By Jeanne Thorne
December 24th, . As night fell, it looked as if the teeming masses of New
Rivendell were going to get their white Christmas after all. The clouds hung
low and heavy with impending snow, reflecting the holiday radiance of the vast
metropolis, and the wind blew wild and biting through the concrete maze of the
business district. From her perch atop the roof of the
From the receiver in Justiciar’s skull the boredom in Jill’s voice came through clearly, “You have a bad feeling about everything, Amanda. You’re being paranoid, more so than usual.”
A stiff breeze whipped strands of the heroine’s long dark locks across her face. Justiciar brushed them aside with a grimace and brought up her binoculars. “No, I’m pretty much as paranoid as I usually am when the Shieldmaidens pull stunts like this.” She trained the binocs across the street, to the steps of the Kirby Auditorium, where a throng of excited citizens had gathered and were jockeying for the best view of the podium at the top. Any moment now, New Rivendell’s cadre of costumed guardians would emerge to address the crowd and bask in their unbridled adulation before embarking on a goodwill tour of the city’s children’s hospitals and homeless shelters. It was a Christmas Eve tradition for the heroes, a mission of hope and mercy.
Justiciar considered it foolish beyond words. Though she had been invited to join the Shieldmaidens many times and considered their leader, Athena, to be a friend, the Grim Guardian of the Night vehemently disapproved of the team’s extremely high profile. Not a day went by that one or all of them didn’t make headlines for some heroic deed or another, and they made public appearances such as the present one with a frequency that alarmed her. Their powers, weaknesses, and personalities were matters of public record, available to anyone with a minimum of initiative and an aptitude for connecting the dots. Justiciar herself had deduced the secret identities of all of them in a matter of hours.
“They might as well be wearing bullseyes on their chests and daring supervillains to attack them,” she sighed, scanning the crowd and focusing on the camera crews setting up for the inevitable spot on the news.
“Oh, bah humbug, Amanda,” Jill scolded from her control room. “This is a good thing for the city. It gives the people security. It gives them hope.”
“It gives the underworld an invitation to plan crimes. They know exactly where all the superheroes are going to be.”
The subcutaneous microtransceiver behind Justiciar’s left ear, which enabled her to “hear” Jill’s transmissions through vibrations in her skull – an improvement over audio, which could be heard in complete silence or drowned out during a firefight – was amazingly sensitive. The heroine could practically hear her assistant rolling her eyes. “Nothing is going to happen and even if it did, the Maidens are at full strength. They could fend off a full-scale invasion from Mars without breaking a sweat. No bad guy in his right mind would try anything. All you’re going to catch out there is pneumonia. Back here, on the other hand, I’ve got a roaring fire, two cups of cocoa, and Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed all ready to save that broken-down old savings-and-loan.”
Justiciar had to admit that sounded tempting. “As soon as the press conference is over, Jill. Until then, keep monitoring the police bands and the surveillance net.”
“Just call me Bob Cratchit.”
Just then a roar rose from the assembled crowd as the huge doors of the auditorium swung open and New Rivendell’s favorite daughters emerged. First, as always, came the proud figure of Athena, as regal as her namesake in the shimmering silver-mail tights that clung about her statuesque form, her royal blue gauntlets, thigh boots, and flowing cape, and the magnificent mane of golden hair that draped her shoulders and framed her legendary beauty. She seemed as utterly impervious to the cold as she was to bullets and bombs, radiating sheer power as she stepped onto the podium.
Behind her strolled the dark-haired speedster Concorde, all lean crackling energy in her white and scarlet tights with the stylized jet-symbol crossing her small breasts, as if she was just barely holding her supersonic speed in check. Then came The Spark, with flame-colored mane and scandalously daring red-and-yellow costume that barely covered her ample chest. She too smiled in the cold, warmed from inside by the pyrokinetic energies at her command.
In sharp contrast to The Spark’s bright visage were the cool shades of green that covered the form of Sylph, Celtic mistress of the forces of Nature, silver hair and eyes gleaming from beneath the cowl drawn over her head. And bringing up the rear, floating inches above the ground as always, the taciturn Arcana, ebony skin and waist-length black hair set off by her white body suit and purple sash embroidered with mystical symbols representing the sorcerous arts of which she was the world’s foremost adept. She wafted to the podium, followed by His Honor the Mayor and a handful of his staff, who arrayed themselves behind the heroines.
The Shieldmaidens. Even Justiciar found herself impressed by the display of might that arrayed itself before the crowd. And my God… Athena…
She tore her eyes away and trained her binocs on the surrounding buildings as the throng quieted to allow the Mayor to give his customary speech. She tuned him out, having little interest in his penchant for hoary platitudes, and searched windows and rooftops for signs of trouble. She would have liked to recon the auditorium herself, but not even her alter-ego, heiress Amanda Young, could have gotten past the police cordon posted there. Justiciar could only hope the criminal element had found it an equal hindrance. It was a rather pointless hope.
Perhaps Jill’s right, she mused. Maybe I am just being paranoid. It would be obscenely foolish for any villains to attack the Maidens, no matter how exposed they are here. And I owe it to Jill to take at least one night off to spend with her, especially Christmas Eve. The crowd applauded the Mayor’s introduction, then cheered wildly as Athena stepped forward. Justiciar trained the binocs on the mightiest Maiden, zooming in on her exquisite features. Her ice-blue eyes. Her full, red lips parting to speak. I’ll go in a minute…
Suddenly Athena’s eyes grew wide as saucers and her head snapped back. Her powerful body galvanized as if electrified, her back arching, mouth open in a silent scream. Behind her the four other Maidens mirrored her predicament, bodies snapping taut and agonized as if some unseen force had shot through every nerve and muscle. The men and women from City Hall backed away, startled and gaping. Below, the crowd broke into screams of confusion and panic, unsure of what was happening but terrified by the spectacle as the Maidens begin to writhe uncontrollably, clawing at the air, helpless in the grip of the invisible force and obviously unable to marshal their powers. At once all five collapsed like marionettes with cut strings and lay unmoving on the dais.
