Reaper spun, easily catching my blast on his scythe. Which left him wide open, as Captain America's thrown shield caught him square in the chest.
"Pair up," Captain American yelled as he plucked the returning shield out of mid-air. "And don't hold back! Fury, get those civilians back!"
"Don't worry," Fury said as he scrambled to pick his plasma pistol back up from where he had dropped it, "my soldiers are already...OW!"
Faster than I would have thought, the older Oriental man stood over Fury, his foot grinding the Colonel's hand and the plasma pistol into the ground. "Firearms," the man said, his voice gurgling from the rush of air through the wide cut on his neck. "How impersonal."
Even as I fired a blast at the Oriental man, he was dodging, just getting out of the way. "I'm all for impersonal, pal. I don't even know your name."
My next blast, the man just waved his hand, and the vibrating air disappeared right before his palm. "Then allow me to introduce myself, Shocker. My name is Chondu. Chondu the Mystic, at your servi..."
"No names, pal." Fury shoved the plasma pistol into Chondu's stomach. The resulting blast of blue energy erupted out of Chondu's lower back, causing him to cry out in pain. My level-two caught him in the face, smacking it to the side, but instantly, he whipped it back around, his red eyes filled with cold anger. A high knee drove Fury back to the ground. Not even looking at the fallen SHIELD commander, Chondu's hands whipped around, one hand tucked to his chest, the other face me, palm out.
"As I was saying, Chondu the Mystic, at your service. How would you like to reach the next cycle today? Chi strike, or direct removal of your heart?"
Great. Martial artist. You never know what you were going to get when you went up against one of these guys. Normally, anyone who busted out a kung-fu pose either had watched way too much "Walker, Texas Ranger." Sometimes, you got a guy who was trained at one of those strip mall dojos you see advertised before the movie starts. And, rarely, you get a guy like Batroc the Leaper or Mister X, who can wipe the floor with an entire bar without breaking a sweat.
Worst of all, you snag yourself a genuine "Thirty-Seven Chambers" Buddhist who knows the secrets of moving mountains without lifting a finger. With a name like Chondu the Mystic, I was probably fighting a guy who could kill me just by blinking his eye in the general direction of my pancreas.
So, instead of answering his question, I fired a wide spread of vibro-blasts, shimmering the space between us. Chondu waved his palm again, from left to right, and just as with my initial attack, the vibrating air simply disappeared. But, by doing so, the bastard just left his left side open, and I snapped off a level-one that caught him in the side. Off-balance, Chondu couldn't defend himself from a level-two that slammed into his ribs. My third shot, however, he managed to pull the old "pluck a vibration from mid-air" trick, immediately striking the kung-fu pose again. "Interesting," he said as I kept my fists up. "Your gloves allow you to palm strike from a distance. It's a shame you don't put any of yourself into your attacks."
"Pal, I built these things myself. It's like the blind ninja who carves out his own sword...or something. I gotta ask, though...the slit throat. What's up with that?"
Chondu smiled, causing the wound on his neck to open as the muscles stretched. "When Dormammu called, I answered the best way I knew how, by attempting to ascend to the next stage of existence. But my efforts were premature. I was brought back in this shell of a body, but Dormammu has seen fit to bless me with his gifts. When I finally ascend, I'll be one step closer to perfection."
"Great. Let me help you along your path, Buddha."
This time, Chondu simply ducked underneath my blasts, closing the distance between us before I could react. The contact plates in my chest deflected most of his blow, but I found myself flat on my back, his foot grinding into my sternum. "Too easy," Chondu said as he towered over me. It felt like he was trying to shove his foot through my ribcage. "Electro told me you were a threat of some sort, Shocker."
"Yeah..." I managed to gasp out as my hands tried to shove his foot away. "You probably should have listened a little bit closer to that dim bulb."
"Really? And why is that?"
"Because he'd tell you the last thing in the world you'd want to do with me. Don't let me have a free shot as your balls." I whipped my hand away from his ankle as the level-three fired. At this range, I didn't even have to aim. The blast slammed him away from me, knocking him backwards. I don't care if you're a proto-zombie/mystical-undead creature. The pain Chondu felt upon landing didn't compare to the agony in his testicles. He rolled on the ground, holding himself.
"That ain't quite fair, Shocker," I heard Fury say as he got to his feet behind me. "Kicking a man in the balls."
"Fair? Where the hell is written I have to fight fair, Colonel?"
Chondu was slow to get back to his feet at Fury took aim. "Don't even..." he warned the
Mystic. When Chondu didn't stop, Fury just sighed, and let loose with a flurry of plasma blasts from his pistol. The plasma ripped through Chondu's body...and didn't bother him one bit as the martial artist got back to his feet. Even as the energy tore holes in Chondu, the wounds knitted right back up, flesh reforming and folding over itself.
"Damn it," Fury said as the gaping hole in Chondu's thigh closed back up, an invisible surgeon stitching the wound closed, "I liked it better when we could actually use firearms against zombies."
"I'm not a zombie, Colonel." Chondu looked down as the final hole in his body sealed itself back up, sounding like an old man slurping soup as the flesh pulled back together. "I'm a little more enlightened than that. Come. I'll be happy to show you." He whipped his head around, adopting the martial artist stance once again for a moment, before throwing himself through the air as Fury, his foot leading the way...
Fury's hand snapped around Chondu's ankle, and the martial artist found himself flung to the ground by the old war dog. "Chondu," Fury said as Chondu looked up with anger on his face, "I've fought better martial artists than you while hung over. I might not be able to blow holes in your body, but I'll be happy to see if broken bones heal like burned skin."
"So be it, Colonel." Without using his hands, Chondu kipped up to his feet, landing with perfect grace. "Even a barbarian like you is spoken in whispers among the dark corners..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm a living God damn legend." Fury threw himself at Chondu, the Mystic barely avoiding the jab. They squared off, Fury's hands loose in front of him, Chondu in a fighting stance.
I raised my gloves, intent on blasting Chondu to give Fury an initial advantage, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Looks like you lost your dance partner, Herman," a crackling voice said. "Mind if I cut in?"
Spinning around, a level-three smashed Electro right into the face. I pushed away from him, two more blasts leaving my gloves. Electro greeted the attacks with laughter as I quickly put distance between me and him. Bolts of lightning slithered around him like a school of eels, and even small arcs of electricity leapt to and fro in the streams of blood weeping from the gunshot wounds in his chest. "Last time, Herman, I sucked all the juice out of your gloves...I think this time, I'll let you keep it. It's so much better when you hand over all your power willingly...although tearing it from you without you being able to do anything about it has its perks..."
I lowered my gloves, shaking my head at what I had just heard. "Ok, Max? I know you're walking on air right now and think you're commanding awe-inspiring power...but man, that was just REALLY freakin' gay, what you just said."
Electro, lightning dancing in his fist, cocked his head to the side. "What? What did you say?"
"Look, I don't have a problem with that. I'm cool if that's the way you swing, Max, but I'm asking as a former friend...just knock that stuff off. It's creeping me the hell out. You want to try and kick my ass, just go ahead and kick it. Save the innuendo."
After a second of thought, Electro barked a short, crackling laugh. "Well. It looks like I finally rattled that cool, calm exterior you've tried so hard to create for yourself. As long as I've touched that exposed nerve, Herman, allow me to set the record straight...no pun intended. I'm actually AC/DC. I go both ways."
"Huh. You know...that's kind of surprising." I crossed my arms, staring right at the Villain of Voltage. "You could go after anybody, male or female, in New York City, and STILL never had a date on Saturday night!"
"You're channeling Spider-Man now, Herman, with those inane quips?"
"Hey, Max, now I think I get why you had such a hard-on for the wall-crawler. Young body, all those sticky webs...ew. I think I just threw up in my mouth."
"Enough!" Electro stepped forward, a trail of sparks thrown up in his wake. "I look forward to cramming lightning down your throat!"
I just shrugged before bringing my gloves up. "Since you never know who's listening, I'm not a homophobe."
"I don't care, Herman," Electro snapped.
"Oh, I know. I just wanted it on the record that I only said those things because I took a page out of Boomerang's book and distracted you. Again."
Electro paused in mid-step. Man...it's really the little things that matter in life. The slow realization and the dawning of the "oh, crap" look on his face really made things worthwhile for that split-second before a stone hammer slammed into his ribs. Electro flew sideways, arcing through the air, his passage marked by the sparks drifting to the ground.
"You declare yourself a God of Lightning? Then stand and face the God of Thunder!" Thor raised his hammer over his head as Electro slammed to the grass. I watched as Electro climbed back to his feet, wobbling, but still pulsing with energy.
"Days ago, I would have pissed my pants at the very thought of crossing paths with you, Thor. But now..." Electro's lips pulled back as he found the guts to sneer at the Avenger. "...but now, I welcome it. I'm still looking for the upper limit on my capacity. You'll make a damn good test, Avenger."
"Jesus," I muttered. "Of all the damn weeks for Electro to get self-confidence."
"I believe Ms. Marvel said the same thing about thou, Herman." Thor squared his shoulders as he faced the human dynamo across the field. "Come. If Electro wishes to prove himself, it is up to us to make sure he's found wanting."
"Yeah," I said as I walked, stride-to-massive-stride, with Thor towards the electricity wielder. "Let's walk right up to an undead Electro, who's throwing around lightning like it's a bunch of streamers, and prove him wrong. This is a good idea...but then again," I realized, "doing this is, what, just another Thursday to you, huh?"
"Mondays, actually. Thursdays tend to be alien invasions," Thor replied. Was he joking with me, or telling the truth? Hey, whatever reason, it distracted me from the very stupid plan of actually walking UP to Electro and beating the hell out of him. By the time I realized just what I was doing, Electro was coming to meet us. Too late to turn back now.
"Come on, Thor. Make me famous, you blonde haired throwback," Electro growled.
