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Act 1, Scene 10: Ten Rings to Rule Them All, Part 3

A Ranma ½ / Avengers (the superhero group) fusion
by DB Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ owned by Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. The Avengers are owned by Marvel Comics. Yes, the superheroes, not the British TV Series.

Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

Introduction: Yep, decided to (finally) try and wrap up this first story arc. I did sort of leave it on a cliffhangerish ending, with the heroes getting defeated. Will probably do the next chapter of this, then go back to The Things We Wish For… just in case anyone was concerned about me not finishing 'Things'.

And now on to the story…

When last we left our heroes: The attempt to attack the Musk fortress failed. Daredevil, Hulk, Hawkeye, Iron Rose and Thor had all been captured. The fate of the Wasp and Giant Man remains unknown, and Captain Japan was separated from the others as he tried to rescue the assassin, Elektra from drowning.

The man once known as Herb, but now known to the world as the Mandarin, stared at the woman he had just captured. His imagination swirled with the potential this 'Thor' presented. He was so lost in thought he was unaware of the arrival of his minions until Tarou cleared his throat.

"Nice work, Boss," Tarou said, lacking his trademark haughtiness.

"Spare me your platitudes," the Mandarin snapped, looking over the quartet of prisoners Tarou, Power Man, Speed Demon, and Swordsman had retrieved. "Why are you carrying that green pig?"

His employer's rebuke irritated Tarou enough that he chose to answer in an equally curt voice. "Some big green monster got dunked in Jusenkyou. Unlike me, his curse was not beneficial. We can carve him into ham hocks later."

The Mandarin passed a hand over the piglet. One of his rings glowed with a light green tint. "Hmm. Gamma irradiated, like yourself. This will bear further investigation." He turned to the others. "Tell me, who are they and what can they do?"

Speed Demon spun around so the prisoner draped over his shoulder could be seen by his boss. "His name's Hawkeye. No super powers. Just got a bunch of trick arrows."

"He took you out," Tarou jibed.

"He's darn good with the arrows," Speed Demon replied, showing no sign of embarrassment.

Swordsman showed off his prisoner with exaggerated flair. "This foul knave goes by the name of Daredevil. He is deceitful, ill-tempered, does not know his place, dared to attack me, who is clearly his better, and is vastly inferior to my own tremendous skills."

The Mandarin looked to Tarou.

"Guy keeps hidden weapons in his costume. No other super powers," Tarou translated.

Power Man took his turn with his prisoner. "Speed Demon said she's the Iron Rose. I don't know how large her tits are since this armor's so clunky."

"I don't care about her breast size!" the Mandarin snapped. "Does all of her power come from her armor?"

"Yep. She almost knocked me out, and that was after Swordsman fought her. Of course I had just fought Thor and the pig right before, so I wasn't feeling too great."

The Mandarin considered that. "Armor that powerful might mean some of the technology could be potentially useful."

"Want me to peel it off her?" Power Man offered.

The Mandarin shook his head. "No, that would destroy the armor. Removing it now would be ill advised. It might be booby-trapped."

"Excellent!" Power Man and Speed Demon said as one.

"That means it might explode! It has nothing to do with her breasts, you idiots!"

Both visibly deflated.

"I shall investigate it later. I'll leave all of them alive for now, imprisoned. Each one is potentially useful to me. If they prove otherwise, or I find them tiresome, I will dispatch them later. Now… Wait a minute. Where's Elektra?"

"She fell into the underground river with Captain Japan. That was the last we saw of either of them," Speed Demon explained.

"I insisted we search for them immediately, but our so-called team leader," Swordsman shot a glare towards Tarou, "insisted we come here with the prisoners first. Another sign he is ill fit to lead. There is no telling what harm might befall the beauteous Elektra in the hands of such a cad as that Captain person."

"They both fell in the water and are probably dead," Tarou assured his leader, shooting Swordsman a scathing look.

"I want confirmation," the Mandarin insisted. "Mint, Lime—"

"Ah, ah," Speed Demon warned with a wag of his finger.

The Mandarin rolled his eyes. "Speed Demon, Power Man, secure the prisoners. The archer and red man can be placed in standing shackles. Strap down the armored one in the titanium bonds and use the electric nullifier on the armor, the one we use for twitchy Centurion robots. Since it's only armor, attaching it to the head should render it completely immobile. Remember to attach it to the head, not the body."

"Right," both said.

"The pig can be placed in the somnia gas chamber." He turned to the goddess on the floor. "This one is of particular value to me. The neural paralysis table should immobilize her in similar fashion to her armored comrade. Make sure she's securely fastened to the table. I remember the mutant bear that slipped out of the bonds before you activated the neural paralysis."

"We'll be careful," Speed Demon promised.

The Mandarin turned to Tarou and Swordsman. "You two are going to locate the Captain and our missing assassin. Bring the man to me alive as well." He turned to exit the room.

"What if he's already dead?" Tarou asked.

The Mandarin stopped at the doorway to the room, "Then bring back his body."

Once his employer had departed, Tarou finally allowed himself to snicker. "Now that can easily be arranged."

Liquid dreams filled her mind as she found herself sinking into an eternal ocean of blood. An ocean she had created over the severed flesh of her assigned targets. She was suspended in crimson ether that carried on into infinity. There was no up or down, left or right. There was just the blood. Slowly she felt her lungs crushed under the weight of her sins. There were no voices to taunt her, they had all been silenced at the end of a blade, but the sanguine fluid that had been spilled would stand in place of her victims' cries of revenge. She tried to keep the liquid out, closing her mouth, but the blood seemed to seep into her body through her pores, filling her lungs, forcing the life-giving air out so that she might drown in her sins.

Her consciousness began to wither and die, and she felt her soul being sucked out. Death had come to visit her. Once dead the Hand would consume her, as it did with all those who failed, and use what remained of her immortal soul in their plans anew. The Hand was greater than any one member. The Hand was eternal. No one left the Hand. Once accepted, you belonged to them even unto death. And beyond. She would forever be a part of something she hated more than anything else in the world.

And then there was light. And pain. Pain from within, worse than any she had felt since killing her best and only friend. She vomited fluid, and what felt like most of her vital organs, and still the retching continued as her stomach tried reflexively throwing out what had already been emptied.

Eventually the nausea passed, and Elektra collapsed on her back. She had to regain her bearings. Pain was accepted, and she forced her mind to look beyond the discomfort and evaluate her situation. She took stock of her surroundings. She was laying flat on the ground, her body still convulsing mildly. She was wet, soaked almost as much inside her body as out. She could hear the movement of someone nearby. An enemy. All people were assumed enemies until they were judged otherwise.

Her body was in poor shape, damaged temporarily. And like any other weapon that was damaged, she would have to rely on other tools until it was repaired. Slowly her hand moved towards her sash where she kept a stiletto, garrote, and shuriken concealed within the folds of the cloth.

They were all gone.

"You're awake."

Elektra's eyes flashed open. She expected someone to lunge at her with blade, bullet, or flesh. It would not be the first time such had happened, waking just in time to counter a fatal attack. But instead of a violent killer intent on her death, she saw a short, busty girl with flame colored hair sticking out from the top of a mask wrapped around her face. Her costume was red and white, with a rising sun emblazoned across both it and the shield affixed to her arm.

A full recollection of the events that led up to that moment came to Elektra. She turned to see the flow of water beside her. She was resting on a rocky projection next to the river. It formed what was almost a crude pathway, judging by the way the rock continued on upriver and out of sight. An odd phosphorescent glow seemed to emanate from the rock walls themselves. Obviously she had been pulled out of the river and onto dry land.

