Most winter nights the Brassport stadium was a fairly quite place. The only outdoor sport people would brave the cold for was football and that was played on the high school’s more up-to-date and better lit field. Most evenings the stadium was a dark and quiet oval on the east side of town. You might find a groundskeeper still at work maintaining it through the frosty months or underage kids partying it up with packs of beer obtained through dubious methods but crowds in the dark of winter were an alien concept.
So were bonfires of purple flame.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that half the town was assembled in the stadium. The stadium couldn’t hold half the city’s population and there hadn’t been enough time to assemble that many people even with the powers of the heroes the Shadow Court had subverted. What it did hold was a crowd that was well beyond its rated capacity. A mass of humans crammed together to the point where they could just barely still breathe.
The people trapped there were panicked and terrified but held in the thrall of the Shadow Court which in turn had been bent to the will of the Oblivion Queen. If the control held over them faltered, the crowd would trample each other in their mindless need to escape. Scattered through the packed assemble, the Courtiers had positioned children at key intervals. The little tykes were placed to insure that any attempt at a mass exodus would allow for no rational thought as desperate parents did anything they could to save their young from the inevitable crush of bodies.
Outside of the stadium, the Court had arranged men and women into a summoning circle. Hands clutched legs and bodies writhed as people lay on the ground forming inner and outer rings of the circle. Within the rings of bodies, men and women were puppeted by Shadow Court magics. They bent and swayed into the twisting shapes of the Shadow Court’s runic alphabet. As they moved, changing from rune shape to rune shape, each spoke the syllable their bodies formed, chanting words of power, gathering together the forces that could call the primal spirit of life on Earth to manifest.
Within the stadium, the Court had cleared away the playing field for the central dance of their ritual work. An innermost circle was marked by a single ring of humans who were directly possessed by the Shadow Court. They danced around and through the bonfires that were lit, trailing purple fire in their wake.
The sparks the dancer’s left behind lingered as wailing after images from the depths of a nightmare. Fire in the shape of a woman collapsed to her knees holding a bundle to her chest. A great gout of flame followed one of the dancers out of a bonfire and spun itself into the form of a bearded man soundlessly railing against the heavens. Next a toddler, grasping with empty arms for a mother who wasn’t there. On and on it went, each flame figure lasting no more than a handful of moments before dying away to sparks or being swept into the next fiery image.
In the center of the circles lay, not another fire, but a pool of black ice. So much Earthly life was tied to water that it made the perfect channel for summoning Gaia. The fires were melting the edges of the ice. Once they had pool fully cleared, the channel to Gaia would open and they could command her to come forth.
Gaia was an old spirit. One of the oldest Earth spirits. She would know what the Shadow Court was doing, and possibly even why they were doing it. She would know that she was being summoned to her doom, but all things have their constraints and listening to the proper summons was one even the primal spirits couldn’t ignored.
Overlooking the grand spectacle, The Oblivion Queen sat on a dais of ashes surrounded by her guard. Though they weren’t present, her Oblivion Courtiers were no more than a royal command away. She didn’t need them for this rite though, and in fact couldn’t participate in it herself.
Only things that were real could call to Gaia. Only the living held her within themselves. That was why the captured citizens of Brassport were still breathing. It was their lives that would be used to slay the world.
Summoning circles are tricky affairs. Their shapes are deceptively simple, but the magics that underlay them can vary from simple brute force wards to multi-dimensional constructs that are alive and sentient. The Shadow Court’s circle was woven by magic wielders who’d practiced their craft for thousands of years. Its redundancies had redundancies in terms of collecting power, preserving the components of the circle itself and warding those within it from attack. There was, in reality, no way short of divine force to penetrate the circle or stop what was going on inside it.
The Oblivion Queen noticed immediately as the Dreamlit world merged with the real world around the stadium. The circle wasn’t “in reality” anymore. She wasn’t one to be surprised easily though. She was millenia old and her powers and knowledged were amplified by the Oblivion Knights. It took her less than a second to determine what was happening and formulate a plan of attack.
Sometimes even a second is too long however. The circle shattered under a dimensional assault the Shadow Court had never imagined and couldn’t understand how to deal with. As their control on the human hostages began to fade, transfer portals started lancing down from the heavens snatching people out of the crowd.
