JUSTICE LEAGUE

29

The Awakening, Part One
 

Studmuffin barely had time to get up from his sleeping mat and adjust his new loincloth, before the old woman entered his hut. “Somos alegres que estão acordado. O chefe está pronto para veê-lo,” she told him, smiling about something.

“It’s too early in the morning for me to even try to understand that,” Studmuffin complained, but stood still and allowed her to place some kind of band with feathers around his head. “Oh, I get it. That thing last night was my initiation into the tribe, wasn’t it?”

She pulled on his arm, dragging him out of the hut and down the path towards the remains of the fire from the previous night. “É um dia muito especial para você, você nao devem estar atrazados.”

“Yeah, sure. Just no breakfast, okay? I don’t think--” he paused as they rounded the corner. The entire tribe was once again gathered around the fire pit, watching him approach.

The chief sat on a raised platform, and the teenage girl stood next to him, on his left. Studmuffin also recognized some of the young men in the crowd from their drinking game, but the old man sitting next to the chief was not familiar. Ancient is a more accurate term than old, though, he thought to himself. The man’s face was a mass of wrinkles and his long white hair blew in the morning breeze.

“Let me guess, the village elder,” Studmuffin whispered to the woman while they joined the group.

The chief nodded at Studmuffin and beckoned him to climb up on the platform. He did so, and was steered to a place to the right of the chief. Then the chief turned to address the entire tribe.

“Hoje é verdadeiramente um grande dia para a nossa vila. O estranho do profetiza aceitou minha filha como seua esposa. O ancião sábio de nossa selva tem regular viajado à nossa vila fazer o oficial de casamento. A nossa tribo seguramente gozará muitos mais bênçãos desta união afortunada.”

The tribe cheered and clapped. Studmuffin smiled blankly.

The chief moved aside and the old man took his place between Studmuffin and the girl.

“Unirá-se-á mãos,” he said, and held out the girl’s hand to Studmuffin.

Studmuffin had no idea what he was supposed to do, but apparently, he was being slow about it, because the man grabbed his hand and forced it into the girl’s. The tribe cheered enthusiastically again, but Studmuffin had finally had enough.

“I wish someone would tell me just what is going here!” he yelled, dropping her hand. “Is this some strange initiation ceremony or what?”

“No, of course not,” the old man told him. “It’s the official announcement of the agreement you made with the chief. What don’t you understand?”

Studmuffin spun around to face the man. “You can speak English?”

“Obviously. You can’t speak Portuguese?”

“No, I can’t speak Portuguese! I didn’t know what language they were speaking! I’m not even supposed to be here! And what agreement are you talking about? I didn’t make any agreement with the chief!”

“Once again, language is a cultural barrier,” the man sighed. “I believe I have some things to explain to you. If you’ll please follow me.”

***

“Okay, I get that you’re the village elder and everyone around here respects you and all that. But where the hell have you been when I needed a translator?” Studmuffin said as he and the man settled on the floor of the chief’s hut.

“I was traveling around the neighboring tribes. They were doing some business with traders from the nearest city and needed me to translate for them. And you may call me Amato.”

“Amato, then. My name is Studm-Roseidous.” Studmuffin didn’t know why he felt the need to use his real name, but it seemed to be the right thing.

“Roseidous. Why are you in our little village?”

“You might find the story a little hard to believe.”

“And you will find it a little hard to believe why my people think you are here.”

“Try me.”

“Very well. Long ago, this particular tribe had a-well, I suppose what you could call a seer-someone who predicts the future.”

“We call that a psychic. Or psycho, in the case of Miss Cleo,” Studmuffin muttered.

“What?”

“Nevermind. I assume this seer made a prediction?”

“Yes,” Amato nodded. “In his dream, he saw one of the gods fly to the village in the form of a human. This human would either bring great or terrible fortune to the village. And here you are. They saw you flying and you are the god they’ve been waiting for.”

“What?! Hey, I’m just a superhero, not a god. And yes, I can fly, but that’s just part of my powers. I can’t make their lives terrible or great.”

“But they believe that you can. That’s why the chief gave you his daughter, Liara. He wanted to please you. Luckily, I arrived in time to finalize the marriage.”

Studmuffin leapt to his feet. “WHAT? I didn’t-she-you-I’m MARRIED?”

“Yes, what did you think we were doing?” Amato looked somewhat amused.

“I thought that was my initiation into the tribe! Oh, I get it. That drinking game, that was my bachelor party, wasn’t it? But, hang on, I didn’t make any deal with the chief. We can’t even understand each other.”

“At the feast, did you not take the food he offered you?”

“I did, but…” Studmuffin trailed off and sank back down to the floor. “That was my agreement to get married?”

“Yes. You are married now. I understand that it was never your intention to be here, but I must ask you, what are your intentions now? Are you going to stay or return to your friends?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I have to tell the tribe something. And I have to let my friends know what I’ve been doing. And I have to…”

The voice was back. He hadn’t even noticed it was gone, but now he heard it again. The voice, feeling, whatever it was, inside his head. It kept telling him to go south. That’s why he was here, he was trying to make it stop calling him. He had to find out what it was, find out what it wanted with him.

Amato was staring at him, concerned. “You have to what?”

“I have to go.”

“If you must go, then go.”

“I don’t want to. Amato, these people took care of me and adopted me into their tribe. And now I’m married, so it’s like leaving my new family. How do I explain to them that I’m not the person from their prophecy and I can’t stay? What do I say to the chief and Liara?” Even while he spoke, the voice became more insistent and Studmuffin couldn’t help looking out the window towards the sky.

