Act 1, Scene 11: Ten Rings to Rule Them All, Part 4
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 email@example.com
"…thinking of New Delhi next. There are too many people in the world, and it's not as though India has a shortage of people. And on the plus side, the Pakistanis will probably rush to my side to get the Kashmir region they've wanted for so long." The Mandarin saw he no longer had the group's attention. Instead, they seemed absorbed in their own thoughts. In Bucky's case, she had turned a shade of white usually identified with people totally drained of blood.
Smiling in obvious amusement at their discomfort, the Mandarin said, "I see you've come to terms with the fact there is nothing you can do to stop me. I see no point in wasting further time here. I really must pick a second target. I sincerely doubt one show of force will be sufficient to get the world to toe the line. Once I prove I can destroy all their cities at will, the world will capitulate. I'd tell you to have a good day, but it's only going to get worse. Much, much worse." Laughing, he exited the room with the remaining members of his Lethal Legion trailing behind.
Once the party had walked some distance away from the prison wing, Swordsman gave his employer a wide grin. "I must say, it was amusing to see the crestfallen look on both that devilish cad and the archer's faces when you told them about Mexico. To think, they were foolish enough to actually believe you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" The Mandarin stopped walking an stared at Swordsman.
"That they believed your lie."
"Lie? I didn't lie. I did destroy Mexico City."
Swordsman's amusement died. "But I assumed you were bluffing when you told the United Nations you would start destroying their cities one at a time unless they gave in to you. You don't mean to say you actually went through with it?"
"Of course I did. I never bluff."
"But there were millions of people there," Swordsman protested.
"An effective show of force backed by the will to use it, yes." The Mandarin voice had taken on a dangerous tone. "Do you have something to say? Are you having second thoughts about joining?"
Swordsman was about to say just that when something inside made him hold his tongue. He did not like the way the Mandarin and Tarou were looking at him. There was also something unsettling about Elektra's position directly behind his back, even if she was obviously so infatuated with him that she would never do him harm.
Hesitantly, Swordsman said, "No. I was just… ill prepared for the full ramifications of your actions to hit me. The knowledge that so many people are dead so quickly is unsettling."
The Mandarin nodded. "I would have preferred to avoid it as well. They would have been my subjects, and one can never have too many subjects to rule. However, it was a necessity. Sacrifices have to be made to show that I am in charge now. More will come, so be prepared for that as well."
Bile rose from Swordsman's stomach and threatened to overwhelm him. "I must leave. My sword needs polishing." He hurried off.
Once Swordsman was out of sight, Tarou said, "I think Swordy's getting cold feet."
"Yes," the Mandarin conceded. "It would be best to keep a close eye on him. I am fairly certain he will see things my way. He is quite the pompous ass, believing that he is a shining example of humanity, and obviously wishes to receive what he feels is his due, but he might not be properly prepared for the actions necessary to obtain those desires. The last thing in the world I will tolerate is one of my own turning against me." The Mandarin continued looking down the hall in the direction Swordsman had departed. "If he becomes a problem, Elektra, I want you to use your talents to…"
He turned to see Elektra was no longer there. Looking down the corridor, he saw that she was not only no longer behind him, but nowhere in sight. She had somehow managed to disappear within a twenty meter long section of featureless corridor in less than ten seconds without making a sound.
Tarou was equally mystified. "Ninjas. Go figure."
"Impudence," the Mandarin snarled.
Tarou used the break in the conversation to change the subject. "And speaking of impudence, what do you want to do with those jerks you have locked up back there?"
The Mandarin spoke in the same tone one might use talking about animals in a kennel. "The regular ones are useless. The armored one I might keep if her technical expertise proves useful. The goddess is mine, and I wish to experiment on the pig. I might be able to use it to make you more powerful."
The youth's grin told the Mandarin what his subordinate thought of that. Satisfied he had the complete loyalty of at least one his hired lackeys, the Mandarin continued. "As for the fate of the normal ones, since they know the location of my base, I will dispatch them in a little while, once it becomes convenient for me."
"How about giving me Cleavage Girl to dispose of?"
The Mandarin made a face at the request. "Do keep your base instincts to yourself. She has not irritated me to the point I wish her a lingering death, or a fate worse than one."
Tarou gave a hurt look. "That's cold, especially coming from a guy who just killed millions of people."
"Only out of necessity, not out of some primal urge," the Mandarin assured him. "Be patient. Hundreds of women will flock to you once you are in a position of power."
"A harem does sound nice," Tarou agreed. "And you'll give me my new name once this is all done, right?"
"Are you sure you want to be known as 'Studmuffin Tarou'?"
"I want it to be an appropriate name. The chicks will really dig me then."
The Mandarin just shook his head sadly.
With their tormentors gone, Hawkeye found the ability to speak. "He was kidding, right? He couldn't have leveled Mexico City. I mean, we haven't been here long enough for him to do that."
"He was telling the truth," Daredevil said.
"How do you know?!" Hawkeye's voice held an edge of hysteria to it.
"I know when people are lying," Daredevil said morosely. "It's sort of a superpower I have."
"What, like your super sense of smell?" Hawkeye demanded.
"Yes!" Daredevil snapped.
"No more arguing."
Daredevil and Hawkeye turned to the voice, which had been little more than a whisper.
On the table, the Iron Rose turned her head. "What was that, Bucky?"
This time the statement was more forceful. "I said no more arguing. If we had worked as a team, we would have beaten those jerks and kept that psycho from killing all those people. It's our fault we whined and bitched and moaned and got our heads handed to us."
"We don't know that," Daredevil said,
"They were powerful," Iron Rose agreed.
"Quit making excuses!" Bucky snapped. "All my life Pop kept trying to hammer the idea I had to be a superhero in my head 'cause people needed them. Only I didn't listen. I thought someone else could take care of those problems and I could live my life without that hassle. But I was wrong, and now a bunch of people suffered for it. The world does need people like me to protect it from guys like the Mandarin. And I'm going to protect it. I may have screwed up once, but no more!"
"I did the same thing, when I was younger," Daredevil said. "I tried to protect someone I loved, only I wasn't strong enough, and like those people in Mexico, she paid the price for it. I swore I would become stronger so neither she nor anyone else would suffer because I was too weak to help. And now I've failed again. I'll do whatever it takes to redeem myself, even if it costs me my life."
"You can count me in," Hawkeye said.
"And myself as well," Iron Rose agreed.
"We'll avenge all the people we failed," Bucky softly intoned.
As the final word left her mouth, the door to the room opened again and Elektra stepped in. She walked across the room with purpose, stopping once she was in front of Daredevil.
"What? Come to gloat some more?" he asked.
Elektra scowled at him. "There was something strange with the way you looked at the Mandarin. It wasn't right."
Daredevil's heartbeat quickened. "I have no idea what you're t— Hey!"
Elektra ripped off his mask and grabbed his face roughly. She forced him to look at her while she stared at him. The blue in his iris was nearly milky white as the rest of his eyes. "You're blind!" she said in shock.
"Yes!" Daredevil spat.
"How is it you can do so much? It's not training in blind fighting. I know people who practice it, and you're far, far better than they. The technique is wrong."
"I have a radar sense," Daredevil said, seeing no reason to hide the truth any longer.
"You were bitten by a radioactive bat?" Bucky asked.
"Then how did you get such powers?" Elektra asked.
"Drop dead!" he spat.
"You'll die long before me," she said coldly. "I suppose it doesn't…" her voice trailed off as she stared at his face more closely. A curious expression began to cloud her features.
Disliking the experience of having his face held, and sensing he was being stared at, Daredevil gave an irritable, "What's your problem? Afraid a blind guy is tougher than you?"
Elektra did not respond. Blind, Daredevil was only aware of the change in her heartbeat as it increased slightly. The others in the room were puzzled as the assassin stared at the face, obviously confused about something beyond his blindness. Her hands began running over his skin, studying its texture as though Elektra was the blind one and the sense of touch was the only one left to her.
And then her probing stopped, and her eyes widened. In a tone that was full of wonder and surprise, she said, "Mu Si?"
Daredevil jerked his head hard enough to tear it out of her hands. His own features mirrored hers as he said, "How do you know my name? I've never met you before. I'd remember."
Turning a shade of pale which almost matched Bucky's from before, Elektra backed away cautiously, as though she was afraid Daredevil would somehow slip out of his bonds and come after her.
"How do you know me?!" Daredevil called out again, inexplicably desperate to know the answer.
Elektra said nothing as she backed into the door. Refusing to tear her eyes from Daredevil, she blindly hit the button to open it.
Just as she backed through the door frame, Daredevil cried out, "It's Shan Pu, isn't it? She told you about me. Do you know where she is? Tell me!"
The door hissed shut.
"She knows! I heard her heart rate speed up when I said Shan Pu's name. She knows where she is! I've finally found someone who's seen her after all these years!" Daredevil cried out.
"Who's Shampoo?" Hawkeye asked.
"The girl I've been looking for all my life!" Daredevil cried out. "She's been lost to me for over a decade. I was beginning to lose hope she was alive. But that woman knows her! That means Shan Pu's out there somewhere, and I'll discover where she is. I need to get out of here." Daredevil began struggling in his bonds, trying to pull free. The metal made very faint noises as he strained until his muscles burned and his shoulders threatened to pull out of their sockets.
Iron Rose warned, "Save your strength. Hurt yourself while you're hanging there and you won't be able to help anyone."
"I need to know where Shan Pu is!" Daredevil insisted.
"No, we need to stop the Mandarin from killing another ten million people," Bucky reminded him. "We'll shake down that backstabber for info later. The innocent people in the world come first."
"He's right," Hawkeye said. "Would this Shampoo want you to risk placing so many people in jeopardy for her sake?"
"No," Daredevil reluctantly admitted.
Bucky said, "Right. Then let's keep trying to figure out how to get out of these bonds and help save the world. Try to find some weak link in these metal cylinders or something." Bucky began twisting in her bonds, testing them rather than just applying brute force in an effort to free herself. She was methodical as she listened to every noise they made and felt where they had give and where they were firmly attached. A lock was only as strong as its weakest point. She would find that point and attack it until it gave. Nothing would stop her from breaking free.
Elektra's legs were moving fast enough to almost be considered running. She was currently in her worst emotional state in years. She knew she had been unbalanced since she inexplicably protected Captain Japan. But now things were many times worse. Mu Si was alive! She hadn't thought of him since her first month of indoctrination with the Hand. She had assumed he had died at the hands of her original captors. With him dead, there was no need to think of him, so she had not. His death had signified the last connection to her past was gone. Burying the misery of her previous life was frighteningly easy, even if what she was given to replace it was far worse. There were more important matters to consider, such as staying alive. But now, during what might have been the most important moment of her life, he had returned, like the legendary Phoenix her people spoke of. To compound matters further, it was obvious he had not forgotten her, and was in fact still searching for her, even after a decade in which he had no reason to believe she was still alive.
No, he had not forgotten Shan Pu, but Shan Pu was not to be found. That identity was dead, which was for the best. There was only Elektra the Assassin now. Mu Si should have meant nothing to her, but he did. Exactly why remained a mystery. Perhaps she was not quite the killer she fancied herself, or perhaps the identity of Shan Pu was not so easily destroyed.
She remembered what Mu Si had been like growing up. They had been childhood friends, playing with one another frequently. But then he changed. He began to continually assault her with a barrage of proclamations of love; a feeling she most certainly did not share. It was beginning to get to a point where she was starting to avoid the pest when her world changed forever. The village died in a fury of fire and the two of them, all that was left of their mutual world, fled together. Shan Pu had been devastated by the destruction of all she knew at the hands of the damnable men in Beijing. It was too much for her to take. It rendered her nearly catatonic. If not for Mu Si, she would have never reached Japan. Of course, in light of how events had unfolded, perhaps dying in China would not have been such a terrible fate.
"I do not need these distractions!" Elektra snarled. The simplest way to remove the irritants was to simply ask the Mandarin if she could kill both Mu Si and Bucky — she was certain that was what he was planning to do anyway — but she found the idea of snuffing out either of their lives equally appalling. That was a further sign of her emotional turmoil, for until today, there had been no one on the planet whom she would have thought twice about dispatching.
Elektra ceased her running. She was going nowhere in a hurry. Instead she calmed herself and headed to her room, intent on seeking the solace of meditation. This was an important matter, perhaps the most important in her life. She had to reach a decision regarding what to do, and soon.
