The control room was a frozen tableau with Doctor Ecchs at its heart, grinning like a madman. He glanced down at his watch. “Tick-tick, Champions. If we properly negotiate this, I could be willing to let you leave here alive. I'm rather fond of you, after all, and it's not as though I actually need to kill you now.”
“Or we could just beat you to a pulp and drag you and your buddies to jail.” Nightshade said, watching her old boss avidly.
Ecchs blinked. “Excuse me? What did I just say about…”
“Bullshit.” Nightshade shook her head. “I do not believe you.”
Timebender let out a slow breath. “Nina, I really think we shouldn't push him to prove it.”
Nightshade laughed, looking around the room. “Look at all of you!” She crowed, turning back towards Ecchs. “Here's the thing, boss. I know you.” She smiled, taking a step forwards. Phil quickly slid between Nightshade and Ecchs, and she paused. “I know the way you think, and I know that there are three reasons that the machine doesn't do what you said it did.”
“You didn't even know that I was Rex Mundi.” Ecchs pointed out wryly.
“I didn't think you were committed enough, sure. But I knew your methods. It's not about the money, right?” Nightshade said. “Which is the first reason. You don't care about money, or power. You're not ruling the world because you think you're the only ruler for it, or because you want people to suffer.” Her eyes narrowed. “You just want the world to admit that you're the best. The greatest villain, the most impressive, the only man to conquer the whole damned universe. Only… if everything and everyone dies, so does your memory. And that's the only part of this that you really value.”
Ecchs's smile slipped slightly. “Interesting theory.” He allowed. “But you have to risk big to win big, Nina.”
“That actually leads us to our second point.” Nightshade said. “If there's one thing you love more than recognition, it's a good challenge. And this machine sort of ruins that, doesn't it? I mean, if no one can challenge you or the universe explodes, where's the fun? What's the point, really?”
“They'll just have to find a way around it.” Ecchs shrugged. “I don't have some psycological need to make things easy for people.”
“And then there's our last issue.” Nightshade looked slowly to Ecchs' left. “Because you've got a shriveled little heart, Doc, but you actually do care about some people. And I don't believe for a minute that you'd design a machine that would kill your wife the instant that you died.” She flexed her muscles, and looked back to the Champions. “And I'm willing to test that.”
“Are you?” Ecchs raised an eyebrow, looking increasingly nervous. Nightshade smiled.
“You have to risk big to win big.” She said bluntly. “You want my theory? I think there have been an awful lot of Luckies appearing, because an awful lot of people have been trying to change reality to make it so you never became king. I think your machine's gotten out of control, and you put those safeguards in to keep your own device from wrecking everything, like usual. And I think that destroying the machine would be a disaster. But I don't think for a second that you've got killswitches built into it, because you haven't made any changes to narrative law since we blocked your minions from the machine. And I intend to prove it.”
Without another word, she charged forwards. Phil's tendrils lashed out, and she grabbed them by the softest part and swung him through the air, slamming into a wall. As she approached Ecchs, he tapped his wristwatch, and a glowing field of energy exploded around him, knocking Nightshade off her feet.
“You win this round, Nightshade.” Doctor Ecchs said sourly, as Phil sprung back upright and Ada began stepping forwards. “Honestly, I was hoping to avoid having to kill any more of you. I really do like you people. But if you insist…”
Down in the narrative engine room, a storm of lightning played around Lord Mayhem as he pursued Eclipse. “You're a skilled opponent, but you're outmatched.” He laughed, sending a lightning strike into the centre of a batch of solid-form shadows. The shadows fractured and collapsed as their makeup shifted and weakened, and Mayhem pressed the advantage. “You won't take control of this engine.”
“We don't have to.” Eclipse said with a smile, falling back into a pool of shadows and leaping out of a second patch high above his enemy. Dropping towards Mayhem, he pulled a shadowshield in front of himself to deflect Mayhem's storm, kicking out to catch his opponent in the back before flipping to the floor. “We just need to hold you until our friends beat Rex Mundi.”
“That's not very likely.” Mayhem stumbled and spun around, sending a bolt of lightning at Eclipse, who barely managed to avoid it. “I think that you'll find that the good doctor has planned for such an occasion.”
Not far away, Hazard and Lucy were rocketing back and forth, their power suits tearing furrows off of each other as they spun through the air, dodging around shadows and lightning bolts to strike at each other again. “Why are you doing this?” Hazard yelled. “Ecchs is going to lose!”
