Author's note: First of all, I'd like to explain why this is a separate document instead of a chapter in The Guardians. Call me a perfectionist, OCD, or whatever, but I had to have the numbering just right, because I had always planned to do an annual issue. And if I put this in with the regular story, it would be counted as issue thirteen, and then issue thirteen would be counted as issue fourteen, and so on and so forth. So I made a new story. I guess this story will only have one chapter for a while, but it will eventually contain future Guardians annuals and the annuals of any additional superhero story that I may eventually begin.

Secondly, sorry that this issue was somewhat late. I have recently discovered both Media Player and Movie Maker on my new-ish computer, and they have consumed a lot of time that would have otherwise been spent on The Guardians. Plus this is the giant-sized annual, which means that it's longer, and took longer to write. It took up fifteen pages of a Microsoft Word document, so brace yourself if you're preparing to read it.

The Guardians Giant-Sized Annual #1

"Menace" part 6 of 6


March 2007

"No way," breathed the Shadow. "This is so not good…"

"Aw, no…" Titanium Man lamented.

Their sentiments, though not voiced in the most eloquent way possible, were felt by all five of his teammates—Forcefield, Snowflake, Enormo, Fire Girl, and Titanium Man, as they stood, bewildered, facing the clone of their first and most terrible enemy, the monstrous entity known as Wrath. Facing him the first time had been bad enough, and though they had one more member and were more experienced now, they were all worn out from multiple battles with the Masked Menace, which had preceded their present situation by mere moments. To have to face a being such as Wrath was completely unexpected and something that none of them were quite prepared to deal with.

"Not good for you, perhaps, Shadow," said Dr. Edward Canem, alias the Masked Menace, speaking haughtily, albeit from a defeated position on the ground. "But for me, this is all according to plan. Isn't it, my loyal servant?"

"Loyal servant?" Shadow whispered to himself. "Who's he talking to? It's not like Wrath is going to be able to respond—"

"Yes, my master," said a deep, gravelly, and hideous voice. "Our plan will inevitably succeed."

"My plan," Canem rebuked the owner of the voice.

"What?" exclaimed Enormo. "How…How did that happen?"

"That shouldn't be possible," Forcefield mused, lost and unsure despite being a genius and the unofficial team leader.

"What's going on, Canem?" Snowflake demanded, tired of all the questions and troubles they had faced already in this venture.

Dr. Canem smiled. He loved doing this to the Guardians. "Oh, how silly of me! It must have slipped my mind, but I do seem to recall that the Wrath you fought was incapable of such speech."

"Yeah," said Fire Girl. "And…?"

"But I am not the Wrath you fought," said the same rough, gruesome voice, which did indeed belong to Wrath. "I am in every way the superior to my predecessor." It sounded bizarre and awkward for such articulate speech to be coming from a hulking behemoth, covered in scraggly black hair, who had previously been known for its small mental capacity and reliance only on brute strength.

"He has quite a vocabulary, does he not?" Dr. Canem pointed out. "You see, as I have already told you, I used the residual DNA from the original Wrath's attack on me—pieces of his hair which remained in my home—to clone him. But I knew that the original Wrath was completely beyond control, and that if I were to use Wrath in my service, I would need to be able to reason with him."

"So you taught him," Forcefield speculated.

"As I'm sure you know, a clone does not reach full growth right away," the Masked Menace continued. "So when the clone was still small, in its early stages, I experimented, and increased its mental capacity, which had previously resembled that of a wild animal, but now is closer to a human of average intelligence. And yes, I taught him. As I sped up the growth process, I saw too it that he learned and studied, and could logically think and reason. It's the perfect combination—still driven by the same intense rage, but now intelligent and controllable. His development is not yet complete, either physically or mentally, but is certainly fit to deal with you six."

Wrath's clone grinned, revealing two rows of enlarged and jagged teeth. "It will be a simple and pleasurable task," he uttered.

"Uh, guys, I think we'd better get ready to fight," Fire Girl said, raising flaming fists against Wrath. In their encounter with the original Wrath, it had been his affliction to fire that had enabled the Guardians to defeat him. Hopefully, the new Wrath still retained this weakness.

The cloned behemoth wasted no more time. Propelling himself with enormous legs, the hideous creature launched itself without warning toward the assembled Guardians, smiling wickedly.

"Uh-oh," said Enormo, bracing himself to defend against the assault, though unsure if even his enlarged form would stand up against the strength of their foe. Fortunately, he didn't have to find out, for a circular, gold-colored plane, the trademark of their leader Forcefield, appeared above to shield them from Wrath's fall.

"Nice move, Forcefield," Shadow commented, moving out from under the field.

"Didn't you save my life like that once before?" Enormo asked, relieved.

"Sorry, Enormo, but this is no time for flippancy," Forcefield replied, still holding up the field. "This battle will not be easy, and we all need to focus on defeating Wrath and staying alive."

"Right. Good point," Enormo conceded.

"Foolish heroes," Wrath spoke from his position resting on the forcefield. "Your powers cannot contain me!"

Enormo decided that it was not the time to point out the fact that it sounded like Dr. Canem had taught Wrath to speak with corny, cliché action movies.

