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Max_Writer

Superworld: Fire and Ice Session Two: Arsonist Unveiled

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
Monday, June 15, 2015

(After playing the original Superworld scenario Fire and Ice Sunday from noon to 5:30 p.m. with Kyle Matheson, Nissa Campbell, Logan Scott, and Aaron Scott)

In the early hours after the fire at the apartment complex, Protean had found a tree in one of the Charlotte parks and made himself a body out of one of the living trees there. He was pleasantly surprised when he found it worked.

Then he went to the police department downtown and talked to the desk sergeant on duty. He told them he wanted to set up a press conference. The officer told him he’d take a message for the chief and so took Protean’s name and the message for Chief Dean and told him they’d inform him. Protean said the message really wasn’t for the chief, but the office told him the chief could help him set up the press conference.

“I thought Arclight was your press guy,” the officer asked.

“We’re all our own press guys,” Protean said.

“Okay,” the officer said. “Okay. No offense.”

“We’re a group of individuals,” Protean said.

He left his pager number for the chief and the desk sergeant said he’d have the chief text him.

* * *

On Thursday, October 23, 2014, newspaper articles and the television news reported on the fire at the second apartment complex, this one in the Tryon Hills neighborhood. There was footage of Arclight and some of his quotes from the night before. There was video of Protean spewing out of a fire hose in a water body and exploding against the wall of the building. There was some footage of Edward, but nothing clear as the firefighters blocked the way. It was noted the owner of both apartment buildings was Tommy McElroy, though no news agency was able to speak with him apparently.

Arclight went to get Doug out of the sewers that morning. He found him with Bob, watching television. Doug sat on Bob’s chair while Bob lay on his mattress, the two of them discussing the ramifications of the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

They returned to the apartment and Arclight played video games with Doug the rest of the morning. He was only good at fighting games that were basically button mashing. Anything more complicated was too much for the pug.

* * *

Protean got a text from Chief Dean saying he could set up the press conference. When Protean told him it was urgent, he said he’d see what he could do. An hour or so later, he got a page that the chief had set up a press conference in front of the police station around 5 p.m. He sent back a thank you.

* * *

“If y’all want to talk to Tommy today, meet me at 10:30 at Radio Shack,” Absolem’s Riddle paged everyone.

“I’ll be there,” Protean paged back.

* * *

They met at the Radio Shack in Independence Shopping Center just off East Independence Boulevard around 10:30 just as Absolem’s Riddle exited the shop with her new pager, her old one having gotten damaged by the heat of the fire the night before. She saw the others were all in costume. Even Doug was wearing his Super Doug costume.

“Oh,” she said.

“Why … why are we at radio shack?” Arclight asked.

Absolem’s Riddle told him she had to replace her beeper.

Arclight asked her to wait for a minute and went into Radio Shack. There were a couple of customers talking to one man and another man behind the counter. He walked over.

“Yes sir, can I help you?” the man behind the counter said.

“Yes, I−” Arclight said.

“Wait a minute,” the man said. “You look like you need a new computer!”

“No,” Arclight said, disappointed at not being recognized. “Do you have pagers that are like talk to text, it recognizes the voice and then goes to text?”

“Yeah!” the man said. “C’mere!”

“Okay,” Arclight said, picking up Doug. “This is my talking dog!”

“Hi!” Doug said.

The man pointed and stared, his jaw dropping.

“Oh!” he finally said to Arclight. “You’re his sidekick, aren’t ya?”

“Uh … yeah,” Arclight said.

“I knew I recognized you from somewhere,” the man said.

“I need a pager for this dog so he can just talk and it’ll go to text to my pager,” Arclight said.

The man set him up but suggested a collar or a belt to hook it to. Arclight suggested Doug’s cape but Doug didn’t want the cape weighed down.

“I need a utility belt!” Doug said.

“Utility …” Arclight said.

“Yeah!” Doug said.

The pager cost $200 as it was very high tech. The clerk showed Arclight how to program it so Doug would just have to push a button to activate the talk to text. It was simple enough Doug could use it without opposable thumbs. Arclight paid with a credit card. Then he left the store.

Absolem’s Riddle had slipped away and changed while they waited for Arclight light. When he exited the store, he found her signing autographs for some people out there.

“Hey, look over here!” Arclight said. “It’s me, Arclight.”

“Holy crap, it’s Arclight!” someone said.

He smiled as the people who had been asking for Absolem’s Riddle’s autograph went to get his. One guy was still waited for her to sign a piece of paper for him. Arclight signed whatever was put in front of him, not really paying attention.

Absolem’s Riddle suggested they talk to Tommy McElroy. Arclight wanted to go to a belt store to get a belt for Doug. Protean told them he had talked to the police chief and he was setting up a press conference.

“What!?!” Arclight said.

“That I’m going to give at five o’clock,” Protean said.

“Wait wait wait,” Arclight said.

“You don’t have to say everything for everyone all of the time,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“But I need to be there on camera,” Arclight said. “Can I be there?”

“Yes,” Protean said.

“Behind you?” Arclight said.

“You guys can join me,” Protean said. “I encourage you all to join me at this press conference.”

“What do you need a belt for?” Absolem’s Riddle asked Arclight.

“I got Doug a pager,” Arclight said. “Doug’s going to be talking to us.”

“Dogs don’t wear belts,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Oh my God,” Protean said.

“I could wear a belt!” Doug said.

“Going to a belt store, it would be a human belt,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “It wouldn’t fit you. Even the littlest one.”

“We could get a custom belt,” Arclight said.

Absolem’s Riddle suggested a dog harness. Doug suggested one of those woman’s collars for sadomasochists. Absolem’s Riddle noted then he’d have spikes poking his junk. Edward suggested a pet store. Absolem’s Riddle suggested a harness again.

“Wait,” she said. “A pager?”

“He got me a pager!” Doug said, obviously excited as he jumped up and down. “I can’t wait.”

“Talk to text,” Arclight said.

They discussed it some more but Doug didn’t want a harness, he wanted a utility belt.

“Like Batman,” Doug said.

“Like Batman,” Arclight said.

“They don’t make those for your size,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Why don’t we just go to a pet store?” Edward said.

“That would make more sense,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Yeah!” Doug said. “We got to a pet store, you buy one of those big collars, and then you put it around my waist.”

“As long as you don’t mind your junk being …” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I wear pants now, look!” Doug said.

“You wear pants?” she said.

“And don’t call me Doug,” Doug said. “Call me DOUG!”

“The Super Pug,” Arclight said.

“Yeah,” Doug said.

They discussed the press conference, which was not until 5:00.

Arclight took Doug to get the belt, finding a yellow collar big enough to go around his waist. He used his credit card again for the $20 purchase. Then he flew back to Radio Shack where the others were.

“Guys, look at his belt,” Arclight said.

“That’s adorable,” Protean said.

Arclight hooked the pager to the belt. He’d set it so that whatever Doug said would only go to him. At first Doug used it quite often but he quickly settled down. The pager was also set up so the pages Arclight sent to him would be recited in a computer voice.

“What are we doing?” Arclight asked.

“Well, we were going to McElroy’s …” Absolem’s Riddle said.

They talked about it, trying to decide if they should all go. Arclight suggested only one of them talk to him as all of them there might be intimidating. Absolem’s Riddle thought those of them who were human might be the ones to go. She said McElroy might be one of those kinds of people who were freaked out easily.

“So, you’re saying I’m not going to go?” Edward asked.

“Or Protean,” she said. “He’s not human. Anymore.”

Protean frowned.

“I mean, he’s still human,” Edward said. “He is in spirit.”

“I’m human on the inside!” Protean said.

“That’s where it counts,” Arclight said.

“I could be human on the inside,” Edward said.

“I agree,” Protean said. “I don’t want to scare him into not giving information.”

“I don’t wanna talk to him!” Edward said.

“Let’s all go and we’ll figure it out when we get there,” Arclight said.

“I think I’ll hold back,” Protean said.

“Okay, but don’t start the press conference early,” Arclight said.

“I won’t,” Protean said.

The address they had was in Villa Heights, one of the nicer suburban neighborhoods in Charlotte. The house was on a street with a lot of trees. Arclight and Absolem’s Riddle knocked on the door, which was answered by a little Hispanic lady in a gray dress who looked like a maid.

“Yes, can I help you?” the woman said.

Arclight looked at Absolem’s Riddle.

“We were wondering if we could speak with Mr. McElroy,” she said.

“Uh, no,” the maid said. “No. He’s not home. He’s at work.”

“Can you tell us which office building he works in?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“He’s working at his bar,” the maid said.

“At his bar?”

“Yes.”

“What’s his bar?”

“He usually goes to the Chow Down on Hamilton Street. Near where seven-seven and two seven seven meet.”

“Does he just have the one? We just want to make sure that−”

“No.”

“No.”

“He has several bars. And other properties.”

“All right. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Good-bye.”

She closed the door.

The two heroes crossed the street.

“Why would someone so rich work in a bar?” Absolem’s Riddle asked. “I mean, it’s his bar but−”

“He’s crooked!” Arclight said.

They reached the others.

“You came back pretty quick,” Protean said.

“He wasn’t home,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“He’s crooked!” Arclight said again.

“Oh,” Protean said.

“We have not talked to him,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “We’ve only talked to a little Mexican lady so I don’t know where he’s come up with that.”

“She smells like bleach!” Doug said.

“And lemon Pine-Sol?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“That’s all I could smell was bleach,” Doug said.

Arclight said they had to go to Hamilton Street where his bar was. He wondered what he’d be doing there at 11 a.m. Absolem’s Riddle suggested there was accounting and other things to be done besides tending the bar itself. Arclight still found it suspicious.

“But if he’s crooked, what would he be a-counting?” Edward asked.

“He’s a rich landlord, of course he’s crooked,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “He’s a slumlord.”