Justiciar swung instantly into action, clipping the binocs to her belt and firing her wrist-cable simultaneously, swinging her athletic body out into space as the cable anchored to the side of the auditorium, her body arcing across the street and over the crowd, cloak spreading like black wings. She landed on the steps in a sprint for the dais, slipping past the uniformed cops attempting crowd control, searching for signs of life from the fallen heroines at the top.
Three steps from the top she caught a sudden whiff of ozone. Reflexively she dove for the ground and drew her cloak about her as the dais exploded in a massive fireball! Pieces of flaming wood and shards of concrete rained down on the heroine and the screaming crowd stampeding into the street in blind terror. Justiciar could feel the heat of the explosion even through her fireproof cloak and curled up into a ball to minimize the target for the falling rubble. A hunk of cement grazed her back and wood thudded on top of her, sending stabs of pain throughout her body.
A moment later she kicked away the debris with her boots and yanked the cloak off, squinting through the flames for signs of the Shieldmaidens. At the very least Athena and The Spark were invulnerable to fire. There should be something there…
Nothing. No signs of the heroines, dead or alive. Not a piece of Sylph’s oaken staff, not a scrap of Arcana’s sash, not a link of Athena’s mail. Justiciar looked around wildly, praying that perhaps Concorde had sped her teammates out of harm’s way.
She was suddenly, painfully aware of Jill’s frantic shouting, “Are you there, Amanda? Are you okay?! Amanda, answer me!”
“Stop yelling in my head, please. I’m here, Jill. I’m okay. Did you see it?”
“Yes, it’s on every channel! The explosion, the whatever-it-was that happened to the Maidens—“
“Were you recording it?” Justiciar asked urgently, stepping toward the fiery remains of the dais with a handheld mini-scanner from her belt, filtering out the thermal readings from the flames to search for traces of the unique energy signature of a teleport beam. Again, nothing – the Shieldmaidens had simply vanished into thin air.
“Yes. Disks rolling on all monitors.”
“Good,” Justiciar replied as she spun on her heel and took off at a dead run away from the scene, away from the TV news crews. In the distance rose the wail of approaching sirens. “Feed the disks into the computer. I want a good enhanced look at what just happened.”
“What did happen? Are the Maidens hurt?”
“Worse than hurt, Jill,” Justiciar said grimly as she skirted the chaos of the panicked crowd and headed for the alley where her specially customized Harley waited. “They’re gone. The explosion was a diversion to cover whomever snatched them, but snatched they most certainly were.”
Wincing from her new bruises, she swung her leg over the Harley’s seat and kicked it to roaring life. “I’m on my way there, Jill. Sorry, but Jimmy and Donna will just have to wait.”
“It’s all right. Suddenly I want something a lot stronger than cocoa.”
Justiciar grunted in agreement as she gunned the throttle and sent the Harley screeching out of the alley and screaming into the winter night.
7:12 PM. Whoever did this, however they did it, had in one swift stroke eliminated the city’s greatest champions, laying New Rivendell wide open like a gaping wound. As the bitter wind whipped through her hair and cloak, Justiciar began to compile a mental list of all of the major metahuman criminals currently at large and probably watching the attack on live TV. At twenty, she stopped counting and urged the bike on faster, toward the Haven, a black-and-crimson blur zig-zagging through the light Christmas Eve traffic.
Thirty-six blocks later, she hung a sharp right at Robinson Avenue, then a left into the alley between the towering Young Building, where she and Jill lived on the top floor, and its neighbor. She hit a button on the bike’s control panel and the brick alley suddenly slanted downward, hidden hydraulics lowering to provide a ramp into the secret sub-basement of the skyscraper named for her father. She roared down the ramp and the passage closed behind her.
The Haven. A vast complex beneath the streets, bristling with state-of-the-art technology and the necessary tools for a one-woman war on crime. It had cost a bloody fortune to have the sub-basement converted to its present use, especially in the heart of the city, in secret and without permits, using contractors whose silence could be bought. Perhaps she could have saved millions utilizing the caverns beneath her family’s estate, fourteen miles outside the city limits, but that would have been impractical. Fourteen miles is a lot of distance to cover in an emergency, and who would want to work in a cave anyway?
Justiciar parked the bike and dismounted, walking quickly out of the garage and down the austere hallway, past the gym and the workshop, the infirmary and the firing range, until the steel doors at the end parted and admitted her into the Haven’s control room.
She was greeted by a blast of thundering drums and roaring guitars, some hardcore band butchering “Run Run Rudolph” at ear-splitting decibels. Justiciar gritted her teeth and scowled up at the computer nest where Jill sprawled in her swivel-chair, magenta hair bobbing furiously like a rooster’s comb as her fingers glided over one of her four keyboards. An earpiece, tuned to the city’s emergency bands, rested in her left ear. The girl was dressed for work in what she called her “costume” – black bicycle shorts, a ratty tank top with a faded red flannel shirt over it, scuffed combat boots, arms laden with spiked leather wristbands and silver bangles that flashed in the glow of the six monitors that surrounded her in the raised nest. Her elfin, angular face was set in concentration as she kicked the chair around to scan the screens, her eyes intense as the rest of her vibrated in time with the music. It was easy to underestimate Jill Arkwright from her nineteen years of age and her appearance, but the girl was a bonafide mathematics prodigy who, three years before, had dropped out of MIT after picking its finest minds clean. Intelligence agencies the world over featured her name prominently on their “must acquire” lists for her skills in cryptography. Justiciar had rescued her just before a Russian acquisition team could ship her, bound, gagged, and crated, to an encryption station in Murmansk. Now she functioned as the heroine’s Girl Friday in exchange for safe harbor, anonymity, and the chance to play with all the latest high-tech toys.
Justiciar walked over to the stereo in one corner and stabbed the CD player’s “stop” button, plunging the room into merciful silence. Jill’s head whipped around. “Hey! That was Chuck Berry!”
“No, that was Sonic Death Monkey or whatever mangling Chuck Berry, and I’m not in the mood.” Justiciar peeled the mask away from her face and ran her gloved hands through her hair. “What have you got for me?”
