Together, the three of us ran out of the house and back towards the heart of the fighting. Corey took to the air now that Hellequin was hopefully disarmed while I reined in my speed so Whitney could keep up. We turned left at the end of the street we were running down and caught a full view of the damage the fight between the Regents and Gold Diggers had caused.
A practical skyscraper of Cerf Tueur’s antlers rose from the ground in a twisted pile of interlocking pillars of the light brown material. Around the main tower, there were dozens of smaller growths that had erupted from the ground. Some were broken and cracked while others were scorched and smoldering.
“Wow, this due is no joke,” Whitney said, picking her way through the small bits of stray antlers that littered the ground.
“Yeah, no kidding,” I muttered.
A bright red flash erupted from inside the twisted mass of the tower as a large chunk exploded. Wrath emerged from the hole and leapt down to the ground only to be met with more deadly spikes rushing up to impale him. The hero let out what I could only describe as a war cry as he drove his fists towards the spikes. The burning aura around him flared in time with the strikes, vaporizing the growths before they could touch him.
“What the hell is that?” Corey said in a mix of shock and disgust. His altitude must have let him spot whatever it was, because I couldn’t see it until a massive pale hand appeared on the side of the antler spire.
“Is that the Butcher?” I asked in disbelief as a disfigured monster crawled into view. It only resembled a human insomuch that it had arms and legs, but the numbers were way off. At least three long, thin limbs protruded from each of its shoulders at odd angles and two legs with exposed muscle and bone extending from either hip. Multiple joints bent to let the monster’s long claws dig into mountain of antlers.
“Ugh, it’s disgusting,” Whitney said, picking up two large chunks of the antlers off the ground and charged them with her powers. The Monster’s face was…sort of human but enlarged with a maw of vicious teeth and a head of long dark hair. It jumped off the spire towards Wrath and slapped him through a building with one of its multiple hands. The Butcher-monster let out an unearthly scream, and I saw why. The hand that batted the hero aside was burned and disfigured.
The Butcher seemed to know how to fix it, though. She picked the damaged arm up off the ground and brought her jaws together like a giant pair of scissors. There was a sickening crunch of bone as she wrenched her head to the side, amputating the damaged limb.
“Fuck, I hate these people,” Whitney groaned, chucking one of her explosives like a professional baseball player. It tumbled through the air like a boomerang and detonated a few feet from the Butcher’s flank. Her skin rippled and tore under the force of the explosion, causing another monstrous roar to escape her maw. All ten of the monster’s largest limbs returned to the ground, one of them sporting a newly regenerated clawed hand from the stump she just amputated.
“I think She’s looking at us,” I said, noticing that the skin was already growing back from Whitney’s attack.
“How the hell did she get that big?” Whitney asked, replacing the explosive she threw with another.
“Oh, she just needs to be well-fed,” A voice said to our left.
Saint was standing a few feet away, a strange golden armor growing up his arm like it was alive. It looked like it was made of scales or something similar and covered his skin completely as it spread. The Butcher bellowed again, charging at us like some ten-legged lizard, a tail sprouting from the bottom of her spine.
The ground shook more with each massive stride, leaving us very little time to react. “Help Corey with The Butcher, I’ll take Dr. Dolittle,” Whitney said, as she ran towards Saint. With Corey somewhere in the sky, I was the only one left for The Butcher to charge.
I put my hands together and fired a blast of energy that struck the charging villain in her chest. She seemed to stumble a bit, but it didn’t do much to slow her down. The blast left a dark mark where I hit her, but she didn’t really seem injured.
Corey was more effective. He dove in close and used one of his wings like a large blade to slice cleanly through the Butcher’s left front limbs before returning his wings to normal in time to avoid crashing into the ground.
With a fourth of her support suddenly gone mid-stride, The Butcher crashed to the ground. “Blast her!” Corey yelled as he climbed into the air for another attack. “Right.”