"You kept me from drowning," she said warily to her savior.

The redhead nodded. "Yeah, you took a nasty one straight to the temple. You were out cold. It's lucky for you I dove in after you."

"Why?" Once the word had left her lips, Elektra realized how irrelevant the question was. The action was done, the reasons meant nothing. This girl had her own designs, and an obvious use for Elektra, or else she would never have saved the assassin.

The girl looked at Elektra as though she was the most stupid person in the world. "Well, Jeez. I couldn't let you die."

The simplicity of the statement, as though the girl was saying 'Of course the sun rises in the East', unsettled Elektra. "You mean you did not save me so I would be indebted to you?" she asked.

The redhead seemed confused by the nature of the question. "Ah, no. That would be a pretty stupid way of doing things. Heck, I wouldn't be able to keep track of all the favors people owed me if I expected everyone I saved to return the favor."

Now Elektra understood: Magnanimity. A useless gesture fools engaged in. To give something without the expectation of receiving something in return was a waste of effort. Obviously this girl believed herself some sort of Samaritan whose duty it was to protect others.

But still, despite the obvious foolishness, Elektra felt strangely moved by the gesture. No one had ever done anything for her without the expectation of receiving something in return, at least for long as she could remember. Everything the Hand gave had a string attached. When she went undercover, she would frequently be romanced with the intention of someone bedding her. There was always some form of compensation involved. But this girl desired nothing. It was most… confusing.

"Where are my weapons?" Elektra asked. She felt naked without them, and was suspicious of the redhead appearing out of nowhere to save her. It seemed too good to be true.

"I took care of them. I didn't want you to try to run me through aga… I mean like you tried to do to my partner."

"Partner?" Elektra looked the girl over. How could she have been so blind? Obviously from the way the girl was dressed and the shield she bore she would have been partnered to Captain Japan. "I do not recall seeing you in the battle…" Elektra trailed off, unsure of how to address her savior.

"I was… ah, late getting there. And the name's Bucky."

The girl was lying about the former, and very poorly. What did she have to hide? Elektra looked at her more closely. The uniform bore signs of combat. There was a large tear in the front where the material had been sliced open and the faint redness of a fresh cut below that. The slash was long enough, and in such an area, that the girl's ample bosom clearly showed; a fact she seemed unaware of.

Noticing Elektra's stare, the redhead's eyes followed the gaze. Seeing what was poking out, she quickly muttered a curse, and proceeded to tear her top off, using it to tie around her breasts in a very tattered bikini top style. "No one's going to take me seriously with my belly button showing," Bucky grumbled.

Elektra was not as concerned about Bucky's appearance as she with the wound. The injury was identical to the one she had given the Captain himself. A coincidence? Hardly. Elektra stood up, her eyes seeming to bore holes through Bucky. There was no way the redhead could be the Captain in disguise. The physiological differences made it impossible. Although looking more closely, she could see the uniform was actually loose on the girl. Had she switched clothes with the Captain? Why? She was not trying to impersonate him.

Elektra reviewed the facts she knew. The last thing she remembered was being on the bridge, something shattering it, and being hit in the head by a stray piece of granite. The next thing she knew, she had been saved by a girl who looked similar to the man Elektra had been fighting, dressed the same as him, and had an identical wound. The only problem was gender. So what was the solution?

The water!

The memory came back to Elektra, one long forgotten in a childhood that she had forsaken so long ago. If she remembered the tales correctly, there was indeed something that could change a person's gender. And cold water was the trigger. She pointed at the girl and said, "Jusenkyou?"

The shock on Bucky's face was evident. "Yeah, how'd you know about it?"

The past. For all of Elektra's efforts to bury it, it had come surging to the fore. She had not reflected on her childhood for years. Memories of a dead past only served to slow one down. Bucky's question, in conjunction with this curse told as a tale from her youth, elicited feelings in Elektra that she did not want to remember. "It is none of your concern."

Bucky gripped Elektra firmly by the shoulders. "Come on, you got to tell me. I need a cure for this."

"It was only a fable I heard when I was very young. I did not believe the place truly existed. I am unaware of any cure." A lie, but one delivered flawlessly.

Bucky did indeed believe the explanation as her shoulders visibly slumped in defeat. But then a resolve seemed to settle over her. "All right, so now you know the truth. What are you going to do about it? Are we going to have to fight again?"

Elektra shook her head. "I am indebted to you. You saved my life when I would have drowned. I will not raise my hand against you or signal an alarm."

Bucky seemed visibly relieved. "Okay. Now I gotta get back and rescue my friends. Well, they ain't really my friends. I only met most of them once before today. But that's beside the point."

"I shall go with you. It's a matter of honor," Elektra said firmly.

Bucky shrugged. "Okay. They're a pretty tough bunch. I can take them on my own, if my buddies haven't beaten them already. But without me, they might have more than they can handle. We'd better sneak back, just to be on the safe side. You got any idea on how to get back?"

Elektra pointed upriver along the crude pathway that went up and out of sight. "Following this as far as it can go would be the best. If there is an interruption in the path, we will make do as best as we can."

"Works for me," Bucky agreed.

With the matter settled, the two began to walk back.

A tiny pair of eyes fluttered open. There was darkness with light around the edges of it. Groggily the girl reached upward, towards the darkness. She was rewarded with the cool feel of metal at her fingertips. Instinctively, she pushed forward, trying to ward off the darkness. She was rewarded by the piece of metal scrap, from her perspective nearly fifteen meters in length, go flying away from her.

Wasp squinted at the bright light of the sun. She covered her eyes until they had a chance to adjust to the sunlight.

She surveyed the scene around her. There was debris scattered all around. It took her a moment to recall what had happened. She had drifted off to sleep nestled among the landing gear, Doctor Tofu (no, Giant Man when he was a superhero) still babbling incoherently, when there was the sound of a loud explosion and the sense of plummeting very quickly. Wasp had recovered enough to rise to her feet as she heard further sounds of metal tearing and the falling continued. She had managed to grab onto Giant Man, used her sting to blow a hole through the quinjet's landing gear doors, and flew out as the vehicle headed straight for the ground. She had barely enough time to stop her decent, especially with her super hero partner cradled in her arms, before crashing into the ground It was fortunate she retained her full strength at Wasp height, else both she and her partner would have met a rather grisly demise.

It was just as she had leveled off, not more than a handful of meters above the ground, when the quinjet crashed, exploding and sending debris everywhere. One large piece in particular had headed towards her…

…And that was it. She couldn't remember anything else. Perhaps the debris had struck her, and she had fallen to earth with Giant Man…

Giant Man! She had completely forgotten him. "Giant Man, where are you?!" she called out, but there was no response. She cried out again, but still there was no answer. Wasp began to panic. What if something bad had happened to him? What if he had been hurt because Kasumi Tendou had gotten it in her head she wanted to be a superhero? What if he had died? Could she forgive herself?

Yes, she could. Doctor Tofu wanted to help the world as best as he could, and he would never want Kasumi to give up her new dreams in which she helped others, as well as living the exciting life of an adventurer. There were risks involved, but didn't she take a risk every time she prepared puffer fish for the family? Why, given the number of people who died in car accidents, she was still more likely to die crossing the street, even if she gave up superheroing.

"I will carry on in your name, Doctor Tofu," she swore.

"What's wrong with my name?" The voice came from under a piece of metal located to the right of Wasp.

Stunned by the unexpected response, Wasp flew over, picked up the piece of metal and tossed it aside. Underneath lay her partner, only now sitting up, clearly dazed. His uniform appeared a bit dirty, but no external wounds showed. "Oh, you're not dead after all."