"As you wish!" Thor raced forward, hammer leading the way, as Electro dashed towards him. Throwing his hands out, Electro threw two lightning bolts at the Avenger. They streaked towards Thor, but at the last minute, turned in mid-air, arcing towards Mjolnir and disappearing into the stone hammer. Before Electro could recover, Thor was in his face, slamming his shoulder into Max before swinging Mjlonir and catching Electro as he was off-balance. Electro skidded to the side, struggling to keep his balance, as Thor followed up...only for Electro to spin around and blast him with a bolt from short range, the energy arcing from his fingers into Thor's chest. With a grunt, Thor staggered backwards, but managed to catch Electro's next attack on his weapon.
"Thou are indeed more powerful than I expected," Thor acknowledge, brushing at the scorch mark on his blue armor.
"Yeah, well, I ain't your Daddy's Electro anymore." Electro launched an attack, a flurry of lightning and punches, driving forward at Thor. At first, Thor easily knocked aside each attack, swatting them out of the air like bugs. "You know," Electro mocked Thor even as the Avenger ducked under a round-a-house, "you call yourself the God of Thunder...and you swing that hammer around...I wonder..."
Electro's next attack didn't go for Thor...but instead, Electro's hand snaked out and wrapped itself around the shaft of Mjolnir. From my vantage point of staying well out of range (let's be honest, throwing myself in the middle would have done more harm to Thor than to Electro), Electro looked like he was sticking his finger into a open socket. His body jerked for a moment, but suddenly, his other hand wrapped around the weapon as well. "...I wonder," he said, his voice chattering like he was a normal human being getting electrocuted, "if I can borrow some of that hammer's power..."
"Thou are not worthy to wield this weapon," Thor bellowed, "nor the energies within!"
"Yeah, well, the mystical energy I got pouring through me from Dormammu says otherwise, Avenger. Let's see how I deal with yours..." Electro flared suddenly. I had to shield my eyes for a moment before the tinted lenses in my mask kicked in. Even with the protection, I still couldn't stare directly at Electro. The field of electricity around him shone with a bright white energy, and the air crackled like I was standing in the heart of a electric generator.
"So...beautiful..." I heard Electro say. "And it's mine, Thor...all mine..."
"Nay!" With a loud cry, Thor ripped Mjolnir away from Electro's grip.
"Too late...you don't know what I'm packing now...actually, here, let me show you!" For a second, Electro's aura disappeared, the bright white cutting away to nothingness, just before all that energy sliced through the air, slamming into Thor. It enveloped him, and I could hear a sharp cry of pain as he was knocked backwards. He hit the ground, rolling from the impact before coming to a stop, face-down...unmoving.
"Wow..." Electro was wobbling slightly on his feet, trying to keep his balance. The aura of electricity that had surrounded him was gone, leaving nothing but the green-and-yellow costume and the bullet holes in the front. "That was..."
A level-three, right to the side of his face. I fired again as I approached, rocking him backwards. He staggered, cursing loudly, as I brought up both hands and gave him twin blasts to his chest. Those knocked him down to the ground, and even then, I kept firing at him. "Looks like you blew your wad, Max," I mocked as the lawn exploded around him, the edges of my blasts throwing up chunks of dirt into the air.
Blindly, he threw a bolt of lightning at me. It came too close for comfort, causing me to flinch. It was enough time for Electro to take aim, and fire off a more accurate attack, catching me in the shoulder. My nerves tingled for a moment, causing me to stumble. "You don't think I have a reserve tank, Herman," he said as, on his knees, he threw more energy my way, which I barely managed to avoid by diving to the side. "That's always been your problem. You think you're so smart and clever, that you're the most brilliant guy in the room." The aura was quickly regenerating around him, giving Electro a pale yellow glow. "No one else could be as clever as you, no one else could have a plan that was better than yours. You always pretended, with your ridiculous limits and morals, that you were somehow superior to the rest of us common thugs. No wonder your best friends were a retard and a drunkard. They fed your superiority complex!"
"Me? A superiority complex? We went to the same freakin' therapist, Max!" I fired off a blast as I ducked one of his lightning bolts. It still caught me, sizzling my upper arm, but my blast managed to knock the wind out of Electro, or would of if he still breathed. "My problem, Max, is that you tried to kill me!"
"So did the Punisher, but that didn't stop you from having Boomerang cut him down!"
The bolt of lightning Electro flung my way caught me in the leg. The muscles underneath spasmed, causing me to fall to the ground. A level-two kept Electro honest and at a distance, though, as I tried to recover. "Well, if you weren't working for the guy who's trying to bring about the end of the world, I wouldn't be fighting you!"
"That proves the other thing about you, Herman. On the losing side, again. If it isn't Spider-Man getting the better of you..."
"Hey, Max," I interrupted, "I got a better track-record against Spider-Man than you do!"
Alright. I could stand here and throw barbs and vibro-blasts at Electro all day, but that's not going to solve a damn thing. He's just regenerating all the power he threw at Thor, while I'm wasting juice throwing level-threes out just to make him notice. I couldn't think of anything else that could stop him, though. It used to be water, but in the bank, the fire hose and the broken sink's spray didn't do jack but give Electro more room to make fun of me. That aura of electricity just vaporized the water before it got to him...
So just overload him then.
I was so used to working on my own, or with Aleksei, that I forgot I had someone else. Someone a lot more powerful, and a lot stronger than me. And he was beginning to get back to his feet. My blasts couldn't hurt Max, so I shifted my fire, throwing several level three-blasts into the ground as Max's feet. The initial blasts threw chunks of dirt into the air, the next couple turned it all into small chunks, and the final wave of attacks pulverized the chunks into smaller bits. The dirt got into Electro's face, and he cursed while rubbing the dust from his eyes. That was the distraction I needed, and I damn near sprinted to where Thor was getting back to his feet. "Hey, Thor, I got a plan. Are you ok?"
"Aye," the Avenger said as he accepted my outstretched hand. His grip was still strong as I helped him to his feet. "I am afraid, however, that we may have a problem."
I couldn't hold back the laugh. "At this point, what's another?"
"Be serious," and instantly, I was. "I do not know how, but Electro has absorbed energy from Mjolnir. The electricity he smote me was composed of that energy. Even now, I can sense it still in his body, even after the discharge. His attacks may now be tinged with magic."
"Crap. Let me guess. That means he can really hurt you now, like how the Wrecker and his magic crowbar smacked you around."
"Alright..that doesn't change a thing." I pointed with one hand, towards the glistening waters of the Jackie Onassis Reservoir. "I grab Electro, you grab the two of us, and together, we throw him in the lake. He might be able to disperse a high-pressure water spray, but I'm willing to bet an entire damn reservoir will short him out entirely." I thumped my quilted armor lightly. "Between my armor's insulation and your hammer acting like a lightning rod, we should be able to contain him long enough to get him underwater."
"A solid plan," Thor nodded. "Will thou be able to stand his lightning, however?"
"I have no idea," I replied, "but it's worth a damn shot."
"Aye." Thor and I turned back towards Electro. The lightning arcing around him now seemed to hold tinges of white, flashing with each circuit across his body. "Let us make haste."
"That's right," Electro cried as, side-by-side, the two of us charged at him, my dumb ass taking the lead by a few steps. "Keep bringing it, you two!"
"Shut...up!" I threw myself at Electro, arms wide to embrace him. Even before I body checked him, the first shocks were hitting my body, like sticking your tongue onto the leads of a 9-volt. I managed to lock my arms around him, though, before the spasms got unbearable, pinning one arm against his side.
"What are you...let me go!" His free hand pounded against my back. The contact plates managed to deflect most of the blow, but one of my deltoids contracted, seizing up my back and causing me to scream, like getting a Charlie Horse on your shoulder. But as soon as Thor, running past him, grabbed Electro by the scruff of his neck, the shocks lessened, as the majority of the electricity arced to Thor's hammer. A few more steps, and then we were airborne, Mjolnir leading the way, lightning flashing from Electro's body to the mystical hammer. I reached up as best I could, trying to grapple Electro's other arm. Grabbing it was like trying to grab a live wire, but my suit's insulation held as I gripped his forearm, keeping him from tossing lightning at Thor.
We skimmed the ground, fifteen feet in the air by my reckoning. The shortest distance between us and the water was a straight line, and Thor was abiding by the laws of geometry, not wasting a single moment. Electro struggled against my grip, his hand trying to grab me to send a direct current into my body. My suit did its job, keeping the stray bolts and their charge down to a minimum. My big concern was actually keeping hold of Electro so I didn't go falling to the ground until the very last minute...and that minute approached in a matter of seconds, as the edge of the reservoir, well lit by a series of floodlights, appeared in the distance. Closing my eyes, I unwrapped my arms, and gravity instantly took over as I fell away from Electro and Thor. I hit the ground shoulder first, rolling with the impact as best I could. I came to a stop near the water's edge, coming up on my elbows, trying to catch sight of Thor.
It was impossible to miss, a trail of sparks arcing into the air. Thor brought Electro over the deepest part of the reservoir. The two were surrounded by electricity, doing their best impersonation of ball lightning as Electro continued to generate voltage. For a moment, the pair hovered in place, a bright will'o'wisp over the dark water, before they suddenly dove down. The light turned into a glaring flash, with a large geyser of water erupting from the reservoir, Thor drove Electro into the waters of the Jackie Onassis Reservoir. A loud, sizzling pop filled the air as the two of them disappeared under the surface. I climbed to my feet, peering over the large waves created by the impact. Where the God of Thunder and the Villain of Voltage had disappeared into the murky depths, there was nothing but darkness. That had to be a good sign, I thought. Otherwise, there'd be some kind of glow, some kind of light from underwater.
So...now what did I do? Do I sit here and wait for someone to come back out? If Thor came crawling back out of the water, than we'd be in damn good shape. If it was Electro, though...well, then I was fresh out of ideas on how to deal with him. And he'd probably focus solely on me with Thor out of the picture. And that was a fight I was going to lose.
