The Book of Darwin: Chapter 2

A Whateley Academy Adventure

The Book of Darwin Chapter 2

(Death of a Year)

By Joe Gunnarson

December 23rd, Darwin, Australia

Last minute Christmas shopping was fun. The Outcasts were still recovering from the Rager’s Night march, and talking to Caitlin. She’d spent most of the previous day looking at the biography for Conner Edwards, going over the history of the kid. Jericho never said a word to anyone about what she had confessed that night, acting as her sin-eater, and sharing her burden so that maybe she could stop hating herself for living when others had not.

Jericho’s mother had started reading the riot act about running away, making everyone worry when her oldest son told her, in no uncertain terms, to drop it and let it go. All of the outcasts were more than a little shocked, as were his family. Joe, for all his foibles, never defied or outright disobeyed his parents. But for whatever reason, that was the day he’d put his foot down,2 hard.

Caitlin could have kissed him. She didn’t have it in her to put up with anyone for a while.

Now the four Outcasts were loose, on their own in Darwin, exploring and burning up what little pocket money they had to buy gifts for the families. More than a few were purchased on Caitlin’s dime, much to the protests of her friends.

“Merry fucking Christmas, Jack, now shut up and take my money.” Caitlin grinned at her stubborn, dinosaurian buddy as he protested her helping him buy Adam his present.

True to form, there were plenty of people who shied away from the three obvious GSD kids, but there were more who steeled themselves, and tried their damndest to treat the small group like they were nothing more than normal teenagers. The Outcasts were more than happy to overlook people, being uncomfortable because of their appearance, if it meant that they weren’t being treated like dangerous, wild animals.

Diamond was trying on one of the touristy “Australian Bush hats” that tourists loved to buy, and they were generally goofing off while Caitlin distracted the girl at the counter who couldn’t quite hide her utter terror of snakes enough to do her job. Diamond pretended not to notice her affect on the girl when Caitlin distracted her, getting her to peel her eyes off of Sandra’s lower body long enough for the girl to calm down.

A few minutes, and kitschy trinket choices for presents later, and the girl looked back to see the snake girl wasn’t in the shop, and the two boys brought the bits for purchase.

“You did good,” Jericho grinned at her. “Most of the people back home would have had a screaming fit.”

“I’m sorry, I dunno how…”

“Relax,” Caitlin patted the girl on the shoulder. “To a point, we expect it. Shit happens, water under a bridge, Hakuna Matata and all that rot. You kept your cool, that’s all we can ask.”

“Yeah, sorry. I’ll get you rung up then.”

The ground shook, and a low thump announced something to be terribly, terribly wrong.

Forgetting trinkets and Christmas, the remaining three Outcasts darted outside to see what had happened.

“Oh shit, someone’s looting the Jewelry shops.” Diamondback pointed at the ten men who were running into and out of one of the shops while their boss, a man in a blocky power frame, directed them. It wasn’t power armor like Jericho’s. That would imply full-body coverage. It was more akin to a body-enhancing servo frame.

With a jet pack.

Razorback shrieked, and Jericho took in the sight. “Too many bystanders, get everyone away from the area. Jack are there any supers you’re aware of who will respond to this?”

The dinosaurian boy shook his head.

“I don’t think we should get in play, too risky with two ragers.” Caitlin didn’t like it, but it was the pragmatic view.

“I tend to agree, keep an eye. Looks like the locals are smart enough to take cover and get outta the way, let’s follow their lead and let the authorities sort this shit out. If anyone gets injured, we yank ‘em and triage.” Jericho quietly pulled a small gadget out of his pocket that looked like a nondescript wireless earpiece, and began listening in on the CB emergency channel.

“You gonna call it in Jericho?” Diamond looked at him quietly.

“Yup, Jack feed me the location info.” He tapped the transmit key. “This is an emergency broadcast, crime in progress, Jewelry heist it looks like. One power frame, looks like ten mooks. Any backup anyone can send?”

“What is the location of the crime in progress?” The operator’s voice cut through the static smoothly, and she listened as Joe filled her in on the address while Razorback signed. “Noted, dispatching assistance. Please do not get directly involved.”

“Not a problem, we’d just make things worse.”

Caitlin looked at her watch. “Amateurs,” she said critically, “Most of the Masterminds and even Techno-Devil would have been done and gone by now.”

“Yeah, but they all wouldn’t be doing this in broad daylight.” Sandra looked concerned.

“”Which means these guys are either pros, which I doubt, or they’re complete idiots.” Joe would have rolled his eyes if anyone would have noticed.

Razor chirped and signed. -Incoming trouble. Looks like a buncha flying idiot teenagers to the rescue.-

“Oh look, the cavalry has arrived.” Caitlin’s voice was dry and unamused as the group of young supers was followed by a G4 news van. “Oh for fuck’s sake.”

The crowd of people watching the heist was small, but there was more than one camera pointed, occasionally taking a shot of the power framed leader floating imperiously over the scene.

“Firefight?” Jericho asked.

“Firefight,” Caitlin responded calmly as the young heroes leapt into action, blazing away with abandon.

“Change of plans, Razor and Diamond, hit the crowd and get them to scatter away. We don’t need collateral damage. Cait, let’s circle, anyone gets wounded, peel ‘em away.”

Razor chirped along with the two young women nodding, and the four Outcasts scattered.

The flying blonde woman in bright blue spandex was trading fire with the power harness while the others waded into the minions. Two Crocs followed the brunette girl barking orders to the others as they charged the minions.

“Fucking idiots!” Jericho dodged a stray shot from little miss blue spandex and hit a trigger on his watch, causing a series of shield spikes to pop into existence from the nowhere compartment they were hidden in.

The sudden eruption of combat around the area caused people to panic, fleeing en masse and making things worse in general. Jericho ran and threw a spike in front of a storefront, causing a black shieldwall to erupt around the entryway and windows, protecting the huddling occupants from stray shots.

Razorback took the expedient of chasing bystanders away, waving frantically, shrieking and leaping at people to scare them away from the battlefield. They got the hint, as did the crowds diamond slithered up to.

“Run faster dammit they’re not paying…” Sandra’s voice dropped as a yong man ate some kind of blast to the shoulder. “...attention.” She caught the man before he fell completely and dragged him behind cover, hissing out the sibilant syllables she used, a modification of latin that she made sound serpentine, to focus her magic. Her hands glowed as she laid the man down and pressed her fingers to the wound.

Caitlin wasn’t having much luck getting near the few bystanders who were getting hit. More than one stray shot had gone into a storefront before Joe could drop a shield spike to protect the civilians in all of the areas. She saw the young man next to diamond get shot and snarled, then yelled. “Outcasts COMMS UP!”

She pulled her own Jericho-made team communicator and the others quickly checked in. “This isn’t working Joe. They’re idiots.”

Joe got behind cover. “Alright, Get to cover, I’m going to try something.”

“Emergency band, that Jewelry heist just got hot, some punkass kid hero group just engaged. We have civvie wounded. I dropped shield barriers on as many storefronts as I could but these morons are putting too many civilians at risk!”

“What kind of shields?” came the response.

“Devisor special, me and my friends are also mutants, two of us are ragers, that’s why we didn’t want to get involved.”

“Please give your identification.”

“MID Number US-22456-TX. The rest of the MIDs should be linked under the Outcast Corner link. This is Jericho and I am requesting permission to put these idiots down, hard.”

“Jericho which side are you intending to put down?”

“All of them!”

“Roger Jericho, wait one.” The Outcasts waited behind cover, watching the idiocy unfold and go nowhere. Neither side, hero or villain, were getting an edge over the other, and the injury count was rising. “Jericho, Outcast Corner is authorized to use nonlethal force to end the combat. Disengage if the situation escalates or if ordered by authorities.”

“Roger. All right Outcasts, let’s show ‘em what Gunny B. and Ito Soke teach the freshman classes!”

Razorback was already in play before Jericho finished and hit the button to call his rafe armor. The raptor-like Outcast scaled a wall and leapt off a nearby roof to crash into the blonde chick in blue, slamming her to the ground, then skull-punching her when she tried to get up.

“That’s one!” Jericho fired two darts loaded with sedatives at the Crocs, knowing full well that if Razor got to them, they’d have Lizard tartare all over the landscape.

Diamond drew out a small crystal and looked over at the grand melee, hissing out a sibilant invocation and flinging the essence battery into the fighting crowd right as Caitlin slammed into the center like a whirling tornado of limbs. The crystal shattered in a glittering, silvery haze as the movements of the combatants became sluggish, the baselines getting the worst of it.

It was unfair. None of the minions, nor the teen heroes really knew what the hell they were doing, and the many, many hours of sim drills for the Outcasts made a potent case for just why said sims were important.

Caitlin swept the legs out from under the hero devisor and swatted his chest with an open palm to ram him to the concrete, the wind was completely knocked out of the boy. Jericho charged in, lights and sirens on his angelic knight Raphael-class EMT Armor blaring at full power as he grabbed the brunette hottie from behind and deployed a sedative dispenser, giving her enough sedative to send her reeling, then repeated the procedure on her opponent. He easily overpowered his opponents, the simulated PK field was too powerful for the myriad combatants to overcome.

Razor climbed another wall and leapt at the power frame, ripping and tearing into the mechanisms and driving the suddenly panicked and not-shooting villain caroming off a wall and to the ground.

Diamondback darted forward and slugged the young man, with a harelip and claws, who was zipping around trying to stop the Outcasts from flattening his team. She hissed and cast, flashing two fleeing minions with concussive bolts of magic energy that laid them out on the ground.

It only took one more backhand, to a pair of baseline knees, from Caitlin to sweep the last minion into the air to hit the ground hard. The rest surrendered.

“Everyone on the ground, face down, spread-eagle and palms to the sky or we’re going to maul you some more!” The blue-tattooed artificer could be scary when she put her mind to it, erasing any doubts that her three friends might have that she was, in fact, the Range Maniac reborn. Everyone who could, complied, and the Outcasts proceeded to search the downed groups for weapons.

“Oh for shit sake, Razor.” Jericho had to laugh.

The leader of the heist’s power frame was ruined, torn to ribbons and the massive, black-mottled form of Jack “Razorback” Carlyle simply had the man’s head and neck pinned between his jaws, tightening just enough to discourage the man from trying to move.

Or fight.

Or do anything more complex than peeing his own pants.

Jericho looked at the stopwatch that triggered whenever he donned his rafe armor. Thirty-nine seconds from engagement to finish was all it had taken for the Outcasts to end a fight that had dragged on for well over five minutes. “Does anyone else feel like that was too easy?”

“I think no one here is really trained.” Diamond’s comments were subvocalized as she had gone back to finding wounded people and stopping the bleeding.

Jericho peeled off to retrieve shield spikes before helping Diamond continue to find and treat wounded. Caitlin stood sentinel over the prisoners. Razorback licked the back of his captive’s head like he was going to eat the man.

