36 - Grief

Unfortunately it didn't end with Kinetik and Witchcraft. The next day Black Mask and Sapphire were ambushed but fared much worse than the first two groups. Only Black Mask made it back, barely alive. Before she slipped into a coma she was able to say she saw Sapphire fall. Without proper medical care it was only a matter of time before she joined them. Redsnake and Amphibian had gone on a mission in the sewers but were long overdue. They couldn't spare any of the five remaining to go look for them.

A heavy pall of grief and silence hung over Dr. Ka's brownstone. The people inside moved about, talked of their plans against Therakiel's forces but something had been lost. Although none of them would admit it, nobody really believed they could win anymore. None of them were going to give up so they continued grimly going through the motions.

One night Cataclysm headed for the kitchen to find something to eat. Dr. Ka had done what he could under the circumstances to make his home hospitable, providing room and board to the visiting metas. She hesitated in the doorway when she saw Defender was there, out of his armor and sitting at the table. After all these years she still didn't feel comfortable being around him alone. Witchcraft always acted as a buffer. Now that she was gone Cataclysm felt even more awkward around him. She debated about leaving but she was hungry so she pushed herself past her resistance and into the room. Cataclysm opened the fridge, took a couple pieces of cold chicken and a beer and then, for lack of anywhere else to eat, she headed for the table.

She sat down and grunted a greeting at Defender. He didn't seem to hear her. He had an untouched plate of food in front of him but he was staring at something in his hand. She could see it was a Champions badge: a metal hexagon with a stylized C in the center. She knew it was magnetic and had a clasp so could easily be attached to a belt, jacket, or other piece of clothing. Defender was the only one who wore his consistently. The others wore theirs to official functions or when operating as a team.

Cataclysm felt sad as she looked at him. She disliked him, she wasn't going to lie about that, but that didn't mean she wanted to see him like this. He was just...hollow, an empty Defender-shaped shell of the man he used to be. He continued to gaze blankly at the badge. She wondered if it was his or Witchcraft's. Either way he didn't seem to feel like talking so she started eating.

After she'd eaten a few bites he said abruptly, "She never blamed you." His eyes slid over to look at her. "For this," he waved vaguely. "I know she said something unkind to you on the flight. She felt terrible about that. Was going to apologize." He looked back at the badge. "Just ran out of time."

Cataclysm felt her grief welling up. "Yeah," she said roughly. "I know. She wasn't the type to hold a grudge even if people deserved it." She almost said something about blaming herself but stopped herself. This conversation wasn't about her. "She was a better friend than I deserved," she said with difficulty.

Defender didn't respond. She waited but he said nothing more. After a long period of silence she went back to eating. She ate quickly, wanting to get the meal over with so she could get out of this uncomfortable situation.

"Did she ever tell you we discussed inviting you to join the Champions?" Defender asked.

Cataclysm stopped chewing. She set the piece of chicken down and took a swallow of beer to wash down the food in her mouth. "Um, no," she said.

He nodded distantly, still staring at the badge. "About six, eight months ago. You've defended the city many times. Put yourself in danger. Stood up for the helpless. So we talked about it. Took a vote. But it had to be unanimous."

He drifted off. She waited but he didn't continue. Finally she said sharply, "And?"

"Four in favor. One against," he said. Cataclysm was annoyed and then he turned to her and said with the barest hint of a sad smile, "Witchcraft. She said if I made the offer, you'd literally spit in my face."

Cataclysm felt a rush of emotions. She wanted to both laugh and cry at that remark, and instead those feelings just fed into the simmering anger she had felt every moment since Witchcraft's death. After a few seconds, when she could speak, she growled "She wasn't wrong." She looked down at the rest of her meal but wasn't hungry anymore. She was thirsty but pushed the beer away. With the way she felt, one more sip and she'd never stop. Feeling a little guilty, she stood. She just didn't have the strength to deal with his pain. She needed to deal with her own. She hesitated and then clumsily reached out and squeezed Defender's shoulder before she left the kitchen.

"So in a nutshell," Caliburn said, "Kryptos says we need the four elemental gems for me to become the Archmage. And Val has them all, using them as part of her ritual to break Therakiel out. That leaves us with no choice. We have to go after Val directly. No more sneaking around the edges. Full frontal assault on the most fortified stronghold Therakiel's forces have."

A heavy silence fell over them. Cataclysm looked around at the others standing around the room. Dr. Ka and Ironclad looked as gloomy as she felt. She couldn't see Defender's face behind his helmet. Caliburn wasn't a fool and knew what they were thinking. "Or," he said dryly, "we could go join Therakiel's little cult and maybe not be killed when he rises." He shook his head. "Believe me, if there were any other options I'd tell you."