"We've got Wrath where we want him," Snowflake said. "Quick, Fire Girl, blast him!"

"With pleasure." The young metahuman raised her hands and pointed towards the forcefield, releasing a full blast of flame, and pinpointing it right on Wrath. The flame seemed to scorch the outer layer of the black hair that covered his whole body, piercing through to his skin, and hopefully hurting enough to disable him. Though she wasn't sure, it appeared to Fire Girl that the Forcefield was absorbing some of the heat, magnifying it, and even transferring even more heat to Wrath.

Momentarily, she stopped applying the heat and stood back to survey the damage. Wrath lay facedown, not apparently conscious, but not necessarily unconscious either. A faint aroma of smoke could be detected from the monster's singed and blackened hair.

"Uh…is that it?" Snowflake asked, uncertain.

"What? I don't even get to punch that thing?" Titanium Man protested.

"Don't be so sure yet," Forcefield advised, noticing a few stirrings from their inhuman foe. "He may not be out for the count."

Wrath began to groan painfully and gradually brought himself upward. As he stood, the groaning continued, quickly transitioning into words. "That…really…hurt!" sounded the menacing voice as Wrath regained his strength, fueled by renewed ire, and prepared to once again jump from the energized platform.

Forcefield wasted no time. Right before Wrath could launch himself into the air, he terminated the field, interfering with Wrath's attack and causing him to fall to the ground with a thunderous crash and an unpleasant roar.

Snowflake smiled, noting the resourcefulness in the simple yet clever maneuver her friend had just carried out. She saw Wrath, seemingly unstoppable, getting up again, and she readied herself for defense, frightened but confident in the team's ability to handle this foe.

"Nice thinking, 'Field," Titanium Man complimented.

"No time for congratulations yet," Forcefield stated, noting that Wrath, growling fiercely, was already beginning to get back up. "Titanium Man—you wanted to see how strong you were against him, right?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"He's getting back up. Get to it!"

"Don't have to tell me twice," Titanium Man answered, always eager to make good use of his metallically enhanced strength.

Titanium Man mustered up his strength and prepared to fight. But Wrath had gotten up and was getting wise. Before Titanium Man had a chance to strike, his hulking enemy flung him across the room with a flick of one gargantuan hand. Titanium Man crashed painfully against a distant wall.

"Wrath did that to Titanium Man!" Shadow noted in horror. "And he's strong!"

"This is bad…" Fire Girl stated.

But Titanium Man was not to be outdone. Getting a running start from the point where he had landed, the metallic warrior jumped into the air and landed a kick right into Wrath's face, sending the behemoth staggering backward. Wrath screeched in pain—an inhuman and quite unpleasant sound.

"Yeah!" Titanium Man shouted victoriously, throwing more punches at Wrath. "Let's see how you like this!"

"I don't!" Wrath answered, fury in his voice. Enormo thought this was a strange and rather inadequate comeback, but then again, perhaps Wrath hadn't been versed in human idioms and mannerisms as well as just basic speech. Maybe he had taken Titanium Man's comment literally.

But Wrath certainly didn't like it, and he would have no more of it. With the next blow that came from Titanium Man, the monster grabbed his arm and lifted him—by the arm—several feet above the floor. Titanium Man wriggled around, trying to escape, but his efforts were in vain. "Not so strong now, are you?" Wrath taunted.

Enormo was watching all of this, and didn't like what he saw. He wanted to do something to help, but he didn't know what. His powers of increasing his size gave him what seemed like super strength, but it was still the same in comparison to his size. Still, he needed to do something, and as he watched the battle and saw his teammate being held by his enemy, he thought he noticed Wrath falter a bit. This was his chance—Enormo stepped in and swung his hardest blow at Wrath.

Wrath staggered slightly in the opposite direction, where—to Enormo's surprise—another concentrated beam of flame was coming at Wrath from Fire Girl, this time focused particularly on the arm that held Titanium Man. The monster shrieked and let go of his prey.

"Good work, Fire Girl! Keep up the fire!" Enormo called encouragingly.

She did. The fire kept coming, and Wrath began to retreat—though it seemed he was strangely silent about it. He did not fight back, but merely ran down a long and nearby corridor, away from where the Guardians presently were. Fire Girl and Titanium Man pursued him immediately.

Forcefield's brow furrowed as he watched the events. "Something's not right here," he commented to Snowflake. "There must be a reason for that sudden change in behavior."

She looked up at him. "That monster is alive again and on the loose. That's what isn't right." Forcefield was silent, unconvinced. "Come on," his companion urged. "Are we going to go help our teammates?"

"Uh…Of course," Forcefield said, racing after Wrath, with Snowflake, the Shadow, and Enormo following close behind him. They left the area where Edward Canem had been lying in defeat; with him being so quiet and Wrath coming onto the scene, the Guardians had all but forgotten about him.

Dr. Canem smiled. It had not been an easy process to teach Wrath, a creature of very basic intelligence, the concept of feigning retreat for the Guardians in the event of his own defeat. Wrath still wasn't a very good actor, and Dr. Canem had noticed the suspicion in the face of the one they called Forcefield. But the trick had worked; he was out of the Guardians' scrutiny.