The G4 crew, lacking the common sense that God gave a Sand Gnat, were rushing up and trying to get Caitlin to interview, only to have her unconsciously flash azure fire from her hands as her skin seemed to burn.

“Get that fucking camera out of my face you damn fuckwit!” She roared at the crew, pointing at them with one blazing hand, as a pair of men on the ground decided that trying to flee might be a bad idea. The camera crew backed up to a safe distance, not eager to interfere with Jericho’s mobile ambulance armor dragging people who’d been hurt out and doing triage, or the two monstrously GSD Outcasts who were occupied healing or trying to make the bad guy shit his pants.

“Emergency, this is Jericho. Fight has been put down, no fatalities so far. We’re treating the wounded. So far four gunshot wounds, all stabilized, Eldritch is overseeing the perps, Razor is keeping the instigator under control. Diamondback is actively healing wounded, so please tell the boys in blue not to shoot the big snake girl.”

“Ambulances and police should be arriving momentarily, Jericho. The officers have been advised of your compatriots’ GSD appearances, please stand down so the officers can take the combatants into custody.”

Sure enough the police arrived as she finished talking, and Caitlin and Razor immediately backed away from the antsy cops, and made very nonthreatening, hands to the sky gestures. The police gave wary glances at the red armbands and one of them visibly slung a rifle, he was obviously unaccustomed to wielding, and waved the two to the side to take statements while his fellow officers began zip-tying and arresting everyone on the ground.

Jericho was auto-stitching a cut on a young woman’s leg and wrapping it in gauze when he was approached by the Officer in charge.

“You the one they call Jericho? You in charge of this show here?”

“Yessir. Let me finish helping the medics please, and I’ll give you all the time you need.” He chuckled as Caitlin was pointing at the G4 news van and several officers converged to acquire the raw footage the Herowatch crew had gotten to find out who needed to be prosecuted.

Diamondback, lacking any particularly badly wounded people to heal, took the time to close a vicious scrape on a little boy’s shoulder that would have scarred nastily had she not given him the rough equivalent to the healing power of a regen three for ten minutes.

“I’m tapped out,” Diamond said. “I need to gather more essence to heal anyone else, I left my bag ‘o tricks back at the house.”

“That’s fine, we’ll take it from here,” a nervous young woman drew Sandra aside to get her statement as well.

The whole ordeal took six hours, and a ride to the police station, to sort out. The Outcasts disarmed what little they had, and cooperated with the cops fully, not wanting the MCO involved at all. The end result was that while the Turners and Carlyles had to come pick up the four troublemakers, no charges were filed. The only sticking point was that the police wanted to learn where the three freshmen and one sophomore had learned to fight like that.

“Remind me to apologize to Gunny Bardue, when we get back to school, for everything I’ve ever said that was rotten. Ito too.” Jericho and the others went over the fight several times, and all they could come up with was the complete lack of training on both sides.

“Oh hell no. You keep calling him a rotten old bastard.” Caitlin grinned. “He’d get soft if he thought you liked him. Or he’d torture you more. One of the two.”

-Torture,- Razor signed.

“I don’t know why you four can be so flippant after getting into a fight downtown,” Kiernan Carlyle gave the four of them a glowering look.

“Because if we don’t I’ll start throwing up and getting the shakes again.” Caitlin didn’t bother to sugar coat her reaction.

-Sad thing is we have harder fights at school. I showed you my combat final recording from last year, Dad.-

“Aye but you still won’t show me this year’s.”

Jericho went a little pale at the thought of anyone seeing that. “Trust me, you don’t want to see that one. Jack popped a gasket with one of his friends on campus. No one exactly thought that one was really cool for family viewing.”

“Bad?”

-Worse than the mixed bag of our scout guys on the army base and the attached Marine training platoon aftermath.-

“You’re right, I don’t want to see that.”

“They keep drilling it into our heads, but it didn’t really make sense till now.” Diamondback was making connections she hadn’t before. “Monster? You expect them to be dangerous, things that go bump in the night are dangerous. But I’ve never seen a fight in a crowd like that before, most of the damage done was to bystanders.”

“That’s normal.” Caitlin shook her head. “We were actually staying out of it. We were pushing the crowds away, setting up barricades and whatnot to shield the people in the shops when things went retarded.”

-The idiots on both sides were hitting bystanders, Dad, we couldn’t excuse that.-

“Mom, you’re glowering at me. Spit it out.” Joe looked at Mrs. Turner, who was sitting at the dining table. Zach and Adam were both peeking around the corner, trying to see what was happening with their siblings being in trouble.

“I’m glowering because I don’t like the thought of you, or Sandra, in a supers fight.” She sighed. “I’m not yelling because I’m proud that you were thinking of the people who couldn’t defend themselves. But we are going to have a long talk about why, exactly you didn’t pull your bulletproof armor before you ran through a firefight.”

Joe tapped a control on his watch. “Caitlin, hit me.”

Cait didn’t even hesitate, snapping out a punch that could have shattered a grown man’s skull and caved it in, only to have her knuckles deflect off of a barrier that shimmered faintly about a foot from his skin.

Mrs. Turner jumped.

“That’s why mom. I didn’t want to escalate, so I went with less obvious and combative tactics. I didn’t look like a threat, and I was protected. Cait’s hide is actually about as tough as stone, and I’ve seen Sandra dodge bullets. Literally. Razorback there heals fast enough that unless someone whacks his head off, he isn’t going down.”

His mother, still irritated by the demonstration, breathed a silent prayer of thanks that her son wasn’t taking unnecessary risks. “How many people did you all save today?”

“Despite all of the idiocy? Only four who would have been critically or fatally injured. Everyone else was just banged up.”

“That’s still four people who get to wake up Christmas morning,” Diamondback said.

“Worth it,” added Caitlin.

-You could ground us until we all turned thirty, but we’d do it again. Hunting’s fun, but keeping people from dying rather than mauling them means something to me. I feel a bit more human afterwards.-

The two parents looked at each other. “Alright, we let it slide. Once.” Kiernan’s voice was made of steel. “If you lot get into the habit of seeking trouble, we’re going to have words.

“Please, as if we don’t have enough trouble,” Diamondback muttered, half-watching the Dream warp the spiritscape of the town out the window like reality was made of melted wax. “With this secondary astral crap, I’d rather focus on not getting bit by some immaterial oogie-boogie.”

“Still can’t turn that off?” Caitlin asked quietly.

“Only for a few seconds. I can fade out of one side or the other for about three seconds but it takes a lot of effort.”

“Caitlin, I need to ask, why did you vanish the other day?” Mrs. Turner’s voice was a lot more calm.

“I was here, in Darwin, on Rager’s night. I saw everyone on that street die.” Caitlin kept her voice level this time.

“And, on that note, I think I’ll go grab the boys and help them wrap presents.” Mrs. Turner immediately comprehended what the ramifications of that might be for a small girl of age seven. “If you ever need to talk about it…”

“Joe’s been helping me work through some of it.”

She nodded and rounded up Adam and Zach.

“So how good are the self-defense instructors at the school?” Kiernan gave the kids a skeptical look.

“They make us look like rank amateurs, and Ito-Soke can dismantle any of us, except maybe Caitlin.” Jericho shrugged.

“No, not except, just takes him longer,” Caitlin cut in. “That evil old bastard still gets the best of me unless I keep him running for an endurance match. That’s the only way I’ve ever beaten him. And I’ve still not been able to do it twice.”

“Gunny Bardue’s a rotten old asshole Marine Drill Instructor that teaches Marksmanship and runs the sims,” Diamondback explained gently. “He’s put us through seven of the nine circles of Hell in his simulators. Compared to some of the shit he throws at us, that bloody fight in the shopping center areas was more like a warmup. The teachers of Whateley Academy don’t do things by half-measures.”

“It’s about survival.” Caitlin said. “Here, in Australia? We haven’t seen a fraction of the kind of panic we’ll see in the states. Diamond going into a Boston shopping mall resulted in the police being called about the ‘Dangerous mutant monster’. And it’s even worse in some countries. It’s about being ready to defend yourself in a world where in most countries you’re already judged a threat to your neighbors.”

“Is it really as bad as the news makes it out to be?”

“Worse.” Caitlin gave Kiernan a serious look. “A couple kids were doing a parkour run with a teacher and some of his buddies in Boston a few months back. They were showing off and having fun in what was basically slated as a wrecking yard, and the police had been cleared on the full-power run. Lamplighter decided to attack them for God only knows what reason. The teacher and his buddies went nuclear, because the bastard hurt his kids. Almost killed lamplighter, and all of them were baseline or exemplar Ones.”

Caitlin ran a few scenarios in her head. “Thirty-seven kids have disappeared in American MCO arrests and just vanished into nothing in the US over the past five years. The Iron Curtain may have dropped but there’s still some seriously fucked up shit going on in some of those areas. Certain parts of the US will turn into a warzone if a mutant gets outted.”

“Jesus.” Razorback’s father leaned back.

“It’s not a nice world.” Jericho said simply.

-We’re just not going to lie back and get torn up by the world.-

“Good.”

* * *

December 25th, 2006, The Carlyle House

For the Holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home! The tinny radio played quietly in the living room, adding cheerful sound as Santa Raptor turned on the Christmas lights and the tree.

Jack grinned as he’d slipped downstairs at five in the morning, creeping silently into the living room to look at the tree. The many ornaments from his childhood were hanging, and there were far more presents under the fake tree than he was used to. But he had a tradition to uphold, one he’d not done since the fateful day when he’d gone from normal child to GSD monster gone feral in the Outback for almost two years.

He’d gotten much better at cooking since his fateful days as a child, nearly burning down the house every Christmas morning. The food wasn’t amazing, much less Ayla-grade, but he enjoyed doing it when people would appreciate it.

Adam, of course, was the first one down the stairs, and when the rest of the family congregated in the living room with the guests, there were eggs, bacon and sausage cooked up for the normal appetites, and two big pots of hard-boiled eggs to supplement his and Sandra’s appetites.

The Outcasts were hanging out together with the two younger boys while the presents were being opened. Adam, of course had to do presents from Razor’s back. Razor, for his part, was lying on his belly, relaxing as his brother used him like a jungle gym.

Zach was opening the present from his big brother, revealing a remote-controlled helicopter drone that was built to take a beating, with a distended camera that could be used from a home computer. Zach’s howled “Thank you” might have elicited mockery at school, distorted by Zach being unable to hear, but Diamondback was beaming at the genuine emotion. She was finding that one of the benefits of being an empath was that the emotions of children at Christmas were almost like a high.

Joe and Jack opened their presents at the same time from the family, and the two boys eyes popped out of their heads when they realized that their respective parents had gotten them each a series of distortion pedals they could use for their underground jams. Parents were assaulted with joyous hugs, and instruments were hooked up.

