Lost Library Email Form Lost Library Mailing List
Lost Library Home Page

Act 1, Scene 9: Ten Rings to Rule Them All, Part 2

A Ranma ½ / Avengers (the superhero group) fusion
by DB Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ owned by Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. The Avengers are owned by Marvel Comics. Yes, the superheroes, not the British TV Series.

Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

"Are you done yet?"

"No." Idiotic bishonen playboy. The Iron Rose used the retractable cutting torch in her finger to complete a connection to the stealth system.

"Art thou done yet?"

"No." Oversized gaijin harlot. More relays were fused to their various systems. The prototype quinjet had only been test-flown twice, and even then it was over short distances. It wasn't outfitted for proper intercontinental flight yet.

"Aren't you done yet?"

"No!" What statement was that idiotic robe and devil mask supposed to make anyway? Was it red to hide the fact that he bled easily, or was the twit color-blind? She grit her teeth in annoyance as she rechecked the monitors in the cockpit.

"Yo, Shellhead. This is taking a while."

"Forgive me, Captain-sama." The Iron Rose broke off her work and returned ponderously to her feet. She gave a deep bow, formal despite the bulky armor she wore. "The modifications necessary for our impromptu flight are extensive to assure our safe arrival in these uncharted waters. I shall endeavor to hasten my work so we can set upon our foes all the quicker. There is but one more system I need to check, then we shall be off on our merry way. Fighting alongside you shall be an honor, Captain-sama. Oho ho ho ho!" She laughed maniacally covering her mouth with her gauntlet.

Captain Japan laughed nervously in return and backed away. Suddenly, putting his life in the walking stove's hands— or armored gauntlets, in her case— didn't seem like a good idea after all.

"Why does he get a 'sama' while I just get a snarl from the tin can?" Daredevil mumbled to himself as he turned away from the work.

Iron Rose picked up the 'tin can' reference with her audio sensors. In response, she adjusted a device on her armor's waist, bringing her magnetic projector online. She used it to send an extra nut lying near her workplace flying through the air and towards the back of Daredevil's head.

At the last moment, the red-garbed adventurer effortlessly reached behind him and snatched the nut out of mid-air without turning around. "You dropped this," he calmly stated as he tossed the nut over his shoulder. The Iron Rose caught the unerringly thrown projectile out of mid-air.

"Not bad," Captain Japan admitted to himself. He would have sensed the object's approach as well, with his highly trained martial arts senses, but Daredevil made it seem even easier than he could have managed.

With his heightened senses, Daredevil easily picked up his new comrade-in-arms words and could not have cared less. He wasn't here to impress anyone other than himself. The opinions of all involved— from cocky, shield-slinging clods, to armored hulks, to oversized self-proclaimed goddesses— meant nothing.

Boredom threatened to consume him while Iron Rose fiddled around with the vehicle. Daredevil used the extra time to focus his senses on the people upon whom his life might very well depend. Only Thor really impressed him. By the way the ground vibrated wherever she trod, Thor was far heavier than a normal human. Earlier, at the Iron Rose's request, she had lifted the quinjet up so that the armored warrior could gain easier access to the engines at an angle that she claimed would help with an adjustment to the gyroscopes on the vehicle. That display of strength probably surpassed Power Man's, and Daredevil didn't even want to think about the hammer and the weird vibes it gave off. Whatever power flowed through it set his teeth on edge when he focused on it.

The one called Iron Rose remained a mystery, one he didn't care for. The armor hid the woman beneath. Nothing about her true form could be sensed; even her voice was distorted by machinery. It was like communicating with a giant toaster instead of a person, the way his senses were blocked. He decided to have as little to do with her as possible.

His attention turned to Captain Japan. There was nothing unusual about him, save his physique, which was as close to human perfection as Daredevil had ever sensed. Heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, everything was in peak condition. It was unsettling to meet someone who was in superior physical shape to Mousse, who had trained as hard as possible for the majority of his life to be the best that he could be. Of course there was more to a fight than mere physical conditioning. There was skill, as well as heart and will, which Daredevil possessed in abundance. He was secure in the knowledge he could take the arrogant super-hero in a straight fight, but that perfect physique added to the list of the Captain's qualities that the blind youth disliked. It was becoming a long list.

At last, he turned his full senses to Hawkeye. Now that he focused exclusively on the archer, Daredevil began to suspect that all was not right about him. Something about the bishonen youth was odd. It was in the small details rather than in any overt manner. The way he walked, the way he talked, even how he breathed was peculiar. They didn't indicate superhuman abilities like Thor, but something else altogether. He trained the totality of his senses to the archer.

Somehow, Hawkeye seemed to pick up on his interest and approached. That took Daredevil aback; he had wanted to examine him surreptitiously. He sensed Hawkeye was going to speak, and concentrated on the words and the reaction the archer's body gave.

Hawkeye said, "Is something wrong? I noticed you staring at me pretty intently."

Daredevil cursed his tendency to actually face people when he focused on them. It had been necessary to learn to put people at ease by looking at them when communicating. Others didn't like it when the person speaking to them appeared to have their attention elsewhere, even if they knew they were talking with a blind man. He always did it out of habit now, and unfortunately Hawkeye had noticed and was questioning him.

"Not really. I was just thinking of things," Daredevil said quickly.

That seemed to assuage the archer. "Well, since we got a minute, I thought you might want to trade notes on super-heroing and stuff."

Daredevil tensed up at the suggestion, and what followed. He went no further than feeling Hawkeye's heart rate leap slightly at the conversation and the archer's voice became slightly raspy. The blind youth recognized this first couple of signs and tuned out the rest. He wished he had paid less attention to Hawkeye. Now the obviously gay archer misinterpreted Daredevil's interest as being sexual instead of professional. Oh, on the surface that was what Hawkeye contended, but Daredevil could feel the archer's body betraying him by becoming aroused and knew better.

It was best to end it quickly, before Hawkeye got any ideas. "Sorry, I have some serious planning to do before we run into our playmates again."

"We can come up with an attack plan together," Hawkeye said.

There was way too much hope in that voice. Uncomfortable beyond all measure, Daredevil backed away. "No, it's all right. I'm sure you'd rather make plans with the Captain over there." And Daredevil didn't want to know what any of those plans were. He deliberately turned his sense away from Hawkeye in order to dwell on anything other than homosexual super-heroes.

Hawkeye's disappointment at Daredevil's standoffish behavior was quickly defused by Thor. She moved closer to the archer and placed an arm around her shoulders. "Thy suggestion has merit. Let us make plans to war on those villains who harmed thy fair personage."

Hawkeye darted out from under the grasping shoulder. Thor was getting a little too friendly again. It was the sort of reaction she would have preferred from Daredevil or that hunky Captain, but instead, thanks to her choice of camouflage, she was once again fending off the advances of a woman. "Sure we can, but let's not get too close. I like to use… ah, lots of wide hand motions when describing things and wouldn't want to smack you."

"Ah, right," Thor said hesitantly. "Describe again these villains abilities. From the sounds of things, methinks it would be best if I strove against this Power Man."

As the two began to come up with a battle strategy, Captain Japan held back, watching Hawkeye intently. This was bizarre, almost surreal, in a way. It made him wonder what kind of world it was where two people that were great shots with arrows had the same nickname. The first time he heard the archer called "Hawkeye" by Thor, he nearly fell over in shock. His first instinct was to run over and hug the purple-garbed adventurer, but then he recovered his senses. Of course it was only natural that his first instinct would be to assume Hawkeye was his best childhood buddy, and that had taken on the guise of a super hero. But then common sense returned and the Captain nearly kicked himself for causing a spectacle by hugging another guy. The others would think he was gay. And it was silly, really, the idea that this Hawkeye could be the same person from Ranma's own past.

After all, Ukyou had been a girl, and it was obvious Hawkeye was a guy, especially with how he was reacting to the obvious advances of Thor. The only way the archer could have been good ol' Ucchan was if she had not only decided to become a super hero, like Ranma, but had also traveled to Jusenkyou and just happened to fall into the spring of drowned guy. Now that was stretching coincidence impossibly far.

Still, maybe he would find some hot water and 'accidentally' spill it on Hawkeye, just in case. It never paid to take chances.

"Finished!" Iron Rose declared as she reattached the last plate to the exterior controls. "Everyone get on board. I've already got the tracking information logged into the control system. It will take us on the most direct course that their plane traveled."

Eagerly, all five heroes boarded the high-tech transport. The last one to board was Daredevil. Just as he was about to enter, he paused and tried tuning his senses to the bottom of the vehicle.

"What is it?" Captain Japan, who had been right in front of Daredevil, asked.

The roar and heat from the quinjet's engines started up, drowning out Daredevil's ability to sort through the stimulus around him. He shook his head and paused on the steps leading inside the vehicle. "For a second, I thought I heard something near the landing gear. It was about the size of an insect."

"So what?" Captain Japan asked.

Daredevil was about to explain, but changed his mind and entered without another word. He had been beaten soundly, was trying hard not to pay attention to Hawkeye, and the engines had distracted him. It was small wonder he was imagining things. After all, the idea that a person could be the size of a wasp was absurd.

Concealed within the compartment for the landing gear, the Wasp flew into an area that appeared to be safe, or at least where nothing would crush her and her unconscious companion. Her wait was over quickly when the quinjet rose vertically and the landing gear went up and into the craft. A moment later, the main engines provided forward thrust and the jet took off. For a moment, the Wasp was afraid they would not make it in time, but one last burst of speed enabled her to hide in the landing gear without any of the other heroes noticing her presence.

She looked down at the man she had carried with her. It was peculiar that when Tofu shrank down to her size, he became incoherent and the goggles on his mask fogged over. It was probably some side effect from the shrinking gas. At any time she could use one of the enlarging gas canisters on his belt to return him to normal size, and hopefully more coherent, but she thought better of it. Coming up with a different plan, she flew up with Giant Man in a fireman's carry cross her shoulders, and headed for the quinjet.

She wondered if she was doing the right thing. Being a superhero had suddenly become more difficult than she had originally thought. Upon arriving at the scene, she and Giant Man had discovered the villains had already departed. At first she was depressed, but then she overheard the heroes discuss tracking the villains down. The excitement of fighting for justice filled her once again, and she vowed to go along to help. But Giant Man had been knocked senseless by his gas and kept calling Kasumi by her proper name, rather than 'Wasp'. There was no way she was sharing her real identity with a group of strangers. Also having an incoherent partner was no way to approach the group and offer to join. Likewise, she was uncertain they would accept her and Giant Man. They had no reputation, like most of those assembled, and perhaps they would be cynical about her size, thinking her a liability in a fight.

Rather than taking the chance of being rejected, she decided to stowaway. Once they arrived at where the villains were located, she and Giant Man could appear out of the blue and save the day. Then the group would see them in combat first hand and have to accept them.

Course set, Wasp knocked out the still-incoherent Giant Man with a light zap, then carried him into the landing gear. Perhaps flying inside the passenger area of the quinjet would have been safer, but she didn't want to chance getting caught and thrown off the vehicle, ending her adventure before it had begun.

Now they were comfortably ensconced in the landing gear. She could hear the wind howling outside, but still felt safe with all of the armor between her and the skies above. The pitch-blackness was a problem, but one she could live with. She kept a close hand on her partner as she let the slow hum of the vehicle lull her into a relaxed state, eventually falling asleep shortly after the quinjet took off despite her excitement at what was to come.

The gentle hum from the jet engines rumbled throughout the plane. The vibrations flowed through the entire aircraft, and she could feel them all the way through her seat. Her eyes were closed, and she tried to refocus her center. The combat had not been extraordinarily difficult, but despite the relative ease with which matters had been resolved, she felt inexplicably out of sorts. With the time she had before their arrival in the mountains of China, she sought to re-center herself using some of the meditation techniques her mentor, Matsuo Tsurayaba, had taught her.

But she could not find the concentration necessary to use the technique. The reason for that was very simple. It was the eyes, those merciless orbs that seemed to bore into her mind. Even with her own lids closed, she could still feel them penetrating her and burning her with their unrelenting fires from within.

Her eyes whipped open. "Would you quit staring at my breasts?!"

Both Power Man and Mint, who now refused to be called 'Whizzer', continued staring.

Mint said, "I can't help it. They're so… there."

"Are they as soft as they look?" Power Man leaned forward to try to touch them again.

In response, Elektra darted out of the way of the way and moved forward so she was next Power Man. She then brought both of her palms hard across his ears. The result was a bellow of pain from him as the seeking hand returned to cover the abused ears.

"I'm satisfied with just staring at them," Mint assured her, pushing away the idea that he might be able to get a quick feel with his super speed. She would probably notice it, and in the closed confines of the jet, he would have difficulty making use of his super powers. There was no way he could outrun her, and with her reflexes she might have been fast enough to do something that involved a great deal of pain to him.

"What fools you foreigners be," Swordsman said dramatically. "To leer at such a bastion of beauty shows how crude and barbarous your nature is. Truly you are not worthy to be in the presence of such a flower of femininity."

