He asks, “When is the Day of Resurrection?”
When vision is dazzled,
And the moon is buried in darkness.
And the sun and moon are joined,
Man will say on that Day, “Where is the place of escape?”
No! There is no refuge!
The Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Qiyamah 75:6-11
Kate Anderson had believed a Bachelor of Fine Art in Dance from the University of Arkansas would guarantee her a career on Broadway. After graduation, she dumped her boyfriend of three years, said goodbye to her teary-eyed mom and deadbeat stepfather, packed up her meager belongings, stuffed them into her beat-up Ford Fiesta and headed to the Big Apple. She shared an apartment on the second floor of a refurbished brownstone in Williamsburg with a distant, anorexic model-to-be named Chloe and got a job waiting tables at a local greasy spoon to pay the rent until she got her big break.
Two years and a single appearance in a lackluster off-Broadway production later, she was still waiting tables for minimum wage and blowing the occasional head choreographer for parts that would never materialize. She realized she was just another set of nice boobs in the sea of nameless hopefuls flitting from audition to audition like desperate crack whores looking to score their next fix.
Her career going nowhere, she decided to give up on her dream of seeing her name in bright lights and put her degree to work. All that got her was teaching dance to entitled Manhattan brats for minimum wage. Facing soul-shriveling student debt with only a buck fifty left in her savings account, she needed money – lots of money – before her tits and ass started to sag.
“Ever thought about shakin’ your moneymaker?” Chloe had asked her in a rare moment of civility. “Bitch, I’d pay you to shake that sweet ass in my face.”
As plans went, it had the merit of having never been tried.
She soon discovered that she reveled in being a stripper. Within a year, she had paid off her student loans and moved into her very own apartment on West 51st Street. What she loved the most though was the power she wielded over the sea of beady-eyed perverts who sat transfixed by her undulating form night after night, their sad hard-ons hidden beneath their hands like festering lesions. She would never be a star on Broadway but there was some consolation knowing that she had become an unattainable dream to every man – and quite a few women – who had seen her dance.
Having finished her final set for the evening, she went backstage and took a quick shower. She always felt dirty afterwards as if the thoughts of her spellbound audience submerged her in the mire of their pathetic fantasies. After toweling off and drying her strawberry-blonde hair, she poured herself into a pair of black leather pants and a cream Angora sweater, slipped on a pair of Louis Vuitton ankle boots, grabbed her Gucci purse and headed to the Stiletto parking lot through the backstage exit, her Versace overcoat draped stylishly around her shoulders.
As she walked towards her Nissan Infiniti Q50, a primal skittering at the base of her skull stopped her dead in her tracks. She scanned the parking lot for a sign of someone crouching behind one of the cars. Customers would sometimes get so obsessed with one of the girls that they would wait outside for a chance to talk to them. They were generally harmless losers but some of them were downright psychos. Jimmy, one of Stiletto’s bouncers, would usually wait at the backstage exit until the girls got into their cars but he was nowhere to be seen. Rather than turn back towards the club, she decided to quicken her pace, her hand clutching the can of pepper spray attached to the key ring in her purse.
The chill October wind suddenly picked up, sending assorted trash scurrying across the parking lot. Hackles rising on the back of her neck, she darted towards her car, her overcoat tumbling to the ground. She stumbled and fell, the contents of her purse spilling out in all different directions. She scrambled back to her feet in wild-eyed fear, the key ring still clenched in her white-knuckled hand. Her thumb stabbed the unlock button of the automobile remote, deactivating the alarm and unlocking the driver’s side door. Reaching her car, she fumbled for an eternity with the door handle. Her heart pounding in her chest like a jackhammer, she finally opened the door. Diving into the driver’s seat, she slammed the door shut with such force the vehicle shuddered. She locked the doors and curled up into a ball, her face buried between her knees and her eyes shut tightly against whatever nameless horror lay outside.
