Bullets soared by as a battered body tumbled through the gunfire, rolling to shelter behind a stone pillar. He had no idea where the battle had taken him, but it was dark and made of concrete, possibly a layered car garage. Hounded by the grey garbed legion for what seemed like forever, this was one of the first breathers he was able to sneak in during the chase. The blank troops closed into his location with pistols drawn and faces dead. He wished he could fight back, but that would be wrong. It was not their fault, after all.

"Return the Core," demanded the numbers in unison with their joined, monotone voice, "and your death will be swift." Grinding his teeth to choke out his rage, he clutched the stolen object even tighter as the surroundings were studied for some route of escape. The city was depending on him, no, the world. He sprung from hiding once he heard them getting too close and, with a mad dash to wall, threw himself through the safety barrier. Catching a few shots in the back of his leg, he sailed through the air with the pieces of the shattered guard rail. He dropped like a stone toward the pavement below, falling, falling, and then rising. Soaring like the bold eagle of the land he was sworn to defend, what remained of his cape spread wide as the Star Spangled Crusader's command over gravity came back under his control.

"Sorry, Mind Minions," the man apologized with a toothy grin across his wide chin, "but you can tell Mind Lord that evil will not be victorious today." Stretching one muscular arm forward, he tried to steady his shaky flight. Passing over the heads of city dwellers, the onlookers could not see the familiar streak striped red and white, now just red, but they still cheered on their great hero.

It had been a long day, but the battle was far from over. Many topnotch members of the Guardian Guild had been lost, and what remained was spread throughout the city fighting smaller skirmishes to keep the evildoers occupied. The spy within the Sinister Squad had informed the heroes of plans to construct a Doom's Day Device, D-3. The most vital component for the weapon, luckily, was a relic of advanced, arcane, and alien origin, the Core, which was being smuggled into town. This was the only weakness in the design. Without this key component, humanity would be safe. However, the object cannot merely be destroyed, for, with all its power unleashed, its destruction could annihilate hundreds of miles. Until the proper disposal was discovered, they just had to keep out of the villains' hands, but they would not let that be an easy task.

"Curse that star studded fool!" whined a nefarious figure in purple spandex, stepping up to the broken barrier as the grey, mindless drones stood around worthlessly, receiving no commands from their mind bending master. "Well, if he thinks he can escape the wrath of Dr. Ray, then his days are over!" Laughing maniacally, the fiend twisted his helmet so that a visor slid over his eyes. Raising both his arms, rings around his forearms began to glow. Locking onto his distant target, all eight bands were shining bright. "Full power!" he unnecessarily stated as twin beams of energy were discharged, ripping across the sky. There was nothing the Crusader could have done as the brilliant lasers blasted him from the heavens. Only the Core remained, tumbling in the air amidst a shower of blood before crashing down to the city streets of below. However, eager hands were waiting to catch it...

[It's super heroes and villains. What will be the world's fate? Will good triumph over evil? And try not to just make an uber man (super strength, speed, flight, heat rays, invisible all in one package), that'd be a bit lame.

[OOC: Now here's a character that's not super...yet. I wonder if he's kinda too "dark" for this story, but he is who he is.]

Just below the scene of our hero's tragic end spanned a sinister, grafiti-covered alleyway. No doubt, these were the narrow playgrounds of thugs and heroes alike...

...but there was also an unfortuante crowd, caught in the middle of the epic struggle, that had to abide in the alleys as well. Terrel Axford was one of those cursed people, doomed to make meals out of garbage and sleep standing up with his back against the wall. At only 17 years old, he was a malnourished, long-haired, homeless bum.

This unlucky soul was wandering the bleak alley, once again wrestling with his sanity, when his cold, steel eyes glimpsed a shower of something crimson raining down from the sky, and something glowing plummeting to the pavement. "The hell-?" Terrel stammered, yet was interrupted; as the words escaped his lips, blood splashed upon his dirty blonde hair and black t-shirt. "Gah! What's going on...?"

Now the ground was quaking...Terrel could feel every vibration surging through his legs. Suddenly, a cobalt blue, serpentine creature sprung out of the ground in front of the teen like a mutated fish. It was as long as a human and segmented, with several pairs of black, hairy limbs, and had a menacing pair of sickle-like mandibles. When it jumped out, it caught the falling sphere in its teeth.

"Not another thing..." muttered Terrel, edging away as the creature slammed into the Earth. "If I start running now, maybe I won't get attacked..."

So the teen whirled around and started to dash away. However, more wriggling worm-like monsters emerged from the ground and abruptly cut off his escape route. "No-!"

"Foolish human!" cackled an inhuman, raucous voice. "You cannot escape the soldiers of Dr. Cursipede's army!" The pavement trembled; Terrel backed away from the live barricade and was caught in a vice of ebony legs. "And for trying to take the Core, human, we will rip you to shreds!"

Terrel sighs deeply, and helplessly watches more worm-things pop out of the ground. "I could say you're wrong, but you'd never believe me," he gloomily replied to the voice. A sullen calm radiates from the teen; no fear can be traced from his stone eyes. "I guess there is no point in living anymore..."

The urchin's depression meant nothing to the cursed worm; he was just in its way and edible -- a problem and an easy solution. The writhing ringed mess reared up on its hindmost legs, spreading its wicked jaws in anticipation for the kill. Its chitinous head tweaked to an angle. The soft, membranous flesh of the beast inflated beneath its armor.

