16 - A Loft Cause

Cataclysm ached as she walked the streets of Westside. The thing about magical healing is that it was really a stopgap measure, only a bit longer term than the healing patches paramedics used. It got you back in the fight but at some point you had to go rest and let your body actually mend. But not tonight. Tonight she had an appointment. As she passed under a streetlight she looked again at the piece of paper she had pulled off Seven Fingers. She had Google Mapped the area and recognized it. It was an abandoned industrial plant. The place had been empty as long as she'd been on Westside. It was in an area contested by both Maniacs and Black Aces so was considered no man's land to both.

It was nearing midnight, the time listed on the invitation. She had planned to be there early but had fallen asleep after too many beers. Cataclysm had never been good at waiting. She was fine now, but annoyed she hadn't had a chance to watch people arrive.

She kept to the shadows as she neared the place. Not only did she not want whoever was in the plant to see her coming, it would also be bad for Black Aces to see a Maniac in the area. The maze of shipping containers made it easy enough to stay out of sight as she approached the old factory. She used her levitation to help her climb to the top of one of the stacks of containers, propelling herself with her hands rather than fire blasts. It allowed her to move silently and stealthily to a high point that overlooked the area. She lay on her stomach and crawled forward until she could see the place.

Cataclysm looked over the place with binoculars. It didn't take her long to see her first problem. The place was guarded but that wasn't the issue. It was guarded by Maniacs. She watched them for a long time, wondering if they had just shown up for whatever the event was, but it was obvious they were actually standing sentry. Some other people arrived, all in street clothes, and they were greeted and waved into the building by the Maniacs.

Cataclysm was sure what was happening. Zoe was forming an alliance with the Canadian gang. It might seem like a good idea on the surface but Cataclysm knew it would blow up in her face. Zoe never understood concepts like subtlety or keeping a low profile. Cataclysm debated, reluctant to interfere with gang business, but this looked like it might get out of hand. She backed away from the edge and climbed back down to ground level.

Cataclysm stepped out from cover and openly approached the factory. The guards out front didn't react at first--she was just another Maniac. But as she got close enough to recognize, they suddenly straightened up. Hands went to weapons but none were drawn. Cataclysm was careful not to act threatening.

She looked over the group and saw several new faces--had she been gone that long? She recognized a couple of people but nobody she had been close to. She thought about asking them what was going on, but either they wouldn't answer or they would and would get into trouble with Zoe. They all stood in silence for a few seconds until one of the guys said, "Private party. Get out of here."

Cataclysm turned to him. "Is Zoe in there?" He didn't answer. "I want to talk to her. I'm going in." The Maniacs shuffled uncertainly at that. Cataclysm sighed. "Did she tell you keep me out?"

"No," he said uncertainly. "Other gangs and cops."

Cataclysm certainly didn't want to start a fight. "I just want to talk to her. No harm, right?"

"I guess not," he said slowly. "Yeah, okay. Make it quick."

"Thanks," she said with a grateful smile. She wasn't sure what she would have done if they'd stood in her way.

Inside she followed the sound of music and voices until she came into some kind of large room. It contained a few pieces of rusting machinery but was mostly open. The room was illuminated by a couple dozen metal barrels, filled with trash and burning brightly. Cataclysm hoped there wasn't going to be a fight, but the sight of so much fire made her feel better about a fight should one break out. There were also about thirty people, not Maniacs, hanging around the place drinking and talking.

At one end of the room was a crude stage. On the wall behind was a huge poster of Zoe with the word INSANITY scrawled across it. Zoe was on stage, strutting around like she was a dog in a show. She was dressed differently than Cataclysm had seen her, wearing a long leather coat and black boots, a submachine gun dangling at her side. Her clothing looked new and expensive. Zoe was moving up in the world. Cataclysm shook her head. Zoe always had an ego, but it had barely been kept in check. Until now at least.

Also on stage were a half dozen Maniacs including Rid Len and Pyro. This was the first time Cataclysm had seen her old friend in months and she was overwhelmed by all the emotions she was feeling. Pyro's presence just complicated the situation, and Cataclysm wasn't sure what to do. But there was something else on stage that worried her: a man in a cage. She had a sick feeling she knew who the man was.

Cataclysm hung in the back of the room so the Maniacs wouldn't see her. The people coming in did, but they assumed she was another Maniac and ignored her or greeted her offhandedly. Cataclysm was trying to decide what to do when Zoe stopped strutting around and walked up to the microphone at the front of the stage.

"Is everybody having fun?" she shouted. Everyone whooped in response.

