Persuader trudged along the back alleys of Tara.
His job was done.
The Dark Circle had been a good employer for these last ten years, but it was falling apart at the seams.
He'd been watching it happen. The last Dark Leader, Supreme Conqueror, had been Sargo Talnark. He'd been good- too good. He'd died of old age weeks after he had accept the invitation to be the Dark Circle's chief extortionist.
He hadn't died in a duel, or by assassination. He had just dropped, one day.
He hadn't even named a successor.
The Dark Circle had held together under Sargo's second-in-command, but not for very long. The old families started to maneuver amongst themselves, each vying for the top spot. The Dark Circle was fighting itself almost as often as it was sticking to its millennia-long goal of keeping planetary sovereignty.
Extortion became more of a hassle, and started to take up more energy than was able to be spared.
And so, one day, a senior member of the Dark Circle had shown up at his tiny apartment on Rimbor, and given him his last assignment.
Nyuen had made an example of the man yesterday, leaving his mangled body in his shop for the neighbors to discover later, and caught the first shuttle to Venegar, the next planet over.
He was at loose ends, and didn't dare settle down anywhere.
Whoever held the Dark Circle tomorrow, or next week, or five months from now, might decide that he was a liability, left to himself. He had two options: keep moving, or get a new job.
The two were not compatible. If he kept moving, kept looking for his wife and daughter –both still missing- he'd run out of money. He couldn't sneak onto shuttles his whole life, or expect to always be able to terrorize shop keepers and get away with it.
But, if he settled down long enough to get a job, the Dark Circle could find him.
And I'd never find Kyu and Lialla.
There was someone behind him. He could tell from experience, without having to turn around- he knew what it felt like to have another living person nearby.
He spun, ax half-raised, ready to attack or defend.
"You're in my city, kehe'khal," the woman said, using the Rimborian name for a Dark Circle operative.
Nyuen shifted slightly. The woman was tall, yes, but he was taller- she was also dressed more like a streetwalker than a crime boss, but you never really knew.
Information about Venegar and its capital, Tara, started to come together in his mind.
He lowered his ax some. He knew that he looked like he'd relaxed, but the ax could be back up in a second if he chose.
"Not anymore, Empress," he said. "The Dark Circle cut me loose."
The woman all in green smiled at him.
"Did they really? Come looking for a job?"
He reacted to the old, tired test before he'd realized he'd thought about it.
The Atomic Ax came up to deflect a blast from the Emerald Eye.
"You're fast," Empress said when he looked at her dully. She had a manic look in her eye, like she'd just spotted some especially appealing piece of food. "Tell me- what do you know of the Legion of Superheroes?"
Tharok sat up on his cell cot and listened.
Takron-Galtos was the most secure prison facility the United Planets had. It did not fail. It did not let prisoners escape. It did not leave loopholes.
Explosions made an unmistakable sound. It was hard to mistake them for anything else.
Now, what could that have been?
The Emerald Empress stood in front of the large, damaged holding cell. The forcefield door was shorted out, but still, the beast wouldn't come any closer.
She frowned, eyebrows coming together.
"Move," she ordered, putting the eye behind it. The giant made a little noise and shifted uncomfortably, but didn't take so much as one step closer.
"It's a Lanothian, Empress," Persuader said. His ax was comfortably over his shoulder, and he was wandering around the immediate area, poking in corners. "If it really has bonded, like you said, you'd have to be a very powerful Titanian to do anything to it."
She glared at him for a moment.
"And how would you know?" she asked icily.
"I'm not stupid," Nyuen said. "Tell it we can get it to where it belongs."
Empress growled softly to herself and sent a mental picture of Tharok, and a feeling of cooperation.
Validus roared and charged past the Emerald Empress, who flew off after him.
Nyuen finished poking in his corner, and followed.
Mano sat up.
His cell was shaking. There was no one else in this cell block. What could possibly-
He got up and looked past the forcefield down the hallway, and then dove for the far corner.
The entire front wall was torn off seconds later as a giant thing barreled past.
He waited, curled up in the corner, until the sound of the monster had faded.
Mano uncurled a bit and peeked at what used to be the front wall. Nervously, he crawled over pulverized bits of prison cell and waved a hand through the air where the forcefield had so recently been.
Nothing stopped his hand.
He crept forward a little.
No wardens were coming.
Mano got to his feet and slunk off down the hall, following the path of destruction the monster had left.
The Emerald Empress drifted to a halt behind Validus and took her first look at Tharok.
He was sitting in the single chair prisoners were allowed, just behind the forcefield, hands clasped in front of his face.
"How nice of you to return my pet."
"Your pet?" the Empress asked. "No, he'll be mine soon."
Tharok raised an eyebrow.
"He takes his orders from me. We have a psychic link-"
The Emerald Eye floated upward and began to glow. Validus's brain dome began to glow in the same green hue.
The twin glows pulsed, and Tharok jerked, hissing in pain as he clutched his head.
"You can have him, if you join me."
The Persuader stood idly by while the Empress and Tharok talked.
Soon enough, the wardens would arrive, and his new- associates- would be too busy talking to do anything about it.
He heard running footsteps echoing up the hallway.
Right on time.
Persuader raised his ax just as the wardens came rushing in, and went to work.
The wardens fell quickly, their body armor and guns no match at all for his ax.
Lift, swing, turn-
He found himself facing the last warden and raised his ax one last time-
The warden jerked; and Nyuen looked down.
The man's chest was burned clean through, and a hand was sticking through the hole.
The hand slashed sideways, and the warden fell to the ground, torso half- detached.
Nyuen rested the butt of the Atomic Ax on the ground and took a look at the warden's killer.
He had to be the skinniest, most ridiculous-looking man he'd ever seen.
"And you are?"
Tharok glared at the Empress with all the hate he could muster. She hadn't let up with her attack on Validus, and every few seconds a new wave of torment would crash through his skull.
"Well? What do you say? Shall I make this thing mine, or-"
"Open the cell!" he said, voice thick with pain.
"Hmmm?" she asked, leaning forward.
"Open the cell and I'll go with you! Just stop it!"
The Eye stopped glowing and Tharok pitched forward out of the chair, his body reacting to the sudden lack of pain.
He hit the floor, half in and half out of the door.
Validus lumbered forward a step and bent over Tharok.
"Back off, you stupid creature," the cyborg muttered, shoving ineffectually at the behemoth's face. He pushed himself to his feet and took a deep breath before looking at the Empress again.
"Well? I assume you have some way to get off this godsforsaken hunk of metal?"
They left Takron-Galtos half-an-hour later, leaving a trail of destruction behind them.
The Emerald Empress leaned over the back of Tharok's chair.
"Set a course for- oh, make it Ventura. We have a Legion to bait."
Down in the darkness of the engine room, Mano listened to the rumble of the ship's drives and hummed along.