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A Whateley Universe Story

The Final Trump

By Bek D Corbin

 

Part 3

 

JJ had been right- the warehouse was a rat’s nest. Mara looked at the layout of the storage area and saw three of the banes of modern Academia at work: Tight Budgets, Interdepartmental Rivalry, and Issue Faddism. First Nations issues tended to fade in and out of fashion, as the question of whether Anthropologists were exalting or exploiting the cultures they studied waxed and waned. The warehouse smelled of dust, paper, mold and apathy.

Mara was dressed to intimidate, with the ultimate symbols of authority: a dark wig with a severe hairstyle, thick unflattering glasses, a lab coat, an ID badge, and a clipboard. Looking disgusted at the pendulum in her hand, she said to her husband (via cell phone in her other hand), [liberally translated from the original French], “It’s no use, Nick darling! I can’t get a firm fix on anything, because there are too many items of trivial magical significance tucked away here and there! It’s like trying to find one conversation in the middle of a convention of gossipy teenage girls! And the maddening thing is that I’ll bet that nothing here is worth the risk of trying to sneak out.”

[Are you sure that it’s going to be here and now?] Nick asked from where one his teams was assembled. This time, Nick had decided on his default identity, ‘the Shadowmaster’, a ‘mysterious all-knowing criminal mastermind’ type with some sort of control over shadows. Most of the ‘shadow control’ gear was built into the thick black trench coat he wore. He’d put a lot of time and money (Luke’s time, and Nick’s money) into some sort of intangibility rig, but that had turned up a cropper in the last round. That still rankled both of them at times.

“Oh, I’m sure,” Mara said, looking around. “I can feel the magic drawing us here. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t walk away from this; the magic would just find a way of dragging us back in. Akelarre must be up to something very potent, for the magic to build up to this point after only seven ordeals. If there are twelve ordeals to her Quest, which is the usual number, then the magical urge should be only a subtle tug, not the insistent drag that I feel.”

[Is there any chance that she’s working in bits and pieces from old Quests that she bungled years ago?]

Mara stopped and mulled it over. “It’s possible, but dangerous. To be effective, a Quest must have a set, specific goal. Even if she could hold onto shards of magic to use later, she’d run into Rule of Three: three attempts, which grow in power, but after the third failure, the magic actively impedes any further attempts.”

[Maybe she’s figured out a way of turning that on its head?] Nick hazarded, more out of need to keep himself focused than any hope of offering a real insight. But then, [What the devil?]

“NICK?” Mara urged cursing the limitations of these new-fangled phones.

[Mara, m’love, you have GOT to see this] Nick patched in a feed to the cameras from the disguised Tactical Module’s cameras. A group of large shaggy goats ambled casually between two buildings and made their way onto the campus Quad. They were striking beasts, with long silky hair and backward sweeping horns. The perspective of the cameras made it hard to get an idea as to how large they were, until students came up to provide scale; they were large animals, between 4 and 5 feet at the shoulder. But the most remarkable thing about them was that they were jeweled, with elaborately bejeweled harnesses, horn-sheathes, and golden masks that covered their faces.

“Nick, Akelarre’s making her move,” Mara said tersely.

[Yeah, but is this what she’s really after, or just the decoy?]

“Whatever it is, it’s getting closer, getting ready to enter the equation,” Mara said uncertainly. “But I still don’t have a sense of what it is, or what it’s doing.”

[Well that wasn’t cryptic, not at all…]

“Do I complain about your unnecessarily complex and oblique schemes?”

[As much as I’m looking forward to continuing this spirited debate- and I’m looking forward to the makeup sex even more- we’re going to have to table this. The second act has started.] Students curiously approached the goats, who studiously ignored them. Security tried to remove the goats from the quad, as they weren’t just grazing on the grass, but on everything of vegetable matter. Which wasn’t that big a problem when they were just eating litter, but when they started eating books, especially expensive text books, things got nasty. But the goats stoutly refused to be removed and they were stronger than they looked. More than one campus cop got butted onto his butt. Then older types who showed all the signs of academics showed up, and guesses and inferences and debate started flying. [Methinks they’ve hit the snag in Akelarre’s plan,] Nick said dryly. [Namely, getting academics to commit to any kind of reasonable plan in less than 3 months.]

However, possibly spurred by the power of the Great Quest- or maybe just by the fact that it was after all pretty dang obvious- the academics noticed the designs of the masks on the goats and put those together with the design on the Stony Mill Skull. While most of the Humanities types (the Hard Science types having opted out early) were only too happy to form a committee to thoroughly investigate this matter (if funding was available), someone (probably an undergrad) went and brought the gold-clad skull out.

[Kage, prep areas for our teams. Assume that the Oppositions knows that we’re here, but isn’t sure where we are. Latigo, Marcel, Lynx, Sully- you’re Team D. Ace, are Teams A, B and C ready?]

“Just waitin’ for your special touch, Bossman.”

[Mara, are you ready?]

“Everyone out there is concentrating on those goats. Even as we speak, I’m drawing a scrying circle that should be far more discerning than the pendulum alone. The shard should react to Akelarre’s presence enough to out-shout the interference.”

[Team D- GO] With that, Nick slipped into his ‘Shadowmaster’ persona. The Shadowmaster was Mystery personified, a man-shaped shadow in a trench coat and fedora, who came and went without fanfare, speaking only cryptic utterances. Nick switched on the light-frequency shifting force field that cloaked him in darkness, chuckled for a moment, and went to work.

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The undergrad, a rather weedy sort named Herschel, struggled under the weight of his burden; not so much the skull, as the Inventory Chief and security guard who were dogging his heels, nattering away at him. And of course, the second that he got there, Dr. Othmar, being a veteran of many academic wrangles, took the skull- and the limelight- away from him to compare the skull to the design on the goats’ masks.

The second it saw the skull, the largest buck of the small flock stepped forward and nuzzled it. Then, as if satisfied, it reared up on its hind legs, and impossibly shifting its form from a large quadruped to a colossal biped, its fore hooves somehow becoming crude hands. It reared back its head and gave out a spine-chilling ululating cry, which the other goats reacted to by also rearing back and assuming bipedal postures and joining in on the rattling call. As the academics reacted to this with wide-eyed awe and terror, the lead buck butted the security guard who was trying to tear the Stony Mill Skull from Dr. Othmar’s numb hands. This sent the guard flying back, scattering many of the academics like tenpins. Which, sadly, some of them resembled.

At this, Nick prepped his shadowmen for action. Despite (deliberately) misleading appearances, his ‘shadowmen’ were neither henchmen nor robots, but rather automatons made up of three single-molecule thick sheets of a fullerene compound studded with miniscule beads. The sheets acted as battery, and base kinetic function, while the beads acted as sensors, computer network and structural support. While each sheet was thinner than a piece of tissue paper, they could mold themselves to take on various forms. The three basic forms were puddles of darkness that slithered around on a form of capillary action, stock ‘man of darkness’ humaniforms, and copies of Nick’s ‘Shadowmaster’ outline. As they weighed less than six ounces each, they weren’t very good at punching or kicking things. But the ‘tissue’ was very strong and the contrasted capillary action provided lots of torque, so they could take lots of physical damage and were very good at grappling and throwing. They could link together to form limited gestalt units, but that had synchronization issues. The shadowmen were the work of a true genius. Actually of three true geniuses and Nick’s brother Luke, who’d stole the work of those geniuses and put them together to create the shadowmen. Due to an interface that Luke had created, which Nick didn’t understand (and didn’t really want to), Nick could telepathically communicate with, direct and receive input from the shadowmen. When he was directing his shadowmen, Nick was nigh unto an army by himself.

And best of all, they were cheap! At $30 a head, if the fullerene ‘printer’ that Luke used to make them wasn’t as slow as molasses, Nick would have had full battalions of the things!

But just as he was about to bring his 30-man force of shadows into full preparedness, Nick got an urgent ‘answer this call!’ buzz on his cell phone. Muting a snarl of frustration, he answered his phone. Seeing that it was Mara, and remembering his own previous snipe about being cryptic, and not wanting to give her ammunition for their blow-up later, he willed himself out of his Shadowmaster mindset, and back into his more amiable default personality. [ah, Dear? I’m _working_?]

“So am I- the shard is in the area and it’s entered the situation.”

[Excellent! I take back that unkind comment about being cryptic.]

“No, you don’t! Nick, you started that spat, and I’m holding you to it!”

[Delighted, but in the meantime, how has the shard entered the situation? What can you tell me about it? Can you nail it down to a location or person?]

“No, that’s the problem,” Mara said, looking at her pendulum as it jerked around the scrying circle. “It’s here, it’s there, no, it’s over there, now it’s somewhere else… but I’m not seeing any signs of a gate or teleportation or other immediate relocation method.”

[What about superspeed?]

“I take it that’s not wild theorization.”

[Sending] Mara received a blurred image of a greenish yellow streak that briefly impacted on an academic before doing the same to a huge brutish -though gorgeously pelted- goatman and then a large brawny student (presumably either on the football or wrestling teams). There was a brief pause, which was frozen, focused on, and ‘cleaned up’ to show a man in an odd green-yellow ‘dinosaur’ outfit with an overlong blood red helmet that connected to an odd ‘spine’ of the same color that ran down his back, ending in a long whip-like ‘tail’. Jutting out of the back of his red gauntlets were a single wicked crescent blade each. While most speedsters either keep their footgear as simple as possible, or build them up to diminish rapid-pace foot trauma, this man had massive nasty talons built into his boots. There was a ‘Searching’ superscript, followed by ‘VELOCIRAPTOR’, and then a message stating that he was a member in good standing with the Syndicate. [Y'know, I never heard of this guy before,] Nick commented, [but he’s moving at speeds that would run rings around Silver Streak]

“Well, this just became quite awkward…”

[His Syndicate writeup says that he’s an ‘Acquisitions Specialist’- probably a Snatch-and-Run artist. He’s probably been hired by Akelarre to snag the Skull. So, either the Goats beat the crap out of him and take him and the skull home to mommy-]

“Or Velociraptor delivers the skull to his principal and is ambushed at the drop-off. Nick, the shard has either bonded with his dynamorph-assuming that that’s what powers his speed- or his power harness- again, assuming that that’s what his speed is powered by. Talking him out of the latter will be… tricky… but the former could become…. Problematic, at the very least. Be careful of how you handle him, dear?”

[Not to worry, Mara…] Nick said with a smirk. [Do you remember those ‘Br’er Rabbit’ stories we taught the kids? The ones the schools got all in a knot about?}

“Yes, and?”

[Just watch] Slipping back into his Shadowmaster persona, Nick took command of his small army, and willed them to take their ‘puddle’ forms. They weren’t fast, but as Nick smirked to himself, ‘There’s more than one way to catch a rabbit.’

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Nick signed off, but left the video link open for her to watch. But looking around, Mara saw an opening for an opportunity that would be useful, whether Nick’s efforts were Win, Lose or Draw. She quickly changed the arrangements of her circles, changing them from Scrying circles to Conjuring circles. “Accolon,” she said off-handedly. Her familiar poked its head out of her purse in its cat form, the least objectionable, of its many modes, should it be discovered by a stranger. “HUNT. I need minor domestic spirits of this place: library spirits, school spirits, archive spirits… inventory spirits, if there are such things. Place them here,” she pointed into an empty but warded circle, “but do not harm them and leave such wits as they have intact.” She finished with a negligent ‘make it so’ gesture, and Accolon shifted into the form of a very large (but not quite huge) spider and bounded off into the warehouse.

