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Tales from the Underworld: Trial by Combat

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Shadow Elusive
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Tales from the Underworld: Trial by Combat

Watching the trial had been fun, right up until the superpowered villains crashed through the wall.

Frank Castilucci had initially felt awkward and exposed. He hadn’t been out in a suit without packing heat in years, but it would’ve been too risky trying to sneak a weapon into the courtroom. Worse, even in a rear pew of the courtroom, he was surrounded by cops and reporters. But as la Rosa Nera’s man on the whole Ironport Fiasco matter, he had to be there, to keep an eye on things.

He soon relaxed into his seat on the hard bench. No one paid him any attention, focused as they were on the way that big lawyer, Hoss, systematically demolished the Commonwealth’s case. It was especially satisfying to see that hoity-toity D.A. taken down a peg. Late on the first day, after Hoss savaged that creepy dog-thing from the TCPD on cross, the judge had overruled some objection or something she’d made. The woman had turned so red so fast, Castilucci had thought she might keel right over.

Of course, she hadn’t, and the trial had dragged on. Castilucci’s mind began to wander. It became more and more obvious that Topaz, that hero, probably hadn’t murdered Detective Aragon. But if he hadn’t, Castilucci wondered, who had? Father Omerta hadn’t really asked him to find the real killer, but the problem kept nagging at him. Castilucci had started making a mental list of everyone who might’ve wanted Aragon dead when the wall blew apart and the Tarot stepped through.

Even as a veteran enforcer, Castilucci couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed. This wasn’t some punk with a ray gun or a Chaser addict shooting fire out of his butt. As the Tarot’s shadows knifed through the sunlight pouring through the dust that now billowed through the room, Castilucci knew he was in the presence of something more than mortal, something far out of his league. As if to underscore the point, Captain Sun, Tarot’s fire-wielding scientist, floated serenely above his comrades, as if disdaining to touch the ground like a mortal being.

The huge, armored figure of Agent Tower loomed over the panicked crowd. “You called for us, Topaz,” said the villain, “and we’ve come to get you! Now, everyone just stay out of the way, and you won’t get hurt. Get in our way, and you die.”

Castilucci frowned. He felt more comfortable issuing threats than obeying them. But more than that, something about this didn’t make sense. He hadn’t heard a word of gossip around the Opal Room or elsewhere in the underworld about this, and something like Topaz contacting the Tarot while imprisoned would’ve been big news. Had Topaz been dirty all the time? A glance at the hero’s stunned expression implied that he was just as surprised by the whole thing as everyone else.

It was a set-up. Someone else had hired Tarot to do this, to incriminate Topaz. Castilucci frowned harder; he wished he’d thought of something like this. But he hadn’t. So who was behind it?

The Chariot, the Tarot’s speedster, zipped around Agent Tower to quip, “Please, say you’ll get in our way.”

Mouthy little punk, thought Castilucci.

Before anyone else could move, a growl of “TCPD! Freeze!” echoed through the room. It was Gherrenfur, that dog-thing from the TCPD, looking stranger than usual in a suit with its tail sticking out the back of its pants. “On the ground, now!” The creature’s lips and ears pulled back in a snarl.

Castilucci recognized Yao Zheng, the police Commissioner himself, taking some kind of fancy martial arts stance next to the dog. On its other side stood a serious-looking, dark-haired woman. Her wary posture, cheap pantsuit, and steady look screamed “cop.” None of them had so much as a slingshot against the Tarot’s might, but they didn’t flinch. Castilucci couldn’t help admiring their guts.

Then the Tarot attacked, and everyone started screaming and running. Castilucci crouched behind the pew in front of him to watch.

Captain Sun flung a fireball at the three cops, who scattered like they’d rehearsed the move. The dog-guy recovered his footing first and sprang through the air at Agent Tower’s faceplate. With a grunt of fury, a muscular woman in an outfit that looked like it was made out of a lion—Dame Strength, Castilucci thought—grabbed one of the huge, heavy counsel tables and batted him out of the air like a tennis ball.

The Chariot, the mouthy kid, drew a polished, razory-looking ring from his belt and dashed at the Commissioner. Castilucci expected the punk to slice the pompous ex-hero in half, but the Commissioner stepped aside just in time, making a funny-looking punching motion at the air. The Chariot came around for another super-speed pass. This time, the Commissioner swung long before the Chariot drew close. The kid ran himself right into the cop’s fist and sprawled on the ground, knocked out.

Castilucci couldn’t help smiling a little. There was a trick to fighting fast guys.

On the far side of the courtroom, Dame Strength prepared to crush the dog-thing with the table. To Castilucci’s astonishment, the defense lawyer, Hoss, tackled the woman from the side and began pounding her with the lawyers’ lectern. Castilucci whistled. He’d heard Hoss had superstrength, but he’d never expected to see the mouthpiece unleash it, especially not to help a bunch of cops.

As Castilucci watched, bailiffs began to pile into the fight. One charged Tarot’s Lady Fortune, who zapped him with some kind of lightshow. The bailiff tripped over his own feet, knocking over two cohorts behind him.

By now, about half of the gallery had managed to dash out the courtroom’s rear doors, and the other half had taken cover like Castilucci. The jurors and court personnel up in the front of the courtroom, though, remained caught in the middle of the fight between the Tarot on one side and the three TCPD and the bailiffs on the other.

Captain Sun, still hovering over the fight, screamed, “Get out of the way, you insects!” at a group blocking Tarot’s line of retreat. Flames burst into being around his hand, and he drew it back as if to fling another fireball.

A law book sailed through the air and smacked Captain Sun in the back of his head. He jerked around. “Who dares?” he shouted.

The lady cop, standing unafraid, shouted, “Me!” She threw another book, striking Captain Sun full in the face. She threw more.