Quickly yet carefully, Dr. Canem—known as the Masked Menace—picked himself up, and then picked up the mask which had been torn from his scarred face and deposited on the ground. He donned it once again and pulled his hood over his head, restoring an aura of mystery and menace. Pulling a small vial and needle out of his a pocket on his belt, he gave himself a quick injection with what he had come to refer to as his 'strength serum'. It would temporarily renew his health, stamina, and energy. Though his electric gloves had been disabled, he still had super strength, and other tricks built into his suit which the Guardians didn't know about. With Wrath assisting him now, the Masked Menace was confident he would not fail.

The Masked Menace jumped into the air and flew down the corridor to hunt his quarry.

"Forcefield, look out!"

The call came from Snowflake, who had noticed the Masked Menace flying—literally flying—at Forcefield from behind. The Guardians' leader turned to look behind him just in time to see their opponent, masked and cloaked once again, coming straight towards him. Forcefield dodged, causing the Menace to only jar his shoulder slightly rather than crash head on into his chest and send him falling to the ground.

The Menace slowed, realizing that he had missed his prey. He maneuvered in midair, turning around and hovering above the ground.

"Don't think you've gotten rid of me that easily," the villain taunted.

"All of this has been easy?" Enormo muttered to himself.

Forcefield looked up at the Menace. "Let me guess," he said, foreseeing his opponent's tendency to gloat of his accomplishments. "Antigravity?"

"Why, I thought you'd never ask," commented the Menace, glancing down at his specially-engineered boots, from which a strange energy seemed to be emitting, keeping him afloat. Even Wrath took a break from fighting to glance up and listen while his master spoke. "These boots have been fitted with special propulsion thrusters that—"

The Menace got an oversized, transparent, golden-colored boxing glove in the face and staggered backward, stunned.

"Had to get him while he was distracted," Forcefield commented.

The Masked Menace stood up once again—or at least, retained a standing position while hovering in midair. "I have had enough of your games, Forcefield! Wrath—you and I will now destroy them all!"

"Gladly," Wrath uttered in his gruesome, guttural tone.

"Oh, no you don't," said Snowflake, blasting a beam of frigid ice into the gigantic monster's face.

"Rraaarrrggh!" Wrath growled. "You'll pay for that!"

"Definitely learned from cliché action movies," Enormo commented as he dodged Wrath's rampage to try to stop the Menace. In his enlarged form, he was about at eyelevel with the Menace hovering in midair. Before his opponent could try anything, Enormo reached out and tried to physically pull his foe down from the air, not entirely knowing with what purpose he did this, but thinking that he should do anything that would disrupt the Menace's plan.

"Get off of me, boy!" the Menace shouted.

"Hmm…no," Enormo replied, bringing him closer to the ground. Not his wittiest response ever, but sufficient for the spur of the moment.

As Titanium Man was trading blows with Wrath and Forcefield struggled to contain the latter, the Shadow and Fire Girl came up near Enormo. "Need a hand?" she asked.

"A foot would be more like it," Shadow retorted, phasing through one of the antigravity boots to remove its essential components. "I'd say that this guy's flying days are over."

"And I'd second that," Fire Girl said, igniting and destroying the other one. The Masked Menace fell helplessly to the floor. He began to get up again—it seemed he was always reluctant to give up—but Enormo socked him with an oversized fist, just for good measure.

"Good work. Now, let's go deal with Wrath," Fire Girl said.

"Wait," said Shadow. "We've got to make sure that he doesn't get back up again. This will be a whole lot easier if we can all focus on just one villain instead of juggling between two."

"You're right," Enormo acknowledged. "Hey, Forcefield! Can you do something with this guy?" He indicated the grounded Menace.

Forcefield glanced over and understood. He stepped closer to them and put up a small cage around the Menace, keeping their enemy barred like a common prisoner. "I just hope I can hold him long enough for us to defeat Wrath, too," he said.

At that moment, Titanium Man was struggling to hold Wrath back from further destruction, while Snowflake was doing her best to freeze him in place by icing his feet. In the midst of the fighting the behemoth looked up, and noticed something that bothered him: his master lying trapped on the floor. He broke away from Titanium Man in attempt to rectify the situation.

"Oh, no," said Enormo, realizing what was happening. "Wrath is going to try to hurt Forcefield and free the Masked Menace! Fire Girl, go lure him away somehow!"

"But how do I—"

"You're the one with the fire!" Enormo answered. "Go shoot him from far away, so he'll go towards you instead of to Forcefield."

"Um…okay," Fire Girl agreed, fervently hoping that some of her comrades would be there to back her up when Wrath came to her. She hastily darted past all the chaos to the farthest spot from which she thought she could successfully blast him—a staircase leading upward—and began the diversion. "Hey, big and brainless!" she called tauntingly, hoping that Wrath's basic intelligence would not be enough to detect such an obvious lure. "Leave him alone, will you?"

Wrath certainly reacted to the fire, screaming and arching his back in pain. He turned around to see that Fire Girl was far behind him, shooting a stream of flame several feet thick. He would have to do something about that—but not before freeing his master. Fire Girl had not been quite quick enough—Wrath had reached Forcefield, and knocked him to the ground with the swing of a giant hand, right before running in the other direction to pursue Fire Girl.

