(Good deeds of a past book come in the form of an unexpected sky blue savior!)
I had grabbed the items I would need on the way, of course. A flare gun, a knife, and a note. Of course, the knife was the copy we made of Slice's. The note was a long term plan with a fallback of sort with a big assumption I was going to live. The flare gun? I was looking forward to that one.
I chose a location near water but not where Mister Brute would think about, at least I hoped. Given our past encounter he might indeed be very aware of the lines under the city's surface, but the point was I had a chance to break ground, literally, and dive under that way if I had to. It also would provide Pinprick another option for escape.
"You ready yet, Eel?" He called up from his position on the ledge.
"Ready as I'll ever be," I nodded and embedded the knife into the note using it like a tack on a bulletin board.
The note read: Mister Brute, I have what you want. Meet me at dawn tomorrow at the same location we met last time, and challenge me man to man, and you'll get it. We have all the independent heroes. So, you might as well give up on that. It's the only CURE for our current standoff. Any other option, anything else, and you could really FRACTURE your chances for retrieving it.
Then I took the gun, and fired it straight up into the air, the trailing spiraled up, up, up and then bloomed into the shape of, some kind of generic tuna. I blinked and probably said something rather impolite.
"Fish signal," Pinprick called out from his spot, "Yeah, that'll send em running."
"It's supposed to look like a frickin' eel," I fumed, "I was very specific about that."
Pinrpick's chortle didn't sound very supportive, "Yeah, that's your biggest problem."
I grumbled, "Fine, let's get ready, you hide, they be here soon." And the worse thing is, the plan counted on it.
Hiding for a six-inch-tall man isn't hard.
Good news? Apocalyptic showed up. Bad news? Apocalyptic showed up.
To my amusement, at least two of them didn't look good. Slice had a fresh costume, but her hair was still half burned, and I suspected her third degrees were still at least first degree. I shouldn't laugh, burns are some of the ugliest wounds you can get, but she was obviously a quick healer, and frankly, it was nice to see Firebug hit a worthy target for once. Firebug herself? Well, she flew so maybe it didn't matter as much, but I thought I saw some sort of support for that ankle I had broken earlier.
Me? I was standing pretty fresh so, you know, I was going to die, but at least I could say they had good reason to hate me now.
Mister Brute took lead before them, and spoke, "Why do I have a hard time trusting this? You're confident, and you're angry with us, but you're not a fool. Yet you send up a signal, and don't seem surprised it's us."
"Thought I'd issue an invitation," I Jerked a thumb at the knife and note, "Wanted to be sure you found it."
Mister Brute glanced at Slice and nodded. There was a rush past me, and then a blur past the other way. I held very still hoping she didn’t' try to stab me in the throat on her way by.
The note was already in Mister Brute's hands. He wore a mask, but I liked to imagine that least part of what it said caught him off guard and maybe even made him nervous.
That's right, Jerk, I know it's a cure and not a weapon.
Then he began to tear it in half, then quarters.
"Ridiculous," He snorted, "Why on Earth would I let you choose the time or place? Even if you really do have every independent superhero as you claim, I can just move to policemen. Or reporters, or whoever is unlucky enough to be handy. You fancy yourself a superhero. You and your team will do anything and everything to protect said innocents. It allows me the advantage of time, location, heck, maybe even players. You have nothing on me."
"Except the knowledge of the very special someone in your life who so badly needs a Fumian cure for Cancer," I glanced at his team, "How do you guys feel about that? I mean, I hope he's paying you something, because you all seem relatively healthy. Well, maybe not you, Firebug. How's the ankle?"
"You son of a –" Blue flames roared around her but Brute stilled her with a gesture.
He was scrutinizing me, trying to figure out how much I really knew.
I put on my best shuck and jive face and answered the unspoken question, "You think I can't learn things? The prize you seek told a lot. And we have some very good detectives on our team."
In truth, the detective was Tornado, and while he was indeed good and looking into it, like the rest of us, he had his hands full, so we had no idea who Mister Brute was trying to save. I just knew whoever it was had to be precious in a personal way to a man who didn't otherwise value human life.
But I sure wasn't going to let my ignorance show. I gave my best smug look.
"So, that one on one looking better now?" I said.
"No," he answered, "I don't know how you found out, I'm not even sure if you know as much as you claim, but I do know this whole encounter feels funny. You're chatting me up? Why?"
