one of the most popular tourist spots in all Paragon.  Come June, this part of Liberty Town would be filled with visitors, students, and superheroes.  The dock that formed the center point of the area was frequented by boaters and history buffs.  During the first Rikti War, the dock was used as an emergency shelter and communication station by the then-newly-formed Vanguard.  All around the dock were shops, tall brick buildings with colorful awnings, fountains, old-fashioned gas street lamps, and statues of praying angels in robes.  The super-groupies preferred Atlas Park, and the party crowd went to Talos, but for the laid-back, there was no better spot to relax and unwind.

 

Helados was visible from the parking lot across the canal.  An outdoor café that specialized in ice cream and other summer treats, it was ideally located for boaters, motorists, and pedestrians.  It occupied the lowest level of an historic brick building.  Green and yellow awnings shaded the windows and matched the umbrellas that poked up through the outdoor tables.  Summertime would bring a never-ending horde of customers, and the inside and outside seating areas were filled day and night.  Today, though, it was early in the day, and about a month and a half too soon for tourists.  Tan flagstones bordered by gray stone bricks marked the outdoor courtyard.  Bordering the area were four statues of praying angels in robes, all facing towards the café.  The plaque that chronicled the historical significance of the dock was mounted on a stand just opposite Helados.  The outdoor tables would double in warmer weather, but were never completely removed.  In a perverse quirk of fate, the villains that frequented this area had far grander and more malevolent schemes than vandalism, and their presence discouraged petty theft and property destruction more effectively than the superheroes could ever hope to match.

 

Crystal crossed the last bridge to Helados and entered.  At this hour, only the proprietor was at the counter.  She walked up to him and asked, “I’d like a special order, please.”

 

“Yes, of course”, he replied in a thick accent.  “What can I get you?”

 

“I’d like the dark chocolate ice cream with espresso beans mixed in.”  Even the thought of eating that made Crystal feel better.  She smiled slightly.  “Medium sized, with two spoons.”

 

“Ahh, it must be finals again!”  He smiled broadly as he turned and rattled off the order in Spanish to the unseen workers in the back.  “Your order should be ready in 10 minutes.”

 

“I’d better pay for that now.  I’m meeting a friend, and I’d like to sit outside while I wait.”

 

“How will you pay?”

 

Crystal dug her wallet out and handed over her “civilian” credit card; the other was good only in Freedom Corps, Wentworth’s, and the like.  Moreover, it had her heroic alias on it, and she still didn’t like being called Shining Crystal, not even at Security Level 50.

 

She signed the receipt, left the building, and sat down at an outdoor table.  The sun was warm, and though the breeze was chilly, she couldn’t feel the cold at all.  The only problem with the wind was how it tangled her long hair.  Crystal took a minute to wrestle it back into a ponytail and fasten it in place.  Once her hair was secured, she closed her eyes.

 

Lord, I probably shouldn’t be eating it, but I’m thankful You made food like this possible.  Watch over Jenny.  Please see she makes it here safely.  Help me to know Your plan for my life.  Amen.

 

She waited.  The special order ice cream was done before Jenny arrived, and the owner brought it out.  Crystal thanked him, and then went back to watching the docks.  She switched seats so she would be upwind of the ice cream, touched the glass with one hand, and then dropped the temperature around her by forty degrees.  Frost quickly formed on the glass, the table, and her chair.

 

WHABOOM!  A heat wave washed over her.  Fire Blaster nearby.

 

The crackle of high-energy weapons echoed between the buildings.  Rikti rifles.  Some pistols.  Probably not Drones.

 

CRACK!  Something hit metal.  Hard.  SPLASH!  No shouts, must have been a Rikti.  Hope you can swim!

 

Another heat wave crashed into Crystal.  A few moments of silence later, she heard a familiar voice yell, “That’s right!  Get back in your hole!”  The sound of a high-pressure flame jet booming in the close confines of a sewer access hatch filled the air.  

 

Crystal smiled.  Jenny had arrived.
 

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Defining Moments - Chapter 3

 

An exceptionally tall woman rushed up out of nowhere at superhuman speed.  She halted between Crystal and the late morning sun, casting her in shadow.  “Eeeee!” squealed the newcomer, hopping up and down like an excited child.  “I can’t believe it!  It’s Shining Crystal, the Ms. Paragon semifinalist!  OMG, you’re soooooo gorgeous!  I love you!  Can I have your autograph?”

 

Crystal hated being gushed over, but instead of complaining she made circles with the thumb and index fingers of both her hands, raised the circles to her eyes, and looked up at her companion.  In her best mock-heroic voice, she deadpanned, “You are mistaken, citizen.  As you can surely see, I wear glasses, and the heroic Shining Crystal does not.  Move along now.  Nothing to see here.”

 

The tall woman doubled over, laughing uncontrollably.  While standing, she was at least two feet taller than Crystal, with the proportions of a runway model.  Her hair was bright red and cut short in the same style as War Witch, her skin was red like a bad sunburn, but her most distinctive characteristic was her ears.  Large vulpine ears poked up from the top of her head.  They were covered in short red fur the same shade as the hair, fading to yellow inside.  The clothes she wore were predominantly neon green: dark sunglasses with neon green frames; neon green bodysuit with square holes showing the red skin underneath; thigh-high neon green boots with a red stripe down the front; neon green fingerless gloves; and a short neon green jacket with the sleeves rolled up and the front unzipped.

 

Crystal rose from her chair and watched with amusement as her friend tried to catch her breath.  She sobbed and gasped, raggedly gulping lungfulls of air as best she could.  “Ow…that hurt…I think…I cracked a rib”, she croaked between gasps.

 

“Hmph.  It would serve you right for that ‘So I have until August?’ crack,” Crystal primly shot back.

 

“I hate you,” sobbed Jenny as she propped herself with one arm.

 

“Everyone hates Tankers.  Hey, while you’re down at my level…” Crystal moved to embrace her friend.

 

Jenny squealed again.  “coldcoldcoldCOLDCOLDCOLDCOLD!”

 

“Sorry!  Sorry!” wailed Crystal as she quickly backed away and powered down.  “I’m sorry, Jenny.  I was preventing the ice cream from melting and I forgot.”

 

“Sh-sh-sh-sure you d-did.”  Flames engulfed Jenny’s body.  Her shivering subsided. 

 

“Well, I think you’ll forgive me.”  Crystal pointed to the ice cream.  “You’d have seen this first if you hadn’t stopped where you did.”

 

Jenny looked where Crystal was pointing.  Her mouth opened, and her ears perked up and rotated full forward.  She gasped, “You didn’t!”

 

“I did.  One Choco-blitz, and two spoons.”  It was their nickname for the treat; there was so much caffeine in it that the sugar crash came and went without slowing them down at all.  Jenny loved them, and facetiously claimed that the dessert was the source of her superhumanly fast running speed and reaction time.  “Have a seat.”

 

The flames died out, but Jenny continued to hug herself.  “Technically, it’s still winter, and I’m still cold.  Can’t we sit inside?”

 

“I’ll have to call you Firefox.  The store’s occupied.”

 

“Yeah, I deduced that from the ice cream OUT HERE that’s usually made IN THERE!”

 

Crystal stuck out her tongue.  “OK, detective!  You get the door, I’ll get the ice cream.”  She gathered up the spoons, napkins, and the glass dish while Jenny opened the door and held it for her.  After Crystal entered, Jenny ducked inside as well, folding her ears back as she went.

 

“And what’s wrong with FIREFOX?” Jenny asked, striking a dramatic pose and nearly cracking her knuckles on the ceiling.  “Foxes are pretty and clever.”

 

As Crystal walked to a table against the back wall, she replied over her shoulder, “You score on both points, Firefox.  It’s a very appropriate name.”  She sat down with her back to the door, pushing a chair out for Jenny to sit against the wall; there wasn’t a chair made with a back tall enough for her.

 

Jenny made her way to her seat, past the owner who had not stopped staring since she entered.  She sat down, picked up her spoon, and went to dig in but stopped, looking expectantly at Crystal.  “You gonna…” she quietly asked.

 

“Already said,” Crystal answered as she scooped out a hunk of rich dark ice cream and popped it in her mouth.  

 

Jenny followed suit, taking time to savor the flavor.  Once she finished the mouthful, she said, “Thanks, I appreciate the treat.  I don’t know how much these cost, but I know it’s special order.”

 

“Think of it as a bribe to get you to hold still and hear me out.”  Crystal was already on her third spoonful.

 

“Slow down!” Jenny commanded.  “I still get brain freeze!”

 

Crystal laughed.  “Isn’t this a switch, you telling me to slow down!”

 

“Foxes are fast, too, you know.  So,” Jenny asked while taking another scoop, “what did you want to talk about?”

 

Crystal set her spoon down on her napkin.  “Well, as I said, I need your perspective.  Something’s on my mind, and I want to know if I’m being over privileged and whiny.”

 

Jenny paused thoughtfully.  “I’ll try to help.”

 

“Well, it’s …” Crystal lowered her eyes; once again, she couldn’t make eye contact while discussing her own troubles.  She took a deep breath.  “You know I haven’t been in costume much lately.”

 

“I noticed.  We haven’t teamed for over a month, but we see each other all the time.”

 

“I’ve tried to keep three roles balanced in my life: superhero, student, and activist.  Well, I’m feeling spread thin, and I don’t think I’ve been doing a good job at any of them.

 

“As a superhero, I don’t feel like a contributor.  I’ve never liked hitting people, even the really twisted ones, but every time I try to talk and calm them down it just makes them mad.  I put teams in jeopardy when I follow my conscience, and I’m sick with myself when I do my job right.

 

“And it’s not easy even then.  I’ve gotten a killer rep for having a glass jaw, though it’s not totally undeserved.  I mean, one minute I’m marching along, totally untouchable, and the next thing I know I’m waking up in the hospital, or the base, or you-know-who is standing over me saying ‘Arise, Shining Crystal, as my loyal zombie slave!’”

 

Jenny snorted and rolled her eyes.

 

“When the going gets tough, the heroes call someone else.  I know everyone hates Tankers, but I’m really not feeling the love!”  Crystal shook her head.

 

“I thought it was ‘everyone hates mimes’?”

 

“I don’t know many mimes.  I couldn’t tell you.”

 

“Hey, can you imagine if there was a Tank who was also a mime?  Talk about limitless hate!”

 

“I don’t have to imagine.  It’s already been done.”  Seeing the confused look on Jenny’s face, Crystal explained, “Back when I first joined the Forgotten Legion, one of the other Legionnaires was a Tanker-class hero called The Deadly Mime.  You ever done any work for Unai?”

 

Jenny nodded.

 

“Well, the story goes, a few years back he sent a team to a dimension where the Freakshow took over and wrecked everything.  The Mime was on the team that went in to clean up.  They say he led an entire city block’s worth of them on a merry chase, straight into an ambush.  The Freaks never gave up chasing him, they never noticed the ambush, and the Mime didn’t get a scratch.”

 

“Wow!”  Jenny’s eyebrows raised above the rim of her sunglasses.  “What’s he doing these days?”

 

“He retired.  Getting back to my point, of the heroes who deliberately step in to take the hits, I’m not one of the best.  It’s gotten worse since Wentworth’s opened.  I have just enough cash to buy a used handkerchief on auction!”  As Jenny giggled, Crystal continued, “I can’t afford all the nice inventions that make heroes stronger, but I could if I’d been out there full-time.

 

“Then there’s the role of the student.  I used to be a good- no, I was a great student.  Now I’m barely getting by.  Here I am, three and a half years into college, and I’m just now reaching the end of the sophomore year.  If I hadn’t taken AP Everything in high school, I’d be even further behind.  It’s not that I can’t do the work, it’s that instead of studying I’m running around putting out fires!”

 

“Sometimes literally,” Jenny mumbled around her ice cream.

 

“You know it!  I need the good grades to get into grad school, then maintain them so I can get a job after school is done, ‘cause I know it won’t last forever even though it feels like it.  But I can’t do any planning for the future because of the unpredictable and more immediate demands for a superhero to come and save the day!

 

“Finally, there’s the role of the activist.  I’ve just been spinning my wheels there.  All that campaigning to get Wentworth’s to open a Kings Row facility?  I thought it would bring security and jobs to the area.  Well, the place is totally dead!  Almost no one shops there, so the crime rate hasn’t dropped like it has in Atlas Park, Talos Island, or Steel Canyon.  They have less than half the employees of the next lowest populated branch, so the local business owners aren’t reaping a windfall.  I know Wentworth’s is losing money on the deal, and so’s the city thanks to the tax breaks they gave.

 

“Meanwhile, Manticore swoops in with a truckload of cash and all the influence of the Freedom Phalanx, and the city breaks ground on the Cyrus Thompson Community Center.  It’s everything I ever wanted for that neighborhood, but I was too distracted by the rest of my life to see how to get it.  Not to mention I was out-influenced!  That’s the only reason I entered the Ms. Paragon contest, so I could direct more attention and resources to worthy causes.”

 

“I guess it didn’t work out like you hoped.”

 

“Not so well.  I got a ton of offers for product endorsement, even one from Icon.”

 

“Yeah, I knew about that.  Maddy told me.”

 

Crystal nodded.  “I figured you’d have inside knowledge.  There were also pitches for reality TV show deals, book deals, speaking engagements, marriage proposals-- don’t you dare laugh-- and even some offers I didn’t think ANYONE would have the nerve to speak aloud or commit to print.”

 

Jenny’s eyebrows rose again, and her ears rotated forward in obvious interest.  She opened her mouth-

 

Scowling, Crystal cried, “No, I’m not going to repeat what they said!”  Jenny’s ears flattened out to the side as she crossed her arms and pouted.

 

Crystal continued, “I turned it all down, all except for a few of the public speaking events.  Anything where I thought I could encourage people to improve their lives and their community.  Taking the money people offered would have been like entering the contest because I wanted to help myself.”  She dropped her eyes to the tabletop.

 

As she unfolded her arms and resumed eating, Jenny opined, “So, you’ve been feeling miserable and ineffective for a long time.  You never mentioned anything to me before.  What happened?  Why’s this coming out now?”

 

Crystal looked up.  “I was invited to a wedding.”

 

One eyebrow arched incredulously over the sunglasses.  “A wedding invitation?  That’s it?”

 

“Yeah.  A friend of mine who graduated from PCU two years ago is getting married, and she sent me an invitation.  We kept in touch, so I got to vicariously live a regular life.  She finished her degree, got a job, found a good man-”

 

“Don’t!”  Jenny warned.

 

“-made a successful, normal life for herself, the kind of life I might’ve-“

 

“Stop it!”

 

Crystal fell silent.  Her eyes itched from the oncoming tears.  She tilted her head back, blinked hard several times, and sniffed.  Jenny watched her friend try to stem the flow and waited for the disturbing line of conversation to end.

 

She was disappointed.  Crystal quietly continued, almost in a whisper, “You know how I got my powers.  I thought I could make some meaning out of the accident.  I thought I might honor those who…” She swallowed hard.  “But no matter what I do with my powers, no matter how many people I save, it’ll never make up for the fact that I profited from a tragedy.  I don’t deserve them.  I want them gone, and I want to retire.  I don’t feel like a hero.  I feel like an opportunist.”  A single tear rolled down the side of her nose and fell to the tabletop.

 

Jenny stuck her spoon into the ice cream dish.  “Off with the gloves!”

 

Crystal stared back uncomprehendingly through the haze of tears.  Seeing her confusion, Jenny barked, “I’m not holding a glove, so c’mon OJ.  Take ‘em off!”

 

Crystal subtly tilted her head in the direction of the cash register, where she believed the owner would be standing.  Jenny rolled her eyes and leaned forward.  “If he hasn’t figured it out by now, he either can’t speak English or he’s dumber than a Troll.  OFF!” she commanded, her eyes flaring.

 

Gently, Crystal worked at the glove on her right hand.  She took her time; she didn’t know how much damage the glove had sustained, and didn’t want to tear it.  As she peeled, dust and tiny pieces of thread poured from the glove’s interior: the liner had already disintegrated.

 

Jenny was much faster with hers.  She slipped both of them off and dropped them on the table.  As soon as Crystal freed her right hand, Jenny grabbed it with her own, and covered them both with her left.  The energy aura peeked out between Jenny’s fingers, and what showed of Crystal’s hand was colored a very similar shade of red as Jenny’s.

 

Jenny looked at Crystal over her sunglasses.  Her red hair fell forward, framing her face.  In a soft voice, she said, “You are the second-most principled hero around, and a he-” she checked herself, “-a lot nicer than Statesman.  In and out of costume, you’re always working to help people.  You’re my friend.  When things get rough, there’s no one I’d rather have with me.  This city would be a lot worse off without you, and so would I.

 

“OK, you didn’t ask for superpowers, and that was an awful way to get them, but you’ve had them for years now.  You’re a bona-fide, security-level-fifty Hero of the City.  Everything you did since getting your powers was all you!  All those times you stepped in and said ‘You’re not hurting them unless you go through me’?  Seriously, how can you call voluntarily getting shot “profiteering”?

 

Crystal laughed and cried at the same time.  Jenny continued, “You asked if I thought you were being whiny.  Well, if I took as many hits as you, I’d have second thoughts about being a hero, too!  But I don’t think you’ve thought this through.  Let’s say you just walked away from it all.  You think Crey would ignore you?  Let you finish your degree, get a job, have kids, grow old and fat and never try to take you to one of their secret labs and cut you into wafer thin sections?”

 

“That’s not funny!” howled Crystal, laughing more and crying less.

 

“Think of how much less funny it would be if you didn’t have powers when they came for you!  And what about your charity work?  You think you’ll have the same leverage when it’s just ordinary Cr- just you, unpowered, with no heroic accolades and no costumed community to back you up?  They’d be like, ‘Look, it’s that annoying redhead again!’ instead of ‘So nice to see you!  What can we do for you today?’”

 

Crystal grumped as she futilely fought to keep from being cheered up.  “They probably still call me annoying.”

 

“Because you don’t back down from anything you think is worth doing.  You see it through, no matter what gets in your way.”  She let go of Crystal’s hand and straightened up in her chair.  “This is one of those times.  You’ll finish the semester, make a few speeches, pound Recluse’s flunkies into a coma, go to the wedding, get swept off your feet by one of the groomsmen, look back on the day you thought about throwing in the towel, and laugh.”

 

“Just continue on.”  Crystal sniffed.  “Maybe I’m still being whiny, but that doesn’t sound like a solution.”

 

“I say you haven’t given this enough thought.  Take some time.  If that prayer thing helps, do that too.  Maybe you’ll come up with an alternative to retiring.”

 

For a long moment, Crystal sat silent and still, staring at the tabletop.  Eventually, she nodded her head.  “You’re too good to me,” she said quietly as she raised her eyes to meet Jenny’s.  “You sit and listen to me whine and cry…I don’t deserve a friend like you.”  She dried her eyes with the unused portion of her napkin.

 

“Who else would treat me to a Choco-blitz?” quipped Jenny as she picked up her spoon again.  “Ohh”, she groaned, looking down at the ice cream.  Her ears fell.  “It’s melting!”  She looked expectantly at Crystal.

 

Crystal shrugged, and retrieved her spoon.  “It’ll taste funny if I re-freeze it.  Better eat it quick.”  With that, the two women dug in and ate as fast as they could, slowing only to avoid ice cream headaches or crunch espresso beans.  A few sticky minutes later, two spoons clattered into the empty dish.  Crystal gingerly put her damaged glove back on while Jenny washed up.  She pitched the napkins, gathered up the spoons and dish, and carried them back to the counter.

 

The owner met her as she approached.  “I didn’t know it was you!” he whispered.

 

“That was the idea,” Crystal replied in a soft voice.

 

“What your friend said about Crey Industries…” His dark eyes were wide, though Crystal couldn’t tell if it was from fear or incredulity.

 

“I can’t tell you everything I’ve seen; Crey considers that sort of talk slander, and their lawyers are relentless.  But, if you’re curious, go look up what happened at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut, on November 14, 2002.  Thanks for the ice cream!”  She walked back to the table and picked up Jenny’s fingerless gloves.

 

Jenny re-emerged and stepped up to Crystal.  “Ready to go?” she inquired at the top of Crystal’s head.  In response, Crystal dangled the neon-green gloves.  Jenny snatched them back.  “Thanks.”  She pulled them back on as they left.

 

Outside in the sunshine again, the two women paused and waited as the Green Line train rattled by.  Once they were again able to converse without shouting over the racket, Crystal exclaimed, “I’ll pay for it later, but that was good!”

 

“Mm-hmm!  Not a bad way to start the-“

 

Dramatic music began to play.  Crystal grimaced as Jenny whirled around and stared at her.

 

“Darth Vader’s theme?  Your phone plays Darth Vader’s theme music?” she asked, surprised.  

 

“It’s John Williams’ Imperial March,” Crystal corrected, “and I set the phone to play it whenever Vanguard calls.  Appropriate for the misery and sense of doom.”  She sighed heavily.

 

“Oh, come on,” Jenny chided her.  “I thought you’d gotten over the retirement thing.”

 

“Yeah…mostly…but it’s the kind of work Vanguard wants done that makes me tired of it all.  They don’t want heroes; they want soldiers.”  She switched to a guttural drill sergeant voice.  “‘Go here, punch the Rikti.’  ‘Go there, defend this outpost, and punch the attacking Rikti.’  ‘Hold those other Rikti in place until we can blast them into itty bitty pieces.’”  Crystal made a face, and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket.  “I suppose I should see what they want.”

 

“That’s the spirit,” muttered Jenny, not at all seriously.  She shook her head.

 

Crystal flipped her phone open.  She saw that it wasn’t an incoming call, but a text message.  Her fingers tapped away, calling it up.  In a bored voice, she read, “Your assistance is requested for a mission of utmost importance.  Please proceed with all deliberate haste to the nearest Vanguard facility for transport to the War Zone.  You will be briefed on arrival by…no way!”

 

“What?”  Jenny crowded in to see the message.

 

“Briefed on arrival by The Lady Grey!  Ohh!” she groaned.

 

“The Lady Grey?!?”  Jenny’s ears were up and forward again.  “What does she want with you?”

 

“She probably heard me crying,” Crystal grumbled bitterly.  Jenny giggled.  

 

“What are you going to do, Crystal?”

 

“I’ll go see what she wants.  It’d be rude to just blow her off.  Heaven knows, maybe she’ll have something for me to do that doesn’t involve assault and battery.”

 

“Yeah, good luck with that!”  As Crystal stuck her tongue out again, Jenny inquired, “You gonna change first?”

 

“‘All deliberate haste’, it says.  Well, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had to 'save the day' while not wearing a costume.”

 

“Or not wearing clothes at all,” Jenny slyly observed.

 

Crystal blushed beet red, and she buried her face in her hands.  “Shut up!” she screeched as Jenny burst out laughing.  “That wasn’t my fault!  Who’d have thought the Hellions would try to burn my apartment building TWICE?  Especially since they knew a registered hero lived there!”

 

Jenny shrieked, “At least the towel stayed on!”

 

“It was frozen in place!” Crystal reminded her, which only made Jenny laugh harder.  Soon, Crystal started laughing, too.  “But if it didn’t, who’d notice in this town?” she quipped.  “It’s indecent exposure if you’re a civilian, but if you’re a registered hero, it’s a costume!”  Now both women were laughing hysterically and leaning on the outdoor tables to keep from falling over.

 

“The new spring line at Icon: Au Natural!” screamed Jenny.  Crystal collapsed to the ground, tears streaming from her eyes.

 

She rolled onto her back, and thrust her right fist skyward.  “Towel Girl, fighting crime with the Rat-Tail of Justice!”  Jenny slipped off the table and fell to her knees, hugging her sides, barely able to breathe.

 

It was several minutes before they regained control of themselves.  They laughed until it hurt, then when one or the other started to recover, inevitably they’d look at each other and begin the paroxysms anew.  The lunch crowd stared, and gave them a wide berth; no one was brave or curious enough to inquire why two women, one of whom was a costumed hero, would be rolling on the ground cackling hysterically.

 

Eventually, Crystal sat up, rubbed at her red and puffy eyes, and wiped away the tear tracks.  She stifled another bout of the giggles as she said, “I should have taken a napkin to go.  My eyes must look awful, and my face hurts!  You big meanie, see what you started?”

 

Jenny pulled herself out of a fetal position.   She took off her sunglasses, made an attempt to dry them on the sleeve of her jacket, and returned them to her face.  Through a big grin she shot back, “At least this time you’re not crying ‘cause you’re sad!”

 

“I’d rather not cry at all!” Crystal grumped, smiling just as much as her friend.  She took a deep breath to calm herself.  “So much for ‘all deliberate haste’.  Maybe they’ve found someone else for the job?”  Jenny cocked her head and just stared in response.  “Yeah, I don’t think so, either.”  She dragged herself to her feet, then extended a hand to help Jenny up.  “Well,” she continued, “now that you’ve had a good laugh at my expense-” which set Jenny off again “-maybe you could do something for me.”

 

Choking back the laughter, Jenny replied, “So long as it’s not subbing for Vanguard.”

 

Crystal pulled her backpack off and presented it to her friend.  “There’s a lock and a set of keys in the outer pouch.  Would you please take this to the fitness center and stash it in a locker?  I’m not keen on bringing five hundred dollars worth of textbooks to a war zone, and you can get to the center much faster than I.”

