Superhero 8

Story by

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 of Superhero Fallout of the clash in Skid Row abounds. Bobby confronts Dr. Theorem, the Doc reveals more about what's really happening, and things don't look good for some of our goodguys.

Comments are extremely welcome, whether positive or negative.


Chapter 8

The first thing he sensed was the movement of chill, sodden air, as it ruffled the soft fur of his back and drooped tail. Sluggishly, confused and disoriented, the cat tried to open his eyes, noting abstractly that his alarm clock must have been fried in the night yet again. Something about that thought seemed off, though, and he tried to fixate on it, only to find himself drifting back into darkness again.

In the darkness, he heard a few snippets of sound, like voices carried on a cacophonic wind. What they were saying, he wasn't sure, but after a while he felt a sensation of motion, as if he were being lifted without being touched. Jeff tried to flex his limbs, only to find them utterly dead-weighted, numb and unresponsive, as a few words fought their way through into his muddled brain.

"Neural activity is up. He will regain consciousness soon, boss."

The voice that responded came from further away than the strange, clinical, metallic one by his right ear. Nonetheless, it made his gut clench in a way his voluntary muscles couldn't do at that moment, and forced a puff of fearful breath from his lungs.

"Make certain he's secured, Gyro. He is inexperienced, but strong enough to be dangerous."

"I handled him with ease..."

Memory was slowly flowing back, with all the speed of half-frozen molasses. As it came back to him, though, a rising sense of terrified certainty pierced his dreamy, blind state in a way not unlike the nightmares forced on him by the as-yet-unnamed villain they'd been looking for.

On reflexive hunch, he focused inward again, as he had in that forced dream, and tried to push out the rage and frustration that seemed to trigger his powers. The tingling started low in his lungs, a familiar sensation of shivering, expanding electrical potential, that he then forced out to his limbs.

Unable to even control his own breathing voluntarily, he couldn't direct the jolting energy out of his body in any particular direction. Even so, he knew immediately it wasn't going to do him any good even if he could somehow regain control of his body. Something drained the juice right out of him, sucking it down and away on grounding lines he could somehow see even with his eyes lidded shut by heavy sedation.

As the current slid out of his body, drained through his chest, his closed eyes told him that he was inside some kind of box of bars, which was conducting his generated power straight through piping and down beyond the range of his strange electricity-sensing sight.

Then the metallic voice was back, close enough that he could hear an odd bit of static undertone to the droning vocal.

"Boss, I believe he may already be conscious. The paralytic is still functioning, and my containment device is functioning."

How Jeff could hear an 'I told you so' in modulated, atonal metallic vocalization, he wasn't sure. Nonetheless, it was there, and when he focused hard enough he could feel electricity moving through a creature somewhere to his right side but behind his field of vision. Enough electricity to power some sort of industrial robot, he guessed, off a battery that thrummed with contained potential.

Somehow, even that bit of knowledge helped him calm the thundering fear growing in his gut. He didn't know where he was, or what was happening, but he at least knew the creature to his side was a cyborg of some kind, and had an electrical system running through his body. It gave him a sense of his environment, helped push back the disorientation.

Then he felt something cold and metal touch his back, sliding right through where his suit ought to have been to part and comb aside fur. Metal fingers, he realized, with a sick sensation in his stomach. Something hard and sharp scraped, quiet but audible, against his skin under the fur on his right buttock, and his lungs involuntarily dragged in air as the slightest suggestion of pain warmed a spot on his flesh.

"I am attaching sensor electrodes to your skin. You are already extremely well-grounded, but if you struggle or attempt to overload the system, my leader has given permission for me to open you up to find and ground the source of your power. Based on what I have already learned, that will mean opening up your abdominal cavity and attaching grounding wires directly to your spleen. The last of my anesthetic supply is currently working its way through you. Quite unfortunate, really."

The sick feeling in Jeff's stomach was back, and stronger than ever, as he realized he was naked, face down with someone shaving his butt cheek. Likely as not, it was the same someone he now remembered shooting him with a tranquilizer rifle. Then he made an involuntary, pathetic-sounding mewling noise, as his stomach started clenching up, forcing air out of his lungs just before he retched, hard and dry, his stomach already achingly empty from the bruising blow he'd suffered earlier.