"It's good to be the Emperor." The Mandarin smiled to himself as he headed toward the master control room to properly enjoy the fruits of his labors. He still had a second target to decide upon, and he was considering a more high profile target this time. New Delhi was discounted as being too insignificant to the world at large. Somewhere else. The Western World, perhaps. Striking the United States was tempting, since they were the most powerful nation in the world and could potentially put up the most resistance. However, destroying a major city there would only slow the ease of transition to his rule, since it would undoubtedly have a devastating effect on their economy. And there was the fact he had already struck a target in that hemisphere. Something in Europe, then. It was becoming a decayed old husk and would have to be changed extensively in any case. He had never liked the French; they were too self-important for a country that had never managed to accomplish anything. The Germans tended to make a nuisance of themselves every few generations. Or there were always the British. Isolated on an island, destruction there would have a more limited effect on the mainland, while bringing home the point that Europe was not immune to the Mandarin' hand of death. And they had never truly been conquered by anyone. There was definitely an appeal there.
"So many targets, so much opposition. Who should fall next?"
"How about you?"
The Mandarin spun around in anger at the unfamiliar voice, raising his left hand, intent on burning the stranger to a crisp. However, upon seeing who the speaker was, he hesitated.
That was the only opening Giant Man needed as he grew. Forced to keep his height under four meters, due to the ceiling, he still was able to grow tall enough for his fist to close the distance between he and the Mandarin. His blow slammed cleanly into his foe's body. Flames shot out from one of the Mandarin's rings, scorching the side of the hallway as he went sailing backward out of Giant Man's reach.
Giant Man looked at his handiwork in satisfaction. "That's for trying to cut me to pieces."
Despite the clean blow backed by such tremendous force, the Mandarin was able to roll with the punch, and the dragonscale armor absorbed much of the damage. He was quick to regain his bearings. Using his left hand to rise off the floor, he brought his right hand up, unleashing the impact beam. The shot struck Giant Man with enough force to hurt him despite his mass.
With a moment's reprieve, the Mandarin stood up and raised his left hand once more. He would use electricity this time, followed by another burst of flame. Then perhaps some ice to cool his opponent off. Say, a cocoon of it five feet thick?
"Let's see if you can get this dying concept right this time," the Mandarin said. A split second before he could unleash a blast of electrified death, he caught the sight of something small flying in front of his face. It appeared to be a tiny girl with wings. "What are you?"
"I'm Wasp!" she shouted right before blasting him between the eyes with her sting.
The Mandarin shouted in pain. It was great enough that he lost his balance and fell down once again.
That allowed Giant Man to recover some of his wind. "Out of the way, Wasp. He’s mine."
"Watch out for his rings. One of them was crackling right before I shot him."
"Got it." Giant Man grabbed the Mandarin in his huge hands. He made certain both of the man's dangerous arms were firmly pinned to the side before exerting enough force to drive the air from the smaller man's lungs.
"Fools, my power resides in more than just my rings!" the Mandarin gasped out, glowing in a blue haze as hot chi emanated from his body.
Giant Man cried out in pain at having his hands burnt in similar fashion to what the Fixer had done. But this time he maintained enough concentration to keep his grip firm. Instead he drove the Mandarin upward, ramming the villain's head into the stone ceiling of the passageway.
Unable to defend himself, the Mandarin suffered the full effect of the impact. He was too dazed to maintain his fiery aura, though he had not yet been driven to unconsciousness. "…Come too far to lose," he swore through his haze.
Giant Man brought him downward, and prepared to ram his head into ceiling again.
Swordsman was surprised to discover he was tormented by a malady only lesser people suffered: he was second guessing himself. Ordinarily he always made the right choices. He was Tatewaki Kunou; by definition he was always right. Through the majority of his life he had been surrounded by people who always told him so, and he had paid them well to make sure they stayed around to confirm that fact. That information enabled him to go through life secure in the knowledge he was smarter, better looking, stronger, and richer than anyone else. Of course he always made the right choices. He was perfect.
But then his father and sister had disappeared one right after another. Tragic accidents to be certain, and he mourned their losses continually. But then he learned they were no accidents, as someone tried to have him killed in a blatant assassination attempt. A trio of men, trained extensively in the art of war and encased in power armor, broke into his home and attempted to snuff out his life. They would have succeeded had it not been for the fact that he had released into his care his sister's prototype KTK-1103B, and had decided to practice kendo with the impressive piece of hardware. In his expert hands, with its offensive capabilities, he summarily defeated the assassins wearing the so-called 'Raider' armor, just as they had undoubtedly done to the rest of his family.
A quick search of his father's private data files, the ones with information gathered and paid for through a bit of illicit industrial espionage courtesy of a mysterious figure known only as Spymaster, had revealed the Raider armor had been built and owned by an American Company called Cordco, which had been bought out in a takeover by a Japanese company that had been making it a habit of hostilely taking over many companies, especially those involved in weapon technologies.
Companies like Kunou Industries.
Suspicions aroused, Tatewaki dug further. A quick search indicated that Cordco had only been successfully taken over when its owner, Janice Cord, had been murdered by her uncle Edwin. The man claimed it was a set up, though the evidence against him was considerable. Despite not getting along, both owner and uncle had been united in their staunch resistance against the takeover. However, with them removed, opposition gave way and the takeover was easily accomplished.
Years of listening to his father's blathering about how business was run had left something of an impression on Tatewaki. Even he could see how the removal of the Kunou family would simplify buying out Kunou Industries. No doubt he had been targeted next. But Tatewaki's mind was like a steel trap. He would easily circumvent their pitiful (but highly annoying) murder attempts by disappearing himself, thereby preventing them from trying to kill him.
So, taking the KTK-1103B with him, Tatewaki went out in one of his sports cars and drove off. After traveling halfway up the coast, he found a secluded spot, put a dummy in his place in the driver's seat, and sent the vehicle careening off the edge of some random cliff into the ocean. It was brilliant. With his death faked, he wouldn't have to worry about anyone trying to kill him.
Except no one had ever found the car, and therefore he had never been declared dead. He had tried calling the police about a 'car going over the edge of a cliff', and for them to dredge it up, but he had forgotten where he had ditched the vehicle. The police, simpletons that they were, thought it was a crank call and had never bothered to investigate. So it was Tatewaki found himself declared missing instead of dead, and with no way of correcting anyone without revealing he was alive and becoming a target once again.
And then Tatewaki had discovered another drawback to his plan; he had virtually no money, just what he had on his person, and that was spent quickly. He couldn't access any funds from the company. Any activity in his accounts would indicate he was alive and the assassins could come after him. So he was forced to seek employment, something he only had a passing familiarity with, and even then it was only in the sense that he knew employed people, rather than having been employed himself.
Unable to find any openings for rich heirs to tremendous fortunes, Tatewaki was forced to rely on his inherent abilities to forge out a living. Since he was good with a sword, and actually enjoyed showing off his skills, he had decided to teach kendo. Only he couldn't afford a dojo, and no one would just give him one. It was most frustrating.
Then he saw his first superhero on television. Visions of fame, glory, and unlimited wealth filled his head. He would show the world the greatness of Tatewaki Kunou… just without showing the world he was Tatewaki Kunou. Since he had decided to embark on the course of a superhero, he would need a flashy outfit to go along with his tremendous sword skills. Completely out of funds, he helped himself to a closed costume shop by destroying the door with his sword. He had no doubt that once he became famous the owner of the shop would pay him an impressive sum of money for the honor of garbing the greatest superhero to walk the planet. Only when Tatewaki looked through the shop, all of the samurai outfits were gone. He was forced to improvise by wearing a rather tasteful musketeer costume that was appropriate for his flamboyant style, at least until he could get a decent samurai outfit.
Just as he had finished picking out a mask, the police arrived. Tatewaki tried to explain how he was doing the owner a favor by wearing the outfit, but the police had the audacity to accuse him of stealing! Unable to bear the insult, Tatewaki easily knocked both of them out. Regrettably, they had the foresight to call for backup, and he was forced to render a half dozen officers insatiate.
Tired from dealing with idiotic authorities, Tatewaki took an advance in his pay from the costume shop's safe and found a decent hotel to sleep in. However, upon turning on the television and hearing the news the next day, he discovered he had been mislabeled a supervillain, which the authorities referred to generically as 'The Swordsman.' That infuriated him to no end, since he had been intent upon calling himself 'The Silver Samurai' once he found a suitable set of silver armor to wear.
Highly offended, Tatewaki departed the hotel, in costume, intent on clearing his good name. Along the way he encountered an elderly woman being accosted by someone trying to steal her purse. It was a simple matter to dispatch the would-be thief. However, when Tatewaki demanded a reward, the woman hit him in the head with her purse and told him only a rotten jerk would shake down an old lady for money. He explained to her that he was a superhero and it was his just due. Her response was to tell him real heroes didn't ask for money and that he wasn't a real one anyway, like that Daredevil hunk.
The incident made Tatewaki seethe. No money? Half the reason for becoming a hero was for money. The other half was to demonstrate his brilliance to the world.
Annoyed that his ideas were not bearing fruit, he became further frustrated when the police came upon the scene and attempted to arrest him yet again. They also made matters worse by continuously referring to him as the 'Swordsman'. They weren't interested in hearing how he was actually the victim from the fight last night — or that he wanted to be called Silver Samurai — so he was once again forced to render the authorities insensate.
But then his luck took a turn for the better. Upon the conclusion of the fight, Tatewaki was just starting to walk away when a limousine pulled up alongside him and offered him a ride. Delighted at being treated in the manner he was properly due, he accepted the offer. Once inside, it was revealed to him that they were men who worked for a 'businesswoman' called Mantis, and that she wished to contract Swordsman's services for a significant sum of money.
Tatewaki, now resigned to calling himself Swordsman, quickly accepted. The men drove him to the Chinese section of Tokyo, much to his surprise. From there he was taken to an exclusive underground garage, and then escorted by the men to a private elevator that led to an interior that was easily as tasteful, and expensive, as the furnishings at Kunou Manor. Finally they arrived at their true destination as he was directed to an opulent bedchamber where an incredibly attractive Chinese woman resided. Or she would have been incredibly attractive, save for the fact she had to be at least thirty. Tatewaki Kunou, age seventeen, was only interested in girls about his own age. Besides, the woman reminded him of his dear departed mother, except for the two peculiar locks of hair that stood up slightly, then bent forward almost like antennae.
The beautiful woman introduced herself as Mantis and dismissed the men who had escorted Swordsman there. She lit several sticks of incense, and posed seductively for him. Every word was a purr, and held a throaty rasp that would have made lesser men fall to their knees had she so ordered.
But Tatewaki Kunou, the Swordsman, was no lesser man. He could tell that she had fallen for his charms, despite the mask he wore. It was no surprise to him, since every woman he met could not but help be impressed by his strength of character, his virtue, and his manliness. He would have been tempted had she not been so much older. But since she was, he refused her advances, much to her surprise. Later, after he had worked with her on several occasions, she said something curious about his ego being the only one that was so tremendous that it rendered him immune to the effects of her Aphrodisiac Incense.
Seduction failing, Mantis immediately offered Swordsman a job to 'recover' a few items of hers that had been stolen by a gang of thieves who had a hideout by the docks. Since this damsel was in distress, and since the sum of money was impressive, Tatewaki readily agreed to help take care of the miscreants and recover the stolen items. He and a small band of men — whom Swordsman thought of as nothing but a bunch of thugs — went to the hideout and proceeded to storm it. It turned out it was an operation run by a group of men in identical garish yellow costumes, who all wore the same stupid-looking yellow buckets on their heads, with only a wire mesh grill to look out. The men, who Swordsman's compatriots referred to as A.I.M., proved little problem, however, the small army of various androids they employed was very powerful. Swordsman was forced to use all of his blade's various functions and his best techniques to destroy them.
Upon successfully completing his mission and recovering the stolen goods, which were highly advanced weapons, oddly enough, Mantis once again attempted to reward Swordsman by offering her body. Again he refused, doubly surprising her. She gave him a bonus for doing such an effective job, and offered him the second most opulent room in the building, which was next to hers.
It proved to be a sound decision on her part, as the base cads of A.I.M. attempted to steal back their ill-gotten gains and kill Mantis as well. Once again, Swordsman employed his unique talents to dispatch the killer robots and attack vehicles before they could bring harm to his employer.
After changing her base of operations (of which she had over a dozen spread out through the city), Mantis offered him a contract to work exclusively for her. He readily accepted. For the next few months, he found himself being sent out to 'recover' or 'acquire' items for Mantis (and she seemed to want a great many odd or expensive things), usually breaking in to some facility or other that had heavy defenses which he would be forced to destroy. Fortunately the pay, as well as the home, expensive food, and fine clothing she gave him were more than enough recompense for his trouble. It was after the seventh such job he participated in when he caught a news program claiming that the very jewels he had 'acquired' from an armored car had actually been 'stolen' from the armored car.
Swordsman immediately confronted Mantis with the news. "Did you realize that those jewels actually belong to someone else?"
"Not anymore," she purred.
"But that's stealing."
Mantis gave him a curious look. "Of course, my ever so long and powerful Swordsman," she emphasized the last word. "What did you think I meant when I told you to acquire them for me?"
"I was under the impression that they were actually yours to begin with and you wanted me to retrieve for you."
