THE ICARUS REVERSAL
Summary: Twenty exceptional children from across the multiverse are kidnapped by a mysterious being and forced to take part in a gladiatorial contest which only one of them can survive.
Disclaimer: I do not own Kenny from the "Highlander" television series, Jason Todd, the second Robin, from the Batman comics, Josh Kirby from the "Time Warrior" movie series, Josephine McCormick from the "Beetleborgs Metallix" television series, Justin Stewart from the "Power Rangers: Turbo" television series, Solan from the "Xena: Warrior Princess" television series, Colin, the Anointed from the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" television series, this alternate version of Alexander Rozhenko from the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" television series, or the planet Tigris from Madeline's background, which is taken from
Timothy Zahn's novel "A Coming of Age". Basically, if you recognize a character, I don't own that character. Important! You do not need to be previously familiar with any of the characters named above to understand and enjoy my story.
Now I know it seems that a tale with this many cross-over characters couldn't possibly be worth reading, but since you've already clicked on it please at least finish this chapter and give me one chance to prove otherwise.
Credit goes to Zach Mendorra for coming up with the initial concept and writing some of the Prologue.
Special additional disclaimer: Yes, I am aware of the general similarity to "Battle Royale" (which is an excellent book). This story idea was first presented to me several years ago by the former friend named above; I don't know if he had even heard of "Battle Royale" at the time. After learning of its existence I did track it down and, having read the novel, I'm confident that you'll find my tale differs significantly from Koshun Takami's.
Alternate universe notes: As noted above, the Alexander here is from an alternate universe, one where he was never raised by the Rozhenkos; instead he was raised by Worf's brother Kurn, and so is a much more typical example of Klingon youth. Also, this Jason Todd was never brought back to life.
Feedback: Feedback of all types, including constructive criticism, questions and predictions, is most welcome and can be sent directly to AM83220@aol.com.
Warning: This is without question a dark story. Expect multiple character deaths and much angst.
"Bring forth the prisoner!"
A black-cloaked and hooded figure was escorted through the throng of booing villagers, his arms held securely by two burly-looking guards, his hands tied behind him. They led their prisoner to the large wooden stake which had been erected in the town square amidst a pile of straw and kindling.
The village magistrate, clutching a foul, flesh-bound book in his pale, trembling hands, approached the condemned one.
"Thou hast confessed to thy crimes!" the deliverer of justice proclaimed, his left hand seizing and throwing back the concealing hood. "Behold, fellow brethren, the devil-spawn's true face!"
A murmur of horror rushed through the assembled mob, followed by roars of disgust punctuated with shouts and the waving of torches. The "devil-spawn" was just a small boy, barely five feet tall. His face was round with youth, but marred by smallpox scars and twisted into an expression of purest malice. His eyes glowed bright yellow in the dark of night and his hair was black and wavy, just brushing his face.
The boy ignored those holding him and stared at the magistrate. The fifty-one year-old man was the first to look away, unable to meet that unnatural gaze. "Tie him!" he ordered curtly.
The two guards forced the child back against the stake and freed his hands, only to bind them behind him and above his head, uncomfortably securing him to his place of punishment.
"Morthos of Northshire, thou hast been found guilty of witchcraft!" the magistrate began.
"You foolish little peasant!" the young warlock interrupted, struggling against his bonds. "You think you can harm me? You are nothing! I will destroy you!"
"Nay, damned one, THOU shalt be destroyed! By the order of the Town Council, thou must die!"
Before the magistrate could continue a torch came flying out of the crowd, thrown by the father of Morthos' playmate Sarah . . . a playmate Morthos had sacrificed to his dark lord.
The torch landed in the straw surrounding the stake and fear finally broke through the villainous child's arrogance. He pulled so hard on his bindings that his wrists bled, but the ropes had been tied tightly and well.
Another torch soon followed, then another, and another, until a bonfire began to blaze at the child's feet. The heat was unbearable and Morthos howled in pain as the hem of his robe caught fire. He screamed out to the one he worshipped for mercy, pleading for help. Triumphantly the magistrate raised the dark one's cursed spell book overhead and cast it toward the fire.
