19 - Westside Intrigue Culmination

Unknown to many outside the clan, the Cult of the Red Banner had a massive temple that occupied the entire top floor of the Shandor Building in Westside. Around the edges of the room, great statues stared down and arcane symbols decorated the walls and floor. Rows of benches faced a raised area at the far end of the room where normally there was a ceremonial altar. The altar was gone now, removed to make room for a summoning pentagram drawn onto the floor. A roof-like structure etched with mystical writing hung from the ceiling over the pentagram, though it was unclear to onlookers if it was part of the ritual or simply decorative.

Tonight the temple was full, not just with Red Banner but also with Purple Gang, Maniacs, Black Aces and Cobra Lords. Each gang had sent a contingent of fifty representatives, including their leaders, to the meeting. Guns were prohibited at the event but knives, clubs and other weapons were widespread through the crowd. Each gang clustered with their own, warily watching the other gangs for any sign of betrayal. Tensions were high but so were expectations. Tonight, the leaders promised, would spell the end of police control of Westside.

"I still don't understand what we're doing here," said Ludwig. He and the other gang leaders were each standing at one of the points of the pentagram. "I'm no wizard or nothing."

"I will perform the summoning spell myself," Hi Pan assured him. "The rest of you are here to secure the other points of the pentagram, but you simply need to be present. When the spell is complete we five will control the Death Dragon."

"So why is your circle different than ours?" Ludwig asked suspiciously. Each of them stood in circle of magical symbols, but Hi Pan's was noticeably more intricate.

"Since I am directing the magic most of the runes must be around me so my spells will be transmitted through the other nodes into the portal," Hi Pan said smoothly.

"Is that right, Poe?" Zaretti asked.

"I guess," Poe said uncertainly. "I don't do summoning magic. Although..." He hesitate, eyeing Hi Pan's runes. "Some of those symbols look like some kind of protective-"

"Who cares?" screeched Zoe. "Let's get on with this and lay waste to the city!"

"The lady is correct," said Hi Pan. "The longer we delay, the greater the chance we will be interrupted. I shall begin the incantations now. Do not be alarmed as you feel the energies move through you."

Hi Pan raised the ornate staff he carried and began speaking words that seemed to burn in the air. They were syllables that seemed like nothing a human mouth should be able to form. As he spoke, patterns of light in the air, sketched by the tip of his staff. The runes at his feet began to glow and the radiance quickly spread along the lines of the pentagram until they reached the other points. The other gang leaders watched with varying degrees of suspicion and wonder as swirling energies rose to surround them.

Zoe shook her head to clear it and struggled to keep her feet. "What is happening, Hi Pan?" she demanded. The wizard ignored her and continued the ritual.

"He's draining our life energies to power the spell," Poe exclaimed. "Hi Pan, stop!" Hi Pan simply redoubled his efforts, shouting the words of the spell as a shimmering orb appeared in the middle of the pentagram, expanding until it was about twenty feet across. Poe quickly began chanting his own incantation and the wall of light around him splintered with an audible crack. "Let me outta here!" he cried. Poe cast another spell and was consumed in a cloud of darkness. When the shadows faded, his pentagram node was empty.

Hi Pan struggled to maintain the spell as the circle was broken. It was too late to stop, even with Poe's departure. He called, "Come forth, Great Dragon! I summon thee!"

From out of the orb of light came a shape. At first it was hard to see due to the dazzling brightness of the portal, but soon it resolved itself into a sinuous reptilian shape. It's body long and slender like a snake's but it walked on four legs. It opened its mouth and a massive roar echoed through the massive temple. Hi Pan laughed maniacally, saying "At last, my Red Banner will control all of Westside!"

"Just a freakin' minute," Zaretti said, swaying as his energy was drained. "Did I just hear you say the Red Banner's gonna control Westside?"

"Fool!" Hi Pan sneered. "My Red Banner now has the power and the means to control all of Westside! Our plans required the rest of you only to power the summoning spells and now your parts are done." Zaretti, Zoe and Ludwig all collapsed at that moment.

Hi Pan turned to the stunned crowd of gang members before him. "Bow now to me, or suffer the same fate as your former masters." The dragon belched a cone of flame over their heads for emphasis. The crowd hesitated and then, a few at a time, all fell to their knees and started bowing to the old man before them. Hi Pan gloated as he looked out over the throng before him. Here were the strongest of each gang. With them under his rule, the others would swear loyalty to him as well. Nothing would stop him from seizing all of Westside.