"When I say I want you to 'acquire' something for me, it's just a polite way of saying I want you to steal it."
Mantis's look changed to open confusion. "Swordsman, you do understand that I'm the biggest Chinese crimelord in all of Eastern Japan, correct?"
"Do you mean to say you engage in illegal activities?
"I've been having you steal weapons, drugs, and money for me for a couple of months now."
"And your gambling casinos, bordellos, protection services, and arms deals are not legal enterprises?"
"Of course not!"
"I feel so misled," Swordsman admitted.
Mantis sighed. She walked up to the Swordsman and maneuvered behind him. Slowly she ran her hands over his body, making certain they dwelled longest in the most sensitive areas. "When I took you in, you were only a penny-ante thief who was going to get nailed by the cops for lifting cash registers. I made you into something bigger." Her voice became softer as she purred into his ear, "Admit it, you like all of this. I know your kind, Swordsman. You were bored before you met me. You were idle rich; I could smell it from the moment I laid eyes on you. Ennui settled over you, even if you were unaware of it. You never earned a yen on your own. Everyone always gave everything to you and you never batted an eye."
She moved away from him, spinning in a seductive dance to a tune only she could hear. "But now you're different. Now you're happy to risk your life dancing on the edge of the abyss. You get a thrill when people try to kill you, and it's only the inherent skills you've honed to razor sharpness that keep you alive. Every yen you've made, no matter how ill-gotten it is, you've earned, unlike everything else that's been handed to in your life. You love the lifestyle of the illicit and powerful. You can do things society would never allow you to do. That, Swordsman, is what true power is about. To do what you want, when you want, the consequences be damned."
Swordsman considered that. Over the last few months he had been simply reacting to situations rather than thinking about them. But now that Mantis pointed it out, he took a step back. Much to his astonishment, everything she said had been true. Impossible though it seemed, he was much happier being forced to rely on his skills rather than leading the life of the idle rich. True, he had originally left his former existence to save his life rather than find adventure, but that was what had happened. He liked doing things he would never have dared as a law-abiding citizen. And the ill-gotten money he was earning meant he could continue living the extravagant lifestyle which he was accustomed. He was delighted with the life of the outlaw. It was fun.
At that moment he decided to remain as he was, a hired sword for a beautiful woman, protecting her from danger at every turn. Even when his sister turned up alive, he chose to remain the handsome, suave, and mighty Swordsman, rather than once again continuing his dreary existence as the incredibly bored and under-appreciated Tatewaki Kunou.
His relationship with Mantis remained at arm's length, with the poor (older) woman all but a slave to trying to gain his attentions. Then there came a day when she informed him that an old acquaintance of hers was calling in a favor. It seemed he needed super-powered muscle to protect some of his interests at a critical juncture, and that a tremendous reward would be offered to Swordsman, as well as a sizable one for Mantis herself. When Swordsman was informed his payment would be control over a significant portion of Japan, he jumped at the opportunity. Curiously, Mantis had turned down the offer, saying she much preferred manipulating events from the shadows, and was content to allow Swordsman to actually control the land himself. So without any preamble, he journeyed to the airport at the appointed time to meet his new employer, who would bestow upon Swordsman a mantle he was truly worthy of.
Or at least that was what he had thought until a quarter of an hour ago.
Until now, no one had ever truly been hurt because of Swordsman's action. He had always been careful not to cripple or kill; that would have been beneath him, though knaves like Daredevil and Captain Japan sorely pressed him at times. But now his employer had killed more people in a single moment than anyone else in the history of the world, without a second thought. The full impact of that made Swordsman wonder if he had truly embarked on the right course after all. True, he would be given control over most of Japan, as was his due, for he was a born leader, but the cost…
The sounds of battle stirred Swordsman out of his reverie. Grateful for the reprieve, he rushed to the clamor. In a handful of moments he arrived at a scene that almost made him release his sword. His employer, the Mandarin, was being tossed around like a small, abused, unwanted doll by a man who was truly colossal in dimensions. It was obvious the Mandarin was helpless to do anything, as evidenced by his head being driven into the ceiling by the towering foe.
For a moment, Swordsman hesitated, despite his duty being clear. Here was a chance to break free of the Mandarin's schemes and atone for all of the deaths that had occurred. It wouldn't even be his fault. He'd just allow events to happen as they would had he not been present. All guilt could be laid aside as the Mandarin met the fate he probably richly deserved.
But with the Mandarin's defeat, all that promised power would be lost as well. There was a price to be paid should he take that course. Japan would suffer immensely, just as it was now with no end in sight. Only with taking the mantle of leadership could there be hope for the masses. Once in charge, he would single-handedly put an end to corruption and wrongdoing. He could be like the Emperor of old, or at least a powerful Daimyo, a true leader whom all could aspire to be, though they would ultimately fall short of their goal. Still, emulating him could only make them better people. They would all be happy as the proper castes were reinstated, and all would be grateful for the new golden era he would bring. In return for bequeathing such greatness to them, he would be paid proper tribute by the populace. They would bestow upon him wealth and respect. He could have the largest collection of concubines the world had ever seen. Wouldn't it all be worth the sacrifice? Some bad in the short term for long term good?
The Mandarin's eyes fell on his subordinate. "Help," he called out as his head lolled slightly.
Before Swordsman could reconsider his actions he brought his sword up and unleashed a power blast directed at the Giant Man's jaw. The blast hit dead on, and the hero released his hold on the Mandarin. Both fell to the ground, where they tried hard to return to their feet. Neither fared very well.
Swordsman swaggered forward. "So, my overlarge foe. You sought to invade this citadel and commit treachery upon its master. But you have been laid low by the ever resourceful, dashing, handsome… is that a little girl with wings?"
Wasp unleashed a blast directly at Swordsman's body. He crumpled to the ground, in tremendous pain. But despite the near overloading of his senses, years of training allowed him to instinctively maintain a firm grip on his weapon.
"If you hurt Giant Man, I'll make you sorry," Wasp said crossly as she aimed at Swordsman again and unleashed another of her stings.
Mostly by reflex rather than conscious thought, Swordsman brought his sword up and parried the blast.
Before Wasp could fire a third time, she found herself hammered by a vortex of air. It caught her from behind and hurled her into a wall. Weakly she fluttered to the ground.
"That will teach you, insect!" Mandarin snarled as he returned to his feet.
"Wasp!" Giant Man shouted. The shock of seeing her injured allowed him to focus enough concentration to rise to his feet. Even Akane would have been taken aback by the fury in his eyes, a look promising violence to the those who had dared attack the woman he loved.
The Mandarin's response was to glow blue and shout out, "Rising Dragon's Fist!" He shot up like a human missile and impacted a powerful fist solidly into Giant Man's midsection, knocking the wind completely out of him. Before the hero could rise again, the Mandarin employed his Electro Ring, sending enough electricity coursing through his opponent to knock him out cold.
Now recovered and full of rage, the Mandarin brought his disintegrator ring up and prepared to use it on the fool who had dared lay his hands upon him. But at the last moment he turned it away, and instead encased the lower half of Giant Man's body in ice nearly a meter thick.
He turned to Swordsman, who was only now recovering from the Wasp's sting. "I've selected my next target."
"Since these so called heroes have insisted on calling attention to their pitiful island nation, they shall have it. Tokyo shall be next."
Swordsman stammered out, "But I'm to rule Japan. That would include Tokyo."
"I'll give you some of Indonesia," the Mandarin said in compromise. "And I'm not waiting to deliver a second ultimatum. The moment the satellite is recharged, I'm firing. Japan must pay, and that giant fool will learn the price of defying me. Once he learns he was responsible for killing so many people, I'll kill him and that flying girl." The Mandarin looked around. "Where is she anyway?"
Swordsman also visually scanned the area. "I don't see her."
"Blast! My vortex beam must not have struck her fully, or she was more durable than I believed." A haunted expression crossed the Mandarin's features. "Perhaps she has gone to free the others. Quickly, go down to the normal prisoners' cell and make sure they are still secure." He brought up his communicator. "Tarou, Elektra, be advised, there is a centimeter tall, flying girl who can shoot energy from her hands. She is extremely dangerous. Don't bother trying to capture her. Kill her on sight. Speed Demon, Power Man, make certain Thor and the piglet are secure as well."
The speaker crackled as Speed Demon's voice came from the communicator. "We… ah, just came from the holding area."
"Why are you… For your sake you'd better not have molested my woman."
"Nonononono! We didn't lay a hand on her."
"You'd better not have. That one is going to be the mother of my children. If anything was to happen to her, you would be made very sorry. However, as long as she's secure, you have nothing to fear."
"She's… ah, secured."
"Secured her escape, you mean," Power Man said after Speed Demon turned off the communication's link.
"We shouldn't bother the boss with such minor details, especially since it's obvious he's agitated. We'll just catch her and the pig, throw them back in there, and everything will be all right. You'll see."
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Power Man said miserably.
The two hurried from the area and began to search around. Speed Demon chose not to institute a high speed search, mostly because he was afraid of finding Thor without Power Man to help out.
They had been searching for less than fifteen minutes when they spotted something. Not the object of their search, but another thing that had captured their attention almost as thoroughly as if it was.
"Hey, you! Stop right there!" Power Man shouted at the intruder, who looked suspiciously like an ordinary Japanese high school student.
The girl gave them a panicked look, gasped "Oh no!", and began hobbling off. Within three steps she rounded the corner and out of their sight.
Power Man was about to rush after the intruder when Speed Demon placed a restraining hand on his chest. "What?"
Speed Demon gave his companion a sly look. "Don't be so quick to run after her."
"Why? It's just some girl. She's not dangerous."
"Ah ha!" Speed Demon held his finger up, as if Power Man had made his point for him. "Don't you find it the least bit peculiar that some innocent-looking Japanese school girl with a really bad limp just happens to appear in the fortress as if from nowhere and we just happened to spot her?"
Power Man scratched his head in thought. "Well, now that you mention it, it does seem a bit odd. And she was holding a piglet. It wasn't the one we're looking for since it's black, not green, and about a hundred pounds less than the other one."
"Do you know what I think?"
"No. I'm not telepathic. If I was, I would, though."
"I think it's a trap. I think she's only pretending she's afraid, but is in fact a superhero. I bet she's going to act all scared like she's intimidated by us, and when we get overconfident, she'll hit us with her superpower and knock us out."
"Wow! That makes perfect sense. How did you know?"
"The limp. She overdid it with the limp. That's a clear sign of bad acting."
"Hah! She thought she'd play us for fools, but we sure outsmarted her."
They both laughed heartily at the foolishness of their opponent.
Once the bout of levity had passed, Power Man asked, "What should we do?"
"Follow cautiously. She'll tip her hand eventually. Then we'll get her."
So the duo began to discreetly follow the path the girl had taken.
As Akane limped off as best as she could, she looked over her shoulder again. Sure enough, the two villains were poking their heads around the corner, watching her flee. She couldn't understand what game they were playing, tormenting her as though she stood some chance of escaping. They were cruel beyond measure to engage in such sadistic behavior. If only she could find her cane, then she would make them pay for this humiliation.
She turned yet another corner of the seemingly endless array of stone corridors that composed the fortress. It was like a giant maze and she was the rat, though in her case finding the piece of 'cheese' would enable her to level the fortress. With the way she had fled mindlessly away from the pair, and some of the rooms she passed, she was certain she was running in circles again, and was heading once more toward the room she had awakened in.
Leg throbbing, Akane found she could run no further. She looked down at the innocent piglet in her arms. He gave her a wide-eyed stare that nearly broke her heart. No matter what happened to her, she would make sure that the poor creature escaped the evil Mandarin's clutches.
She turned to look down the hall. The pair still hadn't poked their heads around the latest passageway. She chose a door next to her and opened it up. It was some sort of storage room. Wooden crates filled it to the ceiling, and there appeared to be a healthy quantity of dust on the floor.
Relieved, Akane put the pig down. She placed her hand on his backside and shoved him into the room. He turned and gave her a panicked stare. He was concerned for her. It was so sweet. It was a pity she couldn't have kept him as a pet. "Don't worry, Mr. Pig, you'll be safe in here for now. I'll lead them away, and you try to escape later." It was obvious from his insistent, "Bwee!" that he would try to follow, so she quickly closed the door behind her.
Tears filled her eyes. "Good bye, Mr. Pig." And she tried hurrying away as best as she could, her pain encumbered limb forcing her to use the wall to help prop her up.
"See? She waited in the hall until we caught up. She's luring us into something. I can feel it," Speed Demon said as he poked his head around the wall again.
"Very tricky," Power Man agreed.
Their communicators buzzed again. "Report!" the Mandarin barked.
Speed Demon said, "We're following a superhero around."
"One of them is free? Which one?" the Mandarin asked.
"A new one. The trickiest of them all. She's dressed like a normal Japanese school girl, and walks around with a limp."