What sort of attack is this? thought the youth, although none of the confusion was shown in his expression. The segment quickly continued to swell to such a size that it burst off the plates protecting it. The many-legged demon began to writhe uncontrollably until the sac burst in a gruesome display. Its body fell and revealed a man standing behind, gun drawn. A plain mask hid his face in a featureless silver save for two bulging eyes. His entire length was clad in a military coat covered in pockets that showed its age in the number of repairs made to it. From within it, the mysterious man drew out another cylindric container to load into his launcher. He brought up a heavy, mud-splattered boot onto the still-twitching head, oozing all sorts of sickly slimes, and put all his weight onto it. He shot another canister, this time into a group of the monstrosities instead of into a monster itself. It ricocheted off the alley wall and exploded into a heavy, obviously deadly gas in mid-air.

"Kid, there was never any real point in living," the masked man told, much to the youth's surprise, despite his want to seem otherwise. "Especially when you're just going to throw your life away like this," he huffed from behind his disguise in a low, metallic voice, "not as though you'd be able to contribute much to society anyway."

"Hey, you can't judge me!" the bum objected. "You don't know me... my life..." he trailed off.

"Terrel Axford," the gasser reverberated as he readied another round. "Age, seventeen. Residence, vagrant. Priors: public drunkenness, assault, larceny, extortion, and racketeering. Quite impressive for someone so young." Another acrid cloud was launched into the crowding worms. When he reached into his coat to reload, his lenses met eyes locked in surprise and disgust. "I have a good memory."

"Yeah, well, that just shows ya how the man is trying to keep us little guys down," was his best retort.

"We police and hero-types aren't here to make your lives any worse," the gunman explained while continuing his barrage. "We just want to keep people like you from making everyone else's life worse."

"I was just doin' what I need to stay alive out here," he rationalized.

"You're a drop-out and a run-away," the masked man reminded. "There was plenty you could have done to avoid coming here, and there were even more choices for you to get out."

"Naw, you don't underst-"

"Oh, I understand it all," he cut off, firing a furious shot straight into the closest worm's open orifice. "You're from a white, lower-middle class family. They didn't have it all, but they had enough. Just like every other whiny little emo kid your age, the whole world is only focused on making your life miserable. You don't have a terminal disease, you didn't lose any limbs, you weren't tied up in a frickin' basement and ravished for weeks. No, you are the only person in the entire world that has ever had a beef with his parents." The solid silver face was flush against the vagrant's nose. He could see his apathetic eyes reflected back at himself -- a fact that made the hero even more infuriated. Heat from his loud breath could be felt radiating from the flat mouth. The thought of backhanding the little punk to the splattered ground crossed his mind, but that wasn't the kind of person he was anymore. The gasser's assault had quit in the middle of his little rant, and the demon crawlers regrouped in the clearing air and slithered forward.

"Some of us have problems we make for ourselves," the gunner boomed in an increasingly calming voice. "Some of us get attacked by mutant centipedes and other situations out of our control." He opened his coat and unlatched a larger canister from one of the straps hidden inside. "Whether you make your own problems or others make them for you, it is only how you deal with them that matters. You can roll over and die, blaming everything and everyone, or," he paused to cock the heavy ammo, "you can go down kicking and screaming.

"Back in my day, we had to worry about madmen trying to turn citizens into gold statues, but today, there is more money to be had in controlling the local rackets and riff-raff. You've run with some bad crowds, but don't blame us. You've done some stupid things. Your life sucks. Everybody's does. Or it did until we did something about it. Now, you can run away like a good little boy or stay here like whiny trash and have your lungs melt when this gas bomb goes off."

Terrel had barely moved the entire time, still staring blankly onward.

"You're Sphyx, right?" The hero hastily nodded, his launcher primed to go. "Dude, you're still using that gas gun? What has it been? Forty years? My crew had better weapons than that." The unmoving, metallic mask betrayed no emotion, but when he took aim straight down and fired, encompassing the entire vicinity quickly in the noxious fumes, his thoughts were well known

Dark vapors billowed from out the grime-filled alley way as did an infestation of the mutated arthropods. Choking and writhing, they collapsed onto the hard pavement. A thick boot smashed down on one of them, spilling its innards, as the veteran hero stomped over it with a regrettable passenger on his shoulder.

"You're damn lucky I'm sworn to protect," Sphyx informed, "no matter how much of a scum you may be." Leaning over, the dizzy punk crashed off from the gasser to the street. "You're still alive, right?" he questioned, accompanied with a swift kick. "Good. I've done my job." As the destructive cloud subsided, the gunner waded through the corpses, waiting for them to dissolve. Dr. Cursipede wanted to ensure that no one would ever be able to engineer any sort of weapons against his creations and triggered them to melt away to worthless slime shortly after dying. Biding his time, the gun man launched another canister down the hole the swarm had crawled out from. His shining mask hid his joy from hearing the distant screams. Pacing about some more, his gait felt as though he was wading through mud, so he knew it had been enough time. Whichever one of the vile freaks had the Core, it would be easily found now, although much more disgusting. Kicking around his own shrapnel and spreading out the piles of mush, his search was coming up empty.