"But you were staring too," Mint said.

"I was simply admiring the design of her garments."

"Do you usually drool when you do that?"

Swordsman stood up and drew his weapon from its sheath. He pointed it in Mint's direction. "You sir, are a cad."

"No, I'm a Musk. It says so right on my passport." Mint pulled it out and showed him.

Before he could reply, Swordsman discovered a sharp metal object pointed under his chin. There was just enough pressure to push the skin inward without actually breaking it.

Keeping the sai pressed against his jaw, Elektra hissed, "As amusing as it would be to watch you punch a hole in the side of this plane and the three of you get sucked out at four thousand feet, I, unfortunately, would end up being ejected as well. Since I have no intention of dying today, I suggest you put that sword back where you found it, or they are going to have to reupholster the seats, since I doubt they'll be able to wash out that many bloodstains."

Swordsman sheathed his weapon. "I merely wished to express in opinion. Harming my new comrade and teammate was the furthest thing from my mind."

Elektra sat back in her seat, deliberately keeping the sai out and idly pointing it in the others' direction. If she had to put up with these three morons for another hour, she might draw the Swordsman's blade and blast a hole in the side of the plane herself.

Showing a remarkable resilience— or a remarkable ability to delude himself, by not being intimidated in the slightest by the assassin's display— Swordsman began talking to her yet again. "I feel compelled to point out that Elektra is an unusual name for someone not of Grecian decent. Is it your real name, or just a working moniker, and if so what should I call you, oh sweet beauty, when we are on our date?"

"You can call me insane if you think for one moment I'd date with you."

Mint said, "Insane's a pretty unusual name too. Is it because you're psychotic or something?"

"I didn't mean it was my actual name!" Elektra snarled. Taking a moment to compose herself, she said, "Look, if I answer your questions, will you leave me alone, or at least stop looking at my breasts?"

Mint said, "Probably not, but there is a minuscule chance I will if I find the story really interesting or it puts me to sleep."

"I would never engage in such deplorable behavior in the first place," Swordsman assured her.

"Did she say something about spot hooking a chest?" Power Man asked Mint; the ringing in his ears still made it impossible to hear anything outside of a bell clearly.

"No. She said she wants us to stop looking at her chest."

"Hop skipping a mess?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I said." Elektra nodded her head to make sure the big man wouldn't misunderstand her agreement as something else and continue making inane misinterpretations.

"So, where did you get the name?" Swordsman continued.

Reluctantly, Elektra decided it would probably be best to tell them the story. Once they knew the truth, it might serve to silence them, or at least leave her alone for the rest of the journey. "It is the name I selected upon my ascension to the rank of Assassin Prime. It was chosen as a way of honoring of the best friend I ever had, may her soul rest in peace."

Swordsman removed his hat and placed it over his heart. "It is such sweet sorrow when the ones we care for fall before their time. My heart goes out to you in your pain. If I may be so bold, what ill wind claimed her life?"

"I ran my sai through her chest."

"I… see," Swordsman said, actually shocked at the admission.

Mint said, "I take it you don't have many friends."

"No. None, really." It was a casual admission. She could have been commenting on the weather for all of the emotion in her voice.

Having collected himself, Swordsman pressed on. "And what, pray tell, was the cause of this terminal falling out? Did you engage in some blood feud over the attentions of some dashing, sophisticated man like myself?"

Seeing Mint and Power Man were also eager to listen, Elektra found herself surprised that they would press on. Either they were more stolid, or more stupid, than she had originally suspected. She knew which she would have bet upon.

"The Hand set us up to kill one another. I was with the organization since… since I was very young. Elektra Natchios came along many years later, a reject from our accursed rivals, the Chaste. Our superiors sensed as much potential in her as they did me, so we were trained together. We became fast friends, especially due to the mutual trauma of our pasts. The man who served as our mentor encouraged our friendship. Despite an age difference, Elektra and I did everything together and soon we became inseparable. We were happier in each other's presence than at any other time in our lives.

"After a year of this, there was a surprise. I was informed I had advanced far enough that I only needed to pass one last test to graduate to the rank of Assassin Prime. It was unexpected, since no one as young as myself had ever been offered the opportunity to attain that high rank. I had assumed it would be another two to three years before that day would come, but my teacher assured me I was as ready as I could be. After training me for a full decade, he would be the one to know.

"The test was a battle to the death, the survivor graduating, the loser feeding the rats in the sewers. I knew this day would come and felt confident I would win. I was led to the combat pit right after the announcement. I admit, I was surprised to discover Elektra was already in the pit and prepared for the test. She appeared just as astonished it was me that had been chosen as her opponent. But being what we were, we calmed ourselves just as quickly and prepared to fight.

"It was not a particularly long battle; assassins are taught to kill quickly, and we were two of the best. The difference came in a mutual forward thrust. She hesitated for a split second. I did not. She only claimed the lower half of my ear." Elektra pulled aside some of her dark locks to show that part of her right ear was missing. "I claimed her heart. It was a perfect blow."

For the first time since the start of the story, the trio of men appeared chilled. There had been no emotion whatsoever in her voice. What she had stated was a pure analysis of the fight and carried nothing else. No regrets. No hesitation. No doubts.

The Swordsman's voice was heavy with shock. "How could they make you kill one another? You were friends."

"That was the whole point. I later learned we were intentionally trained together and our friendship was encouraged specifically for that fight so that we understood what was really expected of us. It was the second half of the test. It was to show us that there is no greater loyalty, no greater thing, than the Hand. All that I am, all that I may ever treasure or possess, is theirs. And when they tell me I must sacrifice the things I cherish, if for no other reason than their whim, I will do so without hesitation. My friendships, my lovers, even my life, all belong to them. That is reality. I am not an individual thing, like a finger. I am part of something greater. I am one of the Hand from now until the life has left my body and nothing but ashes remain."

"Oh," was all Swordsman could manage to say. Even Power Man and Mint were struck silent. All three went to looking pointedly out the windows of the plane, silence reigning.

Satisfied they would give her some measure of peace until they landed within the next half hour, Elektra considered what she had not told them. It was a little thing, hardly important, or at least that was what it should have been. Yet the fact had stayed with her. It was a private thing she had noticed right after the fight, and she took an odd sort of comfort in it.

The blood was still dripping from her sai when Matsuo informed her that she had been reborn for the second time and earned the right to have a new name. Her first rebirth had occurred when the Hand had taken her in after gaining her from the gang of slavers that had initially captured her when she had arrived in Japan. The gang had operated in the area without the Hand's consent and had paid the ultimate price for their defiance. Rather than dispatching a child who had witnessed the Hand in action, as would have normally been the case, the commander of the death squad had seen some hidden potential in her and claimed the right to test her for indoctrination. She had survived the initial test, confirming Matsuo's suspicions. Her previous name was taken from her, her past dead in their eyes as well as her own. She was reborn merely as 'Student,' and Matsuo her sensei. He personally trained her in all the skills she would need to serve the Hand. From hand-to-hand combat, to weapons, to stealth, and even the more carnal arts she might be required to employ to get close to her targets, he taught her everything. And she learned well, for there was nothing else in her life but service to the Hand.

And in that pit, when the only friend she had in ten years lay dead at her own 'hand', Student looked up to Matsuo and informed him that from that day forward she would be known as Elektra in honor of the fallen warrior. Upon that declaration, the almost inscrutable Matsuo Tsurayaba, one of the most lethal and dangerous members of the Hand, allowed a flare of anger to enter his eyes. It was a subtle thing. Had she not spent over half her life in his presence, she would not have recognized the brief flash for what it was. The look disappeared as quickly at it came, but it was too late. She had witnessed the brief loss of control.

And it had made her happy.

Things were not happening the way Hawkeye had hoped they would.

While it was true that the quinjet flew fast— far faster than any commercial jet liner— and that they had taken off in pursuit of their long departed assailants, this was not the happy-go-lucky group she had hoped it would be as the quintet of heroes had agreed to join forces and bring those super-villains to justice.

Her head still ached from the pounding she had received at the Whizzer's hands. It was probably a minor concussion, which she had suffered on a number of occasions during her training and early days as a superhero, but this one was lingering longer than it should have. She hoped it would fade by the time she encountered the speedster and his cohorts again. She hated to think what would happen going up against them, even with the Iron Rose, Thor, and Captain Japan at her side this time.

To frustrate her further, her number of arrows was slightly depleted, and there was no way to replace the shafts she had used. The Iron Rose's quinjet might have had many elaborate devices, but a supply of arrows lying around was not one of them. Still, she should have enough to finish off the urine-colored jerk, and help her comrades if they needed it.

And then there were the passengers themselves. Iron Rose was flying the vehicle, which was as expected, but for some odd reason she seemed insistent Captain Japan remain near the cockpit with her. Curiously, Hawkeye found she didn't care for that and decided to stay close by. At the moment she was maintaining a position to the Captain's right. It was a difficult location to maintain, considering the number of times Thor seemed to pop up between the two and rubbed shoulders with both of them. It made for an uncomfortable situation.

The only bright side to constantly being jostled by the goddess was the close proximity to a major hunk like Captain Japan. Being near him seemed to counteract some of the odd feelings that affected her when she was near Thor. Hawkeye had never been interested in women before, even if she did cross-dress, and had no intention of starting now with a six-foot, five-hundred pound (yet unquestionably feminine) gaijin who proclaimed herself a no-longer-worshipped deity. Still, there was something about Thor that made Hawkeye feel very peculiar. She just hoped the feeling would pass in time.

Only Daredevil seemed content to remain where he was, sullen and brooding as far back in the passenger compartment as he could manage. Hawkeye was torn between trying to strike up another conversation and staying by Captain Japan's side. Ideally, she would like to talk to the Captain about being a superhero, but there was something odd in the way he looked at her. It was almost as though he found her some sort of enigma, and she found the stare unsettling instead of flattering. That, combined with the fact she was really turned on by his physique, made talking with him awkward. She felt she couldn't risk starting a conversation without sounding like an idiot or blowing her cover. Or worse, managing to do both.

However, talking with Daredevil seemed an unlikely prospect as well. The first time she had tried to start a conversation she had been rebuffed. His rude behavior irritated her and made her want to try again, just to show she could force him to open up. But again she was uncertain of how to go about it, and didn't want to risk further alienating someone that she would be fighting alongside in a little while.

Unable to decide, Hawkeye turned her attention to the pilot and more important matters. "So you're certain they flew this way?"

"Of course. My tracking unit has had an unbroken signal this entire time. I guarantee you this is the course they took. Even if they were flying at maximum speed, they could not escape. We should be coming upon them shortly." Iron Rose continued flying the quinjet and watching the tracking computer at the same time.

The archer persisted. "We're over China, aren't we?"

"For some time now. What of it?"

"Isn't that a violation of their airspace?"

"Again I say, what of it?"

"We didn't exactly get clearance to do that. They might shoot us down since we are sort of here illegally."

Iron Rose placed the back of her armored gauntlet against her helmet. "Oho ho ho ho! How naive of you. This aircraft is the epitome of modern technology, designed by the most brilliant genius of our era, and constructed using the best materials in the world. It has the most advanced and sophisticated computer systems ever designed by human beings, including electronic countermeasures that make us invisible to every tracking system on the planet. We could fly over Beijing all day and they wouldn't have the faintest idea we were there, unless they visually spotted us."

"Well, if you say so," Hawkeye reluctantly conceded.

"Are we not there yet?" Thor asked.

"Don't start that again!" Iron Rose warned. "For your information, the tracking computer has indicated the aircraft ceased flying somewhere in this area."

"Where are we exactly?" Captain Japan asked as he looked at the rocky mountains below.

"Somewhere in the Bayan Han Range," Iron Rose said as she double-checked various maps of the region with her computer. "This is peculiar. According to this, there are no known airstrips in the area. Not even one for crop-dusters."

"Maybe there's a secret military installation the Chinese don't want anyone to know about?" Hawkeye suggested.

"Why would the Chinese military want to recruit Japanese super villains?" Iron Rose asked back.

"I don't know," Hawkeye conceded.

"Exactly. So before you open your mouth, perhaps next time you should think before you speak."

Captain Japan inserted himself between the two. "Hey, ease off there, Iron Fern."

"That's Rose. Iron Rose," the armored warrior corrected.

"Ah, right. Anyway, the guy was just trying to help. So just relax."

"Of course, Captain-sama," Iron Rose cooed.

"Thanks for sticking up for me," Hawkeye added with a broad smile, and placed her hand on the Captain's arm as a show of appreciation.

All sorts of warning senses went off in Captain Japan's head. The sort of attention the Iron Rose had been throwing his way was bad enough, but now Hawkeye was acting far too friendly for comfort. He darted away from both as quickly as he could. Too quickly, as his foot hit the edge of one of the seats and he began to topple backward. With reflexes at the peak of human condition, he spun and grasped out for something to keep from falling. His hand clutched onto an object and remained upright. The handhold was soft, yet firm, and not altogether uncomfortable to handle.

