Real Men Wear Tights

High school can be tough for everyone. This is especially true when you're hiding a secret that can never be told.


18. In Which Players Fold Part 2

The next person to attack was a woman who went for a high kick towards Hemogoblin’s turned back, but his partner must have had eyes in the back of his head because he ducked underneath the kick as if it was choreographed and delivered a brutal punch to the side of her knee on her pivot leg, causing her to crumple to the ground in a cry of agony. A blow to the temple sent her unconscious, and then Hemogoblin was moving on to his next opponent.

John had no more time to observe his partner’s fight as two thugs made an attempt at jumping him, but he handled them with almost contemptuous ease. After parrying a half a dozen strikes from each adversary, he lashed out with a fist encased in wind that sent one troll flying across the room to slam against a wall, his human counterpart following shortly after due to a similarly windy snap kick. When John turned from surveying the results of his handiwork, he found the immediate area already completely cleared of potential opponents. The only enemies remaining, in fact, were a pair of slender trolls who were already engaging his partner.

John moved to support his teammate, but the feral grin of enjoyment on Hemogoblin’s face had him hanging back. He clearly had this under control, so for now, the other hero would simply observe.

Unlike the Crew members they’d already fought, the two Hemogoblin were fighting now seemed to actually have some amount of skill. More than the base amount of street-fighting and hand-to-hand that most of the other low-ranking members of their organization seemed to possess, in any case. Their hands were almost a blur as they lashed out against Hemogoblin in tandem, their movements fluid and doing well in covering the openings left by the other. Only his partner seemed to be having absolutely no trouble keeping up with the both of them despite their numerical advantage, his hands moving even faster to bat hits aside and redirect blows with little difficulty.

At some unseen signal, one of the pair broke off and jumped back, immediately kneeling on one leg as his hands went to his ankle. The still combative troll did his best to keep up with Hemogoblin’s now unrestrained flurry of jabs and strikes, but he was overwhelmed in a matter of mere seconds, first with several strikes to his chest, and then with a jab to his trachea. He dropped instantly, hands instinctively going to clutch at his throat.

He’d done his job well and bought time for his partner, however, because when the remaining troll stood up, he was grasping a baton which extended with the press of a button, its tip producing a blindingly white jolt between two protruding prongs—a stun baton.

John would have disarmed him in an instant with the help of the wind, had his partner not held his hand up in John’s direction, his grin growing even wider.

He trusted Hemogoblin’s skills so he wouldn’t say anything, but he seriously hoped he wasn’t misjudging the situation. If the hemomancer was lost to a rage-fueled bloodlust and not just thoroughly enjoying getting to vent his anger on some worthy opponents, then this could end badly. Those kinds of weapons could emit absolutely terrifying amounts of electricity, enough to cause muscle spasms and paralysis in under a second. A single misstep could mean his partner’s defeat.

It turned out that his fears were unfounded.

The Midnight Crew member charged after Hemogoblin with the baton tucked by his side, lashing out with it in quick jabs and thrusts as he attempted to skewer him, the air humming with released static with each near-miss. Hemogoblin ducked and weaved around each strike as if he could anticipate their trajectory before they’d been launched. On one particular strike, Hemogoblin weaved to the side and let the thrust pass his side. He immediately clamped down on the other troll’s arm, catching it between his own. The mobster attempted to retaliate by punching with his other arm, but Hemogoblin caught his fist and then twisted his body, forcing the man’s grip to slacken and for the baton to clatter to the ground. The widening of the troll’s eyes was the only indication that he understood how screwed he was as Hemogoblin let go of one arm and spun, tossing him bodily over his shoulder with enough force to catapult him through the air in a mimicry of the two that John had thrown earlier. He smashed against the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the far wall with a tremendous crash, the mirror shattering into a million pieces of glass that glittered like diamonds in the flashing lights normally meant to herald in strippers.

It was only because John had been watching the fight with such fascination that he immediately noticed something was wrong.

Hemogoblin seemed oblivious, though, as he sighed contentedly and languidly stretched his arms behind his back as he turned to give John a contented grin, saying, “I fucking needed that! Did you see the way that last one went flying? Could’ve hardly done better if I had your wind, I bet.”

Most of his words went ignored, however, as John slowly started walking closer to where the last Crew member had been thrown, the feeling of unease he’d had earlier coming back full force as his suspicions were confirmed.

The sounds of the thug’s unconscious body slumping to the ground hadn’t sounded right to his ears, because that’s not what had happened. As John looked on in silence, he took in the long, narrow walkway, and the body of the thug sprawled out on it. The long, narrow walkway that was showing through the now open hole where previously the mirror had stood. It took a few moments of processing before what he was seeing clicked, and when it did, he scoffed to himself softly.

By then, Hemogoblin had taken note of his silence and had joined him in staring, and it was he who spoke first. “That was smart. A two-way mirror. Explains the size of the building. Ten bucks says that’s where the rest of the head honchos are hiding.”

John sighed, lifting a hand up to scratch the back of his head under his hood. “I don’t doubt it. I also don’t doubt that they’re now very aware of our presence and are waiting for us with some kind of trap.”

Hemogoblin seemed remarkably calm about the possibility. “Yeah. I figured as much. How do you want to proceed?”

John furrowed his brow in thought for a moment before he decided to trust his gut and relaxed, offering his partner a smile through his mask. “Playing it by ear worked out for us the last time. Why fix what isn’t broken?”

Hemogoblin actually snorted at that, a sound which caused the smile on John’s face to spread even wider. “Yeah, sure, I have no problem with that.”

John nodded, leaning in to playfully bump Hemogoblin’s shoulder with his own before he strode forward to stand next to the remnants of the mirror, inspecting the hole. “Stay close to me. I’ll extend my wind barriers so we’re both covered, just in case.”

Hemogoblin grinned as he moved to stand next to John, offering him a heartfelt smile. “My knight in blue-grey armor. Whatever would I do without you?”

John felt the tension slowly easing from his gut, the troll’s words reminding him that no matter what happened, they were in this together. And with him by his side, they could probably take on an entire army, let alone whatever the Midnight Crew had to throw at them. “I dunno. Probably continue to be a total mysterious badass?”

Hemogoblin continued smiling at him for a few long moments before his grin turned mischievous and he offered John a forced scoff along with a nudge from his thigh. “Okay, enough of the sappy bullshit. We have bad guys to beat the shit out of.”

A laugh bubbled up out of John’s throat as he turned to regard the walkway in front of them. “You got it, partner.”