Amato rose slowly to his feet. “I can see that something calls you. You must find what you are searching for. Don’t worry about the village. I’ll tell them something.”

“Thank you, Amato,” Studmuffin said as the old man turned to leave. “And tell them…tell them I said I’d come back.”

***

Studmuffin wasn’t sure how long he traveled, but that didn’t matter as long as he kept going. He flew over the rest of the Amazon, the rivers winding like snakes far below him. He flew over the Pampas region of Argentina, flat fields stretching in all directions. He flew over the mountains of the southernmost countries and out over the ocean. All the while, the feeling was still there. Keep going.

Studmuffin couldn’t feel the rain, the sun, or the cold temperatures at night. Even during the day, temperatures got increasingly colder. Finally, he could see something ahead. A continent covered in ice. Antarctica. That was his destination; he knew it.

He continued flying towards what instinct told him was the South Pole, and was almost there when he saw it. Something dark in the midst of the blinding white. Landing quickly, Studmuffin discovered the object to be a dogsled. Trapped in the ice, the remains of the dogs were still attached to their harnesses. A quick search and Studmuffin also located the frozen remains of the driver. From his position, he was attempting to reach…Studmuffin glanced up. A few yards away, where the man surely would have reached safety, were stairs leading down under the ice.

Yes, here. Go here, the voice said.

Studmuffin followed the voice down the long set of stairs. At the bottom, there was no door, but the stairs opened up into a long room. An underground bunker. Studmuffin waited for his eyes to get used to the darkness, then almost turned and ran back up the stairs after seeing what was in the room.

On each side of him were rows of bodies, standing upright and in neatly arranged rows. He prepared to fight them, but quickly realized they weren’t moving. And that they were children. He moved closer. The children wore a weird silver-like clothing. Their eyes were open, but they didn't have any eyeballs. Just empty black pits. Studmuffin shuddered and backed away.

“Ooooh, and what have we here?” A voice called, drifting in from outside. “Too bloody cold for you mutts, eh?”

The voice was loud and mocking, designed to carry. The speaker knew Studmuffin was there, and this was his way of calling him out. It should have struck him as strange- anyone being out here in the middle of nowhere; even more the fact that they had a British accent. But he immediately knew that the only thing he should feel was afraid. Studmuffin knew this voice…

He sighed, letting out a little wisp of steam. Something like relief washed over him- he’d known this would come eventually, better that he could finish it now.

Studmuffin pushed his heels down, and launched into the air. He flew up the stairs, cold wind biting his face, and burst through the bunker’s entrance-

Jarhead was waiting. His hulking, impossibly muscular form hovered in the air, a few feet from the frozen remains of the dogsled team, somehow grinning with the jar that was, well, his head.

They faced off, hovering mere yards from each other. Jarhead’s arms were folded casually over his conference table-sized chest.

“Well, there you are,” Jarhead said. “Been a while, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” Studmuffin searched for a comeback, which would have, undoubtedly, been extremely cutting and devastating, but instead, being a nice guy, opted to just say “Well… it has!”

Jarhead looked at him quizzically for a moment, and then grinned again. “You’ve had a right old time, ain’t ya? Runnin’ around in the jungle and the snow and all that. Followin’ me, weren’tcha? Well, what do you think? All the little mysteries gellin’ together, eh? That it?”

“Sort of…” Studmuffin said. “But you, uh, answered a question with a question…”

Jarhead’s grin didn’t falter. “Well, you haven’t changed a mite, at least. Still a regular clever Dick, eh?”

“Uh… excuse me?”

“Oh, grow up.” Jarhead snapped. “Now, I’m guessin’ you didn’t come here to make chit chat.”

“Actually, I came here to freeze my butt off in the snow, wander around in a cramped little bunker, beat the living crap out of you, find out who you’re working for, and what you’re up to, then kicking you in the ‘bollocks,’ I guess you’d say, a few times, and then going home.” He thought for a moment. “So, with the exception of the beating, and the finding out, and the kicking and the going home… I’m almost done!”

Jarhead kept his strange, mocking grin. He didn’t seem to be getting angry at all- in fact, it seemed like he was trying to get Studmuffin angry. Well screw that! Studmuffin could last longer than he could any day, that smug British bastard! He had a temperament of steel! He could turn his emotions on and off like a stupid freaking idiot switch!!

Studmuffin’s fists clenched involuntarily. Jarhead glanced down at them, and grinned even more widely.

And he felt something like a tiny, aerial finger prodding at the back of his brain. The hints of a whispered, seductive suggestion…

“Well-” Studmuffin said, swaying a little. He ran a hand uncertainly over the back of his head. “Well, what are we waiting for, then?”

“Last time we met,” Jarhead said. “I told you I’d make you howl. And I never got to live up to that. What a pity- bad form, and all that. But, no bother, we can just make amends now.”

In the time it took Studmuffin to blink, Jarhead charged.

Two hammer-sized fists hit him beneath the ribs, and the air exploded from Studmuffin’s lungs. He was flung backwards from the blow, flailing in the air and then smashing into the snowy ground. Snow and mud soaked through his cape, into his back. Oooh, he was going to be feeling that in the morning. And that was definitely going to be a bruise- two bruises, in fact. How-

The thought forced its way through Studmuffin’s fogged mind- Jarhead!

