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Freedom's Finest #3: Corrupt To No Good

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"A cave? Huh. Guess we should establish a marching order - hey!" Echo looked at Jack incredulously. "Backup? We're superheroes. We are the backup." She tilted her head suspiciously. "I'm not going to run off to safety and leave you behind to sort everything out yourself, if that's what you're asking. And I don't see how this is your mess any more than it is mine. Hell, it's more mine! I actually started going after Bench of my own volition, which makes it my mess!" She paused. "Okay, the weird superpowered alien clone is entirely your mess," she conceded, "but I knew from the moment I first put on the mask that things might get a little hairy now and then. I'm not going to cut and run just because we're going into..." she gestured vaguely at the mouth of the cave, "...Moria."

She stopped to catch her breath, feeling that she had made her point. Then something else occurred to her. "Unless you meant that I should just go alert someone and come straight back because I can run really fast. I'm okay with doing that." There was a silence. "Uh, anyway, inward?"

 

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"Sure, girl, let's go with that," Jack agreed with a short exhalation, producing a scuffed metal lighter from his coat pocket and flicking it open. It wasn't like there would have been any argument that would have kept him out of harm's way when he'd been starting out and he'd been at least a few years younger than Echo when he'd put on his first costume. If he was going to feel overprotective toward every smart aleck girl with white hair he ran into that seemed like it was probably more his problem than her's. The little flame from the lighter surged upward like a butane torch and leapt spiralling to his opposite hand, forming a warm orange sword of licking fire, sharp and defined compared to the Metaceptor's light. "Inward and downward, yeah."

The cave continued backward at a downward slope so that soon the entrance was well out of sight and still the continued forward. As they went Jack began to feel the hum of some sort of power source, not connected to the city's grid nor anything he immediately recognized. For Echo's part the feeling of impending danger got more and more insistent the further they went and the Metaceptor carried on without hesitation, following whatever trail had brought them all the way from Bench's offices.

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"Do not like this," Echo muttered, sweeping her handheld flashlight around her in an attempt to chase back the shadows. "Do not like this one little bit. Nothing good ever happens in a cave. In fact, the vast majority of all bad things happen in - or originate in - caves." Her tone was light, and she kept it so to hide her growing unease. Whatever it was that Grack was sniffing out, it was likely to be trouble in a major way. It all seemed so simple. Just nip out real quick to expose a crook politician, be back in time for elevenses. Fairly straightforward, you'd think.

She thought she heard a noise behind them and she spun around, shining the light suspiciously at the stone and flickering shadows. "If we end up at the Balrog scene, you be Gandalf."

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Jack held off on a sarcastic reply in favour of motioning for quiet as artificially hued light appeared from around the next bend in the tunnel. Around the corner the cave descended abruptly and opened up into a massive chamber filled with whirring machinery that hummed with power and danced with lights in parts of the spectrum that were difficult to look at to human eyes. At the far side of the cavern was the largest chunk of technology, clearly alien in origin but recognizable as a vehicle of some kind, presumably an interplanetary craft. In the center two dozen or so figures were working quickly, most in long, flowing robes while a few were dressed in sharp looking business casual fashions. All of them had bright red, mouthless faces with pointed ears: Grue!

In the center of the cave, barking orders was someone else Echo recognized. Turning unknowingly toward the spot where the heroes were spying on the proceedings was Bench himself!

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Echo stared in shock for a moment, then immediately dropped into a crouch deep in the shadows. She shot a glance over at Jack. "What the living hell," she hissed, "are Grue doing here?" When she had decided she was going to take down a major city official, she had no idea that there would be this many aliens getting involved. Life was full of surprises. "Good news is, I think I'm starting to get an idea of how your buddy was able to find this place." Aliens. And it's not even my birthday.

"Looks to me like they got tired of trying to invade the old-fashioned way and are just going to take over the city government and institute unfair parking regulations until we cry for mercy." She studied the assembled figures cautiously, her gaze lingering on the ship. "I say we take 'em quick. Kick their asses all they way back to their home planet before they know what hit 'em." She wondered if Bench was a Grue as well, or just a patsy trying to sign on with the winning team. There was only one way to find out. Well, only one way that involved fisticuffs.