By the time that Mara had finished reconfiguring the circle, Accolon had gathered up a collection of spirits of the sort that she’d asked for, and was standing guard over them in its scorpion form. While spirits can be vast and powerful and quite alien, School and Library spirits are easily the meekest and most benign of the Humanitaes, the spirits that are the byproduct of human endeavors. While they often took more abstract forms, for interacting with this strange new human who could not only see them but cage them, the School and Library spirits took forms that were the most likely to elicit a positive response from an unknown human. They took the forms of ‘Chibi’ teachers, professors, librarians and other such academics. They were almost appallingly cute.

Not that Mara was swayed. She’d learned a rather jaundiced view of spirits in general, and she was well aware of their attempt at manipulation. By their very nature, Humanitaes are far more rational, reasonable and logical than most spirits; but they can also be quite pedantic, obstructive and bureaucratic. If you let them, they will quibble you into nonaction for hours, choking on dust motes. The trick is to not let them get started quibbling. “LOOK at this place!” Mara snarled at them, tapping a pen on her clipboard. “This is a DISGRACE!” From there, she proceeded to read them the Riot Act, and bounced them around in a fusillade of invective, accusation and belittlement that would have done R. Lee Ermey proud. When she had them well and truly spinning, she let them loose with orders to clean up the place, get everything systematic, prepare an inventory and present a list of stored objects of magical significance…. NOW!

As the diminutive bookworms sprinted off to obey, Mara took advantage of her opportunity to check up on the fight. She patched back into the video feed just in time to catch Kage, dressed as one of Nick’s ‘shadowmen’, standing on the back of the neck of one of the goatmen, nearly decapitate that goat with a double-bladed ‘scissors’ cut on its neck. The man-beast let out a gurgling gasp, and collapsed onto the ground. Well, it was messy, and the gutter media would have a field day with it, but Kage worked for Nick pretty much so that he could do this. You do have to give the dog his bone.

Mara made out that both the Goats and Velociraptor were having problems because they were impeded by a mysterious pool of tarry something that somehow managed to be wherever they were stepping, and got all over them, making it almost impossible for them to move. Ah, that’s what Nick meant by ‘Br’er Rabbit’; the ‘Tar Baby’ story, both the most original story of that cycle, and the most likely to stir up a fuss in modern educational circles. The seemingly liquid shadowmen kept both the speedy thief and the men-beasts from getting anywhere, but they still couldn’t get the skull away from the alpha Buck. Or, far more importantly, they couldn’t nail down Velociraptor and get him away from that insane situation without completely giving the show away.

Then ‘Team D’ maneuvered another of the Goats into a kill situation: Lynx got him off balance, Marcel threw him off his hooves, and Latigo came up to him as he reeled on the ground. Bang. Dead Goat. The Goats were tough, possibly superhumanly tough, but Team D was bringing them down through attrition. Then Velociraptor did something that tore him out of the morass of shadow-tar. He spun around, shedding the shadow-drones. Once he was completely clear, he stopped, spotted the buck holding the skull, and braced. Just the shadow-puddle closed in on him, Velociraptor did a high vaulting leap at the buck and performed a tight barrel roll. He twisted that force into a spinning multi-slice strike with both claws, that tail and one of the foot-talons that ripped opened his target’s neck and abdomen and inner thigh, and opened a long, jagged laceration that exposed the goat’s ribs.

The Stony Mill Skull dropped from the dying buck’s hands covered in his blood, and fell into a pool of the dead goats’ mixed blood.

And that immediately struck Mara as a bad idea.

Velociraptor paused to pick up the skull, but just as his hands touched the skull, the ground shook. There was a sound of water gurgling, and the ground under the skull broke open. A geyser shot up, lifting both Velociraptor and the skull high off the ground. Mara didn’t need sound to know that Velociraptor was screaming as the geyser coalesced into a huge gleaming serpentine body with the head and foreparts of some great cat, and the face and horns of the ‘Stony Mill Devil’. She could practically hear him shriek in mortal horror as the horned cat/snake shed itself of his grip on its horns with a simple toss of its head. It flipped him high up in the air and caught him on the way down, bolting him down in a single gulp.

Mara reached out with an imperious hand and snagged one of the Humanitaes, one who took the short cute perky form of the ‘Sexy Librarian’ stereotype. “TELL ME about that thing.”

“Oh, that’s the Sintholo,” the ‘librarian pixie’ chirped, glad to be of assistance in a more scholarly way. “It’s a variant of the ‘Uktena’ ‘horned serpent’, a widespread North American aquatic phenomenon that blends much of the Russian Russlaka/ Water Maiden dynamic with the ‘dangerous oracle’ mechanism.”

“‘Dangerous Oracle’?” Mara echoed. “Explain.”

“Sintholo is a patron of young men who seek Wisdom. Not greater, transcendent wisdom, but rather wisdom of words, facts, lore and such as that. Which would explain why he decided to roost under the University.”

“Dangerous Oracle?” Mara repeated again. “And tell me, how many promising young scholars, after a mysterious spate of breakthroughs and achievements, suddenly disappear, only to be found later drowned?”

“Errr…” the Library Pixie strained with embarrassment. “One or two every year or so?”

“In other words, he’s a soggy bully with a pseudo intellectual racket,” Mara sneered, her low opinion of the spirit world confirmed yet again, “offering trifles, and demanding Life’s Last Breath in payment.” Her eyes flickered around, seeking some angle or advantage. “What taboos or nemeses or weaknesses does he have?”

“Well, he’s very upset about the quality of water in the area-”

“So he’s got a Greenpeace Excuse. Next! Nemeses?”

“Well, the Horned Serpents in general have an ongoing feud with the Thunderbirds, and Sintholo hates thunderbolts.”

“So, he’s a Chthonic aquaform with an innate susceptibility to Olympian manifestations…” she gave some thought to something. “Next! Weaknesses?”

“Well, I’m not comfortable saying…”

“Are you saying that you don’t know, or that you won’t say?” Mara tapped the clipboard significantly with her pen, as to say, ‘I have a clipboard! Are you challenging the authority of the clipboard?’

“Well, I’m not sure…” the Library Pixie whined.

“In other words, you’re saying that you don’t know…” Mara said, striking a blow at the spirit’s very core of being.

The Library Pixie bridled at this and said, “Well, I’m not sure about Sintholo and others of his particular breed, but Uktena and a few other ‘Horned Serpent’ types in North America have been known to have a ‘white spot’ that covers their heart. Striking anywhere else on the serpent is like trying to hurt a river by smacking it with a paddle. But if you strike at the heart, you disrupt his core of being. Then again, Uktena is supposed to have a diamond crest on his brow that has wonderworking potentials if you can take it. Sintholo doesn’t have such a crest, but-”

“NOT the issue!” Mara maintained. ‘That thing has several bands and spots; which is supposed to be its heart?”

“Well…” the Library Sprite waffled, “Well, it’s supposed to be a heart, right? Wouldn’t it beat?”

Mara considered that for a moment, and nodded. She tried to contact Nick on the phone, but he wasn’t answering. No doubt up to his neck with that ‘Sintholo’ snake-thing. She attempted a direct mental contact, and she immediately became aware that trying to communicate with him would only distract him. She got the same basic idea from Kage, Latigo and Marcel- oh, and she got the distinct impression that Lynx was having the time of her life.

Which suggested an alternative. An unpleasant alternative, but one that might not only save Nick’s life, but pull this mission- indeed, the entire situation- out of the hole they had been digging ever since they figured out Akelarre’s plan.

Imperiously she stuck out her hand. “Manifest?” a sheaf of paper immediately appeared in her hand. Skimming through it, she checked off several items, wrote down an address and handed it back to the portly faux-professor. “I want all of these items packaged and sent to this address, STAT! Accolon!” her familiar was at her side in the form of a scorpion. “Bring me my bags.” The scorpion flickered away and was almost immediately back with four carry-all bags. While Mara was of a generation where women, well-born ladies especially, didn’t fight, let alone seek out combat, in her career she’d found herself in situations where there simply weren’t any heroic men to take care of that for her. So she’d developed an array of ‘emergency personas’ just in case of such emergencies. She touched one and then another, picking and choosing. No, that one was too evasive; it was primarily an escape mechanism. No, that one was too confrontational; the Horned Snake was too evasive for that one, it would turn the situation around too easily. But the third one? Yes, ‘Fran Tastic’. Francis ‘Fran Tastic’ Tatum had been a foolish woman who thought that some admittedly good gymnastics skills and a set of fancy high-tech gadgets would let her mix being a sort of superhero with a professional celebrity. She’d been wrong. Don’t ask. ‘Fran Tastic’ was almost exactly the sort of fast, up-close combat that Mara personally abhorred, but it was just the thing for the situation. Having the Black Swan get involved in it would make things vastly worse, drawing the attention of parties that made Akelarre look like a little lost lamb into the mix. Mara took ‘Fran Tastic’s’ bag and told Accolon to take the rest home.

With a brief prayer to the Virgin Mary for pre-emptive forgiveness of fudging the First Commandment, Mara took an amulet from the carryall and looped it around her neck. Then she took deep draughts from three phials, one at a time, being very careful about the sequence and time between draughts. Then, quietly droning an evocation to Artemis, she burned a prayer slip.

There was a blur and a swirl as the spell changed Mara’s clothing, her appearance, her physique and her outlook for a short time. When the swirl faded, she was the same height, but her posture was very different. Her hair was now a shaggy reddish-brown mop. Her face was now half-covered by a combination eye shield/ tac-ops augmented reality adviser. She wore a bright red (covertly armored) short jacket with a stylized ‘FT’ logo on the breast and shoulder, and a gleaming gold-tone skip-pack latched to the back. Under the jacket, she wore an exceedingly fine-mesh kinetic-impact armor black bodysuit that was almost thin enough to be cloth. Around her waist were two utility belts, one of which doubled as the power belt and holster for a multi-gun and the other one doubled as the power belt for a PFG. On her feet she wore a pair of fire-engine red and white large clunky-chic athletic shoes. While everything she had worked perfectly well as strictly mundane gear, Mara had cast minor enchantments on almost everything, because she simply didn’t trust high technology. In her experience, it always worked perfectly- until you really needed it.

But at the moment, she wasn’t thinking about that. Right at that moment, she viewed the world through a filter of excitement, confidence and dynamic action! “Awww YEAH!” she exulted in Frances Tatum’s broad middle American accent. “Fran Tastic is booted up and ready to kick boot-AY!” Forgetting everything else- or more accurately, leaving that for Accolon- she rushed over to the nearest open window, climbed out of it without a second thought and launched herself as high up into the air as she could. As she crested her apex, the ‘wings’ of her skip pack extended, allowing her to glide- though the air elemental that she’d bound into it might have a few choice words on the topic. Never give an air elemental a chance to complain- you have to stop it with a sledge hammer. Below her, the battle scene was one of utter chaos, with the Horned Snake lashing out at the smaller figures around it, knocking shadowmen and goatmen around with abandon. She saw a group of shadowmen manage to dig Velociraptor out of Sintholo’s midsection, attempt to give him mouth-to-mouth, only to be scattered and have the Horned Serpent swallow him again. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time for either side. Mara gave out a loud whoop, pulled out the ‘thunder gun’ that had been the major reason for her choice of this guise, and set off a volley of blasts at the golden skull. Sintholo reacted to ‘Fran’s’ attack as it would a thunderbird’s and furiously snapped at her. Fran dropped to the ground, luring Sintholo to dive at her. She dodged out of the snake/cat/goat’s strike, but it set Sintholo up to be grappled by a few shadowmen, who ganged up on the thing as best they could.