"You're probably all wondering why we've brought you here. Well first, to have a party. It's always the right time for a party!" Everyone cheered again and Zoe glowed in the attention. "But I have more to offer you. You've all come down from Canada at just the right time. Your people and my people have gotten together to make you a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Big things are happening...big forces are joining together and that means big heroes are going down. I know you want to be part of the mayhem! Join the Maniacs! You don't have to be crazy...but it helps!" She threw her head back and launched into a shrieking cackle. The crowd ate it up, shouting and chanting her name.

"I have a special gift to welcome you to our country." She motioned to the cage behind here. "The guest of honor at our celebration tonight is a local celebrity: County Prosecutor George Kruger. Give it up everybody!" She started applauding but the crowd booed and threw bottles that shattered against his cage. Kruger cowered in the corner, covering his face.

"Kruger here has put a lot of my friends in jail," she said, and the crowd booed again. "And I'm sure if any of your friends were down here on vacation, he booted them back across the border. Well, here's what we're going to do. We are going use him as a piñata. We are going to hang him from that beam up there," she pointed at a metal structural support, "and then beat him with sticks until he breaks open and his guts pour out!" She cackled again as the crowd cheered and hollered.

Cataclysm felt sick, not over what Zoe had planned for Kruger but what it would do to the Maniacs. She wanted to leave, forget she'd ever seen this, but she couldn't. Zoe was out of control. She had to be stopped. Cataclysm stepped forward into the room until she caught Zoe's eye.

"Well, well, well," Zoe said with false cheeriness. "Look at what we have here. Another special guest has graced us with her presence. Don't let her costume fool you. She may look like one of us, but," Zoe's voice dropped into a snarl, "she's not!" She went back to her cheerful delivery. "Poor little firefly. It's such a sad story. You know how it is, you try to raise your kids right and then they start hanging out with the wrong crowd. You know people like," she sneered, "cops and Champions."

The mob booed and started to crowd in on Cataclysm. She was surprised by the Champions crack. Apparently her visits to Witchcraft hadn't been as covert as she had thought. It hardly mattered now. Zoe continued, "I'll tell you what. Before we play piñata, let's play another game." Once again her voice changed to a snarl as she said, "It's called 'Kill The Cape!'"

The pack of thugs roared and descended on Cataclysm. She wasn't too worried. She had looked at them while coming in and none of them seemed to be armed with anything other than pipes, chains and bottles. She drew in the fire from the burning barrels and spewed it out into the crowd. She felt fists and crude weapons pounding at her, but she just whirled and spread flame across the mob as it closed in. A few hung back to fling bottle or bricks, but she hammered them with bolts and they went down too. The whole battle took only about a minute and, though she was bloodied and bruised at the end, she'd had worse. Hell she'd had worse earlier that same day.

As Cataclysm fumbled for a healing patch, Zoe came down the stairs giving her a sarcastic slow clap. The others stayed up on the stage. Cataclysm had been happy that the Maniacs had stayed out of the battle. She didn't want to fight them but she was afraid she was about to have no choice.

"Bravo, firefly," Zoe said. "You have learned some new tricks. I'm impressed." Zoe reached into her coat and Cataclysm brought her hands up in a ready stance. Zoe stopped her reach and used her other hand to pull open her coat and reveal a pack of cigarettes. Cataclysm nodded at her and relaxed, but only slightly. Zoe pulled out the pack, tapped out a cigarette and put it in her mouth. With a gesture Cataclysm lit it up. Zoe raised her eyebrows as she sucked the cigarette into life. "Lots of new tricks," she observed.

Zoe smoked and watched her. Cataclysm waited. She wasn't sure what she was going to do here. She'd never raised a hand against a Maniac, well not in any serious way anyhow. Zoe said, "You know, firefly, maybe I was rash. Maybe, just maybe, I shouldn't have been so quick to push you out of our little family. It seems that someone like you might go very far in our organization, especially with the exciting changes coming up."

Cataclysm said nothing. Zoe took another drag. "Tell me, firefly, what's it like on the outside? Do you like your new life as a hero? Beating up Purples and Red Banner? Some people even say you were the one who took down Ludwig and Zaretti." Cataclysm didn't bother denying the charge; Zoe would believe whatever she wanted.

"Do the people love you, firefly? Do they cheer you and hold parades? Or do they recoil in fear and run away, even after you've helped them? Do your cop friends smile and pat you on the back and invite you over for weekend barbecues? Or do they watch you suspiciously, hands on the butts of their guns, waiting for you to do something so they can throw you in jail? What do you think they'd do if they knew some of the things I know about you?"

