09 - You Can't Go Home Again

Cataclysm found a ruined office building to spend the night in. There was a couch to crash on, though as exhausted as she was she could have gotten a good night's sleep on a pile of nails and broken glass. The next morning she got breakfast out of the shattered vending machine. Candy and potato chips weren't very filling but it would get her back home. She stuffed her pockets with some more candy bars and started back to Westside.

The closer she got to home the better she felt. Her neighborhood might be a shithole, but it was her shithole. Seeing buildings falling apart from urban decay was a refreshing change from seeing buildings falling apart from alien attacks. She sighed happily when she saw the first group of Maniacs, a man and a woman hanging out on one of the corners at the edge of their territory. "Hey, guys," she called out as she approached. "How are things in crazyland?"

The pair didn't respond, just turned away. Cataclysm was baffled by that, but was in too good a mood to get mad at it. Who knows what was bothering them.

She headed to the basketball courts to find Pyro. She passed other Maniacs and greeted some, but they all just gave her sour looks. She frowned. What had happened when she was gone? Maybe the gang had lost some people in a skirmish or something.

Cataclysm arrived at the basketball courts and spotted Pyro with a group of about eight other Maniacs. They quickly stopped talking as Cataclysm came up. Cataclysm said, "Shit, you would not believe the day I had yesterday." The group shifted uncomfortably and nobody responded. Cataclysm looked around and realized all the Maniacs nearby were either pointedly not looking at her or giving her hostile stares. "Okay, what the fuck is going on?"

The others in the group all looked at Pyro. She wouldn't meet Cataclysm's gaze but said, "I think you should go see Zoe."

"Why?" Cataclysm asked suspiciously. Pyro didn't answer. Cataclysm grabbed her arm. "Hey, Pyro. What's up?"

Pyro shook off her hand. "I think you should go see Zoe," she said again and walked away. The rest of the group went with her, leaving Cataclysm standing alone. Cataclysm's good mood had evaporated and been replaced with a simmering anger. Obviously nobody was going to talk to her until she saw Zoe so she headed for the gang headquarters.

The Maniacs who stood outside the place glared at her but stepped aside to let her in. Inside she got the same cold shoulder she'd gotten on the street. She headed for the common room where Zoe was waiting for her with a half-dozen of her most loyal minions. Someone had probably run ahead to warn her.

"What the fuck is going on?" Cataclysm demanded. "Why is everyone treating me like I'm something that crawled out of the crapper?"

"What are you doing in our territory, little firefly?" Zoe asked in the sickly sweet voice she used when someone was in deep shit.

"Um, I live here."

"Oh that couldn't possibly be true. This is Maniac territory."

"And I'm a Manaic," Cataclysm said hotly.

"No, you're not!" Zoe snapped, her fake sweetness replaced with real anger. "You left us, remember? You abandoned us to go play with the capes!"

"I left to save us! And I did."

"Oh really, all by yourself? Did you save the city? Did you knock the big scary ship out of the sky like you said you would?"

Cataclysm opened her mouth to answer but knew they wouldn't believe her even if she was willing to own up to her role in things. "I fought a threat to the Maniacs. I defended our turf. I saved your ass."

"No! You left us. You abandoned us when we needed you. Maniacs stand together, and if you ran out then you aren't one of us."

Cataclysm stormed forward, her hands flaming, and opened her mouth to retort but suddenly the tension in the room rose palpably as she heard the sound of many guns being cocked. Zoe watched her smugly as Cataclysm ran through the possibilities in her mind. She knew she hadn't done anything wrong, but she also knew being right and winning were different things.

Cataclysm let the flames around her hands die. She turned and stalked out of the building.

"This is Pyro. Leave a message."

Cataclysm hung up without speaking. After four days, a dozen phone calls, several texts and three phone messages it was time to accept the truth. She hadn't bothered trying any of the other Maniacs. If Pyro wasn't talking to her then nobody was.

She stood in an alleyway and watched the crews a block away clear rubble. They had construction equipment but they also had a lot of supers helping them. It took her a while to find Witchcraft among all the people, but she eventually saw the green dress and red hair in the crowd. She had come to Downtown because she had heard on the news that Witchcraft was helping rebuild areas near the Magic Lantern Bookstore.