His gut's rebellious clenching made him realize just how badly he hurt, too, aching pain radiating out from where he recalled being hit with some kind of less-than-lethal round in the fight leading up to his tranquilizing. Thin liquid dripped from mostly-paralyzed lips as the clenching subsided slightly, though the nausea seemed determined to stay.

That robotic, computerized voice spoke again, as it moved around to be in front of him, to his left. Its feet were now in his field of view, or rather one foot was visible as a series of electrical pulses vaguely in the shape of a lower leg while the other was only represented by the most vague of bioelectric images. Jeff wanted desperately to be fascinated by this new facet of his power. Unfortunately, fingers that flattened his round feline ear down to shave behind it, and the chillingly dead voice that accompanied them made it impossible.

"When my leader returns, he will question you. If you do not answer to his satisfaction, you will be punished. If you are defiant, you will be punished. If you cooperate, he may decide to let you live in exchange for a ransom from your friends. If they refuse to pay, you will likely die. If it is any comfort, I will make certain your organs are properly used for scientific purposes."

For that moment, Jeff was grateful he couldn't move. Otherwise, he was pretty sure he'd curl up in a little ball and start sobbing like a child. Deep down inside, that fact made him angry, at himself, at the nonchalant monster shaving his beloved fur in patches to place electrodes, and at the whole situation in general. Unfortunately, that anger didn't seem ready to do him any good; the voltage it generated for him was just drained away by the miniature inverted Faraday cage he'd been encased within.

"Feel free to scream if you wish, when you have sufficient muscular control. We are deep underground, where no one will hear. I suggest, however, that you do so before my leader arrives. He finds unnecessary shrieking aggravating."

A metal paw patted his head. Jeff surprised himself by being enraged more than humiliated. It felt like a patronizing gesture, and somehow that just infuriated him, made him wish he could discharge every bit of generated energy through that paw with the intent to blow his cybernetic captor to smoking fleshy chunks. The imagery was oh so real, too, settling in his mind like heavy cake in the gut, sweet and guilty.

"This will be quite interesting. I have never interrogated someone before without being able to use electro-shock."

Jeff managed just enough control of his own unresponsive muscles to grunt. What he wanted to say, with every drip of sarcasm he'd accumulated from a lifetime of sass-practice, just wouldn't come out.

"For the best, really. Always room to explore new options."

John Silverstone was having a hard time restraining a glare, as the young bobcat doctor fiddled around with his paperwork, making crinkling noises that somehow reminded him of what crumpling concrete sounded like. Normally, he wasn't inclined to be so impatient, especially not with medical personnel who were doing their best. This time, though, he knew with acid-gut certainty that the clock was ticking for someone other than himself.

A bolt of hot, dull pain shot from his ribs as he tried to move his left arm, causing him to put his right paw to the thick bandages that felt as if they were wrapped far, far too tightly around the entire barrel of his chest. With his knuckle-bandaged left paw again, he furtively reached for the bedside table, glancing at the doc in hopes he wasn't looking.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Silverstone, but there's no cell phone use allowed in the hospital," the bobcat murmured, as John reached for his phone for the third time, which rested tantalizingly, torturously close on the bedside table.

With a gruff, the grey wolf shifted in the paper hospital gown they'd put him in, trying and failing to get comfortable in the bed. The urge to ignore his doctor and make his call to Bobby, to beg for more information in the hopes the cheetah wasn't too mad at him to talk, being stymied only by the fact he was pretty sure there'd be no reception anyway.

"How's the detective?"

The bobcat shook his head, and tapped the butt of his pen against his front teeth with a click-click-click noise that made John want to reach over and snatch the pen away.

"Sorry, you're not next of kin. I really can't tell you anything except that he's alive and still here."

"Ugh. Fine. When're you releasin' me, doc?"

A rustle of paper answered him for a few seconds, causing the wolf's hackles to start prickling in aggravation. Then the doctor looked up owlishly over the top of his clipboard, with a very pointed and disapproving expression.

"When I'm certain a vigilante with broken ribs and knuckles and a hairline skull fracture isn't going to run off and engage in fisticuffs with some tights-clad psychopath."

John blinked at him, and couldn't help a smirk that fought its way to his face.

"'Engage in fisticuffs?' What is this, a 1950's comic book tv show?"

