Paragon City 2007
The sun was hot on James McCandless’s wrinkled cheeks. It was good to just sit here and let it heat up a tired old man. No cares, no worries, just let the troubles of the world float away… His chair started vibrating faintly in tune with a barely heard rumble coming from the ground underneath him; he frowned at it with annoyance but didn’t open his eyes.
“ Boy,” he said “you had better cut that out right now.”
“Aww Grampa, I’m just kidding around.”
“I know you are but remember one of the first lessons I taught you... ‘Don’t give the bad guys free information’.” He paused for a second to get the boy’s brain started on the right track. “Have you done a good scout yet today? Looked to see if anyone new is hanging around? Anything strange going on? I didn’t think so.”
“Remember, very few people even know you exist and to keep you safe I plan on keeping it that way… at least for a while yet.”
“I can take care of myself” the young man insisted for the hundredth time “and I have never seen anyone out of the ordinary hanging around”.
“I know boy, I know but I made a promise long
ago and I plan on keeping it”
As James looked at his grandson he remembered his son, so many years ago, proudly showing of a red faced crying bundle of new baby. It was the last time James remembered Mark looking so happy. Right at that moment the nurse had come out and dragged him back into the delivery room with a murmured comment about complications. Mark had just never been the same after that. The funeral of his beloved bride had left him a saddened man grown old before he had a chance to enjoy his new family.
James took a deep breath ready to continue the
years old argument when he was interrupted.
They both turned and looked towards the front of the house as an insistent knocking started up.
“Jimmy, go and see who it is, and do it the right way!” James said.
“Yes sir,” said the young man “I will.”
As Jimmy looked through the peephole set in the wall to the right side of the door he recognized Senator Robert Barton, one of the States big movers’ shakers who represented Paragon City. He had been active in Paragon politics from the early 60’s until he was elected to the State Senate and even then he kept his fingers in the mix. After scanning the hallway, he opened the door and ushered the Senator to a chair opposite his grandfather.
“What do you want Barton?” James asked without preamble.
“Why, what a way to greet an old friend ‘Captain’,” the Senator replied.
“Never said you were my friend Barton, now what do you want?”
The Senator visibly reigned in his temper and said “Well, if you want it short and sweet, I have a...proposition for you and,” his eyes cut towards Jimmy standing beside his grandfather “possibly your grandson.”
“Not interested. Have a nice day.”
“Just hear me out Captain, no need to be so abrupt.” Barton replied.
“Well that’s a matter of opinion” James said “but say your piece and leave, I’m old and don’t have the patience for any bull from you.”
Barton's red veined nose darkened in anger. He drew in a breath through his nostrils.
"I want to offer you an opportunity to do something for the community," he said harshly, "your . . . um . . . specialized skills and knowledge would come in handy for what I have in mind. Is there somewhere, um ... more private, that we can discuss it?" Barton's shifty eyes focused on Jimmy.
James looked at the Senator with mounting suspicion and a slowly growing anger; for a second he caught sight of his own face reflected in the polished metal table. It was like a stern, ancient carving on a bleak windswept shore. "Just what skills were you talking about?" he asked gruffly.
Barton twisted his mouth in a grimace and spread his sweaty fat hands. "Why, Captain, you're an old hand at adventure, you know the streets, the way the criminal mind works. You could face up to any opposition out in the hazard zones, make it through, and get back in one piece with what you went for. And I think you know what I am talking about," he added, staring fixedly at the toe of his immaculately polished shoe.
"Got it all figured out, eh?" James studied the other's florid face. "I've got maybe ten good years left to relax and take in the sights, what would make me leave that to go gallivanting off on some harebrained errand for you? Not even taking into consideration what might happen to my grandson if I didn’t make it back?"
The Senator shifted in his seat. “Look, I have a
feeling that it would be in your best interests to do what I want you to,
Captain. Besides technology has come a long way since your days with Statesman
"Just what're you getting at, Senator?" James said harshly.
It was Barton's turn to sit silent. His glance went to the young man who had moved over to the basketball hoop a few yards distant. James growled softly. The Senator looked at him sharply and paused for a second. James looked back at him quietly, waiting. Barton's voice held a harsh note now. "I know a great deal about your exploits and life, Captain—just about all of it, I think. I've taken a lot of time and made quite a bit of effort to find out." He puffed out cigar smoke, relishing the anticipation. James watched him like he would a suddenly discovered rattlesnake whose tail was already twitching.
"You've always lived comfortably here—" Barton waved a fat hand at the quaint house—"But you had a much different outlook once before you gave it all up to be a business man. You’ve had a lot of adventures. Some public and some, shall we say, not so public."
"And?" asked James, completely without expression.
"There's no statute of limitations on possession of possible Portal items no matter what their nature. Your public service wouldn't matter if possession of illegal items is concerned, either. And that last ‘mission’ that you were on is a matter of record. Fifteen years ago, wasn't it? And you got back just a day too late to be any help when your wife and son had that unfortunate ‘misunderstanding’ with those Circle of Thorns fellows—"
James suddenly sat forward and his eyes locked onto the sweating face of the Senator.
"They were murdered, Barton, and you know it" he growled angrily. He realized that the arms of the chair were bending in the strength of his angry grip. He forced himself to relax. It was hard, so hard to do though in this situation.
"What's wrong Captain?" Barton spread his pasty white hands. "You couldn’t know they were in danger, or that your past had somehow reached out to touch you again. Or could you? Of course it was a shame, you getting back, just a bit too late, with those relics that might have saved them. Tragic, really, if you think about it. If only you had been more cooperative during your debrief it might not have taken so long. But there's no reason to let your conscience eat at you . . . though I am sure that it's difficult, having a grandson around who reminds you so much of the son you failed to save—"
James shifted forward in his chair and his eyes grew even colder than they had been just moments ago. Barton started to say more but shut up suddenly when he saw just how close to the edge he had pushed the old man. His saggy face had paled noticeably.
"D-don’t do anything you might regret, Captain . . ." he stammered fearfully.
"Don’t ever talk about my family again," said James, in a voice that raised the hair on the fat Senator’s neck.
"Of course . . ." Barton wet his lips, thinking furiously on how to get this doddering old man to do what he wanted. James eased slowly back in his chair. Barton took a deep breath and his unclenched his shaking hands.
"It doesn't matter" he said, "about anything that happened before you made it back. It's the Portal you went through that I'm talking about. You're still a Hero, Captain, whether or not the public remembers. Besides, I know for a fact that your grandson has inherited some of the same, shall we say, ‘gifts’ that made you what you were.”
"Leave him out of this, Barton, he isn't trained anywhere near enough to tackle the kind of opposition that I had to get through."
"Nonsense, if he's got powers he can use them".
“He’s not trained I said.”
“Then you might want to get to work on that don’t you think?” replied the Senator with a smirk.
“You have about five seconds to tell me exactly what you want and then I’m gonna boot your ass right out the door.” James said, shifting even farther towards the fat man. A glowing nimbus suddenly surrounded his hands and he looked at them with a grimace. Steady boy he reminded himself.
“Ok Ok” said the Senator, holding up his hands defensively. “We received word that the Circle of Thorns and the Council are working together on something big. Very big.”
“Hah, must be if those two groups of idiots are in it together. There’s no love lost there” replied James thoughtfully, interested despite himself. Still… “So? What does this have to do with me and Jimmy? I’m sure there are dozens of ‘Heroes’ out on the streets of P City who would jump at the chance to take them down. Hell, Infernal alone would be drooling at the opportunity to knock their skulls together.”
“Well let’s just say that certain considerations keep us from approaching them in this matter.” Barton replied with what started as a sincere smile but turned sour as he glanced at the Captains still glowing hands.
“Considerations huh?” drawled James
sarcastically. “I’ll bet, since you are involved.”
“No need to be nasty”
“I’ll be any way I want to be in my own house. Get on with it or get out.” James growled again.
“As I was saying,” said the Senator with growing confidence “we found out that they are working together on some project involving an organization named ‘Arachnos’”.
“Like a spider?” interrupted
Both the Senator and his grandson looked at James when they noticed that he hadn’t said a word but at the mention of Arachnos his whole body started an angry pulsing yellow glow.