Giant Man winced. "You don't have to sound disappointed, Ka… Ka… Kasumi." His eyes fully glazed over, a state of insentience far worse than when he had first started to come around.

"Oh dear, it's happening again." Wasp grabbed one of the metal cylinders on Giant Man's belt and detached it. She pointed the nozzle at him, and hit a button located on the bottom. A stream of green gas enveloped the upper portions of his body, dissipating almost immediately. The growth gas served to negate the effects of the shrinking one he had used earlier, and allowed Giant Man to live at least partially up to his moniker as his form grew from a handful of centimeters to the height of a normal man.

No longer in his Kasumi inflicted haze, Giant Man regained his bearings and looked around. "Where are we? This doesn't look like the airport."

"It's not. The heroes' plane we were stowing away in crashed. We barely made it out in time." Wasp went airborne and flew up until she was eye level with Giant Man.

As before, her diminutive size seemed to dull the effect her presence had on Giant Man. "What about the others? Did they survive as well?"

"Oh my. I didn't even think about them. I just woke up a minute ago and was worried about you."

Giant Man began to blush, and laughed nervously. "You were worried about me?"

Wasp seemed unaware of the change in demeanor. "Yes, but since you're okay, I'm not concerned anymore. We need to check on the others."

That shook Giant Man out of his stupor. He grew to a height of eight meters and looked around. "I see the main wreckage over there." He pointed over a small mound of boulders around the hillock. "Let's investigate."

They easily made their way over the rocks and to the crash site. Hesitantly, they began to search through the wreckage. Their initial fears of finding charred corpses were allayed as it quickly became evident there were no bodies to find.

"They probably escaped like we did. It's not surprising. They are superheroes, after all," Wasp said.

"But that leaves the problem of where they, and we, are." Giant Man surveyed his surroundings again. "We seem to be in the middle of a mountain chain. I don't think it's in Japan, though. They look wrong."

Wasp took a deep breath of mountain air. "It smells too clean and pure to be Japan. Maybe we're in China, or even the United States."

"Could be."

Wasp carefully considered their situation. "Why don't we go to the top of the mountain? It's not that far up. We'll get a better view from up there and might be able to get our bearings. We can figure out where we are, or better yet, where the others are. Once we find one or the other, we'll have a better idea of what we should do next."

"Sounds like a good idea to me." Giant Man looked up the mountain side. There were no easy paths, but at least this part of the mountain wasn't steep and had large ledges that would make climbing easier. Still, he was grateful he had taken up rock climbing as a way of staying fit a few years back. Wasp flew alongside, staying with him rather than darting on ahead. At the rate he was going, they would be at the top in no time.

Speed Demon and Power Man made their way through one of the long stone corridors of the fortress that served as their base, their two remaining prisoners in tow. Actually, Power Man was doing all of the towing, while Speed Demon walked alongside him. The big man had the world's largest piglet tucked under one arm and the Goddess of Thunder slung over the other.

"Hold on a second." Power Man placed both his burdens on the ground, then pulled up his tights.

"What's wrong?"

"My outfit is a little loose. I think I lost some weight."

Speed Demon shook his head sadly. "That wouldn't happen if we had uniforms made out of unstable molecules. They fit you snugly no matter how big or small you are. It's like the ultimate spandex. Too bad the Mandarin is too cheap to buy some for us."

"Yeah, you think with the big missile and satellite system he built, he could drop a few Yuan on us to get us some decent clothing. I mean, sure, the material the old Spider Clan made is awful tough, but it itches something fierce."

Speed Demon scratched his crotch. "I know what you mean. After we get our own countries, I'm sure we can afford to buy lots of outfits for ourselves. Now let's drop these guys off. The holding cells are just around the corner."

Power Man shouldered his burden again and set off down the corridor. His concentration was fixed so firmly forward, he neglected to notice the hammer that had been dangling from Thor's wrist by its strap and come loose and fallen off when he set her down.

The pair turned the corner and entered the holding room. Unlike the stony corridors of the fortress, the room was completely encased in metal. Computers lined one of the walls. A number of large glass cubes stood alongside each other, while the third side to the chamber bore several flat tables. Huge metal restraints that could be snapped into place were at each one's sides, and odd-looking helmets rested at the head of each table. A number of wires led from the helmets to one of the banks of computers along the wall.

Speed Demon said, "Let's hurry up. I'm hungry. I'll put the pig in the somnia gas chamber. You put the girl on the table."

Reminded of the fact they had not eaten since their return from Japan, Power Man roughly tossed Thor upon the table and locked the bands into position. As each locked down, it tightened until it created a form fitting bond across the unconscious woman. They were firm, but not tight enough to cut off circulation. He then placed the helmet on her head. Like the bands, it too tightened until it formed a perfect seal on the top of her skull.

Speed Demon's task was simpler. He tossed the pig into one of the clear cubes, and closed the access door to it. With that he walked over to a console located on the largest computer of all, and punched a button. Red wisps of the Mandarin's somnia gas filled the chamber. Seeing Power Man had Thor strapped down, he turned a second dial and was rewarded with a hum of power emitting from the helmet.

"Everything seems to be working fine. The gas will keep the pig asleep and the neural table will prevent any higher brain activity from Thor, like waking up," Speed Demon said as he looked over the control panel. "Let's go eat."

Power Man nodded in agreement. As the duo exited the room, the larger man said, "Hey, Mint."

"Speed Demon."

"Fine, Speed Demon," Power Man said with a touch of irritability. "You don't suppose the boss created those chambers to keep us in line if he thought we were going to turn on him or something, do you?"

"Not us. Probably if Pantyhose doesn't like his new name or something," Speed Demon assured him.

"Oh, that makes me feel better." They were halfway down the corridor when Power Man followed up with an, "Oh, shoot!"


"We were so busy doing what the boss said, we missed a perfect opportunity to touch Thor's breasts."

"We could go back."

Power Man considered that. "We'll eat first, then grab later."

"Good idea. We need to get our priorities straight, after all." The two continued on.

And in the chamber they had left behind moments before, the sixtieth second had passed since Thor had last been in contact with her hammer. She disappeared in a flash and was replaced by an ordinary Japanese teenager. The helmet slipped off the smaller head. The bonds around the body also remained at their previous setting. Akane Tendou's form was so much smaller that the bands did not even touch her as she lay motionless on the table.

Bucky continued up the path along the river. It was almost as though it served as some sort of access way, which seemed impossible. Why would anyone create a walkway alongside an underground river that led only down into the earth? It wasn't even part of the fortress proper. Just a crude underground passageway carved out of the earth by the flow of water. Still, she was not one to look down on a gift handed to her. With luck they could travel most of the way on foot. Hopefully the idiots in the fortress either thought she was dead or were too scared to come back.

At this point she was assuming her friends had lost the fight. Bucky was fairly certain they would have sought her out immediately if they had been victorious. That lot might have been a little rough around the edges, but they did seem the good sort. She wouldn't have been difficult to find. The Iron Rose probably had some sort of gizmo that could track her, while Thor could have flown down the length of the river to spot them. But there was nothing.

Trying to take her mind off the potentially bad situation, Bucky decided to strike up a conversation with her companion. "So, how'd you end up working for the bad guys?"

Elektra shrugged. "They hired me. It's just a job."

Bucky looked at her as though she had grown a third eye. "How can you be so blasé about it? I mean, they're bad guys. They want to hurt people and stuff." Suddenly she realized she didn't know what these people were up to. She had gone after them in the beginning because they were attacking the police, and later, because they had defeated her. But she had no idea of what their motives truly were.