Heroes don't run away. That's what I always called heroes dumb. But now...screw it, I was outmatched. And back the way I came, the Avengers were fighting. Safety in numbers. Teamwork, I told myself as I turned away. Thor would understand. Damn it, I was rationalizing, but standing here if Electro shot out the water was pure suicide.
I could make out the bright red portal shimmering across the Great Lawn, and used it to orient myself. I ran towards it, jogging as quickly as I could in my suit. Even from this distance, I could make out the sounds of battle, along with the occasional blue flash or yellow streak of energy. Alright, so I show back up...I had hurt Chondu before, if he hadn't killed Fury...no, no, positive thoughts. If Fury had kicked Chondu's teeth in, which was the more likely scenario, then we could go after someone else. Reaper? The lady in the bronze bikini that was fighting Ms. Marvel? I could get in the middle of that...focus, Herman, focus.
Yeah. So intent on that split second image of Nekra and Ms. Marvel going at it, I missed the form gliding down beside me. It matched speed with me, wings outstretched, whistling through the air. "Hello, Herman," the Vulture cried, before steering into me, knocking me off-stride and sending me sprawling to the ground. "I'm so glad," Toomes cackled as he swung up to hover in the air in front of me, "that you managed to survive this long. Let Electro handle Thor. You and I have unfinished business, and now it's my turn to extract a pound of flesh."
"I thought human Toomes was ugly, Adrian, but undead you really takes the cake!"
"Hah!" Vulture swooped away from my level-three blasts. My gloves were still at about 50% capacity, but I couldn't afford to waste energy trying to hit Adrian. I was running a damn gauntlet tonight as Adrian flung a steel quill at my feet that I barely avoided, stepping backwards as it embedded itself in the soil. "Look at you, Shocker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run across the park. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal being?"
"Tell you what, find one and we'll talk!" I fire a wide-spread, trying to clip the Vulture, but I only winged him, the metal extension easily shrugging off my blasts.
"You got lucky last time, Herman! It took an entire fire escape to ground me. This time, you have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide!" Another steel quill headed my way, but as I dodged, Vulture anticipated my motion. He drove into me, shoulder first, before swooping up into the air. I grabbed at him, managing to get a hold of his metal harness, as he flew through the air like a missile. The ground retreated below us, this time a lot further than six or seven stories. We left Central Park behind, well above the treetops...and almost to the level of the apartment buildings surrounding the park.
"Damn it, Adrian," I yelled, finding some false bravado as I clung to his armor, "find a new trick! This dropping me from great heights is old!"
"You know me, Herman! I like to stick to the classics!" Higher, and higher, and higher. I could feel the cold seeping into my armor as the Vulture took us well above his old flight ceiling. All I could do was hold on...and hold on...
He suddenly came to a halt. I felt the tips of his steel talons dig into my neck as he grabbed me by the throat. With strength I never knew Adrian had, he pushed me away from him. Instantly, I felt gravity pull on my entire body, 9.8 m/s worth of it trying to bring me back down to Earth. Only the iron grip of the Vulture kept me from plummeting, the fingers cutting off the circulation. I clutched at his arm with both hands, trying to keep a hold of him.
"Look below you, Herman. Manhattan. The heart of New York City. The heart of the United States. The heart of the entire world. I can see it, all of it. Manhattan's a patchwork of lights. New Jersey burns. Brooklyn and Queens are dark. And beyond that, Herman, America. Which couldn't put up the fight the Avengers, the Initative, and the criminals did. Boston. Chicago. Los Angeles. Pittsburgh. San Antonio. This country is dead, Herman. And the rest of the world as well."
My legs kicked, looking for purchase anything, even the damn air molecules, as he continued. "I win, Herman. Years of fighting Spider-Man, years of fighting the Maggia, fighting the stroke that crippled me. Years of being an old man in a young man's game. It all goes back to when my business partner cheated me. All those threads, all intertwining and leading me to this very point. I win. And you lose. Goodbye, Herman. I'd like to say it's been fun, but really, it's been more of an inconvenience. Know that you've done your best against the forces that have allied against you, but in the end, your best just wasn't good enough."
"Then let me leave you with something to remember me by, Adrian!" I pulled my hand away from his forearm and shoved it right in his face, firing off a level three centimeters from his nose. The pressure wave rippled across his burned, oily skin, tearing the hole in his cheek wide open.
The pinpoints of pain left my neck as Adrian let go, shrieking in pain. At least I could take that small moment of triumph to the grave. There really wasn't even enough oxygen for me to scream as I felt myself plummeting towards Manhattan, spinning in mid-air to face...
"Vulture," a female voice said as one arm plucked me out of mid-air, "you have no idea what kind of forces you are talking about."
She had me by one arm, lifting me up and now holding me by my hip. A blonde goddess, my guardian angel at this moment in time, Ms. Marvel looked up at the Vulture, twenty feet above us, as I managed not to pee my pants, gulping for oxygen as she spoke. "And one of the rules of those forces is someone always has your back."
Fluid weeped from his face as the Vulture glared at my savoir. "Really? Isn't this something? The common criminal plucked out of the sky by the fat whore," Vulture mocked. "And who watches your back? You need one arm to keep Schultz from plummeting to the Earth, Ms. Marvel, and I'm very confident of my ability to beat you with one arm tied behind your back!"
"Target acquired," a robotic voice spoke from Adrian Toomes. Before Toomes could spin in mid-air to face his new adversary, the energy beam slammed into the metal harness, propelling the Vulture forward. A second beam slammed into him, and a third.
"So, you fancy yourself a flyer." Hovering with ease, his arm aimed squarely at the Vulture, the silver-and-black form of MACH-IV locked in on the Vulture. "Let's see how good you are."
"Beetle! A new suit does not make you worth my time," the Vulture cried.
MACH-IV responded. Rather, his suit responded, as a panel on his shoulder slid open. A small device popped out, painting the Vulture with a red laser square in the middle of his armor. "The suit? No. The man inside it? Maybe. The laser-designator for a whole bunch of mini-missiles? Definitely. Get Herman to safety, Ms. Marvel. I'll ground this bird."
Part of me really wanted to see the Vulture and MACH-IV throw down, the better, saner part of me wanted down, as quickly and as safely as possible. The Vulture spread his wings, and suddenly dove for the deck. Instantly, MACH-IV was right behind him, following him, arms tucked at his sides, a sleek missile cutting through the air. "Kick his ass, Abner," I yelled after him.
"Hold on, Herman," Ms. Marvel said, grabbing me with her other hand and helping me onto her back as we hovered what-felt-like-miles above Manhattan. "Grab onto my shoulders and I'll get you down."
After a few seconds...
"Herman, those aren't my shoulders."
A few more seconds.
"You can let go of them now."
"What's that?" I pointed off into the distance, towards the east side of the park. "Do you see it?"
"Yeah," Ms Marvel said as we cleared about five hundred feet. "Can't miss it. And I'm willing to bet, it isn't good." She gently pulled up, leveling off into a gentle descent as we headed towards it. "We better go investigate. Ms. Marvel to Iron Man, I got what could be a magical disturbance off Columbus Avenue. Taking the Shocker to go check it out."
"Are they going to be alright without you, back at the portal?"
"MACH-IV can take my place once he's done with the Vulture. This is a lot more important, especially if it ties into the Grim Reaper's scheme."
'It' was a shimmering curtain of blood red light, wavering gently as if being blown by an easy breeze. It hung from the sky just behind the Museum of Natural History, above Columbus Avenue, stretching the entire block. The barricades that surrounded Central Park, I noticed as we descended, had been lengthened in this area, encompassing the entire block that the museum sat on.
"What happened there," I asked, pointing over her shoulder at the area.
"SHIELD used the museum as one of the main checkpoints. Everyone in New York knows where that museum is, and it's big. We handled the first rush of refugees no problem." We were still over the park, but I could see, over the top of the barricades, the horde of zombies pushing and pounding, trying to get inside. They were five or six rows deep along the street, shoving against one another. It was a disorganized mob that craved entrance into the safe haven of Central Park, a mob that didn't would break under low morale or be affected by tear gas. If they got inside...
"Tell me SHIELD has a plan if those things get inside," I called out to Ms. Marvel.
"Lots and lots of bullets and plasma rounds," she replied, not exactly filling me with confidence as we passed over the museum. "The portal was supposed to work," she said as we came to a landing about twenty feet from the curtain, "and massive firepower was just a back-up plan."
The curtain made no noise as it gently wavered in front of us. It hung back, about five feet from the plasteel barricade that separated us from the angry dead. Their cries and moans, from such a close distance, made me shiver. "That noise...I don't know if I'm ever going to forget it, for as long as I live," Ms. Marvel told me. "It's like...they know what they have to do, but they don't want to do it.'
"That about sums it up." Reaching down to the ground, I picked up a smooth stone from the lawn. The curtain stretched above us with no visible means of support as I reared back and hurled the rock forward. When it reached the red energy, it simple vanished, a small ripple radiating outwards. "You think it's a portal," I asked.
"It doesn't look like the one Doc Strange opened. I'm calling it in. Ms. Marvel to Iron Man, I'm at the Museum of Natural History with the Shocker. There's some kind of energy field here, just at the barricade with Columbus Avenue. No, it's not doing anything, it's just..."
"Wait," I said as the barricade suddenly became a bit brighter.
"Hold one," Ms. Marvel said as the barricade shimmered. No ripples appeared, but the curtain appeared to move, waves lapping in a vertical and horizontal manner. "The energy field is moving. It looks like it's away from us, towards..."
The curtain gently lapped against the barricade for a brief moment, and then it was gone. Along with the barricade. And in its place, not wasting a single second, a thousand angry zombies poured through the open gap. They rolled over each other, like angry ants, the ones in the very front falling to the ground as their brethren behind them shoved, pushing them over and walking over the dead bodies. The gray-white barricade that had dominated their sight had been replaced by a buxom blonde and a guy in brown-and-yellow armor. A thousand pairs of hands reached out for us, a cry of hunger and need filling the air. Rotting skin, flaking flesh, pale eyes, both arms, one arm, no arms. Perfect clothing, blood stained shirts, ripped dresses.