The Goatmen took note of this, but did nothing.

After some actually rather pointless back and forth, Mara spotted a better tactic. She shot up high into the air and landed on the back of Sintholo’s neck. The Horned Serpent tried to shake her off, but Mara managed to loop the hoop of her dyna-lasso around the horns. Once she was sure of that, she jetted off Sintholo’s neck, and made an arc for the heavy power line junction that she’d just seen. She looped the main part of the extending cable through a bar, and then slid down the cable down to the ground. “HEY!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, “GET OVER HERE!”

The Shadowmen swarmed over en mass, and began helping Mara haul Sintholo up off the ground. Or at least drag the golden skull up higher, closer to the high-power lines. But the unique physiques of the Shadowmen turned against them; they simply lacked the weight to drag the massive water creature up very far. It just yanked them all off their feet. But then the Goatmen shed their antagonism and began pulling the cable along with the shadowmen. Sintholo fought furiously, but they managed to pull it out of its hole in the ground, shedding Velociraptor as the tail finally left the hole.

But as Velociraptor flopped onto the ground unconscious, one Man-Goat, who’d hung back, acted. As Mara and the Shadowmen watched helpless, clinging onto the cable lest they drop Sintholo and start the whole mess again, the alpha buck of the goat herd charged over to Velociraptor. He grabbed the unconscious supervillain by the vicious looking long shallow helmet with both hands, and setting a hoof against the man’s shoulder pulled. In a gruesome move that looked like he was ripping the man’s spine out of his body, it tore a long spinal assembly out of Velociraptor’s outfit, starting with the helmet and finishing with the long, lacerating tail. That done, the lead buck- and the rest of the goatmen- made off, leaving Mara and the Shadowmaster’s forces twisting in the wind- literally.

With a curse, Mara finally managed to moor the cable to a secure point, and used the cable’s retraction function to draw Sintholo up into the power junction. When the horns of the gold skull touched the high-power lines, there was a gratifying bright arc of electricity, and Sintholo shrieked like someone who’d stepped on a bee with a bare foot. It thrashed and writhed and, well, melted. As the slightly brackish water rained down on them, Mara spotted something fall from the golden skull. On pure reflex, she managed to catch it. It was a large, spindle-shaped clear crystal, just small enough to be held with one hand.

Mara remembered what the ‘book pixie’ had said about a ‘diamond crest’ with ‘wonderworking potentials’. She was wrapping her head around that when she noticed that she was now alone, holding onto the lariat cable. The Shadowmaster and his men had faded into the shadows and taken Velociraptor, or at least his body, with them. Looking around, Mara saw only the University academics, a body of campus police, a larger body of students… and one or two news crews, with more no doubt on the way. Hating to give up on it, Mara extended her dyna-lasso again, lowering the Stony Mill Skull back down to the ground. She picked up the skull, and with her best media-vulture smile on her face, turned to return the treasure to the most important of the academics. Settling that point would probably keep them too busy to notice the ‘diamond’. But just as she had the skull settled in her arms, a greenish figure rose up from the ground. She heard her eldest son John’s voice say, ‘Thanks!” With no further ado, he grasped the skull, turned it intangible, and they both passed through the nearest wall.

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Nick watched as the man known only to him as ‘Velociraptor’ struggled back to consciousness. ‘Velociraptor’ looked around the sterile room that was dominated by blank white- except for the man-shaped silhouette of inky darkness sitting in front of him. He took a moment, clearly putting things together. Instead of asking, ‘where am I?’ or ‘who are you?” or ‘where’s my power rig?’, he asked, “How come I’m not in custody?”

Wordlessly- the Shadowmaster is a man of few words- he reached over and pulled out a computer monitor. The monitor ran a 5-minute local news segment filled with video imagery from cell phones and video cameras. Velociraptor winced at the footage of the goatman ripping his power rig right off his back. The segment finished with the anchorwoman commenting on the oddness that Fran Tastic left without making a statement to either the Police or the Press. Normally, the big problem with Fran Tastic was getting her to stop making press announcements. Velociraptor sat back and absorbed that for a while. Then he looked at the Shadowmaster and said weakly but decisively, “I’m not ratting out my principal. Maybe he set me up to rip off my power item, maybe not. There are too many ways that you could game that for information.”

The Shadowmaster nodded and said in a low husky whisper. ‘I can respect that. Rest. Recover. You can leave anytime you wish.’ The room darkened for a moment, and when the lights came up again, his seat was empty.

Outside the recovery room, Nick turned off his suit’s force field and took off the fedora. “Well, give him this, Velociraptor’s tough.”

Marcel made a ‘what do you want?’ noise. “Give him a few days. He’s also a reasonable man. Despite the splatter-movie outfit, he only started cutting when he saw that it was the only way that goat-thing would give up the target. And when he did start cutting, he did it right- it was over quick for the chump. No playing around, no making it more painful or ducking around the fact that he was killing something.”

“Yeah,” Latigo agreed. “According to the comments in his online Syndicate profile, he doesn’t use those blades on living targets that much. They’re mostly for getting in and out of places, which for a Snatch-and-Run artist is pretty damn important.”

Then a door into the recuperation center, from the rest of the Harrows’ underground complex, opened, and Mara staggered in, her face set in a stricken mask. “Mara, darling!” Nick greeted her. “Brava! A stellar effort! You turned that mess around magnificently!”

Mara just stared at him with a wooden face and croaked,“Jaaacuuusssiii!”

“What?”

“Every. Part. I. HAVE. Aches!” she ground out in staccato grunts as she staggered to toward the hot tub room. “I even think I pulled my ear lobes!”

“Can’t you just fix that with…” Nick left ‘your magic?’ unspoken but clearly understood.

“This is because of my magic!” Mara snapped. “This is one of the prices for the magic helping me make my body do things it was never trained to do!” Nick swept up his wife in a comforting hug, only to release her when she let out a pained squeak.

Then something clicked. “Will you be… okay?” He looked at his wife questioningly. The great après crime sex was one of the blessings of their marriage (and one of the few redeeming things of this entire blighted spree); there was a reason why they had six children.

Mara shook her head disconsolately. “I’m afraid not, Cherie. And not for another three days.”

“What? Why not?”

“Well, in order to assume the ‘Fran Tastic’ identity, I had to cut a deal with Artemis.”

“Artemis? The Goddess of the Hunt?”

“More to the point, darling… the Virgin goddess. Since I’m not only married but a mother, Artemis demands an ordeal for her assistance.”

“You mean?”

“Not for three days, dear.” Nick let out a frustrated squeak of his own. “Well, that’s why they call it an ‘ordeal, darling.”

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Nick drove Asha and Vivian to their schools himself. Bart and Vic piled onto the shuttle for their school, and joined their voices to the joyous (for them, if not the driver) noise. JJ was waiting (alone again, naturally) for the shuttle for his school, when a car drove up right next to him. The window powered down, and JJ heard JD’s voice say, “Get in NOW.”

Looking in, JJ saw the Phantom Highwayman in full regalia at the steering wheel. Biting off a question, JJ got inside. “Okay, what’s going on, and how’m I supposed to explain this at school? You know how paranoid they get!”

“You’re not going to school today,” JD said as he headed downtown. “I called ahead and told them that you wouldn’t be in, and as your older brother, I took full responsibility. Mrs. Bernard recognized my voice, so it was cool.”

“Okay, I’m always up for a ditch day,” JJ said. “But WHY?”

“It’s gotten nasty, Squirt.”

“Nasty? JD, they hung a woman for a human sacrifice! It’s already nasty!”

“JJ- they got Zach.”

“What? How? When? He’s at that stupid Goodkind family thing that his father dragged him to!”

“JJ, there never was any GKI family get-together thing. His father’s in Malaysia doing… something, and his mother’s still at that Betty Ford knockoff rehab clinic. When I checked on him, I found out that not only didn’t he arrive at the airport in Durham, North Carolina, but he never even picked up his tickets at the reservation desk HERE!”

“JD, WHY would they take Zach? I mean, they think that the Phantom Highwayman has JD Harrow under lock and key, so why would they bag his best bud?”

“I dunno…” JD admitted. “I thought for a moment that maybe they were trying to muscle me out of the equation, or maybe even that they’d figured out who I really was.”

“Doesn’t work,” JJ said thinking furiously. “In the first case, if they wanted a hostage against the family, they’d go for the Eldest Son, not his best bud. Let’s face it, Zach isn’t even a fourth or fifth choice on that score. Hell, even I’m higher on the kidnapping threat list than Zach is! And as for the second thing, Jay-Dee, if they knew who you really were, they’d just slip you a mickey or drop a 16-ton weight on you out of left field or something nice, quick and final. It wouldn’t be anything sneaky or subtle, they’d just drop the hammer and be done with it!”

“But they ARE being subtle about it,” JD mused through his blank mask. He thumped the steering wheel of the car with his fist in frustration. “I HATE this! I hate not being able to just… reach into their minds and DRAG whoever their stupid MOLE is out. It might give Akelarre a cerebral boo-boo? So What? The Bitch has it coming!”

“Agreed, and where are we going?”

“We’re going to pick up your girly duds. You have another appointment.”

“What does Akelarre want now?” JJ asked cautiously.

“Not the Goat Witch this time, Little Miss Popular,” JD smirked even through the mask. “This time Dr. Triple-X desires the pleasure of your company.”

“Doctor 30? WHY?”

“Dunno. Akelarre has had her knickers in a twist ever since that big snake-thing showed up at the U yesterday. She says that the quest is getting too powerful, that it’s jumped the definitions that she set on it, and that… blah, blah, blah… I never followed that mumbo-jumbo crap the way you did. I think that Akelarre just bit off more than she could chew- again- and that’s just occurring to her. Anyway, Dr. 30 likes the finger-waving even less than I do, so he really wants to know what you two talked about yesterday.” JD paused. “Either that, or he just doesn’t want Akelarre to be one-up on him.”

“Akelarre admits that the magic is out of her control?”

“God no! She just bitches and whines about how she’s doing all the real heavy carrying, and we should make concessions to her. BUT she IS worried, I can tell you that, Squirt.”

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After JJ got her girl-clothes and switched over at the Y, JD drove her into an area that was being heavily developed, with high-rise construction all over the place. JD phoned ahead, and pulled into an unmanned construction site. Only slowing down a little, he passed through a freight container module into a crude elevator. As the car rose, JD explained, “Dr. 30 exploits the fact that construction projects like this can go on hiatus for weeks, months at a time. For a fraction of what he’d have to pay for a regular lair, he pays off site security and moves in his modules. And depending on how much he likes the location, he can do all sorts of stuff to prolong the work stoppage.”

As they rose, JJ wondered whether to deplore Dr. XXX’s shoddy methods- or figure out a way of passing this ploy along to Uncle Luke. Uncle Luke was always moving his lairs around, and this might make for a good stopgap measure between more secure sites.

