Dripping with swamp water and mud, Cyn clenched her fist and extended an orihalcite claw. “My origin story? Surprise, jackass: I lived my origin story. It was shitty. It was painful.” She brandished her claw with a grim expression. “Mind if I demonstrate?”
Talbot smirked, making a point of cracking his knuckles. “Oh there’s that McAllister aggression. Did I hear right? That this little party’s being broadcast globally?” He stepped to the water’s edge and threw his arms out in a grand gesture. “Come on and gut me like a pig then. Show the world that you were never really a hero; just a down south thug pretending to be one.”
Cyn growled and with some effort, withdrew the claw. “You’re really trying to play the moral high ground here? You kidnapped kids! Experimented on them! One of my friends was stuck on the astral plane because of you! You cut on Jun so much… I’ve seen the scars.” Wading through the water, she moved toward him with stony determination.
“So maybe I’m not going to kill you. But I’m going to kick your ass all the same.”
She reach Talbot in a handful more strides, feinted with a left, then struck him with a right uppercut. It rocked his head back, but that was about it.
Instead of going down or even stumbling, Talbot grabbed her arm and promptly swung her around, slamming her down hard on the roots with force that would have shattered a normal person’s bones.
“You know what I hate about psionics? Well, what I hate the most about you? Because being born with your powers makes you lazy. You’re effectively immortal, so you never learned to fight effectively!” He laid into her with a series of kicks, moving and juking around so the blows never came from the same place twice; never letting her adapt or intercept.
He finished with a powerful strike that lifted her and sent her sailing over the swamp to crash down into some scrub. Making a show to rubbing his loafer off in the dirt, he fixed her with a sour expression as she pulled herself together.
“But I digress. I was telling a story when you interrupted. Rude.”
The shrub crackled and crunched as Cyn absorbed it. “No one wants to hear any of your shitty stories.” Black insectile armor sprouted from her body, her legs extended and hypertrophied, and she grew a long, skeletal tail. “Or hear your stupid cutesy names for the horrifying shit you do.”
Swelling to almost twice her size, Cyn roared into the night sky. “I don’t give a shit about the competition. I’m in this to take you down once and for all!” With that, she barged toward Talbot, flexing dark talons.
Talbot squared up his shoulders for the incoming attack. “Oh, I think you want to hear this one. It’s the tale of how even among psionics, you’re barely human at all.”
The floor and the moldy carpet on top of it exploded as hardened ceramic chains burst through it, seeking anchorage. They barely got hold in the walls before a set of silvery spider legs tore through another section of floor and dragged them back down.
Through the dust and mold spores, the voice of Metal X shouted, “I told you to stay out of this! He’s mine!”
At the far end of the hall, Issac Smythe knelt to keep a low profile as he kept watch on the proceedings. He was dressed in his Turmoil suit with a pair of escrima sticks forms out of water in his fists. “What a pair of complete idiots.”
His brother, Ian leaned on the wall next to him, just around the corner. “Preaching to the choir. At least X has a history of getting obsessive over the heroes who school him: Whitecoat, Alloy, now me. But Manriki? What skin does he have in this game?”
Issac shrugged. “The promise of a giant prize of some kind to the winner? Seems like something to drive a mercenary wild.” He frowned. “Speaking of which: any idea what the prize is?”
“Who knows? I’m thinking the important part is keeping it out of the hands of guys like X and Manriki.”
Brandishing his escrima sticks, Issac took a deep breath. “Then let’s do this as efficiently as possible. Ready?” His brother nodded.
Three floors down, Manriki wrapped himself in ceramic chain to from armor against a piston launched at his chest from Metal X. It saved his life, but the impact slammed him backward and through the drywall and thin wood behind him and into what used to be a kitchen. An old refrigerator stopped his flight short and gave him something to prop himself up with.
Looking up through the plaster dust, he spotted his enemy extending another pair of his metallic spider legs upward to try and climb up to the two heroes again. His vision turned red.
