The Crusaders: Aftershocks

Part 1: Leaving A Trace

Saint Petersburg…

The grey van made a screeching noise as it skidded around the corner, rushing down the street as civilians looked on from the sidewalk. The driver clenched the steering wheel tighter as he pushed the pedal down further, cursing the vehicle's Earthly design under his breath. Beside him, his partner was focused intently on the rear-view mirror, trying to find their followers. Behind them both in the back of the van, their leader worked with quiet intensity through the constant jostling the vehicle underwent. All three were dressed in black bodysuits that matched their black eyes but contrasted against their golden skin and long silver hair. The large device before him required some finishing touches before it could be used that were cut off earlier by the intrusion of the group's pursuers. Under the midday sun, they tried to shake their attackers off after escaping the warehouse with their package. They were given confirmation that they'd failed when the van suddenly crashed into a blue field of energy that spawned out of thin air and formed a dome around the vehicle. Physically rattled but mentally unwavering, the leader in the back turned to his fellow Brutikai as they regained their composure.

"Get out." He firmly ordered. "Draw your guns. Make a scene while I finish working here."

"Yes, sir." The driver said. In unison, he and the passenger stepped out the doors of the now smoking and smashed-in front cab and each pulled out a laser rifle. They opened fire on the translucent blue force field, the red blasts creating white ripples in its surface. When it dropped, and they had nothing keeping them from firing on the onlooking pedestrians, they both gave a satisfied smile. Those smiles dropped when the voice above them spoke and they realised the lowering of the force field was not the result of their laserfire. They pointed the barrels of their weapons at their two flying targets as they slowly came down to land behind the immobilised van.

"It's a shame I used the 'back to my roots' gag during the cross-dimensional trip last month." Starbolt commented calmly. "This is an even more fitting situation for it."

"A few marked differences beyond having backup, though." Techsmith added as the tips of her fingers stopped glowing blue, the force field now completely down. "Instead of chasing bank robbers, you're chasing the absolute last members of Glorien's Dream, for example." Neither of them had any concern for their safety; if the Glorien's Dream members opened fire on them, Starbolt could simply absorb the energy from the lasers, while Techsmith's XO-10 Battlesuit would deflect the blasts.

"Not that there were ever that many of you guys, anyway." Starbolt's attention turned to the two Brutikai terrorists, his smirk not dropping. "Weirdly enough, not that many people from Brutika are big on following in the footsteps of an egotistical mass murdering war criminal who makes their planet's history and culture look like Tyranny Central."

"As opposed to the universally-worshipped greatness of the Crusaders." One of the Brutikai terrorists interrupted sarcastically. The gesturing of his gun at the watching civilians put Starbolt and Techsmith on edge. "Do you think these people look on at you in awe? No; that's fear on their faces. Fear that you will fail again. Fear that they will be met by the same fate as the millions who died in their neighbouring capital city."

"Former capital city." His partner chimed in. Starbolt and Techsmith both tried not to dwell on the criminals' words. It was true that the Crusaders had lost a considerable quantity of public support after the Moscow tragedy, but both heroes knew that they couldn't let these criminals get in their heads.

"You've got a pretty simple situation going on here, guys." Techsmith started, sounding slightly more serious. "Myself, Starbolt here, and our teammates have tracked down every cell in your group's network and imprisoned every other participant in your worldwide terrorist campaign. Your crew here in Saint Petersburg was the last of it all, and now eight of the remaining eleven are unconscious in a warehouse while the rest scramble to escape. The rest being you guys."

"So, we figure we'll offer you a choice." Starbolt continued. "Either you surrender and get thrown in a cell now, or take a shot at us and wake up in one." Suddenly, the doors on the back of the van swung out, kicked open by the booted sole of the cell's leader. He stood with the boldness and the self-satisfied smile expected of someone following Glorien's example. A small cylindrical device with a red button on its top just under his raised thumb was held in the curled fingers of his elevated hand. It didn't take someone with Techsmith's mastery of technology to realise that it was the detonator to the bomb that sat active behind him inside the van.