At least, not uncomfortable to him. However, Thor was not terribly amused at the Captain grabbing onto her breasts to keep from falling.

Once he had regained his footing, Captain Japan realized what he had used to balance himself and instantly paled. He gave a cry of fear jumping back and nearly colliding with Daredevil, who was shaking his head sadly at the display.

Thor scowled, placing her arms under her ample bust. "See here. If thou wishest to fondle the Goddess of Thunder, it would be in thine best interest to do so under more private circumstances."

Once the words settled in, every person on the aircraft looked in either surprise or shock at Thor, including herself.

Captain Japan hastily apologized and claimed it was all an accident and he had absolutely no intention of fondling her, while both the Iron Rose and Hawkeye muttered expletives about gaijin of loose morals. Only Daredevil remained silent, the lone show of his disapproval a sad shaking of the head.

The goddess could scarcely believe her own words. She was certain she had intended to say, "Thou art a pervert, and will be smited by mine hammer!" and was going to do so. But somewhere on the neural pathway between brain and mouth the words got very twisted. Though now that she thought about it, would it be so wrong to have such a strapping example of mortal flesh to wile away the time with?

"I am not a pervert," Thor reassured herself, slapping her face and hoping she could knock some sense back into her head.

"Sure you're not," Hawkeye said coolly. She was about to make another acidic comment when something outside the front of the cockpit window caught her attention. She turned just in time to see a flash of crimson light emit from an ancient stone fortress nestled on the top of a mountain they were approaching. The beam disappeared under the body of the quinjet, only to reappear a moment later by lancing through the middle of the floor of the passenger area and continue on its way through the ceiling and into the sky beyond, destroying everything in-between.

And then Hawkeye became aware of the sensation of falling.

Perched in the middle of a trail leading up that self-same mountain, Ryouga watched in horror as the beam of light shot through the unusual aircraft. It was followed instantly by the aircraft initiating a downward dive, eventually going out of sight behind the side of the mountain. A trail of smoke marked the arrow-like plunge, followed by the cacophony of metal impacting on rock that reached Ryouga's ears

"We have to help them!" Ryouga shouted to his two companions.

Yun-Lo was already praying the soul would find eternal peace. "There isn't going to be anyone to help, I'm afraid. There's no way anyone could have survived that crash. It was the will of the gods that they were to meet their end this day."

"It was the will of whoever shot them down with that beam of light."

"Around here, it's much the same thing." Yun-Lo made another prayer, this one for protection.

"Well, I'm going to check it out for myself."

Yun-Lo began backing away from Ryouga, making sure to take Lin-Mei with him. "In that case, I think it best we part company here. You can keep going on up the mountain on your own."

Ryouga misinterpreted the man's fear as concern over his granddaughter's safety. "I understand. Thanks for helping me as much as you have."

Seeing such heartfelt thanks, Yun-Lo felt as though he had been kicked in the gut. Not that that it would make him warn the boy about his impending death. Being kicked in the gut hurt far less than being reduced to a pile of ashes.

Ryouga bid the pair farewell and kept his eyes riveted on the trail of smoke. As long as he kept it in sight, he would hopefully head straight for the crash site, rather than ending up in Russia or someplace equally distant.

"I thought you said that thing was invisible to any tracking system on Earth!" Hawkeye shouted from her position in Iron Rose's arms as the armored warrior landed safely on the ground.

"It is! I mean, it was!" she shouted back.

"Then how was it we got shot down?!"

"Maybe the tracking system isn't from Earth. Maybe it's from outer space," Captain Japan offered as Thor landed with both him and Daredevil clinging to her. He made absolutely certain his hands were nowhere near her breasts.

"Bah!" the Goddess of Thunder snorted. "The next thing thou wilt claim is that there really are Stone Men from Saturn. All know there are not such things as beings from outer space."

"They also know there aren't such things as gods," Hawkeye added dryly.

Thor considered that. "Perhaps thou dost have a point. Mayhap I shall believe only when mine eyes lay upon hard evidence of such life from other planets."

Now safely back on terra firma, Daredevil breathed a sigh of relief. He hated to admit it, but he owed his life to Thor. When the ship had been struck by what the others said was a beam of light, it immediately began to plummet to the ground far below. Completely disoriented by the unexpected attack, he was at a loss until Thor snatched both he and Captain Japan in one mighty arm, and with the other threw her hammer. Her grip on the strap propelled them through the side of the craft. His radar sense allowed him to perceive the side of the craft being torn as though it was made of tinfoil. Thor made certain to interpose her own body between her passengers and the side of the craft, shielding them from the jagged pieces of metal that the hammer had left behind in its passage through the wall. Even now Daredevil could smell a small amount of blood trickling from a few scratches on her shoulder and arms.

"Let me help. I have a first aid kit." Daredevil pulled a box with a Braille red cross on it from out of the confines of his robes.

Thor looked down at the small injuries on her shoulder and arm. "Thou hast my thanks for thy gesture, but it would take far more than these mere scratches to affect mineself. With mine own Asgardian heritage, it should take but a few minutes for them to heal fully. Save your medicines for one of the more fragile members of this company should they suffer injury."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Captain Japan said dryly.

Now back on land and with her fear of plummeting to her death under control, Hawkeye reconsidered her admonishment of the woman who had prevented her from becoming mountainside okonomiyaki. While Thor had grabbed Daredevil and Captain Japan, Iron Rose had reacted by grabbing the archer and flying out the cockpit window as the aircraft plummeted downward. Even a cable arrow couldn't have saved Hawkeye's life under those conditions.

"Thank you," she muttered to Iron Rose.

"They must have detected the quinjet to fire upon in the first place. Somehow the fault must lie with me," Iron Rose reluctantly admitted.

"Did anyone see who shot the plane out from under us?" Captain Japan asked.

Hawkeye said, "I saw it right before it fired. It looked like it came from some old style stone fortress on the top of the mountain. It's really weird, since you wouldn't think one of those old kind of fortresses to be equipped with a laser."

"No, there was too much kinetic energy for that to be a simple laser weapon," Iron Rose informed the others. "I'm uncertain what kind of device it was, but its sophistication is far beyond that of all but the most technologically advanced of societies or industries."

"The Chinese government?" Daredevil inquired.

"Doubtful. It was far more advanced than anything I've heard them developing," Iron Rose said.

"It matters not," Thor boasted. "I shall take the fight to these base attackers and raze this fortress for having the audacity to fire upon mineself."

"And get shot down just like the quinjet did?" Hawkeye mentioned.

"I bet it wouldn't be the first time the braggart's been shot down," Iron Rose quipped.

"What did thou just say?" Thor waved her hammer in the armored companion's direction.

"Enough of this!" Captain Japan shouted, interposing himself between the two before another fight erupted. "Hawkeye's right. It's too risky to try to just fly up there and do a frontal assault on this place. That's where their defenses are going to be heaviest, if getting shot down once we got in sight of the place was any indication."

"So what do you recommend we do?" Hawkeye asked.

"It's easy," the Captain said nonchalantly. "We just find the secret entrance to this place."

Daredevil finally entered the conversation, "I'm sorry, but I seemed to have missed something along the way. What secret entrance would that be?"

Captain Japan looked the others over, as though they were stupid for even asking the question. "Come on, don't you guys know nothing? All these evil bad guy types always have secret entrances to their places. That way when guys like us come storming in to kick their butts, they can escape through them and harass us some other day."

The quartet just stood there, gaping at his declaration. Then all four burst out in laughter.

"Surely thou dost jest."

"It is quite the humorous idea."

"Right, like there's some sort of handbook all of these bad guy types follow."

"Or better yet, a training academy where they learn how to become evil overlords. Ha ha ha ha!"

"Well, that's what my old man taught me when I was training to become a superhero." Seeing his 'allies' all laughing at his idea made Captain Japan consider ditching them altogether and finding the secret entrance on his own. That would show them.

Not content to leave things alone, Thor went up to a part of the mountainside and said, "And how wouldst we go about finding this 'Secret Entrance'? Perhaps we would but knock, and they would open this door for us." She tapped her hammer against the side of the mountain.

Daredevil's laughter abruptly stopped. "Wait, do that again."

"I didst not think the joke was so amusing it need be repeated."

Daredevil shook his head. "No, no. I meant hit the side of the mountain again. But not too hard."

Confused at her companion's odd request, Thor considered it for a moment, then decided she had nothing better to do. She tapped the side of the mountain, just like before.

Daredevil strode up to the side and placed his ear against the rock. "I did hear something. Do it again."

Slowly becoming irritated, Thor did so again. "Art thou happy?"

Daredevil took several steps to his left. "There's a hollow place in the side of the mountain here, and it sounds pretty big if the echo is any indication."

Thor looked at the patch of rock he was indicating. "It looks the same as any other to me."

"Yes, how is it you can tell? I heard nothing," Iron Rose said.

"Let's just say I have very good hearing and leave it at that. If one of you powerhouses wants to try pounding on the side of the mountain here, you can probably break through to the hollow area."

Moving over to the spot that Daredevil indicated, Thor drew back her hammer.

Right before Thor could bring it forward, Iron Rose shouted, "Wait! You might collapse whatever is on the other side if you just go pounding on it like a giant wrecking ball."

Thor found she did not care for the comparison. "And hast thou a better idea?"

In response, Iron Rose moved forward to stand next to Thor. She twisted the left upper arm of her armor. Several pieces of metal unfolded from their previously concealed housing on the arm. Each piece was long and fairly thin. All of them became progressively narrower until they tapered to a point. A second adjustment, and all the pieces bent slightly near the arm. A third one, and they moved outward again towards the end of the Iron Rose's arm, coming together to form what appeared to be the head of a very large drill.

"I incorporated this specifically for digging and excavation. I believe it will fulfill our needs. You might have raw power, deary, but I possess some degree of versatility that simply can't be matched. Oho ho ho ho!"

Thor scowled as Iron Rose went to work. The remaining trio made certain to steer clear of both women. They could practically feel the sparks jumping from the pair of heroes. And they weren't always metaphysical as Thor tapped her hammer to the ground and sparks were actually leaping from it.

Thirty minutes later, the quintet found themselves inside a complex of caverns and passages.

"I'm no geology expert, but I don't think these were formed naturally," Captain Japan stated.

"Mayhap, but neither are they recently made. This place reeks of age."

In a soft, almost reverent voice, Daredevil said, "Legends say that dragons once inhabited this part of the Bayan Han, and that they would move through the earth at will. Whenever anyone found tunnels such as these, they called them 'Dragon Lines' and would seal them up, lest the dragons came out and devour them and all they cherished. The greatest and most powerful dragon of all was Fin Fang Foom, and only death awaited those that would dare disturb him in his lair."

"There are no such things as dragons, superstitious plebeian," Iron Rose said, using her chest beam to light the way for the party.

"I can personally assure thee dragons are real. Many are the number I slew in mine time." Thor began reminiscing. "I do remember upon one occasion I did have to rescue fair Idun from a rather pernicious dragon. One of Fafnir's brood, as I recall. He was a particularly vexing beast. It took me four blows to dispatch him, and he did strike me with his tail once. Though with the affections Idun showered upon me afterwards, it made the fight truly worthwhile."

"Affections?" Hawkeye asked with a lifted eyebrow.

"Eh?" Thor turned to see she had become the center of attention. She held her hand to her eyes to block out Iron Rose's light as it shown directly upon her face. "Err, did I say affections? I meant gratitude. She was most grateful for my rescue. She did bequeath unto me… Hmm. I don't remember exactly what she did give to me. I do remember Fandral being quite irate for whatever it was. He was dating her at the time. I think it had something to do with apples. She was the keeper of the Golden Apples of Immortality. Perhaps it was an apple pie she did bestow upon me." Thor wracked her mind for the memory. She was just about to give up when she remembered something about apples being mashed into a sauce. It was a good sauce, as she recalled. And there was something about how it was served. Oh yes, it was served upon a most unusual, but very delicious platter, specifically Idun's nude—

Thor hit herself in the head with her hammer. Hard.

The others stared at her in shock. Captain Japan said, "What was that about?"

"I seem to have forgotten what it was," Thor said quickly, relieved that whatever it was she had almost remembered had escaped her, even if there was now a swelling upon the top of her head.

"I think we're still heading up," Hawkeye said, changing the subject largely because she did not want to know what that was all about.

"We've gone upwards precisely fifty-three point four meters from our initial starting point," Iron Rose informed her.

"Got an altimeter in there?" Hawkeye asked.

"Of course. It would be foolish to go soaring about while being unaware of my altitude."

"Oh, I uh… knew that," Hawkeye said. "But I bet you don't have a CD player in there too."

In answer, the words "Yappa pan, yappa pan, ish a ten," began blaring out over her speakers.

"I was only kidding," the archer said, all too aware there was no way to recover from that one.

Daredevil saved her from further humiliation as he said in a loud voice, "Did you guys feel that?"

