26 - Parapsychopath

Menton's cell was quite large. Maronni had explained that was to accommodate the mobile Hot Sleep units used when it was necessary to transport these prisoners for some reason. The cell was bare except for the Hot Sleep tube and the handsome Hispanic man standing next to it. "Greetings," he said in a silky voice.

"No," Cataclysm replied. "I have had enough self-important villain banter for one day." She gathered the energies and prepared to send a blast of fire at him. Suddenly she was buffeted by a rush of arcane energies from behind her. A complex array of spells swirled around Menton and Cataclysm looked around in confusion. She caught a flash of green and then just like that it was over. Menton stood locked in some kind of magical prison, glaring at her. Cataclysm looked around to see someone settling to the ground next to her.

"Witchcraft?" she said in confusion. "How did you get here?"

"I took another route. I knew your clumsy bumbling would keep Menton's attention, allowing me to infiltrate the prison and attack him."

Cataclysm frowned at her comment and said, "You mean I was just a distraction?"

"Of course." Witchcraft gave her a condescending look and said with laugh, "Oh come now, sweetie, surely you didn't think you could beat Menton on your own."

"Well, yeah I figured I could."

Witchcraft sighed. "You know, dear, this overconfidence of yours has really stopped being cute. You have to start accepting your rather significant limitations or you are going to get yourself killed." Cataclysm was stunned into silence. Witchcraft continued, "I blame myself. As a teacher I have to provide encouragement but clearly it's important not to over-encourage the slow students."

"Slow students?" Cataclysm asked. None of this was making sense.

Witchcraft rolled her eyes and said distinctly, "Yes. Slow students. Really, Cataclysm, why do you have so much trouble grasping simple concepts?" She looked over Cataclysm's shoulder and said, "You see what I have to deal with?"

"Yes I do!" said a man's strong voice. "I understand why you are so frustrated after a session with her!"

Cataclysm turned to see someone standing in the doorway. "Defender? What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to escort you to your cell!"

"My cell?"

"Oh for heaven's sake," Witchcraft said in irritation. "Yes, your cell. It's a prison. It has cells. Really, Cataclysm, pay attention."

"We all know you are going to end up here eventually," said Defender, "so we might as well save some time and put you in your cell now!"

Finally a single clear thought came through Cataclysm's confusion. She turned to Menton and said angrily, "Cut it out!"

"Come with me, villain!" said Defender.

"Don't call her a villain," said Zoe Loft. "That's an insult to us real villains."

Cataclysm didn't bother looking at the Zoe illusion. "I mean it," she snarled at Menton. "Get out of my head!"

"I tried to make her into a villain," continued Zoe, "but she failed at that like she failed at everything. I took her in, gave her a home and she betrayed me. Attacked me. Put me in prison of all places."

Cataclysm brought her hands up to send a blast of flame at Menton and then hesitated. How did the spell go again?

"She didn't just betray you," said Pyro. "She betrayed all of the Maniacs. She left us leaderless. She wouldn't take charge. I told her Rid was no good. Zoe was crazy but she kept us strong. Now we are falling apart because she wouldn't take responsibility."

She didn't need her magic. She'd run across the room and punch him in the face. Kick him in the crotch. Beat him to death. Just as soon as she remembered how to move her feet.

"And she betrayed me personally," Pyro continued. "Abandoned me. How long has it been since you've come see me in prison?"

"I've been busy," Cataclysm said weakly. She knew she shouldn't participate in the fantasy but she couldn't help herself.

"Busy? Well that must be nice. I'm not busy. All I do is sit in my cell, staring at the wall and wondering why my friend won't come see me. Every time it's longer between visits. Pretty soon you won't be coming at all."

"No. I've been trying. I just have so much to do."

"Excuses," snapped Mabel. "She's always been full of excuses. The social worker told us she was incorrigible but we took her anyway. We wanted to help. We gave her a home. And she burned it down."

Cataclysm closed her eyes. "It was an accident," she mumbled. She tried to shut the voices out.

"See? Excuses!"

"Witchcraft can tell you. It was an accident."

Mabel sneered, "Was it an accident that you had the candles we told you to get rid of? Was it an accident that you stole the firestarter from the magic shop? We took you into our lives and you repaid us by destroying everything we had. Because you didn't listen. You didn't care about anyone but yourself. Just like always."

"How do you think we feel?" said a woman's voice Cataclysm didn't immediately recognize. She opened her eyes and saw a man and a woman standing in front of her. Their faces were vague but that's because she had trouble remembering them. She hadn't seen them in person since she was two, and the only picture she'd had of them had been lost in that house fire.

"Imagine the humiliation of having a daughter who is a common street thug," continued the woman. "A convicted criminal. Even now she simply destroys everything she touches. She's dangerous and should be locked away before she hurts someone."

"I'm glad we died," said the man. "Better than living with the shame of being her parents."

"It's not real," Cataclysm mumbled to herself. "It's not real. It's not real."

"Oh, sweetie," Witchcraft whispered. "We may not be real but that doesn't mean it's not the truth. You know what you are. Stupid."