They both sidestepped the bruised and bleeding troll and advanced forward, John calling on the wind to cradle them both in its protective embrace. The iron grating of the walkway gave way to an intersection a short six feet away, the path to the right ending in a set of stairs leading up to the second floor, while the path to the left continued in a downwards-sloping set of stairs that apparently led to a basement floor. John’s head was on a swivel as they reached the edge of the intersection and the wall on either side of them ceased providing cover, his eyes darting to every conceivable location where an ambush could be found. Hemogoblin continued walking without him, however, going towards the edge of the walkway’s railing and peering out on the floor below, his iridescent eyes widening noticeably. Once John was assured that there wasn’t a sniper waiting to remove their heads from the stair landing above them, he joined Hemogoblin at the railing, eager to see what had caused his partner’s reaction. What he saw left his mouth hanging open.

Spread out below them was an open expanse of what resembled warehouse space, concrete floors stretching out in every direction. It was what was occupying those floors which had drawn the looks of shock and awe. There were hundreds of pieces of chemistry equipment filling over what looked to be at least three dozen long tables. There were beakers, burners, distilleries, and flasks filled with multi-colored chemicals. There were industrial ventilation hoods over work stations, with dozens of tubes and wires connected in complex patterns weaving in and out of tables, through complex steel machinery, and from between the legs of dozens of workers who wore nothing but surgical masks.

There was none of the same embarrassment to be found as John observed these workers. Their nudity wasn’t the same kind of nudity that they had witnessed in the club. Everyone on the floor below was moving with stiff, wearied motions, their eyes haggard and the bags under those eyes standing out like vicious bruises against pale skin that looked to rarely have seen the sun. There were no smiles, no small talk, as everyone seemed to go about their business in a kind of dazed but methodical stupor. Most of the workers seemed thin, almost to the point of emaciation, their cheeks hollow and their hair brittle. The fact that none of them had reacted to the sounds of a body crashing through glass was the final nail in the coffin, inexorably leading to a single conclusion: they weren’t here of their own volition. At the very least, they didn’t want to be here. The way that everyone was moving like zombies was highly suspect, and John didn’t put it past the Midnight Crew for a second to be doing something as monstrous as using drug-addicted labor to take care of their dirty business. He’d only read about this sort of thing and never seen it for himself, but it was apparently considered good practice in these sorts of illicit undertakings to use addicts. They were not the sort that would ever go to the police, for one, and by offering them a steady supply of their drug of choice but keeping them just strung along enough to function, you ensured both loyalty and a high work ethic. There was also the fact that people this addicted could disappear off the face of the earth, and most of the time they’d have nobody to make a stir at their vanishing. That last thought didn’t sit well in John’s stomach, as he recalled the police station and just how ruthless the Midnight Crew could be.

What was perhaps the most startling was what the workers were working on. The last few tables at the end of the hall were covered in large cardboard boxes, each one sealed neatly with packing tape, maybe a few hundred boxes in all. When John squinted his eyes to see the finished product that was going into the boxes, his breath hitched.

Two workers were shoving in case after case of carefully packed vials in styrofoam holders. Clear vials, with strands of a bright red material swirling languidly at their centers. Red Miles.

“God fucking damnit, holy shit,” Hemogoblin breathed out next to him, and John said nothing to show his agreement. There was no way that all of that was meant for Seattle alone. This was bigger than Seattle. This must have been the manufacturing and distribution center for the entire country.

“Seriously? Seriously? Hidden drug manufacturing operation obviously employing meth-heads, hidden behind a false mirror in a seedy strip club? I know the Midnight Crew likes their trite, hackneyed bullshit, what with their stupid hats and 1920s mobster throwback suits, but this. This right here, this is some overused, movie-cliché hornbeast excrement. This is fucking garbage.”

It was an impressive rant, to be sure, but John didn’t miss the way Hemogoblin’s grip on the iron railing was hard enough to cause his biceps to bulge. He’d bet money that the troll’s grey knuckles would be turning white underneath his gloves. When Hemogoblin turned to look at him, John was ready for the anger shining in his eyes. But he wasn’t prepared for the worry and anxiety that framed the entirety of the troll’s face with indecision, his eyebrows drawn and his teeth worrying at his bottom lip.

“What do we do, Heir? You’ve been at this a lot longer than I have, and I’m kind of at a loss, here.”

John bit his own lip behind his mask, trying to weigh their options. They’d come into this wanting to avoid the police completely until they were assured that all of the key players were down for the count, but this changed things. His hand was already undoing the clasp on his left belt pouch and pulling out his phone before he’d realized he’d made the decision.

“This is above our pay grade. We need this entire place locked down immediately...damn it,” he cursed, tapping his phone in frustration. “I’m not getting any reception down here. You?”

Hemogoblin dug his own phone out of his thigh pouch and took a look. “No service,” he grumbled, pressing a few buttons. “Not even when trying to establish a 911 call. They must have signal blockers down here to prevent anyone from making contact.”

John huffed, shoving his phone back in his pouch. “We can’t afford the time it would take to run outside, make the call, and run back,” he said, switching his gaze from the diligent workers below to the stairway leading up behind them. “I don’t want to split up, and they could flee while we try.” Coming to a decision, John breathed in slowly, letting his lungs fill with the somewhat musty air of the room before he exhaled softly through his nose. The wind pulled slightly at his hair, letting him know that it was still curled protectively around them. “So this doesn’t change anything. We continue on with our plan. We just...move expeditiously.”

“Expeditiously. Right. Well then, what are we waiting for?” The troll didn’t wait for John’s reply as he turned on a pivot and walked back the way they’d come, not giving another look back at the manufacturing operation below them. He stopped once he got to the intersection, sending a glance over his shoulder as if to tell John to hurry up.

He’d have thought his partner was eager if he hadn’t already discerned the nervous tension in the set of the troll’s shoulders. That, more than anything, put a little kick in his step as he moved to stand next to Hemogoblin, his hand going up to momentarily squeeze the troll’s shoulder reassuringly. As soon as his hand dropped, they moved, stalking towards the stairwell together.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, John held his hand up, halting Hemogoblin in place. It made sense for him to go first, since it stood to reason that his barriers were the most suited to handling any kind of ambush.

John approached the stairs with caution, keenly aware of the disadvantages he was facing by having to traverse upwards. It was therefore with a bit of surprise that he reached the top of the stairs completely unmolested. Either the Midnight Crew bosses were very stupid, or very cocky.

The sight that greeted his eyes was unsettling, somehow. Pitch black-tinted glass stared him in the face, surrounding on all sides a metal door. That alone wasn’t anything special, and it took a few moments for him to pinpoint where, exactly, his unease was coming from. When he did, it caused him to grind his teeth in anxiety.

It was the feeling of eyes glued to his body. Combined with the slight tugging of the wind through his fingers, John was absolutely convinced that there were people directly behind those panes of tinted glass, and they were watching him. They were watching him, and there was a possibility that they were lining up their shots that very moment.

John piled on strength to his barrier as he extended his left arm behind him, collarbone offering up just the slightest amount of protest, and motioned for Hemogoblin to join him.