The young bobcat shook his head and made a mark on the clip board, before hanging it off something at the end of the bed and beyond John's rather restricted view. His eyes felt bruised, and the swelling of his face still made his field of vision a pair of slightly blurry bright slits of detail surrounded by a field of shadow.

"We're keeping you over-night. It's not negotiable."

"I'll check myself out, then."

"I'll convince the cops in the lobby to cuff you to the bed, since you're part of an active investigation."

"As a meta-powered consultant!"

The doctor shrugged.

"They don't know that. You break rules to get the badguy sometimes. I break rules to keep my patients from killing themselves for no good reason. I figure it makes us even."

With that, the tawny-furred, snippy doctor turned on his heel and abruptly exited, leaving John to chew on a retort he hadn't the chance to formulate.

To the darkness, the Wolf in Black growled.

"Goddamnit...Fuck..."

Then all he could do was sit there in the dim lightning and hope Bobby Shore, Tokamak, and Dr. Theorem could find Jeff before it was too late. His stomach wouldn't stop flopping around, and the veteran hero tried to keep his mind from thinking about what could be happening to his lover, the rookie, at that very moment.

Feeling like his uniform-covered fur was soaked in grease after most of a day of fighting and frantic searching, Bobby stormed straight past the doorman at Dr. Theorem's condo complex, utterly ignoring the male otter's attempt to welcome him. His eyes were blazing with bilious anger at the low blow Theo had used to drag him into all this, and running with that rage was the only way he'd found effective in keeping the writhing, shrieking anxiety from rendering him into a helpless ball of incoherent nerves.

Behind him, Tokamak stopped to greet the doorman, as he always did. The alien had trouble disobeying rules, even those of social conduct, once they were firmly established in his mind. Bobby wanted to bite at him, reminding him it was technically against the law to bushwack and half-fry villains without police orders to do so, but knew arguing ethics or semantics with the alien energy-based life form would be totally pointless.

No, his mind was set on engaging another far more logical, rational, and thus culpable mind in screaming 'debate' over how wrong this whole mess was.

Bobby climbed two sets of stairs two steps at a stride, cursing under his breath the entire way in hot puffs, past dozens of pieces of strange alien art and sculpture. Theo's feral drake housepet hissed and dodged aside, flapping its wings for a bit of lift, as he nearly ran it over by accident as it rested in a ray of warm sunlight atop the stairs.

Growling out a reluctant apology, as he knew the creature was far more intelligent than most gave it credit for, the furious cheetah then turned down the statuary-filled hallway decorated in hundreds of arcane runes that led to Dr. Theorem's innermost sanctum.

At its end, recessed into a wall inside an armored frame, sat a bronze door so covered with inscription as to be illegible to the cheetah's eyes...Even if he had known any of the arcane languages it was written in, he was confident. Banging his fist against it to demand entry, he could feel it thrumming with mystical power, its runes acting as a conduit for the energies contained behind it.

Truth was, there wasn't a room behind that door, at least not in the reality Bobby Shore was native to. The door itself was a portal, or rather the seal and the portal, to a place that lingered in the Beyond, a bubble were time and reality worked quite differently, surrounded as it was by an endless and impassable nothingness left over from some prior defunct universe. Nevertheless, he was easily familiar enough with entering that strange place to not be intimidated by it, or by the wait Theo commonly forced on people after they banged and demanded entry.

On the other side, Theo Rémy sat in an overstuffed chair that floated weightless at an oblique angle to the door. The pocket dimension was weightless, and filled with book shelves and desks festooned with magical research, many of them held in place with magnets cleverly disguised as tiny perching metal dragons or stereotypical skulls with ravens on top.

Outside the bubble of existence, a vast void of titanic, clashing energies roiled with soundless violence, in an ancient universe long since reduced to chaos by what he'd deduced was a terrible mystic implosion. It would take hundreds of millions of years to completely collapse in on itself, but all life had long since been annihilated, leaving behind only the doorway he'd found as a boy that led to this arcane library. He'd long suspected that some small group of persons had escaped their dying universe through it, and left their arcane science tomes behind. Though why they would abandon such an incredible source of knowledge, he never had managed to fathom.