Jill sighed and slumped in her chair. “Nothing. Nada. Zippo. I’ve been converting the live TV feeds from all three stations into scannable format and searching every inch of the area around the podium. If someone attacked the Maidens, he, she, or it either did it long-distance or very up-close and personal.”
Amanda climbed the stairs into the nest, her bootheels clicking on the steel steps. “Invisible attacker, maybe?”
Jill shook her head, picking up a bag of tortilla chips from the other chair and brushing off the seat for Amanda to sit. “Not likely. Invisibility doesn’t fly on digital video like it did on the old stuff. The light refraction shows up as a wavy pixel array and makes the person look like the alien in Predator. No sign of that. Someone on the Mayor’s staff, maybe? They were the only people anywhere near the Maidens.”
Amanda shook her head. “Doubtful. They were all long-time staffers, people I’ve been acquainted with for years. I don’t suspect them.”
Jill glanced at her friend. “You suspect everybody.”
“True,” Amanda allowed herself a slight smile, but only for a second. “All right, let’s see what we can see. Put the Channel 12 feed on the big screen and roll it.”
Jill turned and tapped some keys, activating the IMAX-sized display on the north wall of the control room. Amanda leaned back in her chair and watched over steepled fingers as the horror of half an hour ago played out, larger than life. Her face was impassive, but as she observed those details she couldn’t see before – flaming debris and rubble flying into the crowd, people being wounded, innocents dying instantly – her eyes grew cold and sharp as knives. Whoever you are, you’ll pay for this night.
“Stop.” Amanda murmured as she watched herself searching the remains of the podium. “Nothing here. None of the Mayor’s staff made a single untoward move. And no indication of how the explosion happened. Run the footage from Channel 9.”
They watched the same disaster from a different angle, and then a third, but to no avail. Amanda glanced over at her assistant. Jill’s cheeks were wet, tears glistening in the glow from the giant viewscreen, but otherwise the girl made no sound, working with grim efficiency. Amanda reached over and touched her arm. “Maybe we should take a break.”
“No,” Jill shook her head stiffly, continuing to work. “I’m still monitoring the police bands. They’re already dispatching units to handle multiple shootings and rioting in the streets. The word’s out that the Maidens are out of action, and this is only the beginning. Won’t be long before the nuts with superpowers come out to play.” She looked at Amanda. “But what really scares the hell out of me is what else is out there. I mean way out there. The Maidens deal with cosmic menaces… the Planet-Smasher… the Galactic Scourge… Jeb-Del the Man-God… evil on a level we can barely conceive. The entire planet is suddenly in deep shit, Amanda. For all we know, the Maidens could have been zapped by flying saucers.”
Amanda squeezed the girl’s arm. “No, whoever did this is human.”
“How do you know?”
“Because that,” she pointed at the screen, “is a spectacle. It’s a show, with fireworks and a boffo finish, meant for an audience. Cosmic villains wouldn’t bother with something that petty. And don’t forget, any teleportation or dimension-rifting beam gives off a residual energy signature, and that’s the first thing I checked for. No, Jill. That was definitely for someone’s viewing pleasure.”
“But whose? And how did the Maidens disappear like that?”
Amanda sighed. “I don’t know. They just vanished as if by—“ Suddenly Amanda sat up in her chair, eyes wide. “As if by magic.”
A warm spring evening last April. A gentle breeze lifting Athena’s cape and stirring her golden hair as she stood on the rooftop of the Eisner Tower, looking out over the vast sprawl of New Rivendell. Justiciar watched her, dark eyes taking in every inch of her majestic beauty as she spoke. “It’s beautiful up here.”
“Everything is, when you’re high enough above it,” the dark heroine replied. “To see the true face of the city you have to get close. You have to come down to its level.”
Athena turned to her, eyes steely and bright in the glow from below. “And you don’t think the Shieldmaidens do.”
“No, I don’t.” Justiciar said matter-of-factly. “You wait in your ivory clubhouse for some threat worthy of your attention to arise and amuse yourselves in the meantime with press conferences and public relations.”
Any other hero might have bristled at that, but Athena’s calm visage remained impassive as always, and Justiciar found herself momentarily believing that Athena truly was the earthly incarnation of the goddess, as she claimed. “You’re being unfair and needlessly hostile, Justiciar. You know we fight the good fight, just as you do. The difference is that we keep our hands clean.”
“And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that we play by the rules. We obey the law. We defend the city in a way that sets an example for the people, that makes it clear that the greatest weapon against the deepest darkness is the purest light.” She shook her head sadly. “I don’t want to have this debate with you, but your methods are too violent, too heedless of public saftey, too single-minded. You’re so focused on destroying the evil in our midst that you trample the good to get to it. The citizens you protect are as afraid of you as they are of the criminals you battle.”
Justiciar’s brow darkened. “Let them be afraid. They’re safer that way. My methods may bother you, but then I don’t have the luxury of superpowers to insulate me from reality. To do what I have to do I have no choice but to take the fight to them, to look evil in its insane face while I fight it, and that takes every advantage I can muster, especially fear.”
“Join us,” Athena said gently. “We can help you, and you can help us. Together we could all become a greater force for good.”
“I work alone, Athena. No teams, no sidekicks, nobody’s ass to watch out for but my own.”
“We’re fairly capable of watching our own asses.”
Justiciar almost laughed. “You are, Athena. You’re a warrior, with a warrior’s skills and training. Even without the super-strength and the invulnerability and the rest of it, you could handle yourself. The rest of your team is a mess. They rely far too much on their powers and reveal far too much of what they can do. Concorde is too reckless for her own good, zooming into situations head-first without reconnaissance. Sylph is too delicate, the Spark convinced she can handle anything with a well-placed fireball. Arcana may be the most powerful member you have, but she could be taken out with one punch.”
“Provided you could get near her,” Athena interjected, “which you can’t.”
Justiciar sighed. “Someday that vanishing act of hers is going to fail at the wrong time…”
“Roll the Channel 12 tape again, Jill,” Amanda snapped. “This time focus on Arcana, tight enhanced close-up.”