By the time the troll made it up, John was already testing the walls with the wind, sending gentle currents of air up under the door to probe for what lay beyond. Moments later, the wind confirmed his suspicions.

There were nine people inside as far as he could tell, all facing the door. Which, if his hunch about the windows was true, meant that they were already very aware of the two heroes’ presence. That they hadn’t already opened fire was good news, he supposed, or else it just meant there was an even bigger trap waiting for them once they crossed the threshold. The wind hadn’t reported anything of the sort in the entryway’s vicinity, so he guessed they’d just have to find out the old-fashioned way.

“I’ve got at least nine people pegged as being inside, and I’m pretty sure they’re aware of us,” he mumbled, gaze not leaving the door in front of him.

Hemogoblin huffed softly, his body tensing as he processed the situation. He was quiet for several long moments before he spoke. “Well, it’s like you said; we don’t exactly have time to dally, so…” he trailed off, letting John fill in the blanks.

Giving the troll a nod, John steeled himself before stepping forward and twisting the door handle.

There was no urgent tug from the wind, no shouts from the occupants, just the slight squeak as the door swung inwards on hinges that needed oiling. That didn’t mean there wasn’t danger, though.

The first thing to greet John’s eyes was a thick, lush-looking beige carpet. All other observations of his surrounding were put on hold, however, as the door swung open a little further, and he was met with the tensed form of a Midnight Crew member.

John immediately took in all of the details about the man that he could, his brain instantly cataloguing and classifying the gangster as a potential threat. The man had a gun in his hands and his entire body language screamed a preparedness to draw, but for now the gun was pointed away from them and at the ground. As the door opened even further, he was greeted to the sight of five other similarly-dressed Crew members, each with a weapon drawn but not actively hostile. It was the three mobsters standing behind a large, ornate walnut desk that drew the most scrutiny. Well, two were standing. One was seated.

His mind instantly labeled them as the leaders. They were holding themselves differently, bodies much more relaxed than the common thugs around them. It didn’t hurt that John immediately recognized Boxcars standing on the left, the man’s face still bruised and just as ugly as their last encounter, an angry sneer further marring his countenance.

Opposite Boxcars on the right side of the seated mobster was a troll John had yet to encounter. There was a bright pink diamond pinned to the lapel of his immaculately tailored suit, which was a bit at odds with the rather bored look tugging at the corners of his mouth, his green eyes staring out with tired apathy from a rather aristocratic face. There was intelligence in those eyes, but the troll seemed content to just stay back and observe the two heroes with a cool indifference. The only hint of his disdain for the pair in front of him was a delicately raised eyebrow. Smoke curled lazily from the cigarette he held between his lips although he made no hurry to pull his next drag.

Between the two was a man with one of the nastiest scowls John had ever seen. He was dressed in the typical attire of a Midnight Crew thug, except his shirt was a dark grey that contrasted nicely to match with the black spade pinned to his lapel. Dark brown eyes set against tanned skin glared at him with such intensity that John had to fight back the urge to shift uncomfortably under their scrutiny. He looked like he could be his father’s age, give or take a few years, though he exuded none of the quiet strength or authority that the elder Egbert emanated seemingly without effort. The only feeling this man radiated was an intense hatred, the kind of emotion that made John’s stomach curdle just to contemplate.

What was most striking about the man wasn’t physical, however, but the way in which he handled the long, thin blade in his left hand. The mobster didn’t even seem to be giving the knife an ounce of his attention, and yet the blade was twirling and spinning through deft fingers as easily as a pencil in a high school debate student’s hand. The man made it look as if it were the simplest of bored habits, which is what John realized the display must have been. It was somewhat intimidating to witness, even knowing that he could’ve snatched the blade from the man’s hands with the wind before he was able to do anything with it.

When the men seemed content to just glare moodily and nobody made any indication of open hostility, John took a few tentative steps into the room, Hemogoblin close on his heels. When there was no reaction from the mobsters, he let his eyes sweep across the room quickly, taking note of the layout and formulating how he could use it to his advantage were the situation to turn pear-shaped. The desk in front of them was stacked high with both papers and a mound of rubber-banded cash, the money bumping shoulders with several crystal decanters filled with amber liquor. There was a large candy dish filled with some form of licorice next to an ornate ashtray that was in dire need of emptying. All of the other furniture seemed to have been pushed to the sides to provide a clear view of the door from whence they’d entered, a well-stocked bar built into the wall to John’s immediate right. A quick glance at the left wall revealed a large, tinted window overlooking the manufacturing operation below, while the window on the right wall looked out from the second floor of the club down onto the main stage. John wasn’t sure how they’d missed that in their first inspection of the club, but it was probably camouflaged, as the two-way mirror downstairs had been. The window offered up a perfect view of the entrance they’d used to enter the club, he noted.

The unmistakable thwock of knife meeting resistance snapped John’s attention back to the front of the room, where he saw that the tip of the man’s blade was now buried at least half an inch in the wood of his desk, the handle still quivering from the violence with which it was driven down. Neither hero gave any outward indication of having been startled, but their attention had definitely been commanded.




“Well well, it’s about time you two quit jerking each other off and decided to show your faces. We’ve been waiting for at least twenty minutes since you poked your mugs through my door,” the man in the middle grunted, his deep voice grating roughly at John’s ears as he turned his head slightly to indicate the club entrance.

John kept his eyes glued on the gangster.

With a snap, a butterfly knife appeared in the man’s hand—this time his right—the blade flashing open as he executed a series of complex spins and twists absentmindedly. John was a bit thrown by this, as he hadn’t actually been able to see how he’d retrieved the knife. It was like one moment his hand had been empty, and then the next it was occupied. He decided to split his attention between the man and the knife embedded in the desk, just in case he decided to utilize his apparent speed and attempt a throw.

“Why’d you stay and wait, then? We weren’t going anywhere,” Hemogoblin sounded from behind John’s left.

The mobster scoffed derisively. “You two walked in looking like you expected to get a fucking medal, or something, for following some straightforward directions and finding this place.”

The look that must have crossed one or both of their faces as he confirmed the Crew’s lack of surprise at their raid caused the man’s visage to morph from a look of loathing into an amused sneer. “What? You didn’t think I’d know that the moron would talk? It ain’t exactly rocket science to deduce when the patrols failed to report in and yet we didn’t get to see fireworks. And you two are a couple of goody-goodies who would definitely ask questions before you knocked a guy’s block off. So give me some fucking credit.”

John’s hands tightened into fists, his anxiety skyrocketing and the wind curling around him protectively in response, some of the papers on the desk starting to ruffle softly in the unseen drifts.

“You didn’t answer his question,” John growled out. “Why stay and wait? There’s no way you could be dumb enough to ignore a threat, and you didn’t exactly make it a challenge for us to get up here. Weren’t you worried we’d bring your operation down?”