He’d gotten out of the game; forced his former employers to pay for facial reconstruction surgery and enough money to live the rest of his life off of. The chains have been in storage for months; he’d gotten an apartment in Albany—a city that currently had no superheroes or supervillains—and had spent most of his newfound freedom and ill-gotten gains furnishing it. With a comfortable life and anonymity, he’d been happy.
Then in a flash of light, he’d been back in the chains with a voice announcing he was a villain…without a mask.
Once the broadcast hit the internet, people would figure out who he was and there would go his anonymity, his comfortable life. All he had now was whatever the prize at the end of the tournament was. And there was no way Manriki was going to let some rando in what seemed to be a shapeshifting suit of powered armor keep him away from that.
His power traveled down two particular lengths of chain: the orihalcite set he’d been supplied with by Project Tome. Not only was the metal indestructible and thus able to deal serious damage to almost anything, but it seemed to be the only metal the other man couldn’t control.
Instead of launching the orihalcite chain, Manriki sent them snaking out low to the ground and beneath Metal X’s notice. The distraction was even more complete when tiny glowing spheres of light began to rain down on X, exploding into bright, hot bursts the size of a fist.
The heroes were making their move.
Against the explosive onslaught, Metal X shifted the metal in his suit upward, forming a thick hood over this head and shoulders. That left his legs only lightly defended by a thin layer.
And that’s exactly where Manriki struck. Twin spiked chains lashed around Metal X’s calves, their terrible orihalcite barbs forcing their way through the protective metal and slicing the flesh beneath before tightening and allowing Manriki to haul hard, pulling his foe’s legs out from under him.
Bellowing a curse, Metal X started to shift his armor around to protect his legs, but it was too late: Manriki was reeling him in and sending his ceramic chains out to pound on him.
“You’re just some gun for hire!” X shouted as a vice the size of a man’s torso formed itself over his right arm and a seven-foot lance formed over his right. “I have a real claim against them! They killed my father! They humiliated me!”
“Yeah, and that’s just coming to a middle, you wingnut.” Chaos landed in a whuff of wind with Turmoil right behind him. “You know damn well the Tongs killed your father and if me telling the truth can humiliate you? Then you’re a clown already.”
And array of pistons and jacks emerged from Metal X’s back and levered him to his feet, allowing him the round on the brothers. A snarl emerged from behind his mask. “Now that’s what I’ve been waiting for.” The vise snapped open and closed with a clang. “First you. Then the kid. Then Whitecoat.”
“He really does make a nemesis out of everyone he fights,” Turmoil stage whispered over his brother’s shoulder. “Am I going to have to worry about this one following me home?”
Metal X started forward, raising his lance. “Not if you die here and now!”
Any forward momentum he had was immediately arrested as a set of ceramic chains wrapped his waist and he found himself swung sideways into a counter with a sink in it. Unlike the walls, the counter was built to last and, while it still cracked, X found himself doubled over it, driving the air from his lungs.
“Don’t turn your back on your enemy.” Manriki said coldly. Moving carefully, he strafed around the edge of the kitchen, illustrating his point by keeping all three of the other men in view.
Huffing, Metal X forced himself and put his back to the damaged sink. “You’re climbing the list,” he declared, pointing at Manriki.
“Yeah, well by the time you get to me-urk.” The wall behind him was torn asunder by a length of tangled, still-transforming pipe and wire that rapidly became a garrote that wrapped around his neck and roughly lifted him off his feet.
“The top of the list!” X roared, charging at his choking opponent. Chaos and Turmoil moved to stop him, but the kitchen was small and he didn’t have a lot of space to cover. Even as an orihalcite chain cut the makeshift noose, the clamp was closing around Manriki’s ribs, compressing hard and holding him in place.
Then, viper-quick, came the lance. Over the screamed exclamations of the two heroes, it drove home with the top of the clamp as a guide: directly into Manriki’s house.