“Grandpa? Are you ok?” asked
“What do you know about Arachnos Captain?” asked Barton.
“Captain?” he repeated.
“What? Oh, it’s a bunch of serious bad guys who have been behind a lot of pain and misery for a long time now, at least since World War Two,” James said slowly “and it’s not a name I’ve heard for a long time… a very long time.”
“Well then Captain I assume that
you should have no problem dealing with this then.” stated the Senator.
“No” replied James “this is out of my league”.
“What do you mean ‘out of your league’?” exclaimed Barton.
“I mean get someone else dammit! Ask the surviving Eight. Ask Statesman, ask Brawler, hell ask Positron, but don’t ask me!” yelled James back.
“Senator, I think that you had better leave”
interjected Jimmy “I don’t like the way this conversation is going.”
“I’ll go when I’m done saying my piece boy” growled the Senator.
“Get out! Right now! Hustle yourself right out of my house and don’t look back!” roared James “If you ever talk to me or mine like that again I’ll tear your cowardly fat heart out”. The glow surrounding him was almost too painful to look at. Jimmy wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but the Senator had paled alarmingly.
“T-t-take it easy Captain,” stammered the Senator as he started backing away “you had better think about what you are doing. I can make your life miserable if I want to”.
“GO!” James seemed to be made completely of light now and the word was like a thunderclap. Jimmy slapped his hands to his ears even as he was driven to his knees by the sound. The Senator fell onto his back and slid across the floor like a hockey puck from a slap shot. He impacted painfully against the patio door.
“You’ll pay for this old man,” he wheezed when he could force the words out of his mouth. “I swear that you will regret treating me like this.”
Jimmy was getting up slowly but when he heard the threat in the Senators voice he started towards the fat man intent on throwing him out the front door.
“No, son” grated his grandfather, fighting to control his anger “stay out of this, it isn’t your fight”. The strange yellow glow intensified around the Captain’s hands and the Senator lifted a few inches off of the ground and rapidly disappeared towards the doorway. Jimmy heard him grunt as he was thrown heavily against the front door before it was forced open by the same power that held him aloft. Jimmy heard the door slam and his grandfather collapsed on the ground. The glowing aura suddenly disappeared like it had never been there at all.
“Oh God, Grampa are you alright?” asked Jimmy as
he helped his grandfather into a chair.
“I’ll be fine,” James gasped “just give me a minute to catch my breath.”
“You’ll be ok” said Jimmy “do you want something to drink?”
“No son, I won’t be ok. I’ve gotten way too old to get that angry and I shouldn’t have done that to the man. Even someone as detestable as he is” replied James slowly.
Jimmy hovered over his grandfather until the old
man waved him to a chair nearby.
“Um, Grampa” began Jimmy hesitantly “why did the Senator call you Captain? And what did he mean about your last mission? And what was that light? Will I be able to do something like that?” by the end of the sentence Jimmy was leaning intently, almost eagerly, towards the old man.
“Ease up boy,” replied James “give me a moment and I’ll let you in on some ancient history. It’s about time that you learned some important things about our family.”
“Go get me a glass of water while I figure out
where to begin”
“Ok take your time. Be right back” said Jimmy over his shoulder as he hurried off.
James slumped wearily down in his seat and buried his face in his hands. “Oh April, I wish you were here with me. You would know how to handle this mess I’ve gotten myself into,” he whispered to the wind. The soft shadows of late afternoon highlighted the grief lines that suddenly appeared in his face.
After a few moments he sat up with a sigh,
scrubbed his face with his hands, and started thinking furiously.
“Have to call Marcus and let him know that snake Bartlesby is up to something” he muttered to himself as his grandson came back out with a glass of ice water “god I hope he’s wrong about Arachnos.”
“What was that Grampa?” asked Jimmy.
“Nothing son, just talking to myself” replied James “thanks for the water.”
“No problem let me know if I can get you something else,” the young man said as he sat down.
“So where do I begin?” asked James quietly.
“How about why the Senator called you ‘Captain’” said Jimmy.
“Ok” James said with a sigh.
“Bear with me. I know that some of this will be familiar to you from all those history books I’ve had you read but it will help you to understand what’s going on if you get the whole story…..”
Paragon City, 1941
James McCandless stepped wearily off the bus. It had been a long, tiresome trip from his hometown of Austin, Texas to the “Jewel of the Northeast”, Paragon City. He had started this trip with no real plan other than getting out of his backwater town and Paragon City seemed like a good choice at the time. Really anywhere but Texas seemed like a good choice as long as there were no oil wells or cattle ranches within a hundred square miles of him. He wasn’t cut from the same cloth that his father and brothers were. He had the same rugged build, carried down from his Highlander ancestors, that his father had but not the temperament that kept the other men in his family satisfied with their lot in life. He needed something different. This was the first step in figuring out just what that something was.
As he stood under the meager shade of the bus station awning he realized that he had no clue what to do next. Looking up and down the street he mentally flipped a coin: heads he turned north, tails south.
“Right...north it is,” he murmured
to himself. Turning right he headed uptown and into his new life.
Three months later he still hadn’t quite found what he was looking for.
“Good Lord it’s hot,” he said to his co-worker at the fishmongers where he had finally found a job. “If it weren’t for all the Yankee accents I would think that I was still in Austin.”
James placed his hands at the small of his back and groaned as he stretched. “I’m goin’ to go get a cold soda pop, can I bring you one?” he asked.
“Sounds good” grunted the other
man even as he bent to pick up another halibut to clean.
James ducked around the stall and headed towards the corner grocer. They had one of those nickel iceboxes that kept the drinks cold even in this heat. He passed two little girls playing hopscotch while they waited for their mother to finish shopping for their dinner. Giggles and high laughter greeted his attempt to hop through the squares. He smiled at the sound; there wasn’t anything as happy sounding as a child’s laughter. As he neared the corner he heard honking behind him followed by the sounds of squealing tires. He turned to see a late model Caddy try to cut in front of a delivery truck and fail. As the crunch of metal and glass sounded, time seemed to slow down around him. In a split second of horror he saw the truck skidding towards the two little girls who stood frozen in fear.
“Look out!” he cried as he jumped back towards them. Even as he started to move he realized that he would be too late. “NO!” he screamed reaching out towards them. Then something in his head seemed to surface from whatever part of his brain it had been sleeping in. A lambent yellow glow erupted from inside him so that in a split second he was aflame with light. He glared at the truck and ….shoved it … with his mind. The truck stopped sliding as if it had run into a brick wall. The only sounds on the street were the screams of the girls and the creaking sound of the truck’s leaf springs as it rocked back and forth to a stop two feet from the children. Panting as if he’d just run a mile he grabbed up the little girls and turned away from the truck. Their mother came squalling out of the store and snatched them out of his hands. As he looked back at the saucer wide eyes of the truck driver he realized that the weird glow was gone as if it had never been there at all.
After assuring himself that no harm had been done to the children he turned slowly back towards his original destination. He was thinking furiously. What in the hell just happened to me? He was wondering when a soft thump beside him brought him back to awareness. He looked to his right to see a figure dressed all in black regarding him from a few feet away.
“That was quick work son” the man
“Uh, thanks” James replied “WH-who are you?”
“Oh pardon me, allow me to introduce myself, I am The Dark Watcher” James could hear the capitol letters as the man replied.
“Are you a Hero? Like Statesman?”
“You could call me that. What about you? Good work in stopping that truck. I was trying to get there but you beat me to it” answered the Dark Watcher. “Do you have a name or should I just call you Mr. Mysterious?”
“Sorry” said James holding out his
hand “James McCandless.”
“Nice to meet you, James. Like I said, good work there.”
“Um, I’m not exactly certain what the heck just happened” said James, confusion tinting his words.
“Interesting” replied the Dark Watcher slowly. “I take it that this has never happened before?”
“No sir. Never.”
“Hmm” replied the dark figure slowly “tell you what. Why don’t you come by Freedom Phalanx headquarters tomorrow, there’s someone there who might be able to explain what happened.”
“Ok, I will” James said as he turned to look at the bank clock across the street. A rustle of cloth and a gust of wind pulled his attention back to the strange man but he was gone. Shaking his head he turned back towards the fish stall and muttered “What a day.”