As JJ wrapped her head around that, JD said, “I’m going to excuse myself for a bit. Keep Thirty talking. He loves to talk.”

“Why?”

“I think he’s compensating for-”

“NO, why do I have to keep him busy?”

“I need to look around the place, maybe see if I can find something that will tell me whether 30 or Akelarre is holding Zack.”

“What makes you think that 30’s holding Zack here?”

“To be honest, I’m hoping that 30’s holding him, mostly because that means that Akelarre doesn’t have him. They haven’t had him that long, and if Dr. 30’s got him, then he’s probably just holding him to use later on as some kind of bargaining chip. But if Akelarre’s got him? She’ll do…horrible things… to him, just to show how fucking EVIL she is!”

“So, what are you going to do, JD?”

“You know better than that, Squirt. If you’re expecting things, then your reactions will be off. Just… talk to Triple-X, get him going- won’t be hard; like I said, he loves to talk. Just… throw that training-bra femme fatale number that you used on Akelarre at him. That confused the hell out of Akelarre, and she’s a lot older and slipperier than 30.”

The elevator stopped and JD pulled the car out. As JJ got out, she had the distinct impression that she’d somehow stepped into an issue of Maxim or some other Lad Rag. It was opulent Danish Modern, with gleaming chrome, blindingly clean whites, and polished woods, with the occasional potted plants and LOTS of white marble statuary of women. They were met by a trio of the Sorayama borgettes with much of the hardplate removed and replaced by more esthetic units. They wore white draping gowns that suggested a lot more than they showed. Without a word, the three fem-borgs guided JJ and JD through a massive, elaborately carved dark wood set of double doors (which seemed to be a popular thing with supervillains), into a large lounge. JJ’s first impression of the place was that Dr. 30’s ideas on decorating probably came from Playboy magazine, or old 1960s romantic comedies with ‘swinging bachelor pads’.

Dr. XXX was lounging on a sofa, and JJ immediately flashed on JD’s comment, ‘Robo-Pimp’. Dr. XXX was surrounded by his sexy cyborgs, three of them draping themselves over him, with the rest decorously placed around the lounge. The man himself was large, with a bodybuilder’s physique dressed in casual dark blue slacks and a white Izod polo shirt. His face was ruggedly handsome, with a brush of thick dark brown hair “Well, finally you’re here!” Dr. XXX said with a deep rich baritone voice that reminded JJ of that singer who his mother liked so much- what was his name?- ah, right, Robert Goulet or something.

JJ paused at the sight of this vision of male beauty. How could this be Dr. XXX? Uncle Luke said that Dr. 30 had been twisted and physically deformed by the contaminated ‘super-soldier’ serum that Luke had foisted off on him. And what JJ had seen of Dr. 30 at the Gnostisophists had supported Uncle Luke’s claim. So, where did this fitness model come from?

“I’d offer you a drink,” Dr. 30 said suavely, “but I’m afraid that the only soft drinks we have are non-diet. Or is that an issue for you?” There was a strange catch in the way that Dr. 30 said the word ‘issue’, a brief ‘squelch’ that hinted of something electronic that grabbed JJ’s ear. JJ locked for a second, and realized that Dr. 30 was using an electronic voice changer. From there, a thousand tiny, inconsequential inconsistencies and glitches suddenly pulled together. “Drink?” Dr. 30 repeated himself.

“No thank you,” JJ said. “I didn’t take anything from Akelarre, and I’m not taking anything from you.” Dr. 30 pouted, but it gave JJ a chance to pull all those observances together. Dr. 30 was using a voice changer. He probably did so to cover up the fact that his voice was distorted from having his throat disfigured. And since his throat seemed perfectly normal, that meant that his seeming of normalcy was a lie. Little bends and mistakes around where he sat suggested that Dr. 30 was using some sort of hologram mask generator.

“You’re afraid that I’m going to drug you?”

‘Let’s just say that a stupid move is a stupid move is a stupid move,” JJ riposted. “I’m here because you have some questions. Start asking.”

“Triple-X, stop trying to flirt with her,” JD grated out stolidly. “Tell you what: I’ll go back and wait in the car.” ‘ooh…that was subtle’, JJ silently snarked to herself. “If she’s not back with me in the car in 10 minutes, I tear this place apart- oh, and you too. She’s MY agent, Triple-X. We’re heading into the home stretch, which is exactly the wrong time to start playing backstab games.” With that, he turned and paying Dr. 30’s shouted protests no mind, pointedly walked through the doors without so much as breaking his stride.

As Dr. 30 pulled his cool back together, it registered to JJ that 30 clearly put FAR too much emphasis on appearances. And he seemed to have a rather pathetic need to be the center of attention, from the way that his cyborg minions were cooing over him, trying to soothe his ruffled feathers. JJ had the distinct impression that Dr. 30 and Uncle Luke’s feud was WAY more intense than ‘tit for tat’. Uncle Luke had hit Dr. 30 at the very core of his self-image, and Narcissists can be really vindictive.

Using a little reverse psychology, JJ said, “You really shouldn’t let him be out there without someone watching him.”

Dr. 30 froze for a second, his face blank as the mask didn’t broadcast his real expression. “You don’t trust him?”

Thinking back to some of the shitty crap that JD and Zach had pulled on her, JJ said, “I have no reason to.”

“I thought that you had some sort of deal with him; that you wanted to become a supervillain, and he was your ticket to that.”

“I DO want to be a supervillain,” JJ said with perfect honesty. “That’s sort of how I got dragged into this; but I don’t expect to ride very far on the ticket that he’s offering.”

“Well, I could-”

“WHY should I trust one supervillain to cross another supervillain, just for ME?” JJ cut him off. “And why should YOU trust me to double-cross the Highwayman for you? And even if I do, why should you trust someone who double-crossed the guy she was working for?”

Dr. 30 gave her an odd look. “You’ve… put a lot of thought into this.”

“It would be nice to be able to afford to be sloppy.”

“What does he have over you?”

“He can tell the Harrows that I’ve been gaming their son, JJ. OR, he can just blow my head off.”

Dr. 30 thought for a moment. Then he nodded and walked out of the room. Maybe 10 very tense minutes later, he came back and placed a smartphone on a table in front of ‘Jessie’. “There. You don’t have to betray anyone. BUT, when- not, ‘if’, but WHEN- the Highwayman turns on you, you just turn that on and press the big red button.”

“What… does it do?”

“Don’t ask. It’s better this way. This way, you’ll only press the button when anything will be better than what he’s about to try.”

JJ took the yet-another smartphone and tucked it in her purse.

And that was about it. One of the borgettes escorted JJ out of the room and back to the car. JD was waiting in the car for her. As the car pulled into the elevator, JJ rummaged around in her purse and tucked the ‘smartphone’ into an RFID-proof sleeve, something that she used to keep her parents from tracking her real smartphone while she was in her ‘Jessie’ identity.

“So?” JJ asked, “Any sign of Zach?”

“No sign of anyone. Well, what did Triple-X want to talk about?”

JJ let out a sigh. “This is not good. Everyone involved in this is trying WAY too hard to be clever. I can just smell a 30-Xanatos pileup coming.”

“Really? I was just thinking that things are shaping up nicely.”

“Okay, Wiseass, if you’re so smart, then what does that riddle that Akelarre’s goats left for Mom mean?”

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JD let JJ out in the alley beside the Y. As the car pulled out into traffic, Jessie let herself slump against the wall of the Y and burst out in tears.

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“Hello? Dad?”

[JJ? What’s the matter? It’s not even 2, why aren’t you in class?]

“I figured out what the riddle means. I can’t go into too many details, I don’t want anyone to overhear,” JJ looked around the room at the Y. He’d dropped the disguise, but he was still wearing his Jessie clothes; he was going to renew the mask the second he hung up. Hey, if he was going to ditch school, he might as well enjoy the ditch day. “It’s ‘Good News- Bad News’ time.”

Nick let out a groan. [What’s the Bad News?]

“The bad news is that if the input I’m getting from this pendulum means anything, the strike is going down SOON, and I have no idea what the real target is, so you’ll have to let Dr. 30 or Akelarre or the Phantom Highwayman make their move first.”

[Why would your pendulum react to the Great Quest?]

“Hey, you’re the one who dragged me into three of those raids, remember?”

[Okay, then what’s the good news?]

“You’re gonna LOVE this, Dad! Whatever it is, it’s inside the Magnificent Five’s headquarters!”

[You’re kidding!] Nick stifled a guffaw.

“Would I kid about something like this?”

[Okay, and what’s the decoy this time?]

“Does the name ‘the Ill-Starred’ mean anything to you?”

[Is that a new movie featirring Keanu Reeves, Nick Cage, Adam Sandler, Paris Hilton and the Olson Twins?]

“Dear GAWD, I hope not!” JJ reeled. “They’re yet another Zodiac-themed supervillain group, only they have just six members. They went up against the M5 and SWAT up in Richmond a couple of weeks ago, and got their trigons kicked into a whole new house. The other five managed to get away, but their gravity-bender, a chick called ‘Moonchild’, got busted.”

[And ‘Moonchild’ is an alternate term for a person born under ‘Cancer’,] Nick noted.

“Pretty much the entire point, Pop. Anyway, while Moonchild is being held in Richmond, the cops figured that having her power gem anywhere near her was a bad idea, so they gave it to the M5 to hold until she comes to trial.”

[They might as well have just mailed it to me,] Nick smirked. [Is Moonchild’s gravity affecting power completely contained in the power gem, or is it a power booster, a focus, an amplifier or what?]

“No clue, Dad. The only reason that I know all of that is ‘cause one of the guys in my class is a stone-cold M5 fan-geek.”

[Well, there’s no accounting for taste. Or the lack of it. And you have no idea what the real target is?]

“Not at this range, Dad.”

[Very well. Saddle up and get moving. I’ll meet you inside M5 HQ with a squad of shadowmen, and Latigo and Lynx on hand dressed as PD Blues in case anything goes wrong for you.]

“WHAT?” JJ yelped.

[Jay-jay, I can’t afford to give Akelarre time to pull one of her out-of-left-field surprises again! It’s got to happen NOW, before she has time to act! Son, it’s getting dangerously close to the climax of Akelarre’s Great Quest, and we don’t even know what she’s trying to pull off! BUT, it’s also at the point where if we can beat her to the punch, her railroading turns into a train wreck for her. Your mother is still laid up with muscle strain, so you’re the only one with the skill with a pendulum to find out what the target is]

JJ darted his eyes around, frantically grasping for a straw to get him out of the mess he saw heading his way. “ah, Dad? Blue Moon’s seen my face. Remember, when you faced off against the Phantom Highwayman as the Green Mist at Ground Zero? I got Pinkie and the Brain out of that by playing Blue Moon for a sucker to get us into Ace’s rig. She might remember me.”

[Better and better!] Nick breezed, [There’s your rationale for being there! You’re there to thank the Great Heroine for her help in saving your beloved, sweet, innocent-]

“Dad, we’re talking about Vic and Bart, remember?”

[Just call me when you get there]

“DAD, I’m in CLASS remember?” JJ lied.