Jill’s fingers flew over the keyboard, cueing up the tape and zooming in on the image of the sorceress. For a moment Arcana’s face was a dark blob of enlarged pixels, until Jill digitally enhanced the shot and brought it into crystal-clear focus. As the mysterious attack struck the Maidens, Arcana’s aristocratic beauty contorted into a rictus of agony, her lips pulling back from clenched teeth and twisting, moving, forming words with difficulty. Then she fell and her image was obscured by the explosion. “Freeze it,” Amanda whispered and Jill paused the playback.
“She cast a spell,” Jill breathed. “But how? None of the others seemed to be able to do anything.”
“In a minute,” Amanda leaned forward, eyes bright. “Rewind and now focus on the Spark’s hands.” Jill repeated the procedure and the wallscreen showed a tight close-up of the fiery heroine’s yellow gloves. As the Maidens fell again, Amanda touched Jill’s shoulder. “Slo-mo, second by second.” Jill tapped a key and the events dropped to a snail’s pace. The women watched as the Spark’s hands arced downward with her fall to the podium. Suddenly the gloved hands erupted into flame, a ball of fire that swelled large, inch by inch, until it exploded like an overinflated balloon and the screen filled again with fire.
Jill blinked incredulously at the screen, slack-jawed. “Sparky caused the explosion?”
Amanda nodded solemnly. “And Arcana made them disappear.”
“But – but how?” Jill gaped at her friend. “None of them could control their bodies or their powers.”
“Exactly.” Amanda turned to Jill, wheels in her head visibly turning. “Arcana is unbelievably powerful, but useless in a physical fight. Unlike the others, she needs space to work during a battle, and so in order to guard against the unexpected, she keeps a spell in reserve, one that can perform simply and in a split-second.”
“That popping-out thing she does,” Jill nodded, realization dawning in her eyes. “So when the attack came—“
“—she reflexively invoked the spell, but without her usual control, so she took the team with her. The same with the Spark. They were attacked and the Spark instinctively reacted with her power, only with no control as well, hence the explosion.”
Jill’s nose crinkled in thought. “So it was some kind of accident?”
“No, quite the opposite. What we’ve just seen is a classic illustration of the fight-or-flight response, only with metahumans. Spark fought, Arcana flew, both from sheer instinct and triggered by the same force that caused the Maidens to lose control of their bodies. And I’m willing to bet that that’s how their attacker planned it. The podium was undoubtedly rigged to immobilize the Maidens and while Arcana spirited them away, Spark destroyed the evidence, both against their will. Brilliant.”
Amanda stood up. “I’m heading for the Shieldhall. That’s where Arcana’s spell would have taken them.”
Jill looked up as Amanda reapplied her mask. “They won’t be there now. If your theory’s correct, whoever did this would be waiting for them.”
“I know,” Justiciar said over her shoulder as she took the stairs two at a time, “but I’ve got to follow the trail. Something tells me neither the Maidens nor the city have much time.”
8:45 PM. The snow-clouds continued to gather overhead but they took on an ominous orange glow as they reflected light from the fires now raging throughout New Rivendell. Sirens wailed from all corners of the city, keening like banshees.
Justiciar dismounted from the Harley and examined the service entrance leading to the Shieldhall, the imposing antebellum mansion on New Rivendell’s East Side that served as headquarters for the Shieldmaidens. A high brick wall surrounded the grounds, though Justiciar knew that the bricks hid a foot-thick core of pure impervium that would hold against a charging tank. Beyond the wall an invisible sensor net was spread over the perimeter, primed to set off capture devices and countermeasures at the first sign of an unauthorized approach from ground or air. The Hall was better protected than NORAD.
So if the back gate was standing open, why wasn’t all hell breaking loose?
Justiciar stepped closer, pulling out a pair of close-fitting goggles and placing them over her eyes. She swept the gate, driveway, and grounds beyond with the lenses, tuned to the spectrum frequency of the Hall’s sensor beam array. Nothing. The Hall’s defenses had been deactivated. She put the goggles back in their belt-pouch and sprinted for the Hall, its windows dark except for multicolored Christmas lights in the window of the study. Up the stairs to the porch and to the back door, which stood ajar. Nudging it open, she entered carefully and began to move quickly through the house. She had been here twice before on occasions when circumstances had forced her to work with the Maidens, and twice was enough for her to have familiarized herself with the layout of the building. A cursory sweep of the team’s living area revealed nothing amiss. Not a stick of the tasteful furniture out of place, not one of the many antique portraits hanging crookedly.
She moved on to the modern heart of the building, the area where the Maidens trained and worked, and into the vast control room. It was as bright as the Haven was dark, bristling with monitor screens and consoles on every wall, a polished onyx conference table in the center surrounded by chairs marked with each of the heroines’ symbols. Justiciar had always thought this room fairly ridiculous, less a place to work than a place to hold meetings and bandy parliamentary procedure. But tonight the room sent a chill down her spine.
Draped over the back of each heroine’s chair was her costume. Athena’s mail and cape. Sylph’s green hood and staff. Concorde’s frictionless running-suit. The Spark’s scandalous leotard. Arcana’s white tights and purple sash. Removed and purposefully displayed like trappers’ pelts. Our showman again, she thought with a frown, dressing the set. But something’s missing here…
Then it struck her. Gloves. Boots. Concorde’s mask, and Spark’s. Whomever took the Maidens undressed them but left them half their costumes. What the hell--?
“I thought you’d never get here.”
Justiciar whirled at the woman’s voice behind her, instantly assuming a defensive hapkido stance. The intruder seemed unimpressed. Tall and athletically built, she took a lazy step forward into the control room, the overhead fluorescents gleaming against the skintight black leather and purple accents of her bustier and panties, her opera-length gloves and thigh-high boots, the mask that obscured everything on her face but her feral green eyes and mocking red lips. Raven hair fell about her shoulders in a shiny cascade.
Justiciar looked her up and down with disdain. “What, Frederick’s of Hollywood had a sale? Look, sister, the dimestore-dominatrix look is out.”
The intruder only smiled. “Now is that any way to treat your hostess? You’d do well to mind your manners in a lady’s house.” She took another step forward, hands resting on her hips, her right touching the bullwhip coiled on her belt. “Not that it’s mine just yet, but you can rest assured the former owners won’t be using it anymore.”
