The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown - Now Complete!

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The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown - Now Complete!

Post by Damselbinder »

A man lay dead. A blonde boy - and he was a boy, really - stood over him, breathing hard. He wasn't shaking. He'd managed to stop himself from doing that at least. But his eyes were wide, and he was crying. His hands - thickly gloved - crackled with red lightning, sparks jumping all across him. He was glad that he was masked. The men across the room from him - none now were sitting, though some had been until a few moments before - were shouting and threatening, but all looked terrified of him. And as well they might: the man Jackson had just murdered had been burned to a crisp in only a few short seconds.

"So, can we just get to the part where you hand over the protection money?" A pot-bellied man in an expensive suit, with hair all too obviously augmented with a toupée, was still sitting. "Or is my little doggie gonna have to bark at you again?"
Jackson raised his hand. Red lightning gathered about him, his whole body glowing with it. But he wasn't looking at the men his father was talking to. He was still looking at that charred corpse.

"Y-you can't do business like this!" one of the others shouted. "There are rules! How is anyone supposed to make any money if we're all just killing each other? Your father - "
"My father was a pussy," Ronnie replied. "He never had the balls to build a real empire. If you don't like how I'm doin' things, then, uh...I mean, hehe, what are you gonna do? Who are you gonna complain to? Huh? Gonna call the cops? Hehehe! Gonna complain about the nasty man taking your money? We're all criminals here, Fernando. And -"
"My name is Ferdinand, you fat fuck!" Ferdinand was used to respect, even from his rivals. Even fear of Ronnie's 'doggie' didn't completely intimidate him. "You think you're the only one who can get a superhuman as a bodyguard? You're insane if you think this way of doing things is gonna get you anything other than dead!"

Ronnie looked a him for a moment. He stood up, popped the joints in his neck. He seemed about to do something, but a look went across his face. He smiled, looked at the figure to his right in black motorcycle gear. "Hey, little doggie. Bark at the bad man."
But the 'doggie' didn't bark. He was still staring at the dead man on the floor. The man he'd just killed. He could smell it - the steaming corpse. For the rest of his life, whenever Jackson ate steak, he imagined that he could smell that man's body.

"Doggie? Hey, Pluto!" Ronnie growled at the young man in black. "Fry him!" But there was still no response. Hissing, Ronnie himself clasped his hands together, and a burst of red lightning shot out of him, right into Ferdinand. The man cried out, and fell to his knees. The others jerked back in fright to see that Ronnie Morrow himself was a superhuman. But something seemed wrong. Ronnie himself winced in pain, while Ferdinand, though pretty badly hurt, was nowhere near dead. He didn't even fall, but with titanic effort raised himself back to his feet.
"Well h-how about that?" Ferdinand hissed. "You are a superhuman - just about."
"I -" Ronnie started to reply, but - shocked at the weakness of his powers - he couldn't think of anything to say. For the first time He gestured to his men, though even moving his arms made him cry out in pain from being shocked. One of them gingerly approached Morrow, put a heavy briefcase on his desk, and rushed back to the imagined safety of his allies.

A few minutes later, after Ferdinand's men had hauled away the charred remains of their compatriot, father and son were alone.
"You pussy!" Ronnie spat. "You stupid little cissy-fuck, can't you do anything right?"
Jackson pulled off his helmet, revealing his youthful, handsome features. He wasn't yet old enough to grow more than a scraggly beard, so he kept himself clean shaven. He glared at his father with undisguised rage, but he couldn't muster up the courage to express it.
"You know, Jack," Ronnie said, shaking his head, "just for a minute, just for a minute, I thought you might actually have been doing something to make me proud. But no. You clammed up. Now they know that -" Ronnie stopped himself, clenching his teeth and both fists.
"Now they know that your powers are weak, right Pop?" Jackson flashed a lop-sided smile, but it flickered on his face. He was trying very hard not to cry.
"My powers aren't weak," Ronnie insisted. "I just have finer control than any other electrokinetic. Didn't the Generator say that? Didn't he say that I had the best control?"
"Huh. Not quite what I remember, pop," Jackson replied, turning away. He could still see his father, though, reflected in a window.

How small he looked now, despite his swollen belly. Years and years of squandering the accomplishments of Jackson's grandfather - so great that even now the Morrows were achingly wealthy - of haemorrhaging money despite all the articles and interviews extolling the greatness of 'Ronnie Morrow: Entrepreneur', and even an abortive attempt at a reality television series that had died on its arse after one season. Fifteen years of believing his father was an incalculably brilliant man, before finally Jackson realised that the Emperor's crown was made of paper, and his statues all had feet of clay. Yet even now, when Ronnie had ordered him to 'look intimidating, keep silent, and do exactly what I tell you', he hadn't been able to say no. Even knowing that his physical power exceeded his father's ten times over, he was still afraid of him. He was still obedient to him. And in some twisted way, he still loved him.

"Right, we're gonna have to deal with this. Fernando's gotta go. Yeah, he's paying up now, but thanks to you he's smelled weakness. He'll try something. Well I'm gonna crush him before that can happen!"
"Pop, do I have to hear this?" Jackson found it difficult to keep the tremors from his voice. "If you're gonna have him killed, I don't want to know."
"Did I raise a retard? I'm not letting anyone else in on this. You're going to do it!"
Jackson spun on his heel. He glared at his father, a new shock cutting through the old. "Wh-what?!"
"You heard me." Ronnie smiled, his piggy little eyes shrinking in his skull. "You've already done it once. So do it again."
"I didn't mean to kill him! I didn't know I was that...powerful. I'm not gonna do it deliberately."
"Yeah," Ronnie said, taking a few steps closer. "You are." He looked his son in the eye. Jackson was taller, even though he was still growing. He was broader, smarter, more perceptive, and much stronger, both in his muscles and in his electrodirective ability. Yet he would obey his father nevertheless. He wasn't some simpering weasel. He would stand his ground, argue, insult Ronnie - he'd even struck him once. But he always ended up doing what Ronnie wanted. He couldn't help it.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

A man lay dead. A man no-one would mourn for, not even his two sons. Raymond Parr was a conniving, self-obsessed narcissist with a violent, bullying streak a mile wide. He was a predator and a parasite at the same time, and now the world was rid of him, his head torn from his shoulders. Had his end redeemed him at all, as he leapt fearlessly into battle with an enemy far stronger than himself? No. His motive had been hatred and self-destructive rage. No-one was there to see what he'd revealed, that Hades' armour was not just armour: it was a prison. Only he had seen, and then he'd died. But perhaps there was one good deed that he'd succeeded in doing, even if inadvertently. He had saved the life of Sophie Scott.

Well, perhaps he hadn't saved it. But if Enhancegirl realising his secret had been Jackson Morrow's only problem that day, he might have either thought of a solution on the spot or, thinking of it another way, he might have been too impulsive and completely exposed himself. But fate had had other plans. He'd sensed it, even though fifty miles separated him and his armorsuit. He'd sensed Greyhand tearing through it, the catastrophic damage inflicted to it. He'd retained control just long enough to kill Raymond Parr before the guidance systems had failed completely. He'd been careless, terribly careless, and now everything was at risk!

He'd travelled back to Sacramento under his own power, leaping miles at a time. Fortunately, Jackson could still sense exactly where his armour was. Exactly where she was. When Jackson got to the dingy, nondescript little warehouse that Raymond had been using as a base, he saw his old underling's body, and his head a few feet away. Close by, facing away from him was his armour. His wonderful, wonderful armour that had allowed him to do so much. How many enemies it had confounded, how many he'd fooled with the power Schiffer had given him - to be in two places at once. Yet it was not just the armour for which Jackson feared.

Jackson's feet splashed against the slightly wet ground, an emotion close to panic making his footfalls not just heavy, but destructive. His eyes were wide. He was not so young and frail as he'd been when he'd taken his first life, but he was no machine. He was sweating, struggling to remain calm. But a measure of peace entered his mind when he saw that his wife was alive.

Almost a foot taller than the 5'11" Jackson, Anya Morrow towered over her husband, but only because the armour was propping her up. The shapely, long-limbed woman was totally unconscious, her fine, rich-brown skin smooth, soft and dripping wet. Her long hair trailed down her back in a straight wave, its dampness making it look ebony-black, though it was really a dark brown. Her expression was one of total peace, and her lovely face was as calm as it could be: plump lips, wide, catlike eyes, and a sense of...softness, femininity, despite her great height. Her bosom was firm and ample, her hips slightly wider than her smooth shoulders, her legs long and finely shaped. She was what one might call a flawless version of herself. Certainly Jackson thought so. He could never look upon his wife's body without taking at least a few moments to appreciate it.

Yet the tingle of lust towards the sumptuous young woman was not all that Jackson felt as he looked upon her. After all, before her...entombing, he had lain with her many times. He felt relief - and some fear. So, carefully, Imperion's mighty hands eased his lovely, naked wife out of her confines, her walking prison. With a gentleness that looked rather tender, he inspected her body for wounds. Finding none, he tore his cape from his back, laid it on the cold concrete, and laid Anya down upon it.

"Okay," he muttered to himself, "okay, okay. She's okay." His heartbeat was still pumping in his ears. It was all he could hear, that and a sort of ringing. All it would have taken would be one over-curious child, one more of Greyhand's goons, and Anya would have been discovered. Best case scenario she'd have been killed, or worse, freed. Even then he had contingency plans, character witnesses he could call upon to 'prove' Anya was Hades, to rubbish any claims that he'd done anything to her, but once suspicion was thrown upon him, once there was even a hint of a connection between him and Hades...no, it wouldn't work. But, thankfully, that was moot. His panic was unnecessary: Anya was still his.

Jackson looked again at Greyhand's body, gripped suddenly by a renewed rage.
"That small-time, pathetic, worthless...nobody!" He felt lightning crackling around his arms, and struggled to restrain it. Emotional control of his powers had never originally been a problem, but it had been such an obvious way to fake being upset that it had become a genuine habit to use them when he was angry. He wished Raymond was alive, just so he could kill him all over again.

"Uh..." A voice. A weak, sleepy voice. A voice that, even at full strength, had always seemed oddly girlish considering the tall stature of its owner. A voice that Jackson had not heard in many years. "Wh...where...?"
Jackson swept round in an instant, with all the ferocity of a beast - or rather, that of a king scenting treason. Subtlety be damned, he was just going to crack her over the head and knock her unconscious.

But then he saw her face. Her lidded, half-open eyes. No, she was not even half awake. She was still in a delirious state. Had he been Insyte he would have found only the most confused thoughts, traces of very vague memories only. Her vision was still totally out of focus: she would never have been able to recognise Jackson by sight. But she could smell him, even over the pomegranate stink of stasis tank fluid that still clung to her tall, naked body. A manly smell. A strong smell. It had always comforted her to bury herself in his chest and smell him. To feel his vast strength - no his godlike strength - protecting her. Almost instinctively, she smiled, and Jackson found his wrath waning.

The titan knelt down, and swept off his jacket, lifting Anya slightly and laying the jacket underneath her, then resting her head on his knees.
"J...Jackson...?" Anya said, blearily. "How...long...?"
"How long have you been asleep? A while. But no worries, Anya. It's Sunday morning. What's a Sunday morning if you can't veg out and sleep in, right?" It was so easy to slip back into his winning charm that he almost did it by sheer reflex.
"Oh...okay..." Anya said, giving a sweet, slightly stupid smile.

To any outside observer, it would have looked as if Jackson was doing precisely what one would expect of Imperion: rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress, protecting and comforting her in her helplessness. Certainly Anya gazed up at her husband's handsome face with awe and love. Her vision began to get a little clearer. Her husband looked different - older. There was a steely hardness in his face now, just below the thin layer of his boyish smile. He was fiddling with something underneath her, that he'd left in his jacket pocket. He removed it, and she felt more comfortable. She hadn't realised it at first, but something hard had been prodding her in the side.
"Actually, it's still pretty early, babe," Jackson said. He was still fiddling with something, but Anya couldn't see what. "Why don't you go back to sleep, huh?"
"No, I don't...want to..." Anya said. Her mind began to clear a little more, and suddenly she felt deathly afraid. She didn't know why at first, and she moved closer to her husband. It was only when the thick, damp cloth clamped down over her mouth and nose that Anya remembered that it was Jackson who terrified her.

"Sorry, Anya, but I'm gonna have to be insistent," Jackson said, a hiss creeping into his voice. "You are going back to sleep." He held her by the back of the neck, forcing her into his other palm, wherein lay the drugged rag. She was still too weak to put up much of a fight - that is, she was too weak to put up much of a fight against Jackson. She raised an arm to pull Jackson's away, and she wrenched at it with enough force to make Valora look like a feeble weakling. But her strength was still vastly inferior to that of Imperion.

"Mmhhh...!" she moaned, terrified, as she felt her voluptuous body growing ever weaker, as she saw her husband looming over her. She remembered now what he'd done. Attacked her in the middle of the night, drugged her with something that meant she couldn't move, then the feeling of cold metal against her skin, a rush of a sweet smelling liquid and then...darkness. For her it had only felt like one night's sleep, but Anya hadn't opened her eyes for more than ten years.

And darkness was what came upon her now. As her long, rich-brown legs writhed and kicked, her heel smashing the concrete beneath it with just a slight tap, Jackson maintained his iron grip. She tried to shake her head or to scream for help, but his grip was too tight.
"Mmmhhh..." she whimpered. "Mmmphhhhh...!" She didn't understand why this was happening. She hadn't the slightest idea why her beloved husband had turned on her like this. Tears welled up in her eyes, obscuring her fading vision. She couldn't quite see the details of Jackson's expression, but it wouldn't have done her much good if she could have. He was almost stony-faced. Just a slight hint of anger was in his face, but Anya couldn't see it.

There they struggled, husband and wife, for about two minutes in total. They were two of the strongest superhumans in the world, but one wouldn't have known it. Anya was very drowzy again now. Her legs were still, her eyes were fluttering, her naked breasts rising and falling slowly, rhythmically.
"That's right," Jackson said. "Nothing you can do now. You're helpless. You're helpless, Anya. This is just how it's going to have be. There's too much at stake."
"Nmmhh...nnhhhmmhh..." Anya's eyes rolled back, her arms flopped to her sides, and a sort of...ripple ran through her as the tall beauty was drawn under by the chloroform. But still, some part of her kept fighting. She curled her fingers on the ground, and they tore through the concrete like it was made of butter.
"C'mon, Anya, don't make this hard. Just go to sleep...go to sleep...go to sleep..."

He ought to have relaxed his grip, considering that she was so weak that, at this point, a very strong man with no powers would have just about been able to restrain her. But no, he tightened it, and a glint came into his eye. God, he'd forgotten just how fucking hot she was! Those breasts, those legs, that smooth skin, those plump lips...and she was so tall. That made it delicious just how much stronger he was than her. He could wrestle her down, totally subdue her, and knock her out with ease, and she'd collapse like a redwood. She made him feel powerful. She was so strong, but so easily conquered, so gorgeous, so limp and helpless and weak and floppy and sleepy and -

"Aaaand, that's enough there, Jackie-boy," Imperion muttered. He realised that he was getting a bit carried away. He wasn't here to indulge himself. He wasn't here as Hades. He wasn't even here as Imperion. He was here as Jackson Morrow to sort out a fuck-up, and that was what was important. He saw that Anya was deeply asleep now, and he softly allowed her to fall back to the ground. He turned her over, inspecting her long, smooth back, her ass, the backs of her soft legs for any scratches or injuries. For his tenderness was not that of a loving husband for his dear wife, but that of a collector with a prized objet d'art.

Finding none, he returned to his half-destroyed armour. "Shit," he hissed. It had never been damaged this badly. Even Hyperia hadn't been able to do it this much harm. Still, it would regenerate eventually. He placed his hands upon it, and in a flash of light, the armour vanished, transforming into an energy that merged with Jackson's body, drawing succour from his power. It was odd: he could sort of feel the damage now that his armoursuit was integrated with him again, could feel it reforming within him, repairing. But that was not important. What was important was getting Anya to another stasis tank as soon as humanly possible.

Despite his haste, he was careful with her. He gently eased her up onto her feet with such a minute fraction of his strength that it was astonishing he could do it at all. Then, sliding his hands down, down down her smooth back, her curvy, feminine hips, he seized his captive wife by her thighs, and slung her over her shoulder. In fact, this gave Jackson such a giddy, illicit thrill, that he used far too much force. If it had been, say, Nova over his shoulder, he'd have seriously bruised her at least - but Anya was made of stern stuff. In that way it became all the sweeter. The conquest, that is.

Yet, an hour or so later, as Jackson laid his wife in her stasis tank that had, with occasional pauses for repairs, held her for many years, he was denied the delight he normally felt when taking control of a woman. Stripping her, imprisoning her, preserving her youth and beauty to be admired at his leisure, watching her peaceful, somnolent, and helpless. Knowing that he could do whatever he liked, but that he chose not to, knowing that his great charisma and attractiveness meant that he was perfectly capable of satisfying his lusts with willing women. No, that turned to ash in his mouth even as he drank in the sight of Anya's naked body.

If Jackson had any great talent, it was compartmentalisation. As soon as he realised that he needed to recover his armour and prevent Anya from being discovered, he fixed his mind entirely on that, shoving everything else to the side. To be able to do this, to be able to choose to be so single-minded, was one of the greatest strengths that a leader of men could possess. Alas, he'd had to fake being concerned about his allies so often that it was starting to dilute his reputation for decisiveness, but it hadn't actually changed him. The problem was that now Anya was safe. He had done all that needed doing. And now his heart started to thump in his chest, now his ears began to ring again. He felt nauseous. His right hand shook, and for a moment or two he didn't realise why, like a shadow of pain before a migraine hits. But when it did hit, he was aware that he had a different problem. A problem that would not be resolved quite so easily as this one.

How simple his quest had seemed at first! Bring more superhumans to a particular area to magnify his own powers. But there had been so many...complications. Anubis. Hades. The Penitentiary Supreme. Schiffer. At each point he'd been so careful, so intelligent in his deceptions that it seemed vanishingly unlikely that any one of them would yield his secrets up...but there were so many secrets now. There were a thousand different ways that he might have been exposed. Slowly but surely, the machine of his duplicity had become more and more complex, containing more and more moving parts - and now he was seized with paranoia. Sophie Scott of all people knew his secret - or so it seemed - and he couldn't work out how!

Had Cato betrayed him in captivity? No, Cato didn't know his secret. Yet with his cunning, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Had it been Schiffer? It was possible. His encounter with Insyte had given him anterograde amnesia, it hadn't taken away his existing memories. Schiffer was supposed to have wiped his own memories of Jackson's identity, but perhaps Natalya Nazarov had manage to wrest something out of him. Or perhaps she'd managed to get something out of Jackson herself, surreptitiously. Perhaps it was some old enemy of Ronnie's, someone who knew details of his father's criminal past, and had managed to put two and two together. Perhaps it was one of the members of the Pauldron. Panhellius, or Fahrenheit. Most likely Fahrenheit. Dear god! Had he only joined because he already suspected something? He had exposed Gravion, after all: maybe he'd taken it upon himself to out superheroes with criminal secrets. Or perhaps it was the Anubis Foundation - somehow someone had penetrated the layers and layers of financial misdirection, found his connection to the Foundation. Or had it been Farah and her fucking Pariahs? Oh, they'd been an extra nuisance Jackson really hadn't needed. Or had one of Hades' acolytes somehow found out? Or had some superhuman been able to see through the armour, or -

"FUCK!" Imperion bellowed, his roar shaking the very stones of his cavernous hideout, rattling Anya's stasis tank. Jackson found himself clutching his chest, hyperventilating. All that work, all that struggle, the years of preparation, and careful planning and consolidation of his power...had he really left himself so vulnerable that Enhancegirl could find him out? He couldn't think. He was too riled up. If he could calm himself, he could work out what he needed to do. But he couldn't. He couldn't stop the gears of his mind from spinning out of control. He couldn't stop the nauseous feeling. Despite all his acolytes, virtuous and villainous alike, despite all his admirers - worshippers, even - he felt terribly alone. No-one to consult. No-one to ask for help. No-one he could trust. "The burden of kingship," he thought, then laughed mirthlessly at his own pretension.

But then Jackson realised - there was someone whom he could go to. Not a confidant - but perhaps, just perhaps, a source of comfort. He was, after all, so very adept at drawing strength from other people.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sara had, of course, been a little disappointed when Jackson had left, especially since he'd done so as stealthily as he had. The swift exit of Sophie Scott, dragging Mariko along with her, had been suspiciously soon afterwards, but the party was in its dying embers anyway. Mark had passed out on a couch, slumped against Shane. The mighty Fahrenheit had seemed surprisingly content with this state of affairs, but evidently Tobias - otherwise known as Cougarman, who'd come down from retirement in Alaska especially to help Jackson set up the CRO - had not. He'd walked past the two lying on top of each other, scowled, and then left quickly. As for Chryseis and Derek, Sara had lost track of them.

But let's be honest with ourselves: Sara didn't give the most microscopic rat's ass, the remotest shit, the least fuck whatsoever about any of that. She was still semi-delirious with astonished pleasure. Imperion - Jackson Morrow - loved her. They'd kissed. A fantasy so absurd that only its intensity had made her consider it for more than five minutes. And yet it had come true. The Jade Colossus had opened his heart to the Starlit Maiden.

Sara lay on her back, in a soft bed that now seemed invitingly large. She almost giggled at the thought of sharing it. Her window was open, and a strong breeze chilled her. She was naked, letting the wind caress her beautiful body, her slender legs, her round, pink-tipped bosom, her shoulders and her soft, brown hair. Yet as she lay there, tingling with goosebumps, doubt entered her heart. She wondered, now, what would happen. What would a relationship between her and Jackson even look like? What, would they buy a house together? Get married? Have children? He was such a larger-than-life figure that it all seemed so strange.

And there was more than that. She felt that she knew Jackson pretty well - she'd been in the Pauldron for nearly two years now, after all - but when she really thought about it, there was so much she did not know. She knew the basic details, where he'd grown up and so on, that his father had been a fairly suspect business mogul, but beyond that she wasn't sure. She knew he liked surfing, she knew he was mad about seafood...but that was more or less it as far as personal detail went. She wasn't even sure if he had any brothers or sisters. She didn't know how he'd met his ex-wife. She only knew about how he'd started the Pauldron because he was so famous.

But that was alright, she assured herself. He was, ironically for someone in the public eye so often, a private man. He kept things hidden inside him, but that was what leaders did. He needed to appear strong, commanding. It was an odd dichotomy: his easy, jovial demeanour on the one hand, and his grave decisiveness on the other. She'd assumed, inasmuch as she'd thought about it at all, that the joviality was his more natural personality, and he suppressed it in times of crisis. She wondered now if it might be the other way round, and she felt a little anxious. Who, exactly, was it that she loved?

"Ugh, stop it!" Sara sat up. The wind's caress was no longer pleasurable. She just felt cold. Springing off her bed, Sara threw on a fluffy, white dressing gown, binding it tightly in place with its sash. "You're being an idiot," she thought. "You know why you love him. He's strong, courageous, kind...he cares about other people, and he takes it on himself to do what's right. He's a good man - the best!" She found herself smiling slightly. So what if her reasons for loving him were obvious? That was better, surely. And yes, there was more to discover about him, but that was part of what made it exciting.

Sara took a root beer out of the fridge. She didn't have much of a sweet tooth, but root beer was one of her indulgences. She cracked it open, but never got the chance to drink it, for there was a knock at her door. Frowning, she wondered who would be calling on her at this hour. Familiar fears swelled up inside her, and she was tempted to activate her powers. But perhaps it was just a neighbour or something and Sara, unlike Jackson, Chryseis and Mark, kept her identity as Nova a secret. Gingerly, then, she opened the door.
"Jackson?"

It was he. He looked dishevelled, distressed, and though he tried to smile at Nova, he couldn't keep it up.
"Hey, Sara," he said. "Can I come in?"
"Of course," she said, quite sternly. Thoughts of romance were pushed thoroughly aside. Jackson wasn't a frivolous man: something was wrong. "What's happened? I'll contact the others if -"
"No," Jackson said, with a little more force than he'd intended. "Uh...no, it's okay. I'm..." He made a frustrated gesture with his hands, trying and failing to look sheepish. "D'you mind if I sit down?" At Sara's nod, Jackson carefully sat himself on her couch. He was being careful, as always, not to break anything.

"Jackson, are you alright?" Sara asked, sitting down next to him. There was a look in his eyes she'd not seen before, not when they'd faced the direst dangers together. He looked stressed. His eyes were full of anxiety, his brow creased. He seemed to be finding it hard to sit still.
"I feel like an idiot," Jackson said. "Coming here like this. I just -" He was about to tell another lie. He was about to say something about a rumour that Hades planned to come after Nova again...but what was the point? This once, he could just tell her the truth. More or less, anyway. "I felt...very alone," he said. To Sara's ear, his accent's California surfer-twang had diminished massively. "I wanted to be with you."

Sara might easily have imagined that, if their situations were reversed and she was saying that to Jackson, he'd be nice about it but inevitably think less of her. See her as feeble. Needy. But she didn't have any such thoughts as she saw this man in need. She loved him, and she wanted to comfort him. She put her arms around his neck, and kissed his cheek. He pulled her closer and kissed her on the lips, and she touched his chest.
"Why?" she asked eventually, staring at him with intense, golden-brown eyes. "You have all of us. You have your Foundation. You have friends. The whole country loves you."
"I know...I must sound pretty ungrateful," Jackson said. He spoke in a low voice, but a little of the boyish charm had returned to his face. "I just have a whole lotta things on, uh, on my mind. The new Pauldron. The Morrow Foundation. My investment firm. The CRO. The Anubis Foundation." He swiftly added: "and whatever shit they're up to. Dealing with Hades. Dealing with the Pariahs. Worrying about when the next Supremacist or Lord Delirious is gonna show up and be too much for us to handle. Being the face of the American superhero." He said the last of these with a strange mixture of pride, exhaustion and venom. But the odd admixture was gone in a moment. "I'm sorry, Sara, this, uh...I don't know why I'm letting it get to me this time." Of course, he wasn't telling her what he was really worried about, but the emotion was real.
"Oh, yeah," Sara said. "I can't imagine how all that would get to you. You're such a whiner." They both chuckled.

Jackson took Sara's hand. "I don't mean to burden you with all my crap," he said. "I don't expect you to deal with it...I'm just kinda airing it out."
"I don't...I'm not expecting you to be a superman all the time." Sara moved a little away from him. "I was expecting...I was hoping that you'd open yourself up to me. I suppose I wasn't expecting it at 1 A.M., but - Jesus, Jackson, if I had to worry about all that all the time, I'd burst! I don't know how you do it."
"It's necessary," Jackson replied.
"Maybe," Sara replied. "But that's not the point. There's a reason it's you and not anyone else. There's a reason we all follow you, why -" She smiled, still shy of saying what she felt. "There's a reason why I love you." She stroked his face, feeling the scratch of his short beard against her palm. "When was the last time you did this? Just let it all out like this?"
Jackson gave Sara a very weary look. "Never."
"Not even to Anya?"
"Definitely not to Anya," he said, with a growl.
"Sorry," Sara said. "That was insensitive."

Jackson shook his head, and smiled with a little more warmth this time. "I'm the one who just showed up at your house in the middle of the night. You pretty much have a free pass to be as insensitive as you want."
"Listen, my point is...I want to be with you. I want to be someone you can share your problems with. You said that it was okay for me to be weak with you...I don't think you could ever be weak...but you don't have to be invulnerable."
Jackson didn't seem at first to have heard what she'd said. He had that distant look in his eye he sometimes got, as if he were a world away. But soon enough he was back with her, though his eyes were still tired. "I just want to rest," he said, softly. "But I can't stop -" He was suddenly gripped by an impulse of total self-destruction. To tell her everything, to confess all his crimes, to expose to her all his schemes - just for a few moments' peace. For a moment, his plans, his long struggle meant nothing - he just wanted, as he'd said, to be able to rest.

And then Sara draw her slim legs underneath her, so that she was kneeling on her couch. She took both of Jackson's hands, at looked at him with a sort of frustrated earnestness.
"I want you to need me, Jackson," Sara said. "I'm not as strong as you...in so many ways, I'm weaker than you, but I want to help you hold up the weight of the world."
"Do you mean that?" Jackson said. Inwardly he noted just how right he had been about her. Unlike Derek, who seemed to need someone to count on him regardless of what they did or who they were, Sara seemed to have a pathological need to serve the common good. Even falling in love, for her, was not just about her or Jackson. In making himself larger than life in her eyes he had made her falling for him all but inevitable.
"Yeah, I do," Sara said. "Even the greatest man needs someone to support them. And Jackson...you are the greatest man I know."

It was so odd. Jackson realised that Sara really was totally devoted to him. She was there, so soft and petite and beautiful, naked beneath her fluffy, white coat, cheeks aflame with adoration for him. Here they were having an intimate conversation, hand-in-hand. Only a couple of months earlier, he'd kidnapped her, drugged her, done everything in his power to humiliate her, to degrade her. He'd publicly shamed her, and then watched as she'd crumbled afterwards - and tumbled right into his arms.

He didn't feel guilty about any of this, but it did seem just a little strange to have a woman whom he'd molested and psychologically tormented calling him the greatest man she knew. He'd had his reasons for that whole affair, of course, but he didn't pretend to himself that he hadn't enjoyed it. Defeating and humiliating all those beautiful women, seeing them go down to their knees before him...oh, yes, business and pleasure had mixed quite well that day. It seemed now almost like another life. Even killing Greyhand, chloroforming Anya - which had happened only a couple of hours earlier - seemed like an alternate reality. In many ways it was a reality he preferred, where he was lord and master - but while indulging his penchant for helpless women may have given him pleasure, it brought him no comfort. But Sara's soft, loving eyes did.

Without realising, he had been staring into those lovely eyes for almost a minute in complete silence.
"I love you," Sara said. Partly she didn't know what else to say.
"I love you too," Jackson replied. There was a strange tone to his voice. He sounded almost...surprised. He stood, and Sara stood as well. He touched her neck, feeling her pulse as he stroked her with exquisite care and delicacy. She shivered. He slid his hand underneath her fluffy, white dressing gown, and she undid the sash. He slipped it off her shoulders, and the petite maiden was completely naked. She gave a sort of gasp, but it was not one of shock. She reached forward and began undoing his shirt, and she was almost panting. His chest bared, Imperion seized Sara, lifting her up into his arms with a terrifyingly small proportion of his might, her smooth, light pink skin rubbing against him. They kissed, and Sara moaned into her lover's mouth, as romantic longing gave way to utmost lust.

He took her into her bedroom, and laid her gently down on top of her covers. He hastily removed the rest of his clothes, and in a few moments they were entwined. Sara was...rather vocal about expressing her pleasure, but Jackson was utterly silent throughout. Sara thought, when later she had the presence of mind to think, that it had been because he'd been restraining himself. This was true, but not only in the way that she realised. Jackson imagined all sorts of things he might do with Sara. Things he might do to her. But that wouldn't fit his wholesome, all-American image, now, would it?

Yet even so, he couldn't restrain himself completely. At one point, Jackson seized both of Sara's wrists, pinning them above her head, holding the light, delicately slender young woman down. She was at his mercy. He expected her to look up at him with doe-eyed shock, to be overcome with his passions, and yield humbly up to him. But she did no such thing. She grinned. She wriggled sinuously, deliberately egging him on. She had a fire in her eyes. She was having fun. She laughed, not mockingly, but happily. For her it had suddenly all become real. Jackson was not an unattainable superbeing: he was a man, with a man's body and a man's doubts. A mighty body and great, Atlas-like doubts - but he was a human being. As Jackson made love to Sara, she seemed to grow in power. Her hair was still brown, her abilities still dormant...but even now there was a sort of aura about her. For the first time in a while, Sara had done something Jackson had not expected.

When they finished, and the two lay panting and spent next to each other, Sara curled up against Jackson's side, kissing his chest, tracing her fingers along his ribs.
"Do you feel better?" she half-whispered.
"Huh? Oh, yeah...yeah, I do," Jackson said. He pulled her closer, kissed the top of her head. Indeed, he felt much, much calmer.
"How are we going to do this?" Sara asked. "I mean the others all seem to know already, but..."
"Don't worry about it," Jackson replied. He tried to experience this calm as fully as he could, to be present in this moment, but a small part of him wondered if he wouldn't be better off casting aside all his deepest desires, and just making a life with this woman. It would be easier. Calmer. Happier.

"No!" A loud cry from his heart. "Do you want to be Mark Antony, or do you want to be Caesar?" he thought, putting much more eloquently a frequent refrain of his father's. "Damn it, Jackson, there's things more important than happiness!"
"Jackson?" Sara saw he was thinking, and was concerned, but he gave her a warm smile. The internal debate was over.
"I'm okay," he said. "In fact, I'm better than okay." He turned to her, and embraced her. "You've really helped me, you know that?"
"I'm glad," Sara replied softly, nestling into Jackson's chest. "I'm glad..." She closed her eyes. Jackson did the same, but it was not to sleep, but to think.

Restored to full mental fortitude, he cast aside all extraneous matters, all doubts. He was as sure of his present course as he had been when he'd realised he had a second power. Now his mind, almost as mighty in its way as his muscles were in the heart of his little kingdom, determined a course of action. There were four aspects to what would come next: the Pariahs; the Anubis Foundation; Cato Pict; and the one who had stabbed him with this dagger of paranoia, the gnat who had bitten him where he could not itch, the shrew who had had the temerity to poke her nose in his business. Sara had given him, by her love and her passion, all the clarity he needed to work out exactly what to do about Sophie Scott.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

After Cougarman and Fahrenheit's dance-off, Mariko didn't remember much of the rest of the night. She was not the best at holding her liquor, and Sophie and Chryseis had been much too effective in getting her to 'relax'. So when she woke up the next morning with a throbbing headache, she wasn't all that surprised. She vaguely remembered Sophie rather hurriedly getting her up and out. There was a cab ride, and -

"Wait..." Ah yes. Mariko remembered now. As they'd been taking the cab back, she remembered Sophie starting to tell her something, but evidently she'd not judged Mariko to be in a fit state to listen, because Mariko couldn't remember what she'd said. Either that or she really had been embarrassingly drunk. Feeling a bit sheepish that she'd let herself get so pasted, Mariko looked around for Sophie. She would expiate her guilt in the purgatorial fires of making Sophie some blueberry waffles, a dish she cooked excellently but had always loathed. But Sophie wasn't there.

Indeed, as Mariko took in her surroundings, she realised she was not in her house. It was not Sophie's room either. It looked entirely unfamiliar. No, actually, not entirely unfamiliar - but why that should be was not coming to her. She got up, realising that she was in her underwear, her dress folded neatly on a chair. She slipped her dress on, the thin, silky fabric cascading lightly down her tall, slender body. Barefoot, in the same clothes that she'd worn the previous night, and with nary a hairbrush in sight, Mariko still managed to look poised and elegant.

Sophie saw Mariko before Mariko saw her, when she emerged from the bedroom. A shaft of light cast straight onto the door she was coming out of, so that when she opened it, it beamed straight onto her shapely, sumptuously long legs. Sophie smiled. She remembered once as Mariko was bathing, Sophie had playfully snatched her razor out of her hand and started shaving her legs for her. Mariko had been surprisingly cagey about her beauty routine being disrupted. She'd literally pouted.

It was a happy, simple memory, and one that Sophie cherished. Though, after the ordeal that was Elena, Sophie had had something of the attitude of a hoarder when it came to her memories. She locked away every remotely significant recollection, particularly those of Mariko, whom she'd come so close to losing. If you'd asked her the next day, she would have been able to recall the most insignificant details of Mariko's appearance, her gait, her grouchy, hungover countenance - everything.

"Morning," Sophie said. She sounded subdued. Mariko didn't notice, and briefly smiled at her, then winced as she stepped into the sunlight. Sophie opened her mouth to speak again, but Mariko spoke first.
"Yes, yes," she muttered, shielding her eyes from the light, "I'm aware of the irony. Tell me," she said, kissing Sophie on the forehead, "did I make a complete fool of myself last night?"
"No," Sophie replied. Again she sounded oddly quiet. "You don't get embarrassingly drunk. You go straight from fun to sleepy."
"How convenient of me," Mariko replied. She looked around. "Wait...is this Ella's house?"
"I'm surprised you remember," Sophie said. They'd gone over about six weeks earlier for the birthday of Sophie's friend, but Mariko had had to leave after ten minutes on Pauldron business. Mariko had been reticent about going in the first place, so Sophie had afterwards demanded written confirmation from Imperion that the situation had been genuinely urgent enough to warrant Mariko's swift egress. At the time it had seemed funny. Nothing involving Imperion seemed funny now.

"Why are we here?" Mariko asked. "Your apartment and my house are both closer to the Crow's Nest than this is."
"I know," Sophie said. She looked into Mariko's eyes, and now her anxiety was plain. Indeed, she didn't just look anxious. She looked afraid. Mariko wondered, now, why Sophie had taken it upon herself to bring them somewhere they would be unlikely to be found.
"Sophie, what's going on?" Mariko said. As a matter of habit, she checked her phone and found that it had been switched off, and not by her. She tried to switch it on, but nothing happened. She was meticulously careful about keeping it charged, so she didn't understand what had happened.
"I took out the battery," Sophie explained. "I don't know if this really works, but I heard you can't track a phone if the battery's been removed."
Mariko's eyes flashed with umbrage: her allies needed to be able to get in touch with her at all times. Sophie knew that!

Now there was a point. Sophie did know that, and she was not one for foolish caprice. "Are..." Mariko narrowed her eyes. She wondered again why Sophie had brought them neither to Mariko's place, nor her own. "Are we safe?"
"No, we are not safe," Sophie replied, a small tremor in her voice. She breathed in sharply. "I've been going over it again and again and again in my head...trying to find some way for it not to be true, but...Jesus-fuck, I know I'm right, and I fucking wish I weren't."

Sophie was perched on a small table. Mariko took one of the seats across from her and put her hand on Sophie's. "This is sounding uncomfortably familiar, Sophie. Please don't tell me -"
"What? No! No, fuck no, this has got nothing to do with Elena. Well," she said, getting a funny look in her eye, "I guess in a kinda roundabout way it does have something to do with her." She pinched the bridge of her nose. It had always been a bit of a talent of Sophie's that she could get by on very little sleep, but even she wasn't unaffected by not having any sleep at all. She'd had plenty of time for the shock of what she'd discovered to settle, but fear and distress kept her awake.

Yet only now, when she was face to face with her girlfriend, did she realise how grievous a wound she was about to inflict. She certainly didn't feel guilty - but it was still hard. The Pauldron had become something of great importance to her, not only as a superhero, but as a person: being able to rely on others and be relied on by them in return, to be part of a team. The one small mercy was that Mariko had never given the impression that she and Jackson were particularly close.

"Mariko," she said, "last night I got a call from May. You - uh - you know she'd been investigating the Anubis Foundation, right?"
"Yes," Mariko replied. "I take it she found something."
"She found out who owns it. Like, who ultimately owns it." Sophie was shaking.
"It's Hades, isn't it?" Mariko said, gravely. In response to her lover's astonished look, she explained. "I see I'm right. Well, it only stands to reason. Derek and I had wondered for some time if there was a connection, and from what we now know about Peter Schiffer, it's become perfectly clear that Hades had something to do with the Anubis Foundation." Though her principal concern was indeed with the matter at hand, there was a certain satisfaction audible in her voice at having been proven right. "It's not much of a step to realise that she was running it all along." She shook her head. "She must have been setting things in motion for years before faking her death. I'm almost impressed."
"No, Mariko, you don't understand. I mean, yeah, you're right, but there's more," Sophie nearly hissed. "He's -"

It was just then that Ella walked in.
"Good morning," she said, a little quietly. She was still in her pyjamas, puffy-eyed, and not looking very happy.
"Good morning, Ella," Mariko said, forcing a smile. "Thank you for being so accommodating."
"Uh, don't worry about it." The tall, shy young woman was a little intimidated by Mariko, so found her attempt at friendliness rather disconcerting.
"Yeah, thanks Ella," Sophie said. "I really, really owe you one. Name your favour, it's yours." Gratitude, she hoped, would make up for the lack of explanation.
"I'll, um, try to think of something," she said. She seemed about to retreat back to the social safety of her bedroom, but she was not a stupid woman, and a thought did occur to her. "Sophie, does...does this have anything to do with you calling me last night?"
"What? Uh, no, we were just - just at a quiz night in a bar," Sophie said hurriedly. "Hey, Mariko, we should get going. Like, now."
"If you...say so." Mariko was beginning to get very concerned at Sophie's behaviour. Too many familiar bells were being rung - but actually, now that Mariko thought about it, it was not quite the same. She looked extremely anxious, but she didn't have that horrifying panic in her eyes. No, Sophie was thinking, obviously about some matter of great import.

Alas, then, that the two were interrupted once more before Sophie could complain. Someone knocked at the door and Ella, just walking past it, opened it. The young lady found herself looking at a short woman in a trousersuit, not a policewoman, but an official of some kind. She flashed a badge at Ella, but so briefly that she didn't see what was actually on it.
"Gill Keeley, C.R.O. I'm looking for a woman named Mariko Asakura. I have reason to believe that she's here."
"Ella, don't -" Sophie began to say, but it was too late.
"Yeah, she's here," Ella said, moving aside so that Gill could see for herself.
"Ms Asakura, I'd like you to come with me if that's alright."

Mariko had been alarmed for a moment, but then relaxed. She recognised this woman: a relatively trusted administrator at Jackson's Foundation, whom he'd asked to take on a role at the C.R.O. This was no enemy. The fact that she was incommunicado had probably worried Imperion. Something had happened, and he'd sent someone out to find her and make sure she was alright. All was well.
"Why do you need to speak with her?" Sophie asked. She sounded defensive.
"We need to ask her about a relative of hers," Gill said. "It'll just take -"
"No," Sophie barked. "I don't know exactly how this Crow thing works, but I'm pretty sure you can't arrest people." She did a good job of hiding the fact that she was deathly afraid. "How the hell did they find us?! Imperion must have sent her, but...why do it like this? What's going on?"

"Don't worry, Sophie," Mariko said, surprised by Sophie's reaction. "I'm sure it's all perfectly above board." She stepped forward and Sophie grabbed her wrist. "Sophie what the hell is going on?"
"Don't go with her," Sophie said softly. "Please." She looked intensely into her girlfriend's eyes and Mariko, confused and now a little frustrated with Sophie, relented. Unlike Jackson, Sophie could be frivolous when she was in a playful mood, but she wasn't being so now. Why, though, did Sophie not want her to go with someone from Jackson's organisation? She said that they weren't safe, then she'd been talking about Anubis and Hades, and -
"Oh." Mariko suddenly went very still. She looked into Sophie's eyes, and only Sophie could have seen the tremors on her beautiful face. Mariko mouthed a single word: "Imperion."
Sophie mouthed back: "Hades."

There was a long silence. But Mariko broke it, saying in a clear voice.
"I'm sorry for the confusion, Ms...?"
"Keeley." She looked a little suspicious.
"Ms Keeley. I'll come along straightaway." She stooped to kiss Sophie on the cheek, and whispered: "Status quo."
Sophie understood. It might well look worse if Mariko wouldn't show up when summoned. At present, all Jackson knew was that Sophie had looked at him with fear in her eyes. Surely he couldn't be that sure. Yes. That was why he'd summoned Mariko in this odd way. It was a litmus test: he was gauging their reactions. At least for now, it was better that they behaved normally. She bowed to Mariko's wisdom, and kissed her back.
"I'll meet you tonight," she said. "We'll make plans, yeah?"
"Indeed," Mariko replied. "The bar on Howitzer and -"
"No," Sophie said. If she was right, if Imperion's powers were at their peak where superhumans were many, she didn't want to meet in Seacouver at all. "I'll text you somewhere, okay?"
"Well and good," Mariko said. She stood tall, stiffened herself, and even Sophie couldn't see that there was anything troubling her. As far as the arts of deception went, Sophie was better at making up excuses and stories, but Mariko had the better poker face.

After Mariko had left with Gill Keeley, Sophie didn't linger for much longer either. If Mariko's part was to suggest that things were normal, it was her part to prepare. She bid a swift goodbye to a very confused Ella, and made a swifter exit. Now that someone else knew, now that she wasn't alone with this terrible secret, she began to be able to plan as she made her way back to her apartment. Imperion was Hades...but how literally was that true? Imperion was clearly the true mastermind...but there had to be someone in that suit. Indeed, she'd even seen them fighting with each other! That was an important detail. He couldn't be in two -

"Oh shit," Sophie said, quite loudly, attracting more attention than she'd cared to attract. Not only was it untrue that Jackson couldn't be in two places at once, Sophie realised that she'd seen someone else pull the same trick: Sam Sparr, the Pretender. His armour could operate independently of him - she'd seen him do it at the Penitentiary Supreme. That fight, Imperion's 'rescue' of all of them from Hades' clutches...it had all been puppetry!

Fear now began to mix with a burning, righteous anger. The betrayal...the terrible betrayal! Not just of Mariko and the Pauldron, but of all their kind, every superhero. Every little boy who pretended to be Imperion when he was playing with his friends. Everyone who'd ever used him as an example to show that superheroes could be trusted. And Nova...
"Oh god..." Sophie almost wept for Nova's sake. What Jackson had done to her...more than anything else, what he'd done to Nova as Hades and as Imperion was true evil. This could not stand. A conspiracy this vast would have to have holes. During the night she'd read the email that had put May Fairweather onto the scent and, indeed, it was too circumstantial to prove anything. All it showed was some financier worrying that 'Morrow's not going to be pleased' with a set of quarterly profit reports. Indeed, had it not been for everything else slotting into place, it would not on its own have been enough to convince Sophie of Jackson's criminality. But there had to be something else!

By the time Sophie returned to her apartment, she had already thought of several potential avenues of investigation. Anubis was the most likely to yield up results, but there were other things too. His oh-so-philanthropic Foundation - might that be a good way of laundering dirty money, or funnelling it to his criminal enterprises? If so, someone working there would have to be in on at least an aspect of it. Yes...mighty though Imperion was, he was not all-powerful. Plus, not everyone loved him as much as the general population did. Ivan Nazarov, for instance, would leap on a chance to be Jackson's enemy - yes, the Pariahs were her best chance of a powerful ally. And if worse came to worst, the Pariahs united could probably defeat Jackson.

Before entering her bedroom Sophie, while still very afraid, had been renewed of purpose. But upon opening the door, chains of terror, hard and cold, clutched at her. For she was not alone. Kirsten was lying on her bed, unconscious and roughly bound and gagged in tape. Standing next to her was a figure that had haunted the nightmares of many a superheroine since he had revealed himself to the world.
"Miss Scott," rang out the metallic, mechanical voice of Hades' armour, "I believe the two of us need to have a conversation."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Already Ferdinand had made his inquiries. Two superhumans were already guarding him. One pyrokinetic, and one with enhanced strength. He was calling for more. Ronnie Morrow was a self-aggrandising fool, but he had made something clear to the criminal community: it was an arms race now. Whoever had the most and strongest superhumans on their side would have a decisive advantage - and not just in terms of muscle. Frankie Ipswich in Chicago had, it was said, someone who could transmute chemicals into other forms, so that they could transport drugs without any possible risk of police interference.

But right now, Ferdinand just needed someone who could deal with 'Pluto'. He had gone back to the club he owned in Seacouver, and not just for the pretty waitresses. Seacouver, for whatever reason, always had a lot of superhumans to choose from.
"Alright, fellas," he said, "it's pretty simple. I'm gonna call another meeting, he's gonna bring his bodyguard. I want you to waste him and the fat man. Get it?"
"Got it," the larger man, the pyrokinetic said. "What's his power?"
"Uhh, electricity," Ferdinand said. The strongman smirked. Electrokinetics were ten-a-penny. "Don't. He's stronger than your average jerkoff kid going around jumpstarting cars. I wouldn't have called you otherwise."
"Please ignore Rick, Mr Rodriguez," the pyrokinetic said. "We take every job very -"

He was dead in an instant. A bolt of lightning burst through the nearest window, and fried the pyrokinetic inside and out.
"Wh...Stephen...STEPHEN!!" Rick screamed, as his friend of years was reduced to a charred, smoking corpse. Terrified and bewildered, he looked around just in time to see a figure leaping through the shattered window, and a cascade of red lightning bursting towards him. It struck him dead in the chest...but Rick was made of tougher stuff than Stephen had been. As the young man in the black helmet looked on astonished at the ineffectiveness of his attack, Rick leapt forward, and seized the boy by the throat, with every intention of strangling him.
"You little shit! You really thought it'd be that easy?!"
"Urghh....khhhkk...!" Jackson gasped, struggling to breathe. This man's strength was immense. Jackson was pretty strong for his size, but it was like being held in a steel vice. He swatted feebly at Rick's arms, and realised with a terrified whimper that he had failed, and he was going to die.

And then suddenly the pressure on his throat was relieved. His feeble swats were no longer quite so feeble, and he grabbed at Rick's wrists with an astonishing, newfound strength. He didn't understand. He didn't know where it had come from. Was Rick losing power? Or was he, somehow, gaining it? How could he have guessed that there was any connection between his power and the fact that he'd never been in a city with so many superhumans before? He lightly pushed, and Rick flew back.
"What the fuck?!" Ferdinand gasped. "He's got super strength too?"

Rick did not give up. He leapt forward, and struck Jackson with his full strength. The boy didn't move an inch. Rick hit him again, and again, and again, with strength that nearly equalled what Valora would one day attain. But Jackson didn't move. He felt something tap him on the neck, as gentlly as a raindrop, and he realised that it had been a bullet. Ferdinand had shot him, and Jackson laughed. He was invincible. He was completely invincible! He laughed loud, and long, and suddenly his shock when he'd killed Ferdinand's bodyguard seemed ridiculous. He was untouchable. He was in control.

And he exercised that control. He reached forward, grabbed Rick's forehead, and crushed it like an apple. Ferdinand - a criminal, but not inherently a man of violence - cried out in horror and shot again. Jackson turned to him, his face blank and empty, and Ferdinand screamed in terror. Jackson would remember that scream for the rest of his life.

He laughed again, this time as if sweeping away a curtain of foolishness that had laid over his eyes for a long, long time. Ronnie Morrow had had the will to be great, but neither the wit nor the strength actually to do it. Jackson Morrow had always had the wit. He'd just found he had the strength. But the will?
"I'll...I'll give you anything!" Ferdinand whimpered. "Please don't kill me!"
Jackson looked into Ferdinand's eyes. Saw the fear. The almost worshipful terror, like a treacherous servant begging for mercy from his king. He felt lordly.

And for the first time in his life he knew what he wanted: he wanted lordship.
"You work for me now," Jackson said. "I'm - I'm your master. Not Ronnie Morrow."
"Y-yeah, fine, whatever you say, Pl -" He stopped. Ferdinand had seen that Ronnie used the name Pluto somewhat mockingly, and didn't want to stir Jackson's ire.
"You were right to stop yourself," Jackson said. "Don't use that name. Call me..." He thought for a moment. He wanted a name that implied power. To inspire fear, respect, lordliness. "Call me...Imperion."
"Yeah, sure, whatever you say, Imperion!" Ferdinand whimpered. And that was the start of everything.

Well, not quite. Jackson didn't want to have to explain why he'd left Ferdinand alive so, an hour after leaving, he came back and snapped his neck with his newfound strength. It was annoying that he'd have to start again, but it was all for the best, really. 'Imperion' was a good name, but didn't sound quite right for a criminal overlord. Fortunately, he'd come up with something much better in the meantime.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

I'm enjoying this conclusion of your Enhancegirl series, and the shocking unveiling of everybody's favorite hero being not what he seemed. Very well done! I just hope that you give Sophie and Mariko a happy ending. They deserve it. You've made me care very much about them as this series has progressed. Excellent writing and compelling plot twists. I will miss her but eagerly await the outcome of this landmark series.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

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"Enhance!" Even as she transformed, even as Sophie felt her power surging, her senses magnifying themselves into the controlled frenzy that was being Enhancegirl, she wished desperately that Schiffer had given her other powers. The strength of the Generator, or Thaddeus - hell, she'd have settled for Stellar's powers at that moment. As marvellous as her abilities were, as many battles as they'd allowed to her to win, what the fuck was she supposed to do against Hades with super-senses and her own not-so-potent fists?

The dark titan who stood before her was as a figure from nightmare. Long grasping claws, a blank, shining oval in place of its face. Obsidian inlaid into its structure, seeming to suck in all the light about it, and its massive size, looming over Sophie even though it was standing at least ten feet away. And the monster had a captive too: clad in nothing more than her panties and a thin vest, Sophie's beloved friend Kirsten lay on Sophie's bed, her light brown arms and toned legs bound in duct tape, her mouth covered many times over with sticky silver. She was quite unconscious. Sophie could see her pulse, steady and strong - and she knew just how easy it would be for Hades to snuff it out.

Seeing Hades here, in her room, was like a violation in itself. The posters on the walls, the print that Natalya had given her for her birthday, the bed on which she'd lain with her girlfriend time and time again - none of these things should ever have been anywhere near Hades. He corrupted them. He darkened her precious memories with his evil. He poisoned her by his mere presence. It was a warm morning, sunlight streaming softly in. The obsidian inlays of Hades' armour were illuminated almost beautifully, revealing a subtle violet tint, yet Sophie felt sick to her stomach.

"I imagine the threat is implicit," Hades said, with a toneless, mechanistic buzz, "but it's safer to be clear. If you run, if you call for help, if you do anything other than exactly as I say, then I will kill your friend."
"What do you want?" Sophie's voice was quieter than she'd intended: fear gripped her, and it seemed to do so by her throat.
"It's simple, Sophie." Hades took a step towards her. She recoiled, but stood her ground. "I want to talk."

Sophie hesitated, trying to keep her breathing steady. It would have been so easy to panic, and run. Incredibly easy. She felt sweat beneath her long, golden gloves, felt the muscles in her legs tighten. It had been months since she'd actually seen Hades face to face - in a certain sense - and she'd forgotten just how frightening it was to be in his presence. She felt her strength of character holding her in place, but even that was a kind of discomfort. This was not normally a strength that she felt, since she took it quite for granted, normally. Now, however, she could feel it straining. It was so soon. Another horror had fallen upon her so soon after the worst of her life, and she felt...thinned, like a cord about to snap.

But Sophie had not snapped, and she held her ground. She slowed her breathing, looked at where she supposed eyes would be in that blank face, and remembered that his name was just a name. This was not a god. This was a man and, more to the point, Sophie even knew which man. She mastered herself, and strength returned to her voice.
"Who am I talking to?" Sophie asked. "Hades, or Jackson Morrow?" No-one else would have seen the subtle motion that Hades made when she said this, so subtle that even Sophie herself wasn't sure if it meant anything. No, that wasn't true: she was sure. He'd flinched.

"That was foolhardy," Hades said. He took a step towards the redhead. "Now that I know that you know, perhaps I'm going to kill you. Or perhaps I'll just decide to capture you again. To seize you, bind your creamy limbs and carry you off as a -"
"Oh, cut it out," Sophie hissed. "I know who you are! I know what you are, so stop the fucking pantomime!" She laughed, one vicious bark of feigned mirth. "You being strong enough to tear my head off? That's scary. You playing up the whole pervert thing? At this point that's pretty fucking redundant. You said you came here to talk, Jackson. So talk."
"Alright, Sophie. I'll talk."

And then Hades sat down on the edge of Sophie's bed, crossing his legs. It was such a natural motion, so normal, that Sophie didn't know whether to find it funny or even more scary. The illusion was fading away, but what lay beneath it was just as frightening.
"I'm impressed with you. When we met, I have to admit I barely even noticed you. Next to Spectra, who would?"
Sophie's lip curled at the insult, but Hades raised his hand in a sort of...conciliatory gesture. "Don't misunderstand," he continued. "Consider this an...apology for underestimating you. You're brave and cunning - and much stronger than I expected. What you've been through these past few weeks? I surely don't envy you that. You're everything a superhero should be, in the end."
"Don't use that word," Sophie said. "Don't you dare use that word. You..." The horror of it, the rancid foulness of what he'd done almost choked her. "You...fraud. You traitor!"
"Don't make me lose my temper please, Sophie," Hades - Jackson - replied. "The fact that I can keep a lid on my emotions is the only reason that you're not a messy bloodstain on the floor right now." In fact, Jackson was unmoved by Sophie's curses, but Sophie didn't need to know that. "The point is you know. And now you're going to tell me how."
"Why the fuck would I do that?"
"To save your friend's life. And your own. And your lover's. Does she know what you know?"
Sophie said nothing, betrayed no emotion on her face whatsoever. She didn't know whether it would be worse or better if Hades knew that Mariko was aware of his secret as well.
"Well, we'll leave that to one side then. Oh, don't think I'll leave you alone, Sophie," he quickly added. "But I'll kidnap you, instead of killing you. I'll keep you in a stasis tank. And who knows? Maybe one day somebody will defeat me, and you'll be rescued. But if you resist, I'm really sorry, but I am going to have to crush the life out of you."

To Hades' surprise, Sophie took a step towards him.
"Oh, I'm sorry, you think you're the one with the leverage?" She smiled, grimly. "You have no idea how I found out. You have no idea who I might have told. You have no idea if someone else could find out the same way I did. Maybe I've got a whole dossier of evidence waiting in some lawyer's office, and if anything happens to me it'll get posted straight to the L.A.-fucking-Times."
Hades was the one who took a step closer now, and Sophie almost retreated, but she didn't. She would hold fast. She would! She must!
"If you had proof," Hades said, "then you would have used it."
"Maybe. Maybe it's not good enough as it is. Maybe even if I got disappeared in mysterious circumstances just before the evidence got released it wouldn't be enough for you to go to jail. But whatever the fuck your master plan is, whatever your big end goal is, for some reason you need everybody to love you. You wouldn't be able to explain it away. Your squeaky-clean image would be finished, and for whatever reason, that'd seriously fuck you in the ass, wouldn't it, Jackson?" She took another step closer and was now was only about four feet from him. He towered over her, a giant, bathing her in shadow. But Sophie had been plunged into deeper shadow than this and passed out the other side. She fixed her eyes on him, and took off her mask. She wanted him to see her eyes. "If you hurt Kirsten, it's over. If you hurt my family, it's over. If you hurt Mariko, it's over. If you kill me, I kill Imperion."

Eight miles away, in the headquarters of the CRO, Cougarman noticed Jackson's eyes go wide with astonishment.
"Something the matter, boss?" Tobias asked, scratching a greying temple.
"No," he lied, "nothing. Go on." Jackson let his old underling drone on while he cast his mind across the city, back to his armour that stood in Sophie Scott's living room. It took a great deal to break his concentration, but Sophie had managed it.

She was quite something, this girl, this slender little lily of a redhead who stood up to him with such courage. He'd seen bravado before from enemies who, despite imminent defeat, refused to be cowed. Glory-Girl, one of the first he'd personally taken for his collection, had been like that. But she'd been putting on such an obvious front - no, Sophie Scott wasn't hiding her fear, exactly. She was fighting through it. She could have been totally bullshitting, and she could genuinely be plotting some masterful scheme utterly to undo him. And he - he, one of the greatest liars in the world! - couldn't tell.

He hated her for that. He was pierced through the gut by a vicious loathing at this upstart. This jumped up girl who dared to threaten him! Dared to address him by his real name! She should have thrown herself at his feet and begged for his mercy. She should have wept and screamed and fallen down to her pretty knees. She should have spilt tears onto those soft cheeks and prayed to him for enslavement rather than death. Stripped naked for him and -

"No." Jackson almost laughed. She was quite impressive, in her way, with her fierce eyes and delicate, fiery beauty. He had a strange thought as he - his armour, rather - glowered down with its blank face at this lovely creature. "If I ever had a daughter," he thought, "I wouldn't mind if she was like this." He pitied her, that she should have to be his enemy. But she was his enemy.

He lashed out suddenly, and Sophie started, though she could see she herself was not his target. He had grabbed Kirsten by the back of the head, and now held her up at head height, her feet dangling half a metre from the ground.
"Put her down!" Sophie barked, leaping forward. But she saw his grip tighten, and checked herself.
"I really want you to reconsider, Sophie," Hades said. "I don't doubt that it's possible that you could do what you've threatened. You could smear me, drag my name through the muck, but in the end that is all you can do! Me? I can murder everyone you love. I could crush your friend's head like rotten fruit. I could have my men gun down your parents in their own home. I could take your lovely girlfriend, and show her what humiliation really is, before I crush the life out of her as she screams your name in broken desperation!"

He threw Kirsten, lightly by his standards, but with quite enough force to harm her seriously. Sophie leapt forward to catch her, and did, but as the limp, bound girl fell into her arms - she'd actually been saved from a broken neck - Hades himself rushed forward. Sophie saw him coming, and to her dismay knew exactly what was going to happen. With the burden of Kirsten in her arms, and with the shock of the sheer force that Hades had thrown her with, Sophie couldn't move in time. He seized her by the throat, letting Kirsten tumble to the floor, and hauled Sophie up so that her face was pressed right up against his.

"Ghhkhh!" Sophie gasped. Steel fingers tightened around her neck, long enough that Hades could almost close a fist completely around Sophie's throat. Her pale legs kicked vainly at him, but she couldn't think of doing him the slightest damage. She was struggling to breathe, oxygen only coming to her in tiny gulps.
"There is another way, Sophie. There's another way you could save the people you care about. Commit suicide."
"Wh...whh...?"
"Nobody would be suspicious. After what happened to you, it would be easy to believe that you were so traumatised that you couldn't live. Commit suicide, Sophie. Spare your loved ones the pain of fighting me."

He released her. Sophie fell onto her knees, gasping, spluttering. Her eyes watered, her oxygen-starved limbs shook. She fell backwards, shivering and terrified. In all likelihood, she had technically come closer to death before - but not with Hades' fingers around her throat.
"Be brave, Enhancegirl. Be the hero that the public of this city love. If that sounded ironic, then I'm sorry: you are a hero, and you deserve all the adoration you receive. Do it one last time. Save them. Save everyone I'd have to destroy to defeat you!"
"You'd n-never s-stop with me," Sophie spat, clutching her neck. "You'll never stop at all!"
Hades didn't reply immediately. Splitting his attention between this and his meeting with Tobias was straining his attention. But he had heard what Sophie'd said. "Well," he said at last, "think about it, Sophie."

He strode over to where Kirsten was lying, her thick, long, curly black hair covering most of her face. He swept it out of the way.
"I have to say, Mariko must trust you a hell of a lot, letting you live with a woman this attractive. Oh, wait, Kirsten's straight, isn't she? It's the other that's like you. Talia, am I right?"
"Is that supposed to scare me?" Sophie shakingly stood up. "Anyone could find stuff like that out. I'm not impressed."
"True. Just remember, though - I do know as much about you...your friends...your family - as I need to, and can find out as much more as I like."

He leaned down, and - much to Sophie's surprise - began tearing the tape off Kirsten's body. In a few moments, she was free, though still quite unconscious.
"W-what are you doing?"
"Doing you a favour. Or perhaps I should put it another way: I don't want to put you in a position where you're going to say something stupid. She was unconscious when I drugged her: she won't remember a thing." He made a movement as if to leave, but stopped as if in thought. "Wait, I'm forgetting something, aren't I?" He turned back towards his flame-haired enemy. "Your lover tells me that you're quite the tracker."
"What of it?"
"Simple. I have no intention of letting you pursue me."

He jumped forward with vicious speed. Sophie jumped back, just out of the range of the reach of his arm. But even as he jumped forward, she could sense mechanisms within his armoursuit activating.
"Oh, god!" It was not with shock, exactly, but with a sort of exhausted dismay. For while Sam Sparr's armour, to compensate for its wearer's relative dearth of power, bristled with powerful weapons of all sorts, Jackson didn't seem to need anything of the sort. He carried no weapons - only snares.

And it was with a chemical snare that he lassoed his red-haired quarry, as he sprayed a thick, white jet of gas into her face.
"Aaah!" Sophie cried out, moving backwards as quickly as she could. Yet, from the very moment that the gas was released, Sophie had weakened, and Hades saw it. She tried not to breathe in but it was too late. Like an insidious virus, feebleness crept into her. Her beautiful, shapely limbs grew listless, her legs shivering as their strength was siphoned away. The vanquisher of Dextrus, the golden thorn in the Supremacist's side, could already feel that she was helpless. Green eyes as sharp and cunning as any vixen's grew cloudy, a torpor seizing her. "Uhhhhnnnhh..." Sophie mewed, batting uselessly into the cloud as if she could somehow fan it away. She felt warm, and soft, and it was humiliating. Her skimpy dress, her smooth white skin, and now her somnolent weakness - she was the very opposite of Hades: armoured, mighty, cold.

"I never got the chance to ask," he said, as Sophie stumbled back against a wall, gripping tightly to it to try - vainly - to keep herself up, "if Schiffer gave you this weakness deliberately. Cato doesn't have it and -" He paused to laugh. "I mean, it's just too perfect."
"G-go to...to..." Her attempt at defiance faded swiftly into a soft whimper. Her arms flopped to her sides, her white shoulders sagged. As her knees trembled she fell back further against the wall for support, but she could already feel that she was going down.

Sophie felt a revulsion within herself, at herself, and in her addled state it took her a few moments to realise why: it felt good. There was always a touch of euphoria when she was drugged unconscious but such was in the nature of anaesthesia. No, there was a little more to it than that. Sophie felt her hair stroking her naked shoulders as her head began to flop from one side to the other, and it gave her a subtle tingle in her skin. Fear in Hades' presence had produced a degree of perspiration, and as her thighs shuffled against each other in sleepy attempts to keep Sophie up on her feet, she felt her moist skin stroking, stimulating itself, and she felt a blush in her cheeks.
"No...can't...let myself..." Sophie could barely even keep a clear thought in her head, but she couldn't help it. She of all people knew that being captured had a...sensual quality to it. "Oooohhhh..." she sighed out loud, as a shiver ran up her spine. In a vain effort to move forward - to fight? to run? Sophie had no idea - all she did was use up what little strength was left in her body.

"Auuhhhnn..." Sophie mewed, and with the little sigh she found herself sinking to her knees. The hem of her short, shimmering dress fluttered as she fell, completely exposing her lithe, creamy legs. She was so weak! She couldn't stand, she couldn't move, she could hardly even think. Yet she had feeling enough to throb with humiliation and fear. If Hades had physically attacked her she'd have been frightened, yes, but this...Nyx or Madam Black might easily have inflicted the same thing upon her. She was nothing to him.

How many times had this weakness been used against her? How many times had someone who had no right to defeat her ambushed her with some sedative or other, and had her sighing with eyes a-flutter within seconds? It made sense, of course. Why not exploit an enemy's vulnerability? But Jackson wasn't doing this to alter the playing field in his favour. The playing field was already so spectacularly weighted towards him that the idea of Sophie actually fighting him was comical. No, he was doing it because he could. Or, Sophie feared, as she knelt, defeated and subdued, that it was simply because he liked watching her fall unconscious.

And indeed, had Sophie been in Jackson's office with Tobias, she - with her superior senses - would have noticed several things alter in his countenance. His breathing became more rapid. His pupils dilated and his tongue seemed restless in his mouth.
"God!" he thought. "Look at her all sleepy and - shit she's so weak!" Unable to resist, Jackson reached out with his second body, and seized Sophie by the the arms. Closing one steely hand around both of her delicate-looking wrists, he hauled her up to face-height with him, her slender body dangling limply in the air. Her head slumped forward, her red hair covering her face, so Jackson pushed it back, making sure her head was propped against one of her arms. He wanted her to look at him. He wanted to be able to see into her fluttery, sleepy eyes.

He reached down with his free hand, and touched her ankle with one long, metallic finger. Then, as slowly as possible, he ran that finger up her long, beautiful, softly writhing legs.
"No...noooo..." Sophie whimpered softly. "Don't...touch...me...uuuuuhhhhhnnnnhh..." The cold touch of Hades went up her calves, her moist thighs, right up to just below the hem of her dress.
"I could," he said. "Forget that I'm Hades, forget that there is anything more complex happening than 'you've been captured.'" He moved his hand up, now to her chest, placing his palm over her sternum, and spreading his fingers out over her shoulders like the legs of a spider. "God you're soft. What the hell are you doing being a superhero? What business do you have threatening Hades when you're so delicate?" He moved his hand down, and cupped her perky bosom from below, feeling its soft ripeness, wishing that it was his real hand that danced over Sophie's defenceless, feminine body. "I've changed my mind. Don't kill yourself. Just give yourself to me. I'll be merciful to Mariko if you surrender. Kneel at my feet - no, no, strip naked and then kneel at my feet, beg to be bound and drugged and humiliated, to -"

He stopped. Tobias had just said something very important. His armour froze in place. It was a shame that he wasn't paying attention to Sophie at this moment, because it was just then that the whimpering, limp maiden finally gave in to the sedatives. Her head lolled back, completely exposing her slim, white neck.
"Need to...need...uhhnn..." Sophie knew there was something more going on than just another defeat, but she couldn't remember what. She felt terrified and humiliated, but could not conjure up more thought than that. Had she spotted something? Something important. She couldn't remember. It was all so dark, and she felt so warm...so weak...