Studmuffin sprang into the air, just as Jarhead slammed, feet first, into where he’d been lying. The giant looked up at him and grinned.

But Studmuffin didn’t wait for Jarhead to react. He lashed out with one foot, caught Jarhead in the side of the head with his heel. Jarhead stumbled slightly, and Studmuffin dived, tackling him around the waist. Jarhead didn’t budge. Studmuffin pushed harder, feet digging into the snow. Jarhead looked down at him.

“What in the bloody hell are you doing?”

“Uh…” Studmuffin said, continuing to push and strain. “Attacking you? Um, could you just, sorta, fall over?”

“Oh, sure!” Jarhead said. “Absolutely!” Without a moment’s hesitation, he flopped down on his side.

“Oh, hey, th-“ Studmuffin started to say-

Jarhead coiled his legs, and let them loose into Studmuffin’s chest, sending him flying. “The pleasure’s all mine, mate.”

Studmuffin sprang up from the snow. “Okay, that- is- it! No more screwing around! Let’s do this!!”

Jarhead grinned. “Finally.”

Studmuffin called on the Chi, and launched himself into the air. Jarhead let out a primal roar, leapt as well.

They met in the air. Studmuffin’s fist slammed into Jarhead’s chest. Jarhead grunted slightly, and jammed a ham-sized fist just below Studmuffin ribs. He stumbled in the air, tried to correct himself before he hit the ground. And yet, through the throbbing pain, and the cold, and the sudden airsickness, it occurred to Studmuffin that something just didn’t feel right…

Jarhead’s blow. That was it. It had hurt, sure- no denying that. But Jarhead was a monster, he had arms like a telephone pole- his ribs should have shattered, he shouldn’t have just gotten a little bruise. Not that he wanted shattered ribs, and not that the bruise was little, but all the same… Was Jarhead not as strong as the last time they’d fought? Was he holding back?

Studmuffin decided to try a little experiment. He righted himself, and flew straight at Jarhead, fist raised. The Seeker grinned, waiting. When Studmuffin was about two feet away, he swung out brutally with a massive arm-

Missed! Studmuffin dived under the blow, and slammed both fists into Jarhead’s stomach. The giant grunted, giving Studmuffin the tiniest reassurance. And now he was sure- Jarhead wasn’t performing at his best. If he had been fighting like he had the first time, that trick never would have fooled him. So, what? Was it the cold weather? That would make sense- now that he thought about it, Jarhead’s skin did look a bit paler than it had last time. Also, their last battle had been in the summer heat…

Studmuffin didn’t have much more time to think about it, as Jarhead brought his fist downwards. Studmuffin backpedaled, barely avoided getting his head crushed, and pulled a sharp uppercut, striking Jarhead squarely beneath the jar.

“So, was this worth waiting for?” Studmuffin asked, darting away from Jarhead’s fists.

“Oh, most bloody certainly, mate,” Jarhead said coldly. Before Studmuffin could reply, he swooped forwards, and stiff-armed Studmuffin, sending him sprawling. He hit snow, and immediately pushed himself back into the air with the Chi. Jarhead hit where he had been a moment later, a blurry of fists.

His back was to Studmuffin. And again, Studmuffin felt the invisible, prodding finger in the back of his brain, and the distant, airy whispers…

No time for that! Jarhead’s back was to him- this might be the only shot he’d get.

Studmuffin called on the Chi, focused it, and molded the roiling energy inside him into something physical. And he could feel the power, the electric, tantalizing power, growing inside of him. His skin tingled, and his hair- every hair on his body- stood rigid with electricity. His breathing became labored, anticipating… his eyes fluttered closed.

Jarhead didn’t look back, but he rose slowly to his feet.

Studmuffin’s eyes snapped open, and they were as white and glowing potently. Spidery strands of electricity ran up and down his body, radiating towards his hands, towards his fingertips. His muscles shivered with power- his cells- his cells!! He could feel them, every one on the verge of exploding with light. Light was streaming from his palms as he slowly balled them into fists, and even then the light radiated from between his fingers. The air around him was thick with the smell of ozone; electricity snapped furiously over his fists. He slowly brought his fists back so that they were next to his armpits…

Euphoria! Sex, drugs, and money all in one sensation! Intense pleasure! POWER!!

“Ready for this, lunky?” Studmuffin said, as a grin split his face. Light spilled from behind his teeth.

Jarhead turned around, and looked up at him. And he grinned.

“HYYYYY-KAAAAAAAAAHH!!!” Studmuffin shot out his right hand, and a blast of pure energy snapping off of it. Left fist up- fired! Right! Left! Right! Left!

Energy blasts tore up the ground around Jarhead, disintegrating the snow in pillars of steam. Jarhead crossed his arms over his chest and bowed his head as blinding white explosions and steam engulfed him.

Studmuffin continued to fire, arms pumping like deadly pistons, alternately firing energy bursts. The frigid air was becoming too warm far too fast. The shock waves rattled his teeth violently, and Studmuffin’s eyes stung from the pillar of steam billowing up from the snow, but he kept firing. His arms burned with fatigue, just as wave after wave of pure, destructive, invigorating energy pumped through them.

After what seemed like an eternity of firing, Studmuffin let his fists slip clumsily open, and dropped his arms to his sides. His entire body was shaking, his breaths came out as ragged gasps. The temporary warmth of the energy barrage was quickly evaporating, and Studmuffin suddenly wondered why he’d thought it was a good idea to come to Antarctica in spandex. A monstrous tower of steam still remained where Jarhead had been.