Before I could answer, the Fumians did. A hologram appeared in front of him, a Fumian furiously ranting, his scaled face bulging with rage "We had a bargain! You are supposed to keep the superheroes off of us, and yet somehow they're tracking us down, we've lost over five reported merchants already, if they get the other ten you will find no help from your offspring from us, Mister Brute! He will die of his cancer. Is that what you wish? Now, I insist you-"
Whatever the hologram was going onto say was interrupted, by me, as I charged through the hologram and body checked Mister Brute as hard as I could. I should have gone after Dice, but the others would follow Brute's lead, and I needed his attention on me.
If it weren't for the distraction of the message, I wouldn't have been able to hit him flatfooted. But as it turned out, I drove him into his team mate Dice, who he clipped, before skidding another twenty feet and smashing into the corner of a building.
The office was closed at this hour, another reason this area worked for me.
Mister Brute rolled up quick like a professional athlete getting off the mat. Dice seemed startled and was slower. I got the feeling the luck bender wasn't used to getting dinged in these scuffles.
I wanted Mister Brute to lose his temper, instead he called out, "Candle-wall Cuisinart, Miss S."
"On it," Dice's eyes glowed.
"Damn it," Firebug hissed as if she hated what was just said. Flames erupted from her as she rose up. I readied to dodge the fireball only to find out the flames were not targeting me, not directly anyway. A wall of red and yellow burst in a ring around me. I was surrounded in a circle of flame.
I couldn't see beyond that.
Then Slice was there, passing through the flames like a finger through candlelight. Her knives cut into my flesh, the replacement not as deeply. Later I would worry if she noticed the difference, right now I was just grateful I only had one gash in me rather than two deep ones.
I readied to leap over and out of the ring of fire, only to slip! I freaking slipped and stumbled catching a part of my leg in the fire. Knives plunged into my back, direct thrusts this time, as I was a sitting duck for it. Bad luck, a flaming prison, and super speed cuts were all combining to trap me. I swung wildly and was rewarded with another cut, this one along my arm.
Somewhere through the pain, my brain kicked in and reminded me I had a deux ex mystica in my pocket. I reached for it, "Istvha Mirro" I called out.
And suddenly there were others of me scrambling around. Some in the flame, some in the circle, and some, I presumed from the comments of the villains, out of the circle. The duplicates worked well. I mean, the ones that were in the flame actually looked in pain, the ones with me struck various heroic swinging poses. I certainly couldn't tell the difference. They even had matching wounds.
"Damn it, Dice, wake up!" I heard Mister Brute's frustrated yell. With a grin I realized that outside of my vision, Pinprick must have gone to work. His arrows, he had told me before, did a lot more than shrink folks. Enchanted, if he was telling me the truth, with the powers of Faerie, they could also put folks into deep sleep, or even act as love potions (Though he admitted to almost never using that option).
Suddenly I wasn't having as much trouble getting up. I guess with Dice asleep, my bad luck had, for the moment, ended.
Slice spent several attacks on my duplicates inflicting wounds that meant nothing to me upon them. This bought me plenty of time to leap out successfully at last, and land down outside of the flames. Unfortunately, Firebug wasn't in reach, and I didn't have Arctic Fox's protection anyway.
She was currently shooting a rush of blue flame through one of the Eel copies which blackened and splintered the ground beneath it.
Beneath it? That reminded me of the second part of my plan. I was lucking out so far. Was it too soon to engage in retreat? Yes, yes it was. And I wasn't going to leave without Pinrpick anyway. I had left Slime behind earlier. I wasn't going to do that to another hero ever again.
The punch from Mister Brute sent me up against a wall twenty feet away hard enough to leave a divot. Mister Brute was dealing with me himself.
"Slice, go rescue the Fumians, I can pluck this particular thorn in our collective side with my own two hands," He gave me a hard jab to the face, "Have you been practicing, boy?"
My response was a right hook close to his ear and the comment of, "You tell me."
The way it staggered him was gratifying. He swung back, but I sidestepped near an illusion of me, and he hit the wrong one.
I had an advantage? Son of a gun, I had an advantage.
Stepping in and out of the illusion closest to me that was mimicking my attacks anyway, I hammered a series of hooks, jabs and lunges. He fired back, but half of his blows were falling on the wrong target. He grabbed what he thought was my arm to put it in a lock only to find he had grabbed a true phantom limb. I rewarded him with a shot to his ribs.
I might be able to beat him.
"Firebug! Get Friendly!" He bellowed.
That couldn't be good, I realized.