“Slay them all!” the Queen commanded. Better that the humans die than escape. There were always more humans and her Shadow Court minions would need all the power they could get for the coming battle.
“No. Sleep!” a young girl’s voice boomed out over the stadium as a larger portal formed beside central pool.
With a slash of her hand, Heartbeat stepped from the portal and the eastern quarter of the Shadow Court dancers fell to the ground unconscious.
Behind Heartbeat, a small army exited the portal before it closed.
“Att..”, the Oblivion Queen tried to scream. Way cut her off with a blinding bolt of yellow. As fast as Way was though, Constellation was able to interpose himself between the Queen and the attack. A microsecond later, he and Way were both gone, the only sign of their continued presence on the battlefield a series of titanic explosions that rocked the sky.
That took the Queen’s most powerful guardian out of the picture. Constellation was a “Galatics-class” superhero. He’d chosen to remain Earthbound after losing his son in the invasion where he gained his powers. It was an odd choice in a way since he’d had to learn phenomenal amounts of control in order to use his powers in a terrestrial environment.
Under the dominion of the Shadow Court, that control was no longer desired. That meant Way was faced with fighting someone whose body had become an unrestrained dimensional anomaly. His exterior normally appeared human in shape, but his skin was an obsidian star scape. That wasn’t simply a special effect either. The accident that had given Constellation his powers had transformed him into a sapient pocket dimension.
As universes went he was fairly tiny, no bigger than a few solar systems squeezed down into the form of a man. On an Earthly scale that was almost unimaginable though. Just one of the seven stars that he contained was a million times larger than the Earth. Any one punch or blast that he threw could draw on the mass and power of all seven stars.
He would have been a terrifying threat to fight, but we had Way, so that was one battle I didn’t feel any concern over.
The Red Shadow and Invertix were the next to react to the attack on the Queen. They flashed forward, drawing on the powers of the Shadow Courtiers that possessed them.
The Red Shadow was, by his own description, a time traveling vampire. He wasn’t vulnerable to holy symbols, water, garlic, sunlight or..pretty much anything. Also he didn’t need (or even like) to drink blood. Chronal scans indicated he was a native to the present time as well. So, time traveling vampire? No one really knew why he claimed to be that. What they did know was that he was scary enough that they weren’t interested in arguing the point with him.
Unlike Constellation, the Red Shadow didn’t possess obvious cosmic power. Instead he was a walking horror movie. You know how the killer in a slasher film is always able to get ahead of the fleeing heroine and strike from the last spot you’d expect? And how no matter what you hit the killer with, he always comes back for more? That was the Red Shadow.
Normally he was one of the good guys. Criminals he caught weren’t, generally, very coherent but they were alive. Gibbering in terror for days afterwards but alive. Aliens? It depended on who was invading. He’d sometimes bring them in for interrogation. Other times he’d simply be assigned to one of the capital ships. Alone. Hell of a thing for morale when those ships started transmitting what was happening to them.
Invertrix was almost the Red Shadow’s opposite number. Where he was all about terrifying the hell out of people from the darkness, she was a beacon of hope. Her powers gave her mastery over physical and magical energies. She could convert one form of energy to another and redirect them at will. In many ways that wasn’t her most important ability though.
She’s developed her powers as a little girl and had gone public almost right away. Where other heroes spent time on disaster relief, crime fighting, or creating the infrastructure of the future, Invertrix had spent her time and a considerable fortune on building social structures.
The energy of human endeavors was just another form of energy to her, one that could be used to create self sustaining and self replicating systems. Given the damage the Earth had sustained in the various invasions over the last several decades, it was likely that society had maintained a hold on its advanced state in large part thanks to the work of people like Invertrix. Our resources, physical, mental, and social were stretched farther than at any time in history. There were a lot of missteps we could have made that would have left us collapsing back into the stone age. Instead we were still growing.
As a lynchpin of that growth, Invertrix had come under attack by both the aliens and humans who didn’t want to see the world as a prosperous, independent place. The attacks had started before she was a teenager. Twenty years later, she was still standing and most of her attackers weren’t. She didn’t seek safety. She provided it.
Until the Shadow Court got her.