Studmuffin reached shakily into his pocket, feeling for the bag of freeze-dried chili dogs he’d carried with him recently. It didn’t give him as much of a boost as a real chili dog did, but times like now, when he felt like he would black out any moment from the fatigue, they were better than nothing.

The pillar of steam began to thin out- the warmth from his attack was gone now. And as he watched, still fumbling in his pocket, the steam melted away into the frigid air… revealing a dark, towering figure. Studmuffin’s hand froze in his pocket.

Jarhead stood just as he had before; arms crossed, head bowed. There were some singe marks on his biceps, and around the top of his jar, but he was not noticeably hurt, and definitely alive.

Oh man…

Jarhead lifted his head, and shook his arms off. “Well, that stung just a smidge. Not half of what you did last time, though, eh?” He glanced down at the smoldering- but somewhat small- crater he was standing in.

“I… uh…” Studmuffin said.

“Well?” Jarhead demanded. “I thought you said you were going to stop arseing about and get down to business."

Studmuffin dug into his pocket again, searching desperately for his freeze-dried chili dogs- Where the hell are they?!

“Right, you want to get to business? Well then, let’s do it, shall we?”

It suddenly occurred to Studmuffin- They’re in my other pocket.

Jarhead clenched his fists and grinned. “Let’s get right down to our bloody business!!”

Studmuffin didn’t even have time to pull his hand free before Jarhead smashed into him. This time, Studmuffin was sure he felt one of his ribs crack. He went flailing through the air- and there was Jarhead again! Directly in front of him!

Jarhead drove his fist into Studmuffin’s stomach with the force of an express train. The pain- tears sprang involuntarily to his eyes. The air was forced from Studmuffin’s lungs, and he doubled over in midair.

“P-please…” He gasped. Please, please just kill me. Don’t do that again. Oh, God… Oh God I’m going to-

“Aw, got you beggin’ now, have I?” Jarhead asked. He raised his arm- and brought it crashing down on Studmuffin’s back. The super hero plummeted, snow rushing up at him-

But once again, Jarhead intercepted, pile driving Studmuffin from beneath and tossing him back into the air. Studmuffin’s head spun, and for a dull moment he tried to focus on-

A massive fist collided with his face and he jerked to the side. Another, and blood feel freely from his nose. He was aware of those same enormous hands clasping onto his shoulders, and Jarhead’s horrible face filling his vision. And the Seeker laughed. Even through the haze of pain, he could feel the terror deep inside. Jarhead rocked back, and then smashed his jar into Studmuffin’s forehead. Studmuffin cried out in fresh pain- if his skull hadn’t cracked open, it would be a miracle.

Jarhead’s hands left his shoulders, but before he could react, huge sausage fingers closed around the back of his head. And suddenly, Jarhead was rocketing downwards, rushing straight towards the ground! Studmuffin tried to close his blood-filled eyes-

He was smashed face-first into the burning cold snow. He opened his mouth to- to scream? To whimper? Either way, nothing came out- but snow forced its way in, numbing his tongue, cutting off his air. He tried to breathe through his nostrils, but that only brought more snow in.

I’m suffocating! Holy- damn it!! This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!!

“That ought to c-” Jarhead stopped. “No, no, that would have been a horrible pun.”

It would have. Studmuffin thought dully. And- crap!!

“You never could have beaten me, you know?” Jarhead said. “It really was stupid to come here. Suicide. How does that make you feel? Can you feel the frustration? The hatred? The impotence? Your species, since you first learned how to put all of your grubby little thoughts together, you’ve always asked- what is it like to die? Well, mate-“

Studmuffin’s fading brain suddenly bore a rapid, desperate plan. If he could just-

“-Are you impressed?”

Studmuffin sprang up, forcing Jarhead’s hand away. Before the Seeker could even register surprise, Studmuffin darted forwards on Chi-powered legs, and thrust his hand over the behemoth’s shoulders, right at the base of the jar. His hand met brief resistance, and then broke through. Jarhead’s head toppled from his body and dropped into the snow. And then Studmuffin’s charge carried him past, and he collapsed into the snow, panting. He was so tired, so, so tired. It felt like the Chi was draining from him every second. He reached into his pocket- his other pocket, and pulled out the bag of freeze-dried chilidogs. He shakily ripped the top off and pored the contents down his throat. Most of it evaporated on his tongue, but either way, he felt the strain on his Chi lessen a little. Plain old physical fatigue? He had plenty of that. His muscles were screaming, and his stomach… He hoped nothing had ruptured. Jarhead had hit him at full force- no matter how much the cold weather weakened him, Jarhead was still a force to be reckoned with. And he’d been holding back quite a bit, it seemed…

Behind him, Jarhead quietly regenerated.

Studmuffin wanted to drop his face down into the snow, but he knew that wouldn’t do any good. His skin was already red and raw from his first dip- no matter how soft and inviting it looked…

Studmuffin had not had a chance to talk with Isomorphix when he’d briefly returned last November. If he had, he would have heard about Iso’s battle with Keghead, and how the Seeker had regenerated after having his head severed. All Studmuffin knew was that it was probably wishful thinking to assume that beheading Jarhead would be enough to kill him. He’d be back in the ring eventually, he was sure.

He just hadn’t counted on it happening so fast.

A barrage of fists cracked into his back, pummeling him into the snow. Studmuffin yelped, and the newly regenerated Jarhead laughed.

“Blooming good try there,” He said. “But did you really think that would be enough?”