Blue-white light poured from my hands as twin beams of light slammed into the villain. She howled in pain as I raked the lasers across her skin, leaving trails of black, necrotic tissue. Even though she brutally bit off my fingers and probably ate them, damn the thought was disgusting; I felt a twinge of sympathy.
Still, I couldn’t let her hurt my friends. I focused the beams on her right shoulder, but they didn’t really seem to do much damage past turning the skin black. Come on do something!
My arms started to ache as more power poured through them like I was a firehose. I hadn’t ever channeled the energy for this long, and it was beginning to become apparent why I shouldn’t. The pain suddenly spiked, and the beams fizzled out. “Fuck!” I screamed, falling to my knees. My arms felt like they were going to split in two.
Corey swooped down again, expertly dodging a swipe from the Butcher and leaving the Villain with another long gash down her side. I looked over and Whitney and saw her tossing explosives with reckless abandon. Saint’s golden armor had finished growing, covering him from head to toe. He looked like a mix between an insect and a golden lizard. He looked intimidating, but he was on the backfoot. He wasn’t ever more than a half second away from being blown to kingdom come.
This was getting crazy; most of the houses had been destroyed or at least damaged, and the Gold Diggers were still going. I didn’t know where Cypher or Vindicator was, but I spotted Wrath emerging between two houses, and he looked…calm?
Wrath looked around and spotted The Butcher. Without a roar, or a bellow, or any sign of rage, he started walking down the street towards us. His face was a mask, but that just made him more terrifying. The air boiled around him as the antlers disintegrated as he walked past.
The Butcher’s injuries were already healing: her severed legs were about halfway regrown, and Cory’s scratch was almost completely healed. The injuries from my energy blasts, though, weren’t. Like some crazed animal, The Butcher bent one of her rear legs and started scratching the dead skin like a dog. The flesh sloughed off, revealing that the damage didn’t go all that deep. Once the dead cells were gone, her healing powers took over.
“What are you?” She asked, looking at me. Despite her twisted form, her voice was still human, maybe a little deeper, but still.
“The guy who’s about to see you get your ass kicked,” I replied. Wrath was close enough that I was surprised she couldn’t feel the heat rolling off him.
“What?” She asked, before realizing what I meant. With a roar that shook my bones, she whirled to face the approaching hero, her maw stretching with new teeth growing to fill the space. Wrath didn’t flinch until the crocodilian maw was about to snap shut, but once he did…
Wrath let out a barbaric yell as the world went white. I tried to shield my eyes, but the kind of power he was putting out was insane. It felt like my energy was being stripped away like a beachball in a hurricane. My footing gave away, sending me tumbling back until I slammed into a large bit of antler.
Just when I thought I was about to lose hold on my barrier, something darkened my vision. After a few more seconds, Wrath’s attack finally subsided, and I opened my eyes. Corey had his arms wrapped around me, shielding us with his wings.
“Thanks for the save, again.”
“Uh, yeah…You owe me,” Corey said as he helped me up. It looked like the stain of the fighting and the heat was getting to him; his face was flush, and he was sweating slightly.
“Are your wings okay?”
“They’ll be fine in a bit, but they’re still cooling off,” He said, fanning them in their metal form.
We were surrounded by chunks of debris, mostly broken antlers larger than we were, that mad it difficult to see where everyone else was. “We need to find Whitney,” I said right as I noticed glowing lines spreading on a particularly large chunk of antler.
“Never mind,” I muttered as the chunk exploded, showering us in small bits of bone and dust.
“Are you two okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, but what about you?” I asked, noticing her costume was ripped in several places.
“Just some scrapes and bruises. Saint fights like a bitch.”
“Okay…” Corey said, not sure how to respond. “We need to regroup with the Regents.”
“Right, lets go,” I said, taking off towards the spire of antlers. We picked our way through the maze of rubble and made it about three feet until we found out what happened to The Butcher.
Wrath was standing in the middle of a clearing, breathing heavily. His red aura was gone, and it looked like he was slowly calming down. Next to him was the corpse of the Butcher. Her head was completely blown off, and the rest of her body completely charred.
