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To the Victor…
Chapter 21: Laying Low
by Tog

“We have activity in Steel Canyon, near Platinum Lake.”  Athena’s calm demeanor hid the true urgency of the statement.

Marcus watched as the map being projected above the table changed to reflect both the current crime surge and the heroic interdiction.  “That’s Twitch’s team.”

~~~~~

Fast Twitch drew her sword and advanced on the wall of Tsoo.  Icon was a higher priority target because of the large number heroes that gathered there for reasons that kept their minds off of crime fighting for a short time.

The first warrior she met was confident enough to try a kick to her head.  A sudden flip of her blade severed the tendon connecting his kneecap to his shin.  A follow up thrust nicked the femoral artery of his other leg.

“Twenty three seconds,” she said as she used the handle of her sword to raise his leg high enough to duck under with a spin which ended with a horizontal slash that ran from one tear duct to the other, through the bridge of the nose of the Sorcerer that had moved in to heal the fallen Ink Man.  “Non-life threatening.”

Around her the battle raged.  Hundreds of Tsoo had mobilized for this attack, and one by one, and in some cases, ten by ten, they fell to the heroes that held their lines.

In Talos Island, a small army of Warriors moved to the hill near the train platform.  Those not carrying weapons had shovels and picks.  When they met the line of heroes the battle was joined.  The Heroes on the hilltop made a bold stand, and in just minutes had driven the Warriors away.  The few heroes that gave chase were called back by the team leaders.

Similar scenes played out in every zone.  Scores of gang members, from the Hellions and Skulls, Thorns, Warriors, Tsoo, and Carnival of Shadows laid siege to numerous plots of ground that seemed to hold no real value.  Dozens of Heroes faced them, holding them off, and driving them back, but not pursuing.

That evening Tog and Mourning retired to the base to look over the events of the day.

“It’s working,” said Tog.  “I really think it’s working perfectly.”

“Yes,” said Mourning.  “I’m sure you’ve noticed that the groups involved are all magic based, and that they seem intent on digging for something.”

“Yeah.”

“My guess is that they have no idea what’s goin’ on.  They were probably slipped some information about some super relic or somethin’.”

“Makes sense,” said Tog.  “That’s the sort of thing this guy does.  Any sign of any of our side breaking ranks?”

“Nothin’ major so far.  I thought we might have had a problem in the Hollows, but it was contained pretty quickly.”

“Nothing serious though?”

“Nope.  Nothin’ serious.  We’ll see how it goes tonight.”

~~~~~

Epim’s team had drawn the night shift.  Defensively, the team was made up of Sliss, HAAL, and herself.  Offense was provided my Kym, Debi, and Ent.  The team was positioned in Founder’s Falls, on the hills near the gate to Eden.  It had been a slow night.

“Kym, who would you rather make out with?”

“Shut up Debi.”

“C’mon!  This will be fun.  You don’t have to say why, just which one.”

“No.  It won’t.  This will just be another thing that you’ll let slip out at a really bad time.”

“Why do you always have to argue with me when we go out like this?

“Quiet!”  Ent’s voice was a harsh whisper.  “Something comes.”

In the gloom, the shapes could not be seen clearly until they were already very close.  Nearly twenty dark figures in plate armor carrying pole arms, each giving off a slight purple glow were heading straight for the small group.  The leader was a ball of shadow with an occasional red arc of electricity passing through the fog.

“Game on?” whispered Kym.

“Game on,” said Epim as she fired off a pair of quick spells.  Ent and Kym threw themselves at the line of approaching figures, arriving just as HAAL’s force fields enveloped them.  The four in the back of the pack arranged themselves in a tight diamond formation around Debi.

Ent arrived first, narrowly evading the swipe of a halberd.  Kym had taken the left side, her armor charged to the limit by her argument with Debi.

The phalanx split and engaged the pair, while the leader vanished with a flash only to reappear in the center of the diamond support formation.  A booming thunderclap echoed across the field and Kym turned to see all four team members go flying off into the night.

The big, shadowy man rushed to Epim and grabbed her by the hair, forcing her to stand.  “She’s first!” he said as he placed his left hand on her abdomen, just under her heart.

Before Kym or Ent could act, Epim flew toward them like a rag doll.  She was propelled with such force that her body shoved the big man’s hand away just before his pulse fired.  The resulting arc set fire to the clump of hair still clutched in his right hand.  From inside a bush at the base of a pile of rocks, the Force Bolt capacitors on HAAL’s outstretched arm began to recharge.