Justiciar narrowed her eyes, ready to move at the first twitch of the woman’s whip-hand. “How’d you get in here? And what have you done with the Shieldmaidens?”
“As for how I got into this ostentatious little fortress, it was quite easy. The Maidens were indiscriminate when hiring the domestic help. The maid I interrogated gave up the access codes with only minor… persuasion.”
Justiciar made an almost inaudible sound in the back of her throat. Inside her head, Jill replied, “I’m on it, Amanda.” Back at the Haven, Jill would bring up a list of the Shieldmaidens’ domestic service’s employees and cross-check it with the police department’s current missing-persons’ list.
The intruder continued, “And as for the Maidens themselves, they’re tucked away nice and cozy, waiting for me to bring back the last guest on my list.” She looked at Justiciar pointedly. “Since you weren’t so accommodating as to stage a publicity stunt like they did, I had to draw you out and lead you to me.”
So the public attack at the Auditorium was a show… and the intended audience was me. Justiciar gritted her teeth, dark eyes growing fierce. “Tell me where they are, you bitch, while you’re still able to.”
The woman smiled again. “`Bitch’ is such a harsh word, though it’s appropriate. You can call me Neuromancer.” Then her right hand was a blur, the bullwhip uncoiling and striking like a snake at the place Justiciar’s feet were. But Justiciar moved faster, springing up and forward, dodging the whipcrack that resounded like a pistol shot and arcing into a handspring that closed the distance between herself and her foe. Inside the whip’s strike radius she grabbed Neuromancer’s leather-clad wrist and spun, yanking the villainess’s arm up between her shoulder blades. Neuromancer cried out in pain.
“Now,” Justiciar hissed, tugging up on the arm. “Let’s discuss the Mai—UNNNNHHHH!” Suddenly she was in blinding agony worse than any she had ever experienced, her lithe body stiffening as an electric current shot through every cell. She had been electrocuted before, but this was something entirely different and infinitely worse, like a dentist’s drill grinding on every single nerve in her body at once. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. Fireworks exploded behind her eyes as the pain ripped through her, and she could feel herself being pulled inside-out, inch by savage inch. Though the torture seemed to last for hours, it was mere seconds before Justiciar’s agonized form hit the marble floor hard. The world began to iris into darkness as she lay twitching uncontrollably from the assault.
The last words she heard were Neuromancer’s. “I’d say the discussion is over, wouldn’t you?”
Unable to do a thing, Justiciar gave in to merciful unconsciousness.
Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”
Her second thought was somewhat less mundane: I’m in trouble.
The searing agony that was the last thing she had felt had receded to a dull ache in every muscle of her body. She tried to move her limbs to work out the kinks and found they wouldn’t respond. She was completely unable to move.
I’m in big trouble.
Justiciar was tightly bound with white cord that wrapped around her booted ankles and calves, and more cinching her naked thighs together. Still more cord wrapped around her waist and above and below her exposed breasts, binding her tightly against a metal pole. Topping the pole was a crossbar, forming a T, over which her arms had been slung with her wrists bound together behind her back and connected to the torso ropes. The effect was rather like being a scarecrow hanging in place, except the tie forced her chest forward and prominent. Justiciar still wore her mask, boots, and gloves, but the rest of her costume was missing. She had never felt so exposed and vulnerable in her life.
She heard Jill inside her head, the girl’s tiny, frightened voice crashing like cannon-fire inside her aching skull. “Amanda. Can you hear me? Respond… please…”
But there was no chance of that happening, not with the rubber ball that had been wedged deeply between the heroine’s teeth and strapped in place behind her head. The gag, she knew, would allow little more than unintelligible mewing. Instead, Justiciar lifted her head slowly and took in her surroundings as Mel Torme sang on about a turkey and some mistletoe.
The frame to which she had been bound was on some kind of platform that was plunged into darkness. Blinking to clear her vision, Justiciar could make out five indistinct shapes, two across from her, two to her left, and a larger one to her right. All around she could hear voices murmuring and calling to each other, and the scrape and shuffle of furtive activity. And as Mel continued to croon his Yuletide platitudes, she heard something else, tiny mmpphhs of other gagged women struggling futilely. Even with the pain in her head, Justiciar had no problem divining who those muffled voices belonged to…
Merry Christ-mas… toooo yoooouuuu…”
As the last piano tinkles faded, there was a beat of silence. Then suddenly a klieg light stabbed Justiciar’s eyes and along a far wall a bank of monitor screens flickered to life. Bathed in the spotlight, Neuromancer stood in all her leather-sheathed glory and shouted,
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the First -- and Last – Shieldmaidens Christmas Special… Ever!”
From overhead, speakers began to blast canned applause, and Justiciar realized that the villainess was facing a TV camera. My God… she’s kidnapped us to put on a show! Her eyes scanned the bank of monitors Neuromancer was addressing, her audience, and widened in horror.
Every screen displayed a face from New Rivendell’s nightmares. The haggard leer of the Gravedigger. The demented grin of the mad scientist Doc Proteus. The grimly masked features of Witch-hammer. Harpoon. The Chaos Engineer. Dreadhawk. Lady Cyanide. And so many more. Every supervillain currently at large and bearing a grudge against her, the Shieldmaidens, or both was watching this psychotic charade via videoconference. Her nakedness felt even more acute and she thanked heaven that she was still in the shadows, though she doubted that would last for long…
The raven-haired villainess went on, relishing her performance. “For those of you who don’t know me, I am Neuromancer, Mistress of Life and Death and your hostess for the evening’s festivities. And what do we have in store for you on this most magical of nights?
“Why, nothing less than the death of the Shieldmaidens and Justiciar!” More canned applause thundered through the speakers, and Justiciar could see the grins widening on the faces of the menagerie of evil arrayed on the far wall.
“And so, without further ado, let us meet our very special guests.” Neuromancer strolled across the platform, the spotlight following. As she walked, Justiciar began counting the woman’s associates. Light operator, cameraman, sound man, technician to operate the videoconference feed… four so far. Her gloved hands twisted in the ropes as she tried to eke out some slack to no avail. Her jaws ached from the ballgag.