Being knocked down has severely fumbled Forcefield's conversation, more than enough to disintegrate the Menace's temporary prison. Overjoyed, the Menace stood and got right back into action once again, fleeing away further down the corridor, and Forcefield and Snowflake began to pursue him once again.

"Um, I could use some help!" Fire Girl shouted, as she gradually retreated up the staircase to avoid being cornered by Wrath. "Enormo…Uh, somebody?"

"Just hang on!" Enormo called, rushing to rescue her. "We'll need your strength too, Titanium Man!" he said as he passed his metallic ally.

"Right. I'm on the way!" came the reply,

"Uh, me too!" Shadow said, running towards them.

"Shadow! Wait!" Forcefield called. "We need some help with the Masked Menace, too!"

"Sure," Shadow answered, turning towards the call for help. He wasn't quite sure where he would be needed, but realized that Forcefield was right; his powers would be of more use against the Menace than against Wrath, and this way at least they were divided into two even groups of three. He just hoped that three would be enough to defeat each opponent who had required their entire team before.

The Masked Menace flew down the corridor, to an exit that led outside. Having spent a lot of time in this building as Dr. Edward Canem, it made sense that he would know where all the exits were. But was he actually retreating, or leading them somewhere where he knew he could trap them?

Forcefield, Snowflake, and Shadow followed him out the door.

In maneuvering to contain and avoid Wrath, the four had quickly progressed to the top of the staircase, which happened to lead to the roof of the building, three stories off the ground. As he struggled to best their collective opponent, Enormo tried not to look over the edge of the roof or think about what would happen if one of them tripped. Fortunately, he had plenty else to think about, with Wrath keeping all of them occupied.

Wrath and Titanium Man were pushing against each other, each trying to knock the other down. "Enormo, we need your help!" Titanium Man called. "Fire Girl's doing the best she can, and I'm strong, but he's stronger!"

Enormo knew that his slightly enhanced strength was not very much compared to Titanium Man's. But he needed to be doing something to bring them closer to victory. In recent months he had grown accustomed to running into dangerous situations, and now ran unhesitatingly towards the fight.

He stood next to Titanium Man. Wrath reached out and pushed him away quite forcefully, where he fell on the hard surface of the roof a few feet away. The gargantuan monster chuckled, which was not at all a pleasant sound. "This one, at least, is almost a match for my strength," Wrath uttered mockingly. "But you? Pitiful. Not worth my time." He launched another blow at Titanium Man.

"That's it," said Fire Girl, seeing Enormo struggling to get back up, and determined to put an end to things. "You hurt Enormo—now I'll hurt you." Tapping into inner reserves of strength, Fire Girl increased the heat of her flame, projecting it at Wrath from behind. She watched as the bright orange glow spread across the monster's back, consuming everything in its path. Wrath faltered momentarily and took a moment to regain his footing. Titanium Man took advantage of the moment and slammed his fist into Wrath's face.

"Take that, you freak," he said scornfully as the monster groaned in pain. Titanium Man moved in closer to hit him again, but was not expecting to be hit in the stomach by Wrath's foot, as the beast regained his sturdy footing.

"Oof!" Titanium Man's collision with the surface of the roof did not feel very pleasant, and left dents in the concrete where his metallic body had hit.

Fire Girl refused to quit. She was not sure how much stronger she would be able to make her flame, but continued to shoot it towards Wrath. This time aimed at his face in hopes that that would accomplish something more.

Wrath staggered for a moment, and Enormo was able to get back up, hoping to be able to strike his foe in his moment of weakness. Though his body still ached in more places than he could number, he gradually made his way over to the monster's location, unnoticed for the time being. Maybe if he could push Wrath far enough to get him over the edge—

"Insolent girl!" Wrath thundered, addressing Fire Girl and interrupting Enormo's thoughts. "You have the power that can weaken me, but I will not allow you to be a thorn in my side any longer." The behemoth moved towards Fire Girl, persevering through the stream of fire in hopes to extinguish it once and for all. He grabbed her by the hands, smothering the source of her fire and leaving her nearly helpless. Jagged, grotesque teeth showed through his malicious grin.

"Let go of me!" Fire Girl cried, terrified at having the monster confront her this closely.

"Gladly," Wrath answered. He thrust her powerfully away from himself, where she toppled backward over the edge of the roof with a shrill and desperate scream.

"He shouldn't be too hard to deal with now," Forcefield commented optimistically. "It seems we've already disabled most of his weapons—unless he had anything else concealed that we didn't know about." The Menace was ahead of them, racing around the side of the building, as the three Guardians tried to keep up. They had no idea what he was planning, but would soon find out. He turned around to face them.

"Do you mean like that weird-looking gun he's pointing at us?" Shadow inquired.

"Yes, like that one," Forcefield answered dryly.

The Menace fired three times, and three bolts of energy shot out from the gun. Shadow phased into intangible, and Forcefield put up a shield to deflect the beam. The third one was for Snowflake, and though she swerved to avoid it, the deadly laser barely hit its target—right on the side of her arm.