“I bet he’s a counting … the drugs!” Arclight said.

“We can’t make those assumptions,” Protean said.

“We can!” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We assume that he’s doing bad,” Edward said.

“We can do anything,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Should is different.”

“Let’s just burn the place down,” Edward said.

“No!” Protean said.

“It’s not an assumption,” Absolem’s Riddle went on. “We saw two of his properties and they were crap.”

“I don’t think we should do that,” Arclight said to Edward.

“All right,” Edward said.

“We should check out this bar though,” Protean said. “Maybe he’s ignoring all his other properties just for this bar.”

“Well, and also because he can,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “I don’t know how long it’s been since you lived in an apartment but I am familiar with how landlords are.”

They found the Chow Down at the edge of the freeway at 1106 Hamilton Street on the east side of the road in the Greenville neighborhood. It was surrounded by a small parking lot with a few cars in it and stood under a billboard by the highway. It looked like the place had just opened that day. The neon sign out front had a picture of a beer mug with the words “Chow Down Bar and Grill.”

“This looks like a typical, non-franchised bar and grill,” Edward said.

“Do you two want to stay out here …?” Absolem’s Riddle asked Edward and Protean.

“I guess!” Edward said, disappointed.

“Well, the last time you went into a bar, Edward, it didn’t work out,” she said.

“I made a lovely lady friend,” he said.

“Lady friend?”

“She was not questioning anything and giving me food.”

“I have no need for food,” Protean said.

“You did eat a lot,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Uh, yeah, uh, speaking of which, am I going to get, like, reimbursed for that?” Arclight said.

“I thought you were the leader,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Whenever you want to pay me back,” Arclight said to Edward.

“I’ve still got some money to buy some food,” Edward said.

Arclight eyed him.

Protean and Edward decided to stay outside while Arclight and Absolem’s Riddle headed in.

“Am I allowed to go in there?” Doug asked.

“Yeah!” Arclight said.

“Uh … no,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “You’re not, actually.”

“You’re one of us!” Arclight said.

“I’m not?” Doug said to Absolem’s Riddle.

They discussed taking Doug the Pug in, Absolem’s Riddle saying he probably could if Arclight carried him. Edward suggested saying Doug was a therapy dog. Doug said he was a service dog. Arclight said he’d pretend to be blind, though Absolem’s Riddle didn’t think much of that plan.

They walked into the bar, Arclight carrying Doug. The place looked like a typical bar and grill. A few people were cleaning up as if they were getting ready to start the day.

“Yeah, can I help you?” one asked.

“Yeah, can you take us to your office where Mr. McElroy is if he’s working today?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Yeah, Tommy’s back there,” the man said.

“Can we talk with him please?” she asked.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“Arclight!” Arclight said.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” the man said. “From the news.”

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“So, Arclight and his dog,” the man said. “And who are you?”

“Just tell him Arclight and Friends are here,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Ah! She said it!” Arclight said.

“Arclight and Friends?” the man said.

He headed for the back. He came back in a minute.

“Yeah, Tommy’ll see you, but he’s already talked to the cops,” he said.

“Good, ‘cause we’re not the cops,” Arclight said.

He followed the man, Absolem’s Riddle whispering to Doug to get a good sniff of him.

“But don’t make it obvious,” Arclight whispered.

Tommy McElroy was a short, heavyset fellow with a sunburned face. He wore glasses and had a mustache and a goatee. He was blonde and his hair somewhat greasy.

“Yeah, can I help y’all?” he asked in a thick southern accent.

He sat behind the desk in the small back office. There were filing cabinets with piles of paper atop them and more paperwork on his desk.

“Yeah, whatta ya want?” he asked.

“Quite a nice bar you have here, sir,” Arclight said.

“Yeah,” McElroy said. “It’s one of my bars.”

“How’s business?” Arclight said.

“Been better. Whatta ya want? Look, I already talked to the cops. They’ve already been around here.”

“We just wanted to come talk to you about this really interesting remodeling you’re doing at your apartment buildings. It’s very new age, burning ‘em down−”

“Are you accusing me of something!?! You’re accusing me of burning down my apartment buildings!?!”

“We were just coming to ask if you had any enemies!” Absolem’s Riddle said. “I don’t know what Arclight is doing, I’m sorry. He just goes off the rail sometimes.”

Doug started sniffing loudly.

“Get that dog away from me!” McElroy said. “What is a dog doing in here!?!”

Doug nodded knowingly at Arclight.

“I’m sorry,” Absolem’s Riddle said again. “Arclight has some issues and Doug calms him down. So, we were just wondering if you had something that you wanted to tell us that you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling the cops, like anyone who might have something against you, like someone that would want to burn your buildings down.”

“Yeah, I got plenty of enemies,” McElroy said, still angry. “So what?”

“We’re just trying to figure out who burned down your things,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Why are you being so defensive?”

“I already talked to the cops!” McElroy said.

“I’m not the cops.”

“I know. Why do I want to even talk to you?”

“Because we’re better than the cops,” Arclight said.

“You don’t have to, but if you were actually concerned, which you’re starting to sound like you’re not−” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Oh, so my attitude indicates guilt?” McElroy said.

“No,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“So, you are a cop, is what you’re saying?” McElroy said.

“I’m sorry, she’s going off the rails,” Arclight suddenly said. “What we’re trying to do is find new homes for all the people who were affected in your apartments.”

“I got nothing to do with that,” McElroy said.

“Do you have more apartments?” Arclight said.

“I got plenty of properties!” McElroy said. “Yeah.”

“Can you give me a list of ‘em?”

“No!”

“I’m ─ what?”

“I’m not giving you a list of my properties.”

“Why not?”

“For all I know, you’re the ones burning them down!”

“I mean, I could find it in public records, it’d just be easier−”

“Yeah, we’re just going to come and ask you where they are so we can burn down the next one,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “That’s not suspicious at all.”

“I didn’t say you were smart,” McElroy said.

“So you’re the one that’s been burning them down,” Arclight said to Absolem’s Riddle.

“Arclight!” she said to him.

“Mystery solved,” McElroy said nastily. “Lock her up there Mr. … leather man.”

“After this I will for sure,” Arclight quipped. “So, I can’t have a list?”

“No,” McElroy said.

“What if I give you an autograph?” Arclight said.

“I mean, we can just as easily go down to city hall and get a list of your properties,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Then go for it!” McElroy said.

She glared at him.

“Anything else I can do for you?” McElroy said nastily.

“You are a proper dick sir, thank you for your time,” Absolem’s Riddle said angrily.

“Aw, **** you both!” McElroy said, flipping them both off

“You wish buddy,” Absolem’s Riddle said as she left the office.

“Doug, flip him off!” Arclight whispered to the dog.

Doug tried. He really did. But the dog didn’t have that kind of control over the individual digits of his paw.

“We’ll get it next time,” Arclight whispered to him.

“I’ll practice,” Doug promised as they left.

Absolem’s Riddle flung open the glass door that led outside. Arclight followed with the dog in his hand. When she approached the other two, she was muttering under her breath.

“So, how’d it go?” Protean asked.

“Really well,” Arclight said.

“Really well?” Protean said.

“Yeah,” Arclight said.

“So, what, you guys got the next lead?” Protean asked.

“No, he’s a huge, giant cad mother … ****ing …” Absolem’s Riddle muttered.

“He smelled like grease and aftershave,” Doug said.

“Oh,” Protean said.

“Or sweat and aftershave,” Doug said.

“That’s nice,” Protean said.

“And grease. There was grease there too.”

“Hmm.”

“I think he had bacon for breakfast.”

“Nice.”

“A lot of bacon.”

“I miss bacon.”

“A lot. Bacon is so good.”

Absolem’s Riddle suggested they go to the basements of the burned down apartment buildings and see if Doug smelled anything. Arclight said he was going to town hall to get the list of his properties.

“But we need Doug,” Absolem’s Riddle protested. “That means we need you. I don’t know if he’ll go without you.”

“You’ll do what I tell you, right?” Arclight asked Doug. “If it’s for the mission?”

“Yeah!” Doug said. “I’m Super Doug. Wait. Super pug. Wait. Doug the Super Pug!”

“But you stay with Edward,” Arclight told him. “And you listen to Edward like you would me.”

“Okay,” Doug said. “Wait, was I supposed to listen to you? HA! I’m kidding.”

Arclight put Doug down and he went over to sniff Edward. Arclight said he was going to city hall for the list of his properties and reminded Doug if he needed anything to push the button the pager and talk. Doug seemed fine with that.

“Before you go, next time when we talk to people, you shouldn’t just, out of the gate, just accuse them of burning down their own apartments/doing anything,” Absolem’s Riddle said to Arclight. “That kind of puts them on edge and makes them not want to talk to us.”

“I wanted to put him on edge,” Arclight said.

“It … worked,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “But then we also gave him three different reasons: ‘You’re the one who did it, no we just want to see if you have any enemies, no we want to give people a place to live.’ It was kind of awkward.”

“Meh,” Arclight said. “We got to see what kind of person he really was then.”

“We already knew from the apartments,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Arclight flew away.

* * *

Arclight flew downtown to the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. He found the Records Office and was able to find a list of properties Tommy McElroy owned. He quickly found out that both apartment buildings were owned by Tommy McElroy. It took him several hours to get a list.

* * *

The others went to the two burned down apartment buildings. Doug sniffed around the basements but couldn’t smell over the stink of the smoke, ashes, and fire.

“I’ve got super smell,” Edward said, also sniffing around.

* * *

They met back up around 3 p.m.

Arclight had a list of Tommy McElroy’s properties. He owned two other apartment buildings and six other bars and restaurants. Both of the other apartment buildings were in the same general area as the first two, one in the Druid Hills North neighborhood and the other in the Druid Hills South neighborhood. They were a little ways from each other but not terribly far. Both neighborhoods were lower class.