Sliss was already back on his feet and vanished in a puff of his own light, only to re-emerge in the center of the assault formation.  Back arching, he seemed to explode in a pulse of electromagnetic energy which stunned nearly all of the armored foes.  Few would get a chance to recover before Kym and Ent sent them off to the prison medical ward.

Sliss then rushed to Epim and began healing her, while using his own dark energy to try and pin the shadowy figure in place.

Debi was no stranger to breaking a fall, and had been up again almost instantly, but was unsure how to act while Epim had been held.  She was no longer unsure.

A quick trio of sonic blasts served to weaken the shadowy man and soften him up for a rapid pummeling by the solid air “pom poms” her gloves could generate. 

HAAL had gone on the offensive as well.  His electric blasts were far from effective, but the Force Bolt did its job very well.

With his force disbanded and victory seemingly out of reach, the shadowy man vanished from the hill, leaving them in silence.

“Epim!  Are you hurt badly?”  It was the first time Debi had ever heard true concern in Kym’s voice.  It chilled her a little.

“I’ll be fine, Kym.  Thank you.  And thank you HAAL.”

“What were those things?” asked Debi.

“I think,” began Epim, “that those were some sort of Nictus.  We need to form back up incase there is another assault.  HAAL, you did get some images of them, right?”

“Of course, Dr. Jensen.  I will upload the information to Athena when we return to base.  I do concur with your initial assessment, however.”

~~~~~

Dawn took forever to arrive, but the light was the only thing to invade the hilltop since the attack.  Epim’s team had been relieved and they returned to base to debrief.

“That video data is ready for viewing in the main room now,” said Athena.

The group gathered to watch the fight, and all agreed that the soldiers were some form Nictus.

“It makes sense now,” said Mourning.

“It does, huh?” said Tog.

“That guy we grabbed a few months back said that they were goin’ back in time to get mortally wounded people to serve as shock troops.  His job was supposed to be to train them once some other department did somethin’ to them.”

“You think that something was to fuse them with Nictus?”

“It would fit.”

“None of this makes any sense,” said Lista.  “Why send in waves of cannon fodder then launch a single attack with the abomination squad?  Especially if none of it looks like it’s intended to actually accomplish anything.”

“I might have an idea,” said Heather.  “We know what he said his plan is.  He says it’s to swamp the city in crime to the point that the people basically demand martial law.  The one thing that stops that are the heroes, so he had to discredit them, err you.  This is why the zone defense strategy has to be followed.

“He wants overkill.  He’s relying on battle-frenzy to do more damage to the reputations of those heroes that get involved.  If you chase down every last thug, it would show the city, not that you’re serious, but that you’re psycho.  No offense to those that really are.  You know that he’ll have the news agencies spin things to show that heroes are the ones on the rampage.  Well.  You’re not rampaging.  Everyone so far is sticking to their little patch of the city and it’s pretty clear that anything that crosses into that section is going to have a really bad day.  You’re playing a purely defensive game, and it’s not giving him anything to spin against you.”

“So why send his own forces in?”

“Because we’re, sorry you’re, not playing his game.  I think he is trying to up the stakes with a direct attack on a hero.  Forces up there were spread thin.  There wasn’t a lot of back up and the attack was so brutal and sudden.  If it had worked, if he had killed Epim, then withdrawn, would you all have stuck to your zone? Or would you have chased them to wherever they were going to go?”

The group from the hill looked at each other and agreed they would have chased the forces that were trying to get away.

“I think that’s what he’s hoping for.  I think he actually needs it to happen.  He needs a hero to snap all the way.  By not chasing street thugs, you are re-establishing your roles as protectors and defenders, not vigilantes.  You all see the difference right?  A vigilante hunts down a person that committed a crime.  A hero stands in their way to prevent the crime in the first place.  A crime in progress is a gray area, but the simple fact is that it all boils down to one of the first things I’ve heard you all tell new arrivals.  Don’t chase runners.”

“So, what do you suggest?” asked Tog.  “We can’t be defensive forever.”

“We don’t, sorry…  You don’t have to be.  If we can find his main base, we can hit it while he’s busy running this game.”

“How the hell do you plan to find his base?” asked Kym.  “It’s not like we haven’t been looking for it for years.”

“We don’t have to look for it.  He’s already given us the tools to locate it.”  Heather smiled that smile that told everyone she had a plan.

