AN2: You really ought to have read the first arc of Worm before reading this, although I try to make the humor accessible to all.
Lung was going to kill kids? There was no more time to listen in; it was time to act. I stood and stepped to the edge of the roof, feeling that deep-seated sense of confidence in my actions that signalled that my power agreed with my chosen course of action.
When I first activated my abilities, I thought I had received a sort of low-level grab bag of powers. I was strong enough to kick a locker open from the inside; far more flexible than I had been; maybe even a little smarter. Nothing to suggest I was the second coming of Eidolon, but any superhuman ability is better than none.
Then I started to get the feelings. Not compulsions, exactly, just a deep-seated inclination to do certain things. At first I had resisted, but eventually I learned to just go with the flow.
I leapt off the roof, doing a crisp flip and turn in mid-air so that when I landed I was crouched facing Lung's gang.
"Aren't you boys up past your bedtimes?"
Not to say I was proud of all the things I had done, but following my instincts had gotten me this far.
Mitch Kowalski was the kind of guy who, if you looked at him, you might not immediately guess that he owned a gym, but if somebody told you he owned a gym, you wouldn't be surprised. A powerfully built man in his late thirties, one of the things he really enjoyed about owning his own business was that on slow days he could hang out and chew the fat with the regulars. He was doing just that on a lazy Monday afternoon, alternating between heavy sets of squats and swapping stories about the weekend, when he was interrupted by a familiar set of power chords.
His first thought was that somebody was playing a prank by putting "Eye of the Tiger" through the PA system. He ruled that out when he realized that the three guys most likely to pull that kind of stunt were all standing next to him at the squat cage. Looking around the room, he finally spotted the source of the music just as the vocals kicked in: a girl at the bench press.
She was lifting a decent amount of weight. More than decent, really-stick thin like she was, a plate on either side of the bar meant that she was probably pressing more than her body weight. As he watched, she finished the set and turned off the music. He decided not to go over and say anything; anybody who pushed themselves that hard in the gym was entitled to a few eccentricities, and after all there weren't many people around to be bothered.
He had turned back to his own weight when the music started up again. Looking back, he saw that the weight on the bar had doubled, and the girl was pressing it up and down just as smoothly as she had been before. He watched as the girl went through the routine: stop the music, add a plate to each side, start the music, lift it a few times, rinse and repeat. He was jolted out of his trance when his buddy Joe elbowed him in the side.
"Is that some new Alexandria-package cape fucking with us, or what?"
"I'll go talk to her. You stay here."
Mitch gave Joe a warning glare, and held his gaze until he nodded. Joe was a good guy, but he'd been a meathead since high school. He hadn't adjusted so well to a world where you never knew if the scrawny guy that was mouthing off to you had some superpower that let him throw buildings around for fun.
Mitch walked over and waited for the girl to finish the latest cycle of her routine. He figured she was probably about done anyway; she was just about out of space on the bar. After she turned off the music, he cleared his throat. She blinked as she looked up at him, almost as though she was just waking up.
"If you need more of a challenge," Mitch said, "the Protectorate has a gym their brutes use to stay in shape."
"What? No, I'm not... huh?" The girl said, trailing off when she turned around and saw the bar drooping under the weight that had been loaded onto it.
"New cape?" Mitch asked, feeling a bit of sympathy now that it didn't look like the girl was pulling some kind of prank.
"No, no," the girl said, waving her hands in front of herself in denial, before slumping down in defeat after another look at the weight behind her. "Well, maybe. Don't tell anyone, please?"
"Your secret is safe with me," Mitch said. He had a policy about aggravating people who could fold him in half: don't. "Do you need anything else, while you're here?"
"Maybe," the girl said, looking around. "I feel like I need... do you guys have a self-defense class?"
"I think I should spar with him, then him, then him, then maybe you," the girl, who had eventually gotten around to introducing herself as Taylor, said.
"Taylor, that's really not how learning this stuff works," Mitch said, as politely as he could.
"Please," she asked, "I just really feel like that's what I need to do."
She stared up at him pleadingly, looking not at all like somebody who had been lifting half a ton earlier that morning. Mitch sighed.
"Fine, but I'm stopping it as soon as you look like you're not controlling your strength. You could hurt somebody, and you won't learn anything if you're just powering through people."
"Thanks, you're the best! I'll be careful," Taylor promised, before trotting off to the center of the mats. Dressed in a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt, she was an awkward collection of skinny arms and legs that didn't look at all threatening. Rick, the white belt she had chosen for the first match, had hardly had any training, but at least knew enough to hold himself in an athletic stance.
After all is said and done / You've never walked, you've never run/ you're a winner.
Taylor and Rick close for an awkward exchange of blows. Rick manages to land a solid punch to the chin, and Taylor takes a step back before rubbing her chin thoughtfully.