"It will be us conducting the negotiations here." He said sinisterly. By this point, many of the pedestrians had cleared out of the scene; once the bomb came out, no one cared anymore that the Crusaders were there. Starbolt and Techsmith both stood stock still, careful not to agitate the terrorists. "We too would like to present you a pair of options. You can either allow me and my men to leave with this bomb, or you can try to apprehend us, and be incinerated with the residents of the surrounding ten blocks. Not even the great Crusaders are quick and skilful enough to stop the simple push of a button, so I suggest you not dwell on your decision." Starbolt subtly shot a neutral look at Techsmith, then the same look at the bomb, then the look went back to Techsmith. She raised her head slightly, showing her understanding. While Starbolt talked up a distraction, Techsmith would use her technopathy to disable the bomb from afar, and act that required some concentration and would be considerably easier if she could lay a hand on the explosive.

"Look, even if we were to let you run, how would you get anywhere? Your van is out of commission and you have this big-ass bomb to lug around. What, are you gonna carry it-" In an instant, a blur and an accompanying gust of wind rushed through the gap between Starbolt and Techsmith, sending the former's meticulously styled black hair into a windswept state. The blur zipped to the right, and the Glorien's Dream member standing on that side of the van fell back as a cracking noise from his jaw broke the air, his gun taken by the nearly-unseen streak as he dropped, unconscious, to the road. A laser blast from that disappeared rifle struck the back of his partner on the left side of the van and put him down, before the rifle itself flew out of the moving blur and landed on the sidewalk. The look on the face of the group's leader was just twisting into one of confusion when it swapped to agony as the blur appeared in front of him in an instant, and he suddenly gripped his groin while crying out in pain, the detonator vanishing from his hand as the blur moved back down through the space between the two Crusaders. The two were thrown slightly back by the force of its movement as its following burst of air passed between them, the blur curving around the corner of the street and vanishing as quick as it came. "-on foot?" Starbolt finished before he and Techsmith both glanced around in confusion at the events that just took place. In near-perfect synchronisation, the two acknowledged the groaning, cursing leader of the Glorien's Dream cell, and both opted to render him unconscious with a simultaneous attack: Starbolt blasted a yellow energy bolt from his palm and Techsmith fired two green plasma lasers from the glowing blaster barrels on her wrist. She'd already deactivated the bomb, so the threat was now definitively neutralised. With the same level of synchronisation that they took out the last of the terrorists in, they came to the realisation about what it was that effectively just did their job for them.

"SPEEDSTER!" They both excitedly declared in unison, raising a finger at each other as they did. While Starbolt's dorky smile was plain on his face, Techsmith's was invisible under her helmet. They then took turns presenting the evidence for their shared conclusion.

"The sudden blur and the gusts of wind are dead giveaways!" Starbolt explained all too happily. "That kind of thing was the trademark of speedsters like Miss Rush and the Deadly Dart."

"The extremely concentrated kinetic energy remnants left in the wake of both those things makes it even more obvious!" Techsmith added. "My suit just picked up the readi-" In their mutual enthusiasm, each had missed another trace left by the speedster that was left on the other's person. While Techsmith giggled and stared at her boyfriend's forehead, Starbolt awkwardly tried to keep his eyes of his girlfriend's chest. "You've got 'dork' written on your forehead!" Techsmith informed him through her laughter.

"Well, you've got, um…something on your, uh…just look." Techsmith looked down to see words written across the breasts of her form-fitting armour in the same black ink as the branding on Starbolt's face. Instead of anything as simple as 'dork', these words read 'Special Artillery'. While Starbolt rubbed the back of his gloved hand against his forehead with annoyance to remove the graffiti on his head, Techsmith continued to laugh at the speedster's handiwork.

"I love a speedster with a sense of humour." She said in her mirth.

"I'm not so certain I share that view." Starbolt was more frustrated as he got to work fixing his hair, trying to restore it to its perfect placing from before the speedster rushed in. Techsmith seemed more excited about this encounter with another superhuman than Starbolt did, a rare occurrence.

"So, are we gonna track this person down? Maybe invite them to the team?" Starbolt's reaction was not at all what she expected.

"What? Why would we do that?" Techsmith's head tilted with confusion.