He frowned as his eyes caught a figure towards the back of the temple. He pointed. "You there! Bow down to me now or be destroyed!"

"Not really the bow down type," Cataclysm said sardonically as she stepped forward. "Zoe could tell you that if you hadn't killed her."

Hi Pan snorted. "She isn't dead, just weakened. They will serve as my lieutenants or die in the belly of the Death Dragon." He peered at Cataclysm. "Ah, I recognize you now. You have been a great help to me, whether you know it or not. I will grant you mercy and give you one last chance. Join me or die!"

"Yeah, uh, no," she said. "I think I'll just stop you instead."

"Stop me?" he laughed. "I know you have some arcane abilities, but you really think you are powerful enough to stop me and my dragon and my army?" He gestured expansively. The gangs had stopped bowing and were watching the exchange carefully.

"I'm not afraid of you or your little dog," she shrugged. "As for your army, is that what you think this is? Armies aren't about strength or numbers. They are about loyalty. You've already shown you are a bad leader. You ran from Defender, leaving many gang members to end up in jail. You ran from me, and Gold and Iron suffered for it. The other gang leaders were grateful you rescued them from prison, but did they realize the information you gave to the cops put them there in the first place?" That had been a stab in the dark, but from Hi Pan's reaction it had been dead on. "And you just sacrificed your new allies for your own personal gain."

Cataclysm cocked her head. "You know what everyone in this room is thinking right now? They are thinking that when the fight breaks out, it's really between you and me. Nobody's going to be paying attention to them. And there is a door right behind me that leads to freedom." And if they weren't thinking that before, they certainly would be now. "Oh a few people will stay and fight out of misguided allegiance, cowardice or plain stupidity. But the rest of them are going to run."

"You're wrong," said a voice from among the Maniacs. Cataclysm turned to see a figure getting to her feet. Her face was hidden by a scarecrow mask. A dirty overcoat hung open to reveal a plaid shirt and torn jeans. The woman drew her axe from its sheath as she crossed to room to stand before Cataclysm. Cataclysm stood at the ready, hoping she wasn't about to have to fight her friend. Pyro held her gaze for a second and then moved to take up a position next to her. She turned to Hi Pan and said, "Some of us will stand with her."

Cataclysm was stunned as she stared at Pyro. Pyro didn't return her look but instead turned to the other Maniacs. "Well, what are you pussies waiting for?" she yelled. "You want to take orders from this noodle-eater?"

The other Maniacs looked at each other uncertainly. Then Tony Madness stood, drew a heavy machete and joined them. A second later, Rid Len hefted his big hammer and went to stand with them. Once he came over, the other Maniacs quickly joined them. Cataclysm was nearly in tears and it was all she could do to maintain her scowl for Hi Pan's benefit.

"Love you guys," she mumbled.

"God, you're such a girl sometimes," Pyro mumbled back.

Cataclysm was trying to compose herself before taunting Hi Pan some more when she became aware of a whispered argument. She looked over to see two of the Cobra Lords shoving and glaring at each other. One of them turned and walked towards the Maniacs and just under half the Cobra Lords came with him. As they neared Cataclysm caught the eye of one of the thugs and nodded gratefully.

"Fuck off," he sneered. "We aren't doing this for you." He raised his voice and turned back to the Cobra Lords who had stayed behind. "Some of us are loyal to Mr. Zaretti," he said for their benefit.

Cataclysm eyed the other gangs. The Purples and the Aces didn't look like they were ready to join, but most of them were eyeing the door. She looked over the Red Banner gang and spotted Lord Qi. It was a longshot...

"Lord Qi," she called out. "Hi Pan doesn't deserve your loyalty. Betraying his allies? Attacking without warning? What's next, poisoning people in their sleep? He has shown he has no honor."

Lord Qi looked conflicted but said, "Perhaps, but I do. For today he leads us and I will not betray him. Whether he continues to lead us tomorrow is a separate matter, and an internal one."

She nodded, disappointed. "You're a better man than he deserves," she said.

Qi inclined his head respectfully.

Cataclysm turned back to Hi Pan, who had become purple-faced with rage as he watched this exchange. "What do you think of your army now, Bedpan?"