Whatever horror would have set in form just that was obliterated by the agonized scream that tore from the man’s throat—and the golden glow that emerged from the wound, flowing out rapidly to consume his entire body. Once he was nothing but a shining mass, he burst into a flurry of flickering particles that swiftly faded into nothing.
Left with no resistance, Metal X’s lance continued on to stab into the far wall and stick there.
Even Metal X was stunned speechless by what just happened.
It didn’t last long before Loki’s voice cut the air with a wry, amused tone. “And now we’ve answered everyone’s questions about what happens to the defeated. Any more questions?”
“So…” Chords idly plinked the strings of her guitar as she leaned her back against a towering tree—one of many in the gigantic primeval forest she found herself in. “This is awkward.”
Not far from her, Kay and JC had just arrived and were standing in shock upon seeing herself and Ananzi. The spider god was looking more than a little miffed, but it didn’t seem directed at the pair.
“I don’t think the two sidekicks are secret villains or something,” she observed. “They’re loyal, treated well and everyone like them.” She grinned as Kay looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “And since this is the ultimate battle between good and evil, that means we’re.”
“I know what he’s getting at. It’s not true,” Ananzi shot back.
Chords shrugged. “A couple of old men bribe a sweet, shy girl with a gift so they can go all Pygmalion on her? Turn her into a raging id machine—and also sexy as hell? Could be seen as–”
“That’s not what we’re doing!”
“Hey!” Kay shouted to interrupt them. “How about some freaking context?! I’m getting sick and tried of having to ask what’s going on every few hours, so if someone doesn’t explain everything—and I mean everything—in the next ten seconds, I’m going to shove your guitar up you. Ya know why? Because I am at good sidekick and my friends need to stop getting jerked around.”
Ananzi shrugged. “Not sure what to tell you. Loki’s one of the most capricious and fickle creatures ever to come into being. Even a mind as slippery as mine might not be able to tell the meaning of his game until the moment when and if he decides to explain it.”
Chords grinned at the diminutive sidekick. “Translation: he had no idea what was happening until he got grabbed just like the rest of us.”
Eyes narrowed, Kay surveyed the pair and couldn’t find a lie between them. “Okay. But I heard you two talking just now…” she pointed at Ananzi. “You’re working with Hermes: the guy from California. And you gave that one her powers?”
The Spider met her eyes with his own level gaze. “Some secrets are mine to know… but not mine to tell, Miss Greycloud. But I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you answers if we can make a deal.”
“Kay, if he pulls out a golden fiddle…” JC paused and thought, “Wait a minute. You’re you. If you pulls out a golden fiddle, we’ve got this.”
That made her smirk. “Heh. Okay, what’s the deal?”
Spreading his hands like a stage magician proving there was nothing up his sleeves, Ananzi smiled back genially. “Nothing nefarious. It’s only that… Loki, myself, Hermes—all of us have an understanding and by making me part of this, he’s very close to breaking it. So I’m just asking you two—the biggest wildcards in the Descendants’ deck—to lend me a hand in giving him a piece of his own medicine and helping me break some rules.”
The sidekicks shared a look and JC nodded slowly. “I heard what Guitar Hero over there can do. We’re not exactly going to win a tournament round against them with your reagent bag and a backpack full of fireworks.”
A dangerous, gleeful light entered Chords’ eyes. “You have fireworks?”
He turned slightly, displaying the hiker’s pack he was wearing. “I arrived with them. I guess it’s become my thing.”
“This is going to be awesome!” she said, playing a quick flourish on her guitar. Then she inclined her head toward Kay. “And then we can jam too, Rockstar. Best adventure ever!”
Kay’s smirk grew. “Well, you’re definitely enthusiastic. And JC’s right: we can’t win fair and square. Let’s deal then.”
“Perfect,” said Ananzi. “Then let’s begin. Three Chords and the Truth? Play us something useful. How about Deep Purple: Space Truckin’?”
To Be Continued…