Cataclysm was surprised how much her words stung. She'd lived her life not caring what people thought, or at least that was what she'd believed. But she also remembered how people had feared her when she helped them during the invasion. Among the other Maniacs, she'd thrived on the looks of fear she got from people who walked by. But out there on her own, well, somewhere along the line it had stopped being fun. It just isolated her.

"Come back to us, firefly," Zoe said. "Oh you'll have to learn to obey orders, but there is still a place here for you. By my side. What is waiting for you out there? Who out there cares about you? Certainly not your cape friends." She laughed. "They'd throw you in jail as soon as look at you."

Anger flared in Cataclysm and she whirled on Zoe. "No," she said. "No, they are the only ones who accepted me as I am. Good and bad. You want me to come back, but only as your little dog. By your side? Ha! At your feet you mean."

Zoe studied her, absently crinkling the half-empty cigarette pack she still held in her hand. She turned and started to walk slowly away. Over her shoulder she said in a sickeningly sweet voice, "Why are you here, firefly? If you aren't here to come back to us, are you maybe here to stop us?"

Cataclysm knew why she was there. She didn't want to say it out loud but she had to. "I'm not here to stop the Maniacs. I'm here to stop you."

Zoe had wandered over to one of the machines and was studying it as though it were the most fascinating thing in the world. "Me? Why me?" she asked casually.

"Because you are bad for the gang." Now that she'd admitted it, Cataclysm found her reluctance fading. She wanted get this over with. "Shit like this!" she said, waving at Kruger. "What the fuck do you think the cops are going to do if you kill Kruger?"

Zoe sighed theatrically. "Oh yes I remember. How does the speech go?" She put on a child's voice. "It's bad to kill cops, mommy."

"Yes!" Cataclysm insisted, taking a step forward as the anger rose in her. "You don't kill cops. You beat the shit out of them, fine, but you stop short at killing them. One dead cop just brings a hundred pissed off cops. You don't kill bystanders because that gets the fat politicians off their asses to go after the gangs and seem tough on crime. You kill the gangs. Period. Nobody cares about gang-on-gang violence. They talk about it, but deep down they want us to kill each other. You spread out slowly, killing other gangs, but never killing cops or bystanders. Then, when you are too strong to stop, then you can do what you want. But no, you always have your half-assed grandstand ego plays. Murdering a prosecutor? Every goddamn cop in the county will work round the clock to see you in prison for the rest of your life. That is bad for the Maniacs!"

Zoe turned to her, the mostly-burned cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. She pointed at Cataclysm with the pack of cigarettes. "And what are you going to do about it?"

Cataclysm said, "Walk away, Zoe. Step down voluntarily." Zoe laughed at her. Cataclysm shook her head. "Don't do this. I beat Poe. You aren't as strong as he was. You'll lose."

Zoe slipped the pack of cigarettes back into her coat. "Perhaps. But I have one advantage over puny, purple Poe." She grinned evilly and suddenly Cataclysm realized she had put the cigarettes back into the other side of her coat. She spotted the remote control coming out as Zoe said, "I cheat."

Cataclysm threw up a defensive spell as the dynamite went off. The concussion knocked her off her feet and left her ears ringing. Zoe started cackling madly as she grabbed her submachine gun and sprayed the area with bullets. Cataclysm crawled behind some machinery, cursing herself for forgetting who she was fighting. Zoe was notorious for booby traps.

Cataclysm took a look at the other Maniacs up on the stage. They were still standing there, uncertain what to do. "Stay out of this!" Cataclysm shouted at them, and then popped up to spray fire where Zoe was. Or at least where she had been. She was nowhere to be seen and Cataclysm ducked down behind cover again.

Cataclysm knew her defensive magic was strongest against elemental spells. It could slow bullets and knives, but a burst from a submachine gun at close range would still kill her. She peered out and then pulled her head back as a hail of bullets peppered the area. But she'd seen where Zoe was.

She reached out and shot fire in Zoe's direction to keep her head down, and then she popped up. Zoe came up to shoot and Cataclysm sent a sheet of flame her way. Zoe ducked back down, unhurt. Cataclysm used the chance to break cover and circle around, trying to get a clear shot.