Jericho led off with a solo rendition of “Silent Night” on the bass, and Razor followed up with a rendition of “Oh Holy Night” as Mama Turner and Mama Carlyle opened up a present from the two boys, a framed group photo of Outcast Corner and all of the friends they had made in the first semester of the year. Jericho, Caitlin, Diamond and Razor had taken a knee, crouching so that Bunker, Mule, Slapdash, Phase, Fey, Chaka, Phobos and Deimos, Jimmy-T and many more could clearly be seen behind them. Hanging from the rafters behind the bizarrely eclectic group hung “Merry Christmas from Whateley Academy.”

Edith and Nathan Turner had slight smiles as they looked at the mixed, eclectic group of people their son had made friends with. Debra and Kiernan Carlyle had tears in their eyes as they saw that their son had finally gotten past the raging horror monster, feral detention King reputation and made friends this year. He’d been miserable his first year, but for christmas he’d brought home good friends, good people and this. Diamondback got to feel the little stabs of hope as they hugged their son.

Caitlin smiled when she opened her gifts, a mix of music CDs and recordings that her friends had given her. Diamond got a microphone and amplifier setup that the boys had collaborated on for months.

“You know it’s hardly fair, they make a big deal about wanting you on their little band, and give me the instruments,” Sandra said to Caitlin with an amused smirk.

“I’ve been thinking about that…” Caitlin rolled the words around as she looked at the suddenly expectant boys. “I’ll agree to come to music class with you, but you knuckleheads have to sign up for team tactics class. Joe, you’re the lead. If you do not agree to my terms, you don’t get to bother me or Sandra about joining the band, ever again.”

“Done.”

“Don’t I get a say in this?”

“NO!” Caitlin and Joe grinned at the mock-sullen snake girl with grins as Razor chirped at her.

Adam giggled and handed her the microphone he’d hooked up to the amplifiers with his big brother’s help. “Jack says you can sing!”

“Oh you great rotten lizard…”

“Nope.” Caitlin pointed at her. “I heard you sing once, have to do it again.”

She looked at the families present and tried to imagine a boy she would likely never see again in the crowd, and prayed she would. She focused on her twin brother as she sang the old melody of “I’ll be home for Christmas” for everyone, on her new setup, and smiled at the emotional reactions, and genuine applause, when she finished. She knew she’d never hear the end of it if she didn’t take Music classes, now.

Caitlin got up, and wandered up to the tree and withdrew the three presents she had carefully hidden behind the tree, and dropped the massive, meter-wide octagon at Joe’s feet, and handed the oddly wrapped tootsie-roll package to Diamond, and a small, palm-sized box to Razor. “I found these a bit back, and thought they would be something you guys could use at school.

Sandra felt the oddly ribbed package and tore it open, revealing the odd, black-steel serpent with orichalcum eyes and her eyes popped damn near out of her head. “Holy shit what is this?”

Caitlin scooted closer. “It’s a training tool, one that was used a long time ago for teaching. It’s kind of like a familiar, but also meant to be a mentoring type, that adapts to the person it’s tied to and their powers, to help them learn how to survive and thrive.”

“Dayum.” Joe looked more than a bit wide-eyed.

“Figured you could use help that wouldn’t get weirded out by you having a serpent tail.” Caitlin took Sandra’s hand and drew her harvester, then pricked Diamond’s index finger then pressed the tiny bead of blood to the metal snake’s forehead. The thing immediately animated, slithering and coiling up her arm and wrapping itself around her upper-arm like a band meant to decorate and protect.

I am here for you, Milady. By the Sisters, I will guide, protect, teach and be your companion until darkness takes us both. The voice only she could hear rattled through her mind, and she could now see the snake both in the physical and astral now that it had attuned to her directly.

“Woah, how did you get this?” Diamondback was amazed at the deceptively simple thing.

“I did a favor to the people at Uluru. They let me grab a couple things for you all in the aftermath.”

She leaned over and hugged Caitlin tightly. “Thank you!”

Jericho stood and tried to pick up the heavy octagon. “Good God how much does this thing weight?”

“About four hundred pounds.” Cait grinned as jericho unwrapped a glassy, black, inch-thick octagon of smoky, opaque material that seemed to be similar to obsidian.

“Woah,” he rubbed his hand along the impossibly smooth material, feeling about for the information his odd vision could not give him. He felt the four divot points on the backside of the plate, “This is like where you’d rivet on straps for a shield.”

“Got it in one.” Caitlin grinned. “It’s not as fancy, but it’s a finger wiggler alloy I think you’ll appreciate.”

“That can’t be Adamant, you can’t make that much at once!” Diamond’s expression was disbelieving.”

“This isn’t adamantite, feels all wrong, texture’s off and this is heavier.” Joe was thoughtful.

“Not adamantite, Adamant.” Caitlin flipped the octagon upright and walked a hand over it. “I can figure out how to destroy or dismantle just about anything. Not this. So far as anyone can tell, there’s no force that exists that can pierce, alter, mangle or otherwise damage or penetrate this stuff.”

Jericho’s eyes went wide as ghostly dinner plates. “Holy crap. I have to mount this to my Rafe Armor!”

“Every knight needs his shield, right?” Caitlin smiled, then turned to Razor. “Yours isn’t so flashy, but I thought you’d appreciate it.”

“Oh God now I have to start working.”

“Oh God, not again.” Mama Turner groaned. “He disappears for hours or days and comes back with some insane contraption he cobbled up in the garage.”

“Two Hours, tops.” Joe looked at the octagon.

“Thirty minutes if I help you.” Caitlin replied.

Jack, for his part, carefully unwrapped his gift, holding the palm-sized mahogany-wood box in his hand. Unclasping the latch and opening the lid let out a quiet, ethereal chorus of singing voices to match the fae form of the ghostly , dancing illusion which gracefully stepped and leapt in time to the music. Everyone could hear the ancient song, and a feeling of peace slid through everyone’s minds, calming even Diamond’s anxieties, Razorback’s feral fury, and the constant, bottled-up core of Caitlin’s unexpressed rage.

It was magic, it was inspirational to the australian rager, as he set the box down, lying next to it, watching the dancing, elfin ballerina keep time with the eternal song. For the first time in his life since he’d first looked into the mirror and saw the nightmare eyes of a crocodile looking back, Jack Carlyle felt fully at peace.

Watch. Sandra was startled as the quiet voice interrupted her thoughts. Shield, child, and learn. This is how the hunter is kept calm when he is not leading the packs.

She didn’t want to shield the serene calm, but at the serpent’s coaxing, she did, and then realized what she was seeing. Jack’s reptilian form was constant in the physical and astral realms, but as the song rang out, that started to change. As she separated her mind and senses Sandra really looked at everyone.

Jericho seemed to have a halo almost, and wings of light raised from his spirit that were muted by the pain he stole from others, worn as a shroud against the darkness of the world.

Caitlin was flesh in appearance, but her skin had the white iridescence of marble, and her hands were soaked in the blood of too many, dripping to the floor, the stains never drying, even as the young woman’s spirit shone with a burning light of pure intent to do right by the people around her even when the paths to what was right led through darkness.

Jack’s fury abated,and as her friend seemingly drifted into a happy trance, the lizard faded, and a small boy could be seen clutching his guitar inside the silhouette of the great beast, pulsing with a heart of pure furious energy that fuelled his every action. The boy and the beast did not move congruously, and as the clever camouflage faded, Sandra saw the bright point of light latched onto his spirit, a primal force of nature that could never be tamed, and was too strong for a child to fully contain.

You understand now. The spirit of the Hunter has claimed this child. Together they are a weapon to protect the world, and song is their release from their fury.

“Jack is an Avatar.”

When her friends were unresponsive, she reached over and gently closed the music box, and felt the awareness creep back into the Outcasts as they stopped hearing the haunting chorus.

As their awareness filtered back in, the spirits of her friends cloaked themselves back in the guises she was familiar with. Caitlin was the statue, Jericho the clown, Razorback the Beast.

“Jack you’re an Avatar.” Sandra’s voice was slightly bemused.

-What do you mean?-

“The Music box, I saw it, I saw your spirit. I saw what each of you look like at your core, your spirit. The Music box calms you down.” She was amazed, excited and a little frightened. “Jack you have a hallow, and your spirit’s too big, it’s overwhelming your body, that’s why you look like you do!”

-We’ll figure that out later, back at Whateley. For now, we deal with Christmas, and be family. Screw Exemplars, Avatars, whatever. I want to think about being here and happy with you guys, my parents and Adam.- Razorback put his points to action when he pretended to start eating his brother, tickling the hell out of the boy by using the simple expedient of folding his fingers inward and using his knuckles to torture the poor child.

Caitlin grinned. She hadn’t had too many happy holidays in the last twelve years. For one of the few times in her life, she was glad that she was celebrating.

* * *

December 31st, 2006

“No spider, don’t build a disintegrator ray,” Sandra was on the phone, talking with deceptive calm to the poor girl having a drick-a-thon on the other line. Spider had encountered another one of the Sidhe noble-wannabes that were the utter bane of her existence and had completely lost her cool. The serpentine girl had an air of put-upon resignation as she worked to talk yet another mad scientist down from the maddened tirade of fury she had worked herself into.

The others had handed her the phone as she was usually the calmest. Poor Sandra thumped her head on the wall slightly as she listened to the shrieks of outrage on the other line. “No, melting her skin off would make you the criminal. We don’t want you going to jail.”

Joe was on the other phone, talking to Spider’s dad while Sandra and he worked to get the girl to calm down without invoking a death ray, or something, to punish the fae who had so offended her.

“Come on, are you really going to have time to build an assault bot to stomp on her before you calm down? Be reasonable. On second thought no, disassembler nanos are a bad idea! Do the robot! Do the robot!”

“Joe tell her dad she’s got a class three nanoassembler under her bed!” She held her hand over the receiver of the phone to muffle the coordination while Koala’s harried father tried to get all of the destructive science projects away from his daughter’s grasping fingers.

“No spider you’re right, Ninimeth is absolutely a poncy name that sounds like a bad Tolkien reference. Calm down, and let’s think rationally… no, you can’t force-ration oxygen to arrogance. It’s not legal spider! No, Caitlin is not loaning you her sidearm collection!”

“Will it shut her up?”

Diamondback put a hand over the phone to stifle a giggle. “Not helping, Cait!”

The metal-haired girl grinned and “helped” until they finally calmed down. “Where’s the address of this Fae nerdling? I’ll get a recruitment package and go check her out and see if she’s a good candidate for Whateley, so Carson doesn’t have to send an eval, before we leave.”

“Hey Spider, someone else volunteered to deal with the bint, you’re off the hook.”

Diamond grinned and finally hung up the phone.

“Well that was bracing.” Cait grinned. “You should have seen Koala last year. She and Mega-Death got into a shrieking match that lasted four hours.”

“Ugh, I don’t even want to imagine that.”

Joe got off the phone a few moments later. “Alright, Spider’s calming down enough that Dad was able to get most of her stuff back to the Overwatch workshops in Cairns.”