"Oh, crap!" That was my astute analysis of the situation as a horde of cannibals marched towards me. And yes, I know, nitpickers, they're not cannibals. Cannibalism in the true sense of the word implies an interspecies activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other, that's the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh. Like the kind that adorned my bones. I raised my gloves, and sent a level-two into the head of the closest zombie wearing the remnants of a Nets jersey. He fell backwards, surrounded by the horde that streamed around his body. One down. 9,999 to go.
"Herman, let's move!" Ms. Marvel spun me around, and I grabbed onto her shoulders again. We were airborne in an instant. Below us, some of the zombies reached into the sky, grabbing futilely at us. But the rest of them kept moving, a glacier slowly pushing forward, lurching onto the green fields surrounding the Museum.
"Breach! We got a barricade breach, down at the Natural Museum of History," Ms. Marvel spoke into her communicator. "At least a thousand zombies..."
"Look." We were flying to the north, giving me a clear view of the barricades lining Central Park West. The zombies along the sidewalks weren't pounding at the barricades anymore. En masse, they had turned, and were now shuffling south. Not one still clawed at the obstructions. "They know there's an opening."
"...and we're gonna have a lot more. Fury, if you're there, we're gonna need every single piece of hardware SHIELD's got to stop this one."
"You heard the lady!" Through the communicator, I heard Fury's voice, tinged with weariness starting to bark orders. "Get those civilians towards the reservoir, and the second the Avengers get that portal open, I want them through! Everyone else, set up a firing line along West Drive. I want every single person who can handle a firearm on that line! Ms. Marvel, you're in charge. Hold that damn position!"
Below us, we could see the beginnings of panic. The civilians who had been waiting for the instructions to walk through Doctor Strange's portal and reach safety on Long Island now saw SHIELD soldiers running towards West Drive. And the moans, that was the kicker. Put simply, the civilians broke. Some followed orders, and headed north towards the reservoir. Some simply to the east, away from the oncoming horde. And some ran south, towards the empty spaces of the park where the barricades haven't broken.
"This is going to be a massacre...there's nowhere for anyone to escape to. Damn it, Osborn, this is exactly why no one with brains came to your little rescue station," I cursed into the darkness.
The zombie horde kept streaming north. They were stumbling past the museum, heading towards the 79th Street Traverse. One large column of the undead...with a few stragglers. A few zombies (relatively speaking) peeled off at the sounds of panicky citizens heading south, distracted by the fleeting chance at human flesh in the distance. They kept moving, lurching to the north, where the bulk of the citizens of New York City were fleeing.
Ms. Marvel set us down just passed the Traverse. Even in the nighttime darkness, I could see the first vanguard of zombies in the far distance, coming out of the trees and heading right for us. To either side, SHIELD soldiers hastily set up barricades, turning over crates, cots, and anything they could use for a firing platform. Almost immediately, Ms. Marvel began barking orders. "YOU! Get those ammo crates up here, pronto! I'm going to need runners and reloaders! I want a steady stream of fire. And if anyone's got any grenades, get them up here, quickly!"
I started to pitch in, grabbing a nearby picnic table and shoving it against a makeshift barricade. Running crossed my mind. Escape? Impossible. Nearly impossible. I could run. I could make it back to the Dene, back down the escape hatch to the Punisher's arsenal, and figure it out from there. I could do it...
No. They was the old me. Besides...how many times have the Avengers pulled a miracle out of their collective asses? And it would have to be them, with Osborn and Petruski pulling a vanishing act. Damn it, Osborn. You wanted to draw out the big bad, and now that he's shown up, you're nowhere to be seen. And your dumb ass sent away all my friends, who had a whole bunch of firepower...
..."Do you have a cell phone?"
Ms. Marvel carefully set the box grenades down on the ground. "What?"
"A cell phone!"
"This is NO time for a personal..."
"I think I can get everyone back here. Doctor Octopus, Blizzard, Molecule Man. I can get them here, and we can blow that horde to kingdom come, but I need a cell phone!"
Ms. Marvel, after a second's hesitation, tossed her communicator at me. "I hope you know what you're doing, Herman. Alright, people, I got grenades here! If you got a throwing arm, grab some! And where the hell are those claymore mines? I asked for them fifteen seconds ago!"
He always had a cell phone. The man needed instant access to the Bookie at all times to place his bets. I hoped to Christ he still had it on him as I punched his number in. One perk about being a villain – we still memorized phone numbers instead of programming them into our phones and forgetting them. Our careers weren't condusive to the physical survival of cell phones...
A ring tone. I closed my eyes, mumbling a silent prayer as the phone rang. Once. Twice. Three times. "Come on, come on, co..."
"James? James! It's Herman!"
"Herman," came the surprised voice of Speed Demon on the other end of the phone. "What the hell...where the hell have you been? Are you alright? The Chameleon..."
"James, I don't have time. We're in Central Park and we're about to be overrun by a horde of zombies. I need to talk to Owen, right now!"
"Owen? Damn, he's across Denver, over in Aurora. One second." It was three seconds, actually, as the sound of rushing air filled the phone. "Alright, Herman, here you go."
"Herman?" Molecule Man sounded just a bit taken aback at hearing my voice. "I thought you were dead."
"I'm about to be! Look, I'm in Central Park, and the barricades are down. I got about two thousand hungry zombies marching in my direction, and me, Ms. Marvel, and SHIELD are all that's between them and a bunch of civilians! I need you guys to teleport back here, pronto!"
"That's impossible, Herman."
"What? Owen, you teleported everyone away, how hard can it be to teleport everyone back?"
"I teleported everyone to Denver, Herman. This place is my home. It's my anchor. I have no anchors in New York City. Trying to teleport that much living matter stretched my limits, even with a point in hyperspace to focus on. It was a one-way trip at best."
"You've got to try, Owen! Without you guys, everyone here's probably going to become a three-piece KFC meal!"
"I need an anchor, Herman! Without one, I..."
Owen got quiet for a moment. I could hear someone else speaking to him. "What? No, it's too dangerous. I can't guarantee...I can't. If you...huh. I...yes. Yes. But it'll take time for all that to come to fruition. If we are to try this, it must be done right now. Alright. Stand ready. Herman, where are you right now? Be exact."
"Um...I'm on West Drive...if I look to the south, I can see Belvedere Castle."
"That will have to do. Look for a portal." The phone call was disconnected from Molecule Man's end.
"Ms. Marvel! Molecule Man's sending help," I called over. She didn't respond as she manhandled a crate into place. The zombies were closing still, unwavering. I could pick out individual ones in the mob, before I ripped my glance from the creeping death. I looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of the black nothingness that Molecule Man had warned me about. It took a few seconds, but there, almost directly parallel to me, a void of darkness hung in the air. I readied myself, expecting Molecule Man to come first, or maybe Speed Demon...
What came wasn't at all what I expected.
"Ooof," he squeaked as he slammed into the ground chest first. Behind him, the portal snapped shut, disappearing from reality without a sound. "Wow. That was eternity in there. Longer than you think, Dad. It's longer than you think."
"You're it? You're the help?"
"Damn right I am! Trust me, I'm about to salvage this entire thing!" He hopped to his feet, and put a hand out to me. "We haven't met. I'm Wade Wilson, private investigator. I'm a dick."
He wore a red-and-black full body outfit, complete with a ridiculous number of pouches scattered along his belt. On his back were twin swords and two assault rifles. On his hip hung four pistols. And across his chest were slung a whole bunch of grenades. I looked him up and down, jaw dropping. "You're the only guy he sent?"
"Hey, Herman, it's dramatically appropriate AND good for your reviews that I showed up by myself. Didn't you hear that Molecule Man has a plan? And aren't all plans made up of molecules anyway? Have some faith! Just because there's no more room in Hell and the dead are walking the Earth doesn't mean you should just toss faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster out the window!"
"Deadpool?" Ms. Marvel's voice echoed above the din as SHIELD continued to work around here. "Molecule Man sent us Deadpool? I thought he was your friend, Herman!"
"Don't worry, Blondie. I ain't here just to pop a buyrate. I'm actually here for a purpose! You just don't get to find out until later on in the story...so you'll just have to keep reading to find out what it is, won't you, true believers? Nuff said. Hey, listen, while I'm here monologing and have a soapbox..."
"Deadpool," Ms. Marvel proclaimed, "you're here to kill zombies!"
BLAM BLAM BLAM!
Faster than possible, Deadpool's assault rifle was in his hand. In the shrinking distance, three zombies fell to the ground, unmoving as the horde swept over their fallen comrades. "I am here to kill zombies, and luckily for you, I'm all out of bubblegum!"
BLAM BLAM BLAM!
More zombies dropped to the lawn as somehow, this guy Deadpool scored headshots from long range. "But before I do, two things. One, does it bother anyone that the Notorious B.I.G. got this huge send off and outpouring of support when he croaked, but no one gave a damn about Jack Kirby's passing?"
BLAM BLAM BLAM!
"And two," he said in a voice that grated at my eyes, "Herman, you want to step about five feet to your left."
"Huh? Why," I asked, really really freakin' confused.
"Osborn's launching his counter attack, and it's a doozy. Just five feet, Herman. Trust me."
I humored the strange man. A few steps brought me closer to Ms. Marvel, as Deadpool took five steps to his right. "Alright, that should be good...any minute...any minute..." he said, craning his neck up to the night sky.
"What the hell..." was all I could get out before the ammo crates slammed into the ground. I barely held off a heart attack as the wooden packages cracked open from the impact, four of them, spilling golden belts of ammunition out onto the ground. "What the hell is that? Jesus!"
"Wrong god, Herman...wait for it...and...here it is. Deus ex machina. Literally."
He slammed into the ground like the fist of an angry god. The earth moved as he dropped to one knee, absorbing the energy of his free fall with ease. Remember earlier in the story when I was telling you what it was like to stand face-to-face with Thor? Well, the universe seemed to love the idea of me meeting with mystical beings, because here was another one.