As the tome flew toward the flames everything seemed to slow down. Morthos' cry deepened until he was silent, his hideous visage contorted in terror. The flames ceased to burn and a final torch halted in mid-air, hanging in space.
The entire scene was frozen in time, a single second captured forever.
A white mist began to seep up from the ground. It was slow-moving, yet within that eternal moment it was the only thing that did move. It flowed toward Morthos, unhampered by the apparent stopping of time.
The mist wrapped around the accused warlock, extinguishing the spurt of flame on his robe. A tendril reached out and passed over the book, only a heartbeat away from plunging into the inferno.
In a flash of white light, time resumed its normal course.
The magistrate nodded in satisfaction and relief as the warlock fell silent, the fire swiftly spreading to his clothes and skin. He turned back to address his fellow villagers, not noticing that the book he had thrown into the fire was gone.
Josh Kirby was on top of the world!
It seemed like everything was going right for him lately. His grades were better than ever, his dad had just gotten a mood-improving raise at work, and not twenty minutes ago he'd FINALLY been able to use his powers to freeze those jerks Tim and Gary in time for a few minutes, allowing the bullies' victim to escape. And he'd done it in secret, without revealing that he was the one responsible.
It was hard, keeping his Time Warrior powers hidden. He could bend the time stream to his will, but all he had to do was think of Irwin 1138 to see how much harm could be caused by meddling with time. The mad scientist's betrayal still stung Josh . . . but he liked to think it had taught him a few things too.
After the deaths of Prism, Dr. Zoetrope and Azabeth, Josh had vowed never to use his powers again. For a while things had been peaceful. He was able to rest easy in the knowledge that, in Irwin's timeline, the Supreme Prefect's tyranny was ended and the people were at last free.
But Josh had grown restless. What was the point of being one in a billion if he couldn't use his abilities? He wished he could use his powers to prevent Azabeth's sacrifice, but he knew that trying to change the past would only bring him grief. Azabeth had been destined to die, or so she believed, and it had indeed come to that.
It had been absolutely necessary. Josh had still tried to stop her from removing her LCD bracelet, but deep down even he knew it was the only way. Only three LCD bracelets could activate Zoetrope's improved time machine, which would in turn deliver only one person to Irwin's lab in the 25th century.
Time had been running out and there were only four of them, standing six inches high on the floor of the Kirby garage. Josh, being a Time Warrior, didn't need an LCD bracelet. The others did.
Prism had gone first.
Josh still didn't understand Prism. The alien creature didn't seem sentient; he'd done little but gargle and whine during their entire quest.
But when Josh looked into those eyes and heard Prism's voice, giving consent . . . that's when he knew he would never understand Prism. His fingers had trembled while removing the bracelet from Prism's neck. And in a flash of light, their odd little companion was gone.
Then it was Dr. Zoetrope's turn.
Strange, that someone who had so much to live for would choose death. The man was an egotistical jerk, sure, but he was also the most brilliant scientist of the 25th century. Still, defeating Irwin was his life's goal and with the madman's ultimate victory on the horizon, Zoetrope simply assured Josh that the Time Warrior would "think of something", took off his LCD bracelet . . . and that was that.
Last of all was Azabeth.
When she reached for her bracelet, Josh nearly lost it. It couldn't end like this, not after everything they'd gone through together. She didn't have to die for a world she would never even see.
Ultimately, though, they both knew in their hearts there was no other way to bring their quest to its conclusion. Azabeth's race had been enslaved and slaughtered, forced to strip-mine their planet and then eke out a miserable existence in the wasteland they had created. Azabeth would gladly give her own life to free a world, even the world of her enslavers, from the boot heel of tyranny.
So he kissed her, once, and she was gone.
The battle that followed against Irwin in the lab was just a blur. Josh could barely remember the Zoetrope of that time coming in afterward and activating the Nullifier. All he could see was Irwin's armor, shrinking and collapsing as his powers forced it thousands of years into the future.
His journey over and his friends gone, a desolate Josh had returned to his own time and had met, to his astonishment, Elizabeth Kang, a new transfer student who happened to look exactly like Azabeth, Keeper of the Codes of Kang.