"Feel what?" Captain Japan asked.

"I thought I felt a breeze."

"So?" the Captain asked again.

"We're underground."

"Oh. Maybe we'd better be more on guard." Captain Japan shifted his shield from its carrying position to one where he could bring it up to deflect an attack in an instant.

The master of the citadel sat back in his throne of stone as he listened to his minion's report.

Mint said, "I found those intruders, all right. They managed to survive the crash and ended up in that old complex of caverns we found in the mountain. There's the two guys whose butts we kicked and three others that operate out of Japan. I think one's a bodyguard for Kunou Industries. She's called the Iron Rose. I saw her on some press conference on the way over there. I don't know the other two, although the blond girl with the hammer has nice looking breasts."

"Five, then. It appears we'll require the full attention of my forces." He turned to Elektra and the Swordsman. "This sort of thing is exactly why I hired you. Show me your worth. Bring me these meddlers."

"Alive?" Elektra asked.

"I would prefer them that way. If they have power, I would unlock their secrets and take them for myself. One can never have too much power. Though that is a secondary objective. If you need to kill them in order to prevent them from interfering, so be it. We are less than half an hour away from seeing my years-long plan reach fruition. That is what is paramount. The launch must go off unhindered."

Swordsman gave a sweeping bow. "It will be as you say. I will see to it that all of them are brought to you intact."

"Then go, my Lethal Legion. Bring me these meddlers, or bring me their heads. Either way, see to it they are brought to me."

Ryouga looked at the hole leading to the interior of the mountain. He hadn't seen any bodies in the wreckage of the aircraft. That meant it was probably an unmanned plane. On the other hand, it didn't appear as though any debris had caused the recently made breach. He was at something of a loss as to what to do.

Sticking his head in the hole, Ryouga called out, "Hello, is there anybody in there?"

Only his voice echoed back.

It was possible there was someone in the craft and they had been hurt and couldn't respond. But it was dark, and from the sounds of it, the cavern was vast. Still, he couldn't just walk away from someone who was injured, leaving them alone to die. He pulled out a flashlight he had discovered among the debris (when he was actually looking for some shoes, and maybe a shirt or two), and turned it on. Carefully scanning what was visible from the opening and the range of the light, he could see no signs of anyone injured or otherwise.

"I'll just go in for a quick peak and come right back out," Ryouga said to himself as entered the tunnel to try his hand at spelunking.

"I hear something," Captain Japan told the others. "I think it's water.

"That's what I've been telling you for the last ten minutes!" Daredevil shouted, then immediately winced as loud echoes assailed him. The close confines of the tunnel they were in played havoc with his enhanced sense of hearing. Every sound was magnified and bounced back at him, almost like an auditory version of his radar sense, save that it was proving uncomfortable whenever there was a loud noise. Like someone shouting.

"Well excuse me, but some of us don't have your inhuman hearing," Captain Japan shot back. Under his breath, he mumbled, "What kind of power is superhearing anyway? It's as stupid as having superbreath."

"I heard that!" Daredevil snapped back.

"I heard that," Captain Japan mocked. "I think we've pretty much confirmed you hear everything."

"Including you farting twenty meters back," Daredevil retorted.

"You said you didn't do that!" Hawkeye snapped.

Captain Japan held up his hands in a warding gesture, "It wasn't! It was… Umm… Mine gas."

"It was not mine gas," Daredevil retorted. "Mine gas smells very different from processed anchovies and beans." It was times like these that the blind adventurer wished he didn't have enhanced senses.

"Even Volstagg the Voluminous could rarely create a stench as repulsive as that," Thor added somberly.

"Oh, like I'm so sure none of you have ever cut one," Captain Japan shot back, giving up all pretenses of a defense.

"Not in the presence of others. I have some sense of class," Daredevil snapped.

"Praise be I had the foresight to build my own internal air-supply," Iron Rose said to herself.

"Were we outside, I could summon a wind," Thor said.

"I think our dear Captain already did a good job of that," Daredevil stated.

Captain Japan turned around, his stance one of tensed up aggression. "Look, Smell Man, you've been riding me ever since we first met. I'm tired of it. If you want to have it out now, we can— Hey!" Captain Japan spun around and held his bottom. He pointed an accusatory finger at Thor, who stood directly behind him. "Why did you grab my butt?"

In completely innocent tones, she said, "Thou didst have a wedgie. Twas most unseemly."

"I did not!"

Hawkeye said, "She's right, Sugar. You did have a one. It was real noticeable. I almost pulled it out myself."

"And exactly why were you staring at my bottom? Thor I can understand, since she's a girl and all, and I'm me. A lot of girls can't keep their eyes off of me, not that I blame them."

Daredevil let out a snort.

Captain Japan let it pass. "But you're a guy. So exactly why are you staring at my butt?"

Before Hawkeye could think of how to respond, Daredevil blurted out, "It's because he's gay, stupid."

For a moment, Hawkeye almost let that go as an excuse, which was better than telling the truth. But seeing the look of surprise on Thor and Captain Japan's faces, she quickly said, "No, I'm not! I'll prove it! Watch this!"

Hawkeye moved next to Thor, grabbed the taller woman's face, stood on her toes, and proceeded to suck face with the startled goddess for several moments before breaking off the kiss.

"He is truly a man among men," Thor declared with a somewhat stupid grin.

"There you have it," Hawkeye stated satisfactorily, surprised the whole thing wasn't as unpleasant as she thought it would be. Of course, right before she actually did it, she figured she would throw up in doing something as revolting as kissing another girl in order to maintain her cover. With that kind of expectation, it wasn't difficult to fall short and be happy about it. Not that she had any intention of ever kissing Thor again. Just that there were a lot of things that were worse, like breaking her hand and not being able to shoot arrows or cook okonomiyaki, or having to smell another one of Captain Japan's farts.

Captain Japan turned on Daredevil. "Now who's the dummy? How could you think poor ole' Hawkeye is gay? I think you're projecting your own tendencies or something."

"The only thing I'm going to project is this billy club into your head!" Daredevil pulled out one of his sticklike weapons and drew back.

"Bring it on!" Captain Japan brought up his shield in anticipation of deflecting the attack. Once the weapon was batted aside, he would proceed to give the loud-mouthed jerk a sound beating.

"Ahem," Iron Rose said, catching everyone's attention. "As much as the show of one-upsmanship is terribly important, need I remind you all that we are here to bring that host of supervillains to justice? As powerful as I know I am, even I am reluctant to take on all four of them on my own. So I believe it would be in our best interest to settle our differences another time. Besides, I do believe I see a light coming from the tunnel in front of us."

Reluctantly, Daredevil and Captain Japan turned away from one another and to the rest of the tunnel that lay before them. Sure enough, there was a faint glow of light some meters ahead.

"Another time," the Captain told him.

Daredevil nodded in agreement.

With the differences solved, the group continued, Iron Rose shutting off her chest light once they drew near the opening. The sound of rushing water grew louder and filled the air as the quintet emerged from the tunnel to see where it had led.

The cavern was unlike any of the others they had passed. It was huge, and had been crafted by the hand of man. Numerous fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling, illuminating the vast chamber. The group stood at the edge of a natural hole in the side of the cavern wall. Looking down, they could see a torrent of water the size of a small river, racing several meters below their perch. From the opening they could see the tremendous size of the chamber. It was easily a hundred meters long, and just as wide. A huge reservoir of water was contained behind a man-made dam, which allowed the water to flow over it and form the river they had heard. Several huge pipes dipped into the reservoir, channeling thousands of gallons of water. The loud vibrations and noises coming from the conduits made it easy to tell that water was actively flowing through them.

Above the reservoir, a man-made stonework bridge spanned one side of it to the other. The side the group was adjacent to was much smaller, with only a handful of machines and control panels whose purposes even Iron Rose could not determine with the distances involved. The far side was much larger. It was there that the bulk of the machinery resided. Soft hums and loud throbbing noises could be felt permeating the air. It was like a giant factory that had been left to run on automatic.

"We need to get over there and check this out," Iron Rose said. Turning her gaze to the vast array of machinery in the cavern, her brilliant mind began to categorize what purposes the machines might serve. Within moments she suspected what their true design was.

The others nodded in agreement. Thor said to Captain Japan and Hawkeye, "Hold on to my neck and climb on." Neither felt particularly comfortable with the way she looked at them as she issued the order, but neither of them could think of a reason to openly protest. Besides, as much muscle as the goddess had, she was still infinitely more to hang onto then clinging to the metal hide of Iron Rose. After only a moment's hesitation, the pair grabbed onto Thor's neck. One throw of Mjolnir later, Thor once again traveled through the air.

Iron Rose brought Daredevil along, who likewise rode by grabbing under her neck and traveling on her back. The quintet of heroes landed safely and stood on the far side of the cavern, gazing at the machinery before them.

Within seconds the Iron Rose confirmed her suspicions. "This is a coolant system for a reactor. I'm not completely familiar with the design, but that seems to be its purpose."

"And you would be correct in your assumption."

The five heroes turned in the direction of the voice. It came from the cavern's single exit a large manmade passageway that could accommodate a small truck and led upward. Four men stood some twenty meters away. Two were quickly recognized as Power Man and Swordsman. The other two were strangers. One was a somewhat slender man who wore a full body costume. His boots were a light red, as was his trunks, gloves, and the middle of his outfit's torso. A deep purple, almost the color of black, covered the legs, arms, and lower and upper torso. A white 'M' and 'W' crossed over one another in red section of the upper body. The only part of his flesh that showed was his nose and mouth. Red goggles were sewn into his headpiece, covering his eyes.

The other newcomer, who had spoken earlier, was far more subdued. He was wore loose white pants and shirt, and had a vest and bracers made of some sort of scaled mail. Hoop earrings hung from both ears, and oddly enough, pantyhose was wrapped around his head and waist, serving as a headband and sash respectively. A couple of gourds were tied to his waist by the makeshift sash.

Captain Japan turned to Daredevil and pointed to the stranger. "Now there's your gay guy."

"I am not gay!" the man shouted.

The man dressed in blue and red said, "That's right. Pantyhose just uses pantyhose as his gimmick. It goes with his name."

"His name?" the duo asked.

"Pantyhose Tarou." The man in purple and red moved faster than the eye could follow, barely avoiding the fist Tarou aimed at his head.

"I told you never to call me that!" Tarou raged.

"But it's your real name. I tried giving you a supervillain one for when you were accepted in our ranks, but you told me you didn't want one because you thought they were all dumb," the man in purple protested.

Captain Japan smirked. "If my name was something as stupid as Pantyhose, I'd have been happy to call myself just about anything else. Even something as lame as 'The Dazzler'."

"Yeah, It's even dumber than that idiot Whizzer's name," Hawkeye laughed.

"Hey! You can't call me that anymore!" the man in purple shouted.

Hawkeye looked at him in surprise. It took a moment to place the voice. "You're the Whizzer?"

Daredevil snorted. "Of course he is. Couldn't you tell? He's standing right there."

"But he completely changed his costume. It doesn't look anything like his old one," Hawkeye pointed out.

"Oh. I hadn't noticed." Seeking to change the subject, Daredevil said to the speedster. "What's your name now?"

"Speed Demon," Mint preened proudly.

The heroes applauded.

Hawkeye said, "Good choice. Much better than that awful name and outfit you had before. If I didn't know you were such a moron, I'd probably be intimidated a little bit."

"Thanks. I thought it was better, but hearing it from the competition makes me know I made the right choice," the newly-dubbed Speed Demon said in sincere gratitude.

Tarou rolled his eyes at his comrade's stupidity. He postured before the quintet of heroes and boldly proclaimed, "Enough talk. I would ask you guys to make things easy by giving up, but somehow I doubt you'll see things my way. And to be honest, I'd kick the crap out of you anyway, even if you did give up." He grinned evilly and cracked his knuckles.

Posturing just as definitely, Captain Japan said, "Buddy, the day I can't beat some pathetic loser with a pantyhose fetish, is the day I finally choose a fiancée."

"Why you…" Whatever Tarou was about to say died on his lips. Instead, he gave Captain Japan a confused look. "I have absolutely no idea what that meant. Was it supposed to be an insult or an attempt at bravado? It wasn't very good if it was either one."

Captain Japan just shook his head. "Ah, like you said: enough talk. Let's get to it!"

"Wait!" Hawkeye shouted to the others as she unleashed an arrow at the group of villains standing thirty meters away.

Only Speed Demon reacted in time and fled the area as the arrow was launched over the heads of the group. At first it appeared that the missile would sail far over the Lethal Legion's heads, until it began emitting an ear-piercing shriek, making the remaining trio of villains cover their ears in pain. To make matters worse, the arrow began flying in a large circle over their heads rather than merely sailing past.

Despite the twenty-meter distance, Thor, Captain Japan, and even Hawkeye winced at the pain from the sonic arrow she had fired at the group. She was about to shout at the top of her lungs to let the arrow continue until it used up its battery when she saw Daredevil writhing on the ground in even worse pain than the opposition.

"MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!" he shouted, covering his ears and rolling on the ground unable to stop himself.

"What's going on?!" Hawkeye shouted, then realized the end of her sentence was the only sound in the cavern. She and the others looked back and saw that the arrow was lying on the floor. A shuriken had destroyed the arrowhead, ruining the sonic device.

"What the—" Was all Hawkeye got out as Captain Japan shoved her out of the way. The force of the push bowled her over and to the ground.

"Stay down!" he shouted as he held his shield above both his head. A moment later, a loud clang resounded off the protective disc, and a red and flesh colored body arced over it to land on its feet with a feline grace

Hawkeye saw that the absent Elektra had finally put in an appearance. She had evidently taken the time during the face-off to crawl along the ceiling and position herself above the heroes. She had been far enough from the sonic arrow to be unaffected by its cry, and had destroyed the weapon that had immobilized her comrades then went after one of her opponents. Hawkeye felt she should have been flattered that the ninja had chosen her as the most dangerous and first to neutralize, but it was sort of hard to do from her position on her back.

Before Hawkeye could turn her starry eyes to the awesome hunk of heroism that had saved her life, she heard Tarou shout, "Get them, but leave that Japan guy to me! No one calls me a queer and gets away with it!"

Captain Japan jumped clear of the fallen archer and met Tarou head on. The move allowed Hawkeye to return to her feet, just as the battle swung into full force.

As though a subconscious decision, opponents began to square off against one another in pairs, gaining distance from one another in order to operate more efficiently.

"Those are some seriously nice breasts," Power Man said as he swung his fist at Thor.

For just a split second Thor was taken aback. Reflexively she was about to shout out she had no interest in perverts. Unfortunately that left her open for a moment in which Power Man connected fully with a haymaker to her jaw. The blow staggered even the goddess, and she fell down, lying fully on her back.

"That takes care of that." Power Man dusted off his hands. No one could withstand a solid punch to the head. Not from him and his tremendous strength.

His theory was proven erroneous just as quickly as a boot connected with his gut from his fallen opponent. The blow had such force behind it that it caused even Power Man to double over.

"Thou dost possess some measure of strength behind thy blows. Now feel one that is backed by the true might of Asgard!" Thor meeting of Thor's fist with Power Man's flesh sounded like one of her thunderous bolts. The villain's body went sailing across the reservoir and into the far wall. The force from the impact embedded him in the side of the cavern, creating a crater that resembled a meteorite impact, one that had crashed vertically into the rock. The large man hung in the wall, motionless.

"That matter hath been resolved." Thor took inventory of their surroundings. The others were locked in pitched battle, but it was painfully obvious this so-called Lethal Legion was nothing more than a collection of lackeys. There was someone else that was in charge of this lot and pulling their strings. It was beneath her to deal with these underlings. She was Thor, scion of the Realm Eternal. To her, the leaders of armies fell.

Satisfied things were well in hand, she threw her hammer in the air and sailed into the opening from whence the Lethal Legion had entered the cavern. Let the others waste their times with those fools. She had more important people to defeat. Then she would bring back the defeated body of this lot's master, and if the battle still raged, would call a halt to things as she showed that she had vanquished the enemy's leader. She would show that Iron Rose what it meant to scoff at the Goddess of Thunder's prowess.

"So your name is Pantyhose, huh?

"Call me that again and I'll feed you all your teeth instead of just half of them, Flag Boy! Or is that Fag Boy?"

Tarou took a swing at Captain Japan, only to meet air as the Captain ducked underneath it. He tried to retaliate, but Tarou leaped into a ball and spun out of the way of the high kick aimed at his jaw.

"Like someone wrapped in pantyhose has any business accusing someone else of being gay?!" Captain Japan's next punch was deflected, as was the leap kick he tried to use.

"What's your name, Flag Boy?" Tarou's punch impacted solidly with the shield. A resounding thump rose from the sound of flesh meeting metal.

"Captain Japan, Lederhosen Man." Captain Japan tried hitting Tarou with the flat of the shield, but missed as the youth dodged out of the way again.

Tarou backed just out of reach and smirked. "By the time I'm done with you, I'll have you busted down to Private Parts while you'll be calling me General Bad Ass."

Both men tried to kick each other, each hitting the other's leg in an identical move.

Captain Japan said, "You don't completely suck." He aimed a blow for Tarou's stomach, barely missing.

"You do. I'm just toying with you." Tarou proved his point by throwing a straight punch towards Captain Japan's face. His longer reach enabled him to connect, the force of the knuckles snapping the Captain's head back. Before he could follow up, Captain Japan brought his shield up, cleanly connecting with underside of Tarou's jaw and driving the youth back.

Tarou scowled evilly at the circle of metal. "Hey, Flag Boy, ditch the shield and fight fair."

"Okay." Captain Japan hurled the shield like a discus to their left.

Even as the disc left the Captain's hands, Tarou had already jumped up in the air and prepared to administer a kick that would finish his opponent. He taunted, "God, you're a complete idiot! I'd never give up an advantage!"

At that moment, the shield, which had bounced off a nearby wall, returned. Tarou intercepted its flight with his back. The blow hurled him several feet away and stunned him badly enough that he didn't return to his feet immediately.

"I wouldn't either, sucker." Captain Japan retrieved his shield and squared off with his foe once again.

In the opening moments of the battle, Iron Rose tried focusing on Speed Demon. She had thought her armor's tracking computer made him her ideal foe, and she would bring him down with but a single blast. But his speed proved too quick even for her technological wizardry to match. Each time she thought she had him he would dart out of the way. Even when she thought she had anticipated where he would be, he would suddenly veer off course and her blast would go astray. The only consolation was that he wasn't foolish enough to hurl his limited strength against the durability of her armor. It was just a test of patience now, his endurance to her armor's power supply. She had little doubt about emerging victorious from the fight.

And then a voice came to her right.

"Armored foe, turn from that jackrabbit and test a warrior that is worthy of your mettle."

Iron Rose turned to see the Swordsman standing before her. He saluted her once with his katana. "Though it pains to employ my talents against a woman, I fear my erstwhile comrade in arms would fall before your might. So it behooves me to relieve you of the burden of this fight. Fear not, for I shall be as gentle with thee as the wind." He danced forward with his sword.

Underneath her armor, Iron Rose let her teeth gnash together. The way this imbecile babbled reminded her of her brother. It would be her pleasure to 'relieve him of the burden of this fight'. As a sign of contempt, she targeted his sword rather than the man himself. Without it, he would be as useless as… well, as useless as her brother had always been.

The Iron Rose's repulsors were locked on to the blade when she froze. The katana! Impossibly, she recognized it, having designed the weapon herself. It was no mere blade of metal, but rather a KTK-1103B constructed of adamantium alloy. It had been one of the last projects she worked on before her accident. But there had been only the one prototype made, and that was by herself personally. She had not had the chance to share the design with anyone else, and it would have taken the experts at Kunou Enterprises months to figure out how to reverse engineer it. She would have known if they tried when she had returned. To the best of her knowledge, the sword should have still been in the prototypes vault at Kunou Enterprises. How could it be in the hands of this gaudily dressed buffoon halfway across a continent?

She was so surprised by the appearance of the weapon she neglected to fire. The hesitation cost her as the tip of the blade shattered the circle that made up the center of her chest weapon array. The Swordsman discharged a power blast through the blade just as the tip breached the armor's exterior. Past the insulation provided by her armor, the blast instantly overloaded the majority of her systems. Only the surge protectors she had placed throughout the suit kept it from being ruined forever, though the smell of burning ozone indicated not all the systems had survived the blast. Iron Rose herself received a nasty shock from the backlash through the armor from the discharge.

Between the weight of the armor and the shock, Iron Rose was unable to stay upright. She fell over, almost completely inert. Within the confines of her bulky metal coffin, Kodachi felt as though her chest was on fire. "Not the pacemaker," she thought to herself. That was the most heavily protected part of the entire armor, the only thing that kept her alive. If it shut down, she would die. It was supposed to be on its own separate system, but the shock she had personally received might have disrupted it, and unfortunately its back-up system was linked to the armor, which was in the process of a complete crash.

Praying it was nothing more than an errant heart palpitation and that Swordsman didn't try to press an advantage, she prayed and rebooted her armor.

"You really shouldn't have come here, Daredevil!" The admonishment was delivered during the course of four punches delivered to various parts of his body at superspeed.

Daredevil recoiled from each one. This was the last person he should have been fighting. The sonic arrow that idiot, Hawkeye, had fired had ended up hurting him more than the opposition. Outdoors it would have been bad enough, but within the confines of the cavern the sound bounced off the walls, overloading his senses and sending him into a pain-filled frenzy. Even after the arrow was destroyed, it took him a minute to overcome the pain and return to his feet. He had only just stood up when Speed Demon was upon him, hitting him all over his body. No two blows landed on the same spot. With the pain he was in, his radar sense still trying to recover from being overloaded, and the quickness of Speed Demon, it left him unable to get a bead on the man. Every one of his attempts to hit the speedster was off, and they were getting further away with each succeeding blow that was landed upon him.

"Stand still," Daredevil growled, trying to hit his foe with a billy club.

A chop hit his extended arm, forcing him to drop the weapon. The pain disoriented him for a split second, and when he tried using his radar sense to locate the weapon, but he couldn't find it.

"Where?" was all he got out as he discovered the location of his billy club the hard way when Speed Demon hit him in the back with it.

The speedster finally halted ten meters to Daredevil's right, tossing the club up and down idly in his hand. "You know something? I like this. It's small and compact, yet solid. It's got to hurt way more than my fists. I think I'll keep it."

A plan came to Daredevil's mind. From what little he knew of the villain, it should work. Wiping some blood away from a split lip, Daredevil said, "Whatever you do, don't push the button on the grip." The button that would extend a cable, which would wrap Speed Demon up with the way he was holding it. The billowing sleeve held up to his lip hid the red-garbed adventurer's smile. Anyone else wouldn't fall for such a transparent trick, but Speed Demon was only physically fast, not mentally.

The speedster examined the device more closely. "Ah ha! Found it. See?" He showed where the button was on the grip. He touched the top of the button, then grabbed the club in the middle again. "Thanks for the warning. In gratitude, I'll be gentle when I knock you out."

"What?" Was all Daredevil got out as the club connected with his back and stomach almost simultaneously. It figured Speed Demon would be too stupid to fall for a trick that stupid. It was probably the first time in Daredevil's life that he had literally outsmarted himself.

And with the way the fight was going, it would probably be the last.

Hawkeye found herself being forced to fight the person who had tried to remove her from the field of combat in the first place. Elektra was doing her best to impale the archer on one of the sai she wielded with expert skill. Hawkeye did her best to not end up impaled on them. Unfortunately, since the ninja was so close at the beginning of the fight, Hawkeye found it nearly impossible to use her bow. She needed range to properly employ the weapon. Elektra seemed to sense this and refused to allow the archer the distance she needed.

Though the battle had lasted less than a minute, the wounds Hawkeye had suffered indicated it probably wouldn't go two more. Despite using what hand-to-hand skills she had learned from her father and picked up on her own, it was taking everything she had to keep from being skewered. Her bow was being used more to deflect sai thrusts than to shoot arrows. The only two shots Hawkeye managed to get off were both easily evaded by the agile ninja. And even then, she suffered several punches, kicks, and light cuts, despite all but running away. Worse, she was starting to slow down, and it was obvious the ninja wasn't even winded.

As Hawkeye spun out of the way of yet another thrust aimed at her leg, she spotted Daredevil struggling against the flitting Speed Demon. The moron was doing little more than running around in circles, hitting the red-garbed adventurer at will. It was a pity they had the opponents they did, since Hawkeye had thought she had figured out a way to deal with the speedster since their last fight…

Her plan came together in a split second. Seeing Elektra aiming a kick at her stomach, Hawkeye took the blow rather than dodge so she could draw the arrow she needed. The kick hurt, and she suspected one or two of her lower ribs were broken, or at least bruised. Still, Hawkeye shut out the pain and fired the arrow at Daredevil's feet.

Daredevil was seconds away from unconsciousness when he noticed at the edges of his radar sense one of Hawkeye's arrows approaching. He silently cursed the archer's errant shot, which was going to land near him. He hoped it wasn't one of the exploding arrows, which would almost certainly succeed in crippling if not killing him outright. But there was nothing he could do about it with Speed Demon slowly beating him to death. The way the fight was going, perhaps it would be better to meet a quick demise instead of the lingering and agonizing one that the speedster seemed intent on delivering.

The arrow impacted with a loud squishing noise. The scent of grease reached Daredevil's nostrils.

"Argh!" Speed Demon cried out as he lost his footing. With his concentration solely on his opponent, he never saw the arrow. He slipped on the grease and immediately lost control. His arms were a flurry of motion as he tried to stay upright. All the arm flapping did was propel him even faster. He collided with one of the machines that operated the coolant at near maximum speed and completely out of control, stunning himself. Speed Demon was remembering something about breasts as a series of chains wrapped around his entire body, a double layer around his legs.