An ugly laugh bubbled out of the man’s throat, his lips again curling up into a sneer. “To answer your first question, I waited because I wanted to. I want this over, and I want it over tonight. Oh, sure, we could’ve drawn this whole thing out for weeks,” he grunted, bringing both of his hands up in a flippant shrug. The butterfly knife was still twirling languidly in his right. “We could’ve torn this whole city down until it was nothin’ but a bunch of dust and bricks before you ever saw us face-to-face. But that’s not my style,” he grinned, chestnut eyes glinting dangerously. “Why piss where you’re going to eat? This is my city, now. And when I want something important done in my city, it’s obviously better that I handle it myself. So I let you come to me.”

“You’ve made a mistake by taking us lightly,” John returned, his indignation at being underestimated tinging his retort with no small amount of vitriol. “We’re going to stop you, for good.”

Another laugh, this one more grimly amused and drawn out than the first. The knife came down, twisting in the air and into a tight grip before it was stabbed down beside the first, the unlocked handles falling to thump against the desk with small clicks. “As to your second question, you think anything you do here is actually going to matter in the long run? Anything at all? The Midnight Crew is bigger than you can even imagine, kid.”

He leaned back, stretching his arms out as if to emphasize and encompass their influence. “We control practically half of this country already. We have a presence in most any major city you’d care to name, from the East Coast to the West. If through some stroke of absurd luck you actually manage to put us down today, you’ll only be stalling us temporarily. It may not be under my watch that it happens, but it’ll happen. Others will move in, fill in the vacuum that we leave, and you’ll be worn down through attrition. Sooner or later, this city will fall.” That sickly grin was back, stretching the man’s face in an ugly mockery of amusement. “You can’t fight the inevitable, hero. This city’s fate was set the moment we arrived, because we’re the real deal and you’re just a couple of kiddies running around in tights.”

There was a soft, angry growl from beside him and John acted on instinct, shooting his hand out in the direction of his partner. His hand made contact with the troll’s thigh, stilling him immediately. When John turned his head slightly to look at Hemogoblin out of the corner of his vision, though, he could still see an angry gleam in his effulgent eyes, and his muscles were very clearly coiled tight like a predator preparing to spring forward at its prey. John held his gaze on the troll’s face just long enough for their eyes to meet before he turned once more to the mobsters, his hand going back to his side. He wondered idly if anyone else had picked up on the droplet of blood slowly cascading down his partner’s left hand, and if anyone understood the possible significance.

“Sorry to burst your ego’s bubble, but you were right when you said this ends tonight, and it won’t have anything to do with luck.”

The gangster said nothing for several long moments before he gestured to the side and one of the lackeys approached the desk carrying a small box. As his hand went to open the box and retrieve the object inside, John readied the wind to snatch a weapon from his hands. But instead of the familiar black shape of a handgun, he withdrew something sleeker, more compact. It only took a second for John’s brain to identify what he was seeing: it was an injector, identical to the one they had left at the safehouse. Red threads swirled around in a full vial of clear liquid.

Fuck. John stilled the wind, suddenly unconfident of the wind’s ability to snatch the gun before it was utilized.

“Do you know what this is, hero?” When John did nothing except grit his teeth behind his mask, the mobster’s expression morphed into something more congenial. When he spoke again, his voice had taken on a more didactic affectation, obviously meant to be mocking. “Ah, if that look is anything to go by, you do. Curious. I wonder where you encountered it? I didn’t think we’d left any with the idiot, none of this batch, anyway. Still, it never hurts to make proper introductions, does it? This, gentlemen, is Red Miles, the latest and greatest in combat-enhancing drugs. Red Miles three-point-oh, if you want to be technical,” he announced, gesturing to the injector as if he were a salesman showing off his wares. “When injected into the bloodstream, its effects are instantaneous, causing a drastic increase in both muscle mass and aggression and flooding the body with adrenaline. Even the weakest peon can be turned into a juggernaut on this shit. And we’ve got the market completely cornered,” he grinned, again reminding John of some type of slimy salesman. “Hell, we are the market. That little lab outside? That’s just a taste of the operation we’re establishing. This may be the first city to get a sampling of the Miles, but before you know it, labs like this one will be popping up everywhere. Soon there will be hundreds, thousands, even, sprouting out of the ground like goddamn Starbucks. Red Miles is the future, and it’s a future where you and every other do-gooding, law-loving piece of shit is fucked.”

John felt a bead of sweat roll down the side of his face underneath his hood, and it had nothing to do with the temperature inside the office. Holy shit, this guy was crazy. Nobody could spout out destruction-of-society-as-we-know-it crap like that and still be sane. That was one hundred percent not how sanity worked. He didn’t even want to acknowledge the man’s words for what they were because if he was right about the size and scope of things, the first thing they’d be needing to do tonight after this was over would be to give a deposition to the feds. Or ATF. Or Homeland Security, or just someone. National drug-smuggling rings with a side goal of collapsing society was so far beyond his pay grade, it wasn’t funny. An unimpressed voice sounding to his side cut through his thoughts.

“Are you done monologuing, yet?” For all intents and purposes, Hemogoblin looked and sounded the picture of bored ambivalence. Gone was the anger from his eyes, replaced by something colder. They were still shimmering with their usual neon gloss, but the light behind them was smoldering, like the glowing embers left after a coal fire. “Because really, it’s not like we have all night for this shit, or anything.”

A flick of those eyes to meet John’s told him everything he needed to know about the troll’s plans, as did the gathered blood near the palm of his left hand. The time for pleasantries was over.

John squared his shoulders, took a slow breath, and pushed back all of his emotions and worry to a place in his mind where they could remain unheeded for the duration of the ensuing battle.

The gangster wasn’t amused by Hemogoblin’s dismissal, apparently. “Droog?” The man behind the desk—who by process of elimination must have been Slick—held his free hand up, palm outwards. John was a bit confused at the non-threatening gesture as this was generally when the assorted thugs surrounding them would open fire, but nothing of the sort happened as the man looked over his shoulder to the troll on his left, now identified as Droog.

Droog said nothing in response, but very slowly and deliberately snuffed his cigarette out on the ashtray in front of him, and then carefully popped the buttons of his jacket open. He next undid the knot of his tie, removed it from around his neck, and folded it neatly in Slick’s open hand. Next to go was his jacket, which he similarly folded and draped over Slick’s hand.

John spared a glance to Hemogoblin to see what the troll’s reaction to all of this was, but the action cost him dearly. As soon as he saw his partner’s eyes widen in alarm, he knew he’d made a mistake. He turned back just in time to see Droog pushing his sleeve up to reveal grey skin. By the time what was happening clicked and John had thrown out an arm encased in a tendril of wind, it was too late.