So, captive and powerless, Sophie let out a long, slow sigh as she faded out of consciousness in Hades' grip, the sweet damsel fading softly, beautifully into the embrace of sleep. Jackson's delight would certainly have been stirred - but it was over by the time he 'came back.' But deep though his lusts may have been, he wasn't a child. He was irritated to have missed Sophie's surrender to the drug, but not incensed. Taking his enemy by her waist, he tossed her easily over his shoulder. He could feel her bouncing against him, her arms dangling, her legs draped down his front, and again wished he'd made a personal appearance. He didn't even need to hold her: unconscious, Sophie was a delightfully obedient girl.

He laid Sophie down on her bed, and for a moment he just...looked at her. Her long, red hair flowing out behind her like a halo, her naked shoulders glinting with sweat. One hand had fallen onto her smooth stomach, another lay pointing upwards, as if searching for a pillow, her fingers curled towards her palm. Her thighs lay close together, almost straight, but both her calves were bent outwards. It was slightly girlish, but Jackson still found it very attractive. He had had her in his grip before, of course, during Hades' 'coming out' a few months earlier. But he'd been so much more focused on Spectra and on his latest conquest, Nova, that he hadn't paid her much attention. But good lord, she was beautiful, wasn't she? She had such long legs, such slinky hips and such a firm, bouncy rear. Yet much to Jackson's surprise, it was not her body he was drawn to most, but her face.

Her expression was one of not-quite peaceful repose. Her eyebrows were slightly crinkled, her mouth open as if making an 'oh' sound. Yet even unconscious there was a sort of sprightly intelligence in her face that he found very attractive. He took her chin in his hand, turned it from side to side, inspecting her. Yes, there was a kind of...nobility. She did not possess, perhaps, the queenly bearing and almost intimidating beauty of her girlfriend, but wit and cleverness seemed carved into the very features of her face. Her high cheekbones, her well-shaped jaw...yes, it would be a shame to have to kill her, and he hoped earnestly that it wouldn't come to that.

As he admired her it occurred to him, almost with a sardonic inward laugh, that he was being unfaithful. He found himself imagining what would happen if Sara happened to fly past and saw him doing what he was doing, threatening, drugging and molesting this lovely young redhead. A few hours earlier this thought would have given him painful pause. But not now. His anxiety about potential discovery was still sharp, but the panic was gone. Any tempting thought of peace with Sara, of giving up his goal, was easily brushed aside or, rather, crushed. No, he had his plan now, and he would not be derailed from its tracks. His task with Enhancegirl done, he focused his mind on directing his suit again, telling it to return to its home base. It moved relatively automatically now, and he was able to focus his attentions entirely on Tobias. Sophie was left quite alone.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Sorry for the deception, Miss Asakura," Gill said, as she and Mariko drove away from Ella's house. "Secret identities and all."
"Of course," Mariko said. She was brusque, but not overly so. Unless for some reason Gill happened to be suspicious already, there would have been no reason for her to think that there was anything ill with Mariko's humour. The heroine was remarkably poised and controlled, sitting with her hands primly in her lap, her legs neatly crossed. Her poise was especially remarkable given that Sophie had just turned her world totally upside-down.
"Imperion...is Hades," she thought. She sounded it out again and again in her head but still it sounded wrong. It sounded stupid. It sounded like a conspiracy theory cooked up by a crack-addled maniac. Not knowing the secret of his powers, she could not think of why Sophie thought what she thought. She tented her fingers, trying to maintain her composure, trying not just to pick her phone and demand a fuller explanation from her girlfriend.

Indeed, the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that it was possible that Sophie was, somehow, wrong. Some crafty enemy of the Pauldron's had caused faulty evidence to fall into her lap, perhaps. And there was another thing. Why now? Clearly she hadn't harboured her suspicions before the night of the party, so what had happened to make her think what she thought? Had this been two years ago, she'd have haughtily mocked Sophie's accusation, and called her an inexperienced fool. But she knew perfectly well that Sophie was neither of those things. Yet Imperion was, one would have thought, the very cliché of what a good person was. Noble. Honest. Kind-hearted. Strong. If anyone was above suspicion, then it was Jackson Morrow, Imperion the Twice-Blessed.

But then an uncomfortable thought occurred to her.
"Who would be easier to fool than me?" Poor as she was at instinctively understanding people and their emotions, Mariko realised that if Jackson really wanted to deceive her about his true nature, it would be very straightforward. She knew that she could not trust her judgement of Jackson's character. "I'll trust Sophie's, then," she thought. She reminded herself just how much she admired Sophie's capability and intelligence, her perceptiveness. Indeed, looking inward, Mariko realised that part of her had been totally convinced from the moment that Sophie had made her accusation, that Sophie was not merely better placed than her to know such things, but best placed of almost anyone she knew. This thought brought no comfort, though. It only made Mariko realise that, despite her poise, she was shocked and frightened - and humiliated. If what Sophie said was true, then she'd been a fool, and all the pride that she'd taken in her position, in being part of the Pauldron, was nothing more than a hollow lie. It was like Imperion himself had just struck her in the stomach.

As she got out of the car, and entered the repurposed Post Office - this was about fifteen minutes after Jackson had left Sophie drugged in her room - that had become the Crow's Nest, she called upon emotional techniques that she had not used in many years, not since she had last lived with her parents when she was sixteen. She stifled utterly the fear that Imperion might try to kill her or Sophie. She forced down a sharp spike of paranoia about the others in the Pauldron being in on Imperion's lies. She even stopped herself from thinking about the fact that, when Hades was stripping her of her dignity and taking pleasure from her body, it had been Jackson behind the mask, a man she had come to trust with her life. If she could quash furious resentment and disdain of her mother for her entire childhood, then she could quash these feelings now.

Still, she was watchful. Indeed, the moment she entered, she activated her powers, replacing her dress with the silvery, panelled bodysuit that she'd made her warrant, silver domino mask covering her eyes. It fit the curves of her tall, achingly lovely body with the intimacy of a lover and, indeed, Mariko found she had an admirer.
"Ah, there you are," Fahrenheit harrumphed, sauntering into the entranceway from an empty office. He was still wearing the same clothes he'd had on the previous night, and there was stubble on his chin. Evidently he'd slept there. "Jackson's been trying to find you all morning."
"I was indisposed," Mariko answered.
"Right." There was a flash in his eyes, like he was about to make a joke, but it died somewhere in the path between his brain and his mouth. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, obviously pretty hungover. "D'you want some coffee?"
"Do I -?"
"Jackson and Tobias are having some important meeting about...something. I don't know. Or care much. So, again: coffee?"
Mariko had been about to refuse, on the grounds that it would seem natural for her to spurn social contact, but she herself had a bit of a hangover, and a jolt of caffeine would not have gone amiss. "Sure," she said, quietly.

As the two of them walked to the break room, where a pot was already steaming, Mariko looked hard into Shane's back, as if this might somehow yield up the secrets that lay within his soul. He was slouching: normally he walked with a bit of a straight-backed, cowboyish strut, but his limbs sagged. His hair was messy and his face had looked not just tired but disturbed. Why? Had he heard something that he hadn't liked? Had Jackson asked him to do something he didn't approve of? Something that offended his sense of morals, or just his sense of taste? Was he going to get rid of her quietly himself? Just as she was wondering which of the two of them could best the other in a duel, he turned around, spinning on his heel with the preternatural grace that his mastery of friction could provide.
"Why are your powers on?"
Mariko hesitated. Why did he care? She often appeared in her powered state when she turned up for work. Why was he asking now? Was it misdirection? Or was he trying to trick her into turning them off to make her an easy target or -
"I don't get it. How do your powers make clothes? I've never thought about that before, but it's damned weird. Lord Delirious might be a monstrous abomination, but he's right about one thing: superpowers make as much sense as a crossword puzzle in cuneiform."

He glided towards the coffee pot, poured a cup, and handed it to Mariko. She nodded her head slightly, in thanks, and Shane laughed openly.
"Sorry," he said, in response to Mariko's puzzled expression. "Just...do you have to be so formal all the time?"
"It's my way," Mariko replied.
"Damn. That's a good answer," Shane said, and glugged almost half his cup in one gulp. "When I asked Derek that he just told me to go fuck myself."
"I could say that as well, if you like," Mariko said, and Shane snorted with laughter. She still didn't know what to make of this. Only, she realised, she wanted to trust Fahrenheit. He'd been instrumental in rescuing Sophie from Schiffer, and she felt a deep sense of gratitude towards him. It was a pleasant feeling in its way, and she felt quite strongly that she didn't want it to be poisoned. Besides which, she liked his sarcasm, his self-assurance, and his bravery which was not so much bravery as a sharp 'p'shaw' at the very notion of fear. Indeed, the two of them, she felt, had been much closer since what had happened to Sophie - even Mariko had felt herself a little easier with him. To put it simply, he was her friend. She didn't have many friends, and she didn't want to lose this one. Without realising it, she clenched a fist very tightly, furious at the possibility that these frail, hard-earned links between her and the others could be torn away.
"What will happen to us," she wondered, "if Sophie is right, and we manage to overpower Imperion somehow? What will be left for the Pauldron but shame?"

"I need your advice," Shane said, suddenly looking rather grave. "Or rather, Mark needs your advice."
"Mark?" Mariko narrowed her eyes. If this was an attempt at misdirection it wasn't obvious what the benefits could be.
"He's being an idiot again." He folded his arms across his chest. "He falls in love faster than a Disney Princess at the best of times, and now he..." He threw up his hands. "Apparently this new girl of his is special and unique and deep and delicious, and he's head over heels for her."
"Er...hang on, isn't he seeing Natalya Nazarov?" This was significant. If Askancepoint had spent time with Insyte, she'd have seen it by now if he was harbouring secrets. She could be certain of one ally, at least - and if Mark was to be trusted, then surely Shane was as well. They spent as much of their own time together as they did their professional lives. And indeed, Insyte and Fahrenheit had met as well, if much less extensively.
"Yes, yes, the telepath." He kept his voice down. Apparently Mark still wanted it kept relatively secret that he was dating the sister of Zjarrus, who seemed to have become Jackson's enemy. "Look, I'm not saying she isn't those things. You know her, you're her friend, aren't you?"
"For my part. That is, Sophie's closer to her than -"
"That's not the point. He says he falls in love with every bloody girl that he dates - and what's really irritating is that I think he actually does. He's so...earnest! And, you know, stupid. They haven't even being going out for a month this time and I swear he's almost ready to propose."

Mariko could well understand why Shane thought that Mark was being unwise, but she didn't get why he was so angry. In fact, he was not very angry, he was frustrated and annoyed, but that didn't quite translate to Mariko. Besides, she was not in a humour to be discussing this sort of thing. She needed to get back to Sophie as soon as she could, to make some excuse and leave, but she feared that this was not going to be easy. She felt trapped, and only her powerful sense of restraint kept her from fleeing and possibly blowing the whole thing.
"Could you -" He looked very sheepish. "He wouldn't listen to me. He never listens to me. Could you...talk to him? Persuade him to ease back on the throttle?"
"Why?"
"Because it's the same thing every time. He falls too hard too fast and either he gets stuck in something too early and it falls apart within a few months, or he just scares them off. From what I've seen of Natalya I'd wager it'll be the latter."
"Fine," Mariko said, now almost aggressively brusque. "Why me?"
Shane looked at her like she'd said something stupid. "Because you're the only one of us in a functional relationship. Mark's a lovelorn idiot, Chryseis' marriage fell apart some time during the Reagan years, Jackson's ex-wife turned out to be his arch-nemesis, and Sara's fallen in love with a man whose ex-wife turned out to be his arch-nemesis. Relative to the rest of us you are a sage and wise authority on amorous matters, so maybe he'll listen to you. What?"

Mariko could no longer wholly disguise the emotion on her face. She hadn't thought about Sara. Sara who'd been the most cruelly humiliated of Hades' captives. Sara who was now Jackson's lover.
"Oh god," Mariko put her hand to her mouth. She felt sick to her stomach.
"What's the matter? You look pale."
"I'm quite alright," she replied. "You'll forgive me: I don't imagine anything I could say would be more than 'rushing into things is unwise.'"
"He'd listen to it from you," Shane said. "Perhaps, anyway. I just don't want him getting his fucking heart broken again. Or, like..." He seemed uncomfortable. "I think he might be right this time. I've met her too, briefly, and I have a funny feeling that if he plays his cards right, it could be something special for him. This will be good if he doesn't fuck it up. Could be good for her too. She seems a bit...gloomy, doesn't she?" Mariko had to admit, Fahrenheit's concern for his friend was touching, and she was appreciative that he was willing to speak to her about it, but this just wasn't the time. Simply to distract him, then Mariko said: "I don't suppose you've asked Tobias about this?"
"Cougarman? What? No, I barely know him." He frowned. "Besides...doesn't he sort of give you the -?"

As if in response to some transcendental law about talking about people behind their backs, Cougarman popped his head round the door.
"Well hey there, you two." He spoke in an odd drawl, with a very old-fashioned quality about it. Tall and greying, he did look his age - fifty - but he had a vigour about him, and he was pretty muscular. "You mind comin' on into the conference room? We've, uh, finished our little meeting."
"What on earth were you talking about for so long?" Shane huffed.
"Jax might be a hell of guy, but he ain't got a head for figures, see? I'm helpin' him work out the CRO's budget." He looked Mariko in the eye, and smiled. She did not smile back. She and the ex-Pauldron retiree had never actually spoken to each other before, and she was not in a trusting mood. Of all of them, Tobias and Chryseis had known Imperion the longest. If he was Hades, he'd need help hiding his secrets. Those two were the most likely suspects. Not helping ease Mariko's suspicions was the fact that, when the three of them stepped into Jackson's presence, Chryseis was already in there waiting for them.
"Hey," she said, with a warm-ish smile that turned a little warmer when she looked at Mariko. Mariko however, was not looking at her. Her eyes were fixed entirely on him.

There he sat, in a loose shirt and chinos, looking over something on a tablet computer, sipping a cup of coffee. Not only did he not look like a ruthless criminal mastermind, he didn't even look like a superhero. He looked at her with a kindly face, his easy, lop-sided smile and for a moment Mariko almost forgot Sophie's accusation. He beckoned them to sit, and sheepishly apologised for calling them in when he'd promised them a day off.
"Where are Chryseis and the others?" Mariko asked.
"Chrys and Derek are holding down the fort in Sacramento," Jackson explained. "Nova's on her way here. Don't know about Mark, but - ah, you guys can fill him in later." Mariko realised that she felt guilty for harbouring such awful suspicions against such a good man.

And yet. Something in his manner, as he began talking to them about putting Derek in temporary command while he sorted out the CRO and prepared his plan to split the Pauldron in two by beefing up its membership. Something seemed off. It took her a few seconds to realise what it was: though as he spoke he naturally looked at her as often as the others, it felt like...
"As if he's looking at me even when he isn't." She might well have been imagining it. Actually, no - she might not have been good at reading people's emotions, but damn it all if she didn't have an eye for detail. And she recognised something in Jackson, now that she was looking for it: "He's like me."

There were many, many ways in which this was untrue, of course, but she meant something particular: there was something regular about Jackson's motions. The way he'd mess with his hair, then gesture to someone, the alternation between a sort of friendly weariness and a cheeky, asymmetrical smile...it was as if he were doing them in a set order. Like Mariko, the way he communicated was studied and controlled, but unlike her he seemed able to fake casual ease. Was he always like this? Had she simply never noticed? No - probably not. But what if he had a reason to be particularly under strain today? What if he'd found something that had set him on edge? Something like having a secret uncovered, perhaps? Filled with fresh anxiety over Sophie's safety, Mariko began wondering if, at a pinch, she had at her disposal some way to kill Jackson.

"Any suggestions?" Jackson said suddenly, turning his sharp blue eyes right on Mariko.
"Suggestions for what?"
"For new members to fill out our ranks," Jackson said. "Not like you to be vacant. Somethin' on your mind?" He was entirely still as he spoke to her. All his attention was on Mariko's lovely face, but she betrayed nothing from it.
"Only a hangover," Mariko said. "You'll forgive me: I'm not an experienced drunk. Though," she said, looking at Fahrenheit and cocking an eyebrow, "evidently I'm better at hiding it than some." Indeed, Shane was shading his eyes with his hand, and looked very uncomfortable.
"Fair enough," Jackson said, with a laugh. "But do you have any thoughts?"
"Er...I hear good things about Double-Dare," Mariko said. "We fought together once. She's very inventive."
Tobias frowned. "Now - now I'm just spitballing here," he said, "but, uh, do we - uh - do we want someone who got taken by Hades?" At this, Mariko shot him an astonished look, and Fahrenheit looked at him with raw disdain. "Ah, gee, I'm sorry, that sounded stupid. I - well I just mean that publicity's important, y'know, and - uh, well I just think the Pauldron's gotta look like a team of winners. Don'tcha think?"
"No, actually," Jackson replied. "Not in the way you mean. In fact I was going to suggest Stellar." He turned to Mariko, about to ask her something, but Shane interrupted.
"Surprise surprise," he laughed. "Jackson wants to recruit another attractive woman in her early twenties. I'm truly shocked."

Jackson shot him a black look. Mariko knew that they didn't always get on very well, but was there something more here? Had Fahrenheit touched a nerve? Certainly, if he was Hades, then Mariko could well imagine he'd have a taste for surrounding himself with beautiful women. But Shane seemed unintimidated, and went on.
"If we're really talking about people who'll be a good fit in a new team," he said, "then how the hell are we not talking about Enhancegirl?"
Eyebrows were raised across the table. "I don't know why you're surprised. She's very skilled, she's popular - especially with the younger crowd who don't like establishment types - and she provides a unique set of talents that none of the rest of us have: seeing through walls, tracking - and her record in battle is nothing to be sniffed at." He smirked at Mariko. "And if now and again I should, ah, happen to catch you and her making out with each other then, uh, that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make." Tobias laughed, but the others didn't. Jackson turned to Mariko again.

"Well, Mariko? What do you think about Sophie working under me?" Jackson said, half-smiling. "Maybe this is the way to solve that little habitation problem we talked about, huh?"
"I -" Again, Mariko was tested sorely. How bitter it was that this was happening now? Sophie being offered a spot on the Pauldron? To stand alongside her as one of the great heroes of her age? After all Sophie had had to endure this past year it was like...like the world acknowledging her trials, that she'd survived. It should have brought Mariko joy, but instead it was empty. Bitter. Fortunately, her response was the same that it would have been even under better circumstances. "She'd say no," Mariko replied at last. "Being a member of the Pauldron is a full time job, and she's still at college. She would want to finish, and I would agree with her. If she lost her powers or was crippled she'd be facing destitution without a degree."
"Shit," Fahrenheit muttered. "Trust you to logic us out of a good idea."

"Well," Jackson said, throwing his hands up. "Keep thinking. I want to get the ball rolling quickly on this, yeah." He looked Mariko in the eye again. "You are not easy to read, are you?" he thought. If she did know, if Sophie had told her, she was doing a fine job of pretending otherwise. He did consider just donning his armour and carrying her off - quietly, of course - but Sophie's threat rang in his ears: "If you hurt Mariko, it's over. If you kill me, I kill Imperion." No, he needed more information before he acted against her. And if she didn't know - well, she was powerful. Her...unexpected show of force on the roof of Hades' base had shown that she was not lightly to be trifled with. If an attempt to abduct or kill her failed, he might end up tipping his hand. He knew Sophie would be making similar risk/reward calculations, and didn't want to prompt her into dangerous, but potentially effective action too quickly. He would stick to the plan, and wait.

It was as Jackson was wondering where the hell Mark had got to that the assembled heroes heard a familiar whooshing sound, and saw a streak of blue-white light outside the window. A few moments later, Nova, her candyfloss hair slightly dishevelled, her glitter-dusted cheeks charmingly aflame, entered the conference.
"Oh there you are," Shane said. But Nova didn't even look at him. She looked extremely anxious, though Mariko noticed - agonisingly - that a trace of softness passed over her face when she looked Jackson in the eye. He smiled at her, quite genuinely, but she didn't smile back.
"Catch me up," she said. "What's the plan?"
"Well," Jackson said, "we're thinking of asking Double-Dare or Stellar to join the expanded team. Not much else."
Sara looked at him for a moment like either he or she were idiots, before it clicked. "Wait, you haven't heard?"
"Heard what?" Mariko asked. Well it was that Jackson did not have Sophie's sight. If he had, he'd have seen Mariko's pulse increase sharply in speed. His attentions were fixed on Sara anyway, though. He stood, and put a hand on her shoulder. She was warm. Soft.
"Tell us everything."
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Wow, what a story, Samuel," Ivan Nazarov laughed, baring his teeth in a shark-like grin. "You almost managed to convince Vitra to give you her number. You're quite the lothario."
"I'm n-not saying you sh-should be impressed, you d-dick," Sam Sparr replied. "You asked me how the p-party was and I told you. N-next time I'll just n-not say anything."
"And what a loss to my existence that would be." The sallow, rake-thin superhuman crossed his legs in the back of the car. He wasn't happy to be there, and neither was Sam. "I don't get it." He turned his attention to the much more attractive sight of Julia Laurentiis, the Pariahs' director of communications. "Why the fuck do the Anubis Foundation want to talk to us?"
"Frankly, I don't know," Julia replied.

She glanced up from her phone at Sam, who immediately looked away. In her low cut blouse and short, tight grey skirt, Julia had left the Pretender with a lot to ogle. She slowly crossed her shapely, caramel-coloured legs, and laughed inwardly as she watched him squirm. Ivan looked too, but he didn't look away when she met his gaze. "If I had to guess, I'd say maybe damage control. Something happened back in Cali, and one of their guys got arrested: Cato Pict." She laughed. She'd crossed swords with him a few times, and the thought of him languishing in prison gave her pleasure. "You've probably seen him on TV. At any rate, I don't know much, but they've been involved in some shady stuff. They might be looking for powerful allies."
"Well allies don't come much more powerful than us, eh Samuel?" He slapped Sam on the back.
"My n-name isn't even short for Samuel, you a-hole. It's short for S-Samson!"
"Oh, bitter irony," Julia quipped. Ivan cackled uproariously at this, but Julia flashed Sam a comforting smile. He was a nice kid, in his way. It was just so easy to make fun of him.

"I almost wish I'd been there when Hades kicked his ass," Sam thought. "See the look on his face when she -"
"Hades did not kick my ass!" Ivan bellowed. "I forced her to run away, even when I was poisoned!"
"Wh-what?" Sam stammered. "But...I didn't say that out loud!"
"Wow, you are an idiot," Ivan said. Sam looked to Julia for aid, but she just shrugged.
"I wasn't listening," she said. "Maybe you're getting too used to talking through your armour."
"Oh, shit," Sam whined. She must have been right.

They were greeted with relative celebration upon their arrival. The intern sent to welcome them upstairs was excessively pretty and excessively polite, and when they walked into the conference room they were met with row upon row of pearly, corporate teeth beaming at them.
"Good morning." A fat Wisconsinite with beady eyes and hair curly to the point of afro-dom stood up, and shook Julia's hand. "Enchanté, mademoiselle," he added, producing open mirth from Ivan. Even Sam scoffed.
"Good morning, Mister Springfield," Julia replied, smiling winningly. This was the public face of Anubis, their CEO. "So, maybe you'd like to tell me what this is all about."
"Ah, c'mon, let's get comfy first, huh?" He sat down, and Anubis' guests did the same. "Can I getcha something to drink?"
"Um, an espresso would be nice," Julia said.
"Can, uh, I have a m-mineral water?" Sam sheepishly asked.
"A hot chocolate, and be quick about it," Ivan announced, grandly. "What?" he said, in response to a few confused stares. "Can't a man enjoy a hot chocolate on a cold morning?"
"Hey, I like a man who knows what he wants," Springfield said. He snapped his fingers, and the pretty intern hurried out of the room.

"So, uh..." Springfield seemed a little confused. "Where, uh, where are Hydrocita and Catastrophe?"
"Catastrophe's on assignment," Julia replied. "Ms. Ferrington is -"
"High as a kite," Ivan interrupted. This was a lie. Farah and Jason were absent because Farah suspected that there was something fishy about the whole affair. "And this from a woman who grew up during the 'Just Say No' campaign. Tsk tsk."
"Well, uh, maybe we should talk business, huh?" Springfield said. "So, we feel that our company has been given an unfair image - kind of like yourselves, actually. You might say we're Pariahs in our own way!"
"W-wow, did you c-come up with that yourself?" Sam scoffed. He had grown up in Nevada, where Anubis had had great influence over the years. Being a superhuman had not always been easy for that reason, and he didn't like associating with the ones who'd made it that way.

After some empty corporate piffle about synergising, the drinks arrived. Ivan took his from the intern, but hesitated. "You try it first," he said.
"Seriously, Mr Nazarov?" Springfield laughed. "You think we brought you here to poison you?"
"You never know," he said. "Go on, sweetheart," he said. Rolling her eyes, the intern took a gulp, and handed it back.
"No poison," she said. "Cross my heart, hope to die."
"Yes, well. Wouldn't that be a shame." Gingerly, Ivan took a drink, shrugged, and then a full swig. "Delicious, thank you." She smiled at him, and walked away. Ivan didn't look away from her - not because he was ogling her. He was getting...he was getting a funny feeling. Something was wrong - something was wrong with her. He just couldn't put his finger on it.

"Look, I'll get to the point. We want to lobby for you."
"What?" Julia laughed incredulously. "You took a stance against us as soon as we went public. You had Pict smearing us from day one."
"Yeah, and look where it got us!" Springfield laughed. "This whole anti-super thing...I mean it's just a marketing tactic, really. All we want is to make bank, am I right?"
"You tell me."
"Well it is. Besides, with the CRO taking over in California, we feel that things have calmed down enough that it's time to talk about the good that supers can do."
"I'm bored," Ivan said, getting up. "We're done here."
"Mr Nazarov?" Springfield looked nervous. "What do you mean?"
"We're done. This is bullshit. You have absolutely no intention of lobbying for us. You're lying through your teeth, I can tell." He clenched his fists. "In fact, how dare you waste my time. I'm one of the most powerful human beings on the planet and you have the temerity to waste my time with this nonsense! Who the fuck do you think you are? Huh? I could have..."

He stumbled backwards. "Wh...what the hell?" He felt sick. His hear was pounding in his chest at a ridiculous rate. He was sweating profusely, shaking. He felt incredibly angry, but he couldn't tell why. "Something's...something's wrong with me!"
"Ivan, what's going on?"
"I don't know!" His breathing was rapid, shallow. To the horror of all present, he began to glow orange, heat pouring out of him. "Something's...it's like I -" He turned his head, looking at the pretty intern who'd given him his drink, and suddenly he realised what was happening. "Adrenaline...they've given me a massive dose of adrenaline!" Terror was in his voice, and for good reason. His abilities were powered by adrenaline, his body processing it into nuclear energy. With the amount his body could produce he had enough power to wipe out a city, maybe more. They'd just drugged him with three times that amount.

"Exo-generate!" Sam cried out, cladding himself in his grim armour. "Everyone get out of the building, now!" he shouted.
"It won't...won't be enough," Ivan gasped. A normal human would have been stone dead by now - only the fact that his body could process the adrenaline for his powers kept him alive. A fiery aura surrounded him now, hot enough to burn skin. "Sam...get her out!" he shouted, desperate with fear. "Run!"
"R-right!" Without waiting another instant, Sam grabbed Julia in his arms, blasted the nearest window open, and leapt out of it as his burden screamed in fright. The instant he hit the ground, he started running as fast as his powers and his armours would allow, as far from Anubis' HQ as possible.

"Okay...okay..." Ivan repeated, as the employees of Anubis ran screaming past him. "Just have to...concentrate...let it - let it out...but not here!" He tried to fly, but the pain in his heart wracked him. He stumbled down to his knees, but managed to get up again. The whole room was on fire now, as his power began to melt the floor under his feet. As it gave way, he finally found the presence of mind to fly, but just as he did, he saw the intern standing there, just staring at him. She might have been frozen with fear, but no. She was smiling, the unmistakable smile of a fanatic. The mask of Hades rose into Ivan's mind, and he remembered with horror that he had told her how his powers work. He'd told her that they ran on adrenaline.

But he could give it no thought. He rocketed up into the air as high as he could, so high that oxygen began to thin, and the sky began to darken. Then, in one agonising burst, his power exploded in a second sun, illuminating the whole state in deathly light, as he screamed at the heart of an inferno. The noise almost deafened him, the light nearly blinded him...but he survived. He'd survived.
"Aha!" he laughed, hysterical with relief. "Ahaha! Nice try, you fucks! Nice fucking try!" He'd been thousands of feet up by the time the bomb within him had gone off. He'd have seen any planes, and nothing would have been hurt on the ground. He shakingly slicked back his hair, and began to descend.

It was only when he could see the Anubis Headquarters again that he realised what had happened. When he'd taken off, when he'd pushed himself into the air with his explosive strength, he'd only needed an infinitesimal fraction of his power to do it - a millionth if it was that much. But his body didn't understand that he was flying. It just vented the poison in his veins. It was a small explosion, by his standards, but that didn't change the fact that Ivan, as he would later discover, had just destroyed an entire city block.

Three-hundred people were dead.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Jackson stood up, calmly. Then, less calmly, he smashed his fists against the wooden table they'd been sitting at, practically atomising it.
"I knew this would happen," he growled, "I knew it. I knew he'd pull something like this! God damn it!" All were shocked by Jackson's show of anger.
"I knew he was unstable," Sara said, "but...not like this."
"What do we do?" Fahrenheit asked, shocked out of his usual irreverence.
"I'll have to bring him in," Jackson said. "Three-hundred...if I'd stopped him sooner..." All were made sombre by this thought. All were grave. Except for Mariko.
"The day after Sophie finds out he owns Anubis," she thought, almost shaking with anger, "they're all killed, by Ivan? All evidence gone, and one of his most powerful enemies given the blame for it? I'll be damned if this is a coincidence! It's true...it must be...he is Hades!"

As for Hades himself, he calmly ticked off stage two of his plan.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Drugged and defenceless on her bed, Sophie seemed like the worst person possible to deal with a foe of the magnitude that she now faced. She was a young woman - a girl, if one were being uncharitable - and though she might have been a superhuman, she didn't have the physical power to face someone like Jackson Morrow. She had so many vulnerabilities, ways for herself to be hurt, or threatened, or blackmailed. But she did have one thing, and even Jackson himself had noticed that: cunning.

For though it had been quite clear that Jackson was aware that Sophie had uncovered him, there was something that the redhead had noticed that he had not mentioned. She'd almost realised this as she was falling unconscious, and when - an hour later - she awoke from her anaesthetised slumber, the very first thing she'd realised was that she'd managed to maintain a secret of her own. Jackson might have known she knew he was Hades - but he didn't know she knew how his powers worked. His secret, that his strength increased in the presence of other superhumans, still - it seemed - he thought his own. But this thought didn't take away the fact that a man strong enough to lift an aircraft carrier over his head had invaded her home, threatened her, and almost strangled her to death.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," she repeated, but she didn't believe it. She shook, almost cried. She hugged her arms over her chest, knowing how close she'd come to death, astonished that she'd been able to bluff him so successfully. If Hades had killed her, then it might easily have all been over, and he might never be discovered. There was no excitement here as she might feel in the middle of heated battle, just dread, and fear, and powerful anxiety that she would somehow fuck everything up.

She had never thought ill of her own wits, but she doubted everything now. She felt small, so small compared to Jackson, so powerless. The hard-earned peace she'd managed to attain after everything Elena had put her through was gone. She was at war again, though now at least her enemy wasn't clawing from inside her. She felt like an athlete recovering from an injury - she was healing, she was doing all that she needed to be better and return to how things should be, only for someone to force her into competition before it was time. She would have had all the courage and strength she needed but...it was to soon. She didn't have it back, she didn't have herself back yet. She felt wounded, like a deep scar was aching from cold weather, paralysing her. It wasn't fair: she needed...she needed more time before she could take this on her shoulders. She felt foolish for opposing him, and unprepared to do so, foolish for not just letting him take her to protect the others. She even felt guilty for letting Mariko in on her secret, for putting her in danger as well.

"No," she thought, "don't be stupid! As long as he's still around we're all in danger. What if one day he just decides Mariko's hot and he wants to -" She didn't allow herself to finish the thought. She had to stay strong. To stay courageous. She had survived this trial. In a way she had defeated him, hadn't she? She could act against him now. She could fight him, somehow. She slapped herself, summoning up her blood. She was Enhancegirl. She was a hero - she had proved that! She saw Kirsten still asleep on her floor, thankfully unharmed, and she thought again of Jackson's treachery. Kirsten, and Ella - even her parents, everyone slept easier because they knew that the Pauldron was on hand to protect them. Imperion was...the anti-Supremacist, a cooling balm to a national psyche that would have been quite justified in being more panicked than it was. For everyone like Kirsten who needed a hero to believe in, for everyone like Sophie, or Mariko, or Nova, every superhero who with his lies Jackson had disgraced - she had to fight. It was okay to be scared - okay to wish that it wasn't happening: it just wasn't okay to give in. She wouldn't give in. She didn't.

It was unfortunate, then, that she ended up playing straight into Jackson's hands.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

Excellent as always, sir. The chapter was filled with intrigue, danger, sleepy submission and an exciting explosion. What more could one want?

You can cut the tension with a knife with all of Imperion's/Jackson's scenes and it's just all wonderfully suspenseful. I look forward to how this all comes out. Great stuff.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

Was Ivan Nazarov a bad man? It wasn't easy to say. Certainly he was conceited, vain, and tended to be disrespectful to anyone for whom it took him the slightest effort to be respectful towards. He was not callous, but he often didn't care about people's feelings even once he had a very good idea of what they would be, and could be cruel in his humour, and casually domineering in the way that only the upper classes can be. He was more than willing to use violence if he felt a situation called for it, though he was a little more restrained with his powers in practice than his reputation sometimes suggested. He did, it had to be said, have a bloodthirsty streak - but again, he'd only ever really enjoyed killing someone once: when he'd killed the Supremacist, and doubtless he would not have been the only superhero to take pleasure from this. But for all this, Ivan might not have been a good man - but he was not evil, and only an evil heart would have been unmoved by what he saw beneath him.

Ash hung in the air like grey snow, with the odd black fleck of burned paper, clothing or flesh. There were a great many high pitched sounds: car alarms, fire alarms, people screaming, children wailing. The sirens of police cars and firemen speeding towards the dreadful scene, and a smell of fire, sewage and death. Like an unwilling reaper, he was drawn to it, and Ivan floated lower, out of a terrible curiosity. He could no longer even recognise the headquarters of the Anubis building - he had reduced it to powder. There was even a sort of beauty to it, a charcoal-stillness.

"Oh god..." Ivan mumbled, floating lower still. He was still shaking from his adrenaline poisoning, his powers having still left an excess of the hormone within him. His aura of power, getting redder than it was orange the more adrenaline he had to process, flared around him impressively, though he did not mean for it to. As it brightened, Ivan noticed a different quality in the screams now, and he turned towards the broken streets from which the din arose.

They were pointing at him. Screaming. Some fell to their knees. He floated closer to them, and they howled with terror. A mother with a toddler, both relatively unhurt, but covered in soot, and lightly scratched, ran from him. The toddler tripped, her hand slipped from her mother's, but the mother kept running. The child looked back, and up at Ivan, as if looking to him for some explanation of her parent's treachery. Tearful eyes asked 'why', but Ivan could give it no answer that it would understand. Or was that true? Ivan couldn't tell quite how old the child was: he'd guessed about three, but she could possibly have been four or five. In which case, perhaps she'd been read stories about dragons. Monsters that appear from the air, wreathed in fire to burn without excuse or motive. Just wrath and flame and devastation. That was all she needed to know to get the picture: he was a dragon.

The child's mother quelled her panic and ran back for her child - almost more impressive than simply not letting go of it in the first place - and took her into her arms. She looked back at Ivan, and saw his yellow eyes filled not with bloodlust or rage, but confusion, and open-handed distress and dismay - almost as childlike as the one she bore in her arms. But one does not ponder the motives of a dragon. One simply runs from them, and she did.

Ivan descended to the ground, among the havoc he'd been made to wreak. The destruction was less elegant the further one went from its epicentre. There was real rubble now, and among it were identifiable limbs. Out of the corner of his eye, Ivan saw that one arm was moving. With explosive speed, he crouched down and began digging away the fallen masonry, the thin, sallow superhuman devoid of confidence in any subtlety his powers might possess. He cut his hands on broken metalwork, but ignored the pain - the excess of adrenaline saw to that. After a few seconds of furious burrowing, he managed to expose a face - a teenager, a girl of about seventeen.
"Help me..." she mumbled, as Ivan began trying to uncover more of her. She was delirious, her voice weak.
"D-don't be frightened," Ivan said, "I'll get you out."
"Help...Imperion...please..." she spluttered. Ivan froze. He didn't know why, but ice seemed to pierce him. He continued digging after a moment, but by that point she was already dead. Ivan let out a little yelp like an injured dog. He stumbled back, up to his feet, but he didn't stay up long. He saw dozens of dead bodies and with a cry, he fell to his knees, eyes wide with horror at what he'd done, at the hideousness of the crime that had been committed.

When Pulse-Man, Nevada's most powerful state superhero, turned up with his courage marshalled to face the nigh-impossible odds of a one-on-one battle with Zjarrus, he was resolute, but terrified. He did not, however, find a mad titan of nuclear flame, cackling manically or announcing that he was the heir to the Supremacist's throne, or some other villainous nonsense. He found a man, who was so often described as arrogant, vain, amoral and violent, screaming in anguish and horror at the chaos and death around him, and knowing that everyone would blame him, that his father and mother, Elizabeta, his friends, Gallantria, and Natalya...they'd all think he was guilty, he who was caught in the shadow of an evil so much greater than any that might have lingered somewhere deep in Ivan's heart.

Pulse-Man knocked him out without a fight.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

If even the haughty heart of Ivan Nazarov was moved by what had happened, then one easily could imagine the effect it had on the gentle heart of Sophie Scott. Her hands covered her mouth, tears welled in her eyes as she saw the destruction on her television. But unlike Ivan, who at first knew only baffled horror and guilt, Sophie knew - as soon as she realised where the explosion had happened - that Jackson was behind it.
"Just to...just to hide evidence..." At least part of Hades' motivations were clear. Eliminating the Anubis Foundation eliminated a potential avenue of discovery - May's chance success doubtless could never be repeated now. He had arranged for the murders of hundreds of people simply to make himself a little safer.

"Oh my God!" Kirsten walked in, still in a somewhat sleepy haze. She had no idea that she'd been Hades' captive, merely that she felt oddly woozy after waking up. Seeing the news of the Carson City 'bombing', she sat down, but then immediately stood up again. That kind of news...how was one supposed to react to it? "How the hell did this happen?" Hearing no answer, she looked at Sophie, and saw the redhead's fists clenched, her teeth bared. "Oh, Jesus, Sophie, did you know someone who - who died?"
"No," Sophie said, quietly. "I know the guy who did it."
Confused, Kirsten looked again. A shaken newscaster mentioned again that Ivan Nazarov, Zjarrus of the Pariahs, had been taken into custody, suspected of being responsible for the disaster. "Wait, do you know him? Like as a superhero friend?"
"I can't stand him," Sophie said. "But he -" She was about to say 'he didn't do this', but that sounded too definite. She didn't want to invite more questions. "I, uh, didn't think he'd do something like this."

She got up. She needed to get to Carson City as soon as possible. She didn't know how she could arrange to see him if he'd been arrested, but she had to talk with Ivan, find out what had happened. For all she knew, this was only the start of Imperion's plan. Sophie's first thought was that a bomb had been gone off, and Ivan had been straightforwardly framed. But before Sophie leapt into action, Kirsten said something:
"I guess this is what it was like for our parents," Kirsten said. "Shit like this happening all the time."
"The Supremacist," Sophie muttered. Indeed, he'd been a terror throughout the childhoods of their parents' generation, and horrors on this scale had become hideously common - but no longer. The Indigo Titan had ushered in a new age when he'd overpowered the Supremacist, and Imperion had taken that and he'd run with it. Now of course, Sophie didn't see Imperion as the Titan's equal, but nor was he the new Supremacist either. Martin Sontag's evil had been about as far from subtle as throwing Air Force One at the White House - which he'd done twice. Jackson, on the other hand, was clearly a master of covert misdirection.

"Misdirection..." It was even worse than Sophie had thought. Imperion hadn't arranged for the destruction of Anubis, and the deaths of hundreds of people, just to hide evidence. He'd done it to distract Sophie. "Why? What the hell doesn't he want me to see?" Hurriedly, she pulled her phone out of her pocket, and started browsing local news sites. "Mayor's brother in corruption scandal...sanitation workers threatening strike...Starlight Squadron busts illegal arms sale..." Even at that moment, hearing that the young ladies of the Starlight Squadron had returned to superheroics made Sophie smile. But she quickly moved on - until she happened to catch sight of a headline buried in the Seacouver Report's website's 'crime' section.

There were three, in fact. Three crimes, or attempts at crimes, that had been committed over the past few hours, that almost nobody would now pay attention to because of the Carson City bombing, but that Sophie knew - from context or otherwise - must have had Jackson behind them. One stabbed right at her heart, and on any other day she would have leapt to deal with its aftermath immediately. But she could not: not while the stakes were so high.

The second crime induced no sympathy from Sophie, for criminal or for victim, but she pondered investigating this one quite seriously. No - this one was, in a sense, just an extension of the crime that Ivan had been forced to commit. She doubted that she would learn anything from it, though it was disturbing that Jackson's influence had extended far enough for its commission.

It was the third crime, the one which was barely a footnote even on the sometimes desperate SR, that leapt out at Sophie as demanding her attention. The other two could be relatively simply explained: the powers of the first's victim were naturally problematic, and the second victim's job seemed now in itself to mark him out for death. No, it was the third victim, of the third crime, that Sophie could only give one explanation to:
"He's a threat." A grim smile inched its way up Sophie's face. Hades had made his move - now it was time for Sophie to make hers.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Three hours earlier...

"I think I'm in love with her," Askancepoint thought, over a plate of eggs and ham. He did not know if this was a new thought, exactly, but it was one that pushed itself up into his mind with a rather powerful insistence. Immediately he imagined Shane's eyes rolling. "I'm an idiot. I'm definitely an idiot. I'm -" It was at this point in Mark's train of thought that he looked over the table of the little restaurant in which he found himself, and saw a pair of wide, yellow eyes staring at him in confusion. "Oh," Mark thought. "Shit." He signed: "y=You...heard that?"
"Yes," Natalya replied, her companion just about able to read her lips. "Yes, I...I did." The pale, raven-haired architect had, alas, feared something like this for some time. They'd barely been dating for a month, but she knew from their first meeting that Mark was a man quick to forge loyalties, and loath to break them. Even on their first date he'd been struggling not to think of her as his girlfriend, and after Natalya had kissed him for the first time in Ferndale, he'd been precipitously close to feeling as he did every time that they'd met. For once, the beautiful telepath wished that there were more people around, but the breakfast bar was almost completely empty. She was beyond embarrassed. But she steeled herself, and dared to look into his bright, blue eyes. "Oh, god..."

To his credit, Mark's feelings were very earnest. Indeed, it wasn't as though he had an inflated image of her, exactly. He thought her intelligent, deep-hearted, gorgeous, thoughtful, talented - and though Natalya didn't agree with him, exactly, he did see her as human. But she was a human who seemed to provoke in him a great deal of emotion. He sympathised with her social difficulties, admired such feats as she'd had as a superheroine, and found her enthralling as a companion. Yet there was more to it than that. Mark had been a schoolteacher once, and Natalya felt a similarity between the way he felt about her, and the way he'd felt about some of his more talented, but difficult students: he wanted to help, and the thought that he might be helping someone was a shot right to the centre of his ego.

"Well," she said after a chasm of silence, accompanying her speech with such sign language as she'd managed to pick up, "I don't really know what you want me to say to that."
"Forget what I want," he replied. "I'm sorry. I mean, I'm not, but - that is...I mean, what do you want to say?"
"I just wanted to have breakfast with you, Mark," Natalya said, frowning. "It's a little early for confessions, isn't it?"
"In the day, or in our relationship?"
"Both."

Another long silence. Mark broke it, sort of, by signing: "I already know how Shane is going to react when I tell him."
"'You over-eager, plum-headed dope.' Something like that?" Natalya was drawing on one of many memories Mark had of Shane criticising him in his ostentatious manner. She'd still only met him once, but through Mark she felt an almost intimate acquaintance with the deadly Fahrenheit. She felt her anxiety soften: his affection was infectious. Was Mark in love with her, in the way that she'd felt Mariko and Sophie were in love? No, definitely not. Even he didn't really think that. But he did love her, at least to some extent. She could feel it, and even though it was confusing and embarrassing, it warmed her heart a little, too.

"I'm an idiot. I'm a big, ginger idiot," Mark signed, now himself struggling to hold Natalya's gaze. "I shouldn't have said it. That is, I shouldn't have let myself think it." He was quite afraid that he'd buggered it up completely and scared her off, but Natalya managed a small smile.
"I want you to know that...I am fond of you," the telepath said. She had to sign it twice before she got it right. "You're a very sweet man, and I like spending time with you."
"And I haven't ruined anything?"

Natalya paused. She was frightened, she found. She felt an instinct to get up and leave, immediately. To tell him 'oh well, it was doomed, I suppose' and hide in her apartment for the next month. But she didn't. There was a part of her that did - but why should that count more than the part of her that didn't? "I sort of expected dating to be like this. I don't know...if what to do with what you said, and it's sort of intimidating, and I did want this just to be fun for a while but..." She scratched her forehead. "Look, I've said before that it's not fair how I have access to everything you think. Well, it would be even more unfair to ruin something good because I...embarrass easily. Besides, Mark, if the worst thing I find in your head is love...then I suppose I'm a lucky telepath, aren't I?"

Mark's relief was palpable. It would have been palpable even if Natalya hadn't had her powers. He castigated himself inwardly, but more good-humouredly than before. It was funny: when they'd first gone out, Mark had been the one with much more dating experience, and had been the one, perhaps, leading Natalya by the hand a little. Now that she was more comfortable around him, there was an almost puppyish eagerness to him. It would have been a little irritating as well as endearing, but Natalya had to remind herself that she was sensing this quality far more than she was observing him express it.

"Oh, damn," Natalya muttered, feeling the small hairband she'd used to tie her hair back snap. Her hair fell in a wave over her shoulders - bared by a soft, dark-red dress with a pleated hem about an inch above her knees - stroking her long, smooth neck. Trying to get her hair back in order, she noticed that Mark's piercing blue eyes were fixed on her with an intensity she rarely saw in his kindly, relaxed features. In that moment, when her hair had fallen over her shoulders, he'd been...awestruck by her loveliness. She sensed his desire for her, and it didn't repulse her. Quite the opposite: she let out a breath at once sharp and soft, and she felt her white thighs shifting together. She might not have loved him yet, if ever she would, but his face - far less conventionally attractive than that of his best friend - had very much grown on her. Plus, he had the athletic body that one would expect of an experienced, professional superhero. And the way he looked at her...god, he really could make her feel sexy sometimes. She realised that she wanted to feel like that with him.

She leaned forward. He matched her, and they kissed. She felt his hand on her arm, and she kissed him more deeply, moaning slightly as their tongues met. She pulled away after a moment, blushing - but smiling.
"You are an idiot, Mark," she signed. "You really shouldn't love me."
"Sorry, I didn't catch that. I'm deaf, you see."


After the two left the restaurant, kissed again - a little more awkwardly and less passionately this time - and began to go their separate ways. Mark went a little more hurriedly. He finally got the message from Shane that the Pauldronites still in Seacouver had been summoned to the CRO's office, and he slipped into his rather trim little car with some haste. He didn't know whether his date had gone well or badly, but he winced when he thought of how Shane would mock him. "Balls to him," he thought. "When's the last time he had a date, for God's sake?" He sped off, his lips still tingling from the kiss of Insyte, just as an unmarked van with tinted windows passed him, slowing down as it neared the restaurant.

Natalya found herself ill-at-ease. Outside of Mark's presence, where his thoughts and feelings buoyed her, she began to feel somewhat leadened by his revelation. She had found these dates had become an enjoyable part of her life's routine, a space in which her anxiety was relieved, not increased. Thinking about his feelings for her, and hers for him, and whether they were sensible, or if she was being cowardly, or he was being callow, or whatever - she didn't want that. But, being Natalya, she chided herself for this attitude. She had to accept that really engaging with people carried risk. And somehow or other, she had gained the courage to take those risks in recent months.

Her phone rang. For a moment, she thought it might be Mark, but obviously he wouldn't be calling her. It was, much to her surprise, her father.
"Are you alright?" his harsh voice rasped out, the instant Natalya answered. His voice was so full of genuine emotion that Natalya could hardly answer at first.
"Y-yes, I'm fine," she replied. "Is something wrong, father?"
"Is something wrong?!" he bellowed. "Didn't you see the news? Didn't you see what he did?"
Natalya's blood froze. There was only one person 'he' could be: Ivan. "No, I didn't," she said quietly. "What happened?"

Natalya didn't get to hear a complete answer, and not just because of her father's vainglorious waffling. The van that had passed Mark now eased into a parking spot right next to the pale telepath. The three men inside had been told in no uncertain terms by their immediate superior that failure would result in death - at the mighty hand of their outfit's patron, if need be. Still, when they'd seen their target dining with a member of the Pauldron, they had almost decided on abandoning the operation altogether. But thankfully, he'd left. Now their only problem was the beautiful, dark-haired young woman with her back turned to them.

These were not members of the Sleeping Beauty Society. They drew no particular pleasure from the idea of capturing a woman, even one as lovely as Natalya. They were mercenaries, ex-military, who had been given a job, and they would complete it as efficiently as possible. The side door of the van opened, and one of the men inside jumped out.
"Father, what did he actually do?" Natalya said, increasingly frustrated. "Yes, I'm sure you always knew that, but could you please -" Natalya hadn't paid attention to the van pulling up next to her. She hadn't paid attention to its hatch door opening. It was difficult to ignore, however, when the stun gun was jabbed into her back.

"What the - mmmhhhpphhhh!!" A thick, gloved hand seized Natalya around her mouth, squeezing her pale cheeks, and completely muzzling her. Natalya, to her credit, did try to fight back, but even as she raised her leg to kick backwards at her assailant, it was too little too late. "GHHPHHH!" A buzzing, shivering, overwhelming sensation shot through her, starting from the base of her spine where the stun gun had been jabbed, and then shooting outwards through her entire body. Her arms shook, her white legs quivered, her buxom chest heaved. Light flashed in front of her eyes and then...it all fell from her.

In little more than an instant her arms flopped to her sides. Her naked legs lost their strength, her sloping, white shoulders sank, and her eyes began to flutter. "Can't...can't think..." Natalya's vision swam. Even as the large man slipped his hands under her thighs and her upper back, and hoisted her like a stolen bride into his arms, she barely realised what was happening. Her dress' hem fell back, exposing her supple, smooth legs almost completely, her dark hair trailing downwards toward the ground. Her eyes weren't quite shut, but she was totally limp as her captor leapt back into the van where his allies waited.

"Jesus, what a looker," one of them muttered. With Natalya's neck falling back, her generous bust was eye-catchingly emphasised, and each man rewarded himself with a good, long, look.
"Don't get any ideas," the man carrying her said. "We all need to watch out for our immortal souls, right?" This got a good chuckle from his men. "Alright!" he shouted, to the man at the wheel. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
"Unhh...hhhh..." Natalya moaned, still clinging on desperately to the last vestiges of consciousness. She felt the hands on her bare legs and the paralysing weakness into which she'd fallen. Her addled, fading mind had only room for one emotion, and it chose humiliation. She'd wanted to look good for her boyfriend, and now...now she'd been seized. Again reduced to helpless, limp, whimpering eye candy. She didn't even have the presence of mind to wish for rescue. Instead, she simply sank obediently into slumber, her yellow, owlish eyes finally falling shut.

Just in time, in fact, not to witness the back of the van being blown open.

"What?!" one of the mercenaries near shrieked. The back doors themselves were alright, but the lock had been shattered. Just as he unhooked his sidearm, an earsplitting sound pulsed into him, and he grabbed his ears, howling with pain. The second was more resilient, and managed to raise his weapon, but there was a flash of red, and before he knew it, a man with bright blue eyes and footfalls of deathly silence had closed on him. The mercenary was an ex-marine, but Askancepoint managed to disarm him and almost break the butt of the gun on his nose before he could think of meaningfully retaliating.

The last of the three, the one who'd captured Natalya, was the only one who managed to fire. Mark was almost caught off guard, and the first shot didn't even completely miss him, giving him a thick gash on his arm. But he barely even recoiled, before letting loose a sonic blast that not only crushed Natalya's captor against the partition between the van's cab and its hold, but also knocked the driver out as well. After Chryseis, Askancepoint was often considered the weakest member of the Pauldron, and that was probably right. However, he was still the second weakest member...of the Pauldron.

He hadn't turned back because he thought Natalya was in danger, exactly. He'd turned back because a half-hysterical Fahrenheit had sent him news about what had happened in Carson City, and he thought that...well, that Natalya might need him. He wasn't exactly pleased with how right he had been. Bending down by his fallen lover, he cradled Natalya's head with one arm, patting her cheeks to try and rouse her. She looked fearfully limp, and though she was obviously still breathing, there could have been all sorts of other problems.

Thankfully, Natalya's eyes began to open, and they opened to the impassioned, fearful face of Mark Mikkelsen.
"Are you alright?" he mouthed, and to his surprise, Natalya smiled sardonically at him.
"Too...good to be true..." she murmured. She was convinced that she was dreaming. But delusional or otherwise, she was alright, and with a silent laugh, Mark embraced her. Only when his relief cooled did he wonder just what the hell was going on. "One Nazarov commits a heinous crime, and in less than an hour another Nazarov almost kidnapped? Balls if this is a coincidence." Of course, he could not yet even guess at the truth.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Natalya's attempted abduction had been the first of the crimes that Sophie had discovered. The second had come far less close to success, but had been far more bloody in its results. The intent in this case had been to kill, not to capture, and had failed even more spectacularly. It had been in the early morning, before the Pariahs' meeting with Anubis - and Cato Pict was enjoying a newspaper.

Arrested for kidnapping, though there was still some possibility of his being charged with attempted murder, the blond demon seemed quite as comfortable behind bars as he had outside them. The others had quickly learned not to mess with him: even though he abstained from using his powers since his claim to lack them was part of his defence, he was still vicious and dangerous. He didn't want to get shipped of to the Pen-Supreme, either.

"Morning, Bob!" he said, cheerily, as one of the guards turned up outside his cell. "What can I do you for?"
"Come with me," he said.
"Whatever you say, skipper," Cato replied, full of nothing but jollity. Allowing himself to be handcuffed, and then yanked along by the collar, he was marched to one of the exercise rooms, a very small affair, but relatively adequate.
"Wait here," Bob said, pushing Cato inside, before locking him in.
"May I ask why?" Cato trilled.
"No, you may not," Bob replied. He was much, much larger than Cato, and embarrassed at how afraid the grinning blond made him.

Cato was only waiting a few minutes before four large men, all covered with tattoos, were escorted in as well. Like Cato, they were all prisoners. Unlike Cato, they were not handcuffed.
"Well hey there fellas," Cato piped up. "You all get dragged in here too? Any of you, uhh, know what's going on?"
"Somethin' like that." The largest of the four strode towards Cato, and with surprising speed for a man of his size, punched Cato in the stomach.
"OOHHH!" Cato grunted, stumbling backwards. "G-geez, that hurt!" He looked up with daggers in his eyes, but a sly smile came onto his face. "Not very sportsmanlike, hitting a man in handcuffs."
"Shit, you're right," his attacker said. "Oh wait! Ain't no referee around, is there?" He laughed, and the others joined him. Cato looked up at the security camera - it was switched off. "Yeah that's right," his attacker said, seeing that Cato had noticed. "It's just the five of us."
"Ehehehe...ehehehee...ahahaha...AHAHAAHAAAA!" Cato cackled, screaming out his laugh like an hysterical banshee. "Oh, boys, boys, boys!" he said, as the others started looking just a little confused. "You have no idea how happy it makes me to know that we're all alone."
"Yeah?" another of the prisoners says. "Don't want people watching you die like a bitch?"
"Nope," Cato replied, standing straight. "I just don't want people knowing how easy it's going to be for me to kill all of you." As they laughed, Cato popped the joints in his neck. "Don't say I didn't warn you." He grimaced, steeling himself for the pain that was to come. "Enhance!"

When Bob returned, about five minutes later, he almost threw up. The prisoners were all dead, some with their necks broken, some with their eyes bleeding, and one strangled with a strip torn from his uniform. All except Cato, of course. He'd turned his powers off now, and stood in the blood and gore, panting with excitement. He turned to Bob, and smiled again.
"They started it."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

That had been the second of the crimes Sophie had found. The third had begun when a woman with a gun entered the Methos Institute. Even the orderlies didn't have guns, so naturally, such a thing should never have been permitted, but the security could be excused for their failure. The woman - a somewhat attractive brunette in her late thirties - was a cyborg, not so nearly as extensively augmented as people like Cybelle or Discorprus, but perhaps more advanced. Her weapon was concealed within a slot in her - entirely artificial - forearm. It was not a powerful weapon, as pistols went, but it was powerful enough to murder an ageing scientist with anteriograde memory loss.

Yes, Peter Schiffer was a difficult case for the good Doctor Wingfield. Timothy had dealt with more extreme cases of Schiffer's condition before, but none so perplexing. A memory erasure power backfiring because of encountering a stronger telepath? Who the hell knew how that worked? He was even hesitant to use his own powers, for detecting and controlling emotions, for fear that there'd be another bad interaction. As it was, he had no idea how to treat the patient. He, Schiffer, sat in his room all day, refusing to talk to anyone. And given that he was not just insane, but considered criminally dangerous, he'd been left mostly to stew in his own juices while the authorities figured out what the hell to do with him.

What went on in his mind? It was hard to say. He seemed aware that something was wrong with him, but he seemed reticent to admit it. Schiffer kept confabulating explanations for what to him must have constantly seemed like inexplicable shifts in time and place - most frequently he asserted that 'that yellow-eyed bitch' had had him thrown in prison, though sometimes he was aware that he was in a mental hospital. It was difficult for the staff to remain sympathetic, especially as rumours swirled that he'd done something unspeakable to Seacouver's much-beloved Enhancegirl.

So when Timothy saw the woman - carrying an expertly faked I.D. badge identifying her as a case worker for the few patients at Methos who had been sectioned against their wills - approach him, and then ask him to take her to see Schiffer, he was put on guard. Why? Because every single person he had ever spoken to who had had any contact with Schiffer at all had had at least some distaste for him. This woman had no feelings about him whatsoever. He could barely detect any emotions from her at all. Then again, this was more common than one might think - perhaps she just wasn't very passionate.

"Who is this?" Schiffer barked, when Timothy and 'Lily Trebek' walked into his room. He was sitting in a corner of his room, his eyes wide, his grey hair patchy from when he'd torn it in angry frustration. Over and over and over in his mind went his last moments of sanity. Elena brought back. Sophie Scott erased. And then those...harpies! Spectra and Insyte, tearing everything apart, ruining everything he'd tried to get. He knew there was something wrong with his memory, but he had no idea how long it had been. A day? A year? He didn't know where he was. He could never hold onto anything. He was lost in a labyrinth that kept changing shape every time he turned a corner, dying from a wound that kept on reopening. He'd tried to destroy Sophie in a blackened, sickly mockery of fatherly love, and Spectra and Insyte had destroyed him for his efforts.

Timothy saw Schiffer's anguish as plain as his chubby face, and did feel a pang of sympathy. Suffering was suffering, no matter what this man had done. 'Lily', however, didn't feel anything. All she knew is that some weirdo had paid her to put a bullet in this weirdo's skull. The security here would be no problem, and scramblers built into the circuitry of her arm would prevent any cameras from capturing images of her face. She left no fingerprints. She left no trace at all, save for blood, and weeping of her victims' nearest and dearest.

But the problem was she was really rather attractive. She had very toned legs, shown off quite nicely with a short-ish skirt and black tights, a long poised back, chestnut-brown hair and - frankly - a great ass. One hates to be crude, and so did Timothy Wingfield, but the good doctor did have something of an eye for the ladies, and it had been way too long since the last time he had had sex. The thing was - and this was what made 'Lily's' attractiveness a problem - he looked at her very closely. Unlike Insyte, he didn't need to look at someone to feel their emotions, but it made it easier if he did. And he sensed much more intently what Lily was feeling: calm, self-satisfaction, haughtiness...and then just for an instant, a tiny quantum of time that ought to have been utterly insignificant, he felt something else. Yes, Lily was a professional, a cyborg, a smooth operator - but you had to be at least a little unhinged to be a professional assassin. In that quantum of time, just as she activated the servo in her arm to unsheathe her weapon, there was just a tiny, tiny smidgen...of bloodlust.

"Aah!" The gasp was not one of pain or surprise - no, it was...bliss. Pure, unadulterated, mind-altering bliss. In her entire life, Lily had never felt a pleasure like this one. Sweet cascades of delight, purer than love, than life, better than sex-on-your-first-hit-of-heroin good! Her cyborg's heart wept just to know that such a feeling was even possible! What did it matter? What did any of it matter? What did it matter that Timothy grabbed the pistol from the slot in her forearm? What did it matter that orderlies grabbed her, handcuffed her, and forced her onto the ground? What did it matter that -

And then, it was over. Never in her life would Lily experience a joy such as that - no-one ever really did, unless Timothy Wingfield got his hands on them. As they dragged her off, he saw her more natural emotional state reassert itself, and she began bellowing in bloody rage at having been foiled so easily.
"What the hell was all that about?" Timothy muttered under his breath. He felt dirty about having used his power like that, though not exactly guilty. It was a therapeutic tool, not a weapon. Still, Schiffer was his greatest concern, and he turned towards him, expecting him to be frightened, or at least startled. But no - in the few seconds since Lily had been dragged away, Schiffer's condition had erased the experience from his mind.

Later, when the police had fruitlessly arrived to interrogate Schiffer about who might be trying to kill him, Wingfield sat in his office and, like many that day, he watched the news about what had happened in Carson City with abject horror. His first thought was not conspiracy or condemnation, but that it had likely been some sort of terrible accident, and he counted himself lucky that his powers weren't something he had to be afraid of. Just as he was about to do his rounds, his intercom buzzed.
"Yes?"
"There's someone here to see you, Doctor Wingfield," the front receptionist replied.
"Is it the police again? I suppose I appreciate them being thorough, but -"
"No, Doctor. It's Miss Scott."
"Sophie Scott? Rupert's niece?" He straightened himself up. "Surely you mean she's here to see Rupert Scott, no?"
"No, Doctor, she says she needs to talk to you. She says it's urgent."
To his embarrassment, Rupert had actually been rather anxiously neatening himself up in advance of meeting the lovely young woman, but the word 'urgent' put paid to such ludicrous thoughts. "Right. Buzz her in, I'll come down."

"He says that's okay," the receptionist said.
"Thank you," Sophie replied, her uncharacteristic brusqueness and the knifelike sharpness of her expression left the receptionist slightly intimidated, but she had no mind to soothe anyone's feelings that day. Natalya's attempted abduction was possibly an attempt by Hades to prevent Sophie using Insyte's telepathy against him, but more likely a way of distracting her attentions. If Natalya was a true threat to him, he'd surely have dealt with her long ago: he'd been aware of Insyte's existence for years. Cato's attempted murder - which only made the news because he was a man of slight celebrity - was Hades trying to take care of a loose end: Cato was now the last Anubis Foundation employee left.

No, it was the attempted assassination of Schiffer that was what Hades had really tried to do. Why? He was a broken man, the fabric of his mind in torn rags. But he had worked on Hades' armour. He had been, probably, a fairly close acquaintance. "Maybe Hades had him use his memory powers on himself," Sophie had thought. "And when Elena resurfaced in my head, when I started to remember shit from before...maybe he started worrying that Schiffer would remember stuff too." Indeed, there was little that now escaped Sophie's notice, few details that she did not take into consideration. One that she did ignore, however, was that as she was frisked by the Methos Institute's security - which was now understandably paranoid - one of the orderlies, seeing her, moved quietly out of view.

About ten minutes later, through a very winding chain of communication, Jackson himself received the message:
"She took the bait."

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Hades didn't like making personal appearances, even in his early years when he was building his power base and had to do much himself. In the three years since he'd made his personal dedication to amassing power for himself, he'd managed to work out a pretty good system, which meant he didn't actually have to do very much as Hades. He didn't need it to make him money; indeed, he poured huge amounts of money into his criminal endeavours, making sure as many criminals in Seacouver, Renning and Sacramento owed him as many favours as possible.

However, the care that Jackson took to avoid being directly culpable had come back to bite him. His main headquarters had been discovered and, while Jackson did have not only competent gunmen, but also two fairly capable superhumans guarding it, they were simply no match for the intruder. Desperately calling out for the aid of their mighty leader, the message only reached Jackson extremely belatedly. He rushed from a boardroom meeting at his now extremely successful investment firm, and was delayed even further by the circuitous routes he took to reach his hidden lair.

He arrived to find chaos. His gunmen were injured, some were handcuffed. One was dead. As Hades, clad in a tough leather armour that obscured his body's shape and covered his face, surveyed the scene of the disaster, he took these details in quite coolly. This was, in fact, not the first time - nor would it be the last - that his base had been discovered. None of his followers would be so foolish as to betray his existence, so Hades himself wouldn't be under threat, so the loss of the base was a major inconvenience, but not a disaster. His base was installed with jammers to stop radio and cellphone signals if the intruders were calling for aid from within, but surely whoever or whatever it was had already told others about their discovery.

And yet, there were no police, as far as he could tell. Some of his underlings - mostly normal criminals, rather than the dead-eyed, drugged peons he'd use later - were still rushing about in panic. It seemed to Jackson that he'd been extremely lucky. Whoever it was hadn't brought any back up at all.
"What kind of idiot," Jackson thought, "would come to a place like this without telling anybody? Just marching in by themselves and -" He almost slapped himself on the head with how obvious it was. "A superhero. A Couvie superhero."

He'd had to kill plenty already. There were always superhumans interfering with his business. Excluding the two men he'd killed when he'd discovered his power, he'd already disposed of three superhumans himself: one other criminal; one bounty hunter (a dying breed by Enhancegirl's day) and one out-and-out superhero. He steeled himself now to face - and to kill - another. By now he'd realised that there was a connection between his strength and the number of superhumans around him and he'd made sure he'd be very strong here. Renning City was only fifteen miles from Seacouver, and boasted a sizeable superhuman population itself, so he wasn't worried about being caught short. He didn't enjoy killing, and never would, but he had hardened himself against it by now.

So he was taken very much off guard when the person he was preparing to kill turned out to be a spectacularly beautiful woman.
"Who is left?" she cried out, her voice ringing clear and strong through Hades' halls. "Who is left to face me?" She was a little taller than most women, with thick, long black hair that swept down to her shoulder-blades in an obsidian waterfall. She wasn't muscular, but nor would one call her slender. Her legs were toned, and long, capped off with a pair of tight, flat, knee-high boots, with metal greaves buckled over them. Her shoulders and arms, bared by a short, almost centurion-esque tunic, were feminine, but strong, well-developed. Her bust was nicely shown off as well, her breasts ripe and womanly. Her features were very well proportioned: round cheeks, red with the excitement of battle, dark eyes aflame with power and expert focus. Her lips were the only part of her that Jackson would have called outright soft, and they were soft: plump, deep red, and parted in a confident smile. Her skin was a rich, olive-brown, and Jackson mistook her for Greek, though she was in fact Israeli. He had no doubts about her identity, though. At this time, in 2001, she was Renning City's most powerful and beloved superhero: Lila Lexington, otherwise known as -

"Zayin!" The mighty heroine turned eagerly in response to the challenge, bellowed through the voice synthesiser in Hades' mask. She tossed her hair over one of her naked shoulders, smiling just one shade too prettily to be described as 'viciously'. The skirt of her short, burgundy-and-blue tunic swished about her bare thighs, revealing her shapely legs even more, though this seemed no problem for Zayin. She wore metal guards on both forearms, and twirled in her hand a long, ornate sword, though from its length and thickness it was clear that it was itself no ornament. Zayin was hardly thin and waiflike, but even a muscular man would have struggled to wield that sword with such grace. But then, much like Jackson, Zayin was said to be stronger than any man.