Which wasn’t to say of course that holding any of the heroes was an easy feat. The Shadow Court had piled multiple Courtier spirits onto each of them to hold the heroes in thrall. That left the heroes unable to regain control on their own but their struggles still diminished the Shadow Court’s effectiveness in a fight.
The Courtiers were aware of that so when they attacked Minnie and Jessica which is why they lead off with their Courtly powers and not the heroes abilities. Their own abilities were deadly enough and they were also a more reliable than powers the heroes could struggle with them for control over.
With the blinding speed and ferocity that was their hallmark, the Shadow Court blurred into motion, hurtling towards the girls like cannon shells. As a minotaur and a demon girl, Minnie and Jessica could take a few hits from a normal Shadow Courtier. These weren’t normal Courtiers but, fortunately, they also weren’t particularly observant ones.
To be fair though, observing an translucent force field is difficult and the ones projected by the Persephone were particularly challenging to spot. There was no more than a slight shimmer at the edge until the two superheroes impacted on them causing the fields to flare with blue light across their surface.
Both heroes stumbled back, disoriented but largely undamaged from the tremendous impact. The Red Shadow lashed out with a fist and shattered the force field. He tried to blur forward again only to be tripped by another force field that shattered around his legs.
The message was clear. Super speed was out. We couldn’t keep them pinned in with force fields but they couldn’t fight at full speed either.
While that was sinking in, Minnie and Jessica leapt forward to engage the heroes. Behind them, Patches and Nell followed as support. One-on-one fights were off the menu given the weight classes that the heroes punched in, and against the Shadow Court there really wasn’t such a thing as a “fair fight”.
Minnie met the Red Shadow with a pile driver punch that missed him by inches and blasted a cavernous hole into the field. The Red Shadow attempted to put some distance between them but was thwarted in that endeavor by Patches shooting him in the left knee. Minnie was on him before he regained his balance and dragged him into the dark hole in the ground that led to the stadium’s under complex.
As engagements went, this was probably a first for the Red Shadow. Most people ran from the indestructible horror villain. You don’t often see the crazy axe slasher clinging desperately to the side of a hole for a moment before giant minotaur hands wrap around his head and pull him out of sight leaving only a trailing scream behind.
Unsheathing his pirate’s cutlass, Patches nodded to Nell and dove into the hole following the two. Minnie wasn’t going to fight the Red Shadow. She was there to provide the scenery. The Red Shadow’s power of appearing wherever was most terrifying against her power with labyrinths. She would wait for him, as minotaurs do, at the center of her labyrinth. The one that you could only find if you knew her.
The Red Shadow’s power might be able to overcome that limit. That’s where Patches came in. While the Red Shadow and Minnie matched powers, Patches would play Cat and Mouse. They didn’t have to kill the Red Shadow, which was good since that seemed impossible given his powers. Disabling him for a time would be sufficient. The Oblivion Knight’s forces were too high powered and aggressive for the battle to go on very long. One way or another, the fight would be over soon.
Jessica, meanwhile, met Invertrix directly, bathing the possessed heroine in white hot fire. With a graceful move of her hands the heroine parted the flames and converted them into a dazzling array of firework bursts.
Invertix took flight and Jessica matched her. The demon girl threw a fireball at Invertix and at the last instant snapped her fingers causing it to explode in a blinding burst of light. That bought Jessica enough time to close with Invertrix and grapple the heroine to the ground. With her powers, Invertrix could easily have prevented that, but the Shadow Courtier was having just a little bit of trouble there. Invertrix was fighting back hard against her captors.
The Courtiers’ problems intensified when Invertrix crashed to the Earth and they felt soft hands settle on the heroine’s face.
Nell had joined the fray. The Courtiers were able to blast Jessica into the stadium walls but not before Nell’s power slipped inside Invertrix. The Courtiers tried to move, to blast Nell away as well but they quickly found they couldn’t spare the attention. Invertrix’s will was growing, becoming stronger as Nell fed her power.
The maneuver was an effective counter to the Shadow Court’s control but it left Nell was a sitting duck while the Invertrix and the Courtier struggled. The last guardian, Professor Platinum, moved to take advantage of that. It would have taken no more than a single shot to disable or kill Nell but the laser pulse from the Professor’s wrist gauntlets went awry as Heartbeat joined the fray, blood bending his arm into missing the shot.
