10 - School's In Session

I'm standing outside The Fight Club, a bar in Westside that was raided by police earlier this evening. MCPD units backed by MARS teams entered the club just after nine o'clock and arrested a number of figures, including Frank "Full Frankie" Zaretti who is rumored to be the leader of the Cobra Lords gang. A spokesperson for MCPD said they had been tipped off that Zaretti was allegedly running an illegal pitfighting ring that allowed guests to bet on the outcome of brutal battles between superpowered contestants, battles that led to serious injuries or even death. In addition to Zaretti, police also arrested individuals who have been identified so far only as The Mechanic, Professor Annihilator and Black Mace. This is Julie Morgan reporting for WCOC news. Back to you, Rob.

Cataclysm stood in a parking lot surrounded by heavy industrial buildings. The air stank from the pollution. Paper and other garbage littered the parking lot. She faced one building in particular, a squat construct of graffiti-tagged concrete that was about eighty feet away. Five metal doors were set in the front of the building and as she watched they slid open. Behind each door was a robot armed with an energy sword. The robots marched out in lock step, and as each cleared the doorway another robot appeared behind it. The army of metal men marched towards her steadily and she blasted them with bolts of fire. Each blast felled one but they were coming too fast to be defeated by these slow spells. When they had crossed about half the distance between them, Cataclysm started to recite a new spell. She felt the fire come into her and flung out her arms. A cone of flame shot out, bathing the front line of robots. They marched into the flame resolutely but the heat proved too much for them and they fell. Behind them were more, but they too collapsed under the onslaught of flame.

After a few seconds, Cataclysm was too tired to maintain the roaring holocaust and dropped her arms. She tossed a few fire bolts at the approaching metal horde, a simple spell that re-established her connection with the elemental source of fire. Soon she felt energized enough to lay down another arc of fire and again the hordes fell, but they were closer now. Not only that but they were spreading out. She rotated at the waist, spraying fire over the robots, but the time it took to overwhelm one side of the line gave the other side time to approach. And still the factory continued to belch out clanking warriors.

Again she weakened, and again she had to spatter them with a few weak fire spells while she drew the elemental flame into herself. She grew anxious as she bathed the robots with a third sheet of flame. There seemed to be no end to them and they grew closer in an infuriatingly steady pounding of perfectly-synchronized footfalls. She took a few steps back to give her a bit more time to destroy them as they slowly advanced, but there was a wall only a few feet behind her. There was nowhere to run and the factory produced more and more of them. Desperately she poured more fire into them, but for every one that fell there was another, two more, a hundred more. Too soon they were close enough to raise their swords. She threw up quick defensive spells to divert the energy blades, but there were too many of them. She felt them penetrate her arm, her side, her leg. She was overwhelmed and collapsed to the asphalt as dozens of the blades stabbed and slashed into her body.

The robots faded out. Footsteps clicked across the pavement. Witchcraft walked over and squatted down next to her body. "That was wrong," she said.

"Leave me alone," said Cataclysm. "I'm dead."

"That's not going to get you out of the lesson."

"Slave driver." Cataclysm got to her feet, stretching the aches out of her muscles. The danger room had been set on stun, but the pain was real enough. Witchcraft explained that was so she'd react reflexively to being "injured" in the simulations. "So what the fuck was that supposed to teach me? Life sucks?"

Witchcraft smiled. "Not exactly. The goal is to teach you that not every problem can be overcome with force. A problem common to those new to superpowers is to try to blast everything. This tactic may work in most of your battles, but it also breeds sloppiness. It's easy to get into a pattern of enemy-bam-enemy-bam-enemy-bam, and then to fall apart once you face an opponent who doesn't fall to your first spell. You need to look at the entire battle, look for weaknesses and exploit them. You can take down a much more powerful foe by finding his Achilles heel."

Cataclysm frowned. She knew that. She had given the same lesson to new Maniacs. Witchcraft shouldn't have had to tell her that. "Play back the recording."

Witchcraft gave the order, and the computer played back a hologram of the battle. Cataclysm watched herself fight, watched the robots approached, watched them overwhelm her. When it was done she had learned nothing. "I don't get it," she had to admit. "If it was one big guy I'd look for weaknesses, but how do you find a hole in a horde of a thousand robots?"

"You're focused on the wrong thing," Witchcraft offered.

Cataclysm was frustrated but knew if Witchcraft just gave her the answer she'd learn nothing. "Play it again." She watched the battle again, but this time didn't look at the robots. She looked at the rest of the area. She looked at the building. Could she jam the doors? Block the robots so more couldn't come? Move to a better position? Hell, even run away?

Then she spotted it. "Got it," she said. "Run it again."

Witchcraft exited the danger room and in a few seconds the industrial park was back. Cataclysm stood there, arms crossed, and watched the factory doors open. The robots started marching out and Cataclysm didn't move. Soon there were a couple of hundred of laser-sword-armed metal men marching on her but she remained still. Finally, when the nearest robots were about ten feet off, Cataclysm spread out her arms. However instead of an arc of flame, she shot two streams of fire. They streaked out over the heads of the robots and burned into the concrete of the factory behind them. She moved her arms to walk the flames along the face of the factory until each was directed at a metal box. The boxes started to smoke as the nearest robots raised their swords. The swords came down and boxes both exploded in a shower of sparks. The robots froze, one sword stopping about an inch from Cataclysm's face. The scene faded out.