"So tell me," Zayin said, seeming entirely at ease, "you the boss-man, or just another goon?"
"Have you heard the name Hades?" This was a genuine question. He had seeded rumours here and there, but was aware that they hadn't spread very far. Some specialists in organised crime knew of a 'Hades', but at this point few others did.
"'Hades'?" Zayin laughed. "What, we got James Woods under that mask or something?"
Jackson didn't get the reference, and shrugged his shoulders. "Since you haven't heard of me, perhaps I can forgive your foolishness. You are in my underworld, Zayin, and I -"
"Oh my god," Zayin laughed, "you really need to work on your act, buddy." She snorted with derision. "I mean, don't get me wrong, in theory I get what you're going for, but it's just not happening. Your synthesiser makes you sound like a cheap action figure and the whole 'Hades' thing...you're trying too hard."

Beneath his mask, Jackson fumed. He had not gone through all his effort to be mocked by some sword-wielding tramp in a mini-skirt. Were a man mocking him like this, he'd already have lunged out to kill them. But a combination of things stayed his hand, momentarily at least. Firstly, he was struck by just how gorgeous she was. The thought of breaking her, killing her, destroying something that lovely...it was all but unconscionable. And secondly...he was intimidated. Jackson had only really been Hades for a few years. He didn't have much experience fighting Zayin's calibre of superhuman. From what he'd heard, she was one of the strongest superhumans of her time. Anxiety began settling in. What if she was too powerful? He didn't imagine for a moment that she was literally stronger - but what if she was too skilled? What if she cut off his mask, saw who he was and then escaped? Besides, she was so charismatic. So confident, and bold, and so, so lovely...

In his dithering, Zayin attacked. She leapt forward, and swung her greatsword with shocking speed. Hades raised his arm to defend himself, and planted his feet in a strong stance, but it didn't matter. Zayin's sword sent him flying, straight into - and through - a concrete wall.
"Aah!" Jackson was not hurt, exactly, just...shocked. His schemes to empower himself had not yet even really begun, and he was not one quarter as strong as he would be by 2017, but he was still tremendously strong. For Zayin to have knocked him down so easily...he had been perfectly prepared to take her seriously, and she'd still caught him totally off guard.

As he got back on his feet, Zayin twirled her sword in her hands, laughing. It was a melodious, lovely laugh, and Jackson felt a sudden pang of lust for her. He was a very young man still, and a virgin, and he blushed as he looked at Zayin's long, bare legs, saw her breasts heave as she panted slightly from the efforts of her battles.
"Y-you will pay for that..." he muttered, hardly louder than a whisper.
"Sorry, Hades, could you speak up a bit?" Zayin scoffed. "I don't think gods of death are supposed to mumble."
"GYYYAARRGGHHH!!" he leapt forward again, and took a devastating swing at her. Surprised at his sudden attack, Zayin was almost caught off guard, but not quite. She swung her sword again, and Hades not only managed to dodge it, but slap aside the sword, and lunge at her throat. But Zayin just slammed one of her arm-guards into his face, and he went flying again. He righted himself faster, and breathed in, crushing the air within his lungs with all the strength he could muster. He lifted his mask slightly, and breathed out again, and his breath was a deathly chill. This was not a third superpower: Jackson was making use of the Joule-Thompson effect, simulating a frost-breath power while keeping his electrodirective ability hidden. But his aim was poor, and Zayin not only avoided the frozen cloud, but recovered her fallen sword, and hit Jackson in the neck with it. He kept his head, but was thrown aside once again. Falling on his back, he realised that Zayin had made him bleed: barely a papercut, but he hadn't bled in years.

"You're definitely strong," Zayin said. "Maybe even stronger than me - but maybe you need to spend less time lifting weights, and more time sparring, huh?" She laughed again, and Jackson's lust turned to rage. There she was, so confident and powerful. These were the days just after the Indigo Titan had - seemingly - vanquished the Supremacist, when Lady Corvus had broken the power of the last of the Iron Stars, when superheroes shone as the world's greatest, noblest defenders, and they stood tall and proud and beloved by all but the most wilted of souls. Zayin embodied this in her time, as Spectra would come to embody it in later years. He hated her for that, and burned with envy for what she had. Yes, Jackson Morrow the business prodigy was getting some fame and respect, but not the adoration, the deistic worship that superheroes got. He wanted to humble her, to make her acknowledge his greatness as she whimpered in fear - but how?

And then he noticed something. Something about the way she twirled her sword. Something about the way she moved. There was a...lightness to it. An ease that did not just come from her feminine grace. "I get it," Hades thought. It was not just his power and his charisma that made Hades a terrible enemy, or that would make Imperion such a legendary hero: he was intelligent, and uncannily perceptive about his enemies. He saw right through Zayin, and he laughed.
"Grown a better sense of humour, Hades?" Zayin smirked.
"No, hero," Jackson replied. "Just better sense." He lunged forward again, and Zayin shook her head at his persistence. As he leapt forward, she stepped back, and with a smoothness beyond silky she struck at him with the greave of her left calf. He flew back again, and she smirked...until she realised that he had torn away her right greave as she'd kicked him. Suddenly her confidence flickered. Hades saw in her expression that he'd been right.

"You're powerful, Zayin," Hades said, hurling away the greave, "but you're not strong, are you?" He rushed again, and this time Zayin leapt forward to meet him, but her grace seemed diminished, somehow. She tried to stab him, but his strength made Jackson surprisingly fast, and he managed to tear the arm-guard from her sword arm. She kicked out at him in surprise, but he blocked her strike with his own calf. She hopped back, but she was much slower now, and he easily divested her of her other greave as well. She knocked him away for a third time with the flat of her sword, but he righted himself quickly, again hurling the items he had taken as far away from her as he could.

"Don't know what you're trying to pull, Hades," Zayin said, "but -"
"Stop," Hades said. Instead of barking at her, he spoke smoothly now, and calmly. "Do not try to hide secrets: for no-one can do so better than I." He popped the joints in his neck, and saw with satisfaction that there was a trace of fear in those wide, dark eyes. "Those greaves, that sword, your arm-guards...they're made of steel, aren't they? You're not like me at all. You have magnetic powers. You're using them to simulate enhanced strength."
For a moment, Zayin's eyes went wide with fear, but then her confidence returned to her face. "Well," she said, shrugging. "The secret's out." The lovely warrior dropped her sword, and folded her arms across her chest. Her sword never hit the ground, though. It remained, floating in place. "It never hurts to have a plan b), Hades. And considering plan a) was kicking your ass pretty hard, you really didn't do yourself any favours." She summoned her magnetic powers, and fired her sword at Hades like a missile.

Woe to Zayin, then, when Hades slapped the blow aside like it was nothing.
"Wh-what?" she gasped.
"Don't you know the physics of your own powers?" Hades said, now stepping slowly towards her. "Magnetic fields are exponentially more powerful close to their source. You only seem powerful when the metal you manipulate is close to you. Now? Now, Zayin, you're as soft and as weak as you look."
Zayin growled. Her instinct was always to fight, but divested of her weapons, and with her secret revealed, she knew that the odds were stacked very much against her. She would fall back for now, return better armed and with allies - Topspin and Gravion, perhaps - and give this 'Hades' the pasting that he clearly deserved so richly. She made an attempt to run past him, and powers or no powers, she was lithe, strong, and acrobatic, and she might well have vaulted him and begun an escape - but he didn't stand in her path. Instead, he lifted his mask again, and breathed winter from his mouth. Zayin managed to stop herself in time before she was frozen, but her hesitation cost her...well, it cost her everything she had.

"Got you!" Hades barked, grabbing her from behind, covering her mouth with his hand, and wrapping one arm around her torso, pinning her arms to her sides.
"Mnnnoommmpphhhh!!" she screamed, thrashing in Hades' grip, his leather glove closed over her plump lips like a vice. "Nyyyrmphh!!"
"Scream, Zayin. Scream all you want. You vainglorious fool, you didn't even tell anyone where you went, did you? Zayin the Magnificent would never need help, would she? Except she does need it, desperately. I've stripped you of your weapons, your power - and now your life!"

He'd genuinely intended to kill her. It was the only sensible thing to do, really. But as he felt her writhing, pressing her round behind against his pelvis, seeing her breasts undulate as she shook her naked shoulders from side to side, he realised that he couldn't. Her whimpers as she moaned through his hand were like music to his ears, every wriggle, everything she did which proved that he had her. An outrageously, insultingly attractive woman, and he had her.
"Or rather," he said, having realised that he couldn't murder her, "your life as you knew it." He unwrapped his arm from Zayin's torso, pressed his fingers against her back, and activated the other aspect of his powers.

"MMMMMMMPPPPHHHHHHHHH!!" Zayin screamed, as she felt the electric current travelling up her spine. Her whole body shook, trembling as if in terror as Jackson used his electrical powers against her. With his fine control, he wasn't administering anything like a lethal dose, but it was still having a profound effect. "MMMMPHHHHHH!! MMM-MMMMPHHHH!!" Zayin cried out. She could feel that something was wrong. Her naked shoulders were drooping. Her toned, olive-brown legs were no longer kicking, merely shifting against each other, and then not even that. "What's happening to me?" she thought, and for the first time, she was truly afraid.

Before her mind allowed her truly to apprehend the nature of Hades' assault, it ended. He took his fingers from her spine, grabbed her by the shoulders, and turned her around. He took his hand from her mouth and for just a moment she simply stood before him, slightly shorter, quivering, her mouth open in dismay, her dark eyes slightly wet. Then she fell, breathing a soft 'no' as she fell down flat onto her back. She was defeated. Zayin the mighty, the beautiful...and Jackson had conquered her.

"I...I can't move..." Zayin's voice was barely above a whisper. "I can't move!" Paralysed, the lovely heroine lay cushioned by her soft, black tresses, her arms flat by her sides, her legs neatly lying next to each other. Jackson watched her for a few moments, saw the horror in her eyes, the terror. Was the paralysis permanent? Would he now kill her? Would he do something...else with her? Surely these things all were running through her mind. The answer to all three was 'no' - but she didn't know that, did she?
"Let's see you make fun of me now," he thought. "Let's see you act so god-damned smug when you're powerless...limp..." He looked again at her naked thighs, the swell of her buxom chest and her beautiful face, so delightfully marred with an expression of helplessness. He felt himself shiver with pleasure, and at first this actually seemed distasteful to him. Exulting in a well-earned victory? Any great man of history might do as much. But getting so much...pleasure from it? That wasn't right, surely.

"If...you're going to k-kill me, you might as well get on with it!" Zayin said, as loudly and fiercely as she could.
"What a waste that would be," Hades replied. God, she was helpless wasn't she? She looked so passive, so soft. He could do anything to her. Anything at all. Despite her growls she was absolutely vulnerable...yet Jackson realised that he didn't want to force himself on her. No, he just wanted to have her.

He reached down with his mighty arms, sliding his hands underneath her smooth shoulders and her warm, naked thighs. He lifted her up into his arms, feeling a thrill at his own power at the almost ludicrous ease with which he could bear the burden of her body. Her arms flopped downwards, shaking back and forth slightly, her legs dangling in the air. She was still, passive. Only her bosom still thrust itself against her tunic's confines with any force. She couldn't even look at him: her head fell back, dark tresses flowing down in an obsidian river, and though she could move her eyes, she couldn't lift her head.
"Is th-this how you like your women, Hades? Paralysed? Helpless?"
"Feel lucky that I don't like them dead, Zayin," Jackson growled and, rather to his surprise, she didn't reply. She was cowed, at least partly, when she'd been so confident before. It was delicious, and again Jackson felt this to be distasteful.

"Well, why is it?" he thought. "Why the hell shouldn't I get some god-damned pleasure out of it?" Did all power have to be like a king's? Power was what he wanted, wasn't it? That's why he'd started all this nonsense in the first place, his plan to be the master of the criminal underworld, because he wanted power. Well what truer, purer expression of power could there be than defeating, capturing, and stripping of her strength a proud and beautiful warrior?

He took Zayin down into the deepest level of his base. At first his plan was simple to find a room without any metal for her to use, and to leave her bound, gagged and imprisoned, but as he took her down, he had another idea. An associate of his, a human trafficker who operated out of Seacouver and who was one of an increasing number to pay him fealty, had acquired a rather interesting device. It had proven unnecessary for the small scale of her operation, and she'd given it to Hades in lieu of her customary pecuniary tribute. Hades hadn't known at first what he'd do with a stasis tank - but he knew now.

It had been designed originally for quite another purpose than the one that his associate had deigned to give it: it was meant to preserve a person in stasis for long spaceflights. Indeed, stasis tanks would have borne the first astronauts to Mars, had it not been for the project being scrapped at the eleventh hour. Still, Hades had one, and now he had a use for it.
"You should feel lucky, Zayin," Hades said. "Few get to experience immortality."
"What the hell...are you...talking about?" Zayin couldn't turn her head, but she could see when Hades brought her into a small storage room. It had been emptied out: save for one large...well it looked to her like a giant fish-tank.
"This is a stasis tank. From what I understand, it will preserve your youth, your beauty for as long as I keep you in it." He opened the hatch of the tank, and laid Zayin gently inside it. Automatically, thick metal clamps buckled down over her, an addition from the trafficker who'd given it to Hades. They pinned her arms against her sides, slammed her olive-brown legs together, squeezed her smooth, naked shoulders. Lastly, a kind of half-vice half-mask clamped down hard over her nose and soft, red mouth.

"Mmmphh...! Mmmhhh..nnnpphh!" Zayin moaned, eyes wide. Her bonds trembled slightly, but didn't budge, let alone break.
"Trying to use your powers? These clamps are titanium. They might be slightly magnetic, but I doubt it's enough even for you." He shut the hatch, and flipped a switch on the side of the machine, and to Zayin's horror, it began filling up with a clearish liquid, somewhere between water and oil in its viscosity. As the liquid began to fill up, a tube shot out from the top of the tank into a slot on Zayin's gag. She realised soon enough that it would give her air, but her fear as the liquid rose did not abate - not until it covered her completely. She screamed, whimpered and at the last, Hades saw tears streaking her cheeks. Then the liquid rose over her head, she gave a shudder - and then in an instant was completely unconscious.

Jackson was left with a great deal to do. His men were hurt, he needed to find out how his base had been discovered, and there was still the matter of his investment firm to deal with. But little of that passed through his mind. He stared at Zayin, peaceful and asleep, all anger quenched, reduced to...an exhibit for her owner to admire. And he did admire her, for she was a great beauty. Even by the time that Mariko joined the Pauldron, Zayin remained one of the crown jewels of what would become an extensive collection. Yet that was not all that passed his thoughts. He didn't just lust after her: he envied her. Envied that she could display her power so proudly, envied that she was beloved by so many, envied the power that superheroes wielded.

And then he laughed, loud and long, for he realised what an idiot he had been. He'd still been chained by Ronnie's ambitions! He was still, essentially, trying to do what his father had done, and rebuild the criminal empire of Ronnie's father. Why should that be the kind of power, the kind of lordship he wanted? The greatest kings weren't just feared - they were loved! And if he wanted people to love him, then why the hell not be a superhero? With his resources and wealth, capturing the public's attention would be easy. A few great deeds, manufactured if necessary, but real if possible, would win their adoration.

There were many notions that did not yet come to him: Imperion started out as a secret identity before he realised that hindered his purposes; he had no notion, and would not for another nine years, of founding the Pauldron; he did not think of using Hades as a propaganda tool for a long time yet. But what he did think was that his fight with Zayin had been much too close. He was very powerful, yes, but still not among the great powers of his day. He needed many, many more superhumans in his sphere of influence.

And he had to ask Black where she'd got that stasis tank. He had a funny feeling that he'd be needing many, many more of those, too.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

The plot thickens. Nice flashback to the slow build-up of the Imperion/Hades identities. Some good basic "police" procedural thinking regarding the various plot points. And the date between Natalya and Mark was a fun conjecture on what it would be like to be dating a psychic. Fun chapter.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

Imperion was now almost forty. He had the love of a nation, almost their worship. He had vast political influence, and now the beginnings of actual governmental experience, which would be useful if - as he feared might happen - his powers waned in his old age, like his father's had, and he had to make do with running for President or something. And though the defeat and capture of a pretty superheroine always gave him a conqueror's delight, he had a taste for subtler expressions of power now. He had sown fear into an entire nation by what he'd arranged at Anubis's headquarters. Laws no doubt would change. There would be a national day of mourning. Presidents and statesmen would give solemn speeches. Parents would comfort their children. And here, in front of him, the Pauldron spoke gravely and anxiously about the terror that had been wrought. It was satisfying to see all going to plan.

Yet, for all that, he genuinely wished that it hadn't caused Sara so much anxiety.

"I can't think it's as simple as it seems," Sara said. The raw shock of the news had somewhat faded, and she was beginning now to think. "What would Ivan," she wondered, "have against the Anubis Foundation? Why would he openly attack them?"
"C'mon, Sara," Tobias said, pronouncing it like 'Sarah', "isn't it obvious? Anubis have been giving them bad PR since day one. He probably just lost his patience."
"He wouldn't care about something like that," Sara replied. "It'd probably just feed his ego. God knows he loves to think of himself as a bad-boy."
"I'm sure there's a story behind it," Jackson said, loudly, as if to quell further discussion. "But that doesn't matter. We arrest him if we can, and then we get his explanation. Otherwise we may have to -"
"What about the rest of the Pariahs?" Mariko asked, sharply. "Despite the way you talk about him, Ivan is not their leader. Hydrocita is. Did she sanction this? I know myself that she can be impulsive - but this attack is lunacy." She turned to Nova. "Is Farah a lunatic?"
"No," Sara replied. "I know she didn't make a good first impression with you, but she's a good person at her core."
"Then you're right. There's more here than we understand. We must contact the Pariahs and -"
"This isn't a time for diplomacy, Mariko," Jackson said. The other Pariahs getting involved was not something he'd wanted, though it had probably been inevitable. He had hoped that all the Pariahs would have been at the Foundation, and that Ivan would have killed them along with Anubis. He knew Farah was canny enough to be likely to stay away - perhaps even powerful enough to survive an attack from Ivan - but news that Julia Laurentiis and Sam Sparr had been present and had lived to tell the tale was...disturbing. "We need to take Nazarov down. Now. And if the Pariahs get in our way, then..." He fixed Mariko with a look. Doubtless she had no idea what he was planning, but if Sophie had told her that he was Hades, perhaps she was just trying to oppose whatever it seemed that he was trying to do. As it happened, he was exactly right.

Just before things could go any further, though, having left the room to see any developments in the news, Shane returned, obviously puzzled.
"Cancel red alert, boys and girls," he said. "Nazarov's turned himself in."
"I - wh...?" Jackson spluttered. "He what?"
"I'll be more accurate: Pulse-Man knocked him out, but he woke up before they could restrain him. He didn't attack: he let them arrest him. Now he's just sitting in his cell like a good boy."
"Why?" Mariko asked. "He could escape easily."
"He says that he's been framed. More to the point, he says that he can prove it." Shane shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe he's even telling the truth."
Mariko, too, was very surprised that Ivan had been so level headed. She looked out of the corner of her eye at Jackson, and saw the look of astonishment on his face. "Ah," she thought, "you weren't expecting that, were you?"

"Alright," Jackson said, "alright. Sara, head up to Carson City, see if they'll let you talk to him. Find out what the hell's going on."
"Of course," Sara replied.
"I'll have Derek meet you there," Jackson said.
"I think Mariko would be a better choice," Nova replied. "Ivan knows her as well."
"Indeed," Mariko said, almost eagerly. "Hopefully his story is true, but if it isn't, then one wouldn't want to set him off. Am I needed for anything -"
"No," Jackson said, sternly. "For now I want to keep you around." At present, all was still in hand. This was an unexpected development, but he was still in control of the situation. Getting Mariko out of Seacouver - away from Sophie - was tempting, but he didn't want Mariko anywhere near Ivan Nazarov. If he found out who Hades really was, everything would go straight to hell. Besides, he could sit in his jail cell if that's what he wanted. As long as he didn't try anything before Jackson dealt with Enhancegirl.
"Shit," Mariko thought. Being able to ally herself and Sophie with the Pariahs, at least in preparation for action, would have made her feel just a little more confident about this...mess.

Sophie would probably have assumed the worst, doubled down and insisted, had she been in Mariko's position. But Mariko was more cautious. Within the Pauldron, she might had potential allies, and a measure of protection. And if Jackson didn't know that she knew, then she might be able to surprise him. She would, therefore, feign loyalty for now.
"Very well," Mariko said. "You know best, I suppose."
"I'm glad you think so," Jackson replied, after a slight pause.
"Ah, gee, guys, c'mon," Tobias chuckled. "Why so frosty?"

Sara remarked on the frostiness too. Things were noticeably tense between Mariko and Jackson. Normally she exhibited a very professional, respectful attitude towards him, but now there was almost an antipathy. "No," she thought. "It's not just from Mariko. It's from Jackson." He'd come to her the previous night, and they'd lain together, and weight had been lifted from his shoulders - or so she'd thought. Evidently what had been for her one of the happiest nights of her life had not had a greatly profound effect on her beloved.

"Jackson, could I speak with you for a sec?" Sara asked.
"Hm? Oh, uh, sure," he replied. "Shane, find out where the hell Mark is. Tobias, check in with Derek and Chrys. Mariko, stay alert in case something even more fucked up happens today."
"Of course," Mariko said, bowing slightly. She took her leave, and as she saw Sara walk off alone with the man who had nearly shattered her forever, a wave of what she thought was nausea rose up her throat. On further reflection, though, it turned out to be hatred.

"What is it?" Jackson said, when the two were alone.
"What's going on?" Sara said, looking up at her lover, her tormentor, with round, hazel eyes. "You're all...rattled."
"After what Nazarov did, how could I not be?"
"That sort of thing doesn't rattle you. Exhausts you, maybe. I see that tired look in your eyes sometimes, but not..." She threw up her hands. "Forget it. If you say it's because of Ivan, then I believe you. I'm just a little worried about you after last night."
"Don't be," Jackson said. "Don't worry about me." In Nova's presence he found himself strengthened, and he assumed the armour of his relaxed, charming self. He took her very lightly by the chin, and kissed her softly, just pressing his lips against hers. "I shouldn't have behaved the way I did last night. Not the whole, uh, y'know, having sex part."
"I'm glad," Sara scoffed, folding her arms.
"I wouldn't have traded it for the world," he lied. "I mean...I'm not just going to start dumping everything on you now that we're, y'know, together."
"Well good. I want to be your girlfriend," Sara laughed, "not your therapist." She looked at him with a lightness in her eyes that Imperion had never seen before. She'd been too young and nervous of proving herself when she'd first joined the Pauldron, too moon-eyed with Jackson once she fell for him, too anxious and insecure when Mariko had joined, and then simply broken after what Jackson had done to her. But now she seemed...whole.

The idea had been to take her apart, and then build her back up as Jackson had seen fit. What did this have to do with his overall plan? Absolutely nothing, but the thing of it was that she was so close to being his perfect woman. Strong and fierce on the outside, but utterly vulnerable and delicate on the inside. He thought that this vulnerability ran to her very core, but it did not - there was another layer of strength within, beneath and perhaps part of her vulnerability, and in giving his love to her, he'd given her access to it.

One must not pretend that even the thoughts of Jackson - one of the most calculating men ever to have lived - were really quite so laid out as here represented. Even Jackson was not wholly aware of the nuances of his feelings for Sara, but he did feel them. He was almost angry with her: even now, when he'd constructed a fairly grand plan within his grand plan simply to deal with the threat of Enhancegirl, a great deal of his thought was going towards his...well, his girlfriend. He'd chided himself before for considering abandoning his goals to spend his life with his sweet Nova, but he had a talent for tactical self-mastery. Realising that she did tempt him very sorely, he now dangled Nova as a reward within his own mind. Only when he had overcome the problem of Sophie Scott would he allow himself truly to indulge in her.

But it seemed Sara hadn't got the memo, because she put both her arms around Jackson's neck, pulled herself up and - standing on her tiptoes - kissed him. She didn't kiss him with wild passion, but softly, and deeply. She looked into his eyes, and for a moment Jackson saw nothing but her adoration - but then something else crept in
"Make an appearance," she said, pulling away from him.
"Hm?"
"You have to come out and say something about Carson City. A press conference, or at least an official statement as head of the CRO."
"I'm surprised," Jackson replied. "Normally you're not, uh, simpatico with the P.R. side of our job."
"Well, you and Mariko have sold me on the whole 'superheroes as symbols' idea, and no-one embodies that idea more than you. You're like the exact opposite of Zjarrus: strength that can be trusted, strength that's used rightly. Besides, people are going to be terrified after what happened, and you have to let them know that there's at least one person that they can count on to protect them."
Jackson smiled. He found it very gratifying that he was perceived exactly as he had set out to be perceived.

But he couldn't play that role today. He simply didn't have the time.
"I doubt Bob's gonna be too happy with me stealing his thunder." He was speaking of Carson City's mayor, Robert Crowell. "I think it's best to let people in Nevada react first. I'll wait for the dust to settle, maybe start putting out feelers for forcing the Pariahs to disband - but not yet."
"Easy there," Nova said, "we don't know what happened yet. I wouldn't put it past Anubis to frame up a superhero." Anticipating an objection, she added: "I'm not saying that I believe Ivan. But I'm guessing it's easier for you to assume he's lying than that he's telling the truth."
"Hey, that's why I'm sending you, right?" Jackson smiled slightly, but not so much that he would seem insensitive about the catastrophe.
"Yeah, of course," Nova said, feeling a little embarrassed for questioning Imperion the way she had, not as a vocal underling giving alternatives and suggestions, but as an equal. They were equals, if they were lovers - but, of course, in many senses they were anything but. But of course, she was also Nova, Imperion's inferior-in-rank, and rightly deferred to him when -

"Ugghh!" Sara disliked this sort of internal wrangling. It was not that she wanted everything to be easy. But it was only now that she realised just how difficult the everyday business of being in the Pauldron was going to be now that she was dating Jackson. Besides, could she not allow herself a little time of blissful sighing and floating on air, now that she finally had what she wanted? It would seem not, for her mind turned back to the problem that faced it, and she wondered what her father would have done, had he been in her position, if he'd fallen in love with one of his superiors in the LAPD. She barely knew anything about him, and had only the most fragmentary memory of him from before he'd died, but she had a sudden presentiment that she knew exactly what her father would have done. In realising this, she knew what she had to do, and her heart sank, for she didn't want to take the path that laid itself out before her.

And yet, she did. Now that she knew that winning Jackson's heart and his devotion required a sacrifice of her, it was easier to accept. It was difficult: therefore, real. But now was not the time to ponder such things, Sara reminded herself. Ivan's arrest and co-operation took some of the urgency out of the matter, but it was still not a time for dithering.
"I'll find out what's going on," Nova said, a blue-white aura now visible around her.
"Of course," Jackson said. "I can always count on you, Sara."
She blushed a little at his kind words and gentle, handsome smile. Her face, though, took again an anxious aspect: but she put it aside, nodded to him as if to show that she'd accepted what he'd said; then, stepping onto the nearest balcony, she summoned her power to herself, and took off towards Carson City, a blue-white streak rocketing through the sky.

Jackson returned to the others, finding Fahrenheit and Cougarman having something of a terse discussion. Mariko hadn't yet left: something had evidently demanded her attention.
"It would be pointless," Shane said. "Banning someone from using their powers without them being convicted of crime has only ever happened twice in the whole history of this country, and the process took months of legal wrangling. If he's guilty, he'll be locked up in the Penitentiary Supreme and the ban will be pointless. If he's innocent, it might make a villain of him."
"Look, Shane, I see where you're comin' from, buddy, but I -"
"You're both wrong," Jackson said, using his powers slightly so that his voice boomed over the top of his comrades'. "As the head of the CRO, I can issue a temporary ban on my own authority."
"And will you?" Mariko said. She was terribly frustrated. She needed to leave. She needed to get away from Imperion, get to Sophie, and really find out what the hell was going on. But the possibility that Jackson was unaware of Sophie's discovery was too tantalising. She couldn't give herself away by rash action. And with what she'd just found out, care was more critical than ever.

"No," Jackson eventually replied. "Not if he's turned himself in." He threw up his hands, and shook his head. He had to remember that he was meant to be caring, not just authoritative and unimpeachably just. "And holy shit, if he really is innocent...I can't imagine what he must be going through."
"I mean, yes, sure," Shane said. "But you missed the beginning of the conversation." He tossed his phone to Jackson - somewhat unwisely given that Jackson was both obscenely strong and electrokinetic - and the mighty blond saw the text message:

"Squadron of ex-military goons tried to kidnap Nat. Took them down. Even she couldn't get much information out of them (maybe Hades connection?). They're being questioned by police; we're at the 4th Precinct giving statements. Connection to Carson City explosion (brother)? Orders???"

"Shit," Jackson muttered. Of course Mark had to be with her that morning! Jackson had been furious when he'd surreptitiously found out that Mark was going out with Ivan's telepathic sister, and now his concerns had been shown to be warranted. It was not a disaster, by any means, but it was the worst possible acceptable outcome. If Natalya Nazarov had been Sophie's path to her discovery of his secret, then she was still a threat. He'd cultivated enough mental discipline that simply meeting Natalya would not lead to his being discovered, but if she really tried to get into his head, then he didn't imagine he'd be able to stop her. Still, telepathy was inadmissible as evidence in court, and couldn't even be used as probable cause for police investigations. Jackson himself had seen to that.

As Fahrenheit began pre-emptively to defend his failure to tell Imperion whom Mark was seeing, the gears of Jackson's mind started to tick. He had to give an absolutely damning statement of Ivan and the Pariahs, and he had to do it soon. That way, if Natalya did accuse him of anything, it would look like vindictive revenge from Ivan's sister, and nothing more. He'd reveal Hydrocita's drug habit as well, just to make the point as securely as possible.
"Mark could be a problem there," he thought. "If they've been out together more than twice, he'll be head over heels in love with her by now. If she accuses me, he might believe her, and he'll bring Mark with him too. Mariko as well, if she doesn't know already..."

Mariko certainly did know. She was deeply disturbed by the news of the attack on Natalya, but again didn't know what to do with the information. Had Jackson failed or succeeded? If she went to Natalya, revealed all, and tried to use her powers against Jackson, would that thwart Imperion, or play into his hands somehow? Anything and everything could have been a trap. A test, perhaps.
"Shall I go to her?" Mariko asked, trying to sound as disinterested as possible. If nothing else, it might be an excuse to get herself out of Jackson's presence.
"No," Jackson said. "I know the two of you are friends, but Mark can take care of her."
"Oh, yes," Shane laughed, "I'm sure he'll take very good 'care' of her."
"Alright. Then what would you have me do?" Again, Mariko feigned disinterest.
"Head back up to Sacramento, meet up with Chrys. With Derek going to Carson City, we need someone holding down the fort."
"Oh, sure," Tobias piped up. "Like back in '06 when Melchior the Grand attacked the Pentagon. Everyone was so busy dealing with it that Szechuan Steve managed to rip off the Smithsonian without any supers even tryin' to stop him. Hoo-boy, what a day that was!"
"Very well," Mariko replied. She looked into Tobias' eyes. He was an odd one: she didn't know him, and trusted him even less - but if he was carrying secrets too, then she was not well qualified to seek them out. At last, however, she had a good reason to leave, and she took it.

As Mariko left, Jackson was concerned, and not just by Mariko herself. Already things were starting to drift from the rails he'd laid down. Insyte was supposed to be in a stasis tank by now, and he still had no word on the activities of Sophie Scott. All was not lost, but his talent for adaptation, formidable though it was, was not unlimited. If Scott didn't take any of the bait, then he'd have to use Plan B. Plan B was messy, and awkward, and would lead to a raft of uncomfortable questions, but it had the benefit of being able to be deployed at any moment of his choosing, regardless of any outside circumstance. But it was so messy!

When was the right time? What do I do now? How do I take the reactions of others into account? Do they suspect me? Such were the questions that ran through the minds of Jackson Morrow and Mariko Asakura, as a wretched, paralysing ambiguity choked their decisiveness, checked their capacity to act. Unlike Mariko, Jackson could bend like a reed to the winds of circumstance, but both of them hated it. What relief there was, then, when Jackson finally received the communique for which he'd been so anxiously waiting.
"Huh?" Tobias took out his mobile, an old flip-phone model. "What in tarnation's all this?"
"What's up?" Jackson asked.
"Just got a weird message from a blocked number," he said. "'19, 20, 20, 2.'"

Jackson had to suppress a smile. He felt tingles up the back of his spine, and he shivered with pleasure.
"It worked!" The simple code had finally given him what he'd sought. It no longer mattered that Natalya hadn't been taken. It no longer mattered that Cato Pict had survived, though in that case it genuinely hadn't been of import to Imperion's plan whether Cato had lived or died. His plan had succeeded, and it had brought out the best outcome of all.

He'd won.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Where's Schiffer?" Sophie asked for the second time. She had had to ask twice because Timothy had been so shocked when he first sensed her emotions that he genuinely hadn't realised she was speaking. She stank of fear and anxiety, almost literally, thanks to a slightly synesthesiac quality to Wingfield's powers. Whenever he'd sensed Sophie's emotions before they had been dominated by care and concern for the progress of Rupert Scott - and though Timothy wasn't exactly a mind reader, he was very confident that she wasn't thinking about Captain Cur at all.

"Schiffer? Peter Schiffer?" Timothy narrowed his eyes. "Don't tell me you've got something to do with him, do you?"
"Yeah, I do," Sophie said, impatient of his curiosity. "I need you to let me see him. I have to speak with him."
Timothy almost laughed. "Sophie, if there's any visitor I'd be happy to do a favour for it would be you -" He stopped talking, coughed, realising he'd sounded perhaps a little too enthusiastic. In a lower voice he went on: "I think you can imagine why we wouldn't want anyone to see him."
"Timothy," Sophie said, "this is a matter of life and death, okay?"
"Then you need to talk to the police."
"God damn it, do you really think if that were an option I wouldn't have done it already?! If I don't talk to him, I can guarantee that the next person who tries to kill him is going to succeed!"

A long silence followed. Timothy seemed to study Sophie's expression. He lifted an eyebrow and said: "First Rupert Scott. Now Peter Schiffer. You have connections to a lot of strange people, don't you Sophie? In fact, now I start to wonder if there's something a little strange about you."
There was another long silence. Sophie clenched a fist, shut her eyes. This was a complication she really didn't need. But, needs must. The two of them were, at present, unobserved. So, she beckoned him closer. Then, as he leaned in, she seized him by the lapel, and yanked his face right up to hers.
"Hey what are you -?!"
"I want to listen to me very, very carefully," Sophie half-whispered, half-hissed. "Something really, really terrible is happening right now, and I fucking wish I could tell you what. I wish I could tell everyone - but I can't. Not until I have proof. And if I don't get that proof, or if the guy I'm after manages to outsmart me, then those three-hundred people that died in Carson City this morning? That'll just be the start. I am desperate, and I'm sure you can feel how god-damned scared I am, so can you please, please just throw me a fucking bone on this one?!"

The effect on Timothy was profound. Sophie's shockingly desperate plea, combined with the exposed wire of her emotional state was enough to have Timothy totally convinced of two things: the first was that her need was genuine, and of great import; the second was that his nascent suspicions had been correct. Lying about her connection to Rupert Scott - who insisted whenever Sophie saw him that she had 'defeated' him - and now apparently this connection to Schiffer - who had apparently tried to kill Enhancegirl, or kidnap her, or something - and there wasn't really much room for any conclusion but one about Sophie Scott.
"A-alright," Timothy said, as Sophie released him from her grip. "I can't think what you'd want from him, or what you can get from him. He's seriously mentally ill, and even in his more lucid moments he's...uncooperative."
"I have to try." Sophie's expression softened - she almost smiled. "Thank you, Timothy. I'm sorry...sorry I spoke to you like that..." She covered her face with one hand. "Shit...I'm really sorry...just like - you deserve an explanation. I just can't give one to you now."
"I'll hold you to that," Timothy said. "In fact, I know a way you can make it up to me."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, even for me it's going to take a little time to arrange for you to speak with Peter Schiffer. So while you're waiting, perhaps you could pay someone else a visit."
Sophie's half-smile bloomed into a full beam. "Deal."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Where was he? That he knew, with no difficulty. He was in Seacouver, in the Methos Institute, a mental hospital. Why was he there? Because he was insane. Why was he insane? Because Marianne -
"Ughh!" Rupert stood with violent speed, tossing his chair aside. "It's alright," he said to himself, and began repeating a mantra that Doctor Wingfield had taught him. "It happened. I was hurt. I heal. It happened. I was hurt. I heal..." He did heal. Every day, it felt like he was getting closer to being a normal person. He was often confused, and would start thinking in terms of world domination, and daring heists, and the triumph of villainy - but then such thoughts would fade, and reality would reassert itself. A reality where he was in a mental institution, where he had always been mistrusted and scorned, and where the only thing in the world that he had ever loved had been destroyed.

But one element of it always brought him some pleasure, and his large teeth were bared in a wide grin when Sophie Scott, accompanied by a certain Doctor Parsons, entered his room.
"Greetings, Sophie!" Rupert boomed happily, every 's' drawn out with serpentine relish. "Have you brought me any more chemistry problems?"
"No, Doctor Arrhenius, not this time," Sophie said. She'd seen him once before since the destruction of Elena, which had been the first time she'd seen him not utterly in the grip of his delusions, but he'd been very confused and sort of...absent. He seemed better now, though he was thinner, much thinner than when she'd first met him. Still, that distressing gauntness in his face was gone. His eyes seemed a little more alight, but there was still clearly something not quite right. She noticed the chair that had been turned over. "Is everything okay?"
"Very much so, my dear," Rupert replied, lifting the chair back up, and sitting in it. "Please, make yourself comfortable, young hero!"
Sophie laughed, and sat down on the edge of a stool, with Doctor Parsons hanging in the background.
"It's great seeing you feeling better," Sophie said. "Last time we talked you were...a little off."
"Mm, yes, well," Rupert murmured. "I am, ah, somewhat more...settled, yes." He started mumbling to himself, and didn't seem responsive to anything Sophie said.

"Don't worry," Doctor Parsons said. "He gets like this sometimes. It passes."
"How is he so much better so quickly?" Sophie asked. "He was, like, totally deluded a few weeks ago."
"He's stopped using his abilities," Parsons explained. "We hypothesised that Mr Scott shifting around the chemical constitution of his body was destabilising his mind. His persona wasn't just a way of coping with his trauma, it was a way of coping with the disturbing effects of his powers."
"Jesus," Sophie mumbled. She looked at Cur, or Arrhenius, or Rupert, or whoever he was at that moment, and she was struck by what she saw in him. It wasn't madness, or delusion - it was misery. There was a...greyness in his features, a blackness in his expression. Sophie quivered slightly: it all felt rather too familiar. She recalled what Wingfield had said to her before about him: even before the incident with the Fractals, and Greyhand, he'd been unstable, and quite alone. "Reality doesn't have much to offer him." Then, much to the surprise of Parsons, Sophie laughed with a rather bitter irony.

"Sorry," Sophie said, when she remembered herself, but she couldn't back her apology up with an explanation. "I almost fucking forgot why I'm here..." Though she really did have to wait for Wingfield, she almost felt indulgent for visiting Cur like this. Their eyes met, and his brow furrowed. He, like Wingfield, was unused to seeing Sophie in such a black mood. This was intolerable to him.
"What troubles your heart, young Sophie?" Rupert said, thrusting himself forward until he was barely sitting on the chair at all.
"Uh, nothing," Sophie said. "Just have a lot on my mind." She shrugged. "I'm trying to work out how to defeat a villain, actually."
"Oh yes?" Rupert replied, eagerly. "A vile one?"
"The vilest. A manipulative, perverted psychopath...and he's got everyone to think he's a good person. He's killed hundreds of people. He's lied, cheated, tortured..." She winced. "You know sometimes I wish every villain really was like Captain Cur." She instantly regretted saying this, for Rupert winced, but she had misjudged the nature of his anguish. She really was such a stark contrast to the way he'd carried on when he, briefly and ineffectively, had been a superhero in his own right, and he half muttered, half sobbed: "Sometimes I wish every hero were like Enhancegirl." He very nearly drew tears from her. Before she could say anything in reply to this, the door opened behind her, and Wingfield emerged. "He's ready," the doctor said.
"Oh, yeah of course. Thank you." Sophie rose, and made to leave, but at the last moment turned around and - much to the surprise of the two doctors - threw her arms around Rupert and embraced him tightly. "Get better. Please. You deserve to get better, Rupert," she urged, but when she looked into his eyes, she saw only...greyness. She had a moment of fear that even total sanity would not bring him the slightest bit of happiness.

But now was not the time to think about Rupert Scott. If she won, if she exposed Imperion, then she could devote at least a portion of her thoughts to him. But not now. And so she left him, and exactly two minutes later found herself in the company of one Peter Schiffer - a man she had hoped with all sincerity never to have to set eyes on again.

Did she derive pleasure from seeing him in such obvious distress? Did she want to laugh at his pain, and the fear in his eyes? Did she think he deserved it? As to the last of those three questions, the answer was a resounding 'yes', but it gave her no pleasure to see him like this. Sophie was not a saint, and she did not lack utterly the will for revenge - it was merely that this was so unsatisfying a punishment. She wanted him to know. She wanted him to understand everything with total cognisance. And while he did remember his failure, and defeat, his amnesia gave him such confusion that it would never make him guilty. He would never process it. "Then," Sophie thought, "if I can't make him feel guilt for what he did to me... at least I can make him useful."

She sat down in front of him. Schiffer stood by, as did a burly orderly: a superhuman in fact, there to protect the patient if Sophie wasn't what she said she was.
"Morning, Dr Schiffer," Sophie said. She snorted with derisive laughter "Funny how you and I keep having these kinds of conversations."
His brown eyes swivelled round towards her, and he started in his seat. "Y-you! You put me in here! Where are the others? Your friends? Are they here to laugh at me as well?"
"I'm not here to laugh at you. I'm here because I know who tried to kill you and I want to stop it from happening again." This, perhaps, was not quite true, but it did the job.
"Tried to kill me? Who tried...did I forget again?" He looked up at the man in the white coat: to him, there could be no greater symbol of authority.
"It's true," Wingfield said. "Someone tried to murder you this morning. I, er, saved your life actually," he said, straightening his tie with a little flourish. It wasn't clear if Schiffer believed him, but he seemed at least willing to listen. With so little in his mind that he could hang onto, Sophie thought, perhaps he needed to cling to any lifeline that was thrown his way. So she threw one of her own.

"I know who he is," Sophie said. "The man you used to work for. The guy who owns Anubis. I know."
"Oh, please," Schiffer snorted. "As if that was much of a mystery." He looked over Sophie's shoulder to Wingfield and the orderly. "Hades! Big, bad, evil, scary Hades! He's behind it all!" Looking back to Sophie, he said: "Did you think that would impress me?"
"No. It wasn't meant to." She leaned forward, and spoke softly, making sure only Peter could hear. "I know who Hades really is."
Schiffer recoiled. "Well I don't! So don't tell me, or next time they'll blow this place up to make sure I'm dead!"
"I believe you," Sophie said. "I believe you don't know. But you know what I think? I think you used to. Smart guy like you, working that closely with him, I bet you found some way to figure it out."
"Not a bad assumption," Schiffer replied, folding his arms very tightly across his chest.
"I'm not asking you to give me names. I'm not asking you to do anything yourself. Just point me in the right direction. I already have the answer, Schiffer. Now I need proof."
The scientist's fingers twitched frantically, and his face went through a rather strange little dance of expressions. "Come closer. I don't think you want the others hearing."
Gingerly, Sophie obeyed. She was rewarded with a vicious slap straight across her face, with all the strength Schiffer could muster.
"I'm not helping you, you little bitch! Never!"

"Sophie!" Wingfield shrieked, as the redhead was almost knocked clean out of her chair. The orderly lunged forward, readying her power to deliver debilitating, painful shocks, but Sophie raised her hand to check her advance.
"I'm alright. It's just a slap," Sophie said. Her voice, however, was shaking, and there was a catlike snarl on her face. Even without her powers on, there were all sorts of ways that she could have returned his open handed rebuke ten times over. But partly out of cunning, and partly out of a thoroughly stoked desire for vengeance, she thought of something much better. So she looked at him, saw his vicious sneer and rapid breathing - and then she saw it fade. As if it had never happened at all, Schiffer had completely forgotten everything that had just happened.

"Huh - where...?" Normally he did not feel the contrast quite so keenly, but 'awakening' with Sophie Scott standing in front of him was such an unexpected contrast with the empty banality of what he'd been reduced to that he was shocked. His mind searched desperately for some basis for a confabulation - and Sophie supplied it. Putting on a simpering, sickly sweet voice, tinged with spite, she opened her mouth and - choking back an involuntary cry of protest - said: "Papa?"
"Elena?" He peered up at her with grey-brown eyes. "Elena?! Wh...but I thought they'd...they'd destroyed you!"
"They almost did." She knelt by his side, forcing down the bile that welled up with every syllable she pronounced in Elena's voice. "But they fucked it up. They couldn't get rid of me. That dumbass redhead was nothing! I'm back. I'm..." Every fibre in her rebelled at saying what she was saying, but she forced herself. "I'm yours, papa."
"Ahaha! Ahahaa!" Schiffer laughed, and kissed Sophie on the top of her head. "Oh, I'm so happy, my darling! Ahahahaha!"

"What the hell?" Timothy muttered. He felt Schiffer's delight, and sheer revulsion from Sophie. But there was steel too, and she went on.
"Papa, we have a new problem. Hades. He knows about me."
"Wh-what?! How?"
"I don't know how!" Sophie replied, shrilly, trying to match what she remembered of her vanquished, dark passenger. "But he knows about me and we need to stop him. You have to give me anything you have on him. Some way to expose him, who he really is, so, like, we can make some superheroes deal with him or something, okay?"
"I..." He wrung his hands together. "I...I don't know. He only let me work so closely with him because I could erase my own memories. I'm sure I've seen his real face dozens of times, but I have no way of getting it out!"
"You must have had something, like, like a contingency plan in case he turned on you. Right? You've gotta have something!"
"Uhhh...I...I don't..." He ran a hand through his hair. "I think I...I think I put something...I put something in Charles."
"Charles? Who's Charles?"
But Schiffer didn't seem to hear Sophie's question. "I don't remember what it is. A...code? Something to do with Hades, but I don't know what...it turns something on, maybe? But if I...did do this then...I would have made it triggered by - if they turned against him. If they tried to kill Charles."
"Papa, who is Charles?"

Answer came there none. His eyes began to fade again, and when he 'awoke' this time, he was not quite so out of sorts. He didn't seem quite so shocked at Sophie's presence as before, and the same trick did not work a second time.
"You! What are you doing here? What do you want?"
"Papa, it's -"
"Liar! You're not my daughter!" Looking to Wingfield he cried: "Get her out! Get her out right now!"
Timothy had no choice but to accede to his patient's wishes. "Alright, Sophie. I'm afraid that's going to have to be enough."
Throwing off the guise of Elena was almost reason enough in itself to obey, but Sophie was frustrated beyond frustration. She had perhaps found a vital piece of information, but she had no way of knowing if he was just raving or not, confabulating something to fill in the holes in his memory.

Either way, she left his room, leaving Peter Schiffer once again in lonely darkness. She would never forgive him, but part of her did pity him. It had to be said, though, that even Sophie’s heart was mostly vengeful. If Hades tried again to kill him and succeeded, then as long as Sophie had obtained from him what she needed, then she’d hardly shed a tear.

Now what? Should she check out the other leads? Go to Cato, perhaps? He’d be even more averse to cooperating with her than Schiffer had been. But that was secondary: in the first instance it was probably an idea to reunite with Mariko. She’d barely managed to explain anything to her lover at all, the depth and true nature of their peril.

She sat down in Timothy’s office, rubbing her temples. What if Cato didn’t pan out? What if there simply was no way to expose him? Now darker thoughts entered her mind: was it possible that she could just kill him? It wasn’t as ridiculous as it might have seemed. If she could lure him somewhere with few or no superhumans, then even she might be able to take his life. Indeed, with the frightening strength of Mariko’s soul-light, perhaps there were many places he might be lured to his death. Reflecting, she realised Mariko would be very averse to this idea. Severe as she was, she had a stern resolution that she would not take life. For Sophie, however, this was not quite such a hard and fast rule. Indeed, she had killed once before: the ‘vampire’ Erin, and she hadn’t once regretted having had to have done so. She doubted that she’d be able to blow Jackson up from the inside, but if it came to it, she realised that she would be willing to kill him. How moot a point this was made clear, however, when Timothy’s phone rang.
“Hello?” the doctor answered. “Er, yes, hold on.” He looked at Sophie. “It’s for you.”

“What?” Sophie’s heart literally skipped a beat. No-one was meant to know that she was there. She’d taken her battery out of her phone, she’d taken a circuitous route to get to the Methos Institute – so who knew she was there? Taking the receiver, she indicated to Timothy that she wanted the conversation to be private. He rolled his eyes, and stepped outside. This done, Sophie mumbled out a ‘hello.’
“Glad to hear you’ve kept your manners, Sophie.” A harsh, electronic voice rang out through the receiver. “You know who this is.”

Terror. Pure terror shot through Sophie’s blood like she’d been injected with liquid nitrogen. Her voice caught in her throat, her palms began sweating, and her wits were all but paralysed. Hades. It was Hades.
“What do you want?” Sophie said, as calmly as she could.
“I want to offer my apologies, I suppose. I think you’re probably as good at playing this game as I am. Perhaps better, in your way. But you started playing with all your good pieces taken and your king in check. You could have been the greatest genius in the world and never have beaten me. So, don’t feel bad, Sophie – but it’s over.”
“He’s bluffing,” was Sophie’s first thought. “He’s fucking bluffing.”
“You had four options. Well, five if you include just running away, but you’re much too noble for that. The Anubis Foundation, Natalya Nazarov, Cato Pict, and Peter Schiffer. You went to Schiffer.”
Sophie’s breathing increased in rapidity and depth. “Yeah, I did. It was an interesting meeting. I found out - ”
“Nothing. You found absolutely nothing from him, because he knows nothing. Good god, Sophie, do you really think I’d be stupid enough to leave him alive if he were any kind of threat?”
“Maybe,” Sophie said. “He’s very useful.”
“To me. Not to you. You see, this is why I chose him: if you knew a great deal about me, then you would know he wouldn’t get you anything. Yet, if you only knew a little, then he’d seem like a very lucrative source of information. Now, Sophie Scott, I know just how fucking desperate you are. And now I know you were bluffing when we spoke before. You have nothing. You have no insurance. You have no hidden documents with a lawyer. You have nothing waiting to go to press. You have nothing. You are defenceless.”

Sophie almost dropped the receive right there.
“Oh god…oh god no…” He’d done it. He’d outwitted her. She was completely exposed, and she had lost utterly. Horrified, she tried one last gambit: “I – I can still go to the press. I can reveal my identity. That’ll buy me enough credibility to accuse you. I’m not exactly obscure myself, shithead, so I can - ”
“I’ll start with your father. First I’ll snap each of his fingers, individually. He’ll never play the piano again. I’ll paralyse your mother, permanently, as painfully as I can. Then I’ll have Kirsten and Talia shot dead in their beds. As for Natalya, I’ve already got a sniper aiming at her, so please don’t be stupid enough to try to go to her. But either way, she’d be next. Then Ella, then Elizabeth, then Joel from the AV club - ” He paused here to laugh slightly. “Then Mariko. I’ll take her myself. Three hours later she’ll be dead. You don’t want to know what will happen between her capture and her murder.”
Sophie couldn’t speak. She just gave a quiet sob.
“When I thought you might have something solid, I thought it was possible that you would risk the death of your loved ones to stop me. Every superhero, no matter how compassionate, must have the capacity for sacrifice. But for a fool’s hope? No. The only life you’d gamble is your own. Besides, I do actually like Mariko, you know. Don’t make me kill her, please.”
“Wh…what do I have to do?” Sophie damn near whimpered.
“Go to the parking lot. A car will be waiting for you with two men inside. They’ll seize you, I expect they’ll bind you, and they’ll bring you to me. Then, assuming you’re a good little girl, I’ll put you in a stasis tank instead of tearing your throat out. Your family stay safe. Your girlfriend stays safe. Everyone’s a winner. Except you, of course – but that was inevitable.” He hung up. Slowly, Sophie put down the receiver. How? How could she get out of this? How could she fight him?

She couldn’t. She couldn’t think of a way. He had her. He completely had her. She stood up, and almost started hyperventilating, like a trapped animal. He had too many resources. Any move she made now could be anticipated, any mistake and too many lives would be lost. She couldn’t do it. Finding this ‘Charles’ person seemed like her only option, but she hadn’t the slightest idea where to start. Like as not he was an Anubis member, and they were all dead.



Or were they? There was one left, wasn’t there? Another – like her – whom Schiffer had altered. Another whose identity had been changed. He might have gone by ‘Cato Pict’ now – but who was to say he hadn’t been ‘Charles’ before? Grinning with a frenzied resolution, Sophie realised that she was not quite defeated.
“I’m not done yet,” she snarled. “I’m not done yet!”

Slipping outside, Sophie found Timothy pacing impatiently.
“Timothy,” she said. “I…I have to go. But…can you do me one last favour?”
“I seem a little lacking in the ability to say no to you,” Timothy said. “What is it?”
“Nothing complicated. I need you to send a message to a woman named Mariko Asakura.”
“The fashion model?” Wingfield replied.
“Yeah, that’s her. Just…just make sure it can’t be traced back to you. The message is simple: ‘Talk to the guy who called Sophie ‘bobcat’. Call him ‘Charles’ and ask him about a code.’”
“This is about Schiffer, I see.”
“Yes and no,” Sophie said. “Will you do it?”
“Simplicity itself,” Timothy said. As Sophie made to leave, he said: “Are you going to be okay, Sophie?”
“I doubt it,” she replied. “If I don’t see you again…I think you do wonderful work, Doctor Wingfield. I wish more superhumans used their powers like you do.”
“I’m touched,” Timothy replied, sincerely. Sophie bowed slightly, unconsciously imitating the habits of her lover. Timothy followed her for a few steps, but stopped when she reached the lift. He could feel terror in her, like he would imagine from someone marching to their death. Despite her earnest and heartfelt compliment, he felt impotent. A damsel – a lovely damsel at that – was in dire distress, and he knew perfectly well that his abilities would grant him no power whatsoever to help her. He didn’t notice, nor should he have, that he was not the only person observing Sophie as she left. He was not the only one who sensed in her great anguish and distress, and to feel a grave impulse to leap to her protection. He was alone, however, in thinking himself impotent.
______________________________________________________________________

There was no mistaking it. A black escalade, with tinted windows. A man standing outside it. Neat, professional – but out of place in a suit. He was a legbreaker by trade, Sophie could tell that at a glance. He was no match for her. Even without her powers she could probably beat him – with them he’d be a joke. Ten like him would be a joke. But she was not there to fight. To her anguish, she was there to surrender herself.


“Get in,” he said, as soon as he saw her. In her loose, cream sundress, Sophie looked an absolute delight, but he seemed to have no interest in her. When he opened the door, however, Sophie saw that his colleagues were not so dispassionate. Two men seized her, yanking her inside. The seats had been laid flat, and Sophie was shoved onto her front, her breasts pushing up against the plastic backs of the seats. Her slim arms were grabbed, pulled behind her and roughly folded in anticipation of a box-tie.
“Well isn’t this something?” one of her captors said. “I haven’t done a damsel-job since…two years ago.” Sophie felt rough cord being pulled across her skin, cinching her wrists together which such tightness that it made her yelp.
“Oh yeah,” the man binding her said, as he wrapped the thick, brown rope around Sophie’s pale forearms. “Not since Black’s little racket went under, huh?”
“Mm.”

They pulled the now bound redhead up to a sitting position.
“I’m sure you won’t believe me,” Sophie said, aggrieved that her captors were taking her so lightly, “but I could literally kill all of you in about five seconds if I – mmgghhh!” A thick, cotton wad had been shoved into her mouth. A calloused, strong hand seized her finely shaped jaw, and held it shut, squeezing her freckled cheeks.
“Oh we know. You’re Enhancegirl, ain’t you? We’re just peons, but the bosses do like to make sure we know what we’re up against. To be honest, if you’d turned your powers on that might have just made it easier.” The speaker nodded towards a fourth man in the front seat, who brandished, to Sophie’s dismay, an open bottle of chloroform.
“We were ready for you, girlie,” he said.

The next few minutes took on a distressingly familiar aspect. One of them sealed Sophie’s gag in with a longer cloth, almost as soft as nylon, pulling it tightly across her lips and keeping her thoroughly muzzled. Rope was wound just beneath Sophie’s soft shoulders, making her squeeze them in uncomfortably, and making her look more frightened, and girlish. If they’d worked for Madam Black in the past, then this was, Sophie realised, probably by design.

They openly pawed at her long legs, squeezing and fondling her creamy skin as they began to wind rope above her knees. Perhaps, once, Sophie would have been subdued by this embarrassment, but with the stakes with which she was dealing, she felt…insulted. She’d made people with power to rival gods scream her name with defeated rage, and now she was getting pawed by some low-life criminals. She couldn’t take it. She couldn’t just surrender. They had her now: she couldn’t turn her powers on with her mouth gagged. But she was Enhancegirl. No, fuck that: she was Sophie Scott, and at the very least she’d leave them with a bloody nose. Literally, as it turned out.

“AAGHH!!” the one who’d gagged her screamed, as Sophie’s red flats slammed into his face. His nose wasn’t broken, not quite, but he thought that it was. Recoiling in agony, he let go of the ropes he’d been tying which, while wound, were not knotted. So Sophie wriggled her legs apart, dropped onto her back, and hooked the second man with her calf, before using him to pull herself back up again – and slamming his face into the plastic backing of the seats.

The third man, the one Sophie had first seen, was about to leap into the fray, but Sophie shot him such a look with her beautiful, fierce green eyes that he froze.
“Your boss has captured me,” her look seemed to say. “Not you. You’re nothing to me. This is a battle between higher beings than you, and don’t you forget it.”

But the look, sharp as it was, was just a look. Her resistance, fierce as it was, really was token. When the first man recovered, and seized her legs, slamming them together before viciously resuming the task of tying her up, Sophie put up little more fight than Kirsten would have. Wriggling her soft shoulders, and bucking in anger, tossing her long, red hair from side to side in fiery waves – but the fight was over. The second man began binding her ankles, and within a few moments Sophie’s beautiful limbs were tightly cinched. Now, she really was helpless. But now they were afraid of her, and they bundled her up tight, wrapping her legs and her chest in coils and coils of brown cord, yards of the stuff, not quite mummifying her, but squeezing her from all sides, reducing her wriggles to furious twitches. With a criss-cross pattern of cord tied around her entire body, and Sophie was at last, they judged, ready for transport. To her indignity, they grabbed her roughly, and turned her, then hoisted her up so that her head was lying in the lap of one of her captors, and her feet in the other’s.
“Don’t want you wriggling away,” one of them explained.

As they drove away, Sophie felt an agonising, humiliating sting of defeat, not only at being tied up and gagged like this, but also at being outwitted. In a little heroic vanity, she had rather wanted to be the one to bring Jackson down, not just to be a piece of the puzzle. But her role, as she saw it, was over. She just had to trust in Mariko now.

______________________________________________________________________

She was driven for, perhaps, fifty minutes, without the slightest idea of where she actually was. The whole time, of course, her captors pawed at her, cupping her breasts, her thighs, but this didn’t draw even the slightest blush from her. Not at this stage. She was only really concerned when the car screeched to a halt, the door opened, and she was hauled out and dumped onto rough, scratchy grass.
“Mmph?!” Sophie whimpered, as the car sped away. “What the -? They’re just dumping me here?” Immediately plotting to untie herself, she began looking around, and vaguely recognised her surroundings. She was in the utmost east of Seacouver, in what had once been the playing field of a local school, now given over to emptiness and disuse, probably so it could be claimed to be of no public value and then sold to developers. She did know this, though: it shouldn’t have taken them anywhere near fifty minutes to get there from the Methos Institute. At most twenty. What had they been doing?

Wriggling along the ground like a caterpillar, Sophie wondered if something had gone wrong. Had Hades been delayed? Presumably the idea was that she’d be dumped here for him to pick up, but there was no sign of him. “Maybe something - ”

“Forgive me,” boomed out a metallic voice. “I have to say I’ve, uh, developed a taste for watching you squirm.”
“Mmmphh!!” Sophie looked up to see Hades perched on a concrete blandishment. With silvery grace, a huge, armoured figure leapt down, slamming into the ground just a few centimetres from Sophie’s head.
“I’m pleased that you were so obedient, Sophie.” The blank mask stared into her frightened face. “And I’m sorry that we couldn’t have sorted this out more easily. I mean, if it was just going to end like this anyway…” He stood up, looked around. “Hmm. I was expecting…oh well, never mind.”
“Mmhh…” Sophie mewed, shutting her eyes. Yes, she had to put her trust in Mariko, but the danger was so great, and the weapons she’d given her lover were so feeble. Triumph seemed to belong only to Hades. He stood in pale light, his obsidian inlays now looking grey and ugly, but he was so very imposing, and she was so very feeble.

“I suppose this would be the part where I’d taunt you,” Hades said, “but to be honest I’m getting a little tired of performing for you.” Indeed, the metallic voice sounded much more like Jackson’s normal cadence. “I can see you’re already scared enough. Let’s not drag this out, huh?” He moved towards her, evidently with the intention of carrying her off. Sophie wished that she believed in God, for she felt a desperate need for a higher power.

And it was a higher power that answered. At the very least, it was a greater one. Hades did not notice Mariko’s presence when she uncloaked herself. He did not notice her when she moved towards him with intimidating pace, a deathly light surrounding her tall, proud figure. He did not even notice her as a corona of light swirled around her, and she called upon her innermost power. Or rather, he did notice her then – but not until it was too late.
“Get away from my girlfriend, you traitor!”

The sound was as of a machine-gun firing, if every bullet had been two trains colliding head on. Such was the first assault of Mariko’s soul-light. Hades’ armour crumpled at each blow. Around the arms and face it cracked, splintered.
“Ugh!” he groaned, as Spectra’s terrible power bore down on him, rage and justice given form, like a Hindu god with twenty arms and twenty swords.
“When we first fought like this, Hades,” Mariko said, in a threatening contralto, “I did not know my own strength. Well not only do I know it this time, but it has only increased. I gave myself credit for being just about able to hold you off, but this time, this time I will not be satisfied unless I vanquish you utterly!”
“Don’t be arrogant!” Hades bellowed, launching himself up. Mariko had many options, as he charged towards her, but she chose to match him on his own terms. Her soul light formed a figure to match Hades, and like two wrestlers they grappled, competing in a contest of raw strength.

Sophie watched in awe. Mariko had come. Like an angel she’d come at her beloved’s desperate need, had come again to save her. And she fought like an angel, with terrible beauty. The rancid darkness of Hades was matched…and overcome! As Hades wrestled with Mariko’s soul, it bore him down, forcing him to his knees. Mariko’s body shook from the strain, but she stood firm. As Sophie gaped, she wondered for a moment what it was like to stand on such a high plateau: Spectra; Zjarrus; the Generator; Imperion – Sophie might have been a superhuman, but she realised that she would never know the thrill of true power.

“AAUUGHHH!!” Mariko screamed as, with titanic effort, she threw her opponent to the ground, and pummelled him over and over and over again. Greyhand’s assault on Hades’ armour might have been more obviously ruinous, but it did not do so much real damage as Mariko’s. Servos and joints cracked and shattered, stasis fluid burst out in great gushes. It was all but destroyed.
“Ughh…uughhhh!” Hades groaned, finding his armour paralysed. “You…you weren’t supposed to be this strong!”
“Well, you know what they say about those who assume,” Mariko grunted. She withdrew her soul light into herself and wobbled on her feet – but remained standing. “Urgh!” With her ordinary powers, she blasted Hades from underneath, turning him over. The mask was cracked – and its occupant partly revealed. “So that’s it…” Mariko almost laughed, panting as she saw the feminine face within, smelled the stasis-tank stench from the spilled fluid. “The armour is a prison…you need a superhuman within it to make it powerful enough for your purposes.” Peering inside, Mariko saw the face more clearly. “That’s…that’s Anya Morrow, isn’t it? That’s how she’s connected to all this!” She wiped sweat from her brow. “Well it’s over now. We’ll free her. Take her and the ruins of your armour to the police. It’s over, Hades. Your mask is broken, and all will see the ugliness that lies within.”

Spectra left the broken armour lying there, and moved over, exhausted, to Sophie. She pulled out her gag, and Sophie spat out the stuffing, as Mariko embraced her bound body.
“Mariko…oh, Mariko…you are…so fucking awesome I want to spit!” Sophie laughed. “If I’d known you could do that it would have been plan a!”
“I was a little more uncertain than I might have suggested to Hades.” She frowned. “Let me get this right: he is Jackson Morrow, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” Sophie said. “I’m sorry, Mariko. I’m so sorry it turned out like this.”
“Well, we’ll figure out the whys and wherefores later. For now, let’s just get this done.” Saving her power, she began to untie Sophie’s bonds. “Thank Christ you sent me that message.”
“For real. I guess Wingfield said more than I told him to.”
“Wingfield?”
“Yeah, from Methos. Did he send it through someone else? I’m surprised it got to you so fast.”
“I got a message from you,” Mariko said, slowly. “From your phone, telling me to come to this address.”
“What? That’s impossible, my phone’s been off since this morning. Unless…it was a trap!”
“Don’t be so alarmed,” Mariko said. “I’m sure you’re right, but it didn’t matter in the end. He underestimated me, and now he’s paid the price.”
“Now there’s irony for you.”

This last voice had not belonged to either young woman. Nor had it belonged to the shattered, broken armour – at least not quite. It was quite human: deep-ish, relaxed, and male. Mariko turned around, and saw Hades standing before her. That is, she saw Hades’ true face.
“Jackson!”

It was he. Clad in his green regalia, appearing quite openly, the hero Imperion had arrived.
“You impressed me, Mariko,” Jackson said, with his lop-sided smile. “With that kind of strength, even in Seacouver you probably would have been a match for me like…three years ago, maybe? There’s not many that can say that. None on the Pauldron. So, uh, props there, I guess.”
“It is you,” Mariko said, with a dreadful simplicity. “Why? No - ” She raised a hand, preventing answer. “I will have your explanations after I have beaten you as well.” Brandishing her arm, light flashed from it, and Sophie found her bonds cut. Leaping to her feet, she prepared to help Mariko somehow. But Jackson was having none of it.

“Enhance!” she cried, but even as she did so, the lightning already arced towards her. Even for Enhancegirl, by the time the maiden was clad in her golden warrant, the lightning was already too close. “KYYYAAAAAHHHHHH!!” Sophie cried, as the electricity coursed through her body. “Auuuhhhhhh! Aaaaahhh-ahhhhhhh!!” she moaned, her sensitive nerves sending her body into spasms. She shook, and quivered, her bare legs trembling, her arms stiffening and relaxing uncontrollably.
“Sophie!!” Mariko screamed, but mercifully her beloved had been given a comparatively feeble blow. It was more than a match for her, however.

“Auughh…auuuuhhhh…” Sophie moaned. Her spasms stopped. Her arms fell limp at her sides, and she dropped, helpless, to her knees. Imperion had defeated her in a second with a tiny fragment of his power. “M…Mariko…” she whimpered. “R-run…” But her plea was so quiet that Mariko could not hear it. “Oohhh…” she sighed, softly, before falling slowly onto her front, completely unconscious.

Jackson tried to take advantage of Mariko’s anguish, but he had lost the element of surprise. His electrical attack was deflected, and he restored Mariko’s full attention to him.
“I will exact payment for that,” Mariko said, “that and every other insult you’ve dealt me! That you’ve dealt all of us! The others…Nova…I can hardly believe anyone could be as evil as you.”
“Very interesting,” Jackson said. “I can’t believe anyone could be so gullible as you. It’s not that you’re stupid, far from it…but this sort of situation seems more Sophie’s forte than yours. I guess everyone has their strengths.”
“Indeed. Experience mine!” With terrible strain, Mariko summoned her soul-light once again. It charged forward in a blindingly fast rush, and struck Jackson right in his charming, handsome face.

“Ow!” He fell back one or two steps, his head turned. When he turned it back, however, he was smiling. “Damn. I actually felt that.”
“Wh…?” Such a blow had knocked the Hades-armour for six before. Jackson it hardly seemed to affect at all. “He’s much more powerful than the armour!”
To cement Mariko’s confidence in her conclusion, Jackson shot forward like a bullet. Mariko raised her power against him, but while he could not grab or restrain the soul light, for it would simply melt away at his touch, he could barrel through it, or past it, and he did so. He got right up to Mariko, and though she tried to get some distance between them, he was not only physically faster, he was a much more skilled close combat fighter, powers or no powers. She withdrew her soul-light again, and blasted at him with pure light, but this attack was truly useless. She stepped back, but he stepped in much faster and more skilfully. Then, with the minutest of effort, he tapped her on the stomach.