“Who wants to burn down one of his bars?” Edward asked.

“What?” Arclight said.

“What?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I mean …” Edward said.

“What’d you say?” Absolem’s Riddle asked.

“… who wants to stake out one of his bars to see if anyone wants to burn them down?” Edward said.

“What?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“We only have a couple hours before the press conference,” Protean said.

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” Arclight said.

“But if you didn’t want to be part of the press conference, you could do that,” Protean said.

“I mean, he only has a few properties left?” Edward said. “We could each station ourselves at one.”

“Well, no one’s attacked his bars,” Arclight said. “They’ve only attacked the apartments.”

“Yet,” Edward said.

“True,” Arclight said.

“All we know is that they’re attacking his properties.”

“Right. But … if two apartments have been attacked back to back, you’re going to assume the third is a bar?”

“I’m just saying if one of his bars happens to burn down …”

“I don’t want to wait for the next apartment to burn down,” Protean said.

“We could just expect one of his bars to burn down,” Edward said with a grin. “Sooner or later.”

“We could easily cover the apartments, but could someone call Vanguard, Magic Man up here?” Arclight said. “We could really use the help.”

“They never responded to my page earlier,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“They’re not committed!” Edward said.

“Where are they?” Arclight asked.

“They’re not committed to this,” Edward said.

“Magic Man’s probably either strung out or O.D.ed somewhere,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I miss Magic Man,” Edward said.

“Huh,” Arclight said. “Do … do you?”

“I do,” Edward said.

“They’re like besties,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “It’s weird.”

“Well, I can’t be at a press conference,” Edward said.

“Okay,” Protean said.

“Because … yeah,” Edward went on. “So, I’ll stake out one of the apartments and beep you guys if anything suspicious happens.”

Absolem’s Riddle pointed out the attacks had, so far, only come at night. Arclight told them the names of the buildings were Druid North and Druid South. He asked Edward which one he wanted and Edward picked Druid South. He handed the crocodile a piece of paper with the name of the apartment building and the address. There was also a Google map on the paper.

“Got it,” Edward said. “I’ll watch over the area.”

“Should we let him go alone?” Arclight asked.

“I think he can handle it,” Protean said.

* * *

Protean went to the area between Druid Hills North and South and found a small park in the midst of the neighborhoods. It was in bad shape with a broken swing set without swings, a fountain full of leaves, and lots of graffiti. There was not even a sign on the park - it looked like it had been stolen some time before. He could see the top of one of the apartment building from the small park.

He wandered the neighborhood for an hour and tried to learn from the locals what the park was called. A few were put off by the walking tree-man but he finally found an older black man.

“Used to be called Roustabout Park,” the man said.

“Roustabout?” Protean said.

“Yeah,” the man said. “Because back in the ‘50s, circus would come and this area was not as developed and that was the place the circus would be. The roustabouts worked for the circus.”

He told Protean a long story about what the area had been like in the 50s and about the roustabouts and the circus. Protean chatted with him for some time. He ended up talking to him until he had to leave for the press conference.

* * *

Edward snuck into the Druid South apartment building, which looked like it was in pretty bad shape. The lobby area was a mess with graffiti and debris. He crept in without anyone seeing him and went into the basement.

“I’m in the basement, guys,” he paged.

“Did you break in?” Arclight paged back.

“No, I walked in,” Edward paged back.

“Look around and see if you can see anything there that’s highly flammable,” Absolem’s Riddle paged.

“That’s what I’m doing,” Edward texted back.

There were a lot of flammable things in the basement: boxes, crates, artificial Christmas trees, and the like. However, he didn’t find any sign of any kind of accelerants that could be used to start a fire.

“After the press conference, I’ll go check out the other basement unless you want to,” Absolem’s Riddle paged.

* * *

“Hey, I’ve got something really important to ask you,” Arclight paged Edward. “At the press conference, what name do you want us to say you are?”

“Are you going to get mine right?” she said. “Are you going to give them the right one?”

“Protean’s the one doing the press conference,” Arclight said.

“Do you know my name, Protean,” she sent a text.

“Absolon’s Riddle?” he texted back.

“Absolem’s Riddle, yes,” she texted him. “Like Alice in Wonderland.”

“I never really thought of a name for myself,” Edward finally texted back.

“It’s kind of between Cool Croc and Vicegrip,” Arclight texted. “Which one do you like more?”

“Those are my options?” Edward texted.

“I mean, the public’s already kind of run with Cool Croc,” Arclight texted. “I could probably make Vicegrip work. It’ll be hard, but if I say it at the press conference today, you might be known as Vicegrip.”

“Do I have to be mentioned in the press conference?” Edward texted.

“Yes,” Arclight texted.

“You will be mentioned in the press conference,” Absolem’s Riddle sent.

“Why?” Edward texted.

“Actually, we don’t need to mention him,” Protean texted. “Because, what I aim to do in the press conference is drive the exotics out.”

“Drive them out?” Absolem’s Riddle texted.

“Yes,” he texted back. “I want to make a statement to the exotics.”

“So, you want them to be expelled from Charlotte?” Absolem’s Riddle texted.

“No,” Protean texted.

“What he’s saying is he wants to say something that will make them show themselves,” Arclight said.

“Isn’t that what FORCE always tries to get them to do?” she said.

“I’m currently at a park in Druid Hills North,” Protean texted. “I think this is a good location to try and get the exotics to meet us.”

“Won’t other people try to come too?” Absolem’s Riddle texted.

“This park is really shitty,” Protean texted.

“If you make a press conference saying ‘Hey exotics, meet us here,’ one: that’s calling out all bad exotics,” she texted. “Two: that’s calling out a huge audience.”

“Perhaps that’s what they are looking for,” Protean texted.

“I think I’m just going to run with Vicegrip,” Arclight texted.

“But I don’t grip people,” Edward texted.

“Yet,” Arclight texted him back.

* * *

Edward heard movement and made himself ready. Two middle school aged kids came down the steps and stopped at the bottom in the dark. They took two cigarettes out of a crumpled pack and one of them lit them.

“Let’s get some hookers!” one said, affecting a deeper voice.

They hadn’t noticed Edward so he jumped out.

“Smoking is bad for you!” he screamed. “You could start a fire down here!”

The two kids screamed and fled up the steps, dropping the lit cigarettes, the lighter, and the pack. He put out the cigarettes with his foot. The Marlboro pack proved to be half filled with more cigarettes. He disposed of that and the lighter and then hid himself again.

About a half hour later, the two boys came back with an older boy of probably 15 or 16. One of the kids was babbling about a monster in the basement.

“He was right here!” one of the kids said. “He jumped out at us. He said ‘If you smoke I’m gonna kill you.’”

“That’s not what he said,” the other kid said. “He said smoking’s bad for us.”

“Why were two smoking?” the older boy said.

“Nothing,” one of the kids said.

“You sons of *****es!” the older kid said. “Did you steal my cigarettes again?”

The conversation went on for several minutes before the older boy, disgusted, took the younger boys back up out of the basement, demanding to know what they’d done with his cigarettes.

“What have you guys done?” Edward sent a page. “I’ve stopped two kids from smoking down here.”

“What?” Arclight paged back.

* * *

At 5 p.m. the press conference was held on the steps of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department. Several members of the press were there. The newspaper reporters had pens, paper, and audio recorders. Several cameras had also been set up and a small podium with several microphones was on the top step. Behind it was an American flag on one side and the North Carolina flag on the other. Absolem’s Riddle was there in her secret identity with a few other civilians who had come to watch.

“Protean wanted to make an announcement,” Police Chief Arnold Dean said. “Thank you all for coming. And I’ll just hand it over to him.”

Protean, in his wooden body, walked up to the podium. Arclight walked up and stood beside him. Doug was on the other side, standing in a regal pose. Arclight had coached him on keeping his chin up and having good posture. Once he was sitting there, he watched the crowd suspiciously.

“This is a message to the exotics responsible for burning down the two apartment buildings this week,” Protean said.

“Yeah!” Arclight said.

“And endangering innocent lives,” Protean said.

“Yeah!” Arclight said.

“I want to issue a challenge!”

“Uh … huh?”

“Why don’t you try to burn something your own size?”

“Uh …”

“I’m going to be at the old Roustabout Park of Druid Hills and I want you to meet me there.”

“Uh-huh,” Arclight said, looking a little confused. “Uh-huh.”

“This may be a dangerous fight so I advise all civilians to keep their distance,” Protean said.

In the audience, Absolem’s Riddle slapped her forehead so hard it left a red mark.

“Protean, are you going to answer questions?” one of the newsmen asked.

“Maybe my man Arclight?” Protean said.

“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!” Arclight said, moving to the podium.

“Do you think it’s a good idea to actually call out super villains?” one newsman asked.

“I do,” Protean said. “Because I don’t want to wait around for another apartment fire to confront these guys.”

“Arclight!” someone called.

“Protean!” someone else called.

“What are you views on the Thom Tillis murders?” someone asked.

“Uh … very bad thing,” Protean said.

“Who are you voting for?” someone else asked. “For senate?”

“Uh … I don’t … I don’t think I’m even registered to vote,” Protean said.

“Oh!” one of the local tabloid reporters said. “So, Protean’s against voting.”

“In any case, I have no time to lose!” Protean said.

He walked away from the podium.

There were a few more questions, some of them about Roustabout Park. Arclight was asked if it was safe and weren’t there families in the area. One reported asked if they shouldn’t have done the thing outside of town.

“I stand behind my teammate’s action,” Arclight said. “And I believe that us confronting this as soon as possible is the best way to save the most lives.”

“What’s the name of your team, Arclight?” a reporter asked.

In the audience, Absolem’s Riddle struggled frantically to get her pager out.

“Arclight and … Arclight and the Outliers,” Arclight said. “That is official. There will be no need to ask us what our team name is from here on. Thank you for your time, I must help Protean.”