They'd quickly fallen in love, as if they'd known each other forever. As far as Josh was concerned, though, Elizabeth was not Azabeth. They looked the same, but Josh remembered Azabeth's bitterness, a result of her life as a half-breed outcast among her own people. That bitterness made her determined to change things and that was something Elizabeth simply didn't possess. Azabeth had sacrificed her honor and her freedom just to keep Josh alive. Elizabeth would never be able to do that.
Still, Elizabeth was everything that Azabeth wanted to be: beautiful, graceful, and most of all, accepted. And, by Josh at least, she was loved.
The blond boy tried to banish these thoughts. He didn't like dwelling on his adventures through time for too long. There had been some great moments, but in the long run, he could easily wish none of it had ever happened at all.
A voice calling out his name shook Josh from his grim musings. Looking up, he saw Elizabeth Kang waving at him from the other side of the street, a big smile on her face.
Smiling back, Josh swerved his bike in her direction, pedaling hard as he crossed the road.
The distinct sound of squealing tires was his only warning.
And it wasn't enough.
Josh instinctively reached out to stop time . . . and belatedly realized that the twelve hours needed to recharge his powers had not yet passed.
The Time Warrior was out of time.
Yet as the car came hurtling toward him it unaccountably slowed and stopped. Elizabeth's panicked scream trailed off into silence. A shimmering rift opened above Josh and he rose up into it from his ten-speed, only to reemerge almost immediately, floating back down to the same position.
The late model Buick slammed into the bicycle and the teenager, catapulting both into the air.
"JOSH!" Elizabeth cried as her boyfriend hit the pavement with a sickening thud. She ran out into the street, dropping to her knees beside him. Blood caked his mouth and his blue-green eyes stared sightlessly up at the sky. Elizabeth checked for a pulse and her eyes went wide when she couldn't find one.
"Noooooo!" she wept, burying her face in his chest.
When this is over, you be packed and ready to go.
Xena's words played over and over again in Solan's mind as he hurriedly grabbed his few belongings and stuffed them into his rucksack.
Despite the fact that he should be utterly terrified, despite the fact that Kaleipus, the only family he'd ever known, was gone, Solan had never been happier.
When this is over, you be packed and ready to go.
His friend Xena had promised him that when the crisis was ended, when she defeated Callisto, she'd come back for him. And they'd be together. Xena, Gabrielle and him. A family.
It was hard to believe that he'd once hated her, once taken up his father's sword against her, blaming her for the death of his parents. But that Xena was long gone and this one was nothing less than a second mother to him.
When this is over, you be packed and ready to go.
He didn't want to stay here anymore. There was nothing left for him. Just a few people who felt they owed it to Kaleipus to look after his "son". But they didn't feel real to Solan, not the way Xena did. She was the only one he trusted, the only one who didn't treat him like a baby. She saw things in a different way than Kaleipus had and she was really smart.
The door to the hut swung open.
"I'm almost ready!" Solan called, wondering how Xena had been able to defeat Callisto so quickly.
"Solan?" a young voice asked.
The long-haired boy froze, looking up at the doorway. Standing there was a little girl, a few years younger than him. She had strawberry blonde hair and bright blue eyes that seemed to shine in the darkness.
When this is over, you be packed and ready to go.
"That's right," he responded cautiously. He never seen this girl before . . . yet she couldn't have arrived at the village after Xena, or Kaleipus would have mentioned her.
The girl smiled and there was something in her expression that chilled Solan to the bone.
"Safest place there is," she said, as if she were quoting someone.
Before Solan could ponder the meaning of those words the girl narrowed her eyes at him . . . and suddenly it felt like he was being strangled.
Shock rooted him to the spot, his mind awhirl as he fought for oxygen. His hands scrambled frantically at his throat, seeking to break the suffocating grasp, but there was nothing physical holding his windpipe closed. The girl strolled slowly toward him, keeping her icy gaze locked on him.
She was doing this! He stumbled forward to attack her, to stop her, his fingers closing around her throat. In response she shoved him in the chest and though her strength was no greater than one would expect he was already weak from lack of air. He tumbled backward, slamming painfully against the altar. Spots danced about his darkening field of vision and Solan realized he was about to lose consciousness. He reached out for something, anything, but there was no escape.
He had time for one last thought,
When this is over . . .
And he fell still.
As Hope turned to leave, satisfied with her work, she suddenly froze in place.
