- December 18, 2015
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The Hard Luck Cafe
“Hey, that asshat is taking my picture!”
Dani slammed a small fist on café table and sprang from her chair.
“Wait… what?” Antares fumbled for his wallet to cover the tab while his date, Danielle Moonstar, dashed between two parked cars and into the side street traffic of downtown Arden Heights.
Antares was hoping for some peace and quiet in the quaint, exclusive town on Staten Island that afternoon. Well… a quiet lunch anyway, with any luck things would get louder later. He was holding on to that wonderful impulsiveness she had. It had nearly killed her several times in their fight against HYDRA and Madam Viper but now, as he watched her weave through traffic, it seems that the plan would backfire. Still though, he thought, a chase does get the blood pumping.
He dropped a $50 on the table and bolted after her. She was across the street, moving at a fast walk after a short man in a long coat and hat. He had a medium sized satchel at his side and he stowed something in it as he moved briskly down the sidewalk. After a brief and awkward sprint, Antares caught up to Dani.
“Those HYDRA twerps! They never know when to quit,” Dani said.
“Do you really think it’s them? We destroyed their entire European operation. Not sure they have the resources to tail us so soon. I understand they’d want revenge but-“
The short man tossed something straight down the sidewalk in front of him and ducked down an alleyway to the right. It looked like a small, black, polished stone. Dani pressed on down the sidewalk, striding right past him.
“Dani, where are you going? He went down the alley!” Antares yelled after her.
“No! He’s crossing the intersection. Can’t you see him? Hurry or we’ll lose him!”
Antares stopped at the entrance to the alley, unsure if he should follow the mysterious stranger or stay with Dani. She’s a big girl, he thought and turned into the alley.
After a few twists and turns, it was evident to both the small man and Antares that neither was going to outrun the either. The man turned and faced Antares. Antares knew something was coming, and he activated his true shape. Molten, magical steel covered him and the air around him shimmered with heat as he became Crucible. The mysterious small man gave a little laugh and pulled off his wide brimmed hat, revealing a shock of blond hair.
“I don’t usually do this kind of work. Watching and clicking pictures just isn’t my thing,” he said, his voice was a familiar growl. “Murder… now that’s different. That’s my thing.”
As he spoke, the stranger took off his jacket… or rather grew out of his jacket. As the coat came off he bulged and expanded into a seething mass of predatory muscle, teeth, and claws. The coat fell to the cobblestones and he held the leather satchel by its strap. Taller, wider, and meaner, Sabretooth looked down at Crucible.
“Take the hint, little guy. I don’t do the cloak stuff, just the dagger. Walk away now and consider yourself lucky. The people that are having me do this are bigger than you and me… put together. I couldn’t beat the pay and I didn’t really have a choice.”
Crucible considered his last meeting with Sabretooth, a long time ago. The Roughnecks had beaten him once but it had hurt. Bad.
“The camera, the pictures. The only way I’m walking away is if they come with me.”
Sabretooth roared forward and attacked without hesitation. His claws rent the air as Crucible jumped back. Crucible enshrouded himself in masking smoke and waded in to brawl with the seething villain. They traded blows back and forth. Crucible managed to avoid the worst of Sabretooth’s raking claws, but he watched with despair as Sabretooth quickly healed whatever wounds his steel fists managed to inflict. He knew that time was against him.
A streak of incandescence slammed into Sabretooth’s side and he whirled. Dani was drawing another bolt of psychic power into her energy bow. She loosed as Sabretooth leaped.
“I can see you, darlin. YOU’LL OPEN UP NICELY!” Sabretooth screamed as he sailed through the air.
He landed in front of her and she ducked under his claws. Crucible’s mind raced. He knew Dani wouldn’t last long toe-to-toe with a killer like Sabretooth. Crucible closed his eyes and constructed a rolling, snapping trap in his mind. An instant later, he had formed the device out of the liquid orichalcum that ran through his body. In seconds it hardened into an impressive rolling cage. He heaved it forward. Sabretooth slashed Dani and turned, leaping over the top of the device. Sabretooth growled at this new threat and charged Crucible.
Crucible’s shoulders sagged. He might not survive this next exchange. He saw the leather strap that was over Sabretooth’s chest and the satchel that rested on his hip. Something clicked. Sabretooth had been careful not to rattle the satchel too hard, and had kept it close. Crucible got into a solid stance and threw his arm and shoulder forward. His forearm extended in a stream of burning liquid metal. It coalesced into a razor sharp blade just as it struck the leather satchel, slicing it open and emptying its contents. Sabretooth’s eyes went wide and he skidded to a halt.