For the longest time, she sobbed hysterically, quavering in terror while scenes of gibbering monstrosities bursting through the tinted glass played across the movie screen of her mind. She gradually became aware that all she could hear was the hushed cadence of the wind through the trees lining nearby Buscema Street. Her breathing began to slow and her muscles relax. In time, she worked up enough courage to look outside.
The parking lot was completely deserted.
She peered through every window, cheeks reddening with humiliation. Satisfied that she was quiet alone, she got out of the car and headed for her discarded overcoat. Legs still quivering from the adrenaline rush, she bent down to scoop up the garment, promising herself a Xanax as soon as she got home. She was straightening up when she felt a malevolent presence behind her. Despite the overwhelming desire to bolt screaming into the night, she turned around.
Kate Anderson looked into the eyes of Death and was no more.
The blood drained from John Arcanatis’ face on hearing that the young woman named Cloak was the daughter of Takofanes. The chilling memory of when he had first heard that accursed name flashed across his mind’s eye like a runaway locomotive.
The autumn of 1987 had been a milestone for him and his wife, Grainne. After several years of an on-again, off-again relationship and seven of a marriage that was never uneventful, they decided to start a family. The day Grainne announced that she was pregnant, however, changed everything for them. Her pregnancy meant that the time had finally come for Doctor Arcane and Stonehenge to quit the chessboard of supernatural conflict on which they had been but pieces for decades so that their child could grow up safe from the horrors that lurked in the darkness.
While driving up the coast to Boston during her first trimester, Grainne simply fell in love with a six-bedroom, Georgian style house in a sleepy little town called Jerusalem’s Lot. By the end of her second trimester, the Arcanatis family had become the newest and by far the most offbeat residents of ‘The Lot’. On entering her third trimester, Grainne began having difficulty sleeping.
At first, he chalked it down to the pregnancy but, by about a month before Arcana was born, Grainne was reduced to sleeping in fits and starts. He knew something was troubling her deeply but, whatever it was, he was certain it had nothing to do with pregnancy. After going two weeks without sleep, Grainne finally confided in him that the visions revolved around a malevolent entity of incalculable power raining death down on anyone opposing him. Although the source of Grainne’s abilities was supernatural in nature, it had not gifted her with clairvoyance and she had never evidenced any talent in the divinatory arts. In fact, her Irish pragmatism had often caused her to scoff at his predictions in the past. Yet, the stark terror she felt radiated from her in nearly palpable waves.
While his investigation into the cause of his wife’s visions had been fruitless, he came across instructions for preparing a potion promising deep, dreamless sleep written by the Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis. The foul-smelling concoction was tremendously successful; it put an end to his wife’s sleepless nights almost immediately but left the question of what had been their cause unanswered. As Grainne’s due date approached, the couple was so overcome with excitement that the disturbing nightmares had become a dim memory. In retrospect, it was clear that the myopia blinding not only him but also the entire mystic community at the time had been orchestrated by the being he would come to know as Takofanes the Archlich as a prelude to his assault on the world of the living.
The scales soon fell from everyone’s eyes.
While having a light lunch on the afternoon of October 31, Grainne went into labor. Since her superhuman strength made it dangerous for her to give birth in a mundane hospital, Grainne made her way to the room he had prepared especially for the happy event. After summoning the midwife, a young and surprisingly bubbly witch named Alya, Grainne called out to him. He was in Vibora Bay investigating reports of child sacrifice that had all the earmarks of the devil-worshiping cult called DEMON when he sensed her summons. After leaving the case in trustworthy hands, he teleported home to be by her side.
Arcana took her first breath at exactly 4:39 PM later that day, which was also the exact moment Takofanes shattered the ancient spells that had imprisoned him for eons in the bowels of the earth. While he ascended to the surface halfway across the country, he and his wife celebrated the birth of their daughter with friends and family. It was only later that evening when his next-door neighbors, Abner and Gladys Kravitz, dropped by to congratulate them that they heard about mysterious goings-on in Oklahoma.