When he got back to the stall James let his boss know that he had an appointment tomorrow and would be late. The rest of the work day passed slowly for James, throwing fish left a lot of time for thinking and by the time he went to bed that night he still hadn’t come up with a good explanation for what went on with the truck.
The next day James made his way downtown to the imposing building that the Freedom Phalanx called home. He dithered for a while until, with a shrug, he mustered up the courage to go inside.
James had been sitting on the uncomfortable bench, feeling like a delinquent school kid waiting for the principal to call him into the office when a pleasant female voice pulled him away from his thoughts.
“Mr. McCandless?” asked a stunning young lady in a scandalously tight khaki jumpsuit. “Yes ma’am” James said, getting up quickly.
“Could you come with me please? If
we don’t catch Marcus now who knows when he will have time to meet you?”
“Marcus?” asked James as he followed her down a brightly lit hallway.
“Yes, he’s the boss around here. You might know him better as Statesman” she replied with a smile.
Before James had a chance to formulate a thought she stopped at an unmarked door and knocked quietly.
As they entered the room James caught sight of a large man sitting behind a very cluttered desk. A steaming cup of coffee sat beside what looked like a steel facemask propped against a pile of paperwork.
“Come in, come in” rumbled the
huge figure genially. “Grab a seat and relax Mr. McCandless.”
“It’s James sir, or Jim. Mr. McCandless is my dad.”
A low chuckle greeted this remark and James felt the tension easing up a bit with the sound.
“Well Jim, then I’m Marcus. Watcher filled me in on your adventure yesterday. Good work in saving those kids” said Statesman with a smile.
“Thank you but I still have no idea what exactly went on. The Dark Watcher said you might be able to clear up my confusion.”
“Possibly, possibly” responded
Statesman “let me ask you a few questions…”
The rest of the day seemed to pass in a blur of questions, answers, men in lab coats, more questions and finally, shrugged shoulders.
“Well Jim” said Marcus at the end of a very long day “I’ve got good news and bad news.” He paused and looked intently at James and with a slight sigh continued “The good news is: You are as healthy as a horse. The bad news: Frankly, we have no idea just what went on with you yesterday. As far as we can tell you are as normal as the next guy.”
“Huh” said James “guess I’ll have something to tell the grandkids if I ever have any ‘The day Grandpa turned into a light bulb’” he finished, chuckling gently. “Well at least I got to meet some interesting folks and didn’t have to touch a single fish today.”
Marcus laughed along with him. “True, no fish here. Tell you what, how about dinner? My treat. It’s the least I can do for you.”
“That would be fine” said James as his stomach growled with the thought of food “my stomach and I thank you.”
The rest of the summer and fall passed with no more thoughts of weird lights or speeding trucks. James had settled comfortably into a routine existence of fish, night school, sleep and more fish. The only sour parts of his day came with the nightly news radio broadcasts about the situation in Europe and what America might or might not do about it. James, along with every one else, alternately cheered and booed at the stories of the defense of Britain by the Dawn Patrol against the juggernaut of Nazi Germany.
Early December found James walking through downtown Paragon looking for affordable Christmas presents for his family. He had just stopped along with a crowd of shoppers to look in the window of the electronics store at the newest collection of ‘must haves’ when the radio announcer broke into the evening music program with a shattering announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just received word from Washington that the Japanese fleet has attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Reports are sketchy at this time but initial word is that most of America’s Pacific fleet has been severely damaged if not destroyed.”
James stared in shock at the small grill of the radio. He couldn’t believe it, in fact the shock was so much that his ears were ringing. James then realized that his ears weren’t ringing he was hearing a strange high-pitched whine that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. He looked up as a shadow whipped across his line of sight. He gaped, open mouthed, as he saw a man in a gray helmet and face mask rocket over the building trailing smoke and flame behind him. As James stared upwards he realized that for the last few seconds he had been hearing a series of low rumbles and what may have been explosions. He ran around the corner and stopped dead in his tracks. The whole harbor seemed to be on fire. It was then that he noticed more flying men in formation bearing down on a large cargo ship that had just pulled away from the docks. He flinched as the gray men fired what looked like rockets into the side of the vessel. As the ship burst into flames and started listing heavily the men turned to look for more easy prey.
That was when Jim saw Statesman in action with his own eyes. He came screaming up from the ground right into the middle of the attackers. Fist flying left and right he took out 10 of them before they even knew what had hit them. One of the soldiers that Statesman knocked out of the sky fell to the ground a few feet away from James. That’s when he saw the Swastikas painted onto the sides of the man’s helmet. Nazis thought James in shock Hitler’s invading America. As James stared at the fallen Nazi, a crowd of onlookers gathered behind him. He turned to look at them when the soldier suddenly sat up. Incomprehensible German spouted out of his mouth and he swung his rocket launcher towards the crowd. At that point James’ shock flashed into howling anger that these butchers had dared to invade his country. As the anger welled up in him his sleeping giant awoke again. Guttering golden flames shot out of his body in all directions and without conscious thought James mentally snatched the enraged soldier off of the ground and smashed him into the wall. Turning towards the harbor and the melee that was going on above and around the harbor front he leaped forward. What a leap it was! One corner of his brain marveled at the fact that James had just leapt over one hundred feet. The other more animal part was hunting rapidly for a target to take out the buzzing frustration and venom, raised by the invaders, on. Squalling a rebel yell, James fell on a group of soldiers who were setting demolitions to blow up a warehouse. He knocked them down like a bowler hitting the perfect strike. Snatching them up en mass with his power he tossed them as far out into the harbor as he could. At this point he could care less if they knew how to swim or not. Darting around the corner of the warehouse he ran into an enemy of a different class altogether. The soldier was a gigantic version of Aryan vitality. He was currently using a dump truck to smash anything and everything in his path. As he brought the battered vehicle around for another swing at the prow of a stricken cargo hauler James jumped up and kicked him in the middle of his back with both feet. It was a hugely powerful blow… it just irritated the German warrior. ‘Oh crap’ James had time to think as the giants’ hand grabbed him by the head ‘that was a mistake’. James found himself flying through the air backwards, he had just enough time to use whatever it was in him to push against the wall and rebound back into the fight. As he tried to get some kind of grip on the sweating behemoth he realized that he was losing. Desperately he sought some way to finish this before he was killed. The next thing he knew he was lying on the ground looking up at Statesman as he held the Nazi soldier over his head and then threw him into a handy wall.
“Up and at ‘em Jim, we’ve got to go” said Statesman hurriedly. “They’ve set fire to most of the convoy ships but with luck we can save a lot of them.” It wasn’t until the sun came up over the water that the full extent of the devastation was known. Thousands were missing or dead and millions of dollars worth of aid to embattled Britain lay on the floor of the harbor. James’ earlier anger was nothing compared to what was welling up inside him at the sight of so much sorrow and wasted life. He went to the Army recruiter and enlisted the next day.
Paragon City 2007
“I had no idea it was like
that grandpa” said Jimmy quietly as his grandfather stared off into the
“It’s alright son. The things that we experience are what make us who we are. Good or bad, right or wrong.”
“Heck, one of the few good things to come out of that war happened right after that” said James leaning towards the younger man intently.
“Really? What was that?” asked
“The 1st Hero Brigade”
Paragon City 1942
“So” said Marcus, lowering his massive frame gently into an empty chair in the dingy bar. “Maiden Justice tells me that you are getting ready to ship off to basic training.”
“Yes, sir” said James “my train
leaves tomorrow afternoon.”
“Is there any way I can talk you into coming with us? All of the Freedom Phalanx is heading over to England to see if we can take the pressure off of them. They’ve been knocked around pretty badly over there.” The calm words hid the anxiety and stress that were becoming chains around Statesman’s soul.
“I understand” replied James “but I think that I can do more good with a rifle than with whatever it is that happens to me. Besides I already have follow on orders after I’m done with basic training.”
“Really?” asked Marcus with a
raised eyebrow “what are they?”
“Well I think that you’ll like them” said James with a small secretive smile “I will be heading to…….. Alpha company, 1st Hero Brigade.”
“That’s great news!” exclaimed
Marcus “you will fit in very well there.”
“I think so too. This way I can serve in uniform while still trying to get a handle on my ‘gift’.” James answered “With that, I believe it’s your turn for a round.”