-Can we go into town now?-

“Why do you want to go into town, Jack?” Diamond was perfectly comfortable chilling at the Carlyle house, talking to the odd, intelligent construct on her arm, or BSing with her buddies.

-I’m going stir-crazy sitting at home. I wanna get out and see a movie or something.-

“I’m with him. Movie?” Joe grinned.

“Movie.” Caitlin nodded and stood up. “I’ll get the tickets. Joe, Jack grab your brothers, you know they’re going to want to come.”

The two boys, far from wanting to exclude their brothers, bolted out to retrieve them.

“Night at the Museum?” Cait asked

“Sounds like a plan,” Diamond grinned a bit. I’ll go see if someone can give us a ride.”

Thirty minutes later, Debra Carlyle was driving through the streets of Darwin with two boys and four mutants in the bed of the family pickup. Two hours and thirty minutes after that, when they were all fed and happy from watching a T-Rex skeleton play fetch, the truck wouldn’t start, and the radio played a digitized static broadcast interspersed with bits of human voice.

“Any of you kids good at figuring out how to fix a truck?” Debra wasn’t too concerned. It wasn’t the first time the truck had broken down, and most certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Caitlin and Jericho immediately began looking at the vehicle. “There’s nothing wrong with it, should start right up.” Caitlin’s words trailed a bit as they looked around and realized that all of the traffic was at a dead stop. Several people had their hoods open, trying to get their vehicles to cooperate. Not one single car was working.

*static*...win...regret...to save our future, all of you have to die. People of Darwin, it is with a heavy heart that I must bring you these tidings. The future of mankind is at stake… The radio started a repeating message interspersed with static, and Caitlin jerked away from the truck like she’d been burned, looking upward, scanning the sky for something she prayed wouldn’t be there.

“No, no no no no…” Caitlin saw an almost digital flicker, points of light like LED pixels trying to sync up to the vision of a mad God began to flicker slowly across the skyline, and two pinpoints of light, one burning white, one burning black started shining less than three hundred feet off the ground. “Fuck too late. Everybody run!”

Dozens of people looked at the oddly tattooed girl, and the Outcasts looked at Caitlin as she put on her comms bead and started looking around, slamming the truck hood. “We gotta go! Round up everyone, we have five minutes to be gone or everyone here’s dead!”

"Caitlin what the hell is going on?" Jericho was worried, he’d never seen Cait freaking out before.

“Doctor Reaper’s coming. We have to get everyone moving and gone now!”

The outcasts all stared at her like she’d gone insane, and then they moved. Jericho immediately called up his Rafe Armor, freshly connected to the new shield hanging off of its left arm, then engaged another trigger. Slapdash’s anti-tank Core-Ejector materialized in his right hand as he began calling the CB emergency Band. “Emergency, Darwin is under attack, I repeat Darwin is under attack. Dr. Reaper is materializing killbots over downtown.”

“Say again, there is no…”

“Shut up and get the word out, four minutes, tops and we’re going to have people dying. Get the Overwatch Defense team and every fucking soldier you can mobilized now!”

The digital distortion in the sky was getting worse.

Caitlin and Diamondback got together and the pair were frantically pulling out their wallets, scanning the notes they had made before coming to Australia.

“Nevakah!” Diamond shrieked as Caitlin hastily drew a perfect circle in front of them with chalk and then grabbed the serpentine girl and focused all of her essence into Diamond so she could do something normally beyond her capacity, causing both girls’ and Razorback’s emergency bags they had left safely at Whateley Academy to appear in front of them.

“What’s going on?” Debra was frightened, and rapidly became moreso as Diamondback began donning her various essence-crystal jewelry and sorted her Tarot deck.

Her eyes grew, and everyone nearby started freaking out, as Caitlin began assembling a four-foot long, heavily modified gun, and donning black Range REACT armor unique to Whateley Academy.

Jericho flashed the lightbars and sirens on his armor and turned on the PA. “This is an emergency, everyone, get to us now. This is an evacuation order! Everyone needs to get out of Darwin now. We will clear a path and protect you!”

Almost as soon as Jericho finished, all of the car radios playing Reaper’s melancholy message of extermination were overridden on all channels.

This is an emergency broadcast. Darwin is hereby ordered evacuated. I repeat, Darwin is to be evacuated. Leave immediately. Take nothing with you save your family and neighbors. All vehicles have been disabled, watch the skies. Do not try to hide. Evacuate the city with all haste.

As if to punctuate the severity of the moment, Sandra caught sight of a passenger plane tumbling from the sky, on the outskirts of the city, near the harbor. “Oh no. No no no no no.”

The explosion and pressure wave as the bird impacted the harbor could be felt clearly as more planes flew into the Darwin interdiction zone, and simply began falling from the sky.

“Diamond I’ll keep you juiced. Joe we gotta go!”

“Everyone, let’s go, this is your one chance to get out of here! We need to move!” Jericho’s PA system tied into local electronics as he broadcast. “Get to my location, we are leaving in thirty seconds! Anyone not here will have to catch up!”

* * *

Doctor Reaper finally materialized in this juncture of time and space, clad in his metallic shell created to resemble the visage of the Grim Reaper. He took no joy in what must be done, and ticked away the final countdown as the first of his hyper-tech extermination robots materialized in midair and fell to the earth, not bothering to arrest as it slammed into an office building, punching through the roof and unfolding from its drop configuration within. The sudden gouts of flame and panic from within told the tale as the machine went about its business in an ordered and efficient manner.

It wasn’t cruelty, but necessity. Ultimately, it did not matter how people died, only that they died. Minimizing the chances of survival, rather than bringing humane ends, had dictated the design of his minions. In mere moments, Gogg and Magogg, his allies in this silent war, would fully extract themselves from their dimensional wound, and the terror of uncaring Gods would descend upon Darwin, Australia.

Dr. Reaper watched, his predictive interface monitoring the sectors of the city for any deviation in the expected casualty counts. In order for the world to be saved, at least eighty percent of humanity had to die.

* * *

Panic descended, as the first killing machines landed, and the frantic crowds of people tried to flee in literally every direction, following instructions that came far too late for the majority of those in town to get clear. Local army units were already mobilizing and some were even in motion. There would be no outside intervention. The people of Darwin were on their own.

“Stay together, stay together!” Jericho and Razor herded the crowd, including Debra, Adam and Zach away from the series of multi-limbed, shredding blade-wheels the size of small horses that had come around behind the fleeing people drenched in the gore and remains of previous victims.

Diamondback slammed her bracers together and released an emerald wave of force, at the things, as she flung her hands apart. One of the killer things shattered, falling to the earth in pieces over twenty yards away. Thunder crashed as Caitlin tore into the others with a practiced hand, the AEGIS-Loader feeding manifested armor-piercing bullets into the feed of the gun at an impossible rate. She had a rocket launcher strapped to her butt and six rocket tubes were loaded on hardpoints on her back in an eerie mirror of events on Halloween night. Unlike Halloween night, the weight of all of the ordinance did not slow the girl down as she ran alongside the crowd, scanning for threats.

Razorback was on the rooftops, scouting for killer bots, using his insane leaping abilities to rapidly keep pace, and check all of the people. He grimly noted that the crowd was growing, as they huddled up with the Outcasts to keep from being killed by merciless machines.

They had been moving the crowd for an hour. He estimated that they had made it a kilometer, tops. Frequent stops to retrieve downed wounded, makeshift stretchers and blood-pounding fights with killer robots was taking its toll.

He saw the spider-like burner when it engulfed three people in napalm fire, dousing them all sufficiently that not even Diamondback’s magic could have saved them. He shrieked into his comms, and leapt.

Officer Melody Wright jerked back and held out a hand to stall the crowd of people warily following the four mutants who were going nuts trying to keep all of them alive. The raptor-thing dove off the roof he was on, and moments later, the armored girl with the metal hair bolted past her at olympic speeds, running up and over a wall, aiming and firing as she hit the ground and advanced on the metal monstrosity.

Razorback darted over the thing’s back, ripping and pulling at anything loose. Metal pipes, feed hoses and hydraulic pumps began to fall victim to his wrath as the beast he was riding started taking fire from Caitlin. He almost lost it when the thing engulfed his friend in flames.

Caitlin saw the wash of burning napalm and ducked behind a dumpster. She could take the flames, but the ordinance she was carrying could not. As the burning wave of heat erupted around her, she counted. When she hit ten, she stood and came around the dumpster, firing again, then charging.

The spider was losing, but Razorback couldn’t kill it. He was getting annoyed when he saw Caitlin sling the massive machinegun and rush, gripping a small object and ripping something out of it. He saw the ring and pin on her finger and leapt away again as his friend slammed a fist through the sensor eye of the thing and then turned and ran, leaving the beast to try and pull the grenade out of its head as the two Outcasts dove for cover.

The chain-reaction of the explosion ignited the fuel in the thing’s abdomen, detonating the pressurized mixture of napalm and acetylene in a spectacular explosion that destroyed the faces of two homes.

Jericho had his own problems. The blocky, tripod-like, armored thing was fast, and it fired energy blasts that incinerated flesh and clothing, leaving smouldering statues of ash that collapsed and dissolved, or exploded in the wind. Three people trying to reach the fleeing crowd had died. He rushed forward, interposing his shield, and himself, between the killer droid and the fourth, and he felt the impacts of energy bolts that failed to so much as mar the glossy face of his shield.

“Caitlin I love you right now.”

“Bit busy right now!”

Jericho chuckled as he heard the massive explosion from somewhere on the other side of the moving crowd. When he came out from behind the shield, he aimed and fired twice, magnesium burner rounds, punching through and incinerating the robot’s internals, left a burned and glowing husk to fall to the ground.

“Diamond, how you doing?”

Sandra pulled herself into the spirit as the machinegun fire raked the spot she had been standing, flickering back and drawing a card. “Death.” She released the essence in the card and willed it to take the true meaning of the death card: Transformation. Caitlin had overcharged her essence crystals, and she was focusing on keeping things under control. These machines had no souls, no spirit, so she was able to leave Ryan to watch for threats in the astral without distraction.

Caitlin and Razor charged to the front of the crowd again, a roving patrol searching for threats, and finding them. They saw the robot charge, then glass shattered as its transmuted joints exploded into clear shards of crystalline glass that could never take the stress of moving a massive war machine.

“Remind me never to piss you off.” Caitlin goggled at Diamond.

“Your fault, I’m about out of juice.”

“Razor go help Joe!” Caitlin turned to Diamond and put a hand on her shoulder, working to focus the essence, that flowed into her constantly, and allow it to go into her friend, who channeled it in turn to her expended energy foci.

Razorback darted off into the crowd they were leading, and the two girls took point.

The comms traffic was scattered, unreliable and all of the city’s myriad defenders had come out of the woodwork to fight back.