“I don't care!” Lucy screamed at him. “I've already won!” She grinned manically, spinning around a pair of laser shots and dropping down towards Hazard. “I'm not even real, Lucky! I'm just a reflection from a world that was nothing but pain and darkness! A whole world, consigned to oblivion because your so-called heroes wanted to bring theirs back, and I got pulled along with it!”
“I don't quite understand.” Hazard banked, avoiding Lucy's return fire, while frowning. “What does that have to do with…?”
“Now everyone knows what I knew. What it was like to see your whole world collapsing around you, and know that nothing will ever be right again!”
Hazard's jaw dropped. “That is why you were helping him? That's completely insane! Lucy, Ecchs is the one who made your world in the first place!” He plunged forwards, grabbing her suit with one arm, and the two spiralled through the air.
“Oh, I know.” Lucy looked past Hazard, to the far side of the room as the wall collapsed under heavy blasts, a fraction of a second after Eclipse teleported away from it. Lord Mayhem pressed his advantage, bringing wave after wave of electricity streaming towards his enemy. Lucy turned her attention back to Hazard. “But he was honest. I figured he would collapse soon on his own.” Her grin was wider than ever, and Hazard felt a worrying tingle down the base of his spine.
“Well, you were right. Now surrender, and he goes to jail. Everyone's world collapses equally.” He said firmly, spinning her around and slamming her suit into the concrete floor. For a moment, the two glared at each other, and then he brought his fist around to slam into the side of her helmet. “Shut your suit off, Lucy.”
“In a moment.” Lucy powered her suit's jets, kicking out and sending Hazard flipping across the room. He spun around, bracing himself on a wall, just as another of Mayhem's strikes sent him flying off-course again. “I agree with you, Hazard.” She yelled. “Ecchs isn't going to win this one. It's up to me to finish his work.”
Hazard struggled to his feet, his circuits blinking, as Mayhem paused, bringing his lightning tightly around himself. “Lucy, what do you mean?” He said worriedly.
Lucy stood, cracking her neck, and looked at the machine behind her. “Time to go.” She said with a smile, arms dropping to her side.
Eclipse and Hazard shared a confused look, but Mayhem was already exploding into motion. “Lucy, NO!” He roared, charging forwards. He raised both of his arms, lightning blazing forwards, as Lucy clenched her fists. Eclipse was only a moment behind him, shadows pouring off him towards the woman.
The lightning knocked Lucy off her feet, and the shadows began to pull her down. She was still half-exposed when her suit self-destructed.
“I've been waiting for this.” Timebender hissed, racing forwards. As Ada brought lasers online, Timebender dodged around them, and consoles exploded around her as she beelined towards Ecchs. “It's time for you to face justice, Ecchs!”
“Justice is overrated.” Ecchs smiled, tapping out a quick command, and his forcefield contracted, then sent out a wide pulse that caught Timebender and sent her tumbling end over end. She rolled to her feet in time to duck away from Ada as the scientist brought her powered fists down towards the hero. A moment later, Ada let off twin blasts of flame that swung in opposite directions, curving towards Timebender. In the same instant, Lucky rammed Ada from behind, and Timebender took advantage of the moment's distraction to escape the corner that the two scientists had backed her into, kicking Ada off-balance in the process.
“Thanks for the save.” She muttered. Lucky smiled.
Nightshade began to charge Ecchs, only to be blocked by Phil as the monster raised his claws against her. “I'm not holdin back.” Phil warned her.
“That's a shame, Phil.” Nightshade sighed. “You picked the wrong side.”
“One of uth did.” Phil shot back. “I picked the fun thide.” Twin tendrils lanced out, and Nightshade dodged around the first one, grabbing the second, only to have it twist in midair to draw a shallow cut across her arm as she flipped him through the air again. Nightshade staggered, pale skin growing paler as she winced in pain.
“Damn it.” She muttered, falling to one knee.
Phil didn't have time to gloat. As he crashed towards the ground, he saw two small grey orbs roll out under him. A moment later, a blast of energy sent him crashing through the ceiling, tendrils hanging loosely towards the floor as Jhim charged forwards, firing wildly upwards. “Not this time, Phil!” Jhim yelled. “You're not getting her too!”
And then the entire building shuddered. Lucky, Ecchs, and Timebender collapsed to the floor, and Ada and Handyman stumbled. Lucky looked around. “What the hell was that?” He yelled.
Ecchs frowned. “Beats me.” He muttered.
A computerized voice spoke. “Warning. Narrative Engine severely damaged. Total Reality Implosion in four minutes. Please evacuate reality at your earliest convenience. Thank you.”
Everyone turned to look at Doctor Ecchs, who was pursing his lips.
“Huh.” He said. “That's not great.”