After showing the Kravitzes to the parlor and introducing them to the rest of his guests, he excused himself on the pretense of needing to confirm a few details for his upcoming tour of the Orient with his agent in Los Angeles. He recalled that walking out of the joy-filled parlor was one of the most difficult things he had ever done. On reaching the heavy oaken door of his den, he turned the brass knob, a Spell of Transposition on his lips. Instead of the door opening onto a typical, suburban den, it opened onto the heart of his otherdimensional sanctum.
He strode into the vast, book-lined chamber. After a final, longing look back towards his home, he closed the door behind him. At the center of the massive room resting on an ornate golden tripod sat the Orb of Light, its soft glow illuminating even its darkest recesses. He stepped towards the pearl-like sphere reverently, his gaze transfixed by its shimmering beauty. He uttered a spell that was old when Egypt was young, his hands gesticulating over the Orb like those of a conductor lost in the rapture of a symphony. His eyes widened as they encompassed All. Despite the wards protecting his refuge, the foul energies throbbing from the Midwest like a dark heart were so potent they threatened to consume him.
He called himself Takofanes though he was known by many other names. He had appeared in Tahlequah, a small town in Oklahoma about 70 miles south-east of Tulsa. Deputy Jeri Brady, who had just returned to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office from maternity leave, managed to send out a desperate plea for aid before communication with the town was lost. When ten-year veteran of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lieutenant Brent Higgins and twenty-two year old Trooper Harvey Bellows were dispatched to investigate what was thought to be an elaborate Halloween prank, they came upon a scene straight out of a madman’s nightmare. Clothed in tattered rags and wearing a crown adorned with dragons, the emaciated corpse that was Takofanes was leading a macabre column of slavering revenants north-east towards the Oklahoma-Missouri state line. The officers skirted the ghoulish procession and sped into town in the hopes of finding any survivors. They soon discovered, however, that there were none; the shambling phalanx was the entire population of the once vibrant community.
The OHP assembled a task force bolstered by Delaware and Ottawa County law enforcement officers to halt the undead army as it neared the state line. The task force was overwhelmed, its savaged members returning from the dead to swell the ranks of the Archlich. Once the horde had crossed the state line, it continued its single-minded march eastward. Declaring a state of emergency, the Governor of Missouri mobilized the state militia as well as state and local law enforcement agencies. The hastily-gathered contingent of nearly five thousand brave men and women under Major General Frank Townshend would make its stand just south of Springfield. It met the same horrific fate as its counterpart in Oklahoma.
Faced with a threat that could clearly not be neutralized by conventional means, the President went on the air appealing for superhuman assistance. Twenty-three superheroes answered the call. Gathering outside the small town of Cape Girardeau on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the heroes commanded by Brawler, the leader of the Justice Squadron, would endeavor to halt the macabre host and its enigmatic leader before it crossed the river. Ten National Guard regiments were positioned along the eastern bank in case they failed.
The battle was over before it had begun.
With nothing more than a casual gesture, Takofanes struck down nearly a third of the superhuman strike force opposing him, their lifeless bodies tumbling to the ground like desiccated leaves from a dying tree. Among the dead were Delphi and Archangel: two of Arcanatis’ closest friends and staunchest allies. The overpowering shock gripping the remaining superhumans was replaced by unadulterated terror a heartbeat later as the fallen rose from the dew-slick grass as soulless shells of their former selves. Brawler ordered the survivors to fall back to regroup while the National Guard engaged the implacable horde. It too was routed with mind-numbing ease. As another direct confrontation would undoubtedly prove to be moot, the heroes decided to focus their efforts on evacuating the civilians in the path of the ghastly procession until they could muster greater numbers.