“Ah!” Mariko gasped. “Nhh…hhh!” She didn’t know how to describe it. It was as though a sonic boom was rushing through her, radiating out from the point where Jackson had touched her. All power seemed sucked into that point, and it would not move from it.
“I have to say, I’ve fantasised about this,” Jackson said, as Mariko’s slender arms fell limp to her sides. “Doing is at Hades is one thing. But just…defeating you? As myself? Showing you that for all your grace and strength – which, don’t get me wrong, you’ve got in abundance – you’re as far below me as Sophie is below you.”
“Auuhh…uuuuhhh…” Mariko whimpered, breathlessly. The maiden in the skintight bodysuit collapsed to her pretty knees, moaning softly, her jade eyes wide with shock.
“That said,” Jackson replied. “I’m sorry it had to come to this. You’re a reliable teammate, and I’m sorry the group is losing you.” He chuckled. “I know that sounds insincere, but I really do mean it.”

Mariko could barely hear him. Her ears were ringing. He’d just touched her. He’d just touched her, and she was beaten. She’d been a fool. She’d been a terrible fool, and now no-one knew. Sophie and Mariko had been the only ones who could have stood against him, and now he had them both. And though her chief sorrow was for herself and her lover – as well it might have been – her heart cried out suddenly in sympathy with Nova. He was going to destroy her. Even if she never tasted the bitterness of captivity again, his evil would destroy her, somehow, in the most ruinous way possible. It was with such thoughts that Mariko fell forward onto her front, and with an anguished sigh, lost consciousness, the tall, graceful heroine lying still and humbled on the damp grass.

As for Jackson, he breathed such a sweet sigh of relief that his evil could hardly have been guessed at. He turned them both over, his captives, the women who had opposed him and had lost. They were so limp, so helpless! Sophie, in the breathtakingly short little dress, her legs so moist, her figure so nubile, so sweetly feminine. And Mariko, a stunning beauty, beautiful as a lily, and just as slender. He lifted one of her arms, let it fall onto her stomach. He did it again with Sophie, and her hand seemed to reach out to her beloved. He laughed. Then he laughed again. Then, leaning down, he screamed a bellow that was at once victory cry, threat, and a blind expression of rage. They had troubled him – but now it was over.

The only thing that annoyed him was that sudden fog. But what was weather to him?

______________________________________________________________________

“Mmmhhh…mmmhhhh…?” Sophie whimpered, as consciousness returned to her. She felt cold, and weak. Her wrists were bound in front of her with thin, tight ropes, and her ankles were thus bound as well, the bight the only thing separating them. Memory was all too clear, and so she looked for her fellow captive. She found her merely by turning her head left.

“Mmhh…mmmhhh…” Mariko whimpered, only she was not just whimpering. She was crying. She had been awake for half an hour and finding herself bound, gagged and deprived of her powers with more of those fiendish contact lenses, she had had ample time to consider her situation. Her life for these past months had been a lie. Every victory, save her rescue of Sophie from Elena, had been hollow. And now it would end in ignominious, even perpetual captivity. She felt ashamed, and terribly, terribly stupid. Seeing Sophie’s half-lidded eyes looking into her didn’t help. “Sophie…my Sophie…” Mariko thought. “How utterly we’ve failed…”

“Wakey wakey.” A familiar voice. A kind voice, or so it should have been. The voice of Jackson Morrow. He strolled up to them, casually. He was wearing a white vest, khakis – he might easily have been about to go surfing. “Good job,” he said. “Really, great job. No-one’s ever got so close to outing me before. You should be proud.”
“Mmmphh…mmmphhhhhh!!” Sophie moaned.
“You know the thing about my gagging you,” Jackson said, “is that I actually don’t want you to speak.” He stepped closer, and reaching above them, he pulled on something.
“Mmmmphhhh!” both damsels cried, as they were suddenly hoisted up to their feet. Jackson hadn’t just bound them, he’d leashed them, with a single rope connected to a chain hanging from the damp, stone ceiling. He tied the rope in place, leaving them bound with their arms above their heads, shuffling weakly, their hands hanging limp.

“Now as you can imagine,” Jackson said, “I’m gonna be dumping the two of you in stasis tanks soon. And you’ll stay in them for a long, long time. But right now, since you’ve caused me so much trouble, I think it’s only fair that I get a little enjoyment out of you.” He knelt down, and put one of his hands on Sophie’s calves.
“Mmph!” Sophie whimpered. Hades’ men might not have got any fear from her, but Hades himself? She quailed, now that her defeat was absolute.
“Nmmphh! STMMPHH!” Mariko protested.
“’Stop’? That’s what you said, right? Well, okay.” Jackson stood up. He put his hand on Mariko’s neck. “You instead, then?” He slipped two fingers just inside the nape of the neck of her outfit, and then he pulled.
“MMMPHH!” Screaming with shame, Mariko watched as her bodysuit was torn away, leaving her breasts, her abdomen, her thighs all completely exposed, acres of flawless, light-tan skin now put on display. She expected Jackson would soon be running his wicked hands all over her – but not so. He just looked at her. Mariko thought she saw disgust in his expression, but she’d misread it. It was embarrassment.

Sophie looked away from both, trying to see something useful: where they were. It was a dungeon, more or less. Damp, stone walls. Chains hanging from the ceiling. In the distance, she could see a row of stasis pods, thought there were about ten of them, and only one was occupied: Anya Morrow’s. It was almost like a scene in a play, for though they were obviously deep in some large building’s basement, there was a fog gambolling about them.

Jackson ignored the fog, and sat down, gloomily, in a broken chair.
“This is no victory. I should never have had this problem in the first place,” he muttered to himself. “You know what, girls, you’ve actually helped me out. I’m going to be much more careful in the future.” He sounded spiteful, frustrated. Why wasn’t this giving him the conqueror’s pleasure? He had outwitted them, outfought them, taken them for his possessions – yet he felt little in the way of delight. “It was too close,” he thought. In his youth, he wondered, would such a contest have thrilled him? He was losing his delight for the chase as he aged – but he realised that its fruits were dearer to him than ever. Consoling himself of this, he restored his spirits somewhat, and rose. He attended not to his captives, though, but to his armour – Imperion’s armour. He was checking it for dents from the battle, as he didn’t want to have to explain anything to the Pauldron.

As for his captives, they hung from their wrists, shuffling and mewing, pulsing with humiliation. It all felt so unfair, that he should have so many resources, and so much raw power, whereas with all their struggle, and wit, and cleverness they had so little to work with. Mariko felt this less – she did have a great deal of raw strength, but she felt greater shame rising to fill its place. She dared to look at Sophie herself for the first time, and felt this shame only deepen. But Sophie – at once loving and practical – saw Mariko’s distress above her own, and leaned forward. She pressed her forehead against Mariko’s, and in their defeat, and shame, they at least found a way to express their love.

So they remained for a minute or two, until Sophie began to notice something. The fog was retreating – or rather, it was bunching. It all seemed to gather in one place until, it formed into a sort of column.
“Whmmph?” Sophie peered at it in confusion. What the hell was it? Evidently her confusion drew Jackson’s attention, for he turned to it as well. Moving cautiously up to it, he glanced suspiciously at his captives, but deduced their innocence in the matter: no power either possessed could compel smoke. It continued to bunch, and solidify, and take on a darker and darker colour. Jackson was now very suspicious indeed, but he was wary of acting first.

Yet as he tried to make up his mind about what to do, he could not see that the smoke was making up its mind too. For it could perceive what was around it. Saw Jackson. Saw Mariko. Saw Sophie, saw the lovely Sophie Scott captive and humiliated. It remembered the warnings, that the use of its power would only pull it further away from reality – and it thought about what reality was like. Grey. Painful. Miserable – even in its sanest moments. It did not want reality, yet it could not bear the cowardice of rejecting it willingly. Except now it was not cowardice, was it? Now it was heroic. Now he was doing it to rescue a truly good person from terrible peril. To hell with reality, it thought. To hell with the world! And so, the fog gathered up its own reality – and punched Jackson Morrow in the face with it.

“Auuuhhh!!” Jackson cried out, more shocked than really hurt, but he stumbled backwards. “What the fuck?!” In utter confusion, it watched as the fog assembled itself into the figure of a man. Glossy, black hair. A fantastically prominent chin. A grin like unto no other in breadth. A deep red coat, long and proud like an English soldier in the Revolutionary War. Tall boots. A noble bearing. “No. No, no. Not you!”
“Wh…what?! Why is he here? Why would he be here?!” Sophie thought, too stultified with surprise to be either afraid or overjoyed.
“Boundah! Scoundrel!” the man pronounced. “You call yourself a rogue?! Threatening these fair and noble damsels with your vile lusts? Tsk tsk tsk!” He rubbed his hands together, and grinned with manic glee. “Alright! It looks like I will have to teach you how to be a villain! So says…Captain Cur!”
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

Surely Captain Cur can't be a threat to Imperion. That's absurd!

Loved how easily EG and Spectra were taken out by Imperion. Terrific descriptions. Also, the entire logical construct of how Jackson laid the trap to tell him how much Sophie knew or didn't know was very well done.

I look forward to see how on earth they get out of this, but only after they're both put in stasis tanks, pretty please.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

Panhellius twirled his sword acrobatically, spinning it one finger by the bottom of its handle. It was just a tool to him, really: a chip of Thaddeus Murderball's armour broken off in his fight with the Indigo Titan, now the only sword in the world that could stand up to the rigours of Panhellius' speed, and could cancel the momentum of any attack directed against it. But he had to admit, there was a sort of boyish delight he felt in possessing what was, for all intents and purposes, a magic sword.

He even had an audience. As he toyed with his weapon, he was sitting amongst the officers of Carson City's third precinct, and quite a few of them were admiring his prowesse. Most were not, though. To anyone who knew what it was like to be in a police station in the middle of a major city, it would have appeared eerily quiet. Some officers had been crying at the destruction that Ivan Nazarov had wrought, willingly or otherwise. Others would cry later, in private. One had collapsed in floods of tears and had had to be taken home: his husband had been killed in the explosion.

This meant little to Panhellius. It wasn't that he disapproved of their grief, it just...didn't enter into his mind as anything of relevance. Thinking and caring about other people's feelings had never made Derek Godfrey useful to Imperion. Being intelligent and effective made him useful. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if - were he to take command of one of the two halves of the new style Pauldron - this would prove to be a deficiency, but he'd already voiced his concerns to Imperion, and Imperion had dismissed them. That was all there was to it. Besides, he was more concerned with the fact that Hydrocita was staring him down from across the room.

Panhellius might have had a couple of admirers, but Farah Ferrington had the same effect as a bad smell: everyone was keeping a decidedly wide berth. Farah had her arms tightly crossed over her chest, and was alternately staring confrontationally at Panhellius, and looking down at the floor. She felt at once furious and humiliated. Sam - who was in another room giving his statement to the police - had told her of the events at the Foundation, and God only knew what Farah would do if the police actually charged Ivan. Yet at the same time, she felt as if it were somehow her fault.
"You're an unstable element." That's what Panhellius had said to her the day she'd been fired from the Pauldron. "Sorry, perhaps that didn't quite get the sense of what I'm trying to imply across: you nearly killed Spectra because you were dosed up on cocaine. I've covered for you once before. I won't do it again. Get out."

"Fuck," she grunted, scowling at nobody in particular. Whatever she'd tried to prove, she'd failed. It had ended in disaster. She looked Derek in the eye, and he looked back, raising an eyebrow at her as if to say: "what could you possibly have to say to me?" She didn't really want to say anything to him, of course. She sort of wanted to kill him.

But she didn’t, of course, not just because of the presence of large numbers of police officers. A blue white flash drew the eyes of everyone in the building, as something very like a comet streaked down from the heavens, alighting before the entrance. A moment later, a woman small in stature but great in might appeared before them, still aglow with her cosmic aura. Nova had arrived.

“Whoa.” Hydrocita had to catch her breath. There was something…different about Nova. Her aura was not larger, or brighter, exactly. It seemed to run – deeper, somehow, as though it sat better on her. She didn’t know exactly how to put it. Some of the officers there had seen Nova in person before, and they noticed a difference too. She had a new beauty, a new…spirit. As she shook hands with the station’s captain and got herself caught up, many found that they just couldn’t take their eyes off her: the radiant maiden in the long, white dress.

Derek, of course, didn’t notice a thing.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, hopping to his feet. “What took you so bloody long?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been kind of a crazy day,” Nova replied. She noticed Hydrocita, but didn’t immediately speak to her. “Are Carson P.D. okay with us talking to Nazarov?”
“They’re fine. It’s Nazarov himself who doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. Even Farah wasn’t allowed in.”
Nova turned to her old ally now. “Hey,” she said, a little lamely.
“Hey yourself,” Farah replied, putting on a cocky smile. “If you want to try shooting the breeze with him, I’m all for it.”
“Do you believe him?” Sara asked. “Do you believe that he was poisoned?”
“Yeah,” Farah said. “They’re running some tests to try to prove it, and Sam and Julia confirmed what he said.” She laughed. “I would have thought Sam would jump at the chance to land Ivan in the shit so – yeah. I believe him.”

As Sara was passing Farah, she noticed her turn away from her slightly, saw a look of genuine distress on her face. Sara’s initial impulse was not to be very sympathetic – the victims of the disaster and their families deserved her compassion first – but then she remembered how Farah had come to her in a time of desperate need, and extended a much needed hand of friendship.
“Farah,” she said, softly. “I’m sorry this has happened.”
“Yeah, well,” Farah began, but if she had some kind of witty response, it died in her throat.

Sara passed her, and was escorted to one of the interview rooms. It was a little unusual looking from outside: steel doors, a small, wall-mounted turret that could fire lethal or non-lethal rounds – this precinct had been partly adapted specifically for processing superhuman criminals, which is why Ivan had been brought there. Of course, all such measures were woefully inadequate against superhumans of Nova’s, Farah’s – and certainly of Ivan’s power.
“You think he did it? Like, by himself?” the officer who was escorting Nova asked.
“I’m not a detective, officer,” Nova said. “I know what my job is, and I know what it’s not. You guys are the ones with the skills to make that determination. I’m just here…well, because Imperion wanted one of his own people to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“I hope it was all him,” the officer muttered. When Nova looked at him he added: “Just because, well, if it was, then at least we’ve already caught the bastard.” He unlocked the door for her, beckoned her inside, then locked it shut behind her.

There were two men in the room with her. One was in his fifties, greying, in a very nice suit. He introduced himself as Robert Pavel – the Nazarov’s family lawyer. The other, of course, was Ivan, though he was covering his eyes with one hand.
“Now just to be clear,” Pavel said, “my client is speaking with you as a personal courtesy. One that I still don’t advise,” he said, looking at Ivan, “but that’s neither here nor there. He doesn’t have to answer questions. He doesn’t have to say anything. Anytime we want this interview over, it’s over.”
“I understand,” Sara said, sitting down.
“Fuck off,” Ivan suddenly barked. Nova started.
“Well, uh, I apologise for my client’s impoliteness,” Robert said, squirming, “but it seems he’s finally taken my advice.”
“Not her. You,” Ivan said. “Fuck off, Bob.”

One would have thought a lawyer might have protested a bit more, but it was evident that Robert Pavel did not exactly delight in Ivan’s company. With a snort, he rose and – tapping on the door – was let out. It slammed shut again, leaving the two superhumans quite alone.

“Thank you for agreeing to talk,” Nova said. “I won’t make you go over everything again. Just the outline. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, fine.” Ivan took his hand away from his face, and Sara almost gasped. He’d been crying. No, not crying: he’d been weeping. There were still tears in his eyes, his sclera were still bloodshot. But it was worse than that. When Sara had known him more…intimately, she had never seen him anything close to remorseful or upset. Smug, angry, amused and occasionally affectionate were more or less all she’d ever got from him. But as he looked into her with his yellow eyes, she realised that he was not just distraught.

He was broken.
______________________________________________________________________

Captain Cur. Captain Cur? Captain Cur?!

Of all the people who could have found him out, of all the people whom Imperion could be facing…why him? He could hear him, vaguely, prattling on about something to do with ‘besmirching the good name of villainy’, but Jackson wasn’t listening. No, he was laughing.

“Ahaha…ahahahaha…AHAHAHAHAAAA!” he cackled, literally pointing and laughing at the would-be villain who stood before him. His laughter, unrestrained, was as a typhoon, shaking the foundations of his lair, threatening with its might to deafen all who heard it. “It’s a joke!” he bellowed. “It’s a fucking joke!”
“You find my challenge amusing?”
“No, Captain,” Imperion said, wiping away tears of mirth. “I find your challenge insulting. What I find amusing is this…this whole situation.” He looked askance at his two captives. “I hope you see the funny side as well,” he said to them. “Of all the people who might come to your rescue…and you got this kook.”
“Mmmhh...mmmphh!” Sophie moaned. She was not even really expressing disagreement. Captain Cur was powerful, very powerful…but surely he was no threat to Imperion. If he just untied them and ran, then maybe all would be well – but if he tried to fight Jackson…he was doomed.

Yet if this was so, Cur seemed not to know it. Smiling wickedly, he altered the constitution of his own body, taking on a potent admixture of chemical properties. Like rubber he sprang forward, with all the strength of a gas main exploding he swung his fist, which he shifted into the hardest, strongest blend of metals that he could compute. It collided directly with Imperion’s head, with a terrible sound, a ruinous ‘boum’.

Imperion didn’t even move.
“I just fought Spectra over there,” he said, gesturing with his eyes towards her. Cur tried to punch him again, but he just caught the blow. “Admittedly, she can’t keep it up for all that long, but she hit me at least three times as hard as that. Is that the best you can do?” It sounded like a genuine question.
“Ha! Not likely!” Cur laughed, and tried again. He did hit harder, enough that his fist shattered on impact with Jackson’s face. The blonde was, this time, knocked back an inch or two, and his head was turned. Cur gave a triumphant whoop, and redoubled his efforts. Imperion, however, did not think much of these efforts. He did not think much of Cur – and now his patience had run out. He drew back one arm, clenched his fist, and struck Cur with roughly twenty percent of the force at his disposal.

Only Enhancegirl could perceive fully the consequences of Jackson’s attack. Cur was, firstly, dashed into pieces, splattered into thousands of globs of the black ichor that composed his body. Most of this was splattered across the walls, but some of the parts – like his fists – which he’d made more substantial smashed through the masonry, cannonballs wreaking terrible damage to Jackson’s lair. Sophie cried out through her gag as she saw Rupert torn apart, even though she knew that a blow like this would not kill him. “Run away…please, just run away!”

Imperion heard glass smashing, and looked towards the stasis tanks in fear, but it was just one of the empty ones. Still, he realised he’d need to be more careful. Like a low rent Lord Delirious, Captain Cur reformed his body – though Imperion noted that, in this respect at least, he was superior to Delirious, as he pulled himself together much more quickly.
“A worthy blow from a worthy adversary!” Cur laughed, as soon as he had a mouth and a throat. “I can see I shall have to - ”
“No.” Snarling, Imperion took advantage of all the speed that his great strength gave him. He leapt onto Cur, taking hold of him, and then stomping down onto the ground. He caved in a great hole in the floor beneath him, and hurled Cur down it. He looked up at his captives with eyes at once exhausted and furious. “I’ll be back for you after I’ve murdered your champion. Don’t try anything: I’ll be watching.”

As he said this, a figure emerged from the shadows. Broken, sparking, and stuttering, but more than enough for Imperion to keep an eye on them. He could see only a fuzzy image through it in its current state, but it was armed with plenty of mechanisms to restrain a pair of disobedient captives if need be: Hades’ armour, recovered just enough to move, bore down on Sophie and Mariko. As they recoiled helplessly from it, Imperion leapt down the hole.

He landed in what could generously be described as a cave, though it was more like a lower level that was never fully built. Water ran through it, in little streams, and upon its stone floor a man knelt, groaning in pain. Yes, he could heal himself – but the power of his enemy! He felt like a child by comparison. He looked up, and though he had leapt fully into the arms of his persona once more, he could not keep all fear from his eyes.
“Well, what did you expect?” Imperion said. He lifted Cur up to his feet, and hit him again, destroying his head. As the ichor wriggled and struggled to reassemble itself, Imperion threw the main body of Cur into the air, and then smashed it back down into the ground. He exploded like a water balloon.

“Oh god…oh god…” The stone floor was no barrier to Sophie’s eyes. She watched as Imperion tore him apart over and over again, and every time Cur would reassemble, he would do so gradually more and more slowly. But there was more to her horror than just Imperion’s impending victory: Rupert had dived right back into being Captain Cur again, was using his powers to what seemed like their fullest extent, destabilising himself more and more. All the hard work, all the gains he’d made since being committed for the last five months…and it was all thrown away. He was right back to being as bad as he ever was.

Mariko, of course, could see nothing of this. The tall maiden in the scraps that remained of her bodysuit could see only that Sophie was aggrieved. She tried again to loosen her bonds, but with Hades’ contact lenses inhibiting her powers, and with his armour looming over them, escape seemed all but impossible. She knew what was likely to happen, knew how it would stab at her lover if it did – and there was nothing she could do about it. She was nothing more than a captive – another of Jackson’s prizes.
“MMMMMRRRGGGHHHHH!!” she cried out, a roar of helpless rage and frustration. Despite her gag, her voice carried fairly far, far enough that, as he reconstituted himself for the umpteenth time, Captain Cur heard her cry. Not having the greatest hearing, he mistook Mariko’s gagged voice for Sophie’s.

“Sophie Scott? The girl…that lovely girl who…visits me…” He froze. If Imperion had cared, he’d have noticed Cur’s aspect change substantially. His manic grin softened, his eyes furrowed more intelligently. But this was only for a moment. For just as these changes took place, Imperion gathered his strength, and filled Cur’s body with a devastating barrage of lightning. “AAUUUGGHHHHHH!!” Cur cried out in agony, his body convulsing as Imperion’s power poured into him.
“Looks like you can take a beating,” Jackson said, “but I…oh, what’s the use?” He was going to make some threatening remark about burning Cur alive, but he just couldn’t be bothered. The idiot wouldn’t understand it, and it didn’t make Jackson himself feel any better, so what was the point? He just wanted it to be done. He just wanted this nuisance to be out of his way. Suddenly he felt tired, angrily tired, and he put even more power into his attack. He smelt Cur’s pseudo-flesh cooking, and it reminded him of the first man he’d killed. With grim pleasure, he dialled up the intensity even further, until the sound of the lightning pouring out of him masked the sounds of Cur’s screams.

Above the battle, Sophie hung her head, turning her eyes away. Cur was roasting to death, and there was nothing she could do about it. Again she felt stricken with guilt: if she’d been cleverer, if she’d been more resourceful, she could have found some way to undo Jackson. If she’d not fallen for his trick, she’d have never gone to the Methos Institute, Cur wouldn’t have come for her, wouldn’t be throwing his life away.

And then she noticed something, with her heightened sense of smell. The odour of Cur cooking had, at first, been so rancid that she’d hardly been able to bear it. But now something had changed. Either there was nothing left of Cur to burn or Imperion had let up his assault. Hoping that perhaps Cur was still alive, she looked again – and had her wrists not been bound, she would have punched the air with delight.

Remembering Sophie and her visits had not just reminded Captain Cur of whom he was there to protect. It had reminded him of who he was – and who he was not. He was not just Captain Cur, insane villain. He was not just Doctor Arrhenius, failed superhero. He was Rupert Scott, who had a PhD in physical chemistry. And it did not take a great deal of the scientific ability of Rupert Scott to determine what to do about Imperion’s attack. He stood now, his body composed not of rubber – which would have burned or melted from the sheer heat of Jackson’s power – but of the polycarbonate lexan.

Imperion didn’t understand exactly what was happening, but he got the general idea. So he tried a different tactic: liberated by not having to disguise himself as either Imperion or Hades, he could use the specialties of both, and so he drew in a great gulp of air, crushed it within his mighty chest, and breathed the chill of hell upon his enemy.

But Imperion had done what the cruel so often do: he had mistaken a madman for a fool.
“Aha!” Cur cried out, as he shifted himself into a mixture of titanium and a powerful chemical antifreeze. “You make clever use of your great strength, Imperion! The Joule-Thomson effect, no?”
Jackson, appropriately enough, froze. “What?!”
“Oh yes. A most cunning tactic! But I have seen through it, alas. Pit your fists against me and, yes, you may win.” He stepped forward, and he began to darken, taking on the form of obsidian. “Pit your mind against me, Jackson Morrow, and I shall devastate you, you witless brute!” Villain’s madness mixed with academic’s pride, and he made his stand. Imperion, of course, matched his own pride, and his strength, and shattered his enemy into a million pieces.

“A brute? Sure, when I need to be,” he said to the fragments, “But witless? Oh, you have no idea, you little worm.” So utterly had he shattered Cur that the fragments hung in the air all about him, like little stars.
“I beg to differ!” Wraithlike, Cur’s voice reverberated all around him. “You see, I’ve never quite got the hang of shifting my form into a gaseous state. Oh I can do it, alright, but moving while in that state was always fairly difficult. But now I don’t need to. You’ve scattered me all around you. Now all I need to do…is change.”

Very quickly, the fragments began to shift into a mist. Only it was not a mist: it was much too thick, though Imperion couldn’t see it. It was odourless, and colourless, but from density it began to take on a sort of greyish colour. It swirled around Jackson, compacting in around him until it was less like a cloud of gas, and more like an aura around him, packing in as tightly against him as it could.
“What is this?” Jackson thought. “Is he trying to poison me?” He hadn’t exactly done extensive tests, but Jackson’s near invulnerability extended to chemical attack as well – otherwise any idiot with a gas grenade could have killed him. No, Cur was being cleverer than that.
“Tungsten Hexafluoride!” came Cur’s ghostly voice. “I could go on about its properties…but all you really need to know is that you can’t breathe it.”
“Tcheh,” Jackson huffed, trying to move out of the cloud. But much to his chagrin, the cloud would not let him leave it. It followed him, surrounded him, no matter how quickly he moved. When he tried to grab it, his hands went straight through it. When he tried to just blow it away – not so silly when one considers just how strong Jackson was – it would not move. Or rather, it would not move enough for Cur not simply to be able to move it back. “What the hell…is this stuff?”
“I told you, Imperion. Tungsten Hexafluoride. Perhaps I should have told you another of its properties – it is very heavy. It would be sinking to the floor, were I not using my powers to hold it up. Too heavy for you to blow away. Too heavy for you to waft away. Too heavy for you to escape!”

To his horror, Jackson realised that he was beginning to feel light headed. He would have tried just sucking the gas in, but he feared that that was another trap – lord only knew what Cur would turn into once he was within Jackson’s body. Growling, he decided just to do one, massive, full power leap at top speed. Surely Cur couldn’t keep up with that!

But he couldn’t do it. As he drew upon the strength of the hundreds and hundreds of superhumans within his sphere of influence, he found his borrowed power wanting. He leapt up, sure, but barely his own height. Crashing back down, he stumbled, and fell. He gasped for breath, but found nothing. He was choking.
“Fhhkkhhngghh yyhhhsss!” Sophie, seeing the battle, cried out. “He’s turned into poison gas or something…and it’s working!”

As if he knew she would be watching, Imperion looked up, and would have bellowed in anger if he had the breath. Dear god, he wasn’t about to let himself be defeated here was he? By something as simple as this? No. No! There was a reason he’d been able to convince everyone that Imperion was a true hero. There was a reason he’d been able to convince everyone that he was, perhaps, the greatest hero of them all. It was because he really did possess heroic qualities: he was courageous, adventurous, determined, resourceful and resolute. He had faced worse odds than this. He imagined an audience, imagined them cheering for him. Imagined the faces of all the little boys who dreamed of being Imperion looking on in horror as their hero fell. Imagined Nova’s pain if she heard of his death. What hero ever needed more than that?

“AUUUGHHH!!” Imperion screamed with the last of his voice, as a violent cascade of red lightning covered him. He pushed himself as hard as he could, knowing that his time was nearly spent. He threw out his power in a great wave. He knew that Cur’s abilities were not infinite: he could tire, he could weaken. He would not be able to reconstitute himself infinitely. The heat from Imperion’s electricity would force him to change, to assume some other form. Hell, the gas he’d turned into might be flammable, or perhaps it would oxidise when heated. He had to try. He had to win.

And then, slowly, his vision began to brighten. His strength began to return. He dared to take in a full gulp of air, and it was, as far as he could tell, untainted.
“Ha!” he laughed, allowing himself to feel strength regathering in his muscles. But his moment of arrogance really was just a moment. Cur had proven himself to be a cunning warrior, in his way. Who knew what he might be hiding himself as?

And then Hades remembered what it was Cur was there fore. What it was that really mattered.
“Perhaps I do need to make an exception,” he thought. “Oh, god, I really don’t want to…” It was time to stop playing games, he realised. Enough exulting in your triumph, enough playing roles. “What are you, really? Don’t be fucking pretentious. You’re a crime boss. What do crime bosses do if they have witnesses to their crimes at their mercy?”

Without another word, he began to reach out with his shattered armour towards the beautiful, valiant young redhead that he had captured. His armour, with his wife ensconced inside it, was about one fifth as powerful as he was in terms of raw physical strength. Without Anya inside, it a good few thousand times less powerful. Beaten up as it was then? Even weaker. But all that would be more than enough to strangle Sophie Scott to death.

As the armour lumbered towards her, hand outstretched, Sophie had a fair idea what its intentions were.
“Nhh!” She pulled herself up by the ropes around her hands, kicked her bound legs at the lumbering mechanism. But she didn’t have the strength to stop it. Had she been unbound, perhaps, but not as she was then.
“Nhh! NNHHH!!” Mariko too tried in vain to defend Sophie, but she was still exhausted from her use of her soul-light. The armour lurched forward, now almost close enough to close its gauntlet around Enhancegirl’s throat and snuff her out forever.

Almost.

For by the time Imperion had steeled himself and thrown his power out around him, Cur had already moved away. Maintaining his tungsten hexafluoride form was exhausting, partly because he had to stop himself forming an acid by reacting with the water in the air, so he’d had to abandon Jackson long before he could have killed him. No: he shifted into helium, floating back up through the hole that Imperion had tossed him down. Then, finding the Hades armour about to strangle Sophie to death, he transformed himself into a powerful admixture of different compounds, grabbed the armour, and threw it as hard as he could – which must have been pretty hard, since the impact managed to detach one of its arms.

“Don’t worry,” Cur said, though Sophie could instantly tell from his cadence that there was more of Rupert than of the Captain in him then. “Your restraints are…trifles.” No vain boast was this, as Cur simply swiped a finger across Sophie’s bonds, and they snapped, smoking slightly with a sharp smell.
“Ughh!” Sophie groaned, spitting out her gag. Hurriedly, she reached for Mariko, quickly unbinding her wrists and ankles, her sharp senses allowing her to do this almost as easily as Cur.
“Captain Cur,” Mariko said, her voice shaky, when Sophie helped her take her gag off. “No – I mean, Rupert. Thank you. I will be more cordial when we have es…caped…” Her eyes fluttered, and the tall beauty fell against Sophie. “What…what’s wrong with me?”
“You used your soul-light too much,” Sophie replied. “Let’s get those things out of your eyes, huh?”
“Mm.” Mariko peeled the contacts out with impressive decisiveness. She instantly felt much better as her body began to absorb light again, but she was still weak. “Sophie, where is he?”
Sophie scanned downwards. “He’s just…standing there. I don’t know, maybe you weakened him.” This was addressed to Rupert. Looking at him, Sophie flushed red“Oh, fucking – thank you, Doctor Arrhenius.”
“You’re, uh, welcome,” he replied, a little confused. He’d been expecting to be called either Cur or Rupert Scott. Seeing his confusion, Sophie explained:
“You just rescued two damsels in distress from a literal dungeon. I think we get to call you by your superhero name, huh?”
“Ha! Yes, well!” Cur said. He winced. Sophie could see that he was struggling to hold it together.

But there was one more damsel in distress to rescue. When Mariko assured her that she was strong enough to stand unaided, Sophie hurried over to the stasis pod where Anya Morrow still lay slumbering. A swift analysis of the controls later – they seemed simpler, older than pods she’d seen before – and she had the thing open.
“Ugh, geesh!” As soon as the pod opened she was overwhelmed by an intense smell, much more intense than normal stasis pods. Again, unusually, the fluid didn’t drain away. Sophie actually had to reach in, pull the gas mask off Anya’s face, and then pull her out of the pod. “Holy shit!” she groaned, when she realised just how tall Anya actually was. She had to have been 6’6”! Again, she nervously glanced down to where Imperion was – he’d moved a little, but he didn’t seem to be doing anything. It was a pretty high leap to get back up, but it should easily have been within his power so to do. So why wasn’t he?

Sophie, however, was more concerned by Anya’s physical state than anything else.
“Something’s wrong!” she called out, so that Mariko could hear her. “She’s not waking up!” Again, in her experience when people were taken out of stasis tanks they tended to wake up pretty quickly, even if they were groggy afterwards. This was something else. It was like she’d not only been put in a tank, she’d been dosed with something else: she wasn’t just unconscious, she was comatose. “Nothing for it,” Sophie said. To escape Jackson’s clutches was a victory. To escape with Anya Morrow was practically to have overthrown her husband. “Cur, can you carry her?”
He winced, but nodded. Averting his eyes, he took Anya’s beautiful body by the shoulders, lifted her to her feet, and then as carefully as he could, he threw her over his shoulder, her long, deep-brown legs trailing down his front, her dark hair flowing down his back. He felt very out of sorts.
“Sophie, can you find us a way out?” Mariko asked. Like Sophie, she kept glancing down reflexively at the floor, sure that Jackson would spring out at any moment. The redhead scanned, and though she couldn’t see all the way up, she was relatively confident of how to proceed.
“Yeah. Follow me.” She looked one last time at Jackson before they began their escape, and she shuddered. He was smiling.

But they could be no more trapped than they were already, and Sophie – with Captain Cur, Anya Morrow, and Spectra trailing behind her in a scene that was strange even by Sophie’s standards, began ascending a steep, stone staircase. Mariko stopped for a moment. There were some very dim lights giving her access to at least a little of her power, but she was severely hampered in those conditions. Still, she gathered what she had, and sliced as deeply into the stone above them as she could. She did it again, and again, until the route back down had been completely blocked. “Oh, that was stupid,” she hissed at herself. What would such a barrier be to Imperion?

But it seemed that nothing mattered to Imperion. He did, in as leisurely a fashion as could be imagined, leap up back to where his captives had been imprisoned. He noticed with irritation, rather than the incandescent rage that might have been expected, that he was now bereft of his wife. He donned his jade armour, and walked slowly to the winding set of stairs down which he’d brought his unconscious damsels, and up which they were now fleeing, and he shook his head at himself. He’d let everything get so complicated. He’d tried so hard to be so clever, and mostly with good cause. But for all the hyper-advanced armours, and stasis-tanks and political machinations and secret plots, there was one thing he had which was – really – the most useful tool he possessed.

He was really, really, really strong.

“Stick close!” Sophie shouted down at the others. “The path splits off into three up here, and we really don’t want anyone getting lost. What the hell is this place?” Little did she know, but Imperion had managed to locate the unfound headquarters of one of Seacouver’s first true supervillains: Arthur Hillary Melcher. The first known geokinetic, he had fashioned several of these dungeons when he was trying to begin a new Confederacy in California, though he had been uncovered by the police before his plot could really get anywhere. Had Sophie known that, she might have been surprised that he would be totally willing to bring the whole thing down around him. As it was, she just screamed.

“By Neptune’s salty armpits, what’s happening?!” Cur exclaimed. Stone began to fall about them, and though Anya probably was more resilient to damage than anyone there, Cur covered her protectively.
“Imperion’s trying to fucking kill us!” Sophie shouted back. “Fuck!” From the ceiling, a great boulder was dislodged, and it slammed straight down in front of them, completely blocking their way. “Mariko!”
“What?” The tall heroine dodged a chunk that would have been quite large enough to kill her, and made her way to Sophie’s side.
“I’m gonna point, and you’re gonna shoot, okay?”
“Sure.” Her lover indicated a spot on the boulder, and Mariko fired a thin, relatively weak lance. But Sophie’s accuracy was a potent weapon too, and the boulder split asunder. “There really isn’t much light in here,” Mariko said as she continued onwards. “I’m not sure how many more of those I have in -"

No-one in their world had heard a sound quite like it, except for those present at the first tests of the bomb, or those who had faced Nucleon or Lady Palladium in battle. The United States had been going to use its first such bombs on Japan during the Second World War, but Emperor Hirohito’s mysterious surrender the night before the attack had meant that they were never used. But when Imperion, with a hideous, deathly bellow, slammed his hands down as hard as he could, he reminded his enemies why people called Imperion ‘the man with atom bombs in his fists’.

Even Sophie could barely make sense of the sound and fury as the world collapsed around them. The floor gave way beneath her, the roof gave way above her, and Mariko grabbed her tight, shielded them in an anaemic ball of light which sputtered and faded as the last of the light around them died and Mariko was robbed of her power. But she did not let go. Nothing would make her let go. She had watched Sophie fall into shadow before, and she would not let her do so again – not alone. But fall they did, down, and down, and down…
_____________________________________________________________________

“Carried…I’m being…carried?” Sophie didn’t know how she felt about this. Someone was holding her, tightly by her thighs. She felt…limp, sort of woozy. Not like she’d been drugged exactly, but something was…wrong. She felt a warm patch on the top of her head – blood. She’d been hit on the head, or something. “Concussed…?” If she was being carried by someone she’d object to, then she wasn’t in much of a fit state to do anything about it. Yet though the grip around her pale thighs was tight, it did not feel lascivious. She thought it might have been Mariko, but as her swimming vision stabilised, she realised that this was impossible. For while Sophie hung limp over one shoulder of whoever was carrying them, Mariko hung over another. She was awake as well, and moaning softly.

“So…who has us?” Sophie couldn’t quite remember the events leading up to the collapse. Imperion kidnapped them, strung them up…and then… “Rupert!” Like a switch had turned on in her mind, Sophie remembered everything, and at the same time a ghastly pain shot through her head. "Urrgh!” she groaned, as her senses returned to their full, painful sharpness. “R…Rupert,” she said, as loudly as she could manage. “I’m…I’m awake, you can put me down.”
“We can’t stop,” he said, sounding far graver than she’d ever heard him. “We can’t stop!”
“Wh…where’s Imperion?” Sophie asked. Rupert didn’t answer – but there was perhaps an even more pertinent question. “Where’s Anya Morrow? The…the other woman, the really tall one?”
“I…” Rupert mumbled. “He’s so fast…I had to distract him to keep you safe.”
“Wh…?”
“I shielded you as best I could, but you were still hurt. But the other woman…must be very durable. I didn’t notice any injury to her at all. So when he came…I threw her aside. I knew it wouldn’t hurt her – I – I thought her might go after her and he did. Sophie…Sophie, will he kill her?”

Sophie’s heart sank. Anya Morrow could have proved conclusively that Jackson was not who he said he was – but at least she could spare Rupert’s conscience.
“No, Rupert,” she said. “He won’t kill her. He needs her alive. But he would have killed us. You chose right.”
“I did? Ah, that’s gratifying. Good…good good…”

Finally Sophie managed to persuade Cur to put her down, and she looked around. They were…where the hell were they? It looked like they were between the Two Hills, in a little conservation park. But it looked wrong – sunken. Putting two and two together, Sophie realised why – the ground beneath them had given way when Jackson had destroyed his base. He’d done more than that, in fact – they’d be repairing the sewer system for more than a year, but that was neither here nor there. The question was: had they escaped?

“Ugh…” Mariko slipped off Cur’s shoulder as well, as they ran. Cur seemed terribly anxious not to stop, but Sophie ran back for her lover.
“Koko, are you okay?” Sophie slipped an arm under her shoulder, and helped her to her feet.
“I…feel sick,” she said. “Did Cur save us again?”
“Looks like it,” Sophie replied.
“There’s karma for you,” Mariko said with a slight laugh. Then remembering herself, she said: “Imperion! Where is he?”
“I can’t see him,” Sophie replied. “I…think he’s gone, but I sure as shit wouldn’t swear to it.”
“If he’s gone then he’s a fool.” She stood by herself, looked Sophie in the eye. “The police, Sophie. Call the police!”
“We don’t have Anya. Cur had to - ”
“We don’t need her! We have our word, our direct witness testimony, which counts for more than you would think. But not only do we have that, we have his private base. Did you see any underlings? Any staff? He was walking around it quite openly: I’m sure it’ll be covered in his fingerprints. We may not have enough for a conviction, but we have enough to ruin him. We can expose him, and we can do it now!”
“Uh…yeah…” Sophie looked in her pockets, but found nothing. Of course, Imperion had frisked her and taken her phone – or rather, one of her phones. “Downgrade.” With a flash, Sophie’s golden warrant was replaced by her cream summer dress. Smiling, she realised that she did not take advantage of the quirks of her transformation, namely that she could conceal items in one ‘form’, often enough.

It would not, in the end, have made a difference whether Sophie had had her powers on or not. It happened so quickly, and he landed sufficiently far away from any of them, that Enhancegirl’s reflexes wouldn’t really have added anything. All it meant was, when Imperion burst out of the ground, having finally secured Anya somewhere he didn’t believe she’d be found immediately, he scared the life out of his enemies. Which, of course, was just as he would have it.
“Run, Sophie!” Mariko barked, drinking in the sun as much as she possibly could. “I may not be powerful enough to defeat him, but I…ugh…I can still delay him, especially with Cur helping me.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not leaving you here to die!”
“We have two options. Both of us die, or one of us dies and the other stops Imperion. Since you don’t have the strength to delay him, and I do, I think it is fairly clear which the right thing to do is!”
“You’re hurt. You’re drained, and we were both concussed. You can’t use your soul-light, can you?” Mariko’s silence answered for her. “Then nothing you have can even make him flinch, can it? You run. With my agility, I might be able to…I don’t know, piss him off for long enough to keep his attention. So go, Mariko.”
“Certainly bloody not. Pamela and Jerome would never forgive me, you see.”
Despite everything, Sophie found herself smiling. “I love you, you fucking hypocrite.”

Imperion heard every word of this. He found it admirable, and sickening. Noble, and stupid. How he admired the heart of a true hero! And how he tired of being in their company!
“Just have to do this,” he thought, “then it can go on as it should. Then I can go back to her…then I can rest…” He didn’t say anything. He didn’t care what they thought. He didn’t care what they were feeling. He just wanted to kill them. He just wanted them to die, and get the hell out of his way.

So he charged up his lightning, and threw bolt after bolt at the couple. Gathering what power she did have, Mariko blocked each of these shots: his electrical powers were, in the end, probably a little less potent than Mariko’s light powers. But she was tired, and hurt, and Jackson was only tired. And even then, not physically. And when he actually reached Mariko, all notion of parity between them would be laughable.

But of course, there was a fourth player in the game. Using his powers to make himself as strong and as light as possible, he dropped into the speediest run he could manage, which was actually a damned sight faster than Imperion. He managed to get between him and the heroines, and stood firm, facing him.
“You will not have them!” he roared. “Not while I - ”
“Oh my god, shut up!!” Imperion bellowed back. He would not enjoy killing Sophie and Mariko. He could never enjoy killing such brilliant, beautiful women. Cur on the other hand? Cur he would enjoy snuffing out.

As the bull bore down at him, and as he ignored threats and exhortations from Mariko to save himself, and as Sophie realised to her dismay that even moving aside from Cur was not pulling Imperion from his course, Rupert considered his courses of action. He could not use the same trick again – Imperion would never allow him to scatter himself, and in this open space, he really wouldn’t be able to keep up with the villain in gaseous form. He’d noticed that Imperion had been wary about breathing him in before – perhaps he was vulnerable within? Cur was actually surprised at himself for being able to keep so cogent and sensible the thoughts in his head. He supposed, rightly as it happened, that his fierce desire to do right by the woman who had risked so much to save him, and then been so kind to him afterwards, kept his mind focused. He felt like himself…and indeed he felt more himself than perhaps he ever had. He was not happy. He probably could never have been happy. But he was not miserable, and he didn’t want ever to go back to being miserable. Yet he was still afraid.

It was Sophie who first noticed what he was doing. Mariko was frantically trying to get in contact with the Pauldron via their emergency line, but Imperion had taken the precaution of ordering Panhellius to cut it – and Panhellius was loath to question his master about such trivialities. She, therefore didn’t notice Cur begin to change.
“Ahahahahaha!” he cackled. “Foolish hero! Or rather, villain who has worn the hero’s mask for too long! You underestimate the cunning of a true villain! Have at thee, Jackson Morrow!” He was sort of…bubbling, contorting. His face was shifting into all sorts of disturbingly inhuman facets, and it seemed as if he were growing extra limbs.
“Rupert, what are you doing?” He didn’t answer. “Doctor Arrhenius? Captain Cur, whatever, will you just - ”
“Captain Cur…” he said, in a low voice. “Captain Cur…has served me well. Sheltered me…protected me when I was…shattered. And now…now he shall protect you!”
“What are you doing? Rupert, what are you saying?”
“I…normally don’t do what I’m doing. It, uh, uses up the changeable substance my body is composed of, and I don’t get it back. I’ll be losing the lion’s share of my power…but I think that’s for the best, don’t you?”
Sophie could not deny that she agreed.

And so, with Sophie’s tacit blessing, from his body burst a great torrent of what looked like, and what in a way was, water. It flowed out of his body in a great jet, seeming to take the bulk of Rupert’s mass with it. It slammed directly into Imperion, and while it didn’t arrest his momentum in the slightest, it was not meant to. It poured into him.
“Auugh!” Imperion cried out, as the water forced itself into every available orifice – his mouth, his nostrils, his ears, all worming its way inside in a great, deathly flow. Deathly to anyone else, that is: it was only water, and he was Imperion. The trouble was, it didn’t stay as water.

“Feel Captain Cur burn you!” Rupert shouted, though his voice was weak, and he fell back against Sophie, feeling much lighter than he had before. “Feel the madness, Imperion! Feel…my pain!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Rather put out, Imperion had stopped his charged, but as yet he only felt discomfort, not pain. He believed that with the right application of internal force, he could get it out. That was while it was still water, of course. When it turned into hydrofluoric acid, that was another story altogether.

The pain…the pain! He’d never felt anything like it! Even Lord Delirious, who could stimulate the nerve centres of the brain, couldn’t do something like this. His stomach, his ears, his eyes, his throat – they burned! They all burned, burned, burned! He couldn’t stand. With a choked scream he fell to the ground, clutching his throat.

“There!” Rupert yelled, with what little strength remained in his voice. “That’s…that’s got you!”
“Has…has he killed him?” Mariko gasped, both marvelling at and horrified by the spectacle of Imperion writhing in pain.
“Enhance!” Sophie triggered her powers again, and looked into the body of Imperion, saw the acid bubbling away ferociously in his innards. Now she understood what Rupert had said – as the acid did its work, it was being used up. Or at any rate, the products of the reaction couldn’t be reabsorbed into the main mass. Cur could never take that material back.

“No…no,” Sophie eventually answered, “I don’t think it’ll kill him.” She was a little disappointed in herself at how much she had wanted the reverse to be true. “But he’s obviously pretty fucked up, so let’s get out of here while we still can!”
“Agreed!” Mariko half shouted, half laughed. And so, both heroines took one of Rupert’s arms, and helping the would-be villain to his feet, they ran towards the city that was not just their home, but their sanctuary, leaving Imperion screaming in impotent rage.

Well, not quite impotent. Shaking and spluttering, he pulled his left arm towards his face, and activated his communicator. But it was not steadfast Panhellius he called for, or even his beloved Nova. It was time for his backup plan – a plan that he hated, and that he feared would invite all of the wrong sorts of questions – but it was the only option he had left.
“Execute the plan!” he shouted, hoarsely, as soon as his target answered. “Before they talk to the police! Do it now!”
______________________________________________________________________

“Are you sure she’s going to be safe?” Askancepoint asked again. “I mean, what does Imperion need me for anyway?”
“Look, who’d win in a fight?” Fahrenheit signed. “You, or Thaddeus?”
“Thaddeus.”
“Then surely it’s him you want looking after Natalya?”
“…I suppose so,” Mark signed. “If anything happens to her - ”
“Oh my god, I get it!” Fahrenheit replied. “Chill the fuck out, man.” He narrowed his eyes at his friend. “Waaaait, a minute. Something’s changed. Did you…” He stopped Mark. “You told her you loved her, didn’t you?”
“…Maybe.”
“You fucking idiot!” Shane took off one glove, and slapped Mark on the back of the head with it.
“Hey, cut it out!”
“I will not!” Shane said, doing it again. “You stupid, moronic - ”


Both stopped when they entered the CRO common room. There was another man with them, lying, panting in a chair. He’d clearly had the shit kicked out of him – he was covered with bruises, cuts, burns.
“Tobias?” Shane gasped. “What…what the hell happened to you?!”
He looked right at them, but there was an odd hesitation before he answered. “It…it was Spectra and Enhancegirl!”
“What?!” Shane spluttered. He translated, and then Mark spluttered too. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“They attacked me…they attacked me when I tried to…to confront them.”
“Confront them about what?” Mark asked. Shane translated, and Cougarman replied:
“That’s…that’s why Jackson brought me in. He suspected that they were being…controlled, and he didn’t want one of you investigating a teammate.”
“Controlled? How?”
“By…” He gulped. Again, there was an odd hesitation. “By Hypnotra. She’s back They’re being controlled by Hypnotra. We need to put out a warrant for their arrest!”
______________________________________________________________________

A good twenty-five minutes of running. A good twenty-five minutes before Enhancegirl, straining her senses as hard as she could, concluded that they were not, in fact, being followed. But even then, Mariko didn’t want to stop.
“Let’s turn off our powers,” she said, “or we’ll be far too conspicuous. Otherwise let’s keep going. Spectrum is Red.”
“Downgrade,” Sophie pronounced, and soon both were back in their civilian clothing. Rupert still looked rather…odd, but one could only do what one could do. He also looked truly exhausted: wan, thin and…drained. If he really had just given up the majority of his power, it made sense that he would look like that. Indeed, as Mariko pushed them on, he could not keep going.

“Unhh…” Rupert stumbled, and Sophie had to grab onto him. This was easy: he weighed about as much as Sara Goldberg did now.
“Easy there,” she said, taking him down with her onto a public bench. “You okay, Rupert?”
“Yes, Sophie,” he said, gently. “I’m alright now.”
Sophie looked up to protest again, but Mariko was already looking at Rupert with deeply concerned eyes. “I’ll go the ninth precinct,” Mariko said. “Major Morgan is an old ally. She’ll listen. Why don’t you join up with me when you…when you have a moment?”
“Yeah…sure,” Sophie said. “Thank you.”
Mariko made a dismissive gesture. “This man…we owe him more than our lives, Sophie. He is…he is a fine and worthy hero. Not, by the way, that he ever would have been without you.”
“Maybe,” Sophie said, softly. “But, go! He’s gotta be destroying as much evidence as he can.”
With a nod, and an unintentional flourish, Mariko left. Even concussed, weakened, and exhausted, she still managed to take Sophie’s breath away.

But she turned her attention to Rupert now. He was breathless, shivering.
“Hey, you alright?”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “I…I’ll be quite alright in a moment, my dear! Go with your friend. It seems this is…all a matter of great import. I still have much of my power left to me: I shall heal very soon, I…I…” He leaned forward suddenly, or rather, he doubled over. With a convulsion, he sprayed a sickly, rancid substance all over the sidewalk, green and foul-smelling, like some toxic mixture of chemicals. “Ughhh!” he groaned. “Uhhghhh…I…I apologise for that…”
“Hey, what the fuck was that?” Sophie felt no disgust – only fear. “Rupert…what’s happening to you?”
He looked up at her slowly, with old, tired eyes. Sad eyes, and a little frightened. Eyes that were frighteningly clear, and totally sane. “I’m afraid…I, uh, I was a villain after all.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I…lied to a lady.”

There was another convulsion, another burst of sickly green ichor, not the amorphous black stuff that he could master into any form he liked, but something else, something…wrong.
“What are you talking about?!” Sophie said, taking hold of him with a furious desperation. “What do you mean you lied?”
“I…I thought if I told you the truth you wouldn’t let me. You’d try to persuade me not to, and you wouldn’t run away – but if it were just my powers I was losing, you’d be alright with that.”
“Oh god…” Sophie said, almost inaudibly. “No. No, no, no, no, no, Rupert, you can’t. Use your powers. You still have some left, right? So heal. Pull yourself together. Rupert. Captain, I mean it. Pull yourself together right fucking now!”

But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He was…shrivelling, wasting. His breaths were raspy, but also had a…gargled quality to them, like there was fluid he couldn’t shift.
“I didn’t…didn’t want it to be slow…I thought I’d just…keel over…” he said. “I’m sorry…”
“If you’re sorry, then cut it the fuck out!” Tears were welling in Sophie’s eyes. “You don’t get to do this. You can’t…you can’t show up out of nowhere to save me and then - ” She choked on the word. “And…and then die for me as well.”

But Cur ignored her. Or at least, he ignored what she said. He turned suddenly and grabbed her by the shoulders – not very hard, but hard enough to get her attention.
“Are you happy?!” he cried out, almost screeching it. When she didn’t answer he repeated the question. “P…please tell me! Please tell me!”
“I – sometimes,” Sophie said, quietly, almost ashamed. “Not all the time.”
“But sometimes? Oh thank god…oh thank god, thank god, thank god…” he murmured. To Sophie’s immense distress, he began crying. “I was never happy…never – never once. I spent…my whole life…breaking or broken. Ha…ha ha ha! D’you know I’ve never thought about this. Oh, Doctor Wingfield would be pleased to hear me say it but I think I only started the Fiendish Five to…to…have people…you know?”
“You should have asked me to join,” Sophie said, taking Rupert’s hand, but unable actually to look at him. “I’d have looked foxy as hell in one of those uniforms.”
“Give your ladyfriend something to look at, eh?” He held her hand tightly. “Do you know…I…I think her feelings for you may be a little more than platonic, Sophie. She seems a…hard woman, but she looks at you with tremendous affection.”
“You think?” Sophie replied. “That’d be awesome. I’m totally in love with her.”
“Oh you are? Well, all the better then,” Rupert said.

A little silence passed. Sophie desperately wanted to say something, to do something, but though it sounded almost pathetic, she realised that the best thing she could do was probably just…be there.
“You said you were…sometimes happy,” Rupert said, and now he really was almost inaudible.
“Yeah.”
“Enough to – to make it worth it? As a…a true villain,” he said, now obviously getting rather confused again, “it is my…my business…to know…about such things.” He’d even started stressing his ‘s’ sounds more again.
“I…I don’t think it works like that. I - ” Suddenly, she stopped, leapt to her feet. “No! Fuck this! I’m not…not sitting here acting as if this is okay! That this is…is fitting! It’s not! You were getting better…you could have had a life! You could have had some happiness! You deserved it – and he took it away…”
“I was the one who did it,” Cur said, simply.
“No! It was him! It was Jackson fucking Morrow! It was Jackson fucking Morrow – he murdered you! He murdered you! There’s no-one…there’s nothing like you in the whole world – you’re – you’re wonderful, Rupert, and he murdered you! I’ll never forget this. I’ll never forgive this! I hope he runs. I hope he runs somewhere far away where there are no fucking superhumans except me and him so I can strangle him to death!” She sank to her knees, and with a sob, rested her forehead on his thigh.

“There now,” Rupert intoned, softly, “there now…”
Sophie felt a tingle running down her spine. It took her a moment to realise that this was because Rupert was stroking her hair. The world became very still. She turned her head, to look at him, making sure not to dislodge his hand. He had a vacant look on his face, and his tremors were at once less severe and…running deeper somehow. Sophie felt embarrassed, wanted to move – why the hell should he be comforting her? But then she realised what he was thinking of, and why stroking the warm, soft hair of an eccentric, affectionate girl would bring him comfort. She lay still with him for about ten minutes, feeling the pressure of his hand gradually decrease, and drenching him with her bitter tears.

“Then…then it only behoves me,” Cur said, so quietly that Sophie didn’t realise he was talking until the third word of the sentence, “to finish…as a true…villain – with a fitting set of last words.” He smiled his wicked, toothy grin. “I…” The grin flickered. “I, uh…” It now deepened into a frown. “Oh…god…I can’t…” Then real terror, and it was almost more than Sophie could bear. “I can’t…I can’t think of anything to say.” And then, with a sputter, he died. Sophie didn’t scream. She didn’t wail, or cry any more than she’d already been doing. She just felt very cold, and very alone.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

"You motherfucker!" A tall, sylphlike brunette hurled a powerful ball of energy at her foe. "It was you - that creepy son of a bitch in that weird armour was you!"
"Hyperia, what the hell are you talking about?" he growled. She shot him again, and though he brushed the blow aside, it was not all that easy. "How could it have been me? I was with Thaddeus that day, you know that!"
"Yeah, I know," Hyperia said. "At first I thought it was a coincidence - the energy signature I sensed from it was the same as yours. But hey, y'know, maybe it's just a coincidence. But...but then I remembered something, Jackson."
"What do you mean?" he said, very slowly. He'd talk her down. He had to talk her down. What the hell could she have found?!
"Remember last year? When Lord Delirious kidnapped you?"
"Uh, yeah, Julie, I remember," he half-laughed. Inwardly, however, he clenched. "Well we all came to rescue you. Chrys, Tobias, Giulio and Derek and me...we all came after you - but you weren't there! Chrys almost got killed, for fuck's sake!"
"I know," Imperion said, consolingly. "I told you, he must have moved me -"
"That's what we all thought," she spat. "When we confronted him - he said you'd escaped. We all just thought he was lying...but you had escaped, hadn't you? You were gone for more than a month, but I'll bet you weren't his captive for more than a week!"

Hyperia was wrong. Jackson had only been Delirious' captive for a day. His plan had been to win further renown by defeating Delirious, but he'd radically overestimated the number of superhumans in the area where the abomination was hiding. But when he'd been defeated, and imprisoned, he'd realised what an opportunity it was. An excuse to disappear, to devote himself entirely to the business of being Hades, without anyone questioning his absence. In those few weeks he managed to accomplish more than he had in the prior few years. His organisation was now thoroughly ensconced in a number of separate cells. He'd established relationships of patronage with organisations operating over almost a third of the continental United States. And, of course, he'd finally undergone Schiffer's procedure. It had taken months since the experiment for the armour actually to be completed, but he'd been delighted when it had. He could summon it whenever he liked, storing it as energy inside his own body, to disguise himself whenever he needed to. Not only that, he could send it out to act for him, see through its eyes. It even held onto some of his power, enough for him easily to overpower two low-level superheroines that he'd added to his collection - though only after he'd had about a month's worth of practice using it.

And then he'd got careless. He hadn't even really wanted to abduct Hyperia. He just...he just wanted to defeat her. He wanted her to swoon in his arms, to tie her up and muzzle her with a thick, cloth gag. He wanted to hear her whimper. But she was too damn strong! Her energy manipulation powers made a complete joke out of the armour, which was able to hold onto much less of Jackson's strength when no-one was inside it. She'd almost completely destroyed it, and even now it was still healing within Jackson's body. How, though, had she found him out?
"Listen to me, Julie," Jackson said. "You're not giving me a lot here. How can I disprove something like that? You're just...guessing!"
"I'm not that stupid...you always thought I was stupid...but I can tell! Your aura...your energy's always been weird. When we're in Sacramento it's so bright that I can barely see your face. But when we went to Idaho that one time - I could barely see it at all."
"So?" Jackson said. It took a great deal of effort for him not to yelp with shock: had Hyperia been this close to discovering the secret of his powers this entire time?
"So?! So when you got back from whatever the hell you'd been doing, your aura was different. I didn't think anything of it then...but then that creepy armour attacked me and its energy was exactly the same as yours - as how it was when you got back from being imprisoned. You went away to - to have it built or something, didn't you?"

Jackson didn't know what to do. She didn't have anything substantive, at all. She was jumping to conclusions, and had nothing solid to prove that her story was true. She couldn't possibly go to the authorities. Even a decent editor wouldn't print that in a newspaper for fear of being sued for libel. But how to disprove it? What if she started spreading rumours? He realised that, to preserve the image of Imperion, he had only one choice. He had to subdue her. "You're hysterical," he said. "You attacked me. I'm only defending myself." He took a step towards her, his fists clenched, and Julie was reminded just how powerful Imperion was. Her face - pretty, if not quite beautiful - passed from rage, to shock, and right back to rage again.
"You...you did do it! I was right! I was right!" She tossed another grenade of energy, and it detonated right in the middle of Jackson's chest, tearing apart his dark blue armoursuit, but doing no harm whatsoever to the man himself. He lunged at her, grasping her slim arms with one hand and hoisting them over her head.

"AAHHHHHH!!" she screamed. "Let me go! Let me go, you sack of shit!"
"I can't do that," Jackson said. "You're a danger to yourself and to others. There's obviously something seriously wrong with...with...uuuhhh..." He stumbled backwards, suddenly feeling oddly feeble. "What the...hell?" He collapsed to his knees, gasping for breath.
"I knew it! I knew it!" Hyperia stood clad in a blazing aura of golden light - light that she was drawing into herself from Imperion. "You've even been lying about what kind of power you have! If it really was just physical, like Derek's, I wouldn't be able to do this...but you're powering yourself with some kind of external energy...where are you getting it from? What are you?!" She readied another energy grenade, but this one looked much more fearsome than the last. Disgust and shame mixed into a fearsome, potent broil, and she readied herself for an earnest attempt to kill Jackson Morrow.

"Hey! What's going on here?!" Two heads snapped towards the entrance of the room, and saw a man standing in the doorway. Solidly built, slightly grey, dressed in a sort of padded lycra that, while it emphasised his impressive musculature, did also make him look a bit silly these days. It was Tobias Leto: the Cougarman. "Julie, wh-what in tarnation are ya doin'?"
"That creep in the armour that attacked me - it was him! It was Jackson!"
"Oh god, are you serious?"
"Would I joke about something like that?!" Hyperia screeched. "You don't believe me. Of course you don't believe me. You never would."
"Now hang on one sec there, Julie," Tobias replied, "I didn't say that, did I?" He made one balletic leap, and covered the distance between himself and his fellow Pauldronites instantly. "In fact, I've been getting a little suspicious of him for a while now too. I don't think Delirious ever really captured him. Or if he did, I don't think it was for as long as he said." "Yes!" Hyperia gave a little whoop of delight. "Yes, that's it exactly!" Still drawing power from Imperion, she laughed at him. "Bet you thought no-one would ever catch you. Bet you thought you were so fucking smart!" She grinned, but he didn't look quite as aggrieved as she was hoping. Far from it.

"Have you told anyone else?" Tobias asked. "What? No - I came...I came straight here." "Good," Tobias said, before drawing a pistol and slamming the butt of it right down on her head. “Aah!” she gasped. “Ahh…hhh…nnnhhhh…” With a soft, helpless whimper, Julie sank to her knees, and flopped down onto the ground. She had many powers – but physical durability was not one of them

At once, Jackson's strength was restored, but he didn't immediately stand. "So," Tobias said, holstering the gun. "Hades, I presume? Finally makes sense why he - that is, you - wanted me to join your, uh, little gang." He offered a hand, but Jackson didn't take it. He just stood up, in stony silence. "I know I could have been a little more subtle," Tobias said, "but I didn't really see any other option." He began to look afraid. "Uh...I mean...hoo, gee, I - you're not mad at me, are ya?" It was hard to say. When he finally looked Tobias in the eye, he looked...well, it was hard to say.
"I'm mad at myself, Tobias. You showed me incredible loyalty just now - I wouldn't punish you for that."
"Glad to...glad to hear," Tobias said. He looked down at Julie's corpse. "I guess you’ll want to stuff her in a stasis tank, but we’re gonna need some kind of explanation." He scratched his chin. “Her old boyfriend used to smack her around. Maybe we can pin something on him.”
"Fine," Jackson said. He turned away, as if in disgust.

"Tell me why," he said, after a silence. "Tell me why you're willing to do things like this for me."
"Well you...you helped me out when - when I - when that woman accused me of -"
"Sure. But that wasn't me as Hades."
"I..." Jackson wasn't looking, but he would have seen Tobias smile strangely. "I want to see how far you'll go. I know you won't tell me about your big plans. Obviously you didn't...well, you didn't want me to know that I wasn't actually a servant of two masters. But I - aw, geez, Jackson, I'm so glad I do! I thought...I thought you - Hades - was just a criminal, just a way for me to make some money on the side, but this...how do I put this? It's like I'm part of the history of the world. What you're doing is going to be important - real important."
"That's a good way of putting it, man," Jackson said. He hadn't expected this. He'd only selected Tobias to be his mole because he had something to blackmail him with, and because his odd brain chemistry made him immune to telepathy. When Tobias had walked in - and even when he'd attacked Hyperia - Jackson had expected to have to snap Cougarman's neck. But no...he was a genuine loyalist.

"The boyfriend thing won't fly," Jackson said. "We’ll find some way of making it seem like it was Apollyon. Give her...give her a grander death."
"You got it, boss," Tobias said.
"Oh, by the way," Jackson added, just before he was to leave him to his work, "please don't take this personally, but if I ever even think that you might be about to betray me, I'll tear your limbs off one by one and make you watch as I kill everyone you've ever loved." "Doesn't that kinda go without saying?"
"Better to be clear about stuff like this, dude." He made his exit, trying as hard as he could not to show Tobias that his hands were shaking.

______________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________

"I don't know why!" Ivan barked. He almost banged his fists on the table in front of him, but restrained himself at the last moment. "I don't need to know why. I'm telling you the truth - I swear."
Nova sat back in her chair, looking hard into Ivan's yellow eyes, though he was shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. She had to admit, if he was lying, then he was doing a pretty damned good job. "Did anything else seem strange apart from the girl who gave you the adrenaline?"
"What? Oh, er..." Ivan ran his hands through his hair, trying to think. "The boss-man - he didn't seem to have an agenda. In fact, I'm sure of it: he had no plan for what to talk about when we showed up. It was almost...almost as if he'd only just found out about the meeting five minutes before he turned up."
"Or he expected to get interrupted," Sara said. "Did he run away when you...y'know."
"When I had my little meltdown? I...I think so, but I couldn't swear to it." He leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. "I bet Imperion is laughing his ass of about this."
"Don't be ridiculous!" Sara exclaimed. "Jesus Christ, Ivan, I know the two of you don't like each other, but Jackson wouldn't - "
"Oh, I know," Ivan hissed. "I know! He's a...he's a good guy."

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. He looked straight down at the wood. "One of the, er...one of the people who died - I tried to dig them out." He glanced up, showing Nova the wounds on his hands. He hadn’t really thought about them, but from the shocked reaction on her lovely face, he realised that they must have been pretty bad. “So as I’m trying to free them, they…they say something. They – they call out for – for Imperion to save them!”

He grinned, not his usual sly flick-knife, but more like the manic rictus-smile of Captain Cur. “I mean, he’s the most famous superhero in America, it only stands to reason, but…” He covered his face with his hands. “I’ll never be like him, will I?”
“You don’t want to be like him,” Sara said. “You want people to be intimidated by you, right?”
“I don’t want people to be afraid of me!” He really did smack the table this time. “Not like that, not the way that they all looked at me!”
“This isn’t about you, Ivan!” Sara instinctively began readying her powers at his outburst, but restrained herself. “Hundreds of people are dead. It’s about them.”
“You think I don’t know that?! You think I’m that vain? You think I’m – I’m tearing my hair out and crying because ‘oh poor little me, people don’t like me’? I’m not a monster, Sara, for Christ’s sake!”
“I didn’t say that,” Sara said, a little chastened. Ivan seemed to ignore her though.

“You know before last year,” he said, “I hadn’t used my powers in ages. I mean, I’d fly sometimes, but I hadn’t actually attacked someone since, oh…maybe 2013? I only started again because some freaky cultists tried to abduct Natalya from one of Djordje’s parties.”
“I remember,” Sara said. “That was more or less the time we…you know…”
“Happy a memory as that is, that’s not my point,” Ivan said. “I want you to know why I decided to get back to it. Why I wanted to be a superhero again.”
“Okay, why?”
“My sister – god bless her – she was vacillating about whether or not to run off and help Enhancegirl with something,” Ivan said, and Sara noted the scorn in his voice when he mentioned Sophie’s pseudonym. “And I played the good brother, and I convinced her that she…you know she could help, so she should help.” He threw up his hands. “Well I convinced myself as well, damn it. I am powerful. I’m very powerful. I have a responsibility, don’t I? To…to stop people like Martin, or Hades, or whatever.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Sara said. She was careful with her tone: it was a genuine question, and she didn’t want him to think she was being dismissive.
“Because…fuck, Sara, because I’m not evil!” He looked at her with an astonishing desperation. “I want someone to know that. Whoever did this picked me for a reason – because I’ve…I’ve been, shall we say, a little devil-may-care about people’s opinions of my morals, and it would be easy for everyone to think I’d just gone bad. Or back to being bad, whatever. I want someone…I want someone other than Natalya to know that I – I have some good in me! I’m not evil! I’d never…oh god, Sara, there were children…”

By the end of his speech tears were streaming from Ivan’s eyes. He was obviously terribly embarrassed, but he couldn’t stop himself. He covered his face with his hands, sobbing all but uncontrollably. Sara was stunned to see him reacting like this. It was just as embarrassing for her, and her reaction might easily have been to snap at him, to tell him to pull himself together. But not now: not after what she’d been through. She had acquired the strength to be gentle.