A portal opened beneath Solan and he soundlessly fell through it.
Hope turned back around, unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong, but Solan was lying dead just where she had left him.
Chuckling evilly, the Daughter of Dahak departed.
Hell had broken loose. And Justin Stewart was right in the middle of it.
The day had started off normally enough. His dad had gone into the office to get some work done so Justin had flipped on the television. A live news report interrupted the Saturday morning cartoons, saying that Angel Grove was under massive alien attack.
His first thought had been to try to contact the Astro Rangers, but he quickly shook it off. They still treated him like a little kid. He told them after the last time that he would always be there for them, but either they hadn't taken him seriously or they just didn't think they needed his help. The destruction on the screen, however, showed that the people of Angel Grove needed all the help they could get.
Going upstairs to his dresser the brown-haired teen took out his Turbo key. It wasn't really his; it had actually belonged to his Eltarian android duplicate. The androids had been destroyed when Dark Specter conquered Eltar, but Storm Blaster had somehow managed to smuggle the Turbo Key away. It was identical to his own Key, which lay drained somewhere in the ruins of the Power Chamber.
"Shift into Turbo!" Justin shouted, thrusting his key into the device that materialized on his wrist and turning it firmly. The Power enveloped him and he grew to his adult height of six foot two. Using his communicator he called Storm Blaster and explained the situation. The sentient Jeep arrived at his house in mere moments and got him to Angel Grove in record time. They raced into the outskirts of the city, ready for anything.
Or so Justin thought.
The news reports had said "massive attack", but even the pictures shown hadn't truly conveyed the extent of the devastation. Everywhere he looked there were panicking civilians, ruined cars and flaming buildings. Small fighters were roaring through the city, shooting at people and vehicles.
There seemed to be an entire legion of enemy troops on the ground. Quantrons, Ashley had called them once. They were supposed to be tougher than Piranhatrons or Chromites.
Justin used his Hand Blasters to gun down the first group that assaulted him, but when a near-miss almost took a screaming woman's head off he put his guns away. With all of the fleeing people choking the streets it was just too risky for him to use his laser weaponry. His only option was to take these robots out the old-fashioned way.
Dismounting from Storm Blaster and ordering it to ferry as many people as it could to safety, the Blue Ranger called up his Turbo Blade and threw himself into the fray.
Justin had never really liked fighting with swords. Tommy had been the genius in that area and now Justin wished he'd paid closer attention to his former leader's lessons.
He managed to cut down Quantron after Quantron, but their numbers never seemed to lessen. Nor did they tire, something the Turbo Ranger soon wished he could say about himself. Only the occasional glimpse of Storm Blaster speeding through the streets and loaded with civilians gave him the strength to fight on.
It took him half an hour to clear 5th Street and Justin couldn't help sighing at the sight of a new trio of Quantrons turning the corner and advancing toward him. He wearily readied his Turbo Blade, preparing to meet their charge. As they approached one of the fighters swooped low over them and blasted the blue-clad defender with its cannons.
Justin went flying back into the rubble-strewn avenue, his morph falling away from him in a shower of sparks. He was just a human again, and an exhausted one at that.
The three Quantrons loomed above him. The middle one raised its sword overhead and brought the weapon down on the fourteen year-old. Before the implement of death could touch the boy's flesh, however, time came to an abrupt halt. Two tentacles emerged seamlessly from the ground on the left and right. They wrapped around the frozen child's waist and pulled him down through the asphalt, which gave way like water. Then Justin rose back up from the ground.
The Quantron's blade split the boy's skull in two. Leaving the corpse behind the robots continued on their path, conquering all in the name of Dark Specter and Queen Astronema.
"You failed!" the Colin, the Anointed, hissed. Worse, the upstart had failed and survived! Colin had been relying on at least one of them perishing, if not both. It hadn't occurred to him that this rebellious newcomer might fail to kill the Slayer and yet still avoid dying.
The blond vampire called William the Bloody, better known by his nickname Spike, dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "I, uh . . . I offer penance," he said, with a distinct lack of sincerity.
Gregory shouted, "Penance? You should lay down your life! Our numbers are depleted; the feast of St. Vigious has been ruined by your impatience!"
