“He was the best of them. One of the greatest heroes our country had ever known. But then… something happened.”

Independence Port – 5:15 PM

“They’re all dead!!” Max Payment screamed. He managed to land one punch before being spun around into a hammer lock. But the hold lasted only until the ex-Marine threw his mechanical arm into Nightstrike’s chin.

He spun around for another blow, but a green and white blur intercepted and sent him flying. Max leapt to his feet and lunged forward, oblivious to the sudden appearance of a shimmering blue dome until he slammed into it, nearly knocking himself unconscious.

Effigy was the first to break the silence, groaning as she tried to get to her feet. Adamantia let out a loud, resigned sigh and slumped her shoulders, still firmly anchored in webbing. Emerald ghost kicked the shield and yelled, “Who the hell is THIS loco?”

Max just screamed and punched the shield to no avail. Effigy took a second to register the beanbag on the ground that had knocked her out and looked up. “The Circle of Thorns would not send a mercenary such as this.”

“He’s not a mercenary,” Rampart cut in, perhaps a little too harshly.

Nightstrike looked curiously at Max, who was dropping to his knees, still hitting the shield and muttering, though the sound was too muffled to hear. “He’s the man I told you about from Perez Park. He helped me escape the Thorns the day this all started.”

“I’m not sure if I care who he is, ese. He tried to kill us.”

“Is someone going to get me out of this stuff?” Adamantia chimed in.

Rampart regarded Emerald Ghost. “Actually it appears he went to great lengths to not kill us.” He indicated the webbing as Effigy began to burn it away. Max was slumped on his knees now, sobbing. He threw one last, tired swing at the shield. “He merely gauged our abilities and used delaying tactics.”

“Quite effectively, too.” Nighstrike added.

“Despite whatever threw him into such a rage.” Rampart looked at Max with genuine concern. “You don’t know who this is, do you.”

“He just told me his name was Max Payment.”

“Max…” Emerald Ghost repeated in a trite tone, emphasizing the pause. “Payment?”

Rampart sighed and waved his hand. As the shield dissipated, everyone could hear Max repeat with a far weaker voice than earlier, “They’re all dead. You son of a bitch. What did you get me into? They’re dead.”

Nightstrike bent down and rested on his haunches. “Who’s dead?”

Max took a deep breath, rolling back to a seated position on the sidewalk. “They came out of nowhere. Hit us so hard and fast I couldn’t even track ’em. I think there was a frickin’ soul mage…”

Effigy looked sharply at Nightstrike. “The Circle.”

Emerald Ghost looked at her quizzically. “Duh.”

The redhead glared at him. Nightstrike interjected quickly, “The idea that they would target Max is uncharacteristic. It’s too overt for them.”

“Well maybe you shoulda’ told my men that!” Max snapped.

“You mean they’re in the hospital right?” Adamantia asked with an expectant tone. “Their subdermal transporters activated and sent to a medical center.”

Max just looked at the purple haired girl, then at Nightstrike. “Where the %&#$’d you get this one?”

Nightstrike bit back a sharp breath. “I’m sorry, Max. There’s nothing I can do to make up for it. But we can help you avenge them.”

“What?” Emerald Ghost blurted. Rampart shot him an icy glare.

“We formed to stop the Circle from unleashing a terrible evil on this world,” Nightstrike continued. “I had no idea this would happen. I wasn’t trying to bring you into this. But it seems this entire thing is being guided by something bigger than us.”

Max rose to his feet, scooping up his rifle in his flesh and bone arm. He looked off in the distance for a few seconds, tension easing from his features. “This team of yours have a name?” he asked at length.

“Shadowguard,” Effigy answered matter of factly. The others looked at her curiously at hearing the name for the first time. Some shrugged, others nodded, and all looked back at Max.

The cyborg’s eyes shifted to each with a measuring look. “Alright before anything,” he said with a suddenness that made each of them take notice. “I wanna make one thing clear. This needs to be said, especially for him.” He pointed at Emerald Ghost, who started to look defensive.

“And her,” Max added, darting a glance at Adamantia. “I can see it in your eyes. You think I’m just some jarhead who signed up so I can shoot people.” Javi’s expression did nothing to hide his agreement, but it switched to confusion as Max suddenly popped the clip out from his rifle and flipped it through the air at him.

“ESI rounds, jackass. Electro-Shock Impact. That’s what I save for the gangbangers and the clueless losers that the Lost sucker in. And Josie has a setting for low velocity.” He indicated a slide lever seated on the grip of his rifle.

He shot a look at Adamantia that made her flinch. “But we are at war. Don’t kid yourself into listening to any other company line. You give me a clean shot at a 5th Column solider, or a Tsoo, or Freak, or especially a Circle Jerk…” His voice grew noticeably gruffer before pausing on the last group. “Or anyone else who spits on everything I fought for… And I will shoot to kill.”