A digital camera, several small, smooth stones, and a steel cylinder had spilled from the bag. Sabretooth turned around and stood over the items and hesitated, as if unsure what item he should pick up first. Crucible saw his opening and rushed forward. He saw Dani staggering toward the items as well.
“Oops! Did you spill your purse?” Crucible taunted.
“I’ll spill your insides!” he roared. Sabretooth lashed out desperately with one claw and snatched up the camera with the other.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “either way this doesn’t end well for you, Crucible. There are people that want you, and they want you for something worse than what I could ever do to you. You should stand there and let me tear your throat. It would be a mercy. But it’s not practical for me. Gather up your little squaw and get out of here while you still can.”
Crucible answered with fire, exhaling a torrent of flames that set Sabretooth and the satchel alight. The digital camera melted in Sabretooth’s hands. He snarled and rounded on Crucible again. Dani was staggering forward, looking to grab the odd cylinder or one of the stones. Only now did Crucible see how badly she’d been hurt. She cradled one badly torn arm and held it tight against a slash in her side. Blood seeped through her fingers. Crucible reactivated his smokescreen. Sabretooth was flailing in the smoke, trying to land a decisive blow on Crucible, when he feinted and whirled on the unsuspecting Dani. He tore through her with both hands.
“You’re done, sweetheart,” he sneered.
Dani cried out and fell. Crucible screamed in a rage and cracked Sabretooth across the jaw with a steely fist. Sabretooth replied with a savage slash across Crucible’s chest, leaving jagged rents across his orichalcum skin. Crucible’s rage faded after he saw his opponent’s wounds close and the growing pool of blood under Danielle Moonstar’s motionless body. Time was not on his side.
“That’s right, buddy,” said Sabretooth, “at most you can save yourself.”
Crucible spat a gob of liquid metal into Sabretooth’s face. He heard it sizzle and Sabretooth snarl. In a last, desperate gamble, Crucible ducked, rolled, and threw himself over Dani’s body. He grasped the steel cylinder with one hand and put his other into the flames of the burning satchel. His mind bonded with the flame and he immediately became aware of all the other fires burning on Long Island. No time to browse, he thought and focused on the farthest flame he could. There was an implosion of smoke. Crucible, Danielle Moonstar, and the tube had disappeared.
Crucible heaved Dani’s unconscious body from the pile of burning leaves. It was autumn and the leaf pile was smoldering lazily in the evening sun behind a rickety townhouse. Crucible checked her wounds and bound what he could with strips of cloth he took from a nearby clothesline. Picking her up, and focusing once more, he teleported them through the embers of the burning leaves to one of the grand hearths of Spector Manor. He called for Malpractice. The healer went to work while Crucible examined the steel cylinder.
On closer examination, it had a removable cap like a map case. He popped off the top and removed a rolled scroll from the container. It was a technical schematic, but not like anything he’d seen before. It detailed two pieces of armor, an arm guard and a leg guard. The pieces offered full protection, it seemed like they’d need to be riveted in place like the famous and romanticized armors of medieval knights. There were specifications in the margins but they were written in two ancient languages. Crucible could read one… ancient Greek. He couldn’t decipher the other, but from his studies (and from hanging out with his buddy Axl) he could tell that the markings were Asgardian runes. The Greek script spelled out the dimensions of the armor. The arm was around 5 feet long and the leg piece was over 7 feet long. He wondered what these pieces were supposed to fit… and why a killer like Sabretooth would be carrying this around. There was a second piece of paper in the tube, a printout. It was a Google map with an address in Brooklyn and a time. Crucible checked the clock. An hour from now…
Sabretooth stood alone on the cobblestones in the alleyway. All the smoke had cleared. His tools for the job were gone. He sighed and considered his employer. Not one to trifle with… but Sabretooth had dealt with unhappy employers before. They always came around, no matter how bad they were. He had both the skills and the enthusiasm that entertained the twisted folks that liked to hire him. Crucible or Antares or whoever couldn’t hide forever. He had the scent. Sabretooth could find him, no doubt.
He picked up one of the smooth stones. It was a polished and carved with an Asgardian rune. He concentrated on the stone’s power and it dissolved, covering him in another long coat and shrinking him back down to man-sized unobtrusive insignificance. Sabretooth smiled, took a whiff of the intoxicating blood-scented air and cocked his hat. Another hunt awaited.