"Great. First Deadpool, and now him," I heard Ms. Marvel say. "We just might have a shot at pulling this off after all," she said begrudgingly.
He stood up, not brushing the dirt off his knees. All muscle, he wore black studded armor, like a guy walking out of the Meat Packing District on Disco Night. The skull and crossed swords on his chestplace, though, told me he meant business, along with the wicked looking axe strapped to his back. This thing was so huge, to any other man but this piece of work, it would have been a two-handed halbred. On his head, an old school helmet. Really old school. I'm talking "Aristotle at the chalkboard" old, completely with a shock of white hair acting as a mohawk down the center. But hanging on his hips was the capstone to his entire outfit. And even after seeing everything I'd seen over the past week, I just couldn't believe it. I was with Ms. Marvel, in that we might...hell, if this worked, someone better get a damn picture of it, because I want visual proof of what's about to happen.
Glowing blue eyes stared out at the approaching zombie horde as the man finished chugging the can of Guinness in his hand, before crumpling it and whipping it towards the zombie horde. "I have arrived," the man said as the can, at an impossible distance, slammed into the forehead of an approaching ghoul, putting it back down for good. "Wilson. Schultz. You two shall watch the flanks. Ms. Marvel..."
The man I'd soon know as Ares, Greek God of War, hefted the two M61 Vulcans, one on each hip. "I need you to be my brace. The recoil on these things is impressive."
After a second of surprise, Ms. Marvel complied with his request. "Alright, I need ammo loaders! Those guns are going to chew through ammo like it's going out of style, and if they jam, we're in big trouble! Get your asses up here, and start organizing all this ammo!"
As the SHIELD soldiers scrambled over the pile of shining ammunition...well, I was staring, dumbfounded, at the sight before me. "Those...those are M61 Vulcan mini-guns," I stammered.
"Yes," Ares said. They were hanging from a metal harness (adamantium, I later found out) over the black leather.
"They put those on military aircraft," I said in amazement.
"Yes," he said again. He held down the triggers partway. With a loud whine, the barrels on both miniguns spun up, moving so fast that the six individual barrels blurred into one continuous motion.
"Those things put out FOUR THOUSAND rounds per minute," I exclaimed as my head tried not to explode.
"I know. They are not the most optimal weapons for this situation. But there weren't any GAU-12 Equalizers available for civilian use." Ares looked over his shoulder. "Move quickly. They will be upon us soon."
Ms. Marvel gave the line a final glance. Up and down West Drive, the barricades were as ready as they could be. SHIELD soldiers leaned against the crates and benches, their weapons taking aim as the horde. Some faces held resolve, while others held apprehension. Mine?
"I can't believe he's dual-wielding MINIGUNS," I said to the closest person. Which turned out to be Deadpool.
"I know. Can you believe it? You would think something like that would be incredibly unlikely. Zombies are serious business, man." Deadpool looked at the assault rifle clutched in his hands, and shrugged. "Oh, well. I pride myself on being an artist when it comes to killing. Let Ares cut down hundreds of those things at a time. Quality over quantity."
"Ares? As in 'the Greek God of War' Ares?"
"Yeah, Herman. Nice to see you stayed awake during English class! I never could. I know to speak English good, I ain't gonna bother with that!"
"Ares. Wow. I'm...I feel way out of my league..."
"Hey, Herman. You're standing here, right? You're fought side by side with the Avengers. Ms. Marvel plucked you out of mid-air AND let you cop an accidental feel. Ares is counting on you to watch his flank. And I haven't put a bullet into your brain. Far as I'm concerned, you earn the right to be here." Deadpool lifted his assault rifle into the air. "So, I'll keep watch on the left, you handle the right. Just watch your ass. Those damn things are sneaky when they want to be."
"Right..." I murmurred as Deadpool trotted behind Ares. The SHIELD soldiers were unspooling the large rounds of HE ammo, laying it out to the rear of Ares. Ms Marvel moved the barricades in front of him, giving him a clear line of fire, before moving behind him as well. Sh planted her foot in the ground, driving the heel and sole in, and put bother hands and her shoulder against the God of War.
"Ready when you are, Ares," she said, gritting her teeth in anticipation.
"Aye. Stand fast, Ms. Marvel. There is no glory in killing Hades' wayward children, but that does not make them any less dangerous."
"I got it. You just blow those bastards away."
As Ares hefted the miniguns, I chimed in. "That's HEI ammo, Ares. Even if you hit them dead center, it's not going to put them down for sure."
"I am aware, Schultz. That is why I plan on going for head shots."
"...right. Head shots. With a pair of miniguns." After a second, all I could do was nod. "Well, you are the God of War, right? Didn't earn that title sitting around on the firing range."
"True. Now, stand fast, Herman. They will be in range soon. SOLDIERS OF SHIELD! TODAY YOU WILL STARE DEATH IN THE FACE, AND IT WILL BE FOUND WANTING! YOU ARE HUMAN BEINGS, BLESSED WITH SOULS AND BREATH! STAND FAST BESIDES THE GOD OF WAR, AND YOU SHALL SEE THE NEXT SUNRISE!"
Hell, I felt inspired. I stood well to the side, an eye on the zombies. They were really damn close, a lot closer than I would have liked, as Ares held down the triggers, and the barrels began to spin again, their high pitched whine drowning out the moans. "STEADY! FIRE ON MY COMMAND," Ares' voice bellowed over the cacophony of noise. "STEADY...STEADY..."
My eyes weren't on the zombie horde. I knew they were out there. They'd get here eventually. Instead, I looked over at Ares, standing tall, and Ms. Marvel behind him. The blonde was dead set, body rigid with just the right amount of give. She had her eyes closed in preparation for the recoil that would throw a sedan backwards. Instead of using her powers to mow down zombies, she was...doing what a lot of villains and criminals wouldn't, taking on a supporting role willingly. I admired that.
And that was all I was going to admire. I forced myself to look back over the barricades. They were a lot closer. "STEADY!"
From one of the zombies in the front row, its guts fell out as it stumbled, hitting the ground. I couldn't hear the wet plop, but I still blanched as the ghoul stepped in its own innards, still advancing.
Deep breath. Glove out. Thumb on the trigger. Midnight on the firing line.
Streaks of green tracers filled the air as Ares opened fire. Racing across the lawn, upon impact with the skulls of the living dead, the nose of the four-inch round crushes against the firing pin, forcing it into the detonator and causing the round to explode. Against thin-skinned aircraft and light ground targets, HEI rounds will simply chew through them.
Against flesh and bone...there are very few words to describe the carnage that they cause.
The skulls, throats, and some of the upper chest of the first row of zombies simply ceased to exist, turning into a fine red mist as, true to his word, Ares scored head shots. I watched as he swept the Vulcans from side to side, his arms shaking as he did his best to keep the massive guns under his control. Behind him, Ms. Marvel's rear foot was slowly pushing into the ground as she strained to hold Ares in place and provide him with a stable firing platform. Her arms flexed as she pushed against the recoil caused by the massive chainguns.
All along the firing line, the SHIELD soldiers had opened fire as well. Blue energy mixed with green tracers, and short staccatos of gunfire could be heard through the whine of the Vulcans. If the zombies flowing into Central Park had been a normal army, I couldn't imagine anyone withstanding the brutal punishment being inflicted in such a small space. Ares simply shifted from one side to another, covering as much of the column as he could with his deadly rain of steel and explosives.
But it wasn't enough. I know, all that firepower, and the literal God of War, and still the zombies pushed on. Two hundred yards. They were stepping over the bodies of their fallen brethren, walking over brains splattered on the grass, their forms covered in the gore blown in their direction. It didn't matter if their colleague next to them was suddenly missing a head, or that one of their arms was blow clean off, leaving a jagged stump. All that mattered was us, and the Hades on Earth that Ares was laying down didn't dissuade them in the slightest. And while I had nothing but praise for SHIELD and all they've done since this crisis began, they were still men and women who had been trained to go for the center of mass, body shots to drop an opponent. For every blue streak that caught a ghoul in the face, two or three slammed into their chests, ripping a hole in them, or sailed harmlessly overhead.
One guy, though, was shooting with perfect accuracy.
"Oh, I've been working on the railroad..."
"...all the deadlong..."
"And I have, too," I somehow heard Deadpool say over din. "Railroad work's great for the quads."
One hundred yards. Still well beyond my maximum range. All I could do was watch and wait, ignoring the growing ball of nerves in my stomach. The ammo loaders were feeding Ares the steady stream of firepower, the large belts rapidly flying through their hands as quickly as they could attach new belts of ammunition to the end of the current chain. Four thousand rounds a minute. If every round hit home, that was six thousand dead zombies. Add SHIELD's efforts, and you had maybe another two hundred and fifty. Deadpool brought up maybe another fifty by himself. How many zombies were in New York City, pushing their way towards West Drive and the soft, gooey, fleshy center beyond it?
The center of the column was decimated, row upon row of zombies lying dead (again) in the grass. Behind them, the ghouls making their way over the bodies of the fallen were hung up, tripping over limbs, slipping on the bloody grass, or just mowed down by the stray rounds that flew between the initial groupings. The edges of the column, however, hadn't endured the barrage from Ares' assault, and now, they were close enough to the barricade to draw attention. The fire from SHIELD became more focused, head shots easier due to the short range. "HOLD THE FLANKS," Ares' voice boomed over the battlefield.
Alright. Fifty yards. I took aim with my vibro-smasher. She had been pretty once, before something had ripped half her blonde scalp off. She led the way, one eye socket empty, the baby blue in the other focused on the barricades in front of her. Deep breath. Squeeze the trigger...
...and a miss.