“This fight is beneath me,” sneered the villain. He jetted out through the hole in the wall.

Castilucci whistled. He’d been around enough superpowered fights to know that ordinary folks who tangled with powered villains tended to end up in the hospital if they were lucky and the morgue if they weren’t. The TCPD woman had serious guts, taunting Captain Sun just to save a bunch of bystanders.

From the corner of his eye, Castilucci spotted Tarot’s Master Magician, in his stage magician’s outfit, gesturing for Topaz to follow him out the gap in the wall. Topaz pushed him aside and shouted at him, but Castilucci was too far to distinguish any words. He glanced around. No one else was watching Topaz; they were all too busy watching the TCPD dog-thing dodge swipes by an increasingly angry Agent Tower.

Castilucci admired Topaz’s spine, standing up to one of the Tarot. But it didn’t do him any good. As the old gangster watched, a skeletal hand, tinted an unearthly bluish grey, slipped around Topaz’s throat. The hand’s owner, a skeleton dressed to the nines in a pinstripe suit and fedora, caught Topaz as the hero collapsed unconscious in clearly unnatural fright. Castilucci shuddered himself. As a kid growing up in Little Venice, he’d heard tons of scare stories about Mr. Death, a Rosa Nera’sl own fallen son. Castilucci had faced plenty of tough guys, even tough magic guys before, but he’d never really outgrown his childhood fear of the skeleton in the suit.

He shook his head to clear it. The room was still a freaking war zone. A guy could get killed if he didn’t stay aware and out of the way. He surveyed the room, checking for each member of the Tarot. Master Magician and Mr. Death were hustling Topaz out through the gap in the wall. Lady Fortune carried the unconscious Chariot out the same way. The police commissioner, the dog, and the remaining bailiffs had ganged up on Agent Tower. Step by step, punch by punch, they forced him back. Dame Strength flung Hoss at the judge’s bench, splintering it to pieces. Captain Sun had already fled. The lady cop was trying to herd the terrified jurors to safety while scanning the battlefield for any loose enemies.

The suit of armor, the wrecker, the speedster, the burner, the showman, the mage, the corpse. One card left in this deck of eight, Castilucci thought. The madman. An ordinary man, but the craziest and scariest of them all. Where the heck was Judgment?

If he hadn’t been listening for the quiet chuckle, Castilucci would’ve missed the villain. A figure in a simple, black coat and a cloth mask painted with a stern face loomed out of the dust cloud around what had been the judge’s bench. It figured that a guy called “Judgment” would conceal himself there. A knife gleamed in his hand. He drew it slowly back to throw.

Castilucci followed Judgment’s gaze … to where the lady cop stood oblivious, urging jurors away from the fight.

Later on, he wondered why he’d done what he did. It made no sense. She was just some cop. His natural enemy, in a way. No one he knew or cared about. Maybe it was that he admired the way she’d stood up to a guy who could burn her alive armed only with a stack of heavy books. Maybe it was the fearlessness in her eyes. Maybe it was just that he didn’t like the idea of a sucker punch.

Whatever the reason, before he realized it, Castilucci shouted, “Look out, lady!” and pointed at Judgment behind her.

The cop turned just as Judgment threw the knife. She dodged and took the blade in the shoulder instead of the back.

Judgment’s masked face turned to Castilucci. “Contempt of court!” the villain snarled. Though he spoke softly, Castilucci heard him as if Judgment stood beside him. It made his blood run cold, worse than when he’d spotted Mr. Death. As he watched, Judgment hurdled the wrestling Hoss and Dame Strength, sprang over the rail at the front of the courtroom, and landed lightly on the bench beside Castilucci.

“Your turn to be sentenced, Good Samaritan,” he said, drawing another knife from his coat.

Castilucci reached for his shoulder holster on instinct before he realized he wasn’t armed. I’m going to get killed by some long-haired punk in a bad mask, he thought, too surprised to be frightened. It wasn’t how he’d planned to go.

“Judgment, no time for playing!” shouted Agent Tower. “Let’s go!”

Judgment growled incoherently and backhanded Castilucci. For relatively slender guy, the villain hit like a freight train. Castilucci sprawled back, tried to look inoffensive, and hoped Judgment would take his chief’s orders. To Castilucci’s relief, Judgment sprang away and slipped out through the damaged wall.

By the time Castilucci felt safe to raise his head, the Tarot were gone. Commissioner Yao Zheng was helping a clerk out of the ruins of the bench. The bailiffs and spectators dusted themselves off. The dog guy rubbed his furry neck and, ruefully, shook hands with Hoss. Both their suits hung in tatters.

“Man,” said Castilucci to no one in particular, “that was some show, all right.”

“You all right?” asked a female voice beside him. He turned to see the female cop. How had she snuck up on him? Castilucci realized he was more rattled than he’d thought.

“It was, uh, nothing,” he said. A cop was the last person he wanted to talk to. Just because he’d kept a maniac from knifing her didn’t mean he wanted her to remember he’d been there. He struggled to keep his eyes from flicking back and forth shiftily. “Nothing to what you did. That took some sand, calling out Captain Sun.”

She smiled crookedly. “I get paid to take risks,” she said. “You don’t.”

Lady, you have no idea, Castilucci thought. Father Omerta wouldn’t believe this story.

Commissioner Yao Zheng began making standard “move along in an orderly fashion” cop noises. Castilucci took that as his cue to get out of this awkward conversation.

“I better go,” he said, pointing to the door.

“Thanks again,” said the woman as he walked out. “And take care of yourself! Titan City needs guys like you!”

The words ate at him. Though he’d done the right thing by anyone’s standards, for some reason, Castilucci felt vaguely guilty as he made his quiet way out of the courthouse.

Written by - Jack 'O'lantern' Snyder

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