However, even in all the tomes left there, he'd found no clue, no bit of historical detail. Merely manual upon manual concerning the magical arts, and their pursuit. His most likely theory was that the library and pocket dimension had been left behind on purpose, with the intent that someone would eventually find it.

When the ornate bronze doorway gonged from a fist striking it, he glanced up through a haze of blue smoke that issued from his pipe, allowing himself a wince as he did. Theo wasn't looking forward to this, though he'd known it was an inevitability given what he'd done. Snapping a booklet filled with term papers shut, he reached up a wrinkly paw to rub at the ache in his forehead. It wasn't that he meant to leave Bobby waiting. It was more that he was procrastinating while feeling like a bastard.

The old wizard waved a paw, one tuft-tipped grey old ear flicking back in anticipation of the noise storm that was to come. The ancient bronze portal clanged in response to his motion, recognizing the finger-symbol that acted as its code phrase. Then, with a drama that had failed to impress Theo after his third time through the door, it groaned open, emitting swirling purple smoke that he knew was entirely an affectation left behind by whoever or whatever had created it.

Bobby stormed through, utterly unimpressed, grey and red super-suit seeming almost to writhe with the subtle and devastating telekinetic forces at his disposal. In combination with its digital-camouflage-esque motif, the visual effect left him looking like a field of wrathful, billowing power.

Unlike others among the privileged few that had entered his inner sanctum, Bobby Shore wasn't bothered by the lack of standard gravity. Where most would have been disoriented, flailing about in an attempt to maintain their equilibrium, the telekinetic simply floated to Dr. Theorem, his orientation twisting seamlessly in midair until they were eye to eye.

There he stood, almost snout to snout with the older cat, glaring with eyes wide from rage, nostrils flared as the claws on his fingertips spasmodically sheathed and unsheathed, as his long tail lashed about in angry whips. Just as Theo was about to speak just to break the uncomfortable silence, Bobby issued a harsh hiss of a sentence.

"You're a real son of a bitch, Theo."

The archwizard's tuft-tipped ears flicked back a moment, as he considered his response, then forward again when he opened his muzzle to speak. Only to be cut off by a sharp motion of Bobby's paw, and another harsh whisper of words.

"Obliterator was there, with a whole new team. You sent us in blind against him, Theo. Don't give me that shit that you didn't know."

The lynx grimaced, tightening the muscles on the left side of his lips. Bobby was right. He'd guessed who would be waiting for them, but had judged it unlikely that the traumatized meta would be willing to knowingly confront Obliterator again.

"And don't you DARE tell me I'm a whiner! I have fucking PTSD, you monumental ass! Do you think that if I could just will it to go away, I would choose to be like this? Fucking...Useless and miserable?!"

Now the mighty sorcerer was looking down at his lap, folding his paws together with his pipe clutched between them. He deserved this, and worse, but saying so would just seem like a manipulative call for forgiveness. Theo waited for ten long breaths, before looking up again. The eyes staring into his were, surprisingly, full of tears. Rage he'd expected, perhaps even an attack by the distraught retired hero.

But those tearful eyes said Bobby felt betrayed, not wrathful. Theo's heart felt like it was clenching, and every instinct called for him to reach out and touch the other fur, though he knew he'd likely have his paw slapped away. Instead, he decided to speak the simple truth for once.

"The other day, when I was out in Coal City a few days ago with the Mnemosthenes, we found out that Gyro had escaped from the Null Zone. We didn't have time to chase him, while the Deadlies were tearing up the town. When I found out that a large sum of money had moved through the local underground, I...Guessed that Obliterator was connected."

Bobby was letting him continue, and finally released his death-grip on the arms of Theo's chair. He sat back, knowing a chair would slide under him as he did, one of Theo's little modifications to the strange pocket dimension making certain nobody fell awkwardly in the zero gravity environment.

"The priest slayings don't fit his modus operandi. Obliterator never concerned himself with clergy, and generally avoids killing anyone unless he's being paid specifically to do so. Nonetheless, I was immediately suspicious that our demon summoner was hiring mercenaries, after the debacle at St. Mary's."

"Demon summoner?" Bobby said, by way of request, in a voice now scratchy from yelling. The cat had hunched in on himself, coiling his long tail around a leg of the overstuffed chair.