Studmuffin spit out blood and snow. “No, actually.”

“Ah, well, good for you then.” Jarhead kicked him savagely in the ribs, and then leapt back into the air. Studmuffin just groaned. After a moment, he painfully raised his head and looked over his shoulder. The Seeker hovered silently, a few feet away. He was waiting for him to recuperate- giving him a chance to get some fight back in him. Studmuffin almost felt like not giving him the satisfaction, but no, no- if he was going to die here, he’d go down fighting.

Studmuffin got painfully onto his hands and knees. There, that wasn’t too-

Jarhead swooped over him, and punched him hard in the side before darting back into the air again. Studmuffin toppled back into the snow.

“F***!” He shouted. “I just got up!!”

“Oh, are you getting angry now?” Jarhead asked, delighted. “Well, come on, get up. I promise not to hit you so hard next time.”

Jarhead’s sneering voice cut into Studmuffin’s head, and he struggled furiously onto his knees. He turned- Jarhead was gone. For a moment his was confused- and then a knee smashed into the back of his head. Lights exploded in Studmuffin’s eyes and he doubled over, clutching his head. It was like a bomb had gone off in his skull. Through the pain, he could only dully feel the prodding, invisible finger…

Jarhead laughed. “That was far, far too bleedin’ easy. You really shouldn’t let yourself get tricked like that, being a big super hero and all.” He hovered, arms crossed over his chest, as Studmuffin clutched his head. “That’s what they call you buggers, right? ‘Super heros.’ Daft name. What’s so heroic about you lot, eh? Runnin’- or flyin’- around, sticking your noses in every one else’s business- why, eh? How are you saving the world?”

“Shut up!” Studmuffin roared.

“Oh, did I hit a nerve?” Jarhead asked innocently. “Well, as long as we’re on the subject- why are you, mate? You know what I mean. Why are you, ‘hero’? No blighter killed anyone in your family, I know that. So, what? Feel like savin’ the world, that it? Eh?”

A foot collided with Studmuffin’s back. He struck out furiously with one fist, but Jarhead dodged, hovering above him.

“Why do you wear that daft costume? Why do you run around fightin’ purse-snatchers dressed up like a bloomin’ circus act?”

“Yeah, well- well you have a jar for a head!” Studmuffin shouted.

“Why would anyone do that, eh? And your power- you harness your ego. Your Chi, or whatever fancy moniker you put on it. Interesting, eh? Your entire power is about how much you love yourself, and yet you’re out there trying to save everyone else. Why’s that, ‘hero’? Well?”

“Go to hell.” Studmuffin growled.

“Is that any way to talk?” Jarhead asked, and drifted down closer to him. Studmuffin lunged at him, but Jarhead floated deftly to the side, and kicked his opponent in the wrist. Studmuffin grunted.

“But you’ll never be able to save them, will you?” Jarhead said. “You can go off on your bloody epic quests and look like the big crusadin’ hero, but you know you’ll never be of any real use. Love yourself too much, eh? That’s why you couldn’t save your little friends at that award show, and that’s why you won’t be able to save them when me mates go down and kill every single one of them with their bare bloody hands.”

“Shut up!” Studmuffin shouted. He got almost to his feet before Jarhead knocked him down again, this time with a low, swift kick to the back of his knee. Studmuffin roared wordlessly in uttter anger and frustration as he collapsed. His hands clenched violently into fists. And the invisible finger prodded, and the far off voice whispered…

“Of course, I probably shouldn’t be telling you that now, should I?” Jarhead said. “You could go off and warn them, maybe have some of them who are any blinkin’ use get ready to at least make a mite of a stand before they die. But, no, I don’t think I have to fret myself about that much, right? After all, you’re not going anywhere…”

Another kick to the head, and Studmuffin was on the ground again. Jarhead’s cruel, cold laughter echoed in his head.

“And you- you I’m going to kill nice and slowly.” Jarhead said, grinning. “I’m going to break you in half with my bare hands, but I’m going to make sure that you feel it. And you’ll scream- oh how you’ll scream!”

Jarhead floated down towards Studmuffin, purposely getting within striking distance- he knew that Studmuffin wouldn’t try anything. And Studmuffin wouldn’t- he wasn’t going to let Jarhead get to him. Even as his teeth clenched, and his blood became hot and a murderous rage built in his chest, he told himself he wouldn’t let Jarhead get to him.

“And after you’re dead,” Jarhead said. “After I’ve broken you and thrown what’s left of you out into the snow to rot… I’m goin’ back to that little jungle village of yours.”

Studmuffin’s eyes widened.

“That’s right.” Jarhead said, his grin spreading horribly across his face. “I know all about it. And once I’m done with you, I’m going to go and pay them a visit. I’ll burn it to the ground, and crush the heads of anyone who isn’t burned. And anyone who tries to fight back- I’ll do worse to them. I’ll drive them mad- I’ll make them eat their own flesh before I let them die! And then- and then, when I’m done with all the rest, I’m going to have some fun with that little wife of yours.”

“No!”

“Oh, yes. Oh, most certainly yes.” Jarhead said. “You bagged a nice nubile little jungle tart there, and I intend to let her know just what bad taste she has.”

Studmuffin’s blood pumped hot and fast as the hatred seeped into his brain. He was going to kill Jarhead, somehow, he was going to kill him.