 

“Sure, no problem.”  Jenny took the bag and slung it over one shoulder.

 

Crystal floated off the ground until she was eye level with Jenny and embraced her.  “Thanks.  For everything,” she whispered into her ear.  “You’re a real hero, you know that?”

 

“Aww, don’t, or you’ll make me cry, too!”  Jenny leaned her head into Crystal’s shoulder and stroked the back of her head.  They held on to each other for another heartbeat, then parted.

 

Crystal waved as she slowly lifted off into the sky.  “I’ll call you when I’m done!” she shouted down.  “Be good!”

 

“Stay safe!”  Jenny waved back, watching as Crystal flew over the buildings and out of sight.  Only when she could no longer see her friend did she take off running.
 

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All hail the mighty Grog! 

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Defining Moments - Chapter 4

 

Crystal stepped through the secure teleporter portal and entered the most depressing place on earth.

 

The Vanguard stronghold in Rikti War Zone was designed along the same lines as the organization itself; to fight the Rikti whenever, however, and wherever was necessary.  Reinforced concrete walls dominated the décor, accented by steel structural supports for catwalks and bare fluorescent lights.  Painting was purely functional, telling personnel the location of important sectors of the base.  Windows had not been installed as they would only compromise structural integrity.  The base was hermetically sealed to guard against gas and viral attack.  There was no way to tell day from night, nor winter from summer.  From the inside it was impossible to know that there was even a world outside the stronghold.

 

The sense of discontinuity augmented the pervasive atmosphere of quiet desperation.  Vanguard personnel, clad in their gray and purple Impervium armor, strode purposefully through the corridors on their respective missions.  Most wore half-helmets when inside the base, and each mouth was etched with the same expression of grim determination.  The vehicle bay and infirmary dominated the view from the portal to Paragon City.  Further in, the armory, firing range, and briefing theater were the only breaks in the omnipresent concrete and steel.  Walls, rooms, and people; everything was geared exclusively for waging war.  One could easily imagine that the outside world consisted only of conflict, bloodshed, and suffering.

 

Crystal leaned around the corner of the portal room and surveyed the scene.  The only color and joy came, oddly, from the heroes and villains.  Wings flapped, capes flew, and energy crackled as each meta made the base more interesting and cheerful by their presence alone.  Small groups stood around and chatted with each other.  There were smiles and laughter, although some of the laughs were cold and sinister.  Some conversed with Vanguard personnel.  Others tinkered at workstations, redeeming Vanguard merits for coveted pieces of Impervium body armor, Talsorian weapons, and other restricted equipment.  But whether they wore spikes and chains or bright skin-tight clothes, they were the only living things that did not share the grim visage that was as much a uniform as gray and purple.

 

Crystal noticed a few curious glances thrown her way.  Right!  I’m out of costume, and not wearing Vanguard armor.  Better let them know where I fit in.  She levitated a few inches off the floor and slowly drifted into the main corridor.  As she moved, she tugged her hairband loose and fluffed her hair out.  Cascades of orange flowed down past the small of her back.  When Crystal landed, she noticed that no one was paying attention to her anymore.  She smiled.

 

“Pardon me, are you Shining Crystal?”

 

Almost no one; the voice carried an English accent, and originated from one of the Vanguard.  Crystal looked to her left, and saw the source climbing out of the vehicle bay.  It was a stocky man of average height, clad in Impervium armor and half-helmet.  The chin and mouth that showed under the visor did not belong to a young man.  He held up a PDA; a stubby antenna pointed at her.

 

“I am,” she replied.  “May I help you?”

 

“Hold still for another second, please, miss.”  True to his word, the PDA chirped one second later.  The mouth that showed under the half-helmet changed from a frown of concentration to the grim smile of a job well done.  He nodded faintly and lowered the PDA.  “Identity confirmed.  Welcome to Vanguard, miss.  I’m to escort you to your briefing.  Follow me, if you please,” he finished, gesturing to a nearby security portal.  It was not a suggestion.

 

“OK,” Crystal meekly replied.  She waited as he passed by, then fell in line behind and to the right.  It was only a few steps to the portal, a swirling circle of purple energy framed by emitters poking through a concrete wall.  The PDA came up again as the man held it off to the side of the portal and punched a sequence of commands into it.  The portal shifted colors.

 

“Into the portal, miss.  I’ll be right behind you.”  Crystal touched the circle.  Everything faded to black, then just as quickly returned to concrete and steel.  She guessed she was in another part of the base, but had no idea where this place was in relation to the one she left.  

 

Before she dared to wander off and explore, her escort re-materialized right behind her in a flash of bright light.  He took a moment to get his bearings, then commanded, “Please follow closely, miss.”  The two of them marched through the base.  Crystal looked left and right, trying to figure out where she was.  Though one open doorway, she noticed supply crates.  Another opening revealed rows of filing cabinets, desks, and computers.  Most of the people she saw were in uniform, but not in armor.  They still wore an identical grim expression as the Vanguard personnel outside this section.

 

“Administration?” Crystal inquired.

 

“And living quarters,” responded her escort.  “It was decided that this section should not be part of general access granted to our special volunteers.”

 

“Makes sense.  We have homes of our own.  Or, secret underground lairs, depending on which side of the War Walls you’re from.”  She walked in silence a bit further, then asked, “This is kinda awkward.  Would you please tell me your name?”

 

“You may call me Colour Sergeant Barnes, miss.”  The reply came over the shoulder without breaking stride.  Again, the information was not a suggestion; there was clearly only one proper way to address him.

 

“Color Sergeant Barnes,” Crystal repeated, trying out the name.  “I don’t mean to pester you, but I have the impression you’ve been at this a while.”

 

“I’ve served Vanguard and The Lady Grey for almost six years now, miss, and more than twenty years in the British Army before that.”

 

“Oh.  Wow.  That’s a long time.”  There was no response forthcoming, so Crystal followed in silence.

 

The corridors were nearly devoid of distinguishing features, so by the time the pair arrived at their destination Crystal was thoroughly lost.  It seemed like they walked down random passageways until reaching a random door that looked like every other closed door they’d passed.  Only when the color sergeant stopped and gripped the handle did the door gain any special significance.

 

“In here, if you please,” the color sergeant instructed.  “You will temporarily surrender your cell phone, check through security, and then you shall be briefed on your mission.”  He gave the handle a twist.

 

“Wait!”  Crystal held up her hands in emphasis.  “I’ve never met The Lady Grey before!  How do I address her?  I mean, what do I call her when I’m talking to her?”

 

Color Sergeant Barnes regarded her in silence for a heartbeat.  “As you are a member of Vanguard, and she is its leader, you may call her “madam” or “ma’am”.”  The last word came out sounding like “mum”.

 

“OK, got it.  Thanks, Color Sergeant Barnes,” she said as he opened the door.  She flashed him a nervous smile as she entered.

 

Color Sergeant Barnes closed the door behind her and marched off to his next assignment.  His pace was slower than earlier.  In his mind, the details of Crystal’s file played.  Most heroes’ files held only cursory information, and, if they hadn’t been to prison, the villains’ were even less informative.  Hers had everything; real name, address, names of parents, birth date, and so on.  It was the last bit of information that repeatedly cycled through his consciousness.  “Good Lord,” he breathed, “she’s younger than my children!  Bloody Rikti War,” he finished, slowly shaking his head.

 

Crystal stood in a sterile security checkpoint manned by Vanguard soldiers in full combat gear.  One soldier sat at a desk behind bulletproof glass and armor plate.  A sign on the glass listed all prohibited items.  Crystal pulled out her cell phone, wallet, watch, and keys, then dropped them into the inspection tray.  Just to be safe, she also placed her hairband, lip balm, and tiara into the tray.  Her hair fell in front of her face like a veil.  She pulled enough strands out of the way to see, and entered the security lockbox.  The armored doors slid shut, trapping her inside to be scanned and, if necessary, incinerated.  It was a long, tense minute before Crystal was verified as human, or, more accurately, not Rikti, and she exited the other side of the lockbox with no small sense of relief.  Not normally a troublemaker, the whole process was so unnerving that she was practically cowed, and wanted nothing more than to be back in Paragon and forget the whole sorry affair.  Crystal retrieved her possessions, minus cell phone, and waited to be escorted into the presence of The Lady Grey.

 

The security station was attached to Lady Grey’s office, but might as well have been on the other side of the universe.  Crystal transitioned from the antiseptic, intimidating security checkpoint to sumptuous wood paneling, aged paintings in gilded frames, thick carpet, and a real fireplace.  The room smelled of wood smoke and antiquity.  There were even leaded-glass windows looking out onto a carefully manicured English garden bathed in the afternoon sun.  Crystal stood stock still, her eyes wide open, oblivious to the sound of the door closing behind her, and tried to reassemble her sanity.

 

Her sanity took another blow as she finally noticed the figure seated behind an antique desk.  The Lady Grey, founder and leader of Vanguard, rumored to be one of the oldest and most powerful meta-humans on the planet, center of a universe of her own making, scribbled some notes onto a sheaf of paper.  Once finished, she waved her hand over the stack, causing it to vanish into shadow and emptiness.  Only then did she take notice of Crystal.  “Be seated, Miss da Silva,” she ordered.  Her voice carried an unmistakable authority in her precise diction.

 

The sound of her real name finally brought Crystal back to reality.  She slowly moved away from the door, crossing the carpeted floor with soft footfalls, and eased into the antique wood chair placed opposite Lady Grey’s desk.  She crossed her legs, and folded her hands in her lap, feeling like she had been called into the principal’s office.

 

I can do this, she thought as she tried to fight her sense of awe.  Sure, it’s The Lady Grey, but I can turn the mission down.  One mention of hitting anything, and I’ll pass.  I’m not a soldier, I’m a volunteer.

 

“Let us begin.”  Lady Grey leaned forward slightly, her dark eyes narrowing a fraction.  “The Rikti, under the command of their War Leader Hro'Dtohz, grow desperate. Valiant efforts by Vanguard forces have destabilized their new gateway to the Rikti Homeworld, but already they look for methods to recover from this set-back.”  

 

I’m not smashing anything.  I can call a half-dozen others who wouldn’t mind destroying some property.  Thank you, no.  Not interested.

 

“The Dark Watcher informs us the Rikti Lineage of War believe they can utilize latent human psychic energies to re-stabilize their portals. The Lineage of War forces have captured one of the most potent psychics on earth in order to do so: Miss Penelope Yin.”

 

Crystal squashed her internal pep-talk.

 

“The Rikti were attempting to secret her back to their ship when we were able to pin them down en-route, but her rescue will require expert talents. Her safety now rests on your shoulders.”

 

A rescue mission!  I can do this!  Her heart leapt in her chest as Crystal leapt out of her chair and gave a blazing smile to Lady Grey.  “Yes, ma’am!” she exploded.  “I’ll bring her back safely!  You can count on me!”  She mentally kicked herself for trying to back out before she even knew what the mission was.

 

Lady Grey remained perfectly composed during Crystal’s enthusiastic outburst.  “We expected nothing less from you, Miss da Silva,” she intoned, which only made Crystal feel more guilty.  “We have set aside part of this facility for your team to assemble and embark upon this task.  Some of them are waiting there as we speak.  The remainder shall join you shortly.”

 

“Yes, ma’am-- wait, MY team?”  She looked incredulously at Lady Grey.

 

“Indeed,” Lady Grey confirmed with a slight twist of her head.  “Your concern for the well-being of others is known to Us, and We feel it is most appropriate to place Our trust in your leadership abilities.  Your phone is being updated with the latest Vanguard communication codes so that you may contact us as needed.”

 

“Thank you, ma’am, I won’t let you down.  I’ll bring ‘em back,” Crystal repeated.  “All of them!”  She gave Lady Grey a confident smile.

 

Lady Grey’s eyes softened, and her mouth thinned into an approximation of a smile.  “Your enthusiasm does you credit.  May your deeds match your will, for We believe the enemy will not easily yield Miss Yin, nor countenance trespassers within their domain.”

 

Countenance?

 

“It’s time.  We shall return you now, Miss da Silva.  Godspeed!”  The Lady Grey rose from her chair and made a cryptic gesture at the door.  Sensing the briefing was over, Crystal nodded her head at Lady Grey, then turned and walked out the way she came.  Once the door closed behind her, she leaned back against it, closed her eyes, and shook her head dramatically.

 

Now I know how Alice felt when she fell down the rabbit hole!

 

“Sweet thang!”

 

Crystal’s eyes shot open.  The voice definitely did not belong to one of the Vanguard regulars.  Her head darted to and fro, examining her surroundings.  Crystal’s jaw dropped, and her eyes nearly popped out of her head when she realized though she exited through the same door she entered, she was not back in the security checkpoint, but a small waiting room.  Moreover, she was not alone, but in the presence of three people: one man, one woman, and one humanoid shape composed of brilliant white flames.  A quick check behind her also revealed that she was not leaning up against a door, but the ubiquitous reinforced concrete walls of the Vanguard stronghold.  She swallowed hard as she ran her hands along the concrete, desperately looking for some sign of the doorway she was sure she had just stepped through.

 

No, THIS is what Alice must have felt like!  What have I gotten myself into now?

All hail the mighty Grog! 

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  • 2 weeks later

Defining Moments - Chapter 5

 

Even by superheroic standards, the man approaching Crystal was strangely dressed.  He was a thin black man who might have been average height, if he would remove his platform shoes and white, wide-brimmed hat.  He favored leopard-skin; there was a band around the hat of black and white leopard skin, his pants were black and white leopard skin and flared at the bottom, and he wore a short cape with a black and white leopard skin pattern inside and out.  His white jacket was open at the front, exposing his lean torso, pendulous gold chains festooned with medallions, and massive gold belt buckle.  The collar for his jacket was so large it needed its own zip code.  Wing-like sideburns flanked his face and continued all the way down his jaw line.  A tuft of hair dangled off of his chin.  Despite his large dark sunglasses, Crystal could feel his eyes roam over her, scrutinizing every square inch to an uncomfortable degree.

 

He walked slowly towards her, a curious sway in his step.  As he looked Crystal up and down, he voiced his approval.  “Mmm-mm!  Girl, you lookin’ fi-i-ine,” he drawled, extending the last word by breaking it up into several syllables.  “You a brick house!”  His gaze traveled down.  It stopped low, and he cocked his head to one side to get a better view.  “And you got one seriously sweet-“

 

“Do I know you?” Crystal interrupted hurriedly, not liking where his gaze or his monologue was going.  As she spoke, she snapped her body around and plastered her back firmly against the concrete wall.  She tried unsuccessfully to remove the deer-in-the-headlights look from her face.

 

The man continued his advance into her personal space.  He slowly brought his head up to look into Crystal’s face.  “Seriously.  Sweet,” he repeated, punctuating each word with a nod.  “What it is, baby!  Supa Fly is my name, and messing up mofos is my game!”  He extended his hand.

 

It’s an act.  It has to be!  There’s no other explanation why anyone would dress up and talk like a 70s pimp!  Crystal extended her hand and took his.  “Well, hi, Super Fly, my name is-“

 

“Supa Fly, baby,” he corrected.

 

“Right, Supa Fly, sorry about…” Crystal’s voice trailed off as she realized he was going to kiss her hand.  She wasn’t keen on that kind of attention from him, but didn’t want to yank her hand away, either.  Her stomach knotted.

 

“What the [censored]?” Supa Fly dropped her hand and stepped back.  He looked down at the offending hand, then back up to her face.

 

Crystal frowned, then brought her hand up and examined it closely.  The hand was fine, but the glove had worn through in spots.  Pink sparks shot out through tiny holes, and the red glow was spreading out to erode more of the leather.  “Ohh,” she groaned, “I’d hoped they’d last until the end of the week.  Trash can!”  Crystal shimmied along the wall and across the room to the waste can, grateful for an excuse to put some space between Supa Fly and herself.  The gloves came off her hand in pieces, practically disintegrating as Crystal peeled and rubbed at them.  Her hands felt a little gritty, but much cooler.    Crystal dusted the last few pieces off, stood up, and announced with a smile, “Well, not much use for gloves on a rescue mission!”

 

“How’s it help us if you destroy everything you touch?” carped the woman.  She was young, a few inches shorter than Crystal, with dark skin that had a touch of gray to it.  Her hair was grayish-purple, cut short, and styled so part of the front was colored pale gray and framed her face in an oval.  She had full red lips, and wore glasses with red-tinted lenses.  Gunmetal gray chains wrapped around her neck like a choker.  Like Supa Fly, she also favored a color theme: red.  She wore a red, tight-fitting, sleeveless shirt that, like Crystal’s didn’t quite meet up with the top of her pants.  The pants were skintight, also red, and accented by a wide black belt with metal eyelets.  Her red boots came up to her knees, and were topped by a band of black fur.  It wasn’t blatantly a costume, but the effect was striking nonetheless.

 

“No, it’ll be OK,” Crystal countered.  “The energy only disintegrates non-living objects, and even then it takes hours.”  Crystal walked around Supa Fly and up to the woman.  She stuck her hand out.  “Take my hand.  It’ll feel tingly, that’s all.”

 

The other woman narrowed her eyes suspiciously, but reached for Crystal’s hand anyway.  Her grip was tentative at first, but more firm as she felt safer touching the energy.  She slowly smiled as she said, “You’re right, it is tingly.  Doesn’t hurt at all.  I’m Bellona.”

 

“Hi, Bellona!  I’m Shining Crystal.”  Crystal flashed a big smile as she gave a squeeze to Bellona’s hand.  “Is that your real name?”

 

“No!  What idiot would use their real name?”  She threw a funny look at Crystal.

 

Idiot?  “Maybe someone who had nothing to hide?  I ask because it’s so pretty, and I could have sworn I’d heard it used as a name.”

 

Bellona’s smile widened a fraction.  “Maybe it is.  It’s the name of a Roman war goddess.”

 

“It’s the name of a sweet hunka woman!” Supa Fly interjected.

 

Bellona’s eyes narrowed to slits as she fixed him with a venomous stare.  She raised her right hand and pointed at the ceiling.  Smoke wafted off of her fingers.  She hissed, “I told you what would happen if you spoke to me again!”

 

“Bellona?  What are you doing?” Crystal inquired gently.

“Oh, just setting off the sprinkler system,” she casually replied.  “I’m going to ruin Undercover Brother’s fancy clothes.”  The smoke thickened, and tongues of flame licked at her fingertips.  Supa Fly stared back defiantly.

 

Crystal earnestly whispered to Bellona, “Please don’t do that.  He would look funny all soaking wet, but it’d probably make Vanguard freak out.  I’m sure they’re nervous enough having heroes and villains under the same roof.  Please, Bellona, power down.”  She turned her attention to Supa Fly.  “You shouldn’t bait Bellona, especially if she’s already asked you to stop bothering her.  Please, Supa Fly, let’s make an effort to get along.”  Crystal stepped away from Bellona, positioning herself to look at both simultaneously.  “We’re here for a mission, and we’ll all have to work together to pull this off.  Our lives are in each other’s hands.”

 

Supa Fly grudgingly nodded in agreement.  Bellona stared at Crystal.  “You HAVE to be one of the do-gooders!  No one else would spew that crap and expect it to work!” she blasted.

 

“I am a registered hero,” Crystal confirmed, “and I guess that means you’re one of the destined ones.”  She deliberately used the official Arachnos term for the villains of the Rogue Isles.  “But that doesn’t make what I said any less true!  You know why we’re here!”

 

“No, I don’t,” Bellona shot back.  She crossed her arms.

 

Crystal’s brows knitted in confusion.  “You don’t know why we’ve been brought together?  Didn’t Lady Grey tell you?”

 

“No.  I haven’t met with her.”

 

“Me neither,” piped Supa Fly.  “Some cat shoved my righteous self in here an’ said there was some funky [censored] goin’ down.  Said the team leader had the skinny.  Never said anything about her bein’ a stone fox!”

 

Note to self: get 70s slang dictionary as soon as possible.  “OK, well, I just left Lady Grey’s office, and she told me what we’re supposed to do.  I already said it’s a rescue mission, but do you mind waiting until everyone’s here before I go into details?  I don’t want to explain it, like, another five times.”

 

“Fine,” said Bellona.

 

“Ain’t no thang,” echoed Supa Fly.

 

“Great, thanks!”  Crystal beamed a huge smile at them both.  “Let’s finish the introductions!”  She walked over to the remaining occupant of the room.  Whatever it was, it was shaped and sized like a man, but entirely covered in white fire.  Crystal approached slowly, feeling for any sudden increases in temperature.  There were none.  Relieved, Crystal stopped within arm’s reach.  “Hello, StarDust!  You remember me?”

 

“I remember you, Shining Crystal.”  The reply was polite yet flat.  StarDust extended his hand.  

 

Crystal took it, and was pleasantly surprised to find the flames held no warmth.  She gave it a short squeeze.  “Good to see you again!  It’s a shame we’ve never teamed before.”

 

“Thank you.  And, yes.”  He kept his voice low as he spoke.

 

“I didn’t think that thing could speak,” said Bellona.

 

Crystal turned on her.  “StarDust isn’t a thing, he’s a he!  He’s normally a quiet person, too.  That’s why he hasn’t said anything before.  There’s nothing wrong with that.”

 

Bellona stared at Crystal, a disgusted look on her face.  “What a sap!  You’re not the team leader; you’re the team cheerleader!  What is your IQ, anyways?”

 

“I don’t like to talk about it,” Crystal replied.  Bellona smirked.

 

Just then the door opened, and in strode the next member of the team.  He was reptilian, lithe, with clawed hands and talons for feet.  His legs were joined twice like a cat’s.  Light purple scales covered his body, and massive leathery wings sprouted from his back.  Sharp teeth glinted in his cruel maw.  His thin scaly tail whipped around as if seeking prey to devour.  He might have been terrifying to behold were he not also four feet tall.  In the end, he was both cute and menacing in equal measure.

 

Crystal left StarDust’s side to greet the newcomer.  She bent over to get closer to his eye level, and offered her hand.  “Hi!  I’m Shining Crystal.  What’s your name?”

 

He spread his wings, stretching them to their full height and nearly touching the ceiling with their tips.  Cold eyes with amber irises and vertical pupils fixed Crystal with an unwavering glare.  “I am The Thunder Dragon!” he announced.  Despite being indoors, a roll of thunder filled the room.  He did not take Crystal’s hand; he clenched his own hands into fists and arced red lightning along his arms, head, and torso.

 

Not so cute anymore!  Crystal stared wide-eyed, her gaze following his wings up to their apex.  She took a step back and composed herself.  “Welcome, Thunder Dragon.  I’m pleased to meet you.  Allow me to introduce the rest of the team.”  She moved off to the side, allowing Thunder Dragon a clear view of the room.  Crystal pointed to each as she named them.  “This is Supa Fly.”

 

“What’s happenin’, man?”

 

“Bellona.”

 

“Please tell me you’re from the Rogue Isles,” Bellona sighed.

 

“My temporary home on this plane,” Thunder Dragon responded.  Everyone’s eyebrows rose at that last bit of information.

 

“And this is StarDust,” Crystal finished.  StarDust did not speak.

 

Neither did Thunder Dragon speak to him.  Instead, he turned his eyes on Crystal.  “Is this everyone?”

 

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.  There might be as many as-“

 

Thunder Dragon launched himself at the back wall.  He pivoted in mid air and reached out with his taloned feet, wedging the claws into the seams between the concrete.  He spread his wings and hooked their claws on some structural supports.  Suitably braced, he crossed his arms, settled on his haunches, and gazed upon the room from on high.  His tail dangled down along the wall, twitching irritably.  Perched up near the ceiling, it seemed that he sat on a winged throne, lord of all he surveyed.

 

Everyone in the room, including Crystal, was so focused on Thunder Dragon that they did not notice the door open again.  It was only when the newcomer shouted a greeting that their attention turned away from the spectacle.  “Hey, someone said there was a crazy redhead putting a team together for a suicide mission!  Anyone seen her?  I’m here to join.”

 

Crystal spun around in shock.  As she recognized the newcomer, her expression morphed into a grin of delight.  “No way!” she squealed.  “What are you doing here?”

 

Jenny stepped further into the room and spread her arms.  “You know you’d be lost without me!”  As the two friends embraced, she continued, “No sooner than I finished at the fitness center, I got a call from Vanguard.  I hoped it was the same thing they dragged you in for.”

 

“How lucky can you get?”  Crystal released Jenny from the hug.  “Well, let me introduce you.  This is Supa Fly.”

 

Supa Fly was well ahead of Crystal; he’d already walked up to inspect Jenny.  “I’ve seen foxy ladies before, but nothing like you, girl!”

 

“You got that right!  My name’s Firefox.”

 

“Aww, sooky sooky!”

 

Jenny’s ears dropped along with her smile.  “Uh, yeah…whatever that means…”

 

Quickly moving along, Crystal pointed at Bellona.  “This is Bellona.”

 

“Hi!” beamed Jenny.

 

“Hi.” Bellona’s response was frigid.

 

“You know StarDust?  He’s in the Legion, too.”

 

“Never met him before, but I’m glad to know you.”

 

StarDust nodded in greeting.

 

“And up there is Thunder Dragon.”

 

Jenny’s ears perked up as she noticed him for the first time.  She walked a little closer; with her great height she was almost at eye level with him.  “Comfortable?” she inquired humorously.