Dr. Ka said, "What of your inquiries into the possibility someone here is working with our enemies?"

Caliburn gave Cataclysm a sidelong glance before mumbling, "Perhaps I was mistaken to think there is a traitor among us." He shifted uncomfortably and added, "I wonder if it was a trick of Therakiel's to make us suspect one another, and to sow distrust and discontent within our group of...noble do-gooders." The last phrase was said with sarcasm but Cataclysm realized that was the closest he was going to come to an apology.

"Can we recruit any additional forces?" Ironclad asked.

Dr. Ka shook his head. "We've already brought in everyone in the area. Supernatural uprisings across the globe are keeping everyone busy and making travel impossible. The few remaining members of the Trismegistus Council won't be able to lend us much power. They would be better used to hold the brownstone while we go after Valerian Scarlet."

The five of them looked at each other and the gloom deepened. Defender stepped forward to address the group. "My friends, do not despair," he said. His voice had lost its steel but he was doing his best to keep his tone positive. "We have all faced impossible odds and emerged victorious. The forces of evil cannot resist the powers of good for long. The battle will be arduous but in the end I believe we will win the day and bring Valerian Scarlet to justice."

"Christ," Cataclysm said in disgust. She hadn't meant to say it aloud but it slipped out.

"Cataclysm?" Defender asked in surprise.

She grimaced but charged on. "Bring her to justice? Jesus, do you even understand what is going on? Look, I get it. Out of all of us, you've lost the most in the last couple of days. But we don't have time for you to play denial games." She wasn't really mad at him but he was as convenient a target as any for her frustration. She demanded, "Look around! We're not going after some purse snatcher. We are at war here. We're not going in there to arrest her for fuck's sake!"

The others were stunned at her outburst. She felt a little bad about it, but things were too far gone to worry about some hurt feelings. Defender seemed speechless. Ironclad asked Cataclysm, "And what do you think we are going in there to do?"

She looked at him and the others in shock. Did none of them understand? "I don't know about the rest of you but I’m going in there to kill the bitch," she said firmly.

Defender shook his head. "No, we must not become like our enemies. We must rise above that, be a beacon of justice that stops evil without resorting to taking lives. To kill is an evil act."

"Oh bravo," she said, clapping sarcastically. "Be sure to give that speech to a bunch of soldiers next Veteran's Day. Look, I've been through this before. Showed mercy over and over. And the corpses piled up. The killing stopped only when she died. Dammit, some people just need killing!" She looked around but none of the others would meet her gaze. "Am I wrong?" she demanded. "This isn't just about the people we've lost. Haven't you guys noticed the smell today? Sniff the air. It's the stench of the thousands of bodies littering this city. How much worse will it be when Therakiel is calling the shots? Am I the only one willing to do what needs to be done?" Nobody spoke. She had to know where everyone stood. "Answer me!" she demanded.

There was a general sense of discomfort in the room. Caliburn was the first to speak. He opened his coat to reveal his pistol. "This thing doesn't shoot paint balls," he said.

Ironclad said with determination, "I have a great love for my adopted homeworld. I will not allow it to be destroyed in an unholy Apocalypse." Then his shoulders fell slightly and he sighed. "I killed many times in the arenas of Malva. Each time it took something away from me, some part of my humanity, my honor." He reached over his shoulder and drew his massive sword from its sheath on his back. He held it out, rotating it back and forth so the light caught the edge. "But my weapon is sharp," he said. "It is a killing blade. I do not fear taking a life but neither do I court it. I do so only if I have no other choice."

Dr. Ka stared into the distance. Reluctantly he said, "I vowed long ago to do whatever it took to protect humans against the machinations of gods and devils. I settled in Vibora Bay because prophecy told me the battle to decide the future of our species would be fought here. I agree that hesitation could cost us victory, and I will do what needs to be done." He turned to study her. "However I have a question for you. What will you do if Valerian Scarlet surrenders?"

"She won't," Cataclysm replied.

"But what if she does."

Cataclysm set her jaw and said. "I told you. I'm going in there to kill the bitch."

Dr. Ka's face clouded and he said, "I don't think anyone here will stand by and allow you to murder someone, no matter what she has done."

Cataclysm scanned their faces and sensed they all felt the same way. Defiantly she said, "Then I guess we all better hope she doesn't surrender." She turned to walk out of the room.

Her dramatic exit was spoiled when Defender said softly, "It's not what she would want."

Cataclysm stopped in the doorway, her back to him. She grabbed the jamb and squeezed it. She didn't face him but turned to say over her shoulder, "I know." Her voice caught but she continued. "I'm not doing it for her. I'm doing it for me." She walked out.