Zoe was also moving. Cataclysm fired a shot as Zoe darted from one machine to the next but she missed cleanly. She followed Zoe through the maze of manufacturing equipment, firing when she could but mostly trying to stay under cover. Zoe wasn't firing back which made it easier to advance. She caught sight of Zoe past a pair of machines and fired, and this time she heard Zoe cry out. Pressing her attack, Cataclysm charged down the narrow space between the two contraptions. She felt a tug at her ankle and with a sudden burst of insight threw herself back. The spear of rusty metal triggered by the tripwire left a deep gash in her arm rather than impaling her. Zoe popped up and fired and it was only luck that Cataclysm got under cover before a bullet hit her.

The pain in her arm was excruciating and she couldn't concentrate on a healing spell. She pulled out another healing patch, her last, and slapped it against her good arm. The pain killers worked quickly and Cataclysm was on the move again. She was still bleeding badly but now she was able to clear her mind enough to pull warmth from the burning barrels and direct it to the gash. The bleeding stopped, but the wound was still open and tender.

Cataclysm couldn't fight this on Zoe's terms. She might have a hundred traps through the place. She had to change this to a fight on her terms. She stood up and called up all the fire she could, bathing the factory floor in an inferno. There was a lot of metal and concrete in the place, but there was also a fair amount of old grease and oil and just enough flammable material to catch and burn.

Cataclysm caught movement but, instead of sending fire that way, she sent fire to the side. She started herding Zoe towards a corner. Zoe fired bursts now and then, but Cataclysm was far enough away that she trusted her defensive magic to deflect the bullets. She kept the pressure up and soon Zoe had nowhere to go.

Only now did Cataclysm start sending fire towards her. The next time Zoe came up, Cataclysm shot a barrage of tight fire bolts at Zoe's hands. Zoe was surprised by the move and dropped the gun. She reached for it but Cataclysm buried it in flame. Zoe whirled on her with a feral snarl and ran across the intervening space, drawing a knife.

Cataclysm sent a blazing torrent at her but Zoe was maddened and charged through it without slowing. Zoe slashed and stabbed at her and Cataclysm could do nothing but dodge the attacks. Her defense spells slowed the knife but didn't stop it and Zoe scored several slashes on Cataclysm's arms and body. Cataclysm realized she was forgetting one thing. She might be a fire mage, but she had also been a street fighter for five years.

Cataclysm grabbed Zoe by the arms and viciously slammed her forehead into other woman's nose. Zoe pulled away, nose bleeding, but didn't slow down. Cataclysm dodged another knife blow and got in under Zoe's reach to punch her several times in the stomach. Zoe didn't even seem to feel it, and Cataclysm felt the knife leave another slash in her back.

Physically Cataclysm was at a disadvantage. Zoe was a big woman who had six inches and forty pounds on her. But Cataclysm was fast and still had her magic to fall back on. She twisted away from Zoe and blasted her again with fire. When Zoe got close again, Cataclysm punched her but left the flame around her fists as she did.

She pulled energy from the fires around her. As had happened in her other recent battles, the more she burned the stronger she got. Zoe on the other hand was getting weaker. She was still fighting like a wolverine but Cataclysm could tell she was slowing and so started to increase the fury of her own attacks. Pouring all of her anger into her spells, she blasted Zoe over and over. Even after Zoe fell, Cataclysm kept hammering her with blasts of heat.

Finally Cataclysm forced herself to stop. Zoe was lying unmoving on the ground, badly injured or dead. It was over.

Cataclysm turned to the other Maniacs who had watched the battle from the stage. They now eyed her warily. Cataclysm jerked a thumb at the door. "Get out of here," she said.

The other Maniacs looked to Rid Len. He stepped forward and drew his submachine gun. "If you think you're taking over the Maniacs, you're going to have to go through me."

"I'm not trying to take over the Maniacs," she said tiredly.

He scowled. "Nothing's changed," he said. "You still aren't one of us. You abandoned us. And now you attacked one of our own. Stay out of Maniac territory if you know what's good for you." He turned and left, the other Maniacs in tow. Cataclysm sneaked a look at Pyro but the other woman didn't meet her gaze. The pain of her wounds wasn't the worst Cataclysm was feeling right then.

She heard sniggering behind her. Cataclysm turned to see Zoe watching her, still on the floor, one eye open. "So now what?" Zoe asked weakly. "Have you got the guts to kill me?"

"I'm not going to kill you," Cataclysm sighed.

"So you're going to arrest me?" Zoe sneered

Cataclysm opened her mouth to deny it, but stopped. What was she going to do? She wasn't going to kill Zoe. She couldn't just leave her. What did that leave?

There was still one more issue. "Where's the key?" she asked, nodding at the cage.

"Right front coat pocket," Zoe said.

Cataclysm knelt down next to her, started to reach for the pocket and then hesitated. She looked at Zoe suspiciously and the other woman chuckled. "No more tricks," Zoe said.