"Hey, kid," the masked man called while giving the alley one last scan, "did you see one of those monsters make off with a shiny... ball... thing?" Not only was the Core no where in sight but neither was Terrel. "Aaaah... I should have let him die.

“Damn that kid!” Sphyx cursed. He tapped a button on the left side of his mask, causing the large eyes on it to begin glowing a soft red. Now that his mask was in tracking mode, the masked man began to search for any trace of the hoodlum. The computerized display the mask was showing Sphyx revealed Terrel’s heat signature, leading the man through a maze of back roads and alleys. “Now we’re getting somewhere – what the heck!?” The heat signature from the hoodlum ended abruptly as a side road intersected the alley. Right where the signature ended, there was a strange unidentifiable energy fluctuation. “Damn! I lost him, and on top of that it looks like the Core is already beginning to activate!” The man reached inside his ragged cloak and brought forth a thin metal box about five inches wide and tall, and a centimeter thick. Flipping it open much like a cell phone, he began to talk. “Boss, it’s Sphyx. I lost the orb. It’s currently in possession of a hoodlum named Terrel. Pull up the police records on the kid along with a picture and send them to everyone we can trust. The orb has started to activate. Somehow it let the kid escape through some kinda cloaking or teleportation. All hell is gonna break loose if we don’t find the orb before the Sinister Squad. I’m gonna see if I can turn up any leads. Sphyx out.”

Miles away in a hidden lair, a mysterious man seated in nearly total darkness received a similar report from the Doctors Ray and Cursipede. “What do you mean the Core is lost!!! Do you imbeciles have any idea what could happen if the Core fell into the hands of the Guardian Guild? The Police!? OR ANYONE ELSE OPPOSED TO US FOR THAT MATTER!!? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELVES!!!?”

“B-b-but boss, I took out the Star Spangled Crusader!” Dr. Ray pleaded.

“A-a-and that Sphyx was right there to recover the orb! He easily defeated my-” began Dr. Crusipede.

“I do not care about your lame excuses! I WANT THAT ORB! You are lucky I do not do to you what I did to the Mind Lord for failing me, and for causing this whole fiasco,” the mysterious man threatened, motioning his hand to the unconscious villain on the floor. Several electrical burns on his face and chest were still smoldering. “Don’t think that I won’t do worse if you fail again. Now leave me, and don’t show your faces again unless the orb is recovered!”

“Yes sir!” the two doctors said as they turned tail and scurried away from the man as fast as they could.

“Idiots! I can’t trust them to do anything. It is time for desperate measures. Tech Assassins Activate!” To the left of the seated man, three circular hatches in the floor opened and three robotic humanoids were elevated through the holes, their eyes glowing a soft green.

“What is your command master?” asked three artificial feminine voices.

“Go, my mechanical henchwomen. Recover the Core by whatever means necessary and bring it here safely.”

“As you command.” With that, the three androids turned and left without a sound, fading into the darkness.

“You must be getting desperate if you are sending them out master,” said a woman hiding silently to the left of the man.

“Ah, Petra, my most trusted bodyguard. You are right as always. This plan would have been perfect if not for the spy in our midst. Yet I am even now narrowing down the list of suspects and will shortly find him or her. The spy will be made an example of. Perhaps… I may even broadcast it on public television.” The man said. Petra smiled at the thought. “As for you Petra, you are to join in the search for the core.”

“What!?” exclaimed Petra, her eyes wide and shocked. “You will be left unprotected!”

Smiling, the man answered, “I thank you for your concern, but you of all people know I can take care of myself. I will hear no more protest. Out of all my allies, my servants, my friends, my guards, and my underlings, I trust you the most. It is because I am so desperate to have that orb back that I am sending you out. Now go.”

“Yes, master,” Petra replied, setting off at once down the dark hallway. After a few minutes in virtually zero illumination, she reached the elevator. Entering a code into a panel next to the door caused the computer to scan her biosignature. As the scan completed, a bright slash of vertical light appeared, revealing the elevator. She stepped in and the doors closed behind her. As her eyes adjusted to the red light she called out her destination. “Entrance floor.” She stood in the center of the circular chamber as it hummed to life. As the elevator ran on an electromagnetic system, with several emergency backup generators in case of attack, it could go forward, back, left, and right as well as just up and down, and thanks to the inertial dampeners in the chamber, the passengers didn’t feel a thing.

As the doors opened on the entrance hall, she strode past the two guards on either side. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her side. “Hey, baby. How’s about you and I get together tonight after my shift. Whaddya say?”

Turning to her left, she looked at the guard behind her, her tight black dress rustling softly. She tossed her soft brown hair towards him, and gazed at him with deep blue eyes. His buddy on the other side of the elevator was chuckling softly. Walking up to the first man, she gave him a soft kiss on the lips. “I’ll think about it,” she said, as she turned and walked off.

“’K baby, I’ll see you in the lobby at about AAAAAAARRGH!!!” the man shrieked. His partner stopped chuckling and turned completely white as the first guard turned to stone from the inside out. He was a complete statue, clothes, gun, and all just seconds later. An expression of horror and pain was frozen on his face for a few short moments until he instantly shattered, clattering to the marble floor in a million pieces.

“Later,” Petra waved to the remaining, terrified guard as she walked slowly towards the exit. Back in his lair, the mysterious man looked on through the feed from a security camera and laughed.