 

“Very,” Thunder Dragon replied without a trace of sarcasm.

 

“Well,” said Crystal, “there’s probably another two on the-“

 

The handle clicked, announcing the next arrival.  A short man of Japanese ancestry entered slowly, his keen eyes taking in the whole room.  His face was covered in a black mask that draped down to his shoulders, leaving only his piercing eyes and gray hair in view.  He wore pieces of archaic samurai armor: shoulder guards, gauntlets, chest plate, and greaves, all in black with red trim.  The rest was covered with a loose-fitting black bodysuit with a jagged pattern in blood red.  Over his shoulders was a cape the color of dried blood; he wore it with a great deal of panache, clutching one side of it in his fist and pulling it around him.

 

The new arrival made no effort to introduce himself or move further into the room.  Crystal turned and approached to make him feel welcome.  “Hi!  My name’s Shining Crystal!  What’s yours?”

 

“You will address me as Tetsu Sensei!” he commanded imperiously.  His accent was pronounced, but not so much that it clouded the meaning of his words.

 

Another actor!  “OK, Tetsu, let me intro-”

 

The blow was almost faster than the eye could follow.  Tetsu Sensei smashed the back of his armored gauntlet into the side of Crystal’s mouth.  Blood sprayed, and Crystal spun completely around before collapsing to the floor.  Dazed, she writhed on the ground, trying to bring her world back into focus.  “Address me with respect, Shining Crystal!” he spat as he hatefully glared down at her.  “Or you will find yourself unable to speak at all!”

 

“Crystal!” Jenny screeched.  She bounded over to her friend and knelt down to help her.  

 

Bellona smiled.

 

Supa Fly admonished, “Dang!  That’s some jive [censored], man!”

 

Tetsu Sensei’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Supa Fly.  “You wish the same for yourself?”

 

Supa Fly squared his shoulders.  “You’d best jump back, sucka.  I’m so bad, I kick my own ass twice a day!”

 

Jenny stood up, using her size to intimidate Tetsu Sensei as much as possible.  She folded her ears back and snarled, “Vanguard rules be damned!  You’re gonna FRY!”  Great gouts of flame erupted around her hands, sending a shockwave of superheated air crashing into him.  He took a half-step back, and for the first time since he entered the room, his eyes no longer radiated contempt.

 

“M-m-n-no,” Crystal feebly groaned from the floor.  She flailed one hand at Jenny, finally latching onto a leg.  Crystal pulled herself closer, and tried to use Jenny as a support to return to her feet.  Sensing her friend’s motives, Jenny powered down, hefted Crystal upright, and held on to her until she was steady.  Crystal tried to clear her mind by focusing on Jenny’s face.  It was difficult; not only couldn’t she properly focus her eyes, she couldn’t decide which face to focus on.  Eventually, she regained enough strength to stand, albeit with her feet spread far apart and a lot of sway.  She mumbled quietly so only Jenny could hear, “Moo’ ba’.  Gon’ gi’ col’.”

 

Jenny stepped away, though she kept her hands out, ready to catch Crystal if she stumbled.  Crystal staggered around slowly to face Tetsu Sensei again.  Swaying, she raised her right hand and pointed at him.  She fought through the pain to fix him with a stern glare and declare, “Tha’ was uncall’ for.  You ough’a be ashame’ve ‘erself!”  With that, she took a deep breath, and formed around herself the biggest block of ice she could manage.  It took less than a second, but Crystal was now completely encased in bitterly cold ice nearly a meter thick.  Her injuries began to heal at a remarkable rate.  Crystal took her time inside, not only to make sure the ice finished knitting everything back together, but also to calm herself and regain her focus.

 

While Crystal was sealed away, Jenny looked daggers at Tetsu Sensei.  After a moment of fierce glaring, her ears unfolded to their full height, and she stepped close to him, leaning over so they could talk with some privacy.  “You’ve made a very big mistake,” she whispered, “hurting the friend of a kitsune.”

 

Something flashed behind Tetsu Sensei’s eyes.  “You’re not a kitsune!” he hissed.

 

Jenny’s ears rotated forward.  “Oh, really?”  She pointed at her face and head.  “The ears, the facial features, the fox-fire-” she brought her hands up and ignited them again “-what else could I be?  Foxes are faithful protectors, and I won’t forget what you did to my friend.  Make nice with her, or I’ll use my full power on you!”  She stood back up to her full height and gave Tetsu Sensei an evil grin.

 

The door swung open, and a man in powered armor clomped into the room.  A white and blue paint scheme gave character to an otherwise unromantically functional design.  A blue helmet with shielded antennas, armored slit visor, and reinforced faceplate protected his head.  Layered plates covered his chest and abdomen.  Simple articulated segments covered legs and arms, spaced by flexible black gaskets.  His boots featured two prominent exhaust ports each.  The one concession to aesthetics was his large, pointed shoulder plates that gave the impression of wings.  Emblazoned on his chest was a large red skull.  He stepped partway into the room, holding the door open.  His helmet swiveled from Jenny, to Tetsu Sensei, to the large block of ice that sheltered Crystal.  A synthesized voice exclaimed, “Did I miss something?”

 

“Hi, Harm,” Jenny greeted him.  She pointed at Tetsu Sensei. “You’re just in time to help me roast this piece of-“

 

CRACK!  The mountain of ice exploded into bowling ball-sized chunks, clattering to the floor with the sound of an avalanche.  Crystal blew out the breath she had been holding, shook out her hair, flexed her jaw experimentally, and ran her tongue over the inside of her stricken cheek.  With her fingers she gently felt the spot where Tetsu Sensei backhanded her.  Satisfied that the injury was gone, she looked pointedly at the shorter man and intoned, “Good as new.”

 

Jenny squinted at her.  “Not quite!  There’s still some blood in your hair.”  She pointed to the spot.

 

Crystal sifted through her hair.  Sure enough, some of the fiery orange strands were stuck together by a dark red liquid.  She looked from the blood to Tetsu Sensei, and in a firm yet even tone ordered, “No more hitting, Tetsu Sensei; not me, not anyone else on the team.  We need to focus on fighting Rikti instead of each other.”  While Tetsu Sensei fixed her with a withering stare, she moved her attention to the new arrival.  “Hi, Harm!  You here for me?”

 

“Maybe.  I was ordered to report to this room to form up for a mission.  The nature of the mission was not specified.”

 

“Sounds like you’re in the right place.  I’m glad you’re here!”  She smiled at him.

 

“Did this guy-”

 

“Leave it be,” Crystal admonished.  “It’s done now.”

 

“Whatever you say.”  He was probably being sarcastic, but the synthesizer didn’t duplicate the tones exactly.

 

A gauntleted hand rapped on the door.  Harm scooted out of the way as an accented voice said, “Pardon me, sir.  Vanguard business.”  Color Sergeant Barnes stepped into the room, wearing his usual grim expression.  He studied the scene for a moment before producing Crystal’s cell phone.  “Your phone is ready, miss.”

 

“Oh, great!  We can get started now.”  Jenny backed up to let Crystal squeeze between her and Tetsu Sensei without taking her eyes off him.  Crystal retrieved her phone from Color Sergeant Barnes.  While Crystal’s back was turned, Jenny pointed to her own eyes, then to Tetsu Sensei in an unmistakable warning.

 

Color Sergeant Barnes listed the modifications to her phone as he pointed to the tiny screen.  “We’ve entered mission details, navigation data, and the current communication codes.  You may contact us as needed, but your team will be unable to communicate directly with Vanguard while on this mission, so mind what happens to your phone.”

 

Crystal gave him a wry grin.  No problem.  I only expect to be shot two hundred fifty times.  Three hundred at the most!  “I’ll do what I can, Color Sergeant Barnes.  Thanks.”

 

“Good luck to you, miss.”  He turned to address the room.  “Good luck to you all!”  With that, he exited, closing the door behind himself.

 

“Right, let’s get started,” Crystal said, quickly warming up to the task at hand.  “We’re here because Vanguard wrecked the portal to the Rikti home world, and War Leader Hro'Dtohz thinks he can re-open it using captured human psychics.  To do that, they’ve kidnapped Penelope Yin, and we’re going to get her back.”

 

“Perilous Penelope?” Jenny asked, her ears perking up.

 

“Yep.  We have to do this quick; Vanguard’s pin-pointed her location, but they can’t get her out, and the Rikti have had her for a while.

 

“First, let’s sync up.  Get our your phones, and use, uh…23581321 as the team communication code.”  Crystal held her phone out as she punched the numbers in.  Almost everyone else followed suit; Harm and Thunder Dragon did not.  

 

Crystal looked at Harm inquisitively.  He pointed at his helmet.  “Internal.”

 

“OK.  Thunder Dragon, do you have a cell phone?”

 

Thunder Dragon looked down at her.  Electricity arced around his head, concentrated at his ears.  On Crystal’s display screen, an icon appeared indicating that Thunder Dragon had connected to the team’s frequencies.  Through everyone’s phones, his cold voice resonated, “I hear all your machines, and they will hear me.”  His maw did not move except to show a grin filled with needle-sharp teeth.

 

“Impressive,” Harm voiced.

 

“Creepy,” Jenny muttered under her breath.

 

Crystal continued, “Double check nav data once you’re outside and can see the zone.  Now let’s find out what we can do for each other.  Again, I’m Shining Crystal, and my Longbow classification is Tanker.  For you destined ones, that means I’ll be doing my darndest to make sure the Rikti shoot at me instead of you.”  She put a comical expression of horror on her face, which elicited a few chuckles from the team.  After re-composing herself, she continued, “Now I’ll say your names, and you say your Longbow classification, if you know it.  Firefox.”

 

“Blaster.”  She looked hard at Tetsu Sensei.  “FIRE Blaster!”

 

“Supa Fly.”

 

“Defender.  I takes care of what’s mine!”

 

Crystal smiled.  “That’s great!  Thunder Dragon.”

 

“I kill Longbow.  I do not converse with them.”

 

Crystal swallowed hard and tried to keep her voice from shaking.  “StarDust.”

 

“Blaster.”

 

“Bellona.”

 

“They call me a Corruptor.  I think it’s insulting.”

 

“I would, too.  AGM-88 HARM.”

 

“Call me Harm.  I’m a Blaster, too.”

 

“No shortage of fire-power here!  Tetsu Sensei.”

 

“Your commander!” he announced.  

 

The room erupted with furious cries of protest; only StarDust and Thunder Dragon remained silent.  Crystal waved the noise down.  Once she had re-established calm, she evenly explained, “Lady Grey made the choice of team leader, Tetsu Sensei.”

 

Bellona made a gagging gesture.

 

Oblivious, Crystal finished, “If you’re unhappy with that, take it up with her.”

 

Tetsu Sensei continued as if no one had spoken.  “Shining Crystal will monitor communications,” he declared as his hand swept the room in a grand gesture, “but you will all follow MY tactical commands!  Obey, and not only will you live to see another day, but victory is certain.  Fail to comply with my directives, and your doom is assured!”  He grabbed the side of his cape and twirled it about himself, causing it to billow dramatically as he spun on his heel and strode purposefully out of the room.

 

No one followed.  Once the door closed, Supa Fly observed, “That cat seriously needs to mellow out!”

 

Crystal shrugged helplessly.  She stepped over to the door, opened it, and held it for everyone.  “Well, let’s go rescue Perilous Penelope!”

 

Jenny took off like a shot, zipping through the doorway and down the hall at highway speeds.  Thunder Dragon launched himself from the wall, landing in front of Crystal.  He paused a moment to look up at her, smiled a predatory grin, then continued out into the hall.  Everyone else left in an orderly fashion.  

 

Harm hung back to lean over to Crystal as he passed.  “23581321?  Fibonacci numbers?”

 

“Shh!” she urged, huddling in conspiratorially.

 

“A closet nerd,” he chuckled, “I should have known.”  He walked off, still laughing softly.

 

Crystal made a sour face at his back.  As she stepped out and shut the door behind her, a sudden gust of wind ruffled her hair, and the overhead lights dimmed.  Crystal whirled around in panic, only to find Jenny looming over her, a silly grin on her face.

 

“Grr!”  Crystal waved her hand at Jenny as if shooing a fly.  “I think I’ve been through enough already without you sneaking up on me!”

 

“That’s what I wanted to ask about.  Are you going to be OK?”  The smile vanished, and was replaced by concern.

 

“Yeah,” Crystal said quietly.  Then, she looked hard into her friend’s eyes and repeated more forcefully, “Yeah, I will!  I’m a little rattled, but I’ll work through it.  If that jerk takes a swipe at me again, he’ll have to punch through the ice first.  Thunder Dragon creeps me out, but at least he’s cooperative.”

 

“So far.”

 

“Come on!  Don’t put thoughts like that into your head!  Or mine, for that matter!”  Crystal shuddered.

 

“What about the bi-”

 

“Bellona,” Crystal corrected, shooting a warning glare at Jenny.  “I’m still not sure about her.  We started off well enough, but now she’s being snarky.  Funny stuff!  And speaking of funny stuff, what did you say to Tetsu Sensei while I was iced up?”

 

“Oh, nothing,” Jenny sang.  “Just a little something for him to think about, next time he gets the itch to throw his weight around.  Such as it is,” she finished coyly.

 

Crystal frowned, and started walking through the hallways towards the exit.  “Supa Fly and StarDust are still x-factors, too.  I can’t fathom why a registered hero would dress and act like a stereotypical 70s pimp, and I don’t know anything about StarDust except he’s in the Legion, a Blaster, and very quiet.”  She looked up at Jenny.  “I’m so glad you’re here.  I know I can count on you.”

 

Jenny looked down, then bent over, took Crystal’s hand, and raised it over her head in a victory salute.  “Redheads rule!” she crowed.

 

“And their shoulders hurt, too!” Crystal complained.  “Don’t forget you’re super-strong, and I’m not!”

 

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten.  I just need to borrow your hand for a little while longer.”  Jenny shook Crystal’s hand back and forth, forcing her to wave a greeting.  “Hey, Fallenz!” she shouted.

 

Crystal looked in the direction Jenny shouted, then froze.  Down one hallway at a Vanguard terminal stood Fallenz.  He looked over at the pair.  “Hey, Firefox!  Yo, Shining!”  He left the terminal and started walking over.

 

“Not now!” Crystal hissed through clenched teeth and a nervous smile.

 

Jenny adopted a matronly tone to her voice.  “Now, dear, don’t dawdle after school talking to the boys.  You know you have a lot of work to do.”

 

Crystal turned to face Jenny and narrowed her eyes to slits.  She yanked her hand free from Jenny’s grasp.  “I’ll get you for this, if I can ever bring myself to do something mean to you!”

 

Jenny giggled mischievously.  “Well, I’ll let you two have some privacy!”

 

As Crystal’s face turned red, she made another shooing gesture at Jenny.  “Why don’t you go do something REALLY useful, like keeping the monkeys from killing each other before I get there!”

 

“No promises,” replied Jenny as she folded her ears back and scowled.  “There’s a Japanese shrimp who needs to be battered and deep fried!”  She punctuated the declaration by smacking her fist into her palm.  After receiving an appropriately disapproving look from Crystal, she turned away and sprinted off towards the exit.

 

Boot steps moved up to Crystal’s back.  She could feel the warmth of someone standing right behind her.  A smooth, deep voice greeted her with, “Hey there, Ms. Paragon.”

 

Crystal turned around.  “Semifinal-aaa!”  She was interrupted mid-correction by Fallenz’ arms encircling her and pressing her to his chest.  Her face was smushed up against his blue and white Impervium chest plate.  “Ow,” she complained, “your armor’s uncomfortable.”

 

Fallenz seized her by the shoulders and gently pulled her away.  He looked down, his glowing blue eyes widening to simulate surprise.  “Trying to get me out of my clothes already?  You move fast, girl!”

 

Crystal turned two more shades of red.  She worked her mouth, but could only manage a strangled sound.  Her head shook back and forth for a few moments before she regained control of her voice and screeched, “NO!”  She jerked her shoulders free and took off, covering her face with her hands.

 

Laughing, Fallenz pursued her.  As Crystal passed near a section of wall, he stepped in front of her and stuck a muscular arm out, blocking her path.  The other arm also shot out to the wall, trapping Crystal.  In response, she turned to face the wall, forcing Fallenz to look at her hair instead of her face.  “Come on,” he teased, “you make it too easy!  Tanks are supposed to be able to take anything!”  Without turning around or taking her hands from her face, Crystal threatened Fallenz with her right elbow.  “All right, that’s enough,” he said, more seriously.  “No more innuendo, I promise.”  He took her by the shoulders again.  “I’m not talking to your hair, no matter how gorgeous it is.  Turn around, Shining.”

 

She almost had to be manually turned to face Fallenz.  Crystal finally looked up at her tormentor and pried her hands away from her face.  It had not yet drained of color, and her profound embarrassment was still obvious.  In a voice that was less furious than it could have been, she blasted, “I can’t believe you said that to me!  In public, no less!  Take off your face guard so I can slap you!”

 

Fallenz’ shaved head made it easy for him to slip his protective goggles off his forehead.  He removed his blue and white faceplate as well, revealing a strong nose and chin.  Thick lips curled into a mischievous smile.  His skin was the same shade as the ice cream Crystal ate earlier.  Close fitting armor in blue and white covered a wide chest, broad shoulders, and strong legs.  As with his chest, his forearms were heavily protected with blue and white Impervium armor.  High-tech articulated wings were mounted onto his back, and he wore boot jets.  A tactical harness girded his waist; the goggles and face guard were added to the Talsorian energy sword that already hung there.

 

Crystal brought up her right hand.  Her fingers curled and uncurled as she struggled with the decision to hit Fallenz.  After a moment, she lowered her hand again.  Fallenz’ smile never wavered.  “I knew it: an empty threat.”  Crystal folded her arms and glowered at him.  He shook his head, then continued, “Anyways, it’s good to see you again.  You haven’t been to the war zone for a long time.”

 

“I’ve been busy with other things.”  Her fierce expression began to soften.  “Finals are approaching.”

 

Fallenz frowned briefly.  “Be glad you can do that.”  More pleasantly, he added, “Doesn’t seem to be too hard on you.  You still look good.”

 

“Thanks.”  Crystal dropped her face at the compliment, then rolled her eyes up to look at Fallenz again as she continued, “Must be the new diet I’m on.”

 

“Yeah?  What diet?”

 

“It’s a small change of habits,” Crystal deadpanned.  “I stopped eating knuckle sandwiches.”

 

Laughter exploded from Fallenz’ mouth.  Crystal smiled.  Still laughing, Fallenz observed, “Looks like you’ve been cheating on your diet!”  He pointed to the blood in Crystal’s hair.  “That yours, or someone else’s?”

 

She pulled the offending strands free from the main body of hair and looked at them ruefully.  “Mine.  I had a…misunderstanding with one of the destined ones.”

 

The transition was instantaneous; Fallenz’ facial expression went from mirthful to murderous.  He growled, “Misunderstanding, huh?  What’s the [censored]’s name?”

 

Crystal pleaded, “No!  Fallenz, no!  He’s on my team-”

 

“Should make the [censored] easy to find…” He swiveled his head around, trying to locate the object of his wrath.

 

Crystal planted her hands on both sides of Fallenz’ face and literally dragged his attention back to her.  “Let it go!  I’ve already told him off, he’s on my team, and we haven’t even started the mission yet.  I need him alive and intact!”

 

She felt Fallenz’ jaw muscles work furiously. “Need?” he snorted.  “You’re far too tolerant of these VILLAIN SCUM!”  Several deadly looks were sent his way.  Fallenz returned them with equal gusto.

 

“Drop it!” Crystal barked.

 

Fallenz glared at her.  “There’s no excuse for hitting you, and no reason for YOU to defend HIM!”

 

Crystal met and returned the glare.  She shouted, “Yes, it was totally undeserved, but the mission comes first!  I’ll be taking a lot of hits FOR the team, and I can take ONE hit FROM the team!”

 

They stared angrily at each other for a long moment.  Finally, Fallenz grumbled, “Oh, have it your way!  If it happens again--”

 

“You’ll have to get in line.  Firefox is backing me up,” Crystal informed him, “and if there’s a repeat performance, the only thing that’ll make it to the Zig is a few scraps of cape and a small pile of ash!”

 

The news placated Fallenz.  He grimly announced, “Works for me.”

 

“Fine.”

 

“So,” Fallenz non-sequitered, “this mission… what’s going on?”

 

“It’s a rescue mission, and everyone else has a massive head start.  I gotta go now!”

 

“I’ll walk you out, and you can tell me about it.”  Fallenz offered his left elbow.

 

One of Crystal’s eyebrows raised.  She quipped, “Still flirting with me?”

 

“Still.  Don’t leave me hanging, Shining,” he finished, flapping his elbow.

 

Crystal rolled her eyes, but took his arm anyway.  They began the walk to the exit portal.  She whispered, “You know you can use my real name, Fallenz.”

 

“Bad habit to get into.  Tell me more about your mission.”

 

“Well, I got called in from the city to lead a team on a rescue mission.  I met with Lady Grey, she told me what’s happening, and she put me in charge.  Apparently, the Rikti kidnapped Penelope Yin, and want to use her psychic powers to restabilize the portal to the Rikti home world.”

 

“Restabilize?”

 

“That’s what Lady Grey said.  She mentioned that Vanguard had destabilized the portal, and Hro'Dtohz thought he could fix it by using human psychics.”

 

“So they nabbed Perilous Penelope to do it?  I bet the portal has already blown up.”

 

“From your lips to God’s ears!  But we still have to go get her back.”

 

“Of course, it’s just that…” Fallenz fell silent.

 

I’ve heard that silence before!  Crystal looked over at him and asked, “What is it?”

 

“Not here,” he replied.

 

“Fallenz!” Crystal scolded.

 

“Not here,” Fallenz repeated, emphasizing the last word.  With his free hand he pointed to his lips, an ear, and then the ceiling.

 

Crystal rolled here eyes again.  More secrets!  

 

The two walked in silence for another few steps until they nearly collided with a hunched, shambling man clad in poorly cured animal skins and a stench that defied description.  Wild eyes peered out from under thick brows.  His head darted to Crystal and surveyed her with unsteady motions.  Rotten teeth showed through his large, unkempt beard as he smiled.  His hideous teeth showed more prominently when he pulled himself erect, pounded on his chest, and thundered, “FLOG DRAG SHINING CRYSTAL BACK TO CAVE!”

 

Crystal’s nose wrinkled reflexively as his fetid breath filled her personal space.  She took a half step backwards.  “Uhh…”

 

Fallenz interposed himself, spreading his wings as a screen to further obscure Crystal from Flog’s view.  “Hey, Flog, buddy,” he said in a placating tone, “I, uh, hear the Rikti have…some mastodons in their caves.  Yeah, they’ve been breeding them down in the deepest caves.  I think they’re just about grown and ready to eat.”

 

Flog’s brow tilted as he considered what he heard.  He grunted, “Food!”

 

“Yeah,” Fallenz continued, “I heard a bunch of Rikti talking about how they were going to a mastodon feast.  Said they weren’t going to share with anyone.”

 

Flog panted, fouling the air further.

 

“But I’m sure they’d let you in if you could…find the invitation.  Yeah, I’ll bet there’s a whole bunch of Rikti with invitations.  Just go smash them, take theirs, and they’d let you eat as much as you want.”

 

“FLOG SMASH RIKTI!”  He beat his chest once again.

 

“That’s right, Flog smash Rikti!”  Fallenz pointed to the exit portal.  “They’re out there, Flog!  Go smash!  Take their invitations!”

 

He rocketed off, repeatedly screaming, “FLOG SMASH!”  The din cut off only when he entered the portal.

 

Fallenz unhooked his face guard from his belt and re-covered his mouth, nose and ears.  “I should never have taken this off,” he grouched.

 

Crystal levitated a few inches off the ground, just enough to put her mouth at Fallenz’ ear.  “My hero,” she whispered.  “Thanks for the save.”

 

The wings accordioned back in place.  Fallenz turned around and boasted, “Too easy!”  A brief pause later, he added, “‘So easy, a caveman can do it!’”

 

Horrified, Crystal shouted, “Oh, Fallenz!”  She flew up to the ceiling and looked down on him.

 

Laughing, Fallenz pleaded, “Come on!  It was right there!  How could anyone resist?”

 

“You might have tried harder!” Crystal primly replied, folding her arms.

 

Fallenz waved her down, still chuckling.  “No time for that.  You have a mission, and I…never mind.”

 

Crystal dropped low enough to look Fallenz evenly in the eye.  “There you go again!  Well, I’m tired of waiting for explanations!”  She dashed off for the security portal, leaving Fallenz in her dust.  Crystal flipped over in air and planted her feet onto the swirling green portal.  The world dissolved, then reformed into the exterior checkpoint.  Crystal spun around to find the exit, hopped out of the pit, and waited for Fallenz to materialize.  He was only a few seconds behind her; as Fallenz exited the checkpoint, he spread his wings, ignited the boot jets, and flew up to the top of the building.  Crystal soared into the air and joined him.