Cataclysm watched her for a long time, debating about whether to go ahead or not. She realized Witchcraft was using an array of spells to help the work along and that piqued her curiosity. She decided to get closer to watch the rituals better so joined the crowd at the edge of the site. The crowd was pretty good sized, probably because of Witchcraft. She was quite a celebrity and crowds often gathered when she did things in the city. That bothered Cataclysm because she had hoped to approach the woman alone.

She had a better view of Witchcraft as she worked. Cataclysm watched her as she cast spells, trying to understand what she was doing and how it related to her ability to sling fire, but it just seemed like gibberish and random gestures. She couldn't learn anything just by watching. She glanced at the cops manning the lines and they obviously weren't going to let her in. This had been a waste of time.

Then again she had nowhere to go. Without daily life in the Maniacs she was at loose ends. So she continued to watch Witchcraft, hoping to pick up some little kernel of knowledge.

At one point Witchcraft did a sort of double take and then stared in Cataclysm's direction. She stood there looking at the crowd for a long time. Cataclysm thought about waving but figured Witchcraft was probably looking at something else. Witchcraft cast a spell and then Cataclysm heard her voice in her ear. "Cataclysm, is that you? I can hear you if you whisper."

Cataclysm jumped at the voice and looked around to see if anyone else could hear it. They were all watching the construction crews and ignoring her. "Yeah, it's me," she whispered softly.

"I'll tell them to let you in."

"No," she said loudly, getting a few stares from people near her.

"Ah, I see. You don't want to be seen talking to me."

"Well, yeah, kind of," Cataclysm whispered back. "No offense."

"No, no, I understand. Look to your right. You see those two bulldozers?"


"I have a feeling that the fence there will suddenly develop a hole. You could slip through unseen. I'll meet you over there. Okay?"


Cataclysm walked around the edge of the lot. Sure enough there was a large hole in the chain link fence that sealed up after she'd gone through. She heard someone approaching and saw Witchcraft come around one of the bulldozers. "Hi," she said with a bright smile. She held out a bottle of water, which Cataclysm took out of reflex more than thirst, and then Witchcraft took a deep drink out of her own bottle. "Phew, thirsty work." She motioned to a pile of lumber and both women sat.

Cataclysm decided to dive in. "I've been thinking about what you said. About me getting a teacher. I don't really know how to find one so I thought you might be able to recommend one."

Witchcraft nodded slowly. "Certainly. I can think of several who would fit the bill." She paused. "Or maybe I could teach you. If you're willing."

"You?" Cataclysm asked suspiciously. "Why?"

"It would be quite interesting to know an intuitive fire mage. I've known only a couple of intuitives in my life. I think we would both learn a lot."

Cataclysm studied her and said, "No, this is bullshit. There's no way you'd teach a gang member magic."

"Not as a rule, no. But I would be willing to teach someone who recovered city defense documents at great personal risk, who stood in defense of Champions Headquarters, who lead a bold charge into a horde of alien soldiers, and who personally rescued a woman trapped well behind enemy lines, several paramedics..." She smirked. "...and a cat."

Cataclysm was embarrassed. "I was just taking care of myself. All the rest of that just got in the way." She took a drink from the bottle.

"Don't sell yourself short. You went out of your way to help people-"

Cataclysm jumped to her feet. "Look, I'm not some caped do-gooder running around rescuing..." She almost said 'cats from trees' but changed it to, "...kids from wells. I'm a vicious gang bitch who's committed more felonies than the cops know about. I'm the kind of person people like you throw into jail. Don't act like we're on the same side!"

"We were a few days ago," Witchcraft said softly.

"That was different! Are you saying that if I run out and steal some old lady's purse, you're going to turn a blind eye? Or if I use these powers you claim you want to teach me to rob a bank you're going to pat me on the head and give me an A+ for an extracurricular project? You're one of the good guys. I'm one of the bad guys. It's simple."

"Not really," Witchcraft said, unruffled by Cataclysm's tirade. "I know people try to divide the world neatly into boxes--light and dark, good and evil, hero and villain--but reality is more complicated than that. We all have lightness and darkness in us. I'm not blind to your past but I'd rather judge you by who you are and not the company you keep."

"And you think you know who I am?" Cataclysm sneered.

"I know enough. You are loyal to your friends. You are ruthless to your enemies, and yet you have negotiated peaceful alternatives to fighting numerous times. You try to avoid civilian casualties. You see the Maniacs as a community to be supported, not as stepping stones in a path to power. You are also bright, curious and were a good student before you dropped out of school."

Cataclysm frowned. "All that's in my police file?"