Mutant children hiding their powers began blasting and smashing alongside parents and police as weapons were retrieved and distributed. The Army rode their vehicles into town until they hit the interdiction field and began marching in to rescue civilians. When they hit the limits of the vehicles' range, the Artillery cannons and tanks set up for long range bombardments.  Within minutes, reconnaisance units were calling in pockets of Hunter-Killers.  The Australian Army guns thundered, and steel rain began to fall.

Even the super-powered criminals were fighting. Word got around that several police stations had been hit, and all of the men and women held in the lockups had been slaughtered without mercy.

By now everyone had figured out that Reaper intended for no one to live.

All that stood between him and several hundred fleeing civilians were four mutant children from Whateley Academy.

“GOGG!” The word was roared as a burning, humanoid face of whitish-blue energy rushed through buildings and fleeing crowds. Where it went, tendrils of white energy arced from its body and struck the humans, detonating them into clouds of ash.

“MAGOGG!” the Black-energy face left withered husks as the energy lancing off of it ripped the life energy from its victims.

“What the fuck is that?” Jericho asked.

Razorback started vibrating.and shrieking as he got close, every fiber of his soul screaming that these things needed to die now! The spined, raptor-like Outcast powered forward in a suicidal charge as the rocket shrieked over his head and exploded in Magogg’s face, throwing the being into a spin that crashed it into a wall.

“GOGG!” The explosive being shrieked in agony as two Magnesium shells impacted its face.

Sandra saw these things and thanked all of the gods in creation for the shielding lessons of Kuparr. These weren’t Great Old ones, but they weren’t something that her mind was intended to comprehend as she gazed upon them both astrally and physically.

A power armored suit tore its way through a shattered wall, and the underslung minigun began to sing the song of destruction as the kids recognized Dr. Diabolik’s trademarked battle armor. For once he seemed to be helping people as he swept his guns across Gogg and Magogg, firing mini-missiles at each in agonizing swarms.

“Remember me you energy-sucking shits?” Jadis’ infamous “Dr. Dad” laid in hard, shutting down the barrel of the cheery-red minigun for a moment as the cooling systems pumped away the heat.

Jericho and Caitlin answered for the two things, laying in with the Core-Ejector and another rocket. “Hey Doc, ain’t you supposed to be hanging out with Jadis and Mal right now?” Jericho patched the supervillain into the Outcast comms.

“Who is this, and how do you know about…”

“We go to school with ‘em Doc, we’re trying to get the civvies past the kill zone, those things are in our way!”

Caitlin looked back and cursed. “More incoming from the rear!”

The artificer went into a dead run, charging as fast as she could towards Diamond and the beleaguered people bringing up the back end of the human wave they were trying to lead to safety. Too many people had already died.

“All right, if you’re from Whateley, let’s do this. That your Raptor?”

“His name is Razorback.”

“The detention king?” Diabolik spoke easily even as he grabbed an empty compact car and slapped something to it. He threw the car across two city blocks, making Razor and Jericho stop, realizing just why Diabolik was a household name. His Rafe armor felt very small in the face of the twelve-foot monster that raised its cannon and blasted the car, causing an explosive wave of energy that ripped through Gogg and Magogg like it was their antithesis.

“Oh shit, what the fuck? Caitlin they’re merging like Fury!”

“GOGGMAGOGG!” The two things shrieked as they combined into a reality-shredding nightmare thing that caused everything within thirty meters to explode into shards of sand.

“Focus fire on the eyes! Goggmagogg is vulnerable to attack once they merge!”

“How does she know that?” Diabolik asked mildly as he began ripping off particle blasts from a shoulder cannon at the rapidly-dodging face of the Light-and-shadow amalgamation of Goggmagogg.

“She probably knows how to beat your armor, too.”

“Less talking, more shooting!” Caitlin spat out. “Hunter-Killers converging from the west side.”

“Roger that.”

The back plates of Diabolik’s armor disgorged hundreds of small, scarab-like things that made Jericho go a little pale. Razor was still waiting, watching Goggmagogg like a trained attack dog as the destroyer-scarabs, Jadis’ dad had used to great effect in the past, began seeking out enemy bots.

“You kids get these people to cover, I’ve handled Goggmagogg before. I’ll give you a window to get out.”

“We’re not going to get Razor away, he’s got that look in his eye like he’s about to rip voodoos.”

Caitlin tossed Diamondback her harvester as a spinning blade bot got too close. The serpentine Outcast’s reflexes were so fast that the harvester’s impossibly sharp blade went through the thing’s main chassis and slashed it open. She tossed Caitlin a Tarot Card and chanted.

“Caitlin get that card to Razorback and stick it to him! It’ll help him!”

But it was too late. As the Outcast started to divert the crowd, Goggmagogg charged at the silent, black-mottled and seemingly hapless Raptor, and Jack opened the music box that Caitlin had given him for Christmas.

Goggmagogg stopped.

* * *

The casualty predictions were coming in at an inexorable pace, though far slower than they should have. In the second hour, a full twenty-five percent of the city should have been dead. The numbers were nowhere near what they should be. Reaper checked the sectors, and found the anomaly. Life signs were pointing to a crowd of people who were close enough to Goggmagogg that they should have been dead already. The Hunter-Killers were trying to reinforce the areas around that crowd as casualties, for his minions, were brought to unacceptable levels.

There were more pockets of genuine resistance than there should have been. The sheer number of paranormals that were coming out of the woodwork was astonishing. The MCO agents and Power Armor teams had been tying up the northern sectors as expected. They should have been swept up in the aftermath as more of his machines finished their grim work and reinforced those sectors.

The crowd was an anomaly, and he tied into a tripod gun turret, watching from it’s view as it scanned the crowd. Goggmagogg was stalled, and a metal-haired girl in body armor pointed a rocket launcher as the turret swung her way, firing before it could lock her.

He cursed and swapped to an aerial unit, a machinegun-wielding hover drone that was cutting down several people fleeing towards the crowd. An angelic knight with stylized angel wings, blaring ambulance lights and sirens took the blasts on what could only be a PK field and shot once, ending the drone’s flight.

He cursed. The mutants protecting those people were doing too much damage. He had to…

Dr Reaper slammed to the side, his body hitting terminal velocity instantaneously and smashing into an office building as Hammerhead, the Brick of Overwatch Defense, was released by his partner in crime, Koala, to drop on the mass murderer.

“Get love, I’ll take this psycho down. Go find your friends.”

The Overwatch Defense team erupted into existence around Hammerhead as he pulled the beacon trigger. They stood and charged as Reaper stood, then unfolded the black, metal scythe from his armor.

“Again you interfere. No matter, you die with the rest.”

“Bring it you sideshow freak.”

* * *

Razorback looked up at the impossible face which had contorted in absolute rage moments before and chirped, setting the music box to the ground gently. He shimmied, let out a cooing, birdlike chirp, then shrieked and launched himself right into the alien face with intent to kill. The massive form of Goggmagogg tried to respond and fight, but it was as caught up in the haunting melody, that drained all emotions into a peaceful calm, as Razorback would have been had he not been created to kill things like this.

He didn’t care that the lances of energy hurt as he scaled the five-story face that disintegrated his fingers and toes as fast as he re-grew them. He didn’t care that the stray bullets from Diabolik’s minigun occasionally veered off and hit him, then healed like nothing had happened. All he saw was the pale, white, right eye that he wanted to tear out.

Diabolik saw Goggmagogg stop when the raptor kid opened the box, and the moment of hesitation could have cost them when Razorback leapt to assault the beast from God-only-knew-where. Diabolik fired, ripping away with mini-missile minigun and particle blast, trying to take out the Black eye while the thing writhed and dodged in a haze of pain.

Jericho, Caitlin and Diamondback were fully engaged and fighting, herding people away from killer robots as they slowly whittled down their numbers. Too many people were wounded. Too many others were dead.

A missile exploded too close to Caitlin, tearing her armor apart, destroying her launcher tube and shattering the machinegun. She was flung into a wall, feeling shrapnel crack and split her skin as a familiar mystic tearing began. The corona of energy caused part of her armor to dissolve like it had transmuted to water, showing matted, rigid bloodsteel threads where her blood soaked her shirt.

Two stray bullets hit her in the lower back, and left ribs, smashing into her and causing her skin to divot and crack.

To her credit, she gutted down the pain, turned and flung a chunk of concrete at the thing that shot her, smashing its face in.

Diamond flung another searing wave of emerald energy even as Joe shattered another with his shield, Core Ejector rounds all expended.

The Outcasts began to resort to hand-to-hand combat as Razorback shrieked and tore into the eye that was his target, burrowing into the skull of the dazed Goggmagogg. The beast shrieked as its most ancient enemy bored deep into its head again, shattering its concentration long enough for Diabolik to put a stream of tracer rounds right through its other eye.

Goggmagogg exploded in a flash of searing, white light, and Razor fell to the ground, skin seared off as his scales began to painfully regrow to protect his exposed flesh. As he stood, the ululating battlecry and red nictitating membranes told Jericho everything he needed to know.

He blocked Razorback and triggered the sonic grenade in his hand, and slowly lowered Razorback to the ground.

“Outcasts circle up. Razor is down. Last stand. We can’t keep going like this.”

“I’ve got you covered, boy.” Diabolik dumped the massive ammunition drum from the minigun and inserted another. “These bastards interrupted my shopping trip to get good opal Jewelry for Jadis.”

“Does she know you’re knocking over the Aussies for bling.”

Diabolik laughed and fired more mini-missiles into the oncoming killer robots. “If you knew my daughter you’d know she gets a touch offended when you give her hot goods as gifts.”

“If you wanna help us out, I’m not gonna bitch.”

“What, no hue and cry about the bad guys teaming up?”

Caitlin cut in on comms, “Less talking more shooting. Get that walking artillery engine over west, I’m getting overrun and I’m wounded.”

“Diabolik to the rescue,” the supervillain chuckled, voice dripping irony all over the street.

Diamondback whooped “Spider’s here!” Her words were punctuated by several robots being flung into the sky by Koala’s gravity plates, then smashed to the ground with enough force to shatter them.

“Why’s the fucking Wankerbolik here?” Spider almost shrieked.

“Saving our lives, shut up and leave him alone!” Jericho didn’t mean to snap, but he was getting tired as he charged and rammed a tripod, smashing it with the adamant shield that was as good as Caitlin’s claims before tearing it apart with his PK field simulation.

“HKs descending on the civilians to the north, engaging.” Jericho had to give “Dr. Dad” credit. The man was a pro, and once he started fighting in earnest, he was able to keep the Hunter-killers at bay more efficiently than all of the Outcasts combined.

“Team tactics Cait, if we live through this, definitely team tactics.” Joe was thanking God for the torture Bardue had put them all through, or all of them would be dead. “Reviving Razorback, we don’t have time to wait for him to recoup.”

“He might go berserk again!”

