One moment, the Super Fem Force was standing before us. The next, Glorifica and James were gone, shooting into the sky faster than I could react. I had started with my durability at Level 3, but as soon as I realized what Glorifica was holding, I switched all my power to speed.
Unfortunately, she was already moving. My Level 3 was on the Class 4 end of the power scale. Glorifica’s speed in a straight shot went up to Class 5. Even I couldn’t stop her from grabbing James.
Meanwhile, the rest of the battlefield was frozen. I saw the other four members of the SFF suspended in mid-air. Strider’s teleport was truly instant, it seemed, and her reflexes finely honed. She’d pulled off her teleport right as I shifted my power, and sent away the ice column right out from under them.
Fire Fighter was thrusting her hands down, but had a look of panic on her face. Neon, meanwhile, was flailing in the air, glowing brightly. At this speed, I could see what appeared to be an invisible force field around her, reflecting her own beams back into herself. Dragondancer was already growing in size, feathers sprouting off her body, her face already starting to deform and elongate.
Echo, meanwhile, had one foot on the edge of the crater wall we were all standing on. She had been running right towards me. She had Class 2 speed, which matched my baseline, but she also had Class 3 strength and durability on top of that, plus sonic attack powers. At top speed, I was never going to damage her, I couldn’t even sufficiently move her without sacrificing some speed for strength. I could kill her with one hit if I shifted to full strength, but in the moment I did so, her speed would let her dodge every hit.
I had to play this smart. I dropped down to Speed 1 and Durability 2, at least letting me match her in those areas. Now at equal speed, I saw her complete her jump onto the crater wall, and open her mouth to unleash a sonic blast. Her sonic attacks could be omni-directional or concentrate into a single, tightly focused “beam” of cutting vibrations, enough to damage me at this level when she went all out with them. However, instead of hitting me, I heard a vague high-pitched whine as the sonic beam zipped right past my cheek and cut into the ground behind me.
Echo frowned, and I realized she hadn’t meant for that to happen. James must have set something up with her as well, to deflect her attacks.
I dodged to the side and rammed my fist into Echo’s stomach. Without the strength to back it up, it didn’t do any damage, but it did force her charge to halt, and I hooked my foot under hers.
She countered immediately, snagging my arm, spinning to turn my attempt at a trip into a pivoting whirl, and bodily hurled me into the air, sending me flying backwards half a mile. Thus suspended, I was helpless to stop her follow up barrage of super strong punches as she chased after me. I didn’t dare drop my speed, but I couldn’t shift my durability, either. At my current level, her fists felt like normal human fists hitting my normal human body, but Echo could throw a punch like no other woman I’d met. The wind was knocked out of me, paralyzing me for a moment, and her fists rained down pain upon me. I was forced to give up speed for durability again.
She pounded me forward through the air as she ran, juggling me with her punches until we were out over the water, and then further still until we hit dry land a few miles away from the others. At that point, she slammed me into the ground so hard, she made another small crater. Even though the pain had stopped, I could do nothing to resist as she jack-hammered me into the ground with machine-gun punches until I was half-buried. I was lucky she threw me down where there still was dry ground, or I’d be drowning in the flooded areas around us otherwise. She finally stopped, and stood over me victoriously.
I could never keep up with her before. About all I could do was lay here and take it. But she was going to demolish my other teammates if I didn’t keep her busy. I hoped that at least Strider could handle the other three Force members, with Shoggoth and Hitchhiker helping somehow.
“Ugh, you still hit like a bitch,” I said, grinning spitefully up at her.
“Atta girl,” she said. She dropped down and straddled me, pinning my arms to my sides with her legs.
“Ah, jeez,” I said. “I’d love to, honey, but I don’t think this is the time or place to resume our rug-munching match.”
She smirked. “Max, I know this is going to be difficult for you, but just shut up for one minute and listen: I’m on your side.”
I blinked. “What?”
She grinned. “Did you forget I’m the founding Stiletto? When Cero, the woman behind all this, assumed control of the rest of the Force, she used a special device to do it. I’m not entirely sure how it functions, but it uses some unique waveband of energy to trigger memories and activate some kind of war protocol inside the minds of superhumans. I was able to use my sonic vibrations to disrupt the frequency of this energy just enough to cancel it. I’ve been biding my time, waiting for the right moment to strike. That moment is now, but I need your team to back me up.”
“Okay. Well, I’m willing to hear you out, but how do I know this isn’t a ruse to get me to drop my defenses so you can just punch my head off?”