The next few months passed rapidly for the world as well as James. The Nazis steadily advanced across Europe and the Japanese across the Pacific. The 1st Hero brigade shaped up steadily into a well oiled fighting unit ready to take on the world of evil. Early August found James and the rest of the Brigade lined up in ranks at the center of Liberty Plaza awaiting Pass in Review and then their boarding of the troop carriers to take them across the Atlantic. As the Mayor stepped up to the podium all of them were thrown off of their feet as the bricks of the plaza were blown into the air and the Fifth Column announced their presence to the world.
Paragon City 2007
James interrupted his first hand
history lesson to chuckle softly.
“What’s funny, Grandpa?” asked Jimmy
“Ah, I was just thinking about that first Uber-soldat that I saw pop up out of the ground. He came out of his hole like a Jack-in-the-box all ready to kick some American behind and what did he find? A positively huge group of American Super soldiers all dressed up and rarin’ to go. Ha, you should have seen his face when he realized just what kind of anthill he stepped in. We seriously stomped those cockroaches back into their hidey holes real quick.” He grew serious “I just wish that we had finished the job.”
Liberty Plaza 1942
James sank to his knees, exhausted. His new uniform was tattered and filthy from the long weary battle against the 5th column. As he caught his breath he looked around what was left of Liberty Plaza. What had started as a glad day full of banners and brass bands had turned into a small slice of hell with the first German Super Soldier to pop up from beneath the square. His gaze stopped on the body of Cpl. Willy “Kid Carbon” Canetti one of his new friends in the brigade.
“Oh damn, Willy, I told you to be careful. Just because you have power doesn’t make you invulnerable.” James hadn’t realized that he was crying over the body until Dream Doctor laid his hand on James’ shoulder.
“Jim are you ok?” he asked
“Yes sir, I…. It…it was too early for him. He should be at home chasing girls not lying here, broken, on the ground. It’s not fair.” James replied haltingly.
“I know” Dream Doctor replied
quietly “war never is. I’m sorry.”
James wiped his eyes with a dirty sleeve and stood up. “Someone is going to have to pay” he told the other man “and I just hope that it doesn’t ruin us in getting rid of them”. The sun finally set on them as they stood looking east towards Europe and their much more personal enemy now.
Tunisia, North Africa 1942
Stumbling over the crest of the dune Sgt. Jim McCandless tried to back pedal and keep his balance but he was tired… so tired. The lambent glow that marked the use of his powers flickered like a dying candle and disappeared. He fell onto his back and slid down the slope until the build up of sand stopped him. All he could do was lay there and try to catch his breath hoping that the pursuing Germans didn’t come over the top of the dune. Lying on his back with the brutal sun beating down on him like a bully in a schoolyard he tried to figure out where the battle had turned into a rout of the American forces. The command structure just didn’t seem to be working right. The way it was set up didn’t want to allow for the heroes with complimentary powers to support each other. Using a mind controller in a rifleman’s normal slot was not a good idea and the one headlong charge by the “human tanks” was a disaster. Jim couldn’t get the image of “Strike Force” Smith out of his head when the Tiger tank shot him point blank. That one death had seemed to take the starch right out of the allied forces. After that it was a matter of moments before the American lines had broken and he had the call for retreat sounded. Jim had found himself running farther into the desert away from a German jeep crew that would not give up their pursuit. Lying on his back, breath finally slowed down enough where he could hear something other than the pounding of his heart and lungs, Jim realized that he hadn’t heard the sound of an engine for a while. Maybe he had finally lost them? Laboriously forcing his exhausted body into motion he painfully crawled upslope to peek over the edge of the sand dune. Nothing was moving except the heat waves off of the sand.
“Thank God” Jim muttered “now where the heck am I?” he wasn’t sure just how far he had run or even in what direction but he couldn’t lay there all day. The desert sun out here could kill him as quick as a bullet could so it was time to find his way back to the camp. Fourteen hours later an exhausted, filthy Sgt. McCandless stumbled into an Army sentry and almost got shot within sight of his tent.
One week later, a much improved Jim was sitting on his bunk writing a letter home to his mom when the tent flap opened and LT Colonel Shuman, the brigade CO, walked in followed by his second in command the Dream Doctor.
“At ease” the CO said as Jim hastily started to get off his bunk “take it easy soldier you’ve still got one day of rest before I put you back to work.”
“Jim” said Dream Doctor “we’ve been discussing you thoughts our first engagement and we think that you have a pretty good idea there.”
“And that was, sir?” asked
“We think that your idea of smaller groups with complimentary powers is the best way to approach the problems that we had. We feel that small strike teams of 8 or 10 heroes would be the most manageable and more of a quick reaction force than a full brigade marching across the desert would be. Plus, even though you have continued to deny it, both of us feel that your fast thinking during the battle actually saved most of the troops. If you hadn’t gotten them moving we might have lost almost everyone. So with that in mind the CO here has put you in for a battlefield commission. I’ve decided that I want you as my second in command of the first of these new units. Welcome to the Sand Kings, Lieutenant.”
Following the creation of these smaller units the 1st Hero Brigade started enjoyed more successes than failures but the price of knowledge was very high indeed.
The muted hiss of static coming across the radio was broken by the whispered voice of the lead strike element “Tango One this is Tango Four, in position and set over.”
Jim gripped the handset in his suddenly sweaty palm and sent two quick clicks back as a reply. Everyone was ready and waiting for his order to attack the Nazi camp sitting below them in the slight, dusty valley. His freshly pinned on Captains bars hadn’t even had time to get any of the ubiquitous North African sand on them before he was dragged in to the command tent and given this rescue mission. Their target was a prisoner way station holding captured allied soldiers and heroes awaiting transfer to Germany and the Stalags there more able to deal with such powerful, and valuable, prisoners. Jim’s biggest concern right now was in not hurting the folks that they were coming in to rescue. It was going to be tough to do and Jim wasn’t all that sure that the faith put in his abilities was justified. He was still having control issues and during his last action his powers had failed him completely. It was like he had run out of super juice all of the sudden and he had had to wait for a moment to try again. He shook his head of the memory and concentrated on what the immediate future held in store. Taking a deep breath he signaled his sergeant to go while clicking the radio “All Tango units GO GO GO.”
Running down hill he concentrated and felt the familiar hot/cold sensation of his gift kick in. As his feet hit the level ground of the valley floor he was completely engulfed in light and he stopped for half a step to send out a burst of pure energy into the two watchtowers guarding the gate of the camp. As the bolts of fire hit, his two “tanks”, Steamroller McPherson and his brother Blindside, punched through the hanging gate and did what they did best, get the enemies attention and keep it so the other more “fragile” units could get their jobs done. The unit “blasters” opened up on the troops streaming out of the barracks while Jims “controller” used his gravity powers to hurl huge objects across the area, smashing into buildings and soldiers alike. Jim had just turned to give his “healer” the call to help out one of his fallen troops when the side of the building he was covered by blew out and knocked him to the ground. As he lay there, stunned, the ground shook from the monstrous footsteps of the gigantic soldier stepping out of the wreckage. It was a Storm Korps assault trooper.
Before he could yell out a warning to his troops he saw what the bulk of the trooper had hidden. A hideously ugly and almost bloodlessly pale figure crept out from behind the grinning Storm Korps sergeant.
“Vampyrii!” screamed Jim “Vampyrii behind you!” As he yelled out the warning the awful figure turned towards him and Jim felt himself being drawn in to that horrid black
gaze. Struggling to his feet he turned to get some distance from the vampire and stopped dead in his tracks. He had just seen what the walls of the building had hidden. Ragged and broken heroes littered the floor and hung from various apparatus. The Nazi troops had been “questioning” them for information. The sight was the last straw for Jim. With a flash he burst into flames of power. Turning to face the German troops his fierce gaze fell upon the vampire questioner. That being fell back from the burning anger in Jim’s eyes. An inarticulate scream burst from its lips as a blast of energy threw him across the compound. Jim followed him spewing energy with every step. As he advanced on the now unconscious monster he kept picturing the brief flashes of horror he found when the walls collapsed. With a tremendous yell all of the power that had been building inside of him, since that fateful day with a truck and two little girls, burst out of him in one stupendous flash. All of the enemy troops were affected by it, collapsing where they were as the wave washed over them.
