Released from the spell that held them captive (see last issue, the unconscious Olmstead is taken under guard to the hospital. The heroes realize that they had been taken captive earlier that morning (before their various meetings that took place last issue). Arsenal sets the FBI on a couple of investigations: into Olmstead and into the warehouse in which he, Prince Paradigm, and Slugger had been held.
The next morning, Brandy James (Freeze) receives a call in her New York office. Dr. Discordia requests a meeting with her that afternoon, in James’ Indianapolis office. Brandy agrees, thinking it’s about her sister. She flies to Indy and heads to her corporate office. She does a bit of work there and at 12:30, her desk suddenly bursts into flames, then explodes, knocking her out.
At about that same time, At Champions Mansion in NYC, the butler Morgan approaches Arsenal to announce that Arthur Morning is here to see him.
“I’ve got another clue for you,” he says. The name Olmstead had triggered a vague memory connected to his brother Mark. He did some digging into his brother’s old journals and came across an entry that mentioned Olmstead by name. He handed a page to Arsenal bearing Mark Morning’s old Morningstar Enterprises letterhead. The page read:
*From the desk of Mark Morning
President, Morningglory Enterprises,
President, Morningstar Enterprises
Saturday, April 7, 1979
Today was the big 50k meeting. I was paid $50,000 for an hour of my time. In attendance at the Ritz-Carlton were Jack Johanson, weapons designer and robotics pioneer; Milos Hera, genetic engineering whiz-kid; Dr. Edgar Gordon Olmstead, biochemistry wunderkind; Dr. Desdemona Discordia, a psychologist specializing in paranormal psychology; and a mysterious (and gorgeous!) woman named Sylvia Black.
- * Editor’s Note: Johanson was the creator of Weaponized World, Hera was behind the Ancient Greek creatures, and Olmstead was the mind in which the heroes were trapped * *
Our mysterious host calls himself Bethlem. I think he’s insane. At the very least, he’s seriously deluded. His predictions were intriguing but his proposal was suspicious. Discordia agrees that Bethlem is half-mad at best, but do the others see how deranged he is? I don’t think they do.
Everyone is so desperate for funding for their own pet research projects and Bethlem is offering plenty for each…but what is the catch? Just a pound of flesh. Just a sliver of our souls.
I gave him back his money. I couldn’t help but laugh at him. I was polite enough not to tell him how utterly demented I think he is, but I was sorely tempted to call him “Bethlebonkers.”
Flying cars will happen by the 21st Century. Hell, maybe even teleportation. But the notion that the entire world will be threatened by a few individuals with super powers? Madness!*
“Since that meeting,” Arthur continued, “each of the people on that list have had continuous and generous funding. Most have become leaders in their fields.”
“And for some reason,” Arsenal muses, “they’re turning their brilliant minds on us.”
Arsenal calls their FBI liaison and asks for financial records for each person on the list, going back to the beginning of their careers. If they can trace the source of their funding, they can find this Bethlem, who seems to be calling in favors. He also makes a note to contact Dr. Discordia. She’s cooperated with paranormal heroes in the past, it’s difficult to imagine her turning on them.
Later that evening, the team holds their weekly meeting. Freeze is notably absent. Arsenal catches the team up on the latest developments. As he’s finishing, Morgan interrupts, saying he’s overheard a police dispatch about the body of a paranormal being found in Central Park. The meeting is adjourned to recommence in the park.
The heroes arrive by air and locate the crime scene, in the bushes near one of the Park’s small lakes. The body is that of Thistle, a member of the villain group the Terrible Ts. She sprawls just off the pedestrian path near a light pole.
Detective Harry Callahan is the lead investigator. He greets Arsenal and tells them that she was killed somewhere else and dumped here, the killer wanted her to be found. Cause of death appears to be a broken neck.
Just then the sound of incoming missiles fills the air. Arsenal takes to the air, moving away from the crime scene and toward the missiles. Prince Paradigm, already airborne, flies toward Arsenal. Monopoly Guy activates his force field and prepares to deflect.
Phoenix targets the missiles with her Phoenix Wings (her aura’s wings slam together creating a shock wave). This causes two of the missiles to collide and veer into the ground near several normals. One explodes, spewing flaming napalm. Three of the normals are now on fire. The other missile discharges thousands of six-sided dice into a smoking heap.
Suddenly one of the boulders near the crime scene lifts from the ground, held aloft by a 14’-tall brute wearing a “C” on his chest. His scarred face sneers and growls as he emerges from the ground and heaves the boulder toward the police gathered around the body. Monopoly Guy, ready and waiting, summons a giant iron which deflects the boulder away.
Prince Paradigm whirls and hits C-man with a Photon Beam. The brute swats at the beam and reflects it right back at the Prince, yelling, “Cruel!” Prince goes spinning back through the air. Slugger throws a punch at Cruel’s mid-section, which doesn’t seem to bother him much.
Monopoly Guy flings his hat. It lands deftly atop Cruel’s head and he’s teleported sixty feet into the air and a couple of feet to the left, above another boulder. The hat disappears and reappears on MG’s head.