Hi Pan raised his arm to point a shaking finger at Cataclysm. "Dragon, kill her. Kill them all!" He shrieked, "KILL EVERYBODY!"

"Keep the other gangs off me," she said to the Maniacs and then she shot into the air with a boom. She rocketed across the temple to blast the dragon and Hi Pan with flame, pouring everything she could into the spell. The dragon breathed fire at her but she directed it around her and remained unharmed. She was not so lucky with Hi Pan. He fired a bolt of electricity from his staff, which hit her squarely. Her muscles locked, much as they had when she had been hit with the taser a few nights before. Her concentration broke and the levitation spell faded. She fell heavily and painfully to the ground. She knew that move had been reckless but it had accomplished what she wanted--Hi Pan and the dragon turned to attack her rather than the gangs.

She was aware of the bulk of the dragon nearing so she forced herself to her feet. It bathed her in fire again but, as before, the flames left her unharmed. "Stop breathing on her, you fool animal," she heard Hi Pan shout. "Crush her!" The dragon charged at her and the floor shook under its weight. Cataclysm shot into the air to avoid its snapping teeth. It was big enough that she thought it could probably bite her in half if it got a good grip. She blasted it with flame but, just as her command of fiery forces made her immune to the heat, so did its own abilities protect it from her powers. Unfortunately she had no other attacks useful against a creature this size, while it had claws and teeth that could easily tear her to shreds.

Cataclysm threw up a defensive shield to absorb Hi Pan's attack but some of the electricity still reached her. It wasn't enough to paralyze her muscles again, although she certainly felt it. She blasted Hi Pan with spell after spell but they simply stopped at the shimmering field of force put up by his magical circles. She flitted around, dodging his lightning bolts and the dragon's clumsy swipes, and continued to pepper him with spells but it was no use. His power circle was just too strong. She studied its structure and she didn't see a flaw in it.

So she was facing two powerful opponents she couldn't touch, but they could both hurt her. This was not going quite like she had hoped. If she fled, then Hi Pan would slaughter the Maniacs as punishment for helping her. What else could she do?

She kept up the attacks on both Hi Pan and the Death Dragon, hoping to hold their attention rather than believing she could hurt them. All of her spells were based around fire magic. Well not all of them. She ran through the list of other spells Witchcraft had taught her: healing, divination, ritual circles, protection, and more. Cataclysm looked around the battlefield hoping to see something she could use to her advantage. Could she blast a heavy statue and cause it to fall on the dragon? They looked too solid. If she started a large fire it would hurt the gang members before it hurt Hi Pan, if it hurt him at all, and it wouldn't touch the dragon. What else was there?

Her eyes fell on the portal, still open and holding the Death Dragon in this dimension. And there she saw the small imperfection. It was because of Poe. He had fled, breaking the he circle and leaving a tear in the fabric of the portal. Would it be enough?

It certainly wouldn't be if Hi Pan saw what she was doing. However she already had an idea regarding that. She directed her attacks to the chains holding the wood and bamboo structure from the ceiling. The attachments weren't strong, since the assembly wasn't that heavy, so it was easy to blast them free. She blasted the ones farthest from Hi Pan, causing one side of the construction to tear free from the ceiling and swing towards the ground. It smashed into the tile, still suspended from the ceiling from the other edge. It served as a wall, blocking Hi Pan from seeing the portal.

"You think hiding from me will save you?" he taunted. "My power cannot be stopped so easily." He blasted the structure, but lightning didn't have much of an effect on wood and cloth. Still, she couldn't take the chance he would figure out what she was doing. She kept flying around, attacking the dragon and deliberately letting her flight path take her into Hi Pan's view now and then. He took pot shots at her, and a few connected, but she kept up her plan. As she pelted the dragon with spells from one hand the other cast the unbinding ritual that worked its way into the cracks created by Kevin Poe's absence.

She managed to free up two of the other binding points before Hi Pan got wise. "What are you doing?" he demanded. "The portal! Dragon, stop her from destroying the portal."