[So? I’ll just give you an excuse. Just GET there as quickly as you can, and be as nondescript as you can possibly be. Lose the school uniform] with that, Nick signed off. JJ just barely managed to mute a scream of frustration and almost hurt himself keeping from throwing his smartphone into the wall.

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Forty-five minutes later, JJ was standing in front of Magnificent Five headquarters, looking suitably nondescript in a hoodie, jeans, baseball cap, Keshira T-shirt and a backpack. The backpack had a diverse assortment of Harrow family surprises disguised as ordinary items, none of which would have been out of place in the backpack of a regular teenager. It wasn’t the assortment that JJ would have chosen for this mission, but he’d had to settle for what he had in his locker at the Y.

Magnificent Five headquarters took up an entire city block. But then that was due largely to the fact that while many businesses felt safer with the superhero team near, none of them wanted to be next-door-neighbors to the heroes. The building was a poured-concrete Brutalist step pyramid, the tallest segment of which was 12 stories tall. It was set back from the street by about 15 feet of empty space, except on one side, where that space was filled by a reflecting pool. It was not a moat; it was a reflecting pool- that served most of the functions of a moat. Golden Eagle had designed the place with a ‘kinder, gentler citadel’ in mind; the Shadowmaster was proud of the fact that he had a harder time getting into his own home.

The first segment was, of course, devoted to Community Relations. There was the museum, the rogues’ gallery, the community information rooms, and all that PR dreck, designed to give the average citizen a sense of connection to their heroes, while giving the yoyos in spandex some personal space. Looking around, JJ checked the place out for some way of staying inconspicuous while he did something as suspicious as dowse with a pendulum. The ‘I’m playing with a yoyo’ bit was right out; not only was he too old for it, but yoyos make for lousy pendulums. Then JJ’s eyes fell on something that most people would take for an annoying obstacle, and he fought to purse a big grin into a smirk. While there are all kinds of Security Guard, there are a few definite types that pop up again and again. One of the most annoying- IF you don’t know how to use them- types are the ‘Master in his own Mind’ type, who think that because they sit at a desk at the front of an office/apartment building/ bank/ museum or whatever, that they own that building, and they have the last say in who does and doesn’t go into that building. The guard was a white male in that precarious slide from his prime into middle age. JJ didn’t need telepathy to know that this man regarded himself as the unsung sixth member of the Magnificent Five.

JJ needed to get deeper into the M5 building to dowse for the location of the shard. The quickest way to get out of the PR section and into the Security section was to annoy this doink until he threw JJ into a holding cell. There was no way that this yutz would simply toss JJ out on his ear. No, the only just punishment for the grievous crime of yanking his chain was HARD TIME!

So, let’s take that as read, shall we? Ten minutes later, JJ was sitting in a small cramped cell as Proctor, the security guard, got his ass reamed by the real chief of Security. Santangelo, the security chief was reminding Proctor that if being an obnoxious 15-year-old was a crime, then 90% of the human race would have prison records. Also, while JJ had cannily pushed Proctor’s buttons, he’d very carefully stayed well away from any real lines. While Proctor had his backpack out in the security office, JJ had, despite having his hands cuffed in front of him (which should be a sign of the guard’s level of competence), managed to slip the pendulum onto Proctor’s belt, and then taken it off again when he was thrown in to the cell. He’d been tempted to play games with Proctor’s keys, but decided not to tempt fate. Still, amusing as it was, JJ decided to get down to business. Sensing that he didn’t have a lot of time left alone, JJ dangled the pendulum from one hand. And his eyes almost bugged out when he saw the reaction. From the frantic way that the pendulum bob was jerking around, the shard was close, either on the same level, or immediately above or below. This was exactly what Dad wanted to know.

But JJ’s smartphone was out in the security office, with his backpack. Crap.

But Santangelo knew that keeping a kid in holding cell for very long wasn’t the stuff that good community relations were made of. Or sound civil litigation defenses, for that matter. So, he had Proctor bring the kid out, and see if they couldn’t pour some oil on the waters that Proctor had stirred up. JJ just barely managed to get the pendulum back into a pocket. No sense giving Proctor any ammunition, and you could tell that he was looking for something, anything.

When Proctor brought JJ into the Security office, Santangelo gave him a look that said, ‘You put CUFFS on a kid?’ The problem being that security guards can only use handcuffs or binders on someone under the conditions of Citizens Arrest, and being held to be turned over to the Police. Obnoxious punk or not, Santangelo definitely saw discussions with lawyers of the litigious variety in his future. And lawyers tend to share an odd conviction that all superheroes are billionaire playboys. But Santangelo did make a big fuss about it. He simply had Proctor remove the cuffs, and quietly removed them from the entire discussion.

But Proctor was of the ‘never retreat, never admit blame’ school. “WELL, if yer so da-dang innocent, then why were you making all those threatening comments about Blue Moon, hah?”

“Threats? What Threats?” While JJ had pushed Proctor’s buttons with malice aforethought, he’d also been very careful to not say anything that could be used against him. “Hey, I just asked you who I had to talk to, to get in touch with Blue Moon.”

“And what would a punk like you have to do with Blue Moon, other’n harassing her, so you could brag about it to your punk buddies?” Proctor bristled.

Seeing a way off the spot that Proctor had bulled them into, Santangelo said, “Well, Blue Moon’s on site. I’ll call her in, and we’ll see what this is all about.” JJ took advantage of this to get his smartphone and call his Dad, which they would have had to do anyway.

Proctor sputtered that they were giving the punk exactly what he wanted. But by the time that the heroine got there, he’d managed to convince himself that the punk had talked himself into a corner. He gave JJ a snide ‘okay, waddya say NOW, punk?’ smirk as Blue Moon came in with Iron Ox. But JJ was paying way more attention to the reaction he felt in his pocket. Even without being dangled, the pendulum was reacting to the presence of the latest shard. But who was it? Blue Moon or Iron Ox? And more to the point, what did they have on them that held the shard?

“Okay, what’s the matter?” Blue Moon looked around curiously. Proctor gave JJ a victorious ‘Well? PUNK?’ smirk.

“Blue Moon? Do you remember that disaster at the Ground Zero café last week? The two boys who were trapped in the wreckage?”

“OH!” Blue Moon perked up. “Yes! How are your brothers? They looked horrible, and we couldn’t find any trace of them!” Proctor’s smug smerk did a meltdown and sort of ran down his font.

“That’s what I’m here about. I got my Dad on the phone. Let me send him pictures of you, so he’ll know that I’m not zooming him.” JJ used taking the pictures to figure out which one the pendulum was reacting to: Iron Ox. After taking Iron Ox’s picture, JJ used the Draw function to circle the hero’s head and scrawl, ‘Jackpot!’ JJ then sent the picture, and Nick told his son to hand the phone over to Blue Moon, it was time for the professionals to take over.

JJ would have loved to have known what kind of verbal razzle dazzle his father pulled on the Magnificent Five. Because five minutes later, they were in the M5’s Top Security section. JJ could tell that Dad was gaming Golden Eagle somehow, but he had no idea how. JJ had the slightly disloyal thought that his Dad was getting over-artistic with this one. Really, once he knew that Iron Ox was the real target, he should have just dropped the hammer and gotten it over and done with.

Then again, it could just have been that JJ hated not knowing what was going on.

JJ was watching what was going on without the slightest idea as to what they thought they were doing. JJ had to admire the effortless reflex-tapping that his father was doing, but really! It looked more like Cirque du Soleil than anything scientific. Which was, of course, Dad pushing their buttons, appealing to their egos that they could pull of such a complex maneuver on the fly. The lynchpin of it all was Iron Ox, who was holding up easily more than 12 tons. That struck JJ as off for some reason. He hadn’t thought that Iron Ox was that strong, or able to carry off that kind of exertion with such ease.

But, just as they were pulling off… whatever it was they were doing, it wasn’t like they stopped and explained it to JJ… when suddenly an alarm went off. As the M5, reacted to that and Golden Eagle tried to get free so he could find out what was going on, a greenish bubble formed on a wall, there was the crackle of electricity and the sharp acrid stench of burning circuitry. Then the Phantom Highwayman drifted into to the room, one ‘flintlock’ drawn. Santangelo and Proctor, who’d been standing by watching, drew their guns and issued the standard warning. The Highwayman ignored them and went straight for Iron Ox.

The Highwayman scattered Santangelo and Proctor with a couple of shots from his ‘flintlock’ and hid behind Iron Ox’s back. “HEY!” Iron Ox yelped, “What’re you doing? Hey, Santangelo, get over here! We’ve got our hands full, and this asshole is- oh crap…”

Iron Ox faltered and the rest of the M5 found themselves trapped in their positions in the formation, as if any one of them broke formation, they might bring the structural supports they were using down on the others. As Iron Ox teetered, Santangelo hauled JJ over to a place of safety, while Proctor jerked around, pointing his pistol every which way, trying to find something that he could shoot. Then large drops of darkness fell from the ceiling, and they grew into darkling manlike shapes. One of them took the form of a black silhouette of a man wearing a trench coat and fedora. ‘Hello, Rat. Enjoying the cheese?’ The Shadowmaster greeted the Highwayman.

Shadowmen swarmed around Iron Ox and the Highwayman, and then the room suddenly went completely black. JJ shielded his eyes, knowing that the Shadowmaster’s ‘darkness’ was a field that affected the visible light bands. It destructively interfered with the Red-through-Green bands, forcing that light down into the Infrared, while constructively interfering with the Blue-through Violet bands, forcing that light into the Ultraviolet. Besides turning the visible light bands ‘dark’, it also overloaded the Infrared and Ultraviolet bands. But that much Ultraviolet was hard on the eyes. “What the HELL is going on?” JJ asked, purely for form’s sake.

“You’re asking ME?” Santangelo snapped back.

And then it got really confusing.

There was fighting and yelling and crashing and clanking and shots and smashing and blasts and sounds of very expensive equipment being ruined.

Then, there was some sort of explosion, and suddenly the lights went on. Everyone froze in position, looking around to see what was going on and where everyone else was. In addition to the M5 and the Shadowmaster and the Phantom Highwayman, Dr. XXX had joined the mess along with his smexborgs and a pack of spiderish combat drones. Dr. 30’s definitely had the best of the situation, but for some reason, what caught everyone’s attention was when Proctor yelled, “Darby, what the FUCK do you think you’re doing?”

As one, everyone turned to see what Proctor was talking about. ‘Darby’, or at least someone dressed in a M5 security guard outfit, had opened the case of one of the instruments, and was pretty much caught red-handed in doing it. JJ got the distinct impression that his doing that had set off some kind of alarm that had neutralized the Shadowmaster’s darkness.

It was definitely time for Dad to upgrade that gear.

“The Gravity Jewel!” Dr. XXX grated out. “GET IT!” Why he shouted, when he could have sent that message on a tight-band encrypted communications link? Who knows? Anyway, the She-Borgs and the Spiderbots broke off and swarmed in ‘Darby’s’ direction.

Silver Streak broke out of the clutch of shadowmen that had him, and beat all of them to Darby. Silver Streak snatched Darby off his feet, but didn’t slam him into the wall; that maneuver could kill an average person. But ‘Darby’ didn’t return the favor. At first his appearance melted away to a blank stocking mask with a blue-and-white two-tone overlapping outfit with ‘Redux’ printed out in white on the blue-clad shoulder, and in blue on the white-clad leg, with similarly contrasting Gemini symbols in the corresponding locations. As Silver Streak, reacted to this, Redux changed again, this time to an exact copy of the Streak himself. The Redux/Streak took control of the movement and ran the real Streak into one of the walls.