If Elektra was moved by Bucky's concern, she did not show it. In a casual voice, she said, "I am of the Hand. I obey their wishes. They were contacted by the Mandarin, who was in need of enforcers to protect his fortress from attack, obviously a wise choice. I was selected to aid him. It is as simple as that."

"But that's wrong! You can't hurt people just because you're told to. You've gotta act responsible and protect others. It's the duty of the strong to protect the weak and stand up for them."

Elektra shook her head. "So naive. You actually believe that mindless idiocy you're babbling about."

"Of course I do." It took Bucky a moment to realize what she had said. "I mean it's not idiocy or babble. It's the way you got to do things to make the world a great place."

"You cannot change the world anymore than you can change human nature. Society is composed of two types of people. The strong and the weak. The strong prey upon the weak. That is the way of things."

"That's crazy. You can't live life like that. Everyone would be miserable. You gotta try and help others. Wouldn't you like it better if everyone treated you like I did?"

Elektra tried to say something, but there was hesitation in her voice. She shook her head fiercely, as though to clear it of some errant thought. "An ideology like yours is stupid. Try to live your life like that, and you'll pay for your naiveté someday."

Bucky was about to argue further, but thought better of it. She had more urgent matters on hand than trying to explain to a supervillain why her entire method of thinking was wrong. There would be time enough for that later, when she turned her in to the proper authorities.

Bucky concentrated on the path in front of her. Just as she was about to turn a corner following yet another bend in the seemingly endless river, two figures came from around it first.

There was a moment of bewilderment between the two pairs. After a moment, Tarou, the first to recover, said, "Well, well, well. What have we here? I go out to find a putz, and instead I find a babe." He smiled lasciviously at Bucky. "What's your name? Cleavage Girl?"

Swordsman seemed equally as pleased at the sight before him. "How kind. The goddess of fate has bestowed her favor upon me. I set out on a quest to find of one vision of loveliness, only to be confronted by two instead. Oh joyous rapture!" He held his sword up and pointed it to the Heavens, or more correctly, towards the ceiling, since he was currently underground.

Tarou continued smirking. "Judging by the costume, what there is of it, she looks like a groupie of Captain Weenie. Hey honey, why don't I show you what a real man can do with a hot little number like you?"

"You lousy pervert!" Bucky railed. Keeping her eyes on the two opponents, she said over her shoulder. "Keep behind me. I'll protect you."

Bucky mentally planned a course of attack that would take her between her two opponents, in the hopes they would get caught in their own crossfire, when she felt a hard blow strike a single point in the back of her neck. She wanted to turn around, but instead she felt her body grow limp.

A voice from behind her said, "I told you you'd pay for that naiveté someday."

Muscles not responding in the slightest, Bucky slumped to the ground, turning as she fell so that she landed on her back. Her vision began to grow faint along the edges as Elektra came into view. "Why?" was all she managed to get out as darkness began to claim her.

A snort of derision came from Elektra. "I'm an assassin, you idiot. Stabbing people in the back is what I do."

And then the world went black.

Tarou came closer to stand over the girl. He continued leering at her as he spoke to Elektra. "Where'd you find this one, and where's Captain Jerkwad?"

Elektra was about to explain the Captain's situation, something Tarou could appreciate since once she had mentally reviewed the fight she realized that he too had a Jusenkyou curse, when she found herself saying instead, "The Captain is dead. Drowned. His body washed away. The girl is his partner. She stumbled upon me as I pulled myself from the river. She was unaware of the Captain's fate, and assumed, I was aligned with her. I was still weak from nearly drowning, so I pretended to be on her side until you showed up."

Swordsman said, "It is good to see you did not suffer overmuch from the base attack the foul Captain unleashed upon you. It is for the best that he met his demise, else I would smite him myself for daring to try to harm you."

Tarou ignored his comrade's excessively flowery speech. He kept his eyes riveted on Bucky. "I'll tell you guys what. Swordy, why don't you take Elektra back and go over things with the boss, since he'll want you to confirm Flag Boy's dead? I'll, ah… secure this prisoner and catch up to you guys later."

Elektra saw that Swordsman was too preoccupied with being allowed to travel with her to understand what Tarou was really implying. She had seen that look before on dozens of faces, both on her opponents and occasionally on her fellow Hand members. Instead of being amused at the idea of the arrogant clod accidentally raping a man — a fact that would probably drive him into a frenzy — Elektra found herself feeling inexplicably protective of the girl. "She's my prisoner."

"Don't worry about it. I'll be responsible for her. You've been through a lot and need a break," Tarou insisted in a smooth voice.

"I said she's mine." The assassin reached down and picked the girl up, effortlessly tossing the burden over her shoulder. As she turned, she noticed Tarou shooting her a murderous glare. She found that truly amusing. From the moment she had met him, she had taken an intense dislike of him that bordered on hatred. Probably because he reminded her so much of her mentor, Matsuo. They were cut from the same cloth.

As Elektra began to walk up the path to the fortress, Swordsman pontificating about how fortunate he was to be in the presence of two lovely visions of beauty, she caught Tarou muttering something about "Chick's probably a dyke and wants the babe for herself."

Elektra was barely able to suppress her mirth. It was just as well, since it served to blunt the confusion at her own inexplicable actions. Lying about the Captain being dead and protecting him from Tarou's abusive hands were both acts that went against everything she had been taught. While denying Tarou his opportunity to pleasure himself was rewarding, it would also serve to make Elektra a target of his anger. He had the skill and power to make life difficult for her, and presently she didn't have the option of killing him without provocation. And she didn't want to think about what the Mandarin might do to her if he found out she had lied. While it was true the Captain would still be a prisoner and represented no threat, it would make her employer trust her less. And trust was always a commodity one tried to broker, since it made turning on the person that much easier if one had to betray him.

She would need to meditate on the matter later, when time permitted.

"Centurions!" the Mandarin shouted.

Within moments, several robots lumbered into the room. Identical to one another, each was humanoid, about six feet tall, and weighed well over five hundred pounds. Their lower torso and thick legs were jet black. Their upper torsos and heads were a polished silver that seemed to reflect all the light shone about it. The design was similar to that of a Roman legionnaire wearing a mask and helmet. Rather than faces, each one had something more akin to a grill for their lower nose and jaws, while a black slit dominated the upper portion of the face. A solitary red dot bounced back and forth across the slit, going the length of one end to the other, and the repeating the motion endlessly.

In a highly digitized voice, the lead robot said. "What… is… your… command?"

"The reactor facility has been damaged even worse than I originally thought. All robots are to report to it and began repair work immediately. I will not have my plans undone at this stage."

"By… your… command." The robots turned as one and headed to the lower bowels of the fortress.

As the robots exited the chamber, Elektra, Tarou, and Swordsman appeared. Elektra still bore Bucky over her shoulder, continuously telling Swordsman that neither she nor her burden were interested in double-dating, especially if he was the only man there.

While the two quarreled, Tarou pointed at the departing robots and said to the Mandarin, "I always wondered, if you got those neat robots, why not just build an army of them and take over the world that way? They're pretty durable and strong as hell. I mean, they are slow, but you could use them as walking tanks or something."

"Perhaps," the Mandarin admitted. "But the design has one major drawback: they're terrible shots. Have you seen their eyes? They only have the one that keeps going back and forth. It would be a miracle if they hit anything. It's just fortunate their programs are capable of designing things, or else I wouldn't have been able to order them to build the higher functions of this facility, like the rocket and satellite. Conscripting the local villagers into building something basic, like the fortress, was simple. But farmers are incapable of the delicate work needed to create vehicles capable of breaching the atmosphere."