You got the moves, you know the streets / Break the rules, take the heat / You're nobody's fool.
Taylor and one of the intermediate students bow to each other, then close to arm's reach. Taylor redirects a punch aimed for her midsection, then grabs the green belt her opponent is wearing and throws him over her hip. He scrambles back to his feet, looking at her with newfound respect.
You're at the best when the goin' gets rough / You've been put to the test, but it's never enough
Taylor and the assistant instructor engage in a complicated series of punch, block, and counter attack that goes on for a good thirty seconds. It finally ends as they each launch a devastating strike and stop, pulling up with their fist a half inch from their opponent's nose. They step back and bow to each other.
You got the touch / You got the power!
Mitch groans as he tries to land a finger on his opponent. It's like fighting smoke-every time he throws a punch it misses by a whisker, and Taylor has already slipped inside his guard several times to land a jab to the body. She's pulling her punches, or else the fight would be over already. Finally he gambles, throwing his weight into a haymaker. Taylor grabs the outstretched arm and quickly has him in a submission hold.
As soon as Mitch tapped out to signal his concession, Taylor let him up and shook his hand. That done, she walked over to her boombox and turned off the music. When she looked up, she saw the whole class staring at her.
"What? I don't care what anybody says, the Transformers movie was a classic."
"And who are you, to be so foolish as to attack me?" Lung asked, and I blinked in surprise. Before, I had had a hard time making out his words due to his accent, but I could have sworn it was the accent of somebody who had learned English late in life. Now his voice carried the accent of somebody born to the upper crust of British society. I put the discrepancy out of my mind as I pointed at him dramatically.
"You don't deserve to know my name!"
One of his flunkies had come close and tried to grab me by the arm. It was a simple matter to pull it back and catch him in the chin with a straight right. As he spun around and fell to the ground unconscious, a hush fell over the gang.
The second one to come after me had some skill. His leg snapped out to block my kick, first shin height, then waist high, then head height. We paused for a second, and I glanced around to see that the other members of the gang had formed a circle around us. Then I pushed off with my plant foot into a back flip, catching him under the chin and lifting him into the air with the momentum of the kick.
Flipping into the air also let me avoid the staff that had just been thrust at my back. Reaching down, I grabbed the weapon and used it to redirect my momentum, bringing my feet down on the head of its wielder and knocking him out of the fight.
I stood and brought the staff to bear just in time to catch an attack from a guy wielding a pair of nunchuks. The first bounced off of the staff with the sharp crack of wood against wood; as he angled the second attack I shifted my position slightly so that the chain wrapped around the staff. I yanked it forward to pull him off balance and planted my foot in his stomach, releasing the staff to let him go flying back and out of the circle.
They came at me two or three at a time, and I felt like laughing with joy as my power rushed through me and I set them down almost as quickly as they stepped forward. I had never had a chance to completely lose myself in the moment like this, and it was intoxicating.
All too soon I was down to the last thug. This one had a katana and some idea how to use it. I was forced to dodge again and again as he kept pressing me, looking for the decisive blow. He thought he had it as he brought the blade down in an overhead chop, right up until I clapped my hands together on either side of the flat of the blade and halted its forward motion.
He stared at me in disbelief until a standing roundhouse kick knocked him out of the action. His fall to the ground was punctuated by a slow series of claps. I looked up and was surprised to see Lung applauding my success.
"You have earned the chance to face me in combat," he said, still with that English accent. It was hard to tell under the mask, but his voice seemed slightly out of sync with the movements of his mouth. I could only guess that it was some side effect of his powers. "I hope you prove worthy. It has been too long since I've had a chance to exert myself."
"You're going to do more than exert yourself," I said, feeling the approving thrum of my power at the display of confidence. "You're going to lose."
He stepped closer and, despite the reassuring presence of my power, I felt some doubt. Since I had last seen him he had grown six inches in height, and a similar degree in width. Silvery scales had started to emerge from his skin, starting the process of forming armor that was reputed to withstand small arms fire. He was a monster.
He was also quite skilled, I discovered after our first exchange. I had managed to sneak one punch past his defenses, to little effect. In exchange, he had forced me to squarely block a straight kick to the gut. I allowed it to send me into a backflip rather than trying to absorb all of the momentum at once.
There was nothing for it but to try again. I charged forward, only to be forced to go into a low roll when the punch he snapped out was accompanied by a stream of flame. I redirected my momentum into a spin kick, but Lung simply lifted his leg up at an angle and absorbed the blow on his shin. The kick would have sent most people flying; Lung barely flinched before sending another punch my way with an accompanying plume of fire.