~~~~~

Former Royal Army Major Nigel Hastings sat in a high back leather chair.  It was the same chair in which he’d always sat when he got his orders.  This time, things might just be a little different.

The other man had entered the room, his holographic face partially hidden by a wide-brimmed hat and high collared trench coat.

“You got my message?” asked Hastings.

“Obviously.  I’ve come alone, as per your request.  What was this matter you felt was so important?”

“The big boss is really close to the end of his plan right?”

“It would seem.”

“And you are the only person that has a direct line to him.”

“As far as either you or I know, yes.  There may be others, but I’m not aware of them.”

“I’ve got a plan of my own, and I think it’s about time to put it into motion.”

“Really?”  The holographic eyebrows raised.

“Cecil Rhodes had the right ideas, but he didn’t take them far enough.  He made a good start of it, but in the end, he didn’t have the influence he thought he did.  Now, we’re on the edge of plunging the US into anarchy.  Someone has to lead it out.  He thinks he can do it by acting though some sort of puppet.  I don’t see that happening.”

“No?”

“No.  I think it would be best to have some people I know step in and help out.”

“People.  From Parliament?  The House of Commons?  Buckingham Palace?  Those people?”

“Yes.  I’d like to see America get back under British rule, the way it was supposed to be.  Once that happens, and people can see that the British system works, we can use the natural resources of the US to re-colonize the Empire!”

“You want to unite the world under the British Crown?”

“Yes.  It really is the only sensible outcome.”

“And you want me to help you how?”

“You’re the only one that can get close to him.  You’re the only that ever sees him.  You’ve got to take him out.”

“Ha ha.  And what advantage would I get over what I’m promised if things continue?”

“Land, here in the US, or anywhere.  I’ll see to it that you are made a Lord and given a huge property.  You’ll be free to rule it as you see fit, and will answer only to the Crown.”

“So, no difference then.  Apart from the person to whom I report.”

“No.  There will be a huge difference.  In my plan, you will report directly to the true and recognized ruler.  Under his plan, you report to him, and he will then try to manipulate the ruler from afar.”

“My dear Mr. Hastings.  You really should have all the facts.  I do not report to the main boss.  I am the main boss.  Professor Payback, at your service.  You know, I anticipated this move on your part some time ago, but I had grown to believe that you would never actually try to cross me.  Pity really.  I had thought you would be an excellent asset to my cause.  Oh well.”  He pressed a button built into the armor on his wrist.  “Darktricity.  Come in here and dispatch the former Major.”

“You bastard!”  Hastings stood to summon his own minions, but was cut off by the sound of an alarm.

“We’re under attack!” yelled the Professor.  “This should wait until later.  Get your men out there and I may have a change of heart regarding your current lack of a future.”

The professor flipped on the monitors to see wave after wave of Circle mages closing in on the position of his secret lair.