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Jack opened his mouth to reply, though whether he was about to agree or suggest coming up with a plan first was rendered moot when his alien doppelganger rushed forward crowing, "Villains! Interceptors, intercept!" With an acrobatic leap he sprung off of the lip of the tunnel and into the larger cavern, arms elongated into flame-wreathed blades and he aimed himself directly for the middle of the startled formation of Grue. Several of them reached for dangerous looking sidearms at their sides while the rest raised their hands to make arcane gestures and begin chanting.

"Yeah, he gets that from me," the original swashbuckler sighed, cracking his neck and jumping into the fray right behind the amalgamation. "And that's not our battle cry!"

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"Should be," Echo remarked as she sprinted after the others, always one to go with the flow. "It's a good battle cry."

Before reaching the crowd of Grue, she used the momentum from her charge to leap high into the air. Going with the usually-safe assumption that chanting bad guys were bad news and should be halted immediately before they summoned something with too many tentacles, she aimed her arc straight at one of the chanting Grue, plunging down at him from above. She inverted herself in midair and landed by planted a hand on each of shoulders, then pushed off hard, launching herself forward in a nimble somersault. She let physics do the rest, hearing the satisfying smack as he hit the floor face-first. She kept going, flipping over him and landing a solid kick in the jaw of another of the chanting aliens and sending him flying. She used that to send herself into another gratuitous backflip, then landed with her feet together and her arms held out theatrically to either side. "Stewie, Stewie, Stewie," she called out to Bench. "What have you gotten yourself into, man? It used to be about the politics! Now you're palling around with aliens?"

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Echo lost track of the Metaceptor for a moment as she launched herself into battle, seeing only the blast of arcing lightning that surged from one Grue to another, leaving an acrid smell of singed robes in its wake. It took another moment to realize that she wasn't looking at a blast but the Metaceptor himself, fists crackling with electricity as he zoomed through the ranks of their opponents at super speed. Only a step or two behind him Jack of all Blades was a whirling dervish of flame in the uneven light of the cavern, slashing low at one of the gun totting aliens then coming up high to incapacitate another. Between the three of them they tore through the gathering like a tidal wave, reducing the Grue numbers by more than half within a few heartbeats. "Immigration is a complex issue, kid!" the fencer called, keeping the thread of the bantering conversation without missing a beat despite his constant motion. "I'd like to hear the specifics of his platform!"

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Caught by surprise though they were the remaining robed aliens still outnumbered the heroes and their confused companion more than five-to-one and with their linked minds they quickly organized themselves for the counterattack. Half a dozen of the Grue not holding weapon in hand turned on the Metaceptor, raising their hands while their glossy black eyes widened slightly. For an brief moment nothing seemed to be happening, then the genetically engineered bioweapon shouted in agony, his weirdly amorphous face seeming to melt until his mouth disappeared in a flat plane wracked by whatever Grue experienced in lieu of muscle spasms. "Nnrgh! This... one... I... nein...! Gragh!" Clutching the sides of his head he staggered, collapsing down onto one knee.

 

The remaining Grue were less subtle in their attack as the cavern was lit up with a barrage of neon green darts of plasma from their otherworldly firearms. Echo ducked under the first volley but a pair of shots caught the young woman all the same, sizzling like she'd been struck by a metal rod pulled right out of the fire. Jack of all Blades fared better, dancing between the blasts with the benefit of years of experience. Even when the Grue changed up their strategy and began coordinating their fire to box the swordsman they proved no match for his agility. As he twisted about he spotted Bench running from where he'd been when they entered over to the machinery filling the cavern. Jack had no idea what any of it was for but it was putting off enough energy that he felt safe in the assumption that it was nothing good. "Kid! Echo! Stop Bench, I'll take care of this bunch! Hurry!"

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But I'm shot! was what Echo wanted to shout back, but she stopped herself on the grounds that nobody liked a whiner. Still, she had never been shot with alien weaponry before, and she made an on-the-spot vow to never repeat the experience. So she should probably stop Bench from doing whatever it was he was trying to do, or that might be a vow swiftly broken.