Firebug had been trying to figure out which me was real with individual shots, even as she turned at the command, and let loose a fireball with Mister Brute himself as ground zero for the explosion. The flames probably hurt him, but it was clear he could take fire a lot better than I could and I was right next to him.
I hate fire.
And fire hates me.
I felt my skin boil, while Mister Brute's biggest problem was that fancy hat of his was smoking and a comparatively mild set of burns.
Worse, Mister Brute is smart. I saw a smile part his lips as his eyes danced even in the brightness of the flames and he pulled a round house on me that loosened my teeth and made me see stars.
"What do you know, the flames go mostly through the illusions, but not you, nice tell," He grabbed me by the throat and slammed down to the ground beginning to snuff the life out of me. I punched once, twice, and feared my windpipe might give out.
I wondered where Pinprick was, only to see he was dealing with Slice. Slice had tried to leave only to find herself with a small man on her shoulder. How he got there I don't know, but I did realize he was shooting her in the head, little arrows had nailed her like an acupuncturist gone mad. She was still full sized, which meant either somehow, she was immune to that effect or he didn't find it tactically sound to shrink her, so he couldn't use the difference to avoid her weapons.
Still, those blades, if they hit, might cut him open like a great sword on a munchkin. And her precision wasn't slowed down much despite her injuries.
Case in point, she whirled in a fast spin and Pinprick found himself hanging on for dear life. And I? I was about to lose the last of my oxygen.
I hit, I kicked, and the ground shook, but I couldn't break his grip. He ignored the duplicates, and then another wave of fire hit us both. Things were turning gray.
I was blacking out.
"Firebug, help Slice shake that nuisance and go already! We lose the Fumians and we lose everything," Mister Brute snarled and began to beat me against the ground over and over. I think I felt blood behind my head, and I was pretty sure it was mine, "Where is the cure?"
Pinprick cried out in pain and out of the corner of my eye I saw him get cut along his right side and flung off. Gasping, he fired an arrow at Mister Brute, trying to save me I suppose, though for a moment I had a nightmarish mental image of the man shrinking but still keeping hands around my throat and severing my head in a darkly comical fashion.
Instead, nothing happened.
"Whatever you're trying, imp," Mister Brute grit his teeth, "You'll find it doesn't work on me."
That's when I shattered the asphalt and concrete beneath me. Bits of stone and rubble fell into the water below, the splashing sound was music to my ears and Mister Brute and I started to tumble. Then the bastard caught himself with a free hand, the other still around my neck.
"Clever, Eel, but I'm not done with you yet," Mister Brute flung me away from the edge. Another three arrows bounced off him, and he snorted, "Pinprick, isn't it? Haven't we established you're having trouble affecting me?"
I landed in heap a good thirty feet away landing in what had been a bus stop, grateful to take in air even if every breath hurt like the devil. Pinprick didn't look much better than I did. He was lucky that Firebug and Slice were already heading off (finally) to go aid the Fumians.
Pinprick nodded, "You're absolutely right," And he shot another arrow in a high arc which shot past Mister Brute and landed instead between his legs at the bricks of the ledge.
Bricks that shifted and shrunk to the size of children's toys.
"Works pretty good on the stuff you're standing on though," Pinprick called out, "Eel! Bench him!"
I grabbed a chunk of the bench I'd just broken through, and flung it at the tottering Mister Brute. It broke against him and shattered, but it was also enough force to send him tumbling down into the waters below.
I meant those waters for my escape, but they might serve pretty nicely as his delay, "Brilliant, Pinprick. Can we get the hell out of here now?"
"Kind of the plan," He shot another arrow to a flag pole and swung near me, "I'm being honest here, Eel. I'm losing blood with every step. How are you?"
I took him in my hands, carrying him like a baby, not that I would ever describe it that way where he could hear me, and began to run. I tried to hop once, to get more distance, and then groaned in pain, "Okay, running it is."
"You mean limping," Pinprick muttered, "Turn the corner, get out of visual first, then distance."
I did as he said, and he was right, I was moving like a wounded wildebeest, "I outsmarted myself, was going to use the underground water so we're not as close to the beach as I'd like."
"We're screwed then, yay," Pinprick said calling in, "Mabel, Firebug and Slice are on their way. nearest vehicle?"
"All vehicles are getting wounded to safety, do you need one? I can redirect."
Pinprick and I exchanged a look at each other, and both answered, "We're good."
"Okay, if that changes, let us know," Mabel said, "And others are warned about the incoming ladies."