When Jim came to his senses he found himself sitting on an over-turned ammo crate. His troops and his friends had been afraid to approach him since his flaming eyes had burned ever brighter whenever his sight fell on one of the enemy soldiers. They took care of the wounded and shuffled off the few prisoners that had survived Jim’s devastating liberation of power. He had followed everyone back to base still in his fugue. They hadn’t needed to use their lights since he had been blazing like the worlds biggest bonfire until they all got back to their camp.
“James, are you alright?” asked
Dream Doctor quietly.
“I’m ok Doc why?”
“Well son, you’ve had us a bit worried about you. You didn’t seem… yourself for a little while there. You sure that you’re ok?” the senior hero asked with concern.
“Yes sir, I’m alright now. I had a bit of a problem when I saw what they had been doing to the prisoners but I am doing better now.”
The older man looked at Jim with a smile of assurance “Well, fine then. We understand that it got a bit … rough there for a minute. If it helps, when you took out the enemy guards the medics were able to get in behind you and it looks like they saved almost all of the captured heroes. It certainly helped that most of us have fairly rugged constitutions to go with our powers. By the way, you now have a new nickname.”
“Yes, you are now known around
here as Captain
Combustion” he told Jim,
with a chuckle.
“Oh yes my friend”
Paragon City 2007
“…So there you go son, that’s why
the Senator calls me Captain.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that you were a war hero” said Jimmy with awe.
“No, not a hero, just a man doing a job that had to be done” replied James with a shake of his head.
Jimmy put his hand on the old mans’ shoulder “No, sir. A plumber fixing a leaky pipe is a man doing a job that had to be done. A man who can go forward towards the enemy even as his friends are dying around him, someone who won’t stop until that same enemy can no longer hurt anyone else? That is a hero in every sense of the word.”
“Well son, not everything that I did as “Captain Combustion” exactly qualified for the Mother Theresa Hall of Fame you know. There were a few years there when we didn’t really understand just what we were fighting for. The Cold War really cost us a lot both in terms of personal honor and faith in a system that brings us folks like Senator Robert Barton.
Captain Combustion slowed down as he got to the end of the alley, there was a streetlight just to the right of the alleyway mouth and it might highlight him to his target if he wasn’t careful.
“Captain, come in Captain”
whispered the radio earplug.
He stopped in the heavy shadows right at the edge of the alley and brought the small radio transmitter up to his lips “Further instructions?” he asked the voice quietly.
“Yes” his control answered “we
have a change of primary targets”.
He cursed softly “You do understand that I am in range of this target now?”
“Understood, Longbow will pick up your target, you are instructed to proceed to Piccadilly Circus and meet with an informant. He will be in a corner booth at the Bull and Pony pub.”
“Understood, on my way” James replied, hiding his anger at the stupidity of pulling him off of his target at this point. At least they put Alistair Sinclair on him. A solid young man, whose father was with James in Tunisia. He was one of the prisoners killed in the POW camp rescue attempt. James still felt guilty about not getting there in time to prevent that horror. He had taken it upon himself to check up on the boy and his mother off and on as his travels took him back through Europe. Not that they needed a whole lot of checking by one old soldier. Alistair’s father had not only come from old money he had made some pretty good investments throughout the world before he went into the Royal Army. Alistair and his mother were living off of a gigantic inheritance that, while it couldn’t take the place of his father, certainly ensured that the Sinclair’s had a much better life than many war widows and orphans did.
Alistair had matured into an upstanding young man, Olympic class archer, fencer and one hell of an intelligence operative. Calling himself “The Welsh Longbow” was his new thing. He had decided to take up the government Hero game. James wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that but things seemed to be going well so he wasn’t going to rock the boat. He had been an honored guest at Alistair’s wedding 11 months ago and it looked like he might get to be a godparent pretty soon. It made him understand that he was getting older and he was coming to realize that being a government agent wasn’t exactly what he had started out to do when he stepped off of that bus so many years ago. James saw him pick up the tail on the, supposed, ex-Nazi they were tracking and sent him the signal to take over the lead. Alistair nodded slightly and James turned away to head towards his new contact. He didn’t see the two shadows watching him move away. One glowing pair of green eyes shifted back to the rapidly disappearing Longbow as the other set made sure that James continued away. As he moved out of eyesight they detached themselves from the alley mouth across the street and followed Alistair into the cold clinging fog.
Funnelweb, as he was known to his peers, watched with cold satisfaction as the American agent came through the door of the pub. His Lord had predicted every move the enemy had made so far and if his subordinates could make this operation work then Arachnos would be unstoppable. This ‘Captain Combustion’ was one of the few heroes left who could stop them in time and by the end of the evening even he should be out of the way or so far away that it wouldn’t matter. Two of his operatives were even now moving into position to take care of that Longbow idiot. As the American turned toward the back booth where he was sitting, Funnelweb schooled his features into a mask of submissive fear, allowing his eyes to dart convulsively around the room as though he were being hunted.
‘This one should be easily manipulated by playing up the helpless everyman angle’ Funnelweb thought to himself with a small internal smile.
“Sit down” he hissed to the big
man intensely “they could be watching me right now!”
James sat down opposite the strange little man he had been sent here to meet. There was a feeling striking every trained observer chord in his body telling him that there was something very off key going on here and he pricked up his mental ears to figure out just what was bothering him
“Who might be watching you
Mr...?.” James asked.
“The same people who have been following you for two days” Funnelweb replied with a whine in his voice. It was easy to sound truthful since it happened to be his underlings who were doing the watching.
“What people are we talking about
and why are you telling me this?” asked James slowly.
“I see things and I let people know what I see and sometimes they let me know how much they appreciate my information” was the answer. “As for who they are I’m petty sure that they are friends of an old German who runs a ‘business’ down in Whitechapel” Funnelweb finished telling him while holding his hand out for a ‘reward’.
James just stared at him until he pulled his hand back with a sneer, as his arm came back to lay on the table James saw what looked like a red tattoo with 8 small lines radiating out at angles from the center of the mark.
“That’s very interesting, but you
still haven’t told me who you are”
James said coldly.
“I’m nobody special, just a man trying to help rid the world of some bad people. Looking out for my fellow law abiding citizens you might say.” Said the man, with a greasy smile. “That has to be worth something to you right?”
“Doubtlessly your intentions are as pure as your heart but once again, why, exactly, do you think that I can help? Go to the police with your information, I’m sure that they can think of a suitable reward for someone like you.”
“Like I said, I hear things and one of the things that I heard was that a group called Arachnos was looking for a man who had once thwarted some very important research that they were doing. Something involving the war in North Africa” replied the shifty man. “I believe that the man that they are so interested in goes by the name ‘Captain Combustion’, that is you isn’t it?” As he said the name he saw confirmation in the big man’s expression. That’s right “Hero” I have your interest now don’t I? Now to set the hook.
At the mention of Arachnos James had gone cold all over. When the evil little man mentioned him by name his face turned to solid granite. He leaned across the table and told his contact “If you know enough to call me that then you had better give me what I want to know right now. If you don’t, I will end you, witnesses or no.”
“Take it easy there” Funnelweb replied shakily. “I found out that they are going to kidnap some woman to use in one of their macabre experiments tonight. Something to do with the full moon and raising the dead.”
“Now I know that you should let the police know. But you obviously aren’t going to, so” James said with a sigh “tell me everything you know. Who is the woman? What does she have to do with your ‘German’ and what they have to do with Arachnos?”
“As far as I know the German was contracted to find a specific person. She had to be of a specific bloodline, unattached and ‘pure’” was the answer.
“What do you mean ‘pure’?”
“You are a grown man do I really have to explain this?”
“Hmm, no, I suppose not.”
“Well as far as I know” started Funnelweb “they will be waiting for this woman to finish her lecture on some kind of occult practices involving raising the dead. This is what caught the attention of our kidnappers in the first place. She is speaking at …..”
After James had left to save the day, Funnelweb contacted his superiors. “He is on his way and will be picking up ‘The Welsh Longbow’ as he goes. Our pawns should keep their attention for quite a while. Who knows, they may even succeed in ridding us of the ‘Captain’ and his young friend. What would you like me to do?”