Spike looked from Gregory to Colin, sitting on his throne.
"I was rash," Spike agreed, nodding slightly. "And if I had to do it all over again-" He suddenly broke into evil laughter. "Who am I kidding?"
The vampire rose to his feet, eyes blazing, and Colin felt a tremor of fear go through him. "I would do it EXACTLY the same, only I'd do THIS first!"
Lunging forward, Spike seized the Anointed one, throwing the small, dark-haired boy over his shoulder.
"No!" Colin protested, struggling in vain.
As Spike roughly carried the Anointed to the cage hanging nearby Gregory attacked him, only to be kicked back and knocked out. The useless fool! If Absalom were still here this wouldn't be happening!
Shoving Colin into the cage, Spike slammed and locked the door. The he began pulling on the chain, lifting the cage up from the floor toward the early morning sunlight streaming in above from the warehouse's broken window.
"From now on, we're gonna have a little less ritual," he vowed as he pulled on the chain, "and a little more fun!"
With a final tug Spike hoisted the cage up into the sunlight.
A bare instant before Colin would have burst into flame and ash, only split seconds after a scream escaped his lips, he disappeared without combusting. No one noticed, as charred residue still drifted down to the floor of the cage.
Satisfied with his work, Spike strolled over to his insane vampire lover, Drusilla, and took her hands.
"Let's see what's on T.V." he suggested.
Kenny had been with his newest guardian for two weeks now, long enough to realize that this warm Friday afternoon was the right time to kill her. Her stupid boyfriend was at work and they were alone in her large, Victorian style house. She was in the studio painting and wouldn't see him enter; the front of her easel faced the doorway. Even when she sensed him, he doubted she would turn around. He had taken special note of how focused she was while she was working.
Yes, the circumstances were as perfect as he could reasonably expect. His decision made the eight hundred and twenty-year old reached into his backpack and brought out the short sword he had hidden there. Like him, Anne was an Immortal. She didn't age, didn't get sick and would heal with miraculous speed from virtually any injury. She would even return to life after being killed - - unless her head was cut off. Then she would truly die and her power would be transferred to the Immortal who had slain her in a violent maelstrom known as a Quickening.
Since the beginning of time Immortals had dueled with each other, seeking to win the Prize that awaited the last among them. Kenny had never fought a traditional Immortal duel and he never intended to. His first death had been at the hands of sadistic Normans when he was only twelve years old and since then he had remained trapped in his unchanging child's body. He would never grow any further, would never have the size and strength of an adult. He couldn't compete in the Game as other Immortals did, but his first guardian had taught him a different way to fight.
Kenny kept a cautious eye out for Anne as he descended the stairs, his blade held at his side. Though he needed a sword, his appearance had always been his real weapon. With his light blond hair and crystal blue eyes he was the picture of innocence. Those Immortals who still deluded themselves about the Game were always quick to approach him and happy to swallow his tearful tale of how he had died a year ago in a car accident and had been on the run ever since. They took him into their homes and promised to help him. A long, long time ago he had been foolish enough to believe such promises. Now he knew better.
No Immortal could be trusted. His kind was engaged in an unceasing battle to the death. In the end there could be only one and eventually every Immortal realized that basic truth. He had known it for centuries and had been making his own way to the Prize, one head at a time.
A pang of hunger shot through Kenny when he reached the studio door. It was lunchtime, but he didn't way to delay this any further. Besides, he would have to get used to missing meals again. Life on the road was hard for an apparent kid, even one with his cunning and experience.
His sword held tightly in both hands, Kenny silently entered the large, airy room that served as Anne's "office". Circular windows set high in the far wall cast down beams of radiance, crowning the picture window which dominated the chamber. The otherwise Spartan walls were hung with Anne's past creations. Together they made for a panorama of bucolic splendor which vaguely reminded Kenny of the England of his youth.
Anne Winslow was almost directly ahead, her back to him as she labored at her latest work. She was a short, willowy woman with auburn hair and a pretty face who looked to be in her early thirties. She had been living under her current identity for the last twenty years and had told Kenny wistfully that the time was coming when it would be best for her to disappear and reappear elsewhere under a different name. She had assured Kenny she would take him with her and she wanted her boyfriend Robert to accompany them as well. Robert knew of her Immortality and understood her need to leave, though he was loath to abandon his own job with McKenzie, Hackett and Shane.