Tarou nodded in approval "Yeah, lucky you found that spaceship with all these advanced gizmos and stuff, otherwise this whole takeover the world scheme would just be a dream."

The Mandarin gave Tarou an evil stare, "How did you find out about the space—"

"Shoot, we forgot to feel her titties again."

"Maybe I should run back for a quick grope."

"Aw, come on, Min… Whiz… I mean Speedy. I want to grab them too."

"Oh," the Mandarin said in a flat voice as Speed Demon and Power Man entered the room.

The pair spotted Elektra, and more importantly, the burden she bore. Despite being face down draped over the assassin's back, they were somehow aware of the fact she was not only female, but had a bosom that was worthy of attention.

"Who's that?" Speed Demon asked as Elektra prevented him from feeling up the redhead.

"Yes," the Mandarin agreed. "I was under the impression that this Captain Japan person was somewhat male."

Elektra repeated what she had told Tarou and the Swordsman.

"I was hoping to interrogate her myself," Tarou threw in before Elektra could protest. "I guarantee I can get her to talk."

"I shall be the one to conduct all the interrogations," the Mandarin informed him in a tone that would brook no argument.

Tarou merely bowed.

Elektra again hid the smile that threatened to come to her. She could practically feel the anger boiling off Tarou, even if he openly accepted his employer's decision with a stoicism she had previously thought him incapable of.

To Speed Demon and Power Man, the Mandarin instructed, "Secure the girl in the same room as the rest of the normal intruders."

Elektra was quick to say, "Perhaps it would be best if I were to personally chain her and allow those two to show me the way, since we should make absolutely certain she is secured. After all, we wouldn't want any distractions that might prevent them from doing a good job."

The Mandarin noted the way his henchmen drooled over Bucky's revealing top. "Yes, you raise a good point. You will bind the girl. Soon the satellite will be in position. After issuing my ultimatum, I shall interrogate the prisoners and discover how they knew the location of my secret base. We should have been impervious to any form of electronic detection, none of the villagers would be foolish enough to betray me, and the members of the government that are backing me have almost as much to lose as I should their identities be revealed. It is a mystery that tasks me, and I would know what this all means."

Just as he was about to head towards his control room, an electronic voice emitted from a microphone at his belt and said, "Security breach in the gateway."

"Is there no end to these interruptions?" the Mandarin snarled as he headed for the nearest security checkpoint to monitor the nature of the intrusion.

Having returned to his normal height, Giant Man watched with an amused gaze as his diminutive companion flit to and fro, basking in the opulent setting of the entryway to the mysterious fortress perched on top of the mountain. He could never recall Kasumi being so enchanted and lively, not that he could remember much about Kasumi to begin with, other than she was the most divine creature he had ever beheld in his entire life. Still, seeing her in such a delighted state eased his reservations about helping her become a superhero.

"Have you ever seen such an amazing place?" Wasp asked.

Giant Man took in his surroundings with a critical eye. The entryway was astounding. It was larger than his entire office and house combined. Its cathedral-like ceiling held stained glass filled with intricate, sinewy dragons. Statues of terracotta soldiers lined the halls. Elegant pictures, most of battle scenes, lined the length of the hall. If the intent was to impress the casual visitor, it had certain done that and more. The room was filled with more works of art than most museums.

"I'm almost certain we're in China, judging by the style of artwork," Giant Man told her.

Wasp said, "I wonder why it's in the middle of nowhere? You'd think a place like this would be world famous."

Giant Man shrugged. "Perhaps whoever owns all of this likes his privacy. I imagine the Chinese government would frown on someone owning so many luxurious items, unless it was owned by one of the higher-ups in the government. In which case, they would hide it so the populous wouldn't get jealous. It's all just conjecture, in any case."

"Maybe it's the secret base of the group of villains the other heroes were hunting?" Wasp offered.

"I doubt that very much. I think you're getting a touch overenthusiastic about this superhero thing. Not everyone who's wealthy enough to own something like this is an evil mastermind bent on world domination." Giant Man began searching the room. "I know some Chinese. Let's see if we can find some servants to tell us where we are. Hello! Is anybody home?!"

In response to the call, a voice filled the air, echoing loudly throughout the massive room. "So, yet another hero has dared to defile my lair. Since I already have your comrades, I deem you quite expendable."

A series of small turrets, each with a single barrel, popped out from their concealed alcoves and targeted Giant Man.

"Or I could be wrong," he admitted.

Giant Man lunged to the left, narrowly avoiding a dozen beams of silent crimson light that struck the area where he had been a split second before. The beams bored tiny holes through everything they touched. Giant Man fell to the ground and rolled, several of the beams attempting to track him missing him by only the narrowest of margins. He eventually stopped rolling and crouched behind a statue. From what he had observed, none of the beams could reach him from this position. Since the statue was obviously some expensive piece of art, there was little chance the villain would shoot through it in an effort to kill him. That would give him a chance to think about getting out of his dire situation.

And then dozen lasers struck the statue, slicing it into a number tiny pieces.

"Remind me to get a new statue," the Mandarin instructed as he watched the destruction on the security monitor.

"I'll send a robot to clean up the mess," Speed Demon said. "Luckily, lasers cauterize as they cut, so they won't have to shampoo the carpets."

Power Man winced at the small pile that had been left behind. He turned away from the monitor, rather than risk seeing the grisly remains beneath the rubble. "They'll probably only need a dustpan for that mess. Did you recognize him?" he asked Speed Demon.

"Nope. Didn't see him in any of the magazines lately. But there's been a recent explosion of costumed heroes in Japan. I remember reading about someone named Squirrel Girl."

Tarou snorted. "And what could she do? Hide nuts for the winter?"

"From what I understand, she could control squirrels."


"She looked like a cross between a squirrel and a girl. I think she was a mutant. A lot of them don't get cool powers. That's sort of a myth that's cropped up over the years."

"I wonder what powers that guy had?" Power Man asked idly.

"The ability to fall to pieces." Tarou laughed hard at his joke

The levity only served to anger the Mandarin. "Do any of you realize I have suffered more interruptions in one day than in the last five years since I initiated this plan?!"

"And the day isn't over yet," Speed Demon happily pointed out.

"Don't remind me," the Mandarin intoned. "He was very odd, though. Imagine talking to yourself like that."

"Maybe he had a companion who was invisible?" Power Man suggested.

"I did a heat scan in the room. There was nothing larger than an insect in there. No, he was obviously maladjusted. I have no need of unbalanced lackeys. Somewhat stupid ones are okay, though," the Mandarin said pointedly to Speed Demon and Power Man.

Speed Demon shook his head. "I disagree. Standards must be upheld in order to maintain a well-disciplined chain of command. Otherwise it will lead only to chaos and anarchy."

Power Man nodded his head sagely.

Tarou said, "My latest issue of Playboy just came in."

"Tittie mags! Oh goody! I want to see it!"

"Me too!"

"Would you two idiots get out of here!" the Mandarin shouted.

Tarou also took it as his cue to leave, snickering nonstop as he exited the room, Power Man and Speed Demon practically hanging all over him as they begged to see the issue of Playboy he had mentioned.

Alone once again, the Mandarin shook his head. Maybe he would only give the two twits a small island nation rather than entire countries. Their loyalty was unsurpassed, and should be rewarded accordingly, but he didn't need incompetent boobs ruining the world once he was running things.

With that in mind, the Mandarin checked on his satellite's orbit. Ten more minutes, and then the world would bow to his every whim.

Wasp flew down among the debris of the statue. She began quietly stalking among the remains, calling out, "Giant Man? Giant Man? Where are you?"