“You killed her?” I asked the hero, who seemed slightly startled by our arrival.
“Probably,” He said, a faint wisp of the red energy forming over his skin. “She’s the one that didn’t back off. Where’s Cypher?” He asked, looking us over.
“We got separated,” Whitney explained. “And Saint slipped away during your explosion, props for that by the way.”
“Thanks,” Wrath grumbled, the compliment wasted on him.
Suddenly, the giant tower of antlers shook and started wobbling. “Holy shit, is it getting taller?” Corey asked.
“No, it’s getting picked up,” Wrath said, his glow getting stronger. “The Deer guy buried Vindy under there.”
“Vindy?” Whitney asked with a smirk. “Do you have nicknames for all your teammates?”
“Shut up and move!” Wrath yelled, the intensity of the radiation swirling around him returning to full-strength.
His tone didn’t leave much room to disagree or make snide comebacks, so we followed him as he punched us a way through the rubble.
Cerf Tueur jumped from the top of his creation, using his powers to creating progressively shorter growths from the bottom of his feet, that he used like stairs to safely reach the ground just as Vindicator gave a massive heave. The skyscraper-sized tower sailed through the air, breaking apart like a matchstick tower as it hit the ground.
Thunderous footsteps drew closer, before we saw Vindicator, his clothes torn and ripped, come into view. Despite the condition of his clothes, he looked completely unharmed.
“You deal with The Butcher?” The giant asked Wrath.
“Yeah, she’s barbeque, and Saint is retreating.”
Vindicator nodded. “They’re about done, then. We need to find Cypher. Can you get airborne and lead us to him?” He asked Corey.
“Sure,” Corey said, taking off and flying in loose circles until he was well over our heads. “I see him!” Corey called down. He broke the holding pattern and we followed.
We ended up back in front of the warehouse where Cypher was in a fist fight with Hellequin. It was clear the villain was outmatched. Every move he made, the hero countered, driving the demon-headed figure back. For a split second Hellequin took control when he slammed his helmet into Cypher’s mask.
The glass cracked, but it didn’t shatter, and Cypher didn’t stop. He pulled a throwing disk from the confines of his coat and launched it at the villain’s helmet. The bladed edge merely glanced off the golden metal, but in doing so, created sparks right above Hellequin’s eyes.
Cypher used the distraction to slip past the villain’s defense and sweep his legs out from under him. Hellequin hit the ground, and Cypher drew one of his pistols. “One bullet left,” Cypher said.
We all looked up to see Cerf Tueur holding a spike in his hand, running to the aid of his team leader.
“Arrêter!” Hellequin shouted, defeat in his voice. The Deer-man came to a stop, more spikes growing out of his skull-like mask.
“Looks like everyone made it in one piece,” Cypher said, looking past us. I turned to see Saint supporting a heavily injured Butcher: in her human form this time.
“How’d you survive?” Wrath asked.
“Fuck you,” The Butcher croaked.
“We surrender,” Hellequin said.
“Where’s the Anarchist?” I asked, noting her absence.
“Right here,” She said softly, walking around his with her hands in the air to stand with the rest of her team.
“Now what?” The demon-headed villain asked.
“I think we’ll find out in just a moment,” Cypher said.
We all waited for several tense seconds, and I almost didn’t hear it, but there was no mistaking the faint rustling sound.
Before I could even turn around to look, all of us were jerked into the air and hung there like marionets. The Gold Diggers remained on the ground, but they didn’t look thrilled about it.
Someone behind us started clapping slowly, mockingly.
“I assume you’re the one who’s been taunting me?” Cypher asked as we all spun around to see Shard and his associates standing behind us on the street. The goo- Euclid, I corrected myself, Redline, Morales, Cooke, a woman- Narcosis if I had to guess, and a robot of some kind- Obyek 41. But there was one other person standing with them.
“Oh, that wasn’t taunting, Cypher. You need to learn how to play with others,” The man said, stepping forward. He was dressed in a suit like Shard, but he mostly looked normal; except for his eyes.