The blast knocked into a zombie behind her, but that one recovered and kept moving forward. My second shot didn't miss, knocking her ruined head backwards as she fell to her knees before dropping forward onto the ground. My body told me to run, to sprint away. Forty yards. The next one was a guy in Dockers and a plaid shirt, untouched save for the little trickle of blood than ran from the corner of his lip. He went down on the first try. Thirty five. A raver girl, wearing a t-shirt with a stuffed teddy bear holding a gun to his head and the phrase "DON'T CARE BEAR" underneath. Headshot. Thirty. A male doctor in OR scrubs. Headshot.
How Ms. Marvel bellowed over the gunfire, I didn't know. Along the line, fire slacked off for a few moments, before a cloud of grenades sailed through the air. Most of them bounced along the ground towards the horde, a few managing to land among the back rows. When the grenades exploded, dirt, grass, and body parts flew through the air, a long line of destruction that ripped bodies apart. Even as limbs and blood rained down from the sky, the zombies just marched right through it. Some of them were caught in the secondary explosions of a few late-exploding grenades, but there wasn't any stopping them.
Twenty five. A pair of twins, with matching bullet wounds above their hearts. Headshots. Twenty. A head attached to nothing more than a shoulder and an arm, blown forward by the grenades, was grabbing at the grass with its fingers and pulling itself along, desperate to get the very first bite of flesh. Headshot. I was acquiring and firing as best as I could, the wider spread of my vibro-blasts letting me sacrifice accuracy for speed. Fifteen. Oh, Christ, that one was wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt as I blew him away. Headshot. Ten.
Ms. Marvel's command set off a chain of explosions, as the Claymore mines planted on top of the barricades sent a spray of ball bearings flying through the horde. At chest level, and at close range, the torsos of the closest ghouls ripped in half. One zombie stumbled forward a step, before his head and shoulders slid off his body. God, how many more could there be? How many more marched through the valley of death just got a shot at a human being?
Ares' voice rallied the soldiers as SHIELD, Deadpool, and myself now fired from point-blank range. His twin Vulcans were to the sides, a wide angle for each gun, doing their best to clean out the edges of the horde. I paid that the scarcest amount of attention as the first zombie clawed at the makeshift barricade in front of me. Missing half its face, dried blood caked on his features, it was pulling itself over the ruined Claymore mine, reaching for me before I slammed it backwards with a blast to the face.
They were crashing into the barricade now. Some of the ghouls lunged forward, trying to use forward momentum to get over the obstructions, while others simply bounced into the walls before slowly reaching up for a handhold. I could hear the yells up and down the barricade, cries of fear and anger.
"LET GO, LET GO OF ME!"
"Head shots, don't waste ammo! Jam the damn barrels in their mouths if you have to!"
"HELP ME!" To my left, two zombies had a hold of a SHIELD soldier, and were trying to pull her over the barricade, where hundreds of hands reached for her. I dashed over, one hand grabbing her ammo harness while the other fired a spread of level three's into the horde. They clawed at my forearm as I pulled her backwards, yanking her away from the grabbing fingers.
"Are you..." was all I could get out before she had pulled her pistol out of her holsters, firing at the horde.
"Bastards," she screamed, bullets ripping in the horde. I stood beside her, sending blast after blast after blast. "You bastards killed my family! Come on! Come on! Come and get it, baby! Come on! I don't got all day! Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Screw you!"
If you're looking for a kill count, you weren't going to get one. At point blank-range, level one blasts were enough to drop a zombie. My forearms were aching soon enough, but I kept putting out vibrations, scrambling the brains of any ghoul dumb enough to get in my way. The bodies of the dead began to pile up on the barricades, slumped over the obstructions, and they kept coming. They tried to use the fallen corpses as steps, and we shot them out of mid-air as they tried to fling themselves at us, and they kept coming. I heard Ares call that he only had two minutes of ammunition left, and they kept coming. I heard Deadpool sing "Call Me" by Blondie in a voice higher than Debbie Harry's, and they kept coming.
Until, they didn't.
"Cease fire! CEASE FIRE!" A few more shots went over the barricade before the firing stopped. The last thing to go quiet was the smoking barrel of one of the Vulcans, its whine slowly dying down, the barrels white-hot from thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Ares dropped both miniguns. They landed on of the pile of brass shells that had accumulated around his and Ms. Marvel's feet during the siege. He kicked the spent casings aside as he stepped forward, surveying the battlefield. At his feet, a zombie still moved forward, its lower jaw and half its face blown off. It clutched at Ares' ankle for a moment, before the God of War lifted his boot and smashed the thing's skull like an overripe melon.
"It's a start," he proclaimed.
It was Jonestown mixed with Tom Savini's best work. Countless bodies were scattered across what was once lush green grass, many of them missing heads or limbs. The carnage spread from at the very foot of the barricades almost to the treeline. And still, bodies twitched, continuing to moan even as their spines, bones, and limbs were shattered beyond repair.
"My God," I whispered. "I've never seen...this must...this is what Stalingrad was like, wasn't it? Wave after wave..."
"Aye. Being on the giving end of such punishment is always better than the alternative..."
"OH MY GOD! HERE THEY COME AGAIN!"
The soldier was pointing to the treeline. They were coming again, spilling from between the trunks. Before the new group of zombies, the field of their dead brethren wasn't a deterrence. It was a sign, that humans had caused this slaughter, and that was all that matters. Humans.
"STEADY YOURSELF, WOMAN!" Ares turned to the soldier, a harsh glare in his eyes. "We have broken the vanguard. What comes to you now will come as a gentle rain, not as the mighty deluge. Reload, reacquire, and be ready to fire when they are within range. Colonel Nick Fury trained you, woman. Recall that fact."
Ms. Marvel stepped in front of Ares. She rubbed one arm as she gave him a withering stare. "Ares, how much ammo do you have left for those things?"
"Not enough," he replied. "And the barrels are nearly useless from the heat." Under his mask, I could see an evil grin as he reached over his shoulder, grabbing his mighty war axe. "We will have to do that the old fashioned way."
"I am SO up for that challenge!" Deadpool had slid next to Ares and Ms. Marvel. In both hands, he held a katana blade, the weapon of choice for wannabe posers and skilled assassins everywhere. "You get an achievement if you use nothing but melee weapons for an entire campaign! Hey, Mars, I got two hundred and eighty seven kills last round. How many did you kill?"
"Over nine thousand," Ares responded, his voice almost bored.
"WHAT? NINE THO..."
Everyone winced at the cracking noise as Ares casually backhanded Deadpool across the face. He staggered away, holding his jaw, screeching loudly.
"Do not make that joke in my presence."
"I washen choken," Deadpool replied. He twisted his head to one side, and as I watched, he slammed his jaw to the opposite side. "Ow! Ok, ok, no more Internet jokes. Play those clichés off, keyboard cat!"
"What are we going to do?" I ignored the humming of Deadpool as I stepped up to two of the most powerful beings on the planet. "That was just the tip of the iceberg. The entire New York City horde is pouring into the Park. No offense, Ares, but I don't think even the God of War can take on hundreds of thousands of zombies without getting bitten."
"You are right, Herman."
"Yes. The wise soldier knows when to call in reinforcements. And that time is now." Ares tapped one of the silver studs on his leather harness. "Ares to Iron Patriot. The landing zone is now clear."
"The landing zone?" Ms. Marvel looked at me, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders before she turned to Ares. "What do you mean, the landing zone?"
"What he means, Ms. Marvel," Deadpool said, "is that. Look in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!"
"Spider-Man?" I spun around, looking to where Deadpool was pointing. Swinging from the trees behind us, I could make out the familiar form of Spider-Man coming towards us. "Oh, there he is," I said, relief flooding me at the sight. "I thought he was..."
That wasn't Spider-Man. Oh, yeah, a few years ago, it would have been. The web-slinger that landed in front of us wore a familiar costume, but no one associated it with Spider-Man, even though he had been the first guy to wear it. The costume was associated with someone else now, someone a LOT more dangerous than Spider-Man. Punisher levels of dangerous.
He took up, muscles rippling under sleek black skin, the spider-emblem on his chest stark white against the darkness. "Ares," a hissing growl said. "Looks like we missed out on the party..."
"Venom? VENOM?" Ms. Marvel jabbed a finger at Mac Gargan, the former Scorpion and current Venom. "HE'S your reinforcements?"
"Part of them." Ares nodded towards Venom. "Where are the others?"
"Right behind me. I had to get here first, just to see the look on blondie's face here." The smile on Venom's face almost reached his ears, the long tongue resting against sharp teeth. "You just look so dumbfounded right now, Ms. Marvel."
"I do not see the problem, Ms. Marvel. After all, the Shocker stands by your side, an able combatant. Yet you don't seem to mind his criminal past."
"That's because Venom is a psychopath!"
"I'm standing right here!" Venom turned to me, that grin getting bigger somehow. "Herman! I can't believe you're still alive. You have more lives than the Black Cat."
"Gargan," I said. "I was wondering where you ended up."
"Where else? On the winning si..."
"No, Mac. No, don't say that, please."
"Who else do you have coming?" Ms. Marvel pointed towards the zombies. This horde was spread out, not as dense as the last mob, but they were steadily advancing. "Because they're still coming, and we need to regroup and get this firing line set back up!"
"Don't worry, Ms. Marvel," a robotic voice spoke from above us. "The Avengers are here to take care of this."
And then it got really weird.
The first one I saw, obviously, was Moonstone. She was descending from the sky, feet first, almost the splitting image of Ms. Marvel, down to the long blonde hair (Moonstone's wasn't as blonde as Ms. Marvel's) and killer body. You have to respect a woman who wears a long sleeved top and damn near nothing on the rest of her body save a red scarf. She was a former criminal, and then a former-reformed criminal when she joined up with the Thunderbolts, with almost the same powers as Ms. Marvel, save for the ability to go intangible. Oh, and she was also a master at mental manipulation, able to get schlubs like me dancing to her tune. I mean, hell, she wears a red scarf. You don't think she's used it to tie men up? See? Right there, not one word from her and already I'm drooling a bit.
I didn't recognize the man she was carrying, a young man of Japanese heritage with a top knot ponytail and tattoos running down his arms.