Joe ignored them, and ran over to where Jack had stopped Goggmagogg in its tracks and scooped up the music box, flipping the cover back down and latching it. He then ran over and popped out an injection needle on his suit’s gauntlet and gave Razor an adrenaline shot, then shocked the poor kid with the palm-mounted defibrillator pads in his armor.

Razor came conscious with an outraged shriek and jumped back, chirping, hissing and shrieking at Jericho frantically. Joe tossed Razor his precious box. “We can’t hold buddy, we need you.”

Razor considered for a moment, chirped, and moved.

Caitlin took another shot to the leg. Diamond got cut by a blade wheel. Only Jericho and diabolik were moving at full steam.

Ok, Caitlin was moving at full steam still. Jericho watched the seemingly indefatigable girl run up a wall, then climb the up several windows, using straight jumps and cat-catches so she could leap out and grab a flyer that dipped too low. She smashed the thing and tore the energy weapon from the frame, and dropped to the ground, then dug out parts from other robots and hooked them together, cobbling together a hand blaster on the fly.

Jack took the simple expedient of running at full tilt and ramming whatever was shooting, smashing it hard and then tearing at it like he was born for destruction.

“How the fuck do you stay so calm?” Jericho asked.

“Been doing this for years, son, and my armor’s built for prolonged fights.” He casually gunned down several more bots, searching for targets and watching the kids battle away. “Bluetattoo there is the only one of you that’s got any experience with this kinda thing isn’t she?”

“Yeah Caitlin’s special, she knows her way around a firefight.” jericho threw a fist-sized chunk of concrete through another blade wheel, shattering the thing. “How many of these things does that asshole have, anyway?”

“Hundreds, maybe thousands.” Diabolik didn’t call attention to the people who were being slaughtered three blocks down, he simply locked his armor in place, then engaged his sniper mode, picking off robot after robot until the panicked survivors realised the robots were being destroyed, and that the massive power armor, and its smaller ambulance-like cousin, were defending them. “If no one puts down Reaper himself, he’ll rez in more of them.”

“How will we know if he’s stopped?”

“All the shit he brought with him will de-rez.” Diabolik looked down at a shattered machinegun with a familiar piece of equipment. He grinned as he recognized the AEGIS-Loader. “Mahren finally trusted someone to use the loaders?”

“Mahren died after defending the school on Halloween,” Jericho said flatly.

“Pity, I actually liked that asshole.” Diabolik hooked the wrecked machinegun to a repair port and the internal nanoassemblers went to work repairing the destroyed heavy weapon.

Caitlin was blasting more robots when Diabolik held out the newly-repaired weapon, with the AEGIS intact, to her. “Fixed your gun.”

“I could kiss you.” Caitlin grabbed the weapon, smashed another robot with the butt of the machinegun and stepped out into the open and resumed her most effective tactic: Unrelenting suppressive fire.

“Try not to, I have enough on my plate without adding shenanigans with a minor,” he said lightly.

The outcasts were converging on a large brick building with a civil defense shelter inside. Razor and Jericho dove in, searching for more Hunter-Killers in wait and finding huddling people hiding inside. “Shelter's intact, get everyone inside!”

The boys got out as the terrified people they were protecting moved into the safe area rapidly, but without stampeding.

“You know Giz is still pissed off that Whateley still has those.” Diabolik’s manner of speech was calm, easygoing, and set the kids a lot more at ease than they otherwise would be.

“I think I can endure his irritation with an enormous amount of fortitude,” Caitlin shot back while trying not to move too much. Her machinegun tore through the ranks of the oncoming robots, then the inevitable misfeed happened, and she was forced to set the weapon aside as its feed tray cover exploded for the hundredth time since she’d started using the loaders.

“Ah, forgot about that little flaw.”

Caitlin cursed and ran forward, hooking onto a wrecked tripod and studying, then hitting a few releases, and unscrewed two bolts with her fingernails due to her supernatural strength and lifted the cannon off the tripod and ran back.

She held back behind the others as she tinkered with the cannon and the parts from her gun, cobbling together a rudimentary trigger and handle, then after several minutes, began blasting robots with massive pulses of incinerating fire that had once been used to reduce the civilians to ash.

Jericho blinked at his friend’s ingenuity and while Diamondback spat arcane epithets and caused more joints to shatter like glass shards, Jericho liberated his own cannon and began tinkering.

Diabolik chuckled, “God the other kids must hate the lot of you in the sims.” Razorback dove on yet another metal monstrosity, teaching it to play fetch with its own parts.

“Hate’s about the right word,” Diamondback said as she began laying out Tarot cards on the battlefield during a lull in the fighting.

“Fuck, here’s wave two.” Caitlin’s voice was shaky as the sky above started to begin that glitchy pattern of digitized weirdness.

“We have a few minutes. I’d ask if you wanted me to evacuate you lot, but if you took the time to herd these people to shelter you aren’t going anywhere, are you.

“Nope.”

“Not a chance.”

“Ain’t happening.”

“SHRIEK!”

“Welp, in that case, let’s even the odds.” Diabolik swapped comms frequencies. “Base one-niner, go hot. I repeat, go hot. Reaper Wave Two, Darwin. Abandon original mission and begin defense of the port and city.”

The response was immediate, and loud, as several seeming meteors shrieked in from the sky, crashing into the earth and disgorging dozens of combat robots that had been intended for a major gambit all over town.

When wave two hit, the beleaguered city defenders began praying for a miracle.

* * *

When hour four finally came around, three of the Overwatch Defense team were dead. Hammerhead had worn armor, but it hadn’t stopped Reaper’s scythe from bisecting him across the waist not seconds before. Two other bodies lay dead in the running battle that had ensued since Overwatch’s heavy hitters started trickling in.

This was the third time they had fought Doctor Reaper. It wasn’t the first time members of their team had died to him.

Thundercall blazed with lightning, her body arcing with a corona of energy as the perimeter of Syndicate soldiers flanked the Oiverwatch team and kept the bots off them. She didn’t know where the Tiger Guards had come from, but she wasn’t going to complain about the help.

When Reaper threw his Eon blast, the black bolt struck her, and over an agonizing twenty seconds, Thundercall aged five-hundred years, rapidly dying of old age, her corpse falling from the sky, putrefying, then slamming into the ground as nothing more than bleached bone and dust.

The remaining team could have run. But Doctor Reaper was horrible enough that none of them dared to risk the consequence of him winning. His bizarre, metal and dimensional shadow Grim Reaper armor showed no signs of damage. It wouldn’t until it failed catastrophically.

The humming Scythe wielded by the madman was a horrific amalgam of necrotic and destroying energy. No wound inflicted by the blade would ever heal naturally, and even magic would be touch and go. Reaper’s hallmark was the inevitability of death, and the weapons he used were chosen so that even the wounded would most likely succumb to their wounds even with top-tier medical attention.

The rapid-fire pulses of energy from GunRunner and the devisor who had come out of the woodwork to protect her home from this lunatic were having no visible effect even as Reaper seemed to pause to savor this latest death.

In reality he frantically checked his predictive algorithms. Inevitability was on his side, but the fatality rate among the citizenry had stalled at 1.3% casualty rate overall. The military cordon had recovered too many civilians, and the GSD oddballs defending people, over to the western side of town, had diverted and destroyed enough of his forces that most of the civil defense shelters were full of people waiting to meet their end, and were being fortified and defended with a ferocity heretofore unseen in this nation’s history.

Reaper pulled the trigger and began rezzing in Wave 3.

Two bricks charged, wielding whatever they could lay their hands on, but the four dead men and women of Overwatch had been the biggest known hitters on the team. The rest would inevitably succumb. All he had to do was continue to fight and be patient for the openings that always made themselves known.

* * *

The Tiger Guards and Diabolik’s assault robots had come to the rescue. Caitlin had come within a hair of going berserk at the sight of the same uniforms that had accompanied Chessmaster in his assault on Whateley, but she forced her fury back into the bottomless well she kept it in before threatening to go completely berserk.

Caitlin was used to being the aggressor, and this endless meatgrinder was getting to her.

She was in pain, she was frustrated, she had gone through every weapon she could get ahold of, opting to take one of the Personal Assault Systems the Tiger Guards were using and loading their Sabot rounds. She was fighting a battle the Marines were trained for, and that training made it very, very simple in execution.

Jericho smashed another Tripod, blasting the Blade Wheel that Rezzed above him before it had time to hit the ground. The Rafe Armor was almost untouched, the PK field held up beautifully, and the shield was more than enough to stop lasers, heat bursts and other things that used light and termperature to kill.

Diamondback and Razorback had resorted to taking cover and using rifles taken from dead Tigers. Both were exhausted, and neither really acknowledged the slashes, scrapes and near-misses. Diamond fought with three broken ribs as she fired, the recoil hammering her like a sledgehammer wielded by Stormwolf.

Koala’s power armor was coming apart at the seams, her lighter frame’s defenses were dependent upon her gravity plates, which she was putting through combat uses the devises were never intended to be applied to.

The Tigers were actually professionals, and they had followed Diabolik’s orders instantly, setting up a defensive perimeter to allow the Outcasts some breathing space, and to resupply Diabolik’s nearly spent ammunition. Caitlin was in the process of hand-reloading the power armor, and repairing two malfunctioning shield generators.

Jericho cursed as the sky began to shimmer and digitize a third time. “We can’t hold out like this. How much more of this shit can this bastard do?”

“Until Reaper dies, or whatever it is he does, this won’t stop. The last time he attacked in Russia, five waves before the Iron Hag showed up to rip his ass a new one.” Diabolik’s words were almost conversational.

“Can you take him?”

“Maybe. Depends on how much damage everyone else has done to him.”

“We’ll hold here.” Jericho paused a moment, and heard Caitlin’s voice.

“If you say it, I’ve already forgiven you, Joe.”

“You know what I’m going to say, you know why?”

“Yeah Joe, I know exactly why.” She kicked the last ammunition can away from Diabolik and picked up the newly-repaired machinegun she would never, willingly, part with.

“Diabolik, you can do more by taking down Reaper.” Joe’s voice was strangely calm and level as he made the choice to ask his allies to die. “Caitlin, cover Diabolik. Do whatever it takes to kill that fucker.”

“I’m not sure a teenager…” Diabolik heard multiple thumps as the sparking Parkour traceur climbed up the back of his armor and laid the machinegun over his shoulder.

“Shut up and move, Doc, let’s kill this asshole.”

The massive war machine, that was Doctor Diabolik’s rarely-seen combat armor, moved slowly at first, then built momentum as the girl on his back used the maintenance grips as handholds to ride him into battle like a bizarre limpet.

“You realize we’re probably not coming back from this, right?” Diabolik gave a tight comm just to Caitlin, unlinking her from the Outcast comms so they wouldn’t hear her screams if Reaper killed her.

“I’ve heard, or said that thirty-eight fucking times Doc, being wrong was getting old anyway. Felicis Fossor.

“Lucky fools indeed.”

“Patch me through to Carson.”