Miles away, Terrel sat down and hid, trying to get his pulse under control. It had been months since he had been that worked up. He looked at the orb he was now holding in his hands. It was now softly glowing orange, which it had started doing since he had hightailed it out of the battle area where that jerk Sphyx had confronted him. “Why the hell did I take this stupid thing anyway? He’s probably got every super hero and policeman in the city looking for me now.” He was beginning to be more curious than irritated at the moment, for the strange orb was making his body tingle. This went on for a minute before the tingling stopped and the orb’s glow faded to a dull silver. ‘What the heck?’ thought Terrel.

“Hey, lookie here boys, we got us a young punk with some goods on him. Hey boy, why doncha give us whacha got and we’ll only kick the crap out of ya a little.” Laughing and sniggering followed that statement, jarring Terrel from his thoughts.

‘Great, out of all the parking garages in the area, I had to pick the one that was the stomping ground of some punk gang,’ Terrel thought. Looking out from behind the rusted pickup truck he was hiding behind, he saw five thugs dressed in jeans and black leather jackets. All five were carrying crowbars. And all five saw him. He dashed from his hiding place only to be stopped by three more thugs. There was nowhere to run, and virtually nowhere to hide, as the parking garage was virtually abandoned except for a rusted car here or there.

“Bad move brat,” said the leader of the thugs, an ugly brute of a gorilla about six foot five and two fifty pounds of muscle. “Looks like you’re gonna get the living daylights beat out of ya.”

Terrel’s pulse started to race as the eight thugs surrounded him. ‘What am I gonna do now?’ he wondered, still clutching the orb. As they raised the crowbars, Terrel started to feel the same tingling that he was feeling earlier. A strange pressure seemed to be rising inside of him. “What the hell?” was about all he had time to say.


Instantly, the air surrounding the thugs was filled with a strange orange gas that smelled of a horrendous mix of sulfur and rotten eggs. Strangely enough, Terrel could still see, and used the welcome distraction to escape. “You’re dead when we can find you punk!!!” one of the thugs bellowed through all the coughing and wheezing. Not stopping to wonder why he could see and breathe while they couldn’t, Terrel ran towards the open wall on the other side of the garage. As he reached the gap in the cement wall, he panicked and took a flying leap towards the other parking garage across the street.

About halfway through the jump he realized that he had just tried to jump across a gap over a busy four-lane road four stories below. “Holy crap!” he shouted – and then realized he was slowly drifting straight towards the wall across from himself. Clutching the orb for dear life, he slowly made his way across the gap – before starting to plummet to the ground below. Thankfully, he was just close enough to grab the ledge with his right hand while protecting the orb with his left. Pulling himself up, he looked down to the street below. In the time that it had taken him to drift across the gap, the cloud of gas that had immobilized the thugs had dissipated, and four of the thugs were running across the street now that traffic had cleared. The other four were behind him, still in the other parking garage, shouting profanities at him. Terrel wasted no time in looking for a hiding spot.

‘What the hell is going on? Do I have super powers now or something?’ As if in response to Terrel’s thoughts, the orb briefly started to glow again, and the tingling returned for a moment. ‘Great,’ Terrel thought. ‘First I’m a human stink bomb and then I can hover for a grand total of about thirty feet. What’s next?’ Terrel wove between the many cars in this packed parking garage looking for a place to hide out of sight. Placing his hand against a cement support column, Terrel fell into it. Strangely, he could still breathe, just like the last time.

Just then, the four thugs who had followed him reached this floor via the staircase. The leader, who was among them, bellowed, “Where is that freak!?” Terrel kept his breathing down, so they didn’t hear him.

‘Well, this is lucky,’ Terrel thought. He watched from inside the pillar of cement as the thugs spent the next two hours searching for him, breaking into cars and robbing them along the way. His vision seemed to be tinted gray from the cement surrounding him. Eventually, sirens sounded as police cars arrived on the scene. Apparently, a security guard somewhere had notified the authorities. Terrel breathed a sigh of relief as the cops led the thugs away in handcuffs. He overheard the police talking on the radio that the thugs across the street had been caught as well. Eventually, all the commotion died away as the cops left, their sirens still blazing as they were called away to another crime. ‘This city is getting worse everyday,’ Terrel thought. Still feeling cautious, Terrel remained where he was and tried to come to grips with all the weird stuff happening today

Waiting for the last cop to leave, Terrel backed out of the pillar. Loosely jogging to a stairway in the corner, he heard a strange noise, like a sink draining. Terrel turned to see the cracked drainage pipes on the wall oozing out a bluish gray oily liquid. He would have continued on his way without much of a second though if the substance hadn't been flowing upwards. Pulsing up the wall the ooze hit the ceiling and began to pool there. As Terrel stood slack jawed, it began to drip in front of him, but it didn't pool. From the ground upwards a man's figure formed, first the limbs and major features, then the facial features. Clad in gray and blue tights he smiled.

"Uhhh..." Terrel stupidly groaned.

"Mighty fancy soccer ball you got there friend, mind if I see it?"

his grin turned to a grimace as he shot at the teen.

Cringing from the assault Terrel was unaware of the orb activating again. The viscous villain stopped abruptly, his face and body curving around an invisible force field. Unamused by this display of power, the fluid foe unleashed a series of stabs and blows on the sphere surrounding Terrel. Momentarily deterred, the man resumed normal shape and stood observing the teen. He began to pace back and forth without turning, merely flowing his body to face the direction he feigned to walk towards, all the while staring intently at Terrel.