The rumbling voice on the other end of the phone told him to gather up his operatives and return, his part of the evenings’ fun was complete.
“As you wish my Lord” he simpered into the phone. Turning away, his malicious giggle sent chills down the barman’s spine, as he watched the oily little man creep out of the door.
James was waiting patiently in the shadows of a closed bookstore down the street from the lecture hall where the “victim” was supposedly speaking. He still wasn’t quite sure what to make of this but he was willing to go along with it at least for a little while. He stirred slightly as Alistair eased into the shadows with him.
“Is that where she is?” he asked
the larger man.
“So far. Some folks went in earlier and they did have the look of academics but we will see.” James answered slowly still thinking about his meeting. There was something bothering him about the slimy little man. He shrugged the thoughts aside as people started filing out of the building across the street. As the last of the people were leaving the hall James noticed the two men in hooded jackets when they came around a corner farther up the street. Nothing special about them caught his eye but it was the same type of feeling he had earlier this evening at the pub. Gesturing to Alistair to keep them in view he turned his attention back to the lecture hall. The last two people came out of the door talking but they had turned away from him so he was unable to get a look. Alistair gently touched his arm and pulled his attention to the two hooded men. They had quickened their pace slightly to keep the couple in sight as they headed up the block from James. As they passed where James and Alistair were hiding the two agents slipped from cover and started out on an evening that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.
The two heroes slipped quietly from shadow to shadow behind their targets. The hooded figures were so intent on their prey that they had totally ignored what might be happening behind them. James and Alistair could easily keep them in sight. James held up his hand and signaled for the other man to take cover as the two ahead suddenly slowed down. There were two people talking on a stoop not far ahead. One, an older graying man with the aura of academic about him and the other seemed to be a young pretty brunette. As the woman casually glanced their way one of the hoods pretended to look for his keys to unlock the door they were standing by. At this point the conversation between the man and woman came to an end, he went inside his door and she started down the street. After waiting a few seconds to let her get far enough ahead of them her two trackers followed, intent on their plans to snatch her when the situation was right.
‘Damn’ James thought ‘the little weasel was right. These idiots
really are going to kidnap this woman.’
“Alistair” James called out softly “keep an eye on them, I’ll call this in.”
“Control, it looks like we really do have a kidnapping in progress going on here. What do you want us to do?” James asked rapidly over the radio.
“Crap, we still don’t have any
assets in place to help, other than you. Are you able to follow?” asked the
“We can handle it” James replied as he got Alistair’s attention. “Will keep you advised.”
“Got it, we are working on getting you some help” came the reply.
As James turned back to let Alistair know what was going on the two hooded men decided that it was time to finish their job. Rushing up to her one of the men grabbed the woman as the other placed something over her mouth. They turned down an alley and headed away from the agents bearing their prize with them.
James signaled to Alistair to stay left as they followed the two men and their desperately struggling captive down the alley.
The dimly seen figures turned left as they exited the narrow opening. The struggles of their victim had ceased all together and James tried to keep his thoughts centered around what to do next and not about just rushing them. It was vitally important that they find out just what was going on here. He sidled up to the mouth of the alley and peeked low around the corner. The two men were shoving the girl into the back of a car that was parked well away from the lone streetlight on this block of shabby, rundown shop fronts.
“Captain we have a car enroute
with radio batteries and the Welsh Longbow’s weapon, do you need anything
“Have the driver ready to follow the suspects car, looks like they are ready to move” James replied.
Luck was with the two agents. As the kidnappers’ car pulled away the chase car passed them in the street, pulling in to the just vacated parking spot.
“Who else do we have to help?”
James asked the driver.
“I’m it sir, there is some sort of trouble brewing all over the city. All sorts of odd reports talking of strange hooded figures starting fires and fights in a wide area. Everyone is out dealing with it right now.”
‘Why do I have the feeling that
all of this is related?’
James asked himself.
“Well kiddo,” James said to his companion “looks like we’re it.”
As they drove out of the city traffic lessened so much that they had to drop well back from their target.
“Try your best not to lose them but don’t let them know we’ve got them in our sights.”
When James saw the taillights ahead of them flash on he had the driver turn off his lights and coast to a stop still well away from the other car and, hopefully, still unnoticed.
“It looks like they are taking her into that forested area. We should be able to catch them fairly easily, it doesn’t look very wide.” The younger man said quietly. Right then a burst of static over the radio caught their attention and they realized that they hadn’t heard anything over it for quite a while. While James tried to their base on the radio Alistair gathered up his weapons and joined the other man at the front of the car.
“I can’t get through on the radio” James told Alistair “It looks like we are on our own still.” Climbing out of the car the two men surveyed the dark, forbidding tree line with concern. It really was a good place to ambush them if that was what was going to happen.
“Nothing for it but to go in” Alistair said to James. The older man grunted in resigned agreement. “OK let’s get on with it before we lose the trail in there.” A barely visible path snaked away through the trees ahead of them and they entered cautiously. Almost immediately the path that they were following took them over a series of dips and rain gullies surrounding the gnarled roots of trees that were old when Richard Lion Heart was still on Crusade. As soon as they reached comparatively level ground James urged Alistair along the path faster and faster, desperate not to lose the trail completely in the growing dark. The path wound through the dense forest in a seeming random series of twists and turns which slowed them down almost to a crawl. They were forced by the darkness to wait for the rising of the full moon just to keep from running headlong into the crowding trees. “Have you noticed how much bigger this forest seems to be inside than out?” James asked the younger man as they panted their way up a slight rise.
“’We’re not in Kansas anymore’ I
believe is the way the saying goes.” Alistair replied.
About eleven o'clock the moon was sufficiently bright for them to proceed on my their way and they had no problem following the trail at a fast walk, and in some stretches at a run until, about midnight, James was positive that they were nearing their goal. He held up his hand and the two of them slowed to a crawl as the faint sound of chanting registered over their labored breathing. Alistair could see the dim glow of reflected light coming from ahead of them through the thinning trees. As they crept forward around the bole of an ancient yew they came upon a sight that caught Alistair’s breath in his throat. A small open clearing spread out before them dotted with outcroppings of weathered rock. In the center of this a depression sank the ground into a natural amphitheater, the focus of which was a stone altar surrounded by swaying, chanting figures dressed in hooded wool robes. James made his way to the nearest rock pile with all the skill that he learned in the desert so many years ago. He signaled Alistair to wait in the tree line where he had a much clearer field of view in case he had to use his bow.
As James sidled around into the
shadow of the rocks he heard the chanting change pitch. The ground fog, which
had been barely visible on the grass, started to strengthen with the change. At
the head of the stone altar James could see a man standing with his hands
upraised as if in benediction. He seemed to be reading from a huge book floating
in the air in front of him. As each page turned the chanting rose again in pitch
and fervor. A final page turn and the head priest (if that was what he was)
shouted out over the voices of his followers “COME FORTH! COME FORTH AND LEAD US
GREAT ONE!” The fog had almost completely filled the area and was starting to
swirl slowly as if unseen figures were passing through it. All of the Rites
that were so intently performed seemed to be over now and the air was charged
with breathless anticipation.
The fog was accompanied by a sickly odor, something reminiscent of a freshly opened grave. A growing breeze stirred it in billows which grew thicker and thicker by the moment. Then it began to rise higher and higher accompanied by a renewed feverish chanting coming from the gathered priests. A shadowy figure, writhing in anguish or ecstasy, twisted into shape over the altar and the young woman lying unconscious on it. And then, in the very thickest section of the mass, something solidified and as it did it pulled the billowing clouds into itself. As the last of the fog whirled into the clearing the cowled figure thumped into the grass beside the altar. His breath hissed between clenched teeth as James saw the jagged blade held aloft in the hands of the priest standing over the woman. He realized that the chanting had stopped and the sense of anticipation grew almost unbearable. The hooded figure gestured hurriedly to the priest and James heard the voice of the damned as it said “Now! Finish the Summoning! Bring me fully back into this world!”
James turned to Alistair “Take the
priest I’ll handle whoever the hell that is!”