 

She broke into a run, sprinting towards Bench, then vanished in midstride, reappearing across the cavern directly in his path. "Going somewhere, Stewie?" Abandoning her flashy acrobatics, she settled for simply unleashing a vicious flurry of blows directly into his midsection, warping time around her arms so her fists were only an indistinct flicker of blueish motion. It didn't sound so much like a series of impacts as it did a single drawn-out smack. The assault left him reeling and shaking the little birdies from around his head, and she took that opportunity to wave a hand at the alien spacecraft. "You know, I'm very pro-immigration, but this is just nuts. You want to invade us, you gotta go through the proper channels. I'm going to need to see everybody's green card."

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While the Metaceptor reeled from the psychic onslaught the man from whom he'd been templated in part burst in furious motion. A controlled burst of laser fire vaporized rocks to his left as he feinted in that direction then pushed to the right, laying one unsuspecting Grue low with a rising strike then another when the panicking alien tried to tackle him at the waist. The momentum brought him to the group engaged in mental warfare, all of whom fell with pained grunts before they could successfully refocus on the physical arena. All around the cavern Jack danced, a blur of flashing flame and whirling greatcoat, always one step ahead of red hot darts of energy and limbs shapeshifted into wicked implements of slicing and piercing. The mind-linked invaders faltered as more and more of their brethren fell to the swordsman until the last few blows were little more than mopping up, leaving Jack standing amid literal piles of unconscious forms, giving the Metaceptor a hand to his feet.

 

Bench clutched his stomach where Echo had struck him, regaining his footing enough to look up and see that the odds had rapidly fallen out of his favour. Swallowing difficultly the suited man raised his other hand in a sign of surrender.

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Echo stared around the room at the heaps of unconscious aliens, then at Jack. She very slowly turned her head back to Bench. "I, uh," she jerked a thumb vaguely in the direction of the recent battle, "I totally coulda done that if I wanted to." I really need to spend more time training. "Anyway." She grabbed him by the collar with one hand and lifted him effortlessly off the ground. "You're finished, Stewie! Foiled! Out-played! Beaten! We have counteracted your every move and unraveled every detail of your nefarious scheme! Now," she hesitated, "tell us what it is. Not that we don't already know, we just want to hear it from you. And don't lie. Or we'll know." She narrowed her eyes threateningly, the effect ruined somewhat by the fact that she was wearing a full face mask. "And we'll get really mad."

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Bench blanched as he took a step back from Echo, bumping into the alien machinery behind him. Placing one hand to his head he looked about the cavern in apparent confusion. "I... Where am I?" he asked groggily, blinking rapidly before his eyes widened at the sight of the unconscious Grue. "What are those things?! I don't unders--"

 

"He's lying," the Metaceptor interrupted with a grunt as Jack helped him to his feet. The pronounced German accent was gone from his speech, leaving his English oddly precise and belonging to no one region, not unlike a news broadcaster. He shook his own head and for the first time since he'd walked in on Echo's investigation his features stopped shifting about, settling into something distinctly inhuman but she had to admit a bit handsome in an unearthly, androgynous sort of way. "But he's not a Grue, just a collaborator who thought he could profit off of an occupation."

 

Bench opened his mouth again to protest but a look at the heroes told him that the jig was definitely up. "How did you know?"

 

Rubbing his temples, the genetically engineered amalgamation offered the politician a thin smirk. "It seems that this one... that I have some skill in telepathy. Because I am a Grue, aren't I? I never was Jack of all Blades." The words were heavy and he looked down at his hands as though seeing them for the first time, unsure how to react.

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Echo looked at Bench with disgust. "Thought an alien invasion would be a good way to line your pockets, huh? You know, I was mad at you when I thought you were just stuffing the ballot box. As it stands, I kinda want to mess you up so bad you walk funny for a month." She shook a fist in his face. "You're lucky I'm so noble. And heroic. And ravishingly beautiful."

 

Turning her back on him very deliberately, she instead looked at...she supposed it wasn't right to call him Grack anymore. "I guess so. From a certain point of view. You are a Grue. And you weren't..." she tried to find the right words. "...you weren't the original Jack of all Blades. But hey, I know I just met you, but from what I could see, you were a pretty good one." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at Bench. "We might not have been able to take down Stewie here without your help, you know."

 

She stood silent a moment, then sighed. Look at me, acting like I know how he feels. "Look...I'm not going to pretend I know how you feel right now. But do know this - you helped us do something pretty good here. And even if you're not who you thought you were, there's always room for another cape in the sky."

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