"Ah, yeah there we go, that might work," he shouted to himself, regarding Terrel as a bystander.

He shot out several streams around Terrel and, more importantly, the Core, both of which were still surrounded by a force field. Connecting the flows he formed makeshift belts around the force field, and hoisted it behind his human form.

"Heh, this'll work nicely. Buckle up kid, you're going for a ride," he laughed

"Hey, damn it let go of... this thing!" Terrel pointlessly shouted.

Sliding around in the ball, he struck at the man, only to find that he couldn't escape it as much as the other couldn't penetrate it. He also found that it hurt to punch at, and decided against that. Of course he wouldn't have to due to a rapidly approaching figure.

"Unhand that lass, Liquidator!" the unknown hero shouted with much effort, as he reduced the distance between them it revealed why.

Slowly speeding towards them was a short corpulent man in ill fitting green leather with yellow stripes. Instead of simply running to them, he chose to use a long metal pole to vault continuously forward, which was most likely slower and more strenuous.

Standing agape due to the pathetic display, Liquidator groaned as the man clinked and gasped towards them.

"Not this dou..." he attempted to say until the man interrupted.

"Silence evildoer! Your reign of terror has met its end. I mean will meet its end! By me that is," the man yelled between breaths. "For none can withstand the might of, Lad Man!" he proudly yelled, posing ridiculously.

"What the," Terrel said, stifling laughter despite his situation.

"He's the 'special' sidekick of Captain Justice, or at least was until an unfortunate accident." Liquidator answered mockingly, finding his previous company more conversable with the addition of the new figure.

"Mental retardation is no laughing matter, nor is it something I suffer vile fiend! Perhaps after a thrashing you will find this lesson beneficial! And despite the loss of a great man in Captain Justice, I can now operate outside the bounds of the Guardian Guild." Lad Man wheezed angrily, before springing into action.

Vaulting at Liquidator, he was caught unaware by a stream which wrapped around his boot and hung him upside down. Breathing heavily, he struck at liquidator with the pole, which sunk harmlessly into his frame and was subsequently shot into a wall.

"See fool, you cannot beat me, I am in every way superior," Liquidator boasted, conveniently looking away from the 'hero'.

"Wrong liquidator, dead wrong," Lad Man defiantly stated. Liquidator returned his gaze to the man, who was holding a cheap looking taser towards the villain. The prongs shot out into Liquidator, who showed visible pain in his face. The bands which held Terrel released and Liquidator was forced into a solid form, dropping Lad Man several feet onto his face, and collapsing onto the floor.

"Ow!" Lad Man yelled upon impact. "Well, once again good triumphs! And where may I transport you to safety...oh you're a boy, well regardless where may I assist you to son?"

Terrel made up a location as he lifted himself off the ground, the Core seemed to have deactivated on its own once Liquidator's assault had ended. The two walked towards the stairway, leaving the smoking and unconscious foe in the garage. As they descended, Terrel said:

"So, uh. Lad Man huh?

"What did you call me?" the aging sidekick wheezed as loudly as his failing health would allow.

"Uh... Lad Man?" the urchin repeated.

"That's right! Not Lad Boy! Don't call me that! I have long since outgrown that childish moniker!" the fat fighter announced, adjusting his too-tight tights.

"Yeah, that is so much more embarrassing," quickly and quietly muttered Terrel. His gaze shifted down to the orb, still in his possession and now quiet. The haphazard hero had not yet taken notice of it. The youth thought back to some of the ramblings to which he had been subjected. He did say, thought Terrel, that he wasn't with the Guardian Guild. I don't think he knows about this... this thing. The vagrant shiftily glanced to the middle-aged disgrace, leading the pair down the stairs. I don't need him for protection; I don't need anyone. I have this. For once, I have power. But how can I get away from this freak...

Immediately, the orb emitted a vivid glow. It drew in Terrel's eyes, lost in the iridescent hues that swept over the Core's intricate surface. The teen was transfixed, lost in the swirling patterns, feeling the presence of the alien device, almost as though it were communicating with him. No, it was. He didn't understand how he could understand it, but its instructions were clear. He projected more of his thoughts to it, and surely, the orb replied. While conspiring with the Core, the youth had lagged behind the portly protector. Lad Man stopped and looked back, panting from the descent, to see the rescued hobo blankly staring at the dull, dimmed device.

I think this guy is nuts, Lad Man thought, scratching his protruding potbelly.

"Sphyx reporting to secure channels," the aged hero echoed from behind his mask into his communicator. "I've picked up on some of the target's trail. It's erratic, but there is more than enough DNA to confirm its him. I'm uploading my coordinates now. I'm getting close; if I don't report within the hour, send someone else to track him down. Sphyx out." He trained his bulbous lenses on the glowing trail before him, tracing any wall the urchin might have touched. Before he could flip his cell closed, a terrible static came over it, loud enough for the gasser to lose his grip. As it quieted, distinct coughing could be heard behind the interference. "The hell?"

"Sphyx? Sphyx, is that you?" hacked out the faint voice.

"Greaver?!" the gunman instantly recognized. "I thought you were in Guardian Manor when... well, y'know."

"Yeah, I do know," crackled the thought-lost ally. "I wers here when the place went boom. That's the good thing about being invincible."