"What powers does she have?"
"We don't know. She hasn't shown them. She just walks around like she's afraid of us. But we're outsmarting her. We're following just out of sight, using the walls as cover. So far we haven't given her the opportunity to blast us."
There was a moment of silence on the communicator. Then a voice as frozen as the block of ice said, "Let me get this straight. There's a stranger in the fortress. A helpless one with a limp who you've been following around mindlessly while not trying to impede her progress in the slightest?"
"Got it right the first time, Boss."
"Then why don't you capture her and FIND OUT WHO SHE IS, SINCE IT'S OBVIOUS SHE'S NOT A THREAT, YOU MORONS?!"
"But she might be superpowered and is setting us up in a trap."
"IT'LL BE FAR WORSE IF YOU DON'T CAPTURE HER AND I GET MY HANDS ON YOU TWO!"
"Watch the blood pressure, Boss. You don't want to get a heart attack at the moment of your greatest triumph," Power Man warned.
The communicator issued one final unintelligible cry, and then dead silence followed.
"I bet you he destroyed his communicator again," Speed Demon said.
"No bet. We'd better get that girl before he does get his hands on us."
The two rounded the corner, seeing the girl nearing the end of the 'T' junction at the end of the hall. Speed Demon sucked up his courage and ran quickly, ending up in front of her in the blink of an eye. The girl gave a cry and came to an abrupt halt. Speed Demon saw Power Man hurrying up the corridor to provide him with backup. Relieved, he said, "All right, you're under arrest. I mean, you're captured because you're a trespasser. Hey, where's the pig?"
Speed Demon saw that just as Power Man passed in front of a door to some unused storage room, a green blur shot out of it, tearing the door of its hinges as it impacted solidly with Power Man. The small ball of porcine might struck Power Man with the force of a cannon. Both were driven clean through a couple layers of stone thickened walls and out of sight.
"Ah, it's the Hulk!" Speed Demon ran back to see if he could help his friend in any way.
Akane, given a reprieve, didn't even bother to turn around at the sounds of battle. Until she found her stick, she would just be a liability to anyone trying to rescue her. So she hurried off once again.
Power Man found himself under assault by the bouncing piglet. The small creature's blows, while individually not so bad, hurt like hell once they added up. Worse, the initial attack had disoriented him badly enough that he didn't have time to even catch his breath. All he needed was a moment; then he'd make pork rinds out of the Hulk, even if it did go against the Mandarin's orders.
Power Man got his break as Speed Demon appeared in a blur directly in front of the mean green ball of muscle. "You know what I had to eat today?" the speedster asked.
The piglet shook his head.
"Baconbaconbaconbaconbacon!" he stuck his tongue out and began dancing around.
The mocking dance enraged the Incredible Bwee and he launched himself at Speed Demon. The speedster proved too quick as he was out of the way before the piglet had risen more than a couple of centimeters off the ground. The leap only succeeded in punching a hole through yet another wall.
As Bwee leapt back through, destroying another section of wall, Power Man snatched him out of the air. With a tiger-like roar he unleashed a savage hook under Bwee's tiny chin and blasted him through the third wall of the room to be destroyed.
Power Man looked in satisfaction at the hole that had been left behind. "That takes care of that."
Speed Demon spoke hesitantly, "Say, Power Man."
"What's behind that wall you just knocked the pig through?"
"Nothing much. It's a large open area; the Boss's private bath. You know, the one with the Olympic size pool that connects with the hot springs beneath the fortress."
"Yeah, that's where I thought it led," Speed Demon sighed as a now human — and fully enraged — Hulk exploded through the wall, sending pieces of stony shrapnel in all directions and forcing Speed Demon to use Power Man's body for cover.
The Hulk's muscles bulged and his hands curled into anvil-like fists. Spittle flew from his mouth as he shouted, "Where is Not-So-Little-Man who dared to hit Hulk?! Now that Hulk is big again, Hulk will smash!"
"Oh boy," Power Man said as he prepared for the fight of his life.
Swordsman cocked his head curiously. "How peculiar. I could have sworn I heard an explosion." He supposed it didn't concern him. Odd things seemed to happen regularly in this fortress.
After wandering lost for the last few minutes, Swordsman finally located the chamber holding the prisoners. He supposed his detour was just as well; the time spent walking had cleared his head. With the Mandarin's stated intent of destroying Tokyo, a dark depression had settled upon him. He couldn't remember feeling this despondent since he believed his family was dead. It wasn't fair. If a handful of cities in some far off lands had to be destroyed, fine. They were filled with nothing but gaijin anyway. However, Tokyo was different. It was his home. He knew people who lived there. It wasn't right they should be punished for the interference of a handful of their countrymen that had made the fatal error of angering the future ruler of the world.
"But there's no way out," Swordsman sighed as he pressed a button. The door to the chamber hissed as it rose into the doorframe. Looking inside revealed all was as it should be. The heroes were chained up, and Iron Rose was still fastened to the table, the spider-like instrument attached firmly to her helmet.
"Come to gloat some more?" Bucky spat.
Swordsman entered. "Truly you are a woman of unsurpassed beauty and spirit. If only we had met under better circumstances. I bear grim tidings. The Mandarin is intent on destroying Tokyo next. The attacks launched upon his person have sent him into an ill-directed rage."
"No!" Hawkeye twisted in her bonds as Daredevil had earlier, gaining only the same results.
Bucky also strained her body to the limit, threatening to break her wrists. "No way! We've got to stop him from killing again!"
Seeing such a display of courage from the girl made Swordsman's resolve firm. "Indeed. I shall petition the Mandarin to change his mind, pointing out correctly that while vermin such as Daredevil might have been spawned in Japan—"
"Actually I'm Chinese."
"There you have it," Swordsman said. "There is much greatness in Japan, for after all, is it not the land of my birth? And if it could produce excellence such as myself, surely it could also prove to create others who, while not as magnificent as my own personage, would be better than the majority of humanity."
"By the gods, you remind me of my brother," Iron Rose muttered from her prone position.
Swordsman smirked. "Truly he must be a man of unsurpassed elegance."
"Actually he was a pompous twit who treated me like excess baggage. I could barely tolerate him."
"Humph! Undoubtedly if you are willing to besmirch his good name, he was burdened to have you as a sister. My own is much more polite than you and knows her place, as is befitting a Japanese woman. Obedience above all."
"Oh, shove it up your @#$%!" Iron Rose spat.
"And she never swore," Swordsman added solemnly. "I go now in an effort to spare our homeland from such a miscarriage of justice. I will implore the Mandarin to reconsider, and I'd advise you to curb your tongues. If all goes well, I'll ask him to listen to your pleas for our homeland to be spared from his wrath. Perhaps we'll be fortunate, and he'll listen to your petition. I think it our only hope."
"You could always free us and we could kick his butt together," Hawkeye suggested.
"I think not. I have little doubt you would turn on me, and do not bother giving me your word, for I know it to be worthless. And then there is the fact should the Mandarin be defeated, I would not be placed in charge of the majority of our land. No, petitioning my case is the best solution to the problem, I assure you of that. I take my leave now." And with that he exited the room.
"I would sooner swallow my tongue than allow him to rule anything," Iron Rose vowed.
"You might get your chance if we can't bust out of these restraints." Bucky tried to bring all of her muscles to bear as she strained to lift her legs and bring her arms down. With the super soldier serum flowing through her veins, she was as powerful as a woman her age could be. But still the bonds remained firm, although she could have sworn the right arm restraint had given slightly in with the last five minutes.
"It looks like you need help," a disembodied feminine voice said.
Everyone in the room looked around, trying to locate the source of the voice. All four of the people saw (or in Daredevil's case, sensed) a tiny figure flying in front of them. At first glance, they had assumed it was a tiny bug, but a second look revealed it was a tiny flying woman.
"Who are you?" Hawkeye asked.
"I'm called Wasp," she said. "I followed that Swordsman person here. Sorry I didn't come sooner, but I had no idea where you were. Giant Man was hurt, so we have to hurry and rescue him, as well as defeat that Mandarin person before he destroys my home. Let me see if I can free you."
Wasp centered her attention on Bucky's restraints. They appeared as solid as the others, but a closer inspection revealed a hairline crack along the right one. Centering on it, she fired off a sting. The energy split open the armor along the seam. Seeing no similar defect on the other restraint, she was forced to focus all of her power into a second blast. Again the metal was torn asunder as the left hand came free. Wasp was going to fire a third time at the leg restraints, when a wave of weakness overcame her. She was forced to use what was left of her strength to pump her wings hard enough to flutter down to the floor. She sat down, thoroughly exhausted.
With her hands free, Bucky quickly opened the locking mechanism on the leg restraints and freed herself. The first thing she did was go over to where Wasp had fallen. Bucky picked the girl up delicately, mindful not to crush her wings of hurt her in any way. "What's wrong?"
"I feel a little dazed. I was hurled into a wall by a blast of air from that man with the rings. And using my blasts drains me over time. I think I'm more susceptible today since I had already been in a fight."
Bucky could just make out a little bit of blood matting on the tiny girl's forehead. "Yeah, you look pretty worn out. You stay here and rest while I free the others. You've done your part. And once we're all ready, we'll make that Mandarin creep pay."
Declaration made, it took Bucky only seconds to free the rest of her compatriots.
"That was stupid of them to leave our weapons nearby," Hawkeye said as she grabbed her bow and took inventory of the number of arrows remaining.
Bucky swung her shield around a few times in order to loosen up. "Can you find where Thor and the Hulk are?" she asked Iron Rose. "Our chances of beating these guys quicker go up a whole lot with them around"
Mournfully, Iron Rose said, "No. I'm afraid not."
"Actually, I think at least one of them is free and fighting the enemy. I think it's the Hulk," Daredevil said as he finished donning his robes.
"What makes you say that?"
A loud rumble came from somewhere below to the left of the room, the vibrations easily felt through everyone's feet. "No reason," Daredevil said with an amused grin.
"We need to find a computer," Iron Rose said.
"Why?" Bucky asked.
"If I can get to a terminal, I might be able to hack into the system and destroy or reroute the satellite."
"Sounds like a plan," Hawkeye said.
"What about Thor?" Bucky asked.
Iron Rose magnified her vision to make certain Wasp was not too badly injured. "She's a big girl. I'm sure she can take of herself."
Akane was beginning to panic. While she had left her pursuers far behind, the sounds of their titanic battle could be felt through the very walls of the fortress. The fight was so vicious it had made the area she was fleeing through dangerously unstable. Cracks had formed in the ceiling in many places, and on more than one occasion dust or pebbles had struck her on the head. Had her survival instincts been in better working order, she would have tried to find a way up and out of the fortress, but she felt certain her hammer was located somewhere on the floor she was now on. She knew the delay meant risking her life, but she had to find it. Life without the ability to transform into Thor was meaningless.
Another piece of rock fell, this one striking her on the head hard enough to draw blood and make her lose her balance. She tried to grab onto the stone surface of the wall, but failed and fell to the floor, hurting her hip. Tears filled her eyes as she pounded the floor with her fist. It did even more damage to her flesh, another reminder of her pitiful state. She remained lying on her back, sobbing. It was hopeless. The ceiling would cave in at any moment and bury her alive. It was suicide to remain, but the siren call of the hammer sang in her ear, even if it was nowhere to be found. Everything was going to collapse and she would never be able to find the stick again. It wasn't fair!
And then she saw it through the watery tears. It was just lying out in the open next to the wall of one of the corridors. A plain wooden stick that was more valuable than all the money in the world to Akane. Now sobbing in happiness, she began to rise.
Another loud rumble came from nearby, and Akane could swear she heard the Hulk bellow in rage. The shock was powerful enough to cause the already cracked ceiling directly above the stick to give way. Akane cried out in grief as a ton of rock collapsed over the stick, kicking up a dust cloud from the debris.
The cloud moved past Akane, covering in a healthy coating of dirt. She fell to her knees, wracked with sobs as the cracks in the ceiling directly above her began to spread out. Slowly, she began to rise to her feet, barely able to summon the will to move. Vaguely she remembered a set of stairs leading up a few corridors back, though she wondered what the point was. It would be more merciful to remain where she was and share her fate with that of her alter ego who was forever beyond her.
It was just as she turned to go that the dust settled enough to show that instead of being buried, two of the larger pieces of ceiling had collapsed in an upside down 'V', protecting the stick rather than burying it. Akane gave a cry of joy loud enough to rival that of the Hulk's earlier one of anger. Retrieving the stick would require a bit of maneuvering. There was a carpet of jagged rock between her and the goal, and she would be forced to crawl through the tunnel the fallen rock had formed, but her salvation was not beyond her reach.