"Uh…because they're a speedster who just helped us save the day and stop some dangerous alien criminals, that's why! They've basically met all the requirements for Crusader-hood in a single, super-fast fell swoop! Super powers? Check. Willingness to help others? Check. Unique personality expressed through their altruism? If this graffiti is any indication, that's a double check." Starbolt gave a sigh.

"Look, sweetie, your optimism over the idea is completely adorable, but does someone who literally writes pervy insults on superheroes faster than they can react really strike you as someone who'd be willing to join the Crusaders? That's not the impression I'm getting. Besides, we know literally nothing about this person! At least when Phantomette joined the team, she knew Red Cross beforehand, so she had someone vouching for her despite her lack of any training whatsoever. And Kenseijin and Jimmy Nomad both had history behind them to base their place in the team on, which this person seemingly also lacks."

"None of us knew anything about each other when we first met, remember? And yet, we managed to form bonds strong enough to last even after we cut our ties to the people who shoved us together in that penthouse to start with. Who's to say the same can't happen with this person?" Techsmith's reference to the Department of Superheroic Affairs forced Starbolt to reconsider his initial reaction. The reason the Crusaders parted from the DSA and became an independent organisation was because the Department had been using and, occasionally, manipulating them from the day of their formation at their hands to keep money flowing into the increasingly obsolete branch of the United Multiplanetary Government. Relying on their troubled psyches, incredible abilities, and altruistic intentions, the DSA let the Crusaders light as many powder kegs as they could to create as much monetary demand from the UMG for maintaining them and cleaning up after their battles with supervillains as they wished. Furthermore, this meant they had no reason to care for the emotional states of the Crusaders themselves or the innocent people who may be hurt or killed in these superpowered crossfires. The Crusaders already knew that with the loss of public trust in them following the Moscow tragedy, the DSA sought to create a new superhero team to replace them and keep the Unics coming in. This was an endeavour that must have grown in importance with the team's choice to slip out from under their thumb, Starbolt realised. Techsmith wasn't necessarily wrong about this speedster showing all the signs of being a potential superhero, which meant they could also be potentially manipulated the way he and his teammates had been. With reason overcoming his reluctance, Starbolt conceded before Techsmith.

"I'm not saying they're guaranteed a spot on the team, but…" Starbolt had to stop for a moment to let an elated Techsmith finish jumping up and down while he grinned at her. "…we should at least see if we can make an ally out of them. Better to have them on our side before the DSA can get to them." Techsmith stepped forward and gripped Starbolt's exposed arms in delightment.

"Oh, but think of it, Kon! Having someone on the team who can outrun a bullet? How cool would that be!?" Starbolt bit his lip as he tried to suppress his inner fanboy. He decided to let just a bit of it out as he smiled.

"Yeah, it'd be pretty awesome." Techsmith finally took a breath and calmed down, releasing Starbolt.

"First thing's first, though; we have to get these Glorien's Dream guys into custody. Then we can get started on tracking down the mysterious blur. Which I would not suggest as a codename if said blur were to wind up on the team, by the way."

"But how exactly do we find someone who can move faster than you can even see them?" Techsmith looked around the scene. She walked over to the left sidewalk and knelt beside the discarded laser rifle used momentarily by the speedster, picking it up and looking it over. Under her helmet, she smiled.

"We follow their footprints. Or, in this case, fingerprints."

"You should also probably wipe that writing off your boobs. I know you think it's really funny and I know you're confident in how you look no matter what, but it sets a poor example as a superhero." Techsmith turned her head back to look at Starbolt.

"How much time have you spent around Kenseijin lately?"

"Enough to think that sounded an awful lot like something Nocturne would have said before those two buried the hatchet."

"Huh. Well played."

Los Angeles…

Gunk could only just fit between the shelves as he followed the fully-costumed Phantomette through the bookstore. Phantomette's eyes wandered between the titles and authors on the covers and spines of the books surrounding her. Though her search was intensive, she wasn't exactly sure what she was looking for. After all, she wasn't shopping for herself. She came to a stop near the end of the aisle and pulled a book off a shelf beside her, giving its cover and blurb a once over with a curious expression before turning and showing it to Gunk.