"How come it took ya so long to contact anyone?"

"That's the bad thing about being invincible without having super-strength to boot," Greaver explained. "Musta been concussed for a good while now. Don't know whert they hit us with, but haven't found anyone else. Barely even rubble's left. Even blowed up my costume! That stuff wers pure Shieldonium!"

"I guess we're just lucky that ya had that communicator implanted inside ya for that volcano mission," reasoned Sphyx. "If it were destroyed, we might not ha' heard from you until it was too late."

"'Implanted?'" repeated the Greaver. "I friggin' swarllowed it!"

"Tomato, tornado, right?"

"That doesn't make sense!" Greaver screamed over the line, increasing the interference once more.

"You don't make any sense," slyly replied the gasser.

"Now you're just being childish."

"You're being childish," automatically responded Sphyx, busying himself more with connecting the sporadic trail than his conversation. "I'm turning on my homing frequency. Converge at my coordinates ASAP. The beacon will require that I close all open channels. Y'know, for energy and stuff."

"That's not tru-"

A distinct click ended his ally's argument, but freed the masked man to continue piecing together Terrel's tracks. Something's not right, assessed Sphyx, running a diagnostic on his mask's systems to confirm that it was not a malfunction. There is too much genetic material left behind. The trail should be faint at best. He ran his heavy, gloved hands over a particularly active region on his sensors. The dimmed view shifted into regular vision, but he could still see the urchin's leavings -- visible flakes of skin. What is happening to this kid?

Skulking about the slithy halls of the Sinister Squad base, the Sinisterium, Dr. Cursipede escaped to a far off laboratory to retrieve something to aid his new mission, cursing it all the while. A visage of pure, pallid white emerged from the shadows. Milky, protruding eyes hung over a largely featureless face, devoid of hair and expression, with a gaping, circular orifice crudely attempting to mimic human speech.

"What has he demanded of you this time, old friend?" slowly lolled out the pale man. His fingerless, slimy mitts crawled through the sleeves of a disgusting lab coat of his same complexion as he awaited response.

"Apparently, Professor Parasite, it was my fault that the Core was lost!" angrily and outspokenly protested the doctor, no longer fearing the Mind Lord's ever-present eyes. "How was I even supposed to know that thing had that kind of power? I was always told it was an alien control unit!"

"Is it true that a simple child possesses the Core?" asked the socially deprived professor.

"No, no!" defended Cursipede. "An adolescent, no, young adult! Young man! A strong, scary young man!" continued the fiend, spreading his arms further and further apart to exaggerate Terrel's size. His arms fell to his sides with a sigh. "We used to be Villainous von Vermin, the most feared group in all of Europe."

"And Russia," queued in Professor Parasite.

"Yes, and Russia, but now," he paused with a painful, confused expression, "what are we? A lackey to some guy I've never even heard of and a low-level technician that isn't even allowed to do field work because he doesn't have a 'scary image.'" He motioned his arms up and down the pudgy, legless form that poured from out the lab coat. "Joining up with the Sinister Squad was perhaps the worst move we ever made."

"What about that time we stole that volcano?" the slimy being managed to say. "We should have realized that they don't have bottoms. Besides," Parasite quickly changed the subject, "the Squad wasn't such a bad idea at first. How could we say 'no' to the Mind Lord? The Mind Lord?"

"But this new guy no one's ever heard of's taken over," responded the many-legged monstrosity. "We were supposed to be working together for the common evil, but this guy's taken over the entire operation for himself! With Mind Lord outta the way, there'll be no stopping him! Unless anyone can find his weakness."

"Perhaps," slurped the disgustingly deformed abomination, "we could ask the Guardian Guild, get their trust just long enough to defeat our self-appointed leader. They would be hard-pressed not to help up defeat the head of the Sinister Squad."

"I don't think this guy's been around long enough to attract any nemeses, and if he had," Cursipede continued, "they were surely destroyed with the Guardian Manor. Destroying that place, after all, was the sole reason such a novice was allowed to join such a prestigious group as us." A large eye panned over the drooling mass of puffy flesh beside him. "You've been locked down here for quite a while now. Are you done with that weapon Mind Lord wanted? Perhaps we could make use of it even without his talents."

"Destroyed, unfortunately," informed the pulsating blob. "The first sample was in a storage facility just outside of the city when the Star Spangled Cadaver busted in for the Core," he chuckled morbidly. "I can grow more of them, but it will take time," Professor Parasite stressed, wavering his hook-toothed maw.

"Then have a few cow stomachs and get to work," urged his evil ally. "I have a feeling that things are about to get much more interesting..."

"Sir, we have an intruder," a guard rushed in, interrupting the concealed leader. He swiveled his shadowy throne away from his personal console, verbally attacking the fool.

"What? Intruder?! I see no such warning! Where are the sirens? Where are the soldiers mobilizing? Where is the intruder?"

A smile cracked across the guard's face, visible just beneath the mirrored visor on his helm. "Why, right in front of you." The shock lasted not too long as the mysterious villain set off to squash such insolence, but upon his slightest flinch, he could hear one sound -- several, actually, but entirely in unison. Guards from all around emerged, all aiming for the throne.

"I could kill you all without a thought!" threatened the dark leader.

"But you can't kill me no matter what you do," they said in eerie chorus. "You already tried once, and here we are again."