"Under here." A muffled voice cried out from under one of the larger pieces of rubble.

"We seem to be making a habit of digging ourselves out of debris," Wasp lamented. After seeing the lasers hit, she might have been more worried about her partner's fate, save for the fact she had seen him activate one of the canisters of shrink gas a split second before the lasers sliced the work of art into so many pieces of worthless rock. She was about to knock the lasers out with her sting when they ceased on their own. Sensing that either they were unable to track her, or she was so small the people watching were unaware of her presence, she decided to remain quiet and help Giant Man sneak away. With any luck, the villains thought he was dead, which meant they would have the element of surprise. Obviously it was an important element, as she was quickly learning. She and Giant Man had been unaware of the lasers, and boy had that been an unpleasant surprise.

Wasp flew down to the piece of rubble and helped heave it off Giant Man. "Are you all right?"

Giant Man stood and rotated his shoulder. "One of the chunks hit me pretty hard. No major damage, but it's definitely sore and I wouldn't recommend any lifting for a few days, Ka… Ka… Kasumi."

Wasp silently scolded herself. There must have been something in the shrink gas that was affecting the doctor. He would never fool around in his usual relaxed manner like this in such a tense situation. That he acted serious when he was human-sized or larger proved that. But every time he shrank down to her size, he became a babbling wreck. Given different circumstances, it was amusing, but not under these conditions.

She began leading him away by the hand. "We'll let you grow big once we're out of the range of those nasty lasers."

"A walk through the park with you would be nice, Kasumi." Giant Man sounded as if he was in heaven.

Wasp sighed. Surely superheroing was not supposed to be like this.

Akane opened her eyes, confused as she went almost directly from the dreaming world to that of reality.

She started to rise from her uncomfortable bedding and discovered she could only sit up a tiny bit, as a series of metal bands were a handful of centimeters above her. She began to panic, until she realized she could squirm out the bottom. It took only a moment to do so. Once freed, she found herself standing in the middle of a room that appeared as though it belonged in the middle of a bad science fiction movie.

Where was she? It took only a moment for her to recall what had transpired. Her blood began to boil as she remembered how easily the Mandarin had dealt with her. She would make him sorry. She felt recovered enough now from the injuries the villain and his rocket had inflicted upon her. At near peak condition, and aware of his rings and inherent abilities, she would be able to kick the crud out of him and show what she could do. Akane Tendou was a wimp that lost at everything, but she would be damned if she would allow that to happen when she was Thor as well. All she needed to do to even things up was tap her cane…

Her cane! Where was it? Her eyes scanned the room high and low, but she saw no sign of the instrument. This was extraordinarily bad. Had the Mandarin somehow discovered the secret of the walking stick and hidden it away from her? She was helpless without it. She would be ordinary Akane Tendou, never to fly again, never to know the awesome might contained in the powerful body which allowed her to do what she had only dreamed about. She would be the same helpless cripple she always had been. It wasn't fair!

A pall of helplessness threatened to consume her when she remembered seeing something odd in the room. Originally she had been so focused on locating her stick she had disregarded everything that wasn't it. But now that her mind had a chance to process the information, it brought the unusual thing to her attention.

Slowly Akane walked up to the glass cube and saw a sight that forced out her depression. Some cruel monster had locked up a poor little piglet. It was a cute little thing, with black skin and a yellow and black striped bandanna tied around its neck. She had always wanted a pet just like it. And some jerk, probably that evil Mandarin, had locked it away to either experiment on or do something equally heartless to it. Well, she would foil his plans and save the little piglet.

Spotting the control panel, Akane began to look it over. There was no writing on the panels: just symbols. She began pushing some of the larger buttons in the hopes that it would release the porcine prisoner. It was the second dial she turned that caused a hum to emit from the cube the piglet was in. In response to her twisting, two buttons located under the dial began flashing. One was red and the other green. The only question was which button to push.

"I like green better than red." Akane pushed the gas evacuation button instead of the one that would have flooded the cube with cyanide. Within moments the red mist was filtered out and the door to the cube sprang open.

Akane hurriedly entered the cube and carefully picked up the piglet, cradling him in her arms. He was warm to the touch, and seemed to be breathing regularly. She held him close and whispered softly, "Mr. Pig? Mr. Pig, are you all right?

The gentle voice roused the piglet. It fluttered its ears and woke groggily. It looked around, appearing confused, then looked Akane in the eye.

"You're all right." She hugged the pig. As it was nestled against her cheek, she failed to see it turn a shade of red, obvious even against its dark skin.

Akane held it out from her body so she could look it in the eye. "Don't worry. I won't let these bad men experiment on you, Mr. Pig. We're going to get out of here. But you're going to have to stay quiet and not squirm around; otherwise it'll slow us down. Do you think you can do that?"

The piglet nodded its head.

The response made Akane giggle slightly. "It's almost like you can understand me."

This time the piglet nodded its head vigorously.

Akane considered that. Perhaps they had already experimented on the pig and increased its intelligence so that it could understand Japanese. That would make things easier. She cradled the pig against her body as she limped out of the room. Almost as an afterthought, she said to him, "Keep your eyes open for a wooden stick lying around. We can't leave without it. Finding it is the only way we'll get out of here alive."

The piglet nodded its head and looked around as the pair began to furtively walk around, seeking both the cane and an exit to the mysterious facility they were located in.

"And exactly how did you get here again?"

"I already told you. Cap secretly asked me to stowaway and help out if you guys got caught."

"And exactly how does your getting caught help us?"

"Shut up, Smell Man."

"And what sort of idiot wears a bikini top into battle?"

"Oh ho, like someone who's been stripped down to their shorts and a stupid-looking mask has any business criticizing someone else about their fashion sense."

"It's not like I had a choice in the matter!" Daredevil snapped.

"That's right. It's not Daredevil's fault they stripped him because of all the weapons he had concealed in his clothing. By the way, have you ever considered briefs instead of boxers?"

"Stop looking at my body, you pervert!" Daredevil shouted twice as loudly.

Flustered, Hawkeye said, "I'm… ah… not looking at you. I'm looking past you at Bucky's breasts."

"Don't look at my body either, you pervert!"

"Thor doesn't think I'm a pervert," Hawkeye mumbled before realizing that the very reason Thor thought she wasn't a pervert in fact did make her a pervert. "At least Captain Japan is still free."

Bucky shifted uncomfortably, "Actually, I wouldn't count on him for help. He's been… incapacitated. But I guarantee you I'm more than up to the job of replacing him."

"Oh, you've been doing a great job of it so far," Daredevil said dryly.

"Well, if you're such hot stuff, why don't you get us out of here?!" Bucky snarled back.

Pushed to the edge, the Iron Rose shouted, "How about we try figuring a way out of our predicament instead of YELLING AT EACH OTHER FOR NO DAMN REASON?!"

That shocked the arguing trio out of their 'debate' and made them reassess the situation. All four of the people were trapped in a prison cell. Daredevil, Hawkeye, and Bucky were all hanging vertically from the ceiling. Their arms were held high above their heads, not simply manacled, but encased in some sort of metal tubes that hung from the ceiling and were attached at their wrists, completely encompassing their hands. Even if they had lock picks, they couldn't use them since metal would be between them and the locking mechanisms. Their feet were likewise completely encased in metal cylinders that were attached firmly to the floor.

The Iron Rose's condition was not much better. She lay prone on a metal slab. There was a mechanical device, reminiscent of a spider, attached to her helmet. She had informed the others that it completely immobilized the armor and only a minimal amount of power still ran through it. She could have moved the bulky armor using her own muscle's strength, but a set of metal bands so thick that Thor would have had problems snapping them were wrapped around her legs, torso, and arms.