"What about this one?" She asked. Gunk perused the cover, looking at the same things that prompted her to pick it up.

"That seems appropriate." He answered. She lowered the book with a disappointed look.

"Is that all? I was kind of hoping for 'just right' or 'outstanding' or some really dynamic adjective like that."

"I'm sorry. Young adult fiction isn't my preferred genre of stories, making it even more difficult to preemptively judge the quality of one of these works."

"I know, I know. I just thought because you and Su – um, Red Cross – are so close that, y'know, you could help me find the perfect thing for her."

"I still lack clarity as to why we're purchasing her birthday gift three months in advance of the actual date." Phantomette's smile returned as she began to explain the idea to Gunk, something she found she quite enjoyed doing while spending time with the Crusaders over the last two months since she joined them.

"It shows that I care so much about her that I'm willing to spend the money way in advance. How could I do anything less for my angel?" Gunk knew she was referring back to the circumstances of the prior friendship she and Red Cross had when she called the latter her 'angel' but nevertheless found room for basic questioning.

"But if we're buying the gift without her knowledge, why does that matter?" Phantomette was stumped, and it showed on her face as she nervously glanced around.

"Because, um…well…okay, you win."

"Your anxiety over the quality of this gift is misplaced. I'm reminded of an expression Red Cross herself taught me: it's the thought that counts." Phantomette looked down at the book, then looked at Gunk with a smile.

"You're right, Gunk. Let's go buy it, then." She led the way back toward the entrance, with shoppers moving back as they saw the gelatinous giant make his way across the store. Gunk tried to ignore their judging eyes as he followed the obliviously cheerful Phantomette to the front counter. Even at the checkout, he wasn't safe from human scrutiny, as the man behind the register seemed to shrink in fear at the sight of him. "Good afternoon! Just this book, please." Phantomette's unfailingly bright politeness made her a bit slow to come to the realisation as she looked at the nervous cashier, whose eyes didn't shift from Gunk while he quickly scanned and bagged the book and deposited the Unics given by Phantomette into the register. She glanced around at the other people in the shop and those outside in the rest of the mall that were looking on at her and her teammate. She then turned around to Gunk himself, whose head was hanging and was turned to the side to hide his saddened face. She immediately became concerned. "Gunk? What's wrong? Why are you sad?"

"These people all hate me."

"What? Why would they hate you? You're a superhero! And you're completely adorable, too."

"I'm surprised you're unaware of the part I played in Glorien's attack on Earth, considering you were here in Los Angeles when I was rampaging through it. It's been two months since then and I'm yet to go outside and not get stared at for it. Not that they're wrong to do so." Phantomette put her hand on his massive arm.

"That monster wasn't you. Not really."

"No, it is. I tried to circumvent it after the first time that side of me came out, but after everything that's happened there's no possible way for me to avoid it. I'm the most powerful creature on Earth. Within me is the potential to destroy cities, and now everyone knows it. I can't just pretend my power's accompanying monstrous side doesn't exist…that there isn't darkness in me."

"Even if there is, that doesn't mean there's no light in you to overcome it. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks of you, it matters what you do. And what you do is save the world on a regular basis, so as long as you keep doing that, you're nowhere near like that monster you think you are. Plus, real monsters don't regret their bad actions. People do." Gunk raised his head and looked into her brown eyes, feeling a sense of relaxation and relief that he could easily identify as comfort at hearing her words and seeing the serene look on her face.

"I wish could take a human form." Phantomette thought she failed to help him until she saw his small smile. "Not only could I avoid making a public spectacle of myself everywhere I go, but it would mean you don't have to go to the trouble of putting on your costume to preserve your identity in joining me."

"It's okay, Gunk! I invited you to come with me, remember? Besides, I love putting on my costume. As in, literally, pressing the button on my communicator and then just having everything on me in a flash of light is the coolest thing ever." She lowered her hand from his arm, turned around to pick up the bagged book, gave a polite "Thank you!" to the cashier and left the store to enter the rest of the mall with Gunk. "I'll have to remember to thank Ko – Starbolt – for giving me that money, too. If there were any Unics left over, I'd buy him a snow-cone."