"Selfish," said Pyro.

"Treacherous," said Zoe.

The voices swirled around her. Arrogant. Lazy. Irresponsible. She couldn't even tell who was saying what. Everything faded out until she was lost in a muddle of words. Cruel. Brutal. Destructive. She couldn't shut it out. Weak. Ugly. Worthless. She felt herself drowning, losing herself, dissolving into the sea of recriminations.

Abruptly the voices stopped. Everything was silent. The world came back suddenly, sharply. She was on her knees and elbows, her forehead nearly touching the ground. She opened her eyes and saw the concrete floor of Menton's cell, stained with the tears and sweat dripping from her face. She heard a single voice in her head. "It's Maronni. I brought the power suppressors online. That was another part of the plan I couldn't tell you. Between that and the Hot Sleep Sickness, he's vulnerable. Hit him now."

Cataclysm's mind was still muddled. She had a knifing pain in her head and she was exhausted. She pushed herself up and settled back on her heels. Menton spoke, saying, "Oh, dear. The power suppressors are on. Whatever will I do? Unless, of course, the suppressors were part of my plan."

He walked over and squatted next to her. "You see, my dear, I know you. We've met, though you don't remember. I was there at ARGENT. I had a wonderful idea to introduce imperfections into the new Stronghold systems that would have given me control over the entire prison, even the secured areas. But no. You had to bumble your way in and destroy my plans. Nobody gets in my way and lives. Nobody!"

Cataclysm tried to organize her thoughts but she was still caught in the aftermath, like the emotions felt after waking from a nightmare.

"I could have destroyed you at any time," said Menton. "Had you walk into traffic. Jump into a wood chipper. Chew open your own wrists and watch yourself bleed to death. But no. Sometimes you just need the satisfaction of seeing your enemy in person, on her knees."

"Remember what I said," came Maronni's voice. "Use your anger. Stop being a crybaby. So he hurt you. Hurt him back!"

"So I drew you here so I could destroy you in person. I've been awake for months, waiting in my broken Hot Sleep cell, planning my escape and your demise. Did you imbeciles really think I would just wake up and break out? Did you dimwits think you could possibly compete with the mind of Menton? Did little Lieutenant Moron really believe she could possibly be strong enough to keep me out?"

Maronni was right. This wasn't the time for pissing and moaning. It was the time for anger.

"I knew I had to let the lieutenant activate the power suppressors. That was the only way I could lure you down here. But the PACE effects wore off weeks ago. I am at my full power. Even with the power suppressors there is no way you are strong enough to beat me."

Cataclysm turned the pain into fury. She focused on it, probed it like she was jamming her finger into a wound. The anger flared and she turned to meet Menton's gaze. Through gritted teeth she growled, "Read my mind."

Menton's triumphant sneer faded as he studied her and the barest hint of worry crossed his face. "Huh," he said thoughtfully. "I might have made a small miscalculation."

The blast of flame threw him across the room. Cataclysm regained her feet and bathed him in fire. Her entire body became a raging pyre. Fire rained down on Menton from the ceiling, blasted him from the walls, bubbled up at him from the ground. He threw up telekinetic shield to block the heat and stabbed at her with his power. But every time she felt one of his filthy mental tendrils penetrate her mind, her anger redoubled and she forcibly expelled it. He landed a few blows: some of her spells faltered or she'd get confused about where he was. She just focused her will to create a tunnel of hate connecting him and her, a tunnel she filled with a holocaust.

She cast spells she had never cast outside of a danger room. She used her fundamental understanding of fire magic to create incantations on the fly. She called up forces she wouldn't have dared touch under other circumstances. She hammered him with everything she had. There was so much energy tearing through the room that the space between them shimmered and warped. Suddenly the air tore apart into a great rift, spilling out blinding light and searing heat. She hesitated but instinctively realized what she had done. Somehow she had opened a gate to the primal Fire that powered her magic.

Cataclysm reached out and the Fire obeyed her gestures. With a flick of her wrist she sent a white-hot torrent of the stuff at him. She manipulated it with gestures and it obeyed her every command. Menton slammed at her mind but she had retreated into a small redoubt inside herself, a tiny area fortified by walls of rage. In that small space were her most basic functions of life: her breathing, her heartbeat and her command of the Fire. Even he couldn't touch her there.

She swept her hand and the Fire roared around him in a scorching cyclone so intense it lifted him off the ground. She felt his mental attacks subside as he diverted his full attention into maintaining his shield. She poured every ounce of her hatred, her contempt, her fury into the Fire and the heat intensified. She curled her fingers and the pressure on his shields increased. It was too much. The shields collapsed and Menton screamed as the heat reached him. When she closed her fist, the Fire would fall inward and consume him utterly. There wouldn't even be ashes left.

Maronni cried out in surprise when a searing hot explosion blasted the door to Menton's cell right out of its frame. She stood frozen in shock but heard nothing from inside the cell. She dared peek around the edge of the doorway and saw Cataclysm standing there, her body rigid and shaking, her breath raspy and fast, her face twisted into a ferocious expression. A few steps away, Menton lay in a huddle on the ground.