“I’ll probably rape, murder, and disembowel her,” Jarhead said, in infuriatingly conversational tones. “I’ll probably do it in that order. And then, when I’m finally done with whatever’s left of her, I’ll let her join the rest in the fire. And it will be all for you, mate. Studmuffin. In memoriam. All- for- y-“

“NO!!”

Studmuffin was on him before he had a chance to blink. He back-handed Jarhead out of the air- simply smacked him away. His face was a twisted mask of rage and his eyes-

The moment Jarhead hit snow, Studmuffin was on him again. He grabbed the Seeker by his head, and lifted him up. And Studmuffin looked directly into Jarhead’s face, wanting to see his shock, his outrage, his fear. But all Jarhead did was sneer. Hatred pulsed through Studmuffin, strengthening his arms and his grasping hands, but fogging his brain. He wanted, he wanted-

The invisible, prodding finger broke through, and Studmuffin had an idea.

Crush him. Crush his head. Crush it into a gooey, bloody pulp. Make him hurt. Make him dead.

Without even a second questioning thought, Studmuffin situated his palms on either side of Jarhead’s head, and squeezed. It was hard work, of course, but even as his muscles strained and ached, his anger fueled him on.

Jarhead’s cruel grin widened, as if he accepted it. As if he approved. A chill ran through Studmuffin, a slight fissure of doubt-

But then Jarhead spat at him. “Cute. Very bloomin’ cute. Let’s hurry this up so I can go find your wife. I’m just aching to see her bleed. I want to hear her screams!!”

Anger surged through Studmuffin, and suddenly there was no doubt. Doubt wasn’t a concept that he even understood. His vision was clouded and red; he couldn’t even hear himself anymore, couldn’t even feel the icy Antarctic air. All he could feel as the glass jar-head between his palms. He hated him. He hated him, he hated him with every fiber of his being. He was going to kill him, he was going to kill him and kill him and kill him ten times over! He would see him bleed! He would hear his screams!

Studmuffin squeezed.

Veins stood out on his arms. His muscles bulged beneath his costume. Jarhead’s head was thick, unyielding, but Studmuffin continued to squeeze, putting all of his muscle, Chi, and hatred behind it. He squeezed…

He heard and felt the jar-like head creak…

Studmuffin closed his eyes…

Pop.

His palms touched. Something wet and hot splattered over his chest, and Studmuffin opened his eyes.

Blood and gray matter covered his chest. It was on the ground, steaming. His hands- his hands were covered with it. Jarhead’s lifeless body snapped from his smashed skull and collapsed to the bloody ground.

Studmuffin fell. Fell, right onto the bloody ground, right into-

He rolled into cleaner snow, pushed himself up onto his knees. He retched, willing his head to stop spinning. He opened his eyes- and saw himself. In a pool of melted snow… he saw himself.

His skin was pale. Deathly white. His hair hung long and silver. And his eyes glowed with blue flame.

He was the man. He was the man with the blue-fire eyes.

And suddenly, the anger and adrenaline and Chi left Studmuffin, and he collapsed into the snow as blackness enveloped him.

***

--can’t change what’s already been decided.” Saph was standing over her wearing a fireman’s helmet, her blue eyes smirking. Their mother glared at her accusingly, and spoke with Ewan’s voice…”You’re the one who killed hi-“

Scarlett sat upright in her bed, waking before the end of what was now a several-times-every-night-nightmare. Her hair was stringy and damp with sweat as she surveyed the room to reassure herself. No iron bars. No foreign men standing watch, ready to serenade her. Just one of the bedrooms in the Hall of Justice. Across the room, an alarm clock read 5:13am.

“At least I went almost a full hour before waking up this time,” she moaned to herself, settling back down, flipping onto her other side, and pulling the covers up to her chin. Her other pillow was on the floor beside the bed; she reached out and grabbed it, hugging it to her like it was another person. Even this, however, did not make her any less aware of Hamlet’s absence. Scarlett shut her eyes anyways.

***

A few hours later, X-Raytor was in the kitchen flipping pancakes since it was his turn to make breakfast that week. Scarlett stumbled into the kitchen, still in her pajamas, so tired she might as well have been sleep-walking and oblivious to everything except the hunger the scent of the pancakes awoke in her stomach as well as her desire to drink an entire pot of coffee...two if she could get another made before the others woke up.

After she took a couple of long sips of her coffee, she woke up a little and noticed who was fixing breakfast.

She and X-Raytor hadn’t really said much to each other since the conversation in the Justice League Walk-In Closet. There really wasn’t much to say, after all…was there?

“Syrup?”

“Sure.”

Scarlett poured syrup over her pancakes.

“Are there any blueberries?”

“Blueberries?”

“For the pancakes.”

“Oh…I don’t think so. I think we had to get rid of them for Saph.”

Scarlett ate a bite of pancake, and X-Raytor flipped a new pancake.

Oh, just tell him already. You need to tell someone. And he’s dealing with this kind of stuff, too. Scarlett watched X-Raytor take the pancake off the griddle and pour a new one in.

“Hey..uh..”

“Hmm?” X-Raytor asked absentmindedly as he looked through her top.

“You know..remember when we talked about..you know?”

“Sure,” he replied, changing his focus to the pancake he was pouring out. The perfect Mickey Mouse pancake had always eluded him before…he would get it this time…

“I was wondering..uh..well, it’s just that I’ve been having these dreams..well, not really, they’re more like nightmares, and I know you-“

“Uh-huh.” Almost…almost there…

“And I know you’ve been-“

“Hah-hah! I did it! Perfect Mickey Mouse Pancake!” He started dancing from behind the stove.