"I doubt he'd want any repayment. His father runs the wealthiest bank in the universe, and his sister is an intergalactically adored pop star. It's not as if finances are in short supply for him."

"Yeah, well…it's the thought that counts, right? Come on, let's go for a wander." Gunk once again followed behind Phantomette, and he gazed longingly from behind at her as the afternoon sun shone down on her like a spotlight from the skylight above. His eyes moved from the pink headband atop her straight, brown, boyish short hair to her hands carrying the small plastic bag held behind her pink skirt that gently swayed with her every bobbing step. He had mused previously about the heightened emotions he'd been having since he was restored to his normal state after his transformation into Dark Gunk, but Phantomette gave him even more to consider on that topic. The emotional attraction he felt towards her was the strongest of all the feelings he'd experienced in the two months since that incident, and it was one that didn't reduce with the passing of time the way some other feelings did. Every time he thought about her polite mannerisms, her cheerful demeanour, and her innocent approach to everything, he couldn't fathom the idea that someone could not harbour the same feelings for her as him.

The Castle…

The small speakers in Andrew's ears that were connected to his phone continued playing the Galaxy Supernova track that had drowned out the sound of the elevator door opening while he walked. Having taken the lift down to the Mission Centre from the living quarters, he had stepped out into the brown-floored room to make his way to the source of psychic ticks on its far side. His path took him past the Spearhead teleporter located in a large square cavity in one the blue walls, and by the round table in the centre of the room, which had a seat for every Crusader and a small holographic projector in its centre. Filling the table's diameter was the team's insignia, as designed by Abigail: a large, thick, golden C against a blue background, with the simple twist of the space within the curve of the letter taking the shape of a three-pointed shield. Though Andrew couldn't see it, having it described to him led to him sharing the consensus of his teammates; it was simple but impactful and conveyed the basic point of the team to a tee. He finally reached the person he'd come down to check up on at the opposite side of the room, and as he paused the song his phone was playing and pulled out his earphones, he knew that she wasn't as focused on performing her duty during her monitor shift then maybe she should have been. Before her was a large map of Los Angeles that had the positions of her patrolling teammates Nocturne, Kenseijin, and Jimmy Nomad indicated on it, and the accompanying array of smaller screens showed the state of crime or disasters in the vast amount of countries where Prometheus Innovations had set up relays for their Hermes Satellite Array that enabled this monitoring and alert system. But instead of watching the wall of projected, paper-thin hard-light constructs that hovered in the air in front of her white chair in anticipation of a Crusaders-requiring event, Suzy was buried in completing her algebra homework early to give herself free time on the weekend that started tomorrow. She only ever broke her forced concentration to flick her unconfined black hair out of her eyes.

"Anything interesting?" Andrew started their conversation with small talk. Suzy looked up at him on the sound of his voice and smiled, an action he responded to in kind.

"Negative, on account of it being algebra." She answered.

"I was talking about the whole monitor duty thing."

"I know, I just needed an excuse to mention how dreadful this is."

"I'm glad I could give you some release."

"Your presence is much appreciated. As always." Suzy sighed, ultimately deciding to save the headache of further study for later in the night. As she closed her algebra book and put it on the floor beside her, she kept talking. "Remind me to never again try making monitor duty less unbearable by using the time to do homework."

"It can't be that bad, can it?" Suzy scoffed derisively.

"I know your blindness keeps you off the roster for this little chore, but you may as well get shifts like the rest of us for all the good it does. Most of the time, you're just sitting on your ass waiting for literally anything and getting pretty much nothing for hours at a time every shift, which translates to day after day of zero incidents."

"What about when something does happen, though? Doesn't all the tedium of waiting make the rush at getting an alert and the resultant sense of urgency and importance in needing to tell the rest of the team worth it?"

"I, uh…I guess. Huh. My entire argument just went out the window."

"Something to keep in mind. On an unrelated note, I think you've been spending too much time around Thomas; you've picked up a little bit more than just his fighting skills." She playfully elbowed his leg with a smirk.