And I kind of recognized the metal suit also coming down from the air next to Moonstone. But I didn't know when Iron Man got a star-spangled suit of armor.
The final guy, hopping off the back of the guy in the metal suit, I instantly recognized. "Huh," I said, crossing my arms as all four of the newcomers approached our merry little band. "The Punisher said he killed you out on Riker's. I don't know why I believed him."
"You know me," Bullseye said, a grin on his face. "I never miss. Sometimes, the Punisher does."
"Situation report, Ares," the man in the power armor said.
"The back has been broken of this incursion," the God of War told him. "But the enemy still approaches. With all of us here, the battle will be easily won."
"Good. I see the M61's worked like you had predicted. Venom, Moonstone. I want you two to strengthen these barricades into something proper. Bullseye, Ares, I want you two to get these soldiers ready. Set up firing lanes and get these people proper weapons. Daken, make sure everyone's properly motivated. I want no fear in the hearts of any of these soldiers."
The Japanese man grunted, turning away and heading towards the nearest group of SHIELD members. Everyone else was soon following the instructions of the metal man, calmly going about execution as the zombie horde advanced, slowed down by the carnage of the battlefield, but still making their way towards West Drive.
"Oh, and you," the man said, waving a dismissive hand towards the waiting Deadpool. "There were zombies heading towards some civilians who had fled towards the south of the park. Go keep them safe."
"The ghouls or the civvies?"
The metal man turned to face Deadpool, causing the loudmouth to just throw up his hands. "Fine, ok. I'll go play a good guy. What the hell. I owe it to the people for 'Marvel Zombies 3' and 'Marvel Zombies 4' anyway." Deadpool walked past Ms. Marvel and I, slamming a new clip into his assault rifle. "You two kids be good. And I mean it. If I come back and find out this story's been re-rated 'M' for adult situations, I'm going to be insanely, insanely jealous."
"What the hell..." I said as he strode away, whistling.
"Trust me. It's Deadpool. You'll go nuts trying to figure him out." Ms. Marvel and I turned, facing the final newcomer. "Alright. I heard Ares say your name was the Iron Patriot. So who the hell are you, really?"
With a hiss of hydraulics, the mask opened, pulling apart to reveal a smirking face. "I'm the savoir of humanity. Who else," Norman Osborn replied.
For once, I didn't pause. "You son of a bitch," I cried, bringing my hand back...
"No, Herman!" Ms. Marvel caught my hand, locking it in place. Even though the tight grip, I kept trying to slug Osborn, who simply sat there in his suit of armor with a smug look on his face.
"Come on! Everyone's been making me their bitch all week! One damn punch, that's all I'm asking!"
"No!" She spun me around, holding me by my wrist. She dragged me so her face was inches from mine. "Damn it, the man's in a suit of power armor. Odds are, he'd vaporize you in a second!"
"That man killed my best friend!"
"Allegedly," Osborn replied smoothly.
I almost broke free, but Marvel was holding me tight. Any other time, any other place, I would have been incredibly turned on. "Osborn, start talking, or else I will let Schultz loose."
"That's supposed to be a threat?" Osborn shook his head. "This is my team, Ms. Marvel. The new...well, I said Avengers earlier, but due to changing circumstances, let's call them the all-new, all-different Thunderbolts. I was going to introduce them in a few months as...well, part of the Initiative program, but obviously, the current situation has caused a change of plans."
"Those guys?" I pointed to where Bullseye was helping to sight a .50 caliber machine gun. "He's a psychopath! And Venom's a psychopath!"
"And Moonstone isn't exactly the most stable woman either," Ms. Marvel chimed in.
"Yes. Well...common criminal," Osborn said, pointing towards me. "Reformed criminal," he said, pointing at himself. "And let's not forget the Trapster, who I have working a unit on the south end of the park. At this point in humanity's defense, there are no more shades of gray, Ms. Marvel, only black and white. Now, my plan," he continued, "is to set up a defensive line here. The rest of the externals barriers are holding, and the horde of undead are flowing in this direction. My Thunderbolts will hold the line, protecting the civilians and attempting to seal the breech once the numbers have been thinned out. You and the Shocker should fly back to the portal and attempt to help your fellow Avengers. If you can't rescue Doctor Strange, then it will be up to the Thunderbolts to save the day."
"That's what you want, Osborn. Isn't it?" I rubbed my wrist where Ms. Marvel had held me back. "To save the day and punctuate that final point on how good you've become."
"Hardly. I want to save the day, Herman, because I'm a friend of humanity. Now, the longer you stand here and prattle at me, the worse off your new friends at the portal will be. I suggest you hurry back."
He was right. Oh, how I hated that he was right. I leveled a finger at him. Cliché, yes. But I meant every word I was about to say. "When this is all said and done, Norman, we will talk about what you did to Aleksei and what you tried to do with me. Bank on it."
"Oh, I'm sure I will be talking to you again, Herman. Now, go." Osborn's helmet sealed back up as he turned to the barricade. "Ares, they're within three hundred yards..."
"Herman...let's go." Ms. Marvel took my hands, putting them on her shoulders before leaping into the air. We sailed over the abandoned refugee camp, the SHIELD soldiers using it as a makeshift readying area for the next stage of the siege.
"He killed Aleksei," I said to Ms. Marvel. "I'm not lying."
"I believe you, Herman. But those things were getting closer. Having a knock down fight with Norman Osborn, especially with...those new Thunderbolts, was going to do nothing more than waste precious time and probably get you and a whole lot of SHIELD soldiers killed." We headed towards the red glow to our north, the portal still giving off that blood-red light. "Once this is all said and done, I promise there will be an investigation. But for now, we have bigger fish to fry. And as much as it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, we need them to hold the line. We can't get distracted. Grim Reaper's the key to this whole mess. He's the one we need to beat."
"I'm all for that. I just wish we had even more firepower. Where the hell's the Sentry? He'd tear those things apart without even breaking a damn sweat."
"Sentry's out on Long Island. He went out with the Fantastic Four earlier today. Said being around zombies unnerved him for some reason."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Wow, yeah, because the rest of us are RIGHT at home fighting the living dead."
"Trust me, we've all learned that...the Sentry needs a little bit of extra care," Ms. Marvel said with a smirk. "He's got more self-esteem problems them most of you former criminals."
"MS. MARVEL! SHOCKER!"
"Gah!" I would have launched a blast in surprise if I hadn't been clutching to Ms. Marvel's shoulders. She came to a halt, hovering in place, as a floating face appeared directly on front of us. It was a faint, ghostly image, but the outlines of Doctor Strange's features were clearly visible.
"I DON'T HAVE MUCH TIME. DORMAMMU IS RELENTL..." Strange's voice was powerful, but it fell in volume at times, like a cell phone with a poor connection. "THE DARKHOLD IS THE KEY TO STOPP...STLESS DEAD. IT IS CURRENTLY...BARON MORDO...PEAT, MORDO. FIND THE DARK..."
The image suddenly cut off, empty air where Strange's face had been moments before. I looked over Ms. Marvel's shoulder at her as I asked, "you catch any of that?"
"I think so. Something about the Darkhold, and how Baron Mordo probably has it."
"Sounds about right..."
"Hey, I used to crack codes for a living. I've made sound decisions on much less information."
In the near distance, the red portal swirled angrily. Up here, we could hear the sounds of combat, with blue, white, silver, and yellow flashes lightning up the immediate area. Behind us, faintly, the sounds of gunfire as the Thunderbolts began their fight at the barricade. And there we were, hanging in the air, stuck in the middle.
"Well," I asked, "what're your instincts telling you?"
"That's easy, Herman. We go after this Darkhold. You said the Grim Reaper waited to make his move until he had possession of it. If Doctor Strange says it's important, and I think he said it'll stop the dead...that's the clincher."
I nodded in agreement, but said, "I'm just playing Devil's Advocate here...what about the fight down at the portal? If they're still going at it, the Avengers could use your...our," I corrected myself. It still wasn't something I was used to saying. "They could use our help."
She shook her head, tangled strands swishing back and forth with the motion. "If they needed out help, they would have called for it by now. They've handled the Grim Reaper before, they can do it again. Besides, this is more important. It's like fighting a whole bunch of robots when you could just try to flip the switch and shut them all down."
I nodded. "I'm with you. Just making sure we're not missing an angle. And I don't see one we're overlooking."
"There is one problem, Herman...where the hell's Mordo? He could be anywhere in the city."
"No..." I said. "He'd have to be nearby. Otherwise, he could have just stayed in St. Patrick's and...I don't know, worked whatever spell or ritual or whatever."
"Well, there's a lot of nearby..." She paused. "Ok, let's start at someplace obvious. Hang on." She spun in mid-air, and soon, we were flying south. To one side, the flashes of battle were evident as the Thunderbolts held the line against the next wave of zombies. Still numerous, the horde pressing towards the barricades were spread out a lot more, moving forward of their own accord and not because of the pressing weight behind them. "That red energy that made the barricades disappear, it was definitely magical, and probably powerful if it just made those walls vanish. Maybe Mordo was nearby when he..."
"The museum." I pointed over her shoulder to the pile of stone jutting out from Central Park's west side. "It happened right there. Hell, there's probably enough relics and antiques in that place...it would be like an engineer let loose in a junk yard. All that old stuff in some of those exhibits..."
"It's as good a place to start as any." She banked, bringing our flight path directly over the horde still streaming past the museum. They still came from the north and the south, the barricades guiding them to the massive hole in the defenses of Central Park. I couldn't see the end of the line in either direction, the undead stretching as far as my eyes could see. Too damn many. If the Thunderbolts held the firing line in the face of this steady onslaught, it would be miraculous.