"Yes. When I was rescuing Eve from her nightmare coma, I encountered one of the Dark Lords. It had been summoned, though I doubt the summoner truly understood what he had done by doing so."

"Explain? I'm not an occultist, remember."

"A demon lord is a great power in the World Outside, Bobby. The sort of thing that, if summoned improperly, could tear a hole in reality and let in...Well...Something akin to that, if it so desired. Or a demon army."

He swept a paw toward the swirling doom outside their bubble of calm.

"So we're hunting down an insanely powerful and completely uneducated sorcerer?"

"No. Worse. His power...Bobby...I didn't tell you because I didn't think you could handle it."

Those eyes looked up, peering through spotted eyebrows with a dagger-sharp glare.

"Tell me now, or I'm out. Tell me everything, or I'll be leaving this fucking place and you'll never see me again."

Theo swallowed that ultimatum, and simply nodded. His friend deserved the truth, though he judged the badly damaged cheetah's psyche wouldn't be able to handle it. He doubted he'd see the cat again whether he told the truth or not.

"Warlocke. Somehow, he's manifesting Warlocke's powers. The aura's almost identical, and the powers...Well, let's just say there's no way this could happen by accident."

Bobby's glare turned to both brows rising, a stare full of dread rather than hate. Theo could see the war going on behind his eyes, the horrified urge to shriek or flee as demons of a whole different sort fought it out inside the cat. The voice that issued from the cheetah's muzzle was whispery, shaky with recalled trauma.

"He's...He's still out th-there? W-we...We didn't even manage to kill him?"

"I don't know, Bobby. But the only way we can find out is by finding the demon summoner...And the priest he's taken captive. I'm uncertain why he hasn't killed the most recent one yet, and I suspect that the summoner is rooting out Warlocke's old followers. He must have grabbed a priest who wasn't one of them."

"What are you saying?"

"I think...I think the boy is mad as a hatter and dangerous on a global scale. But I believe we might be able to convince him to work with us. If we can...Well, we could seal Warlocke's powers away for good."

Silence drifted in the dim cavern of safety in a sea of swirling primordial energies and destruction. Bobby's eyes finally lowered away from Doctor Theorem's, staring down at the bubble's wall where it lay beneath them. His voice was shivering from a clutched throat, as his limbs took to trembling like wind-blown branches on a dying tree.

"John is...We broke up, Theo. A-and I can't take him back. I just...I can't do this any more. I'll...I'll do this for Mountain and Paladin...A-and Blotter, too, though he was a prick. Then I'm...I'm leaving, and I'm not coming back. I j-just can't...Take it anymore..."

Theo finally reached out, and wrapped his aging, wrinkly paw around Bobby's costume-gauntleted one. The cat reciprocated immediately, twisting his wrist to clutch the wizard's fingers perhaps a bit too tightly.

"Thank you, Bobby. I'm sorry for what I called you. It wasn't fair, and I know it. You were never a coward or a whiner. To the contrary, it's me who is a manipulative bastard. When this is done, I promise to leave you alone for good if that's what you want. We just have to find this child, and rescue the priest...Rescue them both, perhaps. And of course find Jeff, and get him away from Obliterator. Once all that is done, you can put the costume away for good."

"H-how are we going to find them? Obliterator..." Bobby swallowed hard, trying to fight down the panicked lump that was choking him. "He teleported...D-don't even know which direction he went..."

That, Theo had an answer to. He merely smiled mysteriously, and reached over to a small bureau of drawers next to him. What he lifted from its front drawer was a bit of black metal, which he flipped over to show a simple symbol scratched into its underside.

"Obliterator is smart, and powerful...But he's not a wizard. He has no way to detect that I left a magical tracker on the Presidents, just in case. This will lead us straight to them. And with any luck, we'll find the demon-caller there as well."

Robert Kolter lay in a hospital bed, painkillers having left him too light-headed to get up despite the urge to get back to work. It was like a compulsion now, pushing at him, nattering and nagging the normally level-headed detective. What it was, in specific, about this case that had him so keyed up he wasn't certain. The truth was, he couldn't possibly know he was being pushed from the outside.