Realizing in horror that the assembled heroes could not halt the relentless advance, Arcanatis tore his eyes away from the Orb. Like the proverbial snowball rolling down the side of a mountain, Takofanes’ power was growing exponentially as time passed. If the Archlich was not prevented from achieving his unknown goal before dawn, no number of superhumans no matter how powerful would be able to stop him. A heavy sigh escaped his lips as his thoughts turned to Grainne and his hours-old daughter. The burden of standing between existence and annihilation had fallen to him.
The caress of a soft hand on his cheek pulled him back into the present.
“Father, are you well?”
His eyes met those of his concerned daughter. For a moment, he considered telling Arcana how terrified he was before deciding otherwise. He smiled awkwardly, his eyes resting on a particularly large shard of glass on the floor behind her.
“I’m fine, sweetheart.” He lied, “I suppose I’m still rattled by our brush with the Witchfinder.”
Arcana studied her father’s face for a moment, considering whether to call him out on the lie he had just told before deciding otherwise. She smiled awkwardly and placed her hands lovingly on his, noting how cold and clammy they were. She had just opened her mouth to console him when she sensed that the protective wards she had placed around her apartment were being breached for the second time in as many hours. She shot to her feet, eldritch energy crackling around her raised hands like twin thunderstorms. Doctor Arcane rose to stand beside his daughter, a Spell of Protection on his lips as a portal irised open. Cloak, however, regarded the figure emerging from the dimensional doorway with quiet detachment.
“Sorry to drop by unannounced like this,” apologized Themis as she strode through the portal, “but you know what they say about desperate times.”
Sensing no threat from the newcomer, Arcana slowly lowered her hands. “I want to know who you are. Now!”
“Arcana,” began John Arcanatis deferentially. “you’re addressing the goddess Themis—”
“There’s no need for such formality between the two of us, John.” Themis interrupted, a sly smile danced across her full lips. She then turned to Cloak and the smile disappeared from her face like tears in the rain. “My dear child, I wish I could ease the hellish burden you have borne but I can’t.” Themis stepped towards the somber young woman. “I swear to you that his plans will turn to ashes in his mouth.”
A shudder suddenly racked Cloak, who fell to her knees before anyone could react. “Takofanes has arisen,” she wailed in despair as she sensed her father’s presence.
Arcana recoiled at the dire announcement. “I have to warn Jenn! Have her mobilize the Squadron—”
Themis grabbed Arcana by the upper arm before the sorceress could move. “No, my child, your Squadron – not even the gods themselves – can forestall Takofanes.”
“What’re you asking us to do,” asked Doctor Arcane as he helped Cloak to her feet, “stand idly by and let the world be damned?”
Themis nodded. She then released her grip on Arcana and walked deliberately towards the window overlooking Millennium City. “There are those who pit themselves against the darkness while others flee from the darkness before it devours them – each in accordance with their nature. Ours is by far the most difficult lot for we must accept that the coming of night is inevitable.”
“Are you mad?!”
The blind goddess remained ominously silent. Nearly a third of the Moon gliding over the sleeping city had been swallowed up by the shadow of the Earth.
“There is little time,” Themis declared, the urgency in her voice almost tangible. “Takofanes will perform the Invocation of the Black Sun as the eclipse nears its totality. Once the spell is cast, all life will be felled like wheat before the scythe and Death will hold dominion over the Earth. Only by surrendering to Takofanes that which will assure him of his victory can life hope to prevail.”
“What— What will assure him of victory?” asked Doctor Arcane, fearing that he already knew the answer.
“Your daughter, John. All he needs to usher in perpetual night is Arcana.”
Wethrvayn was dead.
Like a child at a macabre magic show, Cody Harrison was mesmerized by the crumpled form of the purple-haired girl he had known only as Suzie. The twelve-year-old knelt beside her and stared in shocked disbelief into her unseeing eyes. He could sense figures gathering around him – his friends and teammates – but they were as insubstantial as wraiths haunting the periphery of his consciousness. Their heart-felt words of consolation were nothing more than the incoherent gurgle of water coming from a Stygian river.