"I have no idea. I have other sources of information. Cataclysm, I understand your suspicions about my motives but you need to realize that I was a student of magic long before I joined the Champions. You may be a Maniac but that's not all you are, and being a Champion is not all I am either. I genuinely wish to teach you, but if you would prefer someone else I can give you the names of several wonderful tutors."

Cataclysm studied her for a while. "And if I use these spells you teach me to commit crimes?"

Witchcraft shrugged. "Then I would feel obligated to stop you, especially since I was the one who gave you power. But I would also be very surprised."

Frustrated, Cataclysm asked, "Why? You say you know my past, so why would you be surprised if I act the same in the future?"

"Because I believe the reason you are on this path is because you had no choice. I hope to show you there are other ways to live your life."

"So you are trying to turn me into your pet hero."

"No. I'm just offering you choices. How about this. Try it for one week." With a twinkle in her eye she said, "For one week I promise I won't try to turn you into my 'pet hero', and you promise not to-"

"Eat your face off?" Cataclysm said wistfully.

Witchcraft looked confused. "Well, no, I was going to say 'rob a bank'. Facetiously of course. But yours works too."

Cataclysm shrugged. "Inside joke."

"Will you give me a chance? You can quit any time you want to."

Cataclysm debated the idea. The offer seemed to be genuine. Witchcraft was well known as a powerful spellcaster so could probably show her things Cataclysm couldn't even imagine. She really couldn't come up with a single reason to refuse.

"Where would we do this?"

"I suggest Champions Headquarters. We have training facilities there that will make it easier to test what I teach you. There are entrances more discreet than the front doors so you don't need to worry about your friends seeing you come in. But if you want, we could do it somewhere you feel more comfortable."

Again Cataclysm debated and then said, "No, I guess we could try Champions."

It was several days before the first lesson. Witchcraft was busy on reconstruction projects all over the city, and a few villains had tried to take advantage of the chaos so the heroes were extra busy. Eventually she found the time and invited Cataclysm to meet her inside the Champions building. Witchcraft led her through the building, past a sign reading "Danger Rooms" and into a large, empty chamber.

"I wanted to start with a demonstration," she said. "Many of our lessons will involve drills and fundamentals. Frankly, though they are necessary to a full understanding of magic, they're also pretty boring. So I wanted to start with something dramatic and fun, which will also serve as a cautionary example. I've set the danger room to maximum safety so neither of us will be injured by what you are about to do."

Cataclysm eyed her. "Okay, you've caught my interest. What am I going to do?"

Witchcraft reached out and an object appeared in her hand. She handed it to Cataclysm. "Do you know what this is?"

Cataclysm looked at it. "Of course. It's a magical firestarter."

"Ignite it, please," she said with a slightly mischievous look.

Suspiciously, Cataclysm said, "Is this a gag? Some kind of hazing ritual? It's rigged, right?"

"No, no tricks. I promise. But, if I'm right about you, there will be a bit of a surprise."

Cataclysm frowned and held the thing at arm's length. She pressed the activation jewel and the firestarter exploded into a massive ball of fire that swept through the room. Even though she had been expecting something, Cataclysm was stunned. She turned to Witchcraft angrily. Before she could start yelling she felt the device burning her hand and she dropped it. She looked down and saw that it was a twisted lump of metal.

"And that," said Witchcraft, "is how your house burned down."

It took Cataclysm a moment to form the words. "What the fuck just happened?"

"Your innate connection to fire magic means you get a much better response from items enchanted with fire magic. Have you come into contact with other magical items since that day?"

Cataclysm thought for a second. "No," she said slowly. "The Red Banners mess with magic. Maniacs are more about guns and chainsaws."

"It's just as well. Although non-fire items are safe, you should definitely avoid fire-enchanted devices." Witchcraft raised a cautionary finger. "And before you think this would be a powerful weapon, understand that your lack of control means you would hurt yourself or your allies with the explosion."

"But I wasn't hurt," Cataclysm said. "That day in the house, I mean. Although I've been hurt by fire since then so maybe it was coincidence."

"Maybe not. It's possible that you instinctively protected yourself since you were in such danger and other fires haven't been severe enough to trigger that same response. Still, even if that was what happened, you shouldn't trust that it will save you. If you are wrong you could die. Later you will learn how to reliably call up defenses against attacks, especially against fire, but for now you are as vulnerable as anyone."

"All right, then let's get started."