We landed on the roof, Ms. Marvel setting us down on the brand new terrace that had just opened up in September. Leafless trees, wilting plants, and long tables greeted us as we walked around the central pool of the terrace. "It's still like looking for a needle in a haystack," I said as we walked towards the north end of the terrace. Behind us was a glass cube, surrounding a large blue sphere that, during normal operating hours, held a spectacular 3-D narrated by Jodie Foster about the Big Bang and the history of the universe. I had seen it the year before with Speed Demon and Blizzard. Normally bathed in blue light, the sphere was a shadowy orb in the lightless cube. "This place is huge, not to mention a damn maze. If we're wrong, we've wasted a lot of time."
"Then hope we're not wrong. You should try being more of an optimist, Herman."
"I'm more of a realist. My optimism comes in the form of delusion."
There was only one way into the museum from the terrace, a seasonal entrance that closed up right after the big opening night party a month previous. "They sealed this place up and set the alarms when Osborn closed off the park," Ms. Marvel told me. Everyone says you're a wizard at locks. Think you can get us inside?"
I studied the door for a moment, before looking up at the walls surrounding the door. The light from the security sensor was visible, running on backup power. "Yeah. Yeah, I think I can. Shouldn't take too long."
I reached out, and grasped the door handle. It easily swung open without any resistance. "Ta da."
"What...how did you do that?"
"The door's unlocked. And," I said, nodding to the green light on the alarm sensor, "the alarm system is on standby. Which probably means someone's inside already."
"That's a promising sign."
"Damn right. After you," I said, waving my hand at the open door as I held it for her.
"Huh. Who would have thought you had manners?" Ms. Marvel stepped inside the planetarium, and I quickly followed, letting the door shut behind me. Dim emergency lightning was the only illumination, shining on the various exhibits that lined the hallway.
"So," I said in a low, quiet voice, "where the hell do we start?"
After a second of thought, Ms. Marvel pointed down the hallway. "Let's go to the Rotunda. Maybe we'll get lucky and Mordo's sitting right under the statue of Teddy Roosevelt. If not, we'll just have to search the museum and hope we get lucky."
She moved like a cat, easy, quiet strides you wouldn't expect from someone so powerful. I followed right behind, moving quickly, steps silent like I was breaking into the joint. Casing a place like the Museum of Natural History was every burglar's dream, and Lord knows we passed a few gemstones and relics that would have pulled a damn fortune to certain interested buyers. But the security on a place like this was almost on par with Avengers Tower. And here we were, quietly waltzing through the museum after hours.
We reached the rotunda without any problems. The wide balconies overlooked the lobby of the museum, officially known as the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. From up here, we could see the soft lights shining on the various exhibits to the former President. And while it wasn't directly related, there was some small bit of irony to the fact that the Roosevelt Hall held a complete skeleton of a Brontosaurus. The long neck of the dinosaur reached towards the roof, almost meeting the railing of the second story balcony.
"Well," I said, "he's not under the Brontosaurus."
"No...but do you see that?" Ms. Marvel leaned over the railing, pointing down from where we stood. "That's not emergency lighting, is it?"
"Nope," I said as I saw what she was pointing at. "That sure as hell ain't." I stepped around the rotunda's balcony, trying to get a better glimpse. From the large hall directly opposite the main entrance to the museum, green light spilled through the open doorway, illuminating the dark lobby. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Ms. Marvel," I told her as she walked next to me, "but that's the same color green the portal was before everything went to hell, isn't it?"
"The final piece of the puzzle," the blonde mused. "Come on, let's check it out..."
"I can hear you talking." The voice was crisp and concise as it came from downstairs. "I've heard you ever since you landed on the terrace. Please, come downstairs and let us discuss matters face-to-face."
"You know," I sighed, "I don't like this new idea of civil bad guys. I prefer getting the drop of some poor sap. It's always worked for me." I turned to walk down the steps, but instead, Ms. Marvel grabbed me by the waist, and hopped over the railing, holding me tightly against her. I must have become an upstanding citizen, because I held back on the naughty thoughts until we were almost to the first floor. We landed in front of the doorway, any efforts at stealth thrown out the window.
The Hall of North American Mammals had long been a centerpiece of the Museum of Natural History. The stuffed and mounted animals around the hall were prime examples of North American ecology. Any kid who's ever been on a field trip to the museum (and that's every kid in the New York public school system, including myself) remembers the jaguars from Mexico, the bighorn sheep from Canada, and the wild buffalo from the Great Plains, each one set against a stunning landscape diorama. The exhibits were awash in a gentle green glow, eminating from a portal floating in the middle of the room. It was smaller than the one Doctor Strange had opened, but it shared the same characteristics, down to the counter-clockwise swirl.
Below the portal, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a goatee sat in the lotus position. He wore a green outfit, complete with a green cape that fell below his legs towards the floor. The top of his cape ended in two long, curved points that extended well above his shoulder, ending just past the top of his head. In his lap, was a thick book, its pages worn and yellowed with time. It lay open, floating just above his thighs.
As Ms. Marvel and I approached him, the man opened his eyes. Against the soft green light, the blood red orbs stood out instantly. He gave the two of us a tight smile. "Thank you for accepting my invitation." He gave me a curt nod. "Herman Schultz." He then gave another nod to Ms. Marvel. "Carol Danvers. Welcome to my sanctum. Since you do not have the pleasure, Herman, allow me to introduce myself. I am Baron Karl Amadeus Mordo."
"Another Baron. Is Dormammu just handing out titles like there's no tomorrow?"
"Actually, Herman, Mordo's a real Baron. Romanian, right?"
"Transylvanian, actually, Ms. Marvel. Don't believe those pretenders who have claimed the title of Baron. They simply wished to believe themselves equal to me."
"For someone who's feeling superior, your boss sure stationed you in the ass end of nowhere," I pointed out.
"Look at it this way, Shocker," Mordo replied. "Any fool can throw themselves at the Avengers and be beaten. But a wise man throws someone else at the Avengers while, in another location, the true plan is unraveled. Misdirection and subterfuge, two topics I am sure you are familiar with."
"Strange was right," Ms Marvel added. "The portal's just the end result. You're the key, whatever it is you're planning."
"Of course. Who else would be trusted with ensuring my master's plan comes to fruition but his most trusted servant?"
"So, the Grim Reaper..."
"...is nothing but a patsy, Herman." Baron Mordo nodded towards the book on his lap. "I am, as always, Dormammu's chosen. Not Eric Williams. Certainly not that two-bit crime lord Parker Robbins. Suggesting that the Hood be the initial sacrifice, if I may be so bold, was a true stroke of genius on my part. The Grim Reaper is nothing more than a pawn who believes he can become a king. And, perhaps he can. But he shall never be my equal in the eyes of the Dread Lord."
"It's like the mob. Everyone's backstabbing each other to gain favor in the Godfather's eyes," I reckoned.
"Astute analogy, Herman. It is a shame that you turned down the Reaper's offer. Your body was unmarked by a physical sign of death. You could have lived forever and maybe become a faithful comrade and a worthy opponent for Dormammu's attention."
"Yeah, well...we're here for the Darkhold." I took a step forward, my hands clenched into fists. You know this was going to break down into a fight, and I was going to be ready for it. "So, whatever it is, just hand it over and Ms. Marvel and I won't have to smack you around like we've done with the rest of your master's cronies."
"Ah. So this is where I'm supposed to tell you what the Darkhold does and spill to you all my plans? Very well." Mordo reached out and put one hand, palm down, on the book in front of him. "Splendid piece of literature, this thing. Spells and rituals dating back to before recorded history, written down by the planet's first practitioner of black magic. The first vampire was spawned from these pages during the time when Atlantis was on the surface of the ocean. Empires you've never heard of and heroes you couldn't imagine fought against the evil that this book has brought forth. And now, it will bring about the end of the human race, and herald Dormammu's dominion over this planet."
"So it's the Anarchist's Cookbook, for magicians," I asked.
"Crude, but appropriate."
"Well, whatever it is, Mordo, you ain't supposed to have it. Don't suppose I could ask you to hand it over one more time, save us a whole lot of time and trouble?"
He shook his head. "I cannot do that."
"At least tell us what the hell that damn book does," Ms. Marvel offered from the back. "I hate chasing McGuffins. That thing has a purpose. What does it do, Mordo?"
"The proper question is, what doesn't it do? It allows one to raise the dead. It allows one to control the dead. And, when properly combined with an infection from another dimension, it allows one to raise and control the dead on a massive scale. Why do you think all the zombies ended up in Central Park? Why do you think, all around the world, sanctuaries and so-called rescue stations were easily overwhelmed? There is an instinct for flesh, Ms. Marvel. And this book allows that instinct to be nurtured, tamed, and driven to a sole purpose. An entire global horde, Ms. Marvel, all under my command, following my orders."
"So, it's the switch to control all the robots. Looks like you were right, Ms. Marvel."
"Hand the book over, Mordo." Ms. Marvel strode forward, passing me. She had her fists clenched as well, and steel in his voice. "This ends. This zombie uprising ends. Now."
"Tsk, tsk," Mordo's voice said with mocking disdain. "Do you really think someone as wise and as powerful as me would put himself out in the open without someone to watch over him? Now, please forgive me. The hour is getting late, and I've taken too much time." Mordo closed his eyes, and his lips began to move, silently chanting a prayer or a ritual under his breath.
Before Ms. Marvel could finish her threat, something slammed into her from behind. She was propelled forward, zooming by Baron Mordo before landing in a heap on the tile floor, bouncing a few more feet before coming to a stop against the rear wall of the exhibit.
I was holding down the triggers even as I was turning. The level-three blasts splashed harmlessly off my target. As I register my totally lack of impact, something big impacted against my side, flinging me backwards. I sailed through the air, landing at the feet of a stuffed jaguar. "Alright, pal," I sneered, pulling myself back to my feet, "you just screwed with the..."
Gray skin. A powerful frame. I knew who it was in an instant. And all the bravado fell away, replaced by crushing despair.
"Oh, no," I choked out in a whisper. "Oh, no, no, no, no. This can't be happening...no..."
"I'm sorry, Herman," Aleksei said. He stared at me with red eyes, blood seeping from the gaping hole in his body armor. "I'm really, really sorry. But you didn't leave me a choice."