Even as he turned to race to save the woman he could hear the creaking wood as the Welsh Longbow pulled back the broad head arrow and let fly. The zzzipp as the arrow passed inches from his head barely registered on James’ conscious thoughts. Power filled him to bursting, driving everything to the periphery of his mind. He focused all of his rage at the summoned being waiting in greedy anticipation for the blood to flow from the veins of his pathway onto this world. The bolt of energy James shot at him impacted on his head at the exact moment that the three foot long arrow seemed to magically sprout from the chest of the head priest. At that point all hell broke loose. All of the furious, frantic activity around the clearing only partially registered on his awareness. All he could see was the hideously misshapen features of the hell spawned creature as it turned to destroy the insignificant mortal who had dared interfere with its triumph. Pure golden lances of energy met headlong with ravening waves of corruption as the Hero and Villain fought to survive. James knew instantly that he had just met his match in power. As the two glowing figures slammed away at each other the backlash of liberated energy arced continuously around them smashing onto the seething mass of acolytes as they strove to reach the interloper.
Alistair pumped arrow after arrow into that same group trying desperately to give James enough time and room to defeat his opponent. The problem was he was rapidly running out of ammunition. As he reached into his quiver for the last of his arrows a blast of negative energy punched into him, knocking him to the ground. He lay there staring fuzzily into the running battle trying desperately to move his legs, arms, anything. His muscles responded agonizingly slowly. Painfully Alistair managed to look over his shoulder and knew that his luck had run out. A cowled Acolyte stood over him holding a crossbow and arming it to fire into the fallen man. Alistair struggled to reach his bow, to move, to do anything, but his arms and legs moved jerkily, and he knew that time wasn’t on his side anymore. Time seemed to slow as the Acolyte raised the weapon. To Alistair the figure seemed to be moving in slow motion. He watched the finger tighten on the trigger. He could already feel the arrow ripping through his back. ‘This is it’ he thought ‘I am going to die!’ Alistair had time for one yell. "No!” Suddenly a bolt of energy shot out of the shadows to catch the Acolyte across the chest with a sound like a bat hitting a bag of sand. The man was blasted back into the bole of a tree and thumped to the ground next to Alistair. For a moment Alistair lay there panting and staring at the unmoving figure lying beside him. ‘That has to have used up my luck’, he thought. ‘There can't be any more left.’
Saving the other hero was almost James’ undoing. As he turned back to reengage his opponent an overpowering blast of negative energy pulsed into him knocking his feet out from under him and all rational thought out of his head.
He was only out of it for a second but that was long enough. When he could concentrate on something other than the lights flashing behind his eyes he realized that the heaviness in his chest was the creature standing on it. He hadn’t noticed it before but, even though the man thing had weight, his outline flickered and blurred continuously. James realized that he had only been out for a second and that the summoning hadn’t yet been completed.
"Submit!" bellowed out across the clearing. “Submit and become my creature. In the end you will anyway and if you don’t you will die!”
James looked up into the loathsome
face poised above his and felt his first serious pangs of fear.
Alistair pulled himself erect against the tree and groggily shook his head to clear it. He seemed to have been forgotten for the moment. As the ringing in his ears subsided he heard “… die!” Looking across the clearing he saw that James was down and the apparition or whatever it was, was standing atop him. Snatching his last arrow off of the ground he took careful aim and let fly. As the arrow leapt from his bow he screamed “Now James Now!” hoping to God that the other man could hear him and would be ready.
James heard and sent one
tremendous burst of fire into the being above him just as the arrow found its
As the power bolt struck with the arrow the being shot back its head and screamed. The screech of mortal pain and anger was so loud that James and Alistair clapped their hands over their ears even as they were driven to their knees from the force of it. From his knees James sent wave after wave of energy into the thing. As more and more of his wrath impacted on it, it began to spin. Faster and faster it spun and its screams seemed to Doppler as if it were being flung away from the clearing at high speed. The whirlpool effect drew on the surrounding smoke and fog, whipping the air into a frenzy as the being finally started to flicker and fade. With an inrushing clap of air it was gone, dragging most of its remaining followers with it. Only the Heroes, the victim and a few weakly stirring figures could be seen in the clearing as a deafening silence descended on the forest.
Alistair lay on the soft carpet of fallen leaves trying to catch his breath and slow down his heart. Tremors ran up and down his body, but he forced himself to calm down until the he could stand with out fear of fainting dead away. He looked over to check on James and saw him untying the woman and helping her sit up.
“Are you alright Miss…?” asked
“April. April West and yes I think so. I have a terrible headache and I’m not very sure what is going on. Who are you and what am I doing here?” she asked while holding her head in her hands.
“To answer your question why don’t you tell us what was the last thing you remember?” asked Alistair as he came up on the two.
“Well, I had just finished my lecture on some of Alistair Crowley’s writings on the Summoning of the Dead” she started, missing the significant glance passing between the two Heroes. “And then I remember walking down to a colleague’s house, saying goodnight, then there was some kind of cloth over my face and two men were pulling me towards an alley and then I saw you standing over me. Wait there was something else as well…. Chanting? And some horrible man leering down at me... A knife?”
“Yes, well actually you have a lot of the story right there.” James replied slowly, still thinking about the connection between her lecture and what they had just witnessed.
“We received a tip that some kind of cult related kidnapping was going to happen tonight and when we looked into it we saw that our informant was right. We followed your kidnappers as fast as we could and got here just in time to save you from…. Whatever that was. I think the worst is over now and we should get you back to the city.” James told her. As he started to help her off of the altar they all heard the grating sound as the capstone shifted slightly. Looking at the edge of the altar James saw that it was built of two pieces and that the lid had settled slightly to expose a gap. He and Alistair shoved at one side of the lid and were able to push it all the way off of the base. As the top fell off to the side they barely heard the thump of the 300 pound stone as the interior of the altar was exposed for the first time in who knew how many hundred or thousand years. A steep series of carved steps led down into the Stygian blackness. James looked at Alistair with raised eyebrows and the other man nodded.
“OK, it looks like tonight’s adventure isn’t quite over. We need to investigate this April, you should probably stay here but” James held up his hand as she started to interrupt “But I think that we couldn’t keep you away unless we tied you back up” he finished with a smile.
“Thank you, yes I want to go with
you.” She replied.
Before they climbed down into the tunnel James made sure that the few remaining thugs still moving were tied securely though, judging from the damage most had taken, they weren’t going to be a threat any time soon. As they descended into the opening none of them saw the watcher as he scuttled out of the woods. His sole job was to ensure that no one would learn anything from the surviving Circle members. The ones still somewhat conscious didn’t struggle very long, the unconscious ones never knew.
“Good Lord how far down do these go?” Alastair asked just to fill up the silence. “Have I mentioned that I hate caves?” he continued.
“Oh, once or twice I think.” James replied. “I see some light”. Even as he said the words his foot touched the last step on the stairwell. The tunnel ran ahead a few more feet then made a sharp right hand turn, that was where the light was coming from. James wasn’t sure what he was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what met his eye when they rounded the corner. All three of them pulled up short and stared into the chamber they had just found. A diffuse golden glow emanated from everywhere and nowhere in the room lighting it brightly. The only furnishings in the room were a table and two chairs along with two frames on the wall, and they caught James's eye. Gilded in green and red enamel all of the furniture was engraved with mystic runes and symbols of power. The two frames were especially heavily carved with protective spells according to April. One held a two-handed mace, as least three feet long, a heavily engraved longbow, and under them both a long, squared shield bearing an upraised fist holding a broken length of chain. The other held some kind of organic looking under suit, a few rusty stains of what might have been chain mail and a winged full helmet with a T shaped face guard, along with steel gauntlets, and half-plate for shoulders. Like the furniture, they were simply and severely decorated with green and red highlights but they gave everyone the impression of barely leashed power. Each of them seemed almost irresistibly drawn to a different item. For James it was the Mace, April went right to the helmet and Alistair went to the longbow, though that surprised no one.
“I always wondered why we had those things in the display case. I don’t think that you have ever even mentioned them before except to tell me to leave ‘em alone.” Jimmy said to his Grandfather.
The old man sighed sadly, “I know son but… it’s hard for me to even look at that stuff. It just reminds me so much of your grandmother that I almost can’t stand it.”
“Sorry grandpa I didn’t
“Don’t worry ‘bout it. It’s ok”
Jimmy looked at his grandfather and asked him gently “Can you tell me what the Senator meant about dad and Grandmother?”