"Aah!" Snowflake shouted, pain engulfing her arm. She faltered and Forcefield stayed back to help her up. Shadow did not want to face the Masked Menace alone, so he remained with the group as well, while the Menace ran off ahead.

"Snowflake, are you all right?" Forcefield inquired with genuine concern. "He didn't hurt you, did he?"

She held up her limp arm. "Don't worry. It hurts, but I'll be okay. I'm sure it'll heal eventually…and I've still got the other one for now. We can't let the Menace get away…"

"Of course we can't," said Forcefield. "But…are you sure you'll be okay?"

"Forcefield, you don't have to worry about me like this. I'll be fine. Come on!"

They ran ahead, following the Menace's path. They had seen him turn the corner towards the area where the area where the Guardians had first entered the building. Shadow, Snowflake, and Forcefield turned the same corner—but the Menace was nowhere in sight.

"He can't have gone far—" Forcefield began, but stopped to listen. He heard what sounded like a motor, a faintly familiar humming noise, overhead. He looked up. "Oh, no."

Shadow and Snowflake looked up, too. "He's trying to escape!" Snowflake said.

"He hijacked the Guardian-mobile!" Shadow exclaimed.

"I knew I should've made it DNA coded!" Forcefield lamented. "But it didn't seem like there was enough time—"

"Forcefield, can you get us up to him, before he takes it too high?" asked Snowflake.

"I don't know," Forcefield admitted. "But I'll have to try. Everyone, get ready to maintain your balance."

"Maintain my balance?" Shadow replied, unsure of what Forcefield was getting at. That is, he was unsure until he saw a flat, circular surface materializing underneath them, in a transparent golden color. The surface spread out to encompass the three of them, and then Shadow understood—just as he was lurched violently into the air.

The trip upwards felt much like it might have felt to ride an airplane with no roof—although, thankfully, they weren't nearly as high up or flying for nearly as long. Shadow could see the mental strain that this feat was taking for Forcefield—the man's eyes were barely open and his teeth clenched tightly, sweat dripping from his forehead. He realized that it must be difficult and painful to not only create the surface, but maneuver it into the air while supporting all of their weights.

They were now at about level height with the Guardians' unnamed vehicle, and behind it, too—the Menace did not appear to know they were there. Forcefield brought the three of them closer to the ship—now close enough to jump on. First Shadow did, and then Forcefield, who managed to pull up the injured Snowflake by her good arm while still maintaining the field. When all three of them were safely on the ship, Forcefield disbanded the transparent surface and collapsed with an exhausted sigh.

To execute such a feat in complete silence and secrecy would be too much to hope for. The Masked Menace heard the movement and turned around. "Guardians!" he shouted. "Curses!" The blaster was still in his hand. He shot a bolt of energy at Forcefield, who was clearly and visibly weakened from the mental strain he had just endured. The Guardians' leader moved as fast as he could, but the defense he erected this time was not quite solid, and a little too slow. The laser beam penetrated the field and hit Forcefield's face, knocking him unconscious.

"No! Forcefield!" Snowflake exclaimed in distress.

"He can't hear you, and won't be able to hear you ever again," the Menace commented scornfully. "For soon you will both be dead!"

"Not if I can help it!" Snowflake exclaimed, a new passion and fervor in her voice. With her right arm, the one that was not injured, Snowflake let out a thick beam of ice towards her enemy. The Menace staggered backward and fell against the vehicle's control panel.

But he was not to be outdone. Trying to work up the strength for an even stronger blast was costing Snowflake a few too many seconds, in which the Masked Menace got back up, brushed some of the ice off of himself, and retaliated with a blast from his laser. This one hit her in the chest, causing her to slump backward onto Forcefield's limp body, both of them down for the count.

"Oh, no," Shadow uttered to himself, as panic and distress flooded his thoughts. "I'm the only one left. This is very bad…"

"I know that this laser won't hurt you," the Menace said. "Perhaps you'd like to come over and fight the old-fashioned way?"

Shadow realized easily that his opponent was trying to goad him, and if he had had any other available options, he would not have taken the bait. But three of his teammates were too far away to help, and the other two were unconscious. As much as he hated being in this situation, it was up to him to stop the Masked Menace, and he didn't have time to strategize about the best and most efficient plan of attack.

He solidified the ends of his arms into hard, heavy fists, and ran towards the Menace with rage.

"Do you realize what you've done?" Shadow asked angrily, letting out all his built up frustration. He wasn't asking to intimidate the Menace or to get an answer—it was just how he dealt with his extremely unpleasant feelings.

"You've hurt two of my friends!" he thundered, slamming his fist into his foe's masked face. "You've tortured all of us, and if they're not alive—if any of us aren't alive after all this is over—then I will…I will…"

"You'll what?" the Menace taunted. He knew that the usual good guy would not kill even an enemy.

Shadow realized this too, and though he hadn't quite been sure what he was planning on saying, he told himself that he would not kill the Masked Menace. No matter what happened, he would not have someone else's death on his hands. But the Menace was incredibly dangerous—he had proved that again and again. Shadow needed to do everything he could to restrain and disable his opponent.

Once again, he thrust his fist into the Menace, this time aiming for his chest. Ouch! He had forgotten about the bulletproof armor. Ignoring his pain and determined to win, he swung towards the Menace's face again.