Rising, she moved with slender grace to the weeping man, and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Ivan,” she whispered, as he trembled in her grasp, “I’m sorry. And I believe you – that you wouldn’t do this.”
“I don’t understand,” Ivan said through his sobs. “I – I really am innocent!”
“I know,” Sara said. “Then why do I feel so guilty? All the things I really have done – and it’s this that gets me? The one time where I’m the – where I’m one of the victims? Oh, Christ…” He pulled away from Nova, his face red with shame.

It would never have given her any pleasure, but Sara was surprised at just how aggrieved she was to see Ivan in this state. As rude and arrogant and horrible as he could be sometimes, there was something almost…impressive about the sheer vanity with which he carried himself. Clothed in might, and brimming with utter, unshakeable confidence in his strength and his superiority, there was something…very attractive about him. He seemed reduced, now. Lowered. Had he needed a bit of humbling? Certainly. But not like this. He hadn’t needed to be broken utterly.

“Listen,” he said, gripped with a sudden urgency. “I – I had a thought. Oh, hell, maybe it just sounds stupid…”
“Go on.”
“I thought…I thought maybe I could join the Pauldron.”
“You…wh-?” Sara was suddenly gripped by a deep doubt in her sense of hearing.
“Not like a normal member, not like you or Spectra…but as a sort of…of emergency weapon. Like – like you’d decide when a situation was – was so dire that I was needed. Or something. Because my mind hasn’t changed…I want to use my power for a good cause, but someone…someone has to…” He made a strange sort of smile. “I don’t trust myself anymore, you see.”
“Jesus, Ivan,” Sara said, softly.
“I don’t know whether I’m being brave or cowardly,” he said. Then with sudden venom: “No, I am being cowardly. I’m just trying to - to spread the responsibility. Forget it!” There was an hysterical quality to his speech.

“It’s a moot point. You’re telling me you’d trust Imperion to have that kind of authority over you?” Sara said.
“Good point,” Ivan muttered. “Maybe not him. Maybe I’d answer…directly to you.”
“I’m not sure that’d work,” Sara said.
“Why?” He laughed, again venomously. “All that leftover sexual tension, eh?”
“No,” Sara said. “I…” She was about to tell him why, but…well, she didn’t want Ivan to be the first one she told.

Ivan sat back in his chair. He was still shaken, trying hard to hold the tears in. He was grateful, but also very embarrassed. “Sara…are you done asking me questions?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “You need to be alone?”
He sort of smiled and winced at the same time, and nodded.
“Fair enough.” She was about to leave, when she turned back to him. “What you said about why you wanted to be a superhero...”
“Mm?”
“You should have said that to me a year ago. It might have…it might have been more than one night if you had.” She left, then, and while Ivan’s memory and his conscience still tormented him, he felt something like…grace.

Sara found Farah lurking outside, looking almost as upset as Ivan. “So, you ready to nail him to the wall yet?” she spat.
“I believe him,” Sara said. “I believe everything he said.”
“What? Oh…oh, okay.” She slapped her forehead. “Fuck, Sara, I shouldn’t have…snapped at you. Urggh, fuck I’m such an asshole!” She managed a more familiar smile. “You, uh, you gonna tell that to Imperion?”
“I don’t know what good it’ll do Ivan, but I’ll convince Jackson that he’s telling the truth.”
“You seem awful confident that he’ll listen.”
“He…he listens to me.” Despite everything, Sara blushed slightly.
Immediately, Hydrocita burst out laughing. “Oh, shit, you finally managed to bag him, didn’t you?”
“Hey, keep it down!” Sara said in a harsh whisper. “But…yes. We’re – we’re together now.” Only now did she realise just how proud she was to say this.
“Oh my god, this is gold. Fuck Ivan, I want to hear about this.”

So Sara told her, more or less, the confession they’d exchanged on the night of the party, that they’d kissed, even that they’d spent the night together. Farah had a way of drawing gossip out of her – and they were friends, after all.
“Damn, he didn’t even wait twenty-four hours? What a horn-dog!”
“Farah, don’t! It wasn’t like that.”
“Oh, of course, of course. The great Imperion doesn’t have sex – he makes loooooove.”
“Kiss my ass.” Sara couldn’t believe that she was talking about this on that day – but hell, it had happened, hadn’t it? Why the hell shouldn’t she, if Farah really wanted to know?

“I wouldn’t dare kiss your ass,” Farah replied. “It probably has ‘Property of Morrow Incorporated’ stamped on it now.”
“Hey, don’t,” Sara said, a little more seriously. “I’m not going to be his…trophy.”
“No, no, of course,” Farah said. “Isn’t it…isn’t it going to be a little awkward now? Taking orders from your boyfriend. I mean, that can be fun under the right circumstances, but…”
“You’re right,” Sara replied. “It wouldn’t work.”
“Whoa, wait, what? You’re not gonna break it off with him, are you?”
“No,” Sara said, “I’m going to leave the Pauldron.”

Farah put her hands behind the back of her head. “Well. Can’t say I expected you to say that. Oh, god, you’re not retiring, are you?”
“What? No, I’m not going to stop being Nova. I might join another team…maybe the Arizona Sentinels, or Thaddeus’ group, even. Or I might fly solo for a while, maybe work as a consultant with the LAPD, or something. I haven’t thought much about it.”
“Fuck. Being with Jackie really means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”
“More than anything,” Sara said, softly.
“Oh geez, you’re fucking adorable when you’re in love.” Farah gave a friendly cackle, and hugged Sara tight.

“This is awesome, girl. Oh and for what it’s worth, I never saw him mooning over Anya the way he looks at you.”
“That’s what he said,” Sara replied, smiling winsomely.
“Oh?” There was a slight glint in her eye. “What exactly did he say?”
“He said…’you make me feel like a bastard because I love you so much more than I ever loved Anya.’”
Hydrocita froze. “He…used those exact words?”
“Yeah. What of it?”
“Nothing,” Farah said. “Nothing at all.” She forced a smile, and she forced it very obviously. “I’m really happy for you.”
“I’m not convinced. What’s going on?”

But if further explanation would have been forthcoming, Sara wasn’t getting it. Her communicator went off, and when Sara looked at it she saw that it was Jackson. “Finally!” The damned thing had been on the fritz all morning. “Jackson, what is it?”
“Sara,” he said, “you need to get back to headquarters now. You and Derek.”
“Oh, Jesus, what’s happened now?”
Hydrocita watched Sara’s face as Jackson spoke to her. It was perhaps the most perfect expression of bafflement that she’d ever seen. “What the hell’s going on?” Farah asked, when Sara had finished speaking with Imperion.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Sara replied.
______________________________________________________________________
“I want you all to listen to me very carefully,” Spectra said, with exquisite control and calm. “You need to lower your weapons, or someone will be hurt – and it won’t be me.” To her immense irritation, this was the second time that she had been surrounded by gun-wielding police officers in the past few weeks. But this time she was damned if she was going to let herself get clobbered from behind, and she was clad in a bright, golden aura.

“Spectra, a warrant’s been issued for your arrest.” The only officer who didn’t have a weapon pointed at the heroine was a tall, athletic woman in her mid-forties, though good genes meant she didn’t look a day over thirty. This was Captain Morgan, an old ally of Spectra’s – and their alliance only baffled the heroine more as to why she’d ordered her men to hold Spectra to threat.
“And may I ask why?”
“You…” She seemed to struggle to say it. “Attempted murder.”
“Wh…what?!” Mariko almost laughed. “Attempted murder? Of whom?”
“Tobias Leto.”

Mariko felt sick. “I want you to listen to me very carefully. That arrest warrant was issued either by, or on the authority of, or at the behest of Jackson Morrow. Yes?”
“I don’t know,” Morgan said. She couldn’t imagine it would have happened so quickly if Spectra were wrong, though.
“Then it must be ignored. If you are willing to believe something as ridiculous as the notion that I, Spectra, would attempt to murder someone, then presumably you will be sufficiently open-minded to believe this.” She hesitated. She was shaking with rage, and
the distant echo of the humiliation of being as deceived as she had been. But her judgement was not clouded. “Jackson Morrow and the criminal known as Hades are the same person. Until about an hour ago, he was holding me, as well as Enhancegirl, captive in a hidden base. We escaped with the assistance of Doctor Arrhenius, who disabled Morrow long enough for us to get away. The base is located three-quarters of a mile from here, beneath the Twin Hills.”

No-one said anything. A couple of cops looked at each other, but no-one spoke. No-one lowered their weapons either.
“The only reason,” Mariko went on, while she still had an audience, “that he has made this ridiculous accusation is that he is trying to smear us before we can tell the world what he really is. Tobias Leto, I assume,” she said, trying to stop herself from grinding her teeth with fury, “is part of his deception.” She turned her jade eyes on Morgan. “I beg you, Captain: listen to what I am saying!”
“I am listening,” she replied. “But I don’t believe a word of it.” Now she unholstered her own weapon. “Imperion? Imperion is Hades? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“His fingerprints will be all over the - ”
“Jackson Morrow is a hero. He once saved this entire precinct from getting killed by FiveStar. Every cop in the city owes him.” Spectra wanted to slap her forehead in dismay. She’d forgotten: this was Seacouver. She might have been able to find cops mistrustful enough to believe her in San Francisco, or certainly outside California, but here? This was the heart of Jackson’s kingdom. And everyone in it adored their sovereign.

“Saying shit like that…it’s true, isn’t it? You’re not Spectra.”
“I – excuse me?”
“You’re being controlled.” Morgan shook her head. “Was that your plan? To say something so outlandish and ridiculous that we’d have to listen? Bury a crazy sounding claim with an even crazier one?”
The irony was eye-watering, but Spectra didn’t find it very funny. “What have you been told?”
“That Hypnotra is back. She’s controlling you, and Enhancegirl. You attacked Cougarman when he found out.”
“You – you actually believe this nonsense?!”
“A hell of a lot more than I believe Jackson Morrow is Hades.” She shook her head. “Imperion fought Hades, for Christ’s sake! People saw!”
“He was controlling the Hades armour remotely.”
“Bullshit!”
“Ah, so mind control: plausible, but puppetry: inconceivable, is that right?”

This actually did give Morgan pause. She wondered if, had she heard these two claims in the other order, whether she’d have been more liable to believe Spectra.
“Alright,” she said. “I tell you what: I’ll send some people out to investigate that base of yours.”
“Talk to the meteorological office as well. Their seismology department will have detected something like a large tremor in the area I’m talking about.” Finally, she was starting to get through to them!
“Just one thing first: turn off your powers, and surrender. We’ll keep you in custody for now.”

By god it was a tempting offer. It wasn’t even all that unreasonable. If she had been in Morgan’s position, it was probably what she would have done. But Morgan didn’t understand.
“I can’t do that,” Mariko said. “If I’m taken into custody…I’ll be dead within twenty-four hours.”
“Of course,” Morgan hissed.
“If I were telling the truth,” Mariko replied, “I’d be right. Wouldn’t I? With Jackson Morrow’s influence, I’m sure he could find a policeman or two willing to ensure I had an accident.”
Morgan didn’t reply. Again, Mariko had a point, but Morgan didn’t want to admit it. “It’s all ‘ifs’. Don’t let her get to you.”
“Forgive me, Captain.”
“For what?”

Had Mariko been in a more theatrical mood, she might have said ‘for this’ before temporarily blinding the men surrounding her, but she was not in a theatrical mood. She was simply shocked at the depths to which Imperion would stoop. Having blinded the officers, she cloaked herself, and blindly ran for the exit. She found it, thankfully, and was out in a heartbeat. She didn’t even wait to decloak before deactivating her powers, and donning her civilian guise. She still felt damned inconspicuous, though.

And indeed, despite the fact that she was no longer dressed as Spectra, the fact that she was still a tall, stunningly attractive young Japanese woman in a part of town that was mostly white, she still stuck out like a sore thumb, and might well have been caught – had it not been for a taxi that happened to go by. By the time the officers began pursuing her, Mariko was already safely ensconced in a taxicab. She gave the driver the first street name she could think of, and then sat back, covering her eyes with her hand.
She, Spectra, who had worked since she was little more than a child to uphold the law with grace, to dispense and serve justice artfully, fairly, and with all the skill and might at her disposal…was now a fugitive from justice. Of all Imperion’s insults, of all the injuries he had yet dealt her, this was the one that shook her deepest. It had to be admitted that part of this was ego, that the image of what Spectra was in people’s minds would be besmirched, its faultless purity sullied.

“No,” she thought, almost panting with adrenaline, exhaustion and sheer distress, “it’s not just me.” She thought again of Morgan. For years the two of them had been passing tips, helping each other. They were not even remotely close to being friends, but she was definitely the firmest superhero ally that Morgan had. Yet the moment that she’d accused Imperion directly, Morgan had turned against her. The very idea of Imperion being a criminal was unconscionable, so much so that she was willing to accept this – this ludicrous accusation, that she and Sophie were being controlled by a woman whose powers anyone in the know was perfectly aware had been destroyed. All on the word of Jackson Morrow.

She almost laughed. His charitable work. His deeds as a hero. His noble, humble speeches. His social programs. His political work. Even his status as a ‘virtuous entrepreneur’. It was all cover. It was all there just in case he should be found out. He was such an entrenched pillar of the community that people could not imagine the world failing to crumble if he was taken out. Mariko realised that even if they won, and all his lies were exposed, people would not cheer. They would not, even if she bested him in single combat in the middle of Madison Square Gardens, hail her as glorious. They would simply hang their heads, and mourn that Jackson was not all he’d seemed. All like her, all superheroes would be dimmed. Organisations like the Inferiorites would surely see membership triple. Mariko felt a tear in her eye, as her heart told her that the world would never look on Enhancegirl, or Fahrenheit, or Stellar, or any of them the same way again. That, she thought, was not the greatest, but was… the foulest evil Jackson had done.

Of course, she didn’t yet know that Captain Cur was dead. ______________________________________________________________________
“I don’t know, he just collapsed,” Sophie said, as Cur’s body was – fruitlessly – loaded up onto a gurney from the ambulance she’d called. “I think he’s…he’s dead.”
“Oh, yah,” the paramedic said. “He’s dead alright, miss. Sorry. Wait, you, uh – you did say you just passed him, right?”
“Yeah,” Sophie said. “I – I don’t know him.”
“Well it’s a cryin’ shame anyway, I tell you. He doesn’t even look that old.”
“Yeah,” Sophie said. “Crying shame.”

She felt hot. She could hear her own breathing, and little else. Her mouth was dry. Her extremities were tingling, and she felt very much like she was about to faint. She kept tugging at the end of her hair, kept feeling like there was something she should be saying or doing, but she didn’t know what. She felt sick, literally, like she was about to throw up. But nothing came.

He was dead. Rupert Scott was dead and Imperion was responsible. It was true that something unique was gone from the world. It was true that, despite his protests otherwise, all the happiness he might have achieved was no longer possible. It was true that Enhancegirl’s most beautiful victory had been undone. But none of those were the deepest of the knives thrust into Sophie’s gentle heart. It was that she would never visit the Anubis Foundation to see him. Would never feel that connection that she had, somehow, made with him, would never see him inching out into the light again. She’d loved him like a brother, she realised, and though this only made her grief the more bitter, she accepted this pain almost with…glee. Why? Because she felt her willingness to destroy Jackson, utterly, to obliterate him from the face of the earth in retribution, and she wanted to hold onto that feeling.

Her phone rang. She looked at it, didn’t recognise the number. She was wary, but gingerly she answered.
“Sophie!” It was Mariko’s voice.
“H-hey,” Sophie replied. “Why are you – oh, yeah.” Jackson had taken Mariko’s phone when he’d captured them. Mariko had obviously bought a burner or something. “Did you – uh, did you talk to the police? Did they believe you?”
“I spoke to them but – Sophie, we have to get out of the city. Now.”

Mariko explained the situation. As she listened, Sophie almost felt like laughing. She did laugh, slightly. It was…it was like Imperion was a child playing a game with them. When they’d started to win, he’d just ignored all the rules. Saying they’d been brainwashed by Hypnotra? That was absurd! You could just say that about anyone, and you’d never be able to disprove it. It shouldn’t have worked. Making an accusation like that should have been the final nail in Imperion’s coffin. Instead, it was perhaps the penultimate nail in theirs. All because he was Imperion.

“There’s a motel I know,” Sophie said when Mariko had finished. “Real scuzzy. It’s a few miles north of Seacouver, and they don’t ask too many questions. It’s, uh, where I tracked down Mud-King last year, remember?”
“I do. I know how to get there.” She’d noticed that Sophie’s voice sounded strangely flat. “Sophie, are you alright?”
“No.” She whimpered slightly. “Captain Cur lied to us. The thing he did to Hades was fatal to him – to Rupert, I mean. He’s dead.”

A terrible silence passed. “Oh god,” Mariko said. Shock gave way to compassion almost instantly. “Sophie…my love, I can’t – I can’t even begin to - ”
“Me neither.” Sophie had not stopped crying exactly, but she held back a resurgence of tears. “Let’s…let’s just meet up.”
“Uh, yes, of course,” Mariko mumbled. “Sophie…” She tried to think of something else to say, some way to provide at least a little soothing balm to what must have been a terribly wounded heart, but she couldn’t think of anything. “Try to get some baggy clothes. Something in which you’ll be relatively inconspicuous.”
“Yeah sure,” Sophie said, too much aggrieved to say more. Even in her grief, however, her mind was not utterly stultified. “You said…you said they’d accused Enhancegirl and Spectra. What about Mariko Asakura and Sophie Scott?”
“…No,” Mariko said. “My real name was never mentioned. Imperion hasn’t revealed our identities. I just…I can’t think why.” ______________________________________________________________________
“If you leak their identities to the public,” Fahrenheit said, “so help me God, Tobias, I will find some way of using my powers to detach your scrotum from the rest of your body.”
“The public need to know!” the retired ‘hero’ protested. “The cops need to know.”
“Don’tcha think it’s a bit excessive?” Chryseis said. The whole Pauldron was gathered now, save Jackson himself. “If they really have been…brainwashed, then we have to think about what’ll happen to them when they’re freed. We can’t ruin their professional lives.”
“As distasteful as it sounds,” Panhellius interjected, “their professional lives won’t matter much if they remain as…thralls. I agree with Tobias.” Cougarman smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back.
“Tell us again,” Nova said. “What the hell happened?”

In his head, Tobias quickly rehearsed the lie. “It wasn’t long ago, about a week and a half. Jackson said he was suspicious that Spectra was acting…strangely. He’d heard rumours that Hypnotra had been sighted in Florida last month, see?” Bizarrely, that was actually true. This was what had inspired Jackson to this particular lie in the first place. “He knew that she’d taken, uh, a liking to Spectra before, and then she starts acting - ”
“Yes, ‘strangely’,” Shane interjected, at Mark’s prompting. “But strangely how?”
“Look, I don’t know the woman – I don’t know what normal is for her, but…she was turning up in strange places. Spotted talking to some unsavoury guys and gals. Going to weird places at night, that kind of thing. Ah, gee, I know it sounds thin, guys. I thought so too! But then…”
“Then what?” Sara asked.
“Then I see the two of them together. Or…or I thought I did, anyway. I wasn’t sure enough.” He rubbed his temples. “I should have done something then.”
“Wait, you were following her?” Mark signed, swiftly translated by Shane.
“Well yeah, sorta. What else was I supposed to do?”
“And you confronted her earlier today?” Sara said.
“Yeah. It was after those jackasses tried to attack your girlfriend,” he said, addressing Mark. “She’s immune to Hypnotra’s powers, and she can break people out of her control. I figure Hypnotra’s about to make some big move and they wanted her out of the way in case she got in the…er…way.”

Frowning gravely, Mark signed something rapidly to Shane.
“The men trying to abduct Insyte were not under hypnotic control,” Shane hissed. “She would have detected that in a second. In fact - ” He paused to confer with Mark. “In fact, she thinks that it had something to do with Hades.”
“Aw, gee, Shane, you don’t think she mighta hired them through someone else?”
“Hmph,” Shane grunted. “So you faced down with them a few hours ago, right?”
“Yeah. Until I did, I had no idea that Enhancegirl was under Hypnotra’s control as well. But they…” He gestured at his own body. “Well, you can see what they did to me.”

“Jesus…” Nova shook her head. She’d had so much awful or bizarre news that day that it was hard to keep her mind stuck on one thing. But while much of what Tobias said was dubious, there was one thing that stuck out more than the rest. “The thing is, Tobias, I haven’t noticed her acting strangely at all.”
“She did take a leave of absence for a week,” Panhellius said.
“That’s not weird behaviour,” Fahrenheit said. “She was helping her girlfriend through a pretty horrific trauma.”
“Very Mariko-ish, I’d say,” Mark opined.
“Put it this way, Tobias.” Fahrenheit stepped forward. Suddenly Cougarman did not feel entirely safe. “This comes down to your word, and whether your word is enough to make me turn against someone whom I’ve fought alongside in battles that would make you faint.” “Hey, I’ve been in plenty of battles, kiddo,” Tobias shot back. “Not with me.” He looked at Chryseis. “You trust this man?” “As much as any of the rest of you,” she replied. “He always had my back. You’re serious, aren’t you, Toby?”

Tobias breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He and Chrys had always been pretty close, since he saved her life on their first mission together as a team. He knew she’d be in his corner. As for Panhellius…
“I had considered the possibility that it was you, Tobias, who was being controlled.” Sharp, small eyes peered into Cougarman’s. “But then, you’re immune to telepathy, aren’t you?” Derek shrugged. “I’m not convinced, but a) it’s possible, and b)…well I don’t see Mariko anywhere, do you?”
“Yeah,” Nova muttered. It didn’t feel right at all, though. She’d been with Mariko and Sophie just the previous night…alright, she didn’t know Sophie at all – but Mariko? No. She had serious, serious doubts about Tobias’ story.

This was to be contrasted with Shane, who didn’t believe a word of it. “You fucker,” he growled, and sprang forward. He seized Tobias by the throat, skilfully pinching his windpipe to all but choke him.
“Gyyuuhhkkhhh!” Tobias groaned.
“You’re a liar. You’re a liar, Tobias. I have a bit of experience with this sort of thing, so I can tell.”
“Shane, get off him!” Panhellius barked.
“Cram it, you bloodless lickspittle!” Shane fired back. Returning his attention to Tobias, he scowled fiercely. “Maybe you did have a fight with Mariko, but maybe not for the reasons you said, eh? Maybe you tried to do something she wasn’t having any of.”
“Wh…whhht?”
“Oh yes that’s right, Cougarman,” Fahrenheit all but whispered. “I’ve heard those seedy little rumours. Some women have said some very nasty things about you over the years, though it always seems to go away just in time to save your rep. Tell me, though…why did you retire all the way to Alaska?”

“FAHRENHEIT!!” The bellow cracked windows throughout the building. Shane turned with genuine fright to see that their leader had, at last, appeared. “Get off him. Now!” Obeying, Shane straightened himself up, and asked with a voice that almost completely hid how intimidated he was: “Jackson! Where the hell have you been?”
“Trying and failing to find Hypnotra,” he said. “All I found was her base and a few henchmen – Seacouver has a brand new sinkhole thanks to me. Oh, and before anyone else tries to strangle someone: yes, Tobias is telling the truth.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Nova asked, quickly switching from saying ‘why didn’t you tell me?’
“I didn’t want anyone else falling under her control.” Jackson seemed very odd. There was a…hardness to him. Nova didn’t know why, but something about his expression…she had never found him less attractive before.
“Wait, wait,” Mark signed. “I don’t get the division of labour here. Cougarman goes after Spectra who, in all fairness, massively outstrips him in power. You, on the other hand, go directly after Hypnotra…despite the fact that you have no defence against her power, and Tobias – being immune to telepathy – would be the perfect person to send after Hypnotra.”

This was why this had been a backup plan. Imperion had feared precisely this – the newer members wouldn’t trust Tobias’ word, they’d ask too many questions, certain elements of the story wouldn’t hold up…it was a mess. But for now, it was still his mess. “It was a trap. We meant to be doing it the other way round, but my informant…turned out to be working for Hypnotra too. Fortunately, the guys they sent to take me out weren’t up to the task. Toby, geez, man, are you sure you don’t need to go to the hospital?”
“Huh? Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. It looks a lot worse than it is.” He shook his head. “Spectra could easily have killed me…I gotta wonder if she’s putting up some kind of fight in there.”
“Let’s hope so,” Panhellius said. Imperion was back – he had confirmed Tobias’ story, so now it was gospel truth. “What’s our plan?”
“We find them, we bring them in. Simple as that.”

He looked Fahrenheit in the eye. “Shane, I can understand you being suspicious, and – well, we all tolerate a lot of attitude from you because you’re a great guy under it all, and you’re an artist in a fight.” He took a step closer. “But if you ever attack a teammate like that again, you’re out. Do you understand me?”
Fahrenheit didn’t answer, but he was struggling to hold Jackson’s gaze. He seemed unable to speak.
“Well alright then,” Imperion growled. “Now what I don’t know is if this has anything to do with what happened in Carson City. Nova,” he said, then subtly adjusted his tone. “Sara. Did you find anything that might be helpful? I know you said you think Ivan didn’t do it, but…anything more?”

Sara waited a while before responding. Jackson seemed more himself again now, but…it was all still so confusing. Jackson had suspected Mariko of being brainwashed, had brought Cougarman in to spy on her – and he’d thrown a party the previous night? It didn’t add up…but, surely Imperion knew best.
“Yeah. He said that the woman who drugged him with adrenaline had a…a crazed look in her eye. Like a sort of mad fanatic. I guess maybe Hypnotra could produce that kind of effect. I just don’t know what she could possibly gain from it.”
“Me neither,” Jackson replied. “There really might not be any connection. If I were Hypnotra and I were gonna mess with Ivan Nazarov, I’d want to take control of him, not smear him.”

He moved towards the centre of the throng of heroes, an unsubtle way of asserting authority, but a relatively effective one. “You know I don’t like keeping secrets from you guys,” he said, signing as well so Mark could understand easily. “But this wasn’t a question of trust. This was a question of ‘if I tell them, they might end up getting brainwashed’. I know this might all be a little hard to swallow, but it’s the truth.”
“Well, what do we do?” Mark asked.
“We save them. And anyone else she’s taken control of. Insyte, if she’ll agree, can fix anything Hypnotra’s done. C’mon. Let’s pull together and get our friend back.”

And that would have been that. Fahrenheit was – though still totally sceptical – chastened, the others had so much trust for Jackson that it was difficult for them not to accept his word implicitly. But something just didn’t quite stick.
“When,” Mark signed, “did you say that Mariko had fallen under Hypnotra’s control?”
“A week and a half ago.”
“Well that’s odd. She and Natalya had dinner together four nights ago. I’m pretty sure she’d have detected something.”

Had Jackson hesitated, had he stammered, had he shown the slightest doubt in his own words as he replied, that might have ruined everything then and there. But the best skill a liar could possess was adaptability, and Jackson had that in droves. “Fuck, Mark, I don’t know,” he said. “We’d all thought Insyte had destroyed her powers, right? Maybe she’s got some new way of controlling people. Maybe it isn’t Hypnotra at all, maybe it’s got something to do with that…uh…Sin Eater, person. Or some other brainwasher. Or whatever. I don’t know!” He mixed into his protest a great deal of his real frustration and anguish about the horrific complexity of his situation, and it lent his words a great deal of verisimilitude. “There’s always something, isn’t there? You try to…fix everything, but there’s always something going wrong.”

Sara now felt that she understood when she saw the weight of Jackson’s dismay. That was why he had come to her that night. That was why he’d felt so anguished. There was this burden…this awful burden that he was bearing almost alone, not able to tell anyone for fear of endangering them. This, of course, was part of the reason she wanted to quit the Pauldron. As Imperion, it was right and proper that he keep certain secrets from her. But if they were just lovers…then he could be himself with her. Couldn’t he?

And yet, for all that… there was one thing she just couldn’t believe.

“Let me and Mark do it,” Shane said, suddenly, as though he’d just finished his own set of resolutions. “Let us bring her in.”
“Why?” Jackson asked.
“Because no-one else here can be confident of getting into a fight with Spectra and coming out with no-one dead.” This was a half-lie. He wanted to be the one because he had grown very fond of Mariko, and he didn’t trust anyone else not to hurt her. He decided to put aside the question of whether it was all true for now. It was not that he trusted Tobias – he absolutely did not. But despite his snideness, he did trust Jackson. And though he didn’t worship Imperion as some did, even he could not fail to be impressed. Even before Gravion’s betrayal, working in the Fundaments had been a dingy, uninspiring affair. He hadn’t minded – but being pulled up into the light of the Pauldron, to bask daily in the glory of Imperion…even Fahrenheit couldn’t ignore such things completely.

“Alright,” Jackson said. “No-one here doubts that you two are the men for the job.” He put his hand, gently, on Fahrenheit’s shoulder. “Bring her home, Shane. And Enhancegirl too. She’s…” He smiled. “Well, she’s practically one of us already, isn’t she?”
“Married into it, eh?” Shane laughed slightly. “Alright. Mark!”
“Aye?” “Let’s go pick a pair of damsels, eh?”
“Pick? I don’t get it.” Ignoring his own confusion, he hopped up, and the two made a hasty egress.

As Shane was explaining that he’d made a clever pun on the fact that there was a fruit called a ‘damson’, Imperion set the others about their tasks. Chryseis was sent to try and find Hypnotra herself, with strict instructions to keep her distance…and at direst need, given authority to take her out. “I don’t kill,” she’d said.
“If it’s a choice between your life and hers,” Imperion had replied, “you’d sure as hell better pick yours.”

Panhellius insisted, and Jackson didn’t at this point object, on staying at his leader’s side. He was not quite so understanding about Jackson having kept secrets from him. He…held it as very important that he was Imperion’s consigliere, and though he of course understood the logic of Jackson confiding in the telepath-immune Tobias, he didn’t like being cut out of the loop. When Jackson had asked him to jam the Pauldron’s communicators, he hadn’t questioned it. He trusted Jackson utterly, and he…needed Imperion to trust him. Imperion knew that, of course. It was what made him so easy to control.

Tobias was easily got rid of, mainly just so he couldn’t say or do anything that might cause more problems. Jackson insisted that he head to the hospital to get checked out. Partly this was out of genuine concern that Tobias had tried too hard. “Hey, Toby,” he said, just as Cougarman was hobbling away.
“What…what is it, Jackie?”
“I know…I know I said you were done. I’m sorry to drag you back out, put all this shit on you.” He meant every word. The plan was his, not Tobias’, and any mistakes or failures were his own. Indeed, as far as he knew, Tobias had executed his side of it perfectly.
“You still don’t get it, do ya, Jackie?” Tobias said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do.” This was true as well.

When Imperion looked into Nova’s eyes, about to give her instructions designed – essentially – just to keep her out of the way, he didn’t expect her to be mooning lovingly at him, or anything like that. But he didn’t just see anxiety or even fear in her eyes. He saw doubt. He didn’t understand at first, but with a painful tightening of his stomach, he realised his mistake. She was wondering why, if Jackson really had been investigating Mariko, suspecting her of being their enemy – by her will or otherwise – would he really have chosen such a time to confess his undying love for her?
“What do you need me to do, Jackson?” she said. She even smiled slightly as she looked into his eyes. But while Nova had many skills that Spectra did not, her poker face was infinitely worse. She wanted to believe him. She dearly wanted to believe him, and she almost did. She loved him, and wanted to put utter faith in him, but she wasn’t an idiot. She couldn’t ignore the doubts, and she couldn’t keep those doubts from her face.

Renewed was Jackson’s desire to eliminate Enhancegirl and Spectra. Whatever damage they might have done, whatever inconvenience they caused him, whatever they forced him to sacrifice or destroy…they would not take Nova from him. No-one would – not even Nova herself.
______________________________________________________________________
“What?! When?!” Ivan barked, inspiring not a little fear in the detective to whom he was speaking. They’d just come back with the results of his test – he had, indeed, been dosed with adrenaline, but he was less concerned with that than with what they’d just told him.
“This morning. Don’t worry, she’s alright. Apparently the, uh, would be kidnappers were stopped by Askancepoint.”
“Oh, thank god,” Ivan muttered. “Bless him! Ha!” He would not soon forget this debt. “And what about the people who did it?”
“Caught, but not saying much.”
“Fine, fine. Well, it has been a funny day, hasn’t it?” Ivan said, with rather cruel irony – cruel to himself, that is.
“You’re telling me.” The other detective, a younger man, had been the one who’d spoken. “Spectra and Enhancegirl…who’d have thought it?”
The older detective made a ‘shut up’ gesture, but it was too late.
“What are you talking about?” Ivan asked. “What happened to Spectra and Enhancegirl?”

The older detective ran his hands through his hair. “I guess you were gonna hear about it eventually…Spectra and Enhancegirl tried to murder Cougarman.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ivan said. “Spectra would never do something like that. Even Enhancegirl…she’s a shrew, but she’s a moral shrew.” “No, no, you don’t understand!” the younger detective said. “Rumour is they’re being controlled by Hypnotra.”
“Hypnotra?” Ivan was incredulous. “Nonsense. My s…er, Insyte destroyed her powers completely.”
“Well, who knows,” the older detective said, trying to end the conversation.
“Tell me more,” Ivan said, to the younger man. He sensed that the detective rather liked being the centre of attention.
“I got a friend in Seacouver says that Spectra resisted arrest, ran away.” He laughed. “Can you believe what she said about Imperion?”
“…what did she say about Imperion?”
“That he was secretly Hades.” He laughed openly. “Yeah, and they never landed on the Moon either. Who the fuck did she think she was fooling, eh?”

Ivan was not remotely justified in coming to the conclusion that he did. He took a few pieces of circumstantial evidence together, and he threw them into an intellectual blender, essentially. Imperion personally disliked him. His dislike was all the more intense because Ivan had slept with Nova once, and it was perfectly obvious that Jackson was in love with her. Hades had attacked Ivan the day that he had confronted and embarrassed Imperion. Hades had not killed him, but had tried to smear his reputation. Hades had known that Ivan’s powers were based on adrenaline, so would have known how to poison him.

It wasn’t enough. On any other day, this would have been an example of the worst elements of Ivan’s character. His self-centredness, his prejudice, his short temper, his impatience with careful thought. Yet some of his better nature was coming through as well: he remembered what he’d said to Nova, and how noble she’d seemed to think it. He had the strength – so he had the responsibility. And as it happened, despite the fact that he had no real justification – he was absolutely right.

“So, gentlemen, I take it I’m going to be released?” Ivan said, very calmly. The two detectives looked at each other.
“Yeah,” the older one said. “Your story checks out.” There was more to it than that. Ivan’s venerable father had put a great deal of pressure on their superiors, but general thought was that, yes – Ivan was probably telling the truth. “You’re free to go.”
“Excellent.”

“I-Ivan!” Sam Sparr was happier than he’d realised he would be when he saw Ivan walking free. “Y-you’re okay!” Ivan, much to Sam’s surprise, put his hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“Thank you.” “Huh? F-f-”
“For saving Julia’s life,” Ivan said. “For not dying yourself, and for helping to convince them I was innocent.”
“Uh…y-you’re welcome? Hey!”

Ivan had walked past him, and was now pacing the station, looking for Farah.
“H-hey, I’ve been th-thinking about wh-who m-might have tried to frame you up,” Sam said. “I think it might have been - ”
“Jackson Morrow,” Ivan said. “It was Jackson Morrow.”
“Uh…?” It was a bit like Ivan had just said ‘Nelson Mandela was secretly Stalin in disguise.’
“Get Farah. Get Jason. Meet me in Sacramento.”
“Wh-why? Aah!” Sam gasped not out of surprise, at least not exactly, but because Ivan had just grabbed him by the shoulders.
“I want you to understand something,” Ivan said, flickering with orange light.
“You saw it. You saw the bodies. But you didn’t…feel it, did you? You weren’t in it. I…I knelt in the bodies, and the cooked flesh, and I had to know that it was me who did it. He made me…he made me his bomb, and he killed three-hundred people just to get at me! Do you understand?! Do you understand what he did to me?!” He gripped Sam more tightly. “I wept. I wept in his girlfriend’s arms, like a child! He will not get away with this. He will not get away with what he did to me! Imperion. Must. DIE.”
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

"Single room, please," Sophie mumbled. She was affecting a Baltimore accent, the only one that she could impersonate convincingly.
"Mmhh," the woman behind the till grunted, taking Sophie’s cash and slapping a key down on the counter. "Upstairs."
"Thanks Sophie had been pretty clever. She was, as Mariko had suggested, dressed in baggy clothing, throwing an oversized hoodie over her dress, and had hidden her long, red hair in a large beanie. That would have been a decent trick in itself, but she’d also bought a ticket at the slam-rail station for Sacramento – totally undisguised.

So she went up to her room, or rather, to a room. Her key was unneeded – again, it was misdirection. She’d managed to swipe a key from the manager earlier, and now used that one to enter a room directly facing the one she’d rented. That way, she’d be able to see if anyone was poking around. She closed the door, and switched on the light, discovering that she was not alone. She’d have been startled, except she already knew she’d have company.
"Not a bad plan," Mariko said, quietly. She was sitting in a dilapidated chair, her legs crossed.
"Guess I’ve had a lot of practice being sneaky lately," Sophie replied.

She sat down on the end of the bed, and lay back, her calves hanging off the end. A squeak of some pretty worn out springs told her that Mariko had just sat down next to her.
"Sophie, I -"
"Oh, shit!" Sophie shot up. "I never told you! I never told you how I figured it out!"
"What?"
"How I knew Imperion was Hades. May...she found some...I guess you'd call it circumstantial evidence? An e-mail that linked Morrow to the Anubis Foundation. It wouldn't be enough to prove anything - by itself it wouldn't have convinced me, even." She gave a sardonic snort of a laugh. "Guess I was part of the cult of Imperion too."
"Well, alright," Mariko said, "what did convince you?"
"I figured out how his powers work."

Sophie explained what she'd learned, that Jackson drew powers from the superhumans around him. She explained how his manifold schemes had been designed entirely - as far as she could see - to draw as many people to his empire as he could, to fuel himself to even greater levels of personal strength.
"It's always about power, isn't it? Having it. Holding onto it," Mariko said, half to herself, when Sophie had finished telling her story. "This is good, though. If his power waxes and wanes in the presence or absence of superhumans, there'll be measurable differences in his strength and durability."
"Like a stress test? Yeah, maybe."
"But how did he know that you knew?" Mariko asked, at the end of a pause for thought. "When that woman from the CRO came to fetch me this morning you were frightened. Why did you think it had anything to do with - with Hades?"
"Shitty fucking luck. About ten seconds after I figured it out, I bumped into the bastard. At the party? He...we looked at each other, and he realised that I knew. For a second I thought he was just going to reach over and kill me then and there."
"I - I see."

"Alright," Sophie said, forcing enthusiasm into her voice, "let's talk strategy." She meant to rise, but found herself prevented: Mariko was holding her hand, tightly.
"Isn't there...something else you want to talk about first?" Mariko said. She looked at Sophie with puzzled eyes.
"He's dead, Mariko," Sophie said. "Imperion murdered him. What else is there to say?"
"Did Cur...did Rupert die with any peace?"
"I...I don't know," Sophie said, tiredly. She turned away from Mariko, trying to look at nothing in particular. "Maybe some. Mariko..." She bit her bottom lip. "I want to say 'at least he died heroically' or something, but...what fucking good is that to him?"
"Did he understand that he'd saved you?"
"Yeah," Sophie replied quietly. A moment later, she shivered, when she felt Mariko's hands on her shoulders.
"Then I imagine it was a great deal of good to him. Even saving the life a perfect stranger would be a good reason to die, but saving your life? The woman who rescued him from madness? One could hardly ask for a nobler death."

Sophie turned around, and smiled sadly at Mariko. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"I don't mean to suggest that it's...proper, in any way," Mariko said. "His death - his murder, as you rightly put it - is a terrible, a hideous crime. We will expose Imperion. We will ensure that he is brought to justice. We still have that, at least," she added, thinking again of the ruin that Imperion had wrought to the very notion of the superhero. "When we've stopped Jackson...then we will grieve for him. Rupert certainly deserves that much."
"Mm." It made sense. It was, indeed, a sort of perfect Mariko-esque response: calculated, measured - yet compassionate. And yet something...something was wrong about it. About the whole thing. Sophie felt a kind of...itch. She felt hot, so much so that she pulled off her sweatshirt, dropped it onto the floor.

"No," she murmured, backing away from Mariko. She found that she was shaking. Her teeth were grinding. There were spots in front of her eyes, and suddenly the name 'Enhancegirl' burned inside her like an iron poker.
"Hm?"
"I don't care...I don't fucking care if his death was noble or not." Sophie said, very slowly, and deliberately. "I'm sick of it, Mariko. I'm sick of all this...superhero bullshit. Justice and valour and noble sacrifices and...whatever, it's just hollow crap."
"Sophie - "
But Sophie didn't stop. Powered by a kind of manic fury she went on: "The codenames, the outfits, this larger-than-life shit...it's so childish! We've all - the whole planet! - we've been living in a fucking dream world for the last hundred years, of...of baddies and goodies and..." She laughed, bitterly. "That's how Imperion did it. He moulded himself exactly to take advantage of a culture that's been..." She squeezed a fist. "Infantilised. That's why people are willing to believe that crap about us being brainwashed. They're all infantile, and he's playing them!"
"Are you calling me infantile?" Mariko said. Sophie's words echoed too strongly her own despair about what was to become of people like them if Jackson was beaten. She felt attacked, insulted, and it cut to the quick.

But Sophie hadn't meant to insult her:
"No," she said. "Even if there were no such thing as superpowers, you'd find some other way to be what you are. You're like...an Arthurian knight. You're not a fool like the people who worship Imperion, or a hypocrite like me."
"You're not a hypocrite."
"I am! Nothing...nothing in my mind right now has anything to do with being a superhero. I don't want to bring Jackson to justice! I don't want to be...good! I don't even want to, like, avenge Rupert! It's not about him...if it were, that'd be - yeah, that'd be heroic in its own way, but it's not. It's all about me." She laughed cruelly at herself. "It's selfishness. I'm just being selfish: he hurt me, so I just want Jackson to suffer! Just the sort of thing I'd lecture someone about, that vengeance is toxic or - whatever, but - but I'm no better than anyone else! I want to hurt him, Mariko. I want to cut his eyes out and pour acid down his throat! I want to drag him through the streets, powerless, with crowds of people laughing at him! I want him to suffer, and then die! I'm not a superhero at all!"
"Don't be ludicrous, you're as much a hero as I am."
"You chose it, Mariko. You chose it, and you made it your own. Well now I know that I never did! Schiffer forced it on me! And Imperion's burned the last of that illusion away. I know I have powers, and I will fight him, but because I want to hurt him for what he did, not because I'm a fucking superhero!"

Sophie clutched a bedpost for support. She could barely stand. She could barely breathe. Mariko, for her part, was stunned. She didn't know what to do. Try to comfort her? Argue with her? Just hug her?
"Sophie," she said, eventually, "do you really imagine that I don't feel the same way? Do you really think that I'm not...quaking with anger whenever I think of him? Do you really think that anyone, superhero or otherwise, could fail to feel as you do?"
Sophie didn't seem to hear. She gripped the bedpost with both arms, and Mariko really thought she was about to collapse. When she put her arms around her, though, she realised that Sophie was not quite as unbalanced as she'd thought, and half expected her to push Mariko away in anger. But she didn't. She fell almost limp against Mariko's chest, quivering. She wept, staining Mariko's dress with her tears, and Mariko realised why Sophie's grief was turning her inside out like this.

She had only just recovered, and even then not completely, from the worst ordeal most people could imagine. An innermost, primal darkness had enshrouded her, swallowed her, and she had only barely escaped it. She had been shaken to her foundations, and her...rebuilding was not anywhere near complete. And then this! Thrust into combat with one of the most powerful men on the planet, forced to battle him all but alone with nothing more than her wits, made into a fugitive from justice...and having to watch Rupert Scott die. It was small wonder that she was breaking. It was a wonder that she had not shattered completely.

"I'm sorry..." Sophie whimpered, now totally unable to control her tears. "I'm sorry..."
"Don't be," Mariko replied. "There...is some truth in what you're saying. I -" She had been about to make a rather clever comparison between how people viewed superheroes, and how jingoistically-inclined countries viewed their militaries. She would have made all sorts of intelligent, nuanced comparisons between the culture of the superhero, and various historical examples of cultures which had feverishly worshipped the idea of the soldier, obsessed with the notion of personal valour being the only virtue of import. She'd have arrived gently at the conclusion that Sophie had made a good point, but not a sufficiently good one that she should be utterly disillusioned with the role she had chosen. But she didn't say all that. She didn't say any of it. She just held Sophie, held her as tightly as she could. Sophie didn't need Mariko the intellectual. She just needed her girlfriend to be there for her.

And indeed, though Sophie's grief was by no means lessened, the sharpest edge of her agony was blunted. But this was almost a physical, an unconscious reaction to Mariko being close to her. Internally her anguish still harrowed her terribly. She felt sick of it all. Endless battles. Endless struggles. New horrors every other day. Was it like this for most superheroes? No: most superheroes didn't even end up dealing with other superhumans anywhere near as much as Sophie did, let alone confronting the nightmares she'd faced. Why her, then? Why did her fortitude have to be tested so strenuously so often?

She very nearly wondered what the point of vanquishing Elena had been, if she was just going to go straight into getting crushed under Imperion's heel immediately afterwards. But even in her present state she didn't quite get that far: even if she'd died a second after emerging from the darkness, it would have been worth it. She wondered if perhaps Cur had felt the same way when he made his sacrifice. Whether this increased her anguish or lessened it was difficult to say.
"Oh, god," she said, finally calm enough to speak, "I really am being selfish, aren't I?" She touched Mariko's cheek. "I've barely thought about what this is doing to you."
"Sophie, don't be ridiculous. I didn't know Rupert Scott one one-hundredth as well as you did. You two had a real connection. I don't...really understand it, but I can see perfectly well how much it meant to both of you."
"That's not what I mean. I mean Jackson...he was your friend. He lied to you. He lied to all of you. Sweetie, I'm so -"
"Don't you dare," Mariko hissed, with sudden sharpness.
"Wh-what?"
"You're doing it again. I can see it: you're crushing down your own sadness so that you can be my support. Well I won't have it, Sophie. Yes, what Jackson has done to me is...beyond unforgivable, but you will not - repress this for my sake. To focus on fighting Jackson? Fine. To keep your head clear? Fine. But not for me. Please, Sophie!"

God, Sophie loved her. Even now Mariko was still being exceptionally conscientious, despite her own grief. She was right, in a way - it would very much have been going back to bad habits for Sophie to ignore her own problems for the sake of dealing with Mariko's. But she was wrong, too. Sophie couldn't have repressed her heartache now matter how hard she tried. Her manic fury, however, was another matter, and she had managed to settle herself, at least to a degree.
"You're right," Sophie said. "You're so...good to me, Mariko." She managed a smile, this time one without irony.
"I can't help it," Mariko replied. The two slowly entwined their fingers with each other, and kissed each other, lightly on the lips. They sat down together, and Sophie pressed her forehead against Mariko's.

"I can't think," Sophie said. "I can't think of anything now."
"Well, he's obviously still somewhat afraid of us," Mariko said. She did not notice the slight alteration in her tone: she had taken authority of the situation. "If he wasn't, he would have leaked our identities. My guess is that he doesn't want anyone in law enforcement, and certainly no-one in the Pauldron speaking to us. Most likely, he's trying to use Hades' criminal network to capture us."
"You still think he's trying to capture us? Not just to kill us?"
"Jackson is...repugnant, but he's not utterly psychotic," Mariko said. "I imagine he imprisons, rather than kills, women so he has something he can tell himself. 'I may be evil, but I don't kill women.' That sort of thing."
"He tried to kill me before, with the armour."
Mariko shrugged. "I doubt he'd ever give himself a rule so important that he can't break it when he dearly wishes to. So, yes, maybe his intention is to kill us."
"Yeah, maybe." She shivered. "I doubt there's anyone in one of his stasis tanks that he doesn't think is pretty. If we were fifty years old and ugly as sin we'd both be dead already."

Mariko frowned, deep in thought. "I wonder...I wonder if we should just approach the Pauldron directly. Demand that Jackson subject himself to a test of his powers to prove our story."
"Would they believe us?"
"Shane might. If he did, Mark would follow." She frowned. "None of the others, though. By now, I have to imagine Imperion will have some kind of plan to have us killed if we're too direct. I think it might work, but it should be a last resort." She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Did you manage," Mariko asked, "to find out anything from Schiffer?"
"Uh, kinda. If I was reading between the lines right, then I think he hid some kind of...code inside Cato Pict. Something he could use against Jackson if he needed to."
"Inside Pict? I can't imagine that'll be any good to us."
"Neither can I." Sophie breathed out slowly. "No way in hell he'd help us."
"Then...then I don't know."

Sophie stood up again, moved over to a window. "I should probably keep my powers on, shouldn't I? Early warning system in case anyone comes after us." She took off her dress, her shoes. "Enhance." With a golden flash, she clad herself in her shimmering warrant, her red mask and silver boots. But almost with distaste, she discarded them, stripping down to her strapless, bra, dark blue underwear. She was about to put on her normal clothes again, but Mariko stopped her.
"Don't." She rose, glided in that ethereal way she had, and slowly put her hands on Sophie's waist.
"Here?" Sophie said, a little incredulous even as she, almost without thinking, slid her hands up Mariko's long back, and pulled her in closer. "Now?"
"I want..." She gave a shudder, and Sophie realised how close to tears Mariko herself was. "I want my heart to be filled with you," Mariko said. "I don't mean to blot everything out. I don't mean to ignore our duty, or dishonour those for whom we grieve. But -" She winced. "We might lose. We might die. If he catches us...I want to have something in my heart other than anguish and terror." She slipped off her own dress, standing all but naked, almost too lovely for words. She stroked Sophie's face, tracing the lines of her soft cheeks with exquisite care. "And...you're so very beautiful, Sophie..."

Sophie gave a little cry, and melted into Mariko's embrace, kissing her with heartfelt passion. She allowed Mariko to fold her slender arms around her, tucking her own arms against her chest, allowing herself to be surrounded with her lover's presence. She felt like a wire stripped of its casing, exposed. With anyone else, even her dearest friends, even her parents, she'd have wanted to retreat from them, so raw did she feel. But Mariko's gentle light filled her, warmed her. Her lover's touch, heightened to electrifying intensity by Sophie's powers, sent something right to Sophie's most primal heart, reminding her that there were some things that ran just as deep as pain and grief. She broke off the kiss to give Mariko a tearful smile, and looked with a pained tenderness into her eyes. She almost laughed: Mariko had rescued her again.

That was not how Mariko had seen it, of course. To her, Sophie was very much the hero of this story: it was she who had locked horns with Jackson, and despite the vastness of his resources and strength, had grappled with him extraordinarily - even Imperion himself had complimented her for that! But her reward had been grief, and the reopening of too-new scars. And yet...when she'd turned on her powers, when she'd bathed herself in gold light...Mariko had been all the more stunned by Sophie's vicious diatribe against the culture of the superhero. How could she say such things when she seemed by herself to carry the legacy of the heroes of old: full of guile, and pluck - she even dressed like a superheroine from the fifties. Such burdens she'd had to bear, and how well she bore them, despite what she claimed about herself. Even Imperion had never lifted such weights.

And so, in awe of Sophie's strength, Mariko knelt. She dropped slowly to both knees, moving her hands down Sophie's sides, her waist, the tops of her creamy thighs.
"Ohh..." Sophie sighed as Mariko touched her. "What...what are you doing?"
"Don't make me explain it," Mariko whispered, slowly undoing and discarding her bra. She looked up at Sophie, and the redhead panted quietly, seeing her lover stripped to her lingerie, down on her knees, her legs naked and smooth, her lips only a fraction of an inch from Sophie's most sensitive spot. She was looking up at Sophie with those subtle eyes of hers and Sophie could already feel herself begin to pulse.

But, enticing and arousing as it was, it was not what Sophie wanted. She took her bra off so quickly that she almost broke it, then she knelt as well, meeting Mariko's lips with her own, before pulling her down with her onto the floor. Both lying on their sides, they entwined their bare legs, kissing passionately, pressing their pelvises against each other. Mariko pushed herself closer to Sophie, her modest bust slightly compressing Sophie's softer, rounder bosom.
"It means something, doesn't it?" Sophie said, pulling out of the kiss, but only caressing Mariko more intimately as she did. "This...us... even with everything else, it has to matter. Right?"
"Of course," Mariko whispered, kissing Sophie's cheeks. She ran her hand through her long, soft, red hair, teasing out Sophie's sweet-smelling tresses with her skillful, slender fingers.

Sophie put her fingers through Mariko's hair as well, but quickly pulled her close, and kissed her again, pouring all of her passion, her adoration into it. She squeezed Mariko's light-tan shoulders, pulled her close by the small of her back, trying to drown the wounds that had been inflicted on her. Jackson. Elena. Schiffer. Even Rachel. Mariko had to mean more than them. What her love had given Sophie had to mean more than what Sophie had endured. She didn't want their love to take her suffering away - that really would have been childish. But she wanted to feel something else as well. Love alongside horror. But her anxiety was misplaced: her lover was Mariko. She was Sophie. How could they possibly have failed to bring light and solace to each other's hearts? They made love, there on the dingy motel floor.

It might well, for their presence in it, have been the most beautiful place in the world.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

All Imperion really had to do now was wait. One of his operatives would find them and either kill them, or bring them somewhere for him to do it. The battle of wits was over: now it was just a question of resources. They had none: no-one to turn to, no-one to help them. He had everything.

So why was his heart thumping? Despite the awkwardness of his Plan B it had, more or less, worked. The Pauldron were convinced, or chastened into obedience, the police had been totally on side when Mariko had tried to out him, and his enemies would soon be defeated. He had no reason to be as anxious as he was, so much so that he was having difficulty compartmentalising everything as he normally would. Of course, Mariko and Sophie were formidable, and might defeat his operatives - but he could head out himself if he had to and 'just fucking nuke them', as he'd put it to himself.

Oh, he knew why. It was just embarrassing. The way Nova had looked at him, the doubt he'd seen in her eyes...he couldn't stop replaying the image in his mind. She distrusted him, at least a little. No...no! He didn't want that! He couldn't bear it! What was the point of her if she wasn't utterly devoted to him? What was the point of her if she wasn't his? God knows what he'd have to do to restore her trust. Perhaps another abduction by Hades? Only this time, Jackson would not only save her, he would destroy Hades, 'killing' her. No, no, that was imbecility! Giving up his criminal empire for Sara's sake? Nonsense!
"Jesus Christ," he thought. "What's wrong with me?"

"Imperion." It was Panhellius. He held a tablet computer in his hand, and it made Jackson smile slightly. It seemed very normal. "We've had about fifteen supposed sightings of Spectra and Enhancegirl. One in Utah, which was odd enough to merit a little investigation, but uh...there appears to have been some sort of convention."
"Anything solid?"
"One thing. Apparently someone looking very like Sophie bought a slam-rail ticket to Sacramento. The person who sold it told Fahrenheit that, yes, it could have been Enhancegirl. He thinks it really was her."
"Clever." Jackson saw through the trick immediately - but of course, he didn't want Shane to succeed. "Fine. Tell him to get to Sacramento, on, uh, on the double." Though such admiration as he'd had for her had been forgotten in his rage at his captives' escape, now that things had calmed down it resurfaced again. "Why did you have to be so nosy?" He wouldn't have minded taking Shane's suggestion, and having Sophie on one of the two new teams. Mariko had proven to be impossible to prise away from her beloved, so bringing Mohammed to the mountain would have been a good way of keeping a lid on both of them.

Mariko, of course, was a bitter loss. She was a tremendous physical asset, had proven to be a P.R. goldmine and...well, he'd liked having her around. Not only to look at - though he had imagined himself peeling that bodysuit from her willowy body many a time - but also because he liked her. He found her efforts to overcome her obvious social abnormalities amusing - he even felt a little sympathetic when he was in a particularly sentimental mood. But she'd have to go as well. Ideally, of course, she'd join his collection, but if that ship had sailed, then so be it.

As he pondered, he realised that Derek was still in the room. He looked a little put out.
"What's up, man?" Jackson asked.
"You're still hiding something," Derek replied, flatly.
"Excuse me?"
"It's clear that you're hiding something. You spoke in very fuzzy detail about this battle of yours, you didn't really explain what initially made you suspicious of Spectra, and you gave no indication of how your suspicions led you to the conclusion that Hypnotra was involved. And now," he said, glancing again at his tablet, "it seems that Spectra has made an accusation. She says that you, Jackson, are Hades."
"Do you believe her?"
"No," Panhellius replied. "But I would if you were any other man."

There was a rather long silence. Jackson's deep, blue eyes focused in on Derek like laser sights. He was a small man, Jackson thought. Emotionally stunted. Solitudinous. As far as Jackson knew, he was a virgin - he had never even tried to get himself a partner, and he was only a year or two younger than Jackson. He lived alone, in a small flat - despite the fact that he earned about $110,000 dollars a year - with no hobbies, or particular interests outside of his job, and a fierce exercise regime to keep him at peak condition for the use of his powers. He had no friends. He ate cheaply. The only thing he had in his life that he seemed to care about was his loyalty to Jackson. He was a man terrified of life, and his loyalty gave him order, meaning. So low an opinion did Jackson have of his faithful servitor that he was actually pleased by this near-show of defiance. The man had some spine, at last!

"I don't know exactly how to feel about that," Jackson said.
"Don't mistake my meaning," Derek added. "Any order you give, I will follow. But the others may not feel the same. If it comes down to it, I can tell you that Fahrenheit and Askancepoint will turn against you if there's any more ambiguity about the situation. Do you judge that the best course of action, not only to resolve this situation, but also to maintain your authority as commander of the Pauldron, is to continue to keep secrets from the one person of whose loyalty you have a cast-iron guarantee?"
"I'm not keeping anything from you that I'm not keeping from Tobias. That's what this is about, isn't it?"
"What? Of - of course not," Derek didn't blush, but he made every indication that he was about to.
"I need you on my side. And in most situations, I'd be willing to tolerate a lot harsher questions than the one you just asked me: but this is a fucking crisis, Panhellius. I'm pulling rank. Okay?"
"My feelings are irrelevant. I'm yours to command."
"Aren't you just, you little weasel?" Jackson thought. "I know, Derek. What I don't know is what the hell I'd do without you." Normally saying something like this produced visible relief in Panhellius. This time his face didn't change in the slightest.
"Well let me prove my value to you one more time," he said, with worrying irony. "Ivan Nazarov has just been released."
"Oh, shit!" Jackson spat. He couldn't hold the bile of his distaste for Ivan down, and it had come out in a truly venomous outburst. "Uh, sorry," he mumbled. "Just...more problems we don't need."
"Yes, well, quite," Derek muttered. "Does this affect anything?"
"Not that I can see," Jackson replied. He meant it, too. If he'd read the situation right, then Ivan would go straight to his sister if he was released. There he'd be effectively neutralised: out of the game until it was too late. It didn't matter. That, at least, was what Jackson thought until the roof over their heads exploded.

"Aaahhhhh!!" Panhellius cried out, as splinters of glass and stone pincushioned him. With his hyper-accelerating arm, he plucked them out, but he was wounded, bleeding. "What...the hell was that?"
"Only one thing it could be," Imperion growled. "God damn it!"
A figure stood before him - hovered, rather. Clad in a fiery, red aura, red for all the rage and adrenaline that Zjarrus was pouring into it. He had come to face Imperion, and death was on his mind. In his left hand, a ball of nuclear flame with enough power to level the entire block. His yellow eyes were aglow, wide and furious. If his sister's eyes often put one in mind of an owl, his were the eyes of a raptor. He was thin, almost ungainly, his clothes torn, half-tattered from the stress and heat of his powers. Against him stood Imperion, with his muscular, heroic figure, his fantastically handsome face and deep, blue eyes, clad in fine, green armour. Ivan looked like a madman. Jackson...well Jackson looked like everything he pretended to be.

"Hades!" Ivan shouted. "Come out and face me!"
"Nazarov!" Jackson bellowed back. He stepped forward, his hands crackling with lightning. "I always knew you were impulsive, but I never thought you were stupid. You get released from jail and the first thing you do is pick a fight with the Pauldron...Jesus. Tell me, is Farah in on this?"

Ivan didn't answer. Hydrocita wouldn't allow it. For all her resentment of the Pauldron, she would not take up arms against Jackson. Ivan changed the subject. "I'm not picking a fight with the Pauldron." He flew through the cloud of dust his opening salvo had kicked up, until he was hovering only a few feet above them. His black hair was standing on end, a wave of withering heat poured from him, and his eyes...Jackson had never seen eyes quite like them. "In fact, Jackson," he went on, "I'm not here to 'pick a fight' at all. I'm here to commit murder. I'm here to murder you, Hades."

"You will have to face me first." Panhellius drew his sword, standing between himself and Zjarrus.
"Out of the way, little man," Ivan growled. "I have no time to deal with drones. I'm here for the queen."
"Derek," Jackson said, fairly softly, "move. Against a ranged fighter like Nucleon there's not a lot you can do, not by yourself." He moved him aside, and stepped forward. "Ten seconds to get the hell out of here, Nazarov. Ten. Nine. Ei -"

Ivan didn't wait. He wasn't there to posture, and taunt. He didn't want to savour his victory, or to humiliate Jackson, or anything like that. His only desire was the man's swift death. He charged in at top speed, sweeping round in a sharp bank, so fast that only Panhellius' eye could keep up with him. Jackson wasn't even sure that he'd moved before he felt a pair of thin hands grab the collar of his armour from behind, before Ivan rocketed up into the sky, taking Imperion with him.

"AAGGHHH!!" Ivan screamed, flying as fast and as hard as he ever had in his life - but only for about a second and a half. He let go just as Imperion spun around to strike him, a blow that would have reduced Ivan to a fine paste. But even a second and a half was enough to give Imperion a hell of a lot of momentum.

At first, as Jackson sailed through the air, he didn't know why Ivan had bothered. He was only about fifteen storeys up, and he was already starting to fall. Even a fall from 20,000 feet wouldn't have done him any real harm! But then he saw Ivan flying down, hovering beneath Jackson. He realised what was going on: they were in the middle of a heavily populated area. Ivan didn't want him to be at street level.

Aiming perfectly, Ivan shot out a fearsome bolt of flame. It hit Jackson square in the chest, and detonated with spectacular force. Glass panes were shattering in buildings for half a mile around.
"Auughh!" Jackson groaned, as he was smacked hard into the sheer concrete side of another building, a municipal building, crashing through a wall and landing right inside. He wasn't badly hurt, but his armour was almost completely melted. With a growl, he jumped up, ploughing through five floors, through stone, and plaster and metal, until he stood upon the building's roof.

"Shit!" Imperion shouted, shaking with rage. Had he made another miscalculation? Had Ivan really been able to piece it together? No - he wasn't an idiot, but he was too impatient for the kind of cleverness Sophie had used. He'd just underestimated, he thought, how petty and impulsive Nazarov was. He cast his eyes around, trying to see where the hell Nucleon was hiding, but couldn't see him anywhere. Suddenly, fear gripped Jackson's heart. Whatever his schemes were, however intelligent he was...it no longer mattered. As much as Jackson hated Ivan, his hatred didn't make him irrational: he still fancied himself the stronger man, but it was by no means impossible that Ivan could kill him. If he lost, he was dead, and then none of it would have mattered.

He readied his electrical powers. He doubted that they'd be able to match Ivan's abilities in a straightforward contest, but Nucleon's destructive power vastly outweighed his durability - if Jackson caught him off guard, he could roast the bastard. He kept his eyes sharp, listened out for any kind of surprise attack, but he heard nothing. He was sweating, water actually dripping into his eyes. Was he that nervous? No, he'd been in mortal combat before. It had just got so hot!
"What the hell?" Jackson growled, as some of the concrete beneath his feet gave way slightly. "What kind of cheap - huh?" A little steam was rising from the hole his foot had made. "Oh, shit!"

Ivan's blast of nuclear flame didn't just destroy the building's roof. It evaporated it. The explosion was deafening. High, high above them, clouds were thrown apart, bathing the city in orange, sunset light. As he was hurled away, Jackson's ears rang. He could barely see, couldn't tell which way up he was. Only when he landed, making a small crater in the middle of Howitzer Avenue, did he get any sense of orientation. He clambered slowly to his feet, shaking the dust out of his hair, and felt rather pleased with himself. As disorienting and surprising as Ivan's attack had been, it had not been painful. He wasn't hurt at all. There was another problem, though: a throng of pedestrians had begun to gather, some pointing, others giving a sort of confused cheer for their hero.
"Get out of here!" Jackson shouted at them. "Nucleon has gone crazy - Ivan Nazarov, of the Pariahs! He's trying to destroy the city!"
"If I wanted to destroy the city," a harsh voice rang out, "then the city would already be destroyed."

Ivan descended from above, clothed in terrible strength, strength which had already claimed many lives. He was silhouetted against the Sun, its orange light merging with his own, as if he were some primitive god of an ancient culture. Full of rage, ruinous and vengeful.
"I'll stop you, Nucleon!" Imperion bellowed. "No city under my protection will be destroyed, certainly not by you."
"Under your protection? God, you're full of it!" He addressed the cowering masses now. "Despite what this fraud is saying, I have no interest in killing any of you. That man - " He pointed at Jackson. "He is Hades! He's been lying to you all for years!"
"This has nothing to do with Hades. This has nothing to do with anything heroic. You're doing this to satisfy your ego, and nothing else!" Jackson shouted. In fact, he believed what he said quite genuinely. Less honestly, he added: "Do you really think they're that stupid? Do you really think the people of Seacouver are fools?"
"Actually, yes," Ivan said. "Mainly because they're still not running away!" He brightened his aura, and even the people who'd stopped to film the two heroes on their phones got the message.

Despite his frustration, Ivan waited. He would not fight at his full strength, not inside the city. Even if it meant that he lost, he could no longer tolerate the notion of being responsible for a single innocent life. Not after the three-hundred he already had to his name. But he wasn't just a wrecking ball: with the technique that Farah had taught him for creating small, high-energy bursts, he could still fight Jackson, even here. He actually dropped back before attacking, using his impressive speed to make his angle of approach as unpredictable as possible. If he was going to hurt Jackson, let alone kill him, he'd need to get in as close as possible, and that meant getting into the range of his physical strength.

But, for his part, Imperion would not let Ivan anywhere near him. He harried him, flinging lightning bolts that would have roasted a normal man to a crisp in a second. Thunder contended with primal flame in a terrifyingly beautiful display. Imperion's red lightning, Zjarrus' red-and orange nuclear blasts, and the deep sunset mixed to make Seacouver the colour of blood. In frustration at his inability to close with his enemy, Zjarrus gave a great yell, and let loose. A column of flame tore down the street, melting its tarmac, igniting the fuel in parked cars, and smashing into Imperion with enough force to - well, to knock down Imperion.

"Aggh!" the blonde growled, stabbing his fingers into the ground to hold himself up. He was about to let loose with a vicious cascade of lightning, but then he saw something very, very interesting. Ivan wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the damage he'd caused, with a look of horror on his face. "Well how about that?" Jackson thought. "He really has grown a conscience." One of the reasons why Jackson had dreaded a direct confrontation with Ivan so much was because he seemed to have no compunction about using his powers to their fullest, no matter where he was. But not anymore, it seemed. Jackson, on the other hand, hadn't had a conscience worth a shit since he was seventeen years old.

Marshalling his strength, Imperion kicked off from the ground, and charged at Ivan with an ear-splitting sonic boom. He closed on him in half a second, delivering a devastating spinning kick that would have atomised Ivan's head. At the last second he dodged, but Jackson was on him in a second. He struck at him again, reaching to tear out his heart, but Ivan let off a blast of fire right into Jackson's face. Not only did this do nasty things to Imperion's sight, it pushed Ivan away from him. He rushed in again, and shot a high pressure blast into his chest. Imperion bellowed with pain, but struck back, clothing his hand in lightning. The blow itself missed, but the lightning jumped into Ivan's body.