Scarlett sighed heavily and got up from her seat.

“Oh, what was it you were saying?”

Scarlett threw her pancakes, plate, fork and all into the garbage. “Don’t worry about it, X-y.”

“What? What’s up?”

She started to answer him, but her cell phone chose that importunate time to ring from where it was attached to her pajama bottoms with a clip.

“Hello?”

“Scarlett? Scarlett Phyre? It’s you, isn’t it?”

“…Phabio?”

“So the Inside View was right! You are alive, my dear phriend!”

“Yeah. Actually, I’ve been meaning to call you…remember that cottage you sold me about a year ago?”

“Yes?”

“Well…let’s just say I might be in the market for new property soon.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, keep your eyes open…and have you heard anything from my sister in the past couple of months?”

“Phrom Saph? She came by my ophphice a phew weeks ago with some schematics phor some kind oph headquarters, wanting to know iph I was interested in them, but I don’t have time phor that kind oph thing.”

“…Schematics? As in, elaborate details of everything that made up whatever building it was she had them for?”

“Yes.”

Scarlett swore. “Look, I’ll call you back, okay, Phabio?” She hung up and ran to the office--sure enough, the newly updated schematics from the last reconstruction job were missing.

“She must have just walked right on out with them,” Scarlett reasoned, but she couldn’t blame the others. How could they have known what kind of…vileness…Saph was if Scarlett had never even mentioned her? If only she’d thought to say something!

“Guys! We might have some problems!” she announced, running to the kitchen where most of the others had begun to congregate. She explained what Saph had gotten away with.

"Of course, unless she uses them in the next few weeks they'll probably be out-of-date, considering just how often we have to renovate this place," Scarlett pointed out.

"Yeah...but we should still change things up a little." Pinzz looked at Drew and Nectic. "Can you two handle it?"

"Of course."

"Good. Now where's the syrup?"

The crisis having been dealt with, Scarlett retired to the Justice League Walk-In Closet, where the remainder of her wardrobe was hanging.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid to have burned the place down. All those dresses...and my shoes..." She looked forlornly at the pair of sexy red heels she was wearing, one of the only remaining 4 pairs. She'd worn them more in the past week than she had in the past two years.

But more than the shoes or the dresses or any other the other things she'd caused herself to lose...she missed Hamlet. The only creature to have been through all of it with her...even everything before she'd found the Justice League.

"But he's better off..he's safer without you," she told herself resignedly. And she was about 90% certain that was true.

***

Meanwhile, in one of the shadiest parts of a town not so far away, Hamlet entered the local Mooby Burger and ordered a milkshake before settling himself on a booth table to slurp it and mull over the situation.

"Ey, yo, what's that cat doin' over at that booth?" a customer asked as he ordered. "You servin' animals now? You think we all just a buncha stinkin' animals now?"

"Look, man, the cat's a paying customer. You got your $5.13 or not?"

Hamlet ignored the rest of the conversation. He had more important things to think about. He had no intention of abandoning Scarlett, that was for certain. But first he needed to track down Saph. Which meant tracking down Horatio, that bastard brother of his.

Hamlet was getting close, he knew he was. If he found Saph, she would lead him to Ewan. Through Ewan, Hamlet would find out who was behind this whole scheme to begin with.

And then, once he had the information he needed, Hamlet would take care of Ewan. The Justice League could handle the others, but Hamlet had dibbs on Ewan.

***

In the middle of the city stood a building with mirrored windows. It wasn’t the tallest building in the city, but it had something the other structures lacked: a tree. A giant oak, growing out of the remains of the penthouse, roots winding down the building until they disappeared into the concrete far below. Standing by the tree, looking at the face-like holes in the trunk, stood Oreo Avenger.

“Hello Chuckles,” she said to the tree.

It had been a long, boring night patrolling the streets. She had a brand new Oreo to test out. It turned a person into Carrotop (horror of horrors) and set them searching for the nearest phone to make a collect call. Sadly, the criminals all decided to stay in tonight and Oreo Avenger was without a test subject.

The sun was rising. This was Oreo’s favorite time of day. She wouldn’t wake up for it (dawn was too early in the morning), but if she happened to still be up, she watched the sunrise. Birds sang the sun up, and the city waited silently for another day to begin. The world was full of hope. Anything was possible in a new day.

But that wasn’t the reason she was there. She could watch the sunrise from the top of any building in the city or even floating above it all.

She didn’t come to check on Chuckles, either. He was going to stay a tree for the rest of Oreo Avenger’s life. There was only one person in the world who could change him back to the disreputable human he was before, and she was busy with world domination.

No, the real reason she visited the tree was, like a mature, responsible superhero, she felt the need to talk with her defeated foe. And do the Gloating dance.

“I thwarted you!” She sang the traditional song, dancing. “Thwa-a-a-a-a-arted you!”

The tree watched her, silent.

“I wonder if you can hear me.” Oreo Avenger sat on the roof. “Do trees notice humans? Or are we just blurs to them? You’ll be able to tell us if you turn back. Of course, that won’t be for a while. A couple centuries, at least. You’ve been well thwarted this time.”

Oreo Avenger paused a moment.

“Thwart. That’s a weird word…thwart. Thwa-a-a-art.”

“Excuse me?”

Oreo Avenger flew to the edge of the roof and looked over. A man’s head stuck out of a window, hair mused and face blotchy from sleep.