Phoenix flies toward the injured normals. Her Pheonix Aura begins to cry, dropping huge tears to douse the flames.
Cruel falls, slamming into the boulder. He growls, moves into a crouch, and leaps at Slugger, just missing her. Prince Paradigm rights himself in the air; he’s ended up above the downed missiles, just above the pile of dice. Just in case, he materializes an Electric Cage around the pile. Arsenal flies that way.
Monopoly Guy peers into the hole from which Cruel emerged, but sees nothing. Slugger takes advantage of Cruel leaping past her and turns, grabbing him in a bearhug from behind.
The remaining airborne missile swerves and slams into Cruel and Slugger, exploding with a violent burst of electricity. Slugger, susceptible to electricity, is stunned, and Monopoly Guy takes a bit of damage as well.
Cruel punches the stunned Slugger, knocking her back a few feet and out. Prince Paradigm flies toward Cruel and unleashes another Photon Blast, which slams into the ground at his feet. It appears to have no effect.
Arsenal tries to radio the FBI but his transmission is interrupted.
“The only one who can hear you is me.”
“Who is this?”
“Call me Unusual Punishment. You’ve already met my partner Cruel. And some of my missiles. I have a lot more.”
“Why? What do you want?”
“To punish you, of course. All of you.”
That’s when Arsenal hears over his helmet radio the screams of his daughter Mandy. Furious, he flies toward Cruel and hits him with a beam of ultra-violet radiation, to no apparent effect.
Monopoly Guy summons a freight train. It barrels toward Cruel but a second before impact he stretch his arms into the air and twists his body. His flesh ripples and rails form, from his feet up to his out-stretched hands. The train screams up his body and is turned toward Arsenal, hanging in the air. It flies off the tracks and slams into him, the impact hurtling him away.
The normals now safe, Phoenix flies a few feet and lands next to it, then surrounds it with a mound of dirt. As she finishes, three more missiles are spotted.
Cruel steps over to Monopoly Guy, bellows, “Cruel!” and kicks at him. Monopoly Guy’s right knee snaps and he passes out.
Prince Paradigm flies up to attack the three new missiles, but notices that two of them have transparent nose cones and contain people! He recognizes his friend Dr. Danquitti in one and flies up to grab it; in the other is Arsenal’s daughter Mandy. Arsenal rights himself and flies after her, grabbing that missile.
Phoenix grabs at the third missile with her aura’s talon but misses. It then veers into the missile being held by Prince Paradigm and explodes. Both missiles and Prince are covered in a thick gooey substance, and they veer toward the ground.
They slam into the ground not far from the original crime scene, next to the lake. The gooey substance quickly evaporates and the transparent nose cone pops open, spilling Dr. Danquitti onto the ground. Prince reaches for her and suddenly notices two angry hippopotami emerging from the lake, heading right for them.
Monopoly Guy, coming to but very groggy, senses Slugger lying nearby. He reaches out and grabs her ankle, then teleports them both behind a nearby rock. There he summons his Dog, which barks at her and helps to heal and revive her.
Phoenix takes flight again, jetting toward Cruel. The brute tears a light pole from the ground and leaps into the air, at the same time flinging the pole at Phoenix. She unleashes a wind blast which causes the pole to spin, but it doesn’t deflect it enough; it strikes her and sends her spinning as well. Before she can recover, Cruel leaps into the air and slams down on top of her, sending her plummeting into the ground. Cruel stands over her, bellowing.
Arsenal smashes the transparent cone of the missile he’s grappling, freeing Mandy. He swoops low over the lake and drops her, telling her to swim toward Monopoly Guy and tell him to get her out of harm’s way. He then flies back toward Cruel, attempting to goad him into leaving Phoenix alone. Unusual Punisment breaks in over his helmet radio again. "He doesn’t really understand much. If you really want to goad him, try — " Arsenal curses and snaps off his helmet radio.
Monpoly Guy looks up into a nearby tree and notices a metallic cat perched on a branch. It nods toward one of the low-hanging branches and it droops to the ground and breaks off, the perfect size for a crutch. MG grabs it while he summons Dog again, this time to heal himself.
Slugger, now fully revived, moves to help Mandy from the lake. Monopoly Guy hobbles to them and takes hold of Mandy’s hand. He summons a horse and they ride toward the police cars.
Prince Paradim drops Dr. Danqitti behind a line of police cars and flies back toward the battle.
Arsenal routes additional energy into his Unibeam and fires it at Cruel. The blast staggers the villain slightly.
At this point a news helicopter appears over the scene. Another missile appears as well, this one from a different direction than the others and heading toward Arsenal. It explodes a few feet away and causes an electro-magnetic pulse, doing enough damage to the armor to short out the Unibeam.
Slugger leaps over to land nearer to Cruel, and beneath the hovering Arsenal. Prince Paradigm flies in that direction also.
Asenal drops to the ground in front of Cruel and challenges him. Cruel swings but Arsenal blocks the mighty blow. “We need to hit him at the same time, coordinate our attacks!”