I leapt backwards, chased by several tongues of flame. They were easy to avoid as long as I kept my distance, but I could hardly hope to hurt Lung if I couldn't get close. I was going to have to change things up. As I cartwheeled away from his latest fire attack I grabbed the handle of the katana that I had discarded earlier. I finished the cartwheel with an upward slice from the katana aimed at Lung's wrist.
He snatched his hand back, then leaned out of the way of my follow up thrust. For such big opponent he was unnaturally quick. He ducked out of the way of another slice. I followed up with a horizontal swipe at hip level, confident that he wouldn't be able to get out of the way. I was right: he caught it with his bare hand.
The sound rang out like steel hitting steel, which wasn't too far off. His hand was covered with the silvery armor. As I watched, his hand started to glow, heating the metal of the sword until it had weakened enough for him to snap the blade right off.
"You cannot hope to defeat the might of the Dragon Fist."
I took advantage of his boasting to plant my foot on his knee, kicking off into a series of handsprings that took me halfway down the block. The force of the kick only staggered him slightly, but it was enough to keep him in place for the moment. I needed to try something new.
Guided by my power, I reached into my pocket and pulled out three throwing stars. I wondered for a second where they had come from-I certainly had never bought them-before I remembered snatching them out of the air after one of Lung's thugs tried to attack from a distance.
I threw the throwing stars off at an oblique angle and charged forward. I was dimly aware of them clanging off of the iron gutter pipe of one of the nearby apartments as Lung directed a stream of fire my way. I leapt up into the air, dodging the fire without slowing my charge. Lung sent another attack at me, intensifying the fire now that I had committed to an angle of attack. At the same time, the first of the shuriken reached me. As it suddenly dawned on me where my power had been guiding me, I came to the sudden realization that I was about to die.
Still, following my power's lead had worked so far. I kicked out, making contact with the shuriken and changing the angle of my headlong leap with no regard for the laws of physics. Lung attacked once more, but the next shuriken had arrived and I pushed off of it with my other foot, zig-zagging towards the demonic figure ahead of me.
I was level with his head by now-nearly eight feet off the ground-and he opened his mouth and roared. The roar was accompanied by a geyser of flame, headed straight for my face. Fortunately, the third shuriken reached me just before I was turned into a crispy Taylor. I kicked almost straight down at it, diverting my course up in the air over Lung's head, tucking in my whole body except for my right foot as I spun around.
I caught a glimpse of my foot just before it hit, and I could have sworn it was glowing. It may have been a trick of the light, what with all the flame Lung was throwing around. Still, it hit his head with the force of a meteor.
The shockwave from the blow was almost visible as a ripple in the air. The nearby apartment buildings shuddered, and the few remaining unbroken windows shattered. Lung went down hard, while the force of the kick sent me flipping back the other way. I landed on my feet about twenty feet away from him, close enough to see the spiderwebs his head left in the concrete from the impact.
I was breathing hard, feeling a strange mix of exhaustion, exhiliration, and terror rushing through my body. The feelings of terror were receding with the thrill of victory, and I felt a grin breaking out on my face. Taking out Lung on my first real night as a cape was more than I had had any right to hope for.
Then he moved.
First his left arm, then his right. He punched down into the ground hard enough for me to feel it where I was standing, then slowly levered himself upright. He stared at me for a long minute once he was upright, then threw his head back and roared.
A firestorm covered him from head to toe as he roared. The sound seemed to go on forever, but it couldn't have been more than a minute or two before he subsided, and the flames disappeared.
If Lung had been demonic looking before, now he was a demon. Covered from head to toe in silvery scales, he stood a good foot taller than he had just a minute ago. A pair of wings loomed up behind him, and a thick tail dragged behind him on the ground, leaving visible grooves in the concrete as he swept it bak and forth. His jaws had split and elongated to the point that he was hardly recognizable.
Despite myself, I took a step back, then another. I had the sinking feeling that I had just given my best shot and it wasn't enough. I didn't think I could win. Ignoring the protests of my power, I turned and started to run away.
I felt it immediately. The strength, the high I had been feeling, all started to drain away as my power fought against my actions. It was debilitating-nearly as bad as the pain that I felt as Lung smashed into me with his tail.
I went flying face first into a brick wall, smashing a sizable imprint of myself on contact. I managed to turn myself around as I fell so that I landed on my hands and knees, then lifted my head. Lung hadn't pressed his advantage, content to watch.
He didn't just want to kill me; he wanted to break me.
Well, nuts to that. I might not be able to overcome Lung's monstrous power, but I hadn't come all this way just to let another bully break my spirit. If I was going to die here, I was going to die fighting.
I forced myself to my feet, feeling the hum of my power rising once more in my heart. I turned and spat out a mouthful of blood, and my power started to spread through my body. Slowly I brought my hands together in front of my body and cracked my knuckles. My power was singing through my veins. I smiled.
"Let's get wild."
Looking back on it, that was the moment when things started to get out of hand.