"AAUUGHHH!!" he cried, convulsing and shaking. He dropped back, his aura of power defending him somewhat, but not completely.
"Stop fighting!" Jackson bellowed, swiping at him again. But with a screech of rage, Ivan sent a blast into the ground below him, melting a crater two metres deep. He dropped into it, and gravity saved him from Imperion's attack. Taken aback by Ivan's unconventional tactics, Imperion took a defensive posture, but this was a mistake. Once again, Ivan used his powers to burrow himself, a wedge of fire letting him disappear beneath the ground. Imperion felt the ground rumbling, and this time jumped away. Indeed, a blast of fire erupted from beneath the spot where he'd stood, but Ivan's attack was far from over. Bellowing like a mad lion, Ivan burst out of the ground right behind Jackson, and let off a high pressure jet of nuclear energy almost as powerful as the attack that he'd used to maim the Supremacist. Jackson was stunned by the force of the attack, but Ivan didn't let up. He charged in, and hit Jackson again, and again, and again and again, dialling up the intensity with every attack, his rage and humiliation - and, for what it was worth, his sense of justice - giving him near divine strength. By the tenth blow, he could not contain himself, and his power spilled out not just into Jackson. The road, such as it was, was torn asunder. Buildings shook. Yet Imperion would not be undone.

This was not Arizona. Only for that had Lord Delirious been able to defeat him. This was Seacouver - and there were more superhumans here than anywhere else in the world. Imperion was shaken, but not damaged. Bruised, but not broken. He took Ivan's hate, and withstood it as a great cliff withstands a wave. He began to smile. He should never have doubted himself. He was on another level compared to the others, even to the great superhumans of the age. His plan had not been in vain - even Nucleon could not hurt him.

At least, not until he hit him in the stomach.

"AAAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHHHH!!" Imperion screamed. Pain! Pain, pain, pain! How? Had Zjarrus' strength climbed so high in a second? No - even Ivan himself seemed surprised. And then Jackson understood. With a humiliation and fury that found its match only in his enemy, he realised the weakness that Ivan had unwittingly exploited: Captain Cur. The madman, when he'd poured himself in his last, desperate stand, had filled Jackson's body with the most corrosive acid on earth. And while he had not been enough to kill Jackson, he had wounded him. He saw Cur's face, his stupid, mad, grinning face, saw him laughing. "He...he defeated me?!"

Of course, Ivan had his part too. He hit Imperion in the same spot, two, three, four more times, until with a scream of pain, Jackson was thrown onto his back, groaning in agony.
"Do you understand what's happening, Jackson?!" Ivan hissed. "This isn't about us. This isn't about me. This isn't about my ego." He smiled, almost as if he was discovering this for himself. "This about the fact that you need to be stopped. What you did to those women you kidnapped...to Spectra, to Nova...to my sister! You're worse than the Supremacist! And I know no-one will believe me. I'll be a fugitive, a - ha! - a pariah! But that doesn't matter, not to me. I'll burn my name on a pyre if it means defeating someone like you, or Martin - anyone who used power like mine for their own...evil. Do you know why?" He gave a great yell, and his aura of might surrounded him. His strength shone - godlike! Glorious! "I'm a superhero. On days like today, when the only way to do good is through raw strength, I'm a superhero. I'm your personal mass extinction event. I'm fire! I'm power!" He paused, grinning with feverishly wicked humour. "I'm Ivan Nazarov, you son of a bitch - and to you?! I'm a fucking dragon!"

He cupped his hands behind him, bellowing with tempestuous rage as he filled himself with every atom of power at his disposal. He could do it. He could have done it. He meant to drive his blast right into the spot that had proved to be Imperion's weakness, and it would have given Jackson internal bleeding so bad that he'd have died a few hours later. It was perhaps for the best, though, that he didn't. Imperion would not have died immediately. He would have torn Ivan's head off. Had he known that, then he probably would have been grateful for what happened next. As it was, when the spear of blue-white flame crashed into him, sending him sprawling onto the ground, bleeding from three deep gashes, he was only aggrieved and aghast that his moment of true heroism had been thwarted. He looked up at where the blast had come from, and his heart sank.

"I trusted you!" Nova shouted, cloaked in her mystic, blue-white fire. "I believed you were innocent, you fucking liar!"
"I was - I am innocent!" Ivan shouted back. "It's him - he's the one who made it happen! He's Hades, Sara! Now either help me kill him or get out of the way!"
Of course, Nova had heard about Mariko's accusation by now. A normal person would have been dubious. A friend of Jackson's would have disbelieved it. But Nova - she could believe that Jackson was hiding something. She could believe that there was something wrong. But to believe that the man she'd mooned over since she was a girl, a man she'd loved since her first days of real womanhood, could be Hades? No. Never. You might as well have tried to prove to the Pope that Jesus had never existed. If she was going to choose between believing Ivan and believing Jackson - about anything, let alone about Jackson's goodness - how could she ever have taken Ivan's side?

Jackson did not spurn his opportunity. As Ivan lay sprawling, Jackson fought through his pain, stood up, and before Ivan could realise what was happening, let loose a horrific volley of electrical energy.
"AAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIHHHHH!!" Ivan screamed, as his body spasmed in horrific pain. His powers gave him an increased durability that would have made a faintly respectable superpower in itself, but he still howled in agony, unable to think, to move.
"Jackson, that's enough!" Nova shouted. "He's incapacitated!"
But Jackson didn't stop. He had to push it. He had to push it to the exact point where Ivan would die, but it would look like Jackson was just defending himself. Just a little more power...a little more!

"Jackson, stop!" Nova cried, but she did more than just plead. She rocketed down, directly into the path of his attack, throwing up a barrier before her. She had expected him to stop immediately, and he did. What she didn't expect was the look in his eyes. She had never seen such an expression before, and nor would most have: it was the face of a man who wanted to bellow in furious hatred, but who was well aware that to do so would risk disaster. Nova lowered her barrier, and rushed to Ivan's side. He was horribly burned, his skin charred, his eyes bloodshot. He was gasping for breath, still shuddering, his legs and one arm still close to convulsions. Nova knelt by his side, and saw tears in his eyes. But they were not tears of pain. It was sorrow: for he knew now what he had failed to rescue her from.
"S...Sara," he rasped, "I'm...sorry..." His eyes shut, and for a moment Sara thought he'd died, but he'd simply passed out.

"He...he attacked me," Jackson muttered. "I had to defend myself." Again, this had the benefit of being true.
"You don't have to explain yourself to me," Sara said. "Please just call for a police medical team!"
"Yeah. Yeah..." As he obeyed his girlfriend, Jackson panted with pain and exhaustion. Ivan had nearly killed him. Cur had nearly killed him. He damn near collapsed himself. And then he looked up, and he saw that the three heroes were not alone.

Others had come. Celeritas, Dove-Man, Vicegrip, Thundersprite - a dozen others. Fear of intervening in a fight between two of the five most powerful people on Earth had kept them from emerging before, but now they came forward, offering assistance. Zhilunji even used her, admittedly quite feeble, healing powers on Ivan, just enough to bring him from the brink of death, and as Nova awkwardly thanked her, Jackson felt the salve of power. It was a shame that he could not keep so many superhumans so close to him all the time - at that moment, with eighteen superhumans within two metres of him, he was so powerful that a second round with Ivan would have lasted about ten seconds. But he enjoyed it while it lasted. It felt almost like meditating. He breathed softly, and as if karma were rewarding him, his communicator went off.
"It's me," Tobias said. "She's found them."
A relief almost ecstatic filled Jackson's heart. "Tell her to wait for backup."
"Roger."

He closed his communicator, moved over to where Sara was standing. "You just saved my life," he said. He moved to touch her shoulders, but she twisted away.
"Will you please tell me what the fuck is going on?" she said. "I don't - I don't believe that bullshit Ivan was spouting for a second, but it really feels like you're hiding something, Jackson. I'm afraid."
"So am I."

He needed something. He needed something to give her. He searched his mind for something, anything - and he finally hit on a lie that he wished he'd thought of hours ago. "Sara, the reason I wanted Tobias to investigate Mariko is... because I think she tried to kill me last week."
"Wh-what? What do you mean you think she tried to kill you?"
"Did she ever tell you about when she was kidnapped by Ricardo Hosenfluss?" Jackson asked. Now Ricardo, he'd been a useful ally - right up until the point where he'd started trying to get power for himself, of course.
"Not in detail," Sara replied. "What's your point?"
"Well she told me. She almost killed him by creating a light construct in one of his arteries. Well, two days after she got back from her leave of absence, we were talking, and she was sort of...concentrating on something. I felt a weird itch in my neck - really painful." He raised his eyebrows. "And you know there's not a lot of things that can make me feel any pain. I looked down, saw a kind of...glow through my skin. It only lasted half a second, but when I looked back at Mariko she looked shocked for just a second - and then she was back to normal."
"And so...you didn't tell us..."
"Because if she wanted to, she could kill any of you silently, quickly, and without leaving a trace. When I brought Tobias in, I thought she might be getting suspicious, so I threw the party to set her mind at ease." He wondered for a moment if lies were among his powers, for among the superheroes, it was much easier. "I...I hadn't planned to tell you how I felt that night. With everything that's happening now I wish I'd waited...but at the same time, I don't. I was afraid something might happen. Either Mariko would try again, and succeed, and I'd die without ever having told you how much I love you - or she'd go after you."

Sara seemed to think for a moment. "I'm sorry," she said. She heard sirens - the medical team was, finally, arriving.
"Why are you sorry?"
"For questioning you. For making you take time on a day like today to explain yourself to me. I do trust you, Jackson."
"That's not your fault," Jackson said. "It's mine..." He smiled, sadly. "You know, if nothing had happened, I probably would have told you today anyway."
"Why?"
"Because you're my weakness, Sara. I don't mean that in a romantic way. You having faith in me shouldn't be more important to me than your safety...but sometimes I feel like it is."
"Oh, Jackson..."

There it was! That soft look in her eyes, that longing, that doe-eyed adoration. All was right with the world now. Sophie and Mariko were doomed. His ascendance was assured - Nova was like his totem: as long as he had her, he couldn't lose. "You know what? Screw Shane and Mark's little twosome: you can fly for god's sake. Please, go and help them look for Sophie and Mariko."
"Sure," Nova said. She began to take off. "I understand now, Jackson, and I know you had your reasons - I might even have done the same, but can you please keep us in the loop from now on?"
"Of course," Jackson lied. He watched her fly off, admiring the billowing of her dress, the curves of her soft, delicate body as she rocketed away - and took comfort in knowing that his powers of deception were still formidable weapons.

Except this time Jackson had been deceived. He wouldn't have been taken in, but he wanted it too badly, wanted too much not to have to worry about it. He should have realised that Sara had not believed his deception. He should have realised that she was wondering why he had lied to her face. He should have realised that she was wondering why, that day, she found it easier to trust a former acolyte of the Supremacist than the most beloved superhero in the world.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie and Mariko's lovemaking had lasted about as long as Ivan and Jackson's battle, but they had lain with each other for much longer than that. Sophie had yanked the duvet from the bed, and they lay on top of that, completely naked. Sophie was nestled against Mariko, nuzzling her long, slender neck, occasionally kissing it. Mariko, for her part, lay fairly still: she was half asleep, tingling with the afterglow.
"Sweetie," Sophie whispered. "We can't stay here forever." She wanted to. God, she wanted to - but Imperion still had to be stopped. Despite her grief and sorrowful cynicism, the calm - and even a drop of joy - that her beloved had given her had allowed her to collect herself. She still felt terribly fragile - but not as though she were coming apart.

There was a pause as Mariko emerged from her reverie. "I know," she said. "But moving too much puts us at risk as well. There'll be more opportunities for us to be spotted."
"I figure maybe we wait until nightfall, move when it's dark. Or do you want to stay the night?"
"Yes. We need to rest, and - well, I'll be more powerful in sunlight."
Sophie hadn't thought of that. "Yeah, okay."
"Besides - move where? We've got to come up with another plan. Some way of tricking him." She sat up. "Sophie, do you think your powers would let you find Anya Morrow?"
"What? Um...maybe? I guess we could go back to Jackson's base. I might be able to pick up the scent of that stasis tank fluid. Why?"
"Rescuing her might expose him. If - if we could find her..." Mariko scratched the bridge of her nose. "I'm grasping at straws, aren't I?"
"Hey, it's better than what I've come up with."
"What have you come up with?"
"Appeal to Cato Pict's sense of justice."
Mariko snorted. She was still too sleepy to laugh properly.

"I'm gonna take a shower," Sophie said.
"They have a bath, you know."
"Oh, fuckin' sweet." She stood up, moved towards the bathroom. She was still naked, and felt one of Mariko's fingertips lightly tracing her thigh as she moved away. She smiled at her lover over her shoulder, perhaps trying to reassure her. If that had been her intention, though, then it hadn't worked. As Mariko stayed where she was, lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, she thought back on what they'd just done. She was glad they had, for all the reasons she'd said...but she could feel how wrong Sophie felt. The first time they'd tried to have sex after Sophie had escaped Elena, she hadn't been able to at all - but the second time had felt just like that. There was a kind of desperation in it.

It only now occurred to Mariko what Jackson's role in Sophie's ordeal had been. He may not have sanctioned Schiffer's abduction of and experimentation on Sophie, but he had still been the one who'd created that situation in the first place. He'd been funding a way to create more superhumans to fuel him. He'd been giving Schiffer the resources to perform his foul works. It all led back to him. Just keeping track of all Jackson's crimes was exhausting. She was exhausted.

So she shut her eyes, and allowed sleep to take hold of her. Her soft, small breasts rose and fell gently, her sumptuously long legs shifted slightly. She tried, for the moment, to put aside her hatred of Jackson, her anger and fear, until those emotions could be useful to her. She lay there, the scent of her lover still hanging in the air. Her hand slid down towards her stomach, and rested on it, the other resting near her head, her fingers curled inward.

It was well that she was asleep. Otherwise Jackson's operative would have had to deal with her first.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie lay in the bath, her powers making the heat of the water a little too uncomfortable for it to be truly pleasant, but she didn't dare turn them off. She washed herself, trying to make the process mean more to her psyche than it really did. No - she would only feel clean, if ever, once Jackson was vanquished. Her vengeful lust was...dampened, and she almost felt as though that were a bad thing, that she should have held onto them. She was being dishonest by just wishing for his defeat now, even more of a hypocrite. But no - even Sophie had to admit that it was truer to her character than a desire for blood. But even now, that desire had not gone completely. How she wished things to be simple! A terrible villain had to be stopped: why couldn't she just be afraid, or just be determined - or even just be vengeful? Why did even something that, on paper, was so cartoonishly simple, have to be so complex? Why was everything nuanced?
"Everybody wants everything to be simple," she thought, and this thought resounded in her head. It didn't lead her anywhere, though, and she too began to feel a little sleepy in the warm water.

But she was awoken. She sensed something. A tremor. She sat up in the water, suddenly alert. She focused her eyes on the door to their room, but saw nothing that would rouse her suspicion. She sniffed, but the scent of the cheap soap and shampoo was almost overpowering. Yet the effect was not total. She could smell something else, something familiar. It had a sort of...musty odour, like an old attic. Like...oh, she couldn't quite tell.

She'd been looking so intently at the door to their room, she hadn't seen the other window, the one in the bathroom. It was large, but it faced a brick wall only two feet away from it, so it didn't shed any light in. But it was large enough for a person to fit through - and someone did.
"What?!" Sophie gasped, as a figure clad in red and black suddenly leapt in. She'd done it in one jump from behind the brick wall in front of the window - it would have taken Sophie's full attention to see through it. Sophie's powers were active, and she would have leapt right into battle...except her attacker had come prepared. The second she was inside, she produced a small jar with a colourless, sweet smelling liquid.

"No...!" The effect hit Sophie like a wall of water, striking her, and leaving weakness in its wake. "Unnhh..." She tried to rise, but already strength was slipping from her limbs. Already the chloroform was overpowering her. She slipped, and slid further down into the water. "M - Mari...Mariko..." she tried to cry out, but couldn't raise her voice above a whimper. She looked up with helpless eyes at the woman standing over her, in a full face mask. Sophie tried to look through it, but couldn't focus her vision. She did, though, see as the woman doused a thick, white cloth in the chemical that was keeping Sophie so weak. "No..." Sophie mewed, but to no avail.

Her attacker clamped the cloth down hard, completing covering Sophie's mouth and nose. At the same time, she grabbed Sophie by the back of the neck, and hoisted her wet, naked body out of the bath as if she weighed nothing at all. It wasn't evenAlready Sophie was almost completely limp: it felt heavy blankets had been wrapped around her whole body, restraining, overpowering.
"Mmhhh...mmhhhnnmmmmphhh..." Sophie moaned, as her arms flopped to her sides. To her dismay, a powerful arm wrapped around her, and a lascivious hand began fondling her bare breasts. But as if losing patience, it ran down to her stomach, squeezing her behind, grasping her pale thighs. Sophie's legs shifted slightly, still, but the effect was so powerful, so quick, that within seconds, her eyelids were fluttering. She went pigeon-toed, her body pliable, helpless. Her head flopped forward, her wet hair trailing down her front. "I should have guessed," she thought, a giddy euphoria giving her one last moment of clarity, "I should have guessed...they'd get me...like this..."

That was her last verbal thought before the chloroform took her. Her last thought of all, though, was finally to recognise the smell that she'd noticed before. Finally she recognised the stealthy, agile woman in red and black, who was much stronger than a woman of her build ought to be. And the smell?

Cobwebs.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Damselbinder
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

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Arachna could walk very softly when she wanted to. Her great strength meant that the woman lying naked and unconscious over her shoulder was a light burden. Sophie hung limp over her, her arms swaying slightly, her legs shimmering with beads of water. She grasped her by the thighs, and by the redhead's firm, round, delectably well-shaped behind. The weight of her was a pleasant load, the feeling of her - all wet, and soft and smooth - was delicious. Emily could have had a great deal of fun just playing with the slinky young vixen, but that wasn't why she was there. She wanted it to be - but terror outweighed lust, even for her.

Yet she had not just found one damsel to snatch up, but two. Emily panted as she came upon the slumbering body of Mariko Asakura. She was naked - completely naked, and though Emily's senses weren't even close to being up to par with Sophie's, she could smell the scent of sex on her.
"Oh god," she though, licking her lips. She'd never had a particular taste for Spectra before, but - oh, she was gorgeous! Shapely legs, at least half the tall young woman's height, tapering perfectly from a trim, narrow waist. A taut midriff, with skin so smooth looking that Mariko might have been made of silk. An elegant décolletage, finely shaped shoulders, tapering with perfect contours from a slender neck down to a pair of well-shaped, light-tan arms. Her breasts were small, but eye-catching all the same, as faultless in their geometry as the rest of her, their buds a very dark pink, still slightly raised from the aftershock of what she'd done with her lover. Her face was fascinatingly beautiful, as if she'd been put together by the greatest sculptors in the world: high cheekbones, a tapered, graceful jawline, lovely eyes, and a soft, slightly open pair of lips; all framed by well-kept black hair, pulled back, but long enough that a few strands tickled her neck. Arachna saw all this, and the balance of lust and obedient terror was reoriented. She took in all this beauty - and longed to cover it up.

Carefully, softly, Emily laid Sophie down a few feet away, the kneeling maiden slumping against against a poorly decorated wall. She removed her gloves, shivering with anticipation of what was to come. She could already feel the organs in her wrists churning, preparing for what she was about to do. Mariko had, as yet, not the slightest idea that they'd been discovered, and so when she woke up, disturbed by the small movements and noises about her, her first thought was not of her peril, or of Jackson. It was not even of Sophie. It was, in fact, of her cat. The small tom had not been given enough attention over the past few months, Mariko thought. She wanted to spend an entire day alone, save for him. Devouring a good book in a few hours while he lay purring on her lap, scratching his chin and stroking his soft, black fur. As much as she loved Sophie, she did have her solitary side still - but Sophie understood that perfectly well. She had but to ask.

But Mariko was snapped hard out of her pleasant awakening, when she felt something hot and sticky slapping down over her mouth. Her jade eyes shot open, and she saw the intruder standing over her.
"Sphhctrhhm - mmhhph?!" Gagged! Her mouth was sealed shut, and she couldn't activate her powers. She reached up to pull the gag off, but the intruder sprang at her, grabbing her wrists and pinning the tall damsel to the floor. "MMMH! MMMHHHHH!!" Mariko cried out, held down with laughable ease. Her attacker was far, far stronger than her - a superhuman, surely. She kicked out, but her enemy knelt on either side of Mariko's waist, and she couldn't get any real purchase.
"Stop struggling!" the woman hissed, and Mariko thought she might have recognised the voice. Either way, she certainly did not stop struggling, and her attacker grew impatient. Using her superior strength, she grabbed Mariko by her shoulders and spun her over.
"Mmmh! MMHHH!!" Mariko cried, as her arms were forced behind her back. "Mmmphhh-ggghhhmmhh - mmh?" Only now did Mariko see Sophie - naked; helpless - kneeling a few feet away. So often had Mariko seen it that she could tell that Sophie had been chloroformed just from the slightly distressed crinkling of her eyebrows. "No...no, not like this!"

Knowing that escaping her enemy's grip was their only chance now, Mariko fought as hard as she could - but to no avail. Her arms were forced behind her back, pushed together completely straight. "Grhhhmphh! MMNNGGHHHH!!" Mariko roared, hoping perhaps that she might at least attract some attention. But she failed in that too, and it was only when she first felt the sticky, white threads on her delicate wrists that she realised what that failure had cost her. "Arachna!"

True to her name, Arachna bound her prey with great efficiency. Letting loose a constant stream of thick, wet, musty strands, she covered Mariko's hands, her wrists, her forearms in off-white webbing, the threads sticking easily to Mariko's flawless skin. In seconds, Mariko's arms were completely disabled.
"MMRRGHHMMPHH!" Mariko cried, feeling herself becoming Arachna's captive. Even ignoring everything else, the fact that she had been ambushed and subdued by someone so vastly inferior to her in power and skill was shameful in itself. Yet if Mariko thought that she was simply going to be tied up...well, she'd never been captured by Arachna before.

Arachna stood, and shot a webline at the ceiling, as thick as she could produce, then three more in a small circle. She did the same to Mariko, shooting a thick line at her which slapped her right between her shoulder blades, adhering quickly and strongly. Arachna hoisted Mariko up by it, before quickly twisting the strand stuck to her captive with the three dangling from the ceiling strands together, anchoring Mariko in place.

"Mmh!" Mariko was left bound, naked, suspended helplessly in the air. She was only about five feet off the ground, but the experience of getting...hauled about like that was fearfully embarrassing, and she blushed, even as her legs kicked out viciously. But this only made Emily know where to start. She grabbed Mariko's ankles, easily quashing her struggles. She snapped Mariko's legs together so quickly that there was an audible snap - and then she began wrapping her.

The webs spurted out of the squamous organs on Emily's wrists, covering Mariko's feet and ankles. Arachna wound silk in circuit after circuit after circuit, pressing Mariko's long legs tighter and tighter together. Her supple calves were entwined, Arachna's skillful fingers encircling every inch of them. Her knees were covered, then her warm thighs, silk bursting over them, violating Mariko's sensual radiance with their foulness. Indeed, Mariko's legs were so long, that binding them up to Arachna's satisfaction took far longer than she'd expected.

As Arachna began teasing her threads around Mariko's slim, but feminine hips, the heroine shivered. The webs felt hot against her thighs, like a living thing pressing itself against her naked body. Her cheeks went bright red - it was a disturbingly intimate sensation.
"Mmh!" To Mariko's intense chagrin, Arachna grabbed her now webbed hips, and began spinning her around. "Mmmphh!!" It was not just one revolution: Arachna turned her around and around and around as she wrapped up her torso, covering every inch of the captive beauty in her silk.

Mariko's stomach disappeared between the musty threads, as Arachna spun her faster in the air, until Mariko could see only a blur. She could feel it, though, feel the webbing being wrapped around her slender body. As it reached her ribs, she felt a second layer being spread over her arms, her hands. She felt the powerful, damp webs squeezing her, holding her fast, felt the humiliation of being so tightly packaged, so utterly submerged in bondage. Panting, and whimpering at the same time, Mariko felt her bare breasts covered over with warm webs, clinging greedily to her skin. She heard Arachna panting as well, felt her hands grasping at Mariko's beautiful, helpless body as she trussed her up. She heard the webs churning with a sort of rumbling gurgle as they poured out of her, and they did pour in an endless stream, tightening as they dried against her skin, pulling her limbs in closer together, making moving her legs and her arms all but impossible.

Mariko had never fought Arachna directly before, but of course knew about Sophie's encounters with her. Something she'd never fully understood was why her first battle with her had stuck so much in Sophie's mind: it wasn't nice to say, but her early days had been marked with a great many defeats. Why, then, had Arachna's victory over her been so...potent? Well, now Mariko understood. The sensation of being wrapped up like this, spun around and tossed about like a rag doll, submerged in wet, warm threads, mummified in spider-silk: it was overpowering, all encompassing. She was prey, whimpering and defeated in the jaws of a mighty predator. But it wasn't just that, either: it was a terribly sensual process. The heat of her bonds had come from within her captor's body, these webs were...part of her. And she was pressing them against Mariko's helpless body, as if every inch of the stunning damsel were being roughly fondled all at once, like a hundred hands were grasping her, feeling her, caressing her. She felt more naked now, more exposed as the webs tightened against the contours of her shapely figure, the maiden pulsing with the steady throb of humiliation inside her.

The webs reached her shoulders now, and as the spinning slowed, she felt her décolletage vanish beneath her bonds. Arachna teased the webbing around Mariko's neck, not tightly enough to restrict her breathing, but tightly enough for Mariko to feel it. However, just as the webs reached her jawline, Emily stopped. She pulled on Mariko, snapping her away from the webs hanging from the ceiling, and hoisted her up to a standing position.
"Mmh! MMMPHH!" Mariko protested at her rough manhandling, still a little dizzy from all the spinning. Arachna was wearing a mask over her face, but Mariko could still tell that she wasn't looking her in the eye. She was fiddling with something in her pocket. Before Mariko could work out what it was, she was taken thoroughly off guard when Arachna tore the webs away from her mouth. "Wh -? Spectrhhmmmphhhh!" More dismay - Arachna shoved something over her mouth and nose, something padded, damp - and sweet smelling. "NHHMMPHHH!!" Mariko knew perfectly well what it was. "Nhh...mmhh..." As the fumes wafted into her airway, she immediately began to feel lightheaded. Weakness began to coil about her limbs like a serpent, pulling Mariko down.

"This is great," Arachna suddenly hissed. "You're everything I imagined you'd be. Leggy, stuck up - and sexy as hell when you're helpless." She sprayed webbing over the cloth, holding it in place over Mariko's mouth, just the corners of the cloth peeking over the silk to explain Mariko's increasingly somnolent expression. But even as her sparkling jade eyes began to flutter, she was not so weakened that she could not hear something off in Arachna's voice. She'd heard such crass taunts before, but generally with a haughty or triumphant tone. From Arachna it sounded...vicious, pained even.

In a way, Mariko did have time to ponder the mystery. She was totally helpless, so what else was there to do? But it was hardly surprising that she couldn't focus on it. More webs were being wrapped around her, around her cheeks, over her nose, her forehead. Threads tangled her black hair, covering it, and everything else too. When Arachna was finally finished with her, Mariko was bound from head to toe. Only a little of her hair peeked out from under the webs around her forehead - and, of course, her lovely, sleepy jade eyes.

Much of the chloroform had dried out, and anyway Mariko didn't share Enhancegirl's peculiar sensitivity to the stuff, so with all the effort that she could make, Mariko just about managed to keep awake, even as the drug's temptation to fall into sweet darkness pulsated inside her. Still, she could not keep the forlorn expression from her eyes. She was defeated, bound in still-hot silk, totally, and absolutely cocooned. And the consequences of her captivity could not have been worse.
"Isn't that adorable?" Emily hissed. She grasped Mariko's thighs, coiled an arm around the small of her back, and lifted the softly mewing damsel into her arms. "You sad, Spectra? Sad that the mean lady bundled you up all pretty and tight?"
"Mmhh...mhhh-nmmmhh..." Mariko protested weakly, cheeks warm, eyes heavy. She wiggled, but the result was...cute if it was anything. And indeed, she felt girlish, and feeble, mummified in webs and cradled like a bride. She was even dressed for the occasion: nothing but white from head to foot.

Mariko was carried to the bed, and tossed down onto it. The bedsprings gave a heavy creak as Mariko landed on them, bouncing slightly as she was thrown into place.
"Mhhh...mmmphhh..." Mariko whimpered, the cloth webbed over her mouth sapping what strength she could muster. She writhed sinuously on the bed, slowly wriggling her tall body, straining impotently against the webs, sighing softly as she struggled - if one could call it that - for Arachna's pleasure.
"God, what a body," Emily said. "Look at you...legs from here to London...uuhhhnnn...you're perfect!" She flexed her fingers - but she didn't actually touch her.
"Mmh...?" Mollified by the chloroform she may have been, but Mariko could still think. Arachna was never one for restraint, or so she understood. Why wasn't she touching her? Even as she'd bound her, she'd been...handsy, but positively restrained compared to what Sophie had told her. Something was wrong. Something was wrong with her.

And indeed, she did not particularly indulge herself with Mariko. Rather, she moved over to her other captive, the still- slumbering Sophie. Grabbing her by the wrists, she lifted Sophie to her feet, holding her arms above her head. Sophie's head fell forward against Emily's breasts, the redhead's creamy legs askew, her body completely limp. Emily let go of Sophie's arms, and knelt, allowing the redhead to flop down again over her shoulder.

Mariko did not even have the strength to sit up, but she just about managed to roll to the side, and let out a moan as she saw Sophie being thrown over Arachna's shoulder. She was carried over to the bed as well, her firm, round ass gripped tightly, her naked legs waving slightly from side to side as Emily bore her towards her lover. The blonde sat down at the edge of the bed, and put Sophie on her knees, arranging her so that her torso was resting over Emily's lap, her breasts compressed slightly against Emily's toned thighs. Perfectly humble, she was still and silent as Arachna folded her arms behind her back, obedient as threads of white web were lashed around her wrists and forearms. Arachna already started the process of cocooning the beautiful, naked girl, flipping her over and over as she coated Sophie's body in webs.

"Nmmhhh..." Mariko whimpered, seeing her lover fall into Arachna's snare as well. Sophie's perky, round breasts were subsumed beneath waves of silk, the smooth shoulders, that Mariko had caressed and massaged many a time, were marred with the imperfect white of Arachna's webs. As Sophie was revolved - her arms crushed against her back, her breasts and stomach squeezed and trussed - Sophie's legs flopped first one way, then the other, rubbing against and catching on the dingy carpet, and the edge of the duvet that Sophie and Mariko had had sex on. Evidently this frustrated Arachna, because she growled ferociously, and tossed Sophie onto the bed.

As she began binding Sophie's legs, Arachna knelt at the edge of the bed, angrily spewing silk all over Sophie's naked thighs, the defenceless maiden not aware in the slightest of the humiliating bondage to which she was being subjected. As it happened, Arachna had thrown Sophie such that her face was very close to Mariko's. The heroine tried to inch closer, just to touch her - but she couldn't quite reach. She was too tightly tied up, and too fuzzy-headed to do it.
"Too...too weak..." she thought, shot through with defeated shame.

As Arachna finished tying up Sophie's legs, she pulled her back towards her, and began gagging her. She didn't bother drugging her again, but she did wrap several layers of silk around her mouth, to muzzle her completely. Again, she covered Sophie's neck, her jaw, her cheeks, her forehead. Her hair, however, was too long and thick to package up, so Arachna left a sort of slot in the cocoon, so that despite the fact that Sophie's face and scalp were covered with silk, her hair still flowed out behind her, burning orange-red against the dull white of her bonds. This done, Arachna was at last satisfied. The ambush had been a total success: the heroines were defeated.

But as often as such thoughts had given Emily giddy pleasure, she had none now.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Mhh..." Sophie sighed, as she slowly came too. She still felt fuzzy, weak, and very disoriented, but at least she was conscious. "Mhh...?" She'd tried to move, but she couldn't. She forced her swimming vision into focus, and looked down at herself. "Nnnnnmmmmmmpphh..." she moaned, as she perceived the extent of her helplessness. She was bound and gagged, completely mummified in Arachna's webs. One of her most humiliating defeats had been repeated, and she was, again, a silk-wrapped captive in Arachna's clutches.

She looked to her left and saw lying next to her, wrapped up perhaps even more securely, her girlfriend, trussed and smothered in silk. Sophie tried to struggle, but the bonds were so tight that it was almost as if she were paralysed. She and Mariko were lying right next to each other, laid neatly parallel: just a pair of cocooned, muzzled trophies for their captor to admire, mewing in their bonds, their pretty green eyes wet with shame.

Except Arachna was not admiring them. She was pacing back and forth. She didn't even seem to notice that Sophie had awoken until a particularly loud moan of protest.
"Morning, Enhancegirl," she said. "Welcome back from dream land. You might have been able to beat me last time, but this time I totally kicked your ass! I mean...I ambushed you. Even you didn't see me coming!" But when she looked at Enhancegirl, she didn't see shame, not now. She didn't see humiliation, dismay, or even anger in those beautiful, emerald eyes. She saw pity - and horror.

For while the mask covered Emily's face well enough, that was no longer a barrier to Sophie's sight. She saw that Emily's face was deeply scarred, great clawmarks cutting across her face as if she'd been mauled by a wildcat. Sophie looked deeper, and saw that several of Emily's bones had been broken recently. A question that would have arisen in Sophie's mind was pre-emptively answered: why, when Emily had actually helped Sophie and the others to escape Hades' captivity a few months earlier, was she now - presumably - working for him again? Because, Sophie realised, their attempt at deceiving Hades hadn't worked in the slightest, and he'd broken her in like an unruly horse.
"Oh yeah. You can see through the mask, can't you? Fine then." She whipped it off, throwing it to the ground. Mariko now saw her scars, and through the drugged haze of the cloth bound over her mouth, she swiftly came to the same conclusion that Sophie had.
"Another of...Jackson's victims..."

Emily strode over to them, trying to look as smug as possible.
"I guess you've figured it out, huh? Hades...he wanted to teach me a lesson. And I learned it: no good deed goes unpunished." She loomed over them, clenching a fist. "I can't believe what I was thinking. I can't believe I ever wanted to help you goody-goodies. Even if - even if it was for -" She shuddered, twitched painfully. "Would have been better for you too. If I hadn't helped you, you'd still both be captives. But now...now Hades has ordered that he wants you dead." She reached out towards them, but pulled back. For a moment, Sophie had been afraid that she'd carry out that order, but only for a moment. She could see it in Emily's eyes:
"She can't do it. She can't murder us."

"Personally I think it looks better like this," Emily said, forcing a smile and tracing her fingers down the five clawmarks gouged into her face. "I'm much scarier now, huh?" She smiled wickedly, but both Sophie and Mariko thought that she was wrong. She didn't look any scarier. She just looked wounded.
"Hmmlhh..." Sophie tried to say her captor's name, and never felt more frustrated that she'd been gagged. "Hmlhh...whhhrr trhhngg thh sthhp Hhdhhpph!"
Emily looked at her, this time with an expression that even Sophie couldn't read. She strode over to where the two were lying, and roughly pulled Sophie towards her. She took her by her shoulders, and lifted the redhead up to her feet. "You got something to say, redhead?"
Gingerly, Sophie nodded. Emily reached towards her gag, but stopped herself. She smiled, nastily.
"I've got an idea. How about this. Every time you speak, you get one sentence. After that sentence, I get to kiss you."
"Whhmph?!" Even with the cloth tied to her face, Mariko defied her bundled-up state to sit up.
"Hey!" Arachna shouted. "I'm talking to Enhancegirl!" She took Sophie by the chin. "Do you agree? Or am I too much woman for you?"
Sophie nodded, and Arachna looked confused. Sophie almost rolled her eyes when she realised why: Emily didn't know which of the two options Sophie had just said 'yes' to. Arachna did have a sort of battle cunning when she actually fought - but otherwise she really just wasn't very intelligent. "Yhhs, Hh hgrhh," Sophie mumbled, and Emily got the message.
"Fine." She was about to ungag her captive, but she hesitated. "Just remember, honey - my kisses are so great that the ladies just swoon for them."

Saying this, she tore off Sophie's gag, and she winced in pain as the threads were pulled away from her skin. Sophie opened her mouth to speak, but she stopped herself. She had to think very, very carefully. Everything now - their lives, Imperion's defeat - came down to whether or not she could find mercy in the heart of Arachna.
"If you let us go, we can make sure he never hurts you again," Sophie said. "We - MMPH!" Shocking her captive with her speed, Emily pulled the redhead in, and forced a kiss on her, gripping her tightly, squeezing her ass as she made out with the mewing damsel.
"Mmm," Emily said, licking her lips as she pulled away. "That's the stuff, alright."
"Unhh..." Sophie already felt strange. Her extremities tingled: the paralysing effect of Arachna's venom had already taken some effect.
"As for what you said...who the fuck do you think you are?" She laughed. "Even your girl there couldn't beat him completely, and she makes you and me look like wimps. You're not stopping Hades."
"He's afraid of us," Sophie said, "which is why he sent everybody he could spare to come after us, not just you - so he seems to think we can stop him.
"Hmmm..." Arachna stroked her chin. "Nah, not convinced."
"Wait, listen to - mmmmhhhhh!!" Another kiss, this time with Emily pulling Sophie tight against her body, pushing her breasts tightly against her captive's. "Uhhhhh...nnhhh..." Sophie whimpered. Her limbs felt weak. If Arachna hadn't been holding her, she'd have collapsed to her knees. She had few chances left...she had to try her trump card.

"Hades and Imperion are the same person," Sophie said, in a low, weak voice, "which is why we've suddenly been accused of being Hypnotra's mindslaves - which I think even you can tell we're not."
But to Sophie's dismay, Arachna didn't look shocked, or troubled, or even incredulous. She just looked sort of confused. "Wh...what? That's stupid. I fucking saw them fighting. Why would you make something like that up?"
Sophie realised that she would never really be able to explain it to her, not under these circumstances. But Arachna hadn't kissed her this time. She had an audience, if not a captive one. "If we succeed in what you're doing, not only will he never be able to touch you again, but there'll be no-one left to stop you from just fucking off wherever you want. Right now, I don't even care if you go back to tying people up for a living if you just let us go!"

But she'd overestimated the extent of Emily's patience. "I'm tired of this," the villain spat. She pulled Sophie in again, and kissed her again, but if she'd derived any pleasure from the first two, she got none from this. This kiss was an attack, and when it ended, Sophie was even more woozy and somnolent than Mariko.
"Ooh..." she sighed softly. She was now all but paralysed, and close to unconsciousness. "E..Emily...please..."
"I think that's another sentence!" Arachna hissed, and kissed Sophie for a fourth time, now invading her mouth with her tongue, Sophie too weak to resist. She pulled back, and let go, and Sophie sank slowly to her knees.
"Please..." Sophie whimpered, and with titanic effort raised her head to look Emily in the eye.

Even in her distress, even in the weakness brought on by the lingering effects of the chloroform, and Arachna's numbing venom, she saw fully the woman who had caught her. She was a weak person, all impulse and appetite, and scarce little else. She had started, just started, to find a little more within herself, her obsession with Stellar having been a path for the first embryonic strand of a conscience to develop within her. For Mariko, vanquishing a villain, serving the common good - that was enough. But it wasn't enough for Sophie, not as grief-stricken and shaken as she still was. But now...now she had someone to save, and she found her resolve. "You took off my gag...you wanted me to say something...you wanted me to give you a reason not to kill us. You wanted me to give you...uhh...an excuse not to...to do what he wants. If you...let us go...I'll be able to tell Yumi that... she was right about you."

Arachna gave a cry, a sort of impassioned yelp. "You're...you're serious, aren't you?" Emily said. She could picture it. All being said and done, Hades defeated and everything put to rights, and Sophie telling Stellar that they never could have done it without her. She pictured Yumi smiling, her beautiful face lighting up with joy at knowing that she'd been right - that there was good in Emily after all. "Wh...what do you want me to do?" But Sophie couldn't answer her. Four doses of Arachna's venom was too much for her, and she passed out once again, the bound damsel falling with a sigh onto her side. Arachna looked down at her, then at Mariko. "Shit...shit!" She shook her head. "What the hell do I do now?!"
To Mariko's astonishment, she realised that Arachna was quite genuinely asking her, and for the first time, the half-mad, terrified, lovesick fool drew compassion from Mariko's heart, instead of just pity. Still, she wished that she could have said: "Untying us would probably be a start."


About half an hour later, when Emily's backup finally arrived, they didn't find two unsuspecting heroines, or even two captive damsels - they simply found an empty room, musty with the scent of cobwebs.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
"'Fought' him? You almost killed him! The guy's in a fucking coma because of you!" Hydrocita bellowed, facing down with Imperion, Catastrophe looming menacingly behind her.
"Come on, Farah, what was he supposed to do?" Chryseis said, standing between them. "The guy's a wrecking ball. If Jax hadn't fought seriously against him he could have been killed."
"Look, I know he got a crazy idea into his head," Farah said, "but this is -"
"This is why we were all concerned when you started your own team," Jackson said. "I've never had the slightest doubt in my mind that you mean well, and that you're trying to do good, but the second I found out that you'd recruited Ivan Nazarov, I knew something like this was going to happen. He heard a whacked-out conspiracy theory about me, and he tried to kill me. He practically destroyed the CRO building. He could have killed even more people. Now, Sara tells me that what happened in Carson City really wasn't his fault, and I think I agree with her - but he obviously snapped. Someone that unstable can't be trusted with his power. Nucleon shouldn't be a superhero, Farah, and you know it!"
"Stop calling him that!" Farah hissed. "That was the name that the Supremacist gave him when he was a child."
"Fine, Zjarrus, then," Imperion replied. "My point's the same."

The Pauldron and the three remaining Pariahs stood across from each other on the top floor of the Pauldron's Sacramento H.Q. Fahrenheit, Askancepoint and Nova's search for their missing member had been fruitless, and they'd returned to find Panhellius about to go toe-to-toe with the Pretender. Fahrenheit had broken the fight up, but he was now earnestly wondering if he was on the right side of the confrontation. Mark was just annoyed that none of the Pariahs knew sign-language, and Nova...Nova didn't know what to do. On any other day, she'd have been standing at Jackson's side, trying to get Farah to back off, and even that day she'd have leapt in if violence seemed likely - but otherwise she was at a loss.

"Farah." Derek had spoken up. "Your anger at the injury of your teammate speaks well of your character, but not of your rationality. Do you believe what Ivan was saying?"
"No." She looked Jackson in the eye. "I'm mad as hell, but I'm not stupid."
"Then tell me," Derek said, "if Ivan thought that you were responsible for - among other things - kidnapping and humiliating his sister, he'd try to kill you, yes?"
"He loves that girl," Farah replied, and Mark nodded in approval. "Yeah, he'd try to kill me."
"And in defending yourself against him, you'd use deadly force, yes? You'd have to if you wished to stand any chance."
"Yeah, I would," Farah said. "Derek, I see where you're going with this. And in your own fucked up way, you're actually being kinda sweet - but there's one thing you've left out." She clenched her fist, and every droplet of moisture within a hundred metres trembled in anticipation of their master's need. "I'd use deadly force, sure, but I wouldn't torture him after he was already beaten because I was jealous that he fucked my girlfriend before I ever had the chance to!"

What was the difference between someone like Imperion and your average criminal boss? Resources were part of it, and of course Jackson's tremendous strength. But there was one difference more significant than any other: the ability to delay gratification. Ronnie Morrow, on hearing Farah's insult, would have leapt across the table to try to strangle her, but Jackson didn't. He didn't shout. He didn't even look particularly angry. He just quietly tucked away in the back of his mind that he'd have revenge on her for this humiliation. She had two half brothers who still lived in Poughkeepsie, if he remembered rightly, one older than Farah, one ten years younger. It would be simplicity itself to have them murdered.

"Get out." This demand hadn't come from Jackson. It had come from Sara. "I don't care how angry you are," she growled, "how dare you call yourself my friend and say that in front of me?!"
Hydrocita suddenly looked mortified. She hadn't thought about how humiliating what she said would be for Nova. She reached out towards her, literally, but gave up. "Let's go," she said to her comrades. She turned back to Nova for a moment, wanting to finish off what she'd said earlier, but she didn't think it would do any good.

The Pauldron was left alone, but no-one said anything for a time.
"I'm sorry about that," Jackson said. "I...no, actually, I got nothing. That was just really fucking mortifying." He - and Sara - more or less had the room's sympathy. Farah could be spiteful, and her attack seemed dreadfully unfair.
"Alright then," Shane said, growling with frustration. "What now?"
"Now we get some rest," Jackson said, collapsing in his chair. He was still shivering from the pain Ivan had inflicted on him, still hurt. He was a little weaker in Sacramento than in Seacouver, and that made the scars hurt that much more. "And we rely on the police to find them. Everybody stay on alert, but go home. I have a nasty feeling that this is all part of something worse than what we've seen so far." He turned to Sara, partly to make sure that Farah hadn't made her think too hard, and also out of a genuine desire to make sure that she wasn't too upset. But when he looked for her, he saw only a streak of blue-white light. She'd left the second he'd given them permission.

Sara's head pounded at her. It wasn't just the embarrassment of what Farah had said in front of the others, it wasn't just that she was still full of terrible, terrible doubts about Jackson - she also had a migraine. She flew home as quickly as she could, going in via a window, turned off the light in her bedroom, turned off her powers, threw down a couple of aspirin, laid down on her bed, and covered her head with a pillow.
"Urrghhh..." she groaned, her head feeling like there were needles stabbing deep into it. She didn't want to think. Every time she did, every time she tried to figure out what the hell was going on, the pain increased. She wished that she and the others had been successful, that they'd found Sophie and Mariko. After Jackson had so plainly lied to her, she began to doubt everything, and felt as if only those two could give her answers. But they remained elusive, and nothing made any sense. In fact, Sara realised, there was yet another thing that didn't make any sense. Why had her bedroom light been on?

Sara threw the pillow off, and was about to reactivate her abilities, but she froze the instant she turned over. She didn't dare move: there was a blade of light at her throat.
"Good evening, Sara," Mariko said. "I'm sorry for the intrusion, but as you can imagine, I'm in rather a...direct mood at the moment."
"Mariko!" Sara's heart pounded. Some gating system in her brain decided that the migraine could wait, and the pain noticeably lessened - only to be replaced with total, baffled shock. "What the fuck are you doing in my house?!"
"Well I could hardly stand around in the doorway, could I? Or hadn't you noticed that Jackson made me a fugitive?"
"Turn yourself in. If you're innocent -"
"Of course I'm innocent," Mariko said, sharply. "Was that ever in question? Have Jackson and Tobias actually managed to convince everyone that Sophie and I have been brainwashed? That's not a rhetorical question: I want to know if everyone's convinced."
"Not everyone," Sara replied. "Shane doesn't believe it. Mark probably doesn't either, but he might just be going along with Shane. Chryseis has her doubts, but she's pretty fond of Tobias, so...you know."
"And you?"
"You have a blade of light to my throat. So yes, I think there might be something wrong with you."
"That's fair, I suppose. In which case...Spectrum is Red."

With a dull flash, Mariko's bodysuit vanished. Her mask too, and Sara saw the exhaustion in her eyes. And more...a sort of sadness. A horrible thought struck Sara.
"Is Sophie alive?"
"What? Yes, yes, she's fine. Relatively speaking," Mariko said. "I've lowered my guard, you know."
"I can see that."
"You haven't attacked."
Sara did not immediately reply. She didn't know why Mariko was right: why hadn't she attacked? Mariko had broken into her house: why wasn't Sara trying to knock her down?

Mariko answered for her. "You don't believe I've been brainwashed. I'd be surprised if you ever did."
"Why are you here?" Sara snapped. "Why would you risk capture to talk to me?"
"Because I need your help. Or rather, I need the help of a member of the Pauldron. There's someone to whom we must speak, someone in prison, and obviously we can't do that with the police looking for us."
"Why would I help you?"
"Because I can prove that what I said about our leader is true. I can prove that Jackson Morrow is Hades."

Sara stood up.
"You actually think I would believe that? You think I'd listen to something as ridiculous that? Jackson Morrow? Imperion is Hades?! That's beyond ludicrous, that's - that's an insult to the intelligence of everyone in America!" She shook. She trembled from head to foot, trembled with rage. "The person who - who did those things to me...it wasn't Jackson! It can't have been Jackson! That's - impossible!" She felt sick.
"Where do you think Jackson was during the day? He captured me, and Sophie. He bound us and hung us from the ceiling. He stripped me - he tore my clothes from my body, and we only escaped him because Captain Cur - you do remember him, I take it? - rescued us. He died in the attempt, Sara. Jackson killed him, essentially, and Sophie is -" She was about to lose her composure, and restrained herself. "That I can prove already. You'll find that Rupert Scott broke out of the Methos Institute, and that his body was found a few hours ago."
"You're doing the same thing as Jackson! You're just making these - these insane claims and just demanding that everybody believe you!"
"So you don't believe Jackson, then."
"I didn't say that!"
"But you don't, do you? I can't imagine the number of lies he's had to tell to cover his tracks, but it must be too many. Be logical, Sara: you don't believe him, and if he's lying then what reason would I have to?"

Mariko had tried to stay calm, but she couldn't any longer. "For god's sake, Sara, you have to listen to me! All the people he's killed, all the lies the - the violations he's responsible for, they must be stopped! He must be stopped! He must be!" She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to hide the fact that exhaustion and desperation had brought her close to tears. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean to shout. I know that believing me...believing that Jackson is what I've said he is is what you would least wish to believe of - of anything I could possibly say. I know you love him."
Sara flinched. "Don't talk about...just - just don't!"
"I don't ask for blind faith. I certainly haven't earned it. I ask you to prove it. In twelve hours..." She breathed out, shakily. "In twelve hours, Sophie and I are going to turn ourselves in. If you don't have the proof by then, it will show that we are lying. It will show that my intentions are evil, and that Jackson deserves your trust. Then when you lie with him, when you take his hand, you need not feel the slightest about the goodness of the man you love. This is what I offer you Sara: either delivery from evil, or bliss."
Sara looked Mariko right in the eye. She peered hard, her light brown eyes bearing down with terrible intensity.

"Why me?" she asked, speaking very, very slowly. "You said you needed 'a member of the Pauldron'. Why me? Shouldn't you have gone to Shane? He likes you, a lot, and of all of us he's always got on with Jackson the worst."
"I like him too," Mariko said, "and I trust him. I trust Mark. I trust Derek, and Chryseis. And until today I trusted Jackson. You...you're the only one I could never believe would deceive me." Her face twitched. "You asked me once if I thought of us as sisters. You were being ironical, and you laughed at my answer, but I repeat it now: yes, I do think that."

Sara didn't say anything. She just felt...hot. In the space, Mariko continued.
"I need you to speak to Cato Pict. I need you to ask him - oh, what was it...?" She remembered. "Say: 'Anubis is gone. I'm here to talk to Charles. Peter Schiffer needs the code.'"
"Anubis? What does this have to do with them? And isn't Schiffer the man who -"
"Yes, he is. Please do this, Sara." But before Sara could answer, Mariko reactivated her powers, and vanished from Sara's sight.
"Wait!" the starlit maiden cried out. "Mariko, wait!" But she was gone.

Sara rose, but then immediately fallen to her knees, clutching her head, her migraine surging back in full force. She wailed with pain. And it was not just her head: she wanted her certainty back. She wanted her trust in him back, like a Christian falling out of faith and desperately trying not to. She had to know. She had to be sure of Jackson again, had to get rid of this awful pain. For Mariko's awkward, wordy explanation of her feelings towards Sara, of that she had no doubt at all. Of Jackson's wonderfully phrased, heartfelt confession of love? Now even of that she began to have doubt.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Cato Pict was covered in blood. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that much of it was his own. Indeed, the only blood that was not his own was that of the doctor who had tried to give him a sedative to stop him from hurting himself. The attempt to administer it had been brief, and painful. The guards had no idea what to do with him. None of them could touch him: the prison wasn't insured to let them. For Cato had finally heard what had happened in Carson City.

The first thing that happened was that he'd activated his powers. This in itself had been something of a shock to the guards, and indeed the inmates. Not every superhuman was sent to the Penitentiary Supreme, of course, but most prisons weren't equipped to deal with the expense and difficulty of incarcerating them. Cato had stood, surrounded by shocked prisoners and guards, a blood-red mask and golden coat just a hint of the deadly abilities at his disposal. But he hadn't used them. God only knew how many people he'd have been able to kill before being subdued. But he directed none of this power at anyone else: only at himself. He smashed his head on a table, he slashed his face with a pilfered shank and he seemed to attempt to reduce his knuckles to a fine paste for all the force with which he struck them against any hard surface he could find.

Had they understood, truly understood, the level of pain that Cato felt, then the horror of those who saw his wretched state would have been far deeper. Without any pain medication at all, Cato punching someone in the face would have hurt about as much as a person breaking their finger. With what he did to himself once he found out that the Anubis Foundation had been destroyed, only those who had literally been tortured could possibly understand the sheer agony that he experienced. And through it all he chanted a mad litany:
"No Anubis, no Cato! No Anubis, no Cato! No Anubis, no Cato!"

Whether he'd passed out from pain or from blood loss was hard to say, but he did eventually pass out. Only then was he able to be dragged to an infirmary, and at the very least patched up. The warden put a call into a friend of a friend, who promised that he would see what he could do about getting Cato transferred, but until then, he was their problem.

He didn't wake up until about seven the following morning, but though his eyes opened he was stonily silent. Occasionally he seemed to be muttering to himself, but otherwise wouldn't talk to anyone. He only reacted when a doctor - seeing that he was still obviously in pain - tried to administer him with a sedative, drawing blood from the man with his teeth. No-one much cared to relieve his suffering after that.

It was astonishing, really, that Cato had lasted this long. He was an artificial person, and not even a serious attempt at one. With the constructed personality that he'd attempted to implant into Sophie, Schiffer had spent months of sleepless nights poring over it, perfecting every minute detail, every possible flaw that he could correct. He'd obsessed over it, become a fanatic in pursuit of his foolish goal, had worked himself half to death for it - and this was scarcely an exaggeration, since he'd actually been briefly hospitalised after collapsing from exhaustion. But his first test, Cato Pict? He'd thrown him together in a weekend. The only thing that had prevented Pict from collapsing into total, shrieking psychosis was that he'd been given an anchor, something nice and simple to hold it all together, and to give him purpose: absolute, unshaking loyalty to the Anubis Foundation. The Anubis Foundation which had just been destroyed in a nuclear fireball.

So now he just lay there, staring at the ceiling, feeling as he came apart at the seams. It was surprising how aware he was of what was happening to him: he actually guessed the long and short of why he'd suddenly gone insane. The pain helped: it gave him something to focus on, held his tattered ego together. But his cognisance of his madness did not lessen it. If he hadn't been straitjacketed he'd have been trying to claw his own eyes out. His hyper-acute senses were a source of pain in and of themselves: he could hear the scratching of every cockroach, the growling of his nurse's less than healthy bowels, and the sound of one of the guards chewing gum with his mouth open - squashing, slurping, squelching. It was torture.

"I don't know why!" Cato's ears picked something else up, someone approaching the infirmary. He could smell that it was someone important, from the musky odour of expensive aftershave, and the authoritative tone of their voice. "Frankly, I don't care why. Maybe they're going to take custody of him. It doesn't really matter." The conversation, annoyingly, ended there, but the speaker entered the infirmary a moment later. To Cato's surprise, it was the deputy warden, flanked by two of the prison's burliest guards.

"There's someone here to see you, Pict," the deputy warden said.
The blond flashed a smile. "Someone wants to see the bedlam, huh? Well tough shit! I don't want to talk!"
"And I'm not asking." He snapped his fingers, and the two guards unbuckled Cato from the bed, hauled him up to his feet. Holding him by the shoulders, they frogmarched him towards the door. It seemed like he was under their control - after all, he was straitjacketed and though he was pretty strong, he wasn't superhumanly so - but just as he got near the deputy warden, he kicked one of his handlers in the knee joint. They relaxed their grip in surprise, and twisted himself round, wrenching himself out of both guard's grips. He kicked the first in the stomach, headbutted the other, and then bore down on the deputy warden.
"Jesus Christ!" the man exclaimed, and tried to run, but Cato tripped him, and he fell hard on his back. Looming over him, the half-man gave the warden a look that would haunt his nightmares for days. He screamed. That is, Cato screamed, a blood-curdling yell of a creature hovering on the edge of nothingness. The warden nearly fainted.

But the guards were hurt, not crippled, and they seized Cato again, hauling him with all their strength away from their superior, who shakingly collected himself. No-one, however, found Cato the slightest trouble from that point on. It was if he was just letting them know that he didn't have to co-operate with them if he didn't want to. But it seemed that he did want to, or didn't care, and he was taken to an interview room, and restrained into a chair with such security that they might have been about to electrocute him. They left the room, leaving Cato alone for a moment, though watched by several cameras. His face ran through a smorgasbord of different expressions within a few seconds. Anger; confusion; fear; dismay; pleasure; fear; agony; despair; hatred; sadness; fear; depression; fear -

Suddenly, Cato caught something on the air. His eyes narrowed, his body went still. He smelt something he'd not got wind of since he'd been locked up. He could smell a woman: a young woman, at that. He could smell her brand of perfume, the scent of her skin - he could even tell that she'd had sex not too long ago. He panted, and only now did his restraints cause him any displeasure.
"Thank you," the young woman said as she entered, speaking to someone just outside. She was lovely: dressed in a very fetching little blazer and pencil skirt combo, the figure-hugging skirt's hem stopping just above her knees. Modestly tall black heels accentuated the smooth curve of her calves, and now to go along with all the insanity rattling around in Cato's psyche was an unhealthy dose of lust.

The young woman sat down just across from him, frowning deeply. She looked at him with a mixture of confusion and distaste, as if she didn't want to be there. No, not quite - more like she didn't understand why she was there. She crossed her legs, and Cato's enhanced vision got a tantalising glimpse of the skin of her thighs.
"What are you offering?" he hissed. "You're here to offer me something. You're here to butter me up with your pretty legs and your sweetness, and your bounciness..." He grinned fiercely. "There's nothing you can give me! I'm a dead man! I'm literally dead! There's nothing left of Cato Pict! No wants! No needs! Nothing! So fuck off, or strip for me, otherwise I don't want to talk to you!"
"I'm not here to talk to Cato Pict." The woman brushed her mousy-brown hair to the side. She thought for a second, as if she couldn't remember exactly what she was going to say. But she quickly recalled. "Anubis is gone. I'm here to talk to Charles. Peter Schiffer needs the code."

As soon as she said this, Cato sort of went limp. His eyes went hollow, his breathing ragged. Suddenly the terrible pain he was in was as nothing. There was just a kind of ringing in his ears. And something, somewhere deep inside him, something which had been utterly crushed and torn apart - a tiny piece of it woke up. And it screamed: Cato screamed, his tattered identity on the verge of breaking down completely, a mad howl no human throat should have been able to produce.

As she sat across from him, watching the psychotic gibbering and bellowing, Sara began to regret coming to see him.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"What did he say?!" Sophie clutched the receiver of the payphone tightly. "Nova? Are you there?"
"...yes." Her voice came through very quietly. "I couldn't make head or tail of it, but..."
"What?"
"He said...he said 'it doesn't break the shell', then '42398179-I, unlock.' He said that about five or six times."
"What the hell?"
"It took me almost an hour to get that much out of him. Well? Does that prove it? Does that prove what you were saying?"
"I...I don't know."
"Surprise, surprise," Sara spat, tears welling up in her eyes. She felt horrifically guilty that she'd ever listened to them.
"Did he say anything else?" Sophie asked. "Anything at all?"
"Well at that point he started trying to gouge his eyes out on the edge of the table, so the conversation got cut kinda short. You'd better keep your promise. You'd better turn yourselves in."
"We will, just -" Sophie was met with a dull buzz: Sara had hung up. Sophie turned around, saw Mariko waiting anxiously.
"What did she say?"

Sophie told her. "Does that mean anything to you?"
"42398179-I...no, it doesn't mean anything," Mariko squeezed her eyes in frustration. "What do we do with that?"
"I don't know," Sophie said. "Maybe nothing." She tried to think what Schiffer would have done. A code...what code? What would he do - what could he do if he wanted to act against Hades? "It doesn't break the shell..."
And then it clicked.

Sophie shoved quarters into the payphone, furiously dialled the number of the one she'd had Sara use. It dialled, but this time Sara didn't answer. "Shit!" Sophie hissed.
"What's going on?" Mariko asked. "What are you doing?"
"I need to speak to Nova again." She dialled one more time - and to her relief, an upset voice answered.

"What the hell do you want?"
"How did he say 'it doesn't break the shell'?"
"What? What are you talking about?"
"Just answer my fucking question! Did he say it how I said it, or did he say it like...like...'it doesn't break the shell'? Did he stress the word 'break'?"
"What?"
"Sara, fucking please!"

Nova thought. She recalled in as much detail as she could the gibbering madness of Cato Pict, amidst the sobs and bellows and foul things about the female sex, how could she remember something like that? Except, now that she thought about it, among all the other strangeness...yes, it had stood out.
"Yes," Sara said. "He emphasised it just like you did."
"Thank you." Sophie hung up, and the two began moving quickly away from the payphone.
"I hope that was worth it," Mariko hissed.
"It was," Sophie replied. She clasped her hands together. "It's a gamble...if he doesn't...oh, god damn it, it's a hell of a gamble, Mariko - but it's our only shot. It's the only thing I can think of - and if it works..."
"Then what?"
"Then," Sophie said, clenching a fist, "we win."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Where have you been?" Jackson said, trying not to sound too paranoid, as Sara entered.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I had a migraine - I overslept."
"Oh, geez, I'm sorry, Sara," Jackson said. "I didn't know you got migraines."
"I don't get them often," she said. He touched her hand sympathetically, and she managed to smile. It was not easy.

They were all assembled. Even Tobias was there - his self-inflicted wounds had looked a lot worse than they actually were, after all.
"We need to prepare some kind of official response," Derek said. "The police have been able to keep Mariko and Enhancegirl's...status out of the public eye so far, but only because most press attention has been on Carson City. We'll need to go public if we can't find them today."
"We'll just tell the truth," Jackson said. "As for us, I think we need to leave the search in the hands of the police. We'll be the ones to bring them in, but if you guys couldn't find them," he said, addressing Shane and Mark, "then I think we can safely say that this is outside the Pauldron's skill set."
"Then what the hell are we supposed to do?" Shane asked. "Play with ourselves while the police do all the work?"
"No. I want you, Nova and Chrys to go up to San Bernadino. There's a turf war going on between two gangs: normally we'd leave stuff like that to the local cops and capes, but they're both richer than you'd expected. They've recruited some heavy superhuman muscle."
"What about me?" Mark asked. He was unused to being given assignments without Shane.
"Go to Seacouver," Jackson said. "People might try to take advantage of the fact that Enhancegirl and Spectra are out of action. There was a noticeable spike in incidents when they took that week off."
"Fine."

Normality approached. It was a tense, tentative normality, but it was normality nevertheless. He felt his authority restored. Shane kept giving him suspicious looks, but otherwise it might have been a normal day, but for Mariko's absence. He hadn't relaxed: he couldn't relax until Mariko and Sophie were dead. But he felt more in control. A new anxiety was that Arachna had failed to report back after she'd said that she'd found the two heroines, but that was for Geode, Plasmarr's replacement as Hades' top lieutenant, to deal with. Until the devastating damage to his armour was healed, Jackson couldn't risk using Hades to control things more directly. Jackson was about to give more orders, when Derek's phone rang. Jackson glanced at him, surprised that anyone outside that room would have any reason to call him, but saw a look of shock in his underling's eye. He took his phone from his ear, pressed something on its screen, and then put it down in the centre of the room. They all looked at him in confusion, and he explained: "She asked me to put her on speakerphone."
"Who?"
"Spectra."

The atmosphere in the room took something of a change. The hubbub was such that it took them a few moments to realise that Mariko was speaking.
"Sophie and I," she repeated, "are prepared to turn ourselves in."
"Mariko!" Shane shouted. "For god's sake, woman, where have you been? Are you and Sophie - are you alright?"
But Mariko, touched as she was by his concern, did not answer him. "We'll surrender ourselves to the Pauldron in Ferndale," Mariko said. "Only there."
Jackson had to stifle a shout. They knew. They knew about how his powers worked! It was some kind of trap: out there, if he was there long enough, his power would dim to the point where even Spectra could defeat him. "No," Jackson said, and the others looked at him with incredulity. "It has to be a trap!" he said, in a harsh whisper.
"Fine. You name the place. But if you do, then you must all be there. All of you. And no police. I have Enhancegirl with me: we will know."
"Kortan Industrial Park," Tobias said. "It's been empty for years. No civilians," he added, looking at Jackson. "And right in the middle of Seacouver," he thought. His leader would be at full strength there.
"...very well," Mariko replied. "You have one hour."
"What happens if we take more than an hour?" Chryseis asked. "What are you going to do?"
"Didn't you hear what Jackson told you?" Mariko replied. "We've been brainwashed. If you're not there within the hour, Sophie and I will slit each other's throats." And with that, she hung up.

The room was filled with shouting, clamouring. Instantly Shane and Derek had got into an argument about what to do. Mark signed desperately at Jackson, trying to get his attention. Nova just...shuddered. She had hedged her bets: helping Mariko to salve her conscience, to try to prove that Jackson was all he appeared. Now she felt that whatever happened was her fault.
"We have to go! Now!" Eventually, Shane's voice had broken out over the tumult. "There is no choice. Jackson, for fuck's sake, let's get going."
"Of course!" he said, getting up quickly. "This isn't one of those times where you weigh up the options. We're going. Now." The character he'd constructed, the noble Imperion, would not have picked any other option. He had trapped himself. If he tried to be tricky, to delay until he could send people to kill Sophie and Mariko, then he'd all but confirm Mariko's accusation.

And, thirty-five minutes later, they were there. They'd taken the Pauldron's helicopter, landing it in the widest open space in the disused, sprawling complex that they could find. If they'd been worried about locating the two among all the rust and junk, they needn't have been. They were there. In silver and gold, they stood together. Waiting. They'd been holding hands until they heard the helicopter.

Jackson got out first. He saw them there, their eyes like green flames burning him. God, he was so close. He could just - just one blast of his electrical powers and they'd be dead! But he couldn't. He had to arrest them - and god only knew what they were planning. He was nervous, more nervous than he'd been in his entire life - but there was no other way.
"Turn your powers off!" he shouted, as the rest of the Pauldron scrambled out, spreading in an arc. Chryseis notched an arrow, Derek tapped his fingers on his sword. Mark and Shane were both carrying one of the stasis hoods they'd used on Lord Delirious. Nova kept glancing from Jackson to the two lovers, almost panting from the tension of it.
"They're wrong...they must be wrong...this is all some terrible misunderstanding," Nova thought. "Please, God..."

"I said turn your powers off!" Jackson repeated. The two heroines glanced at each other. Mariko nodded, and then they obeyed.
"Get on your knees," Derek ordered. Again, they obeyed.
"Don't try anything," Jackson said. "Put these on." He tossed them both a pair of handcuffs, and they obediently shackled themselves. This only made him more suspicious - and quite rightly.

Sophie gulped. She didn't know exactly how it worked. She didn't know if it would work. It all came down, really, to a flip of the coin. She didn't know if it would matter, but she was waiting until Jackson was as close as possible. He seemed aware of this, but he approached them nevertheless. He gestured to Mark and Shane, and they handed him the stasis hoods. He approached the two slowly, gingerly - watching for any sign of betrayal.

And there, in an empty industrial park, under a grey Seacouver sky, Sophie knelt next to her lover, facing the greatest enemy she had ever known. Victory or defeat, life or death, lay within the choices she would make in the next few seconds. With a sort of thrill of destiny, Sophie cast the die, and spoke the words that would seal her fate: "42398179-I, unlock."

Nothing happened. "No...no! 42398179-I, unlock!"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jackson said.
"42398179-I, unlock! 42398179-I, unlock!" Sophie shouted. But each time, no effect materialised. "Oh god...he doesn't have it - or - or I was totally wrong in the first place...what have I done?!"

But he did have it. She was not wrong. She'd been exactly right: the code was designed to expose Imperion, by forcibly activating the Hades armour, and showing what he really was. He was carrying it within him, healing it from the grievous damage Mariko had inflicted on it the day before, but he sensed what was happening. He felt the armour about to manifest, and he said with utter softness 'Armour Down' every time Sophie used the code. In fact, he'd been caught off guard, and the armour had started to manifest for just a moment the first time, but only someone with an eye like Enhancegirl's would have been able to perceive it. He stifled its manifestation. Before Sophie could say it again, he shoved the stasis hoods over her and Mariko's heads with terrifying speed, their handcuffs preventing them from fighting back, and he activated them. Instantly, they began to fill with pomegranate smelling fluid, that would keep Sophie and Mariko helpless and unconscious for as long as he needed - or until they could be killed.

Ironically, Mariko's threat against herself made Jackson's ruthlessness appear warranted to most of his allies. It was quite fair that he was being so harsh in his actions if they were prepared to cut their own throats. Softly, Jackson breathed a sigh of relief. This time, he really had won. He turned around - and found that there was a sword at his throat.
"Don't speak. Don't open your mouth." Panhellius said. His eyes were wide, as wide as if he were being electrocuted. "I will see." He breathed out, shivering, quaking. For indeed, it would have taken an eye like Enhancegirl's to see the armour manifest the first time: and Panhellius just happened to have such an eye. His arm would have been useless without it. With a rage that could scarcely be described, Jackson closed his mouth.
"42398179-I, unlock."