Echo put one hand over my mouth and pinched my nose shut. Her strong grip locked my head in place. She grinned down at me. “If I wanted you dead, Max, I have about a dozen ways to do it, even while you’re at max durability.”
I felt panic well up in me, and I squirmed under her, kicking my legs uselessly. If I dropped durability enough to throw her off, she could easily crush my head. If I kept it up, she would just suffocate me like this. However, after only another second, she let go of my face.
“Frankly, you don’t have much choice right now but to listen,” she said. To at least somewhat reassure me, she got off me, pulled me to my feet, and took a few steps back with her hands up. She was giving me the option to shift my power to speed and run away.
I decided to hear her out. “Alright, then. What’s your plan?”
Despite constantly operating at lower-level super speed, she had trained herself to move naturally at a rate similar to normal people. Her manipulation of sound allowed her to talk at what sounded like a normal pace to others, and she had learned to be patient enough to wait out other’s responses.
Despite this, I let myself match her speed rate, so we could talk swiftly, and at a more comfortable pace for her. Also, so I could at least have a chance to react if she tried to pull anything.
As the Super Fem Force approached us, I had at first thought I would be as good as useless in this fight. This is why I tended to stay out of direct superhuman conflicts; there were almost never any men I could possess.
However, upon a second glance, I realized that one of these women was not like the others. Specifically, the woman in the green robes with golden dragon designs was not, in fact, a woman at all. “She” was incredibly pretty, and passed as female even when she got close enough for me to get a good full look, but she could not trick my aura vision. From the way her essence shimmered, I knew at once that she was a man in drag. I wondered if it was a lifestyle preference, or if she just did it so the SFF could keep their “all-female” image.
Of course, there was no way I would be able to grab her before she activated her powers, which if I recalled correctly, was the ability to transform into powerful dragons. A winged western style dragon, a serpentine eastern dragon, a southern feathered serpent, an oceanic leviathan; most of the classic draconic forms were within her purview. Once transformed, Dragondancer would be the most powerful entity on the battlefield, short of Glorifica and the Earth Mage.
I couldn’t have asked for a better host. I leaned over the Shoggoth and whispered. “Hey, can you do that skin-thread trick to my body? Connect me to the dragon-girl.”
He nodded slightly and grasped my hand. I felt something as thin as a hair extend off my toe and slither across the ground. He didn’t question me, but he seemed to have his eyes locked on Glorifica. She had been his leader once. It had to be strange to be fighting his own former teammates.
Then, with a loud boom and a rush of air, everything happened at once.
Glorifica, the Earth Mage, Echo, and Max-Out vanished. The large ice column was suddenly a quarter mile away, and the three remaining members of the SFF were flailing in the air. Dragondancer was already shifting into something with feathers. Mid-transformation, my skin-thread connected, and I slipped inside “her.”
The first thing I noticed about the body was that she was a post-op transgender. So she basically was a woman, after all. Fair enough. Her genetic code was still male, however, so she was vulnerable to my power.
The second was that, as I pushed the transformation to finish, I felt incredible power swell within me. I quick mental assessment told me that Dragondancer’s human form was nearly powerless, a Class 1 in the three basics of strength, durability and speed. But when she morphed into one of her twenty different draconic forms, she gained amazing boosts to her physicality, as well as some kind of powerful breath attack and enhanced travel ability. Some could spit fire, others a poison mist, others lightning. Some could fly, some could breathe underwater, some could dig through the earth at high speed.
The form she’d been changing into was a feathered serpent, shaped roughly like a western dragon, but with a snake-like head, and covered in a rainbow of colorful feathers. Class 4 strength and durability, flight, venom cloud breath attack. She had better options, but this was pretty great already.
As I completed the shift, I also saw that Fire Fighter and Neon were both trying to use their powers, but failing. Neon was just glowing and flailing in the air. Fire Fighter was uselessly thrusting her hands downwards, no doubt to make the water rise up and catch them, shocked that it wasn’t working. No doubt the Earth Mage had done something to mess with their powers. He really was a big cheat in a fight. I could respect that.
The feathered serpent form was more than enough to handle the two hindered SFF members splashing into the water below me. I had completed my transformation just as I hit the submerged part of the crater wall. As the two women treaded water, I was tall enough to stand on the crater’s bottom and have my neck still tower over them by a dozen feet. My head was nearly as big as my human body had been.