"One down," Daredevil said in a tired voice as he readied himself to reenter the fray, all thoughts of admonishing Hawkeye forgotten. Remembering the archer, he turned to thank him when he sensed what was about to happen.

"Look out!" Daredevil cried in her direction.

Hawkeye turned in panic, wondering if Elektra had moved faster than she had anticipated and was preparing to run her through again. Hawkeye blindly brought her bow in front of her in a sweeping motion, hoping to deflect the incoming blow. Instead she saw in the space between bow and bowstring that Elektra was backflipping away from her. Breaking off her attack made no sense. What was she up to?

Hawkeye never got a chance to sort things out as the blast from the Swordsman's katana fully struck her in the ribs, knocking her backward and into unconsciousness.

Holding his sword up high, Swordsman boldly proclaimed. "And so yet another foe falls before my awesome skill. Is there no one capable of giving a warrior of my character a challenge?"

Instinctively he brought his sword up to block the billy club thrown at him. He leveled his weapon at Daredevil. "So, you would seek to attack me when I implore the heavens for an answer to by plea?"

"I am the answer to your plea." A set of chains shot out from his sleeve.

Spinning his sword in a clockwise motion, Swordsman caught all of the chains with his blade, tying them up in his sword. He then tilted it downward, the chains falling off and harmlessly to the ground. "A challenge? I think not. And since you have the appearance of a devil, it's obvious you are not from above, but rather below."

"No challenge? Try this on for size!" Daredevil smiled inwardly as he threw a white oval at his foe.

Rather than simply slashing at it, as Daredevil hoped, Swordsman again whirled his sword, not only intercepting the oval, but somehow arresting its forward motion and allowing it to sit on the flat of his sword as he held it outward.

Swordsman looked curiously at the object. "An egg? You would assault me with poultry products? Truly you are no challenge at all. But since you seem to have such a fascination with food, I shall allow you to serve me breakfast once I rule over Kyoto."

He used the blade to toss the egg over his shoulder. He was about to move forward when the egg landed, cracking open. Rather than merely leaking yolk, it spilled a volatile substance that created an impressive explosion. Swordsman turned to look what had happened then returned his attention to Daredevil. "You cad! How dare you engage in such subterfuge, disguising your bombs as harmless foodstuffs! Have you no honor?"

"Your sword's disguised to shoots beams of energy, you hypocrite!"

"It's not the same thing," Swordsman contended.

"It's exactly the same thing!"

Leveling his sword in Daredevil's direction, Swordsman softly intoned, "I will not have someone as reprehensible as you besmirch my noble name."

"How can you call me reprehensible when you're the bad guy?!"

"Again you try to shift the blame."

"I am not shifting any blame!"

"Since you are unwilling to own up to your own inadequacies by projecting them upon me, I will force this lesson of not slandering your betters upon you." He sent a blast of force Daredevil's way.

The adventurer responded by leaping out of the path of the beam. "It's not so easy to hit someone that knows your little trick, is it?"

Swordsman held his sword in a guard position. "Then I shall employ more brutal methods to force you to accede to my demands." He rushed forward to attack.

Captain Japan's fist impacted solidly with Tarou's shoulder.

Tarou's attempted palm strike to the chin ended long before coming close to its intended target when it hit the shield. Worse for him, he fell victim to a low kick to the side of his leg, and then a knee to the gut.

Pantyhose was taking three blows to one, and now it was getting closer to four. He was losing quickly, and it was all the result of that damnable shield. It was more than a weapon; it was an extension of his opponent's arm. And that made all the difference in the fight. His technique allowed some of his adversary's blows to be deflected by his bracers, but not anywhere near the number that were being blocked by his opponent's shield.

Tarou attempted another knuckle strike, having some measure of success with it in the early stages of combat. But this time Captain Japan was prepared and brought the shield down on the arm before it could connect. Tarou roared out in pain from the blow.

Before Captain Japan could finish his opponent off, a backflipping figure finally stopped her movement by landing her feet into the small of his back. He gave out a short growl of pain even as he lashed blindly backward with the shield. Elektra had crouched low upon landing and the edge of the shield went over her head. She brought her sai forward, the tip slashing through the material of Captain Japan's uniform across the center of his chest. A thin trickle of blood formed where the metal had caressed flesh.

A second fist had more luck by connecting cleanly with Elektra's face, sending her backward, though not off her feet. Captain Japan fingered the crimson line across his chest. "Ordinarily I don't like hitting girls, but in your case, I'm going to make an exception."

"You're not going to get the chance," a voice behind him warned.

Captain Japan turned to see Tarou now stood several meters away. The Captain sneered. "Go ahead and take me two-on-one if it'll make you feel better."

"I've got something a little harder in mind, Flag Boy."

"Like what?"

Tarou pulled one from the gourds out of his pantyhose sash, opened the cork on the top, and poured the contents over his head.

Captain Japan's eyes widened as pinkish flesh gave way to green scales. Arms once lined with lithe muscles became bigger and stronger, containing ten times the mass they once possessed. The head became squatter and sprouted horns and a snout, becoming an inhuman visage. Wings, feathered and green, sprouted out of the back of a torso that became inhumanly large and deformed. Even a tail sprouted out of the back of the spine, moving independently and possessing the head and fangs of an eel.

"Okay, I didn't see that one coming," Captain Japan admitted.

Senses returned, but hands and legs still bound, Speed Demon said, "Behold the awesome fusion of ancient transformation magic, controlled gamma ray bombardment, and bad attitude. Where once the man known as Pantyhose Tarou stood, now there remains only a monster. Witness the majestic strength, the unimaginable might, the incomprehensible power of… the A-bra-mination."

The A-bra-mination bellowed out a cry of rage and flew over to Speed Demon's prone form. He picked up the bound speedster and roared again in his face. The color seemed to wilt from Speed Demon's mask.

"What?! What?!" Speed Demon babbled. "I didn't give you that name for the re-christening of your new form. It was the boss. He thought it was in keeping with the whole Pantyhose motif. Don't get mad at me!"

Roaring at the fortress above their heads, the A-bra-mination tossed Speed Demon away. He hit stomach first across some machinery.

"That hurt just a little bit," he moaned.

Once again the A-bra-mination turned its attention to Captain Japan.

Looking up at the two-ton monstrosity, the Captain said, "I don't suppose if I throw my shield away you'll go back to your human form again, would you?"

The A-bra-mination shook his head.

"Somehow I didn't think so."

Ryouga Hibiki shone the flashlight's weak beam in front of him, hoping the sounds he heard coming from up ahead were people who could help lead him out of this complex set of caverns. This time ending up lost was not his fault. He thought he had seen something shiny in one of the branches off the first cavern he had entered. It turned out to be just his light glinting off a small puddle of water that had formed below a stalactite, but when he went to return to the exit, he had discovered it had moved. That made the situation… bad. He was underground with no food or water and only a flashlight for a light source. Since no one was looking for him, no one would find him and lead him to an exit. He couldn't remain where he was since he would eventually starve, so that meant wandering around and finding the way out. Unfortunately, there was more than one way to go. In fact, it seemed like someone had constructed a maze out of the chambers and passageways leading through the mountain. He was certain he was going around in endless circles, his flashlight growing weaker as the battery began to give out, when he heard what might have been thunder from up ahead. Luckily, the tunnel he was in had only one opening and no side passages, so he hoped that by going straight he could find the source of the noise and have someone help him get out of the labyrinth. Spelunking was for idiots, he decided.

A pair of eyes opened. Slowly, the dawn of realization came to them. "Wow! Not only does she have nice titties, but she can hit hard, too." Power Man wondered if the heady miasma fogging his thoughts was love, or a concussion.

Mindful of the river below, Power Man carefully pried himself out of the wall. Luckily the vertical impact crater was deep enough for him to get a good hold with his feet and hands so he could leap across the river and back onto the far side of the reservoir. Once more he would help his Lethal Legion comrades take care of the intruders so the boss could get back to more important matters, like ruling the world. He chose his target and moved forward, intent on being able to say that he had defeated at least one opponent today.

About 33% of the Iron Rose's systems had come back on line when she saw Power Man land only a few meters in front of her.

"Oh dear." She looked at the display, focusing on one system in particular.

Repulsors: 52% Efficiency

"I suppose that will have to do," she lamented as she manually targeted him and unleashed a double beam upon Power Man.

Unprepared for the attack, Power Man found himself blown off his feet and backward. Rather than striking just once, like a fist would, the repulsors were continuously focused on him, hammering him with unrelenting force. He was driven backward, hurting every meter of the way until a bank of machines prevented him from losing more ground. He was in the process of being driven into the machine itself, when the beams abruptly stopped. Catching his breath, he saw the armored warrior doing something to her gauntlets. Despite the pain from the blasts, he forced himself to his feet and ran forward.

Iron Rose mentally cursed that sword-wielding buffoon again for shutting down her system. It was his fault that the power sent to the repulsor rays was more than the damaged wiring could bear. She had opened the emergency panel in her gauntlets and was about to switch the power coupling over to a good circuit when she noticed her opponent had withstood her assault and was charging toward her. Maybe Power Man wasn't such a bad name for him. She fought down the urge to panic as she rerouted the power cable to her left repulsor. She could feel the trembling of the earth through the bottom of her metal-shod feet as her large, powerful foe drew closer.

"Got it," she shouted, brought her left arm up, and fired. Unfortunately, Power Man was already upon her. His mighty fist struck her breastplate with devastating force, sending her shot to go wide.

Ryouga stuck his head out of the hole just in time to see a blast of energy hit the ceiling directly above him. His eyes widened as the repulsor blast proved too much for the tunnel's ceiling, and it collapsed on top of him.

Power Man picked up his opponent and slammed her headfirst into the ground for the third time in a row. Unlike the previous attempts, her feet no longer moved afterwards. Just to be certain, he kicked the arms a few times, but again there was still no response.

"I got one!" he shouted to the others. Things were looking good. Speed Demon was out, but so was the archer, and now the armored warrior. To improve the situation, Pantyhose had changed into the A-bra-mination, and had the guy with the shield clearly on defensive. Only the red guy he had knocked out in the airport was holding his own against the Swordsman. Elektra seemed content to remain off to the side, waiting for a moment to enter a fight when an opening would present itself. Only Thor was missing.

Power Man was still mentally debating whether to knock the red guy out again or search for Thor, when a roar of anger— as deep as the one the A-bra-mination bellowed when Speed Demon tried giving him the 'villainous' name of Garters Jockstrap— shook the air. On the far side of the cavern a fountain of boulders that had been pulverized into gravel shot upward. What emerged from the cloud of powdered stone reminded Power Man of the A-bra-mination, mostly because what had leapt across and was sailing through the air was muscular, green, and very, very angry.

The Hulk landed in front of Power Man and raised his fists high above his head. "Who tried to bury Hulk? Was it you, Not-So-Little-Man? Did you try to bury Hulk?"

"I'll take care of their reinforcements!" Power Man shouted, and hit the Hulk with a solid right to the jaw, snapping the green goliath's head back.

The Hulk's head returned slowly to its original face-forward position. He glared at Power Man in anger. "You hit Hulk! Now Hulk hit back!"

Power Man was vaguely aware of something, perhaps an atomic bomb, exploding in his stomach. Then there was definitely the sensation of flying, only to be followed by an abrupt stop. His eyes were barely able to focus on the crater of rock surrounding him, and at the people that now stood below, staring in awe at where he had ended up.

"I think I'll stay put this time. Good night. " The eyes rolled into the back of his head and the world turned black.

The Hulk turned in fury to the remaining people. "Who else is going to try to hit Hulk?"

Captain Japan turned to the A-bra-mination. "How dare you call the Hulk stupid and ugly!"

The A-bra-mination looked in surprise at his foe.

"Hulk is not stupid or ugly!" the giant protested.

The A-bra-mination tried protesting, but all his vocal cords could produce were grunts and growls.

Captain Japan 'interpreted' the sounds for the Hulk. "He also says he thinks you're weak and have bad breath, but I disagree with him."

"Hulk is strong and brushes his teeth all the time!"

The A-bra-mination tried to hit the little man, bit Captain Japan proved too nimble as he leapt out of the way. The monstrosity was about to try again when he saw the Hulk run forward, shouting, "Hulk does not have Hally-Toe-Sis!"

Due to his own tremendous size and weight, and being within the close confines of the cavern, the A-bra-mination elected to stand his ground and braced for the collision. Ever since his employer boosted his strength and endurance with a controlled gamma ray bombardment, he went from simply being a badass to being invincible in monster form. He could even take multiple blows from Power Man and remain standing. Though this newcomer was big, he didn't know whom he was messing with. The A-bra-mination would take the green oaf's first shot, then return it with interest.

At least that was what he thought until the Hulk slammed into him full force. Nearly half of the coolant system was destroyed as the A-bra-mination's body was hurled through row after row of machinery before coming to rest against the rock of the cavern wall. Luckily, the impact did nothing to loosen the ceiling of the reinforced chamber.