Their battle wasn’t a pretty one. Professor Platinum was a genius inventor who’d had many years of development time and a lot of resources. His battle armor contained a bewildering array of devices, almost all of which had direct applications to combat. As the sole protector of Brassport for many years he’d faced more than his fair share of weird threats. He wasn’t as visible to the public these days, but that just meant he had more lab time to work on esoteric ideas.
Heartbeat’s primary advantage in most fights was her versatility. Blood manipulation was an incredibly potent ability and she could use it in many different ways. Professor Platinum and the other guardians were still standing after she put the first wave of Shadow Courtiers to sleep because for as versatile as she was, he was more so.
If not for his armor, Heartbeat could have simply knocked him out the way she’d knocked out the others. One of the first things he’d done after meeting her though was build a “Bio-Deharmonizer” field into his armor, aka a shield specifically against her powers. He didn’t have any animosity against her at the time, it was simply something he did with every super powered being he met. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
That level of preparation had saved his life countless times. It also meant that of the subverted heroes, he was the most dangerous. Where all of the rest were constantly fighting the Shadow Courtiers who controlled them and could limit the effectiveness of their powers, Professor Platinum’s powers were all external and available with the push of a button or the flex of a muscle. Even the gadgets in his armor that were thought controlled responded to the Shadow Courtiers commands with as much power and precision as ever.
Only Professor Platinum’s inherent genius was out of reach of the Courtiers. That gave Heartbeat something of a chance since it meant the Courtiers wouldn’t be reconfiguring the gadgets on the fly. We needed her to have more than a chance though.
Adella’s bolt of purple fire impacted Professor Platinum’s armor with enough force to toss him clean out of the stadium. There had been dozens of perfectly useful Shadow Court bonfires setup in the stadium that she was able to draw from. Adella might not have been able to command the Courtiers, but she was quite capable of reading how to manipulate the Shadow Court’s magics from the Queen who slept within her. With the Courtiers asleep there hadn’t been anyone to stop her from siphoning off the power they’d collected and putting it to her own ends.
Together Heartbeat and Adella took flight, pursuing Professor Platinum out of the stadium so that their battle wouldn’t endanger any of the people still remaining there.
That left only the Queen and the rest of her Shadow Courtiers. Heartbeat had knocked out a few hundred of them but there were three times as many still remaining, many still among the crowds and outside the stadium.
A portal formed at the Queen’s feet, but it was far too slow to capture her. She was calling out directions to her minions even as she shifted from her ceremonial robes to her own war gear. In her hands black fires gathered like two miniature suns. Nell and Jessica were the only two still on the battlefield. They would be the first to feel her wrath, and after them the others would fall only seconds later. Whether they would be added to the bonfires or simply erased with Unreal fire was a matter of the Queen’s whim.
For just that moment though the Queen was open and exposed. That was my queue.
I hadn’t portaled in with the others. I’d left the Persephone before they had, opening my own portal to find the one friend I’d made in the Shadow Court’s realm who was still unaccounted for.
I’d found Heather, the ghost girl I’d met, in the throne room of Hades, Lord of the Dead. With less than ten minutes to pull together our plans, I’d been beyond delighted to see that on the arm of Hade’s throne sat a snowy owl. Athena’s messenger!
In the Oblivion Queen, I had a foe with thousands of years of experience. Fortunately I had allies with similar resumes.
At Athena’s request, Hades had called Heather to his side to learn what had transpired. The owl on his chair had also carried the request that he be ready for my arrival. The goddess of battle and wisdom had been able to plan for my plans and outplan the Oblivion Queen who was trying to outplan me. Of course when you have divine power to play with covering all your bases is just a little bit easier than it is for mere mortals or spirit entities like the Oblivion Queen.
The end result of Athena’s plans was that when I portaled into Hades’ throne room after following Heather’s trail, I didn’t need to make introductions or explain anything. Hades and his wife greeted me and then shooed me out with Heather saying they would send what aid they could. In the Queen of the Underworld’s eyes, I saw a mischievous sparkle and had to wonder if the name of the ship that had saved us was purely coincidental.