At the same time as the wind roared out and rushed across the open space to reach the desk, Slick moved, the speed he’d demonstrated earlier with his knives making a full showing as he shoved the injector firmly to Droog’s forearm and depressed the trigger without hesitation.

The vial was already empty by the time the wind grabbed the injector and sent it clattering to the floor.

John moved to re-gather his wind in an attempt to take Droog out of the picture before the transformation started, but his focus was shattered as the more common members surrounding the pair reacted to his desperate bid.

Guns were brought to bear and John instantly pulled his wind back with a snap to reinforce his and Hemogoblin’s barriers, but the troll was already moving.

John turned just in time to witness the glob of gravity-defying blood floating around his partner’s wrist solidify into a throwing knife, which Hemogoblin instantly threw in one smooth, unerring motion into the shoulder of the thug nearest him, causing the man to drop his gun with a cry and sink to the floor. John would have taken the time to be impressed that the right-handed troll had made the left-handed throw look elegant, except Hemogoblin was already bounding forward to finish the job and the wind chose that moment to throw him to the side, a hail of bullets peppering his former location.

Trusting his partner to be able to take care of himself, John followed the pull of the wind and zipped to the other side of the room and under the granite bar top, the thugs trying futilely to track him with their shots.

Poor trigger discipline, John thought, as fire from the first two thugs ceased and their guns started clicking, signifying the need to reload. He took that as the opportunity it was and barreled low under the bar where he knew the group was located, catching them mid-reload. The troll immediately in front looked up just as John appeared before him, only to be met with a ferocious punch to the gut that almost folded the besuited thug in half over the hero’s fist as his body bowed to accept the force.

The troll was blown backwards head over ass to land in a heap on the carpet just as his partner abandoned his hasty reloading and took a swing at John with the butt of his weapon. John halted the swing by slapping his forearm against the inside of the human thug’s arm, the metal of his armguard biting into his skin as John then pivoted and brought his knee upwards into the man’s abdomen, his breath leaving him in a sudden whoosh not unlike a teakettle removed from its burner. The teen followed that up with an elbow smash to his face, dropping him to the ground.

The wind tugged his head to the right and a knife passed by his right cheek by mere centimeters as a third assailant made herself known. Not caring for a repeat of his partner’s earlier performance of a drawn-out brawl against a less-skilled opponent, John ducked low and grabbed her knee, using the momentum of his rise to lift and throw the female to the ground, which he followed up with a smart rap on the head to put her under.

He was just in time to see Hemogoblin taking down the last of his opponents when the ominous sound of ripping and tearing grabbed his attention and focused him in on the three behind the desk like a precision homing laser.

Slick and Boxcars were still more or less in their same positions, though Slick had pushed his chair back and was watching Droog with interest, and Boxcars was glaring with undisguised hatred at the ease with which they’d dismantled their foes.

Droog, though. Just as had happened before, the troll’s body was deforming while they watched, his muscles bulging and popping with stomach-wrenching squelches that seemed anything but natural. What had once been a tall but fit troll in a sharp dress shirt and expensive-looking pants was now only vaguely recognizable as a troll. The muscles in his shoulders were bulging so significantly that they had ripped the seams on his dress shirt, exposing extended veins of jade green pulsing in an angry rhythm. His cuffs were similarly destroyed, along with all of the buttons that were meant to hold the garment closed. His pants weren’t in any better shape, with the seams splitting up the sides and exposing grotesquely bulging calf muscles. All in all, he looked like a monster.

All of the similarities between this monster and the one they’d faced earlier ended at the physical, however. Whereas the female troll had been irate to the point of ferity, the creature that Droog had become still seemed to possess its faculties. At the very least, he wasn’t panting and slobbering in rage, so that was an improvement.

John’s observations were validated moments later when, with a pained grunt, Droog straightened, cracked his neck from side to side, and fixed a pair of eyes on him that were completely unchanged from before the transformation. An intense gaze of jade flickered to his injured arm for a single breath before cracked lips quirked into a small but cruel smile.

John’s entire body went on instant alert as the wind started shouting in his ear.

It almost wasn’t enough.

Faster than any being with that kind of mass had any reasonable right to be, Droog went from standing to propelling himself across the room with his shoulder already tucked for a tackle.

John had just enough time to drop into a defensive stance and project a cone of wind in front of himself before Droog was upon him, smashing into his wind barrier with all the force of a rampaging bull. The barrier held for all of a fraction of a second before Newton’s Third reared its ugly head and John was propelled back into the wall from the fierce backlash. He had only a moment to gather his wits and attempt to reaffix his barrier before Droog smashed into him again, this time forcing the both of them through the wall, sending them plummeting to the lab below.



Hemogoblin stared at the hole where Heir had been moments before in muted horror, his first instinct to run to the breach and check on his partner’s safety. A noise of disgust coming from Slick had him pulling up short before he could even make a move, however.

“Tsk. And here I was hoping to see their fight for myself. It’s not every day you get to witness your right-hand man bitchslap a superhero in ‘roid rage. Pity,” he murmured, having the gall to shake his head back and forth in concern as if this was a genuinely upsetting turn of events.

“Listen here, you festering argument for late-term abortions, you—” he began, only to be interrupted by Slick’s scandalized chiding.

“My, oh my! Such language!” he scolded, clucking his tongue theatrically like a mother hen. “Where were these insults when your partner was still here? Didn’t feel comfortable cursing around such a do-gooder?” he mocked, absentmindedly reaching forward and yanking loose the standard knife embedded in his desk. “You keep wagging your tongue like that and I’ll have to cut it out.”

Hemogoblin narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to respond, but he was interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Don’t even bother, boss. This little punk is mine,” Boxcars growled out, stepping forward while digging out a pair of knuckledusters from inside his coat. “I owe them both good for what they did to my last pair a’ knuckles.”

“Don’t forget what we did to your face, too,” Hemogoblin helpfully added, a vindictively amused sneer stretching his lips. “But if you want a repeat beating, then by all means, be my guest.”

“I take it back,” Slick laughed. “I like this one. Put him down like a dog, Hearts.”

The mobster chose not to respond verbally, instead pressing his choice of weapon down hard against his hands to make sure that they were snug against his knuckles. He advanced on the black and crimson-clad troll with agile steps that belied his lumbering appearance, his hands coming up into a boxer’s ready stance, arms tucked in to both present a guard and to ready his fists for jabs.

Hemogoblin adopted a rough imitation of the stance, shifting his legs to allow for both support and for quick, springy movements, his hands snapping up into a primed guard. That was all the invitation Boxcars needed as he shot forward and delivered a devastating right cross to the troll’s guard in an attempt to plow through his defenses. He didn’t notice the cocky smirk that briefly stole across Hemogoblin’s face.