"Can you blame me? I haven't been able to hang with Lizzy in weeks on account of these Glorien's Dream guys taking everyone all over the world in pursuit of them. Well, except me and Abigail. Not that she seems to mind. How that girl can be so satisfied with school even though it keeps us from being able to help out baffles me." Suzy stopped herself there, then gave Andrew a knowing grin that was both an acknowledgement that he was about to reveal the bright side to her and a prompt to do so. Andrew sighed gleefully and humbly stuffed his hands in his pockets as he obliged her.

"We've whittled down their terrorist force greatly enough to only warrant two Crusaders being dispatched to stop them once and for all. Seems like a pretty bright side to me, even if I don't get to go out in the field and back up my friends as often as I might prefer." Suzy leapt out of her chair with a finger pointed at him and a victorious smile on her face.

"A-ha! A bright side with a concession!" Andrew smiled as he continued.

"A bright side nonetheless. And as far as Abigail goes, is that really the biggest complaint you can muster?" Suzy's mood dropped at the implicitly critical comment about her friend.

"Well, yeah…why, do you have an issue with Abigail?"

"Uh huh. She's slowly pushing me out of my place as Team Pollyanna and I can't stand it." Suzy laughed, feeling gullible for thinking Andrew of all people could truly take issue with one such as Abigail. It was in moments like this that she felt blessed to have someone like Andrew in her life, who could show unrelenting positivity in the face of all adversity. Andrew already knew she regarded him so highly for it and was glad to indulge her so he could feel her happiness from his doing so. Their moment was broken in the most perfectly timed manner imaginable, as a high-pitched, beeping alert noise was heard and a red marker appeared on the map of Los Angeles with an annotation describing it as a 'sudden natural disaster'. Suzy jumped with the sound, the racing of her mind proving Andrew right in his theory about the value of patience.

"We've got an alert!" She excitedly informed an unfazed Andrew.

"I know that already. The others don't." Suzy calmed down.

"Oh. Right." She fell back down in the white chair and pressed a beeping red light on its arm, patching her through to the communicators of all of the Crusaders. Her voice was clear and raised as she relayed the information to her teammates. "We've got an emergency, guys. Some kind of tornado has randomly appeared on the Golden Gate Bridge. So, um…converge at the big twister and we'll figure something out, I guess. Mind Master and I will be down soon."

"Got it!" Phantomette replied via her communicator.

"Understood." Nocturne went.

"Suzy, we're in Saint Petersburg…" Kon responded, sounding like he'd just been woken. "…and it's, like, 3AM."

"Oh, crap, um…" Suzy scrambled to apologise. "…sorry." With that, she raised her finger from the button and cut the line, then got out of her chair and pulled her communicator from her pocket as Andrew had already done. Andrew and Suzy pressed their device's central button and were in their costumes, as Mind Master and Red Cross respectively. Red Cross pulled a hair tie from her belt to put her hair in a ponytail for her outing. Once she learned that Abigail figured out she was Red Cross all on her own, Suzy realised she'd have to start taking measures to make her civilian identity and her superhero identity more distinct. Now, Suzy Medina wore her hair down, while Red Cross fought with a high ponytail and a small fringe. The two quickly made their way to the Spearhead platform. "I feel bad, having woken Kon at three in the morning."

"At least we know he and Lizzy are okay."

Golden Gate Bridge…

The tornado was still spinning at the centre of the bridge when Nocturne, Kenseijin, and Jimmy Nomad arrived atop the vampire's hovering colony of mystically conjured bats. The increasing strength of the whipping winds as the three got closer forced Jimmy Nomad to hold down his white hat. As they made their approach, they saw Mind Master standing on one side of the tornado with his hands raised and moving around, as he was using his telekinesis to pull the cars that had been sucked into the vortex back down to the road. Once the passengers were back on solid ground, Red Cross would reassure them that they were okay and instruct them to safety. On the opposite side of the tempest, Gunk and Phantomette acted similarly, with Gunk spawning tendrils and stretching elastic limbs from his body to grab flying vehicles and bring them down so that Phantomette could comfort their drivers while telling them to clear out, or if need be, personally ferry them to a safe distance with her flight. Nocturne brought the colony down to land on Mind Master and Red Cross' side of the bridge, the area around the tornado becoming increasingly absent any civilians due to their teammates' efforts. The bats dissipated, and the trio approached the focused Mind Master.