Course decided, Akane limped over as best as she could with both her leg and hip protesting at the movement. She ignored the pain and began making her way over the rock fall. Crawling over the debris was like traveling down a path of thorns. Sharpened edges of stone tore at her clothing and flesh. Scrapes and cuts soon covered every inch of her hands as she forced herself forward. She was unmindful of the danger and disregarded the pain. Blood began decorating the stone as her body inched painfully closer and closer to her goal.
Akane squirmed forward, forcing herself between two pieces of rock wedged tightly together. She moved between them fairly well, but the rubble shifted, pinning her waist against the rock beneath it. It had only shifted slightly, pinning rather than crushing, but she was trapped all the same. She cursed aloud. If only she had been an inch thinner. It was times like this she wished she had narrower hips. No one ever made fun of them because of her condition, but she knew they were noticeably wide. Yet another of the numerous shortcomings she had.
"Damn it," Akane gripped on tight to some rock and pulled with all her strength. She felt the jagged edge of one of the rocks force its way past flesh and dig deeply into her waist, filling her with a pain unlike any she had felt since the accident. Again she called on reserves of strength she didn't know she possessed. Her muscles strained and threatened to yield, but then she pulled forward, free of the trap around her midsection. She gave a cry out in joy until she felt a wetness spread through her dress. She knew the cut was far deeper than the others, but still she soldiered on. Her fingertips brushed once across the tip of the cane, and she gave a cry of delight.
And then the ceiling of the level located directly above joined the one below as it gave way, sending five tons of debris directly towards her. With the earlier collapse, there was nothing to impede its progress as it came crashing down to the floor two levels below. The cloud of dust formed by the impact was ten times greater than the one that nearly buried the cane in the first place.
And then there was silence.
"But I disagree," Swordsman said in a plaintive tone.
"I did not ask for your opinion!" the Mandarin snapped. "Tokyo will be destroyed! If the Hulk is loose, I want him contained immediately! And I want the normal ones killed as well! I'm not taking any more chances!"
"It's a bit late for that," Elektra said as she drew her twin sai and pointed down the corridor at the quartet of people who had approached them from behind.
Hawkeye was on the point, had an arrow nocked, and was already pointing it directly in the middle of her adversaries. Bucky and Daredevil stood slightly behind the archer, while Iron Rose remained in the back.
Tarou cracked his knuckles. "They aren't even worth getting some water out. I want Cleavage Girl."
"I'll take—" Elektra started to say when Daredevil charged toward her with a swiftness that would have surprised everyone short of Speed Demon.
"Tell me where Shan Pu is!" he shouted.
"So much for him fighting Swordsman like we planned. Take them!" Bucky shouted and charged forward, accepting Tarou's challenge.
Hawkeye fired an arrow at the Mandarin, only to have it sliced neatly in half by the Swordsman's weapon. "Here we go again," the archer grumbled.
Iron Rose flew above the others to get a clear shot. She was met in mid-air by a bolt of lightning. Instead of the yellow blast shooting her down, she let out a hearty, "Oho ho ho! I can absorb electricity. All you've done is made me more powerful, you ring bearing fool. Now pay for the innocent lives you've killed!" She released her repulsor blasts.
The Mandarin gracefully leapt above the beam. While in mid-air he unleashed a frigid blast of ice from his left and an impact beam from his right.
Like the first shot, both were on target. The ice weighed down the armor, and the kinetic force of the impact beam knocked Iron Rose clean through a nearby wall.
"Iron clad fool," he softly intoned.
Daredevil was practically frothing at the mouth as he ran directly towards Elektra. Surprised at the undisciplined charge, she reacted by bringing up one of her sai to force him to break it off. She would use the opening to roll to the left and hopefully knock his feet out from under him.
Much to her surprise, he didn't hesitate in the slightest. The sai went through the flesh above his hip, narrowly missing a kidney. He didn't react to the injury, continuing his forward charge and hitting Elektra full with his body. The blow made her drop her other weapon. With his superior strength and momentum, he easily drove her backward until she was pinned to the wall. He grabbed both of her arms and pinned them to her sides, effectively trapping her.
"Tell me where she is!" he said, squeezing her powerfully.
Elektra cringed in pain at the way his fingers dug into her flesh. He wasn't holding back. She was certain his grip would have broken the bones of anyone else.
Daredevil drew her back just enough so that he could slam her against the wall a second time, making her head thump against the rock behind her. "Tell me now!"
"I'll tell you," Elektra gasped out. She brought her head forward and kissed Daredevil fully on the lips.
It was a savage, passionate thing, wild and untamed. The emotion behind it overwhelmed Daredevil, breaking through his haze of rage. His grip eased slightly.
That was all Elektra needed to break out of his grasp and use the opening to drive her knee between his legs. The blow doubled Daredevil over. Elektra grabbed him by the back of the head, and rammed his face into the wall. Once, twice, a third time, then he went limp in her arms. She released him, wiping her lips with distaste.
"I hope it was worth it, fool," she said, rolling him over to retrieve her weapon.
Bucky winced as the first of their numbers fell, and then realized it was actually the second as Iron Rose still hadn't returned from being hurled through the wall. It was unfortunate that the Wasp girl had been too injured to keep fighting; her abilities might have tilted the odds in their favor. Instead they left her to help her unconscious comrade, first breaking him out of the ice before leaving her to revive him.
As to Bucky's own fight, she found it going slightly worse than before. While she had long since grown comfortable fighting as a girl, and was slightly faster in that form, Tarou's now far superior reach advantage negated any benefits she drew from her curse. It was a stalemate, at least until Tarou grew tired or he splashed himself with cold water. There was little Bucky could do about the latter, and the first was unacceptable since every second they lost was one more closer to the Mandarin razing another city.
There was no way she could let that happen, but the odds of winning looked bleak. They had lost half their forces while the enemy lost none. It was a desperate situation, and it called for desperate measures.
"I can't believe I'm actually considering this," Bucky mumbled under her breath. Then Tarou connected with yet another fist to her jaw. That served to settle the matter.
Bucky spun in a circle, deflecting a fire burst from the Mandarin's rings, and left her back momentarily to the opposition. When she turned around, her shield was to the side as she thrust her chest forward, purring seductively, "Take a look at these, big boys."
The Mandarin, Swordsman, and even Tarou stopped momentarily as Bucky revealed her impressive bounty, the remnants of her top having been ripped off and tossed aside during her spin.
Bucky took advantage of the men's leering by unleashing a powerful kick right between Tarou's eyes, sending him flying backward and onto his back.
Hawkeye, completely unmoved by the sight of a woman's chest, fired twin arrows at her closest opponents. Swordsman, drooling at the sight of Bucky's bared flesh, found his arms pinned to his side by a bolo arrow. Elektra, equally as unmoved as Hawkeye, ducked under the projectile.
"This will stop me but a moment!" Swordsman declared. With a deft flick of his wrist he brought his sword up and snipped the wire confining his arms.
"That's all I need," Hawkeye said as the archer loosed another arrow. With his sword occupied in slicing through his bonds, the blunt tip of the stunner arrow caught Swordsman right between the eyes. He fell to the ground like a marionette with its strings suddenly cut.
Before Hawkeye could press her attack, she found a somersaulting Elektra leaping up and landing with a solid kick to the archer's chest. Hawkeye grunted, and fell backward, momentarily knocked off her feet.
"So you have extra padding in your chest. A wise precaution," Elektra remarked.
"Oh, shut up!" Hawkeye swore, barely rolling out of the way of a kick aimed at her skull.
Hawkeye used her roll to spring to her feet in an impressive show of agility. She was about to loose another arrow, when she saw Elektra had anticipated the move. The assassin brought her sai forward even as the archer moved back. Superior reflexes were all that kept Hawkeye from having the weapon driven clean through her shoulder instead of the half-inch of steel that found its way there.
Crying out in pain Hawkeye backed away, blood now decorating the point of the weapon. Elektra was prevented from pressing her advantage by the backfist delivered by the topless heroine. Bucky made certain to keep her body between the archer and assassin
Elektra shook off the glancing blow and backed away. She smirked at Bucky while brandishing the bloodied sai. "Are you sorry you saved me now?"
"No. I'm just disappointed in you," Bucky replied in earnest.
The only response Elektra gave was to tremble slightly.
With Elektra distracting Bucky, Tarou gained a second wind and rose to his feet. The right side of his face already puffing up from the kick. "I can't believe I fell for such a pathetic trick! I was going to keep you around as a plaything, tits, but now you're going to die!" Tarou went for a gourd at his belt.
"Not this time!" Bucky threw her shield at the gourd.
The disc was right on target, but a chi blast met it in mid-flight, deflected the shield wide. It bounced off a wall before landing right at Tarou's feet.
"Nice try, but the only woman's chest I have an interest in belongs to a Goddess, and you most certainly do not qualify as such," the Mandarin stated.
Tarou snickered and poured the contents of the gourd over his head. The cold water triggered his transformation into the A-bra-mination.
Bucky and Hawkeye began to back away nervously. "I don't suppose you have some kind of fancy arrow designed to take out really big green monsters?"
Hawkeye shook her head and winced, just knowing this was going to really hurt.
The Hulk roared in rage as Speed Demon taunted him once again. It wasn't that the little man could injure him, but he said mean things that hurt the Hulk's feelings. They were really nasty comments, like that he was dumb, clumsy, used bad grammar, and couldn't score with women. But the worst thing the speedster had done was mess around with the Hulk's hair.
"Hulk hates pigtails more than anything! Hulk's enemy wears one!" he roared, and tried to untie the pigtail once again.
That left him open for yet another hard right from the recovered Power Man. The Hulk tried to retaliate, but despite the large man's size, Power Man was quicker. Worse, it was a completely defensive fight, meaning the warrior of the Musk would dodge six blows before trying for one of his own, and with a slightly better technique than 'Smash Opponent,' he was connecting with three blows for every one the Hulk landed.
However the thickness of the Hulk's skin, his endurance, and most importantly his tremendous strength, gave the green goliath the advantage. Every blow he landed was five times more telling than any Power Man connected with. And the longer the fight went, the madder the Hulk got, and the more powerful his blows became.
It would have been over already save for Speed Demon. Any time it seemed the Hulk had an advantage, the speedster would distract the Hulk by doing something that angered him so much that he would forget Power Man until the big man attacked again. It was getting to the point where Speed Demon's jibes were affecting the Hulk worse than Power Man's fists. He was beginning to wish the large Musk warrior would just go away so he could deal with the rambling loud mouth in relative peace.
Power Man connected two more times before the Hulk caught his wrist in the middle of a third punch. Holding him in place, the emerald behemoth unleashed a mighty fist right into Power Man's midsection. He was about to hit him there again when a hot liquid substance was thrown into his eyes, momentarily blinding him.
Power Man returned the favor by kicking the Hulk in his midsection. The blow made the jade giant release his grip and gave Power Man yet another chance to recover.
The Hulk roared in anger and wiped the offending substance from his eyes. He was not surprised to see his personal bane, Speed Demon, there holding an empty pot and laughing. The Hulk bellowed in rage, then a scent hit his nostrils and he recoiled. "What is awful thing Hulk smells?"
Speed Demon said, "Centurion Split Pea Soup. I use it to clean off my running shoes, since it's not good for anything else."
"Hulk hates split pea soup more than anything!" he roared.
"You said you hate pigtails more than anything," Speed Demon pointed out.
"They are different things. Hulk hates pigtails more than any other hairstyle. He hates split pea soup more than any other soup. He hates the way corn gets stuck in his teeth more than any other food gets stuck in his teeth. And he hates Keanu Reeves acting most of any actor!"
"Got to agree with you there. The guy's about as compelling to watch as a cardboard prop," Speed Demon agreed. "What's the color you hate the most?"
"Fuchsia. Because it's really dark red, but people try to confuse Hulk and call red fuchsia. Hulk hates Fuchsia!"
While bellowing out his hate list, the Hulk saw a blur in front of him and felt something tickle his chest. He blinked and saw a bunch of black squiggly lines on his chest. "What that?"
The Hulk scratched his head. "Hulk not understand."
"Can't you read?"
"It says 'Hulk likes Fuchsia. He wants his pants to look like that."
"AHHHH!" The Hulk's blood was practically boiling. Wanting to lunge at Speed Demon, yet knowing it would do no good, made him even madder. He wished he could swat Speed Demon like a bug. In order to vent some of his anger, he visualized Speed Demon trapped in the palm of his hand, then brought his hands together as hard as he could.
The resulting force of the impact sent a shockwave through the air in every direction in front of him. Unable to evade the wall of wind, Speed Demon found himself recoiling as though he had been struck a glancing blow from Power Man. Still conscious, but thoroughly stunned, the speedster lay insensate on the ground.
The Hulk pointed and laughed. "Now who hates fuchsia?"
The giant's amusement ended as he felt himself picked up from behind and held in mid-air. Without any leverage, he found himself spun around, then thrown violently through several walls.
Power Man, heavily winded from throwing the Hulk, gasped as he helped Speed Demon to his feet. They looked at the hole the Hulk's form had created.