I didn’t waste any time. Their powers could return at any second, while the Earth Mage was occupied with Glorifica, and more to the point, I could already feel the strain of this possession. I snapped my head down and clamped my jaws around Fire Fighter. I crushed her body with an effort, as though trying to bite through a particularly tough slab of meat, but I managed it. I bisected her body between my jaws, and made sure to stab through her head. I spit her out as soon as my teeth connected through her body.
Neon glowed brightly as she attempted to fire her lasers at me, but instead, they just seemed to reflect back on her. Water started boiling around her as the light field grew hot. I shut my eyes through the intense glare and bit down on her body. My teeth chopped right through her with no resistance.
With the two dead, I climbed up the crater wall by reaching up with my right wing and using the clawed finger on the joint to hook onto the wall’s edge. I transformed back to human and started to haul myself up. Shoggoth moved to help me up, but Strider just teleported me onto the flat ground next to her.
“Damn,” I said. “This chick is powerful. She can’t stay in her dragon forms for too long, but some of them can contend with Glorifica.”
“I take it she’s a man, then?” said Shoggoth.
I nodded, then shuddered. “Erg, I don’t know how much longer I can hold this one.”
“I think the Earth Mage went that way,” said Strider. “If you can, turn into her strongest form, and help him out.”
I took a breath, steeled myself, and shifted again, this time into the classic western dragon shape. Long neck, four legs, enormous wings, fire breath. Class 5 strength and durability. Unfortunately, no super speed to speak of. I would have to do something clever to catch Glorifica. Easy enough to pretend I was just coming to back her up, then hit her from behind while James had her distracted. I spread my wings and with a single downward thrust, flew into the sky.
“Well how about that, I was actually useful for once,” I muttered. Not much I could do now, though. We seriously lucked out with Hitchhiker being able to possess the dragon-woman, but there was no way I could keep up with the speeds or strengths that the others fought at.
I looked to Strider. “Pretty scary how fast these fights happen, isn’t it?”
She shrugged. “You get used to it.”
I snorted. “You’re certainly no newbie to this, then.”
“To bounty hunting? Sure. Being surrounded by superhumans trying to kill one another? Old cap.”
It took me a second to figure out what she meant. “Old hat.”
I looked to the sky, where Hitchhiker was heading towards the sound of booming thunder. “I guess we should…”
Suddenly, Max and Echo appeared in front of us. I flinched, instinctively shifting my flesh to harden, even knowing it would be useless. Then I noticed they weren’t fighting.
“Guys, we just lucked out big time,” Max said. “Echo’s been undercover this whole time. She says the Villain Maker’s in Madagascar, and all we gotta do is—” She looked around. “Where’s Hitch?”
“Hitching a ride,” said Strider, pointing to the distance.
“Good,” said Echo. “I was hoping she’d go for her. That’s why I insisted on Dragondancer being with us. She and the Earth Mage combined might be the only ones who can handle Glorifica, of all the people she was willing to spare.”
“You know Hitchhiker?” I said.
Echo nodded. “Sure. I hunted her down myself. Didn’t kill her, though. Of all the Fantasmas, I figured one day I’d have a use for her. And wouldn’t you know it, I was right.”
Max snorted. “Yeah, you usually are.”
Echo chuckled. She looked to me and smiled. “It’s good to see you, again, Doctress.”
I scowled at that. “It’s Shoggoth now,” I said bitterly.
“My apologies,” she said, still smiling.
I couldn’t resist asking, even though I knew I’d regret it. “How did you know?”
“I had a kill order on you, too.”
“Of course you did.”
“I didn’t go through with it, obviously. I just checked up on you now and then.”
Fucking Stiletto. I muttered, “Would have been useless to try anyway.”
She smirked. “I had fifteen people in my network who could have killed you permanently. I let you go because I figured you’d be useful. Like Hitchhiker.” She shrugged. “Also, given how many people you’d saved prior to your freak out, I felt you deserved a second chance.”
I stared at her, not sure if I should be incredulous, insulted, intimidated, or what. I settled on annoyed. “You seem awfully laid back for how serious our situation is.”
She made a calm shrug, still smiling. “When you’re stuck at super speed, you learn how to be patient. And when you see your ad hoc plans coming together nicely, well, it’s a good day.”
“Oh, wow,” said Strider. We turned to see her staring off into the distance. “I think the Earth Mage just had me kill Glorifica.”
The others gawked at me for a second.
“You?” said Echo, eyeing me up. “How?” She seemed like an unusually knowledgeable person. If she had been able to find and keep track of all of us, how much did she know about me?
“What did you do?” said Max.
“He connected me to deep within the Earth, and I teleported her,” I said. I looked down, and couldn’t help but drop my jaw a little. “I think I just dumped her into the core.”