It was as if another person were inside his chest, pushing, clawing almost. As if that other person intended to tear its way free of his flesh if he didn't get up and act. Kolter knew damn well the hospital staff would never let him leave. His gut had been torn open to the point his intestines were exposed, and his brain had been rattled around like a peanut in a tin can. His Captain had already been by, an hour before, to personally inform him he was on paid leave until his wounds healed.

Yet now he kept coming back, in his mind, to the fact that he should have been out there, hunting for the missing priest, who he suspected was in the same place as Jeff Castillas. He chalked it up to years of police work, having developed an instinct for protecting furs in danger. Thought about how his Captain would react to a direct departure from his orders never entered into his head.

Kolter waited, lying patiently in bed until the nurses had all gone off, either headed home for a few hours' rest or vanished into the cafeteria. All he would have to sneak past was the duty-desk nurse. Still he waited, until silence had festooned the halls outside his room for long enough that he'd normally have long since fallen asleep. Meanwhile, he'd checked the bandages over his stitches, tugging on the tightly-wrapped fabric to make certain it would hold.

Finally, he slid carefully upright, slowly as to make as little noise as possible, and took hold of the IV needle that was tapped into his wrist. Withdrawing it stung, but the grizzled cop hardly noticed through all the pain medication. Once free of that one last restraint, he moved carefully to the closet, and dressed himself as gingerly as he could in what was left of his clothing. He thanked the patron saint of happenstance that his trenchcoat had been unbuttoned when his gut was sliced. Otherwise he would have had to sneak through the hospital half-naked.

That strange urge, to get out there and continue hunting, had grown a life of its own in the wily leopard's mind. With his coat on, clinging to the wall and walking with all the silence trained into him by years of getting the drop on crooks while walking a beat, he snuck down the hospital's antiseptic-smelling hall, waited for the duty desk nurse to turn away while answering a quietly buzzing phone, and crept straight past her leaving no one the wiser.

After that, it was a simple matter of buttoning his coat to cover his naked chest, and heading to the elevator. Without his gun or his badge, he had little ability to do much when it came time to actually rescue Castillas or the priest. Luckily, that same patron saint of happenstance had put him in the same hospital he'd visited a few days before to interview Mack Franklin. With any luck, he could convince the lion to help. Somehow, it didn't seem a hard sell.

Eve had been conscious for only a few minutes the day before, and slid into a blessedly dreamless sedation sleep. Her boyfriend, Mack, former football star and meta-strong minor superhero, hadn't slept more than a few minutes at a time since he'd woken up after the same brawl that had put her in the coma ward. He'd stayed at her bedside for almost three days, leaving only for trips to the bathroom, a few showers, and two short excursions to the cafeteria.

There wasn't anyone at home to miss him, and his academic career was effectively over, the grades of a football star no longer good enough to keep him enrolled without the protection of a team he'd had to quit. All because he'd developed super-strength and very little control. He couldn't even take Eve's paw now, for fear his distraught and emotional state would cause him to crush the delicate bones in her fingers.

To say he was a reluctant hero didn't come close to the full depth of it. Not that he minded helping people; he'd been taught all his life, trained by his father's family, that service to the common good was the only way for a real adult to live. It was the fact that he could never have a normal life, play football with normal furs, or even sleep with his girlfriend. He wanted desperately to turn back the clock, and find some way to get rid of this terrible power and unwanted responsibility.

Eve let out a soft little snuffle, still asleep, that woke him from a stuporous, miserable doze just in time to see Detective Kolter very quietly closing the door to Eve's hospital room behind him. The lion raised both eyebrows as he sat up, frowning, round ears twitching back and forth, wondering just why the police were back to harass him yet again while he sat at the bedside of his recovering girlfriend. Something wasn't right, though, by the way Kolter's long whippy tail was hanging low to the ground, silent, tip not flicking.

He snuck in, Mack realized, as his powerful legs were unfolding, raising the bulky athlete to his feet. Something felt wrong, and he was prepared to protect Eve, however irrational the urge was given their circumstances. Hearing him move, the detective turned around slowly, raising one paw to show it was empty while keeping the other clasped low against his trench-covered chest.

"Mister Franklin, we don't have a lot of time, so I'll be to the point. I'm here to recruit you to help me rescue Jeff Castillas and a priest named Father Dover. The serial killer may have them both, and his hired help is too much for me to handle alone."