 

The roof consisted of a helipad and four bunkers.  Fallenz stepped behind one of the bunkers and motioned for Crystal to follow him.  When she had joined him, Fallenz pointed to her phone, then at his own ear.  He held his index finger straight, then made a twisting motion as he pushed the finger against his ear.  Crystal caught his meaning; she pulled the earpieces out of her phone’s carrying case.  She fought with her orange mane to completely uncover one ear, inserted the earpiece, then repeated the process with the other ear.  Once complete, her phone beeped as Fallenz made a private call.  Crystal tapped a button to accept.  Through the tiny earpieces, she heard, “You read me, Shining?”

 

“I hear you, Fallenz.  Those are cool boots and wings!”

 

“Thanks, Shining.  I know they’re completely redundant, but I like the look.  It’s important to look good on the job, and, like the song says, ‘Every girl crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man!’”

 

Crystal cocked her head to one side.  “What song is that?”  Fallenz just shook his head.

 

“You gonna tell me why you clammed up down there?” Crystal prodded.  “I don’t have the conspiratorial mindset, so you’d better make things clear to me.”

 

“Don’t worry,” he assured her, “I’ll make things Crystal clear.”

 

“Good.  So, what’s… did you just make another bad joke?”

 

“No,” he lied.  “I was thinking about how you were called, and how it reminded me of something I got involved with.

 

“Not long ago, the Dark Watcher tapped me to help bring in a Nemesis defector.  He didn’t make it, but I hear whatever he had to say made it back.  Since then, I haven’t heard of any follow-up missions, the piece of intel vanished, and the only thing DW’s had me do since then is sewer crawls.

 

Fallenz folded his arms across his chest.  “It’s strange that someone from Nemesis wanted to defect to Vanguard.  Longbow, the Freedom Phalanx, or anyone else I could understand, but not Vanguard.  Nemesis is outside their scope of operations.  It’s also strange that the Watcher would give me busywork instead of following up on this.  Either he’s covering something up, or, more likely, Vanguard got something really hot, and they’re trying to decide what to do with it.

 

“You met with The Lady Grey herself, the Watcher is her right hand, and you were only told to go rescue someone.  Something else is going on.”

 

Crystal pondered what Fallenz had said.  “So Vanguard knows more than they told me.  I’m not surprised; unlike nearly everyone we work with in the city, they run under that stupid ‘need-to-know’ philosophy.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t like working with them.  But that’s not useful information.  I’m grateful for the warning, but if you don’t know how it applies to the task at hand, I can’t do anything with it.”

 

Fallenz took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “OK, how about this; I think your rescue mission is part of something larger.  Go rescue Penelope, but keep your team together after it’s over.  When the other shoe drops, you’ll want them close by.

 

“Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can find out about that Nemesis guy and what he had to say.”  Fallenz broke eye contact with Crystal, and his gaze became evasive.  “Don’t tell anyone,” he continued quietly, “and I mean ANYONE, but…the Dark Watcher and I have…a connection.  I don’t know how good it is, and I haven’t used it yet, but if it works I’ll have access to everything he knows.  If there’s been any follow-up, I’ll know about it.  If there’s going to be any follow-up, I’ll be part of it.  As soon as I know what’s up, I’ll tell you.  That way, you’ll be better prepared for whatever happens next.”

 

Crystal nodded gravely.  She took Fallenz’ hand in hers and gave it a squeeze.  “Thanks, Fallenz.  I appreciate your concern, and your support.  But don’t go crazy trying to figure out the mystery on my account.  You can’t call it a victory if you don’t come back.”

 

Fallenz’ eyes locked onto Crystal’s.  He brought up his free hand and cradled the side of her face.  Her eyes widened slightly, and her pulse quickened.  “This… is a little less flirty than usual,” she opined breathlessly.

 

He held her for a few more heartbeats, seemingly oblivious to her comment.  Finally, he intoned, “I’d tell you to take care of yourself, but I know what your job is.  Don’t hold back, Crystal.  Do whatever you have to do to finish the job and make it back alive.”  With that, he released her face, squeezed her hand, and turned to go.

 

Crystal swallowed hard.  “Fallenz?”

 

He turned back to face her.  Crystal continued, “You’ve done so much already, but… there’s one more thing I’d like to ask of you.”

 

He nodded.  “Name it.”

 

“If things work out, and you get to follow your hunch, find Flog and take him with you.”

 

Fallenz stared at her for a second, silent and unmoving.  The skin around his eyes wrinkled, and then he exploded in laughter.  The laughter died quickly once he saw the look on Crystal’s face.  Incredulous, he accused, “Aww, no way!  You’re serious!”

 

“Yeah, I am.  I’m grateful for what you did for me, but you sent him on a wild goose chase inside a war zone.  That’s not right.”

 

His voice took a hard edge.  “So there’s one less villain stinking up the planet.  Big deal.”

 

“Suppose he figures out he’s been tricked?  What’s the first thing he’s going to do?  You think he understands the concept of a cease-fire?  Even if you beat him, this place is a powder keg, and one brawl could ignite a firestorm that sends the whole zone straight into Rikti hands.

 

“Or worse, suppose he finds something he THINKS is an invitation to a secret mastodon feast deep in the Rikti tunnels?  If he goes down there, he’s not coming back!  You say you’re cool with that, but I’m not.  I didn’t send him out there, but you did on my behalf, and I couldn’t live with that knowledge.”

 

Fallenz’ shoulders and head sagged.  “Do you ever bend?  You’ll be the death of me, woman!”

 

“Don’t say that, Fallenz!” she shrieked.

 

“Sorry.”  He straightened up and pointed to his face guard.  “I’m smiling under here.  I’ll set things straight with Flog, but--” he jabbed a finger at Crystal “--I am NOT taking him with me!”

 

“Fine.  So long as he’s not chasing his tail anymore.”

 

Fallenz shook his head.  “You’d better go now.  Good luck, Shining Crystal!”

 

“Stay safe, Fallenz!”  Fallenz hopped over the railing.  His wings unfolded, slowing his descent so he landed in a crouch instead of a pile.  Once they retracted, he looked back up at the roof of the checkpoint where Crystal stood.  He winked at her, then ducked inside.

 

Somebody needs a cold shower.  Too bad they don’t work on me anymore!  Crystal thumbed her phone back to the team channel.  “Shining Crystal to team.  Sorry I’m late, I got some last minute intel.  I’m on my way now.”  She launched herself into the air.
 

All hail the mighty Grog! 

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Defining Moments - Chapter 6

 

There was never any quiet in the war zone.  The Vanguard base roared day and night with the sound of the war machine.  Automated gun turrets and missile launchers blasted the perimeter, scouring the surrounding ground free of Rikti and other troublemakers who wandered too close.  Tanks, tracked artillery, and armored personnel carriers rumbled in and out; usually they returned making more noise than when they had left.  On the base grounds, mechanics swarmed over damaged vehicles.  They cut and ground away at mangled metal, and their pneumatic tools filled the air with a constant screeching sound.  The helipad on top of the exterior checkpoint acted as a sounding board for the helicopters that used it.  On top of it all, the base itself backed up against one of the War Walls, a massive structure that was the city’s best means of containing the villains that plagued its existence.  In the war zone, it acted to reflect all the sounds of the base, thereby amplifying the cacophony.  It was widely believed that Vanguard combat troops suffered from hearing loss more than any other form of injury.

 

Crystal’s earpieces did a decent job of blocking out external noise, but even they had their limits.  She flew straight up until the noise dropped to a tolerable fraction of what it was at ground level.  Once surrounded by relative peace and quiet, she rolled over onto her back and closed her eyes.  She breathed deeply as she basked in the noon sunlight, trying to reach a tranquil place in her mind.

 

Lord, You already know what we’re trying to do here.  May our actions find favor in Your sight.  Watch over us and protect us as we try to rescue Penelope Yin.  Bring us, and her, back safe and sound.  All this I ask in the name of Your Son.  Amen.

 

The prayer did something to relieve the tight sensation in the pit of her stomach.  Still on her back, Crystal pulled her cell phone off her belt and thumbed through the available files.  The briefing from Lady Grey was in there, but that wasn’t what she wanted.  The file directory expanded until she reached the folder labeled “Evidence”.  Inside, Crystal selected the list of audio recordings.  Some had a date, time, and location attached to them.  The lion’s share, however, had titles that would have raised a few eyebrows in the PPD.  Crystal perused the selection, then selected a recording and hit play.  The sound of Johann Strauss Jr.’s At The Beautiful Blue Danube filled her ears.  She smiled, breathing deeply as the music washed over her, freeing her from the last of her fear and tension.

 

After the fiasco with supergroup mission computers, the city government instead decided to subsidize the purchase of cell phones for registered heroes.  The direct result was an explosive increase in the sale of the most advanced cell phones and PDAs available on the market.  The city also saw a boom in technologies and services that could only be fully utilized by the most advanced communication gear.  It was a great boon to the heroes’ work, but, technically, the phones were city property, and therefore only to be used for official hero business.  Given the loose controls on the heroes themselves, abuses were common.  Even the normally scrupulously-rule-abiding Crystal had filled her phone’s memory with her favorite songs in violation of the city’s decrees regarding acceptable use.  She justified it as “preparatory tools”; the music helped her get into the necessary frame of mind to put herself in harm’s way.

 

The phone wasn’t totally hacked, though.  As Crystal listened to the waltz, she called up the zone map.  Roughly L-shaped, the war zone was marked off into zones of varying hazard levels.  That data was useless here; while most sectors of the city were static enough for this system to be applicable, the war zone was in a constant state of flux.  More in line with the situation at hand, Crystal commanded the map to display the location of her team.  Sure enough, there were seven icons standing next to the red star showing Vanguard’s best guess of Penelope Yin’s location.  Crystal’s brow furrowed in embarrassment as she pictured the team standing around waiting impatiently for their leader to arrive.  She quickly set the mission location as her target, switched the display screen to GPS tracking and compass, flipped over onto her belly, and took off.

 

The first leg of her journey took Crystal west along the war wall.  Vanguard did an admirable job of policing this section of the zone; the intact buildings were a testament to their success.  She looked down on the scene and watched the armored columns roll through the streets.  Here and there, they paused to blast at the few aliens that managed to enter this sector.  Vanguard infantry were also on patrol for Rikti infiltrators.  Their firefights were less brief but no less deadly than those of the vehicles, and the report of plasma weapons competed with the chatter and boom of Vanguard small arms.  It looked as if humanity was winning, but Crystal knew better.  Her stomach knotted in anticipation of the next section of her flight.

 

Called ‘The Thin Red Line’, the name for the walls that delineated the human-controlled sector was doubly appropriate.  Not only had they been painted a dull red color, the combat there never ceased, and the walls and surrounding ground were continually washed in blood.  The massive armored gate through which the Vanguard vehicles passed was a prime target of the attacking Rikti.  Even from her height, Crystal saw the flash of explosions and cannon fire.  Aliens and humans clashed at the foot of the walls while cannon and rocket turrets unleashed salvo after salvo into the fray.  She saw a Rikti Chief Soldier cut down a Vanguard sergeant, only to be hit with multiple incendiary missiles, cooking him inside his own armor.  In another spot, a firing squad of Vanguard infantry made short work of a trio of Rikti, but were in turn held motionless and dispatched by a Mentalist who joined the fight.  Headman Gunmen teleported behind the line of bunkers and turrets and, at the cost of their own bodies, drew their fire and gave their comrades a chance to fight the humans without suffering from constant bombardment.  Extremes of gallantry and savagery were the norm, carnage ruled, and the tragic scene played day and night without ceasing.

 

I don’t know which is worse; watching them try to kill each other with such enthusiasm, or knowing that when each soldier falls, they’ll just be recalled, healed, and come back to do it all over again.  The mediport system was supposed to be a benefit, yet all it does here is allow the bloodshed to continue indefinitely!  Crystal swallowed her feelings of disgust and helplessness and sped up, desperate to pass the scene from both sense and memory.

 

Her next waypoint was the massive firebase at the southern end of the scar created where the Rikti mother ship crashed.  Since the end of the first Rikti War, the ship had been a festering wound in the side of Paragon City, and had erupted anew when the Rikti returned.  Today, the ship wasn’t her concern, nor the broken ground that stretched off into the hazy distance.  The mission waypoint was west-northwest of the firebase, and all Crystal wanted from it was to fly over and re-orient herself.  Extending high into the air, the central spire of the firebase carried a huge radar dish.  This was one of few stations that were positioned to monitor Rikti aerial movements in the zone, and, as such, drew as much attention as the vehicle gate at The Thin Red Line.  The din of combat once again assaulted Crystal’s ears; the rattle of rifle fire, the deeper boom of cannons, the hiss and crackle of plasma weapons.  Figures in gray and purple crawled over the exterior of the firebase, locked in mortal combat with Rikti warriors.  The waltz gave no comfort as she again watched the two sides maul each other with no respite.  

 

Crystal rolled onto her back to gain a measure of isolation from the brutal truth of life in the war zone.  She brought her phone up again and used it to shield her eyes from the sun.  Though Crystal could no longer see where she was going, it was an easy trick to navigate while on her back; her cell phone’s display showed the bearing to the mission.  Her loose-fitting shirt flapped in the breeze as she slowly banked to her left until the nav marker lined up with the center of her compass.  Now aligned on the proper course, she let her head fall back and felt the wind in her hair.  It was time to put the game face on.

 

She took a deep breath, and let it our slowly.  Penelope Yin, back home with her father; I’m gonna make it happen.  Crystal breathed deeply again.  All eight of us walking back into the Vanguard base; I’m gonna make it happen.  The ritual continued as she thought of her desires and how they would come to pass.  Rikti plasma blasts bouncing harmlessly off the ice; I’m gonna make it happen.  I’m back in my apartment, unscathed, dancing to the waltz; I’m gonna make it happen.  She smiled, her face beaming to match the sun.  I wonder if Fallenz knows how to waltz?

 

Something whizzed past her head with the sound of angry hornets.  Crystal’s eyes shot open in horror, and she jammed her phone into a pocket right before she was hit in the back of her left knee.  Her leg felt like it was being held over the mouth of a blast furnace.  Crystal screamed.  The shock of the injury overwhelmed her, and she tumbled from the sky.  End over end she flipped.  Her hair whipped around her head and into her face, nearly blinding her.  She heard the familiar whir of Ritki drones as she fell through them.  A brief glimpse through her flying hair confirmed what her ears told her.

 

Her eyes teared up from the agony.  Clutching at her thigh, he pushed her hands down her leg to check the injury.  The wound was so painful she could only tell its condition from her fingers.  Just above the knee she could no longer feel her jeans.  The flesh on the back of her thigh was also gone, and her fingers felt slick as she worked them around the wound.  Crystal stopped probing and dragged her hands along her pants; she didn’t want to know any more about her injury.

 

I can’t feel my foot!

 

As she twisted and fell, her hair parted long enough for her to see the ground rushing up fast.

 

Fight it!  There’s no injury so bad that a little ice can’t fix it!

 

The drones dove on her and resumed firing.  Explosions blossomed on the ground.

 

Gotta break free from the pain!  Doesn’t matter if I die by “zap” or “splat”, I’ll still be dead!  Push through it!

 

She could make out details of the craters in the road.  Penny needs me!

 

Frost formed on her hands and spread down her leg.  My team needs me!

 

Ice quickly filled the ruin of her knee.  The pain dwindled, then left.  Now better in control of herself, she formed a thick coat around the knee and over the leg, effectively immobilizing it to give it a chance to heal.

 

GO!

 

Crystal flipped over, face first into the rushing wind.  Her hair cleared out of her vision.  The road looked near enough to touch.  She arched her back and threw her hands over her head, pulling up less than a foot before impact.

 

There was no time for even a sigh of relief; Crystal was pelted with molten asphalt and chips of concrete as the drones continued their merciless barrage.  She flew as fast as she could, blindly dodging and rolling to throw off the drones’ aim.  Too close to the ground to maneuver effectively, she didn’t dare trade speed for altitude, nor could she spare any more concentration to ice up.  The waltz became a mockery as she desperately flopped around, dragging her frozen leg behind her like an anchor as the drones bracketed her with plasma fire.

 

Crystal did a corkscrew to look up and count their numbers.  More than enough!  Returning to her stomach, she saw that in the brief moment she’d taken her eyes off the road, a squad of Rikti infantry had moved into her path.  Squeaking in surprise, she threw herself to her left, trusting that the dead weight of her frozen leg would help change her course.  The turn was sharp enough; the drones vaporized a section of the road where she would have been had she continued on her former heading.

 

Now a shell of a building lay in her path.  Crystal ducked through a hole in one wall, and immediately saw her mistake.  The building was open to the sky, and the rest of the walls were free from major damage, extending up to the second story.  There were no other exit holes.  It would take too long to fly over the walls, and turning around would be suicide.  The drones swarmed over the opening; in the confined space there would be no dodging their deadly salvo.  Barely slowing down, Crystal hauled her right fist back and pushed the energy beyond safe limits.  She picked a likely spot in the opposite wall, jetted towards it, and hammered the wall with all her might.

 

Bricks and masonry exploded out into the street.  Crystal felt something break in her hand, but gritted her teeth and shot through the hole without pause.  The rest of the wall followed as the drones raked it with a withering fusillade.  Sections of the wall crashed into Crystal’s head and back, but her unusually long hair provided enough protection to ward off major damage.  She fishtailed to the right, her frozen leg throwing her off balance.  Plasma fire punched more holes in the road as Crystal gracelessly crashed into the building across the street.  She clawed and pushed at the masonry like a trapped animal, finding just enough leverage, and launched herself off the wall a heartbeat before it was demolished.  

 

Crystal saw an open road ahead.  She glimpsed up to the War Wall and saw she was near her destination, but couldn’t be any more precise than that.  She screamed, “Shining Crystal to team!  I need help finding you all!  Someone fire up into the air!”

 

“Just use your compass,” Harm replied coolly.

 

“No time!” Crystal shouted.  Her blood thundered in her ears, matching the thunderous noise of the exploding road.  “I’m coming in hot!”  Anticipating the next response, she yelled, “I’m wounded, and can’t ice up!  Just fire!”  

 

A fireball soared over the buildings down the road and to Crystal’s right.  “I see you!  I’m three hundred yards away, and I’ll be coming in from the… southeast!”

 

“We’ll come to you!” yelled Jenny.

 

Crystal thought feverishly.  “No!” she countermanded.  “If you’re safe, stay there!  I’ve got six to ten drones on my tail, and there’s no cover between you and me!  Get ready to ambush them when I arrive!  Look to the southeast!”  With that, she poured on as much speed as she had.

 

The seconds passed interminably slow.  Road streaked under her, a blur of gray and yellow.  Crystal kept on the far side of the street from her destination for a better view.  The decision proved wise; her target building was mostly intact, but just before it lay a burned out shell, forming a narrow alley.  Elated, she dashed for the gap.  Crystal reached out with her right hand and snagged the wall of the shell.  Her shoulder felt like it was on fire, and her frozen leg smacked into the building, but she turned the corner with lightning speed.  For the first time since she ran into the drones, she had cover from their fire.

 

If they’re stupid, they’ll follow me down the alley.  If they’re smart, they’ll go over the wall.  Either way, they probably won’t see my team until it’s too late!

 

Crystal shot through the gap, and was greeted by the sight of her team formed up into a firing line.  As she streaked over their heads, she pointed back at the gap and shouted, “There!  That way!  Blast ‘em!”

 

The drones arrived seconds later.  A pair of fiery explosions from Firefox and StarDust greeted them.  Harm let loose with a deafening howl that shook the drones apart.  An arrow sailed into the kill zone and detonated; what was left of the drones burst open, their electronics sizzling and arcing as pieces fell to the ground.  Almost as an afterthought, Bellona lobbed a fireball of her own into the mix, melting the shattered remains.

 

Everyone stood still, half gazing upon the hors d’ combat, and half listening for further trouble.  The echo of the battle faded, and still nothing moved.  Victory was theirs.  

 

Crystal dropped out of her hover and collapsed onto the ground, breathing hard.  “Thanks, everyone!” she gasped.  “That was close!”  She pulled her phone out of her pocket, shut off the music, and clipped it to the outside of her pants.  OK, no more music while in the war zone!

 

Supa Fly boasted, “We some bad mama-jamas!  Aww, yeah!”

 

“Says the man who did nothing,” carped Bellona quietly, but not too quiet for others to hear.

 

“We’re alive, and that’s what matters,” Crystal wearily announced from her back.  “And speaking of which: Supa Fly, do you have something to help me?  I got shot on the way in.”

 

“Yeah, baby, I got what you need,” he said as he strutted over.  He looked her up and down as she lay prone.  “Maybe you got something for me?”

 

In no mood for innuendo, Crystal testily exclaimed, “Listen, if you can’t help, just say so, and I’ll fix myself!”

 

Supa Fly frowned, then cast a yellow glow off his body.  Crystal felt a lot better; more energized, less numb, and even her sour attitude faded away.  She rolled over onto her right side and pushed herself upright.  A sharp pain in her hand reminded her of her narrow escape.  Crystal checked her right hand.  Nothing looked out of place, so she curled her fingers into a fist using her left hand, then covered the fist in ice, making a cast.  While she didn’t feel the cold, it still numbed the pain.  Ready as I’ll ever be.

 

Tetsu Sensei angrily strode over to her and glared up at her.  He jabbed one end of his longbow at her face.  “Your insufferable incompetence has already cost us time and the element of surprise!  Fail me again, and I will-”

 

Jenny screamed a battle cry, and fired into the shell.  Her blast punched through the flimsy wall and detonated inside.  A column of fire and debris rose high into the air.  All eyes except Jenny’s fixed on the horrific devastation. 

 

Harm swore, “[censored] [censored]!”

 

“What was that for?” asked Crystal, alarmed.  “Did you see something?”

 

“I heard a little monkey screaming,” she said evenly.  Her eyes locked with Tetsu Sensei’s.

 

“I hate those things,” Harm pronounced, missing the intent completely.

 

So did Crystal.  “Well, let’s get inside before anything else shows up.”  She turned to the door.

 

“Crystal!  Your leg!” Jenny wailed.  She pointed at the back of her left leg.  The fabric around her knee was gone.  The hole was ringed with an ugly mix of scorch marks and blood.

 

“Hmm?”  The ice cast on her leg fell off.  Crystal wiggled her toes; she could feel them again.  She looked down and twisted her leg off to the side.  Through the blasted jeans she saw her normal pale skin under a thick frost.  The leg looked good, but still felt tight.  The jeans, however...  “Ohh,” she groaned, “These were just getting comfortable!”

 

“Never mind the jeans!” Jenny shot back, appalled.  “What about your leg?”

 

“Oh, that.  I got shot in the back of the knee, but it’s OK now.  It’ll be stiff for a couple more minutes.  Good thing we’re not at a dance!” she joked.

 

Tetsu Sensei strode over to the mission door.  “Since you’re incapacitated, you will stay in the rear.  Try not to ruin things more than you have already!”  He grasped the doorknob.

 

“Hold it!” Crystal barked.

 

He whirled on her, his eyes blazing with a killing rage.  Before he could move or speak, Crystal formed a thick coating of ice over her body.  A second coating followed, and then a third, until she was encased in several inches of ice.  Frost formed on the ground around her as the temperature immediate to her body plunged well below zero.  She advanced steadily on him.  Tetsu Sensei held his ground until the bitterly cold field she generated was too much.  Grudgingly, he retreated.

 

Crystal stood in front of the door and calmly looked down at him.  “The heroes know this,” she lectured, “but for you destined ones, let me tell you: the Tanker ALWAYS goes first!”

With her left hand, Crystal seized the door and pulled it open.  She went to enter, then paused and leaned back out, looking at Harm.  “Oh, Harm?  Watch the blasphemy,” she advised in an even tone.  She pointed up.  “We want His favor on this mission.”  Crystal walked in, followed by StarDust, Thunder Dragon, and a seething Tetsu Sensei.

 

The door closed.  “I can’t believe it!” Harm announced in his synthesized voice.  “I was just scolded by my grandmother!”

 

“She for real?” asked Supa Fly, looking at Jenny.

 

She replied with a rueful grin, “All the time.”

 

“Great,” Bellona grumbled.  “Can she get any more goody-goody?”

 

“Just watch,” Jenny said, smiling at Bellona’s discomfort.  “Let’s go, before there’s nothing left for us to do.”  She bounded over to the door and entered.  The others followed, shaking their heads.

Edited by Grog the Big

All hail the mighty Grog! 

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Defining Moments - Chapter 7

 

The green glow from the portal backlit Fallenz as he rematerialized inside the Vanguard base.  He took a moment to reorient himself, and then hopped out of the pit.  Rocket boots clunked on the concrete floor; Fallenz shifted one foot back as he adjusted to the wings’ effect on his center of gravity.  They were still new, and he was used to countering their weight with outstretched arms and a sword.  It was a momentary weakness, and while he swore internally, none of the passing heroes or villains took note.  

 

Fallenz strode off.  Under the Impervium face guard, his mouth set into a grim line.  Thoughts whirled in his head as he tried to form a plan to convince the Dark Watcher to part with potentially classified information.  He surmised that, whatever the now-deceased Nemesis defector had to say, it directly affected Vanguard, and therefore involved alien aggressors.  How the Nemesis Army was involved, he couldn’t say, nor could he guess why a whole week had passed without any follow-up.  The rumor mill was a matter of life and death to heroes, and the war zone was no exception, but he’d heard nothing from anyone about tackling Nemesis.