No longer needing to hide her actions, Cataclysm put all her concentration into unraveling the next anchor point. She was focusing so closely on that she didn't notice when the dragon leapt at her and swatted her out of the air with a claw. She slammed into a wall and fell to the ground. Her head was ringing. She tried to get up on all fours and then fell back down as pain lanced through her left arm. She reflexively grabbed the sore spot and felt the bone move in a way bones shouldn't, accompanied by another jolt of pain. Cradling her arm she got up, dodging the dragon's teeth as it snapped at her. She resumed the spell and managed to unbind the next point, leaving only one.

Cataclysm fell helplessly as electricity surged through her and she lost control of her muscles. She rolled away, ignoring the pain shooting through her arm, as the dragon attacked. She got up and saw that Hi Pan had run around from behind the fallen wooden structure to attack her directly. She put up a defensive spell that wouldn't last long and feverishly set about unbinding the final portal anchor. Hi Pan tried to repair the damage she was doing, but it was like trying to sew up clothing as it tore apart. He was too late.

The blazing ball of the portal crackled and hummed as it started to collapse. The dragon was pulled towards the collapsing gateway, struggling futilely against the forces dragging it back to its own dimension. "Stop, stop!" Hi Pan screamed, but there was nothing either he or the dragon could do. The massive beast let out one last roar as it was pulled into the blinding light, and then the light fell in on itself and disappeared.

Hi Pan whirled on her, eyes blazing. "I shall destroy you for that, fool!"

Cataclysm stood tall, trying to ignore her aching arm. "Look down," she said smugly.

Suspiciously Hi Pan looked at the floor and then, seeing nothing, back at her. It took him a second but then his eyes widened, he looked down again, and then his head snapped over to look towards his power circles, which he had abandoned to get close to the portal and were now a good thirty feet away. He sprinted towards them but Cataclysm sent a stream of fire towards the dangling wooden construction near them. Hi Pan shied back as the dry materials blazed up into an inferno.

He turned back to her. "No matter," he sneered. "The Dragon Staff is strong enough to destroy you." He sent a bolt of lighting at her, which she deflected. She sent a bolt of flame at him, and he did the same. They sparred in this manner, fire versus electricity, landing occasional hits but neither getting much of an advantage. Hi Pan might have been satisfied to continue, but Cataclysm was painfully aware of the gang warfare throughout the rest of the temple. She had to end this fight quickly.

She sent a cone of fire at him, mostly to distract and blind him rather than necessarily to hurt him, and charged towards him. She crashed into him, hoping to knock him down, but he agilely retained his feet. She sent an elbow towards his face and then a spiked boot tip towards his shin, but both he dodged with a smug expression. It was clear he hadn't been neglecting his martial arts training while studying magic. He brought the Dragon Staff around in an excruciating blow to her broken arm, and she screamed and fell to her knees.

Rather than cowing her, the searing pain brought on an unreasoning anger. He brought the staff down for another blow but, still kneeling, Cataclysm grabbed the weapon as she bared her teeth at him. She tried to tear it from his grasp but he said haughtily, "The Dragon Staff can never be taken from me against my will." He shifted his weight and kicked her on the arm, sending another blast of pain and fury through her.

Instinctively she directed her anger into a fire spell, sending a powerful blast of flame all along the staff with the hope of burning his hands and making him let go. He responded with his own spell, and now arcs of electricity and sheets of fire danced across the surface of the Dragon Staff. She intensified her spell and so did he. The power built as the two of them glared at each other.

Cataclysm was thrown onto her back as the staff burst apart with a bang. She looked up to see Hi Pan still standing, holding a charred piece of wood in his hand. As he stared at it open-mouthed, the staff crumbled. In disbelief, he screamed, "What have you done? That was a two-thousand-year-old magical artifact."

Climbing to her feet she snarled, "And now it's a two-thousand-year-old pile of ashes. You're next." She launched a one-handed spear of flame, her left arm hanging uselessly by her side. He tried to defend but, shaken by the loss of his greatest weapon, he reacted slowly. He launched some feeble spells at her and she swatted them aside as she continued advancing on him. She blasted him until he finally went down, very near to the bodies of the other gang leaders.

Cataclysm could barely think over the pain in her arm. The dragon had slashed her in a few places and her nose was bleeding from one of the many impacts she'd taken, though she didn't remember which one. However she was acutely aware of the sound of fighting coming from behind her. She needed to stop this now.