“Hi,” he said. “No offense, but could you, um, find somewhere else to talk to yourself? It’s just that my kid’s been crying all night and I just got to sleep.”

“Oh, um, sorry. I didn’t think anyone lived here anymore, what with the tree and all.”

“Well, we do.”

“I-I-I didn’t give out my secret identity, did I?”

“I didn’t hear it, no.”

“Oh, good.”

They stared at each other.

“Okay? So, could you…”

“Sorry,” Oreo Avenger said, flying away.

She really should be getting to bed herself. She was probably tired enough to sleep without dreaming. She flew back to Headquarters.


* * *

“Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey!” a disturbingly cheerful voice cut through Oreo Avenger’s sleep.

She hurled a pillow in the general direction of the voice.

“Come on, time to get up!”

“Gnglieb!”

The voice started singing. “Ri-ise and shi-in and bring back that morning glory!”

Oreo looked around her empty room. “Those aren’t the right words to the song, Rosma.”

Rosma, when she was sure Oreo wouldn’t throw anything else, became visible. “You have an appointment with Dr. Lansky in twenty minutes. And you asked me to make sure you got up for it.”

“So come back in nineteen minutes.”

“Nope!”

“I don’t wanna go to Dr. Lansky!”

“You made the appointment.”

“When did I do a crazy thing like that?”

“The other day. After you turned Chuckles into a tree.”

“I wasn’t in my right mind.” Oreo pulled the blankets over her head.

“You’re going,” Rosma said, grabbing the edge of the blanket and pulling it off the bed.

“Gah! I could’ve been naked!” Oreo sat up and stretched. “Is there really eggs and bacon?”

“What?”

“You said ‘eggs and bakey.’”

“No, but X-Raytor made pancakes. There might be some leftovers.”

“Good enough. Oreo Avenger got out of bed. “I’ll be downstairs in a minute.”

Five minutes, a quick shower, and a short nap later, she was in the kitchen, holding a plate of leftover pancakes. She walked into the rec room. “X-Raytor, the microwave’s broken. Can you heat these up?”

X-Raytor, sitting on the couch next to a naked Eric (and very carefully not looking at him), turned his head away from the TV. Two beams of ruby light shot from his eyepieces. Oreo felt the plate warm up.

“Thanks!” she called, heading back to the kitchen. Midnight Chatter waited there for her.

“Wait,” he said as she turned to leave. “I have something to say to you.”

Oreo Avenger waited, eating her pancakes.

“The thing is…you know Scarlett’s twin Saph? Well it turns out that she’s evil and she stole the blueprints for this place and this morning Scarlett discovered that, so Pinzz and Netic are working to change things around a bit. I hope it’s not like that Fung Shui thing Dragon Girl had us do, because she said the most harmonious place for my bed would be upside down in a tree and let me tell you, that’s not comfortable.”

“Is that it?” Oreo interrupted. Sometimes Midnight Chatter needed a little prompting to get to the point.

“No. Um…thanks for coming to rescue me the other day.”

“No problem. Next time, you can rescue me.”

“Rosma told me how you were all worried about me and how you were when you thought I died, so I’ve come to the conclusion that you like me. Like me, like me.” He waggled his eyebrows. “So?”

“So…what?”

“So do you?”

Oreo Avenger looked at the clock. “I’m going to be late.” She set the empty plate by the sink.

* * *

The psychiatrist’s office. A watch ticked, dividing the silence into manageable segments. Dr. Lansky settled back in his chair. Oreo Avenger sat perfectly straight on the couch, facing him.

“Are you going to show my ink blots or something?” she asked.

“Do you want me to show you ink blots?”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Is that what you expect?”

“Why do you answer my questions with more questions?”

Dr. Lansky cleared his throat. “I am here to listen to you, Miss Avenger. Is there anything you wish to talk about?”

“I had a dream last night.”

“Oh?”

“Well, this morning. Maybe it was afternoon. I was up all night patrolling. Anyway, I dreamt I died.”

Dr. Lansky wrote on his notepad.

“However, that didn’t stop me from becoming a would-famous country singer. After a while, things started to fall off and smell, because zombies aren’t the most sturdy of creatures, but I wore long sleeves and perfume and hardly anyone noticed. So what’s that mean?”

“What do you think it means?”

“I think it means I shouldn’t eat Oreos before bed anymore.”

Dr. Lansky wrote again in his notepad.

“Why do you keep writing things down?” Oreo asked.

“It helps me keep track of your progress.”

“I think you’re taking notes to write a book. You’ll call it ‘Behind the Mask’ or something clever like that. Of course, you’ll have to get everyone involved to sign release forms because of that pesky doctor-patient confidentiality thing. But no one’ll sign away their secrets, so you’ll have to change our names. Everyone will know who you’re talking about, though. Some people will feel bad for us, because of the burden we have to bear, and some will be sacred that nutjobs like us are protecting the city, but it won’t matter because you’ll be a multi-millionaire with your best-selling books and people begging you to take them as patients. But at night you’ll worry that one of the superheroes will try to get revenge for the reputation you ruined, because you know that not all of us are as virtuous as we appear.”

Dr. Lansky stared at Oreo Avenger. “C-can you tell the future?”

Oreo Avenger stood up and stretched. “You make it sound like I’m some tawdry sideshow gypsy. Now doctor, our time is up, so I must bid you good day.”

“But-“

“I said good day!”

In the middle of the city sat a building with mirrored windows. On the top of the structure, sitting next to a tree, Oreo Avenger watched the sun set.

***