Neuromancer stopped before the first shape and suddenly a second spotlight shone on the dark-skinned form of Arcana. The sorceress had also been bound to a metal T-frame, naked except for her purple boots, ropes crisscrossing her proud body and framing her round breasts with their large dark aureoles. Instead of a ballgag, however, several strips of white surgical tape had been plastered over her lips, preventing even the most rudimentary of spells. Justiciar could not see Arcana’s hands, but she would have bet the magician’s fingers had been taped together as well. Another thing that was different was the gleaming metal collar that encircled Arcana’s throat.
“Our first guest is that mystical gal who has proven such a spoiler of your best-laid schemes with that voodoo that she do so well… Arcana!” Canned applause. The sorceress glared down at her captor with fierce eyes and squirmed in her bonds.
Neuromancer moved on to the next shape, and another spotlight revealed Concorde, also in a metal collar, naked but for gloves, boots, and mask, her boyish body quivering with checked velocity but held in place with strips of rough leather. Rawhide, Justiciar observed grimly. The more she vibrates, the tighter they’ll get. Concorde snarled around her ballgag, “Nnnngghh! Mmmpphh!” Her muffled curses were met by a burst of canned laughter.
Neuromancer’s head fell back in a throaty laugh. “She’s feisty, isn’t she, folks? Meet Concorde, just the ticket for those of you who like fast women!” More canned laughs.
Justiciar bit down hard on the ball in her mouth and continued twisting her wrists, working for that bare centimeter of give…
Neuromancer crossed the platform. Next was Sylph, her elfin body not tied to her frame but wrapped against it with yard upon yard of what appeared to be PVC plastic, almost mummified in the unnatural stuff, except for her small breasts, a silver tuft of pubic hair, and the collar. More of the stuff was wrapped about her head, covering her mouth tightly. Her grey eyes were huge and suffering from the torment of contact with such an artificial material, and her whimpers were audible. Neuromancer reached up and caressed the girl’s cheek. Sylph turned her head away with a muffled yelp.
“Poor little Sylph. It seems our nature girl is allergic to the twenty-first century,” Neuromancer chuckled. “Not to worry, though. She won’t be part of it much longer.”
Again, that damned laugh track. The audience on the monitors was eating it up.
To Justiciar’s immediate left, the next spotlight revealed the Spark. She too had been collared and mummified, but with black, shining rubber, no doubt fireproof. The pyrokinetic heroine tossed her red hair as she struggled, issuing a furious mew as Neuromancer reached over to caress one of her substantial breasts. “You all know the Spark here,” Neuromancer grinned. “Now this is what I call a real hottie!”
Justiciar couldn’t decide which she dreaded more, being next in the spotlight or enduring more of her abductor’s horrible jokes. She continued to work against her wrist-bonds as Neuromancer glided over to her and she was suddenly bathed in white-hot light.
“We have a very special guest tonight. She’s not a member of the Shieldmaidens, but no snuff party would be complete without her. Give it up for the Dark Paladin herself... Justiciar!" As the canned applause roared around her, Neuromancer leaned in close and slowly ran her tongue over Justiciar’s upper lip around the gag. As she pulled away, she looked into the heroine’s eyes and murmured, “Damn shame I have to kill you. I have a feeling you’d be just my type.” She winked and Justiciar found herself with a profound urge to kill Neuromancer with her bare hands.
“And last but certainly not least,” Neuromancer announced to her audience, spinning with a flourish on her spiked heels and gesturing to the large shape at the end of the platform, “I give you the mightiest of the Maidens, powerful beyond comprehension, invulnerable to virtually all harm but reduced to utter helplessness in my hands… the goddess in chains… Athena!”
The canned applause was deafening, but as the final spotlight bathed the end of the platform, the sight was madness itself.
A Saint Andrew’s cross had been constructed of steel girders welded and riveted together, and stretched spread-eagle across it was the incomparable body of Athena, utterly naked but for gauntlets and boots. Her wrists and ankles were enclosed in shackles an inch thick and pulled to their limits. A metal collar like the other Maidens wore was snug about her throat, but the device that stilled her mouth was a thick iron clamp fitted across her mouth, under her jaw and around her head. Justiciar had seen one of those devices in a book once. It was called a brank, used by medieval judges to punish gossipy or unruly women. The idea of something so barbaric being locked onto the proud head of Athena was nothing short of monstrous.
The usually placid eyes of Athena were filled with fury as her perfect breasts rose and fell with her attempts to break her bonds. Neuromancer merely smiled. “Don’t hurt yourself, dear. That’s my job.” She reached up and gave Athena’s left breast a playful slap, then turned back to the camera. “Now I direct your attention above Athena’s head to the big board.” A large monitor screen above the steel structure abruptly glowed into life, revealing a graphic outline of a Christmas stocking. “As per our arrangement, I will now ask you ladies and gentlemen to collectively pay me the sum of one hundred million dollars. As your donations are recorded in my private Swiss bank account, the stocking will fill. When it is completely filled in, I will then kill each of these six do-gooders before your very eyes!”
More canned applause, then Neuromancer signaled to her sound man to cut it. “And how will I do it, you may ask? By using the same method that I used to take them in the first place.” She strolled to the middle of the semicircle of bound and gagged heroines, visibly reveling in the moment. “You see, many of you, if not all, have tried to pit your powers and weapons against these costumed bitches only to be defeated time and again. But I have discovered the one weapon none of them can possibly stand against… their own bodies!”
As in some cheesy late-night infomercial, astonished gasps erupted from the speakers. “It’s true! Through a secret process that I shall soon patent, I have developed the ability to take control of the electrochemical impulses that flow through all our bodies. In short, I can control the very nervous system itself. Just think about it. Sensations, perceptions, movement… all of them are dependent upon signals from the brain, signals that I have learned to manipulate in all manner of fascinating ways.”
Neuromancer turned to Sylph, squirming and mmpphhing in her plastic bonds. She laid a leather-gloved hand against the heroine’s cheek. Suddenly the diminutive girl stiffened and screamed into her gag: “MMMMMNNNNGGGHH!” Tears streamed down her cheeks as she re-experienced the torment that all of the others now knew. The rest of the captives struggled and mewed angrily into their gags. Neuromancer pulled her hand away and Sylph collapsed against her pole, head hanging as she sobbed.