Once that was over, I stumbled onto a street, one with far too many people on it. When there's a butcher with the ability to break tanks with his bare hands, five is too many.
There was a hand on my shoulder, I jerked up and turned to see… a mailman.
"Hey, you don't look so good," The skyblue uniformed postal worker said, "Your friend doesn't either."
"Supervillain on our tails, cold blooded killer type, he's going to have more help shortly and I hate to sound like a wimp, but I can't take him alone. Any minute now he could come through the area and kill my friend or I. Y'all need to get out of here," I slurred.
He opened up the back of his vehicle, "Get inside, both of you."
"What?" I blinked in confusion, 'Look, my name is Eel, and I'm not sure you understand."
"I know exactly who you are," And he pushed me through into the back to curl into a fetal position on a top of packages and bags yet to be delivered and closed the hatch behind me, "You're Eel, the Fish Guy. You're the man who held up a post office to save the stamp pounding lives of my brothers and sisters in the building. You held it when they got out. Then, you saved our Christmas bonuses and maybe even a job or three by keeping that building aloft long enough for them to salvage it. You didn't let the terrorists win. When you did that? Whether you realize it or not, you became one of us. "
He didn't look back as he got into the driver's seat, not even a glance in the rearview mirror, which is good, because I'm sure the expression I wore was one of utter confusion bordering on W-T-H-edness.
"You are my brother in blue, and today, you and your wounded team mate are also my packages. I will deliver you, and neither rain, nor sleet, nor jerkass villain will stay me from this sacred duty." He began to drive off, not gunning it, but there was such a profound look of dignity on his round face that I swore that if he were part of a parade, he'd be the guy holding the colors and that flag would never ever touch the ground.
"Thanks," Was all I could think to say to the man who was making this a truly surreal moment, "Mister…?" I turned the ignorance into a question.
"Postman Bert Newell, Letter Carrier Veteran for seven years running now," The man said, "You can call me Bert. Like I said, you're one of us," He drove on, "that guy you were talking about, he look like a cross between a 1930's mafia boss, the phantom of the opera, and a steroid junkie?"
"That's him," I said, "He's in view of your mirror I take it?"
"Yup, and he's ticked, but no one is getting hurt. It will probably never occur to him that you might be in here," He turned the corner, "We postal workers are easy to overlook. We are as constant as the sun in our movement, and just as often ignored, and yet still we bring what we can of our light to the world." He drew forth his CB like device, "This is Postman Bert Newell, I am going to be behind on deliveries today, please pivot someone else instead of me as I will be taking aforementioned greater time to complete the usual appointed route."
"You are delayed?" Said a woman's voice, sounding like she had just heard the Pope declare he was skipping Mass this morning, "Are you feeling well, Bert?"
"I'm fine," Bert said with resolve, "Honorary Postman Eel and one of his team mates is in my vehicle and injured. I'm helping them."
"Bert, I'd ask you if you were joking but I know you don't have a sense of humor," The woman replied, "Permission for delay granted, and others will pivot if necessary. Tell Eel, well, hell, tell him we've got his back."
"Roger that, Post Officer Janice," He said, and put the device down, "We've got you covered, Eel. Where to?"
I needed water to heal more quickly, but I'd still regenerate albeit slower. Pinprick was worse off than I was. I looked at Bert, took a breath and told him to drop me off about a block away from the base. I was tempted to tell him to take me straight to the base and give its location and trust him, but it wasn't just my secret. And he was already taking a tremendous risk, "And drop us off behind a building or something so no one will see us if you can?"
"You've got it, honorary postman Eel," He picked an empty area for an out of business carwash, allowing us a chance to slip out as he opened the hatch then stepped aside, "Consider yourself delivered."
And he saluted me.
Carefully shifting Pinprick to my left arm, I saluted back, "You serve your pony express ancestors proud, sir." I tried to say it with a straight face, because even if I was still baffled, I was grateful, and incredibly aware that his smuggling Pinprick and myself out had just saved our lives.
He smiled at that, and puffed up a little, "Good luck from here on, I have to return to my duties."
"Are all post officers as tough as you?" I asked him as he got behind the wheel and ready to pull off.
He looked at me, "We're in a town with super-battles. The wimps wash out, the cream rises, and the men get separated from the boys. Or the women from the girls in the case of my sisters in the cause."
"Of course," I nodded slowly, "I won't detain you any further from your appointed rounds."
And he drove off.
And I lurched on at the fasted shamble I could manage to get my friend to safety.