Speed Demon said, "Hey, did he end up where I think he did?"
"Looks that way," Power Man said.
The two looked at each other, then nodded their heads in agreement. "RUN!"
Bucky and Hawkeye had backed away only a handful of steps when a wind came from behind them. They turned around, and cringed once again as they found themselves hemmed in by Speed Demon.
The speedster gasped out to his ruler, "I have good news and bad news."
"Good news first," the Mandarin ordered.
"The Hulk's been taken out."
"That is good news," the Mandarin agreed.
"The bad news is we did it by throwing him into the armory."
The Mandarin paled, "You mean—"
A tremendous explosion, like a thousand cannons going off, shook the fortress to its very foundations.
"—the one where we were storing the missiles we decided we didn't need, since the laser system could down any aircraft that came too close. Wow! Are those titties? Can I feel them? I promise not to pinch or anything," Speed Demon asked as his attention became completely riveted to Bucky's chest.
"How can things possibly get worse?" the Mandarin wailed.
Mjolnir cut through the air like a missile, striking the A-bra-mination cleanly in the face and off his feet.
"Thou must reckon with the Goddess of Thunder! Thy fate is now sealed!" Thor, looking as though she had dug her way through half the mountain, ran forward, catching Mjolnir in mid-run as it returned. Speed Demon got out of the way of the charging goddess as she struck the rising A-bra-mination hard in the jaw and sent him back to the ground.
The Goddess of Thunder turned to her comrades. "My apologies for coming to the rescue so late, but I found myself in dire straits and was forced to…" she trailed off as her eyes settled on Bucky's topless state. Her relief at seeing her companions alive quickly changed to anger. She leveled an accusatory finger at the shorter girl. "Harlot! Hast thou no shame? Once again thou go traipsing about like a painted whore. No doubt thou sought to save thy life by offering thy body to these depraved minions of darkness."
"I didn't offer nothin' to anyone!" Bucky shouted. "I was laying my ass on the line while you were playing rainmaker with your dumb hammer."
"Obviously thou wast laying more than thy bottom on the line."
"Don't get angry with me just because my chest is better than yours."
Thor took a step forward. "Take that back! I have a much better chest than thou!"
A repulsor blast cleaved the air, separating the two. "We are losing focus here," Iron Rose said impatiently.
Bucky turned on her. "Like you got room to talk after the Mandarin took you out with two little shots."
"A thousand pardons," Iron Rose said sincerely. "The Mandarin's blast, while unpleasant, did not reduce my combat effectiveness significantly. However, the room I was knocked into had the very computers I had been looking for. Hoping you would be able to hold off the Mandarin and his lackeys for a few moments, I hooked up to the computer and found the necessary interface system to allow my armor to communicate with this alien technology."
"So what did you find? Can you stop the satellite?" Bucky asked.
Iron Rose shook her head. "I was unable to either alter either the route or the target of the satellite. Only the Mandarin can do that. However, I was able to locate its current position and path of travel, as well as discovering its current recharge rate. Unfortunately my armor's too big and heavy for me to fly there before it fires. I knew I should have taken the time to streamline the design, even if it meant sacrificing strength and protection for speed! Damn it all!" Iron Rose took a deep breath, then turned her attention to Thor. "How fast can you fly?"
"I can make the air quake like thunder should I bring my full powers to bear."
Iron Rose did a quick calculation in her head. "Yes, that should do it. I'll need you to fly me to the satellite so we can destroy it in time. With my jets adding to our flight, we should just make it."
"But what of the villains?" Thor asked.
Bucky said, "Only you guys can stop the satellite, and you gotta leave now. Don't worry about us. We'll take care of the rest of the bad guys."
An animal cry of rage came from the A-bra-mination as he finally recovered enough from Thor's surprise beating to attack. He sprang up to his hooves and charged the heroes.
"Would you please shut up?" Iron Rose disengaged her safety limiters on her repulsors. Aiming her palms at his head, she unleashed a pair of yellow beams of energy four times greater than any she had fired before.
Electricity from Thor's hammer joined the assault and leapt to the A-Bra-Mination's body. This time when he went down he did not get back up.
Wisps of smoke rose from Iron Rose's repulsors. "Now I'll definitely need you to carry me there, otherwise my repulsors will never recharge. I'm sure they will be by the time we get there, even if my boot jets are going at full burn." There was a hint of doubt in her voice, but at the same time it was obvious she thought there was no other alternative.
Thor looked mournfully at her hammer. "And I did wish mightily to gain revenge upon the Mandarin. Is it so important to destroy this satellite?"
It took Iron Rose a moment to realize Thor had not been present when the Mandarin had been bragging about his scheme. "It can create a thirty-five kilometer beam of destruction and Tokyo is its target."
"We have to stop him!" Thor tapped her hammer twice upon the ground. A tremendous bolt of lighting erupted through the roof, striking the hammer. The path of the bolt served to blast a large hole through the multiple levels of the fortress to the air outside.
The goddess detached her cape and handed it to Bucky. "Thou doth need raiment to protect thee from the chill."
"Thanks." Bucky was actually moved by the gesture. She wrapped the cape around her upper chest, tying it off so while she still showed much of her midsection; her top and all that lay there was covered. "I'll be sure to give Mandy a good right for you."
"Make it two rights and a left," Thor said as she picked up Iron Rose under one arm and spun her hammer around by its thong until it was a blur. She then released it, and shot through the hole in the ceiling. Seconds later, the sonic boom from above as she reached her top velocity echoed down below.
Satisfied the satellite would be taken care of, Bucky turned to confront the opposition. "All right, Mandy. Here's where you get your… Hey! Where did he go?"
"Elektra's gone too," Hawkeye pointed out.
"I'm still here," Speed Demon said.
The pair looked at the grinning man. Bucky started to tense up when Hawkeye laid a hand on her shoulder. "You go on and take care of the Mandarin. He's up to something. I can feel it. I'll join you as soon as I take care of Speed Bump again."
"The name is Speed Demon!" he snapped. "And you got lucky with the grease last time since I was fighting someone else. I'll beat you bad, just like I did the first time."
"What about your arm?" Bucky asked Hawkeye, pointing at the blood that now dripped all the way down the length of her firing arm.
"It looks worse than it is," the archer assured her.
Bucky was torn between friendship and duty, but eventually the latter won. "You better watch out for yourself."
"I will." Hawkeye lamented her luck as Bucky ran off. If only it had been that hunky captain showing such concern for her instead of his busty sidekick. Now that the archer thought about it, she hoped the two weren't an item. She could tell right away that the redhead was far too loose for an upright kind of guy like Captain Japan. He needed someone who was a better match for him; a hero who could compliment his fighting prowess on the field as well as off. He needed someone like Hawkeye as a partner. She had range attacks to compliment his defensive abilities. They would be a perfect pairing. She'd have to drop a few hints to him the next time they met.
Hawkeye could see it now, after a hard day of adventuring and bringing down thieves and thugs, they would return to her restaurant where she they could shed their masks. Then she would cook him the best okonomiyaki in the world, since it came from the heart…
"Hey, don't forget about me. I'm still here," Speed Demon said, noting the dream-like expression his opponent had started to gain.
"I only wish I could." Hawkeye grimaced as she pulled an arrow out of her quiver. The injury to her shooting arm had been worse than she let on. But somehow she knew the Mandarin was up to no good and had to be stopped. Bucky had to take him on, even if it meant Hawkeye would have to fight a man who was much closer to peak condition than her.
Hawkeye brought her bow up and drew back an arrow. She was only able to pull it halfway before the pain in her shoulder became so intense spots began to dance before her eyes. She recalculated the trajectory to her target with only a half pull and released her shaft.
Speed Demon easily snatched the arrow in mid-air and tossed it aside. "This is ridiculous. You can't even shoot. Let me knock you out."
"No!" Hawkeye drew another arrow.
Speed Demon sighed. "Fine. I'll give you three shots at me. I'll just stand here and let you shoot three times. And the one I grabbed counts. So you only have two more to go. After that, I'm knocking you out whether you like it or not."
"Fine." Hawkeye gave off a high pitched cry as she was able to bring the string back even less than before. There was a light twang as the arrow was forced to arc up in order to reach its target.
Again Speed Demon plucked the arrow out of mid-air. "I don't even need super speed to grab these." He tossed it aside as well.
Sweat dripped down Hawkeye's cheek. If she didn't get him this time, it was all over. That would leave Bucky to fight three opponents, and even if her fighting prowess rivaled that of the Captain himself, she would still be outmatched. Hawkeye had to take this guy out no matter what.
Speed Demon shook his head sadly as the archer drew a third arrow. He was amused as he watched her rub the tip, then nocked it to her bow. He yawned in contempt. He was yawning for so long he was almost caught off-guard as Hawkeye gave a cry of intense pain and drew the bow string back as far as it could go and released the shaft.
But for Speed Demon, almost was not enough. Instead the speedster found his concentration in time and caught the shaft a handful of centimeters away from his chest. He laughed. "Nice try, making that last one come hard and fast, but—"
There was a click from the arrowhead, and Speed Demon found himself the recipient of a heavy dosage of electricity. He fell to the ground, smoke wafting from his prone body.
Hawkeye fell to her knees from the exertion. "Guess what. Shock arrows can also be set on timers, and the shafts are always metal. Oh, but I guess you found that out."
Completely exhausted, Hawkeye tried moving her arm, and found the limb barely responsive. It had taken all of her remaining energy to fire the last arrow, and she thought something snapped in her arm when she did it. She hoped it was a strain rather than a tear. In any case, she was helpless. If she tried to help Bucky now, she'd be nothing but a liability. She cursed her luck.
The room vibrated slightly, and Hawkeye could hear the unmistakable sound of portions of the fortress caving in. Maybe the whole problem with the Mandarin was about to take care of itself. Hawkeye picked the still unconscious Daredevil up with her good arm and managed to hoist him on her back in a half fireman's carry. "You weigh a ton," she grunted, then realized with all of the secret weapons he carried, he just might.
"You're going to owe me big for this," she groaned as she tried finding an exit to the crumbling fortress.
"How good of you to join me," the Mandarin said as he made his way into the fortress's main control room.
Elektra detached herself from the shadows she had hidden in as she followed her employer. "I do not live under the delusion I am capable of defeating either Iron Rose or Thor. Only a fool does not run from what is obviously a lost cause."
The Mandarin noted the words were directed towards him. He scoffed. "While it's true I've suffered a major setback today, it is not the end. Yes, this fortress is lost. There's no question it's structural integrity is compromised. However, I will take my revenge."
"How?" the assassin asked, noting that the ceiling of this chamber was beginning to crack.
Dust began filtering down from above as the Mandarin laughed. He adjusted the controls of the satellite. "Those fools believe the beam can only be fired when it's fully recharged. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That's only the beam's maximum setting. It can be fired at any point during the recharge process. It's just that the beam won't be as wide. And really, in the big scheme of things, what's the difference between thirty-five kilometers or…" he looked at one of the gauges. "…Thirty-two?"
"Killing all of those people gains you nothing but the survivors' anger," Elektra said.
A pebble fell from above, bouncing off the Mandarin's mane of white hair. He took no note of it. "Having second thoughts about killing people? An assassin like you?"
Elektra's voice was cold. "I have never killed out of malice or some misguided form of revenge. It was always with some notable gain in mind."
"So you killed for money. I'm doing it now for personal satisfaction." The Mandarin raised his fists into the air. "These heroes have ruined my lifelong ambition. It will take me years to reestablish my power base. Oh, make no mistake. I will do it. I will rule this world. But these accursed meddlers have taken away my victory; so I will make it as Pyrrhic for them as I can manage, and that means Tokyo dies. Their nation will be thrown into chaos and anarchy for years, and it will be solely because of their meddling. Everything would have been fine and there would have been peace if they hadn't stuck their noses in where they didn't belong. And now they'll pay for it!" He threw a lever. "It's done. It'll take several minutes for the cannon to warm up for its premature firing, but it's over."
Elektra looked at the ceiling worriedly. "We should leave now."
"I'll remain here long enough to ascertain personally that Tokyo is vaporized," the Mandarin swore.
"Not a chance, pal!"
The Mandarin turned his delighted look from his controls up to see Bucky had entered the room. He shot her an evil stare. "You have my thanks for coming here. You have no idea the satisfaction your death brings me. I would have preferred to leave you alive long enough to witness your failure to protect your homeland, but I'm afraid I haven't the time." He raised his right hand.
In response, Bucky brought up her shield to block the blast.
The Mandarin laughed. It was a painful thing to hear, filled with as much suffering as it was anger. "Your shield can't protect you from disintegration! Now I will kill you as I should have done the first time I laid eyes upon you!" He unleashed the mental command to the appropriate ring.