He walked away from the podium, calling to Doug, who followed.

“Is that a dog in a costume?” someone asked.

Arclight caught up to Protean.

“So, I’m going to let you handle this battle at the park, but I’ll be there watching over the park as well,” Arclight said. “I think it’s important that you’re the only one at the park.”

“Uh … okay,” Protean said.

“I’ll be on a building above the park,” Arclight said. “Ready to swoop in if anything happens.”

Absolem’s Riddle caught up with them.

“You didn’t say you were going to ask for a fight!” Absolem’s Riddle said. “That’s not okay! You can’t just say ‘Hey, come fight everybody,’ and then not tell us that’s what you’re gonna do!”

“I think it’s a good call,” Arclight said.

“Yeah, but you−” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I thought it was the best course of action to save innocent lives,” Protean said.

“It’d be really nice to talk about this,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Especially something that big.”

“No, he said was going to call ‘em out,” Arclight said. “That’s what I thought. That’s what I thought he was gonna do.”

“And I said ‘What do you mean?’” she went on. “‘Are you trying to get them to leave Charlotte?’ ‘No, I just have the good ones and tell the bad ones to go away.’ That’s not what you did. You said ‘Come fight me, *****es.’ That’s totally different!”

“Yeah, I liked it,” Arclight said. “That was really good. What’s the problem?”

“It’s just, it would be nice to, like, talk about it,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Perhaps I should have told you guys exactly what I wanted to do,” Protean said.

“That would have been nice,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Especially since we are acting as a group and we agreed to be a group. It’s just … it’s just kind of frustrating that … yeah. We need to act like a group if we’re going to be a group.”

“Well, we weren’t getting any new leads …” Protean said.

“Right,” she said. “It’s just … next time … tell us?”

“I mean, if this saves an apartment building from being burned, I think it’s worth it,” Arclight said.

“I hope it does,” Protean said.

“And that … is … fine and it would be great,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “I’m just asking for, like, you know, not talking for everyone until you talk to everyone?”

“But Edward’s still at Druid South,” Arclight said. “We need someone at Druid North.”

“Yeah. That’s what I mean,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “We don’t really have a plan.”

“Yeah,” Protean said to Arclight.

“We didn’t talk about anything,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Shouldn’t we have talked about a strategy before we called them out? Like anything? Like a plan?”

That was my strategy,” Protean sad. “Just to call them out. In any case, I will stand guard at the park, waiting for them.”

“I … I liked it,” Arclight said. “I thought it was a good idea, personally.”

“But we don’t even have everybody,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I think, honestly thought, we’re a team, but at the same time, Vanguard’s not here, Flip’s not here,” Arclight said. “We don’t have to be−”

“Flip’s disappeared,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “And so has Magic Man.”

“He might come back,” Arclight said.

“Yeah, but−” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“They’re not telling us what they’re doing right now,” Arclight said.

“Yeah,” Protean said.

“I don’t feel like we need to always tell each other everything,” Arclight said.

“Yeah, but it’s different fighting regular people than fighting exotics,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Because usually we just do one exotic. But you just called out ‘All you exotics who are bad come fight us.’ We don’t know how many there are.”

“He called out who burned the apartments,” Arclight pointed out.

“That’s true,” Absolem’s Riddle admitted. “But there are ones that are likely to be bad.”

“Yeah, and we’ll handle ‘em all tonight!” Arclight said.

“I believe we can take ‘em,” Protean said.

“You don’t know how many this guy has in his group though,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “I know that you barely can die at all but some of us are a lot more prone to being able to not live.”

“I’ve seen you all in battle,” Protean said.

Arclight paged Edward.

“So, we might be having a showdown at the park,” he sent a page.

“What?” Edward paged back.

“Protean just called out the people that have been lighting the apartments on fire,” Arclight paged. “He wants them to meet him at the park to fight.”

“Oh,” Edward paged back. “By himself?”

“I mean, I’m going to be here with him,” Arclight paged back. “But, do you want me to come get you real quick?”

“Yeah,” Edward paged. “I think we should all be there for that. We need to be strong.”

“All right,” Arclight paged. “Me and Doug will come get you.”

“K,” Edward paged back.

“Guys, I’m gonna go get Edward,” Arclight told the others. “I know where all the addresses are so if a fire does happen, we’re in this park so we’re close to both apartments. I think we’ll be fine.”

He flew away.

“We don’t even know if they’re going to show up,” Absolem’s Riddle said to Protean.

“We don’t know,” Protean admitted. “But at least we’ve tried to get them.”

“But if they don’t, they know we’re on to them-ish,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “And if it is the owner of these apartment buildings, then he knows we know where these apartments are, so he might not show up here and he might not even light any more on fire, unless it’s him. Because Arclight basically stormed in and said ‘You’re the one lighting these fires.’ Kind of pissed him off a little bit.”

“I wasn’t there for that,” Protean said.

“Just letting you know,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “There’s a ton of possible things. That’s why we need to communicate.”

They arrived at Roustabout Park. They could just make out the fourth floor of Druid Hills North a few blocks away. Arclight and Edward arrived shortly after.

Absolem’s Riddle climbed into a tree and shrunk herself to a tiny size to hide. Protean simply stood in the middle of the park. Arclight found a nearby building that overlooked the park with Doug. They played games on his phone. Edward expertly hid in behind a dumpster nearby where he could see the park and the top of the apartment complex. He could see Absolem’s Riddle hiding in the nearby tree.

* * *

Around 8 p.m., they all got a page from Absolem’s Riddle that she was going to the basement of the Druid Hills North Apartment building.

Shortly after that, Edward sent a page.

“I don’t feel safe that they’ll know we’ll be here,” he sent. “They could attack the apartments while they know we’re not there.”

“They only know that Protean’s here though,” Arclight texted back.

“Why don’t you go to the South Apartment?” Absolem’s Riddle texted. “I’ve already been there. I can teleport if something happens.”

“I will send a blank page to everybody the minute I sense danger,” Protean sent.

“Sounds good,” Edward texted.

He left for the south apartments and tried to sneak into the basement again. He wasn’t very sneaky.

“That’s him!” someone screamed. “It’s the monster!”

It was one of the kids he’d scared earlier that day. Edward ran over and gave him a noogie on the head.

“Don’t smoke!” he said.

The kid screamed, freaking out. Edward chucked and let go of the kid, who ran away. Edward laughed.

“Kids,” he said.

He hid in the basement again, searching it a little bit more carefully. It was about two and a half feet across and apparently led into the storm sewers. He realized he could get into the building without using the front door if he wanted. It also meant a way for villains to get into the basement. It was a rather narrow opening, however.

* * *

Arclight stayed on the roof until 1 a.m. Then he messaged Protean he was going to head out but he’d keep his pager on. Edward paged back he found a storm grate that led to the sewers from the basement of the apartment building at Druid Hills South. Absolem’s Riddle paged nothing had happened there.

“Nice work Vicegrip!” Arclight paged.

* * *

Absolem’s riddle stayed in the basement of the apartment building in Druid Hills North until dawn.

Edward had made a bed out of the artificial Christmas trees at Druid Hills South. Nothing happened that night.

* * *

Protean got a private page from Chief Arnold the next morning, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014.

“A note has been delivered for you,” it read.

He walked to the police station and got the note. It read: “We’ll see you Saturday.” It was signed “The Flamer.”

“Hey guys, I got a note from somebody calling himself ‘The Flamer,’” he paged the others. “Saying he’ll meet us Saturday. I presume at the park.”

“Lol!” Arclight paged back.

“Let’s prepare,” Edward paged.

“You guys want to do, like, some teamwork exercises?” Protean texted.

“Get a water body,” Edward texted. “He can’t do anything to you.”

“Hey yeah,” Protean texted. “That could be a good idea.”

“Can you hold it together?” Absolem’s Riddle texted.

“I could try,” Protean texted.

“It’s something to try since we got time,” Edward texted. “Okie dokie. I mean … assuming the ice guy doesn’t show up as well.”

“My steel body and my concrete body are probably fire- and ice-proof,” Protean texted.

“Probably,” Edward texted.

“But I thought the wooden body would be more poetic.”

“Why? Both of those people can destroy a wooden body.”

“I called them out in a wooden body and they responded. But I think we should get together and do some exercises and see if we can combine our powers in unique ways.”

“I don’t have powers.”

“Okay, well, where do you guys want to meet?” Arclight texted.

They discussed it through text messages for some time. Arclight suggested the park but Protean didn’t think they should display their powers there. Arclight noted they could leave Charlotte. Protean said they had until Saturday. They discussed it and Absolem’s Riddle volunteered her car. She paged Doug, asking “You want to go for a ride? You want to go for a ride in the car?” Arclight suggested Concord, north of Charlotte.

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle picked up Edward and Protean and they headed north, Arclight flying. It took them a little while to find Arclight in a fallow farm field. He went to the nearby farmhouse and the owner recognized him. The man was willing to let him use the field for “superhero” stuff. He just asked Arclight not to make any giant holes, and if he did, to fill them back in. Arclight gave him four autographed photographs of himself - 18 through 21. The man left the house as he was only home for lunch, but said his wife would be there as she ran a dog kennel out of one of their outbuildings.

Arclight returned to the others.

“We’re free to use the field and I don’t think they’re going to tell anybody we’re here,” he told them. Then he turned to Protean. “Are we ready to train?”

“Yeah, let’s do it,” Protean said.

Arclight hit the wooden man with his fist. Protean didn’t move and Arclight shook his hand. Protean looked at him and then swung at him but Arclight was able to lean back. The blow missed him completely.

“Ah, this is what we need to do,” Arclight said. “More training like this. Doug, are you watching?”

Doug was watching.

Then Protean grappled Arclight and concentrated for a moment.

“I’m going to try something,” Protean said.