The Menace reached up and grabbed the Shadow's fist—both of them—taking advantage of their solidity. "Weakling," he said contemptuously. "Your powers can do nothing against me. And your hesitation, your reluctance kill me, make you even weaker."

Exercising chemically enhanced strength, the Masked Menace lifted his opponent by the arms and flung him off the edge of the moving hovercraft.

"No!" shouted Enormo, seeing his friend and teammate, Fire Girl, falling off the side of the building. He quickly forgot all of his own pains and channeled all of his strength into racing towards where she had fallen. He had to get there in time, please let him get there in time—

He bent over the edge of the roof and grabbed her by the leg, which was the only part he could reach. Feeling her leg in his hand and knowing that he had her, that she would not plummet to her death three stories below, Enormo quickly breathed a prayer of thanks, and grabbed her other leg with his other arm to make sure that he had her. "Don't worry, Fire Girl, I've got you!" he called down to her.

Wrath heard this and turned his head. Seeing what Enormo was doing, he quickly rushed over to put a stop to it.

"I don't think so, ugly," Titanium Man quipped as he socked Wrath in the face—first with his right arm, then with his left, and then repeating the cycle again and again, to keep the monster occupied while Enormo saved Fire Girl's life.

Enormo grunted as he pulled her up. She was not an especially heavy person, but he was not used to hauling the full weight of someone's body, even in his enlarged and stronger physical form. Adrenaline must have kicked in somewhere along the line—that, and the fear of what would happen if he failed to pull her up—for he did indeed pull her up until she was safely on top of the roof again.

A gasp came from Fire Girl as she was brought to safety. Naturally, the experience had been shocking for her.

"You're alive!" Enormo rejoiced. "How are you? Say something! Are you all right?"

"Enormo…" she said, struggling to regain her breath. "I'm…I'm all right. You saved my life…" Still on her knees, she halfway embraced him in a hug, and halfway collapsed from weakness, falling into his arms. He returned the gesture, cradling her smaller form in his gigantic arms, and knowing that she had been on the brink of death and that he had saved her. It felt good.

But it couldn't last. Not right now. "Sarah…" he whispered, discarding their codenames for a moment such as this. "I would love to stay like this for a lot longer…but Wrath is still –"

"I know," she said, letting go of him. "We have to help…"

He stood up, prepared to fight again. She tried to do the same—but stumbled and fell back to the concrete.

"You're hurt!" Enormo said, somewhat redundantly, but with genuine concern. "Can you stand?"

She tried again, but sat back down. "I don't think so…apparently getting pulled up did something to my leg."

"We need to get help—"

"There's no time," she protested. "We have to deal with Wrath. But it's okay—I can still make fire. I need you to stay here and make sure Wrath doesn't get me again, but I can still shoot fire."

"You can?"

"Just watch me." From her position on the ground, Fire Girl stretched her arms upward, aiming them towards the dark, hulking monster that had caused them all so much pain. Once again a stream of bright, consuming flame spread out from her hands, hitting Wrath right in the chest. The monster screamed.

"Thanks, Fire Girl!" Titanium Man called back. "I needed that. Keep laying it on, if you can!" Until that point, he had struggled to keep Wrath at bay. Now he could tell that the beast was getting weaker. He did not let up his attack. He continued to pummel the monster with his firm, metallic fists, blocking the monster's punches and earning a small groan from Wrath with each successful hit.

"I think it's working," Enormo noted excitedly to Fire Girl. "Look, Wrath is getting weaker! Hit him with some more fire!"

She did. It may have been a slight strain on her, but she did. The blaze continued to engulf Wrath, sapping his strength. Titanium Man began to hit harder.

"No…" Wrath uttered, barely able to make out anything else. "No…more…"

"You like that?" Titanium Man taunted. He hit the monster again, noticing that his foe's attempts at defense were becoming slower and more spread out. Soon Wrath would be unable to defend himself at all. "Do you like how that feels?" A heavy blow to the jaw. "Because that's what you've done to all of us. That's how you've made all of us feel, and it doesn't feel good!" He slammed his fist right between Wrath's eyes. "But it's nothing less than what you deserve, for all the damage you've caused!"

Titanium Man lifted Wrath a few feet off the ground, then slammed him back down again. He launched himself up from the ground and landed heavily on Wrath's stomach. It was clearly taking a toll on the monster. He thrust his fist into the beast's face once again, for good measure. He bent down to meet his enemy's limp form. "What do you say now, monster?"

Wrath could hardly breathe. That fact combined with the already gravelly tone of his voice made his speech hard to discern. Gasping for air, he uttered one word. "…Mercy…"

"Mercy?" Titanium Man repeated, incredulously. "Mercy? You have killed and destroyed and torn things apart! Wrath isn't just your name—it's the core of what you are! The physical form of anger and hatred and violence and death! Why should I show you mercy?" He raised his fist again.

"Please…don't…" The monster looked like it might soon cry, which would have been an unusual sight.

Titanium Man held his fist in the air for a long moment, staring into the eyes of the hurt, helpless being that lay before him. He almost felt pity…


"No," Titanium Man said. "You're dangerous. You have to be stopped." He lifted the creature's limp body over his shoulders, ignoring weak and defenseless protests. Determined to finish things once and for all, Titanium Man continued to the edge of the building.