The big lion's tuft-tipped tail flapped in confusion, as he struggled with the stream of words and their implications. Something in his gut felt acidic, like he'd eaten too many habanero peppers at an after-game party.

"You...Need MY help?"

His paw reached out, toward Eve, before he remembered she was either unconscious or unresponsive, like she'd been the last few days. It sent pain curling up around his heart with no less intensity than it had the first moment he'd been awake, and heard how badly off she was. He'd failed to protect her, and was muddled with fury at her for such a half-cocked plan.

"In a word? Yes. As soon as you agree to help me, we're going to pick up Silverstone and find a way to sneak out of here."

"B-but...You're a cop. Why would you break the law?"

Kolter just raised an eyebrow at him, while standing there hunched over just inside the door, paw gingerly holding his gut. Mack frowned, brow beetling, and looked him over.

"And what the hell are you gonna do? Bleed on 'em when we find the badguys?"

"Whatever it takes, Mack. I'll do whatever it takes. Are you in? Or is it just me and Silverstone?"

"Why aren't other teams handling this? I-I mean you're hurt and I'm..."

"Because the Chief wants to wash his paws of this. I've been pulled off the case. He's just going to sweep it under the rug." A lie, Kolter knew, but he felt compelled to see to this himself. Which was strange, a thing that made the snow leopard raise a brow internally at himself. Cops never work alone, he knew, and to go off the reservation in such a fashion could endanger his career.

Nonetheless, he felt compelled. More and more, the snow leopard felt as if he were watching himself talk, too, as if someone else that looked just like him was speaking. It eased his conscience somehow, helped him forget just how badly what he was planning to do was likely to be for his future. Because if someone else were doing the talking, it wasn't his fault what was about to happen.

Brother Josephus Vanderslite took in a deep, flavor-savoring breath, and closed his eyes as the warm summer evening wind caressed the thinning fur on his aged face. From his perch in the bell tower above the old wooden church, he could easily hear the soft murmurs of his faithful flock, intermingled with the soft and aged groans of a two-century-old building protesting its long and pervasive misuse.

The air here tasted of dampness and fungus, an old tang of mildew and rotten wood that always made him feel so very upbeat. Drumming long, spidery fingers on the bell tower's banister to a staccato beat, he laughed softly to himself, the grey-white furred rat thrilling inside with what his followers were about to unleash. In the distance, some miles from the tiny historic building, the city glowed in the night. He intended to snuff that light for good, in service to his master.

Down below, in that very church, two hundred of the Warlocke's most dedicated cultists were even now completing their part of the great effort - Any moment now, they would summon the demon Malcarel, who Vanderslite had spent much of his life finding and forging a deal with. They would take in his power, grow strong, and be ready for the next phase of their master's rebirth.

A purr at his left elbow had the robed monk turning and bowing, going down on creaking knees to abase himself before his master. A small black cat, who sat on the bell tower's balcony banister, preening and licking at a paw with nonchalance.

"Master, the congregation is prepared, despite our losses. The ritual nears completion. Soon, you will once again walk the Earth with your full power."

The cat, who had gone by the name Locke for years now, carefully completed his grooming before peering down at Vanderslite with eyes narrow in enjoyment.

"You have done well, Vanderslite, and pleased me. Your ancestors would be proud."

The grey rat flushed, and shivered with excitement at such rare and effusive praise. His long, scabrous and fleshy tail lashed as well, a thousand plots and plans warring in his head for space with the very words that made his existence worthwhile. His feline master tilted an ear, then flicked his slender tail, as a chuckling purr issued from his tiny chest.

"You have a plan, I take it?"

"I do, master, if you wish to hear it."

"By all means, dear child. Regale me."

"It begins tonight, with your children, below in the chapel..."

Sergeant Mulhenny wiped at the trickle of coffee that slid down the side of his cracked old home-made coffee mug, which he cradled with all the care it deserved. It read "I'm Proud That My Dad is a Cop" on the sides in red letters that had faded to pink over two decades in honorable ambrosia-bearing service. The droopy-eared basset hound still rumbled with happiness and pride every time he saw it, and thought of his daughter, who now had kids all her own, and a good job teaching elementary school.