“Who gave them these co-ordinates?  Thorns were supposed to be assaulting Brickstown today.  Under the Zig.  Deploy robotic defenses!  We can’t let them dig here!”

~~~~~

“Activity in Skyway City.  South end,” said Heather.  Her plan had been simple enough.  He wouldn’t send swarms of gang members into the areas he controlled directly.  That narrowed the search areas to places that had seen no activity the in the previous three days.   After arranging for a few small hero teams to be seen looking for the hidden relic, and a few possible locations to be overheard around the city, one of them paid off.

As she watched on the monitors, scores of the small robots that assaulted Mourning so many months ago poured out of a rundown warehouse to drive back the Thorns.  Her plan had worked.  They had found the lair of their foe.

Tog keyed his radio and yelled, “All units converge on my location!”  Inside his head, a different conversation was taking place.

She shouldn’t be here.  Not now.

Hush, Doug.  She’ll be fine.  The others will be here soon.

Not soon enough.  She’s not ready for this.

She’s ready.  She’s not the person that met us so long ago.  Not anymore.

Other heroes began to appear, their attention divided between the Thorns and the robots.  Moments later, Ent appeared in the sky, followed by Mourning and Lista.

Lista pulled up short and yelled, “Big one, one o’clock!”

Tog glance to his right and saw a large, assault robot was approaching the battle.  It was just what they needed.  “That’s the one.  Go get it!”

Ent swooped on it while Tog rushed in, axe held high.  Mourning and Lista were doing what they could to direct the other heroes into helping them gather the smaller bots into groups.

The hard vapor around Entimangler’s claws battered away at the large robot, while Tog focused on severing one of its legs.  That was all they’d really need.  Just a leg.

Suddenly, Tog shouted.  “Got it!”

With that yell, several super strong heroes that had been standing by dove down and lifted the large bot into the air.  The fluid that leaked from the severed leg dripped and splattered over the smaller groups of bots.

“Whenever you’re ready, Babe!” yelled Tog.

Dawn nodded and leapt into the air, her eyes ablaze with Kheldian energies.  She moved into position and released a blast of light.  It wasn’t as powerful as many of the other blasts begin fired from either side, but it was light.  Pure light.  Light that overcharged the photoreceptive gel used by the robots.  The same gel that now covered most of them.  Dawn made pass after pass, each time a new section of bots would explode.  Each explosion caused a new spray of gel to coat the area.  Each new coating was more fuel for the fire.

“Where’d they come from?” yelled Tog.

“Here!” said Lista.  I’ve got a door.

“Everyone in!  We’re going hot!”

Inside the door the team began to form up.  It was a formation they had worked on for a while with Tog in the lead, Kym, Twitch, Ent and Sliss behind him, HAAL further back flanked by Mourning and Dawn and Epim, Lista and Debi at the rear.

The hallway before them was empty, but a flashing red light that seemed to come from everywhere told then that this was much more then just an office building.  They crept up the hallway, alert for any ambush or attack, but the first floor seemed clear.

“Elevators,” said Tog.

“Hell no,” said Kym.  “Find stairs.”

At the top of the stairs they found no one.  No bots. No Kheldian abominations.  No people.

Each door in the hallway opened to reveal an empty room.  Each corner revealed more hallways.  At the top of the fourth floor, the group paused to rethink things.

“You think it’s a trap?” asked Tog.

“Maybe.” said Mourning.  “Odds are against it though.  We caught him off guard.  His defenses weren’t in place.  He didn’t expect us to find this place, and he sure didn’t expect us to breach it so fast.  My guess is that he’s running, or already left.”

“You don’t think he’ll have it rigged to blow up?”

“No”, said Lista.  “Not his style.  I was able to get a feel for him.  He won’t blow it up without good reason, and he doesn’t have one.  We won’t find anything he doesn’t want us to though.  He’s probably got it all stored in a big pack with a few cables coming out of it.  Things go bad, he grabs it and runs to a new safe house.  Hell, that place he kept me for a year is still intact.  If you don’t count my renovations, that is.”

“Very good Lista.”  The voice seemed to come from everywhere.  “Yes.  Very well done.  The building is not rigged to explode.  Nor will poison gas be seeping from the air ducts or anything so trite.  No.  You’ve won.  Well, if you can call it that.  The damage has been done and you’ve booted me out just before I played the final card before stepping in to restore order.  As a prize, I leave you the chaos you seem to want so badly.

“I’m going to start over I think.  Maybe in Europe or possibly Asia.  I see where China is making great strides.  At any rate.  I’m leaving.  On that you have my word.  I’ll be back eventually, but not for at least eight years.  I do have other plans in the works after all.

“As a parting gift, I leave you this thought.  War brings many things.  Glory.  Sorrow.  Hope.  Regret.  Decay.  Renewal.  Both the good and the bad.  Together these things are the Spoils of War.”

“We’ll find you, you son of a bitch!” yelled Lista.

“Doubtful my dear.  Bad times are coming.  Worse than you could ever imagine.  I know how to fix them, but you want me out.  I bow to your will.  In the coming months, you will have far worse to deal with than my little plans.  In a few years, I’ll come back in and pick up the pieces.  By then I should have taken control of at least two other regions.  Congratulations on your Spoils.  May you survive them.”

“Show yourself you bastard!  Show yourself!  Bring Friends!  Bring an army!  Just let me face you one time on even terms!”

“Lis’ honey, come on.”  Mourning had her hands on Lista’s shoulders and guided her away from the others while the raving continued.

A complete search of the building turned up nothing.  No clues to other plans.  No identities of other members.  No indication of who Professor Payback might have been.

~~~~~

In the months that followed, Mr. Hastings and Distortion King were reportedly working alone in the Rogue Isles.  There was no indication that they had any further contact with Professor Payback.

 






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