The pupilless eyes narrowed beneath his shadowy brow. "Mind Lord."

"Did you truly believe that I would trust my true form to consort with such a superstitious and cowardly lot?" Mind Lord communed through his drones. "'Twas but one of my Mind Minions that you vanquished, and as you can clearly see, I have several more in this base alone. Anyone, anywhere could have entered my Brain-O-Mat and become my own personal puppet," they told in an ominous monotone, "and this was just a warning." The arms were lowered and finally dropped to the floor. The mental zombies stood staring blankly forward, provoking no attack out of the grim one's own curiosity. Finally, in a gruesome harmony, their heads twisted with a bone-chilling snap, filling the entire chamber with the shattering sound. And so the bodies fell, controlled by chance rather than the Mind Lord, leaving the master entirely alone.

"Did you hear that?" started up the sickly sidekick. "My highly trained ears detect dangers!" Lad Man called, waving a righteous finger into the air. "We must tread carefully!... Hey, where'd you go?" While the inept one was distracted by himself, Terrel had seized the moment to escape. Now, the former Captain Justice's former lackey was alone with the whirling shapes in the shadows. The abandoned back alley of the garage played with Lad Man's already fragile mind, sending shimmers and glints across the barren, lifeless environment.

"Show yourself, dastards!" dared the man-boy. Crawling from the shade, a troop of fem-bots emerged, locked onto the Core's last tracked location. Laser sights trained onto the one object in their way: the beaded forehead of Lad Man.

Sphyx burst onto the scene, brandishing his classic armament and seeking the same thing the robotic assassins did. And like them, he also was not anticipating the overgrown ally. "Sphyx! You've come to save me!"

The attentions were temporarily turned, but Sphyx just lowered his gun.

And backed away

"Um... you wouldn't... hurt someone in my condition, would you?" mentioned the aged helper in an effort to spare himself.

"Processing database," an ominous voice tuned from one of the metal maidens. "Subject: Lad Man. Weakness: Mental condition. Probability of defeat: Highly likely. Kill on sight."

"Well, that doesn't seem nice at all," pouted the side kick, bracing his staff in a defensive pose. Cracking the stick along side one of their shelled heads, it reverberated fiercely down through his arm. "Sh-sh-shieldonium. Damn, I wish they could make weapons outta that stuff," cursed the hero with the odds continually stacking against him. "Wait, is that rescue I hear coming from yonder!" Pointing down the alley way, a cat leapt from a trash can. "It's Cat Girl!" hopefully cheered Lad Man, which only scared off the kitten. "... There is no Cat Girl, is there?"

Tracking the dermal trail left by his quarry, the veteran never lost a step of the path even as it climbed over fences and weaved around dumpsters. With as visible as it was growing, the advance mechanisms would not even be necessary to follow the youth, which should have meant only good news. However, it meant more people, unwanted people, would be able to hop on the trail as well. Turning around a corner, Sphyx jumped back behind it. He only had a moment to react. Drawing his gas gun, he emerged back into the passage with it drawn, staring directly into the barrel of some heavy artillery.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't my old friend, Sphyx," harshly greeted the weapon's wielder, a young man in a military jacket with a metallic sheen. A scarlet bandana covered the lower half of his face, muffling his voice, as well as most of his chest left exposed by the coat, while the remainder had loose locks of blonde hair over it. Various straps of munitions were coiled about his legs and waist, ready for use at a moments notice. "Still a pathetic wind bag?"

"Still a side-changing bastard?" the older of the pair answered, never flinching his aim. "So, who are you working for right now? I really don't like wasting ammo on teammates."

"Why, for the one with the biggest check book," cracked wise the gunman. Even though it could not been seen, the smile beneath the handkerchief still shone through. "Are you still pissed about that? That was years ago."

"Am I still mad about the time ya shot me in the back, literally, during an important mission just to make some more dough?" proposed the golden masked man. "Yeah, I'd say there's a bit of a grudge left there."

"Aw, now, c'mon, my man," soothed the youth, still keeping a tight grip on his rifle. "You were like a father to me-"

"More like target practice," coldly stated the senior.

"People change," the bandit stated with a shrug, "present company excluded," he added with a laugh.

"You never answered me, you know," brought up the relic. "Who are you working for now?"

"Why is everything always 'sides' with you? Good and evil, right and wrong. Who is to say what actions lie where. It is all a decision man makes in the end."

"I liked you better before you found philosophy, Silver Bullet," admitted Sphyx, bored with the lecture, "when you just shot stuff on command."

"Good times, I must say. Good times..." The two stood like statues a while longer, neither twitching.

"And you complained about all those aiming exercises," smirked the gas bomber. "Bet you're glad you weren't doin' your homework now." The comment only tensed the arm muscles more. "I don't think this is going to be getting us anywhere. Wanna settle it the old fashion way? And I mean old, before my time."

"A duel? Old timer, you're digging your grave," mocked the younger, but his opposition remained stern. "You serious? ... Alright... let's settle this. It's the student's time to shine."

"Three paces, turn, and fire," instructed the master. Fulfilling the steps, he paused and holstered his gun. He did not even have to look, already knowing that his former trainee had used the time to flee. He would let the apprentice think what he wanted to about the reasons to not tracking him down. Personally, the gasman already knew enough. "I thought I trained you better, Bullet, giving it away like that. You could have at least taken a shot to keep up appearances." He cast an eye to where the gunman had been. "You're the mole? Huh... The one most suspected would be the least suspect, I guess. That's some twisted reasoning."