 

Deep in thought, he passed through the traffic in a dream state.  Only the cold greeting of Borea brought his mind back to his surroundings.  “Fallenz.”

 

He stopped.  “Borea.”

 

They stared at each other in silence, unblinking, each locked into the classic contest of wills.  Without wavering, Borea inquired, “Losing your focus?  Vanguard duties not enough to occupy your mind?”

 

Despite the fact that Borea was a Champion of the Order of the Four Winds, Fallenz refused to back down, blink, or allow her to give him static.  “My mind is outside the authority of The Shield.  I’ve hacked my way through all the missions your sister gave me, and I’ve got nothing to prove to you.”  For emphasis, his hand drifted down to the Talsorian sword at his waist.  It was proof to anyone in the know that he’d collected a great many Vanguard merits for action against the Rikti.

 

Borea’s eyes narrowed fractionally.  “Then if you’ve found something more “worthwhile” to ponder, do it somewhere else.”

 

Fallenz loathed giving her even the illusion of victory, but he had business elsewhere.  Still staring, he turned to his left and walked away.  He didn’t go far; his first planned stop was just on the other side of the support column.  He turned the corner and walked up to Levantera, Borea’s sister.  Like Borea, she was also a Champion of the Order of the Four Winds.  There the similarity ended.  Borea had blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin.  Levantera had raven hair, dark skin, and violet eyes.  Levantera was also the more aggressive of the two, both in tactics and in personality.  Fallenz was not alone in wondering at the combination of genetics that could have produced two sisters who were so different from each other.

 

She was giving an assignment to something that looked like a robot.  Once finished with the mission details, she dismissed the thing, which promptly flew off towards the security portal.  Fallenz walked right up to her and leaned against the wall but did not turn to face her.  He said nothing, daring her to make the first move.

 

Ever on the offensive, Levantera cocked her head and looked up at Fallenz sideways.  With a smirk, she observed, “You leave here with a woman on your arm, and return alone a few minutes later.  Either something went very right, or it went very wrong.”

 

He smirked as well, the wrinkling of his eyes the only sign of his mirth beyond the face guard.  “Checking me out?  Not jealous, are you?”

 

“As if!” she shot back, not unkindly.  “So, what brings you back to see me?  You know I don’t have any more work for you.”

 

“I need a word with the big man, and I’d like some advice on how to get it.”

 

Levantera turned slightly.  Her mouth pursed for a moment as she considered the request.  “Depends on what you want,” she said finally.  “If you’re looking to tell him some bit of information, just go and do it.  If you’re looking to get something from him…I don’t know.  He’s the number two here; I work for him.  That’s not helpful, I know, but if you were more forthcoming about what you want…” She let the sentence fade.

 

Fallenz paused to consider his words.  “I’m looking to follow up on some work I did for him.  It feels like I’ve been cut out of the loop, and I’ll bet there’s more to be done.  I want in, or back in, depending.”

 

“If you’re looking for something to do, I’m sure he’s got plenty.”

 

“That’s the thing.  Everything he gave me after that one mission was sewer crawls.  I mean, someone’s got to do it, but the first one was big.  Real big.  Like, I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it-in-the-open big.  And since then, nothing.”  Fallenz turned to face Levantera.  “Now I hear about other high-level stuff going down.  I bet there’s a connection.”

 

Levantera’s face became a stern mask.  “You know how “need to know” works.  I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.”

 

Fallenz’ brow furrowed in frustration.  He felt like this was going nowhere.  “I know how it works.  But I started a line of investigation.  I already have the need.”

 

She thought a minute.  “Considering there’s a whole civilization trying to wipe us out, Vanguard has a lot to deal with, and only Lady Grey can keep track of it all.  Maybe you weren’t included on follow up because of an oversight.  It’s also possible the investigation required different talents to continue.  If you were deliberately taken off whatever you were working on, you’re out of luck.  Either way, just remind the Dark Watcher what you’ve done already, and maybe he’ll include you in those “high-level operations” you’ve heard about.  In the end, it’s his decision.”

 

Quietly, Fallenz asked, “You think it might help if I told him about our…common membership?  You know which one.”

 

“I can’t imagine he doesn’t know already.”

 

“I’ll bet he doesn’t,” Fallenz replied.  “A lot of people have helped cover my tracks.  You know because you guessed right and I confirmed it, but unless you told your sister, even she doesn’t know.”

 

Levantera’s eyes widened.  “No, I didn’t mention it; I assumed the Order had its own plans concerning you, and they didn’t involve me, her, or him.”

 

“Need to know, right?”

 

“Exactly.  If that’s the case, maybe he doesn’t know either.  Telling him might get you what you need.  Then again, it might not.  He’s been through a lot, and has a very different perspective on things than we do.”  She shrugged.

 

Fallenz gave her a short bow.  “If there’s a chance it’ll help, then it’s worth it.  Thanks, Levantera.”  She nodded in reply as he turned and walked away.

 

The Dark Watcher was in Research and Development.  Tucked away at the rear of the base, the most visible part was an operating theater.  The aliens had proven to be frighteningly effective at manipulating human physiology to suit their needs, even converting one species to the other.  Vanguard scientists labored day and night over the bodies of defeated Rikti that their medical transporters hadn’t spirited away, seeking to either protect humans from transformation, or discover ways to return the favor to the invaders.  Underneath the theater lay the morgue, as well as several other rooms where alien technology was dismantled and analyzed.  Perversely, human science and technology benefited a great deal from the first Rikti War even as humanity itself suffered.  The aliens had not been idle during the intervening years, forcing Vanguard to continue to unlock the secrets of their technology.  The results of their investigations would even the tech difference between respective sides and give humanity a chance at ultimate victory.

 

As Fallenz approached, he witnessed the Dark Watcher discussing something with one of his subordinates.  The black, wide-brimmed hat and large sunglasses he wore made it impossible to see if he had glimpsed Fallenz, but as he approached, the Watcher dismissed the man and turned to face him.  He crossed his arms, partly covering the gray Impervium chest armor he wore under his signature black trench coat.  Black boots stuck out from under black pants.  His shadowy face showed evidence of a hard life; a pink scar creased his dark skin, and his thick lips were perpetually formed into a hard line.

 

Hidden eyes surveyed Fallenz.  “Fallenz.  Back for more?”

 

Fallenz stared into the sunglasses for a moment before replying.  His response contained a double meaning: “I’m finished with the sewers.”

 

“Good to hear it.  I knew you were up to the job.”

 

“Too easy.”  Fallenz decided to lead off strong.  “I came back to tell you about the winds.”

 

The Dark Watcher frowned.  “Not the time for a weather rep-”

 

“The south wind blows in life with the warmth and rain.  The north wind blows in death with the cold and ice.  The west wind is a wind of change.  The east wind is a wind of tranquility.  In the center we stand, surrounded by winds of death and life, peril and prosperity.  We seek balance in our spirit and for our world.  Four winds, one center.”  

 

The phrase was part of the fundamental teachings of the Order of the Four Winds.  Fallenz, who had been schooled in the Four Winds sword style, learned it as part of his earliest days of training by the monks.  Though they no longer had a temple to call home, the Order continued to scour the globe for those they thought worthy to learn their secrets and carry on their traditions.  Decades ago, the Order recruited Devon Wilcox, honed his innate abilities of teleportation, and turned him into the Dark Watcher.  Shortly after the first Rikti War, they recruited another resident of Paragon; a young man who had been the victim of Rikti experimentation, whose powers had been awaked by the trauma, and whose thirst for retribution would be tempered by the discipline of the sword.  His original name was buried and forgotten, but Fallenz would never forget where he came from, nor how the Order helped him become the man he was today, and he was betting everything that the Dark Watcher wouldn’t, either.

 

For a while, Fallenz thought the Dark Watcher hadn’t heard him.  He stood motionless, like an obsidian statue.  Fallenz held his stare into the sunglasses.  Behind his face guard, he exhaled noisily though his nose.  Every bit of reliable information indicated that the Dark Watcher was part of the Order.  But there was still a lot of confusion regarding his background.  If he’d gotten it wrong…

 

The Dark Watcher grunted quietly.  “Step into my office,” he commanded.  Without waiting for Fallenz to respond, he turned and walked off into one of the passageways at the back of the operating theater.  Fallenz followed closely, greatly relieved.

 

The passageway was much smaller than standard size.  It was barely tall enough for Fallenz to fit inside normally, let alone with his wings attached.  He had to crouch to enter.  The Dark Watcher walked inside and turned the corner.  Fallenz was close behind, but pulled up abruptly as he rounded the bend and found the Watcher standing there, gesturing.  In a voice thick with concentration, he incanted, “Om mani padme hung!”  A sphere of absolute darkness formed between his hands and spread rapidly.  It encompassed both men; Fallenz was so surprised he couldn’t dodge in time.

 

Complete darkness.  Complete silence.  Fallenz reached out to touch the walls of the narrow passageway; they weren’t there anymore.  Rather than panicking, instead he was disgusted by the Watcher’s tricks.  “That was cheap,” he groused.  “You could’ve said something first.”

 

“Welcome to my office: a pocket dimension.  Totally private.”  The voice came from everywhere.

 

“And totally lame.  Get some lights.”  Fallenz took the guard stance, grasped his Talsorian blade, and drew it.  He thumbed the on switch.  A bluish-white crescent shaped blade sprang into being from the hilt.  The light from the energy blade lit Fallenz, and also lit the Dark Watcher, who was standing in the same relative place as he had back in the normal world.  There was no trace of smugness on the Watcher’s face.  Whatever he was thinking, he wasn’t gloating over pulling Fallenz into another universe.

 

“So there’s four of us,” said the Watcher.

 

“Yup.  Borea still doesn’t know, but I hate talking to her, anyway.  Levantera guessed after watching me practice.  Now you’re in on it.”

 

The Watcher regarded him silently for a moment.  “Why tell me now?”

 

“My mind’s been on the Nemesis defector,” Fallenz answered.  “I hear whatever he wanted to tell Vanguard made it back, even though he didn’t.  I also know Lady Grey has formed a task force and is giving direct orders.  My guess is, the one is related to the other.

 

“I was part of the team to bring the Nemesis guy in.  You sent me down into the sewers afterwards.  I’m as happy as the next guy to crawl through stagnant water hunting hostile aliens, but I like to finish what I start.  I want to know what’s happened since that first mission, and I want to be a part of whatever happens next.”

 

“I know you, Fallenz.  I know what you can do.  You weren’t part of the next phase because Vanguard needed talk, not swordplay.  At least,” the Watcher added ruefully, “that was the plan.

 

“You were right: Captain Sherman had a hot tip for us.  He said Nemesis was responsible for starting the Rikti War.  Even provided us with co-ordinates of a Nemesis base in the Shadow Shard where the proof is located.  Problem is, we couldn’t get there with our portal technology, and if we modified it to make the trip, Longbow could block us with Portal Corp’s equipment.  We needed their cooperation.  I put a team together to re-open communication with Longbow.”  The Watcher frowned.  “Nemesis got to them before we could.  The team saved Captain Dietrich and secured her support.  They were too late for Lt. Tendaji.”

 

“What?”  Fallenz didn’t want to believe it.  “What’s “too late” mean?  Dead?”

 

A shadow spread down the Watcher’s face as he nodded.

 

“[censored]!”  Fallenz swore viciously.  He raised his sword to slash at the empty darkness.  His bio-armor thickened in response to his rage, providing additional protection for the impending fight.  But the target of his wrath was not here, and the sword would bring no peace or justice in this place.  While Fallenz didn’t feel any calmer, he managed to bring his sword down into guard position.  Breathing heavily, he fixed the Dark Watcher with a murderous stare, his eyes glowing more brightly from his emotional state. 

 

“I didn’t know you two were close.  I’m sorry.”

 

“I respected the man,” Fallenz growled.  “He was a great hero and a lot of help.  Even when I had to kick his [censored], he was cool.  We weren’t friends or nothing, but I liked him a lot.”

 

“Captain Dietrich felt the same.  When she saw his body, she immediately promised full cooperation.”  A grim smile came to the Watcher’s face.  “She also said something you might find interesting: ‘Sefu Tendaji’ means ‘the sword gets things done’.”

 

Fallenz held his right arm out straight.  He turned his wrist, presenting the energy blade to the Dark Watcher.  “I’ve got one right here.  Let’s get things done.  When’s this portal going to be ready?”

 

“About now.  Those Portal Corp technicians work fast.  It’s time to learn if Captain Sherman was telling the truth.  Guess I won’t have to ask if you’re in.”

 

Fallenz thumped the hilt of his Talsorian sword onto his Impervium chest plate.  “I’m in for the long haul.”

 

“Then it’s yours.  I recommend bringing some allies along.  This one could get difficult.”

 

“Don’t worry about it.  I’ve got at least a half-dozen heavy hitters on speed dial.”

 

“Right.  There may be more than one way to find the information you're looking for, so keep your eyes open.  All you will need is one solid piece of proof or evidence, but get more if you can find it.  Of course, with all that the Nemesis Army has done recently, you may want to take your time.  That's fine.  Just don't imperil the mission.”

 

“No sweat,” Fallenz said.  “I’ll get the proof, carve “Sefu Tendaji” into the walls of the base, and come back.”

 

The Dark Watcher nodded, and once again gestured and incanted.  The void collapsed into his hands and disappeared, leaving he and Fallenz standing in that small passageway.  “Once you put your team together, come back and see me,” he said.  “I’ll get your phone set up, and then you can go.”

 

“Better call your tech guys now; this won’t take long.”  Fallenz turned and stalked off, but abruptly turned back.  “You still haven’t said anything about Lady Grey’s task force,” he accused.

 

“Normally, I’d say it’s none of your business, but… we’ve destabilized the portal to the Rikti homeworld.  They’re trying to fix it.  We want to keep it broken.  So, to answer your original accusation, Lady Grey’s actions have nothing to do with mine.  Yet.”

 

Fallenz nodded, and said, “Fair enough.  Thanks.”  He left without further delay.

 

Once he reached a part of the base where he could get decent reception, Fallenz scrolled through his list of friendly heroes.  One name on the list reminded him of something else he had to do.  “Oh, [censored], I forgot about Flog!  [censored]!”  Fallenz sighed.  “Looks like I’ll be taking him with me, after all.  [censored] woman!”  In spite of his predicament, he smiled, and hit the name on his contact list.

 

The phone rang, but Fallenz wasn’t sure if it would pick up on the other end.  The first hero he thought to call was notoriously unreliable about carrying his phone.  To his immense surprise, he got a live human being.  “Yo, Grog!  You still working on that still? …Alembic, whatever.  You said you wanted Nemesis automatons for parts, and I have a mission to raid one of their bases in the Shadow Shard. …I’m in the war zone. …The RIKTI war zone! …Good.  Bring friends.  I’ll see you.”  He hung up and scrolled through his list again.

Edited by Grog the Big

All hail the mighty Grog! 

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  • 2 months later

Defining Moments - Chapter 7

 

At some point in the past, the walls would have been clean and painted. Rubble would not have littered the floor. The ceiling would have been intact. And, most likely, the hallways would have been filled with either Crey employees or superheroes. But the Rikti war zone remained contested territory ever since the first Rikti War, and, despite the fact that no expense was spared in constructing this facility, it had been neglected for years. Walls, floor, and ceiling were dusty, and tinted brown with the patina of age. The odd light fixture, miraculously still functional after all this time, had few of its own kind for company; the windowless hallways were, at best, dimly lit by the flickering remnants of the original lighting system. It would have been the perfect backdrop for a horror movie featuring murderous aliens. Sadly, this was not a movie; the aliens were all too real, and all too murderous.

 

Crystal and her companions gathered in a tight group on an elevated platform next to the door to the outside. Each took a moment to power up and prepare their protective abilities. Harm and Thunder Dragon were each covered in a field of crackling electricity. Jenny was shrouded in flames. StarDust had color-shifted his energy aura so that he now blended almost perfectly into the background. Bellona, Supa Fly, and Tetsu Sensei didn’t display any overt signs of defensive abilities. Crystal made a mental note to keep especially close watch over them.

 

“OK,” Crystal whispered through the ice, “does anyone have any powers that need to be used when the team’s grouped together?”

 

“I got something,” Supa Fly replied. He spread his arms as if he was rolling out a map on a tabletop. A yellow energy wave emanated from his body. It was slightly different than the one he’d used on Crystal earlier. The ache from her broken hand and blasted leg was unchanged, but her muscles twitched with the feeling of supercharged energy. It was like eating a choco-blitz after a moderate workout; wired and warmed up, yet not tired or tight. Crystal felt stronger and faster than normal. Despite the danger, she was now itching to try out this new feeling of power. She glanced at Jenny, and from the look on her face, Crystal could tell her friend felt the same way.

 

Tetsu Sensei intoned, “That will be very useful. How often can you do that?”

 

“Every few minutes. It’ll wear off soon, so we’d best boogie.”

 

“Then let it begin!” Tetsu Sensei commanded. He vaulted over the railing and landed on the floor without so much as a whisper. From under his billowing cape he produced an expensive-looking arrow. Before Crystal could yell any warnings or advice, he nocked it, pulled back, and loosed it down the hallway. Blinding light strobed in the hall and lit the team in its harsh glare. Crystal jumped down the ramp to see what he had been shooting at. A patrol of Rikti stumbled around, blinded by the flash. Tetsu Sensei raised his right hand, palm facing the aliens, fingers just over his head. Suddenly, access panels flew off their mountings, and the gratings covering the air vents were kicked away as ninjas poured from concealed hiding places and attacked. Unlike their movie counterparts, these ninjas attacked in silence, slicing, stabbing, and kicking with as little noise as their intended victims. Tetsu Sensei knotted his fingers together in a rapid sequence of gestures. A geyser of flame formed between him and the Rikti. It receded quickly to reveal a tall figure swathed in red robes and armor. It laughed a cruel laugh, then produced a flaming sword from thin air and strode forth to do battle.

 

Tetsu Sensei surveyed the carnage. Without turning to face Crystal, he announced to her, “They have no hope of survival!”

 

One of the ninjas was shot by a Headman Gunman. The gray-clad figure hurtled backwards from the force of the blast, a large smoking crater in his chest. “You’re right!” Crystal exclaimed. “The ninjas are going to get slaughtered!” She shouted over her shoulder, “Follow me in!” and charged into the fray. At full power, the glow from her hands was a strong light source, but when Crystal powered up underneath the ice, the glow was refracted and magnified many times over. The whole ice shell shone, illuminating the hallway in white light. Due to the angular texture of the ice, though, some parts shone brighter than others, and, as Crystal moved, those bright points shifted and made her whole body glitter and sparkle. Though the lightshow was not the primary reason she had been saddled with the “Shining Crystal” nickname, after witnessing it many thought it was.

 

The effect of the flash arrow had already worn off, and as Crystal vaulted over the heads of the aliens she grabbed their attention with the lightshow and freezing cold aura. She landed on the other side of the mob. She pointed at the Headman Gunman who shot the unfortunate ninja and shouted, “Hey, you! Cut that out!” Whether by hurting the aliens’ feelings or because she was a highly visible target, the whole group ignored the ninjas as they turned on her.

 

“What the [censored]? She scolds the Rikti instead of fighting?” squawked Bellona.

 

Jenny replied, “That’s what Tankers do, stupid! They take attention and damage away from us! Less [censored], more blasting!” She chucked a fireball into the middle of the mob.

 

In a repeat of the fight with the drones, StarDust followed up with a fireball of his own, and Harm unleashed an ear-splitting howl that rattled armor plates loose. Thunder Dragon screamed an inhuman battle cry and leapt into the mob. He selected a Chief Soldier as his target and hammered him onto the floor with a thunderous double overhand smash. Tetsu Sensei fired another arrow; this one exploded and drenched the Rikti in oil. Some of the aliens slipped and fell. Others moved more slowly, trying not to slip and fall themselves. His eyes narrowed to slits as he barked a command in Japanese. The red demon-warrior stepped back from the aliens and breathed a cone of flame on them. The oil ignited, and the Rikti thrashed about in agony. The other ninjas had the sense to move away before the fire came. Crystal was taken by surprise, and only the oil’s inability to stick to her ice prevented her from catching fire as well. She quickly retreated out of the flaming oil slick. Bellona stepped in close and hosed the aliens with a conical blast of flame from her hands. As the Rikti cooked, the ninjas formed a firing line and shot arrows, poisoned darts, caltrops, and shuriken into them. Most of the smaller Rikti had collapsed at this point; the remaining ones wore the power armor that gave humanity fits in the first Rikti War. Those were targeted by the Blasters’ high-damage, short-ranged attacks and dispatched in short order. The last to be defeated was Thunder Dragon’s opponent; the Chief Soldier was methodically rent asunder by lightning-tipped claws.

 

As each alien was beaten, it vanished a few seconds after falling to the ground. There was nothing left to mark the scene of the battle except for scorch marks, flickering pools of oil that still burned and smoked, and handfuls of littered caltrops. Crystal stood on the far side of the carnage and inspected her team. It looked as if everyone had come through unscathed. Even the unlucky ninja who had precipitated her charge was fine; after some attention from Supa Fly he was on his feet with only cosmetic damage. Crystal sighed noisily with relief.

 

“[censored], girl! You a walking disco ball!” exclaimed Supa Fly as he appraised Crystal.

 

Bellona whirled around to face Jenny. “Who are you calling stupid, you overgrown rat?”

 

Jenny bristled. She skinned her lips back and bared her teeth in a snarl. Her fists came up, wreathed in flame. “I’m calling you stupid, because only someone truly retarded would insult a level fifty Blaster!”

 

“Stop it! Right now!” Crystal jetted in between the women, her subzero aura still on. They both jumped back to avoid the bone-chilling cold. “No more of that,” she demanded. “Fighting each other will only benefit the Rikti!” She turned to Jenny and sternly glared at her. “Firefox, it’s unreasonable to expect one of the destined ones to understand the role of a Tanker. They’re going to have to learn and adjust, and you should be patient with them. No more insults!” Crystal pivoted to give Bellona the same disapproving expression. “I understand your confusion, and Firefox shouldn’t have called you stupid, but you shouldn’t have compounded the problem by responding in kind. Like it or not, we only have each other to rely on here. Be nice!” Crystal flew back to her previous position.

 

Bellona looked sick. Jenny frowned, but as she witnessed Bellona’s discomfort, her frown morphed into a grin.

 

Crystal turned to face her team. “Great job, everyone!” she beamed. “Very well done, considering we weren’t expecting to start so soon. Now we know a little bit more about each other and our capabilities, and that should make things easier for us. It’s too bad we’ve lost the element of surprise, but it was inevitable. We’ll just-”

 

“Fool!” Tetsu Sensei blasted. “I disabled their communications when I blinded them! They remain oblivious to our presence!”

 

“Uhh…even if that arrow jammed radio and telepathic signals, the Rikti still know we’re here, Tetsu Sensei. Really!”

 

The diminutive ninja lord snorted.

 

Harm piped up, “She’s right. No more use in trying to be sneaky.” As Tetsu Sensei turned on him, he continued, “The medical teleportation network that was developed in Paragon and stolen by Arachnos was reverse-engineered from the Rikti version.” He waved his hand at the empty floor. “Where do you think they all went? That whole patrol is now back in some Rikti infirmary telling everyone about the humans who ganked them.”

 

“The humans, and the Thunder Dragon,” Crystal corrected, acknowledging the team’s only non-human. He nodded at her. “So now you know. Our best means of keeping the Rikti guessing about our location is speed, not stealth.”

 

“In that case,” said Bellona, “I have something that’ll help.” She blasted Tetsu Sensei with some blue-ish beam. His movements accelerated, as if someone had hit a fast-forward button. Even the billowing of his cape was impossibly fast. Bellona hit Thunder Dragon and the ninjas with the same power, with identical results.

 

“Wow!” Crystal exclaimed. “What is that?”

 

“I can temporarily speed up time. They’ll move, attack, and even recover energy faster.”

 

“Dang! That’s some serious [censored], girl!” declared Supa Fly. “Where’s mine?”

 

“You’ll get help from me when [censored] freezes over,” Bellona said. She folded her arms in defiance. “And the same goes for the rest of you do-gooders!”

 

Supa Fly, Harm, and Jenny screamed furiously at Bellona. Crystal kept silent for a moment, then moved to interpose herself between the Corruptor and the heroes. “That’s enough!” she barked. Turning to face Bellona, she quietly added, “And, it’s OK.”

 

“Yeah, leave her to me,” growled Supa Fly. “I got all kinds of ways of dealing with a disobedient ho!”

 

Crystal’s left hand shot out, stopping any further outbursts. “We can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. I wouldn’t even try.” Bellona grinned smugly, but Crystal continued, “Regardless, if you won’t look after me, I’m still going to look after you. That’s what teamwork and doing the right thing are all about. But, suppose you find yourself in a real jam? Like, a group of Rikti have teleported next to you, and we can’t help because we’re too far away, or we’re too tired. What will you do then? It’ll be too late to share. Best case, you wake up in the Vanguard infirmary and have to make your way back here, alone, through Rikti-infested territory.”

 

Bellona looked like she’d swallowed a bug.

 

“Worst case, one of them fries your mediport transponder, and…”

 

With a disgusted look firmly fixed on her face, Bellona boosted Crystal’s speed.