The Hulk smiled in satisfaction at his handiwork. "Now Hulk showed who is strongest one of all." He took a sniff of the air. "Oh, Green Cow not smell so good himself."

"Yeah. Nothing a good bath in acid wouldn't take care of," Captain Japan said.

The Hulk looked at the smaller youth, scratching his head in confusion. "Hulk thinks he remembers you. Wasn't Hulk trying to smash you before?"

Remembering the results of their last encounter, Captain Japan thought fast and said, "Ah, no, no, no. That was my evil twin brother."

"Evil twin brother?"

"Sure. Every hero has one. It makes life interesting for them when they pop up and besmirch their good name."

"Does that mean Hulk has evil twin brother?"

"Now that's a scary thought." Captain Japan considered what the world would be like with two Hulks after his blood.

Before their conversation could continue, there was another tremendous roar that came from the direction the A-bra-mination had landed. The Hulk looked up and saw his foe flying towards him. The green-feathered wings couldn't make the A-bra-mination's flight graceful, but it mattered little, given the monster appeared as enraged as the Hulk had been upon discovering himself buried under a ton or so of rock.

"Hulk doesn't like stupid Green Cows that have been smashed and don't know it." The Hulk snarled as the mightiest legs on the planet tensed up and sprang forward, propelling him upwards to meet the A-bra-mination head on.

For a moment, both green titans hung suspended in mid-air, motionless as equal physical forces canceled each other out. But then the A-bra-mination's wings made the difference as they continued propelling him forward. He smashed the Hulk into the ground, further pulverizing the machinery that had already been ruined by the A-bra-mination initial journey courtesy of the Hulk's fist.

The Hulk picked himself up off the ground. "Hulk doesn't like being hit by smelly Green Cow! Hulk will smash!"

The A-bra-mination mirrored the Hulk's sentiment as he landed and the two began to pound away in earnest upon one another's emerald hides.

Even Captain Japan backed away from the fight. The force from the blows the pair exchanged were producing winds that he could feel even twenty meters away. "I'm not getting involved in that unless big and stupid is really getting his head handed to him," he muttered to himself.

His attention was still riveted to the fight when heard something move behind him. He spun around, his shield in front of him, just in time to prevent a pair of sai from being buried in his back. "Don't you ever give up?"

Elektra said nothing as she picked up the fight against him once again. Captain Japan's counterattack drove the fight to the bridge that spanned the raging torrent formed on the far side of the reservoir. It was there the duo entered their dance of violence in earnest.

Thor strode through the vast halls of the mountain fortress, becoming further enraged with each step. The low ceiling prevented her from flying, forcing her to search on foot. Worse, the true master of the fortress was undoubtedly hiding from her wrath rather than confront her in combat. In truth, there seemed to be no one else present. No more lackeys, no internal defenses, not even a pack of rabid guard dogs. Even Loki used to keep rabid guard dogs around his various hideouts. It was traditional.

Thor's fists were itching to smite an opponent, and she was beginning to think abandoning the fight below was a mistake. For the fourth time in as many minutes, she yelled, "I will not dally around with thy lackeys, villain! Show yourself that we may do battle and decide who is the mightiest of all!"

Silence was the only response.

"Very well! You leave me but one course of action!" She brought her hammer back and threw it. Mjolnir easily transformed the closest stone wall into rubble. A resounding boom from the impact echoed throughout the fortress.

*This way.*

Thor looked wildly around. The voice was soft, like a serpent's, though it dripped honey more than venom. Also it had seemed to come from within her head. "What sorcery is this?"

*Over here.*

Thor turned to the left. Yes. Somehow she knew that was the direction the voice was telling her to go. It was about time the villain who ruled this place found the courage to confront her. Soon she would dispatch her foe and end this farce. Besides, she had to get home soon or her family might grow concerned with her absence.

*You're almost there.*

Upwards Thor traveled, following a large ramp until she came to a wall made of metal rather than stone. There appeared to be no door. Instead there was an opening wide enough to allow her godly form to enter without being hindered. Eager for battle, she strode through the opening, ready to confront her opponent.

The room was vast and circular, metal lining the entire chamber. It appeared unadorned and uninteresting. Smoke filled the room, coming down from vents overhead. It was thick enough to shroud the far side of the chamber like a fog. A dull whine came from overhead, filling the room so it was nearly impossible to hear herself think.

She was about to shout when she saw him appear through the smoke on the far side of the room. He was slightly tall and slender of build. His hair was long and white, traveling down his back and ending only slightly below his waist. His age indicated he was only a few years older than her mortal form. His face was passingly handsome, strong, and full of character. He possessed a certain haughtiness that implied this was the sort of man who was used to being obeyed by others, similar to the All-Father.

His trappings were colorful, almost gaudy. His outfit was close and formfitting, showing a lithe but powerful body. He wore what appeared to be a shirt made of some kind of scale armor. A long purple cape flowed behind him, as though it possessed a life of its own. But the most noticeable thing about his appearance was his hands. On each finger and thumb there were rings. They were not filled with various gems of wealth, but with odd projections that seemed to cover every color of the spectrum. They were large enough to be easily noticed even with the distance between the two of them. The stranger looked down upon Thor, as though a king might look upon a lowly dog.

"At last thou showeth thyself, cowardly villain. Art thou prepared to do battle?"

The man's disdainful look remained as unmoving as his lips. Thor heard in her head, *You will address me by the title that I have chosen until I conquer the world. I am the Mandarin.*

"I shall refer to you as the Vanquished!" Thor rushed forward, intent on wiping the smirk from his face with a powerful left hand. He remained motionless, smirking the entire time. Almost as enraged as the Hulk was dozens of levels below, Thor snarled as she unleashed a punch that would have taken a normal man's head clean off.

Her blow went through the man as though he were no more substantial than a ghost. Off balance by the unexpected lack of matter, the Goddess of Thunder lost her footing and went crashing to the ground. She slowly rose to her feet, more enraged than before. "What foul sorcery is this?"

The image laughed at her. Again she heard in her mind, *Thanks to my Mento-Intensifier ring, you see what I want you to see.*

"Tricks," she spat out. She had little tolerance for tricksters; her half-brother had seen to that centuries ago. Now that she was warned, she countered this trick as she had Loki's by concentrating on shutting out the intruder in her mind. Sure enough, the image wavered before disappearing altogether.

The sound of metal striking metal hard caught Thor's attention. She turned to see that the entryway she had used was now covered by a large door. It merged perfectly with the walls of the chamber. Had she not known better, she would have sworn there had never been an exit to the room.

The sound of gears grinding above her head caught her attention. She looked above, wondering if the ceiling was going to come down in an attempt to crush her, when she saw that instead of dropping, it was retracting. Once fully in its housing, Thor saw the cause of all the smoke: three colossal engines poised directly above her. She had seen their like before on television, during the telecasts of rocket launches: the type that went into space. The engines were currently spitting out tremendous amounts of smoke, making it difficult for even her godly lungs to function. The acrid smell of some kind of fuel filled the air. Already she could hear the build-up hit its highest pitch yet and felt the temperature rise enough to make her body sweat. Orange flames began forming in all three engines, threatening to spit out a fiery death as powerful as Surtur the Fire Giant could deal with his mighty sword of flame.

"No," Thor gasped and brought her hammer back, intent on throwing it before she was roasted alive.

*It won't save you, fool!* the voice spat in her head. *You'll just cause it to blow up. The explosion will destroy my rocket, its true, but it will still kill you, and all of your friends below as well.*

It was true. Given the size of the rocket, it could very likely blow the entire fortress off the map. Thor sought an alternative way out.

*Go ahead and try the doors. They're composed of a special osmium-titanium alloy that you'll never breach. This is your end, intruder!*

With the last word, the engines roared fully to life.

Down below, din of battle drowned out the roar of the rocket's launch. Despite the conflicts between Daredevil and Swordsman, as well as Captain Japan and Elektra, it was the clash between the Hulk and the A-bra-mination that filled the cavern with deafening noise. Again and again fists flew. There was no style or skill to the fight; all such trapping had disappeared within the first handful of blows. In its simplest terms, it was nothing more than a matter of two immovable objects trying to employ irresistible force against one another, neither yielding an inch.

For his part, the A-bra-mination began to grow worried. Not the type of all-out-fit-of-panic worried, his control over his emotions was too good for that, but rather it was the seeds of doubt that led to making an alternative set of plans when victory might not be imminent, or even if it was coming at all. Never before had he faced such naked strength or savage ferocity. This Hulk was more akin to an unrelenting force of nature than a humanoid being. He showed no signs of weariness, no signs of weakening or even acknowledging he was being beaten upon. If anything, he seemed to be getting stronger as the fight progressed, and the A-bra-mination knew that even with his gamma enhanced strength, he had upper limits. If things remained as they did, the odds were he was going to lose.

The A-bra-mination decided to try something that he hoped would gain him a breather and a chance to come up with a more effective strategy against the green juggernaut. Rather than remaining standing still, he used his wings to take off.

The unexpected move caused the Hulk's next blow to miss. The A-bra-mination didn't as he lashed out with his hoof-like feet from above, connecting solidly with the Hulk's head. The force of the blow shot the Hulk across the cavern like a rocket, his body firmly striking the bridge spanning the river, destroying it in the process, before continuing on to the water below. His massive form created a huge fountain of displaced water in the process, kicking it up high into the air, like a geyser.

Captain Japan was facing the battle of the titans as he prevented Elektra from running him through. He saw the Hulk's headlong flight and understood what was about to happen. He leapt backward as over a ton of pure muscle collided with the bridge like the force of a dozen sticks of dynamite. The mortar and rock were no match for the humanoid rocket, and shattered under the force of the impact.

Elektra was caught completely by surprise, and with the destruction of the bridge, her footing was taken from beneath her. A piece of debris from the Hulk's impact was sent upward and struck her in the head, rendering her instantly unconscious even as she began her decent into the waters below.

Captain Japan managed to grab onto the remains of the far side of what had once been the bridge. He had caught the fate of his foe even in the middle of his leap. He watched as her limp form went headfirst into the water below.

"She tried to kill me and the others," he told himself. It wasn't even good enough to be called a weak excuse. Sighing, he released his hold and dove into the water where he had seen the ninja vanish.

Above, the A-bra-mination landed. He knew the water would not fend off his opponent for long, and he prepared himself for the next round of fighting.

His wait was not long, as a green figure shot out of the water at an even greater speed than the A-bra-mination had imagined. He wasn't prepared for his opponent's velocity, and only had a split-second to catch sight of what emerged from the spray of water. Any attempt at a defense was lost as the A-bra-mination stared at what was coming for his head.

Where the Hell had a green, muscle-bound piglet come from?

He didn't have a chance to wonder for long as a hundred pounds of porcine might shouted out "BWEEE!" and then hit him right between the eyes. The A-bra-mination staggered back, momentarily stunned. The Incredible Bweee continued his assault by leaping into the A-bra-mination's stomach with his head, momentarily winding him.

Angry as he was, Bweee made the mistake of not using his superior agility and attempted to engage the A-bra-mination in hoof-to-hand combat. He leaped up onto the scaly miss-matched monster and tried batting his face with his hooves. The stubby legs were no more than an annoyance to someone of the A-bra-mination's durability. He grabbed Bweee and punched the piglet as hard as he could. The Hulk's cursed form had nowhere near the ability to absorb the punishment his humanoid body did. The blow rendered him unconscious even as he flew through the air as fast as when he had leaped out of the water.

To complicate matters, or to simplify them in the case of the Lethal Legion, the piglet's flight path was directly in line with that of Daredevil. The blind adventurer sensed the hurtling form at the last moment and ducked. The move kept his head from being taken off, but the speeding porcine lightly creased Daredevil's skull. The move was enough to knock the blind youth to the ground, senseless. A hilt brought into the top of his head, courtesy of the Swordsman, finished the job, and he embraced peaceful oblivion.

"'Tis done," Swordsman announced. He looked around, viewing the results of the fight on both his comrades and foes. "Where is that knave, Captain Japan, and the beauteous Elektra?"

The A-bra-mination grabbed one of his fallen gourds and pushed a button on the bottom of it, heating the contents up. He poured the water over his head and returned to his human form. "They fell into the river when the bridge got smashed up."

Swordsman looked to the river, his eyes searching it for bodies and coming up with none. "Then we must rescue her."

Tarou walked over and began to undo Speed Demon's bonds. "We'll search down river in a bit. First we do like the boss instructed and bring these guys to him. Finding that loser with the shield and that hot little piece of ass can wait. I don't want the hassle of kicking these guys' butts again."

The Swordsman's eyes continued scanning the river. "But we should not leave her in that fool's clutches. There is no telling what an amorous dog like that will do to such a gentle flower."

Tarou snorted at the implication. "She's so gentle she'd probably sink a knife in your gut if you laid a hand on her, and she was 'deflowered' a long time ago."