"You remind me too much of who I used to be." Concentrating his strength, he thrust the monster downward, away from himself, where he fell three stories and crashed to the hard, merciless ground, motionless.

Perhaps he would have enjoyed the thrill of being in free fall had he not been rapidly descending towards his death. As it was, the Shadow was terrified, knowing that at any moment he could hit the ground. Although, considering his powers, he was not sure what would happen when he hit. Would he pass through into layers of dirt or whatever lay beneath? Would he instantly solidify and then die? He had little time to contemplate this, and didn't know the answer. All he did know was the rushing wind through his intangible body, the feeling of gravity pulling on him, pulling, then releasing its grip on his ethereal, lighter-than-air form…

Was he really lighter than air?

With amazement, Shadow realized that he was no longer falling. But when he looked around him, he had not reached the ground, but was still in the sky. He was floating; walking on air…he was practically flying. He thrust himself upward and his body obeyed, reveling in the ability to defy gravity.

But how? Apparently it was a part of his superhuman powers, though why had he never noticed it before? He had never needed to fly before, but he did now, and he really was able to fly…

A harsh gust of wind brought him back to the present situation. There would be plenty of time to have fun flying, but not if he failed to stop the Masked Menace from killing Snowflake and Forcefield. He looked above him, and saw the Guardians' ship floating away, almost out of reach…

But it was not quite unreachable. He flew up to the ship until he was directly under it, and then passed through to the surface. Thankfully, he saw that Forcefield and Snowflake were still on the ship, albeit unconscious. And, though it was hard to tell what was happening behind the mask, he was fairly sure that the Menace's jaw dropped at seeing him still alive and well.

"You!" the Menace shouted, his tone a mix of surprise, fear, and anger. "You're alive!"

"Yeah. What do you know?" Shadow answered frivolously. "Apparently I can fly. Funny how life works like that." He set himself down on the solid surface of the moving hovercraft.

"You still won't defeat me!" the Menace cried in desperation. "You'll never capture me! I won't allow it!"

"Forgive me if I try to prove you wrong," the Shadow replied. He once again willed his arms to solidify, and reached out to strike the Masked Menace. The Menace blocked, but Shadow used his other arm to strike again, harder this time. Struggling to maintain his footing on the moving ship, the Menace fell backward, closer to the front edge of the ship.

The Menace tried to get up again, but Shadow pushed him back down. "Give it up, Menace. You're tired and weakened. Your gun can't hurt me, and I can fly. This battle is over." Shadow wasn't fully convinced of these things himself, but if he was able to convince the Masked Menace, then the battle really would be over.

"Maybe you're right," the Menace said, standing slowly. "Yes, I think that the battle is indeed over."

"Then you surrender?" Shadow asked, hopeful. He outstretched his arm. "Give me your arm so I know you won't try anything, and let's bring this ship back down."

"Oh no, that's not quite what I meant," the Menace said ominously. Instead of stepping forward for Shadow's arm, he took a step backward, dangerously close to the edge of the ship. "I told you that I would not be captured."

Shadow's mind raced as he realized what the Menace was planning. "No, don't do it!"

"I will," the Menace retorted.

"Dr. Canem, please! Listen to reason! You're a genius and a respected scientist. You can't just throw away your life like this!"

It seemed that his crooked, twisted smile grew wider. "Watch me." He took one more step backward and fell off of the ship.

"No!" Shadow lunged forward and was barely able to grab the Masked Menace's hand, holding on and keeping him from falling. He had affirmed that he would not have a death on his hands, and that included him unintentionally influencing someone else's suicide. His fingers firmly interlocked with those of the man who he had just recently been fighting.

"Don't worry, Dr. Canem, I've got you," Shadow said, straining to hold on. "I'll pull you back up." Super strength was not one of his powers, and it was not easy for him to support a grown man's weight. He could feel the strain taking its toll on his physical structure, and seemed to be losing control of his powers. He felt himself shifting slightly back and forth between intangibility and solidity. If only he could hold on and stay solid long enough to pull the Menace back up—

"You will never pull me back up," the Masked Menace said, letting go of Shadow's hand and falling towards the ground far, far below.

"No!" he repeated, frantic. The Menace had let go! Or had he accidentally phased his arm and caused him to fall? Had he done it in purpose? There was no time to think! He jumped off the ship and flew around, anxiously searching for the Menace's body. He did not see it anywhere. With every second the Menace would fall closer to his death. And Shadow…was he to blame for it? He didn't know. He certainly didn't want to be. But it was too late now… Wherever he was, the Menace would've had to reach the ground by now. It was not easy to accept, but he had to accept it. With great reluctance, the Shadow gave up his search and returned to the ship.

Forcefield had come to, and had woken Snowflake. "Shadow!" she exclaimed. "There you are!"

"What happened?" Forcefield asked. "Did you just fly? And…where's the Masked Menace?"