That didn't make Cataclysm feel any better, but she gently reached into the pocket and found nothing but a set of keys. Feeling a bit more confident she searched Zoe until she found a cell phone.

"Going to call your cop friends, hero?" mocked Zoe. Cataclysm ignored her as she walked over to the cage. She fumbled through the keys until she found the one she needed. Kruger eyed her suspiciously as she opened the door. "Come on," Cataclysm said in irritation. "Look you can stay in there if you want but I don't advise it." He still hesitated. Cataclysm shrugged and tossed him Zoe's phone. "You probably should call for help," she said and turned to leave.

"Thank you," Kruger said.

Cataclysm froze and slowly turned back. "Don't think I did this for you, you little shit. I'd be just as happy to have let them play piñata but the Maniacs would suffer for that." She snorted. "Hell, I should probably be the one thanking you. You're the one who made me what I am."

Kruger looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"No reason you'd remember me. I'm just one of the many victims of your wheels of justice, just one of the bodies you've run over in long career. But I remember you. If you'd shown a shred of decency, a hint of leniency to a kid who'd made a stupid mistake, I never would have met people like her," she jerked her head at Zoe. "And I wouldn't be the fine upstanding citizen I am today." She shook her head. "But what's the point? People like you don't even see people like me. All you see is your career stretching before you, not all the devastation laid out behind you. My hands aren't clean, but I know they are cleaner than yours."

She was too tired to talk anymore. She left him standing there and headed back home.

Two days later she went to the Champions Building for her latest lesson. Witchcraft was waiting for her and enthusiastically said, "Hi! You came."

Confused by her effusiveness, Cataclysm said, "Uh, yeah. We had a lesson, right?"

"Well, yes, but I thought you might be mad at me." She gave Cataclysm an earnest look. "I swear I didn't know Zoe Loft was involved with those people from Canada. I wouldn't have asked you to investigate if I had."

Cataclysm frowned and said grudgingly, "I know. I wouldn't be here if I thought any differently."

Witchcraft was relieved. "Good. Look, maybe to avoid future conflicts we should keep you out of Westside. There are other areas of the city that could use your help."

"No," said Cataclysm firmly.

Visibly disappointed, Witchcraft said, "Oh. I guess I understand why you might not want to get involved in the city's problems. Very well. We can simply continue our lessons."

Cataclysm shook her head. "That's not what I meant. I mean I'm not done with Westside." She folded her arms and chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Zoe said, 'Big heroes are going down'. Not gangs. Heroes. This isn't about an alliance. It's about an alliance for something big. Zoe was always after the big score, no matter how much it hurt the Maniacs."

Witchcraft looked concerned. "A score like what?"

"I don't know. You know there's one thing that's bothered me. On the one hand the gangs are all gearing up for something. On the other hand we have," she counted off on her fingers, "Poe, Zaretti, Ludwig and now Zoe all in jail. Doesn't that strike you as odd?"

"I guess I just thought we were making a dent against the gangs but now that you mention it, it does seem a little convenient."

"Why did you send me after the Purple Gang in the first place? I don't mean me, I mean why were you even involved. Let's be honest--Westside gang shit is beneath you."

"Well, I got an anonymous tip. I would have passed it to MCPD but I thought this might be a good opportunity to see how you used your magic in a realistic setting."

"And how did you find out about these new supers in town?"

Witchcraft looked concerned. "Another anonymous tip."

"Zaretti? Ludwig?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. That was MCPD. I could ask..." She trailed off.

"But we both already know what they are going to say."

Witchcraft scratched her chin. "Who could be behind this?"

"Not sure," Cataclysm said with a shrug, "but I see two possibilities. Either it's Hi Pan, the only gang leader left, or we have a new player."

"The Canadian gang?"

"No. They wouldn't have ratted themselves out."

Witchcraft nodded thoughtfully. "Are you saying you are willing to look into this?"

"Willing?" Cataclysm snorted. "I'm not asking permission. I'm not doing this for you or for the cops or for sweet little Suzie down the street. I'm doing this for the Maniacs. Whatever is going on, I want to be sure it's not a threat to them."

"And if it's not a threat to the Maniacs? Will you tell me what you find?"

Cataclysm's brow furrowed. "I guess I'll decide that at the time."

"Oh," Witchcraft said a little sadly. "Well, let's get started with our lesson. Oh, by the way this will be our last meeting for a bit. I need to go down to New Mexico for a couple of weeks. I'm going to show you some things you can work on while I'm gone."