Cody trembled uncontrollably as hot tears filled his eyes. Despite having draped a drop cloth he had found in the ruins over the dead teen, the image of the gaping hole the semblance of Johnny Hercules had punched into her chest was seared into his vision. He then realized he was kneeling in a congealing pool of his friend’s blood. He leapt to his feet, a shriek escaping from his quivering mouth. He took three blundering steps backwards before tripping over a chuck of concrete and landing unceremoniously on his ass.
“Boy?! Look away! Look upon me, boy!”
He was aware of two impossibly strong arms cradling him. Cody turned his face away in shame from the direction of the soft voice. All he wanted to do was shrivel up into a ball and roll away like one of those bugs in an animated film he had watched with his folks when he was a child a lifetime ago.
“I beseech thee! Look away.”
There was something in her voice; something soft yet strong as tempered steel. Despite himself, he wiped the tears from his eyes as best he could and looked up into Atalanta’s face.
“‘Twas a noble sacrifice thy comrade-in-arms made, young warrior! She push’d thou aside to save thee from a blow which would surely have meant thine undoing.”
The final few moments of the battle between Johnny Hercules and Field Team Epsilon had been nothing short of harrowing. Even with reinforcements led by Ink and the mysterious Atalanta fighting alongside them, the ghoul was holding its own. Cody remembered being knocked from the sky and crashing to the shattered pavement with a teeth-rattling thud. Shaking the cobwebs from his head, he got unsteadily to his feet unaware that the revenant was almost on top of him. He fought back fresh tears as he recalled Wethrvayn calling out his name before shoving him out of the way of a sledgehammer-like fist.
Cody looked on in horror as the punch smashed through Wethrvayn’s thorax like a missile, pulverizing bone and liquefying flesh as it rocketed through her chest to emerge from her back. Her limp corpse dangled from Johnny Hercules’ gore-slick hand like a rag doll. He then guffawed with such unalloyed joy that it sent torrents of red-hot rage coursing through the mutant code-named Jailhouse Rock and the self-proclaimed ‘Arm of Olympus’. As if guided by one mind, the two pounced on the creature from opposite sides and literally tore the wailing grotesquerie in half.
“I— I— I don’t know why she sacrificed herself for me.” Cody croaked, fresh tears making tracks down his dirt-stained cheeks. “I thought she hated me. All— All she ever did was pick on me.”
Shaking her head, Atalanta tenderly wiped his tears away. “She surrender’d her life that thou mightest live. ‘Tis that not the most profound expression of love?”
Spectrum strode towards Cody, her eyes never leaving Atalanta as she did. She squatted down on Cody’s other side.
“Cody, I need you to do something for me.”
“I need you to escort those guys,” Spectrum hesitated briefly to point towards two of the injured reinforcements sitting a few meters away, “back to HQ and see they get to the Medical Centre immediately.”
“But Alex, I—”
“Listen,” Spectrum whispered conspiratorially, “we need all hands on deck. The sooner they’re patched up, the faster they can get back into the field.”
Cody thought about this for a second. “Okay, Alex. You can count on me.”
Spectrum and Atalanta watched as the young boy got up and made his way wearily to the wounded heroes. After a quick exchange, the three disappeared into a bodyslide.
“Thou dids’t well to remove the boy from battle ere he prove a liability,” Atalanta said to Spectrum as she rose to her feet.
Spectrum stood up and locked eyes with Atalanta’s. “Look, Miss Perfect Complexion, Cody’s been through a lot. What he just saw, no kid should see.”
“I meant no affront, child.”
“Where the hell do you get off callin’ me—”
“That will be more than enough, Spectrum,” Ink commanded, interposing himself between the women. “Mite’s sensors indicate that the hillock extends several kilometers underground. Take Jailhouse Rock and Tempo to investigate.”