Knowing she'd need both hands for this spell, she gritted her teeth as she raised both arms. Pain screamed from her broken arm but she was able to manage the gestures. A fiery explosion detonated over the heads of the battling gangs, raining fire down upon them. It wasn't a spell designed to do damage, but the fiery display got everyone's attention and there was a pause in the fighting as the sound of the blast resonated through the temple.

"Enough!" Cataclysm bellowed into the fading echoes of the explosion. "This fight is over. Go home!"

She looked over the battlefield. It looked like she had been right--most people had fled. But there were still dozens of people here from all the gangs, including a number of bodies either dead or too hurt to move. The combatants eyed each other and nobody lowered a weapon. "I mean it," she snarled. "The next one of you who raises a weapon is going to answer to me. You can go back to your piddly-ass gang squabbling tomorrow. We are done now! Get out!"

Cataclysm felt the tension start to drain out of the room. A few people started putting up weapons, and once some did the others followed suit. There was a general milling around and then people started to move towards the exit. She hoped the truce would last at least until they got to the street.

She surveyed the temple. The fire was low but starting to spread. There were a lot of dead and injured here. Sighing she pulled out her phone and called 911.

When she finished she turned back to see everyone ambulatory had left other than a lone figure sitting in one of the temple pews. Pyro had her mask off and was twisting it nervously in her hands and staring at the ground. Cataclysm smiled warmly and walked over. She opened her mouth as she got close, but before she could speak Pyro looked up at her and said, "I'm sorry."

Cataclysm was caught off guard. "For what?"

Pyro looked at the floor. "For bailing. I should have backed you up with the Qularr. Not just because I agreed with you, but because I was supposed to be your friend. We should have gone uptown and kicked their asses together. And I should have said something when Zoe kicked you out. And I just generally shouldn't have been such a bitch."

Cataclysm didn't know what to say. Emotions she'd been suppressing suddenly swirled in her head. Anger, loneliness, confusion, rejection and more all competed for attention. "Why didn't you return my calls?" she asked more testily than she had intended.

Pyro shrugged. "Embarrassed I guess. Figured you hated me and just wanted to tell me what a worthless piece of shit I was. I already knew."

Again Cataclysm was silent for a time. She sat down next to Pyro. "I never hated you," she said grudgingly. "I was pissed as hell at you, but I got over it." That was a lie but there was no reason to probe that wound right then. "Besides," she added, "any residual shit I might have been feeling you made up for tonight. If you hadn't stood up for me nobody would have, and things would have turned out different."

"I don't know. You sure seem able to take care of yourself now." Pyro looked over at Hi Pan. "You could never do all that stuff before."

Cataclysm shrugged. "I had a good teacher," she mumbled.

"Yeah, so I hear," Pyro said in a voice tinged with disgust.

"What does that mean?" Cataclysm said, hackles rising.

"Everybody knows you're some kind of superhero now, helping the Champions to destroy the gangs."

Cataclysm leapt to her feet angrily. "Call me 'hero' again," she said dangerously. "I dare you." She shook her head. "Are you fucking kidding me? Are you saying I should have let Hi Pan go through with this? Or that I should have let Poe fry everybody's brains? Or let the Qularr take over the city?"

Pyro looked abashed. "I don't know," she mumbled. "But you hang out with those Champions assholes, don't you?"

Cataclysm forced herself to calm down and return to her seat. "Well, sort of, but just because Witchcraft is teaching me some stuff. But I'm not one of them. And they aren't assholes! Well, except for Defender. But the others aren't too bad. I mean they usually fight the big bad guys like Dr. Destroyer or VIPER. They don't mess with us."

"If you say so," Pyro mumbled. Cataclysm was annoyed by her attitude but this wasn't the time to press it. They sat in an awkward silence and then Pyro said, "So, is Zoe dead?"

"I don't think so," Cataclysm replied, looking over at the gang leader. "At least Hi Pan said she wasn't."

"Going back to jail though."

"Yeah."

Cataclysm wasn't sure what her point was so waited until Pyro said, "Rid will take over the gang again." After a bit she added, "He's not very good at it. I mean he tries, but he's a crewleader not a chief. He doesn't have the kind of brains people like Zoe have. People like you." Pyro looked at her hopefully and said, "If you came back, we'd follow you. Even Rid, though you might have to beat him up first so he could keep his pride."