“I will get there. I need to fill you in on the rest of my time in England and all that happened there. It’s not a good story Jimmy, and not one that I share very often, but you need to know. Let’s get some sleep I’ll fill you in on the rest tomorrow.”
“.. and that’s what we found under the altar. Once we picked up the artifacts the “life” seemed to leave the place and the glow started fading. We made it up the stairs a few minutes later and that’s when we heard the agent’s calling out from the tree line.” James told his supervisor.
“Yes it was quite shocking to see that the woods that we had spent hours running through were actually only a few hundred feet wide. Very strange, sir. Very strange indeed.” interjected Alistair.
“And the young lady?” asked the
“She is being looked at by the doc’s, sir, but they all seem to think she is none the worse for wear” replied James.
“Very well, we have some further information about this evenings adventure.” continued their boss “It seems that the source of this evenings ‘fun’ was a fairly strange Mystical type cult calling themselves the Circle of Thorns or at least that was what we first assumed. We have further information from some of the prisoners you took that someone calling himself Funnelweb was the one calling the shots for this evening. From the near riots to all of the fires to kidnapping that young lady all the orders originated with him. It is a name known to us from some captured Intel as belonging to a group called Arachnos.
James started violently at the mention of that name, understandable considering that that was who was behind the prisoner torture from the POW camp so many years ago. It had been many years after the war that the truth finally came to light but it didn’t change the fact the James owed Arachnos and someone named Protean a whole lot of Karmic balance. Now, after so many years, the name pops up again. Coincidence? Possible, but highly doubtful.
“We have a lead on a gathering that is supposed to taking place early next week. I want you two to assemble a full team and take them down lock, stock and barrel. No one gets out except as a prisoner. Understood?”
“Yes sir, understood” replied
As the two lead operatives were huddled together over the plans for the upcoming raid there was a quiet knock on the door to the planning room.
“Enter” barked James in his best Army voice. He was irritated at the interruption but as he straightened up to see who was bothering them, he felt the stiffness in his back and realized that they had been working for nearly 8 hours without a break.
“Hello? I was told that the two gentlemen who helped me were in here.” said April as she pushed open the door. “Oh excellent, I am very glad I finally found you. The nice people at the front desk said you were back here but they found something a bit humorous in it. I’m not sure why.”
At Alistair’s raised eyebrows
James growled a bit. He would be having some words with the folks up front in
just a bit.
Shaking the thought aside he said “You are looking remarkably better than when we parted Miss West.”
“Well, a shower and a good rest certainly did wonders for my outlook. I must have looked a fright to you at first.”
“On the contrary, Ma’am” James said gallantly even as he heard the other agent stifle a snicker. As James glanced at him with lowered brows but Alistair met his fierce gaze with studied innocence.
“What can we do for you?”
“Oh, I just wanted to thank you again for my rescue and to show how grateful I am I would like to buy the two of you dinner if I might.”
“Well, thank you Ms. West but I really should be getting back to my lovely wife though I am sure that James would be more than happy to take you up on your offer.”
“Brilliant! Please say yes” April
said directing her striking blue eyes at the older man.
“Uhhh, sure. I mean yes of course that would be very nice.” James replied, momentarily stunned by the look she gave him. “Can I have a bit to freshen up?”
“Certainly, can you pick me up at
7pm at my flat?”
“I will be there at 7, thank you for the invitation”
As Alistair escorted her back to the reception desk to turn in here visitors badge James sat on the edge of the desk lost in thought.
An indeterminate time later he heard Alistair saying something but didn’t catch it. “Sorry I was drifting. What was that?” he asked the other man.
Alistair chuckled good naturedly “I noticed that you were somewhere else. I was saying that if you were going to be on time you might want to check out a car and maybe go shower? You are a bit … mmm ripe.”
James realized that he was still in the same rumpled clothes from the night before. He stood abruptly and asked “Umm, should I bring something?”
“Like what old boy?”
“Well flowers or wine or something?”
Alistair stared at James as if seeing him for the first time. Gently he said “Striking isn’t she? I think flowers would be an appropriate gift for dinner. I will check you out with the chaps in the main office, you should get moving James. “Good luck” with that Alistair strode out of the office leaving James to dwell on a pair of beautiful blue eyes.
The evening passed in a pleasant blur of conversation for James. He heard April’s entire life story and he dropped her back at her apartment with a promise of another dinner in the very near future. His last thoughts were of his lovely young dinner companion and he drifted off to sleep with a slight smile.
The next few days were a constant scurry of activity as they assembled the strike team and prepared for the coming raid on the warehouse where the meeting was going to take place. The pre-dawn hours of the fourth day found the team setting up outside the long neglected building. James and Alistair, in their hero personas of Captain Combustion and The Welsh Longbow, burst into the warehouse doors ready for anything. It was anti-climactic for them both when they were greeted by nothing more dangerous than dust and a few rats that promptly fled in terror.
James held a whispered conference with his two team leaders “Sergeant Smythe you take your group and search the west side. If you see anything hold and send a runner. Alistair you do the same to the east. I want a coordinated effort when we make contact. I will take Officer Jones and search upstairs. Let’s get to it folks.” With that he signaled Jones to accompany him and they started up the stairs staying in the shadows as best they could.
Reaching the top of the stairs James edged along the dusty wall until he came to a bank of windows framing a medium sized work area. He could hear a muted conversation coming from the other side of the wall and risked a quick peek over the sill.
He saw the back of a young man starting to run to fat. He was nervously shifting his weight back and forth while someone out of James’ sight spoke to him “… and I want you to find good secure quarters where we can get the organization set up without interference.”
“I think I can help you there. We
recently rezoned an industrial area an-”
“I don’t want details, I want results” the other voice interrupted “and so do my superiors. You really do not want to annoy them. They can be far more unpleasant than I can.”
“I understand” the first man
James heard a door open out of his line of sight and a whispered conversation. He signaled to Sergeant Smythe to go get the other team and turned his attention back to the room.
“You are out of time. They are here and you need to be away right now. Follow this one and he will show you a secure way out of here. Wait with him for further instructions…… No! Get out.” The shadowed voice said. As James waited impatiently for his team to get into position he saw the tubby young man move further into the shadows and out of his view.
Just as he was getting ready to bust into the office team or no team he heard them setting up below him. He signaled that the office was their target and spent another tense few seconds waiting for them to get ready.
“GO” he whispered fiercely and kicked open the door to the office. Rushing into the room with his support spreading out around him he ran to where he thought the voice had come from. Coming around a cloth covered machine he pulled up short. There before him on the floor was a hissing detonator connected to 4 bricks of plastic explosive. As he stopped he saw a metal door click shut behind the bomb. Turning he screamed to his troopers “OUT! OUT! We have a bomb! Move it!” Rushing them out the door he prayed that they would get out in time. Leaping and stumbling they were almost to the warehouse doors when their luck ran out. The blast wave caught at them, whipping them off of their feet and hurtling them through walls and even the open doors.
James came to moments later lying on his face in flickering firelight with pieces of the building still falling around him. Groaning he climbed to his feet and limped towards a figure huddled on the ground. As he came up on the body he saw that Jones was beyond care. Farther on he saw Alistair helping another injured man out the door and James grabbed the collar of a groggy Sergeant Smythe. As James dragged the wounded policeman out of the burning warehouse mocking laughter echoed down from one of the surrounding structures. They had failed and almost gotten their whole team killed.
“Hmm. We didn’t get all of them, disappointing.” Funnelweb turned to the fat man who stood sweating and trembling beside him. “Faugh, I can smell the fear on you. Go back to America and get back to your work there. We will be in contact when you can be of use again. Make sure that all of the arrangements are made for our move to Paragon. Funds will be forthcoming. You know the accounts to use.”
“I… I understand” stammered
Alderman Barton “I will get right to it. You can count on me.”
“I’m sure we can since the price of your failure is quite final.” Funnelweb said sneeringly and then dismissed Barton from his thoughts. Turning to his robed lackey he asked “Is everything in place? I want those two taken care of for good this time. Start with the Englishman. I have special plans for the American. NO MORE MISTAKES! Is that understood?”
“As you command!” replied the minion and he scurried of to follow the departing agents.
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