Chryseis covered her hand with her mouth, feeling physically ill. Shane bellowed with shock and rage. Mark just stood, dumbly. Tobias began to run, and Sara...Sara screamed. She screamed like she was being stabbed, falling to her knees in horror. There he stood, clad in the armour that had haunted Sara's nightmares for months, with those claws that had run over her helpless body, the blank mask that had come to embody terror in her mind - and it was Jackson.
"Armour down," Jackson said, softly. He looked Derek in the eye, and saw that his lieutenant was crying. To his humiliation, Jackson realised that he was crying as well. Still with his sword at his leader's throat, Derek moved around him, and swiftly cut the stasis hoods to pieces, freeing Sophie and Mariko. For a moment, as she regained her sight, Sophie was about to give a whoop of triumph. But she couldn't. She saw the rest of the Pauldron, saw Nova howling in an agony too terrible to imagine, and despite herself, she felt guilty.

Jackson fell to his knees, his ears ringing. It was over. It was over. They'd tricked him. They'd beaten him. Years of secrecy - and he was exposed - it was over!
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, looking up at his former comrades. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry." He stood up. "I didn't want to..." He looked at Sara, and her horror sent pangs into his heart.
"Get a stasis hood!" Derek ordered. "Hurry!"
"I didn't want to," Jackson said. "But now I don't really have any choice, do I?" As tears streamed down his face, he began to crackle with lightning. "Now I have to kill you."
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

"Talk to me about your son," Timothy Wingfield asked. He was sitting across from a short, overweight man with a hefty paunch and sort of pouty sneer on his face. He was an exceptionally limited individual, a terrible narcissist. He'd had such appetites, such desires - and now he was stuck in a mental hospital, paralysed with repeated panic attacks, and no longer capable of taking care of himself.
"My son? He's a pussy. A snivelling little candy-ass. Nothing more to say. He took everything I built for him and flushed it down the toilet."
"Is it okay for me to say that that surprises me a little?" the doctor replied. "Most people think he's pretty gallant, if nothing else."
"Let me tell you something, doctor," Ronnie said, looking very smug, pursing his thick lips, "there hasn't been a real supervillain in this country since Gammamax back in seventy-nine. Everyone knows that."
"Oh...really?"
"Everyone knows all the 'heroes' and 'villains' are in it together. Just a bunch of faggots in tights who can't get a real job, so they're just keeping the whole circlejerk going. Everybody knows it. The Supremacist was on Australian television as a children's tv presenter a year before he first appeared. He was an actor. It's all an act."
"But, isn't Jackson a pretty successful businessman? He has a 'real job', doesn't he?"
"He's a pussy!" Ronnie screamed. "All he did was steal what I earned, what I made!" He clutched his chest. "Oh, god...my heart...my heart!"

He wasn't having a heart attack, but a panic attack. He wasn't being histrionic, for once: his pain was quite real. But a sedative was enough to put him to right, though he moaned and groaned terribly as he was wheeled away. Timothy shook his head as he watched the man go. Ronnie was getting worse: more paranoid, more rambling. But there was something else as well. Now, every time he mentioned his son, or saw him, Timothy sensed fear. It wasn't something Ronnie seemed to understand. He knew he hated and was deeply envious of his son, but the fear was new.

Of course, Timothy didn't know just why Ronnie had started having panic attacks. It was, as luck would have it, exactly four years before Sophie Scott had attained her powers. Ronnie had been jealous, outrageously jealous, of his son's glory and accomplishments...and he'd wanted in. He'd wanted - demanded - an executive role at Jackson's investment firm. When Jackson had refused, he'd threatened to tell everyone that Jackson had been his attack dog. Jackson...hadn't been pleased.

A day later, Ronnie found himself in the middle of the road, a good forty miles from his house, beaten within an inch of his life. He also had absolutely no memory of what had happened between his conversation with Jackson and his awakening. Eventually he managed to get to a hospital, and they patched him up. His first visitor was his son, and the moment he walked in, Ronnie had had his first panic attack. And then, a day after that, a certain Peter Schiffer had been given a raise by his criminal boss. He had no idea why. He'd been ordered to erase his own memories as well.

None of this was known, or would ever be known, to Timothy. Still, he did wonder sometimes what kind of person could emerge from being raised by a pathological narcissist like Ronnie. Perhaps it made sense: as an act of rebellion Jackson became the best, most decent person he possibly could. But sometime, when Jackson visited, Timothy sensed...he wasn't even sure what he'd call it, but it scared him. Then he wondered if Jackson might not be too good to be true.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sara heard shouting. She heard raised voices, bellowing. Jackson said something, not very loud, but she didn't hear it. Her ears were ringing. Someone was screaming and it took Sara a few seconds to realise that it was herself. Images kept replaying in her mind. Seeing Hades for the first time. Being caught, chloroformed, kidnapped. Hades running his hands all over her, fondling her, paying so much more attention to her than to the others. Drugged and tormented and humiliated...and that awful, awful mask.

Except the mask was not so awful, was it? As if Sophie's code had been some kind of telepath's trick, her mind removed Hades' mask, showing his true face. Jackson's face as he'd done all those things to her. And then she'd broken down, and he'd held her. They'd confessed to each other, and he'd kissed her. He'd come to her home, and they'd -

"Sara!" The hoarse bellow broke her from her reverie. She awoke from her waking nightmare to find a very good reproduction of a classic Western. A ring of powerful superhumans surrounded Imperion: Panhellius, still in sword-range, but unsure of whether his legs were fast enough to assist his arm, and still with tears in his eyes; Askancepoint, filled with sound, but terribly unwilling to use it; Chryseis - so stunned that her ally of long years had tricked her so utterly that she hadn't even unhooked her bow; Spectra, shaking with relief that she had more allies than just Sophie, yet unsure of whether to attack directly, or to hold back and charge her soul-light; and Fahrenheit, itching to rush in, but enraged and shocked - still in a state of disbelief, too much so to attack yet.
"This entire time...this entire time you've been - been playing us for fools?!" He half-wept, half laughed. "What could you possibly want that would be worth all this...this..." He couldn't find the word.
"Power."

Enhancegirl had spoken. Clad in gold, aflame with agility and skill, she stood just in front of her beloved. While Spectra was cautious, Sophie actually advanced on Jackson, who still stood at the centre of a ring of heroes.Though she was by no mean ignorant of the danger Jackson posed, she could not help but feel a sort of heat inside her. It felt a little like humiliation, in a way, but...outwards, rather than inwards. A sort of burning vindication, with all the rush, but devoid of the pleasure. She wasn't happy about it, but she was right. She had proved it.
"That's all he wanted," she went on. "Power. Literally: everything he's done has been to bring more superhumans to Seacouver, Renning and Sacramento." As Sophie spoke, Jackson turned his head slightly. She tried to meet his gaze, but he wasn't quite looking at her. "It makes him stronger when there's more superhumans around him. The Penitentiary Supreme, the CRO - oh, and running the Anubis Foundation from behind the scenes -" - this produced further yells of incredulous shock - "- it's all been to bring in more superhumans. Even when he kidnapped me and the others, it was all just theatre to bring in more superheroes!"

There was a heavy silence. Panhellius, sword at the ready, was still poised to attack. He'd only moved from his combat stance slightly, to wipe shameful tears from his eyes. The silence was not broken, because the next man to speak was utter in his silence.
"Jackson." Mark, having helped Chryseis to her feet, walked slowly towards his leader. "You haven't even tried to deny it. You haven't even tried."
"What would be the point?" Jackson replied. "There's nothing I can do to -" Suddenly he lashed out. He'd had no intention of finishing the sentence. He let loose a torrent of lightning at Mark, and in the half-second before it reached him, Askancepoint's last glimmers of doubt were eliminated, as he realised that his boss, his leader...his friend was trying to kill him.

But there were different kinds of power. Jackson's, despite his name, was that of a beast: it all came from within, to attack, to harm, to restrain. But there were powers like Hydrocita's: the ability to marshal that which surrounded one. In her case it was water that would answer any command she gave with total obedience. Shane Shackleton, on the other hand, had under his boot-heel one of the fundamental properties of all matter: friction. The air around Mark shed at once its capacity for friction when Fahrenheit commanded it, and Jackson's lightning sputtered and died.
"Coward! You'd try to kill my best friend like that?! You fucking are Hades, aren't you?!"

Jackson was surprised. He knew a little about the physics of lightning, but hadn't realised that it would be quite so ineffective against Fahrenheit's powers. Shane stood before him, his hand raised, fingers slightly curled. He stood in a strong, confident stance. He was shocked, but not shaken, upset, but not broken. No hidden weakness had been exposed by Jackson's betrayal, no psychological flaw had been exposed. Shane's feelings were exactly proportionate to the terrible situation in which he found himself. He was utterly sure of his own strength, a true master of his abilities, and a master of himself. He was, Jackson realised, the only member of the Pauldron for whom he had any real respect. But that came with a corollary. Jackson now realised that despite his efforts to make sure the Pauldron only contained superhumans who were powerful, but not truly mighty like himself or Zjarrus, Fahrenheit was a genuine threat. He'd have to go -

ZZZZZZZZAATTTT!

That was the only way one could have rendered the sound that it made when Panhellius struck Imperion with his sword. In the time it would have taken an ordinary fencer to make a single thrust, Panhellius struck Imperion three-thousand, one-hundred and four times in the face, neck, and chest. To Imperion it didn't feel like a multiplicity of blows, but a single thunder-strike, sending him reeling. Fearful, he touched where he thought Panhellius had struck him, but he wasn't bleeding.
"I trusted you," Derek said. "I - you manipulated me for years!" He swung again, but this time Imperion caught the blow on his arm, and he held firm against it.
"And it was really easy, too," Jackson hissed. "You put on a cold front, but you're as eager to please as a puppy. You're too joyless to be a child, and too pathetic to be a man!"
"Is that..." Panhellius felt like he'd been struck harder than Jackson. "Is that what you've...thought of me all this time?"
"Yes, Derek." Jackson was choking on a black spite. He had been sorry at first. He did not want to kill his teammates...but seeing them look at him like this, seeing them turn on him...as illogical as he knew it to be, he felt like they were betraying him. Increasingly, he wanted not just to thwart them, but to hurt them. "It's why I chose you. You're pretty powerful, but you're completely manipulable." He struck out with a lightning bolt, but he hadn't seen the tall, radiant maiden dashing to Panhellius' side, deflecting his blast with subtle precision. Imperion grimaced as Spectra, the woman who had humiliated Hades, who had proved superior to all his expectations of her, stood before him.

"There is only one man here," Mariko said, "that I would describe as pathetic." She stood beside Panhellius, clothed in light. There were no tears in her eyes: only righteous fury, purer than Panhellius' shamefaced indignation, purer than Sophie's vengeful grief. First and foremost, Mariko wanted justice done. Chryseis saw this, from a little way off, and even in her horror she found a little space for admiration for her comrades. As for the archer, she felt...old. She didn't look a day older than Mariko, but she was older, older than Jackson, older even than Tobias. She wished that she'd retired years ago. She wished that she'd never left her husband. She wished that she'd kept Thaddeus' child. She was tired of this life, and knew that whatever happened that day, she would leave it behind. Only now, decades of good opinion and admiration from everyone who'd heard of her...it would be dashed on the rocks of disgrace. And that was how her story would end.

Jackson didn't realise that she was contemplating her fate so forlornly. He saw her moving in the direction the helicopter, and thought that she was obeying Panhellius' command, which had been somewhat drowned in the shouting and accusations, to get a stasis hood. He leapt, therefore, sailing over the heads of his enemies - for they were his enemies now - and landed directly on top of the helicopter.
"No-one's getting anything," he said. "No-one's running away. I told you - I told you I'd have to kill you!" Surrounding his fist with electricity, he smashed down. The helicopter exploded violently, its fuel tank instantly ignited. The others couldn't get close in time, and Chryseis was hurled into the air by the explosion. Fahrenheit slowed her descent with his powers, and caught her, but she - certainly the weakest of all the superhumans there present - was badly hurt. Jackson might have killed her, one of his oldest and dearest friends - and he didn't seem to care at all. They'd fought together for years. Eaten together, laughed, joked, talked about their personal lives - Jackson had even asked her advice about how to propose to Anya.
"Why did you have to get suspicious?!" he shouted. "Why couldn't you just do what I told you?!" He clutched his head, wanting to shriek and bellow and tear his hair out - keeping his composure was beyond difficult. But traces of his crazed desperation bled through, and the Pauldron stared up at him in astonished disgust.

If Imperion was going to have derived pleasure from seeing Chryseis fall, then it would have been dashed quickly. The explosion was like a starter pistol. The tension had snapped, and it was now unquestionable what was happening: the Pauldron were in open battle against Imperion! Jackson found himself assailed by deafening sonic blasts, blinding beams of light. A swordsman whose arm had a decent claim to being the fastest object in the history of the world bore down on him. Four did not attack: Nova, who was still paralysed with horror; Enhancegirl, who could not think of a way to assist in the battle with her limited strength, but who still hovered just on the periphery of the combat; Chryseis, who was injured and dazed; and Fahrenheit. He, surely, had the least excuse: he'd caught Chrys, sure, but he'd seen she was alive, and he'd skated away to prop her up behind the sturdiest shelter he could find. He had every reason to leap into battle, for surely his abilities would be able to do something to Imperion.

Except there was one question that suggested itself rather urgently to Shane's mind.
"Where the fuck did Cougarman go?"
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Cougarman had not had much of an idea, at first, about what he was doing. When Imperion's armour - Hades' armour - had first appeared, his instinct had been simply to run. It was just fear. Imperion was exposed: all was lost! Surely he would be going down with him. In fact, he'd doomed himself by making up that lie about Mariko and Sophie. Even if Jackson tried to leave him out of it - not that Tobias thought he would - there'd be no way for him to escape.

But loyalty took over from cowardice. It didn't stop him from running, but it got him to whip out his phone, and call a number he was never supposed to call.
"H-hello?"
"Amber silo!" Tobias did not normally - did not ever - have dealings with Hades' goons, even the top lieutenants like Geode and Plasmarr. The code was the only way for them to know to whom they were talking. As it happened, Geode was so new at his position that he didn't recognise the emergency code. Mercifully, Plasmarr, having escaped from the Penitentiary Supreme during the battle between Zjarrus and the Supremacist, was on hand to take the reigns.
"Where?" he barked, determined to be decisive.
"Kortan Industrial Park. The, uh, the Pauldron has turned on itself. Lord Hades wants you to take advantage. Bring as many as you possibly can, do you understand? I mean everyone, see? Drudge up every lowlife you can, and get them here now - I don't care if all they can do is levitate a feather, make sure they're superhumans - all of them!"

When he made the call, the Pauldron were still in the first shock of the revelation. The battle was already well under way when Tobias' feet slipped out from under him, and he smacked his forehead onto the concrete pavement. He turned his head, and gave a sort of shriek.
"So, Enhancegirl and Spectra attacked you, did they?!" Shane skidded into view, gracefully increasing the friction beneath him until he could break into a hasty trot. "I knew you were a liar! My only mistake was thinking that Jackson was covering for you, rather than the other way around."
"Fooled you, didn't I?" Tobias said. "Fooled all of ya! Well, I guess you didn't really know me for long. Yup, I was already -"
"You're stalling," Shane said. "I'd quite like to get back to dealing with the actual problem, thank you, so turn over, and I'll handcuff you and be done with it."
"You're the boss," Tobias muttered. He turned around, permitted to move by the master of friction. He put his hands behind his back, and Shane detached a small, but sturdy pair of handcuffs. Just in case, he stole the friction almost completely from the ground beneath Tobias' feet. If he tried to move, he'd fall flat on his face. At least, that was the idea.

The instant Shane touched Tobias, Cougarman rocketed backwards, like he'd kicked off from the floor. But that was impossible - he'd have slipped! Shane didn't have time to think: Tobias crashed into him, and kept going, pushing him back until he crushed Shane against the side of a steel container.
"AAUUGHH!!" Shane was hit with far more even than the full weight of a grown man. He felt terrible pressure on his ribs, though they didn't break. He lashed out to try and roast Tobias by increasing the friction in his bloodstream, but he had to touch him for that, and Tobias sprang away from him.

"Come up with a stupid enough gimmick," Tobias said, standing tall as Shane forced himself not to collapse, "and people just don't ask too many questions. 'Oh, right, he jumps around like a cougar, I get it!' No-one ever asks 'how'."
"Whoop-de-shit." Shane stood back up, readying himself for battle. "So you can fly, huh?" It was the only explanation he could think of. He couldn't have pushed himself or jumped, or Fahrenheit's powers would have made him slip.
"Not exactly." He popped the joints in his neck, drawling, trying to take as long as possible about everything. "The whole, uh, 'control my centre of gravity' thing...kind of a misnomer."
"Oh?"

But before Tobias could explain, both men stumbled, as there was a great tremor under their feet. Gravely concerned for his friends, Shane looked back at the battle he'd left, and Tobias immediately took advantage. He created a gravitational attraction between himself and the steel surface immediately behind Shane, and started shooting towards him - this was his true power, the source of his uncanny agility. Shane reacted, alright, and increased the friction in the air around Tobias, burning him badly - but friction didn't affect gravity, and Shane took the full force of the blow.

"Unnghh!" He was hurled backwards, slamming into the steel container behind him so hard that his vision went dark for a moment. Cougarman launched himself again, but this time Fahrenheit was better prepared. He kicked himself off from where he was standing, gliding on a frictionless slipstream. Cougarman shot out at him again, like a cannonball, but the slightest of taps and Shane totally changed direction. The two of them danced around each other for some time, neither of them able to close in on the other. Several times they came near to direct combat again, but Cougarman could change direction so sharply, so erratically, and Fahrenheit was so slippery, that they could have avoided each other for hours.

But while Cougarman was making an earnest attempt to kill Shane, Shane was now the one using delaying tactics. He hadn't quite worked out the mechanics of Tobias' powers, and didn't want to risk a straightforward attack until he did. But it didn't take him long to notice that Tobias only ever shot at him when there was a surface or crate or disused piece of machinery directly behind him.

"I get it..." If Tobias had been able to make gravity act on him however he wanted, he would have been able to simulate flight. No - he could only make a gravitational attraction between himself and another object - obviously it had to be quite a large object, large enough that Tobias wouldn't risk pulling it towards him. He skidded to a halt, giving Tobias a target he couldn't resist. The traitor immediately turned on him, and hurled himself towards Fahrenheit, moving fast enough to kill him. Shane heard the metal behind him creaking slightly, and grinned that his theory had been confirmed. Cougarman rocketed towards him, and with the slightest of adjustments, Shane moved out of the way. So subtle was the change, though, that right up until he got within arm's reach of Shane, Tobias was sure that he was going to hit him. When he realised that he was not, he reversed his power, slowing himself down so that he could attach to something else - and in that moment Fahrenheit struck.

"AAAAHHHHGHH!" Tobias screamed, his whole body burning. It had only taken a moment's contact with Shane's outstretched hand, but it was enough. Every movement of his heart, his blood - it all burned! He collapsed to his knees, utterly debilitated with agony, wheezing and groaning, even his lungs burning with every inflation. He was roasting in his own juices.
"Did you really think you could take me on, you old fuck?" Fahrenheit growled. "Maybe back in the day you were Pauldron material, but not anymore!"
"Ah, I was never up to your standards," Tobias said, forcing a smile. "I was just always good at giving people the runar - OOFF!!"
Shane had punched him in the face. Hard.
"Shut up! Shut up, you...filth!" When he'd seen Jackson transform, when he'd seen the armour appear, he'd been so stunned that he...he hadn't really processed it. Enraged, shocked, sure - but it didn't feel like enough. Now, though, he began to shake. He felt like a fool, he - he who had unmasked Gravion, who had always thought of himself as indomitable and cynical...he'd been totally taken in. If he'd punched Jackson, he'd have broken his hand, so he settled for breaking Tobias' face.

So focused, indeed, was Fahrenheit on reshaping Tobias' face as much as he possibly could, that he didn't notice quite how far they'd got from the others. Kortan Industrial Park was huge, and Tobias had managed to get pretty far before Shane caught up with him. They were quite near to one of the main entrances, where once tonnes of goods had been driven in and out in a constant stream, before everything had gone bust and Seacouver's fortunes had begun to sink. But there were people coming in now.

If Plasmarr had been willing to use anyone within their organisation, any bull-headed dullard with electrokinetic powers and a patronage relationship with Hades, he would have been able to whip up perhaps sixty superhumans at a moment's notice. But with the code Tobias had given him, he needed true loyalty. People like Arachna, Mysteria - even Griseous wouldn't have been good enough. The twenty-six that Plasmarr had summoned were like him: they worked for Hades, and only for Hades, managing his enterprises, enforcing his interests. They cowered before him and adored him in equal measure, and they would certainly have died for him.

Fahrenheit only noticed them when Tobias was close to unconsciousness.
"Shit!" He threw Cougarman aside, leaving him groaning and bleeding on the floor. He'd been right: Tobias had been stalling, and two new dangers asserted themselves in Shane's mind. None of those assembled could possibly be a match even for the weakest member of the Pauldron, but twenty-six of them? With the others trying to fight Imperion...it would all but ensure the Pauldron's deaths. And what Enhancegirl had said, about Jackson drawing power from other people...Shane didn't know if he'd get stronger as the crowd got closer, or if Jackson had already received their offering of strength, but he was quite certain of one thing. He couldn't let them get anywhere near the others.

And so, as they approached, those who were in such awe of Hades' strength that they clung like limpets to their master, they found another of his servants - though this one had just thrown off his yoke. They knew who he was, and though Plasmarr immediately started prattling about how Fahrenheit's defeat was inevitable, their numbers did not give them comfort. Shane Shackleton, Fahrenheit, the Master of Friction, stood alone before the tide - and while he breathed, it would not pass.
"Well?" he said. "Who wants to be first?"
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It wasn't as though Sophie couldn't keep up with the battle. With her senses it would have taken a great deal more for her to lose track, but she almost couldn't believe the forces involved. Panhellius' arm struck at Imperion again, and again, and at the very point of his blade, in terms of force per square inch, he commanded more strength than Zjarrus.
"AAHHHGGHHH!!" Imperion screamed, swiping at his adjutant in an earnest attempt to remove his head. He was not an artless fighter, but Panhellius had the advantage of his sword. If it had been any other weapon, the idea of Imperion's attacks being blocked would have been ludicrous, but it maintained the momentum-cancelling effects of Thaddeus Murderball's shell. And with the speed of Derek's eye and arm, he could consistently get that sword in the path of Jackson's fists.

At the same time, Askancepoint assailed Imperion with a terrible blast of sonic energy. With his skill, he managed to keep it focused entirely on Imperion, using even more power than he had against Lord Delirious. Imperion, therefore, seemed to pulse with strength that was not his own, the very air distorting around him. Askancepoint's abilities were too feeble to hurt him, exactly, but he ensured that Jackson was for all practical purposes as deaf as him, able to hear nothing but the terrible roar of Mark's powers.

Even this would not have been enough to keep Imperion from killing them, had it not been for Spectra. Unwilling to take the time to charge her soul-light, she instead opted to use her powers in the easiest way she could: shining light. As Askancepoint deafened Imperion, so too did Spectra try to blind him, shining twin beams right into his eyes. It was a surprisingly effective tactic: strong as he was, even Imperion couldn't push away light. Waves of sound pummelled him, his eyes stung, his ears rang - and Panhellius struck at him again, and again, gradually pushing him back.

Enhancegirl was in awe of them. The idea of fighting Hades, of fighting Imperion, was so daunting that many of the Pauldron's enemies had surrendered simply because Jackson had shown up. But despite the betrayal, despite the horror of it all, they were fighting him. Not just vainly, they were actually fighting him. There was something truly glorious, even on this day of tears, about watching them array their strength against him. Could she, then, do less?

Though she could not physically harm him, she could still see. Using her enhanced vision, she peered through his jade armour - an older, bulkier replacement of the set he'd lost against Zjarrus - and looked right into him. "Yes!" She'd seen something. "Panhellius!"
"What?!" Derek had dropped back, dodging an attempt at smashing his legs, allowing Mark and Mariko to keep disabling Imperion while he regathered his wits.
"He has a weak spot!" She discovered by skill that which Ivan had happened upon by chance - his injury from his battle with Captain Cur. "Just below his solar plexus," Sophie went on. "He has a...look, it doesn't matter, just hit him there, and keep hitting him."
Derek nodded, and for the first time he really looked at Mariko's girlfriend. This girl, this relative weakling, had discovered what had eluded him and the others for years. He felt terribly unworthy, a choking shame squeezing, biting at him. He wanted to give her his sword, his power, his name - for he had proved to be so unworthy of it.

But he would not add cowardice to his list of faults, and truly without fear he leapt back into battle. As well he did, for Imperion was harrying Askancepoint and Spectra with electrical energy, and hurling great chunks of concrete that he had torn from the floor beneath him. Panhellius ran straight for him, and Imperion saw him now, crouching to leap at him with all the force he could muster
"How dare you," Jackson bellowed, "how dare you fight me?! You - you should be licking my boots clean you passive, obedient, unthinking little pussy!" Suddenly it was as though Jackson saw himself through another's eyes. He heard what he sounded like. He heard who he sounded like. And as his disgust held him back, Panhellius struck him exactly where Sophie had commanded.

For Imperion to be in pain once in a single day was a rare enough thing. For him to experience pain three times, on three separate occasions, within twenty-four hours...it was unheard of. And so when Panhellius hammered him over and over again, his sword striking by the tip like some sort of superpowered woodpecker, Imperion did not...suffer, exactly, though he certainly did experience physical pain. It was more that something within him just...snapped. Even within the darkness of his heart, there was a...an innermost animal, that which his father wore so openly, which Jackson did not unleash, even as Hades. But it came out now, whether he wanted it to or not. And so he did his utmost to break the world.

"GYYYAAAUUUUUGGGHHHHH!!" Jackson bellowed, and smashed his hands down into the ground. There was a terrible sound as stone burst and splintered, and a wave of it rushed outward from the point of impact. Panhellius had already started to leap back, but he was caught in the blast, and thrown backwards. He cut away the concrete easily enough, but the sheer force of the shockwave threw him. He landed so hard that he got hairline fractures in two of his ribs, the sound of it so loud that his hearing would be noticeably worse for the rest of his life - however long or short that turned out to be.

Askancepoint weathered the storm easily, his body absorbing the shockwave, hungrily adding it to Mark's inner store of strength, while the concrete chunks were simply blasted away. Mariko had to throw up a barrier around herself, and it held, but she was momentarily fearful of her lover's fate - needlessly, as it turned out. Sophie was keeping far enough away that Jackson's attack had been no real danger to her. She nodded at Mariko to let her know she was alright, and her lover turned back to her enemy. But when she did, her anxiety over Sophie's fate grew to raw terror.

Imperion looked past Panhellius. He looked past Askancepoint, and even Spectra. He saw the woman who had undone him, and who even now was revealing his weaknesses to his enemies. He saw her, with her long, red hair, her glittering emerald eyes, her long legs, her bare shoulders revealed by a shimmering dress, her loveliness, her skill. For this first time in his life Jackson saw a beautiful woman that he did not have any wish to dominate. His desire was pure: he wanted to tear Enhancegirl's heart out of her chest, and crush it beneath his foot.
"Oh...shit!" Sophie saw the hatred in his eyes, and realised what he intended.
"Face us, Jackson!" Mariko half-shouted, half-screamed. "We're the threat! We're the ones who might be able to overpower you! Face us! Face us!" There was a momentary glimmer of relief when she saw Jackson turn to her, but it was only momentary.
"Maybe I won't win today," he said, "but I can tell you this, Mariko. No-one else will either."

With that, he leapt straight towards Sophie, lightning cascading around him, and a look of cold fury on his face. Sophie got out of his way easily enough, but he'd never intended to land on her. Rather, he stomped down, with all the power that every superhuman in Seacouver and beyond could give him. The shockwave threw Sophie off her feet, and she landed on her back, winded.
"Unhh...hhghhh!" Sophie croaked, struggling to breathe. She could see he was coming, knew that she had to move. But she couldn't, certainly not fast enough. Imperion was coming for her, and she had no illusions about his intentions now.

Mariko was running, knowing that her normal light powers wouldn't be enough, forcing up the inmost strength that she needed to access her full power. Mark was too, but Mariko's coltishly long legs carried her much faster. Yet Imperion had cleared a good hundred yards with his jump, and neither could possibly get to him in time.
"I asked you to commit suicide, Sophie," Jackson said, approaching the fallen girl. "I asked you to spare your loved ones the pain of fighting me. You should have taken my offer. Now all that's going to happen is that all of you are going to die. Starting with you!"
"Go...fuck yourself!" Sophie gasped out. If Jackson Morrow was going to be the one to hear her last words, then the least she could do was to spit them in his face.
"I hope you know how little you achieved," Jackson said, drawing back his arm. "I hope you can perceive that." And indeed, there were always things that Sophie could see that others could not. She looked up, and saw a streak of light, a twinkle that - as it approached - grew to the intensity of a star.

Nova had not been sitting on her knees, weeping, as her comrades had fought in mortal combat with Imperion. She had rocketed up into the air, high into the air, until the air thinned and there was almost nothing separating her from the stars she loved so dearly, even in the middle of the day. She wanted to fade into them, to vanish into nothingness, to be annihilated, to escape the agony in her heart - but that was not why she'd come among them. She was still Nova. She was still a member of the Pauldron. And while Jackson had shamed them all, he had taken away what that meant. So as she sobbed, as she wailed in misery, she threw her arms wide - and she let the stars' light fill her. It was not peace that she felt - how could it have been at such a time? - but something other than horror entered her soul. Shivering, Nova let herself begin to fall, to plummet down, down towards the earth. And then, filled with the stars' boon, she ignited her powers, and with energy overflowing within her, she dived.

It took seconds for her to return within sight of the Industrial Park. She saw Imperion throwing the others aside with a shockwave, and further off caught sight of Fahrenheit leaping into another battle, but it was Jackson upon whom she focused. She saw him leap past the others, and saw, closer and closer, a figure wreathed in gold. She saw what Imperion was about to do. With a battle cry that was at once a shriek of horror and a moan of agony, Nova flew faster than she ever had in her life. She tore through the air, and swept in a dizzyingly sharp arc, until - stunning the man with her speed - she appeared before Imperion, hovering over Sophie, a starlit defender - an undimmed hero.

"You can fight me," Nova said. "You can touch me. I'm stained...I'm already ruined by what you've done! But Enhancegirl...you won't touch her. You'll never touch another woman but me! Never!"
Jackson wasn't just stunned or surprised, he was...awed. Nova shone, a corona of radiant starlight, ethereal and mighty. He did want to touch her. He wanted to reach out and stroke her face. He wanted to tell her that everything would be alright. He wanted to stroke her hair, to hold her. He loved her. He really did love her. "Sara, I -"
"AAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHH!!" Drowning his voice with her scream, Nova hit him with everything she had, and damn-near attained parity with Zjarrus.

"Ahh...ahh!" Jackson gasped. He was buried in a wave of blue white light, blinded and shaken, battered and smashed. He managed to stay standing just long enough to see her in the centre of her aura of strength, howling with rage, pushing more and more of herself into it. And in that moment - just in that moment, mind - Jackson regretted not giving it all up for her.

But he couldn't stay on his feet under the onslaught, and he was thrown back. He hit the floor, but skilfully righted himself. Self-preservation restored to being his first concern, he prepared to attack Nova, but she was not alone. Askancepoint, silent as the grave, positioned himself exactly behind Jackson, and having absorbed a vast amount of noise from the raging battle, emptied it all into his former leader. Bellowing with anger, Jackson turned on the redhead, but Nova's swiftness was not to be underestimated. She rushed towards him, and struck Jackson in his disorientation with another blast, before turning out of his range, circling him, and hitting him again. As she circled, she happened to meet Mariko's eyes. Time slowed down for an instant, and a wordless understanding passed between the two heroes. And had it not been buried by rage, despair, and a feeling of terrible violation, Sara would truly have felt herself Mariko's sister in that instant.

But the instant passed, and she turned back. She peppered Imperion with blow after blow, raining down destruction upon him. She had come to the Pauldron's - to Jackson's - attention when she'd defeated a superhuman named Apollyon the Sun Man, a truly fearsome adversary, and at least twice as powerful as Nova herself. Had it been him in Jackson's place at that moment, he'd have been dead in three hits.

But it wasn't Apollyon, and this was Seacouver. Imperion, at the peak of his power, leapt out with such force that it was almost as if he could fly. He missed Nova with his first lunge, but he was clever as well as strong. He lanced out at her with a bolt of lightning, and she blocked it, but the intention had not been to hurt her, but to dazzle her vision. The bright flash when his lightning met her barrier produced just the effect he wanted, and Jackson - straining his abilities - bent an arc of lightning towards her, from behind. She saw, but didn't have time to avoid it. She raised a barrier which took much of the blast, but not all of it, and she cried out in pain as the electricity tore through her.
"AAAAHHHHHHHH!!" she screamed, her body shuddering and shaking, before she began to plummet to the ground.
"No!" Askancepoint cried silently, actually mouthing the word. But Nova was not dead. She was not even quite unconscious, and with one last sputter, she managed to soften her landing. But she lay on the ground, groaning, shivering from the lingering effects of the electricity in her body.

Imperion landed about twenty feet away from her, and there was no pleasure on his face. He took no joy in seeing Sara in pain, not like this. But she had proved herself a threat as well, and now he had to stop her. But if he knocked her out...he could probably spare her. He could put her in a stasis tank, if he killed the others. "She's defeated..." he thought. "I don't have to kill her." Except, he was wrong. She was floored, certainly, and at least temporarily incapable of fighting further, but she was not defeated. In a certain sense she'd won: for she'd achieved exactly what she'd set out to do.

"Jackson!" Spectra, gleaming in knightly silver, was the next to issue a challenge - and thanks to Nova, she was brimming with strength.
Imperion turned, and cursed, realising that he'd ignored Mariko for too long. She'd certainly had enough time to charge her soul-light: now he had that to deal with as well. Sophie stood at her side, probably to help guide and direct her lover's attacks. "You next, Mariko?" Jackson said, almost laughing. "I suppose I might have expected a noble stand from you." He dropped into a fighting stance. "Well come on then!" He had managed to best Mariko's soul-light before, but only after she'd already used it for a fairly protracted period. He was confident, but not certain: Mariko was exceptionally formidable, after all.

It was much to his surprise, then, when it was not Mariko that approached him, but Sophie. She walked with a slow, deliberate grace, her movements poised, regular. Incredulous, Jackson allowed her to get closer, watched as her speed gradually increased. She flexed her arms, kicked out her legs a couple of times, as if she were stretching. It was almost as if she actually intended to fight him. She looked at him with a steely gaze, and a fierce scowl, and picked up her pace again. She was running now: there was no question, she was actually running towards him!
"What the hell are you doing?" Jackson laughed slightly. In a sudden panic, he looked around, thinking she was pure distraction, but no - she seemed the only aggressor.
"What does it look like, shithead?" Sophie hissed. "I'm taking you on!"
"Don't insult me!" Imperion let loose a blast of lightning and, not all to surprisingly, Sophie avoided it, flipping gracefully over the attack. She paused afterwards, as if checking herself, but seemed to believe things aright. Her gold dress gleamed, and her eyes burned with hatred for her mighty enemy. She resumed her approach, as fast and as courageous as a fly, until she had come within range of his fists. He looked at her almost to say "Are you sure about this?", but decided to accept her foolishness. He struck out at her with shotgun speed, and she ducked his punch, weaving inside the length of his arms like a skilled boxer. This was all within the realm of the possible. Her punching him in the face? Again, still possible, if ludicrous and pointless.

Except, it wasn't pointless. She struck Jackson just under the chin with a bullet-fast uppercut - and knocked him directly on his ass.
"What?!" Jackson had felt it. He had felt it. It had hurt! "What the f -" And then he saw.
"My power, Jackson," Mariko said, maintaining the most absolute concentration a person could possibly manage, "and her skill. Match that if you will!"
"You won't touch them," Sophie said. "You won't do one more thing to any of them!" She was clad in gold - and not just in her dress. She was surrounded with an aura, a thin radiance of soft, sunset-coloured light. Imperion realised with rage what Mariko had done, and he roared at being embarrassed again, shaking the ground around him with the force of his anger. But Sophie did not even feel it, for Mariko had wrapped her softly in her soul.

And so Imperion rose, and he faced Enhancegirl. The two warriors both clad themselves in borrowed power, Imperion's stolen through duplicity and evil, Sophie's willingly given through tenderness and love - and battle was joined.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Kill him! Kill him!" Plasmarr bellowed, shooting blast after blast over plasma at Fahrenheit, but try as he might, he just couldn't hit him! Shane danced between them, all poise and terrific skill, and frustrated them endlessly. He seemed invincible, untouchable, like a ghost - but the reality was, he was none of those things. He panted in exhaustion as he zipped from one to the other. He tripped one, pushing him lightly, but setting up a slipstream so that he crashed into a nearby container and damn near cracked his skull open. Another tried to grab him though, lashing out with powerful tendrils, but he doomed himself: Fahrenheit simply used one of them as an anchor, pulling himself in and grabbing the superhuman by the throat. A moment's concentration, and he set the man's blood aflame, kicking him aside. Fahrenheit had killed him.

He had killed three of them already, crippled several more. The Fundaments had never been all that serious about avoiding the deaths of their enemies, and Shane was happy to resuscitate this attitude. He knew the others in the Pauldron at the very least would only kill in direst necessity, once all other options were exhausted - so elected to do it for them. He blocked the strikes from three of his electrokinetic enemies, before kicking off from a wall, and rushing right to the centre of them. He danced between the attacks of three of his enemies, a blast from Plasmarr which killed the man behind him, a flurry of diamond-like projectiles from Geode, and a gout of flame. Fahrenheit dropped to the floor, and slammed his hand against the ground. He pulled it back, and like a man tugging on the end of a curtain, he pulled out the friction from beneath the feet of all of them. They crashed to the ground, and began spinning helplessly into each other. It would have been comical had the stakes not been so high.

But Plasmarr had some cunning, and he thrust his hand, coated in plasma, into the ground, holding himself in place, before he let out another blast at Fahrenheit. Shane saw, but dodging was awkward from his current position. He grimaced, and threw himself forwards, trying desperately to get out of the way, but he wasn't wholly successful. He was burned painfully, and he fell. He managed to push himself away from his enemies, but he lost his concentration. The slipstream he'd created disappeared, and the others recovered, or at least began to. He was harried again by blow after blow, of any offensive power one could care to name. Again, he danced between them, but the pressure was terribly intense.

"You cannot beat us all, hero!" Plasmarr shouted. "Your leader has turned on you, your allies abandoned you. You have fought with valour, but pointlessly! You'll die here, Fahrenheit, and at my hand!"
And then Shane stopped. He stopped, and he looked Plasmarr dead in the eye. The young man flinched, and the others blanched. "Now you listen here, kid, and you listen well. My allies have not abandoned me - I am defending them. My leader is your leader, and I'm sure when he summoned you here he intended to get rid of you as well. But he won't get the chance." He clenched a fist, and heat began to emanate from him. "Not only can I beat you all, but I will. And you," he said, pointing at Plasmarr, "you're going to die."

And then he kicked himself off. The others moved to block him, but he didn't stop.
"I am not stopping." He knocked down one. "I am not relenting." He ducked two, making them take each other out. "I will not fail." He set the clothes of another on fire with a touch. "I cannot be stopped!" He spun into the air, his momentum letting him floor another man with a devastating punch. "I cannot be beaten!" He stole friction from under another, and he hit his head on the edge of a concrete block, killing him. "And once I have stopped you -" He moved gracefully through the electrical attacks of another of his enemies, before upending them and slamming them back down into the floor. "- then I will kill Jackson Morrow!" He reached Plasmarr, kicked his ankle out from under him, and grabbed him by the throat. "You should have picked a better master." And with that, he set Plasmarr's blood, his stomach acid, his joints, everything within him that moved caught fire, the friction so intense and unbearable that Plasmarr didn't even scream before he passed out. He died there, in terror, and ignominy.

Roaring with passionate bloodlust, Fahrenheit advanced on the others, but he had put the fear of God into them. Those that lived and could walk grabbed those that couldn't, and they ran in terror of the Master of Friction. He let them run. They were dealt with, and now he saw only Imperion.
"Shane." The casual, almost jovial way that his name was spoken caught him off-guard, and when he turned he didn't expect attack. But attack was what he got. He saw Tobias rushing towards him, saw the knife in his hand. He was moving so fast that Shane didn't have the time to stop him, or to move. He raised his arms, and tried to burn Tobias with friction, but it was too late.

But then the perversion of gravity ended, and Tobias dropped like a stone to his knees, all momentum gone.
"What the hell?" Fahrenheit jumped back, fearing some new trick, but finding none. He looked into Tobias' eyes, and saw shock. Cougarman opened his mouth, and a little blood trickled out. "Jackson," he said, quite clearly, "don't...stop..." He fell forward on his face, dead. There was an arrow sticking out of his back.

In decades of being a superhero, Chryseis had never killed before. She never would again. She let her bow clatter to the floor, and in utmost betrayal of herself, she left it there. She would never lift it from that moment on. In final disgrace, she looked at Shane with old, sad eyes.
"Come on," she said, "let's help the others." She would have to weep later.

The two heroes rushed back towards the others, leaving Hades' servants strewn about them.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Agh!" Jackson cried out, as Sophie hit him in the throat. He lunged at her, but in a move she'd learned in her first or second judo lesson, Sophie used his strength against him, grabbing him by the wrist and underarm, and slamming him into the ground.
"Not so fun when someone can match you, is it?!" Sophie barked. Her heart pounded. Her breathing was heavy. She'd been wrong: she could feel the thrill of power, and she was feeling it now. Imperion got up, but Mark kept hitting him with sonic blasts, confusing and disorienting him. Sophie used this, leaping into the air, and snap kicked him in the face. In terms of power, Mariko's soul-light was much weaker than Imperion, but with Sophie's precision, she could direct her lover's might exactly where it would be most effective. Had the gap in strength been any less when Sophie had defeated Hammerblow? And though he was much faster than that lumbering brute, Imperion seemed to move like a glacier in her eyes, and she danced around his strikes, the soul-light shielding her from electrical attack as well. She hit him in the ankle, the underarm, the neck. She went after his eyes, throat, his ears. And whenever she could get him to move his hand away from it, she hit him hard in the same spot Panhellius and Zjarrus had exploited, and that made him howl.

Imperion's fury could not be calculated. Enhancegirl was fighting him, and she was running rings around him. He tried to console himself that it was really Mariko - a worthier foe - that he was really fighting, but Mariko wasn't the one vaulting over his punches and kicking him in the face. And the others were watching. Nova was watching.
"Is that humiliation you're feeling?!" Sophie yelled. She felt a kind of mania, a thrill of battle that she took no shame in. "Do you get what it's like for the women you've kidnapped? When you steal people from their own lives for your own personal fucking gratification?!"
"Spare me the moralising," Jackson said. "I - agghh!" He'd been hit in the nose, and it was embarrassingly painful.
"Why couldn't you have just been Hades? Why couldn't you have been a rich idiot by day and a - a megalomaniac by night? Do you...do you just hate good people? Is that it? Do you have to try to ruin them by making them your accomplices?!" Sophie struck again, and again, weaving with angelic grace, dancing between Imperion's vain attempts at retaliation. She struck with true viciousness now, and Imperion felt himself being pushed further and further back. "AAGHH!" Suddenly, a vicious kick to the back of his knee, in just the right spot, and he fell to that knee, growling in anger.

"Get him, Sophie!" Mariko yelled, almost shaking with anticipation. They had had another plan, one last way of striking against Jackson - but it seemed that not only hadn't it worked, but that it was unnecessary. The duplicity they had arranged was pointless - this power would undo him! "Finish him off!"
Sophie didn't need the encouragement. She hit with everything she had, all the skill she dared to use while Mariko was matching her movements. She was like a golden inferno, blazing with light and strength, screaming in righteous anger as she hit him again, and again, and again. No, it was not righteous anger - it was vengeful. "Why did you do it?" she shouted. "Why did you kill him?!" With thoughts of Cur in her mind, she struck Imperion on the chin, and he fell on his side. He saw Mariko straining to keep up Sophie's cloak of power, and tried to attack her, but Sophie stepped into the path of his electrical attack. "Don't you even think about touching her!" Sophie bellowed, and struck him in his weak spot, eliciting a yell of pain. He fell forward, and Sophie drew back her arm. "Everything you have, Mariko!" she shouted. "Give it to me now!"
"Everything she has..." Imperion's cunning mind worked quickly. He looked around, and saw a target. He hesitated - but he had no choice. He took aim at Nova, and fired. Even now, after everything, Sara felt her heart break even more when she realised that Jackson was prepared to kill her.

"Damn it!" Sophie leapt back, and to the side, blocking the attack completely, and giving an exhausted Nova enough time to move somewhere safer. Eventually, Imperion's attack fizzled, and stopped. But when it had ended, Sophie realised that her cloak of strength was gone.
"Ooohhnnn..."
Sophie heard Mariko's whimper. With horror, she realised that Mariko had done exactly as she'd asked: she'd given her all the strength she'd had left, and Jackson had manipulated Sophie into wasting it. The beautiful maiden fell primly to her knees, her eyes fluttering. She had nothing left, and was on the point of passing out.
"No!" Sophie cried, robbed of Mariko's strength. She looked at Imperion, and her horror grew. He was smiling. He turned to Mariko, the gorgeous, long-legged maiden in her bodysuit so tight that it might as well not even have been there. She was exactly the kind of woman he liked: strong, in her way, but with weakness to exploit. But he had no intention of seizing her for his own. Ideally, Sophie would jump into the path of the lightning, and he waited a moment to give her an opportunity to do that. But he was happy to kill Mariko now as well, and he let fly his power.

Or rather, he let it fly about a foot and a half before it faded into nothingness. "What the - ah!" Jackson suddenly slipped, and fell on his back. He tried to get up, but he slipped again. With rage, he turned round to see that Fahrenheit had returned. He was bleeding, bruised, and burned - but his powers still worked just fine.
"This is over, Jackson!!" Shane screeched. "I'm going to roast you alive, do you hear me?!"
"You can try!" Jackson did the same trick as Plasmarr, or near enough, plunging his hand into the ground, and then hurling concrete at Shane. But Shane saw the attack coming a mile away, and he easily skated around the chunks of concrete. He skated in a dizzying parabola, so fast that the eye found him hard to follow, until he was close enough to Jackson to start affecting his internal friction. At the same time, Askancepoint attacked again, joining battle with his old comrade, burying Jackson in sound before Shane burned him from within.

Shane had never fought Hades as Hades. He had never experienced the unique horror of that terrifying presence. To him, he was fighting Jackson, whom he had known for years, and of whose abilities he was quite well aware. So when he drew in breath, deeply, Shane didn't think anything of it. He heard someone - it was both Sara and Sophie, in fact, yelling at him but it was lost in the noise. He didn't hear them warn him. And then Jackson breathed out, and Shane felt the chill of Hades.

There was silence. Even Jackson was a little surprised. Shane looked alright at first. He was standing before Hades as confidently and gracefully as ever. But he was motionless. Sara and Mark stared. Chryseis covered her mouth. Sophie screamed in anger and horror, and Mariko, even through her weakness, saw him, and moaned a quiet "No..."
"Urghh..." Behind Jackson, Panhellius, still gravely wounded, struggled to his feet, only dimly aware of what had happened. He saw Shane just in front of him, and the two men's eyes met. It looked as if Shane was about to say something to him. Then Jackson tapped Fahrenheit, and his body crumbled into a thousand pieces.


Mark wished he had a voice. He wanted to scream.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

Absolutely fantastic battle scene as well as the clever use of the code to reveal Hades' armor. It's almost all over. Can't wait for the finale.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

At last, Natalya had been able to persuade her watchers that she wasn't under threat, and had made all haste to the hospital where her brother was being treated for severe burns and internal injuries. She arrived there about ten minutes before Jackson's true nature had been revealed to the Pauldron. But further barriers presented themselves. She managed to get past the policeman guarding the door of Ivan's room easily enough by just using her powers to have him fail to notice her, but the ones inside were a little more...hesitant.

"Hey, what the hell do you think you're doing?!" One of the younger officers was so jumpy that she almost pointed her gun at Natalya, she and the others forming such a thick throng that Natalya couldn't see Ivan at all - but somewhat cooler heads prevailed.
"My name is Natalya Nazarov," Natalya explained. "I want to see my brother."
"You're gonna have to leave, Miss." The oldest man there, stepped forward. A glance told Natalya that his name was Chuck Laughton, he was a lieutenant, that he was guarding Ivan because he didn't trust the sergeants under his command with guarding someone so dangerous, and that he was afraid that the jumpy officer might shoot Ivan if he made a sudden movement.
"I'll do no such thing," Natalya replied. "I need to speak to him. I need to...to find out what the hell's going on."
"That's not our problem," Laughton said. "Get out now, or we just might have to put you under arrest, Miss Nazarov."

Natalya grimaced. She didn't like using her powers for this sort of thing overmuch, but her need was too great for squeamishness.
"You," she said, talking to the woman who'd aimed the gun at her. "You sabotaged your sister's application to Harvard when you were sixteen because you were jealous of her accomplishments."
"Wh - what?" the policewoman sputtered, but Natalya wasn't finished.
"You," she said, addressing one of the other officers. "You tried to beat your son when he came out as gay, but he fought back and knocked you unconscious in two punches."
The man in question would rather have been shot than for his colleagues to have heard that.
"You cheated on your police academy entrance exam. You took a bribe from a corrupt city official. And you -" She turned her owlish eyes on Laughton now. "You've tried to cheat on your wife four times, but you've never been able to seduce anyone." She let silence have lease for a moment. "Shall I go on?"

A moment later, the room was empty, and Natalya was looking in shock at her brother's physical condition. His burns were strange, forming a weblike pattern across his chest and face. He had a breathing tube in his nose, and every so often he shivered. He must have been deeply, deeply unconscious, for Natalya couldn't sense much from him at all.
"Imperion," she muttered. "Of all the people you could pick a fight with, why would you choose Imperion?" It was not that she thought Jackson Morrow was some squeaky-clean saint. Part of the reason she was there was because of her utter incredulity at the notion of Enhancegirl and Spectra - or anyone - being under Hypnotra's control. She'd destroyed her powers personally. She came because she feared that Ivan's fight with Morrow had had some connection to it all. But he couldn't answer her. She could have exerted more pressure, pulled answers from his mind by force, but she wanted her brother to rest. So she just sat next to him, listening to the hum of the hospital equipment, wondering if he'd wake up at all.

She looked at her phone, wondering if there might be any kind of update on her friends' status. She was hoping for something like 'Ludicrous Misunderstanding Resolved: Imperion slaps forehead in realisation of own idiocy'. She didn't get that, alas, but she did see something. Something very, very interesting...
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Mark wanted to be strong. Shane would have been strong. He would have howled in fury, but then immediately attacked with skill and the mastery that he had earned over long years. Mark couldn't do that. He just thought of all the things he would never do with his friend again: they'd always planned to take a road trip to Vegas which had never materialised. Mark had had a secret plan forming to reunite Shane with his old flame from the Fundaments. He'd wanted Shane to be the best man at his wedding.

He fell to his knees, clutching his chest. He'd always wondered at people in action movies who saw their friends die, and then went on right into another action scene. He'd wondered if it was plausible or implausible. Ought they all to collapse in fits of hysterics, or did adrenaline just sort of keep people chugging away? Well he had his answer now: he had enough adrenaline in his system to power Zjarrus for a week, and he just wanted to cry and wail and tear his clothes.

Mark might have been the only one there who could say truly that he loved the man that Jackson had just murdered, but all the others felt like part of their hearts had been ripped out. Fahrenheit had been torn from them - shattered like glass. Bits of him were strewn about Jackson's feet. He'd not just been killed: he'd been destroyed.
"You just...you just killed him..." Sophie was the one speaking. She, of course, did not know Shane well, though she'd heard a fair few stories about him from her lover. For her, the horror was one of a gentle soul seeing life destroyed, and the guilt of a broken promise: she'd sworn, when she'd challenged Hades, that he wouldn't touch any of the others, and she'd failed utterly to keep that promise.

A few metres away, Mariko, drained dry of strength, tried and failed to stand. On her hands and knees she tried to move towards the others, to do something, anything, but it was all she could do to stay conscious. Save one thing. Trembling with the shock of new grief, she opened her mouth, and gathered all the strength into one word, a word that for Mariko was perhaps the foulest in the English language:
"Murderer!"

Jackson didn't smile exactly. But he gave Mariko a look that would chill the blood of all but the most stalwart.
"What exactly is it that you thought would happen, Mariko?" he said. "Did you think you'd give some inspiring words and defeat me with the power of love?" This time he did smile. "I mean, all credit to you, that is almost exactly what happened. But the fun is over. You're out of ideas, and you're out of strength."
"You...you sound just like the Supremacist!" Mark was on his feet again, signing his insults with shaking hands. "Or Apollyon, or Encephalus...or any of the people we've fought over the years. Is that all you are? The same cackling, power-hungry thug as any of the others? You killed my friend...you murdered my best friend and that's all you are?!" Now weeping openly, Mark could hardly keep his signs intelligible. "What you said as Hades...what you said about people like us...that's what you believe, isn't it?! That we're all just...fools to be used by you!"

Jackson would have laughed, but he saw Sara staring at him, not crying, but shot through with a new agony - and he twitched. Even now, with frozen chunks of Fahrenheit littering the ground around him, a little bit of him still cared about Sara's opinion of him.
"I didn't believe everything I said. Look, I mean..." He made an odd expression, half grin and half scowl. "I get it. Being a hero. Being 'good'. It makes sense." He looked at Mariko. "It's funny how rational goodness is, isn't it? People working together and helping each other makes it better for everyone. Torturing people isn't actually a good method of getting information. Having a death penalty isn't actually a good deterrent against crime. It's rational! So 'evil' is irrational, right?" He thumped his chest, producing a shocking, violent 'boom'. "Except it's not, is it? Not for me. I actually am strong enough to try to do what Napoleon or Alexander the Great did! I actually am strong enough to get more power than they ever dreamed of! So it makes sense! I'm not a madman! The things that I want can happen! They will happen! And you're not going to stop m-"
"Tobias is dead."

Chryseis was the only one there who was not crying or near-frozen with horror. She just felt ill. But she was still in the Pauldron, and Jackson was still their enemy. Panhellius was terribly injured, Nova was hurt too, Mariko was drained of strength, and Mark - the poor boy was broken in half. Chryseis was trying to draw Jackson's wrath and his attention towards her, to let her friends recover or flee. "It wasn't Shane, either. Shane was too busy fighting off twenty other people. All superhumans. That's how he died: fighting the most spectacular battle I've ever seen!" She enunciated as clearly as she could, hoping Mark would be able to read her lips, that he might gain succour from her words. "You...you might think that you just crushed him - but you only got him because he was exhausted and injured from keeping your...horde away from us! He beat all of them, single-handed! And then when Tobias tried to sneak up on him from behind, I put an arrow in his back!" As she spoke, Chryseis forgot her purpose. The disgust flowed freely from her. "I killed a man I've known for twenty years! I took a life - because of you. Does that mean anything to you, Jackson? Or was he just another pawn as well?!"
"No, Chrys," Jackson said. "It does mean something. I wasn't looking forward to having to kill you. But, uh...I am now," he snarled. "So that's something, I guess."

He leapt towards her, and she barely even seemed to move. He'd intended to finish her with one swift strike, but he landed a little short, about ten feet away from her. Frustrated, he gathered his electrical powers, but he was stopped in his tracks by a terrible scream.
"No-one else...you won't have anyone else!" Mark charged at him, blasting him with everything he had. Unlike Nova, him straining himself or summoning up his blood wouldn't have any tangible effects on his powers: it was relatively easy to dial them up to their maximum intensity if he wanted to. Still, he tried. He took his grief, and tried to take his new hatred of Jackson, and pour them out in a great wave. And it did seem as if he'd accessed some hidden corner of his power, for Jackson seemed even more disoriented and debilitated than before.

Nova took advantage, and took to the air. Still shivering from her electric shock, she let fly a great burst of blue-white energy at her foe. He took the blast head on, and though he grimaced when it had ended, he had not moved either.
"Stop fighting me, Sara!" he shouted, and struck out at her with another blast of electrical energy. She blocked it with her own power, but in doing so but too great a strain on her injured body. Imperion leapt at her - again he felt the jump was a little shorter than he'd intended, but he was close enough. He struck at her with his fist this time, and with a cry she raised one more barrier. It just about saved her life, but she was struck down to the ground with terrible force.

"Oh god, no!" Sophie rushed to where Sara had landed, and found her still breathing, but stunned, half-conscious. She was moaning with pain, and Sophie could see in horrible detail the injuries that Sara's lover had dealt her.
"Uhhh..." she moaned, crimson marring the candy-floss pink of her hair. "C-can't...let him..."
"It's okay, Nova," Sophie whispered softly. "You've done your part. Let us finish him off for you." In reality, of course, Sophie was aghast that Sara had been taken out of the fight. With Mariko drained, Nova all but knocked out, and Shane dead, Imperion now only had to deal with his three weakest enemies: Chrys; Mark - and of course, Sophie herself.

But that was not quite right, was it? There was still Panhellius. The others had seen Shane die, of course, but only Derek had been looking him in the eye. In that last instant, he'd looked at Derek as though he was asking for help. And Panhellius had been powerless to give it to him. He wished their places had been exchanged. If he'd died in the battle against Imperion, then that might be some small redemption. But Shane had friends. He had a life, he had people who loved him - who would collapse for Derek the way that Mark had for Shane? It wasn't right. It should have been him.

And so he ignored the pain. He ignored the limp, his ragged breathing. He advanced on Imperion with a perfectly genuine wish to fight him, but as much of a wish to be killed in his turn. What was he, now that Imperion had turned out to be a lie? He was a lie himself. He was nothing. Even his name, 'Panhellius', had been suggested offhandedly as a half-joke by Jackson Morrow. And that's what he himself was. A half-joke. A half-man.
"Half a man," he thought, "cannot live."

Jackson saw him coming. He agreed with Derek - it would be the right and proper thing for Panhellius to die. But he was getting a little sick of this back and forth. So he stood in such a way as to draw Mark and Derek towards him at the same time - and as luck would have it, even Chryseis advanced on him, though what she hoped to do Jackson truly didn't know. He waited until they were relatively close, and then he raised his fists high, and smashed them down as hard as he possibly could - and the sound really was like a bomb going off. Even Sophie, busy trying to get Nova's battered body to cover without hurting her more, almost dropped her charge to cover her ears. She couldn't even swear - she just gave a sort of exhausted groan when she saw that the Pauldron, at last, had been defeated.

Nova gasping in pain, too badly hurt to fight; Askancepoint concussed by a flying chunk of concrete, a dangerous amount of blood trickling from his head; Chryseis hurled against a metal container, knocked totally unconscious; Spectra, having tossed away her strength in a failed gambit, with no energy left to fight; Fahrenheit dead; Panhellius...broken.

It was a terrible sight. He'd been at the forefront of the blast, and he had no memory of how he'd got from facing down with Imperion, to lying flat on his back, barely able to breathe. His sword arm was dislocated, the humerus of his other arm all but shattered. He was covered in cuts and gashes, and his vision was growing dark. He had no idea where his sword had gone. His padded, leather armour had done a decent job of preventing worse injury than what he'd got, but it was just leather, and much of it was stained with blood. His moment's death-wish had deserted him, and now he was just aggrieved at his failure, and afraid to die. He managed to turn his head, and saw that his sword had clattered away a few yards from him, near Sophie and Sara. He tried to reach for it, half-delirious, but neither of his arms were in much of a humour to obey him.

"Oh, give it up, Derek," Jackson called out, standing a few feet away. He was flexing his fist, looking at the crater he'd left. He seemed unsatisfied with it, somehow. Yes, he'd won, but something in him just didn't feel quite right. But he wasn't going to be fussy - he charged his powers, and took aim at the nearest of his fallen foes, which just so happened to be Askancepoint. He almost sneered. He imagined what someone like the Supremacist would say: "How appropriate, that you join your friend in death!" or "Give my regards to Fahrenheit!" or something, but he didn't feel like taunting. He felt...drained. The battle was over now, its mad thrill faded, and things felt a little...greyer. Those things he'd said, about his 'evil' being rational - why had he felt the need to justify himself? The reality was that these people were his friends. He didn't have much respect for them, but then he didn't have much respect for anyone. He spent his days in their company, and probably saw more of them than of anyone else. Even if he managed a total cover up and managed to convince everyone that he was totally innocent of the Pauldron's deaths, it didn't matter. A part of his life - a part he had enjoyed, in its way - was over. But such sacrifices were the way of powerful men. He steeled himself - surprised that he had to - and prepared to sacrifice his friends' lives on the altar of his greatness.

And then he heard it. It was half scream, half bellow, so full of exhausted wrath that it took Imperion a moment to realise that it was his name being screamed: "Jackson." He turned to see his last opponent, and he laughed. It was Enhancegirl. She walked towards him, slowly, her long, red hair flowing in a sudden wind, her golden warrant smeared with blood. Her teeth were bared like a vixen's - that is to say truly like a wild animal.
"This has to end!" she shouted, her voice strong, but shaken with emotion. "I could run. I could bring an army of reporters and cops here and dare you to lie again - but...you have to be stopped!" Her horror at the depth of his evil was renewed, and purpose flowed through her limbs. "If power's all you care about, if force is to you what morals are to the rest of us...then I'll end you on your own terms, you animal! Either my life will be the next that you take - or you'll never take another life again!" In her eyes, fury. In her mind, a thousand calculations for battle. In her heart, vengeance, and in her hand - a sword.

Imperion was incredulous. Even Panhellius hadn't been able to injure him seriously with it; what on earth did Sophie think she could do? But there was something about her...something that he couldn't quite put his finger on. As she advanced on him, twirling the weapon in her hand to get a sense of its weight, Imperion realised that he could not quite dismiss her challenge as ridiculous. Was he afraid that Mariko was empowering her again? No. Though she cried out for her lover to run, and not to face Jackson, Spectra had no fight left to give. It was something else. Something in her eyes, perhaps.

Sophie didn't care if Jackson took her seriously or not. She just knew that he had to be stopped. She moved faster, loping into a run, and then a full on sprint. The sun moved just above a hole in the clouds, and she was illuminated in burning red and gold. And then she attacked.

She - who had battled against so many foes who were greater than herself. She - who had seen enough of darkness and of light to despise the one and adore the other. She - who had known both the joys of love and the deepest depths of self-loathing. She - whose power had been born in villainy and cruelty, but had turned that power into a light strong enough to enchant Spectra herself. She - who now turned everything she had towards this one single enemy, this miasma of lust and narcissism and hunger for power who pretended to be a man, and leapt at him, brandishing a bright sword like a warrior of ancient days, cloaked in courage, in compassion, in skill and grace and strength.

She - Enhancegirl - the hero!

Imperion lunged at her, but like a mist she glided away from him, seemingly with even greater ease than when they'd fought before. He shot out a burst of red lightning, but, ghostlike, Sophie simply let it pass her by a hair's breadth. He snapped out a vicious kick, but Sophie blocked it. He knew exactly how - Panhellius' sword retained its momentum-cancelling properties no matter who wielded it - but it was still agonisingly frustrating to have his strength checked by this girl. What had worked before, he decided, would work again, and though he knew she would see it coming a mile off, that didn't matter. Jackson bellowed, and smashed his hands into the ground again. There was another great boom, and dust was thrown up into the air. Jackson put his guard up as it settled, fearful that he might have been baited into doing this to obscure some other enemy, but no - Enhancegirl was his only foe.

"Sophie!" Dragging herself, almost crawling, towards the battle, Mariko looked on in utter dismay at her lover's actions. Why was she doing this? Why was she engaging him? Had she hoped that Mariko would reinforce her with her soul-light at the last moment? No, she wouldn't have bet her life on what was now a fool's hope. When Imperion smashed the ground again, Mariko cried out, sure that Sophie would be killed - but once again, she had underestimated her lover.

Sophie stood, unmoved. She had indeed seen Imperion's attack coming from a long way off, but she'd been more able to prepare for it than he'd thought. She stood on the pommel of Panhellius' sword, balancing perfectly on one foot, the blade thrust into the ground, its power keeping her from being moved one inch by the shockwave. Imperion glared at her, snarling like a beast, but Enhancegirl...she looked quite calm.
"Yeah, yeah!" Imperion spat. "You're very clever, Sophie! You're a fighter of great skill, and intelligence, and oh-so-deserving of admiration, but what good's that gonna do you now, huh? You are physically incapable of hurting me. Sure you can block my attacks with that sword. Sure you can dance around me - but in the end, you will lose, and you will die."
"That shockwave didn't feel very big," Sophie said. "You losing your touch, Imperion?"
"Huh?" Jackson was a little confused...but now that he thought about it, he realised that Sophie had a point. He'd shown incredible strength with this last attack as with his others...but less than before. Even when he'd floored the remaining members of the Pauldron, now that he thought about it, he hadn't quite done as much damage as he'd expected. A couple of jumps had landed short, a couple of punches had been more sluggish. He...didn't feel right.

Sophie leapt back into action, drawing her sword from the ground, and now actually going on the offensive. Something about her fury and precision made Jackson feel nervous, and he put one hand over the weak spot that Panhellius and Ivan had exploited. But she didn't aim for that. She aimed for his eye. Instinctively he winced when the tip of the blade struck his sclera, but he quickly realised what foolishness this was. His eye was as strong as any of the rest of him - even Panhellius hadn't gone for it much. But something felt a little funny. He blinked, rubbed his eye. It felt uncomfortable. He blinked a few more times, and felt fine, and was about to renew his efforts to kill Sophie, but when he returned his attentions to her, he saw that hers were not on him. They were on the tip of her sword.

At the edge of it, at the uttermost tip, was a little imperfection in the blade's gleaming brightness. A little dot. It looked black at first, but when Sophie tilted it into the light, Jackson saw that it was red. It was blood. Just a minuscule droplet of it, but it was blood: his blood. From where she was trying to pull herself to her feet, Mariko saw as Sophie held the blade aloft, saw the blood at the end of it, saw Jackson's horrified expression. Her stomach tightened; her heart pounded her ribs - it had worked!
"What...what have you done? How is this possible?" Jackson's voice was weak. He shook with fear. Sophie, for her part, simply shot him a sneering grin.
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"Hey, come check this out!"
Valerie had been trying to negotiate a slightly higher price for some photos of CRO's opening that she'd taken for The Herald, when she heard the hubbub in the newsroom. A group of reporters were gathered around a computer, a couple of them already dashing off to update the paper's website. Valerie, curious, pushed her way to the front of the group - being careful not to push too hard - and was taken aback by what she saw.
"It's the Pauldron's website," one reporter explained. "But they've posted it about a dozen other places too."
"Go back to the beginning," Valerie ordered. "And turn the sound up!" There were murmurs of dissent, but Valerie's authoritative tone was difficult to disobey. "What the hell are those two doing?" On the computer screen, a video was playing. For something posted to the Pauldron's official site it was surprisingly amateurish, obviously filmed on a smartphone. But the lighting was fine, and it was quite clear that it was Spectra and Enhancegirl standing in the centre of shot.
"Good day," Spectra said, more used to being on camera than her girlfriend, who was still sort of glancing around nervously. "I don't imagine we need to introduce ourselves, but just to prove that I am who I seem..." She ignited a blade of light, slashed a gash in the concrete floor. "This is Spectra, of Seacouver and of the Pauldron. I understand that there have been some...claims about the two of us."


A few miles away, a petite, slender singer had just woken up in someone else's bed. The woman next to her, a beautiful dancer that she'd met the previous Christmas, was still asleep. Tingling with pleasure and excitement, Yumi embraced her, and pressed her naked body against her curvy, caramel-skinned lover. The dancer - Beatrice - woke to the feeling of Yumi kissing her, and eagerly kissed back.
"Yumi -"
"I'll make breakfast!" Yumi piped up. She kissed Beatrice one more time, delighting in the smell of her, the feeling of her shapely, womanly body pressing against her, and hopped out of bed. She felt liberated, as if a great cork had been popped, and the waters within her were flowing freer. Since she'd realised the direction in which her affections truly tended, everything had been better: her music, her level of power - even her poetry wasn't quite so awful anymore. And now, having made love to another woman for the first time, she felt...complete. Giddy and still shivering with the memories of the previous night, she ran back one last time to kiss Beatrice on the mouth. Her lover received the kiss eagerly, and batted her on the nose.
"I thought I was getting breakfast," she said, stretching sleepily.
"So demanding!" Yumi giggled, and moved swiftly out of the room, giving Beatrice a very nice view of her backside as the trim, Korean beauty hopped away. Sleeping with Stellar...for Beatrice it was like a dream, and indeed she found her eyelids fluttering, and dropped back to sleep. They opened again soon enough, though. Beatrice looked at the clock by her bedside, and was surprised: she'd been asleep for nearly twenty minutes, and Yumi was still in the kitchen.
"I hope she isn't making anything extravagant..."