 

“Thank you, Bellona, but it’s an all-or-nothing deal. We all look out for each other. No holding back or playing favorites.” Crystal folded her arms, matching Bellona’s earlier posture of defiance. The two women stared each other down.

 

“Impudent girl!” thundered Tetsu Sensei. “Give your boon to everyone, or feel my wrath!” He pointed at her, and the ninjas readied their weapons, their eyes fixed on the Corruptor. “I will not allow you to imperil the success of this mission! You will perform at your utmost or I will have you executed!”
 

The ninja lord’s outburst shocked Bellona. She quickly finished buffing the rest of the team. The heroes stared uncomprehendingly at Tetsu Sensei.

 

“Make no mistake,” he explained. “I do not do this for your benefit. I will not tolerate any of my minions placing each other at a disadvantage and thereby reducing their utility to me.”

 

Under his breath, Supa Fly grumbled, “Got nuthin’ but love for you too, mother-scratcher.”

 

Crystal surveyed the surroundings. The group stood in an intersection of two hallways. The darkness prevented clear viewing of any direction; there could be more patrols heading their way and no one would be the wiser. She concentrated a moment and reshaped the ice around her head. The little flaws that normally clouded her ice armor moved aside, leaving a perfectly clear viewing medium. Thinking back to her optics section of physics, Crystal formed a set of ice lenses to mimic low-power binoculars, and prismatic collectors to gather more useable light. The farthest portions of the hallways resolved from a dark blur into a clear, bright, picture. There were no Rikti stalking them at the moment, but neither were there any indicators where Penelope Yin was being held.

 

Crystal turned back to the group. “Well, we’re in the clear for the moment, but I can’t pick out anything that shows where we need to go next.”

 

Tetsu Sensei raised a hand and pointed off to the side. Before he could speak, Jenny pointed down the hallway opposite from the entrance and announced, “That way.”

 

Crystal cocked her head slightly and looked at her friend. Tetsu Sensei turned to Jenny and sneered, “What could possibly give you such confidence? Is it your wisdom? Or is it another of your tricks, o spirit of mischief?”

 

The vulpine ears folded back in annoyance. Jenny stepped over to the shorter man and quietly hissed, “Inari won’t be happy to learn of your disrespectful treatment of one of his servants!” While Tetsu Sensei remained still, the eyes of his ninja minions darted to and fro as they exchanged nervous glances.

 

“Firefox, no,” Crystal admonished. She then focused on Tetsu Sensei. “She’s rarely wrong about that sort of thing, Tetsu Sensei.”

 

“I think she’s right,” said Harm. “I’m detecting stronger thermal traces along this way,” he said as he swept his hand along the hallway that crossed in front of the entrance. “It’s consistent with a large group walking the perimeter. That must be what our Rikti friends were doing when we jumped them, so whatever they were trying to protect is perpendicular to their path. Hence, the direction Firefox suggested is our best bet.” He swiveled his helmet to look at her. “Nice job.”

 

Jenny beamed.

 

“OK, that way it is,” Crystal announced. “Remember to let me lead off the attacks. It’ll be safer for everyone that way.” She turned and shot down the hallway at astonishing speed. Unused to running at such a high velocity, Crystal almost crashed through a closed door. The rest of the team arrived mere fractions of a second after she did. Only Bellona appeared to have any semblance of self-control moving through compressed time. Crystal activated the door’s controls and prayed the mechanism still functioned. A soft whir accompanied the opening of the set of double doors, though in Crystal’s heightened state of anxiety it sounded more like the rumble of a passing freight train. Behind the door was a curiously well-lit corridor that went to the right. It was narrower than the hallway and reasonably free of debris.

 

Someone’s been cleaning up in here. Someone…or something!

 

Jenny sidled up as close to Crystal as she could manage; she hadn’t yet powered down her freezing aura. “There’s a lot of them on the other side of that wall,” she informed her, pointing ahead.

 

Crystal shot another puzzled glance at Jenny, but thanked her anyway. She walked as slowly as she could manage to the end of the corridor and carefully peeked around. After reversing direction, the corridor opened into a large room with an elevated platform in the center. Crystal recognized the layout; it was common with many of the high-tech facilities in Paragon City, most notably those of Crey Industries. It wasn’t an interest in architecture that prompted Crystal to recall room details like this, but a need to determine the most likely avenue of attack by the Rikti. With a significant portion of the room out of sight, anyone who simply charged in was asking for trouble.

 

As she stood, leaning around the corner with the lightshow off, she felt the others glide up to her. Tetsu Sensei’s voice was barely loud enough to hear as he asked, “Why do you stop here? Has your fear paralyzed you? If the enemy is in there, then you must enter!”

 

“I only see the one group,” Crystal replied, pointing straight along the wall to the small cluster of aliens near the far side of the room. “But this room is too big for-”

 

Her tactical evaluation was cut short by an arrow whistling past her head. It struck the ground in front of the Rikti and exploded with a familiar flash. No sooner had the blinding flash receded than the ninjas charged past her and leapt into combat. Just as suddenly, plasma fire raked the wall as an unseen group of Rikti fired from off to the right, tracking the ninjas.

 

“Oh, shoot! That’s close!” Crystal jumped around the corner and faced the attacking aliens. They were very close; she was nearly in hand-to-hand with them already. As she powered up and got their attention, more Rikti blasts rained down from the walkway above.

 

“Up top!” Harm shouted, unnecessarily.

 

Crystal flew up to the level of the walkway as the Rikti on the ground level shot at her. Sure enough, there was another group on the walkway, almost right over their heads. But Crystal was more horrified to discover yet another squad of Rikti on the far side of the walkway. They spotted her lightshow immediately, and readied their weapons for use against her.

 

Four groups! God, give me strength!

 

The room erupted into bedlam. The mob on the ground switched targets from Crystal to her companions. Both squads up top were still targeting Crystal, but some Rikti closed to fight with their huge energy blades and some stayed back to shoot, spreading her targets all over the upper level. Crystal couldn’t see the ninjas anymore; the elevated walkway blocked line of sight, but green and purple flashes reflected off the far wall and told her of the pounding they were taking. She spared a moment to glance down at her team. Jenny and Harm had already moved into the room, as had Bellona and Supa Fly. Tetsu Sensei was out of sight but still firing to support his ninja minions. Smiling, Thunder Dragon looked upon the chaos and took no action. She couldn’t see StarDust, and hoped that was because he was invisible and not because he had already been blasted back around the corner.

 

Crystal thought quickly to try and manage the fracas. “Firefox, StarDust! Take the near mob on the ground!” Twin flame jets roasted the Rikti; Crystal spotted StarDust at last. “Harm, Thunder Dragon! Take the near mob on the catwalk!”

 

“On it!” Harm acknowledged. He jetted off the floor

 

Thunder Dragon refused. “I do as I please, human!” He screamed and leapt into the mob on the ground, hammering a Gunman across the room and scattering the rest of the mob with the explosive force of his punch.

 

“[censored]!” swore Jenny. “Thunder Dragon, you-”

 

“Save it!” Crystal screamed. “Take ‘em piece by piece! Harm and I will handle the ones up top!” Plasma fire bounced off her ice. Crystal drifted further away from the catwalk to frustrate the sword-wielding aliens. “Supa Fly, Belonna! Go support the ninjas!”

 

“No [censored] way am I stepping over there without a crew to back me up!” Supa Fly spat. Instead, he lashed out at one of the nearby Rikti with a purple blast of psychic energy.

 

“Same here!” said Bellona. “I’m not risking their fire until they’re locked down!” She double teamed Supa Fly’s target and, with vicious accuracy, shot flame into the unarmored parts. Her target collapsed, writhing in agony.

 

With all the effort Crystal had been making to coordinate her team’s actions, the Rikti on the catwalk were losing their focus on her and beginning to turn their attention elsewhere. Regretfully, she abandoned her efforts to coordinate everyone and focused on her chosen section of the room. Crystal hurled a chunk of ice at a Mentalist on the catwalk with a pitch that would have made her old softball coach proud. The alien’s armor prevented him from being pierced by the sharp fragments but was less useful at keeping the chilling cold at bay. Slivers of ice worked their way into the moving parts of the armor and slowed the Mentalist’s movement. More importantly, it got his attention, and the attention of his comrades.

 

Crystal flew across the catwalk and landed in the middle of the group. Her frigid aura had an almost immediate effect on the aliens; they shivered violently, and the intense cold even sapped power from their weapon systems. One of the Rikti, a Communications Officer, began to call for help. Already overwhelmed, Crystal was not in an indulging mood. She stepped over, powered up as much as she dared, and clocked him in his gut with her frozen right hand. The Communications Officer doubled over and fell to his knees. Crystal finished him off with a quick jab.

 

While she was busy with her first opponent, a Chief Soldier got behind her. The first notice she had of his presence was his sword crashing down onto her left shoulder. The ice shattered, only barely blunting the force of the blow, and Crystal screamed as the blade burned deep into her shoulder. The Chief Soldier pulled his sword free and brought it back for another swing. While he wound up, Crystal filled the wound with ice and froze her shoulder stiff. She froze the outer layer of her body as well. The next attack also bit deep into the ice armor, but her frozen flesh prevented the sword from penetrating far; the damage was minor, and taking full advantage of the leverage his large helmet afforded, she paid the Chief Soldier back with an uppercut that knocked him over.

 

The Mentalist she’d first attacked tried to fry her mind. The ice was no help, but the combination of a chilled brain and all the practice Crystal had clearing the streets during the second Rikti invasion shielded her from the worst of the damage. She turned, and gave a rapid sequence of one-handed blows that sent him staggering. Crystal leapt into the air, charged up her right fist, and hammered down on him with full power. Advanced Rikti power armor could only take so much punishment, and she’d pushed past its limit; the Mentalist fell down and faded away.

 

“Little help?” asked a synthesized voice.

 

Crystal looked back at Harm, and saw that his group of Rikti was thinned but not defeated, and those still fighting were gathering to attack him as one. Ignoring the rest of her opponents, Crystal flew behind his foes, putting them between her and Harm. She shouted, “Hey, you… Rikti! Leave my friend alone!” Simultaneously, she flung great sheets of ice into the air. The ice fragments descended in a hail of sleet and pain. It was enough to pull their attention away from Harm and onto her.

 

“Thanks,” he said. He blasted a Mentalist so hard his armor flaked off and clattered to the floor.

 

“Thank me by putting him down!” Crystal shot back, pointing to the Chief Soldier who had wounded her earlier. “It’ll take too long if I have to do it alone!” She socked the Mentalist in the side of his head, finishing him off.

 

“Consider him gone!” Harm activated his boot jets and rocketed over to the Chief Soldier. Before the alien warrior could react, a deafening blast of sound shook him. As with the Mentalist, the force of the blast loosened the fit of his armor, and some small pieces fell off completely. Harm jetted into the air. Electricity arced over his gauntlets as he powered up. At full volume, his synthesizers broadcasted, “Chief Soldier, you’ve been…THUNDERSTUCK!” The last word was punctuated by Harm’s attack, which exploded into the alien and knocked him off the platform. As the echo of the blast faded, Harm seamlessly segued into a rock and roll song, and blasted it at an uncomfortable volume. The music hurt Crystal’s ears, but Harm seemed to enjoy it, and he kept it playing as he finished off the squad with a series of sonic blasts.

 

One down, three to go.  No sooner had Crystal formed the thought than it was wiped from her mind. With a scream straight out of a Godzilla movie, Thunder Dragon flew up above the level of the catwalk. All heads swiveled to look upon him. He paused momentarily, clearly savoring the surprise and fear, then, with a cross-body motion, swiped both his claws at a Guardian. A shock of lightning vaporized his head. With a howl of victory, he tore into the remaining aliens on the catwalk with murderous enthusiasm.

 

Crystal hopped over the edge and hovered to the ground. It looked like Harm and Thunder Dragon would soon clear the upper level, so there was no more need for her to remain. Moreover, she was feeling a little queasy after watching Thunder Dragon decapitate the one alien, and didn’t want to watch what he did to the rest.

 

The lower level had cleared up nicely. The Rikti’s numbers were considerably reduced, but their most powerful warriors still stood. The ninjas hadn’t all been slaughtered, but Crystal spotted two gray bodies on the floor at the far end of the room, unmoving. Nearby, Jenny was going one-on-one with a Chief Mesmerist. She kept bouncing him off the wall, rattling him around inside his armor and preventing him from concentrating long enough to use his potent psychic attacks. Supa Fly and Bellona stood side by side, coordinating their attacks into a Headman Gunman. Supa Fly’s psychic attacks kept the alien from teleporting away while Bellona continually roasted him. It wasn’t long before he, too, was defeated.

 

A surviving Chief Soldier, wounded and furious, bulled past Supa Fly and Bellona on an intercept course for StarDust. He hoisted his gigantic sword over his head. StarDust’s energy aura rendered him hazy, but not invisible. He just stood stock still as the alien prepared to murder him. Crystal flew over as fast as she could, desperate to save her comrade. “NO!” she screamed, “YOU GET AWAY FROM-”

 

The sword swung down, and buried itself into the floor. Crystal skidded to a halt next to the Rikti and stared open-mouthed in shock. The deadly blade had passed through StarDust without effect; he stood calmly in front of the alien as if nothing had happened. The Chief Soldier bent forward in a very human posture as he peered closer, unable to believe his eyes. His armored head swiveled to Crystal. She met his inquisitive stare. “Don’t look at me,” she quipped, “I’m as surprised as you are.” Then she hauled her right fist back and punched him in the face. StarDust reformed himself and fired twin blasts of white-hot plasma at the alien, melting through his armor and taking him out of the fight.

 

Another arrow whistled past Crystal’s head. She tracked it, and watched as it opened and launched a net at a Rikti Conscript, pinning the alien to the far wall. She also noticed how many Rikti were still fighting over there, and how few ninjas remained upright. Crystal took a few steps towards them and powered up the lightshow to full brightness. The Rikti turned and stared; the ninjas were more disciplined, and continued their assault. A wave of her hand later, one of the smaller Rikti was encased in a block of ice. She hurled a fistful of ice at another, then covered the remaining distance between her and the squad and enveloped them in freezing cold. The Rikti closed on her to take her out. The ninjas took advantage of the distraction by slipping behind the aliens and attacking at unarmored joints while Crystal hammered at the Rikti from the front. Blades slid into tender flesh and armor buckled under energized punches. Soon, Harm and Thunder Dragon descended from above and assisted in the destruction of the squad. A green wave of light expanded from one of the Rikti; Crystal’s badly injured shoulder felt almost as good as new, and the remaining ninjas looked much healthier. That same Rikti was quickly ripped apart by bestial claws. A trio of concentrated flame blasts cooked the squad leader inside his armor.

 

Supa Fly strutted up to the last few Rikti. “A brother's gotsta look out for his fellow brothers,” he explained to them, “and you are the problem. Sucka has gotsta go!” He screamed, and a wave of psionic energy scrambled their minds. Each collapsed to the floor. The din of combat died. The only sound left was the raucous music track supplied by Harm, and even that cut out as he, along with the rest of the group, listened for the sound of approaching Rikti. Seconds passed without so much as a scrape of boots on the floor. Supa Fly grinned and pumped his fists into the air. “We got it goin’ ON!”

 

The ice fractured and fell to the floor in pieces. Crystal also shed the ice cast on her right hand and flexed the fingers experimentally. No pain; the hand was fully healed. She tried to roll her left shoulder. It was still stiff, and she didn’t have full range of motion. Stretching a partially frozen joint was a bad idea, so Crystal resigned herself to fighting one-handed and pulled the ice deeper, again immobilizing her left shoulder.

 

Fingers snaked along her left shoulder and snagged her shirt. Crystal turned her head to see Jenny holding her shirt up to display the huge slash in it. The sword cut was very deep, down through the collarbone on that side, and while the ice was holding her body together, it couldn’t do the same for her clothes. On the left side, her t-shirt had nearly been turned into a tank top. “You know,” Jenny said with a twinkle in her eye, “you started this mission by getting part of your pants vaporized. Now you lose part of your shirt. If this continues…”

 

Crystal stuck out her tongue. “Keep those thoughts to yourself!” she playfully scolded. More seriously, she looked everyone over for damage. Thunder Dragon and StarDust looked undamaged. Tetsu Sensei had managed to avoid attracting any attention at all. Bellona, Supa Fly, and Jenny were slightly rumpled but not bleeding or bruised. Harm had acquired a few scorch marks and paint scrapes.

 

A profound sense of relief filled Crystal, but was cut short when Jenny tapped her shoulder, pointed down, and whispered, “Crystal! Look!” She followed Jenny’s finger to the floor, where the bodies of two gray-clad ninjas lay in expanding pools of blood. It took a moment to register exactly what she was looking at.

 

The Rikti are gone. We’re all still here. The ninjas are down…but still here… “Oh no! NO! The ninjas!” she gasped. “They’re still here! They’re not tied into the medical teleportation network!”

 

All eyes fell to the floor. Supa Fly breathed, “Aww, [censored]!”

 

Desperate, Crystal squeaked, “Bellona! Supa Fly! Can you do something for them?”

 

Bellona shook her head. Supa Fly replied, “No can do, baby. I got nothing for them.”

 

Crystal turned to Tetsu Sensei. “Tetsu Sensei, I’m so sorry! I wish I had been able to save them, but things were so chaotic, I just couldn’t-”

 

“It is of no concern,” he intoned. He raised his right hand.

 

“No, I feel terrible. I mean, these were your students, now they’re…do they have families? Someone to notify of their death?”

 

Tetsu Sensei gave her a disgusted look. “They pledged their lives to my service. As long as they live, they are useful. In death, they are useless. Sentiment is a weakness!”

 

An access panel popped free from the wall, startling the group. Four identical ninjas crawled out of the wall. Tetsu Sensei barked instructions in Japanese, and the ninjas got to work. They paired up and began to strip equipment and clothing from the fallen. Two ninjas put the gear on at Tetsu Sensei’s direction, while the other two bound the corpses and, once they were stripped of all useful items, re-entered the crawl space in the wall, dragging the corpses behind themselves. They pulled the access panel back into place. Once the two ninjas who had remained behind finished equipping themselves, they were nearly indistinguishable from the dead ninjas they had replaced. Each gave a formal bow to Tetsu Sensei and joined their companions in formation. Aside from the blood on the floor, there was no evidence that the other two ninjas had ever existed.

 

The heroes watched the grisly proceedings with undisguised horror. Crystal looked at the villains’ faces, searching for some spark of compassion or remorse. Thunder Dragon looked bored. Tetsu Sensei was focused on his task. Bellona caught Crystal’s glance. Echoing Jenny’s earlier comment, she said, “That’s what Masterminds do, stupid! Minions die, they get replaced. Deal!”

 

Oh, I’ll deal with it!

 

His duties complete, Tetsu Sensei took in the room with a sweep of his head. “There are three exits avail-”

 

“That one,” Jenny interrupted, pointing at the nearest. As before, Tetsu Sensei turned on her, brows knitted in annoyance. Cutting him off again, she continued, “The heavy hitters are that way. Over there and there-” she pointed to the other two choices “-are Gunmen, monkeys, and drones. They’re new, probably sent to surround us.”

 

Crystal spoke up. “Before we get going, I’d like to ask you something, Tetsu Sensei.”

 

“We’re being surrounded, and still you procrastinate?”

 

“I just want to ask if you’d prefer a tightly grouped target for your arrows, or do you not mind having foes scattered all over?”

 

It was obviously a loaded question, but he answered nonetheless. “I prefer my enemies to stand in tight groups.”

 

“I thought so. Since that’s the case, how about waiting a few seconds before ordering your ninjas to attack? I promise, if you let me charge in first, not only will you have your tightly packed groups, but also the Rikti will be looking at me, and your ninjas will take fewer hits. It’ll save us all the time of stopping while you bring in replacements, and save you the trouble of training new recruits later.”

 

“Sound thinking,” rumbled Thunder Dragon. “I grow impatient with these delays!”

 

“We’ll also take them out faster when they’re clustered. Bellona, Supa Fly, and the Blasters all have wide-area attacks. Shorter fights mean it’ll be harder to surround us or pin us down. We can also-”

 

“Enough!” he barked imperiously. “I accept your recommendation. Now, go!” He pointed the tip of his longbow at the selected exit route.

 

“Sure thing!” Crystal practically skipped out of the room. I feel like a camp counselor, but it worked! No more dead ninjas!

 

Thunder Dragon was hot on her heels. The rest took more time so Crystal had some space. Jenny leaned down to Bellona to needle her some more. “See how nice she is? All that caring and concern for our safety! She’s even pleasant to the guy who roughed her up! Don’t you just love her?”

 

Bellona wrinkled her nose. “If she speaks again, I’m gonna puke, and I hope you’ll be in range when it comes!”

 

Jenny ignited her fiery force field. “Bring it on!”

 

A blue and white arm interposed between the two women, palm up, directing them to the exit. “Ladies? After you.” Still glaring at each other, Jenny and Bellona followed Harm’s gentle command and exited without further comment.

 

The corridor switch backed and left the group standing at another set of doors, identical to the ones they used to enter the room. Crystal opened them, and, relieved, saw there was nothing waiting on the other side. She took a moment to layer on her ice armors while her eyes adjusted to the dark. Protected once more, she cautiously advanced to the end of the short hallway. It teed into another hallway; Crystal looked right and left, but the lights in this section of the facility were nearly absent. She looked over her shoulder at Jenny for assistance. Jenny responded by tossing her head to the right. Crystal nodded thanks and turned in the direction indicated.

 

As she walked, she once again shaped the ice to help her see. The far end of the hallway came in clear; not only could Crystal see it curve to the right, she also saw the squad of Rikti standing there to block their advance. The anvil. I hope the hammer isn’t coming anytime soon! She stopped, turned around to get her team’s attention, and waved at the far-off Rikti. Flanked by his loyal bodyguards, Tetsu Sensei moved to firing range and loosed another flash arrow. It impacted against the far wall and briefly silhouetted the aliens. Crystal picked out the heavy power armor and weapons. It was a formidable force, but not enough to stop her team, only slow them down. Looks like I guessed right.

 

A synthesized voice quietly broadcasted Harm’s intent. “The fat lady’s sung for them!”

 

“Huh?” Crystal arched an eyebrow.

 

“I’m going to nuke them. Herd ‘em up, then get clear and cover your ears.”

 

Crystal powered up and charged. Her lightshow was wasted on the blind aliens, but the flash arrow could never obscure her bone-chilling cold. Muscles cramped, power cells drained, and alien alloys became brittle. Crystal flung great cascades of ice into the air. They blanketed the squad, numbing legs and arms and further slowing the Rikti down.

 

Satisfied with Crystal’s work, Harm activated his boot jets and rocketed at the squad. He reactivated his speakers in flight and blasted another rock and roll song.

 

“For those about to rock…”

 

Crystal wheeled over and flew away from the squad as fast as she could. She froze her ears.

 

“FIRE!”

 

Crystal felt rather than heard the explosion. Even through her ears and body were frozen, the pressure wave shook her through and through. She tumbled, fell from the air, and skidded along the ground for a few feet. Quickly, she flew off the ground, unfroze her ears, and pivoted in air to see the extent of the damage.

 

“We sa-lute you!”

 

Harm was still standing. Most of the Rikti weren’t. Those few who remained upright were dazed, and staggered around, holding their heads. Crystal charged again, selecting a Chief Soldier as her target, and knocked him to the ground. His armor flayed off with the assault, shattering rather than denting under her blows. The rest of the team coordinated on a Chief Mesmerist and simply disintegrated him. Crystal finished off her opponent with an assist from Jenny, who leapt onto his prone form and smashed his helmet into the floor repeatedly until the Chief Soldier was teleported away. The rest of the squad disappeared at about the same time.

 

Crystal stood and examined Harm closely. “Are you OK?” she shouted.

 

“Yeah,” he replied, shutting off the music to make himself better understood. “It’s a whopper of an attack, and it drains all my energy to power it. Just give me a moment to recharge.”

 

“Can you move while you recover?” Tetsu Sensei inquired.

 

“Not well.”

 

“It’s OK,” said Crystal, “you don’t have to go far. The elevators are right over there. Let me help you.” She powered down, walked over, and slung one of his arms over her frozen shoulder for support.

 

“Uh, thanks, I got it.” He struggled free and made his own way to the elevators, leaning on the wall for support. “I’m unpowered, not crippled.”

 

Crystal made a face. “I was only trying to help,” she griped.

 

Supa Fly slid up to her side. “Leave him be, baby. It’s a man thing.”

 

That’s why they’re so hard to deal with! “Fine! So long as there’s no shooting going on, you can be as stubborn as you want, Harm.”

 

Crystal joined her companions at the elevator doors. The group eyed the doors warily. “If I were in charge of defending this facility,” mused Tetsu Sensei, “I’d have blocked the stairs, and wired the elevators with explosives or poison gas.”

 

“I didn’t see any stairs, so I guess that means I should go down the elevators first,” said Crystal. “If the Rikti did something funny with the elevators, better it happens to me than any of you.”

 

“Sure is,” agreed Bellona. She wore a nasty smirk.

 

If looks could kill, Jenny would have vaporized Bellona.

 

Crystal hit the button, and powered up while the elevator made its way to the ground floor. The door slid open. Nothing seemed amiss at first glance. Crystal took a deep breath, then stepped inside. She turned around to the concerned looks of her fellow heroes. “Hold the fort,” she instructed. “I’ll let you know how it goes.” The doors closed on her, and the elevator descended to the basement.