A sai was driven through the Mandarin's hand just as the beam was emitted. Instead of going through the shield and into flesh, it cut a semicircle through the stone under the Mandarin's feet, as well as several floors below. He cried out, momentarily overwhelmed by the agony.
Bucky watched in stunned silence at Elektra's actions; inexplicable ones that had saved her life. Then she saw the assassin pull back the Mandarin's head and raise her second sai, obviously intending to plunge it into his throat.
"No! Don't kill him!" Bucky cried out.
Elektra hesitated. It was all the Mandarin needed to lash out with a blue encased fist from his good hand. The blow caught Elektra in her chest, and she flew backward.
The Mandarin rose to his feet, pulling the bloody sai from his hand and tossing it aside. The look of murder in his eye was twice that of before. "Traitor! Now you'll die first!" He raised his other hand and pointed it at her.
A thrown shield smashed into his wrist, causing his hand to fly upward. Flames erupted from the ring, pouring out onto the stones above. Like napalm, the alien fire clung to the rock rather than merely going out, its heat intense enough to slowly begin melting the stone.
The Mandarin tried to bring his hand up, but Bucky was upon him, laying in punches and kicks, driving him back. He couldn't seem to summon a defense as Bucky continued hammering into his body. His dragon scale armor deflected most of the force of the body shots, but still they took their toll, backed by a strength no normal woman should have had. Several blows connected with his face. Blood poured from a split lip. A hard right into the jaw, and several shiny white teeth flew from the mouth and bounced off the master control panel.
A particularly strong kick sent the Mandarin skidding across the stone several feet away. He tried to rise and fell back down, curling into a heap.
"Finish him!" Elektra demanded.
Bucky stopped her attack. The words made her realize how much damage she had inflicted, and the fact that she had no intention of stopping. But the command had shocked her out of her anger. She gave Elektra a firm look. "No way."
The assassin trembled in anger. "Don't be a fool! He's a mass murderer! There isn't a person in the world who would say he deserves less than death!"
Bucky shook her head, her resolve like iron. "I don't do stuff like that. If I did, you'd be dead in the river."
"Roaring Dragon's Bite!" the Mandarin cried out, using Bucky's distraction to supreme advantage. A huge dragon shaped chi blast hurled itself from his body.
Caught unaware, the blast completely 'swallowed' Bucky in her entirety. As the blast dissipated, she was left behind. She remained standing for a moment, her form smoldering blue from the energy that had consumed her. Then her legs began trembling violently, unable to support her weight. She fell to the knees, then collapsed facedown on the floor, unable to rise.
Before he could press the advantage, the Mandarin found several shuriken thrown his way. Three deflected harmlessly off his armor. A fourth found its way into a joint at his elbow, the arm with the wounded hand. He snarled out in pain.
"Die!" the Mandarin shouted, sending flames, bolts of electricity and shards of ice in Elektra's direction.
Using every ounce of speed and agility she possessed, Elektra avoided the beams of death by only the slightest of margins. Several of the smaller ice shards embedded themselves in her skin, drawing only a superficial amount of blood.
The Mandarin switched tactics. A sudden flash like a thousand light bulbs shone in Elektra's direction, momentarily blinding her. A bolt of electricity followed, striking home. Elektra fell to the ground, her unmoving, partially blackened form smoldering just as Bucky's had earlier.
The Mandarin aimed at the stationary target. "And now, as with all good things, it is time we came to an ending."
Thor found herself flying faster than ever before thanks to the thrust Iron's Rose's jets adding to her own hammer-imbued flight. They had reached the upper atmosphere within minutes. Thor's godly form was able to withstand the rigors of such travel, even in deep space, for a limited time. She was uncertain of how she knew this, since she had never been in space, but she did. Iron Rose had an internal air supply, and the armor was easily durable enough to withstand the hardships of space temporarily.
Thor found the panoramic view from this height extraordinary. She could see so much of the land below her, and with the naked eye alone. Mountains, rivers, small clusters of buildings that were actually cities, passed below as she flew over the landscape. It was beautiful.
Unfortunately, she did not have the luxury of enjoying the scenery. A far grimmer task was ahead as she and Iron Rose raced against time. Millions of lives were on the line, including her family's. Failure was not an option.
As she traveled through the atmosphere, Thor's mind raced ahead to her home in Nerima. What was her family doing now? She tried to remember what time it was there, since the journey to China and her hours spent in unconsciousness had thrown her off completely. She suspected it was around dinner time. Kasumi would be preparing the family's meal. Nabiki would be working out, studying a martial art she openly loathed. Their father was probably engaging in his new hobby of playing shogi with Mr. Saotome, or trying to hook one of the girls up with Ranma.
Ranma. What was he doing? He was an unusual sort. Not at all like the jerks at school. He didn't stare at her or treat her daintily like most people did. Her affliction had not jarred him in the slightest. Actually, he was a bit rude to her at times, which people never were. But that was because they felt they had to be extra sensitive around her due to her handicap, which in many ways was as painful as if they did mock the injury. Not that she liked it when Ranma was rude, but on the other hand, he acted the same way around Nabiki when she vexed him as well. It meant he viewed her in the same terms as her non-handicapped sister, which was comforting in a fashion.
And then there was the wonderful Dr. Tofu. This was his day off, so he'd probably be tinkering with his machine again. She missed him already. And there was Yuka and Sayuri, and everyone else she knew. All of them unaware that they had been targeted for death by a would-be world conqueror and it was up to Thor and her companions to save them from annihilation. She wondered if they get a chance to see the light coming from above and wonder what it meant, or would death come in an instant and they would never realize what had happened?
No! That could not be allowed to happen. Thor could not afford to fail like she had against the Mandarin. They had to get to the satellite and destroy it. She would not see everything she loved taken from her. She would give her life itself before that would happen.
And then something in the distance caught her eye. It was a flash of light that appeared somewhere in the upper atmosphere and slightly to the left.
Over the comlink Iron Rose had given her, Thor asked, "What doth that portend?"
Iron Rose's voice was full of fear as she said, "It's the satellite. But that's impossible! It still needs two minutes to recharge. I know it does!"
"Shoot it down!"
Fear became panic. "I cannot. It's out of range. Even if I were to boost the power of my repulsors it would only increase the damage they could inflict, not the distance."
"We have to do something!" Thor insisted, tears beginning to fill her eyes as the glow grew brighter. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. Thor wasn't helpless like Akane Tendou was. She wasn't!
"There's nothing we can do. We're… helpless."
The light glowed like a small star, and a white beam began to stretch out from the bottom, like a giant lance pointing to the world below.
The Mandarin turned from Elektra. The interruption was doubly irritating since he had finally ended the mental debate of whether to fry her nervous system with electricity, turn her into a giant block of ice, or burn her to death. He had chosen burning since death would not be instantaneous and the suffering would continue longer.
Since the annoying shield-slinger seemed intent on delaying his fun, he decided Bucky would suffer that fate instead. He turned, aiming at the voice. The moment he saw what the hero was doing, his hand wavered.
Despite being battered within an inch of her life and completely exhausted, Bucky stood next to one of the computers, shield raised over her head. "You seemed to be fooling around with this panel right before I came in. I bet it's important to you."
"I command you to stop!" the Mandarin shouted.
Bucky smirked. "That's all I needed to know." And brought the shield down.
A raging torrent of chi fire emitted from the Mandarin's body and headed towards Bucky. But it was too late as the shield's adamantium and vibranium edge, backed by Bucky's serum enhanced strength, smashed through the metal and shattered the controls, shredding the delicate circuitry underneath. Sparks leaped about the whole control board and the command room filled with the smell of ozone and acrid smoke.
Bucky had no time to enjoy her victory as the Mandarin's chi blast struck her. She was hurled into the control panel she had destroyed, burned by some of the electricity, and bounced back away to the hard stone floor. She was left moaning on the ground, chi and electricity making breathing an ordeal.
"You bitch!" the Mandarin raged. "You destroyed the controls and aborted the override on the firing sequence! You've destroyed my plans again!" He brought his hand up once more. His eyes focused on the only thing that existed in his mind. "There's no force in the universe that can save you now. I, Prince Herb of the Musk Dynasty, hereby sentence you to death."
Bucky weakly pointed towards the ceiling over his head. "Look out above you."
"Don't insult my intelligence!" the Mandarin shouted. "No one ever falls for that on—"
The rest was drowned out by tons of fire weakened, stress torn, rock ceiling as it came crashing down on the Mandarin. The force and weight of the rock was so great it shattered the disintegrator-weakened floor, dropping the entire mass out of sight.
"Told you so," Bucky said before her head slumped and she remained motionless.
The light died and all returned to the former blackness of space, punctuated by only the normal pinpoints of light that signified the vastness of the universe.
"It didn't fire." It was almost a question from the way Iron Rose stated it. "It didn't fire." The next time was more confident and firm, said in obvious delight. "It didn't fire!"
Thor felt the tension flee her body. Her family — her entire life — was safe now. She looked again upon the land below. No longer plagued by the knowledge that the fate of millions hung on her actions, she was able to enjoy the scenery. She smiled at the land as it passed by below her. It was a pity she couldn't ask the Iron Rose to take pictures (surely she had a camera function in the armor somewhere) and show her family, but there was no way she could explain how she had acquired them.
"Oh my God!"
Thor returned her attention to Iron Rose. "What is it?"
"Look!" She pointed off in the distance.
Thor followed the direction the finger indicated, and felt her heart sink into her stomach again. The light had reappeared, much brighter this time given the distance that had closed between them and their destination. "But… but it stopped. It had stopped."
"Whatever it was that prevented it from firing prematurely must not have interrupted its normal firing sequence. We have to destroy it!"
"Can thou smite it from the skies now?"
"Yes, I think it's in range. Damn! I eased back on the jets when I thought it wasn't going to fire. We aren't as close as I thought we'd be!"
"Punish thyself not overmuch. I fear I acted in like manner." The light grew brighter. "Now the world will pay for our mistake."
"Yes! I can just make it." Iron Rose raised her hands for a twin repulsor blast. A moment later, she cursed. "Damn!"
Thor's heart was racing. "What now?"
"I can't get a lock on it. I thought by downloading its coordinates my armor could automatically shoot it, but whatever it's made of is invisible to my targeting system."
"Just shoot it down by aiming."
"It's not that close, and I'm not that great a shot, especially with long distances!"
The brightness of the satellite doubled.
"Shoot!" Thor ordered.
Iron Rose did so. Twin gouts of energy emitted from the palms of her gauntlets. The beams stretched across the void of space towards the light that was their goal.
They sailed far wide to the left, leaving the brightness to triple.
"I know! I know!" Iron Rose fired a second time.
The blast went to the right. A white light began to stretch out from the bottom of the satellite, identical to the previous time.
Iron Rose fired one last shot.
Time seemed to stretch into infinity. This close, they could make out bright motes of red light circling the projection at the bottom of the satellite. It seemed like the satellite hung motionless, and the light moved independently. The world no longer moved below, the island of Japan directly beneath all three of the bodies that hung in orbit.
And then time started again. The white light at the bottom flashed.
Iron Rose's blast struck the base of the satellite, exactly at the source that the projection of light was emanating.
Silently a wide white beam of energy lanced forth from the satellite to the planet below.
"NO!" both Iron Rose and Thor shouted as one.
A small explosion came from the point of impact of Iron Rose's repulsor blast. Smaller ones joined with the first, traveling up the length of the satellite and increasing in number and force. It listed to the side, like a slender ship starting to capsize in an ocean of eternal night. There was one last tremendous explosion, and it tore the satellite apart in the middle, sending torn pieces of metal, wires, and plastics in all directions. One half of it began a slow process of reentering the atmosphere, while the other seemed content to remain drifting along the path it had previously taken.
Thor found her mouth dry as she released her grip on Iron Rose and arrested her own forward motion, hovering in orbit like the satellite had a moment before. It was over. She had failed. Everyone she loved was dead. Surely Ragnarok could be no less devastating than the horror she had just witnessed. Her mind all but shut down, unable to deal with what had happened. She felt like curling up in a ball and remaining floating in orbit, eventually either freezing to death or burning up in reentry. It didn't matter. She couldn't live with the knowledge she had failed everyone so miserably. All her power, and she was as she always had been; as helpless as a cripple.
Iron Rose began waving her arms frantically, one of them striking Thor in the chest. The blow eradicated the stupor Thor had fallen into. Anger replacing sorrow, she grabbed Iron Rose by her thick helmet, where the neck would be had it been slimmer, and threatened to crumple it as though her companion was nothing more than an aluminum can.
"Tis thy fault too that we failed to stop the rain of death!"
"It didn't hit the mainland!"
Thor released her grip. "What did thou say?"
"My armor triangulated the path of the beam. My blast must have thrown off the trajectory at the last moment. It struck the ocean instead. Not far from the coast, but it missed. Everyone's still alive!" The armored girl would have jumped for joy had she not been flying in mid-air.