“What you just saw was the result of my command to Sylph’s brain to quintuple its electrochemical output, overloading her nervous system like a ride in an electric chair.” Canned applause. Justiciar continued to work on the cords binding her wrists, heart pounding inside her chest, as the villainess made her way over to Concorde, straining against the rawhide thongs cutting into her naked flesh. Above Athena’s head, the stocking graphic had begun to fill with red as ten million dollars flowed into Neuromancer’s coffers.
“But that was merely a mundane demonstration of how the process works. I could do that to any human being. Metahumans, on the other hand, are more of a challenge. Note that I have taken measures in each heroine’s restraints to counteract her powers. That’s because I have not removed those powers, something that many of you have tried in vain to do. Instead I have simply blocked the Maidens’ ability to use their powers.”
The collars. Justiciar’s mind raced. The collars are rigged to cut off the neural connection from the Maidens’ temporal lobes to the nodes that control their powers. That’s why I don’t have one – I don’t have powers.
Neuromancer went on. “But while those powers are still intact, they provide most entertaining possibilities. Take our speedster here…” She ran her gloved fingers through Concorde’s short black hair, closing them into a fist and jerking the girl’s head back sharply as Concorde yelped into her ballgag. “Hyperaccelerated nervous system. Impulses flow through her at ten times the normal rate. So just suppose I was to increase the sensitivity of her pleasure center, like so.” Suddenly Neuromancer clamped her other hand hard against Concorde’s exposed pubic mound. The girl’s eyes went wide and wild as she began to mmpphh frantically, her body grinding and bucking against her captor’s intrusive hand as a sudden climax ripped through her. Then another. And another, a mere second after the first. Then more in rapid succession, her trim form breaking out in rivers of sweat as multiple orgasms ravaged her body in the blink of an eye, visibly threatening to tear her apart as she keened in agony against her gag.
Abruptly Neuromancer let her go, stepping back, as Concorde sagged in her leather bonds, hyperventilating through her nose. On the big screen, the stocking began to fill rapidly. Twenty million. Thirty. Forty…
The canned applause was sheer cacophony. Neuromancer took a bow to her television audience, their faces on their monitors reflecting hideous glee and lust. The villainess pulled herself back up and turned to face Athena, who glared back with a promise of fiery vengeance raging in her eyes.
“And as my very special Christmas gift to you, my dear viewers,” Neuromancer purred as she approached the shackled heroine step by step, “I’m going to show you something you thought you’d never see. The mighty and invulnerable Athena… in pain.”
Justiciar stifled a shout as she felt the cords on her wrists give just the tiniest bit and prayed that centimeter or so would be enough. Her agile mind had already extrapolated what was about to happen to Athena…
Neuromancer stood before the straining figure of the warrior, hands on her hips, for a dramatic beat, then reached out and pinched Athena’s left nipple between her fingers. At first nothing happened, then suddenly the proud breasts began to heave, the powerful muscles in her arms and legs began to cord and strain and there was a slight groan of metal as she pulled against the girders. Her head, enclosed in the brank, began to move from side to side as she fought to hold back a scream.
“Go ahead, o goddess,” Neuromancer smirked. “Give the people out there in TV Land what they want. You can’t stop it. I’m increasing the sensitivity of your body’s pain receptors exponentially. Soon a dust mote in the air brushing against your skin will feel like a chainsaw. Scream for me, Athena.” She gripped Athena’s nipple hard and twisted.
“NNNNNNNGGGGHHHHH!” The scream that ripped from Athena’s throat was horrible to hear. Above her head the stocking graphic filled to the brim and “$100,000,000” flashed in bright yellow letters over it. Time was up.
Enough! Justiciar pushed her right wrist through the slight give in the cords and jerked it. From the sheath inside her right glove a small blade of sharpened impervium snicked out at a right angle, slicing through the wrist cords like warm butter.
Mistake number one: never tie a captive so that the arms have leverage.
As the cords dropped away from her hands, she ran the blade, arms and shoulders aching, along the pole, the blade cutting through cords and metal as her torso was freed. On the audience screens, twenty supervillains simultaneously shouted silent warnings, faces contorted in anger. A beat later, Neuromancer’s goons began to cry out in alarm.
Mistake number two: never forget that the greatest occupational hazard of the female superhero is getting tied up – a lot – and some of us are prepared for it.
Neuromancer turned, releasing Athena’s breast in shock, as Justiciar bent over and sliced through the ropes on her thighs, calves, and ankles. The villainess’s mouth worked silently for a moment, then she sputtered to her goons, “Get her!”
And mistake number three: nobody fucks with my sisters.
Four husky guys in dark uniforms converged on Justiciar at a run. Naked and still wearing the ballgag, Justiciar went low with a capoeira leg-sweep, upending the closest goon and knocking him onto his back with an audible whouf! She rabbit-punched him in the throat with a knuckle-strike and somersaulted over his gasping body, planting both feet into the next one’s solar plexus, staggering him. The two other henchmen closed in on either side and lunged. Justiciar grabbed the right goon by the hair and leap-frogged over his back, legs splayed wide, shoving him headlong into his partner. The two hit the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. All around them the Maidens shouted muffled encouragements into their gags.
The heroine whirled, using the momentary breather to claw at the buckle of her ballgag. She yanked it from between her teeth as the second goon produced a wicked hunting knife from his belt and came at her. Grasping the ends of the ballgag strap in either hand, she crouched and let him come on. As the thug slashed at her, she spun to her left, trapping his knife-hand in the strap and slamming the heel of her hand into his outstretched elbow, feeling the joint snap and give beneath her blow. The goon howled in pain, dropping the blade, and then just dropping as Justiciar spun again and delivered a crushing backfist to his jaw.