Rather than attempt to dodge as he’d already proven capable of in their previous fight, the hero allowed the punch to hit. It was all worth it for the look of shock and confusion on the mobster’s face when, instead of the sound of splintering bone and a clear opening to the troll’s chest like he’d clearly expected, he was met with a completely unmoved opponent.

“If you were expecting me to be doubled over in pain, you should probably consider that the iron in my veins is harder than whatever shit-metal those things are made of,” he said with a smug grin. “It does take a moment of concentration to get right, so thanks for telegraphing your moves and everything.”

Boxcars frowned and then pulled back for another punch, though this one, too, smashed against the troll’s raised forearm with little effect. In return, the hero flipped his wrist around and slid his hand around the mobster’s beefy arm before yanking backwards with no small amount of force, his fingers deftly forcing the man’s hand open and coaxing the knuckleduster off all in one smooth, slick motion in a display that would’ve made a street magician green with envy.




“Just because you’re not causing damage doesn’t mean that your blows don’t hurt like a bitch, though, so if you could not then that’d be great,” he chided, tossing the liberated weapon behind his shoulder carelessly.

With a wordless snarl, the behemoth of a man lashed out with his left fist, his earlier composure gone in the face of his indignity at having been humiliated and stripped of one of his weapons so easily.

His retaliation wasn’t to be, however, as Hemogoblin weaved to the side with a dancer’s grace, avoiding the fist completely. The troll’s hands lashed out one-two with the precision and speed of a striking cobra, the mobster receiving a knifehand strike to his inner elbow that had the joint bending inwards followed by a quick strike to his wrist, his entire arm being thrust upwards and his guard opening completely. The hero didn’t stop there, using the newly opened hole in the man’s defenses to throw his right elbow directly into his solar plexus, instantly paralyzing his diaphragm.

Boxcars threw out his right hand to try and ward off the troll while he struggled to catch his breath, but it was for naught as Hemogoblin dropped down and delivered a closed fist directly to the man’s knee, dropping him to one foot with a sickening crunch. From there, all it took was a knee to the side of the head and Boxcars was out of the game.

The entirety of the rapid-fire exchange had lasted mere seconds, the full encounter having persisted no longer than a minute.

Slick looked less than pleased.

“Fucking idiot,” he growled, sparing the downed thug a derisive glare before leveling a grimace at the troll. “You’re a quick son of a bitch, huh?”

Hemogoblin shrugged his shoulders, shaking out the hand he’d used to incapacitate the large man’s kneecap. “He should’ve known better than to fight me a second time after showing me his fighting style. All things considered, he really wasn’t that good once you get beyond the fact that his fat ass didn’t have any business being as fast as he was.”

Slick brought a hand up to massage his forehead, an expression of annoyed weariness on his face. “Incompetents. I’m surrounded by incompetents, and I’m painfully reminded of this fact daily. Fuck,” he sighed, pushing his chair back and rising to his feet. “Looks like I’m going to have to settle this myself, aren’t I?” The question was punctuated with a casual flick of his wrist, the knife he’d grabbed earlier twirling in the air for a full second before he caught it by the handle deftly, the exercise as smooth and as practiced as a circus performer’s. “How d’your ‘iron veins’ or whatever hold up against knife slashes, by the way?”

If Hemogoblin was at all disconcerted by the casual manner in which the gangster appeared to be taking things, he didn’t let it show as he cracked his neck from side to side, his arms once again coming up into a solid guard, his body going rigid. “If I told you that they rendered knives completely useless, would you surrender quietly?” Not that they did, as far as he knew.

Slick’s answering guffaw told him enough.

The troll let out a soft huff, his shoulders rising and falling in a half-hearted gesture of feigned annoyance. He may have had an amused grin on his face, but his eyes were hard, completely glued on the opponent in front of him. “Oh well. It was worth a try.”

“Was it?” Slick snarked.

Before the hero could respond, Slick’s arm sliced forward through the air and let loose his blade, the implement flying straight and true.



With the wind’s help, John had just enough time to reverse positions with the transmogrified troll before they slammed into the unforgiving steel of a long, latticed walkway suspended perhaps a dozen feet directly above the heads of the workers below. The creature that was Droog let out an ungainly grunt at the impact as he was sandwiched between unyielding steel and John’s not inconsiderable weight, the air momentarily driven from his lungs.

Whereas before the workers in the lab below had felt it prudent to ignore whatever was happening in the world above them, now they scrambled and fled like frightened mice, the very real threat of violence scaring them from their work.

John rolled off the troll, gritting his teeth hard to fight off the waves of agony that radiated from his clavicle like a physical force. Both the wind and he had done their best to insure that he’d barreled into Droog with his good shoulder, but that hadn’t been enough to stop the resulting shockwaves from saturating his body and resonating pure misery all along his left side.

The precious seconds he’d been bought by winding Droog were wasted as he did his best to refocus himself and block off the pain. By the time he’d managed to crawl carefully onto all fours, Droog was already lumbering to his feet, his bulbous hands dwarfing the metal railings of the walkway as if they were toothpicks as he leveraged himself to standing.

The wind howled and tugged at him to move, but he was unable to do anything except throw up a barrier as Droog delivered a vicious kick to his chest that lifted John several feet into the air. He landed with a painful cry on his back several yards away.

John lay where he landed, dazed, as Droog stomped his way over. The hero cracked an eye open to see a smug, self-satisfied look on the troll’s face as he loomed over him, unable to express his sentiments in words but clearly gloating over his perceived victory.

John almost wanted to roll his eyes. If Droog thought that this was all the fight he had in him, he was in for a rude awakening.

Unseen by the troll, John sent out a tendril of wind to wrap around the walkway’s supports. Droog was moments away from bringing his fists down in an indelicate smash when John pulled as hard as he possibly could, the wind acting as a solid, physical force and shearing the retaining bolts from the support structure in a single, devastating move. The metal, already twisted and bent from Droog’s earlier impact, gave way.

The walkway splintered in half not six feet away from where John was holding onto the grating with stiff fingers, sending Droog tumbling down below and flinging heavy steel panels crashing to the ground in a horrendous cacophony. The cables that were threaded along the walkway’s sides were torn from their moorings, several snapping in half and showering the ground below with sparks as the ends danced and hissed with electricity, their movements more deadly than any snake. If John had had any wherewithal, he’d have been concerned about the sparks igniting some of the myriad of chemicals littered about the lab, but as it stood, he was much more bothered by the need to hold on for dear life as the walkway continued to list and groan.

When his section of the walkway finally fell moments later, the teen had enough wits about him to push off in midair and allow the wind to catch him in its embrace, though it was a very near thing as he’d narrowly avoided being skewered by an errant steel beam.

He hovered in place for a moment as he thanked his good fortune at having been spared an unwanted new piercing, before he turned to look at where Droog had fallen. Only to discover that Droog was no longer there.