A wave of relief washed over Thor. Still, she feared to hope. "Art thou certain? Tis not another mistake in thine calculations?"
"I'm absolutely sure. Let me tune into the local radio frequencies."
Thor watched her armored compatriot cock her head quizzically, obviously listening to something only she could hear.
In a handful of minutes, Iron Rose announced, "The JSDF is reporting a strange light striking fifty kilometers off shore from the mainland. They're sending out jets to investigate and rerouting commercial aircraft out of the area. We did it!"
At last Thor allowed herself a moment to relax. She and the Iron Rose hugged one another in joy, hanging in space as they were.
After a moment, Thor's demeanor turned serious. "We still need to mete vengeance upon he who perpetrated this travesty in the first place."
With great relish in her voice, Iron Rose said, "Yes, let's tell the Mandarin how we destroyed his plans before we tear his head from his shoulders."
Elektra walked painfully over to where the floor had caved in, being extra careful around the edge, lest she share the Mandarin's fate. The hole went deep. Obviously the disintegrator had sheared through multiple floors, weakening them enough that the mass from those above each one was sufficient to drag the Mandarin and the tons of rubble down into the abyss with him. "He is disposed of," she informed Bucky.
"I warned him," Bucky said, flat on her back and too tired to move. All life was sacred, but she couldn't find it in her heart to feel bad about the Mandarin's demise. He had literally brought it upon himself.
She watched as Elektra, only in marginally better shape, moved away from the edge of the hole. Her weapons had been lost at some point during the battle.
The kerchief she usually wore on her head was missing as well, allowing a tangled mass of black hair to fall freely past her shoulders and down her back. Her outfit was torn in several revealing spots. Not as revealing as Bucky's, but almost as bad. Especially the top, which had lost its straps and was fighting a losing battle with hiding the impressive bust that was holding it up.
"Why'd you turn on him?" Bucky asked.
The assassin shrugged. "Motives mean nothing. It is done. My fate is sealed. I feel no remorse for my actions, nor would I have acted differently."
Bucky gave a smug look. "It was me, wasn't it? All my talking about doing the right thing and being responsible for the safety of others made you turn from a bad guy to good, right?"
Elektra shot her an icy glare. "I said I do not regret my actions. Do not make me start now."
"Right, right." Bucky placed a hand behind her head and laughed nervously.
The destruction started by the latest ceiling collapse began to stretch throughout the rest of the command center. Increasingly large piece of masonry fell in a rain of rock and dust.
Bucky tried rising to her feet, but the punishment her body had taken was too much, and she fell to the ground halfway through the attempt. "We need to get out of here."
Elektra remained where she was, watching the hero's futile attempt to rise.
Shooting her an irritated glare, Bucky said, "Are you going stand there or are you going to help me up? This place ain't going to last much longer."
In answer, Elektra moved away to a section where more rocks were starting to fall heavily.
"What are you doing? We have to get out," Bucky insisted.
Elektra gave him a sad look, "Tell me something, Captain. I am still an assassin with many deaths that I am directly responsible for. Would you send me to prison?"
Bucky shifted uncomfortably. "Um, well, yeah. You sort of have to go for all you did. But I'll tell them you helped beat the Mandarin. Not that I couldn't have taken him on my own, of course. Just that you helped speed things up. I'm sure you'll get a reduced sentence or something." She shrugged helplessly.
Elektra moved back further. "I have no desire to spend the rest of my days behind bars, not that my master would allow me to live for long after this betrayal. The Hand can reach anywhere. No, Captain. I have burned all my bridges and, for some curious reason, am happier for it. But I do not live under the illusion that there are not lethal repercussions from it. I will not waste my time, nor insult you, by suggesting you travel with me. A pity. I think we would have had an enjoyable life together."
Finally, Bucky managed to rise to her feet. "Get over here where it ain't collapsing as much and we can talk about it. Maybe we can work something out."
Elektra laughed and gave the girl a grin. "I somehow doubt you would compromise your integrity for someone with so much blood on her hands, and I would settle for nothing less than having you for my own. I fear this is the end, Captain." She smiled and took another step back.
Bucky saw the remaining portion of the roof above Elektra begin to fall. "Look out above you!"
The amused grin remained. "No one ever falls for that one, Captain. Bie Liao."
And the rocks hit, making Elektra disappear within the hail of stone. Bucky lunged forward, heedless of the risk, shouting out Elektra's name.
And then the floor lurched, then gave out beneath her. Bucky tried to leap back, but tripped over the uneven surface and fell, striking her head hard against a rock.
Bucky tried fighting off the darkness, but the ordeal of all the fighting from the last day and half proved too much. Just as she blacked out, she thought she saw a figure looming over her.
And then there was nothing.
Giant Man had just completed dressing Daredevil's wound when the death throes of the fortress reached his ears. He looked on in horror as the roof gave out. With the top gone, the structure caved in on itself, like a house of cards constructed of stone rather than paper.
Wasp looked on at the destruction. "Oh dear. You don't suppose Bucky was caught in that, do you?"
Hawkeye said, "I don't see her. I need to go in and find out."
"Don't," Giant Man rose to a height of eight meters and placed a restraining hand in front of her. "It's still unstable, and you only have one good arm. We'd probably just lose you too."
"She stayed behind to take care of the Mandarin. We can't just leave her to her fate. We have to do something!" Hawkeye protested.
Daredevil fingered his wound gingerly. "If someone could carry me close enough, I might be able to hear her crying for help. Assuming she's still in good enough shape to call out. Besides, I want to find Elektra. She still has answers I need to hear."
Giant Man rubbed his chin in thought. "I can probably grow large enough to move around the debris without worrying about it burying me."
It was at that moment that the air quaked, announcing the return of the satellite destroyers, Thor and Iron Rose. All talk waited until the pair landed next to the group of heroes. Thor did a quick headcount. "Where is the harlot? And who art these two?" she said, looking at Wasp and Giant Man.
The duo introduced themselves. Thor looked them over. The small flying girl was of no concern, she was the height of an insect, so what could she really do? The man was a bit on the slender side and seemed passive. Compared to the physically appealing Captain Japan or the archer with the tight buns (and that was to say nothing of his ability to kiss), he quickly was ranked a distant third, and maybe even fourth on the desirability chart, depending on whether Daredevil acted like his usual reclusive self or not.
"Do you have anything that can find people underground?" Hawkeye asked Iron Rose.
"Not really. This armor is suited more for combat than surveillance and rescue operations. I could try something though."
"I knew I shouldn't have let her take the Mandarin and that backstabbing bitch alone!" Hawkeye lamented. "I have to go find her now."
Thor restrained the archer with a firm hand. "Losing you would only make matters worse," the goddess assured her. "We will let Giant Man and Daredevil try their hand first."
Giant Man shot up to a height of fourteen meters, and was about to pick up Daredevil, when a tremendous explosion came from the remains of the fortress. All panicked at the idea of further destruction and the ever decreasing chance of finding Bucky alive, when the cause of the destruction finished its leap and landed amongst them.
"Stupid Not-So-Little-Man tried to bury Hulk! Hulk is not a bone! Hulk hates being buried! Where is Not-So-Little-Man, so Hulk can smash?!"
"Bucky!" Everyone called out as one.
The Hulk looked down at the burden cradled in his arms. "Oh yes. Hulk found Shield Girl under some rocks. Hulk got her out before she was buried as deep as Hulk was. Hulk bets she hates being buried as much as he does."
"Jeez, being saved by this big galoot is so embarrassing," Bucky said, crawling out of his grasp and onto the ground. She quickly found herself encircled by the others.
They made quite the collection of people. Most of them looked like they had been shoved through a blender filled with broken glass with all the injuries they had sustained, then tossed into a deep pit with all the dirt and grime they were covered in. But they were all alive and with no permanent injuries.
Once things calmed down enough for the others to listen, Bucky informed them what happened in the Mandarin's chamber. Thor seemed disappointed she would not get a chance to avenge herself. Daredevil seemed despondent over the assassin's death.
Iron Rose said, "It would be best to contact the authorities and tell them what transpired here. With the Mandarin's threat ended, the world can sleep well tonight."
The others started congratulating another on a job well done when Bucky cleared her throat loudly. All eyes turned to her.
"I've been giving this some thought. I'll admit, I wasn't too enthusiastic about becoming a superhero in the beginning, but with what happened here today, and with how close the world came to being conquered, well, I can't deny it any more. The world needs people like us to help defend it from people like the Mandarin."
The others nodded in agreement, even the Hulk.
"Now if we had worked as a team from the beginning, instead of a bunch of individuals, we would have kicked the Mandarin's butt before he got his satellite off the ground and killed all those poor people in Mexico. I mean, I know he was responsible for it, but we still have to accept some of the blame since we didn't stop him in time."
The others ashamedly agreed. They dealt with the loss in different ways, from giving a moment of silence for those lost to praying for their souls, or even shedding a tear for the fallen.
Bucky waited a moment to deal with some of the guilt that had settled in. "Anyway, we can't do anything for them, but we can do something to prevent it from happening again."
"How?" Wasp asked.
"All of us here agree to form a superhero team. We get some organization, and stuff like that and, you know, work together to fight off menaces as they appear. None of us could have handled this alone, so it only make sense we be a team."
Wasp flitted about enthusiastically. "Oh my, that sounds good. I want to be a real superhero. Count me in." Her family was just going to have to get by cooking and cleaning on their own from time to time.
Reluctantly, Giant Man said, "Well, if my partner's in, so am I." He sighed, hoping his practice didn't suffer too much from all the superheroing he would be doing on the side.
Thor gave a broad smile. "It would be good to fight with comrades at mine side again." It would be like the good old days when she dashed into adventure with the Warriors Three. Many menaces they would fight. And after they emerged triumphant, they would celebrate hard with copious amounts of wine and wenching. "Wenching?"
"What did you wrench?" Bucky asked.
"Nothing, nothing!" Thor said hastily. "I wish to be part of thine group."
"Heck, I've been looking for someone to partner up with," Hawkeye said. The lonely days of patrolling alone were over. And who knew, maybe she'd even get close enough to one of the guys to reveal her true gender and finally go out on a date.
The Hulk asked, "Are you Hulk's friends?"
Bucky slapped him on the back. "I guess we are, big guy."
"Hulk does not have many friends. Hulk will join."
Iron Rose said, "Not only shall I join, but I can guarantee my employer will be more than happy to finance the team, as well as providing a base of operations and a modest stipend as a form of recompense for your time and trouble." And she was going to make it all one massive charitable contribution and write it off her taxes.
Daredevil was the last to agree. "I'm used to working alone. Actually, I'm used to always being alone. But recently someone told me that I might have become a bit too solitary. I'm willing to give it a shot." But if things didn't go the way he hoped, he would be the first to head out too. He didn't care much for his companions, but he supposed there was the possibility they would grow on him.
"What about Captain Japan?" Hawkeye asked, trying not to sound too eager about it.
"I guarantee he'll join," Bucky assured her. "I speak for him all the time and he does the same for me. Only, ah, we split time on the superhero thing, so I doubt if we'll be there at the same time. But one or the other of us will show up."
"I was under the impression this was a full time commitment," Iron Rose said.
"One of us will be there. Two halves will be like one whole person there."
"Why on earth do you split time being heroes?" Wasp asked.
"Well… you see… it's sort of like," Bucky started to panic then the answer came to her. "We only got the one shield. So we split time with it. And we both feel naked without it, so we only go out one at a time."
"Thou doth have a tendency to go about naked even with it," Thor said with a touch of irritation in her voice.
"And what's going to be our name?" Wasp asked.
"Yeah, we need a good name," Hawkeye agreed.
The others considered the question. Almost by some unspoken consensus, all eyes turned to Bucky.
Realizing she was the center of attention, she was about to snap out why she had to come up with the name, when it came to her. "Since we stopped the Mandarin and avenged all those people in Mexico he killed, I say we call ourselves the Avengers."
Everyone agreed solemnly with that.
And thus, it was on a lonely mountaintop in Western China that the superhero group known as the Avengers was born.
And somewhere in time, the man more commonly known as Kang the Conqueror raged against all the heavens and everything under them as well. But in that timeless void, his anger passed, and control was regained. After all, the moment of truth had not yet come. Preventing the Avengers' formation was merely the first chance he could take to prevent the event from coming to pass. It was still some distance off. The event could still be averted and he could make everything right once again.
After all, as the unequivocal Master of Time, he still had time.
Time to kill them all.
Author's notes: And here ends the first story arc to Avenging. Worked out just as I hoped. Got to the resolution the way I wanted. Left lots of threads to pick up for the second arc. Had the right mix of seriousness and humor I wanted. Anyone want to see more? Still have lots of fun in mind, including the Hulkbusters, the Enchantress and Executioner, the Steel Lilly, and Happosai getting his hands on some gazongas. Do let me know if it sounds interesting to you.
Special thanks to:
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