Golden Eagle called out a combination, but it didn’t go down at all, because only he and Red Frost could respond. Redux/Streak took advantage of their being off balance to hit four different workstations in the lab area at the same time. Then he scattered Dr. 30’s forces as they tried to pry open the instrumentation case with the Gravity Jewel inside.

“Dammit, Triple-X!” the Highwayman barked out from where he was still being grappled by Shadowmen, “Get me OUT of this!”

Dr. 30 broke off from the morass and deployed his vertigo-inducing ray over the entire room. This did not work as well as he seemed to expect, as his She-Borgs still weren’t immune to the effect, while the Shadowmaster and his shadowmen were. The rest of the Magnificent Five took advantage of that to escape their precarious position with Blue Moon leading the way by decreasing the gravity over the entire area by 2/3rds. Silver Streak, the real Silver Streak, saved Iron Bull from the falling equipage by moving him out from under it. As Red Frost glazed over the floor with her trademark slick, the Redux/ Streak zipped over to one of the entrances. The door opened, revealing what he’d been doing at those workstations: four people with similar patterned costumes to Redux, but different colors and indicia, pelted into the room.

“Oh Crap, these guys again,” Iron Bull groaned as the big brawny guy with the dark red colors, whose indicia associated him with Taurus and label named him as ‘Stampede’, charged at him. The charge knocked Iron Ox back, and knocked him not only off his feet, but out of the morass of shadowmen- and completely out of the power harness, which went flying.

“BLUE!” Golden Eagle called out as he swooped in a pre-agreed and practiced trajectory, “Recovery!”

Blue Moon focused all of her gravitic power on the harness, with the intention that Golden Eagle would snatch it on the fly, pass it to Silver Streak, who’d get it back to Iron Ox. Nice plan. Pity it didn’t work out that way. The Phantom Highwayman and the woman in acid green with the label ‘Venomous’ both attacked Blue Moon. The Highwayman blasted her with one of his pistols, and ‘Venomous’ struck out with an extending whip. The guy in neon purple with all the overdone utility belt and targeting visor, whose indicia suggested Sagittarius and label said ‘Chiron’ pointed the elaborate weapon attached to his forearm at Gold Eagle and knocked the power armor using hero for a loop. The speedster in dull gold, whose indicia suggested Aries and whose label identified him as ‘Cozzare’, dove for the harness, but Red Frost knocked him out of his trajectory with a burst of fire. At least she knocked him out of that trajectory enough that instead of grabbing the harness, he knocked it out of the melee.

Proctor dropped his gun and dove for the harness. He was a lot more successful than Cozzare had been and managed to gain control of it. “Proctor!” Iron Ox yelled, “Get that over here, NOW!”

“WHY” Proctor sneered, “so you can PLAY at being a hero? Let me show you how it’s really done!” With that, he wriggled into the harness and somehow turned it on just in time to counter Stampede’s charge. With a single overdone punch to the Taurus-themed villain’s chest, Proctor stopped his charge and knocked him back into the lab wall.

With an exulting “HAH”, Proctor leapt at the guy with all the gun-gear and threw himself up to the ceiling, cracking the tiles with his head. Proctor came down, miraculously not crippled by the fall (or not, that harness didn’t just make you stronger, it made you tougher as well), and fought to get to his feet. Which was harder than it sounds, since every time he tried to get himself off the floor, he threw himself a good 300 feet inside a room that was only 30’ X 30’ X 60’. The Shadowmaster tried to use his shadowmen to envelop Proctor, but the supercharged security guard went through them like they were made of tissue.

Okay, technically, they were, but still…

The Ill-Starred charged at Proctor, if for no other reason than the harness seemed to be the lynchpin of the situation. Stampede almost got a grip on Proctor, but the Phantom Highwayman shot him in the eyes, a place where almost all of us are tender. Dr. XXX sent in a swarm of spider-drones to try to overwhelm Proctor, but Golden Eagle swooped down and brought him up out of that. He cleared the swarm of bots just in time to get hit in the breadbasket by Venomous’ whip. Even through his power armor, GE winced and gasped. He managed to hold onto Proctor, but he was so intent on keeping his grip that he didn’t try to evade, which made him an easy target for Chiron. The Sagittarian gave him a blast that sent the technocrat spinning, and the Eagle dumped Proctor back into the mix.

And from there, it got too thick and quick to really keep track of. Between Proctor thrashing around with 12 tons of force that he had no notion as to how to understand and everyone else milling around trying to get him under control, it was an incomprehensible mess, and JJ had the distinct feeling that even with his protective armor, his Dad was going to be hurting as much as Mom was when they got home.

Then, finally, somehow, someone (how could you tell in that mess?) got the harness off Proctor, and he instantly reverted to being a nonentity. The Phantom Highwayman used his green energy to ‘slap-shot’ the harness over to Dr. XXX, but Iron Ox intercepted with all the fervor of a mother trying to recover her baby. Dr. XXX sent a squad of his cyber-cuties at the Ox to get the harness before he could put it back on. Iron Ox saw that he was outflanked and had no opening to get his harness back on, so he threw it high into the air, where Golden Eagle, knowing the move, would catch it. Iron Ox braced himself, and Silver Streak removed him from the cage of curvy steel. The Shadowmaster sent a squad of shadowmen to intercept the Streak, but Dr. XXX opened up with Dr. Smart’s Stinger, which he’d fitted into his power frame. Well, at least he tried to open up with the Stinger; the first three shots went great, disrupting the shadowmen like video game space invaders. But then he tried to adjust it, and the Stinger locked up on him, and the more Dr. XXX raged at the stupid thing to WORK, the more stubborn it got.

Red Frost skated over to where Silver Streak towed Iron Ox and created a barrier of fire for him. Golden Eagle would drop the harness down to Iron Ox, who would use the protection of the barrier to get the harness back on, and back into the fight. But Redux, the copier, duplicated Red Frost and created a sheet of ice that slicked over both the anchorpoints for the fire curtain and the ground under Iron Ox’s feet. As the Ox stumbled, Cozzare zoomed in before Red Frost could restore the firewall, scooped up the harness and was well out of there. But he ran right into a puddle of Shadowmen, who swarmed over him and took Iron Ox’s power harness from the Ill-Starred speedster.

But Iron Ox, disproving Proctor’s implied slur that he was just a guy with a gimmick, charged forward and plowed into the shadowmen. He grappled with the graphene goons, and managed to wrestle the harness away from them. “Can’t have that!” the Phantom Highwayman snarked as he faded into view and blasted the Ox. One of the Shadowmen started to pick up the harness, but Silver Streak beat them to it.

But just then, Santangelo yelled out from where he and JJ were stashed, “The Gravity Jewel! They’re going for the Gravity Jewel!” And sure enough, Stampede and Chiron were busily prying open the examination case again. Redux, Venomous and Cozzare broke off from what had been, after all, only a distraction measure.

Red Frost created an ice slick under the mass of combatants, trusting Silver Streak and Iron Ox to know how to maneuver on it. Unfortunately, she usually did that in conjunction with Blue Moon, who was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Dr. XXX pulled off a surprise move that used the ice slick against the M5: his cyborgettes quickly formed a ‘whip’ that caught Silver Streak by surprise. His spider drones captured the harness just before the shadowmen could get to it. The Phantom Highwayman joined Dr. XXX’s forces in a cluster, there was a pulse as the very fabric of reality bulged out grotesquely and then collapsed in on itself, removing the hostiles from the lab area.

JJ saw his father visibly choke back a curse of frustration, and the Shadowmaster melted back into the shadows that were his army and domain alike.

JJ looked around the battered and near-ruined lab area, and saw that while half the belligerents had departed, that only made things worse. Now it was only the Ill-Starred and the Magnificent Five. Or, given the situation, the Really Cool Three-and-a-half, as Iron Ox had lost his power focus, and Blue Moon was AWOL. Redux duplicated the form of Stampede, on the grounds that for a good, no-frills beatdown, it was hard to beat simple old-fashioned brick. Chiron added a few appliances to his wrist blaster, sending a decided, ‘fun and games time is OVER’ message. Venomous added a ‘scorpion’ (a metallic tip) to the end of her whip, showing that she was only too happy to kick it up a notch.

JJ saw that things had taken a turn towards the very nasty, and decided that if he didn’t want to be a material witness to a multiple murder, that it was time to get a little wacky. He casually got up, stuck his hands into his pockets and strolled over to the lab’s coffee center, whistling the intro to ‘the Andy Griffith Show’ as he moseyed. The Ill-Starred stopped and watched JJ as he sauntered unconcernedly over to the coffee. Once there, he picked up the entire mostly-full carafe, dumped almost the entire tube of nondairy creamer into it. He rummaged around in the fridge and gathered up a selection of items. As JJ walked across the lab, humming the Andy Griffith Show theme around the donut in his mouth, Venomous started to act, cocking her whip at him, probably with the aim of taking him hostage. This opening was just what Golden Eagle was waiting for. He let fly with a net snare that wrapped Venomous up tight. And the battle was on, with Cozzare and Silver Streak rushing at each other to be the first to land a punch.

As the two superteams mixed it up, JJ continued on his way across the lab. Cozzare broke off from the melee and charged at JJ. JJ casually sloshed the carafe of coffee at him, coating Cozzare’s front, his visor and most importantly the stretch of ground in front of him with a slippery nondairy mess. Cozzare’s first reflex when his vision went was to try to stop. But that’s very hard to do when you’re moving at over 300 MPH. And it’s even harder when you’re moving over 300 MPH on a nearly frictionless surface. Cozzare took a nasty tumbling, rolling fall and hit the lab wall at about 180 MPH. And as he pulled himself painfully up to try and get back into the fight, he was covered in a block of ice by Red Frost.

JJ got to where he was heading, the main control for the labs support equipment, and turned the key that had been neglectfully left in the security lock. The control setup was very much like the ones that Dr. Smart had, so JJ had no problem figuring it out. Studying the layout of the battle, JJ used one of the heavy lifting waldos to pick up a large block of ruined equipment. Then he moved it over to right above Stampede’s head and dropped it. The surprise drop fazed Stampede, but hardly knocked him out. So JJ used the waldo to pick Stampede up and smash him down into the concrete floor repeatedly.

Chiron spotted that and gave up trying to shoot Golden Eagle on the wing. He decided that he’d neutralize a more effective threat and pick up a hostage at the same time. Chiron aimed to stun JJ at range, but his shot was spoiled by Iron Ox. Seeing the near-miss, JJ scootched down behind the counter and grabbed a liter bottle of Diet Coke® and a couple of other oddments. Leaving Iron Ox for Redux/Stampede to handle, Chiron dashed over to the counter -- and got a geyser of Coke and Mentos gushed into his face. Chiron was taken completely by surprise, and his stun blast went off on the first thing that his targeting system acquired. Unfortunately for him, the nearest thing was Venomous, who’d come to back him up. When Chiron’s systems were completely back online and he realized what he’d done, he whipped around with every intention of eradicating the little pest. But when he turned, he faced JJ with a plastic pitcher full of various things, and a bottle of vinegar poised to pour into the pitcher. The pitcher was pointed straight at Chiron. “So, Dude,” JJ said with snide unconcern. “Y’wanna see what THIS does?”