Witchcraft entered. "A little flashy for my taste," she said. "I know you were showing off because it's a simulation, but be careful. Tricks like are fine in the movies but they get you hurt in real life. You should have taken out the control boxes immediately."

"Oh I know. But you gotta admit it looked cool."

Witchcraft grinned. "Yes. It looked cool."

Cataclysm chuckled and the two women exited the danger room. Over the two months they'd been training, Cataclysm had been surprised to find she liked Witchcraft. Sure, they had different philosophies about some things, but they also seemed to have similar personalities. Witchcraft wasn't the stuck-up, pretentious hero Cataclysm had expected. She didn't lecture about morality or law or any of that crap. In fact she seemed to understand hard life on the streets, which made Cataclysm curious about her past.

In addition Witchcraft was an excellent teacher. Cataclysm had expected Witchcraft would immediately show her new ways to blast stuff with fire like she had on that day of the Qularr invasion, but instead she had started with magical basics. Cataclysm had learned an array of minor spells: defense, binding and unbinding, divination, healing and more. She wasn't especially strong with any of them, but they gave her a fundamental understanding of spells and rites and how magic itself worked. It was like signing up for a firearms course and learning about combustion chemistry and gun manufacture in addition to shooting at targets.

Cataclysm loved it. As Witchcraft had pointed out early on, Cataclysm had been an excellent student. She played it down after joining the Maniacs and she hadn't realized how much she missed studying and learning. Witchcraft gave her plenty of exercises to try at home, and Cataclysm spent most of her day training and becoming stronger.

As the day's lesson had demonstrated, Witchcraft believed brains were more important than power. She emphasized finesse and control first, saying that strength would come later. On their first day, after the dramatic firestarter demonstration, Witchcraft had asked Cataclysm to use her magic to light a candle. Cataclysm had attempted to do so but managed only to blast the candle to smithereens. No matter how hard she tried she couldn't get less than full power. Witchcraft had explained that incendiary magic involved connecting with Fire--Cataclysm could hear the capital "F" when she said it. Fire was the fundamental, elemental force that all other flames were weak reflections of. It was easy to let Fire flow, but harder to control it than other magics. Today Cataclysm could not only light a candle, but she could light a candle floating in a pool of gasoline and surrounded by sheets of tissue paper without burning anything else.

It wasn't all theory and control exercises. As Cataclysm gained general skill with magic, Witchcraft had taught her more powerful spells, such as the cone of flame she had used in the danger room. But that wasn't the best thing Cataclysm had learned. Witchcraft had taught her to fly.

Witchcraft would be quick to correct her, saying she had taught her to levitate. Flight magic was much more difficult. However once she was floating Cataclysm could use blasts of fire to push herself along. There might be technical differences between that and true flight, but when Cataclysm was rocketing across the skies of Millenium City leaving a blazing trail in her wake she didn't care about the distinction.

Cataclysm broke out of her reverie when Witchcraft said, "I was wondering if I could ask you a favor."

"Sure," said Cataclysm. She looked at Witchcraft and realized the other woman looked uncomfortable.

Hesitantly Witchcraft said, "I want to emphasize this is a favor. It's not that you owe me anything for our lessons. It's certainly not an order. If you don't feel comfortable with this, I won't be bothered if you refuse."

"What is it?" Cataclysm asked suspiciously.

"I've received some information that there is something going on in Westside. Something involving the gangs. I thought maybe, since you have connections in that area of the city, you might be able to find something out."

"I'm not selling out my friends," Cataclysm said sharply.

"No, no, no," Witchcraft said quickly. "Of course not. I don't condone the actions of the Maniacs, but I respect your loyalty to them. I would never ask you to betray that."

"Okay. Sorry." Although her relationship with Witchcraft had become more relaxed, Cataclysm knew she got hyper-defensive any time she thought Witchcraft was hinting about being a hero. She still didn't really understand why Witchcraft was teaching her, other than trying to recruit another cape for the city. "Go ahead."

"The problem is with the New Purple Gang. You know who Wayland Talos is?"

Cataclysm paused. Witchcraft was involved with law enforcement. "Never heard of him. Certainly I have no idea that he's an inventor and armorer who sells weapons to the Westside gangs."

Witchcraft gave her a small smile. "Of course not. Well the Purple Gang has apparently enlisted Talos's aid exclusively on some special project."

"What kind of project?"

Witchcraft shrugged. "That's all we know. It's not much, which is why I wondered if you could ask around."

Cataclysm knew that if it was something big then it could tip the balance among the gangs and put the Maniacs in danger. "I'm not sure how much help I'd be. My friends aren't really talking to me anymore."

Witchcraft said, "If you'd prefer, I'll just turn the tip over to MCPD."

Cataclysm thought about it and then said, "Nah. Cops'll just screw it up. I'll see what I can find out."