“Is it gonna hurt?” Arclight asked.

“Maybe,” Protean said.

“Give it a shot,” Arclight said.

Protean concentrated and suddenly his wooden body exploded.

“I don’t think that worked!” Absolem’s Riddle shouted.

The explosion knocked Arclight back about two yards and but he managed to keep his feet. Splinters were sticking into his armor.

“Where’s Protean?” Arclight said as he started pulling the splinters out.

“You killed Protean!” Absolem’s Riddle screamed.

“Oh my God!” Arclight said.

“You killed Protean!” Absolem’s Riddle screamed again.

“Was that supposed to happen?” Edward said.

“I don’t think it worked!” Absolem’s Riddle said.

Protean crawled out of the dirt, forming a dirt body as he did so.

“Nice,” he said.

“What was that?” Arclight asked.

“Man, I just discovered how to self destruct,” Protean said.

“Did you have to grab him to test that?” Edward asked.

“No,” Protean said.

“You could’ve just blown up,” Edward said.

“He didn’t have to punch me,” Protean said.

“That’s true,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“True,” Arclight said.

Edward noted he had his rifle and wanted to know a tactic to fight the villains. Absolem’s Riddle said one of them breathed fire and Edward said the other one probably had some kind of ice powers.

“Either that or he has really strange fashion sense,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“True,” Edward said. “But let’s just assume that he’s ice. For all intents and purposes.”

Arclight also tried to see, again, if he could get Doug to fly. He had been trying to teach the dog to fly over the preceding weeks without luck. He took Doug up into the air again to try to teach him to fly once more that day. He dropped the dog and told him to fly. Doug tried but then Arclight caught him. He kept trying. On the fourth try, he dropped Doug the second time as he was wiggling.

“No!” Arclight said.

He was too slow to reach Doug. However, the pug stopped a couple feet above the ground.

“Look look look look!” Doug said. “What’s happening? I can fly!?!”

He moved his legs and started to actually fly.

“Oh my God!” Arclight said.

“Doug can fly?” Protean said.

“Doug can fly!” Arclight said.

“I can fly!” Doug said happily. “I didn’t know I could do that! Wait. Did I?”

“Another hero that can fly …” Edward said despondently. “Another person who has an easy way from going one place to another.”

“I’ll carry you, Edward!” Doug said.

He flew to Edward and gripped the back of his armor with his teeth, then tried to lift the crocodile up.

“Yeah, that’s not gonna work,” Edward said.

“Doggone it!” Doug said.

That made Edward laugh.

Arclight said he was going to get something really quick and left. The others continued their training, experimenting with their powers while Doug flew happily overhead.

Edward suggested Protean fight up close with the villains as he was able to leave his body fairly easily. Absolem’s Riddle pointed out that, so long as she was not within a closed space, she was pretty flexible and powerful. She also noted the Flamer was probably resistant to fire.

Arclight returned within a half hour. He had a few lighters and body spray to use to practice dealing with fire.

“Protean, you ready?” Arclight asked.

Arclight burned Protean with the makeshift flame thrower.

“We don’t have water to put him out if it doesn’t work out,” Edward noted.

“He can just explode his body,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

The fire didn’t really seem to hurt Protean as dirt.

“Edward, are you flame resistant?” Arclight asked.

“No,” Edward said.

“I’m not either,” Doug said. “I don’t think. My costume isn’t.”

“Probably shouldn’t try it,” Arclight said.

“Arclight, I want you to make a continuous stream of fire,” Protean said.

“Okay,” Arclight said.

“Just in the air,” Protean said.

Arclight nodded and pointed the nozzle into the air and sent a burst of flame up for over a minute. Protean concentrated on the fire and tried to project himself into it but had no luck. He wondered if it was because the fire was more of a chemical reaction than an actual element or substance. After a minute, his eyes flickered back on.

“I tried to project myself into that flame, but I couldn’t do it,” he told them.

“It’s better for us to try it here then when he’s near us,” Arclight said.

Absolem’s Riddle said she guessed if the Flamer had resistance to fire, he was less likely to have resistance to kinetic things. She suggested she and Protean get the nearest to him. She noted unless they had mental powers, they should be okay.

“Edward’s got a gun!” Doug said. “Will it blow things up?”

“Yep,” Edward said.

“Yea!” Doug said.

Arclight sprayed fire around the others, just to get them somewhat used to the flames. Only Edward seemed completely unphased, though the rest of them flinched and it took some getting used to the flames. Doug was terrified of the fire.

“Are you resistant to fire?” Protean asked.

“I don’t know,” Arclight said. “Shoot it … shoot it at my chest.”

Protean did so and Arclight was pleasantly surprised his armor actually resisted the flames.

“I need someone to keep the fire guy off of me,” Edward said. “Because I can’t take fire directly.”

“I got it,” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“I was going to suggest that,” Edward said. “Since you can get big and cover a wide area.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I can even pick him up and throw him. But I won’t do that, because we don’t want him to get away.”

“We don’t want to kill him,” Arclight said.

They discussed it and decided that Protean and Absolem’s Riddle should be fighting up close while Arclight and Edward sniped from a distance. Arclight said Doug should stay back with Edward and Doug noted he would be like Edward’s loader.

Protean left his body and got another tree body from the local woods nearby. Absolem’s Riddle punched the empty dirt body, blasting it to pieces with her great strength. Protean walked back with his new wooden body. She asked if he was going to have the wood body when they fought the Flamer.

“I want to draw the fire,” he said.

He noted in the worst case scenario, if the wood body caught on fire, he would self destruct it and get another body. Arclight suggested Protean try a water body and they found a creek nearby. He was able to form a body out of the water, though he found it harder to hold it together. He lost mass constantly as he moved around. When he tried to meditate in the body, it collapsed. He did find he could make a fist and punch with the water body. He ran around and learned he lost mass fairly quickly when he did so, the body falling apart in only a minute or so. Losing mass made him look skeletal and skinny. Absolem’s Riddle noted that if he did have a water body, he could throw himself on any people who might be on fire.

Absolem’s Riddle asked if anyone had learned Morse Code but none of them had. Doug didn’t even know what it was.

Doug wanted to see Edward fire his rifle so Protean found a few dirt clods in the field and flung them into the air so Edward could shoot at them. Doug was very excited about it. Edward aimed his rifle and fired. The beam made a strange, hissing noise as it burned the oxygen in the air. His first shot missed the dirt clod completely. Protean flung a second and the beam blew it to pieces. He missed the third shot as well.

Absolem’s Riddle grew to her hugest size and beat her chest. Her feet sank a little into the ground due to her massive weight at that size. Arclight handed the others a lighter and a can.

“Let’s see how flame resistant she is,” he said.

All three of them used the makeshift flamethrowers on her, none of them able to hit her above the ankle. She felt the two on her right foot, which was where Edward and Protean were burning her. At her size, however, it only mildly injured her. She leaned down and blew as hard as she could on the flames the two were making, blowing both of them out. She lifted up her foot like she was going to kick them.

“How did it work?” Arclight called.

She just shook her head. Then she shrank back to her normal size.

“Did it hurt?” he asked.

“A little bit but not the worst,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

“Enough to annoy me, but that’s because I wasn’t distracted by more important things going on,” she said. “But only on my right leg and that’s probably because they teamed up.”

“Good,” he said. “So, we’re mostly resistant to fire then, except for Edward. But he’s long range anyways, so we should be fine.”

“I wonder how this ice guy fights,” Edward said.

“We don’t know that he’s ice,” Arclight said.

“We can assume,” Edward said.

“I’m not assuming anything,” Arclight said.

“I’m assuming it,” Edward said.

“I only got a response from one person,” Protean said. “It said ‘The Flamer.’ So, I’m assuming that only one is going to show up.”

“I’m just saying, the buildings are being set on fire, not frozen,” Arclight said. “For all we know, this little kid just drew that because she wanted to.”

“But we did get a response from a guy who claimed to be the Flamer,” Protean said.

“Exactly!” Arclight said.

“So, I think we could take this six-year-old drawing as legit evidence that there may be an ice man,” Protean said.

“Nah!” Arclight said. “I don’t think there’s an iceman.”

“What if his hair’s on fire all the time?” Protean said.

“That’s what it looks like,” Edward said. “Looks like his hair’s constantly on fire.”

They continued training for the rest of the day. Absolem’s Riddle tried to practice using her long braided hair as a weapon without success.

* * *

On Saturday, October 25, 2014, Absolem’s Riddle told them the Flamer had not told them where he’d meet them, so it could be at the park or one of the other apartment buildings. She said she thought they should guard all three. Protean noted the note said “See you Saturday” after he called him out at the park.

Arclight and Protean both got texts from Chief Arnold wanting to know if there was going to be some kind of confrontation and where. He noted he wanted to cordon off the area to protect citizens. They sent back that they were going to be at Roustabout Park in the Druid Hills North neighborhood. Arclight also asked him to have a fire truck on the scene and he texted back he’d certainly have one. He further noted the police and firemen would stay back to let Arclight and the Outliers do their thing.

They discussed who would be where. At first, Arclight suggested that Absolem’s Riddle be north and Edward be south. But then he changed his mind.

“But I can teleport him in,” she said.

“Exactly,” he said. “You can teleport to the park and he can run.”

* * *

Murray McDonald, Arclight’s agent, also called him.

“Murray, what’s up?” Arclight answered.

“Yeah, hey, Papa Franchetti’s Pizzerios called,” Murray said. “They want you to do some advertising for them.”

“Nice,” Arclight said.

“You’re supposed to meet with Papa Franchetti,” Murray went on. “I’m supposed to arrange it. When can you meet with him?”

“I’m kind of busy today.”

“That’s fine. We’ll do it Monday.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be in touch, babe.”

“All right.”

He hung up.