The thought of Robert made Kenny scowl as he slipped toward his target. He had done his best to drive the man away. He had even attempted to play on the tension between them over Anne's planned departure. Nothing had worked. After he took care of Anne, Robert would be next. If not for him he could have taken Anne's head days ago!
Anne sensed him approaching, feeling the peculiar tingle that warned Immortals of each other's presence, but she continued to daub at the canvas in front of her.
"I'll have lunch for you in a minute, Kenny. How does hamburgers and fries sound?" she asked.
Half a second later her half-finished landscape was splattered with a warm spray of arterial blood.
Licking his lips, Kenny readied himself for the mixture of agony and ecstasy that a Quickening entailed. Lightning flickered around the room, setting several painting alight. The windows blew outward in a shower of glass and the jars of paint went off like bombs. Kenny screamed his throat raw as power flowed into him and the familiar sensations ravaged his body. Finally he dropped to the floor, panting and drained.
In his exhaustion he didn't at first recognize the voice, but the words were clear.
"Anne! My God, Anne!"
Rolling over Kenny saw Robert Venders at the door, his eyes wide with horror and disbelief. What the hell was he doing here!?! He was supposed to be at his office! Kenny tried to think of what to say to the man. Could he blame this on another Immortal, an intruder who had already fled? He opened his mouth to do just that, but Robert's gaze had already gone from Anne's body, to Kenny . . . to the bloodied short sword he had dropped next to her.
A look of such fury slipped onto Robert's face that for the first time in decades Kenny found himself frightened of a mortal. He lunged for his sword, but Robert was already moving and his shoe caught Kenny's head in a terrific blow. Semiconscious, he felt the sword being wrenched away from him. He looked up to see Robert drawing the blade back like a baseball bat. Screaming in denial Kenny threw his arms up in front of his face, knowing it wouldn't be enough. The sword swept down, slowing to a stop when it was halfway to the boy.
A shimmering appeared in the air above Kenny, coalescing into a plane of light which swept down through him before vanishing. The interrupted motion resumed and the scything blade sheared through the child's wrists and neck.
Kenny's death brought no second, undirected Quickening, no further release of immortal power. If he had been thinking clearly Robert would have recognized the discrepancy. But standing over the corpses of the woman he had loved and her murderer, holding the sword which had killed them both, he couldn't even think of what to tell the police when they arrived.
Josephine McCormick (Jo to everyone but her teachers and mother) was both fiercely excited and more than a little sad. This was it, the day she, her brother Drew and his best friend Roland had been working toward for so long. They were finally going to defeat the Crustaceans!
They'd been gaining the upper hand for a while now. When Mega-Nukus lost control of Boron the balance of power had shifted decisively against him; and when Les Fortunes, the cartoonist who had created him, had voluntarily returned to prison the evil mastermind had lost his source of monsters
The one stumbling block had been the fact that Mega-Nukus had destroyed the paper he originated from, leaving them nowhere to send him back to. Their willing sacrifice of their Mega Spectra powers, however, had allowed Flabber, Art and Les Fortunes to create a single copy of a special edition comic to which they could banish the Crustaceans.
Somehow Mega-Nukus had learned of the comic's creation and he had launched an assault on Hillhurst with all of his remaining forces in an attempt to destroy it. The battle had been terrific, especially now that none of them could match Mega-Nukus' raw power. In the end, though, the combination of the Beetleborgs, Astralborgs, Boron and Roboborg had been too much for the super-villain. He and his two lieutenants, Horribelle and Vilor, had been badly beaten and had fled. The rest of his army had been utterly destroyed.
Drew had insisted that they needed to finish Mega-Nukus while he was still weak; they couldn't afford to wait and give him time to recover. Leaving the Astralborgs to guard the precious comic, the Beetleborgs had mounted their Sector Cycles and raced out to the cemetery, on the theory that the Crustaceans would have fled to their home base. Neither Boron nor Roboborg would fit into the Crustaceans' underground lair, so Drew had ordered them to guard the entrance and blast any Crustacean that tried to escape. The three of them had then descended into their enemy's final redoubt. Soon Mega-Nukus would be nothing more than a memory and a flashy illustration.