Whatever role the goddess had played though, a dismissal from the rulers of the Underworld wasn’t something we had either the time or a reason to back talk, so Heather and I made our way out with thanks to both of the sovereigns for whatever aid they could provide. Mindful of not looking back (because that would be an idiotic mistake to make for anyone who’d ever read Greek myths), Heather and I rose back to the surface of the living world and waited until meta-awareness told me it was time to strike.
When we joined the battle, I didn’t arrive as Jin and Heather and I didn’t arrive alone.
The Oblivion Queen called black fire to her hands and was ready to annihilate Nell when I rose from the earth of the stadium.
I seeped upwards, venting through cracks in the earth as an obscuring black cloud lit through with tendils of orange-red flame. The cloud expanded and coalesced, forming a body that soared above the stadium. The shadow of my wings blotted out the stars. In the light of the flames that boiled under the smoke that still surrounded me, the Oblivion Queen saw five heads gazing down upon her. She saw talons and a tail that could rend mountains asunder. She saw teeth like spears and scales that no blade could penetrate and no fire could burn.
With her attention of me, she almost missed the other arrivals. From the cracks I had poured out of ,more gases poured forth and resolved into the ectoplasmic spirits of the dead that Hades had sent as an army to counter the legion of Shadow Courtiers that remained.
At their head was Heather. In her hand she held a sword that I knew I had seen on Hades hip when we in the throne room. She held it aloft and the spirits of the dead rallied to her. There was only one way she’d gotten the sword and the authority that went with it. For the first time in many years, Hades had chosen a new champion.
Meta-awareness filled in one additional detail for me too; the soldiers of the army Hades had provided her with all had one thing in common. Each of them had been killed by a Courtier. Over ten thousand years, the Court had grown considerably in size, but the number of their victims had grown far faster. These were the men and women who’d fallen before them because of the limitations of flesh and blood. Limitations their ghosts no longer had.
With wild vengeance beating where they once had hearts, the spirits of the dead surged forth from the depths of the earth are tore through the Shadow Courtiers. As ethereal beings, the ghosts weren’t interested in the bodies the Courtiers were possessing. They wanted the evil spirits within the bodies and like a pack of wild dogs, they got them.
With five pairs of eyes I watched as Heather’s ghost army “exorcised” the people possessed by the Shadow Court. Courtier spirits screamed and fought as they were ripped out of their hosts and torn to pieces by the vengeful dead.
With the Queen distracted by the loss of her primary forces, I struck. Diving from the sky I met her reactive blast of force with red hot dragon fire. She tried to stand her ground but, power aside, I had her beat on sheer mass. With my talons I tore through the ash dias she was on and grabbed her as she started to fall.
Dragon strength meant that I could squeeze titanium like it was soft butter. I flexed as hard as I could though and couldn’t break the Oblivion Queen. Fortunately that wasn’t the plan.
From a thousand miles up, the Persephone opened a portal behind the Queen. She could dodge them with ease, but if I rammed her through one her speed wouldn’t matter. On the far side of the portal the Ultralight Cannon was primed and ready to fire. Even on it’s lowest setting it would vaporize all of Brassport and we couldn’t risk the Queen being able to withstand that, hence the need to get her far away from anywhere on Earth before we blasted her.
Triumphantly, I slammed the screaming Oblivion Queen into the portal.
And watched it shatter.
It didn’t work on her. She didn’t go anywhere. The portal simply fractured around her.
Instead of screams of rage, I heard a low, mocking laughter coming from the Oblivion Queen.
“Did you really think you could beat us?” the Queen asked, no longer writhing in my grasp but perfectly relaxed.
Beyond her I saw the brawl between the ghosts and the Shadow Courtiers turning. Even ripped to bits, the Courtiers could still reform, repossess their hosts and continuing fighting.
“Taste defeat.” she said. A pulse of power exploded out of her, freeing her from my grip.
“Know despair.” with a flick of her fingers the bonfires rekindled, tearing tongues of purple fire from the crowd of humans in the stadium.
“Abandon hope.” a single gesture and wave of pure kinetic force hit me like a billion needles. The vast body that I’d dreamed up, and all the strength it held, was blown out like a candle.
In the stands, portals began opening en masse, snatching away the children from the press of the crowds but it wasn’t going to be fast enough.