Meanwhile the two remaining henchmen had untangled themselves and were rising to their feet, hands jerking Glock 9-millimeters from beneath their jackets. They raised the guns and fired, but the Grim Guardian was already in motion, leaping to the right and grasping the pole to which she’d been tied. Her momentum whipped her around the pole in an arc and the nearest goon took both bootheels in the temple. He collapsed against his fellow and Justiciar lunged in, shattering the last goon’s gun-wrist with a flat-hand chop and whirling to deliver rapid-fire punches that landed like hammers to his ribs and jaw. She grabbed his lapels and with a grunt, propelled him headfirst into the pole. He slumped to the floor, out like a light.
Suddenly a hand clamped on the back of Justiciar’s neck and all the heroine knew was searing pain. Neuromancer snarled through her teeth as Justiciar cried out in agony and dropped to her knees, ravaged by the electrochemical overload the villainess poured into her. Galvanized, unable to move, barely able to see, Justiciar was helpless in Neuromancer’s grip.
“Bitch!” Neuromancer howled as she came around to face the tormented heroine. Spittle collected at the corners of her mouth. “Nice try, girl. But I’ve gotten my money, and now it’s time for you super-cunts to die. I was planning to save you till the end, but since you tried to ruin my Christmas special, you get to go first.”
Justiciar, seething with pain, tried to will her limbs to move, but her body was completely short-circuited. All she could do was stare up into the mad face of her death.
“Do you know what my favorite part of the nervous system is, Justiciar?” Neuromancer hissed. “The autonomic system. You know, the mechanism that keeps the heart and lungs pumping even when you sleep?” Her grin was terrifying. “Say goodbye to yours.”
The hand on Justiciar’s throat tightened and suddenly the former pain paled in comparison to the sledgehammer blow to her chest as she felt her heart abruptly stop. She tried to gasp for air and nothing happened. Spots began to dance before her eyes and there was a roaring in her ears that drowned out the gagged shouts of the helpless Shieldmaidens. She could feel every oxygen-starved cell in her body beginning to die.
God… Jill…Her mind snatched furiously at consciousness as the final darkness converged. Jill… I’m so sorry… I’m so…
A sheer explosion of piercing white noise suddenly cut through her skull like a laser beam. What the hell--?
Without warning, Justiciar’s right hand jerked up in a blur and clamped onto Neuromancer’s wrist, yanking her gloved hand away, and twisted hard. Neuromancer screamed as the bones in her wrist gave way and splintered. Air rushed back into Justiciar’s lungs and she sprang forward, driving her left fist into the bridge of the villainess’s nose.
Neuromancer staggered back, hands flying to her face as Justiciar, devoid of any conscious thought, lurched at her and began raining blows at her head and arms, pummeling her savagely. Neuromancer screeched, trying to grab at her attacker, but Justiciar knocked her unbroken arm aside and continued to pound her, relentlessly, mercilessly, with sheer animal fury, until Neuromancer dropped to the platform at Arcana’s feet and lay still, bloody and broken.
“Enough,” she whispered hoarsely. The thundering noise inside her head stopped as suddenly as it had appeared. “Thank you.”
“You okay, Amanda?” Jill’s voice was a frightened murmur.
“No. But I will be.” Justiciar stumbled over to the steel cross that held Athena, who mmpphhed through the brank, eyes clouded with worry. Justiciar raised herself up with difficulty and flicked out the impervium blade again. With her last ounce of strength, she reared her arm back and swung, driving the blade into the collar about Athena’s throat. As the thing sparkled and sizzled, Athena’s arms corded and pulled with their accustomed strength and the shackles on her wrists shattered with a crash. Her arms came around just in time to catch and enfold the body of Justiciar, which sagged limply in her grasp.
As Justiciar gave in again to the darkness she heard Athena tearing the brank from her head and whispering. “Rest, dark warrior. You have done well, my sister…”
7:21 AM. Amanda’s eyelids hurt as they fluttered open. Everything hurt, in fact. But she was warm, lying in her emperor-sized bed in the penthouse suite of the Young Building, her favorite flannel nightgown on, a fire in the fireplace.
How did I get here? She looked around the bedroom, confused and disoriented. “Jill--?”
Her voice was scratchy and weak, but it was enough. Jill came in, smiling softly, and sat on the edge of the bed. “Hey.” She took Amanda’s hand. “How do you feel?”
Amanda laced fingers with Jill and looked up at her, smiling a little. “Like utter shit. Thanks. How did I get home?”
“Athena brought you. She flew over here with you in her arms and landed out on the terrace. How she knew your secret identity is a mystery, but I’m glad she did.”
Amanda started to roll that over in her mind when she suddenly remembered. “Oh my God! The city—“ She struggled to sit up, but Jill gently pushed her back by the shoulders. “It’s over. The rioting, the looting, all taken care of.”
Amanda just stared at her friend. “What happened--?”
“Christmas happened,” Jill shrugged and smiled. “As soon as the news went out about the Maidens’ disappearance and the citywide panic, superheroes from other cities began showing up. The Challengers, the Stonewall Squad, Liberty Force… guys from New York, Chicago, L.A., Townsville… even those snobs up on the moon showed up to help New Rivendell out. Pretty cool, huh? Merry Christmas.”
Amanda nodded, blinking, her mind going back to Neuromancer, the torture of Sylph and Athena, the rape of Concorde. “And the Maidens? Any word on them?”
Jill shook her head, her smile fading on her lips. “This is gonna be a rough one for them to recover from. Especially Concorde. Neuromancer had better pay in spades for this.”
“She will. If prison doesn’t do it, rest assured the bad guys who lost a hundred million dollars to her will.” She squeezed Jill’s hand and looked into the girl’s eyes. “You saved my life, kiddo. That was great thinking.”
Jill shrugged again. “I just crossed my fingers and hoped that the noise would override Neuromancer’s whammy. Fight or flight, right?”
“Right.” Amanda pressed Jill’s fingers to her lips. “Thank you.”
Jill smiled warmly. “Hey, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
They sat that way for a long moment, then Jill got up abruptly. “I almost forgot—“ She went to one of the bay windows that overlooked the city and drew aside the curtain. Outside the grey morning sky was filled with gentle flurries. New Rivendell had gotten its white Christmas.
Amanda looked out from her bed as Jill crawled in beside her and they entwined to watch the snow. “Merry Christmas, Jill.”
“Merry Christmas, Amanda.”