They were glowing bright amber; just like in my vision.
“What’s this guy’s deal?” Wrath asked, looking back at Cypher. “Can I punch him?”
“Cypher?” Vindicator asked hesitantly when the hero didn’t respond.
“Cat got your tongue?” The man asked. He looked so proud of himself, so smug. It was easy to share Wrath’s instinct to punch him.
Hellequin climbed to his feet and dusted himself off, motioning for his team to follow. “We’ve done what you ordered. Can we go?”
The man gave Hellequin a sideways glance before turning to Shard. “Send them back.”
Shard nodded and all the Gold Diggers disappeared in his signature swirl of energy.
“Who are you?” Cypher finally asked.
The man shrugged, “I’ve never considered giving myself any of those silly names you all run around calling yourselves, and it just seems like poor form to give you my real name, so let’s see…”
“Chess,” Cypher said, an edge of venom in his voice.
“That will do,” The man said with a smile.
“Chess? Really?” Whitney asked.
“He knows I’m quite fond of the game, given the nature of my strategies,” The man- Chess explained.
“What?” Whitney asked, sounding more confused than she did before.
“Okay, you have a ‘silly little name now’,” Vindicator said, suddenly dropping to the ground. Shard grunted in pain; his powers not able to keep the metahuman lifted. “But I’m tired, and I want to go home.”
“Stop him,” Chess ordered.
“I’m trying!” Shard shouted as he stretched a hand towards Vindicator. The hero wavered for a second, but his feet sunk deeper into the asphalt like it was snow.
“Five-hundred tons? Is that really all you can manage?” Vindicator asked mockingly.
“Narcosis!” Chess said sharply. The woman pointed her hands towards Vindicator and a gray mist started pouring from strange tattoos on her arms. The mist moved along the ground towards the hero like it was made of sentient snakes or tentacles.
Vindicator charged like a living embodiment of an earthquake, but once he reached the mist, he stumbled.
“How do we get out of here?” Wrath asked Cypher.
“Wait,” Cypher said, his usual flat tone returning.
Wrath didn’t question it, but his glow did get stronger.
Narcosis’ fumes seemed to really be affecting Vindicator. He had stopped moving forward altogether. Instead, he just stumbled and dropped down on all fours.
“They’re killing him!” Wrath shouted, struggling to move against Shard’s telekinesis.
“Wait!” Cypher shouted. Chess seemed amused watching the exchange between the Regents.
Wrath tried to look back at Cypher, but the force holding him in place wouldn’t let him. “Let me fucking save him!”
“Oh,” Wrath said before going off like a flashbang.
“Shit!” I practically screamed as the light stabbed my eyes. I hit the ground hard, Shard must have dropped us while he was distracted. I felt someone’s hand grasp at my energy, but I couldn’t tell if it was Whitney or Corey. On top of that, I could barely hear anything except a high-pitched ringing.
My vision was the first thing to partially clear. I saw blurry shapes that slowly sharped to reveal Whitney trying to shake my shoulder. She was mouthing something, but I couldn’t read lips, so all I could do was shake my head.
She looked frustrated and turned to try the same thing with Corey who seemed as disoriented as I was. Why wasn’t she as fucked up as us? Did it have to do with her powers? I vaguely remembered her saying she was explosion-proof, maybe that extending to the effects of flashbangs.
I craned my head to look at the Shard’s…no, at Chess’ team. I didn’t see Chess or Shard, and the ones who were left seemed as dazed as we were except for Obyek. It looked strange with long legs and arms that stretched down past its knees.
Wrath was wildly throwing punches that the machine was expertly dodging, its arms letting it throw itself around like some kind of monkey. It didn’t seem to be making any attempt to fight back; maybe it knew what happened to the Butcher when she tried.
And then Whitney punched me in the face.
It didn’t hurt, but I was still surprised. I looked at her, and she mouthed “Sorry”. She tried mouthing something else, and I could tell she was talking, but it was muffled. “Get up.”