"We're screwed," Hawkeye lamented.

The only door to the holding room opened. Striding with all his regal bearing, the Mandarin entered, his purple cape billowing behind him. His imperious stare seemed to bore holes through the captives, as though he had been the one discomforted by their transgressions rather than the other way around. In his wake followed the entirety of his Lethal Legion.

The Mandarin turned his baleful gaze upon each of the prisoners. Even Daredevil could feel the ire and contempt radiating from the man, making him very uneasy. There was an unearthly quality about the villain that set the sightless youth's senses on edge. It was similar to the emanations he felt from Thor, but possessed a malicious edge the goddess lacked.

After the Mandarin finished looking his captives over, he deigned to speak with them. "Now that I've finished issuing my ultimatum to the United Nations, I can get to the small matter of my unexpected intruders. Forgive me, but we have not yet been properly introduced. I am the all-powerful, and soon to be master of the world, Mandarin."

"A Mandarin is actually a pretty low official in government hierarchies," Daredevil mentioned.

"The name is temporary. A reminder that I have not yet attained my goals. Once I am officially declared ruler the world, I shall claim the title my birthright demands: Emperor Herb."

"Not much of an improvement, if you ask me," Bucky quipped.

The Mandarin flicked out a finger. The impact beam hit with a force that could crack a cinderblock, knocking the wind out of the redhead and leaving her gasping for breath.

"I did not ask for your opinion," the Mandarin said icily. "You are my prisoners. It would behoove you to remember that. You are at my mercy, and I show very little to those that do not obey my every whim."

"It's true," Power Man said.

Speed Demon added. "Sometimes he shows very little mercy to those who do obey his every whim, as well."

The Mandarin turned his glare upon them.

"We'll shut up now," Speed Demon said quickly. Power Man nodded his assent.

With some measure of her breath regained, Bucky gasped out, "Where's that Thor chick?"

The Mandarin gained an amused grin. "She is well cared for. Much better than you, in fact. She is something of a guest of honor, and potentially useful to me. A situation far less dire than yours. If you do not behave yourselves, your fate will be identical to that of your comrade."

The quartet looked at each other in confusion.

"What comrade? Do you mean the green behemoth? He's not with us. I have no idea how he showed up. I think he attacked your men only because you attacked him. He seems to do that," Iron Rose said, still strapped to the table.

"No, not him. He's locked up with Thor. I meant the one in red with the little insect-like projections on his mask. Blue gloves, boots, and shorts?"

"Don't know anyone like that," Hawkeye said.

"You know, talks to himself? He was trying to come in through the front door looking for you," the Mandarin insisted.

"More backup?" Daredevil asked Bucky.

"Nope. I was the only one with Cap. Maybe Thor had a sidekick."

"Playing dumb only serves to anger me," the Mandarin warned.

"Maybe he was someone else you pissed off," Bucky offered. "You don't seem to be the type that has a shortage of enemies."

"That's true," Speed Demon blurted out. He saw the look the Mandarin turned on him again. "But it is," he insisted.

The Mandarin relented. "A good point. Still, I doubt if that masked adventurer's presence was coincidental. I'll torture you later, to be certain."

"I'll be looking forward to it," Bucky said acidly.

"Be wary, girl. You try my patience."

"Oh, and what will you do if I get you angry? Torture me? You already said you were going to do that."

The Mandarin was at something of a loss. Bucky had raised a valid point. He looked around, and then his eyes settled on something that would prove useful. "If you don't behave yourself, I'll let my two associates feel you up."

Power Man and Speed Demon jumped in joy.

"All right, titties!"

"This is great. The Boss never lets us feel women up!"

Bucky saw the two slavering men approach, their eyes focused solely on her cleavage. She began squirming in her bonds, trying to stay out of their reach and not moving a centimeter. "I'll behave! I'll behave!"

Delighted at the acquiescence, the Mandarin gave a curt, "Back! Back I say!"

Power Man and Speed Demon reluctantly backed off, mumbling about how they were never allowed to have any fun.

Now with some measure of control of the situation, the Mandarin said, "How did you discover my plans for world domination?"

Hawkeye said, "Actually, we didn't know until you told us just now."

"How did you find my base? It's protected by a technology from beyond this world."

The Iron Rose shouted. "Ha! I knew it. No system made on Earth could track my… I mean my employer's Quinjet. Her genius is the most brilliant on the planet."

Daredevil said, "Look, your flunkies made a mess at the airport. They won the first round against some of us, so we set out to hunt them down for revenge. We tracked them until they disappeared around here. From there, we got lucky and stumbled on your base. And that's the whole truth."

The others agreed with Daredevil's statement.

After a moment's consideration, the Mandarin said, "You know something? I believe you."

"Good," Bucky said.

"Because the whole lot of you are too stupid to have figured out my plans by yourselves."

"Hey!" Hawkeye shouted.

The Mandarin relaxed visibly. "My worries were for naught. There will be no further interruptions. No more attacks from random people whom I've never met before. My base is secure. My would-be attackers are now my prisoners, and all of my plans will reach fruition."

Bucky tensed up. This was a perfect situation to institute a basic technique her father had taught her when it came to being a superhero. "Why, whatever plan would that be?"

"You are interested in my plans?" the Mandarin asked.

"Sure." Bucky twisted a bit in her chains. "I've got nothing better to do, and I'm curious as to what's going on here that had you so worried about people knowing this place existed."

"I'll be more than happy to share the scope of my genius with you."

Bucky smiled inwardly. It was just like her father had always said. Megalomaniacal criminal masterminds loved nothing more than to brag about their greatness. They'd do it to anyone, even their enemies. Now she'd learn everything.

The Mandarin began. "I am the last of a line of rulers whose blood is infused with that of legendary dragons."

Speed Demon raised his hand and said, "I've heard this story before. Can I go?"

"Me too," Power Man seconded.

"Get out of here!" the Mandarin snapped. The duo exited immediately. "Does anyone else wish to leave?"

"Me," Iron Rose said.

"Oh, shut up!" Blue energy crackled briefly around his body. It dissipated as he regained his composure. "Now, as I was saying, I am of the Dragon Clan of the Musk, an ancient and powerful line whose destiny it is to rule the world. However, for all my inherent power, the Musk were never large enough, nor had enough allies, to make these dreams come true. That was until I stumbled on a treasure that lay in the legendary Valley of the Mists."

"It's said the ghosts of dead dragons fill the area and devour all those that dare trespass upon it. Of those that have dared to tempt the legend by entering the mists, none have ever returned," Daredevil said in a voice filled with awe.

"I see you are familiar with the legend," the Mandarin said, delighted that someone backed up his tale. "But being imbued with the blood of dragons, I had no need to fear such a place. I entered the valley, scouring every centimeter of it. It was there I discovered the key to my ultimate victory: the ruins of a spacecraft that had fallen there hundreds of years ago."

"It was hundreds of years old and still worked?" Hawkeye asked.

"The race that created it apparently knew how to make machines that last," the Mandarin said. "I also found what was left of the pilot. It was obvious from the skeletal remains that he was of reptilian origin, rather than mammalian. Perhaps sensing the draconic blood within my veins, the still working parts of the craft responded to my attempts to control it. I found a device which implanted the knowledge of how the equipment functioned, and how I could create robots to assist me with employing, redesigning, and refitting the equipment for my own plans." He held up his hands, showing the jewelry that adorned them. "In fact these rings were components of the engine, which had been rendered useless in the crash. Each one had a different function which enabled the craft to navigate the vast ocean of space. In my hands, in conjunction with my inherent abilities, they make me the most powerful man on the face of the planet."