With two failed marriages and a lifetime of work culminating in still being a patrol cop, he nonetheless felt proud of himself. He'd raised a good kid, put her through college on his cop's salary, and had his favorite mug as a trophy to show for it. The shabbily-made but well loved thing was one of her many gifts to him, this one from when she was eight years old, his divorce from her mother already a year gone by, and he'd treasured it as he treasured no other object in his meager and Spartan life.

So, when the Sergeant looked up from his lap through the patrol car's passenger window at the motion of someone approaching jerkily from the darkness beyond a burnt-out street lamp, he carefully set the lopsided coffee mug in his cupholder before tapping his young partner with an elbow. Then he rolled down the window, and was greeted by the oppressive heat and humidity of the Illinois summer night.

"Evenin', sir. May I help ya?"

The approaching fur stopped, a floppy, moldy wide-brimmed hat covering its face, when addressed. He or she didn't answer, though, merely craning its head left and right briefly before turning back toward Mulhenny. The trench coat draped dead over its form, as if whoever was beneath it were a cylinder of muscle covered in tarp.

With a coat done up like that, the stranger could be approaching them for almost any reason, and long-honed street instincts had Mulhenny clearing his throat to catch the attention of his partner, the pretty young tigress working even then on studying up for her eventual detective exam. She looked over from the driver's side, blinking in beetle-browed curiosity. Not many furs approached a cop car and then just stood there, staring, from under an all-concealing hat and trenchcoat.

Then, from the steaming alleyway behind their strange quandary, two more identically-dressed furs appeared, walking in a perfect copy of one another's cadences. Mulhenny's gut clenched right up, and he cautiously reached down to unsnap the holster of his sidearm.

"Cass," he said, in sotto voce, "I want you ta release the park break and get ready t' hit it...I got a bad feelin' 'bout this..."

All three approaching furs burst into motion at once, as if by some unseen signal, and officer Cassy Vale let out a yelp of surprised fright, right before all three trench coats tore open, and tentacles black as night lashed out towards them, dripping black viscera and sprouting claws that would have torn Mulhenny apart had the squad car not been suddenly leaping forward with all the acceleration an up-muscled police vehicle could give.

"Shit! Cass, keep drivin'!" Mulhenny yelled, as he grabbed for the receiver clipped to his collar. "Dispatch, this is car 374, callin' fer backup! We're bein' pursued by three confirmed meta, over!"

And pursued they were. All three, naked to the waists now, were bolting down the street, eating up pavement so fast that the wide-eyed, pedal-smashing tigress next to him was barely keeping the squad car out of claw-tentacle reach. The basset had his pistol in paw now, and twisted around in the seat to keep eyes on them as he waited for dispatch to respond. He noted they wore torn pants, rent from the ankles nearly to the knees, as if their bodies had suddenly changed shape and shredded the seams.

"Car 374, this is dispatch. We will send backup as soon as possible. Hold one."

A brief squawk sounded through the speaker, and Mulhenny flinched as his partner jerked the wheel and took them around a sharp corner, briefly bringing the car onto two wheels before it caught proper traction again. The pursuing metas behind them overshot the corner but were doubling back to continue pursuit when dispatch came on again, sounding suddenly harried.

"Car 374, we have just received six similar calls for backup, including officer-down calls. I recommend you make best speed back to the precinct."

Then a noise cut over the radio set, a sound that had Mulhenny's blood thudding and Cass clenching the wheel with sweating paws. Gunshots, over the dispatch radio.

"Calling all cars, calling all cars!" the dispatcher yelped, "Central precinct is under attack by unknown meta-powered! This is an all-paws four-forty!"

Cass turned her sleek, big-eyed, stripey face towards her veteran partner. He could see the fright there, how shaken she was over the fact that the police force was being targeted. If he were entirely honest with himself, seeing that fear in her was the only reason Mulhenny was able to keep it together.

The basset snapped at her.

"Eyes on the road, Cass! Get us back to Central!"

"SHIT!" she roared out, as her Sergeant looked back toward their front.

He saw the incoming attack as a shadow falling down on them from above. Then the fourth of their pursuers landed on his patrol car's hood, smashing the safety glass to flying flinders and crushing the steel in with enough weight to crack the engine block in a squeal of escaping steam from a crushed radiator.

Then his vision was full of flash and flare, as he emptied his service piece into the thing's split-wide, unhinged-jaw face.