"Is someone over there?" an approaching voice called out. "Don't worry. I've come to save the day!"

"Oh, thank god!" an overjoyed Lad Man gleed from his cornered position. He had been chased down by the assembled assassins for some time, finding no relief. "You hear that, you robo-bimbos? I'm being saved!" Salvation came from the sky, swooping down upon the foes, or, at least, it was thought a swoop. The endeavor was more like a drop, as it was. Crashing onto one of the tech assassins, a body exploded the target and then stiffly removed itself from the resulting crater. Slowly, he emerged with torn scraps of mismatched clothing barely hanging from his unscathed form. Squinting his tired eyes, the hero studied the distressed victim.

"Aw, crap, Lard Man?" whined the man, pulling himself fully from the concrete prison. "I thought Sphyx was down here. Dammit, I lost another ourtfit pulling off that stunt." The remaining pair of mechanical henchwoman turned about with their deadly weapons hissing. "Hey, hey, now. I don't got any beef you, doll faces," he assured, backing down the alley. "I'll just be on my way..."

"Now, is that any way to treat your fellow good doer? For shame, Greaver, I've come to expect more from you." The hero threw himself around, startled by the individual behind him, a middle aged, balding man. "Those drones are after the Core. Whether or not Lad Man is irritating, they are a threat that should be dealt with before more serious danger can come from them."

"My life isn't serious?" protested the aged sidekick but promptly kept quiet as he realized he only attracted the attention of the murderous metal witches.

"Here's your chance, while they're distracted," whispered the older gent, placing a reassuring hand upon the invincible's shoulder. "They were haughtily engineered with a weak point on the back of the neck, beneath that sheet of hair. A simple twist of the neck, even with your strength, should be able to do it." The indestructible returned a questioning glance at the stranger, but the warm smile eventually won him over. That, and the fact that, at worst, the choice could not harm him. With their backs turned, two firm grips twisted their necks. The singular, glowing eye set in each of their faces brightened intensely before burning out with a spark. The androids returned to their lifeless nature. "Bravo, good man. You did it!" applauded the elder.

"Um... thanks?"

"With that dispute settled, I come bearing news for the Guild." The hero's attention was captured. "The Sinister Squad has been met with mutiny. A brash newcomer, a volt chucker, has overthrown the Mind Lord, and now commands the group. There is still some unruliness and distrust from the power shift, weakening their focus on both the Core and holding the team together. Although your numbers are now few and scattered, an attack at the heart of the cancer would end the need to track down the Core and end all future threats from the villains."

"Uh... hurh."

The silver haired man took the response with a bit of trouble, asking, "Is something the matter?"

"... Who are you?" Greaver could not help but inquire. "I know we've never met before." His statement produced a chuckle.

"Ah, my boy, we've met more times than you could ever know," devilishly insisted the wiser, "sometimes more than once at once. However, I am a friend trying to help you now. Isn't that enough?" The unwounded stepped back from the kindly man with growing suspicion.

"Why should I trust anything you have told me?" doubted Greaver becoming ever more cautious. "How do I know this isn't some evil scheme? How do I know you aren't with the Sinister Squard?" The gentle expression worn by the civilian soured sharply, twisting a horrible guise unthought capable by the innocent enough seeming man.

"I do not ally myself with those fools anymore," he hissed foully. "It is only their destruction I desire." Greaver stammered backwards, clutching at the wall. Even though he was incapable of harm, he still was afraid.

"You... you are... you're..." stuttered the bulletproof brave, "... Mind Lord!" Static cut in on his revelation.

"Did you just say 'Mind Lord'?" chirped in a random, eavesdropping hero over the accidentally activated, internal communicator. "Get the hell out of there now!"

"Splendid, I will not have to repeat my story," delighted the villainous king. "There is no reason to worry, heroes. I mean no harm and mean what I say." He smiled sweetly. "I want to help."

"You? You want to help?" disbelieved the costumeless crusader. "The man who has caursed more suffering and death among our ranks than any other in history?"

"Yes, I was something to marvel at in my glory days," smugly agreed the dethroned master, "but those days are far past. I no longer am in command of the Sinister Squad. My powers, my influences, everything about me is fading," solemnly explained the slayer of countless.

"You're... dying?" tested the deathless. "... Good."

"Do not confuse my life for something as simple as your mortal existence," scoffed the former leader. "My... corporeal self perished long ago before the Great Wa- ... World War I," he corrected. "Without a focal point for my thoughts, my powers have been slipping since that time." The grim demeanor returned. "For all the time you have known me, you only faced a shadow of my true self." As quickly as it came about, the gentle face was worn again. "With my time left short, I planned to do the one thing that would stake my claim in history as the greatest villain throughout all time: take over the world. This was where the Core came in. I was to use it to dominate the Earth, even if just for a month, my final testament to greatness." His stature sank amidst his regaling. "But, now, some vermin, some punk kid, wants to steal my glory. No, I will not have my legacy tainted like this. Be it with my dying breath, I will see him defeated."

Pressed up against the bricks by the enraptured speech of the mental dominator, Greaver slowly squeaked, "You... get that all? ... Guys?

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