"Sorry we were late." Kenseijin said. "Our patrol took us to the far side of the city. What do we know about this, then?"

"Well, barring the idea that Mother Nature got tired of hitting Kansas and decided to take her anger out on a Californian landmark where no one would expect it…" Mind Master began his answer while trying to stay concentrated on pulling cars out of the whirlwind. "…this tornado isn't naturally occurring. Thought maybe some supervillain with wind powers caused it, but I can't pick up any psychic ticks from within the eye, leading me to think it's a machine of some kind. Maybe a robot." Nocturne stepped back, looked up at the mouth of the twister, and drew his katana. Jimmy Nomad turned to look at him as he turned his wrist and caused the blade to ignite.

"What're you thinkin', Tommy?" He asked.

"I'm thinking I'm going to see if Mind Master is right." Nocturne answered. With that, he conjured another small colony beneath his feet and launched himself up into the air, a streak of flame trailing behind him and the screeching of bats beneath him.

"He's been doing that a lot lately." Kenseijin commented to himself.

"What, solving Andrew's questions?" Jimmy Nomad responded, having heard the samurai's words.

"No, jumping into situations without prompting to try and stop the problem."

"I know, right? It's like he thinks he's a superhero or somethin'."

"He's never been the most conventional superhero, though. Ever since Glorien's attack, he's been just a little bit…different. Something about him has changed."

"So did everything else after that day. If I'm willing to roll with all that, I can roll with whatever's goin' on with him, too." Suddenly, the tornado vanished, turning to normal air and sending everything around back to quiet stillness. On the ground in the centre of what was formerly its eye, Nocturne was one knee with his head lowered and one hand on the road, his sword pointing away to the right at the end of his outstretched arm. A few seconds later the two perfectly divided halves of the robot fell from the sky above him, getting further apart the closer they came to the ground before completely smashing apart on impact with the concrete. Nocturne brought himself back up to stand normally as he sheathed his sword, his six teammates all congregating around him and the surrounding pieces of the Drone.

"It was a Sentry Drone." Nocturne calmly informed them all, sounding in no way like he'd just skydived into the mouth of a tornado to cut a robot in half mid-fall. "Modified, though. It had wind turbines in place of arms that were fuelling the tornado. Also, it was wearing a trenchcoat for some reason."

"Probably to disguise its robotic nature." Kenseijin began his deduction. While Kenseijin was talking, Jimmy Nomad crouched down and started rifling through the scrap before him. "It would explain why the twister came so suddenly if the Drone dressed like a person before stepping into the middle of the bridge and starting up the whirlwind. Given those modifications you've outlined, as well as its obviously rogue programming, we can only assume someone else got their hands on this Drone for some kind of nefarious gain."

"Why's that?" Phantomette asked.

"Sentry Drones don't normally do this sort of thing." Gunk explained.

"Hey, guys?" Jimmy Nomad raised his voice, drawing everyone's attention. "I figured out who the mad genius behind this is." He lifted up a piece from the scrap pile for everyone to see. The reactions of the Crusaders ranged from physically locking up with the gravity of the realisation - shown by Red Cross and Kenseijin - to nervously glancing at each other after seeing the engraving in the metal, as seen with Gunk and Phantomette. Mind Master learned what it said from Jimmy Nomad's psychic ticks, and his fists clenched by his sides in response. The inscription was simple but impactful and conveyed everything to the Crusaders in an instant: AC-21. This was more than a confirmation that Doctor Anarchy was active once more, though; it was the first lead the Crusaders had found on him since the day they defeated Glorien.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed. If you're really liking this story so far, give it a favourite, and tell your fellow authors to check it out. Next chapter, the concurrent pursuit of the mysterious speedster and the Crusaders' first foe puts members of the team in unexpected places. If you have anything to say or suggest, any plot holes to point out, details needing clarification, or general questions to ask, feel free to PM me or leave a review. Finally, be sure to check out my community, The All-Star Multiverse, and my Facebook page, PancakeOverdose! Take care.