Getting out of bed, Beatrice went to see what her lover was up to. To her pleasure, she found that Yumi had donned an apron - and was wearing nothing else. But she wasn't making breakfast. She was watching the news, and she looked completely shocked. Beatrice looked at the screen, and saw two superheroines, Spectra and that newer one, Enhancegirl, talking to camera. A caption below read 'Astonishing Demand From Fugitive Heroes'.
"Suffice to say," Spectra was saying, "the claims are nonsense. As anyone with the slightest degree of familiarity with the subject knows, Hypnotra no longer possesses her powers. We have Insyte to thank for that."
"So we're not being brainwashed, basically," Enhancegirl said.
"I have an accusation of my own to make," Mariko said. "This might have made it to a few of your ears as well, though I imagine efforts have been made to suppress it. The accusation is this: Jackson Morrow and Hades are the same person."

Across the country, across the world, anyone watching either scoffed, gasped, or just stared blankly.
"If that sounds dumb, then good," Enhancegirl said. "It should sound stupid - but it's true. Imperion's powers are based on the number of superhumans around him, and he's been drawing as many as he can into Sacramento, Renning City - and especially Seacouver. By lobbying for pro-super legislation here, but using the Anubis Foundation to lobby for anti-super laws in other states, he's managed to focus a hell of a lot of superhumans into a pretty small area. The more there are, the more powerful he is."
"Hades too is theatre. A way of bringing more superhuman criminals here, as well as heroes to fight them. And as for the 'battle' between Imperion and Hades...this was simulated, using an armoursuit similar to that wielded by the superhero known as the Pretender, which - as he will be perfectly able to prove - can be used remotely."


"H-holy shit!" Sam, Jason and Farah were watching too, in their own headquarters. "I-Imperion has an armour like mine?"
"He was telling the truth," Jason hissed. "I mean, I knew he believed it - but Ivan was right!" He turned to Farah for leadership, but she had none to give. She was staring in open-mouthed horror at the screen. Most would have needed a great deal more convincing than that, but for Farah it...it fit. She'd begun to suspect, in fact, when Sara had told her about Jackson's confession: he had stolen his words whole-cloth from when - many long and foolish years ago - Farah had tried to make Jackson fall in love with her.


"We have been trying to expose him," Spectra went on, "but we are running out of options. This is our last resort."
"If we've actually sent it, and you're listening," Sophie said, "then it means we're fighting him right now. So listen: we're not asking anyone to arrest him. We're not asking anyone to attack him. We hope that we're going to have proof soon, but we know we don't have any right now. So I'm talking to every superhuman in Seacouver right now." She breathed out, sharply. "I want you to leave. I want you to get the hell out of Seacouver, as far and as fast as you can. We're...probably going to have to fight Imperion, and if we're gonna have any chance of subduing him, we need him to be as weak as possible. So run. Go now and go fast, and get the hell away so that I - so that we can kick this guy's ass!"

"Simon!" Somewhere else in California, a young woman with a short, blonde bobcut called out to her husband. "Get in here!"
"Please don't shout, Felicity," Caduceus said as he entered his living room. He saw Spectra and Enhancegirl on the television, and he grew deeply suspicious. "What's this?"
"An old friend of ours," Falcona replied. "She's saying that Jackson Morrow is Hades."
"I - what?!" Simon spluttered.
"I know you're surprised darling, but try not to spit. It's very unbecoming."


"I know what we're asking," Sophie said. "I know who I'm talking about. You all love him, and...yeah, I mean who wouldn't? But I'm asking...I'm asking the people of our city to remember who we are as well. Remember what we've done for Seacouver. I'm..." She looked down at the floor. "I'm begging you. I'm begging you to listen to us. Whether you're a superhero I've fought with, just a superhuman living her life who maybe I've done something for, or," she added, with a sly aside, "if you're a little looser with your morals, and you're just sick of having to lick Hades' boot all the fucking time - I'm begging you to give us the chance to stop him. And I'm talking to the people in Seacouver, sure - but if anyone nearby wants to listen to me, then fuck it: I'm begging you too."

In a small motel in Renning City, a woman with flowing green hair, and a slightly older woman with locks dyed purple sat with their arms around each other, watching in incredulity.
"Holy crap," Leanne half-whispered. "Do you think she's telling the truth?"
Catherine didn't answer immediately. She seemed to think for a moment, and then she unwound her arms from her friend - her girlfriend, rather. "I don't care if she's telling the truth or not. Enhancegirl just begged us for something. We're leaving." And, not that she knew it, but by sheer coincidence, another former villain had taken up residence not half a mile away, albeit with a little more of a view to permanence. The beautiful Lissandra Tomislav had heard Sophie's plea as well - and unlike Leanne, she had responded as quickly as a hand reflexively retreating from a hot surface. Sophie had given Lissandra a chance at a life - there was no debt she would not have paid for it.

But it was not just for Enhancegirl that people found loyalty. Spectra was not simply one of Seacouver's famous heroes - she had come to stand for Seacouver itself, their champion and defender for many years, despite her youth, an icon to which every little girl with a brave heart, who found herself to be more than just human, wanted to aspire to. Those who could fly flew. Those who could run ran. But those who were not convinced, or who were unsure - to them Mariko gave another offering.


"I know most of you are probably just going to think us mad," Mariko said, "but I want to offer something else as well - a gesture of good faith." She reached up, and to the astonishment of those watching, she removed her mask. "My name is Mariko Asakura. I have been Spectra since I was sixteen years old. I have kept my identity a secret to protect myself and those I love." Saying this, she took Sophie's hand, and the camera caught a genuine moment of mutual adoration and gentleness. "But what comes after this battle does not matter - Jackson Morrow is a liar, an abusive, manipulative criminal, and a murderer. He has kidnapped and tormented who-knows how many women over the years - and today he poisoned Ivan Nazarov to frame him for an horrific act of violence. Imperion is drenched in blood, and I will yield up anything to stop him. Besides that, the Pauldron have been blinded with secrets...I will not abide any more of them."

Sophie removed her mask now. "My name is Sophie Scott. For whatever it's worth, I've been Enhancegirl since I was eighteen, and given that I might be dead within the hour, I want to go out as myself. So, uh, sorry Mom," she said, sheepishly. But her face grew more grave. "We're pretty much done here, so three things: one, obviously we can't let Morrow see this or the trap won't work, so we're only uploading it when we know he's just about to show up where we're at. So if you're going to go, go now. Two: the rest of the Pauldron didn't know shit. They're totally innocent in all this. Three..." She shook. "Doctor Arrhenius died today. I know everybody thought he was dead already, but he wasn't. He died fighting Imperion. He died saving our lives. If no-one listens to anything else we've said...listen to that." She looked just off camera. "Okay, Emily, how was that?" The recording ended there, and the world was thrown into confusion.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

"AAAUUUGGHH!" Enhancegirl leapt at him, a wildcat with one claw - but a very potent one. She hacked at Imperion, aiming for veins, for his eyes, his ears, anything she thought she might be able to damage. He dropped back, putting up a pretty decent defence despite Sophie's accuracy and speed. And indeed, that flurry drew no more blood, but Jackson could feel it. He could actually feel the attacks. The ones nearest where Sophie had been aiming actually hurt slightly. It didn't seem possible. He felt weakened - it was as if he was in New York or something, where superhumans were quite few.

"What's wrong, Jackson?!" Sophie hissed. "Scared of a pretty little redhead?" She was almost as incredulous as Jackson himself - it had been a move of total desperation to make the recording, and of even greater desperation actually to send it. Throughout the battle she thought it hadn't worked at all, but now...her prayer, and it was for all intents and purposes a prayer, had been answered.

"You've done something!" Jackson shouted. "That code...did Schiffer find a way of affecting my powers?"
"Maybe," Sophie said. "Maybe not. Come on, Jackson - you're the one who loves secrets so much. Won't you let me have one or two of my own?"
"GYYAARRGHH!" Imperion leapt up, and hurled lightning at Sophie, but she weaved out of the way with preternatural grace. As he fell, he was astonished to find her leaping up at him. He drew back his hand to strike her, but as he punched, she thrust the point of her sword at his wrist - and this time, to Jackson's unmitigated horror, she really had drawn blood. Stunned, he hit the ground clumsily, almost tripping over. He stared at the cut - it was very shallow, and had Sophie not been using his own strength against him, she wouldn't have been able to pierce his skin. But she had pierced it. She had cut him!

"Come on, Jackson!" Sophie yelled. "Didn't you say you were gonna kill me? Didn't you say that everything I'd done would be for nothing?"
But Jackson didn't attack. He narrowed his eyes at her, and an idea began to form. "No...no, no, no!" He took out his phone - there were nearly a thousand missed calls, and ten times that many messages. Ignoring all of them, he went to the first news site he could think of - and he saw what Sophie and Mariko had done.

"Damn it!" Sophie had wanted to keep the knowledge from him as long as possible. Would he run? At least if he did that the others would be saved, but who knew what he'd do after that? But that fear, at least, was misplaced. He dropped his phone. He crushed it under his boot. And he looked dead on at Sophie.
"That's clever. That's very, very clever, Sophie. I can see I walked right into your trap. You're quite the foe - but do you know how many superhumans there are in this city? Thousands! And thousands more beyond, and I can draw strength from them as well! You'll never be able to convince enough people. I'm Imperion! And yes, that's a lie - but it's the greatest lie that's ever been told! You thought that you could topple it? You?!" He bellowed at the top of his lungs, braying like a bull, panting, his handsome face twisted with rage. "You...you insignificant, measly, useless, worthless little cunt!!"
Sophie smiled, slowly. "Well, well. Nice to meet the real Jackson at last." She raised her sword, and she charged, and the two locked horns once again.

Imperion just couldn't hit her. And no matter how skilfully he fought, she always managed to find a way to turn the momentum of the battle against him. Every missed punch was rewarded with another cut, as Sophie made use of Jackson's strength to give her own attacks enough force to break his skin. But they were shallow cuts only, scarcely more than scratches.
"It won't be enough!" he said. "Even if people listen - there won't be enough time! There won't be enough to save you, Enhancegirl!" He began to grow more confident again. It was a nice trick, but a trick was all it was. She couldn't possibly convince enough people to make a difference.

And he might have been right, had it not been for a certain shapely, powerful blonde. The newsmen were taken off guard when Valerie Orville disappeared, and the celebrated Maiden of Maine stood before them.
"You guys have a website too, right?" she asked the gawking journalists. One of them nodded, sheepishly. "Well get a camera. You're about to get more hits today than you're ever gonna get again."

And indeed, within a few minutes, there was another video doing the rounds on the news, a video of a beautiful, twenty-nine year old blonde in a very fetching, revealing outfit. But her beauty was not what made the video catch on so quickly.
"My name is Valerie Orville," she said, and she removed her mask as well. "I've fought alongside Enhancegirl and Spectra - and I believe in them. I believe they're telling the truth. So I'm gonna run away," she said with a gorgeous, winning smile "I advise every other superhuman to do the same."

This would have been enough to cause a sensation, but there was more. A few minutes after Valora's recording, The Herald received another video file - another boon.
"My name is Yumi Tae-Yeong," said a lovely Korean woman the moment the file was played. "Although, um, I guess you already knew that! But - I believe in Enhancegirl and Spectra. So I'm going to run away too!"

And another.
"My name is Natalya Nazarov. I, er, I used to go by Insyte. I mean I still, well..." The pale beauty shook her head. "The point is that Spectra and Enhancegirl are...they're the greatest heroes I've ever known. I believe in them more than I believe in anyone, and you should trust my judgement: I am a mind-reader, you know. So if you have powers...get out of Seacouver as fast as you can."

And another.
"I'm Farah Ferrington, the little guy with the attitude problem -"
"Hey!"
" - is Jason Johansson, and the stick insect is Samson Sparr. We're the Pariahs, and, uh, none of us know Enhancegirl or Spectra very well, but we're convinced that Jackson Morrow is a fucking fraud, so we're gonna go to Vegas to get wasted - and if any superhumans want to join us, then drinks are on us."

And another.
"My name is Terrance Dalton. Enhancegirl saved me from being robbed...I don't know about all this stuff with Imperion - I don't even live anywhere near Seacouver. But if I did, I'd do what she asked - and I urge anyone who does live in Seacouver, any superhuman, to do the same!"

And another.
"We're the No Law Gang! We're fucking tired of having to pay dues to Hades, so I say anyone who's sick of kowtowing to him, let's get out of Seacouver, and let those broads finish him off!"

And another.
"My..." A soft, shy voice spoke up, the lighting so bad that her face was obscured for the first few seconds. When she realised this, and changed the angle, a sweet face, light brown in hue, framed by long, dark locks, was revealed. "My name is Maya Cierra. I'm sure everyone knows that - that I'm Aerogirl. Well, Enhancegirl...Sophie Scott was the one who made it so that that wasn't a name I had to be ashamed of. I believe in her - and I'm going to do what she asked."

And another, and another, and another. Heroes who owed their lives to Enhancegirl, to Spectra, ordinary people who'd been rescued or helped by either of them. Sophie's friends at university, Mariko's uncle Daisuke - dozens and dozens of testaments and pleas for the heroes' desperate request to be answered. And it was. Sophie might have, in her grief, insulted the people of her city, her nation. She'd called them infantile, and perhaps there was something to that - but the culture of the superhero brought more than just childishness to people. It brought them a love of goodness, goodness that was so tirelessly exemplified by the champions who defended them - and which even the blackest heart could see radiating from the two heroes, the two lovers who had begged their people for aid. And it was by love that Imperion's power was torn away from him.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

He didn't stop, of course, even as he felt his might slipping away. He jabbed at her again, a straight punch, and she blocked it with the tip of her blade. Except, she did not even stop there. The blade hung in mid-air, all momentum directed against it cancelled, and Sophie leapt up, springboarding off the pommel. She landed on Jackson's mighty fist, and before he could react, she slashed, and Jackson screamed in pain, blood gushing from his right eye.
"AAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUGGGGHHHHH!!" he screamed, and fired electricity blindly at his enemy. This only made things worse: for Jackson did not really have two powers at all. His electrical discharges were just another way for him to use the strength that he was given, a sort of byproduct of his primary power. And while at full strength he had a constant flow to draw upon, his lightning made him use up his power even faster, made him weaker still. And as more and more superhumans left his sphere of influence, that sphere shrank. The fewer he had, the fewer still that he could reach. Like a snowball rolling down a mountain, his weakness grew exponentially, more and more slipping through his fingers. He could no longer draw any power at all from Sacramento or Renning, and that which was left to him in Seacouver was falling away.

But Sophie too was weakening, just by sheer exhaustion. Her limbs were shaking, Panhellius' sword felt heavy in her hand. But she would not relent. As she approached for another attack, however, Jackson laughed.
"Even if you won," Jackson said, dripping with spite, "and you won't, by the way, but even if you did...I still overshadow all of you! All the good you, or Mariko, or any of the others have done, or ever will do - it's buried by all the things I've done! You'll never tip the scales. You'll never undo what I've done if you try for a hundred years."
"No, I won't," Sophie said. "You've already done that yourself, Jackson. To be Hades, you had to be Imperion. To get away with all that evil, you had to do so much good! And you had to help so many other people to do good as well - the Pauldron, the superhumans your foundation has helped...even me." She grinned with terrible ferocity. "Or had you forgotten about that? Your stupid little plan to make more supers, to give yourself even more fuel...that's where I came from. That's how I got my powers. You made me, Jackson! Maybe not directly...but you made me. Well now it's time for the circle to close, Imperion," Sophie growled. "And when it does - it's gonna cut your fucking head off!" And she charged.

Jackson charged too. He still had a great deal of strength left, more than enough to kill Sophie with a single punch, and that was exactly what he intended to do. He ran for her, much more quickly than she ran for him. Even if she stabbed him, even if she ran him through, he would crush her. And just in case, he covered his weakspot with his left hand. This was an intelligent move: with that covered, there was nowhere Sophie could reliably hit that would be enough to put him down. She intended to aim for his eye again, and would have been able to injure him severely, but not actually to defeat him. And in throwing herself utterly into the blow, she'd have made herself too vulnerable, and assured her own death.

Still trying to get closer to the battle, Mariko actually tried to use her powers to assist her lover, but she couldn't get them to reach far enough. Her inner light dimmed, she couldn't shape the light into any kind of potent form. She saw the warriors about to clash, and feared that Sophie's courage had run ahead of her strength. She couldn't reach. She couldn't help. Sophie drew back the sword, and Imperion drew back his arm, crackling with lightning -

- and he was assailed with sound and fury!

"AUUUGHHH!!" His ears splitting in agony, Jackson felt the sting of shock and fury as he saw that two red-haired heroes had assailed him. Askancepoint, bleeding, dizzy and weakened, hit Imperion with all that he possibly could.
"Do you feel it?" he signed. "Do you feel what you've done to us? Do you feel the agony, Jackson?!" The pain was staggering, and Imperion raised both hands to defend his ears. And so, with his weak spot exposed, Sophie thrust her sword deep into Jackson's stomach.

He didn't scream. He didn't even shout. He just sort of blinked. He looked down at himself, saw the sword running through him. He tried to speak, but a foul, black ichor burst forth instead of words. He looked into Sophie's eyes, and saw in them her burning heart, her righteous fury and desire to defend those she loved. He suddenly felt very frightened.

For Imperion could topple gods, crush armies, and fight the entire Pauldron single-handedly - but only with the help of thousands of others, whether they knew they were helping him or not. All Sophie and Mariko had done was make it a one on one fight. And one on one, Imperion was no match for Enhancegirl.

Mariko watched. She watched Imperion fall. She watched Sophie standing over him, sword in hand, raising a battle-cry to the heavens. She saw in her lover, in her wonderful, beautiful Sophie, that which Jackson had desperately sought all his life. She saw greatness, as bright and as awe-inspiring as that of any ancient king. She knew that in the hours, the days, the months to come, there would be great pain, as the terror that Jackson had wrought was undone, as the ruin of the noble Pauldron was swept away, and the grief of Shane's death, of Rupert's, would pull the rug from under the gladness at Hades' defeat. But she allowed herself that moment. She allowed herself just one instant of joy in seeing the monster slain, and seeing Sophie standing at the apex of triumph.

In Jackson's last moments, he looked around, his vision darkening, trying to find Nova. He wanted to see her, wanted to look her in the eyes as she died - to haunt her with that memory if he could do nothing else as revenge for her turning against him. And he did find her, but she was not looking at him. She was hobbling to Panhellius' side, horrified by his injuries. For she, like the one who had defeated Jackson, was a hero. Her concern was protecting people. And with a whimper, Jackson passed away. Hades had finally been destroyed.

And in the middle of it all stood Enhancegirl - stood Sophie. She dropped her sword, and staggered away from Jackson's body. She walked like one lost in a desert, dazed and disoriented. She didn't know where she was going exactly, but it seemed that instinct had taken over, for before long, she had found her way int Mariko's arms. Finding herself in a tender embrace, Sophie felt her legs give way and - shaking - she sank to her knees. Mariko dropped with her, not letting go for an instant.
"It worked," Sophie said, simply. "They believed in us."
"And they were rewarded, my love," Mariko said. "You beat him."
"I killed him," Sophie said. "He's dead. I killed him."
"You know you didn't have a choice, Sophie!" Mariko exclaimed.
"I know, I know," Sophie muttered. And she looked into Mariko's eyes, and Spectra saw bitter tears rolling down her cheeks. "I know I had to...but no-one...no-one should ever have to do that..." She felt faint. "I...oh god, I'm so tired, Mariko..."
"Then rest, my hero," Mariko whispered. "I know you don't feel triumph. I know that you could never take pleasure in another's death...but you are...oh, Sophie, I don't have the words..."

And Mariko held her tighter, and let her lover rest her head against her chest, and before she began the long, terrible process of trying to fix all the devastation, Mariko softly kissed the greatest hero of the age.
A full list of my stories can be found here, with summaries to boot: viewtopic.php?f=70&t=32027
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

That first day was a kind of hell, in its way. For all the pain that it had brought, the battle had been glorious: the stuff of legend. What followed it was mundanity of the cruellest kind. The questions...the endless, endless questions. Local police, then federal police, all hammering them over and over about what had happened. Sophie got it the worst, of course, for she had far more to tell. She had expected aggression from her interrogators, incredulity. And she got it: there were parts of her story that they were having trouble believing. She was sympathetic with them - who would have believed a day before that Hades was Imperion, and that Enhancegirl, of all people, had defeated him? She'd have left that detail out, but for the fact that she was quite aware that Mariko wouldn't.

It was on the third go-round of Sophie's story - she'd been trying again to explain Captain Cur's role in the madness - that one of the agents thought of something. A few minutes later, Sophie was standing over the body of Jackson Morrow. The body of the man she'd killed. His eyes had been shut, his wound was covered by a plastic sheet, and in a strange sort of way he looked peaceful. Too peaceful. At once Sophie was overcome by the vileness of it all, and wished for it all to be as unlikely as possible to bring her any more disgust - and at the same time she wished his face was twisted in agony. She wanted the ugliness within to be displayed for all to see. She wanted everyone who now saw Jackson Morrow to recoil in horror.

"I'm not sure if it'll work," Sophie said, when she noticed the agents' impatience.
"We understand," one of them said. "Just give it a try."
"Alright." She opened her mouth - and for one moment of panic she thought she'd forgotten it. But it came back to her after a moment's thought. "42398179-unlock."

There was a grim, sickly flash, and a kind of juddering sound. Jackson's corpse trembled, and rattled - and then the armour burst forth from his body. Sophie shuddered with morbid relief: now they could see his face.
"Jesus Christ!" one of the agents shouted. Even the F.B.I. was not immune to the legend of Imperion. To have Sophie's story so shockingly and suddenly confirmed, to know that a man that everyone had admired...he'd even bought an Imperion action figure for his son's last birthday!
"So, you believe me now?" Sophie asked. Instantly, she regretted her tone: the agents were only doing their jobs, even if they had given her the third degree.
"Yeah," one of them mumbled. Sophie saw that he was close to tears. "We believe you."

It was still about an hour before Sophie was released. Almost frantically Sophie looked around the station for Mariko, and mercifully it wasn't too long until she found her. She'd tucked herself in the most private place she could find, and was pinching the bridge of her nose, her eyes tightly shut. Sophie didn't call out to her lover. She just sat next to her, and put her arm around Mariko's narrow shoulders. Yes, Sophie had suffered that day, to be sure. Seeing Rupert die. Being victimised by Jackson. Having to take another human life. But Mariko? Mariko had been betrayed so terribly that only Nova could say that she'd suffered worse. A deeply significant part of her life was in tatters. And she'd just watched one of her precious few friends be murdered.

Sophie felt her hand being squeezed.
"Don't imagine that I've forgotten," Mariko said. "Regardless of what I'm feeling now...I will never forget the sight of you fighting him. I will never forget your...triumph."
"I know you won't," Sophie said. She left a little silence before asking: "Where are the others?"
"Byrnes Hospital," Mariko replied. "Derek is receiving emergency orthopaedic surgery; Mark is already in recovery. Chrys and Sara are with him now." The sentence seemed to ring hollow somehow, and it took Mariko a moment to realise why: the list of names was too short.
"You wanna go?" Sophie said, gently.
"Of course." And so the two rose, passing through the astonished, awestruck, or even terrified stares of the police officers, and left the station. In doing so, they entered a new world.

Everyone stared. It was as though they'd been granted the same powers as Askancepoint, for a hush fell wherever they walked. Everyone had seen it now, their plea for aid - and everyone knew that Imperion was dead. They didn't cheer. They didn't boo either, for whatever that was worth, but the eyes of the people of Seacouver bore into Mariko and Sophie like drills. Even when they appeared in public in their masks, they didn't draw attention like this. It was eerie. Sophie shivered, and the impact of what she and Mariko had done hit her for the first time. She hadn't liked the idea, but there were plenty of superheroes, after all, who had revealed their identities to the world. But this was different. For now, for the rest of her life, people would connect her with that day, with Jackson's unmasking, and with his death. She didn't even know if that was bad or good, but there was something she finally did know. With all those eyes bearing down on her, with a kind of claustrophobia taking hold of her, she knew at last how it felt to be Insyte.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Whole news websites were created simply to profit from the events of that day. Sophie and Mariko's plea, the revealing of their identities, and the solidarity of so many others with them were played again and again on television across the world. The first upload on YouTube had eight million hits within twelve hours.
"Parents - I need parents!" So proclaimed Frank Fairbank, the Editor-in-Chief of the Seacouver Herald. "While everyone else is fucking around getting info from the police, we're gonna get right to the meat of what people really want!"
"Morrow's mother is a recluse," a young staffer piped up. "We might be able to get some long-lens snaps, but she's not gonna be talking to anyone. And his father - "
"Is in a loony-bin, I know, I know. I'm not talking about Morrow. Morrow's not the story."
"...I kinda think he is, boss."
"Alright, alright, he is the story, but he's not our story. I want these two!" He swivelled his laptop around, showing the video that Mariko and Sophie had sent out, paused right where the pair had clasped hands. "I want everything there is to know about these two."
"They're normal people, Frank." May Fairweather stepped forward. All the public knew at this point was that Imperion and Fahrenheit were dead. It had not even been confirmed that the others were alive. May was terribly afraid for Sophie, even if she'd survived. "Let's give 'em some leeway, huh?"
"That's touching, May," Frank said, "but like it or lump it, they're celebrities now. So let's let the people know exactly who it is they're celebrating, huh?"

May winced. She had always been on Sophie's case for not taking advantage of publicity more often, but only when Enhancegirl still had the barrier of anonymity. When she'd found that evidence - and in retrospect, she'd had to admit it was pretty circumstantial - she never thought it would have led to this. A federal investigation maybe, but not...not the Pauldron turning on each other. Not Sophie forced to expose herself. It all felt larger than life: unreal. May skirted around this world of heroes, but she was not in it. She frowned deeply, feeling very afraid for her friend.

So she put in a call to a friend of hers in Seacouver P.D. They led her to another friend, and another, and another, until eventually May was chatting with an agent of the Federal Intelligence Agency. This was not the man who'd cried out when he'd seen Imperion transforming into Hades before his eyes. This man was a Seacouver native, and he felt about the city's superheroes as one might feel about a beloved sports team. His feeling when Spectra had joined the Pauldron had been exactly that of someone seeing the star of his local baseball team being bought by the Red Sox or something: pride, but jealousy. So when given the chance to relate the story of Seacouver's beloved Enhancegirl defeating Imperion in single combat - with a sword, no less! - he took it with relish.

"Holy fucking shit." May put down the phone, almost breathless. She almost couldn't believe what she'd heard. "Yo, Frank!" she shouted.
"What?" came the somewhat distant reply.
"You want a story? I've got you a fucking story!"
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Three fifths of what remained of the Pauldron sat in stony silence, and not just because of Mark. Chryseis had her head in her hands. Sara looked blank, in quite deep shock. Mark had his eyes closed: he was pretending to be asleep. Grief was exhausting, and guilt was exhausting, and shame was exhausting, and he couldn't bear to look his allies in the eye. They wouldn't even be able to talk to him: Sara hardly knew any ASL, and even Chrys couldn't hold more than a very simple conversation. Without Shane or Jackson there, he was truly mute.

Each had their own brand of guilt. While Mark's was guilt for feeling like Shane's death was his loss more than anyone else's, Chrys' was for not spotting Jackson's lies sooner. Every memory she had of him, from the insistent way he'd gone about recruiting her, to the way his speech patterns seemed to change sometimes, to - almost everything. Anything could have been a lie.
"Oh god!" She cried out loud, suddenly realising something. Nova leapt from her seat, instinctively activating her powers, cloaking herself in starlight. But Chryseis motioned to her to sit down. "Sorry," the archer said. "I just realised something...it was Tobias who said how Julie died."
"Julie?" Sara's power faded, and she took her seat again, still shivering.
"Hyperia. Apollyon always denied he had anything to do with it - we thought he was lying. But maybe it was Jackson. Or Tobias. Or both of them...oh god..." She buried her head in her hands again, and Sara put her arm around her comrade's shoulders. It was better this way. As long as Sara could think about someone else's pain, she could try to ignore her own.

Indeed, she wasn't in any pain at that moment. Not really. Seeing her comrades broken or murdered, seeing Jackson clad himself in the armour of Hades, then seeing Enhancegirl kill him by thrusting a sword into his stomach...it was all there in her memory, her mind going over it again and again in a kind of swirl, but she felt nothing. It was as though her heart had simply been cut out. The only thing she did feel was nausea.

It was just as Chryseis pulled away from Sara, not ungrateful for the hug, that Mariko entered. Chryseis flashed her a weak smile, and Mark opened his eyes just as she came in, but Mariko found her eyes going straight to Sara. The starlit maiden looked back, and old resentments began surfacing again. By now she had seen Sophie and Mariko's appeal, and she feared she knew what would happen: disgrace for her, for Chryseis, Derek and Mark - and glory for Enhancegirl and Spectra. Her life as a respected member of America's greatest team of superheroes was over. Her life with Jackson had been snatched away before it could even begin.

"Forgive me," Mariko said. "I...I don't know what to say." There was a kind of desperation in her eyes. She wanted to make things better. She wanted to offer the others some comfort, but there was nothing she could say. She imagined that the wound she'd been dealt was not as deep as the others', and even on her first day as a member of the Pauldron Mariko did not feel as much of an outsider as she did then. It was not that this made her pity herself - she just felt powerless.

It was strange. Mariko could be very closed, very cold, and though she'd tried to be friendly with her allies, there was a side of herself she only ever showed to Sophie. Yet Sara found her quite open. She could not have hated her even if she'd tried. How could she dare? If Mariko hadn't come to her that night, if she was still with him - with Hades...it was unconscionable, and Mariko had spared her from it.
"Did you...did you get them to believe you?" Sara asked. "The police, I mean."
"Eventually," Mariko replied. "Pict's code...it still worked on Jackson's corpse." The word 'corpse' hung in the air like a living thing. Nobody spoke for at least five minutes. It probably would have been even longer, had Sophie not burst in - and she did not come alone.

It was not exactly a coincidence that Ivan had been hospitalised in the same place as Panhellius and Askancepoint: Byrnes Hospital had the best emergency department of any hospital in the city. But it was certainly fortuitous: Natalya would not likely have left her brother's side if she'd had to go far. Even so, she nearly regretted it: for when she entered, lagging a little behind her friend out of an instinctive shyness that she'd never wholly thwart, she almost cried out. Seeing Sophie's thoughts, the rawness of the memory of her plunging her sword into that man's stomach, that had been bad enough. But seeing Mariko, and Sara, and Chryseis - she almost wanted to run away. Their grief, their anguish... it was unbearable! She averted her eyes - and caught the eye of the man she'd come to see.

"Natalya?" Mark looked at her like he couldn't believe that she was real. Indeed, she didn't seem real sometimes, this woman with her moon-white skin, her yellow eyes, this woman who could hear him speak as easily as if his powers had deserted him. She felt his pain, saw his beloved friend crumbling into fragments over and over again in his mind, felt his horror at Jackson's evil - and she felt his simple happiness at seeing her. That almost made the rest of it worse.
"Oh, Mark!" she cried out, and in a fit of passion ran to his side, and held him as tightly as she could. It was only then, in Natalya's embrace, that Askancepoint's sorrow took him over, and he wept - silently, but bitterly, trembling in her arms. Only Natalya understood, only she could understand, the depth of his loss. He and Shane might not have been lovers, but there was a sense in which they'd been soulmates. Half of him had been ripped out.

Perhaps only Natalya could understand fully, but Sophie felt at least a sense of it. Certainly, as she saw Natalya holding her lover, fearlessly allowing every ounce of his heartache to flow into her, she felt herself instinctively drawn to Mariko. The two clasped hands, and Sophie put her head against Mariko's shoulder. Mark was quite an emotional person, and it was probably always going to have been him who would cry first, but it was strange: his tears, silent though they were, were a kind of release for the others. The shock could subside now, and their real grief could come to the fore.

Chryseis cried quietly, without sobs, just with tears slipping from eyes that now felt very old indeed. Mariko didn't quite cry at all, hovering on the edge of tears, but not falling in. She felt almost that she hadn't the right. Sophie felt similarly, but couldn't help herself. And Sara...Sara couldn't stay in the room. She ran outside, feeling as if she was about to be sick, but it was well that that was just a feeling, for she didn't get very far. She found another room empty - and there she collapsed.

Rage. That was what she felt more than anything else. She hadn't expected that. Rage that she had been so hideously deceived. Rage that Jackson had taken advantage of her, both of her beauty and of her power. Had it all been deliberate? Had he known that her abduction by Hades would bring her such hideous distress, had he known that she'd fall so easily into his arms? No - if he'd wanted her, he could have had her whenever he'd liked. Had he just been amusing himself? Or was she overestimating her own importance? Perhaps to give Hades a memorable debut, he'd simply needed some famous captives, and thought that Nova was as good as any. When he'd said that he loved her, had he been laughing at her then, too?
"No," she thought. Most disturbingly of all, she realised that she believed him. He had loved her. She wondered just what sort of person she'd have to be to earn the love of a man like that. "Fragile," she thought. "Controllable." She wondered if the qualities that Jackson had mocked in Panhellius were just the things he liked to see in a woman. Sara had seen Ivan's sister giving what comfort she could to Mark, and had seen Sophie and Mariko holding each other's hands, and she felt...she felt mocked. How dearly she'd wanted that! How much she wished that the Jackson she thought she knew was there to give her what Mark and Mariko had!

A few minutes later, she went back to the others, mumbling a vague apology under her breath. Natalya glanced at her, but swiftly looked away.
"I think it should be as nondescript as possible," Mariko was saying. "We put the whole truth out, of course, but I don't even think one of us should do it."
"What are you talking about?" Sara asked.
"We figure we need to make a public response," Chryseis said. "God only knows what we're actually going to say."
"Well whatever we say, I think at least one of us should actually appear in public," Sara replied. "It'd be pretty cowardly to hide away."
"Alright, but, like - what's next?" This was from Sophie. "Forget what you say, what are you...what's the Pauldron going to do?"
"Do?" Sara almost laughed. "We're not going to do anything. The Fundaments didn't stay together after Gravion was exposed. I don't think any of us want to keep the Pauldron alive."

From one to the other Sophie looked. Mark was so distraught that it was difficult for him to imagine anything beyond that day's horrors. Chryseis, Pauldron or otherwise, would never lift a bow again. Had he been there, Derek would have laughed in Sophie's face at the notion of the team staying together. Sara had already made her feelings clear. Only Mariko had hoped that, somehow, they might want to pull together - but in this, at least, Jackson had defeated them.

It was a long silence on which a doctor intruded.
"Good afternoon," he said. It was hard not to be sheepish in such company. "Uh, I thought you'd want to know that Mr Godfrey is out of surgery. He's awake."
"Thank you," Mariko replied, briskly. "Shall we, er...?" There was an awkward murmur of assent, and they started filing out, except for Mark: he tried, but even if Natalya hadn't been there dissuading him, he was still badly hurt. As they followed the doctor to where Derek was recovering, Sara walked the slowest. She just didn't have the energy to move faster.
"Um...excuse me?"

Sara turned around, surprised to find that Mark's girlfriend had caught up with her. She was obviously trying to hold Sara's gaze, but she wasn't wholly succeeding.
"Natalya, right?" Sara said. "What is it?"
"You're wrong." She forced herself to meet Sara's gaze. "I didn't mean to pry, but I...I saw what you were thinking. What you thought about yourself."
Sara literally flinched. "So what?" She struggled not to sound hostile.
"You're wrong. You were wrong when you said you were controllable. Someone controllable wouldn't have listened to Mariko when she came to you. You have a stronger will than you give yourself credit for."
"I'm sorry," Sara said, "but why do you care? I mean...I mean shouldn't you be with Mark?"
"There's enough pain going around today," Natalya replied. "Pain that can't be avoided, I mean. This can. You behaved admirably as far as I can see. You don't need to twist the knife any harder."
"Look, I know you can see my thoughts, but you don't know me, Natalya."
"But I do. I know you through him." She gestured back to Mark. "I've seen you - all of you - through his eyes. And as far as he sees it, he thinks you're going to be hating yourself right now. He can't speak to you, so I'm doing it for him: don't."
Sara opened her mouth, but found she had nothing to say. She turned aside from Natalya, and quickened her pace towards the others. Natalya winced: she felt that she'd only made things worse. She'd tried to do what she felt Sophie would have done in her position, but Sara, it seemed, was not in a position to hear her. So she returned to her boyfriend. With him, at least, she knew she was helping.

Again, Sara came into the middle of a conversation.
"My sword-arm was only dislocated," Derek was explaining. He was an awful sight. His right arm was wrapped in a thick cast, his body covered in bandages. "The other had severe damage to two tendons. Apparently it will need a great deal of physiotherapy, but I may eventually regain full function."
"But your sword-arm is alright?" Mariko asked.
"For whatever good that does me." He spoke in an odd tone - very quiet.
"Then, perhaps you'll be wanting this," Mariko said. She nodded at Sophie, who brought forth Panhellius' mighty weapon.
"I guess I never asked for it. Well, uh, here." She turned the hilt towards him. Derek reached out for it, but then withdrew his hand.
"Keep it," he said, quietly.
"Hey, I can't do that," Sophie replied.
"I mean it, Enhancegirl," Derek said. "It's yours. You made better use of it than I ever did." He forced a very unconvincing smile.
"Well...what do you say I hold onto it for you?" Sophie said.
"Call it what you wish," Derek replied. "I won't take it back."

Sophie was not convinced, but she decided to let the matter rest. She motioned to Mariko, suggesting that the two of them should leave the grieving warriors in peace - but Mariko shook her head. There was something she had to say first.
"Today," Mariko said, "for a long while...it will be right and proper for us to think of ourselves. Our own loss. Our own grief. But that time will come to an end. And when it does...we will have a duty to those like us. Whatever trust Imperion gained for superhumans will be...torn to ribbons. I'm quite sure that the Inferiorites will experience a great swell in membership. The Anubis Foundation may have been destroyed, but something like it will reappear. Our enemies, in all spheres, will look on this as an opportunity. We have the strength and the status to mitigate these evils to a great extent. We must defend those like us - but not only like us." She clapped her hand against her right shoulder. "Imperion...Imperion may have shamed us, but surely he proved beyond all shadow of a doubt that there must be a Pauldron! There must be a guard to cover that which nothing else can! There may have been a cancer rotting in our heart, but we were our own surgeons. We cut him out!"
"No we didn't," Derek rasped. "Even you, Mariko, played less of a role than - than Sophie."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Sophie said. "If you - if you all hadn't fought him, if you hadn't held him off for so long, he wouldn't have been weakened nearly enough. Fuck, man, you were the one who actually got him to reveal himself! And - and even when I was fighting Jackson, Askancepoint was the one who distracted him at the last second."
"And Shane," Chryseis said, firmly. She didn't look at them, exactly, but she spoke nonetheless. "Shane held off Jackson's cronies. They would have swarmed us. You never would have won without him."
"Sure," Mariko said. "What I mean to say is...the fact that we were among its victims does not mean that we haven't thwarted a great evil. We must continue to do so."

She wanted to see some resolution in the eyes of her allies, but found none. Her heart sank, and she turned away. Yet as she did, she happened upon at least a quantum of comfort: in the eyes of Nova.
"I agree with you, Mariko," Sara said. "Ignoring our duties out of self-pity, even out of just plain sorrow, would be cowardly. The power I have...I won't let it go to waste. But how I'm gonna use it, what form it'll take...right now I don't have a god-damned clue. I don't think any of us do."
"I do," Chryseis said. She had a strangely bright tone in her eye. "Not...not like in the long term - but as of right now..." She looked, much to the surprise of those assembled, at Sophie. "I can't be a superhero anymore. I'm too old. I can't...I can't fight." No-one saw this as cowardice from Chryseis, but that was not her concern. "But...there is at least one more thing I need to do. I'll need you to help me, Sophie, if you're willing to do an old girl a favour."
"What? Fucking - of course I am!" Sophie exclaimed. There was hope in Chryseis' eyes, and Sophie would have done nearly anything to keep it kindled.
"Tell me about that place Jackson was holding you captive," she asked. "The one Arrhenius rescued you from."

Even a superhero buff like Sophie's friend Kirsten might not have heard of Arthur Hillary Melcher. Certainly, she would not have known enough to harbour even an inkling of a suspicion that it was once the old geokinetic's lair that Imperion had made use of. But Chryseis was an old soul - and she'd been harbouring her suspicions that Melcher's old bases had not been found for many years. She had another hope, too. One that she did not yet dare to speak, not even within her own mind.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In the days that followed, many members of the dying body of the serpent left behind when Sophie had cut its head off would find their way into the hands of the police. One last holdout group of the more formidable survivor's of the sound thrashing that Fahrenheit had given them would soon be crushed by the West Coast Congress. They all squealed. Their loyalty had been to nothing and no-one but Hades. Plasmarr, perhaps, would have kept the faith even in Hades' demise, but the others now served only themselves. It took weeks, but gradually, all of Imperion's hidey-holes, all of the places where his collection of captives held in stasis were discovered. Dozens of women would be freed - but there were a few that no-one would ever have found, had it not been for the knowledge of Chryseis, and the eyes of Enhancegirl.

"Jesus..." Sophie was almost impressed. In a passage carved through sheer bedrock, surely by the strength of Jackson himself, deep underground...was a very comfortable little space. It was almost like a plush study - and indeed, Jackson had occasionally done paperwork there, when he'd desperately needed to be alone, but had been too busy to just enjoy his collection. And there his collection was - proudly displayed. One who had only recently been moved there, for normally she had a place of her own, the spectacularly tall Anya Morrow. Sophie had come close to saving her once before, and felt a relief she had not expected at the prospect of liberating her now. Somehow, as the stasis fluid drained away from her tank, and Jackson's wife once again flopped limp into Sophie's arms, somehow it felt that things were finally coming to an end.

But Anya wasn't the only one there: two more tanks were occupied. One was the first woman that Imperion had ever taken into his power: Zayin. Chryseis and Enhancegirl were shocked to find her: she was a legend in her own right, and rumours about why she'd disappeared had circulated for so long that nobody had even thought to connect her with Hades. While Anya remained unconscious for a long time, as soon as Zayin's chamber was opened, the mighty warrior's eyes snapped open. She leapt to her feet...and immediately fell to her knees.
"H...Hades..." she groaned. "Have to...have to stop him...have to...uunnhhh..." She felt a hand on her shoulder, and blearily, she looked up. For the first time, Zayin's eyes met the sparkling emeralds of Enhancegirl.
"You're Zayin, aren't you?" Sophie said, awestruck.
"Yeah...that's me..." she panted. Her body longed for sleep, but Zayin would not allow it. "Hades...that crazy...fucker in...in the armour...where is he? Are we still in...?" She looked around a little, found herself in unfamiliar environs.
"Hades is dead," Sophie said. "He won't be hurting anyone ever again."
"Good," Zayin said, a proud, fierce smile on her face. "Hey, what's your name, sister?"
"Sophie. Sophie Scott."
"You don't use a codename?"
"Well, yeah. Uh, 'Enhancegirl' - but I kinda blew my cover."
"That sucks." Zayin forced herself to her feet. The effects of a stasis tank did wear off quickly, but her constitution still must have been formidable. "Don't worry about it too much. My cover got blown last year, but it all dies down soon enough." Before Sophie could even answer this, Zayin asked. "When Hades was - was sticking me in that thing, he said he could keep me in it for as long as he wanted. I don't feel any different, but...how long have I been here?"

It was a mercy that Sophie did not have to answer immediately. Chryseis shrieked, and so shocking was the sound that it even made Zayin forget her surprise at seeing Chryseis, who had been an occasional ally. Sophie rushed to the old heroine's side, but it was almost like she didn't know Sophie was there. She was furiously pawing at the controls, and only when the fluid in this third tank drained away did Sophie understand.
"Hyperia!"

Long-thought-dead, betrayed and abandoned by her leader, and mourned now only by few, the Pauldron's first 'loss'. With desperate speed, Chryseis pulled her from the tank, and held her by the shoulders.
"Julie! Julie!" Chryseis cried out, and for five terrifying seconds, Hyperia was silent, and still. But then she shuddered, and coughed, and her eyes opened.
"Ch...Chrissie?" It was the first word she'd said in years. She didn't remember being put in the tank. She just remembered shouting down Jackson, and then Tobias...Tobias cracking her on the back of the head. She thought, inasmuch as she'd been able to think at all, that they'd kill her. But now she was awake, and looking into the eyes of a dear friend. "Jackson...and Tobias! Chrissie, they're...they're fucking traitors!"
"I know, sweetie, I know. It's alright. It's all been fixed now," Chrys replied, and she held onto Hyperia for dear life.

Losing Jackson, whom she'd watch grow from hero to legend, and losing the young, charismatic Fahrenheit, had made Chryseis feel terribly old. Her endless youth had mostly been something she'd been grateful for, but that day it had felt like a terrible curse, being frozen in time as she was. Well now she was not the only one. Julie was back - and she hadn't aged a day! And though regaining one friend, however dear, did not negate the loss she and the others had suffered, it made Chryseis feel like her eternal youth was more than just skin deep. Hyperia was alive, and the world could be young again.

As for Sophie, she was just glad to see someone smile. Her pleasure was cut short, though, when she heard someone crying. Anya Morrow had woken up. For Sophie and the Pauldron, the hell was not over, but was at least beginning to burn with a little less ferocity. For Anya...for Anya it had just begun.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The redhead didn't dare return to her dorm. She knew that journalists would likely be waiting for her wherever she went, but the least she could do was not make others suffer for it. Her expedition had been a lengthy one. She didn't know what would happen to Jackson's three captives now - how could they resume their lives after so many years? - but Chryseis had assured her that she would take care of them, at least to start with. She couldn't imagine what it would be like - to go to sleep one night, and wake up ten years later. Her parents would be older, at least - Zayin had been aghast to find that her father had died during her long captivity. Her friends would all have finished university, and moved on with their lives without her. And Mariko...Mariko might actually have waited for her under such a circumstance, but this thought gave Sophie no pleasure.

Not for the last time in those first few weeks, Sophie used her powers to enter Mariko's house surreptitiously, flummoxing the photographers. When she entered, however, she found a sentinel blocking her path.
"Prrroowwrr!" A small tomcat was poised like a sphinx in the middle of the hallway.
"Not now Arthur," Sophie said. "I'm too god-damned tired, alright?"
"Prrrrrrr..." To Sophie's surprise, Arthur did not try to nip at her ankles, but instead flumped onto his side and began cleaning his paws. He seemed happy to let her pass unmolested.
"Well. Alright."

Sophie found Mariko sitting on the edge of the bed, brushing her hair. It had grown quite long now, and she was growing tired of untangling it in the mornings. She saw Sophie, and gave a weary smile. She'd been about to put down the brush, but Sophie stopped her.
"Don't let me interrupt you," Sophie said. "Her ladyship must be presentable, even when she's going to sleep, apparently."
"As if you don't admire my beauty even as I slumber," Mariko replied, pointing her chin haughtily.
Sophie laughed. "I mean it, you don't have to stop. It's relaxing."
"Alright, my love."

Sophie suddenly felt very, very tired. The weight of it all fell on her. The battle was over. Those who would survive had survived. There was only the mess of life to deal with now. Sophie tried to get herself to engage with it, but she couldn't. Her mind's swiftness had deserted her. All she had the presence of mind to think about now was the sight of her gorgeous girlfriend in a silky nightdress, and the soft sound of the brush running through her glossy, black hair. She might well have dropped off to sleep just there, but there was a flash in her mind, a sudden recollection of the feeling of Jackson's blood spurting onto her hands. The feeling of him slackening, going from being a person to...a thing. She even imagined that she'd watched him go glassy-eyed, but this was an elaboration, a quirk of memory. It didn't make it any less potent. She'd watched three men die over the past two days - and she'd killed one of them.

"I've been trying to contact Rupert's family," Sophie said. "No-one's answering. It looks like the funeral might just be us and - well, apparently quite a lot of the Methos people want to go."
"That doesn't surprise me. He was an enchanting man in his way."
"Yeah." Sophie managed a smile, but it didn't last long. "This...this isn't normal."
"Well, he led a strange life."
"No, I mean...this isn't normal. Most superheroes spend maybe ten years fighting petty crime, twenty if they hit it big and can hero for a living. What we've gone through...ah, shit, I don't even know what I'm saying."
"I think I understand," Mariko said. She put down the brush, shifted slightly to make room for Sophie. "But unlike you, I can't complain. I've sought out the stronger foes, the more serious struggles, all throughout my career. I looked for the horrors. You just haven't run from them."
"Still. It feels pretty fucking unbalanced."

Sophie rose, sat next to Mariko. She kicked off her shoes, started peeling off her tights. She felt Mariko's hand beginning lightly to caress her back, and she smiled. Sitting back up, she put her neck on Mariko's shoulder. It was comfortingly warm.
"There is a trade, you know," Mariko said. "Something you get in exchange for all this strife." She turned Sophie's chin towards her, looked her deeply in the eye. "Greatness."
"Oh, stop it."
"Don't," Mariko said. "Do you think this is a term I use lightly? You... astound me, Sophie. You have gone on and on astounding me almost every time I've seen you in battle, or I've heard about some other broken heart that you've somehow mended. You are everything that he pretended to be. You are everything that he was not."

Sophie's brow furrowed. "Don't you start doing it."
"Doing what?"
"Putting me on a pedestal. I know a played a big part in what happened. Hell, I'll even accept saying I played the biggest part. But do you think I could have done any of that without you? You think it's a coincidence that I started doing...more after we got together? Imperion - and Elena - they both would have crushed me without you. And I'm not ragging on myself - I don't think most people could. Not without...not without their own Mariko, know what I mean? I have strength of my own, I know that. But anything more, anything that's pushing me into 'greatness,'" she said, actually making the air-quotes with her fingers, "that all comes from you. From being with you."
"So you're telling me that even when you outwit him repeatedly, concoct and execute a daring plan to weaken him, and then fight and defeat Imperion in single combat - I still get the credit?"
"...Alright, it does sound a little messed up when you put it like that."

The two lay back on the bed. Sophie, the shorter of the two, tucked herself in against Mariko. She took Mariko's hand, pressed it against her chest.
"It's kind of a shame," Sophie said.
"What is, sweetheart?"
"Everyone's gonna know about the whole Imperion thing. And I have a funny feeling that you're gonna get your share of the credit. But no-one's going to know about what you did in Ferndale. Even if I told the story, I still don't think people would understand."
"It's certainly an unusual tale."
"No - well, yeah, but that's not what I mean." Sophie's face took on a kind of...considered softness, at once tender and thoughtful. "When I met you, you really kinda sucked at making connections with people."
Mariko took no offence. On the contrary: "That's an understatement. I was actively hostile to the idea."
"Sure. And like, changing is one thing. Recognising your flaws and trying to work around them is one thing." Still holding onto Mariko's hand, Sophie slowly ran her hand across Mariko's cheek. "But you...when you saved me from Elena, you dived into my heart. You went right to the core of me, and you didn't even flinch. You -" Sophie laughed, in a kind of astonishment. "You know the whole hedgehog's dilemma thing? Well your solution was basically just to take the spines right in the face." She was smiling, in a way, but there were tears in her eyes as well. "Mariko...you held my soul in your arms, and you want to call me great? You're...ugh, I know I'm not supposed to put you on a pedestal either, but fucking Christ, you don't make it easy!" She sat up on her knees. "Do you understand what I'm saying? Do you get it? No-one...no-one ever really masters themselves like that, but you did! You're unreal, Mariko! You're...beyond a superhero! Do you know what I mean? You're...fucking awe-inspiring!"

Words had no more power to express what lay in Sophie's gentle heart, and she kissed her soulmate with sweet intensity. Mariko kissed her in return, slipping her arms around the small of Sophie's back and pulling her as close as she could.
"I love you," Sophie whispered. "I'll...I'll never be able to say it enough."
"Nor will I," Mariko replied, and she kissed Sophie's pale neck, nimble fingers unbuttoning her blouse. She kissed her again, and again, felt Sophie's legs caressing hers, and felt...magnified. Whatever she was, she was a hundred times more for having been with Sophie. And they were not just lovers anymore. With everything that had happened, every suffering they had shared, they had been bound together, inextricably. Despite the sorrow that Jackson had thrust upon them, theirs were two destinies joyfully intertwined.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sara was breathing heavily. She had volunteered - insisted - on being the one to hold the press conference. It was a dismal duty, and she would not force it on anyone else. She found herself alone in the Pauldron's headquarters, in advance of the meeting, and it was a bitter reminder of a life so much of which had been a lie. The rest of the people in the great ziggurat that Jackson's grandfather had constructed were like ghosts: silent, dead-eyed. In theory, nothing had changed. Jackson being evil didn't mean that those in his employ didn't have families to feed. Alas, in the coming few weeks, many of them would be laid off as assets were seized by the government, but for now they had no choice but to carry on as normal.
"They're ready for you." This was one of Jackson's secretaries. She hid it pretty well, but she'd visibly been crying.
"Thanks, Muriel," Sara replied.

A wall of noise and the flashing of cameras as Sara stepped outside the Morrow Building. She was dressed in black - none of the Pauldron would appear in anything else, in mourning for Fahrenheit. There were so many attempts at questions that it all merged into mere sound, and Sara could ignore it easily.
"First off," she said, "yeah, it's true. Jackson Morrow was Hades. No, none of us knew. I think he had something to do with the Anubis Foundation as well, but I don't know the specifics. I'm sure there'll be an investigation now." She breathed in, sharply. "I don't imagine this is going to be much of a surprise, but the Pauldron is disbanding."
There were murmurs in the crowd. "Who's going to be head of the CRO now?" someone shouted.
"I don't know," Sara replied. "We have no control over that. Look, I'm sure that the aftermath of all this is going to be feeding you guys stories for months. Maybe years. But that's all I've got for you now. That...and an apology." She closed her eyes. "I'm sorry we didn't find out sooner. I'm sorry we let him...do everything that he did. We failed you. That's all." She turned away, and the conference would have ended there had someone not shouted over the general hubbub.
"Why should we trust any of you anymore?" The voice hushed the others. "If even Imperion turned out to be a crook, why the hell should we trust a single one of you? Why should we tolerate people like you anymore?"

Something in Sara hardened at hearing that. But it was not just another layer of suffering. For she called to mind Mariko's plea to her allies, for their duty not to be forgotten. She turned back, and stood at the podium again.
"You know the worst thing about the human race?" Sara said. "We want everything to be easy. We want everything to be straightforward and simple. That's why we like fairy tales. Bad guys and good guys, witches and princes - it's what makes superheroes so appealing, isn't it? Good guys in bright colours fighting bad guys who dress in black and laugh maniacally and plot to take over the world. That's exactly what Jackson Morrow used to manipulate all of us, as Imperion and as Hades.

You know what's easy? To worship superheroes and never having to worry about people misusing their power, or being certain that there's enough good guys that they'll easily take care of any bad apples. You know what else would be easy? To say that all superhumans are dangerous and untrustworthy. To lobby for laws to restrict their activities, or to ban them from working as superheroes, or to just outright start rounding people up. It wouldn't be pleasant, but it'd be nice and easy. Well don't you dare. All of you - anyone who hears this. Don't you dare fall into that trap, just to cling to the first emotion you feel because that's what's simple. Maybe things should change, but any kind of knee-jerk reaction is only going to make things worse. So if we all decide that the way that superheroes work needs to be different, then fine, but it had better be something that we've actually thought about."

She was sweating. She wiped the water from her brow, and was surprised at the hush. They were listening to her.
"Look, I didn't mean for this to be a big speech," Sara said. "But - well, I'm not retiring, for whatever that's worth. Even if there's no Pauldron, I'm not going to give up being a superhero. I'm not letting him take that from me as well. I...the world needs it. Not me, not specifically but..." She was struggling to be clear. "Look, every two-bit author who thinks he's a genius has written some what-if novel about the world if there had never been any superhumans. They're pretty much all along the lines of 'oh, we'd have had two more world wars by now' or they're just racist, anti-super fantasising. But I think that's bullshit. What we bring, what superhumans bring...put it this way - when was the last time someone doubted we had a future? As a species, I mean. We can see it. We can see the future happening. We see it happening in our children. Without that, without knowing that there's more for us...what would we be? Just a bunch of squabbling apes fighting over nothing as the world heats up and we slowly destroy everything beautiful on it. We'd be hopeless. So if you're gonna start tearing down superheroes, you'd sure as shit better have something to put in our place." And then, just to punctuate it all, she gathered her power about her, and soared heavenward, a star, in the form of a young woman. Jackson could cause her pain - but he could not stifle her radiance.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Nova returned to the Morrow building early the next morning, as she always did. There was a great deal to do, and there was still crime to fight. Even if it was merely a show of force, Nova did not want it to seem to the criminal element of California - who no doubt were now jostling for supremacy in Hades' absence - that they would go unchecked. She didn't expect any of the others to turn up, except for Mariko of course. She was surprised at how much she did want to see her there. And indeed, a few minutes after she'd arrived, someone did enter. But it was not Mariko.

She was tall, easily the tallest woman Sara had ever seen in person, and strikingly beautiful. Her skin was a rich brown, her hair straight and long, her body exceptionally - extravagantly - shapely. But her eyes, while pretty, were quite timorous. She was no warrior, though she was a superhuman: and not just any superhuman. She was about a third as powerful as Imperion himself, and for good reason: what he'd told Sara about his wife imitating his powers had not been a lie. Indeed, had she not had the very same power as Imperion, he never could have interfaced his armour with her.

"It's Anya, isn't it?" Sara said. She felt...she didn't know how she felt.
"Um, yes," she replied. "You must be Nova."
"Call me Sara." She even managed a smile.
"Uh, okay, Sara." She looked around nervously. She'd not set foot in that building for the better part of a decade, but to her it had only been a week. The differences were very disconcerting. "Jackson didn't leave a will."
"Oh no?" It was a curious opening gambit, conversationally speaking.
"Sorry that must have sounded kinda random, uh...what I mean is that, well, when everything gets - gets sorted out, legally speaking...I mean, I was still his wife...so it all comes to me." Before Sara could reply to this, Anya blurted out: "So I - I don't want you to worry! I know that you might be scared that you guys wouldn't have any resources or anything, but - I'm giving everything away to people who need it, apart from a fund to - to keep the Pauldron going." She shuddered. "He used me...he used me to do so many awful things..."
"It wasn't your fault," Sara said, and she felt herself shiver slightly when she said this.
"N-no, I know, but...I want to give something back. And I've been looking up the stuff you guys have done...you're awesome! You've gotta keep going!"
Sara smiled wearily. "I...I appreciate the sentiment, Anya. And I'm sure you'll find good things to do with his money...but I don't think there's going to be a Pauldron anymore."
"Says who?"

Sara should have known from the cocky, friendly tone, from the thump of her steel-capped boots, but she didn't realise who it was until she actually saw her. She couldn't have known what relief she would get from this.
"Farah!" Sara cried out, and her first real smile since finding out about Jackson appeared on her face. "What the hell are you doing here?"
It was not just her. Behind her, Samson Sparr and Jason Johansson - the Pariahs had come.

"I'm here," Farah said. "'Cause I suck." She threw herself down in a chair, folding her legs haphazardly. "I suck at being a leader."
"I wouldn't say you s-sucked," Sam mumbled. "You're just...kinda irresponsible."
"I could have done better," Jason grumbled.
"No, for real. I only wanted to lead my own team to shove it in Jackson and Derek's faces that they'd got me wrong. Well, I sure as shit don't care about Jackie's opinion anymore, do I? So I'm surrendering my crown."
"What's that got to do with me?" Sara asked.
"What do you think?" Farah said. "We're all Pariahs now, darling. I think it's time for you to take the reins."
"Farah, I...I...wh...what?"
"Say yes."

It wasn't any of the Pariahs, or Anya who had spoken. It was a strange voice, as from one unused to the act of speech. And such it was: Mark Mikklesen had just entered.
"Bert?" Farah spluttered. "What the - oh, shit did - did you lose your powers?"
"Temporarily. I asfed - ugh, damn it - asked someone I know to suppress them temporarily. I wanted to say out loud - one, I'm pissed off that you guys had your big conversation about the future of the Pauldron without me, and that two, I don't..." He shut his eyes. He was still very fragile. "I don't want to let it go to waste. So I'm staying at your side, Sara, d'you hear? I...uh, well, I didn't realise the Pariahs would be here too, but - yeah. Let's all put our heads together."

And there was yet another surprise - a streak of orange light zipped past the huge windows, and in a few seconds, a man who was going very much against medical advice appeared before the assembled heroes.
"S-Sara!" Ivan spluttered. Still covered in burns, he seemed to be keeping himself conscious by sheer force of will. "Damn what anyone thinks! To hell with the world! If people...castigate you, or - or - accuse you, or hold you responsible for what that fuck did, then ignore them! Be a hero without approval! That's what the Pariahs are..." He'd only just noticed that his colleagues were there. "You sons of bitches, did you seriously just steal my thunder?!"
"I don't know," Jason replied. "'Cause it's hard to tell if you're about to invite her to join the team, or if you're gonna propose to her."
"Wh- what the...?!" Ivan, for perhaps only the second or third time in his entire life, blushed. Sam pointed and laughed, whooping hysterically. "Ooooh, you fuckers!" Ivan hissed. "The second I'm not in crippling pain, I swear to God!"

"Look," Sara said, trying to restore some order, "I'm not sure about us combining forces like this. Maybe it's a good idea, maybe it's not, but..." She looked at Farah. "I don't know why you want me to lead. You've got more experience." She looked at Ivan. "You're much more powerful." She looked at Catastrophe. "Even you have more leadership experience than I do."
"Oh, even me. Nice," Jason muttered.
"Listen," Farah said. "I saw your speech last night. We all did. Girl, you're a fucking inspiration. And you're right: people need something to believe in. They'll believe in you. So it's time to stop being Imperion's princess, and to start being what you were always meant to be, sister: a queen."

And if, after that, Sara had had any doubt, one last man entered. He walked slowly, limping slightly, though the damage in his legs wasn't too bad. He had a bladeless hilt at his side, and a sort of quiver of blades on his opposite hip. He walked slowly, past the assembled company, until he was standing again in a familiar spot - at the side of what had once been Imperion's desk. He turned around, looked Sara in the eye. She'd been right: people did need something to believe in.
"Well, commander," he said. "What now?"
______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sophie had known that going back to college would be a very, very awkward prospect, but her life had to resume at some point. So she bit the bullet, and just went straight in. The whispers, she'd expected. The stares, sure. But the awe...that was something she'd not anticipated. It was embarrassing. But she held her head high. She'd made her choice: she had to lie in the bed she'd made.

She approached her lecture hall, where she was due to receive what would probably be a pretty interesting talk on Sino-Japanese relations during the fifties and sixties, and was surprised to find Kirsten waiting for her.
"Hey," her old friend said. "Thought you might want the company."
Sophie smiled warmly at her. "You're gonna find this really boring. International relations. Not your wheelhouse."
"What? It's totally my wheelhouse. Come on, we might miss all the international...relating." She hooked her arm with Sophie, and the two walked in together. She wasn't looking forward to it, but Sophie felt like she knew what to expect. There would be a hush, murmuring, muttering, that sort of thing. People would stare at her and then pretend to look away. And it would probably be like that for a while, but eventually it would get better. People would lose interest.

Except there was no hush. There was total silence. The moment Sophie walked in, everyone stopped talking. The lecture hall was packed, and it was not in anticipation of the course's content. They were there for her. And when she walked in, her arm hooked with that of her friend, they stood. Sophie saw them, and for one moment she felt like a trapped animal. They were all staring at her, totally unembarrassed.
"What the hell's going on?" Sophie's question was answered in due time - for, at once, the entire room erupted into spectacular applause.

"Wh-what?" Sophie almost whimpered. They cheered. They cheered and whooped for her with such energy that it was hard for her to believe it. She didn't understand. It didn't make sense. For her to be celebrated, perhaps, but there was so much despair, so much heartache attached to her victory, that she couldn't see why they were applauding her so vigorously.
"You haven't seen, have you?" Kirsten said, having to shout over the sound of the clapping. She fished something out of her purse, and handed it to Sophie. She almost fell to her knees.

It was a copy of the Herald. On its cover was a drawing, a rather good one, of - well of her. Gleaming in gold, burning in red, and shining with silver, she was brandishing a sword, leaping into battle with the shadowy figure of Jackson Morrow, bulked up to Hades-ish proportions. About them, fallen heroes, and beneath it all, a single word as the headline. After that day, after all knew what Mariko knew, that there was greatness within Sophie Scott, the name 'Enhancegirl' just didn't seem appropriate anymore. The name that she'd chosen in an off-the-cuff moment minutes after receiving her powers had served her well enough, but no longer. Only old enemies, now far inferior to her, would still use it to mock her. Now anyone who wanted to show her any respect at all called her by the name that had, like a crown, had anointed Sophie at the apex of her triumph.

When Sophie eventually sat down, she realised that she was crying, and she didn't immediately know why. Perhaps, she thought, she was just overwhelmed. But it was more than that. It felt...conclusive. She had started as a mere victim, then as a weak fighter, than a strong one. Now...now, she stood alongside Mariko - and would always stand alongside her, as more even than a hero. She was a legend. The girl of wit and cunning who with nothing more than guile had torn Imperion's crown from him. She shook, clenching a fist, and at last felt like there was some balance in the world. And deep, deep within her, a part of her that had wept for hours upon hours as a child, that had succoured Elena and let her fester, a primordial darkness was, for the moment, assuaged. It was not a perfect day, but there was something mythical about it. There was a kind of light about Sophie, and she felt almost as if it were controlling her. Certainly, when that day had started, she had not expected to ask Mariko to marry her by its end.

Oh, and the name?

"Kingslayer."
_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Over the next year, things changed in the lives of all who have touched this story - and a litany of tales could be told of their exploits. The New Pauldron worked with a terrifying efficiency in rooting out every drop of evil that Jackson had left behind. Mariko stayed with them for much of that time, but left after a while, Julie taking her place once she had at least partly reforged her life. For Mariko's star was shining so brightly that it almost dimmed out the others, for her greatness and her might would not stop growing - and of course she was one of the two Great Heroes who had vanquished Hades.

She began, therefore, her own team: herself, Zayin, who had all but fallen in love with the stories she'd heard about Spectra; Falcona, who had always found the Pauldron a little too pompous for her liking; Valora, who felt a duty to stand together with her kind in what was, as Sara had predicted, a difficult time for them; Impulse, a telekinetic hero from Chad, who had been making as much of a name for himself as Spectra had in the years of this tale; and Celeritas, whose reputation for tardiness belied great power, skill, and a thorough, earthy decency.

As for Sophie, the Kingslayer? She worked with Spectra's Sentinels from time to time, but she had always, and would always prefer, keeping relatively independent. She began to become a little more politically active in her third year at college, and could often be seen at the forefront of counter-Inferiorite rallies. That, for her, was now part of her job, part of what she'd made herself. If Imperion's evil had done one thing, it had blurred the lines between superheroes and the 'regular folk'. 'What else could you do?' became something of a slogan for people trying to persuade young superhumans to use their powers in innovative ways, not just to go into the business of beating the tar out of each other.

But there would always be superheroes - there would always be a need for them. For example, a little girl named Madeleine Maynard, who turned eight years old the day that Mariko Asakura tearfully accepted her beloved's proposal. By the time she was twenty-eight, she would be the first woman to exceed the power of the Indigo Titan, and even before that would be known as Spectra's greatest disciple. But it had started the day Madeleine had seen a certain, beautiful redhead on television, and had been so enchanted by her that she'd read up everything she could about her. Awe-inspired by the legend of Enhancegirl, she manifested her powers for the first time the following day.

And a new legend began.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

Fantastic finish. Wonderful final battle. Then everything wrapped up and all emotions covered with great skill and care. It's a testament to your writing talent and your generous heart that I will miss Sophie and Mariko very much. Thank you for sharing their story with us. It was a wonderfully rewarding experience.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by Damselbinder »

DrDominator9 wrote: 4 years ago Fantastic finish. Wonderful final battle. Then everything wrapped up and all emotions covered with great skill and care. It's a testament to your writing talent and your generous heart that I will miss Sophie and Mariko very much. Thank you for sharing their story with us. It was a wonderfully rewarding experience.
Thank you, Dr D. I'm chuffed as hell that you stuck with the series all the way through. Knowing that even a small number of people cared was a phenomenal motivator.
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Re: The Perils of Enhancegirl Finale: Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

Post by DrDominator9 »

I actually came a tad late to the series. I think there are some very early episodes I never read. I will probably try to locate the first four or five of them.
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