All hail the mighty Grog! 

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Defining Moments - Chapter 8

 

 

Please don’t explode! Please don’t explode! Please, God, don’t let it explode!

 

The neglected elevator sound system feebly croaked out a chime, and the doors quietly retracted. Crystal completed her journey to the basement without incident; the Elevator of Doom remained only a product of her anxious imagination.

 

While the elevator ride had not killed her, the building was still in Rikti hands, and Crystal wanted to be sure it was safe for her team to descend. Her right hand went to full brightness and, with help from the ice, flooded the elevator with light. It shone through the open doors like a lantern. No response. Crystal steadied her nerves, and marched out of the elevator. She turned the corner without even checking for the enemy. Again, there was no response. Though the room was brightly lit, and the illumination spilled out into the corridor, nothing moved. She stood silent and still, waiting for some sign of nearby Rikti.

 

If they’re out there, there’s no way they wouldn’t notice me. The coast must be clear.

 

Shining Crystal to team. Looks like it’s safe to come on down.” She heard the elevator return to ground level. A horrible thought popped into her mind as the sound of elevator machinery died out, and she quickly added, “If you’re using the same elevator I did, watch out for the-”

 

A muffled thump resonated in the elevator shaft. Crystal winced as her ears filled with the sounds of fierce cursing in an unknown tongue.

 

“…icy patch. Sorry about that.”

 

The other two elevators completed the journey and disgorged her team, minus Tetsu Sensei and his ninja minions. Crystal’s elevator was several seconds behind, but carried the ninjas without incident. They didn’t seem to mind the treacherous footing. Thunder Dragon rubbed his scaly behind and glared pointedly at Crystal. “I’m sorry, Thunder Dragon,” she apologized. “I didn’t think about the frost and condensation until it was too late.” He growled, but backed away without taking any aggressive actions.

 

That’s one of the reasons I like to keep moving when we’re teamed together,” said Jenny. “No chance for the ground to freeze.” Crystal gave her a one-shoulder shrug.

 

The basement was just as dark as ground level. What was different was the amount of dust, dirt, and debris on the floor. Time had been less kind to this part of the facility, and it showed. Also showing were the tracks of passing Rikti, their trail obvious to everyone. The group moved out with Crystal again in the lead. There was no need for Jenny to give directions here. Side passages were filled with undisturbed detritus; clearly, the Rikti had nothing of importance in those directions. The corridor ended with a quick turn to the right, opening immediately to a large room with a high ceiling. The tracks turned to the left, went up a ramp, and into an elevated tunnel. From their vantage point, there was no way the group could see into the tunnel, nor what may lie beyond.

 

Nevertheless, Jenny scooted to the front and whispered, “There’s a speed bump at the far end of the tunnel. About five of them, waiting for us.”

 

Only five?” Tetsu Sensei inquired.

 

Jenny pulled herself to her full height, struck a royal pose, and looked down her nose at him. “You doubt my powers of perception? Or, is it my honesty you’re questioning?”

 

No, no, I’m sure he’s just puzzled at the small number of Rikti,” Crystal interjected. “It’s not much of a deterrence.” Whispering so quietly only Jenny could hear, she added, “And I’m puzzled why you’re so quick to volunteer this information.” In response, Jenny pantomimed a look of injured innocence so dramatic no one could accept it as real. Crystal gave her friend a suspicious scowl.

 

Tetsu Sensei intoned, “Correct, Shining Crystal. Those numbers are no match for us, but they wait there nonetheless.” He pointed at her. “You will go forth and investigate while the rest of us wait here.”

 

OK,” Crystal agreed.

 

Forget it!” Jenny howled at Tetsu Sensei. “There’s eight of us, fourteen if you count your minions. That’s nearly three to one odds, and you want her to take on five Rikti by herself? I’m going too!”

 

He growled, “I will inform your next of kin how you met your end, and that you perished from stupidity!”

 

Jenny loomed over him again. She angrily whispered, “You forget what faithful guardians kitsune are! I will not allow my friend to be killed, and I will not allow you to endanger her!” Tetsu Sensei squirmed uncomfortably. His ninjas again exchanged fearful glances.

 

She’s got a point,” said Harm, referring to Jenny’s earlier objection. “Splits are bad tactics.”

 

Supa Fly chimed in, “Ain’t no jive, man. That’s bogue, sending a fox off like that.”

 

Hey!” Jenny squawked indignantly.

 

I think he was referring to me,” Crystal informed her friend. “How about a compromise, Tetsu Sensei? Everyone comes into the room but stays at the bottom of the ramp. I’ll head on and see what’s up. You’ll still be out of line of sight, but you’ll be closer when the Rikti make their move.”

 

The skin on Tetsu Sensei’s brow wrinkled. From what Crystal could see, he didn’t like the idea, but eventually he agreed. “Very well. We will move into the room, but stay away from the entrance to that tunnel. You will still advance and report on the enemy!”

 

No problem.” Crystal turned and marched into the room. Her team followed close behind until they reached the side of the ramp. Before ascending, Crystal turned and, through the ice, gave them a thumbs-up. She hoped she gave a reassuring smile as well, though it didn’t feel like it.

 

Crystal floated into the air and looked down the length of the tunnel. It was dark, completely unlit except for a faint glow coming from the room at the far end. She turned, looked down at her assembled team, and gave another half-shrug. To make herself a more appealing target, she powered up her right hand and lit up the tunnel. There was no response, and still no sign of the enemy. Puzzled, and more nervous than before, Crystal slowly drifted into the tunnel and along its length.

 

The aliens were in the next room, at the bottom of the matching ramp. Crystal first saw the pair of drones hovering low, then the two Chief Soldiers standing in guard position-

 

-and the one Communications Officer behind them with his finger poised over a button on his gauntlet. Crystal had just enough time to suck in a lungful of air before he pressed it. A buzzing decrescendo filled the air, and the familiar energy signature of Rikti teleporters shone from back where she left the team. Crystal spun around in mid-air and raced back to her team, yelling, “AMBUSH!” as she dodged through the incoming Rikti.

 

The warning was completely unnecessary; the ambushers were materializing in the open mouth of the tunnel. However, as Crystal flew through their ranks, she saw, to her horror, that a second group of aliens was materializing behind the team in the doorway of the room. They were trapped.

 

Crystal’s horror intensified as she watched a pair of Chief Mesmerists solidify in the rear mob. The air shimmered before them as they exercised their potent psychic powers on the team. A similar shimmering distorted the air in front of the near mob. Crystal shivered intensely as the alien power assaulted her mind. Despite the fact that her ice had no effect on psychic damage, while it was up she was almost impervious to psychic control. She remained upright and conscious. The same could not be said for the rest of the team; Crystal watched the eyes of nearly all of her teammates roll back into their skulls, right before they collapsed to the floor. Only Thunder Dragon remained upright, and even he was staggered by the psychic onslaught. The remainder of the attacking Rikti readied their weapons.

 

Thunder Dragon!”

 

He rose to his full height and looked at her. His lips skinned back, displaying his fanged maw. He wasn’t groggy any more. He was mad.

 

Crystal waved her hand at the fallen heroes and villains. “We have to buy them time to recover!”

 

Thunder Dragon again did as he pleased, and now it pleased him to visit a gruesome revenge on the ambushing Rikti. He whipped around to face his foes while hurling a ball of evil red lightning into the middle of the group. Sparks shot from their armor and weapons, and many of the Rikti convulsed helplessly. The momentary opening was all he needed to select a particularly vulnerable adversary and spring to attack. Blood spurted as energized claws ripped through armor and flesh.

 

As soon as he screamed and leapt, Crystal turned around. She had foes of her own, plus the original Rikti, who she could see climbing the ramp to join the assault. Her first target was the Chief Mesmerist in her group. She flew right up to him, slapped her hand on his face, and loosed as much ice as she could. His faceplate froze over, and the Chief Mesmerist backed away, furiously clawing at his eyes to clear them. Her next target, a Guardian, staggered after she hammered him. Crystal went to finish him off with a quick left hook. Her arm did not respond. Belatedly, she remembered that her shoulder was frozen; in the excitement, she’d forgotten her previous injury. Crystal’s gut knotted as she considered her chances of holding back fifteen to twenty angry Rikti with only one good hand.

 

She hurled a fistful of ice at the Guardian. The slivers lanced through his light armor, and the alien collapsed. Crystal drifted to the top of the tunnel and sprayed the mob with soft ice. Most of it melted immediately, pooling into joints and collecting into streams as it sheeted off the Rikti. Those sheets and pools of water turned into iron-hard bonds of ice as Crystal descended, forcing the temperature in the tunnel to plummet with her chilling aura.

 

I can’t beat them all, but I don’t have to; I just need to keep their attention until everyone wakes up!

 

Crystal targeted the less armored Rikti with her attacks, hoping to whittle their numbers and make the remainder think she was more of a threat than she actually was. She punched forehand and backhand, flung ice, and even resorted to kicking the aliens in an effort to keep them contained in the mouth of the tunnel. But the damage came in faster than she could dish it out. A withering fusillade of plasma blasts melted ice and burned flesh. The psychic attacks of the Mesmerists and Mentalists punished her with impunity. Huge swords battered her around so much that Crystal had to land to keep from being swept aside by the horde. In less than a minute, she went from Horatius at the bridge to a frosty punching bag. The aliens began to push past her, intent on murdering her comrades.

 

You’s a dead bunch of [censored]!” Supa Fly cast his healing aura, instantly waking up everyone who had fallen. “Who’s the man now?” he crowed.

 

Supa Fly’s actions were rewarded with a shot from a Rikti pistol, but there was no undoing what he had done; the team was back on its feet and in the fight. Barking orders in Japanese, Tetsu Sensei ordered his ninjas to support Thunder Dragon. In English, he commanded, “Bellona! Target my group! The rest of you, attend to those there!” He pointed at the Rikti in the tunnel. “Fight for your lives, heroes, for if you fail to impress me, any of you who survive will die by my hands!”

 

From his back, Supa Fly pulled his hand away from his wound just long enough to give Tetsu Sensei an obscene gesture.

 

The rear mob of Rikti had already been badly mauled by Thunder Dragon. The ninjas concentrated their attacks on the remaining Chief Mesmerist. Fire, steel, and fist worked him over. An arrow flew through the press and showered the Mesmerist with acid, weakening his armor as the corrosive compound ate away at the alien alloys. With his armor dissolving away, the Mesmerist didn’t last long against the ninja assault. Bellona fired a green beam at Thunder Dragon’s opponent. It didn’t damage the Rikti, but the wave of energy that expanded off his body closed nearly all of Thunder Dragon’s wounds. She followed up by bathing the remaining aliens with a cone of flame. Re-energized, Thunder Dragon ripped the rest of the squad apart without pause. Fragments of armor and gory chunks littered the floor as he passed through their ranks, each blow more deadly than the one before. It took mere moments to finish dismantling every Rikti in the rear mob.

 

On the other side, the Blasters maneuvered into attack position. Jenny shouted, “Crystal, get clear!” Crystal flopped onto her back, the one section of her armor that remained intact, and slid down the ramp. It wasn’t elegant, but it brought her clear as Jenny took advantage of the slow-moving Rikti to gather her strength, run into the compact mob, and detonate. The force of the blast sent flaming bodies flying through the air and smashing into the walls of the tunnel. Nearly all the Rikti vanished as soon as they came to rest. A Chief Mesmerist was too tough to be brought down even by that massive attack, but it was only a short delay of the inevitable as Harm and StarDust targeted it and fired as one. The huge Rikti collapsed to his knees, then fell face forward. Jenny backed down the ramp, and Harm and StarDust took her place in the tunnel. At the far end was the lone Communications Officer that had precipitated the ambush. His eyes widened in a comical expression of shock as he saw the two Blasters pop into view. The moment of levity passed quickly as Harm and StarDust once again coordinated their fire and blew him out the back of the tunnel. Nothing popped up to replace him. The fight was over as quickly as it started.

 

Once the room quieted, Crystal shattered what was left of her ice and lay on the floor, panting. Jenny was on one knee beside her, also trying to catch her breath. Supa Fly slowly stood up and staggered over, clutching his left arm. Once he joined the women, he cast his healing aura over all of them until both his and Crystal’s wounds vanished.

 

Crystal wearily hoisted her right fist into the air. “Hooray,” she cheered in a tired voice, “we win again.”

 

Yeah, but now I’m [censored] pissed. Those [censored] [censored] up my threads!” Supa Fly took his hand off the arm and showed where the white jacket had acquired a large, ugly hole ringed with burnt fabric.

 

I’m sorry about your clothes, Supa Fly. I guess I didn’t hold their attention well enough.”

 

Supa Fly looked down at Crystal. He cocked his head to one side and said, “Well, [censored], girl, if that’s the worst that happens, then I’ll be the luckiest [censored] Defender on Earth.”

 

Harm hopped down from the tunnel and added, “Yeah, no kidding. They had us dead to rights.” He extended a hand to help Crystal up. As she stood, he shouted, “Ambush!” and started laughing.

 

Crystal giggled, too. “I blame the Scrapper!”

 

Harm laughed louder. “That darned Scrapper! Always ruining things for the rest of us!” Even StarDust chuckled along.

 

Supa Fly gave a funny look at the three laughing heroes. “The [censored] you laughin’ at? Ain’t no Scrapper here!”

 

Inside joke,” Harm informed him. “I’ll tell you later.”

 

If you live, which is very presumptuous of you!” growled Tetsu Sensei. The heroes looked over at him. His ninjas were arrayed in a firing squad behind him. Off to the side stood Thunder Dragon and Bellona. “Your stubborn refusal to follow my command nearly got us all killed! If you’d agreed to stay where I told you, we would not have been caught in a crossfire!”

 

Of course,” said Crystal as she stepped to the fore, “if we’d all gone together, we might have been able to prevent the Communications Officer from springing the trap, and we’d still have avoided the crossfire. That is, assuming they would have teleported to the same spots as before.”

 

Do not question my tactical judgment, girl! I have been leading men into battle longer than you’ve been alive!”

 

I’m not questioning anything,” Crystal replied in what she hoped was a placating tone of voice. “I’m just thinking how fortunate we were that Thunder Dragon is so tough, and that I was nearby when the trap sprung. Things wouldn’t have gone so well if we hadn’t been together.”

 

Tetsu Sensei’s chest swelled as he prepared a retort. Jenny popped up behind the heroes, her ears folded back and face contorted into a silent snarl. The verbal attack died in his throat.

 

Let’s all stick together from now on. I’d like to keep everyone safe.”

 

Oh, please,” groaned Bellona.

 

Crystal slowly fractured the frost on her left shoulder and gingerly rotated it. The wound felt like flesh again, and her arm responded normally. “Glad I can use that again,” she said.

 

Wait a minute,” Jenny interjected. “You held off that whole mob with only one arm?”

 

Um…yeah,” Crystal sheepishly replied.

 

Feigning disgust, Jenny folded her arms and frowned down at Crystal. “Showoff!”

 

Am not! I didn’t want to slow us down while I healed the wound.”

 

Supa Fly spoke. “Next time, girl, give me a ring. I got what you need to feel better!”

 

Uhh…” Last time he offered his services, the price was a little too steep!

 

No jive, baby. It ain’t no thang! I’ll make you feel all righteous again!”

 

Thanks, Supa Fly!” Crystal smiled.

 

And once we’re outta here, you can show me how grateful you are!” He grinned lasciviously.

 

Crystal couldn’t keep the discomfort from her face, but she quickly covered it up with layers of ice. “Let’s go. Penny’s still in trouble.” She walked up the ramp, followed closely this time by the rest.

 

The far end of the tunnel was clear. So was the next room. There were no branches or adjacent rooms, so the trail of the Rikti was easy to follow. At the end of a small recess that may have been a storage bay, the wall had been broken through. Dirt and rocks mixed with concrete and rebar in front of the opening. The debris had been pushed aside to make clear footing for passing troops. Crystal stepped into the opening. The Rikti had carved a large tunnel through the rock, big enough for whole squads to move and fight in, if necessary. No one was in sight, but Crystal could hear the whirr of drones echoing through the cavern. She advanced cautiously, making sure her glowing hands were at their minimum brightness.

 

The tunnel narrowed slightly as it dipped, curved to the left, then doglegged to the right. The whirr of the drones intensified. Crystal’s anxiety intensified with the sound. She was so preoccupied that she almost jumped when her phone chirped in her ear. It was a private call from Jenny; in a hushed voice, she informed Crystal, “Lots of them, just around the bend. Better stop and peek around the corner.”

 

Thanks.” Crystal did just that. She hugged the left wall, stopped at a bend, and peeked around. The soft glow of Rikti power cells betrayed the location of the force that barred their way. Crystal grimaced as she saw that the tunnel came to a T, and the glow stretched both directions as far as she could see.

 

Crystal pulled her head back and turned to address her team. “Well, they’ve got another mess of soldiers waiting for us.”

 

Be more specific, cretin!” snapped Tetsu Sensei. “How many are there? What’s their disposition?”

 

Under the ice, Crystal frowned at his abusive language. “The tunnel comes to a T junction. Looks like one large group to the left side, and another to the right. It’s hard to count their numbers; they’re close together and moving around some.”

 

Tetsu Sensei stepped away from the rock wall. He pulled a flash arrow from under his cape as he issued instructions to his ninjas. As they surrounded him in as a protective bodyguard, he nocked the arrow and announced, “I will blind the aliens on the left.”

 

And then we all go right,” Crystal finished. The ninja lord’s head snapped around to glare at her. “What? That is what you were going to say, wasn’t it?”

 

He was silent for a moment. “Interrupt me again, and it will be the last sound you make!”

 

But I was right, wasn’t I?

 

Ensconced in his bodyguard of ninjas, Tetsu Sensei rounded the corner and fired. He turned his head as the warhead activated, blinding all the Rikti and scrambling their radios. Once the flash receded, he ordered, “GO!” and waved imperiously down the tunnel.

 

Crystal charged, sparing a sideways glance to ensure the left mob remained unaware of the impending attack. She flew low and through the squad, chilling all in her wake and diverting their attention to her. This section of tunnel was a dead end, and Crystal was relieved to see there would be no surprises from this direction. She landed behind the aliens, put her back to the wall, and shouted, “Over here! This way!” Her shining hands waved through the air like beacons. The decoy worked; every Rikti in the tunnel turned to attack her and ignored her friends. Just before the Rikti opened fire, she took a deep breath, smiled smugly, and layered on the ice as thick as she could. The thickness of her ice armor increased over a meter. She could barely see the plasma blasts, and the massive energy swords thudded dully into the ice. It was a waste of effort to hack or blast through a meter of ice, but the Rikti didn’t know that, and weren’t given the time to figure it out. A high-pitched whine pierced the ice as Harm ran into their midst and unleashed his most powerful blast. Weapons exploded, armor shattered, and alien bodies were pulverized by the devastating sonic shockwave. Through the ice, it made Crystal’s teeth ache, but that was all. While she continued to hold her breath, she witnessed the rest of her team rush in and maul the remaining Rikti. There weren’t many left to bring down.

 

Time to get back to work.

 

Crystal shattered the outer layer of ice and looked around. As with earlier fights, only the most heavily armored remained on their feet, and each faced a minimum of two adversaries. Firefox smashed a Chief Soldier into the wall, torched him, then stepped back as Thunder Dragon leapt onto him and began to rip armor plates free. Harm opened his arms, and sparks shot out from his suit, draining a Chief Mesmerist’s power supplies and replenishing his own. An arrow buried itself into the ground at the feet of the Chief Mesmerist and emitted a hum that was felt more than heard. Ninjas somersaulted over Harm and buried the alien under a tidal wave of black, gray, and red. Supa Fly and Bellona coordinated their attacks and burned both body and mind of another Chief Soldier. StarDust was at the rear of the squad tangling with a Headman Gunman who had been lucky enough to avoid Harm’s opening attack. He steadily applied his white-hot flame jets until the advanced Rikti armor glowed cherry-red.

 

Hey!” Crystal shouted to Jenny, “You got everything under control here?”

 

I’m cool!” she replied as she fired a short blast of flame into StarDust’s adversary.

 

Good. I’m moving on. Catch up when you can!” Crystal jogged over into the next mob of aliens. Though still blind, they spun in her general direction as her chilling aura wreaked havoc with electrical and biological systems. Their attention became totally fixed on her after she concentrated a moment and pulled every last shred of moisture out of the air and layered it onto her ice armor. Alien flesh burned, joints froze, and power conduits shattered from the intense cold.

 

A quiet voice broadcasted, “Move clear, Shining Crystal. It’s my turn to nuke.”

 

She hadn’t often heard StarDust speak, so it took her a while to remember whose voice had told her to get clear. There was no mistaking his posture though; he was walking through the remnants of the previous squad on a direct course for her. Crystal jetted backwards. As she did, she kept an eye on the aliens she had just frozen to make sure their attention was on her and not him. Her vigilance, while unnecessary, allowed her to witness the brilliant explosion as he overloaded his fiery aura and filled the enclosed space with white flame. The heat wave cooked her inside the ice, and she wished, not for the first time this mission, that Lady Grey had chosen companions that used cold attacks instead of fire. Still, the fire attacks did a fine job of thinning the ranks of the aliens.

 

StarDust backed away, his energy spent. Crystal moved back into the mob, charged up her fists, and pounded away on a Chief Mesmerist. His superheated armor cracked when she re-froze it, and the energy from her fists went through the gaps and overloaded his nervous system. The enormous alien staggered around like a drunk, completely unable to defend himself. Crystal felt a little guilty as she hauled back and walloped him as hard as she could, taking him out of the fight, but it was an awful reality of life in Paragon City that only beaten foes were no longer dangerous. As he was spirited away by the Rikti mediport system, she hoped the alien had enough of fighting superbeings so she wouldn’t have to punch him again.

 

There weren’t many left in her mob, and as the old targets fell, her team switched and made short work of the new targets. Crystal just stood near the aliens to guard against reprisals directed at her team. Again, her vigilance was unnecessary. Coordinated fire or savage beatings brought them down; the aliens didn’t last long enough to counterattack. The tunnels were quiet again.

 

That was effective,” Crystal opined once her ears stopped ringing.

 

Indeed,” Tetsu Sensei agreed. He snapped, “Blasters! You will each take turns using your most powerful attacks!” He then pointed at Crystal and commanded, “You will continue gathering the aliens into tight groups to be slaughtered!”

 

Ugh! Maybe I should have retired, after all. Now I’m helping with a massacre! “We’ll have to take it easy. They can’t just pop right back into the fight after unloading like that.”

 

I can fix that,” volunteered Bellona. “If there’s anyone left standing, I can take their energy and give it to whoever’s standing nearby.”

 

Crystal looked at her in surprise. “That works for all kinds of energy? Harm probably uses electrical power, but Firefox and-”

 

Yeah, shut up, it’ll work. I know what I’m doing!”

 

I’m sorry, Bellona. I didn’t mean to sound like I was questioning your competence. I just don’t know what you can do.”

 

The placating response had the opposite effect. Bellona turned her head aside and threw a hand up in Crystal’s face. “Look, just stop talking to me. We’d get along so much better if you’d shut up!” Crystal’s face fell.

 

Thunder Dragon barged through the group and marched through the last section of tunnel to the entrance of the Rikti’s underground base. Crystal raced to get in front of him, but hadn’t yet made it when he came to a T-junction, turned left, roared, spread his wings and flew down the hall. She saw the squad of Rikti forming as another stop, but they hadn’t set themselves to repel an attack by the time he entered their midst. Bodies flew as he hammered them with thunder, lightning, and claw. Crystal flew up close and let loose a wide spray of ice, careful not to hit Thunder Dragon with her attack. The aliens’ movement slowed to a crawl even as the pace and fury of Thunder Dragon’s attacks grew. His claws shone with deadly energy as he dismembered, decapitated, and disemboweled everything in his path. Crystal turned her head. It was more than she ever wanted to see.

 

The rest of the team caught up and engaged the Rikti. It was a one sided slaughter, and the more self-interested aliens took off. Headman Gunmen teleported to safety, while others made their way on foot. Thunder Dragon tracked the fleeing Rikti for a few moments, then, with a growl that sounded like a roll of thunder, gave chase. He brought down the last one in line, finishing it off in a gruesome and noisy fashion, then worked his way to the fore. Crystal pursued him. He left a trail of carnage and casualties in his wake as he rounded one corner, then another, then a third-

 

-and then into a large, square room with thirty or forty Rikti ready to bar any passage. The room turned green as Rikti plasma blasts filled the air. For a time, Thunder Dragon took no notice of the damage he received, but even his enraged state could not carry him forever, and he ceased his attacks, falling to one knee.

 

Crystal flew in between him and the attacking Rikti, then planted herself on the floor, using her body as a shield to protect him. The incoming fire mostly glanced off the ice, but some slipped through to burn flesh and shred clothes. “Thunder Dragon! Please, get back!” she urged, looking over her shoulder at him. “I’ll cover you, but you can’t stay here!”

 

He did not move right away. He looked up into her eyes and stared. Slowly, a nasty grin stretched his toothy maw. As Rikti closed to hack Crystal apart, only then did he retreat from the room. Crystal retreated as well, all the while maintaining cover for her reptilian companion and trying not to think of the look on his face.