Max blinked. “The core? Of the planet?”
I slowly nodded.
Echo’s eyebrows raised. “Jesus, did James pick a Class 5 team or what?”
A shadow loomed over us. We looked up to see Hitchhiker, still in her dragon form, and the Earth Mage fly down towards us. The Earth Mage landed in a cushion of wind, as Hitchhiker thudded down onto the Earth.
“Guess I wasn’t needed,” she said, her dragonic voice making an intimidating rumble. “Um, I guess I should I turn back to human form, and then one of you punch her head off or something.” She started to shift back, her body shrinking rapidly.
The Earth Mage paused as he looked at Echo. She looked at him back and smiled. “Hey, James,” she said. “Long time.”
“Yeah,” he said, his expression stern and unreadable. He glanced around, then motioned to Max. “I take it she’s not under control?”
“Doesn’t seem that way,” she said. “She also knows where the Villain Maker is. It could be a trap, but frankly, they wouldn’t need one if they wanted us dead.”
“I convinced Cero to let us try and convert you,” Echo said. “Lisa agreed. She suspected it was you who was coming for us. When I saw footage of Hitchhiker at the Kansas bunker, I knew it was you. I kept closer tabs on your activities; I saw a picture of you all together in St. Louis. I couldn’t say I knew, of course, but I acted like I believed Lisa.”
She stepped up to the Earth Mage, holding out her arms, but he took a step back and positioned his staff between them. She pouted. “Hey, come on, don’t I get a hug? I know you were more into Lisa, but we had some fun times, too.”
His expression still stern, he turned away from her. “Tamara, I—”
We would never know what he was about to say. In that very instant, a humanoid figure wrapped in lava exploded from the ground, obliterating the Earth Mage with a single punch. His limbs went flying as his torso and head were reduced to a fine red mist.
Out of instinct, I terraported us a mile away. We stood in knee-deep floodwater and watched as in the distance, a statuesque female figure rose into the air slowly, turning towards us. Cooling lava fell off of her in large fluid chunks, revealing the naked form of Glorifica, her skin only slightly redden from being dumped into the core of the Earth.
“Oh, shit,” said Max. “EVERYBODY SCA—“ Glorifica liquefied her skull in an instant, appearing in our midst faster than I could think to move. Panic welled up inside me as I terraported us all again, this time not stopping at one jump.
I was so used to the Earth Mage super charging my power the past few days that I felt nearly crippled as I was reduced to only a mile at a time. Instead of one giant leap, I started teleporting in a zig-zagging pattern, heading generally south. A few times I heard sonic booms in the near distance and knew Glorifica was occasionally spotting us and following. She then started firing her Stun Ram beams. My jumps were a half-second faster than her reactions, however, and I kept my pattern completely erratic to ensure she couldn’t anticipate where we’d go.
“St! Ri! Der!” I heard Echo yell in the heartbeat between jumps. “To! M! Ad! A! Ga! Sc! Ar!”
“No!” I terraported Hitchhiker next to me on the next jump. She was still in Dragondancer’s body. I yelled into her ear, the world changing around us with each half-syllable. “Ch. An. Ge. To. Yo. Ur. Tou. Ghe. St. Fo. Rm!”
Although disoriented by the constant teleporting, Hitchhiker closed her eyes and concentrated. Over the next hundred jumps, she transformed into an enormous, reptilian behemoth, like some nightmarish cross between a triceratops and a crocodile, but the size of a whale. Then I left her behind for three jumps.
Glorifica took the bait. There was a tremendous boom and a shockwave of crushing force as she slammed into Dragondancer’s behemoth form with all her strength. However, even her Rank A strength could not so easily damage the bestial form’s Rank A durability. She managed to stagger the draconic form causing it to stumble over, but it remained on the ground. Glorifica herself, still hovering a few feet in the air, was momentarily halted in her rushing attack.
A moment was all I needed. I terraported Dragondancer’s huge form into the space Glorifica occupied.
As with Glory, the Knock-Off clone I had killed just days ago in the same way, the two Rank A bodies attempted to displace one another and neither won over the other. After a second of atomic conflict, the two bodies exploded in a shower of gore, with enough force to send us all sprawling.
I was flung into the air, unable to teleport for a moment. When my back hit solid ground, I didn’t bother to get up for a long moment. I stared at the sky until I felt a wet warmth roll down my cheeks.
Funny, after everything I’d seen in New Gondwana, I hadn’t thought I was capable of any more tears.