* * *

Edward didn’t try to sneak into the apartment building in Druid Hills North. He knew he was supposed to be there. He sat on the floor of the lobby and sent a text to page him when they showed up. Protean sent back that he would send a blank message from his pager when they arrived.

People noticed him and seemed unsure about him.

“If you can see the park from the roof of North, why aren’t you here?” Edward texted to Arclight. “That way, if something happens, you could just pick me up and fly me other there.”

Arclight, on top of a building that overlooked the park, checked the pager. Doug was jumping up into the air and doing back flips, using his flight to do so successfully. He’d never been able to do it before.

“Because you’re not resistant to fire,” Arclight texted back.

“Drop me off at a distance,” Edward texted back. “Like air drop.”

“Nope,” Arclight texted.

“I just want to get there in time,” Edward texted. “I’m just going to be running there and I’m going to get there when the fight is over.”

“It’s not that far,” Arclight texted.

“That’s going to take me like 15 minutes to run,” Edward texted.

“It won’t take you very long,” Arclight texted.

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle snuck into the apartment building of Druid Hills South. No one really noticed her. She went down to the basement. She had brought a Simon game and she and Ñaro played the game without sound while they waited.

* * *

It was after dark when someone came down the steps where Absolem’s Riddle was keeping watch in the basement of the Druid Hills South apartment building. It was two men.

“I thought they were gonna meet us here,” one of them said, his voice very effeminate.

“Just be patient,” the other man said.

They spotted her just as she spotted them.

One of them wore a red, skintight outfit that consisted of a red, sleeveless shirt with some kind of black bird emblem upon it. He had a gold belt with a large red stone set in the belt buckle. He also wore tight pants that were mostly red, though the red gave way to black around the knees, with the black forming what appeared to be flames. He wore tall, black boots, a black cape, and had a black mask on. His hair was teased up and very red.

The other man was in blue and white. His costume was also skin tight, though looked thicker than his companion’s. The top was long-sleeved and white around the shoulders turning to a light blue on his arms and the sides of his body. The pattern repeated on his pants with white on the interior of his legs and blue on the exterior. He had white gloves and boots with white fur fringe upon them and a white belt with some kind of gun holstered on his right side. His head was covered and he wore goggles over his eyes. His skin only showed where his mouth and nose were not covered. He was very pale as well.

As soon as the man in red saw her, he seemed to get very excited, even as he quickly pulled her pager out and started texting as fast as possible.

“I’m the Flamer!” he said, his voice obviously the effeminate one, putting his hands on his hips and turning away from the man in blue and white.

“I can tell!” she replied, sending the page, which read “In South.”

“Sh!” he said. “Don’t interrupt, darling. Don’t interrupt please. I didn’t interrupt you when you were pushing your buttons. All right. Start over. Okay. I’m the Flamer!”

“And I’m Absolute Zero,” the other man said, crossing his arms in front of himself and putting his back to the Flamer.

“And together we are …” the Flamer said, making a flourish with his hand. “Fire and …”

He looked to his left at Absolute Zero.

“Together we are Fire …” he said again.

“I don’t want to do this,” Absolute Zero said.

“You promised!” the Flamer said.

“I know but …” Absolute Zero said.

“We can’t be a super villain team without a hook!” the Flamer said. He turned to Absolem’s Riddle. “Will you excuse us for just a minute? I’m so sorry.”

He turned to Absolute Zero.

“You said you would do this!” he said. “You promised.”

“I feel silly,” Absolute Zero said.

“Look, we’re the talent,” the Flamer said. “They’re just the straight men, no offense. They have to have something to play off of.”

“But …” Absolute Zero said.

“Do you want me to switch sides? Because I’ll do it in a cold minute! I’ll be one of those dramatic villains who sees the error of his ways and joins with the superheroes to take you out! AND … and … you’ll be sleeping on the couch for a week.”

“C’mon …”

“No! You promised and you’re going to do.”

“Okay. Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. Just … let’s get it over with.”

The Flamer clapped his hands and hopped in the air.

“Okay. Okay. Okay. I’m so nervous now! Okay. Okay. Okay,” he said.

He was a bit flustered but obviously happy. He struck his pose again.

“So … I’m the Flamer!” he said.

“And I’m Absolute Zero,” the other said.

“And together we are Fire and …” the Flamer said with a flourish

“Ice,” Absolute Zero said, flourishing as well so the backs of their hands met at the bottom.

The Flamer immediately broke character and turned to clap his hands and thank Absolute Zero again, giving the other man a hug.

“Scene,” he said, putting his hand in front of his face. “Okay.”

He gestured at Absolem’s Riddle.

“Okay, go ahead,” he said to her.

He put his hands to his lips and watched her carefully. She just blinked.

“Do your thing,” he said. “What is your thing? You have to do, like, an introduction because we’re going to battle it up! Battle Royale!”

* * *

“Pick me up, Arclight,” Edward texted as soon as Absolem’s Riddle’s page came through.

“What?” Arclight said.

“They’re in the south apartments,” Edward texted.

“That’s what it means?” Arclight texted.

“That’s what I’m assuming,” Edward texted.

Arclight took off and flew to the Druid Hills North.

“Are you coming?” came another page from Absolem’s Riddle.

* * *

“We’re coming,” came over Absolem’s Riddle’s pager from Edward.

“You guys want to pick me up?” came from Protean.

“I can’t,” Arclight texted. “I’m getting Edward.”

“Okay,” Protean texted. “I’m on my way.”

She looked up at the two men who were watching her.

“So, you wanted an intro, right?” she said.

“Yes!” the Flamer said shortly.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll give you one. But be patient. Hold that thought.”

She vanished.

* * *

Edward exited the apartment building at Druid Hills North as Arclight and Doug landed on the ground in front of the building. Arclight picked up Edward and helped him onto his back. Then they flew towards the apartment building in Druid Hills South.

“Why did they show up at the building?” Edward asked him. “Why not at the park?”

“I don’t know,” Arclight said.

“We said we’d meet them,” Edward said.

“It was a trick,” Arclight said.

“They’re stupid,” Edward said.

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle, after a few teleports, appeared in Roustabout Park as Protean was leaving. She told Protean she was going to drop him at the front of the building but the villains were in the basement. She told him to come down to get them and said she guessed Arclight was on the way. Then she shrunk down and teleported back to Druid Hills South with him.

She got in a pose on the ground and teleported alone back to where she’d been.

“Oo oo oo oo!” the Flamer said.

She stood up, snapping a finger and singing “Duh-duh-nah!” That lasted for about 10 seconds before the Flamer interrupted her.

“No no no!” he said. “This is a terrible introduction. You have to incorporate your name! There’s no singing!”

“I wasn’t done,” she said.

“It’s not musical theater!” he said.

“Hey!” she said. “Did I interrupt you when you were doing your seven million displays?”

“Well, actually you did,” the Flamer said.

“Once,” she said.

The two started to argue.

* * *

Protean got to the basement stairs to see Absolem’s Riddle spin. Both of the men at the bottom turned to look at him as she did jazz hands. The Flamer looked excited when he saw the wooden hero.

“Oh!” he said with a smile. “They set an ambush!”

“That’s not a good thing,” Absolute Zero said.

“We can’t fight here!” Protean said. “We were supposed to meet at the park!”

The Flamer sighed.

“I’m a super villain,” he said. “I don’t have to meet anyplace I don’t want to.”

He shook his head.

“We haven’t introduced ourselves to you!” he suddenly said. “Wait. Are there more people here?”

“Um …” Protean said. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” The Flamer said. “Get ‘em in here!”

“All right,” Protean said.

Absolute Zero had put his hand on his holster. He watched Absolem’s Riddle very closely.

Protean walked slowly down the steps. The Flamer moved back from the steps with Absolute Zero. Absolem’s Riddle vanished again.

* * *

Edward and Arclight entered the building. Edward saw Protean go behind the steps. As they approached the stairs, Arclight headed up.

“Yo!” Edward said. “Downstairs.”

“You think?” Arclight said.

“I just saw Protean heading downstairs,” Edward said.

“Okay,” Arclight said.

* * *

Absolem’s Riddle appeared outside the apartment building and saw Arclight and Edward. They spoke briefly and then headed around the steps to the basement. Edward took out his rifle.

She teleported back to the basement. Protean had reached the bottom of the steps by that time. The Flamer’s hands suddenly burst into flames.

“Don’t try anything before we have a chance to … introduce ourselves,” he said dramatically.

He wiggled a finger at them. Protean nodded.

Just then Arclight and Edward reached the top of the steps.

“Oh! Oh!” the Flamer said when he spotted them. “There they are! C’mon!”

“Why are you trying to kill poor people?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“What?” The Flamer said. “We’re not … sh. I’ll do my villainous rant in a moment. First: introductions.”

* * *

“Shoot him,” Arclight whispered to Edward.

“C’mon down, we have our villainous introduction!” the Flamer called with a friendly wave.

“Shoot him,” Arclight whispered again.

“All right, leader,” Edward replied.

Arclight fired up his energy shield.

* * *

“I am Protean!” Protean said.

He flexed his wooden muscles.

“Ooo,” the Flamer said.

“I put myself in danger so that the innocent don’t need to,” Protean went on.

That’s an introduction,” the Flamer said to Absolem’s Riddle.

“And right now, we are in the basement of an innocent dwelling,” Protean said. “Why do you want to−?”

“Yes!” the Flamer said. “That’s going to make it very hard for you, isn’t it? Hey, c’mon down! You’re missing this!”

He waved at the two at the top of the steps. Arclight edged himself in front of Edward, shielding the crocodile with his body and his shield.

“Take the shot,” he whispered to Edward. “Shoot him. That’s the guy. From the picture.”

“I believe we should throw down, but not here,” Protean said. “We need to go outside. Then you’ll get the whole hero/villain showdown that you’ve always wanted.”

“Hmm,” the Flamer said, considering it. “That does sound good.”