Cataclysm crossed the room and reached down to grab the front of Menton's prison uniform and drag him to his feet. She jammed her face into his and said, "Stay the hell out of my mind. Next time I won't stop myself. Do you understand me?"

To Maronni's surprise, Menton looked terrified. He nodded mutely. Cataclysm brought him even closer and grated, "Do you believe me?" Menton again just nodded.

Cataclysm threw him violently into the Hot Sleep tube and slammed the door closed. The system automatically activated and Maronni glanced at the display to see it was engaging correctly. She turned to see Cataclysm stalking towards her. "Wow," Maronni said, "there aren't many people who can say they beat-" She broke off as Cataclysm shouldered past her and continued towards the stairs. Maronni didn't need her powers to feel the fury radiating off her. She mumbled, "I wouldn't want to be one of the prisoners right now," before turning to check Menton's Hot Sleep tube.

With the loss of Menton's control, the prison quickly descended into chaos. The guards were outnumbered but their training took over and they either subdued prisoners in the area or retreated to safe rooms. The prisoners often turned on each other, seeing this as an opportunity to get revenge for some past slight. The forces outside the prison stormed the facility. Automated systems were brought back on line. Anywhere there was a pocket of resistance was visited by a raging holocaust that streaked in, viciously laid waste to the rioters, and then shot off. The guards weren't sure what to make of it, but Command assured them it was on their side.

By sunset the prison was back under control. Several dozen villains, including Talisman, had escaped. Most of them would be rounded up in the desert over the next few days.

That night Cataclysm sat in the dark in one of the dorm rooms Stronghold put aside for visitors. She was sitting on the bed, drinking the tenth beer of a twelve-pack and just barely feeling its effects. She was annoyed when her tablet chirped at her. She considered ignoring it but got herself up and dug it out of her bag. When she saw who it was she unfolded the kickstand and set the computer on the desk. She sat in the chair and touched the screen.

Witchcraft's face appeared. Her smile quickly fled and she said, "God, you look awful."

Cataclysm glanced at the corner of the screen that showed her face. Lit only by the tablet, her head floated in darkness. Her clown makeup was smeared. Her eyes were bleary and bloodshot from the alcohol. Her face was twisted into a dour expression. "Long day," she croaked and took another drink.

"So I hear. We just got the first full report from Stronghold. Congratulations. I'm very proud of you." Cataclysm said nothing and Witchcraft's look of concern deepened. "That's not really why I'm calling, though," she said. "I wanted to see if you were all right. I've had occasion to talk to the telepaths who've gone in to repair the damage Menton does." She paused. "He doesn't fight fair."

"No he doesn't," Cataclysm said bitterly.

"So, are you? All right?"

Cataclysm was silent for a long time. She finally said, "I wanted to kill him, Beth. I've killed in fights before but that's not what I mean. I wanted to murder him. I still do. I want to go over there, blast my way into his cell, tear him out of Hot Sleep and burn him alive. I want to see his skin turn black. I want to smell his flesh cook. I want to hear him scream and I want to laugh at him. And you know what's funny? If I decided to do it, I'm pretty sure nobody over there could stop me." She shook her head. "You never should have helped me become this powerful. You were wrong about me."

"No," said Witchcraft, reaching out to touch the screen. "No I wasn't. Cataclysm, I can't even imagine what you must have felt at that moment. But even in the heat of anger you stayed your hand. You made the right choice."

Cataclysm snorted. "Not by much."

"By enough. That's what counts."

"And what about next time?"

"Next time you'll make the right choice, too."

"What if I don't?"

"You will." She raised a hand to forestall Cataclysm's objection and said, "But if you don't, we'll figure it out. Together."

Cataclysm made a disgusted noise. Sometimes Witchcraft's faith in her was comforting but right now it just seemed naive and irritating. The fury Cataclysm felt was something Witchcraft had no frame of reference for. The only ones she knew who did understand were people like Zoe or Talisman. She took a deep drink, emptying the can and tossing it aside. As she opened another, Witchcraft said, "Look, I don't mean to get motherly on you, but if your emotions are this raw should you be drinking?"

Cataclysm stared at the beer and shrugged. "I'm a sad drunk not a mean drunk. This actually helps me keep it under control."

"Well, okay," Witchcraft said reluctantly. "Is there anything I can do for you right now?"

"No, I'll be fine."

"I could get on a plane and be out there in a few hours."

"I'll be fine," she said with a little heat. They both got the same flashback to a moment after the defeat of the Qularr. They looked at each other and shared a small smile. "I'll be okay, Beth," she said more calmly.

"Are you coming home soon?"

"Tomorrow."

"Good. Come see me when you get in."

"Okay." Cataclysm took another drink. "I suppose I'm going to try to get some sleep."

"That might be best. Call me if you need anything. I mean it."

"I know. Thanks."

"Good night," Witchcraft said reluctantly.

"G'night," said Cataclysm as she reached out to break the connection. She stared at the blank screen for a while. It dimmed after a few seconds. She continued to stare until the tablet went into sleep mode, plunging her back into darkness.