Spectrum scowled at the Roin’esh. “Fine!” As she turned to fly towards the knoll, she noticed a scintilla of brilliance ascend from the bloody remnants of Johnny Hercules. Pointing to the radiant speck, she yelled, “Heads up, Squadron! It ain’t over yet!”
Ink regarded the waxing dot of light as it ascended gently into the air. Within its center, he discerned the contours of a familiar visage. Despite the despair gnawing away at his will like a pack of ravening wolves, the Roin’esh warrior felt a glimmer of hope.
The thing that had once been the hero Flechette looked down at the Shroud with pure disdain from its vantage point atop the hillock of dirt and rock that had birthed it.
“Ya talk da talk, little girl,” the mockery of Frank Fletcher sniggered, “But can ya walk da walk?”
The Shroud realized that he– it– was baiting her but she knew that she had to keep him busy until reinforcements could arrive. She vaulted upwards towards Flechette, her Escrima sticks deflecting the barrage of throwing knives her assailant hurtled at her. On reaching striking distance, she buffeted her opponent brutally, hoping to take him down quickly. Unfazed by the assault, Flechette retaliated with a savage head-butt that caught her square in the mouth, dislocating her already fractured jaw. She sank to her knees overwhelmed by paroxysms of pain. The copper taste of blood filled her mouth.
“Still feelin’ sorry for ol’ Frankie?” the creature chortled, a machete shimmering into existence in its gnarled hand.
Before Flechette could bury the blade in her skull, the Shroud brought an elbow up into what she hoped was the monster’s genitals. The force of the blow knocked Flechette off his feet, the machete dissolving into nothingness as it fell to the ground. Burying his hands deep in the loose earth beneath him for support, Flechette sat up. The Shroud lashed out at him with a devastating palm strike to the base of its nose. The blow sent shards of shattered bone and cartilage into his brain like deadly shrapnel. He slumped backwards and did not move.
Only her labored breathing broke the silence.
She regained her feet tentatively, her eyes never leaving the sprawled figure. She lowered the hood of her jet-black cloak and carefully pulled up the blood-soaked mask over her head. The pain was almost unendurable. She spat out fragments of broken teeth and clumps of congealed blood through torn and swollen lips. Proper medical treatment would have to wait — somewhere out there “ol’ Frankie” had twelve friends that were killing her teammates.
Although most of the injuries she had sustained had nearly completely healed, her dislocated jaw was a severe liability. She would have to realign it herself before getting back into the field and allow her accelerated healing factor to do the rest. Holding her chin between her thumb and index finger, she popped her jaw back into place. A fireworks display of agony obscured her vision. The buzz of her danger sense cut through the pain too late for her to dodge the eight 9mm bullets that peppered her chest and abdomen at point blank range. The nanoweave body armor she wore had prevented the slugs from tearing through her but the force of the multiple impacts sent her tumbling end over end down the hillock.
“Never heard a’ playing possum?” snickered Flechette, smoke curling out of the barrel of the M9 Beretta he now held.
Flechette leapt to his feet and bounded down the mound after her. He was upon her before she knew it. He straddled the Shroud, his weight making it nearly impossible for her to breathe. He pummeled her mercilessly until her struggles ceased. Pinning her arms to the cracked asphalt, the grotesquerie leaned down as if to kiss the semi-conscious woman. Maggots played across the ruins of the revenant’s nose.
“Did ya know dat He’s singled ya out for a great honor, little girl?” Flechette asked, its fetid breath making her gorge rise. “Da darkness inside ya’s guaranteed ya a special place among His servants,” Leering down at her, he whispered, “But I gotta kill ya first.”
Seeing that Flechette was about to tear the Shroud’s throat out with his bare teeth, the azure-skinned mutant known as Naomi Danzig knew she could wait no longer. She sprinted out of the darkness in which she had concealed herself towards Flechette, pushing her ability to increase her density at will to the utmost. On reaching the surprised creature, she dropkicked it off of the Shroud. The impact propelled it headlong into a convoluted sea of smashed masonry and overturned automobiles nearly a block away.