Absolute Zero just shook his head.

“If you want to put on a show, let’s do it for the public,” Protean said. “But not hidden away in the basement of an apartment building.”

“Hmm,” the Flamer said. “That is a pretty good idea.”

He stroked his chin with his burning hand. It didn’t appear to hurt him.

“What would you propose … hero?” he said, putting his hands on his hips and shaking his head so his hair moved dramatically.

“Take the shot!” Arclight hissed at Edward.

“The abandoned park on north−” Protean said.

“No, not that!” the Flamer said angrily. “There’s cops all over the place there!”

“There are?” Absolem’s Riddle said.

“Well, then let’s do it in the street,” Protean said.

“Right out front?” the Flamer said.

“Yeah,” Protean said.

“All right,” the Flamer said. “Ooo.”

“Take the shot!” Arclight hissed at Edward.

The Flamer turned to Absolute Zero.

“All right,” the other villain said. “Fine.”

“You heroes lead the way!” the Flamer said. “We’ll be right behind you.”

“All right,” Protean said.

“We should burn this place too,” the Flamer said. “All right, fine. We’ll wait until we defeat them.”

Protean walked up the steps, his back to the villains.

“What the hell are you doing!?!” Arclight said to him. “They’re right down there! Let’s get ‘em!”

“We can’t fight here!” Protean said.

“Why not?” Arclight said.

“Because, there’s people in this apartment building,” Protean said.

“Edward, take the shot!” Arclight said.

The villains followed Protean up the stairs. Doug was very excited.

“This is just like a comic book!” he said.

Absolem’s Riddle teleported to the lobby with the others.

“Do you want me to teleport you to the top of the roof?” she said to Edward.

“I don’t care,” he replied.

“So you just want to be close-ranged like you said you didn’t want to do?” she said.

“Man, he’s not going to do much,” Edward said.

“Just because he’s gay does not mean−”

“I’m not insinuating that at all!”

“Just because he’s flamboyant … flame-boyant …”

“No, I’m hoping he has no armor.”

“You don’t know that.”

“A couple of shots or punches and he’ll be down for good.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’ll be surprised.”

“It could be invisible.”

The two villains followed them out to the front of the apartment building. People in the lobby looked very surprised.

“Ooo, there’s more here!” the Flamer said when he saw Arclight and Edward. “There’s more! Okay, who’s next for introductions? Protean … has done it right.”

He looked at Absolem’s Riddle. She flipped him off.

“Oh yeah,” the Flamer said. “No class.”

He looked at Arclight again.

“Oh! It’s Arclight!” he said. “Oh my God! Okay, Arclight … we should do ours again. We should do ours again. Is this all of you?”

“Yes,” Edward said.

“Okay, are you ready?” the Flamer said to Absolute Zero. Then he posed. “I’m the Flamer!”

Arclight flew at him, fists out, but the Flamer suddenly ducked under the blow. Arclight was really surprised he missed. Absolute Zero drew the gun from his holster.

“Introductions be damned!” he said as he spun a dial on the side of the silver gun with his thumb.

He fired at Arclight. A blast of ice burst from the gun with a loud, cracking noise, but missed Arclight completely. It hit the side of the building, which was covered in a thick sheet of ice. Arclight just nodded his head.

“All right,” he said.

He looked at Edward.

“You were right about the ice!” he said.

Absolem’s Riddle grew to an immense size, swinging at the Flamer as she did so. The Flamer leapt into the air to avoid her blow, which gouged out some of the concrete under him.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” he said. “Girl, just ‘cause you ain’t got no introduction.”

Protean ran towards Absolute Zero as Edward shot the man in blue and white, his laser sizzling the air between them. The blast struck the man but merely burned his costume.

“That’s my introduction!” Edward said.

The Flamer moved to one side.

“You’re the only one that introduced himself!” he said to Protean.

He blasted the hero with flames, burning him and catching him on fire. Arclight flew at the Flamer and swung at him, punching him right in the face. The blow knocked him back several meters though he kept his feet as he skidded to a stop.

“Now you’re on my bad list,” he said.

Arclight danced a little bit, mocking him.

Absolute Zero turned and fired a blast from his frigid gun at Edward. The blast hit Edward and, though the cold didn’t hurt him at all due to his resistance, the ice covered him from the shoulders down to his feet, holding him. Absolem’s Riddle, some 10 meters tall, ran between Edward and Absolute Zero.

“Girl, you need to lose some weight!” the Flamer called to her.

She swung at Absolute Zero, trying to knock him into the Flamer. He didn’t even see it coming and she slammed him, knocking him towards the Flamer, who saw and dodged out of the way with a cry. Absolute Zero slammed into the wall of the apartment building and careened off to the side, crashing to the ground nearby.

Protean’s target had been knocked away and so the burning superhero rushed at the Flamer and leapt at the man, landing near him.

“Nicely done,” the Flamer said sarcastically.

Then Protean exploded in a burst of fiery splinters. The Flamer ducked out of the way. A few splinters struck Arclight harmlessly.

“Doug! Go get the cops!” Arclight yelled.

“I got it!” Doug yelled.

He turned north, floated up about three feet, then posed with one of his forelegs out in front of him and the other tucked under him. He flew up the street at speed.

“And I’m Doug the Pug!” he called as he flew out of sight.

Edward broke out of the ice and ran for Absolute Zero, stopping over the prone man.

“I’m tired of this shit!” the Flamer said.

Flames came out of his feet, blasting and blackening the sidewalk, as he flew up about 10 meters to Absolem’s Riddle’s face and blasted her with fire from his hands. The blasts completely missed her.

“Well done!” she said with sweet sarcasm, effecting a more feminine note to her voice.

“Oh no, you didn’t!” the Flamer said.

Arclight flew to Absolute Zero and tried to punch him in the face, but the man quickly ducked his head to one side and Arclight’s fist struck the concrete, shattering it. Then he got back to his feet. He cracked his neck, turning his head to each side slowly. Arclight realized he was putting on an act and thought the man had probably actually been hurt by the blow.

Absolem’s Riddle tried to smash the Flamer between her hands but he dropped a few feet, ducking out of the way. Her giant hands came together with a crash that shattered some of the windows nearest to them. Protean, meanwhile, floated invisibly up to the fourth floor and made a body out of the cheap, crumbling concrete of the building. The Flamer flew up about 30 meters above her head and then fired flames down onto her. The flames just sort of sloughed off her.

“I’m not the only one flaming here!” he called down to her.

Arclight looked over his shoulder and laughed briefly. Then he swung at Absolute Zero again but the man dodged out of the way.

“Try this!” the villain said.

He aimed at Arclight, who brought his shield up in front of him. The blast went through the energy shield on his left arm but he ducked to one side and the blast missed him completely. It went across the street and struck a kid who had just come out of the hardware store. The child, sucker in hand, barely had time to react before he was completely covered in ice. Arclight looked to see where the blast went.

“Oops!” Absolute Zero said. “You should’ve just taken the hit!”

Absolem’s Riddle grew again, reaching 20 meters and her maximum height. Then she leapt up into the air and swatted the Flamer, knocking him down to the ground below. He managed to stop himself before he hit the ground with a blast of flames from his feet.

Protean, from his vantage point coming out of the side of the building, saw the child get frozen.

“Focus on the fight!” he shouted. “I’ll get the child!”

He tried to jump and land on the Flamer but it was too far a leap and he smashed to the ground behind the man instead. He cracked both the concrete on the ground and the concrete of his legs. It hurt terribly.

I should’ve tried that in training, he thought.

Edward lunged at Absolute Zero, biting his arm and grabbing hold with his jaw. He bit down but didn’t taste blood, to his disappointment. Meanwhile, the Flamer righted himself and gestured at Absolem’s Riddle with his hand for her to bring it. Then he ruined it by talking.

“Bring it!” he said. “Not even a scratch!”

Arclight swung at Absolute Zero’s gun but missed the weapon completely. He almost hit Edward in the head as well.

“What’s wrong with you!?!” Absolute Zero said to Arclight. “Go save that kid, you idiot!”

He grabbed Edward by the jaw and pulled him off his arm. Edward stumbled back. Then he leapt at Absolute Zero again in an attempt to grip his arm again. The man leapt out of the way.

“No!” Absolute Zero yelled at him. “Bad … whatever you are!”

Absolem’s Riddle tried to crush the Flamer under her foot but he easily stepped aside, looking bored. Protean walked off the pain as if he hadn’t just severely hurt himself, and ran for the child, running right by the Flamer. The Flamer flew straight up to about 60 meters, leaving a trail of flame in the air. He posed when he reached a safe height and looked down at Absolem’s Riddle.

“This is for the kid!” Arclight said as he swung at Absolute Zero’s face.

“What kind of hero are you!?!” Absolute Zero shouted at him, ducking out of the way.

He blasted away at Edward.

“Get away!” he shouted.

Ice formed on Edward, entrapping him once again. Absolem’s Riddle slammed her fist into Absolute Zero, knocking him back about 10 meters. He crashed to the ground, landing flat on his back. He managed to keep his hand on his gun though.

Protean reached the child across the street. There was steam over his mouth under the ice. He struck at the ice to try to break the ice away from the boy without hurting him. He broke away the ice around his face.

“It’s cold,” the boy cried. “It’s so cold.”

“*****, you better not touch my man!” the Flamer said to Absolem’s Riddle.

He blasted away at her with fire but she dodged out of the way.

Arclight flew to Absolute Zero and punched the gun but he kept hold of it and stood up to face him again.

Absolem’s Riddle suddenly shrunk out of sight.

Protean, meanwhile, broke the child free of the ice. The little boy was shivering and terribly cold. He had a sucker in one hand and shakily put it to his mouth. Protean looked around and saw a man looking out of the front of the store. He nudged the child towards the guy.

“Take him to the hospital!” he said.