Before they can all get set, Cruel pulls back to swing again. Phoenix lands behind him and punches the back of his knee. He doesn’t flinch and instead, kicks Arsenal, sending him flying and stunning him.
Prince flies at Cruel, blasting him again. The shot destroys the villain’s shirt. The body beneath is horribly scarred, but a large tattoo can still be read: CRUELTY BEGETS CRUELTY. Reading this, Phoenix has an idea. “Stop hitting him! Try being nice to him!” She reaches up and hugs him. Slugger follows her lead: she approaches the villain, unbottoning the top button on her flannel shirt, and say haltingly, “Hey sailor…uh, you sure are handsome…umm…”
Cruel growls and tries to pound Phoenix into the ground, but she dodges it. Slugger, relieved she doesn’t have to be nice to him anymore, winds up a Haymaker. Prince and Phoenix time their attacks to land with her punch. Phoenix rushes her punch and misses, but Prince’s Photon Beam and Slugger’s powerful Haymaker connect at the same time. The ground trembles with the force of the blow, but Cruel stays on his feet.
Monopoly Guy moves to Arsenal’s side, summoning Dog. As Arsenal is healed, another missile hits the ground not far away. No explosion this time; the nose cone pops off and disgorges Freeze! She tumbles to the ground and looks a mess, dressed in a gaudy, clashing, ill-fitted costume, hair and makeup askew. She looks herself up and down and screams, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!”
Cruel grasps at Slugger but misses. Prince hits him again with another Photon Beam, with the same results (none). Cruel snarls and grabs Slugger’s arm, then punches it. Her forearm snaps and she screams at the unfamiliar sensation.
Arsenal again calls for a coordinated attack. He flies within range of his Unibeam before realizing it no longer works. Monopoly Guy, Freeze, and Phoenix move into position and attack. Cruel is pummelled by a freight train, an ice ram, and a massive punch simultaneously. “Pain!” cries Cruel.
Two more missiles sail into view. One shoots past Prince Paradigm and hits the ground, exploding. The second missile zeroes in on Cruel. It explodes, raining fiery napalm all over him.
The burning Cruel kicks Slugger, who is sent flying across the Park to land in a heap. Phoenix exerts control over the earth element, burying Cruel in a mound of dirt. Freeze then encases it in ice. Arsenal, boot jets sparking, lands in front of it. Slugger slowly gets to her feet.
With another shout of “Cruel!”, the villain bursts from the entangle, sending chunks of ice and clods of dirt flying like shrapnel. Arsenal is standing right in front of him so that’s who he punches. The armored hero is stunned again.
Seeing Arsenal smacked through the air sends Phoenix in to a rage. She gathers strength from the earth at her feet and lands a mighty blow; Cruel howls and drops to one knee.
The others then coordinate once again: Monopoly Guy summons another train, Prince fires a Photon Blast, Freeze creates another ice ram, and Slugger leaps at Cruel from several feet away with everything she has. All of this tremendous power impacts Cruel at once, actually knocking him back a few yards. Slugger knocks herself out.
Cruel doesn’t stay down long. As he’s rising, Prince flies toward him still firing his Photon Blast. Monopoly Guy rides his horse toward Cruel and summons the Shoe. It appears around Cruel’s foot, intended to slow him down. At the same time, Freeze slides toward him and covers the ground at Cruel’s feet with a sheet of ice.
Phoenix takes to the air again, scanning the park below for signs of a command center. Instead she spies two more missiles, coming from yet a different direction. Before she can react they are upon her and there’s a massive, fiery explosion. Her limp, flaming body drops to the ground. Arsenal screams and flies to her side, his boot jets finally giving out as he lands. He pulls her body from the flaming debris field, but it’s too late, she’s nothing but a charred husk.
The rest of the team continue to hammer Cruel with attacks. He takes a step but slips on the ice, falling to the ground. He gets up again and makes a tremendous leap, landing directly on top of the news helicopter, then bouncing off of it to leap away.
The copter goes into a spin, its rotors destroyed. Prince flies to it and grabs it by the tail, trying to steady it and slow its fall. Freeze slides closer and throws up a circular Ice Wall, about 20’ high, directly below the chopper. Its fall slowed by Prince Paradigm, it drops a couple of feet and lands safely on the ice.
Cruel is gone. Broken, bleeding, and exhausted, the heroes gather around Arsenal, still kneeling by Phoenix’ body.
“Are you still there?” Arsenal asks with contained fury into his helmet radio. There is no response. “I know you’re still listening. I’ll see you dead for this.”
Before their eyes, the burned husk that was Phoenix beings turning to ash very quickly. It cracks open, a hollow shell. Inside is a squealing infant girl surrounded by a tiny, flickering phoenix aura. Arsenal picks her up gently and stands, the heroes glancing at each other in surprise.
That’s when they see heading toward them a group of supervillains. The experienced heroes recognize some them immediately: Captain Caricature, Femme Fatigue, Misquito, Cotton Candy, and Static Cling. The Carnies.