 

I think he enjoyed watching me get shot!

 

The pair slowly but steadily retreated from the room and moved back the way they came. Some of the Rikti pursued them, as their fellow soldiers had been pursued moments before. Crystal hoped the others were nearby. She announced over the cell network, “Thunder Dragon and I are heading back, and we’re bringing friends!”

 

Then let’s welcome them!” said Jenny. The reply was much closer than Crystal expected; the rest of her team were right next to the opening into the room. They spread out to the sides of the hallway. When the Rikti exited their chokepoint, they were caught in a crossfire. The aliens were either felled or retreated back into the room. There were no more attempts to pursue Crystal and Thunder Dragon.

 

Supa Fly worked on Thunder Dragon’s injuries. “[censored],” he observed, “you a bad little dude! You [censored] near killed ‘em all yo’self!” Thunder Dragon gave Supa Fly the same nasty grin he gave Crystal.

 

What’s in there?” Tetsu Sensei asked.

 

Crystal knelt down on the floor and traced the outline of the room in ice. “It’s a square room,” she narrated as she drew. “This is the entrance here, and the only exit is here, off to the left. The floor is even around the perimeter. There’s a platform in the center, with four walkways connecting it to floor height. These areas are bare rock, and much lower than the floor. This whole room is designed to trap and kill anyone who tries to come through.” She finished the icy map and looked up at Tetsu Sensei. “The room is filled with Rikti.”

 

Filled? That’s not useful information!” he snapped.

 

Crystal’s patience with the abrasive ninja lord was fading fast. “When I say filled, I mean filled! There are at least twice as many of them as there were at the ambush! We’re not getting through without a plan. A GOOD plan!”

 

Why?” asked Harm. He pointed from the entrance to the exit. “We can cut across here and get out. Nice and quick.”

 

Imbecile!” thundered Tetsu Sensei. “The moment we head that direction, they’ll shift to seal both openings, pin us in this corner here, and cut us to ribbons! Keep silent while better minds than yours work on the problem!”

 

The menace was evident in his synthesized voice as Harm told Tetsu Sensei, “Call me an imbecile again. I dare you.”

 

Crystal interjected, “Save it for the Rikti, Harm.” She looked down at her ice sculpture. “OK, so I go in here.” She pointed to the entrance. “Then a flash arrow goes here, in this corner-” she drew a circle in the bottom left corner “-taking those Rikti out of the fight. We sweep along here, through the opposite corner until we get to this catwalk, then BOOM!” She dropped a snowball midway down the wall. “Nuke number one. Meanwhile, Thunder Dragon heads to the center platform, supported at range by Supa Fly and Bellona.”

 

[censored] no!” howled Supa Fly. “You want me to hang my black [censored] out in the middle of the room for all those [censored] to shoot at?”

 

No! No!” Crystal corrected hurriedly. “You and she stay with the main group, and use your powers at a distance. You and Bellona support at range while I cover you up close.”

 

Yeah, that’s more like it,” said Bellona. “I can heal and energize him without having to be there. Just as long as I don’t miss.”

 

A crack of thunder made everyone jump. Nervous eyes darted over to Thunder Dragon. The air crackled from the miniature electrical storm that covered his body. Unblinking eyes fixed on the Corruptor.

 

Unnerved, Crystal tried to keep her voice from shaking. “Uhh, I think Thunder Dragon would appreciate your best targeting efforts, Bellona. As would we all.”

 

Bellona gulped.

 

Crystal continued. “After the nuke, I’ll move on to here.” She traced a line in ice around the corner, stopping midway along the next wall. “I’ll pull as many as I can along with me. Once cleanup’s done, BOOM!” She dropped another snowball onto the map. “Nuke number two. Then rinse and repeat. Once I round the corner, Thunder Dragon can leave the center platform if he likes. There probably won’t be much left there, anyway. And for the grand finale, once the last Rikti have swarmed over me…” Another snowball plopped onto the map, covering the exit. “Nuke number three, clean up, and carry on.”

 

You make it look easy,” said Harm.

 

Not a chance! The only way we’ll get through is to pull out all the stops!” Crystal turned her face to Bellona. “It’s going to be dicey after each nuke. If you can’t recharge the Blasters afterwards, this whole plan might fall apart.”

 

Then we’re screwed,” Bellona said, “because if I recharge the first, I might, MIGHT, be able to recharge the third. Number two is S. O. L.”

 

Harm pointed to the second snowball. “I’ll take this one. You can skip me on the recharge; I’ll use an emergency capacitor to replenish my stores. It’ll take the fat lady another minute to finish warming up, anyways.”

 

I’m up first,” said Jenny.

 

Crystal smiled at her friend, then turned to StarDust. “That leaves you for the third. Can you be ready in time?” StarDust nodded his head.

 

Crystal looked into Thunder Dragon’s eyes. “You’ll have the hardest job at first, but it’ll be easier as we clear the room. If you’re getting overwhelmed, I’ll try to pull some off you, but I’ll be busy dealing with the ones on the perimeter of the room. It might not be enough. You’ll have to trust us for support. Can you do this?”

 

Thunder Dragon rolled his eyes, his gaze locking onto Tetsu Sensei. “Of course,” he said with an evil grin.

 

I couldn’t help but notice you failed to consult me while developing this tactical masterpiece,” huffed Tetsu Sensei, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

 

Oh, I wouldn’t dare tell you what to do,” Crystal deadpanned. “I assumed you’d notice the omission and volunteer your ninjas and your arrows for whatever action you thought needed to be taken. So, what would you like to do?”

 

His dark eyes were barely visible through his narrowed lids. “My minions will complete the mop-up. I will direct my fire to support Thunder Dragon’s efforts on the central platform.”

 

Behind Tetsu Sensei’s back, Supa Fly pantomimed licking a finger, applying it to the ninja lord, and wincing in pain from the burn.

 

Crystal stood. “Well, that’s about it. Supa Fly, I’m going to be drawing a lot of fire. Bellona will be busy keeping Thunder Dragon on his feet. I need you to do the same for me.”

 

Don’t worry, baby,” he replied, striking a dramatic pose with hand on hips. “I’ll watch yo’ back. Mmm, hmm, I’d follow you anywhere, sweet thang!” He nodded his head with exaggerated slowness, his eyes tracing every contour of her body.

 

Crystal whimpered almost inaudibly. Jenny had to turn her head and cover her mouth to stifle a laugh.

 

OK, if there’s nothing else…” No one spoke. Crystal took a deep breath, let it out, then gravely intoned, “Supa Fly. Bellona. Charge us up.”

 

They both fired off everything they had. When they were finished, the whole team practically glowed with power. Crystal turned and ran into the room. The flash arrow sailed behind her to dazzle the Rikti to her left. The Rikti to her right closed to melee distance while the rest of the room opened fire. Crystal paused in the middle of the mob to siphon some energy from their power cells, and then moved on to the first nuke spot. Both corners emptied as the aliens converged on her. The air reeked of ozone as dozens of high-energy weapons blazed throughout the room. It reminded Crystal of holding back the ambush; nearly every Rikti in sight was attempting to kill her with single-minded determination. She danced and dodged as best she could. The Rikti surrounded her on every side, heedless to the extreme cold she radiated. They swarmed her, engulfing her completely.

 

That was as close the Rikti came to victory. The rest of the team entered the room and took their places. Jenny let out a wild yip as she jumped from the entrance to the spot where Crystal was standing. As she was inbound, Crystal flew up and through a half-loop. Head over heels, she watched as Jenny landed among the chilled aliens. They were so preoccupied with Crystal’s escape they failed to react in time to the presence of the newcomer. Jenny shouted, “Here comes the BOOM!” and detonated. Bodies flew in great fiery arcs from the blast point. Most sizzled and lay still where they fell. Bellona targeted a Chief Soldier who was still upright and near Jenny. A wave of blue energy burst from him. Jenny caught her breath immediately. Fully re-energized, she finished off the Chief Soldier with a two-fisted fire blast.

 

At the same time, Thunder Dragon dropped from the ceiling onto the central platform. He slashed down with his claws as he descended, ripping an arm off of a Communications Officer. The Communications Officer didn’t even have time to react before Thunder Dragon landed in a crouch and tore into his legs. Brutally maimed, the alien collapsed, thrashing in agony. He was but the first to fall. The next one was a Conscript; he was taken out when Thunder Dragon leapt off the floor, latched onto his torso with claw and talon, and then thrust an energized claw into his throat like a knife. Bellona selected a Rikti standing near him and activated another of her powers. With a snap, a swirl of multi-colored energy covered the central platform. Thunder Dragon’s next attack landed with unusual force. Instead of merely raking armor and flesh, his claws penetrated deep into the alien and exploded. Rikti gibs showered the room. Thunder Dragon paused to savor the spectacle before resuming his murderous work.

 

From her high vantage point, Crystal witnessed both Jenny and the Rikti explode at about the same time. Things were proceeding according to plan, and, although it sickened her to watch Thunder Dragon work, she was pleased that he was still up and conscious. She dropped to the floor in the midst of the Rikti that had not been caught in the first nuke. The brutal cold she radiated caught their attention. To ensure they continued to pay attention to her, she rocked one of the smaller ones with a right hook, followed by a double overhand smash that knocked him out. Crystal danced away from their reprisals, leading them to the second nuke zone. Some of the Rikti on the central platform deserted their post and closed on her. Likewise, the squads in next corner also closed the distance. In moments, she was surrounded again.

 

With a shout of “Cue that fat lady!” Harm jetted into the air. Joints stiffened by Crystal’s chilling aura, the Rikti could not pursue her as she once again flew up and out of the blast zone. Harm took her place in the midst of the mob and screamed. Wall panels splintered, floor plating heaved, and the aliens were shaken apart. Only the best protected were still standing, and even they were stunned by the intense sonic blast. The power armor clad hero waved his arms and turned his suit into a lightning rod. Tendrils of electricity jumped from the Rikti to Harm as their power drained and his own was restored. He celebrated by charging his gauntlets and punching a Chief Mesmerist halfway across the room.

 

Crystal once again checked out the room to see how things were going. Thunder Dragon was still on his feet, and had nearly finished clearing the central platform. The Blasters were converging on the second nuke site. Supa Fly and Bellona were close behind them. Both divided their attention to keep watch on Thunder Dragon and the progress of the Blasters at the same time. The results were obvious; Thunder Dragon looked nearly uninjured despite the volume of fire directed at him, and one of his larger opponents was casting a sickly greenish-yellow field of radiation that weakened both he and his fellow Rikti. Ninjas stalked the battlefield, cutting the throats of aliens that had not yet been injured enough to activate their medical transporters. Tetsu Sensei strode through the carnage, barking orders and scanning for threats. He had an arrow nocked and ready to fire, but held on to it, as if no worthy target yet presented itself.

 

The Rikti that had been blinded by the flash arrow began to move towards the central platform. Crystal dropped back to the floor and moved to intercept them. As she passed the intervening Rikti, they followed her like rats following the Pied Piper. Crystal stopped at the third nuke site and shouted to the formerly blinded Rikti, “Hey! This isn’t going so well for you!” They turned to look at her. She waved her arms at the mostly empty room. “Maybe you should consider the Traditionalists’ philosophy more seriously and make peace with us!”

 

Whatever came through their translators enraged them, and, acting as one, they raised their weapons and fired. Crystal squeaked as she ducked around a corner. Chunks of the wall flew past her as they raked her hiding spot. She heard their boots on the floor as they marched to get back into line of sight. Crystal stepped out from around the corner and resumed her place in the blast zone, confronting them again. “It doesn’t have to be this way!” she told them. “Can’t we all just get along?”

 

From behind the swarm of Rikti soldiers, Bellona shouted, “Oh my [censored]! Now I want to shoot you, too!”

 

Shut up, you!” snapped Jenny. “You’re undamaged because of her, so show some gratitude!”

 

Further arguments were cut short as StarDust announced, “Get clear, Shining Crystal.” She backed down the exit hallway. At first, she didn’t see where he was coming from, but then a familiar shape materialized in the middle of the Rikti. His explosion was white flame rather than red or orange, but the effects were indistinguishable from Jenny’s; the Rikti were either knocked out from the intense heat, blasted unconscious, or remained in the blast zone and continued to burn. StarDust calmly stood in the charred circle until he was recharged by Bellona’s energy transfer power.

 

That blast was the death knell for the Rikti’s chances of halting Crystal and her team. She returned to the room and assisted with mop-up by slowing the aliens so her team more easily finished them off. Once the last Rikti soldier had fallen and teleported away, everyone gathered at the exit.

 

Crystal sighed. “Still alive. What a relief!” Jenny stood in front of Crystal, examined her closely, and poked a finger through a hole in her ice. The tip of her finger met skin, and Jenny wiggled her finger around until Crystal squirmed. “Quit it! That tickles! I get the hint!” She sloughed off her ice armor and checked for fresh injuries. There were many minor scrapes and burns, but nothing that would slow her down. Spending so much time in the air meant the deadly Rikti energy swords could not reach her, and, while iced up, individual plasma blasts lacked the power to do serious harm. She turned her back to Jenny and inquired, “I took fire from all sides. Any holes where I can’t see?”

 

Jealousy oozed from her voice as Jenny replied, “Your hair is undamaged, and still looks gorgeous. You HAVE to tell me how you do that!”

 

I don’t know, but that’s one reason I don’t cut it. What about the rest?”

 

A field of greenish-yellow energy enveloped Crystal. The little cuts and burns ceased to itch. Supa Fly’s voice came from behind her. “Nothing a little sweet lovin’ can’t fix, girl, and I got all you need!”

 

Crystal was glad her back was to her team. She didn’t want anyone to see the grimace on her face.

 

Bellona grouched, “You look fine, Cheerleader. Can we go now, or do you want to get your nails done first?”

 

Crystal layered the ice back on and walked away, followed by the rest of the team. The hallway was deserted. The group continued their advance unchallenged. A short distance from the large room, the hallway turned left, then ran straight until it reached a small room. Long and narrow, the center part of the room dropped to form a lower level where several sheets of alien characters scrolled in vertical holographic displays. At each end of the rows of the holographic displays sat circular control consoles, projecting their own stream of characters to the air. There were no Rikti present.

 

Curious, Crystal stopped and asked, “Anyone know what this is?”

 

Harm stepped to the front. After a few second of observation, he answered, “Command center, or monitoring station. I can’t read it, but that’s their written language. We might be close to wherever they’re holding Penny Yin.”

 

We are,” said Jenny. She pointed to the other side of the room, where the hallway continued straight, then terminated at a bend. “The portal is in the next room.”

 

Great!” Suddenly, Crystal picked up on what Jenny really said. “Wait, the PORTAL is in the next room? You mean it’s active?”

 

Jenny nodded ruefully.

 

Oh, no!” Crystal took to the air and raced to the end of the hallway. Sure enough, she could hear the hum of the Rikti portal. Though not as loud as the ones Portal Corp used, the sound was similar enough that she could identify it. Crystal took a quick peek around the corner to confirm what her ears told her.

 

The portal was there, it was indeed active, and Penelope Yin was in the room as well. She struggled as she was held aloft, suspended beneath the apex of a pair of green energy streams. The energy streams originated from a pair of towers on either side of the portal. Smaller green energy streams connected the towers to the active portal.

 

Crystal retreated and rejoined her companions, who had gathered behind her while she investigated the room. “Well, the portal’s active alright. Penny’s there, too. She looks OK, but she’s not going anywhere without our help.”
 

Tetsu Sensei hissed, “Her condition is irrelevant! Did the aliens get what they wanted from her? How many Rikti are in there? Where are they located?”

 

Crystal gave an exasperated sigh. “I don’t know if anything came through the portal, but it looks like it’s working fine. There’s thirty or more Rikti in there. Most are clustered around the portal and its machinery, the rest are on an elevated walkway that goes around most of the room.

 

I don’t see any easy way to block line of sight. This could get ugly.”

 

Then we will split our forces. Bellona and Thunder Dragon will join my minions in clearing the walkway. The rest of you will sweep the lower level of the room.”

 

OK, but we should try and move together in there,” said Crystal. “If you find yourselves in over your heads, just let me know and I’ll try to take some of the heat from you.” Turning to the heroes, she advised them, “Wait a few seconds before joining me in there. I’ll round up as many as I can for you.”

 

I can’t nuke yet,” Jenny objected.

 

Crystal pursed her lips. “Then you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way. Don’t worry about catching me in the blast. At least, not for your opening attacks.”

 

The team stood and moved into their respective groups. The villains strode up a ramp onto the elevated walkway and waited for Crystal to make her move.

 

She darted around the corner and sprinted right up to Penelope Yin. Cutting in front of the enormous War Chief Soldier that was closely watching Penny, she loudly announced, “Hi! Penelope Yin, I’m Shining Crystal, and I’m here to rescue you!” That said, she turned around and scolded the War Chief Soldier, who, shocked by her audacity, just stood and stared at Crystal. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Kidnapping girls, really! You’re sick!” At the same time she charged the energy aura on her right hand to full, hauled back, and slapped him roundly across his face. The flash from the impact lit the room and dazzled the alien warrior. Crystal danced away from him and his bodyguard, stopping next to one of the energy towers, and covered the structure in ice. The entire room erupted into frenzied activity, every alien single-mindedly focused on killing Crystal.

 

Their efforts were in vain; as soon as they initiated their counter-attack, she piled on another meter of ice, rendering herself impervious to anything they threw at her. Crystal was treated to an impressive lightshow as plasma danced over the surface of her icy cocoon. Psychic attacks lanced right through, but the pain was dulled to nothing, and any damage they inflicted was immediately healed.

 

Once the opening volley faded, Crystal noticed the rest of her team moving up to take advantage of the distraction she’d provided. Jenny rabbit-punched the War Chief Soldier and sent him crashing to the floor. StarDust dropped an inferno right on top of Crystal, torching the aliens clustered around her. Supa Fly let loose with another wave of psychic energy and finished the job. Seeing she had some breathing room again, Crystal broke free from her cocoon and rejoined the action. She hurled a cluster of ice crystals high up into the air, where they split further and rained down on the Rikti between the portal and the elevated walkway. Harm jetted into the fight and landed next to the energy pylon. He roared, “Let’s see how they like a little hard rock!” and focused an intense sonic blast into the structure. Sparks flew as the attack vibrated the energy pylon inside and out. It was more than the structure could take, and it promptly collapsed into pieces. A guitar riff filled the room as Harm began playing a soundtrack to the fight.

 

Crystal hurled a fistful of ice across the room, pegging a Headman Gunman that was trying to shoot Jenny. “Harm,” she shouted over the din, “what is that awful music you’re playing?”

 

Harm blasted a Conscript with a hypersonic beam. It caused little physical damage, but scrambled his brains inside his armor. The unfortunate Rikti fell down and flopped around, his body temporarily out of control. Without interrupting the music, he replied, “Awful music? What’s wrong with you? That’s AC/DC’s Big Guns! I’ve been playing their songs all mission!”

 

Crystal stepped in front of Harm, shielding him from the sword attacks of a Mentalist. The blade hit her ice at a steep angle and skipped off. Crystal’s return punch was more accurate, and the alien paused to clear his head. “Who’s AC/DC?”

 

The question so surprised Harm that he lost his composure. He dropped his guard stance and stared at her. “You’re kidding me!”

 

With a laugh, Jenny shouted, “No, she’s not!” She immolated the stunned Mentalist. The alien collapsed into a smoking heap.

 

Supa Fly unleashed a massive pulse of electromagnetic energy at the Rikti. Their equipment exploded, and the aliens in the area of effect convulsed as even their nervous system was temporarily overloaded. “[censored]! Even I know who they are! Where the [censored] were you raised, girl?”

 

I don’t have the pop-culture gene,” Crystal sulked. “Quit picking on me!” Eager to change the subject, she ordered, “Everyone move over here between the portal and the walkway! You blast everything in front, and I’ll shield you from attacks from the rear.”

 

The Blasters converged on the narrow path, leaving room for Supa Fly to stand in the center of their tight little group. They kept pace with the villains as the whole team slowly marched around the portal. The Blasters staggered their fire, filling the air with destruction. Each alien that got in their way was punished by flame and sound. Those who closed the distance were knocked away by Jenny’s super-strong punches and annihilated by coordinated blasts. Inevitably, some Rikti would get off a shot or two before being put down, but thanks to Supa Fly’s healing aura, the damage was quickly repaired. Any aliens that sought to circle behind the heroes found an immovable barrier in Crystal. She threw ice and punches to stall any attack, and her ice armor held firm against all comers. Acting in concert with the villains, the heroes swept around the room and cleared it of every Rikti warrior. When the last of the aliens was recalled, Harm shattered the other energy pylon. The portal vanished, and Penny dropped to the floor.

 

Crystal ran over to her, leaving a trail of ice in her wake as she broke free of her armor. She knelt down, scooped up some smaller pieces of ice, and pressed them to Penny’s forehead. Dark eyes slowly opened as Penny roused from her ordeal. “ZOMG,” she moaned, “that sucked!”

 

Well, you’re safe now, Penelope,” said Crystal soothingly. “It’s all over.”

 

A pained look crossed Penny’s face. “Um, yeah, about that…”

 

An indescribably powerful psychic force hijacked the minds of everyone in the room. In their minds’ eye, each saw a vision of the Clockwork King busting through the wall of the building. Wreckage from the battles with the Rikti moved under the influence of a mighty will and merged with scrap metal from the neglected building to form an army of Clockwork. They lined up before their king in parade formation. With a deafening psychic projection, the Clockwork King announced, “DON’T WORRY, PENNY! I’M HERE TO PROTECT YOU! I’LL KEEP YOU SAFE FROM EVERYTHING! SAFE FROM HEROES, FROM RIKTI, FROM VILLAINS, FROM BOYS… YOU’LL BE MY LITTLE CLOCKWORK PRINCESS, SAFE AND HAPPY FOREVER!”

 

The vision faded, and the assembled heroes and villains regained control of their perception. Supa Fly swore, “What the [censored] is HE doing here?”

 

The Clockwork King?” replied Penny, sheepishly. “I sort of, um, called for his help.”

 

Jenny’s ears shot straight up. “You did WHAT?”

 

I know, I know, but I panicked, and he’s always been nice to me!” As the heroes gave her incredulous looks, Penny continued, “He’s just, well, kind of crazy…and obsessive…and blames superheroes for everything that’s gone wrong with him.”

 

Who doesn’t?” observed Bellona. Tetsu Sensei nodded in agreement.

 

But he’s a really nice guy, when he’s calm…and he’s not calm right now.”

 

No [censored]!” grumbled Supa Fly.

 

So I’m like really REALLY sorry, OK?”

 

Don’t worry about it,” Crystal told her as she helped Penny to her feet. “Really, it’s OK. I’m surprised he’s here, or that he cares, but we’ll deal with it.”

 

Great,” Bellona spat bitterly. “After fighting our way here and rescuing your [censored], now we have to deal with the stalker ex-boyfriend from [censored]! I should have killed you instead!”

 

Crystal stepped between Bellona and Penny. With a hard glare, she informed the Corruptor, “No one’s going to die, Bellona, and you’re not killing the girl we just rescued!” More gently, she added, “This isn’t as bad as it seems. If he’s here to rescue Penelope, that means she’s in no danger. Furthermore, the Clocks aren’t that big a threat to us, either. I don’t know if you have them in the Rogue Isles, but here in Paragon, they’re what new heroes cut their teeth on. I haven’t faced any of them since I was security level nineteen, and that was years ago. They have some low-level electrical blasts and melee attacks. They’re not that dangerous.”

 

Says you,” muttered Harm. “You’re not wearing a Clockwork buffet.”

 

Well, then, get them before they get you!” Crystal stepped away from Penny and iced up. “I’m going to block the doorway. When they come, they’ll freeze up, and you all can blast them into scrap. Firefox, please stay with Penelope. Everyone else, get ready.”

 

Better be quick about it,” Jenny urged. “They’re almost here!”

 

Crystal stood in the open doorway and set herself. The clatter and whir of gears brought back memories of earlier conflicts, including an encounter with the Clockwork King himself. At the time, her inexperience with her powers and her underdeveloped superheroic tactical skill prevented her from shrugging off their attacks, and Crystal relied heavily on support from her team to stay upright. Some residual anxiety tickled the back of her mind. Crystal pushed it aside.

 

Come on, now! They’re ONLY Clocks!

 

Now they were close enough to see. An assortment of Clockwork of various ranks clattered and whirred through the hallway, charging through the base on their own rescue mission. Crystal just crossed her arms and waited for the moment when they would enter her freezing aura and grind to a halt.

 

A wave of Oscillators reached her first. They pulled up and prepared to fire what Crystal assumed were electrical blasts. Her eyes widened in surprise as she saw a wall of purple shoot from the assembled host. The psychic assault set every nerve in her body afire. Crystal clutched at her head and fell backwards, screaming in agony. Without her concentration, the ice armor cracked and fell off, and the freezing aura dropped. The Clockwork swarmed over her supine form unimpeded.

 

Everyone was aghast. Supa Fly breathed, “Oh, [censored]! Psychic Clocks!”

 

Eyes wide with fear, Tetsu Sensei turned on Penny and snarled, “Stupid girl! You’ve killed us all!”

 

All hail the mighty Grog! 

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