The Mandarin began pacing, pausing before each of the hanging people for a moment before continuing to the next. "It took me several years to redesign the devices on the craft into suitable items I could use. It took almost as long to court the proper authorities to supply me with the more elaborate materials that I required to construct what you see before you, but it was worth every moment. For now, I stand on the pinnacle of success."

"And how do you figure that?" Bucky asked.

The Mandarin laughed. "Using the devices within the spacecraft, I have made this fortress invisible to the eyes of the outside world. Even if someone stumbles on it, my weaponry can shoot down any craft or vehicle. You witnessed that yourselves. And I have other devices that can raise a barrier of energy to protect the fortress from anything, even nuclear attack. Not that radiation can harm me to begin with. An advantage of my dragon blood makes me immune to it. I have complete anonymity."

"I don't see how nobody being able to find you makes you able to take over the world," Hawkeye said.

"Alone, it could not. However, my invisible nature means I can strike with impunity; and strike I can. Today I was finally able to launch my satellite, the last piece to my master plan. It's no ordinary one. Oh no. It employs the most powerful weapon from the space ship: an orbital particle beam. With it stationed in orbit, I can create a thirty-five kilometer wide beam of destruction that can eradicate anything in its path. And it leaves no harmful residue behind, unlike nuclear or biological weapons."

"I hate to break this to you, but satellites can easily be shot down," the Iron Rose said.

The Mandarin turned to her. "Ordinary ones, yes, but not this one. Thanks to the spacecraft, the satellite is invisible to any electronic equipment on the planet. I am the only one that knows where it is and can track it. The only way one could spot it is by flying around and spotting it visually, and even then I have precautions, for the surface of the device is made of light refractive materials. You'd have to be within a quarter of a kilometer of it to see the distortion it makes, and even then you have to know what you're looking for. And the satellite even shifts its orbital path after every blast, making it impossible to figure out its location by where and when the blasts were delivered.

"Think about it. If you were a world leader, how could you live with the knowledge that at any time I could render your city to ashes with a touch of the button? I could destroy whole countries within a day. No one can stand against my divine hand. I hold the power of life and death over very living being on the planet. I am like a god, and will rule the entire world."

"No one will give in to your outrageous demands," Hawkeye said.

The Mandarin laughed. "On the contrary, I should have official control by the end of the week. Long before I launched my satellite, I made arrangements with certain elements within the Chinese government. They have already agreed to 'give in' to my demands. In return for their obedience, I intend to allow them to control the majority of the Eastern Hemisphere. True, they will be subject to my ultimate whims, but they will have far more power than they have now. Once other countries see that obedience will be rewarded, it'll be a race to see who can capitulate first."

"And you think you can trust the Chinese? Believe me, they'll turn on you the first opportunity they get. I can attest to that firsthand," Daredevil spat.

Elektra nodded almost imperceptibly at that.

The Mandarin laughed. "Of course I don't. Once I have consolidated my control, I'm certain they will try to kill me and seize control of the satellite. I have already made preparations for that eventual betrayal. But they will obey me for now, since our goals are the same: complete global domination."

"You're insane," Hawkeye spat.

"Actually, his idea has merit," Iron Rose said from her prone position. "Even if the man implementing it clearly needs to be institutionalized."

The Mandarin laughed. "Have you seen the state of the world? It is nothing more than a collection of fractionalized, narrow-minded people, constantly at each other's throats. There is always at least one war going on somewhere. Governments change almost every day in some parts of the world. Brutal military dictatorships. Widespread famine and disease. Overpopulation. Religious, economic, and political dogmas that cannot coexist with one another. They will destroy themselves, or at the very least continue to make themselves miserable for eternity. That is, unless one force conquers them all. Conquers them and unites them. And that force shall be me.

"I am not insane. I do not live under the delusion that I can truly control an entire world alone. I might be the supreme leader, but I will need trustworthy individuals that will obey my orders, to whom I will delegate authority. I will need people to manage the daily maintenance of the land. To others, it might seem oppressive at first, especially to those that believe in freedom — which does not really exist — but the truth is people want to be ruled. I shall give absolute rule to them. All of them. Everything I do will be for the good of all. I desire subjects to govern, not a world full of corpses. I desire a world of peace, not one filled with violence. I want a world full of one people, not a collection of races. One system of belief. One government. One ruler."

"And you're that ruler," Daredevil said coldly.

The Mandarin's eyes seemed to glow. "Of course, for I am the greatest person in the world. I am more than human. I am the best hope for humanity. All I truly want is what is best for all, and I am willing to go to any lengths to see to it that my wisdom is acknowledged. I am strong enough to bear the burden of leadership. I am strong enough to make the changes that must be made, to make the sacrifices that must come about, in order to ensure one world order under me and for all future generations. All that I ask in return is complete obedience, and I shall take care of everyone. Suffering will come to an end. Since I know better than everyone else, and humanity has proven it cannot take care of itself, there is no other way than for me to assume control."

"And what about those that disagree with you?" Iron Rose asked.

The Mandarin scoffed. "Did you not hear what I said? I am the greatest man alive. I know what is best for all. That is the truth. Those that would stand against me are by definition evil, and need to be done away with. All will come to realize this in time."

Bucky said, "You know, Hawkeye was wrong about you being insane."

The Mandarin laughed. "So you finally acknowledge the necessity of my leadership."

"No. I mean you're not just insane. You are really-no-doubt-about-it-completely-over-the-hill-need-to-be-locked-in-a-straightjacket-insane."

The Mandarin raised his left hand and held it in front of Bucky's face. She found herself staring at a yellow ring. It began to glow, the smell of ozone reaching her nostrils. For a moment, she understood that she was staring death right in the eye and could do nothing to prevent it.

And then the Mandarin lowered his hand. "You amuse me, in a fashion. I think I shall allow you to survive a while longer, or at least until you see me ruling the world. There will be no greater triumph that to see your ideals shattered right before your eyes."

Bucky laughed. "Like that's ever going to happen. I got news for you, pal. Once I get out of these little manacles, I'll be making you eat those words. I'll stop you before you get a chance to use that satellite and blackmail the world."

The Mandarin stared at Bucky in confusion. Then a look of realization crossed his features. "You misunderstand me. I could hardly issue an ultimatum to the United Nations without a show of force and the willingness to use it for its stated purposes.

"As of a half hour ago, Mexico City became a thirty-five-kilometer-wide crater."


To be continued.

Author’s notes: Not sure if I threw anyone with the idea that the heroes have essentially failed in their mission, or at least the scope of it, and now can only keep things from getting worse. Admittedly, it can get much worse, but still…

FYI, yes, there really was a character called Squirrel Girl and yes, those were her powers (though I'm not sure about her being a mutant). She appeared in one of the seasonal Marvel Super Hero comics in the early 90's in an Iron Man tale. She defeated Dr. Doom. I'm fairly certain Doom has since explained that it was really a defective Doombot she had beaten, and that it had been summarily destroyed for daring to debase the good Doctor's name. I mean, wouldn't you if someone claimed Squirrel Girl kicked your ass? ^_^ And yes, the Mandarin's Centurions are indeed identical to Cylons from Battlestar Galactic. Kudos if you're old enough to remember that series.

In case anyone was wondering, Mexico City's population is somewhere around 13+ million by the latest census estimate. Just in case the full impact of Mandy's statement wasn't fully realized.

Special thanks to

  • Gary Ee
  • Chris Horton
  • William Morse
Act 1-11
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Last revision: May 21, 2007

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