Max looked at each of them in turn, coming back again to Emerald Ghost. “I don’t pussyfoot with the enemy. I’m not here to play superhero. The Circle will pay for what they did. You got a problem with that… I don’t need you.”

Adamantia just stood there, looking uncomfortable. Emerald Ghost met Max’s stare with equal conviction, but took note of both Nightstrike and Rampart’s eyes on him as well. Effigy’s stance and expression revealed nothing of her side in this.

Without moving his eyes, Javi tossed the ammo clip back. “At least we know where we stand, homes.”

***

Markham stood atop a precipice, unable to deny being overwhelmed by the sight before him. Arrayed on every level, stretching across to every wall of the cavern was the most monstrous army he ever imagined he could witness. Each soldier stood eight feet at the shortest, with teeth and claws larger than many of the swords wielded by his own guards. They raised their horned heads proudly, facing the same plateau at the east end of the cave.

The attention of the behemoth army raised his fists in triumph as he spoke to his horde. Although of the same demonic race, there could be no question that this was their leader. His powerful frame dwarfed that of the ranking soldiers on the crystalline stage beside him. A wicked sword hung from his waist, glowing with power even in the sheath.

His name was G’rok. And this night he promised his army the blood they had been craving for too long. Soon they would unleash their fury on the humans that littered their former world.

G’rok’s eyes led those of his army up to rock platform where Markham stood and a cheer erupted, if the chaotic, demonic growl that he heard could be considered a cheer. The Energy Mage nodded in return to G’rok and a smile grew.

With a flourish, he turned around, took a few steps, and disappeared through a swirling red portal back to Earth.

***

The sun was about an hour away from setting over Independence Port, casting long ominous shadows over the neighborhood’s many industrial yards. The members of Shadowguard assembled in front of a dilapidated office tower, looking up at it as if it would literally come alive and attack them at any second.

“Why are we here again?” Emerald Ghost finally asked.

“When I said there was one more recruit, I didn’t mean Max.” Nightstrike cast a sidelong glance at the ex-Marine, who simply continued to study the building. “When Effigy described the threat we were facing, she indicated that she did not know the exact form it would take.”

“But you did make one thing clear,” he continued, bringing his focus to the fire mage. “The source of power behind all this was darkness. Pure, living, darkness. And I knew you were not speaking metaphorically. I’ve had some experience with exactly what you describe.”

He looked back up at the building in front of them. Some of the windows were boarded, but even those that were not covered seemed to repel the light.

“You said it yourself, Effigy. The only way you can hope to fight something like that is to understand it. To control it or it will control you. No one understands the nature of that kind of battle than Dr. Twilight.”

Rampart turned to look at Nightstrike. “Someone picked up the mantle of Dr. Twilight after all this time?”

Nightstrike just kept studying the building. “Nope.”

Rampart’s expression shifted from shock to revelation. “You can’t mean…”

“Yep.”

Effigy looked at Nightstrike like he just sprouted a third arm out of his head. “Wait,” she cut in. “You mean to tell me that Dr. Twilight is in there. THE Dr. Twilight.”

“So I have been led to believe.”

“There is some funky mojo coming offa this building, Strike,” Max said at last. His electronic eye dilated and flashed as he spoke. “Not just an aura, though. Looks solid.”

“Can you get through it?”

“I could waste some semtex and not promise anything. But I’m not the expert on force here.”

“Adamantia?” Rampart said as he stepped toward the door. She walked up next to him in front of the big double doors of the building, cracking her knuckles. He engineer scanned the door carefully. “You’re probably used to being the door opener when you team up, right?” he added softly. Adamantia flashed a wry grin.

“Damn,” he whispered. Though he wasn’t angry, he was impressed. He studied the readout on his visor intently, analyzing the bonds of the mysterious force that held the door closed.

“Wait.” He held up a hand to his teammate. He raised his other hand as if holding something in front of the door. His armor hummed as it emitted waves of gravimetric force from his gauntlet with surgical precision, causing the air to shimmer in front of them. He held his hand there for several more heartbeats, watching the energy bonds slowly weaken and break up.

“Now.”

With a solid two-armed push and a resounding crash, the doors slammed open and tumbled across the floor of the lobby inside.

An eerie silence filled the void, as all eyes were drawn to the darkened hallway that stretched beyond the lobby and deeper into the building. The rays of sunlight that filtered through the open doorway seemed to disperse as if trying to flee and apologize for intruding. A cool breeze wafted from inside over the gathered heroes.

“So…” Emerald Ghost said nervously. “Why are we doing this again?”

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