Scrambling to her feet, Danzig looked to the skies. “Light it up!” she bellowed.
Boot-jets roaring at full throttle, the armor-clad Ironsight followed closely by the Japanese mutant code-named Electra streaked towards their target from their position behind a multi-storey parking garage. Closing in on the revenant as it tried to extricate itself from the twisted metal, Ironsight opened fire with the shoulder-mounted M134 Minigun built into his armor. Flechette’s insane shrieks were drowned out by the chattering staccato of hundreds of 7.62 mm bullets finding their mark. As he leveled off and circled for another attack, Electra unleashed a blinding burst of lightning from her outstretched hands. Over a gigawatt of electricity stuck Flechette as he was digging himself out of the heap of wreckage. The thunderbolt arced in every direction, setting off the battered remains of a dozen automobiles around him in a massive fireball that could be seen as far as Ann Arbor.
“<Très bien>*, Aiko!” said the French-Canadian mutant code-named Blizzard over her comm-link as she glided silently towards the Shroud along an ice slide she projected in front of her. By her side flew the pixie-like mutant called Lifeguard on butterfly-like wings as delicate as gossamer.
“<Domo arigato, Blizzard-sama>**,” replied Electra, her voice bursting with pride.
“Jeez, Aiko, remind me never ta piss ya off,” chuckled Danzig.
“Can the chatter!” barked Ironsight over the comm-link. “Lifeguard, see to the Shroud. The rest of you, on me.”
As her teammates moved cautiously towards the inferno, Lifeguard flitted towards the Shroud. The ten-centimeter tall figure flew around the injured woman several times, the tips of her antennae glowing softly in the darkness.
“She’s taken a terrific beatin’,” Lifeguard reported dourly, “Massive internal injuries and an assortment of broken bones. Ah can’t understand how this girl’s still breathin’.”
“Will she live?” asked Ironsight bluntly.
“Ah’ll do what I can fer her but Ah’m afraid my best might not be enough—”
“We’ve got faith in ya, Paige,” Danzig assured her, “Take yer time with the Shroud, kiddo. Aiko and Mister Congeniality here made sure there isn’t enough left a’ that creep left ta fill a Dixie cup.”
Lifeguard landed beside the Shroud, transforming from the purple-skinned form she used to fly into that of a twelve-year-old Caucasian girl with long black hair and soulful blue eyes. She knelt down beside the battered heroine, her outstretched hands pulsating with amber light. She closed her eyes and let her hands skim slowly across the Shroud’s body, lingering where the prostate woman’s injuries were more severe. Sweat beaded on Lifeguard’s forehead as the seconds ticked by. Suddenly, a vice-like hand clamped onto her right wrist. She gasped, her eyes snapping open in fright.
“Easy, Miss Daniels,” croaked the Shroud as she sat up. “Where’s my dance partner?”
“He’s— He’s— over there, ma’am,” stammered Lifeguard, pointing to the conflagration.
Nodding, the Shroud activated her comm-link, “Field Leader, sitrep!”
“The target has been neutralized,” reported Ironsight matter-of-factly, “My team is now— motherfu—!”
Ironsight’s exclamation of disbelief was abruptly silenced as a car door sliced through the air, catching the former VIPER agent under the chin and severing his head from his body. Electra, Blizzard and Danzig were paralyzed in slack-jawed shock as Flechette stepped out of the firestorm they believed had consumed him.
“Snap out of it, team,” the Shroud barked as she launched herself towards Flechette, “Maneuver D3!”
Blizzard was the first to regain her composure. With the savagery of an arctic gale, waves of sub-zero temperature blasted from the young mutant’s outstretched hands as she attempted to freeze the oncoming Flechette solid.