“It’ll take us a few minutes to get to Reaper, why not?” Caitlin laid in with the machinegun as Diabolik smashed his way through a group of killer robots that were engaging his own combat droids. The metal-haired machinegunner on his back was able to pick out the enemy machines and almost exclusively hit them. “Nice shooting, Since when do machinegunners actually learn to aim?”

“Since I decided I want to be alive when the shooting stops.” She let loose another burst at more droids as a phone dial tone chirped merrily in her ear.

“Hello?” The phone clicked and she heard Carson’s voice on the comms.

“Bet you’re getting tired of hearing my fucking voice whenever I take people on a field trip.” Caitlin continued firing for a second as Diabolik added his own particle blasts to the mix. “Guess where I am?”

“Eldritch, where are the Outcasts and Koala?”

“Fuck, warn me before you ram a wall, dick!” Caitlin ducked in time to avoid getting pasted with large chunks of rubble as the supervillain she was riding ran straight for the heart of the ongoing, city-wide battle. “Outcasts and Koala are having an Alamo moment, get the coordinates from Doc Diabolik. Me’n She-Beast’s dad are moving to engage Reaper.”

“Caitlin, you can’t fight Reap…”

“Not asking your permission Carson, and I’m not letting the others die if I can help it. The Outcasts are defending a civil defense shelter full of civvies. Hundreds, including members of Jericho and Razorback’s families. Find a way to get them the fuck out, all of them.”

“What do you intend to do?”

“Same thing I do every night Carson, try and find new and interesting ways to kill people more powerful than me.” Caitlin paused, dropping the flippant manner for a second. “When the Outcasts get home, Carson, they need to see Bellows. Not when it’s scheduled. They need to see him as soon as they’re off the fucking plane. This is worse than anything they saw on Halloween. Razor helped Diabolik take down GoggMagogg, Jericho’s been making decisions that have saved a lot of people, but he wasn’t ready to lead a war. Diamondback’s gotten fucked up nonstop since we came to Oz.”

“We’ll get them out Caitlin. We’ll come for you.”

“No you won’t. Reaper dies or I die. No compromise. Eldritch out.”

“I sent Carson the coordinates. Interesting conversation. Care to explain?”

“You care to explain to me how you got into Camp Pendleton’s Deep Vault where the M-SOC gadgeteers keep the big guns?”

“Not really.”

“There’s your answer.”

The war heated up as Diabolik smashed through the last cordon of robots, and the Tiger Guards, keeping the Hunter-Killer robots off of the remains of the Overwatch Defense team, ceased fire long enough to let the two lunatics through.

Caitlin could see Reaper four-hundred meters down a street of annihilated store fronts. Bodies littered the ground where he, or his machines, had murdered people casually and without mercy. “Get me to three hundred and holy fuck, stop!”

The distortion bubble they almost ran through popped as a lone figure erupted from nothing. The massive power frame skidded to a halt as the odd man with chiseled features and sad, old eyes turned to look at them.

He wore a Waffen S.S. uniform, stripped completely of decorations, insignia and identifying markers. He looked like he had absolutely no fear, whatsoever, and he raised a hand as Diabolik cut in the PA system. “I’m not your enemy today, Konrad. I’m here for the Reaper’s head.”

Unverziehen, Unforgiven in German, considered for a moment, then nodded once. Caitlin prepped and laid in the gun. “I’ll get his attention, you two go for the kill.”

“I don’t think…”

“You two have the chops to wipe him out, I don’t. Let me do my thing, you do yours!”

Unverziehen simply nodded and flickered out of existence, then the explosions, around where Reaper was, began anew, and in earnest. “Alright, since I can’t talk you out of this, how about a little mood music?”

“This is your show, Doc, lay me a beat and I’ll dance to the tune.”

Diabolik chuckled and charged, the PA on his suit thundering out a heavy metal riff old enough to be considered “old people music” the thundering footfalls keeping time with the beat as Metallica’s thundering riffs played out over the Australian landscape.

Caitlin laid into the gun hard as James Hetfield’s voice tore into space, thundering her gun at the full cycling rate, holding down the trigger and not letting go.

Lashing out the action, returning the reaction

Weak are ripped and torn away

Hypnotizing power, crushing all that cower

Battery is here to stay

Diabolik started firing as he ran, adding into the chaos as the German World War II veteran, from the German, side cut loose, blasting Reaper and causing the remaining Overwatch team to scatter. Missiles flew from the power armor’s chest as the supers cut loose with literally everything they had, holding nothing back against a lunatic who was trying to render humanity extinct.

Smashing through the boundaries

Lunacy has found me

Cannot stop the battery

Pounding out aggression

Turns into obsession

Cannot kill the battery

Caitlin knew her shots were nothing more than an annoyance to the supervillain trying to murder anyone, but she didn’t care. As Diabolik and the long-repentant ex-nazi soldier attacked, Caitlin remembered the Lamplighter, and set her sights on this battle’s lamp. If Reaper’s Scythe could be removed from play, then the odds would even out in favor of the defenders.

Unverziehen was an enigma to most people, the insanely potent warper had been a member of the combat arm of the German SS, and had not been privy to the war crimes of Auschwitz, Dachau, Sobibor and other places. The man and Caitlin shared something similar: guilt. He felt responsible for what his country did during the war, and though her crimes paled in comparison to what the Nazis had done during that war, the A-List hero, who still could not forgive himself, hadn’t physically committed any of the crimes he bore the shame of.

Caitlin was a bit more gray in that area. She had committed the crimes she was wanted for in various places. She had committed murders and assassinations of people and inflicted collateral damage, on a horrific level, in the name of survival. And now, she was going to see if all of that experience killing might help her sleep at night.

Cannot kill the family

Battery is found in me

Battery

Battery

Caitlin abandoned her gun and dropped off of Diabolik’s back, abruptly, letting the ripping, uncontrolled essence play across the wounds where her tattoos had been marred. She hit the ground running, and shot out from under Diabolik’s armored legs like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, vaulting a car hood, and skidding across like it was built for her to slide on. She didn’t bring a gun, or a knife, her harvester would be next to useless as she charged straight into the mouth of death.

She dropped into her parkour trance and flowed, rushing across obstacles, over them, dropping to slide under a city bus that jumped from its position, blasted back towards Jadis’ father as she came back to her feet and rushed.

It was a tiny, sentimental part of her that realized her life had come full-circle as she, and her allies, assaulted a mass murderer in the little memorial park where the Dragonslayers had killed Connor Edwards.

Crushing all deceivers, mashing non-believers

Never-ending potency

Hungry violence-seeker, feeding off the weaker

Breeding on insanity

Diabolik and Unverziehen caught sight of her rush and poured on the fire. The spatial shocks the warper directed at Reaper slammed him around like a rag doll, and Diabolik’s missile and minigun fire staggered the bastard while two devisors flanking Reaper were frantically pouring laser fire into the killer’s side. The chaos made it very difficult to see Caitlin’s attack, but reaper did, and the black bolt flung from his seemingly outstretched hand struck her in the chest and engulfed her body.

The Whateley Range React Armor tore apart as it disintegrated under the weight of years, tearing away and falling to dust as Caitlin’s suddenly stone-like body ignored the killer’s manipulations of time. It was kind of hard to age to death a creature engineered to be an ageless slave, laboring away for eternity.

Smashing through the boundaries

Lunacy has found me

Cannot stop the battery

Pounding out aggression

Turns into obsession

Cannot kill the battery

Reaper blasted her again, and this time, Caitlin dropped and slid as she came close, falling like he’d hurt her, sliding into his legs and slamming her arms back, twisting and hooking her legs around the arm holding the scythe and then spinning, grabbing, pulling and rolling away with her prize, the killing blade that had slaughtered so many people over the years. Within seconds, she knew how to use it, and that if her body had still been made of flesh and bone, her death would have been horrific for her temerity in touching the thing.

Cannot kill the family

Battery is found in me

Battery

Battery

“That girl is insane.” Diabolik laid back in and charged, taking advantage of Caitlin’s sudden suicide rush, and unexpected survival in the face of Reaper’s entropic attacks, to blast the suddenly disarmed opponent full on with his particle beams. His German sometimes-enemy followed suit as the metal-haired young woman rolled and ran, carrying her prize away from its former owner. “How the hell are you alive?”

“I’m a goddamned miracle in action, now kill that fucker!”

Diabolik cut loose with every single weapon he had, obliging Eldritch’s demand as Unverziehen charged. Exemplar Sevens with warper powers as potent as the ex-Nazi’s were rare and feared. Where Reaper was at the top of the Supervillain A-List, Unverziehen was near the top of the A-List for heroes, rated somewhat higher than Champion and Lady Astarte. Backed up with eighty years of combat experience, the stoic, sullen hero, who almost never spoke, was nothing short of lethal.

Circle of destruction, hammer comes crushing

Powerhouse of energy

Whipping up a fury, dominating flurry

We create the battery

Everyone’s luck had to run out sooner or later.

Reaper took two solid hits, then grabbed the hand streaking in for another attack, giving way, and failing to stop the strike, but blasting Unverziehen in the arm with his Eon Burst.

Unverziehen’s left hand, then arm, withered, then putrefied, then sloughed off as the man screamed in agony. Reaper grabbed him by the throat as he fell to his knees, and hit him again. Eighty-one years after Konrad Hauptmann had given up his place among the hated Germans in the second world war, death finally came for him. Reaper silently thrilled at the demoralizing blow this murder would deliver to the defenders.

Smashing through the boundaries

Lunacy has found me

Cannot stop the battery

Pounding out aggression

Turns into obsession

Cannot kill the battery

Contrary to what people expected of Hollywood, real small-scale fights to the death were rarely minutes, or hours-long epics of endurance or skill. They are brutal, bloody affairs that are decided in seconds. When Unverziehen and Diabolik entered the battle together, the clock started ticking. When Caitlin stole the Scythe, the clock ticked faster.

When Reaper let himself be distracted by the opportunity to finish off one of the longest-surviving “heroes” of the twentieth century, Caitlin Bardue came up behind him and completely abandoned all pretense of honorable combat. She reared back behind the armored man and slashed Reaper’s own Scythe through his knees, dropping him to the ground, on stumps, as Diabolik moved in for the kill. Caitlin helpfully kicked the shocked man in the spine, knocking him on his face.

A massive, armored foot slammed down on Reaper’s back, and thighs, pinning him to his own divot in the concrete. Jadis’ father pressed the particle cannon on his left arm to the back of Reaper’s head and fired right into the back of the monster’s head, again and again and again, until the world’s most hated supervillain succumbed, and seemed to dissolve into pixelated nothing, while every killer robot he’d brought with him suffered the same fate.

Caitlin leaned on the scythe, looking at the mess, and breathed a sigh of relief. Once again, she was alive. “I’ve heard it thirty-nine times now, Doc. Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of being wrong?”