That stopped Chiron in his tracks. As the Astral Archer tried to figure what ploy the punk was gaming, Iron Ox came up on his blind side and rung his chimes HARD. While Iron Ox wasn’t superhuman at the moment, he was still a big, tough, strong guy, and an excellent hand-to-hand combatant. That sandbagging led to a four-blow combination that put Chiron down for the count. Gathering his breath, the Ox looked at the pitcher in JJ’s hand and asked, “Okay, I gotta know- what does that do?”

“It makes for a very tasty salad dressing- or not,” JJ answered. “What am I, Bill Nye the Science Guy™?”

Iron Ox, JJ, Santangelo and Proctor made sure that Cozzare, Chiron and Venomous were securely bound, with their power gems removed from their settings. As they did this, Blue Moon finally showed up and helped Golden Eagle, Silver Streak and Red Frost put Stampede down for the count.

After they had Stampede locked down, Blue Moon asked JJ, “Hey, kid, how did you pull that off?”

JJ leaned over and picked up a broken 2X4. “It’s very simple. Y’see that panel over there?” Blue Moon turned to look at the panel that JJ was pointing at. When she was completely committed to the view, JJ reared back and broke that 2X4 across the back of her head.

The M5 raised a roar that would have woken up Elvis, and Proctor went for his gun. But JJ just raised a hand and pointed at the body. Which was not Blue Moon’s. It was Redux’s.

“ahem!” JJ cleared his throat professorially. “‘SHE’ didn’t recognize me. She called me ‘Kid’. And after all this, the real Blue Moon’s first reaction would have been to make sure that I was all right, not ask how I pulled off a stupid trick. Also, what are the chances that after getting knocked out of the fight first, that Blue Moon would show up just as a power and appearance copier drops out of sight? Also, let’s face it, Blue Moon would be the perfect person to impersonate and use her powers to cover the fact that he’d just swiped the Gravity Jewel.”

“How’d you know about the Gravity Jewel?” Santangelo asked suspiciously.

“Excuse me? You guys only yelled its name about a thousand times!”

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“TRAITOR!” Bart yelled at his older brother. Vic scowled at JJ, backing up Bart’s accusation.

“WHAT?” JJ demanded as he stopped on his way upstairs to change for dinner.

Not that his father was any happier with JJ than Vic or Bart were. “On top of everything else, when I get back to the lair, I get a phone call from Golden Eagle- GOLDEN EAGLE, telling me how proud I should be of my son, the crime fighter...” He finished off giving JJ an evil eye that would drop Rasputin in his tracks.

“WHAT?” JJ demanded. “I had to get out of there! That asshole Proctor wanted my hide nailed to the barn door on general purposes, and after YOU set the M5 up that way, I needed get out of that place without having the Cops after me! The only way I could do that was to be beyond suspicion! And the only way to be beyond suspicion was to help the M5 slap down the Ill-Starred. And it’s not like it was hard- for people who’re supposed to be so into fancy effective fighting techniques, the M5 do not use their surroundings or available resources well at ALL.”

“You didn’t TELL them that, did you?” Nick asked with ‘you idiot’ unspoken but ominously present.

“NO,” JJ said petulantly.

“Dammit, Jesse James Harrow, do you realize the position you’ve put me in?” Nick demanded. “The Ill-Starred may have been cramping our game, but they were just supervillains trying to get one of their own’s power focus back! They weren’t interested in Iron Ox’s superstrength harness, except as a distraction for cracking open that analyzer! Now, in order to maintain good faith, I have to break ALL SIX of them out of jail, and get their power gems back to them!”

“DAD, I didn’t have a lot of choice!” JJ yelled. “After you split, leaving me there, the Ill-Starred went totally bloodbath! Dad, they were in full Killing Mode! They had a bunch of white hats at a disadvantage, and they were gonna add a few scalps to their belt! And even if they weren’t gonna kill me and those two guards, do you really think that I wanted to stick around and be a material witness in a Hero Killing? Gee, that wouldn’t put any spotlights on this family, NO WAY!” JJ finished off with a sarcastic sneer.

Nick just glowered at his son, but Vic piped up, “So, did they give you a badge? Y’know, one of those cheesy ‘Junior Crimebuster’ badges? Tell me, is it Tin? Or Brass? Or is it plastic? A crappy plastic BADGE?”

Incensed, JJ cocked a fist to ring his brother’s all-too deserving chimes. But Vic yelled out, “MOM! He’s breaking out the rubber hoses!”

Nick waved that nonsense quiet with an enraged father’s ‘I’m sick and tired of this crap, and I’m not putting up with it anymore!’ scowl. “And you’re not getting away with anything, JJ!” he growled, “If you’d used that good will that you built up with the M5 to get a look at the riddle-clue that Dr. 30 left, we’d have an idea what the Unholy Trio are going to do next. But since you FAILED, we’ll have to wait for Akelarre and her cud-chewing lackeys to pull off the next part of her quest, and hope and pray that it’s not the capstone of the whole twisted mess! And after the pummeling I took today, and the state your mother’s in, we’ve decided to go to the Onsen tomorrow.”

“Okay, have a good time, Dad,” JJ said uncertainly.

Nick gave JJ a sharp look. “You’re not getting off that easily. We’re making it a family trip. And since Mom and Viv have more than carried their weight on this thing, you’ll be in charge of keeping Vic and Bart out of trouble.”

*Urk!* “But DAD! Tomorrows a school day! I can’t take a day off to go to the Onsen!”

Nick smirked sharply at his son. “Tomorrow’s Friday. You can take a half-day. And Son? If you screw this up, we’ll simply cancel your birthday party.”

‘Oh Noes!’ JJ thought sarcastically to himself, ‘I might miss out on my truckload of tube socks and underwear!’

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All through dinner, Vic refused to speak in front of JJ without a lawyer being present.

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JJ felt the weight of being Disfavored all through breakfast. And there was a particular note of being dumped as Asha and Viv drove off with Dad, and Vic and Bart left with their shuttle, making faces at him through the windows. For hardly the first time, JJ mused on the remarkably isolated nature of his stop. If his shuttle didn’t come, he could be stranded for days. Well, that is unless he walked the half-mile to the mass transit bus stop, anyway. As JJ waited, he got that weird ‘I’m alone and vulnerable’ feeling that you sometimes get, that pointless surge of anxiety that comes when things are off for some reason. But JJ waited for his shuttle. And waited. And waited. ‘FUCK!’ JJ thought to himself, ‘Just what I don’t need right now, a Tardy on a half-day…’ With a snort of annoyance, he set his shoulders and started to trudge the half-mile to the next bus stop.

But the second that he was out of sight of the shuttle stop, JJ got that really tense feeling that he was being watched. And the way things had been going in his life lately, he knew that letting this creep, whoever it was, call the shots was a bad idea. So, he strolled casually for a bit, until he was at a midway point, and then broke off at a full run at a 45 angle to a bunch of trees that were maybe a hundred yards or so away. JJ got the distinct sense that something was hot on his heels all the way to the trees. But once he got there, the damn thing, whatever it was, could use the trees better than he could! So, he broke out of the trees and ran for the fence surrounding the Buchanans’ back yard. Stupid suburbs with all this space between houses! Why couldn’t they be packed in cheek to jowl, like normal people?

But just as he got to the fence, something that his mind couldn’t wrap itself around, cut him off and sent him pelting to the cover of another copse of trees maybe another hundred yards off. Once JJ was safely in the cover of the trees, he remembered that he wasn’t safe in tress with that thing. It occurred to him that there was safety in visibility. He needed to get somewhere where he’d be seen. Roads were the best bet at the moment, and they’d lead to even better bets. JJ saw one of the service alleys- or what served as an alley, the developer hadn’t seen ‘dense’ as a selling point- and headed for the alley. Or road. Or lane. Whatever.

But the second that he got to the asphalt, a long town car limousine screeched to a stop in front of JJ, and the door swung open. The whatever it was that had been hot on his heels shoved JJ into the rear compartment. As soon as he was completely inside the car, the door slammed shut and the limo drove off, with no one the wiser that anything had happened.

As the limo sped off, JJ pulled himself together and crawled up on the seat. Looking over, he saw Akelarre seated primly, with that brass censor, she’d had near her in the library of her gypsy wagon, on the seat next to her. Above the censor was a roiling cloud of something that wasn’t quite smoke and wasn’t quite fire. There was not so much a pattern as a general semblance of a face. “THIS, is a djinn,” Akelarre said with a detached tone to her voice. “A being of smokeless fire. The Arabs have many tales of these things, some of which have entered English literature as ‘genies’. It does not grant wishes. It does however, do what I tell it to.”

“Aannnddd… who are you?” JJ asked.

Akelarre reached over and slapped JJ on the face. “You know who I am. Do not LIE to me!” Her face was as cold and hard as her golden mask. “You are Fantasmo’s ‘source’ inside the Harrow house. Three days ago, he brought you to my wagon disguised as a girl.” She reached over, grabbed JJ’s right hand and yanked the ‘resource’ ring that he used to tap into his mother’s ‘ark’ of magical power off his finger. “Did you think that you could come into my home, my place of power, my Sanctum Sanctorum, and use a novice mask to make a FOOL of me? To LIE to me?”

“I never LIED,” JJ sulked, massaging his aching ring finger.

“WHAT?” Akellare snarled.

“Think back to what I said to you; I’m not stupid enough to tell an out-and-out lie to a mage in her own place of power.”

“You’re very calm for someone in your position,” Akelarre said as she looked him over. “Fantasmo is not here to protect you this time.”

“Not NOW,” JJ riposted with a pussycat smirk. “But the second he learns about this, he’ll be right over and make you turn me loose. Akelarre, it will be in the best interest of everyone if I don’t have any embarrassing injuries or marks to explain.”

“Why would he do that?” she narrowed her eyes suspiciously at JJ. “He hates your family.”

JJ smirked back at her. “Do you honestly think that I’d play along with your little game if I wasn’t covered? The Funky Phantom will make sure that I’m okay, because he knows better.”

Akelarre visibly started to ask what hold JJ had over the Highwayman, but he merely responded with a ‘do you think I’m stupid enough to explain my hole card’ smirk. She paused, thought it over for a bit and asked, “And why do you help him against your family’s best interests?”

“I’m not. I don’t help him or you or that tin-plated clown, Dr. Triple-Idiot; I just pass along the real meanings of those stupid riddles you leave. I know that eventually my folks are gonna beat you yoyos at your own game. I’m just helping it along.”

“Why play the game at all?”

“Because, Win, Lose or Draw, at the end of the game, I get my brother JD back.”

“You’re sure of this?”

“Sure enough that I’d come into your parlor wearing a dress.”

Akelarre studied him pensively for a moment. “Boy, I’ll make you a bargain.”

“No.”

“No?”

“You have nothing I need, and I grew up hearing that you should never try to cut a deal with the devil. Any deal I cut with you would come back and bite my ass off. You hate my mother and grandfather, and screwing me over would probably be your idea of big joke,” JJ finished decisively.

“I don’t hate your mother or grandfather. Indeed,” she smirked, “your Gran’Pere and I were very close at one time.”