Swordsman scowled at the implication. "Nay. I can clearly tell she is chaste and pure."

"Pure slut, maybe, though a hell of a lot more professional than you. And don't get your tights in an uproar. I hate to break this to you… well, actually I'll enjoy it, but even if she is still alive, I'm the one that's going to get into her pants. I've known women like her and how to deal with them. And even if I wasn't around, you wouldn't stand a chance. You'd be completely outclassed."

"How dare you imply that your vile ways with women are more effective than mine." Swordsman leveled his katana at Tarou.

Speed Demon shouted, "Hey, guys. I think Hawkeye's starting to wake up!"

The tension between the pair dissipated as Tarou walked over to Hawkeye's fallen form. A low moan was issuing from the archer's lips. "I do believe you're right," he said, then proceeded to kick the prone form in the gut. After the first two times, Hawkeye stopped moaning. Tarou added two more for good measure. "That takes care of that." He turned to Speed Demon. "Pry your buddy out of the wall and have him help out. Swordy, either pick up a body or throw yourself on your sword. And if you keep staring at me like that, your body will be joining theirs."

Barely able to restrain a snarl, Swordsman did as he was instructed reluctantly, taking great care in carrying Hawkeye's unconscious form up to the fortress.

The Mandarin raised the glass of wine to his lips as he watched the results of his years-long handiwork reach fruition from his monitor room. The rocket's liftoff had been a complete success, despite the goddess' attempt at stopping him. In twenty minutes it would reach its proper place in orbit, and its payload would be released high above the atmosphere. Another hour for it to activate and move into its proper position after that, and it would all be over but the bargaining. Within the next forty-eight hours, the Gods above willing, he would be master of the entire planet.

A loud boom resounded nearby. He placed his glass down on a nearby monitor, and stared in the direction that it had emanated. Tarou had just radioed that the Legion had captured all of the intruders.

He called out, "Pantyhose, is that you? Quit horsing around, A-bra-mination, or I won't change the name I gave you. You'll be stuck with two stupid names instead of just the one you were born with."

A hole erupted from one of the far walls as a hammer flew through it. Mjolnir flew back, and a singe-covered Goddess of Thunder strode in.

The Mandarin maintained his composure. He lowly rose to his feet, staring at her. It seemed every inch of her body had some burns on it. Her hair was singed, her cape was in ruins, and her costume had holes in it in some very near revealing places. He shifted his attention uncomfortably away from the flesh showing near the chest area and reminded himself what was at stake. "I know it's cliché, but exactly how did you survive that little fire-trap of mine?"

Closer to a snarl rather than an answer, Thor said, "I did smash mine way out through the walls of thy inept trap."

"They were two feet thick."

"Indeed. It did take me two blows to set mineself free. 'Twas a near thing, to be certain, just as thy well-earned beating is going to be a near thing to death as well."

The Mandarin smiled. "I applaud your resilience. I shall enjoy discovering the source of your power and subverting it to my cause." He undid the catch on his purple satin cape, allowing it to pool behind him on the floor. Unencumbered, he stood before his opponent. "I deem you a worthy opponent to do combat with."

"A pity I cannot say the same. However I have no choice but to sully mine hands with thee." She stalked forward.

"Have no fears, then. I have no intention of allowing you to lay a single finger upon me." He raised both hands and pointed them at Thor.

Sensing something amiss, Thor ducked as stream of fire emitted from one of the rings on his left hand. Having been burned quite enough for one day, she ducked, and heard the flames roar as they came into contact with the rock of the wall.

However by ducking instead of throwing her body aside, she was unable to evade the white beam that emitted from a different ring on the same hand. She felt something congeal around her legs, and found her legs and lower torso encased in ice. Rendered temporarily immobile, a red beam emitted from a ring on his other hand and struck her high in the chest. The impact was tremendous, hurting her as it knocked her over. The ice prevented her from sprawling but left her as immobile as a turtle turned over on it shell.

The Mandarin made a clucking noise with his tongue. "I expected a much greater challenge from you."

Anger gathered Thor's focus and with a burst of muscle she shattered her icy shackles. It took a much greater effort than it should have, and it was only then she realized the toll her body had taken. She had avoided most of the rocket's flames, but not all of them, and it would take even her godly form time to heal. Time, the one commodity she did not have.

Thor grit her teeth, firming her resolve. This was no time for doubt. The key to victory for her forces was before her. This mere mortal sought to defeat the most powerful of goddesses. Thor had not known defeat since her rebirth, and she had no desire to taste it now. Certainly not in the face of this pompous fool who fancied himself a leader of men, when he was only fit to command dogs like those of his so-called Lethal Legion.

She hurled Mjolnir at him, but he twisted out of its way. He displayed surprising agility for one whose power she had assumed resided in his rings. He rushed at her almost as quickly as her hammer was returning to her. The fool was rushing towards defeat if he sought to engage her in physical combat. He might have postponed the inevitable by staying out of reach with his rings, but now he was finished. It would take but one, two blows at the most for her godly might to dispatch him.

Just as the hammer returned to her grasp, the Mandarin brought his foot up to kick her. At the last moment she thought she saw it glow with a nimbus of energy. The kick hit with far more force than any normal man could bear, staggering her for a moment.

Rather than press the advantage, the Mandarin stood in what was clearly a martial arts stance. "Surprised? My power resides not solely in my rings. They are but a tool. The true source of power is the blood of dragons that runs through my veins. You have spirit. I offer you a chance to save yourself a beating and pledge your life and abilities to me. You'll find I can be a generous master."

"I have no master, and thy blood will run in rivers before I ever submit to the likes of thee!"

Thor swung at him with her fist, but he dodged the blow. The nimbus of power surrounded his arms and legs as he lashed out with a chop to her neck and then one to her elbow. Despite her own godly durability, she felt pain from the blows. Almost out of reflex she lashed out with a backhand.

Expecting his strikes to incapacitate rather than merely cause pain, the Mandarin was only partially able to evade the blow. A part of the side of her hand caught him in the chest, and he was hurled across the room. Even rolling with the blow, he still suffered more pain than he had in years.

"Die! Now!" He raised his right hand up and employed his deadliest ring of all: the disintegrator.

Thor ducked the beam as it arched in a short line right where her head had been. The beam winked out, and she spun around to see the results of the silent blast. There was a foot long trail the height of a nickel cutting a groove clear through the wall. And the wall beyond it, and the wall beyond that one as well. It was then she realized that the back of her neck felt revealed. She placed her hand behind it, only to discover something was missing.

"Thou didst destroy mine hair!" she raged.

"I was aiming for thine neck!" the Mandarin mocked. And he would have aimed at it again, save that the disintegrator only had enough power to be used once an hour. Still, he had nine other means of destruction at his fingertips. It was only a question of which one would spell the goddess's doom.

Before the Mandarin could decide, Thor spun her hammer around in a circle above her head. Having seen what the weapon had done to his wall and how fast it was, he was cautious as he kept his eyes transfixed on the hammer, trying to time a leap to avoid it once it was thrown.

Only Thor didn't throw it, instead choosing to continue swinging it in a circle. By the fourth swing it seemed to have taken on a life of its own, and the winds it produced were unnatural.

A wall of air, invisible to the Mandarin's naked eye, struck him, pinning him to the wall. He felt the air washing over him time and time again, and saw several objects flying in fast circles. It felt like tendrils of air reached down his throat and into his lungs, sucking the air out. Within seconds the Mandarin felt on the verge of passing out thanks to the goddess' vortex. He was pinned so effectively that he couldn't even bring his rings to bear.

No! He would not lose. Not when he was so close to victory. Thor had been weakened by the rocket's engines and his own rings. She could barely stand. He was the master of the world. He would not lose to a mere woman. There was one ring that he could use, its abilities tied to the so-called 'Darkforce dimension' and not directed in a beam as so many of the others were. He activated it.

The world went dark around Thor. Surprised by the absolute darkness surrounding her, she lost concentration and the vortex responded by lessening its ferocity.

With the gale relenting slightly, the Mandarin acted. Being granted the ability to see through the darkness created by his ring, he brought his left hand up and released a short blast of compressed air from his Vortex ring. While it lacked the raw power of the maelstrom the goddess had summoned, it was still an effective offensive weapon. Struck by the blast, Thor lost her footing and stopped spinning the hammer around, sprawling to the ground. Her body ached as much from the effort of producing the whirlwind as it did from the beam she had been hit with.

She returned to her feet, having to feel the floor to get a sense of where things were. The darkness was absolute, sucking out every hint of light. It was worse than the time she had visited Hela in the icy domain of death, at least from a visual standpoint.

"Where art th—Urk!" A strike found its way to Thor's throat. To one of more mortal qualities, the blow would have broken their windpipe. For the goddess, it served to choke her and prevent her from gaining air.

A stone-shattering kick met the base of her spine. She fell to her knees, legs rendered temporarily paralyzed. "Where art thou?!" she gasped out.

"Would you like to see?" Darkness was replaced with light. Not a soft gentle glow, but the glare of a thousand flashbulbs being set off at once directly in front of her eyes. She recoiled, visual senses overloaded. She covered her eyes, and still it seemed as though the whiteness was permanently burned into her retinas.

She felt the air crackle with power behind her. Despite the pain, exhaustion, and blindness, she turned in the direction that the power was emanating from, standing proudly.

The blindness prevented her from seeing the huge blue glow that had formed around the Mandarin. It crackled, and filled the air with power, dancing along the floor and ceiling above him. "This farce ends now. Musk Dynasty Final Attack: Roaring Dragon Bite!"

The blue coalesced into the head of a dragon, then shot forward and engulfed Thor's form as a blast of pure chi slammed into her. To make matters worse, traveling in the energy dragon's wake, beams of fire, electricity, air, ice, and kinetic force slammed into Thor. All hit squarely. The goddess of Thunder was blown through the five walls before the laws of gravity fully claimed her body and it came to a stop.

The blue left his form, and the Mandarin stood as proudly as when the goddess had first burst into his control chamber. He walked easily, almost lazily, as he approached Thor's fallen form. Standing directly above her, he gazed downward at this bruised, burned, defeated, yet ultimately proud mountain of a woman.

By all rights he should kill her. She was incredibly dangerous. Even if he bound her in steel and technology, should she fight her way free she could cause him problems, potentially kill him with the awesome power she wielded. The fight had gone his way, but he held no illusions. She had been softened up in his trap, and still the fight had not been easy. He would not have looked forward to clashing with her on more even terms.

The safest course of action would be to remove the potential threat by killing her now, yet he resisted the urge to place his impact ring next to her temple and pulverize her brain into pulp. Looking upon her with a more dispassionate eye, when she was not trying to smash him into a fleshy pile of jelly, he found her physically attractive, despite her rather brutish demeanor. There was a sort of fire and spirit about her that seemed to entice his senses and tantalize his desires. His contact with members of the opposite sex was limited, but instinctively he knew there was something about this woman that made her more desirable than most he would meet.

There were other factors to consider as well. Now that he was finally on the verge of achieving his decade-long ambition of ruling the world, there was a future to plan for, specifically, the important matter of progeny. The one problem with the bloodline of the Dragon Clan of the Musk was that the women chosen as mates, unless they were also of the Dragon Clan, rarely survived childbirth. Even the few times they dared breed with other powerful Musk bloodlines, like those of the Tiger, the women rarely survived the experience. Had the men of the Dragon Clan been like normal humans, or even other members of the Musk, the answer would be to merely acquire another woman, but something in the Dragon blood made acquiring a second mate repellent, even if it was only for the purpose of bearing more offspring. Less than a handful of the Mandarin's ancestors had overcome the instinct and mated with another woman, and even then they did not do it a third time. That was one of the reasons there had been so few members of the Dragon Clan, and why he was the last.

However, Thor represented all sorts of new possibilities that the Mandarin had never considered. If this being before him truly was a goddess— and since there was such things as dragons, why not gods?— then a woman of such a divine nature might not suffer the limitations other women did. Judging by her tremendous strength, surely she would prove durable enough to produce more than one heir. And not only was there the possibility of multiple offspring, but there was the added bonus of imbuing the dragon bloodline with that of divinity itself. The Dragon Clan would become celestial beings in every sense of the word

The Mandarin steepled his hands before his eyes, keeping his stare riveted on the goddess. This was a matter that required some consideration. Yes it did. Thor would remain alive as long as he could manage. If his schemes played out as he thought they should, he would rule the world and ensure his clan's control of it forever. This Thor was a gift from the gods in every sense of the word.

A laugh erupted from Herb's mouth and echoed throughout the halls of the Musk Fortress. The world would be his to rule as he pleased, and it would remain so from now until the end of time.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Special thanks to Gary Kleppe for punning for me the "A-bra-mination's" name.

Also thanks to prereaders Gary Ee. William Morse Christopher Horton

Act 1-10
Layout, design, & site revisions 2005

Webmaster: Larry F
Last revision: May 21, 2007

Old Gray Wolf