“Okay!” the man said, whipping the door open and dragging the kid into the shop.

Edward smashed his way free of his icy prison once again.

“I said get off my man!” the Flamer cried.

“My man now!” Arclight quipped.

“Oh no, you didn’t!” the Flamer said.

He blasted Arclight with flames but it struck the man’s armor and didn’t hurt him.

“I’m resistant to Flamers,” Arclight quipped.

He flew up to the Flamer and punched him in the face again. The blow didn’t seem to hurt him much but he was not pleased at being touched, apparently.

Absolem’s Riddle, so small she was unnoticed by anyone, teleported to the roof of the apartment building.

“Stay put!” Absolute Zero said to Edward.

“Make me!” Edward said.

Absolute Zero blasted him with the frigid gun, encasing him in ice again.

Protean turned towards Absolute Zero and glared at him. Then he abandoned the cheap concrete body and floated towards him astrally. Edward struggled to break free from the ice and Absolute Zero smirked at him.

“God, you’re annoying!” Edward yelled at him.

Above them, the Flamer and Arclight were locked in mortal combat.

“This is all you get!” The Flamer said, trying to punch him with the flat of his hand, missing. “I don’t want to ruin my manicure.”

Arclight tried to hit Flamer in the face with the flat of his own hand, hitting the villain in the face again. It didn’t seem to hurt him.

Absolem’s Riddle, still tiny, teleported behind Absolute Zero. He started to look around immediately as if he knew something was wrong. He didn’t see her however. Then he aimed at Arclight and fired his frigid gun but the blast missed completely.

Suddenly, the ice around Edward moved in a strange way, sliding off of him to form Protean. Most of the ice formed the hero, leaving only a little around Edward’s feet.

“How’s your legs feel?” Edward asked him.

Above them, the Flamer and Arclight continued to tussle.

“You’ve really raised my ire!” the villain said.

He swung another open handed punch at Arclight and missed the hero completely. Arclight punched him in the face again but didn’t seem to hurt him.

Absolem’s Riddle grew to her immense height again even as Absolute Zero fired his frigid gun at Protean, encasing the ice hero in another sheath of ice.

“Don’t you free him!” he said.

Then the villain suddenly looked to his right where Absolem’s Riddle’s fist was coming at him. As he leapt up over her fist, she managed to knock his aim off and the blast also nearly hit Edward. Protean abandoned the ice body that was trapped. Edward turned and fired his laser rifle at the Flamer. The beam hissed through the air and struck the villain, though it didn’t seem to hurt him.

Then the Flamer reared back his open fist, winding up to punch at Arclight.

“Toodle-oo!” Arclight said.

He flew down and at Absolute Zero, hitting the man in the abdomen. Absolute Zero stumbled back a step and then fired his frigid gun. The blast struck Arclight in the face and covered him in ice from the top down. Suddenly, arms of concrete came out of the sidewalk under Absolute Zero and grabbed at the man’s legs. Edward ran towards Absolute Zero and leapt for his neck but the villain pushed the crocodile back.

“Get off my man!” Flamer yelled. “Fine!”

He clapped his hands.

“Robots attack!” he cried.

Arclight tore himself out of the ice encasing him as Absolute Zero tried to get free of the arms that were pulling him to the pavement. He kicked free as Absolem’s Riddle brought her massive fist down on top of the man. Flamer screamed. When she lifted her fist, Absolute Zero lay unmoving on the pavement, blood on his face. The frigid gun lay on the ground a few feet away.

Protean’s arms flailed around, trying to grab at him again. Then the man, now made of concrete, pulled himself out of the ground.

“You leave him alone!” the Flamer yelled.

The doors of a van across the street opened and three robots stepped out. They were a dull, metallic steel and had three glowing lights on their head to form a face of sorts. Large prongs jutted out of their shoulders and appeared to be cooling vanes of some kind. Each held a very large rifle with a strange appearance. Painted in red on each of their chests was a name: Inferno, Blaze, and Ember. Edward, Absolem’s Riddle, and Protean recognized them as the same type of robots they’d fought when Wane had attacked them the month before.

“This’ll keep you busy!” the Flamer yelled.

He flew down until he was level with the fourth floor of the apartment building and then fired a blast into the window, shattering the glass and starting a fire inside.

Arclight ran to the frigid gun and picked it up. Absolem’s Riddle shrunk until she was about eight feet tall.

“Put out the fire with the ice gun!” she cried.

“What fire?” Arclight said.

She pointed at the flames licking out of the fourth floor window.

“I’ve got the robots!” Protean said.

His eyes stopped glowing again as he abandoned the concrete body.

“Throw me the gun!” Edward said to Arclight as he put his rifle onto his back.

The Flamer flew back a few yards.

“C’mon heroes!” he yelled down at them.

He blasted flames into another window on the front of the apartment building.

Arclight handed off the frigid gun to Edward and then flew at the Flamer, slammed into him and grappling him around the midsection, grabbing his arms as well.

“Fresh!” the flamer yelled.

“--TARGET SELECTED--” each of the robots said.

The three robots aimed their rifles and, with a crash of thunder, fired bolts of lightning at the concrete body of Protean, Absolem’s Riddle, and Edward, all of the blasts missing their targets and blasting the ground around them. Absolem’s Riddle shrunk to her regular size and then teleported to the roof again.

One of the robots started to jerk, sparks flying off it, and then the metal of the body formed into the figure of Protean, eyes glowing brightly. The other two robots turned towards him.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Edward said to the unconscious form of Absolute Zero.

He fired the frigid gun at the man and encased him in ice, leaving his face free as best he could.

“Let me go you big ox!” the Flamer said, trying to break free from Arclight’s grip.

“Um … no,” Arclight said.

“Robots!” the Flamer shouted. “Attack Arclight!”

He looked over at the roof where Absolem’s Riddle stood. Arclight took a look over his shoulder and spotted her as well. Then he dragged Flamer down to the ground near where Edward stood. The two remaining intact robots turned and opened fire on Arclight, both blasts of lightning completely missing and blasting the building.

Absolem’s Riddle teleported behind the robots. Then the Protean-robot exploded, scattering debris all around him. Blaze had been destroyed.

The Flamer tried to break free of Arclight’s grip without luck.

“Let me go you cad!” he shrieked. “I have to see if my boyfriend’s okay!”

“He’s not,” Edward said with a grin.

Arclight let go of the Flamer and brought a fist down on him. That slammed him into the ground pretty hard though it didn’t seem to hurt him.

“Shoot him!” Arclight yelled.

Absolem’s Riddle grew to her maximum size again even as another robot started to shake, sparks coming out of it and it assumed Protean’s shape.

“What’s the dial on the side of the gun do!?!” Edward said.

He spun the little dial the rest of the direction where it had mostly been turned. Then he fired it at Flamer. The blast of ice was intense though didn’t seem as cold. It covered the Flamer in ice as he shrieked like a woman.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Edward said.

The Flamer struggled in the cocoon of ice and broke free.

“Stop!” the Flamer screamed.

“Hey guys,” Arclight said.

He started to fully glow and then extended his hand towards the flamer. He felt his concentration falter when the villain spoke, however.

“What’re you doing, big boy?” the Flamer asked suggestively.

“I … uh …” Arclight said.

The last intact robot fired at Arclight, missing him completely. The blast hit a streetlight, which exploded. Then Absolem’s Riddle kicked the robot and it shattered to pieces. Even the gun flew apart. Protean’s form appeared out of the last robot and he exploded.

Then Doug came flying in.

“Cops are coming!” he said.

They could hear sirens in the distance.

“You hear those sirens?” Edward said. “They’re coming for you.”

He fired the frigid gun at Flamer again, covering him in ice. The Flamer struggled against the ice but couldn’t get free. Arclight began glowing again and held his open hand out at Flamer.

“I’m getting an erection in here!” the Flamer called.

That broke his concentration again.

“Guys, I swear, this is a really cool power!” Arclight said. “If I could just …”

Absolem’s Riddle ran over to where the two villains were being held. Then Protean pulled himself out of the ground. The Flamer tried to break free again but failed once more.

“I’m really tired, everyone,” Arclight said. “I’ve used all my energy.”

Absolem’s Riddle shrunk to her normal size.

“Take off his armor,” she said, gesturing towards Absolute Zero. “Ice man. Armor.”

“He’s in ice,” Edward said.

“Crap!” she said.

“We can’t get to him,” Edward said.

“If he regains consciousness …” she said.

“He’s unconscious though,” Arclight said.

“If he regains consciousness …” she said again.

Protean looked up and then ran into the apartment building. Edward continued to cover Flamer with more ice.

“No!” Flamer yelled. “Stop it! Quit! That is not yours!”

“I’ll keep it after this,” Edward told him.

After that, Edward put more ice on Absolute Zero.

“Here, Arclight,” Edward said, handing over the frigid gun to him.

“Thank you,” Arclight said.

“You can put out those fires with the gun,” Edward said.

The police arrived along with a fire truck, and firemen entered the building. Protean had already taken care of the fires on the upper floors. The Charlotte Super Villain Defense Squad (CSVDS) showed up shortly after that in a black van. They had stronger weapons than the regular police and sent for a crane to move the two villains onto a flatbed truck. They broke Absolute Zero free of the ice and then stripped him of his armored costume, manacling his hands with special manacles for exotics. They told the heroes the villains would be transported to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Criminal Exotics Holding Facility.

Doug flew around a lot.

“We still don’t know why!?!” Absolem’s Riddle said. “Why they were doing this!”

“We can question them later,” Edward said.

“That doesn’t mean they’re going to say anything,” Absolem’s Riddle said. “It looks like there’s a robot villain factory.”

“Robot villain factory?” Edward asked.

“Because those are the same ones from that one guy that we never heard from again,” she said.

“Nice,” Arclight said. “We did it.”

He had hidden the frigid gun on himself during the confusion.

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