Sadly, he would take their Beetleborg powers with him when he went. Without Mega-Nukus the spell which allowed Jo, Drew and Roland to become their favorite comic book characters would fail and they would just be ordinary kids again.
Jo was going to miss being a Beetleborg. She would miss the rush of transforming, the excitement of battling Mega-Nukus and his followers, and the thrill of victory! She would especially miss the super-strength she had gained as an unexpected side effect of the magic. That little bonus had come in very handy for the thirteen year-old tomboy, and its loss was something to mourn.
Nonetheless this was the way things had to be, and if Jo was sorry their adventures were coming to an end, she was glad to have had them in the first place. Head held high, the Platinum Purple Beetleborg stepped forward, with her Chromium Gold brother to her right and their Titanium Silver friend on Drew's left. Before them, at the far end of the cavern, were Mega-Nukus and his last two minions.
"It's over, Mega-Nukus" Drew announced confidently.
"Yes, for you!" the cornered creature snarled. He lunged forward, his flaming scarlet scimitar clashing against Drew's Metallix Lancer. The ichthyoidal Vilor followed his master's lead, thrusting his trident at Roland's head. The tall black boy dodged aside and struck back with his Metallix Grappler. Jo herself was left to face the insectile Horribelle.
An overhand chop with her Metallix Baton was blocked by her foe's right sword. Horribelle's answering riposte with her left blade cut across Jo's midsection, raising sparks from the inch-thick metallic armor which encased the girl.
Staggering a little, Jo cut loose with a kick to the stomach. Horribelle doubled over and Jo brought her right knee up into her opponent's face, simultaneously using her Baton to knock the sword out of the villainess' left hand.
Reeling back Horribelle spat a stream of green liquid across Jo's visor, completely cutting off her vision. She wiped frantically at it with her left hand, but the substance clung tenaciously to her helmet. Horribelle was about to strike and the Jo couldn't even see to defend herself!
Thinking quickly she did a forward sweep with her right leg and toppled the surprised Horribelle. Dropping to her knees Jo slammed her Metallix Baton down into the space in front of her and was rewarded with a groan. She hit again and again at her prostrate foe, the speed and power of her blows more than compensating for their lack of accuracy.
The gunk coating her eye-slits vanished with Horribelle, doubtless reappearing as a drawing on the printed pages of the new comic. Jo sighed in relief and looked around to see how Drew and Roland were doing. Titanium Silver appeared to be holding his own against Vilor, while her brother's futuristic pike was definitely giving Mega-Nukus problems.
Jo moved to flank the evil overlord, her weapon at the ready. Seeing her approach Mega-Nukus' desperation at last began to show. With a curse he unleashed a point-blank energy blast into Drew. Her sibling was knocked to the floor, his golden breastplate scorched and blackened.
"Drew!" she cried and threw herself at Mega-Nukus. She slashed at his tri-horned head with her Baton, but he ducked her swing. To one side she could see Drew struggling to his feet. She realized with relief that Mega-Nukus' blast must not have been strong enough to breach her brother's armor. In that instant of distraction Mega-Nukus seized her Baton and yanked her toward him.
Off balance Jo started to tumble and stopped in mid-air, her body tilted at an impossible angle. A cocoon of white radiance formed around her, shrinking to mold itself to her form and seeming to seep through her armor.
Her momentum returned and the Platinum Purple Beetleborg was impaled on Mega-Nukus' enchanted scimitar, the tip penetrating far enough to pierce her heart.
The kids had assumed they were living out an action-adventure story, like in the comics they loved. It had never occurred to any of them that their tale might actually be a tragedy.
Comparable scenes played out in numerous other realities. In all twenty apparent children were snatched away from the brink of death. Mindless simulacrums, genetically indistinguishable from the originals, perished in their place. No one on any of the nineteen worlds involved suspected a switch had been made. The "deceased" were grieved for, or not, and their bodies appropriately disposed of.
The being responsible for their abduction took his prizes to the location he had prepared for them. They all awoke at the same instant to find themselves seated around a large, circular table. It was made of solid oak and the chairs they sat in were ornately carved cherry wood. The room itself was little larger than the table, its surfaces consisting of a luminous white substance which gave off ample light.