“Dis ain’t cold, little girl.” The ghoul cackled with sinister glee as he lumbered towards her, “Ol’ Frankie’ll teach ya what cold really is before I twist yer stinkin’ head off!”
The Shroud whizzed by Blizzard like a bird of prey and tackled Flechette, the force of the collision pushing the still-smouldering ghoul back on his heels. Danzig swung a tightly-balled fist at Flechette, who dodged the haymaker with preternatural speed. Then, with a single back-handed blow, he swatted the astounded mutant through the wall of one of the few relatively undamaged buildings across the street. As Lifeguard flew into the darkened building to attend to Danzig, Flechette brought his elbow down like a pile driver on the base of the Shroud’s skull. Grabbing the dazed heroine by the scruff of her neck, he tossed her aside like an empty candy wrapper. Laughing menacingly, Flechette turned his attention back to Blizzard. He marched towards her, his face contorted in a leer that would haunt the young woman’s nightmares for years to come.
“Ol’ Frankie’s comin’ for ya.”
Blizzard scoffed as she lowered her hands to her sides. “*” she retorted, “You ‘old no fear for me!”
Blizzard was almost within his reach when Electra descended from the sky like a lightning flash. As the French-Canadian mutant formed an ice barrier between herself and the brute looming above her, Electra landed on Flechette’s shoulders, straddling him as if he were a horse. Before Flechette could pull her off, she drew the katana of her ancestors from its lacquered wood saya in a reverse grip and plunged the blade through the crown of his head. With a scream that reverberated like thunder, Electra channeled all of her power through the sword into his gaunt form. Howling in agony, Flechette convulsed wildly as the current coursed through him. His sallow skin erupted in dozens of plumes of dark, acrid smoke as the electricity incinerated his body from within. Electra toppled off Flechette as he crashed to his knees, the tsuka of the katana still protruding from his skull. The heroes watched in grim satisfaction as he collapsed onto the cracked pavement, his now-inanimate body engulfed in flame.
Blizzard turned to the Shroud, her face flushed in anger. “Although le monstre ‘as been beaten, I did not enjoy being used as ‘bait’ as they say in ze English.”
“Sometimes, you have to put one of your own in harm’s way to win a battle.” As the Shroud pulled her mask back over her face, her eyes fell on the lifeless form of Ironsight. “I hope you never have to make that call, Marie. When someone under your command dies, it takes something from you— a little piece of your soul.”
The anger that had raged within Blizzard moments before was suddenly spent. She had shouldered the burden of leadership long enough to know that putting the lives of others on the line for the greater good was far from easy. Embarrassed by her outburst, she looked away. From the corner of her eye, Blizzard watched Electra retrieve her katana from the flaming hulk. With reverence bordering on the religious, Electra wiped the blade off with a silk cloth she carried with her for that purpose. She then inspected the gleaming blade before sheathing the katana in the saya. Blizzard noted with dismay that the sword showed no outward sign of the immense power that had flowed through it – no charring nor scoring marred its pristine symmetry. Blizzard was wondering how this was possible when Electra met her gaze. Blizzard was suddenly filled with the wordless certainty that the eyes boring holes into her were not those of her friend.
“Blizz, you OK?” asked Danzig, concern etched on her face.
Before Blizzard could respond, the attention of the assembled heroes was drawn to a pinpoint of light that had appeared over Flechette’s carbonized remains. As they watched, the shimmering fleck of brilliance slowly rose into the night sky, expanding as it did. Within its center, the outline of a face framed by flowing auburn hair began to coalesce. The five heroines knew who was trying to contact them even before the image had come into focus.
“For those who do not know me, my name is Arcana. I appear before you with grim tidings: the Earth is once again in the shadow of the monster known as Takofanes. If you do not heed my words, death shall reign supreme.”
* “Shut your fucking mouth, asshole!” Translated from the French
** “Thank you very much, honorable Blizzard!” Translated from the Japanese