Dr Diabolik let loose a shuddering breath he hadn’t been aware he was holding, laughing suddenly, painfully at the absurdity of the Whateley student’s statement. When he recovered he looked at her. “Why didn’t the Scythe go with him?”

Caitlin grinned and pulled out a small, mangled piece of metal with odd circuitry and held it up. “I tore this out of it before I offered him a place to lie down. It’s whatever he needed to recall it and everything else. Do me a favor, see what you can do to figure out where he keeps vanishing to. I’m sure he would love to entertain houseguests.” Her last words were delivered with such cold-blooded ferocity that Dr. Diabolik had to wonder what kind of kids Whateley was training now.

* * *

When the robots started dissolving in a pixelated, bizarre lightshow that left no evidence save dead, burned out husks of assault robots, both Razorback and Diamondback collapsed, exhausted and starving as the adrenaline they had been living on for hours finally crashed on them. Jericho disbelievingly dropped to his knees, then popped his helmet open so he could throw up messily on the torn-up pavement.

When he was done emptying the bile that had pooled in his guts, he closed his helmet, and forced the system to pump his bloodstream full of specially-tailored stimulants that were custom designed for his body and metabolism. It worked better than coffee ever could as he grimly activated his Rafe Armor’s Triage and Search-and Rescue functions.

People were still wounded. Those wounded would probably die, despite treatment. That couldn’t stop him from trying as he, blessedly, was able to quit fighting, and begin the long process of finding survivors and saving lives. He closed the eyes of too many people for the last time.

* * *

January 3rd, 2007, Whateley Academy Gate

The death toll could have been a lot worse. Too many people had lost lives, businesses or homes, and it would take a long time for Darwin to recover from the attack. Diabolik was gone, having vanished within hours of Reaper’s destruction and exodus from reality. Caitlin was torn up badly, and her body would take a week to fully mend, most likely.

Jericho had not expected her to shake his hand, and hug him in the aftermath after he had ordered her to go and likely die fighting a monster even Carson herself was leery of engaging. When his brother came out of the shelter, Jericho couldn’t bring himself to let go of his brother for more than an hour, crying for the people he hadn’t saved, and crying because of the ones he had.

Razorback had sat on Adam and his mother for days, refusing to let them out of his sight until he fas fully convinced the monster wasn’t coming back.

Mrs. Turner had greeted Diamondback with grim news after the poor girl had just finished fighting a war she was never prepared for. Her brother, Matthew, had gone missing. Her parents had contacted the Turners to find out if they knew where their boy had gone. The worst part was she knew they blamed her for his disappearance, as they blamed her for the disappearance of their pure, good child Ryan.

Caitlin had folded Reaper’s scythe back into it’s carry configuration, and had figured out how to turn the thing off, so it wouldn’t kill anyone by accident. She joined her friends in searching for survivors, digging out people trapped in wrecked buildings, and laying to rest the people who had not made it. It was all so very unfair, and she had to wonder how many people might have been saved had she and Diabolik simply attacked Reaper as soon as they had found him.

The realistic part of her knew that both of them would probably be dead. Reaper’s seeming invulnerability had a limit, one that had been whittled down by the members of the supers team who had rescued Razorback from a life as a feral monster in the outback. Eight out of the twenty members were still alive.

Koala had lost her mother when Reaper murdered Thundercall. Her father was still alive, though it was uncertain if their team’s mage would be able to heal him enough to save his life.  No one had tried to pry her away from her father's bedside as she frantically worked to build a devise to halt the damage inflicted on the man by the Reaper's scythe.

It had not been a good week.

When it was evident that they had done all they could, the Outcasts and their families retreated to the Carlyle home and stayed close to each other. The Turners and Carlyles had been terrified to know that their children had been fighting a running battle to save lives, and their efforts had been mostly successful. Each one of the three who could sleep had nightmares of things going much, much worse.

Caitlin stayed close to shake them out of the nightmares so they could find peace. Nobody really wanted to talk. She was using a crutch to move, her back and leg were more damaged than she realized, barely able to hold her weight when she wasn’t focused on staying upright. Her skin had cracked and pitted like stone, not skin. Her blood congealed and hardened into a metal sheath over her wounds.

When the four got out of the small van used to transport them to the school that was their home in many ways, Diamondback finally started crying. Caitlin bottled up her nightmares with the others she’d kept for years, and hid them away so she couldn’t look at them. Jericho still felt guilty for sending Caitlin into what he had known would very likely kill her. Razorback, oddly was the most calm and normal. Caitlin suspected it had a lot to do with the monster spirit Diamond had seen, the one powerful enough to subsume Jack’s body entirely. It was probably protecting him from the nightmares, allowing him to help Caitlin walk their friends through their troubles.

Razorback’s music box had been playing nonstop, as they slept, once the Outcasts discovered that the eerie tunes quelled the horrible dreams.

They were early for the winter semester, and Alfred Bellows, Elizabeth Carson, and Gunny Bardue were waiting to help them find some peace of mind. Razor guided Diamond along behind the psychologist, Carson delicately led the blind Outcast leader towards Schuster Hall.

Bardue took his adopted “Daughter” back to the village to share a bottle of scotch and let Caitlin’s shakes come and go once she no longer had to put on a strong face for her friends.  Caitlin, in turn, spent a day cutting runes into Reaper's scythe that would allow her to banish the blade into a pocket of nowhere that only she could access.  Reaper's Scythe was her trophy from the battle, and it would kill any other person who touched it while it was active.

* * *

Carson helped Joe into a seat shakily and offered him a cup of coffee, fresh from the devisor pot she’d started up early.

“Are you going to be alright, Joe?”

“I have no clue. I don’t know if I’ll ever be alright after seeing what that bastard did to all of those people.”

Carson nodded. “I’ve fought him before. I know what he does, and I’ve seen the aftermath. What happened?”

Joe was close to tears. “We were just going to a movie when all of the cars stopped working, the radio playing this godawful message about how that fucker had a heavy heart but all of us in Darwin had to die for the sake of humanity. Jack’s mom, his baby brother, my brother…”

Carson let Joe collect his thoughts as he let out a shuddering sob. “They were with us, we’d just gotten food, were getting ready to go back to the house when Caitlin started screaming. She said everyone needed to run, and that Reaper was coming. She saw the signs in the sky of the materialization of the killer bots. Then the planes started falling from the sky like dead birds.”

Elizabeth Carson didn’t judge, didn’t lecture, for one merciful night, as she listened to Joe Turner talk about the nightmare he lived through that had come on the heels of one of the best Christmas breaks he had ever enjoyed. She talked him through watching people die, the decisions he made to save as many as he could, letting him know that he wasn’t at fault, for playing the numbers game, with lives, to save as many as he could.

When the Outcasts were put to bed together in Hawthorne common room, Caitlin stood watch, armed. She didn’t know that her friends’ memories were being guarded by Louis, or that the Psychic Arts Teachers had been pulled in to work the Outcasts through the trauma in their waking hours, and their dreams. She was the only one they weren’t allowed to help. She’d never let them.

When the first kids started trickling back onto campus, Caitlin was as functional as she ever was, meaning on the ragged edge, but Joe, Sandra and Jack were coming around. The constant work done with the three of them wasn’t a memory band-aid, nor any kind of quick-fix. The expert minds of Whateley Academy helped the children shore up their willpower, and guided them through their own actions, and those of their friends, to help them see that they weren’t at fault for what had happened, that feeling guilty for surviving wasn’t what they should be doing.

It wasn’t a quick-fix, but it was a start. They would simply need a few months of relative (for them) calm to recover.

* * *

Sandra awoke to the whimpering cries of her roomate, Trisha, the perpetual misery engine of her existence. As she opened her eyes, she saw something crouching over her roommate, a humanoid, spined thing that ecstatically cried as it fed the poor girl visions of being murdered and eaten by her roommate… by Diamondback. Every time the thing caressed the doe-like GSD girl she cried out, whimpering in terror in her sleep.

Trisha was startled awake by the shrieked “YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” that came from her roommate. When she opened her terrified eyes, she felt a weight lifted from her pounding heart and Diamondback tore a translucent, spined barely-seen thing from her bed and literally tore it apart.

Trisha screamed as her enraged roommate tore out of their shared room into Whitman Hall, hunting for the things in her cottage that were feeding on the misery of her friends and neighbors.

Mrs. Savage almost fought the girl when she ripped a translucent monstrosity that became semi-visible the instant Diamondback’s hand wrapped around its throat and squeezed. The fog lifted from her mind as she realized, all at once, the hell that Diamondback and Psydoe had endured with each other. The serpent-girl was already gone, tearing through the cottage on a shrieking rampage that saw many other translucent things assaulted and torn apart as the enraged Outcast vented her frustration, guilt and fury on the monsters only she could touch and see.

Fubar and Doctor Bellows took three hours talking down the berserk GSD girl as she attacked and tried to kill every single spirit in Whitman hall, that wasn’t part of an Avatar, that she could put her hands on.

* * *

“Hey Jadis! I need to talk to you about your dad!” Joe couldn’t quite keep the edge out of his voice, and he saw Jadis Diabolik tense up as though she were thinking not this again…

She-Beast gave Jericho a flat look as the blind Devisor tapped his cane away at the ground near her, maybe fooling the kids around them, but she wasn’t an idiot. “What do you want, Jericho? I don’t have any control over what my father doe...OOF!”

An attack she could understand, a screaming tirade even. She could even cope with accusations of familial wrongdoing. Of all the things Jadis Diabolik was not expecting, being hugged by the one-man war on fashion, that was Jericho, was not one of them. Quite honestly, she was a bit freaked as this particular outcome had never once occurred to her, not knowing how to react as Jericho spoke quietly.

“He saved our lives, if you talk to him, tell him thanks, please.”

“o….Okaaay?” Jadis turned to Nacht as the inexplicable Outcast started walking away. Kate was just as horribly confused by the whole thing as she was.

“If you need help, your Dad bought you a big marker.” Jericho’s voice was very clear as he walked away.

“What the fuck just happened?” Jadis blinked several times, trying to figure out that exact question.

* * *

Doctor Reaper was in agony. The recovery period from being defeated was always excruciating. This time doubly so, as his lower legs had been removed by a blade built to make sure that no wound inflicted by it would heal, a weapon taken as a trophy by that magically unstable woman right before that idiot Diabolik had ended his existence in that thread of potential.

Darwin had been an unmitigated failure. He hadn’t even managed to destroy five percent of the population, much less the goal of eighty that he had been aiming for. The majority of humanity had to die, or the whole would be lost. He could not fail.

Reaper screamed in agony as the medical bots tore away the ruined flesh on his legs and began fusing cybernetic components in their place to replace the limbs he had lost. Until the memory imprints were fully updated in all of his clones, Dr. Reaper simply could not afford to allow himself to die.

He would have to try again. If Darwin could not be obliterated, then he would have to achieve 95% when his attack on Chicago commenced.

Fin.



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