There were no doors.
The kids looked about in bewilderment, none of them knowing where they were nor recognizing any of the others. As the inevitable questions began they were interrupted by an oddly resonant, electronic-sounding voice.
"GREETINGS, CONTESTANTS! BE AT PEACE; YOU ARE IN NO DANGER AT PRESENT. BY MY HAND EACH OF YOU WAS SAVED FROM THE DEATH WHICH AWAITED YOU IN YOUR OWN WORLD AND BROUGHT HERE, SO THAT YOU MIGHT FIGHT FOR YOUR LIVES! I AM YOUR HOST AND SAVIOR, BUT YOU MAY ADDRESS ME SIMPLY AS ARCHON, THE OVERSEER OF THIS TOURNAMENT.
THE PREMISE OF MY CONTEST IS SIMPLE: THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. TOGETHER WE WILL DISCOVER WHO AMONG YOU IS THE MOST WORTHY OF CONTINUED EXISTENCE. EVERY DAY AFTER BREAKFAST I WILL SEND YOU TO THE BATTLEFIELD, A VARYING ENVIRONMENT OF MY OWN CREATION. THERE YOU WILL ENCOUNTER AND STRIVE AGAINST EACH OTHER IN MORTAL COMBAT. EIGHT HOURS LATER THOSE STILL LIVING WILL BE RETURNED HERE FOR SUSTENANCE AND REST. THIS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL ONLY ONE OF YOU REMAINS, AND THAT ONE WILL WIN HIS OR HER FREEDOM.
NATURALLY I WISH THE COMPETITION TO BE A FAIR ONE. I HAVE THEREFORE GIVEN YOU THE EQUIVALENT OF A GOOD NIGHT'S SLEEP, HEALED THOSE OF YOU WHO WERE INJURED AND ARRANGED FOR YOU TO BE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER IN SPITE OF YOUR DIFFERING LANGUAGES. I HAVE TAKEN CARE TO ENSURE THAT YOU ARE ON EQUAL FOOTING, SEPARATED ONLY BY YOUR OWN SKILLS AND ABILITIES.
SOON YOUR STRUGGLE WILL COMMENCE. FIRST, HOWEVER, YOU MAY HAVE YOUR BREAKFAST. EAT HEARTY; FOR SOME OF YOU THIS WILL SURELY BE YOUR LAST MEAL."
Fine china, polished silverware and elegant crystal goblets appeared on the table before the twenty. The individual plates and bowls held the favored breakfast food of each child, while the goblets were filled near to the brim with their recipient's preferred beverage.
For a long moment dead silence reigned in the chamber. Then the majority of the kids erupted in a cacophony of shouted queries and protests.
"You gotta be kidding!"
"Why are you doing this?!?"
"How dare you-"
This time Archon's voice was deafeningly loud.
"I WILL NOT BE PLAGUED WITH QUESTIONS, NOR DOES THIS INGRATITUDE PLEASE ME! I HAD EXPECTED BETTER FROM SUCH A SELECT GROUP OF YOUNG WARRIORS."
At this a long-haired blond boy, dressed in a rough vest and boots of skin, opened his mouth as though to speak, but Archon allowed him no opening to interject, continuing on without pause.
"THOSE WHO DO NOT WISH TO SEIZE THIS OPPORTUNITY WILL UNDOUBTEDLY FIND THAT OTHERS AMONG YOU ARE LESS RELUCTANT. PERHAPS THEY WILL GRANT YOU THE MERCY OF A QUICK DEATH.
NOW I SUGGEST YOU FINISH YOUR MEAL. YOU WILL NEED THE ENERGY."
No one moved. Then the only obvious non-human, a male with rough brown skin, coal-black hair and a heavily-ridged forehead, glanced disdainfully around him and deliberately tipped his glass of blood wine over. A dark-haired adolescent in an outrageously colorful red, yellow and green costume with a black eyehole mask followed up by smashing his own plate to the floor.
"VERY WELL," Archon sighed, his voice at a conversational volume again. "WE SHALL START AT ONCE IF THAT IS YOUR DESIRE. GOOD LUCK!"
And with that the children vanished.
To be continued in Chapter 2
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