“PLEASE!” JJ snorted. “You started off by trying to sacrifice my mother to some demon or another years ago, and you keep coming after her, trying to get back at her, and she keeps beating you at your own game. It’s been how long? Eighty Years? I know you Spaniards are supposed to be proud of how long you can nurse a grudge, but Jesus, Mary and Joseph! You don’t keep banging away at someone for 80 years without a win and not hate them and everyone they love.”

Akelarre let out a snort and muttered something in Spanish. JJ’s French was good enough that he caught a wryly amused crack about the French and their addiction to High Melodrama. Shooting an amused look in JJ’s direction, she said, “First of all, there was far more going on that night than your mother tells you; more even than she knows. She was, after all, a naïve inexperienced girl just out of the convent. She panicked and read all sorts of terrible things into what was… well, maybe not innocent, but hardly diabolical! Second, your mother makes a grand vendetta out of what was nothing more than what she did to others. It was merely business as usual among the Wise. The Occult is not for delicate flowers. And lastly, as for that ‘eighty years without a win’ tripe- over the years, I’ve won a number of victories over your mother.” She gave a wicked lopsided grin. “Some of which she even knows about.”

She leaned back and looked at JJ. “Here is my bargain: for your part, you will not only pass along the clues that are a vital part of my Great Quest, but you will actively assist me in completing the quest. For my part, I will see to it that you are reunited with your brother, and that your family will have nothing to worry from me, for the rest of your life. For as long as you live, I will not raise a hand to them. AND, as an added incentive, I am in a position to make your fondest wish come true.”

“Akelarre, if you’re offering to be my Fairy Godmother, I think that you should know that my mother makes my little sister keep a piece of cold iron on her at all times. We know way too much about the Good Neighbors to accept that kind of offer.”

Akelarre quirked a small smile at that. “That mask you wore in my library three days ago… it was Novice work, but still… it was a remarkably thorough, exceedingly detailed, very true piece of work. It was nothing that you’d just thrown together to fool an old woman. No, it was a labor of love.” She favored JJ with a warm smile. “I can make that illusion a reality.”

JJ stopped short, but wary. “How?”

“Do you know what an ‘Exemplar’ is?”

JJ paused and thought. “It’s a kind of mutant. They’re those perfect looking mutants who’re super-strong and fast and smart; the ones who scare Humanity First! more than all the big ugly monsters put together.”

Akelarre nodded. “And far more to my point, besides being superhumanly strong, they are also superhumanly healthy, durable and resilient. Indeed, the more potent Exemplars enjoy prolonged youth, and can heal both traumatic and systemic damage to their bodies. I have discovered, by my own studies combined with research gained from others, a method of instilling in a non-mutant the Exemplar trait at such a potent level as to be able to lift over two tons, run to outmatch a racehorse, and heal all but the most devastating of injuries.”

“This is what your Great Quest is all about?” JJ asked. “You want to create a method of turning yourself into an Exemplar and turn young again?”

“My Great Quest will create what I call a ‘Paragon Potion’. And… it may turn me young again, or it may not. If so? Wonderful! If not? Then I won’t be tempted to relive old idiocies that I outgrew decades ago. No, to be young and beautiful again would be… nice, I suppose, what I really want is the ability to heal myself. Boy, do you know how old I am?”

JJ balked at that, but eventually said politicly, “It’s rude- and dangerous- to ask a lady her age,” He left the addendum, ‘and the greater her age, the more dangerous it is’ unsaid.

“I’m OLD, boy,” she said with a flat unamused voice. “I didn’t live a quiet, sedate or temperate life when I was younger. I’ve damaged my body with rich food, smoke, drink, drugs and extravagance. Others have damaged my body with poisons, bullets, blades, bludgeons, drowning and one drop from a 300-foot high bridge. Nature has damaged my body with disease, cold, heat, dehydration, venom and toxic mold. I schemed for over FIFTY YEARS to discover the secret of your grandfather’s life-extending process, only to learn that it doesn’t restore the body, but merely traps the body in its existing form, shielding it from the effects of toxins, trauma and time. By the time I managed to wring its secret from one of his old assistants, it was too late!”

By this time, Akelarre was shouting, but she recollected her calm and continued, “Without a barrage of mystical techniques that keep them at bay, I would suffer every ache, pain, enfeeblement, agony and embarrassment that Old Age can visit upon mortal Man. However, they are supernatural methods, and as such they incite the Law of Balance against me. Each healing method becomes harder and harder with each passing year, and now they’re starting to conflict with each other.

“BUT! Being an Exemplar is a Natural process! The healing is a natural thing, innate to the Exemplar’s body. It can be instilled through a supernatural agency, but the Great Quest deals with the Law of Balance as a matter of course. So, from there the healing would become a natural thing for me, needing no assistance or complication from supernature.”

JJ nodded gravely. “Okay, that’s what you’re getting out of it. What about Dr. 30 and the Highwayman?”

“The same thing as I: making three doses of the Paragon Potion is just as easy as making one. The Highwayman thinks that it will give him super-strength. Dr. Triple-X thinks that the potion will correct his disfigurement, so he can play with his little wind-up dolls.”

“But wouldn’t the Exemplar effect conflict with the effect of the Super-Soldier process that did that to him?”

“I neither know nor care,” Akelarre said coldly. “If Triple-X knows something about it that I don’t, then good for him. If he lacks the Empirical Rigor to know better, then I will shed the exact number of tears for him that decorum dictates and go about my extended life.”

“How long does the Paragon Potion last?” JJ asked. “The Rule of Cyclicality states that every working has a beginning, a middle and an end. I mean, if it only lasts for a year, then that’s great for you and Dr. 30- assuming that it doesn’t tear him apart- as a year’s long enough to heal, well, if not all the damage to your bodies, then at least most of it. But the Highwayman is sort of getting shafted, what with only being superhuman for a year; just long enough to get used to it.”

Akelarre nodded approvingly. “Fantasmo never thought of that,” she said with a snicker. “But no, the process will last for roughly 21 years, or three complete replacements of every cell in the body. More than time enough for him to either achieve his ends, or more likely, be killed trying to achieve them. And, for you, more than enough time to arrange for your own Great Quest to re-create the Paragon Potion.”

“What?”

“My added incentive,” she said with a smug ‘gotcha!’ smirk. “After all, if we can compound three doses of the potion as easily as two, then making FOUR should be no great sacrifice, No?”

JJ blushed as he considered that option. “And speaking of ‘sacrifice’, will any of that be involved in this?”

Akelarre gave a ‘what do you want?’ shrug. “There is. Great Quest or no Great Quest, this is still a major working. It will require the sacrifice of a goat. We have prepared a special goat, and he should come to the sacrifice willingly. This is not negotiable. You must agree to the Sacrifice of the Goat.”

“Are you talking about one of your Man-Goat things?”

“They will be involved.”

JJ studied Akelarre closely for a few minutes. Then he let out a gust breath and said, “The problem is that you’re a lot older and a lot sneakier than I am. You could be telling the 100% honest truth, or you could be totally lying through your teeth. The truth is probably somewhere between the two, but where? You’re playing some kind of game, but what?”

Then JJ snapped his fingers. “Got it! Give me the ring back!”

“Why would I do that?”

JJ took the smartphone that Zach had given him and showed it to Akelarre. “This is a smartphone. It’s sort of like a really smart Blackberry.” Akelarre’s mask showed complete bafflement. “A PDA? A personal data assistant?” More befuddlement. “Iiittt’sss… like a really small personal computer that you carry around with you, and is hooked up to all the other computers in the world by a wireless telephone system. The point is, I copied down a ton of stuff from my Mom’s magic books, and I got a bunch of spells in here. One of them is a spell to know whether someone’s lying to you.”

“What is the spell called?”

JJ opened up the file and said, “‘Diogenes’ Three-fold Quest’.”

“I know the spell. Proceed.” She handed JJ the ring back.

JJ held the ring, closed his eyes in concentration and mumbled the words silently. Then he asked, “If I assist you in your Great Quest, will you release my brother?”

“If you keep your word, I will do everything in my power to see to it that you are reunited with your brother.”

“And will you stop messing with my family for as long as I live, as long as they don’t mess with you, like you said?”

“If you allow the Sacrifice of the Goat, it will be just as you said.”

“And you’ll give me a dose of the Paragon Potion?”

“Yes, I will fulfill your heart’s desire.”

JJ looked at the ring and said, “Okay, I think we have a deal.”

Peering curiously at the phone, Akelarre asked, “Do you have the spell for the Sorcerer’s Contract on that thing?”

“ah, Yeah.”

“Write out a contract, just as we’ve stated, and seal it with the spell. This stage of the Quest has no room for treachery, doubts or second thoughts. If we are both committed, then we each have one person that we can count on.” JJ wrote out the contract as they’d agreed. Akelarre looked it over and found it good. She took a pin from her shawl and pricked her thumb with it. Then she signed the contract in her own blood. She handed JJ the pin, and he did likewise. The contract went up in a gout of purple flame. “Very well! We have our bargain. Now, I think it is time that you got to school, young man!”

With that, the limo, which had been circling the block that JJ’s private school was on, stopped and the door opened. But as JJ stepped out, Akelarre lashed out with her hand and snatched the ring out of his hand. “I never said that you could keep that!” And before JJ could do anything, the door of the limo slammed shut and the car was gone.

 

To Be Continued

Comments   

0 # Pyro Hawk 2017-04-22 15:37
Now we just need to guess what the 'Goat' is...

I'm wondering if it's JJ... or maybe JD or someone else in JJ's family...
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+2 # DocSavage 2017-04-22 23:25
Sorry to say, JJ's screwed. The first isn't a promise that he will be reunited, just a promise to try. Also if JD is dead the promise allows her to kill JJ in order to reunite them.

The second promise is even worse. The wording doesn't kick in until after the quest is completed and, if she plans to kill them all before then, it's not covered. On top of all that she promised to stop messing with his family only as long as he lived. That makes me think JJ is the Goat in question because his death would release her from the oath.

The third promise wasn't to give him the potion but his "heart's desire." As long as she turns him into a girl before killing him she's covered.

Finally he's now under sorcerer's contract to "allow the Sacrifice of the Goat." He's breaking the contract if he doesn't. JJ's just made his situation almost impossible.
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0 # Podracer 2017-04-22 17:26
Nooo! JJ, that was the weaseliest, double-meaningest contract wording from Akelarre that I have ever read, and could be fulfilled by sacrificing JD, and killing you too. I hope you had an even sneakier way to get what you really intended out of it.
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0 # alisa28 2017-04-25 11:40
OK; I admit to being a bit slow on the uptake but, this chapter brought clarity and a glimpse towards JJ's destiny.
I agree that his family is most likely the intended source to
provide the sacrifice. Who?
What can he do without the ring? ; )
a
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0 # Horrid 2017-05-06 20:02
Many seem to think that the sacrificial Goat is going to be JD and/or JJ or that one or both of them will be dead before the Quest is concluded.

I think a lot of people believe that the contract was vague and won't prevent the bad lady from hurting our hero/heroine.

But I have faith in JJ because he/she definitely appears to be smarter than his/her adversary and probably understands the situation a lot better than anyone else.

Then there is the well-known difficulty in second-guessing our Mr. Bek. He has a twist ending, I am sure, that no one could have forseen in mind.


Thank you, Bek, and kudos! :-)
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