The Shadow was totally solidified now, so that his facial features were perfectly visible. And his eyes were on the brink of producing a continuous flow of tears. "He's…he fell…he jumped himself! I didn't do it! I couldn't have let go! No, he jumped, he's gone, he…" His speech was jumbled and incoherent. In the middle of this rambling explanation, he burst into tears. Snowflake came over to rest a hand on her friend's shoulder.

"Don't cry. It's okay. I was somewhat conscious towards the end, and I heard most of what happened. You weren't responsible. You did all you could…" But the Shadow could not stop crying to reply.

For a moment, Forcefield stood over him too, wishing there was something he could do to be consoling. But he could think of nothing, and frankly he wasn't sure that anything he did would help. Of course Shadow hadn't been responsible, but even so, he—all of them—had just gone through their most stressful, most traumatic battle to date. The Shadow had a right to cry.

"We've got to get back to the others," Forcefield said somberly, taking the ship's controls and pointing them back in the direction of the former headquarters of the Masked Menace.

Two hours had passed since the ship had landed. Shadow had not moved from his seat in the stationary hovercraft outside the Menace's hideout, and had barely spoken at all, despite his teammates' attempts to comfort him.

Forcefield and Snowflake were standing nearby, and were soon joined by Enormo, Fire Girl, and Titanium Man. Forcefield held a piece of paper in his hand.

"There you are," said Forcefield. "Did you find it?"

"Hey, Forcefield, we got some bad news," Titanium Man announced hesitantly. "We looked everywhere, but found nothing."

"I saw him fall!" Enormo exclaimed. Fire Girl was leaning against him, still unable to fully stand on her bad leg. "I saw the crater where Wrath landed when he fell off the roof! But…but we can't find his body anywhere…"

"It's impossible, but…but it's true," added Fire Girl.

"It is disappointing news. But I wouldn't say it's impossible," Forcefield amended. "Remember that he wasn't a human being, or any sort of natural creature, but the physical manifestation of wrath itself. I wish I could study that Materializer machine to know how it worked, to be sure…but it's possible that after he died, his body just dematerialized."

"Good point," Snowflake acknowledged. "Let's hope that's what happened."

"You don't think—" Enormo began, but stopped himself mid-sentence. None of them wanted to face the possibility that Wrath was still alive.

Titanium Man had had the same thought, and was eager to change the subject. "Hey, Forcefield, what's that you're holding?"

Forcefield held it up. "Just some notes I found while scouring the building for any last traces of the robots or any other project that could be dangerous. I thought I might keep it as a tribute to a man who was a brilliant scientist—before he was driven to insanity and earned his own death by perpetrating a series of violent crimes."

"What does it say?" asked Snowflake, who was also intrigued by science.

"It appears to be a list of weapons and tools that he kept on his Menace costume." Forcefield read aloud from the paper. "Electric gloves. Laser blaster. Bulletproof armor. Utility belt with healing and strength serums. Anti-gravity boots. Back-up anti-gravity pack on back." He shrugged. "It doesn't mean much anymore, but I guess it kind of caught my interest." He put the paper down. No one spoke for a while. No one was sure what else to say.

"Well, I guess we should head back home," Forcefield said after a while.

The five of them joined Shadow in their vehicle, and Forcefield took off. Titanium Man sat next to the Shadow. "Hey, kid, good job today," he said. "I hear you can fly now."

"Yeah," Shadow answered gloomily.

Titanium Man paused, unsure of how to proceed. "Listen, kid, I heard what happened with the Menace and stuff. And the way I hear it, it wasn't your fault. Whatever fate came to the Menace, he brought it upon himself.

"Yeah, I know," Shadow said. But he didn't sound like he believed it.

"Why did you say 'Whatever fate'?" Enormo questioned. "I mean, we know he fell to his death, right?"

"Assumedly so," Forcefield said.

"Assumedly?" Snowflake questioned. "How could anyone possibly survive a fall from that height?"

"I wouldn't have thought it possible to survive being mangled and beaten by a monster like Wrath," Forcefield pointed out. "But Dr. Canem was, and when everyone thought he was dead the first time, he proved us all wrong. I'm just saying…"

"Please, don't just say," Fire Girl interjected. "We're all tired, hurt, and broken inside. We wouldn't be able to face him again. Let's just say that he's dead, be sorry that he's dead, but leave it at that."

"Very well," Forcefield agreed. "But still, we fought two of our most dangerous enemies today, and though it seems that we won, we don't know the whereabouts of either. They were not taken into custody, and could still be out there somewhere." He paused, to allow his words to sink in. "This is a dark day for the Guardians."

I would love lots of feedback for this issue, because it is not only the longest but also the most climactic and, arguably, one of the darkest. What did you think of the suspenseful dramatic touches; cool or just cliché? What about Shadow being able to fly? That part is interesting to me—most of this story was planned out beforehand, but I just though of that today as I was typing it. I had been thinking of expanding his powers since intangibility doesn't do much in battle, but never expected to give him flight or do so this soon. Anyway, please review!

Next issue: Join us back in the document entitled The Guardians as the title characters struggle to deal with the effects of the Masked Menace/Wrath battle. Shadow is guilt-ridden, Titanium Man is appalled at his own anger, and certain other characters may be developing relationships that go beyond camaraderie and friendship. Don't miss the aftermath!