The tugging of the wind at his side coincided with an otherworldly roar, and John snapped his head to the side just in time to witness the troll leaping from off one of the lab tables directly at him. Unfortunately for Droog, the air was John’s domain.

All it took was a slight dip in his position and suddenly Droog was overshooting the teen. Rather than allow him this simple miss, however, John solidified his stance, waiting until the perfect moment where Droog was in reach, and then he was grabbing the troll’s bulky arm and redirecting his momentum towards the ground in a modified Judo throw.

When Droog hit the worktable directly below them, it was with a ground-shaking rumble that immediately collapsed the legs of the table and reduced it to nothing but a pile of splinters. John drifted closer to the body when he noted that the troll wasn’t in any hurry to extricate himself from the mess.

His right hand reached back to graze over Casey’s handle as he prepared to do what was necessary to finish the fight then and there, but as soon as his hand wrapped around the leather shaft, his body froze, the memory of crunching ribs echoing in his ears.

That hesitation was all the time Droog needed to recover. John was snapped out of his daze as Droog lashed out and wrapped a meaty hand around his ankle, the troll immediately launching him into another table full of lab gear.

John couldn’t help the gasp that stole from his lungs as his back impacted harshly against a metal fume hood, the angle causing Casey to once again bite into his flesh as she had in the wake of the warehouse explosion a few nights previous.

Droog wasn’t done with him yet, however.

Bounding across the room to where John was just starting to fall from the painful crater he’d caused in the hood’s metal surface, the troll reared back and let loose a punch directly at his face. John had just enough cognizance to throw out a weak parry against the mobster’s inner arm, just barely managing to redirect Droog’s fist into the hood beside his head.

Seizing the chance, John grit his teeth and burst forward with a surge of adrenaline and lashed out with a knee, managing to catch Droog directly in the crook of his neck. To his shock and dismay, his blow caused no visible damage except to stagger the mutated creature back a few paces.

Pushing off, the teen fought through the protesting of his back and launched a kick, this time seeking the troll’s somewhat normal throat as that had proven to be a weakness on the Miles user they’d fought earlier. Droog was quick on the uptake, though, and brought a hand up to block the kick along with the follow-up elbow throw that the hero sent at the side of his head.

With the troll’s hands preoccupied, John latched onto the man’s leg with a tendril of wind and gave it a hard yank, but the same wind which had shortly ago proven strong enough to shear metal did nothing except unbalance the heavy fighter, not enough to topple him but enough for John to be able to disengage and put some distance between them.

John’s azure eyes flashed frustration as he leapt back and tried to catch his breath, his body aching and protesting his movements. He took the time to observe his opponent to look for any notable weaknesses, but was disheartened to see that beyond the rips and tears in his suit (which coincided with a similar array of rips and tears on his own suit, damn it), the troll appeared almost entirely unscathed. There was a smug grin stretching his lips which looked decidedly creepy with the skewed proportions of his head, and John could just barely hear a rasping chuckle starting to come from the thing’s throat.

John’s gaze narrowed as he shoved all signs of his own trepidation away and buried them deeply, all thoughts of his aches and pains forgotten. He would beat this creature, because he had no other choice. He had a partner who was relying on him, who by now was facing down two incredibly dangerous opponents, alone. And John wasn’t going to leave him to it by himself.

Still, that was proving easier said than done.



Dodging the knife proved to be a relatively simple task because of the distance from which it was thrown. Hemogoblin shifted his head to the side with almost lazy ease, his eyebrow raising and a sassy retort on his lips at the foolishness of the straightforward attack. What he wasn’t prepared for was the follow-up knife thrown in the wake of the first and aimed at exactly where he had dodged, this one just narrowly avoiding grazing his ear as his knees bent in a desperate bid to get away from the projectile. By the time he snapped back up into a fighting position, Slick was already upon him, another pair of knives occupying both of his hands.

Slick attacked like lightning, his right hand sweeping out in a blur of speed to slash at the troll’s neck. Had Hemogoblin been a millisecond slower, the fight would have been over then and there. As it stood, he managed to lean back enough to avoid the knife’s reach, but was unable to twist his body out of the way of the knife in the gangster’s left hand, which scored a nasty gash along the ride side of his abdomen.

Hemogoblin ignored the strike completely, however, and it was with some consternation that Slick noted that no blood wept from the wound as he’d expected. If he had been able to divert his attention to study the wound, he would have seen the shallow cut knitting itself back together before his eyes. He was too distracted from dodging the troll’s retaliatory high kick to pay it any heed, though.

Hemogoblin did his best to press the offensive by lashing out with a series of quick jabs aimed at various points on the man’s body, though each one was blocked and diverted with no large difficulty by the human gangster. If anything, Slick seemed to kick his game up a notch as he blocked a rising knee aimed for his stomach with the flat of one of his blades, the smirk that stole across his face saying that he very easily could have made that much more painful if he had chosen.

The troll was forced to go on the defensive as Slick reversed grips on one of his blades and attempted another slash. At the same time, the man drove his other blade forward in a stab that would skewer the vigilante’s liver if it hit.

The hero was given no other option than to choose the lesser of two pains and raised his left arm up to take the swipe in order to allow him to maneuver his hips away from the stab, the bite of the first blade immediately shooting fire along his veins.

He’d been stupid running his mouth to Boxcars and revealing the flaw in his iron defensive technique, as now Slick wasn’t giving him the chance to stay still and concentrate. Not that it would have necessarily done much good, other than preventing the blade from biting too deeply into his flesh. Still, the wounds he’d received so far were superficial and took no more than a slight bit of effort to heal. Honestly, he was more pissed about the growing number of rips and tears in his suit; that shit was almost impossible to patch!

The situation changed yet again as Slick flipped the first blade back into a forward grip and started lashing out with jabs meant to stab. Hemogoblin had his hands full redirecting blows and twisting out of the way of the flashing weapons.

All it took was a simple slip-up for one of the knives to finds its way home into the meaty flesh of the troll’s abdomen.

The resulting jolt of pain stole the hero’s breath away as he leaped backwards to put distance between the two of them, the feeling of deep cold seeping into his guts incredibly disconcerting. The fact that the blade had been released and was still sticking out of him from the hilt was probably more disturbing, however.

Going against what standard field medicine said was appropriate to do in this situation, Hemogoblin grabbed the hilt and yanked quickly, removing the blade from his insides. The blade, of course, came out looking pristine, not a drop of blood clinging to its edge. Biting back a whimper, the troll threw the weapon behind him to bounce off the floor in a clatter, his hands going to the wound to try and exert pressure.

The blood had clotted instantly, naturally, but that didn’t change the fact that his insides had been damaged and that hurt like the biggest son of a bitch ever.