Cataclysm knew she was right. It could be a great opportunity for her. All the gangs would be reeling from the loss of their leaders. The Cobra Lords might descend into civil war over what had happened tonight. A strong, smart leader could carve out a nice little empire from the chaos. She could even ally with Qi, who was next in line to lead the Red Banners with Hi Pan out of the picture. She trusted him and she figured she'd probably earned enough respect from him that he'd go for the partnership. They could divide up Westside between them before the cops could react.

"Nah," Cataclysm said to Pyro's obvious disappointment. "That's just not where my life is now."

"Too good for us now?" Pyro asked irritably.

"What? No. Of course not. Hey, Pyro, I'll always be a Maniac. Zoe couldn't take that away from me and neither can anyone else. I've just started to realize that I'm some other things as well."

"Are you really still one of us?" Pyro asked. "Maniacs are all about anarchy and that doesn't seem to be your thing anymore. You used to talk about setting the city on fire. Is that still what you want?"

Cataclysm shook her head. "Anarchy is bullshit. It's not kids sneaking out past curfew or stealing from a drugstore or smoking a joint. I saw anarchy the day of the invasion. I saw destroyed buildings, people wandering the streets, cops overwhelmed and everyone just running scared. I saw the city on fire. It sucked. Trust me, you don't really want anarchy. You just want the freedom to do what you want. And I'm trying to give that to you and everyone else in the Maniacs."

"Leaving us behind in the process?"

"I'm not the one who left you," Cataclysm said sharply. Then she quickly added, "Sorry. Christ, this is hard." She swallowed. "Look, Pyro, it tore me up to lose the Maniacs but I think it was also the best thing. You know how gang life ends up. You die young on the street or you grow old in prison." She looked at her friend earnestly. "Pyro, get out of the life. Now."

Pyro looked offended. "And do what? Go flip burgers for a living? Find some deadbeat to marry who comes home from fucking other women just long enough to beat up me and the kids?"

"It doesn't have to be like that," Cataclysm began.

"Yeah it does. Come on, with my record nobody's going to hire me. The Maniacs are my only choice. Not all of us have superpowered friends to lift us out of the shit."

"You do."

Pyro grimaced. "Yeah, well I don't have your talents either. And I don't mean this shit," she said, waving vaguely at the battleground. "Even without being able to shoot fire out of your ass, you could still go anywhere and do anything. You've got brains and drive and people listen to you and give a shit about you. Hell, you've been leaving me behind since that first day we met in jail." She angrily wiped a tear away.

Cataclysm was shocked the confession. She put her good arm around the other woman's shoulders and teased, "God, you're such a girl sometimes." Pyro grinned, embarrassed. Cataclysm said, "And I've never left you behind. You're the best friend I've ever had and you aren't going to get rid of me that easily. It's been shitty without you. And I don't mean that as an attack. I'm just saying I've missed you, you fucking psycho." Now it was her turn to wipe her eyes.

"Yeah, me too," Pyro said.

Cataclysm sighed. "Look, I won't push you about the Maniacs. I know how much it means to have that kind of family. But I've been both in and out, and out is better. If you ever decide you want some other options, you know I'll do whatever I can."

Pyro snorted. "You're just trying to make me your gay little Indy Kid sidekick."

Cataclysm knew she was joking, but said, "Seriously, I don't like the 'hero' shit. Stop it."

"All right, all right. Just kidding."

Cataclysm heard sirens approaching in the distance. "You better get out of here before the cops show up. You still have my number?'

"Yeah. Tried to delete about a hundred times but couldn't bring myself to do it."

Cataclysm grinned. "Yeah, me too. So call me." Pyro nodded

They both stood up. Pyro said, "You coming?"

Cataclysm looked around the temple. "Nah. I better stay and make sure nobody wanders off."

Pyro looked disappointed but nodded. She started towards the exit but stopped after taking a few steps. She hesitated and then came back. "Gertrude," she mumbled.

"What?" Cataclysm said in confusion.

"It's my real name."

"Oh, dude," Cataclysm said in sympathy. "Your parents suck."

Pyro nodded emphatically. "Don't ever call me that. Don't ever tease me about it. In fact just forget we even had this conversation."

"Why not change it?"

Pyro shrugged. "I did change it. I don't need the approval of some old guy in a black dress to decide what my name is."

Cataclysm grinned. "I guess not. All right, Pyro. Now get out of here."