On the street, the situation had turned bad with shocking speed. Lucky, caught off-guard by Mayfly’s fall, wasn’t quite quick enough to dodge Phil’s latest assault. He collapsed with a cry as one of the monster’s tendrils scratched him, gasping as the paralytic toxins coating Phil caused his arm to clench and freeze up. Jhim, recovering from his own beating, dove down to cover him, lobbing a brace of grenades that kept Phil momentarily at bay, but a moment later a dozen Ultiminions had leapt on top of the artificer and were industriously attempting to stab him at once. Jhim twisted and shot, blasting minions off him and letting his body armor take the brunt of the hit.
A moment later, in a flurry of explosions, he was back on his feet. Around him, Ultiminions twitched and collapsed as focused blasts of superheated air slammed through them. Ecchs sighed, and tapped his comm. “Psiborg? Get over here, please.”
The air shimmered, and Psiborg appeared next to Ecchs. “Yes, my liege?”
“Why is Blastwave down there helping the Champions?” Ecchs asked patiently.
“Ah.” Psiborg said eventually. “I was looking for her. She escaped while I was battling Moonbeam, and then I lost her trail when I waited to ensure that the illusionist wasn’t simply fooling me with an image of her death… again…” He broke off. “My apologies, master Mundi.”
“Fine, whatever. Narrative was still on there side. Would you mind terribly hopping down there and… oh, I don’t believe this.” Ecchs shook his head as his board lit up. “Scratch them. Drop down to just outside the entrance. I need you ready to drop three pests.” He triggered his speaker, waving down to the street. “Hazard, my gear’s prepped to note your powers, so you might as well come out.”
Hazard stepped through the main doors, with a cocky smile on his face. Behind him, Nightshade glared furiously up at the Doctor, but refrained from commenting as her rescuer spoke. “Hello, Rex.” Hazard said cheerfully. “We’re here to save the day.”
“Right.” Ecchs rolled his eyes. “This is the part where all those times the heroes had faith in potential enemies pays off – you’ve gathered the B-list to stop me. News flash for you, Hazard. The Power of Friendship is lying dead over there.” He gestured brusquely towards Mayfly. “You really think you can just bring some half-rate heroes and… never mind, I’ll just show. Psiborg, take them out.”
Psiborg stepped from the shadow of the building, facing Hazard. “Ackno-kno-no-no-o-o-o-….” With a whirring groan, the robot went dead. A moment later, he collapsed backwards. Ecchs blinked.
“The hell…?” He said. He looked over to Ada for inspiration, but she was staring at the monitor with as much bemusement as him. Further down, the battle had frozen in shock. Even Ash seemed nonplussed, although his drones took the opportunity to completely encircle the area.
“Not heroes.” Hazard said simply.
The air rippled, as a man phased into being next to Hazard. His suit was not as crisp as it once had been, the olive-green tint was tending towards the faded, and his goatee was just a hint shy of perfection. His smile, however, was extremely broad. “Hello, Spencer.” The Witch Doctor said gloatingly. “I took the liberty of turning off your puppet.”
“Jason?!” Ecchs’ composure finally broke. “I knew you were moronic, but this?” He waved a hand to encompass his machine. “You are aware that what I’m doing will create a world where you actually have a shot at true power, right? Not just the scraps of whatever narrative allows you to accomplish?”
“Aware, yes.” Jason smiled nastily. “But I thought about it, and I realized that I despise you rather more than I care about your narrative theories.”
Ecchs considered that. “Hm.” He finally said. “So instead of the power of friendship…”
“Spite and malice.” Hazard admitted. “I didn’t find people who support the Champions, Ecchs. I found people who have grudges against you. I have this sneaking suspicion your new narrative supports that sort of thing.”
“Huh. Cunning.” Ecchs admitted finally. “How the hell did you know I was Rex Mundi?”
Hazard hesistated. “Actually…” He said slowly. “I thought it was Ada.” When Ecchs’ eyebrows rose, he pressed on. “I mean, it was obviously someone here in Patchwork City, but I figured the rest of it was a complicated double-blind. It never occurred to me that you might just be in love with her. Silly of me, really.”
“Yes.” Ecchs looked down over the group, which was now assembled. Blastwave was holding Timebender close, next to Jhim, who had pulled Lucky back to his feet. Nightshade and Hazard were flanking them, with the Witch Doctor in the rear. He then looked over to Ada, who gave him a silent thumbs-up. “Bad news, though. You still lose.” He smiled slowly. “Your powers are gone, Hazard. My machine has taken control of your narrative thread. Your powers, Lucky’s… both gone. Which leaves, by my count, five of you, with two injured. Ada’s suited up, and can be down there in a moment to deal with Blastwave. I still have more than enough tech to handle you, Jason. Shivarex is tough enough to take out Nightshade, and Phil can handle Jhim. My Ultiminions are a bit depleted, but still fine to finish wearing you down, Timebender. And of course…” He shrugged. “There’s Ash, who’s been growing in numbers all night. He’s not all here, but there’s enough of him.”
Two thousand trees stepped into formation. “Give up.” They said in unison.
Ecchs was watching Hazard. “I assume your plan has a last step?” He asked curiously.
“There is one, actually.” Hazard admitted. “I have one last villain to deploy. I was going to wait until you actually attacked, though.”
“Knew it.” Ecchs nodded. “This ought to be good. You didn’t pull Clockwork out of whatever hole he’s hiding in, did you? He could give you a percentage chance of any of you surviving the next two minutes.”
“Spencer…” Ada was glancing down at her screen in confusion. “I’m reading some odd weather patterns forming down there.”
“Weather patterns?” Ecchs frowned. “Who the hell do we know that does that?”
By way of response, the wind exploded along the street, catching trash cans and scattered robotic parts and flinging them through the air. A thousand tiny sparks shimmered into life, as crossing winds burst impossible flames that lanced through the sky. Every spark touched one of Ash’s bodies, and every body went up like a lit torch. In under three seconds, as Ecchs gaped in shocked, every one of Ash’s bodies was aflame, and the inferno below sent scorching blasts of heat into the air that forced Shivarex and Phil to retreat, as the winds carried blistering air safely around the gathered heroes and villains below. A man walked through the flames, as they parted to let him pass. He wore a simple dark red winter jacket, and his hair was short and black, with a stubble-filled beard that hugged his chin. He nodded up to Ecchs.
“Call me Chad.” He said.