“Fuck,” the troll groaned, doing his utmost best to at least will the wound closed. It would take at least a minute or two before any tears in his muscles were healed enough for anything more strenuous than standing in one place, but at least, his blood told him, nothing serious had been hit. “You are a sadistic fucker if that’s the kind of shit you like to do to people.”

The grin that spread across the gangster’s face told him more than enough about what he thought about that. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Pain is only transitory. I’ll make sure you don’t hurt anymore, soon enough,” he laughed, sounding delighted by the banter.

“Okay, wow, that wasn’t incredibly creepy, or anything,” Hemogoblin groaned, trying to milk every second of recovery that he could out of the man’s ego. “You say things like that to all the trolls you stab?”

“Only the pretty ones,” Slick said with a leer and a wink, sending a shudder up and down the troll’s spine.

“You don't exactly live up to your name, do you, Slick?” Hemogoblin groused, offering the criminal a deadpan stare. He hoped his expression masked the twinges of pain that rocked his body as the icy heat in his belly turned fiery, his muscles reconnecting and nerve endings coming alive. The troll made an experimental stretch as he lifted his arms above his head as if to release shoulder tension. This also had the benefit of twisting his torso ever so slightly, allowing him to test how much movement he’d regained thus far. He was pleased to note that while things were still tight and still very much painful, his movement wasn’t actually being hampered any.

Slick’s countenance gained a put-upon frown. “Aw, I’m hurt, buttercup. You need to be more careful with that tongue of yours. You could really hurt a guy’s feelings, you know. Now me,” he sighed, letting the remaining knife in his hand drop to the floor. “Me, I definitely prefer a blade when it comes to hurting others, as you know. Really lets you get up close and intimate. See, this,” he said, reaching behind his back and pulling out an absurdly wicked-looking blade. Hemogoblin recognized it immediately as a karambit, the knife closely resembling a raptor claw with a large ring at the end of it. Something cold and hard settled in the bottom of his stomach at the sight of the weapon, as that was not the kind of thing he wanted to go up against in the hands of a master. “This is my pride and joy. You ever seen what one of these can do to flesh? A well-placed cut can slice you to the bone as if your skin was made of warm butter. You probably won’t even feel the pain, at first,” he espoused conversationally, holding the blade up for the troll to see.

“You are a crazy fuck,” Hemogoblin growled, crossing his arms over his hips and bringing them down diagonally so that they cut across his spikes, easily ripping through the already-abused fabric of his costume. From the sides of his wrists sprouted curved, flat blades. He wasn’t about to try and match an experienced knife-fighter blade for blade, but his area of lethality was now effectively doubled, making things at least somewhat balanced between them.

Regardless, he didn’t exactly like his odds for coming out of this unscathed. As Slick launched himself back towards the troll, Hemogoblin raised his arms, the burning along his wound causing an idea to rapidly form in the back of his mind.



The stool that was thrown at his head was easily dodged, as was the set of liquid-filled test tubes, the glass tinkling off the floor in a cascade of shrapnel. The next stool exploded into splinters as it met a wind-encased fist, John plowing directly through it in an attempt to lay a blow on the enraged Droog.

The gangster had the prescience to not take the blow head-on, but instead shifted to take the blow to his side, his own fist lashing out to catch John on the chin with an uppercut.

The teen’s ever-present wind barrier helped to take the brunt of the blow so that his head was merely snapped back rather than ripped from his shoulders. His physical connection with the wind allowed John to roll with the blow in an attempt to mitigate as much of the force as possible, his body bending at the waist and turning the move into a quick handstand, which John was quick to capitalize on as he spun and lashed out with a kick to the troll’s face—a move made possible by the wind’s firm embrace.

Taken by surprise, Droog received the full force of the blow directly to his face, the cartilage in his nose breaking with a sickening crunch. John didn’t stop to celebrate his first successful blow of the fight, but he pressed the attack with a flurry of blows to the troll’s stomach as soon as he was right-side up again.

The troll weathered the attack with a series of annoyed grunts, his left hand snapping up to latch onto the hero’s shoulder and toss him to the side hard enough to whip the teen’s neck painfully.

John was thrown against the ground like a stone across water, his body skipping several times over the unforgiving floor before his momentum was arrested by forceful introduction to an unfortunately placed table. The articles on the table crashed to the ground in an explosion of shattered glass beakers and pungent chemicals. Even through his mask, John’s nose was at once assaulted by noxious fumes that had his head reeling and spinning before he was able to shove himself backwards away from the growing puddle of chemicals spreading out across the floor. His vision was still swimming as he backed into a solidly-built lab bench, stopping him in his frenzied crawl away from the potentially hazardous drug cocktail pooling in front of him. The snap-hiss of the cut electrical wires from the walkway somewhere behind him let him know that backing up any further was ill-advised.

When Droog appeared before him, apparently completely unaffected by the chemicals’ fumes, John was alarmed to find that the troll was dancing up quite a jig. Or maybe that was just his head still trying to adjust to the potent combination of who-knew-what that he had inhaled.

The troll seemed to be able to tell that something was wrong with the hero, as he remained standing/dancing in one spot, a leer stretching his ugly face as he raised a finger up and tutted at John, the grunts coming from his throat sounding hideously painful. It took John a few long moments before he realized what the mobster was doing.

He was laughing.

Despite his currently ill state, the sense of indignation that flooded the teen’s body did much to focus his intentions, and along with that clarity came an idea. A risky idea, but one he was hard-pressed to discard out of hand.

As the raspy sounds of Droog’s laughter died to mere hisses, the troll stood up straighter, stretching his back with a soft pop. He cocked his arm back behind him and made a show of stretching it out. Even if he was incapable of speaking at the moment, the message he was sending was loud and clear: he thought he had this in the bag. When John didn’t react except to blearily blink up at him, the mobster took a step forward.

That was what the hero had been waiting for.

John threw his right hand out to the side, blindly focusing the wind behind him to latch onto the end of the downed power cable. His hand sliced through the air with purpose, the power cable mimicking his movements as it sped towards the rather surprised-looking troll.

The ties and rings still anchoring the cable to what was left of the walkway above them prevented him from reaching far enough to hit Droog with the cable, but then that was never his intention.

As John swung himself up off the floor and onto the lab bench, the still-live power cable splashed into the puddle of toxic chemicals.

The puddle which Droog had just stepped in.

Two things happened in an instant.

Droog’s form went as rigid as a statue as his muscles all simultaneously locked up on him as thousands of volts of electricity were sent coursing through his limbs, the troll’s veins standing out in extremely high detail against his skin. Secondly, the chemicals caught fire. That last one was completely unexpected and had John’s eyebrows shooting into his hairline in concern. That worked to Droog’s advantage, however, as the burning of the chemicals soon destroyed any path for the electricity to reach him, releasing him from its captivity.



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